I’ve been really lucky with the Drake’s Rakes series. Not only have I spent a lot of time in England, doing things like walking through all of Mayfair and staying at Frampton Court, a lovely historic country house, I got to travel through India, where several of my characters lived at one time or another.
Why should that ignite my interest in Lyme I still don’t know. But it spoke to me. So I booked time in the town, and I walked. And walked. And drove. I spent time wandering the Undercliff, an area where the land has slipped towards the ocean and flora has taken over (lovely ferns, elephant ears, mossy stones, bluebells, oaks…well, you get it). I walked over the cliffs that still look as if they’re going to crumble straight onto the shingle beaches below and plotted out the estate (Fairbourne) my heroine is trying so hard to save. I walked the same streets of Lyme Regis Jane Austen did (and I have to tell you here, that if she did indeed walk all of Lyme, she had legs like a Tyrolean mountain goat. Those streets are steep). I stopped in the same shops frequented by Anne Elliott and her creator and visited the old Post Office (now a B&B) used by Jane herself, and critical to a pivotal scene in ONCE A RAKE. And from those steps came the story of Sarah and Ian, two outsiders who must overcome not only external enemies, but internal crises to find a love for a lifetime.
I’m very lucky. I admit it. Like most authors, I’m insatiably curious. Because I’m an author, I get to have my curiosity satisfied. And then I get to weave the answers into a story that makes me happy. And the best part (at least for me) is discovering a new place in the world to discover. The only question now, is where do I set my next book? (hint? One of them will be in Venice).
As she did every autumn, when the farmyard was perennially muddy and her skin chapped, Sarah wished she were somewhere else. It wasn’t as bad in spring or summer, because then she had growing things, new babies to raise, the comfort of wildflowers and warm skies. Every spring she imagined things could be better. Every autumn she admitted the truth. She was caught here at Fairbourne, and here she would stay. She had nowhere else to go.
She wouldn’t think of that, though. It served no purpose, except to eat away at her heart. Tucking the bit of blanket on the fence where Willoughby could smell it, she tied him up with a scratch of the ears and an admonition to behave. Then, rewrapping her muffler against the chill, she went about her work, ending with a visit to the hen house.
It was when she slipped her hand beneath Edna the hen, that she knew for certain who had tied up Willoughby. Edna was her best layer, and yet, the box was nearly empty. Sarah checked Martha and Mary and came up with similar results. Someone had taken their eggs. And it hadn’t been a fox, or at least one of her birds would have been a pile of bloody feathers.
Well, Sarah thought, collecting what was left. Her visitor had earned his meal. She wished she had seen him, though. She could have at least rewarded him with a few scones for rescuing Willoughby from sure disaster.
On second thought, she considered with her first real smile of the day. Maybe not scones. They would be Peg’s scones, and Peg’s scones could be used for artillery practice. No one should be rewarded that way.
Sarah might have thought no more of the matter if the men hadn’t ridden up. She was just shoving the chicken coop door closed, when she heard horses approaching over the rise from the Pinhay Road. Looking that way, she sighed. Now what?
Giving up the idea that she would eat anytime soon, she gave the coop a final kick and strode off toward the approaching riders. She was just passing the old dairy when she caught movement out the corner of her eye. A shadow, nothing more, by the back wall. But a big shadow. One that seemed to be sitting on the ground, with long legs and shoulders the size of a yule log.
It didn’t even occur to her that it could be anyone but her benefactor. She was about to call to him, when the riders crested the hill and she recognized their leader.
“Oh, no,” she muttered, her heart sinking straight to her half-boots. This was not the time to betray the existence of the man who had saved her pig. She closed her mouth and walked straight past.
There were six riders in all, four of them dressed in the motley remnants of their old regiments. Foot soldiers, by the way they rode. Not very good ones, if the company they kept was any indication. Ragged, scruffy and slouching, rifles slung over their shoulders and knives in their boots.
Sarah might have dismissed them as unimportant if they had been led by anyone but her husband’s cousin, Martin Clarke. She knew better than to think Martin wished her well. Martin wished her to the devil, just as she wished him.
A thin, middling man with sparse sandy hair and bulging eyes, Martin had the harried, petulant air of an ineffectual law clerk. Sarah knew better. Martin was as ineffectual as the tides.
Just as Sarah knew he would, he trotted past the great front door and toward the outbuildings where he knew he could find her at this time of day. She stood where she was, egg pail in hand, striving for calm. Martin was appearing far too frequently lately.
Damn you, Boswell, she thought, long since worn past propriety. How could you have left me to face this alone?
“Martin,” she greeted Boswell’s cousin as he pulled his horse to a skidding halt within feet of her. She felt sorry for the horse, a short-boned bay that bore the scars of Martin’s spurs.
“Sarah,” Martin snapped in a curiously deep voice.
He did not bow or tip his hat. Martin knew exactly what she was due and wasn’t about to let her forget it. Sarah wished she had at least had the chance to tidy her hair before facing off with him. She hated feeling at a disadvantage.
“Lady Clarke,” the sixth man said in his booming, jovial voice.
Sarah’s smile was genuine for the Squire, who sat at Martin’s left on an ungainly-looking sorrel mare. “Squire,” she greeted him, walking up to rub the horse’s nose. “You’ve brought our Maizie to call, have you? How are you, my pretty?”
Pretty was not really a word one should use for Maizie. As sturdy as a stone house, she was all of seventeen hands, with a Roman head and a shambling gait. She was also the best hunter in the district, and of a size to carry Squire’s massive girth.
Maizie’s arrival was met by a thud and a long, mournful squeal from the pig pen.
The squire laughed with his whole body. “Still in love, is he?”
Sarah grinned back. “Caught him not an hour ago trying to sneak over for a tryst.”
The squire chuckled. “It’s good someone loves my girl,” he said with an affectionate smack to the horse’s neck. Maizie nuzzled Sarah’s apron and was rewarded with an old fall apple. Willoughby sounded as if he were dying from anguish.
“Thank you for the ale you sent over, Squire,” Sarah said. “It was much enjoyed. Even the dowager had a small tot after coming in from one of her painting afternoons.”
“Excellent,” he said with a big smile. “Excellent. Everyone is well here, I hope? Saw Lady Clarke and Mizz Fitchwater out along the Undercliff with their paints and hammers. They looked to be in rude health.”
Sarah smiled. “They are. I will tell them you asked after them.”
“This isn’t a social call,” Martin interrupted, shifting in his saddle.
Sarah kept her smile, even though just the sight of Martin sent her heart skidding around in dread. “To what do I owe the honor then, gentlemen?”
“Have you seen any strangers around?” the Squire asked, leaning forward. “There’s been some theft and vandalism in the area. Stolen chickens and the like.”
“Oh, that,” Sarah said with a wave of her hand. “Of course. He’s taken my eggs.”
Martin almost came off his horse. “Who?”
Shading her eyes with her hand, Sarah smiled up at him. “Who? Don’t you mean what? Unless you name your foxes.”
That obviously wasn’t the answer he’d been looking for. “Fox? Bah! I’m talking about a man. Probably one of those damned thievin’ soldiers preying on good people.”
Did he truly not notice how his own men scowled at him? Men who undoubtedly had wandered the roads themselves? Well, Sarah thought, if she had had any intention of acknowledging her surprise visitor, Martin’s words disabused her of the notion. She wouldn’t trust Napoleon himself to her cousin’s care.
“Not unless your soldier has four feet and had a long bushy tail,” she said, genially. “But I doubt he would fit the uniform.”
The squire, still patting his Maizie, let out a great guffaw. “We’ll get your fox for you, Lady Clarke,” he promised. “Not great hunt country here. But we do. We do.”
“Kind of you, Squire. I am certain the girls will be grateful. You know how fatched Mary and Martha can get when their routine is disturbed.”
“Martha….” Martin was getting redder by the minute. “Why haven’t I heard about this? You boarding people here? What would Boswell say?”
Sarah tilted her head. “I imagine he’d say that he was glad for the eggs every morning for breakfast, Martin.”
For a second she thought Martin might have a seizure, right there on his gelding. “You’re not going to get away with abusing your privilege much longer, missy,” he snapped. “This land is….”
“Boswell’s,” she said flatly. “Not yours until we know he won’t come back.”
“Bah!” Martin huffed. “It’s been almost fourth months, girl. If he was coming back, he’d be here.”
Sarah stood very still, grief and guilt swamping even the fear. Instinctively her gaze wandered over to what she called Boswell’s Arbor, a little sitting area by the cliff with a lovely view of the ocean. Boswell had loved sitting there, his gaze fixed on the horizon. He had planted all the roses and fitted the latticework overhead.
His roses, though, were dying. His entire estate was dying, and Sarah was no longer certain she could save it.
“He will be back, Martin,” she said, throwing as much conviction as she could into her voice. “You’ll see. Men are returning from Belgium all the time. The battle was so terrible it will be months yet before we learn the final toll from Waterloo.”
It was the Squire who brought their attention back with a sharp ‘harrumph’.
Sarah blushed. “My apologies, Squire,” she said. “You did not come here to be annoyed by our petty grievances. As for your question, I have seen no one here.”
“We’ve also been told to keep an eye out for a big man,” Squire said. “Red hair. Scottish. Don’t know that it’s the same man that’s raiding the henhouses, but you should keep an eye out anyway.”
Sarah was already shaking her head. After all, she hadn’t seen anything but a shadow. “Wasn’t it a Scot who tried to shoot Wellington? I saw the posters in Lyme Regis. I thought he was dead.”
The squire shrugged. “We’ve been asked to make sure.”
“I’m sure you won’t mind if we search the property,” Martin challenged.
He was already dismounting. Sarah’s heart skidded, and her palms went damp. “Of course not,” she said with a faint wave. “Start with the house. I believe the dowager will be just as delighted to see you as the last time you surprised her.”
Martin was already on the ground and heading toward the house. With Sarah’s words, he stopped cold. Sarah refused to smile, even though the memory of Lady Clarke’s last harangue still amused her.
“Just the outbuildings,” he amended, motioning to the men to follow him.
Sarah was a heartbeat shy of protesting when she heard it. Willoughby. The thudding turned into a great crash and the heartfelt squeals turned into a near-scream of triumph. She turned just in time to jump free as the pig came galloping across the yard, six hundred pounds of unrestrained passion headed straight for Squire’s horse.
Unfortunately, Martin was standing between Willoughby and his true love. And Sarah sincerely doubted that the pig could see the man in his headlong dash to bliss.
Sarah called out a warning. Martin stood frozen on the spot, as if staring down the spectre of death. Howling with laughter, the Squire swung Maizie about.
It was all over in a moment. Squire leapt from Maizie and gave her a good crack on the rump. With a flirtatious toss of the head and a whinny, the mare took off down the lane, Willoughby in hot pursuit. But not before the boar had run right over Martin, leaving him flat in the mud with hoofprints marching straight up his best robin’s egg superfine and white linen. Sarah tried so hard to keep a straight face. The other men weren’t so restrained, slapping legs and laughing at the man who’d brought them as they swung their horses around and charged down the lane after the pig.
Sarah knew that she was a Christian, because she bent to help Boswell’s unpleasant relation off the ground. “Are you all right, cousin?”
Bent over and clutching his ribs, Martin yanked his arm out of her grasp. “You did that on purpose, you bitch.”
The Squire frowned. “Language, sir. Ladies.”
Martin waved him off as well. “This is no lady, and you know it, Bovey. Why my cousin demeaned himself enough to marry a by-blow…”
Sarah laughed. “Why, for her dowry, Martin. You know that. Heavens, all of Dorset knows that.”
The only thing people didn’t know was the identity of her real father, who set up the trust for her. But then, knowing had been no benefit to her.
“What Dorset knows,” Squire said, his face red, “is that you’ve done Boswell proud. Even kind to his mother, and I have to tell you, ma’am, that be no easy feat.”
Sarah spared him another smile. “Why, thank you, Squire. That is kind of you.”
The Squire grew redder. Martin harrumphed.
“Climb on your horse, Clarke,” Squire said. “It’s time we left Lady Clarke to her work. We certainly haven’t made her day any easier.”
Martin huffed, but he complied. He was still brushing off his once-pristine attire when the soldiers, bantering like children on a picnic, returned brandishing Willoughby’s lead, the pig following disconsolately behind.
With a smile for the ragged soldier who’d caught him, Sarah held her hand out for the rope. “Thank you, Mr…”
The man, lean and lined from sun and hardship, ducked his head. “Greggins, ma’am. Pleasure. Put up a good fight, ‘e did.”
She chuckled. “I know all too well, Mr. Greggins.” Turning, she smiled up at her neighbor. “Thank you, Squire. I am so sorry you had to send Maizie off.”
The squire grinned at her, showing his gap teeth and twinkling blue eyes. “Aw, she’ll be at the bottom of the lane, right enough. She knows to get out of yon pig’s way.”
Tipping his low-crowned hat to Sarah, he turned to help Martin to his horse. Sarah waved farewell and tugged a despondent Willoughby back to his pen. She was just pulling the knot tight when she caught sight of that shadow again, this time on her side of the coop. Casting a quick glance to where the Squire had just mounted behind the pig-catching soldier Greggins, she bent over Willoughby.
“I wouldn’t show myself yet if I were you,” she murmured, hoping the shadow heard her. “And if it was you who let Willoughby go a moment ago, I thank you.”
“A search would have been…problematic,” she heard, and a fresh chill chased down her spine. There was a burr to his voice. A Scot, here on the South Dorset coast. Now, how frequently could she say she’d seen that?
“You didn’t by any chance recently shoot at someone, did you?” she asked.
As if he would tell the truth, if he were indeed the assassin.
“No’ who you think.”
She should turn around this minute and call for help. Every instinct of decency said so. But Martin was the local magistrate, and Sarah knew how he treated prisoners. Even innocent ones. Squeezing her eyes shut, Sarah listened to the jangle of the troop turning to leave.
“Give you good day, Lady Clarke,” the Squire said, and waved the parade off down the drive.
Martin didn’t follow right away. “This isn’t over, missy,” he warned. “No thieving by-blow is going to keep me from what is mine. This land belongs to me now, and you know it. By the time you let go, it will be useless.”
Not unless the shingle strand sinks into the ocean, she thought dourly. The only thing Martin wanted from Fairbourne were hidden coves where boats could land brandy.
Sarah sighed, her mind made up. She simply could not accommodate Martin in this or anything. Straightening, she squarely faced the dyspeptic man where he stiffly sat his horse. “Fairbourne is Boswell’s,” she said baldly. “Until he returns, I am here to make sure it is handed back into his hands in good heart. Good day, Martin.”
Martin opened his mouth to argue, and then saw the Squire and other men waiting for him. He settled for a final, “Bah!” and dug his heels into his horse. They were off in a splatter of mud.
Sarah stood where she was until she could no longer hear them. Then, with a growing feeling of inevitability, she once more climbed past the broken pigpen and approached the shadow at the back of the coop.
And there he was, a very large red-headed man slumped against the stone wall. He was even more ragged than the men who had ridden with Martin, his clothing tattered and filthy, his hair a rat’s nest, his beard bristling and even darker red than his hair. His eyes were bright, though, and his cheeks flushed. He held his hand to his side, and he was listing badly.
Sarah crouched down next to him to get a better look, and saw that his shirt was stained brown with old blood. His hands, clutched over his left side, were stained with new blood, which meant that those bright eyes were from more than intelligence. Even so, Sarah couldn’t remember ever seeing a more compelling, powerful man in her life.
“Hello,” she greeted him, her own hands clenched on her thighs. “I assume I am speaking to the Scotsman for whom everyone is looking.”
His grin was crooked and under any other circumstance, would have been endearing. “Och, lassie, nothin’ gets past ye.”
“I thought you were dead.”
He frowned. “Wait a few minutes,” he managed. “I’ll see what I can do.”
And then, as gracefully as a sailing vessel slipping under the waves, he sank all the way to his side and lost consciousness.
A retired trauma nurse, Eileen lives in her native St. Louis with her husband, children, and large and noisy Irish family, of which she is the reluctant matriarch. She has animals but refuses to subject them to the limelight.
Dreyer won her first publishing award in 1987, being named the best new Contemporary Romance Author by RT Bookclub. Since that time she has also garnered not only five other writing awards from RT, but five RITA Awards from Romance Writers of America, which secures her only the fourth place in the Romance Writers of America prestigious Hall of Fame. Since extending her reach to suspense, she has also garnered a coveted Anthony Award nomination.
A frequent speaker at conferences, she maintains membership in Romance Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and, just in case things go wrong, Emergency Nurses Association and International Association of Forensic Nurses.
Eileen is an addicted traveler, having sung in some of the best Irish pubs in the world, and admits she sees research as a handy way to salve her insatiable curiosity. She counts film producers, police detectives and Olympic athletes as some of her sources and friends. She’s also trained in forensic nursing and death investigation, although she doesn’t see herself actively working in the field, unless this writing thing doesn’t pan out.