Lord Suitor

By: Raven McAllan

Chapter One

Autumn, 1814

Devon, England

Tessa loved Devon. The hills in the distance, the sea murmuring in the background, and the wind that got up in a minute and teased the treetops and grass of the rolling fields around her. Whatever the season, she was drawn to this area of the country. However, she admitted to herself, autumn was her favorite. It was a joy to see the blackberries ripe, plump, and juicy, and decking the hedgerows as they displayed themselves for picking and eating—as it was to watch the leaves turn to the golds and russets of the end of the year, and fall to carpet the earth with their glorious hues. It was satisfying to know the harvest was safely gathered and the grain and vegetables securely stored to see them through anything the winter would throw at them.

Here, she felt she was herself. Not someone who had to appeal to those chinless wonders who called themselves young bucks or pinks, or even the elite gentlemen of the ton. Here she was just Tessa. Even at night when, as her maman said, pixies danced and the night creatures played, Tessa felt welcome. Perhaps being born on the stroke of midnight had something to do with it. Not only did she straddle two days, with her birthday on All Hallows Eve, she hovered over the cusp where the veil between the living and those who had passed was thinnest. She sensed emotions deeply, sometimes to her detriment.

Tessa shook her head and let her hair dance around her shoulders. Freed from its normal neat and tidy-ish chignon, it fell almost to her waist in a mass of russet-colored curls, and covered her cloak like a cape. She kicked a pile of leaves high into the air, spun around in a circle, and let her hair fly out around her. She laughed, her voice melodious on the night air. Then she sighed. For some reason, tonight she was twitchy, and she had no idea why. That in itself was peculiar. Tessa thought deeply and had an intuition far greater than most. It was rare she couldn't work out what her feelings and thoughts meant. Perhaps because her parents were, in the words of her sister Amalia, loved up, and Tessa felt excluded? Where Amalia got her expressions heaven knows, but Tessa thought it fitted their maman and papa perfectly. However, it didn't explain her own state of mind.

Oh, it wasn't their fault she felt cast adrift, it was the whole find-a-soul-mate scenario. Why couldn't she experience that?

After a harmonious evening, playing childhood games such as "go fish" and "spillikins," the rest of the family had retired to bed, and as far as Tessa knew all their candles were snuffed, and all the other occupants of the house were fast asleep. But not Tessa. The age-old call of the night had tempted her senses and demanded she listen and join them—it—outside.

The air sang, and the scents of the earth and all things that grew there surrounded Tessa, and as she'd hoped, brought a modicum of peace. However, it was not enough to stop her wondering why she was on edge.

She gathered her cloak around her as a gust of wind teased the fallen leaves to swirl upward in a mini whirlwind of what would be, in daylight, glorious color. She could imagine it. They created a barrier between her and the trees on either side of the ride—one of the swaths of grass several yards wide, which bisected the woods around Birch Hall's gardens. For several seconds she was in the center of a cloud of dancing foliage. Several twigs and leaves landed on her hair and shoulders, and one tiny one settled on her nose. Tessa scrunched her nose up and blew it off. It tickled.

A rabbit, barely discernable in the darkness, scurried across the grass with hardly a look in her direction, followed by several others. The final one—the buck—stopped a few yards away, sat, twitched, and then satisfied all was well, disappeared down a burrow.

Somewhere nearby in the dark night, an owl hooted to be answered by one closer to her.

Tessa shivered. Stories of smugglers and their way of communicating with each other infiltrated her troubled thoughts, and she looked around nervously. She should not be out tonight, but that tempting, teasing, indefinable something called to her, and she'd ignored her thoughts and left the house. Now maybe it was time to regret her spur of the moment decision. Heaven knew Mijo had warned her about her ‘act now, think later’ impetuousness.

A gust of wind shook a nearby tree, and its leaves fell softly to the ground like silent raindrops of molten gold. Tessa shook her head at her fanciful thoughts. She bit back a whimper as a whirring noise made her jump and turn around. The glimpse of the pale feathers of an owl as it flew in front of her went some way to assailing her fears.