Part Two of the Corsets and Carriages serial novels
“I am not so naïve that I don’t know what happens between a man and a woman when they are lovers.”
In the sanctuary of Rian Connor’s magnificent ancestral estate, Catherine Davenport struggles to remember who she was before he found her wandering practically naked on the docks of London. She has little memory of the vicious attack that brought her there, but she can’t deny the feelings Rian awakens in her. In danger of losing her heart to a man tormented by the dark secrets of his own past, Catherine questions what an innocent like her has to offer such an experienced man of the world.
“You have no idea what you are doing to me—how much I want you, how much I need you!”
On the night of his brother’s wedding ball, Rian proves exactly how much he wants his beautiful young protégé, only to be lured by his former mistress into committing the ultimate betrayal. For Isabel Howard will stop at nothing to do away with Catherine and destroy her future with the man they both desire above all others . . .
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The hardest part of leaving for Oakhaven was not so much having to say goodbye to everything that was familiar to her, but being confined in a claustrophobic carriage with Rian Connor for the duration of the journey. Under normal circumstances being in the company of a well-bred gentleman for any length of time would not have made Catherine anxious, but these were hardly normal circumstances. And it did not help that her thoughts and feelings about this particular gentleman were like a treacherous quicksand. One wrong step and she was in danger of being pulled under.
Catherine would be forever grateful to him saving her life, but she nevertheless had no words to describe the swell of feeling that rose within her whenever he was near. She only knew that it was something far more complicated than gratitude.
Catherine's complete loss of memory was devastating. Other than her first name, she had no idea who she was. When Rian had stopped her from throwing herself in the Thames one dawn just a few short weeks ago, he'd had no idea why she'd been down at the wharves all alone, wearing nothing but a cloak. Her reasons for wanting to end her life had soon become evident. The vicious whip marks scarring her flesh were proof of the violence she had suffered at another's pleasure.
Now, part of her was grateful that she was unable to recall the details of that assault. She was not certain her sanity could bear to know. Had she meant to give herself up to the river? It certainly seemed to have been her intention, until fate intervened, offering her another path. One ushered in by strong hands, brown eyes, and a trust that promised to be unbreakable.
Along with the mystery regarding her identity was the confusion over where she had come from. London was not her home. Descriptions of landmarks and well-known places elicited nothing from her but blank stares and sighs of frustration. The lack of recognition could easily be put down to her current amnesia were it not for her voice. Her accent, while not particularly strong, was enough to make her sound different from those around her. If she didn't live in London, could she have been visiting a relative? Anything was possible, but neither she nor her rescuer knew the truth.
And being saved by Rian Connor had been the source of yet another type of confusion for Catherine. A confusion that was more than a little disconcerting. Like it or not, she felt an intimate connection to Rian, one she was determined to ignore.
It would be completely different if Rian gave any indication he had feelings for Catherine, but he remained aloof, keeping his thoughts to himself. It was a quality she wanted to emulate, if only as a way of calming her racing heart and churning stomach. This journey would be a test. One she was determined not to fail, and so she sat opposite Rian in the carriage, ignoring his dark good looks as best as she could. And it seemed that he was more than willing to help her in this regard. Other than inquiring after her comfort before setting out, his attention was absorbed by the book he was reading. So much so that neither of them noticed the nondescript figure across the street who witnessed their departure.
Rian closed the book with a sigh. He had read the same paragraph three times now and it still made no sense. Surreptitiously he glanced at Catherine. She kept her face turned to the window, giving every appearance of enjoying the view, but he had felt her eyes stray toward him when she thought he wasn't looking. He couldn't begin to imagine what it must be like to lose your memory. If not for his own remembrances he might not have survived some very dark moments when the pride and temper of youth had made him leave home, and pledge himself to the captain of a seafaring vessel. Memories of himself and his brother Liam as children had been the lifeline to which he had held fast. And the knowledge that his brother would always welcome him back had made his return to the land of his birth an easy one.
What he had not been prepared for was the notoriety he'd gained by his relationship with Lady Isabel Howard. Seeking nothing more than a pleasant distraction, Rian had not been surprised when the notorious young widow invited him to her bed. A night of witty repartee and flirtation had led up to the proposal, but Rian was not without scruples. He would not bed the exotic beauty until she understood exactly what he could offer her, as well as what he could not. He'd been delighted when she gave every indication she grasped, and accepted, the parameters of their attachment. Apparently he'd been wrong.
Isabel, like many of her peers, thrived on gossip, especially if she was the subject of wagging tongues, but for Rian it was something he accepted only grudgingly and with a certain measure of distaste. Still, he couldn't deny he'd enjoyed Isabel's company, as well as her bed, and he was mature enough to ignore whatever was being said about him until the gossips included the subject of matrimony. Rian, himself, had considered the idea, but for him marriage had to be founded on more than physical attraction. That alone would not sustain a lasting relationship. As husband and wife he and Isabel would be incompatible, and his suspicion that she might be the source of these new rumors only emphasized the need to end their association. It was a decision that fate seemed to confirm by guiding his feet to the wharf and the lonely figure in need of rescue.
He couldn't say what drew him to her. What quality she possessed that made him want to make her part of his life. Whatever it was, it went much deeper than the male protective instinct that rose on seeing the bruises on her face and body. And it was a feeling that Isabel had never aroused. But Catherine's memory loss made him hesitate. It would be wrong to expect more from her, and yet her very presence was enough to unlock doors Rian had thought never to open. And make him want again.
Never had he envisioned the two women meeting, but just the evening before, Isabel had presented herself at the Connor townhouse, suggesting an interview with Catherine. He still was not completely sure why his former mistress had requested to meet the young woman he'd taken into his home. The idea that Isabel might recognize Catherine or know her family had not been without merit, but Rian hadn't been able to shake the feeling that Isabel's reasons were far less noble. He ought to have trusted his intuition. Though he didn't know what had been said, the fact that the two women had exchanged angry words was enough to make him act. Taking Catherine to Oakhaven was the most sensible solution for all involved.
Rian stared at Catherine as she continued to gaze out the carriage window. The slight tug on her mouth and the crinkle at the corner of her eyes when she noted something pleasing released an unexpected warmth in him. Along with a great many other feelings that were slowly awakening. He blew out a resigned breath. Whatever had happened between Catherine and Isabel, it would be better to get it out in the open, and not let it fester.
"I apologize if Lady Howard said anything to distress you," he said quietly as the carriage rumbled on. "That was not my intent in introducing you."
"I know." Catherine kept her gaze fixed on the trees and rolling hills in the distance. She found this bucolic view far more appealing than London.
"Did she upset you a great deal?" Rian probed.
Now it was Catherine's turn to sigh. Accepting his roundabout apology was not going to be enough; he wanted to know what had happened. Taking her gaze from the changing landscape, she fixed him with a stare as the memory of Isabel's grossly unjust accusations flushed her cheeks. "Yes, she did."
There was no anger or trace of histrionics in her reply, but that did not stop the muscle in his jaw from tightening. He was angry with Isabel for upsetting her. "I will speak with Lady Howard on my return," he said.
"You'll do no such thing," Catherine retorted.
"But I can see that you are still troubled by whatever passed between you." It was impossible to ignore the flush on her cheeks or the spark in her eyes.
"You're confusing anguish with anger."
Rian raised a brow in surprise. "You're angry?" She nodded. "You're angry with Isabel?" Curiosity was getting the better of him, especially as Catherine nodded again, keeping her lips compressed in a tight line. "But why?" he asked. "What do you have to be angry about?"
"I allowed her to provoke me into losing my temper," she snapped.
"And?" Rian leaned forward slightly, knowing there was a lot more that wasn't being said.
Catherine found herself staring into his eyes. Deep brown with flecks of gold that made her feel light headed. He wore his hair loose and it framed his face in such a way she was unable to organize her thoughts into any sort of coherent pattern. With an effort she redirected her gaze and looked down at her lap. "And I said some things that I should not have said, things that you most certainly will not persuade me to repeat!"
His gaze weighed heavy on her. Surely he was not going to make her reveal that Isabel saw her as a rival for his affections. That the only reason she had wanted to speak with Catherine alone was to make wild allegations and insist she not pursue Rian. As if Catherine even knew how to do such a thing!
"Well, it isn't often that someone gets the better of Isabel," Rian said with a chuckle, "but judging from the haste of her departure, I would say you managed quite well." He watched as Catherine smoothed an imaginary crease on her dress before returning her gaze to the view beyond the carriage. "And you are quite certain I cannot persuade you to tell me the, uh, substance of your conversation?" he teased.
Though he did not doubt her resolve, Rian thought he saw the corners of her mouth lift slightly in the window's reflection. He wished he could have been a fly on the wall during that conversation. Whatever had been said had upset both women. And he knew it was so because the Connors' motherly housekeeper had wasted no time in coming to him.
"What happened?" he asked in response to Mrs. Hatch's description of Catherine's agitated state.
"I don't know," she replied with a look of concern.
"She has not confided in you?"
Mrs. Hatch shook her head, which told Rian that whatever had taken place was serious indeed. Catherine trusted Mrs. Hatch implicitly. "She refuses to discuss the matter, Master Rian, but I can tell it upset her a great deal."
They both agreed another encounter with Isabel was to be avoided at all costs, and, at his suggestion, Mrs. Hatch made certain Catherine was ready to leave first thing in the morning. Rian had not been fooled by Isabel's hasty departure or her flimsy excuse of a headache delivered by note barely an hour later. She had been furious about something, but he could not imagine what Catherine might have said to provoke such a reaction. He sighed in frustration, wishing Catherine would confide in him. And then, unexpectedly, a chuckle escaped him, bubbling up from inside. He was going to have to watch himself if Catherine had a temper that could best Lady Howard.
Isabel crumpled John Fletcher's report, and threw it on the floor. A few moments later she picked it back up, smoothing the page so she could read the informant's words again. The Connors' young footman had not been in service long, and felt no disloyalty in spilling secrets. Lured by the weight of the purse promised, and with a growing family to feed, he had shared with John all he knew of the mysterious guest in the upstairs bedroom. While the information was not as detailed as John would have liked, it was as much as anyone else in the house knew. Except for the housekeeper and the one maid, and neither of them were about to confide in him.
The footman proved his worth by managing to send a note regarding the sudden change in plan for the departure to Oakhaven. The house was in an uproar, but over what the young man could not say. John had smiled, knowing full well that Isabel was the reason for the sudden state of chaos. Unfortunately getting his benefactress to see the positive aspect of the situation would be challenging. But John was a master at manipulating people, at learning secrets and disclosing them for the right price. With his long experience of Isabel Howard, he had no doubt he would prevail. Eventually.
With a wild shriek Isabel tore the carefully worded report into little pieces and scattered it about the floor like confetti. All she saw was a confirmation of Rian's feelings for the girl. What other reason could there be for him to decide to personally escort her to the family estate? If he felt no attachment, then he could have easily sent her with a servant, or better yet that meddlesome housekeeper. Hands on her hips she tapped her foot impatiently. No, there could only be one reason that would make him leave London, especially this close to his brother's wedding day.
Grudgingly, Isabel admitted to being outfoxed. The girl was a clever little minx. Smart enough to have held her tongue, but still quick enough to make Rian dance to her tune. Well, two could play at that game, and Isabel had experience on her side. It made her by far the more proficient participant.
She paced about the floor, trying to decide what her next move should be. John's report had stated that no one in the household appeared to know any particulars, but it was generally believed that a disagreement had occurred between the guest and her visitor. Isabel snorted. It was only a matter of time before she would be able to completely expose the little fraud for who she truly was. And if, by chance, she was able to save Rian from being humiliated in the process, so much the better. His gratitude would surely know no bounds.
Unfortunately it was too late to circumvent his trip to Oakhaven. She had no choice now but to wait for his return, and yet this did not worry Isabel. Indeed, the smile that curved her mouth was positively triumphant. At least when he came back, he would be alone, having left the trollop behind with the other country bumpkins. Keeping this in mind she occupied herself for the next half hour writing instructions for John Fletcher.
The long drive that led up to the main house was lined on either side with trees. From the distinctive twist of the limbs, the lower ones almost scraping the ground, Catherine recognized them as apple trees. She imagined they must be a glorious sight to see in the spring with pink and white blossoms, and then later as the branches groaned under the weight of rosy fruit. Would she be here long enough, she wondered, to witness the season's growth?
No matter, the barren trees welcomed her as they stood silently beneath a snow laden grey sky. Seated next to Catherine, her maid Tilly shivered and snuggled deeper inside the heavy blanket she had wrapped herself in. They had all noticed the drop in temperature, forecasting a possible storm.
"Does it seem much changed to you?" Catherine asked Rian shyly, knowing from her conversation with Mrs. Hatch, it had been many years since he had last seen his home.
"No," he said with a rueful smile, "although I must admit the house does seem a little smaller."
"Perhaps that is only because you are a little bigger." Looking back out the carriage window, she asked, "Why apple trees?"
He shrugged. "A whimsy. They were planted as a wedding gift by one of my forebears as a way to welcome his new bride. Supposedly she had expressed a fondness for apples. Something to do with fertility, I believe, but I doubt she was expecting more than one or two trees."
"What do you do with so much fruit?"
"The bounty has always been shared with our tenants, and Mrs. Hatch makes a positively sinful cider," he added with a roguish grin.
As the carriage neared the house Catherine was astounded by the number of people who spilled out from behind the massive carved doors. Despite the cold, they were all smiling and laughing, and seemed genuinely happy to welcome them. Rian insisted on carrying Catherine into the house, and was still holding her in his arms when a voice made him turn around.
"Well, you certainly made good time. I only received your note yesterday."
"Hello, Liam, good to see you again." Rian greeted his brother with a smile. "I wanted to get Catherine settled as soon as possible, and there seemed no reason to delay."
The slight hesitation in his voice produced a thoughtful look on the younger Conner's face, but he did not comment on it.
Catherine stared at the other man, bewildered by the lack of physical resemblance he bore to Rian. Was it possible he had had a different mother? Or one of them a different father even?
Excerpted from "Resolve"
Copyright © 2017 Carla Susan Smith.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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