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Serena paused to catch her breath and admire the beautiful facade of the house. It was much grander and more imposing than she had expected, a classic Elizabethan country manor, the main body of the mellow brick building flanked by two elegant wings, which lent it a graceful symmetry. She had entered the grounds by a side gate, having decided, since it was such a pleasant morning, to walk the short distance from the village rather than take a carriage. It was very clement for the time of year and the spring bulbs were at their best. The grass by the side of the well-kept path was strewn with narcissi, banks of primroses and artfully placed clumps of iris just coming into bloom. The perfume of camellias and forsythia mingled with the fresh, damp smell of new-mown grass.
You must go to England, to Knightswood Hall, the home of my dear friend Nick Lytton. Papa's dying words to her—and amazingly, here she was, in the country of his birth, standing in the very grounds of his friend's home. It had been a wretched few months since her father's death, making ready for the move from Paris, but at least the sheer volume of things that needed to be done were a welcome distraction from the aching pain of his loss. Closing down the gaming salons had realised a surprising amount of money, more than enough to cover the expenses of the next few months and to establish her in comfort if things did not turn out as her father had hoped.
Serena had never been one to plan for the future, having been too much in the habit, of necessity, of living in the present. Of course what she wanted was her own home and her own family, but she wished for this in the vague way of one who had had, until now, little control over her own destiny. She had not met—or been allowed to meet—any man who came close to inhabiting her dreams. And as to a home! She had spent most of the last two years in Paris, and that was the longest she had ever been in one place.
Papa's revelations offered her wealth and position which, he vowed, would change her life completely. Change, she was ready to embrace, but the nature of it—in truth, she was not convinced that Papa's vision for her future was her own. One step at a time, she reminded herself. No point in jumping too far ahead. Today was just the beginning.
As she turned her mind to the interview that lay ahead, a cloud of butterflies seemed to take up residence in her stomach. The imposing bulk of the house only served to increase her apprehension. Nick Lytton was obviously a man of some standing. She countered the urge to turn tail and return to her lodgings by making a final check on her appearance. Her dress of lavender calico was cut in the French fashion, high in the waist and belling out towards her feet with rows of tiny ruffles edging the hem and the long sleeves. The shape became her tall figure, as did the three-quarter pelisse with its high collar. Her gold hair was dressed simply on top of her head, also in the latest French style, with small tendrils allowed to frame her cheekbones, the rest confined under a straw bonnet tied with a large lavender ribbon beneath her chin. The kid half-boots she wore were perhaps more suited to a stroll round a city square than the rough terrain of the countryside, but they had survived the walk without becoming too muddied, as had the deep frill on her fine lawn petticoat. She would do.
The path she had taken ran round the side of the house and disappeared towards some outbuildings, presumably the stables. She was about to follow the fork to the right leading to the imposing main entrance of the Hall, when a roar of voices diverted her. Another roar and a gust of laughter followed, too intriguing to be ignored. Lifting her petticoat clear of a small puddle, Serena moved cautiously towards the source of the commotion.
As she had surmised, the path took her to the stable yard, a square of earth surrounded on three sides by horse boxes and outhouses. The arched entrance way in which she stood formed the fourth side. In front of her were not horses, however, but an animated circle of people, men and boys mostly, with a scattering of women standing apart in the shelter of a doorway which presumably led to the kitchens.
In the centre of the circle two men, stripped to the waist, were boxing. The crowd roared encouragement and advice, many people excitedly betting on the outcome. The scent of horse and hay was overlaid by a fresher, richer aroma, of wet wool, sweat and mud. Over the noise of the crowd, Serena could hear the panting breath of the two fighters, the dull thwack of fist on flesh, the soft thud of stocking-clad feet on the hard earth. Though she had witnessed the occasional drink-fuelled scuffle before, she had never seen a mill. Drawn in by a mixture of curiosity and an unfamiliar frisson of excitement, she edged cautiously closer.
Both men wore buckskins and woollen stockings, their torsos stripped naked. The larger of the two was a fine specimen of manhood, with a bull-like neck, huge shoulders and hands as large as shovels, but even Serena's novice eye quickly saw that his weight and height hindered him. He was slow, his footwork stolid, and from the look of his left eye, which was closed and weeping, his opponent had already taken advantage of these shortcomings. He looked like a blacksmith, and in fact that is exactly what he was, his bulging biceps the product of long hours at the anvil.
It was the other combatant who captured Serena's attention. Compared to the giant he was slighter, built along sleeker, finer lines, although he was still a tall man and muscular too, without the brawn of the smithy. Most likely he was a coachman, for he exuded a certain air of superiority. His were muscles honed by exercise, not labour. It was, she thought, eyeing his body with unexpected relish, like watching a race horse matched with a shire.
The man held himself well, showing little sign of fatigue. His body, although glistening with sweat, was virtually unmarked. His buckskin-clad legs were long, and as he teased his opponent, dancing forwards and back, landing light punches, then dodging neatly aside, Serena watched entranced. The muscles on his back, his shoulders, his arms, clenched and rippled, tautened and relaxed. Her pulses quickened. She felt the stirring deep within her of a strange, unsettlingly raw emotion.
The sweat that glistened on the man's body accented his honed physique in the dappled sunlight. The control, the energy so economically expended, made her think of a coiled spring. A tiger ready to pounce, assured of dispatching his prey, but content to tease. The lumbering giant in front of him didn't have a prayer.
Around her, the murmuring crowd seemed to agree. 'Looks like Samuel's done for again.' 'Land 'im one for us, Sam, come on, boy!' But the encouragement was in vain. The blacksmith stumbled as a punch landed square and hard on his left shoulder. The crowd prevented him falling, pushing him back into the ring, but he was blown. He made a lunge for the coachman, a wild punch that caught only fresh air and threw him off balance into the bargain. He staggered forwards cursing, righting himself at the last minute.
The other man smiled, a sardonic smile that lit up his dark grey eyes, making Serena catch her breath. He was devilishly handsome, with his glossy black hair in disarray, those wicked grey eyes framed by heavy black brows, his perfectly sculpted mouth curled up in amusement.
The two combatants stood to for one last joust. They circled each other slowly, then Samuel lunged, taking his opponent by surprise for the first time and landing a powerful blow on his chest. The other man reeled, countering with a flurry of punches to Samuel's stomach, the blood from his bare knuckles smearing itself on to the blacksmith's skin, mingling with his sweat. Samuel bellowed in pain and turned to the side to shield himself, trying at the same time to use his hip to push the coachman away. It was a fatal mistake for he mistimed it, leaving his face exposed. A swift hard punch sent his head flying back, and a second under his jaw had him on the ground. It was over.
The crowd roared in approbation. Money changed hands. Samuel staggered to his feet. The victor stood, a triumphant smile adorning his face. His chest, covered in a fine matting of black hair that arrowed down to the top of his buckskin breeches, heaved as he regained his breath. He shook hands with Samuel, and when presented with the winner's purse, to Serena's surprise and the crowd's evident approval, handed it to his opponent.
'You deserve this more than I, Samuel, for you never know when you're beaten.' Laughter greeted this sally—they were obviously old rivals. Now Samuel was saying that in that case the victor deserved a prize too, and the crowd cheered. The coachman stood surveying the scene around him, shaking his head, denying the need for reward as he pulled a cambric shirt over his cooling body. That was when he spotted Serena.
She tried to turn away, but could find no passage through the circle of the crowd. A strong arm caught hers in an iron grip. 'Well, well, what have we here?' His voice was low, surprisingly cultured. His tone was teasing.
Serena coloured deeply, but remained where she was, transfixed by the look in those compelling grey eyes, restrained by his firm grip on her arm. The crowd waited silently, casting speculative looks towards her blushing countenance.
'A kiss from the prettiest woman here will be my prize,' the coachman announced.
He was standing directly in front of her. She could smell him. Fresh sweat, laundered linen, something else deeply masculine she couldn't put a name to. He was tall; she had to look up to meet his eyes. Reluctantly Serena forced herself to hold his gaze, to counter his teasing smile with a haughty look of her own.
His eyebrow quirked. 'Definitely the prettiest woman here. A kiss will be worth all the money in the winner's purse and more.' The words were for her only, whispered in her ear as he pushed back her bonnet, tilting her chin with a firm but gentle finger. As if in a trance Serena complied, her breathing shallow. He hesitated for a tantalising moment, then with a slight shrug pulled her closer, confining the contact to his lips alone.
It was a teasing kiss, like his teasing smile, which lasted no more than a few seconds. His breath was warm and sweet. His lips were soft against her own. The reserve of power she had sensed in the boxing ring was there too in his kiss, daring her to respond.
The crowd cheered lustily, bringing Serena to her senses, reminding her of the reason for her visit. 'Get off me, you ruffian!' she said angrily, pushing him away. What had she been thinking?
The coachman who had taken such a liberty in kissing her eyed her quizzically. 'Ruffian or not, you enjoyed that as much as me, I'll wager,' he said, quite unflustered by her temper. 'What are you doing here anyway? This is a private estate—have you lost your way?'
'Are you employed here?' Serena asked curtly. 'You could say I have the honour of serving the estate, yes.'
'Then I'm here to call on your master, Mr Lytton.'
'Well, you're not likely to find him round here, fraternising with tradesmen and servants and ruffians like me, now are you,' he answered with a grin.
Serena gritted her teeth. He was insufferable.
'If you care to call at the front door and present your card, I'm sure he'll be delighted to receive you.' Without a backward glance, the coachman turned on his heel and strode off.