Dornham Village, 1797
March 1—William has been sent down from Oxford. I suppose it’s wrong of me to be happy, but I am. The dreary days of late winter are suddenly looking brighter.
—from Belle Frost’s diary
Loves Bridge, May 1816
“Belle? Belle Frost, is that you?”
Miss Annabelle Franklin’s heart stopped. She stared down at the book she’d been reading, but she no longer saw the words.
Good Lord, that’s William’s voice.
No, it wasn’t. It couldn’t be. She took a deep, calming breath. The third son of the Duke of Benton would have no reason to visit this small village library. Even the Duke of Hart, the lord of the manor, never came to Loves Bridge. It was just some fellow with a voice a bit like William’s.
But no one in Loves Bridge knows my real name.
She must have misheard. She forced her lips into a smile and looked up—
Oh, God. Oh, God. It
William. It can’t be, but it is.
She mustn’t let him know she had recognized him.
She looked down again quickly, took another deep breath, and then slowly marked her place in her book. By the time she looked back up, she had her emotions under control.
“May I help you, sir?”
He was older, of course. He’d been only a boy of eighteen when last she’d seen him. Now he was a man of thirty-eight. His shoulders were broader and his features more chiseled. And there were lines that hadn’t been there before, on his forehead and at the corners of his eyes and mouth. They did not look like laugh lines.
But he was still devastatingly handsome. He grinned at her, and her silly heart leaped like an eager puppy.
Oh, no. Not again. Never again.
“Belle Frost, it
Thank God she’d thought to change her name. “I’m sorry, sir, but you have mistaken me for someone else.” Too true. She was nothing like the girl he’d grown up with. “My name is Miss Franklin.”
What is William doing in Loves Bridge?
She glanced around. At least the library was empty. She needed to get rid of him before anyone saw him.
“May I help you find a book, sir?” She raised her brows in inquiry.
Remember, he can’t know for certain I’m Belle Frost. Just keep denying it.
He frowned. “Don’t you recognize me, Belle? I’m Lord William.”
“Sir—I mean, my lord—I have told you, you have confused me with someone else.” Apparently William was as strong-willed and sure of himself as ever. It had been his personality even more than his handsome face and broad shoulders that had led her astray all those years ago. Daring, smart, witty. He’d been the flame to her moth, and she’d been very, very burned.
But she’d survived, and she’d healed. She was wiser now. She was not going to let any man, especially Lord William Wattles, ruin her life again.
She stood, not that it helped a great deal. William was still a good six inches taller than she.
you interested in a book, my lord? I’m afraid that is all I have to offer you.” She forced herself to hold his gaze. “This is a lending library, you know.”
His brows snapped down into a deep furrow, but she thought his expression held puzzlement rather than annoyance. Perhaps now he was not quite so certain he knew her.
know her. She wasn’t Belle Frost, the vicar’s daughter, any longer. That naïve girl had died when her father had thrown her out of the house twenty years ago. Now she was Annabelle Franklin, the Spinster House spinster, as strong-willed and independent as William.
“No, thank you,” he said, his blue eyes still studying her. “You’re very like Belle Frost, you know. Have you ever met her? She’s from the village of Dornham.”
She was thirty-seven now. It was really quite surprising he could still recognize her.
“Dornham? Isn’t that rather far from Loves Bridge?” She knew exactly how far it was. She’d felt every rut as the shabby old stagecoach she’d ridden in had jolted over the road from there to here.
She never wanted to be that frightened, mewling, pitiful girl again.
“Yes, I suppose it is.” He shook his head. “Still, I swear you look exactly like her.”
to get rid of him.
“If I can’t help you find a book, Lord William, I shall get back to my work. If you will excuse me?”
She started to sit down. He reached out as if to touch her, and she flinched.
. Hopefully he hadn’t noticed. She wasn’t afraid of him. She was . . . well, she was afraid of herself. She was afraid his touch would open the floodgates and she’d feel everything again.
His frown deepened. He
noticed, but at least he had the grace not to mention it. He clasped his hands behind his back.
“One more moment of your time, Miss, er, Franklin, if you please. I wonder if you might be able to tell me how to reach Mr. Randolph Wilkinson’s office? A woman tried to give me directions at the inn, but I’m afraid I couldn’t follow her.”
Likely it had been Mrs. Tweedon, the innkeeper’s wife. She was a lovely person, but she did tend to get her lefts and rights mixed up. And Mr. Wilkinson’s office was not easy to find. She should take William there—
Oh, no, she shouldn’t. And why was William seeking out the Loves Bridge solicitor? She could only hope it was on some brief errand, perhaps for a friend, and he would hie himself back to Dornham or London or wherever it was he now called home as soon as possible.
“Certainly, my lord. Go up round the back of the church. There you’ll find a gate. Go through it and follow the path down through the woods. Turn right when you reach the lane. Mr. Wilkinson’s house will be the first building on the left once the hedgerows end. Have you got that?” William had always had a good sense of direction.
He nodded. “Yes, I believe I have. Thank you for your help, Miss Frost—I mean Miss Franklin.”
“You’re welcome, my lord. I hope your business with Mr. Wilkinson is accomplished satisfactorily.”
And you leave Loves Bridge immediately thereafter.
William gave her another probing look. She was afraid he was going to say more, but he just nodded. “Thank you. Good day, Miss Fro—Franklin.”
“Good day, my lord.”
And then, finally, he was out the door and out of her life again. Her legs gave way and she collapsed onto her chair.
It took several minutes for her hands to stop shaking.
Lord William Wattles stood on the walk outside the lending library. He’d swear that was Belle. Yes, it had been twenty years, but she hadn’t changed so very much. Her face might be thinner, but her eyes were the same, large and golden with green flecks and long lashes.
Yet they were different, too. They used to be full of intelligence and humor—and passion. Today they’d been strained. Shuttered. And he’d not liked the way she’d flinched when he’d reached for her. Not at all.
Had some man mistreated her? Was that why she was so far from home?
Bloody hell! He should go back inside and demand she tell him the scoundrel’s name. He’d find the miscreant and darken the fellow’s daylights.
Guilt whispered through him, but he shrugged it off. Belle couldn’t be afraid of
. They hadn’t seen each other for years, and, in any event, she’d wanted everything they’d done together. There’d been no doubt of that.
go back inside and demand she tell him everything.
But how was he to manage that? She’d been adamant she was not Belle but this Miss Franklin.
Franklin—not Mrs. At least she’d not made his mistake and got married.
“Oh, sir? May we help you?”
He blinked at the young women standing in front of him. He’d been so lost in thought he hadn’t seen them approach, and given they were strikingly beautiful
twins, that was astounding.
If he wasn’t more careful, he’d start the village rumor mill running at a fever pitch. Likely it was already firing up. A stranger always provoked comment in a small village.
“No, thank you, ladies.” He bowed, giving the girls—they couldn’t be long out of the schoolroom—his most polished smile. It had the hoped-for effect, setting them to blushing and giggling. “My apologies for blocking the walk.”
“Oh, sir, that is quite all right.”
“You weren’t blocking the walk.”
“Not at all.”
“We just wondered if you needed assistance.”
“Since you are obviously new here.”
They paused, clearly expecting him to introduce himself.
He wasn’t ready to do that. He, like Belle, wished to keep his identity to himself. “Thank you, ladies, for your offer, but I believe I know where I am headed now. If you will excuse me?”
He bowed again, stepped around the girls, and walked briskly toward the church.
Had they seen him come out of the lending library? If they had, would they ask Belle who he was—and would she tell them?
He hoped not. Even though Loves Bridge was a social backwater—which was precisely why he’d chosen to come here—it was an easy ride from Town. If he lived here as Lord William, word would get back to the London gabble grinders and everyone would know where he was.
He crossed a road and entered the churchyard, climbing the slope through the gravestones.
Belle living here under an assumed name?
He’d looked for her when he’d come home after Trinity term. He’d hoped they could take up where they’d left off. But she wasn’t in Dornham, and no one seemed to know where she’d gone. Not that he’d actually asked anyone directly. Showing an interest in Belle’s whereabouts would have gotten the Dornham gossips speculating. And then Father had finally faced the fact that his third son was neither a scholar nor a suitable candidate for the Church. He’d bought William his colors, and Belle had slipped from his thoughts.
He snorted as he passed behind the church. The army certainly hadn’t been what he’d expected. He’d marched and drilled all right, but the only action he’d seen had been of the bedroom variety. He’d looked very good in uniform.
And then he’d met Hortense, the Earl of Cunniff ’s daughter, and made the colossal mistake of thinking himself in love.
He jerked the gate open and went down the wooded path. There were tree roots everywhere. He stepped carefully so as not to go sprawling in the dirt.
He used to roam the woods with Belle when they were children. Belle’s father, the vicar, was an insufferable, self-righteous arse, and her mother, now gone to her reward, a quiet, colorless mouse. But Belle . . . Belle had been so full of life. She’d been willing to follow him on any adventure. It hadn’t been until he was sent down from Oxford that he’d seen her as anything but a childhood playmate. But then . . .
He reached the lane safely and turned right.
He hadn’t thought of that day in years. He’d gone out walking—well, he’d gone out to escape Father’s constant jawing about what a dreadful student he was—and been caught in a sudden downpour. He’d dashed to take refuge in the Grecian folly; as soon as he’d crossed the threshold, he’d seen Belle, snug in a nest of blankets, reading by candlelight in the dim interior.
Her head snapped up and she gasped, flushing. She looked very guilty.
“What are you reading?”
She tried to hide the slender book, but he caught her hand and pulled it out of her grasp.
“Good God! It’s a copy of Cleland’s
! Where did you get this?”
“In my father’s library.” She sounded defiant and breathless and . . . needy? “Hidden behind some Greek tomes.” She’d shed her fichu; he could see her pulse beating wildly at the base of her throat.
The room was suddenly very quiet and warm and intimate.
“How much have you read?”
“M-most of it.”
And then she touched the tip of her tongue to her upper lip, and he was lost. He leaned forward, slowly, slowly, and gently brushed her mouth with his.
She’d moaned—he still remembered the sound all these years later—and her fingers had forked through his hair, holding him still while she kissed him back.
God, he’d never before or since gotten his breeches open so quickly. They were both too desperate to do more than shove offending cloth aside. In seconds he had plunged deep into her hot, wet body—and discovered her virginity.
He’d stopped, appalled by what he’d almost done—
And she’d grabbed his arse and urged him to finish, to bring her to her pleasure.
He was all alone on a narrow country lane and his cock was as hard as an iron rod.
Belle. Oh, Lord, Belle.
She’d been so innocent and yet so wanton. He hadn’t been able to get enough of her. He’d had some of the best bed play of his life those few weeks they’d been together.
Perhaps she’d be willing to comfort him now. They were older, with more experience—
Belle have more experience? She’d looked so strait-laced, sitting behind that desk, her lovely chestnut hair pulled ruthlessly back into a tight bun and covered with a hideous cap, her dress a dull gray affair buttoned up to her chin.
He paused as he reached the walk to Wilkinson’s office. What
happened to her?