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Excerpt for The Christmas Ball Affair by , available in its entirety at Smashwords









The Christmas

Ball Affair


by


REBECCA KING







THE CHRISTMAS BALL AFFAIR

By

Rebecca King

© Rebecca King 2018

SMASHWORDS EDITION






TABLE OF CONTENTS


CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

A BETRAYAL OF INNOCENCE – A NEW STAR ELITE ADVENTURE BEGINS

DOUBLE ENTENDRE – NEW DIVINE CLUB SERIES

MARLEY’S SECOND CHANCE

OTHER BOOKS BY REBECCA KING

CHAPTER ONE


Florentia dropped the scrubbing brush back into the bucket at her feet and arched her aching back. She eyed the room before her with careful deliberation. Everything had been scrubbed thoroughly. As far as she was concerned, it still looked unkempt but that was because of the unpainted walls and unevenly tiled floor. It had nothing to do with the kitchen’s cleanliness.

“But I am sure you will declare it is not clean enough and needs doing again, Albina,” she murmured aloud, well aware of her step-mother’s critical nature.

Florentia eyed the scullery door longingly. She wanted nothing more than to go inside, climb into the single cot she used as a bed, and sleep for a while. But she knew that wouldn’t be possible for a long time yet. At least not until Albina and her precious darlings had gone to bed or gone out - again.

As though Albina had just heard her thoughts she suddenly screeched Florentia’s name, her high-pitched, slightly nasal voice ringing hollowly throughout the house.

Florentia winced. Even that single word sounded so bad-tempered she knew Albina was in a snit about something. Florentia could hear the discontented rumblings of her step-sisters: Horatia, Frederica and Lucrecia. Their whines, together with the faint suggestion of her name, warned her they were stirring their mother’s discontent again, causing as much strife as possible, in order to make Florentia’s life even more difficult.

Florentia!” Albina repeated impatiently.

With a sigh, Florentia quickly yanked her soiled apron over her head and threw it onto the kitchen table then hurried to the door leading to the main body of the house.

“What is it?” she asked when she appeared in the sitting room moments later.

While her response to Albina’s summons had been swift by any normal person’s reasonable standards, Albina and her children were far from fair.

“Good God, look at you. You do look a fright. Tidy yourself at once,” Albina demanded.

Florentia tipped her chin up and glared at her step-mother. Of course, it had no effect on Albina, who was too busy raking her with a scornful look to notice.

“Did you want something, or did you just call me here to criticise?” Florentia asked impatiently.

“Don’t you use that tone of voice with me,” Albina snapped. “How dare you?”

“I dare because you called me in here, but I am not your whipping post, Albina. If you are in a bad temper about something, deal with it. Don’t take it out on me,” Florentia snapped. “Now, what do you want?”

Her defiant glare met Albina’s challengingly. For a moment, her step-mother didn’t speak. Florentia suspected she was thinking of terrible ways to make her life worse.

“Well?” she pressed, determined not to be forced to wait when Albina purposely didn’t answer.

“Are the dresses ready?” Lucrecia demanded from her seat before the nice, warm fire.

“Yes,” Florentia replied looking at it longingly.

Horatia, the youngest, looked theatrically around the room as if searching for the dresses.

“Well, where are they?” she demanded in a voice that was a youthful imitation of her mother’s.

“They are hanging in the scullery,” Florentia informed her matter-of-factly, unsure why they were asking. They didn’t usually question her about such things. They normally just demanded and expected whatever they wanted to appear as if by magic, heaping scorn upon Florentia if they didn’t get their demands met.

“The scullery?” Frederica, Albina’s eldest daughter, cried in horror.

Albina sat bolt upright in her chair and stared hard at Florentia. “You put our dresses in the scullery?” she asked coldly.

Florentia mentally winced because she knew she had just given them the perfect reason to criticise her - again. With a heavy sigh, she glared at each of them in turn, almost daring them to make something of it.

“There was no place else to put them,” Florentia replied with a nonchalant shrug.

She knew that whatever she did, she would never win. They were now going to make an issue of the dresses hanging in the scullery, which was good enough to be Florentia’s bed chamber, but not good enough to hang dresses in evidently. Florentia knew that if she had left the neatly pressed dresses in their bed chambers, her spiteful step-sisters would have tried them on, ruined them, then thrown them back at Florentia, heavily crumpled and in need of being re-pressed again, urgently, of course, so they could mock her, and criticise Florentia for the time it took to get the dresses ready again.

Florentia knew that it wasn’t the fact that the dresses were hanging in the scullery that annoyed the women. They were put out that Florentia had denied them the opportunity to cause her yet more work.

“You listen to me now,” Albina hissed. “If you have damaged those very expensive dresses by hanging them in the scullery, I shall take the money for their replacements out of your allowance. Do you hear me?”

“What allowance?” Florentia retorted. “You don’t give me any.”

Albina sat back in her chair and lifted one arrogant brow as she considered her step-daughter with contemptuous calculation.

“Then I shall have to curb your rations, won’t I?”

Florentia knew she would, even if there wasn’t any damage to the clothing.

“There is no damage to the dresses,” she replied with absolute certainty.

“Well, your word is hardly reassuring. Look at the state of you,” Albina retorted softly. “You do look a fright. Ah well, never mind. As long as you stay below stairs, you will have to do, I suppose.”

She heaved a put-upon sigh, as though everyone had a burden to bear in life, and Florentia was hers. She looked about the room, and immediately, her gaze softened when it landed on her children. It was a veritable slap in the face to Florentia, who had worked so hard for them all only to receive nothing in return, not even a kind word or a tender smile of thanks.

“Get them,” Albina demanded coldly.

It took Florentia a moment to realise her step-mother was giving her an order. It was on the tip of her tongue to ask Albina why she was so mean all the time, but she didn’t want to hear any more insults so kept quiet. Albina was cruel, just like her daughters. Florentia doubted they would ever change because they had been spiteful from the first second they had entered the house, took one look at the place and curled their pouting lips.

“Now!” Albina thundered when Florentia continued to stare at her.

Florentia slammed out of the room. She was aware of Albina throwing a muffled order about slamming doors but didn’t stop to listen or call out an apology. She was too busy battling tears as she raced through the house and back to the kitchen where she belonged.

Once there, she didn’t immediately fetch the dresses as instructed. Instead, she leaned against the kitchen table and took a moment to gather herself. A heavy weight had settled upon her chest that was so hard it made even breathing difficult. She swiped at her wet cheeks and sucked in a huge breath as she gathered what she could of her self-control. Eventually, while willing herself not to cry, she straightened her skirt and poked self-consciously at her hair before she disappeared into the scullery.

“I hate them,” she whispered once inside.

Florentia lifted the dresses down from the hanging hook and draped them over her arm. Unfortunately, she was so lost in her musings she was oblivious to the fact she was no longer alone.

“I beg your pardon?” Frederica demanded from the open doorway. “Did I hear you just say that you hated us?”

“No,” Florentia lied, her voice sharp.

“Yes, you did. You just said you hate us,” Frederica snapped. “Mother!”

She turned a malicious smirk on Florentia as they waited for Albina to appear. Florentia took the opportunity to rake Frederica with the same look she had given her in the sitting room only a few moments ago. Frederica’s angular face immediately flushed with temper. She opened her mouth, undoubtedly to say something nasty, but without the support of her mother, snapped it closed again without saying a word.

“This place is a dump,” Frederica eventually announced with a sneering look at the room behind Florentia. “I demand you clean it at once.”

“You are in no position to demand I do anything Frederica, so no, I shall not. Besides, I have just cleaned it,” Florentia retorted unconcernedly. “You cannot blame me if this house is not properly maintained. I don’t look after the finances. Your mother does.”

“No, you don’t look after the finances, and there is a very good reason for that seeing how poorly educated you are,” Albina declared as she surveyed the kitchen. “God, this kitchen is disgusting. I demand you see to it before you go to bed.”

Florentia didn’t speak. She couldn’t trust herself to even open her mouth right now. She was cold, hungry, tired and so angry with everyone that she knew she wouldn’t stop shouting at them if she ever started.

Heaven only knows what would happen to me then, Florentia thought with a heavy sigh.

Regrettably, her thoughts were interrupted by Frederica, whose dramatic display of hurt was theatrical enough to make Florentia roll her eyes and sigh in disgust.

She has just said she hated us,” Frederica informed her mother tearfully. Strangely, although she dabbed at her eyes, there was not a tear to be seen on her alabaster cheeks.

Albina’s glare turned icy. “Well, she had better remember who puts food on the table for her to eat.”

“But you don’t, Albina,” Florentia replied pointedly. “In fact, I am quite hungry. Seeing as I have worked all day, I should at least deserve a meal. If I drop dead, who shall clean for you then?”

For a moment, her step-mother’s glare was so full of evil that Florentia wondered if she would strike her. Thankfully, she didn’t. Instead, she peered down her haughty nose at Florentia.

“Well, hungry or not I shall not have you insult us so no rations for you today.”

They are not worth having anyway, Florentia thought spitefully.

“But how am I to work if I don’t eat?” Florentia snapped.

“Well, you should have thought about that before you declared you hated us. Just because you have to pull your weight around here does not mean you are ever to forget who keeps a roof over your head you ungrateful wretch. You shall just have to go hungry,” Albina snapped. “Hate us or not, we are the only family you have so be grateful, and don’t ever insult us again.”

“You are nothing but an ungrateful gutter-snipe, Florentia,” Horatia added. “Mother said so.”

Her emphatic nods were met with agreeable murmurs from her siblings which increased the scorn in the young woman’s eye. Thankfully, the chiming of the grandfather clock in the hallway prevented them from adding any further insult. Instead, they all began to flutter about excitedly, and complain about the lateness of the hour, protesting to their mother they would never be ready in time if they didn’t get a move on.

“If you wish to be at the ball on time, you must start to get ready now,” Florentia murmured, glad of the opportunity to be rid of them for a while. “Your carriage will be arriving at eight, don’t forget.”

Her declaration was met with excited squeals from her step-siblings that were so loud even Albina winced and told them all to calm down.

“Well, see to it that you have baths ready, Florentia. You will help us to get ready,” Albina declared coldly. “Now, show me the dresses. I want to make sure you haven’t ruined them.”

Florentia knew Albina would be apt to throw the dresses on the floor and demand Florentia press them again before the ball. Rather than give her step-mother the opportunity to do so, she held each dress aloft.

“I shall take them up to your room when you are bathed,” Florentia assured her.

“Do that,” Horatia demanded.

“God, this room is disgusting as well,” Albina murmured with a sniff. She threw a dour look at Florentia as dismissive as the swiftness of the back she turned on Florentia.

“Still, it will do I suppose,” she muttered as she left the scullery.

“Hurry up and help us,” Horatia snapped as she sailed out of the room after her mother. “Bring those dresses. Get the baths ready.”

Florentia stared at her rapidly retreating back, and absorbed the silence of the scullery they left behind. She felt the burden of her duties settle a heavy weight upon her shoulders. It was an unwelcome feeling that left her struggling to contain the urge to turn around and run. It was so strong that she looked longingly at the garden door for a moment. Unfortunately, Florentia had no place she could go if she left. All she could do was dream of the day she could find the strength to take her chances and leave anyway.

“You were right, father,” she whispered into the silence of the room. “They are leeches.”

Her thoughts turned sadly to one of the last meaningful conversations she had had with her father. It had taken place about a week before he had disappeared on a deserted country lane while on his way to make peace with his brother, Ludlow.

That had been nearly a year ago now. Since then, everything had changed, and not for the better.


I tell you now, Florentia, and I don’t mind admitting it to you because I know you won’t tell another living soul, but I have made a terrible mistake letting that woman into my life,” her father, Ernest, informed her sadly.

There was such bitter regret on his face that Florentia leaned forward in her seat and rested her hand sympathetically on her father’s. He patted the back of it before he stood and began to pace backward and forward in front of the fire, his tread as heavy as his sigh.

Is there nothing you can do to change things?” Florentia asked hopefully.

Ernest shook his head.

Those women are bleeding me dry,” he muttered. “I have tried to appease them, but the more I give the more they demand and the worse they get. I never realised they were like this. I don’t know what to do.”

Can’t you write to Uncle Ludlow?” Florentia whispered.

Ernest shook his head. “Ludlow was angry that I married her in the first place. He offered to find a way to get her out of our lives, do you know that? He said she was a money seeker. I just never believed him, so we had cross words. I was stupidly annoyed that he couldn’t be happy for me.”

Does he know her?” Florentia asked with a shudder.

She hated even discussing Albina. Since the woman had moved into the house, and brought her three incredibly spoilt daughters with her, everyone had been left unsettled. So much so, their housekeeper, Mrs Trent, had quit, and nobody else who had applied for her position had stayed in post longer than a day, such was the virulent nature of Albina’s demands.

Ludlow is a good judge of character,” Ernest sighed. “I should have listened to him. Sadly, he won’t be inclined to help us now.”

I know you had cross words,” Florentia gasped. “Might it help if I wrote to him?”

Her father was already shaking his head. “He hates Albina. You know how rude she was the last time he was here. He is not likely to want to come back, not even to get rid of her. I am afraid some harsh things were said.”

I was there,” Florentia replied sadly.

Ernest sighed. “I don’t know where it all went wrong.”

Albina was where it went wrong,” Florentia replied.

I have to do something,” Ernest declared with such frustration that his breath came out in a long hiss of dissatisfaction.

I know divorce will cause a scandal, but it has to be the best option there is. We can weather the storm,” she assured him with more confidence than she truly felt. “At least Uncle Ludlow will be happy. He is far more use to you than Albina.”

Her father looked her square in the eye. “You don’t like her either.” It wasn’t a question.

Florentia shook her head but abstained from scorning her step-mother to her father. She didn’t need to because she knew her father was no longer blind to her new step-mother’s machinations and avarice.

I am going to speak to a solicitor and shall write to Ludlow to ask for his help. Until then, just stay away from Albina as much as you can. You know she doesn’t like our close relationship,” her father informed her dourly.

She doesn’t like me,” Florentia replied.

I am sorry,” Ernest sighed. He slumped wearily into the seat behind his desk and rubbed absently at his chest.

Are you quite well?” Florentia asked softly, watching him wince.

Yes, yes, I am fine, my dear,” Ernest replied gently.

Ah, there you are. What are you two concocting?” Albina demanded suspiciously from the doorway.

Ernest scowled. “We are not concocting anything,” he snapped.

I see you are out of sorts again,” Albina replied with a sniff.

She turned to Florentia, her gaze cold and hard. “Do you not have something else to do? I wish to speak with my husband alone.”

We were in the middle of a private conversation,” Ernest snapped. “Leave us.”

Albina’s face turned florid. “I beg your pardon?” she demanded, her voice querulous.

I demand you leave us, Albina. I am the master of this house, no matter what you think. Get out of this room now woman.”

Florentia, alarmed at just how angry her father was, half-rose out of her chair. It was only the hard glare her father threw at her that made her slump back into it and remain perfectly still and silent.

Albina, who had yet to learn that her father had a stubborn streak a mile wide, turned to challenge him.

I hold the purse strings in this house, Albina, and don’t you forget it,” Ernest snapped before she could speak. “As for that new dress, forget it. You, and those grasping daughters of yours, have had quite enough from me for one month. I shall not buy you another blessed thing, any of you. Now, get out of this study at once.”

Albina opened her mouth, but the sight of Ernest’s clenched fist on the table was enough to stem her words.

I see you are in a bad mood right now.” She turned an accusing glare on Florentia. “I should be disappointed to learn you had anything to do with this.”

Why should she?” Ernest demanded. “Do you not consider that you might be the cause of my bad temper? You and that awful brood you call daughters? Get out of my sight, woman, or get out of this house. One way or the other, I don’t care where you go. Just get out at once.”

Albina stared at him for a moment, but eventually slammed out of the room without a backward look.

Insufferable woman,” Ernest growled as he glared at the door.

Maybe you shouldn’t have married her then,” Florentia suggested quietly.

I shall have to correct it, won’t I?”

I think you have to,” Florentia sighed. “I am glad you see her for what she is.”

I shall write to Ludlow now and arrange to go and see him next week,” Ernest sighed.

Good enough.”


For Florentia, it had been.

If I had known then what I knew now I would have insisted on going with him, Florentia thought sadly.

As it was, she had found Lucrecia rifling through her drawers the following day and hadn’t wanted to leave either Albina, or her daughters, in the house alone after that. When her father had asked her to accompany him, she had reluctantly refused, and sadly waved him off instead. That had been the last time she had seen him before he had disappeared. Now, nearly a year later, she still had no idea if he was alive or dead.

Florentia!”

Florentia didn’t bother to answer. Instead, with renewed defiance, she squared her shoulders as she studied the kitchen before her. With a contemptuous glare at the door, she hurried into the scullery, fetched her shawl, and once the scullery door had been locked behind her, quickly left the kitchen.

“Sort out your own baths,” she whispered as she quietly let herself out of the house. “Seeing as you are about a hundred and four, you should have no problem dressing yourself. There are enough of you to figure out how buttons work.”

It was the realisation that she was starting to sound like Albina that kept her quiet after that. With a sense of release, Florentia threw her cloak on over her shawl, tugged up the hood to protect her from the worst of the evening’s rain, and quickly made her way toward the woods at the end of the garden.

Albina would create a dreadful scene when she realised Florentia had left, but as far as Florentia was concerned, Albina could threaten whatever she wanted. Her life couldn’t get any worse than it already was. Albina had stripped it of so much already, there was nothing else the woman could take away.

“Go to Hell, Albina, and take your dreadful daughters with you,” she muttered. With that, she spun on her heel and promptly disappeared into the trees.


CHAPTER TWO


Florentia rested her chin on her knees and studied the rippling water of the small stream beside her. It glistened in the moonlight, cascading down the gentle slope in a shower of twinkling stars that was magical to watch, especially when bathed in the golden glow of moonlight. Watching it in the silence of the empty meadow rewarded her with a feeling of being far removed from the harsh realities of her daily life. She wished she could stay there forever, or at least keep the peace she found from being in such a wonderful place with her for all time.

“If I could bottle it, I would make myself a small fortune indeed,” she murmured only to regret breaking the silence.

While the peace was soothing, unfortunately, it gave her far too much time to think, and that was something she didn’t want to do. But she did, and inevitably, her thoughts turned to her father, as they always did when she had a moment to herself.

“I just wish you were here, father. I wish I knew where you were.” When tears loomed, she swiftly forced herself not to try to contemplate what might have happened to her father on the night he had vanished ten months ago.

While his horse had been found wandering aimlessly around a moor, her father’s belongings still tucked away safely in its saddle-bag, there had been no sign of her father. He had vanished; disappeared into thin air. The search parties sent out by the magistrate had scoured every inch of the moors but had found nothing. Eventually, the magistrate had been forced to declare her father officially missing, presumed dead. Unfortunately, because no body had been found, he hadn’t been able to declare Ernest Scrivens officially dead. Florentia had therefore been forced to sit and wait for her father to reappear, armed with the dreadful knowledge that the more time that passed the less likelihood there was that he would ever come back.


Nathan cursed as he tried to pick out the safest path through the woods close to his home. He couldn’t see anything other than a solid wall of leafy resistance.

“I am cold, tired, and seriously don’t need to be doing this,” he ground out through clenched teeth as his horse stumbled for the umpteenth time, threatening to unseat him at any moment. “I am going to be dead by dawn if I don’t get warm, dry, and fed soon.”

With that, he promptly sneezed.

“Damn it, Barnabas, will you slow down?” he snapped when he was slapped in the face by yet another heavy branch.

Rather than do as he was told, Barnabas lengthened his stride and began to walk faster. Seconds later, he broke out into a fast trot that left Nathan cursing, and struggling to hold on amidst a barrage of leafy resistance.


Florentia stopped singing when she felt the ground begin to vibrate. She glanced nervously at the trees around her. At first, she struggled to identify where the noise was coming from, or what made it. When the soft jangle of a harness broke the silence, she gasped in alarm, but it was far too late to do anything more than watch in stunned disbelief as a rider, sitting high atop a huge black horse, suddenly burst out of the trees no more than twenty feet away and thundered toward her. The horse vaulted high into the air as it took a running leap across the stream, but woefully misjudged the distance. It stumbled on the slippery rocks and fell forwards, pitching the man on its back high into the air. While the horse stumbled awkwardly to its feet, the rider wasn’t so lucky. The man slammed into a ground with a bone-crunching thud and lay motionless on the grass.

Florentia jumped to her feet and ran toward him.

“Sir? Hello? Are you all right?” Unsurprisingly, she received no answer.

Florentia fell to her knees beside him and tentatively shook his shoulder. It was difficult to see much in the moonlight, but she suspected he had sustained a blow to the head when he had hit the ground.

“I need to get some help,” she murmured, but made no attempt to leave him.

“Sir?” Florentia kept her gaze on him the whole time she prodded the back of his head, especially when she touched a small bump hidden in the thick mass of silken hair, but he didn’t even twitch. It was concerning that he didn’t even protest about the discomfort she was causing him. Unsure what to do now, Florentia looked about the meadow for inspiration.

Nathan groaned when consciousness returned. While sleep evaporated, a thick fog of confusion lingered. His head pounded with each breath he took, and grew worse the more he tried to remember what had happened. A low groan came from somewhere.

Was that me? He contemplated it through the pain but couldn’t be sure.

“Sir?”

The faint, melodic tinkling sound came from somewhere above him. From somewhere, he had no idea where, he found the strength to open his eyes to peek at what, or rather who, had made that wonderful sound.

“Am I dead?” He asked of the angelic looking young woman hovering over him.

Nathan stared in growing wonder at the most divine female he had ever seen in his life. She was looking down upon him with such concerned kindness that she stole his breath. The only thought to register in his sluggish mind was that he had never seen anybody that beautiful before.

In that moment, something within him shifted and settled deep within his chest. Slowly so as not to break the mesmerising hold she had over him, Nathan lifted a hand. It was shocking to be able to not only touch her and feel the silky smoothness of her skin, but also realise how cold she was.

“You feel like marble,” he muttered without thinking, then mentally winced when she looked perplexed at his bold statement.

“I do?” she murmured, unsure what she could say in reply. “I think you hit your head on a rock or something. Are you hurt anywhere else, do you think?”

Nathan gingerly lifted his head, and immediately felt a sharp stabbing pain in the back of it. It mattered not, though, while in the presence of such indescribable beauty as the stunning young woman before him. His pain lessened because of her, mainly because she was all he could think about.

“Who are you?” he whispered. Again, he reached out to touch her. To his dismay, she gasped and instinctively flinched away from his touch.

“I won’t hurt you,” he assured her.

“I need to go now,” Florentia declared, chastising herself for having stayed so long.

Now that he was awake, she could make sure he could get back onto his horse, send him on his merry way, and then go home and forget all about him. Couldn’t she? She wasn’t at all sure she could. She suspected a man like Nathan would not be at all easy to forget. He could only be described as powerful, with a mesmerising presence that captivated and held young women like her enthralled. She certainly was given that she didn’t seem able to stop staring at his handsome good looks.

Get a hold of yourself, Florentia, before he realises you are being uncouth.

“Where are you going?” he murmured when she moved away. He pushed up onto his elbows to see her properly.

“I have to go and fetch some help,” she informed him.

“I will be all right in a moment or two,” he assured her. “Just stay with me for a while.”

Florentia eyed him warily.

Nathan wasn’t ignorant of the furtive glance she threw around the meadow, and wondered if she was afraid to be alone with him.

“I am a reputable gentleman,” he informed her. “Besides, I am injured. You are safe with me.”

Embarrassed that he had sensed her discomfort, Florentia eyed his head warily. “Do you think you will be able to ride home?”

Nathan looked at her. He wondered what she would do if he said he couldn’t. It was on the tip of his tongue to inform her he needed as much assistance as she could give him, but immediately felt an eel for contemplating lying to her. The last thing he wanted was to start their association off with a lie.

Association? Why should I contemplate any such thing with her? I don’t even know her, he thought even though his gaze slid over the length of her.

Instinctively, he suspected there was going to be a relationship between them of some sort. How, or why, he couldn’t quite understand yet, but he would. One thing he did know for definite was that he couldn’t allow her to disappear on him. The thought of never seeing her again left him feeling something akin to bereft. So much so that he wondered just how bad a head injury he truly had.

I must be out of my mind to feel this way about someone I don’t even know. But that thought vanished the instant he looked at her again.

There she stood, not but two feet away, bathed in the soft glow of moonlight. Draped in a delicate pale dress, with her blonde hair cascading wildly about her shoulders, she looked as close to feminine perfection as it was possible to get. Deep inside his chest, something began to stir. Its warmth spread outwards and started to change into something permanent. Unfortunately, with those burgeoning feelings came a quiet discontent, born out of the knowledge that he had to let her go. It was ridiculous. It was foolish to consider such emotion real, even for a moment, but he couldn’t ignore it either. He realised then that he couldn’t allow her to leave him, at least not until he knew where he could find her again.

“What is your name?” he asked quietly. His voice was nothing short of a whisper but he knew she had heard it because she stiffened. He hated the way she looked at him so warily, as though weighing up whether she could trust him or not. Hastily, he tried to find a way to reassure her.

“My name is Nathan. Nathan Hincks,” he murmured.

Florentia knew immediately who he was and felt a wave of disappointment slam into her. Immediately, she took a step away from him.

Nathan noticed, and closed the distance by stepping forward.

“Do I know you?” he asked with a frown.

“No,” Florentia replied firmly.

“Your name. What’s your name?” Nathan asked, his voice a little sharper than he intended.

“Marigold,” she murmured eventually when the silence between them lengthened and became uncomfortable. It was her favourite flower, and strangely, the only thing she could think of right now.

Nathan tipped his head as he studied her. She certainly didn’t look like a Marigold. Angelica, maybe, or Angeline, but never Marigold.

Still, who am I to question it? He mused. Marigold or not, she truly is stunning.

Eager to get his mind off trying to get information out of her, Florentia nodded to his head. “Do you think you can get home, or would you like me to go and fetch someone to help you?”

She had no idea who she would turn to if he said ‘yes’. She didn’t think the staff at the manor would even allow her through the kitchen door if she did turn up on their doorstep. She was, after all, still in her working clothes, which were soiled from the fireplace soot she had cleaned earlier. Her cheeks flooded with colour. For the first time all evening, she was glad of the moonlight which masked as much as it lit.

“I should be all right to get home by myself,” Nathan replied quietly. “Just not yet.”

Florentia struggled to keep her distance. She felt compelled to move closer and engage him in further conversation. Even though she knew it would be foolish to spend any more time with him, especially now that she knew who he was, the thought of just turning around and walking away was abhorrent.

“Will you just sit with me for a while?” Nathan asked, waving to a large rock beside the stream.

Florentia studied it for a moment. It would be churlish of her to refuse, and leave him on his own, especially given he had just been injured. Slowly, she took a seat on the rock. She waited until he had chosen a spot beside her, far enough away that he did not pose any kind of threat to her yet close enough for them to talk, then tried to think of something to say. Nathan beat her to it.

“Where do you live?” he asked quietly. Nathan doubted she would live in the village. He would have noticed someone so beautiful if he had passed her in the street before, of that there could be no doubt.

“Netterton,” she replied without thinking.

“But Netterton is several miles away,” he declared in astonishment. “What are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere?” His scowl deepened as he looked about the empty woods. “Do you not have a chaperone?”

Nathan knew something was not right but was at a loss to know where to start to uncover all her secrets.

“I don’t need a chaperone,” Florentia replied. “Until you arrived, I was in these woods alone. This is private property, you know. People in the area rarely come here. It has a reputation for being haunted.”

“Yes, I know,” Nathan replied. “It is on the edge of my estate.”

“Soulsby Manor?” Florentia asked.

Nathan nodded.

“So, you are Lord Soulsby?”

“I am,” Nathan replied. “But you may call me Nathan.”

Florentia shook her head. “I couldn’t do that. It isn’t appropriate.”

“It is when I request it, and we are alone like this.” He waved to the empty meadow. “What could be wrong with it? There is just you and I here.”

“Well-” she began hesitantly only to be interrupted.


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