Some things never changed. Alexander cast his gaze from left to right as he guided his mare down the road and rolled his eyes when he spotted an errant pig snuffling his way through scraps at the roadside. Mr. Johnson’s fence-making skills still hadn’t improved apparently. The town of Langmere never changed either. The gray stone buildings lined the curving dirt road down toward the lake, offering no hint of occupants. Many would be busy at the farms or down by the lake or in the few shops that were clustered at the waterside. For as long as he could recall, Langmere had been dull. Dull gray buildings, dull people. Dull, dull, dull. Admittedly, the mountains surrounding the lake were at least a little interesting. Despite the weather slowly warming as they moved into spring, snow dusted the tops of the hills that surrounded the generous lake. Sunlight glinted off the water and offered a clear view of the mountains that spent most of winter shielded by clouds. He supposed if he was going to confine himself to the most boring of towns, at least he had chosen a good time of year for it. Living in Langmere during the winter was more than dull.
More like tediously boring. He shook his head. No, that didn’t cover it either. Mind-numbingly uninteresting perhaps. Well, if anything it was perfect for him. He knew firsthand there were no attractive women in the town and escaping to the family seat would keep him well away from any temptation. Yes, Langmere would be— He scowled and drew the horse to a halt. The stone buildings were clustered so tightly together, he could not see the lake from this angle, but he could hear…something. People. No.
Women. God bloody damn it. Alex urged the horse on, and he held his breath until they rounded the corner. Lining the lake were little wooden boats tethered to several tired-looking jetties. He spied a large boat farther out by the private island at the center of it, its white sails stark against the green fir trees that clustered atop the spot of land. To his left were the shops of Langmere. They hadn’t changed. A butcher’s, a chandlery, Mrs. Gleeson’s tea shop, and The Royal Oak. Farther along, the blacksmith’s bilged smoke from the chimney and Mr.
Beaumont’s Bazaar remained but had expanded onto the pavement by way of a stall covered with a bright blue canopy. What had changed, however, was the throngs of women spilling in and out of the buildings and crowding the road. He inched his way through the mob on horseback, not unaware of the various stares that met him. Added to that were the whispers and not so quiet conversations puzzling over who he was. He nodded his head and offered a smile in greeting to two young women, one of whom had gasped. She blushed and dropped her head. Alex fixed his gaze ahead and blew out a breath. The one place he could guarantee an escape from women and here he found himself surrounded by them. Many of whom were quite his type indeed. He stole a look through the beveled windows of the tea room.
More women. Young, old, curvaceous, slender, pretty and not so pretty. A brunette exited and offered him a charming smile. He glanced away swiftly. What the devil was going on? Langmere had all the appeal of London on a smoggy day when the streets were so thick with yellow, soupy fog that one could scarcely see one’s hand in front of one. So what on earth could have brought all these women flocking here? He ground his teeth together and ignored the feminine chatter coursing about him. Christ, he loved to hear women talk. It was a whole lot more interesting than sitting about in White’s while the men about him congratulated themselves on running the world with their hefty inheritances. Alex would certainly not complain about the wealth that came with being a marquis and all the many, many benefits of rank but he wasn’t foolish enough to pretend he could take sole credit for his circumstances. Unable to resist, he glanced toward the lakeside, where three women were gathered.
Her figure snared his attention first—slender waist and just the tiniest hint of curves, all wrapped up in a simple pale-yellow gown with a high neckline. Prim by anyone’s standards really. However, it was the red curls peeking out from the straw bonnet that really seized his notice. He bit back a groan. Dear God, he always had a weakness for redheads. He could look away. It would be easy really. Fix his attention on the road ahead and trot past with all the haste of a lord on important business. If he was to keep his promise to his mother, that was all he needed to do. But, no.
Apparently the lure of the redhead was too great. Anyway, there was nothing to say he could not look. What harm could come with looking? No one ever— She looked up and his heart gave the tiniest jolt. He scowled, forgetting the roguish smile he’d intended to have in place. Her gaze clashed with his and her expression faltered, the curve on her lips dropping rapidly. She gave him a disapproving glare and then turned her attention back to her companions. Cursing under his breath, Alex urged his horse into a gallop. This would be easy enough. One of the easiest things he’d ever done really. He’d climbed mountains and walked deserts and sailed stormy seas.
Avoiding female company was nothing compared to this. It didn’t stop that redhead’s glare from lingering in his mind, though. Nor did it prevent him from wanting to turn around and offer her his most flattering words. It seemed his stay here would not be quite the escape from temptation he had wished for. ∞∞∞ “LUCINDA?” Tearing her attention away from the gentleman swiftly making his way out of the town on horseback, Lucinda offered her mother a smile. “Yes, Mama?” “I was saying that we should return to our lodgings. Rain looks imminent.” She glanced up at the sky, speckled with a few white clouds. Though it had rained earlier in the day, leaving the air sweetly scented with the fragrance of wet grass, it did not look likely to rain again anytime soon. “I think we are safe, Mama.
” She shook her head vigorously, sending the feathers on her hat bobbing. “I feel certain in my bones it shall rain. You know my bones are never wrong.” “What about when we went to Bath and there was that week of torrential rain and we could not go anywhere? Your bones had said it was going to be perfect weather,” Lucinda’s younger sister piped up. Lucinda glared at her sister. Be quiet, she mouthed, but Mary-Anne ignored her, a smug smile crossing her petite mouth. At fourteen, Mary-Anne had begun to grow into a woman, but her features remained child-like, and her petite stature belied her bold nature. Their father blamed his indulgence of Mary-Anne for her brashness whilst her mama decided it was those gothic novels combined with the scandalous nature of the gossip columns and how young girls chattered these days that had so warped Mary-Anne’s mind. Mary-Anne often reminded her of herself at that age…before everything had changed of course. Lucinda reckoned Mary-Anne had simply been born bold.
She recalled her as a baby, taking her first steps far sooner than any of their young cousins, and then as a child, her precocious and inquisitive nature had been clear. Being ten years her senior, it had often been up to Lucinda to rescue her sister from many a predicament. And occasionally, Mary-Anne reminded her of herself at that age… “Do you recall our trip to Bath, Mama?” Mary-Anne persisted, her smile turning sly. “I never said such a thing.” Their mother straightened her shoulders and peered at the sky. “And my bones are never wrong. They twinge just so. There is rain in the air.” Mary-Anne huffed. “Well, seeing as that handsome man has gone, I suppose we might as well return.
” “Mary-Anne!” Lucinda scolded. “Do not tell me you didn’t notice because I know you did. In fact, your gaze did not leave him for one second.” Biting back a swift denial, Lucinda narrowed her gaze at her sister. The only reason she even glanced at the man had been because she had felt his gaze upon her. For some reason, though, she had garnered his disapproval. Perhaps her hair was too red or her dress too prim for his liking. Whatever it was, he had set her with the deepest scowl and all she could bring herself to do was glower back. After all, she was not here for his enjoyment. They had come to take the fresh air and drink the fresh spring water that came from the lakes, not garner the attention of attractive men.
Mary-Anne sighed. “He is the handsomest man we have seen since our arrival. There really is no one here of note, you know.” She pursed her lips, undid the ribbon of her bonnet with a sound of annoyance and flung one of the ribbons over her shoulder. “It is only women.” She gestured about. “Endless amounts of women.” “You are too young to be concerned with handsome men and he was certainly too old for you,” Lucinda muttered. “Just because you have never been interested in men and will likely wind up a spinster.” “Mary-Anne!” Mama scolded.
“I have Bernie.” Mary-Anne rolled her eyes. “Boring Bernie. He shall never propose, and I will be glad for it. He’s far too dull for you.” Lucinda held back the biting retort that burned on her tongue. Bernie was, she supposed, a little dry at times. He liked rocks, mostly. She couldn’t say it was an obsession she really understood. However, they had been writing to one another for so long, he had to be about the only man to understand her, surely? Everyone anticipated that one day, they would marry.
It was just a sort of fate really. Besides, it saved her ever having to worry about being courted by another. The thought of having to try to flirt and being charming with another man made her shudder. Frankly, she didn’t have it in her. Far better to stick with Bernie who never expected anything other than a simple letter occasionally. “Mr. Sandwell is a decent man with an excellent living. He shall propose soon enough,” Mama said, glancing up. “It really does look like rain.” “I hope he does not.
Lucinda is far too pretty for him, and I know she does not enjoy his dull conversation.” “That’s not true,” Lucinda said. “I find his conversation quite interesting at times.” “Those times being never.” Mary-Anne folded her arms. “You need a man like the one we just saw. Dashing, heroic.” “Grumpy,” Lucinda muttered. “Someone who will help you finally do all the things you’ve always wanted to do,” Mary-Anne continued. “What things?” Mama asked.
“There are no things, Mama,” Lucinda assured her, looping her arm through her mother’s. “I am quite content as I am.” The lie almost stuck in her throat. Yes, there were things she longed to do with her life, but it would take more than a scowling man to make her do them. She had been the reserved, sensible sister for too long. How did one change oneself entirely after being set on such a path? She did not think it possible. So she would probably marry Bernie—if he ever asked—and continue to try to tame her wild little sister. No stranger on horseback was going to change her fate. Of that she was certain.