The Estate of Brideswell Abbey, Hertfordshire
Normally, Zoe Anastasia Gifford was a spectacular driver. Now she found herself with her rear wheel stuck in a muddy rut on a positively medieval road somewhere in rural England.
A flock of bleating sheep surrounded her, attempting to eat her skirt. Zoe shooed the stubborn animals. Her car was unharmed, but the wheel was up to its axle in mud.
"What are we going to do?" wailed her mother from the passenger seat.
Zoe stood, tugged the end of her tasseled scarf away from a black-nosed sheep and tossed it over her shoulder. "Unless you plan to push out the car while I steer, Mother, we are going to walk."
Her mother's face crumpled and she began to cry.
Perhaps she was being a bit harsh, but it was Mother's fault she had to marry in haste, and she felt a distinct lack of sympathy. If they had not needed almost immediate access to her trust fund to sort out Mother's disastrous debts, she would have had time to actually mourn her lost fiancé before she'd had to find a new one and marry to get at her trust fund to save Mother from disaster.
It was sheer luck she'd met Lord Sebastian. She was an heiress who needed a quick marriage to access her fortune; he was an impoverished aristocrat. The perfect ingredients for a marriage of convenience that would end in a divorce almost before the ink dried on the license. A marriage that would cost her a relatively small settlement to Sebastian for his trouble.
Now she had an abbey to find. That was the name of Sebastian's homeBrideswell Abbey.
Zoe plucked her raccoon coat from the rear seat and slipped it on. Ever since the Olympic had docked in Southampton, she had been frozen stiff. And this was May.
"You can stay here if you wish," she informed her mother. "I'm going to walk. There was a farmhouse behind us and I'll bring someone to pull us out."
"That stone house, do you mean?" Mother looked distraught, staring behind the car in utter panic. "It was miles back there. I didn't see an automobile there at all. No one in this country has a vehicle. It's simply uncivilized.''''
"Wait here, then. It's not going to take hours."
"I should hope not. We'll be late for dinner. Really, Zoe, if we're going to have to suffer this journey, I wish you were at least marrying the duke."
Mother, I am doing all of this for you. But she didn't say that. In truth, it wasn't all for her mother. Once she had decided to make this marriage to free her trust fund, she had got rather excited for her upcoming independence. She wanted to manage her money her own way, spend it how she wished, invest it as she saw best. She wanted to be autonomousa prize now available to a modern woman.
The truth was, she simply wasn't going to fall in love again. After her trust fund was released and her divorce settledwhen she knew Mother was safe and she could finally breathe againthen she would take up her airplane, and she would drink a toast to Richmond in the sky with a bottle of champagne. She would finally, properly, say goodbye to him. And when she landed she would cry until she could do it no more.
"Mother," she said, "I have never met the duke."
"Well, you are going to meet him now, honey. Why in heaven's name did you agree to marry his brother before you met him? You would have been a duchess."
"According to Sebastian, his brother is scarred, reclusive, emotionless and thoroughly dislikes American women."
Mother gave a sly look. "I bet you could change his mind about that, Zoe."
"Sebastian has said his brother has vowed to never marry."
"Never marry?" Mother echoed. "Then his brother
" A cunning smile lifted her mother's lips. "You will be the duchess."
"In a country you just called uncivilized."
Her mother's large violet-blue eyes gleamed. "There are a lot of sacrifices that could be endured for a coronet"
"Mother, Consuelo Vanderbilt just ran away from hers. Apparently it's not as great a treasure as so many heiresses have been led to believe. And I'd better go if I'm to get us out of this muck before dark."
Mother flicked open her compact and painted on a new scarlet mouth. "Just think, Zoe, we will even be presented at court. All those snobs in New York can stick that in their pipes and smoke it."
"I'm sure they will. For now, I'm going to get help." She would never be a duchess. Her union with Sebastian would be dissolved long before that, but there was no point in poking her mother with that particular sharp stick right now.
Her determined steps tried to swallow up the road, but her heels sank in the mud. Down the way, hidden by a muddy hill, plumes of light gray smoke rose against the darker gray sky. If she could see the smoke of the chimney, she couldn't be far away.
She pulled her heels out of the mud, found a firmer place to walk and trudged on with no idea how close to nightfall it actually was. As far as she could tell, the English countryside was perennially dark. A bitter wind rushed across the fields, whipped across the wall and raced up her skirtone of the shortest in New York that year, cut above the knee.
She pulled her raccoon coat tighter around her. But the English cold seemed to penetrate everything.
Drizzle began then, of course. Rain spattered on her cloche hat, struck her nose and lips. She could not wait to plunge into the warmth of Sebastian's home. A long soak in a great big bathtub filled with steaming water would be heavenly.
Zoe turned a corner. Two things stood ahead of her: the simple stone farmhouse and a solid mass of sheep. She'd never be able to wade through them.
A grunt at her side and the scent of smoke startled her. She whirled around, confronting a deeply lined, ruddy face and a pipe held close to what appeared to be a toothless opening with no lips at all. It was an old man; a stout one with muddy boots, dirty trousers, a brown coat and a tweed cap. He was curled up in a crumpled way, seated on the low wall.
The elderly farmer studied her with small, dark eyes from beneath the low brim of his cap. He pulled on his pipe and didn't say a word.
"Good afternoon." She walked up to the man and stuck out her hand.
He remained utterly still, except for his lips, which released his pipe and sent a ring of smoke into the air. He might have been made from granite himself. He certainly made no move to shake her hand.
She knew, in general, the British did not shake hands, except in some business matters. In New York, she'd hired Lady Fannering, an elderly, broke viscountess, to teach her how to curtsy to Sebastian's family and how to address them. No one had told her what to do with ordinary people.
"My name is Zoe Gifford. I'm here from America New York Citywith my mother. We were driving to Brideswell Abbey when our automobile got stuck in the mud."
She paused, expecting some sort of sympathetic response. The farmer merely smoked his pipe and didn't say a word.
"My wheel is stuck. Do you have an automobile?" she asked. "You could tow me out. Just have to loop a chain around the bumper, hit the gas pedal and out I come."
Her shoe sank again, as if realizing she was getting nowhere. She gave a hard tug and her shoe came free, but it fell off her foot. She was not going to put her stocking sole down in this freezing English mud, liberally peppered with sheep poo. Hopping on the other foot, she lifted her leg, knee bent, to slip her shoe back on.
Her coat fell open as her skirt hiked up. Cold, damp air whisked between her legs.
The farmer made a sputtering sound, like a conked-out engine. His pipe dropped from his lips and landed in the muck between his worn boots. His eyes bulged, and he stared at her exposed thigh.
At least she had his attention. She was freezing and desperate enough to use the sight of her legs to get what she needed. People in New York called her wild and sophisticated. But she wasn't truly. At heart, she was still a girl who had grown up dirt poor and who felt a knife-twist of pain every time anyone looked down on her. But she had learned, in the frenetic, moneyed world of Manhattan, that demure didn't get a woman very far. More people respected her for her daring than ever would if she followed rules.
Zoe plucked up his pipe and handed it to the farmer. Up close, the gnarled old man smelled of smoke, damp wool and an earthy scent that she was sure came from his barn. But she was used to being at the aerodrome, where everything smelled of motor oil and gasoline. She batted her lashes. "Could you help me?"
"Bur urn gar burn," the farmer said, or at least that was how the series of grunts and mutterings sounded to her.
It must be his accent. She couldn't grasp it yet. After all, she'd had trouble understanding exactly what people had been saying when she and Mother had disembarked at the pier, and their luggage and her automobile had been unloaded.
"Excuse me, I didn't quite understand. Do you have a motorcar? It's what we need to have our car pulled out of the mud. Perhaps even horses could do it"
He broke in unintelligibly, gesturing toward his house with his pipe. Then he gave a satisfied nod of his head.
This was not going to work. "How far is it to Brideswell Abbey?"
His answer was yet another guttural rush of incomprehensible sounds.
She tried again. But there was not one word in his speech she could recognize. Unfortunately, she had been misled. The inhabitants of England did not actually speak English.
Finally the farmer spat on the ground, then uttered a word she did understand. "Daft."
"I'm not daft," she declared with the full force of Gifford pride. "I can't understand your accent. Probably you don't understand mine either."
Tipping her chin in the air, she turned. She was going to have to walk in the other direction and blindly hope she found Brideswell.
But as she turned to begin marching back toward Motherwho would go off in hysterics when she returned with no automobile or horse to pull them out Zoe saw a huge black gelding galloping across the fields, ridden by a tall man in a black top hat, immaculate breeches and long gray coat.
The horse's long legs moved so smoothly the animal looked to be soaring over the meadow. The strong neck stretched forward, the mane and black tail streamed back, and the gelding accelerated as if he were truly trying to take off and fly.
She hadn't ridden a horse in forever. Once she'd learned to drive and fly an airplane, she'd forgotten how glorious riding could be.
The rider moved fluidly with the horse's strides, raised out of the saddle. He leaned along the smooth black neck like a brilliant jockey.
He exuded powerin his broad shoulders, his tall frame, his endless, muscular legs. Much of his body was hidden by the long gray coat with its many tiers at his shoulders, but it was obvious how well built he must be. The hat was worn low on his head, shielding his eyes. He was like something out of a nineteenth-century novel.
"Hello!" she called, waving at him. "Over here!"
His head jerked toward her, and she knew he'd heard her, but he continued to thunder off in the same direction, and her heart sank.
Then his course changed. He wheeled the horse toward her.
A low stone fence separated the fieldsa wall just like the one that ran along the road. He raced toward it. The rider urged his mount to soar over the fence, and they jumped in perfect unison.
Hooves struck the ground, and the gentlemanhe most definitely fit the definition of that thoroughly British wordgently reined the horse in and cantered toward where she stood.
Thankfully, she could actually understand the English spoken by British gentlemen. A man of his class would obviously know where to find the home of the Hazelton family.
As he approached, she couldn't help herself. She clapped with abandon. "Bravo," she called out. "You're an excellent rider."
The rider made a curt acknowledgment of her complimentan abrupt nod of his head. An American man would have smiled, but this man's face appeared carved of stone. As he approached, the gloom and the brim of his tall hat kept his face in shadow, but she could see his lips were drawn in a hard line. Those lips parted, and words slid out. Cool and austere, they were more chilling than inviting. "Good afternoon, madam."
He turned to the farmer, who had snatched off his cap. "Evnern, Yer Grr," the farmer called out in a reverential tone.
The gentleman on the horse reined his mount to a stop. "The lady is in distress, you say?"
Had he? How this gentleman had mined those words from the sounds, she didn't know, but relief made her almost giddy.
"I'm Zoe Gifford," she shouted, leaning on the stone wall. "I was on my way to Brideswell Abbey when my car went off the road. We're stuck, and we have no idea how to get to the house. Do you know where it is?"
The gentleman drew his horse to a halt more than six feet from the wall that separated them. Perhaps this was what was meant by British reservea good few yards were required between people or an interaction became too familiar.
Still, she was not going to shout as if across a chasm. Zoe planted her bottom on the wall, swung her legs over. Her coat once again fell open and her skirt flew up, revealing her stockings and a glimpse of her garters.
The horse reared as she jumped to the ground.
The huge legs pawed at the air, and Zoe's heart banged against her rib cage as if it were dancing the Charleston. She scrambled back, expecting to be crushed
"Easy, easy," the man commanded, as he pulled on the reins and controlled the horse with his thighs. The enormous hooves thudded against the ground, two feet to the side of her body. She fought not to sway on her feet as she gulped cold breaths of relief.
"Brideswell is my home. I am the Duke of Langford." His voice was cool, calm, utterly without emotion. She would never have known he'd almost been tossed off a horse if she hadn't witnessed it. "So you are Miss Gifford. My brother has told me a great deal about youit helped to reinforce the impression I had already made, given what I have read about you in American newspapers."
So this was her fiance's brother and, as Sebastian had warned, ice coated his every word. It was true there had been several stories about her in the papers. But she had chosen not to care what was said about her. "Don't believe everything you read."
The duke sat on his horse, glaring at herat least she believed he did since she could not see for the shadow cast by his hatso she approached, putting out her hand. At this moment, she had no desire to curtsy. Not to a man who was peering down his nose at her.
The duke did not take her hand.
"Can you do anything about my car?" she asked, letting her hand drop to her side. "My mother is waiting there for me to return. She's afraid she'll be stuck in the car overnight."
"You should take better care on these roads."