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"Oh, for a horse with wings," that I might fly from one party to another as the Season is upon us. This column shall continue to fill your lovely heads with nothing but delicious gossip from our most popular and our most notorious members of the ton. Should we begin with the blithe Lord Chatwin, who has let it be known again this year that he is not looking to make a match? But what about the other half of the Terrible Twosome? Is Lord Dugdale looking?
-Lord Truefitt, Society's Daily Column
"Merciful heavens, Catherine, it's not only dark as midnight here in the park, it's freezing cold, too. It's simply uncivilized to be out before daybreak."
Catherine Reynolds looked over at her widowed half sister who rode beside her on a temperamental mare. In the months Catherine had been in London, she'd ceased to be shocked by Victoria Goosetree's constant complaining. Though the older woman would never breathe an improper word in public, she was more than ready to speak her mind in private.
"You'll warm up soon, Vickie. I think just before dawn is the most beautiful time to be outside on a horse."
"The devil it is," Victoria grumbled as her mare snorted. "I can't see a thing and I don't think it's safe."
"You can't see anything because you're not looking, and with Mills riding behind us we are perfectly safe," Catherine said.
She took a deep breath, filling her lungs with the crisp mist of air that wafted across their path. She caught the scent of wet foliage and sighed as it reminded her of home. Their groom remained quiet as he rode behind them, and when Victoria wasn't talking Catherine could relax and enjoy the peaceful early morning sounds of Hyde Park.
"How much longer are we going to ride?" Victoria asked.
Catherine smiled to herself, remaining patient. Her mare nickered and shook her head as puffs of warm breath snorted from her nostrils. "We've been on the horses less than fifteen minutes."
"Feels like hours to me. I allowed you to talk me into this for today, but I don't think I should like to do it again."
Catherine laughed but not loud enough that her petulant companion could hear. It was cold, but that didn't bother Catherine. Having grown up near the northern coast, she was used to a climate where the chilling dampness never seemed completely to go away.
"You're the one who insisted that I shouldn't ride during the day when it is much warmer," Catherine felt compelled to say.
Vickie snorted louder than the horse she was riding. "I was only trying to impress upon you that young ladies who are looking to make an excellent match shouldn't sit a horse in any park during the Season."
This was yet another reminder of her half sister's belief in doing one thing in public and another in private.
"You should only be seen riding in an open carriage with a viscount, an earl, or perhaps a handsome marquis by your side. I don't know why I allowed you to talk me into riding before daybreak. My feet are numb."
Hyde Park was beautiful dressed in the magical misty-gray of predawn. Shadowed sky light filtered through tree branches and shone down on them. Shards of pink, gray, and dark blue were about to be born on the horizon, and Catherine looked forward to enjoying the birth of sunrise.
She had been in London over three months, and it seemed as if she had done nothing but be fitted for ball gowns and more ball gowns. She considered the amount of clothing ridiculous Victoria insisted she have for the start of the Season. And gowns were only the half of it. A lady had to select just the right gloves, bonnets, fans, and handkerchiefs, too. No one needed that many things to wear.
"Perhaps if we rode a little faster you'd warm up," Catherine said, hoping to find a way Victoria could enjoy the outing. "How about it? Are you ready to let the horses trot?"
"I'm not sure I can. This horse doesn't seem to be well schooled."
Vickie's mount nickered and stomped as if agreeing with her comment.
Catherine reached down and patted the warm, firm neck of the spirited animal she rode. Her mount needed no prodding. Vickie was right that the hacks Mills had hired at a nearby livery weren't well trained for riders.
Vickie's mare was old and cranky, constantly fighting the bit, while Catherine's mount pranced restlessly beneath her like a young filly not saddle worn. But to Catherine, any horse was better than not riding at all.
"Perhaps your horse senses that you are unsure with her, and she's taking advantage," Catherine suggested. "You need to take control. A canter will take some of the wind out of her. Tighten up on your reins like this and let's ride."
"Very well," Victoria mumbled. "I'll try anything to warm up."
"Good. That's the spirit." Catherine gently urged her mount to pick up the pace. She turned back to Mills and motioned for him to follow.
Catherine had an excellent seat, having ridden since she was a young girl. She'd been forced to leave her favorite horse at her home when she made the trip to London by private coach.
Victoria was sixteen years Catherine's senior, and with no close male relative, it was Victoria's job to see that Catherine made an acceptable match before the Season's end. But what Victoria didn't know was that Catherine hadn't come to London in search of a husband; she had come in search of her father.
Her real father.
She had three clues. The names of three men. She knew one of them was her father, and she intended to find out which one had refused to marry her mother more than twenty years before.
After the man whom she and everyone else always believed was her father, Sir Patrick Reynolds, passed away a year ago, Catherine had found her mother's journal among a box of books in the attic. The diary was in deplorable condition. Over the years dampness had eroded and smeared the ink in many of the entries and rodents had chewed up some of the pages.
But through the readable passages of the neglected diary, Catherine had come to know her mother's deepest secret: The man she had married was not the father of the child she was carrying.
And that child was Catherine.
Lost in thought about her true mission to London, Catherine hadn't realized that Victoria and Mills had fallen behind her until she heard a cry of help. Catherine had a difficult time reining in her horse but finally slowed the animal. She turned the mare around and headed back to find out why Victoria had stopped.
"What's wrong?" Catherine asked as she halted her mount beside her sister. "Are you all right?"
"Yes, I'm fine, but something has happened to Mills."
A moment of concern flashed through Catherine. She didn't see Mills behind them, so she immediately headed back the way they'd come.
"Over here," she heard the groom call out.
It was difficult to make out much of anything in the darkness, but Catherine could see that Mills was not on his mare. He was lying on the ground. She and Victoria stopped their horses. Dismounting from a sidesaddle was difficult, but Catherine managed to kick free of her stirrup and jump down from her mount.
She hurried over to the man and asked, "Are you injured?"
"My horse stepped in a hole and we went down. I think I broke my leg."
"Sweet mercies," she whispered. This was all her fault. "Just lie still. We'll take care of everything."
Victoria knelt down beside Catherine and asked the groom, "How badly are you hurt? Can you ride?"
"I don't think so. I can't move my leg and my horse is limping, too."
Catherine had to come up with a plan of action fast. She looked at Victoria and said, "You stay here with Mills, and I'll ride back and get the carriage for him."
"I can't let you ride alone in the park!" Victoria protested. "Not only is it too dangerous, it would be scandalous."
"Nonsense," Catherine said. "This is not the time to worry about either of those things. Mills is hurt. Besides, it's no longer pitch dark. I'm a much better and faster rider than you. I know exactly how to get back to the carriage. I can return in half the time it would take you."
Catherine watched Victoria's brown gaze look down at the injured groom.
"I must have your promise that you will not stop for anyone or anything until you get to the carriage."
"You have it," Catherine said without hesitation.
"Then be off. Ride fast but be careful. It won't do for you to be seen riding in the park unescorted even for a short time or for so worthy a cause."
"I promise to be careful. Now come help me mount."
With Victoria's help Catherine managed to climb back onto her horse and head to the stable where they had left the carriage. She often rode alone on the hills and countryside where she'd grown up, and she had learned early to always be aware of her surroundings so that she could find her way home.
Catherine let the mare have her head and galloped through the fading darkness. The chilling wind stung her cheeks and watered her eyes, but she kept up the fast, exhilarating pace, feeling free for the first time since coming to London. The ribbons of her riding bonnet loosened and the wind blew it to the back of her shoulders. For a moment she felt as if she were back in her village on her favorite horse chasing the dawn.
Suddenly another horse and rider shot out of a side path right in front of her.
Catherine tugged hard on the reins, jerking up her horse's head. The mare reared in panic. Catherine lost her stirrup, and the leather went slack in her hands as the frightened animal came down hard, and then reared again.
She felt herself falling backward. She tried to grab hold of the horse's neck, her mane, anything to try and calm her mount, but the animal was too frantic.
One moment Catherine was tumbling down, and the next she sprawled on the cold ground flat on her back.
Catherine didn't know if she was breathing. She knew her eyes were open, because she saw the grayish-blue sky swirling above her.
She hadn't been unseated in years and it stunned her.
Suddenly a man loomed over her. "Miss? Miss, are you injured?"
She blinked to clear her blurred sight and managed to focus on the man's face. The first thing she saw was dark, dark eyes filled with concern. She wanted to tell him that only her pride was wounded, but for some unknown reason air seemed trapped in her chest, and she didn't have the breath to speak.
The man poised above her had hair as black as his eyes, and it fell attractively across his broad brow. Her gaze moved down a nose that narrowed at the bridge, making him look ever so handsome. High, angular cheekbones and his clean-shaven chin and jaw looked strong and square. His mouth appeared wide and his lips were full and well defined. They showed the same concern she saw in his eyes.
She knew he spoke to her again, but she remained still, gazing into his handsome face, feeling intrigued and captivated by the strange sensations going on inside her. Was it the intensity of his gaze that did confounding things to the rhythm of her heart, or was the fluttering caused by her fall?
He reached down and shoved one arm beneath her back, and he hooked the other under her legs, lifting her from the ground. Her muscles flinched at his touch more from surprise than fright that she might be in any perilous danger from this stranger.
Catherine felt strength in his arms and the immediate warmth of his hard body pressed against her hip. His impressive, masculine power embraced her as if she weighed no more than a quill.
The scent of shaving soap and leather awakened something soft and feminine inside her, and for a moment she had an intense desire to cuddle into the warmth of the strong arms that held her.
It wasn't until he started walking that her common sense returned.
"What are you doing? Please, sir, put me down."
His arms tightened firmly about her at first, but she pushed at his chest, saying louder, "Unhand me, you scoundrel."
She kicked her legs and squirmed until he set her down on her feet.
Catherine realized she stood far too close to this tall, lithe, wide-shouldered man whose breathing was as fast and rippled as her own. She was quite embarrassed she'd been thrown from her horse, and she tried to restore her dignity by taking a deep breath and pulling on the hem of her black velvet riding coat.
Her gaze locked on his. Catherine's stomach did a slow flip.
"What do you mean by touching me, and where do you think you were taking me?"
His full, feathered eyebrows drew together in a curious expression and framed eyes that shone clear as dark amber glass in the ever brightening light of day.
"I thought you were hurt. I was going to place you on my horse and go for help."
His voice was low, soothing, and as handsome as his face. A glow of unexpected pleasure filled her, causing her stomach to tingle.
There was something compelling about him, and that caused her to be wary but not frightened.
She took a step back and said, "I don't need help, sir. I'm not harmed."
"I'm glad to hear that, miss; however, I didn't know that at the time I offered assistance. My apologies."
Catherine brushed a strand of hair away from her face and took a calming breath. This was not a situation in which she'd expected to find herself.
"If you hadn't come racing out from under the trees like Lord Pinkwater's ghost was after you, you wouldn't have spooked my horse, and I wouldn't have landed on the ground."
He stood looking at her with the right amount of self-importance. She could see by the cut of his fine broadcloth riding coat there was no doubt that a gentleman stood before her and quite possibly one of the titled few.
"You're correct, but how was I to know there would be such a lovely young lady in the park on a horse galloping out of control, especially so early in the morning?"
Catherine shuddered in outrage as she pulled her bonnet back on her head, settling it in place.
"I beg your pardon, sir. I'm a very good horsewoman. My mare was not out of control. We were racing the wind."
A disarming rogue's grin lifted one corner of his mouth. "Racing the wind?"
Her statement had amused him, and that didn't sit well on Catherine's ignited temper or her bruised ego. "And I might add that I was winning."
The stranger threw back his head and laughed.
His laughter was appealing, deep and rich with indulgence. The wide smile on his face, showing even white teeth, made him even more handsome, and something that felt very much like pleasure curled deep inside her. This man stirred wonderful feelings in her that she'd never been made aware of before.
She couldn't imagine why she had made that ridiculous comment. She was making things worse for herself, not better. It wasn't like her to get flustered over anything, certainly not a man.
Suddenly she very much wanted to know who he was. She opened her mouth to ask him to identify himself when she remembered Victoria's parting words and Catherine's promise to her not to stop. What was she doing standing here and allowing this man to fascinate her when she needed to get the carriage to Mills?
Catherine had to make a hasty retreat.
She looked around where they stood but saw only the stranger's gelding. "If you are quite finished with your merriment, would you please tell me where my horse is so that I can be on my way?"
He cleared his throat and quickly wiped the grin off his face as best he could and answered, "I'm afraid she ran off after throwing you."
She gasped. "You let my horse run away?"
"Forgive me for having more interest in whether you were hurt than if your mount hightailed it out of the park."
"Merciful goodness," she mumbled to herself as she took in a deep breath, realizing her ribs were sore and her head was pounding.
What was she going to do? She must get to the carriage and take it to Mills and Victoria. It was best she not tell this stranger about her sister. Victoria was strict about her rules, and she would not approve of Catherine talking to this man no matter the unusual circumstances.
"Might I add that a proper young lady should not be out riding alone," the man added.
"I wouldn't be alone and at the mercy of a stranger if you hadn't frightened off my horse. Now, sir, I need to borrow yours."
She reached for the reins he held in his hand and just as her fingers would have closed around the strips of leather he whisked them from her grasp.
An inquisitive expression settled across his face. "Are you daft? I can't let you have my horse."
"Why not?" Catherine asked in her most sensible voice. "I'll return him."
That handsome, roguish grin returned to his face, and Catherine knew without a doubt that under different circumstances this man could do what no other man had ever done-capture her fancy.
"For one, he's not accustomed to strange riders. The other is that no gentleman I know would give a lady his horse."
Fighting her attraction to the man and beginning to feel more her confident self, Catherine said, "So you have no concerns for my needs although you nearly collided into me, causing my mare to unseat me and run off. What kind of gentleman are you, sir?"
He bowed and said, "One who will put you on my saddle and walk you to wherever it is you need to go."
"Rubbish. That is completely unnecessary and will waste time for both of us. You need have no fear I shall harm myself or your horse. I have managed untrained horses before."
"Yes, I see how well you handle horses."
Catherine's blue eyes widened. His retort stung. "Must I remind you that you are the one who rode out in front of me?"
"No. But I must say again, I've never had to worry before about a lady riding on this path so early in the morn."
Catherine opened her mouth to tell him about Mills, but thought better of it. There was still a chance she could keep Victoria from knowing she had talked to this man.
"Sir, I'm on a serious mission, and I don't have time to argue with you over who is at fault for my current predicament. I really need to borrow your horse."
With that, she reached for the reins again and this time her hand covered his.
They both wore gloves, but that didn't keep Catherine from feeling a shock of awareness as her fingers closed over his tight fist. Teasing warmth prickled across her breasts and settled low in her stomach. She was sure she'd never met a man who stirred up her senses like this one.
By the look in his eyes he also felt the same strange sensations. His dark gaze looked deeply into her eyes before sweeping down her face, past the front of her riding habit, down to her waist and back up to her eyes. A strange thrill skittered through her.
"I daresay I've never met a young lady as bold and as unconventional as you."
She let go of his hand as quickly as if it'd been a hot poker.
"And I've never met so stubborn a man. Sir, I don't have time for your obstinacies. There is something I must take care of immediately and I can't do it without a horse."
"Tell me where it is you wish to go, and I will help you onto my horse and walk you there."
"That will take longer than I have. Merciful goodness, you try my patience."
That enchanting smile played along the corners of his lips again. "And you've worn on mine."
The daylight brightened the sky to a light powdery shade of blue. He was obviously as strict about rules as her half sister. He would not be swayed from doing the proper thing.
She'd lived all her life in the country, but she'd often read about the rigid rules of London Society, getting old copies of the Times and other broadsides when the mail coach came to her town. She knew there was nothing to do but get on the horse and let this man lead her to the carriage. She could only hope that Victoria would not consider her reputation ruined for talking to this man.
"Very well, if it is the only way I can leave immediately, I'll acquiesce to your wishes."
He bowed. "Thank you."
She looked into his eyes and held out her gloved hand. Their gaze held for a moment longer than was necessary and Catherine's breath grew uncommonly short. A heat she couldn't explain coiled deep inside her abdomen and rose up to tighten in her chest.
He ignored her hand and instead settled both his around her waist. They were strong and comforting. She shivered with pleasure at his firm touch and her arms immediately went up and her hands grabbed onto his broad, firm shoulders so she could help steady herself.
Catherine liked the feel of his body beneath her hands. She liked the warmth that emanated from him and flowed to her.
He boldly took hold of her, lifted her off the ground and onto the saddle. Her black velvet skirt pooled around her legs as she tried to fit her bottom sideways into a saddle made for riding astride a horse. With deliberation, he took the stirrup and was attempting to shorten it to fit her.
Catherine looked down and saw the slack strips of leather in his black gloved hand.
Temptation rose up inside her.
Without further thought she reached down and grabbed them from his grasp.
She glanced at his eyes and saw a flicker of shock just before she kicked the horse's flank with the heel of her boot and shot past him.
Catherine held on tight and didn't turn around as she quickly put distance between herself and the handsome stranger.