Nicholas Edward Henry Philip Montford, Seventh Earl of Ashton, struggled through the dense foliage, clutching his shirtsleeve to staunch the blood streaming down his left arm. His head throbbed. He’d looked back but a moment, to see if he’d lost his pursuers, and suffered a mighty whack from a low hanging branch as a result. That was when he’d parted company with his horse, an indifferent beast, rented from the inn, with no sense of loyalty to a somewhat incapacitated rider.
Now the pain, as relentless as a blacksmith’s hammer, helped keep away the fatigue. But not for much longer. Nicholas could feel his life force drain away with each heartbeat.
Without warning, his boot slipped on the bracken. He went down, bracing himself against the fall with both hands. Pure agony shot through his wounded arm. His head felt like it split in two. He groaned a deep feral sound, more animal than man.
Rolling onto his back, eyes clenched against the pain stabbing at his temples, Nicholas took a great breath of the cold night air. The ripe smell of decaying leaves filled his lungs. He opened his eyes to see the full globe of the moon shining down through the branches. The stars twinkled like old friends happy to see him after a long absence.
Sudden crashing in the underbrush alerted him to danger. Snorts and grunts announced a new enemy. Nicholas raised his aching head. From across the clearing, the eyes of a wild boar gleamed in the moonlight.
He repressed a chuckle. What irony it would be to come to his end gored on the tusks of a swine.
But he had not survived the seamy streets of Amsterdam, the slave markets in Algiers, and endless days and nights floating adrift on the stormy Mediterranean to die here. It was not his time. At least he hoped not. He had yet to honor the promise he’d made to his father.
Rising awkwardly, Nicholas reached inside his cloak and pulled the flintlock pistol from his waistband. The weapon felt cold and reassuring in his hand.
They faced each other, wounded man and wild beast, quiet and still in the moonlight. The creature looked away. For a moment, Nicholas thought it might leave, but then it turned toward him, and with a loud snort, it charged.
Swearing and praying at the same time, Nicholas pulled the gun’s hammer from half to full cock. He aimed between the glittering eyes, adjusted to compensate for the pistol’s tendency to shoot to the right, and squeezed hard on the trigger.
The gun’s recoil threw him back. Pain throbbed through his head, echoing in his wounded arm. He struggled to remain standing. Sparks flashed brilliantly, then all went black. The loud explosion sealed his ears against sound. The foul stench of the powder invaded his nose and mouth, making it hard to breathe.
Had he hit the beast?
Nicholas strained against the night, trying to see through the murky air. With a pop, his ears cleared. All was quiet, save for the pounding of his heart and his own harsh breath. Finally, the darkness took shape. Ten feet away lay the motionless boar.
Nicholas shivered. It wouldn’t be long before another predator discovered him. Weakened and one-armed, he could not reload. He would simply have to keep going.
Gritting his teeth, he stuffed the still-hot firearm into his waistband and set forth once again. For what seemed an eternity, he heard only the sounds of his own boots crunching the fallen leaves.
He pushed on until he could go no farther.
Fighting against his own weakness, he braced himself against a tree to keep upright. The hot flush of fever crept through bones that now ached as much as his head. Nicholas rubbed his brow to clear the grogginess. Perhaps he could reach Ashfield before he died. Then they could bury him beside his mother. He’d like that. More likely, he’d be strung from a gibbet as a lesson to others.
But they’d have to catch him first.
A grim smile tugged at his lips. He staggered forward with new determination.
Then up ahead he saw Witches’ Rock. Like a familiar scent packed away with clothes in an old trunk, a memory wafted through his muddled mind, and he remembered where safety lay. With sudden certainty, Nicholas knew it was not his fate to die this night. He had come home.
His steps took on new sureness as he skirted the large boulder. Another twenty feet or so brought him to a squat freestone structure. Pushing open the wooden door, he fell forward, collapsing onto the hard dirt floor.
“As you know, on your brother’s death you became heiress to this great estate.” Father’s words echoed through the high-ceilinged room like a death knell.
As the morning chill eased into her bones, Katherine Welles tucked a strand of hair into her white cap, preparing herself for her father’s usual lament. In the fifteen months since her brother’s passing, she had not overcome her grief.
Gray skies outside cast dim illumination through the tall mullioned windows behind her. Grandfather sat stiff-backed behind a great expanse of table, bare but for his open Geneva Bible. Standing beside him, her father puffed out his chest as he prepared to continue.
“In that one moment, the fortunes of our family changed. It seemed my plans had been for naught.” Gerald Welles shook his head. “I then steeled myself to make the best of the betrothal we had arranged for you with John Perkins, though it was no longer to our advantage. ‘Twas your mother’s wish for you to marry him, yet her ill health prevented it.”
A wave of sadness washed over Katherine. “Yes, Father, I know this.”
“Do not interrupt me, daughter,” he barked.
Katherine’s jaw tightened. She ached to get back to work and away from Father’s offhand references to the loss of those she held dear, but there would be no hurrying him, not even on washday. Katherine bit the inside of her cheek to keep her expression blank and her thoughts to herself.
Gerald ambled around the table. “Now ’tis time to see you settled, with a husband to guide you and run this estate when I am gone.” He clasped his hands below his rounded belly. “When your mother departed this life, I wrote to John’s father. Robert apprised me of his desire to remove his family from England. The political climate—”
“Since that libertine Charles Stuart assumed the crown,” Grandfather Wilfred broke in, wagging an ominous forefinger, “it is no longer safe to worship.”
Gerald coughed and turned back to her. “The Perkins family will journey to Massachusetts Colony in the spring.”
Katherine blinked. The New World? Leave Ashfield? A sudden lightness lifted her heart.
“Robert Perkins is a fair man. Massachusetts Colony is a great distance, and there is much danger in the passage. As you are now my heir, he has offered to release you from our agreement.”
Katherine gripped her hands together behind her back to keep them from shaking as the hope, which had risen so suddenly, was dashed just as fast.
“It is now official. The papers arrived two days ago. We have set aside the prior arrangement.”
Not marry John? Not escape Ashfield? Katherine bowed her head in a submissive gesture that covered her agitation. Short nails bit into her palms. Father had signed the contract three years ago. She had thought it ironclad. A great foreboding hit her. She did not want to hear his next words.
“In keeping with your status as heiress,” Gerald rocked back on his heels, “we now seek a more favorable alliance.”
Katherine’s stomach tightened into a hard knot.
“To my gratification, our neighbor, Richard Finch, has offered to take you as wife. We concluded our negotiations last eve. You will say your espousals in a week.”
Hot bile rose in Katherine’s throat. Her head shot up. “It c-cannot be true.”
“And why is that, daughter?”
“I cannot marry him. I do not even like him.”
Gerald frowned. “That was precisely how your mother felt when we married, but it made no matter. She brought a good dowry, which I turned to my advantage by purchasing this fine property when Cromwell made the offer.” He made a gesture meant to encompass all of Ashfield. “The purpose of marriage is to form alliances, join bloodlines, unite properties.”
Grandfather spoke. “A daughter’s duty is to obey her father.”
Katherine was aware of her duties, as well as the usefulness of daughters. Yet, betrothed to John Perkins, she had felt safe from her father’s ambitions. She would have been content with John, a sweet boy, with a native kindness. She might have even grown to love him. She would have welcomed a life in the New World, a rugged new land with limitless possibilities.
“You cannot ask this of me, Father.”
“I am not asking.” His eyes, now flinty, mirrored those of her grandfather. “I am telling you.”
Katherine’s breath caught. Turning away to hide the alarm she could no longer mask, she dragged in a mouthful of air. Her thoughts cascaded in a frantic search for a protest that might have some influence. “There has not been a proper mourning period since my mother’s death. Nor since Sarah Finch’s passing.”
“‘Tis sufficient,” Grandfather interjected in his thin reedy voice. “A man has needs a wife must see to.”
Katherine’s stomach lurched, as panic rose like sickness in her belly.
Gerald rapped his knuckles on the tabletop. “His daughter is needing a mother. And he is needing a son.”
Sarah Finch had worked earnestly to provide one. After two stillborn babes, a girl had survived. But the birth of this daughter had proved Sarah’s undoing. She died a scant week later from childbed fever.
Katherine had attended the dying woman, noting that Richard Finch showed more disappointment over the birth of a daughter than the death of a wife. In truth, the man had always discomfited her. His ice-cold gaze sent shivers through her whenever they met. As one of Cromwell’s magistrates, he had been merciless to anyone caught breaking the Sabbath, meting out punishment with a zealousness that bordered on cruelty.
“I will not marry him.” Unbidden, the words spilled out.
“Look at me, daughter.” Pudgy fingers grasped her chin. Nearsighted eyes drilled into her. “You will marry Finch because I say so. We shall unite our properties. In that, something good will come from your brother’s death.” His face grew red from the force of his words. “You will not defy me!”
“Nothing good will ever come from Edward’s death.”
Regret flashed in his eyes before they shuttered. He let go of her chin and drew back his hand. She knew what was coming, but she would not give him the satisfaction of flinching or cowering. Refusing to drop her gaze, she met his furor, eye-to-eye as his open palm struck her unprotected cheek.
“Hear me well, daughter, I give you a sennight to change your heart.”
Shaking and blinking back tears, Katherine slipped out the washroom door and stepped free of the imposing limestone and flint structure that held her future captive. She tread past the bare roses her mother had lovingly tended, making her way through the gardens, then the stables and finally across the back lawn.
At the shelter of the wood’s edge, she heaved a ragged breath. The rich mulch of compost filled her lungs, but did not provide the inner calm she needed. Leaves danced in wavy circles at her feet. A sudden gust of wind pulled off her hood, tugging at the lock of hair that always escaped her cap. Dark storm clouds rolled in, but they did not deter her. She must get away.
Oh, to have the courage to flee—not just for this afternoon, but truly and forever. To leave this betrothal behind and the sorrow that permeated Ashfield, to make her own choices, dream her own dreams, and find her own life.
Would that she had been born a man, or that she had another brother who would inherit, or that Ashfield had been entailed. With a lesser dowry, she would not be as appealing. But as a woman of property she was prey to the schemes of greedy men. Father’s avarice was shackling her to a lifetime with Richard Finch, to being ruled by a man with ice-cold eyes. Like Sarah Finch, would she sicken and die?
Katherine’s outer calm crumpled. She gave in to the tears she had been holding back. With them, the clouds opened, releasing cool raindrops. They fell lightly at first, soothing the place on her cheek still burning from her father’s slap. She hadn’t cried then. Now the tears wouldn’t stop.
Neither did the rain. Big hearty drops splashed down on her, seeping through her heavy woolen cloak and the seams of her practical leather shoes.
In the distance, a jagged spear of lightning rent the sky followed a long moment later by the boom of thunder. As her crying eased, a sense of wild expectancy ran through her. She wanted to scream with the wind loud enough to be heard in the treetops. To run and dance and sing. To defy the peril of the storm, and the peril of being the daughter of the ambitious man who ruled her. To shake off the Puritan strictures she had been raised by.
Instead, Katherine wiped her face and continued her walk through the undergrowth, ignoring the cold and wet. A branch snapped back, drenching parts of her that weren’t already soaked. She slipped on the slick leaves but managed to stay upright.
As the lightning came closer, she could almost feel the earth shake with each crash of thunder. The weather seemed to mirror the wild thoughts infusing her soul. In truth, there had been a surprising number of thunderstorms in recent years. Grandfather said they were a sign of God’s displeasure at the return of the monarchy and the general licentiousness of Charles II, but Katherine didn’t think the same God that made her herbs grow would be so vengeful as to punish them all for the sins of just one.
Was it God’s will she should marry Richard Finch? She turned her face up to the sky. Cold water pelted down in a harsh baptism. If lightning struck her, would it be God’s judgment on her disobedience, or simply because she was a foolish girl who’d run into the arms of a thunderstorm?
She shook her head and plunged deeper into the cover of the woods. Her sodden cloak flapped about her ankles. She stumbled, grabbing onto a nearby tree to keep from falling to the rich loamy earth. Icy water ran inside her clothing. More likely she would catch an ague from this drenching.
Katherine shivered and pulled the hood back over her head. Even under the cover of the trees, she was soaked. She should turn back, return to Ashfield, to the warmth of a roaring fire and dry clothing. But her feet paid her thoughts no mind and continued to take her further and further away.
Then Katherine realized her destination.
Edward had been the first to find it. With each visit, they had braved the spirits said to inhabit Witches’ Rock. If spirits there were, they had left her and Edward alone, and kept away everyone else. A perfect place to seek safety from the storm.
Pushing through low-hanging branches, Katherine burst out of the woods to the clearing. The full impact of the storm hit her. Holding her cloak against the deluge, she forded swollen puddles, scurried past the large rock, and came to a halt.
The door stood open.
Katherine hovered at the threshold until a sudden crash of thunder sent her inside the dark room. Raising a hand to her chest, she worked to quiet her unease. All was still, yet she sensed she was not alone.
A flash of lightning illuminated the small space. Not three steps away, a man lay sprawled across the floor. Katherine sucked in her breath. She peered into the shadows, her senses straining. Thunder boomed outside. As her eyes adjusted, his form separated from the gloom.
She waited and watched from the doorway. Could he be dead? Her nose would have told her so. Perhaps he slept, a vagrant having found a dry spot, as she had, to wait out the storm—or even a drunkard in a sodden stupor.
Katherine took a cautious step toward him. He rested on his back, one leg bent at the knee, the other stretched almost to the wall. She knelt down and sniffed. He did not smell of spirits, but of something foreign and aromatic, like an exotic spice. Gingerly she placed a hand on his chest.
He groaned and turned to face her.
She snatched her hand away and stepped back. Her heart pounded as the storm raged behind her. She waited but he made no further movement. His eyes remained closed.
Could he be ill?
The small pox?
Was she safer outside, braving the elements, or inside with him?
As the rain pounded on the roof, a new question formed. If he was in need of aid, could she leave him?
Katherine heaved a sigh. No, she could not go without a fair effort to provide help.
Who was he? Dark hair lightened on one side by a streak of gray—or was it white?—framed a tall forehead over a pronounced aristocratic nose. A strong jaw, with perhaps a day’s growth of beard, held a wide full-lipped mouth and a cleft chin. Not a handsome face, really, but a distinctive one, and not one she recognized.
Perhaps he was a nobleman who had been set upon by outlaws. Dressed in unrelieved black, he wore no jewels. Might he be a Puritan?
She trailed her fingertips across the heated skin covering his cheekbone, brushing away strands of hair and revealing dried blood crusted at his temple. Matted hair clung to his ear.
Katherine frowned. Head wounds could be serious, sometimes stealing a man’s wits. Although she tended the minor ailments of the Ashfield tenants, it was possible this man required a surgeon.
Ruing the lack of light, Katherine probed the wounded area.
His eyes popped open. Her heart jumped. He grabbed her hand, holding it in a powerful grip. The raging storm faded. All she could feel was the heat radiating from his fingers. He spoke, but his words were drowned out by a crack of thunder. His eyes were dark, glassy, and unfocused. Katherine doubted he saw her. She leaned closer.
He shifted position but did not release her. Unbalanced, she grabbed his shoulder to keep from falling. He bellowed and jerked away, relinquishing her hand. Katherine rocked back on her heels.
“Will not die. Get it back for you,” he said to the darkness behind her.
Katherine tossed a quick look to see if someone was there, but saw only the rain pouring down outside the open door.
The man thrashed about again, and she stroked his forehead as if quieting a babe. Gradually he stilled, and Katherine stopped.
His eyes popped open. “Mother?”
The word was plaintive, a boy’s cry, not that of a man full grown. A rush of sadness overwhelmed her along with an overpowering urge to comfort him. She touched his brow again.
His eyes, focused now, looked straight into hers. Katherine felt a jolt of connection.
“Angel…” His lips curved, and he sighed. “Heaven.” His eyes closed, releasing her.
As the intensity of the moment faded, some of Katherine’s tension eased. The man breathed evenly and lay still.
Katherine eyed his shoulder. There was not enough light for her to make anything out so she used her hands to explore his arm for clues. The fabric was rough and hard. Even without illumination, dark stains stood out on his hands. Blood? She ran her fingers lightly over his upper body pulling back the heavy wool cloak.
The highly polished metal of a gun glinted from the waistband of his breeches. Her heart dropped.
Perhaps he was an outlaw. And perhaps she should know more about him before she ran off to get help. He must carry identifying papers or other items.
Awkwardly, and with full knowledge that she transgressed against a helpless man, Katherine began her search.
His finely stitched linen shirt revealed no information besides its obvious quality. An inside pocket attached to his cloak contained a powder horn, a pouch of bullets, coins of various denominations, some foreign, and an odd cylindrical item, wider at one end than the other, with glass at both ends. She’d never seen anything like it.
Was he foreign like his money? He’d spoken without an accent.
Katherine’s eyes lit on a piece of shiny, black satin tucked next to the pistol in his waistband. She tugged it out and almost dropped it when she realized it was a cowl.
Realization hit her like a shot.
He’d robbed three coaches in as many weeks, causing a furor of gossip and speculation by stealing clothes off the backs of gentlemen, and sending their coaches off without them. He apologized to the ladies for “exposing them to the company they keep,” and told the affected men, “Now you can be seen for who you really are.” Her neighbors had been outraged, yet Katherine had silently approved the Raven’s choice of victims, thus far all sanctimonious prigs.
Had that been by design? Or by chance?
She shook her head. Either way, she could not understand why anyone would behave as the Raven did. Was it perversity? And even if it was, could she leave him wounded and alone?
She sighed. For certain, if she went for help, his whereabouts would become known. She might as well turn him in to the King’s justice. That meant Richard Finch.
Katherine brushed aside a lock of hair on the man’s forehead.
His frown eased at her touch.
Her heart softened. Criminal or no, she could not let him die. Not if it was possible to save him.
She placed a quavering hand over his chest, and began a silent prayer. Not a Puritan prayer, as practiced in secret by father and grandfather. Nor the kind publicly professed by Charles II, or even the kind, it was said, he practiced in private. Katherine did not know if the man before her was Roundhead or Royalist, Protestant or Catholic. In the months since the death of her brother, she had come to doubt God favored one over the other, so she made a devout and impassioned plea for strength, and for guidance to save this man’s life.