The Northwest Borders
The day was glorious, spiced with the distant hint of sea marsh, the sky scoured clear blue and the forest minty green with new leaves. From beneath its canopy rode a group of young hunters and huntresses, brilliant in their velvet habits and flush with exertion.
At their lead rode a young woman with tanned, rosy cheeks and dark mahogany red hair lying damp upon her brow. A feather coiling jauntily from her hat teased the corner of her smile. Others were more seasoned riders than she, but few could match the pace Rhiannon Russell set.
Mounted at midmorning and having ridden without bothering to break for nourishment, they'd been unsuccessful this day, thwarted by the dry, crisp air and an old March hare who'd first led the hounds then lost them, streaking from a bramble thicket while the dogs milled wild-eyed in the overscented underbrush.
At the stables, the party dismounted as the kennel master collected the pack of lean-flanked quivering hounds. Yelping plaintively, Rhiannon's yellow gazehound, Stella, limped from the edge of the wood. With a laugh Rhiannon turned her horse and went to accompany the hound's limping progress. Stella was the last gift she was to have from her stepfather, and therefore doubly treasured.
"It's a worthless bitch," the kennel master said coming up the drive to meet her. "My granny has better eyesight." Her companions had by this time dismounted and were heading toward the manor where Edith Fraiser had promised their repast would be waiting.
"Aye," Rhiannon agreed, because she was a most agreeable girl. "Mayhap. But she's young yet and may prove herself worthy. Please? Take care of her?"
With a heavy sigh the kennel master agreed, for who could resist hazel eyes and the sweet request of one of Fair Badden's prettiest lassies? Rhiannon grinned her gratitude and dismounted, hurrying up the front steps after her friends.
At the door a young maid met her. "An English gentleman--a London English gentleman--" the girl said, "come to see you, miss." Her face was bright with awe, her voice hushed with the same.
Seldom did English gentlemen come to their small hamlet. More seldom still did London gentlemen make the trip to this rural outpost, for pretty though it undoubtedly was, it had nothing more to recommend itself than the prospect of its ownership, a prospect that never transpired as the land had been long held by others.
"I doubt he's come to see me, Marthe. I'm sure it's Mistress Fraiser he wants," Rhiannon said, unimpressed and uninterested, looking about expectantly for one tall, robust figure--Phillip, Squire Watt's youngest son.
"No, miss," Marthe insisted, recalling Rhiannon's wandering attention. "He come to see you. Not Mrs. . . . Ain't that right, Mrs. Fraiser?"
A stout, apple-cheeked woman with iron gray hair bustled down the hall toward them, adjusting the lace handkerchief tucked into her square décolletage.
"'Tis true, Rhiannon." Edith's round face was fashioned for complacence, not surprise. The line lifting her brow betrayed her amazement.
"But why?" Rhiannon asked.
"I do not know," Edith muttered and held out her hands.
Obediently, Rhiannon peeled off her yellow leather gloves, tucked them into her belt, and laid her hands in the older woman's. Mistress Fraiser turned them over and tched gently. "Dirty nails." She looked Rhiannon over with ill-concealed resignation. "Unkempt hair. Dusty habit. Well, it can't be helped. He's been waiting three hours already and it would be rude to have him wait longer."
Though she wanted to protest that her dishabille made her unfit to receive strange gentlemen, Rhiannon did not. She owed too much to Edith Fraiser to ever willfully contradict her, let alone refuse her directions. She'd come from the Highlands to Fair Badden a decade ago, a scrawny lassie fleeing the aftermath of Culloden, looking for some kinsman to shelter her.
Though Edith Fraiser was only a second cousin of Rhiannon's mother, the Fraisers had taken her in. A successful and well-respected squire, Richard Fraiser ranked high in Fair Badden's countrified society. From the offset he'd treated Rhiannon like a daughter of the house, lavishing upon her every benefit of his wealth and prestige.
Their unstinting affection had harried Rhiannon's blood-soaked memories into hiding. Only at night, and then rarely, did phantoms stagger bleeding through a blasted, burning landscape, did uncles and cousins roar in torturous din as they sought to escape Butcher Cumberland's retribution against those who'd supported Bonny Prince Charlie. During the day, Rhiannon scarcely remembered her life before Fair Badden.
She lived in Fair Badden as though it had always been her home and she had always been accepted, at peace, content. Even her Highland brogue had disappeared over time. Then, ten months ago, Richard had died. Rhiannon and Edith clung together, finding in each other the slow healing only shared grief can offer.
Now Edith fussed over Rhiannon's hair, untangling knots and rubbing a smudge of dirt from her brow. That done she bussed Rhiannon warmly on the cheek, accepted a hug in return, and turned her by the shoulders. She gave her a little push.
"Along with you," she said, shepherding Rhiannon down the hallway. "Your friends will wait as long as there's ale to drink and cakes to eat." Her smile grew sly. "And your beau would wait without the lure of sweets, kisses being a sweet enough lure, I'll wager." She chuckled at Rhiannon's shy expression and stopped before the library door. "Go on."
"You're not coming in with me?" Rhiannon asked in surprise.
"No." A troubled thought shadowed Edith's soft features. "The gentleman asked to see you alone for a few minutes. He said he had news regarding your future.
"I'm thinking--that is, I'm hoping--he might be a lawyer sent from London with word of a lost entailment. Perhaps a little forgotten keepsake from your dear mother to act as a dowry. I only wish I had something more to give you myself, but it's all long since bespoke."
Rhiannon took Edith's hands. "You've already given me more than I can ever repay."
Flustered, Edith twitched Rhiannon's jacket shoulders into alignment. "Go on, now! I'll be here waiting when you come out." She opened the door and pushed Rhiannon inside.
A man sprawled in Squire Fraiser's favorite chair, one foot stretched out before him, the other bent at the knee, his fingers laced over his flat stomach. He gazed out the window, his face averted. All she could see of his head was a carelessly pulled back tail of coal black hair tied with a limp ribbon.
He wore a coat of deep burgundy velvet, a white linen shirt beneath it. Brussels lace fell gracefully over the first knuckles of his long, lean fingers, and more lace cascaded beneath his chin. His breeches were tight and made of tawny doeskin. His dark leather boots climbed past his knees and were folded in cuffs over his muscular thighs. The tip of his sword, sheathed in a leather scabbard and hanging from his belt, touched the floor beside him.
He would have been exquisite had he not been so disheveled. The burgundy coat was dusty and the faded linen shirt went wide of being pristine. The lace of one sleeve, delicate as gossamer, was ripped and soiled. His boots were stained and scarred and the scabbard containing his sword was likewise ill-used.
He did not look like any lawyer Rhiannon's imagination would have conjured.
A bit of pique flavored Rhiannon's curiosity. A gentleman--particularly a London gentleman--visiting the Fraiser's home should have stopped at The Ploughman's Inn to repair the damage travel had caused. But then, honesty goaded her generous mouth into a smile; a lady receiving a gentleman should have paused to repair the damage a hunt had caused.
He turned his head carefully, as if he were concerned to startle her and she thus knew that he'd been allowing her time to assess him. He looked tired, worn too thin and used too roughly. His eyes were jetty dark, the brows above slanting like black wings, but the skin beneath them looked bruised. He sported an old-fashioned clipped beard amidst the shadows of lean, unshaven cheeks, and his skin was very pale and very fine and somehow fragile.
Fleeting emotion, subtle and reserved, flickered over his aquiline features.
"Rhiannon Russell, I presume?" His voice was baritone and suave. He didn't bother to rise and his pose remained preternaturally still, like a cat at a mouse hole, watchful but not hungry--not yet.
"Yes." She became unaccountably aware of the hair streaming down her back, the sweat and grime from her leather gloves embedded beneath her short nails, and the mud splattering her bottle green skirt.
He rose. He was tallish and slender and his shoulders were very straight and broad. His mouth was kind but his eyes were not. His throat looked strong. The torn lace ending his shirtsleeves tangled in the carved gold setting of a great blue stone ring on his little finger. He flicked it away.
Even without the cachet of being a Londoner, the ladies of Fair Badden would have found him attractive, Rhiannon thought. Since he was from that great fabled city, they'd find him irresistible. Indeed, she herself could have found much to recommend in his black and white good looks . . . if she hadn't already succumbed to a golden-haired youth.
"You're not English."
"I am. A quarter," she said. "On my father's side."
"I wouldn't have guessed." Having spoken, he fell silent, studying her further.
She struggled to remember the lessons in courtesy Edith had instilled but none of them applied to meeting strange, elegantly shabby young men alone in her foster father's library.
"I'm afraid you have the advantage of me, sir," she finally ventured.
"Could I only be so fortunate as to claim as much with all my acquaintances," he said and then, "but didn't Mrs. Fraiser inform you of my name?"
"No," Rhiannon said. "Mrs. Fraiser has no head for names, unless they're the names of unscrupulous tradesmen. She only said that you'd come from London to see me and that you had news regarding my future."
"I am Ash Merrick." He sketched an elegant bow, his watchfulness becoming pronounced now, as if his name should mean something to her, and when he saw that it did not, he went on. "The name Merrick is not familiar to you?"
She cast about cautiously in her mind and found nothing there to trigger a memory. "No," she said. "Should it?"
His mouth stretched into a wide grin. It was a beautiful smile, easy and charming, but it never quite reached his eyes. "Perhaps," he said, "since it's the name of your guardian."
From the Paperback edition.