Authors: Cathy Maxwell
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
In the golden firelight, his expression appeared grim. The neck of his shirt was open, the sleeves rolled up. With a soft gasp of mother love, Leah reached for her child. But Devon’s deep, silky voice stopped her.
“Who is the baby’s father? And do you love him?”
She froze. Her mouth went dry. Her heart pounded in her chest.
A part of Leah wanted to run. But she’d never been a coward. Through sheer strength of will, she raised her chin in defiance, her gaze not leaving his.
“Where is he now?” he demanded.
There was an edge to his voice. One she’d not heard before. One she didn’t trust. “I want my baby.”
“And you shall have him,
my question is answered.”
She could have challenged him, told him she didn’t owe him explanations. But in truth, she did…
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental and beyond the intent of either the author or the publisher.
AVON BOOKS, INC.
An Imprint of
10 East 53rd Street
New York, New York 10022-5299
Copyright © 2000 by Catherine Maxwell
Published by arrangement with the author
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 99-95330
All rights reserved, which includes the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever except as provided by the U.S. Copyright Law. For information address Avon Books, Inc.
First Avon Books Printing: February 2000
AVON TRADEMARK REG. U.S. PAT. OFF. AND IN OTHER COUNTRIES, MARCA REGISTRADA, HECHO EN U.S.A.
Printed in the U.S.A.
If you purchased this book without a cover, you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher, and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this “stripped book.”
To my friend Bonnie Tucker
I dreamed I held
A sword against my flesh.
What does it mean?
It means I shall see you soon.
Devon Marshall, viscount Huxhold, rode hell-for-leather across the frozen fallow fields, bound for London and his grandfather’s deathbed.
Overhead, swift-moving clouds promised a storm. The air was already damp and heavy. He’d be cursed if he didn’t beat the bad weather. His trip could not be delayed.
Suddenly, Gallant stumbled, almost tossing Devon over his head. The horse recovered his footing but limped.
“Damn.” Devon’s single word echoed in the winter silence. He slid off Gallant’s back, his booted heels uneven on the frozen, overturned earth. The accident was his fault. He’d taken a shortcut, turning off the main road and urging his horse across pasture and farming lands. Now, he stood in the middle of Yorkshire without an idea of exactly where he was.
It was a wickedly cold day in February and no time to be traveling the North Country. Sensible people would be huddled around their fires. Then he remembered it was Sunday. The pious would be in church.
He searched the surrounding tree line for a tower or steeple rising above the bare limbs. Nothing.
Gallant stumbled a step on the uneven terrain, and Devon reached for the bridle. This horse was his pride and joy. The knock-kneed black boasted a great flat head and a tendency to trot with his tongue hanging loose. More than once, the sight of Devon on Gallant’s back had been compared to that of a drunken sailor winding his way home from the pub.
Devon didn’t care. He had no need for grace and beauty in a horse or even in people. He valued intelligence, loyalty, and heart—qualities Gallant had in abundance. Better yet, the animal was as fiercely independent and ill-mannered as Devon himself. Gallant might be ungainly, but he had won more than his share of races and could travel with the perseverance of a camel.
Grimly, Devon picked up Gallant’s hoof and took a look.
The shoe was missing. No surprise there. Gallant should have been shod the week before, but Devon had been too busy warming himself in front of his friend McDermott’s fire to see to the matter. He hadn’t expected to be called to London in such haste.
Taking a penknife from his pocket, Devon cleaned the hoof, flicking out a number of small rocks.
“There you are, boy. Not much better.” He patted the horse’s muzzle. “You’re a damn nuisance,” he whispered with affection. In answer, Gallant nudged him back.
He had to find a farrier.
He had to reach London.
You’re never prepared, Devon. A wise man is always prepared.
His grandfather’s words rang clearly in Devon’s mind, almost as if the crafty old bastard were standing by his shoulder, saying them aloud.
Devon drew in a deep, shuddering breath. He could recall his grandfather’s exact tonal inflection, even though the man hadn’t chided him for his shortcomings in years. They’d seen each other, but never for long enough to start an argument. Devon’s choice. Especially since all the bitter words they’d hurled at each other still haunted him.
Now it no longer mattered. Seeming indifference and polite platitudes came down to this: Devon was the marquess of Kirkeby’s heir. Past differences were to be set aside because the marquess was not expected to live beyond the week.
Beyond the week
. Those were Brewster’s words in his curt message.
Devon could curse the man his terse note. So many questions had crowded his mind that he’d barely been able to take his leave from McDermod with any civility. He was still in a state of shock.
How could his grandfather, whose political power had few limits, whose personality engaged all who entered his sphere, who had proven time and time again to be larger than life itself, how could this man die… as simply, and as quietly, as all other mortals?
Now, away from friends, society, all that he knew and held familiar, Devon could not escape one unassailable truth— In spite of their differences, he had loved this man who had raised him after his parents’ deaths.
He had to set things right between them.
And that’s what had brought him to this point, stranded in a farmer’s field, the victim of his own unpreparedness and haste.
Buttoning his heavy greatcoat and setting his beaver hat lower on his head, Devon spied a path leading from the field through a line of trees.
“Come, Gallant. Let’s see what we can do for you.” There had to be a farm cottage close by.
Gallant followed, his breaths coming out in puffs of frigid air.
The path wound its way through a small wood. As Devon walked, he realized this area was not totally unfamiliar to him. The seat of his good friend the earl of Ruskin was hereabout. Having his bearings made him feel better. He’d get a horse off of Rusky if he didn’t find a solution sooner.
Either way, he was determined to make London and the family home, Montclef, if he had to crawl to the place.
Around a curve on the other side of the wood, Devon caught sight of a picturesque farm less than a quarter mile away. Smoke curled from the chimney of the whitewashed cottage, while a rooster crowed from somewhere around the stone shed.
Gallant’s ears picked up and then laid back. He nickered in protest. Devon sniffed. The wind carried the pungent scent of pigs. The pen must be located on the other side of the barn. It was just Devon’s bad luck he was downwind from the buggers. He hated the smell of pigs. Gallant obviously did, too.
As he drew closer, the door to the cottage opened. A portly woman wobbled out and made her way across the yard toward the barn. In each fisted hand, she carried a heavy bucket with the strength of a woman accustomed to hard work. A heavy wool shawl tied around her hat and shoulders protected her from the cold. Unfortunately, the wind kept blowing the straw bonnet’s floppy brim down in her face.
She had to toss her head to let the wind blow it back up, allowing her to see. Consequently, her path toward the shed with the heavy buckets was a zigzag of frustration.
Devon shouted out, “Hey, there.”
The wind must have carried his words away, because the woman didn’t break stride. Instead, she disappeared behind the shed. A second later, Devon heard the ear-piercing squeals of hungry pigs.
Wrinkling his nose, Devon gave Gallant’s reins a tug. “Come on, lad.” In the barnyard, a milk cow stuck its head out beyond the round sandstone columns supporting the shed’s roof. A pair of oxen munched contentedly, watching Devon and Gallant with seeming disinterest.
He didn’t bother with the pig girl but tossed the reins around a stone posed in front of the cottage for that purpose. He knocked on the door. It swung open.
“Hello?” Devon listened for an answer.
The room was neat and homey, with rush-bottomed chairs and colorful rag rugs on the floor. Freshly baked bread was set out on the hearth.
But no one was home.
He wished now that he had sent a message telling Brewster and the members of his family he was on his way, but he’d been certain he could travel faster than any courier. Obviously he was wrong.
Doggedly, he followed the smell of the pigs. No dog barked a greeting. Even the chickens were wise enough today to roost instead of scratching the yard for food. He turned the corner of the shed and found himself on the opposite side of the pigpen from the woman.
She was busy trying to make sure the two larger pigs gave the runt his fair share. Her soft, cajoling words were ignored by the pigs… but Devon did notice she was younger than he’d first surmised.
She hadn’t noticed him.
Over the noise of grunting pigs, he said, “Excuse me.”
Pig squeals drowned him out. The earth was soft and warm here, and his boots sunk a bit into the muck.
He tried not to think what it was he stood in.
He raised his voice. “Excuse me!”
This time he caught her attention. The woman looked up, startled to discover she was not alone. Holding the slop bucket protectively away from the pigs, she lifted the brim of her hat, the better to see him—and then gasped in surprise.
Devon was no less shocked himself. He knew those brown eyes. They had once fascinated him with their ability to be innocent and seductive… naive and worldly… honest and deceitful all in the same moment. A temptress’s eyes.
This was no simple pig girl.
It was Leah Carrollton, a London debutante who only months ago had been the reigning belle of Society—until she had abruptly disappeared.
When she’d first vanished, her family put it about she was visiting relatives out of the city, but gossip and speculation among the ton had run rampant. Devon had heard the whispers even in his self-imposed exile from London. He had tried not to pay attention. He’d told himself that Leah Carrollton’s whereabouts or grand doings were no longer his concern… but on those nights when he had no companions but a lonely fire in the grate and a half-empty bottle of brandy, he’d thought of her often. He hadn’t been able to prevent himself.
Now, in the whisk of a second, he no longer saw himself standing by some yeoman’s pigsty but back in London almost a year ago when he’d been badgered into attending a ball. He usually avoided such affairs. But this one was sponsored by McDermott’s aunt, a laughing, Junoesque woman whose company Devon enjoyed, and he’d good-naturedly agreed to make an appearance. Of course, he’d been determined to escape the affair as early as possible… that is, until he had laid eyes on Leah Carrollton.
She had been standing a step apart from a group of other debutantes. They’d all worn pastels
and smelled of rose water. Their conversation consisted primarily of self-conscious giggles. She
was one of them, and yet alone.
He instantly recognized a kindred soul. He understood. She wanted, no,
to be accepted by the
group but exerted her own independence.
She sensed him staring at her. She turned, searching, and then looked straight at him.
In that moment, time halted. He even stopped breathing, knowing he still lived only because his
heart pounded in his ears, its beat abnormally fast. Cupid’s famed arrow had found a mark.
For the first time in his adventurous life, he felt the sweaty palms and the singing in his blood, of
a man smitten beyond reason by the mere presence of a woman. The poets had been right!
Oh, she was lovely to look at. Petite, buxom, rounded. He could have spanned her waist with his
Her heavy black hair, styled in a simple, elegant chignon held in place by gold pearl-tipped pins,
emphasized the slender grace of her neck. He imagined himself pulling those pins from her hair
one by one. It would fall in a graceful, swinging curtain down to her waist. Her eyes were so dark
and exotic that they reminded him of full moons, Spanish dancers, and velvety nights.