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Authors: Diane Farr

B006DTZ3FY EBOK (6 page)

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Fortunately, before there was time for him to fall into the decline Lord Stokesdown had warned him of, an end to his grief arrived. It was printed for all to see, in the pages of the
Morning Post.
Derek was at his desk, composing a letter to the Prime Minister, when Lord Stokesdown walked in, opened the newspaper to the page in question, and silently tossed it down before him.

The announcement seemed to leap off the page and shout itself inside his head. He stared dumbly at it. He read it several times over. At first he did not believe what he was seeing. Then he took a deep, ragged breath, and

through an enormous force of will

believed it.

And sheer, cold fury swept through him in a bracing tide, wiping his misery away.

was engaged. And the man she had agreed to marry was Sir James Filey.





March, 1806


Derek reached down and gave his horse

s neck a reassuring pat.
lmost there, Max,

he told the big gelding.

ll sleep in a duke

s stables tonight. What d

you think of that, eh?

Max blew softly through his enormous nostrils and nodded his head. Derek chuckled.
ight you are. I

ll see that His Grace

s best oats are saved for you. You deserve them, my friend.

It had b
een a long journey on horseback
from Crosby Hall to the Duke of Oldham

s estate near Saddleworth Moor. The chill had been penetrating, and there had been little in the scenery to divert him; winter

s drab palette of brown, gray and white had not yet yielded to the rainbow hues of springtime. Still, he did not regret his decision to ride Max rather than make the trip boxed into a stuffy coach. Winter had been harsh this year, and the roads were in sad shape. He had made better time, riding, than he would have in a coach. And time was of the essence.

His sister Natalie, the person he loved best in the world, was about to deliver her second child. It had been a difficult pregnancy, she was far from home, and she was feeling low. That had been enough to bring Derek to her side as swiftly as Max would carry him. He had tossed her letter aside the instant he had finished reading it, and taken the stairs two steps at a time in his haste to pack. Crosby Hall could muddle along without him for a few weeks. Natalie needed him.

It seemed ridiculous to have to travel so far to reach her, when she and her husband were Derek

s nearest neighbors. Lord Malcolm

s property, Larkspur, adjoined his land, and their houses were within easy walking distance of each other. But Natalie was not at Larkspur. She had been whisked off to the Chase family seat


as soon as her pregnancy had been confirmed. Malcolm

s elder brother, the Marquess of Grafton, had improvidently filled
his nursery with daughters…
so it was incumbent upon Lord Malcolm Chase, the duke

s second son, to sire a boy. Malcolm

s late wife had given him only a daughter, and, so far, Natalie had done no better. But hopes were high once more, and Malcolm had dutifully brought Natalie to the ducal palace in Lancashire so that the long-awaited male child

should this prove to be he

might be born on the estate he would one day rule.

Derek judged that he and Max had reached the last five miles of their journey. He slowed the tired animal to a walk, looking around him with interest. Watery sunshine had taken some of the damp out of the air this morning, and breathed a bit of life into the drabness of bare trees and frozen earth. To his right, the distant hills of the Peak District added variety to the landscape. This country would be beautiful in another six weeks, he supposed. And his sister might be giving birth to a child who would one day be its most important resident. A strange thought, that.

y nephew, the duke,

muttered Derek, trying the notion on. The absurdity made him grin.

What strange twists his life had taken in the past couple of years. It was miracle enough to find himself master of Crosby Hall, against all odds; prosperous, independent, and an important man in his community. But also, thanks to his sister

s marriage, he was closely connected to one of the most prominent families in the kingdom. The swiftness of his unexpected rise had been almost dizzying.

He rounded the bend and saw, not far ahead, a bright splash of cranberry red, brilliant against the muddy colors of winter. It was a lady

s riding habit, and the lady in it was leading a lame horse.

Since the lady was heading in the same direction as Derek, her back was to him. He ran an appreciative eye over her slim form. She looked well in that habit, he thought. His opinion of the duke

s neighborhood rose a notch. Really, it perked a chap up, knowing that a lady who looked that good in a riding habit might be entering his orbit. And if he wasn

t mistaken, that was blond hair glinting under her hat. He

d always been partial to blondes.

Then, as if feeling his eyes upon her, she turned and looked at him. For one crazy instant, the world seemed to tilt on its axis. Derek almost swore aloud from the shock of it. The lady looked exactly like

Damnation! The lady

It was fortunate that he was on horseback. Max carried him calmly forward despite the sudden paralysis that seized him. But there was no time to compose himself, no time to recover from the reflexive rage coursing through him, before he pulled even with her and was forced, through common courtesy, to rein Max to a halt. He stared down at her, his jaw set. He could not bring himself to speak.

Damn her. She was as lovely as ever. A little pale, and her jaw as firmly set as his, but apparently the witch who had troubled his dreams for three years still walked the earth in human form. He had often wondered whether his fevered imagination had embellished the memory. Apparently not. She was exactly as he remembered her, from the impossible blue of her eyes to the soft curve of her lower lip. Every plane of her face was familiar. The way she held her head. The set of her shoulders. The deceptive softness of her skin, which looked
like porcelain but felt like…

God help him.

The pretty lips parted. She spoke, in a voice that shook only slightly.
ou do remember me. I wondered if you would.


he said hoarsely.
remember you.

Ten thousand times a day, I remember you.
What the devil was she doing, dropped into the wilds of Lancashire like a meteor fallen from the sky?

hank you for stopping, Mr. Whittaker.

He hoped his smile didn

t look as bitter as it felt.
never could resist a damsel in distress.

Painful thoughts of their first meeting flashed almost visibly in the air between them, like swords crossing. He could almost hear the
clang of steel.

looked away.
t is a
noble quality.

She was plainly trying to sound arch, but her voice was barely audible. She cleared her throat and looked back at him.
would have greeted you with more dignity, but my mare has cast a shoe.

o I see.

Then the import of her words hit home. He frowned.
ou were
to meet me here?

She nodded.
thought it only fair to…
to forewarn you. I thought it might be strange for you to walk in and find me at Oldham Park.

An indescribable mix of emotions crashed over Derek like a wave. Chief among them were disbelief and horror, but rage, grief and chagrin were discernible as well.
at Oldham Park! Fate must have a cruel sense of humor, to deal him such a blow.

His expression must have reflected some of what he felt, for after glancing at his face
dropped her gaze nervously to the ground.
thought if you walked in and saw me

if you remembered me at all

you might say something, or

or do something that would betray our

our prior acquaintance. And I thought it would be better if

if you did not. So I rode out to meet you. I did not want my presence to take you by surprise.

She peeked at his face once more. Whatever she saw there caused her to look away again. She turned to stroke her mare

s nose, as if unconsciously seeking comfort.
meant it kindly,

she said defensively.

When he still said nothing, her cheeks began to turn pink. She cleared her throat and tried again.
am stopping at Oldham Park as the guest of Lady Hannah Chase. Lord Grafton

s daughter, you know. My mother thought it would be prudent to accept her invitation, at least until the roads clear. When they do, I promise you, we will be off to London for the Season. Please believe me, Mr. Whittaker, I had no idea

that is, I knew that Lord and Lady Malcolm would be there,
but I did not know that you…

Her voice trailed off. She swallowed hard, then tried again.
hen I learned that Lady Malcolm

s brother was expected to visit, I never dreamed it would be you. I did not know her maiden name, or anything about her. Even when she mentioned her

brother Derek,

I thought it was only coincidence. And then I heard them speaking of

Mr. Whittaker


She shook her head helplessly.
ll I could do was wait until the morning you were expected, and then ride out to warn you. I was not even sure whether a warn
ing would be necessary, but…
but I see that it is. So I

m glad I did.

He supposed that once his anger had cooled, he would be glad as well. But he could not bring himself to thank her.

e should not keep the horses standing,

he said. His voice sounded perfectly flat.
and me your lead rein.

She hesitated, then did as he asked. Despite their gloves, she was careful not to touch his hand

a futile gesture, since she would have to do so in a moment. He gathered the reins in his right hand and silently held his left hand out to her. She stared at it, her expression blank.

ake my hand, and step on my foot.

Comprehension flashed across

s face, and with it, dismay.
h, I

I couldn


He smiled derisively. He had no intention of showing her any extraordinary courtesy. She didn

t deserve it.
hat would you like me to do, my lady? Give you my horse, and gallantly walk beside you all the way to Oldham Park? No, thank you. It

s been a long journey, and I

m tired.

Color flooded her lovely face. She bit her lip.
f course. How silly of me.

She took a deep breath, then resolutely grasped his hand. As she stepped on his foot, he pulled her neatly up onto the saddle before him. Their movements seemed to synchronize naturally, rendering the difficult maneuver as smooth as if they had rehearsed it a hundred times. But the jolt of touching her again, of having her actually
in his arms,
was almost more than Derek could bear.

ell done,

he said, hiding his pain behind sarcasm.

s hard to believe we

ve never even danced together.

He felt her stiffen, but she said nothing. He could not see her face. Was she blushing? He doubted it. He doubted if she had the grace to feel shame over
her treatment of
him. From what he knew of her,
was rarely moved to feel shame

or, indeed, much of anything.

He had made it his business, after it was too late, to learn what he could about her. It had been almost an obsession, trying to make sense of what had happened. He had thought that if he understood her, if he found that there had been compelling reasons why she had acted as she did, it would help him achieve some peace of mind. The attempt had failed. He had never made his peace with

s rejection. But he had learned to despise her, and th
at had answered nearly as well. B
y nursing his anger he had been able to set the incident aside and move on with his life. For that

s all that his association with
had been: an incident. He would not ruin his life over a girl he had known for less than an hour.

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