Ireland, June 1817
Lady Jeannette Rose Brantford gently blew her nose on her handkerchief. Neatly refolding the silk square with its pretty row of embroidered lily of the valley, she dabbed at the fresh pair of tears that slid down her cheeks.
I really need to stop crying, she told herself. This unremitting misery simply has to cease.
On the sea voyage over, she’d thought she had her emo- tions firmly under control. Resigned, as it were, to her ignominious fate. But this morning when the coach set off on the overland journey to her cousins’ estate, the reality of her situation had crashed upon her like one of the great boulders that lay scattered around the wild Irish countryside.
How could my parents have done this to me? she wailed to herself. How could they have been cruel enough to exile her to this godforsaken wilderness? Dear heavens, even Scotland would have been preferable. At least its landmass had the good sense to still be attached to Mother England. Scotland would have been a long carriage ride from home, but in Ireland, she was separated by an entire sea!
Yet Mama and Papa had remained adamant in their decision to send her here. And for the first time in her twenty-one years, she’d been unable to wheedle or cajole or cry her way into persuading them to change their minds.
She didn’t even have her longtime lady’s maid, Jacobs, to offer her comfort and consolation in her time of need. Just because she had told Jacobs a little fib about her identity when she and her twin sister, Violet, had decided to exchange places last summer was no cause for desertion. And just because Jeannette’s parents were punishing her for the scandal with this intolerable banishment to Ireland was no reason for Jacobs to seek out a new post. A loyal servant would have been eager to follow her mistress into exile!
Jeannette wiped away another tear and gazed across the coach at her new maid, Betsy. Despite being a perfectly sweet, pleasant girl, Betsy was a stranger. Not only that, she was woefully inexperienced, still learning about the proper care of clothing and dressing hair and recognizing the latest fashions. Jacobs had known it all.
Oh, well, she thought, training Betsy would give her new life purpose. At the reminder of her new life, tears welled again into her eyes.
Alone. Oh, she was so dreadfully alone.
Abruptly, the coach jerked to a tooth-rattling halt. She slid forward and nearly toppled to the floor in a cloud of skirts.
Betsy caught her; or rather, they caught each other, and slowly settled themselves back into their seats.
“Good heavens, what was that?” Jeannette straightened her hat, barely able to see with the brim half covering her eyes.
“It felt like we hit something, my lady.” Betsy twisted to peer out the small window at the gloomy landscape beyond. “I hope we weren’t in no accident.”
The coach swayed as the coachman and footmen jumped to the ground, the low rumble of male voices filling the air.
Jeannette gripped her handkerchief inside her palm. Drat it, what now? As if things weren’t bad enough already.
A minute later, the coachman’s wizened face and sloped shoulders appeared at the window. “I’m sorry, milady, but it appears we’re stuck.”
Jeannette’s eyebrows rose. “What do you mean, stuck?”
“ ’Tis the weather, my lady. All the rain of late has turned the road back to bog.”
Bog? As in big-wheel-sucking-muddy-hole kind of bog? A wail rose into her throat. She swallowed the cry and firmed her lower lip, refusing to let it so much as quiver.
“Jem and Samuel and me’ll keep trying,” the coachman continued, “but it may be a while afore we’re on our way. Perhaps you’d like to step out while we . . .”
She shot him an appalled look, so appalled obviously that his words trailed abruptly into silence.
What was wrong with the man? she wondered. Was he daft? Or blind, perhaps? Could he not see her beautiful Naccarat traveling dress? The shade bright and pretty as a perfect tangerine. Or the stylish kid leather half boots she’d had dyed especially to match prior to her departure from London? Obviously he had no common sense, nor any appreciation of the latest styles. But mayhap she was being too hard on him, since, after all, what did any man really know about ladies’ fashion.
“Step out to where? Into that mud?” She gave her head a vigorous shake. “I shall wait right where I am.”
“It may get a might rough once we start pushing, my lady. There’s your safety to consider.”
“Don’t worry about my safety. I shall be fine in the coach. If you need to lighten the load, however, you have my leave to remove my trunks. But please be sure not to set them into the mud. I shall be most distressed if they are begrimed or damaged in any manner.” She waved a gloved hand. “And Betsy may step down if she wishes.”
Betsy looked uncertain. “Are you sure, my lady? I don’t think I ought to leave you.”
“It’s fine, Betsy. There is nothing you can do here anyway, so go with John.”
Besides, Jeannette moaned to herself, it will be nothing new, since I am well used to being deserted these days.
The gray-haired man fixed a pair of kindly eyes on the servant girl. “Best you come with me. I’ll see ye to a safe spot.”
Once Betsy was lifted free of the coach and the worst of the mud, the barouche’s door was firmly relatched. The servants set about unloading the baggage, then began the grueling task of trying to dislodge the vehicle’s trapped wheels.
A full half hour passed with no success. Jeannette stubbornly kept her seat, faintly queasy from the vigorous, periodic rocking of the coach as the men and horses strained to force the carriage out of its hole. From the exclamations of annoyed disgust that floated on the air, puncturing the rustic silence, she gathered their attempts had done nothing but sink the wheels even deeper into the mire.
Withdrawing a fresh handkerchief from her reticule, she patted the perspiration from her forehead. Blazing from above, the sun had burned off the clouds but was doing little to dry the muddy morass around her. Afternoon heat ripened the air, turning it sticky with a humidity that was unusual for these parts even in mid-summer, or so she had been informed.
At least she wasn’t crying anymore. A blessing, since it wouldn’t do to arrive at her cousins’ house—assuming she ever did arrive—looking bloated and puffy, her eyes damp and red-rimmed. It was humiliating enough knowing what her cousins must think of her banishment. A far worse ignominy to greet them looking anything but her best.
A fly buzzed into the coach, fat and black and repugnant.
Jeannette’s lip curled with distaste. She shooed at the insect with her handkerchief, hoping it would fly out the opposite window. Instead it turned and raced straight for her head. She let out a sharp squeal and batted at it again.
Buzzing past her nose, it landed on the window frame, its transparent wings glinting in the brilliant sunlight. The insect strolled casually along the painted wooden sill on tensile, hair-thin legs.
With equal nonchalance, Jeannette reached for her fan. She waited, running an assessing thumb over the fine gilded ivory side guard. As soon as the creature paused, Jeannette brought her fan down with an audible thwap.
In a single instant, the big black bug became a big black blob. Gratified by her small victory, she inspected her fan, hoping she had not damaged the delicate staves, since the fan had always been one of her favorites.
Catching a fresh glimpse of the squashed insect, she twisted her lips in revulsion before quickly flicking the carcass out of her sight.
“You’ve a deadly aim, lass,” remarked a mellow male voice, the lilting cadence as rich and lyrical as an Irish ballad. “He didn’t stand a chance, that fly. Are you as handy with a real weapon?”
Startled, she turned her head to find a stranger peering in at her through the opposite window, one strong forearm propped at an impertinent angle atop the frame.
How long had he been standing there? she wondered. Long enough obviously to witness the encounter between her and the fly.
The man was tall and sinewy with close-cropped, wavy dark chestnut hair, fair skin and penetrating eyes of the bluest blue, vivid as gentians at peak bloom. They twinkled at her, those eyes, the man making no effort to conceal his roguish interest. His lips curved upward in silent, unconcealed humor.
The description popped unbidden and unwanted into her mind, his appeal impossible to deny. Her heart flipped then flopped inside her chest, breasts rising and falling beneath the material of her bodice in sudden breathless movement.
She struggled against the involuntary response, forcing herself to notice on closer observation that his features were not precisely perfect. His forehead square and rather ordinary. His nose a bit long, a tad hawkish. His chin blunt and far too stubborn for comfort. His lips a little on the slender side.
Yet when viewed as a whole, his countenance made an undeniably pleasing package, one to which no sane woman could claim indifference. And when coupled with the magnetism that radiated off him in almost visible ...