An Unexpected Encounter
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by Fenella Miller
Category: Romance/Historical Fiction
Description: Miss Victoria Marsh has an unexpected encounter in the church with a handsome, but disagreeable, soldier recuperating from a grievous leg injury. Major Toby Highcliff believes himself to be a useless cripple but meeting Victoria changes everything. Will he be able to keep her safe from the evil that stalks the neighbourhood and convince her he is the ideal man for her? Regency Romance Novella by Fenella Miller; originally published by Pocket Novel
eBook Publisher: Belgrave House, 2010
eBookwise Release Date: October 2010
5 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [132 KB]
Reading time: 84-118 min.
Miss Victoria Marsh was walking briskly down the narrow lane that led from the grounds of Butterfield Hall to the small village of Bentley. It was a perfect summer's day. She paused to listen to the nightingales singing in a nearby coppice and watched the skylarks high above as the sun warmed her face. It was far too long since she'd had the freedom to enjoy such simple pleasures.
She shuddered as she recalled the past weeks, she'd thought that at any moment her only relative was going to depart this life, leaving her bereft.
She frowned. Was it not a lovely day, had she not the morning to herself for the first time in weeks? She must stop dwelling on the past and enjoy the present. Aunt Martha was almost recovered and she was going to spend an hour with her bosom bow. Victoria couldn't wait to catch up on the local news, Marybeth always had the latest on dits, the vicarage was the hub of village.
She'd not been walking more than a mile when something sharp pressed into the sole of her foot. Botheration! How was it possible for a stone to have worked its way in? Spying a convenient log on the side of the lane she hobbled across and sat down in order to remove her kid half-boot.
She emptied the pebble out -- what a small thing to cause so much discomfort. Whilst lacing her boot she glanced across the lane at a flurry of sparrows as they flew into the hedge.
Her fingers stilled. Wasn't that something shiny hidden amongst the leaves? Quickly tying the bow she dropped her skirts and hurried across to investigate. Crouching down she rummaged into the foliage until her fingers settled on what she had seen. Good gracious! How did a gold and diamond necklace come to be tossed so casually aside? Victoria held the object up and the stones sparkled in the sunlight. This was no doubt a valuable item, someone must be desperate to have it returned.
She dropped the necklace into her reticule and pulled the drawstring tight. A note must be sent to the local magistrate, Sir John Farnham, she would pen it whilst visiting her friend. Such excitement, perhaps there would be a reward? It was doubtful that the necklace had been lost by its owner, it was far more likely it had been stolen in another of the burglaries that were rife in the neighbourhood. The thieves must have carelessly dropped the item in their hurry to escape.
She continued her walk towards the village revelling in the solitude. The sound of horses approaching caused her to step out of the lane; she did not deliberately hide herself, but the trees she was standing under all but obscured her outline. When she saw who was approaching she pressed herself further into the shadows. The ramshackle, unshaven individuals were obviously searching for the missing item. If they discovered her, her life might well be in danger.
These two unsavoury felons were searching the hedgerows for their lost loot. They halted a few yards from her. Her heart thudded painfully. What if they saw her lurking in the undergrowth? Should she ran for her life or remain still and hope for the best? Then they moved off apparently unaware they were being observed. With a sigh of relief she slipped out from behind the trees and almost ran the remaining mile to the village. At no time did she return to the lane, instead she made her way across the meadows and over the stile to arrive in Bentley through the wicket gate that led into the church yard.
She paused amidst the gravestones to adjust her bonnet and shake out the dust and debris from her hem. She wiped her brow with her handkerchief as her breathing returned to normal. It would not do to appear looking dishevelled, the tabbies would take note and it would be all around the village by teatime.
On impulse she decided to go into the church and send up a prayer of thanks to the Almighty for the safe delivery of her beloved aunt. The interior of the old building was cool and quiet, it was, as expected, quite deserted. She walked down the central aisle and dipped her head in reverence. Moving into her usual pew she knelt quietly and clasped her hands.
Five minutes passed before she pushed herself on to the bench satisfied the Lord had heard her prayers. She watched the dust motes floating in the golden glow from the window, it had been far too long since she had been able to spend time in this hallowed building.
A slight sound to her left caused her heart to skitter, her head shot sideways to meet the eyes of an equally startled gentleman. He'd been hidden in the shadows at the far side of the building.
He stood up clumsily sending a stack of books tumbling to the flagstones. He was muttering words which sounded suspiciously like curses as he attempted to retrieve them. Victoria could see at once that he was lame, his right leg seemed unable to bend. Immediately she hurried over to assist.
'Please, sir, let me pick them up for you. I am so sorry that I shocked you, I had no idea there was anyone else in the church.'
The gentleman seemed annoyed. His fierce expression almost made her regret her offer. Quickly she scooped up the books to replace them on the side table that stood at the end of the pew. By this time he'd managed to prise himself up. He was glaring down at her. In spite of his obvious infirmity it detracted nothing from his physical presence. He must be a veteran recovering from an injury received in one of the ghastly battles that had taken place so recently in Spain.
Keeping her head demurely lowered she curtsied neatly. 'I know it is not proper for me to introduce myself, but as there is no one here to do it for me, I am Miss Victoria Marsh. I am delighted to meet you, I believe you must be a stranger in these parts.' She glanced nervously through her lashes, waiting for to him to tell her who he was. Something flickered in his eyes, she wasn't certain if it was annoyance or amusement. Then he inclined his head an inch. His voice was deep, authoritative, it fitted his appearance.
'Toby Highcliff, at your service, Miss Marsh.'
He didn't add that he was delighted to make her acquaintance. Without thinking she blurted out her thoughts. 'Are you not an officer? I thought you must have been injured at Badajoz, or somewhere similar.'
His expression became even frostier. 'You are impertinent, miss. Pray excuse me, I have business elsewhere.' He inclined his head a fraction and with surprising speed for a man with his disability, vanished down the aisle. Fortunately she'd left the door ajar and there was nothing to impede his progress.
She scowled after him. No doubt he was in pain, but there was no excuse for incivility. She stood for a few moments regaining her composure. Her lips twitched, was she not in the house of the Lord? The irascible gentleman, Mr Highcliff, must be forgiven. Her eyes sparkled; but he wouldn't be forgotten, that was for certain.
He was just leaving the churchyard when she reached the door. He was elegantly dressed, his top coat of dark-blue superfine, his inexpressibles beige and his top boots polished to a high shine. His hair was more black than brown and if she remembered rightly, his eyes had been a most unusual shade somewhere between grey and pale blue.
She must not stand dithering and daydreaming about an unexpected encounter with a curmudgeonly gentleman, she had errands to run and if she intended to visit Marybeth she had better get about her business. She was determined to return in time to share a midday meal with her great aunt.
Toby continued his lopsided march until he was certain the young lady could no longer see him; exhausted by his effort, he leant against a tree to recover his equilibrium. Perspiration trickled down his cheeks, he rummaged in his pocket to remove his handkerchief. Dr Clark had warned him not to overdo things until his leg was fully mended. What had possessed him to stride off in that ridiculous fashion?
His face relaxed, for the first time in many months he felt there was a glimmer of light at the end of a very dark tunnel. The girl's lovely smile had unexpectedly knocked him off balance for a moment and her instantly recognizing him as an ex-soldier had added to his discomfiture. His military career was over, his leg would never recover sufficiently for him to be able to resume his command. He had only his half pay and the small amount he'd accumulated in prize money between himself and destitution.
He was staying with his brother-in-law, Sir John Farnham, but could not stay there indefinitely.
They had a nursery full of children to provide for and only a modest income with which to do it. He must come up with a way of earning his own living, it was his intention to remain with his sister only until the following weekend, they must be heartily sick of seeing his long face in their happy home. He must discover who the young lady was when he returned. It was a small community, Celia was bound to know every well bred young lady who lived in the vicinity.
The handsome gelding John had loaned him was waiting patiently outside; as his right leg no longer bent at the knee Toby had some difficulty when remounting his horse but had almost mastered the procedure. Another ten days and he would have it perfected and would be able to leave. As he cantered home he wondered if his fervent prayers had been answered in a way he'd never considered. Was Miss Marsh to be his salvation? He shook his head -- miracles were not for the likes of him.
Victoria had quite forgotten the expensive necklace she carried in her bag as Mr Highcliff dominated her thoughts. He was unknown to her but Marybeth would know all about him. She cut short her shopping expedition in order to hurry to the vicarage. Her friend greeted her at the door.
'Victoria, I cannot tell you how glad I am to see you. It must mean that Mrs Winterton is sufficiently recovered to allow you to leave her alone.'
'You're quite correct, and I thank God she was spared. She is with her seamstress, determined to renew her wardrobe.' Victoria laughed. 'I cannot imagine why an octogenarian should choose to dress in the first stare of fashion. Indeed, it's only at her behest that my wardrobe is so a la mode. I should be quite happy to continue wearing what I have.'
'But if you did so I should not be nearly so well dressed myself! You're the envy of the village, a veritable fashion plate every time you come to visit us lesser folk.'
Arm in arm the two girls ran inside. Mrs Peters, Marybeth's mother, greeted Victoria with enthusiasm. 'My dear, how lovely to see you and on such a fine day too. Our prayers have been with you these last few weeks, truly it is nothing short of a miracle that your aunt has recovered.'
Victoria curtsied. 'It is, ma'am, I was reluctant to leave her this morning but she insisted. However I intend to be back by midday, so I do not have more than an hour to spend here, more's the pity.'
'Then I shall not hold you back, my dear, I shall have refreshments sent up to you.'
Once in the privacy of her friend's apartment Victoria turned eagerly to her. 'Marybeth, I encountered the most unpleasant gentleman in church just now. He was abominably rude, I did not like him one bit.'
Marybeth clapped her hands. 'You've met Major Highcliff, he's staying with the squire. He was sorely injured and almost lost his leg. Lady Farnham is his only living relative, he has been recuperating with them these past few weeks, no one has dared to waylay him. You must be the first.'
'How is that? What has he done to frighten away the matrons with eligible daughters?'
'He rides past looking to neither right nor left, his face so grim, and he does not come into society at all. I should not have had the courage to speak to him.'
Victoria giggled. 'But you must admit, for all his ill-humour, he is a prodigiously handsome gentleman. He must be two yards tall at least, and the width of his shoulders -- well, all I can say is that he all but blocked the light from the church when he exited.'
It wasn't until Victoria was on her way home she recalled the incident with the two unkempt men and the precious property she had secreted in her reticule. How fortuitous she should come across this particular item today. She almost skipped down the drive. Now she had the perfect excuse to visit Sir John and discover more about Major Highcliff, there was something about this gentleman that rung her heartstrings. He had a sadness in his expression that called out for her to offer him her friendship and support. She had once looked like that, then dearest Aunt Martha had come to her rescue. Now she would do the same for him, she was certain he was as lost as she had been three years ago.