The Second Seduction of a Lady: Excerpt
If not for that one time, that evening of insanity following a week of madness, Eleanor Hardwick would hold an unblemished record for common sense. Luckily no one knew the full extent of her folly. No one except him.
The memory of the two weeks that followed still caused her stomach to drop. The waiting, the fear, until the onset of the dull throb that signaled her liberation from the possible consequences of her indiscretion. Many a foolish female must have felt the same way. But while most were relieved not to be with child because they faced nothing but unwed disgrace, Eleanor was happy because it saved her from the necessity of matrimony. She had fetched her women’s cloths, packed half a dozen unopened letters into a neat parcel, and sent the missives back to their sender with a brief, stinging request to contact her no more.
Eleanor believed in common sense with a fervor that bordered on the dogmatic. She did not believe in marriage, a conclusion arrived at through the dispassionate observation of her many friends and relations. Who could possibly admire an institution that allowed a malodorous toad like Sir George Ashdown to impregnate her cousin Sylvia six times in seven years? Or bound together a pair with as little in common as her own parents?
When, at the age of twenty-one, she gained control of an income of five hundred pounds a year from her late mother, she resolved to spend her life in an entirely rational fashion. And if reason led her to lavish a large proportion of that income on personal adornment, who was to argue with her? No husband would ever carp at her milliner’s bills.
For almost a decade she had divided her time between her father’s house and traveling for prolonged visits to those of her relations, their spouses, and offspring. Thus she gained all the enjoyment of domesticity without its undesirable permanent effects. Though not without her share of suitors, she had discouraged them all without regret.
The sole occasion she allowed her heart to override her reason had not been a success. In fact, she rarely allowed herself to remember it, except on those occasions when she awoke in a state of melancholy, clutching her midriff. She ascribed this foolishness to overindulgence in cheese.
Max Quinton took his angling seriously. That’s why he’d elected to occupy a spot a couple of hundred yards away from Robert, who tended to lose concentration. While Max found his ward’s aesthetical theories and literary jests entertaining enough, they scared away the fish. When he heard talking, splashing and shrieking upstream, he had a trout on the line, a stubborn one that required all his skill and enough agility to make him glad the warmth of the day had made him discard his riding coat. The curve of the stream and a thicket obstructed his view. Deciding Robert could handle any crisis—the river was neither fast nor deep enough to easily drown in–he continued to play his fish. Intent on what was happening under water, at first he barely registered a woman striding by on the opposite bank. It took a moment or two for his consciousness to note a resemblance to her. To Eleanor.
Every so often he’d catch a glimpse of a tall, trim figure in a crowd and his heart would leap. But it never was her. The world, it sometimes seemed, was full of well-dressed brunettes. He hadn’t set eyes on Eleanor Hardwick in almost five years. In a crowded street or an assembly, it wasn’t unreasonable to anticipate an encounter. Any such expectation in a Somerset meadow, many miles from either of their homes, was irrational. Still, as always, he had to be sure. Blue cloth flashed among the branches of a willow. His inattention allowed the line to slacken; his trout broke away from the hook. It had been a large one.
One that got away. Just like Eleanor.
The woman, who was not, of course, Eleanor, passed out of sight. Forgetting his state of undress, Max wedged his rod into a bush, headed downstream and rounded the thicket that concealed the simple bridge. The woman set foot on the narrow boards of the crossing. His lungs emptied.
Her grace was the first thing he’d noticed about her at the Petworth assembly, a human equivalent of the thoroughbred horses he bred. No, not human. She was a goddess come to earth. High breasts, a trim waist, and curved hips. And long shapely legs. Even though covered by a gown he’d known, the minute he set eyes on her, that her legs would be something special. And then there was her face. She would never be called pretty. There was too much strength in her features, the proud brow and nose, the cool, amused gaze that surveyed the world about her and found it full of fools that required her tolerance.
He hadn’t forgotten a single moment of his brief acquaintance with Eleanor Hardwick, and for five years, not a day had passed when he failed to regret its loss. While he acknowledged his own wrongdoing in his courtship and seduction, the end had been her decision. Anger had fought regret and sometimes prevailed. He’d wondered about his reaction when they met again. Now he knew.
“Eleanor!” She looked up. He stepped forward to meet her on the bridge. “Eleanor!” He should ask her how she was, why she was there. But he didn’t care why she was there. All he wanted to do was take her into his arms and tease her stern mouth into returning his kisses.
His outstretched arms were welcomed with a hearty shove and he landed on his back in cold water.
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