Elisabeth Fairchild
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by Elisabeth Fairchild

Signet Books
ISBN #0-451-20005-5
April 2000

Chapter One

He sat the dun gelding, midway on the curving High Street, legs aching, chest tight, head throbbing. The memory of the rhythm of Standard's steady lope still beat in the muscles of buttocks and thighs, in the sore clench of his calves, in the very bones of his back.

A flock of swifts darted with rapid, audible wingbeat to roost beneath the stone arches of the village marketplace, flitting black silhouettes against the sun. It was time he roosted, too. He had kept a punishing pace for three days now, few stops along the way, riding blindly, no thought for food or sleep, or where he was going, until the sun lit golden the finialed outline of a church tower against the flat-topped darkness of a limestone escarpement, and Standard, winded and blowing, dropped to a walk and then a halt, and refused to go farther.

A long way the two of them had come, through an unfamiliar, gently rolling countryside dotted with well tended fields and farms. Sheep and cattle grazed in emerald green pastures bordered by drystone walls rising like dragon's backs, topstones standing on end like loose scales. He had been blind to the beauty, deaf to the whistling call of the curlew, unaware of the sweet, clematis-scented caress of the breeze. And like the pounding of the horse's hoofbeats, so too had pounded his anger, nay it was a rage seethed in his veins. Nothing reached him, nothing touched him, until Chipping Campden.

The place glowed the color of honey, of cider, of a fizzing, pale champagne. The sun hung like a golden bauble, shedding yellowed afternoon light and shadow on the black timbered Shakesperian temper of a thatch and slate roofed town dozing in unruffled prosperity. The beauty comforted him, quieting the fire of his anger. He had begun to believe all beauty slipped from his life with the loss of Lavinia--his ideal of her, at any rate--and yet here it was, staring him in the face, waiting to be noticed.

"I require lodgings," he told the tapman at the Red Lion who served him a dram with the curious guardedness of a local to a stranger. Those gathered in the pub, pretended unsuccessfully not to notice a stranger in their midst.

"We've rooms above, if you please, sir, or the Noel Arms is just up the High Street," the tapman suggested.

"Not an inn," Philip said with decided distaste. "I mean to stay awhile. A fortnight. Maybe two."

The tapman winked, his lips curling in a sly smile. "It's Mrs. Stott's honey house you'll be needin' to see."

Brows and murmurs rose up and down the bar.

"It is not a brothel I am in need of," Philip said dryly.

Two of the patrons stifled chuckles in the depths of their tankards.

A gleam lit the tapman's eyes. "Nor have we one in the neighborhood to send you to, sir."

Philip Randall Chalmondeley, Marquess of Chalmodeley and Earl of Rockforth, eyed him coolly, sensing himself the butt of some private joke. It was a role he seemed destined to play of late.

Curiosity aroused--they could play him for no greater fool than he had already proved himself--he asked, "Where might I find this Mrs. Stott?"

Susan did not like to see an unknown gentleman standing on her step, hat in hand, windblown hair fired to a golden shimmer by the sun, shoulders stooped that he might see in a doorway built for a shorter people four hundred years gone.

She had grown wary of strangers, and the sheer glowing size of this lean-shanked fellow with stubbled jaw and red-rimmed eyes chased all breath from her throat, and froze her hand on the unsteady support of the door.

"Mrs. Stott?"

She frowned, disliking him immediately for addressing her as such. "I am Miss Susan Fairford," she said brusquely.

With distant green eyes he examined her, their color cool, weary, like treetops in a lazy breeze, his voice cool too, no attempt to engage her with smiles or pleasantries. "May I speak to Mrs. Stott? The tapman at the Lion sent me."

Burdock? Timothy Burdock's involvement did nothing to recommend a stranger who had not the manners to so much as introduce himself. And yet, she could not take her eyes off of him.

He was not handsome so much as physically self-possessed, his every muscle poised to do his bidding, no gangly awkwardness in him, no annoying affectation of a walking stick needed to assist him in perambulation. He held his head proudly, like a stallion does, nose to the wind. He stood, weight evenly balanced. A man not easily swayed. And yet, she distrusted him from the start.

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