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Eugenia Hawthorne, daughter of a deceitful highwayman, saves the life of the Earl of Trentham after he’s deposited at her door suffering from a bullet wound. Outsmarting her father, the earl takes Eugenia to live in his beautiful country estate, Lilac Court. But what does he really want from her? It seems there’s a mystery attached to an emerald necklace, which he wishes her to wear at a London ball. Could Eugenia be the daughter of a powerful duke, but born on the wrong side of the blanket? Her mother refused to tell her.
As Brendan, Earl of Trentham, works to bring down a hated foe, he and his sister instruct Eugenia in the ways of the ton. She is beautiful and, despite the cloud over her birth, will be desired by many men. Why doesn’t that prospect make him happy?
BRENDAN COULD SMELL lavender. Had he been left in a garden? He opened his eyes and gazed around. Through the small window above him, the soft slate-blue sky was tinged with the rosy pink of early dawn. He closed his eyes for a few minutes and listened to the birds begin to wake. Then, concerned about his lethargy, he raised his head. “Where the devil am I?” The room spun. A pain racked through his shoulder so fierce that it brought an oath to his lips. With a groan, he lowered his head to the pillow. He lay in a strange bed in a room he’d never seen before. Was he in one of his tenant’s houses? He had no recollection of how he’d got here.
“There’s no need for foul language,” a pleasant voice said behind him.
He eased onto his good side. A young woman sat on a settle beside the fire. He admired the graceful movements of her slim fingers as she darned a stocking. “I beg your pardon, Miss…?”
“Hawthorne. I forgive you in the circumstances.” She put down her sewing and crossed the floor to sit on a stool at his side. “I must check your wound.”
Unequal to questioning her further, he lay still as she unwound the bandage that bound his shoulder with deft fingers.
“Good, it’s stopped bleeding.”
His gaze took in his bloodied coat, shirt, and ruined neck cloth on a chair. “I seem to remember being shot. Highwaymen attacked us in the woods.” He ran a hand over his bare chest and gazed up into her startlingly green eyes. “I must thank you for your kindness. But where am I?”
When he tried, painfully, to raise himself, she placed a hand on his good shoulder and pushed him gently down. “Lie still.”
She seemed unconcerned about touching his bare skin. Had Neil left him with a whore? He dismissed the idea for she looked far too innocent and fresh faced to be one.
“You’re at Woodland Farm. It’s my father’s farm. Your groom brought you here.”
He tensed his jaw. “My coachman was killed. I’m not sure about his nephew. He’s just a young lad.” He tried to galvanize himself to think clearly. “I must make arrangements to have the coach mended and take my coachman’s body home.” He tried to conjure up a smile. “I believe you’ve saved my life, Miss Hawthorne. I’m most grateful.”
“It is your groom you should thank, my lord.”
“Where is Neal?”
“Mr. Pollitt left for Lilac Court during the night to fetch another carriage to take you home.”
She rose, went to the dresser, and, returning with two mugs, held one out. “Drink this first.”
He eyed it doubtfully. “What is it?”
“A mixture of herbs.”
Brendan painfully raised his head and drank the bitter mixture. He grimaced and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. She handed him the other mug, which contained water, and he drank thirstily. He lay back with a soft moan. If this young lady had wanted to harm him, she would have done so before this. He couldn’t make himself care either way. Weak as a kitten, he closed his eyes.
“Best you rest awhile.” Her voice sounded far away.
He must have slept, for when he woke again, it was bright daylight. Miss Hawthorne sat in a rocking chair still at her mending. A man’s shirt this time. Whose? he wondered. He glanced around. Through a door he spied another cot. “Have I put someone out of their bed?”
“No.” She put down the fine linen shirt and he saw it was his she was mending.
“Then who’s bed is this?”
“Was he here during the night?”
“He’s away on business.”
He frowned. “Then we’ve been alone together all night?”
She cut the thread with her pearly, even teeth and smiled at him. Brendan almost gasped at the beauty of her smile. I must be feeling better, he thought, bemused. This ministering angel was lovely indeed.
“Do not worry about my reputation, my lord. Villagers won’t concern themselves about me tending to an injured man in my care. We leave that sort of fuss to the gentry.” She folded the shirt. “I don’t envy you your fancy manners and morals. All a sorry lot of pretense, that is.”
“Is it?” Why was she so cynical about life? She couldn’t be more than twenty at most. Drawn to her slender white throat, his gaze drifted down to the curve of her thigh beneath the modest gown. Aware he was staring, he looked away. “What has caused you to think like that?”
“I worked for a while as a kitchen maid in a big house in Canterbury,” she said. “The lady’s maid told me her ladyship was miserable most of the time. She had nothing to do but embroider.” She pushed a wisp of golden hair off her brow. “Hardly a useful pastime. His lordship left her alone for weeks on end when he went up to London to visit his mistress and his clubs.”
“We are not all like that,” Brendan said while acknowledging that some men of his acquaintance were. Arranged marriages were commonplace amongst the ton, and there was often little love between a husband and wife.
He wondered about Miss Hawthorne’s kin. Such delicate looks were not often found in these parts, especially not slightly tip-tilted eyes of a deep, fascinating green-blue.
“Don’t you have a betrothed or a beau?”
She came to examine his wound, untying the bandage with gentle fingers. “No one around here I’d consider. My father wants to marry me off to a friend of his. I dislike the fellow and won’t agree.” She pushed away a golden curl from her forehead, and her sleeve fell back, exposing a dark bruise on her arm. Had someone held her in a cruel grip? Her father?
He took hold of her hand and turned her wrist to examine the purple discoloration on her tender skin. “Who did this to you?”
She pulled her hand away and drew down her sleeve. “’Tis nothing. A pig knocked me over in the pen.”
He doubted her story. He couldn’t dismiss so lightly that some brute had manhandled her in such a manner. But he knew she wouldn’t tell him more, because she frowned as she took up a pot of nasty-looking paste and applied it to his wound.
Brendan clamped down on his jaw. “Lord! What is that stuff? It stings like the devil!”
“Healing herbs.” She retied the bandage. “You shall be gone from here when your groom returns. If you make a fuss, I’ll be in a worse place. Father will be home soon.”
He grimaced as he considered this bit of information, his throat dry and scratchy. He was scarcely in any condition to take on a bully. “May I have some water?”
“I’ve made a potion from the bark and leaves of a willow. It will ease the pain.” She took down a jar from the dresser and mixed it with water in a mug then handed it to him. While he drank it, she added coal to the fire.
“You must eat.” She tied the strings of an apron around her trim waist. Taking down an iron pan from its hook, she greased the pan with bacon fat and added wafer-thin slices of bacon, which sizzled as they cooked. Then removing the bacon, she broke eggs into the pan and beat them with a fork with a deft touch. Keeping a careful eye on the eggs as she worked, she made coffee.
Brendan realized he was hungry; he hadn’t eaten since luncheon yesterday. The smell of frying bacon and the coffee made his stomach growl.
When it was cooked, he ate the tasty food with relish. “This is the best meal I’ve had in an age.”
“’Tis only bacon and eggs,” she said with a smile, toying with her smaller portion.
He watched her as she ate. She was like an exotic flower in a weed patch, this girl. Her golden hair was tied up with a yellow ribbon, her faded cotton gown, a bluish hue that had seen better days. Nothing could diminish her natural beauty. In the right clothes, she would be a diamond of the first water. She reminded him of someone. Those eyes…. “Were you born hereabouts?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know where I was born.”
“Cannot your father tell you?”
Before she could answer, the door creaked open and a swarthy, dark-haired man came in and hung his coat on a hook. “I smell bacon. You ain’t eating before you’ve fed the hogs, are you, Eugenia?”
Miss Hawthorne jumped up. “I did the chickens at sunup. I am just about to feed the pigs, Papa.”
“Cook me breakfast first, girl, and be quick about it.”
The man’s hard dark gaze settled on Brendan, and his brows rose. “And who be this then?”
Conscious of propriety, even if Miss Hawthorne wasn’t, Brendan struggled up on his elbow. “I’m Brendan Fanshaw, Earl of Trentham, sir. Your daughter took me in when I was attacked by highwaymen in the wood yonder.”
“Highwaymen you say?” The man grunted. “They’re busy enough catching the unsuspected on Shooter’s Hill on the Dover Road. Not Olverston Wood. Never known ’em to be there. That place is haunted.”
Brendan didn’t believe in ghosts. Only those conjured up in the minds of the guilty. “These were red-blooded men. I shot one of them dead.”
Mr. Hawthorne’s gaze widened. He pulled out a wooden chair and sat down at the table. “Killed one of them, did yer? Best I take a look presently.” He glanced at his daughter who was stoking the fire.
While the bacon fat spat in the pan, he loosened the red scarf around his thick neck and took out a clay pipe. He lit a taper and drew on the pipe then edged his boots closer to the fire. “Hurry yourself, girl. Then go and feed the pigs. His lordship and I have much to discuss.”
Miss Hawthorne swung around to face her father, a worried expression in her eyes. She didn’t trust her father it seemed. She handed him his meal, wrapped a shawl around her shoulders, and darted outside.
Brendan looked at the man’s crafty face. A touch of gypsy in him perhaps. Romanies were good at turning a situation to their advantage. But such a man would never have called his daughter Eugenia. Despite the deep throb in his shoulder, Brendan grew interested. Very interested indeed.
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