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September 06th, 2021
BLOG TOUR SCHEDULE AND GIVEAWAY
Monday, Sep 6:
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Friday Sep 10
*Special author feature and interview
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September 06th, 2021
Ethan Roderick and Miranda Bartley are about to cement their courtship when he suddenly calls it off, on grounds that Miranda is frivolous and vain. A genuine philanthropist, Ethan dedicates his time to society’s unseen and unheard. He needs a like-minded wife who will support him in his endeavours. Everyone agrees! Meanwhile, Miranda finds herself on the bottom rung when she is forced to work as a servant in her estranged uncle’s house and is only saved from despair by her maid, Sarah, who teaches her humility and how to say ‘please.’ After a chance encounter, Ethan intervenes in Miranda’s fate, putting her forward as a companion to the elderly Lady Callister.
The scene is well set for a quick-paced riches-to-rags-to-riches story, and it shows in the growth and maturity of the characters. It’s easy to picture Darcy in Ethan’s conundrum—his need to marry equal to his station; his inability to deny his heart. Miranda’s vanity morphs into a new understanding of those less privileged, who she has previously ignored. Lady Callister’s shrewd mentorship proves exceedingly useful, and she’s a delightful addition to the story. Motivations both good and bad are slowly uncovered. A pleasant afternoon’s read.
See review here: https://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/refining-the-debutante/
Cover Reveal and Sneak Peek
COMING SEPTEMBER 2021
I'm a little obsessed with it! And for the first time ever, I got to proofread the story by using a paperback advanced copy. Yep, that was me yesterday, sitting on my own porch just reading my own book! No one in the world cared, but I was pretty happy about it. Usually all of my proofreading is done on Adobe Acrobat Reader so I can see my editor's notes and I can add my own for her to see. I still had to use it, but a chunk of my read-through was done with my paperback copy. And guess what? I made myself laugh and cry. That's a real talent, folks! If there are any nerd awards, I might just win!
Thank you for your sweet emails about this upcoming book! And thank you for all the FABULOUS reviews on Refining the Debutante! My heart melts when I read how much this story touched you. If you haven't read it yet, I have a sneak peek of the first two chapters! Click on the preview button below the image!
Adversity reveals a woman’s true character in this tender Regency from Walker (The Masked Baron). The belle of London Society, captivating Miranda Bartley, is shocked when Ethan Roderick abruptly breaks off their courtship, accusing her of being vain and caring more for “silly dresses and bonnets” than “the state of the country.” The breakup presages a downward spiral in Miranda’s life, as her family loses their fortune and she flees London in disgrace to take up a life of backbreaking servitude in the home of an estranged uncle. Ethan, meanwhile, tries to move on from vivacious Miranda with another, more suitable young woman. But six weeks later, Ethan’s chance encounter with a much changed Miranda prompts him to invite her back to his family’s country home as his guest, determined to help her despite the potential scandal it will cause his family. The predictable plot is offset by the grace and humility of the central characters and well-shaded supporting cast—especially elderly Lady Callister, whose cheeky impertinence hides a heart of gold. The result is a sweet, solid romance. (Mar.)
Soup and Biscuits
Ivy Hunt, from a Hopeful Christmas, LOVES soup. I thought I would share with you one of my favorite soup recipes and an easy drop biscuit recipe.
Cheddar Chowder (not pictured above!)
8-10 cups boiling water (enough to cover veges)
5-7 medium potatoes diced
1 cup carrots sliced
1 cup celery sliced
1/4 cup onion diced
*optional add more veges: broccoli, cauliflower, peas
Combine in a large pot (I use an 5 quart pot but it fills it to the brim) and cook until vegetables are soft (medium heat for 15-20 minutes covered with lid). Do not drain.
1/4 c butter
1/4 c flour
4 cups milk
2 cups shredded cheese
1-2 cups cubed ham (a ham steak works well)
In a saucepan melt butter. Stir in flour until combined, then add milk. Continue stirring constantly until thickened. Add cheddar cheese; stir until melted. Add to undrained vegetables mixture and ham. Stir in and heat through, but do not boil. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Yields 10 servings.
2 c. flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp salt
3 tsp sugar
1 cube melted butter
1 cup milk (buttermilk works well too)
Combine ingredients until mixed. Batter will be thick and sticky. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Spray with cooking oil. Drop heaping spoonfuls of dough on the pan. Bake 475 degrees for 12-15 minutes. *optional, add cheddar, or chives, or garlic to create something new! We like plain best, served with butter and honey.
Yields 10-12 biscuits
Corbridge, England, 1813
Andalin stared at the sketch of the Dark Rider. Papa had bought it for
five pence on one of his trips and pinned it to the shelf of their small lending
library. All those who frequented their shop stopped and commented on
the crude image of the infamous baron turned highwayman. Andalin
memorized all the tidbits they shared. Then the customers left like always,
on to exciting places Andalin could only dream about.
She picked up her duster, knowing work still needed to be done, and
trailed it along the few ribbons and things purchased from a haberdashery
at the nearby market town only to be resold here. Various sizes of saltglazed
vases lined one wall, opposite the odds and ends. Instead of giving
her pride in Papa’s trade, they seemed to press against her, trapping her in
the small room for yet another day.
Andalin’s senses dulled, and her mind wandered to the stories of the Dark
Rider. The man terrorized the villages of Northumberland, so she should
certainly be grateful Corbridge had been spared thus far. She imagined the
Dark Rider storming Papa’s shop and stealing her away, only for a rich duke
to swoop in and rescue her. Of course, love would spiral from the heroic act,
but the greater good would surely be in saving Papa from insolvency.
A heavy sigh escaped her lungs, only to catch on her lips when a shadow
passed outside the door. It was silly for her to jump to conclusions, but
suddenly she wished Mr. Young, Papa’s elderly assistant, was not absent--
especially with Papa out peddling his wares in a nearby town.
The door swung open, and Mr. Crow sauntered in. He was not as
intimidating as the Dark Rider was presumed to be, but Mr. Crow carried
an air of domineering importance. Andalin was never easy in his presence.
“Good afternoon,” Mr. Crow said, dipping his head as if she were some
great lady. He wore his new suit, she noticed—one of several he’d gone all the
way to London to have made and fitted. He looked the part of a real gentleman,
and despite what others whispered about him, he acted the part too.
She released her pent-up breath, but her muscles remained tense. “Is
there anything in particular you came to purchase, sir?”
“I’m here for a pleasure call,” Mr. Crow said, oblivious to Andalin’s
In the back of her mind she heard the voices of her neighbors contradicting
Papa’s opinions and urging her to encourage Mr. Crow’s attentions.
“You must have heard I’ve a second carriage now, Miss Durante. My
pub here and my new inn in Tyndale are thriving.”
“Yes, I heard.” Andalin busied herself with dusting again, intrigued
despite her better judgment. Mr. Crow was tall, broad, and generally
considered handsome. He wore his wavy curls combed forward, with long
sideburns, in the Titus fashion he said was all the rage amongst high Society.
Mr. Crow cleared his throat and checked the door again to ensure they
were alone. “I’m looking to buy an estate, and I need a wife to help me
maneuver through the social circles. I could have anyone, anyone at all. Do
you take my meaning?”
Andalin’s heart pounded both from nerves and disbelief, but she kept
her face impassive. “You require a wife.”
“Yes.” Mr. Crow’s lips curled with pleasure. “I am a generous man,
willing to condescend for the right woman. Miss Durante, I’d like to offer
for your hand.”
Andalin lowered her gaze and fingered the handle on her feather duster.
She did not love Mr. Crow, but he was the most important man she knew,
and he flattered her vanity. Marrying him meant a life outside the store
and a new world of possibilities. If she wanted to leave the store, marriage
seemed the only solution. “My father would not like it.”
“Your father is an imbecile.”
Andalin could not hold back her annoyance. “My father is nothing
of the sort.” Papa always cautioned her to hold her tongue, but surely she
must defend his name. “He doesn’t care for you, and that is all.”
“Forget him. I will speak to him. I only wanted you to adjust to the
idea before our wedding.”
She did not like how he assumed there would be a wedding. At the same
time, she could hardly believe he would choose her for his wife. Indeed, if
the thought did not turn her stomach, she might consider it. “You don’t
want me. I am a lowly tradesman’s daughter, a nothing in this world.”
“That may be true now, but I shall have you.” His tone changed from
persuasive to forceful. “You are too refined for this life, and I shall show you
off as the prize you were meant to be. I will buy you gowns and jewels, and
every man will look at me with envy.”
Andalin took a step back against several bolts of cloth. Mr. Crow’s eyes
gleamed with insatiable hunger. Entertaining any thought of accepting
such a proposal now seemed ludicrous. She remembered Mr. Young saying
he would return from his deliveries before dinner, but that was a few hours
away yet. Mrs. Young usually looked in on Andalin, but the woman was
feeling poorly today. To be alone with Mr. Crow now seemed as formidable
as any highwayman.
Mr. Crow closed the gap between them and then lifted his large hand
to her face. She held her breath as he ran his thick fingers against her cheek.
“Soon, my little dove, I will take you away from all of this.”
Greenhead Village, Northumberland, England
Ellison watched from his place on the main floor through an open window
smeared with dust as Hezekiah Durante rode up to Thirlwall Castle.
The middle-aged man wore plain clothes rumpled from travel, and the hair
beneath his hat was peppered with gray. He tied up his horse and lifted his
hand to knock when the rotting door of Thirlwall swung in on its own.
Ellison’s lips twitched in humor.
Lord Kerrigan’s generosity in temporarily extending the use of his castle
did not include the upkeep of the place. Apparently, his friend possessed too
many holdings to oversee all of them with equal attention. Traces of vermin
and decaying masonry testified that a vacant house never fared well. Even
Ellison’s own neglected home, Braitwood Hall, had not fallen into such
extensive disrepair. However, he would not complain about the conditions
of Thirlwall Castle when it provided the ideal secluded meeting place.
Ellison closed the glass pane and made his way to his guest. He’d spent
many years tracking down Mr. Durante, and finally he would have answers.
He noiselessly stepped into the foyer, startling the poor tradesman when he
turned and saw Ellison.
Mr. Durante’s eyes widened. “The Dark Rider,” he said breathlessly.
Ellison smiled menacingly. He hated that name. “One and the same.
And I am to assume you are Mr. Durante?”
The man removed his hat and gave a curt bow. Oddly enough, his face
did not register fear—just wariness. Everyone in England believed Ellison
to be the baron-turned-villain. “I am surprised, even impressed, you came.”
Mr. Durante’s grim expression did not falter. “Your business proposal
“As it should, if you have any love for money. Follow me, and we
shall discuss the details.” Ellison led the way to the earl’s table, where he’d
brought fare from the local inn for them to dine on. “Please, you’ve had a
hard ride. Eat while we talk.”
Mr. Durante’s eyes gave him away—he couldn’t believe Ellison did not
just strike him a blow and rob him for all he had, which wasn’t much,
based on Ellison’s inquiries. He could have laughed, but he needed to lure
Mr. Durante into a feeling of security. The man watched Ellison sit before
taking a seat himself. Ellison pushed over the plate of battered chicken legs
and a bottle of Madeira brandy-wine.
“I am serious about wanting to invest in your salt-glazed stoneware. Your
designs are unique and beautiful. I heard the Duke of Northumberland has
several of your vases on display at his home in Alnwick.”
“A craftsman must know his market.”
“And a good craftsman knows that in a rural location with little
resources, a deal with me could set him up for the rest of his life.”
Mr. Durante picked at the food, clearly wanting to expedite his business. “I don’t have a love for money like you’ve suggested. It’s a necessity.”
“Oh? Beyond just bread and a roof overhead?”
“Oh yes, your daughter is quite the beauty, I hear.”
Mr. Durante’s calm demeanor faltered, and he clenched his jaw. “How
did you hear of my daughter?”
Ellison’s patience waned, and he yearned to pelt the man with all the
questions he’d collected for the last decade. He pulled out his knife and
sharpener from his boot and began pushing the blade against the stone.
He’d found this activity aided him when bargaining. And while he did not
want to overly intimidate Mr. Durante, he did want the man to respect the
power that came from Ellison’s position.
“I didn’t plan to share all my cards, Mr. Durante, but you must
understand I know everything there is to know about you. I know your
circumstances are drastically reduced from the inheritance you would have
received had you not abandoned your family.” The color drained from Mr.
Durante’s face, but Ellison pressed on. “I know your daughter is all you
have left and you would do anything to give her the life you once had.
Oh, you’ve tried well enough. She’s as well-read as a Cambridge graduate,
and her speech is as refined as that of the gentry, but she’s still a poor little
tradesman’s daughter without a dowry or a future.”
“What do you want from me?” Mr. Durante asked, pushing to his feet.
Ellison touched the blade of his knife gently with his hand, testing its
sharpness. A trickle of blood was enough to satisfy him. “Believe it or not,
I am the kind of man you want on your side. This”—Ellison held up the
knife—“is a harmless tactic to uphold my reputation and no more. If you
are capable of trusting me, we can help each other.” He flipped the knife
around so the handle faced Mr. Durante. “Here. If you agree to work with
me, you must be on your guard.”
Mr. Durante stared at him for a long moment, not moving to accept
the proffered gift. “You are not the only one who did his research before
this meeting. Your knowledge of Andalin surprised me, but only that. I
could share a few secrets of yours, if I was so inclined.”
Ellison raised his brow with impressed wonder. “Excellent. I think this
equal footing will serve us well.”
Mr. Durante’s lips turned up into a half smile, and he finally accepted
the knife. “What are your terms?”
On the road northwest of Corbridge
Papa had returned from his trip only to tell Andalin he was leaving once
more—this time with her. There had been no explanation, no questions
asked—only time enough to pack her few possessions and absolutely no
books. Their destination was Braitwood Hall, the lair of the infamous Dark
Rider. Something awful must have happened to cause Papa to act so out of
They fled like wanted criminals in the dim light of the late evening in
a wagon rattling from their hurried pace.
The small village of Corbridge, which functioned as a simple midpoint
on the map for travelers, was the only home Andalin had ever known. All
the memories of her mother pulled her back, while the dream of setting
course to a new, exciting place beckoned her forward. Never had she been
invited on a single trip. Never had she left Corbridge.
She had no reason to fear she would not return. Papa traveled a great
deal, usually leaving her in the care of Mr. and Mrs. Young. However, Papa’s
odd behavior told Andalin this trip would be different than she imagined.
This was likely not the best time to bring up the proposal she’d received
from Mr. Crow.
“Oh, look. The ocean. I have always wanted to see it,” Andalin said
in jest, pointing to the River Tyne flowing near the section of road they
traveled. Papa’s mouth did not so much as twitch in humor. He radiated
tension, which pained her more than the jolts in the road. Only after many
hours spent bouncing along in their wagon did Papa begin to relax and desire
“Would you like to be a lady, Andalin?” Papa took in her profile and
then turned his attention back to driving the horses.
The question seemed rather peculiar. Andalin wrinkled her nose at the
image her mind conjured. “A lady would not appreciate the finer points of
travel by wagon.”
Still no smile.
“Very well,” Andalin said. “I will admit I sometimes dream of being a
fine lady with fancy dresses and food I do not prepare myself.”
Papa was a hard worker and was ambitious. She was proud of the way
he provided for her and for Mama, when she was alive.
“I have always wanted more for my girl.” He finally smiled at her,
softening the worry lines on his tanned face for a moment.
She smiled back, hoping to warm his mood. “Lest you think I am
unhappy, let me assure you that as a shopkeeper’s daughter, I have plenty
of prospects. I am a bookkeeper, maid, cook, and a well-read student of
history, geography, and”—Andalin gave a laugh—“gothic novels. A lady
could never have the diverse opportunities I do.” She gave Papa a sidelong
glance. “Why would you ask such a silly question?”
“Oh, no matter. I started thinking on it when I arranged my meeting
with Lord Cadogen.”
Andalin shivered. “The highwayman, you mean. I hardly think he
should be our destination.”
Papa seemed vexed. “He is hardly a criminal.”
“Do not pretend you are unaware of the rumors,” Andalin argued. “It’s
enough to cause Marybeth’s father to hide their valuables in a different
place every night. And Edith’s parents refuse to travel the main road out of
town. Why, even children like Saber and Lily know the stories of the Dark
Rider.” Andalin had often been amused by the little ones who shadowed
her around the store, talking of the Dark Rider and playacting the stories
“We talked about that name.” Papa shook his head. “It is not proper.
He is a baron and deserves to be called by his title. You are not like the
other girls from Corbridge. You were raised with better manners.”
She knew she was different only because her mother had been a fine
lady before marrying Papa. Her mama had insisted against the slang of
the lower class and encouraged Andalin’s studies. “I promise I will use the
utmost deference when we are in his presence. I only seek to caution you
and beg you reconsider selling your wares to a man who feels he is above
the law. It is not safe.”
Papa paused before finally admitting, “When I met Lord Cadogen,
he offered me an arrangement I cannot ignore.” He turned and glanced
behind him as if he could see some evil force all the way back in Corbridge.
“Now, more than ever, it’s important I take him up on it.”
She waited for him to explain their hurried escape, but when he didn’t,
her mind conjured up several plausible reasons—their lack of money the
most likely motivator.
A rock in the road caused her to bounce and come down hard. She
wondered what it would be like to travel in a comfortable closed carriage.
Her underside was sore, and each dip in the road jarred her bones. She
shoved her loose black curls back inside her mobcap and tied her bonnet
Papa took his eyes off the dirt road to see how she managed. “We’ll be
there soon enough.”
Squinting at the endless path, Andalin shook her head. “You must be
mistaken. Thornton Way is a full day ahead of us. Did you not see the sign
for the town?”
Papa wiped his sweaty brow beneath his cap with a handkerchief before
returning it to his pocket. “We’re taking the shortcut through the Black
Fear broke her composure. “It’ll be dark soon! There are thieves and
murderers who lurk in the trees. You cannot be serious!” A quick nod of his
head doubled the panic she felt. It was the final straw. “You drag me from
my home with nary a word, you insist on meeting the Dark Rider, and now
we must endanger ourselves in the forest. What is going on?”
Papa gave her a stern look. “I told you not to ask.”
Andalin tried to swallow, but the dirt the wheels kicked up made her
throat feel dry and scratchy. “I’m afraid, Papa. I hoped you were running
toward something, but now I know you must be running away.”
Papa surprised her by pulling the reins back, slowly bringing them to a stop.
He turned to face her. “Not from something—from someone.”
Shivers ran down her back. “Who?”
“I dare not tell you until after I speak with Lord Cadogen. Please do
not keep asking. I know how uncommonly curious you are, but I must insist on this.”
A million questions froze on her lips. If it was hard to remain silent on
the subject before, now it was nearly impossible.
Time seemed to crawl, though Papa kept a brisk pace. A subtle fork
in the road loomed ahead. As they drew closer, she saw the right was
undoubtedly the preferred route. It was wider, smoother, and strangely brighter.
The left choice resembled more of a path carved through the forest with a blunt knife. Papa hesitated for only a moment before pulling his wagon hard to the left and into the thick trees.
Andalin gave her papa another sideways glance. “Papa, the sign said
Papa’s face told her he wasn’t ignorant to the possibility of danger. “I
thought my Andalin wanted adventure.”
She knew the choice of direction had nothing to do with her whims.
Though, she could not deny the stories she often read fed her desire to see
the world and experience new things. Perhaps she should clarify that she
wanted a safe adventure.
As they traveled deeper into the Black Forest, the road became
treacherous with tree roots snaking near the surface and ruts that caused
their wagon to pitch this way and that. She held tightly to her seat, her
knuckles white from her fierce grip. She worried for their precious glassware
in the wagon bed, protected only by straw and the thin wood of the crates.
The shades of dusk seemed to melt into the trees. “How much
Papa didn’t take his eyes from the road. “Don’t know, exactly.”
“Have you never been this way, then?”
Papa adjusted his hat. “I’m not one to believe old wives’ tales, but the
Black Forest is thick enough for all sorts of mischief. I’ve avoided it until
now. But it’s the quickest way, and that is necessary for this trip. I wouldn’t
chance the safety of my daughter or my wares otherwise.”
Andalin laughed and then choked on the dust the horses kicked up.
“Thank you for putting me before your wares when you listed us together.
Corbridge will never question our bravery or adventurous spirit after this!”
“Never mind,” Papa replied. “It’s a risk, plain and simple.”
“Indeed. The shadows are certainly eerie, aren’t they?” There was
nothing between the thick trees but the last glimpse of daylight.
“Tell me one of your stories,” Papa urged. “The children seem to gather
like hens to hear you spin a tale.”
“These days they’re all stories about the Dark Rider. I’ve collected quite
a few from travelers. Everyone coming from Thornton Way, or near to it,
seems to have heard this or that about the man.”
“Lies and gossip,” Papa said.
Andalin pursed her lips. “Maybe, but you must agree they’re fascinating.
Did you hear the latest about Sir John Peltier, who was found unconscious
on the ground with the Dark Rider standing over him? He was just about
to finish Sir Peltier off when the men at the local tavern rode by, causing
him to flee.”
“Sir John Peltier?” Papa chuckled. “You speak of him as if you know
him. I’d wager you’ve never even heard his name before nor since.”
Andalin furrowed her brow. “No, but that really is not the point. I know
you have an agreement with Lord Cadogen, but there are obvious reasons to
avoid him. They say he killed his own family. He’s known far and wide to
be the most skilled swordsman in all of England, and his skill is not just for
sport like a true gentleman’s is. He carries a short sword with him everywhere,
though he is no soldier. Truly, I’m surprised his peers haven’t revoked his title
and shipped him off to New South Wales with the rest of the criminals.”
“If you think the working class is entertained by such stories, then I
imagine the upper crust is too.”
“His stories are exciting. Most of the intrigue is about what’s under
his mask. People speculate whether he’s hiding scars or burns or some
deformation. I’ve even heard tell he’s part animal.”
“Enough.” Papa shook his head. “I agree there is something very strange
about him, but he’s only a man.”
“All right, but the stories I tell are even more fantastical, so you had
best think of another topic of conversation.”
“Very well,” Papa said. “I’ve been meaning to discuss your future. It’s
time you found a husband.”
Andalin shook her head and whispered, feeling like the trees had ears.
“Might we continue to discuss the Dark Rider instead?” She’d rather speak
of him in the growing dark in the middle of a thief-infested forest than of
marriage. Thoughts of Mr. Crow’s vile touch haunted her memory. No, she
was not prepared for such a commitment.
“You’re of age now.”
Andalin turned her head away from her father. “Yes, but you need me in the store.” She reached for her garnet necklace, gifted to her by her mama, and covered the gem with her hand. Holding it usually comforted her, but the last thing she wanted was to be parted from Papa.
Papa patted his daughter’s knee. “You’re a beautiful woman now. I have
done my best to protect you, but I am getting on in years—”
“You don’t have enough years under your belt to consider yourself old,
so that won’t convince me in the slightest.”
At five and forty, her Papa was as spry as any younger man. She could
not bear to think of him coming home from work to an empty house
and a cold hearth. The loneliness would age him faster than the years
“This might not be the place to speak of it, but I feel the time will
approach faster than you are ready. You’ll have to do your best to prepare
yourself.” Papa’s words drifted on the breeze and seemed to be carried away
into the thick darkness that surrounded the trees. Andalin wanted to call
them back and wish them unsaid. Papa was right; whenever the time came
for her to marry, it would be too soon.
Any desire Andalin had for travel quickly waned as the woods seemed
to enclose upon them. The forest’s name seemed fitting yesterday, but today
it felt even more foreboding to her imagination. Andalin thought she saw
someone’s face between two trees, but when she looked again, there was
She had the sensation of being watched, and her breathing quickened.
She searched the tree line and saw no proof of anyone else on the road. But
no matter how she tried to push it from her mind, the feeling that they
were not alone remained.
After a few minutes she sensed her papa’s discomfort as well. Her nerves
were taut, so she attempted to tell Papa another story. This one was about
the Dark Rider and a pirate. But for once, talking did not distract her from
When a soft sprinkle of stars appeared between the trees, Papa stopped
to light a lantern and attach it to their wagon. It put off enough light for
them to continue traveling, but at a much slower pace. Soon Andalin’s
arms became tired of their fierce grip on her seat, but the fear of falling
overcame her desire to rest her arms. An owl hooted, startling her.
“Andalin,” Papa said, barely loud enough to be heard over the horses.
“If anything happens, I have an extra knife under the seat.”
“You think we will be attacked, then?” she whispered back.
Papa’s eyes did not leave their diligent watch on the path. “The cover of
darkness and a generally empty road make us a vulnerable target. But fear
can play all sorts of tricks on the mind. It could be nothing.” He rolled his
shoulders as if shaking the tension from his body.
She wanted to believe Papa could protect them, but she sent up a silent
plea to heaven anyway. One of her hands reached for her necklace again
out of habit, and she tried to remember her earliest memories of her mama
to keep her mind clear.
The first howl of a wolf was not as alarming as the several that chimed
in afterward. The howls seemed to last a full minute, and then suddenly
there was silence. Papa brought the reins down hard and hollered at the
horses, causing them to bolt down the road. Andalin’s bonnet flew off, and
she held on with all the strength she possessed. The path took a wide turn,
but at the speed they were going in the dark, neither of them saw the tree
down over the path until they were nearly upon it.
Papa pulled back hard on the reins, but the wagon tilted severely, and
he slid right off and tumbled onto the forest floor. Andalin’s body flew in
the same direction, but her hold on her seat kept her from falling too. She
grabbed at the reins just before they slipped out of her reach as the wagon
righted itself. She pulled back with all her might, and before they hit the
fallen tree, the wagon miraculously stopped.
Andalin’s panic did not, however. Several musket blasts, men’s voices,
and a commotion she could not see commenced behind them in the near
“Papa!” Andalin yelled.
“I’m just here. Stay where you are; I will come to you.”
Their lantern had been extinguished but still hung from the hook,
despite their wild ride. Thinking quickly, Andalin lifted the wagon seat
and fumbled around for the flint box. It took a few hurried attempts, but
she finally managed to light the lantern again.
When she held the lantern up to find Papa, the sight before her drew
an unnatural scream from her mouth. A large black stallion reared up on
its back legs; the rider, clad in black, with a mask covering the top half of
his face, held on and fought for control of his beast.
“The reins!” Papa called, his voice now close as he reached the side
of the wagon. Their team lurched, but Papa raced forward and grabbed
the harness of the horse nearest him. Andalin frantically reached for the reins with the hand not holding the lantern. As fast as it happened, it was over. The log blocking their path now aided in keeping their horses contained.
The Dark Rider—it had to be him, for he fit the description perfectly--
sat astride his grand horse, looming over them.
Flustered and trembling, Andalin turned away from his intimidating
form and called out to Papa, “Are you hurt?”
“Knocked around a bit, but I am well enough.”
The Dark Rider directed his horse closer to her. “Do you need assistance,
miss?” His kind voice belied his frightening appearance.
Andalin found she could not speak.
Papa limped forward, his words soothing Andalin’s shock and fear. “We
are safe now, dear. You can come down.”
Andalin let out her breath. She was not a coward. She ungracefully
swung herself down from the wagon seat, causing her thick curly hair to
cover her face in a tangled web. She batted the hair away from her eyes
and pulled the hood of her cloak over her head, wondering if she’d lost her
mobcap with her bonnet and whether it was worth looking for in the dark.
She moved to stand beside her papa.
“How can we repay your kindness?” Papa asked with a solemn bow to
Andalin grimaced at her papa’s gratitude toward a man who had done
nothing but frighten them.
“It was not hard to chase them away,” the Dark Rider said, his voice
absent of any hostility.
Andalin’s eyebrows lifted, and she was curious as to what exactly he’d
protected them from. “Wolves?”
“Men,” he said, turning to answer her, “with wolves.” He dismounted
then and, with Papa’s help, easily cleared the fallen tree from the path.
She shivered thinking of what could have transpired without the Dark
Rider’s surprise arrival, though that wasn’t to say they were any safer with
his company than without. She moved to climb back into the wagon but
gasped when a strong arm lifted her up from behind. The masked man
stood near enough to the hanging lantern that when she turned, she met
his unnerving gaze. She sat down hard in her seat, her heart racing.
The Dark Rider remounted. “These woods hold dangers greater than
those we’ve witnessed tonight. You had best get a move on.”
Andalin finally found her voice. “We thought we were being followed.”
Though, as she said it, she wondered if it were the highwayman himself
after them. “How much farther until we leave the forest?”
“It’s a good hour’s ride, and then the road will fork again. Hold to the
left, and another mile will bring you to my home, where someone can tend
to your wounds and you can have lodging for the night. I will make sure
no one else passes this way.”
By the way her papa held himself as he climbed into the carriage, she
could sense his pain. But he graciously bowed his head and said, “Thank
you, your lordship. We will gladly sleep indoors after such a night.”
The strange man urged his horse back into the woods and disappeared,
gone as suddenly as he had arrived.
Andalin pulled a blanket from under the canvas of the wagon and
placed the folded mass behind the small of Papa’s back. She cringed when
she noticed the tear on his sleeve and saw the torn flesh, some parts clear
to the bone. She swallowed back the bile rising in her throat. She reached
across and took the reins from his fingers. He groaned but did not resist.
She drove the team the rest of the way, growing more tired than she had
ever been in her life.
A superbly crafted and fully entertaining novel that combines elements of romance and suspense, "The Masked Baron" by Anneka R. Walker will prove to be an enduringly popular and appreciated addition to community library General Fiction collections. It should note for personal reading lists that "The Masked Baron" is also readily available in a digital book format (Kindle, $5.99) and as a complete and unabridged audio book.
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