Off In The Wilderness:
Ever so slowly the vehicle crawled over the snow covered trail. Inside the coach, Blake Ryder sat silently huddled on a frigid seat, reminding himself repeatedly that he’d finally be wrapped in the warmth of his family’s embrace when he arrived home. It was all he could think about as they drove onward.
There was a thick tarp covering a small window, but that did nothing to prevent the wind from creeping inside to chill him further as he impatiently waited for the trip to end. The heavens had opened up the night before, leaving the world covered in a thick blanket of snow and ice. He sat thinking to himself how ironic it was that the afternoon outside was bright with sunshine, yet not a hint of warmth was imparted to the land outside. All the sun did was blind the poor driver as he carefully continued over the slick paths that were leading them to the Ryder townhouse.
The silence inside the cabin was almost deafening to him now—so unnerving, that it was making the trip seem twice as long as it really was. He felt his jaw clench rigidly as he tried to ignore the biting chill in the air. They’d been creeping along for nearly two hours, every moment of which Blake sat pensively debating whether or not he should allow them to stop at an inn and take shelter. But, then he would remember the reason they’d begun this trip home in the first place and he’d refuse to let the fleeting thought take hold. He had been away from his family far too long as it was.
He knew he must already be missing the festivities of the celebration that had been planned. Surely his family would be in the midst of a warm lunch by now, he reasoned. He could just imagine the wondrous spread they’d be enjoying together at that very moment. His mouth watered in envy of it.
The household had been anticipating the arrival of Caleb and Kyra Damon for the last two weeks. Blake could have cursed fate aloud, knowing he would already be home if he’d chosen to leave just one day earlier. The smell of snow had lingered in the air all day long though, so he’d let common sense prevail—and he’d waited the storm out impatiently. Now on the road, the trek overland was slow moving, at best. There was nothing he could do to help that except sit back and continue to count the minutes.
In spite of all that had gone wrong, Blake’s spirit still remained strong. He was only a few short hours from seeing his sister again for the first time in months. Kyra was so close to the end of her first pregnancy. That was a marvel to him. He really couldn’t wait to get a good look at her. It would be his one and only chance to see her before the baby was born. For the next month, he would be escorting their mother to London. By the time he returned, Kyra would most certainly have already given birth to the first born Damon heir. After everything they had been through, he couldn’t believe the monumental event was just a few short weeks away.
Smiling to himself, Blake allowed his mind to drift off to other things for a time. The image of his wife came clearly into view as he pictured her standing by the front window, wondering when he would finally make his appearance back at the estate. He felt his smile grow larger to imagine the scene.
Whether early or late for his arrival, Blake almost always found Cassandra standing in the same spot when she knew he was coming home. She would be standing in the front room by the window, waiting ever so patiently to welcome him home. She was such a delight to him. He would never regret making the decision to take her as his wife. Still… As he thought of her standing there in wait of him, he had to wonder if there would ever come a time when they might be so close as Caleb and Kyra were right now—awaiting the birth of their own son or daughter.
He never let himself dwell on the idea of it for long—for it really was a fruitless dream—but every now and then, he couldn’t help letting himself daydream. What would it take to bring them to such a point in life? The curiosity was fleeting, but he did wonder what could possibly happen to bring Cassandra over to his side of the fence at last?
With a knowing smile, he cast his eyes down for a moment and silently chastised himself for entertaining the thought. He knew so much better than that by now.
It was a fact that Cassandra still carried the heavy weight of emotional scars on her shoulders when it came to the issue of intimacy. It wasn’t even a question that he needed to ask—and he had never felt the need to push the issue. There would be time for that one day. For the last few months of their young marriage, he’d been traveling far too frequently to make any progress.
For nearly six months, he’d been traversing the distance between his home and the courts—all in preparation for the day he would inherit his newest role in life. There was so much that he had to learn if he was going to effectively take over his father’s legacy, there was hardly enough time to grasp it all as the days passed so quickly.
Stephen Ryder had officially announced that he was going to retire, perhaps as early as the start of the coming year. Blake really had no choice but to heed his father’s every command right now, because the day was fast approaching when the title of Earl would be handed down—and there really was no choice but to accept it.
The honor was one that he appreciated and despised all at the same time. Becoming his father’s successor had not been his lifelong dream, although it was something he was destined to achieve, regardless. There was no turning away from what he was meant to become—despite that he’d prefer to continue governing his authority on horseback with the power of his sword, instead of standing in court before the King. Soldiering was where his true heart lay, not debating words from behind a table.
The only real benefit of becoming a titled man was in attaining independent wealth. He would finally be capable of moving his wife into a home of their very own. There was not much else to gain that he coveted. He already had nearly everything that he wanted—the only aspect missing from his life was a consummated relationship with his bride. He had never given up hope that with enough privacy and time alone, he’d finally discover a way to bond with Cassandra as husband and wife—for real. Unfortunately, they hadn’t been afforded that luxury as he continued to travel so often in his father’s place.
He couldn’t even imagine what her reaction might be regarding a move out of his parent’s home. He suspected it would probably terrify her all over again. It wasn’t adoration that held her close to his mother’s side when he ventured back home for an extended stay—nor was it to leave him to chat with his father about business that she always retired particularly early… He understood her fears were still a very real problem that they had yet to deal with. In time though, he assured himself… Perhaps in just a few more months, he would suggest that it’d be easiest to move closer to the city. Maybe then they could begin the process of trying to form a proper relationship.
Caleb had once warned him how difficult it was going be to walk this road with Cassandra as his wife. It had all been a plot at the time to save her from the hands of her abusive father—but then suddenly she was safe and her father could no longer touch her. From behind prison walls, Anson Carrington would never be a danger to anyone ever again. By that time though, Blake had already made his decision. He’d begun pursuing Cassandra, regretting nothing of his decision to marry her and take her away from Damon Manor.
Out of nowhere, Blake was suddenly ripped out of his revere. He was torn out of his thoughts and fairly thrown across the seat inside the cabin as the tire beneath the vehicle jumped over some sightless obstacle in the road. He heard the driver shouting before the vehicle was suddenly skidding along the road at an odd angle. The team of horses in front of the coach began to protest the unexpected maneuver. All at once, everything seemed to be spinning out of control at an incredible pace. Blake could feel the uneven terrain passing beneath them as he closed his eyes, praying the vehicle would not tip over.
He held his breath, eyes shut tight, before all movement died as quickly as it had begun. On his feet in seconds, he gripped the handle and shoved the door open to see what had happened outside. He could barely focus his eyes on the blinding terrain, before his heart began constricting in his chest. They were perched perilously close to edge of a steep slope—close enough for him to smell the scent of his own death in the air.
He heard the horses stamping and pacing in place at the front of the vehicle—a noise which forced him to forget about the frigid temperature outside as he jumped down into the thick snow bank. Trudging to the front of the vehicle, he grabbed the reigns of the horse nearest him, commanding it sternly to be still. Blake’s presence calmed her almost immediately, but not before she sounded out with an aggravated snort of disapproval for their predicament. The horse beside her quickly followed suit as the driver slowly climbed down to try and help.
As he approached from the other side, the young man gripped his heart to try and stop its incessant pounding for giving them all such a fright. Looking at the road behind them, the man pointed to a stiff branch that had been hidden beneath the snowy trail.
“Forgive me, Lord,” Sean gasped. “I had no idea it was there before it was too late to slow the horses down. The ice nearly forced us over the edge. If they hadn’t stopped—”
“It’s alright,” Blake told him, looking the vehicle over for any sign of damage. Sighing gruffly, he said, “I’ll just take this as another sign that I was not meant to reach home today.”
“I’m sorry,” the man apologized again. “I know how much you are looking forward to seeing your family again.”
“Mmm,” he nodded, only half-listening as he walked around the coach to join him on the safer side. His frown deepened when he saw the front tire. Two of the rods were fractured beyond repair. “Did the branch catch inside the tire,” he asked, bending down to see if that was the worst of the damage.
“I don’t know, I suppose it must have,” he admitted. “We don’t have a spare to change it with.”
“Of course we don’t,” Blake grimaced. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway, he thought to himself. Working on a vehicle on the side of the road would not be his first choice anyway.
The chill in the air was hardly bothering him half as much as the insanely bright light that the sun cast on the snow. There was little that could halt him in his tracks any faster. He had been cursed since early childhood with that one unbearable weakness. His fair hair and crystalline eyes may have blessed him with a stunning appearance, but those unusual features had cursed him with intolerance for such harsh light. There was nothing more painful for him than staring at the sun glistening on a fresh bed of snow.
Squinting for a moment as he rubbed his eyes, he let out another sigh, knowing there was no choice left but to strap one of the horses and continue riding on. The sun would set early in the afternoon and he didn’t care to think of being stranded so far in between homes.
“We’re less than an hour away from the Ryder Estate by now, aren’t we,” he asked Sean.
“About that,” he agreed solemnly, shrugging a little for the futility of doing anything more.
“Well, it’s not worth risking another accident on that wheel. We’d better just get to it,” Blake told him.
He began to adjust his cloak for a moment when he suddenly felt the hair rising on the back of his neck. Instinct told him to stop and turn around. He watched the winding road behind them as far as his eyes could see. The shadows of the woods were unmoving, yet still he stood there, watching without blinking.
“Do you see something,” Sean asked him, puzzled by the odd silence that suddenly ensued.
“No, it’s not—”
Blake stepped away from the coach for a moment, realizing what it was. Perhaps salvation had come for them, he thought to himself. He could hear it now, the sound of another vehicle traveling along the road in the distance.
With hurried footsteps, he reached for the branch in the road and he heaved to lift it out of the snow. It proved a bit unwieldy to move, but Blake was not to be put off. The last thing he wanted was to see another traveler suffering the fate they’d somehow been saved from. Such a steep hill would probably kill anyone inside a vehicle rolling down it.
Sean heard the approaching horses as well then. Smiling thankfully, he patted the horse on the shoulder, hopeful that the strangers might offer them some much needed assistance. From the size of the party rounding the curve in the road, they were surely not scavengers out gallivanting.
Wide-eyed for a moment, Blake thought he must be daydreaming again as he caught sight of the approaching caravan of travelers. Twelve men on horseback encircled two large coaches rounding the bend. It was the sight of their clothes that caught Blake’s notice. Surely, he had to be mistaken…
The men slowed their pace when they caught sight of Blake’s vehicle sitting on the edge of road. They stopped a hundred feet away, cautious of approaching any further.
Blake watched them in amazement, knowing it would not be wise to make any hasty movements. Sean seemed uncertain, but Blake held out a hand to reassure him.
“We are in no danger,” he told him. “Just stay here.”
Blake kept his hands in plain sight as he began to walk toward the soldiers who were guarding the vehicles. He walked with sure footsteps, smiling helplessly as he moved. When he saw the door opening on the first coach, he fairly held his breath to see who would step out.
“It’s alright,” Blake called to the men who were eyeing him warily. “Damon?”
His shout could be heard echoing in the woods on all sides as the vision of his longtime friend came into focus. Blake could hardly believe his good fortune to see the man who was stepping down to the ground. Standing as tall and strong as he could remember, Caleb Damon was an impressively dark figure against the brilliant white snow.
“Blake,” Caleb returned in a voice, ripe with disbelief. For a moment he couldn’t think to move. Blake was the last person he expected to see out in the middle of nowhere. Grinning widely, Caleb stood there puzzled and watched him approach. “Let him pass,” he called out to his men, warning them to take no action. They could have no idea who Blake was, but Caleb certainly did.
Looking down the road, Caleb saw the coach at the edge of a ravine. The odd position of it told Caleb that there’d been an accident. He could only imagine what would have become of Blake if that coach had slid another few feet toward the edge.
“Caleb,” Blake entreated, walking straight toward him with his arms extended. “It’s great to see you!”
Feeling equally as pleased, Caleb clasped his hand and pulled him into a brief hug. Patting his shoulder, he tilted his head and exclaimed, “I think we might not have, if you’d been any more eager to get home.”
“What,” Blake asked, before he saw Caleb eyeing his coach. “We were not speeding,” he objected at once. But then his attention turned elsewhere. Looking at the door to Caleb’s own vehicle, he started to ask, “Is she—”
Caleb did not need to hear him finish the question. With a nod, he smiled, “She’s in there.”
Just then the door began to creak open. Both men looked over to see a head peering outside. Blake was aglow, but Caleb was suddenly livid.
“I thought I told you to stay put?” Turning around with a long sigh, he walked with Blake back to the coach and complained, “She heeds my words as carefully as ever.”
“I just wanted to see what stopped us—” Kyra’s eyes were ripped away from Caleb’s as she caught sight of the man standing beside him. “Blake,” she shrieked excitedly, jumping down to the ground before they could stop her. She fairly jumped straight into his arms, giggling helplessly to see him there.
“Kyra,” he greeted her warmly, pulling her affectionately into a strong embrace. His eyes took in the welcome sight of her, so proud to see her standing there before him. “I can’t believe my good fortune. I thought we were going to spend the next hour freezing on horseback.”
“Blake, what in the world are you—”
“You’re the one who will be freezing for the next hour, if you don’t get back inside,” Caleb warned her. Cutting off her question to Blake, he reached to grasp her upper arm to gently coax her back into the vehicle. “Dare you take your feet off of the coal box,” he asked her with a decidedly unhappy frown.
“I’m fine,” she assured him, wanting to stay right where she was.
“I can see that,” Blake agreed enthusiastically. Reaching down for a moment, his hands sought to fleetingly touch the evidence of how healthy she really was. Kyra was almost eight months along in her pregnancy. The width of her burgeoning stomach was appealingly round. Blake could scarcely contain the grin on his face as he held her for a moment more. Kyra was bundled deeply beneath a solid layer of clothing, but there was no disguising the changes to her once slim figure. All that could be seen of her now were a few flowing wisps of her dark auburn hair and the sparkling glint in her smiling eyes.
“Your niece or nephew is happy to finally make your acquaintance, Brother,” she smiled in return.
“Yes,” Blake breathed in amazement. To hear her speak his name and call him Brother made his heart surge for a moment. How dearly he’d missed her, he thought to himself. “Yes,” he repeated once more. Taking her face tenderly in his hand, he bent down and kissed her cheek. “You’ve no idea how grateful I am to see you.”
Behind them, Caleb was licking his lips impatiently. He was no longer leery of Blake’s affection for Kyra, but his gesture was immensely untimely. There would be time for all of that later on at the Ryder Estate. Right now, he wanted Kyra inside the coach where it was warm.
“I assume you are going to need a ride to get home,” he asked, already knowing the answer.
“We just have to unhitch the horses and transfer a few bags,” Blake nodded. It was then that he noticed Caleb’s irritation. “Kyra,” he tisked her mildly for Caleb’s sake. “You ought to get inside and put your feet up on that coal box.”
Still grinning though, she nodded and gave Caleb a look that told him she’d prefer to devilishly argue about it. Knowing they were both right though, she gave Blake a final squeeze and let him go.
Looking down the road, she saw his where his coach was sitting. She couldn’t contain a small gasp of shock to see where it was.
“All that later,” he told her, giving her a small push towards the door. Caleb was already holding it ajar for her. “I promise, I’ll tell you everything on the way.”
Just as she would have passed by Caleb, he held out a finger to still her. He touched her chin and gently warned, “This time, stay put.”
Seeing that look only made her want to smile again, but she did the best she could to fight against it as she let him help her up the step. For Caleb’s happiness, she knew she would move heaven and earth, but taunting him had its reward at times. Sometimes she just couldn’t help herself.
Caleb saw the expression she was trying so hard to conceal. As the door was shut behind her, he couldn’t help letting himself smile, as well. He just couldn’t let her see it.
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