Read Winterset Online

Authors: Candace Camp

Winterset

It was following her.

Out of the corner of her eye she glimpsed a face—fearsome, snarling, like nothing she had ever seen—and before she could even think, her beautiful face contorted with fear, mouth opened in a scream. “Reed!”

“Anna!” Lord Reed Moreland jerked upright, staring sightlessly into the darkness of his bedroom. “Anna Holcombe.” This time he whispered her name softly as the memory of their first meeting came back. He had seen her standing in the garden at Winterset and known then that she was the woman he would love for eternity.

With a sigh, he moved toward the window and stared at the moonlit gardens. It was not the first dream he’d had of her, nor, he suspected, would it be the last. There had been hot, lustful dreams that left him wide awake, sweating and panting, and dark, angry dreams, full of pain. But never had any of them filled him with a heart-pounding terror such as this one had.

Anna was in danger. The only question was: What was he going to do about it?

Also by CANDACE CAMP

BEYOND COMPARE

MESMERIZED

SECRETS OF THE HEART

THE HIDDEN HEART

SO WILD A HEART

NO OTHER LOVE

PROMISE ME TOMORROW

A STOLEN HEART

SWEPT AWAY

IMPETUOUS

INDISCREET

IMPULSE

SCANDALOUS

SUDDENLY

C
ANDACE
C
AMP
W
INTERSET

W
INTERSET
Prologue

S
he ran toward him, her arms outstretched, her beautiful face contorted with fear, mouth opened in a scream. The terror was plain in her eyes, and though he did not know what caused it, the force of it hit him like a blow. He stood rooted to the floor, unable to move or even to reach for her, and though she ran as if pursued by demons, she never reached him.

She screamed his name. “Reed!” It echoed through the dark, wide hallways.

Still struggling to reach him, effort and strain in every line of her body, she was now receding from him, pulled back by some unseen force. He knew he would never reach her, never see her again, and his whole body shook in a paroxysm of grief and pain and fear.

 

“Anna!” Reed jerked upright, his eyes flying open, staring sightlessly into the darkness of his room. “Anna!”

This time her name was said more softly, a desperate, desolate moan of despair. He let out a great sigh, sagging back against the mattress. It had been a dream, that was all.

Reed lay for a moment, gazing up at the tester high above his bed, trying to pull the befogged shreds of his thoughts back together. It was not the first dream he had had of her, nor, he suspected, would it be the last. Indeed, in his sleep she had come to him times without number.

There had been hot, lustful dreams that left him wide awake, sweating and panting, and dark, angry dreams, full of pain. But his dreams of Anna had come less and less as the years had passed; it had been months since he had had one. And never had any of them filled him with a heart-pounding terror such as this one had.

She was in danger.
Reed was not sure how he was so certain of that fact, but he was. Something was frightening her, threatening her, and the thought left him with a sick, powerless feeling.

He sat up, pushing aside his tangled bedsheets, and walked over to the window. The curtains were open and the window ajar, letting in a soft summer breeze that cooled his skin. He stood for a moment, looking out at the expansive gardens of Broughton House. From the rose garden below drifted up the heady scents of hundreds of flowers.

Looking out at the moonlit gardens, he saw not their neat and well-tended order but the tangled, overgrown yard at Winterset. It had been three years since he had been there, but it was almost as clear in his mind as Anna’s face.

He closed his eyes, the old bitter sorrow creeping over him. He thought of her dark blue eyes, the delicately heart-shaped face framed by a glorious tumble of light brown curls, accented by sunny streaks of gold. She had a firm mouth, with ends that seemed to turn up, giving her always a look of faint, suppressed amusement at the world. The first time he had seen her, standing in the garden at Winterset, one hand up to shade her eyes as she watched him approach, he had felt as if he had been struck a blow to the chest, and he had known that he had found the woman he would love for the rest of his life.

It was to his lasting regret that he had been right that day. The woman, unfortunately, had not felt the same way.

With a sigh, Reed turned and sank down into a chair. Leaning forward, he put his elbows on his knees and rested his head on his hands, thrusting his fingers back into his thick dark hair. He clenched his fingers, the tiny pain of his hair tangling in his fingers a kind of relief from the pain within him.

After three years, he thought, it should cease to hurt. Yet it had not. There was no longer the constant dull ache that had accompanied him the first few months when he had returned to London after Anna declined his proposal, but neither had his world ever completely righted itself. No woman since had caught his eye enough to warrant more than a dance or a polite conversation. He still thought of her now and then, and every time he did, there was a slice of pain. Reed supposed he should be glad that it was no more than an echo of the hurt that had once enveloped him.

He tried to pull his mind from the old wound and think about the dream instead. He remembered the fear in Anna’s eyes, the scream that seemed to be issuing from her lips as she ran.
What was she running from? What did it mean? And, most of all, why was he so certain that the dream meant that Anna was in danger?

Reed Moreland was not the sort of man who believed in visions and portents. He had had a grandmother who had claimed to converse with her dead relations—his mother had said that it was typical of her mother-in-law that she had pursued her hapless relatives even beyond the grave—but Grandmother was generally agreed to be a trifle dotty. Rational adults did not see things that were not there, nor receive information in dreams, nor hear heavenly voices. Reasonable, well-educated men such as himself lived their lives according to logic, not superstition.

Yet neither could he dismiss the things that had happened to his sisters two years ago. They were not hysterical females given to frights and vapors, yet both Olivia and Kyria had encountered strange mystical forces that could not be explained away rationally. Indeed, all of them had given up trying to explain things. If there were unseen forces at work in the world, a possibility that he could no longer dismiss out of hand, then it seemed that the Moreland clan had some sort of special connection to them.

More than that, irrational as it might be, he could not dismiss the force of the feeling that had shot through him during the dream. It had been too strong to ignore.
Anna was in trouble.
The only real question was:
What was he going to do about it?

Chapter One

A
nna Holcomb made her way downstairs to the kitchen area. It was still quite early; she had not even had her breakfast yet, but she wanted to make sure that Cook had remembered to bake something for her visits today. They were duty calls—one to one of the tenants whose wife had had a baby and the other her weekly call to the vicarage. She and her brother, Kit, were all that was left of the two major families that had lived in this area for centuries, so it was up to her to make sure that such niceties were taken care of. Anna had never been one to shrug off her duties. Indeed, there had been moments in her life when she had thought rather resentfully that her “duty” had consumed her entire life. However, those moments were few and far between; for the most part Anna accepted her life as it was without complaints. She had had, she knew, a most fortunate life, and it was both foolish and petty to bemoan the parts of it that had been hard.

As she strode along the main hallway toward the door into the kitchen, she saw the door at the end of the hallway open. It was a very short door and unevenly set, a quaint leftover from the medieval cloisters from which this part of the manor house had been built, and it was not frequently used. So it startled Anna a little to see it pushed open and a slender girl slip through it rather furtively.

The girl cast a quick glance down the hall and jumped when her eyes fell upon Anna. A guilty look crossed her face, and she glanced from Anna to the back stairs, only a few feet from her. Anna knew the girl; her name was Estelle, and she was one of the upstairs maids. For a moment Anna could not understand the girl’s furtive entry, but then she realized that Estelle must be just returning to the house, which would indicate that she had spent the night somewhere other than upstairs in her bed.

Anna started to speak to her, but just at that moment, the housekeeper’s voice came from the side hall. “Estelle!”

Both Anna and the maid jumped. The maid shot Anna a pleading look and sidled toward the back staircase.

“Drat it! Where is that girl?” the housekeeper said, treading heavily toward the intersection of the two corridors where Anna stood. From where Mrs. Michaels was, she could not see the maid at the back stairs. “Oh, Miss Anna, I did not realize you were here. I was just looking for that silly girl Estelle.”

Anna smiled at her and lied blandly, “I believe I saw her upstairs earlier, cleaning the bedrooms.”

Mrs. Michaels had been the Holcomb family’s housekeeper for as long as Anna could remember. She was a faithful and efficient employee, but also a woman of stern character. Anna would have hated to have the woman supervising her.

Estelle cast Anna a grateful look and scurried up the stairs. Anna continued talking to the housekeeper, saying, “I came to check on the pies that I am going to take to the vicarage and to Mrs. Simmons.”

“Oh, yes, miss,” Mrs. Michaels assured her. “I have already made sure of that. Baked first thing this morning, they were, and Cook just set them out to cool.”

“Thank you. Then if you would be so good as to send a message to the stables to have the trap brought around at ten, I will take the pies to the village.”

“Of course, miss.”

Anna went back down the hall to the smaller dining room where she and her brother, Kit, normally took all their meals. Kit, always an early riser, was already seated at the table, sipping a cup of coffee, a habit he had picked up on his tour of the Continent a few years ago.

“Hallo, Annie,” Kit said, rising to his feet and pulling out the chair on his left hand for her. “I trust you are well this morning.”

“Very. And you?” She poured herself a cup of tea.

Theirs was a rather informal household. Their mother had died when Anna was fourteen, and she had taken over the reins of the household for her father and younger brother. It had seemed foolish to her to run their cozy manor house, with only the three of them in it, with the formality that their mother, a de Winter by birth and used to a grander lifestyle, had kept at Holcomb Manor. It had taken some sharp exchanges with the housekeeper, who regarded tradition as sacrosanct, and even a few appeals to her father for support, but Anna, strong-willed despite her seemingly placid nature, had won out in the end. As a result, their footmen did not wear livery, their meals were served by no more than two servants, and breakfast was unattended, with the food set out in chafing dishes along the sideboard, and Anna and her brother serving themselves.

As they ate, Kit and Anna chatted with the ease of people who had spent almost their entire lives in each other’s company. The only two children of their parents’ marriage and just two years apart in age, they had, since they were young, been each other’s chief companions and confidants. They had perforce seen less of each other after Kit grew old enough to go off to school and, later, when he took the tour of the Continent that was customary among young men of their class. At their father’s death two years ago, he had returned and taken up his position as the heir to Sir Edmund’s title and estate, and he and Anna had fallen easily back into their old habits.

They were much alike in temperament, both of them possessed of calm, easygoing personalities, quick to laugh and slow to flare into anger. Both loved their old home, parts of which dated from the Middle Ages, as well as the land surrounding it, and as young as they were, they had taken on uncomplainingly the responsibilities of maintaining the largest estate in this part of Gloucestershire.

In looks they were somewhat less alike. Anna had a tall, willowy build like her father, and the dark blue eyes and light brown hair, streaked with gold, of their mother, whereas Kit was built along sturdier lines, and his blond, green-eyed coloring was that of their father. Anna’s delicately heart-shaped face was unlike Kit’s square-jawed countenance, but there was no mistaking the similarity of their mouths, which tilted up slightly at either end, giving them a look as if they were secretly amused.

They talked about the day that lay ahead of them. While Anna made her calls in the village, Kit would be spending much of the day closeted with the manager of the estate. The Holcomb family, long overshadowed by the grander and showier lords and ladies de Winter, was nevertheless a family of some distinction and wealth, their family having lived here since the early Middle Ages, and since their mother and her brother had been the last of the de Winter line, Kit was necessarily involved in that much larger estate, as well.

“I don’t envy you the task,” Anna told him, smiling. “I think duty calls are infinitely preferable.”

Kit shrugged. “I don’t know. Not if they involve going to see the squire’s wife. Having to listen to her extol the virtues of her children is more than I can bear. Miles is all right, I suppose. A little moody—”

“Sensitive,” Anna stuck in, her eyes dancing with amusement. “His mother assures me that he is sensitive, even poetic.”

Kit gave a little snort of derision. “Well, at least he is usually quiet. His sister, on the other hand, is a blasted chatterbox. And she giggles. But to hear Mrs. Bennett tell it, you’d think she was the epitome of charm and grace.”

“That is because her mother cherishes fond hopes of your marrying Miss Bennett.”

Kit’s jaw dropped. “You can’t be serious.”

“Oh, but I am. Why else would she be forever hinting at what a fine wife Felicity will make?”

“But—I mean, put aside the fact that Felicity is spotty and graceless and never ceases her prattle, the girl is only seventeen years old! She isn’t even out yet.”

“Those are the veriest trifles in Mrs. Bennett’s mind, I can assure you. Fortunately, I am not visiting her today, or I would have to endure her trotting Felicity out. I think she hopes that we will become fast friends and that will recommend her to you.”

Kit let out a short bark of laughter. “Thirty minutes spent in her company would, I should think, ensure that you would never be friends.”

Anna smiled in agreement, and they finished their breakfast in a pleasant silence. Afterward, Anna spent some time on the household books, then donned her hat and gloves and went out front, where the pony and trap were waiting for her.

Two of the pot boys carefully carried out the pies and settled them in a nest of towels on the floor of the trap, and Anna climbed up into the vehicle, taking the reins from the groom. She glanced across the yard and saw their gamekeeper standing several yards down the driveway. She gave the reins a little slap, and the horse started forward. As she approached him, the gamekeeper doffed his hat in respectful greeting, and Anna reined in beside him.

“Rankin,” she said, nodding her head.

“Good day, Miss Anna.” He looked up at her. “I delivered that package.”

“Very good,” Anna responded. “And how was everything?”

The man shrugged. “As usual, miss, as usual.”

Anna nodded. “Do they need anything?”

“No’m, not so as Bradbury asked. I took ’em a pheasant, as well. He usually likes that.”

“Good. Thank you, Rankin.”

“Miss.” He gave her a final nod, then turned and walked away.

Anna gave the reins a brisk slap, and the horse started off smartly. She drove along the familiar curving driveway, finally emerging onto the road that led to the village. She always enjoyed the outdoors, and today, with the June sun spilling its gentle heat over her and the blooming rhododendrons, it was a pleasure simply to drive along, looking out over the countryside. She belonged here. The land was as familiar and beloved as her own house, and sometimes, when she was inclined to feel a little self-pity, thinking of things that might have been, she reminded herself how much she had here, of the beauty that lay just outside her doorstep and the people who were part of her life.

She drove first to the tenant’s house, where she handed over one of Cook’s pies and dutifully admired the squalling newborn. Then she drove on to the vicarage, which lay beside the brown stone church.

She saw as she drew up that the squire’s carriage was already there, which meant that Mrs. Bennett must be calling on the vicar’s wife, too, and for an instant Anna was tempted to turn around and leave. However, she knew that she could not. She might have been spotted by one of the women through the front windows of the house, and such a departure would, of course, be quite rude. So she got down from her trap, tying the horse to the low fence in front of the vicarage, and picked up the remaining pie, telling herself that she would simply plead some excuse to make the visit as short as was polite.

The maid took the pie from Anna with a curtsey and ushered her into the parlor, where she found not only Mrs. Bennett and Mrs. Burroughs, the vicar’s wife, but also the village doctor, as well. Dr. Felton rose to his feet with such a bright smile on his face when Anna entered that she could only assume that he had the same reaction to Mrs. Bennett’s conversation as Anna did.

“Miss Holcomb, what a fortunate surprise,” he said, crossing the room to bow over her hand. Unmarried and in his late thirties, Martin Felton was part of the small social circle in which Anna and her brother moved. She saw him frequently at parties and assemblies, and while he was not exactly someone she would classify as her friend, he was a good acquaintance.

“Oh, yes, Miss Holcomb, it’s so delightful to see you.” Mrs. Burroughs, a small, fluttery woman, jumped up and rushed forward to take Anna’s hands. “How kind of you to come. And bringing one of your cook’s delicious pies, as well. So considerate of you.” She admired the pie in the maid’s hands and fussed over Anna, taking her arm and leading her to the sofa, sitting down beside her.

Mrs. Bennett, who was as plump as her friend was thin, joined her in an effusive greeting. “Anna, so nice to see you. How is your brother, my dear? Such a fine young man, I always say. Wasn’t I just saying to you the other day, Rachel, that Sir Christopher was the very model of a gentleman?”

“Oh, yes, of course, I’m sure. Such a gentleman,” Mrs. Burroughs agreed.

“You must scold him for not coming with you today. We do so enjoy seeing him.”

“I fear he is rather busy today with the estate manager.”

“Oh, yes, such a responsible young man he is. I could only wish my Miles showed the same sort of interest in our estate, but, of course, he is not inclined toward matters of business. He is more of a scholar, I fear, forever locking himself in his room with his books.”

Anna, having conversed with the young man on a few occasions, would scarcely have termed him scholarly, but she made no comment. Indeed, when Mrs. Bennett was talking, there was rarely any room to make a comment, even if one should be so inclined.

“Of course, I fear that Miles is feeling a trifle under the weather,” Mrs. Bennett sailed on. “I hope he hasn’t caught a chill. He got caught in the rain the other day. I told him to take an umbrella before he went out for his walk, but you know the young….” She let out a titter and covered her mouth. “Oh, he would be furious if he heard me say that. He said to me only yesterday, ‘Mother, I am scarcely young. I am all of twenty and one!’ And, of course, he is, but still, it seems so young to me. Probably not to you, of course, as you are barely more than a child yourself.”

“Hardly that, I am afraid, ma’am,” Anna demurred.

Somewhat to Anna’s surprise, the woman did not pursue the subject of her son’s ill health any further than that. Nor did she even remark upon her daughter. Such a departure from Mrs. Bennett’s normal behavior would have made Anna wonder what was the matter with the woman, but there was an air of suppressed excitement in her manner, a bright gleam in her eye, that to Anna, judging from past experiences, meant that the squire’s wife was bursting with some prime bit of gossip.

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