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A particularly violent pitch sent her careening across the bench, the harsh contact of her shoulder cracking the far wall forcing a gasp. The stink of mildew and decay hung heavy in the stale air, sullying her very breath, and the storm eroded her composure. Rubbing her shoulder, she scooted forward and then rested one hand against the window frame. ‘Twas better sitting thus. The contact with the solid frame kept her from sliding across the cracked seat onto the dark, wet stain that had grown with each passing hour as the rain leaked through the thin fissures that patterned the roof.

After a time, the rain eased, slowing to a drizzle, and Emma peered out the side window, hoping to catch a glimpse of the passing countryside. Bleak sky stretched as far as the eye could see, a dreary canopy of endless gray. Then the clouds parted. A single ray of brilliant light descended from the evening sun, breaking through the gloom to touch the earth.

A chill of foreboding raced along her spine. There, in the distance, silhouetted in sharp relief against the backdrop of that solitary ray of sunshine, stood a jagged shape, a stark Mephistophelean castle set high atop a lonely hill. Darkness in the light.

Manorbrier.

Her choice. Her future.

A whisper of unease teased her senses, making her skin prickle and her heart race.

The end of her journey was close at hand, though any comfort to be found in that thought was tinged with a heavy measure of apprehension. She had fled from the certainty of a fate she refused to bear to the possibility of one that was even worse.

And so she traveled on a day such as this. To a place such as this. To the home of the man who was—

The churning wheels of the carriage flung up clumps of mud that splattered against the window with a solid thunk. Emma jerked back, startled, her musings scattering like raindrops in the wind. And then the downpour resumed, drumming steadily on the carriage roof as the creak and sway of the coach marked the passing time and the deepening gloom heralded the dusk.

The shadows lengthened into the full blackness of night. Finally the vehicle rolled forward and back as it lurched to a stop, and after a moment the door was jerked open, letting a blast of damp and chilly air into the carriage. The coachman leaned in, lifting his lantern high, the sudden burst of light leaving Emma blinking against the glare.

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