About the book
His heart whispered her name as if it were a prayer for deliverance…
There is nothing worse than losing everything to your worst enemy. If Lady Seraphina Camden doesn't find a suitable husband soon, her family risks that very fate. Until the day she meets the new stable hand.
With someone out for his blood, Lysander Keswick, the Duke of Emberborough, is running for his life. Unable to recall who he is after suffering a nasty hit to the head, he finds work as a stable boy. A position that leaves him at the mercy of Lady Seraphina, the one lady he can never have.
Torn between returning memories of hatred and the duty to their hearts, Seraphina's sudden disappearance comes as a woeful reminder: someone still wants Lysander in the grave. And the only clue to their salvation lies in a name that they both know but haven't heard of before...
An arrow zoomed so close by his head that he could feel the air change as it passed.
Close. Too close. How did they manage to track me down again?
He spurred his horse forward, faster and faster. The gelding would not be able to carry on at this speed much longer; he knew it. But he had to put some distance between himself and his attackers. Up ahead he saw a fork in the road. One appeared to lead to a clearing, a road perhaps. The other further into the thicket of the forest.
He had to make a decision, and he had to make it now.
The forest. It is easier to gallop into the forest and hope to disappear, hidden in its vast expanse.
“Come on, good boy. Just a little farther. I’ll find us a place to hide out. We’ll make it. We will,” he spoke quietly to the horse, more to soothe his own fears than the horse. Several attempts on his life had been made over the past few weeks. So much so that he’d decided the best thing to do was to get away. He’d left this younger brother, his closest confidant, in charge of investigating the attacks.
He had decided to visit relatives at the other end of the country. So far away from home that the attackers were certain to never find him.
He’d been riding for almost three days now, stopping only to switch horses at the posting inns or for a short rest and a bite to eat. After the second day, he’d grown ever more confident that he’d shaken his pursuers. Or so he’d thought.
For here they were now. Following him. Shooting arrows at him in the middle of nowhere.
Is anywhere safe? How do they continue to find me? It is vexing. It is terrifying to say the least.
He could feel the horse struggle beneath him. He’d ridden the poor animal hard in his attempts to get away. He had to slow down. This horse did not appear as fit as some of the others he’d ridden. His heart beating fast, he slowed his horse to a walk, looking over his shoulder to search for his assailants. There was nobody. All he could see were Wych Elm and Alder trees. He sighed with relief.
“We might have shaken them for now, old boy.”
He patted the horse on the side of its brown neck. He had to find a stream of some kind; the horse needed to be watered. He’d locate the nearest posting inn and trade it for a fresh horse. He himself had broken into a sweat. His shirt stuck to his back and his long brown hair was glued to his face by the sticky sweat that ran down his face.
It was the middle of September, but the heat of summer had not yet tipped over into the pleasant days of autumn.
He halted his horse and glanced around. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the sounds of the forest. Trees rustled in the gentle breeze and birds sang. The sound of a woodpecker pecking away at a tree came from the distance and then…yes. There it was. Water rushing. He opened his eyes again and redirected his horse to the south, where he’d heard the stream.
“Not far now, almost there.”
They trotted along and a few minutes later came to the small stream. He dismounted and led the horse to drink, squatting down himself to splash the cold water into his face. It felt glorious when it hit his overheated skin. Glancing back once more to make sure he had not been followed, he removed his waistcoat and dropped it on the rocks beside the stream. He threw his cravat, which was sweaty and scratchy against his skin and tossed it aside.
He stood and pulled his white shirt out of his pantaloons to allow much needed air to cool down.
“Gadzooks, what am I doing? It is not as though I am going to be seen here,” he said to the horse who was drinking up the cold water. He quickly unbuttoned the first few buttons of his shirt and then splashed himself down. It was a glorious feeling.
He glanced at the horse who was now standing quietly, waiting for him to finish. He sighed. He would need to press on. Sooner or later they would be tracked down. If he could only make it to his relatives’ home, he knew he would be safe there. But it was at least another day’s ride, if not more. And with these assailants on his heels…
He shook his head and leaned forward, gathering water in his cupped hand and drinking. He was in the process of relishing the feeling of the water soothing his parched throat when…
“By Jove! They’ve found us.”
He jumped up as the sound of horses galloping behind him grew louder. He swung himself on the gelding and spurned him into a gallop.
“Quickly! Quickly now, good boy. Get us out of here.”
I should not have lingered here for so long, it is my own fault. How stupid of me.
He didn’t dare glance over his shoulder for he knew just how close they had to be by the sound of the horses.
They raced through the forest, jumping over hedges and through puddles that splashed onto his white shirt which still hung loose from his body.
Another arrow zoomed past, missing him narrowly once more. They would catch him. There was no question, they would certainly catch him this time. With his horse exhausted and nowhere to turn, there was no way he could escape this time. Hope faded as quickly as the afternoon light as he hurried forward.
Just when it seemed there was nowhere left to turn, he noticed the tree line thinning to the West and beyond that he saw movement.
A road! And the movement was almost certainly a person, or a group even. His salvation. The men would not be able to harm him if there were witnesses, if they were seen. All he had to do was get to them.
“Come on, old boy,” he shouted at the horse, pushing him forward for one last sprint that could save them.
They jumped over another hedge, with the road coming ever closer when an arrow of arrows zoomed past him. He ducked down as low as he could but just as he was approaching the road, just as salvation was near, he felt a sharp pain in his left side. He screamed out in pain and inspected the area with his hand. An arrow had grazed him, grazed him badly. His hand was covered in blood and he felt himself growing faint.
Suddenly, just as he reached for the reins to slow the horse, his trusted gelding bucked, and he felt himself losing his grip. He was catapulted into the late afternoon air and felt himself floating. A moment that lingered and stretched for what seemed like an eternity. An odd, peaceful sensation rushed through his body as he sailed through the air and toward the ground. He saw it coming, saw the ridges of the rock as he flew toward it and then he was swallowed entirely by darkness.
Seraphina’s eyes were watering up as she read, so enraptured was she by the story. She had picked up the novel Clarissa, Or, the History of a Young Lady, the previous day from her father’s library. It had kept her up half the night and she was almost finished. The final chapters touched her deeply and she dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief. Suddenly the carriage hit another pothole in the road, and she bounced so hard in her seat her book flew out of her hands.
“Faith. Now I will have lost my place,” she complained as she bent down to pick up the book, flipping through the pages.
“How you can read while riding in a carriage I shall never understand,” her sister, Mary, said as she attended to her embroidery.
Seraphina frowned. “It is no different than stitching. Only perhaps more pleasurable. At least for me.”
“You are an odd duck, Seraphina. I must say. How are you ever going to find a suitable husband when you have your nose in a book all day and you smell of horses and dogs?”
Seraphina tossed her handkerchief at her sister who shrieked as if she’d been bombarded with a wash ball.
“I am not the one who is bathed in a pint of perfume to cover my unpleasant sweaty scent, Dearest Sister,” she regretted the words at once for her sister’s face darkened and her corners of her mouth quivered.
“I am sorry, Mary. I have been in a mood these past few days. The thought of the upcoming ball has left me…”
“Crabby. Unpleasant. Impossible to deal with. Miffed.”
Seraphina raised her hands, “Yes, yes. All of it. I am sorry. You know how I dislike being put on display.”
Seraphina shook her head; her dark-brown hair had come loose from the up-do she’d so carefully created that morning. She swept it out of her face.
Her sister shrugged. “But then I shall ask you once more. How do you intend to find a husband if you despise going to any function that might lead you to meet someone?”
It was true, she despised social functions. If it were up to her, she would spend her days quite happily reading the many books she’d accumulated over the years with one of her pugs snuggled on her lap.
Seraphina had never enjoyed social functions. It was not that she was anti-social, per se. She had many friends, was generally cordial, and far from shy. In fact, she enjoyed picnics with her friends, or a carriage ride, and she simply adored riding her horse through the forest, either with one of friends or with her sisters. She just did not like the public spectacle that every ball and every formal dinner turned into.
She did not enjoy having to play the part society expected her to play. Unlike Mary, who loved the attention and the dancing.
“You don’t suppose I could find a way out of the dance, do you? Given that Cynthia is home, perhaps Mama will allow me to stay behind with her,” she asked her sister, suddenly serious.
Mary frowned and shook her head. “I should imagine not. You will only set up Mama’s bristles. You know how she is. You already managed to avoid most of the balls this Season. She won’t let you miss the country dance too. As for Cynthia, I am sure Mama will force her to come.”
Seraphina sighed. It was true. Her mother would never allow her to miss the dance. And poor Cynthia. While her sister had chosen a life of charity and dedicated herself to an orphanage for girls in London, their mother never failed to force her to attend balls whenever she came for a visit.
Seraphina suspected their mother harbored a secret hope of changing her oldest daughter’s mind and convince her being a lady of the ton was preferable to charity work.
Mary nodded, never taking her eyes of her stich work. “Indeed. Imagine how out of place she will feel. The least you can do is come and be miserable alongside her, if you cannot find it in your heart to enjoy yourself.”
Her sister boxed her in the arm in a playful manner and winked. “Who knows, you might meet a young man who’s just as eager to read and daydream as you are.”
“I wish!” Seraphina replied. “I would very much like to find love just with one of my choosing, not someone Mama and Papa select for me. I find it rather vexing that parents make the choices for their daughters.”
“Don’t you trust Papa to find you a good match?”
Seraphina shrugged. “Papa loves me. But I do not believe he truly understands me. Cynthia is pious and proper, while you are carefree and sociable. He understands those traits. He does not understand me and my curious nature, as Mama likes to say.”
Mary shook her head.
“She does not mean it in a bad way. I dare say, she is simply worried she will lose out on another daughter entering society, the way she did with Cynthia.”
“So, I should pay for Cynthia choosing a life as an Assistant Matron instead of one as a wife and mother?”
Mary slapped her hands down beside her and let out an exasperated sigh.
“But you do want to marry. You said so yourself. You just do not want to be out and participate in the activities that might find you a suitable man. I mean, really, Seraphina. Do you think a man will just fall from the sky one day and be perfect for you?”
She shook her head and opened her mouth but did not get the chance to reply, for the carriage suddenly slowed as voices filled the air.
Mary stuck her head out of the window and gasped.
“Faith, it is Lottie and Hester. They are in quite a state. Near hysterical.”
The two kitchen maids had set off to head into town earlier that morning to do the shopping.
“Out here still? They left for town hours ago.” The carriage stopped. Seraphina opened the door without waiting for the coachman and walked around to her sister’s side. Mary, on the other hand had remained in the carriage and waited for Fornsham, their coachman, to open the door and escort her out. The way a proper lady should.
Seraphina rolled her eyes at her sister’s proper manners and set off to meet the two maids who were rushing toward them.
“Lady Seraphina,” Lottie, the younger of the two, called out. “Come quickly. There is a man, over yonder. We spotted him lying there. He’s unconscious.”
She stopped in her tracks. “A man? In the middle of the road?”
“Aye, My Lady. We found him a little while ago and went for help. We’ve been walking a while but found nobody about.” She looked at her fellow maid who stood beside her. “Should have pressed on to Vallant Castle, like I said.”
“Very well, next time we find a man in the road we will do it your way,” the older maid snapped. Then she turned to Seraphina. “I thought it better to try for a carriage to help. He doesn’t look right, I declare. All busted up and bloody, clothes ripped and dirty all over.”
Seraphina frowned. “Show me.”
“Show you what?” Mary asked, out of breath from her dash toward her sister.
“A man in the road, Lady Mary,” Hester repeated.
“Never mind all of that. If he is truly injured, we must attend to him.” She turned and hailed the coachman to come their way. “Get in the carriage and show us where the man is.”
The two maids nodded and made their way toward the approaching vehicle while Mary stood with her arms crossed in front of her, shaking her head.
“I was only joking, you know. About the man falling out of the sky. Yet, it appears one has.”
Seraphina rolled her eyes at her sister and proceeded into the carriage.
Not even five minutes had passed when Lottie, who had been leaning out of the window, called out. “Stop the carriage. He is here.” The moment she’d yelled out, she turned to Seraphina and Mary, her face red.
“I am sorry, it is not proper for me to command the coachman. I got a little too excited.”
Seraphina waved her off. “It does not matter. Now, take me to the man.”
She glanced at her sister who smirked. “Do not jest, Mary. It is not the time.”
“I disagree. But very well.”
The four women walked along the side of the road, followed by Fornsham.
“There!” Hester called out and pointed. “He went and rolled down the embankment.” She stood with her hands on her hips, her blue maid’s uniform shifting in the breeze.
Seraphina stepped next to her and peered down the embankment. Indeed, there he was. A man, covered in dirt, his clothing nearly ripped off.
“Assist me down to the embankment,” she commanded of the maids, who stared at her, unmoving.
“Please, My Lady. Allow me,” Fornsham quickly stepped forward with Mary beside him, her eyes wide.
“Yes, Sera, let him. Let a man do the investigating. We don’t know who this man is. He might be a wild man.”
“He appears to be an unconscious man at present,” Seraphina said, sarcasm in her voice as she glanced back at the body.
They waited as Fornsham squatted beside the man and then looked back toward them.
“Alive he is, My Ladies. Some kind of wound on his side. Looks like a scrape. Must have hit his head judging by the bruise on his forehead.”
Seraphina bit her bottom lip.
What we are to do? We cannot leave him here.
She looked from the two maids to her sister and realized that everyone was looking at her. Of course. She was the highest-ranking person in their group and the decision lay with her.
“Can you carry him up the embankment, Fornsham?”
The coachman was an older man, well into his fifth decade, but spry and strong. He gave her a curt nod and proceeded to pull the man up. He lifted him over his shoulder and began to make his way up toward the road.
Once there, he dropped the man on the side of the road as if he were a bag of potatoes.
“Careful, Fornsham. We don’t want to harm him further.”
“Sorry, My Lady. He is not as light as you might think. Or perhaps I am not as strong as I thought.”
Seraphina looked at the man before her. He was in terrible condition. His clothes were torn and stained with dirt and blood, and his hair caked to his face with even more blood. She shuddered.
What had happened to this man? Who was he? And how in the world had he ended up in the woods so close to her home?
“What are we to do with him, My Lady?” Fornsham asked, looking at the man who was now lying beside the road.
“We can’t leave him lying in the road like this, he will catch his death for sure,” Mary argued.
Seraphina nodded. She’d found herself quite unable to take her eyes off of the man. He didn’t appear to be a farmer; his complexation was much too pale for any such profession. It was not just his paleness that gave her pause. His face was shaven clean, and his haircut was in the style popular with the young nobles she’d seen this Season in London. Yet, he could not possibly be a nobleman. Not in the condition he was in. No member of the Peerage would get himself into a position such as this. He was barely dressed.
“I wonder what brought him out here,” she said out loud, more to herself than anyone else. “Whatever it was, we cannot leave him here, you are right. He will certainly die if he is not attended to, and post haste. Let us take him back home. Papa can decide what is to be done with him. He was found on his lands, after all.”
With the sisters in agreement, the unconscious man was carried into the carriage and Seraphina and Mary climbed back into the carriage alongside him. The maids climbed onto the seat with the coachman and the carriage set into motion.
Seraphina found herself once more transfixed by the man. She could not help but notice how handsome his features were, despite the dirt and blood which covered it. She could not take her eyes off him. Her book lay beside her on the seat, all but forgotten. Her focus was the mysterious man.
Who are you? What is your story? I cannot wait to find out what terrible fate has caused you to end up in such a state.
The carriage made its way down the road and was about to turn onto the path that lead to Vallant Castle, the home of her father, the Duke of Oxshire, when she glanced out the window.
Something in the distance caught her eye. A figure off in the woods, mounted on a horse. She leaned out further to attempt to make out his features but was unable to. But he was staring in their direction, she could tell that much.
A foreboding feeling spread through Seraphina’s body as the figure vanished from view.
She looked back at the man before her. Was he connected to the figure in the woods? What if he was a criminal of some kind, or a rogue? Had she made a mistake?
No, he did not look as though he was trouble. Alas, he certainly was in trouble.
She could not help but wonder, was she bringing problems to her family by saving him?
Liam Keswick, the Earl of Millsbury, found himself climbing the steps to the watchtower of Horlock Castle, his ancestral home in North Yorkshire, and looked out into the distance. It was early morning now and the dew was still visible from the fields before him.
The flower beds, so carefully and lovingly planted by his gardeners, at the direction of his wife, Lorraine, would soon rise toward the sun. They would give the entire property a cheerful, calm feeling.
However, at this early hour, with the memory of the night just gone by still lingering in the air, Liam found himself neither calm, nor cheerful.
He stood still, lost in thought. He did not hear the gentle footsteps that made their way up the steps after him. It was because of his absent mind that he found himself leaping into the air with shock when someone touched his arm.
“My dearest, I am sorry. I did not mean to startle you,” Lorraine said, regret in her sweet voice.
He shook his head, ginger-colored locks falling into his pale face.
“It is I who is sorry. I did not hear you. Why are you awake at this early hour?”
Lorraine looked out over the vast expanse before them. The grounds of Horlock Castle were among the largest in North Yorkshire. One a clear day, you could see Selby in the distance.
“You have tossed and turned all night with worry, my love. When I woke and found you gone, I knew you were here, looking out once more.”
Her large, amber-colored eyes looked at him with worry and she stroked his arm. She had wrapped his banyan around herself instead of her light dressing gown. Liam noticed that a gentle fog escaped her mouth as she spoke for even though it was still summer, up here in the North, mornings were chilly.
“He should have been here by now,” he was aware that his voice was heavy with fear.
“Perhaps he stopped on the way. There are many pretty towns between Gloucester and here. I’m certain he took in some of nature’s beauty. You know how attached to nature he is.”
Liam shook his head.
“No. His letter said he had to seek urgent refuge here. He was not even planning to bring his household with him. It was just him on a horse.”
Lorraine turned her hands up, “Well, there you go. It would take him many days to ride here without use of a carriage. He’d have to switch out the horse and rest himself. That is the reason behind his tardiness, I am certain of it. Please, Husband, do not fret. Lysander will be here. And soon.”
Liam did not reply.
I should have met him halfway, taken some of my men. I wish he would have been more specific about the nature of the threat against him. I wish he would have given me more of a clue as to what trouble he is in.
The letter from his dearest cousin, Lysander Keswick, the newly appointed Duke of Emberborough, had arrived nearly a week ago. The two had been close since their childhood days. Liam thought back to the summers he’d spent at his uncle’s home in Gloucester and the fun he’d had with Lysander, and his brother, Harry. While he wasn’t as close to Harry, he and Lysander were like brothers.
Due to the distance between their respective homes, they did not see one another much, save for during the Season. However, correspondence between them was usually lengthy and detailed. Although Lysander’s most recent letter had been short. Worryingly short.
Liam slipped his hand in his pocket and traced his fingers around the edge of the letter. He already knew what it said but pulled it out once more anyhow.
My dear cousin, I am in trouble. I require refuge. On my way to Horlock Castle via horse. Explanation forthcoming. Expect me by week’s end. I am alone. No household. Please do not share this letter with anyone but Lorraine.
Liam chewed his bottom lip. Week’s end had come and gone, and it was now Monday, and no sign of Lysander.
“Liam,” Lorraine said quietly as she took the letter from his hands. “He is only two days late. He will come. Now, please, will you accompany me to the drawing room and take a hot chocolate with me? The baby requires nourishment,” she placed her hand over her bulging stomach and rubbed it.
Liam smiled as he placed his hand over hers.
“Very well, let us go.”
He took her hand and accompanied her down the stairs, a worried feeling still in his stomach.
Late that evening, Liam sat at his desk, drumming his fingers. Lysander had still not appeared, and Liam was growing ever more worried. It was not like his cousin to be late, and especially not after sending such an alarming letter. He would not have stopped to glance upon a poppy field or take in the natural beauty along the way as Lorraine had suggested. Of course, he was well aware that all his wife wanted to do was to reassure him.
With a sigh, he removed his snuff box from his pocket and placed it on the desk. Upon opening it, he gathered a pinch of the snuff and brought it to his nose. Inhaling it swiftly he felt it tickle the inside of his nose and a moment later, broke into the expected sneeze and cough.
He despised snuffing, but felt it was essential to fit in with the other members of the Peerage, and especially at court, where practically everybody was partial to the fine snuff. In order to avoid making a cake of himself by coughing excessively in public, he had gotten into the habit of snuffing at home, in the privacy of his study, in order to get used to it.
As he returned the snuff box to his pocket the thought of Lysander came to him once more. He could imagine his cousin sitting across from him right at that moment, a disapproving expression on his visage.
“Why trouble yourself with something you find vile, just to fit in among the other peers? Why not simply them tell you despise snuff?”
A good-natured argument would ensue over the necessity of doing things one did not like for the good of one’s reputation. The conversation would grow rather heated, until they came to the brink of becoming a real argument, rather than just a friendly discussion. Then, just in time, one or the other would make an inappropriate joke or comment, to turn it all around.
They never fought in earnest. They never allowed it to come to that.
By Jove, Lysander. Was it your insistence on being contrary that has gotten you into trouble?
Liam had feared as much. Lysander was never shy about pointing out the failures of the society in which they lived and often vocally made his opinions known. Many of their fellow lords had all but closed the door on Lysander. Not that he much cared. He found being a duke to be an incredible burden bestowed on him by his father.
While Liam reveled in his role of earl, Lysander found his inheritance a burden. Had his dislike of the ton caused his current troubles?
Liam rose and stepped out into the hallway. He’d taken supper with Lorraine, who’d gone to bed hours ago. He thought of his sleeping wife in their bedchamber, pregnant with child once more and, for a brief moment, he smiled. He reveled in a moment of gratitude for having found a woman who was not only of his class, but whom he loved and who loved him. But then, as quickly as they had been banished, the dark thoughts about his cousin returned.
Perhaps I ought to send a message to Harry and Aunt Yolanda. Inquire of what they know. But the letter said not to involve anyone.
He paced the empty halls of the Castle, glancing outside every now and again into the dark grounds. On occasion he would pass a footman, standing at attention, but otherwise he was alone with his thoughts.
Liam made his way across the Castle and took a seat in front of the fireplace in the drawing room, propping his head up on his hand. As wracked as he was with worry, he felt the fatigue catch up to him. He ought to go upstairs, go rest next to his beautiful wife who would soon give him the heir he so longed for, but he found himself unable to rise.
Instead, his eyelids grew heavy.
“My Lord!” The sound of the voice calling him ripped him from an uneasy sleep. For a moment, he did not know where he was, but everything came back to him in a rush.
The drawing room. I must have fallen asleep.
He rubbed his eyes and blinked in the direction of the voice. It was Mr. Rhys, his butler. What was he doing awake already?
Liam turned his head and found that outside, the sun was beginning to rise. How long had he been asleep? He shook his head. It did not matter.
“What is it, Rhys?”
The butler hurried into the drawing room, a silver platter in his hand upon which Liam saw a letter.
“A messenger, My Lord,” Rhys extended his hand allowing Liam to retrieve the letter.
His heart sank the moment he recognized the seal of House Keswick. His cousin’s seal.
His hands shook as he broke the seal and unfolded the letter, reading the words as quickly as he could without losing their meaning.
When he was done, he dropped his arms to his side. With his mouth open, he bent forward to steady himself on the armchair.
“My Lord?” Rhys’ voice was full of concern. “You have paled, do you require a physician?”
Liam shook his head but said nothing. Instead he rushed out of the drawing room, walking ever faster until he’d reached the grand staircase. His heart beating out of his chest, he broke into a run, taking three steps at a time until he reached the top of the staircase.
“Lorraine!” he shouted her name as he sprinted toward their bedchamber.
A footman, eyes wide with confusion, opened the heavy door and Liam rushed through, the letter still in hand.
Lorraine sat up in bed, her hair tucked under a night cap, her eyes wide with fright.
“Liam! What is it? What has happened?”
He was out of breath as he stepped around the bed and handed her the letter.
“A letter, from Harry at Emberborough. I must leave at once. It is Lysander. He’s gone missing.”
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