Authors: Heather Graham
This book is dedicated to “Sister T”â
With lots of thanks, affection
very best wishes,
and good things, always.
he first time Marissa saw the stranger, she was not quite ten years old. But she knew from the moment she saw him that she'd never forget him.
It was cold that day. It was always cold in the small coalmining town, for the fires were meager, and they never seemed to warm the little one-room hovels where the miners lived. Or maybe it was cold because there was no glass in the windowsâthey were covered in the winter and spring with whatever newspaper or sacking could be found.
And spring had brought heavy rain that year. But not even the rain could wash away the continual pall of black that seemed to hang over the town. The coal dust from the mines seemed like a miasma that clouded just the land that belonged to the mine. To Marissa, the very color of the air was different, and where the black cleared away was freedom. A different world. And her whole meaning in life came to a longing to escape the cloud of black.
The rains merely turned coal dust to mud.
On that day she saw the stranger for the first time, she had donned a clean dress and a pinafore she had studiously scrubbed herself, determined that it would be white. And she had brushed and braided her hair. It was wild hair, a deep red blond in color. Uncle Theo said it was like a sunset, but when she had first come to the coal-mining town, the children had laughed and called her carrot top. She was as tough and determined as any of them, and they'd eventually come to respect her, but they resented her, too. She was an outsider, and she could read and write to boot. She'd put on airs, Uncle Theo had told her.
Well, she'd had the right. She was the daughter of a Church of England minister, and she'd spent her early years in a far different life. She'd seen enough of the great manors to know that she longed for the life of a lady. Longed for it with every breath of her being. Marissa clung to her pride and her dreams as if they were floats and she were adrift in a vast ocean.
On the day she met the stranger she had just been coming from Petey Quayle's house. His mum had been down with the ague, and Uncle Theo had sent her over with his special chicken soup. Mrs. Quayle had been grateful and very kind, but Petey had determined to plague her silly. She had barely walked out of the house before he had come running up behind her calling out her name. Turning, she knew that he meant to knock her into the mud, and so she had started to run.
It was all the stranger boy's fault. It was, it really was. He came striding around the corner of the pony shed, and Marissa barely had a moment to glance at him before she plowed straight into him. But that one glance burned itself on her memory. He was so perfect. A boy, but a very tall one. Years older than she was. Maybe even a man. He was certainly tall enough. Tall, but very slim. Perhaps eighteen or nineteen. And impeccably dressed in clean fawn trousers, a cranberry vest and a light brown jacket.
She was running too fast to stop, but just before she hit him she met his eyes. He might have been young, but they were a curiously disturbing blue. A blue that stared and probed, and looked into the heart. And his hair was black. Jet black.
“My word!” someone at his side snapped.
Marissa didn't see who it was at first. She had lost her balance and was falling straight into the mud that she had been trying so very hard to avoid.
“Here, let me help you up!” the boy said, reaching for her.
She glared up at him, knowing how filthy the mud had made her. “You knocked me over!”
“I most certainly did not, young lady! You ran straight into me.”
“Out of the way, you little coal rat! How dare you speak to a young gent so!” the other voice snapped. It was Mr. Lacey, the manager of the mines. Short and portly, he was also excessively cruel. She sensed that his cruel treatment of a people doomed to work the mines from birth stemmed from his hatred of the wealthy shareholders he was forced to report to.
Lacey and the young man were not alone. They were accompanied by an older man, white-haired and genteel, with the same blue eyes the boy had.
“Here, here, Lacey!” he protested. “There's no cause to bring the child grief!”
He seemed a nice man, but Marissa saw a pity in his eyes that cut her to the quick.
“I'm no coal rat!” she seethed, determined to rise on her own. As she did so, she made certain that the mud flew and that a few big globs hit Lacey. Lacey swore vehemently.
“Father,” the boy protested, “I think this man's language quite unnecessary before a child.”
“She's a trouble-causing coal rat, whatever her airs!” Lacey insisted. “And if you cause any more trouble with these fine people here, I'll take a switch to you myself tonight. And see that old uncle of yours thrown out!”
The white-haired man stiffened. “The girl can cause no more trouble. I'll not invest here. I'll not invest in human misery!” He walked away.
Lacey stared at Marissa furiously, then ran after the man. “Wait, sir,” he called.
But the boy stayed. There was pity in his eyes, and Marissa couldn't help it, she hated him for it.
He tossed her a coin. A small gold one.
It would have probably fed them for a year.
“Buy yourself a new pinafore,” he said.
He turned his back on her. Dismissing her.
After all, she was only a coal rat, needing a handout.
“Take this back!” she spat furiously, and she threw the coin at him. She fled home, very nearly in tears.
That night, when she went out to get water from the well, Mr. Lacey had caught hold of her. Before she could struggle free, he'd thrown her over his knee and given her several good stripes with a hickory switch.
With tears in her eyes, she bit him. Bit him hard. He screamed, and she was free.
Marissa never told her uncle.
Neither did Lacey.
And Marissa didn't even hate Lacey anymore than she already did. She understood Lacey. He was certainly no better than she was.
But she hated the boy.
She hated him for being impeccable. And she hated him for being handsome. And she hated him for his deep, rich voice with its American twang.
She hated him because he was free from the black miasma that hung over the town.
The second time she saw him was almost ten years later. She recognized him immediately, even though he had changed immensely. But it would be nearly another whole year before she would know his name.
And his place in her own destiny.
She had changed, too, of course. She was full grown. And she was no longer living in the coal village.
The thing she would remember most was his impatience. He was impatient even before he entered the house.
Leaving the squire's library with a tea tray, Marissa heard a thunder of horse's hooves on the driveway leading to the house. She had known that an important American acquaintance was coming to see the squire, but she had expected him to arrive in a carriage, or perhaps one of the new motorcars so popular among the fashionable and the rich. She certainly hadn't expected him to come tearing along upon the back of a big brown horse.
She paused to look through the ancient bay window of the manor house, and so she first saw him. He was very tall, and sat the horse well, and dismounted from the animal with an equal flare. His dark well-cut hair was wild from his ride. A waving lock of ebony curled over his forehead as he dropped the reins of the horse and nodded curtly to the squire's stable boy. He headed for the house with long, confidentâno, arrogant!âstrides, and his impatience was also visible in those strides. He was handsomely dressed, hatless, but wearing tight fawn riding breeches, a crimson vest and navy riding frock along with his high black boots. Marissa stared at him, remembering him, until he disappeared from her view as he leaped up the porch steps and rangâno, attacked!âthe doorbell.
Katey, the squire's slim, elderly housekeeper, arrived to open the door. Marissa was left standing in the shadows outside the sliding doors of the squire's library. Poor Katey was nearly swept from her feet as the stranger stormed in. She stepped back hurriedly, and still he did not pause.
“Sir Thomas is expecting me,” he said, his accent very much that of a Yank.
Marissa didn't wonder at that, for Sir Thomas had a multitude of friends and associates who were Americans, many of whom came to see him at the manor, but most of his friends were older men. This stranger was not old. Even his voice indicated that he was in his prime. It was deep, rich. The type that when spoken low still seemed to reverberate and take command.
And somehow enter into the body and soul. Marissa felt that voice, deep and masculine, as if it touched her like a fingertip, rippling along her spine.
It was the boy, she realized. The boy from the coal town. He, too, had grown up. He was very much a man, and had been for many years, it seemed.
As he strode past Katey, she must have moved in the wrong direction or made some other fateful mistake, for a second later, he was plowing into her. The tea tray went flying, and Marissa was thrown against the wall.
She cried out in distress, knowing the cost of the Chinese porcelain tea set.
Damn the man! He seemed ever to be her downfall!
She expected him to push past her, but he didn't. He paused, reaching not for the tea set, but into the shadows to touch her arm and pull her out into the light.
She stared into his eyes. As she remembered, they were very blue. Dark blue. Startling, striking, against the strong, tanned planes and angles of his face. A clean-shaven face, with a hard-set jaw, and a curious fire burning deep in the centers of those eyes. Eyes that roamed over her hastily, from head to toe, assessing her, she thought, as he would soon assess the tea service.
For damage only.
“Are you all right?” he demanded crisply. There was no recognition of her in his eyes. Who would remember a little coal rat from all those years ago?
And now she was merely the maid.
She nodded, jerking her arm free from his touch, suddenly nonplussed. Her heart was beating too rapidly, her breathing was coming too quickly, and although he was showing herâthe maidâa definite courtesy, she resented that very concern.
Or did she hate the fact that he was looking at her with such detachment? Or that she was wearing a starched white apron over a very plain gray day dress and that what she considered to be her crowning gloryâthat carrot red hair turned into a headful of wild, red-gold hair that tumbled to her waist in long, thick wavesâwas completely hidden by her matching starched white cap?
She resented the very beating of her heart, the way his hand had felt upon her arm, hot, strong. She didn't understand any of her feelings, but she resented him from the depths of her heart for them all. For the way that his eyes flickered over her with that curious fire. For the way that they, like his voice, seemed to touch her, and send a lap of fire racing down the length of her spine.
Pride, she thought mournfully. Everyone told her she had too much of it. Her father had said so, her uncle, Sir Thomas, even Mary, who could find fault with no one.
“I'm fine!” she snapped. She realized that his gaze was locked with hers. He seemed, at least, intrigued with her eyes. To her discomfort, she flushed. She had been told that she had fine eyes. Green eyes, cat's eyes, so said Sir Thomas. Eyes with a startling rich color, darkly lashed and just slightly tilted. Eyes that demanded a second glance, Mary had once informed her. Far too imperious and flashing for a maid, and far too â¦ well, sensual, Mary had also commented. Eyes that could arouse far too many emotions, too many passions, Sir Thomas had warned her.