Frances Allard is returning to Miss Martin's School for Girls in Bath, where she is the French and music teacher, after spending Christmas with her great-aunts in Somersetshire. She hoped for snow all over the holiday, and it has finally come--when she no longer wants it. The journey, in her great-aunts' ancient traveling carriage, with their elderly coachman at the ribbons, is soon made very difficult indeed by the worsening conditions.
Panic clawed at her stomach.
Could Thomas see the road from his higher perch on the box? But the snow must be blowing into his eyes and half blinding him. And he must be twice as cold as she was. She pressed her hands deeper into the fur muff that Great-Aunt Martha had given her for Christmas. She would pay a fortune for a hot cup of tea, she thought.
So much for wishing for snow. What sage was it who had once said that one should beware of what one wished for lest the wish be granted?
She sat back in her seat, determined to trust Thomas to find the way. After all, he had been her great-aunts' coachman for ever and ever, or at least for as far back as she could remember, and she had never heard of his being involved in any sort of accident. But she thought wistfully of the cozy dower house she had left behind and of the bustling school that was her destination. Claudia Martin would be expecting her today. Anne Jewell and Susanna Osbourne, the other resident teachers, would be watching for her arrival. They would all spend the evening together in Claudia's private sitting room, seated cozily about the fire, drinking tea and exchanging reminiscences of Christmas. She would be able to give them a graphic account of the snow storm through which she had traveled. She would embellish it and exaggerate the danger and her fears and have them all laughing.
But she was not laughing yet.
And suddenly laughter was as far from her thoughts as flying to the moon would be. The carriage slowed and rocked and slithered, and Frances jerked one hand free of her muff and grabbed for the worn leather strap above her head, convinced that they were about to tip right over at any moment. She waited to see her life flash before her eyes, and mumbled the opening words of the Lord's Prayer rather than scream and startle Thomas into losing the last vestiges of his control. The sound of the horses' hooves seemed deafening even though they were moving over snow and should have been silent. Thomas was shouting enough for ten men.
And then, looking out through the window nearest her rather than clench her eyes tightly shut and not even see the end approaching, she actually saw the horses, and instead of being up ahead pulling the carriage, they were drawing alongside her window and then forging ahead.
She gripped the strap even more tightly and leaned forward. Those were not her horses. Gracious heaven, someone was overtaking them--in these weather conditions.
The box of the overtaking carriage came into view with its coachman looking rather like a hunchbacked snowman bent over the ribbons and spewing hot abuse from his mouth--presumably at poor Thomas.
And then the carriage passed in a flash of blue, and Frances had the merest glimpse of a gentleman with many capes to his greatcoat and a tall beaver hat on his head. He looked back at her with one eyebrow cocked and an expression of supercilious contempt on his face.
He dared to be contemptuous of her?
Within moments the blue carriage was past, her own rocked and slithered some more, and then it appeared to right itself before continuing on its slow, plodding way.
Frances's fears were replaced by a hot fury. She seethed with it. Of all the reckless, inconsiderate, suicidal, homicidal, dangerous, stupid things to do! Goodness gracious, even if she pressed her nose to the window she could not see more than five yards distant, and the falling snow hampered vision even within that five yards. Yet that hunchbacked, foul-mouthed coachman and that contemptuous gentleman with his arrogant eyebrow were in such a hurry that they would endanger life and limb--her own and Thomas's as well as their own--in order to overtake?
But now that the excitement was over, she was suddenly aware again of being all alone in an ocean of whiteness. She felt panic contract her stomach muscles once more and sat back, deliberately letting go of the strap and folding her hands neatly inside her muff again. Panic would get her nowhere. It was altogether more probable that Thomas would get her somewhere.
Poor Thomas. He would be ready for something hot to drink--or more probably something strong and hot--when they arrived at that somewhere. He was by no means a young man.
With the fingers of her right hand she picked out the melody of a William Byrd madrigal on the back of her left hand, as if it were the keyboard of a pianoforte. She hummed the tune aloud.
And then she could feel the carriage rocking and slithering again and grasped for the strap once more. She looked out and ahead, not really expecting to see anything, but actually she could see a dark shape, which appeared to be blocking the way ahead. In one glimpse of near-clarity between snowflakes she saw that it was a carriage and horses. She even thought it might be a blue carriage.
But though the horses pulling her own had drawn to a halt, the carriage itself did not immediately follow suit. It swayed slightly to the left, righted itself, and then slithered more than slightly to the right--and this time it kept going until it reached what must have been the edge of the road, where one wheel caught on something. The conveyance performed a neat half-pirouette and slid gently backward and downward until its back wheels were nestled deep in a snow bank.
Frances, tipped backward and staring at the opposite seat, which was suddenly half above her, could see nothing but solid snow out of the windows on both sides.
And if this was not the outside of enough, she thought with ominous calm, then she did not know what was.
She was aware of a great clamor from somewhere outside--horses snorting and whinnying, men shouting.
Before she could collect herself sufficiently to extricate herself from her snowy cocoon, the door opened from the outside--not without some considerable assistance from male muscles and shocking male profanities--and an arm and hand clad in a thick and expensive greatcoat and a fine leather glove reached inside to assist her. It was obvious to her that the arm did not belong to Thomas. Neither did the face at the end of it--hazel-eyed, square-jawed, irritated and frowning.
It was a face Frances had seen briefly less than ten minutes ago.
It was a face--and a person--against whom she had conceived a considerable hostility.
She slapped her hand onto his without a word, intending to use it to assist herself to alight with as much dignity as she could muster. But he hoisted her out from her awkward position as if she were a sack of meal and deposited her on the road, where her half-boots immediately sank out of sight beneath several inches of snow. She could feel all the ferocity of the cold wind and the full onslaught of the snow falling from the sky.
One was supposed to see red when one was furious. But she saw only white.
"You, sir," she said above the noise of the horses and of Thomas and the hunchbacked snowman exchanging vigorous and colorful abuse of each other, "deserve to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. You deserve to be flailed alive. You deserve to be boiled in oil."
The eyebrow that had already offended her once rose again. So did the other.
"And you, ma'am," he said in clipped tones that matched the expression on his face, "deserve to be locked up in a dark dungeon as a public nuisance for venturing out onto the king's highway in such an old boat. It is a veritable fossil. Any museum would reject it as far too ancient a vehicle to be of any interest to its clientele."
© Mary Balogh