About the book
Because ultimately, love is stronger than any feud known to man.
Rebellious and willful, Lydia Bradford grows up listening to her father, Duke of Greenwick, recite stories about their feud with the Summerhills. When a striking young man suddenly lands on their doorstep, she is immediately enticed.
An obscure aggressor is out for his blood and Edward Godwin is running for his life. Waking up after a fierce attack, he finds himself in an unfamiliar manor. Unable to recall that he is, in fact, the Duke of Summerhill, he finds work there as a stable boy.
With his life threatened by the minute and his family looking for him, all clues lead to a mysterious woman who claims to be Edward’s secret lover...but that is only part of the riddle.
Forgotten but never undone, an olden mistake returns from the grave to torment them, making Lydia and Edward realize they are on borrowed time.
I am being hunted like a common fox in the brush.
Edward dragged in harsh breaths as he forced the horse onwards. Darkness crept in shadowed tendrils from the horizon, where the sun was in the throes of its daily death. An inky haze swept across the sky, whilst the last bolds of blood-red and bronzed-orange sunset sparked up like dying embers.
He did not stop even as light was fading. He could never stop, not whilst the hunt was upon him.
He had noticed the rider on his path to Summerhill Hall, which now belonged to him. Indeed, the rider had stood between him and his home. There had been no choice but to ride away.
After his father’s tragic demise to the grip of this winter’s pneumonia, the full weight of the dukedom now rested on his shoulders. No easy task, made all the more difficult by the pursuit of an unknown enemy.
For his own part, he had never wanted the dukedom for himself. He lacked the maturity and the desire for responsibility, wishing it had fallen to his younger brother, James, instead. All he wanted was to hunt and gamble and indulge in the exploits of any young man. James had always been the one who sought power, and yet peerage dictated that the title should fall to the eldest…him, in this case.
Edward stared ahead, trying to pick out the shadow that lurked in front of the gates to Summerhill Hall. He had just returned from London, to find this figure waiting. Edward did not venture into the city much, but necessity had prompted him to pay a visit to an old debtor in London, whom he owed after an ill-fated game of whist. The rider did not seem to have good intentions. Fearing he might be apprehended, Edward turned his horse and headed through the countryside in a grip of terror.
The Summerhills were not well-liked, but Edward himself had not done anything to inspire ire in anyone he knew. Not that he could remember, anyway. And yet, he sensed that this rider intended to do him great harm.
In his brief glimpses at his assailant, he had noticed pistols flashing beneath the rider’s long, black coat. His would-be enemy wore a cloth over the lower part of his face to hide him from sight. That only increased Edward’s terror, for who would bother to mask themselves unless they meant ill will upon him?
“Faster, Silver!” he urged.
Edward dug his heels in and urged his silver gelding down an endless labyrinth of country roads. He had not passed anyone for at least an hour, though he feared it would do him no good, even if another rider were to come his way. If he stopped, even for a moment, he knew it might give his pursuer the chance needed to end Edward with one of those pistols. Wearing a mask, his attacker did not need to fear witnesses. “He wore a mask of black,” they would say. “I could not make him out clearly.”
I am riding for my life.
It was a stark and horrifying realization, but one he could not ignore. Worse still, Edward was not armed. If the rider caught up to him, he had no means of defending himself, save for his own bare hands. How far they would get him, he did not know, for he was not a born pugilist like his brother. He could fight when necessary, but he had always lacked the skill to win.
He rode endlessly, until complete darkness flooded the countryside. He could barely pick out the road ahead of him though Silver kept him on course.
To either side of him, vast, black fields stretched away to the limits of his view. The pale glow of the crescent moon barely cast any illumination upon his surroundings. How he longed for a full moon to light his way.
With every beat of his horse’s hooves, he heard it echoed in the distance by the thunder of his assailant. He was not relenting, and neither could Edward. One tumble, one misstep, and he would be done for.
Stay steady, Silver. For both of our sakes.
He charged onwards as the night’s cold air whipped at his cheeks. He could feel his horse tiring beneath him, its mouth frothing, and steam rising from the beast’s hide as it galloped on dutifully. Silver would not stop until he fell to the ground, but Edward worried how much longer the beast could keep up such a speed.
Then again, if his horse was struggling, his pursuer’s animal had to be too.
Who are you?
He turned over his shoulder once more but could see nothing in the darkness behind him. All he could hear were the hooves that echoed constantly, matching the rapid beat of his heart. He did not know why he was being trailed like prey, and he did not want to find out.
As he rode, he thought of all the enemies made by his father and grandfather but could not come up with any suitable adversary. After the shady past that had followed his grandfather, Francis Godwin, through and into old age, the ton had all but forgotten about the Summerhill dynasty. They had forgotten the unpleasantness with Alexandra Bradford, the Duchess of Greenwick, and shunned the Summerhills in favor of the elite who had not displayed such disgraceful behavior.
It had affected his late father when he had gone in pursuit of a wife, but he had married well enough with the daughter of a Scottish Earl. News of the Summerhills had not reached so far north, and Edward knew he would do well enough for himself, when the time came for him to find a suitable lady.
He was handsome, with dark blonde hair and blue eyes, and a dusting of quaint freckles across his nose and cheeks. Plus, he had a tall height that many ladies admired. He was not as broad as some gentlemen, but he had encountered enough flirtation from fine ladies not to worry too much. Besides, he was in no rush to marry.
Spotting a fork in the road, Edward turned his horse down it and felt the change in the ground’s texture beneath his horse’s hooves. The hard-packed earth had given way to the spongy quagmire of oversaturated mud. Still, he pressed on, though he could no longer hear the beat of hooves behind him.
He was not foolish enough to believe that the silence meant anything. His pursuer’s horse could simply be stuck in the mud, trudging slowly through it to avoid his steed rolling an ankle.
Gradually, the sludgy ground gave way to a smoother road, but Edward did not want to risk exposure on the open road any longer. Gripping the reins, he turned Silver into the nearby woods and edged his steed through the snatching undergrowth. A crack behind him startled the beast, prompting it to take off at a sudden pace. He lurched and did everything he could to keep his seat, but the horse would not be brought back under control.
“Slowly!” he hissed, but the whites of the horse’s eyes were showing. It whinnied and galloped through the shadowed trees.
He was instantly reminded of a similar incident, five years ago, when he had lost his beloved sister to this very kind of event. An image of her cold, dead body surged into his mind unbidden, and sudden tears sprang to his eyes.
In all the years since, he had never been allowed to forget his part in her death. He had not been directly responsible for the accident that took her life, but he had not been able to stop it. In the eyes of his father and grandfather, God rest their souls, he had been wholly responsible for her loss. That guilt had plagued him ever since and would not be dispelled.
Edward fought to regain control of his horse, but the beast would not listen to instruction. He knew his pursuer could be anywhere in the shadows, waiting for him to stumble, but what could he do? He could not urge Silver to calm down.
From the darkness, something lashed at his throat and caught him full in the chest. He was moving so fast that he barely had time to grasp for the reins before the low-hanging branch swiped him out of the saddle. He hit the ground with such a bone-shaking thud that the world began to spin. His head smacked into something hard, sending a spike of pain through his skull.
As he tried to rise, he fought to keep hold of consciousness. A second later, as he fell back into the undergrowth, he heard a second set of hooves pass close by, charging after a spooked Silver.
The beat of the hooves did not stop, making him realize they did not know he had been unseated from his horse. Whoever they were, they would follow Silver until they saw that the beast no longer had a rider.
He struggled to get up, but searing pain kept him fixed to the cold, wet undergrowth. His eyelids grew heavy, blocking out the faint glow of the crescent moon above. He tried to keep his gaze on the stars, but the deep shadows of oblivion approached with an oily stealth. He blinked twice, but could not clear the dark haze that filled his line of sight.
When he could no longer steady himself, he slipped into unconsciousness. He sank into the darkness, certain he would not wake again.
This was it. He bemoaned that this was the end of days for him.
At eight-and-twenty, his life was over.
“Is that…is that a man?”
Fiona cowered behind Mrs. Benton, the cook. She was Mrs. Benton’s latest assistant, and they’d come out to forage for mushrooms for the evening meal. It was pure chance that they had stumbled across a body at the edge of the neighboring woodland; the male body splayed out between the trunks of two horse chestnut trees.
“Keep your distance,” Mrs. Benton warned. “He might be a highwayman, come to attack us unawares. Sneaky devils.”
Fiona peered at him. “He’s not moving, Mrs. Benton.”
“That don’t mean he has good intentions. You’d do well to learn that now, before it finds you in hot water.”
“Maybe he needs help. He doesn’t look too good.”
Mrs. Benton frowned. “Mayhap you’re right, but you’re not to go getting involved. Leave it to me. I’ll soon brain the chap with me basket, if he should try ought funny.”
The plump, older woman stepped forward and poked the body with her foot. The man groaned out loud. His eyes fluttered, but they did not open. Spurred on, Mrs. Benton poked him again, eliciting the same response.
“You. Wake up.” She knelt and prodded him in the ribs.
He opened his eyes fully this time. “Where…am I?” he wheezed.
“Mind yer own business.”
“Who…are you?” He eyed the two women curiously.
“I could ask you the same thing.” Mrs. Benton folded her arms across her ample bosom and narrowed her eyes at him. She did not like strangers at the best of times but finding one on the border of Greenwick Abbey was infinitely more unsettling.
His Grace would not be happy to discover an unwanted intruder in the grounds, for he suffered from intense paranoia regarding the safety of his family. It was borne from an uncomfortable history that had trailed the family throughout the years. She remembered the unfortunate unpleasantness between the late Duke of Greenwick and the man named Francis Godwin as if it were yesterday.
The man shook his head. “I…I do not remember.” He touched the back of his head, leaving a red streak across his pale palm. Mrs. Benton reeled back in fright, her edges softening at the sight of the man in pain.
Intrigued, Fiona asked, “You can’t remember who you are?”
“It is on the tip of my tongue, but I cannot recollect. My apologies for startling you. I do not know how I came to be here.” He glanced around, a foggy expression in his eyes. Mrs. Benton had seen the fogginess once before, in her husband’s eyes after he had taken a nasty tumble from the roof of a house he was thatching. His memory had returned soon enough, but she recognized the confusion in this young man.
“Do you know your name?” Mrs. Benton asked.
He frowned, deep in thought. “Edmund or Edward, I believe.”
“Should we take him back to the house and send for the physician?” Fiona whispered.
“I think not. We ought to leave him here until he regains his memory.” Mrs. Benton rested her hands on her hips.
“But he’s clearly injured, Mrs. Benton. Maybe we should take him back, so the Duke can decide what to do with him?”
Mrs. Benton momentarily hesitated. “Well then, Edmund or Edward, let’s see what His Grace says, shall we? It looks as if you’ve taken a bad knock to the head, though I’ll whack you if you step out of line.” She reached out her hand to help the young man up. He winced as he got to his feet, holding onto his head as if his hand were the only thing holding it together.
“I really am sorry for alarming you, Ladies.” He cast a pained smile in their direction.
“You ought to worry about yourself right now,” Mrs. Benton replied. “Your memory will come back to you, worry not. Did you have a horse with you, or did you walk here? Can you recall anything?”
His face took on a strained look. “I think I had a horse, but I imagine it is long gone. I do not know why I was headed in this direction. Indeed, I do not recognize anything.”
“Never mind that, you’ll remember soon enough.” Mrs. Benton took him by the arm and led him across the vast lawn that led up to the fine exterior of Greenwick Abbey. It was a fair walk, and she doubted his ability to make the journey, but she was stronger than she looked; if he needed to be carried, she’d be only too happy to oblige.
It was hard to gauge the young man’s heritage, for though he spoke with a clipped voice, his clothes were torn and covered in a thick layer of dirt and grime. His hair was unkempt, his face streaked with mud and spatters of blood, and he did not seem to know a thing about himself. He could not even properly remember his name, though Mrs. Benton thought he looked more like an Edward than an Edmund.
“Where are you taking me?” the young man asked.
“To see His Grace, the Duke of Greenwick. He can decide your fate.” Mrs. Benton gave his arm a reassuring squeeze. Although His Grace was an anxious, paranoid sort of gentleman, he had a kind spirit. He was unlikely to turn a young man away, especially one in such dire need of assistance.
George Bradford, the Duke of Greenwick, stared at the young man, who had lapsed into unconsciousness on the settee in the drawing room.
Mrs. Benton and Fiona, her assistant, had brought him from the woodland and deposited him there. A fire raged in the grate, casting warmth on the unconscious man, but George felt only a chill when he observed the man.
However, he had no clue what he was supposed to do with such a stranger. He feared for the safety of his lands and the protection of his three precious daughters. He had no son to defend his title, but he did not want any uppity son of this fellow and that fellow to come a-calling for his daughters. That had been instilled in him from a very young age, especially considering the troubled past that had plagued his grandfather.
You can never be too safe.
That was what his father had taught him, and his mother had always highlighted the importance of keeping the ladies in his family protected from any who might do them harm. There had not been any continued unpleasantness between the Greenwicks and the Summerhills, not directly, but there were always saucy looks and bitter exchanges of words whenever their paths crossed in London.
George took a small vial of smelling salts and wafted them beneath the stranger’s nostrils. They widened, the young fellow jolted awake. He glanced around the room, an expression of utter bafflement written across his features.
“Where am I?” he gasped.
“You are in the drawing room of Greenwick Abbey, and I am George Bradford, the Duke of Greenwick.” He sat beside the young man and pocketed the smelling salts. “Now, the true question is, who are you?”
The young man frowned. “Edward…I think my name is Edward.”
“You do not remember?”
The young man shook his head. “I am trying, Your Grace.”
“You speak well. Are you of noble peerage?”
“I cannot recall, Your Grace.”
George tutted. “Well, that will not do. Do you remember how you came to be in my grounds?”
“I cannot, Your Grace.”
“The physician has been sent for, and he will further investigate your current well-being. However, it would appear you have taken a rather serious hit to the back of your head. That could well be why you do not remember anything. I trust your memory will return.”
The young man nodded. “I pray that it does, Your Grace.”
“Until then, it is clear that you cannot be allowed to fend for yourself in such a state as this. I suppose you must remain here.”
The young man stumbled over his words. “That is very kind, Your Grace.”
“However, if you are to remain here, we must find a suitable employ for you. Naturally, there will be a period of rest, in which you may well recover your memory. If you do not, then you cannot be allowed to sit idle. Tell me, do you know if you have any particular skills?” George waited patiently for the young man to answer, though even the slightest response seemed to take much of his energy.
“I think I am good with horses…but I cannot be sure.”
George looked at the man, noticing his smooth hands. He did not look like one who was used to physical labor. “You might care to work with them, do you think?”
“Yes…yes, I might be of some use, if you have any employ you might offer me?”
George smiled. “Excellent, then perhaps it might be best if you were to earn your keep in the stables, as a stable boy. Just until your memories return. Would that suit?” He did not care to force this stranger into an unseemly occupation, but the fellow seemed eager enough.
“I think it would, Your Grace.”
“And you are sure you cannot remember a thing?”
The young man shook his head. “Nothing, Your Grace.”
George tapped the side of his chin in thought. “Very well. You should remain here until Doctor Bartlett arrives, so he may fully examine you. I have sent for some tea things to be brought to us, so you may recover some of your strength.”
“Thank you, Your Grace.”
The Duke rose and moved to the opposite settee, where he sat with one leg balanced across his other. The young man continued to glance around in complete confusion, blinking slowly at the flickering flames of the fire.
The presence of this man perturbed George more than he dared to admit, for there was a familiarity to the gentleman’s face that he could not quite put his finger on. He had handsome features and a dopey sort of smile that young ladies adored, but he vowed that this particular young man would not get within a few yards of his own daughters.
George would keep an eye on this fellow, in case this entire episode of amnesia revealed itself to be an elaborate ruse. An ordinary man would not suspect such a thing, but George was no ordinary man. He lived and breathed conspiracy, always fearing that someone might come to upset the applecart of his beloved family.
He had not always been that way, even though some modicum of it had been instilled in him by those who had come before him. No, it had been the arrival of his firstborn, Caroline, that had brought his paranoia to the surface. Charged with the care of such a small, vulnerable creature, all those fears had morphed into something beyond his control—a terror that his children would come into some danger he could not defeat.
Now, a strange, unknown individual had walked into Greenwick Abbey, disrupting the tight running of his proverbial ship. If the young man overstepped his bounds, even by one foot, George would not be so benevolent again. Indeed, he was surprised by his own generosity, for he ordinarily vetted his servants to within an inch of their lives. He did not know why he had allowed this young man to remain.
Perhaps I feel sorry for him. It is no easy thing to lose one’s memory.
He had watched his mother, the late Duchess, endure painful years of slowly forgetting everything she knew and loved. One day, he had walked into the library to greet her, and she had not even recognized him.
It had pained his father, too, for she could not remember him in his aged state. She loved a man by the name of Percy Bradford, but to her, he was a much younger man, not the wrinkled imposter who stood before her.
He remembered her babbling of a great trauma, and how his father had burst through the door to her rescue. She would retell the same stories over and over and beg for the man who had saved her that day. George’s father had gone to her, to try and calm her, but she only wept, for she did not know him.
And when she looked into a mirror, she screamed, for she did not know herself, either. The older woman in the looking glass was not the woman she expected, and her wails of confusion had been heard throughout the halls of Greenwick Abbey.
That must be why.
He attempted to convince himself, though he still felt a grip of concern that this young man had come to cause them harm. One thing was for certain—if the young man threatened his daughters in any way, George vowed to come down upon the young man like a guillotine.
From that, there would be no mercy and no escape.
“Who is this stranger that the house cannot stop wagging their tongues over?” Lydia Bradford, the Duke of Greenwick’s middle daughter, asked. She leant against the doorway of the library, whilst her mother read by the fire. She had heard the first whisperings of the stranger’s arrival two days ago, though she had only just mustered the courage to discover more.
It had been a long while since anything exciting had happened at Greenwick Abbey, and Lydia was quick to learn of any and all gossip that found its way into the house.
She longed for adventure and excitement, but she had been brought up in the wrong household. Here in the Hertfordshire countryside, she was far removed from any sort of thrilling event. She did not much care for balls and soirées, for the ones held in the nearby stately homes were always somber affairs, designed solely for the art of matchmaking. Indeed, she much preferred the freedom of riding her horse through the woods and burying herself in a good book.
“You are not to go near him,” the Duchess, Annabelle Bradford, replied, without looking up from her book.
“Is it true that the cook found him naked amongst the trees?” The idea thrilled Lydia to the core.
At two-and-twenty, she had learned of the world through the books she read beneath the covers at night. The tantalizing, titillating tales of Udolpho, and the forbidden Grecian myths of Phryne and Myrrha, and the poems of Sappho. They spoke freely of intercourse, in a way that would have prompted her mother to shriek in disgust, though Lydia indulged in them with aplomb, delighting in the lurid description therein. After all, there was little else to keep her occupied within the confines of Greenwick Abbey.
Her father allowed his daughters little freedom, aside from her weekly rides out into the woodland. Even then, she was watched from the house by her father’s trusted servants and she was never permitted to go further than the border of the grounds. Still, it was her one joy in an otherwise dull existence.
Her mother cast a withering look in her direction. “Of course, he was not found naked, Lydia. What on earth has got into you? I worry for your mind sometimes, for it is so often inappropriate. Indeed, I wonder if I should ask Doctor Bartlett to take a look at you, for you concern me greatly.”
Lydia pouted. “That is what the maids were saying, Mother.”
“Well, they ought not to be spreading such vulgar gossip, for it is not true. He was discovered fully clothed and has been set to work by your father.”
“That is none of your concern.” Her mother folded her book in her lap. “It is fortunate that you should come to find me on this fine afternoon, for I thought it due time we discussed your situation.”
Lydia arched an eyebrow. “My situation? I was not aware I had one.”
“Do not be obtuse, Lydia. You know perfectly well what I am referring to. I know your father would see you remain a spinster for the rest of your days, but I am disinclined to agree. As he has no son, we must find you an excellent gentleman so that your future may be assured.”
Lydia rolled her eyes. She had lost count of the amount of times they had endured this conversation with one another, with it never coming to a decided conclusion. Lydia did not wish to marry for anything short of true, exciting love, whilst her mother would happily marry her off to the next wealthy Duke that happened to come along.
It was as though she had learned little from the family heritage, for though Lydia’s grandmother had suffered a great sickness of the mind at the end of her life, she had loved her husband until the bitter end. Even when she could no longer recognize him, she had spoken of him in the past and her overwhelming love for him.
That was the sort of love she wanted—the passion, the desire, the longing, of which her books spoke, and her grandparents had shared.
Annabelle Bradford, née Forrest, had not married her father for love. That much was clear to all those who witnessed them, for though they made an exemplary partnership, Lydia could not remember them sharing so much as a kiss at Christmas. How they had created three children, Lydia did not know. Indeed, they did not even share chambers, and there was no middle-of-the-night creeping between bedrooms. Not that she had heard, anyway.
I want what my grandparents had. I do not want the banal and dull perseverance of an arranged union. She wanted love, and nothing else would suffice. If that meant she spent her days as a spinster, as her father wanted, then so be it.
“Who do you have waiting, Mother” Lydia teased. “Should I peer around the door, lest he jump out at me?”
“Goodness, listen to you! Anyone would think you had been dragged into womanhood, rather than raised with the utmost care,” the Duchess muttered. “I thought we might attend the Sherringham’s ball on Friday, where there shall be an excellent selection of eligible young men.”
“Should you not worry for Caroline first?” Lydia knew this was a trying subject for her mother, and so she delighted in pushing the right buttons. Caroline had decided to turn to a life of religion and charitable endeavor, preferring it over marriage and eligible bachelors. It had caused their mother no end of grief, for though she was somewhat dull in her interests, Caroline was a pleasant young lady to behold.
“You know very well that Caroline has chosen an…alternative path. I will not have this discussion with you again,” the Duchess retorted, with a note of exasperation in her voice. “As for you, I shall have the modiste design a new gown, so we may impress at the Sherringham’s. They have a delightful son, and I am certain he will take a liking to you, so long as you behave.”
Lydia smiled. “I can make no promises.”
“You must behave, Lydia. You must find a suitable gentleman before the year is over, so that you may begin a family of your own and find your future in safe hands.”
“I am hardly ready to begin having children, Mother.”
The Duchess frowned. “At two-and-twenty, you are long overdue in the pursuit of children. Meredith Rochefort already has two darling boys, and she is but twenty.”
“How fortunate for Meredith.” Lydia flashed her mother a smile, but she did not seem amused.
“Why must we always be at odds on this matter?” The Duchess sighed wearily. “Can you not understand the need for security? If you had a brother, things might be different, but I was unable to bear one. As such, your circumstance is not as safe as you might like to imagine.”
“Father is not sick. Why should I worry?”
The Duchess shot her a cold look. “Because one can never tell what may happen in the future, Lydia. You must have a husband before anything befalls your father. It is far better to pre-empt such eventualities than find yourself floundering when the time comes.”
“May we discuss it another time?”
“No, we may not. The invitation has already been replied to, and you will be expected to attend the Sherringham’s ball on Friday.”
“And must I find a husband there and then?” Lydia retorted sourly.
“It would be preferable, yes.”
Lydia shook her head. “I will attend this ball, but I cannot promise an engagement. The gentlemen often lose interest once they have spoken with me a while.”
“Because you are determined to frighten them away with your coarse remarks and discussions about Greek literature.”
Lydia blanched. “I do not.”
“You think I do not know of the filth that you read? You think the maids do not tell me of the books you hoard beneath your bed? You may claim you are expanding your knowledge of Greek and Latin, but I am no fool, Lydia.” The Duchess took a deep breath to calm herself. “All I ask is that you comport yourself in a ladylike manner, without scaring the young gentlemen away. Is that so much to request?”
“I am late for my afternoon excursion,” she mumbled.
“You are like a common stale, always out in the stables.”
“You would deny me my one joy?” Lydia stared at her mother.
“If you do not accept your attendance at the Sherringham’s ball, perhaps we may have to rethink the freedom you have to ride as you please.”
The threat lingered in the air between mother and daughter. For, though Lydia knew how to press her mother’s buttons, the Duchess knew precisely where Lydia’s weaknesses were.
Lydia balled her hands into fists. “Very well, then you may call upon your modiste and have her prepare a gown. I will attend the Sherringham’s ball.” But I will not be happy about it, and I will not comport myself as you have asked.
The Duchess smiled. “Excellent, I shall send word to her at once. I thought emerald green might be rather becoming, with your dark hair and dark eyes. Yes…emerald would be rather pleasing.”
“Whatever you prefer, Mother.” Her mother had won this one, but she would not always be victorious.
Unwilling to wait around for further discussion about eligible bachelors, Lydia slipped out of the library and headed out into the brisk April air.
A light shower had sprinkled the verdant lawns in crystalline droplets, and the beautiful blooms in the gardens were raising their colorful heads to sup the sweet dew. Lydia loved to be outdoors and walked as often as she was permitted, though today she skirted hurriedly around the exquisite gardens and headed for the stables.
The scent of hay and resting horses struck her as she entered the brick building that stood a short distance from the house. Four beasts raised their snouts over their gates as she stepped into the dimly-lit outhouse, their nostrils snorting as she stroked each one. Caroline and Mary didn’t ride much, and her mother never rode, but she and her father shared a love for the creatures. Gone were the days when he used to ride alongside her, but she had fond memories of those excursions.
She stopped as an unfamiliar figure approached, bearing two bales of hay in sturdy arms. “Pardon me, but I do not believe I know you,” she said boldly.
The young man peered out from behind the bales and set them down. “Good afternoon, Miss. Did I startle you?”
“A little. Where is Danson?”
“He is with the pigs, Miss.”
She smiled, for he was more handsome than she had first realized. Dark blonde curls swept across his forehead, which beaded with perspiration, and two ocean-blue eyes stared at her with a bemused expression. He had faint freckles across his sweaty face and stood a good head taller than her. She did not know of any new hires and supposed this must be the gentleman that was discovered in the woods—naked or not.
So, my father gave him work in the stables?
“My name is Edward,” he said. “I am the new stable boy here.”
She sketched a curtsey. “I am Lady Lydia Bradford.”
His expression changed. “I am sorry, My Lady. I did not realize you were one of his Grace’s daughters. I would never have replied to you so informally, had I but known.”
“Never mind that. I should like to ride—can you tack up Conker for me?” She gestured to a sleek, chestnut mare that kicked impatiently at her door. Conker was Lydia’s most-beloved horse, named for the color and shine of her coat. Although, she rode her sisters’ horses from time to time, to give them some freedom.
“What did you say?” A peculiar, strained frown corrugated his forehead.
“Might you arrange my horse for riding?”
He dipped his head. “Certainly, My Lady.”
She stood by as he approached the chestnut mare, and slowly began to fix her up for purpose. Ten minutes later, Conker was ready to ride. Taking hold of Edward’s hand, she accepted his help up and onto the side saddle, where she settled comfortably and took up the reins.
“Thank you, Edward.”
He smiled vacantly. “It is my pleasure, My Lady.”
With a soft kick of her heels, she trotted out of the stables and began to ride towards the woodland. Once she was out of sight of the house, she lifted her leg over the saddle and sat astride it, in the manner of a gentleman. Her mother would have locked her in her room, had she seen her behaving in such an uncouth manner, but Lydia did not care. She reveled in the freedom of riding in such a way.
Turning the horse around, she set it to a canter along the riverbank that cut through the house grounds on the far north. Fish darted beneath the surface of the water, splashing every so often to make themselves known. With a fresh breeze on the wind, she lifted her face to the warm sunshine and let the slight chill nip at her cheeks.
Before long, she became conscious of a frisson on her most secret place. It was part of why she rode in such a way, pressed against the pommel in a private moment of delicious pressure.
The horse moved at a steady place, making the pommel rise and fall against her body, deep beneath her pantalettes, rubbing against her sex. Her teeth caught on her bottom lip as she rasped in a sudden breath, gasping at the sensation of pure pleasure.
She thought perhaps she did need the doctor to examine her, for what young lady behaved in such a manner?
And yet, she could not help herself. The sensation was indescribable, filling her body with bristling pulses of ecstasy. Sometimes, it culminated in an explosive surge of pleasure, but other times she was content with the tantalizing tease of the friction.
Unbidden, she envisioned the stable boy walking towards her with his muscles straining under the weight of the hay bales. She pictured the sheen of sweat upon his forehead, and the way his curls swept forward, one strand lying over his blue eyes. She smiled as she rode, wondering what it might be like to feel a man’s strong touch upon her, instead of the firm leather of a pommel.
Would it feel the same? She did not dare to dwell too keenly on it, her cheeks flushing with heat as she contemplated it.
Glancing back at the stables, she gasped as she saw the stable boy standing in the doorway. He watched her, his muscular arms folded across his lean chest. It made a change from the suited and booted individuals who visited her father on business and cast a flirtatious look in her direction.
There was a wonderful simplicity to Edward, dressed in a white shirt, and black trousers, his boots high to the knee. There were no frills…just him, as he was. Strong, silent and steady, much like the beast who carried her safely along the riverbank.
What would it feel like if you were to touch me?
Chastened, she gripped the reins in her hands and dug in her heels, driving her horse into a gallop. If she rode fast enough, she could forget the weight of responsibility upon her shoulders and forget the ball that was to come in a few days’ time. More than anything, she could forget the fantasy of the stable boy’s hands dancing upon her skin.
You must not think of such things. Leave your imagination to the books you read.
There was a fine line between fiction and reality, and she could not cross it. Ever.
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