THE EARL’S MISTLETOE BRIDE
It was cold. So very cold.
Sharp icy fingers were probing into the hidden crevices of her clothing and scratching at every inch of exposed skin. The sleet-laden wind was whipping across her cheeks like scouring sand, rubbing them raw. Every breath was a torment to her aching lungs.
But she had no choice. She must go on. Away from all those pointing fingers. To somewhere safe, somewhere she could breathe again.
She had no idea where she was or where this lonely rutted path might lead. She raised her chin to peer ahead, brushing aside the wet strings of her hair and screwing up her eyes against the sleet in an attempt to see her way. Overhanging trees, mostly naked against the onset of winter; an under-layer of shrubs, some evergreen, but most of them bare and soggy black in the storm; a sodden path strewn with drifts of dead leaves that would soon be swallowed up by the deep, oozing mud. And beyond the trees, the path led into darkness.
She shivered, drew her thin shawl tighter around her shoulders and bent her head against the keening wind. If she stopped now, here, alone, the weather would win their unequal battle. She was not ready to yield. Not yet.
She plodded on, forcing herself to lift her weary feet, one step, then another, trying to ignore the freezing water in her boots and the squelching of the mud as it tried to hold her fast and suck her down. She was so very tired. If only—
For a second, the wind changed and whipped at her skirts from behind. She saw— No, she fancied she saw a simple fence, of posts and rails, of the kind that might border a country road, but it was gone in the blink of an eye. No matter how much she strained, she could not find it again. She had probably seen only what she longed to see: some sign of human habitation, of human warmth, of hope.
There was no hope.
The last light of the short December day was almost gone. Soon she would be alone, in the dark, in this strange wooded place, on a path that led to nowhere. Why on earth had she followed it?
At the time, it had seemed the most sensible course. What else could a woman do, abandoned at a lonely crossroads by the coach driver who had taken her up?
She had travelled many miles with him, naively believing that he was helping her out of the goodness of his heart. In truth, he was merely waiting to bring her to a suitably lonely place, where he could present his ultimatum: her money, or her person. Once he discovered that she had neither money in her pocket nor any willingness to pay him in kind, his bluff good nature had vanished. He had brought her even further from any chance of rescue, and pushed her out on to the deserted road, without even allowing her to take down her battered travelling bag. He would sell the contents, he said, to make up for the fare she owed him. He had whipped up his horses then, disappearing without so much as a glance at the woman he was leaving to the mercy of the storm.
She struggled to put the evil man from her mind. She must find the strength to go on. She must not give in to exhaustion. She must go on.
Beyond a huge oak tree, she found herself in an odd sort of dark clearing. It was edged with dense evergreen shrubs surrounding a broad area of churned mud and tussocks of grass. For a second, the wind dropped. In the sudden lull, she tried to tuck her hair back under her dripping bonnet. But the strings parted under the strain just as the wind returned, howling around her. Her bonnet was torn off and disappeared into the darkness, leaving her unbound hair whipping her face like slapping fingers.
She was too tired to wonder for more than a second why she should be suffering so. She knew only that she needed to find shelter soon, or the storm would surely best her.
There was that plain fence again! Or was it?
She took a few steps away from the path, trying to avoid the mud. The grass felt spongy beneath her feet, and treacherous, as though it might give way at any moment and plunge her down into some sucking void.
But those shrubs over there were thick and still densely green. Beneath them, she thought she could make out a kind of haven where they overhung a patch of more sheltered ground, full of dead leaves blown into heaps. It even looked fairly dry. She could take refuge there, just for a while, until the worst of the storm was over and she had regained a little of her strength.
She moved more quickly now. Being out of the wet was a prize worth the effort. She focused all her remaining strength on gaining it. But, in her haste, she forgot to watch where she was putting her feet. Her ankle turned. The laces of her boot snapped with a loud crack. Before she realised what was happening, the boot was gone, sucked away, and her stockinged foot had taken one more unwary step, sinking deep into the mud.
She cried out in shock and fear. Slimy hands seemed to be trying to drag her down. She tried to tell herself that it was nonsense, wild imaginings, but her senses were bewildered. She could not make them obey her.
She tugged hard, desperate to release her foot, but she did not have the strength. Her flailing arms found one of the branches of the evergreen. Something to give her purchase. She hung on to it with both hands and pulled again. No use. Still she could not—
Suddenly, she was free! She stumbled forward a single step, then pitched head first into the base of the shrub and the pile of leaves. Her head and her right arm crunched against unyielding wood. Her nose and mouth filled with debris and dirt. She tasted decay and mould. She was clawing at her face, desperate to breathe. It took her several moments to regain enough control to force the terrors from her mind. Eventually, she spat out the last of the leaf fragments and forced herself up. Pain lanced through her injured arm. Was it broken? She could not tell.
The wind was howling even louder. The evergreens around the clearing bent before it with an angry but defeated hiss. Yet the branches above her did not swish away. They seemed to bend over her, caressingly, like a loving mother soothing her child to sleep. Soothing, soothing.
She let her body relax again into the leaf litter, pillowing her pounding head on her good arm, resting her cheek against her wet, ungloved palm. It would do no harm to close her eyes, just for a space, just until the storm abated. Then she would go on. She had to go on.
Closing her eyes changed everything. Soon she could no longer feel the pain or the cold seeping into her bones. The storm seemed less hostile. She could barely hear the wind or the beat of the rain on the leaves. Was she floating? She was beginning to feel as if she were weightless, drifting slowly up into the heavens. And the sky around her had turned a bright, fierce blue.
Warm fingers touched her clammy cheek, drawing her back to earth, to harsh, forbidding reality. She did not want to return.
The fingers pressed into her flesh, insisting, demanding. She tried to open her eyes in response, but her heavy lids refused to move.
‘Where am I?’ Though the words formed in her throat, no sound came out. She was so weak. So tired. Sleep. She longed to sleep again. To float away.
‘Wake up, woman! You cannot stay here. Come. Open your eyes.’ A man’s voice. Strong, deep, educated. Forceful. Pulling her back.
Then a hand gripped her shoulder and shook it. Pain seized her, huge waves of pain in her shoulder and in her head. Pain that shattered her floating dream. She screamed.
‘Dear God! You are hurt. Let me help you.’
She opened her eyes at last. Darkness. A single light, from a lamp, low down. She was lying on the ground. Was she badly injured? How had she come here? How had—?
More agony as the man slid his arms under her body and lifted her. She groaned aloud, partly from pain, partly from loss. She did not want to leave her floating refuge.
He laid her on the open ground in the freezing rain. Instantly, the cold was attacking her again, intensifying the pain. He lifted the lamp to her face and stared at her. She lay still, transfixed by his gaze.
The lamp was moved away. ‘Trust me, ma’am. I will see you safe.’ A moment later, he was stripping off his heavy coat and wrapping it round her helpless body. The smell of warm wet wool engulfed her. And the smell of man.
‘Forgive me,’ he said abruptly. ‘I need a free hand for the lamp.’ Without another word, he picked her up and slung her over his shoulder. Pain scythed through her. And then the blessed darkness returned to claim her.
She seemed to be dreaming his voice. Words, questions. Sometimes soothing, sometimes sharp. But never strong enough to pull her back from the cocoon of warmth that now surrounded her and held her safe. She felt she was floating away all over again, this time for ever.
And then her cocoon was gone!
She was alone with her suffering. She forced her eyes open. She was propped up in a curricle. By the dim light of its lamps, she saw that the horses were hitched to a fence. Was there a house beyond?
‘You are come back to us, ma’am.’ His tall figure reappeared from the darkness. He had not deserted her. Perhaps she could trust him, after all. ‘Come, let me carry you in.’
This time, he was more mindful of her hurts, lifting her carefully into his arms and cradling her close to his body. She let herself relax into his reassuring strength. The scent of man and horse and leather surrounded her. For a moment, he stood still, gazing down at her with concern in his dark eyes. Then his jaw clenched and he started towards the house.
She saw a winding path through dark, dripping shrubs. Then an open doorway filled with light and warmth and welcome. And a small round man in clerical garb, hovering anxiously.
As her rescuer hurried towards the doorstep, a little old lady in a lace cap appeared from the depths of the hallway, followed by an even smaller maidservant. ‘Why, Master Jonathan! You are welcome, as always. But who is this you have brought us?’
‘Mrs Aubrey! Thank goodness!’ He shouldered his way past the old man and into the hall. ‘I have never seen her before, but I believe she is a lady. I rescued her from the woods by the old oak. She is hurt. And almost frozen to death.’
The old man gasped. ‘Dear God. Poor child. And at Christmas, too.’
His wife stepped forward in order to smooth back the wet hair and peer into the new arrival’s face. ‘What is your name, my dear?’
That came like a blow, worse than all the pain that had gone before. It was a terrible, terrifying realisation. ‘I…I do not know.’
The story will also be published in the UK in November, but in a double volume called Regency Mistletoe and Marriages along with a story by Annie Burrows. The cover is a fraction too pink for my taste. I have to admit to preferring the mistletoe green North American cover but you may prefer pink. Whichever you prefer, I do hope you enjoy my Christmas story.
Thanks also to all those who came up with suggestions about the phantom on the cover of my ebook Delight and Desire. The one I liked best came from fellow author Nicola Cornick. Since she already has a copy of my September story, Bride of the Solway, she will receive a free copy of The Earl's Mistletoe Bride as her prize.