Authors: Laura Landon
“Either,” she answered. “Both. Please believe me when I say it is impossible for our friendship to develop further. Because of events beyond my control, or yours, I cannot allow you to think there can be anything between us.”
“Why? What events can possibly be tragic enough to prevent us from getting to know each other better?”
refuse to explain to anyone—especially you. Now, if you will excuse me, I’m quite tired and would like to retire.”
His gaze narrowed, and he held back words for several long seconds as if he didn’t trust himself to speak. “Of course,” he finally answered. “Would you like me to accompany you back to the house?”
“No, Lord Rafe. I can find my way by myself.”
Hannah turned and, on shaky legs, walked away from him.
“Sometimes it is impossible to ignore what is meant to be. Or stop it. I believe this is just such an event.”
Hannah tried to ignore him, but her feet stumbled as the impossibility of his words struck her.
t had been three days since he’d kissed her, and Hannah could still feel the warmth of his lips against hers.
As planned, they visited Bradford Brewery the next day. All the adults went—all sixteen of them.
En masse, they exited the house and made their way to the waiting carriages. Rafe hung back, perhaps hoping he’d be able to ride in the same carriage as her, but at the last minute, Hannah asked Caroline to trade places with her. She used the excuse that she needed to discuss something with Grace on the way to the brewery.
If Rafe realized her intent was to avoid him, he didn’t comment on it. Hannah hoped her bluntness made her position unquestioningly clear. She also hoped that by keeping his distance, he’d decided to abandon his quest for her attention. And she thought she may have succeeded.
Other than being in the same room with her during their visit with Mr. and Mrs. Grayson Delaney, the owners of Bradford Brewery, he didn’t force his attentions on her the entire day. Nor did he find excuses to remain in her company the next day when Caroline had again invited one of the local young ladies to join them.
This second guest was a young widow by the name of Francine Crawley. She seemed close to Rafe’s thirty years and had lost her husband almost two years before. This female showed promise of being a much better match than Caroline’s first guest. The fact that she had two small children was not a deterrent to Lord Rafe as it would have been to other men. He obviously loved children—another reason why Hannah was not suitable for him.
As she watched the two of them interact during the day, Hannah thought that Caroline’s second choice showed promise. The next day, however, she wasn’t as convinced.
She’d shared a few words with Rafe over breakfast, and when she’d asked how he’d enjoyed his time with Mrs. Crawley, his response lacked enthusiasm.
Hannah sat back on one of the several blankets scattered on the ground. Today they were enjoying a picnic by the lake. After everyone ate, there were a half dozen boats tied to the dock, waiting for anyone who wanted to paddle downstream.
Hannah watched as four of the boats made their way across the water.
“I swear,” Grace said, coming to sit on the same blanket where Hannah sat with Caroline, “our husbands have the ability to turn even the simplest entertainment into a challenge.”
“And look,” Caroline said, pointing to the boats skimming the water. “Rafe’s no better. He was one of the first to choose his partner.”
“Yes, Grace,” Mary said from a nearby blanket. “You should feel honored. Rafe got to choose first, and he chose your husband.”
“That guarantees they will be the winners, then,” Josie said from a nearby blanket. “His Grace is in excellent physical condition, and we all know how Lord Rafe spends his free time every winter.”
“How?” Hannah asked.
“Making sure everyone in the parish and surrounding area has enough firewood to keep them warm throughout the winter,” Caroline answered. “Especially the widows and the elderly. Thomas said Rafe has chopped more kindling than most woodcutters.”
Grace and her sisters laughed at that comment, but all Hannah could think of were the hard corded muscles she’d held on to when she’d kissed him.
“What do you think he thought of Mrs. Crawley?” Josie asked. “Did he say anything after she left for home yesterday?”
Caroline shook her head. “All he said was that she was a very nice lady and he sympathized with her over her loss.”
“That doesn’t sound very promising,” Anne said.
“Do you know what Thomas thinks?” Caroline said with a gleam in her eyes. Her question gathered her sisters’ complete attention.
“Thomas thinks the reason Rafe has not been receptive to either of the women I’ve invited is because he is already infatuated with someone.”
“Really?” they all chorused. “Who?”
“Thomas doesn’t know. He tried to encourage Rafe to divulge a name, or at least tell him whether or not there was anyone in particular to whom he was drawn, but he refused to say anything.”
“Oh, isn’t that interesting,” Francie said. “I wonder who it can be?”
The roaring in Hannah’s ears prevented her from hearing anything more. Surely Rafe’s thoughts were shifting away from her. She’d given him no cause to think she’d changed her mind as far as he was concerned. She hadn’t encouraged him in the least. And he’d avoided her for the last two days. Surely that held some significance.
Shouts of excitement pulled her attention back to her surroundings. Grace and her sisters were on their feet and cheering loudly as two of the boats neared shore.
“Can you see who are in the closest boats?” one of the sisters asked.
“Not yet,” another answered. “They are still too far out. But, from the size of the men, my guess would be that Raeborn and Lord Rafe are in the boat that will reach shore first.”
“Who’s in the second boat?” another sister asked.
“I’m not sure,” Caroline answered, “but I think it’s Thomas and Carmody.”
Hannah rose too. She tried not to appear overly interested, but couldn’t help but stare at the two men in the nearest boat. There wasn’t a doubt in her mind that the two men were the Duke of Raeborn and Lord Rafe.
“Do you recognize them, Hannah?” Grace asked when she stepped beside her.
“Yes. Your husband and Lord Rafe clearly won the race.”
“Oh, dear.” Grace sighed. “I’m afraid Raeborn will be ever so difficult to live with for the next few days.”
Hannah looked into her friend’s face and saw a brilliant smile that reflected her delight. She looped her arm around Grace’s arm and gave her a squeeze. “I’m afraid what will be more difficult is the banter and boasting that
we will have to endure from our winners for the remainder of our visit. And the excuses by our losers.”
Grace laughed. “I’m sure you’re right.”
“Come along, Hannah. Let’s go congratulate the winners so they can begin their crowing.”
Hannah wanted to remain behind but couldn’t. Her absence would be noticed. She walked at Grace’s side as they made their way to the edge of the water.
“Well, Your Grace,” the Duke of Raeborn said, pulling his wife into his arms and giving her a quick kiss. “That was quite a race, don’t you think?”
“I doubt Baldwin and Hensley think so.”
Raeborn turned to watch the last boat come to shore. The smile on his face widened. “Poor Baldwin. Wedgewood hinted last night that he was getting a little thick around the middle. I think he even wagered a side bet that the poor chap wouldn’t even be able to finish the race.”
When Raeborn’s shoulders lifted in what appeared to be smug satisfaction, Grace tapped her finger against her husband’s chest. “Need I remind you that humility is a gift to be shared?”
The Duke of Raeborn brought his wife close again and kissed her on the forehead. “Thank you for the reminder, Your Grace. As usual, you are correct to point that out to me.”
“You’re welcome. I simply want you to realize that had you had Lord Baldwin sharing your oar, you wouldn’t be feeling so superior right now. You just had the good fortune to have Lord Rafe at your side.”
“Are you insinuating that Lord Rafe is responsible for our win?”
The Duchess of Raeborn tapped her husband’s cheek with her finger. “Yes, Your Grace. I believe that’s exactly what I’m insinuating.”
Rafe was quick to deny Grace’s compliment, but Raeborn held up his hand to stop him. “She’s right, you know,” he said, clapping Rafe on the back. “Just look at him, ladies. He’s not even winded. I’ll wager he could take another trip around the lake while the rest of us are ready to drop to the ground and catch our breaths.”
Hannah made the mistake of focusing her attention on Rafe. Her heart flipped in her chest.
“I believe you have it right, Your Grace. I believe I would enjoy another turn around the lake, but at a much more leisurely pace.” He nodded in her direction. “Would you care to join me, Miss Bartlett?”
Hannah tried to think up an excuse to avoid being alone with him, but the words refused to form in her mind. He took her failure to decline as acceptance and held out his hand for her to take. She cast Grace a helpless look, then placed her hand on his arm and let him escort her to the boat.
“I’m glad you didn’t refuse,” he said when they reached the shore.
“I should have.” She said the words more as a reprimand to herself than an answer to his comment.
“But you didn’t.”
“No, I didn’t. But I prefer you don’t read anything into my accepting your invitation.”
He stopped to help her into the boat, then assisted her as she sat on the wooden bench. When she was settled, he sat, then reached for the oars and shoved the boat away
from the dock. He didn’t speak again until they were well away from shore. “What I have a difficult time understanding,” he said in a relaxed tone, “is why you refuse to accept what is happening between us.”
“Nothing is happening between us.”
He ignored her and continued. “It’s not as if you find my company distasteful, or that you find me personally objectionable. If you did, our experience when we kissed would have been completely different.”
“I prefer you didn’t mention our kiss.”
“I’m sure you do, Hannah. But I can’t do that.”
“Why not?” Hannah tried as hard as she could to ignore the bulging of his muscles as he pulled back on the oars. Or the way the material of his shirt pressed against his chest when his arms moved. Or the bronzed skin of his exposed forearms because he’d rolled the sleeves of his shirt to his elbows. She realized she’d lost her battle when she was unable to lift her gaze from the V of his open shirt.
“Because the kiss we shared happened to be an important event in our futures.”
“We have no future—” She tried to argue, but he didn’t give her the opportunity to continue.
“Yes, we have a future. And I venture to say it will be a very interesting one.”
“Please take me back.” Coming with him had been a mistake. Debating whether or not they had a future together was pointless. Allowing him to think there was a chance she might change her mind was senseless. “I’d like to return.”
“We can’t,” he said, letting their boat drift to shore. “We’ve reached the other side of the lake, and although I
appreciate everyone’s opinion of my superior strength and endurance, my energy is nearly used up. I’m afraid you’ll have to give me a few minutes to rest before we return.”
Hannah looked to the other side of the lake. It
a long way, and he had just rowed the distance three times. “I’m sorry. I’m sure you are tired. We can rest here a few minutes. Then we must return.”
“Thank you.” He jumped to dry ground, then pulled the boat to shore. “Would you like to stretch your legs for a moment?”
Hannah debated, then let him assist her out of the boat.
She stepped onto dry ground and turned. She was desperate to move beyond his reach. Too desperate. She didn’t look where she was placing her foot and stepped on a half-buried rock.
Her ankle twisted, and before she could regain her balance, she was falling to the ground.
Suddenly, strong, muscular arms caught her around the waist and lifted her in the air. In one swoop, she was in his arms and being carried up the bank.
“Are you all right?” he asked. He didn’t put her down but held her securely against his chest.
“Yes, I’m fine. I just lost my balance.”
He smiled at her. “I’m just glad you didn’t land in the mud. My reputation for chivalry would have been severely tarnished.”
“I’d hate to be the person responsible for the mar against your perfect persona.”
He lowered her to the ground and studied her for a few seconds. “Do you think I aim to be perfect?”
Hannah took a few steps away from him. When she turned back, she found him sitting on the ground. Her heart couldn’t help but race in her breast. He looked so undeniably handsome in a rugged, masculine way. “I don’t think you
to be perfect,” she answered. “I think you just naturally