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England September, 1855
The crisp black taffeta skirt of her mourning gown rustled as she walked out of the dress shop a few doors in front of him.
Reese Dewar froze where he stood, the silver-headed cane in his hand forgotten, along with the ache in his leg. Rage took its place, dense and heavy, hot and seething.
Sooner or later, he had known he would see her. He had told himself it wouldn't matter, that seeing her again wouldn't affect him. She meant nothing to him, not anymore, not for nearly eight years.
But as she stepped off the wooden walkway, a ray of autumn sunlight gleamed against the jet-black curls on her shoulders and anger boiled up inside him, fury unlike he had known in years.
He watched her continue toward her sleek black four-horse carriage, the crossed-saber Aldridge crest glinting in gold on the side. She paused for a moment as one of the footmen hurried to open the door and he realized she wasn't alone. A small, dark-haired boy, nearly hidden in the voluminous folds of her skirt, hurried along beside her. She urged him up the iron steps and the child disappeared inside the elegant coach.
Instead of climbing the stairs herself, the woman turned and looked at him over her shoulder, her gray eyes finding him with unerring accuracy, as if she could feel his cold stare stabbing into the back of her neck. She gasped when she realized who it was, though she must have known, in a village as small as Swansdowne, one day their paths would cross.
Surely she had heard the gossip, heard of his return to Briarwood, the estate he had inherited from his maternal grandfather.
The estate he had meant to share with her.
Their eyes locked, hers troubled, filled with some emotion he could not read. His own gaze held the bitterness and anger he made no effort to hide. He loathed her for what she had done, hated her with every ounce of his being.
It shocked him.
He had thought those feelings long past. For most of the last eight years, he had been away from England, a major in the British cavalry. He had fought in foreign wars, commanded men, sent some of them to their deaths. He had been wounded and nearly died himself.
He was home now, his injured leg making him no longer fit to serve. That and the vow he had made to his dying father. One day he would come back to Briarwood. He would make the estate his home as he had once intended.
Reese would rather have stayed in the army. He didn't belong in the country. He wasn't sure where he belonged anymore and he loathed his feelings of uncertainty nearly as much as he loathed Elizabeth.
She swallowed, seemed to sway a little on her feet as she turned away, climbed the steps and settled herself inside the carriage. She hadn't changed. With her raven hair, fine pale features, and petite, voluptuous figure, Elizabeth Clemens Holloway, Countess of Aldridge, was as beautiful at six-and-twenty as she had been at eighteen.
As she had been when she had declared her love and accepted his proposal of marriage.
His gaze followed the coach as it rolled off toward Aldridge Park, the palatial estate that had belonged to her late husband, Edmund Holloway, Earl of Aldridge. Aldridge had died last year at the age of thirty-three, leaving his wife a widow, leaving her with a son.
Reese spat into the dirt at his feet. Just the thought of Aldridge in Elizabeth's bed made him sick to his stomach.
Five years his senior, Edmund was already an earl when he had competed with Reese for Elizabeth's affections. She had been amused by the attentions of the handsome, sophisticated aristocrat, but she had been in love with Reese.
Or so she had said.
The carriage disappeared round a bend in the road and Reese's racing pulse began to slow. He was amazed at the enmity he still felt toward her. He was a man who had taught himself control and that control rarely abandoned him. He would not allow it to happen again.
Leaning heavily on his cane, the ache in his leg beginning to reach through the fury that had momentarily consumed him, he made his way to his own conveyance and slowly climbed aboard. Aldridge's widow and her son had no place in his life. Elizabeth was dead to him and had been for nearly eight years.
As dead as her husband, the man she had betrayed Reese to marry.
And he would never forgive her.
Elizabeth leaned against the tufted red velvet seat of her carriage. Her heart was hammering, battering against the wall of her chest. Dear God, Reese.
She had known she would see him. She had prayed it would happen at some distant time in the future. Sometime after she had come to grips with the fact that he was living in the house they had once meant to share.
Dear God, Reese. There was a day she thought never to see him again. Rumors had surfaced. Reese, a major in the cavalry, was missing in action somewhere in the Crimea. There were whispers he was dead. Then he had returned and the news had swept the countryside.
He was back at Briarwood, wounded in the war and retired from the army. He was home, living just a few miles from Aldridge Park. She should have been prepared and yet seeing him today…seeing the hatred in his brilliant blue eyes, made her chest squeeze with guilt and regret.
She knew how much he hated her. If she hadn't already been certain, she would have seen it in his icy stare today. Every pore in his sun-bronzed face exuded loathing. Every angry thought seemed to reach her across the distance between them. She hadn't seen him since that day nearly eight years ago that he had come home on leave and discovered she had wed another man.
Not since the day he had called her a whore and vowed that one day she would pay for her lies and deceit.
She had paid. Dear God, she had paid every day since she had married Edmund Holloway. She had done as her father demanded and wed a man not of her choosing.
But she had never stopped loving Reese.
Her heart squeezed. She thought of his hard, handsome features, so masculine, so incredibly attractive. In some ways, he looked the same as he had as a young man of twenty, tall and black-haired, his body hard-muscled and lean, his features sharply defined.
And yet he was a completely different man. He had been a little shy in his courtship of her, a little uncertain. Now he wore his masculinity like a comfortable shirt; it was clear in his unwavering stare, the way his gaze too boldly assessed her. There was a harshness in his features that hadn't been there when he was young, and a confidence and raw sense of authority that only made him more attractive.
Jared's small voice reached her from across the carriage. "Yes, sweetheart?" A headache had begun to form behind her eyes and she rubbed her temple against the pain.
"Who was that man?" Her son sat quietly on the opposite seat, his voice little more than a whisper. He wouldn't be talking at all, she knew, if he hadn't sensed her distress.
She forced herself to smile and patted the seat beside her. Jared scooted next to her and she settled an arm around his small shoulders.
"Major Dewar is an old friend, sweetheart." A complete and utter falsehood. The man loathed her and she didn't blame him. "He just got out of the army and he is returned to his home."
Jared just looked at her. He didn't ask more, simply gazed at her with his deep-set brown eyes, soulful eyes, she thought. Eyes far too worldly for a child so young, and far too full of loneliness.
Managing a smile, she began to point out the sights along the road as the carriage moved down the lane that cut through the rolling fields. It was mid-September, the leaves turning orange, gold and red. Two small boys played along the roadside tossing a ball back and forth, and Elizabeth pointed them out to Jared.
"Doesn't that look like fun? You like to play ball. Perhaps one of Mrs. Clausen's sons will play with you this afternoon." Mrs. Clausen was the housekeeper, a dear woman raising her daughter's orphaned grandsons, boys eight and nine years old. They liked Jared, but because of his shyness, rarely sought him out. "Why don't you ask them when we get home?"
Jared said nothing, but his gaze remained on the boys and the look in his eyes made a lump rise in her throat. As long as he remained at Aldridge Park, Jared would never come out of the shell he had built to protect himself. It was one more reason she had to leave.
Not leave, Elizabeth silently corrected. Escape.
As long as her brother-in-law and his wife, Mason and Frances Holloway, lived at Aldridge Park, she was a prisoner in her own home.
Her headache continued to worsen, pounding away inside her skull as it often did these days. She was afraid of Mason. He was the sort of man who stood a little too close, touched her a little too often. She needed to leave, but she was certain he would simply come after her. She had no idea how far he would go to keep her and Jared— now the Earl of Aldridge—under his control. But she was certain there was little he would not do.
She was frightened. Not only for herself but for her son.
An image arose of Reese Dewar, strong, capable, a veteran of the war, the sort of man who would protect his family no matter the cost.
But Reese wasn't her husband and never would be.
And she had no one to blame but herself.
Reese returned to Briarwood, his mood dark and brooding. He tried not to think of Elizabeth but he couldn't seem to get her out of his head. What was there about her? How had she managed to keep a stranglehold over him for so many years? Why had no other woman been able to pierce the wall of his heart as she had done?
His manservant, Timothy Daniels, a brawny young corporal who had served with him for several years before being injured and sent home, arrived in the study just then.
"You are returned," Daniels said. "Is there anything you need, sir?" Tim had been out of work and hungry when he had appeared at Reese's door. In a few short weeks, he had become dedicated to Reese's welfare. With this damnable leg slowing him down, Reese was glad to have a man he could count on.
"I'm fine, Tim."
"Let me know if you need me."
Reese scowled. "I imagine I can survive a few hours studying these bloody damned ledgers." Though in truth, he hated paperwork and would far rather be out of doors, which Timothy, being a military man, seemed to understand.
"Aye, sir. Like I said—"
"That will be all, corporal." Growing tired of the young man's overprotectiveness, Reese snapped out the words in his firmest military voice.
"Aye, sir." The door closed quietly, leaving Reese alone in the wood-paneled room. The study was his sanctuary, a comfortable chamber lined with books, a warm, inviting, masculine place where a fire blazed in the hearth and he could insulate himself from the memories that crept into other parts of the house.
In the days of their courtship, Elizabeth had been to Briarwood more than once. She loved the ivy that covered the white plaster walls of the manor and hung from the porch outside the front door, she had said. She loved the steep slate roof with its whimsical chimney pots that made the house look like a fairy tale dwelling.
She had made plans to paint the drawing room a pale shade of rose and add lace curtains, to hang flowered silk wallpaper behind the sofa. She loved the master's suite, she told him, loved how sunny it was, the way it looked out over the garden. She couldn't wait to share his big four-poster bed, a gift his grandfather had commissioned for his bride-to-be.
That thought led to one he didn't wish to recall and his loins began to fill. Bloody hell. All these years and seeing her once made him want her again. He forced himself to remember the way she had told him how much she loved him and how happy she would be to live at Briarwood as his wife.
Lies. All of them.
Just weeks after he had left for his assignment in London, she had broken her promise to marry him. Instead she had wed an earl, a man of untold wealth, and abandoned the younger son of a duke, a man who could provide a pleasant home and sufficient income but would never be extravagantly rich.
Reese ground his jaw. Since his return, thoughts of Elizabeth had begun to haunt him, memories he had buried years ago. Two days after he had discovered the news of her marriage, he had left Wiltshire County for good, gone back to London and asked to serve in the cavalry, knowing he would be assigned to duty somewhere far from English shores.
If he hadn't been wounded, if he hadn't promised his father, he would be there still.
His hand fisted on the top of the desk. Reese dragged in a deep breath and forced his mind back to the present. The ledgers sat open in front of him. He forced himself to concentrate and began to skim the pages. He would have to conquer his painful past and concentrate on the future if he meant to fulfill his obligations and make the fallow fields of Briarwood productive again.
Reese intended to see it done.
With her young son, Jared, walking close beside her, Elizabeth entered the magnificent entry of the huge Georgian mansion, Aldridge Park, her late husband's country estate. The property and all others entailed to the earldom, along with Edmund's vast fortune, now belonged to Jared, the recently titled seventh Earl of Aldridge.
The sound of footsteps echoing on the black-and-white marble floor drew her attention and Elizabeth looked up to see her sister-in-law, Frances Holloway, also dressed in black, float into the entry to greet them.
Frances's lips flattened out in disapproval. "I expected you home hours ago. Where have you been?" She was a thin woman, with high cheekbones and a long, narrow nose. Her greatest asset was her strength of will. Frances managed to turn things to suit her purpose no matter how difficult they might be, probably the reason her husband, Mason, had married her.