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It was immediate attraction, and an instant spark of love; they married after less than a month, sailing off toward the promise of happily ever after. But wicked fate decided that their love was too easy, and stole the cherished new bride away from plantation owner Ashton Wingate. Deep in mourning, Ashton's heart is held prisoner, until months later he discovers the unconscious form of a woman who looks too much like his dead wife.
Ashton bent over the girl again. She showed no sign of regaining consciousness, but lay inert against the bank where he had placed her. The chilly water was already making his legs ache, and her thoroughly soaked cloak was tangled about her like a frigid cocoon. He searched out the silken frogs that held the garment in place and plucked them free. His brows rose sharply in surprise when he peeled the sodden cloth away. Even in the unsteady light of the carriage lanterns he could see she was no fledgling lass as he had first supposed. The thin night gown readily displayed the fact that she was a woman.
"Hiram! Come on! We've got to get this girl home!"
Spurred to action, the black came running back as Ashton extracted the injured woman from the bonds of her soggy cloak and lifted her in his arms. He raised her high, letting her head loll over his shoulder, then began the scrambling struggle up the slippery embankment to the roadway. Hiram was there to lend a hand the last step or two and sprinted on ahead to open the carriage door.
''Give me a moment to get settled," Ashton tossed over his shoulder as he placed the woman on his cloak and gathered it about her.
"Is she . . . is she gonna be all right, massa?'' Hiram asked anx iously,craning his neck to see past the other's back.
"I just don't know, Hiram. I'm sorry," Ashton replied. He lifted his unconscious charge onto his lap where his own body would cushion hers and she could be held safe from further bruising during the rough ride ahead. As he cradled the seemingly fragile form close against him, a scent of jasmine wafted through his senses. A pang of sweet recall tugged at his memory, giving him pause, but he thrust the sensation away with a fierce determination. It could not be, and he would not let his mind torture him with impossible yearnings.
He reached up a hand to brush the tangled web of red tresses from her face. The begrimed mass resisted his effort, but with gentle pers istance he separated the strands and swept a portion behind her ear. As he leaned back and the light caught the pale visage, he drew in his breath sharply. His mind tumbled to a halt, and he was held frozen by what he saw.
"Lierin?" he breathed as a piercing pain of longing went through him.
Like an avalanche, memories of that time in New Orleans when he had met and married his young bride came crushing down upon him. Though he had been assured that Lierin was dead, he was now struck with the thought that a horrible mistake had been made and it was she who was with him now.
Hiram failed to find reassurance in the wide range of expressions that crossed his master's face. ''Massa, what's wrong? Yo look like yo just seen a ghost.''
"Maybe I have,'' Ashton murmured in stunned amazement. An over riding hope began to build within him, mingling with an odd mixture of elation and fear. If this was Lierin. . .
The urgency of the moment pressed upon him, and his tone conveyed his growing anxiety as he commanded, "Hiram! Get up there, and lay the leather to those horses! Hurry!''
The startled man slammed the door and quickly climbed up to his place. Ashton braced his legs against the far seat as the brakes creaked loose and Hiram's shout echoed through the still night. "Yeeeaah! G'yap dere!''
The well-matched team lunged forward, taking their duties to heart, and in the cool evening air the steam rolled from their backs as Hiram drove them at a breakneck pace around a bend, not even checking their stride when the wheels caught a rut and the closed landau lurched sharply sideways. Ashton swayed with the careening motion and cradled his pre cious charge as if it were his own heart he carried. As he bent over her, his spirits soared with unaccustomed joy, and he closed his eyes as a prayer filled his soul: "Oh, God, let it be Lierin . . . and let her live!"
Gently he traced his lean fingers along her cheek, pausing at her temple until he felt the faint throbbing of a pulse. A sigh of relief slipped from him, but he could not ease the pounding of his heart.