Spring’s Tender Heart – Laura Landon

Lady Emma Randolph pushed her horse to travel as fast as she dared on the rain- and ice-soaked roads. The rain had turned to sleet a mile back, and now a heavy, wet snow slammed against her. The wind was fierce as it pelted the huge flakes into her eyes with such brutality that she couldn’t see her hand in front of her face. She had to trust her horse to stay on the road. She reached behind her and felt for the two bags she’d tied to the saddle. They contained as many of her possessions as she could stuff into the large canvas satchels. She would purchase anything else she might need once she reached America. Once she was safe. Emma’s fur-lined gloves were no match for the blustery chill, and her shins above her riding boots now prickled with frostbite where the wind kept sweeping away the protection of her skirts. Her riding habit would have been warmer, but she had not dared to draw attention to the fact that she intended to leave. “Just going for a short walk,” she had said. She drew her cloak tighter around her and prayed for the sun to peek through the roiling clouds. Her hood was drawn as low as possible over her forehead, but already she could feel icy frost forming on her brows. The wind had escalated to a point where it was becoming impossible to protect herself. Still, what she thought was a curse when it first started snowing had turned out to be a blessing.

Drifts covered her tracks almost as soon as she made them. No one would be able to follow her. With any luck she’d be able to stay ahead of anyone who tried. Once she reached London she’d board the first ship to America and she’d be safe. Emma leaned over the horse and buried her gloved fingers in the horse’s mane. She gave the horse a free rein, praying the mare would instinctively find shelter somewhere. Her teeth chattered relentlessly now, and her body shook with jarring shivers. She was so tired she could scarcely keep her eyes open. But she needed to stay awake. She’d heard tales of people who had fallen asleep and frozen to death.

Emma forced her eyes to open and remain open. Then, from above her, she heard a loud snap followed closely by an even louder crack. Her horse shied, but Emma held the reins tighter to keep her mare from bolting. There was another loud snap and her mare reared, nearly unseating Emma. In the next instant she heard an explosion, loud, like a booming cannon. Her horse bolted and Emma lost her hold on her mount and landed in the snow. She looked up just as a large limb crashed down on top of her. The pain was unbearable. She pushed at the large branch, trying desperately to free herself, but it was no use. The branch was too heavy.

And she was too weak. Emma lay in the snow, exhausted beyond belief. She continued to push on the heavy tree trunk, but she was unable to move it. With a cry of frustration she dropped her arm in the snow and lay there. The more time that passed, the less her arm and shoulder hurt. Eventually, a sense of peace wrapped around her. She’d never been afraid of death. She knew without a doubt that when she died God would take her to heaven. That when she died, she would no longer have to fight her stepbrother and the evil he intended. Emma closed her eyes and accepted the peaceful rest.

And she slept. ~■~ Jonah Mason, Earl of Glassborough, filled his tumbler again and took a small sip of the fine brandy he kept in his wine cellar. Fine brandy was one of the few extravagances he afforded himself. One of the only extravagances he could afford these days, because it had been aging in his cellar for over a hundred years. After he took an appreciative sip, he sat forward in his large leather wing-back chair behind his desk and lifted his pen to add the column of numbers in his ledger. This was his third attempt to add this particular column, and when he finished, he came up with a different total this time, too. The oil lamp flickered. He’d meant to fill it earlier in the evening, but it was late now and he was tired. It was time to quit for the night. He pushed away his ledger.

He’d work on his accounts again tomorrow. He doubted any money would magically appear overnight. Jonah placed his pen back in its holder and concentrated on watching the brandy swirl in his glass. He swiped his hand down his face and felt the scar that ran from his temple to just beneath his jaw. Even though the feel of it shouldn’t shock him anymore, the puckering intrusion of his disfigurement was impossible to ignore. His scar was just one more excuse the citizens of Glastonbury had to convince them that Jonah was a monster. It wasn’t that it was such a hideous thing, really. It had more to do with the stories that had cropped up after the tragedy. All silly conjecture, of course. But in his own stunned grief he had let the stories run rampant so that now, six years later, nothing he could say or do would change the villagers’ minds.

The death of his fiancé on the day of their wedding was all the proof anyone needed to seal the belief that he was a beast with blood on his hands. Jonah lifted the brandy to his mouth and took another large swallow, then paused, surprised by a knock on his study door at this late hour. “What is it, Carter?” “My lord,” his butler said when he stepped into the room. “Farley requests a word with you.” “Send him in,” Jonah said, then set his glass down. Something must be amiss. He could count on one hand the number of times his stable master had come to the house to see him. It was the man’s habit to conduct any business when Jonah went to the stables. Which he did every day, except on days like today when the weather was so inclement it wasn’t safe to take any of his horses out. Jonah watched Patrick Farley enter the room.

He held his cap in front of him and turned the sweatstained felt cap in jerky circles. Something was definitely wrong. “What is it, Farley?” “A riderless horse, my lord. Galloped into the yard a few minutes ago.” Jonah sat forward in his chair. “A horse with no rider?” “Yes, my lord.” “Have you seen the horse before?” “No, my lord. It’s not from around here.” “There’s something else, Farley. What is it?” “There were two bags tied to the saddle.

” Farley clenched his felt hat tighter in his hands. “I know I shouldn’t have taken the liberty, my lord, but I opened one of the bags to see what was inside.” “No, that’s exactly what you should have done.” Farley breathed a sigh of relief. “What did you find?” “Clothes, my lord. Lady’s clothes.” Jonah sat back in his chair and considered his options. He wanted to remain where he was and forget Farley had told him about the horse that had ridden into his stable. But that wasn’t an option. He rose from his chair.

“Farley, have Carter fetch some blankets, then saddle Jupiter.” “Yes, my lord.” Jonah watched Farley leave the room, then braced his hands atop his desk. He lowered his head between his outstretched arms and closed his eyes. Damn the female who left him no choice but to go after her. Damn any female for forcing her way into his life when all he wanted was to live the remainder of his days isolated from the outside world. Jonah pushed himself away from the desk and stalked through the room. Carter was waiting at the front door with Jonah’s heavy caped Ulster coat and gloves. Jonah pushed his arms through its sleeves, then raised the cape and buttoned it beneath his chin to form a hood before he stormed from the house. “Would you want me or one of the boys to go with you, my lord?” Farley asked when he reached the stable.

“No,” Jonah barked after he’d mounted Jupiter. And then he thought again. “You take the lane toward the ridge. Only that far, then right back. I’ll go east, but only as far as the fork.” “Very well, my lord.” “You might tell Mrs. Jefferies to prepare a room in the event we bring someone back alive.” “Yes, my lord.” “And take the clothes to her.

” “Yes, my lord.” Jonah rode from the yard considering what he’d just said. In the event that we bring someone back alive. If it was a female who had been thrown from the horse, what were the chances that he’d find her alive? What were the chances that even if she hadn’t died from her fall, she hadn’t frozen to death? Not that he cared. His life would be a great deal less complicated if she hadn’t survived. An ugly twinge of guilt assaulted him, then slipped away. Jonah lowered his head to keep the brunt of the forceful winter wind and snow from pelting him in the face. He pushed Jupiter as hard as he dared through the mounting snow. The sooner he found the rider, the sooner he would find himself before a roaring fire with a glass of brandy back in his hands. ~■~ The farther he traveled, the more convinced Jonah was that if and when he found the woman he was looking for—if he found her in the blinding snow—it was doubtful she’d be alive.

If she’d been out in this weather any length of time, she was more than likely frozen to death. It was even more likely she was dead if she’d been injured. Jonah pushed back the hood of his coat and looked as far as he could see into the distance. He scoured the ditches that lined the road and checked often to see if someone had tried to take shelter behind the rock wall that bordered the track. Annoying clumps of snow kept dropping from the high branches that overhung the narrow road. They hit with a solid thwack, like the snowballs he’d launched at his schoolmates in better times. As soon as he rounded the last curve before the fork he could see there was something ahead, in the middle of the road. He pushed Jupiter to wade through the drifts until it was possible to see that a large limb from a tree had fallen, blocking the road. When he reached the fallen limb, he dismounted. That’s when he saw it.

A scrap of blue velvet visible in the blanket of white beneath the twisted limb. Jonah’s heart ramped up as it always had when a need for rescue presented itself. But this was no battlefield. The country lane was drifted hip-deep in places, making his progress maddeningly slow. At last he reached the spot where a woman lay tangled in the broken branches. He removed one of his gloves and knelt in the snow beside her. Her face was visible. Her hair was wet and plastered to her forehead and her face was pale and lifeless. Jonah was certain she was dead, but when he pressed his finger to her neck, he felt a pulse. It wasn’t strong, but weak and slow.

At least she was alive. For now. Jonah strained to lift the log that had fallen across the young lady’s arm and shoulder, but it was too heavy to move. He slogged his way back to Jupiter and brought him forward. After securing a rope between the log and his saddle, Jonah urged Jupiter forward. The log moved enough that Jonah could free the woman from beneath it. “I’ve got you now,” he muttered, more to himself than to the woman who couldn’t hear him. Jonah untied the rope from around the log, then turned to lift the woman. No matter how gently he moved her, she cried out in pain. It wrenched his heart to know that he had no way to ease her suffering.

Her cry wasn’t loud, nor did it indicate she had any amount of strength, but it told Jonah that the woman he’d found half buried in the snow was alive. Alive enough to feel pain. Jonah placed her over his shoulder and mounted Jupiter, then lowered her to his lap and placed the blankets he’d brought around her. She was light as a feather, no more than a limp bundle in his arms, even with her sodden clothes that hung heavily about his boots. Jonah nestled her close to him and cradled her in his arms as tightly as he could without causing her more pain. She was injured. How severely, he wasn’t sure. All he knew was that when he lifted her from the ground, his gloves came away stained with blood. Jonah pushed Jupiter to return to Glassborough Manor as quickly as possible. Already the familiar mantel of obligation was settling over him.

He’d known it several times during the war, when he helped to recover a fallen man only to discover he now felt responsible for the man’s entire future. It was a familiar burden, yet unique. For some inexplicable reason he felt a strange connection to the woman in his arms. He didn’t know her. He’d never seen her before, but he sensed a desperation in her. Only a desperate female would travel alone in weather as nasty as this. He looked down on her and wondered what was so important that she would risk her health and her life to flee from the safety of her home. Jupiter stepped on a patch of ice that caused him to lose his footing and skitter a few steps until Jonah got him under control. The female in his arms shifted, then moaned in pain. Jonah held her tenderly until her breathing calmed and she seemed to rest more comfortably.

He pushed Jupiter to continue on his way, then reached down to bring her velvet cloak over her face to keep the snow from hitting her. If he were any judge, the clothes she wore indicated she wasn’t a country lass, but someone from Society. Perhaps someone with a title. Perhaps someone who was running away from an unwanted marriage. Why else would she venture out in such foul weather? Why else would she risk her life? If anyone knew the lengths to which a woman would go in order to avoid marriage with a man she could not tolerate, that man was Jonah. He had firsthand knowledge of what a woman might put herself through in order to escape marriage to a man she detested. To a man she considered a monster.

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