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Countesses didn't hide in damp woods from handsome baronets, Serena Cambray told herself sternly. Once she had been too proud to hide from anyonehow her current cowardice would have been reviled. Well, people changed, and the widowed Lady Summerton perhaps more than most, Serena informed herself stoutly, and tried to sit as still and cool as an ice-sculpture on her slightly damp tree stump. Even as she tried to tell herself she was quite calm, her thoughts drifted to the man she was avoiding so assiduously. If only she had seen beneath his youthful arrogance and that annoying air of omnipotence to the man he would one day become, how different her life might have been.
The first time she had met Adam Langthorne he had threatened to tan her hide and send her home to her father, with a message informing him that his daughter would never be permitted contact with his sister again.
'Only my grandfather's sense of chivalry prevents me from packing you off right now, even if you have to travel all night,' he had told her, and looked down his nose at her from the superiority of his lanky height and his new commission in His Majesty's army.
Serena had glared back at him and refused to admit she had anything to apologise foreven if she and Rachel Langthorne hadbeen within a whisker of causing a scandal and had put themselves in deadly peril. To be labelled ungovernable hoydens given to outrageous pranks like dressing up as coachman and postilion and stealing his grandfather's carriage to go to a mill would have blighted their reputations for life, even though they had only been fourteen at the time, but how she had hated him that day, she recalled with a wry smile. Probably all the more so because she had known he was right. It struck her that if he had published her infamy to the world, George Cambray would never have tainted his great name with such a hoydenish wife. Only think of the danger of passing on such bad blood to the docile and dutiful daughters he had expected her to bear him as the inevitable side effect of breeding his heirs.
Shaking off such unwelcome thoughts, she listened for Sir Adam's soft footfall on the unpromising surface of the ancient woodland floor and wondered about that first meeting. Even at fourteen to his nineteen had she already been secretly in thrall to the tall ensign of dragoons? If so, she'd stoutly refused to allow the idea room in her silly headand that would have been one secret she would never have confided in her best friend even if she'd known it herself. So much as a whiff of a match between Serena and her adored elder brother would have turned Rachel into a hardened matchmaker on the spot. In fact, now she came to think about it Could that explain Sir Adam's uncanny knack of knowing where Serena was before she'd hardly thought of being there herself?
She shook her head absently and acquitted her friend of such perfidy; Rachel knew everything about her but that one almost unformed secret, and wouldn't serve Sir Adam such a backhand turn even if she had a suspicion of it. Yet Serena's stubborn thoughts lingered on what might have been, and she drifted into a fantasy of meeting the by then Lieutenant Langthorne at her come-out ball instead of the rather awesome Earl of Summerton. If only that dashing and dangerous gentleman had presented himself to be danced with, dined with, and even perhaps mildly flirted with, could she have seen a truly nobleman from the outward pattern of one?
Who knew? She had been ungovernably silly in her debutante days, so it would probably have been in the lap of the gods. So goodness alone knew why the wretched man was intent on getting her alone now. Once upon a time she would have assumed he wanted to make her an offer and preened herself on another conquest. Now she dreaded it. And he could hardly find himself a less suitable wife if he combed every assembly room in the British Isles.
'Good day, Lady Summerton,' the wretched man greeted her, as if he had no idea she was attempting to hide from him yet again.
Serena jumped at the sound of the deep voice she had been trying not to hear in her dreams, and turned to watch Sir Adam Langthorne effortlessly close the gap between them with a long, easy stride. She told herself it was foreboding that was making her heart beat faster.
'Oh, dearI mean good day, Sir Adam,' she said, and felt herself blush like a green girl instead of a respectable widow of four and twenty. 'I felt unaccountably tired for a few moments,' she explained feebly, trying not to see the hint of laughter and something even more dangerous in his dark gaze as one dark eyebrow rose in polite incredulity at her limp excuse for behaving like a fainting young miss with considerably more hair than sense. 'It's unseasonably mild today is it not?' she heard herself ask with an internal groan, thinking she sounded very much like the vicar's spinster sister, who was one of the silliest women in England.
'Last week you were sheltering in that tumbledown barn because you informed me it was too chilly in the open air,' he responded solemnly, and she wondered if she had been right as a girl to think she would quite like to strangle Rachel's superior and insufferable brother. Then he grinned at her, and she knew it would have been a grievous waste of both their lives, and a smile trembled on her own lips before she controlled it and looked back at him rather severely.
'And so it was. Such are the vagaries of the English weather, Sir Adam, in case you have quite forgot them during your sojourn in the Peninsula.'
'Indeed I have not. This is the only country I ever came across where we have all our seasons in one day, but at least this one is fine and, as I never seem to see anything other than the hem of your pelisse disappearing over the horizon of late, my lady, it must be ranked an especially clement one for me,' he added with a sardonic smile, and her stupid heart raced all over again.
'I have beenthat is to say, I am very busy,' she told him solemnly. 'Very busy indeed,' she added, and took her late father's half-hunter watch out of her pocket and inspected it as if every second of her day were precious.
'Then we mustn't waste your valuable time,' he said, taking her gloved hand and raising her to her feet as if she was made of spun glass, then fitting it into the crook of his elbow as if it belonged there. 'A lady of your advancing years should learn to take life a little more easily,' he chided wickedly as he led her inexorably back onto the footpath that led away from her brother-in-law's acreage and onto Sir Adam's even larger estates.
It felt like venturing onto dangerous ground, but Serena told herself not to be silly for perhaps the thousandth time since she had met him again. It had only taken one look to know the infuriating, arrogant youth who had given her a tongue lashing that had bitten all the deeper for being well deserved, was now an infuriating, arrogant mature and potent gentleman she had endless trouble dismissing as merely her best friend's brother.
'And a gentleman of yours should learn better manners,' she snapped back, before she had time to put a guard on her tongue. Catching a glint of satisfaction in his brown eyes, as temper robbed her of the starchy dignity she was forever striving for in his company, Serena decided she was an idiot to secretly prefer his provocation to the smoothest compliment.
'I wonder if the objects of your inexhaustible charity know you are a spitfire of the first order,' he mused, but this time she refused the bait.
'They are my friends,' she countered, mildly enough, 'and as such aware of my faults without you taking the trouble to point them out, Sir Adam.'
'No doubt,' he replied amiably, and proceeded to guide her past a particularly persistent puddle.
Infuriating wretch! How dared he be so irritating and look so devastatingly handsome while he did it? Yet she suspected that even if he had been born as plain and homely as a man could rightly be, he would still have commanded the attention of any room he walked intoand why on earth wouldn't he take the hint and turn his charm and wit and undoubted looks on some other unfortunate woman and stop plaguing her with them?
She had resolved to avoid the man when she noticed how his eyes heated whenever she met them, but he now seemed determined to force a meeting on her. A craven part of her wanted to wrench her hand from the warm contact on his russet coat sleeve and run away before she let herself consider the flesh-and-blood man underneath it, and reawakened some of the wicked fantasies that had been disturbing her dreams since he had come home. If she had ever met a man who inspired such contrary emotions in her she was very certain she would have recalled him, and a seductive voice whispered how very satisfying it might be to be constantly surprised, exasperated and seduced by such a faulty and unforgettable gentleman for the rest of her days.
Utter rubbish, of course, and the sooner her life returned to its usual mundane serenity the better. Until Sir Adam had come home from the wars the unchanging routine at Windham had been so soothingly predictableand novelty, Serena decided huffily, was vastly overrated.
'The news from Spain is decidedly mixed, is it not?' she finally asked, in the hope of introducing a topic even he couldn't bend to his own ends. The storming of Badajos by Lord Wellington's Peninsular army had cost so many deaths Serena wasn't sure whether to cheer or weep, and felt vaguely ashamed of herself for using it as a means to deflect a possible proposal and the discomfort and distress it would cost her to refuse him.
'Very,' he replied, seriously enough to make her feel much better, so it was a shame she merely felt guilty for reminding a former soldier of what his comrades had so recently endured. 'Old Nosey's not that good at sieges, I'm afraid,' he added, and she had little doubt he was one of those who saw past the glowing accounts of victory to the long lists of dead and injured.
'I dare say you know his strengths and weaknesses better than most, Sir Adam,' she replied.
The mere mention of his service in the Peninsular reminded her of her first sight of him as a fully adult male, in the prime of his life and power, instead of the annoying brother of her best friend she remembered from that humiliating encounter as a rebellious girl. Captain Sir Adam Lang-thorne, dark-haired, dark-eyed and breathtakingly handsome, in silver-laced blue coat and all the attendant glory of a cavalry officer's uniform, had still had the power to disturb her six months later. It ought to be made illegal for any man not blessed with a squint, or a figure akin to the Prince Regent's portly one, to go abroad so decked out in the presence of susceptible ladies. Now he had sold out of the Queen's Light Dragoons she would get over the memory, of courseif she contrived to avoid him a little more successfully in future.
Today his russet coat fitted loosely, and his shabby leathers shouldn't enhance his powerful figure. But neither did anything to disguise the latent strength in his broad shoulders and those long and sleekly muscled legs. Put her brother-in-law in such a ramshackle outfit and he would look like a carter instead of an earl, yet Sir Adam looked just as dangerous as ever.
'Your brother-in-law has just informed me the war is costing too much and our army should be brought home to do nothing, presumably,' he now informed her rather shortly, as if he was still restraining himself from telling his most powerful neighbour and fellow magistrate exactly what he thought of such waverers.
'Henry has no concept of military strategy or battle tactics, I'm afraid,' Serena said apologetically. Her brother-in-law probably had no idea how offensive such second-hand ideas were to a man who had seen what price the expeditionary forces were paying for keeping some of Bonaparte's most battle-hardened generals so unsuccessfully occupied.
'If he paid more attention to you and regarded his wife's arrant nonsense a little less, I dare say he might speak a little sense once in a while,' Adam said ruefully, and there was laughter and something more disturbing back in his fascinating eyes.
They were too complex to be categorised as just brown, she decided dreamily. His pupils were rayed with gold, as if permanently touched with sunlight, and there was a depth of rich colour to the rest that had nothing simple about italthough she really shouldn't be intimately acquainted with them. Oh dear, now she was cataloguing his assets like a besotted schoolgirl! She looked away swiftly, but heat still surged through her in an embarrassing tide, and made her wish him distinctly less acute, for there was amusement and a little too much understanding of her confused feelings in his eyes now.
Having had six months to consider his graces, and one or two of his faults, she already knew he was tall enough to make her feel less lanky than usual. And she really must stop meeting his eyes in this coming fashionjust because she had met a gentleman who could look down at her without standing on a box! He was quick of thought and action for a tall man too, she remembered dreamily, picturing him exerting iron strength to stop a bolting horse
stampeding through Marclecombe village and threatening to crush a child under its deadly hooves
Reminding herself he was also impatient and domineering, and as irritating and persistent as a burr, she slanted a minatory glare at him, adding 'managing' to his list of faults. One benefit of widowhood was her freedom from being managed, she reminded herself sharply. And of course being excused marital duties. Given her late husband's outspoken disgust with a wife who could not even give him a daughter in four years of marriage, that was a decided advantage.