Resolve – Carla Susan Smith

The hardest part of leaving for Oakhaven was not so much having to say goodbye to everything that was familiar to her, but being confined in a claustrophobic carriage with Rian Connor for the duration of the journey. Under normal circumstances being in the company of a well-bred gentleman for any length of time would not have made Catherine anxious, but these were hardly normal circumstances. And it did not help that her thoughts and feelings about this particular gentleman were like a treacherous quicksand. One wrong step and she was in danger of being pulled under. Catherine would be forever grateful to him saving her life, but she nevertheless had no words to describe the swell of feeling that rose within her whenever he was near. She only knew that it was something far more complicated than gratitude. Catherine’s complete loss of memory was devastating. Other than her first name, she had no idea who she was. When Rian had stopped her from throwing herself in the Thames one dawn just a few short weeks ago, he’d had no idea why she’d been down at the wharves all alone, wearing nothing but a cloak. Her reasons for wanting to end her life had soon become evident. The vicious whip marks scarring her flesh were proof of the violence she had suffered at another’s pleasure. Now, part of her was grateful that she was unable to recall the details of that assault. She was not certain her sanity could bear to know. Had she meant to give herself up to the river? It certainly seemed to have been her intention, until fate intervened, offering her another path. One ushered in by strong hands, brown eyes, and a trust that promised to be unbreakable.

Along with the mystery regarding her identity was the confusion over where she had come from. London was not her home. Descriptions of landmarks and well-known places elicited nothing from her but blank stares and sighs of frustration. The lack of recognition could easily be put down to her current amnesia were it not for her voice. Her accent, while not particularly strong, was enough to make her sound different from those around her. If she didn’t live in London, could she have been visiting a relative? Anything was possible, but neither she nor her rescuer knew the truth. And being saved by Rian Connor had been the source of yet another type of confusion for Catherine. A confusion that was more than a little disconcerting. Like it or not, she felt an intimate connection to Rian, one she was determined to ignore. It would be completely different if Rian gave any indication he had feelings for Catherine, but he remained aloof, keeping his thoughts to himself.

It was a quality she wanted to emulate, if only as a way of calming her racing heart and churning stomach. This journey would be a test. One she was determined not to fail, and so she sat opposite Rian in the carriage, ignoring his dark good looks as best as she could. And it seemed that he was more than willing to help her in this regard. Other than inquiring after her comfort before setting out, his attention was absorbed by the book he was reading. So much so that neither of them noticed the nondescript figure across the street who witnessed their departure. * * * * Rian closed the book with a sigh. He had read the same paragraph three times now and it still made no sense. Surreptitiously he glanced at Catherine. She kept her face turned to the window, giving every appearance of enjoying the view, but he had felt her eyes stray toward him when she thought he wasn’t looking.

He couldn’t begin to imagine what it must be like to lose your memory. If not for his own remembrances he might not have survived some very dark moments when the pride and temper of youth had made him leave home, and pledge himself to the captain of a seafaring vessel. Memories of himself and his brother Liam as children had been the lifeline to which he had held fast. And the knowledge that his brother would always welcome him back had made his return to the land of his birth an easy one. What he had not been prepared for was the notoriety he’d gained by his relationship with Lady Isabel Howard. Seeking nothing more than a pleasant distraction, Rian had not been surprised when the notorious young widow invited him to her bed. A night of witty repartee and flirtation had led up to the proposal, but Rian was not without scruples. He would not bed the exotic beauty until she understood exactly what he could offer her, as well as what he could not. He’d been delighted when she gave every indication she grasped, and accepted, the parameters of their attachment. Apparently he’d been wrong.

Isabel, like many of her peers, thrived on gossip, especially if she was the subject of wagging tongues, but for Rian it was something he accepted only grudgingly and with a certain measure of distaste. Still, he couldn’t deny he’d enjoyed Isabel’s company, as well as her bed, and he was mature enough to ignore whatever was being said about him until the gossips included the subject of matrimony. Rian, himself, had considered the idea, but for him marriage had to be founded on more than physical attraction. That alone would not sustain a lasting relationship. As husband and wife he and Isabel would be incompatible, and his suspicion that she might be the source of these new rumors only emphasized the need to end their association. It was a decision that fate seemed to confirm by guiding his feet to the wharf and the lonely figure in need of rescue. He couldn’t say what drew him to her. What quality she possessed that made him want to make her part of his life. Whatever it was, it went much deeper than the male protective instinct that rose on seeing the bruises on her face and body. And it was a feeling that Isabel had never aroused.

But Catherine’s memory loss made him hesitate. It would be wrong to expect more from her, and yet her very presence was enough to unlock doors Rian had thought never to open. And make him want again. Never had he envisioned the two women meeting, but just the evening before, Isabel had presented herself at the Connor townhouse, suggesting an interview with Catherine. He still was not completely sure why his former mistress had requested to meet the young woman he’d taken into his home. The idea that Isabel might recognize Catherine or know her family had not been without merit, but Rian hadn’t been able to shake the feeling that Isabel’s reasons were far less noble. He ought to have trusted his intuition. Though he didn’t know what had been said, the fact that the two women had exchanged angry words was enough to make him act. Taking Catherine to Oakhaven was the most sensible solution for all involved. Rian stared at Catherine as she continued to gaze out the carriage window.

The slight tug on her mouth and the crinkle at the corner of her eyes when she noted something pleasing released an unexpected warmth in him. Along with a great many other feelings that were slowly awakening. He blew out a resigned breath. Whatever had happened between Catherine and Isabel, it would be better to get it out in the open, and not let it fester. “I apologize if Lady Howard said anything to distress you,” he said quietly as the carriage rumbled on. “That was not my intent in introducing you.” “I know.” Catherine kept her gaze fixed on the trees and rolling hills in the distance. She found this bucolic view far more appealing than London. “Did she upset you a great deal?” Rian probed.

Now it was Catherine’s turn to sigh. Accepting his roundabout apology was not going to be enough; he wanted to know what had happened. Taking her gaze from the changing landscape, she fixed him with a stare as the memory of Isabel’s grossly unjust accusations flushed her cheeks. “Yes, she did.” There was no anger or trace of histrionics in her reply, but that did not stop the muscle in his jaw from tightening. He was angry with Isabel for upsetting her. “I will speak with Lady Howard on my return,” he said. “You’ll do no such thing,” Catherine retorted. “But I can see that you are still troubled by whatever passed between you.” It was impossible to ignore the flush on her cheeks or the spark in her eyes.

“You’re confusing anguish with anger.” Rian raised a brow in surprise. “You’re angry?” She nodded. “You’re angry with Isabel?” Curiosity was getting the better of him, especially as Catherine nodded again, keeping her lips compressed in a tight line. “But why?” he asked. “What do you have to be angry about?” “I allowed her to provoke me into losing my temper,” she snapped. “And?” Rian leaned forward slightly, knowing there was a lot more that wasn’t being said. Catherine found herself staring into his eyes. Deep brown with flecks of gold that made her feel light headed. He wore his hair loose and it framed his face in such a way she was unable to organize her thoughts into any sort of coherent pattern.

With an effort she redirected her gaze and looked down at her lap. “And I said some things that I should not have said, things that you most certainly will not persuade me to repeat!” His gaze weighed heavy on her. Surely he was not going to make her reveal that Isabel saw her as a rival for his affections. That the only reason she had wanted to speak with Catherine alone was to make wild allegations and insist she not pursue Rian. As if Catherine even knew how to do such a thing! “Well, it isn’t often that someone gets the better of Isabel,” Rian said with a chuckle, “but judging from the haste of her departure, I would say you managed quite well.” He watched as Catherine smoothed an imaginary crease on her dress before returning her gaze to the view beyond the carriage. “And you are quite certain I cannot persuade you to tell me the, uh, substance of your conversation?” he teased. “Absolutely not!” Though he did not doubt her resolve, Rian thought he saw the corners of her mouth lift slightly in the window’s reflection. He wished he could have been a fly on the wall during that conversation. Whatever had been said had upset both women.

And he knew it was so because the Connors’ motherly housekeeper had wasted no time in coming to him. “What happened?” he asked in response to Mrs. Hatch’s description of Catherine’s agitated state. “I don’t know,” she replied with a look of concern. “She has not confided in you?” Mrs. Hatch shook her head, which told Rian that whatever had taken place was serious indeed. Catherine trusted Mrs. Hatch implicitly. “She refuses to discuss the matter, Master Rian, but I can tell it upset her a great deal.” They both agreed another encounter with Isabel was to be avoided at all costs, and, at his suggestion, Mrs.

Hatch made certain Catherine was ready to leave first thing in the morning. Rian had not been fooled by Isabel’s hasty departure or her flimsy excuse of a headache delivered by note barely an hour later. She had been furious about something, but he could not imagine what Catherine might have said to provoke such a reaction. He sighed in frustration, wishing Catherine would confide in him. And then, unexpectedly, a chuckle escaped him, bubbling up from inside. He was going to have to watch himself if Catherine had a temper that could best Lady Howard.


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