The Captain and His Innocent(6)

By: Lucy Ashford

 That, Ellie, is the problem with insufficient drainage, she could almost hear her father saying. And look at the lack of proper foundations! You cannot build a road for heavy traffic merely by throwing a haphazard layer of rocks on top of mud. And of course the Romans knew it was often necessary to dig deep ditches on either side to take away the winter floods...

 At least Lord Franklin’s two grooms were well equipped for emergencies like this. Her father would have approved of that. The grooms couldn’t see her, standing as she was in the shadows beyond the coach; but she could see that one of them had an axe to hew down the nearby saplings, and as fast as he felled them, the other was spreading them across the damaged part of the road to create a surface that would—at least temporarily—bear the weight of Lord Franklin’s coach and horses.

 And as she watched them working, she realised what they were saying.

 Pretty little piece, isn’t she, the girl? And she speaks good English, for a Frenchie.

 Well, her mother was English, I’ve heard. An English trollop, who ran off with a Frenchman.

 I wouldn’t mind running off with that one...

 Ellie’s cheeks burned. So often. She’d heard the same vitriolic gossip so often. Head high, she walked away from them, back down the road they’d come along—and only when she was completely out of sight of both the carriage and the grooms did she stop, realising that her eyes were burning with unshed tears.

 It is the cold air, that is all, she told herself fiercely, dashing them away with her hand. The cold.

 She walked on, remembering seeing the sea and that fishing village. In what direction, she wondered suddenly, did the coast of France lie? South? East? Almost instinctively, she reached deep into the capacious pocket sewn to the inside of her cloak to pull out a small leather box.

 And jumped violently as a tall figure loomed out of the shadowy woods ahead of her. The box fell to the ground, somewhere in the undergrowth beside the road.

 ‘If I were you,’ the man was saying calmly, ‘I wouldn’t run. There’s really not much point, I’m afraid.’

 What he meant was that there wasn’t much chance of escape. From him. Ellie fought her stomach-clenching fear. This man was tall. This man was powerful. Hampered as she was by her heavy travelling clothes, she’d never make it back to the carriage before he caught her. What was he? A highwayman? One of the local smugglers, perhaps, that Miss Pringle had fretted about?

 He certainly didn’t look like a law-abiding citizen. His long coat appeared to have been mended over and over again; his leather boots were spattered with mud, as if he’d walked a long way. Stubble roughened his strong jaw, and his dark wavy hair was unkempt, but his eyes were bright blue and knowing.

 A man to be afraid of. Her heart was already pounding wildly; but she forced herself to speak with equal calmness. ‘You may as well know,’ she said, tilting her chin, ‘that I have nothing about me of any value. If you’re intending to rob me, you’re wasting your time.’

 His eyes glinted. ‘I’m not here to rob you. I’m merely curious. I’d heard that Lord Franklin has a new ward—and you must be her.’

 What was it about his voice—his deep, husky voice—that sent fresh pulses of alarm tingling through her veins? And how had he heard that she was coming to Bircham Hall?

 ‘I am not Lord Franklin’s ward,’ she answered. Keep your breathing steady, Ellie. Look at him with the disdain he deserves. ‘But there is a family connection. My mother was his relative...’

 He came closer. Panicking, she took a step back. ‘Indeed, mam’selle,’ he said softly. ‘to find yourself suddenly in the care of a rich and aristocratic Englishman must have seemed like a fairy tale come true. Lord Franklin is said to be a great collector of foreign objets d’art. And what could be more fitting than for him to return from the Continent with a pretty French girl in his care?’

 She felt her breathing coming tight and fast. She had been a fool, indeed, to have wandered so far from the coach. Play for time, she told herself. Play for time.

 ‘You are mistaken,’ she said steadily, ‘if you think that I would allow myself to be...collected. Lord Franklin took me in his care out of duty, that is all. In other words—no fairy tale. And unless you wish me to assume that your own intentions are unworthy, monsieur, I would ask you to let me pass—this minute!’

 She’d already started to move. But he was quicker, stepping sideways to block her path, intimidating her with his height and the breadth of his shoulders.

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