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Authors: Laura Landon

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General

Shattered Dreams

BOOK: Shattered Dreams
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SHATTERED DREAMS
by
Laura Landon

Chapter 1

 

Fellings Down, England

April 6, 1858

Brentan James Montgomery, Earl of Charfield, broght his prized chestnut Arabian, Danza, to a halt at the top of the rige overlooking the Duke of Sheridan's country manor, Fellings Down. He sat for several long seconds, unable to breathe. The view before him was magnificent.

Fellings Down wasn’t Sheridan’s family seat and Brent wasn’t sure why he’d assumed The Down, as everyone referred to it, would be smaller and less significant. Nothing was further from the truth. The question was why neither the duke nor any of his children had entertained here before. It wasn’t that The Down was inferior in any way.

A beautiful, four-story stone mansion sat atop the rise in front of him. The structure exemplified the strength and elegance for which the Duke of Sheridan and his family were known. Breathtaking lawns and gardens flanked the U-shaped manor house. The lush expanse of vivid color was the most spectacular display Brent had ever seen.

But the blooming flowers and perfectly manicured bushes weren’t what interested him most.

Somewhere concealed within The Down, Harrison Prescott, Marquess of Fellingsdown, heir to the Sheridan dukedom, kept his prize possessions – his stable of magnificent Arabian horses.

Brent’s heart raced at the thought of seeing them close up. His heart thundered even faster when he thought of the payment that would be forthcoming when the next two weeks concluded.

Brent still couldn’t believe Fellingsdown had made such an offer. Although the two had attended school together and competed with each other academically, they’d never been what either of them considered close friends. Nor had they been rivals. They’d simply been paired together because of their above-average intelligence.

Which was why he was still surprised that Fellingsdown had made him such a spectacular offer - breeding rights to Fellingsdown’s prize Arabian, El Solidar. All that was required of him was to shower Fellingsdown’s reclusive sister with enough attention during their two week house party that she would forget a man with whom her family refused to allow her to become involved.

At first, Brent thought Fellingsdown intended to offer him a colt from El Solidar if he’d
marry
the sister. He’d broken out in a cold sweat knowing how close he was to realizing his dream of owning a colt sired by one of Fellingsdown’s prized Arabians only to give it up.

But give it up he would - if being forced to marry was the only means to get the one thing he’d always dreamed of having.

For an offspring from one of Fellingsdown’s magnificent Arabians, Brent would have walked through hell and back. But he refused to marry, especially a woman he didn’t love.

To his surprise, Fellingsdown had offered him a prize Arabian colt if he’d simply entertain his sister for the next two weeks.

Brent thought he’d met all of Fellingsdown’s siblings at one time or another and considered each of them quite handsome by even the strictest standards. This one must not have inherited the others’ good looks. Or their sharp wit.

Well, he didn’t care if she had three chins and a dozen hairy moles on her face. All he had to do was be her devoted companion for the next two weeks and the next colt Danza gave him would be sired by El Solidar.

Brent relaxed in his saddle and looked again at his destination. He might as well go down and join the festivities. Welsley, his valet, should be there already, and the sooner Brent met his host and was introduced to the sister he’d been hired to woo away from an unsavory suitor, the sooner he could get this over.

His horse had only taken a few steps toward The Down when a movement to the left caught his eye.

At first he thought one of Fellingsdown’s horses had gotten loose and was running through the countryside. But the horse wasn’t alone. A small rider sat atop the mammoth bay, her head and body hunched over the horse while her skirts flapped in her wake. The female must have lost control of her mount because the horse was traveling at a speed far faster than any woman he knew would dare to ride.

“Bloody hell,” he murmured as he nudged Danza to a run. If he didn’t race toward her, but aimed for a point in front of her, he should be able to cut her off before her horse reached the open meadow. After that, nothing would slow the horse down until it reached a low thicket over which he’d have to leap. But Brent doubted if the huge Arabian would have a rider on his back by then.

He let Danza race at full speed, knowing that if any horse could catch the bay, it was this one. But as he neared the runaway horse, a niggling of something he couldn’t explain clawed at his insides.

The rider didn’t seem in danger of losing her seat. In fact, the slender form seemed at one with her mount. And there was something strange about the position of her hands. She wasn’t clutching the horse’s neck in order to stay upright, but sat secure in the saddle, as if she rode with a natural balance honed to perfection over the years.

Something deep inside him wanted to doubt that what he was seeing could be real. He’d seen many expert horsewomen ride through Hyde Park on spirited horses, many of them sitting a saddle as well as any man. But never had he seen anyone ride this expertly. Or this confidently.

He kept his gaze locked on her slender form. She’d lost her riding hat long ago, or she’d never had one, and her long auburn hair blew free in the breeze. The sight was as intoxicatingly ethereal as anything he’d ever seen. A greater sense of protectiveness, as well as wonder, clutched his gut and refused to let go.

He pushed Danza harder, convinced he had to catch up with her before she reached the hedge. A part of him still couldn’t believe any female would dare ride at this speed toward a hedge the horse would have to jump. Surely no sane person would take such a chance. Especially one so delicate and feminine.

He lowered his head and closed the distance between them. He was almost near enough to reach out for her if it was necessary to snatch her from her horse. That was clearly his intent – until she turned her head.

Their horses raced neck and neck. Brent moved Danza closer, determined to do whatever it took to protect her.

He focused his gaze on the vision beside him and she looked at him.

Their gazes locked and he was struck by the most remarkable sensation he’d ever experienced.

Her face was more perfect than that of an angel. Her features more delicate. Her cheeks a rosy-hued pink, flushed from the excitement of the race.

She pursed her lips to evidence her determination. But it was the color and shape of her eyes that speared through him. His breath caught and for just a fraction of a second, his heart skipped a beat.

Her eyes were huge, big and round and colored a brown so dark they seemed black. Brent knew the excitement of the race had turned them dark and a certainty flashed through his mind that they would be this same color at the height of passion.

Except, it wasn’t the size of her eyes or the rich color that caused him such hesitation, but the expression in them when she looked at him. She spoke to him with only a look. But she wasn’t sending him a message. Or a plea for help.

She was daring him to race her.

She issued her challenge with a gleam in her eyes. Her confident expression defied him to ignore her.

“Bloody hell,” he may or may not have said out loud. He wasn’t sure. All he knew was that she seemed to know the instant he accepted her challenge because...

...she smiled.

The sun had been shining but not as brightly as now.

The air had been clean and fresh but not as clear and refreshing as now.

The grass in the meadow had been verdant and green, but not as lush as now.

And all because of a smile.

For the briefest of seconds he lost his concentration. As if the chit knew her effect on him, she took advantage of his hesitation and seized the lead.

He raced to catch up with her. Their horses matched stride for stride, each long reach of their muscular legs eating the distance between where they’d started and the hedge he knew had been her goal from the beginning.

They raced forward, the sound of the horses’ thundering hooves hitting the ground in unison. The huffing from their sturdy lungs exploding in the air.

Arabians were known for their courage and endurance. They were, without a doubt, the most powerful breed of horse known to man. Yet this small, fragile wisp of a woman showed no fear. She rode with the confidence of master to servant, in complete control of the mighty beast. An overwhelming sense of admiration and respect engulfed him, battling with a strange emotion he couldn’t explain.

Together they raced toward the hedge that blocked their path. Brent had never felt this great a sense of exhilaration in his entire life. He didn’t think his blood had ever rushed through his veins as fast or furiously as it was doing right now. Together, as one, the riders and their horses neared the hedge. Without hesitation, they took the initial leap that lifted their front legs from the ground. At the same instant their powerful rear legs gave a mighty push that propelled them through the air.

As one, they cleared the hedge.

Time stood still. It was as if he, the beautiful woman beside him, and the two magnificent horses beneath them were suspended in midair. As if time halted and every exhilarating emotion he’d ever experienced came back to revisit, only this time a hundred times more intensely. And still he soared through the air, the height of excitement continuing to build within him.

Together their horses reached the apex of their jump, then held. For what seemed a thousand remarkable seconds, time froze. Then, with a euphoric rush, they began their descent.

Their landing was smooth, almost as perfect a conclusion as the journey. Nothing could compare with what he’d just experienced.

The hedge was behind them now and ahead of them a thick grove of trees formed a barrier to the meadow clearing. He sensed the woman slow her horse and followed suit.

They both galloped a short distance farther, giving their horses a chance to recover their wind, then she stopped and he pulled alongside her.

She turned to him, her huge, dark eyes shining with excitement, her cheeks colored even deeper, her full lips open to give him the most exuberant smile he’d ever received. And she spoke, her voice so deep and rich he knew if he ever fell under her spell he’d be lost forever.

“That was marvelous!” she said with more unbridled enthusiasm than he’d heard from a woman in his whole life. “You were marvelous! Your horse was marvelous! Oh, I haven’t enjoyed anything so much in...forever!”

Brent stared at her in wide-eyed wonder as a rush of molten heat surged to every part of his body. He felt as if he’d been struck by something more powerful than lightning. She was, without a doubt, the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. Being near her, listening to her voice, seeing the excitement in her eyes, drowning in such a wide, inviting smile, affected him like he’d never been affected before.


I
was marvelous?” he asked, unable to believe she’d complimented him. “You matched me stride for stride. You took that hedge as if it were nothing more than a bump across the road.”

He leaned back in his saddle and looked into her face. Never before had he met anyone who possessed such grace, such beauty. It was as if she were an extension of the horse beneath her. “That was the most expert horsemanship I’ve ever witnessed. Where did you learn to ride like that?”

She blessed him with another open smile. The laugh that followed sent him soaring through the heavens.

“It’s not hard when you have such a magnificent horse to help you. You just give him his lead and let him have his way.”

“We both know it’s more than that.”

“Perhaps, but I was fortunate enough to grow up around them.” She patted her Arabian’s neck lovingly. “Most of my youth was spent in the stables. It doesn’t take long for each one of these magnificent creatures to turn into your best friend and you theirs. The bond between you is something people who aren’t fortunate enough to own an Arabian don’t understand.”

He was alive! For the first time in his life he’d met someone who valued the same things that were important to him. Someone who had the same love he had.

“Are you a guest of Fellingsdown’s?” Brent asked, knowing from her inexpensive attire she wasn’t, but not wanting to imply that being part of the staff who cared for Fellingsdown’s Arabian’s was demeaning in any way. If the duties that went with his title weren’t so demanding, there would be nothing he’d like better than to spend every hour of every day with his horses.

She laughed. “No, I’m hardly a guest.”

“And Fellingsdown allows you to ride his prized horses?”

There was a gleam of mischief in her eyes that made him want to laugh.

“You might say it’s my job.”

“Then I envy you.”

Her perfectly shaped eyebrows arched in the most expressive manner. “Why?”

“Because your time is your own. For as much as I’m certain I’ll enjoy my stay here, there’s nothing I’d rather do than have time every day for riding.”

BOOK: Shattered Dreams
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