The Loveday Secrets was published by Headline in hardback on 1st May 2008. The paperback is not available until December.
Here is an extract from the first chapter.
St John Loveday cursed the day he had wed Felicity. He had been in debt then and thought the young widow a wealthy prize. He had not learned the truth that her fortune was so paltry until after they were married. Then after a year of marriage she had presented him with another daughter instead of the son he longed for and his feelings for her had turned to loathing.
There was a low rumbling like thunder behind him. Dragging his wits from his reverie, he barely had time to pull his horse into a gateway to a field before a coach sped past at a reckless pace. Briefly, he glimpsed the straining horses that were white flecked with sweat, and the near side wheel creaked as it rolled over a small rock. There was a rush of wind as it rattled past and the vehicle missed St John and his mount by less than a hands breadth. Was the driver drunk or a madman? St John saw the coach sway dangerously as it continued round a bend.
When his horse reared with fright, he was almost unseated before he brought it under control. The near collision frayed his nerves and his temper and he cursed roundly. ‘Confounded idiot! You could have killed me.’ St John’s shout was lost in the night, his mood turning even bleaker.
It took some moments to calm his horse that continued to snort and quiver in its terror. He had been lucky not to be severely injured. Downing the last of the brandy, which swirled warmly through his veins, he soon felt its calming effect. Not so many years ago in his early twenties, he had regularly diced with death. His guilt was making him paint too black a picture of his life. Trevowan had been free of debt for a year and that at least had enabled him to mortgage the estate as security for the loan he needed to settle his gaming accounts. He had overcome financial losses before and he could do so again. He did mot know why gaming could take a hold upon him and make him take risks with the security of his home? Yet he knew that the excitement of the turn of a card, throw of a dice, or wager on a horse race was something his blood craved beyond caution or reason.
The quantity of brandy he had drunk and the steady clop of his gelding’s gait after what had been a long day in the saddle began to tell on him. The breeze whipped the May blossom from its branches so that it fell like snow upon his shoulders and the air was sweet with the scent of bluebells. He pulled the collar of his coat around his ears against the chill in the night air. His eyes drooped and he slackened his hold on the reins. In the distance he heard the clock in the tower of Penruan church strike nine. Not far to ride now. The horse would find its own way to the comfort of its stable. As his head began to nod, he allowed his body to be lulled by the rhythm of his mount.
Abruptly, he was jolted awake. His horse snorted in alarm had reared on its hind legs and for a moment he was in danger of being unseated. When he brought it under control, the gelding remained skittish, refusing to move forward and kept sidestepping so that the low lying branches clawed at St John’s cheeks. There was a dead and mangled body of a large stag on the track, the blood still fresh and glistening silver in the moonlight. The smell of it had unnerved his young horse that had never been used for hunting. Engrossed in his task of claming the horse, St John did not immediately notice a larger dark shape blocking the road ahead. Belatedly, he realised it was an overturned coach. It must have collided with the stag. There was no sign of the horses. Or of life…
The narrow lane had widened into an open space with tracks leading off in five directions. He proceeded slowly and tied his gelding to the broken wheel of the vehicle lying on its side. He shook his head to clear it of the cloying effects of the brandy that made his thinking sluggish and he stared blearily at the wreckage. The coach’s axle was broken and some of the luggage was scattered on the ground where the straps had broken at the violence of the accident. He walked along the coach’s side noting that before toppling over the front of it had first smashed against the dry stone wall, splintering some of the wood. The shaft the horses were harnessed too had sheared off and no doubt the animals had bolted.
Or had they been taken by the occupant of the vehicle to continue their journey? he wondered. Surely though they would not have let so many of their possessions for anyone to steal? He rubbed his temple forcing his mind to function more rationally. He stared at the scattered objects and discovered that one of them was human in shape. His step waved precariously as he advanced on the figure. It was the coachman, who before releasing the reins had been dragged some distance along the earth by the terrified horses. The figure was on its stomach and his legs, which were twisted out at odd angles, were clearly broken.
St John knelt over him to ascertain if he was still alive. The sight of the broken and bloodied skull laying against a small boulder was evidence enough that the man was dead. St John stumbled back to the vehicle wishing he had not drunk so much. The coach must be the one that had almost run him down earlier. He needed to check whether there were injured passengers on board?
For a moment dizziness made him cling to the vehicle, then he grabbed the side of the window and hauled himself up. When the scene before him stopped revolving, the moonlight revealed the bloodied body of an attractive woman in her thirties, her eyes staring sightlessly back at him. Even in the poor light there was no mistaking the expensive lace on her bodice and the glitter of gems on an exposed wrist. She was also beyond his help and there was no one else inside the coach.
A rush of nausea made him turn away. What a waste of two lives. Why had the vehicle been driven at such a reckless pace? From her clothing the woman was a person of position therefore in decency he could not leave her body here all night. The furious speed that they had been travelling continued to trouble him. Such a dangerous pace was more of a desperate flight borne of fear. Yet from whom had she been fleeing?
It was a question that stayed with him. Over the top of the dry-stone wall he scanned the undulating countryside. At so late an hour no candlelight lit the windows of the scattered farmsteads, and it was several miles to the nearest hamlet. He doubted anyone else would be on the road this late, unless they were smugglers or vagabonds. They would strip the woman of her finery and steal anything of value.
He strained to hear some sound of an approaching traveller. There was nothing only the song of a nightingale and the croak of toads in the nearby dewpond. He turned at a scuffling in the hedgerow and a family of badgers, the white stripes on their faces clear in the moonlight, scurried across his path. It was a reminder that hungry foxes would feast on a corpse if left in the open. Clearly, he could not leave the woman’s body here but it would not be easy hauling her out of the carriage. He would need to stand on a chest or something to pull her body from the conveyance. For some moments he stared at the scattered luggage. There was trunk on the road near the wheels that was large enough for him to stand on.
Several minutes later he was sweating and weary as he struggled to lift the woman from the coach. Her arm flopped against the handle of the open door and the glittering bracelet she had been wearing fell to the ground. The clasp was broken and guessing that the diamonds were worth several hundred pounds St John absently stashed it in his pocket for safekeeping. There were also diamond drops in her ears, which he also pocketed lest they were dislodged and lost. The woman was heavier than he expected and it took all his strength to haul her over his shoulder and stagger to his horse and heave her across the saddle. Pausing to recover his breath, he wiped the blood from her face with the corner of her cloak. She was dark-haired and olive skinned, and had been beautiful in a rather foreign exotic way. He knew all the gentry in this part of the county and this woman was a stranger to him.
It was then be heard a low groan. It was human and had certainly not come from the woman or the driver. Infuriatingly, a long narrow strip of cloud had covered the moon and plunged into almost total darkness he could see no sign of another figure. Then as he strained to listen the groan came again from near some elder bushes. Moving towards the sound, he stumbled over an unseen casket and crashed to his knees. As he pushed himself up from the ground, his hand encountered a slim leg partly hidden by the wayside ferns. He ran his palm along the leg clad in breeches and the moon free of its veiling cover revealed a young lad of seven or eight. There was blood on his head and pale velvet jacket. The eyelids flickered briefly.
‘Mama,’ he gasped, then went limp in St John’s arms.
‘Poor motherless child,’ he sighed. ‘Let’s get you home and a doctor to tend you. Then we’ll have to find out who you are.’
St John lifted him and as he walked towards his horse, his foot struck the casket that had earlier tripped him. The moon had reappeared from behind the cloud revealing that the lock had broken and its contents were spilled on the ground. His throat dried and a hot rush of sweat coated his body. He could not believe his eyes. This was an answer to his prayers, the resolution of all his problems. It was riches beyond his dreams. But they were not his.
Yet who would know? An insidious voice whispered in his head. The owner of these jewels and gold coins is dead and so was her driver.
Temptation had always been St John’s weakness. He closed his eyes and swallowed. He despised himself for allowing the spread of riches to lure him, even for a moment, into considering something so dishonourable.
He drew a shuddering breath. He had made some foolish mistakes in the past and suffered the shame of his lapses from grace. He was now older – wiser…
When he hoisted the boy onto his already laden gelding and took the reins to lead his horse, the clock at Penruan struck ten. The hour was later than he expected. He had no idea of the seriousness of the boy’s condition but since the lad remained unconscious he suspected it was grave. It would take him over an hour to reach his home and then a physician would need to be summoned which could take another hour. The boy could be dead by then. His twin’s estate at Boscabel was closer than Trevowan. Adam’s wife had skill with herbs and Senara had treated many injuries of the shipwright’s families who worked in the Loveday shipyard.
His aching body called out for the comfort of his own bed, but the boy should be tended as soon as possible. He led his horse around the corpse of the coachman. Hopefully the foxes would not get him before servants were sent to retrieve his boby. Also the coach could not be left blocking the track and the luggage must be saved from thieves and searched for clues of the lad’s identity.
I hope you enjoyed this extract. The Loveday Secrets is available through all good bookshops and also Amazon.co.uk