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Authors: Nikki Poppen

The Heroic Baron

BOOK: The Heroic Baron
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The Dowager’s Wager

For Rowan, who is seven and thinks Percy Blakeney
and Robin Hood are the greatest heroes ever. Ro, you are
a true classic. May you always love to read. Books are
fabulous adventures. The hero in this story, Alain, is for
you. He swims, he thinks, and he is a responsible man
who looks out for the people he loves just like you.

For Great Auntie Frances in Kansas who still walks to
the library twice a week to stock up on romances and
has never stopped believing in the power of love.

Fate had made Alain Hartsfield, the Baron Wickham
for all of five days, her whipping boy. That dreadful
muse had conspired with the mud-rutted roads and
overworked axel of the carriage carrying his parents
and fiancee, Alicia, home from London. Two miles
from The Refuge, the strained axel broke, sending the
carriage plummeting over the sharp embankment and
its occupants to their deaths.

Now, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men
couldn’t put Alain Hartsfield’s life back together
again-an awful truth brought home to him in the stillness pervading the empty foyer. After five days of funereal obligations, he was finally and utterly alone. The
quiet was eerie in the wake of the last departing guest,
his sister Isabella and her husband Anacreon St. John
the Marquis of Westbrooke.

His two friends from childhood, Chatham Somerset
and Giles Moncrief, had offered to stay on but Alain had declined the offer. He had to face facts sooner or
later. He could not continue to put it off. Along with
settling a haunting tragedy squarely on his broad shoulders, Fate also managed to endow him with a large burden of guilt. He should have been there.

Alain strode down the hall to the room that served as
a library. He hadn’t tried facing his failure with a strong
glass of smuggled brandy yet. Perhaps that would
work. He poured amber liquid from the cut-crystal decanter on the library sideboard into a tumbler and
folded his long form into a worn, comfortable leather
chair. He let the guilt come; he should have gone to
London in his father’s place as he usually did. He
should have ridden out to meet them as he’d planned
and not let the rain deter him. He should have ridden
faster when word had come of the accident. The doctor
who’d fortuitously been traveling the same road said
Alicia had lived an hour or so after they’d pulled her
from the wreckage. She had called for him. He had
missed her by mere minutes.

If he’d been with them he would have noticed the axel
before it was too late. If he had ridden out to meet them,
he could have cried a warning in time to slow the coach.
If he’d ridden faster, ignoring the danger to himself and
his horse on those same muddy roads, he could have
reached Alicia. If he’d been there, he could have saved
her. Should haves and could haves tumbled in a misbegotten litany of grief through his mind until he fell into
an awkward doze, the brandy at his elbow untouched.

Light streamed through the library window, causing
Alain to groan and shield his eyes. Deuce take it all, it was bright. Some numbskull had drawn back the curtains. He opened his eyes to a squint and moaned when
he realized where he was. He was the numbskull who
had not bothered to shut the drapes. Last night it had
been rainy and dark. There’d been no need to shut the
drapes, and he certainly hadn’t been planning on
falling asleep in such a clumsy position. He shifted in
the chair, grunting. No, he’d better rephrase that, such a
painful position. His back ached and his neck had at
least two cricks in it. Prior to this morning, he believed
a person could only have one crick at a time in certain
body parts. Last night proved him wrong. Alain
glanced at the glass of brandy on the little table beside
the chair. He was glad he hadn’t drunk himself into
oblivion. Waking up this morning was bad enough
without a headache to contend with as well.

Alain stood and stretched his long body, reaching
over his head with his arms. Besides, oblivion was only
temporary. He still had to face the realities of his life.
The servants at The Refuge would look to him for leadership. His grand vision to build a seaside resort in
Hythe for vacationing middle-class families would falter without his direction. Whether he liked it or not,
whether they should or not, people were counting on
him. He’d failed three people in his life. He would not
fail the others.

BOOK: The Heroic Baron
4.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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