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.“Where she prays to the Lady.Mr.Marcus is with her.”Looking in the direction the butler had indicated—on the way back to Carrick lands as the crows flew—Thomas narrowed his eyes.“Where exactly is this grove?”CHAPTER 3Lucilla had finished her devotions.The ancient trees of the grove—a dense mix of beech, spruce, fir, and birch—ringed the small clearing, enclosing her in a living shell of shifting green.Branches extended overhead, tips entwining to create an arched ceiling, cocooning all within from the wind—in effect, from the world.Opening her eyes, she softly exhaled.Part prayer, part meditation, part simply communing with the land around her—and with the deity that claimed it as Her own—the quiet moments, as always, left her feeling anchored, more assured.More connected with the flow of life and with her own destiny, her own thread among the myriad strands.Moving slowly, ceremonially, she rocked back from the rectangular stone of the rustic altar before which she’d been kneeling; originally rough-hewn, but now worn smooth by the centuries, the unadorned rock was more symbol and practical support than anything else.She rose, feeling the skirts of her riding habit shift about her legs, and paused.Fingertips lightly brushing the smooth stone, for just one moment more she resisted the tug of the world beyond the grove; she knew what frustration awaited her there, yet it wasn’t something she could avoid.Avoiding life wasn’t in her lexicon, much less in her stars.Surrendering to the inevitable, she relaxed the meditative leash she’d imposed on her mind and allowed it to return—not to her duties in the Vale, to the role she filled, the tasks she confidently and capably performed, but to its abiding obsession.To brooding over her preordained fate, and when said fate would come to claim her.She’d been waiting for the past ten years.Along with her cousin Prudence and their best friend, Antonia Rawlings, she’d been presented to the ton nine years ago.As she’d fully expected, not one gentleman, eligible or otherwise, had caught her eye.But then she’d already known that her future did not lie south of the border but here, on the Lady’s lands.The man she was fated to marry was here, too—occasionally.She’d assumed that, over time, he would find his way to her side.Over the past decade, they’d met several times, and every time the connection—real, intense, and undeniable—had flared, growing stronger, more compelling, with each repeated exposure.And he knew it; he was as susceptible to that irresistible force, as governed by it, as she.She’d schooled herself to patience, even though patience was not one of her primary virtues.And waited.Impatience was dangerous; it fed a reckless, willful part of her she had long ago learned to keep restrained.She’d continued to wait.Recently, she’d started wondering if waiting was her correct path—or whether, perhaps, she was supposed to act, to do something to initiate their inevitable union.While acting would certainly suit her temperament significantly more than passively waiting, every time she asked the question of the universe—of the Lady—the answer came back a resounding “no.”Wait.She was supposed to wait for him to come to her.If he didn’t hurry up, she would be in no good mood when he eventually got around to approaching her.They’d last met at the Hunt Ball two years ago.They had chatted and shared a waltz—and her heart had soared.That waltz.Those ineluctable moments and their implication had been impossible to mistake, to misconstrue.To ignore.After that night, she’d expected him to call any day.For the next month, she’d lived in a state of giddy anticipation.But he hadn’t come.More, he hadn’t set foot on the Lady’s lands since.A sound reached her—the shifting of a stone on the path leading into the grove.Her senses immediately focused.Even while her mind was telling her it was doubtless some animal or bird, her senses reached, found—and knew.Slowly, she turned.As if her thoughts had finally conjured him, he was standing ten feet away, where the crooked path leading to the grove opened into the clearing.Tradition held that only the Lady’s representatives and their consorts could enter Her grove—yet, as he was to be her consort…He looked…even more elementally hers than she recalled.An even more perfect construct of her desire.Dark hair, a brown so dark it appeared black in most lights, fell in fashionably cut waves about his well-shaped head.Arched dark brows framed eyes of a curious and compelling shade of golden amber, a complex, mesmerizing blend of pale hazel and gold.Sharp cheekbones rode above aesthetically austere cheeks, complementing a squared chin and finely drawn, mobile lips.She hadn’t forgotten his height—significantly greater than her own—or his physique, a riveting combination of muscles stretched over long, heavy bones; she had no difficulty imagining that his physical form had been created by the hand of some god in that god’s own image.He was a strikingly handsome man, but what most commanded the attention of any female was the ineffable aura of power that clung to him.That pervaded the very atmosphere around him.She was no less susceptible than any other woman—but she had power of her own.Noting that he was, somewhat curiously, dressed in clothes more appropriate for town, with a greatcoat thrown over all, she clasped her hands, drew in a breath, raised her chin high, and looked him in the eye.“Thomas Carrick.”She said nothing more.What more was there to say? She wasn’t about to fall into the same trap she had two years ago and assume his presence meant anything at all.Thomas held Lucilla’s emerald gaze.This was why he’d been avoiding her—that look, that unvoiced challenge.It was as if she, the female she was, had some direct link to all that was male in him—she only had to meet his eyes, and he felt as if she’d sunk talons into his psyche and tugged.She possessed—no, she embodied—a certain haughtiness, a highhandedness, an imperious feminine confidence that fascinated and drew him.It wasn’t anything so mundane as attraction.This struck much deeper, more forcefully, more enthrallingly.And that was on top of all the rest—all that made up her undeniable allure.Her head didn’t even reach his shoulder; she was petite, delicate, yet well rounded and womanly.Richly red, her fabulous hair was today caught in a knot at the back of her head, leaving soft, puffed waves framing her heart-shaped face.A redhead’s alabaster complexion was the perfect canvas for her startling eyes—brighter, more intense, than the green of the forests—and her lush rose-tinted lips, crafted by some angel’s hand.For a long moment, he simply looked at her—met that green gaze, felt the connection, visceral and so real—then he forced air into his lungs and tipped his head.“Miss Cynster.”At the formality, one of her brown brows arched.He seized the moment.“I arrived at Carrick Manor in response to a summons, and subsequently rode out to the Bradshaws’ farm—it’s on the northern edge of the estate.”Faint puzzlement blooming in her eyes, she nodded.“I know it, but not well.I’ve met the Bradshaws.”That made things easier.“They’re ill—very ill.Whatever struck them down happened, I think, the night before last.Others found them yesterday and sent for the clan’s healer.As far as I can make out, the healer arrived late last night, and the others left the Bradshaws in her care [ Pobierz całość w formacie PDF ]