Owle Park, 1801
Lady Henrietta Seldon set off with a determined stride and very quickly found the narrow path, but the turns and shortcuts Felix had followed by rote eluded her memories, and all too quickly she was hopelessly lost in the thick trees and dense undergrowth.
"Dash my wig," she muttered under her breath, using one of Aunt Zillah's numerous colorful curses, for Hen knew only too well she was in the suds.
Oh, if only it was just the lost part. There was also the matter of the line.
And yes, that was exactly how a Seldon thought of it. In italics and if necessary, underlined several times.
The boundary that separated Owle Park from the neighboring estate, Langdale. Wherein lived the worst sort of devils.
Henrietta shuddered. Rogues, villains and devils, all of them.
Capable of ruining a gel with merely a glance, or so Aunt Zillah avowed.
How such a thing was possible, Hen was not interested in finding out.
So it was that when she heard the sharp bark of a dog, she nearly jumped out of her gown. For it brought to mind her old nanny's stories of Drogo Dale, who had allegedly hunted for wayward children with his pack of hellhounds and hunted them still from his grave.
Even as she tried to tell herself that this dog might belong to someone who could point her in the right direction, she realized it wasn't just one hound's baying but the raucous cacophony of an entire pack.
A hellish one, she was certain. Say, perhaps, Drogo's...
This time she did curse, much as Aunt Zillah was prone to do, and turned to run, not caring about boundaries or lines or ruin, but with only one panicked thought: to be as far from these bloodthirsty fiends as her feet could carry her.
Yet as much as Hen loved the country, she was unused to wooded paths, and as she turned in her headlong flight, she failed to see the fallen tree and thorny bush behind her, over which she tumbled in a grand heap of muslin and lace, landing face-first in the soft dirt. Her knee smarted with the sting of a cut, her hands were definitely scraped, and for the life of her, she couldn't get up—her skirt having caught on one of the stubby dead branches and the tangle of thorns.
There was also the very humiliating realization that the cool breezes she'd sought in the woods were now blowing right up over her bare legs and, good heavens, her backside, which she had to imagine was in full view for all to see.
In fact, the only thing that had survived unscathed—that is after a hasty check—was her dear hat.
Small miracle that. And certainly no consolation when she was caught in a most indelicate position.
No, make that ruinous.
The mad hounds grew closer, and the more she tried to right herself, the more she found herself caught in the briars.
Then all around her, the bushes crashed and the dogs descended upon her, circling her in a mad frenzy of barking-delighted to have found their prey.
"Oh, get away! Away with you!" she tried ordering, to no avail.
Then from behind her came a rich, deep voice. "Ho, there, you mad fools, what have you found?" This was followed by the solid thud of boots as they quickly and easily stalked through the woods.
Henrietta's panic stilled—though only for a second.
For one thing, it was hardly the voice of a ghost. And secondly, something about the man's languid tones nestled deeply into her sensibilities. It was a voice rich with aristocratic breeding and authority—a gentleman.
That alone was reassuring, but it was his delight at the very hint of some hereto-unknown discovery that caught her ear.
A curiosity she understood, for hadn't the very same desire to turn a corner led her here?
"Call them off! Please call off your dogs," she pleaded.
"Hup!" he barked, and all the dogs, to a one, sat on their haunches and stilled, having cleared the way for their master.
Henrietta was about to sigh with relief. That is, until she heard a low whistle of admiration. The humiliating sort coaching lads made at pretty girls. Or rowdies on a street corner might cast out to get a lady to look in their direction.
Whatever was he whistling about?
Then she remembered her skirt was up over her backside.
She closed her eyes and groaned. Good heavens, no!
"Oh, please don't come any closer," she called out. "I fear I'm not decent."
"Utterly divine would be a better description," her would-be rescuer teased.
Henrietta's cheeks flamed with heat. At least this rakish fellow couldn't see her embarrassment.
If that was any consolation.
She tried to reach around and tug her skirt down to some level of modesty, but it was good and caught, and when that didn't work, she tried to right herself again, only to become mired further.
"I do believe you are trapped, fair nymph," he pointed out.
"Yes, I am quite aware of that," she huffed, wishing she could see his face-if only to determine if he was a gentleman and not some rogue.
"I could help," he offered.
"Would you please?" she asked, feeling a moment of relief. Yes, he was a gentleman.
Though all-too-quickly his breeding came into question. "I think not," he replied.
"Whatever do you mean? You can't leave me like this."
"I suppose not, but helping you is hardly to my benefit," he explained, a devilish bit of humor behind his words.
Henrietta hardly shared in his amusement. "As a gentleman, you should have come to my aid immediately."
"What? And lose this vantage point?" She could almost hear him shake his head. "Why would I do that?"