'Winter Fire' excerpt

The picture is from the stepback of the original paperback.

Book 6 of the Malloren Series

Chapter 1

December 1763, in Surrey, en route to Rothgar Abbey.

  "Many people pray for tedium," Genova Smith's mother had often said to her as a girl if she complained that she was bored. It had not convinced her then, and didn't now. Two long days in a slow-moving coach, no matter how luxurious, had tested her tolerance to breaking point.
  Her companions were not dull. The elderly Trayce ladies could be excellent company. Fat Lady Calliope Trayce was gruffly insightful. Thin Lady Thalia was charmingly eccentric. They could play three-handed whist forever.
  However being eighty-four and seventy-seven they slipped into a doze now and then, as now. Tilted against the sides of the coach, they looked like mismatched bookends, one snorting, one whistling.
  Genova's books had worn out their appeal, and she couldn't do needlework in the swaying, jolting coach. Though she'd never say so, even cards had become tedious. Dear Lord, send a diversion. Even a highwayman!
  The coach stopped.
  Genova looked out with alarm. Surely prayers like that weren't answered. Heart beating faster, she slipped her pistol out of her carriage bag. She had to admit that her rapid heart was caused by excitement rather than fear.
  Action, at last.
  She'd checked and cocked the gun before she realized that highwaymen would make some sound. Didn't they shout, "Stand and deliver!" or some such?
  Besides, no sane highwayman would attempt to stop an entourage of three carriages and four armed outriders, not even if tempted by the gilded ostentation of this vehicle. The Trayce ladies were ensconced in the personal traveling chariot of their great-nephew, the Marquess of Ashart.
  Genova had a low opinion of the marquess from a portrait of him that hung on his great-aunts' wall in Tunbridge Wells, showing a vapid, powdered and primped creature. This coach had confirmed it. No true man needed deep padding, silk-lined walls, and ornate, gilded candle sconces -- not to mention paintings of nubile nymphs on the ceiling.
  The coach was still stationary. Genova was sitting with her back to the horses, so couldn't see the cause. She leaned forward and craned.
  Ah. A coach was in the ditch, and the stranded traveler, a lady, was talking to Hockney, their chief outrider. The sky was low and trees whipped, showing how sharp the wind blew. With the icy temperature out there the poor lady must be freezing. They would have to take her up to the next inn.
  Genova glanced at the Trayce ladies, wondering if it was within her powers to decide that. They'd asked her to come on this journey as their lady companion -- "For you've had such adventures!" Thalia had exclaimed -- but her precise duties had never been specified.
  Anyway, Genova knew her "employment" had been as much an act of charity as necessity. They'd known she was uncomfortable in her stepmother's house and offered escape. She wanted to reward them with good care, however, so what should she do here?
  Her neck was protesting the angle, so she straightened. Perhaps Hockney, too, wasn't sure he had the authority. She shrugged and gathered her cloak from the seat beside her. She despised ditherers, and what choice was there?
  She opened the door and climbed out, gasping as the icy air bit. She shut the door quickly before too much of the warmth escaped, then swung her cloak around herself, pulled up the hood, and fastened it.
  The thick, blue cloak was a gift from the Trayce ladies, and the most luxurious Genova had ever owned. It was even lined with fur. Rabbit, to be sure, but fur, and in this situation, she appreciated that. She only wished she'd remembered the matching muff.
  Tucking her hands under her cloak, she hurried over, feeling the cold already nibbling through her thin-soled shoes.
  The woman turned, showing a pretty but sharp face framed in rich, dark fur. She looked Genova up and down. "Who are you?"
  Well! No wonder Hockney was hesitating. There was a saying about not looking a gift horse in the mouth. Of course, the sable-trimmed woman probably knew rabbit fur when she saw it.
  "This is Miss Smith, ma'am," Hockney said in a flat tone. His long face was chapped with cold, and an icicle was forming on the end of his nose. "Companion to Lady Thalia and Lady Calliope Trayce. Miss Smith, this is Mrs. Dash, whose coach has come to grief."
  "Trayce!" Mrs. Dash exclaimed, transformed. "How kind of the ladies to stop! I am quite overwhelmed by the honor."
  Perdition. A toad-eater, and just the sort to presume on this encounter.
  "Oh, would you possibly, could you possibly...."
How in the stars could she say no?
  "...take my baby on to warmth?"
  Genova gaped. "Baby?"
  Shining smile was replaced by piteous pleading.
  "The dear one is in the coach with the maid. It's so cold. If you could..." Mrs. Dash brought gloved hands out of her muff to clasp them in prayer. "I'm to meet my husband at the Lion and Unicorn in Hockham. He will take charge of everything, I assure you. I will not mind waiting here if only my poor infant is safe and warm."
  There could be no question now. "Of course, Mrs. Dash. Please, I'm sure we will be glad to help."
  Mrs. Dash hurried over to the tilted carriage and shouted at someone inside. A bundle was tossed out, then another passed with care. The baby.
  Then, Mrs. Dash's coachman virtually hoisted out a bulky maid. The mother thrust her baby back into the maid's arms, and urged her over toward Genova. It took some urging. The maid bore a strong resemblance to a stolid ox. Her round face expressed sullen anxiety.
  The poor creature was probably freezing. She wore a hooded cloak but it wasn't fur-lined and Genova doubted that Mrs. Dash's coach was kept as warm like the Marquess of Ashart's with regularly refreshed hot bricks. The baby, at least, was so bundled up it was scarcely visible.
  "Go with this lady!" Mrs. Dash yelled, pointing, then added in a normal voice, "She doesn't speak much English."
  "Then what does she speak?"
  "Irish. What they call Gaelic. Please, Miss Smith, get my poor baby into shelter!"
  Genova stiffened at the shrill command, but the woman was right. That was the most important thing. She picked up the bundle and steered the maid toward the gilded coach. It was easy as dragging an ox, almost as if the woman didn't want to go.
  She must be afraid. She was in a strange country among people who didn't speak her language. She'd been tossed around in an accident, possibly hurt, and now was being handed off to strangers.
  Genova began to explain to her in a gentle, soothing voice. She'd spent most of her life traveling with her mother and her naval-captain father, and often been in places where she didn't know the language. She'd learned that even when people didn't understand words they could often understand tone.
  Perhaps it worked. The maid turned her round freckled face up to Genova, then speeded her steps.
  Another outrider had dismounted and stood ready to open the door. Genova passed him the maid's bundle, which gave off a sour smell. "I don't suppose anyone here speaks Gaelic, do they?"
  "Not that I know, Miss Smith."
  "Pity. Ask anyway."
  He opened the door and Genova hefted the maid into the warmth, then scrambled after so the door could be shut again.
  Thalia stirred, then her eyes opened brightly. "What have we here, then?"
  Despite her years Lady Thalia Trayce could be called pretty, with her fluffy white hair and big blue eyes. It was unfortunate that she insisted on dressing in a very youthful style, but then it was part of her eccentricity, and she was invariably kind. She and Genova had become good friends, which was why Genova was on this journey.
  "A traveler requiring succor," Genova said, realizing that not all the smell had been from the maid's bundle. "Or two, really. Maid and baby. Maid only speaks Gaelic."
  "My, my!" Despite the stale, cheesy smell, Thalia looked as if she'd been given a treat. With the tedium of traveling, that was probably true.
  The coach jerked into movement, and Genova looked out at Mrs. Dash, intending to wave or give some gesture that all would be well. She should have said that they would send help. It was obvious, but she should have said it.
  However, the woman's expression stilled her.
  The bright smile could be relief that her child was in good hands, but it did not look like that at all. It almost looked gleeful.
  Was that because Mrs. Dash now thought that she had the entree to the grand Trayce family? Genova's instincts said no -- that it was something else, and that she might regret this act of charity.
  Three hours later, she knew her instincts, as usual, had been correct.
Winter Fire is the sixth novel in the Malloren series.

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