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The early morning mist was just beginning to clear as he turned Thor, his magnificent black stallion, towards home, taking the shortcut through the long yew-tree walk that bordered the formal gardens of Woodfield Manor. The bright sunlight of an early English summer shafted down through the tall trees, causing the dew on the grass to sparkle as if strewn with a myriad of tiny diamonds. The earthy scent of freshly disturbed soil and roots churned up by Thor's prancing hooves mingled with the heady perfume of the honeysuckle, which roamed untrained around the trunks of the stately yews. It was a perfect morning, the prelude to what would undoubtedly be a beautiful day.
The Right Honourable Rafe St Alban, Earl of Pentland, Baron of Gyle and master of all he surveyed was, however, completely oblivious to the glories of nature, which assailed him from all sides. Mentally drained after another sleepless night, physically exhausted after his strenuous early morning gallop, his only interest was in falling into the welcoming arms of Morpheus.
Reining his horse in, Rafe dismounted to unlatch the wrought-iron gates, which opened on to the gravelled side path leading directly to his stables. The tall, perfectly proportioned man and the huge ebony horse made a striking pair, each in their own way glorious examples of blue-blooded pedigree, perfect specimens of toned and honed muscle and sinew at the peak of physical perfection. Rafe's skin glowed with a healthy lustre. His raven-black hair shone in the sunlight, the severe lines of his Stanhope crop emphasising his faultless profile, the angle of his cheekbones highlighted by the flush of exertion from the break-neck gallop across the downs. The bluish hue of stubble only served to accentuate a strong jaw and very white teeth.
Byronic, is how one infatuated young lady had breathlessly described him, a compliment that Rafe dismissed with his customary crack of sardonic laughter. Though his handsome countenance and fabulous wealth made him one of society's most eligible bachelors, even the most determined ladies on the catch wilted under his aloof stare and acerbic witwhich suited Rafe very well, since he had no interest at all in leg-shackling himself for a second time. He'd had enough of marriage to last him a lifetime. Several lifetimes, in fact.
'Nearly home now, old friend,' he murmured, patting the horse's sweating flank. Thor tossed his massive head, expelling a cloud of warm air from his nostrils, as anxious as his owner for the warmth of his sleeping quarters. Deciding to walk the short distance to the house rather than remount, Rafe shrugged off his riding coat and slung it casually over his shoulder. Having no expectations of meeting anyone this early, he had come out wearing neither hat, waistcoat nor neckcloth. The clean white folds of his linen shirt clung to the perspiration on his back, the open neck at the front revealing a sprinkling of hair on a muscled chest.
The gate swung soundlessly back on its well-oiled springs and Rafe urged his horse forwards, but Thor pawed at the grass and snorted. In no mood for playfulness, Rafe tugged on the reins again, more sharply this time, but the stallion refused to move, giving a high whinny.
'What's spooked you?' Scanning their immediate surrounds in the expectation of seeing a rabbit or a fox peering out from the deep ditch that ran parallel to the path, instead he saw a shoe. A lady's shoe. A small leather pump, slightly scuffed at the toe, attached to a very shapely ankle clad in eminently practical wool. With a muffled exclamation, which expressed more annoyance than concern, Rafe looped his horse's reins round the gatepost and strode over to peer into the ditch.
Lying lengthways on her back, and either dead or deeply unconscious, was the body of a young woman. She was clad in a serviceable round gown of brown worsted, buttoned high at the neck. She wore no hat or pelisse, and her chestnut hair had unravelled from its pins to fan out behind her, where the ditchwater had soaked it, turning its curling ends almost black, like a dark halo. The face revealed, when Rafe cautiously brushed back the obscuring reeds, was stripped of colour, marble-white and ghostly. With her arms folded protectively over her bosom, the overall impression she gave was of a prosaically dressed effigy, the image marred only by the awkward angle of the little foot that had first betrayed her presence.
Casting his coat aside, Rafe knelt down at the edge of the ditch, noting with irritation the water seep into his riding breeches. He could detect no movement, not even a flicker from beneath the closed lids. Leaning over further, he tentatively lowered his head to place his ear close to her face. A faint whisper of breath on his cheek betrayed the first glimmer of life. Grasping one slim wrist, he was relieved to find a pulse beating, faintly but steadily. Where had she come from? More importantly, what the hell was she doing lying in his ditch?
Rafe got to his feet again, absently noticing the green patches on his breeches, which would have his valet tutting in dismay, and pondered his options. The easiest course would be to leave her here, return to the house and send a couple of the stable hands to recover her. He eyed the recumbent form appraisingly, his frown accentuating the upward slant of his brows. No, whatever she was doing here, he could not in conscience walk away from her. She looked like Ophelia. Something about the angle of that little foot of hers made her seem horribly vulnerable. And she was but a slight thing, after all, hardly worth the trouble of summoning two men when he had his horse. Resignedly, Rafe set about removing her from her temporary resting place.
'That will be all, thank you, Mrs Peters. I'll call if I need any further assistance.'
The words, so faint they seemed to be coming from the end of a long tunnel, penetrated the dense fog engulfing Henrietta's mind. She moaned. It felt as if someone was squeezing her skull with some medieval instrument of torture. She tried to raise her hand to her forehead, but her arm would not comply, lying heavy on her chest as if weighted down. White-hot sparks of stabbing pain forced her eyelids open, but the swirling collage of colour that she then encountered made her close them again immediately. Now her head felt as if it were being pounded by a blacksmith's hammer. The painful throbbing was unbearable.
A welcome coolness descended on her brow and the pain abated somewhat. Lavender, she could smell lavender. This time when she tried to move, her arm cooperated. Clutching the compress, Henrietta opened her eyes again. The world tilted and the room swam before her. She scrunched her eyes closed, then, breathing deeply and counting to five, resolutely opened them, ignoring the siren call of black, comforting unconsciousness.
Starched sheets. Feather pillows. A warming pan at her feet. Damask hangings overhead. She was in bed, but in a bedchamber that was completely foreign to her. A bright fire burned in a modern grate and light streamed in through a small gap in the curtains which had been drawn across the windows. The room was furnished in the first style of elegance, with pale-yellow tempered walls and darker-gold window hangings. A lurching wave of nausea swept over her. She could not be sick in such pristine surroundings. With a truly heroic effort of will, Henrietta swallowed hard and forced herself upright.
She started. The voice had a rich, deep timbre. A seductive quality. It was unequivocally male. Obscured by the bed curtain, she had not noticed his presence. Shrinking back against the pillows, Henrietta pulled the covers high up to her neck, realising as she did so that she was clad only in her undergarments. The compress dropped from her head on to the silk coverlet. It would stain, she thought rather distractedly. 'Don't come any closer or I'll scream.'
'Do your worst,' the man replied laconically, 'for all you know I may already have done mine.'
'Oh!' His tone was amused, rather than threatening. Completely disconcerted, Henrietta blinked owlishly. Then, as her vision cleared, she gulped. Standing in front of her was quite the most beautiful man she had ever seen. Tall, dark and really quite indecently handsome, he was a veritable Adonis. Ink-dark hair ruthlessly cropped revealed a bone structure flawless in its symmetry. Winged brows. Hooded eyes that were a curious shade of blueor was it grey? Like the sky on a stormy night. He was in shirt sleeves and had not shaved, but this slightly dishevelled state served only to emphasise his physical perfection. She knew she was staring, but she could not tear her eyes away. 'Who are you? What on earth are you doing here in thisthis bedchamber? With me?'
Rafe allowed his gaze to drift over the damsel in distress. She was clutching at the sheet as if it were her last defence, looking at his coatless body as if he were half-naked, her thoughts written large on her face.
He could not resist toying with her. 'I can't imagine. Can you?'
Henrietta gulped. The obvious answer was shockingly appealing. She was in her underwear. He looked as if he had not finished dressing. Or undressing? Did he mean it? Had theyhad he? A frisson, a shiver of heat, made her close her eyes. No! She would have remembered that! Not that she had much idea what that was precisely, but she was certain that she would have remembered it. He was unforgettable.
So he was teasing her, then? Wasn't he? She slanted him a look from under her lashes. Her gaze clashed with his and she looked hurriedly away. No. Greek gods did not descend from the heavens to seduce slightly plump young ladies with hair hanging down their backs like rats tails and smellingHenrietta sniffed cautiouslyyes, there was no getting away from it, smelling slightly of ditch water. Absolutely not. Even if they did imply
As his gaze drifted deliberately down to where the sheet was tucked under her chin, Henrietta felt heat flood her cheeks. A quirk of his eyebrow and his eyes met hers. Her blush deepened. She felt as if she had just failed some unspoken test and couldn't help wishing that she hadn't. She tilted her chin defiantly. 'Who are you?'
He raised an eyebrow. 'Shouldn't I be asking you that question? You are, after all, a guest, albeit an uninvited one, in my home.'
'Precisely. My home. My bedchamber. My bed.' Rafe waited, but to his surprise the young lady seemed to have done, for the moment, with acting the shrinking violet. 'You are in Woodfield Manor,' he conceded.
'Woodfield Manor!' It was the large estate that bordered her employer's. The large estate owned by'Good grief, are you the earl?'
'Indeed. Rafe St Alban, the Earl of Pentland, at your service.' Rafe made a sketchy bow.
The earl! She was in a bedchamber with the notorious earl, and she could quite see, could see very, very clearly, just exactly why his reputation was so scandalous. Henrietta clung to the bedclothes like a raft, fighting the impulse to pull them completely over her head and burrow deep down in the luxurious softness of the feather bed. 'I am pleased to make your acquaintance, my lord. I am Henrietta Markham.' The absurdity of the situation struck her suddenly. She felt an inappropriate desire to laugh. 'Are you sure you're the earl, onlyno, of course if you say you are, you must be.'
Rafe's mouth twitched. 'I'm fairly sure who I am. What makes you think I might not be?'
'Nothing. Onlywell, I did not expectyour reputation, you know ' Henrietta felt her face colouring.
'What reputation would that be?' He knew perfectly well, of course, but it would be amusing to see just how, exactly, she would phrase it. There was something about her that made him want to shock. To disconcert. Perhaps it was her eyes, wide-spaced and clear-gazing, the colour of cinnamon. Or was it coffee? No, that wasn't right, eitherchocolate, perhaps?
Rafe settled himself casually on the edge of the bed. Henrietta Markham's eyes widened, but she didn't shrink away as he'd expected. There was just enough space between them to seem at the same time too much and not enough. He could see her breasts rising and falling more rapidly beneath the sheet.
She wasn't what received wisdom would call beautiful. She lacked inches, for one thing, and could not by any stretch of the imagination be described as willowy. Though her skin was flawless, her mouth was too generous, her eyebrows too straight and her nose not straight enough. Yet now that some colour had returned to her cheeks and she no longer resembled a marble effigy, she wasno, definitely not beautiful, but rather disturbingly attractive. 'What, Miss Markham, at a loss for words?'