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The persistent banging woke Samantha Northrup from a sound sleep.
She lay in bed, hoping it was only another of the vicarage's many loose shutters being buffeted against the side of the house by the north wind. A visitor in the middle of the night meant bad news.
"Wake up in there!" a man's voice shouted. "I need help!"
The man's words, and years of serving the parish's needs, roused Samantha. She threw a heavy wool shawl over her flannel nightdress, slipped her feet into a pair of old boots, and shuffled out of the bedroom into the kitchen.
The small house was attached to St. Gabriel's Church, a stone Norman building that had weathered many a Northumberland winter, although this one promised to be colder than most. Samantha shivered as a draft skittered up beneath her nightdress.
Her visitor pounded on the door again, the force of the blows making the heavy cedar door shake.
"I'm coming, I'm coming," she said crossly, her words coming out in little puffs of frigid air. No fire burned in her hearth. Not at night, when she could conserve fuel by sleeping under a mountain of blankets.
She lit a candle and glanced at the clock on the sideboard. It was shortly past midnight.
Samantha could usually tell who was outside by peeking out the window to the side of the door. However, the night was too dark for her to make out anything but the man's tall shape. He could be any of a number of the villagers.
He was just starting to knock again when she threw back the bar, opened the doorâand found herself staring into the eyes of a tall, dark stranger.
She immediately attempted to close the door.
The man had anticipated her move and put his foot in the door so she couldn't shut ft. He was tall, broad shouldered, with a headful of dark hair and glittering, angry eyes. She didn't know how she could have thought he looked like any of her friends or neighbors.
He didn't force the door open but held his ground.
"What is it you want?" she asked through the crack in the door.
"I want the keys to the Ayleborough vault."
Samantha almost laughed in his face. "Are you daft? Those keys are for the family only. Besides, it is the middle of the night."
The stranger's voice hardened with determination. "I want the keys." He spoke in the clear, concise English of an educated man. But she bristled at his high-handed attitude and was all too conscious of the slight lilting burr of the northlands in her voice.
"You cannot have them without the permission of the duke of Ayleborough," Samantha answered, with an authority gained from years of making grown men cringe in guilt and recalcitrant schoolboys swallow cod oil. She attempted to close the door but he pushed it with his shoulder, throwing it open and shoving her aside.
He was so tall, he had to stoop or hit his head on the low ceiling. His presence filled the room. "I want the keys."
Another woman might have quaked from fearâand the truth be known, Samantha's knees were shakingâbut she was six-and-twenty, a woman in charge of her life. The Vicarage of St. Gabriel's had been responsible for the Ayleborough family vault for almost two centuries. It was a sacred trust between the vicar and the noble family that paid St. Gabriel's benefice, and she would not betray that trust.
She moved around the table, wanting to put something between herself and this intruder. The candle's wan light cast ghoulish shadows behind him. "You can't have them."
The stranger's eyes narrowed. "I must not have heard you correctly," he said in a low, silky voice. His gloved fingers opened and closed menacingly.
Samantha's throat went dry, but if need be, she'd die to protect those keys....
Because of YouBy: Cathy Maxwell