Gwen, Lady Muir, is staying with a friend in a seaside village. She has been walking alone along a stony beach but has found it difficult going because of her lame leg. She has decided to climb up to the headland above the beach, not realizing that she is trespassing on the land of the notorious Duke of Stanbrook.
Hugo, Lord Trentham, a guest at the duke's house, has been down on the beach to be alone with his thoughts. Before he left, his friends, who know he is reluctantly in search of a wife, teased him that perhaps he would find a suitable candidate on the beach and would be able to propose to her there and get the whole ordeal over with. He has been something of a hermit since the wars and is trying to come to grips with his father's death and the need to get involved in life again.
This is Gwen and Hugo's first meeting, told first from her point of view and then from his.
Ah, she hated beaches.
Gwen gave her head another mental shake and looked, first back the way she had come, and then up the beach to the steep path between the cliffs. Which should she take? She hesitated for a few moments and then decided upon the climb. It did not look quite steep enough to be dangerous, and once up it, she would surely be able to find an easy route back to the village.
The stones on the slope were no easier underfoot than those on the beach had been and in fact, they were more treacherous, for they shifted and slid beneath her feet as she climbed higher. By the time she was halfway up, she wished she had stayed on the beach, but it would be as difficult now to go back down as it was to continue upward. And she could see the grassy part of the slope not too far distant. She climbed doggedly onward.
And then disaster struck.
Her right foot pressed downward upon a sturdy looking stone, but it was loosely packed against those below it and her foot slid sharply downward until she landed rather painfully on her knee while her hands spread to steady herself against the slope. For the fraction of a moment she felt only relief that she had saved herself from tumbling to the beach below. And then she felt the sharp, stabbing pain in her ankle.
Gingerly she raised herself to her left foot and tried to set the right foot down beside it. But she was engulfed in pain as soon as she tried to put some weight upon it—and even when she did not for that matter. She exhaled on a loud "Ohh!" of distress and turned carefully about so that she could sit on the stones, facing downward toward the beach. The slope looked far steeper from up here. Oh, she had been very foolish to try the climb.
She raised her knees, planted her left foot as firmly as she could, and grasped her right ankle in both hands. She tried rotating the foot slowly, her forehead coming to rest on her raised knee as she did so. It was a momentary sprain, she told herself, and would be fine in a moment. There was no need to panic.
But even without setting the foot down again, she knew she was deceiving herself. It was a bad sprain. Perhaps worse. She could not possibly walk.
And so panic came despite her effort to remain calm. However was she going to get back to the village? And no one knew where she was. The beach below her and the headland above were both deserted.
She drew a few steadying breaths. There was no point whatsoever in going to pieces. She would manage. Of course she would. She had no choice, did she?
It was at that moment that a voice spoke—a male voice from close by. It was not even raised.
"In my considered opinion," the voice said, "that ankle is either badly sprained or actually broken. Either way it would be very unwise to try putting any weight on it."
Gwen's head jerked up, and she looked about to locate the source of the voice. To her right a man rose into sight partway up the steep cliff face beside the slope. He climbed down onto the pebbles and strode across them toward her as if there were no danger whatsoever of slipping.
He was a great giant of a man with broad shoulders and chest and powerful thighs. His five-caped greatcoat gave the impression of even greater bulk. He looked quite menacingly large, in fact. He wore no hat. His brown hair was cropped close to his head. His features were strong and harsh, his eyes dark and fierce, his mouth a straight, severe line, his jaw hard set. And his expression did nothing to soften his looks. He was frowning—or scowling, perhaps.
His gloveless hands were huge.
Terror engulfed Gwen and made her almost forget her pain for a moment.
He must be the Duke of Stanbrook. She must have strayed onto his land, even though Vera had warned her to give both him and his estate a wide berth. According to Vera, he was a cruel monster, who had pushed his wife to her death over a high cliff on his estate a number of years ago and then claimed that she had jumped. What kind of woman would jump to her death in such a horrifying way, Vera had asked rhetorically. Especially when she was a duchess and had everything in the world she could possibly need.
The kind of woman, Gwen had thought at the time, though she had not said so aloud, who had just lost her only child to a bullet in Portugal, for that was precisely what had happened a short while before the duchess's demise. But Vera, along with the neighborhood ladies with whom she consorted, chose to believe the more titillating murder theory despite the fact that none of them, when pressed, could offer up any evidence whatsoever to corroborate it.
But though Gwen had been skeptical about the story when she heard it, she was not so sure now. He looked like a man who could be both ruthless and cruel. Even murderous.
And she had trespassed on his land. His very deserted land.
She was also helpless to run away.
* * * * *
He stopped when he was halfway up the slope. He still was not ready to return to the house. He turned off the slope and climbed a short way up the cliff beside it until he reached a flat, rocky ledge he had discovered years ago. It was sheltered from most winds, and even though it cut off any view of the sandy stretch of beach farther west, it still allowed him to see the cliff face opposite and the pebbled beach and the sea below. It was a starkly barren prospect, but it was not without a certain beauty of its own. Two seagulls flew across his line of vision, crying out some piece of intelligence to each other.
He would relax here for a while before seeking out the company of his friends.
He scooped up some small pebbles from the ledge beside him and tossed one in a high arc to the beach below. He heard it land and saw it bounce once. But his fingers stilled around the second stone as a flutter of color caught the edge of his vision.
The cliff on the other side of the pebbled slope curved outward toward the sea. Full tide reached it sooner than it did the cliff on which he sat. There was a way around the base of the jutting cliff to the village a mile or so away, but it could be a treacherous route if one was not aware of the approaching tide.
Someone had walked that stretch of pebbled beach now—a woman wearing a red cloak. She had just appeared around the headland, though she was still some distance off. Her bonneted head was down. She appeared to be concentrating upon her footing. She stopped and looked out to sea. It was still some way out and was no imminent danger to her. If she had strolled from the village, however, she really ought to be turning back soon. The only other way back was up over the headland, but that would involve her in trespassing on Penderris land.
She turned her head to look at the steep pebbled slope to the top as though she had read his thoughts. She did not see him, fortunately. He was in the shade, and he sat very still. He did not want to be seen. He willed her to turn back the way she had come.
She did not turn back, however. Instead, she came in the direction of the slope and then began to trudge upward, her cloak and the brim of her bonnet flapping in the wind. She looked small. She looked young. It was impossible to tell how young, though, since he could not see her face. For the same reason there was no knowing if she was comely or ugly or simply plain. His friends would tease him for a week if they ever found out about this, Hugo thought. He had a mental image of himself jumping down from his perch, striding purposefully toward her across the stones, informing her that he was both titled and enormously wealthy, and asking her if she fancied marrying him.
It was not a particularly amusing thought even though he had to quell an urge to chuckle and give away his presence.
He stayed very still and hoped that even yet she would turn back. He resented having his solitude threatened by a stranger and a trespasser. He could not remember its happening before. Not many people from outside the estate came this way. The Duke of Stanbrook was feared by many in this part of the country. The inevitable rumor had blossomed after the death of the duchess that he had actually pushed her over the cliff from which she had jumped. Such stories did not die easily despite lack of any evidence. Even those who did not actually fear him seemed wary of him. And his contained, austere manner did not help allay suspicion.
Perhaps the woman in red was a stranger to these parts. Perhaps she did not realize she was climbing directly into the dragon's lair.
Hugo wondered why she was alone in such a desolate setting.
The loose pebbles gave under her feet as she climbed. It was never an easy ascent, as he knew from experience. And then, just when it seemed she would go safely past and not see him at all, her right foot dislodged a small avalanche of stones and slid down sharply after them. She landed awkwardly on her knee and both hands, her right leg stretched out behind her. For a moment he had a glimpse of slim bare leg between the top of her half boot and the hem of her cloak. He heard a gasp of pain.
He waited. He really did not want to have to reveal his presence. It soon became apparent, however, that she had done some serious damage to her foot or ankle and that she was not going to be able to pick herself up and go on her way. She was young, he could see. And she was small and slender. Beneath the brim of her bonnet, blond tendrils of hair were blowing in the wind. He still had not seen her face.
It would be churlish to remain silent.
"In my considered opinion," he said, "that ankle is either badly sprained or actually broken. Either way it would be very unwise to try putting any weight on it."
Her head jerked up as he climbed down onto the pebbles and made his way toward her. Her eyes widened in what looked like fear rather than relief that help was at hand. They were large, blue eyes in a face of exquisite beauty even though she was no girl. He guessed her age to be close to his own thirty-three.
He was irritated. He hated it when people were afraid of him. People often were. Even some men. But especially women.
It might have occurred to him that a scowling countenance was not best designed to inspire confidence, especially in a lonely, desolate setting like this. It did not, however.
He scowled down at her from his great height.
© Mary Balogh