The Captain and His Innocent(8)By: Lucy Ashford
She could see Miss Pringle now, standing outside the carriage, visibly fretting. She let out an exclamation when she saw Ellie. ‘There you are. I’ve been imagining all sorts of terrible things...’
‘I’m all right, Miss Pringle,’ Ellie soothed her. ‘Really I am.’
Just at that moment a groom came up to inform them that the carriage was ready to set off again. And for the remainder of their journey to Bircham Hall, Ellie closed her eyes and pretended to be asleep.
But she couldn’t erase the image of the man with the maimed right hand and the dangerous blue eyes. Something strange and unfamiliar tingled through her body. Fear? No—she’d known fear often enough, and fear didn’t make your pulse race at the memory of a man’s face, of his dangerous smile. Fear didn’t make you notice a man’s thick dark lashes. Didn’t make you remember the magical curve of his lips when he smiled and make you wonder how many women he had kissed.
She would be safe at Bircham Hall, she told herself. She would have no friends, but she would be safe. And the man was surely nothing but a lowly ruffian.
Then she shivered. Because she was remembering that the stranger in the long, patched coat had spoken not like a ruffian, but like an English gentleman—and his voice had melted her insides, even though every word he spoke was either a veiled insult or a threat.
Sharp waves of panic were clawing at her throat. She’d thought she would be out of danger, when she reached England’s shores—but clearly, she could not have been more wrong.
The dusk always fell swiftly along this part of the coast, blurring the lonely expanse of gorse-topped cliff and the miles of shingle beach. There were still ghostly reminders of the now-ended war with France, for in the distance was a rugged Martello tower, built in case of a Napoleonic invasion, and sometimes soldiers rode out from Folkestone to patrol the coast; though they were more likely nowadays to be hunting for smugglers rather than invaders.
Just enough light lingered for Luke to see that both headland and beach were deserted, though he could hear gulls crying out above the waves. Still on foot, he had left the woods and the road well behind him now, taking instead the ancient paths used by local fishermen and farmers until he came at last to a rough track that led to a solitary house looming up from behind a thicket of wind-stunted sycamores.
The house was said to have been built on the site of an ancient long-vanished fortress, constructed over a thousand years ago to protect this coastland from Germanic invaders. Now wreaths of mist shrouded it, whispering of past lives and of ancient battles. The locals said it was haunted; said that the fields which surrounded it, blasted by winter winds, were good only for the most meagre of crops and the hardiest of sheep. But Luke loved this landscape with a passion that was ingrained in his very being.
He loved the winters, when frost and snow shrouded the bare countryside, and howling winds blew in from the sea; winds so cold they might have come straight from the freezing plains of Russia. He loved the summers, when the fields were filled with grazing sheep and lambs, and birdsong filled the nearby marshlands from dawn till dusk.
His brother, Anthony—two years younger than he—had loved it all, too.
Anyone seeing the house from a distance would think it derelict, but the locals would tell a passing stranger that it was the residence of Luke Danbury, a spendthrift and a wastrel who had once been a captain in the army in Spain, but who had now mortgaged his family estates to the hilt and was anyway absent for much of the time, doing God knew what.
Making madcap, mysterious sea voyages, he’d heard people say. Up to no good. Away as often as he was here. Gambling, probably, and women, they muttered knowingly. Once he was engaged to an heiress—and didn’t she have a lucky escape! He’s let all his farmland, once so prosperous before the war, go to waste. And his missing brother’s a disgrace as well. The family name is ruined...
The track led up to the front gate of the house, which stood permanently open. Indeed, such was the tangle of undergrowth—old, half-wild shrubs and ivy growing all around—that Luke doubted it could ever be shut. The house itself looked uninhabited; no lights shone from any of the front windows, and wreaths of sea fog crept around the gables and turrets. But Luke pushed his way through the wreck of a garden and past the twisted sycamores, towards the courtyard and stables round the back—and there, glowing lantern light welcomed him.