In My Wildest Fantasies
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“An exceptional tale for readers who hunger for something a bit different in their historical romances.”- Booklist
“A sizzling treat of a book!”– Karen Hawkins
From bestselling author Julianne MacLean comes a classic historical romance series set in the lavish palace of an English duke, where duty and desire collide.
Four years ago, a mesmerizing stranger pulled Lady Rebecca Newland from her runaway coach, galloping to her rescue in a fog-shrouded forest. Though she was just seventeen, Rebecca felt an irresistible desire for the mysterious man and dreamed that she would one day become his bride. But now she is betrothed to another man whom she detests - and Devon Sinclair, the future Duke of Pembroke and hero of her dreams, lies tantalizingly beyond her reach...
Haunted by an unspeakable past, Devon has no intention of taking a wife, not even the enticing Rebecca, who is no longer a girl, but a woman. Then his father rules that Devon must marry by Christmas or forfeit his rightful inheritance. Now, with his fortune at stake, Devon sets out to lure Rebecca to the marriage bed, but when dark secrets come to light, Rebecca begins to wonder if true love with the man of her dreams will remain a fantasy forever.
Release date: September 17, 2020
Publisher: Julianne MacLean Publishing Inc.
Print pages: 364
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In My Wildest Fantasies
A thick, gray mist moved through the darkening forest, creeping along the ground like a phantom. Rebecca Newland, dressed in black and seated beside her sleeping father in the dark confines of his carriage, was in a place somewhere between dreams and reality, her head tipped back upon the deeply buttoned leather upholstery, her eyelids falling closed briefly, then fluttering open again as the coach rumbled and bumped along the narrow, winding road.
They were on their way home from her uncle’s funeral in London. Regrettably, he was an uncle she had never met, but that was the story of her quiet life, she supposed. She knew very few people, cloistered away as she was in her father’s secluded country house, built of old stone and cloaked in thick, leafy ivy, which hindered even the company of the sunlight.
The only thing that kept her from going completely mad in her isolation was the fact that she was seventeen now, and her first London Season was drawing near—next year perhaps? If she closed her eyes, she could see the glitter and gowns she read about in books, the sparkling jewels and hair combs; she could anticipate the balls and stimulating conversations. She longed for all of it, everything she had been missing in her father’s somber home for as long as she could remember.
Oh, she prayed he would let her go next year. Surely he would say yes. It was not as if he relished her presence at home. They were hardly close. And her aunt had offered at least a dozen times to introduce her to society...
Rebecca was just beginning to imagine herself curtseying to a handsome duke, when suddenly, the coach swerved, and her belly lurched with panic. She sat forward, gripped the windowsill, then heard a heavy thump.
“Father, wake up,” she said, sweeping her idle daydreams aside.
He stirred groggily, sat up and looked around, as if he weren’t quite sure where he was. “What is it?”
“Did you hear that noise?” she asked. “The coach swerved, and there was a thump.”
They were rolling along quite smoothly now, however, and her father sat back, unalarmed but annoyed with the interruption. “One of the bags probably tipped over on the roof.” He folded his arms and closed his eyes again.
Rebecca touched her forehead to the cool windowpane and tried to peer down at the ground passing beneath them, wondering if one of the bags might have fallen off when they’d swerved. Then slowly, the coach began to decrease speed, slower and slower until they were traveling at a snail’s pace, then they stopped completely, and the horses whinnied and jangled the harness.
Her father opened his eyes and sat forward again. “Have we arrived?”
Rebecca was still peering out the window. “No, Father. We’re surrounded by sycamores.”
He frowned and leaned closer to the window on his own side. “Why the blazes are we stopped here? We’re in the middle of nowhere.”
“I think you were right. We might have lost a bag.”
Growing impatient, he reached for his walking stick and folded his gnarled, rheumatic fingers over the ivory knob, while waiting for the driver to appear at the door and inform them of the problem.
But there was not even the sound of movement from outside the coach.
“Maybe he’s already gone back along the road to retrieve it,” Rebecca said.
“Well, he could have told us, instead of leaving us to sit here like a couple of ducks, wondering what the devil is going on.”
Rebecca peered out the window again, glanced up at the sky under the mist-shrouded canopy of leaves, and took note of the fading light. “I hope he is quick about it,” she said, “or he won’t be able to find it—or us again—in the dark.”
They continued to sit and wait in silence for something to happen, but nothing did. Rebecca watched the mist blow past the window and felt rather uneasy. “May I get out to see what is going on?” she asked.
Her father grunted his displeasure and reached for the door handle on his own side, while she wrapped her shawl around her shoulders and did the same. The step had not been lowered, so she hopped the distance to the ground. She landed with a thud and turned to lower the step.
As she did so, a chill enveloped her and seeped like icy water through the sleeves of her black serge gown. She looked around. The forest was as silent and still as the grave, except for the mist drifting between the trees. She smelled dampness and moss and tree bark but heard nothing. No wind, no birds. Nothing.
She shivered, then one of the horses whinnied and shook the harness again. Turning and gathering her shawl more tightly around her shoulders, she looked up. The coachman’s seat was empty. It was as if he had simply vanished into thin air.
Was this a haunted forest? she wondered ridiculously. Was there a troll who plucked coachmen from their seats and feasted on their tasty bones?
Her father came around the back of the coach and stopped to stare down the road they’d already traveled. “I’ll have his hide.”
Rebecca sighed, wishing her father’s nap had not been interrupted. Now he would be irritable the rest of the night, and she would be the one to bear the brunt of it inside the coach.
“Smith!” he shouted, his voice swallowed instantly by the thick chill in the forest. “Did we lose something?”
No reply. Not even an echo.
Rebecca moved closer to him. “Should we go and search for him?”
Her father leaned his frail form upon his cane, but before he could answer, a noise from somewhere ahead caused them both to turn. It was the heavy, thunderous rumble of hoofbeats.
Rebecca’s heart began to tremble. Someone was coming.
With her imagination getting the better of her in these eerie, deserted woods—were they about to have their cold bones feasted upon, too?—she slipped her arm around her father’s as her heart clattered in her chest.
A second later, an enormous black horse and rider emerged from around the bend, galloping toward them, hooves pounding hard and fast upon the ground. The man, like a dark phantom in the mist, was as dark and mesmerizing as the horse, broad-shouldered and cloaked in a black overcoat, a top hat perched at a rakish angle upon his head.
The instant he spotted the coach and team blocking the road, he pulled his great steed to a skidding halt. The horse reared up in protest, its hooves clawing at the air, its enormous muscles straining and flexing while it let out a sharp, angry whinny. The man shouted and fought to regain control, while the beast reared up a second time and turned on its hind legs in a complete circle.
His voice was deep and commanding, arresting Rebecca on the spot. For a brief second, she feared the man would be thrown to the ground, but he held firm, soon bringing the wild creature under control.
“Easy now, Asher,” he commanded. “Easy...”
While the animal huffed and stomped around on heavy hooves, Rebecca noted the luxurious quality of the man’s overcoat. The collar and lapels were lined in chocolate-brown fur, all the way to the hem.
He sat back in the saddle and turned his striking gaze to Rebecca and her father. His eyes were pale blue like the dawn sky, penetrating like an arrow pointed directly at one’s heart. His lips were full, his nose straight and aristocratic. It was a magnificent face with strong lines and masculine splendor, and Rebecca was both captivated by his beauty and intimidated by his authoritative presence, high upon the massive horse.
“What’s happened here?” he asked impatiently, glancing at the empty driver’s seat, then back at Rebecca and her father, who were, she suddenly realized, staring up at him as if they had just encountered Lucifer himself.
The stranger urged his horse forward along the side of the road, approaching even closer until he was directly in front of them.
They backed up, and her father spoke harshly. “Get in the coach, Rebecca.”
“Do as I say, gel.”
She supposed he was wise to be cautious. They knew nothing about this man or his intentions, so she dutifully stepped back into the coach, boldly meeting the stranger’s gaze as she climbed inside.
She perched herself on the edge of the seat, leaning forward where she could at least peer out the open door and witness the conversation. But because the man’s horse was adjacent to the door, she could see him only from the chest down. The top of the door was blocking his head and shoulders.
Consequently, knowing that he couldn’t see her either, she let her gaze wander down the length of his muscular leg. She felt a strange, quivering curiosity in her belly as her eyes traveled over his thick thigh and strong knee, then down to the toe of his expensive black riding boot, polished to a flawless sheen. Even the stirrups were gleaming.
“Do you require assistance?” he asked her father.
Assistance... That at least sounded promising.
Her father leaned upon his cane. “We are quite all right, thank you.”
“But father...” she protested, inching forward on the seat.
He gave her a stern look, which told her to keep quiet.
The stranger bent forward over the horse’s well-groomed mane to peer inside at her. Her heart began to race again as she noted for the second time the striking color of his blue eyes, which seemed to see straight through her. She felt naked and exposed, and her blood seemed to burn with a rather frightening excitement.
Heaven help her, she had never in her life encountered such a striking man. He took her breath away. She could not move.
Suddenly, a crazed black raven swooped down from the trees, screeched and flapped its wings in front of the horses. The coach jerked under her, and she was thrown back against the seat, smacking her head against the leather upholstery. The horses took off like a shot, and before she knew what was afoot, the trees outside were whizzing by the open door in a dizzying blur.
Sheer fright blazed through her. She clutched at the side of the coach, which continued to gain speed and bounced out of control over the bumps in the road.
“Stop!” she shouted, knowing it would do no good.
The coach swerved around a sharp bend, and she was tossed to the side. She hit her head again, winced and shut her eyes at the pain, and when she opened them, she found herself gazing out the door at another blur of movement.
Something passed her by—a flash of black. It was the man on the horse, galloping even faster than the out-of-control coach. The heavy hooves thundered over the ground as he disappeared in front, and she heard the sound of his deep voice shouting, “Hold up! Steady now!”
The horses whinnied, the coach rocked and swayed, then the noise and commotion died away as they pulled to a gradual halt.
Overcome with panic, Rebecca scrambled across the seat to the open door, looked out at the gentleman who was still on his horse up front holding onto the harness, and said, “Thank you, sir!”
She threw a foot out to climb down.
“But miss,” he quickly replied, glancing over his shoulder. “Please don’t—”
She didn’t even have a chance to comprehend the warning before—kersplash!—she was hip-deep in a cold bog, her breath coming short from the shock of the chill.
“Oh, bollocks!” she cried, as the cold water seeped into her drawers and numbed her skin. “This is freezing!” She flapped her hands through the air, flicking glistening droplets of water in all directions.
The man quickly brought his horse around. “Give me your hand.”
The plain words and firm voice of command moved her to action, and she reached out. Without delay he pulled her up out of the water, which was no easy task with her skirts dripping and heavy as a dead elephant. He set her sideways in front of him, then smoothly walked his horse out of the bog.
As soon as they were on dry ground, he dismounted, and she found herself looking down at those mesmerizing blue eyes again while he reached his arms up to her.
“Down you come, darling,” he said. “Just slide yourself into my arms.”
Dear Lord... A runaway coach and a darkly handsome stranger who wanted her to slide into his arms. This was more than any socially sheltered seventeen-year-old could take. It was the stuff of fantasies and fairy tales.
Flustered and befuddled, she placed her hands on his broad shoulders and felt the soft fur of his wide lapels through her wet gloves as she slid down from the saddle into his solid male frame. She had never touched a man like this before, had never been so close.
He began to lower her down, and the whole front of her body pressed tightly against his firm chest. Her heart was pounding so fast it was making her lightheaded, and she wasn’t sure if it was the lingering terror from being whisked away inside a runaway coach, or if it was the fact that she was being held by this man—with shoulders as broad and solid as an oak, and eyes that made her shiver inwardly with a strange curiosity she couldn’t even begin to understand. She had never experienced anything as exciting as this. It felt wild and wicked and shamefully titillating.
When her toes finally touched the ground, neither she, nor he, made a move to step apart. He continued to hold her steady, his big hands gripping her corseted waist while he looked down at her.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“I think so.”
“That’s a relief,” he replied, the corner of his mouth turning up in a sweltering grin that turned her brain to clotted cream. “For a minute there, I thought you were done for.”
Despite the overwhelming shock of what had just occurred, and the fact that she was freezing cold from the waist down and still being held in his arms, Rebecca found herself letting out a nervous little chuckle.
His blue eyes warmed at her response, and he stepped back, appearing comfortable with the fact that she was indeed all right and would be able to stand on her own two feet without swooning.
But it was only early yet, she supposed. There was still plenty of time for swooning.
“Are you sure you’re not hurt?”
This time, she actually thought about it, and felt a pain at the back of her head. She reached up to touch the sore spot. “I was knocked around a bit, I’m afraid.”
“Let me see.” He was a full twelve inches taller than she, so it was nothing for him to lean over her and examine the back of her head. His fingers slid into the loose knots of her thick, red hair and gently massaged her scalp, searching...touching... Then he stroked downward to the back of her neck and massaged the sensitive tendons there.
Every nerve in her body quivered and pulsed with a thrilling awareness and a hot jolt of pleasure. She drew in a slow, languid breath and held onto it.
“No blood. I believe you’ll live,” he said, lowering his hands to his sides and stepping back again. “But you’ll have a bump or two.”
“A bump,” she replied, before she let out that long held breath and marveled at the indulgent wish to be pressed up against his hard body again and feel that strange, amorous pleasure inside her.
“Yes, a bump,” he said. “Any other injuries?”
Still recovering from the exquisite heat of his touch, she considered it. “My elbow, I think.”
He grinned cheekily at her, as if he were catching her at some sort of game. But she really had whacked it against the side of the coach when they’d taken off and wanted only for him to touch it and rub it and stroke it with those magical hands of his. Oh, and of course make sure it was sound.
“Let me see that, too,” he said.
His voice was heavy and smooth as velvet, and it sent luscious gooseflesh tingling down the side of her body. He reached for her arm and felt around the bones. “Does this hurt?”
“What about this?” He massaged the muscle just above her elbow.
She hardly recognized the deep, sultry sound of her voice in response. “That feels quite nice actually.”
His head was bowed down, but his eyes lifted knowingly. A dark brow lifted, and he grinned again. “Yes, it does feel quite nice.”
He continued to work his hand over her elbow while his horse stood by in the quiet forest, discreetly tasting the grass and flicking his ears at insects. Rebecca’s body grew warm and pleasantly weak from the gentleman’s touch.
“Do you suppose this is proper?” he asked, lifting his eyes again with that same seductive expression. “We haven’t been introduced, you know, and we are very much alone.”
She wet her lips and pondered the fact that they were indeed alone in the forest and he was touching her intimately, and she had no idea where her father was. Anything could happen. He could seduce her. He could sweep her off her feet and into his arms, carry her to the coach and toss her down upon the soft, leather upholstery, kiss her neck and hands, overwhelm her with terrifying passions she’d never known, and ravish her without mercy....
She swallowed hard.
“You are correct, sir. We have not been introduced, so I suppose it is not proper at all. I confess—you have me quite unsettled.”
“I don’t mean to unsettle you.” He was quiet while he tested her upper arm. “Please allow me to give you this reassurance—there is nothing to fear. I only wish to be certain you are not hurt.”
But despite his assurances, there was still something incredibly erotic about the way he spoke to her and touched her, and the way it made her feel hot and dreamy inside.
“I do appreciate your concern.”
He continued to massage down the length of her arm all the way to her wrist. “You’re very lovely. Has anyone ever told you that?”
“No?” He sounded surprised, then his gaze narrowed. “How old are you?”
“I am seventeen, sir.”
His hand went still upon her arm, then he gently lowered it, setting it away from him with a sigh. “Much too young for an elbow examination, I’m afraid.”
“How old are you?” she asked, quite unable to restrain her curiosity.
“That’s a bold question for a well-bred young lady like yourself.”
“It’s the same question you asked me,” she argued.
“Yes, but I am not a well-bred young lady.”
She let her eyes sweep over the broad width of his chest and the visible power in his shoulders. “No, you certainly are not.”
They stood gazing at each other for a moment until he looked across the green bog, those powerful shoulders heaving with another sigh. “I suppose I must turn your coach around and return you safely to your father. He is no doubt concerned.”
“Yes, I am sure he is.” She realized with some chagrin that while this extraordinary man had been touching her, she had forgotten about her father completely. “I am fine now.”
But her teeth were beginning to chatter.
Without the slightest bidding from her, the man removed his heavy, fur-trimmed greatcoat and slung it around her shoulders. “This will keep you warm.” She felt the heat from his body inside it and smelled the enthralling fragrance of his cologne. “Thank you,” she said. “And thank you also for coming to my rescue.”
He touched the brim of his elegant top hat before he swung himself up onto his horse again. “I assure you, it was nothing at all.”
Oh, no, nothing at all, to come galloping after a runaway coach and pull a distraught young lady out of a bog, then make her forget all about the pain in her head and elbow and the fact that her skirts were dripping wet with that cold, sticky slime.
He clicked his tongue, walked his horse back into the water, and took hold of the harness. “Onward, now,” he said.
While he led the team in a wide circle and back up onto the grass, Rebecca admired his form without the coat. Wearing a fine black dinner jacket and crisp white shirt with a dark, crimson necktie, he was even more perfect than she could have imagined, for there was an incredible strength and vigor in his shoulders and in the defined lines of his torso and hips.
As soon as the wheels were on dry land, he rode closer and dismounted again. “Allow me to assist you.”
She glanced uneasily at the coach. “The horses won’t bolt again?”
“Not while I am leading them.”
He certainly knew how to instill confidence.
“Then I must thank you.” She took his hand and stepped back inside.
She settled into the seat and covered herself with his coat to keep warm. He closed the door with a firm click but opened it again a mere second later and said, “I am twenty-four.”
She stared numbly at him as he smiled. He closed the door again.
A moment later, they started back along the road to where her father was surely waiting in a tizzy.
Rebecca shook her head when she thought about that. Her father’s tizzy. Surely it could be nothing compared to hers, for it could never have been so frightfully wicked, yet so wonderfully breathtaking at the same time.
“Thank the Lord!” her father said, looking Rebecca up and down from head to foot as she stepped out of the coach. “What happened? You’re wet!”
“I am fine, Father,” she replied.
“The horses turned off the road and into a bog,” the gentleman explained as he dismounted from his own horse. He removed his gloves and strode toward them, glancing briefly at her father’s misshapen hand upon his cane. “May I enquire about your driver, sir? Where is he?”
“I am afraid I do not know. We thought he might have stopped to retrieve a bag that fell from the coach before you came along.”
“Did he not tell you of his intentions?”
Tapping his fine leather gloves against his palm, her handsome rescuer looked up at the baggage tied down on the roof. “Everything appears to be secure, even after what just occurred.” He turned to look in the direction from which they had come. “Wait here, please. I’ll be back shortly.”
He started walking.
“Well, at least you’re all right,” her father said, glancing quickly at Rebecca. “This gentleman, was he...Was he helpful?”
“Very helpful, yes,” she replied, sensing her father’s concern and doing her best to alleviate it with a show of indifference. She could not possibly tell him what had really occurred, not to mention how much she had enjoyed it. “I’m fine, Father.”
A few minutes later, they heard footsteps returning, and curiosity compelled Rebecca to start walking toward the sound.
“Where are you going?” her father snapped. “Stay here beside me, if you please.”
She stopped in the center of the narrow road but remained exactly where she was with her back to her father, anxious to see her magnificent hero returning. At last he appeared, carrying Mr. Smith over his shoulder like a heavy sack of potatoes. “What in the world happened?” she asked.
He continued walking toward her, but addressed her father, not her. “I regret to inform you, sir, it was not a piece of baggage that fell from your coach. Your driver has had too much to drink and tumbled over the side.”
“How can you be sure?” Rebecca asked, following them back to the coach. “What if he is ill?”
He carried Mr. Smith around to the front of the coach and managed with a grunt to tip him over the driver’s seat rail. The unconscious man fell backward across the cushioned bench, his arm falling limp and resting on the footboard. He snorted and groaned.
“I found the empty bottle a few feet away from him,” her gentleman-hero explained as he wiped at his hands. “And he smells like a distillery.”
Rebecca’s father limped around the coach and stood beside her, leaning on his cane. “He is no good to us in the driver’s seat. What the devil are we to do now?”
“May I ask your destination?”
“The Cotswolds Arms for tonight, then we’re on to Burford in the morning.”
The gentleman turned and strode toward his horse. “You can expect to be there in an hour.”
Her father limped after him. “But wait, sir! How are we to get there?”
Rebecca followed as well. After everything her handsome rescuer had done for them so far, was he going to abandon them now? Surely not.
“I beg your pardon, sir,” she said, “but my father cannot drive. His hands cause him great pain.”
The man had already reached his horse and was now leading the animal past them, toward the back of the coach. “I understand that,” he said, “and it would be my pleasure to drive you.”
Rebecca exhaled with relief, then marveled at the strangeness of this day and the miracle of how this extraordinary man seemed to have everything decided before she or her father even realized there was an issue to work out. And her head was still spinning from the wild carriage ride and the most unnerving memory of his touch. She would never forget it, not as long as she lived.
“That is most kind of you, sir,” her father said, while the man tethered his horse to the handrail above the page board. “But we don’t wish to inconvenience you. Are you certain it is no bother?”
The gentleman stroked the horse’s muscular neck, then his expression warmed as he bowed slightly at the waist. “As I said, it would be my pleasure.”
She sensed her father’s reluctance to accept the offer—as he did not enjoy being beholden to anyone for anything. God forbid that particular person might pay a visit to their isolated house in the country to provide him the opportunity to return the kindness. But under the present circumstances, they did not have much choice unless he would allow Rebecca to drive, and that was most certainly not going to happen.
Her father straightened his thin shoulders and finally resigned himself to the necessity of accepting the offer. “You are most kind,” he said to the gentleman. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Charles Newland, Earl of Creighton, and this is my daughter, Lady Rebecca Newland.”
Introductions at last.
The gentleman held out his hand to shake her father’s. “It is an honor to meet you, Lord Creighton, and a pleasure, Lady Rebecca.” He bowed to her, revealing nothing of what had occurred between them earlier. Not a hint of a grin, wicked or otherwise. No mention of the way his hands had worked over her arms and down her neck.
“I am Devon Sinclair, Marquess of Hawthorne,” he said. “My father is the Duke of Pembroke.”
“Of Pembroke Palace,” her father blurted out.
“That is correct.”
Good Lord, they were in illustrious company indeed, and they were about to employ a marquess, the future Duke of Pembroke, as their coachman.
“The palace is not far from here,” he said. “Just under an hour’s ride to the north.”
This was his father’s property, all of it, miles and miles of prosperous farmland and thick, lush forests. And he was the Marquess of Hawthorne, and heir to one of the oldest, most prestigious titles in England. Rebecca could barely comprehend it. A thrill rolled up her spine, as thick and compelling as the mist all around them.
“But what about our driver?” her father asked. “I’m half tempted to leave him here.”
“Father...” Rebecca admonished, glancing down at the ground as her cheeks flushed with embarrassment.
Lord Hawthorne smiled. She was so glad she finally knew what to call him.
“I might be tempted toward the same end myself,” he said, “if he were my driver. But have no worries. I’ll prop him up beside me, and he’ll keep me company when the moon rises.” Lord Hawthorne glanced up at the darkening sky. “Which will be very soon, so if you don’t mind, I must insist we move on. Allow me?”
He opened the door to the coach and lowered the step, then straightened and held out his hand to Rebecca. A rush of butterflies invaded her belly at the thrilling notion of touching him again, and when she slowly wrapped her tiny, gloved fingers around his larger ones, she felt the strength of his whole arm and the rock-solid support he offered, which she already knew firsthand. She gathered her heavy wet skirts in her other hand, then met his gaze for a brief, fleeting second. His blue eyes were dazzling, captivating, disarming, and the whole world came to a shuddering halt on its axis.
Rebecca wet her lips and managed to say, “Thank you,” in a quiet, ladylike voice. He bowed his head and handed her up.
Her heart was still racing when she sat down on the leather seat and watched the ducal heir assist her father up as well, holding him by the arm to steady his frail form.
How strong and capable the marquess was, like a brave knight from a childhood story. None of this seemed real.
As soon as her father was seated, Lord Hawthorne raised the step, but Rebecca spoke up. “Your coat...”
He held up a hand. “I insist you take care of it for me until we arrive.” Then he addressed both of them from the open door. “We shall reach the Cotswolds Arms in one hour, so settle in. I will see you when we get there.”
He closed the door, and the coach bounced slightly under his weight as he climbed up onto the driver’s seat outside. Rebecca and her father sat in silence, waiting while Lord Hawthorne lit the lamps, then the coach lurched forward. The harness jangled, and they began to roll on. They turned around in a clearing, back in the proper direction.
“I suppose we were lucky that young man came along when he did,” her father said uncomfortably, folding both his hands upon his cane.
“He was very helpful.” Rebecca took a deep breath and tried to settle in for the remainder of the journey, but it was not easy to relax when such a handsome, heroic man was sitting just outside, leading them out of the dense forest to their destination, after having saved her life and stirred her passions so unexpectedly. Her whole body was buzzing with delight under his warm, heavy, fur-trimmed coat, and it was a challenge just to sit still.
What a night, and, Lord, what a man. She couldn’t wait to arrive at the inn just for the chance to be in his presence again, one more time, however briefly, before they said goodbye.
The coach came to a smooth halt outside the inn, and Rebecca heard voices in the dark outside. Within seconds the door opened, and Lord Hawthorne stood there in his black dinner jacket and elegant hat—more handsome than he had been an hour earlier, if that were possible. He reached a hand in to Rebecca.
“Here at last,” he said, with more charm and appeal than any man had a right to possess.
“At last. Thank you.” She accepted his hand, but before she could step out, he glanced down.
“Forgive me, Lady Rebecca. I am remiss in my duties already. What a terrible footman I would make. I must lower the step.” He let go of her hand and did just that, then straightened and met her gaze again with those enticing blue eyes.
He handed her down, then assisted her father as well. Pointing at a groom who was setting a bucket of water down in front of his horse still tethered to the rear, he said, “I’ve already spoken to Mr. Griffin here, an excellent young man, and he will take care of your horses. He will see to Mr. Smith as well, who will be escorted into the stable for the night.”
“Will he be all right?” Rebecca asked.
Lord Hawthorne looked at her with pointed intensity, and she felt a sudden wave of dread, for the end was near. She would be forced to say goodbye to him, and who knew when she would ever see him again? If she would ever see him again.
“He will be fine,” he replied. “He was mumbling quite lucidly the entire way here.”
Her father shifted his cane from one hand to the other. “I cannot thank you enough, Lord Hawthorne. You have been most helpful. I don’t know how I can ever make it up to you.”
“Just see your lovely daughter home safely, sir.”
Rebecca sighed with a strange mixture of joy and sadness. If only Lord Hawthorne knew this was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to her, and that she thought him the most captivating, attractive man in the world. If only he knew that she was wishing this moment did not need to end, and that she would not have to return to her secluded home and her impossibly quiet life with her reclusive father.
“At least join us for dinner here at the inn,” her father suggested.
“Or a drink at least,” he added.
It was not like her father to wish to dine with a guest, for he was not a sociable man, which proved it: Lord Hawthorne did have more charm than was humanly possible, if he was able to turn her father into a convivial person.
“I appreciate the offer,” Lord Hawthorne replied, “but I am afraid I must decline. I have a previous engagement.”
Her shoulders heaved with disappointment. She wondered where he had been heading before he’d come upon them.
“I see,” her father replied. “I hope we were not a terrible imposition.”
“Not at all.”
“Then let me extend an open invitation to you,” her father added. “If you are ever near Burford, you must come to Creighton Manor for dinner. It would be a great honor to welcome you.”
And that, quite frankly, was a miracle, and the best thing Rebecca had ever heard her father say.
“Thank you, Lord Creighton,” he replied. “Likewise, I shall see that you are invited to Pembroke Palace.” He bowed to Rebecca. “It was an honor making your acquaintance, both of you. Have a safe trip home and enjoy your stay at the inn.” He went to fetch his horse.
Rebecca continued to watch him, wishing she could know him better, and wondering about all the tiny details of his life. What did he like to do when he was not rescuing young maidens in the forest? Did he hunt? Did he enjoy politics? Dinner parties? Was he always this charming?
And had he found a bride yet?
She knew what her father would say to such a silly, romantic notion. You’re only seventeen—too young to be thinking of marriage.
But she would not be seventeen forever.
They stood outside the inn while Lord Hawthorne mounted his horse. He turned the great animal around, then touched the brim of his hat. “Safe journey.”
“Same to you,” her father replied.
He kicked his boot heels and said, “Onward, Asher,” then trotted down the hill in the moonlight. Rebecca watched him until the hoofbeats faded to silence and their brief encounter found a private, profound place in her memory.
She sighed when she considered how this night compared to the empty stillness of her existence back home—but supposed her life would not be so empty now. Not after what had just occurred, because she would have this to dream about and to give her hope for the future. Yes, Lord Hawthorne would figure prominently in her dreams for a long time to come.
And soon, Rebecca would be entering society as a lady—the very next Season if her father permitted it—and it was entirely possible she would encounter Lord Hawthorne again in different circumstances. As a woman.
She quivered with excitement when she imagined it and surrendered to the fact that she would spend the next year of her life fantasizing about that moment.
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