Dark Horseman: Mystery, Adventure, and Romance in Regency Virginia by Charisse Howard by Charisse Howard - Read Online
Dark Horseman
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Summary

Tory Allen's father helped build Belmont, the Virginia horse farm that's always been her home. She was named for her mother's best friend, the English actress Victoria Lane. Orphaned in childhood, Tory was brought up as a horsewoman by her father's partner, Randall Ballard. Now she's the despair of Grandall's daughter-in-law, Sally: How can such a headstrong belle make any gentleman a proper wife? Sally's son Charles, an aspiring lawyer, is eager to find out. But everything changes when a fire destroys Belmont's second barn and nearly kills Grandall. The old man shocks the household by hiring a bearded stranger, Ned Finn, to train the hunters until he recovers. Both Charles and Tory suspect that Ned Finn is not who he seems. But as they seek to unmask him, their discoveries throw Belmont into an uproar which threatens to destroy it. Aided only by her instincts and some bits of Shakespeare, Tory must choose sides in the ensuing "battle of stallions." Can she trust either Charles Ballard or Ned Finn to help her save her home and her horses without breaking her heart?

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ISBN: 9781452464978
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Dark Horseman - Charisse Howard

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*

Chapter One

But come at once;

For the close night doth play the runaway,

And we are stay'd for . . . (II, vi)

It was just dawn when Victoria Allen awoke to violent pounding on her door.

Tory! Tory! Wake up!

As she reluctantly opened her eyes, the door flew open. Then all was confusion: Unfamiliar white ruffles overhead instead of the flowered canopy of her own four-poster bed. The sky vivid as flames with the sunrise through the open window. Someone shaking her, insisting that she listen–a fire, the horses, your grandfather–

What? Instantly Tory was awake. Grandall? The horses? What's happened?

Cissy Fairfield let go of her niece's shoulder and explained again, breathlessly. Her normally round, rosy face was pale beneath her lace cap. There's been a fire at Belmont, Tory. Your grandfather's hurt. They've sent the carriage for you. You must dress right away, dear, and be off!

Already Tory was out of bed and half into her dressing gown. Not the carriage, Aunt Cissy, it's too slow. Have you got a fast horse I can borrow?

But, my dear Tory–!

Her niece stopped her firmly. This is no time to worry about what people may think! I can ride as well as any man in Monroe County, and I do not intend to sit in that carriage like a lady while Grandall may be dying!

Since Tory was slipping into her green velvet riding habit, Cissy Fairfield realized that–as usual–her headstrong niece was not to be diverted.

Very well, she yielded. I'll send back your things with the carriage.

Aunt Cissy's crinolines rustled as her plump figure bustled toward the door. Tory caught her arm and planted an impulsive kiss on her cheek. Bless you, dear!

Oh, Tory! There were tears in her blue eyes. I do hope he's all right!

So do I, Tory echoed fervently. She wrapped up her long chestnut hair into an efficient knot, anchoring it at the back of her neck with whatever hairpins she could find. Please say good-by to everyone for me, Aunt Cissy, and tell them I'm sorry to rush off like this.

And we had planned such a nice visit! The sociable Mrs. Fairfield sighed for all the lost afternoons of making and receiving calls around the neighboring Virginia countryside. But never mind that now. I'll be off and see to your horse.

Two hours later, Tory turned her tired mount into the narrow winding road that led to Belmont. He was strong; thank goodness, thought Tory, they had the sense to give me one of our own horses! But she had ridden him hard. When she got home, the groom would have to walk him for half an hour–

Tory shook her head impatiently. For once it was not appropriate to worry about her horse. Uppermost in her frantic mind was the meager news old Toby had brought with the carriage: Fire in the second barn, the night lit up with flames, everyone rushing to get the terrified horses out. Then someone had noticed that Randall Ballard hadn't emerged from the barn. One of the men found him slumped against the wall of a box stall and dragged him to safety just ahead of the fire.

Young Jeb had been dispatched for the doctor, and Toby with the carriage to fetch Tory–

What about Charles? Tory had asked in spite of herself.

Oh, Miz Sally, she send Jesse to Charlottesville double-quick to bring Marse Charles back home. He be to Belmont by tomorrow night.

Tory breathed a small sigh of relief. Charles was coming home! He would take charge, and everything would come out all right.

For to Tory, her handsome cousin Charles had always seemed nearly as capable as Grandall himself. Charles had fixed her favorite doll when its arm fell off; he had taught her how to bait a hook and catch and clean a fish. By twenty, he had won such a reputation as a marksman, a scholar, and a dancing partner that his uncle John Fairfield had invited him along on a diplomatic mission to England. There it was reported that Charles's blond good looks and gracious Virginia manners had charmed even Prince George.

Back at Belmont, however, Charles grew restless. Within weeks he had shocked the family by arranging to leave again, this time to study law in Charlottesville.

And now Charles was on his way home . . .

As Tory's weary horse came into a clearing, there at last stood the neat brick and white buildings of Belmont on the hilltop beyond the trees.

A sob caught in Tory's throat. She urged her horse on, fiercely, up the road toward home.

It's Miz Tory!

Ben spotted his young mistress first as she passed the stableyard. Miz Tory's home! By the time Tory rode up to the tall white pillars of the main house, half a dozen servants had gathered to greet her.

You, Jeb! Take Miz Tory's horse, he's plumb winded. You, Junie! Go fetch Miz Sally! Ben's commands sent them running.

Ben–my grandfather–? Tory's voice broke before she could finish.

He gon' be fine, Missy, don't you fret. Doctor up there with him now.

But Tory could hear the concern beneath his reassuring words.

Victoria! Sally Ballard appeared in the wide front doorway, wiping her hands on her apron. Oh, thank the Lord! But, my dear child–where is the carriage? Surely you didn't–

Tory hushed her with a hug. Grandall's all right? she asked urgently. Dr. Randolph's here? What does he say?

Oh, no, it's not Dr. Randolph. He's off visiting his daughter in Richmond, of all things, at a time like this! Mrs. Sally bristled with indignation as she hustled Tory inside. This doctor is a friend of his. He'll be down shortly.

I'll just go up, then, and–

My dear girl, you will not! Land sakes! The way you look, you'd frighten the daylights out of him! For Tory's hastily coiled hair had come loose, and fell in tangled waves over her shoulders. Her green eyes were bright with worry, and her lower lip bled where she had bitten it.

Glancing at her niece's dusty riding habit, Sally Ballard shook her head. All these years of effort, and still not a shred of decorum! Tory Allen might have the young men of Monroe County swooning in her wake, but she had considerable settling down to do before she'd make one of them a proper wife.

Marcy is heating some water for you, Victoria. You go straight upstairs and find yourself a clean dress.

Aunt Sally's bustling mother-hen manner, and her gray curls bobbing out from under her white cap, reminded Tory of the other aunt she had left so hurriedly. Aunt Cissy sends you her love.

Poor dear Cissy! She must have been fit to be tied, with old Toby clattering in before the chickens were up. Are they all well at Fairfields?

Tory related bits of news as they crossed the polished oak floor to the stairs. Despite her anxiety about Grandall, the tension of her long ride was starting to dissipate. It felt so good to be home! Not even the pall cast by her grandfather's accident could hide the welcoming warmth of this house he had built more than fifty years ago.

Soon Tory was slipping on a clean dress in her own room. Catching sight of herself in a mirror, she was startled to see how calm, even poised she looked. Marcy had pinned her chestnut hair securely in a chignon; her cornflower blue dress, discreetly cut to show no more than a hint of her full breasts and round hips, made her look older than her seventeen years. And so serious! she thought with wry amusement. Hardly the same girl who two nights ago was fluttering her fan and declaring she wished the boys would stop turning her head with their extravagant compliments!

Tory moved to the window, where she could look out over the green fields and white rail fences of Belmont. The horses were grazing as peacefully as ever. Only the smoking black rubble of the second barn gave a clue to last night's disaster. All the horses had been saved, Aunt Sally had said. But the barn would have to be rebuilt from the ground up.

So many years, so much care Grandall had put into Belmont! What must it be like for him now, lying helpless in bed, wondering about his horses?

Tory crossed abruptly to the door. This won't do, Marcy, she told her maid. I can't wait for the doctor to finish. I must go and see him now.

Marcy nodded her curly black head knowingly. He'll be wantin' to see you, too, Miz Tory. You best go.

Tory's heart pounded as she walked down the hall. How would he look? Was he badly burned? Perhaps he wouldn't even recognize her!

She tortured herself with such grim visions until she had to stop outside her grandfather's room and compose herself. Then, taking a breath so deep that the seams of her frock nearly gave way, she opened the door.

That startled fellow would be the doctor. And there was Henry, standing by the bed in case anything was needed. Tory managed a quick smile at him, and his worried face smoothed as he nodded in reply.

Randall Ballard lay motionless, his skin as pale as tallow. But he looks so small! thought Tory in dismay. How can that be Grandall, the best horseman in four counties, the master of Belmont?

It came to her with a shock that she had never seen her grandfather in bed before. Always he had risen before anyone else, and stayed on his feet–or his horse–long after everyone else had tired. Now he might have been a sack of oats, so limp and formless he seemed under his quilt . . .

Tory pressed her knuckles against her mouth. No! she told herself fiercely. You're not to cry! He'd be most annoyed if you cried!

You must be Victoria, murmured the doctor. Are you all right?

Tory nodded.

Here, sit down. And don't let his appearance alarm you. Under the circumstances, Mr. Ballard is doing well, really quite well indeed.

The soothing flow of his voice calmed her. Tory sat stiffly on a wooden chair near the foot of the bed. Is he, she managed at last, is he–awake?

He's sleeping now, said the doctor. Rest is what he wants.

He closed his leather bag. He won't need us for a while. Shall we go downstairs?

Tory followed him like a sleepwalker. Your aunt promised me a cup of tea, he was saying. That might do you good as well, Miss Ballard.

My name's Allen, Tory corrected him automatically.

Forgive me. I thought– Aren't you Mr. Ballard's granddaughter?

Not exactly, answered Tory with a wan smile. It was always hard explaining the family tangle to outsiders. My father was Grandall's–Mr. Ballard's–partner. They started Belmont together. Grandall treated my father like an adopted son; and when my parents died, and Grandall became my guardian, he encouraged me to think of him as my grandfather.

They had reached the dining room. Sally Ballard sat at the foot of the mahogany table, her normally cheerful face anxious. She rose when she saw the doctor. How is he?

The doctor repeated the same assurances he had given Tory. It's too early to be certain, he concluded. But he has survived the worst of it, the fire itself.

Mrs. Sally sank back into her chair. Then, as stacked cups and saucers caught her eye, she realized that she had completely forgotten her role as hostess–a cardinal sin, to a Virginian. Doctor, please forgive my ill manners, she fluttered. Do sit down! Will you have tea? Lulie's fixing you some ham and eggs and biscuits right at this moment.

Gradually, the gentle rigors of entertaining a guest for breakfast imposed order on an emotion-fraught occasion. The muted chink of china and silver, Mrs. Sally's graceful movements as she poured the tea, dark hands setting down plates or clearing them away, drew attention from the helpless figure upstairs in bed to the practical business of eating and drinking.

Still, Tory had to struggle to carry her share of the conversation. Not until Grandall himself welcomed her would she feel truly at home.

Nor was her grandfather's the only familiar face she missed. Somewhere in the brightening morning another horse was galloping hard, bearing its anxious rider south from Charlottesville. Charles Ballard was on his way home to Belmont.

* * * * *

Chapter Two

The moon shines bright!–In such a night as this,

When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees,

And they did make no noise; in such a night,

Troilus, methinks, mounted the Trojan walls,

And sighed his soul toward the Grecian tents,

Where Cressid lay that night. (V, I)

Randall Ballard's condition did not change all the next day. Tory and Mrs. Sally took turns sitting by his bed, spelled by his manservant Henry and the part-Indian housekeeper Betsy–the only servants Betsy considered responsible enough for such a serious task. Occasionally the old man roused to semiconsciousness, muttering so that whoever sat with him hovered to catch whatever he might be trying to say. But each time he lapsed back into sleep without uttering a clear word.

All day long everyone in the house spoke in whispers and walked on tiptoe. Tory found the atmosphere so oppressive that she spent most of her free time down at the barn, helping Walter Colton, the stableman, find room for all the tack and feed that had been saved.

The doctor says he's doing as well as can be expected, Mrs. Sally reported to her niece at dinner. She shrugged her plump shoulders helplessly, and her round face was glum. He seems just the same to me!

The horses are in good shape, said Tory, who did not feel like talking about Grandall just then. No serious injuries–it's a miracle!

Your grandfather will be pleased to hear that.

Yes, agreed Tory. He will. From the beginning they had both spoken of his recovery as certain and imminent. Thank goodness it's warm weather, so most of them were out to pasture. We've put the ones we're working in the first barn. It was too bad to have to open it up, but Walter Colton and I didn't see what else we could do.

Well, Charles should be here tomorrow, replied Mrs. Sally, as if that were the answer to everything.

Later that night, Tory sat in a pool of moonlight beside Grandall's bed and thought about the last time she had seen her cousin Charles. Could it be only eight months ago? Her memory of the painful morning when Charles left Belmont had already taken on the remote clarity of an event long past.

In his new black suit, with his blond hair tied back and his white stock fastened with a silver stock pin, Charles looked more like an established lawyer than the teasing, light-hearted young man Tory was accustomed to. How solemn he was! He had stood formally by the carriage door till Rafe had loaded his things, kissing the top of Aunt Sally's head at last because her face was buried tearfully in her apron.

Randall Ballard was not present. He had ridden off at first light to check the fence in an upper pasture, having made his adieux gruffly at breakfast. Although he had said scarcely a word about Charles's decision to go into the law rather than raising horses, he made it clear in dozens of little ways how much the choice displeased him.

As for Tory, she stood dutifully beside her aunt and tried not to let Charles catch her eye. For Charles and Tory had said good-by the night before, and Tory still could hardly bear to think about it.

That night too had been bright with moonlight. It had silvered the treetops as Charles and Tory drove home in the buggy from the big farewell part at Green Oaks. What a splendid evening they had spent! Tory's new dress–a billowing confection as pale pink as apple blossoms–was a great success. All the young men had vied to dance with her and to fetch her dainties on tiny plates as though she were fragile as a blossom herself.

Several times Tory had met Charles's glance across the room as they danced; once he had brought her a cup of punch and joined in a moment's gossip with the neighbors. They had shared only one short waltz, early in the evening. Tory insisted that it would break the young ladies' hearts if Charles allowed his cousin to monopolize him on his last night home. Charles appeared to take this admonition to heart, for he whirled round the floor with one partner after another, hardly stopping for breath.

At last the dancers and the night were exhausted. As old Daisy jogged slowly home toward Belmont, both cousins fell silent. Tory was smiling to herself over remembered compliments; Charles, she supposed, was dozing.

But when the carriage rolled to a stop in front of the house, he fixed her with a searching look that surprised and disconcerted her. Tory started to ask him what was wrong; but suddenly she felt shy, confused, as though her cousin, whom she had known since she was born, had somehow become a stranger. It was a most uncomfortable sensation.

Charles said nothing as he helped Tory down from the buggy. But as she moved toward the broad brick steps to the front door, he kept hold of her hand.

Tory. Though his voice was soft, it carried an odd urgency.

She faced him, her heart pounding. Again she was struck with the impression that this man was a stranger to her. Who was he, this tall silhouette framed by the moon-white pillars of Belmont?

But it's only Charles! her sensible self insisted. As if for reassurance, Tory scanned his familiar blond hair, tousled from dancing; his strong, square, jaw; the broad shoulders that stretched the smooth dark cloth of his coat. And she realized with a start that Charles had grown up. She was right–this was not the boy she had taken for granted for seventeen years. This was a man.

Their eyes met. Tory felt that Charles had been watching everything she thought, and she blushed. But she did not look away.

Tory, he said again, with a gentleness she had never heard from him before. Tory, I love you.

Even if she had known what to say, Tory could not have spoken. Her throat felt so tight she could scarcely breathe. The stock phrases with which she had laughingly parried other suitors came to mind, but she dismissed them immediately. Charles was no candidate for a light, I declare, Mr. Ballard, you are very bold tonight!

Perceiving Tory's discomfiture, Charles went on quickly. I had promised myself I wouldn't speak to you until I finished my studies and had my own law practice. But watching you tonight at the party, looking like an angel in a pink cloud, dancing with all those planters' sons who will be here to court you while I'm off in Charlottesville. . . I had to let you know, Tory, that I've come to care for you as more than a cousin.

Tory's mind whirled. This was how men spoke when they were thinking of marriage! Could that possibly be Charles's intention?

He threw her further off balance by taking both her hands. His strong fingers around hers made Tory feel as fragile as the china shepherdess on Aunt Sally's mantelpiece.

Charles, I don't know what to say, she managed at last.

You don't need to say anything, he soothed, stroking her hands. I can't ask you to promise you'll wait for me–that wouldn't be right. But I had to tell you how much you mean to me, Tory.

Charles, have you spoken to Grandall?

He grimaced. "Grandall is annoyed with me just now! You know his position–he wants me to stay here and devote my life to his precious horses. I have to make him understand that that's not for me. And I will, Tory. I'll be the best lawyer in Virginia one day! Then he'll give us his warmest blessing. He's always wanted this–you know that, don't you? He used to tell Mother when we were babies that it would make him happier than anything in the world to see you and me marry and settle at Belmont."

Tory nodded; it was true. Except, she qualified, if young Randall should come back. That's his dearest wish of all.

Charles snorted derisively. A useless wish! Young!–he must be fifty by now. He's probably dead; and if he isn't, the last thing he'd ever do is come back to Belmont. He and Grandall fought like a pair of cocks.

His voice softened as he added, But that's the past. It's the future I'm thinking of, Tory.

What do you plan to do?

He squeezed her hands. Right now, looking at you standing there in that intoxicating dress, with flowers and moonbeams in your hair–

He gathered her in his arms, and suddenly his mouth pressed insistently on hers. Tory felt faint. Her feet seemed to be slipping away from under her. Only Charles's arms around her kept her from falling.

Tory! Tory! His voice was soft yet vibrant, his lips close to her ear. She could feel his warm breath as he repeated her name like a magical incantation. His hand stroked her hair, toying with the curls she and Marcy had created so carefully a few hours ago.

Charles! Tory's own breathless voice sounded far away and strange to her.

My darling!

Charles, we must go in. It's late! Fascinated but frightened by the dizziness in her head, and the eagerness with which her lips had melted under his, Tory pulled back.

Oh, dearest, not yet, he pleaded.

We must go in, Charles. And she broke away, breathing unsteadily.

No Southern gentleman would think of disobeying a lady's request. But as they walked up the brick steps, and Tory shivered in the chilly moonlight, Charles drew her shawl about her shoulders with a tenderness that nearly overcame her resolve.

Now, eight months later, the moon was full again, and Tory sat by her grandfather's bed pondering what it all had meant. That Charles was in love with her was clear enough. A man did not make such a declaration unless he was certain of his feelings. But was she in love with Charles?

Before now, when a young man spoke to Tory of love, she had tested her heart by imagining how it would be to share his home. She pictured him in his dressing gown across the breakfast table–and invariably found that it was not a prospect she cared for. With Charles, however, breakfast together was a habit of long standing. Not the sort of leisurely, elegant tete-a-tete she had pictured, of course–at Belmont, where life revolved around the horses, one could seldom sit longer than it took to wolf down a plate of hotcakes, eggs, and ham. But she knew how Charles looked in a dressing gown–quite presentable, actually–and she enjoyed exchanging a hasty good morning! with him through a mouthful of hotcakes. Did that mean she loved him?

Don't be foolish! Tory answered herself.

Then what about the way she had reacted to his kiss?

Ah, that was something else! The occasional quick, timid pecks she had accepted from other young men on the verandah during a party, or under the mistletoe at New Year's, had done nothing to prepare Tory for the dizzying experience of being kissed by Charles. But then (she reminded herself) they were boys. Charles was a man! He had kissed her as a man kisses the woman he loves. And she had responded with a fire she never knew was in her.

So she did love him!

Randall Ballard stirred, and instantly Tory was alert. Had he awakened at last? No; only shifted in his sleep.

The night around them was deathly still. Tory could barely hear Grandall's shallow breathing. What a thin thread to hold a man to life! She wondered if he knew that Charles was on his way home–or even that she herself was here by his side. She hoped he understood, at least, that his horses were all safe.

How very strange that so much could change so fast! Two days ago, Randall Ballard had been as active and tough as a bantam rooster. He'd spent the afternoon working with a pair of hunters in the field behind the house, according to Ben, before the fire broke out. And now he was a limp bundle of skin and bones, unable to move or talk, hardly more than a ridge under the quilt his wife had made for their marriage bed.

Randall Ballard had brought his bride to this house. She had given birth to young Randall in this very room; years later she died here. Grandall's younger brother Thomas had married Sally Fairfield downstairs in the parlor, and their son Charles was born in the room where Aunt Sally still slept.

And Tory's parents, Paul and Amanda Allen, had come to this house after their whirlwind courtship and wedding. The room where Tory was born was now her bedroom.

If Charles and I marry, mused Tory, our children too will be born here.

The idea appealed to her. The children would learn to ride as soon as they could walk, just as their parents had done. Most likely they would inherit the family touch with horses–both the Ballards and the Allens were known for it. Although it appeared to have missed Charles's branch of the family . . . Uncle Thomas had been killed in a hunting accident, thrown on a jump Grandall had once confided to Tory that any child could have made. Nor had Charles ever cared much for riding. It was too bad–you'd think, to look at him, that he'd be good with horses. He cut a fine figure in a riding habit–tall, strong, with good strong hands . . .

A hand touched her shoulder. Tory jumped and turned.

His hair looked almost white in the moonlight, his face eerily pale. But she knew it was Charles even before she saw him.

Fearing that surprise might make her careless, he cautioned her with a finger to his lips. Then he beckoned her silently to come out into the hall.

Charles! You're back!

Tory blushed to hear how eager she sounded, and