In only six weeks, Isla Ramsey is due to marry Henry Northrup, the sixth Earl of Sydney. But she remains haunted by memories of the dashing Hugh Courtney, the Marquess Pierce. The handsome aristocrat had hinted at forever and then tossed her aside, leaving Isla with few viable options. Now, as she awaits her new fiancé’s arrival from London, she rides her horse past Hugh’s estate at Hazelwood every day, pining for a man who was never truly hers.
Hugh Courtney may have left Isla’s life, but he can’t erase her from his thoughts. When he rescues her from a sudden snowstorm, they are forced to take shelter together at his private estate. In such close quarters there is no escaping each other. Yet no man wants a reckless wife—or a woman promised to another. As fate draws Isla further into his world, Hugh vows to keep her out of his bedchamber. However, some vows are meant to be broken . . .
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Huntington Lodge, Buckinghamshire March 1818
A creaky floorboard was the worst thing that could befall a sneak.
Isla Ramsey didn't like to think of herself as the sneaky sort, but when the floorboard under her boot squawked in protest, she instinctively threw a guilty glance over her shoulder. Hyacinth wasn't there, thank goodness. Over the past few weeks her sister-in-law had taken to following her about like a Bow Street Runner after a thief, and for all her sweet, gentle ways, Hyacinth had the instincts of a predator.
Isla crept forward again, wincing as the floorboard shrieked like an outraged mouse. How was it possible every floorboard in this house had suddenly developed an alarming squeak? They'd all been perfectly silent until she tried to creep across them.
Her mouth set into a stubborn line. It was utter nonsense she was forced to sneak about in the first place. It wasn't as if she were going out to pick a pocket, or set a fire, or kick a puppy. She wasn't doing anything wrong. It was a morning ride, for pity's sake, nothing more. Surely there was nothing so shocking in that? Why, people all over England rode every day, and no one asked them to explain themselves.
She cast another nervous glance around, but there was no one about. Perhaps fate had deigned to smile on her at last, because she made it across the entryway to the front door without being taken up by the Huntington Lodge watch. She'd just nip out the door, make her way to the stables, and be gone before anyone even realized she'd —
"Isla Ramsey, don't you dare set foot outside that door!"
"I mean it, Isla. I forbid it!"
Hyacinth's voice was as stern as Isla had ever heard it, but when she turned to face her sister-in-law, she couldn't prevent a grin. "You can't forbid me to do something when you're wearing that gown, Hyacinth. It's not at all forbidding."
Hyacinth frowned and smoothed a hand down her dainty skirts. "What do you mean? What's wrong with my gown?"
"It's pink." Isla moved a step closer and squinted at Hyacinth's bodice. "Blossom pink, with sweet little purple flowers all over it."
Hyacinth crossed her arms over her chest. "What of it? I don't see what my gown has to do with you riding out today."
"You look as if you've just tumbled from a tray of sweets. Really, Hyacinth, you can't play the despot when you look like one of Cook's teacakes."
Isla offered her sister-in-law a winning smile to soothe any ruffled feelings, but Hyacinth was having none of it. "Very well, Isla. I can't force you to listen to me, but you don't need me to tell you it's dangerous to ride during a violent storm."
"Violent storm? Oh, nonsense, Hyacinth. It's not even raining."
"Only because it's too cold for rain, and it's growing colder by the minute. You may trust me when I say that once the skies open, we'll be pummeled with ice and snow."
Isla glanced out the window and bit her lip. A fierce wind was blowing ominous dark gray clouds across the sky, and even her thick wool riding habit was no match for the icy drafts stealing under her skirts. "Oh, very well. I grant you it's not an ideal day for a ride, but I won't be gone long. I only intend to go as far as the main road, and then I'll turn right back."
"Look at the clouds, Isla!" Hyacinth pointed at the patch of leaden sky visible through the window set high above the door. "It will be snowing before you've even reached the stables, never mind the road!"
"Perhaps, but I've ridden in blustery weather before. I am from northern Scotland, if you recall. Come, Hyacinth. It isn't far, and I want to see if I can spot Lord Sydney's carriage on the road."
Dear Lord Sydney. She'd written, asking him to come, and he'd written back, promising to set out from London at once. He was the dearest of men, and the doubts and chaos in her head always calmed when Sydney was about.
What more could a lady ask of her betrothed than that?
"Lachlan and Finn have both said they doubt he'll come today. He's almost certainly delayed his trip from London, or stopped on the way to wait for more favorable weather."
It was a reasonable enough assumption, but Isla wasn't in a mood to be reasonable. "Perhaps he has, and yet I'd feel better seeing for myself, just the same."
Hyacinth regarded Isla in silence for a moment, then asked in a casual tone, "Is that the only reason you insist on riding out?"
Isla had turned back to the door, but now she jerked around. Her gaze snapped to Hyacinth's face, and what she saw in those sympathetic dark blue eyes made her stiffen.
Isla had grown up with only rough, wild brothers. She'd always longed for a sister, and Hyacinth was as lovely a sister as she'd ever dreamed of having, but there were certain things she hadn't understood about sisterhood until after her brother Lachlan had married Hyacinth.
For one, there were no secrets among sisters.
A sister could see past whatever lies you told and scars you hid, right into the center of your heart. There was a reason Isla rode out every day, no matter how indifferent the weather, and a reason why she always went alone.
Hyacinth had seen into Isla's heart, and she knew the truth.
"Isla?" Hyacinth laid a tentative hand on her forearm. "Is Lord Sydney the only reason?"
Isla met Hyacinth's eyes. There was no judgment in that steady blue gaze, and yet as badly as Isla wanted to blurt out the truth and cry herself dry on Hyacinth's shoulder, shame forced a bright, false smile to her lips. "Yes, of course. What other reason could there be?"
Hyacinth, who knew this for the lie it was, let out a deep sigh. "I'm sorry, Isla, but I won't stand quietly by while you march out that door as if you were going to the garden to pick flowers. It's far too cold for a ride, and the weather is too unsettled. I won't let you take such a risk."
Isla sighed. She didn't like to quarrel with Hyacinth, but she'd begun to feel quite desperate. "I'm sorry, Hyacinth." She was sorry, but if she didn't escape Huntington Lodge soon, she was going to burst out of her skin.
She opened the door to slip outside, but before she could move an inch, Hyacinth's quiet voice stopped her. "If you take a single step toward those stables, Isla, I'm going straight to your brothers. What do you suppose Finn will say when he finds out you intend to ride on such a day?"
Isla turned back to Hyacinth, her mouth falling open with shock. She and Hyacinth never told each other's secrets. To do so was a betrayal of sisterly confidence. "You'd tattle on me to Finn, Hyacinth? Truly?"
Hyacinth gave her a pained look. "I don't want to, but if it's the only way to make you listen, I will. Please don't leave me no other choice. It's for your own good, Isla."
They stared at each other for a long, silent moment; then Isla turned, her eyes narrowing against the wind as she scanned the brooding sky. She didn't know how to explain to Hyacinth it wasn't simply a ride to her, but an escape from the demons only a hard gallop could chase from her head.
But surely, she hadn't become so desperate she couldn't endure a single day without it?
She struggled with herself, but at last Isla closed the door with a sigh, removed her gloves and cloak, and propped her riding crop against the wall. "You know I despise being told things are for my own good, Hyacinth."
"Oh, thank you, Isla!" Hyacinth squeezed her hand. "I promise you I'll keep you well entertained. Shall we go to the parlor? I've a sudden yearning for Cook's iced tea cakes. Perhaps we can find Ciaran and coax him into playing a game of cards with us."
Isla dutifully followed Hyacinth to the parlor. They didn't find Ciaran, or any of Isla's other brothers, but Hyacinth was as good as her word. She kept up an engaging stream of bright chatter, plied Isla with sweets, and even read aloud to her from Northanger Abbey. They'd just reached the part where the heroine, Catherine Morland, is about to delve into the mysterious chest in her bedchamber when they were interrupted by Lachlan, who'd come in search of his bride.
"Ah, here you are, sweet." Lachlan plucked the book from Hyacinth's hand, laid it aside, and drew her to her feet. "I expected you to join me in our bedchamber a half hour ago for our ... rest."
Isla smothered her snort. Rest, indeed. Lachlan and Hyacinth had married several weeks ago, and since then, they spent every afternoon alone in their bedchamber. Once they were there, they remained for a good long while, and Isla doubted it was to rest.
No one was that tired.
Still, it was rather sweet, and true passion was rare enough without her standing in its way. "It's all right, Hyacinth. I'll find a way to amuse myself."
Hyacinth met Lachlan's gaze, and when she turned back to Isla, her cheeks were flushed. "If you're sure?"
"Yes, yes." Isla waved them off. "Go on. Have a pleasant rest."
They hurried up the stairs, and for an hour or so Isla did her best to stay occupied. She read for a bit, then made another half-hearted attempt to find her brother Ciaran to see if he fancied a game of chess, but he was nowhere to be found. She set up the board and played both sides of it for a while, but it wasn't long before the quiet of Huntington Lodge began to press in upon her, and she found herself creeping back over the squeaky floorboards to the door.
Perhaps I am the sneaky sort, after all.
But surely a quick ride wouldn't do her any harm? She'd go only as far as the road, then come straight back before Hyacinth had a chance to worry about her.
Moments later, she'd slipped out the door. A tiny prickle of doubt rose in her chest when the howling wind instantly whipped tears into her eyes, but she ignored it. Within minutes she was mounted and riding toward the main road, praying she'd encounter Sydney in his smart green carriage, coming for her.
* * *
There was no green carriage, no Sydney, and by the time the storm had finished venting its rage on Buckinghamshire, Isla thought it likely there'd be no road.
Hyacinth had been right about the rain. Nothing as tame as a late winter downpour would do for this storm. It was as if the sky were an enormous sheet of ice and someone had smashed it with a hammer until thousands of tiny, pointed shards rained down upon Isla's head. They made hollow popping sounds as they hit the top of her riding hat, and the cacophony was growing louder and faster with every minute.
It had been a mistake to venture out at all today. When she arrived home, she would offer Hyacinth her most sincere apologies and promise to listen to her next time, no matter how dainty her gown was.
But then it was a day for mistakes, it seemed. She'd ended up going farther down the road than she'd meant to, as well, and by the time she was forced to admit to herself Sydney wasn't coming today, the storm had grown so severe she'd had no choice but to take the shortest route back to Huntington Lodge.
The one that took her straight past the front entrance of Hazelwood.
Lord Pierce's estate.
It wasn't the first time she'd come this way, of course. No, she'd passed his house every day since she'd come to Huntington Lodge, no matter that she woke every morning promising herself she wouldn't. That today would be the day she'd forget him.
Now here she was again, staring up at the empty windows, lingering even as the skies rained fury down upon her head. The symmetrical rows of blank, glassy eyes stared back at her. If there was any light behind those windows, she couldn't see it.
When she and her brothers had arrived in London, Isla had been so certain her heart would remain forever cold, it hadn't even occurred to her to guard it. As little as three months ago, she would have sworn she hadn't any heart left to break.
She'd been wrong. Hugh Courtney had taught her how wrong with every dance, every smile, until it was too late to save herself.
She tried to despise him, but even as her heart ached and bled, he never left her thoughts for long. But it was her own fault she couldn't forget him, wasn't it? No one made her ride by his house every day. No one forced her to stare up at those windows and wonder if he was behind one of them, gazing down at her.
A bitter laugh rose to Isla's lips. He wasn't. Even if he did happen to catch a glimpse of her, he'd turn away at once. Indeed, he'd already done so, and there was no reason to suppose he regretted his decision. Looking back on it, Isla was surprised she hadn't predicted how it would all unfold after her season came to its abrupt, disastrous end.
What had she expected would happen? Had she truly believed a man of Lord Pierce's rigid respectability would overlook her shocking scandal? The gossips had it she'd lured Lord Sydney into a public indiscretion — some of the more creative among them even claimed she'd been stripped down to her corset and stockings when they'd been caught together in Lady Entwhistle's library. The ton hadn't hesitated to make the most of her disgrace. They hadn't spared her, so why had she imagined he would?
In the end, Lord Pierce couldn't have made his wishes any plainer. She'd written him that night — a hastily scrawled note, asking him to come to her, to let her explain.
He'd responded at once.
Miss Ramsey, please don't ever contact me again.
The note was proper, correct — courteous, even. Just like everything he did.
And despite its brevity, devastating. Devastating, and final.
He never wished to see her again. She could only assume that meant he didn't want her on his property, staring up at his windows like some pathetic schoolgirl.
Perhaps he pities me ...
It was that thought that made Isla jerk her horse around. She'd return to Huntington Lodge, and tomorrow Sydney would come, and everything would fall into its proper place again, just as it always did when he was there. Once Sydney arrived, she wouldn't be tempted to ride past Hazelwood again, and she'd soon forget all about Lord Pierce.
Her mind made up, she turned her horse's head toward Huntington Lodge.
If the storm hadn't chosen that moment to swell, all might still have been well. Maybe then she never would have gone near the woods at all, but given the choice between sheltering trees and the fierce ice pellets striking her face, she'd chosen the trees.
Another mistake, as it turned out, and a dire one.
She'd only intended to pause at the edge of the woods for long enough to catch her breath, and perhaps scoop the ice from her bodice, but she hadn't even had a chance to unbutton her coat before her horse, Sophie took a sudden fright, and without any warning, bolted into the woods.
"Sophie!" Isla just had time to let out a startled yelp and snatch up the reins before Sophie was plunging through the trees. She wobbled in the saddle as the horse cut a haphazard path through the woods, struggling to keep her footing on theuneven ground.
"Sophie, no!" Isla jerked on the reins, but shock made her clumsy, and the awkward tug only added to Sophie's confusion. The horse continued her wild dash through the trees until Isla gathered her wits and brought them to a halt at last.
She remained frozen in the saddle for long, breathless moments and waited for her heart to cease its panicked thrashing. Goodness, her legs were shaking. For pity's sake, what had just happened? Sophie had never bolted on her before. She was as gentle a horse as Isla had ever ridden.
Something had frightened her. There'd been a noise. Now she thought on it, Isla was certain she'd heard a series of cracking sounds, almost like claps of thunder, right before Sophie fledinto the woods.
She went still now, listening, but aside from the wind, she heard nothing.
"It's all right now, Sophie." She rested a comforting hand on Sophie's neck as she squinted into the gloom, trying to get her bearings. The shadows pressed in on her, so thick they felt like cobwebs clinging to her skin. It was so dark she could hardly make out the ground at Sophie's feet.
She'd ridden through these woods dozens of times. She knew the pathways and trees by heart. It had never occurred to her they could pose a danger to her, but between Sophie's mad dash and the gloom ...
Well, there was a chance — just the tiniest possibility, of course — that they were lost.
She peered into the shadows, but the trees looming over her were no longer the old friends she recognized from her daily rides. They were dark, forbidding shapes, their jagged branches eager to tear into her skin.
Sophie let out a nervous whinny, and Isla stroked the horse's neck. "Well, my girl. You got us into this mess. Which way shall we go to get out of it? Straight on, or back the way we came?"
Whichever way that is.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Wayward Bride"
Copyright © 2019 Anna Bradley.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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