London Stranger – Joyce Alec

The carriage bounced over an uneven part of the road and Juliet winced, gritting her teeth as she held on to the strap. The many hours she had spent in the carriage were beginning to take its toll and Juliet did not know how she was meant to endure much more. Her body ached and she was weary and exhausted. It was all very well for her father, who had chosen to hire a horse so that he might ride the last stretch to London, and her companion—one Mrs. Grey—was sound asleep in the opposite corner of the carriage, her mouth ajar as her dark grey head bobbed with every jostle of the carriage. Juliet could not even think of sleeping at present, even though she was thoroughly exhausted. Their last inn, whilst pleasant enough, had not had the softest of beds and Juliet had spent the night tossing and turning whilst, again, Mrs. Grey slept soundly and without complaint. It had all been most irritating. It will be worth it, she told herself, thinking of London and society and all that came with it. Once you are back in London, it will all be worth it. A small smile captured her mouth as she thought of what awaited her. Last Season, she had made her debut and had enjoyed her time in London, being introduced to various gentlemen and ladies, conversing with them, dancing with the gentlemen, and trying to make herself known amongst the beau monde. Her Season had not lasted as long as she had hoped, however, for her companion had become gravely ill and, once she had improved enough to travel, they had all returned to her father’s estate so that Mrs. Grey might continue her recovery there.

Juliet prayed that this year, she would be able to stay in London for the entirety of the Season. “Whoa there!” The carriage, much to Juliet’s astonishment, suddenly began to slow. She frowned and looked out of the window, wondering why they were doing so. London was still some distance away and they certainly had not arranged to take any respite in between, not unless her father’s horse required it. Unable to see anything of interest, Juliet waited as the carriage came to a complete stop, astonished to hear her father’s loud voice calling up toward the driver. Wondering what it was he had discovered, Juliet opened her carriage door without hesitation, but the driver jumped down from his perch and then came toward her at once, his face flushed from the heat of the sun. “My lady, the master has stopped us,” the driver told her as the other servants climbed down to join him. “He states that it is best that you remain in the carriage, however. He gave no instructions to say you should join him.” “Hurry up, man!” Juliet winced, hearing the firmness in her father’s voice.

The driver dipped his head and then hurried away, leaving Juliet and Mrs. Grey to sit—or sleep on—in the carriage. Frustration lit Juliet’s soul. Why had her father demanded such a thing? Surely he knew just how difficult it was to sit in the carriage for a long period. Questions burned in her mind as she heard the murmur of low voices drifting toward her, her brow furrowing as she strained to listen through the open carriage door. What was it they had discovered? And why must she remain in the carriage? Had they discovered something that would put her ‘delicate constitution’, as her father so often called it, at risk? Irritation grasped a hold of her heart and Juliet glanced toward Mrs. Grey, noting that the lady slept on, seemingly all the better now that the carriage had stopped. With a small sigh of exasperation, Juliet climbed out carefully and stood on the grassy verge, permitting herself a long stretch as her muscles began to complain about what she had been doing. The thought of climbing back into the carriage was not one she relished and thus Juliet was quite determined to make the most of this opportunity. “Juliet!” The moment she came into view, the horses still between herself and her father, the Earl of Lansbury immediately began to rail at her.

“I gave specific instructions that you were to remain in the carriage.” “I am aware of that, Father,” Juliet replied calmly, “but I need to take a short walk. It has been a rather difficult journey and I am tired.” Her father glared at her, his dark grey eyes fixed to her face, but Juliet ignored him entirely. The earl might have a good deal of bluster, but it never amounted to anything. No doubt she frustrated him entirely by refusing to do as he asked, but on this occasion at least, Juliet felt entirely justified. “Do not come near,” the earl said after a moment or two. “Juliet, I beg of you to listen to me, even though a father ought never to have to beg anything of his child.” Clicking his tongue, he looked back at Juliet steadily, waiting for her answer, and something in his gaze caught Juliet’s attention. “Yes, Father,” she said slowly, looking at him carefully and wondering at the dark frown on his face.

“What is it that you have discovered?” The earl blew out a breath and looked away. “It is best you do not know, Juliet.” “Please, Father,” she said, a tremor running through her at the clear upset in her father’s face. “It is something truly terrible?” Again, her father did not immediately answer, his gaze still fixed on a point in the horizon. “It appears, Juliet,” he said eventually, “that some highwaymen have been along this road.” All of Juliet’s determination and eagerness washed away in an instant and she could almost feel the color draining from her cheeks. Without even meaning to do so, she took a small step to her right, horrified to see the outline of a man lying on the ground behind her father. His eyes were closed and his skin grey. It was clear that there was no life left within him. Putting out one hand, Juliet leaned on the carriage itself for support, hearing the horses whinny nervously as she turned away.

She ought not to have come out of the carriage. Her father, seeing clearly that his daughter was overcome, came closer to speak to her over the horses’ backs. “Highwaymen?” she whispered, and the earl nodded, his mouth in a tight line. “How can you be certain?” “I cannot be certain that it was, but what other reason would someone have to discard people by the side of the road without any of their jewelry left on them?” the earl asked bluntly. “As I have said, Juliet, I think you should have remained in the carriage. What you have observed already is more than enough. This is not a sight you ought to see.” Juliet wanted to argue, wanted to state that she was quite all right and that he did not need to mollycoddle her, but she could not deny that even the small glimpse of what the highwaymen had left behind had turned her stomach. With a tight nod, she turned back to where she had come from, although she did not instantly climb back inside. Instead, she kept one hand on the door, breathing hard and forcing the fright out of herself.

She would not give in to it, not when they were so close to London, and surely no highwaymen would attempt to do anything given just how close they were to the city. Except they have clearly been at work in this very spot, she said to herself, sickened at the thought. It is not as safe as you might have hoped. Whilst Juliet had heard stories of highwaymen and knew that the tales were, for the most part, quite true, she had never permitted herself to linger on such stories whenever they had set out to travel, knowing that she was well protected by her father’s staff. But now to hear that they had almost driven past those who had been attacked by highwaymen and had lost their lives because of it made things all the more real to her. She felt sick, breathing hard so that she would not cast up her accounts by the side of the road. There was more mettle in her than this, surely. “My lady?” She turned to see the driver returning. “We are to make haste to London,” the driver told her gently, his kind face telling her that he knew she was feeling quite ill at ease. “Might you climb back inside?” Juliet nodded and accepted his hand, climbing back into the apparent safety of the carriage and letting out her breath slowly, feeling it rattle out of her as she tried to grasp a hold of her courage.

Sitting back down, she waited for the driver to close the door, only for him to step away quickly as the earl suddenly appeared. “You are quite all right, Juliet?” he asked, showing her more compassion than usual. “I know such things are distressing but just be glad that you did not see anything too grotesque.” This did not help her nerves in any way, making her stomach twist in a most alarming fashion. “There is no hope for any of them?” The earl hesitated. “Not for two of them, the poor devils,” he said, his face holding a good deal more anger than Juliet had expected. “The third is still breathing and, whilst in a great deal of pain and distress, has life left within him. I have done what I can for them. A young lad came near to us as we were discussing what to do and I have sent him back to the nearest village to fetch those who might be able to not only remove the bodies but bury them also. He will also bring whatever country doctor he can find, just in case the third can be saved.

” Juliet swallowed the nausea that rose in her throat. “Then we are to stay here at present?” “I shall,” the earl replied firmly, “but you are to carry on to London. You and Mrs. Grey —” he glanced at the sleeping woman before he continued, a slight flicker of mirth in his eyes now. “You are both to set yourselves up in the townhouse and make certain that you are both settled and rested. We will not go out into London until either the morrow or the day after.” Had they not found such a dreadful sight and had Juliet’s stomach not been battling to keep a hold of itself, Juliet might have argued with her father that she could very easily go out into society come the morrow, but given just how ill she now felt, she lapsed into a quiet agreement of silence. “And there is one more thing,” the earl said quietly, speaking now very seriously indeed. “There was a letter in the gentleman’s pockets, Juliet. The one who still breathes.

I should like you to take it back to the townhouse with you.” Juliet’s head lifted and she stared at her father, who was nodding encouragingly. “You mean to say that you looked through their clothes?” she asked, a little repulsed. “Why would you—?” “The driver did so,” the earl replied, interrupting her. “And I had him do so in order to make quite certain that it was highwaymen and not some other thing. It confirmed to me that yes, it must have been highwaymen who had done such a dreadful thing, given that everything of value is gone from them. It was only by chance that I discovered this note and, whilst I have not yet read it, I think it would be wise to take it back to London in case it yields something of importance. I do not know if this gentleman will ever recover and if he does not, then who will ever know of it?” A flare of anger burned in his eyes and he looked away for a moment, his hand whitening as he pulled the letter out from his pocket. “Recall, Juliet,” he said, looking back at her and clearly keeping his voice constrained with an effort, “that we do not know the name of that man, or of those who lie dead.” Juliet nodded, reaching out to take the letter from her father without any further hesitation, realizing what he meant and why the letter might be of such great importance.

Those who had perished at the hands of the highwaymen were, at present, entirely without name or identity. The people from the nearby village might know them, if they had passed through, but if they did not and if the third passed away also, then it would be nothing but three unmarked graves. Families would be left bereft, uncertain as to where their beloved son or husband or brother had gone. It was up to Juliet and her father to do the very best they could for them. “I thank you, Juliet,” her father said gently before closing the carriage door. “Now, off to London with you. And do not stop until you reach the townhouse.” She nodded. “Yes, Father,” she promised, looking down at the letter in her hand and then glancing across at Mrs. Grey, who was still sound asleep.

With a jolt that made no difference to her companion, the carriage moved away again, jostling Juliet hard as she looked steadfastly out of her window, refusing to turn her head for fear of what she might see out of the opposite window. Her hands tightened on the letter she held, her breathing uneven as she fought rising nausea. Looking down at the letter, she caught her breath before having to suck in air desperately, horrified at the roiling of her stomach. She could not cast up her accounts here, not when her father had told her not to stop until they reached London. But as she glanced back down at it again, Juliet felt a horror begin to creep over her skin, her heart pounding and her fear growing steadily. The letter was flecked with blood. * * * It was a sennight before Juliet felt ready to step out into society. After the journey to her father’s townhouse, Juliet had grown all the more weary and tired, finding that there had been none of the exhilaration she had hoped for in returning to London. Instead, she had taken to her bed and had rested for some days, whilst her father fretted that she would become just as ill as her companion had been last Season and that they would have to return to his estate before the Season had even begun. This, however, had not been the case.

Juliet had increased her strength daily and had finally managed to push all thoughts of highwaymen and the horrors they had witnessed from her mind, leaving her only to push aside a straying memory or two whenever they came to her. The letter, however, had been very little help. Her father had opened it almost the moment he had returned to London, only to discover that there was nothing within. Juliet had taken it from him with a frown, turning it this way and that but discovering that it was entirely empty. Her father had muttered about throwing it in the fire but, for whatever reason, Juliet had kept it in her bedchamber, as though it might yield its secrets to her if she could only wish for it hard enough. “Let me see you, then.” Juliet blushed as she walked into the drawing room, seeing her father waiting for her. He waggled a finger and Juliet turned slowly, praying that he would be satisfied with her gown for the evening. Thankfully it appeared he was more than contented. “You look very lovely, my dear,” he said kindly.

“That gown was an excellent choice for your first ball of the Season.” Juliet smiled back at her father, thinking him to be a very kind gentleman in his way. He had never expressed any great fondness for her but, in his own way, made certain that she realized she was of importance to him. Whilst he preferred to bury himself in business, read a great many books, and take long, solitary walks, Juliet found herself desperate for company, for conversation, and for laughter with friends and companions. Mrs. Grey did not provide such things, although Juliet was very grateful for her indeed. This evening, she might be able to reacquaint herself with one or two of the other ladies whom she had met last Season. That, she was sure, would help her re-establish herself in society. “You will be careful to do all that Mrs. Grey says,” the earl continued, his tone now a little more firm.

“Everything she insists you do, you do without question or hesitation. Is that clear?” “Yes, Father,” Juliet replied quickly, aware that, whilst she might find Mrs. Grey’s presence a little irritating at times, she was only there to ensure that Juliet behaved with all propriety and that gentlemen, too, treated Juliet with the respect she deserved. Whilst Juliet was all too aware of the presence of rogues and rakes within society, she had not met any as yet and that, certainly, was not a source of disappointment to her. Some young ladies wanted nothing more than to be introduced to such a gentleman, but Juliet was not one of them. She wanted to find herself a sensible, kind-hearted gentleman that would suit her very well. That was both her own and her father’s intention for her this Season and Juliet wanted very much to fulfill it. “And you will inform me of any gentlemen of note, Mrs. Grey,” the earl continued as Juliet’s companion nodded quickly. “Particularly if they seem interested in my daughter.

She must be protected.” “I quite understand, my lord,” the lady replied, curtsying quickly in evident deference. “I will make sure to do so.” Becoming frustrated with her father’s evident unwillingness to hurry them to the carriage and, instead, to talk with them both about what his expectations were— expectations that were already very well established, given that Juliet had heard them many times before—she gave her father a pointed look. He understood it immediately, a small smile spreading across his face and making his dark grey eyes twinkle. “Yes, yes, we shall depart,” he said with a wave of his hand that instructed Juliet to make for the door. “I shall, of course, be there to make certain you are welcomed by the host but, thereafter, I do intend to find the card room just as soon as I can.” Juliet smiled up at her father as she passed him, feeling no concern whatsoever that he would be seeking out the card room. He was not a father who had ever shown great concern for his offspring. There had been a great concern for her older brother, of course, given that he was the heir, but now that he was wed and settled, her father had shown no great interest in Juliet’s future.

No doubt he expected her to find someone suitable, but there was no need for him to be involved in any great detail, hence why she now had Mrs. Grey as her companion. Hurrying to the carriage, Juliet climbed inside carefully, making certain not to wrinkle her gown. “A very fine evening this is to be, I am sure,” Mrs. Grey said, sitting down with a small sigh. “And plenty of eligible gentlemen.” Juliet laughed. “I will be happy just to reacquaint myself with those I met last Season,” she said as her father joined them. “That will suit me very well.” Her hands tightened in her lap as the carriage pulled away from the house, a knot of excitement squirreling into her belly.

A sudden thought came to her and she looked at her father. “Have you heard anything from Mr. Johnson?” she asked, having been told the name of the man who had taken on the responsibility of caring for the third man they had found, as well as the burial of the other two. Her father shook his head. “There is very little change,” he replied, a hint of sorrow in his voice. “The third man hovers between consciousness and unconsciousness, eating very little and having said nothing at all.” After a moment, he reached across and patted Juliet’s hand. “But you must not think of that now. London is waiting for you and you shall be at the very heart of all there is to enjoy.” Juliet nodded and returned her gaze to the window.

The horror of what she had seen, the fear of the highwaymen, and the dreadful thoughts that had filled her mind for so long no longer troubled her to the same extent. In fact, she was able to push them aside without any great difficulty given the excitement of what was before her. Her first ball of the Season. It was, as Mrs. Grey had said, sure to be a very fine evening, and Juliet could hardly wait until they arrived.

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