Almost a Countess by Jenna Jaxon
Yorkshire, Mid-August 1762
The coolness of the early morning had worn off before Dora Harper had traveled half the distance to Mr. Hawkins’s tenant farm on the southwest corner of her father’s estate. She’d left just as dawn was breaking, as was her habit, however, the August sun had decided to shine bright and hot from the moment it cleared the horizon today. Her sky-blue riding habit clung close to her arms and back while perspiration dappled her neck. Perhaps a short rest down by the creek bed just yonder would cool both Gretchen’s hooves and her own face.
“Come along, Gretchen.” She pulled the horse down from a spirited canter to a trot and then a walk. “Let’s rest a few minutes before continuing on to visit Mrs. Hawkins and her new little one.”
As though Gretchen understood, she slowed even further as she took a slight path down the gentle slope of the creek bed to finally stand in the middle of the stream under the shade of the trees. Gretchen stretched her neck down to sip the rushing water.
Dora patted her horse’s neck. “Good girl.”
Water sounded good to her, too, although there was none here to be had. If she dismounted to drink from the stream, she’d be walking back to Bromley Manor. There was no way she could remount the horse, who wore a sidesaddle. Had she been riding astride she might’ve climbed up on a rock and thrown her leg over the animal. But the sidesaddle thwarted such an attempt. Best move on quickly so she could enjoy some water at the Harris farm. Or she could head instead for the village of Brompton and take a cool drink from Mrs. Jameson at The Green Tree Inn. A better choice altogether. She turned Gretchen’s head toward the village.
A quarter hour’s canter brought them to the inn, a hub of industry just as Mrs. Pierce’s shop in Potterne had been at her home in Wiltshire. Moments later, Mrs. Jameson’s thirteen-year-old son had helped her off the horse and was leading Gretchen to the watering trough at the side of the inn. “Thank you, Tom. I won’t be long.” Only long enough to secure a cup of something cool and one of Mrs. Jameson’s superior small cakes.
The innkeeper’s wife did not disappoint, and Dora was soon ensconced in the place of honor nearest the large front window, a mug of small ale and two of the heavenly cakes on a plate in front of her. “Much obliged, Mrs. Jameson.” Dora drank thirstily then bit into the first cake. The currants gave it an extra sweetness that made her want to eat it slowly to savor the taste, while simultaneously wanting to gobble down the sugary treat. “I am never disappointed when I come here.”
“Ye’re lucky today, lass.” The good woman plied the surrounding tables with a soapy rag. “Those’re me last two until tomorrow. A group of soldiers come through an hour or so ago like a plague of locusts and ate every scrap I had.” She nodded to Dora’s plate where the final cake remained. “Savin’ the two I held back.” She sent Dora a smile. “I knows you likes to come by of a Tuesday, Miss Harper, and that you like my cakes particular.”
“Indeed I do, Mrs. Jameson.” Dora broke off a bite of the remaining cake and popped it into her mouth. If that was the case, and there were no more to be had, she intended to savor this one. “What were soldiers doing here?”
“They asked me if I’d seen any ragged-looking men come by in the last day or two. Said they were looking for a man who’d escaped them several days ago. Takin’ him to Edinburgh, they were, when he gave ’em the slip.” Mrs. Jameson nodded and grinned. “Good fer ’im, I say. The army can be a cruel and vicious thing, mark my words, Miss Harper. Some men’r honorable and do their duty, but others are just mean through and through.” She nodded toward the door. “You don’t want no trouble with this lot, miss.”
“I certainly don’t, Mrs. Jameson.” She’d never had any communication with soldiers or the army in general. She’d always thought it a decent profession for a gentleman to enter, but she understood that all the regiments were not made up solely of gentlemen. Still, if they were searching for a prisoner, she’d pray they found him and swiftly. Such desperate men could be dangerous, especially to a woman virtually alone as she was.
Her father’s punishment when she broke her engagement to her long-time suitor Lord Trevor had resulted in her exile here in Yorkshire. That punishment extended to the number of servants retained on the Bromley estate as well: Hanson the butler, Mrs. McComber the cook, Alfred, who did double duty as groom and coachman, one young girl, Annie, serving as the only housemaid, Larkin, her lady’s maid, Mrs. Carlyle the housekeeper, and a single footman, James. The gardening was done by an elderly man who came from the village two or three times a week to make sure nothing was terribly overgrown. A pitiful contingency should someone threaten her safety, but the men were all fit save the gardener. Dora herself had learned to shoot since she’d come to Yorkshire—thanks to James—so together she and her household could fend off most threats to her safety.
“I will be sure to alert my household staff of both the soldiers and the fugitive.” She rose. “But I must go. I’m determined to arrive at Mr. Hawkins’s cottage before luncheon so I may be home in time for my own.”
“That’s smart of you, miss.” Mrs. Jameson swept the crumbs into her hand then whisked away the cup and plate. “I’ll be looking for ya next Tuesday, just like always.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Jameson.” Dora pulled on her gloves. Not only did she have to worry about getting home before dark, now she had to fret over soldiers coming upon her as well.
She mounted Gretchen, and with a call of thanks to Tom, trotted out of the innyard and down the village’s one lane until it disappeared into grass and Dora struck out for her father’s tenant farm, perhaps three miles away. The man’s wife had just given birth to a strong, healthy baby boy, and Dora had ridden out today with supplies for the young family stashed in a carry bag behind her saddle.
The warmth of the sun returned, although it didn’t plague her as much as thoughts of the soldiers and their quarry did. Dora had only been in the county since April. In that time, she hadn’t heard from, or even seen, the British soldiers garrisoned in York, the nearest town large enough to have troops stationed in it. They were at least two days’ ride from this part of Yorkshire, so she doubted the man they sought had headed this way. If he had a brain in his head, he’d head west toward Leeds, the biggest city in this part of England, and lose himself in the crowds.
The remainder of the ride was uneventful until she emerged from the trees on the hill to the north of Mr. Hawkins’s holding. This vantage point gave her a view of the tenant farmhouse, outbuildings, and barn. It also allowed her to see the five British soldiers, their red coats bright in the hot sunshine, sitting their horses in the farm’s front yard, speaking to her father’s tenant.
Quietly, she backed Gretchen into the trees once more, unsure if an overabundance of caution made her unwilling for the soldiers to see her or simply that she was disinclined to have her plans for the day altered by the time it would take for their questions. Should she ride down to the farmhouse, she would likely need to explain her presence and that would delay her return. She’d wait here for the soldiers to depart then quickly deliver her gifts for Mrs. Hawkins and her baby and head home.
Dora didn’t have long to wait. A thunder of hooves to the east told her the men had gone. Cautiously, she crept over the hill, but the yard was empty save for the dusty hoofprints they’d left behind. She gave Gretchen’s flank a tap, and the horse trotted forward, down the hill to the low-lying house. No one was stirring now.
“Mr. Hawkins!” Dora called, and a dark curtain twitched in one of the small windows.
With the scrape of a bar being lifted, the plank door opened. Mr. Hawkins stuck his head out and glanced around the yard. “Miss Harper? Did you see the soldiers?”
Dora nodded. “From the rise near the trees. I waited until they left so they would not see a woman alone.”
“’Twould’ve been better if you’d ridden with your groom this morning.” Hawkins slipped out of the house to stand beside her, his whole demeanor still watchful. “The soldiers are chasing after a man from the north. I’d not have you run afoul of either of them.”
“I’m sure I will not.” Determined to show a brave face to the man, Dora unhooked her leg from around the top pommel and slid nimbly to the ground.
The farmer grabbed the horse’s bridle, giving Dora the opportunity to untie the carry bag from behind the saddle.
“Congratulations, Mr. Hawkins. I’ve brought a few things for your wife and child. Mrs. Hawkins is doing well?”
“Right as rain, thank you, miss.” His face clouded over. “We’re doing well. Or at least we were until those soldiers showed up this morning.”
“I’m certain they will give you no trouble as long as you are not sheltering the man they seek.” Dora hefted the bag and strode to the door. “If you’ll stay with Gretchen, I’ll leave these things with your wife and be back out in a moment.”
The tenant nodded, though his gaze continued to scurry all around the farmyard.
“Good morning, Mrs. Hawkins.” Dora smiled at the robust woman sitting in a rocking chair, the new baby held to her breast. Two other children, a girl just walking, and a boy, a sturdy toddler, were playing at their mother’s feet. “What a lovely family you have. Congratulations on this newest little one.”
“Thank you, miss.” The woman’s glance darted to the door behind Dora then she beamed down at the baby rooting lustily at her nipple. “We’ve called him Harry, after me da. He’s a grand wee one, so he is.”
“You must be very proud.” Dora set the carry bag on the scrubbed table. “I’ve brought a few things you and the baby might find helpful.” She pulled out a soft blue blanket she’d discovered in the attic at Bromley and had freshened then a pink and white shawl she’d brought with her from home but had no real need of. Finally, she withdrew a wrapped haunch of venison, a large wedge of cheese, and two loaves of bread Mrs. McComber had baked early this morning. “And these are to help you regain your strength.”
“Aye, thank you, Miss Harper.” The woman’s eyes had widened as she stared at the bounty. “You’re that good to us, miss. Charlie said we’d gotten a piece of luck indeed the day you arrived at Bromley.”
“A piece of luck for both of us, Mrs. Hawkins.” The words had come automatically, although Dora doubted their veracity. Her gaze rested briefly on each of the children and finally on their happy mother. The woman was scarcely older than Dora’s eighteen years, yet she had a thriving family. Something Dora could no longer aspire to.
After breaking her betrothal to Tristan, Lord Trevor, she had no hope of another marriage. Deemed ruined by her father, she’d been banished to Yorkshire to get her out of sight and out of the minds of the rest of Society. If she could not get herself recalled home sometime during the coming winter, her prospects of anything other than the life of a spinster—and likely a pariah—were slim to non-existent. There was no society here where she could hope to meet an eligible gentleman, and even if there were entertainments in York or Leeds, she’d have no escort to such gatherings. Her father’s exile was punishment indeed.
Seeing the woman content with her children around her, Dora couldn’t help but think if she’d not released Tris from his promise, she might even now be married and expecting their first child. But then Tris could not have married Violet, his true love and her own dear friend. Although she suffered a tinge of regret every time she thought of it, she was certain she’d done the correct thing. After seeing the way Tris looked at Violet—with unyielding love and deep desire—she’d wanted that same regard for herself and was wise enough to understand she would never have it from Tristan even if they were married a hundred years. She’d let him go with only the one regret: a family of her own.
Smiling at the tableau of mother and children, Dora picked up the empty carry bag. “I must go now, Mrs. Hawkins, if I am to be home by luncheon. If you need anything before I return, please send to Bromley. We want our tenants to do well here.”
“Thank you, Miss Harper.” The woman held her child closer and smiled at Dora gratefully. “You are an angel sent from the heavens. God keep you safe.”
“You’re more than welcome. Goodbye.” Dora shut the door, her smile dimming as she turned to Mr. Hawkins, rubbing Gretchen’s nose as he patiently waited. “Thank you, Mr. Hawkins. You have a fine family, and a beautiful new baby boy.”
“Thank you, miss.” He handed her the reins then cupped his hands to give her a boost into the saddle. “He’s a brave lad, he is. Growing like a weed in just a week. He’ll have a hand in the plowing before you know it.”
“I’ll check in on you next week as well, Mr. Hawkins. I told your wife, if you have any need, please send word to Bromley.” Dora settled herself in the saddle and gathered the reins in preparation to leave. By the shadows around the house, she’d be only a little late for lunch if she hurried a bit.
“Miss Harper, have a care on your way back.” Standing in the yard, with the grass all around him, Mr. Hawkins looked small for the first time. “Avoid those the soldiers if you can. The enlisted men seemed a decent sort, but the officer in charge, well, he had a wild way about him.” Mr. Hawkins stared at her earnestly. “When I told him I’d seen nothing of this man they’re searching for, he bellowed I’d better be telling him the truth. If not, I’d be regretting it. Then he sent one of his men into the house to look for their fugitive. Gave my wife a start, but she’s a steady woman.”
“I’ll be careful, I promise.” Mr. Hawkins needn’t worry on that account. Between his disturbing tale and Mrs. Jameson’s admonitions, she’d become more than wary of the situation. A swift canter back to Bromley was her dearest wish now. “Good day.”
“Good day, mistress.” He waved, and Dora tapped her heel to Gretchen’s flank.
They started into a trot that immediately turned into a canter. The sooner they could get safely home, the better.
Rather than return the way she had come, Dora struck out across a fallow field, Gretchen’s hooves thundering on the bare dirt. Their rhythm increased Dora’s urgency to get home before some unknown calamity befell them. She risked a glance back over her shoulder, certain she’d see the troop of men hard on her heels, but the field remained empty save for the dust that flew up in her wake.
When they reached the grassy verge at the edge of the field that marked the farthest point of Mr. Hawkins’s tenancy, Dora pulled Gretchen down to a jog then to a walk. She was as winded as the animal she rode. Unaware she’d been panting the whole time since leaving the farmhouse, Dora gulped in huge lungfuls of air. “Good girl, Gretchen.” She leaned down to pat the horse’s sweaty neck. “I think it’s best if we head for that stand of trees just ahead and let us both catch our breaths in the shade.”
The short walk calmed Dora a measure. She’d no business allowing Mr. Hawkins to alarm her so badly. Should she happen upon the soldiers riding about searching for the prisoner, they would likely do nothing more than question her to see if she’d seen the man and since she hadn’t, they’d allow her to continue on her way. Surely the officer of whom Mr. Hawkins had spoken was a reasonable man. He was an officer, after all.
Still, a trickle of dread made its way down her spine. A young woman was never supposed to ride without escort of some sort—at the very least a groom, although what Alfred alone could do against a group of five men didn’t bear thinking about.
She hadn’t considered it in the months since she’d come to Yorkshire. The countryside had been calm, even boring, all summer long. With so few servants to attend to the tasks of the estate, she’d begun riding out in the mornings alone either for the sheer pleasure of the ride or, as with today’s outing, to care for her father’s tenants or the people in the village. Seldom had she seen another soul, save the ones she visited or occasionally a man and his sons working in the fields. It had seemed perfectly safe for her to go about by herself.
Now she had never felt so alone.
Steering Gretchen under the trees, Dora guided her mount toward a small creek, where the air was appreciably cooler. Gazing about again, Dora breathed a sigh of relief. Nothing and no one was stirring. The trees provided some cover, and Gretchen could follow the stream for the next two miles for it would lead straight to the lane that fronted the manor house.
Though she hated to admit it, from now on she must take Alfred with her when she rode. Today’s scare had taught her that much.
No sooner had the thought crossed her mind than Gretchen neighed and shied away from the creek bed.
“Whoa, girl.” Dora controlled the frightened horse with sure hands on the reins. “What was it? A snake?” She glanced down but could see nothing alarming save a splash of red flowers against the near bank. “Are you afraid of roses now, my dear?” Grinning, Dora looked closer. They weren’t flowers though. What she’d taken for red blooms was, on closer inspection, some kind of fabric. She peered at it and cocked her head. What on earth was it?
Gretchen danced toward it, and the fabric moved.
Dora gasped as the brown grass beside the “roses” stirred then reared up, becoming the head of a man, his face streaked with mud and blood. He blinked then stared into her eyes. “Please, lass, can you help me?”