By hook or by crook, I am going to win, twelve-year-old Lady Olivia McLeod vowed as she left fresh tracks in the snowy field. Then the boys will have to admit that girls are just as clever, or cleverer, than they are. It was the day before Hogmanay, the Scottish celebration of the New Year, and Livy’s parents, the Duke and Duchess of Strathaven, were hosting a party at the country seat. Friends and family had gathered to join in the festivities, including all of Mama’s siblings. Livy adored her aunts, uncles, and cousins from the Kent side of the family; when they were around, a rollicking good time was guaranteed to be had. Indeed, Livy’s older cousins had designed a “treasure hunt” to amuse the children. A trail of clues led to a prize: a tin crown painted gold and decorated with paste jewels. Whoever retrieved the crown would be declared the winner of the contest and king—or queen—for the day. The prize was a worthy one. Especially since Livy had overheard her younger brother Christopher and some of his cronies betting on which one of them would be king. “Obviously, no girl is going to beat us,” the boys had all agreed. Obviously? The fire of competition had ignited in Livy’s chest. Then and there, she’d resolved to make the boys eat their words, and there was one surefire way to do it: she would win. Her goal would have been easier to accomplish had her bosom friends Glory and Fiona been there. Since the girls weren’t scheduled to arrive until after the new year, however, Livy had to tackle the task on her own.
When the first clue had been distributed at breakfast, she’d gone straight to work. She’d solved the riddle, which led to the stables. There, she’d found the second clue, which took her to the billiards room. Whilst everyone had partaken of luncheon, she had hunted down the next slip of paper hidden in the strings of the pianoforte: Find me behind the page that never ages. She’d wasted hours in the library, searching through books for the mysterious page. Her pulse had quickened when she heard two of her male cousins outside in the hallway; were they about to catch up to her? Luckily, she was saved by the tea bell. At the tinkling summons, the boys scampered off to fill their bellies, leaving Livy to contemplate the riddle in peace. As she’d rifled through a book of medieval poetry, the realization had struck her. She’d dashed to the gallery, stopping in front of an oil painting. The portrait showed a knight in leather armor, his metal helmet carried by an adolescent boy—his page.
The page’s youth had been forever preserved in glowing paint. Livy had slid her hand between the gilt frame and the wall, triumph surging as her fingers encountered a scrap of paper. Pulling it free, she’d unfolded it and read the scrawled words: Felicitations, intrepid explorer. You hold in your hands the final clue: Like Narcissus, I am captivated by my own glitter, As I hang, suspended between earth and sky, where the wind is bitter. Livy had hurried to her chamber to don her forest-green mantle, shoving the matching hat with a white plume over her chestnut curls and slinging a leather satchel she’d purloined from her brother across her shoulder. Exiting through the kitchens to avoid being seen—she had no desire to tip off her competitors—she’d managed to snag a sandwich on her way out. All the sleuthing had worked up her appetite. Livy was brushing off crumbs when she arrived at her destination: a pond situated at the northern edge of the garden. In the summer, the water teemed with fish and playful ducks, but now the surface was iced over and dusted with drifts of snow. That opaque surface would have frustrated Narcissus who, Livy knew from Mama’s stories, had been captivated by his own watery reflection.
She scanned the icy perimeter, looking for a place between earth and sky…and then she saw it: a flash of gold in the branches of a Scots pine. I’ve done it, she thought gleefully. I have found the prize! She raced over to the base of the tree. Tilting her head back, she stared up into the thicket of blue-green needles: the crown was tied to the end of the lowest branch. After several futile jumps, she had to concede her vertical disadvantage. As Mama was fond of saying, however, there was more than one way to cook an egg. Livy grabbed onto the bark, shivering at the chill that seeped through the smooth kid of her gloves. Nonetheless, she pulled herself up, finding the footholds, getting to the desired branch. Testing the ledge and finding it sturdy, she carefully maneuvered toward her glittering prize. She freed the crown from its rope and held it aloft.
“All hail the queen,” she sang. An ominous crack interrupted her tune. She watched in horror as the branch she was sitting on snapped from the trunk. She plummeted, a shriek exploding from her lungs. Her back hit the snowy bank with a jarring thump. Dazed, she caught her breath and sat up. Looking around her, she couldn’t find the crown. “Botheration,” she muttered. Then she saw it: lying some twenty yards away on the pond. Rising, she dusted herself off and placed a foot cautiously onto the ice.
Papa had issued countless warnings about walking on frozen surfaces, but the ice felt thick and solid beneath her boots. She would have her prize in a blink and be on her merry way. She slipped and slid over to the golden circlet. Grabbing it, she shoved it into her bag and started back toward the bank…and froze. Had she imagined the movement beneath her? She took another step forward, and the ice groaned and swelled. A web of cracks shot through the surface. Heart hammering, she raced toward the shore, but the ground vanished beneath her, her screams lost in an icy abyss. Freezing water burned her lungs as she fought to surface. Ice was everywhere, blocking her escape. Trapped, she pounded her fists against the thick translucent wall, a watery hand choking off her cries.
As the world beyond grew blurrier and more distant, a terrifying conviction took hold of her. I am going to die. Here. Alone. She fought to survive with all of her strength, thrashing against the ice until the last of her breath bubbled from her. Until her limbs grew heavy, invisible chains dragging her downward. Numbness blanketed her as she sank deeper and deeper into oblivion… Suddenly, she was reversing direction. Something dragged her upward, throwing off the darkness, exposing her to brightness, harsh and cold. She blinked up into a halo of light. Was she dead? The glowing ring seemed to be summoning her, and she felt herself floating toward it…but hands pushed her down.
Pressed on her belly with painful force. “Don’t you let go,” a deep voice commanded. “You fight.” Someone was telling her to fight. Which was strange, because people were usually telling her to be less tenacious. She tried to reply, but water gargled out instead. Exhaustion made her weightless, and she drifted up toward the heavens… The voice anchored her to the earth. “Not you too. Bloody hold on, do you hear me?” The mix of authority and anguish in those words halted her flight. Yet she couldn’t make her lips or body move, as if she were trapped beneath ice still.
Then a mouth sealed over hers, warm and firm, forcing air into her. Breaths billowed her lungs again and again until the halo above her vanished, and she surfaced with a gasp. “Easy there, little one. Take a breath now. Slow and easy.” Blinking, she saw that she lay on the bank, a man kneeling beside her. Water dripped from the chiseled contours of his face, frost tipping his thick eyelashes and mink-brown hair. Stormy blue eyes bore into her. “Are you all right, Olivia?” he gritted out. He knew her name.
As the haze lifted, she realized that she knew his too. “I-I am fine, Your Grace,” she said. Her rescuer was Benedict Wodehouse, the Duke of Hadleigh, one of the party guests. Until that moment, she had thought of him the way children generally think of adults: as old and not terribly interesting. It didn’t help that he had an air of detached boredom which grown-ups called ennui and which Livy did not understand. What was there to be bored about when there was an entire world to explore? At present, however, he didn’t seem indifferent. Emotion blazed from him, with an intensity that was painful to witness…like staring into the sun. He quickly turned away, but not before she glimpsed the sheen in his eyes. He shuddered, exhaling raggedly as he shoved his hands through his wet hair. He muttered something to himself.
It sounded like, Thank Christ. Managing to sit up, she tugged on the sleeve of his coat. “Are you all right?” He faced her again. She noticed the curious hollows beneath his eyes and cheekbones. Lines etched on his brow and around his mouth suggested a habit of frowning. Although he was tall and broad of shoulder, he lacked the brawn of, say, Livy’s papa. This duke was as lanky as a scarecrow. “You nearly drowned,” he said grimly. “And you are asking me if I am all right?” “You seem shaken,” she returned. His brows slanted together.
“And you seem self-possessed for a chit of ten.” “I am twelve,” she informed him. “As I said, I’m perfectly well.” “Let us not tempt Fate.” He bundled her in his greatcoat, which he’d apparently shed before diving into the water because it was dry and warm, smelling of leather and woodsy spice. He rose, scooping her up with surprising strength. “Why are you carrying me?” she asked. “I can walk.” “I can walk faster.” His ground-eating strides proved he was no liar.
“You’re trembling, little one.” He was right. She hadn’t noticed how chilled she was. Her teeth were chattering. “A c-cup of tea will put me to rights,” she said. “Mama says I have the c-constitution of an ox.” “Even so.” He gave her a stern look. “What in the devil made you do such a foolish thing?” His words jolted her…the crown. Her hands flew to the satchel which, miracle of miracles, was still strapped to her.
She reached in and took out her prize. “The crown survived the dunking,” she said with a relieved sigh. “I will still be queen for the day.” “Bloody hell. You risked your neck for that trifle?” At his scathing look, she clutched the crown to her chest. “It is not a trifle.” “It’s a child’s plaything. A piece of tin. You believe that it is worth dying over?” His blunt words shoved her back beneath the water. To the suffocating darkness, the fear of perishing there alone, of never seeing her family or friends again.
She looked at the shiny object in her hands: the gilt was already wearing off, showing the dull tin beneath. All of a sudden, she felt foolish. Immature. “No,” she said in a small voice. “Although I am a casual acquaintance of your family, even I can tell that they would be devastated if anything happened to you. Do you want to cause them pain?” he went on ruthlessly. A lump formed in her throat as she realized how selfish she had been. Caught up in her single-minded pursuit, she’d thought of nothing but attaining her goal. How many times had Mama lectured her to consider the consequences before acting? With deepening shame, Livy recognized that, in this instance, she was not the only one affected by her behavior. Her family would indeed be grieved if anything had happened to her…and she had also endangered the Duke of Hadleigh, who had braved the icy water to save her.
Even though she was no watering pot, heat slid from her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled. “There is no need to cry,” he said gruffly. “Just don’t do it again.” “But I c-could have hurt my family.” Once the tears started, she couldn’t seem to stop them. “And yours. You risked your l-life to save me. If you had died—” “Don’t worry about me.” His mouth twisted.
“I would not be mourned.” She tilted her head, certain that she’d misheard. “P-Pardon?” The duke could not have said that he wouldn’t be grieved. After all, he had a wife, whom Livy had been introduced to at the party. The Duchess of Hadleigh reminded Livy of a perfect porcelain doll with a painted-on smile that never faltered. The duke’s sister, Mrs. Beatrice Murray, was a sister-in-law to one of Livy’s aunts and in attendance as well. Livy adored Aunt Bea, as she called her, and was certain the lady would be heartbroken over the loss of her own brother. “I know what it is like to make mistakes. Mistakes that one cannot come back from.
” The duke’s gaze hardened. “Be wiser than me, little queen.” Livy didn’t know what to make of his words. Of the curious contrast between his jaded expression and his aura of pain. Nevertheless, empathy expanded in her chest the way his breath had filled her lungs. She tried to console him. “Mama says a mistake can be forgiven. As long as one makes proper amends.” The lightning flash of hope in his eyes made her twelve-year-old heart stutter. “I hope you will always believe that.
In fact, promise me that you will.” Although she was puzzled by his request, she did not hesitate to say, “I promise.” Being a McLeod and a Kent, she believed in loyalty and honor. She owed the Duke of Hadleigh her life. Although she knew she was too young to repay such a debt, she would endeavor to return the favor in whatever way she could. “Good,” he said softly. “I also promise to fulfill my debt of honor to you,” she said. “A debt of honor?” Now he seemed amused. The crinkles fanning from his eyes and the slow curve of his smile made him look younger, less like an aloof adult and more like a roguish boy. Livy wasn’t certain of his exact age but knew that he was younger than Aunt Bea, whose twenty-seventh birthday celebration Livy had attended that summer.
He was probably somewhere in his mid-twenties…old, but not quite ancient. “You are a hero, Your Grace,” she said solemnly. “I owe you my life, and from this day forth, I pledge you my allegiance.” “I am no hero,” he said with rough certainty. “And you owe me nothing, little queen.” He was wrong. She owed him everything. And one day, when she was old enough, she would repay him.