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September 1813the Tyne Valley, Northumberland
Diana Clare fought the overwhelming temptation to swear violent, inappropriate oaths, oaths of the type that no one would even consider a spinster such as she would know.
One tiny scream of frustration and the merest hint of a word passed her lips. Jester, the piebald mare, turned its head and gave her a disgusted look. Diana shifted uneasily in her seat on the gig. Jester was correct. She had given in to her anger, and had broken one of her cardinal rulesa lady never allows passionate emotion to overcome her sensibilities.
She drew a breath, counted to ten and concentrated hard on a serene outlook. But the gig remained held fast in thick oozing mud and the tug of pain behind Diana's eyes threatened to explode into a full-blown headache. Adding insult to injury, Jester began to munch another clump of sweet meadow grass, daintily choosing the last few remaining daisies. Diana tucked a stray lock of midnight-black hair behind her ear and peered over the side of the gig. It was her fault that it had become stuck. No one else's. She accepted that, but accepting, and wishing to admit it to the general populace, were two entirely separate matters.
Diana knew she ought not to have been reading and driving at the same time, but she had needed something to erase the full horror of visiting Lady Bolt's At Home as the congregated gaggle of gossips had blithely torn another woman's reputation to shreds.
That the third and final volume of Pride and Prejudice had been waiting for her at the circulating library she took as providence, a way to restore her temper. Normally she scorned novels as frivolous and refused to open them, but Mrs Sarsfield had insisted she read the first page, and Diana had discovered that she'd had to read on and on. She had not bought the book, but done things the proper waywaiting her turn for each volume. And finally it was here, on the seat beside her in the gig. As she often joked to her brother Simon, Jester knew every step of the way home.
And what possible harm could come to her in the country?
Slack reins and the temptations of late-summer meadow grass had proved too great for the mare and Jester had pulled the gig into the mud pool just as Diana reached another scene between Miss Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy.
Diana straightened her straw bonnet and measured the distance from the gig to solid ground.
She could do thiseasily, with dignity and in a ladylike manner. One long leap. She pushed off from the gig and hoped.
Her half-kid boot caught in the oozing mud, several feet short of dry land. Diana gave a small cry as her bonnet tilted first one way and then the other before sliding off into the mud, taking her cap with it. Gingerly, Diana picked the bonnet up by one ribbon and stuffed the cap inside. Mud dripped from it, splattering her dress.
'Beauty in distress,' a low voice drawled behind her, cultivated, with more than a hint of arrogance. A masculine voice. A stranger's voice.
Her throat constricted and every particle of her froze. Her situation had suddenly become a thousand times worse.
'Distress fails to describe my predicament.' Diana refused to turn. Spoken to in the correct manner, the stranger would depart. Nothing untowards would happen to her as long as she behaved like a lady. She had to believe that, otherwise what had been the point of the last few years? 'My gig has become stuck, and I am solving a problem with calmness and fortitude. There is a difference.'
Diana concentrated on finding the next halfway decent place for her foot, rather than glancing over her shoulder at the owner of the voice. If she ignored him, there was a chance that he would depart and everything would be fine. Her ordeal would end. It was her actions that mattered. Her balance altered slightly and she was forced to make a windmill motion with her arms in order to stay upright.
'As I saiddefinite distress.'
'Nothing of the sort. I am finding my way out. It is simply proving trickier than I first imagined.' Diana put her foot down hard and heard a squelch as brown liquid spewed up. Her feet slipped. An involuntary shriek emerged from her throat. She flailed her arms about, trying desperately to regain her balance, before the mud sucked her down and destroyed all her dignity and decorum.
Her fingers encountered a solid object and she grabbed on with all her might. She rebalanced and looked, hoping for a branch. But instead her hands clung to the sleeve of a white travelling cloak. It was a choice between two evilsthe indignity of falling into the thick black mud and the impropriety of clinging to an unknown man's arm. Impropriety won.
'It would be a shame to stain your dress, I believe.'
Without waiting for a reply, the man's hands moved to her waist, and lifted her up. Her breast and thigh grazed his broad chest. Her senses reeled, then righted. She refused to give way to panic. She kept her body rigidly still and willed him to release her, but the arms stayed strong about her.
'You may let me go.' Her voice resounded, high and shrill, in her ears as she glanced up into deep grey eyes. A strange sensation stirred, deep within her, curling around her insides with insidious slowness. She swallowed hard and beat it back. 'Please.'
'After I have had my reward.'
'Reward?' Her tongue seemed to be three times thicker than normal. The day was rapidly becoming a nightmare. Surely this man, this gentleman, had to understand that she was a proper lady? She was not going to be punished. Again. 'Why do you insist upon a reward?'
'For rescuing you. Surely my gallant action warrants the merest trifle.'
He lowered his lips and his mouth skimmed hersa brief touch, but one that sent a blaze of fire coursing throughout her body. Panic engulfed her. She turned her head and beat her fists against his chest.
'Put me down this instant!'
'If that is what you truly desire.'
Diana gulped and struggled to hang on to some sense of dignity. It was the only thing that could save her. A truly worthy and refined woman was never in danger. Ever. 'It is.'
'Never let it be said that I do not accommodate a pretty wench's wishes.'
Her rescuer withdrew his arms and she was unceremoniously deposited on a green knoll. Her skirt flew up and revealed her legs up to her calves. Diana hurriedly pushed it back down and hoped that the man had been gentlemanly enough not to look. Silently she promised never to read novels again, never to utter oaths, if only she would be delivered from this nightmare. It was all her fault. She had broken her rules of ladylike behaviour and this was what happened to women who behaved inappropriately.
Diana forced her breath in and out of her lungs and regained some small measure of control. She could not show that she was discomforted. Exhibiting emotion only made situations like this one worse.
'I did not mean quite so quickly.'
'But I did as you requested. Beauty, thy name is perverse.'
'You have rescued me. Now you may depart.'
His black boots remained still. She glanced up at her rescuer, praying that he was a stranger, someone she might never encounter again. Broad shoulders filled out the finely cut white coat with fifteen capes and two rows of pockets. Tapered down to buckskins and the pair of black Hessian boots. He sported a white neckcloth with black spots, immaculately tied. Diana's gloom deepened. It was the sort only worn by a member of the Four Hand Club, the premiere carriage-driving club in the country.
She studied his dark features again and recognised the distinctive scar that ran from his forehead to his cheek.
Her insides twisted. That little place inside her that she normally kept locked and barred cracked opened. The man was Brett Farnham. Had to be. Diana pressed her hands into her eyes. She slammed the door of that place shut and willed the terror to go.
'Is something troubling you, Beauty?' The warmth in his voice lapped at her senses. 'Forgive me if I have offended, I merely sought to assist you.'
'Nothing, nothing at all.' Diana forced her face to relax and her lips to smile. Politeness must be her shield. A lady was always polite. 'Why should anything trouble me? Today has been without blemish or stain.'
'Aside from becoming stuck in a pool of mud.' A smile crossed his features.
'Aside from that.'
Diana resisted the temptation to bury her face in her hands. She had allowed herself to be carried and kissed by one of the most renowned rakes in the country, a man who had founded the notorious Jehu driving club at Cambridge University and who had set the fashion for speaking cant, tying neckcloths, a close confidant of both Brummell and Byron. Her late fiancé had revered him, and ultimately that reverence had been responsible for his destruction.
After all the years she had spent here, trying to forget that London had ever happened. Then Brett Farnham appeared and everything came crashing back as if it were yesterday. But whatever happened, she had to remember that it was her actions that decided her fate. If she held fast to her rules, she would be safe. If she had learnt one thing in London, it was that. 'Please, I beg yougo and forget about my predicament.'
He continued to stand there, looking down at her from a great height. 'I am no fool. You disliked being rescued.'
'Normally a gentleman waits to be asked.'
'A gentleman acts when he sees a lady in distress. He attempts to prevent greater harm.' His gaze roamed over her body. And Diana was fervently glad that she was wearing her dark brown gown with its high neck. 'It would have been a shame if your dress had become mud-splattered.'
Diana forced her eyes from his face. She struggled to breathe as her throat constricted again. It was nothing more than polite words, the sort that rolled off his tongue a dozen times a day. She was a fool to worry. This encounter would not happen again. London remained in her past. All was safe here. Her place in society was secure as long as she maintained her poise.
'Thank you,' she said quietly. Polite. Calm. She had to banish any hint of emotion and behave as if they had encountered each other at a tea party or some other social function. It was the only way.
'Remain here and I will free your gig.' A dimple showed in his cheek. 'You may thank me properly later.'
'You do not need to do that. I am perfectly capable of freeing my horse.' She struggled to stand and started forwards, but he blocked her way, preventing her from reaching the gig. She cleared her throat, and tried to ignore the sudden trembling in her stomach. 'If you would kindly move, I have no wish to be in your debt.'
He lifted one eyebrow. 'Ah, so you intend on ruining your boots after all the trouble I went to. And your.uh. pretty dress. I wouldn't let a Beauty do that.'
'I am quite capable of getting myself out of the difficulty.' Diana crossed her arms, ignoring his flirtatious tone. A Beauty, indeed. She was no pretty farmer's daughter or green girl ripe for the plucking. No doubt in another moment, he would give his dishonourable intention speech and steal another kiss. This time, longer, deeper. The thought of the consequences made her blood run cold, even as a tiny piece of warmth curled around her. She regarded her hands. This was all her fault. She should have been paying attention to the road. This is what happened when she forgot her rules of ladylike behaviour.
'It looked different to me. It appeared as if you were heading for deep water and sinking fast.' He put his hand on his heart and made an exaggeratedly contrite face, no doubt expecting her to smile. 'Consider my reputation as a gentleman. How could I allow a Beauty such as yourself to meet with such a fate?'
'I am hardly a fainting violet who does not know how to handle the ribbons. I can free the gig.in time.'
He cleared his throat and looked pointedly at the vehicle with its wheels half-submerged in the mud. The position made it perfectly clear that she had driven straight at the puddle. She hated to think how long it would take to clear it. Or the difficulties she would have with Jester, who appeared intent on devouring every last speck of meadowsweet grass.
'I like to have my roads free from hazard. It could have been worse. I intend to rattle down this road today at high speed. If a carriage had encountered the unexpected obstacle, there would have been an accident. A bad accident.'
'It is a public road.' Diana lifted her chin a notch. His road indeed. Arrogant. Concerned with only his pleasure and comfort. Her heart rate slowed. She was back in control. Brett Farnham and all his kind were in her past. She was immune from such men now. She knew what danger they represented. But they also understood the code. Ladies were to be respected.
'I have never driven into a mud puddle, intentionally or unintentionally.'
'You think I intended on driving in?'
'As I am not privy to your thoughts, I remain unable to discern them. Mind-reading is, alas, not one of my talents. Dealing with horses is.' But within a moment, Brett Farnham had moved around the gig and with a few whispered words coaxed Jester back towards the road.
The pool gave up its hold on the gig with a great sucking sound. Diana reluctantly admitted that he had done it far more efficiently than she could have. And except for the splashes of mud on his gleaming black Hessian boots, Brett remained spotless.
'I must thank you for that. Very neatly done.'
'You climb back in and then we will depart.' He gestured towards the gig. 'I will drive.'
'Go? Where?' Her throat closed around the word and she was suddenly aware how deserted the road was, how far she was from any cottage. Alone with this man. Vulnerable. 'I refuse to go anywhere with you.'
'I am taking you home. You drove into a mud pool. Anything could happen.'
'My competence as a driver has never been questioned before.'
He pursed his lips and his face assumed a sceptical expression. 'We have a difference of opinion on competence, I fear. Your horse is a placid and serene animal. Easily managed.'
'It is not what you think. I can control Jester.'
'And now you know what I am thinking? Mind-reading is a talent of yours. How marvellous.' His eyes pierced her. 'Do let me in on your secret some time. But for now, I will settle for your explanation.'