Authors: Laura Landon
She ran her finger down the sweating glass of cold lemonade and watched the drops of liquid trickle downward toward the table. The drops reminded her of tears…tears that pooled on the table until they’d formed a small puddle…like how her tears had fallen.
She took a linen napkin, sopped up the water, and then placed her glass on the napkin. She didn’t want to be reminded of even one day of her past. Nor did she want to be reminded of the life she’d made for herself in London. She’d come here to forget. And for two weeks, that’s what she intended to do—pretend that her life might have been different if that one night had never happened.
The excited sound of laughter pulled her away from her musings. She looked up to find the children gathered around Lord Rafe. They were on their feet, and she could tell from their pleading tones that they were begging for another story. But Lady Wedgewood intervened, and the children scampered off to play a game of croquet several of the adults were starting.
Hannah watched them run off, then turned back to where Lord Rafe stood. The lovely Miss Warden was gazing up at him as if he were an immortal being from a heavenly planet. But he wasn’t staring at Miss Warden. He was staring at…her.
Hannah’s gaze locked with his, and her heart stuttered. The corners of his mouth lifted and he smiled.
A thousand voices shouted their warnings. She’d never met a man with the power to affect her like he did. She’d convinced herself she never would—that there wasn’t a man alive who could break down the barrier she’d erected around her emotions. But this man came closer to entering her inner sanctum than any man she’d ever known—and there had been many.
Of course there had been many.
Hannah smiled politely, then turned her gaze. She wouldn’t encourage him. She wouldn’t give him the slightest provocation. Forming any sort of close friendship would be dangerous for her and disastrous for him.
He didn’t know what she was. He didn’t know how critical it was to avoid an association with her. But
did. She knew how dangerous even developing a friendship with her would be.
She focused her attention on the group of youngsters sitting in a circle on the lawn. They were engrossed in a game she’d played often when she was fortunate enough to visit Grace and Caroline as children. She couldn’t remember the name of the game any longer, but she remembered how anxious she’d been when the person who was
would choose someone by tapping her on the head. Then that person would have to jump up and run as fast as she could to be the first one back to the spot that had been vacated.
Remembering those special times brought back one of the few good memories she had from her childhood. For some reason, that thought saddened her. She wished there had been more. She wished her childhood would have been filled with happy times. But it hadn’t been, which was probably why she was so determined to rescue as many
other young girls as she could and give them a childhood they would remember with fondness.
A shadow passed over her, and she looked up.
“You look entirely too lonely sitting here by yourself,” Lord Rafe said.
His voice was deep and rich, and the warmth of his words wrapped around her like a favorite woolen cloak. She tried to shake it off.
“Quite the opposite, my lord. I’m enjoying myself immensely.”
“You prefer being alone?”
Hannah smiled. “In London I’m never alone,” she said, “which is why I enjoy the solitude of the country so much.”
“Is your life in London that full?”
“Yes, quite full. But what about yours? What do you do to occupy your time?”
For the first time, he seemed at a loss, almost embarrassed. But in character, his expression changed, and his charming devil-may-care personality came to the forefront.
Hannah realized that the lackadaisical side of his personality was perhaps an act he put on to hide his true nature. She wondered what deeper traits he felt it was necessary to hide. She was about to delve into his personality to find what he was avoiding having anyone discover, when the danger of being so inquisitive hit her.
It wouldn’t be safe to want to know more about him. She couldn’t afford to care. She decided changing the subject was her best form of defense.
“Where is Miss Warden? Surely you haven’t abandoned her?”
He glanced over his shoulder. “No. The children wanted to play another lawn game, and she decided to join them.”
Hannah gave him a censorious look. “Did you frighten the young lady off?”
“Heavens, no. I don’t frighten women. They terrify
Hannah couldn’t help but laugh. “Oh, Lord Rafe. I’ve never met anyone less terrified of females than you. I’d wager to say that you’re accustomed to having every female you meet fall at your feet.”
“Every female except you, Miss Bartlett.”
Hannah couldn’t hold his gaze. She lifted her glass of lemonade and took a drink.
“Why is that?” he asked after sitting in the chair opposite her.
She couldn’t avoid his gaze, couldn’t help but look at his face.
Hannah hoped she’d see a teasing glint in his eyes, an expression that said his question was a jest. But he was deadly serious. He genuinely expected her to give him an answer. And it would have to be one he would believe.
“I know you have a difficult time believing this,” she said, placing her glass back on the table and looking directly at him, “but I have no intention of ever marrying. I therefore think of it as a kindness to both myself and any man who shows me the slightest amount of attention not to offer any encouragement that our acquaintance could possibly develop into anything substantial.”
“Have you ever considered what you would do if you met someone you wanted as more than a friend?”
“That will not happen, my lord. I will not allow it.”
He arched his eyebrows, then reached for the glass a servant had placed on the table beside him. “How very intriguing,” he said, taking a sip of the lemonade.
“My comment was not meant to intrigue you.”
“I know, Miss Bartlett. That is what makes your attitude even more interesting.”
Hannah knew it was useless to argue with him. She focused instead on Miss Warden, who was entertaining the younger children. “Miss Warden seems like a very pleasant young lady.”
“She is,” he answered.
“But she doesn’t interest you?”
He shook his head, then took another sip from his glass.
“That’s all right, my lord. Lady Wedgewood mentioned she’d invited several other local girls during our stay. Six, if I understood correctly. That means there are five more possibilities.”
“But the second candidate won’t arrive until the day after tomorrow. Which means that tomorrow I will be free. And so will you.”
“I’m sure Lady Wedgewood has something planned for tomorrow in which she expects us to participate.”
“She did, but she changed her mind when I mentioned that you had never visited a brewery and I’d promised to take you. Of course, the fact that everyone else was eager to go helped sway her. We will leave midmorning, stop for lunch at the Spotted Goose on our way, and then tour Bradford Brewery in the afternoon. If we’re fortunate, Lord and Lady Grayson will be there. You’ll enjoy meeting them.”
Hannah knew she needed to discourage him as much as possible. “Who has Lady Wedgewood invited to partner you the day after?”
Lord Rafe rolled his eyes heavenward. “I’m not certain. I’m not overly interested in my sister-in-law’s matchmaking schemes. I’m more concerned with my own efforts.”
Hannah wanted to offer a reply that would douse his intentions, but couldn’t think of anything that would emphasize her point more than what she’d just said. She was glad when Raeborn, Carmody, and Wedgewood joined them on the terrace.
“You abandoned us,” Lord Wedgewood said to his brother.
“Yes, Rafe. We needed you to make the final call,” Raeborn said, accepting a glass of lemonade from a nearby servant. “Baldwin and Adledge claimed Wexley’s ball tapped Wedgewood’s. Anyone could see it didn’t come close.”
The men would have continued their argument, but Lady Caroline and the Duchess of Raeborn joined them.
“What did I tell you, Linny?” Her Grace said, putting her arm around her husband’s waist.
“You were right, Grace,” Lady Caroline said, stepping over to her husband’s chair.
“Right about what?” Wedgewood asked.
Lady Caroline kissed her husband’s cheek. “Grace predicted that there would be a controversy over your game.”
“There’s no controversy,” His Grace said. “Adledge and Baldwin wanted to win so badly they trumped up a foul where there was none.”
“Yes, and their influence has corrupted Wexley. He’s been in the family for less than two years and already they’ve turned him into a coconspirator.”
“I take exception to that,” Lord Baldwin said as he joined them on the terrace. Lord Adledge and Baron Wexley nodded their agreement as they followed him to their table. “We would have trounced you if you hadn’t invented a foul.”
The six men bantered back and forth for several more minutes, each team insisting that it would have been victorious had it not been for the antics of the other team.
“Well, there is one way to prove which team has the superior talent,” the Earl of Baldwin announced.
“Yes,” the Marquess of Wedgewood said, rising to his feet. “A rematch! My superior team challenges your inferior team to a rematch.”
Baldwin stood. “My team accepts. This time, however, we will appoint a judge for any disputed rulings.”
“Who?” Wedgewood asked.
“Your brother, the esteemed Lord Rafe. He will make a fair and honest ruling for every controversy. We’ll make him take an oath of fairness. Do you agree?” he said, scanning the men gathered on the terrace.
Both teams agreed with hearty enthusiasm.
Rafe turned toward Hannah. “Would you care to come along?” he asked as the men readied to leave. “You can keep me from making an error.”
Hannah shook her head. “I’m sure you’ll be fine without me.”
“I’ll accompany you,” Caroline said. “I may be of some use. With the exception of my husband, the others are gentlemanly enough not to argue with me.”
“Excellent,” Rafe said, extending his arm to Caroline. “We’ll return shortly,” he said before they left. “Unless the game turns deadly and we’re caught in the cross fire.”
“I have faith you’ll prevent it from going that far,” the duchess said with a laugh. “Hannah and I will wait here for the verdict.”
Hannah watched as the group left.
When they were far enough from them that they couldn’t be overheard, the duchess relaxed back into her chair and breathed a sigh.
Hannah knew Grace was about to say something regarding the attention Lord Rafe was paying her and wanted to be the first to reassure her that she had nothing to worry over. “There’s no need to say anything, Grace. I have no intention of causing trouble.”
“I know you don’t. It’s your heart I’m concerned about.”
Hannah turned to face her friend. “Then there’s nothing to worry about. My heart beats strong and steady enough to keep my body alive and active. To everything else, it is dead. Any capabilities it had to nurture feelings for another human being—especially someone of the opposite sex—died fifteen years ago.”
“Don’t be so sure, Hannah. It’s possible that part of your heart isn’t completely dead. I think it has been dormant thus far. Lord Rafe is a remarkable man. If anyone has the power to revive your emotions, it will be him.”
“Then I will have to be more determined in my efforts to discourage him.”
“Have you considered that his feelings for you could develop into something very genuine?”
Hannah turned to her friend and smiled. “I’m not a novice when it comes to men, Grace. Lord Rafe is intent on pursuing me because I am one of the few females who didn’t fall panting at his feet when we first met. I think he is too accustomed to keeping the fairer sex at arm’s length. He’s attracted to me because I’ve resisted his charms.”
“You may be correct,” the duchess said.
“But…” Hannah could tell there was more Grace wanted to say.
“It’s just something Caroline said.”
“She said she’d never seen such an intense look on Lord Rafe’s face as when he looks at you.”
“Infatuation, Grace. Nothing more.”
“Let’s hope so. I don’t want to see either of you hurt.”
“We won’t be.” Hannah took another sip of her tepid lemonade. “I realize now I’ve handled this whole situation wrong. I’ve become a challenge to him.” Hannah placed her glass on the table. “I need to change my tactics. I’ll begin tonight.”
nstead of joining Grace and her sisters in the music room after dinner, Hannah excused herself and walked onto the terrace. It was a perfect summer evening. The moon was full, and there was a gentle breeze from the east that rustled the leaves on the trees. If ever there’d been an ideal romantic setting, this was it.
She’d plotted her actions all through dinner and knew she wouldn’t have long to wait before Lord Rafe joined her. The smiles she’d given him when their gazes met, which had been often during the meal, made her message clear. For the first time since they’d met, she’d encouraged his attention.