Authors: Wareeze Woodson
Table of Contents
A LADY’S VANISHING CHOICES
SOUL MATE PUBLISHING
A LADY’S VANISHING CHOICES
Cover Design by Syneca Featherstone
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, business establishments, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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Published in the United States of America by
Soul Mate Publishing
P.O. Box 24
Macedon, New York, 14502
The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
I would like to dedicate this book
to another strong, loyal character,
my husband, Harold.
A special thanks to my critique partners,
Linda, June, and Robbin.
Without them to call me to account,
the book would have languished in my computer.
I would like to acknowledge RWA for the many lectures, conferences, and other experiences available through our chapter. A special thanks to my granddaughter, Shelbie, for her help producing my book trailers.
Bethany Ann Littleton pulled on the reins, bringing the gig to a halt, and gazed about at the peaceful scene. Silence, blessed silence, blanketed the forest, but the serenity surrounding her did little to stem the tide of angry tears slipping down her cheeks unchecked. Uncle Arthur would have her hide if he returned and discovered her absence, especially after taking the gig without permission.
She didn’t care. Even a beating would be worth it to escape Aunt Gertrude’s sharp tongue ringing a peel over her head. She clenched her hands into fists, finally exhaling a long sigh. Maggie, the closest thing she had to a mother figure, would scold her for behavior unworthy of a lady. She would advise her to dismiss her sulks. Don’t wallow in the dismals.
Dashing her tears away before climbing out of the gig, she strolled into the trees. She picked a few wild flowers, sniffing their slight fragrance, and enjoyed the opportunity to linger, if that was her want.
The clatter of a thud and scrape against the ground reached her ears. What on earth? Alert now, she strained to listen. Again the thud and scrape echoed in a steady rhythm. She recognized the noise of a shovel being plied. Such a sound deep in the forest instantly announced something unusual, even sinister and dangerous. The hairs on back of her neck stood on end and she froze in place. She was alone, vulnerable. Discovery of her presence could herald a ruined reputation perhaps even sending her into actual peril. She shivered. Why had she allowed vexation and self-pity to drive her to act on such a reckless impulse?
Holding her breath, she inched forward ever so quietly and crouched behind a screen of bushes. Alarm curled down her spine, but the urge to discover the source of the sound pushed her forward. Peeking through the foliage, she viewed a small clearing with a mound of freshly turned dirt piled in the center. A man flung another scoop full onto the heap and continued to dig. What could possibly be his purpose? The odor of moist soil reached Bethany, reminding her of her situation, alone and deep in the woods. She recalled the old adage about curiosity and the cat. She caught her breath. The cat died. Nevertheless, she couldn’t drag herself away.
The stranger stopped digging, lifted his head and surveyed the area with a sweeping gaze. Listening intently, he checked beneath the surrounding trees. After several seconds, he dropped his shovel and headed to the edge of the glade. He passed so close to her position, he could have easily detected her presence with a quick look.
Ceasing to move or even blink, Bethany held her breath, fearing the sound might alert him to her presence. She couldn’t force her gaze from the man. Every detail imprinted on her memory, sharp and indelible. The tip of something yellow protruded from the pocket of his hunting vest. He wore a fine lawn shirt, expensive, normally owned by the gentry and nobility. A dark cap, pulled over his hair, obscured his eyes and upper face.
He stopped beside his horse only a short distance away. Until this moment, she’d been totally unaware of the animal tethered to a tree not far from her hiding spot. She placed her hand against her chest to still the hammering of her heart. The horse stomped and snorted when the man removed a bundle from its back. Why hadn’t she noticed the blessed animal before?
Could she slip away without detection when he returned to his digging or should she remain concealed until he finished whatever he intended to do? She clenched her teeth. How devastating to know self-pity and a bout of ill humor had brought her to this pass.
The digger turned. In a panic at the threat he presented, cold sweat beaded her upper lip. She didn’t wish to discover what he intended to do next, but she couldn’t drag her gaze away.
He peered around suspiciously, surveying the area again, before striding back to the dig site with the blanket-draped roll over his shoulder. Bethany’s stomach churned while she watched the stranger dump the object on the ground. His guarded movements alone proclaimed he had a nefarious purpose. Her imagination ran wild with speculation about the contents of the roll, and terror gripped her. Regardless of what was in the blanket, the necessity for a secret disposal deep in the woods told its own tale. A lump caught in her throat. It was time to run. No . . . no, don’t run. He might hear.
The man glanced around again, searching, probing the area. Alert and tense, he seemed to listen for a long minute.
Horrified, she crouched frozen in place, her gaze never wavering from the man. The taste of fear coated her tongue, coppery and disgusting. Did he sense her stare or her panic even from this distance? She squeezed her eyes shut and ceased to breathe for an eternity . . . waiting. Finally, she heard him heave another shovel-full of soil into the hole.
. She must gain control. Patting her skirts where her pistol rested in a deep pocket, she shuddered at the mere thought of killing another human. Nevertheless, a sense of relief washed over her. She had a way to defend herself if called upon to do so, but it was still best to slip away, if possible.
Bethany forced her limbs to move. Her pulse pounded in her throat with every step. She inched back slowly, careful not to snap a twig or rustle a leaf. She gulped shallow breaths, trying to remain quiet.
Although she continued to hear the thump of each shovel-full of dirt when it hit the ground, time seemed to have stopped. Each minute stretched into hours with each step, or so it seemed to her. When she could no longer hear the digging, she finally glanced over her shoulder. Did she actually glimpse a yellow scarf or was that merely a sunbeam piercing the forest? Panicked anew, she could hardly breathe when she stepped out onto the rutted lane.
“No. This can’t be happening,” she whispered. The horse and gig had disappeared. She came close to a swoon before shaking away the fog closing round her.
The vapors won’t help. Think.
With the wind of the approaching storm, a branch had blown down across the lane, most likely frightening the stupid creature. The horse had somehow broken the small brush where she’d tied the reins. She glanced both ways down the narrow lane and failed to catch sight of the wayward horse or the gig.
She noted the tracks led off in the opposition direction of Birdelwood Manor. Nothing else for it, she had to follow. She dared not return to the manor without the worthless beast and the gig. Trudging after the animal, she longed to curse.
Her anger alleviated a bit of her fear, but she couldn’t resist the urge to glance over her shoulder again. Nothing there, except the quiet of the forest before a brewing storm.
After she traveled only a few miles, she spied the gig standing in the middle of the lane where the horse slowly lipped a few blades of grass between the ruts. Quickly catching the reins, she climbed aboard and wiped the dampness off her forehead. Tired and so upset she could hardly think, she cast a quick glance over her shoulder again. She prayed the sinister stranger hadn’t caught a glimpse of her. If he had, he might come after her.
Whipping the reins to urge her horse forward, she winced as the gig scraped the side of a tree growing almost in the path. Bethany wanted to be well out of the ragged edge of the forest and this nightmare before the storm broke.
Her fingers tightened on the reins. This little used track, choked with weeds between the deep ruts, could not be traveled at a great rate of speed. Bethany tensed, her mind filled with anxiety and terrifying questions. She couldn’t repress the need for a quick look behind her again. All clear so far. She took a deep breath.
Up ahead, where the lonely track joined the road, she could see through the thinning trees. The clouds parted for an instant and allowed a splash of sunlight to spear the wagon through the foliage overhead. Urged on by a sense of impending disaster, she whipped up the horse with scant regard for the rate of speed. She sent the gig around the corner at an alarming rate, nearly running down a curricle pulled by a magnificent gray. But for the gentleman’s expert handling of the ribbons, a nasty collision would have ensued.
His carriage swooped around her plunging horse, driving to within an inch of her out-of-control gig. Her frightened animal reared in the traces, causing the back wheels to teeter precariously on the rim of the ditch beside the road. The gig slammed to a stop next to the hedgerow.
Bethany drew a deep breath, holding the reins tighter than ever.
The stranger stepped up to the frightened horse and calmed the snorting animal before striding purposefully towards her.
“Women. Cow-handed, the whole lot of them,” the exasperated stranger snarled near her shoulder.
“Move over,” he ordered in an aggravated tone. He climbed up beside her and caught the reins from her trembling fingers. With strong, experienced hands, the stranger slowly drew the gig from its precarious perch back onto the road. Tying the leads to the brake, he turned and glared at Bethany.
A sizzling current seemed to leap from his emerald–green eyes to collide with hers. Trapped by his measuring gaze, she swallowed convulsively, not thinking clear enough to reject his piercing inspection. She almost forgot to breathe. His assured masculinity seemed bone deep, stamped on his chiseled features, in the arrogant set of his head, and in the way he held his body. His aura of strength drew her to him against her will.
He acknowledged her confused stare with an amused curve of his lips and a glint in his eyes.
Blood-pounding heat enveloped her and she shuddered. Appalled at her own behavior, she quickly lowered her gaze and puffed out her chest with indignation. The conceited oaf needed his ears boxed. His confident self-assurance had almost persuaded her to confide the reason for her haste. Thankfully, she hadn’t succumbed to the impulse. Besides, what could she tell him?
“Were you trying to kill yourself or just everyone else on the road?” He lifted one brow.
“I beg pardon.” She forced the words from her throat. “I’m in a hurry.” She looked around as if expecting her uncle to appear. “I didn’t realize how fast I was going. Someone…”
“My point exactly,” he interrupted in a deep, rich tone.
She tightened her lips and any further apology dried in her mouth, along with the need to confide in him. Belaboring the point of her negligence did nothing to enhance his character, or his looks.
The slow warmth of embarrassment crawled from her neck to her cheeks, and she elevated her chin. She refrained from giving him the sharp edge of her tongue. “I should thank you for your help.”
With a devilish grin, he said, “It’s not obligatory if the words hurt that much.”
Bethany raised her chin another notch and offered a chilled smile. “I do thank you.”
He hopped down from his perch and gazed into her eyes. Finding his long, steady regard unnerving and irritating, she pinched her lips together. She returned his stare with a hostile glower of her own. This time, she would not be the first to look away.
After several seconds, he bowed his head in a small, mocking salute and drawled, “Glad to be of service. In fact, I’m delighted I’m still able to be of service.”
Although his callous mockery had set her teeth on edge, she managed to clamp her mouth shut, grateful for his attitude. She had been tempted to tell a complete stranger about the peculiar incident, to pour out the entire story in his unwilling ear. He would have considered her daft.
Bethany watched as he mounted his curricle, took the reins in his capable hands, and drew his horse onto the road. The stranger continued on his way without a backward glance, not that she wanted him to look back. She sniffed. Indeed not. His identity remained a mystery. He hadn’t given his name, and she hadn’t asked.
Bethany shivered, and her long pent-up breath rushed out. He had self-assurance aplenty, and the kind of strength a lady could depend on, but the twinkle of amusement in his eyes at her expense still pricked her. Flinging her head back, she dismissed him from her mind.
The moment he drove out of sight, fear reached out and clutched her again. Although she was certain she had escaped undetected, she had to hurry. She whipped the reins and the gig rolled toward Birdelwood Manor.
“If one more thing goes wrong, I may scream,” she muttered. “This has been a beast of a day.”
She dared not mention the incident to Uncle Arthur. He would be highly upset if he discovered her use of the gig. If she mentioned the man digging in the woods, her uncle would scoff and accuse her of inventing the tale to distract from her disobedience.
She reflected on the stranger’s arrogance. Now she wished she’d told him the tale and turned the entire incident over to his discretion. Allowing his attitude to dissuade her from revealing the incident had been a mistake. She touched her brow with trembling fingers. She’d been accused of having a vivid imagination. Perhaps such fancy was at work here. She’d supposed foul play or even a robbery were possible, with the man burying his ill-gotten gains, but perhaps her eyes had played her false. Those assumptions could be a product of her fevered mind.
She couldn’t escape thoughts of the villain. If a nefarious deed had been committed, what would she do if she ran into him? She hadn’t even seen his face and could not identify him, but what if he recognized her? Her life might be in danger. She shuddered and glanced over her shoulder again.
The day had been one long nightmare from the beginning, and the end wasn’t yet in sight. Bethany shivered. Today’s happenings had given her a strong distaste for roaming in the woods alone.
When she reached Birdelwood Manor, she crept up the back stairs and slipped into her room at the top of the house. She removed her bonnet and threw it across the room, not caring where the old thing landed. Sinking onto her narrow bed, she buried her face in her hands as her entire body trembled.
She heard a noise behind her. Paralyzed, her heart pounding and her pulse beating in her ears at a deafening rate, she managed to swallow hard. Finally, she forced herself to twist around, only to discover that the house cat had wandered into her room. She let out a long swoosh of breath. Opening the door to let the animal exit, she began to pace.