About the book
Even if you forget your past, it will always remember you…
In a desperate attempt to escape a forced betrothal, Diana Elton suffers a head injury that causes her to lose her memory. Waking up unable to remember, a necklace with a medallion of the Roman Goddess “Diana the Huntress” is the only remnant of her old life.
When kind-hearted and fierce-spirited Kentigern Forbes, Laird of Braewood, finds a beautiful lass lying on the ground unconscious, he has no choice but to rescue her. Curious about her identity but dazzled by her beauty, he brings her to Scotland with him.
But even though the two get closer, the mystery around Diana’s identity haunts Kentigern…until the day the earth opens up and swallows her whole.
On a frantic hunt to find her, Kentigern will discover that he and Diana are, in fact, already connected by a common secret. The secret of his closest family member that has been buried in the shadows for years.
1757, Mersley, England
“Charles! Charles, where in heaven’s name are you?” Lady Diana Elton dashed through the lavish halls of the country estate, her bare feet tapping against the stone floors as she ran. Her flaxen hair, which shone gloriously when brushed and styled, was knotted and flew wildly around her shoulders as she rounded a corner and bumped headlong into her brother.
“There you are!” she exclaimed. “Mercy, this place is too big for the two of us, I can never find you when I need you.”
Charles laughed, though he tried to hide it, turning down the corners of his mouth and unconsciously attempting to smooth his wild sister’s hair. “Really, Diana, you’re too old to be running feral through the halls. Put some shoes on. Comb your hair.”
“Oh, nonsense. Who will see me but you? And you already know what my hair looks like, so why bother taming it? I’ve got only a limited number of hours in my life, and I intend to spend as few of them as possible staring at my own reflection in a mirror. There are many more exciting things in this world to look at.” She playfully batted his hands away.
“As you’ve said. And yet, you are a Lady, Diana. And it’s time you started acting like one,” Charles said, laying a protective arm over her shoulder as he guided her back to his study. “You may be too innocent to realize it, but you are of an age now where men will begin to find you one of the most exciting things in this world to look at.”
Diana rolled her eyes as they entered her brother’s study. At one time, this room belonged to their father. His large, leather-bound books lined the walls, absorbing the sounds of their footsteps and carpeting the room in an almost unearthly quiet.
Diana had always been frightened of this room. Not that their father had been cruel, just the opposite, in fact. But the stateliness of the space, the darkness of the wood, and the black leather of the chairs and couches, always seemed too strange and foreign to her. It was a place where men spoke in deep, authoritative tones, and women sat in silence and acquiescence.
This was a room where decisions were made, and edicts handed down. A place for adults. For men. And as she stood in the middle of the room, her hands folded in front of her, her bare toes digging into the plush rug, she felt just as out of place and small as she had when she’d been summoned there to be punished for climbing trees in her new dress.
Charles Elton, Earl of Dunworth, settled into the large chair behind a desk so heavy she never did know how it had been brought to this second-floor room at all. He was still young enough that his blonde hair and easy smile put him at odds with his surroundings, but she could see him making an effort to fill the place of her father, and she decided to humor him, for his sake, and lowered her eyes meekly when he spoke.
“So, my wild faery of a little sister, what business did you have with me this morning?” he asked, crossing one leg over the other and leaning back sardonically in the chair so that Diana had to stifle a giggle.
“Well, it’s about my present.”
Charles laughed. “Of course, it is. And what are you asking for today? A new pony, perhaps? Seven new dresses?”
“Not a new pony, no. And I’ve never asked for dresses. But it does have to do with my mare. See, Epona has been living in the same old stable her whole life. I think she deserves better. She would like a larger stall and a new saddle and tack.”
“Is it Epona’s birthday as well?” Charles asked with a sarcastic, raised brow.
Diana smiled. “Just as you enjoy spoiling me, so I enjoy spoiling my girl. Nothing would please me better for my birthday than to trot out my darling in a shining new saddle.”
“Generous as always.” He was still being sarcastic, but he hadn’t said no.
“Is that a yes, then?”
Charles looked thoughtful for a moment, his smile fading somewhat. “Have you a gown for the celebration?”
Diana shrugged. “Of course, I do. I thought I would wear my powder pink one with mother’s coral necklace.”
“The coral necklace is fine, Diana. But you need a new gown. You’re turning twenty years old, and you need a more grown-up dress. Perhaps something in an emerald green to bring out your eyes.”
“To bring out my eyes? What’s gotten into you, Charles? Who would give a thought to my eyes?”
Charles got to his feet again, and speaking with a voice that sounded more like the late Lord Dunworth than himself, he answered, “Your Epona may have her saddle. A new stable is something we may talk about later. In exchange, you must promise to make an effort to act like the Lady that you are. It’s time to put away childish things, Diana.”
Normally, Diana would have teased him more and been more stubborn, but his voice and manner were so strangely grave and serious that she didn’t dare. “All right, Charlie. I will do my best.”
Charles smiled warmly, crossing the room to her and cupping her chin in his hand. “There’s a good girl. Now go and let me attend to my business.”
“Yes, sir,” she replied with a challenging grin.
“And please. Shoes? Hair?”
“Oh, all right, all right. I understand. I’ll go make myself pretty if it will make you stop acting so strange and serious.”
“It’s a deal.” He smiled and dropped his hand from her chin as she whirled out of the room to do as he had asked.
A week later, Diana stared at her reflection with disbelief. The gown that Charles had ordered looked so strange on her. Not to say that it was ill-fitting or sloppily made, in fact, it was by far the finest gown she’d ever owned. Yards of heavy satin draped over her curves to studied effect, and the deep-emerald color was as dimensional and regal as the gem that gave it its name.
She was a bit shocked that Charles had thought it proper for her gown to be so low cut, but when she saw it on, she could see that the neckline, as with all the other details, was perfectly in fashion and utterly gorgeous. There was no flaw in the gown; it was perfect. Too perfect.
As she stared at herself, she could only feel insufficient to fill a gown such as this. She felt as though she were playing pretend, raiding the wardrobe of a far more refined woman. The coral necklace that rested delicately on her collarbone reassured her, however. Her mother had owned more expensive jewelry than this, diamonds and rubies and all sorts of delicate gold, but the coral necklace had always been set aside for Diana.
It seemed like it had been made especially for her, bringing out the pink undertones of her pale skin. Whenever she wore it, no matter what, Diana felt beautiful. Powerful even. As if she wore all the strength and dignity of her mother in that simple necklace.
The coral necklace was eye-catching enough that she could get away with wearing her normal pendant underneath it. Tucking the goddess Diana medal between her breasts inside her dress, the delicate chain she always wore it on became almost invisible. With the goddess of the hunt and the memory of her mother, Diana could face anything.
“Diana?” The soft voice came with a knock on her door frame as her brother tentatively entered her bedroom. “Nearly ready?”
“My, don’t you look handsome,” Diana said. It was rare for her brother to wear his best clothes. He preferred to dress as if he was ready, at any moment, to hop on his stallion and ride off to the woods to hunt.
“I thought so too, until I saw you. I pale in comparison, now.” He laughed, tugging at his sleeve. “People are beginning to arrive. You had best come down soon to welcome the guests.”
“I feel suddenly nervous,” Diana chuckled. “Why does this feel so different from my past birthdays?”
“It’s my hope, darling sister, that you will always look back on this birthday with fondness.”
Diana looked up at her brother, quizzically. His strangely-somber mood had returned again, and she wished to ask him about it, but he was already leading her down to the ballroom, from which flowed the sounds of music and a gathering crowd. She told herself that she would ask him about it later that night and put aside her worries for the time being.
Once in the ballroom, Diana fell easily enough into her role as hostess, greeting aunts, uncles, great-aunts, great-uncles, and all the families of the neighborhood. The room, which normally felt so unnecessarily large and empty, came into its full glory with the presence of guests and the lively sounds of music and laughter.
The curtains over the large windows had all been thrown open, letting in the golden sunlight from outside and bathing the scene in a dream-like radiance that melted away all of Diana’s anxieties about her brother’s strange mood and her uncomfortable gown.
She was chatting amiably with the elderly yet amusingly sharp-tongued mother of one of Charles’ business associates, when the old woman’s face suddenly soured as she glanced over Diana’s shoulder.
“Goodness, whoever invited him?” the woman asked, spitting the pronoun as if it were bitter on her tongue.
“Who?” Diana asked, looking around for the offending character while attempting to appear casual.
“That man with the fawn breeches and forbidding brow. That’s Lord George Orton. Really, he shouldn’t be allowed within fifty feet of any respectable woman,” the woman said with a sniff.
Diana’s eyes widened, a thrill running down her spine at such a prospect. Charles was normally meticulous about forbidding her contact with any man of ill repute.
“Oh, really? Tell me why,” Diana asked, locating the man in question and taking in the sight of him.
He was large, formidably large, but without a pound of fat on him. He looked like the type of man for whom the idea of a good time is to lift heavy objects and throw his weight around. His hair looked like it had been combed neatly at one point, but already tendrils of the black locks were falling over his high forehead. He was less handsome than she’d hoped, but still a curiosity.
“I’ll spare your young ears the details, my dear, but suffice it to say that the trail of young women with broken hearts that man leaves in his wake is enough to turn any mother’s stomach. Why your brother would allow him here is quite beyond my capabilities of understanding.”
“Broken hearts? Really?” Diana was incredulous. The man looked quite ordinary to her.
“Do promise me that you’ll keep your distance from him, Diana. You’re just the type of girl he likes to prey on.” The woman touched Diana’s arm almost pleadingly.
“You needn’t worry about me; I’ve no interest in men yet. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have my duties as a hostess, you know.” With that, Diana continued to make her rounds about the room, greeting friends and relatives alike.
As she approached the group with which Lord Orton was standing, her palms felt oddly clammy. It was true that she had no real interest in men yet, but it was so strange to be introduced to one, and one with such a bad reputation, that it unnerved her all the same.
Before she made it to him, her brother appeared at her side, lacing her arm through his and guiding her toward the group. She relaxed somewhat, happy to hand over the reins of this introduction to her brother, who would surely protect her if this strange man should attempt anything untoward with her.
“Diana, allow me to introduce you to a friend of mine. Lord Orton, this is my sister, Diana.”
The mysterious lord bowed deeply and took Diana’s nervously-offered hand. She nearly jerked it out of his grasp when he brought the back of her hand to his lips. He kissed her knuckles, holding it there for a moment before looking up at her over her hand.
His eyes were dark, nearly black, and ringed in thick lashes, and he smiled. It was an odd sort of smile, only one corner of his lips quirked upward, and he didn’t seem happy. It seemed almost as if he were laughing at her.
“Please, Lady Diana, honor me by referring to me by my first name. I am George to my friends, and it would please me more than anything to hear you say it.”
“I—uh..” Diana stammered, sliding her fingers from his grasp.
“Your brother has told me so much about you, but nothing could have prepared me for your beauty. Truly, he did you a dishonor despite his best efforts to describe you,” he continued, straightening up. Charles shifted his weight next to her.
Diana was growing hot and was certain that her face was flushing crimson. “I…I’m afraid I can’t say the same, Lord Orton.” She ignored his request for her to use his first name. “I’ve never heard of you until tonight.”
Charles laughed, his voice almost a full octave higher than usual. “Surely I’ve mentioned George in passing.”
“I’m certain you haven’t,” Diana said, growing annoyed by the way this Lord Orton stared at her. Suddenly she could believe the rumors about this man. Despite his ordinary looks, there was something about his gaze that was predatory. Some essence about him—unconscious and subtle but unmistakable—was calculated to make her feel like prey.
It wasn’t a feeling she was used to, but she knew right away that it was not a feeling she relished.
“She’s always forgetting.”
“I’m not offended, Charles,” Lord Orton laughed. “But, My Lady, is it possible that you haven’t already promised the first dance to someone else, and will you do me the honor?”
“I’m very sorry Lord Ort—” she began, but was interrupted by her brother.
“Of course, the honor would be all hers. But not just yet. George, I need a word with you. It’s a…a business matter.”
“Business? At a ball? Really, Charles, you must allow yourself to loosen up occasionally!” Lord Orton said but allowed himself to be distracted from Diana enough for her to slip away.
Charles pulled George aside, carefully out of earshot from Diana who had quickly made off to another group of people to chat with. He noticed how pink her cheeks were, and his heart was pounding. What if this was a mistake?
“She doesn’t know yet,” he said in a hushed tone to George.
“Yes, I figured that out on my own, actually.” George was irritated. “You said you would tell her. Honestly, if you expect me to do your dirty work…”
Dirty work. The phrase stuck in Charles’ mind.
“I don’t. Of course not. I intend to tell her. I’ll tell her after the ball. Just…go easy tonight. It’s all been arranged, as you know. There’s no need to…to lay it on quite so thickly. You frightened her.”
“Frightened her?” Lord Orton laughed again. “My friend, she’s turning twenty, not twelve.”
“Shh…” Charles glanced around nervously, making sure that Diana was still safely out of earshot. “She isn’t like your type of girl. She’s been sheltered here with me. She’s so little acquainted with men.”
“You think she won’t like me?” There was something almost like shyness in George’s tone. Almost.
“She will come to like you. But please, just…be gentle with her.”
George nodded, that half-grin reappearing on his mouth. “I understand you perfectly. I shall be a perfect gentleman tonight, to make your conversation with her later on smoother.”
“Thank you,” Charles said, though his relief was minimal. When George left his side to cross the ballroom toward his sister, the knot in Charles’ stomach tightened. Taking a deep breath, he squared his shoulders. This was the right thing to do. He knew it. Diana’s well-being had been his only priority since their parents had perished in the accident years ago, and her well-being was still at the forefront of his mind. No harm would come to her, he assured himself.
He watched from the sidelines as George took Diana’s hand for the first dance. Her body language was stiff, but that was normal for her. Despite her wild nature, or perhaps because of it, she was skittish around new people. He felt certain that she really would grow to like George. All he needed was a good woman to settle him down, and really, his recklessness would complement her feistiness. If only George could manage to not scare her off from the start.
The ball was agony for Charles. He kept a hawk-like eye on his sister, watching her moods fluctuate throughout the evening. George was nearly always at her side, but it was impossible to read her reactions to him. She seemed at times to be irritated by him like he was a gnat that kept flying around her head no matter how many times she swatted it off.
But at other times, she seemed to tolerate him. He was, by all accounts, a marvelous dancer, and she seemed to loosen up when they danced. Perhaps there was hope that she wouldn’t have Charles’ head when he told her the news that night.
By the end of the night, Diana was thinking much less about dancing and much more about how much a young woman could sweat before anyone would take notice of it. She was doing her best to enjoy her birthday party while toeing the line between politely avoiding the attentions of Lord Orton and being outwardly rude to him.
He was fine enough while they were dancing. He didn’t talk as much and was admirably light on his feet, but once the music ended, he slipped back into that smarmy, sticky-sweet flirtatiousness. The room seemed to grow hotter as the night went by, and she longed to step out on the balcony, but the thought of being alone in a dark space with Lord Orton filled her with a sense of dread that she didn’t fully understand.
She was grateful when people began to leave, and the ball ended. Her feet hurt, and she felt half asleep already as she bade goodbye to the last guest.
She was beginning to head back to the private sanctuary of her bedroom when Charles stopped her. “Well, Diana, how was your birthday?” he asked.
“Don’t ask me yet. I’m too tired,” she said with a sleepy smile.
“Well, go ahead and get out of your finery and relax, but please come to the study before you go to bed,” he said, loosening his cravat as they walked down the corridor.
“Can it wait till tomorrow? I feel about half-dead with exhaustion,” she protested.
“It can’t wait, I’m afraid.”
Diana sighed heavily, stepping out of her slippers and bending down to pick them up and walk barefoot the rest of the way to her room. She wished she could just fall right into bed, but she didn’t have the energy to challenge her brother on this, so she agreed quietly and went to her room to change out of her gown without protest.
In the night, the study was even more frightening than during the day. There were several oil lamps in the room, but they struggled to light up the space, instead they created separate pools of light in an otherwise dark and foreboding room.
Charles was sitting at the desk, hunched over some papers. It was odd to see her brother as a man of business when in her mind’s eye, was still a lanky sixteen-year-old. She hadn’t noticed him growing up, and it struck her suddenly at odd times. Though, she supposed she hadn’t noticed herself growing up either. Where had the years gone?
“You’ll damage your eyes reading this late,” Diana said softly as she came in.
Charles started, not having heard her approaching. “Oh, Diana. There you are. How was your birthday?”
“You already asked that,” she chuckled. “It was lovely. You know how I love to dance.”
“Yes, I do. And Lord Orton was a good dance partner?”
Diane sucked in a breath. “His powers as a dancing partner are formidable. His character though…are you aware of the rumors about him?”
“He’s a lively young man. He’s no saint, I’ll give you that, but he’s hardly a villain either.” Charles’ voice was soft as if they were both afraid of disturbing the aura of their father, which seemed to hover always in this room. He motioned for Diana to come closer, and she did so, leaning against the side of the desk.
“How long have you known him?” she asked.
“I knew him as a boy at school. We were separated for some time as he pursued his freedom while I…well, taking care of you became a career for me,” he grinned.
“Please, I’ve never been one to get into trouble.”
“Perhaps our definitions of trouble have some differences. But Diana, tell me what you think of Lord Orton. Truly.”
Diana shrugged, fiddling absently with a ribbon at the cuff of her nightgown. “I’m surprised you have a friend like him, to tell the truth. I can’t imagine what you two talk about. All he seems to be able to say are flirtatious little bits of nonsense. Frankly, I find him impertinent and somewhat of a boor. His reputation seems unlikely to me, for I’m a girl like any other girl and I don’t find him all that appealing. Forgive me for speaking ill of your friend, but he must be different with you than he is with me.”
“Well, of course, he was flirtatious; you looked like a Queen tonight. I think you’ll find that he settles down into someone you can admire as he gets to know you better.”
“Is he coming to stay with us on holiday or something?” Diana asked, not understanding her brother’s line of discussion.
“He is to be your husband, Diana.”
For a moment, an awful silence filled the room that was so thick it took her breath away. Diana could swear that her heart had even stopped beating. After saying those words, Charles looked up at her with a look on his face that was impenetrable. Perhaps something between guilt and resoluteness.
“I must have misheard you,” she whispered.
“Don’t be angry. I’ve agonized over this decision, and I know that it’s the best way to keep you safe and happy.” He reached for her hand, but Diana snatched it away.
“You’ve agonized over this decision? Without telling me? Without asking? I only met him tonight!” She felt frantic.
Her heart had started beating again, and as if to make up for lost time, it raced in her chest with a ferocity that made her feel lightheaded. Shocked tears welled in her eyes, but her voice came out tremulous and soft, perfectly at odds with the bewildering strength of rage that shot through her like a lightning bolt.
“How could you? How could you? Have you told him already?” She stood straighter, lacing her fingers together in a futile attempt to stop their treacherous trembling.
“Yes. It’s all settled.”
“Tell him I said no! Tell him it’s not happening. I’m too young to get married. I’m not ready.” She could see the calm resolve in her brother’s face that meant there was no way out of this, but she had to try.
“We both know that’s not true. That’s just the problem. You’re getting too big for me. You are no longer a little girl whom I can guide and protect. You need a husband to do that now. But Diana, you’re so reckless. I couldn’t leave you to make this decision on your own. You don’t think far enough ahead.”
“You need a man with experience who can show you so many things I know you’ll love. His reputation isn’t everything, and if you knew him like I do, you’d like him. He’s adventurous, like you. He travels. He knows interesting people. You’ll see, Diana. You’ll be happy.”
Charles had risen from his seat to move closer to Diana, and he made to take her in his arms, but she wriggled out from his grasp, backing away from him as if he were a tiger clutching its prey.
“Oh, Charlie, how could you do this to me? What have I done to make you hate me? I don’t want Lord Orton. I don’t want my decisions made for me, with me none the wiser that others are holding my fate in their hands.”
The tears that made her view of him so watery and indistinct now fell down her cheeks. Hot and heavy, they dripped from her chin. Charles raised a hand to wipe them away, but she backed even further away.
“Don’t be sad, Diana. This is for the best.”
“Sad? Sad? I’m not sad.” She wiped the tears from her cheeks angrily. Her voice shook, and she could raise it no higher than a timorous whisper. “I’m furious. I…I’ve never been so angry in all my life. I don’t know what to say. I’m…I’m…”
“It’s just the shock. I’m so sorry, but I didn’t know how else to tell you. I racked my brain thinking of some way to soften the blow, but I knew you were brave enough to know the truth and face it with dignity. I had hoped that he would make a good impression on you from the beginning, but you’ll see that first appearances aren’t everything. Hate me tonight, if you must, but in the morning sunlight you will see that I love you and that everything will be fine.”
Diana dropped her hands to her sides and raised her chin.
“May I leave now, Brother? Or is there more?”
Charles sighed, his shoulders sagging. “Yes, you may leave. Get some sleep, Diana.”
Diana summoned all of her strength just to walk out of that room with her head held high. At least until she was out of his sight, then she broke into a sprint. Finally, she had an outlet to work her body as hard as her pounding heart.
She ran to her room, her hair and the gauzy yards of her nightgown billowing behind her. Run as she might, she couldn’t seem to outrun her anger. It chased her like an animal to her bedroom, and though she slammed the door, she couldn’t lock it out.
She collapsed against the door, sinking to the floor. She wanted to scream and fight and wail and gnash her teeth like an animal, but she couldn’t seem to summon any noise. She sat there, sobbing silently and hating herself for being so ineffectual. So weak.
Can he really do this? Am I really so powerless?
All her life, her family had called her a wild thing. Her mother had teased that she was her changeling child, half-faery, half-wild. Though she was often scolded for tearing her dresses or gathering grass stains on her stockings, she always knew that her father loved her for her untamed nature. He had been proud of her, even as he tried to train her to be a lady. Sovereignty, freedom, wildness, these were her trademarks.
Empty words. She understood that now. With one sentence, her brother had killed the illusion that had been her identity. She had never truly been free. Not when, in the end, her fate rested in the hands of men.
In all her life, Diana had never really experienced bitterness. After the sudden death of their parents, she had watched her older brother and had been confused and somewhat bewildered by his expressions of grief. At times, he would become angry.
She remembered one time in particular when she had found him in the parlor surrounded by the shattered remains of the porcelain figures that sat on a shelf in that room. She had never understood that. Her own grief had been quieter, more internal. She had wept, feeling the sadness of her loss seeping like cold water into her bones.
Grieving over her lost freedom was different, though. And, though she was furious at Charles, she realized then that she began to understand his expressions of bitterness over the death of their parents. The feeling of being wronged, the feeling of having something important snatched away from you cruelly. She had never before experienced deep sadness that mingled with this strange, vibrating sense of energy.
Diana got to her feet, her cheeks still wet, and crossed the room to the window. She glanced out it at the grounds below, then turned and walked back to the door. She paced back and forth, not really aware of how much time was actually passing. She felt like an animal in a cage in a menagerie, pacing impotently in a pathetic attempt to exert some of this awful energy building inside her.
I have to do something. I can’t just sit here and allow things to happen to me. He’s wrong! They’re all wrong. I am my own master, and I will decide my own fate.
And yet, what could she do? She had no money of her own, really. And even if she wanted to strike out into the world alone, she knew that she couldn’t survive like that. She had grown up too spoiled, too sheltered. She had no experience with the outside world. She had no connections. She had a hundred acquaintances but no real intimate friend who would help her.
No, that’s not true…
Like a flash of sudden lightning that lightens a dark room all at once, Diana remembered her godmother. Lillian Row, Countess of Freighton, and childhood friend of Diana’s mother, was a woman like no other. Diana remembered hearing stories of how Countess Row had been nineteen when she had refused the proposal of a duke who sought her hand.
Shocking everyone, she chose instead a life of obstinate, almost gleeful spinsterhood, moving away from the ton and entrenching herself in a quiet life of solitude and personal freedom near the sea. She refused all offers of marriage until she was well into her forties, and well past the blush of her youthful beauty.
And then, she married not because it was expected of her, not because she desired respectability or protection, but because she was in love with a man who loved her and wanted nothing from her but her companionship. If there was anyone in this world who would understand Diana’s predicament and take her side against her brother and Lord Orton, surely it would be her godmother.
Diana rushed to the writing table and began to pen a letter, the scratching sound of her quill filling the silence of her darkening bedroom.
I am writing to you under the most terrible conditions, but the thought of you and your saving help has been my only light of hope in this dark night. My brother has promised me to a man not of my choosing, without my consent or foreknowledge. I cannot allow myself to hand over the reins of my entire life to any man, not even Charles. I do not wish to marry this man and I will not. With or without your help, I will run from this with all the strength of my soul and I can only pray fervently that you will have compassion for me in my hour of need and consent to harboring a fugitive like me until such time as I can work out my next step. I intend to leave Mersley at once. I cannot afford to wait for your reply, so I must throw myself on your mercy.
Yours in hope,
She scrawled her signature with an erratic flourish, her hand trembling slightly with excitement. Folding the letter, she sealed it and slid it into her nightgown against her skin and dashed down to the servant’s quarters to give it to the footman, telling him to deliver it at once.
Then, back in her room, there was more work to do. She thanked God for the nervous energy that she had been given. Now that it was no longer being spent in fruitless pacing, it would propel her forward despite the late hour.
As she had been writing the letter to her godmother, she had worked out the details of her flight. As much as the impulse gnawed at her, she couldn’t leave that night. The letter had to reach Lillian first, so the postman would have to have a head start. And anyway, the roads were too treacherous in the dark, and she feared that she might become hopelessly lost before the sun rose.
But in the daylight, it would be considerably harder to slip away unnoticed, considering the fact that she would have to bring along with her things like clothing and provisions and anything else she may need to take with her on the long trip to Blackpool where Lillian lived.
Diana retrieved her bags from the back of her wardrobe and began unceremoniously shoving her simplest dresses into it. Slipping silently into the hall after wrapping her cloak over her nightgown, she then snuck down into the kitchens. She held her breath, certain that at any moment she would bump into a servant who would want to know what she was up to. Or worse, Charles.
The larder was full of bread and cheese and preserved meats. Her stomach growled, and she shoved a roll into her mouth, holding it in her teeth as she pilfered enough provisions to get her to Blackpool. Perhaps she would be five pounds lighter when she got there, but she would get there.
Her adrenaline at the idea of getting caught urged her onward, and her heart raced as she slinked through the kitchen door into the garden and headed toward the woods. Not terribly far away there was a hunting cabin. It was largely abandoned, Charles used it occasionally and knew of the place, of course, but he didn’t know that it was a favorite hiding spot of hers.
She had spent hours of her childhood there, reading racy novels stolen or borrowed from the servants, or creating intricate make-believe stories of her own. No one knew that. Hiding her things there until she left during the day would work. It was a good plan. She told this to herself as she walked, over and over like a prayer. This is a good plan. It will work.
As well as she knew the wooded areas around the estate, she had never been in them when it was this dark. It was a moonless night, and though the stars shone with all the brilliance they could muster, the woods were inky black.
She had to pick her way along familiar paths inch by inch for fear of tripping, and her ears were finely tuned to any sound around her that might indicate that some nocturnal predator may be stalking her. The hairs on her arms and along the back of her neck stood on end, and her breathing became shallow and frightened, but she pressed onwards, trusting her memory more than her sight in order to find the cabin.
The cabin had never felt so far away as it did then. With each step, she thought that, surely, it must be just beyond the next thicket of trees. Gripping her bag as though it could save her, she did her best to swallow the mounting sense of panic that rose like bile in her throat. If she were going to make the trip to Blackpool alone, she would have to be braver than this.
Finally, the dark shape of the cabin loomed upon her. Temporary relief flooded her at the sight that she had been beginning to fear she would never find. She did not linger to look around the inside of the cabin; she merely dropped her bags just inside the door and left the way she came.
Her desire to return at once to the safety of her home was poisoned by the fact that tomorrow it would no longer be her home. This would be her last night in Mersley. Perhaps forever.
She pushed that thought away. Anger at her brother propelled her onward, but she knew that if she stopped long enough to allow herself to feel the sadness of losing a brother who she had once believe loved and respected her, the sorrow might cause her to lose her nerve and settle for a life she didn’t want. She couldn’t let that happen. She steeled herself as she hurried back to the estate house.
Grief could come later. Right now, was the time for action.
When the dawn broke, Diana was lying in her bed, on top of the covers, staring up at the ceiling. The night had been long, longer than any she had known before, and when the light in her room turned gray and slowly shifted to yellow as the sun peeked its head over the horizon, she took a deep breath.
She pulled the air to the bottom of her lungs, feeling the exhaustion of the sleepless night still at odds with the jittery need for action. Finally, she could get up and dressed and moved on to the next step in her plan.
She felt half-dazed as she dressed, coiling her hair into a simple but respectable style. She considered going down to breakfast with wild hair just to spite her brother but decided it would be better to be as calm as possible.
Let him believe that she had come around to his way of thinking. She wouldn’t pretend to be happy, that would raise suspicions, but she wouldn’t argue either. She just had to get through this morning, and then she would be free.
At the breakfast table, Charles appeared and sat down silently across from her. He took several bites of toast before addressing her.
“How did you sleep?” he asked, tentatively.
“Not well.” Diana slid her teeth along the fork as she took a bite of eggs. Charles winced slightly.
“Will you hate me forever, Diana?”
Diana looked up at him, questioning herself.
“No,” she said after a pause, “not forever.”
Charles allowed a small smile to play upon his lips, and Diana had to bite her tongue. It was true that she didn’t think she would hate him forever. With time, her anger at him would fade, knowing that his plans to control her fate had not been successful. But it rankled her pride to see him believing that he had won, even if it was her goal.
“Lord Orton will be coming for dinner this evening.”
“I expected as much. I plan on taking Epona out for a run this morning.”
“You’ll be back for dinner.” It wasn’t a question.
“Yes.” The outright lie felt sharp and metallic on her tongue. She had never really felt the need to lie to Charles before. At least not about anything of importance.
“Then, of course. Enjoy your ride.”
They passed the rest of the meal in silence. Diana’s emotions were a tempest that she did her best to hide under a placid expression. She swung wildly between fear of the unknown, excitement to leave at once, and sadness over the loss of her brother.
For it truly did feel like a loss. She no longer recognized the man who sat across from her. No longer did he look like an overgrown boy to her. No, he had stepped into his role as man of the house last night, for better or worse. He was someone else now.
When they had finished eating, and he got up to leave the table, she had to resist a terrible urge to say goodbye to him. Goodbye for how long, she had no way of knowing. Of course, she couldn’t say anything that would make him suspect that she was running away, but it felt so wrong somehow, to just leave.
She promised herself that, once she made it to an inn far enough that he wouldn’t be able to track her down and bring her back, she would write to him and explain everything.
She wasted no time in going directly to the stable. The new saddle she’d gotten for her birthday, with its gleaming leather and shiny silver buckles, was mounted on the door to Epona’s stall. Diana’s heart clenched at the sight of it. Her birthday was only yesterday, and yet so much had changed since then that it felt like a different life. Feeling herself wavering, she pressed onward hurriedly, readying Epona for the ride and mounting her with the help of a stool.
Epona, a dappled mare with typically high spirits but not too difficult to control, shook out her mane in excitement. Diana wondered if she could sense her own energy and perhaps knew, in some primal way, what was happening. Epona was rigorous, needing almost no prompting from Diana before she took off at a canter toward the woods.
The woods looked transformed in the daylight. The trails were familiar to her, an extension of her home, and they no longer held fear. Now, she only tried not to remember that she might not see these trees again for a very long time, if at all. Her heart ached at leaving her home, but the cool morning breeze brushed her face like a calming hand, and in a short time, she was at the cabin.
She took a moment to say goodbye to that dark little building that had been her refuge. She was off to a new refuge now. For a time, at least, Blackpool would be her home. It was there that she would learn to be independent, as her godmother was.
Charles was right about one thing. She had outgrown his protection. From this moment on, she vowed to be her own savior.
Charles sat at his father’s desk—no, his desk—and re-read the same sentence in the letter he held for the fourth time. He couldn’t concentrate. All he could think of was Diana, and how cold she had been at breakfast. At first, he thought he preferred the coldness to her tears, but as time wore on, he found that neither of them was bearable.
Perhaps I have acted too hastily. Perhaps I could talk to Lord Orton…
No…no, I am in the right. Diana needs to be married. She is too spirited, and growing too beautiful, to be safe until she is married and settled. All brands of rogues will be after her, and she will be attracted to them because of her reckless nature. That same wild nature that makes her so easy to love will also undoubtedly be her ruin. At least George Orton is a rogue whom I know and can trust to be honorable in dealing with Diana.
Throughout the day, he got up to go look for her, to try to talk to her and convince her of the righteousness of his decision, but he sat back down again every time. She wouldn’t hear it. Not yet. He had to be patient and wait for her to make peace with it on her own first before she would think of forgiving him. She was a prideful person, he already knew that about her.
Patience. Patience. Diana said she wouldn’t hate me forever. She just needs time.
When the day grew long, he did finally set down his work to go look for her and remind her of the dinner plans. When he didn’t find her in her room, he thought nothing of it. She wasn’t one to hide herself away in her bedroom, anyway. She had always had the run of the estate, and there were a hundred little alcoves and solitary corridors that she had transformed into her playground.
He moved at a casual pace as he looked for her and when he was informed that Lord Orton had arrived, while he was peeved that he hadn’t found her, it was nothing more than an irritation. He abandoned his search of the estate to greet George in the front parlor.
“Well?” George said by way of greeting. “What did she think?”
Charles shrugged apologetically.
“Ah, well. She’ll come around to the idea. To tell the truth, it is hard to imagine myself content with a woman so meek as to blithely accept an arrangement like this anyway. I’m not worried.”
He said it with a kind of off-hand chuckle that, to Charles, seemed to indicate George was more worried than he let on.
“I guess she’d heard some rumors about you,” Charles said, settling down into a chair and gesturing for George to do the same.
George did sit down, smiling thoughtfully to himself as he picked at the cuticle of his thumb.
“Oh. Well. You know how that is.”
Charles chuckled. “Not really. What exactly happened in those years after school? You always were popular with girls but…you’ve given people the wrong impression of you.”
“Oh, I’m well aware of that. Why do you think I jumped at the offer to take your sister? Besides her obvious and manifold charms, I mean. I can hardly get close to a woman these days before their prudish mothers come swooping down to prevent me. My only hope for a wife now is one who—”
“Who has no mother,” Charles finished.
“One whose guardian is someone who understands me better.”
“I’m really not certain that I do understand you, George, but I trust you. I trust that your dealings with women will cease once you have taken my sister. That you’ll be true.”
“True as gospel, Charles. One woman, that’s all I want. One woman who will stay by my side.”
Charles nodded. They had had this conversation before, but it helped to hear it again. Diana would see, soon, that this was good for her.
“Where is she now?” George asked.
“Probably dressing for dinner. She seemed somewhat more at peace this morning. I don’t anticipate her making this too awkward, but—”
“I know. I’ll be polite.”
They chatted a bit longer in the parlor, both of them casting sidelong glances at the doorway every so often, expecting Diana to appear at any moment. She did not. After a time, Charles got up and excused himself to look for her.
“I apologize for this, George. She can, at times, behave somewhat childishly. I may be partly to blame for that.”
“It’s no problem. Shall I come along to fetch her?”
“I don’t think that’s best. I’ll bring her down.” Charles said, and headed back up to her bedroom. It was still empty, and in fact, it looked like she hadn’t been in it all day. He walked briskly through the halls, retracing his steps from where he’d looked for her before. As he went, he asked the maids if any of them had seen her that day, and no one had.
Charles sighed, rubbing his eyes. She must be out on the grounds somewhere. Up a tree, most likely. He remembered how she used to try to hide from father when she’d been misbehaving. Had he become the dreaded disciplinarian now? He recalled her asking him what she’d done to make him hate her last night. Did she truly believe that he was punishing her with marriage?
With another deep sigh, Charles returned to the parlor.
“I’m terribly sorry about this.”
Charles laughed nervously, shaking his head. “She’s hiding. I don’t know where she is.”
“She’s done this before. A long time ago. I told you she could be childish at times.”
To Charles’ relief, George smiled. “Your sister is a fascinating creature. Stubborn and fiery. I really do like her; I hope you know that. Invite me to dinner again soon, when she’s come out of hiding.” With a jovial slap to Charles’ shoulder, George made his goodbyes and left through the front door.
As soon as he was gone, Charles ran back through the house and out one of the back doors. She had to be on the grounds somewhere. He tried to stifle his irritation at her stubbornness, reminding himself that he’s promised to be patient. But as he began to methodically check the trees and still saw no sign of her, his annoyance grew. After some time, however, the anger dissipated with a sudden thought.
She took Epona out today.
Then he was running to the stables, his heart clenching. When he rounded the corner to Epona’s stall and found it empty, her saddle gone, an icy trickle of panic went down his spine. He imagined Diana lying face down in a ditch somewhere after being thrown, perhaps hours ago.
Obviously, some accident had happened during her afternoon ride. There was no other explanation. She had been riding horses since she was a child and was a fine horsewoman, but she was also careless and had a habit of overestimating her skills when she was chasing a quick thrill of a high jump or a sudden gallop.
He kicked himself for being angry at her. He shouldn’t have assumed that she was being obstinate. Horror gripped him as he sprinted back to the house to get help. Rounding up all the male servants he came across, he instructed them to begin searching for her. She couldn’t be too far away, but even so, the thought of her lying silently somewhere, injured or worse, chilled him to the bone.
Once he had a makeshift search team assembled, he mounted onto his own stallion and set off down the road, his eyes scanning the ditch frantically in the darkening light. When he reached the stretch of road that turned into the woods, he began to call for her, in the hopes that she might be able to call back.
“Diana!” he yelled and was met only by a deafening silence.
Diana rode until her legs ached, with every hour that passed her nerves drawing tighter and tighter. Had anyone noticed her absence yet? As darkness began to fall, she knew that Lord Orton had to be at the house. Were both he and Charles looking for her?
She tried to remind herself that she was angry with her brother, and if he was afraid for her, then he deserved it. She wasn’t accustomed to the feeling of wanting to hurt someone, and the comfort of revenge was meager indeed, but she clung to it.
In the end, it wasn’t about making Charles regret what he’d done. If punishment had been her true motive for running away, she’d have turned back by now. This was about her future. Her freedom. Her life. She pressed onward.
She rode well into the night, fearful that Charles would intuit where she was going and overtake her. The night grew dark and cold, and she wrapped her cloak about her tighter, both to fight off the actual chill and the cold, creeping sense of fear.
She knew it was risky to travel alone as a young woman, especially at night. She promised herself to stop for the night in the next town. Unfortunately, the next town was still miles away, and it was well past midnight when she finally found herself stepping into the warmth of an unfamiliar inn.
Charles must be frantic.
She didn’t feel hungry, and she paid only for her room, foregoing the awkwardness of sitting in the common room alone to eat and went up to her room immediately. She didn’t even pull off her cloak before she sat down and penned a short letter to her brother.
I’m sorry for frightening you, as I’m sure I have. I am safe, and you needn’t search for me. I cannot marry Lord Orton. Forgive me.
Truthfully, she had never been less certain of her safety, but she didn’t want him to worry. Her room was small, cramped, and cold. She longed for her warm, familiar bed, and her eyes watered as she undressed and climbed beneath the covers of the rough bed there. The blankets smelled like smoke and the lingering staleness of strange bodies.
How many people had slept in this bed before her? She pushed the thought from her mind, her lips twisting with disgust. It was better than sleeping outside. She would prefer the dirtiest, most disgusting bed in England over the bed of Lord Orton, no matter how plush and clean it may be.
That thought comforted her much more than anything else, and she turned her mind to it steadfastly. No matter how treacherous this trip, no matter the personal discomfort, nothing could be worse than what would have happened to her if she’d stayed. Assured of her intentions, and even rather proud of her own daring, she surrendered promptly to exhaustion and fell asleep.
In the morning, she was eager to rejoin Epona. The mare was her one companion now, and she didn’t relish being separated from her. Diana inhaled a breakfast of warmed beef stew and gulped down a cup of tea so strong it felt thick on her tongue. Turning her letter over to the innkeeper to send off, she left the inn as promptly as possible, saying nothing to anyone.
The morning was crisp and bright, and the sun rising in the east warmed her right side as she headed north. She’d not made the trip to Blackpool in many years and never on horseback. She’d always been in a carriage, idly watching the scenery pass by and never giving a thought to the direction. But she knew her destination was north. If she just kept the sun on her right in the morning and on her left in the afternoon, eventually she would come across signs that would lead her to the seaside town.
The second day, she didn’t think of her brother. She focused on the road, the gentle crunching sounds of Epona’s hooves, and the gentle waft of the breeze. Clouds began to form in the west, and she kept a wary eye on them as they darkened, wondering if she would be forced to take shelter before nightfall. She didn’t want that. She’d only brought enough money for two nights in an inn. If her journey took longer than that, she would be forced to sleep along the road, and she hardly dared to think of that.
As the day drew on, the clouds gathered above her and, as the sun set, they broke. Buckets of rain and driving wind soaked her immediately. She cursed aloud, looking in front and behind her, knowing herself far from any town. Miles of open country surrounded her, and there was nothing she could do but press onward.
Time stretched on interminably. Epona’s face turned down against the rain and Diana pulled her hood low over her face as she shivered, wondering if after all her efforts her plans would end anticlimactically with her catching her death of pneumonia before ever reaching Blackpool. So much for independence.
When darkness fell and she was still far from any town and soaked so thoroughly that she had even stopped shivering, she realized that she could very well come to grave harm if she didn’t stray from the road and throw herself on the mercy of a farmer nearby. She jerked on Epona’s reins, directing the mare to cut across the field to their left, knowing the farmhouse must be nearby, perhaps just over the hill. There was just the small matter of the stone wall along the road.
Diana hardly thought of the wall. She had jumped over many higher obstacles than that. Perhaps she was overtired, perhaps she was hungry, or perhaps her desperation to find shelter made her mind foggy. She wouldn’t know what had driven her to try that jump, but as soon as Epona’s legs left the ground, she knew that it was a mistake. The mud around the wall was slippery, and Epona’s legs kicked out awkwardly as she leaped, her front legs catching the top of the wall as she pitched over.
In the space of a split second, Diana knew three things for certain: She would not make it over the wall; There was no one around to see her fall; And her head would certainly dash itself upon the stone.
With only those grim realizations flashing in her mind, she was thrown off of Epona’s back and all went dark.
Did you like this preview? Please, don't forget to leave me a comment below!
Want to see how this story ends?
Highlander’s Wicked Seduction is now live on Amazon!