Excerpt from The Storybook Hero

     
     "I am glad to see the hardships of the day haven't dulled your sharp claws, my tiger," said Alex. "The time you cease your cutting setdowns is the time I shall be truly worried that the strain has been too much."
     Octavia leaned back against the tree and swirled the dregs of her cup. "I imagine my choice of words is the least of our worries. We are not in a terribly good position, are we, Sheffield?"
     His amused expression quickly disappeared. "No, we are not." He added another branch to the fire and stared at the leaping flames. "We have only enough food for another day or two, our horses are nags and I doubt the children can endure too much exposure to the elements. And if it begins to snow in earnest...." He let his words trail off. After a moment he cleared his throat. "I'm sorry to have involved you and Emma in this."
     She essayed a tight smile. "What? And deprive Emma of matching the exploits of her favorite storybook heroine?"
     That drew a low chuckle.
     "And besides, the alternative was hardly more appealing. So don't rake yourself over the coals. You have handled things quite credibly up to now, and I'm sure you will find a way to bring us all through to safety."
     Alex's jaw tightened. "You may find yourself sadly disappointed. I should warn you, not many people have any faith in my abilities."
     "The only important opinion is your own, sir." She drew a deep breath. "Now, perhaps we should—"
     He looked at her in some amazement. "You are truly remarkable, Miss Hadley. I know of no other female who could sit calmly in the middle of the wilds and discuss how to save her neck, with nary a sob or shriek of remonstrance."
     "I am used to adversity. And if my neck is to be saved, I have long ago learned that I had better figure out how to do it. Sobs and shrieks are all very well for fine ladies, who can afford such delicate sensibilities. I cannot."
     He poked at the glowing coals, suddenly filled with a desire to know more about her life. "Why?"
     "Why what?"
     "Why are you so used to adversity? Tell me something of your family, your circumstances."
     Octavia's hands tightened around her cup. "It's hardly an interesting story. Or a unique one. In fact, my situation is most likely not a great deal different than yours—parents poor as churchmice, no inheritance, no influential relatives, that sort of thing."
     "Nevertheless, I should like to hear it."
     She had never spoken about growing up an only child with, alone with a scholarly father who had little connection with the realities of the outside world, who was blithely unaware that butchers and candlemakers expected payment, that thatched roofs leaked, that housekeepers cost a salary. But for some reason—she wasn't quite sure how—he managed to coax a brief account of her history, ending with the little contretemps that had precipitated her journey to Russia.
     When he had finished laughing over that, she rearranged the blanket around her shoulders and recomposed her own twitching lips. To her surprise, she felt better for talking about things that had seemed too painful to ever share. "And now you, sir."
     He looked a bit startled. "Me?"
     "It's only fair. I have subjected myself to your scrutiny, and your laughter. You can hardly refuse to do the same."
     The blue of his eyes hardened into a stormy grey. "My story is not one that should sully the ears of a gently born female. Best leave it at that."
     "Oh no, that won't fadge, sir. You won't escape quite so easily. As you have seen, I am not so easily sent into a fit of vapors," she said in her best governess tone.
     Indeed, he did look a bit like a recalcitrant schoolboy as he tried to duck her question. "We have a long day ahead of us. I suggest you get some sleep."
     "Later."
     Seeing that she would not be put off, he let out a harried sigh. "Very well. My father was perhaps not as... poor as yours. I received a decent education, was sent to Oxford, where I made the first few missteps on my road to ruin." A sardonic twist pulled at his lips. "One of those youthful slips resulted in my being sent down in disgrace. It caused an... estrangement from my family and I have been on my own since then. There, now that should satisfy your curiosity."
     In fact, it was only piqued...
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