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Kathryn had pulled her hood more closely around her face and turned to leave the bridge. What she ran into almost knocked the breath out of her. Two strong hands gripped her shoulders to steady her. When she looked up at the man towering over her, she spoke out of shock. It was him. Lord Dalton was here, and she almost said his name. She would have known him anywhere, even after nine years. He wasn't supposed to arrive until tomorrow. She was prepared for tomorrow, not for this.
"I beg your pardon?" he said, as he searched for her eyes in the shadows of her hood. "What did you say?"
"I urn you you frightened me." She was still shaky, though she knew complete safety in his grip.
"Steady there, waif. You have been too reflective this night. With your head in the heavens, you did not see me." He was smiling down at her, and she quickly pulled her hood even closer. Could it be possible he was even more handsome?
She must keep her wits about her. She must play the part. "Who are you?"
"Ah, I see it is to be direct interrogation from the start," he replied. "As a military man I recognize your tactics." His voice was deeper than she remembered, but she could not forget the playfulness always near the surface of his words.
Her voice had a quiet calm, and she followed her instinct to respond in playfulness. He always had such a wonderful sense of humor. Who would know? "Interrogation? With one question? Whose military were you a part of?"
He laughed out loud. "Touche, madam!"
"Could you please let me go? I am quite recovered." Why was he wandering around Trotton in the middle of the night? For that matter, why was he here a day early? And why hadn't he gone to the Manor? "What reason makes you wander about in the night?"
"I suspect my reason to be similar to yours," he said, grinning in the moonlight. "I could not sleep and decided the evening air might do the trick. As to my identity, my name is Dalton and I am presently staying at the inn in Midhurst."
Kathryn could feel the tears welling in her eyes; memories crashed in on her like the sea on the shore. She talked to him as if she did not know him. But she did know himhe was the only man she had ever loved. And she had left him a gullible girl importuned by a dashing rogue. It had ruined her life. Now she was being touched by her past in a tangible way.
She could not turn back the hands of time, but could she make it stand still for this night?
"Am I not to be granted the same privilege?" he asked.
His hair was a little longer now; it hung over his collar. It suited him.
What was she doing? She could not risk all she had worked for over the past four months just because his strength and magnetism drew her in.
"Wait." The compelling but gentle hand still gripped her arms, holding her back. "You must not be afraid, lass, but I cannot let you go into the night alone. Please allow me to escort you to your home."
She kept her head down. She did not know if he would recognize her, but it was much more likely tonight, without her normal disguise, and that would ruin everything. He was getting a little too close.
"What are you about, Mr. Dalton? Let me go at once." She thought her deliberate ruse of dropping his title might be the only way she would have of throwing him off the scent, should he suspect. She tugged at the hand still gently holding her arm. "I am familiar with the landscape and I need no escort."
He scolded her seriously. "As you have proof before you, danger can lurk without your knowledge. I shall not let familiarity with the area sway me to leave a woman alone at midnight."
Kathryn did not struggle; she knew it would be futile. She only needed to await an opportunity to elude his grasp. But even now, she remembered the strength in those arms. They had once kept her close to his side when he had walked with her. They had once kept his famous horses in check while they drove to Richmond Park. And they had often held her safe while dancing to the strains of a waltz in a crowded ballroom.
She always thought him the handsomest man she had ever seen. She spent many a night, in her younger days, reliving the feeling of being in those arms during a waltz. But she was whisked from Town all too soon and tried to put that time behind her. And she had succeeded, until now.
Had she hurt him? It must have hurt him, even if he had not cared for her as much as she had cared for him. She had fallen under the spell of a well-known rake and believed his impassioned protestations of love. He was older and flattered her, and he made her elope with him.
No, to own the truth, she had agreed to that on her own.
She was too young to realize that the steady and truest love, Lord Dalton's love, was the only one worth having. And the price for that lesson was the loss of her reputation, her father's affections and God's presence in her life.
She stood thus, all the while knowing that the longer she stayed in close proximity to him, the more of a chance she took. But her feet seemed rooted to the spot. When told that he was coming to Dinsmore Manor, she had been shocked. In all of England, he was coming to the one spot she thought safe. And she remembered holding her breath, waiting, listening for the words with his wife, but they had not materialized. Now she did not know which was worse.
"Who are you?" he whispered. "Shall I awaken in the morning and this will all have been a dream? Only an illusion of my imagination destined to disappear?"
Tomorrow she would disappear just as he predicted, and he would see her no more. She would again don the disguise created to hide her true identity from the world, to protect her livelihood. He would never suspect that she was Lady Kathryn, the daughter of the Marquis de Montclaire, the young girl he had courted nine years ago in London.
She must not think about that. As long as her hood covered her face, could she not enjoy herself? Just for a few minutes.
"You make too much of a name, sir." She was still quiet and poised, but a little mischievous, as well. "Unlike you, I belong here. We are not destined to know each other, so there is no need for an introduction."
"It is as I suspected, then," he said, his voice deep and low. "You are an enchanted fairy. You know our future before it happens and predict pain for me if I am not to know you."
Despite the mesmerizing voice and the danger she feared, Kathryn did not falter. "I am no fairy. I only speak the truth."
"I know it cannot be, but am I acquainted with you?" His words startled her. He must not learn her secret. He continued, "I do not believe in the bewitching tales of the Weald. You are flesh and blood and I am real. Where is the impediment to our meeting again?"
Kathryn soothed him with her voice. "Sir, it is after midnight in a moonlit glade. Everything will change with the daylight, as it always does. I will ask you again to please release me." She knew if she had not known who he was, she would have been terrified. She must act rationally, whether silly banter was involved or not!
"I fear once I release you, you will fly." He lifted her chin with one finger, but she did not look at him. His grip on her arm stayed any movement she intended. "I will not let you go under the threat of reality. Whether I escort you to your home or not, I demand an assurancea token, if you will, that I have not dreamed this entire night."
"I have no such token," she said quietly, all too aware of what gentlemen usually wanted as a forfeit. At the same time, she knew he would never harm her.
"Since I have no scissors for a lock of your hair, I must exact my talisman from what is available to me." He lifted her hand to his lips for a gentle kiss. She remembered how amazing she felt the first time he had done so, even though nine years had passed. Her heart once again skipped a beat.
She made her body relax. The tension eased and they stood alone and silent, as she planned. "You now have your talisman. If you free me, I will not run away, but you must keep your distance."
She waited and he reluctantly released his grip on her, a reminder of the haven she had once known and had thrown away.
"I cannot remain, Mr. Dalton. I have already been here awhile."
"You promised you would not leave if I let go of your arm."
"So I did. However, my military training tells me I must say anything to obtain my freedom from an unknown assailant."
He chuckled again. "I think you know I will not harm you. Otherwise, you would have run the instant you were free."
"For some reason, I believe all thatchgallows say that to women who are alone in the middle of the night."
"Your instincts are sound. May I point out, however, that was I planning to pillage and plunder, I surely would have done so by now."
"Yes, but your army has already been found wanting once this night. And perhaps I should have warned you from the firstI am armed."
"Ah, yes, it is in the military codebook that if you are armed, you must so inform your assailant. May I ask with what are you armed?"
"If you knew my weapon, I would be at a complete disadvantage."
"You need not tell me. I have figured it out on my own. You are hiding a canon under your cloak. There, am I right?"
"My goodness, are you the last of your army?" He laughed again and she realized that even nine years later, she still missed his laugh.
"Who are you, my delight? Please give me your name and where I may call on you. I was extremely fearful this would be the dullest fortnight I have had to date. I believe you relieve me of my fear." He bent his head, trying to see her face beneath her hood.
"I am afraid I must go. It has been a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Dalton."
"Wait, give me your name, anything! When will I see you again?"
"I shall be elusive, and I shall be ever present."
"Say you will come again tomorrow night. This same time."
What was she doing? She was trying to recreate their past, only as more seasoned participants. She would be careful, she told herself. She would keep her cloak close around her. "Till tomorrow, then. Now I must go."
Turning, she ran as fast as her ragged breathing would allow. Afraid he would follow her, she ran straight for the small copse of trees, fading into its dark tentacles and finally stopping against one of Sussex's wide oaks to listen for the sound of his approach.
She stood quietly for several seconds trying to still her pounding heart, and soon grew confident that no footfalls or hoofbeats trailed her. After waiting a number of minutes, willing her breathing to slow, she turned toward the manor and began her walk back. She was overjoyed and saddened by an all-new taste of life she knew would never pass her way again. God had not forgiven her for her mistake. Why not add another to the list?
She would spend one more evening in his company, and then she would truly disappear.
Back in her room, she stared at herself in her tarnished mirror and it all came flooding back. As she lay down in her bed, tears rolled out of the corners of her eyes and dampened the pillow. Not only was she ruined beyond reparation and unwelcome in her own home, but she would be shunned should she seek help from any of her family or friends in London. No one would countermand her father's orders.
She had told Lord Dalton the truth. He would never see her again. Tomorrow she would don the trappings that grew more burdensome each day but made her unrecognizable to those in her previous circles. There had been no other option after she was abandoned by the rogue. She was alone and needed to make her own way in the world. But she could not do so as herself. She would disguise the beauty Lord Dalton saw tonight with the accoutrements of a dowdy wig, a pair of spectacles and lumbering shoes. Lady Kathryn would become clumsy and drab Miss Kate Montgomery, the hired companion of the daughter of the house.
And until tonight, that had been enough.
He came upon the bridge while allowing Merlin a drink of water, and he was mesmerized. It was uncanny. She reminded him of someone, though he could not think of whom. In the moonlight, he watched her pace up and down the bridge, assuming some kind of inner struggle, only to relax again and take in deep breaths of the night air. Her hood was farther back, and she had a beautiful profile in the light of the moon.
Dalton watched, bemused, as she ran from him. He knew any attempt to catch her up would be foiled by her own avowal of a deep knowledge of the terrain.
He stood solitary for several moments, a bit perplexed. What had come over him? He did not accost women he did not know. Perhaps accost was too strong a word, but something struck a chord with her. Was it her unsettled spirit? Her beauty? He hoped to find out at their next meeting.
He returned to the inn and lay awake a long time. It had been years since anyone had affected him so immediately nine years, to be precise.
It had been his third Season and he'd only gone back to please his parents; he was ready for the army.
But he had met KathrynLady Kathrynand was very soon caught. She was young and in her first Season, but she was so different from the usual debutantes that flooded London each spring.