Escaping her Noble Past (Preview)



Melissa jumped, suddenly terrified at the sharp noise, and then stilled herself, listening carefully.

It’s nothing, you fool.

She laughed at nervously and willed herself to relax. She’d been on edge ever since her guardian, Darwin, had left for his card game several hours earlier. Whenever he went out drinking, she knew there would be trouble—and he went out drinking often. There was no one there, though, no other sounds but the heavy beating of her heart. She slid her hand beneath her pillow and felt cool metal beneath her fingertips. She needed to reassure herself that it was still there.

Feeling better, she sat back and gazed out of the window of her bedchamber. The night was deathly still, but the moon was full and bright in the clear sky. There was a glowing halo around it, and it was surrounded by a smattering of stars. Melissa thought it incredibly beautiful, but it was a bittersweet sight. There was so much to the world she hadn’t seen, couldn’t see, especially not since her dear old father, the late Viscount Fairham died. Upon his death two years ago, Darwin Bassford, her father’s distant cousin, inherited the title. Darwin would not allow her out in society until she agreed to marry him. The thought caused an unpleasant shiver to move through her body. Darwin was a brute, plain and simple.

Being only twenty years old, Melissa Atherton was now Darwin’s ward, and she hated that fact almost as much as she hated him. She had no other family. She’d never met her poor mother, who died during childbirth. Her father often told her how difficult that decision had been—save his daughter or save his wife—but that he also knew he’d made the right choice. Even though Melissa was now out of mourning for him, the thought of moving on with her life stabbed her with pain.

She’d recently found the courage to sort through her father’s belongings, and that’s when she had found the pistol that was now hidden beneath her pillow. She hadn’t wanted to touch it at first. It brought back too many memories of going hunting with her father as a young girl. But then she’d remembered what Darwin threatened, and she’d slipped the pistol into her pocket.

And God forbid I ever have to use it.

She would use it if she had to, however. She knew that with unwavering certainty. If she had to, she would shoot the Viscount. She was strong in both body and spirit, though she was of average height and had a willowy figure that gave others the mistaken impression of weakness. Her hair hung down her back in gentle waves, the color of rich chocolate. It was complemented by her pale olive skin and soft ocean-colored eyes. She had a delicate figure that reminded others of a forest sprite. She was lean but possessed physical strength from years of running wild in the country.

Melissa had always been an independent sort, strong-willed and feisty, which made her guardianship even more difficult to bear. Her father had encouraged her independence and intelligence, but Darwin did his best to suppress those traits. She knew why he wanted to marry her, of course. He didn’t love her or even like her, but he wanted the trust fund her father had set up, the one that Melissa would have access to when she turned one-and-twenty. If she married, the money would automatically become the property of her husband.

But that will never happen.

Her head turned sharply to the door when she heard a creaking, and she held her breath to better hear. It was real this time; she knew that with certainty. The floorboards in the hall had always been loose, and now they served as a warning whenever someone approached. No one had any business in that part of the house, not unless they were coming to Melissa’s bedchamber.

She listened carefully. There it was again. Was it Darwin? It had to be; there was no one else. The servants were all instructed to leave her well alone unless serving her meals, and even then, they were not permitted to speak. She missed long conversations with the maids, almost as much as she missed talking to her neighbors.

Melissa swallowed back her fear, trying to slow her breathing. She sat on the bed with her legs curled under her lazily, but her body was taut, tense, as she listened to the creaking. Her fingers caressed the butt of the pistol once more. Its presence easing her a bit. She had protection, a weapon. She did not need to be frightened.

She heard a clink as a key slid into the lock, and she wrapped her fingers around the metal, clutching it tightly. The key turned. She held her breath, waiting. Praying that it wasn’t Darwin outside the door, ready to enter. He would be drunk, of that she was sure, and that was bad.

When the door finally swung open, it slammed against the wall, and Darwin staggered in, holding a candle aloft. Melissa’s hand tightened further around the pistol, but she trained her expression to one of calm innocence as he leered at her. She would only use the gun in an emergency; she promised herself that.

“You’re still awake,” he slurred, the stench of stale whisky coming off him in waves and hitting her even from across the room. “Good. We need to talk.”

“We do?” she asked in a soft voice intended to placate him.

Darwin sucked on his teeth and looked her up and down as if she were a prized broodmare. Melissa suppressed a shudder. He was an ugly man, both inside and out. At nine-and-thirty years old, Darwin looked more like fifty. His skin was sallow, prematurely wrinkled, and always stank of sweat and cigar smoke, and whenever he spoke, the air was filled with a fetid odor.

He was a short man with graying hair and a chin that was forever covered in unattractive stubble. His waistcoats were always stretched too tightly over his protruding belly. And although he feigned the air of a proper gentleman, he never achieved it in dress, word, or deed. He’d been a poor dissolute wastrel before inheriting the title, and he couldn’t believe his luck when the Viscount died, leaving him the estate.

But most of the unentailed money had been left to Melissa, leaving Darwin with less ready cash than he anticipated. She knew that he needed her trust fund, and he would do whatever it took to get it.

“You’re wasting my time, girl,” he sneered. “I gave you more than enough time to mourn; now, you must repay me for looking after you.”

“I never asked for your help. I’m quite capable of looking after myself, thank you very much,” she replied, the sound of her heart thumping in her ears. “And while I appreciate all you have done for me, you have been handsomely rewarded by my father’s wealth.”

“Always so haughty,” he said, laughing cruelly.

He stumbled in his mirth and knocked her silver-backed hairbrush and mirror off the dressing table, upsetting a lamp in the process. Melissa watched wide-eyed. It wasn’t just the disrespect for those treasured things that had once belonged to her mother, but fear for the oil lamp too. He flailed it around as if it was nothing, but it teetered unsteadily and threatened to topple. She jumped from her seat and set it straight. A fire would rip through Fairham Manor in a moment, endangering all within. Darwin laughed at her panic, exposing his crooked teeth. She avoided his gaze, suddenly remembering she had let go of the gun. As calmly as she could, she walked back to the bed.

“Is that all you wanted to say?” she asked. She kept her voice sweet, not wanting to incite him, but she would not bow to his will, ever.

Darwin brayed again, throwing his head back as if she’d said the funniest thing. It was the distraction she needed to slide her hand back beneath her pillow and clutch onto the only thing left in the world that offered her comfort and reassurance. She prayed she would not have to reveal it, but at least she had hold of it now.

“I lost my card game,” he said with a shrug. “I need some cheering up.”

“And there were no light skirts in the club to do that for you?”

Darwin sneered again. “None who would serve me for free. You really do think me disgusting, don’t you?”

Melissa remained silent. She wanted to scream yes, to tell him what a pig he was, but she couldn’t do that. She couldn’t lie either, so she said nothing and simply stared at him. He let out a humorless laugh and sat on the stool opposite her bed.

“On my way home, I got to thinking,” he said almost wistfully. “You and I are not so different.”

“Really?” she asked. It felt as if her skin was crawling with distaste at his proximity.

“I think we’d make a good match, you and me.”

“So you keep telling me.”

“And yet you refuse to listen. So, I’ve come up with a plan.”

Melissa froze. Plan? What sort of plan? She’d so far managed to repel his advances, avoiding his attempts at forcing her into marriage. But Darwin was not a stupid man, and he seemed to come up with more and more ingenious ways of getting her to succumb.

Be strong, Melissa. You do not have to marry him.

“Just imagine,” he said. “What would happen if you disgraced yourself and ended up with child?”

Melissa scoffed at the very idea. “I would never do anything to—”

“What if you ended up with my child in your belly?”

Melissa gasped and shifted further back on the bed, creating distance between them.

“Oh?” He feigned surprise. “You don’t seem as though you like that idea.”

“No,” she said firmly. “I do not.”

He shrugged and got off the stool, turning as if to go. But then he raised a finger in the air and turned back, looking at her questioningly. “There is just one thing, though,” he said as he loomed over her.

“What?” She asked, her breath hitching with trepidation.

Please go away. Please go away.

“You do not have a choice. When I get you with child, you will have no choice but to marry me.”

He took a step forward, his hands raised, ready to grasp hold of her. Melissa scrambled backward, gasping in fear, and then she remembered the pistol already in her hand. With a renewed confidence, she pulled it out and held it steady, her gaze unwavering and her breath even. Darwin was clearly shocked by the turn of events. He threw his hands up in submission and stumbled back a bit, but his surprise only lasted a matter of seconds. He laughed sardonically, shaking his head at the very notion of the little mouse pulling the trigger, though he still didn’t lower his arms.

“My, my, little Melissa, where did you get that? You’re a big bad girl now, eh? Trying to frighten me away.”

“Stay away from me,” she said.

“Or what?” he asked, mocking her with his tone. “Is little Melissa going to shoot me? Her loving and protective guardian? The only family she has left?”

“You’re no family of mine,” she snarled. “And you never will be. Don’t come any closer.”

He chuckled again, and the sound of it grated on Melissa. How she detested his laugh. “It was a nice try,” he said. “But we both know you wouldn’t dare shoot me. I’d wager you’ve never fired a gun in your life.”

Melissa closed her eyes and allowed herself to go back to the times she went hunting with her father, his words ringing in her ears.

Stay calm. Don’t think about it. Let your intuition guide you.

When Darwin moved to her again, she locked her arms into place, blocking out the sound of his laughter and aimed.

“That is where you are wrong,” she said before she pulled the trigger.

Darwin let out an agonizing yelp. Melissa studied him, a little shocked that she had actually done it. She pursed her lips; her aim had been a little off. Darwin fell to the floor desperately clutching the leg she’d shot, a pool of rich scarlet blood spreading around him.


Chapter One

James Langley, the Duke of Lornadale, stood in the entrance hall of his London residence and watched helplessly as yet another lady’s companion stormed out of the door, suitcase in hand and a look of fury across her face. That was the third one this year to charge out in indignation. He had to do something, make some sort of definitive decision. He glanced over at his sister, who shrugged at him innocently as if she hadn’t been the cause of this mess.

“What did you do to frighten this one away?” he asked his lips in a tight, disapproving frown.

“I did absolutely nothing,” Rebecca replied imperiously, the picture of blamelessness. “It’s not my fault you keep hiring incompetent woman who are incapable of keeping up with me.”

James was nine-and-twenty years of age, but the last six years of being a Duke and his sister’s guardian made him feel a good deal older. Weariness made his bones heavy, and Rebecca did not help with her frivolity and mischief. He just didn’t know what to do with her anymore. Still, it was not all bad. He had a lofty title and accompanying wealth. He was also handsome, according to the ladies who flirted with him nightly. Though of average height, he had an athletic build. His years of fencing made him lean and contoured with muscles in all the right places and handy with a sword.

His hair was a rich coffee brown and always perfectly groomed, and he wore stylish sideburns. Like his father before him, he had green eyes often remarked upon for their unusual hue. He thought they made him stand out, just the beginning of his uniqueness. He had a good head for numbers and he adored reading scholarly works, though fanciful literature had never really attracted him.

However, he found himself occasionally lonely and sometimes pondered taking a wife. But he consistently and quickly put that thought out of his mind. After witnessing the terrible lack of faithfulness in his parents’ marriage, he shied away from commitment and often feared that his baser urges made him just as bad as his father. His poor mother had been destroyed by it, and though he loved his father, the late Duke had not been particularly remorseful for his many indiscretions. Besides, there was Rebecca to look after, and she was his priority. Marriage would have to wait if it came at all.

“What am I going to do with you?” He sighed, rubbing his hand over his eyes as he shook his head. “As if I don’t have enough to do with running the Duchy, I now have to search for another companion for my wild sister!”

Rebecca shrugged. “Again, that’s not my problem, is it? As my guardian, these things are your responsibility, are they not? Besides, I have never asked for a companion; it was you who deemed it necessary.”

James sighed again. Sometimes it felt as though his sister enjoyed making his life as difficult as possible. She was undoubtedly unruly, and she steadfastly refused to abide by the strict rules of society as she saw fit. She even rejected the notion of marriage, claiming she had no need for a husband to take possession of her person and life.

Such a ridiculous notion!

He didn’t begrudge supporting her, but he hoped to find someone who could love and protect her in a way he couldn’t. Finding her a match would be nothing short of a miracle, though, not the least because she did not want it, but also because she invariably scared them away with her reckless nature and outlandish ideas. James really did have no idea what to do with her.

At ten-and-eight years of age, she was a beautiful young woman with a lively spirit. She was lithe and slim, and she had skin like alabaster. The green of her eyes was a shade lighter than that of her brother, and her sun-kissed brown hair fell around her face in bouncy curls. She knew she was attractive and played on her beauty, teasing the men James had picked as potential suitors until they fell for her, flirting coyly only to turn them away as soon as she knew they wanted her.

She was quick-witted and animated, and loved to laugh above all things. James adored her as his baby sister, but that adoration did not temper his exasperation at her conduct.

“These things may be my responsibility,” he replied, speaking slowly in an attempt to keep his irritation in check. “But that doesn’t mean you should deliberately frighten away every woman I hire to teach you how to go about in society. I have quite enough to do as it is.”

“Deliberately frighten?” she repeated, seemingly offended by his words. “I don’t deliberately do anything. I am just me, and I refuse to let anyone change me—especially not for the arbitrary rules of the ton. Besides, I have no need of a teacher.”

“Of course you have need,” he snapped. “Someone has to guide you.”

“I don’t need—”

“And to chaperone you at the very least! For goodness’ sake, Rebecca, you know this as well as I do. You are merely acting stubborn for the sake of it, and I cannot understand it. If Mother were here, she would sort you out in a trice.”

“But alas,” Rebecca sang, tilting her head and smiling. “Mother isn’t here, so I guess you’ll just have to find a way of dealing with me instead.”

She skipped happily away, making James want to scream in frustration. No, their mother was not there, and James knew Rebecca didn’t even remember her. If she did, she would be more considerate with her throw-away words. The late Duchess had died unexpectedly, a short time after Rebecca was born. James had always suspected it was due to a broken heart brought on by his father’s latest romantic escapade with a French opera singer being bandied about town.

“Don’t walk away from me,” he called. “I’m not finished with you.”

He marched after her through the long corridors of Lornadale Manor. The walls were intersected with thick oak doors that had been intricately carved, each leading to a different room in the house. James had recently had the whole house redecorated, and now the corridors were lined with pale yellow silk adorned with subtle gray flowers and tiny birds. It served to both modernize and brighten what were once rather dull and dark spaces, but James would never alter those beautiful doors.

“What do you want now?” Rebecca asked over her shoulder. “Don’t you have to go looking for a new companion for me?” She grinned mischievously at him, and he shook his head, somehow still incredulous even though this behavior was nothing new.

“I want you to stop walking and listen to me,” he demanded.

Rebecca stopped suddenly though she didn’t turn around, and James nearly knocked into her!

“For goodness’ sake!” he snapped yet again, barely biting back the growl of annoyance he felt. “Do you like to see me so riled? Is that it?”

“Only when I know what you are going to say,” she said, smirking at him.

“And what, pray tell, am I going to say?”

She spun around to face him, twirling her hair and looking young and sweet. “Oh, just that the season has been disastrous so far—”

“To say the least,” he interjected. She nodded her agreement though she didn’t look like she much cared.

“And that if I don’t start behaving like a proper young lady, I shall never find myself a husband.”

“That is equally true,” he said.

She shrugged, then turned and marched off. James hesitated, astonished that she walked away from him yet again.

“I still have high hopes, though,” he called. “It’s still possible to find you a suitor who can—”

“I don’t need a suitor,” she shouted for perhaps the hundredth time that season. “I am quite content as I am.”

“Well, I am not,” James said, all his frustrations and irritations coming out in a bark. She must have noticed the emotion in his response, for she stopped and turned, looking at him steadily.

“I am genuinely sorry you are not content, brother,” she said in a more demure, quieter voice. She seemed sincere in that, at least, and James felt himself soften ever-so-slightly.

“That’s something, at least,” he said with a sigh. “Listen, why don’t we visit Aunt Martha for a few weeks? I believe she would like that.”

He didn’t just believe she would like it. He knew she would love it. Aunt Martha had great affection for her niece and nephew.

He didn’t just believe she would agree. He knew she would. He’d already written to her and made the arrangements. He saw the surprise in Rebecca’s eyes. She hadn’t been expecting that.

“Aunt Martha! What on earth for?”

“I suggest a little guidance from a true lady would serve you well,” he said. “You obviously are not faring well with the companions I am selecting. I believe you would benefit from the influence of an older, refined lady.”

“But Aunt Martha, of all people!” Rebecca shook her head in disbelief. “She’s an eccentric old bat.”

James could barely stop himself from guffawing at that. His little sister certainly didn’t mince words, but she wasn’t entirely off the mark regarding their aunt. “I thought you liked Aunt Martha,” he said.

“I do like her,” Rebecca replied.

“But I wouldn’t have thought you’d deem her a suitable influence, seeing as she has never married. Are you certain you want a spinster to teach me etiquette?”

“She’s certainly eccentric,” James admitted. “And indeed, she never married, but she does understand what is required of a young lady, and she knows how society works. She will help you learn how to behave properly. How to navigate the ton. And perhaps, by the next season, you will be civilized enough to attract and keep the attention of a worthy suitor.”

Rebecca pushed her bottom lip out in a pout, making her look ten years old again. “But I don’t want to learn how to behave like a brainless debutante. I like who I am.”

“Regardless, we’re going,” he said firmly. “Whether you like it or not. We’ll spend the summer at Chidswell Manor. At the very least, you can enjoy the country air, ride your horse or… take up painting outdoors, or some such ladylike pursuits.”

And, with a bit of luck, Aunt Martha’s decorum will rub off on you.


“You’d best begin packing. I will send an express to Aunt Martha to alert her of our plans. We will leave at first light tomorrow,” he informed her, raising his eyebrows to warn her not to protest further.


Chapter Two

Melissa froze for a long moment, staring down in horror as Darwin writhed on the floor, screaming and begging for help. Her aim had definitely been off; if she had shot true, Darwin would not be bleeding so badly. She still held the pistol, but her hand shook now, and her breathing was shallow. She made no move to help him, though, not after all he had done to her. Only seconds passed before the housekeeper, Mrs. Dalton, burst into the room to investigate the noise.

“Oh, my lady, are you all right?”

She looked down at the injured Darwin and gasped, a hand flying up to her mouth and her eyes open as wide as they would go.

“What’s happened? What…”

When she looked back up, she noticed the pistol in Melissa’s hand, and stopped short.

“He was… I… He…” Melissa began, unable to form a complete sentence in her shock.

“It will be all right, my lady,” Mrs. Dalton said soothingly, gathering herself and beckoning Melissa to her. “Come now.”

Melissa focused on the housekeeper’s kind face and shook herself. She nodded, and, grasping the older woman’s hand, they ran from the room. Melissa didn’t even look at Darwin’s writhing body as she left. His screams were quietening as if the very life was draining out of him, as if he could no longer expend the energy. Melissa hadn’t—couldn’t—let go of the pistol. Once in the hallway, Mrs. Dalton turned and pulled the door shut, holding a finger to her lips to warn Melissa to be quiet. Melissa nodded, mute and grateful for the housekeeper’s unexpected help. She took hold of Melissa’s wrist and pulled her into the room opposite, closing the door behind them. Melissa started talking immediately.

“I didn’t mean to injure him so badly; I just wanted to stop him before he could—”

“Shush now, my lady. It’s going to be all right,” Mrs. Dalton repeated.

She was a kindly, matronly woman of five-and-forty, and she’d been there for Melissa ever since she was a motherless babe held in her arms. She’d helped nurse her, then tutor her, then care for her, and Melissa felt incredibly close to the woman, feeling like she was more family than servant. Now, she spoke in those soft, dulcet tones that she always used when Melissa was upset, and it was almost too much.

“What am I going to do?” Melissa whispered urgently, blinking in her fight against the tears that threatened to come.

“You’re going to stay in this room and wait. I’ll pack you a bag with some of my frocks, then we’ll smuggle you out of this house. Once I know you’re safely on your way, I’ll send for help for the master. He’ll never know it was me who helped you escape.”

“But he had to have seen you in the room,” Melissa said, her eyes darting in near panic.

“No, my lady.” Mrs. Dalton shook her head firmly. “He was far too focused on his pain to notice his surroundings. I’m certain he did not see me there.”

“And if he did see you?”

“I’ll say he was delirious, confused, out of his mind.”

Melissa wasn’t convinced that would work, but it was all she had right now, and if anyone could do it, Mrs. Dalton could.

“But where will I go?” she asked, her voice barely a squeak.

Bile rose at the back of her throat. She was finally getting her freedom, but at what cost? Darwin would never allow this to go unpunished—if he survived at all. That thought sent another shiver through her.

Have I just killed a man?

“I have a cousin,” Mrs. Dalton said quickly. “Lives about twenty miles from here. She’ll take you in until everything dies down. She’s a good woman; she’ll look after you and help you decide where to go from there. It’s only three weeks until you turn one-and-twenty, don’t forget. Now, you stay here and—”

“Mrs. Dalton, wait,” Melissa said, tugging on the housekeeper’s arms to stop her from going out. “You do know that I didn’t… it wasn’t….” She needed her old retainer to know that she hadn’t intended to kill Darwin.

Mrs. Dalton nodded her understanding. “Yes, my lady, I know. The whole staff have seen the way Lord Fairham has treated you since the death of your father, my dear, and we have all been on the receiving end of his drunken anger. Please, worry not, but we really must hurry now if we’re to get the master to a physician.”

“Thank you,” Melissa said, taking Rose’s hand and squeezing it.

Mrs. Dalton bowed her head and then fled from the room, her black skirts billowing behind her. Melissa watched her go, then turned and looked around the room. It was a spare bedchamber, set up ready for visitors though none had come since Darwin had inherited the title and estate. Now, it simply looked sad and empty, a ghost of what it had once been and of what Melissa’s life was—one full of happiness and friendship, a long-ago past when she hadn’t been quite so alone.

She looked down at her gown and gasped. The hem was splattered with blood and worse—the pistol still hung heavily from her hand. With a squeal, she threw the thing onto the bed and turned away from it. Shooting a man, it turned out, was very different from shooting deer, but she didn’t regret her actions, not for a single second. Darwin deserved everything he had coming to him, and this was the catalyst that would see Melissa away from him for good.

She reminded herself of Mrs. Dalton’s words. It’s only three weeks until you’re one-and-twenty. Then, she would be able to access her trust fund, and Darwin’s guardianship of her would be at an end. He would no longer have any power over her. All she had to do was survive those three weeks. With that thought in her head, Melissa sat in an armchair and awaited Mrs. Dalton’s return.

“My lady, my lady,” the housekeeper said as she bustled into the room some time later.

“Is everything ready? Is Darwin… still alive?”

“Yes, my lady, to both questions,” Mrs. Dalton said. “I peeked in on him a moment ago; he is unconscious but breathing. Now we need to get you changed and gone. I have a small bag packed, and Jack is sorting you a horse. You need to get out of that soiled dress now.”

“Jack! You told the stable boy?” Melissa could hear the panic in her own voice, but she couldn’t stop it.

“I had to, my lady, if I was to see you away from here safely. We can trust Jack; he’s a good lad. I’ll see to it he has extra bread and dripping with his dinner tonight. Come now, let’s get you dressed.”

Mrs. Dalton worked quickly, pulling off Melissa’s soiled clothes and replacing them with a navy-blue colored frock of her own. The dress was a tad big on Melissa, but not enough to make it unwearable. Melissa pulled her hair into a tight bun, and Mrs. Dalton secured it with a ribbon, then pushed the small bag into her mistress’s hands. Melissa looked at it sadly and knew she’d have to repay her housekeeper once she reached her majority.

“I know,” Mrs. Dalton said as she balled up the dirty gown. “It’s not a lot, but it’s the best I could do in the time. I’ll do my best to protect the rest of your belongings until such time you’re able to come back and claim them.”

Melissa’s eyes swam with tears, though they did not spill over onto her cheeks. She’d wanted her freedom for so long, but not like this. Not with all this heartache and turmoil.

“Don’t you be crying now, my girl,” Mrs. Dalton said affectionately. “All will be well; you just wait and see. Now hurry, I told Jack to call for the physician as soon as he was finished with the horse.”

“What about that?” Melissa asked, pointing at the gown in Mrs. Dalton’s hands. “Won’t that give me away?”

“It’ll be on the fire before anyone has a chance to see it. But, my lady, we must go right away if we’re not to be discovered by the master’s man.”

Melissa understood. Darwin’s manservant was a nasty piece of work. She didn’t want to be discovered by him. The pair crept down the servant’s staircase and out the back of the house, where Jack waited with a horse.

“M’lady,” Jack said, bowing awkwardly.

“Jack,” she said in a hushed voice. “Thank you so much for doing this.”

“Anything for you, m’lady,” he said, taking the bag from her. He strapped it to the dappled gray mare. “You’ve been good to us, you ‘ave, m’lady, and we’ll be sad to see you gone.”

With a grunt of effort and a good deal of help from Jack, Melissa lifted herself onto the horse and settled into the saddle. She pulled the hood of her cloak up. She didn’t want any of her neighbors seeing her escape.

“She won’t be gone forever with any luck,” Mrs. Dalton said, wringing her wrinkly hands together as she watched. “Three weeks, remember, my lady.”

“Three weeks,” Melissa nodded.

“Oh! I almost forgot!” Mrs. Dalton pulled a scrap of folded parchment from her pocket. “For my cousin,” she said. “I thought it would smooth your way to have a letter from me. I don’t give any details; I just introduce you and beg her for her help. I’ll write her a proper letter as soon as I can, but this should be enough for now.”

“Thank you both,” Melissa said with genuine sincerity. “I don’t know what I would have done without you.”

“God speed, m’lady.”

“Stay safe, my lady, and don’t ever forget there are people who love you dearly.”

Melissa couldn’t say another word, not without risking tears or leaping from the horse to embrace these two selfless people. Instead, she turned the horse and rode away as fast as she could go.

The air was cool, and though she was covered in a light sheen of perspiration, she was soon shivering in Mrs. Dalton’s thin gown. Melissa and her gray pounded through the cobbled streets until the lanes turned to mud tracks, then past the last of the houses and farms on the outskirts of town. She rode across the empty fields, not another person in sight. She could feel her cloak billowing around her, the wind pushing her hood back and sending tendrils of cold down the back of her neck as her curls tickled her cheeks.

“That’s it,” she said in a soothing voice. “We can do it, just keep going.”

Ostensibly, she spoke to the mare, encouraging the horse on despite the cold and the darkness, but deep down, she said it to herself, to keep herself going. She was used to horses. It was something she had enjoyed doing with her father, though it felt like a lifetime ago now. Darwin never allowed her to use any of his horses. But riding through the night with only a vague sense of where she was going, running away—that was different.

Melissa Atherton had confidence that she outshone many of the town gentlemen, let alone fine ladies. She was a force to be reckoned with, and she would stand up for what she believed in without showing even a drop of fear. She could face anything, anyone, and she would meet her current situation with courage too. That didn’t mean, however, that she wasn’t terrified both for her safety and for whatever came after this.

“Come on, girl,” she said, driving the mare faster. “Come on, the sooner we get there, the sooner we can rest.”

Eventually, they left the fields and met the road again. A small village taking shape. They rose past small homes, a quaint tavern, a farmhouse with a candle flickering in an upstairs window. The town was slumbering, and Melissa wished she could sleep herself, but she needed to put as much distance between herself and Darwin as possible. She thought she could hear a rhythmic sound, so she tilted her head curiously, slowing the horse, wondering what it could be. When the sound continued, she quickened their pace, fearful of what was coming. Suddenly there was a loud retort.

The mare whinnied loudly and rose up onto her hind legs. Melissa clutched desperately to the reins, pushing her body closer to the horse in a frantic attempt to stay on.

“Easy there, girl,” she cried. “Calm down.”

But it was no good. The horse was spooked, terrified by the noise and whatever it denoted. She landed back on her front hooves with a thud and just as quickly reared up again, her cry ringing out into the quiet night.

Melissa lost hold of the reins and was tossed out of the saddle, landing hard on the ground. Her head connected with a large rock, and her body went limp as she fought to draw air into her lungs. Darkness clouding her vision, she watched helplessly as the mare disappeared in the trees.

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