Prologue, 1802, England
The click of a cocked shotgun, and fear shot down Rosamund’s spine.
Holding Tessa’s lead in a fierce grip, she froze. The person holding the gun stood by the copse, a youth, for he was smaller than Papa. At eight, Rose was tall for her age, but he looked a lot bigger.
Any minute he might point the barrel in her direction. He wore a huge, wide-brimmed leather hat, so she couldn’t see his face. Maybe he was a stable hand, with those thick boots and that rough barn jacket that came to his knees. He uncocked and broke the gun then hefted it onto his shoulder, walking toward her with confident strides.
Rosamund had come to Ravenscroft to give them Tessa. Papa once said with scorn they, “cosset their animals,” so this would be a good home for Tessa and her pups.
The youth was almost upon her when he spoke in a husky voice. “Whom might you be and what are you doing on our land?”
Rose knew she would have to speak to the Ravenscroft people, and she had dressed appropriately and practiced lowering her voice, so they would think she was a boy. “I am here to see your stable master.”
“What are you doing with that dog?”
“She is my dog. Tessa.”
“Where are you from?” he said.
Tessa’s belly moved in and out, and the young man tilted his head as if not understanding.
Hadn’t he ever seen animals having babies? Rose pointed in the vague direction of their estate.
“Fielding. I see,” he said. “How did you get here?”
Boys could be so dumb. “We walked.” Obviously.
He said nothing for a long time. What was wrong with him? She should just start down the hill towards the stables. He wouldn’t shoot her. Probably.
“I will give you a ride home in our gig,” he said.
No. Rose would not turn back now. “I need to see your stable master.”
The rain had eased, but a chill breeze started her shivering again from the earlier downpour’s soaking. Oh, how she wanted to be in her bed, nestled beside Tessa who would lick her face.
“I won’t go home until I see the stable master.” She crossed her arms like Papa did when he was angry.
The villain chuckled. “Come with me, then.”
Rhys could not believe that the scrawny girl with her pregnant dog had walked from the Fielding estate to theirs on a miserable rainy day like this one. Her thinking was not sound, not at all. The odds she would be injured were high. Or the dog could have gone into labor. Or crossing the log bridge, the girl might have fallen into the river below. Ridiculous child.
He’d been in the woods on one of his survey missions, for he must be canny and sharp when he joined the cavalry in a few years. Surveying the estate was one of his self-appointed tasks, which was where he’d found the girl and her pregnant dog, her disguise as a boy not fooling him in the least.
He would get the pair to the barn and drive them home in the trap.
When they neared the stables, Fergus stepped from beneath an archway, skepticism writ large on his face. Ravenscroft’s stable master was a canny one and shot Rhys a look that said the girl’s disguise also failed to fool him.
She ran up to Fergus and stretched out her fisted hand holding the rope. “Please take Tessa. Please.”
Fergus’ gray eyes bored down onto her. “And why would I do that, young sir?”
For some reason, Fergus was going along with her playacting at being a boy. Odd. Rhys shrugged. It didn’t matter.
Leading Tessa, the child inched closer to Fergus and petted her dog’s head. “She is a purebred English setter. She got herself in the family way.” A flush brushed the child’s cheeks, but she didn’t seem to care. “You must take her. You must.” The girl notched her chin as she stared at the six-foot-tall, grizzled stable master who brooked no nonsense. Many a time that steel gaze had sliced Rhys to ribbons. The girl did not flinch, determination taut in every fiber of her being.
“And what am I to do with the pups?” Fergus said. “We would have to feed and house the litter. That costs quite a few farthings.”
The chit smiled. “I can help with that. I get a monthly gift of pence from my papa, and I will give it all to you if you will take Tessa and raise her puppies. You could give some away if you wanted. Only to good homes, though.”
Rhys bit back the laugh about to explode. “You have a lot of demands, child.”
“My Lord,” Fergus interrupted. “I would suggest returning to the house before your father notices you are in possession of the shotgun and prowling the home wood on your own. You may be tall for your age, but you are only half-grown.”
Rhys puffed up. At twelve, he was nearly a man. Boys of fourteen went off to war and that was but two years away. But Fergus had cut him down like a hatchet to a sapling.
The girl twirled to stare at him. “You are only a boy, too. Look at you acting like a grown-up, like someone in charge.”
Rhys gave her teeth, but Fergus’s eyes warned him not to overstep. He had almost blurted he was a courtesy earl. Patrick, his sarcastic younger brother, wouldn’t hesitate with a set-down. But Rhys admired her pluck. Hard not to.
Which was when it struck him that she was Earl Fielding’s daughter. How strange he had not met her before this. The girl was something special, and nothing like he imagined an earl’s daughter to be.
She thrust the dog’s rope toward Rhys. “Take her. Please, take her. If you do not, she will die.”
The desperation in those big green eyes gave him pause. She was terrified, that was plain. Rumors filtered through his mind, ones about Earl Fielding. Nasty ones.
He held out his hand for the rope, and the girl’s eyes morphed into a mixture of joy and sorrow.
With tight lips she handed it to him, got down on her knees, and hugged the soggy setter, burying her face in the dog’s wet fur. She inhaled deeply, then whispered in the pup’s ear. He could imagine her words, for he knew well the loss of parting from a beloved animal.
The girl rose, her expressive face calm. She did not weep. But those eyes, those damned eyes drew him in with a look of tragedy he’d long remember.
“Thank you.” She turned and thanked Fergus, as well, then strode back toward the hill.
“Wait!” Rhys handed Fergus the dog’s rope and ran after her. “Hold up.” She patiently waited with her soggy clothes and sad eyes. “I will give you a ride home.”
She shook her head. “No thank you, my lord.”
Stubborn, too. “I will take you in the cart and pretend I’m delivering an order to the kitchens. No one at the house need ever know you were gone.”
She assessed him as if determining whether he was worthy or not. The girl must have seen something acceptable because she nodded. “All right. Thank you.”
Rhys readied the trap and began harnessing the pony.
“What a beautiful Welsh Mountain Pony,” the chit said.
He grinned as he slung on the saddle and put the breeching around the pony’s body, fastening the crupper about his tail. Few adults in this locale knew the breed. Impressive for a little squirt. “He is that.”
She scratched the pony’s head. “Did you know they were here before the Romans came?”
“I did.” That she knew came as another surprise. He finished harnessing the pony and climbed onto the seat. “Come on up. What is your name? And I already know you’re a girl, so don’t bother giving me something fake.”
She scrambled up to the seat. “Rosamund.”
“Lady Rosamund. Rose. But you’re not exactly a Rose, though you are prickly enough for one. No, with that shade of hair—”
She scrunched her little face and wagged a finger. “Do not say carrot. Don’t you dare.”
He grinned. “I was about to say Rosie.”
“Rosie? No one calls me that!”
Such a fierce child, determined and curious. “That is why I shall. Get on the floor in front of my legs.”
Rosamund climbed into the small space before him. “What is your name?”
“Your full name?” she said, lying down. “I need to know, my lord.”
He placed a basket of vegetables beside her head and flung a blanket atop the pile of girl and produce. He had already learned people saw what they expected or wished to see.
Rhys inwardly groaned. “Griffin George Rhys Alistair Lansdowne. My tutor calls me Talbot, as I am currently Earl Talbot.”
“Talbot? But you’re a Ravenscroft, aren’t you?”
“Of course I’m a Ravenscroft. Someday, I will be marquess. But my father, along with being a marquess, is also Earl Talbot, and that became my courtesy title at birth.”
“Oh. Well, as I see it, if you are giving me the nickname Rosie, then I can call you Rhys, which is my favorite of your names.”
It was his favorite, too, what his mother had called him. He laughed. “Understood. I expect we will become friends after this.”
Rosie grinned. “Friends.”
Rhys flicked the reins, and off they went.