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Kent Park, England, 1855
Mist flowed over the sandy hills of Kent Park and settled on the trees like a thick shroud. Payton Whittard tucked her legs closer and shivered. Then, in no time at all, the sun swallowed the mist along with Payton's worries. She jumped to her feet and listened for the sound of wagon wheels. Father and Mother would be here soon, and the noon meal awaited. But she couldn't pull herself from the faint rainbow now forming, offering comfort and hope. She shaded her eyes to soak in the remaining bits of pink and lavender as the last dots of color cleared the sky.
She heard no wagon wheels, no sounds other than the birds crying out and the water rippling. With one last peek over the hills, her gaze locked on the sun as it re-emerged from the bank of clouds, blinding her momentarily.
Suddenly she heard hooves and a shout. "Out of the way!
Thundering noise encircled her, threatened her in a great cloak of fear. She gasped and searched for cover, stumbling into the gnarled arms of a towering horse chestnut tree. Massive hooves pawed the air inches from her face while deafening grunts poured from the open mouth of a beast. She covered her face with her hands. A hoof grazed her arm and she cried out.
The rider leaped from his mount and landed by her side.
"Where are you hurt?" His hands traced her arms checking for injuries and leaving trails of warmth along her skin. He probed her torn sleeve. "Are you hurt, girl?" When he found nothing amiss, he abruptly turned away, and she backed again into the safety of the tree. "Take care in the future." He reached for the reins as Payton trembled, words far from her mouth. But feelings ever present. Strange, new feelings.
In spite of the control he exhibited over the animal, she withered inside from the beast's wild eyes and stomping hooves. "I am not hurt, sir. Just shaken, Mr. Lambrick." She stretched her hand over her head for her bonnet, but her hair had already tumbled into her face. Tugging fingers through tangled curls, she pushed the waves of hair from her eyes.
"Have you a name?" His dark gaze raked her from her bare feet to her grass-stained skirt and shamed her for being caught in such an unruly manner. "Of course, you're Daniel Whittard's girl. My second cousin by marriage."
Still shivering from fright, she bit her lip and nodded. An attempt to curtsey failed when her legs stiffened beneath her. Her face flamed hot as embers and she blinked. "Yessir. Payton Whittard. Forgive me unsettling your horse."
His hand waved her away. "As long as you are all right." She read curiosity in his eyes.
In spite of her mother's cautions to the contrary, Pay-ton stared. The long, jagged scar that ran across his cheek and through his lip she'd only ever seen from a distance. But it didn't distract from his dark good looks. Silently, he mounted his horse and adjusted the bit. She wondered at the source of his injury, but good manners prevented her inquiring.
He reached up, stippled the scar with tense fingertips, then glanced once more in her direction before nudging the monster's sides. His eyes changed flickering sparks before his cape swirled around both of them like great black wings. She fancied herself witness to some exotic flying creature, half horse, half frighteningly mysterious man. Her heart skipped a beat from the way he sat his mount as if the two became one the second he fell into the saddle. Fanciful thinking, her mother's voice echoed in her head.
Though the young master Lambrick had been nearing twenty when old Master Kent passed away in his sleep, she'd been just a child at the time. She remembered his gloomy features when first he was introduced to her father. Angry perhaps, but angry at what? He had just inherited a great fortune. The rich were a funny lot. For the past ten years she had paid particular attention to staying out of his way.
With the fright behind her, she condemned her laziness and tucked her skirt once again into the waistband. Hopefully no one else would come along. Mother continually warned her to behave like a lady whenever she was out, but stumbling over the heaviness of a straggling, wet skirt didn't make sense.
A glance toward the cottage brought her up shortno time for more daydreams. Her parents would be arriving any minute after a day in Colchester, and hot tea must be prepared. While she hurried to the house, she continued to gaze over her shoulder in Lambrick's direction. Out of breath, she skirted the stone path and sprinted straight for the door. One last glimpse showed him at the crest of the hill overlooking his vast property. A dark silhouette, frightening and out of reach. Out of reach, but not out of mind.
Busy with her duties, Payton watched the afternoon sun come and go. Dusk settled across the valley without a sign of her parents. Father or no father, chores must be finished. As the dimming light scaled the peaks, she fed the puppies and nestled them onto freshly heaped straw next to their mother, Chloe. How her mother disliked that she helped her father raise the hounds.
She milked Lila, the Guernsey, and replated the meat, fresh bread and apples she had planned for their noon meal. She shivered at her parents' unusual absence. Any minute now, father's capable hands should appear on the reins while Mother jostled her baby brother, Timothy, on the same ample lap that had comforted her as a child.
Fire snapped in the grate and she rubbed her hands together, forcing warmth into her fingers. It was strangely cold even for this late in October. Or was she merely feeling a chill because of her parents' tardiness? She leaned her head on her palms and peeked through the window at the far side of the table. She opened a book, but before she set to reading, a solitary figure passed by and she heard the crackle of leaves under heavy feet. A rap at the door. When she gazed through the window again, she spied the outline of a big man.
Without her parents at home, she hesitated. Finally, she eased the door just a crack and then opened it when she recognized Mr. Kenny, head groomsman for Kent Park. He clapped weathered hands together and slapped his arms against the night chill until she opened the door wider and motioned him in. "Mr. Kenny? What are you doing here?"
Hat in hand and with head bowed, he stood for a moment, shifting from foot to foot, saying nothing. Then he reached for her hands. His frown quickly gave way to compassion. A shaky voice pressed through his lips and punctuated each word. "I'm sorry, child. That I am. You'd better sit ya down."
She gazed into his weathered face. Her heart hammered at her own fear clearly reflected in his eyes.
"I have bad news for ya."
Jonathan tugged his greatcoat closer and gazed at the small hands, no strangers to hard work, as the girl dropped a wild pink rose atop each grave. Miss Whit-tard's father, her mother and her brother. All gone. If he hadn't traveled out again after dinner, he might not have discovered them.
He shook his head. All three had been killed when their cart rolled off the road into the gully some twenty feet deep. Only the baby had survived a few minutes. Not long enough for Jonathan to fetch help. The accident had happened in the same place where his wife, Alithea, had met the same fate.
He would arrange for Kenny and a dozen or more workers to fill in the crevasse immediately, as he should have before. No one else would die on his land. He wiped a hand across his eyes as if he could stop the scene unfolding in his mind.
The girl's fingers grasped his arm when he offered it, and she gazed at him through tear-filled eyes, pleading for answers. Jonathan had none that would appease Miss Whittard. Only stark reality in the form of wide-eyed pain met his gaze.
"Mr. Lambrick, I appreciate all you did to try and save Timothy. I owe you more than you know, sir. How could they have missed their turn in the daylight? Father has driven that road hundreds of times."
Scrambling for a suitable response as her tears pooled once again, Jonathan straightened. He had only himself to blame. Her pride evident as she looked away, searching her sleeve for a handkerchief, she lowered her gaze. It became obvious she was a very private person as she endured her pain in silence.
Daniel Whittard had saved his father when they were boys and now he would repay the debt. Whittard's wife had been a gentleman's daughter, and he would care for her daughter; he owed them this much.
"It was my fault. That road has been a danger for many years. I am sorry for your loss, Miss Whittard. Where will you go? Have you relatives with whom you might live?"
"No, sir. I had hoped to continue on at the cottage raising father's hounds." Her eyes begged the obvious response. "If you will allow it, of course."
"The land is yours, but a girl living alone is most improper. You must have someone."
"No, sir. You are my only kin of that I am certain." Her lip trembled and he closed his eyes to collect his thoughts.
When he opened them, she had pulled herself up as straight as possible, doing her best to hide her fear. Her expression pained him. He would have laughed aloud under other circumstances at one so small trying to stand tall and in control. "Then you'll join us at Kent Hall. Mrs. Brewster will see to your needs."
"And the pups?"
He didn't want a girl underfoot, let alone a house full of yapping puppies. "Not now."
"But, sir. I am afraid I have no choice but to talk about them now. They depend on me. My father depended on me to care for them."
He recognized her anxiety, and in his heart, remembering his own grief, he understood she had faced enough sorrow in the past two days to last a very long lifetime. How could decency allow him to say no? "Very well. We'll fetch the hounds. I'll have Birdie organize a suitable place in the stable. I'll send Mrs. Brewster and Mr. Kenny along to assist you after you are settled."
Her appearance, much improved with her skirt over her ankles like a respectable young lady, caught his attention for a moment. What was it about her face that didn't seem at all like a child? How old was she now? Thirteen? Fourteen? Fifteen? He couldn't remember. He only recalled seeing her up close a few years ago when he spoke with her father about training a new hound. Her steps fell heavy for one so small. But she would get used to disappointment just as he had.
"Come along and we'll find you a room." He disengaged her hand from his arm and struggled to interpret her reaction.
"Allow me to stay over the stable. I beg you, sir. I'll not feel at home in the great hall."
He urged her forward. "Be quick about it. I leave for London today and I am already late starting. I'll not have my charge, my kin, living in the stable like a servant."
She braced her legs, and it struck him she resembled a bantam rooster ready for a fight. "Sir, I cannot live in your home."
"Don't be foolish, child." He couldn't pull the words back, but he wished he had chosen more wisely. Her face fell, tragedy her only companion. "Forgive me. It is late. Emily Brewster will help you." He motioned Emily forward. "Emily, see to Miss Whittard. And not in the servants' quarters."
Emily took Payton's arm. "Yessir. I'll settle her in the guest chamber. Miss Anne's rooms, unless you expect her soon."
He swallowed hard and his face tightened. "I do not." He had planned to visit Anne in London, but now the uncertainty drew him up. She hadn't been home to receive him the last two times he had called. In truth, he had been glad. Now this girl. How would he make excuses for one so young residing in his home? But he owed it to the memory of his father and hers. They had been friends in spite of their different stations in life.
The girl would be Emily's to handle. He paid her handsomely to deal with his problems.
After he strode toward the doors of Kent Hall and slipped inside, lightning streaked across the sky and touched down, lighting a patch of wildflowers not far from the house. Jonathan's hands skimmed the window where rain pelted the glass in sheets and threatened the very foundations of the building. With so much rain two days after the last downpour, the road would be steeped in mud. He gritted his teeth; the trip must be put off. He would be stuck in the house playing guardian to young Payton Whittard. With a shake of thunder, the window quivered under his fingers. His lip curled back and a groan racked his body. The last thing he wanted was a female, young or old, interrupting the routine of his home. Not even Anne, if truth be known. Though if she had her way, she would be the mistress of Kent.