About the Book
When secrets lurk behind every shadow, she finds her truth in his ocean eyes.
Anna Gibson bends under no constraint. Determined to live by her own rules, she rejects the suitors her aunt presents to her until she meets the one that lights a fire within her.
Convinced he will never find a love like his parents’, Nicholas Wood, Earl of Denmont, must deal with the fact of his lonely heart. When his mother arranges a match for him with Miss Dawson, he is shaken by the feelings awakening inside him... for her cousin.
Anna and Nicholas experience an enthralling passion doomed at its outset; he is promised to another, she longs for the gentleman she cannot have.
Cursed to comply with the arrangements, they must take their fate into their hands. But the truth is not their only enemy. Scandals, attacks, and perilous chases reveal that someone knows more than they let on. And it’s the one pouring the poison in their wounds…
A soft knock on the door interrupted the deafening silence of the room.
Nicholas Wood, the Earl of Denmont, sat comfortably in his vast armchair looking out the window. The gardens were beautiful this time of year. The snow had started to melt last week and now the greenery was glistering under the morning sun. Spring arrived fast this year in London.
“Come in,” he called.
“My Lord,” Borins, the butler, said and bowed. “Your grandfather awaits you in the library. He would like to have a word,” he completed the message he was bringing.
“Thank you, Borins. I will be right there,” Nicholas answered, while standing up.
The situation of his grandfather’s staying at the house was quite complicated.
As is everything about him!
He was a visitor as well as an occupant of the house at the same time. For quite some time now, his frequent visits became something regular for their everyday life at the Manor and they were expected in the same way that dinner was always served at a specific and designated hour.
It was true. Mr. Hubert Phillips was a very complicated person. A successful merchant and businessman, he was always admired as a Lord. He never had a title of his own having been born and raised as a commoner. He had to work hard to achieve his accomplishments. However, so austere and respectful was his standing that he never had to buy the sympathy or earn the sense of belonging amongst the peers of the aristocratic class. It was somehow his natural habitat.
Everyone admired his achievements and asked for his advice. He was always invited to social events and dinner parties that would normally never accept a man of his social standing. He was one of a kind and most importantly he never had to ask for any of this. It was offered to him because he deserved every bit of it.
He was Nicholas’s maternal grandfather, but for the last few years he had been mostly a fatherly figure to him.
Another of his contradicting qualities! Yet, I am always in his debt for that…
Nicholas’s father had died over five years ago. It was sudden and heart-breaking, both for him and his mother. The devastating circumstances of the death as well, did not really help Nicholas get over the loss or accept it. Maybe he did not even have the time to. Freshly out of Cambridge, he was lost in a sea of responsibilities and tasks he had no idea about.
Confronted with the harsh reality of a deceased parent and his ignorance about everything relating to his father’s businesses Nicholas did not really have the luxury to grieve. He had to made sure that his mother was taken care of and that she would continue to live the same life she had been used to, if not a better one.
His grandfather filled this gap with ease and discretion. He was always by Nicholas’s side without ever overstepping his position. He taught him everything he needed to know in terms of conducting business, but at the same time, he aided Nicholas in getting over the passing of his father.
I just wish this was enough.
Even after all these years, Nicholas still couldn’t feel complete and satisfied with himself. He was always feeling like a part of him was missing in his effort to replace his father.
I will never be the man he was.
He sighed at the thought of how happy his father used to make his mother. He was perfect; as a father, a husband, a businessman, a Lord. The late Earl of Denmont was everything that Nicholas found himself lacking at.
The deep sound of his knock on the heavy wooden door dissolved his thoughts.
“Come in,” his grandfather’s voice called from the inside.
Nicholas entered the library. His grandfather and he shared a mutual love for this room. It was vast and comfortable. On the left side, the wall was covered floor-to-ceiling with books and a small spiral metal staircase led to the upper compartment of the room and the highest shelves. The wood of the bookcases was dark brown, elm. The backs of the books contrasted vividly with the dark cases and reflected the light in their varnished covers.
On the other side of the wall was the fireplace – gigantic, even for their standards. On the mantelpiece, his mother liked to put various memorabilia from her travels with his father in the Continent; miniature vases, tiny looking glasses, a magnifying glass, and more. Above the mantelpiece a portrait of his father stood ominously and looked down on the two armchairs and the sofa in front of the fireplace.
The resemblance with Nicholas was extraordinary; same raven black hair, same angles of the face, and identical muscular body. Only his eyes were different. His father’s eyes were honey-brown, while Nicholas had inherited his mother deep blue eyes, which she had inherited herself from the man sitting in one of the armchairs who was right now looking at him.
“Have a sit, son,” his grandfather told him.
“Thank you, sir,” Nicholas answered. He loved the way they addressed one another without the slightest bit of hypocrisy in them. Nicholas liked to call his grandfather sir, but everyone who ever heard him doing so, knew he wasn’t being official. As for son, it was always nice to hear the word ringing in his ears.
“Is something the matter?” Nicholas asked.
“I wanted to talk to you about something important before I leave. I have a meeting later and I thought not to cancel this talk for yet another time,” his grandfather started.
Nicholas only nodded, even though he would have very much liked to ask why this talk was cancelled in the past. It seemed serious and fragile, judging by the tone in his grandfather’s voice, so he chose not to interrupt him.
“Nicholas, I hope you know by now that I would do anything for your happiness and well-being,” he started, without pausing for confirmation. “It is important to understand that I did not make this decision lightly or without serious consideration,” he continued, sparkling Nicholas’s interest and curiosity now.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I seriously believe that you should get married, son,” his grandfather said, looking at him, his white moustache forming a perfect match with his thick, snow-like, straight hair.
Nicholas slipped a giggle. “That was it?” he asked, smiling.
“Am I amusing you, My Lord?” his grandfather picked on him, smiling.
“You certainly are!” Nicholas replied laughing. “Why was it so difficult for you?” Nicholas asked.
“Well, it is a private affair and I didn’t want you to think that I was interfering. But you do not seem to be interested in marriage, at all. And I have been waiting quite a long time to see a sign to that direction from you, but it has never happened,” he replied.
“Oh, it is not that I am not interested, I assure you,” Nicholas said.
He really would not mind being married to someone. And it was certainly not for a lack of trying that he was still unmarried at eight-and-twenty. Most of his college peers had been married for years now, but not him. He had attended soirees, balls, and social gatherings for the last three Seasons in London and all he had managed was to meet fine young ladies whom he could never love.
“What is it, then? You know, you should never let work occupy your mind so, that hinders other affairs,” his grandfather said.
“I just cannot find someone that meets my needs,” Nicholas replied.
“What do you mean by that?”
“I was not aware that loving, caring, intelligent young ladies were so rare. My father must have been very lucky to find the last one.”
“Your mother is indeed lovely and wonderful, Nicholas. I find it very hard to believe, though, that there are no other ladies like her. Are you certain that you have given your acquaintances enough time to reveal their character?” his grandfather asked him.
He was rubbing his chin as he talked, a movement very common to him when he was in deep thought. Nicholas appreciated his concern and the fact that he was dealing with the issue with respect and sincerity.
“I am certain, indeed. It is like they lack some basic element that would make them the one. They are gray when I need color,” he answered.
“Much of a poet, my boy, you are! One would think that the ladies would not be able to resist that!” his grandfather jested.
Nicholas smiled. “Their mothers too, are always so eager to surround me. I swear they come from every direction until they corner me and demand to meet their daughters. And to think that I will have to attend yet another bloody Season this year…” he said and rolled his eyes.
Loud laughter exploded in the room. “This is our punishment, I suppose, for all the young ladies we reject when searching for the colorful one,” his grandfather jested and then continued in a more serious tone. “It is never easy, my boy.”
“I know. I just keep thinking of my parents’ marriage; it was perfect. Maybe that is the reason my expectations are so high.”
“Maybe. Just keep in mind that you are a different person, with different needs.”
Nicholas nodded vaguely; his thoughts were still fixed on the prospect of a London Season.
“And what a person! Titled, wealthy, handsome!” his grandfather jested. “You know, people have managed just fine without all this. Take me for example. I had only my handsomeness to rest upon on my quest!” he said.
They both laughed. After a while, they were serious again and Nicholas turned to look at his grandfather’s face. After examining it a bit he smiled.
“Thank you. For taking care of me, I mean. I know you are right; I just wish there was something I could do about it. Marriage means a lot to me; it’s not just a contract,” he explained.
“I know, boy. I am sure you will find the one when the time comes.”
This man understands me better than anyone.
Later on, after leaving the library with a silent agreement to keep trying to find the one, Nicholas left the house. He needed some air to clear his mind off the previous discussion and certainly he needed some company to help him with that. There was no second thought on the place he would go.
John and James Whitley were twins and Nicholas’s best friends. They had met in Eaton when they were just boys and they had spent the rest of their lives since then by each other’s sides.
They were both blond and tall. Their identical blue eyes made a very nice contrast with their always rosy cheeks which made them look much younger that they actually were. They were close to Nicholas’s age, at seven-and-twenty, but their personal status as bachelors was a choice they had made and not a necessity to which they conformed. They just wanted to enjoy their youth as long as they could.
James was a romantic, while John was more adventurous and free spirit. The first shared Nicholas’s concerns on the issue of finding a wife, but he thought that this attraction would happen instantly. He didn’t believe in conversation and giving the other person a chance to unveil their character. Instead, he appeared to be waiting for a magical moment.
John on the other hand was seemingly unaffected by this entire issue. He never liked or disliked a lady. He attended balls and social gatherings, danced and then did not speak of it afterwards. The process of match-making left him untouched.
I wonder if this is a better or worse tactic. At least I wouldn’t have to be so worried about it all the time…
Nicholas arrived at Kentford Manor after a while. Even though John had responsibilities at the Viscountcy of Saxton, he passed most of his time at the Earldom of his brother. They both made trips to Saxton every now and then to both settle their affairs there and hunt. Saxton was an ideal place for hunting, been so close to the forest. Nicholas had been there with them a few times in the past and he really enjoyed his stay.
“Good evening,” he said to the butler who bowed deep in his presence.
“Good evening, My Lord,” the butler replied. “The young Lords are in the study. Please, follow me,” he said and turned around. His visits to their house were frequent, so he didn’t bother to make a formal request for his friends.
The study was naturally lit through the tall windows of the room. John was sitting close to the fireplace and James was behind the desk, reading. They turned to see the butler announce Nicholas through the open door and then bowing and leaving the room.
“Is everything all right?” John asked him. “You look concerned.”
“I am, I guess,” Nicholas replied.
“What is the matter?” James asked and left his chair to join them close to the fireplace.
“My grandfather approached me today to talk to me about marriage. He thinks I should wed soon and that maybe I have postponed finding a wife due to work and my duties,” Nicholas said, briefly describing the conversation he had with his grandfather.
“Only if he knew how hard it is. They just look at us as moving titles. And those mothers… Oh! They are ruthless,” James said.
“He is worried about you, is he not?” John asked.
“I think he is afraid that I will let go and give up trying,” Nicholas said. “How awful to have to join the Season another year.”
“Come, now. It’s not that bad! We could actually have fun,” John proposed, but he failed to convince him. From what Nicholas could see in James arched eyebrows, he was in disbelief as well.
“I say we forget about it for now. We will deal with the stiffness of the Season when we have to,” James proposed. “Let’s go for a ride, shall we?”
Anna Gibson sat next to the window and stared at the grounds outside. The sun was bright and the trees looked nice now that the snow had melted; as if they had taken their coats off. The weather was ideal for an outing.
And I have to stay confined in the house again.
They had returned from their annual visit to the Udenveils, in Paris. They were an old couple which her aunt, Caroline Dawson, the Dowager Baroness of Wingham, had befriended many years ago. Around this time, after New Year and before the London Season, she, her aunt, and her cousin Emilia would take the trip to the South and spend about a month in France.
It was nice, but it could certainly be better. Apparently, every European society had its own set of rules and decorum, each one restraining and unreasonable. The hope she’d had to see a sort of looseness in that foreign country – having heard so much of the progressive attitude of many Parisian ladies – was destroyed the very first year she had been there.
It was the winter after her parents’ passing. Her aunt had thought that a trip would be a good idea to cheer her up, but it was the last thing that Anna actually wanted.
Maybe this is the reason I hate France so much…
The memories of her parents’ disease and later death were still fresh and her wounds still open. She knew that consumption was a very common disease – they had heard of people getting it and dying – but she never believed that it could happen to them. It was fast and heart-breaking, and she was only five-and-ten years of age.
Now, four years later she still despised those trips that only managed to repress her more than her aunt already did. The rules were many and mostly illogical and they seemed to have been made this way to reassure young ladies that they could never do as they pleased.
Anna missed her old life. She was raised to love her freedom and take advantage of every chance she got to experience new things. She used to be able to do so many things; she went fishing with her father, travelled, went to long walks with her mother around the grounds of their estate. She was happy back then, she knew it now.
Although an only child, she was never lonely; her parents always made sure to surround her with love and affection.
When she came to live with her aunt and cousin, she was at first quite upset due to all the staff in the house. People were coming and going on a daily basis, checking in on her needs, serving her, talking to her.
The most bizarre novelty of her new life, though, was the lady’s maid. Her aunt had deemed it appropriate and necessary for Anna to have her own lady’s maid, a woman approximately her age, named Mary. Anna had opposed the idea at first, but there was little she could do. She was used to doing everything on her own, dress, comb her hair, and bath, and she found no use in having someone else do it for her. But her aunt was unwavering.
Today, four years later, Anna was glad her aunt had insisted. Mary understood her better than anyone and she was always there when she needed her. Not only for the mundane things of her everyday life, but also for the naughtiest of her moments.
My sweet Mary. Always has my back…
But Emilia was always very supportive. Her cousin, a lovely lady, two years younger than Anna, was her best friend and the sister she never had. Since she had come to live with them, Emilia was always by her side. Supportive, caring and funny to no end, she had made Anna’s new life go from bearable to utterly enjoyable.
Anna turned from her view out the window to look at her cousin’s face. Emilia, as if she had felt the stare, raised her head from her needlework and returned Anna’s gaze.
“What is it, dear?” she asked her.
“Nothing. I was just admiring your beauty,” Anna jested.
Emilia blushed and giggled. “Well, I thank you, My Lady, for your fine words. And now come and take the needle, before Mama comes in and sees you aren’t working on your piece,” she said and pointed to the needlework left on the sofa.
Anna groaned. “Just a bit more. She won’t come to check in so soon,” she said and hoped it was true.
Emilia shook her head and smilingly, got back to her work. As she moved her head, Anna took a glimpse of her shinning blonde hair as it reflected the light coming through the window. She was so beautiful; her blue eyes sparkled like sapphires and her porcelain white skin made her look like a doll. Her high neck was beautiful and when her hair was picked up high she was like a proud dove.
Anna did not look much like her cousin. She had inherited her mother’s auburn hair and brown eyes, and while her skin was as white as Emilia’s, her rosy cheeks flushed it cheerfully almost at any time. But she was happy with the resemblance. Not only because she was a fine lady, but also because she was carrying a living image of her beloved mother wherever she went. Every time someone told her that she looked just like her mother, a feeling of pride filled her heart.
Oh, Mother, how much I miss you…
They used to spend such beautiful time together. Even the tasks Anna disliked the most, such as needlework, became instantly more interesting when her mother was around. She used to jest about things or tell her stories, and by the time she was done, time would have passed so enjoyably.
What she missed the most, though, was horse riding. For some reason, her aunt was absolutely opposed to this idea. She was pleased, of course, that she knew how to ride, as – according to her – it was always useful to accompany a gentleman when he requests for such an outing. But a young woman riding alone and, what’s more, for pleasure, that was out of the question.
Everyone expected young ladies to ride as if this was a social demand or duty performed dully and emotionlessly. But Anna was not a lady – she never had been – and she liked to ride like a force of nature. She took the utmost pleasure when the wind was whipping her face causing her hair to fall loose on her back, unable to resist the power of her speed. She enjoyed feeling the horse’s muscles underneath her legs while it ran and its warmth emitted in waves. She liked running her fingers through the mane of the animal and feeling the softness of the hairs.
“Do you think we can convince Aunt Caroline to take us horse riding since the weather is so nice?” Anna asked Emilia.
“Don’t get your hopes up, love. If we are lucky, we might get a picnic,” Emilia answered, confirming what Anna already knew.
“What is the point of having the stables and the horses, then?”
“I am sure we will go, when it is appropriate for our lady-like quest for a husband!” Emilia said laughing.
Anna rolled her eyes. “Is everything happening to find a match then?” she asked.
“I am afraid so, love. But don’t fret. I will make sure we meet plenty of horse-riding enthusiasts this Season. Even if we do not find matches, we will certainly enjoy the process for once!” Emilia replied.
Anna jumped from her seat and hugged her. “Oh! I love you so much! These boring events are better with you. Do you think we can find a prospective suitor for every day of the week so we could ride every day?” Anna asked excited.
“That is a very ambitious plan, dear!” Emilia said and laughed.
“Did you see the newest horse?” Anna asked.
It was usual for the ton to buy expensive things at this time of the year, just to show off to their peers. It was a silent display of ability, shared among the families aiming to wed their children this Season. So, a few days ago, her aunt had bought a new horse which Anna had been dying to ride.
She was strictly forbidden to, though, since the horse was still quite young and scared to accept riders on its back. The stableman had to train it first and only after it was deemed appropriate and well-behaved enough that the young ladies would ride it. But Anna could not wait so long.
“I did. Beautiful, is it not?” Emilia replied.
“Indeed. I wonder how long it will take until I am allowed to ride it,” she said.
Suddenly, they heard steps from outside and Anna sprinted to her seat on the sofa and took her needlework. When they heard the knock on the door, it was like she had never left the spot.
“Come in,” Emilia called, after casting a look at her cousin, probably to make sure that Anna was seated and holding her needlework correctly.
It was one of the maids, Keira.
“My Ladies,” she said and curtsied. “Lady Wingham asked me to bring you the tea before she went to bed,” she added, bringing in a tray with a pot and cups.
“She is in bed?” Anna asked.
This is a golden opportunity!
“Yes, My Lady. She was feeling a bit fatigued and she withdrew a while ago,” Keira answered.
“I hope she feels better soon,” Anna told her cousin. “Thank you, Keira.”
When the maid left the room, Anna stood and made it to the door.
“Where on earth are you going, Annie?” Emilia called, calling her by the nickname she had made for her. Only she called her Annie, and truthfully, Anna would have never permitted anyone else to.
“I am going to the stables. I will train that mare myself, since it is taking the stableman so long,” she replied.
“Anna, don’t go all by yourself, dear. It is cold outside. You will catch a cold,” Emilia warned her.
“Don’t fret, my love. I will be warmly dressed and back in no time. Make sure to cover for me if anyone asks, all right? I will be back before Aunt Caroline awakes from her nap,” she said and left the room.
In the cloak room, she chose the warmest of her cloaks with the fur around the hood and on the inside of the garment. She wore her riding gloves, but did not change clothes. She did not want to lose any of the precious time she got, so she decided to ride wearing her morning dress.
As long as I ride…
She would always be thankful to her Aunt Caroline for taking her in, provide everything for her and really doing her best to raise her according to her status. And Anna had made sacrifices for her aunt’s sake as well; she had given up most of the occupations she had during her early age and had tried to conform according to her rules and ways. But giving riding up was too much to bear.
This impulse she had for riding, this unprecedented urge was like a fire always lit in her soul. On the horse she felt more like herself, close to her past but also hopeful for the future. It was everything to her.
She went out to the cold air of the afternoon. The sun was deceivingly shining, but not warming at all. She grasped the endings of her cloak and held them tight in front of her body as she made her way to the stables.
When inside, she inhaled the familiar and loving scent of horses. The stables were clean and the floor was freshly washed, but the smell of soap could not cover up the divine scent coming from the bodies of the horses. She wanted to give each and every one of them a stroke, but she realized that her time was limited and precious. So, instead, she made her way to the newest member of the family, the mare who still had not gotten a name.
It was an extraordinary animal; white, with silver mane, muscular. It had a raw beauty; part of it must have been due to its wildness. She could not help but stare at it and the mare stared back. The intensity of its gaze woke her up as if she was dreaming and she got the saddle fast.
After a while, the horse was saddled and ready to go. Thankfully, Anna’s father had taught her how to treat horses and prepare them for riding. You never know when you will be asked to ride, he had said. And he was right.
I wonder why the stableman said this is a particularly difficult horse. She seems nice and obedient to me…
Anna rode the horse out of the stables. While still close to the house, she rode as silently as she could, but when she made it out of the estate’s grounds she speeded, spooning the horse on the sides. The mare started running fast and Anna welcomed the nice feeling of the wind on her face. It pierced her clothes and penetrated her skin, freezing her, but she enjoyed it nonetheless.
The muscles of the horse’s body were stiff and strong under her legs and she could feel them moving even under the saddle. Anna bent over and whispered in its ear; reassuring words full of admiration and love.
The country was spectacular. The grass was green and fresh from the recently melted snow; the sun shone in a clear blue sky and not a single cloud was seen around. The high trees which were recovering from the heavy winter occupied the sides of the open field. It was a blessing to live so close to nature but at the same time not far from the town; London was only a half-an-hour ride with the carriage. Wingham was so conveniently positioned among the suburbs of the capital that it could serve both locations.
Anna rode fiercely for quite some time. However, she realized that she had better get back before the sun sets; it was tea time and her aunt would surely be awake by then. She turned around and rode toward the house which was not visible right now. The field was silent and she paused to inhale the beauty of the moment.
After a while, she increased speed again and rode to the east. Suddenly, loud voices and clops were heard in the distance. Anna tried to concentrate, but she was riding fast and the sound of her own horse’s clopping was covering the other sounds. When she had thought that the voices had ceased, three men came riding out of the forest and toward her direction. They were racing and yelling and laughing. They startled her to no end and not only her, unfortunately.
Her horse reared into the air fiercely at the sense of someone else’s presence. It neighed loudly and reared again and again, while Anna tried to keep herself on its back. It was obvious that she had lost control of it and the crucial thing right now was to manage and stay on it. Her balance had vital and grave importance at that moment.
“Easy, girl,” she said trying to calm the mare.
The men who had raced by her were now in front of her, but they were only two now. Suddenly she felt a touch on her gloved hand and she snapped to her right startled.
A pair of blue eyes stared into her own and she looked at the most handsome man she had ever seen.
“There,” he said with a low, deep, coarse voice, touching her horse slightly. The sound of it was like a song to her ears and Anna felt an intense clench in her stomach. She wanted to hear his voice again and for some reason, she wanted him to say her name.
The man grabbed the reins of her horse, after positioning his own vertically so as not to fret the already spooked animal. After a while, his reassuring voice and his gentle touch calmed the horse down. Then he turned to look at Anna again.
“Are you all right, My Lady?” he asked.
She only nodded in response; she could not speak. His hands were still on her reins and as she made to take them, their hands touched. She felt as if a force had developed between them, like their touch had released another body. The man must have felt it too, because his head snapped at the touch.
He smiled at her and was about to say something, but she quickly grabbed her reins and spurred her horse. The mare reacted immediately to her calling and she started riding again, away from the alluring stranger.
“Wait!” she heard him calling after her. She did not turn back.
Nicholas was left on the field alone, watching the most wonderful creature he had ever laid eyes on escape.
A few hours prior, they had indeed set off with the twins, each on a horse. Nicholas had initially thought that they would just go around their grounds which were quite vast to accommodate an evening ride. However, after a while, their ride had turned into a race and they had gone through a forest on the northern side which connected two different parts of the county.
They were being a bit naughty and risky, riding fast amongst the trees of the forest, chasing one another. They had done this many times in the past, so Nicholas was not worried. All three of them were excellent and quite experienced riders. But the last thing he expected was to find a young lady on the field riding alone.
When they had exited the forest on the other side of it, he had immediately seen her. She had turned around, obviously startled by their arrival. Then, her horse was spooked and he feared for her; the animal was wild and she clearly was not in the position to take back control. His heart was racing at every rear of the animal; at any time, it could toss the lady off its back and injure her or worse, step on her.
He approached her, calmly and silently, so as not to scare the animal; the last thing he wanted was to make it feel threatened. When he spoke to it, the young lady turned to look at him and suddenly Nicholas forgot how to breathe.
She was gorgeous. Her burning red hair cascaded down her shoulders in waves, and tufts of it were in front of her eyes, like flames against her white skin. Her eyes were brown and piercing; her gaze was unprecedented.
No one has looked at me this way before… Lord, I could do anything for those eyes.
Her face had the shape of a heart; round on the upper part, high rose cheeks, and a small pointy chin. Above her chin, a pair of fleshy rose lips challenged him to touch and nip them. She was by far the most extraordinary creature he had ever seen.
When he calmed her horse, he seized the opportunity to talk to her, know her name, hear her voice, get to know her. But first, he made sure that she was all right. She did not seem to have hurt herself, but he needed to be sure. Then he would not miss his chance. This was once in a lifetime that it happened, he was certain about it.
I now understand what James means about instant love… Damn me, if I fail to know this lady…
Then their hands accidentally touched and he was in shock. Something happened there, a force stronger than the both of them hit them with unprecedented strength and he immediately withdrew his hand, scared. The lady flinched as well.
She felt it, too… This is unreal, magical.
And then she left. Before he had the time to realize what was happening, the lady had turned her horse and left. She sprinted through the field and toward the other side he had come from, without looking back. He blinked in an attempt to realize what was going on, but she was already far away.
He thought about chasing after her, but he immediately changed his mind. He did not want her to feel unsafe or threatened. In addition, someone could have been waiting for her at the other side of the field. What would happen if they saw a man riding after her? He could embarrass her or worse, scar her name and tarnish her reputation if she was unmarried. Which he hoped she was.
I must find her. I must know her.
And to think how bold she was! She did not seem frightened by him or the incident with her horse at all. Worried, yes, maybe, but frightened, not in the slightest. She was calm and she was not expecting any help; he could tell he had surprised her when he got the reins of her horse.
She was fierce!
The twins neared him. They had continued to race when he stopped to help the mysterious lady and he had lost them for a while. Now he could hear the clops of their horses coming closer, but he could not turn to face them. His gaze was fixed on the spot where the lady had vanished from his sight and her white dress flew into the air behind her.
“What is the matter?” James asked him.
“I think I am in love,” Nicholas answered, his eyes still on the horizon.
Anna made it back home without remembering how she got there. Her return ride happened as if in a cloud of uncertainty. She could not take her mind off of the young gentleman she had met on the field. Of course, met was an understatement since she did not give him time to even tell her his name.
What had gotten into me?
She was shaken by the intensity of their gaze and the feelings she got inside her when she looked at his face. He was gorgeous; nice little hairs grew on his cheeks and chin, and she wanted to touch them and fill the pointy edges picking on her palm. His blue eyes contrasted with his pitch-black hair and bushy eyebrows. But most of all, it was his smile that had gotten into her.
His teeth were straight and shiny apart from one on the left side which was a bit crooked; it cupped the one next to it, giving him such a perfect imperfection that she could barely resist the urge to lick it. She was so close to him that she could have done it. Now she wished that she had done something.
What if I never see him again? Who was he?
Not many people rode on that field and certainly not strangers or commoners.
I might never see him again.
These thoughts occupied her mind as she made her way back to the house. So overwhelmed was she, that she had totally forgotten about her aunt, her nap, and the tea. The incident on the field had delayed her return more than she had realized and when she got into the house she was in for a big surprise.
Her aunt was just crossing the Great Hall to the parlor when she entered through the back door. She saw her, hair disheveled, dress stained by mud, and her riding gloves still on.
“You are not serious, Anna!” she called. Her face had changed expressions within seconds from surprised to angry.
“Aunt Caroline…” Anna started, but she had nothing more to say than that. She had not even prepared a good-enough excuse to tell her aunt in this case. She had been so sure that she would be back before any of this had any chance to happen that she did not bother to.
“You went riding without my permission! Again!” her aunt said, but she did not yell. Usually, she would raise her voice but she did not. Anna wondered why.
“I am sorry, Aunt Caroline. I wanted to ride the new horse…” she said, even though she was not really sorry. She was glad she had done it, she just regretted upsetting her aunt. Many times she felt as if she was letting her down and she despised that feeling. It was just over her power to stop riding. She wanted to be free.
“The new horse! That is even worse than I expected. It is not trained, Anna. You could have hurt yourself,” she scolded her. Anna decided that instant not to tell her aunt about what happened on the field. It would just confirm her accusation and it would do no good. It would only worry her more.
“And having Emilia lie for you! That is unacceptable, Anna,” her aunt continued.
So, Emilia had tried to cover my absence with an excuse.
“I know. I am sorry,” Anna said.
“We will discuss it later. Now go to your room and change this disgusting dress. Do not come down for tea. I think it’s best that Lady Thinsdale does not see this,” she said.
So, this is the reason behind the low voice… Maybe this is better for me.
“Yes, Aunt Caroline,” she said and made her way up the stairs.
Flashing images of the gentleman’s blue eyes came rushing through her mind. He was so handsome and alluring. But the most important element was how he made her feel just by voicing some words or looking at her or accidentally touching her. She felt a giant clench in her stomach and tiny little piercings on her skin.
I wonder if he is joining the Season too… Or maybe he is already married.
Anna closed the door behind her and stood against it. She was stunned by her own thoughts. Never before had she wondered about the marital status of any man, because she was determined to remain unmarried. If her aunt constantly opposed her wishes and desires to be free and adventurous, what were the chances that a husband would not?
A husband would expect certain things from her, things that made her feel as stiff as a log, such as hosting dinners and acting according to society’s expectations of her. She would have to accompany her husband everywhere and pretend to like people she despised. Certainly, she would not be permitted to ride horses fiercely in fields or go on long, exhausting walks up the hill.
A marriage would be the end of her freedom and she knew that. This was why she only pretended to enjoy the Season, while she had an agreement with her cousin to drive off every possible candidate who attempted to court her. Emilia had a gift of knowing what annoyed them and deliberately using it to get rid of them. Some of her schemes included pretending to be bad at dancing, talking constantly without stopping for breath, and pretending to be sick.
She would always have a laugh about it with Emilia when they saw their terrified faces, but something had changed now. She did not want to act in any of these ways in front of this young gentleman. She was embarrassed to even think about it and suddenly felt childish.
He was different…But I must resist. No one can have my freedom.
Nicholas went home late that evening, when the sun had sunk for good.
The incident at the field had occupied his mind the entire trip back home. He was in such a dilemma; on one hand he scolded himself for not catching up with the lady just enough to ask her for her name. On the other hand, he was feeling protective of her and feared for the consequences.
His emotions scaled up and down, but one thing was for sure; he had to find out who that lady was. He had asked the twins about her, describing her as best as he could but they did not seem to know anything about her. They were far from their estate and there were quite many families living around that area.
I will find her, even if that means that I have to knock door after door to ask after her…
Upon his return, he was informed that his mother was waiting for him in the drawing room. He decided to see her right away as he had missed dinner, so there was no use changing now. He would eat alone in his room probably and then have a bath and go straight to bed.
“Good evening, Mother,” Nicholas said and pecked her on the cheek.
“Good evening, my love,” she replied. “Have a seat.”
He sat across from her, but the warmth of the fireplace was too much for him after the ride. He moved his chair a bit and felt immediately better.
“I spoke to your grandfather before he left,” his mother told him. Maria Wood, the Dowager Countess of Denmont was always discreet and proper. She would never push him to an uncomfortable position; she just made this kind of introductions and depending on his answer would pursue the subject or leave it.
“He spoke about my marital status?” Nicholas asked amused.
“He did. He is quite worried, you know, and so am I,” she said gravely.
“Don’t be, Mother, really. I just have not found the right one yet. Or maybe I have, I do not really know,” he said.
“What do you mean by that?”
“I had a strange encounter today, while riding,”
“Were you not with the Whitleys?” she asked perplexed.
“I was, indeed. We went riding, but we strayed quite a bit from their grounds and came upon a young lady,” Nicholas said. He narrated the incident to his mother, and described the feisty young lady who had amazed him. “I think I would like to know her better, Mother,” he said, ending his narration.
Or wake up next to her for the rest of my life…
“That is very interesting, my love, but you should really not base your judgments on such few information. You know nothing about that young lady, not even her name. Should you not be more careful?” she asked.
Nicholas had not even thought about it. His excitement was so powerful that it had overshadowed every doubt and second thought he would normally have. All he could think about was that auburn hair and piercing eyes which had captured his heart.
“I guess,” he answered, just to appear sane. He was realizing that it was not very reasonable on his part to make such radical decisions based on such an incident. But he also knew what he felt, that it was something he had never felt before and he seriously doubted that he would even feel it again.
“I’m glad that you seem to take your marriage intentions seriously, though. This is certainly a very welcoming attitude,” she said kindly.
“Thank you, My Lady,” Nicholas jested, smiling.
“I won’t pressure you on this, since I know now you are taking care of it. I trust you,” she said and smiled.
Nicholas smiled back and he stood up to withdraw. He had a lot to think about and he wanted to be alone for a while.
“You will excuse me, now. I need to change,” he said and kissed his mother on the cheek again.
“Of course, dear,” she said. “Oh! I almost forgot. We have visitors tomorrow,” she announced.
Nicholas casted her an inquiring look.
“The Dowager Baroness of Wingham is coming. She just came back from Paris and I haven’t seen her for over a month! We will have dinner together. Would you be so kind to join us?” she asked.
Nicholas did not have a reason to refuse the proposal, so he said yes.
“Excellent! She is bringing her lovely daughter, Miss Dawson, with her. Such a divine beauty! Now that your quest for a bride is so active, you might as well take Miss Dawson under consideration. You two would be just perfect together,” she said.
Nicholas felt cornered. This was a scheme, a well-prepared plan on his mother’s part to get him into conversations of marriage with a lady of her choice. It was a bit insulting, but he knew that she meant well.
I wish she had not made any arrangements, but I cannot possibly say no to her…
“Surely, Mother. I look forward to it,” he said and left the room.
While ascending the large staircase of their house, Nicholas’s mind turned again to the auburn-haired lady. He wondered whether he was betraying his feelings by accepting this dinner invitation, but he felt naïve just thinking of it.
How can I betray a person that I do not even know?
And yet, he felt so guilty that he would devote even a minute of his time to another lady but her.
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