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February 2, 1825, near Frethwell Hall
It was a cold bitter night for traveling the rough northern countryside roads on horseback. Stubborn and foolhardy, Hunter silently acknowledged his current predicament as he thought of the dry, comfortable coach he had abandoned at the last inn three hours behind him. Warm and his belly full, his coachman was likely savoring his fifth pot of ale in front of the hearth as he regaled his companions with raunchy tales of his master’s exploits and the madness that had burned in his brain like a fever.
Not madness, Hunter amended.
And the lady had a name—Lady Grace Kearly.
She was the reason he and his horse were tearing up miles of road on this godforsaken night. He had fought this inevitable meeting for too many years, but he had run out of time.
It was time to collect his unwanted bride.
I should have visited Frethwell Hall two years ago when Porter urged me to set aside the time.
Not that Hunter hadn’t tried to rectify his mistake.
In the past nine months, he had tried to visit Lady Grace. Twice. Both times he had been turned away. The butler had told him that his mistress was not in residence. She had been away visiting friends, and no one seemed to know when she would return.
At the time, a part of him had been relieved by his unexpected reprieves. However, time was running out for both him and Lady Grace, and his impulsive visit to Frethwell Hall this evening was bound to delay his return to London.
You had nineteen years to collect her, gent.
Hunter shook off the twinge of regret before it took hold of him. Besides, anger was more palatable. In truth, he had his grandmother to thank for his lamentable circumstances. If the wily old woman had not died when he was still young enough to be intimidated by her, he might have been able to talk his way out of this arranged marriage.
His horse squealed as Hunter abruptly tugged on the reins to bring the animal to a halt. Annoyed with his rider’s rough treatment, the horse snorted and shook his head while Hunter squinted at the lights in the distance.
He absently leaned forward and patted the horse’s thick-muscled neck. “There, there … Draw comfort in knowing that your misery is almost over, whilst mine is just beginning.”
Lady Grace awaited the prize his grandmother had promised her grandfather.
She would soon be the Duchess of Huntsley.
“I’ll wager she has teeth that’ll remind me of a mare and hair thick and coarse like thatching,” Hunter said, glaring at the country house in the distance. “Not to mention, a nasty disposition and voice that suits a sailor rather than a duchess.”
His solicitor, however, would vehemently disagree with Hunter’s description. According to Porter, Lady Grace possessed a beauty that would inspire artists, a voice that made angels weep with envy, and a sweet disposition.
Ha! Porter was capable of lying to gain Hunter’s cooperation. The old scar on his wrist and the young lady’s elusiveness proved that the hoyden still lurked beneath the social polish and instruction that she had received over the years.
A cold drop of rain struck him on cheek, causing him to glance heavenward. He was going to be soaked if he tarried. It was just one more thing that he could blame Lady Grace for since she had first announced to a dismayed Porter a year and a half ago that she was beginning to have second thoughts about the marriage contract struck when they were children. Porter’s visit with the stubborn wench last month had proven Lady Grace’s opinion on the subject had not improved.
Well, it was up to Hunter to change her mind.
With a wordless shout, he spurred the weary animal toward the distant lights.
* * *
As Hunter had predicted, the rain was almost blinding by the time he had reached the house. Cold, hungry, and too angry to be civil company for anyone, he tethered the horse and strode to the front door with an impatient stride. He pounded his fist against the solid oak surface and was forced to wait five minutes before his knocks roused someone’s curiosity.
A thin, middle-aged man opened the door wide enough to poke his head and a small lantern through the opening. Hunter recognized the man as Lady Grace’s butler.
“’Tis a foul night for a man to be out on the roads.”
“No truer words have been spoken, my good man,” Hunter said, striving for a civil tone. If he could not get past Lady Grace’s gatekeeper, then he would have no success with the mistress of Frethwell Hall. “My apologies for interrupting your supper. Due to this abominable weather, the journey took longer than expected.”
Obviously deducing from Hunter’s speech that his unexpected visitor was a nobleman, the servant straightened and opened the door wider. “There’s no reason why you should tarry in the rain. Come into the hall, Your Grace.”
So the man recognized him. This was an unexpected boon. Hunter was happy to oblige. “Ah, good! Then you know who I am.”
“Your disappointment at our last meeting made an impression.”
Belatedly, he recalled his tired, wet horse and grimaced. “My horse will need attending as well.”
The butler’s brows lifted in surprise as he peered outside. “You were not traveling by coach?”
Hunter chuckled, “Only a madman would brave such weather on horseback, eh?”
His coachman had said as much to his face.
“Or a man in love,” the servant replied while he shut the door, missing his companion’s look of astonishment. “However, I suspect you have not succumbed to either affliction.”
“How can you tell?”
“Simple enough, I suppose. My job requires me to take a swift measure of a man’s character,” the butler said casually as he walked by Hunter to set the oil lamp on a narrow table. “I wouldn’t be protecting my mistress if I opened the door to just anyone who wandered down the gravel road, now would I?”
With admirable efficiency, the butler stripped Hunter of his greatcoat and hat. “Stay here. You’re making a fine mess on the floor, and I’d rather mop up one large puddle instead of a dozen smaller ones. I’ll get you a blanket and summon one of the boys to see to your horse. Then we’ll see about getting you dry, and, if you have the inclination, something to warm your belly.”
“Wait!” Hunter called out. “Before you see to the blanket, you might want to let your mistress know of my arrival.”
“It is unnecessary, Your Grace.”
Hunter knew he wasn’t a madman, but he was beginning to wonder about Lady Grace’s butler. “Why? Is she hiding in the shadows overhead?”
The butler paused, and gave him a shrewd glance. “My lady is not a spiritless creature, Your Grace. You will not find her lurking in the corners.”
He was in no mood to listen to the servant’s defense of his mistress. “Then where is she? Speak plainly because I am too cold and wet for civility.”
The butler gave him a hesitant look. “I cannot say, Your Grace. My lady departed Frethwell Hall more than a fortnight past.”
Hunter brought his hand to his face and noted that his fingers trembled. He preferred to blame the weariness creeping into his bones, but he was only fooling himself.
He was bloody furious.
The woman was going to be the death of him. He had traveled all this way for nothing. Porter had once told him that the blasted woman rarely traveled beyond her parish. It had taken Hunter nineteen years to come up to scratch. The least the woman could do was remain at home so he could formally declare his intentions.
“Where is she?” he demanded.
Loyalty to his lady warred with self-preservation. “Your Grace—”
Hunter marched up to the servant.
“N-north,” the man blurted out before Hunter could throttle the answer out of him. “I heard she journeyed north to visit a sick friend.”
“Of course she isn’t here,” he said, mostly to himself. “The one place she should be.”
“And why is that, if you don’t mind me asking?” the butler asked.
“Because I am here!” Hunter replied, thumping his fist on his chest with frustration, “—in the middle of nowhere.” Cold, wet, and hungry. “While your lady is savoring a warm hearth and the company of her good friend. I must confess—what the devil is your name?”
“Copper, sir,” the butler helpfully supplied.
“Well, Copper, I must confess that it is becoming apparent that your mistress is proving to be difficult. It is an unpleasant trait for a wife.”
Perhaps it was unfair to judge the absent lady so harshly, but he was not in a reasonable mood.
“Quite right.” The butler cleared his throat. “Though perhaps you are mistaken about the lady’s intentions?”
“I highly doubt it.”
How many times had Porter chastised Hunter about his lack of interest in joining him on his annual visit to Frethwell Hall? His solicitor and his future bride failed to appreciate the demands on his time. Without a doubt, his absence had provoked Lady Grace’s defiance, and Porter had washed his hands of the entire affair. The elderly man even had the audacity to order Hunter to rectify the situation.
It was the reason why he was there on such a godforsaken night.
Hunter’s eyes narrowed on the butler. “Copper, are you aware that your mistress has ignored my missives?”
He had sent three. The last one had been sent after Porter’s visit. However, the lady had failed to respond.
The butler hastily glanced away. “It is not my place to speculate, Your Grace.”
“Your lady is vexed with my behavior,” he said, already guessing the butler’s response. “Porter has said as much on numerous occasions.”
“Please, Your Grace,” the butler entreated. “I have been with the little mistress since she was a child, and I would not wish for her to view me in an unfavorable light.”
Was Lady Grace intending to alter her fate?
It was a tempting thought. One he had pondered over the years when deep in his cups. Perhaps they had more in common that he thought.
The butler’s loyalty to Lady Grace should have annoyed Hunter, but he tilted his head back and laughed. “I doubt there is a gentleman who is more deserving of your lady’s ire than I.”
The declaration was supposed to cheer the old servant. Instead the man looked utterly grim. “Give me time and I might be able to come up with another name or two.”
Nineteen years was a long time for a bride to wait.
Hunter offered no apology, but he was not blind to his many sins.
In a friendly gesture, he clapped the butler on the back. “Care to wager on it, my good fellow?”
Copyright © 2013 by Alexandra Hawkins