The snow-swollen gray clouds of the afternoon had given way to the dark of the evening long before Miss Caroline Storme’s coach became mired in a snow drift and had snapped a wheel besides. They’d barely turned down the long, winding lane which would eventually reach Hadleigh Hall, and perhaps that was just as well. Being so close to the site of the last time she’d seen her cousins left her nearly shaking with anxiety and anger.
Not one of the Stormes understood her life or her struggles. Instead, they’d collectively agreed she must be “not right in the head” or suffered from a strain of madness that would only grow worse. For why else was she an adult woman who couldn’t read or write as sufficiently as a schoolgirl, and why else did speaking publicly or even amidst her known family render her almost mute with fear? They’d locked her away when she was just shy of her twelfth birthday, and ever since she’d only seen her brother and sister twice a year when the institution—asylum for the insane, really—allowed visitors.
As for her parents? She hadn’t laid eyes on them since she was carted off like an unwanted litter of kittens. The very thought of it after all these years sent white-hot anger coursing through her insides with enough force that she wanted to scream out her frustration. But what would it accomplish?
Nothing, just as trying to explain her difficulties to various people over the years had brought her. No one listened—truly listened—and no one cared, for she was considered broken and therefore her value as a person was diminished.
Yet here she was, suddenly availed of a certain freedom, for her oldest cousin Andrew had argued on her behalf at the asylum, and they’d turned her into his care. Was it going from one prison to another? As she gazed out the coach’s window at the blanket of snow that hid the Earth’s imperfections, she wanted to hope that this was what she needed to finally begin her life and discover what she could do if given half the chance.
When a solid rapping occurred on the coach door, Caroline startled and uttered a surprised gasp. For a few moments, she’d forgotten where she was and what had happened around her, which was one of the reasons most people thought she’d lost her mind. After scooting across the bench, she twisted the latch and threw open the panel.
Assuming her driver would stand there, she frowned at the stranger who peered up at her, a gray greatcoat encompassing his large frame and barrel chest. Golden brown hair that curled beneath the brim of his beaver felt hat caught her interest, but when she met his brown eyes—tawny if truth be told, like those of a lion—her heartbeat accelerated slightly. “Who are you?” She didn’t trust herself to say more.
“Mr. John Butler.” He touched a gloved fingertip to the brim of his hat. “Your driver says this coach has run afoul of a snow drift, and beyond that, you’ve suffered a broken wheel.”
Caroline shrugged. The deep tenor of his voice sent eddies of awareness over her skin, which was odd because she rarely formed a connection with anyone. It never ended well. “Quite possibly.”
“Where are you headed? Perhaps I can take you there before I reach my destination.” When he smiled, white teeth flashed. One of his upper incisors lay crooked, which made him that much more approachable and… normal. The faint golden stubble clinging to his cheeks and chin spoke to the fact he cared nothing for societal rules.
Despite the anger and frustration always simmering below the surface, Caroline relaxed slightly. She knew nothing about this man, but instinctually, she was adamant he wouldn’t hurt her. “I’m going to Hall Hadleigh.” Oh, buggar it! Heat infused her cheeks. “Hadleigh Hall.” Why, oh why, couldn’t she ever have words come out in the correct order? The speech impediment grew more pronounced around new people or if she were laboring beneath something stressful.
“Ah.” Mr. Butler’s face brightened. The skin at the corners of his eyes crinkled when he grinned, further disarming her. “That’s my destination as well. I’m happy to take you there. It’s not right to let a lady freeze two days before Christmas, and Brand would tear a strip from me besides if he knew I treated his cousin like that.”
She stared at him, and her lower jaw dropped slightly. “You know Brand?” Dear heavens, she hadn’t seen her cousins for over twenty years. He’d been perhaps an eight-year-old boy the last time she’d been at Hadleigh Hall that summer. Questions popped through her mind like soap bubbles.
“Aye. Years ago, I was his first mate in the Navy. Now, we own a shipping outfit together.” Snow dusted his hat and shoulders. “Says I’m an honorary Storme since I’m closer to him than his own brothers.”
“How interesting.” She meant it, and once more surprise circled through her insides, for humans rarely ramped her curiosity and most overlooked her. But there was something about this man… when he looked at her, she felt as if he actually saw her. “How did you know I’m his cousin?”
“You have the same tilt of the mouth and the same bone structure he does.” Amusement twinkled in his eyes. “But those curls are all yours. I don’t recall his brothers having those. They give you an air of whimsy.”
“Oh.” She put a gloved hand to her hair done in a sloppy bun beneath a smart little hat her sister Isobel had given her for her last birthday. He was right. Her dark brown tresses refused taming, with baby fine wisps escaping her efforts to curl about her face and neck. Most days in the asylum she did nothing with them, but now, forced into country society, she had to seem somewhat put together. “I compliment the appreciation.” Mortification poured into her chest and heat once more slapped her cheeks. “I mean, I appreciate the compliment.”
Did she appear as mad as everyone thought merely because her brain didn’t work like everyone else’s?
“You’re welcome.” He tilted his head to one side and continued to grin. Nothing about him betrayed disgust or boredom. “All that to say, would you like me to escort you to your family? I’m certain they’re anxious as to your delay.”
An unladylike snort escaped her, and she rolled her eyes. “I rather doubt that.”
“Then that’s incredibly sad, for a woman like you should always have someone worrying over her and looking out for her.” He offered her a gloved hand. “I’ll wager you’d steal every heart in a ballroom, Miss Storme.”
She’d not blushed so much in her whole life, so why now with this stranger? “I rather doubt that too.” When she slipped her fingers into his palm and his large hand engulfed hers, she shivered from the novelty of basic human contact. A tiny spark flew down her spine as he assisted her out of the ailing coach. “Will you luggage see to my?” Drat, Caroline, you’re a dribbling idiot. A growl of frustration escaped. She’d wanted so much to appear normal in front of this man. With concentration on her words, she slowly asked, “Will you see to my luggage?”
“Of course. Careful, now, the snow’s deep in places.” But as soon as the soles of her half-boots touched the ground, he slipped an arm about her shoulders and his other beneath her knees and scooped her up as if she weighed no more than a feather. “Pardon the familiarity, Miss Storme. Carrying you is easier than seeing you flounder in the snow and wetting your hem and boots.”
Caroline marveled at the strength of him as well as the thrill of feeling completely protected in those brief moments as he carried her to a waiting coach perhaps ten feet from hers. Already, her driver as well as his were transferring her trunks. By the time Mr. Butler helped her inside his vehicle, she was nearly drunk from such personalized attention. Being treated as a human being had been lacking at the asylum, and she wanted to cry from the niceties of it.
The deep rumble of his voice was both distracting and soothing as he spoke to the drivers. Apparently, he’d take her driver with him, and they’d tie her horses to the back of his coach. Once the weather cleared, a contingent would come out and fix the broken wheel and retrieve the carriage. There was no doubt in her mind Mr. Butler would be part of that group.
As he entered the vehicle, the coach rocked, and when he closed the door, he settled on the squabbed bench opposite hers. “Not long now. The men are nearly done with the transfer.” He closed a hand on the bright red lap blanket laying rumpled on the bench next to him. In a twinkling, he’d shaken it out and then tucked it around her. “You’ll get plenty frozen in the mile or so it’ll take to reach the manor house.”
“Thank you.” She didn’t encourage further conversation, for she couldn’t bear to appear an idiot in his eyes, and the exchanges they did have had exhausted her. At the asylum, she spent the bulk of her days alone.
He didn’t seem to mind her silence, for he watched out the window, and when he grew bored with that, he took a slim volume of what appeared to be poetry from a pocket of his greatcoat and amused himself with reading.
Oh, she’d give anything to pass the time as he did, but reading left her tired and frustrated, for the words jumped about the pages and moved between the lines of type, even if she could puzzle out the jumble they presented.