Widowed Lady Eleanor Peyton has chosen a life of independence. Living alone on her rocky coastal outcrop, she's cut herself off from the world of menuntil William Rudhale saves her life and demands a kiss!
As steward to Lady Eleanor's father, Will knows the desire he burns with is futilebut he'll still wager he can claim Eleanor's kiss by midwinter. Yet when the tide turns Will realizes vulnerable Eleanor is far too precious to gamble with. Can he win his lady before it's too late?
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About the Author
She lives in Cheshire because the car broke down there in 1999 and she never left.
Read an Excerpt
Eleanor Peyton was never certain what was worse: the dreams where her husband died, or the ones where he was still alive. The former were always the same: Eleanor would stand and watch as though she was carved from granite, unable to move while Sir Baldwin clawed helplessly at his throat, sliding to the floor of the feasting hall. The screams of their wedding guests would ring in Eleanor's ears and she would wake sobbing and shaking.
Tonight's dream was the latter type. Eleanor could almost feel Baldwin's breath on her face as he drew her close for a kiss, his brown eyes filled with a warmth and hunger that he had never exhibited while he had lived.
Though three years had passed since his death, Eleanor woke with her heart racing, aching for something she could not name. They had never shared this bed, yet she felt his presence surrounding her like a shroud.
Wiping a sleeve across her damp eyes, Eleanor untangled the sheets from around her legs and drew back the bed curtains. Soft grey light was beginning to find its way through the gaps in the heavy curtains covering the windows. Slipping a fur-trimmed surcoat over her linen shift, Eleanor hurried across the chilly stone floor to the window seat. A biting squall was blowing in from the sea, tossing fishing boats around the jetty at the shoreline. Eleanor settled herself on to the thick cushions, curling her bare feet beneath her, and waited for the sun to rise.
She was perfectly placed, therefore, to spot the rider on horseback as he galloped down the road from the nearby village, coming to an abrupt halt at the water's edge. He dismounted and paced back and forth, searching for something. At this time of year the arrival of a message from her father was neither unexpected nor welcome and Eleanor frowned to herself. Soon the tide would go out, revealing the causeway and the messenger would find his way across the narrow path that separated the islet from the mainland. The man lowered his hood, revealing a shock of hair the exact copper shade of Eleanor's own. At the sight her heart leapt and she broke into a smile.
The door opened and Eleanor's maid entered carrying a basket of wood.
'Jennet, come look.' Eleanor beckoned. She indicated to the figure huddling in the rain as the sea slowly receded. 'Go tell Goodwife Bradshawe we have a visitor for breakfast, then help me dress. I need to look my best. I can't have my brother reporting back that I'm fading away in my isolation!'
An hour later Eleanor stood in the doorway, watching with amusement as her brother made his slow ascent up the steep hill. He paused at the gate to hand his horse to a waiting stable boy before climbing the winding pathway of old, granite steps, the sleet making his progress slow. Eleanor grinned to herself at the sight of the heir to the barony of Tawstott red-faced and breathing heavily with exertion.
'Good morning, Edmund. You must have risen early to beat the tide!'
Her brother scowled and pushed his dripping curls from his eyes. 'Why couldn't Baldwin have built a house somewhere flat?' he grumbled good-naturedly.
It was a familiar joke and Eleanor laughed. 'It's because you're a year older now. You didn't complain when you were twenty-five.' She reached up to bat him on the arm. Edmund caught her hand and drew her in a hug before holding her at arm's length and examining her carefully.
'You're thinner than last year,' he announced, 'Mother won't be pleased.'
Eleanor rolled her eyes. 'I assume I will have a few days' grace to make myself look presentable? I don't have to return today?'
Edmund shook his head. 'No. Now please can I come in? I need some wine to take the chill from my bones!'
Arm in arm, Eleanor led her brother to her favourite room, a cosy chamber overlooking the causeway. Food was waiting on the table before the fireplace and a maid poured goblets of warm wine and ladled steaming oysters into bowls.
Edmund pulled a fold of parchment from his bag and handed it to Eleanor. She examined the wax seal, recognising the crest of Tawstott and the personal arms of Sir Edgar. She dropped the letter unopened on the table and returned her attention to her bowl, scooping up the last of the creamy sauce with a hunk of bread.
'Aren't you going to read it?' Edmund asked.
'Is there any need?' Eleanor stared into her brother's green eyes, so similar to her own. 'It will say the same thing it has done for the past three years. Our father reminds me that he tolerates my stubbornness in choosing to live in my husband's house, but a spit of land cut off by winter storms is no place for a lone maiden. He commands my attendance in Tawstott over midwinter.
Am I right?'
Edmund nodded. 'I believe the term he uses is "wilfulness", but otherwise, yes. He is sending a carriage three days from now to give you time to arrange your affairs.'
Eleanor scowled. 'He's so sure I will obey him. I hate it! Remind Father that I have my own carriage. I'll travel in that.'
Edmund patted her hand, but she whipped it away, ignoring his injured look.
'Eleanor, don't be like this.' Her brother frowned. 'We all worry about you, living here alone.'
'I'm not alone,' Eleanor said lightly. 'I have Jennet and Goodwife Bradshawe to keep me company. I spend my days reading and weaving, or walking on the shore.'
'You used to spend your days dancing and riding! You're only twenty, Eleanor. You should marry again.'
Eleanor pushed her chair back abruptly and walked to the window, her heart beating rapidly. At Edmund's words the walls seemed to darken and close in.
'I was lucky that father chose me a husband I would have been happy with. I don't intend to risk my luck or my heart again.'
'When have you ever risked your heart, Eleanor?' Edmund snorted. 'You didn't love Baldwin.'
'I might have grown to in time!' Eleanor retorted. 'I was fond of him.' Her eyes fell on the portrait of her late husband. 'Baldwin was a kind and gentle man. Life with him would have been safe and peaceful.'
Her brother looked at her disbelievingly. 'Safe and peaceful? You don't have the faintest idea what love is.'
Eleanor glared at him, hands on her hips, her hands itching to slap him. 'And you do? Tumbling into bed with tavern wenches isn't love, Edmund,' she scolded.
For a moment they could have been children arguing again. Edmund laughed. 'Fair point, though there's a lot to be said for a quick tumble to lift the spirits. You need someone to kiss you properly, Sister. You might find you enjoy it.'
Eleanor blushed, the memory of her dream rising in her mind. She took a deep breath and turned to face her brother. 'We have a day together, let's not quarrel. There are bows in the armoury. Do you think you've improved enough to beat me yet?'
Edmund's archery had improved, but Eleanor had the satisfaction of taking six out of the ten targets and the day passed quickly. Her heart sank when the causeway bells rang out, signalling the dusk tide. They stood together, watching as the water rose higher. In ten minutes more the tide would begin to cover the causeway. Edmund took his sister's hand and kissed it formally. 'Baldwin wouldn't have wanted you to bury yourself away like this, you know.'
Eleanor's heart twisted. 'He wouldn't have wanted any of this! He wanted to grow old, to have children, to live ' Her voice cracked as the unfairness of it struck her. She took a deep breath and fixed a smile on her face.
'I do love it here,' she told him. 'I have so much to do, managing the estate the way Baldwin would have wanted it run. I don't get bored, or lonely.'
Edmund raised an eyebrow. He didn't deny her words, nor did he confirm them.
'One day you'll have to marry again,' Edmund said, 'or find a very good reason why you won't.'
With a nod he mounted his horse and walked it across the granite path. Eleanor watched as the mist swallowed him up before pulling her hood up and striding back to the house, her mind fixing on the tasks that would occupy her for the next few days.
Three days passed in such a whirl of organisation that Eleanor barely had time for sadness. It was only on her final morning as she wandered through the rooms, running her hand over furniture and tapestries, that her eyes began to sting. When she came to the portrait of Sir Baldwin, she stopped and regarded the serious man with the thinning hair and anxious face. She briefly raised a hand and touched the canvas in a gesture of farewell. She looked around her home one final time and began the descent to the waiting carriage.
They travelled fast inland, but it was late afternoon before Eleanor's carriage reached the crossing of the River Taw. The wide river was unusually high for the time of year and moving faster than Eleanor had seen it before. Hers was the only carriage waiting to cross so the driver manoeuvred it into the front of the ferry. The craft, no more than a large, flat platform with low wooden railings at either side, dipped from side to side alarmingly.
Eleanor's stomach heaved as the cramped carriage rocked on the chains suspending it within the wooden frame, adding to her sense of nausea. She peered through the curtain.
'I'm going to get out,' she told Jennet. 'I think I'll feel more nauseous if I stay inside.' Eleanor fastened her cloak around her shoulders and drew up the hood, squeezing her way past the maid's knees. A blast of wind hit her as she climbed down, whipping her cloak up around her. She clutched the edges tightly together with one hand while she gripped the low railing of the ferry to steady herself.
The ferryman braced his back and rammed his pole into the riverbank. The craft creaked alarmingly as it started to move away from the shore, the great chain that spanned the river pulling taut.
The shrill blast of a hunting horn sounded, ripping apart the peace. A commanding voice shouted, 'Ferryman, stop!'
Eleanor peered back at the riverbank. A rider on an imposing chestnut-coloured horse was galloping along the road at the edge of the water. He pulled the horse up short.
'You're too late, my friend, the current has us now,' the ferryman called back.
'Wait, I tell you. I must cross today. I have business to attend to.' The rider's voice was deep and urgent, his face hidden beneath the hood of a voluminous burgundy cloak. The ferryman shrugged his shoulders and dug his pole into the river, pushing further away. Keeping one eye on the drama playing out, Eleanor walked carefully around behind the carriage and made her way to the other side of the deck to get a better view.
What happened next had the texture of a dream. The horseman cursed and wheeled his mount around. He galloped away from the water's edge, then turned back. With a sudden bellow he cracked the reins sharply and sped back towards the river. As the horse reached the edge, the rider spurred it forward. The horse leapt through the air with ease to land on the deck alongside Eleanor. The ferry bucked, the far end almost rising from the water. Hooves clattered on the slippery wood and the animal gave a high-pitched whinny of alarm. It was not going to stop!
As a cumbersome-looking saddlebag swung towards her, Eleanor threw herself out of its way. The railing caught her behind the knees and she stumbled backwards, her ankle turning beneath her with a sickening crunch. Crying out, she flailed her arms helplessly, unable to regain her balance as the river came up to meet her.
She saw the horseman lunge towards her, felt his fingers close about her wrist. She gave a sharp cry as her shoulder jolted painfully and her feet slid on the deck. Cold spray splashed over her face as her head fell back, her free fingers brushing the surface of the water.
'Take hold of me quickly. I can't stay like this for ever,' the rider ordered, tightening his grip on her wrist.
Eleanor raised her head to find herself staring up into a pair of blue eyes half-hidden in the depths of the voluminous hood. The rider was leaning along the length of his horse's neck, body twisted towards Eleanor at what seemed an impossible angle. She fumbled her free hand to clutch on to his arm and he hauled her back to her feet. As she stood upright a spear of pain shot through Eleanor's ankle. She gave an involuntary gasp and her knees buckled.
With the same speed as his initial rescue, the rider threw his leg across the saddle and dismounted with a thud. His arms found their way round Eleanor's waist, catching her tight and clasping her to him before she slipped to the ground.
'I've got you. Don't wriggle!'
The man's hood fell back and Eleanor saw him clearly for the first time. He was younger than his voice had suggested. A long scar ran from the outside corner of his eye and across his cheek, disappearing beneath a shaggy growth of beard at his jaw. A second ran parallel from below his eye to his top lip. His corn-coloured hair fell in loose tangles to his shoulder. Close up his eyes were startlingly blue.
Footsteps thundered on the deck as Eleanor's coachman appeared. It struck Eleanor suddenly that the man was still holding her close, much closer than was necessary, in fact. She became conscious of the rise and fall of his chest, moving rhythmically against her own. Her heart was thumping so heavily she was sure he would be able to feel it through her clothing. As to why it was beating so rapidly she refused to think about.
'You can let go of me now,' she muttered.
The horseman's eyes crinkled. 'I could,' he said, 'though I just saved your life. There must be some benefits to rescuing a beautiful maiden in distress and holding her until she stops shaking is one of them. I suppose a kiss of gratitude is out of the question?'
'You didn't save my life. I can swim,' Eleanor cried indignantly. It was true she was trembling, but now it was from anger. 'I am most certainly not kissing you!'
The man's forehead crinkled in disbelief. 'Even though I saved you from a cold bath?'
Eleanor's cheeks flamed. 'It was your fault in the first instance, you reckless fool. You could have capsized us all. Your horse might have missed completely.'
The horseman laughed. 'Nonsense, it was perfectly safe. Tobias could have cleared twice that distance. If you had stood still none of this would have happened. You panicked.'
With an irritated snort Eleanor pushed herself from the man's grip, contriving to elbow him sharply in the stomach as she did so. She heard a satisfying grunt as she turned her back. She headed to the carriage, but her ankle gave a sharp stab of pain. She stopped, balling her fists in irritation. The horseman leaned round beside her. 'Allow me,' he said and before Eleanor could object he had lifted her into his arms and strode the three paces to the carriage. With one hand on the door handle he cocked his head. 'Still no kiss? Ah, well, it's a cruel day!'
'There are no circumstances under which I would kiss you!' Eleanor said haughtily, sweeping her gaze up and down him.
His face darkened and Eleanor took the opportunity to wriggle from his arms. Biting her lip to distract herself from the throbbing in her ankle, she swung the door open herself and climbed inside, slamming it loudly behind her.
Surreptitiously she peered through the gap in the curtains while Jennet fussed around exclaiming with horror at Eleanor's brush with death. The horseman was facing the river, deep in conversation with Eleanor's driver.
'Who do you think he could be?' Jennet asked curiously.
The heat rose to Eleanor's face at the memory of the man's arms about her waist. Baldwin had never held her so tightly or so close.
'I have no idea,' she replied icily. 'Nor do I care. How dare he blame me for what happened and to hold me in such a manner! If my father was here he would have the wretch horsewhipped for daring to lay a finger on me!'
She flung herself back against the seat and shut the curtains firmly, not opening them until the ferry had come to a halt and she heard the clatter of hooves as the rider left the craft.