Rake with a Frozen Heart – Excerpt

Chapter 1

Sussex, May 1824

The early morning mist was just beginning to clear as he turned Thor, his magnificent black stallion, towards home, taking the shortcut through the long yew tree walk which bordered the formal gardens of Woodfield Manor. The bright sunlight of an early English summer shafted down through the tall trees, causing the dew on the grass to sparkle as if strewn with a myriad of tiny diamonds. The earthy scent of freshly disturbed soil and roots churned up by Thor’s prancing hooves mingled with the heady perfume of the honeysuckle which roamed untrained around the trunks of the stately yews. It was a perfect morning, the prelude to what would undoubtedly be a beautiful day.

The Right Honourable Rafe St Alban, Earl of Pentland, Baron of Gyle and master of all he surveyed was, however, completely oblivious to the glories of nature which assailed him from all sides. Mentally drained after another sleepless night, physically exhausted after his strenuous early morning gallop, his only interest was in falling into the welcoming arms of Morpheus.

Reining his mount in, Rafe dismounted to unlatch the wrought iron gates which opened onto the gravelled side path leading directly to his stables. The tall, perfectly proportioned man and the huge ebony horse made a striking pair, each in their own way glorious examples of blue-blooded pedigree, perfect specimens of toned and honed muscle and sinew at the peak of physical perfection. Rafe’s skin glowed with a healthy lustre. His raven-black hair shone in the sunlight, the severe lines of his Stanhope crop emphasising his faultless profile, the angle of his cheekbones highlighted by the flush of exertion from the breakneck gallop across the downs. The bluish hue of stubble only served to accentuate a strong jaw and very white teeth.

Byronic, is how one infatuated young lady had breathlessly described him, a complement which Rafe dismissed with his customary crack of sardonic laughter. Though his handsome countenance and fabulous wealth made him one of society’s most eligible bachelors, even the most determined ladies on the catch wilted under his aloof stare and acerbic wit – which suited Rafe very well, since he had no interest at all in leg-shackling himself for a second time. He’d had enough of marriage to last him a lifetime. Several lifetimes in fact.

“Nearly home now, old friend,” he murmured, patting the horse’s sweating flank. Thor tossed his massive head, expelling a cloud of warm air from his nostrils, as anxious as his owner for the warmth of his sleeping quarters. Deciding to walk the short distance to the house rather than remount, Rafe shrugged off his riding coat and slung it casually over his shoulder. Having no expectations of meeting anyone this early, he had come out wearing neither hat, waistcoat nor neck cloth. The clean white folds of his linen shirt clung to the perspiration on his back, the open neck at the front revealing a sprinkling of hair on a muscled chest.

The gate swung soundlessly back on its well-oiled springs, and Rafe urged his horse forward, but Thor pawed at the grass and snorted. In no mood for playfulness, Rafe tugged on the reins again, more sharply this time, but the stallion refused to move, giving a high whinny.

“What’s spooked you?” Scanning their immediate surrounds in the expectation of seeing a rabbit or a fox peering out from the deep ditch which ran parallel to the path, instead he saw a shoe. A lady’s shoe. A small leather pump, slightly scuffed at the toe, attached to a very shapely ankle clad in eminently practical wool. With a muffled exclamation which expressed more annoyance than concern, Rafe looped his horse’s reins round the gatepost, and strode over to peer into the ditch.

Lying lengthways on her back, and either dead or deeply unconscious, was the body of a young woman. Her form was clad in a serviceable round gown of brown worsted, buttoned high at the neck. She wore no hat or pelisse, and her chestnut hair had unravelled from its pins to fan out behind her, where the ditchwater had soaked it, turning its curling ends almost black, like a dark halo. The face revealed, when Rafe cautiously brushed back the obscuring reeds, was stripped of colour, marble white and ghostly. With her arms folded protectively over her bosom, the overall impression she gave was of a prosaically dressed effigy, the image marred only by the awkward angle of the little foot which had first betrayed her presence.

Casting his coat aside, Rafe knelt down at the edge of the ditch, noting with irritation the water seep into his corduroy riding breeches. He could detect no movement, not even a flicker from beneath the closed lids. Leaning over further, he tentatively lowered his head to place his ear close to her face. A faint whisper of breath on his cheek betrayed the first glimmer of life. Grasping one slim wrist, he was relieved to find a pulse beating, faintly but steadily. Where had she come from? More importantly, what the hell was she doing lying in his ditch?

Rafe got to his feet again, absently noticing the green patches on his breeches which would have his valet tutting in dismay, and pondered his options. The easiest course would be to leave her here, return to the house and send a couple of the stable hands to recover her. He eyed the recumbent form appraisingly, his frown accentuating the upward slant of his brows. No, whatever she was doing here, he could not in conscience walk away from her. She looked like Ophelia. Something about the angle of that little foot of hers made her seem horribly vulnerable. And she was but a slight thing after all, hardly worth the trouble of summoning two men when he had his horse. Resignedly, Rafe set about removing her from her temporary resting place.

*****

“That will be all, thank you Mrs Peters. I’ll call if I need any further assistance.”

The words, so faint they seemed to be coming from the end of a long tunnel, penetrated the dense fog engulfing Henrietta’s mind. She moaned. It felt as if someone was squeezing her skull with some medieval instrument of torture. She tried to raise her hand to her forehead, but her arm would not comply, lying heavy on her chest as if weighted down. White hot sparks of stabbing pain forced her eyelids open, but the swirling collage of colour which she then encountered made her close them again immediately. Now her head felt as if it were being pounded by a blacksmith’s hammer. The painful throbbing was unbearable.

A welcome coolness descended on her brow and the pain abated somewhat. Lavender, she could smell lavender. This time when she tried to move, her arm co-operated. Clutching the compress, Henrietta opened her eyes again. The world tilted and the room swam before her. She scrunched her eyes closed then, breathing deeply and counting to five, resolutely opened them, ignoring the siren call of black, comforting unconsciousness.

Starched sheets. Feather pillows. A warming pan at her feet. Damask hangings overhead. She was in bed, but in a bed chamber which was completely foreign to her. A bright fire burned in a modern grate, and light streamed in through a small gap in the drapes which had been drawn across the windows. The room was furnished in the first style of elegance, with pale yellow tempered walls and darker gold window hangings. A lurching wave of nausea swept over her. She could not be sick in such pristine surroundings. With a truly heroic effort of will, Henrietta swallowed hard and forced herself upright.

“You’re awake.”

She started. The voice had a rich, deep timbre. A seductive quality. It was unequivocally male. Obscured by the bed curtain, she had not noticed his presence. Shrinking back against the pillows, Henrietta pulled the covers high up to her neck, realising as she did so that she was clad only her undergarments. The compress dropped from her head onto the silk coverlet. It would stain, she thought rather distractedly. “Don’t come any closer or I’ll scream.”

“Do your worst,” the man replied laconically, “for all you know I may already have done mine.”

“Oh!” His tone was amused, rather than threatening. Completely thrown, Henrietta blinked owlishly. Then, as her vision cleared, she gulped. Standing in front of her was quite the most beautiful man she had ever seen. Tall, dark and really quite indecently handsome, he was a  veritable Adonis. Ink dark hair ruthlessly cropped revealed a bone structure flawless in its symmetry. Winged brows. Hooded eyes which were a curious shade of blue – or was it grey? Like the sky on a stormy night. He was in shirt sleeves and had not shaved, but this slightly dishevelled state served only to emphasise his physical perfection. She knew she was staring, but she could not tear her eyes away. “Who are you? What on earth are you doing here in this – this bedchamber? With me?”

Rafe allowed his gaze to drift over the damsel in distress. She was clutching at the sheet as if it were her last defence, looking at his coatless body as if he were half-naked, her thoughts written large on her face. He could not resist toying with her. “I can’t imagine. Can you?”

Henrietta gulped. The obvious answer was shockingly appealing. She was in her underwear. He looked as if he had not finished dressing. Or undressing? Did he mean it? Had they – had he? A frisson, a shiver of heat made her close her eyes. No! She would have remembered that! Not that she had much idea what that was precisely, but she was certain that she would have remembered it. He was unforgettable.

So he was teasing her then? Wasn’t he? She slanted him a look from under her lashes. Her gaze clashed with his, and she looked hurriedly away. No. Greek gods did not descend from the heavens to seduce slightly plump young ladies with hair hanging down their backs like rats tails and smelling  – Henrietta sniffed cautiously – yes, there was no getting away from it, smelling slightly of ditch water. Absolutely not. Even if they did imply…

As his gaze drifted deliberately down to where the sheet was tucked under her chin, Henrietta felt heat flood her cheeks. A quirk of his eyebrow, and his eyes met hers. Her blush deepened. She felt as if she had just failed some unspoken test, and couldn’t help wishing that she hadn’t. She tilted her chin defiantly. “Who are you?”

He raised an eyebrow. “Shouldn’t I be asking you that question? You are, after all, a guest, albeit an uninvited one, in my home.”

“Your home?”

“Precisely. My home. My bedchamber. My bed.” Rafe waited, but to his surprise the young lady seemed to have done, for the moment, with acting the shrinking violet. “You are in Woodfield Manor,” he conceded.

“Woodfield Manor!” It was the large estate that bordered her employer’s. The large estate owned by – “Good grief, are you the earl?”

“Indeed. Rafe St Alban, the Earl of Pentland at your service.” Rafe made a sketchy bow.

The earl! She was in a bedchamber with the notorious earl, and she could quite see, could see very, very clearly, just exactly why his reputation was so scandalous. Henrietta clung to the bedclothes like a raft, fighting the impulse to pull them completely over her head and burrow deep down in the luxurious softness of the feather bed. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance, my lord. I am Henrietta Markham.” The absurdity of the situation struck her suddenly. She felt an inappropriate desire to laugh. “Are you sure you’re the earl, only – no, of course if you say you are, you must be.”
Rafe’s mouth twitched. “I’m fairly sure who I am. What makes you think I might not be?”

“Nothing. Only – well, I did not expect – your reputation, you know…” Henrietta felt her face colouring.

“What reputation would that be?” He knew perfectly well, of course, but it would be amusing to see just how, exactly, she would phrase it. There was something about her that made him want to shock. To disconcert. Perhaps it was her eyes, wide-spaced and clear-gazing, the colour of cinnamon. Or was it coffee? No, that wasn’t right either – chocolate perhaps?

Rafe settled himself casually on the edge of the bed. Henrietta Markham’s eyes widened, but she didn’t shrink away as he’d expected. There was just enough space between them to seem at the same time too much and not enough. He could see her breasts rising and falling more rapidly beneath the sheet.

She wasn’t what received wisdom would call beautiful. She lacked inches for one thing, and could not by any stretch of the imagination be described as willowy. Though her skin was flawless, her mouth was too generous, her eyebrows too straight, and her nose not straight enough. Yet now that some colour had returned to her cheeks and she no longer resembled a marble effigy she was – no, definitely not beautiful, but rather disturbingly attractive. “What, Miss Markham, at a loss for words?”

Henrietta licked her lips. She felt like a mouse being toyed with by a cat. No, not a cat. Something much more dangerous. He crossed one leg over the other. Long legs. If she were sitting where he was on the edge of the bed, her feet would not touch the ground. She was not used to sitting so close to a man. Had not ever – in bed – on bed – whatever! She had not. It was – she couldn’t breathe. She was not frightened exactly, but she was intimidated. Was that his intention? Henrietta sat up straighter, resisting the impulse to scuttle over to the other side of the bed, confused by the contrary impulse to shuffle closer. Dangerously close. She decided she would not allow him the upper hand. “You must know perfectly well that you are notorious,” she said, her voice sounding near enough steady for her to be quite pleased.

“Notorious for what, precisely?”

“Well, they say that…” Henrietta broke off, rather unusually at a loss for words. There were grass stains on the knees of his breeches. She caught herself staring at them, wondering precisely how they had come to be there, and whether they were anything to do with her. Realizing he had noted her blatant gaze she blushed yet again, pressing on. “Not to put too fine a point on it, they say that you are – only I am sure it is nonsense, because you can’t possibly be as bad as – and in any case, you don’t look at all like I imagined one would look like,” she said, becoming quite flustered.

“I don’t look like what one what would look like?” Rafe said, fighting the urge to laugh.

Henrietta swallowed. She didn’t like the way he was looking at her. As if he might smile. As if he might not. Appraising, that was the word. If it was a word. Once again, she worried about being found lacking. Once again, she chided herself for such an pathetic response, but he was so overwhelmingly male, sitting far too close to her on the bed, so close that her skin tingled with awareness of his presence, forcing her to fight the urge to push him away. Or was that just an excuse to be able to touch him? That crop of raven-black hair. It looked like it would be silky-soft to the touch. Unlike the stubble on his cheek, which would be rough.  “A rake,” she blurted out, now thoroughly confused by her own reactions.

The word jarred. Rafe got to his feet. “I beg your pardon?”

Henrietta blinked up, missing the warmth of his presence, at the same time relieved that he had moved, for his expression had altered subtly. Colder. More distant, as if he had placed a wall between them. Too late, she realised that calling someone a rake to their face, even if they were a rake, wasn’t perhaps the most tactful thing to say. She squirmed.

“Pray enlighten me, Miss Markham, what exactly does a rake look like?”

“Well, I don’t know exactly, though I would say someone not nearly so good-looking for a start,” Henrietta replied, saying the first thing that popped into her head in her anxiety to make up for her lapse of manners. “Older too,” she continued, unable to bear the resultant silence, “and sort of more immoral looking. Debauched. Though to be honest, I’m not entirely sure what debauchery looks like save that you don’t. Look debauched, I mean,” she concluded, her voice trailing off as she realised that far from appeasing him, the earl was looking decidedly affronted. Both his brows were drawn together now, giving him a really rather formidable expression.

“You seem quite the expert, Miss Markham,” Rafe said sardonically. “Do you speak from personal experience?”

He had propped his shoulders up against the bedpost. The were very broad. Powerful. She wondered if perhaps he boxed. If he did, he must be good, for his face showed no marks. Her face was level with his chest now. Which also looked powerful, under his shirt. He had a very flat stomach. She hadn’t really thought about it before, but men were built so very differently from women. Solid. Hard-edged. At least this man was.

Henrietta chewed on her bottom lip and tried very hard not to be daunted. She wouldn’t talk to his chest, but she had to crane her neck to meet his eyes. Slate grey now, not blue. She swallowed again, trying to remember what it was he’d asked her. Rakes. “Personal experience. Yes. I mean no, I haven’t previously met any rakes personally, at least not to my knowledge, but Mama said – my mother told me that…” Once again, Henrietta trailed into silence, realising that Mama would prefer not to have her past held up for inspection. “I have seen the evidence of their activities for myself,” she said instead. Her voice sounded horribly defensive, but little wonder, given the way he was standing over her like an avenging angel. Henrietta bristled. “In the Parish Poor House.”

The earl’s expression was transformed in an instant, more devil than angel. “If you are implying that I have littered the countryside with my illegitimate brats, then you are mightily misinformed,” he said icily.

Henrietta quailed. The truth was, she had heard no such thing of this particular rake, though of course just because she had not heard did not mean – but really, he looked far too angry to be lying. “If you say so,” she said deprecatingly. “I did not mean to imply…”

“None the less you did, Miss Markham. And I resent the implication.”

“Well, it was a natural enough assumption to make, given your reputation” she retorted, placed firmly on the back foot, a position to which she was most unused.

“On the contrary. One should never make assumptions until one has a full grasp of all the facts.”

“What facts?”

“You are, as you point out, in my bed in your underwear and yet you have been neither ravaged nor despoiled.”

“Haven’t I? No, of course I haven’t. I mean – do you mean that you’re not a rake then?”

“I am not, Miss Markham, in the habit of defending my character to you, or anyone else for that matter,” Rafe said, no longer amused but furious. He may indeed be a rake, though he despised the term, but he was very far from being a libertine. The notion that he would wantonly sire children in pursuit of his own pleasure was a particular anathema to him. He prided himself on the fact that his rules of engagement were strict. His raking was confined to females who understood the rules, who expected nothing from him. His encounters were physical, not emotional. Innocents, even if they were wide-eyed and lying half-naked in his bed, were quite safe. Not that he was about to tell this particular innocent that.

Henrietta cowered against the pillow, taken aback by the shift in mood. If he was the rake common knowledge called him, then why should the earl take such umbrage? It was well known that all rakes were unprincipled, debauched, irresponsible…

But here her thoughts stuttered to a halt, having come full circle. He might be a rake, but he hadn’t  – though perhaps that was because he didn’t find her attractive enough? A strangely deflating thought. And a ridiculous one! As if she should mind at all that a notorious rake thought so little of her that he hadn’t tried to seduce her. Which reminded her. “How did I come to be in your – I mean this bed,” she asked, grasping at this interesting and unanswered question with some relief.

“I found you quite unconscious. I thought you were dead at first, and despite what you have been imagining Miss Markham, I much prefer my conquests both compos mentis and willing. You can be reassured, I made no attempt to molest you. Had I done so, you would not have readily forgotten the experience. Something else I pride myself upon,” Rafe said sardonically.

Henrietta shivered. She had absolutely no doubt that he was entitled to boast of his prowess. His look told her he had once again read her thoughts. Once again she dropped her gaze, plucking at the scalloped edge of the sheet. “Where did you find me?”

“In a ditch. I rescued you from it.”

This information was so surprising that Henrietta let fall the bedclothes shielding her modesty. “Goodness! Really? Truly?” She sat up quickly, forgetting all about her aching head, then sank back onto the pillows with a little moan as the pain hit her. “Where?” she asked weakly. “I mean, where was this ditch?”

“In the grounds of my estate.”

“But how did I come to be there?”

“I rather hoped you could tell me that.”

“I don’t know if I can.” Henrietta put her fingers carefully to the back of her head where a large lump was forming on the back of her skull. “Someone hit me.” She winced at the memory. “Hard. Why would someone do that?”

“I have absolutely no idea,” Rafe replied. “Perhaps whoever it was found your judgemental attitude tedious.” The hurt expression on her face didn’t  provide the usual sense of satisfaction he experienced when one of his well-aimed barbs struck home. On this occasion something more like guilt pricked him. She really was looking quite pale too. Perhaps Mrs Peters was right, perhaps he should have summoned the local quack. “Apart from the blow to the head, how are you feeling?”

The true answer was awful, but it was obvious from the falsely-solicitous tone of his voice that awful was not the answer he wished to hear. “I’m quite well,” Henrietta said, striving and failing to keep the edge out of her voice “at least I’m sure I will be directly. You need not concern yourself unduly.”

He had been ungracious, not something that would normally bother him, but her not pointing it out somehow did. Rather too quick to with her opinions she most certainly was, but Henrietta Markham was not capricious. Her frankness, when it was not rude, was refreshing.

The memory of her curves pressed against him as he lifted her from the ditch crept unbidden into his mind. Awareness took Rafe by surprise. It irked him that he remembered so clearly. Why should he? “You may of course take as long as you require to recuperate,” he said stiffly. “What I want to know right now is who hit you, and more importantly, why they abandoned you on my land.”

“What you really mean is, why didn’t they pick somewhere less inconvenient to dump me?” Henrietta retorted. She gasped, pressed her hand over her mouth, but it was too late, the words were out.

Rafe laughed. He couldn’t help it, she was amusing in a strange kind of way. His laugh sounded odd. He realised it was because he hadn’t heard it for such a long time. “Yes you did, and you were right,” he said, “I would have happily seen you abandoned at the very gates of Hades instead, but you are here now.”

He had a nice laugh. And though he might be ungracious, at least he was honest. She liked that. Henrietta smiled tentatively. “I didn’t mean to be quite so frank.”

“You are a dreadful liar, Miss Markham.”

“I know. I mean – oh dear.”

“Hoist with your own petard, I think you would call that.”

The band of pain around Henrietta’s head tightened, making her wince. “Touché, my lord. You want me gone, I am sure you have things to do. If I could just have a moment to collect myself, I will get dressed and be out of your way directly.”

She had turned quite pale. Rafe felt a twinge of compassion. As she had so clearly refrained from pointing out, it was not her fault she had landed on his doorstep, any more than it was his. “There is no rush. Perhaps if you had something to eat, you might feel a little better. Then you may remember what happened to you.”

“I would not wish to put you out any more than I have already done,” Henrietta said unconvincingly.

Once again, he felt his mouth quirk into a smile. “You are as poor a prevaricator as you are a liar. Come, the least I can do is give you breakfast before you go. Do you feel up to getting out of bed?”

He was not exactly smiling at her, but his expression had lost that hard edge, as if a smile might not be entirely beyond him. Also, she was ravenous. And he did deserve answers, if only she could come up with some. So Henrietta stoically told him that yes, she would get out of bed, though the thought of it made her feel quite nauseous. He was already heading for the door. “My lord, please, wait.”

“Yes?” She had dropped the sheet in her anxiety to call him back. Long tendrils of chestnut hair, curling wildly, trailed over her white shoulders. Her chemise was made of serviceable white cotton. He could plainly see the ripe swell of her breasts, unconfined by stays. Rafe reluctantly dragged his gaze away.

“My dress, where is it?” Realising that she had dropped the sheet, Henrietta clutched it up around her neck telling herself stoutly there was nothing to be ashamed of to be found to be wearing a plain white cotton chemise which, after all, was clean. Nevertheless, clean or no, she couldn’t help wishing it hadn’t been quite so plain. She wondered who had removed her gown.

“My housekeeper undressed you,” the earl replied in answer to her unasked question. “Your dress was soaking wet and we did not wish you to catch a chill. I’ll lend you something until it is dry.” He returned a few moments later with a large, and patently masculine dressing gown, which he laid on the chair, informing her breakfast would be served in half an hour precisely, before striding purposefully out of the room.

Henrietta stared at the closed door She couldn’t fathom him. Did he want her to stay or not? Did he find her amusing? Annoying? Attractive? Irksome? All or none? She had absolutely no idea.

She should not have mentioned his reputation. Though he hadn’t exactly denied it, she could very easily see just how irresistible he could be, given that combination of looks and the indefinable something else he possessed which made her shiver. As if he was promising her something she knew she should not wish for. As if he and only he could fulfil that promise. She didn’t understand it. Surely rakes were scoundrels? Rafe St Alban didn’t look at all like a scoundrel. Rakes were not good people, yet he must have some good in him, for had he not rescued her, a noble act.

She frowned. “I suppose the point is that they must be good at taking people in, else how else could they succeed in being a rake,” she said to herself. So was it a good thing that he hadn’t taken her in?She couldn’t make up her mind. The one thing she knew for certain was that he was most eager to be rid of her. Henrietta tried not to be mortified by this.

Perhaps he just wanted to know how she had come to be on his estate in the first place? She’d like to know that herself she thought, touching a cautious finger to the aching lump on her head. Last night. Last night. What did she remember of last night?

That dratted pug dog of Lady Ipswich’s had run off. She’d entirely missed her dinner while looking for it, no wonder she was so hungry now. Henrietta frowned, screwing her eyes tight shut, ignoring the dull ache inside her skull as she mentally retraced her steps. Out through the side door. The kitchen garden. Round to the side of the house. Then…

The housebreaker! “Oh my goodness, the housebreaker!” Her mind cleared, like the ripples of a pool stilling to reveal a sharp reflection. “Good grief! Lady Ipswich will be wondering what on earth has happened to me.”

Gingerly, Henrietta inched out of the luxurious bed and peered at the clock on the mantel. The numbers were fuzzy. It was just after eight. She opened the curtains and blinked painfully out at the sun. Morning. She had been gone all night. Her rescuer had clearly been out and about very early. In fact, now she had a chance to reflect upon it, he had the look of a man who had not yet been to bed.
Raking, no doubt! But those shadows under his eyes spoke of a tiredness more profound than mere physical exhaustion. Rafe St Alban looked like a man who could not sleep. No wonder he was irritable, she thought, immediately feeling more charitable. Having to deal with a comatose stranger under such circumstances would have put anyone out of humour, especially if the aforementioned stranger looked like a – like a – what on earth did she look like?

There was a looking glass on top of the ornately inlaid chest of drawers in front of the window. Henrietta peered curiously into it. A streak of mud had caked onto her cheek, she was paler than normal, and she had a lump the size of an egg on her head, but apart from that she looked pretty much the same as always. Determinedly un-rosebuddish mouth. Eyebrows that simply refused to show even the tiniest inclination to arch. Too-curly brown hair in wild disorder. Brown eyes. And, currently in the hands of the aforementioned Mrs Peters, a brown dress.

She sighed heavily. It summed things up, really. Her whole life was various shades of brown. It was to her shame and discredit that no amount of telling herself, as Papa constantly reminded her, that there were many people in the world considerably worse off than her, made her feel any better about it. It was not that she was malcontent precisely, but she could not help thinking sometimes that there must be more to life. Though more of what, she had no idea.

“I suppose being thumped on the head then being left to die of exposure, to say nothing of being rescued by a devastatingly handsome earl, counts as a burst of genuine excitement,” she told her reflection. “Even if he is a very reluctant knight errant with a very volatile temperament and an extremely dubious reputation.”

The clock on the mantel chimed the quarter hour, making her jump. She could not possibly add keeping the earl from his breakfast to her other sins. Hastily, she slopped water from the jug on the nightstand into the prettily flowered china bowl and set about removing the worst of the mud from her face.

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