“Lord preserve us, milady! Surely a creature such as this one will not hesitate to attack us! Is it wise to feed it?” Ignoring the overly dramatic warning of Sarah, her lady’s maid, Lady Phoebe Francesca Maitland, lowered a piece of succulent roast onto the snow-covered ground near the creature in question. It appeared to be a wolf, and the very first one she’d ever seen outside of a picture book. The large gray and black animal seemed half-starved, pained, its upper lips curved into a vicious snarl even as a tear leaked from its eye. Despite the chill in the air, Phoebe unhooked her dark green redingote, spread it to the ground, and lowered to her knees to peer at the animal hidden in the underbrush. It stared back at her, its dark eyes piercing and cautious. Phoebe carefully pushed the piece of roast closer, hoping to tempt the animal into eating. She could see its ribs, yet the creature would not come forward for the succulent offering she had bid Sarah secure from one of their picnic baskets. “Please eat,” she whispered, her throat aching. “It must hurt to be so hungry, and you are stubborn. I can see the drool on your mouth.” The large beast whined and pushed back even further into the bushes. Had it been abused? She dearly hoped not. “Why won’t you eat?” “The person who has been watching atop the hill is coming closer, milady!” Sarah sounded appropriately alarmed. She had mentioned several minutes ago that she had spied someone up the hilly incline staring down at them. Since that person had made no effort to approach, Phoebe had not been too terribly worried.
There were a couple of footmen in shouting distance if assistance was needed. “Is it a gentleman or a lady, Sarah?” “I cannot tell as yet, milady, I… Oh! It seems to be a young lady,” Sarah said, shifting cautiously closer but still a fair distance from the creature she seemed to believe would rip their throats out at any moment. “And she is most assuredly approaching us.” The sound of a boot heel crunching into the snow echoed behind her. “Are Jeffers and Thomas still nearby?” Phoebe asked of the footmen who had kept a discreet but protective distance as she had walked away from the carriages. “Yes, milady.” The determined crunch of footfall halted, yet Phoebe did not turn around. “It’s best to leave it alone,” a soft, lilting voice said. “That dog has no will to live anymore. I’ve tried to feed it these last few days, and it refuses wholeheartedly.
” A dog? She dipped even lower and shifted a shrubbery coated with snow to assess the animal further. It was then she noted a collar around its neck with some iron tag. “Why does it have no will?” “The dog’s master is dying, and it seems the beast wants to follow.” The tone was now perplexed and even edged with frustration. Phoebe released the snow-covered branch, pushed to her feet, and turned to face the owner of that lilting voice. A young girl of about sixteen years or perhaps younger, who was dressed in trousers, stood with her feet braced apart, glorious red curls tumbling over her shoulders and down to her back in wild disarray. Large gray eyes returned Phoebe’s regard boldly. “You sound very unaffected at the notion of someone’s impending death,” Phoebe murmured. The pain of losing her beloved oldest brother, Francis, a few years ago still lingered in her heart. Many days she would lie on the grass at her family’s country home in Derbyshire and recall to mind his booming laugh, his warm, comforting scent, and the way he would gather her in his arms for a hug.
At the lack of response, Phoebe surmised that no, this lady was not at all concerned with whoever lingered at death’s door. “Then why isn’t this poor beast by its master’s side?” “Doctor’s orders,” she said tersely. Phoebe stared at her for a few moments. “Who are you?” The girl fisted a hand on one of her slim hips and lifted her chin. “I’m Caroline, the steward of Glencairn Castle.” Phoebe’s curiosity soared. “A female steward? How positively modern.” The girl arched an elegant brow. “Aye, that it is, and I am very good at my job, except for when it comes to him,” she said with another soft grunt of exasperation. “And who are you?” “Lady Phoebe.
” She dipped into a simple but elegant curtsy. “My family’s carriage had a problem with the axle, and I thought to stretch my legs while it is fixed.” Inquisitiveness shone from Miss Caroline’s eyes. “You’ve stretched them quite far, milady. I see no carriages on the horizon.” Phoebe glanced over her shoulder toward the east. “It seems I have outdistanced my party.” The wild beauty of the Scottish Highlands had encouraged her to stroll for over an hour. Phoebe ruefully admitted she had been desperate to escape the diatribe her mama had been heaping upon her head. It seemed her engagement to a certain earl was imminent, and Phoebe’s protest at the alliance wasn’t to be tolerated.
The low growl of the dog had her shifting to keep him in her line of sight. How curious that its stare had not left her. He reminded her of Lord Benjamin’s—Francis’s cat, who had disappeared the day they had laid her brother to rest in the family’s crypt. If what the girl said was true, this dog suffered because his master suffered. Her heart ached something fierce as she stared at the dog. “What is his name?” “Dog,” the girl said. Phoebe frowned. “How cruel its master would only call him ‘Dog!’” She glanced around at the girl. “Does he not care for this animal?” There was a slight hesitation where raw emotions flashed in her eyes before her expression smoothed. “Perhaps the dog has a name.
” She shrugged with studied indifference. “I never cared to know it.” Another unexpected ache clutched at Phoebe’s heart. “Why…why is his master dying?” The indifferent facade crumbled, and pain, raw and powerful, cracked Caroline’s countenance. “Because he is stupid!” She dug into the pocket of her coat and withdrew a folded piece of paper. The girl hurried over to her and pressed it into Phoebe’s hand. “I’ve been searching for a fool to give this to!” A fool? How astonishingly rude! Then to Phoebe’s alarm, the girl marched away up the rocky incline toward the towering mansion in the far distance. Glancing at the folded paper and then back at the retreating figure, Phoebe was torn between annoyance and unwilling amusement. She returned her attention to the animal still crouched in the bushes. “Do you know that very rude creature?” The dog growled in response, and Phoebe sighed.
“Come, boy…Dog,” she called firmly. “Perhaps we should leave it alone as the lady advises, milady,” Sarah said a bit fretfully. “She is familiar with its contrariness, and it is also evident she does not care for the beast.” “I suspect if we leave, this dog will stay here and starve itself.” Sarah sighed. “The duchess will not be pleased if she comes upon you. I fear I will be harshly scolded with you.” “Then I suppose we shall be scolded together, but do not fret much, Sarah. I shall take the brunt of Mama’s displeasure.” Phoebe then spent several more minutes demanding the dog to eat her offering, and when the brisk commands yielded no success, she lowered her tone and tried cajoling.
The dog did not move, and she glanced down at the letter in her hand, not understanding why she even clutched at the paper. “Are you to open it, milady?” Phoebe sighed. “And prove to that rude creature I am a fool?” Her lady maid gasped her affront, and Phoebe smiled. “She did say she was waiting for a fool to hand this note, so I gather its contents to be objectionable to her intelligence and maybe a trap for me.” Phoebe glared at the note, her curiosity eating at her. “I cannot credit that she walked around with this letter to fob it off on the first stranger she saw. That means the contents are truly not that important to her…or perhaps anyone else. Or since she was watching us, she decided I was somehow the right person to hand it to.” “So will you discard it or read it, milady?” Sarah asked, glancing at the rapidly darkening sky and back toward where they had left the carriages. Her damnable curiosity won, and she opened it.
Dear You, Phoebe blinked at the highly unusual greeting. Thank you for the courage to reach for this letter. I requested that it be entrusted to someone kind, patient, and warmhearted. Before you is my very best friend, perhaps my only friend, and most certainly the most loyal of companions. As my sister berated me these past few days, due to my unchecked idiocy, I’ve fallen ill, and from the dark and excessively dramatic muttering about in the hallway, I’m not likely to recover. I do not fear the inevitable nature of death, yet I do care very much who will look after my friend when I am gone. We’ve been together these last seven years, and he has trotted faithfully with me on many adventures, and even through many perilous dangers, he remained by my side. He is brave with a huge heart. Phoebe glanced up from the letter. “I…I believe it a letter from its owner,” she said wonderingly.
“And he entrusted that very rude creature with it.” His name is Wolf. “Oh, of course it is,” she whispered, then with a light laugh of relief, she looked at him. “Wolf… please eat!” Then she held her breath in anticipation. “Wolf!” How decidedly odd. The dog did not respond, and yet again, his stare remained on her. With a frown, she read the rest of the letter. He will not respond to Wolf, for he has not learned to associate the sound of his name with his special symbol. Lift your hands to your chin with your palm open. Then form it into a side beak, then quickly snap your fingers together and say his name.
She stared in astonishment at the peculiar instructions. Unable to explain why, she complied, and her heart almost burst from her chest when the dog lurched to stand on trembling feet. “Wolf,” she said softly and repeated the motion. If he responded to you, that means there is something about your presence he finds trustworthy. Please take care of him. Below are instructions on how to sign commands to him, and once he is accustomed to you, I am certain a new bond will be formed where he will listen in whichever way you deem to speak with him. I’ve left instructions for a jointure to be provided for his care and feeding. Please leave your details with my sister so that my wishes might be fulfilled. I will close my eyes, resting easy that he has found a new home. Warmest of Regards, Hugh.
And below his greetings were more odd instructions on how to tell Wolf to eat, run, fetch, and dear God, even attack. “How strange!” She folded the letter, and after slipping it into her pocket, Phoebe lowered to her knees on her coat. Recalling the instruction, she lifted her beaked fist and tapped it toward her partially open mouth three times. Phoebe laughed with relief when Wolf finally took a bite of the succulent meat. “You are very stubborn, aren’t you? Wherever did you find the willpower to resist eating when you are so very hungry?” It took a few moments for her to gather the courage to reach out and pet him. Wolf went remarkably still beneath her touch, and her heart quaked. Then a heavy, gruff sound escaped him, and the taut muscles beneath her fingers relaxed. “Come with me,” she said softly and used her fingers to shape the command—come! He trotted to her, and she slipped her hands around his massive head. A rumble of what she hoped was pleasure came from his throat, and something tightened inside Phoebe’s chest. She’d never had a pet of any kind before.
Mama had always seemed allergic to all critters, and Papa had indulged every hysterical fit whenever an animal dared to approach the duchess. The only exception had been for Francis’s beloved Lord Benjamin. “I think we could be friends,” she whispered by his ear, ignoring the wet and mildly unpleasant odor wafting from him. “I’ve always wanted a friend I could confide my fears and hopes to, one who would not gossip about me or inform my mother of my wayward thoughts.” Phoebe then stood and collected her coat. With a sigh, she patted the dog’s head, which easily reached her waist. Phoebe had never boasted any extraordinary height and now at the age of eighteen accepted that she would not grow beyond her five-foot-three-inch frame. The dog trotted beside her, and Sarah remained a few paces behind, not seeming to trust in what she had witnessed. If Phoebe possessed any wisp of rationality, she would leave the savage animal to his own fate. She was only here in Scotland on holiday with her family, a retreat her mother had needed and one the duchess took yearly since the death of her oldest son two years past.
Worse, the duke and duchess’s remaining son, Richard—the marquess of Westfall—was another source of disappointment because he had publicly claimed his bastard daughter, to his parents’ and society’s mortification. To Phoebe’s heart, her brother’s actions made him a man to be admired, and she loved him dearly. He would surely encourage her to help the poor animal. A procession of four carriages crawled along the dirt road toward Phoebe. The front equipage held her mother with her traveling companion and lady maid. Her father, the duke of Salop, had left for England the week before. The second carriage would be empty, as Phoebe had traveled alone with her maid. And the other two held all their traveling trunks and servants. There was no fuss or stirring from the front carriage when the second coach stopped, and a footman assisted her inside. The warmth that enveloped her was immediate, and with a gusty sigh, she sat on the well-padded seats.
Sarah perched in front of her, and none of the footmen uttered a protest when she ordered Wolf into the carriage and onto the seats beside her. Phoebe reached for the basket loaded with more food than she and Sarah could eat and proceeded to carefully feed the dog the cooked meat, which he scarfed down without any hesitation. “I confess I am not at all pleased to return to London,” she said to Wolf after he had eaten the last slice of meat. She patted her lap. Her maid cast her a glance of horror, as if the beast would attack her lady at any moment. The dog considered her for a long time before he shifted closer and rested his head in her lap. “Good boy. We shall be wonderful friends! Although I think we will have to arrange a bath for you when we reach wherever we are staying tonight.” With a sigh, she confessed, “If not for dear George, I think I would run away. Or perhaps we should elope together and damn the scandal!” “Please, milady,” Sarah began fretfully.
“It is not wise to keep thinking about the young sir. The duchess…” Her lady’s maid parted the carriage curtain and peeked outside as if to ensure the duchess was not mystically perched listening to their conversation. “The duchess must not know you have a tendre for each other!” To Phoebe’s mind, Mr. George Hastings was a perfectly respectable and accomplished young man, but although he came from a well-connected family, he could not be thought a sufficiently eligible husband for a duke’s daughter. They had been friends since they were children, and lately there had been softer emotions bubbling between them. “He loves me, Sarah,” Phoebe murmured. “And I daresay the warmth that fills me whenever I see him will soon grow to mean so much more. I am certain of it!” “Pish! Love is not ‘warm!’” Phoebe frowned and shifted on the carriage seat. “Then what is it like, since you’ve experienced it?” Sarah flushed, pink blossoming on her cheeks, and glanced away momentarily. “That hardly matters.
Mr. Hastings is only the second son of a viscount! You know of the duchess’s grand aspirations, so why do you persist in vexing her, milady?” Phoebe brushed aside the carriage curtains and peered at the rolling landscape dotted with snow. It was proving extremely difficult to convince her mama she did not wish to marry the Earl of Dumont. It only mattered that Dumont was powerful, wealthy, and the connections of their family would be considered by society to be very well matched. Over these six weeks spent on a prolonged holiday with her parents, Phoebe had tried not to think of her impending marriage announcement but only how to escape that predicament. Phoebe was dreadfully tired of pretending to be the obedient, unthinking social butterfly her mother insisted she should be at all times. She might have only seen eighteen years of life, but there was a desperate need inside Phoebe to enjoy a fulfilling life. And that was not done by merrily walking into the dastardly traps the duke and duchess had set for her. I shall find a way to escape it…I shall!