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A Belated BrideChapter One
"Lawks, Wilson! Why'd ye go an' do that?"
The carriage jolted to a sudden halt, sending a basketof raspberry jam crashing to the floor. In alarm, Arabella Hadley threw open the carriage door and peered through the night gloom. "Ned? What's happened?"
"Come quick, Miss Hadley!" the stable hand called. A stout, simple lad of seventeen, he also served as footman, errand boy, cook's assistant, and did every other odd job Arabella could not afford to hire out. "Wilson's done it agin."
The old groom's voice lifted in protest. "Hush your blatherin, boy! There's no need to call the missus."
Arabella stepped across the spilled jam and clambered out of the carriage. She only hoped Wilson hadn't run over another hapless pig. Lord Harlbrook still hadn't recovered from the loss of his prize livestock from last month. She halted when she came to the front of the carriage. "Why have we stopped?"
Ned pointed to Wilson, who stood muttering to one side of the coach. "He was drivin' the coach like a madman agin, and "
"I was not," Wilson protested.
"Were, too. As we came. round the comer, it musta frightened the man's horse cause it jus' bolted up and "
"What man?" Arabella interrupted.
Wilson pointed with a grubby hand to the side of the road.
Arabella turned with apprehension. In the dim light, she could just make out the form of a large man lying prone in the dirt. Her heart sank when she noted his multicaped coat and the unmistakable gleam of a costly pair of Hessians, shined to mirrored perfection.
"Heavens!" she managed in a faintvoice. "Is he...dead?"
"Lawks, no." Willson jerked his thumb toward a fat,
craggy tree. "He jus' smacked his head on that branchwhen his horse reared."
The low-slung limb quivered as if still recoiling from the blow. Thank God Wilson hadn't run over the poor man; the last thing she needed was the attention of the local constabulary.
The old groom poked at the man with the tip of his worn boot. "Must not have much of a seat, to lose controlof his mount."
"A green 'un'" agreed Ned. "Pity his horse ran off. Master Robert would have liked such a prime goer."
"The last thing my brother needs is a horse that rears at the slightest provocation," Arabella said in a dry tone.
"Give me the lantern. I must see how badly this poor man is injured."
"Don't get too close," warned Wilson from a safe distance. "He might come awake and be none too happy to find hisself a-lyin' on the ground."
"If he lunges at me, I give you full perrnission to shoot him." Arabella bent to examine the man by the lantern's light. "Judging by the quality of his clothing, he must be a gentleman of some means."
Wilson snorted. "He may look a gent, but ye ne'er know. Don't get any closer, Miss Arabella. Lady Durham and Lady Melwin would never forgive us if anything happened to you."
Arabella thought her aunts would be more upset that they had not been present for such an exciting episode. Aunt Emma and Aunt Jane were both addicted to flights of romantic fancy. Fortunately, life had cured Arabella of that fault long, long ago.
She bent closer to the fallen man. He lay on his side, his broad shoulders rising and falling in a reassuringly steady rhythm. Black as midnight, his hair fell across a large purple lump on his brow, while the rest of his face remained obscured by the folds of a woolen muffler.
The wind rose, carrying with it the faintest taste of snow. Arabella shivered and tugged her cloak closer. She had little choice but to take their guest back to Rosemont. Her aunts would look after him until the doctor could be sent for.
As Arabella was turning away from the fallen man, something caught the light. A gold signet ring set with a huge square-cut emerald glittered on the stranger's shapely hand. Hardly aware of what she was doing, she set the lantern on the frozen road and sank to her knees.
Sweet heaven, it can't be. Every thought in her mind froze.
"Look at that gewgaw!" Wilson said, awed. "Must be a nabob, to have a ring like that." His brow creased. "Ye don't think he'll be angry at me fer scarin' his horse, do ye?"
Her heart pounding in her ears, Arabella barely heard the groom's words. She reached for the muffler, numbed as if she were in a dream. Just as her fingers closed over the wool, a powerful hand enclosed her wrist like a band of warmed steel. The man's eyes opened and met hers.
Slumberous and seductive, his gaze held her prisoner. Framed by thick curling lashes, his green eyes were as beautiful as an angel's.
She knew those eyes. Knew them better, perhaps, than her own. She knew, too, what she would see beneath the muffler: golden skin and a bold, patrician nose over a sensuous mouth designed for forbidden pleasures.
"Lucien. " The forgotten feel of his name whispered across her stiff lips. Though his hand still gripped her wrist, she pulled the muffler free, her knuckles brushing against his stubbled jaw. A bolt of raw heat lanced through her fingers and settled in her breasts, then slid lower.
Arabella hunched her shoulders at the strength of her reactions, panic rising. God help her, but she was still under his spell. With a strength she didn't know she possessed, she yanked her hand free, cradling it to her chest as if burned.
His gaze flickered and his mouth curved in a lazy smile.
But Arabella refused to respond. Whatever she may be, she was no longer an inexperienced miss of sixteen. "Damn you, Lucien. Why did you come back...A Belated Bride. Copyright © by Karen Hawkins. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.