A slip sent stones skittered down the slope of the narrow country road.
“Watch your step,” cautioned Carolina Sloane as the rough-edged echo faded into the shadows. “The way turns steeper here and the ground is very uneven.”
She paused to glance up at the ominous gray clouds and then looked back at her companion, who was struggling to keep pace with her. “We can rest for a few minutes if you like, but we ought not linger longer than that.”
Thunder rumbled off in the distance.
“The light seems to be dying awfully fast,” she added.
“No, no, I-I shall manage,” answered Isobel Urquehart in between gasps for breath. “I’m so sorry to be lagging—”
“Oh, please, don’t apologize,” said Caro quickly. “It’s my fault—I should have paid more attention to the time.” She squinted into the gloom up ahead, hoping to see some flicker of light from the outskirts of town. But if anything the shadows seemed to deepen and darken as the road wended its way into a copse of trees.
A gust of wind, its bite already sharp with the chill of evening, suddenly rustled through the overhanging branches, stirring a prickling of unease at the back of her neck.
“We haven’t much farther to go.” Repressing an oath, Caro forced herself to sound more cheerful than she felt. “It can’t be more than a mile or so until we reach town.”
“Yes, yes, it must be close, given how long we’ve been walking.” Isobel hitched her shawl a little tighter around her shoulders. Her cheeks looked unnaturally pale in the fading flickers of sunlight but she managed a smile. “And if night falls before we get there, we shall just pretend we are having a marvelous adventure.”
Caro was relieved that her companion had such pluck and a sense of humor, for she hadn’t realized that Isobel’s health was so fragile.
That was because the two young ladies had only just met the previous afternoon. On discovering a shared interest in antiquities—as well as literature—they had made spur-of-the-moment plans for a walk out to see one of the Roman ruins that dotted the countryside around the spa town of Bath.
The day had dawned warm and sunny, so they had set out after nuncheon, thinking to be gone no more than several hours. But the setting had proved wildly romantic, and the two of them had lost track of the time as they chatted about books and history over a picnic of pastries among the weathered limestone columns.
But now, with dusk cloaking them in a swirl of shadows and stormclouds threatening rain, the decision did not seem so wise.
Impetuous. Caro gave an inward wince, knowing she did have a tendency to go off half-cocked—
“Why, just listen to the wind keening through the trees,” went on Isobel, interrupting Caro’s brooding. “If you use your imagination, you can almost picture yourself in the wild mountains of Sicily, evading a band of cutthroat brigands on your way to a midnight rendezvous with a swashbuckling count at the ancient ruins of Taormina.”
Caro picked her way over a patch of loose stones. “Yes, I can see what you mean.” A pause, and then she laughed. “So, you’ve read Escape from the Barbary Pirates as well as The Prince’s Evil Intentions?”
“I confess, I’ve read all of Sir Sharpe Quill’s novels.” Isobel gave a shy grin. “Although I daresay I shouldn’t admit it, I finding them scathingly funny. Not to speak of intriguingly interesting when, um, Count Alessandro starts removing Emmalina’s clothing.”
“Oh, your secret is safe with me,” replied Caro.
“You’ve read them, too?” asked Isobel.
“Every word,” she assured her new friend.
And in truth, the statement was no exaggeration. That was because the reclusive author, considered by the ton to be the most intriguing gentleman in all of London, was not actually a he, but a she—more specifically Caro’s older sister Anna.
But that was secret she was not at liberty to share.
And at the moment, there were far more pressing concerns than clever nom de plumes or dangerous pen-and-paper plots. Perhaps it was merely the rising whoosh and crackle of the leaves overhead, but it seemed that Isobel’s breathing was becoming more labored.
Damn, damn, damn.
Caro bit her lip, wishing she dared quicken the pace. The prickling sensation at the back of her neck had turned sharper, like daggerpoints digging into her flesh. It was foolish, she knew, to let talk of ruthless villains and exotic dangers spook her. This dark stretch of road was a quiet country lane in England, the black silhouettes were placid oak and beech trees, not gnarled claws of doom stretching out to grab . . .
“And then, of course, the scene where Emmalina slithers down a cliff . . .” Behind her, Isobel had begun to recount the plot of the latest Sir Sharpe Quill novel. “ . . . and pounces on the pirate leader, who is about to skewer Count Alessandro is very exciting.”
“Indeed,” murmured Caro, trying not to be distracted by the jumpy black shadows flitting in and out of the surrounding trees.
“Of course, it’s not very realistic to expect that a young lady would know how to fight tooth and nail against a muscled villain . . .”
Ha! thought Caro wryly. Her late father, a noted explorer specializing in exotic tribal cultures, had taken his three young daughters on several expeditions to primitive places. Being a very practical man as well as a serious scholar, he had made sure that they knew how to defend themselves with some very unladylike tricks.
“But of course, fiction allows—”
A loud snap startled Isobel into silence.
Caro whirled around, trying to spot any movement within the glade, but the softly swaying tendrils of mist seemed to mock her fears.
“W-what was that?” whispered Isobel.
“It’s probably just a fox setting off on a hunt,” answered Caro quickly, her gaze still probing among the muddled trees.
Her friend let out a nervous laugh. “Then it is a good thing we are not mice.”
Or helpless little pigeons—the perfect prey for any hungry predator stalking through the shadows.
Shaking off such disturbing thoughts, she freed the ribbons of her bonnet from the folds of her shawl. “We had best keep moving.”
Isobel sucked in a lungful of air. “Yes, of course.”
They walked on in silence, which seemed to amplify the night sounds. The screech of an owl, the crack of a twig, the rustle of—
Another snap, this one even louder.
The echo reverberated through the woods like a gunshot.
As the road narrowed and turned sharply past a thicket of brambles, Caro slapped aside a twist of thorns, and in her haste to put the grove behind them, nearly slid into a puddle of brackish water. Before she could call out a warning, Isobel stumbled on the wet ground too, and lost her footing.
Caro caught her just as she was about to take a nasty tumble. “Steady now,” she murmured, keeping hold of her friend’s trembling hand.
“Sorry to be such a ninnyhammer.”
“Nonsense. You are a far more intrepid adventurer than any storybook heroine.”
“J-just as long as I don’t step on any c-cobras.” Though she appeared on the verge of tears, Isobel managed an exhausted smile.
“Oh, there aren’t any snakes in this part of Somerset.” That might be stretching the truth a bit, but as reptiles did not come out in the chill of night, it didn’t matter.
“Let’s rest for a moment.”
They slowed to a halt. And yet, Isobel’s breathing only seemed to grow more ragged.
If only a cart would come by, thought Caro. But given the hour, that hope was unrealistic. There was no option save to forge ahead on their own.
Tightening her grip, she started forward again, hoping that the next bend would bring them free of the trees. There was something oppressive about the heaviness of the air and the canopy of leafy branches that nearly blocked out the twilight sky.
Rain—only a soaking shower could make matters worse.
She angled a look up at the scudding clouds, just as a sudden movement in bushes caught her eye.
A scream caught in her throat as branches snapped and a man dressed all in black burst out from between two ancient oaks.
Seizing Isobel from behind, he tried to drag her back into the tangle of leaves.
But Caro reacted in the same instant and held on to her friend’s hand for dear life. “Let go of her, you fiend!” she cried, then raised her voice to an even higher pitch. “Help! Help!”
Isobel struggled to fend him off. She was putting up a game fight, though in size and weight she was no match for her assailant.
He gave another wrenching yank, then swore a vicious oath as Isobel’s flailing elbow caught him flush on the windpipe.
“Help, help—let me go!” She, too, had started screaming at the top of her lungs.
“Bloody Hell, shut your gobs,” he snarled, clapping a beefy hand over Isobel’s mouth. “And you, you hellbitch . . .”
The epithet was directed at Caro.
“Back off or I’ll break every last bone in your body.” The brute—for brute he was, with muscled arms and legs thick as tree trunks—punctuated the threat with a lashing kick aimed at Caro’s knees.
She caught his boot and jerked upward with all her might.
Yanked off balance, the man fell heavily to the ground, his skull hitting the hard-packed earth with a thud.
The force of his fall took Isobel down, too. But she managed to roll free and scramble to her feet.
“Run!” urged Caro. “Run!”
However slight the chances were of outracing him, flight was their only option. Trying to outfight him was madness. Still, she snatched up a rock as she turned to follow her friend.
All too quickly, the man was up and after them, cursing with rage. His heavy footfalls were coming closer and closer . . .
Caro whirled and flung her missile at his forehead. Thank God for the games of hunting skill she had played with the tribal children in Crete. Hours of practice had honed her aim to a lethal accuracy.
The rock smashed into his right eye, drawing a pained howl. Half-stunned, half-blinded, he staggered on, fists flailing wildly.
As she dipped and dodged the blows, Caro decided that the only hope in escape lay in trying one last, desperate measure. Ducking low, she darted straight at him and brought her knee up hard between his legs.
The brute dropped like a sack of stones, his curses turning to a mewling whimper.
“Run!” she called again, seeing that Isobel had stopped and was staring in open-mouthed shock. The trick had bought them more time, but when he recovered, he would be out for her blood.
“How—” began her friend.
“Never mind that now,” she said, shoving Isobel into action. “We must fly like the wind.”
But they hadn’t gone more than several strides when two more figures appeared from the shadows up ahead.
“Bull!” shouted the one in the lead. “Wot’s wrong? Why ain’t ye grabbed ‘em?”
A pack of abductors?
The thought sent a spike of fear through her.
Things looked rather hopeless, but Caro wasn’t yet willing to go down meekly.
A quick glance around showed one last chance. Grabbing Isobel’s arm, she pushed her off the road and towards the woods. The tangle of brush and trees might slow down their pursuers.
“Try to lose yourself in the darkness,” she hissed. “I’ll see if I can distract them for another few moments.”
To her relief, Isobel had the good sense not to waste precious seconds in further argument.
Scooping up a handful of rocks, Caro peltered the new assailants with a quick barrage, then turned to seek safety in the shadows.
With luck . . .
But luck chose that moment to desert her. Her shoe caught in a rut and she tripped, entangled in her skirts.
Cursing the constraints of female dress, she twisted free of the fabric, scrambled to her feet and was moving again within the space of several rapidfire heartbeats.
Quick, but not quick enough.
The first trees were only a stride away when the one of the men snagged her trailing sash and whirled her around.
“Poxy slut,” he snapped.
Caro blocked the first slap and countered with a punch that bloodied his lip. The second blow caught her on the side of the head with a force that set her ears to ringing. She tried to pull away but he yanked her back, and then his fist drove the air from her lungs.
The ground began to spin and blur.
Dizzy with pain, Caro felt herself slipping into a daze. Squeezing her eyes shut, she fought down a rising nausea. But things seemed to be spinning out of control. The voices around her were suddenly sounding strangely agitated and the ringing was turning into an odd pounding.
Like the beat of galloping hooves?
Wishful thinking, she mused as she slumped to her knees. And yet, her captor seemed to have released her . . .
Forcing her lids open, she saw a jumble of dark shapes. A horse. A rider flinging himself from the saddle. Flying fists. Her assailant knocked arse over teakettle.
“Shoot the devil, Bull!” he croaked.
As her gaze slowly refocused, Caro saw their first attacker rise and run off, still clutching his groin, into trees on the opposite side of the road.
“Your lily-livered friend doesn’t seem inclined to come to your rescue,” came a deep baritone shout. “That leaves two of you—whose neck shall I break first?”
Her wits must be so addled that she was hallucinating. How else to explain why the voice sounded oddly familiar?
The man who had hit her scuttled like a crab across the road. “Billy!” he cried in a high-pitched squeal.
The only answer was a scrabbling in the bushes that quickly faded to silence.
“Vermin,” muttered her rescuer as he watched the man join his cohorts in beating a hasty retreat. Turning, he then gently lifted her to her feet. “Are you hurt, Miss?”
“I . . .”
I never swoon, she wanted to reply, if only her tongue would obey her brain. Only peagoose heroines in horrid novels swoon.
However, on catching sight of the chiseled lips, the too-long nose and the shock of red-gold hair now looming just inches above her face, Caro promptly did just that.