The Mystery of Miss Mason

By: Chasity Bowlin

Prologue




Near Bath, 1820

Fatigue was setting in for Lord Alexander Winston Carnahan, the Earl of Wolverton. He’d spent the better part of the night, as he had so many others, concealed in the shadows near the road—watching, waiting, hoping against hope that it would finally be the night when he discovered something useful. But it appeared his hopes had been futile. Dawn was approaching. Though still quite dark, the sky had begun to lighten, hinting at the morning to come.

If Harrelson had been out and about that night, committing whatever crimes and misdeeds it was that provided the man’s astronomical income, he was certainly coming home much later than usual. Alex had made it a point to become an expert on the comings and goings of the man who’d ruined him. Given that most of Alex’s own property now had been seized by the courts at the insistence of his late wife’s family and subsequently “gifted” to Harrelson, it left Alex with little enough else to do.

There had been much more activity of late with disreputable-looking men, little more than hired ruffians really, traveling to Harrelson’s estate in the dark of night. While he couldn’t be entirely certain, Alex felt, or perhaps foolishly hoped, that one of the man’s underhanded operations was on the verge of collapse. It would only take one chink in his armor to bring him down, of that he was certain.

A noise caught his attention, pulling him from his mildly self-pitying reverie and putting him instantly on alert. Sinking further into the shadows, Alex put one hand on the butt of the pistol he wore strapped to his thigh, and waited for whatever danger might be lurking nearby to make itself known. He was well prepared to face whatever or whoever it might be. Oddly enough, whoever it was, they were not overly concerned with being quiet. They thrashed through the brush, twigs snapping under their feet as they barreled through the woods.

Nothing could have shocked him more than the small, pale form of a girl emerging from the trees. Woman, he corrected his assessment. Her small stature had fooled him at first. But with a moment to observe her, he quickly realized his error. Dressed as she was, in only a torn and dirty shift, there was no mistaking her figure for anything other than that of a woman fully grown. Her breasts were full beneath the thin fabric and he could see the flare of her hips skimmed by the simple garment.

She continued toward the road, her movements frantic. There was something quite desperate about her, almost mad, he realized. As she neared the single road that bisected the heavy woods, she paused at the very last moment, hesitating as if sensing danger. In the distance, he could hear the sound of rumbling wheels. Harrelson’s carriage approached. He thought to warn her, for whatever she feared and whatever she ran from, she would receive no aid from that source. But he need not have worried. Some instinct she possessed held her back. She ducked behind the thick cover of brush and stayed quiet. But he could see the wide-eyed fear, the sheer panic that raced through her.

Beyond the shadows of the trees, he heard the carriage braking, the horses’ hoofbeats slowing on the hard-packed earth as the wheels creaked to a stop. “Why have we stopped?”

Alex recognized Harrelson’s voice immediately, as well as the sharp tone he used on anyone he thought beneath him.

“I thought I saw somethin’, my lord… runnin’ alongside the road and into the trees!” The driver’s response was surprising. Surely the man would know better than to think his employer would offer aid to anyone!

“It was a deer, most likely. Drive on!” Harrelson snapped.

“What if she’s gotten out?”

Alex’s eyes narrowed at that telling statement. Not just a simple servant, but an accomplice, he thought. The driver was involved, an active and knowing participant, in Harrelson’s crimes. And so was the woman making her brave escape, albeit unwillingly.

Harrelson’s dismissive snort of laughter echoed toward him. “No one ever has, Jones. Drive on.”

The driver cracked a whip over the horses and they kicked up once more, the carriage lurching reluctantly into motion. All of his attention was focused on the woman. She’d held her breath the entire time, as if even an exhale might have been enough to give away her position. He saw her body sag as the air hissed out of her in a rush.