Here's a sneak peek at my upcoming release, Otherwise Engaged! Enjoy!
Of the many things that could be depended upon to make a young lady swoon, a love letter certainly made the list.
I perched on a low rock in the center of the quiet meadow, one knee tucked to my chest, the skirts of my riding habit spread about me. The sun shone fiercely against the cloud-strewn sky, as if demanding my attention, but not even the brilliance of the sun could steal my focus from the letter in my hands, though I’d read it a dozen times or more.
My dearest Rebecca,
How is it that I can miss you before you have even left Brighton? I know I will see you tonight, but already, I ache to let you go, not knowing when we will see each other again.
I sighed aloud. Stella snorted from where she grazed a few paces away, as if mocking me.
“Oh, hush,” I said. “You cannot judge me. You’ve never been in love.”
My horse did not offer a response, which was just as well. I’d heard that love could cause madness, and a talking horse would surely be an alarming symptom.
I read the rest of the letter once more and then touched where the writer had signed his name. Edward Bainbridge. He’d slipped it to me on our last night together in Brighton. A smile climbed my lips at the memory, and I made no effort to restrain it. After all, as my dear friend Marjorie had said, if a recently engaged young woman did not wish to smile all the day long, she had no business being engaged.
But then my smile faltered, as it always did. I could not ignore the larger problems that Edward and I faced. I folded the letter and stashed it in my pocket as I tried to keep my uncertainty and lurking questions at bay. I’d left Edward in Brighton only two days ago, arriving again in Hertfordshire yesterday. There was plenty of time yet to put my plan into motion.
Stella’s not-so-gentle nudge all but knocked me to the grassy field. “All right, all right,” I said with a laugh. “You’ve gotten bossier, you know. Let us hope you haven’t also gotten lazy. ”
I gave the meadow a quick perusal as I stood. Empty, of course. I’d never seen anyone here in all my rides, as the neighboring estate, Linwood Hall, had stood vacant for years. I quickly unbuckled Stella’s saddle and heaved it over a nearby log, her bridle and reins soon following. Stella pranced as I returned to her, and her anticipation was contagious.
“Ready, girl?” I spoke quietly as I moved to her left side, facing her shoulder and gripping her mane with both hands. I could not hesitate, or I’d never make it up. With a quick breath, I took a running step and threw my right leg over her back, my arms pulling me up with every bit of their strength. Stella started a bit but did not run off as she had the first time I’d attempted it.
“There we go.” I tried not to feel too pleased with myself. Despite not riding in over a month, my body had remembered how to execute that rather inelegant mount. I wouldn’t even have had the slightest idea how to do it if Mama and I hadn’t visited Astley’s Royal Amphitheater multiple times in London. I’d stared open-mouthed as the bareback trick riders had done the impossible again and again: headstands, flips, balancing with one foot while playing a pipe. All riding bareback, and all breathtaking.
“Did you miss me?” I whispered to Stella as I stroked her neck, her golden coat smooth beneath my fingertips. Her only answer was a flick of her ears, but I fancied she had missed me a little.
I glanced around again, checking once more for unexpected visitors because the most difficult part of riding bareback was not mounting or keeping my balance. It was ensuring no one discovered I rode bareback at all.
Satisfied the meadow was secluded, I nudged Stella into a walk. It had taken me a year of practice for this to feel natural, the uneven ridges of her spine and the pull of her muscles beneath me. Her shoulders tensed as if she were tempted to throw me from her back, but slowly she began to relax. I allowed her stride to lengthen into a smooth canter as I led her in a long oval, using the signals we’d developed in lieu of reins: small nudges with my heels and short clicks of my tongue. We followed the natural shape of the meadow, similar to the ring at Astley’s. Perhaps one day we’d advance to the stunts the trick riders performed with such ease.
Except, try as I might, I could never entirely shake the shadow of memory from five summers ago. The emptying, rushing air. The cold, hard earth. And the pain—the splintering, twisting pain.
I pushed away the darkness and called above the thundering hooves. “All right, Stella girl. Let us see how far the wind takes us.”
She leaped into a gallop, her front legs reaching hungrily for the earth. My stomach gave that familiar, dizzying lurch, and I gave an unladylike whoop. Oh, I had missed this freedom, this exhilaration. The countryside streaked past us, the bright greens and pinks and yellows of summer painting a blurred landscape at the edges of my vision. I grinned wildly and leaned low beside Stella’s lunging neck as her hooves drove into the wet grass. The wind rushed over me, throwing my skirts behind me and threatening to take my hat with it. I pushed my hat more firmly onto my head and pressed on.
We reached the end of the empty meadow, and I urged Stella around the curve, faster, faster as I closed my eyes, trusting her instincts. I was not a girl on a horse. I was a bird. A swift-winged sparrow alone in the endless expanse of the azure sky. I gripped Stella’s mane in one hand and reached out my other to drift through a cloud as the summer breeze pulled against the sleeve of my habit.
Then I heard something above the steady thump of Stella’s hooves. I pulled her to a stop, and she gave a snort, her hooves pawing the grass as I glanced around. All was quiet, save for the birdsong and breeze.
Likely, it was simply my fears at play. I’d long worried a tenant farmer would come across my little meadow, see me acting the barbarian atop my bareback horse, and spread embarrassing—if true—rumors about me. Or worse, that they would tell Mama and William.
But the meadow was still. My secret was safe. I gently nudged Stella forward again.
A scream pierced the calm summer air.
I froze, my spine stiff as the scream faded into the wind. What on earth?
The cry came again, shrill and panicked, echoing through the trees like a ghostly wail. My head whipped to the left. It came from the lake.
I kicked Stella, and she leaped forward. I gripped her sides with my knees, clinging to her mane as she dodged the trees separating my meadow from the lake. The wind stole my breath, and a suffocating weight grasped at my lungs.
Grass turned to pebbles beneath us, and Stella’s hooves clattered over the loose stones as she broke through the last stand of trees. I yanked her to a halt, too hard. She tossed her head in protest, but I didn’t have time to apologize. My gaze jumped frantically over the familiar scene. Enormous willow trees, their branches reaching out over the water. The shore, edged with trees and rocks. The lake, a vastness of blue-green.
But the lake was not its usual smooth mirror. Ripples spread ten yards from the shore to my left. I gaped. A long branch, thick with summer’s leaves, floated in the water, and a small hand fumbled over the wet bark. A face emerged, a young girl, gasping and choking, before disappearing once again.
I threw myself off Stella’s back, stumbled across the rocky shore, and splashed into the shallow water, kicking up mud in great clouds that rolled through the clear lake. But my focus was on the branch, the hand. The girl hadn’t surfaced again.
I sloshed forward, the skirts of my habit dragging behind me. When the water reached my waist—too slow, too slow!—I dove forward. The icy water enveloped me, and I inhaled a mouthful of bubbles. How was it still so cold in August? I kicked, breaking the surface and pushing myself forward. I was not a particularly good swimmer, and now I wished I’d spent more time in the lake. My boots clung like anchors to my feet, but there was no time to kick them free.
I threw my arms out again and again until my hands knocked into the leafy twigs of the branch. I grabbed the rough bark and pulled myself toward the spot where I’d seen the girl. Merciful heavens, she’d found the surface again, her face pale and her wet hair splayed across her cheeks. The poor girl could not have been more than eight or nine years old. She coughed, and the sound sent hot relief through my entire body.
“Help!” She hadn’t seen me, her cry pitiful. And then she went under, her hair floating to the surface.
Why could she not stay above the surface? I kicked again and grabbed her arm. She froze and then lashed out, her boot colliding with my left calf. Pain shot through me, but I tried to ignore it as I dove under the surface, peering through the murky water. There it was—her skirts caught on a sharp offshoot of the branch. As I watched, the whole branch shifted and she was able to rise and gulp another breath before the unsteady motion of the limb dragged her back under.
I yanked on her skirt, hard, harder, until the fabric ripped in my hands. I grabbed her around the waist, and we broke the surface together. The girl flailed about, her hand smacking the side of my head.
“Calm down!” I ordered. “I’m here. I’ll help.”
She did not hear me with all her splashing and wailing. My weak legs couldn’t hold us above anymore, and we went under, bubbles and arms and legs crowding my vision. Blast and bother. This child would not be the death of us both, and she certainly wouldn’t keep me from marrying Edward. I kicked my legs, straining with the effort, and heaved her to air once more.
“Stop moving!” I shouted. “Let me help you.”
Her thrashing calmed somewhat, and I slipped one arm across her chest, cursing my long skirts as I began awkwardly stroking toward the nearest shore. The girl gasped for air, unable to speak, coughing more often than not.
“It’s all right,” I assured her. “You’re all right. We’re nearly there.”
Were we? We seemed to sink lower into the water with every inch I moved. I hefted the girl up higher. Even her skinny frame was a challenge to keep afloat considering my inadequacy in swimming. My skirts tangled about my legs, trapping them into the barest of movements. I gave another desperate kick, and my feet met slippery mud.
Thank the heavens. Thank the earth too, for that matter.
I managed to get my feet under me, my head just above the surface. The girl spun in the water and threw her arms around me, clinging like a leech.
“You’re safe,” I wheezed as I staggered farther up the shore. “We made it.”
She did not answer, her face buried in my shoulder, her dripping hair plastered across my chest and face.
My head jerked up at the voice, and I stumbled, going down to one knee in the shallows. The girl in my arms gave a whimper as I focused on the man splashing toward us through the water.
He was tall, too tall, but that was likely because I was crouching like a toad in the water. He reached us in a second and pulled the girl—Olivia, was my very astute guess—from my arms.
“What happened?” he demanded.
Was he speaking to me or Olivia? I did not much care for the sharpness of his voice either way.
Then he reached a hand down to me, and as my arms and legs were shaking from exhaustion, I didn’t have much choice. I took his hand, and he pulled me to my feet before turning and wading back to the rocky shore, carrying Olivia in his arms. I staggered after him and collapsed onto a mossy log beyond the reach of the water. My dripping habit clung to me, every inch of my skin covered with soaked fabric. Even with the hot summer sun overhead, I shivered.
The man perched Olivia on a nearby flat rock. He shrugged out of his jacket and threw it around her shaking shoulders, rubbing her arms as if that would make any difference. She was a skinny thing, and the weight of the jacket made her slump. Stella remained where I’d left her, though her hooves danced in clear unease, and an unfamiliar bay hunter snorted a short distance away.
The man turned to face me, his eyes intensely green, narrowed, and not at all pleasant.
“What happened?” he demanded once again.
Did he think I had something to do with the girl nearly drowning? I’d never seen either of them before in my life. Olivia sat silently, mouth squeezed shut. Why did she not say anything?
Well, if she wouldn’t, I would. I scrutinized our surroundings. Beyond where the man knelt, an enormous willow tree reached out over the lake. One branch had a jagged edge, hovering directly over where I’d first seen the girl.
“I could venture a guess,” I said, probably a bit rudely. I didn’t care. “Your daughter fancied a climb, and the tree branch went too far over the lake.”
“She’s not my daughter.” His words were distracted as he followed my gaze to the broken tree branch and frowned. He knew I was right. “Olivia,” he growled.
“You only said not to go in the lake.” Olivia’s face pinched, her cheeks and nose sharp angles. If he wasn’t her father, they had to be related somehow. They had the same light hair and green eyes.
“Yet, that is exactly where you ended up.” He blew air from his mouth and pushed himself to his feet, pacing away with hands at his waist. Olivia glared at his back. They were quite a disagreeable pair. Clearly, the man was an incompetent guardian, whoever he was. Why would he allow a young child, who he must have known could not swim, to wander unaccompanied to the lake?
And though I’d never thought of myself as self-important, the fact that neither of them had thanked me for stepping in—or rather, diving in—to save her life was somewhat irritating.
“Pardon me,” I said stiffly as I stood, crossing my arms over my shivering body. The man turned suddenly, as if he’d forgotten I was there. “But delightful as it has been to make your acquaintance, I’m afraid I will be going now. I wasn’t anticipating a swim today.”
The man stared at me, taking in my soaked habit and dripping curls. “Curse it. I am sorry. I am being terribly rude.”
He was certainly correct about that.
He faced me fully for the first time. His broad face was tan, his eyes crowded by lines, as if he’d spent his childhood staring too long at the sun. “Please forgive me, Miss . . . ?”
“Rowley,” I supplied with some reluctance.
He squinted. “Rowley, you say? Related to a Mr. William Rowley?”
“Yes. William is my brother.” How did this man know William? I really shouldn’t even be speaking to him without a proper introduction, but we were far past that now. “And you are?”
“Avery,” he said. “Nicholas Avery.” I’d never heard of him. He waved at Olivia, still shivering and still scowling. “This is my sister, Olivia Avery,” he said, grimacing as if he’d sipped particularly sour lemonade.
“Half-sister,” she muttered.
Half-siblings, then. That explained their similar coloring and strange interactions, not to mention their age difference. Mr. Avery had to be nearly two decades older than his sister, though he wasyounger than I’d first thought. Even with the lines around his eyes, I placed him near to five and twenty years. Likely, he spent a great deal of time out of doors—with wild animals, judging by the angry white scar running down his left cheek and disappearing beneath his cravat. His clothing was soaked from carrying Olivia, and his white shirtsleeves and fawn waistcoat clung to his rather well-built arms and chest.
He looked up and caught me staring. My face heated, and I said the first thing that rattled through my head. “Am I correct in my assumption that you are rather new to the neighborhood, Mr. Avery?”
“Lieutenant,” he said immediately.
He cleared his throat. “That is, you may call me Lieutenant Avery, as I’m still on half-pay.”
Lud, a military man. No wonder he had such an air of authority, even with a woman he’d barely met who had saved his ungrateful sister from a horrible death.
“And yes,” he went on, “we’ve just arrived in Millbury. I’ve let Linwood Hall for the time being.”
Unwelcome news, indeed. Was my quiet, secluded meadow part of Linwood’s estate? I did not know the boundaries well enough to guess.
“Will your sister often be wandering without proper supervision?” I asked in a clipped tone. “I cannot be rescuing her every time I ride.”
The lines around his eyes tightened. “Olivia is eleven years old. She hardly needs constant observation.”
Eleven? She couldn’t be. She was such a tiny thing. But Olivia raised her chin as if daring me to question her age.
“I would say she very plainly needs supervision,” I said. “Or have you forgotten why we are all so wet?”
“An accident.” He brushed me off with a wave of his hand. “And in any case, I was following her and was not a minute behind you.”
“You were following me?” Olivia stood, red climbing her pale cheeks.
A muscle ticked in Lieutenant Avery’s jaw. “I wanted to ensure you would obey my instructions, which you obviously did not.”
Olivia glared at him and then shrugged off his jacket and let it fall to the mud. “You are not my father. You are barely my brother. I needn’t obey you.” She darted off, the loose ribbons in her hair dangling behind her as she disappeared into the trees.
“Olivia!” Lieutenant Avery shouted after her, and his booming voice carried easily. Obviously he had a great deal of experience barking orders. “Come back here!” But his only answer was the rustling trees and lapping water.
“I do not think she is coming back,” I said dryly.
He turned back to me, staring as if I were a tenacious weed that had sprouted in his perfect garden.
“Well, this has been just lovely,” I said, not particularly keen to prolong our conversation. The Prussian blue linen of my habit stuck to my legs and arms like the stubborn mussels I’d seen on the rocks at Brighton. “I do hope we meet again on slightly better terms.” Or never, if I could manage it.
I stepped back, but he stepped forward. “Miss Rowley, please wait.”
I paused as he scrubbed a hand over his face. The fellow looked exhausted. Not surprising, really, with such a shrew for a sister. “I am sorry for all that happened and for the way I acted. I hope you will forgive me.”
It was not a particularly eloquent apology. Not to mention he still hadn’t thanked me for saving his sister’s life. Although, perhaps he wasn’tgrateful I’d saved her, if she was always this awful.
I sighed. Now who was the shrew? I ought to forgive him and put this whole mess behind us. I brushed a damp lock of hair from my face. My hand froze. My head was bare. “Dash it all.” I stalked to the edge of the lake in the vain hope that my hat would be floating conveniently within reach. But I saw no sign of black wool or ostrich feathers. Botheration. It had taken the milliner ages to get my hat fitted exactly right and had cost me a good deal of pin money besides. Mama had urged me to use a hat pin or ribbon to keep my hat in place, but I hated the feeling of securing it to my head. I wanted to be free of restraint, especially when riding. She would undoubtedly laugh at me now.
“Did you lose something?” Lieutenant Avery joined me at the water’s edge.
“My hat,” I said, my words curt. “I daresay it is at the bottom of the lake by now.”
“Oh.” He winced. “I am sorry for that as well. Perhaps you’ll allow me to replace it.”
Now he decided to try to act the gentleman. Edward would never have treated me such. He was all that was chivalrous and attentive, and I could easily imagine myself tucked into his warm jacket, his blue eyes filled with concern. Lieutenant Avery would do well to take a page out of his book.
Then my breath choked in my throat. My letter! I clawed at my pocket, though I already knew it was hopeless. I pulled out a wad of soaked mush, ink disappearing as it dripped onto the muddy rocks below. Edward’s words—his sweet, romantic words. Gone.
“Is it too much for me to hope that this wasn’t terribly important to you?”
I glared at him. “No, of course not. I am mourning the loss of my shopping list.”
“Ah,” he mused. “It was something important.”
“Irreplaceable.” I tossed the sodden lump into the lake and spun, marching to where Stella waited for me as she chewed absently on a mound of grass.
The dratted lieutenant followed me. “Please, let me assist you up—” He stopped when he caught sight of Stella completely bare. “Do you . . . not have a saddle?”
There went my long-kept secret. Months of careful practice wasted. Mama would likely never let me ride again once she heard. And William . . . I’d rather hide in the hayloft than face him.
Perhaps if I acted as though this were the most natural thing in the world, Lieutenant Avery would think nothing of it. Perhaps he would assume this was how girls rode horses in Millbury.
“I do not need a saddle.” I moved to Stella’s side. “But thank you all the same.” I hoped my hard tone revealed how very unthankful Iwas.
I’d mounted only a half hour before, so I did not hesitate as I gripped Stella’s mane. Unfortunately, that practice reminded Stella of her favorite joke to play on me. As I began to throw my leg over her back, she jolted forward a quick step. I slid off her like rain on a duck’s feather, barely managing to keep my feet beneath me.
“Stella,” I hissed as I resisted the urge to smack her shoulder.
A soft cough came from behind me, a sad attempt to hide his chuckle. “Are you certain you do not need help?”
“Quite certain, thank you,” I said through gritted teeth. Then I lowered my voice and leaned toward Stella’s ear. “If you move again, I’ll not ride you for a week. A week, I swear.”
I reassumed my mounting position, and this time when I pulled myself up, Stella did not move a hoof. However, I had underestimated the difficulty of mounting in a wet habit. I somehow managed to get my ankle over Stella’s back, but the soaked fabric of my skirts restricted my movement. Awkwardly—oh, so awkwardly—I wriggled and pulled until I sat myself upright. I arranged my wet skirts over my boots and sent the lieutenant a superior look. He watched me with crossed arms and a badly concealed grin.
“Good day, Lieutenant Avery,” I said. Then I kicked Stella’s flanks, and we bounded away without a backward glance.
I'm a romance addict, lover of all things historical, and a writer mom who loves her job!
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