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Colonel Jack Caldwell cursed as he limped along the derelict path. Undergrowth tugged at his legs. Vines tangled his feet and tried to snatch his cane. This was not a direction he would ordinarily choose, but none of the sites nearer the house would do.
His injured leg buckled, tossing him ignominiously into a bush.
"Damned French bastards!" he growled, then shoved his irritation aside. It no longer mattered that the leg was slow to heal. Weakness would add credibility to his accident. Everyone knew he was shaky. And everyone knew--or thought they knew--that he was anxious to return to duty. Why else would he exercise the leg from dawn to dusk, triggering cramps that made sleep difficult?
Climbing to his feet, he analyzed the evidence of his fall. The cane had skidded on a mat of dead leaves, digging a long gouge in the soil. His right foot had slipped in the other direction. The fall had broken two branches from the bush and flattened shorter plants.
Forcing the recalcitrant leg into motion, he limped onward, wishing that he could sit a horse long enough to scout the estate. But his injuries made riding impossible. While his shoulder, head, and side had long since healed, his thigh remained weak despite assurances from the surgeons that it would recover, leaving no trace of a limp--another reason he had to finish the matter now; once the limp disappeared, people would question a fall.
His tutor's voice suddenly swam out of memory. Are you sure you have considered this thoroughly, Jack? Reeves had asked that question a thousand times in their years together, usually when Jack was poised to make a mistake.
But this time even Reeves mustagree that death was his only option. He could no longer face his eyes in the mirror, for his family's bad blood had finally overcome his long devotion to honor.
His family was the most disreputable in England. His father, the Earl of Deerchester, was the latest in a long line of spineless sycophants and dishonorable cads, each displaying some combination of brutality, cowardice, and irresponsible selfishness. His great-grandfather had disgraced himself at the battle of Blenheim. His grandfather had pledged allegiance to both sides in the Jacobite uprising of 1745, yet fought for neither. His father and older brother were worse. The shame had branded Jack at school and followed him into the army.
He'd spent a lifetime trying to escape the family legacy, first with Reeves's help and later on his own. But honor had been difficult. He'd had to be twice as virtuous as other boys just to be accepted. And sometimes even virtue wasn't enough.
He shuddered to recall the scandal that had nearly destroyed his career. Though eight years had passed, the memory could still freeze his soul. A cub had wagered recklessly at cards, losing half a year's allowance. To hide his poor judgment from the father he feared, the boy had cried foul--not against the gentleman who had won the most in that fateful game, but against Jack, whose family had been embroiled in scandal for generations and whose brother Wilcox was suspected of far more than cheating.
Taking a deep breath, Jack continued along the path. He'd been lucky that time. A friend had forced the cub to recant. Jack had never asked Devall about his methods, but it had taken him six years to repay the debt to his own satisfaction.
And for what? Though he'd been innocent of fleecing greenlings, blood always ran true in the end. As his had. Thirty-two years of honor, of serving others, of exemplary living wiped out in one day.
He shuddered. It had been the blackest hell he'd survived in fifteen years of war, but the price of that survival had been his honor. And enough shreds of that honor remained that he could not ignore his crimes as Deerchester would have done. Nor could he laugh off the damage as Wilcox was wont to do.
Waterloo had proved that his façade of honor was too thin to control his breeding. He was as brutal as his brother, as cowardly as his father, as scandalous as any of his ancestors. Dedication to right hadn't worked. Nor had determination or scrupulous attention to every thought and deed. To protect society from his family's blood, he must die before he hurt someone else. Only thus could he atone.
Yet even in death he could not add new scandal to the family name--which was why he could not confess and leave his fate to a court-martial. So his death must seem accidental.
Since regaining enough mobility to stumble through his front door, he'd forced his battered body outside every day to establish the habit of wandering the estate alone. No one would be surprised if he found trouble. Seacliff Manor had belonged to his mother's uncle, who had died just before Waterloo. Jack had never seen the place before inheriting it, so he couldn't be expected to know its dangers.
Unfortunately, those dangers were well hidden. Though the house was run-down from having stood empty for forty years--his great-uncle had lived in London--the land was in excellent condition, and the cliffs that had inspired the estate's name had long since eroded into gentle slopes. The stream was too shallow to drown anyone and contained no rocks that might knock a man senseless. Even the bridge was so low that falling off would only sprain an ankle.
So today he was exploring the woods to the west. Somewhere in that direction, cliffs still rose above the beach.
The path became more overgrown with each step. Unlike the path to the village, this one had not been used in a very long time--which raised the question of whether his body would even be found if he fell here. But of course, the staff would have to mount a search when he failed to return. When they spotted that broken bush, they would press on.
He worked harder to leave clear evidence of his passage. Ten minutes later, the trees opened onto space.
The forest crowded the cliff, forcing walkers to the brink. A sheer drop ended on a rocky beach thirty feet below. No one could survive such a plunge. Wind and rain had gouged several bites from the edge and undercut other spots that were now poised to crumble. The nearest was twenty feet away, where a large shrub reached greedy fingers toward the sunlight, narrowing the path to a scant two feet.
Inhaling deeply, he murmured an apology to Reeves. The tutor had tried so hard to guide him to an honorable life. But even Reeves couldn't work miracles.
It was time.
He hobbled westward, leaning heavily on the cane that hit the ground only inches from the edge. Not all the weight was show. He had walked too far today. His thigh throbbed, and his knee tried to buckle with every step. But he would soon be free of pain. The ground would crumble, pitching him over the side.
To make the accident obvious to even the dullest observer, he halted by the shrub and used the cane to chip away the crumbling rock. The fresh gouge flared like a beacon in the sunlight. Bracing on his bad leg, he slid his right foot sideways to create a skid mark and--
"Jacques!" cried a female. "What are you doing here?"
Startled, he whirled, his feet sliding out from under him. The voice sounded joyful and welcoming. Who the devil was she, and what was she doing on his estate?
So intent was he on identifying her that he automatically grabbed the shrub as he skidded over the edge.
The woman screamed as the branch cracked under his weight.
Marianne Barnett wandered through the woods that protected her manor from Channel storms. It was a beautiful September afternoon, warm with only a hint of autumn.
Autumn had always been her favorite season. Much had changed since she'd lost her family, but not her love of autumn. The vivid colors and biting air exhilarated her. Wading through drifts of fallen leaves was one of her greatest pleasures. If only--
Thrusting regrets aside, she concentrated on the forest. With no grounds staff to maintain it, it had run wild. Sheep kept Halworth's lawns under control, but the rest grew as it would.
The result was a fairy-tale world not usually seen outside of books. Dead branches littered the ground, half buried in decaying leaves and moss. Shrubs and vines grew thick along paths and clearings--anywhere they could find a little sun. It was a wild place, a private place, unwatched by servants, known only to her and the resident animals.
A squirrel bounded onto a tree trunk as she passed, scolding her for interrupting his work. This was his busiest time of year as he rushed to collect food for the winter. A flock of geese circled overhead, flapping and honking in unison as they practiced for the journey that would start in a fortnight. Something moved in the shadows. A fox, perhaps. They had made the park a refuge, for here they were safe. No one entered but her.
Marianne hadn't always lived alone, of course. Her childhood had been no different from her peers', with rules and governesses and plans for the come-out that would lead to marriage and children of her own. Only last night she had dreamed of her twelfth birthday party, attended by a dozen neighbor children. The air had rung with shouts and laughter as she and her guests engaged in fun--three-legged races run with arms wrapped around partners' shoulders, a tug-of-war that ended in a pile of giggling bodies, confidences exchanged with a neighbor whose bent head leaned against her own, hugs and kisses from friends and family...
How long had it been since she'd willingly touched another person? She sometimes felt like Sleeping Beauty, locked in her castle while brambles engulfed it, blocking any escape.
But that would change on her next birthday. In the meantime, books appeased her curiosity about the outside world, knowledge substituting for experience. This year alone she'd climbed Swiss mountains, sailed to China, and explored Etruscan ruins and Greek temples. And if she longed to see through her own eyes instead of through others', she knew better than to question her uncle's decrees. He was her guardian, with absolute control over her person. Lest she forget, his secretary reminded her of the consequences of rebellion. Mr. Craven called at Halworth Park every quarter, his arrivals marking the low points of her year.
Still mad as a March hare, I see, he'd said a week earlier when she'd cringed from his touch. He'd backed her against the wall so he could breathe hotly into her face while his talonlike fingers skimmed down her arm and across her chest. A few seconds of his touch invariably incited hysteria. But at least screams brought her staff on the run, allowing her to escape with his usual reminder ringing in her ears. Never leave the park or speak to others, Marianne. If anyone discovers your infirmity, Lord Barnett will lock you in an asylum with the other lunatics.
Such threats made solitude acceptable--for another six weeks. That's when her trust would end, placing Halworth and her life in her hands.
Her exhilaration over her coming freedom convinced her that Barnett had to be wrong. She didn't feel mad. Granted, Craven's visits sent her into fits, but those outbursts were the only ones she'd suffered in years. Her servants didn't incite terror.
Yet uncertainty remained. Craven was the only outsider she'd seen since her uncle's last visit eleven years ago. The servants were too familiar, having served Halworth since before she was bor--
She frowned. Hastings and his wife had been butler and housekeeper for nearly forty years. Both were past seventy and showing signs of age. Even the maids were on the shady side of fifty. What would she do when they retired? Especially Hastings. While she looked forward to consulting with her steward and visiting neighbors, the thought of a strange man living in the house raised tremors.
Perhaps that was why she was suddenly dreaming of yesteryear, conjuring vivid memories of the days when trust had been easy, when Halworth had been the area's social center, when life had been happy...
But those times were gone, she reminded herself. Erased in one terrifying moment. Parents. Siblings. Half a dozen servants. All gone. And she'd been helpless to stop it. Grief had long since faded, but the helplessness remained, raising fears that her uncle was right.
She hated being in thrall to emotions she could not control.
Shoving the memories aside, she traced the lacy pattern of a fern and forced her thoughts to the future.
It was time to send for more books--twelve years had committed most of her father's extensive library to memory, so she expanded it several times a year. The last several shipments had concentrated on agriculture and estate management, but she was as prepared to assume control of Halworth as was possible under the circumstances. This time she wanted to learn more about Davy's experiments with matter--his recent treatise in The Edinburgh Review had piqued her interest. And a book on topiary, perhaps. Until now, she had kept the gardens the same, loath to modify her mother's designs. But she needed a new challenge, one that would distract her from her growing dissatisfaction--as her day of freedom approached, confinement increasingly chafed her soul.
Solitude now grated, as it had never done in the past, but her uncle's guards would report any attempt to leave the park. She couldn't risk it, for the threat of the asylum was always there.
She was so tired of being at the mercy of others. Her trustees were almost as bad as her uncle. A year earlier, they had refused her request to examine the Halworth ledgers, insisting that no female could understand business--which was absurd, for the end of the trust would put everything in her hands whatever their reservations. When she had persisted, they had urged her to wed so her husband could take charge.
They must live in a fantasy world, for they knew as well as she that Barnett prevented her from meeting anyone. Though twelve years had passed, he would never forget her hysteria the last time she had faced a stranger.
The reminder revived earlier memories of the nightmarish return to England after she'd lost her family. Hiding by day. Stumbling through unfamiliar territory by night. Fearing everyone they met--even children might have betrayed them, and men would have done worse. Francine had protected her as best she could, but the maid had been too scared to think. If not for Jacques...
Melancholia swept over her. Perhaps Jacques had done her a disservice by bringing her home. The life she'd loved had ended that day, and even her imminent freedom would not restore it.
Frowning, she halted. She had first met Jacques during that period when strangers had sent her into hysteria, so why had she meekly accepted his help? No hysterics. No screaming nightmares. No kicking and clawing at the first touch of his hand.
You knew I would never hurt you, he murmured in her head. We are kindred spirits.
"How could I have known that? I thought you were French. You were wearing their uniform."
Intuition. You had good instincts in those days--you still would if you trusted yourself.
She shook her head free of his voice. Having no one with whom to converse, she had fallen into the habit of talking to people she had once known. Her favorite companion was Hutch, her old governess, but Jacques ran a close second. He was forever urging her to explore new horizons.
Now she pondered his suggestion. Her intuition had been right, for Jacques had not hurt her. Another proof that her uncle was wrong. If she had tolerated Jacques...
Not just tolerated. She had clung to him as to a rock in a stormy sea. From the moment he had joined them, she had known that they would survive. Jacques was magnificently heroic, remarkably capable, and the most honorable man she had ever met. Without him, she would never have escaped France.
Trust yourself, he murmured again. Your old life may be gone, but you can build a better one.
Test it. Go out and meet people. You can be so much more than you think.
"Soon, I promise. But you know I can't dismiss the guards until my twenty-fifth birthday. As long as they are here, I cannot leave Halworth. Nor can I deny entrance to Craven."
Start by writing letters. You will need a solicitor if you hope to be independent. Now is the time to find one.
She frowned. It was true. Ending the trust would be just the beginning. A solicitor could tell her of any responsibilities or restrictions she hadn't considered. While the Halworth library was extensive, most of the books had been added by her classicist father, so there were no tomes on legal matters. A solicitor could also recommend a good man of business. She would need help with the trust investments.
The trees thinned as she approached the one place she always felt free. Here she could embrace the wind, glory in the view, and envy the birds swooping overhead. But as she lifted her face to the sun, she caught an odd movement out of the corner of her eye. A soldier was chipping at the rock twenty feet away.
Recognition bloomed. "Jacques! What are you doing here?"
As if her thoughts had conjured him from thin air, he stood before her, hatless, his dark hair whipped by the wind. His shoulders seemed broader than she remembered, though his red coat hung loosely, hinting that he'd recently lost weight. Mud caked the gray breeches clinging to powerful thighs, and a long scrape marred one boot. At her shout, he whirled.
"Jacques!" she gasped as his feet slipped, spilling him over the side. He grabbed a shrub, but it was too fragile to bear his weight.
Screaming, she raced forward, heedless of the danger, terrified that she'd killed him.
You can't let him die! shouted Hutch. He is your savior.
"Give me your hand," she gasped as his walking stick clattered on the rocks below.
Pain, fear, fury, and a strange satisfaction swirled through his gray eyes, but he finally thrust his free hand upward.
He was heavier than he looked. But caring for Halworth's gardens had given her unladylike strength. Bracing her feet against a rock, she pulled with all her might.
The rock sheared off, sliding toward the edge and taking her feet with it.