Lady Serena Campbell clutches her daughter Elinor and her nephew Jason closely to her as the booming sounds of the blunderbuss wielded by her coachman join the sharper shots of her footman's musket firing at the two highwaymen who had forestalled the completion of the final stage of their journey back to Campbell Hall.
The Sheriff of Holby shall hear of this, Serena thinks furiously as the mingled sounds of gunfire begin to move away down the road. The realisation that the pair of ruffians are drawing Fletcher and di Lucca further away from the coach causes Serena's heart to thump painfully in her chest. The two highwaymen might be the advance guard, sent to deliberately draw off her men, so that other ruffians can capture Lady Serena, newly widowed by the death of her unlamented husband, Lord Edward Campbell, who had been killed in the late skirmishes between the men of King Charles’ party and the Parliamentarians. Serena is the sole guardian of both her daughter and her nephew (whose mother had died a year and a half ago of some wasting disease). Both children stand to inherit exceptionally large sums of money, Jason upon reaching his majority at the age of twenty one, and Elinor upon her marriage, although her husband will, of course, control her inheritance.
Her thoughts are here distracted by the sound of galloping hoofbeats and she suppresses a moan of fear, not wanting to terrify the children any further. She's looking fearfully towards the coach window, the blind of which she hadn't lowered after hearing the highwayman's shout of “Stand and deliver” earlier and is therefore in a position to see a lone horseman go racing past the abandoned coach. Whoever this is, he shows no interest in them as his horse doesn't let up in its headlong flight.
It takes Serena a moment to realise that the horseman was firing as he passed them by, and she feels her breath catch in her throat for a few seconds as it occurs to her that this new player upon the stage might actually be a well-wisher come to rescue them. Though she cannot imagine where he has sprung from or indeed who he might be.
She dares to lean out of the window, leaving the children clinging together, and watches as the horseman swings down sideways off his horse to fire beneath his horse's belly as he and it pass the highwaymen. Both crumple to the ground and lie unmoving there, to Serena's intense relief. She watches as the horseman pulls himself back upright, then reins his animal in and brings it around at a trot, towards where Fletcher and di Lucca are divesting the highwaymen of their muskets and ammunition. They talk as they work, but Serena cannot hear the conversation they are holding with the unknown horseman.
After several minutes, the three men make their way back to the coach, and Coachman Fletcher, commonly known as Fletch, makes an introduction to their rescuer.
“Lady Serena, this is Captain Wolfe of the Parliamentarian party. He was involved in the skirmish in which my late Lord lost his life and was on his way to visit you at the Hall when he saw the broken down coach and heard the gunfire.”
“My Lady,” Wolfe says, doffing his hat and bowing to her from atop his horse. “I am glad that my timely arrival meant I was able to render your men assistance against those pernicious ruffians.”
“I – we – are very grateful to you, Captain Wolfe,” Serena says, staring at him greedily. He has a trim, lithe figure soberly clad in garments that are clearly practical rather than ornamental as so many of her late husband’s were. In the failing light she can make out a hawkish nose, deep brown eyes, and straw-coloured hair. He is altogether a handsome fellow of her own age and she finds her body reacting as it has not for many years since she first discovered Edward’s propensity for dalliances with maids, governesses, and other female servants of the household. He had also, she knew, bedded a handful of visiting married and unmarried ladies of their acquaintance, to her intense irritation.
“It was my pleasure to assist you, my Lady.”
Serena feels herself growing warm in response to the intent way that he is gazing at her.
“Unfortunately, my Lady, the coach will need to be repaired before it can continue on to Campbell Hall,” Fletch tells her. “The Captain has proposed that we ride back to the Hall on the coach horses, bringing the essential baggage with us on the two spare horses. If I might suggest that Master Haynes come up with me, and Miss Campbell rides with Raf, while you, my Lady, ride with Captain Wolfe. It’s set to be cold and clear tonight and you will not be warm enough spending all night in the coach.”
“You seem to have arranged things very well between you,” Serena observes, feeling gratitude for their practicality. “Very well. Jason, you know you’ll be safe with Mr Fletcher, don’t you?”
“Yes, Aunt Serena,” he says obediently, and she feels a great sense of relief that he isn’t making a fuss about his schedule being interrupted.
“Good boy. Elinor, please be sensible while you’re riding with Mr di Lucca.”
“Yes Mama.” Elinor’s meek tone is unusual for her, but perhaps she’s still feeling the effects of their coach being waylaid so alarmingly.
She accepts Captain Wolfe’s assistance out of the coach, grateful that it has those fold up steps to make such manoeuvrings easier. Then she swiftly sorts through their luggage, pointing out to Raf which bags they need from their stowage spot on the roof of the coach.
The two coach horses not being ridden by Raf and Fletch are loaded up with their necessary bags, then Wolfe hands up Jason and Elinor to their respective horses’ riders, and the two men set off at a slow trot. Then the Captain turns to Serena.
“I am afraid, my Lady, that I will have to take you up astride my horse as he does not have a lady’s saddle.”
Serena is glad of the deepening twilight to hide her blush – not of embarrassment, but of excitement. She feels a thrill at the thought of straddling Wolfe’s horse, with that slim body at her back.
“Well, Captain, I daresay I shall manage somehow.”
He gives her a grave nod, then pulls something from a leather strap at the back of his saddle. “You’ll want this, my Lady,” he says, and unrolls an exceptionally fine looking, good quality wool cloak.
“Thank you, Captain.” She allows him to wrap it around her, acquiescing to his suggestion that he use the leather strap from his saddle to secure the cloak around her body.
“It will save you from having to try to hold it in place,” he explains.
She nods and lets him circle her waist with his arms, the ends of the strap being swiftly brought together and affixed. She shivers, though not from the cold, but from having his body so close to her own. He boosts her up into the saddle as soon as he’s satisfied his cloak is secure, then leaps up behind her, reaching around her body to take hold of the reins.
He clicks his tongue, and the horse starts to trot after Fletch, Raf, and the other two coach horses, quickly catching them up despite carrying two adults, rather than an adult and a child.
“Is all well with you, my Lady?” asks Wolfe after a few minutes.
“A little chilled, despite your excellent wool cloak,” Serena says, trying to suppress her shivers.
“I am sorry that I do not have another in which to wrap you,” Wolfe says, his tone genuinely regretful. She feels him shift behind her, then his left arm circles her body and draws her back to his chest. “This might help.” His low, gravelly voice is right beside her ear, and she shivers again, though this time from the desire that’s been thrumming through her body since she first spoke to him. She has to fight an incredibly powerful urge to turn her head and kiss him, so strong is the lust now surging through her veins.
“It does, thank you,” she tells him, pleased that her voice comes out steadily despite how much she’s trembling with want.
A part of her regrets that there are only a few miles to go before they reach Campbell Hall: she is enjoying huddling for warmth in the Captain’s strong arms.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
It’s nearing midnight by the time they arrive at Campbell Hall. The front doors are already wide open, and servants spill out onto the steps, the footmen hurrying down the steps in order to bring their Lady and her children in from the cold.
“I’ll go with Fletch and Raf, my Lady, if you do not mind, for I prefer to take care of my horse myself,” Wolfe says as soon as she has alighted.
Serena nods agreement, feeling somewhat disappointed that he isn’t prepared to follow her indoors. She turns away from him, aware of his gaze on her back as she wearily climbs the steps up into the house. Two of the maids hurry the children upstairs to their baths and beds, but Serena remains downstairs to see that all is well following their sennight’s absence from home.
She is in her late husband’s study, seated before the roaring fire, a glass of her husband’s brandy on the side table next to her chair, when her butler, Hanssen, shows Captain Wolfe in to see her.
“The children are bathed and asleep, my Lady,” Hanssen tells her. “Your things are in your rooms, and the horses have been taken care of. Most of the servants are abed.”
“Thank you, Hanssen. You should go, too. Captain Wolfe and I will not be long behind you.”
“Yes, my Lady.”
“Oh, one thing, Hanssen. Where have you put Captain Wolfe?”
“In the Yellow Room, my Lady.”
“Very well. Goodnight.”
“Goodnight my Lady, Captain.”
Serena feels a surge of satisfaction that Captain Wolfe is in the Yellow Room as it is the one next to her own.
“Take a seat, Captain Wolfe.” Serena gestures at the armchair on the other side of the fireplace. “Brandy?”
“Thank you, my Lady.”
“Call me Serena,” she says, pouring him a good measure of brandy, then passing the glass over to him. Their fingers brush against each other as Wolfe takes the glass from her and she feels a spike of white hot pleasure down her spine. I want you, she thinks, determinedly. She wants those long, slim fingers on her body, and that mouth, with its thin upper lip and plump lower lip, on her mouth, and on her body, too.
“Tell me, Captain Wolfe, how long have you been getting away with your masquerade?”
Wolfe splutters into his brandy, then plucks a kerchief from his pocket and wipes his mouth. “Masquerade, my Lady?”
“You’re very good. You bear up well to quite close scrutiny, but your chest was pressed against my back for several miles, and despite whatever binding you’re using, I can still recognise the shape of breasts on my back.”
“You –” Wolfe begins, then stops, gazing at her with a rather calculating expression. “You don’t seem upset, Serena.”
Serena smiles. “It’s been too long since I’ve had another woman in my bed, Captain, and it would pleasure me greatly if you joined me in mine tonight.”
Wolfe’s eyes brighten and a wicked smile appears on her lips. “It would be my very great pleasure to join you, my Lady.”
“Good. Shall we go up, then? We can discuss whatever brought you to Campbell Hall in the morning.”
“Of course, Serena.”
“One last thing,” Serena says before draining the last of her brandy. “What is your given name?”
“Berenice.” Serena rolls the syllables around in her mouth as she says them and feels a rush of excitement when she sees how closely the Captain is watching her lips, her eyes so dark as to be black.
She has a feeling that she won’t be getting much sleep tonight. She finds that she doesn’t mind that much.