About the Author
Lucy Ashford, an English Studies lecturer, graduated in English with history at Nottingham University,and the Regency is her favourite period. Lucy, who has always loved to immerse herself in historical romances, has had several novels published, but this is her first for Mills and Boon. She lives with her husband in an old stone cottage in the Peak District, near to beautiful Chatsworth House and Haddon Hall, all of which give her a taste of the magic of life in a bygone age
Joanna Fulford’s two great passions as a child were horses and writing. Riding developed her love of and respect for the countryside – though it was sometimes seen at much closer quarters than anticipated – and writing allowed exploration of the inner landscape. But teaching was Joanna’s calling for many years, and she only left education to pursue writing full-time when it became a growing compulsion!
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
'You have to agree, Ajax, that it would be unpleasantly ironic to survive five years of being shot at, blown up and starved in the Peninsula to die of exposure in some Hertfordshire valley.'
The big grey flicked one ear back and carried on plodding through the driving rain. An intelligent animal, he probably thought it was not so much ironic as foolish.
'Rodgerson's directions were clear enough.' Hugo kept talking as he scanned the sides of the valley for any glimmer of light. He was beginning to shiver and feel sleepy and neither was good, not when he'd been riding since daybreak. He was soaked through to the skin despite the oiled wool cloak that had seen him over the Pyrenees in winter on one occasion. 'That cross-country cut to get us on to the Northampton road without having to go out to Aylesbury would have saved hours.'
But a bridge had been down and then a road flooded and he had turned north in the fading twilight, using his pocket compass and a sodden and tattered route map. They must have gone clear between Berkhamsted and Hemel Hempstead, either of which would have provided a comfortable inn for the night. Instinct told him he was heading north-west now, which should be correct, but it was pitch-dark, his tinderbox was damp and the low cloud obscured the stars. Every yokel for miles around seemed to have vanished into their dwellingswherever those were hidden. He couldn't blame them, he'd settle for a flea-infested hovel himself, if one presented itself.
'First cover, we're taking it.' Ajax did not bother to flick an ear that time. The horse was big and tough, but both of them were out of practice at being quite this cold and wet. 'This will teach me to underestimate the terrain,' Hugo muttered. And it would teach him to be antisocial and avoid invitations as well. He could be putting on a cheerful face in the midst of some jolly family gathering preparing for Christmas, right this minute.
Hunching his shoulders sent a fresh trickle of icy water down his neck from the brim of his hat as he narrowed his eyes against the rain. Hordes of children, irascible great-aunts, flirtatious young ladies, too much rich food, charades possibly dying of exposure was preferable after all.
They were in a shallow valley. To his right was a river and what he assumed were water meadows, now impersonating a lake. To his left rough grazing sloped up into scattered trees and scrub. Someone, surely, must live in this landscape? Would the trees thicken up and offer any more shelter?
There. Ahead and to the left, a flicker of brilliance like a star, only too low and too yellow to be anything but a man-made light. He turned Ajax's head towards it and almost immediately the squelch of hooves into waterlogged earth became the splash and crunch of metal shoes hitting the stones of a rough, potholed track.
As they came closer he could see the shapes of huddled hovels and small cottages higher up the slope. They seemed to be in darkness, but the light shone steadily from an unshuttered window in the slightly bigger building nearest the track, a beacon to guide him in. Against the sky he could just make out the jut of a pole above the door with a battered tangle of twigs thrashing in the wind at the end of it. 'An ale pole, Ajax. There will be something for me to drink, at least.'
The ground came up to meet him with a force that jarred his tired legs as he slid out of the saddle in front of the entrance and he steadied himself with a hand on the pommel while he thudded on the panels with his other fist.
No reply. Damn it, he would break in if he had to and pay for the damage afterwards.
The door swung open spilling light and heat into the rain. Hugo blinked against it, looked down to meet the concerned gaze of the woman holding the door open and said the first thing that came into his head. 'You are as wet as I am.'
Hell, she'll think she's facing a lunatic. But it was true. Wide hazel eyes smiled up at him out of a freckled face that was rosy with damp heat. Brown curls stuck to her forehead and cheeks, her sleeves were rolled up to reveal hands and forearms that dripped water and her wide white apron was soaked and glued to her skirts.
'But not as cold, I will wager,' she said with a laugh in her voice, turning to call over her shoulder, 'Boys! Quickly. Come in,' she added, 'Before you drown. You will not be going any further tonight, that is for certain.'
'My horse, ma'am. Can I get him under cover?' Ajax stuck a wet muzzle forwards as though to emphasise the point as two boys erupted out of the inner doorway.
'Mama?' They skidded to a halt at her side and regarded him with avid curiosity, revealing themselves to be virtually identical twins.
'Nathan, Joseph, where are your manners? Help this gentleman stable his horse and then bring him inside. You will excuse me,' she added with a dazzling smile that made him blink even as it sent a surge of hot blood through his chilled body. 'I am sparging the mash and one just cannot leave it. I will be back presently.'
'Sparging? Of course you are. Yes.' Bemused, Hugo regarded her retreating back. She had delivered that airy speech with the same toneand accentas any lady explaining to a guest why she must leave him for a short while. What sort of ale house was this? Her hair was coming down, but the exposed skin of her nape was white and soft and her hips swayed enticingly as she walked away from him. Soft, warm, delicious.
'Good evening, sir.' He yanked his wandering attention back. 'If you go to that door, we'll bring a lantern the inside way.' The boy with the fewer freckles on his cheeks pointed to a stable door.
Nathan, that one, Hugo thought, recalling the quick glances each had thrown their mother when she had said their names. And Joseph's ears stuck out rather more and his eyes were a darker hazel. Hugo walked into the warmth and smell of stabled beasts and the blissful relief of getting out of the insistent rain.
There was a stall in front of them, empty except for Joseph scattering straw on the stone. Nathan ducked out of the next stall with a stuffed hay net bouncing behind him. 'I've stolen Sorrowful's,' he said, 'but I've left him a pile on the floor. He won't mind.'
'Are you certain?' Hugo looked at the smallest, gloomiest donkey he had ever seen. It gazed mournfully back.
'He always looks like that, sir.' Nathan climbed on a bucket to hook up the net. 'That's a big horse. Are you in the army?'
How old were they? Six, seven? He wasn't used to children younger than the wet-behind-the ears subalterns they'd send him to make his life hell, but these looked as bright as buttons, the pair of them. 'I was. Cavalry. I'm selling out now.'
He heaved off the saddle and the saddle bags and slung them over the stall divider. The boys stared wide-eyed at the big sabre and the holsters. 'And those are not, under any circumstances, to be touched,' he added as he took off the bridle. How do you talk to children this age? He decided the tone he used to the subalterns would have to do.
'No, sir.' They took a step back in unison.
'Are you a general, sir?' the least-freckled one asked.
'Major, Nathan. Can you fill that bucket with water, please?'
The boy's eyes opened in awe at this magic knowledge of his name. 'Yes, Major.' He picked up the bucket and ran, colliding with his brother who staggered up with a bucket full of what looked like lumpy brown-and-white porridge.
'Culm and used mash, Major. That'll perk him up.'
'His name's Ajax. Thank you.' He took the bucket from Joseph and tipped it into the manger. From the smell of it the mixture was something to do with brewing. He just hoped he wouldn't end up with a drunk horse. Ajax put his head in and began munching. On the other side a brown cow stuck her head over the barrier.
'That's Eugenia,' Joseph confided. He copied Hugo, who had twisted a handful of straw tight into a knot and was rubbing the horse down. The lad dived confidently under the stallion's belly and began to scrub at his muddy legs. A couple of hens fluttered up to the manger and began to peck at the feed.
'This is a veritable Noah's Ark. What else have you got in here?'
Nathan clanked back with the water, only a third of which had been spilled. 'Four rabbits, a dozen chickens, Sorrowful and Eugenia. Maud and her litter are in the pigsty. We haven't got a horse. Mama sold Papa's horse, but she had to, to get the animals we needed.' The boy spoke briskly, but his voice was tight.
Ajax's skin felt warm now. He'd do for now if Hugo could find some sort of rug for him. 'Is your father dead?' There was a subdued yes from knee level where both boys were hard at work.
Hugo frowned. Perhaps he shouldn't have put it so bluntly. The realisation that the man of the house wouldn't be arriving at any moment made the whole situation awkward. Normally he would not have thought twice about spending the night under the roof of some lusty country alewife, but that warm, wet, laughing lady was something else altogether. 'Got an old rug for Ajax's back?'
'Sacks,' Nathan offered. 'We've got heaps of them.' He dived into a dusty corner and dragged some out, then both of them regarded the knife Hugo pulled out of his boot with close attention.
'And that is not for touching, either.' Hugo slit a dozen sacks and covered Ajax's back, two deep.
'No, Major,' they chorused, then took the lantern and led the way to an inner door that opened on to the room Hugo had first glimpsed.
He followed with his gear and realised he was in the public taproom of the ale house. Benches and tables lined the walls, barrels re...