April 15, 1842, Hertfordshire
Tom crouched low, buried deep within underground catacombs, and kneeled at what represented both an entrance and an exit to a blunted coal mine shaft. Soot and pebbles clotted against his knees. Loose earthen bits tumbled and tinkled in the distance, and with his spine straight and his breath held, he rotated his head upon his shoulders and peered into the darkness behind him. Stillness swelled. A water droplet plopped into a puddle and echoed. Moments stretched. His jacket's sleeve scratched against the side of his jacket--gabardine on gabardine, a soft sound made louder by silence.
Exhaling, his shoulders dropped, and he turned back to the wall of rock in front of him. He lifted his torch and flickered light upon streaks of dull gray woven within a bed of black obsidian. Using his fingertip, he traced a vein of dense metal. This particular Edwards-Cromwell mine had been abandoned several months previously, deemed low-yield, but Tom didn't think that to be the case, and ever refuting his ill-fated father, Tom had come here today to prove the Duke of Hertfordshire wrong.
Propping his torch against the earthen wall to his right, he leaned forward and analyzed the rock's face, looking for a divot, indention, or a crevasse.
Like the delta of a great river feeding into the sea, the mine was made of many tributaries, with walls and ceiling supported by pine beams every ten yards or so, and this tributary, nestled deep within the mine's structure, blunt as it was, seemed to have been abandoned before the miners had really begun to dig. The earth along this meager tunnel was devoid of coal, and the shaft was walled off from the rest of the mine with recently sunk posts and a third-hand wooden gate--very strange. No other gates existed throughout the entire mine. This one creaked and leaned, rickety and weathered. The pathetic collection of wooden slats seemed to be a cast-off, a rapidly obtained thrownaway object, not part of the mine's planned structural network, but a scrap thrown up at the last minute, like a poorly shod horse or a man at a formal with wind-swept hair, a twisted cravat, and uneven cuff links. The gate was not much of a blockade, but more like some sort of landmark.
Staring at the wall of rock streaked with iron, Tom reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out a glass jar with several matchstick ends tangled about inside, and nestled the jar into a notch in the rock near the dirt floor. The heel of his boot pinched against the gate's lower hinge, and metallic groans pinged and...gasped...into the space behind him. Tom peered over his shoulder, as still as a pine beam, and squinted to enhance visual acuity. Silence. He quickly decided creaking metal could not possibly have overridden any other sounds. He was underground. The air was moist and sooty here, different. That was all. Sounds traveled in a unique manner in air such as this. His mind had played tricks on him. Shaking his head, he ignored what was behind him and studied intersecting lines of dull gray. Why the foreman had decided to wall-off such a rich vein of rock baffled Tom. His father was not the type of man to abandon prosperity. Tom's brows drew together, and he squinted, seeking a reasonable hypothesis. Nothing came. Mouth quirked, brows up, he shrugged. Why?
Determined to prove the valuable load of iron ore in these shafts, Tom re-set the jar with the open mouth tilted toward him and struck a match. With one hand cupping the flame, he glanced over his shoulder a third time. Tucking his feet underneath his folded body, his heels lifted alternately in a rapid tattoo on and off the ground and ready to spring, he nabbed the torch, dropped the match into the jar, and leapt back.
The gate slammed shut.
Tom's body pitched forward, bowing, and a counter-coup whip shoved his face down.
The jar exploded.
Fire flew at his face and singed his eyes. "Aaaahhhh!"
The torch flew, landed hard, and splattered embers across his shins. Tom crashed backward into the gate. Wood slats cracked. Twisting upon splintered planks, Tom rubbed his eyes, but no--too painful. Bits of broken glass studded his chest, jacket, and vest, biting into him like shark teeth.
Bumbling against the cool walls of the mine away from the now dead torch, Tom stumbled through waves of pain, his eyes ablaze. God! The agony was unbelievable. Angst twisted his insides. Air bottled in his neck. Flopping like a fish on a fire grate, he staggered backward and groped, searching, seeking a stronghold--anything. His fingers skimmed a body.
A woman screamed. Slap, slap, slap--hands against gabardine.
Hopeful surprise erupted. Tom gripped her skirts.
"No!" Frantically she scratched at the backs of his hands. Her breaths tangled and hitched, and her fingernails gouged at his skin.
"Help me," he gasped.
"Don't touch me." The woman's shrill echoed. She jerked out of reach.
Tom stumbled. "My eyes!" Crazy, hectic red splotches danced beneath his lids. He braced his back against a rocky corner and held his arm up to his eyes. Unreal pain seared. "Help me." He groped in the direction of her voice.
The woman recoiled and her skirts flicked against his shins--a tap against Hessians.
What the hell was the matter with her?
The ruckus had snuffed heat and light from the torch. Perhaps the darkness frightened her. No sunlight reached this dark hole, and without light, navigation would be arduous, particularly for someone unfamiliar with the mine's architecture. Tom knew the opening of the mine was several turns away, but without vision, he did not know when or where to turn. Pain inhibited his sense of touch. He must get out of here. He must find relief. He must stop the pain. She must assist him.
With no obvious alternative, Tom reached out in the direction of the resistant woman. Heat emanated from her body in their cool, dank nest. "Please."
She stood still, silent, no more than a foot away. Surprisingly, in a rush, she offered, "Here." Her fingers brushed his sleeve. "Hold my hand."
Tom, eyes pinched shut, clutched at her fingers. She would guide him. She would help.
The woman's voice held youthful, melodic inflections, and the texture of her fingertips against the back of his hand was smooth and soft. Tom fumbled his fingers about, yearning for a connection. His large palm pressed securely against hers, and a wave of reassurance whooshed through his face and peaked in his nose.
She must have understood his urgency because she turned, tucked his fist underneath her arm, and tugged him along behind her, picking with care through the maze of tunnels.
Feeling the need to assist her, he said, "These shafts are," inhale, "wide and tall," pant, "but irregular." Tom knew from experience the mine's corridors were as black as a well's bottom. They were underground for Christ's sake. The knowledge of that fact allowed him a bit of tolerance regarding the woman's excruciatingly slow pace. Tom tamped down impatience, and despite his withering pain, questions prickled.
"What in Hades are you doing in an abandoned coal mine?" He gasped. Was he going to be blind? "Who are you?" His voice sounded gruff, singed. He had to stop the pain. He wanted to rub his eyes but knew that to be a mistake. The waist of her bodice scratched against his wrist. "Why did you close the gate?" The damn fire-bomb had detonated in his face. God's blood!
She did not answer one question. His voice did not disrupt one step upon her path.
Tom swallowed, tittering, wriggling, with pain that peaked and troughed like a toothache. A gong went off in the depths of his ears, sending waves of dizziness into his brain. He breathed in short, sharp spears, ambling behind the strange woman, her hold tethering him. Otherwise he'd be running in jagged crisscrossing scissor steps and getting nowhere.
Christ! He had not come here with anyone. No one knew he was here. He had come to shaft twenty-four against his father's wishes, investigating a theory that this mine contained more than coal, that it was not time to abandon work here. His father had vehemently forbidden Tom from coming here. But Tom, not one to comply with the duke's wishes, had come anyway. He had come here knowing there would be iron ore in these walls of rock. All of his education, all of his instincts had led him here. He could not fathom why his father would shun this lucrative load. Xavier Devereaux Cromwell, the Duke of Hertfordshire, thrived on power and profit.
Angela gripped the stranger's hand and memories of the night before tumbled through her mind. She had raced into the abandoned coal mine attempting to escape two men who had chased and attempted to accost her. It was now midday, and she was tired of running, tired of being afraid, tired of worrying her assailants waited for her at the opening of the mine. Worry and darkness kept her footfalls slow and cautious, despite the agitated dancing of the stranger behind her. She had falsely presumed this man to be one or both of her assailants but had realized her mistake in the burst of light that had accompanied the explosion--too late to prevent her from slamming the gate shut. The man whose hand she held now was well-dressed, tall, well-groomed, and stood with a posture connoting authority. He had nothing in common with the thugs who had chased her hours ago.
A glimmer of light led Angela to the left. Turning a corner, the sight of grass gave her pause.
The man bumped into her. "What?" His voice rasped. "What is it? Why have we stopped?"
Angela jostled, regaining her footing. "Shhhh." She listened.
A bird called. Wind whispered against the budded branches of spring trees, and a soft gurgle tinkled in the distance.
"Water! Cool water." The heel of his palm thumped her back.
They stood abreast--he no longer behind her, and Angela tangled her fingers in the waist of his shirt to keep him in check.
He stumbled ahead, and she clutched at his shirt, forming a taut tent of cotton. Leaning backward, she tugged on the strange man, all the while listening for the sounds of another.
The well-dressed stranger tittered in place as if in line for the chamber pot during holiday festival, obviously warring between wanting to rush forward and wanting to obey her silent command to wait. His hand, momentarily free from her grip, reached out and groped the air in front of him.
Angela understood the stranger was blinded, in pain, and needed her guidance. She heaved a sigh. Nature's scene appeared undisturbed outside. She peered through the darkness. He tittered. God's mercy! Her mistake had blinded him.
Resolute, she re-gripped his hand. Silence encouraged her to advance, but fearing the assailants from the night before, she clutched the tall stranger's hand, wondering how his dependency on her seemed to have reversed.
Thin bars of light striped his shadowed features, and his lips mumbled soundlessly. Blistered, red flesh puckered around his eyes, and streams of blood trickled down the sides of his forehead. Angela shuddered and pressed her free hand against her flip-flop stomach. Saving her from becoming ill, he covered his eyes with his arm, blocking the sight of his ravaged face, and blocking the aggravation of sunlight on his burnt eyelids.
Determined to bring this man relief, Angela thrust through the mine's entrance.
The man grimaced, teeth gnashing.
Angela's gaze darted around the open space. All was quiet and serene. A creek gurgled nearby. A cool breeze whisked over rocky landscape. Sheaves of grass rustled against one another. Inhaling a deep breath for fortitude, Angela led the man to a picnic table alongside the stream bed. Turning to him, her breast brushed his knuckles, and a zing shot through her nipple. Surprised by the sensation, she pushed him backward until his backside fell against the table's wooden ledge. "Wait here." She backed several steps away from him and ripped a strip of material from the bottom of her petticoat.
"What are you doing?" he gasped.
She glanced around. "Making a cool rag for your burns."
Angela avoided looking at him again, not wanting to see streaks of flames' rage across his face. Her first glimpse had revealed a tall, dark-haired, arresting breadth of man--alluring, but not quite handsome. He had strong, well-defined features and a slightly hawkish nose. His presence caused her to fumble the petticoat rag. Spinning away from him, with her shoes on, she splashed into turbulent water. Spring run-off made the current stronger than at any other time of year, and she braced herself by widening her stance and crouching, one hand on a rock.
The man seated on the table behind her cursed. His murmuring expletives mingled in crazy music with the sound of water splashing and gurgling.
Angela rang out the make-shift bandage and stepped tentatively toward the man. "H-here." She thrust the wad of wet linen at him.
He groped, searching for the offered compress. His fingertips tittered across her palm and he grasped the cooling rag. Quickly, he pressed the rag over his eyes and stream water trickled down the sides of his face.
With her hands raised to chest level, Angela twisted her fingers together. His button-down shirt opened to the middle of his chest, vest splayed to the sides. Tiny shards of glass embedded in his skin glinted in the sunlight. Purple crusts of blood accompanied the sparkling bits. She suppressed the urge to pluck them out. Dark hairs sprinkled in a fine pattern across his exposed skin, and the muscular cords in his neck stood defined, accentuated in his present state of discomfort. Looking at him, she experienced a sweep of yearning, and desire seeped into the edges of her tongue, a taboo sensation.
"C-can you open your eyes?" She ventured.
A short, sharp inhale flared his nostrils. He pulled the rag away from his face and growled, "No."
Angela bit her lip.
The man popped off the picnic table and stumbled toward the moving water, bumping into her on his way.
Angela leapt back.
He headed right for a tangled mess of brush that lived along the stream's edge.
"Stop!" She rushed toward him, grabbed his elbow, and jerked him back. "You'll trip."
The man paused mid-stride. Carefully, he allowed his foot to lower until it made contact with the bank's sand-dusted clay-dense earth.
Slipping her arm around his waist, she guided him to a safer course. The side of her breast brushed against his ribcage, her nipple hardened, and a ping of sensation shot through her groin. Was he a sorcerer? How could he evoke such responses from her? She schooled her breaths, composed her demeanor, and forced her movements, focusing on the simple task in front of them. Once his path was clear, she pulled away from him, glad he was distracted and blinded and unable to see the tremble of desire that shook her torso.
Water rumpled like silk against the toes of his boots, and he fell to his knees with a splash. Cupping his hands, he tossed water at his face in a chain of frantic movements. A frustrated grunt erupted, and not satisfied with mere splashes, the stranger caged his eyes with his fingers and submersed his head.
Angela gasped, distraught. Jerkily, she looked around. The branches of deciduous trees swayed, heavy with buds. Tufts of grass she knew would be long and lush in mid-summer, stood short and straight, bristling toward the sun. Wind whooshed against her ears.
Not knowing how or why she made it to the man's side, she stepped into the water and stretched her arm out in order to grasp his shoulder but paused. His shoulders were at least two and a half times as broad and strong as hers. He was a big man, a man taller than she, and she was more than five and three quarter feet tall. She guessed he was at least six and a quarter feet, even with his frame crumpled along the edge of the creek. Concerned he might drown, or at least grow dizzy from a lack of air, she gripped his shoulder and almost shrank back at the hard contours of his flesh, but once contact had been made, she could not recede. She shook his shoulder.
His face remained submersed.
Angela shook his shoulder more aggressively. He probably could not hear her with his head underwater.
His clothing was expensive. He wore a lawn shirt of fine, high thread weave cotton overlain by a leather vest jerkin, and fawn colored breeches fit him precisely, as if custom-made for his physique. His gabardine jacket appeared new beneath the char.
Stepping into the water, she gripped his shoulder with both hands, and tugging, she yelled above the din of turbulent water, "Sir, you must come up for air."
The man reluctantly withdrew from the water, as if some magnetic force held him there, but politeness toward her caused him to break contact with the stream. Droplets rolled down his face, converging on his chin. "Aaahhhh." He grabbed a breath and re-submerged.
Angela retreated from the water. Her feet were chips of ice. How could he stand the cold? She worried this man may have been blinded by the unfortunate accident, and she was ultimately to blame. If she had not closed the gate on him at the precise moment the fire-bomb had detonated, he would not be burned. It was all her fault.
She worried her hands, tangling and untangling and re-tangling her fingers, and she paced back and forth along the narrow beach, thoughts tumbling and building to a heightened sense of anxiety. He was clearly wealthy. Would there be retribution? She hadn't meant for this to happen. She could not possibly have predicted this situation or any of the events that had occurred since she'd run away.
The man broke contact with the stream and rolled to a stand. Spring run-off eddied around his lower limbs, halfway up his calves. One hand rose alongside his face with the petticoat fragment hanging in a V between fingers. His other hand supplicated. "Help me to the table."
Angela rushed forward and grasped his elbow. She guided him from the water and back to the picnic table, and her breasts, which were large and round, brushed intermittently against his upper arm. Somehow it happened such that her right breast nestled beneath his left arm. His garments were soaked. She hoped he could not feel the pebbled nipple of her breast against the tender skin along the underside of his arm, but she could feel it, rubbing and tipping.
He rotated, and the backs of his knuckles brushed against the edge of her jaw right before he leaned his buttocks against the table's edge.
He gasped. "Can you help me wrap this?" He held the cloth in a cradle of fingers.
Angela immediately complied.
A muscle tightened in his jaw.
She straightened and smoothed the cloth and meticulously wound the cool rag around his head, covering his eyes. The ridge of his jaw cut strong, colored by dark stubble. His hair was black and soft, yet crisp, springing away from her hands. Moving in a nearly hypnotic trance, she aligned cloth in an orderly fashion, determined to deny her powerful attraction to this man, even though eruptions of pleasure pinged in her privates.
What was the matter with her? She had repelled feelings of sexuality since she was seventeen. This stranger made her feel vulnerable, shaken, and aroused. She had not felt this way since before that horrific day more than four years ago. This inexplicable response was so unlike her. It frightened and exhilarated her at the same time.
A little too firmly, she tucked a loose end into the snug bandage.
"Guide me to the cabin." His voice scratched, husky.
"Yes. The miners used a barracks of sorts. It's beyond the shaft opening, behind a cluster of ash trees."
Angela glanced around. His description indicated the direction from which she had run from her assailants the night before. Briefly, she wondered why she had not noticed a cabin or barracks. Perhaps it had been too dark or she'd been too frightened.
Stilted, "I don't think we should go there."
Angela did not know whom she could trust. Certainly, she could not trust this stranger, even if he was dressed like a gentleman, and even if she was shamelessly attracted to him. She would not be foolish enough to trust anybody with her information. After all, she was in hiding.
The man pressed, "Why can you not take me to the barracks?"
"It's not safe."
"It's perfectly safe. Besides, I must get out of the sun. My eyes are on fire."
Angela bit her lip. Damn. The men from last night were likely gone. They may not have even followed her to the point of the barracks. Would they dare attack her in daylight, especially if she was with this tall, well-dressed man?
"What's your name?" The stranger's voice strung out across taut vocal cords.
"Alright. I'll help you to the barracks."
Angela, once again, grabbed a hold of the stranger's elbow.
Tom stood, swaying toward her. She was soft in all the right places. He didn't need his vision to understand that. He inhaled. She smelled like spring lilacs, and her voice reminded him of wildflowers in a breeze with a hint of rain. Her touch, her smell, her sound--an image of her wisped through his mind--the image of a sweet, caring type, with delicate, petal-soft features, and large, round, succulent breasts.
The woman guided him through the yard, and he could tell when they neared the barracks by the flickering shadows of ash leaves that cooled his face.
Tom speculated on what this young woman could possibly be doing here in the middle of nowhere alone. Streams of her hair blew across his wrist, soft and tickling, not the texture of an older woman's gray hair, or of a working woman's weather-beaten hair.
"How old are you?" he asked.
"Must you ask questions at a time like this?"
"A time like what?"
He persisted. "What are you doing here? What's your name? Why are you alone?"
Silence stretched between them, and just as Tom gave up hope she would reply, she murmured, "My name is Angela."
"Like an angel."
Air snuffed against her palate. She cleared her throat and managed, "Who are you?"
"I am Thomas Steven Cromwell, heir to the Duke of Hertfordshire, but you can call me Tom."
His soft angel stumbled, and her breasts compressed against the edges of his rib cage. Aroused, Tom inhaled through a puckered mouth.
"W-what are you doing here?" She managed.
"I asked you first."
At her obvious unease, Tom spoke. "I am here investigating one of my father's many business investments. And yet, you, you I know have no good reason to be here. No woman should be here, of all places, at an abandoned coal mine, alone."
"Y-yes...well...I-I am on my way to the ocean."
"The ocean is a far distance from here."
"I realize that. But a journey starts with one footstep, as they say."
"Aye. I suppose it does." Tom grimaced, because talking and walking caused reverberations of pain to cascade across his face. He grit, "Why to the ocean?"
"I am leaving this place."
"Where are you going?"
"I can't say."
"Can't or won't? There's a difference." Drawing back, the material of his jacket sleeve rotated and tightened against his forearm beneath her hand.
"Such secrets." Pain numbed his fingers, his toes. His mind grew foggy. "What could you possibly have to hide from me? I don't know you. I don't even know what you look like."
Angela gasped. Again, she stumbled. Tortured, "I-I did not mean--You surprised me. I...ohhh." She let go of his arm.
Tom wagged it. "Come now. I didn't mean to offend you. I must reach the barracks and sit for a bit, before I collapse."
His angel's fingers tangled into the material covering his elbow. His Hessians sifted in metered rhythm over the land, filtering out snags and rocks until the toe of his boot hit the first step to the barracks. His voice rolled out, smoother and calmer than he felt. "Here we are."
The woman named "Angela" ascended the porch steps and turned to guide him. Her skirts damped his limbs, they stood so close. She inhaled, sounding impatient or aggravated.
Angela decided he smelled of sandalwood and fig, and some other essence she could not identify, perhaps it was his alone, and even though his scent was a little charred, it was alluring and very male. It settled over her skin like a mist.
Upon entering the cabin, she noted that the barracks were precisely that-- bare. A washstand with a basin and pitcher stood to one side. Four slim bunks, hard wooden planks, jutted from the wall opposite the basin. A stack of wooden crates sat next to a fireplace in the deepest reaches of the building. The door and porch were unadorned. Angela led Tom to one of the bunks alongside the wall.
The heir to the Hertfordshire dukedom sank upon a thin mattress.
"What now?" Angela asked.
Sweat beads pebbled his hairline. He had raven-black hair, trimmed short and neat. Angela did not know what color his eyes were, since they had been shut the entire time she had known him. Her own eyes widened in despair. What a couple of misfits they made, a burnt aristocrat and a defiled commoner.
Tom swallowed. "Why are you here?"
Angela glanced around, agitated, wondering if there was a cup or glass to aid in offering water to this poor man.
The big man crawled backward upon the slim mattress with his weight balanced upon his elbows and heels. Once settled, he barked, "Why?"
Angela jumped, surprised by the vigor and insistence of his tone. She blinked rapidly, and opened her mouth to speak, and closed it, and opened it again, and closed it. His countenance, what she could see of it, scowled. His lips thinned in annoyance at her silence. Her chest puffed out in angst. What did it matter if he knew why? He was important, and she was not. She had nothing. She had nobody. She was nobody.
"Why, Angela?" An edge cut his voice.
"I-I am r-running away."