There must be shelter somewhere.
Charlotte Mayweather peered dismally around the wild and rambling grounds of Drymote Estate, trying to blink the rain out of her eyes. Hydrangeas, their mop heads drooping under the onslaught, bobbed in silent agreement around her and the Michaelmas daisies swayed with the winds, but nowhere seemed to offer any sanctuary from the sudden downpour.
Nobody knows I am out here. Nobody is coming to help. The realisation chilled Charlotte’s skin as thoroughly as the rain did, leaving her shivering and miserable. The climb up to Drymote house was too steep and too far to run to, even if she hadn’t twisted her ankle when she fell. Her respectable mourning blacks were now mud-dyed brown and she had lost her second-best shawl somewhere out there amongst the bushes when she had raced the storm for shelter and lost.
She huffed out a damp breath and wiped her hair out of her face, smearing little kisses of mud across her forehead. The truth was she felt like she could no longer breathe in the silent, grief-stained halls of Drymote, still wearing their mourning wreathes, crowned in crêpe at the door. These days it felt like she could not breathe anywhere where the wind was not howling and the skies were not an open call for freedom.
Still, she could not help but curse the feet which had led her through the extensive gardens. She had spent the day meandering down pathways, past the glass-houses and the lake, through the walled garden and the orchard rows to the farthest depths of the garden’s limits, down to the hidden, lurking corners where Uncle John had fallen prey to the eccentric fashion of follies.
And yet, perhaps one of those buildings might yet suit her purposes now, for she could hardly sit out there in the rain all afternoon. The staff would certainly think her eccentric if she did. No, they will think me mad. Rich old Lords like Uncle John can be eccentric—penniless, illegitimate wards are only ever mad. Perhaps they will even send me away to the same asylum my mother died in.
Charlotte shuddered. She could think of nothing worse than the beckoning madhouse. Better by far to die out in the open skies than locked away, chained to a bed, force-fed by an orderly. Another flash of lightning seared across the shrouded sky, burning the clouds white.
She limped onwards, her ankle whimpering with pain every time she put her weight to it. She looked around for aid, but the howling world around her remained endlessly empty. The ground beneath grew slippery as she staggered across it, her booted feet sliding upon the grass, chewing up chunks of mud with every footstep. She fell again, adding a litany of bruises to her impending hypothermia, and though she tried, she found she could not regain her feet this time. She gritted her teeth.
“They don’t call you stubborn for nothing, Charlotte Mayweather,” she told herself fiercely. “You are going to make it to that folly if it is the last thing you do.”
She could not bear to put the weight upon her foot again, so she rolled up onto her knees and began the painful crawl down that final twist of path. She forced herself onwards grimly, and when the cave-like temple came into view at last, Charlotte could have wept.
The Hermit’s Retreat was small, a single one-roomed building, decorated within and without in small white shells studded upon the walls, and a mosaic of pebbles upon the floor and upon the ceiling. Out of the worst of the wet, she collapsed gratefully to the floor, dripping and exhausted. She closed her eyes, letting her breath come trembling through her icy lips, her fingers massaging the pain throbbing from her ankle, the only place upon her whole body where heat was humming, it felt.
And her eyes leapt open at once, as a cough emanated from above her. She pulled herself upright with a yelp to see the tall outline of a man lingering in the shadow of the corner. She had been so eager to escape the rain that she had not seen anybody hiding within.
He cocked an eyebrow at her, and she felt her whole body turn to flame, even as her gaze skated over him. He was not one of the house staff, nor the garden men. Fear at once coursed through her, as though she had been struck by the lightning still intermittently zig-zagging through the greys and blacks outside. She struggled up to her feet, but the man stepped forwards, holding out his hands in a placating manner, a somewhat smug smile lingering on his lips as his gaze raked over her dishevelled appearance.
“Don’t. You will only do yourself more mischief.”
She ignored him, though she did need to lean upon the wall to take control of both her feet. She was all too aware that he had just watched her crawl into this folly on her hands and knees.
“Who are you?” She tried to sound as imperious and commanding as she could, given the circumstances. The mud bespattering her clothes showed up all too clearly with each lightning flash outside, and the white light reflected off the rainwater still pooling beneath her feet. “What are you doing in my uncle’s house?”
The stranger had an arrogant face, she thought. His lips twitched up in one corner, a smirk more than a smile. His hair clung to his head, too, drenched with the rain that had caught them both, and droplets sprayed about them as he flicked it subconsciously off his forehead. His eyes were so dark they seemed almost black. She felt her skin burning even hotter, if such a thing was possible.
He turned and stared out of the little doorway, his gaze fixed upon the sheets of water all but hiding the gardens from view. The trees, their boughs weighed down with water, blocked even the topmost roofs of Drymote from sight. She stared as well, as if she might find a way home.
“They said in the village that the lord, forgive me, your uncle, was dead,” he said.
The words were callous, thrown at her with all the unfeeling lightness of a stranger, and they stuck in her throat.
“Yes,” she said with quiet dignity. “You have heard right. Lord John Cotterhugh has been dead a month past.” Had it really only been a month since Uncle John’s weathered hands touched the leaves and flowers of his beloved garden in benediction? She swallowed and forced back the treacherous tears blinking to her eyes. “It is his brother, Albert, who owns Drymote now.” Uncle John had died intestate, and everything had gone to Albert by law. Uncle John had not even left her so much as a token to remember him by.
“Ah, I see. And your uncle, Albert—”
“He is not my uncle,” she interrupted with a vehemence that surprised even her. She blinked and swallowed the anger which rose to her throat. “At least, that is, there is no blood to bind us.” And little inclination on either side to forge a relationship without it. “Aunty Ursula, John’s wife, was my mother’s sister. It was she who was my blood-kin. They took me in when my mother died, and when both Ursula and John followed her to the grave, Albert kept me afterwards through charity.” Charity! How that word stung her lips! She pressed them together as if she could take the pain from the words that way. Something flickered in the stranger’s eyes—pity, or contempt? Neither one was ideal. “Either way, I am sure that he would remind you that these woods aren’t public land,” she sniffed. That is putting it tactfully. Albert is a stickler for his rights.
“All land is public land if you are brave enough.”
“Ah, the poacher’s motto.”
The man grinned and didn’t try to deny it. He was empty-handed, at least. The sudden rain-burst must have interrupted his hunting.
Charlotte crossed her arms, about to summon some rebuke to knock the arrogant stranger off his pride, but as she stopped leaning against her arm, her knee buckled beneath her.
The stranger darted forwards and caught her around the waist and gently guided her towards the pebbled floor.
“May I test your ankle?”
Charlotte hesitated. It was hardly appropriate to let a stranger examine her, but her ankle was badly hurting. She could feel it swelling up inside her boot even now, throbbing with pain. She gave a sharp jerk of the head, and he was already undoing her laces before she had finished nodding. She gave a gasp of pain as he took her foot in his hand and rolled it about expertly.
“It is swollen and badly twisted, but it is not broken. You must rest with it elevated for a day or two.”
Charlotte frowned at him. “You are a medical man?”
He spoke with all the confidence of one, and yet she had never known a doctor take to poaching before. The stranger laughed. “I fear not, but I have been in my fair share of scrapes. One learns how to patch oneself up in time.”
She did not find that hard to believe. He had the aura of a man who attracted trouble. His eyes sparkled again, and she became abruptly aware once more of how dishevelled she looked. And here I am giving myself all the airs and graces of an heiress. He must think me a fool.
“Thank you for your advice,” she said stiffly.
A soft silence swam between them for a moment as the thunders rolled outside, and, despite the winds and the weather, the little hut felt almost warm as they were cocooned within it. His hands still rested upon her foot, as if he had forgotten they were there, and it was an action at once so intimate and comfortable that she almost forgot that they were strangers and it was wildly inappropriate. He does not think of it as anything other than a medical fact. And yet she scarcely could remember the time anyone had touched her so casually or confidently, as if they had a right to. If it affected him in any way, he did not show it.
“I think the rain is lessening,” the man said softly. “Let me fetch someone for you.”
“There is no one left to fetch.” She could not keep the bitterness from her voice.
The poacher quirked an eyebrow at her.
“Albert will not notice your absence?”
“Today, Lord Cotterhugh”—she stressed the word for the impertinent poacher—“would not notice if the skies turned purple. He is too busy awaiting the arrival of his only son and heir.”
The stranger smiled. “Ah, and is that such a propitious occasion?”
“It has a rarity value. Edward has not visited us at Drymote since he was a child. The only likeness we have of him is a painted miniature from when he was a boy, with a cherubic smile upon his chubby cheeks. I imagine he is rather different now.” Probably squat and balding like his father. And a somewhat spiteful smile twitched at her lips as she imagined the dashing heir everybody swooned over waddling up the path to Drymote as Albert’s copy, save thirty years of life.
She wondered if he was going to be as insufferable as Albert. She was not sure she could handle two of them. Albert had made it his business to make her life a misery since he had inherited Drymote, tucking his toes into the master bed scarcely before Uncle John’s corpse had cooled in it. If Edward was as cruel as his father, perhaps she would move down to the Hermit’s Retreat permanently. Perhaps I, too, could take to poaching with this handsome stranger…
She struggled to her feet, a gasp escaping from her lips as she placed her weight tentatively upon her ankle once more. He got to his feet, too, and offered her his hands, but she ignored them.
“Forgive me, I should not be alone here with you. As you have noted, the rain is slowing now, and I must return to the house to prepare myself for the arrival of Albert’s son. If you had any sense, you would leave, too. If any of the gardeners caught you poaching, they would be duty-bound to report it to Albert.”
He leant forwards, his eyes sparkling ever more brightly, close enough that his breath whispered over her damp and chilled skin, warming it through. Charlotte felt a shiver run through her, and it was not earned by the cold.
“What of you? Will you report me to Albert—forgive me, that is, Lord Cotterhugh?”
She hesitated and took the boot from his hand to buy herself time. She ought to, she knew, but she could not deny that she was reluctant to do so. She forced her foot back into it, crying out slightly as the wet leather chafed against her swollen skin. He watched her, and she could feel his gaze upon her still.
“It…it would not be…gallant of me to injure a man who has done me good,” she said stiltedly. “No, I will not tell Albert today, but if I should see you in these grounds another time, I cannot promise so much again.”
“Oh, you will certainly see me in these grounds again, now I know it is inhabited by such fire-spirited nymphs.”
She scowled at him and he laughed loudly. “For now, I will content myself with accompanying you back to your door. You would not deprive me of your company for some little while longer, I am sure.”
She opened her mouth to protest, but he held up his hands to stem the flow of words escaping her.
“No, don’t fight me, I am quite decided. Would it be gallant of me to let an injured lady limp her way to the doors alone?”
She scowled fiercely.
“You mock me, sir.”
“No, I merely tease you, there is a difference. Besides, the point is moot, as your foot has swollen too much to allow you to hobble home alone.”
This, at the very least, was true. She felt her head spinning as she tried to place her weight upon it.
“Come,” he said persuasively. “I have no rabbits with me, nor any blood upon my hands to give me away as a poacher or pilferer. We will say that I was passing by the borders of this oh-so-private land when I heard you fall and, being the heroic man I am, came hurrying to the rescue. Surely they will not prosecute me for that?”
She hesitated. Albert would rebuke her for such errant behaviour, but in truth, she was not looking forward to the long and damp stagger homewards alone, and she could hardly crawl all the way up those slopes. “It is a risk,” she said warningly.
“Ah, but it is my risk to take, and after all, what is life without a little adventure?”
She strongly suspected it was the call of such adventure which tempted him to it, and not the overwhelming allure of her company. He was a man for whom the pleasure of life was the risking of it, she thought. “I thank you then, and will gladly accept.”
He proffered his arm to her, and she threaded her own through it, wincing as she limped out into the world once more. The air was fresh, the storm blown through it having washed away the cloying closeness that had been oppressing her all day. Were her clothes not clinging to her, muddied and sodden, and her ankle not still throbbing with pain, Charlotte thought she might even have enjoyed it.
She did not want to return to the cold and empty halls of Drymote where Albert now reigned. She did not want to wait upon the arrogant presumption of the new heir. She would gladly have lived out here beneath the wild and whipping winds and the endless skies forever, if she could have.
Alas, she could not. The real world came crunching up inevitably to meet her as they rounded the final corner and made their way up the long and sweeping driveway. She sighed and drew herself back into the present moment.
“I am within sight of the doors now, you ought to go whilst you can.”
“You are ashamed to be seen with a man of no name and no estate?” he ventured with a grin.
“I would prefer not to lie, and I don’t know how I can explain your presence without either injuring you or telling falsehoods.”
“Ah, I think that neither will be necessary, in fact,” he murmured as the doors above them were thrown open. Albert stood there, gaping at the two of them.
“Go,” she whispered. “Quickly, before it is too late.”
But it was already too late. Charlotte extracted her arm from her benefactor’s as Albert came hurrying down the steps, his patches of baldness glinting in the grey and leaden daylight.
“Sodden! You’ll catch your death of cold. And late! Do you even know the hour? We were so worried about you!”
Charlotte stared at him. She did not think Albert cared enough to worry about her well-being. She stared even harder as Albert thrust his arms around the man next to her, squeezing him tightly.
“Why didn’t you take the carriage I sent for you? You haven’t grown any better since the last time I saw you. In fact, I declare you grow positively worse.”
“Forgive me, Father. And you, too, Miss Mayweather.” The man grinned, turning to face her with an irascible smile and a small bow. “I fear I forgot to introduce myself properly upon our first acquaintance. Edward Cotterhugh at your service.”