Authors: Karen Hawkins
Tags: #Romance, #Regency, #General, #Historical, #Fiction
Tata grunted her reluctant approval and looked around. “I suppose it will make a good hunting lodge once this madness of yours is gone.”
“So it will. I’ll have some of my men begin work on it at once. I need it cleaned, fixed, and well stocked with firewood.”
She shot him a reluctantly amused glance. “A poor man of no wealth does not have men to help with such things.”
“I am not playing this part because I wish to, Tata. I am playing it because I must.”
“I will help as I can, but I’ve no experience with thatching. I’d be foolish to try now when the rainy season is about to begin.”
“At least you are keeping some of your good sense about you.”
“I’m keeping all of it.” He smiled at her fondly and held out his arm. “Thank you for coming to see my new home. Come, I’ll take you back for tea.”
She took his arm, wishing he weren’t so blasted charming. It was hard to argue with a grandson who smiled at her as if she were the best grandmother in the world. “Not the English kind of tea. It’s so weak it tastes like hot water.”
He gave her a look of mock horror. “Of course not! I will get you good tea from our homeland. We brought enough for a year, though we will only be a month or so.”
Tata paused before she walked out of the doorway. “Do you not think a month is too little time to persuade a woman to marry you? One who thinks that a title and this cottage is all you possess?”
He looked surprised. “Do you think we should stay longer?”
Ah, the certainty of this one is as endearing as it is surprising.
She reached up to pat his cheek. “Wulf, think a bit. I know that the women have always come to you, but what you propose to do now will change that. You wish to win a woman’s heart and not just her interest. You must get to know her, and reveal yourself so that she falls in love with you. Even then, it may not be enough. Love cannot be commanded to appear merely because you have decided it.”
He cast her a glinting smile. “You have so little faith in me. I should be insulted.”
She shook her head, wondering what the next few weeks held for her grandson. Life had always smiled upon this one. He was a handsome man—handsomer than any she knew—and he was a wealthy prince, as well. “You do not yet know the world, and so your plan is as arrogant as it is foolish. You expect to meet a woman and
!—both of you will fall madly in love, but it does not happen that way.”
His smile faded, his green eyes darkening. “Tata, I told you of my dream. That is why we are here.”
“Yes, yes. Your dream of Scotland, of a woman with hair of red—”
“Not red. Red and gold, with eyes the color of a summer rain. And don’t tell me you don’t believe in dreams, for I know you and the Romani too well.”
She scowled. “The dreams of our family have always had meaning, but it is rare that they are as clear in meaning as the one you claim to have had.”
“I’ve had this exact dream four times now, Tata. And every time, it is the same woman who—”
A woman’s scream tore the air.
Wulf spun toward the door.
Tata grabbed his sleeve. “Let the guards—”
“No. Stay here.”
Then he was gone, shouting to his men to protect his grandmother as he ran from the cottage.
From the Diary of the Duchess of Roxburghe
Huntley arrived early and I spoke to him at length, delicately suggesting that it was time for him to wed again. He nodded thoughtfully, and I believe he has already come to this conclusion himself. I’m sure that all it will take is one look, and the deal will be done. All I have to do is find Lily.
We seem to have somehow misplaced her.
Lily slowly awoke, her mind creeping back to consciousness. She shifted and then moaned as every bone in her body groaned in protest.
A warm hand cupped her face. “Easy” came a deep, heavily accented voice.
Lily opened her eyes to find herself staring into the deep green eyes of the most handsome man she’d ever seen.
The man was huge, with broad shoulders that blocked the light and hands so large that the one cupping her face practically covered one side of it. His
face was perfectly formed, his cheekbones high above a scruff of a beard that her fingers itched to touch.
“The brush broke your fall, but you will still be bruised.”
He looked almost too perfect to be real. She placed her hand on his where it rested on her cheek, his warmth stealing into her cold fingers.
He’s not a dream.
She gulped a bit and tried to sit up, but was instantly pressed back to the ground.
the giant said, his voice rumbling over her like waves over a rocky beach. “You will not rise.”
He grimaced. “I should not say ‘
’ but ‘no.’ ”
“I understood you perfectly. I am just astonished that you are telling me what to do.” His expression darkened and she had the distinct impression that he wasn’t used to being told no. “Who are you?”
“It matters not. What matters is that you are injured and wish to stand. That is foolish.”
She pushed herself up on one elbow. As she did so, her hat, which had been pinned upon her neatly braided hair, came loose and fell to the ground.
The man’s gaze locked on her hair, his eyes widening as he muttered something under his breath in a foreign tongue.
“Your hair. It is red and gold.”
“My hair’s not red. It’s blond and when the sun—” She frowned. “Why am I even talking to you about this? I don’t even know your name.”
“You haven’t told me yours, either,” he said in a reasonable tone.
She hadn’t, and for some reason she was loath to do so. She reached for her hat, wincing as she moved.
Instantly he pressed her back to the ground. “Do not move. I shall call for my men and—”
“No, I don’t need any help.”
“You should have had a groom with you,” he said, disapproval in his rich voice. “Beautiful women should not wander the woods alone.”
She flushed. It was odd, but the thought pleased her far more than it should have. Perhaps because she thought he was beautiful as well.
“In my country you would not be riding about the woods without protection.”
“A groom wouldn’t have kept my horse from becoming startled.”
“No, but it would have kept you from being importuned by a stranger.”
She had to smile at the irony of his words. “A stranger like you?”
The stranger’s brows rose. “Ah. You think I am being—what is the word? Forward?”
“But you are injured—”
“No, I’m not.”
“You were thrown from a horse and are upon the ground. I call that ‘injured.’ ” His brows locked together. “Am I using the word ‘injured’ correctly?”
“Then do not argue. You are injured and I will help you.”
Do not argue?
Goodness, he was high-handed. She sat upright, even though it brought her closer to this huge boulder of a man. “I don’t suppose you have a name?”
“I am Piotr Romanovin of Oxenburg. It is a small country beside Prussia.”
The country’s name seemed familiar. “There was a mention of Oxenburg in
The Morning Post
just a few days ago.”
“My cousin Nikki, he is in London. Perhaps he is in the papers.” The stranger rubbed a hand over his bearded chin, the golden light filtering from the trees dancing over his black hair. “You can sit up, but not stand. Not until we know you are not broken.”
“I’m not broken,” she said sharply. “I’m just embarrassed that I fell off my horse.”
A glimmer of humor shone in the green eyes. “You fell asleep, eh?”
She fought the urge to return the smile. “No, I did not fall asleep. A fox frightened my horse, which caused it to rear. And then it ran off.”
His gaze flickered to her boots and he frowned. “No wonder you fell. Those are not good riding boots.”
“These? They’re perfectly good boots.”
“Not if a horse bolts. Then you need some like these.” He slapped the side of his own boots, which had a thicker and taller heel.
“I’ve never seen boots like those.”
“That is because you English do not really ride, you with your small boots. You just perch on top of the horse like a sack of grain and—”
“I’m not English; I’m a Scot,” she said sharply. “Can’t you tell from my accent?”
“English or Scot.” He shrugged. “Is there so much difference?”
“Oh! Of course there’s a difference! I—”
He threw up a hand. “I don’t know if it’s because you are a woman or because you are a Scot, but thus far, you’ve argued with everything I’ve said. This, I do not like.”
She frowned. “As a Scot, I dislike being ordered about, and as a woman, I can’t imagine that you know more about my state of well-being than I do.”
His eyes lit with humor. “Fair enough. You cannot be much injured, to argue with such vigor.” He stood and held out his hand. “Come. Let us see if you can stand.”
She placed her hand in his. As her rescuer pulled her to her feet, one of her curls came free from her braid and fell to her shoulder.
She started to tuck it away, but his hand closed over the curl first. Slowly, he threaded her hair through his fingers, his gaze locking with hers. “Your hair is like the sunrise.”
And his eyes were like the green found at the heart of the forest, among the tallest trees.
He brushed her curl behind her ear, his fingers
grazing her cheek. Her heart thudded as if she’d just run up a flight of stairs.
Cheeks hot, she repinned her hair with hands that seemed oddly unwieldy. “That’s— You shouldn’t touch my hair.”
He looked so astounded that she explained. “I don’t know the rules of your country, but here men do not touch a woman’s hair merely because they can.”
“It is not permitted?”
He sighed regretfully. “It should be.”
She didn’t know what to say. A part of her—obviously still shaken from her fall—wanted to tell him that he could touch her hair if he wished. Her hair, her cheek, or any other part of her that he wished to.
Good God, what’s come over me?
“Come. I will take you to your home.”
She brushed the leaves from her skirts and then stepped forward. “Ow!” She jerked her foot up from the ground.
He grasped her elbow and steadied her. “Your ankle?”
“Yes.” She gingerly wiggled it, grimacing a little. “I must have sprained it, though it’s only a slight sprain, for I can move it fairly well.”
“I shall carry you.”
Oh no, no, no. I’m sure walking will relieve the stiffness—”
He bent, slipped her arm about his neck, and scooped her up as if she were a blade of grass.
“Mr. Roma—Romi— Oh, whatever your name is, please don’t—”
He turned and strode down the path.
“Put me down!”
He continued on his way, his long legs eating up the distance.
Lily had little choice but to hang on, uncomfortably aware of the deliciously spicy cologne that tickled her nose and made her wonder what it would be like to burrow her face against him. It was the oddest thing, to wish to be set free and—at the same time—enjoy the strength of his arms. To her surprise, she liked how he held her so securely, which was ridiculous. She didn’t even know this man. “You can’t just carry me off like this.”
“But I have.” His voice held no rancor, no sense of correcting her. Instead his tone was that of someone patiently trying to explain something. “I have carried you off, and carried off you will be.”
She scowled up at him. “Look here, Mr. Romanoffski—”
“Call me Wulf. It is what I am called.” He said the word with a faint “v” instead of a “w.”
“Wulf is hardly a reassuring name.”
He grinned, his teeth white in the black beard. “It is my name, reassuring or not.” He shot her a glance. “What is your name, little one?”
“Lily Balfour.” She hardly knew this man at all,
yet she’d just blurted out her name and was allowing him to carry her through the woods. She should be screaming for help, but instead she found herself resting her head against his shoulder as, for the first time in two days, she found herself feeling something other than sheer loneliness.
“Lily. That’s a beautiful name. It suits you.”
Lily’s face heated and she stole a look at him from under her lashes. He was exotic, overbearing, and strong, but somehow she knew that he wouldn’t harm her. Her instincts and common sense both agreed on that. “Where are you taking me?”
“That’s a rather vague location.”
He chuckled, the sound reverberating in his chest where it pressed against her side. “If you must know, I’m taking you to my new home. From there, my men and my—how do you say
?” His brow furrowed a moment before it cleared. “Ah yes, grandmother.”
“Your grandmother? She’s here, in the woods?”
“I brought her to see the new house I just purchased. You and I will go there and meet with my men and my grandmother. I have a carriage, so we can ride the rest of the way to your home.”
I was right to trust him. No man would involve his grandmother in a ravishment.
He slanted a look her way. “You will like my grandmother.”
It sounded like an order. She managed a faint smile.
“I’m sure we’ll adore one another. However, you and your grandmother won’t be escorting me home, but to Floors Castle. I am a guest of the Duchess of Roxburghe.”
His amazing eyes locked on her, and she noted that his thick, black lashes gave him a faintly sleepy air. “I met the duchess last week and she invited us to her house party. I was not going to attend, but now I will go.” His gaze flicked over her, leaving a heated path.
Her breath caught in her throat.
If the duchess has invited Wulf to the castle, then perhaps he is an eligible parti.
Suddenly, the day didn’t seem so dreary. “I beg your pardon, Mr. Wulf—or whatever your name is—but who are you, exactly?”