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Always Mine

Coming August 1, 2019!

CHERYL HOLT delivers the thrilling and dramatic final novel in her acclaimed ALWAYS trilogy…

Rebecca Blake Carter saw her world fall apart when she was just three years old. Her parents died, and she was sent to live with her greedy, horrid relatives. They always made sure she realized she was a terrible burden, and she’s lived a true Cinderella existence. She’s constantly riveted by odd dreams that remind her of a prior period in her life, one where she was surrounded by people who loved her. Who were they? And how could she find them again?

Raven Shawcross also saw his world fall apart when he was a small boy. His father was duped in a confidence scheme, and his family ended up losing everything: their property, their reputation, their good name. His parents died of shame, and he vowed to avenge them by retrieving what was wrongly taken by their enemies. He’s spent his life, preparing for the moment when he will finally be able to deliver the justice he’s dreamed of having.

But when he meets Rebecca, he’s disturbed to find that there are other things in the world worth having besides retribution. True love just might be the best ending of all.

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Always yours…Always mine…Always…
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CHAPTER ONE

Twenty-two years later…

Rebecca Carter strolled by the stables where a quartet of horses had arrived from a London auction house.  For several minutes, she dawdled in the shadows, observing the beautiful animals as they stomped and snorted in the corral.

Her cousin, Clayton, was a connoisseur of fine horseflesh.  He owned many more of them than he needed or could afford to feed, but he was very spoiled. Where money was involved, he thought it grew on trees.  No one—not even his mother, her Cousin Beatrice—could convince him to rein in his expenses.

She scanned the area, eager to catch a glimpse of the two men who’d delivered them, but she didn’t see them anywhere.  A housemaid had mentioned they were a pair of handsome, dashing rogues and definitely worth a glance, so Rebecca had come outside.

It was always interesting to meet someone new or to chat with someone from town.  Rebecca had never been to London—or any place else for that matter. The city sounded so exotic and was so far away, it might have been up on the moon.

In their small corner of the kingdom, that being her cousins’ estate of Carter Crossing, they didn’t have many visitors, mostly because they were located in such an isolated spot on the coast, with the English Channel at their backs.  But also, her relatives weren’t the easiest people to like.

Her cousin Millicent, who was twenty, could be cheery and pleasant when she tried, but her mother, Cousin Beatrice, had a knack for making enemies.

She viciously disciplined her servants, rudely fought with the neighbors, and constantly bickered with merchants in the nearby town of Frinton.  Her foibles and quarrels were so renowned that she’d garnered an open reputation as a shrew and a harpy.  Because of it, they rarely had callers.

The men who’d brought the horses would tarry for awhile to get them settled, so there would be chances to socialize, which was exciting.

Rebecca seldom crossed paths with any bachelors.  The neighborhood was filled with families, but as with her cousin, Clayton, young men liked to revel in London, so they were hardly ever home.  It was difficult to arrange a party or a dance when there were no fellows to partner with all the girls.

Clayton would slither in the next day to celebrate his thirtieth birthday.  His appearance could be a blessing or a curse, depending on his mood. He was addicted to fast living and gambling, so if he’d had a run of bad luck at the card tables, he would be especially irritable.

Or if he’d drained the bank accounts again, he’d have epic battles with Cousin Beatrice over his being such a spendthrift.

Rebecca couldn’t abide their spats. They disrupted the entire house.  She was an optimist though and would hope for a successful sojourn.  He’d invited a dozen friends to join him for the festivities, and he had many lofty acquaintances.  When any of them accompanied him to the country, he was on his best behavior.

There was a rumor circulating too that—on this occasion—a member of Sir Sidney Sinclair’s African expedition team would be included in the list of guests.  Sir Sidney was a national hero, who’d died on his latest excursion to Africa. The explorers who went with him were all famous too, and the staff was atwitter over the prospect of him showing up.

Rebecca couldn’t believe Clayton rubbed elbows with such a grand person.  It would be like having the King stay with them, and Clayton wasn’t exactly a luminary.  How could he have befriended such an icon?

As to herself, she’d love for the rumor to be true.  She wanted to pepper the man with questions about his life and activities.  What was it like to be out on the ocean, to ride a canoe in the jungle, or to mingle with native tribes?  She couldn’t imagine.

Men were so fortunate.  They were allowed to travel and have adventures, while women had to sit at home and read about their trips in the newspaper.

With Carter Crossing being situated on the coast, there were plenty of cliffs and coves where she could loaf and ponder the bigger world.  She frequently climbed the nearby headland to stare out at the water.  Most days, a ship or two would pass by, the sails whisking it through the waves, and she’d experience such a surge of wanderlust that it left her sick with desire.

She’d give anything to leave Carter Crossing, to bluster off to a better future, but a female such as herself had scant opportunities to alter her fate.

When she realized how dreadfully she was moping, she yanked away from the barn and marched over to the trail that led up to the promontory.  She had no reason to sulk, and it was futile to pine away.  She was stuck where she was, with no money and just her Carter cousins to offer her shelter.

Why lament?  She had so much more than most people.  She had food to eat and clothes to wear, chores to attend and servants to manage.  What more did a woman need?

She clambered up the path, stopping every so often to catch her breath, but to study the horizon too.  The sight was so spectacular.  The blue sky and blue ocean stretched to infinity.

It was a chilly September afternoon, autumn approaching with a vengeance, and the wind whipped at her hair and shawl. She pulled it more tightly around her body, scolding herself for failing to grab a cloak or even one of Clayton’s wool coats.  The temperature was cold and warranted more layers.

She reached the top, and the trail leveled out.  It remained flat for a bit, then descended down the other side to the abandoned Oakley estate.  Old Mr. Oakley had died without any heirs, and the property had been vacant for years.

When she had a free minute, she’d walk all the way across to Oakley.  She liked to snoop around the deserted mansion, to peek in the windows and envision the place restored to its prior glory, with her a princess living in the refurbished rooms.

At noting her flight of fancy, she chuckled and shook her head.

“What is wrong with me today?” she asked herself.

Usually, she ignored her circumstances and was content to muddle through.  Perhaps it was her advanced age of twenty-seven, but recently, she was chafing more and more, yearning for her plight to change, but this was Carter Crossing where nothing ever changed.

On the uppermost point of the hill, there was an ancient stone bench that had been carved into the rocks.  Once she’d been old enough to flit off by herself, she’d regularly snuck up to sit on it, vanishing for hours to enjoy the solitude and escape the pressures of the manor.

It was her secret spot and always empty, so when she saw a man hogging it, she was incredibly aggravated.  Who was he?  How had he stumbled on her private haven?  And why would he feel it was all right to linger?

He was thirty or so, and he appeared sinister, being dressed all in black:  black shirt and coat, black trousers, black boots.  His hair was black too, and it was tied with a strip of leather and hanging far down his back, as if he’d fired his barber.

He hadn’t shaved for a week or two either, and a beard shadowed his face.  He was wearing a hat, and it shielded his eyes so she couldn’t discern their color. She wondered if they’d be black to match his hair and clothes.

Because he was seated, she couldn’t guess his height, but she suspected he’d be very tall, six feet at least or maybe even taller than that.  He was broad-shouldered and lanky, and looked sturdy and tough, as if he’d been swamped by many disasters in his life and had skipped by with nary a scratch or a scar.

The brisk wind had concealed the sound of her footsteps, so he hadn’t noticed her.  Since he exuded the aura of a brigand or highwayman and had no business being where he was, she didn’t suppose she ought to tarry.

She would have spun away and tiptoed off, but as she began to turn, he glanced over, and when he observed her, he blanched with astonishment.

“Miss Robertson?” he asked as if they were acquainted.

“No, sorry, I’m not Miss Robertson.”

“Yes, you are,” he absurdly said. “Don’t jest.”

“I’m not jesting, and I’m not Miss Robertson.”

“Liar.  Just because we loathe each other, you don’t have to pretend.  I won’t bite you.”

“That’s good to hear.”

“Why are you out on the coast?  How did you travel here?  You don’t have a penny in your purse.  What brought you?”

“I believe, sir, that you have me confused with someone else.”

He pushed himself to his feet, and he was as tall as she’d predicted he would be.  She was only five-foot-five in her slippers, and he towered over her—but not in a frightening way.  She didn’t perceive any menace.  He was simply big and masculine in a manner she’d never previously encountered.

He was very handsome too, with an aristocratic face—high cheekbones, strong nose, perfect chin—but it was his eyes that were most riveting.  They were a striking shade of blue, enhanced by the sapphire of the sky above and the water below.

A woman could get lost in those eyes.

He stomped over to her, and if she’d been smarter of quicker she’d have run off, but she stood her ground, watching him warily and concerned about what he intended.

He continued until they were toe to toe, coming so close that her skirt tangled around his legs.  He scrutinized her white-blond hair, her blue eyes.  Though her lengthy locks were tied with a ribbon, the breeze was wreaking havoc.  He grabbed a strand and wrapped it around his finger so he could draw her nearer.

The move was so brazen and so unexpected that she was astounded by it.  It was rare that anyone touched her, that anyone really looked at her.  He was such a severe, forceful fellow that she found the moment to be very thrilling.

“I’ll be damned,” he muttered as he released the strand and stepped back.  “You were telling the truth.  You’re not Sarah Robertson.  You must be her sister then.  Her twin?”

At his voicing the word twin, a fierce wave of gladness swept through her.

For the briefest second, she suffered a vision from when she was tiny and still living with her father.  She had so few recollections of that time, and she viewed it as a precious gift.  There was a little girl with her, one who—in Rebecca’s dreams—she assumed was her guardian angel.  They were nose to nose, an unspoken conversation darting between them as they talked inside their heads.

Then Rebecca blinked and the vision vanished.  The worst sense of loss gripped her, but she shook it away.

“I don’t have any siblings,” she said.

“That can’t be right.  Two women can’t be so similar without their being twins.”

“I’m serious.  I’m an orphan and only child.”

It was a small lie.  She had a half-brother with whom she had no contact, but she never mentioned him.

The stranger studied her again, then smirked.  “You’re lying.  Why? You have a twin.  Why deny your connection?”

“I have no sister.  How can I convince you?”

“Let’s hope you’re not as bossy and obstinate as she is.”

“I’m never bossy or obstinate.”

“Praise be,” he grumbled.  “I’d take you to town and introduce you to her, but there’s no point in meeting such a shrew.”

“It seems she made quite an impression on you.”

“And not in a positive way.  I don’t care for uppity women.”

“Then you’ll love me,” she sarcastically said.  “I’m the most biddable, sweet-tempered female in the kingdom.”

“There’s no such thing as a biddable female.”

“You have a very low opinion of my gender.”

“It’s all deserved.  Since you’re not the odious Miss Robertson, what is your name?  You have to be a Robertson too.  How are you related to her?”

“I’m not related to any Robertsons. I’m a Carter.”

At the revelation, he assessed her even more meticulously.  “Youare a Carter?”

“Yes.  This headland is part of the Carter Crossing estate, so don’t be surprised to find a family member walking by.”

“You don’t resemble Clayton in the slightest, so you can’t be his sister, Millicent.”

“No.  I’m a cousin.”

“Not with those eyes, you’re not.”

She scowled.  “What’s wrong with my eyes?”

He scoffed in a manner that might have meant anything, then he spun away to gaze out at the ocean.

“It’s amazing up here,” he said.

“Yes.  It’s always been my favorite spot.”

“I’d forgotten it was so spectacular.”

“Are you from the area?”

“No.”

“Then how could you have forgotten it was spectacular?”

She waited for him to explain himself, but he didn’t.  They were at the top of the promontory.  In one direction, the trail led down to the Carter manor house.  In the other, it led down to the abandoned Oakley mansion.  No one stumbled over the hill by accident.

“What sort of cousin are you?” he asked.

“The usual sort, I guess.”

“Indicating what?  You’re an orphan, so you must have moved in as a little girl who had nowhere else to go, and you never left.”

She nodded, irked by how swiftly he’d deduced her situation.  She’d like to think she was a tad mysterious, but evidently, she wasn’t.

“You’re very perceptive,” she said.

He looked her up and down, his appraisal nearly impertinent.  “Women are never hard to figure out.”

“You’re a bit rude too.”

“I’ve heard that accusation occasionally.”

“Were you raised in the forest by wolves?”

“Close enough.”  He noted her scuffed shoes, and he snorted.  “You’re the poor relative, aren’t you?”

“Honestly!  You don’t have to insult me.”

“I wasn’t insulting you.  I was stating the facts.”

He leaned a hip on the bench, his arms folded across his chest.  He appeared as if he had all the time in the world to chat, but she didn’t.

She worked like a dog for Beatrice, managing the servants, managing the house.  She was like an indentured servant, but one who had no contract, so she could never buy it out and have her term of servitude end.

Beatrice didn’t warrant any kindness, but Rebecca placated her anyway.  It was an impulse she couldn’t shake.  Her stubborn attitude was deeply ingrained from listening to Beatrice’s repeated complaints that Rebecca was lazy and foolish and would, no doubt, turn out just as awful as her immoral, sinful mother.

Rebecca had grown up chafing at Beatrice’s derision, but she’d slowly developed a very thick skin and a very entrenched need to prove that Beatrice was mistaken.  She constantly tried to please Beatrice, but there was no pleasing her.

Rebecca never snuck off for long, not wanting an incident to arise where Beatrice would blame her for some minor catastrophe.  As Beatrice never ceased to remind her, she stayed at Carter Crossing because Beatrice let her stay.  If Rebecca enraged her, or if Beatrice got tired of supporting her, she could be kicked out, and her predicament was no different than it had been when she’d first arrived.  She still had nowhere to go.

When Rebecca had been small, Beatrice had frequently terrorized her with threats of eviction.  She’d suffered for years, planning how she might be able to live on the beach or in the woods, but it had gradually dawned on her that Beatrice simply enjoyed being horrid and would never follow through.

Besides, the property was actually Clayton’s, and his sister, Millicent, was cordial.  If Beatrice ever became overly vile, she could prevail on Millicent to make her mother behave.

Then again, Rebecca wouldn’t court trouble.  She would never rock a boat or initiate a quarrel.  In all circumstances, she was the happiest, most helpful person ever.

But it was difficult to maintain such an agreeable façade.  On the inside, she was boiling with fury over the injustices she’d endured.  Every so often, she started to feel as if she couldn’t breathe in the manor, as if she was suffocating, and she’d dash off for a walk—like the one she was engaged in at the very moment.

She was anxious to sit on her bench and relish the solitude before she had to head down to supervise the preparations for supper.  Why didn’t he leave?  How could she persuade him to depart so she could have a few minutes to herself?

She glowered to inform him that he was loafing where he shouldn’t be, but he was an obtuse oaf, and he didn’t budge.

“How old were you when you were brought to Carter Crossing?” he asked.

“Three, and I have to categorically state that you are very nosy.”

“How did it happen that your Carter cousins took you in?”

“My parents died.  How would you suppose?”

“Who were they?  Were they Robertsons—like your twin, Sarah Robertson? Or were they Carters?”

“My mother was a Carter.”

“Who was your father?”

Her father had been Matthew Blake, Viscount Blake, but Rebecca never mentioned it.  He’d seduced her mother, Mary, when she’d been young and gullible and far from home.  He’d been a widower with a baby son—Rebecca’s half-brother, Nathan—and he’d hired Mary to work as Nathan’s nanny.

According to Beatrice, Mary had been beautiful, but stupid and naïve too.  She’d fallen for the Viscount’s charms, and Rebecca had been the result. It was why she’d likely never marry. No man worth having would pick a bride with such sordid bloodlines.

She changed the subject.  “You haven’t told me who you are or why you’re up here.”

“No, I haven’t,” he maddeningly retorted.

“It’s not exactly a popular trail. Should I be worried about you?”

“Yes.”

She wasn’t sure what she’d expected as an answer, but it hadn’t been that.  She sputtered with amusement.  “Yes? Setting aside the fact that you look sinister as the Devil, why should I be concerned about you?”

“I’m tough and dangerous.”

“I’m certain you are, but there is no menacing situation for you to encounter on this promontory.  It’s simply peaceful and serene, so it invites contemplation.”

He tsked.  “It’s hardly peaceful.  The wind could blow a cow off this cliff.”

“I like it anyway.  I like to watch the ships passing by.”

“When you espy one, do you yearn to be on it?”

“Yes.  I’ve never been on a ship before.  How about you?”

“Yes.  I’ve journeyed to the wildest places on the globe.”

He casually tossed out the remark, as if he’d trekked great distances, but he was attired like a laborer who needed to locate his barber as quickly as possible.  How could he have traveled?  How could he have afforded it?

She was betting that London was the farthest venue in his itinerary.

“I can’t decide if you’re being truthful or not,” she said.

“Why would I lie?”

“You’re very enigmatic, so there are probably a dozen reasons.”

“You think I’m enigmatic?”

“Well, you won’t tell me your name or your purpose.”

“Perhaps I’m merely rude and unsociable.”

“Perhaps,” she concurred.

“Is Beatrice Carter your aunt?” he asked.

“She was my mother’s cousin, so she’s mine too.”

“Millicent and Clayton are your cousins as well?”

“Yes.”

“You poor girl.”

She clucked her tongue with offense. “I won’t listen to you denigrating my relatives, especially when you and I haven’t even been introduced.  You’re being positively surly.”

“I’m a surly fellow.”

“You definitely are.  Do you always dress all in black?”

“Yes.”

“It makes you appear quite ominous.”

“That’s the point.”

“You like to frighten people?”

“Yes.  Am I frightening you?”

“No, you’re annoying me.”

“I have that effect.”  He was almost bragging.

“I’m not surprised to hear it, so you should be on your way before it occurs to me that you’re lurking where you shouldn’t be.”

“I don’t feel like leaving.”

“If you won’t go away, I will have to depart.”

“Why?  You said I don’t scare you.”

“I have to get back.  I have chores.”

“I thought you were a cousin.  Why would you have chores?  Or are you treated you like a servant?”

He was such an astute wastrel, and he’d nailed her position exactly.  She couldn’t mask a frown, and he crowed, “I was correct!  I should have guessed.”

“They don’t force me to pitch in.  I simply like being helpful.”

“Sure you do.  How hard are they making you work?”

“They don’t make me work.  I run the manor for Cousin Beatrice, and I enjoy having so much responsibility.  I’m useful and valued for my contributions, and I’m lucky to have such an important post.”

He pushed away from the bench, and he stepped in so they were toe to toe again.  Stunning her, he clasped hold of her hand, and he lifted it so he could examine her palm.  It was covered with calluses.

He stroked his thumb over the roughest spot, and his touch had her wishing she were a princess in a fairytale so he’d think she was beautiful and spoiled.  But from the condition of her skin, it was obvious there had never been any chance of that.

She peered up at him, and for a moment, she was drowning in his riveting gaze.  His eyes were so blue, and he was so tall.  She liked how he towered over her, how she felt small and insignificant next to him.  He had wide shoulders, the kind a woman could lean on if she was weary or distressed.

What would it be like to have such a strong, strapping man by her side?  What changes might it render?  How comforting might it be?  She couldn’t imagine.

She drew her hand away and tucked it in the folds of her shawl so he couldn’t grab it again.

“You’re too pretty to be so abused,” he said.  “I hate that you are.”

“I’m not abused.  My life is fine, and I should go.”

“Don’t leave because of me.  How about if we tarry for awhile and see how many ships we can count?”

“I’ve frittered away all the minutes I can for one afternoon.”

“That’s too bad.”

She should have turned away then, but she didn’t.  She studied him, committing every detail to memory so she could reflect on them later. It seemed as if something was supposed to happen or as if she should offer a profound remark, but she couldn’t fathom what it might be.

“Goodbye,” she told him.

“I hope I’ll bump into you again someday.”

“And I hope you won’t.  You won’t tell me who you are, so you shouldn’t be sitting on my bench.”

“Your bench?”

“It’s as much mine as anyone’s.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

He smiled at her, and it was a wicked, sinful smile, filled with temptation.  It was the type of smile that could drag a girl into all sorts of trouble.  It was very likely the type of smile Rebecca’s father had flashed at her mother all those years ago.

How did a woman deflect that look? Why would she want to?

She whipped away and started down the hill, figuring she should warn Beatrice about him, but it would mean having to admit she’d been woolgathering on the promontory.  It would simply bring about a sound scolding for her being lazy and unreliable.

Perhaps she’d corner a stable boy and ask him to climb up and chase the man off.  It was a better idea.

She wound down the trail, determined not to glance at him, but every fiber of her being was urging her to catch a final glimpse.  At the last bend in the path, she stopped and peeked back.

She’d expected him to be watching her depart, maybe as bewitched by her as she’d been by him, but he’d already forgotten about her.  He was over by the cliff, staring out at the ocean.  His feet were braced, his fists on his hips, as he scrutinized the horizon. He was clearly in his element, as if he owned the whole world.

He was quite magnificent, and she could only pray he wouldn’t cause any problems.  If he did, Beatrice would find a reason to blame Rebecca, and she’d never hear the end of it.

She sighed and continued down the hill.

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Sample Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

Twenty-two years later…

Rebecca Carter strolled by the stables where a quartet of horses had arrived from a London auction house.  For several minutes, she dawdled in the shadows, observing the beautiful animals as they stomped and snorted in the corral.

Her cousin, Clayton, was a connoisseur of fine horseflesh.  He owned many more of them than he needed or could afford to feed, but he was very spoiled. Where money was involved, he thought it grew on trees.  No one—not even his mother, her Cousin Beatrice—could convince him to rein in his expenses.

She scanned the area, eager to catch a glimpse of the two men who’d delivered them, but she didn’t see them anywhere.  A housemaid had mentioned they were a pair of handsome, dashing rogues and definitely worth a glance, so Rebecca had come outside.

It was always interesting to meet someone new or to chat with someone from town.  Rebecca had never been to London—or any place else for that matter. The city sounded so exotic and was so far away, it might have been up on the moon.

In their small corner of the kingdom, that being her cousins’ estate of Carter Crossing, they didn’t have many visitors, mostly because they were located in such an isolated spot on the coast, with the English Channel at their backs.  But also, her relatives weren’t the easiest people to like.

Her cousin Millicent, who was twenty, could be cheery and pleasant when she tried, but her mother, Cousin Beatrice, had a knack for making enemies.

She viciously disciplined her servants, rudely fought with the neighbors, and constantly bickered with merchants in the nearby town of Frinton.  Her foibles and quarrels were so renowned that she’d garnered an open reputation as a shrew and a harpy.  Because of it, they rarely had callers.

The men who’d brought the horses would tarry for awhile to get them settled, so there would be chances to socialize, which was exciting.

Rebecca seldom crossed paths with any bachelors.  The neighborhood was filled with families, but as with her cousin, Clayton, young men liked to revel in London, so they were hardly ever home.  It was difficult to arrange a party or a dance when there were no fellows to partner with all the girls.

Clayton would slither in the next day to celebrate his thirtieth birthday.  His appearance could be a blessing or a curse, depending on his mood. He was addicted to fast living and gambling, so if he’d had a run of bad luck at the card tables, he would be especially irritable.

Or if he’d drained the bank accounts again, he’d have epic battles with Cousin Beatrice over his being such a spendthrift.

Rebecca couldn’t abide their spats. They disrupted the entire house.  She was an optimist though and would hope for a successful sojourn.  He’d invited a dozen friends to join him for the festivities, and he had many lofty acquaintances.  When any of them accompanied him to the country, he was on his best behavior.

There was a rumor circulating too that—on this occasion—a member of Sir Sidney Sinclair’s African expedition team would be included in the list of guests.  Sir Sidney was a national hero, who’d died on his latest excursion to Africa. The explorers who went with him were all famous too, and the staff was atwitter over the prospect of him showing up.

Rebecca couldn’t believe Clayton rubbed elbows with such a grand person.  It would be like having the King stay with them, and Clayton wasn’t exactly a luminary.  How could he have befriended such an icon?

As to herself, she’d love for the rumor to be true.  She wanted to pepper the man with questions about his life and activities.  What was it like to be out on the ocean, to ride a canoe in the jungle, or to mingle with native tribes?  She couldn’t imagine.

Men were so fortunate.  They were allowed to travel and have adventures, while women had to sit at home and read about their trips in the newspaper.

With Carter Crossing being situated on the coast, there were plenty of cliffs and coves where she could loaf and ponder the bigger world.  She frequently climbed the nearby headland to stare out at the water.  Most days, a ship or two would pass by, the sails whisking it through the waves, and she’d experience such a surge of wanderlust that it left her sick with desire.

She’d give anything to leave Carter Crossing, to bluster off to a better future, but a female such as herself had scant opportunities to alter her fate.

When she realized how dreadfully she was moping, she yanked away from the barn and marched over to the trail that led up to the promontory.  She had no reason to sulk, and it was futile to pine away.  She was stuck where she was, with no money and just her Carter cousins to offer her shelter.

Why lament?  She had so much more than most people.  She had food to eat and clothes to wear, chores to attend and servants to manage.  What more did a woman need?

She clambered up the path, stopping every so often to catch her breath, but to study the horizon too.  The sight was so spectacular.  The blue sky and blue ocean stretched to infinity.

It was a chilly September afternoon, autumn approaching with a vengeance, and the wind whipped at her hair and shawl. She pulled it more tightly around her body, scolding herself for failing to grab a cloak or even one of Clayton’s wool coats.  The temperature was cold and warranted more layers.

She reached the top, and the trail leveled out.  It remained flat for a bit, then descended down the other side to the abandoned Oakley estate.  Old Mr. Oakley had died without any heirs, and the property had been vacant for years.

When she had a free minute, she’d walk all the way across to Oakley.  She liked to snoop around the deserted mansion, to peek in the windows and envision the place restored to its prior glory, with her a princess living in the refurbished rooms.

At noting her flight of fancy, she chuckled and shook her head.

“What is wrong with me today?” she asked herself.

Usually, she ignored her circumstances and was content to muddle through.  Perhaps it was her advanced age of twenty-seven, but recently, she was chafing more and more, yearning for her plight to change, but this was Carter Crossing where nothing ever changed.

On the uppermost point of the hill, there was an ancient stone bench that had been carved into the rocks.  Once she’d been old enough to flit off by herself, she’d regularly snuck up to sit on it, vanishing for hours to enjoy the solitude and escape the pressures of the manor.

It was her secret spot and always empty, so when she saw a man hogging it, she was incredibly aggravated.  Who was he?  How had he stumbled on her private haven?  And why would he feel it was all right to linger?

He was thirty or so, and he appeared sinister, being dressed all in black:  black shirt and coat, black trousers, black boots.  His hair was black too, and it was tied with a strip of leather and hanging far down his back, as if he’d fired his barber.

He hadn’t shaved for a week or two either, and a beard shadowed his face.  He was wearing a hat, and it shielded his eyes so she couldn’t discern their color. She wondered if they’d be black to match his hair and clothes.

Because he was seated, she couldn’t guess his height, but she suspected he’d be very tall, six feet at least or maybe even taller than that.  He was broad-shouldered and lanky, and looked sturdy and tough, as if he’d been swamped by many disasters in his life and had skipped by with nary a scratch or a scar.

The brisk wind had concealed the sound of her footsteps, so he hadn’t noticed her.  Since he exuded the aura of a brigand or highwayman and had no business being where he was, she didn’t suppose she ought to tarry.

She would have spun away and tiptoed off, but as she began to turn, he glanced over, and when he observed her, he blanched with astonishment.

“Miss Robertson?” he asked as if they were acquainted.

“No, sorry, I’m not Miss Robertson.”

“Yes, you are,” he absurdly said. “Don’t jest.”

“I’m not jesting, and I’m not Miss Robertson.”

“Liar.  Just because we loathe each other, you don’t have to pretend.  I won’t bite you.”

“That’s good to hear.”

“Why are you out on the coast?  How did you travel here?  You don’t have a penny in your purse.  What brought you?”

“I believe, sir, that you have me confused with someone else.”

He pushed himself to his feet, and he was as tall as she’d predicted he would be.  She was only five-foot-five in her slippers, and he towered over her—but not in a frightening way.  She didn’t perceive any menace.  He was simply big and masculine in a manner she’d never previously encountered.

He was very handsome too, with an aristocratic face—high cheekbones, strong nose, perfect chin—but it was his eyes that were most riveting.  They were a striking shade of blue, enhanced by the sapphire of the sky above and the water below.

A woman could get lost in those eyes.

He stomped over to her, and if she’d been smarter of quicker she’d have run off, but she stood her ground, watching him warily and concerned about what he intended.

He continued until they were toe to toe, coming so close that her skirt tangled around his legs.  He scrutinized her white-blond hair, her blue eyes.  Though her lengthy locks were tied with a ribbon, the breeze was wreaking havoc.  He grabbed a strand and wrapped it around his finger so he could draw her nearer.

The move was so brazen and so unexpected that she was astounded by it.  It was rare that anyone touched her, that anyone really looked at her.  He was such a severe, forceful fellow that she found the moment to be very thrilling.

“I’ll be damned,” he muttered as he released the strand and stepped back.  “You were telling the truth.  You’re not Sarah Robertson.  You must be her sister then.  Her twin?”

At his voicing the word twin, a fierce wave of gladness swept through her.

For the briefest second, she suffered a vision from when she was tiny and still living with her father.  She had so few recollections of that time, and she viewed it as a precious gift.  There was a little girl with her, one who—in Rebecca’s dreams—she assumed was her guardian angel.  They were nose to nose, an unspoken conversation darting between them as they talked inside their heads.

Then Rebecca blinked and the vision vanished.  The worst sense of loss gripped her, but she shook it away.

“I don’t have any siblings,” she said.

“That can’t be right.  Two women can’t be so similar without their being twins.”

“I’m serious.  I’m an orphan and only child.”

It was a small lie.  She had a half-brother with whom she had no contact, but she never mentioned him.

The stranger studied her again, then smirked.  “You’re lying.  Why? You have a twin.  Why deny your connection?”

“I have no sister.  How can I convince you?”

“Let’s hope you’re not as bossy and obstinate as she is.”

“I’m never bossy or obstinate.”

“Praise be,” he grumbled.  “I’d take you to town and introduce you to her, but there’s no point in meeting such a shrew.”

“It seems she made quite an impression on you.”

“And not in a positive way.  I don’t care for uppity women.”

“Then you’ll love me,” she sarcastically said.  “I’m the most biddable, sweet-tempered female in the kingdom.”

“There’s no such thing as a biddable female.”

“You have a very low opinion of my gender.”

“It’s all deserved.  Since you’re not the odious Miss Robertson, what is your name?  You have to be a Robertson too.  How are you related to her?”

“I’m not related to any Robertsons. I’m a Carter.”

At the revelation, he assessed her even more meticulously.  “Youare a Carter?”

“Yes.  This headland is part of the Carter Crossing estate, so don’t be surprised to find a family member walking by.”

“You don’t resemble Clayton in the slightest, so you can’t be his sister, Millicent.”

“No.  I’m a cousin.”

“Not with those eyes, you’re not.”

She scowled.  “What’s wrong with my eyes?”

He scoffed in a manner that might have meant anything, then he spun away to gaze out at the ocean.

“It’s amazing up here,” he said.

“Yes.  It’s always been my favorite spot.”

“I’d forgotten it was so spectacular.”

“Are you from the area?”

“No.”

“Then how could you have forgotten it was spectacular?”

She waited for him to explain himself, but he didn’t.  They were at the top of the promontory.  In one direction, the trail led down to the Carter manor house.  In the other, it led down to the abandoned Oakley mansion.  No one stumbled over the hill by accident.

“What sort of cousin are you?” he asked.

“The usual sort, I guess.”

“Indicating what?  You’re an orphan, so you must have moved in as a little girl who had nowhere else to go, and you never left.”

She nodded, irked by how swiftly he’d deduced her situation.  She’d like to think she was a tad mysterious, but evidently, she wasn’t.

“You’re very perceptive,” she said.

He looked her up and down, his appraisal nearly impertinent.  “Women are never hard to figure out.”

“You’re a bit rude too.”

“I’ve heard that accusation occasionally.”

“Were you raised in the forest by wolves?”

“Close enough.”  He noted her scuffed shoes, and he snorted.  “You’re the poor relative, aren’t you?”

“Honestly!  You don’t have to insult me.”

“I wasn’t insulting you.  I was stating the facts.”

He leaned a hip on the bench, his arms folded across his chest.  He appeared as if he had all the time in the world to chat, but she didn’t.

She worked like a dog for Beatrice, managing the servants, managing the house.  She was like an indentured servant, but one who had no contract, so she could never buy it out and have her term of servitude end.

Beatrice didn’t warrant any kindness, but Rebecca placated her anyway.  It was an impulse she couldn’t shake.  Her stubborn attitude was deeply ingrained from listening to Beatrice’s repeated complaints that Rebecca was lazy and foolish and would, no doubt, turn out just as awful as her immoral, sinful mother.

Rebecca had grown up chafing at Beatrice’s derision, but she’d slowly developed a very thick skin and a very entrenched need to prove that Beatrice was mistaken.  She constantly tried to please Beatrice, but there was no pleasing her.

Rebecca never snuck off for long, not wanting an incident to arise where Beatrice would blame her for some minor catastrophe.  As Beatrice never ceased to remind her, she stayed at Carter Crossing because Beatrice let her stay.  If Rebecca enraged her, or if Beatrice got tired of supporting her, she could be kicked out, and her predicament was no different than it had been when she’d first arrived.  She still had nowhere to go.

When Rebecca had been small, Beatrice had frequently terrorized her with threats of eviction.  She’d suffered for years, planning how she might be able to live on the beach or in the woods, but it had gradually dawned on her that Beatrice simply enjoyed being horrid and would never follow through.

Besides, the property was actually Clayton’s, and his sister, Millicent, was cordial.  If Beatrice ever became overly vile, she could prevail on Millicent to make her mother behave.

Then again, Rebecca wouldn’t court trouble.  She would never rock a boat or initiate a quarrel.  In all circumstances, she was the happiest, most helpful person ever.

But it was difficult to maintain such an agreeable façade.  On the inside, she was boiling with fury over the injustices she’d endured.  Every so often, she started to feel as if she couldn’t breathe in the manor, as if she was suffocating, and she’d dash off for a walk—like the one she was engaged in at the very moment.

She was anxious to sit on her bench and relish the solitude before she had to head down to supervise the preparations for supper.  Why didn’t he leave?  How could she persuade him to depart so she could have a few minutes to herself?

She glowered to inform him that he was loafing where he shouldn’t be, but he was an obtuse oaf, and he didn’t budge.

“How old were you when you were brought to Carter Crossing?” he asked.

“Three, and I have to categorically state that you are very nosy.”

“How did it happen that your Carter cousins took you in?”

“My parents died.  How would you suppose?”

“Who were they?  Were they Robertsons—like your twin, Sarah Robertson? Or were they Carters?”

“My mother was a Carter.”

“Who was your father?”

Her father had been Matthew Blake, Viscount Blake, but Rebecca never mentioned it.  He’d seduced her mother, Mary, when she’d been young and gullible and far from home.  He’d been a widower with a baby son—Rebecca’s half-brother, Nathan—and he’d hired Mary to work as Nathan’s nanny.

According to Beatrice, Mary had been beautiful, but stupid and naïve too.  She’d fallen for the Viscount’s charms, and Rebecca had been the result. It was why she’d likely never marry. No man worth having would pick a bride with such sordid bloodlines.

She changed the subject.  “You haven’t told me who you are or why you’re up here.”

“No, I haven’t,” he maddeningly retorted.

“It’s not exactly a popular trail. Should I be worried about you?”

“Yes.”

She wasn’t sure what she’d expected as an answer, but it hadn’t been that.  She sputtered with amusement.  “Yes? Setting aside the fact that you look sinister as the Devil, why should I be concerned about you?”

“I’m tough and dangerous.”

“I’m certain you are, but there is no menacing situation for you to encounter on this promontory.  It’s simply peaceful and serene, so it invites contemplation.”

He tsked.  “It’s hardly peaceful.  The wind could blow a cow off this cliff.”

“I like it anyway.  I like to watch the ships passing by.”

“When you espy one, do you yearn to be on it?”

“Yes.  I’ve never been on a ship before.  How about you?”

“Yes.  I’ve journeyed to the wildest places on the globe.”

He casually tossed out the remark, as if he’d trekked great distances, but he was attired like a laborer who needed to locate his barber as quickly as possible.  How could he have traveled?  How could he have afforded it?

She was betting that London was the farthest venue in his itinerary.

“I can’t decide if you’re being truthful or not,” she said.

“Why would I lie?”

“You’re very enigmatic, so there are probably a dozen reasons.”

“You think I’m enigmatic?”

“Well, you won’t tell me your name or your purpose.”

“Perhaps I’m merely rude and unsociable.”

“Perhaps,” she concurred.

“Is Beatrice Carter your aunt?” he asked.

“She was my mother’s cousin, so she’s mine too.”

“Millicent and Clayton are your cousins as well?”

“Yes.”

“You poor girl.”

She clucked her tongue with offense. “I won’t listen to you denigrating my relatives, especially when you and I haven’t even been introduced.  You’re being positively surly.”

“I’m a surly fellow.”

“You definitely are.  Do you always dress all in black?”

“Yes.”

“It makes you appear quite ominous.”

“That’s the point.”

“You like to frighten people?”

“Yes.  Am I frightening you?”

“No, you’re annoying me.”

“I have that effect.”  He was almost bragging.

“I’m not surprised to hear it, so you should be on your way before it occurs to me that you’re lurking where you shouldn’t be.”

“I don’t feel like leaving.”

“If you won’t go away, I will have to depart.”

“Why?  You said I don’t scare you.”

“I have to get back.  I have chores.”

“I thought you were a cousin.  Why would you have chores?  Or are you treated you like a servant?”

He was such an astute wastrel, and he’d nailed her position exactly.  She couldn’t mask a frown, and he crowed, “I was correct!  I should have guessed.”

“They don’t force me to pitch in.  I simply like being helpful.”

“Sure you do.  How hard are they making you work?”

“They don’t make me work.  I run the manor for Cousin Beatrice, and I enjoy having so much responsibility.  I’m useful and valued for my contributions, and I’m lucky to have such an important post.”

He pushed away from the bench, and he stepped in so they were toe to toe again.  Stunning her, he clasped hold of her hand, and he lifted it so he could examine her palm.  It was covered with calluses.

He stroked his thumb over the roughest spot, and his touch had her wishing she were a princess in a fairytale so he’d think she was beautiful and spoiled.  But from the condition of her skin, it was obvious there had never been any chance of that.

She peered up at him, and for a moment, she was drowning in his riveting gaze.  His eyes were so blue, and he was so tall.  She liked how he towered over her, how she felt small and insignificant next to him.  He had wide shoulders, the kind a woman could lean on if she was weary or distressed.

What would it be like to have such a strong, strapping man by her side?  What changes might it render?  How comforting might it be?  She couldn’t imagine.

She drew her hand away and tucked it in the folds of her shawl so he couldn’t grab it again.

“You’re too pretty to be so abused,” he said.  “I hate that you are.”

“I’m not abused.  My life is fine, and I should go.”

“Don’t leave because of me.  How about if we tarry for awhile and see how many ships we can count?”

“I’ve frittered away all the minutes I can for one afternoon.”

“That’s too bad.”

She should have turned away then, but she didn’t.  She studied him, committing every detail to memory so she could reflect on them later. It seemed as if something was supposed to happen or as if she should offer a profound remark, but she couldn’t fathom what it might be.

“Goodbye,” she told him.

“I hope I’ll bump into you again someday.”

“And I hope you won’t.  You won’t tell me who you are, so you shouldn’t be sitting on my bench.”

“Your bench?”

“It’s as much mine as anyone’s.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

He smiled at her, and it was a wicked, sinful smile, filled with temptation.  It was the type of smile that could drag a girl into all sorts of trouble.  It was very likely the type of smile Rebecca’s father had flashed at her mother all those years ago.

How did a woman deflect that look? Why would she want to?

She whipped away and started down the hill, figuring she should warn Beatrice about him, but it would mean having to admit she’d been woolgathering on the promontory.  It would simply bring about a sound scolding for her being lazy and unreliable.

Perhaps she’d corner a stable boy and ask him to climb up and chase the man off.  It was a better idea.

She wound down the trail, determined not to glance at him, but every fiber of her being was urging her to catch a final glimpse.  At the last bend in the path, she stopped and peeked back.

She’d expected him to be watching her depart, maybe as bewitched by her as she’d been by him, but he’d already forgotten about her.  He was over by the cliff, staring out at the ocean.  His feet were braced, his fists on his hips, as he scrutinized the horizon. He was clearly in his element, as if he owned the whole world.

He was quite magnificent, and she could only pray he wouldn’t cause any problems.  If he did, Beatrice would find a reason to blame Rebecca, and she’d never hear the end of it.

She sighed and continued down the hill.

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