“Excuse me, sir. I need your help. I missed the stagecoach.” Lucy clutched her travelworn carpetbag as she addressed the burly man behind the bar. He turned to her with a frown. She held her breath as his sharp, beady eyes appraised her figure, noting her drab brown dress, her threadbare pelisse. She tugged at the bonnet ribbon, setting it askew, so her unruly, bouncing curls spilled over her eyes. She flipped her hair away. Darting a glance at his face, she saw the disapproving set of his jaw. He’d see a girl travelling alone, without a companion. Without any class, style, or money. “Not my problem.” He turned away to pick up a dirty rag. With his other hand, he picked up a wine glass, and proceeded to polishing it with a squeak. “Please.
I need to be at Ashmore Hall before nightfall.” Lucy twisted her hands in an agitated manner. She felt the first flutters of panic unfurl in her stomach. He paused. “Ashmore Hall, eh? The Duke of Ashmore’s Residence?” “The very same.” A look of alertness entered his eyes. “You in service there?” Lucy hesitated. “Well…” “You’re starting out, maybe?” “I’m new there.” That was definitely true. The innkeeper’s face softened.
“My daughter’s in service, too. Up North. The Duke of Ashmore doesn’t just employ anyone. Tough luck, starting the first day late. You’ll lose your job before you’ve even begun.” “Can’t you help me?” She had to reach Ashmore Hall before nightfall. She couldn’t afford to stay at the inn. Her breath quickened at the thought of having to spend the night by the side of the road. He set the glass down. “You sure you want to go there?” “Oh, yes.
It’s urgent.” “Very well.” He jerked his chin toward the window. Outside, a man loaded bushes onto a cart. “Try talking to that fellow over there. He’s on the way to Ashmore Hall. Ask him for a ride.” Lucy could have hugged him. Instead, she quirked a relieved smile at him. “Thank you! I’ll not forget your kindness.
” The man in the outer courtyard was tall and rough-looking. He carried a Hawthorne bush over his shoulder, a second under the other arm. The cart was almost full. “Sir?” Lucy stepped in his path. “Move aside,” he growled. “This is heavy stuff coming through.” He stepped around her and dropped the plants onto the cart. Then he pulled out a rope and tied it around the end of the wagon to keep them from falling off. “Yonder innkeeper informed me you could give me a ride. I missed my coach and the next one arrives tomorrow, late in the afternoon.
But I can’t wait that long.” The man made no appearance of having heard a word she’d said. He climbed into his seat. She followed him. “Please?” “Do I look like I drive a stagecoach?” But Lucy would not be deterred. “It would be so very kind of you if you’d take me along.” “There’s no space.” “Up here next to you there is, if you moved aside a bit? I don’t need so much space. It’s just me and my bag here.” She patted her carpetbag.
The speckled hat shadowed the man’s face. “Move, girl, you are making my horses nervous.” “Please, please, please take me along, I really need to reach Ashmore Hall by nightfall. I won’t be a bother.” The pitch of her voice elevated to a panicked squeak. He lifted his whip, then froze. “Ashmore Hall?” “Yes.” The man turned and looked at her for the first time, taking in her travel-worn clothes and dusty boots. She held her breath. “Are you employed there?” “What if I am? I need to be there before night falls.
I can’t afford a room here.” He stared at her with hooded eyes. Then he shrugged and let his whip slash through the air. The cart rumbled slowly towards the gate. She threw her bag down in frustration. It landed in a puddle. “Oh, blast it all. Why can’t Arabella live in a more accessible place? Now what am I going to do?” The carriage came to a halt. The man stared ahead, immobile. Then he called out, “What’re you waiting for, girl? I haven’t got all day.
” It took Lucy a moment to comprehend what he meant. Relief swept through her. She picked up her muddied bag and scrambled into the driver’s seat next to him. “Thank you, oh, thank you, thank you,” she said, breathlessly. Then she clung to his arm as the carriage set in motion again and she nearly tumbled out again. “I’ve a feeling I’ll regret this,” he muttered as he untangled himself from her. An hour later, the man scrubbed a weary hand over his face. “Heaven help me. Do you ever stop chattering?” Lucy beamed at him. “I do like to talk, don’t I? So, you’re the head gardener at Ashmore Hall? How wonderful! I heard the gardens of Ashmore Hall are like the gardens of Eden.
” He grunted. “Tell me, what’re you working on now? Are you planting those bushes? Are you going to plant them in a huge, impressive alley like they usually have in those grand places?” She waved her hands around. “Ashmore Hall has alleys a plenty. This one’ll be a grove,” he said, unwillingly. “Oh! I can just see it! How lovely it’ll look! And then you will surely plant lots of hyacinths, daffodils and gooseberries? How lovely it’ll smell!” “That’s an odd combination.” “Is it? But you’ve got to see the colours in your inner mind, see. It’s all about the vision.” She spread both hands out in front of her, as if framing a painting. “The vision.” He scratched his nose.
“Yes. Like an artist. I’ve always thought gardeners are like artists. Like painters of nature.” She looked at him dreamily. “You’ve got to have the vision.” “Devil take it, I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.” “It’s easy, see? You close your eyes and visualise it with your inner eye. See the colours and then—an artist would try to catch it with his oils, and oh, a musician with music a gardener, I suppose, with flowers. A gardener is an artist like all the others.
He must be, else he cannot catch the spirit of beauty. The beauty of nature.” The man looked at her as if she’d lost her mind entirely. He dug into his pocket to retrieve a pipe. He lit it and stuck it into the corner of his mouth. “Sit down before you fall off,” he commanded. Lucy had gotten on her feet, gesturing about. She plopped down again. “But what am I saying? Do you know we haven’t even properly introduced ourselves? My name is Lucy Bell.” She held out her hand.
The man stilled. “Miss Bell.” His eyes narrowed. “Of course you are.” He didn’t take her hand, so Lucy dropped hers. “And you are?” He muttered an oath. “Excuse me?” She tilted her head sideways. “Henry,” he said. “My name is Henry.” “Henry? Just Henry? I can’t call a stranger by his first name! Though perhaps we’re no longer strangers, not after having talked to each other all this time.
” She paused. “You could say we’re almost friends, can’t you?” “Friends! Good lord. It’s more of a one-sided jabbering on your side and me not getting a word in.” He pulled himself together. “Henry Gardener at your service.” “Oh, what a perfect name! I suppose it’s from centuries of your family working at Ashmore Hall. It’s like being called Fisher, or Shoemaker, or Miller, I suppose, one’s name reflecting one’s occupation. But Bell?” She pulled a face. “It doesn’t say much. It’d be nice to be called something more elevated.
Something medievally Germanic. Like Isolde, or Swanhilda or Kunigunde. My parents didn’t even have a mind to name me Lucinda. No. Just plain, unoriginal Lucy. If I ever have a daughter, I’ll call her Isolde. It’s such a strong, knightly name! Oh, isn’t this day today wonderful? The sky is blue and the clouds over there are so pretty, and I’m so happy I could burst.” “It’ll rain.” Henry Gardener cast a worried eye on the black clouds that gathered on the horizon. Distant thunder rumbled.
He flicked the whip, and the horses sped up. “What happened that you missed the stagecoach?” “The axle broke, and it tipped over on the side of the road. We were lucky that no one was hurt. It was a bit of a grand adventure, if you think about it. Except walking through the remaining forest to the inn, with all the luggage in tow, wasn’t much fun at all. And then I missed the coach to Somersbrooke village, because it only passes through once a day. Do you think there are highwaymen here?” “Highwaymen?” He looked taken aback. “Not likely.” “Because it’d be a great lark if one were to show up. Don’t you think? I’ve never seen an actual highwayman yet.
” “Even if there were, what would he take? Fourteen bushes?” “Maybe he’d kidnap me, instead, and ransom me for a high price.” After a pause, she added, “You would, of course, rescue me.” Henry snorted. “Would I? Maybe I’d find my bushes more valuable and make sure they’re out of the highwayman’s reach.” “You disappoint me, Mr Gardener.” Lucy gave him a mock frown. “I see you don’t have a single drop of knightly chivalry in your body. If you were Saint George, you’d stand by and worry about the dragon trampling some rose bush while it munches the princess. Rest assured; I’d save you if a highwayman ever were to kidnap you.” She waved her fist in front of his nose.
“I have a mean fist.” He cocked an amused eyebrow at her. “I doubt this would impress the highwayman, who’d be in possession of a pistol. And why the blazes would a highwayman want to kidnap me?” “Maybe you’re a prince, or a duke in disguise for which he could ask a ton of ransom?” He seemed momentarily speechless. “Balderdash.” “I know. I talk a lot, don’t I? And most of it doesn’t make much sense, but that’s the way I am, I suppose. My friend Arabella says—” She broke off. “What does she say, your friend?” “Nothing.” “You’re meaning Lady Arabella of Ashmore Hall?” “Oh.
” Lucy felt her eyes grow to saucers. “I suppose you’d know her. How silly of me not to realise. Yes, I mean Lady Arabella of Ashmore Hall.” “So, you’re not a servant seeking employment.” He furrowed his brows. “You’re a gentlewoman. One of sufficient rank to be acquainted with the sister of a duke.” She sighed but didn’t demur. “Arabella—that is, Lady Arabella—and I went to Miss Hilversham’s Seminary for Young Ladies in Bath.
We grew as close as sisters. But I haven’t seen her in a while.” She counted off her fingers. “I haven’t seen her for three years, since I got exp—I mean, since I left the Seminary. It’s almost forever.” “What is a lady doing out riding in a common stagecoach? Why didn’t Lady Arabella send a carriage? And where is your chaperone?” “The truth is…” Lucy fiddled with the tassels of her pelisse and avoided his eyes. “The truth is I set out with my own carriage and chaperone. But the coachman got sick on the way and my companion left me at—another inn. She preferred to stay behind and—and nurse the coachman. He was sick.
So, I took the stagecoach, but it broke down. And then I missed the connection. Like I said.” Silence. He raised one eyebrow sardonically. When their eyes met, she looked away. “Really.” A muscle twitched in his cheek. “How altruistic of your chaperone to want to nurse the ailing coachman.” “Yes, really.
” She cleared her throat. “But we were talking about Arabella. I mean, Lady Arabella. How well do you know her? You must see her often since she loves the gardens so.” “I see Lady Arabella now and then.” “And her horrid brother, I suppose.” Lucy pulled a face. Henry’s pipe fell out of his mouth. He caught it with one hand. “What’s wrong with His Grace of Ashmore?” “He’s the most odious person I’ve ever been so unfortunate to meet in my entire life.
” She thought for a moment. “Though, admittedly, I didn’t actually meet him. Not literally yet, I mean. Not in person.” Henry snorted. “Then how do you know he’s so odious?” Lucy stared ahead and didn’t reply. She wouldn’t even know where to begin, the list was so long. “Hmm?” She made a jerky movement as if remembering that she was conversing with him. “From Arabella, of course,” she rushed on to say. “I mean, what she tells me.
From what Arabella used to read to me from his letters at school. He disapproves of me. I’m a corrupt influence and whatnot. And then, once—” “Once…?” Henry prompted. “Oh, nothing.” Lucy shook herself, trying to rid herself of a particularly pernicious memory. Then she laughed. “Well, he’s probably right. I can be a terrible person sometimes. My head is full of nonsensical ideas and I say whatever comes to my mind.
It’s the first time I’m visiting Ashmore Hall. Arabella insisted.” She clamped down her hand on his arm. “Oh look! Stop. Stop! You have to stop.” Startled, Henry pulled to a halt. They were on a little stone bridge crossing a little river. In the water floated a ragged parcel that emitted mewling noises. Lucy didn’t think twice. She threw her carpetbag at Henry, jumped off the cart and ran to the edge of the bridge.
The parcel drifted underneath. Lucy ran to the other side and strained to reach the parcel as it passed by. Her arms were too short. She picked up a stick that lay by the road to fish it out, to no avail. She teetered forward, flailed, and— Splash, fell head over heels into the brook. “Bloody hell, now she’s gone and drowned herself.” Without a second thought, Henry tossed her bag to the side, leapt off the cart and jumped after her. Just in that moment, thunder rolled, and lightning flashed through the sky. The leaderless and frightened horses bolted.