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The Barefoot Princess
By Christina Dodd
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2006 Christina Dodd
All right reserved.
If Jermyn Edmondson, the marquess of Northcliff, had known he was about to be kidnapped, he wouldn't have gone out on a walk.
Or maybe he would have. He needed some excitement in his life.
He stared fiercely toward the gray bank of fog creeping across the cresting green ocean and covering the isle of Summerwind. Far beneath his feet, the waves crashed in foamy malice against the rocks at the base of the cliff. The wind combed his hair and lifted his unbuttoned greatcoat like the wings of a black seabird. The salt stung his nostrils, and a faint beading of spray misted his face. Everything here in this corner of Devon was wild, fresh, and free -- except for him.
He was bound here. And he was bored.
With disgust, he turned away from the vista with its constant, tedious, battering waves and limped toward the garden where spring crocuses had begun to poke their greenery up through the barren soil.
Yet he took no pleasure in the small glimpses of gold and purple that shown through winter's dull, brown blanket. His estate contained nothing to entertain a man of his interests. Only country balls enlivened the nights, peopled with bluff squires, giggling debutantes, and sly mamas on the hunt for a title for their daughters.
True, he had determined that the time had come for him to wed -- indeed, he'd demanded Uncle Harrison submit a list of the current crop of debutantes and suggest a proper bride -- but he would not take as his life's mate a girl who considered a hearty walk along a bucolic lane as entertainment.
So unless one could ride or sail -- and the carriage accident two months ago he'd suffered had curtailed his activities sharply -- the days were interminable, stretching endlessly, quietly, filled with long walks in the fresh air. And reading.
He glanced down at the book in his hand. My God, he was so sick of reading. It wasn't as if the London papers arrived with any regularity. He'd even begun to read in Latin, and he hadn't done that for thirteen years. Not since his father had died. Not since he'd left this place forever.
How he wished he'd stayed away!
It was pride that sent him dashing away from London. He hated being an invalid, and he hated more being the center of cloying attention as he recovered. When Uncle Harrison suggested Summerwind Abbey as a retreat, he had considered the idea had merit.
He knew better, now.
In the gazebo, he seated himself on a cane chair and rubbed his wretched thigh. He'd suffered a bad break in the accident, and that country physician he'd called to attend him two nights ago had told him, in his ignorant Devon accent, "The best medicine is time and exercise. Walk until yer leg is tired, but don't ye overdo! Walk where 'tis safe and flat. If ye slip and wrench that newly-mended bone, ye'll do yerself permanent harm."
Jermyn had dismissed the man with a snarl. It hadn't helped that, only the previous day, he'd taken the steep and winding path down the cliffs toward the beach -- and fallen because of the weakness in his leg. He had scarcely been able to drag himself back up to the manor. It was that pain which had made him send for the doctor in the first place, and he was not appeased to hear he should stroll on his veranda like a dowager or a child.
Opening his book, he allowed himself to sink into the tale of Tom Jones, a tale told when England was green and warm, and youth was a joy to be savored.
The rollicking adventures penned by Fielding captured him against his will, and Jermyn started when someone said, "M'lord?"
A maidservant stood at the entrance, holding a glass on a tray, and at his consenting nod, she approached, the tray outstretched.
He noted three things. He'd never seen her before. Her blue gown was shabby and the silver cross around her neck was exceptionally fine. And she stared into his eyes without deference as she thrust the drink toward him.
He didn't immediately take it. Instead he noted the girl's fine-grained skin, so different from the tanned complexions of the local milkmaids. Her eyes were an unusual shade of green, like the sea thrashing under the influence of an oncoming storm. Her hair was black, upswept, and curled tendrils escaped from the ribbon that bound them. He'd wager she was not yet twenty, and pretty, so pretty he was surprised no farmer about had claimed her as his bride. Yet her expression was severe, almost austere.
Perhaps that explained her single state.
Without being given permission, she spoke. "M'lord, you must drink. I brought it all the way out here to you!"
Half annoyed, half amused, he said, "I didn't command it be brought."
"It's wine," she said.
She was a plucky wench, without the manners imbued in the least of his servants. Yet she was new. Perhaps she feared trouble if he didn't take the offering sent by the butler. "Very well. I'll accept it." Lifting the glass, he paused while she still stared, waiting anxiously for him to take a sip. In a crushing tone, he added, "That will be all."
She jumped as if startled by his presence, as if she had forgotten he was a real, living lord to be feared and obeyed. She cast him a glance, dropped a graceful curtsy, and backed away, her gaze still on the glass.
He cleared his throat.
She looked into his face, and in her eyes he thought he glimpsed a flash of bitter resentment.
Then, with a toss of her head, she hurried across the garden.
Interestingly enough, she didn't walk toward the manor, but toward the shore, and she moved with the confident stride of a lady who commanded all around her. Jermyn would have to speak . . .
Excerpted from The Barefoot Princess by Christina Dodd Copyright © 2006 by Christina Dodd. Excerpted by permission.
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