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One Unashamed Night

By:Sophia James

Chapter One

Maldon, England—January 1826

T he darkness was pulling him down even as he fought to escape it, his eyes widening to catch a tiny tendril of light, the flare of it making him shout out, wanting it, the last colour before complete blackness enveloped him…

‘Sir, sir. Wake up. It’s a dream you are having.’

The voice came from somewhere close and Lord Taris Wellingham slipped from sleep and returned to the warmth of the carriage travelling south to London with a jolt. A face blurred before him, but in the dusk he could not tell whether the woman was young or old. Her voice was soft, almost musical, the lisp on the letter V denoting perhaps a genteel upbringing in the north?

With care he turned away, fingers stiff against the silver ball on top of his ebony cane and all his defences raised.

‘I would ask for your forgiveness for my lapse in manners, madam.’

The small laugh surprised him. ‘Oh. You do indeed have it, sir.’

This time there was decided humour in her tone, and something more hidden. He wished he was able to see the hue of her eyes or the shade of her hair, but any form of colour had long since gone, leached now even in full sunlight and replaced by the grey sludge of silhouette.

A netherworld. His world. And the ability to hide his disability was all the dignity left to him.

Taking a breath he held it, seeking in silence a path to follow. He pretended to read the watch on the chain at his waist, hating such deceit, but in company it was what he had been reduced to—a man on the edge of his world and in danger of falling off.

‘Another hour and a half to reach our destination, I should imagine.’ The woman’s guess was like a gift for it gave him a timeframe, something to hang any suggestion of their whereabouts upon.

‘Unless the weather worsens.’ Outside he could hear a keening wind and the temperature had dropped sharply, even in the space of the moments he had been asleep. Tilting his head, he listened to the sound of the wheels beneath them and determined the snow to have deepened too.

Unexpectedly tension filled his body. Something was wrong. The whirr of the wheel on the right side was off, unbalanced, scraping against steel.

He shook away the concern and cursed his oversensitive hearing, deeming it far better to concentrate on other things. There were four other people in the carriage, he had counted them as they got in, this woman the only one on his side. One of the gentlemen was asleep, his snores soft through the night, and the other was speaking to an older woman about household tasks and the hiring of servants. His mother, perhaps, for there was a tone in his voice suggesting affection.

The wheel was worsening, the sound underlined by a tremor in the chassis. He felt it easily in the vibration where his palm lay open against the window. No longer able to ignore danger, Taris lifted his cane and banged hard on the roof.

But it was too late! The vehicle lurched to the right as the axle snapped, the scream of the driver eerie in the darkness, the splintering of wood, the quick crunch of the door on his side against earth, the rolling shock of impact as people tumbled over and over. When his head was thrown against metal, a sharp pain followed.

And then silence.

Bodies were everywhere, the groans of the older woman taking precedence, the sobs of her son muted and fearful. The other two occupants made no noise at all and Taris’s hands reached over.

The woman beside him still breathed—he could feel the warmth of air against his fingers—whilst the previously snoring gentleman had neither pulse nor breath, his neck arched at a strange angle.

Inky blackness now covered everything, the lamps gone and the moon tonight a slice of nothing.

His world! Easier than daylight. Throwing down his cane, he stood.

Beatrice-Maude Bassingstoke could barely believe what had happened. Her head ached and her top lip was cut inside.

An accident. A terrible accident. The realisation made her shake and she clamped her mouth shut to try to hide the noise as her teeth chattered together.

In the slight beam of light the dark-haired stranger gently lifted the lifeless body of a man whom she could see was well and truly dead and laid him on the floor. The older woman opposite broke into peals of panicked terror as she too registered this fact and her younger companion tried fruitlessly to console her.

‘Enough, madam.’ The tall man’s voice brooked no argument and the woman fell silent, a greater problem now taking her attention.

‘It…it is f…freezing.’

‘At least we are still alive, Mama, and I am certain that this gentleman can repair things.’ Her grown son looked up, supplication written on his face. He made no effort at all to rise himself, but stayed with his arm around his mother’s shoulders in a vain attempt to keep her warm, for the whole side of the carriage lay buckled and twisted, the door that had been there before completely missing.

‘If you will give me a moment, I will try to cover the opening.’ The tall man’s cape was caught by the wind as he stepped out, the crumpled chassis of the coach making his exit more difficult than it would otherwise have been. Framed by snow, she saw his hair escape the confines of his queue and fall nightblack against the darkness of his clothes and she could barely wrench her eyes from his profile.

He was the most beautiful man she had ever seen! The thought hit her with all the force of surprise and she squashed down such ridiculousness.

Frankwell Bassingstoke had been a handsome man too, and look where that had got her. Swallowing, she turned back towards the woman and, rummaging in her reticule, pulled out a handkerchief and handed it over.

‘Where did the man go to? Why is he not back?’ The older woman’s voice held panic as she took the cloth and blew her nose soundly, the hysteria of fright heightened by a realisation that their lives depended on the one who had just left them to find the missing portal. Already the temperature had dropped further; the air was harder to breath. Lord, Bea thought, what must it be like outside in the snow and the wind and the icy tracks of road with only a slither of light?

Perhaps he had perished or was in need of a voice to call him back to the coach, lost as he was in the whiteness? Perhaps they sat here as he took his last breath in a noble but futile effort to save them?

Angry both at her imagination and immobility, she wrapped her cloak around her head so that only her eyes were visible and edged herself out into the weather, meaning to help.

He stood ten yards away, easing the driver from the base of a hedge, carefully holding his neck so that it was neither jarred nor bent. He wore no gloves and the cloak he had left the carriage with was now wrapped about the injured man, a small blanket of warmth against the bitter cold. Without thick wool upon him his own shirt was transparent, a useless barrier against such icy rain.

‘Can I help you?’ she shouted, her voice taken by the wind and his eyes caught hers as he turned, squinting against the hail.

‘Go back. You will freeze out here.’ She saw the strength in him as he hoisted the driver in his arms and came towards her. Scrambling for shelter, she turned to assist him once she was back in the relative warmth of the coach.

‘There is no room in here,’ the old lady grumbled as she refused to shift over even a little and Beatrice swept the reticule from her own seat and crouched, her breath forming white clouds in the darkness as she replied.

‘Put him here, sir. He can lie here.’

The tall man placed the other gently on the seat, though he made no effort to come in himself.

‘Look after him,’ he shouted and again was gone, the two other occupants silent in his wake.

One man dead, one man injured, one older woman hysterical and one younger man useless. Bea’s catalogue of their situation failed to include either her injuries or that of the tall stranger, but when he had stood by the door she had noticed blood near his eye, trickling across his face and the front of his white, white shirt in a steady stream of red.

He used his hands a lot, she thought, something that was unusual in a man. He had used them to slide down the cheek of the dead gentleman opposite and across the arms and legs of the driver who lay beside her, checking the angle of bones and the absence of breath and the warmth or coldness of skin.

When she had felt his fingers on the pulse at her neck as she had awakened after the accident, warmth had instantly bloomed. She wished he might have ventured lower, the tight want in her so foreign it had made her dizzy…

Shock consumed such daydreams. She was a twenty-eight-year-old widow who had no possible need or want for any man again. Ever. Twelve years of hell had cured her of that.

The movements of the older lady and her son brought her back to the present as they tried to unwrap the driver from the cocoon of the borrowed cape and take it for their own use. Laying her hands across the material, Bea pressed down.

‘I do not think that the gentleman who gave him this cloak would appreciate your taking it.’

‘He is only the driver…’ the man began, as if social status should dictate the order of death, but he did not continue as the one from outside appeared yet again.

‘M…m…ove b…b…ack.’

His voice shook with the coldness of a good quarter of an hour out in the elements with very little on and in his hands he held the door.

Hoisting himself in, he wedged the door between the broken edges, some air still seeping through the gaping jagged holes, but infinitely better than what had been there a second earlier.