Penelope Carlisle swung her basket and climbed the hill to the bud-filled orchard. A mist settled over her cloak, and the new apple leaves dripped on her bare head, but she gloried in the scents of blossoms.
Without warning, a massive shadow materialized through the mist between the trees, startling her into stepping backward.
The black-cowled figure resembled the specter of death in her father’s old books, except there was nothing gaunt about this creature. The man used his huge thoroughbred as a crutch, limping along with his arm thrown over the saddle.
As he came closer, she froze, leaving the stranger to speak first.
“How far is it into the village?” His voice was deep, as if emerging from the depths of a hollow barrel.
Shaking off her superstition and falling back on her usual courtesy, she replied, “The village is a good half-hour walk from the vicarage gates, and we are some ten minutes from there. Has there been an accident? Are you injured?”
Droplets fell from the gnarled branches, and a gust of cool wind flapped the stranger’s cloak. Penelope wished she could see his eyes beneath the hood. Self-consciously, she tugged her old cloak tighter at the throat, aware that her skirt did not reach her ankles.
“Thor lost a shoe about a mile back, and the leg is one that has only recently mended. I did not wish to strain it with my weight. If you could direct me to the vicarage gate, I shall find my way from there.”
That did not explain his limp, but Penelope politely refused to pry. “It is time I returned. I will show you the way if you do not mind wetting your boots. I failed to mention the walk to the vicarage is through the field and not by road.”
Penelope thought she heard him chuckle as she led him down the path through the orchard. She had not meant the remark to be funny. Some gentlemen were very particular about the polished leather of their expensive boots. Admittedly this man did not wear fashionable Hessians, but good, solid knee boots, yet they looked costly to her eye. Even oddly garbed as he was, she could see the quality of the fabric in his cloak and knew the cost of the high-strung thoroughbred.
“My boots have seen worse than good, clean Hampshire mud. Lead on, my lady.”
My lady! Surely he did not know her. No one around here used her title. It was a quite ridiculous title in any account. It must be his manner of speaking. She would certainly remember if she had been introduced to anyone the size of this man.
“We do not see many strangers in these parts, sir. I meant no insult.” Penelope lifted her skirts as she reached the grassy field, though there was no real need of it. She had already soaked her hem in the longer grasses.
“And none was taken. Forgive me for not introducing myself. I am Graham Trevelyan. I will be a guest of the Stanhopes at the manor, should I ever reach there. Would you know how much farther on it would be?”
“I am called Penelope Carlisle, and Stanhope Manor is not so very far if you could ride. I would not recommend walking the distance.”
Considering his pronounced limp, she wondered if it would not be better to lame the horse than himself.
“I trust there is some sort of blacksmith who can shoe the horse in the village?”
“Yes, of course, but the village is the opposite direction of the manor. You will be out of your way.”
Perhaps because she was bored and was eager for company, perhaps because she could not allow someone obviously in pain to walk such a distance, perhaps just out of simple curiosity, Penelope offered her hospitality.
“Why don’t you come in and have tea with us while one of the boys walks your horse to the smithy? I promise the boys are very reliable and will be thrilled to death to be put in charge of such an animal.”
“Your brothers, Miss Carlisle?” His tone showed interest as he glanced down at her.
She turned laughing eyes upward. “One would think so, but no, Mr. Trevelyan, they are just neighbor lads who help me out from time to time, though sometimes I am persuaded their appetites cost me more than wages.”
The vicarage came into view, and Penelope gazed upon its ivy-covered brick walls with fond pride. She had been born and reared here, and though there had been many a time she had railed against the fates for making her poor, she had always loved her home. The neatly tended lawn and shrubbery welcomed them now.
Her guest hesitated at the gate. “Your offer is a tempting one, Miss Carlisle, but perhaps it would be better if I were to go on.”
Penelope pushed the gate open and held it for him. “Fustian. Augusta will be delighted to have company, and I assure you, she makes an excellent chaperone.”
The cowled stranger reluctantly entered, his head turning to take in the cottage, the neatly mended picket fence, and the empty stable at the end of the drive.
“Is your father at home? Perhaps I should speak with him?”
Penelope smiled. “Only if you wish to continue on to the churchyard. My father has been dead this year or more.”
Before she could say more than she should, two lads of eleven and twelve raced each other around the corner from the kitchen garden.
“Penny! Penny! Can we walk him, can we, please?” They ground to a halt before the magnificent thoroughbred, their reverent gazes scarcely noticing the cloaked man.
“George, Thomas, behave yourselves, please. This is Mr. Trevelyan. Make your bows.”
The two scrambled to attention, made short, formal bows, and offered their hands. “How do you do, sir?” came from both suspiciously chocolate-covered mouths.
He shook both grubby hands, then glanced at her. “Do all children always mind you so well, Miss Carlisle?”
“Oh, George and Thomas are good lads. They just need to be reminded of their manners. Do you think you could trust them to walk your horse into the village and back? I will vouch for them.”
“You must promise to walk him both there and back,” he told the boys. “He is much too strong for you to ride, and you will hurt both Thor and yourself should you try.”
“We’ll be careful, sir,” piped both boys.
“Then I will trust you with him. He is as well-behaved as whoever leads him.” Trevelyan slid a walking stick from a sheath on the saddle. He released the horse and handed the reins to the boys.
Leaning on the heavy stick, he watched as they disappeared down the lane, then followed Penelope to the cottage.
Inside, Penelope flung her cloak on a rack in the entry, then turned to similarly dispose of the towering stranger’s. Perplexed that he had not removed it, she wondered if his injury was such that he could not.
She held out her hand in a gesture to help. “We have no servants, unless you wish to call Augusta one. If you would permit me—”
A large gloved hand hesitated over the clasp, and Penelope sensed his searching gaze.
“This is perhaps not a good idea. I do not wish to frighten you. If you will just guide me to the kitchen, I will make myself comfortable there until the boys return.”
Penelope began to understand his hesitation, but she did not know how to ease his fears. Remembering a young man in the village who had been severely maimed on the battlefield, she tried to gauge the stranger’s feelings by this example.
“I am the daughter of a vicar, Mr. Trevelyan. My mother died when I was but twelve, and I have carried out her parish duties ever since, including tending the sick. A vicar and his family come to know all the evil and good, beauty and ugliness of human life. You do not strike me as an evil man, Mr. Trevelyan, and only evil can frighten me.”
“That is a very pretty speech, Miss Carlisle, but I daresay you have never been faced with a visage as beastly as mine is said to be. Few women care to be in the same room with it. None offer to take tea with it. Your kindness momentarily distracted me. Do not let me take advantage of it. Show me the kitchen.”