Love's Peril

Love's Peril

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CHERYL HOLT delivers another gripping tale of love, betrayal, loyalty and family, proving once again why she’s hailed as a women’s fiction powerhouse. In this explosive conclusion to her ‘Lord Trent’ trilogy, readers will be sighing with pleasure and cheering with delight.

John Sinclair leads a double life. Though he’s the illegitimate son of the infamous cad, Charles Sinclair, he seems to be a rich and prosperous gentleman. In reality, he is the notorious pirate known as Jean Pierre, The French Terror. He preys on British ships, carrying out a secret vendetta guaranteed to financially ruin several wealthy families. He’s driven and determined and takes what he wants with a reckless abandon.

Sarah Teasdale lives quietly in the country at her family’s estate on the English coast. With her father’s death, she’s at the mercy of her cruel relatives, and she’d give anything to change her fate. When dashing, mysterious John Sinclair arrives for a visit, she’s stunned to learn that her stepbrother has gambled away her home to John. Everything is lost—including Sarah—with John claiming she now belongs to him and he can use her however he wishes. And he has many ideas as to the exact sort of role he’d like her to fill.

Normally, John wouldn’t have bothered with a sheltered innocent like Sarah. But he simply can’t resist. As a man who enjoys only the finest things in life, Sarah might turn out to be just what he’s always needed.

“Cheryl Holt is magnificent.”
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“I have just retired from 35 years of teaching HS English…Honors British Lit and Expository Writing. I have been waiting a long time to read for enjoyment and your books are a delicious treat! Thank You!” — Cheryl

“LOVE’S PERIL left me in tears!!!” — Melanie

“Omgosh! I loved LOVE’S PERIL! What else is new, right?” — Debbie

“Your characters are vibrant and their stories page turners.” — Marcelle

“A pirate! OMG! He is so sexy! I’m drooling.” — Barbara

“Where do you come up with your ideas? I’m always fascinated!” — Jean

CHAPTER ONE

Bramble Bay Estate, English Coast, June 1815…     

Sarah Teasdale marched down the rutted lane.  She was distracted and furious, so she wasn’t paying attention.  She tripped on a rock, twisted her ankle and fell, landing in a heap in the dirt.

She’d been shopping in the village and was walking home, so the contents of her basket spilled everywhere.  The decanter of expensive brandy she’d specifically gone to purchase cracked open, the amber liquid spilling on the ground.

Luckily, she was alone, so no one had witnessed her humiliating tumble.

“Serves you right,” she scolded.

All morning, she’d been in a dither, angry with her stepmother, Mildred, when it was pointless to be upset.

Sarah’s mother had died when she was a baby, and her father had remarried shortly after.  Sarah had no memories of her mother, and at age twenty-five, it seemed there had been no maternal figure but Mildred.  Yet Mildred had never liked Sarah, though Sarah had no idea why.

She glanced about, taking stock of her location, her condition.  Her palms were scraped and bleeding, her skirt muddy and torn where her knees had hit the gravel.

The rip in the fabric could be patched without too much trouble, which was a relief.  Mildred was very stingy.  She refused to spend even the smallest amounts on Sarah, declining to provide the barest necessities such as new undergarments, shoes, or gowns.

Sarah’s life was so terrible, and she’d been so horribly abused, that she could have been Cinderella in the fairytale.  That’s how she felt:  lonely and unappreciated and maltreated.

When her father, Bernard, had been alive, she and Mildred had lumped along without too much tension or bickering.  Mildred’s worst excesses had always occurred when Bernard wasn’t looking.  But Bernard had been deceased for several years, and Mildred’s festering dislike of Sarah had been given free rein.

Still, despite Mildred’s snubs and slights, Sarah tried to be helpful and obliging.  She had to constantly remind herself that Mildred was simply a very unhappy, miserable person.  In Sarah’s dealings with her, she had to avoid the protracted arguments that fueled Mildred’s temper.

The only other option was for Sarah to leave Bramble Bay, as Mildred often suggested.  Yet Bramble Bay had been the Teasdale family home for two centuries, and Sarah was Bernard’s only daughter—her sole sibling being her half-brother, Hedley.

Hedley was Mildred’s son with Bernard.  At Bernard’s death, Hedley had inherited everything, with Sarah not receiving a penny of support, and Hedley and Mildred treated Sarah like an interloper.  But she shouldn’t have to leave and wouldn’t let them chase her away.

Tears welled into her eyes, and she swiped them away.  Normally, she wasn’t ever gloomy, and she never moped or mourned her plight.  Yet sometimes, she was just so tired of her meager, unpalatable existence.  She’d give anything to change it.

A horse’s hooves sounded around the bend in the road, and momentarily, a man trotted into view, mounted on a very fine white stallion.  He reined in and stared down from his fancy saddle.

With his golden-blond hair and striking green eyes, he was incredibly handsome.  He had a high forehead, sharp cheekbones, and aristocratic nose.  He was broad in the shoulders, muscled in his chest and thighs.  His skin was bronzed from the sun, as if he worked out-of-doors, but he wasn’t dressed as a laborer.

Attired in a flowing white shirt, tan breeches, and a pair of scuffed riding boots, he was actually quite dashing.  Clean shaven, but needing to visit his barber, his hair was too long, pulled into a ponytail with a length of black ribbon.

And he had a looped gold earring in his ear.

She’d never seen a man with an earring before and couldn’t decide what to make of it.  The odd piece of jewelry probably indicated low character—perhaps he was a brigand—and she supposed she should be afraid of him.  After all, she was on a deserted stretch of lane.  Since she’d departed the village, she hadn’t encountered another soul.  If he had wicked intentions, there was no defender to rush to her aid.

But she didn’t sense any menace.  He had a dagger in a sheath at his waist, and a pistol strapped behind his saddle, so he certainly looked as if he could be dangerous, but he was smiling.

“Hello, chérie.”  His voice was tinged with a slight French accent.  “Are you all right?”

“I think I am.”

“What happened?”

“I tripped and fell.”

“Are you injured?”

“Just my pride.”

With the agility of a circus performer, he leapt to the ground and walked over.  He dropped to his knees and reached for her hand.

“You’ve cut yourself.”

“Yes.”

“From your tumble?”

“Yes.”

He retrieved a kerchief from his sleeve and gallantly pressed it to the oozing blood on her scraped palm.  Then he stood and gathered the items from her spilled basket, placing them back inside it.

He picked up the empty brandy bottle.

“Waste of good liquor,” he murmured.

“Yes, it was, and I’ll never hear the end of it.”

Her comment was petulant and snappish, and she was perplexed as to why she’d uttered it in front of a stranger.

He chuckled.  “I take it you have someone impatiently waiting for you to arrive so they can begin imbibing.”

“We’re having important guests, and my stepmother wants to serve them the very best.  There’s a renowned vintner in the village, so I went to fetch his most expensive brew.”

“Too bad for your guests that they’ll miss out.”

“They’ll have to make do with our typical fare,” she grumpily complained.  “They’re so hoity-toity.  How will they bear it?”

“You don’t like the company that’s coming?”

“I’ve never met them, but I’m sure I won’t care for them a bit.”

Mildred was in a veritable flurry about the visit, the house in an uproar of preparation, and Mildred’s excitement only dampened Sarah’s enthusiasm.  The more Mildred fussed, the more Sarah groused.  They were like oil and water.

At Sarah’s peevishness, the man chuckled again and held up the bottle.  Seeing that there was a sip or two in the bottom, he swallowed the dregs, then pitched the decanter into the forest.

“It’s delicious,” he said.  “Your stepmother definitely knows how to impress.”

“Yes, she does.”

Sarah still hadn’t pushed herself to her feet.  Her back ached, her knees ached, and her head was pounding.  She was feeling inordinately glum, and if he hadn’t ridden by, she might have sat there all day.

“Can you stand, chérie?” he asked.

“Probably.  I haven’t tried yet.”

“Let me help you.”

She should have declined his offer, but she was weary, and he was being very kind.  And he was French.  His looks, clothes, stallion, and accent provided a foreign flare that was fascinating.

Why not permit him to assist her?

She couldn’t remember the last time a handsome fellow had paid her any notice, and she relished his courtesy.  Their estate, Bramble Bay, was on the coast and not near any large towns or main thoroughfares, so there were few chances for bachelors to cross her path.

At age eighteen, she’d been engaged to Patrick, but he’d joined the army and promptly gotten himself killed.  He’d been a neighbor and childhood friend, and after he’d died, she’d lost interest in matrimony.  Her father hadn’t pressed her to choose another beau, and she was regretting his lack of foresight.

If he’d urged her to wed, if he’d found her a husband, she’d be established in her own home.  Mildred—with her rages and disagreeable temperament—would be naught but an unpleasant memory.

Sarah’s gallant companion clasped her arm and lifted her.  He was very strong, so the move required very little effort on his part.  With a swift tug, she was on her feet, the rapid motion carrying her into him so that, suddenly, their bodies were touching all the way down.

She’d never previously been so close to an adult male, and the abrupt positioning rattled her.  She could feel his broad chest, his flat stomach and hard thighs, their proximity so thrilling that butterflies swarmed in her belly.

He was very masculine, very virile, and she was extremely aware of him on a feminine, instinctual level.  He smelled so good, like fresh air and horses, and it was all she could do to keep from rubbing herself against him like a contented cat.

He was very tall, six feet at least, and she was only five-foot-five in her shoes, so he towered over her.  She gazed up at him, held rapt by the green of his eyes.  They were a deep emerald hue, enhanced by the surrounding foliage of the woods.  The sky was very blue, puffy clouds floating by overhead, and as she studied him, she was dizzy and unnerved.

She didn’t know how to interact with someone like him, didn’t know how she should behave.

“Pardon me.”  Her cheeks blushed bright red, and she stepped away.

As she put weight on her ankle, she winced in pain.  He noticed at once and reached out to steady her.

“Ah, chérie, it appears you have injured yourself more than you claimed.”

“It’s just a sprain.  I’m fine.”

“You’re walking home?”

“Yes.”

“Let me give you a ride the rest of the way.”

“That’s not necessary.”

“I insist.”

Although he seemed cordial and charming, the manner in which he voiced the word insist was disconcerting.  Beneath his layers of French allure, there was a steely core.  He wasn’t the type to brook refusal or disobedience, and she wondered who he was.

What purpose had brought him down her rural road?  If she declined his assistance, what might he do?

She peered over at his horse, at him, at his horse again.

In her boring, monotonous life, there were very few surprises.  It would be quite an adventure to climb onto the large animal and proceed to Bramble Bay.  But she couldn’t imagine prancing up the drive in such a scandalous fashion.  What would Mildred say?  What would the servants think?

“I’d better not.  Thank you, though.”

She bent down to retrieve her basket, and as she spun to go, the turn wrenched her foot even more.  She took several hobbling steps, glad her back was to him so he couldn’t see her grimace.

“Mademoiselle?” he said from behind her.

She glanced over her shoulder.  “Yes?”

“You are not walking.”

Before she realized what he intended, he strode over and picked her up.  In an instant, she was cradled to his chest.  The shocking move jerked the basket from her hands, the contents spilling on the ground again.

“Put me down!” she huffed.

“No.”

“Put me down!”

“Don’t argue with me, chérie.  I don’t like it.”

“You can’t just…manhandle me.”

“I already have.”  He grinned, looking like the very devil.

“You’re a brute.”

“Yes, I am, and I always have been.”

“You can’t stumble on a strange female and treat her however you please.”

“Can’t I?” he sarcastically retorted.  “Mon Dieu!  I didn’t know.”

He whistled to his horse, and the animal pranced over.  The man lifted her onto the saddle, her bottom perched on the smooth leather, her legs dangling over the side so she faced him.  He scooped up her basket and thrust it at her, then he leapt up behind, settling himself on the horse’s rear.

She was confused over what to do with herself.  They were crammed together in a very small space, her side resting against his front.  With him so near, she felt young and defenseless and out of her element.

“I don’t want a ride,” she fumed.

“I don’t care.”

“Would you listen to me?”

“No.  I never heed foolish women.”

“I’m not being foolish.”

“You’re not?”  He slipped an arm around her waist and snuggled her closer.  “Be quiet and be gracious, chérie.  Accept my ride.”

“I don’t wish to.”

“So?  Accept it anyway.”

“What if someone sees us?  My reputation will be in shreds.”

“Why?  Because you are injured and I’m helping you?”

“Yes.”

“You British have the most peculiar rules.  I doubt I will ever figure them out.”  He frowned.  “Where are we headed?”

She pointed down the lane.  “This way.”

“Is it far?”
“No, not far.”

His horse began to walk—though she couldn’t discern that he’d given it any visible command—and they continued on in a strained silence.  Each clop of the horse’s hooves shifted her about so she kept bumping into him.  Her shoulder and arm were in intimate contact with his chest.  She’d lurch away and stiffen her spine, but immediately be thrown into him again.  Separation was impossible.

“Relax, chérie,” he murmured.  “I won’t let you fall.”

“I didn’t imagine you would.”

“Are you afraid of me?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t bite.”

“You might.”

“You’re too pretty,” he said.  “I would hate to leave any marks.”

She was flustered by his flattery.

He’s French, she told herself.  He probably spews compliments like candy.  Yet she couldn’t stop the rush of delight that swept through her.

Her father had always claimed she was pretty, and her fiancé Patrick had thought so, too.  But Mildred insisted she wasn’t, and Mildred’s cutting insults had been hurled for so many years that it was difficult to discount them.

Secretly, Sarah knew Mildred was wrong, that she was jealous.  Mildred was very plain and unexceptional, while Sarah resembled her mother who had been renowned as a great beauty.  She’d inherited her mother’s lush auburn hair, her bright blue eyes, merry dimples, and curvaceous shape.  She looked fetching and smart—at least when she was attired in a halfway decent gown—and she wasn’t vain in her assessment.

She had a mirror in her bedchamber and could clearly see herself in it.  Her father’s opinion had been the correct one.  Not Mildred’s, and it was refreshing to be reminded of the truth by a very handsome, very dashing stranger—even if he likely said the same to every female he encountered.

“What is your name, chérie?” he asked.

“Why should I tell you?”

“Because I am a very friendly person, and I’m making friendly conversation.”

For an eternity, she considered his request, trying to decide if she should oblige him.  Ultimately, she couldn’t think of a reason not to reveal her identity.

“I am Miss Sarah Teasdale.”

Oddly, her name riveted him so thoroughly that even his horse seemed to freeze in mid-stride.

“Teasdale?”

“Yes.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really.”

She shifted to peer up at him, which was a mistake.  He was very captivating, very mesmerizing, and she was sitting much too close.  Quickly, she glanced away.

“You must be related to Bernard and Mildred Teasdale,” he mused, more to himself than to her.

“Bernard was my father, and Mildred is my stepmother.”

“And Hedley?”

“Hedley is my half-brother.”  She scowled.  “How do you know my family?”

“Oh, I don’t,” he casually said.  “I’ve just heard of them.”

She was positive he was lying but as to what facts?

“Why are you out alone?”  His tone was scolding.  “Why don’t you have a driver and carriage?”

“It’s a long story.”

“I have time to listen to it.”

“It’s easier if I walk.”  She shrugged, acting as if Mildred’s refusal to allow her use of the gig wasn’t worth mentioning.  “I don’t like to fuss over trivialities, and it’s a lovely day to be outside.”

“Yes, it is.”

She stared up at him again, and he was evaluating her so meticulously that she bristled with apprehension.  He was very shrewd, very astute, and she felt as if he could delve down into the forlorn parts of her being, that he could view all the petty hurts and sad yearnings she kept concealed from the world.

She didn’t want him to see so much, didn’t want him to understand so much about her.

“Why are you in the area, Mr…?”

She paused, waiting for him to explain, to introduce himself.  He hesitated, then said, “My name is John…Sinclair.”

It took him forever to settle on a surname, so he had to be lying about that, too.

“What’s wrong?” she chided.  “Are you suffering from amnesia?  Have you forgotten who you are?”

“No, I have several names.  I was simply debating which to provide.”

“Well, that certainly sounds sinister.”

“I have French relations, but English ones, too.  I always have to pick who I’m claiming as my own.”

“I bet you have an interesting family tree.”

“You have no idea, chérie.”

They arrived at the gates of Bramble Bay, and she gazed down the orchard-lined drive to the manor house at the end.  The afternoon sun shone on the bricks so they were a warm peach shade.  The glass in the windows sparkled, the roses adding splashes of color.  Beyond the mansion, the manicured lawns sloped to the ocean, the waves lapping on the rocky shore.

She practically sighed with pleasure.

It was such a beautiful spot, like a perfectly painted landscape, and she never grew tired of looking at it.  How long would she be permitted to stay?  How long would she have the right to call it her own?  Would Mildred kick her out someday in a flurry of temper?  Would Sarah become too dispirited and leave before she was tossed out?

Mildred was pressuring her to marry their neighbor, Sheldon Fishburn, but he was thirty years older than Sarah, and he was Patrick’s father, had been her own father’s best friend.  Would she eventually be so discouraged that she would agree to the match?

She fought off a shudder.  She’d rather sell herself into slavery than marry Patrick’s stodgy, boring father.  She hadn’t had many lucky breaks in her life, but when she wed, it would be for love.  If there was a bit of passion thrown into the mix, she’d take that, too.

What she wouldn’t accept was a tedious, cold union where both parties were miserable—as Bernard and Mildred had been miserable—and that’s what she’d have with Sheldon.

Sarah peered up at Mr. Sinclair.

“You still haven’t told me why you’re in the neighborhood.”

“No, I haven’t.”  He was being deliberately elusive and mysterious.

“Is it a secret?”

“No.”

“Then why are you here?”

“You’re very nosy.”

“I like to think I’m being protective.  You appear to know all about my family, but I know nothing about you.  Are you a criminal?  Are you a robber?  Should we be locking the silverware at night?”

“You have silverware that’s worth stealing?”  He studied the house with a keen eye as if he might rush in and pilfer their valuables.

“Very funny,” she snorted.

He urged his horse onward, and they started down the drive.

“I’m scouting…property.”

There was another hesitation in his response.  Why was she sure he was a complete fraud?  But even as the thought unnerved her, she suffered a thrill that he might move to a nearby estate.

“Scouting for yourself?  Or for someone else?”

“Maybe for myself.  Maybe for someone else,” he furtively replied.

“We might be neighbors?”  She tried to keep her query light and casual.

“Perhaps.”

“So we might cross paths again?”

“We might.”

He continued on to the manor, circled the fountain and halted at the grand stairs that led up to the ornate front doors.  Fortunately, the butler hadn’t noted her approach, and no servants were lurking, so no one witnessed her scandalous return.

Without dismounting, he lifted her down and set her on her feet.

“Can you make it inside on your own?” he asked.

“Yes.”

She smiled up at him, his kerchief wadded in her hand so he wouldn’t notice it and expect her to give it back.  She wondered if she’d ever see him again, and it occurred to her that it would be a very sad thing if she didn’t.

His golden hair gleamed in the bright sun, his emerald eyes reflecting the grass and trees.  He was charismatic and charming and fascinating, and she would be sorry to have him leave.

There were a thousand questions on the tip of her tongue.  She wanted to invite him to keep in touch, to visit whenever he was in the area, to arrive unannounced and cheer her with his captivating presence.

Of course any such comments would be too forward and totally inappropriate, so she swallowed them down.

“Thank you for coming to my aid,” she courteously said.  “Thank you for the ride.”

“You’re welcome, my little damsel in distress.  Have a care.”

“I will.”

“Goodbye, chérie.”

He grinned and cantered off.

She stood frozen in her spot, watching until he vanished from sight.  She was positive he’d turn around and wave, but he didn’t.

She wrenched away and hobbled up the stairs.

*          *          *          *

John Harcourt Sinclair—also known as Jean Pierre, Le Terreur Franҫais—sat on his horse, staring at Bramble Bay Manor.  He was out on the road, the main chimney and slated roof just visible through the woods.

He was the most notorious pirate in the world, the kingdom’s most wanted criminal.  For years, he’d disrupted British shipping lanes, had attacked and scuttled British ships, had plundered and pillaged and created mayhem wherever he went.

No one could figure out what drove him or how to thwart him, and there were hundreds of bounties on his head, posted in port towns from Rome to Jamaica.

He’d grown up in Paris, so he spoke fluent French and had the air and style of a Frenchman.  So it was assumed he was French, and the authorities in particular were searching for a Frenchman, but his mother had been a British countess, his father a British earl, so he was as British as a man could be.

He peered over at his best and only friend, Raven Hook.  Raven served as First Mate on his ships and participated in his schemes and anarchy.  He was brave and dangerous and loyal to a fault, and John couldn’t imagine a finer partner.

From the day they’d met, when John had been a starving street urchin who’d botched his first attempt to steal food, Raven had watched over him.

John had been ten, and Raven a much older and wiser fifteen.  He’d been kind and shrewd, had taught John how to survive, how to cheat and fight and win.  He’d tamped down John’s worst urges, had tempered his worst ideas and plans, had guarded his back when John couldn’t be dissuaded from folly.

Their life of crime had left them obscenely rich.  As opposed to their difficult beginnings, they could now buy anything, have anything, do anything, but that didn’t mean they were ready to halt their mischief.  John hadn’t yet destroyed all the enemies on his list, and there was still too much revenge to be had.  Mildred and Hedley Teasdale were next.

“Was it wise to ride up to the house?” Raven asked.

They conversed in English, practicing it, having to remember that deception was paramount.

“I wasn’t noticed by anyone,” John insisted, “and if I was, how can it matter?  People see what they want to see.  I’m merely a passing stranger, assisting Miss Teasdale after she’d twisted her ankle.  They’d never connect me with the man who’s about to arrive.”

“What if that little worm, Hedley, had strolled by?  He’d have recognized you.”

“But what could he have done?”

“You shouldn’t tip your hand.”

“I haven’t.”

John stared at Bramble Bay Manor again.

He’d been waiting so long for this moment, had plotted and conspired and schemed, and he was so close to the end.  He was anxious to finish it.

“When the front parlor is mine,” he said, “how grand will I look, sitting on the sofa by the fire?”

“You plan to sit on the sofa by the fire?  I thought the idea was to take ownership, then let it go to ruin.”

John nodded.  “It’s still the plan, but I certainly intend to wallow in my spoils before I wreck the place.”

“What will happen to Mildred and Hedley when you’re through with them?”

“Who cares what happens?”

“It’s what I like about you, John.  You’re the most heartless bastard I’ve ever met, which means I’m not the biggest brute who ever lived.  There’s always someone worse than me.  That would be you.”

“I’m happy to be of service.”

They scrutinized the house, the grounds, John thinking about the sweetness of vengeance.  There was such satisfaction in knowing that Mildred would be sorry, that none of her dreams for Hedley would ever come true.

“What about Miss Teasdale?” Raven asked.  “Did you realize Hedley had a sister?”

“No.”

“What’s she like?”

“She’s a tiny sprite.  Pretty.  Amusing, but foolish—like all women.”

“Too bad for her to be caught in all this.”

“Yes, too bad.”

When he’d stumbled on Sarah Teasdale on the side of the road, he’d been greatly humored by her.

Though she’d been injured and alone, she hadn’t been afraid of him, and she’d exhibited an enormous amount of pluck.  She was fetching and funny and refreshing, and he’d enjoyed their chat much more than he should have.

His world was a jumble of sailors and ports and perilous, daring sea assaults that often left him physically wounded.  He frequently consorted with females, but they were jaded trollops, the only sort available to a man in his position.  His current mistress, Annalise, was typical.  She was beautiful, but cunning and treacherous, and she never misconstrued her role.

He kept her because she looked stunning on his arm, because she would engage in any decadent, salacious act he requested without grumbling or nagging.

So he never encountered the likes of Sarah Teasdale, and he wondered about her past, her circumstances.  She was probably the girl his mother could have been—sheltered, adored, pampered—if Fate had pushed his mother down a wiser, better path.

He was absurdly eager to see Miss Teasdale again.  As he waltzed into the foyer at Bramble Bay, like a king on summer progress, she’d likely faint.

“What will become of Miss Teasdale when you’re through?” Raven asked.  “I know you’re not concerned about Hedley or Mildred, but Miss Teasdale is innocent.”

John grinned.  “I might have mercy on her and take on another mistress.”

“Annalise might have a few choice words to say about that.”

“No, she won’t.”

“I can’t imagine Miss Teasdale would consent to an indecent arrangement.  From your description of her, she seems to be very British.  If you mentioned a lewd liaison, you’d drive her into a swoon.”

“There are worse things than being attached to a rich man like me.”

“Yes, there are:  having a reckless brother, losing your home because of him, being tossed out with just the clothes on your back.”

“Precisely,” John grimly agreed.  “Once she’s faced with catastrophe, I might be exactly what she needs.”

Raven snorted out a laugh.  “I wouldn’t count on it if I were you.”

John laughed, too.  It was amusing to think of a relationship with Miss Teasdale, but she wasn’t worth the bother.  And from his brief meeting with her, he could tell she was quite fond of Bramble Bay.  After she learned how he’d ruined Hedley, she wouldn’t be kindly inclined to any continuing acquaintance.

“Let’s go,” John said.  “We’re due to arrive tomorrow.  I want to double check all the details to make sure we haven’t forgotten anything.”

“We haven’t.”

“I want to be sure,” John firmly stated.  “I’ve been preparing for this moment all my life.  I’ll leave nothing to chance.”

They turned their horses and rode away.

+ Fan Reviews

“I have just retired from 35 years of teaching HS English…Honors British Lit and Expository Writing. I have been waiting a long time to read for enjoyment and your books are a delicious treat! Thank You!” — Cheryl

“LOVE’S PERIL left me in tears!!!” — Melanie

“Omgosh! I loved LOVE’S PERIL! What else is new, right?” — Debbie

“Your characters are vibrant and their stories page turners.” — Marcelle

“A pirate! OMG! He is so sexy! I’m drooling.” — Barbara

“Where do you come up with your ideas? I’m always fascinated!” — Jean

+ Sample Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

Bramble Bay Estate, English Coast, June 1815…     

Sarah Teasdale marched down the rutted lane.  She was distracted and furious, so she wasn’t paying attention.  She tripped on a rock, twisted her ankle and fell, landing in a heap in the dirt.

She’d been shopping in the village and was walking home, so the contents of her basket spilled everywhere.  The decanter of expensive brandy she’d specifically gone to purchase cracked open, the amber liquid spilling on the ground.

Luckily, she was alone, so no one had witnessed her humiliating tumble.

“Serves you right,” she scolded.

All morning, she’d been in a dither, angry with her stepmother, Mildred, when it was pointless to be upset.

Sarah’s mother had died when she was a baby, and her father had remarried shortly after.  Sarah had no memories of her mother, and at age twenty-five, it seemed there had been no maternal figure but Mildred.  Yet Mildred had never liked Sarah, though Sarah had no idea why.

She glanced about, taking stock of her location, her condition.  Her palms were scraped and bleeding, her skirt muddy and torn where her knees had hit the gravel.

The rip in the fabric could be patched without too much trouble, which was a relief.  Mildred was very stingy.  She refused to spend even the smallest amounts on Sarah, declining to provide the barest necessities such as new undergarments, shoes, or gowns.

Sarah’s life was so terrible, and she’d been so horribly abused, that she could have been Cinderella in the fairytale.  That’s how she felt:  lonely and unappreciated and maltreated.

When her father, Bernard, had been alive, she and Mildred had lumped along without too much tension or bickering.  Mildred’s worst excesses had always occurred when Bernard wasn’t looking.  But Bernard had been deceased for several years, and Mildred’s festering dislike of Sarah had been given free rein.

Still, despite Mildred’s snubs and slights, Sarah tried to be helpful and obliging.  She had to constantly remind herself that Mildred was simply a very unhappy, miserable person.  In Sarah’s dealings with her, she had to avoid the protracted arguments that fueled Mildred’s temper.

The only other option was for Sarah to leave Bramble Bay, as Mildred often suggested.  Yet Bramble Bay had been the Teasdale family home for two centuries, and Sarah was Bernard’s only daughter—her sole sibling being her half-brother, Hedley.

Hedley was Mildred’s son with Bernard.  At Bernard’s death, Hedley had inherited everything, with Sarah not receiving a penny of support, and Hedley and Mildred treated Sarah like an interloper.  But she shouldn’t have to leave and wouldn’t let them chase her away.

Tears welled into her eyes, and she swiped them away.  Normally, she wasn’t ever gloomy, and she never moped or mourned her plight.  Yet sometimes, she was just so tired of her meager, unpalatable existence.  She’d give anything to change it.

A horse’s hooves sounded around the bend in the road, and momentarily, a man trotted into view, mounted on a very fine white stallion.  He reined in and stared down from his fancy saddle.

With his golden-blond hair and striking green eyes, he was incredibly handsome.  He had a high forehead, sharp cheekbones, and aristocratic nose.  He was broad in the shoulders, muscled in his chest and thighs.  His skin was bronzed from the sun, as if he worked out-of-doors, but he wasn’t dressed as a laborer.

Attired in a flowing white shirt, tan breeches, and a pair of scuffed riding boots, he was actually quite dashing.  Clean shaven, but needing to visit his barber, his hair was too long, pulled into a ponytail with a length of black ribbon.

And he had a looped gold earring in his ear.

She’d never seen a man with an earring before and couldn’t decide what to make of it.  The odd piece of jewelry probably indicated low character—perhaps he was a brigand—and she supposed she should be afraid of him.  After all, she was on a deserted stretch of lane.  Since she’d departed the village, she hadn’t encountered another soul.  If he had wicked intentions, there was no defender to rush to her aid.

But she didn’t sense any menace.  He had a dagger in a sheath at his waist, and a pistol strapped behind his saddle, so he certainly looked as if he could be dangerous, but he was smiling.

“Hello, chérie.”  His voice was tinged with a slight French accent.  “Are you all right?”

“I think I am.”

“What happened?”

“I tripped and fell.”

“Are you injured?”

“Just my pride.”

With the agility of a circus performer, he leapt to the ground and walked over.  He dropped to his knees and reached for her hand.

“You’ve cut yourself.”

“Yes.”

“From your tumble?”

“Yes.”

He retrieved a kerchief from his sleeve and gallantly pressed it to the oozing blood on her scraped palm.  Then he stood and gathered the items from her spilled basket, placing them back inside it.

He picked up the empty brandy bottle.

“Waste of good liquor,” he murmured.

“Yes, it was, and I’ll never hear the end of it.”

Her comment was petulant and snappish, and she was perplexed as to why she’d uttered it in front of a stranger.

He chuckled.  “I take it you have someone impatiently waiting for you to arrive so they can begin imbibing.”

“We’re having important guests, and my stepmother wants to serve them the very best.  There’s a renowned vintner in the village, so I went to fetch his most expensive brew.”

“Too bad for your guests that they’ll miss out.”

“They’ll have to make do with our typical fare,” she grumpily complained.  “They’re so hoity-toity.  How will they bear it?”

“You don’t like the company that’s coming?”

“I’ve never met them, but I’m sure I won’t care for them a bit.”

Mildred was in a veritable flurry about the visit, the house in an uproar of preparation, and Mildred’s excitement only dampened Sarah’s enthusiasm.  The more Mildred fussed, the more Sarah groused.  They were like oil and water.

At Sarah’s peevishness, the man chuckled again and held up the bottle.  Seeing that there was a sip or two in the bottom, he swallowed the dregs, then pitched the decanter into the forest.

“It’s delicious,” he said.  “Your stepmother definitely knows how to impress.”

“Yes, she does.”

Sarah still hadn’t pushed herself to her feet.  Her back ached, her knees ached, and her head was pounding.  She was feeling inordinately glum, and if he hadn’t ridden by, she might have sat there all day.

“Can you stand, chérie?” he asked.

“Probably.  I haven’t tried yet.”

“Let me help you.”

She should have declined his offer, but she was weary, and he was being very kind.  And he was French.  His looks, clothes, stallion, and accent provided a foreign flare that was fascinating.

Why not permit him to assist her?

She couldn’t remember the last time a handsome fellow had paid her any notice, and she relished his courtesy.  Their estate, Bramble Bay, was on the coast and not near any large towns or main thoroughfares, so there were few chances for bachelors to cross her path.

At age eighteen, she’d been engaged to Patrick, but he’d joined the army and promptly gotten himself killed.  He’d been a neighbor and childhood friend, and after he’d died, she’d lost interest in matrimony.  Her father hadn’t pressed her to choose another beau, and she was regretting his lack of foresight.

If he’d urged her to wed, if he’d found her a husband, she’d be established in her own home.  Mildred—with her rages and disagreeable temperament—would be naught but an unpleasant memory.

Sarah’s gallant companion clasped her arm and lifted her.  He was very strong, so the move required very little effort on his part.  With a swift tug, she was on her feet, the rapid motion carrying her into him so that, suddenly, their bodies were touching all the way down.

She’d never previously been so close to an adult male, and the abrupt positioning rattled her.  She could feel his broad chest, his flat stomach and hard thighs, their proximity so thrilling that butterflies swarmed in her belly.

He was very masculine, very virile, and she was extremely aware of him on a feminine, instinctual level.  He smelled so good, like fresh air and horses, and it was all she could do to keep from rubbing herself against him like a contented cat.

He was very tall, six feet at least, and she was only five-foot-five in her shoes, so he towered over her.  She gazed up at him, held rapt by the green of his eyes.  They were a deep emerald hue, enhanced by the surrounding foliage of the woods.  The sky was very blue, puffy clouds floating by overhead, and as she studied him, she was dizzy and unnerved.

She didn’t know how to interact with someone like him, didn’t know how she should behave.

“Pardon me.”  Her cheeks blushed bright red, and she stepped away.

As she put weight on her ankle, she winced in pain.  He noticed at once and reached out to steady her.

“Ah, chérie, it appears you have injured yourself more than you claimed.”

“It’s just a sprain.  I’m fine.”

“You’re walking home?”

“Yes.”

“Let me give you a ride the rest of the way.”

“That’s not necessary.”

“I insist.”

Although he seemed cordial and charming, the manner in which he voiced the word insist was disconcerting.  Beneath his layers of French allure, there was a steely core.  He wasn’t the type to brook refusal or disobedience, and she wondered who he was.

What purpose had brought him down her rural road?  If she declined his assistance, what might he do?

She peered over at his horse, at him, at his horse again.

In her boring, monotonous life, there were very few surprises.  It would be quite an adventure to climb onto the large animal and proceed to Bramble Bay.  But she couldn’t imagine prancing up the drive in such a scandalous fashion.  What would Mildred say?  What would the servants think?

“I’d better not.  Thank you, though.”

She bent down to retrieve her basket, and as she spun to go, the turn wrenched her foot even more.  She took several hobbling steps, glad her back was to him so he couldn’t see her grimace.

“Mademoiselle?” he said from behind her.

She glanced over her shoulder.  “Yes?”

“You are not walking.”

Before she realized what he intended, he strode over and picked her up.  In an instant, she was cradled to his chest.  The shocking move jerked the basket from her hands, the contents spilling on the ground again.

“Put me down!” she huffed.

“No.”

“Put me down!”

“Don’t argue with me, chérie.  I don’t like it.”

“You can’t just…manhandle me.”

“I already have.”  He grinned, looking like the very devil.

“You’re a brute.”

“Yes, I am, and I always have been.”

“You can’t stumble on a strange female and treat her however you please.”

“Can’t I?” he sarcastically retorted.  “Mon Dieu!  I didn’t know.”

He whistled to his horse, and the animal pranced over.  The man lifted her onto the saddle, her bottom perched on the smooth leather, her legs dangling over the side so she faced him.  He scooped up her basket and thrust it at her, then he leapt up behind, settling himself on the horse’s rear.

She was confused over what to do with herself.  They were crammed together in a very small space, her side resting against his front.  With him so near, she felt young and defenseless and out of her element.

“I don’t want a ride,” she fumed.

“I don’t care.”

“Would you listen to me?”

“No.  I never heed foolish women.”

“I’m not being foolish.”

“You’re not?”  He slipped an arm around her waist and snuggled her closer.  “Be quiet and be gracious, chérie.  Accept my ride.”

“I don’t wish to.”

“So?  Accept it anyway.”

“What if someone sees us?  My reputation will be in shreds.”

“Why?  Because you are injured and I’m helping you?”

“Yes.”

“You British have the most peculiar rules.  I doubt I will ever figure them out.”  He frowned.  “Where are we headed?”

She pointed down the lane.  “This way.”

“Is it far?”
“No, not far.”

His horse began to walk—though she couldn’t discern that he’d given it any visible command—and they continued on in a strained silence.  Each clop of the horse’s hooves shifted her about so she kept bumping into him.  Her shoulder and arm were in intimate contact with his chest.  She’d lurch away and stiffen her spine, but immediately be thrown into him again.  Separation was impossible.

“Relax, chérie,” he murmured.  “I won’t let you fall.”

“I didn’t imagine you would.”

“Are you afraid of me?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t bite.”

“You might.”

“You’re too pretty,” he said.  “I would hate to leave any marks.”

She was flustered by his flattery.

He’s French, she told herself.  He probably spews compliments like candy.  Yet she couldn’t stop the rush of delight that swept through her.

Her father had always claimed she was pretty, and her fiancé Patrick had thought so, too.  But Mildred insisted she wasn’t, and Mildred’s cutting insults had been hurled for so many years that it was difficult to discount them.

Secretly, Sarah knew Mildred was wrong, that she was jealous.  Mildred was very plain and unexceptional, while Sarah resembled her mother who had been renowned as a great beauty.  She’d inherited her mother’s lush auburn hair, her bright blue eyes, merry dimples, and curvaceous shape.  She looked fetching and smart—at least when she was attired in a halfway decent gown—and she wasn’t vain in her assessment.

She had a mirror in her bedchamber and could clearly see herself in it.  Her father’s opinion had been the correct one.  Not Mildred’s, and it was refreshing to be reminded of the truth by a very handsome, very dashing stranger—even if he likely said the same to every female he encountered.

“What is your name, chérie?” he asked.

“Why should I tell you?”

“Because I am a very friendly person, and I’m making friendly conversation.”

For an eternity, she considered his request, trying to decide if she should oblige him.  Ultimately, she couldn’t think of a reason not to reveal her identity.

“I am Miss Sarah Teasdale.”

Oddly, her name riveted him so thoroughly that even his horse seemed to freeze in mid-stride.

“Teasdale?”

“Yes.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really.”

She shifted to peer up at him, which was a mistake.  He was very captivating, very mesmerizing, and she was sitting much too close.  Quickly, she glanced away.

“You must be related to Bernard and Mildred Teasdale,” he mused, more to himself than to her.

“Bernard was my father, and Mildred is my stepmother.”

“And Hedley?”

“Hedley is my half-brother.”  She scowled.  “How do you know my family?”

“Oh, I don’t,” he casually said.  “I’ve just heard of them.”

She was positive he was lying but as to what facts?

“Why are you out alone?”  His tone was scolding.  “Why don’t you have a driver and carriage?”

“It’s a long story.”

“I have time to listen to it.”

“It’s easier if I walk.”  She shrugged, acting as if Mildred’s refusal to allow her use of the gig wasn’t worth mentioning.  “I don’t like to fuss over trivialities, and it’s a lovely day to be outside.”

“Yes, it is.”

She stared up at him again, and he was evaluating her so meticulously that she bristled with apprehension.  He was very shrewd, very astute, and she felt as if he could delve down into the forlorn parts of her being, that he could view all the petty hurts and sad yearnings she kept concealed from the world.

She didn’t want him to see so much, didn’t want him to understand so much about her.

“Why are you in the area, Mr…?”

She paused, waiting for him to explain, to introduce himself.  He hesitated, then said, “My name is John…Sinclair.”

It took him forever to settle on a surname, so he had to be lying about that, too.

“What’s wrong?” she chided.  “Are you suffering from amnesia?  Have you forgotten who you are?”

“No, I have several names.  I was simply debating which to provide.”

“Well, that certainly sounds sinister.”

“I have French relations, but English ones, too.  I always have to pick who I’m claiming as my own.”

“I bet you have an interesting family tree.”

“You have no idea, chérie.”

They arrived at the gates of Bramble Bay, and she gazed down the orchard-lined drive to the manor house at the end.  The afternoon sun shone on the bricks so they were a warm peach shade.  The glass in the windows sparkled, the roses adding splashes of color.  Beyond the mansion, the manicured lawns sloped to the ocean, the waves lapping on the rocky shore.

She practically sighed with pleasure.

It was such a beautiful spot, like a perfectly painted landscape, and she never grew tired of looking at it.  How long would she be permitted to stay?  How long would she have the right to call it her own?  Would Mildred kick her out someday in a flurry of temper?  Would Sarah become too dispirited and leave before she was tossed out?

Mildred was pressuring her to marry their neighbor, Sheldon Fishburn, but he was thirty years older than Sarah, and he was Patrick’s father, had been her own father’s best friend.  Would she eventually be so discouraged that she would agree to the match?

She fought off a shudder.  She’d rather sell herself into slavery than marry Patrick’s stodgy, boring father.  She hadn’t had many lucky breaks in her life, but when she wed, it would be for love.  If there was a bit of passion thrown into the mix, she’d take that, too.

What she wouldn’t accept was a tedious, cold union where both parties were miserable—as Bernard and Mildred had been miserable—and that’s what she’d have with Sheldon.

Sarah peered up at Mr. Sinclair.

“You still haven’t told me why you’re in the neighborhood.”

“No, I haven’t.”  He was being deliberately elusive and mysterious.

“Is it a secret?”

“No.”

“Then why are you here?”

“You’re very nosy.”

“I like to think I’m being protective.  You appear to know all about my family, but I know nothing about you.  Are you a criminal?  Are you a robber?  Should we be locking the silverware at night?”

“You have silverware that’s worth stealing?”  He studied the house with a keen eye as if he might rush in and pilfer their valuables.

“Very funny,” she snorted.

He urged his horse onward, and they started down the drive.

“I’m scouting…property.”

There was another hesitation in his response.  Why was she sure he was a complete fraud?  But even as the thought unnerved her, she suffered a thrill that he might move to a nearby estate.

“Scouting for yourself?  Or for someone else?”

“Maybe for myself.  Maybe for someone else,” he furtively replied.

“We might be neighbors?”  She tried to keep her query light and casual.

“Perhaps.”

“So we might cross paths again?”

“We might.”

He continued on to the manor, circled the fountain and halted at the grand stairs that led up to the ornate front doors.  Fortunately, the butler hadn’t noted her approach, and no servants were lurking, so no one witnessed her scandalous return.

Without dismounting, he lifted her down and set her on her feet.

“Can you make it inside on your own?” he asked.

“Yes.”

She smiled up at him, his kerchief wadded in her hand so he wouldn’t notice it and expect her to give it back.  She wondered if she’d ever see him again, and it occurred to her that it would be a very sad thing if she didn’t.

His golden hair gleamed in the bright sun, his emerald eyes reflecting the grass and trees.  He was charismatic and charming and fascinating, and she would be sorry to have him leave.

There were a thousand questions on the tip of her tongue.  She wanted to invite him to keep in touch, to visit whenever he was in the area, to arrive unannounced and cheer her with his captivating presence.

Of course any such comments would be too forward and totally inappropriate, so she swallowed them down.

“Thank you for coming to my aid,” she courteously said.  “Thank you for the ride.”

“You’re welcome, my little damsel in distress.  Have a care.”

“I will.”

“Goodbye, chérie.”

He grinned and cantered off.

She stood frozen in her spot, watching until he vanished from sight.  She was positive he’d turn around and wave, but he didn’t.

She wrenched away and hobbled up the stairs.

*          *          *          *

John Harcourt Sinclair—also known as Jean Pierre, Le Terreur Franҫais—sat on his horse, staring at Bramble Bay Manor.  He was out on the road, the main chimney and slated roof just visible through the woods.

He was the most notorious pirate in the world, the kingdom’s most wanted criminal.  For years, he’d disrupted British shipping lanes, had attacked and scuttled British ships, had plundered and pillaged and created mayhem wherever he went.

No one could figure out what drove him or how to thwart him, and there were hundreds of bounties on his head, posted in port towns from Rome to Jamaica.

He’d grown up in Paris, so he spoke fluent French and had the air and style of a Frenchman.  So it was assumed he was French, and the authorities in particular were searching for a Frenchman, but his mother had been a British countess, his father a British earl, so he was as British as a man could be.

He peered over at his best and only friend, Raven Hook.  Raven served as First Mate on his ships and participated in his schemes and anarchy.  He was brave and dangerous and loyal to a fault, and John couldn’t imagine a finer partner.

From the day they’d met, when John had been a starving street urchin who’d botched his first attempt to steal food, Raven had watched over him.

John had been ten, and Raven a much older and wiser fifteen.  He’d been kind and shrewd, had taught John how to survive, how to cheat and fight and win.  He’d tamped down John’s worst urges, had tempered his worst ideas and plans, had guarded his back when John couldn’t be dissuaded from folly.

Their life of crime had left them obscenely rich.  As opposed to their difficult beginnings, they could now buy anything, have anything, do anything, but that didn’t mean they were ready to halt their mischief.  John hadn’t yet destroyed all the enemies on his list, and there was still too much revenge to be had.  Mildred and Hedley Teasdale were next.

“Was it wise to ride up to the house?” Raven asked.

They conversed in English, practicing it, having to remember that deception was paramount.

“I wasn’t noticed by anyone,” John insisted, “and if I was, how can it matter?  People see what they want to see.  I’m merely a passing stranger, assisting Miss Teasdale after she’d twisted her ankle.  They’d never connect me with the man who’s about to arrive.”

“What if that little worm, Hedley, had strolled by?  He’d have recognized you.”

“But what could he have done?”

“You shouldn’t tip your hand.”

“I haven’t.”

John stared at Bramble Bay Manor again.

He’d been waiting so long for this moment, had plotted and conspired and schemed, and he was so close to the end.  He was anxious to finish it.

“When the front parlor is mine,” he said, “how grand will I look, sitting on the sofa by the fire?”

“You plan to sit on the sofa by the fire?  I thought the idea was to take ownership, then let it go to ruin.”

John nodded.  “It’s still the plan, but I certainly intend to wallow in my spoils before I wreck the place.”

“What will happen to Mildred and Hedley when you’re through with them?”

“Who cares what happens?”

“It’s what I like about you, John.  You’re the most heartless bastard I’ve ever met, which means I’m not the biggest brute who ever lived.  There’s always someone worse than me.  That would be you.”

“I’m happy to be of service.”

They scrutinized the house, the grounds, John thinking about the sweetness of vengeance.  There was such satisfaction in knowing that Mildred would be sorry, that none of her dreams for Hedley would ever come true.

“What about Miss Teasdale?” Raven asked.  “Did you realize Hedley had a sister?”

“No.”

“What’s she like?”

“She’s a tiny sprite.  Pretty.  Amusing, but foolish—like all women.”

“Too bad for her to be caught in all this.”

“Yes, too bad.”

When he’d stumbled on Sarah Teasdale on the side of the road, he’d been greatly humored by her.

Though she’d been injured and alone, she hadn’t been afraid of him, and she’d exhibited an enormous amount of pluck.  She was fetching and funny and refreshing, and he’d enjoyed their chat much more than he should have.

His world was a jumble of sailors and ports and perilous, daring sea assaults that often left him physically wounded.  He frequently consorted with females, but they were jaded trollops, the only sort available to a man in his position.  His current mistress, Annalise, was typical.  She was beautiful, but cunning and treacherous, and she never misconstrued her role.

He kept her because she looked stunning on his arm, because she would engage in any decadent, salacious act he requested without grumbling or nagging.

So he never encountered the likes of Sarah Teasdale, and he wondered about her past, her circumstances.  She was probably the girl his mother could have been—sheltered, adored, pampered—if Fate had pushed his mother down a wiser, better path.

He was absurdly eager to see Miss Teasdale again.  As he waltzed into the foyer at Bramble Bay, like a king on summer progress, she’d likely faint.

“What will become of Miss Teasdale when you’re through?” Raven asked.  “I know you’re not concerned about Hedley or Mildred, but Miss Teasdale is innocent.”

John grinned.  “I might have mercy on her and take on another mistress.”

“Annalise might have a few choice words to say about that.”

“No, she won’t.”

“I can’t imagine Miss Teasdale would consent to an indecent arrangement.  From your description of her, she seems to be very British.  If you mentioned a lewd liaison, you’d drive her into a swoon.”

“There are worse things than being attached to a rich man like me.”

“Yes, there are:  having a reckless brother, losing your home because of him, being tossed out with just the clothes on your back.”

“Precisely,” John grimly agreed.  “Once she’s faced with catastrophe, I might be exactly what she needs.”

Raven snorted out a laugh.  “I wouldn’t count on it if I were you.”

John laughed, too.  It was amusing to think of a relationship with Miss Teasdale, but she wasn’t worth the bother.  And from his brief meeting with her, he could tell she was quite fond of Bramble Bay.  After she learned how he’d ruined Hedley, she wouldn’t be kindly inclined to any continuing acquaintance.

“Let’s go,” John said.  “We’re due to arrive tomorrow.  I want to double check all the details to make sure we haven’t forgotten anything.”

“We haven’t.”

“I want to be sure,” John firmly stated.  “I’ve been preparing for this moment all my life.  I’ll leave nothing to chance.”

They turned their horses and rode away.