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About the Author
Jo Ann Ferguson is a lifelong storyteller and the author of numerous romantic novels. She also writes as Jo Ann Brown and Mary Jo Kim. A former US Army officer, she has served as the president of the national board of the Romance Writers of America and taught creative writing at Brown University. She currently lives in Nevada with her family, which includes one very spoiled cat.
Read an Excerpt
The Fortune Hunter
A Regency Romance
By Jo Ann Ferguson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1993 Jo Ann Ferguson
All rights reserved.
"I wager your Cirrus can't clear that hedge!" The red-haired man chuckled as he adjusted his navy riding jacket and settled back in his saddle. "Why do you hesitate, Hamilton? Are you afraid to test your fumble-footed nag?"
"I shall leave that idiocy to you, Philip." Hamilton Windham held the reins easily as he watched his brother patting his horse's neck.
"What? You were bragging just yesterday that Cirrus could jump any hedgerow in the shire. That one seems more high and rasping than any of the others we have passed. Do you fear having to prove your words?"
Hamilton tilted back his tall hat as he eyed the hedge. It was high. Very high, yet he was sure his white horse could clear the hedgerow with little effort. When he saw Philip's grin, he smiled as well. How his brother enjoyed roasting him! They had been too serious for too long during their extended visit to Bath. It would do them good to kick up their heels.
"I suspect Cirrus could use the exercise," he said with a chuckle.
"And I suspect you shall end up on the ground."
Philip laughed at his older brother's fierce expression. Hamilton looked every bit the viscount he was from his hair that had the unruly habit of falling into his grey eyes to his shining boots of the same ebony shade. Nothing could detract from the roughly sculptured line of his jaw. He dressed à la modality—but not as foppishly as the dandy-set—for his forest green riding jacket accented the breadth of his shoulders before dropping to the waist of his buckskin breeches. His brother preferred such rough clothing for the country.
"I wager a yellow-boy you can't clear that hedge without losing your seat," Philip said.
"Can you afford to part with a guinea, Philip, when you intend to sit at the board of green cloth with us this evening?"
Laughing again, the redhead backed his prancing horse away from the hedge. He motioned toward its awe-inspiring height. "Think of it as setting me on my way to a fortune-filled night."
"Or starting you on such a round of bad luck you must excuse yourself as you did the last time?"
"You know I was behind the wind that night," Philip said. "I'm plump in the pockets today."
"Then I accept your foolish wager, Brother. Your guinea shall be mine before the hour grows much older."
Philip's laugh followed Hamilton as he turned Cirrus along the road. He had to put some distance between himself and the hedge, for the horse needed to build up speed to clear it. With the cool breeze coming from the sea, tempered by the hot sun, it was the perfect day for a ride ... if he had been in the proper mood for frivolity. He wasn't. He hadn't been in high spirits for more than a year. Maybe this sport would steer his mind away from his troubles.
His whispered command brought Cirrus's ears up and sent the horse racing toward the hedge. Leaning forward, Hamilton concentrated. He must wait for the exact moment to give the order to jump. Dust burned in his eyes and throat. Even as he shouted to the horse, he could feel Cirrus tense. They rose—the strength of the horse defying the wind—and fell back to earth on the far side of the hedge.
With a victorious cheer, Hamilton turned the horse back toward the road. Again Cirrus cleared the hedge with ease. The horse's sides heaved against Hamilton's legs as he brought him to a stop by Philip.
"Grand horse, isn't he?" Hamilton asked as he leapt from the saddle. He rubbed the horse's nose and smiled as the horse nuzzled him. "I swear he will be—nay, he already is—the best jumper in all of England."
"What a shame that Sir Delwyn wasn't here! With his love of gambling, you could have emptied his pockets of a handful of guineas."
"I shall leave you and the good baronet to your betting. More important matters plague me."
Philip's smile vanished. "Fudge, Hamilton! You agreed we wouldn't speak of your search today. I tire of it, and so, I vow, does everyone else."
"Everyone but the one who leads me on this merry chase." Hamilton ran a hand through his kohl hair before settling his hat back on his head. His grey eyes glittered with determination, straightening his lips, as he remounted. "I must find that thieving cove before he spends another penny of my money. Don't say it, Philip. I know the rogue has been evading me for a year, but I shall find him."
His brother sighed. "You're obsessed with this futile pursuit. I fail to understand why you, who are as rich as a nabob, are haunted by this."
"I prefer to spend my money as I wish, not having it stolen by a slippery chucklehead."
"Not a chucklehead, Hamilton, for he baffled both Father and me."
Hamilton did not reply. His brother was being generous, as usual. The sad truth was that the former Viscount of Windham, their mutual sire, had been empty-headed. Their father had trusted a man who had come to him with a scheme to enhance the family's wealth and prestige. The viscount had believed the man's bangers. Soon the money and the man had disappeared, leaving the elderly viscount lost in shame. He never recovered, his pride dying before he did. At his father's deathbed, Hamilton had vowed to find the thief and make him pay.
If he had not been away in America on business ... So many times he had thought that, but wishes changed nothing. While his father had entertained the fleecer, Hamilton had been in New England dealing with his father's interests there. Interests? Even now he was tempted to laugh at the presumption of the small textile factories which claimed to be among the finest in the country. They had been poorly managed. Hamilton had altered that by leaving a competent man in charge before being recalled to England by Philip's frantic letter. The old viscount had died within days of Hamilton's arrival, never knowing Hamilton had returned.
Philip had been able to tell him very little about the man who had hoodwinked their father. His brother had been at Oxford at the time, so he could give Hamilton nothing more than a name, which was probably false, and a sketchy description of the gold-finder and his manservant. The descriptions of one short and the other a bare-bones with thinning hair could have fit dozens of men.
In the past year, Hamilton had assumed the title of the Viscount of Windham and his brother had finished his schooling, but no sign had been found of the thief or of the sovereigns that had vanished with him.
Forcing a smile, Hamilton said, "We should hurry back to Bath. You have that appointment with Cousin Gilbert at teatime."
"And you have that letter to answer." Philip chuckled as his brother grimaced. "Or perhaps you don't want to answer Elinor's missive? Elinor Howe is an obstinate woman. I warned you that you had taken a maggot in your head when you arranged for her to have the house in London. You never did that for any past convenient, so she is right to think you have more than a passing fancy for her."
Hamilton sighed. He had been a blockhead to take Elinor into his house. It proved to the whole world he had lost his heart to the heartless woman, who thought only of how much blunt she could garner from her collection of lovers. Blast Elinor! The dashed woman was taking too much time and keeping him from searching for the Bristol man who had stolen his father's life. He hated to waste even a moment on something as unimportant as an unfaithful mistress.
"Damn," he grumbled as he set Cirrus along the twisting road toward Bath. Hearing hoofbeats, he turned to see Philip's sympathetic expression. That irritated him more. He had no desire for the young sprig's compassion. He wanted to forget his troubles.
With a curse, Hamilton set the horse to a run. He aimed Cirrus at the hedgerow edging the road. For a moment, while they had been flying over the hedge, he had been able to banish both Elinor and the thief from his head. He needed to forget them again.
He ordered Cirrus toward the hedge. As they soared over, he saw a woman walking on the far side. He couldn't turn the horse back in midair. Horror blanched the young woman's face. She turned to run, but he knew she could not escape in time.
Twisting his hand in the reins, Hamilton leaned toward the woman. Every muscle strained as he stretched out his riding crop. A vicious shove knocked her off her feet. She struck the ground out of the horse's path. Hamilton's nose hit the bone beneath Cirrus's mane as they landed roughly. Fighting to keep his seat, he jerked back on the reins. The horse neighed a protest, but came to a halt.
Hamilton leapt from the saddle as he heard his brother's shout. The warning had come far too late. He rushed to where the young woman lay facedown in the high grass. Kneeling beside her, he ran his hands along her slender form. He frowned. Her scarlet velvet spenser was torn, and her straw bonnet had cracked along the brim. Hoping those were her only injuries, he carefully turned her onto her back.
His eyes widened as he snarled his prayers backward. This was no farm lass, sneaking away for a tryst in the hedges. She was dressed well. Her bonnet tilted to reveal lashes, as dark as her hair, shadowing her cheeks. Her skin was colorless, save for a reddening bruise on her left cheekbone. Her wine-red lips were parted. Putting his hand near them, he sought the warmth of her breath. He picked up her limp right arm and found her pulse. It was slow, much too slow.
He glanced up as Philip knelt on the far side of the senseless woman. When his brother smoothed her blue muslin dress about her ankles—so it did not reveal an inappropriate, but definitely appealing, length of slender leg—he shook his head in exasperation.
"Philip, you are ever the gentleman. Who else would think of her modesty at a time such as this?"
"Is she hurt?"
"Senseless. I must have pushed her a scrap harder than I should have. I wanted her out of the way of Cirrus's hoofs."
Philip pulled off his low hat and used it to shade her face from the sun. "She is no antidote. Her hair is as black as Midnight's mane, and she seems as nicely lined—"
"Spare me the comparisons to your dashed horse! Damn! Is she ever going to wake?"
"If you keep shouting, no doubt you'll wake the dead."
Hamilton glowered at him before leaning over the young woman again. Cautiously and gently, he tapped her unbruised cheek. It was silken smooth and warm. She moaned, but her eyes did not open. Although he wished her no more injury, he slapped her cheek a bit harder.
The dark lashes fluttered, and her sapphire eyes opened. Bafflement filled them and then horror as she looked up at him as if he was no better than a highwayman. She opened her mouth, but the only sound emerging was a soft sob of anguish.
"Try to remain still," he urged. "Regain your senses without haste." Over his shoulder, he ordered, "Philip, run and get that canister from Cirrus. There may be some brandy left in it."
His brother jumped to his feet and hurried to obey. He returned with the opened bottle. Putting his arm beneath the young woman's shoulders, Hamilton tilted her slightly. He tipped the brandy to her lips. When she took a deep drink, she gasped and began to cough. Tears ran along her cheeks, but he ignored them. He gave her a chance to catch her breath, then lifted the bottle to her lips again. This time, she drank without choking. He offered it a third time. She waved it away weakly, and he lowered her to the ground.
"Are you hurt, miss?" asked Philip.
Hamilton fired a furious frown at his brother. Where had Philip left his wits this afternoon? Even a blind buzzard would be able to see the woman suffered from more than a fleabite.
"Not bad," she whispered.
When she winced, Hamilton was sure her head ached. His did with a pulse slicing across his skull. He paid his pain no mind. "Can you stand?"
Philip wrung his gloved hands together, threatening the leather. He halted when Hamilton glared at him again.
At the woman's breathy answer, Hamilton did not wait to ask her permission. He put his arm around her slim waist and helped her as she struggled to her feet. He released her, but watched closely while she took a tentative step. She swayed. Cursing, he caught her left arm to keep her on her feet.
Her shriek of pain drained all color from his brother's face. Hamilton disregarded him as the young woman collapsed against him. His arm circled her slender waist, holding her close so she did not fold to the ground again. A sigh battered his teeth, but he refused to release it. Damn! The afternoon had shown every augury of being an escape from trouble ... until this!
With care, Hamilton examined her arm. She was so fragile. If she'd had the sense God gave a goose ... He silenced the thought when he saw her swelling wrist.
"This may hurt," he murmured. A delicate scent drifted from her tangled hair as he bent closer, but he kept his attention on making sure she wasn't badly hurt. He had no need of another woman, another complication, in his life.
She gave him no answer.
"I'll endeavor to be careful," Hamilton said.
His fingers probed her narrow wrist. She moaned softly, then clamped her lips closed. Reluctant admiration startled him. She might look as dainty as a soap bubble, but she was able to suffer this pain without screeching as Elinor would have.
Blast Elinor! He had enough problems right now without her coy smile invading his head.
"Is it broken?" Philip asked. His anxious voice cracked.
"Nothing seems broken."
Hamilton bent again to peek under her splintered bonnet. Her eyes were closed. Twin tears slid along her cheeks, and she shuddered with silent sobs. Damn! It would be easier if she snarled recriminations at him. He was accustomed to Elinor—and other London ladies raging over the merest slight. This stoicism was unnerving.
Philip reached forward to rearrange the battered bonnet that the nameless woman was wearing. This observation reminded Hamilton that they had no idea what her name was.
"Nerissa Dufresne," she whispered to his question. She rested the back of her finely boned hand against her forehead. Closing her eyes, she shuddered so hard Hamilton feared she would shatter. "Forgive me, sir. I fear my head is going to refuse to stay on my shoulders."
"Hamilton, we must get her to a doctor immediately!" gasped Philip.
"No doctor," she said, her voice gaining some strength. "I shall not be leeched when there is nothing wrong with me but a jumbled brain and a few bruises."
Hamilton smiled. "You are plucky, but by all means, you must allow us to escort you to your destination, Miss Dufresne."
"Sir, I can't impose on a stranger," she answered, trying to focus her eyes on him.
"Forgive me, miss, for failing to introduce you only to the butt of my riding crop." Hearing his brother's groan at his crude speech, he added, "I am Hamilton Windham. Your servant, Miss Dufresne. And this is my brother Philip."
"The Viscount of Windham?"
"Does my name mean something to you, Miss Dufresne?"
When she was about to nod her head, Nerissa put her hand up to her bonnet. Her head threatened to fly off and leave her senseless again. She took a deep breath, although nothing could slow the frantic beat of her thudding heart.
"I am familiar with your name, my lord, although, until but a moment past, I was not familiar with you." Her shoulders quivered, but her voice took on repressive accents as she raised her eyes to meet his slate-grey gaze. "Were you all about in the head to be careering through the field like that? I own that I did not see where you came from, but didn't you see me? Are you foxed? I see no signs of that, but why else would you ride roughshod over me?"
Lord Windham's hands tightened about his riding crop. His eyes burned with silver fire, as he replied in a clipped tone, "Miss Dufresne, you wound me to the very heart. I would never ride down a lady. I was jumping Cirrus, and I failed to see you until we were nearly upon you. You should refrain from lurking in the hedgerow."
"Lurking? I assure you that I was not lurking. I was taking a walk—a quiet walk, I had hoped—when you knocked me heels over head."
"I saved your life."
"Which would have been in no danger if you hadn't been so feckless as to leap without determining what might lie beyond. Surely that's the first lesson any rider learns. I ... Oh!"
Excerpted from The Fortune Hunter by Jo Ann Ferguson. Copyright © 1993 Jo Ann Ferguson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I enjoyed the plot twists and turns, even if the reading was a bit slow in some parts.