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Authors: The Chance

Edith Layton

BOOK: Edith Layton
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The Chance
Edith Layton

For Jeanne Simpson,
luminous lady of sense and sensibility

Contents

One

Only one wedding guest was frowning. He stood, arms crossed…

Two

The town house was on a quiet street near the…

Three

Rafe carried Eric to a bedchamber, then anxiously watched until…

Four

She wore celestial blue to match her eyes. Her straw…

Five

“Impossible,” Brenna said. She said it softly but firmly. She…

Six

“It was kind of you to see me,” Brenna told…

Seven

Rafe had only climbed to the high driver’s seat of…

Eight

Rafe’s scowl could have curdled milk, but he stood still…

Nine

It was a small village, set in a valley off…

Ten

“Ah, the bustling metropolis, at last,” Drum commented, glancing around…

Eleven

It was an old, rambling rose brick house, U-shapedin the…

Twelve

Rafe and Drum acted like guests with nothing on their…

Thirteen

Dinner was over. Rafe and Brenna had the drawing room…

Fourteen

Instinct took Rafe home. He couldn’t watch his step or…

Fifteen

It was a time for celebration, a riotously funny dinner…

Sixteen

Brenna woke. And groaned. Not from the stab of pain…

Seventeen

Neither slept much. Rafe woke at dawn and slipped from…

Eighteen

The mausoleum stood alone on the hillside, facing the sea.

Nineteen

“The Griffin?” Grant said when Brenna asked about him the…

Twenty

They got to the inn just before night fell. It…

Twenty-One

“This is one of the finest streets in all of…

Twenty-Two

They sat and ate breakfast in easy silence, like an…

Twenty-Three

I come from a family of soldiers. I’m prepared for…

Twenty-Four

“Stay here? Oh my dear, I hardly think so. The…

Twenty-Five

Brenna stared at her reflection.

Twenty-Six

She wept. Brenna sat in the carriage as they drove…

O
nly one wedding guest was frowning. He stood, arms crossed on his chest, and watched the other guests celebrating. It was a perfect evening for it. A long, soft midsummer’s evening, mild and balmy, the kind made famous by Shakespeare—the kind that England rarely got in reality.

The wedding party had moved from the church to the groom’s nearby estate for the reception. It was a glorious one, lasting from daylight into dusk. Musicians sat in leafy arbors and played. Lanterns hung from the trees, twinkling in the boughs like trapped stars. Torches flamed on the lawns, echoing the candle-filled chandeliers inside the house. The guests danced in the ballroom, onto the terrace, and then out on the scythed lawns that rolled to the river’s edge and on into the coming night.

The frown didn’t suit Lord Raphael Dalton. He
wasn’t much past thirty, but had a hard-planed, angular face with strict features, their only saving grace the surprisingly dark lashes that offset his deep blue eyes. He had tried very hard to compensate for his unfortunate red hair, cropping it ruthlessly close in a modish Brutus cut. But even that couldn’t make it remotely fashionable. He was spared the pale, freckled skin that often went with such hair, his complexion tan and clear. He was lean, with a wide rack of shoulders, and bore himself as the military man he’d once been. Rafe didn’t have a mild appearance; the scowl made him appear harsher.

He wasn’t looking at his newly wed host and hostess. Instead, he didn’t take his gaze from a dark lady standing on the terrace nearby. He watched her as closely and jealously as a cat at a mousehole.

Or so at least his friend, the earl of Drummond, remarked softly to him.

Rafe’s head turned fast. He pinned his friend with a blazing look. “And how’d you know if you hadn’t been watching her that closely yourself?” he snapped.

“By watching you, of course. I didn’t have to even glance at her. Your eyes were mirrors of her soul,” the tall, thin, languid earl answered. He saw Rafe’s expression. “And if you hit me here and now,” he added softly, “you’ll disrupt this lovely wedding party.”

Rafe blinked; his shoulders drooped. “Too right,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck, “You’re right. Damme, don’t you get sick of being right, Drum?”

His friend shrugged and hid a smile. “Perfection is
wearisome, I agree. But, Rafe, I thought you were as happy as I to see our friends wed. If you keep frowning like that, people will wonder if you see some problem with their union.”

“Problem?” Rafe asked, amazed. “Did you ever see Wycoff so content?” he asked, looking at the groom. “Takes years from his face. And look at his Lucy. It does the heart good.”

“Exactly, so stop scowling.”

Rafe’s harsh expression eased into genuine puzzlement.

“You look murderous.”

“Do I?” Rafe’s head went up. His cheeks grew warm. “Sorry. My thoughts were far from them. Little could make me happier than to see those two married.”

“Little could make you happy indeed,” Drum murmured.

Rafe still gazed at his dark lady. Only, the lady Annabelle was not his, and might never be, he reminded himself. Apart from the fact that he was a man women didn’t look at twice—nor did he blame them for it—she was still bound heart and soul to another man. A man as unobtainable for her as she was for himself, Rafe thought savagely. The man she still yearned for was a good man, but well matched and married to another good person, so why didn’t she cut line and move on?
For the same reason you don’t stop wanting her,
he told himself as he stood watching her, helpless to look away. He hadn’t expected to see her here, hadn’t known she was a distant connection of the groom. She was so well-
born, she was likely related to half the nobles in England. But not to him, and not likely ever to be, and that grieved him.

The lady Annabelle wore a filmy gown of blue. It seemed to match her mood as much as her magnificent eyes. She was lovely. Famously so. Sonnets had been written to her; she was justly considered an Incomparable. Midnight hair, all soft and shining sable curls, midsummer-sky blue eyes, a dainty little nose, alabaster skin. Slender, but with a ripe though petite shape—if there were a list of features a lovely female should possess, a man needed only to consider her to see them all. The sonnet had said that too. And her laughter was like birdsong.
Her infrequent laughter,
Rafe thought, scowling again to see her sad smile as she greeted a friend.

Annabelle was of good birth, an earl’s daughter with a tidy fortune. Intelligent and charming. Four and twenty and still unwed, which was shocking. She could have had any man she set her sights on. But the man she’d wanted had wanted another, and she couldn’t get over it. Handsome young Damon Ryder had been her near neighbor all her life, she’d grown up wanting him, and whatever Annabelle wanted, she got. Only not this time. He had met another, fallen headlong into love, and never looked back. Everyone said Annabelle had been merry as a grig before the man she loved married elsewhere. Rafe hadn’t known her then.

Sometimes he thought, with the pitiless honesty he was afflicted with, that if she were still merry and bright, he mightn’t be as attracted to her. He might
have admired her as another man would appreciate a treasure in a museum, and passed on by. It was her sorrow that called to him as much as anything. Her sadness made her accessible. He could do something for her. He might perhaps heal her. At least he knew how to protect a woman; he could make a sad lady a good mate. Now he wanted only to make her smile again.

He tore his gaze from her and looked at the couple who so troubled her as they danced. Damon Ryder was as handsome a male as Lady Annabelle was a female. A strikingly good-looking, good-hearted fellow. He’d married a spectacular beauty of his own. His wife, Gilly, was as fair as Annabelle was dark, and just as lovely. But Gilly was unique. Forthright as a man, she’d a generous heart and a loyal soul in that beautiful body. Rafe held her as dear as a sister. He was as happy for her now as Annabelle was not.

His friend saw the changed direction of his gaze, and smiled. “It’s lucky that Gilly gave our host an excuse not to travel north to have the reception at his father and mother’s house.”

“Well, the bride insisted I be here,” Gilly Ryder laughed. She and her husband had stopped dancing and overheard him. “And since I said I couldn’t travel far in my ‘condition,’ his mama had to accept it. Wycoff blessed me for it, but I’m happy to be an excuse.”

“So don’t dance so much, baggage,” Drum teased, “Or she’ll guess.”

“Ho!” she said. “As if that would stop me. How much longer shall I be able to dance this close in his
arms? Soon there’ll be something coming between us,” she said, running a hand over her flat abdomen. “I know, I know,” she added, with a bright look at her husband. “That’s not something a lady would say.”

Damon Ryder grinned at his wife. “I know. Lucky me. Now they’ve struck up a waltz. So come, let’s dance as close as we can while we may.”

“That’s a lucky fellow indeed,” Drum said, watching the pair waltz off together.

“And there’s another,” Rafe said, watching the viscount Wycoff and his new bride dancing, their gazes locked. Neither was in the first bloom of youth, but both were handsome, more so now that they were radiant with happiness.

“Who would have guessed that Wycoff, of all people—
Wycoff,
” Rafe, said, shaking his head, “would be so tamed by love?”

“Anyone, actually,” Drum answered.

Rafe fell still. After a moment, he glanced around, looking for his lodestar, the magnet his eyes kept returning to. He saw her standing nearer than he’d known, at the terrace rail—and she looked stricken to the heart. Her hand lay against that heart as she stared, wild-eyed, at Gilly and Damon Ryder.

“Damme! She heard us. She must not have known!” Rafe muttered angrily. “Well, who would? Gilly still looks like a girl—but now she’s going to be a mother.”
The mother of Annabelle’s dream lover’s child. Another nail in the coffin of that dream for her,
he thought. He knew too much about dead dreams. He also knew what he had to do, and strode over to
Annabelle before he could think better of it, leaving his friend Drum standing alone in the twilight.

“My lady,” Rafe said, bowing, “May I have this dance?”

“I’m sorry, I can’t, I—” she said, stumbling over her words, still staring at the Ryders, transfixed.

Rafe didn’t bow and move on, as was proper after being rejected. He stayed where he stood and stared down at her. She looked up to see him frowning. “Yes,” she said on a broken laugh, “you’re quite right. I’m making a spectacle of myself, aren’t I?”

“No. I am. Looks like you turned me down and I’m being rude by hanging about anyway,” he said. “They’ll say I’m rag-mannered. Much I care. I am. But would you care to dance, after all?”

She bowed her head. “I should be honored, my lord.”

“Everyone calls me Rafe,” he said, giving her his hand.

“So you’ve said.” They stepped into the pattern of a new dance. “Forgive me, I’d forgotten. We’ve met, haven’t we?”

“At the Andersons’ party, at Alamacks, the Ryders’ wedding,” Rafe said, and felt her stiffen as he said “Ryder.” They’d met many times after that as well, even danced together a few times. But they’d seldom spoken. He’d lost most of the few pretty words at his command when he met her. It hardly mattered; he doubted she’d listened to him before.

“Yes,” she said, looking down. He knew she was avoiding his eye; she never had to watch her feet
when she danced. He’d watched her dance often enough to know that. “At their wedding. But I never did understand your connection to them,” she said. “Are you related to her? Mrs. Ryder, I mean.”

“No, known her a long time, though. I’m friend to the earl of Drummond. He’s cousin to the Sinclairs, who fostered Gilly. I’m pleased to call them all friends now.”

“And I see you’re a man of few words,” she said, with a singularly sweet smile that made him almost miss his step.

“I listen better than I speak,” he said tersely, minding his step in the dance and with her. She’d never spoken so personally to him. He looked down at her sad little face and felt his heart clench tight. So lovely, so very somber. She gazed up at him, her eyes innocent. Too innocent. He might be enchanted by her, but he knew when he was being manipulated. It felt so good to have her stare at him, he didn’t mind.

“Did I hear Mrs. Ryder intimate that she was…enceinte?” Annabelle asked ingenuously, as though they both didn’t know that she’d heard it clear. “Expecting a babe?” she added, as though the simple soldier that he’d been wouldn’t understand any other term. “I don’t mean to be rude or bold, or
vulgar,
” she added, “but since her husband’s a very old friend of mine, I’d love to know so I can plan the perfect gift.”

“Aye, she is. Early days. But there’ll be a babe by spring.”

She breathed in sharply. Then let out a shuddering sigh. When she spoke again, her voice was too
bright. She still looked at her slippers as they paced through the dance. “How wonderful!” she exclaimed gaily, “To think,
Damon
a father! I vow that makes me feel ancient. I recall when he was just a boy. Well, we were near neighbors. He likely may have been one of the first things I ever saw when I was a babe myself, our parents were such good friends…”

She chattered on as they stepped through the form of the dance. She was too animated. But he recognized and admired bravery. He wished he could tell her so, but couldn’t think of the right way to say it to her. Nothing would make her feel better about knowing the love of her life’s wife was going to have his baby.

He couldn’t let her know he knew she was suffering either. He wished, not for the first or even tenth time, that he had his friend Drum’s glib tongue. Or his friend Wycoff’s clever way with repartee. Or any one of a dozen other men’s easy grace and way with females. He was blunt and to the point. Men admired that. Women were a different matter entirely.

The one thing he needed with this woman was Damon Ryder’s face. He didn’t have anything remotely resembling that. He could hear her out, though. He could let her know by his persistence that he cared. He could be of service to her. That was what he did best.

“Are you staying in the area after the wedding,” he asked when she paused to take a breath, “or going back to London?”

“I’m going home,” she said as bluntly as he might have done.

“Too bad,” he said. “I’d like to see you again.”

Her eyes flew to his. He thought that she might actually be seeing him now. “Would you?” she asked thoughtfully.

I’ve only followed you like a puppy through a dozen balls and every fete I’ve been lucky enough to see you at. If you’d ever looked my way, you’d have seen,
Rafe thought, and said, because he was weary of only looking and longing, “Yes. I would. I’ve wanted to for some time. But there’s always such a crush around you.”

“And you were afraid of crowds?” she laughed.

She was good at flirtation. Rafe knew he was in over his head. “I’m not afraid of much, my lady,” he said, and added, on sudden inspiration, “except, maybe, not seeing you again this summer.”

“But if you didn’t see me again until autumn or winter, it would be as well?” she asked archly. His lips tightened. “No, I’m only jesting,” she added quickly. “Thank you, my lord—Rafe.”

Annabelle cocked her head to the side and looked at her dancing partner again. She’d seen him before, of course. But now she looked at him closely for the first time.

He had that unfortunate hair. It was hard to see beyond that. Now she tried. He wasn’t strictly handsome. But not ill favored either. Lean and fit, too. He had a brusque manner and seemed filled with nervous energy. But he was clean and well dressed and carried himself with an air of confidence and self-possession. He seemed like the kind of man a man would look up to. He had good birth and she sup
posed some fortune; his friends were highly placed. She was here tonight because her father was connected to the Wycoff family. He was here because he was friends with Lord Wycoff as well as with Damon. And she knew he was smitten with her. Utterly.

BOOK: Edith Layton
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