Excerpt: Kiss Of Ash

Book 2 : The Witchblade Chronicles

Kiss of Ash (Witchblade Chronicles) by C.J. Archer

CHAPTER 1

1583 – Berkshire, England

She would kill him.

Pippa Ingleside crumpled the documents in her fist and slammed them down on the desk, rattling quills and ink horns and her own fragile nerves.  The swine!  The thieving scoundrel!  She’d known he was a black-hearted cur but to steal on such a grand scale was low indeed.  She wouldn’t have believed her uncle capable of it if the evidence wasn’t written on those pages.  And from his own niece too.

She flattened out the documents and scanned the figures on the first one again, then the second and third just to be sure.  Anger rose with each page so that by the time she read the last one, she was almost blinded by sheer rage and the frustrating hopelessness of it all.  It had been five years since she’d felt the same spirit-crushing emotions.  Five long years that had slowly and consistently worn her down, drip by drip, until all that was left was a hole where something solid had been.

Then, as now, there was nothing she could do.  That realization crushed her more than anything else.  As Simon’s ward she was completely at his mercy.  As his prisoner, even more so.  She could do nothing about his theft.  She couldn’t go to the authorities, couldn’t appeal to another family member even if there were any.

Not long after her arrival, he’d locked her inside the confines of The Grange with only old Widow Dawson for company during the afternoons.  But even that had been denied her after Pippa’s two unsuccessful escape attempts.  Although she’d never stopped looking for a means to get away, never stopped cursing her predicament, she’d always longed to know why.  What did he gain by her trapped presence?  He couldn’t have been saving her for marriage because he never presented any candidates to her.

But now she knew.  The documents had given her the answer.

“What are you doing in here?”

She stood so fast the chair she’d been sitting on fell back with a soft thud onto the rushes.  Her uncle, filling the doorway with his bulk, glared at her.  She gathered her wits and courage and prepared to confront him.

But he strode into the study and snatched the documents from her hand before she found her voice.  “I said, what are you doing?”

He towered over her, anger making him seem bigger.  He seethed with it.  She’d never seen him so furious and her own rage subsided beneath the unnatural ferocity of his glare.  Normally he did everything in such a controlled, cold manner.  On the rare occasions he spoke to her, he never so much as raised his voice.  He shouted at the servants regularly, even beat them sometimes, but to Pippa he was a silent, morose figure who avoided interacting with her.  If it had been different, if he had funneled his infamous rages onto her, she could never have endured the last five years.

“Well?”  His ruddy complexion had turned a violent mottled red, a stark contrast to the snow-white of his hair and beard.  “Answer me, you stupid girl!  What are you doing in my study?”  He emphasized the “my” by smacking the rolled up pages against the palm of his hand.

“I, I…”  Fear made her tongue useless.  She watched the pages as they thumped into Simon’s hand over and over, like a club he would use to hit something.

Hit her.

No, he wouldn’t do it.  He’d never laid a finger on her, even when she’d railed at him for weeks after informing her that she could never leave The Grange.  Never receive callers, never receive friends.  Never receive potential suitors.  He hadn’t used violence then and he wouldn’t use it now, she was sure of it.  For some reason, he thought physical force perfectly acceptable with his servants, but not with his niece.  She supposed she should be grateful for small mercies.  If nothing else, that knowledge gave her the courage to speak now.

“I was looking for some parchment for sketching.”  It was the truth.  Or close to it.  She had run out of parchment, but she’d been looking for the steward to ask him to fetch more when she realized her ever present guard was asleep and her uncle away for the afternoon.  Ordinarily Widow Dawson never let Pippa out of her sight but she’d not turned up thanks to a chest cough that kept her abed.  The sudden taste of freedom, and the yearning to discover the reason for her imprisonment, led her to her uncle’s study.

“I found those instead.”  She nodded at the papers in his hand.

“You should never come in here.  Ever!”  He stepped closer, only an arm’s length away.  “This is my private study and these are my private papers.  Do you understand me?”

“Perfectly.”  He must think her too dull-witted to have understood what she’d read.  But then he had never taken much interest in her, before her father’s death and especially after it.  How could he possibly have known that her father had ensured his only child received a good education?  And with nothing else to do during her imprisonment at The Grange, she’d devoured every book in her uncle’s library, even the obscurest Greek poets.  Widow Dawson had asked her friends and relations for reading material, but books were difficult to come by in Shelton.  Simon’s ignorance of his niece’s education would prove to be his folly.  She had a head for numbers and accounts, something her father had put to good use as his health failed in the year before his death.

“I understand that you have been stealing from me, Uncle.”  She would not let him get away with it.  He might be her uncle and her guardian, but he was taking her money, her dowry.  She might need it one day.  She hadn’t completely given up on being rescued by a knight in shining armor, although she had to admit knights, like books, were thin on the ground in Shelton.

“Stealing?”  Simon snorted.  With his round face and broad nose, the sound made him resemble a pig.  “I’m merely taking what I am owed.  Keeping you in the manner to which you have become accustomed is a costly business.”

“Nonsense!  It is clear from those figures that you are taking more than that.  Much more.  I demand an explanation.  No, I demand every last penny be returned to me.  With interest.”  Ha!  Let him see what this stupid girl was capable of.

He stared at her.  Then he burst into laughter.  “Or you’ll what?”

She flexed her fingers as an odd tingling sensation warmed them.  It seemed to be emanating from deep within where her rage surged like a tide.  She forced herself to remain calm.  Anger would not solve this situation.  It required clear thinking and calculated words.  “I will get out of here one day, Uncle.  And I can assure you, when I do, I will retrieve everything you owe me.”

“With interest?”  His laughter ended with snorts.  “My girl, you know nothing of the world if you think you will ever get away from me.  You seem to forget, you have nowhere to go.  No family, no friends, not even the Widow Dawson would help you.  She’s too afraid of me.  Everyone is too afraid of me in this county.”  He smacked his palm again with the papers.

“You are mistaken,” she said with deliberate effort to keep her voice calm.  “I have friends.  You forget I had a full life before I came here.  There are people who would gladly help me.”  But even as she said it, she could think of only one.

Georgiana.  Sweet Georgiana Dale had never given up trying to contact her even though all Pippa’s correspondence, in or out, had been confiscated.  Nearly two years ago, a sympathetic servant had risked a great deal to smuggle in a letter from Pippa’s elderly friend.  But it was the only one.  There had been nothing since.

“If you manage to get out of The Grange,” he went on as if she’d not spoken, “I can easily hunt you down and drag you back here.  You will never leave.  You and your land are mine.”

The pool of rage surged again but this time she didn’t check it.  Couldn’t.  It was too fierce as it rushed through her body, along her arms and burst from her fingertips like bolts of lightening.  She wasn’t sure how it happened but suddenly the papers in her uncle’s hand caught alight.

With a yelp, he dropped them onto the rushes and tried to stamp out the flames with his riding boots.  But the pages scattered and Molly the house maid hadn’t changed the rushes in too long.  They were dry and the flames quickly spread across the floor.

“Fire!” her uncle shouted.  “Fetch water!  Fire!”  He removed his cloak and swatted at the flames but it only served to fan them towards the curtains.  “You witch,” he yelled at her.  “You did this.  I’ll see you hung for witchcraft, you filthy bitch.”  He returned to swatting the fire but fell back when the flames swallowed up the curtains.

Pippa watched in a kind of trance but her uncle’s accusation was as good as a slap to her face.  Oh God.  She hadcaused the fire.  She knew it as clearly as she could feel its heat on her face and smell the smoke.

But how…?

There was no time to consider the answer.  The fire was rapidly consuming the study.  Servants handed pails of water through the door but their efforts did nothing to dampen the flames.  Her uncle had given up trying to put it out and was frantically rummaging through one of his coffers, its edges already smoldering.  He shouted orders, barely heard above the roar of the fire, for valuables to be rescued.  Servants abandoned their buckets and ran to either do his bidding or save themselves.

The thick smoke stung Pippa’s eyes and filled her nose and mouth.  Her chest ached.  She couldn’t breathe.  She had to get out.

The door was wide open.  Some servants remained to help Simon with his papers and books but most had vanished.  No one seemed to take notice of her.

She ran.  Out of the study, down two flights of stairs, past scurrying, hysterical servants, to the front door.  She would leave through the main entrance this time, no backstairs with her guard on her heels.

No one on her heels at all.

She fled to the stables where grooms led horses out and away from the rapidly spreading fire.  She could probably take one in the confusion but she wasn’t dressed for riding and she’d not ridden in five years anyway.  No doubt one of the frightened creatures would throw her before she even left the estate.

She would have to flee on foot.  She changed direction and ran towards the gatehouse, hampered by her skirts.  She lifted them and kept running.  The steep pitched roof of the gatehouse loomed closer.  People from the village streamed past her, carrying buckets and blankets.  They jostled her but didn’t seem to see her.  She was dressed plainly and most had never even met her—no doubt they thought her a frightened servant fleeing to safety.

“Stop her!”  Simon’s command rose above the confusion.

She looked back.  He stood near the stables, his arms full of ledgers and papers, his white lace ruff and cuffs blackened by soot.  He kicked one of the serving boys racing past but the lad was too scared or too occupied to stop.  Simon swore at him then looked around for someone else but no one seemed aware that their master needed them.  Behind him, black smoke billowed from the study windows and two of the adjoining rooms.  Servants threw valuable tapestries and painted cloths out of the other windows, but most got trampled beneath frantic feet.

Pippa continued running towards the gatehouse and the arched entrance to the estate.  Almost there.  Even though she knew Simon could recapture her beyond the gates, she still desperately wanted to reach them, wanted to taste the air on the other side.

“Stop!”  Simon again, his voice hoarse.  “Get back here, Witch!”  When she didn’t stop, he shouted, “I’ll send the Witch Hunter after you.”

She stumbled and fell, tearing her hose and scraping her knee.  Simon’s threat lingered in the air with the ash and smoke.  Despite the warmth of the day, she felt cold to the bone.

Witch.

No.  Not her.  Surely not.

Yet she had caused the fire.  She’d felt the force of it gathering within, felt the heat and power flood her body and blast from her fingertips.

Her stomach lurched.  She wanted to throw up.  There was no doubt—she was a witch.  But…how?

She had no time to consider the answer to that.  Two fat hands clamped down on her shoulders and drew her roughly out of the dirt.  She looked up at her uncle and shrank back from his crazed glare.  His fingers dug into her skin where shoulders met throat.  A little higher and he would strangle her.

Pippa fought down panic and tried to control her breathing.  “Let me go!”

“Allow my dear niece to abandon me?”  He sneered, as if that were amusing.  “Foolish girl.”  Without warning, he slapped her.

She gasped at the sting but refused to rub her cheek or check if he’d drawn blood with his rings.  She wouldn’t show weakness.  Not to Simon.  He fed on it.  He wanted it.  Her fear only made him feel more powerful and she would rather die than give him what he wanted.

“That was for running off.”  He raised his hand, laughing like a madman when she flinched in anticipation of the pain.  “And this is for burning my house down.”  His hand curled into a fist.

Instinctively, she lifted her arm to block his blow.  But she did more than merely stop him hitting her.  With an explosion of power that seemed to emanate from her core, her arm connected with his and he flew through the air, landing some distance away on his back.

Dusty, sooty and sprawled in the dirt like a beggar, he stared up at her, fear imprinted in every feature.  He was afraid of her.

Good Lord, the giddiness of it.  The sheer pleasure of knowing that she could make a man like Simon Rowe afraid.  It was intoxicating, heady and thoroughly exhilarating, like riding extremely fast in rough terrain.

But also very, very dangerous.

Thankfully no one had seen but she needed to be more careful in the future.  If she didn’t learn to control these strange new powers, she would find herself at the end of a noose.

Simon pointed a finger at her.  “You…you…!”

“Witch?” she offered after making sure no one was within earshot.  “Now will you let me go?”

He licked cracked lips.  “Go if you dare.  But I will set the Witch Hunter onto you.  He will find you no matter where you go, and when he does, I’ll not stop him from doing his job.”

She backed away from the sheer venom in his voice.  The Witch Hunter’s self-appointed job was to kill witches.  Kill them and obliterate every trace of them as if they never existed.  Legend said he knew how to negate a witch’s powers, making it easier to capture them.  No one knew how he did it and no one knew what he did to the women afterwards, but rumors were rife.  Some said he tortured the accused before killing them, others said he took his perverse sexual desires out on their bodies first.

Pippa swallowed and backed away.  Simon stood and dusted himself off, watching her all the while.  Despite wobbling legs, she turned and ran.

“You’ll never find peace again!” he shouted after her.  “He will hunt you down.  You can’t hide, my girl.  He’ll find you and your kind.  He always does.”

The sound of his mad laugh dogged her heels.  She had to get away, had to run far enough and hide somewhere that not even the Witch Hunter would find her.  But where?  The man was said to be omniscient.  He could find witches anywhere in England.

She tried desperately to think of somewhere and of someone who could help her.  But she knew of only one person—Georgiana Dale—and one place.  With a silent prayer of thanks to Georgiana for her kindly offer in that final letter, Pippa ran through the gatehouse and didn’t look back.

***

2 Days Later

Even dressed in boys’ clothes and perched half way up a tree just outside London’s ancient walls, Pippa didn’t feel safe.  She wouldn’t until she reached Ashbourne House and Georgiana Dale.  She needed some of her mother’s friend’s calm wisdom to help her get far away from Simon.  And the Witch Hunter.  Especially the Witch Hunter.

Now, if only she could climb down, she could complete her journey.  Without stiff skirts and a bodice, climbing the tree had been easy.  Getting down was a different matter entirely.

She tried stretching her foot to reach the lowest branch but it was a few inches beyond her toes.  How had she managed to get up in the first place?  She’d taken no notice of her progress, too intent on climbing high enough to see over the row of buildings lining the northern side of The Strand.  Her tree stood in a large field behind those houses and gardens.  Ashbourne House lay beyond them on the other side of the busy thoroughfare into London proper.

She looked down again and tried to determine the best route for a safe descent.  With a sigh, she realized it was the one she’d already attempted.

Curses.  No fifteen year-old boy would find himself stuck up a tree.  That fact was of more concern than her current predicament because it meant she wasn’t completely immersed in her disguise, even after two days in it.  She could not let her concentration or her disguise slip, even at this late stage.

She blew out a breath.  She could do it.  Or more to the point, Pip could.  She lowered herself again, this time holding onto the trunk for balance and—

Crack!

The branch snapped under her weight.  Pippa grappled at leaves, twigs and then emptiness in vain.  With a cry, she crashed to the ground, landing with a thud that bruised her rump and stole her breath.  But any pain she felt was forgotten when an unearthly screech ripped through the air.  She looked up to see a huge beast rise above her, its hooves threatening to smash her skull.  She screamed, drowning out the creature’s snorts.

The front legs descended.  She rolled out of the way.  Fear made her fast and she scrabbled backwards to the base of the tree.  The creature, one of hell’s beasts for sure, reared again.  She gathered her strength around her, inside her, drawing on the well of heat at her core and feeling it surge down her arms to her fingers.  In the two days since setting fire to The Grange, she’d grown accustomed to the new sensations building whenever her fear or anger rose.  But in that time, she’d also learned to control it.

“Easy, Devil,” a man’s voice boomed over the snorts of the beast.  Except the beast was nothing more than a horse.  A very large horse, but still not the hellhound she’d thought it to be moments ago.  “Easy now,” he said again, his voice more soothing.

Pippa quickly stood and suppressed the magic until it was no more than a tingling warmth in her belly.  The horse whinnied and shied away from her, its nostrils flaring, its big head jerking fiercely.  The rider held the reins in one hand and leaned forward to stroke the horse’s neck and murmur in its ear.

She stared at them and tried to control her galloping heartbeat.  It took a moment of forcing herself to think rationally to realize horse and rider hadn’t suddenly appeared from nowhere like some supernatural spirit.  They must have emerged from around the small hill alongside her tree.  She’d been so intent on getting down, she’d failed to notice their approach.

When the horse grew calm, the rider dismounted and fixed a glare on Pippa that made her wish she possessed the power to vanish as well.

“What kind of foolish prank was that?” he blasted.  “You could have been killed!”  He raised his hand and she put an arm up in defence, but instead of striking her, he merely pulled the hat off his head and wiped his brow.

“It was no prank,” she said, hearing the tremor in her voice and not liking it.  She had no reason to be afraid.  Not here on the edge of London where no one knew her.  She hadn’t been followed—she’d made sure of that.  She was safe.

Unless this horseman decided to thrash her.

He looked quite capable of doing it too, with his large hands and broad frame.  He had the sort of shoulders used to hard work and breaking bones.

Yet she was quite capable of breaking bones too—something she’d discovered when the highwayman tried to rob her only the day before.  Still, it wouldn’t do to draw attention to her…abilities.  Her situation was precarious enough.  It would be wiser simply to stay silent.

“Then what were you doing jumping in front of my horse?”  His deep blue eyes brimmed with anger.  “Well, lad?” he said when she didn’t answer.  When she still didn’t answer, he growled low in his throat.  “God’s teeth, what a bloody foolish thing to do!  You’re lucky Devil didn’t crush you to death.”

Devil—how appropriate.

She stared up at him, a hundred retorts racing through her mind.  She swallowed them all.  Easy, Pippa, she told herself using the same tones the rider had with his horse.  Best to let the man get his anger out of his system then she could be on her way.  From her earlier vantage point in the tree, she guessed Lord Ashbourne’s house to be at least another half hour away.  It had been easy to spot amongst the other grand houses stretching from The Strand down to the riverfront, thanks to Georgiana Dale’s detailed description.

The rider grunted again and turned his attention to the horse stamping at the ground with a hoof.  He rubbed its neck and shoulder until the muscles stopped quivering and the horse quieted.  When the man turned back to her, his face had lost some of its hardness and his eyes were more like deep, still lakes than stormy seas.

“Are you injured?” he asked.

“No.”  Except for the bruises.  And her pride.  She went to tuck her hair behind her ear only to remember it had been cropped short.  She adjusted her cap instead.

The man swept her with a brisk gaze as if satisfying himself of her wellbeing.  No, not her wellbeing, Pip’s.  The rider only saw a boy standing in front of him.  She hoped.

“Well?” he asked, one eyebrow raised.

She frowned.  “Well what?”

“Are you going to tell me why you thought it would be amusing to startle my horse?”  Irritation threaded his words, even though his stance relaxed somewhat.  He held the reins with one hand, the other clutching a piece of paper at his side which she hadn’t noticed before.  Had he been reading it when she dropped out of the tree?  That would explain why he hadn’t seen her fall.

“Amusing?” she said.  “Am I laughing?”

His eyes locked on her mouth which suddenly went dry under his direct gaze.

“I didn’t startle your horse on purpose,” she continued.  “And if you’d been watching where you were going, you’d have known that.”

One corner of his mouth lifted, but not in humor.  She had thought him quite handsome at first, not in a fashionably pretty way, but with unconventional roughness that couldn’t be smoothed away by a mere improvement in his grooming.  Now she thought him quite ugly.  He was much too dark, too sharp of cheek, and too big.  Far too big.  Anyway, he looked to be well over thirty.

“You’re quite forthright, aren’t you?” he said, his voice low and dangerous.  “Considering you don’t know who I am or what I’m capable of.”

She suspected he was capable of a lot of things, snapping her in half being one of them.  However, she didn’t think he would hurt her.  There’d been genuine concern in his expression when he’d asked her if she was hurt.  As to who he was, well, he dressed like any other traveler.  Dirty boots, simple black cloak over black riding doublet and breeches.  A rapier sat like an old friend at his hip, the hilt worn smooth as if he’d had it for years—and used it well.  Not a shiny, gold-hilted weapon like her uncle’s, but a real blade.  How many people had he killed with it?

At least the dark rider didn’t seem like anyone of importance, although he didn’t have the same bearing as an artisan or simple villager either.  He held himself erect, his broad back straight and his gaze shrewd.  He didn’t carry any bags so he was most likely a Londoner out for a ride, and London was no village.  She’d seen it sprawling like a multi-legged beast across both sides of the river from her tree.  She wondered if all Londoners were as arrogant as this one.

Again, he raised an eyebrow.  Definitely arrogant.  “So you just happened to jump out from behind a bush at the same time I passed?”  He rolled his eyes.  “Don’t lie to me, lad.  I’m an expert at detecting them.”

“I am not lying!  And furthermore, I don’t like the accusation that I am.”

There was a heavy pause in which Pippa’s heart stopped beating.  She really should have kept to her earlier decision not to say anything.  But something about being in disguise so far from home made her feel safe.  And adventurous.  A dangerous notion that, and one she needed to suppress.  She might be free but adventuring could end her freedom too soon.

“I see,” was all he said.  He studied her for a long time and she felt the familiar swell of fear overtaking her anger.  Then the man blinked and began to chuckle.  The chuckle turned to a laugh, crinkling his eyes and softening his features.  “Then tell me your version of events.”

She hesitated, not trusting his sudden change of mood.  “I didn’t jump, I fell.”  She pointed to the tree canopy above her.  “From there.”

He looked up then back at her, his gaze lingering like hot summer sunshine on her chest.  Her cheeks reddened and she moved instinctively to cover her breasts but stopped herself when he looked at her face again.

“Are you sure you’re not injured?” he said.  “That’s quite a fall.”

Pippa shrugged then winced at the pain in her shoulders.  “I’m perfectly fine.  Thank you.  I must be going.”  She picked up her satchel, still resting against the tree trunk where she’d left it, and walked off.  Her hip felt a little sore but not enough to make her limp, something to be grateful for.

“Wait!”  The rider joined her, leading his horse which followed meekly.  “It seems I owe you an apology.”

“Yes.”

“Right.”  He coughed.  “I’m sorry.”

She inclined her head in acknowledgement.

“What’s your name, lad?”

She glanced at him sideways.  “Pip.”  It couldn’t hurt to give him the false name she’d been using at inns between Shelton and London, and would continue to use at Ashbourne House.

“Where are you heading?  Perhaps I could give you a ride.  Devil can hold both—”

“No!”  Good Lord, she couldn’t sit behind this stranger!  Her breasts may be small and easily hidden beneath her oversized cloak and the thick leather of her jerkin, but squashing them against his back was a little too risky.  How could he fail not to notice them?  He was a man after all.

He looked taken aback.  “Are you sure?  You’ve just had a fall.  And a fright, if the expression on your face when Devil reared is anything to go by.”

“I’m unharmed.  And I’ve not far to go.”

“You’re going to The Strand?”  He nodded in the direction they were heading.

She said nothing and kept her eyes on the worn dirt path.

“Very well,” he said, tartly.  “I can see you’re not one to forgive easily.”

“No, it’s not—.”  She bit her lip to stop herself talking.  Best to let him think her still annoyed.

He mounted and Devil began to prance as if sensing his master’s urgency to be away.  “You’ll want to arrive at your destination before nightfall, lad,” the rider said with a nod at the sinking sun.  “London’s not safe after dark.”  He urged Devil on and the horse charged off before Pippa could politely thank him for his advice.

She blew out a breath, relieved to see the back of him.  If all Londoners were as unsettling as that man, she was in for a challenging time ahead.

***

Lord Ashbourne’s steward regarded Pippa closely before turning away as if bored.  The quick change in his manner made her uneasy and she held her breath waiting for him to speak, hoping he didn’t see through her disguise.

“Would you care to sit?” he asked.

“No thank you, Sir.”  She preferred to stand near the door to make escape easier if necessary.  A new habit, borne of two days fleeing in disguise.

“I understand you were enquiring after Mistress Dale?” he said, idly brushing his long fingers across the back of a chair.  Checking for dust?

The chair was one of only two bracketing the fireplace in an otherwise bare chamber near the kitchens.  Clean rushes covered the floor but the walls and chairs were unadorned.  Not even a cushion offered comfort.  The steward, Fallon, had directed her to the room after she asked to speak to him.  The servant who’d let her in through the kitchen entrance hadn’t been any help at all.  He’d told her he’d never heard of Georgiana Dale.  Thankfully Fallon didn’t seem so ignorant.

“She was my mother’s friend,” Pippa explained.  “She wrote telling me I would find her here.”

“You won’t,” he said, rubbing his fingertips together to remove the dust.  His attention seemed to be completely on his task.  If he wasn’t speaking to her, Pippa would have thought he didn’t even see her.  “She’s gone,” he went on.  “She left Lord Ashbourne’s service two years ago.”  His gaze met hers, direct and uncompromising.  “As her friend, you would have known that.”

Pippa swallowed around the lump in her throat.  Gone?  And soon after her last letter by the sound of it.  “My mother died some time ago.  Mistress Dale wrote to me saying that if I ever needed her, I was to come here.”

Fallon’s brown eyes grew softer as he took in ever inch of her from her newly cropped hair to her dirty boots.  “I cannot help you.  I’m sorry.”

“Do you know where I can find her?”  Please let it not be far.  The sun was almost set and she needed somewhere to stay for the night.  What little money she’d taken with her had run out after she’d paid for the previous night’s room.  If she left immediately, she could probably make it through the London gates before curfew.

“Haverford,” he said.

“Is that nearby?”

“About half a day’s ride from here.”

“Ride?” she said weakly.

He nodded and glanced past her to the door, looking eager to be gone himself.

Pippa wished she’d taken up the offer of a chair.  Her legs suddenly felt too weak to hold her.  “Haverford,” she said to no one in particular.  “Oh.”

His sad, bloodhound eyes regarded her again with cautious curiosity.  “Mistress Dale was a friend of your mother’s, you say?”

“Yes.”  She rallied under his sympathetic gaze.  She had come this far and would not crumble at the final stage.  All she needed was a bed for the night and then she would somehow complete her journey tomorrow.  “Great friends but I believe it was mostly by correspondence.  I’ve never met her.”  It was the truth.  She had found during the years lived under her uncle’s roof that it was best to keep to the truth where possible.  It made it easier to keep track of the lies.

He nodded thoughtfully.  “It’ll be dark soon.  Do you have somewhere to stay, lad?”

“No.  I was hoping Mistress Dale would accommodate me here with the servants until she found me employment.”  Another lie, quickly formed and not very well thought through.  She held her breath and watched the long, straight face of the imperial steward as he considered her words.

“Employment?” he said.  “As what?  A pageboy perhaps?”

“Yes.”  What did it matter now?  Georgiana was gone and Pippa would say anything to get a room for the night.

“Good.  Then you can start immediately.”

“Pardon?”  She blinked at him.

Fallon inclined his head.  “Last week the page of the wardrobe received news of his father’s illness and had to leave unexpectedly.  You can take his position until he returns.  I’m sure Geor…Mistress Dale would approve.”

Pippa’s fingers tightened around the strap of her satchel.  “Page of the w, wardrobe?”

An almighty clatter from the kitchen made her jump.  Fallon looked irritably past her.  “It is a great honor,” he said, distracted.

“B, but I simply want to find Mistress Dale.  She will help me—”

“To find employment, yes?  Well, you don’t need to travel all the way to Haverford only to have her send you back here to be page of the wardrobe.”  He looked at her as if she was a dullard.

She snapped her mouth shut when she realized it was open.  “Are you sure I am the most suitable person?”

The noise from the kitchens returned to the dull hum of earlier and his attention returned to Pippa.  “And why wouldn’t you be?”

Because she didn’t want employment, she only wanted a night’s shelter.  And because she would have to see Lord Ashbourne naked!  She would be required to help him dress and attend to his most personal needs.  No, she couldn’t possibly take the disguise that far.

“You require employment,” he went on, not hiding his impatience, “Lord Asbhourne requires a page of the wardrobe.”

“I’ve never been a page of the wardrobe before.”  Never served anyone in her life although she had been around servants since she was born and knew the duties each performed in a major household.

“You seem a well-bred boy, if a little travel-stained, and his lordship would dismiss me on the spot if I turned away a friend of Mistress Dale’s.”  His eyes twinkled unexpectedly.  The effect was rather delightful.

She longed to ask why his lordship would dismiss Fallon but refrained.  She would ask Georgiana herself when she saw her.  That’s if she got through the night safely at Ashbourne House.  But not as the page of the wardrobe.  Certainly not.

“Is there some other service I could undertake, Sir?  In the kitchens perhaps?  It’s just that I don’t think I am suited to be page of the wardrobe.”

“Nonsense!  There’s nothing to it.  You simply do as his lordship requests.  Besides, you’re much too skinny to be of use anywhere else.  Don’t worry, Gertie will help you settle in.  His lordship isn’t expected to return until the morning anyway so you’ll have all evening to familiarize yourself with your tasks.”

Not expected until the morning?  Perfect.  She’d be gone by the time he returned.  “Then I accept.  Thank you, Sir.”

“Good!  I’ll send Gertie to show you to the master’s apartments.”  The steward moved past her, his stride brisk and purposeful.

“Just one question,” she said and he stopped in the doorway.  “Where will I sleep?”  As a male servant, she would normally share a bed with one of the other male servants.  It may be for only one night but that was long enough for her secret to be uncovered in the close proximity of a bed.  However, her uncle’s page had slept in a separate room within hearing of his master’s shout.  Hopefully the setup at Ashbourne House would be the same.

“You’ll have a room adjoining the master’s chamber,” Fallon said.  He gave her a brief nod of dismissal and left.

Pippa didn’t let out her breath until the quick steps of the steward had disappeared.  She drew in another and the delicious scent of cinnamon from the kitchen made her stomach rumble.  She hadn’t eaten since breaking her fast that morning.

She sat on one of the high-back chairs, clutched her satchel on her lap, and waited.

A few minutes later, a plump girl of about seventeen arrived and introduced herself as Gertie, one of the maids.  She eyed Pippa from head to foot, lingering on the groin area.  Pippa quickly stood and placed the satchel over herself before the maid found her lacking.

“You the Pip boy?” Gertie asked.

“Yes.  I’m the new page—”

“Of the wardrobe.  I know,” the maid said cheerfully.  “Come on, let’s go.”  Gertie smiled and her entire face smiled too, from her brown eyes to her protruding front teeth.

“You new to London?” she asked, leading the way through the kitchen, two larders and a scullery.

“Is it that obvious?”  Pippa wondered what had marked her as different.  Her clothes?  Her manner?

“You don’t speak like one of us,” Gertie said.  “Where you from?”

“The west,” Pippa said vaguely.  “Tell me, what is Lord Ashbourne like?”  She needed to keep the maid talking to stop her asking too many questions.

“He’s a good master,” Gertie said as she led the way up the back stairs.  “Never raised a hand to any of us, even though Ralphy deserved it when he pinched the countess’s necklace.  She’d have had Ralphy flogged but his lordship would hear nothin’ of it.  Dismissed the little dog turd with full wages, so I heard.”

Pippa followed Gertie up the next flight of stairs to the second floor.  “I’ll get lost in this place.”

“You get used to it.  Just remember these stairs lead straight to the master’s lodgings and you can’t go wrong.  Only the servants use them.”  She paused and waited for Pippa to join her.  “And sometimes the master, so mind he doesn’t knock you over if he passes you in a hurry.  These stairs aren’t wide and you bein’ so slight and him bein’ so big…well, you’ll come off worse.”  She laughed and continued up.

“Why would his lordship come this way?”  The backstairs were built to provide access for the servants between the master’s lodgings and the kitchen, larders and cellars.  Why would the earl want to traverse through such an undignified passage?

Gertie shrugged rounded shoulders.  “Who knows why he does anythin’?  He’s…what’s the word?  Unperdickable.  Yep, that’s it.”

“Unpredictable,” Pippa corrected.

“That’s what I said.  Unperdickable.  He comes and goes when he pleases, no matter the hour, and…” she lowered her voice, “his visitors sometimes come and go at strange hours too.  Even in the middle of the night when they think we’re all asleep.”

Pippa’s eyes widened.  “What sort of visitors?”

“All sorts.  Men, women—”

“Women!”  She bit her lip when Gertie shushed her with a finger to her lips.  “Oh, of course.  Women,” Pippa said simply.  Why wouldn’t the unwed earl have dalliances?  It was only natural.  Wasn’t it?  She really had no idea.

“His lordship’s not in,” Gertie said, opening a door at the top of the stairs.  “This is the master’s wardrobe.”  She swept her hand wide to encompass the daybed, large cupboard and coffers beside it and the fireplace surrounded by three stools.  Although the room had none of the embellishments Pippa was used to in her own wardrobe—not a single embroidered cushion, Turkey carpet or wall hanging—it didn’t feel cold or uninviting.  The embers in the grate still glowed, effusing the room with warmth, and the last pale rays of daylight reached into even the furthest corner thanks to the large windows.  She ran her hand along the top of one of the coffers, enjoying the feel of the cedar, worn smooth from years of use and polishing.  The scent of cloves and something spicier lingered in the air.

“Is this where I am to sleep?” Pippa asked, wondering if she would be required to lie on a pallet on the floor.  She was so tired she wouldn’t mind curling up near the enormous fire as long as the straw mattress was clean.

“No, your room is through there.”  Gertie pointed to a door beside the stairwell entrance.

Pippa peeked inside.  The room was tiny.  A small trestle bed was pushed up against one wall and an oak chest squatted opposite.  A single stool was situated to take in the view of the knot garden from the window.

“Peter’s things are still here,” Gertie said, opening the chest.  She pulled out a garment in the Ashbourne colors of silver and green and held it up against Pippa.  “He was about your height so his livery should fit.  Everything’ll be a bit big in the shoulders and legs but they’ll do.”  She pulled it away but continued to scrutinize Pippa.  “Get some of Cook’s food into you and you’ll soon be filling these out.  His beef broth’ll put hairs on your chest, mark my words.”

“How…appetizing.”  Hairy chests notwithstanding, she’d been tall and slender ever since she’d reached womanhood and she didn’t think she’d thicken out no matter what Cook concocted.

“Now,” said Gertie, whisking Pippa out of her new room and back through the vast wardrobe, “through that door is the master’s bedchamber.”

Pippa nodded, growing curious about the earl even though she would never meet him.  It must be the close proximity to all his things that made her wonder about their owner.  “Can I ask you something?” she said.

“Of course.”  Gertie paused at the door to the master’s chamber and crossed her arms in a way that pushed her large breasts up and out.  Then she winked.  “You can ask me anythin’, Pip.”

Pippa cleared her throat.  Somehow she felt more in danger with this girl than she had in two days.  “Is he feeble-minded?  Or ugly?  Or is he both perhaps?”

“Who?”

“The earl.”

Gertie threw her head back and laughed, a high, nasally sound that ended with a snort.  “He’s very clever and one of the handsomest devils in London if you ask me.  Why?”

Pippa shrugged.  “Curiosity.  He’s not married and he’s past the age that most men of noble birth are wed for the first time.  Well past it, I believe.”

“That is his lordship’s business, not yours or mine, Pip,” Gertie said with a wag of her finger.  “Best not to wonder how your betters conduct their affairs.  They’re a mystery to me, especially this one.”  She stuck her thumb at the door leading to the backstairs.

At precisely that moment, it opened.  Gertie gasped then quickly bobbed her head as she tucked her offending thumb into the folds of her apron.  “My lord!  You’re not expected!  I mean, I didn’t know you were here.”

Pippa froze as a man entered.  Not just any man.  Him.  The rider.  The one she’d angered in the field.  And of all the cruel twists of Fate, it seemed he was the Earl of Ashbourne.

“My business finished earlier than expected,” he said.

Pippa choked back her anguish.  Dear God, I promise to attend church twice every Sunday if you strike me dead now!

Perhaps he wouldn’t remember her.  He was an earl after all, and she nothing but an ungainly youth.  But when he looked at her, recognition flared.

“You again!”  He made a sound—half grunt, half laugh, all humorless.  “It seems our paths have crossed once more.”

“So it would seem, my lord,” she said, bowing low to hide her face which ran hot and cold.

“Are you going to fall in front of me again, lad?” he said.  “Because you look quite ill.”

“This here is Pip,” Gertie said, nudging Pippa forward.  “He’s the new page of the wardrobe.”

The earl cocked an eyebrow.  “Really?  Well, lad, I’m sorry.”

“My lord?” Pippa dared to ask.

He smiled.  “You’ll see.”

Pippa felt sick.  Her stomach rolled, her skin felt cold and damp and she had to grip the back of a chair to steady herself.  With any luck she was dying and her misery would soon be over.

But her luck had run out because Lord Ashbourne’s smile broadened, leaving her with no doubt he was aware of her discomfort and enjoying it.

She had the distinct feeling her day was about to get a whole lot worse.

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