Snow fell in thick white flakes while the carriage sloshed through the barely passable roads. The sky, blanketed in a gray mass of clouds, grew darker as the sun descended. Melora Merriweather held tight to her seat as she swayed with the movement of the carriage. At any moment she expected the driver to pull into an inn and declare his refusal to continue. She wouldn't blame him. It was madness to drive on in weather such as this.
Her gloved fingers tightened around the letter she had clutched throughout the wearisome ride. She had re-read it several times, memorizing each line in an effort to decipher the mysterious content. The dreams she'd suffered since finding this letter had not given her a single night's reprieve, and a mixture of relief and trepidation overcame her when she imagined at the end of this journey the answers to her many questions might finally be revealed.
Melora yearned for an end to this journey. She glanced out the window, but saw only snow-covered trees.
Without warning, the carriage pitched forward.
Despite her grip, she flew from her seat. In the next moment, she slid toward the door as the carriage tipped to its side. A resounding crack thundered, and she feared her skull might have shattered. But, no, the door collapsed on impact, and while the carriage continued to slide forward, the snow piled in through the opening, filling the space, burying her in an icy mixture of snow and slush.
At last, it came to a stop.
Melora heard the frightened whinny of the horses and the shouts of the driver. She struggled to sit up and brush the snow away. Shivering, she tucked her precious letter into a pocket in her cloak.
She tried to stand, but with her sudden movement the carriage began to slide. She fell back.
"Oy!" the driver shouted, but she couldn't make out the rest of his muffled words.
She remained still in hopes that by doing so the carriage wouldn't move any farther and the driver would come to her rescue. What were they to do after that? How far were they from her destination?
Better to think on that once she escaped the confines of her icy prison.
The muffled sound of movement and voices could be heard nearby. It irritated her that her driver talked to the horses but not to her. What was happening out there?
"Hello?" she called. He couldn't have forgotten her. Could he?
Melora tried to remain patient, knowing the hired driver's responsibilities were to the horses, but it frightened her to be kept alone in the cold darkness. She did not like the dark. Could he not yell a word of reassurance to her? At the very least, check on her condition? She might have broken her neck in the crash, for all he knew.
Suddenly, a sound from outside drew her attention upward to the only available exit. The door swung open, and more snow fell on her face. She sputtered, wiping it from her eyes.
"Are you injured?" A deep and cultured voice inquired. These were not the cockney tones of her driver. Melora looked up in alarm to see the outline of a man peering in at her.
Where had he come from?
She failed to see his features, due to the limited light, but his voice reverberated through her. Melora shivered at the sound.
"I'm fine," she said, her voice cracking. She cringed and coughed. "I'm fine," she repeated. "Just cold and wet."
"Are you certain? I smell…" He paused, and Melora wondered at his hesitation. He appeared to battle with himself over something, perhaps his choice of words.
What did he smell?
And what was a gentleman doing on a country road during the middle of a snowstorm? Although, perhaps he wondered the same of her.
Melora fidgeted, aware that his voice alone caused heat to rise beneath her collar.
"Easy now," the man said. "No sudden movements. The carriage is situated precariously on the edge of a small hill."
"We'll proceed slowly, and you shall be fine. Here, can you reach my hand?"
He lowered his hand to her. She could reach it. If she could stop the paralyzing fear coursing through her veins.
"You'll do fine," the man said, surely hearing the fright in her voice. "Reach up and give me your hand."
Melora lifted her arm, reaching her fingers toward the stranger. He grasped her hand, his large gloved fingers encasing her slender ones. She felt the strength in him as he lifted her effortlessly into the air and pulled her to the top of the carriage. Or what was now the top since it had turned on its side. She scrambled to find purchase on the slippery edge. With his help, she steadied herself, and then she dared to take a peek over her shoulder.
Her eyes widened when she looked down…and down farther still.
"Oh, good Heavens," she murmured. She tightened her hand on his, clinging to his fingers with a frightened desperation. "A small hill?"
"Have no fear."
"Get me down!"
She could not tear her gaze from the drop. A small hill, he had said. Bah! More like a steep cliff with snow-covered rocks scattered along the bottom.
Certain death to any who fell.
The man moved, slowly sliding off the carriage. He kept hold of her hand. He hadn't much choice in the matter, since she refused to release him. Her terrified clutch fastened them together.
"Come to me," he said and gently pulled.
She gasped and stiffened as the carriage rocked.
She dared not move.
"Look at me."
Her gaze remained locked on the scene below.
"What is your name miss?"
"Look at me, Melora."
Again, he tugged on her arm. The carriage remained motionless, and she took a deep breath and turned her head.
"I won't allow you to fall," he said.
In the fading light and with the snow swirling around them, she got her first glimpse of her rescuer. Suddenly, the carriage and cliff pushed to the back of her thoughts as she lost herself into eyes as blue as ice. His gaze was so piercing, it felt as if he looked straight into her soul. His pale skin was smooth, and his cheekbones were chiseled to perfection. She glimpsed raven-dark hair beneath the accumulating snowflakes.
Melora found him incredibly handsome.
He lifted his arms and, with her hands grasping his shoulders, he pulled her down from the carriage. Her booted feet landed with a crunch on the newly fallen snow.
The feeling of solid ground beneath her should have eased her anxiety, but she continued to cling to him, feeling as though she still stood on a precipice. He did not release her. His hands gripped her waist. He took a deep breath as he leaned toward her.
She didn't pull away. Instead, they stood for a moment holding each other. She couldn't look away from his eyes. His gaze, however penetrating, never connected directly with hers. Instead, he seemed to avoid it.
Melora had seen this man before. Every night since she found that letter in her uncle's library. She had dreamed of this man. Was it a coincidence?
He removed one glove and slipped his hand into her hair. She jumped at the sudden movement, but when he pulled back, his fingers were stained red.
He stiffened and a look of pain flashed across his face. He took a step back, taking another deep breath as he did so. She watched him, her arms sliding from his shoulders to his chest and then to emptiness. Her fingers curled into fists as she fought the urge to reach for him. She blinked as the snowflakes flurried over her eyes, not because she tried to stop the sudden rush of tears at the absence she now felt.
"The horses," he said, turning away from her to face the driver. "Are they injured?"
She turned to see another carriage on the road. Her driver was speaking to the driver of that carriage as he handled his horses. At the sound of the gentleman's query, they turned their attention to him.
"No, sir," her driver said. "Nothin' noticeable, at the least, though they're mighty skittish now."
"I'd imagine so," the gentleman said. "There's an inn not far from here where I believe you might find shelter."
"Indeed, sir." He nodded in her direction. "What of the lady, sir?"
Yes, what of the lady? Was she to be stranded on the snow-covered road?
The gentleman tilted his head toward her but didn't face her. "She needs immediate medical attention. I'll escort her to the inn. Thomas, unhitch Goliath. It'll be faster if I take her to the inn myself."
Melora stepped forward. The inn was not her destination. And though her head pounded like the devil, she did not believe a mere scratch on her forehead was cause enough to abandon her quest.
"Are we far from Caldwell House?"
The gentleman spun around at her question, his gaze flashing to her face.
"No, miss," her driver said. "'Tis just past the inn. Not far, at all."
Melora looked at her rescuer. "Would it be an inconvenience to you, if you dropped me there?"
"Caldwell House?" the gentleman said, astonishment lacing his words. "Whyever are you going there?"
His abrupt questioning stung her, and she stiffened her back and raised her chin. "Sir, the reason for my destination is no concern of yours. I simply wish to know if it's possible for you to take me."
After she spoke those last words, she felt heat rise to her cheeks. She tried not to imagine him taking her…into his arms again. She opened her mouth to correct her blunder, then paused, snapping her mouth shut and hoping he hadn't noticed any other meaning behind those words except the one she intended.
He moved closer to her. She feared he was about to refuse when instead he nodded.
"Yes," he said. "I'll take you."
The heat in her cheeks flared at the double meaning in his words. Surely, he didn't mean…
"Come, it will be dark soon. We must leave straightaway."
She hadn't understood until that moment how much she had feared his refusal. She desperately needed to get to Caldwell House. Relief flooded her, making her knees wobble, and she stumbled.
He was there, his hand on her elbow, assisting her. He leaned close to her, inhaling deeply.
"You're hurt worse than I thought."
She couldn't respond. She couldn’t tear her gaze from his handsome, scowling face.
He turned his head but kept his hand on her elbow, still supporting her.
"Thomas! Hurry with that horse!"
Even with the treacherous snow hindering them, it was not long before Melora and her rescuer came upon Caldwell House. The ride had been swift. Much faster than the struggling carriage. As he pulled the horse to the entrance of the house, she looked up to catch her first glimpse of the massive stone and brick structure. In the dim light, the house appeared to lean forward to stare back, wary and suspicious of her purpose.
She tried to suppress a shiver of dread.
He felt her tremble and mistook it for another reason. He grabbed the arm she had wrapped around his waist and squeezed in reassurance as he helped her slide off the back of the horse.
"You'll be warm and dry in a few moments, never fear. Go inside and summon Harrison. Explain what happened. He'll know what to do. I'll join you shortly."
"But, should I not…" Melora began to protest, but he clicked his heels to the horse's flanks and disappeared in the swirling snow, headed toward the stable.
She frowned. She couldn't very well admit herself without Mr. Collins' consent. So she did what any proper Englishwoman would do and knocked at the door.
When the butler answered, his eyes widened at the sight of her. Melora considered her bedraggled appearance. Her cloak was crumpled and wet. The hat she wore pinned on her head sat askew on a mass of uncombed golden tendrils.
She swiped the stray strands of her hair from her face so he might glimpse the desperation in her blue eyes, lest he turn her away.
"I'm here to see Mr. and Mrs. Collins."
The butler frowned. "I'm sorry, miss. Mr. Collins is not at home."
Her shoulders sagged at the news. She so wanted to escape these wet clothes and warm herself in a nice bath. She glanced over her shoulder, looking to the stables. She turned back with new determination.
"Are you Mr. Harrison?"
"I was told to ask for you. My carriage overturned about a mile or two down the road. I had hoped the Collinses would offer me refuge from the storm."
Harrison opened the door further. "Come in, miss."
Melora breathed a sigh of relief as she followed him.
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