YA Historical - DANGEROUS ALLIANCE Feb 2, 2017 17:31:14 GMT -5
Post by jennikac on Feb 2, 2017 17:31:14 GMT -5
Oakbridge Estate, Hampshire, England
The lichen-kissed stone dropped onto the rock pile with a hollow clack. Lady Victoria Aston rested her aching hands on the rough stone. She wiped her muddy palms down the front of her thighs, smearing muck onto her father’s old tan breeches. When attempting to save the lives of a particularly bothersome flock of sheep, one had to make sacrifices.
With two more sizeable stones, she would close the gap in the wall. Then she could scour Oakbridge’s 6,562 acres for the estate shepherd.
Vicky narrowed her eyes at a shaggy old ewe: one of many she’d found out of bounds in the neighboring pasture. They’d jumped over the crumbling gap and gobbled a patch of indigestible clover. Soon, their bellies would bloat, and without the shepherd’s aid, they would certainly perish. Inhaling the clean morning air, redolent with the perfume of freshly drying grass, Vicky bent for another rock.
Movement far in the distance caught her eye. Vicky squinted. Amid the emerald green fields on the other side of the wall, a rider in a russet coat and dark top hat cantered adjacent to a short hedgerow. She couldn’t see his face, but his bearing looked familiar. She blinked.
No. It couldn’t be him. Fate wouldn’t be so cruel.
She glanced down at her father’s muddy breeches. They didn’t exactly outline her legs, but they weren’t particularly loose either. They hugged her hips just tightly enough to allow her to tuck a muslin shirt into them and actually stay up without other assistance. She’d buttoned the top half of her olive green riding habit almost up to her neck for a semblance of decency, but by any stranger’s standard, she was courting scandal.
She peered at the rider again. His attire proclaimed him a gentleman, and although she still couldn’t make out his features, he rode a peculiar chestnut of medium height that looked something like a working horse. She had never seen the breed before.
Well, if he—whoever he was—felt scandalized by her appearance that was his affair. Breeches afforded more comfort on her post-dawn inspections across the estate and allowed her to ride astride. That meant she could be more efficient helping her father, especially when something went wrong like today. The livelihoods of more than a hundred individuals relied on their management strategies; if her father or his steward couldn’t allocate funds or attention to one small piece of the puzzle making up the estate, someone less fortunate would suffer. Vicky helped wherever and whenever she could.
She hauled the stone up and set it on the pile with an involuntary squeak before glancing back at the rider.
He had jumped the hedgerow. Now he rode toward her, picking up speed. What was he—
Vicky’s stomach tensed as his face came into focus. It was just as she’d feared: the rider was Tom Sherborne. Blast! She looked at her breeches again and winced.
Still some fifty feet away, Tom raised his hand and something fluttered in her chest. But he wasn’t greeting her as she’d thought. With his whole arm, he pointed at something behind her.
She frowned. As she turned, something hard collided with the side of her head. White-hot pain burst through her skull. Her vision pitched sideways and her neck whipped to the right. As her knees smacked into the soggy turf, everything went black.
A rhythmic thudding invaded Vicky’s head. Was it her heart? The rumble grew louder with each thump. She inhaled, and the smell of wet grass, mud, and sheep droppings flooded her nostrils. She groaned and forced her eyes open.
Her head was twisted sideways, though it seemed she’d fallen face-first. A tender spot on the side of her head made her wince. She traced it with careful fingers, but that only intensified the pounding in her ears.
What had struck her? Through the blades of grass, a blurred movement caught her eye. Each motion was an agony, but Vicky pushed herself off the soggy ground with both hands until she sat upright. Blinking to clear her vision, she concentrated on the moving shape coming toward her.
Her cheeks blanched. The horse and rider she’d seen earlier—correction, Tom Sherborne and his horse—effortlessly jumped the stone wall. Her stomach dropped.
She had never seen Tom riding at such an early hour—not a single time since he’d returned to England. Although his own estate bordered Oakbridge, she’d only glimpsed him twice in the last year: once in the village from opposite ends of the high street where he’d promptly disappeared into a tavern, and once at the village fair where he’d bought a gingerbread square and promptly ridden away.
Anyone else might have considered these circumstances coincidental, but Vicky knew better. She knew Tom Sherborne was avoiding her. Unjustly in point of fact, and he had been doing so for the last five years. Yet there he sat, reining in his odd-looking chestnut a mere two and a half feet away.
“Are you all right?” he bellowed from the saddle.
Her head whirled as she stared up at the face she’d known so well as a child. His hair fell in the same mahogany brown waves around his forehead and ears, contrasting slightly with his light brown eyes. He was clean-shaven just as he’d been at fourteen, but his jaw and cheeks now had the angular sharpness of a man. His nose and forehead were straight off a sculpted bust of a Roman emperor. She sucked in a breath to subdue the agitated beat of her pulse. “Er…”
His lips compressed into a frown, and his dark brows knit together.
How she’d missed that serious countenance of his. Yet that boy she’d known had thrown away their friendship and never given her a reason.
“My head,” she muttered. She touched the lump materializing on her skull. “What happened?” She swallowed several times and wished for a glass of water.
“A man attacked you. I tried to warn you.”
“What do you mean, ‘attacked’? Who would possibly attack me?” She touched her head again.
Tom caught her eye but then looked off into the distance behind her. “Whoever he was had a horse tethered at the edge of the trees.”
Vicky shook her head. “But why—I don’t understand—”
“I can still catch him,” Tom interrupted. “Are you well enough to stay here?”
She inhaled and tilted her head gingerly. The pain had dulled a bit. “I think so.” She looked up at him. “What do you mean stay—”
“Stay here,” he said, kicking his boots into his horse’s flanks. Clods of grass and mud flew into the air as they raced away.
“Wait!” But his horse had already carried him out of earshot.
Vicky clenched her jaw as she watched horse and rider disappear into a nearby copse of trees. Blast it all! How dare he hurry off and leave her sitting in the middle of a field? Especially if someone had attacked her? She bent her knees and pushed herself off the ground. Stars reeled before her eyes. She drew in a deep breath and glanced in the direction Tom had disappeared.
If Tom had ridden that way, her attacker must have fled toward the road to London. If that were his goal, then the fastest way to head him off would be to ride across the field around the trees and intercept him before he reached the road. Tom would never overtake the man by following him through the dense forest—a fact Tom should know as well as she did. Moreover, she was not about to sit here like an invalid just because her head hurt. Who did Tom think he was, trying to act the hero now? He’d been the one playing the coward these last five years, after all.
Vicky stumbled to the tree where she’d tied her horse, Jilly. She unwound the reins, led her to an undamaged stretch of wall, and used it to jump into the saddle. A wave of dizziness washed through her head down into her stomach. She stilled and breathed, fully aware she was losing time.
Just get moving. Vicky gritted her teeth, pulled the reins to the right, kicked Jilly’s flanks, and urged her to gallop across the field toward the attacker.