He was the most beautiful boy she’d ever seen. In fact, the stranger standing by the bridge on the other side of the river was so shockingly handsome that a wave of heat and dizziness crashed into Lilias Honeyfield. It was either his artistworthy face or the fact that he was wearing a kilt that was affecting her so. She’d never seen such well-formed calves—or any male’s calves for that matter. Regardless, the result was the same: she lost her balance. Her gaze darted to the water below, and she sucked in a sharp breath as she threw her arms out to regain her balance. A warning tingle swept over her skin at the possibility of falling into the cold water of the River Eye. Her belly tightened, teeth clenched, and toes curled against the damp, rough bark beneath her feet. She would not fall. She refused to fall. Her friend Owen slowed to a concerned pace in front of her. “Lilias?” “I’m fine,” she assured him, finding the center point of his back and staring at it in the hopes that she would feel steady once more. But her pulse was beating faster, her confidence in herself shaken. It had been foolish to cross upon this log over such deep water while wearing so many layers of clothing, but that’s what was required to get to the secret place she wanted to show Owen. She often came here to avoid her pesky younger sister, and she suspected he might need an escape from his father.
The marquess was not a very warm person, and that was putting it kindly. She bit her lip, glancing toward the water again. If she fell into the river, she’d sink like a stone, even though she could swim quite well. Owen might jump in to save her—they were friends, after all —but they were relatively new friends since he’d only moved to the Cotswolds a month earlier. Besides, he had not wanted to cross on this log. He’d said it was dangerous. He’d said they should not even be out here alone. Owen needed to gain some courage, and she intended to help him do so. He was far too stuffy and proper. She’d been working on that since the day they met.
She liked him well enough that she’d risk her safety to save him if he fell in, but would he do the same? Her mother said Lilias lived as if she were an invincible heroine in one of the Gothic romance novels she liked to read. It was probably true, though she didn’t think she could be blamed. Life was deadly dull out here in the country at Charingworth Manor, and creating fantasies in which she starred made her days so much more interesting. A quick glance toward the bridge confirmed that she’d not merely imagined the boy. He still stood there, and he was still staring at the water as if mesmerized by something in it. Whatever held his interest must have been quite fascinating for him not to notice them. And whyever was he wearing a kilt? She took another step forward, and her foot slipped slightly, forcing her concentration to Owen’s back to keep her balance. Owen didn’t appear very strong, she realized. She eyed his dark, superfine overcoat while slowly placing one foot in front of the other and moving forward, steadier now, toward the other side of the river. In fact, he looked as if he sat inside all the time worrying about all the things that might bring him harm.
He was a worrier and most definitely not one to take chances. This day was a rare exception. Upon further contemplating what would occur if she were to fall into the water, she had serious doubts that Owen could actually haul her out with the added weight of her shift, pantalettes, petticoat, and stays, not to mention the encumbrance of her gown. She quirked her mouth, considering. It was more likely she’d take him down with her. That was hardly the stuff Gothic romances were made of. Though, in truth, she didn’t fancy him as much of a hero, anyway. She allowed her gaze to skitter once more to the boy. His dark head was bent forward, the sun gleaming off his thick hair. Without looking up, he raised a hand to his neck, tugged on something for a minute, and then his white cravat was dangling from his fingers before it dropped to the ground by his shiny, black hessians and his overcoat.
Scandalous. She liked him instantly. He was a mystery, and this was the sort of meeting that could be in a Gothic romance. She grinned and pressed her bare toes more firmly against the log, glad she’d removed her shoes and stockings, despite Owen’s protest that it wasn’t proper. Honestly, who cared out here in the woods? She didn’t. The beautiful boy didn’t. The heroines in her novels didn’t let a little thing like propriety stop them, and Lilias wanted to be like one of them—strong, bold, and one half of a love for the ages. “Who the devil are you?” Owen bellowed, making Lilias jerk and teeter yet again. She threw out her arms once more, and her heart lodged in her throat, even as her attention shot back across the water to the distractingly fine-looking boy. Her gaze crashed into his, and his eyes widened as hers did the same.
He wasn’t simply beautiful; he was darkly beautiful. Like a true Gothic hero. Heat flooded her at the silly thought as she stared. Then she blinked, and her lips parted in utter shock. He’s shed his shirt. It was her first glimpse of a male’s chest, and it sent her right off the log into the frigid water of the River Eye. Nash Steele reacted instinctively and dove in after the girl, though the boy she was with stood there gaping down at the river where she’d disappeared with a scream. The icy water took Nash’s breath and snatched his senses for a moment, and flashes of the past froze him: His twin, Thomas, charging at him in rage when he’d found Nash kissing Helen. The uneven way Thomas had run because of his bad leg. The white puffs coming from Thomas as his weak lungs worked to meet the demands he so rarely made of his body.
The early-winter ice cracking beneath Thomas’s weight. Helen screaming as Thomas disappeared, followed by Helen screaming at Nash not to go after Thomas. Helen clinging to his arm, and Nash practically shoving her away so he could dive into the frozen lake to save the brother who had been born a breath and a scream after him. Nash searching but finding nothing but dark water and death. A kick to his forehead jerked him from the torturous memories that had sent him out into the unknown woods surrounding his new family home in the first place. A curse was ripped from his lips, and he reached out in front of him, grabbing at the water with the desperate hope that he’d be able to locate the girl. His fingers grazed something solid, and he didn’t hesitate. He curled his hand around the body part, registered that he likely held the girl’s ankle, and a cry of relief bubbled from him. The joy was short-lived when her other foot connected with his nose. Pain burst upward and spread across his forehead.
A crunching sound echoed in his ears. She broke my nose. He shoved the shock away as he caught her other foot before she kicked him again. With both ankles clasped, he jerked her toward him and down so he could circle an arm around her waist. She went rigid in his grasp and then wild. She swung out and tried to twist toward him, but he gripped her more tightly, knowing they’d never make it to the surface that way. His lungs were already starting to burn. She thrashed about, making it hard to keep hold of her, and she got him good several times. Still, he took the blows, not letting go. She was in a complete panic, and no wonder.
Girls were required to wear too many layers of ridiculous clothing. He kicked toward the surface, glad for once in his life that his parents had always demanded perfection from him in everything. He was a strong swimmer. As a future duke should be. His mother and father’s words echoed in his head as he swam toward the light, holding on to the girl. He broke free of the water, hauling her up with him and gulping in greedy breaths of the cool air. A panicked scream blasted him from his right, and for one moment, terror gripped him. The girl was no longer thrashing. She’s dead. She’s dead as Thomas was dead.
I’ve failed again. He turned her slowly toward him, and his eyes met hers, brilliant blue but filled with fear. Not dead. Just frightened. A tremor of relief went through him. “I’ve got you.” “I think I broke your nose,” she replied, her voice barely above a whisper. The girl was definitely stunned, and his nose definitely felt broken. It throbbed with pain, but before he could comment, the boy yelled, “Bring her to me!” Nash frowned and looked around to find the boy, who was now at the shore. He was madly waving his skinny arms at them.
“Is that your brother?” he asked, turning the girl around so her back was pressed against his chest. She shook her head as he snaked his hand around her waist. “Lean against me. I’ll swim us to shore.” She did as instructed without so much as a word. By the time they got to the shore, the boy was there, frantically splashing into the water but stopping as it lapped against his boots. Nash released the girl as he stood and then helped her to her feet. The boy shoved between them and turned an angry green gaze on Nash. “Don’t touch her.” They were the exact three words Thomas had said to Nash when he’d found Nash and Helen kissing on the ice.
Nash released the girl at once, and the boy shoved him out of the way to circle an arm around the girl’s waist. “Are you all right?” “I—Yes, I think so,” she replied, her voice shaking and the click of her teeth telling Nash that she was freezing. “She needs to get out of the water and home into dry clothes,” Nash suggested, looking toward the bridge and his own dry clothes, which he had discarded when he’d intended to take a swim. “I know that,” the boy said, sounding irritated. Nash touched a finger to his aching nose as the boy started to lead the girl past him, but she stopped, her friendly gaze settling on him. “Thank you for saving me.” Before Nash could answer, the boy said, “I would have saved you if I could swim.” “You can’t swim?” the girl bellowed in a way Nash had never heard a proper girl bellow before. The sudden urge to laugh shocked him. He had not felt that desire since Thomas’s death a year earlier.
Nash clenched his teeth. He didn’t deserve to laugh when Thomas never would again. “Owen!” the girl exclaimed, snatching Nash from spiraling back into the past. “Whyever did you not tell me that?” “I—” Owen opened and closed his mouth, his face reddening. He’d been embarrassed. It was obvious to Nash but apparently not to the girl. She stood there, hands now on her hips and a quizzical look upon her face. Owen’s blush spread to the tips of his ears just as Thomas’s used to. The instinct to act like a big brother as he’d done for Thomas roared to life. “I don’t think it’s the sort of thing one goes around announcing,” Nash offered, catching Owen’s grateful look as Nash moved out of the water.
Behind him came the splashing of someone following him. “Wait!” the girl called. “Where are you going?” Nash didn’t pause. He’d only be here a few months before he was off to Oxford, and he neither wanted nor needed friends. And they certainly did not need to become close to the likes of him. He was a bad seed. He’d caused his brother’s death. No one had said those exact words aloud, but his parents’ silence had told him everything. “Did you hear me?” she asked, closer now. “What’s your name? Perhaps you’d like—” “I heard you,” he growled.
“And it’s Nash.” He didn’t say his title in case either of them had heard about his brother. Nash hated the pity and the curiosity that always surfaced when someone realized he was the Marquess of Chastain, the son of the Duke of Greybourne, older brother to Thomas, now one year dead. Tragic. They’d shake their heads. So tragic that Thomas fell through the ice. That he was born sickly. That you couldn’t save him. How did the fall happen? The question was inevitable, as was the lying. Fingers brushed his shoulder and then a hand grasped his arm.
He stopped and whirled around. He didn’t like to be touched. Not anymore. He shot her a withering glare, even as her large blue eyes latched on to his. He saw the moment she realized he didn’t care for her hand on his arm. Her lips parted, and she released him. No color of embarrassment stained her cheeks, though. Instead, to his surprise, the girl gave him a determined look. “I was going to say that perhaps you’d like to spend the day with us. I’m Lilias Honeyfield, and this is Owen—” The boy cleared his throat, and Lilias rolled her eyes.
“I mean, this is the Earl of Blackwood and the future Marquess of Craven.” Nash could tell by her tone that she found the need to announce Owen’s title ridiculous. He liked her attitude toward titles very much, and he was shocked by how much appeal her offer held. They didn’t know him, his secret, or what he’d done. They didn’t know that he did not deserve to be happy. They didn’t know that once, not so long ago, he’d selfishly decided he was tired of looking out for his sickly brother. Tired of trying to be perfect as his parents demanded and not cause them a moment’s worry because they already had so much of that with Thomas. Tired of going unnoticed, except to be criticized. He hadn’t realized how lonely he was until that very moment, and it was all her fault. “You need to go home,” he snapped at the girl.
“You’ll freeze to death out here in those wet clothes, and I want no part of it. Not that I care,” he added. Caring about someone brought responsibility, and if you failed, if you slipped just once… Well, they might just end up dead. “Oh yes,” she said with an all-too-knowing smirk. “I could tell by your jumping in the water to save me that you are exactly the sort of person who cares for no one but himself.” “I’m leaving,” he replied, not liking the way the girl looked at him as if she knew him better than he knew himself. Not waiting for her response, he swiveled on his heel and crunched his way across the carpet of gold, red, and brown leaves to the bridge where his overcoat, shirt, and cravat lay. He bent over, scooped them up, and twisted around, nearly stumbling backward to find the girl, Lilias, standing there, hands on hips, determined expression still firmly in place, and her head tilted back to spear him with the look of a hunter eyeing its prey. Behind her, Owen stood like an eager pup. “You need a friend,” she replied, matter-of-fact.
Owen cleared his throat, and Lilias’s gaze darted over Nash’s shoulder for a breath, an apologetic smile coming to her face. Then she settled those eyes—more the color of a stormy sky than a clear summer one—on him once more. “You actually need two friends,” she amended. “No,” he said, brushing by her. “I don’t.” “You do,” she objected, having the cheekiness to sound exasperated with him. Owen gave Nash a sympathetic look as Nash started past him along the trail back to his house. Nash got no more than four steps when Owen said, “You might as well not fight it. Lilias will make you our friend one way or another. She’s a fixer of broken things.
” Nash stiffened at that revelation but did not slow his pace toward his home. “I’m not a thing,” he tossed over his shoulder as he shoved low-hanging branches out of his way. “And you don’t know me.” He lengthened his stride so the woods would swallow him up and make the boy and girl disappear. He chanced a look behind him and saw only trees. But then she bellowed, “I don’t need to know you to see you’re broken. We’ll be round tomorrow, Nash—to call for you.” He laughed at that ridiculous statement as he strode toward home. They couldn’t come to call on him tomorrow. For one thing, they did not know where he lived.
For another, he was certain the girl’s mother would not let her go galloping about calling on strangers who were almost men. He was seven and ten summers, after all. It wasn’t proper. That he’d even considered propriety made him laugh again. It felt strange and good, and that second feeling immediately brought the guilt and silenced the mirth. He considered Lilias as he made for home, recollecting his hand inadvertently brushing against a swell of soft flesh on her chest. He pictured her face, large blue eyes streaked with gray, high cheekbones, full lips with a ready smile, and long hair that was light like a moonbeam, though he’d only seen a flash of it before she’d fallen into the water. Her wet gown had been molded to her, and when he thought on that and the outline of her curves, he realized the girl was not as young as he’d assigned her to be. So what the devil was she doing alone in the woods with a young earl crossing over a slippery log?