Authors: Joan Johnston
HIGH PRAISE FOR JOAN JOHNSTON
Best Western Author of the Year Award and Best Western Series Award
AND HER PREVIOUS BESTSELLING NOVELS
“A STUNNING LOOK AT HUMAN FOIBLES AND FERVOR. This adventurous, passionate read is first-rate from first to last page. Ms. Johnston’s tale is brimming with poignant emotions and exciting action blended into a sensuous, tension-filled romance that is impossible to put down.”
Affaire de Coeur
“Joan Johnston gives us a double dose of romance with a mature love story and one of young love. Readers will find themselves truly captivated by both romances and the excitement of the chase and the passion.”
“AN ENGROSSING STORY.”
“WELL-WRITTEN … A TREMENDOUS TALE … THE CHARACTERS ARE ALL FIRST-RATE.”
—Affaire de Coeur
“Intrigue and passion, combined with a tender love story, make this one delicious, and the subplots promise us closer looks at her riveting characters in future books.”
“ONE OF THE FINEST WESTERN ROMANCE NOVELISTS.”
“4+ Hearts! Powerful and moving … Joan Johnston has cleverly merged the aura of the Americana-style romance with the grittier westerns she has written in the past, making
into a feast for all her fans. This irresistible love story once again ensures Ms. Johnston a place in readers’ hearts and on their ‘keeper’ shelves.”
“UNFORGETTABLE … A TOUCHING TAPESTRY.”
—Affaire de Coeur
“This most enjoyable western is packed with spunky women, tough men, rotten bad guys and ornery kids … just the ingredients for a fine read.”
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If you purchased this book without a cover you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this “stripped book.”
Copyright © 1996 by Joan Mertens Johnston, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of the Publisher, except where permitted by law.
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eBook ISBN: 978-0-8041-5291-4
Published simultaneously in Canada
The bride was late. The guests were starting to whisper. Lionel Morgan, Earl of Denbigh, stood waiting near the altar of St. George’s in London with his best friend and groomsman, Percival Porter, Viscount Burton, who also happened to be the bride’s elder brother.
“Where is she, Percy?” Denbigh asked. “What do you suppose is causing the delay?”
“You know the ladies, Lion. It takes them an eternity to dress themselves. Alice hasn’t been on time for anything in her entire life. She was even born two weeks late. You cannot expect a rare bird like Alice to change her feathers simply because she is getting married.” Percy smiled and gave Denbigh a friendly cuff on the shoulder. “Be patient. It cannot be long now.”
“I hope not,” Denbigh muttered. He resisted the urge to stick his finger between his cravat and his throat and yank. The starched, intricately tied neck cloth seemed to have tightened in the hour he had been waiting for Lady Alice to arrive.
A commotion in the vestry attracted Denbigh’s attention. Heads swiveled in the congregation to see what was amiss. It took Denbigh only a moment to recognize the Marquis of Peterborough, Percy and Alice’s father, and another moment to see that the marchioness was hanging on his sleeve, trying vainly to stop him.
“She’s bolted!” Peterborough said, his voice echoing off the church’s high ceiling as he marched down the aisle toward Denbigh. He shook a piece of crumpled parchment—apparently a note from Alice—in Denbigh’s face. “The foolish chit has run away. She says she will not marry you.”
The wedding guests gave a collective gasp and began to whisper in earnest, creating a buzzing sound not unlike a nest of hornets.
Denbigh felt his skin prickle. His heart pounded in his chest as adrenaline laced his blood. He was having difficulty grasping the enormity of the catastrophe that had befallen him. The woman he loved—the woman he had believed loved him—had run away rather than marry him.
He turned to Percy in disbelief. “Percy? How …? Why …? Did Alice say anything
to you, give any clue that she was unhappy with the match?”
Percy stared back at him. “I am as shocked as you are, Lion. There must be some good explanation for Alice’s behavior, but I cannot imagine what it is.” He turned with a confused look to his parents. “What does her note say, Father?”
“Please, may we go somewhere private?” Lady Peterborough begged. “There has already been scandal enough to keep tongues wagging for three lifetimes.”
Denbigh glanced up, square into the gawking face of Lady Hornby, a notorious gossip. That flustered lady quickly hid her face behind an ivory fan, but as Denbigh’s narrowed eyes scoured the pews, he found as many smirks as he did expressions of sympathy. He had never considered himself a proud man, but he was a private one. Today his pain and humiliation had been laid bare for the
He felt cold, as though his warm, pulsating heart had ceased pumping blood to his extremities. He hardly noticed Percy ushering all of them into a nearby room used by the clergy. He saw, as from a distance, Percy retrieve the crumpled note from his father and spread it out to read what it contained.
“She does not say where she is going, precisely,” Percy announced. “Only that she is going somewhere she cannot be found. And that she is sorry for any pain she has caused.”
“I have to find her,” Denbigh said. “I must speak with her.”
“I would not advise it, my friend,” Percy said gently. “Nothing good can come of such an interview.”
“I don’t care!” Denbigh said in an agonized voice. “I have to know why she ran away.” He fought the lump in his throat as he met Percy’s pitying gaze. “I love her, Percy. I’d have her even now.”
Percy hesitated another moment before he said, “Very well, Lion. We shall go after her.”
“I’ll go alone,” Denbigh said.
“I cannot let you do that,” Percy said, shaking his blond head. “The gel may be in disgrace, but she is my sister and still an unmarried lady. If you’re going to meet with her, she should have family nearby to protect her.”
“I mean her no harm,” Denbigh said.
“I believe you,” Percy said. “But I shall come with you, all the same.”
Percy made his farewell to his parents and promised to bring Alice home if—when—they found her.
“No,” the marchioness said. “Not back to London, Percy. Take her to the summer house near Brighton.”
“Very well, Mother,” Percy said. “I will take
her to the manor in Sussex. But I can tell you Alice won’t like being sent off to molder in the country.”
“I don’t much care what Alice wants at this point,” the marquis retorted. “Do as your mother says.”
Denbigh’s face felt stiff as he said his formal adieus to the marquis and his wife, who both avoided his stormy gray eyes.
“Is there some way out of here that does not require going back through the church?” Denbigh asked the clergyman who had hovered in the background.
“There is a back way out, my lord. Follow me, if you please.”
Once Lion and Percy began the search, it wasn’t difficult to trace Alice’s movements. She had borrowed one of her father’s town coaches that bore his coat of arms and taken her maid with her. The coach had headed south, toward Peterborough Manor in Sussex near Brighton. It was as though she expected to be followed. As though she wanted to be found.
Denbigh wanted to follow immediately, without taking time to change out of his wedding clothes, but Percy and reason prevailed.
“You will be a spectacle tooling along the road in velvet and satin. And I refuse to muddy this perfectly fitted Weston. I had the devil of a time convincing
him to make a coat for me in precisely this shade of yellow.”
“Very well,” Denbigh conceded. “I will meet you at the Boar and Hound in an hour.”
“An hour? Impossible!” Percy protested.
Denbigh reached the tavern that sat at the crossroads of the New Road leading south out of London—the shortest route to Brighton and the one in the best condition—long before the hour was up. Dressed in a bottle-green riding coat and buckskins, he paced restlessly in one of the private dining rooms, his Wellingtons drumming on the floorboards as he waited for Percy to appear. At five minutes after the appointed time, he left the tavern and stepped into his curricle.
“Tell Lord Burton I had to leave,” he told the hostler who had been walking his prize pair of chestnuts. “He can catch up to me on the road.”
Along the New Road, Denbigh made stops to inquire whether a carriage with the Peterborough coat of arms had passed that way before him. At each change of horses, he asked the hostler to point Lord Burton in his direction.
He had followed Alice’s trail south from London for four hours when he came to the Duck and Goose, a small inn at a crossroad running east and west. He stopped to ask if anyone had seen Lady
Alice, unwilling to take the chance that he might lose her at such a turning point.
“Why, the lady’s upstairs as we speak, milord,” the innkeeper said. “Broke a wheel on that fancy carriage of hers a few miles farther down the road. Came back here to wait. Smithy’s fixin’ it now.”