Genre: Victorian Romance
Book 3 in the Gypsy Legacy Series
A panther. A prince. A promise. Can destiny tie the knot?
During a magical childhood summer, a gypsy woman gave Lady Amanda Cookeson a black panther statuette, promising that the man who came to claim it would also claim her heart. Amanda believes the Earl of Wynton is the prince she has awaited. Yet his reluctance to declare them anything more than friends leaves her wondering if she waited in vain.
If he wasn’t the last of his line, Jon Kenton, Earl of Wynton, wouldn’t marry at all. Since leaving his inheritance to the Crown is out of the question, however, he is compelled to search for the statuette his great-grandmother promised him. His quest leaves him empty handed—and secretly relieved. Finding the statuette would mean embracing the gypsy roots he has long denied.
Amanda is perfect countess material: lovely, admirable and—he thinks—statueless. Their passion is unquenchable…until the gypsy magic Jon thought he’d buried nearly destroys his future with Amanda.
Warning: Trying to outrun your destiny is dangerous to your beloved’s health, but a little bit of the right drug goes a long way.
Gypsy Legacy: The Earl
Lake District, August 1853
The two little girls traipsed blithely through the gypsy camp, giggling at some private joke. No one spared them more than a cursory glance as they went by in shifts rendered nearly transparent from swimming in the lake. The smaller of the two had golden ringlets streaming down her back, but the other’s hair was the blue-black of a raven’s wing.
Mira looked up as the two girls approached, and smiled. They had been camped in this place for nearly three weeks now and she was glad Caro had made a friend. ’Twas fortunate the other little girl did not know why her mother brought her to the camp each day then left her to her own devices, but Mira would not decry the fates who saw fit to provide Caro with a playmate.
“And what is so funny, little ones?” She greeted each girl with a length of cloth to dry themselves and their hair.
“A fish tried to eat Katie’s toe,” Caro told her with a big grin. “Didn’t you hear her scream?”
“I did not scream,” Katie interrupted in seven-year-old indignation.
“Yes, you did,” Caro replied with all the confidence of one who was a year older. “And I’ll bet Mira heard you too.”
Mira had not heard any scream, nor had any of the others, she was sure. Otherwise the boys, whom she knew were not far away, would have gone to investigate. Sixteen-year-old JoJo was inordinately protective of his little sister.
“I heard no scream,” she said now, and received a brilliant smile and adoring look from Katie’s blue eyes.
Caro’s eyes, a darker blue and more intense, studied Mira for a moment before she conceded, “Well, maybe she didn’t scream that loud. But it was funny.”
Mira glanced up at the sky, noting the lateness of the day. They would break camp early tomorrow and leave this place. She hoped Caro would not miss her friend too much.
Katie sat on a blanket, accepted the comb Mira handed her and began working it through her tangled locks. Caro didn’t bother with her own wild mane, but sat beside her friend and, using a comb, began to work on the other side.
It was a familiar ritual and Mira watched the girls fondly as they worked to restore order to Katie’s long, golden tresses. Soon the hair was combed smooth and re-plaited into the same two plaits she’d worn when she arrived. A short time later, her shift was dry enough for her to put her blue and white dress back on, then her stockings and shoes. Suddenly she was a young lady again.
Across the camp, the shuvani emerged from her vardo and Caro got up and ran to greet her. Hair as black as Caro’s flowed down her back, streaked liberally with grey. Old before her time, but wise beyond her years, Nona possessed high cheekbones beneath wrinkled brown skin and alert dark eyes. Nona was the leader of their small band—the final word on where they went and what they did. And she was Caro’s great-grandmother.
As the two approached, Mira could hear Caro recounting the fish story to Nona, and was relieved when Nona did not laugh within Katie’s hearing. “Now you must say goodbye to your little friend, Caro,” Nona said as they stopped. “We will be leaving early tomorrow, for it is time for you to return home as well.”
The two little girls dutifully gave each other hugs under Nona’s warm regard and said goodbye, then Nona sent Caro off to find her older sister, while Nona sat beside Katie. She was holding a parcel, which she handed to the little girl. Mira left the two of them alone.
“I am sorry we must leave you, little Katie,” Nona said, “but I have given you a very special present.”
Katie unwrapped the heavy brown paper and found a small statuette of a black cat with green stones for eyes. “A kitty?”
Nona smiled. “Yes. A very big kitty. It is a panther—a big kitty found in a faraway place.”
“Yes.” Nona’s smile broadened. “It is yours. And it is magic too. Just as real panthers are fierce and protective, so will this one be for you. It will keep you safe, and some day it will bring you your prince.”
“A prince?” Katie’s eyes grew round with wonder, and Nona glimpsed the beauty she would become.
A feeling of rightness settled in Nona’s heart. She had not wanted to come this far north this year. It was farther than her small band had traveled in a very long time, but the cards decreed they should come here, and now, looking at the small child beside her, she did not doubt the cards had been right again.
“Yes, a gypsy prince. He will be your destiny. When you get to be a big girl, you must only marry your gypsy prince.”
Katie nodded happily. “JoJo,” she stated. “I’m going to marry JoJo when I grow up. Then Caro will be my big sister.” Setting aside her statuette for a moment, she gave Nona a hug.
Nona laughed and hugged her back, enjoying the feel of the small warm body. “You will know when you find him,” was all she said.
London, April 1867
The Earl of Wynton was trapped.
Surveying the luxury around him, he had to admit it did not look like any prison he’d ever imagined. Royal blue velvet floor-to-ceiling drapes framed large windows overlooking the front of Waring House, yet he could hear none of the noise of the street. A plush cream-colored rug covered the floor, matching the cream and blue silk striped wallcovering. A large gilded mirror hung over the fireplace to his left, the mantel sporting a small gold and white porcelain clock which proclaimed the time as five minutes past six. Scattered throughout the room were various pieces of furniture, all upholstered in cream and blue. At the far end sat a piano, the bench with its back to the wall so the player faced the room. He wondered briefly if his sister had shaken her dislike of playing for large gatherings.
He should have recognized the possible trap in the carefully worded note he received earlier, but he hadn’t. Instead he had blithely arrived for tea with his youngest sister, Felicia, Duchess of Warringham, only to find his other sister, Tina, Marchioness of Thanet, also in attendance. His jailers might be friendly, but they were still bent on his confinement.
He was slipping. Three years ago, before he left for a tour of the Continent, he would never have fallen for such a tactic. But returning to London after an extended absence, he had not questioned how his sisters knew he’d returned, nor was he suspicious of the invitation he received.
He mentally kicked himself for returning at this particular time. Perhaps that’s where he’d failed. But he had become restless. He was not willing to admit to being homesick, but the wanderlust which prompted him to pick up and go three years ago had waned and he found himself missing home and family. Now, however, he wondered if he should have resisted the pull—at least for a few more months until the Season was over.
Not that he didn’t love his sisters. He did. He’d felt keenly the responsibility left to him to ensure their happiness, and taken it seriously. With Felicia it meant using force, as his great-grandmother had hinted, but the results were well worth the discomfort he had felt at the time at doing so.
“Jon!” His musings were interrupted by the object of his thoughts. “You are not paying attention.”
Eyeing the figure perched across from him on a cream damask upholstered sofa, he was struck by the changes in her over the past three years. Her ebony hair was still thick and lustrous, blue eyes bright under dark winged brows in a creamy complexion. Physically, she looked much the same, but the young, insecure girl of nineteen he’d left behind had been replaced by a mature, confident woman of twenty-two. Secure in her position at the pinnacle of London society, she seemed to have shed her personal doubts concerning her background. He wished he could do the same.
“No, I’m not,” he told her. Leaning forward, he replaced the gold-rimmed porcelain teacup on its saucer and set them both down on the low table before him. “I did not return home only to have the two of you immediately begin matchmaking. If and when I decide to marry, it will be to the woman of my choosing.”
“What about your… What did Nona give you, anyway?” Having merely been a spectator so far, Tina finally joined the conversation, and Jon shifted his attention to her for a moment.
Petite and dark-haired like Felicia, but six years older, she was the calm one. The one who always seemed under control. If she was excited about something, her large aquamarine eyes would sparkle, but never did she radiate the same kind of energy Felicia did. Sitting on a blue sofa that matched the one Felicia occupied, she took a sip of her tea as she regarded him speculatively.
“Or, more to the point, what are you supposed to be looking for?” Felicia asked.
He sat back in his chair and eyed the two of them warily.
“I don’t know that I should tell you,” he answered. “You’ll only hound me for the rest of the Season.”
“We wouldn’t do that, would we?” Tina asked Felicia, and smiled serenely when Felicia shook her head emphatically, causing her dark curls to seem in danger of tumbling out of her elegant coiffure.
“Of course we wouldn’t. But I’m sure we could be of some help. After all, we know most of the young women out now. I would wager we already know our future sister-in-law.”
Jon could not dispute that statement, but the wide-eyed innocent look on her face set off warning bells in his head. He knew better than to trust either of them. Happily married, they only wanted the same for him, but their method of doing so would require that he fall in love with his future wife—something he had no intention of doing. He only needed to find the young woman who possessed the statuette and decide whether he would offer for her. His title and wealth ensured that whoever she was, if he offered she’d accept—or rather her parents would—and all would be well.
He was under no illusions about his value on the marriage mart. Most families would welcome him with open arms, regardless of his tainted background. He would be satisfied with that. Love, as he saw it, required letting go and opening yourself up to too much emotional instability. It made no sense whatsoever. As a man of science, logic and reason were his cornerstones. Things that didn’t fit those models—like love and destiny—didn’t belong in his world. He’d often observed that women who thought they were in love tended to become too dependent upon their husbands. Even his own sisters seemed to have succumbed at one time or another. He wanted someone he could hold an intelligent conversation with—not a limpet.
When his great-grandmother, a Romany shuvani, told him shortly before her death six years ago that she had given his statuette—the one she had promised would someday be his—to the woman she’d determined to be his destiny, he nearly swore in frustration. A firm believer in fate and destiny, her actions should not have surprised him. In fact, he should have expected that she would fulfill her promise in a roundabout way.
“Maybe it would be better if you let me find this person myself,” he suggested now. “After all, Nona expected me to.” Nona also expected him to marry the person. Something he was not inclined to do. He wanted a reasonable marriage built on mutual respect, and a wife who would not demand too much. While he expected to be faithful to his vows and expected his wife to do the same, it did not mean they had to live in each other’s pockets.
“True, but maybe she knew you’d need some help,” Tina reasoned. “That’s why we had to be married first. So we’d be able to devote the time to helping you.” He could not fault her logic, but could hear his mental teeth grinding.
It wasn’t that he didn’t want them to know. He’d actually considered how they could possibly help him identify the woman. The problem was that his goals were very different from what they expected them to be. If he didn’t tell them, however, he’d never hear the end of the speculation and they might let something slip which would alert whoever had his figurine.
“So,” Felicia repeated, “what are you looking for?”
Jon looked into her eyes, bright with curiosity, and barely refrained from shaking his head. He was convinced he’d never find the woman otherwise. After all, he couldn’t picture any young lady carrying it about with her. It would never fit into a reticule. And there was no harm in looking around for what was left of the Season.
He sighed. “Very well, but if you know who has it, you have to promise not to tell me unless I can’t discover it on my own.”
Tina stared at him quizzically. “Then what would be the benefit of us knowing what you are looking for?”
His smile was more of a grimace. “Perhaps to let me know if I’m showing interest in the wrong person,” he responded, then added hastily, “when I decide to be interested, that is.”
“Very well,” Felicia said at last, “but I reserve the right to tell you if I think it’s best. After all, it might be better at the outset if you did your own discovering, but if complications arise you might need to know.”
The clamor in Jon’s head got louder with her last pronouncement. “Such as?”
“Suppose she’s already engaged or, heaven forbid, married. Maybe she’s put whatever it is away somewhere, lost it, or doesn’t remember it.”
Jon admitted she had a point. What would he do if the woman hadn’t waited? He’d consider himself lucky to have escaped. But he still wanted the figurine. He could not explain to himself why possessing it was so important, just that it was. So, how was he to get it without marrying the woman in question? Maybe if he found it, he could decide whether it was truly important enough for him to sacrifice his freedom. For that, however, he needed his sisters’ help. He looked from one to the other. There was no way out. He could see his sisters were already well on their way to planning his downfall as he began describing the object Nona told him would someday belong to him.
“It’s a statuette or figurine. A little larger than the teapot. Made of black onyx. It’s a figure of a panther with emeralds for eyes.” He nearly grimaced at the thought of Nona telling some impressionable young woman the panther represented himself.
Felicia briefly stilled at the description, but the pause was so slight, he thought he imagined it.
“Interesting,” Tina commented. “And did Nona say how you were to find this person if you weren’t able to see her with the statuette?”
“No, not really. As usual, she spoke in riddles.” He refused to admit Nona had told him to follow his heart.
“Did she give you a description?” Felicia asked in a strange voice.
“A description?” he asked. “Such as…?”
“Remember what she told me?” Felicia reminded him. “Sun-ripened wheat and highland heather.”
He chuckled with genuine glee at the memory. “The only time in your life you fainted that I can recall.”
Felicia turned to her sister, who watched the two in perplexed silence. “Nona told me when I found the owner of the ring she gave me, I would be rewarded with sun-ripened wheat and highland heather. Unfortunately, I didn’t know highland heather was purple—nearly the same color as Brand’s eyes.”
“And sun-ripened wheat is the perfect description for his hair,” Tina finished in understanding.
“Well?” Felicia asked, turning back to her brother.
“It’s possible it was buried in the conversation somewhere. I’ll let you know if I think of anything that would fit. But as you can tell, it’s highly unlikely I will find the statuette on my own, although Nona promised it would be mine one day.”
“Unless it’s on display in the sitting room during an at home or calling hours,” Tina said. “Hmmm, I haven’t seen anything like it.” She looked over at her sister. “Have you?”
Felicia was silent for a long time. She poured herself another cup of tea. Jon noticed her hand shook slightly. But when she took another tart from the tray, nearly dropping it, he began to worry. She was staring off across the room as if deep in thought, and it occurred to him she was stalling.
“Felicia?” Tina finally said. “Where have you gone?”
She washed down the last of the tart with her tea and turned solemn eyes on them. “Yes,” she answered. “I know who has it.”
He quelled a groan. Should he ask her who? She was watching him sadly, but with an almost unholy gleam in her eye which did not give him any degree of comfort. It was almost as if she was pitying him, but was amused all the same. Maybe he didn’t want to know after all. But perhaps he could ask a few questions to help him narrow his search.
“At Miss Ridley’s Academy.”
“So it’s one of your school chums?”
She merely nodded.
“Then she shouldn’t be too hard to find, unless… She’s not already married is she?” The thought made him hopeful, but at the same time worried. Suppose he had waited too long to come back from his travels? If she was married already, how was he to get his panther?
“Thankfully, no,” Felicia answered. “But like most of the young ladies you’ve met since I made my come-out, you’ve given her the cold shoulder. So now you are not high on her list of people to be cordial to.”
Jon mulled over this statement for a moment. This might, indeed, be harder than he thought. If the young woman wouldn’t even speak to him, then what? It would be fine if he didn’t plan on wedding her, but he still wanted his statuette. Perhaps he needed to know who it was after all.
“Then perhaps you’d better tell me.”
Felicia shook her head slowly. “I’m sorry, Jon, but I don’t think I should. I think you’d better figure this one out for yourself.” He started to say something, but she continued. “I also won’t say anything to the young woman in question. I think it’s best if I just stay out of it.”
Jon watched her with a measure of unease. Her sudden sobriety over the subject was both unsettling and a bit disheartening. He fully expected her to tease him unmercifully over this, but she seemed to be worried. And that, conversely, worried him. It also made him a little desperate.
“How about if you at least provide me with a list of young ladies you went to school with, including this person on it, and I will work my way through them?”
Felicia considered this for a moment, then nodded. “I see no harm in that. I’ll have it for you by tonight. Will you be at the Marsdens’?”
“I can arrange to be.”
He rose to his feet. “Then I will take my leave. I have mountains of correspondence to catch up on. Perhaps one day we will actually catch up on each other’s news?” He sensed that right now was not the time. His revelation bothered Felicia, which, in turn, troubled him enough that he needed to escape.
Felicia stood and approached him. “I’m sorry.” Then she hugged him.
“It’s good to have you back,” Tina said, also giving him a hug before he left.
Once he was gone, however, she turned to her sister.
“All right, out with it,” she demanded. “What’s wrong?”
“Wrong?” Felicia asked, one eyebrow arched innocently.
“Give over, Felicia. You really look troubled about this. Is it that bad?”
Felicia was silent for a moment, then she smiled sadly. “It would be funny, if it wasn’t so ironic. The lady in question is seriously considering another offer right now, but I know she hasn’t definitely said yes yet.”
“Why didn’t you tell Jon that much, at least?”
“Because then he’d be able to figure out who it is almost immediately once I give him the list I promised. And quite frankly, I want him to worry over this a bit. You know how his mind works. I’d wager you next quarter’s allowance he’s thinking he can find this woman, make an offer—how many marriage-mart mamas do you think wouldn’t make their daughter accept?—marry her out of hand, and never become emotionally involved.” She paused for a moment to give her words a chance to sink in. “I don’t think Nona wanted a loveless marriage for him any more than she did for us, but that’s exactly what he would get if he didn’t have to work for it. It may even be what he thinks he wants, but I don’t want that for either of them.”
“And the young woman?”
“Well, she’s known him for a long time. And she must know what the statuette represents because she chased him all through her first Season and never seemed to understand why he wasn’t interested. And now that I know what he’s looking for, I even know when Nona gave it to her. But there have been times when he was just short of rude to her. I can’t imagine what happened at my wedding, but they were distinctly ill at ease in each other’s company.” Felicia shifted in her seat, staring off across the room for a moment, then continued. “I even tried to warn her off. I didn’t know what he was looking for, you see. I’ve seen that statuette so many times, but never once did I ask her where she got it—or even wonder why she had it.”
Tina was silent for a long time, obviously waiting for Felicia to continue.
“Are you going to tell me who she is?” she finally demanded. “I don’t want you to have all the fun watching the two of them.”
Felicia’s smile was suddenly mischievous as she answered, “It serves him right. She’ll make him work for it—her parents are probably the only ones I know who will let her say no if she wants to. He won’t be able to just offer for her and expect her parents will make her accept.”
Silence fell again.
“Well?” Tina’s voice was pure impatience.
Felicia relaxed against the back of the sofa and laughed. “It’s……”
Lady Amanda Cookeson looked up from her book as her father, the Earl of Barrington, entered his library. Comfortably ensconced in a cushioned window seat, she hadn’t expected him to return until much later and had decided to indulge herself with her favorite pastime before tea. He noticed her as he rounded his desk.
“Ah, so this is where you’ve been hiding,” he said affably. As he glanced down at her lap, his smile dimmed. “What are you reading now?”
“Oh, just a book I found in here,” she answered, dismissively.
She regarded him warily as she closed the book. “Why do you want to know?”
“For the same reason you don’t want to tell me.”
She fidgeted on the seat. She knew he hoped it was one of those gothic novels or pieces of fluff normally enjoyed by women, but as usual he was to be disappointed.
“Honestly, Papa. There’s nothing wrong with me reading Homer. He just writes stories, after all.”
The earl rolled his eyes heavenward. “Yes, but his stories are written in Greek.”
“Yes, well—” she licked her lips, “—that’s true, but—”
“Amanda, I’ve told you before. If your reading habits get out, no man will want you.”
“I know, Papa. But if a man can’t abide a woman with a brain, then maybe I don’t want him.”
The door to the library opened, interrupting the long-standing argument.
“Here you are.” The Countess of Barrington looked in.
Amanda looked away from her father and addressed her advancing stepmother. “Were you looking for me?”
“Oh, no,” the countess replied, shaking her golden head. “I was looking for your father, but I’m glad I found both of you together.” Glancing down at the book in Amanda’s lap, she looked into her husband’s annoyed countenance, slipped her arm through his and said, “It’s time for tea. I told Barrons to put it in the drawing room.”
The earl looked down into his wife’s eyes. “I only stopped in the library to check on some papers, and found Amanda here instead. But I can attend to them later.” He smiled and, turning, allowed himself to be led toward the door.
“You must join us as well, Amanda,” the countess said. Looking back over her shoulder, she winked conspiratorially at Amanda and towed her husband from the room.
Amanda sank back against the cushion and sighed. Saved again. Thank heavens her stepmother came in when she did. Her father did not approve of women knowing too much. He was constantly telling her she would never land a good husband if she knew too much. Men, he insisted, didn’t want bluestockings for wives.
Picking herself up, she followed her parents out, stopping only long enough to entrust her book to a footman to ensure that it found its way to her room. She would be better off if she confined her reading to her room, or at least one of the sitting rooms, from now on. Every time she had a discussion with her father over her reading habits, she promised herself to do just that. Unfortunately, the library was a much more comfortable place in which to indulge and she found herself there often, regardless of her decision to avoid her father’s book-lined sanctuary.
“I heard a rumor the Earl of Wynton has returned,” Eliza said casually over tea. “I would guess his sisters are glad to have him back.”
“Most likely,” the earl agreed.
Amanda said nothing, although she noticed her stepmother looking her way. Putting down her teacup, she took a bite of their cook’s delicious seed cake to cover her agitation. She refused to let her unease show.
Fourteen years ago, she had fallen hopelessly in love with her best friend’s brother. At age seven, however, it was little more than hero worship. When she was presented to him at her debut three years ago and discovered he was an earl, it was as if the intervening time never happened. Chasing him through that one Season had shown her that feelings weren’t always reciprocated, but naïvely she was determined to wait him out. Sooner or later he would realize they belonged together. Instead, after one disastrous encounter at his family seat, he left the country.
She still had feelings for him, but resolved to treat them impassively. She should have given up on the elusive Earl of Wynton by now. He had been gone from England for three years. She was now in her fourth Season, and tired of waiting. She wanted a home and family of her own. She would bestow her favors on someone more appreciative. Like Viscount Thurston.
As if he read her thoughts, her father asked, “Have you an answer for Thurston yet?”
The word yes was on the tip of her tongue, but she couldn’t utter it. “No,” she answered.
Her father frowned. “If you wait too long, someone else will come along and divert his attention.”
Amanda wondered if her father knew he made men sound like capricious, but pompous, idiots.
“I think tonight I will ask him if he likes Homer.”
“You will do no such thing!”
“And why not?” she asked, ignoring his bluster. “If I accept him, I will have to live with him. It would be nice to know whether his views on reading material for women coincide with yours.”
She smiled at the curiosity in her father’s voice. “If they do, then my answer is no.”
The countess’s laughter broke into their squabbling. Amanda knew her stepmother considered both of them stubborn and recalcitrant. Like children who liked nothing better than to bicker.
“Stop it, you two,” she scolded. “Trent, you must leave Amanda to her own pursuits, and Amanda, you must not bait your father that way. We have been over this before and neither of you will relent, so why do you continue?”
Amanda sighed and sat back. “I’m sorry, Eliza, Papa. I shouldn’t have said that last. Lord Thurston has given me until the end of the week. I will give him my answer on Friday as I promised.” Then she excused herself and went up to her room.
Ringing for her maid, she shed her dress and corset for a comfortable gown and wrapper, then declared her intention to rest until it was time to dress for dinner. Trying to continue reading, she found she couldn’t concentrate on the words before her. Instead the past rose to taunt her.
Three years ago she had been eighteen, full of wonder and promise, naïve, innocent, and in love. At least she thought she had been. It was her first Season and her come-out had been a success.
Her best friend, Lady Felicia Collings, had been in her second Season and the two of them had been nearly inseparable. Felicia’s oldest brother, the Marquis of Thanet, had taken his wife to Italy to recover from the loss of their second child, but her other brother, the Earl of Wynton, had been initially attentive, but no more so than any other young man. And that was where she’d made her mistake.
She glanced at her bedside table, on which sat the black statuette Nona had given her. In the aftermath of her mother’s death less than a year later, she had retreated into her own world. Lost and uncertain, the panther had become her protector, and with the faith of a child, she always felt safe with it near. Through her fertile imagination, she had woven story upon story around the prince Nona had told her about and how he would someday come and rescue her.
From the moment she had been reintroduced to Felicia’s brother, she had known her panther represented him—that he was the only one for her. Hadn’t she told Nona JoJo was her prince? So what if he was an earl now?
It didn’t help her imagination that he had hair as black as the onyx her panther was carved from, emerald green eyes, and moved with the easy grace and self-assurance of one who knew his place in the world. She’d also learned, as the Season progressed, that many viewed him as a sleek jungle cat—graceful, but deadly if provoked. It was common knowledge he was a crack shot and could regularly be found at the boxing salon.
Unfortunately, he had not returned her feelings and when it was obvious she had him in her sights, he began to avoid her. It was also evident he didn’t remember the seven-year-old girl who, as a youth of sixteen, he had taught to swim one magical summer in the Lake District. He wasn’t likely to remember her name. Katie had been a nickname her mother used, and he and Felicia both hadn’t used their own names. She’d learned from Felicia that Nona insisted on using short names for them so they could not be identified.
Then an old scandal had erupted around them with the return of her stepmother’s brother, his subsequent marriage to Felicia, and the death of their father, all within a month’s time. Ironically, it was during the time before Felicia’s wedding that her own hopes and dreams were brutally crushed. Closing her eyes, she could believe it only happened yesterday.
It was the day before the wedding. Immediately after luncheon, she had been at loose ends. Eliza was closeted with the dowager Countess of Wynton, the Duchess of Westover, and the Countess of Weston, finalizing wedding arrangements. Eliza’s stepmother, the Duchess of Warringham, was nowhere to be found. Felicia and her fiancée had disappeared, and so had the rest of the men. Finding a book to read seemed the best course and with everyone gone she thought there would be no one in the library.
As she descended the grand staircase in the front hall, she had envisioned herself as mistress of Wynton Abbey, the earl’s family seat. It was a beautiful home built on the ruins of an old Cistercian Abbey with extensive grounds. She could easily see herself conferring with the cook on the week’s menus, the housekeeper on which rooms needed refurbishing, the gardener on which flowers to plant, and so on.
The library door stood slightly ajar, leading her to believe it was empty. Slipping inside, she closed the door quietly behind her. Her father often scolded her on her voracious appetite for books, so she never allowed anyone to catch her reading.
The library was immense. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves lined the inner wall as well as the outer wall, only broken up by the tall windows interspersed between them. Standing just inside the door, she looked around her in wonder, eyes alight at the thought of having all these books at her disposal. When she was mistress here, she promised herself, she’d read every single one. Moving into the room, she approached a nearby bookshelf, scanning the titles.
With the heavy burgundy drapes pulled back from the windows, she needed no light to peruse the shelves. The Aubusson carpet muffled the sound of her footsteps as she moved further into the room, her eyes picking out titles on the shelves.
She had stopped before a shelf, her eye caught by a specific title, when she sensed she was no longer alone. The hairs on the back of her neck rose and, spinning around, she came face to face with the earl.
“Oh.” It was all she could think to say as that hooded emerald gaze raked her from head to toe. Sun-browned skin stretched over high, carved cheekbones, with ebony hair and brows, and a straight nose over full lips. He was too handsome for his own good, she thought. She knew she wasn’t the only one interested in him, but she already considered him hers—she had prior claim, after all. It was unfortunate he didn’t seem to realize it.
“Looking for something?” His smooth, rich voice was like velvet in her ears.
“I-I,” she had stammered, searching for an excuse to be there. She refused to tell him she had come for a book, so she took the only other out she could think of. “I was looking for you.”
One dark eyebrow rose. Crossing his arms over his broad chest, he rocked back on his heels and regarded her suspiciously. “Well, now you’ve found me. How can I be of assistance?”
Nervously licking suddenly dry lips, she said the first thing that came to mind. “Why don’t you like me?” And instantly wished the floor would open up and swallow her whole. It took a supreme effort not to clap her hand over her mouth. Instead she looked away, across the room—and spied the small table covered with papers and the chair beside it at which he had obviously been working.
There was a huge cherrywood desk at the other side of the room. She’d noticed it—and the fact that it was empty—when she entered. Why hadn’t he been working there?
Rooted to the floor by nothing more than severe embarrassment, she jumped when she felt his hand beneath her chin, turning her face around and up to his. He suddenly seemed closer and the room much warmer.
“And what makes you think I don’t like you?” His voice deepened and it took all her willpower to stay upright.
“You avoid me all the time,” she said faintly, and felt her insides curl at the patronizing look on his face.
“I don’t think I avoid you any more than anyone else.”
The hand under her chin trailed down to the base of her throat, one long finger resting on the furiously beating pulse. For a moment she was deliciously lightheaded as blood pumped through her whole body. Even if his finger hadn’t been resting on her pulse, he had to know how fast her heart was beating. She was sure he could hear it.
“Don’t speak to me like that.” She barely kept her voice even.
He smiled, his eyes warming, and her senses shifted into high alert. “Like what?” Now she knew why he’d been likened to a predator.
“Like you speak to Felicia.” She lifted her chin. “I’m not your little sister.”
His eyes burned into hers for what seemed like an eternity, then he bent his head. His mouth stopped less than a hairsbreadth away, and she allowed her eyelids to drop.
“No, you’re not, are you?” he murmured, then he crushed her lips beneath his.
Her world careened out of control in an instant. His lips were cool and firm against hers and his hand slipped around to the back of her neck, cradling it, as his other arm circled her back, holding her motionless against him. At the first touch of his lips, her hands moved upwards, ostensibly to steady herself. Resting on his solidly muscled chest, she could feel the rapid tattoo of his heart beneath her palms. She wondered vaguely if it always beat that fast.
The touch of his tongue along her lower lip had her gasping, parting her lips in surprise, and moments later he swept in to taste. There was no quarter asked, and none given as Jon kissed her with a passion that curled her toes. Her blood heated and warmth gathered in her lower belly. She forgot to breathe until her lungs forced her to draw air from him.
This was what she had been waiting for. What she had been born for. What she had been promised by his great-grandmother. Despite all that, nothing could have prepared her for the feeling of melting into him, of nearly being absorbed by him, and the feeling of loss which occurred when he raised his head.
She barely heard the strangled groan that came from his throat before her shoulders were grasped and she was unceremoniously pushed away from him and held at arm’s length. The hands gripping her upper arms were bruising in their intensity, but she was thankful for the discomfort, for it allowed her mind to return from wherever it had wandered.
I love you—the words were on the tip of her tongue, but never uttered. At least she had been saved that final humiliation, for the earl had blasted her with a freezing glare from his emerald eyes, then let go of her as if she were suddenly a red-hot coal. She nearly collapsed, so weak were her legs.
“Get out!” he bit off savagely, turning away from her. “And don’t come near me again or I won’t be responsible for my actions.” He was struggling with himself, breathing heavily, and she wondered if he was unwell.
Yet she had stood there, knowing her heart was in her eyes, unable to stop the gathering of tears. And when they began to slip down her cheeks and her hard-won control deserted her altogether, she fled to her room, leaving the library door standing open.
“Never again!” she vowed. Never again would anyone hurt her like that. She would marry because she wanted to, but she would not allow herself to love again.
After Felicia’s wedding, she had returned to London and thrown herself back into the Season, yet maintaining the brittle facade she’d developed was exhausting. She was almost thankful for the mourning period she had been required to observe in the wake of Eliza’s father’s death. It allowed her to firmly cement her new persona in place. That the earl left the country not long after the duke’s death made her transformation easier.
He had been gone for three years. She had nearly accepted at least two proposals in that time, but each time just couldn’t convince herself to say the word, still yearning for something she told herself she should not want and could not have.
And her panther mocked her for trying to run from her own destiny.