“He’s home you know, him up there in that bloody great castle. Two weeks and we’ve not had one sighting!”
Miss Eden Sinclair pretended to tug her earlobe and then forced the small plug of wax in tighter. Old Mrs. Radcliff tended toward yelling when she was excited, and Eden’s hearing was excellent—in fact, beyond excellent, therefore she needed the protection the wax offered.
“The new Duke of Raven, do you mean? Is he in residence? It was my belief he hasn’t lived there since he was a young boy, or so Devon said.” Eden looked out the cottage’s only window but could see nothing in the darkening sky. However, she felt the huge castle that dominated the landscape loom above them. The people of Crunston Cliff had lived under its shadow for hundreds of years, and most especially the Sinclair family.
Sensing she had a willing audience who was happy to indulge her favorite pastime of gossiping, Mrs. Radcliff attempted to straighten her stooped shoulders as she rocked back on the heels of her soft, worn leather boots.
“Well now, middle Sinclair,” the old woman said, using the name most of the villagers did for Eden and her brother Cam, situated as they were below Devon and Essie Sinclair, and above Warrick, Somer, and Dorrie Sinclair. “You’d be right in stating that fact. The young Duke was driven from his home at ten years of age by that vile, perfidious father of his, and he never returned, even when the old Duke demanded he do so. In fact, he went away to war and has only now ventured home, nigh on eleven months after his father’s death.”
“Scandalous,” Eden whispered with just the right amount of awe.
Mrs. Radcliff sucked on her bottom lip, which seemed to draw in the entire lower half of her face as she had no teeth.
“They say he’s back to take a bride.”
“She’ll be one of those titled well-bred ladies who have fluttering eyelashes and white skin.” Eden gathered her basket off the table. “He won’t settle for just anyone.”
“Rather it was you do you, middle Sinclair?”
“Not likely,” she answered, moving around Mrs. Radcliff’s small cottage, making sure everything was clean and the old lady’s supper was laid out ready for her when Eden left. “I’d rather marry Elijah Barry.”
“He’s seventy!” Mrs. Radcliff cackled.
“Which should leave you in no doubt of my feelings regarding marrying the Duke, Mrs. Radcliff.” Eden swung her cloak around her shoulders. “Not that he would propose to a Sinclair.”
“Don’t protest too much now, middle Sinclair, those words would taste mighty bitter if you had to eat them one day. Plus, there’s that business between your families.”
“You’ll find out when you need to,” the old lady said evasively, and Eden dismissed her words. Mrs. Radcliff tended to say things for effect.
“And remember, child, your father was a gentleman, so there is no reason for you not to marry a Duke if it’s your wish to do so.” The old lady settled herself in her chair before the fire.
“Enough of this nonsense if you please, you’re having far too much fun at my expense.” Eden bent to kiss a wrinkled cheek. “And I must be away before someone comes looking for me.”
“Lord! Look at the sky, ‘tis close to full darkness, and you have to ride the cliffs to reach your home. Go now, before one of your brothers comes searching for you, and shame on me for keeping you so late.”
“Dev will be looking after the others, and Cam... well, Cam could be anywhere,” Eden added as she felt a weight settle in her chest.
“He’ll come about, girl, don’t you worry. He’s just lost his way for a while.”
“I hope you are right, Mrs. Radcliff. Because I for one am growing weary of his behavior.”
“Go, girl, before you cannot see a foot in front of your face.”
Eden laughed as Mrs. Radcliff made shooing gestures with her hands.
“Remember I am for London in two days with my family, but either Bertie or Josiah will visit with you until I return.”
“And you remember to keep your skirts touching the floor and your drawers fastened.” The old lady cackled. “And I want a of full accounting of every minute upon your return, girl.”
“Why, Mrs. Radcliff, I’m outraged at your words,” Eden said, pretending to look indignant when she wanted to laugh. “And me an innocent too.”
“Bah! No one can be innocent with brothers like yours.”
Letting herself out of the little cottage Eden gave in to her laughter as she collected her horse from the small shed, and was still giggling as she set out for Oak’s Knoll, the Sinclair home.
The weather was brisk in February anywhere in England, but as Crunston Cliff was situated on a windy ridge above the sea in Dorset, it was not often they had a warm night until summer was well advanced.
She trotted through the small village, where the shops were butted up to each other like a row of books wedged on a shelf. The paint was fresh, the windows clean, and Eden could never remember a time when Crunston Cliff hadn’t looked just as it did this day. She could name each proprietor and their children, as she and her siblings had played with the residents of the small town for many years. This was her home, the only place she wanted to be. The thought of London made her shudder. Smelly and overcrowded, Eden knew she would loathe it.
Uncaring that in doing so she was more than likely incurring her brother’s wrath, she urged her mount right instead of taking the left-hand fork that led to her home. Pulling out her earplugs, she tucked them down her bodice. Seconds later she was galloping along the cliff top.
“If this is to be our last night here, Atticus, then we will enjoy it as we see fit.” The wind caught her words and threw them over her shoulder. The braid her sister had carefully tended was soon free as she bent low over her horse’s neck, but Eden didn’t care. If this was to be her last night of freedom, she’d be sure to make it a good one and to hell with her family’s fury.
Both horse and rider were out of breath when she reined Atticus in at the end of the path. From here there was a sheer drop to the water on two sides. The roar of the sea was almost deafening as it buffeted the cliff below. The moon was bright tonight, allowing her to see the gulls that still hunted prey, and would do so until none could be found, their cries carrying on the breeze. She needed to remember this place when she felt stifled by the confines of London.
“Here we have solitude, Atticus.”
Not many ventured this far along the cliffs, as it led nowhere, so Eden was surprised to hear the distant rumble of men’s voices. Surprised, and annoyed that someone was about to disturb her. She was even more surprised that whoever it was had taken the route down Raven mountain and through the dense forest. They had a heavy foot, she thought as the sound of cracking wood reached her.
“Why do you suppose someone would take such a route in the dark, Atticus?”
The horse twitched its ears.
“Should we not kill him before we toss him in?”
Eden shook her head, unable to believe she had heard those words correctly.
“Seems a terrible way to die.”
She had two choices: make a run for it, and gallop home hard before whoever belonged to those voices saw her, or wait until they left. Could she leave, knowing the men were intent on murder? As the thought entered her head, Eden was suddenly gripped by an urgency that drove the breath from her body. It had her moving to the narrow, winding path that led down the cliff. Inhaling, she took a deep breath and nudged Atticus over the edge. She had ridden it before, but not at night.
Don’t think about what’s below.
Wincing as she heard a rock dislodge and tumble to the sea, Eden did not release a breath until she had reached the wide ledge at the base of the cliff.
“Good boy.” The hand she brushed over the warm neck shook.
“Our orders are to bind his hands and feet and throw him off the cliff. The man didn’t say anything about killing him before we do.”
“Seems a terrible way to die though.”
Nudging Atticus deeper into the shadows, Eden tried to make sense of what she had heard.
“He’s unconscious anyways. Bloody big brute; there’s no way we could have handled him awake.”
Eden’s heart started thumping hard in her chest as she slid from Atticus’s back. Was she about to see a man thrown to his death? What should she do? The men were drawing closer and would soon be above her.
“He’ll wake when he hits the water for sure.”
Eden looked at the sea as she listened to the men talk. Wind brushed the surface, producing whitecaps and swirls of frothy water. Did she dare try and save the man? Could she, or would it be too dangerous to attempt? Sea spray peppered her face as it collided with the rocks.
“Bloody hell,” she whispered into Atticus’s warm neck as she tried to think rationally, which if she was honest had never been her strong suit. Dev would kill her for this.
Removing her cloak, Eden then pulled off her boots. Forcing the buttons through the holes, she quickly pulled off her dress next. Her chemise would offer her more freedom in the water, which she knew would be bloody frigid.
“Don’t feel right does it?”
The men were directly above her now.
“What don’t feel right?”
“Tossing a man into the water like he was a lump of rotten meat when he’s still breathing. Especially this man.”
“If we want to get paid, we do what we were told.”
“But how’s his lordship to know what we do? We could just leave him here bound like this.”
Horrified at the discussion taking place above her, Eden prayed they did not kill the man first. Retrieving a dead body was not something she relished.
“Of course he’ll know, you dunderhead! Especially when the man he thinks is dead suddenly appears before him unharmed. He knows everything; wouldn’t be surprised if he’s watching us now.”
Was it brave or stupid to contemplate saving the man? Was he a good person or bad? Did it make a difference; surely no one deserved to die in such a horrific way? Taking the knife she had strapped to her calf, she clamped it between her teeth.
If there is trouble to be found it is you who will find it, Eden.
With her eldest brother’s words ringing in her head, Eden crouched on the rocks and then quietly crept forward. Taking the knife from her mouth, she drew in three deep, slow breaths before once again biting down on the blade. She then lowered herself over the edge and into the icy depths below. The cold squeezed her lungs and she struggled to breathe through her nose. Pushing off as the water sucked away from the rocks, Eden kicked hard to get as much distance as she could between herself and the jagged surface before the next wave came.
The going was tough and within minutes she was breathless, the cold sapping her strength.
How far would they throw him? What if she was too late and he died before she reached him, or what if she never reached him and died trying?
Her family often accused her of being overly dramatic, yet for once she had reason to be.
Fighting the currents, she swam until the cold numbed her limbs, and they grew too heavy to carry on. Drawing a shuddering breath Eden trod water and tried to battle the panic that clawed at her as she thought about her family.
I will see them again, she vowed silently.
Focusing on the cliffs, she listened to what the men above were saying.
“What about four?”
“Why would it be four when it’s always three?”
“Who made it three?”
“It’s on bloody three and if you say one more word I’m tossing you in after him!”
At least the idiots had chosen not to murder the man first. She would take that small blessing as a good omen. She watched their silhouettes as they swung the unconscious man back and forward.
“One, two, three!”
Eden kept her eyes on his body as it flew through the air and then sucking in a deep breath she watched it hit the water a few feet from where she floated. Diving beneath the surface, using her arms and legs, she propelled herself deeper, following the body as it plummeted.
Eden was a good swimmer, her brothers had ensured that, yet as tightness began to crush her lungs, fear made her frantic to drag in air. Engulfed in terrifying darkness, panic choked her, making it harder to descend. Surging forward with another desperate kick she reached out and something brushed her fingers.
He was wriggling like an eel, his body thrashing for release. Grabbing one of his shoulders then using the man’s body like a ladder, Eden struggled to climb down him to reach the ankles. Taking the knife from between her teeth she began to saw through the ropes. It was sharp, but they were moving downward fast and combined with her terror, it made the task almost impossible. Desperate now for air, Eden wrapped her legs around his waist, gripped him tight and sawed harder on the ropes. In seconds she had his feet free. Her lungs were shuddering and her head felt light as the man twisted, also desperate for air. They had to reach the surface quickly so she abandoned the idea of freeing his wrists and gripped the knife between her teeth once again. Grabbing his bound hands, Eden kicked upwards. Together their legs propelled them through the black waters until they broke the surface seconds later.
Eden felt some of her panic ease as she took the knife from her mouth, and gulped in a huge, breath. Wracking coughs came from the man as he tried to suck in air and spit water from his mouth. Looking to the top of the cliffs, she was relieved to see no sign of his captors.
He did as she asked, and she tracked the men to the edge of the forest.
“They are gone.”
Eden could not make out the man’s features, only hear the deep rasps of breath as he drew them into his body. “Y-your hands.” Her teeth chattered from the cold. “I n-need to untie them.” It took her several attempts but finally she had him freed.
“I— How did you—”
“W-we must reach the rocks.” Eden cut off his words. “They may come back and see us, so we need to m-move fast.”
“Yes.” His words were hoarse as they both struck out for the cliffs. Their progress was slow, exhaustion making Eden’s limbs leaden. Putting her head under the water and using her hands and feet she swam as fast as she could toward the rocks. When she came up for air, a wave hit her and she spat and spluttered for several seconds, losing her knife in the process.
“Kick!” he yelled.
Eden took a deep breath and swam with the last of her energy. Seconds later her hands touched the rocks.
“Th-thank you,” the man rasped, gripping the rocks beside her. They both dragged in huge lungfuls of air. “I-I am not sure how or why you were there, but thank you for saving my life.”
Eden’s eyes stung from the salt water as she tried to look at him. He appeared big beside her, but she couldn’t make out his features. She wondered what he had done to deserve tonight’s fate and hoped he was not some horrid, nefarious man who had done evil deeds.
“Are you a good man?”
“I-I need to know I have not saved a bad man.” Although if she was honest, she probably would have, but suddenly it seemed important to know, which was possibly because she was feeling light-headed.
“No, I am not a bad man.”
Eden believed the clipped words.
“We must get to safety.” Looking to where Atticus waited for her above, she wondered how they would reach him. The combination of cold and exhaustion had sapped her strength, and surely the man fared little better.
“I-I cannot m-manage without your help, sir. W-we must climb up to my horse,” she said, bracing herself as a wave threatened to drag her off. One arm wrapped around her waist, and she was pulled into the shelter of his arms.
“We will make it because I will let nothing happen to you.” The deep words were whispered into her ear. “I owe you my life.”
She felt a hand on her bottom then, and suddenly she was rising. Reaching the rocks, she scrambled to her knees and then reached down to pull him up behind her. He was a big man, and she had to lean backward and brace her feet. He collapsed beside her, breath heaving in and out of his lungs.
“J-just one more climb.”
“Put your foot in my hands,” he rasped.
“Let me help you first.”
“Put your foot in my hands.” This time the words held more strength.
Eden didn’t argue, and soon she was again moving upward. He was getting weaker and it took several attempts before their combined efforts got him up beside her.
Hurrying to Atticus, she grabbed her cloak and wrapped it around the man. Reaching for her dress next, Eden quickly stepped into it. She did not try to lace it, and would have removed her chemise had the man not been here. Collecting her boots, she forced her damp stocking-clad feet into them.
“You need it more,” he said, taking the cloak from his shoulders and wrapping it around her.
“No, I have my dress, you have nothing.” She tried to push it back toward him, and then stopped as the sound of voices reached her once again from above.
“What is wrong?”
“Th-the men,” she whispered, dragging him to the wall of rock behind them. “We must hide—they are c-coming.”
Eden urged her stallion closer, so he stood before them with the cliff face at their backs. Arms reached for her, moving her right up against the horse.
“Be still now,” he whispered.
Eden laid her cheek on Atticus’s soft neck and nearly moaned as the heat seeped into her chilled body.
“Thank you.” He whispered the words into her hair, his breath briefly warming her scalp. “I should be dead.”
The words were fact and made her shiver. Had she not saved this man, he would never have woken to a new day. Never have loved or laughed again. She wondered if he had family. A wife or children?
“Of course he’s bloody dead, how could he not be? Coming back was foolish, and I’m the biggest fool for letting you drag me with you.”
Scared they would be found, Eden moved closer to the man, her face now wedged between his chest and the horse. One of his hands wrapped around her waist as the voices above drifted down to them. His breath was warm against her damp cheek, rapid puffs of air as he struggled to control the sound in the night air.
“He’s dead I tell you!”
“Do you think we should go down to make sure?”
“Make sure of what, you idiot? How the hell could he have escaped? His hands and feet were bound, and we tossed him as far as we could. He’ll be fish food now.”
The man stiffened in anger, and Eden gripped the front of his shirt, fearing he may do something to alert the men to their presence.
“But I’m sure his lordship wants proof.”
“And we’re telling him we saw his body floating on the surface. Now unless he’s suddenly sprouted gills and fins, Syd, he’s dead, so come on. My belly aches, I’m so bloody hungry. Besides, his snootiness is probably sleeping between some wench’s thighs by now. He usually has a different one each night, so I’ve been told.”
Eden listened as the voices grew weaker, tracking them until they had left the area. Only then did she move, breaking free from the comfort of the stranger’s arms.
“P-put your foot on my hands.”
“You first,” he said.
“No. I’m sure you are injured, whereas I am just c-cold.”
Ignoring her, he picked her up and tossed her onto Atticus’s back, and Eden heard his sharp hiss of pain. Then, using the rocks, he climbed up behind her.
“Home, Atticus.” Eden urged the horse up the steep track as two large arms wrapped around her waist.
The ride was slow due to the loose ground underfoot and the narrow path. Eden stopped briefly at the top to listen. Hearing no noises, she urged Atticus into a gallop. It was a ride she had undertaken many times in her twenty-three years, but she knew that never again would she travel this path without memories of this night.
“Faster, boy!” Eden urged the stallion as her passenger slumped against her. Following the base of the mountain, she veered right and galloped hard. Minutes later she reached the Sinclair family home.
“W-we are safe now,” she whispered, sliding to the ground when Atticus stopped. The man’s legs were unsteady as she helped him down, and he now leaned heavily on her. Pushing open the worn front door, she started calling for her siblings as the man slumped against her.