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The news that Dangerous Lord Darrington was staying with Edwin Davies at his Yorkshire hunting lodge had spread, but it posed something of a dilemma for those fond mamas with unmarried daughters. Guy Wylder, the Earl of Darrington, was a bachelor and it was generally agreed that it was time he settled down and produced an heir. There had been a serious scandal in his younger days, but most parents were prepared to overlook that in view of his wealth and his title. However, the earl resisted all attempts to lure him into matrimony; any young lady who forced herself too openly upon his attention was likely to suffer, for the earl would embark upon a furiously intense flirtation, setting tongues wagging and leading the young lady in question to suppose that he had quite lost his heart. Then, just when she was in daily expectation of receiving an offer of marriage, the wicked earl's ardour would cool and he would have difficulty remembering her name when they next met.
Such behaviour had caused more than one young lady to go into a decline and, despite Lord Darrington's wealth and wickedly handsome appearance, all sensible parents now went out of their way to warn their daughters against encouraging the earl's attentions. Unfortunately, in Guy's opinion, there were not enough sensible parents.
On this occasion, however, precautions proved unnecessary. Mr Davies's shooting party at Highridge comprised only gentlemen; apart from an occasional sighting at the White Hart, the sporting company kept very much to Mr Davies's extensive acres or rode over the largely uninhabited hills and moors that stretched eastwards to the coast.
'I shall be given the cut direct when I go into the town,' was Mr Davies's laughing complaint. 'To have had a peer of the realm staying with me and not paraded him at one assembly. My neighbours will be ready to pluck any number of crows with me!'
'Davey, you know I came here only because you promised me a couple of weeks' sport in the company of friends,' replied Guy.
'And that's what you have had, but I cannot see what harm there would have been in attending a dance or two in the town.'
One side of the earl's mobile mouth lifted a fraction.
'Ah, but that is sport of a different kind, Davey, and we would be the quarry.'
They had been roaming the hills for some time, climbing to ride along the ridge that looked over the lush green farmland to the west and the hills and moors of north Yorkshire to the east. Guy stopped for a moment, taking in the view.
'That is always a danger, of course,' remarked Davey, bringing his horse to a stand beside him, 'but surely the cautionary tales about your cavalier behaviour towards the fairer sex give the ladies pause.'
Guy shook his head.
'Some, perhaps, but not all.' He added bitterly, 'I might be a veritable Bluebeard and some parents would still be offering their daughters to me. It seems my title and my fortune outweigh every other consideration!'
'Your fortune and title certainly mean you are constantly mentioned in the society papers. Those damned scoundrels who write the Intelligencer are happy to print any amount of gossip about you.'
'That scandal-sheet!' Guy's lip curled. 'Ignore it, I do. What they cannot find out they make up, and as long as it is only about my amorous adventures it does not bother me at all. Besides, if the scandals are bad enough, perhaps those ambitious mamas will finally give up the chase.'
'I know the gossip doesn't bother you, but it does anger your friends. Take the latest on dit about the Ansell chit, for example.'
'By heaven, I dance twice with a girl and immediately I am thought to be in love!'
'Well, her mother thought so, at all events. Told everyone you had invited them to Wylderbeck.'
'They invited themselves. Ansell started telling me how his daughter was interested in architecture and that she had heard such wonderful things of Wylderbeck. I told 'em they were welcome to take a look at the old house.' Guy shot his friend a quick glance, his grey eyes glinting. 'I hope they enjoyed it. I had a letter from my steward last week saying they had come hotfoot to Yorkshire, only to be told I was not at home! My housekeeper showed 'em around the house and suggested they could put up at the Darrington Arms.'
Davey laughed, but shook his head at him.
'A devilish trick to play, Guy.'
'One becomes weary of being constantly pursued. Scandal goes some way to reduce the problem.'
'I sometimes think you are happy for people to think you betrayed your country,' muttered Davey, frowning.
'If you think that, then you are a fool,' Guy retorted. 'I regret my youthful folly more than I can say, but the damage is done. However, I prefer that the news-sheets and the ton should talk about my scandalous love life and leave the past alone. It may be forgotten now, but the smear is there, and always will be.'
'But it could be erasedindeed, it was never more than a salacious rumour, but your withdrawing from politics was taken by some as an admission of guilt. Come back to London,' Davey urged him. 'There are many in government who know your worth and would welcome your help, especially now, with the unrest in France.'
'Mayhap I will, but I would be happier to do that if those matchmaking dragons would leave me alone.'
'There is a simple answer to that,' remarked Davey. 'Take a wife.'
'Never!' Guy shook his head, laughing. 'Now that ' he grinned, kicking his horse into a canter ' is a step too far!'
A speedy chase along the ridge followed but when they reached the highest point Guy brought his horse to a stand and looked around him, enjoying the freedom of the wide open space. He thought he could smell the sea on the light breeze, even though they were nearly thirty miles from the coast.
'Are you sorry now that you suggested we should stay on here?' he asked as Davey came alongside him. 'Would you have preferred to go on to Osmond's house with the others?'
'Not at all! Much as I like having a large party at Highridge, I prefer this: we can do away with ceremony, rise when we wish, do what we want and talk or not, as the mood takes us.'
Guy reached across to lay a hand briefly on Davey's shoulder.
'You have been a good friend to me, I appreciate that. Always there to support me, even when the whole world thought the worst'
'Nay, there were plenty of us who realised you were not to blame, even though you preferred not to defend yourself. Too chivalrous by half, Guy.'
'What would you have had me do?'
Davey scowled. 'Put the blame squarely where it belonged.' Guy shook his head.
'The woman had fled the country: my protests would have looked very ungallant.'
'Gallantry be damned,' exclaimed Davey. 'You gave up a promising career for that woman and robbed the country of a most able politician! Your talents have been wasted, Dar-rington.'
'Not at all. I have spent my time putting my estates back into good heart. My father almost bankrupted the family, you know, with his profligate ways. And it was useful to be in the north while my scapegrace brother Nick was awayI could keep an eye upon his estates.'
'But it must be five years since he settled down. Surely you might make a push now to return to politics.'
'To be subjected to ridicule and constantly reminded of my disgrace?' Guy stared out across the hills. 'No, I thank you!' He gave himself a mental shake. 'But this is dismal stuff for such a fine September day! Let us press on. What else did you wish to show me?'
Realising confidences were at an end, Davey pointed to the north-west.
'Thought you might like to visit Mount Grace Priory. I know the family, so there will be no difficulty seeing the ruins. I know you have an interest in antiquities of that sort.' He grinned. 'Not quite in keeping with the image of the Dangerous Lord Darrington, which is why I didn't suggest it while the others were here.'
Guy laughed. 'Much I care about that! But you are right, they would not have enjoyed such a visit.' He glanced up at the sun. 'But it is midday alreadyis there time?'
'Of course. We can spend a couple of hours looking at the ruins, then take the lower route back to Highridge, stopping at Boltby. The inn there is famous for its dinners.'
'Very well, then, let us go to it!'
In perfect accord the two gentlemen set off at a canter, enjoying the freedom of the hills before they were obliged once more to descend to the lower ground.
The ruins of Mount Grace had occupied most of their afternoon and by the time they set off again for Highridge the sun was far to the west.
'Looks like rain is coming,' observed Guy, eyeing the heavy grey clouds building on the horizon.
'We should crack along if we are to avoid a soaking,' agreed Davey. 'Come along then; mayhap we'll forgo dinner at Boltby and cut across country. What do you say?'
'Why not? We have been jumping these walls for the past couple of weeks; my horse is accustomed to it now.'
'It will be the muddier route, but that will make the roaring fire and rum punch all the more enjoyable when we get home!'
Davey led the way through the winding lanes for another mile before turning off on to a narrow track. As they left behind them the little villages that lined the main highway the country became ever more barren and soon they were riding across a wilderness with no houses in sight. Guy glanced up at the sky. The sun had disappeared behind thick clouds the colour of lead and the air was heavy with the threat of rain.
'How much farther is it?' he asked as they slowed down to a walk, resting the horses.
'About another five miles,' replied Davey. 'I am sorry we did not think to bring our greatcoats. If this rain comes down, it will be heavy, I fear.'
'No matter. We may yet beat it.'
'We may indeed. We can at least cover the next mile or so at speed, if we cut across the fields.' With that Davey spurred his horse and they were off again, galloping across the large, rectangular fields. Guy's powerful hunter took the dry stone walls in his stride, but he silently cursed his friend's recklessness as they scattered sheep and a herd of milch cows in their headlong flight. The daylight was reduced to a gloomy twilight and a soft rain had started to fall as they thundered towards another grey stone wall. It was not particularly high, but as they approached it Davey's bay mare stumbled. They were too close to stop and she made a valiant effort to clear the wall, but a trailing hoof caught one of the topstones, sending horse and rider tumbling to the ground.
Guy did not hesitate. He put his own horse to the jump, but reined in as soon as he could, turning back to help his friend. His heart sank when he saw the mare on the ground, legs flailing, and Davey trapped beneath her. Quickly he dismounted and dashed across to the stricken pair. The bay rolled over and clambered to her feet. She stood, trembling and snorting, but appeared otherwise unhurt as Guy dropped to his knees beside his friend.
Davey's face was ashen and one leg was twisted in an unnatural position. He opened his eyes and looked up at Guy.
'Pushing.too.hard,' he gasped.
'Don't talk and keep still,' barked Guy. 'I need to see just what damage you have done to yourself.'
'Damned fool,' muttered Davey. 'Light was going didn't see the rabbit hole.'
There was the thud of heavy boots as two farmhands ran up.
'We saw the fall from the road, sir,' called the first, grimacing as he gazed down at the injured man. ''Owt we can do?'
'We need a doctor,' said Guy. 'And somewhere to take him out of this rain.'
'There's the barn on t'other side o' beck,' offered the second man, coming up. 'Or t'owd Priory just over there.'
Guy followed his pointing finger and noticed for the first time the outline of a steeply roofed building in the distance.
'The Priory would be best, if it is inhabited.'
'Oh, aye, Lady Arabella will be at home. She never leaves the place these days.'
Guy nodded. Quickly he gave instructions for the men to fetch help while he removed his jacket and threw it over Davey. He sat by his friend's head, leaning forwards to shelter him from the worst of the drizzling rain.
'This is a damned nuisance,' muttered Davey, wincing.
'Don't try to move. We will carry you to that house yonder and soon have you comfortable again.'
'Comfort, hah! Didn't know my legs could hurt so much.'
'You are growing soft, then,' retorted Guy, secretly relieved to know his friend could still feel pain. He was no doctor, but he suspected at least one leg was broken, but he hoped there would be no more serious damage. He took his friend's hand. 'Don't worry. Help will be here soon.'
Davey gave a slight nod and squeezed Guy's hand, then his eyes closed and his head fell to one side. Only the tiny pulse throbbing at one side of his neck told Guy his friend was still alive.