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Forbidden Stranger

"Seductive Stranger"

· Harlequin
· June 2003
· ISBN 0-373-83565-5

·  Reviews
·  Excerpt

· Available as an e-book at Amazon


Harlequin® is a registered trademark of the publisher, Harlequin Enterprises Limited. All cover art for the publisher, including special "flashes" and back cover copy, is copyrighted by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd. All rights are reserved by the publisher.

 

Seductive Stranger by Julia Justiss

Since her mother’s death, Caragh Sudley has devoted herself to managing her father’s estate and caring for her beautiful, tempestuous younger sister Ailis. Her chief joy is spending time with her handsome neighbor Quentin Burke, Lord Branson—who, alas, sees her only as a good friend.

When Caragh takes Ailis to London for the Season, Quentin offers to help by escorting them about, since it’s time he looked for a wife himself. But then Ailis creates a scandal that ends her Season, freeing Caragh to ponder what she really wants: a conventional marriage with a conventional husband, or running the horse farm she’s always dreamed of—and seducing her good friend Quentin Burke...

 

 


"Sparkles with humor and poignancy."
Romantic Times

"A fast-paced plot and exceptional characterizations. An exceptional story."
Rendezvous

 



 

 

PROLOGUE

Sudley Court, Spring, 1808

Apollo was riding down her drive.

Or so it seemed to Caragh Sudley, hand over her eyes and breath seizing in her chest as she squinted into the morning sun at the solitary horseman trotting down the graveled carriageway toward Sudley Court.

She was returning to the manor after her early morning ride when the sound of hoofbeats carrying on the still morning air drew her toward the front entrance. At first merely curious about the identity of the unexpected visitor, as the man grew closer she was stunned motionless by the sheer beauty of horse and rider.

The pale sunshine threw a golden nimbus about the gentleman’s hatless head, making his blonde hair gleam as if the sun king himself were arriving in regal pomp, his chariot exchanged for the gilded beauty of a palomino. The brightness behind them cast the rider’s face in shadow and silhouetted in sharp relief the broad line of shoulders and arms that were now pulling the stallion to a halt.

She shook her head, but that dazzling first impression refused to subside into normalcy. The tall, powerfully built beast tossing his head in spirited response to his rider’s command, creamy coat rippling, was magnificent, the man now swinging down from the saddle no less so.

A dark green riding jacket stretched across his shoulders and fawn breeches molded over saddle-muscled thighs, while up closer she could see his blonde locks had tints of strawberry mingled with the gold. His eyes, no longer in shadow once he’d dismounted in her direction, were a shade of turquoise blue so arresting and unusual she once again caught her breath.

The chiseled features of his face—purposeful chin, high cheekbones, firm lips, sculpted nose whose slight crookedness added an intriguing hint of character to a countenance that might otherwise have seemed merely chill perfection—only confirmed her initial perception.

‘Twas Apollo, Roman robes cast aside to don the guise of an English country gentleman.

Should she behold him, her sister Ailis would surely be calling for her palette and paints.

Caragh smiled slightly at the thought of her imperious sister ordering the man this way and that until she’d posed him to her satisfaction. And then realized this paragon of Olympian perfection was approaching her—plain Caragh Sudley who stood, jaw still dropped in awe, her face framed by limp wisps of hair blown out of the chignon into which she’d carelessly twisted it, the skirts of her old, shabby riding habit liberally mud-spattered.

She snapped her mouth shut, feeling the hot color rising in her cheeks, but as the visitor had already seen her, she would only make herself look more ridiculous by fleeing. How unfortunate, the whimsical thought occurred as she tried to surreptiously brush off the largest clumps of mud and summon a welcoming smile, that unlike Daphne, she could not conveniently turn herself into a tree.

"Good morning, Miss," the visitor said, bowing.

"Good morning to you, too, sir," she replied, amazed to find her voice still functioned.

"Would you have the goodness to confirm that I have reached Sudley Court? I need to call upon the baron."

"That would be my father, sir. You will find him in the library. Pringle, our butler, will show you in."

He smiled, displaying just a hint of dimples. "Thank you for your kindness, Miss Sudley. I hope to have—"

Before he could complete his sentence, her sister emerged from the shrubbery of the garden behind them, a lad laden with an easel and paintbox trailing in her wake. "Caragh! Did that package from London arrive for me yet?"

Caragh waited a moment, but her sister paid no attention to the newcomer. "Well, has it?"

Caragh’s delight faded in a spurt of resentment she struggled, and failed, to suppress. With the arrival of Ailis, her all-too-short exchange with the Olympian would surely come to a premature halt.

Wishing her sister could have intruded a moment earlier, or five minutes later, she replied, "If it has, Thomas will bring it when he returns from the village." She steeled herself to glance at the stranger.

Who was not, as she expected, staring in open-mouthed amazement at her stunningly beautiful sister, but rather observing them both, his expression polite. For a moment Caragh wondered about the acuity of his eyesight.

"Blast!" her sister replied, still ignoring the newcomer. "I only hope I have enough of the cerulean blue to last out the morning."

Blushing a little for her sister’s lack of manners, Caragh motioned her head toward the visitor. "Ailis!" she said in an urgent undertone.

Her sister cast her impatient glance. "You show him in, Caragh, whoever he is. I cannot miss the light. Come along, Jack." She motioned to the young lad carrying her supplies and walked off without even a goodbye.

Caragh’s blush deepened. "M-my younger sister, sir. As you may have guessed, she’s an artist—quite a good one! But very—preoccupied with her work. She’s presently engaged upon an outdoor study requiring morning light."

"Who are we mere mortals to interrupt the inspiration of the muse?" he asked, his comment reassuring her that he’d not been offended by her sister’s scapegrace behavior. "But I mustn’t intrude upon your time any longer. Thank you very much, Miss Sudley. I trust we shall meet again."

Before she could guess his intent, the visitor took her hand and brought it to his lips. After that salute he bowed, then lead the stallion off toward the entry.

For a moment Caragh stood motionless, gazing with wonder at the hand he’d kissed. Her fingers still tingled from the slight, glancing pressure of his mouth.

When she jerked her gaze back up, she noted the visitor had nearly reached the entry steps, down which one of the footmen was hastening to relieve him of his horse. Quickly she pivoted and paced off toward the kitchen wing. She’d not want the stranger to glance back and find her still staring at him.

Once out of sight, her footsteps slowed. The handsome visitor had bowed, kissed her hand and treated her as if she were a grand lady instead of a gawky girl still a year from her come-out.

Best of all, he had not been struck dumb when Ailis appeared. He had actually managed to continue conversing intelligently after her sister left them. Nor had his gaze followed Ailis as she walked away, but reverted back to Caragh’s much plainer face.

The few remaining pieces of her susceptible heart that had not already surrendered to warmth of the stranger’s smile and the bedazzlement of his blue eyed gaze, succumbed.

But of course, in the London from which he must have come, he probably met beautiful ladies every day, all of them elegantly dressed in the latest fashion, and so had schooled himself to maintain a polite conversation, no matter how distracting the circumstances.

Briskly she dismissed that lowering reflection. The thoroughness of his training did not diminish the excellence of his behavior. Indeed, he was a Vrai and Gentil Chevalier, beau et courtois, straight from the pages of an Arthurian legend, she concluded, freely mixing her literary metaphors.

But who was he? Suddenly compelled to find out, she headed into the house.

Creeping past the library, where a murmur of voices informed her the visitor must still be closeted with Papa, she slipped into the deserted front parlor, hoping to catch one more glimpse of the stranger before he departed.

Perhaps when I make my come-out in London next year, I shall meet you again. Only then, I shall be gowned in the most elegant design out of the pages of La Belle Assemblée, my hair a coronet of curls, my conversation dazzling, and you will be as swept away by me as I was by you today...

She was chuckling a bit at that absurd if harmless fantasy when the closing of the library door alerted her. She flattened herself against the wall until footsteps passed her hiding place, then peeped into the hall.

Once again, sunlight cast a halo around the stranger’s golden head as he stood pulling on the riding gloves the butler had just returned to him. Caragh sighed, her eyes slowly tracing the handsome contours of the visitor’s face as she committed every splendid feature to memory.

After retrieving his riding crop, he nodded to acknowledge the butler’s bow and walked out.

Resisting a strong desire to scurry after him and take one last peek through the fan glass windows flanking the entry, Caragh made herself wait until the tramp of his boots descending the flagstone steps faded. Then she ran to the library, knocked once, and hurried in.

"Papa," she called to the thin, balding man who sat behind the massive desk, scribbling in one of the large volumes strewn haphazardly about his desk.

Making a small moue of annoyance at the interruption, her father looked up. "Caragh? What is it, child? I must get back to this translation before the rhythm of the cadence escapes me."

"Yes, Papa. Please, sir, who was your visitor?"

"Visitor?" her father echoed, seeming to have difficulty remembering the individual who had quit the room barely five minutes previous. "Ah, that tall young man. Just bought the neighboring property, he told me. Wanted to pay his respects and inquire about some matter of pasturage. I suppose you shall have to consult with Withers about it before he returns. I simply can’t spare the time now to bother with agricultural matters, not with this translation going so slowly."

Apollo would be calling again. Delight and anticipation buoyed Caragh’s spirits.

"Very well, Papa. If I will be meeting with him, however, perhaps you had better tell me his name."

"His name? Dash it, of what importance is that? I expect he’ll announce it again when he returns. Now, be a good girl and take this breakfast tray back to the kitchen. It’s blocking my dictionary."

Inured to her father’s total disinterest in anything not connected to his translation projects, Caragh suppressed a sigh. "Of course, Papa." Disappointed, she gathered up the tray and prepared to leave.

"Good-bye," she called from the threshold. Already immersed in his work, her father did not even glance up.

Then a better idea occurred, and her mood brightened. Depositing the tray on a hall table to be dealt with later, she hurried in search of the butler, finally running him to ground in the dining room where he was directing a footman in polishing the silver epergne.

"Pringle! Do you recall the name of the gentleman who just called? He is to be our new neighbor, I understand."

"Lord Branson, he said, Miss Caragh," the butler replied.

"And his family name?"

"Don’t believe he mentioned it. But he left a card."

"Thank you, Pringle!" Caragh hurried back into the hallway. There, sitting in pristine whiteness against the polished silver tray, was a bit of pasteboard bearing the engraving "Quentin Burke, Lord Branson."

Smiling, Caragh slipped the card into her pocket. Her own Olympic hero come to earth now had a name. Quentin.


CHAPTER 1

Sudley Court, Early Spring, 1814

Given what a Herculean endeavor getting them to London was turning out to be, ‘twas small wonder it had taken her more than five years to manage, Caragh thought, gazing into her sister’s stormy face. Indeed, loving animals as she did, she would probably have preferred mucking out the Augean stables.

"Ailis," she said, trying to keep the aggravation out of her voice, "You know you promised me last week that we would surely be able to leave this Friday. The boxes have been packed for days, Aunt Kitty is expecting us, and quite probably has set up appointments for us in London which it would be very rude to break with so little notice."

"Oh, bother appointments," Ailis responded, with a disdainful wave of one paint-spattered hand. "What difference does it make when we leave? The shops will still be there, as will the endless round of dull parties hosted by acid-tongued old beldames interested solely in dissecting the gowns, jewels, lineage and marriage prospects of their guests. Besides, you know I agreed to leave only after I complete the painting."

Stifling her first angry response, Caragh took a deep breath. After reminding herself that at least one of them must remain reasonable, she said in a calm voice, "We had a bargain, Ailis! I will allow you to visit the galleries, continue your own work, and even take lessons—but you must do your part, and conduct yourself with the modesty and propriety expected of a young lady embarking on her first Season. Behavior which would not include embarrassing our aunt by compelling her to cancel obligations at the last minute—or issuing blanket condemnations of individuals you’ve not yet even met."

"Who will, I daresay, turn out to be exactly as I’ve described them," Ailis retorted. "Were I not so anxious to have the benefit of Maximilian Frank’s tutelage, I would never have agreed to go at all. ‘Twill be a waste of time and blunt, as I’ve warned you times out of mind. I’ve no desire whatsoever to marry."

The anxiety always dormant at the back of Caragh’s mind returned in a rush. "Ailis, Papa won’t live forever. How do you intend to exist if you don’t marry?"

"Since you seem so enamored of the estate, why don’t you marry? I could come live with you, and everything could continue as it’s always been."

Which might have been a perfectly acceptable alternative, except that the only man Caragh could envision marrying still saw her only as his good neighbor and friend. "Believe me, you would find it much more comfortable to be mistress of your own establishment." Where you can order people about with full authority, Caragh added silently.

Even so, she had to compress her lips to keep a smile from escaping at the thought of the havoc her temperamental sister would wreak in household of some hapless brother-in-law, should she ever become a permanent guest in his home. No, ‘twas still best to try to find Ailis a complacent husband of her own.

"You know when Cousin Archibald inherits, he’ll move his family here," she reminded Ailis. "Though he would of course offer to let us stay, I am sure he would prefer not to have two female dependents hanging about. There’s little chance of going elsewhere, since Aunt Kitty hasn’t the room to house us permanently, and with our inheritance tied up in dowry, we’d not have the funds to set up a household of our own. Surely you don’t see yourself hiring out as a governess or companion! ‘Tis unfortunate, but if you wish to continue living in the style you do—and keep on with your work—you shall have to marry. At least London will offer a broader choice of potential husbands."

Although Caragh had delivered more or less the same speech on several occasions over the last few weeks, for once her volatile sister’s eyes hadn’t glazed over. Indeed, Cargah noted with a spark of hope, Ailis actually seemed to be paying attention this time.

"I suppose you are correct," Ailis replied, her expression thoughtful. "I shall hardly be able to work in peace here at Sudley with Cousin Archibald’s five little demons roaming about."

Cargh exhaled an exasperated sigh. "That is just the sort of comment you must cease voicing aloud, if you do not wish to spoil all your prospects! Beauty is well enough, but a gentleman of breeding will want his bride to display courtesy toward others and moderation in her speech. And besides, Cousin Archibald’s children are quite charming."

Ailis shrugged. "If you like loud, sticky-fingered, impertinent nuisances. The last time they visited, the eldest drove me to distraction, following me like a ghost everywhere I went, while the younger ones burst in whenever they chose, and the squinty-eyed smallest swiped my best detail brush to sweep her doll’s house. She’s lucky I didn’t break her arm when I found she’d stolen it."

Before Caragh could remonstrate once more, Ailis disarmed her by breaking into a grin. "Come now, Caragh, you know you were as happy as I was when the grubby brats finally departed! And I concede that you have a point. I shall have to give some thought to my future. After," she said, rising from her chair, "I finish this painting. I must get back to it before the light shifts. I just wanted to let you know I would not be ready by Friday."

"And if you might grant me the boon of revealing such confidential information, when do you expect to finish it?"

Oblivious to Caragh’s sarcasm, Ailis paused in her march to the door. "Perhaps by the middle of next week. I shall let you know."

Closing her eyes, Caragh uttered a silent prayer for patience. She would have to dispatch an immediate note to Aunt Kitty delaying yet again their arrival in London. She only hoped their aunt hadn’t already arranged the tea with the patronesses of Almacks she’d mention in her last letter. Cavalierly missing such a meeting would doubtless strike a serious blow to her sister’s chances of a successful Season.

As she had so often as her sister grew to adulthood, Caragh wished she might consult their long-dead mother. Reputed to have been a headstrong beauty, she might have known better how to successfully handle the equally beautiful and tempestuous offspring who so closely resembled her. At least, Caragh thought the two strikingly similar, based on the miniature she’d tucked away in her desk, the sole image she retained of the mother who had died when Caragh was seven. Her grief-stricken father, unable to bear gazing on the portrait of lady he’d lost so tragically young, had had the full-length portrait of his wife that once hung in his library removed to the attics.

"Never mind, Pringle, I’ll show myself in."

As the voice emanating from the hallway beyond the salon penetrated her thoughts, Caragh’s eyes popped open and her heart leapt in her chest.

Over the last six years, her own London Season been put off for one reason after another—Papa’s episode of ill-health, a disastrous fire in stable wing, the necessity to take over managing all the estate business when their manager Withers died unexpectedly, and most recently Ailis’s reluctance to leave Sudley Court. The shy, awkward girl who’d nervously discussed pasturage agreements had become an assured young woman whose competent hand kept the household and estates of Sudley Court running smoothly.

In that time she’d learned, with no great surprise, that Quentin Burke was not an Olympian, but a flawed and mortal man like any other. She’d even, over the course of managing their horse breeding operation, encountered among the aristocratic clients who came to Sudley Court men as handsome as Lord Branson.

But one thing remained constant. The neighbor who captured her heart one fair spring day still held it in as firm a grip as when she’d first lost it to the stranger riding down her drive. And he was just as unaware of possessing it as he’d been that long-ago morning.

She felt her lips lifting of own their volition into a smile. A swell of gladness filled her chest as the man whose face was dearer to her than sunshine, whose friendship had come to be as essential to her existence as air and water, strolled into the room.

"Oh, famous, Quent!" her sister said, meeting him at the door and offering her fingers for the obligatory salute. "You can natter on to Caragh about London while I get some work done."

"Lovely to see you, too, Ailis," he replied as she drew her hands back and skipped out. He turned to Caragh, a twinkle in those arresting turquoise eyes that, despite the passage of years, could still make her dizzy.

"A lovely surprise to see you, Quentin," she said. "I had no notion you’d be stopping at Thornwhistle this soon after your last trip. When did you arrive?"

She caught her breath as he kissed her fingers, even that slight touch setting her whole body humming. She struggled to resist the impulse to close her eyes and savor the sensation.

"My estate business finished up early," he replied, dropping into the wing chair beside her. "So I thought I’d spend a few days at my favorite property—and stop by to see if my favorite neighbor would actually manage to coerce her beauteous baggage of a sister into London this Season. No, I shan’t stay for tea—" he waved her off as headed to the bell pull—"but I should not refuse a bit of conversation."

Sighing, Caragh reseated herself. "I believe we shall eventually make it there. Though I had to resort to bribery, and only succeeded because Maximilian Frank fortuituously returned from Italy to set up a studio in London. Ailis is mad about his paintings, which are...not in the usual style." She paused to take a deep breath before continuing, "I—I’ve agreed to let her have private lessons with him. And I trust you’ll not bandy that fact about!"

"Lessons!" he echoed, clearly astounded. "A gently-born maiden taking drawing lessons from the illegitimate son of an East India merchant? Da—merciful Heavens, Caragh!" He shook his head. "With the chit cozening you into permitting behavior as questionable as that, do you really think you’ll manage to marry her off?"

Although Quentin’s query only echoed what she often asked herself, nonetheless Caragh felt herself bristle. "You can’t deny her stunning beauty, and her dowry is quite handsome as well. In addition to that—"

"—She lacks even the most rudimentary of domestic skills and her manners are...uncertain at best. Now, now," he said, waving off her sputtering attempts to remonstrate, "you know I’m fond of her, and freely admit she is amazingly talented. But even her doting sister must acknowledge she’s certainly not the sort of meek, biddable, conventional miss most Society gentleman seek in a wife."

Caragh sighed again. "No," she admitted. "I just hope to find for her a gentleman whom she can like and who will treasure her for what she is—not what she isn’t."

"If you can bring her to notice one. Is she still spurning all her would-be suitors as imperiously as ever?"

Caragh had to grin. "Oh, yes. The squire’s son brings her flowers once a week, which she can’t be bothered to accept, and crossed and recrossed sheets of Darlington’s turgid poetry arrive in nearly every post, which she tosses in the fire unread. Even the Duke of Arundel’s youngest son, having apparently heard tales of her storied beauty from his Oxford classmates, found a pretext to stop by and see papa on some spurious mission from his classics professor. Ailis either ignores them completely or treats then with a contemptuous disdain that seems to inflame them to further protestations of ardor. Perhaps they think of her as a challenge, as the suitors of Ithaca did Penelope."

"Only she paints instead of weaves?" Quentin asked with a grin. "Speaking of classical scholars, how does your father? Should I call on him now, or is he currently so lost in versifying he will resent any intrusion?"

"I believe he is revising today, so you may enter the library with impunity. It must be going well, for he actually joined us for breakfast and conversed with Ailis for almost half-an-hour."

Apparently Caragh was less successful than she’d thought at keeping the bitterness out of her tone, for the look Quentin fixed on her was sympathetic. "Caragh, you know that in the depths of his heart, your papa values all you do to keep Sudley functioning. Even if he seldom expresses his appreciation."

"A gratifying if entirely fictional notion, though I thank you for it," she replied drily, having long since given up hoping her father would notice her or anything she did. Nor did she feel guilty any longer for the stab of resentment that pierced her at witnessing his sporadic demonstrations of affection for the one living mortal he occasionally did pay attention to—her beautiful sister, who could scarcely be bothered to converse with him and had never lifted a finger to assist him.

Caragh shook herself free of those ignoble thoughts. "I trust you found everything at Thornwhistle in order?"

"In excellent order, as you well know. Let me once again commend your stewardship! Manning told me you’d taken care of having the north meadows reseeded after the heavy rain earlier this month. With you already so encumbered with the burden of managing Sudley and arranging a removal to London, I certainly appreciate your taking time to oversee my paltry affairs!"

A flush of pleasure warmed her cheeks at his approval. "’Twas nothing. I promised I would keep an eye on things, so I did. Friends assist friends, after all."

"So they do indeed," he confirmed, reaching over to press her hands...and setting her tingling once again. "What should I do without my good neighbor? In fact, I think ‘tis about time I did something for you."

An electrifying vision flashed into her mind—Quentin hauling her into his arms and kissing her senseless. Her cheeks firing warmer still, she beat back the image, mumbling something disjointed about there being no obligation.

"I don’t feel ‘obligated,’ I want to help. That is, I expect your father is not accompanying you to London?"

She barely refrained from a snort. "No."

"Given the shambles the estate was in when I inherited, I’ve not previously felt I could afford to be away for any length of time. But now that everything is finally in good order, I believe I can safely allow myself a respite."

"An excellent notion," Caragh said. "These last few years, we’ve scarce been able to persuade you to pause long enough to celebrate the Yule season with us."

"Quite wonderful celebrations, and I cannot thank you enough for including me. I even concede," he added with a hint of a smile, "that from time to time I’ve longed for a break. But the hard work has been worth it, Caragh. It’s taken eight long years, but I’m proud to say I’ve just returned from our bankers in London, having redeemed the last of Papa’s debts. Branson Park is unencumbered at last!"

"Quentin, that’s wonderful!" Caragh exclaimed. "How proud you must be!"

"I knew you, more than any other, would understand what that means to me. And so, though I had no real need to visit Thornwhistle, I simply had to come and share the news with you."

Those breath-arresting blue eyes paralyzed her again while his handsome face creased in an intimate smile that made her long to throw herself into his arms. She dug her fingers into the armrest of her chair, fighting to squelch the desire and remain sensible. A friend, she reminded herself urgently. He sees me as just his good friend.

"I’m so pleased that you did," she managed to reply at last. "But I can’t imagine you lapsing into idle dissipation. What task shall you take on next?"

"I’ve just completed the other major task dear to my heart—the refurbishing of Branson Hall. A project for which you have been a major inspiration, by the way."

"Indeed? How so?"

"I don’t suppose I ever told you what a profound impression Sudley Court made on me during my first visit—the beauty of its design enhanced by loving and meticulous care. I vowed that very morning that one day, I would restore Branson Park to a similar level of perfection."

He shook his head and laughed. "If you could have seen my home as it was then, you would know how truly audacious a dream that was! Oaken floors dirt-dulled, carpets threadbare, window hangings in tatters, half the rooms missing furniture or swaddled in Holland covers!"

Caragh shook her head dismissively. "Whatever its state when you began, having seen the improvements you’ve installed at Thornwhistle, I have no doubt the house is now magnificent!"

"It is," he acknowledged in a matter-of-fact tone that held not a trace of boastfulness. "I should love to show it off to you—but first, you’ve a Season to manage. And since I’ve decided I deserve a reward for finally completing two such major projects—and have just purchased a property outside London which will doubtless require a period of close supervision—I’ve decided to go to Town for the Season myself. Now, what do you say to that?"

He would be in London, where she might see him and ride with him and chat with him, not just for the few weeks of his periodic visits to Thornwhistle, but for an entire Season? "That would be wonderful!" she exclaimed.

He smiled, apparently pleased by her enthusiastic response. "So I thought as well. I can be on hand to squire you about when you have need of an escort, and perhaps help you corral Ailis, should she fall into one of her...distempered starts. Besides, with Branson now restored to its former glory, I suppose it’s time for me to complete my duty to the family and look about for a wife.

Alarm—and anticipation shocked through her. Before she could dredge up a reply, he patted her hand. "You, my good friend, could advise me on the business. Since females know things about other females no mere male could ever fathom, you could be of excellent help in guiding me to make the right choice."

She could guide him. In choosing a wife. As his good friend. Her half-formed fantasy dissolving, Caragh sucked in a breath and somehow managed to force a congenial smile to her lips. "O-Of course. I should be happy to."

His smile deepening, he squeezed her hands. "I knew I could count on you! Now, if you think it safe, I’ll go pay my respects to your papa. When do you expect to depart for metropolis? Must you supervise the rest of the planting?"

Thrusting her agitated feelings aside to be dealt with later, she forced herself to concentrate on the immediate question. "No, Harris can handle that and the repairs on the tenants’ cottages. ‘Tis Ailis I’m waiting on. She refuses to depart until this current painting is complete, which should, God willing, allow us to depart by the end of next week." Caragh couldn’t help another exasperated sigh. "If she doesn’t redo the blasted thing yet again."

"Excellent," Quentin replied. "Since, given your skillful care, I’m sure I will find nothing of importance requiring my attention at Thornwhistle, I should be ready by then as well. Perhaps we can travel to the metropolis together. Only think how diverting it shall be! Two workhorses like you and I, pulled from our traces and forced to concentrate on nothing more compelling than what garments we shall wear or which entertainment we shall attend! I declare, after a period of such frivolity, we shall scarcely recognize ourselves!"

After bringing her hands up for a salute, he released them. "Shall we ride tomorrow morning? Good, I shall see you then." Sketching her a bow, he walked out.

Caragh watched him go, her lacerated heart still twisting in her breast.

If having his company here were not already delightful torment enough, she was now to suffer through a Season watching him search for a wife? No, even worse—advising him on that choice!

A mélange of misery, outrage, and hurt swirled within her at the thought. Sternly she repressed it.

Enough bemoaning, she reproved herself. She would do what she must, as always.

But even as she girded herself to endure the unendurable, from deep within her came unbidden the girlish fantasy she’d thought to have long ago outgrown. The image of a beautifully gowned, impeccably coifed Caragh Sudley whose elegant appearance and sparkling wit shocked Quentin Burke into finally realizing that his neighbor was no longer just an engaging and capable girl, but an alluring woman.

A woman he wanted.

‘Twas not so impossible a fantasy, she thought, a renewed sense of purpose filling her. Mayhap London will hold more surprises than you imagine, Quentin Burke.

Copyright © 2003 Julia Justiss

 

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