The Rake To Reveal Her
The soldier next door…
Dominic Ransleigh lost more than his arm in battle—he lost his reason for living. Returning to his family seat, he shuns all society. If only his beautiful, plainspoken tenant, Theodora Branwell, wasn’t so hard to ignore.
Since her fiancé’s death on the battlefield, Theo has devoted herself to caring for soldiers’ orphans. She’s powerfully attracted to Dom but knows all too well the consequences of temptation. Is Theo, who’s survived so much, brave enough to reveal her secret to her handsome, wounded neighbor?
"THE RAKE TO REVEAL HER is another hit for this talented author, and I could not put it down."
~Linda Green, Fresh Fiction
"Another Justiss triumph, but unfortunately the end of her Ransleigh Rogues series. This last book is an emotional, passionate tale of a wounded hero and the remarkable woman – with her passel of orphans! – who challenges him to begin living again."
~Marie Ferrer, RT BOOKReviews
SUFFOLK, SPRING 1816
His ears still ringing from the impact of the fall, Dominic Fitzallen Ransleigh levered himself to a sitting position in the muddy Suffolk lane. Air hissed in and out of his gritted teeth as he waited for the red wave of pain obscuring his vision to subside. Which it did, just in time for him to see that black devil, Diablo, trot around the corner and out of sight.
Headed back to barn, probably, Dom thought. If horses could laugh, surely the bad-tempered varlet was laughing at him.
It was his own fault, always choosing the most difficult and high-spirited colts to train as hunters. Horses with the speed and heart to gallop across country, jumping with ease any obstacle in their paths, but needing two strong hands on the reins to control their headstrong, temperamental natures.
He looked down at his one remaining hand, still trembling from the strain of that wild ride. Flexing the wrist, he judged it sore but not broken. After years of tending himself from various injuries suffered during his service with the 16th Dragoons, a gingerly bending of the arm informed him no bones broken there, either.
His left shoulder still throbbed, but at least he hadn't fallen on the stump of his right arm. Had he done that, he'd probably still be unconscious from the agony.
Resigning himself to sit in the mud until his muzzy head cleared, Dom gazed down the lane after the fleeing horse. Though the doctors had warned him, he’d resisted accepting what he’d just proved: he'd not be able to control Diablo, or any of the other horses in his stable full of hunters just like the stallion, with a single good hand.
Sighing, Dom struggled to his feet. He might as well face the inevitable. As he'd never be able to ride Diablo or the others again, there was no sense hanging on to them. The bitter taste of defeat in his mouth, he told himself he would look into selling them off at Tattersall's while the horses were still in prime form and able to fetch a good price. Sell the four-horse carriages, too, since with one hand, he couldn't handle more than a pair.
Thereby severing one more link between the man he'd been before Waterloo, and now.
Jilting a fiancé, leaving the army, and now this. Nothing like changing his world completely in the space of a week.
Could he give it all up? he wondered as he set off down the lane. Following in his hunting-mad father's footsteps had been his goal since he'd joined his first chase, schooling hunters a talent he worked to perfect as his cousin Max had aspired to a career assisting his father in Parliament, his cousin Alastair had trained to run his extensive agricultural holdings. Before the army and between Oxford terms, he'd spent all his time studying horses, looking for that perfect combination of bone, stamina and spirit that made a good hunter. Buying them, training them, then hunting and steeplechasing with the like-minded friends who called themselves "Dom's Daredevils."
Stripped of that occupation, the future stretched before him as a frightening void.
Though he’d never previously had a taste for solitude, within days of his return, he’d felt compelled to leave London. The prospect of visiting his clubs, attending a ball, mixing with the old crowd at Tatt's, inspecting the horses before a sale—all the activities in which he’d once delighted---now repelled him. Sending away even his cousin Will, who’d rescued him from the battlefield and tended him for months, he’d retreated to Bildenstone—the family estate he’d not seen in years, and hadn’t even been sure was still habitable.
He’d sent Elizabeth away, too. A wave of grief and remorse swept through him as her lovely face surfaced in his mind. How could he have asked her to wait for him to recover, when the man he was now no longer fit into the world of hunts and balls they’d meant to share?
Ruthlessly he extinguished her image, everything about her and the hopes they once cherished too painful to contemplate. Best to concentrate on taking the next small step down the road ahead, small steps being all he could manage toward a future cloaked in a shifting mist of uncertainty.
Fighting the despair threatening to suck him down, he reminded himself again why he'd left friends, fiancé, and all that was be familiar.
To find himself...whatever was left to find.
Wearily he picked up his pace, his rattled brain still righting itself. He traversed the sharp corner around which his horse had disappeared to find himself almost face-to-face with a young woman leading a mare.
They both started, the horsing rearing a little.
"Down, Starfire," a feminine voice commanded. Looking up at him expectantly, the girl smiled and said, "Sir, will you give me a hand? I was almost run down by a black beast of a stallion, which startled my mare. I'm afraid I wasn't paying enough attention, and lost my seat. I'll require help to remount."
His mind still befuddled, Dom stared at her. Though tall enough that he didn't have to look down very far, his first impression was of a little brown wren--lovely pale complexion, big brown eyes, hair of indeterminate hue tucked under a tired-looking bonnet, and a worn brown habit years out-of-date.
The unknown miss didn't flinch at his eyepatch, he had to give her that. Nor did her eyes stray to the pinned-up sleeve of his missing arm--the sleeve now liberally spattered with mud and decorated with leaf-bits, as was the rest of his clothing. Heavens, he must look like a vagrant who'd slept in the woods. It was a wonder she didn't run screaming in the opposite direction.
His lips curved into a whimsical smile at the thought as her pleasant expression faded. "Sir, could you give me a hand, help me remount?" she all but shouted.
Dom flinched at the loud tones. She must think me simple as well as disheveled. As his mind finally cleared and her request registered, his amusement vanished.
The images flashed into his head--all the girls he'd lifted in a dance, tossed into saddles...carried into bed. With two strong arms.
Anger coursed through him. "That would be a bit of problem." He gestured to his empty sleeve. "Afraid I can't help you. Good-day, Miss."
Her eyes widened as he began to walk past her. "Can't help me?" she echoed. "Can't--or won't?"
Fury mounting, he wheeled back to face her. "Don't you see, idiot girl?" he spat out. "I'm...impaired." 'Crippled' would be better description, but he couldn't get his mouth around the word. He turned to walk away again.
She hurried forward, the horse trailing on the reins behind her, and blocked his path. "What I see," she said, her dark eyes flashing, "is that you have one good arm, whether or not you choose to use it. Which is more than many of the soldiers who didn't survive Waterloo, including my father. He wouldn't have hesitated to give me a leg up, even with only one hand!"
Before he could respond, she shortened the lead on the horse's reins and snapped, "Very well. I shall search for a more obliging log or tree stump. Good day, sir."
Bemused, he watched the sway of her neat little bottom as she marched angrily away. With well-tended forest on either side of the lane--deadfall quickly removed to provide firewood for someone's hearth--he didn't think she was likely to find what she sought.
Turning back toward Bildenstone, he set off walking, wondering who the devil she was. Not that, having spent the last ten years either with the army, at his hunting box in Leceistershire or in London, he expected to recognize any of the locals. That girl would have been only a child the last time he'd been here, seven years ago.
He'd probably just insulted the daughter of some local worthy--though, given the shabby condition of her riding habit, not a man of great means. He meant to limit as much as possible any interaction with his neighbors, but in the restricted society of the country, he'd likely encounter her again. Perhaps by then, he'd be able to tender a sincere apology.
Stomping down the lane without encountering any objects suitable for use as a mounting block, Theodora Branwell felt her angry grow. After a fruitless ten-minute search, she conceded that she might have to walk all the way back to Thornfield Place before she could find a way to remount her horse.
Which meant she might as well abandon her purpose and try again tomorrow.
Not the least of her ire and frustration she directed at herself. If she'd not been so lost in rehearsing her arguments, she would have heard the approaching hoofbeats and had her mount well in hand before the stallion burst around the corner and flew past them. After all the obstacles they'd ridden over in India and on the Peninsula, how Papa would laugh to know she'd been unseated by so simple a device!
No sense bemoaning; she might as well accept that her lapse had ruined the timing for making a call on her prospective landlord today.
She had Charles to check on, she thought, her heart warming as she pictured the little boy she'd raised like a son. Then there were the rest of the children to settle, especially the two new little ones the Colonel had just sent her from Brussels. Though the manor's small nursery and adjoining bedchamber were becoming rather crowded, making settling the matter of the school and dormitory ever more urgent, Constancia and Jemmie would find them places. But she knew the thin boy and the pale, silent girl would feel better after a few sweetmeats, a reassuring hug, and a story to make them welcome.
How frightening and strange the English countryside must seem to a child, torn from the familiar if unstable life of traveling in the van of an army across the dusty fields and valleys of Portugal and Spain. Especially after losing one's last parent.
It was a daunting enough prospect for her, and she was an adult.
The extra day would allow her to go over her arguments one more time. She liked Thornfield Place very much; she only had to convince Mr. Ransleigh, her mostly absentee landlord now unaccountably taken up residence, that turning the neglected outbuilding on his property into a home and school for soldier's orphans would cause no problem and was a noble thing to do.
A guilty pang struck her. She'd really been too hard on the one-armed, one-eyed man in the lane. Though he might have been injured in an accident, he had the unmistakable bearing of a soldier. Had he suffered his wounds at Waterloo? Recovering from such severe losses would be slow; frustration over his limitations might at times make him wonder if it would not have been better, had he never made it off the battlefield.
She knew it was. She'd have given anything, had Papa been found alive, whatever his condition. Or Marshall, dead these five years now.
The bitter anguish of her fiancé's loss scoured her again. How much different would her life be now, had he not fallen on that Spanish plain? They'd be long married, doubtless with children, her love returned and her place in society secure as his wife.
But it hadn’t been fair to take out her desolation on that poor soldier. Wholly preoccupiedwith her own purpose, she only now recalled how thin his frame was, how disheveled his rough clothing. When had he last eaten a good meal? Finding employment must be difficult for an ex-soldier with only one arm.
He'd not carried a pack, she remembered, so he was must be a local resident. Country society comprised a small circle, she'd been told, much like the army. Which meant she'd probably encounter the man again. If she did, she would have to apologize. Perhaps in the interim, she might also think of some job she could hire him to perform at Thornfield Place.
Satisfied that she'd be able to atone for her rudeness, she dismissed him from her mind and trudged down the lane back toward Thornfield.