"We shall soon find out." In the hills above the high, winding track that passed for a road, a shepherd paused to gape at an old wooden wagon making its laborious way along the road below. "Lookee there, Will," he told his brother. "Do you see what I see?" The brother looked down and gaped, his lips parting in a
toothless grin of glee at the comical sight of two ladies bonnets, gloves, and all-who were perched primly and precariously on the back of Sean MacLaesh's haywagon, their backs ramrod-stiff, their feet sticking straight out beyond the wagon.
"Don't that beat all," Will laughed, and high above the haywagon he swept off his cap in a mocking salute to the ladies. "I heerd in the village Ian Thornton was a comin' home. I'll wager ?e's arrived, and them two are his fancy pieces, come to warmt ?is bed an' see to ?is needs."
Blessedly unaware of the conjecture taking place between the two spectators up in the hills, Miss Throckmorton-Jones brushed angrily and ineffectually at the coating of dust clinging to her black skirts. "I have never in all my life been subjected to such treatment!" she hissed furiously as the wagon they were riding in gave another violent, creaking lurch and her shoulder banged into Elizabeth's. "You may depend on this-I shall give Mr. Ian Thornton a piece of my mind for inviting two gentlewomen to this godforsaken wilderness, and never even mentioning that a traveling barouche is too wide for the roads!"
Elizabeth opened her mouth to say something soothing. but just then the wagon gave another teeth-jarring lurch, and she clutched at the wooden side. "From what little I know of him, Lucy," she managed finally when the wagon righted, "he wouldn't care in the least what we've been through. He's rude and inconsiderate-and those are his good points-"
"Whoa there, whoa." the farmer called out. sawing back on the swayback nag's reins and bringing the wagon to a groaning stop. "That's the Thornton place up there atop yon hill," the farmer said. pointing.
Lucinda gazed in mounting anger at the large, but unimpressive cottage that was barely visible through the thick trees. then she turned the full force of her authority on the hapless farmer. "You're mistaken, my good man," she said stoutly. "No gentleman of consequence or sense would live in such a godforsaken place as this. Kindly turn this decrepit vehicle around and return us to the village whence we came so that we can ask directions again. There was obviously a misunderstanding."
At that. both the horse and the farmer swung their heads around and looked at her with identical expressions of weary resentment.
The horse remained silent, but the farmer had heard Lucinda's irate complaints for the last twelve miles. and be was heartily sick of them. "See here, my lady," he began, but Lucinda cut him off.
"Do not address me as ?my lady', ?Miss Throckmorton-Jones' will do very well."
"Aye. Well, whoever ye be. this is as far as I'm takin' ye, and that thar is the Thornton cottage."
"You can't mean to abandon us here!" she said as the tired old man exhibited a surge of renewed energy obviously brought on by the prospect of ridding himself of his unwanted guests-and leapt off the wagon. whereupon he began to drag their trunks and bandboxes off the wagon and onto the side of the narrow ledge that passed for a road.
"What if they aren't homer' she gasped as Elizabeth took ,pity on the elderly farmer and began helping him drag one of the trunks down.
"Then we'll simply come down here and wait for another farmer to be kind enough to give us a ride," Elizabeth said with a courage she didn't quite feel.
"I wouldna plan on't," said the farmer as Elizabeth withdrew a coin and placed it in his hand. "Thankee, milady, thankee kindly," he said, touching his cap and smiling a little at the younger lady, with the breathtaking face and shimmering blond hair.
"Why shouldn't we count on it?" Lucinda demanded. "Because," said the farmer as he climbed back onto his wagon, "there ain't likely to be nobody comin' along for a week or two, mebbe more. There's rain comin' on tomorrow, I'd guess, or the day after. Can't get a wagon through here when it rains hard. Besides," he said, taking pity on the young miss, who'd gone a little pale, "see smoke comin' out o' yon chimney, so there's someone up there."
With a snap of the worn reins he drove off, and for a minute Elizabeth and Lucinda just stood there while a fresh cloud of dust settled all around them. Finally Elizabeth gave. herself a firm mental shake and tried to take things in hand. "Lucy, if you'll take one end of that trunk there, I can take the other, and we can carry it up to the house."
"You'll do no such thing!" Lucinda cried angrily. "We shall leave everything right here and let Thornton send his servants down here."
"We could do that," Elizabeth said, "but it's a treacherous, steep climb, and the trunk is light enough, so there's no point in someone having to me an extra trip. Please, Lucy, "I'm too exhausted to argue."
Lucinda turned a swift look upon Elizabeth's pale, apprehensive face and swallowed her argument. "You're quite right," she said briskly.
Elizabeth was not entirely right. The climb was steep enough, but the trunk, which originally felt quite light, seemed to gain a pound of weight with every step they took. A few yards from the house both ladies paused to rest again, then Elizabeth resolutely grabbed the handle on her end. "You go to the door, Lucy," she said breathlessly, worried for the older woman's health if she had to lug the trunk any further. "I'll just drag this along."
Miss Throckmorton-Jones took one look at her poor, bedraggled charge, and rage exploded in her breast that they'd been brought so low as this. Like an angry general she gave her gloves an irate yank, turned on her heel, marched up to the front door, and lifted her umbrella. Using its handle like a club, she rapped hard upon the door.
Behind her Elizabeth doggedly dragged the trunk. "You don't suppose there's no one home?" She panted, hauling the trunk the last few feet.
"If they're in there, they must be deaf!" said Lucinda. She brought up her umbrella again and began swinging at the door in a way that sent rhythmic thunder through the house. "Open up, I say!" she shouted, and on the third downswing the door suddenly lurched open to reveal a startled middleaged man who was struck on the head by the handle of the descending umbrella.
"God's teeth," Jake swore, grabbing his head and glowering a little dizzily at the homely woman who was glowering right back at him, her black bonnet crazily askew atop her wiry gray hair"