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October 31, 1805
Julia heard the shot from the top of the hill. It split the early morning still, sending a shock through her body and silencing the birds in the surrounding trees. Pulling hard on Manfred's reins, she brought the large black horse to a halt and examined the woods below the riding path for signs of the shooter. Brilliant shades of orange, red and yellow dominated the trees and a gentle breeze sent many of the leaves cascading to the ground. A flock of birds rose from the forest, indicating the shot's origin, but she saw nothing of the gunman. Uncle George often hunted here, but he was not expected back from London until later today.
How dare they, she fumed, nudging Manfred down the sloping hill and into the thick cluster of trees growing along the small valley floor. Only a guest of their neighbours, the Wilkinses, possessed the audacity to hunt uninvited on Knollwood land.
Low branches tugged at her hair, freeing it from the loose bun fastened at the nape of her neck. Pushing it back out of her face, she knew her sister-in-law Emily would object to such a display, but Julia didn't care. She wasn't about to allow the Wilkinses' good-for-nothing friends to poach in her woods.
As she urged Manfred deeper into the thicket, it didn't occur to her to fetch the gamekeeper until the horse stepped into a small clearing as the culprit let off another shot in the opposite direction. Julia flinched at the thunderous noise, but Manfred, true to his warhorse breeding, stood rock still. Only his twitching ears acknowledged the explosion.
'What do you think you are doing?' Julia demanded.
The stranger whirled to face her and she drew in a sharp breath. Here was no fat wastrel, but the most handsome rogue she'd ever seen. The low sunlight cutting through the trees highlighted the deep-red tones in his dark hair and sharpened the bones of his cheeks. The shadow of a beard marked the square line of his jaw, emphasising his straight nose and strong chin. Her pulse raced with an emotion far different from fear. She could not name it, but it emanated from deep within her body.
'I'm hunting,' he answered plainly. Leaning his gun against a tree, he straightened into a stance reminiscent of the one her brother Paul assumed when a superior officer commanded him to relax.
'You are poaching in my woods. Now remove yourself at once before I call the gamekeeper. He's only a short distance away,' Julia lied, hoping he believed it. The knowing smile tugging at the corner of his lips told her otherwise.
'I'd like to see your gamekeeper try to remove me.'
Julia scrutinised him, hard pressed to imagine any of the servants, except perhaps the blacksmith, taking on such a sturdy man. He was tall and slender but solid, his wide shoulders and strong chest radiating a strength his loose-fitting hunting clothes could not hide. Following the line of his long arms to his hands, she imagined them around her waist, lifting her down from Manfred and pressing her against his body. She bit her bottom lip in anticipation of him claiming her mouth, the warmth of it driving away the morning chill.
Swallowing hard, the danger of the situation rushed back to her at the sight of the hunting knife dangling from his belt and she mustered her anger to counter the scandalous thoughts. His gun might be empty, but there was no way to know his skill with the blade. 'I demand you leave, at once.'
'I must say, I've never been addressed in this fashion before.' His blue eyes dipped down the length of her, then rose to her face. 'Especially not by such an attractive young lady.'
Julia grasped her riding crop tighter, ready to whip him if he threatened her, but he still did not approach. 'If I were trespassing on your land, I'd have the decency to be humble, but since you are trespassing on my land I may address you as I please.'
'You would have to travel a great distance to trespass on my land.' He laughed, much to Julia's chagrin.
'Then be off,' she ordered, 'for the sooner you leave, the sooner you may reach your land.' With all the grace of an accomplished horsewoman, she pulled Manfred around and cantered away.
James watched the woman disappear through the trees. Her horse, if one could call such a beast a horse, kicking up the soft earth, leaving behind clouds of dust to dance in the dappled sunlight. Nothing came to mind except pure awe, like the first time he'd been at sea with no sight of land. Neither the dark maidens of the islands hardened by tavern life, nor the plantation owners' daughters with their languid speech, ever struck him as this woman had. No, she seemed too much of the world, yet strangely innocent of it. What would he give to slip her from her horse, lay her on the damp leaves and make her more knowledgeable?
His body stiffened at the delightful fantasy before the shifting sun piercing the trees nearly blinded him. Judging by its height, he knew it was time to go. Grabbing the haversack from the ground with his left hand, he felt pain tear through his shoulder and the bag fell from his weakened hand, landing on the ground with a thud.
'Hell.' He snatched it up with his right hand and flung it over his shoulder. The gun's recoil had irritated his wound more than he'd realised. Despite the stinging ache, he didn't intend to give up hunting. He'd already lost too much to sacrifice more.
Picking up the gun, he hurried through the woods along a small footpath leading up to the top of the hill. Climbing out of the shallow valley, the pain and all the emotions it brought with it taunted his every step.
Damn it, damn it all, James thought bitterly, striding off down the opposite side of the hill and up the next steeper one, scattering a small group of sheep grazing in the wet grass.
Up ahead, Creedon Abbey rose before him, its grey stone, small windows and numerous turrets and chimneys betraying its roots in the Middle Ages. James's old friend Captain George Russell had done well for himself, investing some of the fortune he'd gained in the Navy in this small estate. Only the broken and charred roof timbers and smoke-blackened stone ruined the idyllic scene. George had failed to extinguish an oil lamp one night two weeks ago and the resulting fire had gutted a large portion of the house. Scores of workmen now bustled about the front drive, unloading large blocks of stone from carts or carrying wood inside to begin the first day of repairs.
James shook his head at the damage, not sure whether to feel sorry for his friend or to laugh. Thirty years in the navy, fifteen as a captain and George had never once lost a ship. Within four years of resigning his commission, he'd nearly burned his house to the ground. For all George's bragging about how much he'd learned from his niece about running an estate, he'd failed to master the simple skill of not setting it on fire.
James's amusement faded as he walked. He'd seriously considered investing his money in an estate like this, but now he wasn't so sure. Whatever he decided to do, he needed to do it soon. With his wound sufficiently recovered, it was time to settle on something meaningful to occupy his days, instead of frittering them away.
He moved faster up the footpath following the drive, eager for activity, anything to shift the restless agitation dogging him this morning.
'What's the hurry?' a familiar voice called out from behind him. 'Run across a ghost in the woods?'
James turned to see George leading Percy, his large, cream-coloured stallion, up the drive. In his friend's wide, carefree smile, James caught traces of the bold captain he'd first met in the colonies ten years ago. At fifty, the lines of George's face were deeper now, while the quiet life of a country gentleman had lightened his once sun darkened skin and thickened his waist.
'I might have.' James fell in step with his friend. 'Describe your niece again.'
'Because I'm curious.'
George shrugged. 'Just what you'd expect from a girl of one and twenty. Clever, well formed, somewhat eccentric. Takes after me in that regard. Why?'
'I met her in the woods.' James remembered the striking young lady with her auburn hair falling in delicate waves about her face, her creamy skin flushed with excitement and a few headier emotions.
'Really?' A noticeable gleam danced in George's eyes. 'And?'
'Eccentric, well formed. Though from all your descriptions, I'd taken her for more of a dour governess and less of an Artemis.'
'When I described her she was still a girl.'
'She's no girl now.' James wondered if such a woman had ever truly been a girl or if she'd simply sprung from the foam of the sea.
'I'm glad to see you find her so interesting. Staying at Knollwood will give you a chance to get better acquainted. Who knows what you might discover?'
James shifted the haversack on his back, resisting the urge to run his fingers over the jagged scar on his left shoulder. 'Must we go to Knollwood?'
'Yes, it's all been arranged. Besides, by the end of the day it'll be more like a shipyard here than a house and, with the weather turning, you don't want the rain leaking on your head.'
'It wouldn't be the first time. I've lost track of the number of storms I've slept through at sea.'
'And my guess is you won't miss it. We wouldn't have stayed here last night if we hadn't dallied so long at Admiral Stuart's dinner, but I hated to disturb everyone at Knollwood so late at night.'
James laughed. 'I wasn't the one who insisted on opening another bottle of port.'
'It doesn't matter who caused the delay. I'll be happy to sleep in a comfortable room that doesn't smell like a cooking fire. And here I'd thought those bedrooms had escaped damage.'
'You've gone soft.'
George shrugged. 'You will, too, in time.'
James didn't respond, this revelation not improving his mood. He'd already lost too much since resigning his commission to contemplate losing something as simple as his hardiness. 'Why didn't you tell me before we left London that the house wasn't fit to live in?'
'I think I greatly underestimated the damage.' They stopped as two men carrying a large plank walked past them. 'Besides, the ladies are quite excited at the prospect of meeting a new gentleman.'
'You know I came here to escape such affairs.'
'Does any man ever truly escape them?'
'You seem to have avoided it.'
'And you wish to follow my lead?'
James scrutinised his old friend, suspecting more to all this than the extensive fire damage simply slipping his mind. 'What are you about, George?'
'Nothing.' George held up his hands innocently but only succeeded in looking guiltier. 'I want you to enjoy yourself while you're here. Now hurry and change. We're expected at Knollwood.'
George pulled Percy off to the stables and James headed around to the back of the house, his footsteps heavier than before. Reaching under the loose jacket, his fingers traced the raised scar on his left shoulder through the thin fabric of his hunting shirt. Unconsciously, he flexed his left hand, feeling the weakness and cursing it. He stomped on a large clump of mud, mashing it into the earth. This was exactly what he didn't want, the whole reason he'd allowed George to convince him to come to the country.
He cursed his luck and George's carelessness. If his friend had extinguished the lamp instead of leaving it to overheat, James could have spent the next two weeks here, not forced into Artemis's cave waiting to be ripped apart by her wild beasts. He'd experienced enough clawing and tearing in the ballrooms of London. He had no stomach for it here in the country. Give him a French fleet any day; it was preferable to a matron with a marriageable daughter.
A flash of movement on the opposite hill made him stop at the rear door. He watched the young woman ride at a full gallop over the green downs, the horse moving like a shadow, her amber hair a streak of sunlight through the dark clouds. The memory of the little Artemis astride the black beast, face flushed with anger, pert breasts rising and falling with each excited breath, filled his mind. His loins stirred with desire before he checked himself. It was one thing to idle away hours with the willing widowed sister of a provincial governor; it was quite another to dally with the niece of his best friend.
Besides, no spirited creature wants a broken man. He pushed away from the wall, angrily slapping the door jamb. The rough stone stung his palm, reminding him that any interest in Miss Howard could only be to learn from her estate management skills which, according to George, were considerable. If James decided to follow his friend into the life of a country gentleman, he'd need to know more about it than what little he'd learn from books.
Manfred reached the crest of the hill, breathing hard, his dark coat glistening with sweat. Julia eased him into a slow walk and they ambled down the bridle path tracing the top. A thin mist crept through the crevices of the valley while sheep grazed quietly in the green meadows. The three estates situated on the three high hills overlooking the rolling valley came into view. Creedon Abbey, the smallest, stood on the hill closest to Knoll-wood. Though some five miles off, the tips of the turrets were just visible above the surrounding trees. All the land here had once belonged to the old monastery before the Reformation and some debt-ridden descendant saw it sold off to create Knollwood and Cable Grange. There was little difference between Creedon land and Knollwood land, but drastic changes marked the boundary between Knollwood's lush, well-tended meadows and Cable Grange's weed-choked fields. Cable Grange stood on the third-highest hill in the area. Farther away than Creedon, she could just see it sitting on its hilltop perch, the distance obscuring its neglected state. Being so close to Knollwood, she knew Cable Grange could be one of the finest houses in the county.
If only it were mine. She didn't know who to curse more, her brother Charles for inheriting Knollwood or Mr Wilkins for ruining Cable Grange.
Adjusting her leg against the pommel, she wished she'd chosen her standard saddle instead of the sidesaddle. It was still early and the rest of the house had yet to rise, making it unlikely Emily would catch her riding astride. Soothed by Manfred's gentle gait, she settled into the seat, her mind wandering back to the woods and the handsome stranger.
He called me attractive, she mulled, remembering the heady way his blue eyes raked her body, their heat warming her skin. Four years ago, standing against the wall during London balls, she'd seen gentlemen examine other young ladies with similar hot eyes, nudging each other knowingly. For all her London finery, not one gentleman had cast a single amorous glance in her direction. How strange to garner a lustful stare while dressed in her old riding habit.
If only he weren't one of the Wilkinses' good-for-nothing friends. She sighed, wondering what it would be like to feel his lips tease her neck while he whispered forbidden things in her ear. A strange thrill coursed through her before she forced the wicked daydream from her head. He was a scoundrel and not worth a second thought.