Heart's Debt

Heart's Debt

Three little lost lords, cast to the winds of fate…

CHERYL HOLT tantalized readers around the globe with her Lost Lords of Radcliffe trilogy. She continues to dazzle with yet another story from the trilogy. In the three novels, no character was more fascinating or intriguing than the mysterious Mr. Drummond…

DAMIAN DRUMMOND had his life ruined when he was wrongly convicted of a crime and sent to the penal colonies in Australia. He survived the ordeal by dreaming of the vengeance he would one day extract from those who’d wronged him. With his sentence complete, he’s grown incredibly wealthy through criminal enterprise, and he’s returned to England, intent on revenge. He begins by buying the bankrupt Kirkwood estate from the wastrel and gambler who betrayed him…

GEORGINA FOGARTY has never been anything but a poor relative. She grew up at Kirkwood with her rich, spoiled cousins. Though she’s worked hard to earn their favor and show her gratitude, she’s never felt welcome or appreciated. When Damian arrives and announces he owns Kirkwood, that her cousin has gambled it away, Georgina is willing to make any sacrifice to save her family’s home. But when she begs Damian for mercy, she has no idea of the high price he will insist she pay…

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“I would recommend it to anyone who loves a good solid regency romance.”
~ Rachel, Romancing the Book

CHAPTER ONE

Kirkwood estate, rural England, July, 1815…

Georgina Fogarty strolled down the lane that led to Kirkwood Manor.  It was a beautiful summer afternoon, and for once she felt lazy and unencumbered and under no obligation but to plod along and enjoy the weather.

Normally after she visited acquaintances in the village, she’d regret the minutes she’d taken for herself.  She’d hurry home so she could resume her duties and continue her fruitless quest to prove herself worthy to her aunt and cousins.

She’d been trying for almost twenty years, and she couldn’t figure out why she bothered.  Her kin were spoiled and self-centered, the three of them too vain to notice whether she worked hard or not, whether she made their lives easier or not.  No, they only noticed when she didn’t finish a task, when she didn’t complete a chore that desperately needed completing.

Then she was berated as if she was their personal slave, and in light of how she was constantly maligned and criticized, she might have been Cinderella.  If she’d had less confidence or common sense, she might have bemoaned her plight.  But she didn’t ever complain.

For the most part, she was content with her lot, although she had to admit that she’d love to shuck off her responsibilities and observe from afar as Kirkwood imploded without her skilled guidance.  Whenever she was exceedingly aggravated—which was nearly always—she’d imagine the havoc that would ensue if she walked away.  It gave her great satisfaction to envision it.

Yet she would never behave so badly.  She was possessed of her deceased mother’s negligence and wanderlust so unnatural urges flowed in her veins, and she was careful that she never succumbed to a single rash impulse.

She came to the bridge over the stream that meandered through the estate, and she stopped in the middle.  Down below, wildflowers covered the banks, and she decided to climb down and pick a bouquet.  A sandy spot was visible, and for a brash moment, she thought she’d remove her shoes, hike up the hem of her skirt, and go wading.  It was a hot day and there was no one to see.

Why not indulge?  If passersby approached, she could hide in the trees until they left.

There was a path in the grass, and she tromped down it to the water’s edge.  After dipping in her fingers, she found it much colder than she’d expected, but with her already being tantalized by the prospect of wading, she was undeterred.

She untied the ribbon on her bonnet and set it on the ground, then she plopped down and began to unbuckle her shoes.  But when she wasn’t looking, a breeze caught the bonnet and blew it into the stream.  Though she lunged for it, she couldn’t grab onto the ribbon, and it drifted off.  She scrambled to her knees, extending out, desperate to retrieve it.

She was never short of clothes, but as her Aunt Augusta frequently reminded her, she was the poor relative and charity case who never had money to purchase her own garments.  Her cousin, Sophia, though was a flagrant shopper who offered Georgina her castoff attire.  While the gesture was always kindly made, Georgina was irked that her wardrobe contained the items Sophia no longer wanted.

She couldn’t lose her bonnet!  It would mean having to ask Sophia for another, and Georgina tried to never ask her cousin for anything.

Stretching out even farther, she only managed to slip off the bank, her knee sliding into the water so a good portion of her skirt was wet, an arm and sleeve too.

“Drat it!” she muttered.

Once she was back at the manor, it would be impossible to explain her sodden condition.  Aunt Augusta was a fussy, finicky stickler for the proprieties, and Georgina would never hear the end of it.

She pushed herself to her feet, prepared to chase after her bonnet, when she noticed a man standing under the bridge, his horse quietly positioned behind him.  They were both staring at her, their attention curious and extreme.

The man was dressed all in black.  His coat, trousers, and boots were black, his hair too.  His horse was black, his saddle and gear black so he blended into the shadows.

He was still as a statue, having assumed such a tranquil pose that he might have been carved from stone.  She had to blink several times to be sure he was actually there and not a hallucination.  But he was real and scrutinizing her with the intensity of a hawk about to swoop down on its prey.

He didn’t seem threatening, but it was an unnerving encounter nonetheless.  She was totally alone so he could do any horrid thing to her without consequence.  She ordered herself to run off, but she was locked in place, his steady gaze holding her rapt.

Then suddenly he moved, but not toward her.  He waded into the stream and grabbed her bonnet.  The water wasn’t deep, just up to his knees, but it soaked his boots.  He’d be uncomfortable the rest of the day, forcing her to acknowledge that he was a gallant soul.

“I believe this is yours,” he said, walking over to her.

“Thank you.”

As he left the shadows and stepped into the sunlight, she was less frightened than she’d initially been.  While he looked sinister in his black outfit, she sensed no menace.

He was very handsome, his eyes dark, his hair dark too and worn much too long, brushing his shoulders in a casual way, as if he was unconcerned about his appearance.  He was about her same age of twenty-five, but he seemed much older, as if life had dealt him some hard blows.

His chest was broad, his waist narrow, and he was every bit of six feet in height.  She was only five-foot-five in her stockings so he towered over her, but she wasn’t afraid of him.  She suspected he could be dangerous if riled.  He exuded a vigilance that hinted at terrible secrets and mysterious conduct, but she didn’t plan to enrage him so she deemed herself safe.

“I startled you,” he said as he reached her.

“Yes.  I didn’t realize anyone was down here.”

“I should have announced myself.”

“It’s all right.  No harm done.”

“My apologies.”

“Apology accepted.”

She smiled and took the bonnet from him.  She would have put it on, but it was very damp, the ribbons especially.  She shook it, splashing her skirt and his trousers with water droplets.

“Ah!” she moaned.  “I’m sorry.  I’m having the worst afternoon.”

“You’re wet.”

“So are you now.”

“I expect I’ll dry off without too much trouble.  How about you?”

“I expect I’ll dry too, but not before I arrive home and have to explain myself.”

“How will you?”

“I have no idea.  I suppose I’ll simply say that I was seized by a wicked whim, and I jumped into the stream while I was fully clothed.”

He snorted at that.  “Do these whims plague you often?”

“More than I’d like or would ever admit.”  To her surprise, she grumbled, “I’m always accused of reckless behavior so on occasion I ought to behave recklessly.  At least I’d enjoy myself more.”

“I wasn’t aware that young ladies were allowed to be reckless.”

“They’re not.”  She extended her hand.  “I’m Miss Fogarty.  Miss Georgina Fogarty.”

“Hello, Miss Fogarty.”

He clasped her hand and bowed over it, exhibiting such perfect manners that she was convinced he wasn’t an outlaw.

“And you are…?” she pressed when he didn’t respond in kind.

“No one of any importance.”

Why would he decline to give his name?  His reply vexed her and had her reevaluating her opinion that he wasn’t a miscreant.

“I’m alone with you, sir.  Should I be worried?”

“Probably.”

“Probably!  Why?  Have you foul-play in mind?”

“Not yet.”

She studied his eyes, then scoffed.  “You’re not a criminal.  Don’t try to scare me.”

“I wasn’t trying.”

“And you haven’t.”

“Good.”

“Why are you lurking under the bridge?  Are you hiding?”

“Yes, I’m always hiding.”

“Spoken like a true bandit.  Are you one?”

“Not today.”

“What does that mean?  It’s Thursday.  Were you one on Wednesday?  Might you be one again on Friday?”

“I might—if the mood strikes me.”

“What sort of brigand are you?  Are you the type to rob travelers of their jewelry?”

“I don’t need anyone’s jewels.”

“Then are you the type to creep in at night and make off with the silverware?  Should we start locking our windows and doors?”

“I don’t care about your paltry silverware either.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

She studied him again, anxious to figure out if he was jesting or if he actually had felonious tendencies.  He certainly seemed dodgy and capable of inflicting damage on others, but she didn’t believe a criminal would confess to being a criminal.

She told herself he was jesting.

“I’ve resided in the area most of my life,” she said.

“How awful for you,” he sarcastically retorted.  “How have you survived it?”

“I don’t recognize you as a neighbor.  Are you passing through or are you visiting?”

“Maybe.”

“Maybe what?  Are you passing through?  Are you visiting?  What?”

“I haven’t decided.  I might be staying for awhile.”

“With friends?”

He didn’t answer her question, but asked, “May I escort you up to the road?  Or will you remain down here and lose your bonnet again?”

“I think I’ve courted enough calamity.  I’d better continue on home.”

“Where is home?”

For the briefest second, she hesitated, wondering whether she should tell him, but she shook off the silly notion.  There was no reason not to say.  “I live at Kirkwood Manor.  The gate is just around the next bend.”

At her mentioning Kirkwood, he froze in that intriguing way he had, growing so still he might have been turned to stone.

“Kirkwood?”

“Yes.  You know of it?”

“I’ve heard stories.”

From how he’d cocked his head, from how he was evaluating her, she thought he was much more familiar with the estate than he wished to let on.  Her suspicions were ignited again.  Who was he?  What was his purpose?

She was sure he was plotting mischief, but she’d had scant experience with wastrels and ne’er-do-wells, except for her cousin, Miles, so she couldn’t begin to guess what tomfoolery he might be contemplating.

“You’ve heard of Kirkwood?” she said.  “What have you heard?”

“Nothing that would interest you.”

“Ha!  You are the most infuriating man.  You likely have a thousand secrets.”

“You could be right.”  He took her arm and eased her over to the path that led up the bank to the road.  “Who owns Kirkwood these days?  It used to be the Marshall family.  Are they still there?”

“Yes, they’re still there.”

She peered back at him, but he had no expression on his face, and he was staring at her so blandly she couldn’t imagine what he was thinking.

“Are you acquainted with any of the Marshalls?” she asked.

“Not really.”  He urged her on.  “Are you a servant or a relative?”

“Are my clothes so hideous that you’ve mistaken me for a servant?”

He laughed, his voice sounding rusty, as if it didn’t happen often.  “I probably shouldn’t answer that question.  I’ll land myself in too much trouble.”

“I’m a relative.”

“Which one?”

“I’m the dreaded poor one.”

“How poor?” he shocked her by inquiring.

“I don’t have two pennies to my name,” she blithely said, confused as to why she’d admit such an embarrassing detail to a total stranger.

“Is that why you’ve never married?”

“No.”

“Why then?”

“I’ve never married because all men are idiots, and I can’t abide their foolishness.”

“I’m inclined to agree with you.”

He grinned, abruptly looking so appealing that she had to glance away.  He had no wedding ring on his finger so he was a bachelor, and there weren’t many in the neighborhood, especially not any who were handsome and fascinating.  He was definitely both.

“How are you related to the family?” he asked.

“My mother and the late Edward Marshall were siblings.”

“So Augusta is your aunt.”

“Yes.”

“Miles and Sophia are your cousins.”

“Yes.”  She scowled.  “For someone who claims to merely know of Kirkwood, you possess a great deal of information about us.”

“Not that much.  I’d never heard of you previously.”

She feigned a pout.  “You’re deliberately trying to hurt my feelings.”

It dawned on her that she was flirting, which was highly unusual.  She’d meant it when she’d said men were idiots.  After living with her Uncle Edward and Cousin Miles, she had no patience for them.  She’d expended too much effort cleaning up Miles’s messes after Edward had died.

Miles was a spendthrift who frittered away his money at gambling clubs in London.  If she hadn’t worked so diligently to keep the farm producing, he’d have beggared them.

“I doubt I could hurt your feelings, Miss Fogarty.  You seem to have quite a stern constitution.”

“Now there’s a compliment to make a young lady swoon.  I have a stern constitution.  If you weren’t the first bachelor to cross my path in ages, I’d stomp off in a huff.”

“You would not.  You like me, and you’re curious as the dickens about who I am and what I’m about.”

“Perhaps.”

“How long have you been at the estate?”

“Since I was seven.”

“That’s why I wasn’t aware of you,” he mused.

“Why would you have been aware of me?”

He was saved from replying by their reaching the road.

“Would you like me to walk you the rest of the way?” he asked.  “Or will you be all right on your own?”

“I’ll be all right.  I’ve been going to the village by myself for nearly twenty years, and in all that time, the sole brigand I’ve encountered is you.”

He didn’t deny that he was a brigand, and she rippled with concern over him and his motives.

“It’s was lovely meeting you, Miss Fogarty.”

“Even if the only kind thing you can say is that I have a stern constitution?”

“Even then.”

He grabbed her bonnet, gave it several hard shakes, then put it on her head.  She dawdled like an imbecile as he tied the bow.  Then, to her stunned surprise, he placed his hands on her cheeks, and he stood very close, cataloguing her features.

It was a scandalously intimate gesture, one that no man had ever attempted prior, and she should have slapped him away.  But the feel of his palms on her skin was so riveting that her heart was pounding.

“You’re very pretty, Miss Fogarty.”

With her auburn hair and big blue eyes, she’d always thought so.  She looked exactly like her beautiful, exotic mother, but after listening to Aunt Augusta complain for most of two decades that she was homely and plain, she’d let doubts creep in.  It was divine to have him confirm what she secretly believed.

Still though, she ought to keep her vanity in check, should pretend to be offended, pretend that he was wrong.

“As we’re not acquainted in the slightest,” she protested, “it’s outrageous for you to make such a personal comment.”

“I know, but I think you’re very pretty anyway.”

“What’s your name?  You never told me.”

“No, I didn’t.”

He stepped back, his hands dropping away, and she realized that she’d be terribly disappointed if she never saw him again.  Which was ridiculous.  She wasn’t attracted to men, didn’t care about them and wasn’t interested in romance, and she had no idea why she was gaping at him like a love-struck adolescent.

“Will you be in the neighborhood long?” she asked.

“I expect I will be.”

“I wish you’d stop by Kirkwood.”

“Is that an invitation?”

“Definitely.”

He smiled the slyest smile.  “Then how can I refuse?”

“We’re having a large party tomorrow night.  There’ll be dancing and cards.  Why don’t you join us?”

“I will, Miss Fogarty.”

“I hope so.”

She should have spun and continued on, but she kept staring, and so did he.  It was an oddly exciting moment, as if there were opportunities swirling between them that could be turned into reality if she’d only known how to reach out and grab them.

But she didn’t.

“Goodbye,” she said.

He nodded, but didn’t respond, which made her feel stupid for tarrying.  She forced herself away and started for home.  She was almost at the gate when it occurred to her that she hadn’t picked any wildflowers.

She halted and gazed back, but there was a bend in the road so she couldn’t see where she’d been.  It was the darnedest thing, but she was certain he was there in the woods, following her to ensure she arrived safe and sound.

Hers was a very lonely, very solitary existence.  No one ever fretted over her.  No one ever asked how she was faring.  The notion that he was out there, that he’d bothered over her, was inordinately thrilling.

She grinned and hurried on, for once not concerned in the least over how—should she be accosted by Aunt Augusta—she’d explain her wet clothes.

 

+ Reviews

“I would recommend it to anyone who loves a good solid regency romance.”
~ Rachel, Romancing the Book

+ Sample Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

Kirkwood estate, rural England, July, 1815…

Georgina Fogarty strolled down the lane that led to Kirkwood Manor.  It was a beautiful summer afternoon, and for once she felt lazy and unencumbered and under no obligation but to plod along and enjoy the weather.

Normally after she visited acquaintances in the village, she’d regret the minutes she’d taken for herself.  She’d hurry home so she could resume her duties and continue her fruitless quest to prove herself worthy to her aunt and cousins.

She’d been trying for almost twenty years, and she couldn’t figure out why she bothered.  Her kin were spoiled and self-centered, the three of them too vain to notice whether she worked hard or not, whether she made their lives easier or not.  No, they only noticed when she didn’t finish a task, when she didn’t complete a chore that desperately needed completing.

Then she was berated as if she was their personal slave, and in light of how she was constantly maligned and criticized, she might have been Cinderella.  If she’d had less confidence or common sense, she might have bemoaned her plight.  But she didn’t ever complain.

For the most part, she was content with her lot, although she had to admit that she’d love to shuck off her responsibilities and observe from afar as Kirkwood imploded without her skilled guidance.  Whenever she was exceedingly aggravated—which was nearly always—she’d imagine the havoc that would ensue if she walked away.  It gave her great satisfaction to envision it.

Yet she would never behave so badly.  She was possessed of her deceased mother’s negligence and wanderlust so unnatural urges flowed in her veins, and she was careful that she never succumbed to a single rash impulse.

She came to the bridge over the stream that meandered through the estate, and she stopped in the middle.  Down below, wildflowers covered the banks, and she decided to climb down and pick a bouquet.  A sandy spot was visible, and for a brash moment, she thought she’d remove her shoes, hike up the hem of her skirt, and go wading.  It was a hot day and there was no one to see.

Why not indulge?  If passersby approached, she could hide in the trees until they left.

There was a path in the grass, and she tromped down it to the water’s edge.  After dipping in her fingers, she found it much colder than she’d expected, but with her already being tantalized by the prospect of wading, she was undeterred.

She untied the ribbon on her bonnet and set it on the ground, then she plopped down and began to unbuckle her shoes.  But when she wasn’t looking, a breeze caught the bonnet and blew it into the stream.  Though she lunged for it, she couldn’t grab onto the ribbon, and it drifted off.  She scrambled to her knees, extending out, desperate to retrieve it.

She was never short of clothes, but as her Aunt Augusta frequently reminded her, she was the poor relative and charity case who never had money to purchase her own garments.  Her cousin, Sophia, though was a flagrant shopper who offered Georgina her castoff attire.  While the gesture was always kindly made, Georgina was irked that her wardrobe contained the items Sophia no longer wanted.

She couldn’t lose her bonnet!  It would mean having to ask Sophia for another, and Georgina tried to never ask her cousin for anything.

Stretching out even farther, she only managed to slip off the bank, her knee sliding into the water so a good portion of her skirt was wet, an arm and sleeve too.

“Drat it!” she muttered.

Once she was back at the manor, it would be impossible to explain her sodden condition.  Aunt Augusta was a fussy, finicky stickler for the proprieties, and Georgina would never hear the end of it.

She pushed herself to her feet, prepared to chase after her bonnet, when she noticed a man standing under the bridge, his horse quietly positioned behind him.  They were both staring at her, their attention curious and extreme.

The man was dressed all in black.  His coat, trousers, and boots were black, his hair too.  His horse was black, his saddle and gear black so he blended into the shadows.

He was still as a statue, having assumed such a tranquil pose that he might have been carved from stone.  She had to blink several times to be sure he was actually there and not a hallucination.  But he was real and scrutinizing her with the intensity of a hawk about to swoop down on its prey.

He didn’t seem threatening, but it was an unnerving encounter nonetheless.  She was totally alone so he could do any horrid thing to her without consequence.  She ordered herself to run off, but she was locked in place, his steady gaze holding her rapt.

Then suddenly he moved, but not toward her.  He waded into the stream and grabbed her bonnet.  The water wasn’t deep, just up to his knees, but it soaked his boots.  He’d be uncomfortable the rest of the day, forcing her to acknowledge that he was a gallant soul.

“I believe this is yours,” he said, walking over to her.

“Thank you.”

As he left the shadows and stepped into the sunlight, she was less frightened than she’d initially been.  While he looked sinister in his black outfit, she sensed no menace.

He was very handsome, his eyes dark, his hair dark too and worn much too long, brushing his shoulders in a casual way, as if he was unconcerned about his appearance.  He was about her same age of twenty-five, but he seemed much older, as if life had dealt him some hard blows.

His chest was broad, his waist narrow, and he was every bit of six feet in height.  She was only five-foot-five in her stockings so he towered over her, but she wasn’t afraid of him.  She suspected he could be dangerous if riled.  He exuded a vigilance that hinted at terrible secrets and mysterious conduct, but she didn’t plan to enrage him so she deemed herself safe.

“I startled you,” he said as he reached her.

“Yes.  I didn’t realize anyone was down here.”

“I should have announced myself.”

“It’s all right.  No harm done.”

“My apologies.”

“Apology accepted.”

She smiled and took the bonnet from him.  She would have put it on, but it was very damp, the ribbons especially.  She shook it, splashing her skirt and his trousers with water droplets.

“Ah!” she moaned.  “I’m sorry.  I’m having the worst afternoon.”

“You’re wet.”

“So are you now.”

“I expect I’ll dry off without too much trouble.  How about you?”

“I expect I’ll dry too, but not before I arrive home and have to explain myself.”

“How will you?”

“I have no idea.  I suppose I’ll simply say that I was seized by a wicked whim, and I jumped into the stream while I was fully clothed.”

He snorted at that.  “Do these whims plague you often?”

“More than I’d like or would ever admit.”  To her surprise, she grumbled, “I’m always accused of reckless behavior so on occasion I ought to behave recklessly.  At least I’d enjoy myself more.”

“I wasn’t aware that young ladies were allowed to be reckless.”

“They’re not.”  She extended her hand.  “I’m Miss Fogarty.  Miss Georgina Fogarty.”

“Hello, Miss Fogarty.”

He clasped her hand and bowed over it, exhibiting such perfect manners that she was convinced he wasn’t an outlaw.

“And you are…?” she pressed when he didn’t respond in kind.

“No one of any importance.”

Why would he decline to give his name?  His reply vexed her and had her reevaluating her opinion that he wasn’t a miscreant.

“I’m alone with you, sir.  Should I be worried?”

“Probably.”

“Probably!  Why?  Have you foul-play in mind?”

“Not yet.”

She studied his eyes, then scoffed.  “You’re not a criminal.  Don’t try to scare me.”

“I wasn’t trying.”

“And you haven’t.”

“Good.”

“Why are you lurking under the bridge?  Are you hiding?”

“Yes, I’m always hiding.”

“Spoken like a true bandit.  Are you one?”

“Not today.”

“What does that mean?  It’s Thursday.  Were you one on Wednesday?  Might you be one again on Friday?”

“I might—if the mood strikes me.”

“What sort of brigand are you?  Are you the type to rob travelers of their jewelry?”

“I don’t need anyone’s jewels.”

“Then are you the type to creep in at night and make off with the silverware?  Should we start locking our windows and doors?”

“I don’t care about your paltry silverware either.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

She studied him again, anxious to figure out if he was jesting or if he actually had felonious tendencies.  He certainly seemed dodgy and capable of inflicting damage on others, but she didn’t believe a criminal would confess to being a criminal.

She told herself he was jesting.

“I’ve resided in the area most of my life,” she said.

“How awful for you,” he sarcastically retorted.  “How have you survived it?”

“I don’t recognize you as a neighbor.  Are you passing through or are you visiting?”

“Maybe.”

“Maybe what?  Are you passing through?  Are you visiting?  What?”

“I haven’t decided.  I might be staying for awhile.”

“With friends?”

He didn’t answer her question, but asked, “May I escort you up to the road?  Or will you remain down here and lose your bonnet again?”

“I think I’ve courted enough calamity.  I’d better continue on home.”

“Where is home?”

For the briefest second, she hesitated, wondering whether she should tell him, but she shook off the silly notion.  There was no reason not to say.  “I live at Kirkwood Manor.  The gate is just around the next bend.”

At her mentioning Kirkwood, he froze in that intriguing way he had, growing so still he might have been turned to stone.

“Kirkwood?”

“Yes.  You know of it?”

“I’ve heard stories.”

From how he’d cocked his head, from how he was evaluating her, she thought he was much more familiar with the estate than he wished to let on.  Her suspicions were ignited again.  Who was he?  What was his purpose?

She was sure he was plotting mischief, but she’d had scant experience with wastrels and ne’er-do-wells, except for her cousin, Miles, so she couldn’t begin to guess what tomfoolery he might be contemplating.

“You’ve heard of Kirkwood?” she said.  “What have you heard?”

“Nothing that would interest you.”

“Ha!  You are the most infuriating man.  You likely have a thousand secrets.”

“You could be right.”  He took her arm and eased her over to the path that led up the bank to the road.  “Who owns Kirkwood these days?  It used to be the Marshall family.  Are they still there?”

“Yes, they’re still there.”

She peered back at him, but he had no expression on his face, and he was staring at her so blandly she couldn’t imagine what he was thinking.

“Are you acquainted with any of the Marshalls?” she asked.

“Not really.”  He urged her on.  “Are you a servant or a relative?”

“Are my clothes so hideous that you’ve mistaken me for a servant?”

He laughed, his voice sounding rusty, as if it didn’t happen often.  “I probably shouldn’t answer that question.  I’ll land myself in too much trouble.”

“I’m a relative.”

“Which one?”

“I’m the dreaded poor one.”

“How poor?” he shocked her by inquiring.

“I don’t have two pennies to my name,” she blithely said, confused as to why she’d admit such an embarrassing detail to a total stranger.

“Is that why you’ve never married?”

“No.”

“Why then?”

“I’ve never married because all men are idiots, and I can’t abide their foolishness.”

“I’m inclined to agree with you.”

He grinned, abruptly looking so appealing that she had to glance away.  He had no wedding ring on his finger so he was a bachelor, and there weren’t many in the neighborhood, especially not any who were handsome and fascinating.  He was definitely both.

“How are you related to the family?” he asked.

“My mother and the late Edward Marshall were siblings.”

“So Augusta is your aunt.”

“Yes.”

“Miles and Sophia are your cousins.”

“Yes.”  She scowled.  “For someone who claims to merely know of Kirkwood, you possess a great deal of information about us.”

“Not that much.  I’d never heard of you previously.”

She feigned a pout.  “You’re deliberately trying to hurt my feelings.”

It dawned on her that she was flirting, which was highly unusual.  She’d meant it when she’d said men were idiots.  After living with her Uncle Edward and Cousin Miles, she had no patience for them.  She’d expended too much effort cleaning up Miles’s messes after Edward had died.

Miles was a spendthrift who frittered away his money at gambling clubs in London.  If she hadn’t worked so diligently to keep the farm producing, he’d have beggared them.

“I doubt I could hurt your feelings, Miss Fogarty.  You seem to have quite a stern constitution.”

“Now there’s a compliment to make a young lady swoon.  I have a stern constitution.  If you weren’t the first bachelor to cross my path in ages, I’d stomp off in a huff.”

“You would not.  You like me, and you’re curious as the dickens about who I am and what I’m about.”

“Perhaps.”

“How long have you been at the estate?”

“Since I was seven.”

“That’s why I wasn’t aware of you,” he mused.

“Why would you have been aware of me?”

He was saved from replying by their reaching the road.

“Would you like me to walk you the rest of the way?” he asked.  “Or will you be all right on your own?”

“I’ll be all right.  I’ve been going to the village by myself for nearly twenty years, and in all that time, the sole brigand I’ve encountered is you.”

He didn’t deny that he was a brigand, and she rippled with concern over him and his motives.

“It’s was lovely meeting you, Miss Fogarty.”

“Even if the only kind thing you can say is that I have a stern constitution?”

“Even then.”

He grabbed her bonnet, gave it several hard shakes, then put it on her head.  She dawdled like an imbecile as he tied the bow.  Then, to her stunned surprise, he placed his hands on her cheeks, and he stood very close, cataloguing her features.

It was a scandalously intimate gesture, one that no man had ever attempted prior, and she should have slapped him away.  But the feel of his palms on her skin was so riveting that her heart was pounding.

“You’re very pretty, Miss Fogarty.”

With her auburn hair and big blue eyes, she’d always thought so.  She looked exactly like her beautiful, exotic mother, but after listening to Aunt Augusta complain for most of two decades that she was homely and plain, she’d let doubts creep in.  It was divine to have him confirm what she secretly believed.

Still though, she ought to keep her vanity in check, should pretend to be offended, pretend that he was wrong.

“As we’re not acquainted in the slightest,” she protested, “it’s outrageous for you to make such a personal comment.”

“I know, but I think you’re very pretty anyway.”

“What’s your name?  You never told me.”

“No, I didn’t.”

He stepped back, his hands dropping away, and she realized that she’d be terribly disappointed if she never saw him again.  Which was ridiculous.  She wasn’t attracted to men, didn’t care about them and wasn’t interested in romance, and she had no idea why she was gaping at him like a love-struck adolescent.

“Will you be in the neighborhood long?” she asked.

“I expect I will be.”

“I wish you’d stop by Kirkwood.”

“Is that an invitation?”

“Definitely.”

He smiled the slyest smile.  “Then how can I refuse?”

“We’re having a large party tomorrow night.  There’ll be dancing and cards.  Why don’t you join us?”

“I will, Miss Fogarty.”

“I hope so.”

She should have spun and continued on, but she kept staring, and so did he.  It was an oddly exciting moment, as if there were opportunities swirling between them that could be turned into reality if she’d only known how to reach out and grab them.

But she didn’t.

“Goodbye,” she said.

He nodded, but didn’t respond, which made her feel stupid for tarrying.  She forced herself away and started for home.  She was almost at the gate when it occurred to her that she hadn’t picked any wildflowers.

She halted and gazed back, but there was a bend in the road so she couldn’t see where she’d been.  It was the darnedest thing, but she was certain he was there in the woods, following her to ensure she arrived safe and sound.

Hers was a very lonely, very solitary existence.  No one ever fretted over her.  No one ever asked how she was faring.  The notion that he was out there, that he’d bothered over her, was inordinately thrilling.

She grinned and hurried on, for once not concerned in the least over how—should she be accosted by Aunt Augusta—she’d explain her wet clothes.

 

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