Danger on WIP Wednesday

Nothing like a nice fictional piece of disaster to get our heart racing. The heroine or the hero has to survive to the end of the book, which is comforting to know, but meanwhile we authors can put them through all kinds of trials.

This week, I’m looking for excerpts about danger — physical, emotional, moral, societal: you decide. Mine is physical, and is from the subsriber-only newsletter short story I’m writing at the moment, with the plan of getting a newsletter out this week.

One more race, and Rhi would be free. No horse in all of England could catch Atlanta. By the terms of her agreement with her father, she had merely to win next week, and he would sign the new will and rip up the old one.

Her resentment rose, all the more fierce because she understood that Father acted out of love. He wanted to see her married to protect her, he said. She was too young, too inexperienced, too female to own and run the finest racehorse stud in Great Britain. And Father was dying, fading a little more with each day, which she resented more than all the rest.

Atlanta tossed her head and whickered, sensitive to Rhi’s mood. She took a deep breath, and another, letting the anger drain from her with the air she exhaled, emptying herself of everything but the joy of the horse’s movement, the freedom of the gallop, the love of the wild heath across which they raced for the sheer glory of the speed.

***

Cen watched from the shelter of a copse of trees. The mare lived up to all he’d read about her, and the rider too. He had known Rhiannon Enright would be good, but she had more than lived up to the promise she had shown as a child. Back then, she rode astride — and the gossip in London that had sent him here said she did so still, in the races held once a month for the past four months. Today, she was properly and sedately side-saddle, but the way she raced had nothing proper or sedate about it.

She flowed with the horse, the two moving as one beast, all grace, power, and beauty. The horse was magnificent, but Bucephalus was better.

As if on cue, Bucephalus whickered. Cen had tethered him upwind of the mare, and out of sight, but that meant his stallion was downwind, and would be picking up messages on the breeze. Unlikely that Rhi would hear, but better to play it safe. He’d come to find out if Atlanta was as good as they said; if the heiress was as appealing. Not that he had doubted the latter. She had won his heart when she was a baby just old enough to toddle to the stables and he perhaps a year older, if they’d guessed his age right when they found him. She had been just thirteen and his affection beginning to turn carnal when her father exiled him.

No point in dwelling in the past. The army had given him a new name, new skills, friends and a future, and now he had come full circle to the place where he began, able at last to reach out for the prize he had once believed beyond his reach. He had made up his mind, as if there had been any doubt. He would enter the race, and win her for his bride. Yes, and the stables where once he had been the lowliest of stablehands.

But as Cen stood, taking care to stay behind the undergrowth and to move smoothly and slowly, something caught his eye on the valley floor.

There. Beyond the racing mare. Movement in a hollow screened by bushes. He frowned even as he squinted to refine his focus. Horses; two, no three. And men preparing to mount.

And there! Caught in his peripheral vision, two more horses on a hillock like his own, but on the opposite side of the valley. One of the riders raised his hand in a signal to the men in the hollow, and they mounted, keeping low over their horses’ backs.

A threat to Rhi? Cen made up his mind, whistling the signal that told Bucephalus to pull at the tether and come to him. In the time it took for the horse to trot up the hill, and for Cen to adjust the tack and mount, all five of the stranger riders were ahorse and heading on an interception course for the lone female rider. What was she doing out without a groom?

Rhi had noticed her pursuers, and Atlanta was lengthening her stride, aiming for the gap between the two groups. She had the speed, if she was fresh. But Rhi and Atlanta had been racing the heath for an hour. The other horses were gaining.

Cen and Bucephalus, coming from a different vantage, might be able to put themselves between the chasing men and the woman, if they were fast enough, if she kept on the same tack. At the very least, the rogues might hesitate if they knew he was watching, though men who would assault a woman would not hesitate to dispose of such an inconvenient witness.

Atlanta faltered. Ah. Rhi had seen him. He pointed to the other riders and gestured her to keep coming, and after a moment, she nudged her horse on. But the hesitation had the nearest of her pursuers right on her heels.

The look of mingled panic and determination on Rhi’s face as she approached removed any lingering thought that the scenario might have an innocent explanation. Cen pulled the cudgel he kept in a holster hanging from his saddle, holding it aloft as Rhi passed him, and swinging it down on the shoulder of the man immediately following.

The man behind swung wide as the first rider fell, and kept after Atlanta, but Cen faced two more, and beyond them another, muffled in a greatcoat and scarf, shouting, “It’s only one man. Get rid of him.”

Cen grinned. Only one man and his horse. More than enough, though they were coming at him with guns. At his cue, Bucephalus spun around and caprioled, his hind hooves connecting solidly with one of the attacking horses as Cen ducked a bullet and threw the knife from his sleeve at the rider of the other.

A shout from the direction Rhi had fled caught his attention. A party on horseback, and known to Rhi, apparently, for she continued her wild gallop towards them. And the would-be assailant who had followed her had pulled up, and was looking back for directions.

In moments, the attack was over, the fallen men collected by their companions and the group fleeing back the way they had come. Cen let them go. A sting in his arm hinted that he hadn’t entirely evaded the bullet, but it was no more than a scratch.

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First impressions on WIP Wednesday

I’m just finishing the short story to go out with my next newsletter, so I thought I’d choose something from that for my WIP Wednesday.

Give me an excerpt that tells me what one of your characters thought about another the first time they met.

My story is called A Gentleman Honours His Debts, and starts when the Earl of Bridgethorne takes passage on the ship where his bride has been hiding since she ran away a week after their marriage. This excerpt is a bit of backstory.

Leticia Fanshaw was one of three wallflowers Dickon danced with that first evening at the Bellowes house party. He’d almost passed her by; her discomfort when they were introduced rousing his pity but dousing any potential interest. This year, unlike the previous five, he had a stronger motive than the pleasures of the dance for his exercises on the dance floor. This year, he was in the market for a bride.

Not that he intended for any of Society’s matchmakers to know that, and fortunately his reputation helped keep his new motives secret. All the haut ton knew the Earl of Bridgethorne enjoyed dancing, and his skill made even the most awkward of partners look graceful. And he was kind, dancing with at least three of four of the least popular maidens at every event, as well as matrons, widows, and the more popular debutantes. Never more than one dance with each partner at any one event, a restriction that limited speculation about his marital intentions, and made courtship slightly harder now those intentions had changed.

Still, five years of conversation while standing out in line dances had given Dickon some definite views about the kind of bride he wanted. Not too proud, or too absorbed in her own beauty, which disqualified most of those to whom his fellows were drawn. Not foolish or inane or passionately fixated on an interest he did not share. He would have to converse with his wife, at least occasionally. Indeed, he hoped that, if he chose well, they might become friends. And, while he did not require physical perfection, he would, of course, have to be sufficiently attracted to the lady to do his duty by his title and estate, since an heir was the whole purpose of the exercise.

Five years of conversation had convinced him that the gem he sought was probably hidden among the wallflowers. Not an antidote, or a shy nervous creature afraid of men. But a woman whose intelligence and character had frightened off the fools who fell in love with the transitory sparkle of Society’s annual stars.

So when Miss Fanshaw blushed, stammered, and dropped her fan, he almost made his bow and his excuses, touching his hostess on her arm in the prearranged signal to present him to the next group. But was that fear in the look the young lady shot sideways to the aunt and uncle who were sponsoring her? And surely he imagined the menace in her uncle’s responding glare?

“If you would excuse us, Lord Bridgethorne and I…”

Dickon ruthlessly interrupted Lady Bellowes. How she would roast him later! “May I have the honour of a dance, Miss Fanshaw.”

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