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By Michèle Ann Young
Sourcebooks Casablanca Copyright © 2007 Michèle Ann Young
All right reserved.
Chapter One Norwich, 1816
The future had never looked so bleak. Carolyn Torrington gazed at the soapy plate she clutched in fingers raw from hot water. The white, shiny surface offered no hint of a change for the better. The gold-rimmed dish merely reflected a pair of worried brown eyes and a moon face framed by strands of damp hair. She had no one to blame but herself. She pushed her misted spectacles up her nose, trying not to choke on the strong smell of lye.
Setting the plate to drain beside the old stone sink, she hummed along with the to the sound of a lively Roger de Coverley wafting down the passage. Last year she had been a guest at the Grantham's annual hunt ball. No doubt this year she was simply a source for local gossip. They all knew about the plump Vicar's daughter who had rejected Norwich's most eligible bachelor only to find herself destitute. She winced and plunged her hands back into the suds. Bleak indeed. If she didn't find a paying position soon, she and her sisters would find themselves seeking asylum in the local workhouse.
She shuddered. Perish that thought. She'd pay any price to avoid that fate. Almost any price, she amended. Tomorrow she would visit every business in Norwich. Surely one of them required the help of a refined, well-read female. After that, she would seek rooms with a reasonable rent. Somehow, she must find a way to keep her family together.
Jaw clenched, she heaved the next stack of greasy plates into the sink, blinking as a sharp drop of water splashed up to join the moisture suddenly blurring her vision.
There was always the other way out, a small voice whispered in her head, tempting and wily. After staying away for a twelvemonth, he had presented himself at her door every day for a week. To agree to his demand would be like selling her soul to the devil, and after he'd caused all her troubles in the first place.
Perhaps not caused, she admitted with a sigh; she had his father and her own stubborn pride to shoulder that blame. But he wasn't helping matters by plaguing her daily.
And that was the reason the Granthams' medieval scullery offered the perfect hiding place. He'd never think to seek her here among the dirty dishes while the gentry danced the night away in the Tudor great hall. At midnight, the huntsmen would ride in for their trophy as ancient tradition demanded. Horses in a ballroom, for goodness' sake, and in this day and age. Did men never grow out of such nonsense?
Suddenly, the outside door crashed back against the stone wall. The antiquated flambeaux quivered in the iron wall sconces. Shadows danced wildly across the walls. The rush of cold air sent a shiver down Caro's back.
Heart pounding, a hot, wet plate pressed to her chest, she swung around to face the ebony horse and black-coated rider clattering beneath the great stone arch and into the vaulted chamber.
Think of the devil and he was sure to appear. Lucas Rivers, Viscount Foxhaven, her erstwhile best friend and rejected suitor, certainly fit the bill. Long jet hair scraped back in a queue, the flickering light chiselled his face into planes and sharp angles. A slash of black brow winged up to match the wry twist on his lips.
Her foolish heart tumbled over. By dint of will, she curbed a smile of welcome. The ton might find his antics amusing, but he'd get no encouragement from her, not any more.
How on earth had he managed to run her to earth? Or was he foxed and had simply lost his way? "If you are here for the trophy ride, you need to enter through the front door. Otherwise you will find the stables across the courtyard." She sounded remarkably calm given the stallion's size and the way it replaced good fresh air with the smell of leather and horse.
He cracked a familiar short laugh. "I know where the stables are." His deep voice resonated off the ancient stone walls and strummed every nerve in her body.
She quelled the flutter of awareness. "What do you want, Foxhaven?"
"You. Your sisters said I would find you here,' He ran a disparaging glance around the cavernous room. "I didn't think you'd sunk this low."
Not low enough, if his presence meant anything. A spurt of anger stiffened her shoulders. "There is nothing wrong with honest toil."
He glowered. "It won't wash, Caro. I'm not leaving until you agree to marry me."
"Then you stay and I will leave."
Metal-clad hooves striking sparks on the flagstone floor, the stallion moved deeper into the kitchen, blocking her exit. "I mean it," Foxhaven said.
She glared at him. "You had your answer a year ago. I see no reason to change my mind."
His sardonic gaze swept over the shapeless black gown and the mobcap she'd borrowed from Lizzie, her maid. "Really? I suppose you would sooner wash dishes than marry me?"
She shrugged. "You've had your little joke. Now, take yourself off, before something breaks and I get the blame."
"I'm leaving, all right."
Then why did it sound like a threat?
He clicked his tongue. The horse picked its way between her and the table, trapping her against the sink's hard edge at her back and a well-muscled thigh on a level with her nose.
She sucked in a breath. "Be careful, you idiot."
He lunged down and caught her around the waist. One swift jerk and she swooped off her feet. She screeched as the ground fell away in a sickening rush. For a moment, she dangled in his strong arm, then he settled her sideways across his lap with a grunt.
"Did you strain your back?" she asked with sugary sympathy.
"I expected you to be heavier."
Heavier? Wasn't it enough that she was larger than a Norfolk ewe before shearing, according to one local wit? And he was being kind.
The sight of the handsome face so close to hers froze any words she might have dredged up. The feel of his arm in the hollow under her ribs, his warm breath fanning her cheek, caused an unexpected flutter in the pit of her stomach. How could she respond in this shocking way to his touch when she ought to be angry?
Blast it, she was angry. She slammed her fist against his shoulder. A shock wave jolted up her arm as if she'd struck an oak tree. "Ouch. Foxhaven, put me down." To her disgust, she sounded utterly feeble.
"Not until you say yes." With a delicate touch he brought Maestro around the table and headed down the passage toward the assembled company.
A horrid premonition entered her mind. Her stomach dropped. "You can't mean to take me in there."
"Can I not?"
She grabbed the front of his coat and gave him a shake. "No." She kicked his booted calf.
He winced. The horse sidled, causing her to slip. She gasped and snatched at the reins. "I will not let you do this."
He encircled her wrists in a large gloved hand, trapping them against her chest.
Searing heat flooded her skin at the pressure of his knuckles against her breasts. She forced herself to ignore the casual intimacy. "I will be recognized."
"Then you should not have refused to speak to me each time I called this week. I tried to be civil. You left me no choice." His square jaw set hard, he urged the horse along the gloomy hallway.
Music and talk and laughter from beyond the ornate wooden screen grew louder. Her stomach sank to the far distant flagstones. "Please don't shame me like this."
"Give me your promise to wed and I'll turn around right now. No one will ever know we were here."
"That is blackmail."
He shrugged and the stallion pranced forward. As they rounded the screen, her captor flung the tail of his full-skirted greatcoat over her head. "One last chance, Caro," he growled.
She ducked beneath his coat, clutching it close.
In the warm dark, her cheek rubbed against the rough wool of his jacket. The scent of sandalwood and male filled her senses, while his heart drummed a steady rhythm in her ear. If the whole thing weren't so dreadful, she might be tempted to cuddle closer.
The hum of conversation ceased. The music trailed off into squeaks and then silence. A raucous male laugh rang out.
"You're too early, Foxhaven," a deep voice yelled. "And whoever you have there, she has a neatly-turned ankle."
She inwardly groaned. Her skirts must be at her knees. Heat scalded her face as ripple of titters washed up against her. She wished it would float her out of the door, like flotsam. Or should it be jetsam? She never remembered which was which. And besides, she was more likely to sink than to float.
She peeped through the gap between Foxhaven's coat and his shoulder at a thin sliver of brightly lit world, at the crowd of avid faces eager for blood. If she jumped clear and ran with her head down, she might make it into the passageway behind the screen unrecognized. She started a downward slide.
Foxhaven tightened his grip. She pried at steely fingers, then bashed his knuckles with her fist. His sharp intake of breath gave her a moment of satisfaction, until the dratted horse lurched and she realized they were ascending the wide stone staircase alongside the dais. She clutched Foxhaven's coat sleeve with a frantic moan. If Maestro slipped, they would both be crushed. "You are mad," she muttered.
A chorus of complaints broke out around them.
"Now see here, Foxhaven," Lord Grantham howled from behind them. "Get that blasted animal out of here."
Foxhaven's thighs flexed beneath her bottom. "Easy, old fellow." He leaned forward for balance, his chin grazing the top of her head. She stilled, afraid a sudden movement might startle the nervous beast beneath them despite his master's iron control.
Awareness of male strength shimmered across her shoulders and tingled her spine. The way Foxhaven controlled the skittish stallion with his knees while holding her in place filled her with awe. No wonder people called him the Norfolk Nonesuch.
He chuckled, deep and low. An answering chord of excitement thrummed low in her belly, reminding her of wild rides across open fields and childish games of Knights of the Round Table. Only now her knight's armor had lost its luster.
Drat the man for enjoying her humiliation. Nothing he could say would make her forgive this night's work. She would give him a set-down the moment she got him alone. Her stomach flipped. She really didn't want to be alone with him.
The horse leveled out. She breathed a sigh of relief as the sounds from the ballroom faded behind them. Finally, a chance to talk some sense into the dissipated idiot. Maestro came to a stop, but footsteps trotted after them. She risked a peek.
One of Grantham's servants grabbed at a stirrup. "My lord, you must turn back."
"Stand aside," Foxhaven ordered. He lowered her to the ground, careful to set her well clear of the fidgety animal, then dismounted.
Run, her mind shouted. Her feet seemed to take root.
He grabbed her arm, tossed the reins to the slack-jawed lackey and snatching a lantern from the wall, pushed her inside the nearest chamber. "This will do."
She hadn't wanted this much privacy. Not with him.
The room smelled of mildew and damp. She straightened her spectacles. The faded blue bed hangings needed a good cleaning. Moths had made a feast of the tapestries on the walls, while a fine layer of dust coated the bedside table and the carved wooden armchair by the gray stone hearth. At least here there were no witnesses to her torture.
"Let him have his head and he'll be fine" Foxhaven said to the footman and slammed the door shut.
Someone pounded on the other side. "Open this damn door or Stockbridge will hear from me." Lord Grantham again.
"Good," Foxhaven shouted back, ramming the bolt home. "I'm sure my father will be delighted. He's in London."
"You numbskull," Grantham yelled. "I'm sending for the magistrate. God damn it, man, get this animal out of here." The noise of Maestro's hooves became faint along with the sound of Lord Grantham's threats.
Foxhaven placed the lantern on the stone mantel and turned to face her, legs astraddle, hands on lean buckskin-covered hips. Encased in a many-caped driving coat, his shoulders seemed to fill the room, while eyes as dark as chocolate and twice as tempting gazed at her. Unable to look away, she licked her dry lips. It had been months since she had tasted anything as luxurious as chocolate.
A slow smile dawned on his lean face, changing it from menacing to impossibly handsome, almost boyish. "Now, Miss Torrington. One good reason why we should not marry."
A year ago his resentment at being forced up to the mark by his father had been as obvious as storm clouds on a summer afternoon. He'd flung his proposal in her face and stood waiting for her answer like a man doomed to the gallows. The recollection still hurt. She backed into the soft wall covering, widening the distance between them. "My reasons are my own and the answer remains no. Now, let me go or face the consequences."
He raised a quizzical brow. "No one down there is going to care about a kitchen wench. Half the women are green with envy and most of the men are wishing they could get away with it."
"For goodness' sake, Lord Grantham is going to fetch the magistrate. Don't you see what you have done? I'll be ruined."
He flashed his too easy smile, the one he'd perfected in London, the one that spoke of knowledge and dissipation and set her pulse racing. "That's the whole point, I'm afraid," he said cheerfully. "Agree to marry me or I shall go down and announce whom I brought up here."
She desired above all things to blame him for her giving in, but she didn't believe for a moment that he would deliberately cause her harm. Not her friend and rescuer of old. In those days his smile had been honest and true.
Dark eyes mirthful, hands on hips, he stared down at her sprawled on the grassy bank of a swift flowing stream. Lucas. The sun burnished his dark hair and turned the sky behind his head a hazy blue. His gaze dropped to the bare leg she'd been rubbing. "What are you doing, Miss Torrington?"
She whisked her skirt-hem over the aching limb. "I tripped on a tuft of grass." She smiled to hide how awkward and foolish she felt and hoped her face wasn't too red. "I was picking flowers." She pointed to the scattered cornflowers she'd dropped when she fell. "I didn't hear you come along for the noise of the water." Otherwise she might have tried to jump up and hide her foolish predicament.
He strolled down the uneven bank and hunkered beside her, the full glory of his handsome features coming crisply into focus and halting her breath. "Are you injured?"
The concern in his tone soothed her bruised ego like balm, but did nothing to ease her physical pain. "I wrenched my ankle." Now she sounded pathetic. She held back the threatening tears that seemed more inclined to flow because of his sympathy. "It is sure to feel better in a moment or two."
"Let me see." He pushed her skirt a little way up her leg and ran a long gentle finger over the blue-tinged swelling just below her anklebone.
"That must hurt like the very devil," he said. He colored. "I mean it must hurt a great deal."
They must teach manners at school. He never used to be so formal.
"It is not as bad as it looks," she lied.
He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket. "I'll bind it, and we'll see if you can walk." He leaned over and dabbled the square of pristine white linen in the fast-running shallow water.
"You should be more careful," he chided over his shoulder. "You might have fallen in the stream."
"I know," she managed to reply, unable to do more than gaze at the fascinating contrast of jet hair curling over a stark white collar. Her pulse seemed to skitter.
"Perhaps this will help." He wrapped the sopping-wet square of white cotton around her foot. It felt deliciously cool on her heated skin. His knuckles brushed her calf as he knotted the fabric.
She inhaled a quick breath.
He glanced up sharply, removing his hand as if stung. "Did that hurt?"
She shook her head. "It feels wonderful." She felt heat rush from her breasts all the way up her neck to her face. "I mean the cloth." Oh darn it, now that sounded wrong.
Excerpted from No Regrets by Michèle Ann Young Copyright © 2007 by Michèle Ann Young. Excerpted by permission.
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