The quiet life of Frances, Lady Rathmere, is disrupted forever the day Jack, 4th Marquess of Streatham, arrives from London and almost rides her down. At the same time a stranger arrives in the locality, makes a play for her young cousin and scandalous letters accusing Frances of an illicit liaison appear in the national press. Is Jack their author? Frances is convinced he is, and has no idea the trouble those letters are going to bring in their wake.
“Gyp! No! You will be soaked!” Rolling to her knees, Frances stared across the grass. Too late. Gyp’s front paws were already in the water. “Gyp! No!”
The faint sound of hooves distracted her. At the end of the meadow she saw a flicker of white against dark foliage. Her eyes narrowed. No gentleman of her acquaintance would ride without jacket, gloves and hat on Gybford land. Shirt sleeves were for the gypsy or the common field labourer.
Whoever he was, he turned his horse and hurtled across the ford in a shower of spray. Frances sank back on her heels, frowning. Ought she to be wary? Strangers were rare in the district, though vagrants and gypsies occasionally travelled the old route by the river. Frances opened her mouth to call her dog, and realised that would bring Gyp into the path of the horse.
The vibration from the great iron-shod hooves thudded up through the grass into her spine. Really, there was no need for such speed. One would think the snorting grey was in a race. The rider aimed for the gap between the river and the beech tree and gave no sign of having seen her.
Faster than she would have believed possible, the huge grey horse filled her vision.
Forgetting her dignity, Frances scrambled to her feet and lunged for safety behind the beech tree. She caught a glimpse of the wide-eyed rider gaping at her.
Gyp sprang up from the river bank like a red flame in the sunshine and loosed a loud bark beneath the horse’s nose. The horse veered sharply away from both dog and the river.
The rider flew out of the saddle, struck the bank with his shoulder and disappeared over the edge. Water droplets rose in a huge shower, sparkled for an instant and fell back into the stream.
Frances hesitated, one palm clasped to her mouth, suppressing a breathless urge to laugh. It served him right, really; but she ought not to laugh. One should not mock another’s misfortune.
The stallion snorted, wheeled and tore across the field, hooves flinging clods of grass high in its wake. Gyp followed, barking, but returned when Frances called her name. The horse was in no danger and would soon slow and stop of its own accord.
The rider, however, might need careful handling. She’d suffered similar falls as a child when she had not paid attention to her pony, and knew how foolish he would feel, which might mean an outburst of some kind.
Her father had possessed a colourful turn of phrase when faced with disagreeable circumstances and Frances had no wish to be the object of a stranger’s fury. She would wait until he was over the worst of his temper.
Only the chortle of the river running through the valley bottom broke the silence. Even the birds were quiet.
Gyp trotted to the bank, looked down and uttered a short, puzzled bark. Frances stepped forward, craning her neck to see what was going on.
“Oh, good grief!”
The stranger floated face down, drifting with the force of water coming down from the hills.