Read an Excerpt
Destined to Last
By Alissa Johnson
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2010 Alissa Johnson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLady Kate Cole was, by most accounts, a young woman of exceptional beauty, extraordinary talent, and notable charm. She was also, by all accounts, a woman so remarkably prone to accidents that it was generally considered wise to back away if she happened to be standing next to a steep hill, a large body of water, an open window, or any sort of material that might cut, discolor, burn, spill, break ... It was probably best if one simply kept a bit of distance from the girl whenever possible.
There were times Kate rather wished she could do the same. Now, for example, would have been an ideal moment to back away from herself-while she was standing on the grassy lawn of Haldon Hall with her pale rose gown conspicuously splattered from hem to neck with mud. Again. And while her blonde hair was damp at the ends, coming out of its pins, and likely sporting a number of leaves in various stages of decomposition. Again. And while one Mr. Hunter was striding toward her from the house to witness her in all her rumpled, mud-covered, frightful-haired embarrassment. Ag-Well, no, that was a first.
Why, why had she not taken care where she walked along the pond instead of humming the new waltz she'd composed whilst daydreamingabout what it might be like to dance that very waltz with the gentleman of her dreams? She'd imagined what he might look like and sound like and talk about and ... and then suddenly it hadn't been a waltz she was hearing in her head, it had been a sonatina. And she'd no longer been walking gracefully along the muddy shore, she'd been lying on it.
Grimacing, she watched as Mr. Hunter drew closer, and wondered if it would be unforgivably rude if she turned away and walked-or quite possibly ran-around to the side of the house. Then she wondered if she cared overmuch whether it was unforgivably rude. She decided yes on both accounts, which was something of a disappointment, because of all the people currently attending her mother's house party, there were few she would rather see less.
There was something about Mr. Hunter that put her on edge. To begin with, the man was impossibly well groomed. In Kate's opinion, it simply wasn't natural that one should never have a spot on one's clothes or have a button go missing or a hair fly out of place. Mr. Hunter's attention to the details of his attire seemed more in tune with the fussy habits of a delicate London dandy than it did with a gentleman of his size. Which was another thing about the man that put her on edge-he was, aside from the local blacksmith, quite the most imposing person of her acquaintance. He was even taller than her brother, Whit, and notably broader across the chest and shoulders. Perhaps the broadness was the reason that, while she found Whit's size and strength to be reassuring, Mr. Hunter's large frame made her feel a mite overwhelmed.
The rest of his appearance only enhanced that feeling. His eyes and hair were dark as night, his jaw hard, his cheekbones sharp, and his full mouth often curved into a small, but wicked smile, so that she rather fancied he looked a well-dressed pirate caught in a private joke.
What troubled her most of all, however, was that he sometimes used his size, dark gaze, and impossibly polished appearance to stand over her and make her feel ill at ease.
The man loomed, there was nothing else for it. Even when they were separated by an entire ballroom-and she generally took pains to see that they were-he still managed to loom. It was most disconcerting.
Resigned to an inescapable spot of looming that morning, Kate indulged in a brief but heartfelt sigh, and a futile but equally heartfelt wish that she had not forgotten to bring her bonnet. It would have gone a long way toward covering up the damage done to her hair.
She waited until he'd drawn close enough for her to see that he was impeccably turned out in fashionable tan breeches, dark coat, and intricately knotted cravat; then she pasted on an extremely bright smile, having long ago come to the conclusion that the next best thing to avoiding embarrassment altogether was pretending it didn't exist. She'd become depressingly adept at that pretense over the years.
"Good morning, Mr. Hunter," she chimed in her cheeriest voice. "Have you come out for a stroll? It's a lovely day for it."
Had Mr. Hunter been a typical gentleman of the ton, he likely would have floundered a little at her appearance-not to mention her apparent ignorance of said appearance-and then very courteously played along as if nothing was amiss while he assisted her back to the house.
Unfortunately, Mr. Hunter was a man of great wealth but inauspicious origin, which made his connection to the ton rather loose and his position as a gentleman decidedly suspect. Kate didn't hold with the notion that a man's status as a gentleman should be awarded solely by right of birth. She felt strongly that it was a man's character and behavior that marked him as a gentleman ... or not, as she rather thought to be the case with Mr. Hunter.
He stopped in front of her, raised one dark brow, and took a long, thorough look at her bedraggled form before running his tongue along his teeth. "Am I to pretend I don't see the mud? Is that how it's done?"
Kate gave up the smile to roll her eyes and step around him to begin a hurried walk toward the house. "If you were truly interested in how it was done, you would not have asked."
He fell into step beside her. "How is one supposed to learn if one doesn't ask?"
"The fact that I did not wish to acknowledge the mud should have been obvious to anyone with even the most basic powers of perception." She pursed her lips. "Perhaps you did need to ask."
He chuckled at that, a low and soft sound she was irritated to discover she found pleasant.
"Let us assume for a moment," he replied after a pause, "that I do possess some very basic skills of perception. Why then, do you suppose I did ask?"
She glanced and saw that his lips were curved up with humor. "Because you wished to amuse yourself by discomforting me."
"Patently untrue," he returned. "You looked sufficiently uncomfortable already. I had hoped to make you smile."
"I ..." That was another thing about Mr. Hunter that set her on edge. He was charming to the point of being glib. "Well ... thank you."
"It would have been my pleasure," he responded smoothly, "had I succeeded."
"I believe I was smiling when you arrived," she pointed out.
"Because of me? How gratifying."
She felt a bubble of laughter form in her throat and ruthlessly swallowed it down. Nothing good could come from encouraging the man. Then again, not encouraging him had done very little good as well. Perhaps a more direct approach was required.
"Your arrogance is astounding," she informed him.
"No point doing things in half measures."
She wanted to laugh at that too. Instead, she increased her pace. "Just because something can be done, doesn't mean that it should be done."
"Just because something shouldn't be done, doesn't mean it can't be done well." He waited a beat before adding, "I imagine you fell into the pond spectacularly."
"I ..." The laugh escaped, and she blamed what happened next solely on the distraction of that laugh.
He sidestepped a large root from a nearby oak tree.
She did not, and likely would have added grass stains to her poor dress had he not reached out and gently caught her arm as she toppled forward.
"Easy." He stood very still, his large hand keeping a firm grip on her arm as she righted herself. "May I assume by your energetic pace that you were unharmed by your accident this morning?"
Ignoring the amusement in his voice, as well as the sudden fluttering of her heart, she carefully extracted herself from his grip. "Yes, you may. Thank you."
"I am relieved to hear it."
She gave him a wry smile. "Relieved enough to go about your business and leave me in peace?"
"Disturbing your peace was the business I had in mind when I came outside."
"Ah." She titled her head up at him. "Is that why you've come to Haldon, simply to vex me?"
"Not entirely, or I'd have made the effort to arrive sooner."
There was no arguing with that bit of logic. It was the last full day of her mother's house party and Mr. Hunter had made the trip from London only that morning. Just in time, it would seem, to find her returning from her walk.
"You've come for tonight's ball," she guessed.
Rather than answer, he took a step closer and bent his head to catch her eye. "Tell me Lady Kate-and to be clear, I ask not to make you uncomfortable, but because I am genuinely curious-what is it about me that ruffles your feathers so?"
You're too large. You're too charming. You make my heart race. I'd wager a year's allowance you were, at some point, a pirate.
vShe couldn't tell him any of those things. Particularly the last, which she knew to be the influence of a long-standing weakness for torrid novels.
So she said instead, "You loom, Mr. Hunter."
"Yes." She searched desperately for something to add to that. "It's very ill-mannered of you."
"I see." His lips twitched. "You're an honest creature, aren't you?"
"I try to be." She waited for him to step back, or look away, or give some indication that her honest, if not exactly complete, confession had made an impact on him. He remained utterly still. "Are you going to cease looming?"
"No." He moved, finally, but to her shock, it was only to lift his hand and lightly brush a strand of hair away from her cheek. "I rather like ruffling your feathers."
His hands were ungloved, and the warmth of his fingers was answered by a shiver along her skin. It was Kate who took a step back. "Your behavior is presumptuous."
"Is it?" His lips curved up in a wicked smile. "I'd have asked first, but anyone with even the most basic powers of perception could see you're curious-"
"Good day, Mr. Hunter."
Hunter made no move to follow Lady Kate as she stormed toward the house, and not because he knew she wouldn't welcome his company, nor because he felt ashamed for having been, in fact, very presumptuous. No, he stayed where he was because following Lady Kate now didn't suit his purpose.
And everything Hunter did suited a purpose. In his opinion, anything less was a useless expenditure of time and energy.
Fortunately for his purposes, he didn't consider it a waste of time to watch Lady Kate make her way toward the house. He didn't consider it a waste of time to watch Lady Kate doing most anything. The woman was a vision.
A diamond of the first water, that's what the ton called her. The very picture of fashionable beauty-pale blonde hair, ivory skin, wide blue eyes, thin blade of a nose and a perfect rosebud mouth. She was elegantly tall and slender, and yet possessed enough curves to catch, and hold, a man's attention. She was exquisite, a testament to grace and beauty ... provided she was standing utterly still. When she wasn't, well ... He thought her occasional missteps only added to her charm.
There were those who believed her lack of coordination was the reason she remained unmarried at three-and-twenty, but Hunter knew that to be a misconception. He'd heard members of her family grumble over Kate's unwed state on more than one occasion, but a lack of suitors wasn't the problem. She'd received well more than a handful of offers. The problem was that she'd turned down every one. It seemed the gentlemen weren't offering anything she cared to accept.
In Hunter's opinion, they were merely offering it too easily.
Confident that her lack of interest in other gentlemen afforded him the opportunity, he'd spent a bit of time studying Lady Kate. He'd approached her at balls and dinners from time to time, or simply caught her eye from across the room, but for the most part, he let her be in favor of watching, listening, and learning what he could about the woman.
And what he'd discovered was that Lady Kate Cole was a dreamer. She might appreciate the attention she received from her suitors, but she would never be captivated by their overt fawning. Because, like all dreamers, what she wanted most was that which was just out of reach.
Hunter had made a point of being just out of her reach. He'd made a point of being impossible for her to ignore as well, but anyone could manage that. It was the element of elusiveness, the piquing of curiosity that could capture Kate. And make no mistake, he would capture her.
No other woman would do for his wife. True, there were a few who were higher in rank, one or two with more generous dowries, and it was possible, though he rather doubted it, that there was a more attractive young woman somewhere in society he'd yet to meet. But only Lady Kate Cole had it all-rank, fortune, and beauty.
She was, in essence, the very finest young lady the ton had to offer. What was the phrase-the crème de la crème? For a man raised on bread and water, a woman like Kate was nothing less than the promise of ambrosia. She was the definitive luxury, the most extravagant acquisition, and perhaps most important, the perfect symbol of his rise from pauper to prince.
All of which, he could admit, he would have learned to do without, were Kate not also a woman whose company he could enjoy. Granted, he'd sampled that company in limited quantities, but it had been enough for him to decide that he genuinely liked the girl-her wit, her humor, her loyalty to those she loved, even her clumsiness and distracted nature was something he found appealing. And to top it all off, he desired her more than he could remember ever desiring a woman.
What man could ask for more?
Feeling every inch as arrogant as Kate had charged him of being only minutes ago, he stood where she'd left him on the lawn, and patiently waited for her to reach the door, hesitate, then turn back to sneak a peek at him.
"There we are," he murmured.
He considered giving her a wave, but thought that might be overdoing things a bit. Instead, he simply waited until she whirled around again and went into the house, before he casually strolled away.
Contrary to what Kate had guessed-or accused, depending on how one wished to take her tone at the time-he hadn't come to the Thurston estate simply to attend the ball. Nor had he stepped outside with the hope of catching Kate trudging back from the pond covered in mud, although that had been a pleasant surprise, indeed. He'd come on business, and having a spot of time before that business was scheduled, he'd chosen a walk about the Haldon grounds over conversation in the parlor.
He was inordinately fond of Haldon Hall-the massive house with its generations of rambling additions, the extensive gardens, the open fields, and deep woods. But it wasn't just the sheer size of the estate that he found appealing-although that did, in fact, greatly appeal to him-it was what the place represented that captured his imagination. Generations of Coles had resided there, each one of them sure of, and comfortable with, his place in the world. Even when the Thurston fortune had been at its lowest, the residents of Haldon Hall had remained insulated in a thick cocoon of status and rank. No member of the Cole family had ever known what it meant to be truly impoverished, nor was any member ever likely to.
They were a charmed lot-particularly the current generation. Not only had the present earl, Whittaker Cole, seen to it that the Thurston coffers were well stocked, the family also had the good fortune of being a remarkably tight-knit clan. He'd yet to meet a group of people more secure in their love for one another and in their belief that love always endured.
Perhaps it did, he mused, for people like the Coles.
In his experience, nothing lasted forever.
"He is not ... ideal." Kate's mother, now the dowager Lady Thurston, stood at the library window and watched as Mr. Hunter disappeared around the side of the house. "His behavior is most presumptuous."
Next to her, William Fletcher, head of England's War Department, scratched at his bulbous nose. It was a thoughtful habit he was only vaguely aware he possessed. "Hunter is a good man. I rather thought you liked him."
Excerpted from Destined to Last by Alissa Johnson Copyright © 2010 by Alissa Johnson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.