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"Beautiful," Leah Cantrell murmured, slowing to admire the canopy of leaves arching over the path. She had enjoyed her tour of Solebury House, but the splendor of the grounds left her spellbound. Maybe ancestors of hers had roamed these very woods. Maybe she felt nothing more than perfect May weather stirring her senses. In any case, every detail of the overgrown park, from the crumbling statues to the scent of sprouting greenery, charmed her ... so much that she actually felt the tingle of tears behind her eyelids.
She heard footsteps crunching in the gravel behind her and turned to see her friend Jeanine approaching.
The tall blonde glanced at her watch and let out a sigh. "Still half an hour until the bus leaves. It's been such a long day that I'm ready to go now. What do you say? Maybe the rest of the group will have the same idea, and we'll be able to start back for London early."
"But this garden is so gorgeous." After four days on vacation, Leah had begun to wish she had a more enthusiastic companion. Not Kevin, she told herself when a pair of soft brown eyes sparked in her mind. She dismissed the thought. "I'd still like to find that spring the guide mentioned."
"What spring?" Jeanine squinted back in the direction they'd come from, apparently trying to see the bus in the far-off parking lot.
"The one where the Druids worshiped." She smiled, picturing the mysterious ancient people, cloaked in long robes, walking on the same ground where she stood all these centuries later. "The guide said that our custom of throwing coins into fountains comes from primitive sacrifices to water deities. Isn't that interesting?"
Her friend kicked a largepebble off the center of the trail. "I guess, but why do we have to look for the spring? Do you plan on wishing that Kevin calls the hotel tonight, begging you to catch the next flight home to Philly?"
"Of course not!" Her smile faded, and she stared off into a grove of oak trees. "I just found the story about the Solebury spring intriguing. The spring was dry for almost two centuries. Then after the heavy rains England had last month, the water suddenly started gushing again."
Jeanine stopped next to her, watching her until Leah met her gaze. "Don't think I haven't noticed that you started wearing that cheap ring of his again."
Leah glanced down at her left hand, adorned with a tiny diamond chip set in fourteen-karat gold. She couldn't argue with her friend's charge of cheapness, but Kevin had never called his gift anything but a friendship ring. Of course, the trinket had always meant more to her.
"After three years of wearing a ring, my finger just didn't feel right without one. I kept thinking I'd lost something."
"Believe me, you haven't." Jeanine crossed her arms over her chest. "I'd hoped this trip would help you forget that idiot. Can't you at least open yourself up to the possibility of finding someone worthy of you?"
She didn't answer. They'd had this conversation before and she saw no use in repeating herself. Her friend just didn't understand the importance of a first love. She'd never dated anyone long enough to grow really attached.
Jeanine tilted her head to one side, softening her tone. "I'm sorry, Leah, but you have too much going for you to settle for second best. With that cinnamon-colored hair and big green eyes, you can have your pick of men. Why not take full advantage of our vacation and find yourself a nice English 'bloke'?"
She shrugged. "Despite what you think, I am open to meeting someone new. I just doubt that much is going to happen on a fourteen-day tour."
"Taking off that ring might help." Jeanine's lifted eyebrows challenged Leah to contradict her. "If you want to wear a ring, buy yourself another one, the kind you deserve. Throw that piece of junk in your wishing well--or spring. Whatever. Personally, I'm too tired to walk any more. I'll be waiting back at the bus." She flickered a final half-smile and trampled up the path.
Leah let out a sigh and leaned back on a stretch of wooden fence. Now that her friend had gone, she had to admit Jeanine had a point. Unfortunately, Kevin had been a part of her life for so long that she couldn't imagine being without him. He may have broken up with her two weeks ago, but he'd done so before and always ended up coming back.
And always left again, too, she could almost hear Jeanine object. Shoulders heavy, she slumped against a fence post and gazed off into the trees.
A sunlit patch of stone and mortar--almost completely camouflaged by leaves--caught her attention. Curious, she stood on tiptoe, then squatted down, making out the corner of a small structure of some sort. Careful not to tear the cream-colored rayon sundress she'd bought for her trip, she ducked between the fence rails and wove her way through clusters of brambles toward a leaf-shrouded clearing.
Her excitement grew as she made out a decaying outbuilding, the foundation of which had partly sunken into the ground. She'd never seen a springhouse, but she imagined one might look like this. When she peered around the corner, a pool of crystal-clear water confirmed her guess. She'd found Solebury Spring.
Setting down her handbag, she stooped beside the pool and swished her fingers through the cold water. She was tempted to take a sip but reminded herself it might not be safe to drink. She thought of splashing her face but decided the water was too icy. Her fingers had already begun to turn red.
She rose and walked around the edge of the pool, amazed that so much water could come from a spring that had been dry for so long. When she reached the side opposite the springhouse, she faced a huge oak. Water surged among the thick roots with surprising intensity. She grabbed the trunk, leaning forward to take a closer look.
A dark, round form in the perimeter of the pool drew her gaze. Fascinated, she reached in and plucked out a mud-covered coin.
"Someone's wish," she whispered. From the look of the coin, the wish had been made a long time ago--definitely not in the mere month or so since the spring had bubbled back to life. So the wish must have taken place some two hundred years ago. Could she actually have found a coin that old?
She rubbed the piece in water, and a metallic shine slowly developed--a golden shine. With a little more cleansing, she could see the relief of a man's bust embossed in the precious metal. Inscribed below, she read the words, "GEORGIVS III." King George the Third.
"Wow." To come across such a find during a half-day tour of an estate! The coin had to be worth quite a bit, but the value of the discovery didn't impress her nearly as much as her luck. The piece must have been buried deep in the earth until the resurging water uncovered it.
She wouldn't let herself think what an astounding souvenir the prize would make. The only real choice she had was to turn the treasure in to the estate staff.
Or she could throw the coin back, hoping the original owner had received his or her wish all those years ago.
She looked down at the water, and the sentimental urge overwhelmed her. Someone, long ago, had made a sacrifice to ancient deities here and, superstitious or not, she didn't want to foil their chances of getting a return.
Before she could change her mind, she balanced the coin on the side of her index finger and flicked her thumb. The glittering antique flipped head-over-tail in the air until gravity captured the gold and pulled it down to plunk in the water. The coin sank into the deepest recesses, disappearing in the roots of the big oak tree.
"There you go," she said. "I hope your wish came true, whoever you are."
She rubbed her damp hands together, avoiding wiping them on the pale fabric of her dress. The thought occurred to her that if she had a wish, she didn't even know what she would want. Not Kevin, she told herself.
"The only thing I wish right now," she said, looking at the water, "is that I knew who that coin belonged to and whether they ever got what they wanted."
With a sigh, she stood and turned away. Engrossed in her thoughts, she forgot to watch her step and slipped on a moss-covered rock. She teetered backwards, grasping for the trunk of the big oak, but her hand scraped down the bark. Treetops pinwheeled around her, and she glimpsed blue patches of sky. Then she splashed into the pool, backside first, the icy spring water a shock to her body.
Instead of sinking into the muddy bottom, she submerged completely, as though the Loch Ness engulfed her rather than a little pool. Eyes squeezed shut, she struggled to regain balance, but her feet couldn't find the ground, and the cold sent panic slicing through her. The pool couldn't be more than a few feet deep. Why couldn't she just stand?
Flailing, she fought to hold her breath. The muffled bubbling of her struggles mocked her, and she thought her lungs would burst any minute--or force her to breathe in a flood of water. Adrenaline pumped through her, but none of her efforts brought her to the surface.
Would she die in this shallow spring, thousands of miles away from her family? Her parents' faces flashed before her, spearing her with regret. In another second, dizziness muddled her mind until only one thought became clear.
Yes, this was how she would die.
The next thing Leah knew, a pair of strong hands caught her under the arms and dragged her from the water, releasing her onto the grass on her stomach. Someone pressed hard against her back, and she coughed up water, sputtering and wiping her mouth, more humiliated than injured. How stupid to be rescued from a few feet of water!
Anxious to regain composure, she planted her palms against the ground and pushed herself up to sit, legs stretched out. Her head felt light, convincing her not to try standing yet. She swiped soaking hair out of her eyes and got her first peek at her lifeline--a tall, well built man with a shock of black hair. His inky brows arched devilishly over eyes the color of coal, and his jawline and cheekbones could have been chiseled by a sculptor. He must have worked as part of the tour, because he wore an old-fashioned costume, complete with form-fitting tan breeches and gleaming black boots.
Naturally, the best-looking man in Europe would be the one to witness her making a total fool of herself. She gave him a weak smile. "Thank you for pulling me out."
"I trust you will recover now?" he asked, coolly raising one of his perfect brows.
Despite her unnerved state, she laughed at this prime example of British detachment. "Physically, yes, but maybe not from my embarrassment." She gathered her long, straight hair into a rope-like wad and squeezed out a stream of water.
"If you truly feel any shame, madam, you disguise your sensibilities well. Most women would show a good deal more mortification upon being discovered in naught but a shift." He pulled off his jacket, the thin white shirt beneath revealing contours that rivaled Michelangelo's David. "Here, cover yourself with this."
She caught the ornate garment in midair and dangled it away from her wet body. "Oh, thanks, but I wouldn't want to get your costume wet, no matter how cold that spring water made me." Teeth chattering, she looked down at her sundress and plucked at the nearly transparent rayon--a worthless attempt to keep it from adhering to her breasts. "This was supposed to be dry-cleaned only. So much for that."
Her rescuer's distinctive brows drew together. "Did you strike your head when you fell into the pool?"
"No, nothing like that. I'll be fine if I can just sit for a minute." The oak bark had scraped her hand, though not badly, and her arm ached, but only from the strain of holding his jacket above the ground. She gave it a little shake. "Here, take this back. I have a sweater on the bus that'll do until I dry out. God, I dread having to face the group like this."
He didn't move toward the jacket, and his frown sharpened into a scowl. "For God's sake, madam, stop speaking nonsense and put on the coat! I am scarcely in the habit of rescuing damsels in distress, let alone suited to stand here like a monk while a beautiful woman flaunts herself before me in a clinging shift!"
A new wave of humiliation washed through her, but she fought off her self-consciousness. Focusing on the inspiring fact that he'd called her beautiful, she lifted her chin. "Well, you Englishmen really are stuffy, aren't you? If that's the way you feel, then fine. I'll wear your jacket."
She jammed her damp arms into the satin-lined sleeves, warm from the heat of his body. "I still say that a few minutes of comfort aren't worth ruining your costume. Once I get back to the bus, I'm giving this right back to you."
"What is this 'bus' you keep mentioning?" He kept his dark gaze locked tightly on her eyes.
"The tour bus--oh, that's right. You English call it a coach, I think."
"I can hardly allow you to board a coach dressed in a dripping shift. Where is the remainder of your clothing?" He glanced around the pool, then back at her face.
She had no idea what he meant by "the remainder" of her clothes, but his first statement irked her too much to care. Once she'd escaped the suffocation of her father's house a few years ago, she'd vowed never to let anyone else tell her what she could or couldn't do. She put her hands on her wet hips. "You're in no position to allow or disallow my doing anything."
He lifted his brows again, then smirked down at her. "I should say you are the one in a rather unenviable position at the moment, madam. Who are you, anyway? You've commented several times on my being English. Where are you from?"
"My name's Leah Cantrell, and I'm an American." She suppressed the memories about her father and fought to restrain her anger. Deciding there was no use debating a stranger's chauvinism, she held out her hand. "I didn't realize I'd perfected my enunciation enough to disguise my Philadelphia accent. I guess a bachelor's degree in language and lit is good for something after all."
He stared at her hand before finally taking her fingers and bowing over them with ridiculous formality. "David Traymore at your service, Miss Cantrell, though I will warn you I am rarely at anyone's service. Unfortunately, I cannot leave you to your own devices. Despite what you claim, I fear you did strike your head."
Had she detected an ever-so-slight catch in his voice? She thought she had and excused his condescension as a macho cover-up for real concern. Waving off his worries, she absorbed his name and couldn't help mentally comparing him again to Michelangelo's masterpiece. "David, huh? Figures. But wait, you said David Traymore. Oh, I get it. That's the role you play."
She knew from her tour that Solebury belonged to the Traymores. Now that she thought of it, this actor bore a strong resemblance to one of the family members whose portrait she'd seen--the late son of the current marquess. Yes, his name had been David, Viscount Traymore. This impersonator had sootier hair and more intense eyes than the real viscount, who had been lost at sea when his father's yacht capsized in the Mediterranean. "You do look a lot like him. But the old-fashioned get-up doesn't make sense to me."
"I fear your words make little sense, either, Miss Cantrell. I assure you I'm not play-acting."
Strange that he stuck with his character in this situation. And he took the role so seriously, not like the sing-songing actors at Renaissance fairs and staged medieval banquets. She grinned. "Sorry to disappoint you, but I paid attention during the tour. I know about his yachting accident."
He stared blankly, as though she'd made up the story.
All at once, she realized the guide might have done just that. She shook her head. "Wait a second. Are you actually the viscount? Is that yacht story just a fabrication for tourists? Please don't tell me the one about the spring is made up, too."
Still, he looked at her as if she spoke Greek. "Miss Cantrell, I am, quite frankly, having difficulty deciphering your jabbering. I am indeed David Traymore but, until now, no one other than myself has ever dreamed of my gaining the title 'viscount.' My father, in fact, took some time to approve my mother's decision to bestow his surname upon me."
She frowned. "Maybe I'm confused about the title. But you are heir to the Marquess of Solebury?"
He laughed, if such a bitter snort could be called a laugh. "You are delightfully misinformed, Miss Cantrell. That honor belongs to my half brother. Lord William is the marquess's legitimate son, you see."
She studied his striking features, currently twisted into a grimace. So he'd been born illegitimately and resented the fact. But why had the tour guide called him "the lost heir" and distinctly told them the marquess had no other offspring? Well, she didn't have the time to get to the bottom of the story. If she didn't hurry back to the bus, she'd hold up the whole group, and an angry Jeanine would not be a pleasant roommate.
"You're right about one thing," she said, carefully hoisting herself to her feet. "I'm definitely misinformed."
He stepped forward to grab her elbow--a good thing, since another wave of dizziness hit her. Still off-balance, she threw a resentful look at the mere puddle that somehow had almost swallowed her. But a glimpse of the springhouse made her gasp. In place of the cracked mortar and crumbling stones she'd seen just a few minutes before, four unbroken walls stood strong and level. She whipped her focus around toward the big oak--except the big oak had disappeared, and a fragile sapling had sprouted in its place. Her dizziness intensified, and she staggered backward away from the pool, thinking, for the first time in her life, she might faint.
David Traymore grabbed her around the shoulders, his strong arm the only thing that kept her from stumbling to the ground. She grasped onto his waist, terrified that he might vanish the way the tree had. But no amount of anxiety could refute the solid muscles of his abdomen, hot with the energy of life even through the linen of his shirt. Relieved, she let her shoulder fall against his chest.
"Now you see that you did indeed strike your head." He bent and scooped her up like a child, carrying her back toward the path. "I will take you to the manor house. My father's wife will care for you until your injuries mend."
She felt as confused as a child, too, and feared she might start crying like one. Forcing herself not to give in to hysterics, she put her free hand against the cool skin of her face. "I just want to get back to the bus."
"We shall send a footman out to your people and tell them to bring the coach around to the stables. Don't concern yourself about their being well received. You will find the marchioness a very kind hostess. How she ever fell into my father's clutches I cannot say."
"I don't understand this," she managed to say. "The guide told us there was no marchioness. I must be hallucinating. Yes, that's it. I didn't get enough oxygen while I was underwater, and my brain still hasn't recovered."
"Well, your brain will recover nicely under Phoebe's care." He set her on her feet and loosened his grasp, not letting go completely until he saw she could balance herself. "Can you stand on your own for a moment while I untie Reveler? If I mount him first, he should allow me to pull you up without much protest."
Distracted by her reeling thoughts, she hadn't even noticed the enormous black stallion snorting and shuffling on the other side of the path. Never having stood so near a horse, she watched in awe as David Traymore untied the reins and stepped into one stirrup, swinging his other long leg over the saddle. When he motioned for her to come closer, she hesitated. She had never realized a horse could be so large.
"You are frightened of horses?" he asked, eyes narrowing slightly. "I shan't ask why, since your answer would likely make as little sense as everything else you have said. I assure you Reveler will do you no harm. He may have the bearing of a demon, but he is as gentle as a pussycat."
He looked down at the animal, scratching him softly behind the ears and getting nuzzled in return. "Of course, he does all he can to hide his softer side."
Witnessing the exchange, Leah guessed the horse and master were well matched, not only in appearance but personality. Convinced of her rescuer's "softer side," she went forward and lifted her arms. He pulled her up with no trouble, placing her sideways in the saddle in front of him. She leaned into his chest, soothed by the warmth of his body and the faint woodsy scent of his cologne--a brand she didn't recognize.
He put one arm around her midsection and held her tightly as the horse trotted up the path toward the house. She closed her eyes and held onto his hips, a little embarrassed by the intimate position. Luckily, she had plenty of other worries to distract her--the prospect of Jeanine's anger, as well as the alarming hallucinations she'd had at the spring.
"Here we are," David said after a few minutes. "Hold onto the saddle, and I'll assist you down after I dismount."
She opened her eyes and grabbed the horn of the saddle as he slid off behind her. He turned and lifted her from under her arms, setting her gingerly on the dirt. Another employee dressed in an old-fashioned costume took charge of the horse, eyeing her soggy form briefly before bowing and walking away.
David took her elbow and steered her across the dusty drive toward the manor. When she recognized the door as the main entrance, she gulped down another rush of misgivings. "I could have sworn this driveway was paved." She tried to shake off the eerie feeling, telling herself she must have been mistaken.
He ignored her comment and led her up three polished marble steps, which Leah knew had been cracked and stained earlier. Another costumed man opened the double doors for them, and they stepped inside the house ... only the shabby interior she'd seen an hour or so ago had somehow transformed into a beautifully maintained decor.
She slapped her hands over her eyes, then uncovered them again, but the dreamlike grandeur was still there. Instead of the faded wallpaper she'd seen before, intricately carved panels lined the hall. While the walls had been practically bare earlier, they now displayed a stunning selection of paintings. And the ragged, garish red rug she remembered had been replaced by an elaborate paisley carpet in rich, dark tones.
"Oh, my God." She closed her eyes again. "What is wrong with me?"
A feminine voice broke into her thoughts. "What has happened, David? Who is this young lady?"
"You will hardly credit the story when I tell you, Phoebe. It seems I have rescued a helpless maiden from drowning."
"David, this is clearly no time for your nonsense." Warm, slim hands took Leah's own and rubbed them vigorously. "Oh, you poor thing, your fingers are like ice!"
A meeker, girlish voice said, "Beggin' your pardon, ma'am, but I just stoked up the fire in your sitting room."
"Perfect, Molly." The more mature woman took on a tone of urgency. "Let us move her in there."
Leah had no choice but to open her eyes in order to be led through the house. David held her one arm, and at the other was a mahogany-haired beauty, noticeably pregnant and also dressed in costume.
The costumes bothered Leah. The employees she'd seen earlier had been wearing normal clothing. And how could she explain the changed appearances of the manor and the springhouse? Could she trust her perceptions at all?
She began to tremble, making out only bits of the others' conversation as they talked above her head: "nearly drowned" ... "her shift only" ... "an American" ... "coach waiting" ... "brain entirely addled" ... ?
They directed her toward a blazing fire, and the heat comforted her a little, but she felt a pang of uneasiness when David left the room. A girl in an old-fashioned maid's cap helped her undress and slip into a flannel robe, then the hostess had her stretch out on a backless sofa, wrapping her in a thick down comforter. She propped two big feather pillows behind Leah and handed her a steaming cup that smelled like some sort of herbal tea.
Leah sipped the somewhat bitter drink, hovering over the cup while the two women fussed with the pillows and comforter. The tea soothed her remarkably--more than she imagined possible under the circumstances.
Her body began to thaw, and the frightening images in her "addled brain" grew murky. A strange contentment settled upon her, and she sank back deeper into the pillows. Gradually, she realized her fear had melted right along with the chill she'd felt. Now she felt warm, relaxed, almost blissful.
"The tea," she murmured, gazing into the empty cup. "What was in the tea?"
"Her ladyship put in a black drop, I reckon, miss." The maid took the cup from Leah's limp fingers.
"A black drop? ... Sounds exotic." Smiling faintly, she let her head fall back into billowing down. Wonderful, warm, secure. She felt as though she'd been cold all her life and now, for the first time, had a toasty blanket to warm her. Her strange experiences took on the hues of a fantastic adventure. She felt as though she'd never known what it meant to be alive, and now she stood at the brink of ultimate knowledge.
David Traymore-where had he gone? She had to thank him ... for saving her life.