1824 Whatstandwell Woods, Nottinghamshire
hunting for treasure was not nearly as entertaining as Helen Gladstone had thought it would be, nor as glamorous. And certainly not as thrilling. Indeed, the shine of excitement had worn off days ago, about the time her best kidskin gloves had been ruined. But all this searching was dramatic, in a terrible, awful, exhausting way.
She dumped the heavy shovelful of mud to the side and arched her back. A thousand pulses of complaint fired through her, from her blistered fingers to her sore feet. Her body was not made for digging.
But dig she must.
Cursing the ridiculousness of the male species, and brothers in particular, she shoved her spade into the earth again.
And hit something! By God, finally! She actually hit something solid that sent a burst of reverberations up her arms. Too excited to breathe, she tapped the object with her shovel and was rewarded with a mellow thwunk.
Not the tink of rock, or the quiet sinew of root. No, this thwunk meant something big and hollow. Like a box
Anticipation raced up her spine and shot across her chest. With the back of her hand, Helen swiped a loose strand of hair from her eyes and bent over. The hole at her feet was dark, cast in late afternoon shadow, but, yes, she could just make out the dirty grain of wood, scraped by her spade.
She’d found it. By the Heavens, she’d truly found it.
They would pay the moneylenders. And the solicitor and the tax collector.
They would reimburse the angry merchants and repair the roof and—a laugh scampered through her.
All their problems were solved.
Careful now, she edged her shovel around the rectangular object and laughed again. If she was correct, her brother had buried almost fifteen thousand pounds in this box. It was everything they needed to save the earldom. And George had told her it was a fool’s errand. Had tried to insist she not make the dangerous journey. But she had known, in the deep place where one knows such things, that she would be successful.
And she was.
Helen threw her shovel to the side and knelt, barely taking notice of the damp soaking through her skirts. Her heart pounding in her ears, she reached into the musty hole and finally—finally—wrapped her aching fingers around the slippery wood. The mud squelched and squished and refused to let go of its treasure. She shook out her arms, trembling from the day’s exertion, and tried again. More wriggling and twisting and, at last, with a hard yank, the box broke free from its hole. She fell back on her heels, her breaths heavy in her chest, and considered the object in her hands.
The wood was terribly warped from the damp, being buried for the better part of three years. She wiped off some of the filth, a useless endeavor, and turned the box around and around.
But where was the lid? The small chest seemed to be some kind of clever design that held no seam, no clasp. Her brother would have chosen such a puzzle.
Holding the box up to her ear, she gave it a good shake. Nothing. No clank of gold, no shift of weight. She shook it harder. Again, nothing moved, as if the wood were solid.
Oh no. No, no, no.
Dread sank low and unwanted in her belly where it settled, a poor neighbor, with her hunger. Fumbling in her haste, Helen knocked against each surface of the box. She shook it again, then rubbed her aching fingers over the square of wood.
Blast and blast and double damn. This was no bloody box. Simply a chunk of wood cut for the fire. A useless, worthless, wet piece of wood. Three days of digging and nothing. Nothing.
Frustration lapped at her with a hot tongue, and desperation twisted her gut. Helen let loose a clenched yowl. A flock of goldfinches rose from a nearby bush, twittering in protest. Happy little birds, they did not require coin to stave off ruin.
With a great heave, she slammed the moldy log back into the hole. Mud splattered across her face and skirts. Lovely. Just lovely. At least it was not her favorite gown. Small consolation, that, being her favorite gown had been stolen that morning.
She picked up her shovel, the devil’s own instrument, and threw it across the meadow. It landed in one of the holes she’d dug earlier. The entire area was pocked with holes, as she’d been digging all day. And her groom the day before. And the day before that.
She knew the money was here. Everything in her brother’s journals pointed to this exact meadow. James would have hidden his winnings somewhere mathematical. Halfway between this tree and that. Or forming a perfect triangle with these rocks. She had tried everything she could think of, but she would have to try again. The biggest tree and—
A big, flat plop of rain landed on her nose. Another on the top of her bare head. Then one made a long, triumphant slide down the back of her neck. Perfect. Just wonderful. Even the weather was mocking her.
At least the rain would clean her off.
Helen lifted her face to the sky, only then noticing that the weather had grown gloomy and dark. Night was coming, and a storm with it. Good Lord, she had nowhere to sleep. Her maid had not just run off with her favorite gown, but with her money purse. And her jewelry. And her groom.
Panic welled, high and insistent, in her chest. She had been so certain she would find the treasure. And now she was covered in mud like a…like a… pig.
No one could think, covered in this much dirt.
First things first. Helen crossed the meadow, grabbed her shovel, and slid down the ravine to the stream. It took some time, coaxing her ruined gloves off her blistered fingers, but finally she managed to peel them off. The cold water felt heavenly against her torn flesh.
With a quick glance around, she untied the laces of her apron-front gown and lowered it to her waist. Droplets of water ran down her neck and dampened her corset as she washed her face and took a nice long drink.
The sun would return tomorrow, and she’d try again.
Something flashed in the corner of her eye and Helen jolted upright, then dropped to crouching by the rock beside her.
Twenty yards downstream, a man on horseback edged out of the woods on the other side of the water. He rode a great, big, hulking beast of a horse. A large hat hid his face from view, and a muddy greatcoat covered the rest of him.
Unease slid down her spine as the man studied the swirling stream and let his mount navigate the crossing. Quiet, disheveled and dangerous, he was too lonesome to be a local farmer, too tattered to be a gentleman, and too devilish to be a vicar.
This was not good. Not good at all. Please, please, let him not look her way. Helen caught her breath and held herself tight as fist. Still as the rock beside her.
By some miracle, he didn’t look upstream, just kept his gaze trained on the water. As quickly as he had appeared, the man disappeared up the ravine. He was heading toward her hole-pocked meadow and her fortune.
Helen stood and fumbled with the front ties of her bodice. Her fingers, already tired and blistered, were cramped from the cold water. Abandoning her attempts to right her clothing, she grabbed her shovel. Never did she think she would be so glad to take up the implement of torture. It was a paltry weapon, but solid in hand, and all she had.
Her heartbeat rushing and turbid like the water beside her, she stumbled further upstream to a stand of pines. The trees were not thick, but enough to keep her hidden. She hoped she was hidden, anyway, as she leaned against a pitch-sticky trunk and peered into the meadow.
He was there, a dark figure looming over the holes she had dug. His head was bent, as if investigating clues in the mud. A wet breeze rolled down the hillside and ruffled his dark cloak, then blew over her like cold, prickling panic.
She shrunk back behind a tree and held the shovel tight in her hand. Only the top of her head peeked around the trunk as she watched him.
She should run. She should stay. She should—
He lifted his eyes and scanned the pines where she was hiding. The hair on the back of her neck rose, as if lightening waited on the horizon. Helen forced her ragged breaths to be shallow, lest he hear her. He couldn’t possibly see her, hidden behind a tree. But he started walking toward her, straight toward her, and she thought her heart would leap from her chest. A violent trembling started in her legs, then spread out until she had to clench her jaw to keep her teeth from chattering.
Still, he came toward her. She dared not move. Willed herself to be invisible.
It didn’t work.
He stopped short when he caught sight of her, not ten paces away. Then he advanced slowly, his ragged and unkempt cloak billowing around his dirty boots.
She had no choice but to fight. She jumped out from behind the tree.
“Stay back.” She poked her shovel into the air. “Go away.”