She saw her breath in puffs before her. The chilly air invigorated her. Or perhaps it was her purpose for being alone in a dark wood in the middle of the night. She was determined, and just a bit desperate, to escape. Her future was hers to resolve.
Her parents were asleep in the manor and it was easier than she’d thought to sneak out. It had been a small matter to slip down the corridor and out the terrace door in the drawing room. She had her reticule filled with pin money she’d been saving, her heavy cloak, and some bread she’d hidden in her pocket during dinner. A fortune in jewels sewn into her hem made her dress heavier, but she would need them when she reached her destination.
The woods brightened. She looked up to see a full moon uncovered by clouds, shining down on her. The branches silhouetted against the white globe were like fine Venetian lace. Destiny was on her side.
Twigs snapping nearby caused her heart to jump. She twisted around to locate the source, but the moonlight was smothered by clouds and the wood was once again too dark to see.
“Calm yourself,” she whispered. “It is likely only a…” Well, she wasn’t sure what it could be. Were there wolves in this forest? Foxes? She mentally shook herself. Of course there were foxes. Her father hosted fox hunts each year. But were foxes dangerous?
She continued walking toward her destination, glancing behind her every few moments. Her attention focused on each sound—her fast breathing, her footfalls—prepared for any that did not seem to belong. A breeze occasionally rustled the fallen leaves along the ground.
Soon she heard the sound of rushing water. She smiled; she was halfway to the first stop in her journey. All she must do is follow the creek to the bridge to the small village. Anticipation filled her and gave her a bounce in her step as she skipped alongside the water.
In the distance, thunder rolled.
“Please. Please don’t let it rain before I get to Hamphurst.” She gazed heavenward as she prayed. In answer, lightning flashed, blinding her and she stumbled.
Strong arms caught her before she fell.
“Thank you,” she instinctively answered. Lightning flashed again, illuminating her rescuer’s face. She screamed and then the world went black.
When she woke, she was on a bed in a small room. There was a fire in the hearth and noises filtered from down the corridor. Her cloak was removed and laid over a chair. Her reticule! She searched her person, but found nothing. Ignoring the dizziness in her head, she bolted to her cloak and did not find it. All her money, disappeared. She could not sell the jewels so close to her family’s estate. They would find her. The money was needed to get her far from home. And now it was gone. The tears fell unbidden as she sank to the floor, a weepy puddle of muslin.
He entered the room and searched it. She was sobbing, but she wasn’t in the bed where he’d left her. When he’d caught her by the river and she screamed, it nearly broke his heart in two. He couldn’t bear it if he were the cause of her sorrow. A sniffle helped him locate her on the floor, partially hidden by the chair and table in the corner.
She looked up and took his breath away. Wiping her eyes, she assessed him. Fear crossed her eyes and then recognition. Her head tilted to one side.
“I know you.”
“Yes, my lady. I worked for your parents.” And I’ve loved you for a year.
“Where are we?”
“At the inn in Hamphurst.”
“Where is my reticule?”
“I did not see a reticule.”
Her eyes narrowed at him.
“Perhaps you dropped it by the river,” he added. “I will go check for you when the rain ceases.”
“Oh. Very well, then.” She paused. “How did you know where to find me?”
“I saw you leave.”
“But I was very careful!” Frowning, she mumbled, “I hadn’t noticed anyone about.”
He said nothing, but couldn’t help the twitch at the corners of his mouth. She hadn’t been as stealthy as she believed. He’d been unable to sleep and saw her pass the kitchens. Destiny was on his side.
“Will you take me back?”
“Not if you do not wish it.”
She watched him a minute more, curious. Then she nodded as though she’d decided something. “I am headed for Paris. My father wishes me to marry an octogenarian. I would rather be on stage.”
“I know,” he said, softly.
Her eyes widened.
“I have heard you talking to yourself.” He stared at the floor. “I would like to accompany you. To keep you safe.”
“I…It will be nice to have some company.” She smiled, looking a little relieved.
He looked at the window. The rain had slowed to a drizzle; it should stop soon. “I will send some food up and then look for your reticule. Here is the key for the room. Lock it after I leave. I will come for you in the morning.”
She reached for the key. “Thank you.” When she looked up at him, her eyes innocent and trusting, he lost himself. He longed to kiss her. He turned before he could do anything rash, closing the door firmly behind him.
I know you have worried over my disappearance, but I am safe. I am in Paris and have been working at the Théâtre des Variétés. The Adelphi Theatre in London has requested my presence to play the lead in La Belle Hélène in two months’ time. I do not expect you to come see me, but I thought you should know.
Your loving daughter
She folded and sealed the letter, and then looked to the bed where her husband and son slept. Destiny had always been on her side.