"Chapter One Outline:"
Chapter One: Surrey, England June, 1810 Pemberton Hall Garden Party. “Ah yes, Miss Sarah Sinclair. I am told she will soon be very well situated.” Lady Adele Leyland pulled her companion to a gentle stop at the entrance of the hedgerow maze. As always, she wanted to ensure she had captured his full attention. While Nicholas Weldon did not hold the peerage title nor the fortune she sought, he certainly possessed a great deal of other appealing qualities of interest to her. Adele cast a sidelong glance under her lashes at Nicholas, savoring the sight of his tall muscular frame, and impeccable dress. She mentally sighed as she accepted her involvement with him was unfortunately going to be of much shorter duration and considerably less intimate than she had anticipated. A young widow, recently out of mourning, she had not expected the Earl of Wetherby to come up to snuff so quickly with an offer of marriage. In truth, so easy was the task of conquering him, she almost felt a pang of regret that the chase may have been beneath her significant talents of seduction. However, his possession of a respected title and vast fortune must supersede any irritation she may feel over the brevity of the courtship and the necessity to immediately end all other dalliances, no matter how tempting, before they had fully played themselves out. By days end, she would have to inform Nicholas of her impending nuptials. As intended, Adele’s subtle direction brought Nicholas around to fully focus his silver grey eyes on her pale delicate features. “Her Uncle, is in poor health, and not expected to last the season”, she continued in hushed tones. “His wife having passed nigh on 5 years ago, and with no children of his own, he has willed his entire fortune and Pemberton Hall, to Miss Sinclair.” “And his textile business?” Nicholas queried. “I understand Mr. Diggle has quite recently made arrangements to sell out his holdings to a smaller competitor. The proceeds will no doubt significantly increase Miss Sinclair’s inheritance, and in kind her matrimonial prospects. An heiress, even without breeding or considerable charms, can always find a title in want of a fortune.” Nicholas bristled slightly at her callous appraisal of another woman. Surely she must be repeating the words of others, not recognizing them for the slur they were. As sweet as she was fair, he believed Adele had always been nothing short of an angel of kindness and charity. She continued, “As you can imagine, Pemberton Hall has become a location of fascination for more than one gentleman these past few weeks.” Nicholas raised an eyebrow, as this bit of gossip began to take on new meaning. Perhaps this explained his cousin’s latest interest in the family seat, Sommerfield Park, which shared a border with the lands of Pemberton Hall. At one time more like brothers than cousins, Nicholas had long since washed his hands of Robert, taking as little interest as possible in Robert’s affairs. However, in recent months, it had been so widely circulated among the ton that the Earl of Ainesbury was in dire need of funds, that even Nicholas was aware of Robert’s current circumstances. Adele drew even closer, lowering her voice to a bare whisper, as she confirmed his suspicions. “In fact, I have it on quite good authority that your cousin has been very much in Miss Sinclair’s company as of late.” On cue, as though the slightest reference could magically produce the man himself, Robert Weldon, the Earl of Ainesbury sauntered out from the interior of the maze. A devious, almost cruel smirk played across his face. “Oh, my dear Lady, you spoil my fun”. The Earl’s words dripped out in a lazy, mocking tone. Nicholas stiffened, as Adele jumped back a step with a faint squeak before quickly regaining her composure. “Lord Ainesbury. Spoil your fun? Whatever do you mean?” “Come now. No need to play coy with me my dear”, Robert drawled. “I had hoped to enlighten my dear cousin on the many virtues of Miss Sinclair myself. But, it appears you have already done so for me.” Nicholas dusted an invisible speck of dirt from his coat sleeve, “I’m not sure being the heiress to a vast fortune can exactly be considered a virtue.” “I suppose that depends entirely on how liberated your sensibilities are from your finances. Mine are inclined to find it a considerable virtue.” A blunt admission, even for Robert, Nicholas recoiled and thought for a split second he heard Adele stifle a soft chuckle. Surely he was mistaken. Robert nodded his head in the direction of a small gathering making their way through a nearby perennial garden. “What do you think of my choice for a bride?” When he turned in the direction Robert had indicated, Nicholas saw a middle aged couple he knew to be the Duke and Duchess of Bentley. Accompanying them was a young woman clad in a simple yellow walking dress. Her complexion was slightly bronzed and darker than what was respectable for a well bred lady of the ton. “Miss Sinclair I presume.” “Yes. We intend to announce our betrothal this afternoon”. Returning his gaze to the girl, Nicholas wondered what sort of woman would willingly agree to marry his cousin. Her appearance was not to his usual taste. She was of average height with an ample figure not quite full enough to be considered buxom. Her honey brown hair appeared rather ordinary in comparison to the glistening gold locks Adele possessed. Yet there was something in her countenance as she spoke to her companions. Her face seemed to light up from within as she pointed out various plants to the couple. As they moved further along the path, she became quite animated with her arms flailing about in such grand gestures it made him wonder she did not take flight for all the flapping. Nicholas found himself suppressing a sudden smile. Certainly this was not the reserved behavior one should expect from a young lady in the presence of a Duke and his Duchess. “Obviously, her manners are decidedly provincial. But, I am sure that can be managed with a little effort, along with a few other less agreeable traits. Nothing the firm hand of a husband can not tame.” Once again, a devious, almost cruel smirk pulled at the corners of the Earl’s mouth. Nicholas almost felt sorry for the girl. However, he was sure anyone who spent more than five minutes in the presence of his cousin should be able to gauge exactly the measure of his character. Throughout their entire lives, Nicholas had never once observed his cousin make an attempt to mask his vile nature. At every opportunity, Robert made it quite clear he believed it was his birthright as heir to an Earldom, to behave in any way he saw fit. Despite being younger by almost two years, it had always been Nicholas who mopped up after Robert’s debacles. It had always been Nicholas who, when they were at Eton and Oxford, found a way to bail Robert out of gambling debts and unfortunate trysts gone awry. And it had always been Nicholas who ensured, that his Aunt and Uncle, before their deaths, never heard news of Robert’s worst transgressions. Nicholas extended his hand to his cousin. “From what I can see, she seems like a lovely girl. My congratulations.” But, honestly, she had to be either extremely dimwitted or the most unscrupulous and shallow woman alive. What could she possibly be thinking? Nicholas mentally shook himself. It did not matter. His cousin’s affairs were none of his concern. “She will be tolerable enough.” Robert clasped Nicholas’ outstretched hand, inched closer and lowered his voice so that his last words could be heard only by them. “Of course, from what I have tasted of her charms so far, I don’t expect there to be much sport in producing an heir. Thank God, for my mistresses!” Nicholas jolted back as if he had been burnt. Again, this was none of his concern. He was certainly no prude, but he had heard more than enough. “I say, what are the two of you whispering about now?” Adele was never one to take being excluded from any portion of a conversation lightly. Particularly when she had reason to believe the Earl may be privy to some of her own less publicized circumstances. A well practiced pout painted her features as she stepped forward to link her hand through the crook of Nicholas’ arm. “Nothing of consequence my dear. I was just offering my hearty congratulations.” Nicholas placed his hand over Adele’s in an obvious gesture to leave, hoping to dissuade Robert from further comments of an intimate nature. “Oh yes, precisely. A fortunate match for you both I am sure. Allow me to add my best wishes!” Adele’s words spilled out in an uncharacteristic surge of syllables. Her composure slipping, she seemed to fidget with peculiar impatience. Robert narrowed his eyes, and pulled his mouth smugly to the side. He was getting the distinct impression that Adele wanted to bring this little interlude between the cousins to an immediate close. Of course, he was only too happy to oblige. “I really should get back to Miss Sinclair now. But before I take my leave, I dare say, I am not the only one with matrimonial news today.” He focused his gaze intently on Adele. “Unless I am mistaken, you have much to share on that front as well Lady Leyland. Allow me to offer my congratulations to you.” Noting with malevolent pleasure the impact of his words beginning to register on Nicholas’ face, the Earl curtly bowed and turned on his heal in search of his betrothed. **************** “Oh I would be delighted to view your gardens Your Grace!” Sarah beamed at the Duke and Duchess of Bentley. “From what you have told me, I am sure they are, at present, already far more grand than the gardens here at Pemberton Hall.” She waved her arms through the air in a dramatic flourish. The Duchess smiled warmly at her animated enthusiasm. “Well as you know, they are quite extensive. However it has been years since they have been updated, and I do so admire the creativity and freshness you have brought to your displays here”. Sarah had always found it rather astonishing that the Duchess of Bentley had deigned to establish and maintain an acquaintance with her following the unlikely circumstances of their introduction several years earlier. The events that led to their meeting were quite typical of how the Duchess of Bentley went about everything in her life; with exuberant determination to discover all that was delightful in the world and change all in her path that was not. The Duchess had been searching in vain for just the right shade of fabric for which to hang in the morning room of her London house. Her Grace finally achieved success at one of Edgar Diggles’ draper’s shops in the Mayfair section of London. So pleased was she with her find, she insisted on personally thanking Mr. Diggle himself for his good sense to import that exact bolt of fabric. When Mr. Diggle commented it was the precise blush pink of his niece’s favorite rose in her garden the Duchess, whose favorite color was of course pink, exclaimed she absolutely must know the name of the rose. In short order, the Duchess arranged the one and a half hour journey from London to Pemberton Hall to view the rose for herself. What she found, was not only the captivating ‘Autumn Damask’ rose, but some of the most beautiful gardens she had ever seen, and in Miss Sarah Sinclair, one of the most enchanting young ladies she had ever had the pleasure to meet. Now, Sarah was actually being issued an invitation to visit Hopewell Manor, the country estate of the Duke and Duchess of Bentley, to personally consult with the Duchess on her own gardens. How thrilled Uncle Edgar would be when she told him of this prominent recognition and the even more prestigious invitation. The Duchess continued, “I have often commented to His Grace that your horticultural genius is far too hidden away here at Pemberton. Oh I know, our annual garden party has begun to attract more and more of the ton each year. But in truth, it is merely a droplet in the pool of admiration you so richly deserve.” Sarah flushed a deep pink. Her Grace really could be quite melodramatic. To be sure, there was more of the ton in attendance this year than one should really dare to expect. One had to remember that even though the invitations were posted from the Duchess, a premier society hostess, there was no disguising the fact that the event was held on the estate of a merchant. Albeit, an exceedingly successful and wealthy one. But, none the less, a merchant. The Duchess clasped Sarah’s hands within her own and squeezed them gently for emphasis of her sincerity. “Your dear Aunt would have been so proud to see what you have created my dear. It is a gift and great tribute, I am sure.” It had been Sarah’s late Aunt Eleanor who had introduced her to gardening twelve years ago, when at the tender age of eight, she came to live at Pemberton Hall following her parents tragic death crossing the channel to tour the Continent. Sarah looked around her and felt the peace of her gardens wash over her. It was the gardens that had brought her back to life when she came to Pemberton Hall, and the gardens that sustained her when her beloved Aunt had died four years ago. Would they sustain her again when Uncle Edgar passed on? Sarah fought back the sudden threat of tears. The Duchess withdrew a few steps, as she cast a surreptitious glance over Sarah’s shoulder. “But alas, listen to me. I do prattle on some times. I believe His Grace and I have monopolized more than enough of your time.” The Duke responded with what sounded suspiciously like an indignant cough. The Duchess smoothly continued pretending she had not heard him. “I am sure the other guests are eager for some time with the delightful young architect that has brought us this exquisite world of splendor.” Immediately aware of a subtle shift in the Duchess’ demeanor, Sarah barely caught the furtive glimpse Her Grace had cast at something behind her. However, she was given no opportunity to scan the landscape for a potential source, before the Duke and Duchess began to abruptly take their leave. “And now, I believe we shall return to the terrace for some refreshments. It has been such a lovely day although a tad warm and I believe it begins to take its toll on my constitution. We will be sure to find you once more before we set out for London. Congratulations, my dear, on yet another lovely showing.” And with that, it seemed the Duchess could not urge His Grace in the direction of the terrace fast enough. Sarah blinked a few times, entirely perplexed about what could have prompted the Duchess to make such a hasty retreat. Her answer came a moment later. “My dear, it appears I have just missed the Duke and Duchess of Bentley. How unfortunate”. Sarah turned and saw her fiancé descend from the upper hedgerow maze. On the very few occasions that Robert and Her Grace had been simultaneously in her company, Sarah had sensed that the Duchess did not entirely approve of Robert. But how could that be? Robert was the Earl of Ainesbury, and always the model of all that was proper and charming. Save for her Uncle Edgar, no one displayed more concern for her every comfort and her smallest pleasure than Robert. She nearly blushed just at the thought of the persistent attentiveness he had shown in the last fortnight alone. Yes, she was certain he was quite the most agreeable man to be found in all of England. It simply must be that the Duchess had not been given ample opportunity to come to know Robert as she had. Robert approached with his usual gleaming smile, and for a fleeting instant Sarah felt more like cornered prey than his eager bride to be. She mentally tried to shrug it off. These were only premarital nerves. Didn’t every young bride have these feelings? “Or perhaps their departure is actually more good fortune than I deserve, as I now have you entirely to myself.” Robert placed one hand tightly on Sarah’s shoulder and the other beneath her chin. She knew what he wanted, and quelling the sudden urge to bolt, she dutifully turned her face up to his. Robert lowered his head and firmly pressed his lips to hers. His lips were wet and hard. She wondered whether anyone might see their embrace. They were not exactly in a discreet location. Robert shifted his mouth and pressed his lips harder. How long was he going to do this? She really had other things she should attend to. Robert pulled her further into his arms, finally commanding her full attention. Sarah wanted to respond, and tried to respond, but she didn’t know what she was expected to do. Maybe she just needed more time, more experience, and then she would know how to please him. Didn’t she care enough for Robert? Sarah redoubled her efforts to focus and try to understand what it was Robert needed from her. Robert began to nibble on her ear. What was she, a piece of cheese? Perhaps her nature was too practical. She felt nothing like the heroines she read about in the romance novels she had found tucked away in a corner of Uncle Edgar’s library. Those women always seemed to be consumed by a burning passion, whatever that was. Indeed, certainly it is impossible to be both rational and passionate at the same time. Finally, Robert released her, suppressing a surge of irritation. Seducing virgins was such unpleasant business. They were so unschooled and offered little enjoyment. He straightened his jacket, bowed his head and tried to clear the scowl from his face. It was of little consequence. Her only purpose was to fill the nearly empty Ainesbury coffers and produce an heir. Once both had been accomplished he could send her away to the estate in Wales. He lifted his eyes to hers, a fresh gleaming smile decisively in place. Offering his arm, Robert’s movements were smooth and deliberate. “Shall I escort you back to the terrace for a lemonade? I don’t believe I have seen you step foot outside of the gardens the entirety of the day. You must be exhausted.” “Well, yes, I do need to go in the general direction of the terrace. However, I really must go around to the kitchen to consult with Cook. She was none too pleased with the French chef Her Grace brought in for today’s event.” Sarah smiled and chuckled softly as she thought of Cook harrumphing and sulking as the Duchess’ portly French chef scurried about, directing her kitchen staff. “Cook really is such a dear, but I believe some additional coddling is needed to ensure her ego suffers no significant long term injury.” Sarah’s hand tucked firmly in the crook of Robert’s arm they began the short walk back to the terrace. “Sarah, you really put too much stock in to how your servants feel. They are servants. Beyond the basics of health and their ability to perform their duties, you should not concern yourself. I assure you they do not expect it, and it only encourages them to take advantage of your good nature.” “I will grant that you are more sophisticated than I in most matters, Robert. But, as Uncle Edgar has taught me, managing an efficient staff, is as much about their emotional welfare as it is their physical welfare. I can not agree that this approach encourages them to behave in an inappropriate manner.” Robert cringed. Of course, a merchant would have such a prosaic plebeian view on such matters. He silently added this to the growing list of Sarah’s faults that would need to be corrected. “Ah yes, your Uncle. May I inquire as to his current wellbeing? I pray that he is much improved.” Mention of her Uncle’s health, brought such a sudden stab of pain to Sarah, that she did not notice how Robert had deftly redirected the conversation without conceding agreement. Her head dropped and she studied the ground as though it was necessary to carefully consider every step across a perfectly manicured lawn. “Alas, I fear I can not report such an improvement at present. The doctor continues to attend him daily, and we remain optimistic.” She lifted her head, her chin slightly raised in stubborn determination. “We will remain hopeful.” Robert’s smile grew wider, as he muttered under his breath. “Yes, I am sure we shall.” ********************** “Bloody hell!” Nicholas raked his fingers through his unruly black hair, as he came to a stop in front of a large stone bench. He wasn’t entirely sure how he had ended up here. A cursory assessment revealed a small courtyard encased by a tall hedge of yews. Orderly squares filled with herbs and vegetables lined the interior. It was likely the kitchen garden, although it didn’t really matter. He certainly wasn’t here for the view. His only concern was that it was isolated and improbable that anyone else would wonder so far from the main gardens and terrace to stumble upon him here. “That…that….that….conniving…devious....scheming….shrew!” Nicholas kicked the stone bench with such violent force, it lifted and moved a few inches. He immediately regretted it, shaking his foot in pain. Verbal articulation of his emotions had never been a personal strength he possessed. Unfortunately, his instinct for physical action did not always provide the most satisfying outlet for expression either. Damn it! Kicking inanimate objects was pointless. Nicholas eased himself down on to the bench, absent-mindedly swiping a sprig of nearby rosemary. He sat hunched over with his elbows propped on his knees, twirling the rosemary in his hand, trying to sort out why Adele’s confession had so set him off. It wasn’t as though he loved the chit. Hell, he had thought to offer for her himself, but he certainly didn’t love her. Yes, he desired her and did not doubt he could have bedded her if had wanted. He’d only been taking his time because he didn’t want to frighten her. He laughed mockingly at the thought, and then caught himself as he realized that was the rub of it. She had fooled him. She had cultivated the role of the demure bereft young widow to perfection, and he had followed after her like a lapdog mindlessly believing every word and deed. Holy Christ! He had probably never been played the fool more in his life. Adele had taken full advantage of her angelic inspiring appearance and strung him along with the skill and cunning of the greatest courtesans, all the while dangling after Wetherby for his Title and fortune. Nicholas had thought he was pursuing a potential pleasant and manageable wife to bear him children, whereas she had wanted nothing more than a flirtation while she caught herself a title. What the hell was he thinking anyway? He possessed no title and certainly had no responsibility looming over him to produce an heir. Furthermore, he was fairly certain he would be traveling a great deal before long and he surely did not need a wife pining away for…. “Do you have a great interest in herbs Mr. Weldon?” Nicholas’ head snapped up as his upper body twisted toward the intruding voice. His eyes held a mixture of startled confusion and the remnants of white-hot anger. A moment later they were clear, and he swung his legs around to align with the rest of his body. He beheld Miss Sinclair standing at the entrance to the courtyard. “I beg your pardon?” He rose from the bench, languorously unfolding to his full imposing height. Sarah’s heart fluttered out of rhythm for an instant and she used every ounce of will to keep her feet firmly planted in place. She had seen him from a distance earlier, walking with Lady Leyland, but this was the first they had been in close proximity and she was not prepared for her own reaction. She could feel her cheeks begin to turn pink in mortification as she lost the battle to resist scanning him thoroughly from head to toe. He was taller than Robert and his shoulders were significantly broader. She felt her flush deepen as she noticed well defined muscles flexing beneath the fabric of his breeches and she quickly lifted her gaze higher. Jet black hair curled with rakish abandon around a rugged face, and though his lips curved in a charming smile, she could not read any sentiment at all in his silver-grey eyes. At once she realized she had practically been gaping at him and snapped her mouth shut. “Uhh….ummm”. What had she been saying? Oh yes. “Herbs. Do you have a great interest in herbs?” She smoothed her hands along the front of her dress, more in an effort to steady her nerves than to tidy any perceived dishevelment in her appearance. She gestured towards the sprig still pinched between his fingers. “You appeared to be studying the rosemary quite intently.” Mildly amused by her obvious discomfort, Nicholas closed the distance between them in a few short strides. “Miss Sinclair, if I am not mistaken, and as you have already surmised, Nicholas Weldon at your service.” He bent slightly at the waist in an abbreviated bow, and reached out to clasp one of her hands, all the while keeping his eyes intently on hers. As he drew her fingers toward his lips, he felt an immediate pulse of heat flash from the tips of her fingers through his own and all the way up his arm. Every nerve in his hand jumped to life where it came in to contact with hers. When his lips touched her skin, he felt her hand flinch in his grasp and saw the briefest flicker in her eyes before she dropped her lashes to shield them from view. Now this could prove very amusing, he thought. Perhaps a mild flirtation with his soon to be cousin was just the thing to take his mind away from thoughts of Adele. If nothing else, he may finally gain a clearer understanding about exactly what sort of women was willing to marry Robert. Continuing to study her, he released her hand and straightened. “And no, I fear I have never been a distinguished student of herbal pursuits. However, perhaps I have just not had the right tutelage to appropriately hold my interest?” “I beg your pardon, what? Oh..oh yes. The rosemary. Of course”. She laughed nervously waving her hand absently in the air. “It has been a day full of thrills.…oh…I..I mean hot..…er….” Sarah gulped and tried to slow herself down. What was she blurting out? She took another deep breath for good measure. “What I am trying to say is that it has been an unusually chaotic day and I am not at all myself.’ She barely recognized the nauseatingly girlish giggle that rose from her own throat and wondered if she could possibly sound any more like a blithering ninny than she already did. “I’m sure any woman would feel a bit out of sorts on the day her betrothal is to be announced. Compound that with having to play hostess to many of the stiffest members of society and it is bound to result in complete exhaustion.” Armed with his most charming smile, Nicholas motioned toward the stone bench. “Please, let’s sit while you catch your breath for a bit. I confess I would like to become better acquainted with my soon-to-be new cousin.” Sarah hesitated for a short moment as she considered the propriety of the circumstances, and then ignored her better judgment. “Well, I suppose a few minutes rest would be nice.” She sat down as near to one end of the bench as she possibly could without tumbling off. Nicholas, of course, chose to sit in the center of the bench. “So tell me, what are the wedding plans for our beloved wedding couple? Do you plan a short engagement?” “That is undecided at present. My Uncle Edgar has been quite ill as of late, and we had thought to wait until he had improved. However…..I fear…that is to say…” For a moment, Sarah’s eyes seemed to brim with unshed tears. In the next instant they were clear and held a look of sheer resolve. “We have begun to think it may be wiser to proceed sooner rather than later.” She turned her gaze directly to his. “You see, my Uncle Edgar is the last living relative I have. I would like to marry before I have none.” Nicholas heard the sincerity in her voice and was caught off guard by the intensity of the strength and pain so clearly evident in the depths of her soulful brown eyes. He was not accustomed to such candor. Unprepared for this sudden shift in the conversation or the emotion rising within him, he responded instinctually, his thoughts unchecked before they left his lips. “Before you are alone?” Sarah’s eyes widened in response and she whispered, “Yes.” “My parents died when I was an infant. I believe….well…..” The words tumbled from Nicholas’ mouth before he even had a chance to realize he had spoken them out loud, and then just as quickly he clamped his mouth shut. A full minute passed in silence, but it was as though an entire conversation had been exchanged without words. “You understand.” Sarah murmured. “Yes.” Nicholas forced his gaze away. His heart was in his throat and to his horror he felt the prick of tears in his eyes. What the hell was the matter with him? In mere seconds, this slip of a girl had reduced him to a sentimental fool. He needed to regain his composure. He had never allowed himself to be emotional in front of anyone before and he was damn well not going to start now. Abruptly Nicholas stood and strode to the entrance of the courtyard. Damn it! This was supposed to be an amusing diversion. This out-of-control feeling was not amusing! And yet, there was something that made him want to stay. Something about her that had him more intrigued than he had been in quite some time. Why was this girl he had only just met able to wrench such an unexpected reaction from him? He needed to know. “The gardens here are very impressive.” Nicholas turned and granted Sarah with a boyishly charismatic grin. “Do you actually plant each and every flower and shrub yourself, or do you sit in a lawn chair sending the stable boys hither and yon with shovels and spades?” . A velvety deep resonant laugh erupted from Sarah. “No. No stable boys. I have gardeners I can send hither and yon, thank you very much.” Sarah rose and joined him at the entrance. She looked up at him with a mischievous gleam in her eye. “However, if you promise not to tell, I will share a secret with you.” Nicholas sobered his expression in mock solemnity. “But of course, Miss Sinclair. You have my word as a gentleman.” “Most of the time, I do not have the patience to wait for the gardeners and I just move the plants around myself. When I was younger, I was forever vexing poor Aunt Eleanor. I must have ruined more than a dozen dresses from digging in some new bed or another that I wanted to start before she finally allowed me to don a pair of breeches when no one else was about the property. Oh, she was horrified. But, she knew there was absolutely no way she could keep me out of the dirt. And really, you know a garden is never truly completed, it is always in a state of transition. You absolutely must observe the changes from one year to the next and determine…” Sarah continued to regale him with sage advice about gardening, sprinkling in a few amusing stories of the various mishaps she had fallen in to over the years. Nicholas stood in awe as he watched Sarah’s entire demeanor transform from the rather unassuming girl he had first beheld, to a fully vibrant vivacious woman. The longer she continued to talk about the gardens the fuller and more confident her voice became, and the brighter her eyes sparkled. He found himself genuinely returning her infectious smile, even though he probably only heard half of what she was saying. He began to notice how the light played with the color of her hair. There was a glimmer of golden honey swirled in chocolate in the curl falling over her shoulder, and fiery flashes of amber in the strands that had broken free around her sun kissed face. Her eyelashes fluttered for an instant on pinkish cheeks whenever she paused to search for the right turn of phrase, and then flickered wide when she continued and smiled up at him. Oh God, those lashes were so long and thick. He wondered how they would feel fluttering against his own cheek or on his bare chest. His groin tightened, a sudden rush of desire pulsing through his body. His gaze dropped to her soft rosy lips. They were achingly inviting in their fullness and gentle curves, tempting him with every word she spoke. He moved a fraction of an inch closer to Sarah and deeply breathed in her scent. A heady fragrance cocktail of roses and lavender washed over him. His eyes hungrily returned to her lips and he noticed they were not moving. Sarah was no longer speaking. Immediately roused from his own evocative thoughts, Nicholas found Sarah staring at him with the most peculiar look of innocent wonder on her face. “Mr. Weldon? Are you quite all right?” For the second time that day, Sarah began to feel like cornered prey, only this time she had absolutely no desire to bolt. Nicholas’ darkened eyes bore in to her with ferocious intensity. “Never better.” His words were a bare whisper. His hand reached out to reverently stroke the silken fall of her curls and lightly brushed the exposed skin on her shoulder. He saw Sarah respond with the faintest quiver and that was all the encouragement he needed. In one fluid movement his hands clasped at her shoulders and pulled her to him. He felt her stiffen for an instant as her hands fell lightly on his chest, but she did not push him away. He lowered his head and softly brushed his lips over hers slowly tasting them. They were so soft, so deliciously satisfying, like sweet cream on strawberries. Her fingers curled around the lapels of his jacket as if to pull him closer but afraid to follow through. He completed what she could not by moving one hand to the small of her back and crushing the full length of her body against his. A small whimper escaped her lips, and still she did not push him away. He deepened his kiss, leisurely searching, tugging at her lower lip, luring her mouth open. Her whimper dissolved into a moan and her lips parted. His tongue dipped in to explore her mouth. It was so sweet, so intoxicating he had to withdraw almost immediately before he lost his last shred of patience. No, he could not risk scaring her away before he had even truly begun. He buried a hand in her hair and gently coaxed her head to the side, moving his tongue to the corner of her mouth, along her jaw, then gently flicked and nibbled a trail of molten heat along the length of her neck. Another soft whimper escaped from Sarah and in the next moment her hands were entwined around his neck, her fingers threaded into the curls at the base of his neck and then eagerly pulling his mouth back to hers. Her sudden fervent response threatened to push him over the edge. Sarah’s head was swimming, lost in a sea of unfamiliar and overwhelming sensations. All coherent thought had vanished as wave upon wave of delicious longing for some unknown goal built within her. Her body began to respond of its own volition, instinctively trying to quench some mysterious thirst. She wanted to feel his mouth on hers, to feel him thrust in to her again. Her lips parted immediately as he clamped his mouth over hers. No longer patient and coaxing now demanding and fierce, his tongue stroked the silken wetness in her mouth again and again, each time flooding her with a rising need for more. He thrust his thigh between her legs and a surge of liquid fire coursed through the pit of her stomach and down through her limbs, weakening her knees. Straining against him, she shifted her hips to cradle them against the curve of his thigh and felt the rigid bulge in his breeches. Without thought, reacting only with an impulsive desire to feel more of him against her body, she wriggled closer and she heard him groan savagely. One of his hands came down to grip her bottom, coercing her hips into a gentle rocking motion against his thigh, while the other hand cupped her breast and gently squeezed. Her head fell back in a guttural moan, and he dipped to caress the base of her throat with wet and languid open mouthed kisses. Never in his life had Nicholas felt this sudden, uncontrollable desire to possess a woman so urgently and so completely. He wanted to take her right there, right now, in broad daylight in the middle of a kitchen garden where anyone might stumble upon them. Holy Christ, he needed to slow this down before he completely lost all restraint. Hell, he was already almost completely tapped. Not even Adele had this effect on him. Adele. Nicholas froze. Adele was a woman betrothed to another man, just like Sarah; a woman who had no business flirting with other men, kissing other men. He conveniently forgot that he had initiated all of this. His mind began to liken Sarah to Adele, as a mythological siren luring men to her side for sport. He grasped Sarah around the shoulders and violently shoved her away from him. Her lips were swollen and her eyes clouded with desire and confusion. Damn it! He still wanted her and had to look away before his own lust took over again. Stop touching her you fool! His hands abruptly dropped to his side. Sarah had been so brutally released she nearly toppled over in a haze of bewilderment. Blinking a few times it took a second before what had just happened began to sink in. Mortification flooded her cheeks and then anger. She wasn’t sure whether she was angry because he had stopped kissing her or because he had had the presumption to kiss her in the first place. It didn’t matter. She was confused, humiliated, furious! Without thought, unbidden, she raised her hand and soundly slapped him across the face. The thwack seemed to echo in the air, followed by a long pause of piercing silence. When Nicholas finally spoke his words were formed with deadly articulation. “I probably disserved that.” His eyes hardened to an icy glare. “But tell me something Miss Sinclair. Do you react with such eager enthusiasm and ferocity to all the men who kiss you, or do you save that for only the men in the Weldon family?” Sarah raised her hand to strike him again, but this time Nicholas caught her wrist before it had a chance to descend. “I wouldn’t advise you try that a second time. I just might respond in kind.” Her eyes widened in fiery rage, and she yanked her arm from his grip. For a fleeting moment she considered making good on the second attempt and Nicholas could see the thought flash across her expression as clear as if she had spoken it allowed. He was startled to find he actually felt a surge of admiration for her courage. Sarah’s hands balled in to fists at her side and her eyes remained locked with his as her head dipped in quiet fury like a bull preparing to charge. Her voice was steely and cut him to the quick. “You aren’t worth it.” Then, as slowly and as calmly as if she were strolling to church on Sunday, she walked around him and in to the house. Nicholas stared in her wake in complete shock, her exiting serenity infuriating him. How could one woman so easily run through the roles of innocent maid, to passionate lover, to ice Princess in a matter of minutes? Never in his life had he met such an exasperating woman. Oh yes, this little miss could certainly teach Adele a thing or two about seduction and deception. He laughed wryly to himself. And Robert thought he was pulling the wool over Sarah’s eyes, what a lark! Robert disserved that little hellcat. ******** On the other side of the kitchen door, Sarah stood with her hand to her throat gasping for air. Her steely façade crumbled the second she was safely behind the door. Oh dear lord what had she just done? She didn’t even recognize herself. Who was that girl, that woman? Oh lud, she didn’t want to know. That was not her. That could not be her. She had been so out of control, so lost. She had behaved like a wonton woman, a harlot. A fresh wave of mortification flooded over her. He had made her feel things she had never even dreamed she could feel. No, she corrected herself. That had been a scene from a nightmare not a fanciful dream. She never felt that way with Robert. He was safe. She was always in complete control of her wits with him. Oh God, she wanted her quiet secure life with Robert to begin as soon as possible, now more than ever.