Layla peeked through the window of the carriage and let an exasperated sigh escape through her pouted lips. The storm outside was growing severe, and the silence within the carriage added layers to her growing anguish.
Earlier, Layla and her maid had talked about whether the rainfall – heralded by lightning and a breezy cold evening – would lead to such a heavy downpour.
It had grown beyond just a light drizzle, as she had argued it would do before they arrived at their destination. They were clearly some distance from the house and had joined a convoy of other nobles in their different carriages when the rain increased sporadically.
Opposite Layla, Cassidy sat in silence, her arms bracing the windowsill. From time to time, when their gazes met, Layla would sense the maid’s attempt to stifle an I-told-you-so smile, to which Layla only winced and averted her gaze.
When Layla could no longer stand it, she found her voice. “It’s raining heavily. Such a dreadful day for the duke’s ball.”
“A wild and bitterly cold storm ma’am. The duke must feel terribly sorry he chose today,” Cassidy said with a nod. If she truly felt elated about winning that small argument, she did well in not showing it in her speech. Behind them, and ahead of them, there were other carriages heading to Norrington. Layla wondered what their passengers thought of the storm.
“I doubt the carriage will make it through this. I pray the storm does not bring hail as well,” Layla murmured, just as the wheels of the carriage bumped over yet another large stone.
“Of course, the carriage will be fine milady,” Cassidy assured her, after a momentary calm. She was ever the optimist. “We’ve seen worse storms in recent times. And besides, we are not alone. It will pass, maybe even before we arrive at the ball.”
“True, although I think you speak out of your usual optimistic insight,” Layla said, thinking that traveling on a slippery and rugged path in a carriage in such a storm to a glittering social event didn’t seem like the best decision she had ever made. She was curious to know if the current weather indeed qualified as the worst in recent times, despite her maid’s confident comparison. Layla worked at her brother-in-law’s newspaper company, The Mega Herald Gazette, but her column, “The Social Review”, had nothing to do with weather forecasts. On the contrary, exposing the private lives of dukes, earls, and barons was her forte. She made a great effort to keep her identity secret from readers by assuming an anonymous identity.
“You should calm your nerves, milady. We’ll soon be there,” Cassidy said again, peeping out through the window to see if there was any glimmer ahead of the beaming lanterns no doubt put in place to illuminate the glorious estate’s entrance, but there was nothing. Clearly, they were still many miles away. Cassidy sighed, then stretched out her hands to hold Layla’s. Her calmness, despite the tension, flowed quickly through Layla’s veins.
Layla shrugged and directed her gaze to the hilly lane they were presently racing along. She wondered at how the occupants of the first carriage to ascend the hill seemed not to have even considered the possibility, should it suffer an accident, that it might prevent the others from proceeding. She concluded it must be driven by someone like her maid – Cassidy, who viewed everything through optimistic eyes, even when there was a great danger.
The forest of trees flanking the carriage began to shrink as they ascended the steep hill, but the driver did not slow down, which angered Layla.
Suddenly, lightning struck, followed by a loud clap of thunder, then dazzling brightness. But all Layla could see in the flash from the lightning was the adorable face of her dutiful maid.
“We’re ascending a hill. The driver should know better than to speed up at this time. If the storm continues, I’d have to -”
Layla could not complete her statement because as a sudden rush of wind hit the carriage and jolted it off of course with a violent force.
As Layla and Cassidy were thrown hard against the walls of the carriage, they fought to regain their balance. The sudden gusts of wind seemed to have caught the other carriages unawares too; the young women heard crashes and cries of help ringing out behind them.
As the girls clutched each other in panic, their carriage continued to roll off course, skidding off the water-logged surface of the lane like a child’s toy and finally colliding with the trunk of a gigantic Oaktree with a deafening crash, shattering it into planks and hurling them in all directions.
For several minutes, save for the pounding rain, there was a dreadful silence. When Layla finally came around, she felt the spikes of a branch poking at her belly. It had punctured her heavy cloak, but she had no idea how far. She also felt the sharp drops of rain prodding her face like tiny pins, since her bonnet had been torn from her head. It took a few seconds for her to recall what had just happened.
“Cassidy?” she called out. She became conscious of how much her head ached, as she whirled her face away from direct confrontation with the raindrops. There was no response to her cry. “Cassidy?” she called again, in a louder and more frantic tone. Yet still, there was no response.
Layla summoned all the strength left in her and pushed the branch lying across her away. When she had successfully gotten rid of it, she rose shakily from the muddy earth. Her gloved hands slipped, and she fell. She let out a yelp, then resumed the struggle to right herself, until she at last staggered to her feet and stared around.
“Cassidy!” she yelled into the dark night, the intermittent lightening giving little illumination as she staggered around the lane in a daze. Neither Cassidy nor the driver were in sight. However, behind her she could see a few dozen people, some stumbling about like herself, others lying motionless on the wet ground, as well as panicked horses, and parts of broken carriages strewn in all directions. Cries for help and mumbled groans rang through the air.
Layla stumbled across the planks and smashed wheels that had once been their carriage and began searching frantically for her maid.
Just when Layla thought things couldn’t get any worse, a huge crackle of lightning flashed blindingly across the sky, lighting up the scene of carnage before her and setting ablaze the remaining parts of the carriage. Terrified, Layla leapt aside, narrowly missing the burst of flames. It occurred to her to seek shelter from the growing storm but knew she must first find Cassidy.
Having decided she should see to her own safety first, she raced away from the burning mass. She continued running along the waterlogged lane, ignoring the cries of the people behind her. They needed help, but she needed help, too; the cold rain cascading on her had drenched her clothes – clothes already smeared with mud and leaves. Her legs shook, and her feet caught the front hem of her long gown, almost causing her to fall.
She pressed forward however, picking up her skirts, as she swept away shrubs from her face and fallen branches from her path. She slowed to a walk, ignoring a sharp pain at her waist, until she came across a cottage only made visible by the intermittent flashes of lightning.
The sight of the cottage gave her hope. It relieved her of the pain in her lungs, and she headed straight toward it as fast as she could.
* * *
Before stepping into the carriage, Christopher had winked at one of the ladies mounting her own carriage. She wasn’t particularly beautiful, and she was a little too short for his taste.
As soon as she saw him wink, the lady turned around to see if it had been intended for someone behind her. When she realized he was, indeed, winking at her, he noted with pleasure the sweet smile that curved her lips and the bright pink that rose to her cheeks.
“Come on in, my lady. We are about to leave,” Christopher heard someone call out to her, before both the lady and her charming smile disappeared into the waiting carriage.
“Shall we begin the journey, my lord?” asked Christopher’s own driver.
“Of course,” he responded from the window.
“Very well, my lord,” the driver said, whipping up the horses and pulling away with a jingle of harnesses, so the journey to the grandest ball of the season, held by the Duke of Norrington, could resume.
Christopher didn’t particularly enjoy attending such fancy occasions. The thought of an abundance of desperate women and free, unlimited drinks were his chief motivation for going. The Earl of Darrow had an unquenchable passion for women and liquor and every pleasurable activity that included both.
As the wheels of the carriage turned, splashing ponds of water across the curb, his thoughts dwelled on the sort of lady he’d like to find at the ball that evening. At age thirty, he stood tall at six feet, five inches, with broad shoulders, and had a slightly dark complexion that seemed to please the ladies.
He knew his playful manner meant his intentions were often, mostly by women, misconstrued, but it had gone on for so long, he no longer bothered to correct them. In fact, it provided him with a small form of entertainment, which he used to his advantage. The wink he had given to the lady was his idea of a salute to her. A casual greeting, so to speak, rather like a nod or a wave. He knew it could also seem he was being flirtatious, and the manner in which the lady had smiled with such delight showed she had indeed read more into the gesture than he truly meant.
If they had the chance to meet later that night, the earl might exploit the emotions he had triggered in her and strike up a simple friendship. Whether it might lead to intimacy was up to chance. From previous encounters with the fairer sex, he knew most ladies were never satisfied with having a casual friendship with him. Sooner or later, they always wanted intimacy, marriage even. This amused Christopher no end, and he accepted their advances willingly. He, however, had to take the precaution of informing each lady who shared his bed that their encounter would not lead to anything more serious, often much to their disappointment. Thus was born his reputation as the Earl of Heartbreak.
The rainfall suddenly became heavier, reminding Christopher of his initial dislike of the journey ahead. He hoped the rain would stop before he arrived at his destination.
Christopher knew he could have delayed his journey, given his prediction the rain would soon make the roads unpassable. He had left his house quite early, before the rain had even started, thinking he could outrun the storm. Doing so not only ensured his safety but also gave him plenty of time to examine any advantages the ball might offer. It always amused the ladies to walk around balls with a man with a good knowledge of how the place was constructed.
As the journey continued, it became more apparent the rain was not going to stop anytime soon. The clouds became dark, and the water cascaded onto the earth like an endless river.
Christopher looked through the back window at the carriages coming up behind them. If his driver hadn’t been so careful, the other carriages wouldn’t have caught up with them. The sight reminded him that Norrington’s balls were deemed to be the most magnificent in the country, and he smiled with delight.
There would be ladies, uncountable numbers of ladies, who would be looking forward to meeting nobles who might court them, potentially marry them, or willingly have intimate encounters with them behind closed doors. He took pride in being able to woo his partners with ease but ensured each lady gave their consent. However, if he were being honest with himself, his exploits didn’t hold the same excitement for him they had used to. Certainly, his carnal needs could be met any time he wished, but, after a while, the acts had begun to feel empty. He had taken a break from his exploits, but now he looked forward to trying his luck at tonight’s ball.
The driver carefully maneuvered his way through the hilly lanes. Christopher dismissed the thought of the potential danger, glad for his coachman’s cautious driving.
The road was slippery, and caution was what was required to pass along them safely.
Suddenly, there was a loud bang; a bright light lit up the area, and the carriage lurched to a stop. Christopher knocked on the roof, to attract the coachman’s attention, but there came no response.
When he opened the door and crept out into the pouring rain, he discovered the full extent of the effects of the sudden storm, which appeared to have shattered everything surrounding him. What had seemed like a minor interruption in their journey from inside the carriage was, in fact, a major calamity outside.
Christopher could see several carriages turned over or crushed at various stages along the steep road. He was taken aback by the sheer amount of water pouring out of the sky.
Seconds later, lightning struck and razed a portion of the earth. Many carriages were set aflame in the sudden ambush.
One of the carriages ahead of Christopher slipped off the rain-soaked path and tumbled backward to rest against his own carriage with a mighty screeching thud. Christopher found himself struggling to regain his balance, but his effort proved futile. His body rolled in the mud, leaves, and broken branches all around him, while his arms vainly struggled to catch hold of something, anything at all, for support.
But Christopher’s sliding fall did not stop until he reached the very base of the hill. By that time, his clothes had been drenched completely, and his body felt numb, as if it belonged to someone else. As he felt the blood finally flowing through his veins again, the cold of the night penetrated through his coat, and he felt the first sharp pains from his injuries. A sharp twig had impaled his shoulder, and he yelped as he carefully patted the spot. Mud and leaves clung to him, too, but the area was too dark to clearly see them. His body ached all over.
He struggled to rise to his feet and tried brushing away some of the mud. Amidst the people’s cries for help, he staggered from the scene, pressing at the wound in his shoulder. He knew better than to remove the twig; that would inevitably lead to excessive bleeding, and, therefore, was not a good idea, considering his current situation.
Dazed, Christopher walked several miles into the woods and, finally, he came across an isolated cottage. It looked desolate, and encroaching around the door of the dilapidated building were long, thick, tree branches.
It wasn’t difficult to break the strands apart with his good hand, and then he kicked the door open.
“Hello!” he called out, just to make sure no one was within.
As expected, no response came.
From a distance, Layla thought she saw a flicker of light in the cottage, but when she drew nearer, she realized she must have imagined it. Like the night outside, the place was completely dark.
She entered through a door that was already half-open. The atmosphere inside seemed warmer than it should, but she didn’t give it much thought. The cold accompanying her was enough of a burden; she desperately needed to get rid of her wet clothes and find a way to stay warm.
Outside the cottage, lightning and thunder still raged. The menacing noise shook the old cottage to its very foundations. The fury of the storm resonated continuously, until she began to tremble, thinking the world must finally be coming to an end.
Before she could think about how best to search for Cassidy, she moved to the window’s side and began to take off her cloak. Her elegant attire was soaked and stained, no longer suitable wear for any ball. The pain in her side begged for attention, and she undid her topcoat with numb fingers to be able to lift her dripping gown over her head.
Then, someone, with a masculine-sounding voice, cleared their throat behind her. She dropped her skirts immediately and whirled around, fear written on her face. “Who’s there?!” she screamed.
“Er, hello,” the voice greeted, and then the flicker of light she thought had spied earlier reappeared.
At first, she could only make out the silhouette of the man. He was very tall and stepped swiftly toward her, but, when he came closer, she observed that one of his shoulders hunched over, as if he were in pain. She concluded it must have been him who had set the fire in the fireplace, where a small blaze was hungrily consuming dry logs.
Through the dancing illumination, she saw a portion of his face, and a new chill overcame her body as she got a fleeting impression of just who that shadow might be.
* * *
The earl pushed the weakened door of the cottage open and entered carefully. The fact that no human seemed to be within did not eliminate the chances of reptiles or any other undesirable sort of wildlife having made it home. He saw the need to be cautious.
His clothes were dripping everywhere but, with the help of the lightning, he was at last able to make out the simple hearth. And on the wooden mantelpiece, he spied a battered tinderbox, the type with a candle stick attached to its lid and a small round handle on its side.
He looked inside beneath the metal damper; the tinder was till dry. Christopher struck the flint, but no spark appeared. He was about to try again, when he heard the cottage door creak, and someone crept slowly inside, shutting the door behind them.
He stood still, staring at the silhouette of a young woman provided by the dim light from the window.
The strange lady seemed distressed and clearly embittered by the calamity that had struck outside.
She shook off her outer layer, then seemed about to pull up her skirts to address something beneath which seemed to be hurting her.
That was the moment he decided he must clear his throat to call her attention to his presence. Then he struck the flint once more, and a bright spark flew onto the tinder, setting it aflame. He let it burn for a few seconds, then transplanted it carefully to the dry logs resting in the hearth, and the fire began to take hold, spreading warm, orange light throughout the room.
She almost jumped out of her skin. “Who is there?” she screamed, clearly terrified. But that was before she was able to make out his features.
The earl was wondering how to best introduce himself in such strange circumstances, when her voice suddenly cut through his thoughts.
“Lord Christopher Eston?” The tone of her voice and the look on her face suggested to him she would have preferred to be beaten to death by the rain outside.
Just as his genuine smile vanished, another took its place, with a smirking, gleaming slyness to it. “Why am I not surprised that another lady knows me?”
She let out a snort of disgust. “You are the very last person I’d have imagined surviving such a disaster.”
His sly smile extended into a lecherous grin. “Fate has its mysterious ways.”
He sauntered away from the fireplace and started taking off his own topcoat, then his suit undercoat. When he reached his shirt, he realized with relief the cut in his shoulder was not as deep as he had feared.
The room had been cold before he had lit the fire, but, gradually, as he added more logs, the room grew warmer and brighter. Grimacing with pain, he carefully pulled out the twig lodged in his shoulder, cleaned it as best he could, and covered the wound with his cravat. Then he moved back to sit on an old wooden settle beside the fireplace.
The lady exhaled furiously. First, there was the disaster outside; she could not rest, knowing her maid was out there somewhere and not yet found. Then, she found herself forced to confront her present situation – being alone in this desolate cottage, miles from anywhere – with a man of horrible repute. Nevertheless, for Cassidy’s sake, she reined in her emotions.
“Did you, by any chance, come across my maid? Her name is Cassidy. Cassidy Lane. She is a petite lady and has raven black hair.”
He shook his head. “Safety was my first instinct, so I ran from the accident, as I’m sure you must have, too.”
It apparently angered her to know he spoke the truth. At least, he suspected it must be so, judging by the look on her face.
“Why not come and sit here?” he offered, his manner as gentlemanly as he could make it, patting the settle beside him.
“No, thank you,” she replied quickly. “I am very worried about my maid. I care as much for her life as I care about my own.”
“Hm. Your concern is valid, but you’ll surely shiver to death if you don’t get warm,” he said, looking smug as he turned toward the fire.
“What happened back there?” she asked aloud, more to herself than Christopher.
The thunder raging outside was a clear indication that the storm would likely not recede anytime soon. He considered responding to her question anyway; anything to keep a conversation alive between them.
“The storm came heavily upon us, and the lightning struck at the worst possible moment, too.”
Tears filled her eyes again. “Thank you! I can see that very well,” she snapped angrily, before realizing there was no need to be so rude in her manner.
He ignored her show of temper, understanding the damsel was in distress. She was a terrified, soaking-wet, shivering lady, who had just survived a disaster; he found it perfectly reasonable to be upset in such circumstances.
He tried his best to calm her. “I understand your distress, my lady. Why not go through the rooms to see if there are any warm clothes you can change into? I strongly recommend you sit with me beside the fireplace to keep warm. The rain won’t stop soon, I fear.”
“These clothes are warm enough, thank you,” she said defiantly, then dragged her feet across the room to perch beside him on the settle, still shivering in her wet clothes.
They both stared at the flickering fire, which spread a warm glow over their faces and surroundings. He suddenly stared at her, noticing her beauty, despite her bedraggled state.
“I have not had the privilege of learning your name, my lady.”
“Layla Veaton,” she replied coldly.
He tried to think if the name reminded him of anything, but nothing rang a bell. Perhaps he could distract her from the uncomfortable situation with a little light humor?
“You know,” he ventured, smiling, “we would get warmer more quickly if we embraced each other. To share our body warmth, of course.”
She drew back as though bitten by a snake.
“I beg your pardon! What game is this you are playing?” she exclaimed with real venom. “Do you imagine I am some kind of dolt who would fall for your advances, simply because I have come to warm myself by the fire?”
He chuckled in embarrassment. “Of course not. I apologize. I meant it in jest only. I meant no harm, Miss Veaton, I assure you.” But as they sat in silence, he kept his gaze on her and gave a coy smile.
* * *
The very moment she recognized the odious man’s face, anger, annoyance, and slight fear tore at her heart like metal claws.
How is it I have the mischance to find shelter with the same man whom I’ve written so much about? she wondered bitterly. The notorious Earl of Darrow was a man she consistently found herself writing about, and, in her objectivity, she had never had anything good to tell of him. He was found wanting on almost every level of propriety within polite society, and she had written copiously about his many unsavory escapades.
Even as she perched beside him, burning with great rage, she abhorred the fact that, in truth, he had a handsome face, which, no doubt, earned him such adoration among certain ladies.
“I must change out of these wet things after all,” she said in defeat, as she rose without his support.
Something within her wished he might make an attempt to help her up, only to be able to reject him. She merely wanted the pleasure of shunning any offer coming from him. However, her common sense prevailed, and she didn’t even spare the time to await his approval.
She walked into the inner room to take off her outer jacket and gown. As she tried her best to ring out the water from her hair, she reflected on her situation. Dark as the inner room was, she found it more welcoming than the idea of sitting beside that man a moment longer.
“Do you need any help in there?” His baritone voice inquired from his distance. He must have observed her hesitation born out of fear.
She moved promptly. “I shouldn’t need privacy if I required you to render any assistance.”
He chuckled. “Very well, Miss Veaton. Have it your way.”
The best thing would be for me to leave this instant! I cannot be … I must not be caught in the same house with this … monster, especially not under the circumstances.
She reflected on the fact that her maid had yet to be found. Layla had sought safety for herself without first establishing whether her dear maid had survived, and, for that, she felt terrible.
But there she was, sharing the comfort of the fire made by the man she had always written about with revulsion. If all her articles had not been written under an anonymous identity, she would not even have had the courage to tell him who she was. She wondered if he ever read the Gazette. She wondered also if by any chance he had ever inquired as to the identity of the writer of that scandal column in which his secretive affairs were so regularly thrust into the limelight.
She looked around the hideous room and found only enough courage to stand by the open door to take off her soaked gown. Cold soon overtook her body; a cold draught blew in from the gaps in the window shutter, covering her exposed skin with goosebumps. She shivered, as it snatched away the little warmth she had felt when sitting by the fire. But the idea of trying to dry the gown while it was on her body was clearly not sensible. She must find something else to wear while the wet fabric dried by the fire.
But she had not anticipated the next challenge she faced. Having stripped down to her shift and petticoats, she felt exposed and wished she could find something, anything, to cover herself, but it was too dark to see anything in the room. A sharp chill blew across her bosom and shoulders. She examined her waist as best she could and saw the little cut. It was merely a graze on her skin, with slight bruising, that did not require immediate attention and would heal quickly, she saw with relief. As she returned to the main room, she felt like a child as she crossed her arms over her chest to cover herself.
When he saw her approaching the fire, his brows furrowed with thought. For a moment, she almost felt he was staring at her with compassion in his eyes. But what compassion could a miscreant such as he ever harbor? She proceeded to the fire, a lady whose need for warmth overrode her desire to be a million miles distant from him.
She perched on the spot where she had sat earlier, his eyes still fixed on her. Layla was not about to acknowledge the tingling feelings she felt all over her body at his gaze. She felt the need to scream her rejection of it. She tried instead to concentrate on the fire as her body at last began to warm again.
“Will you stop staring at me, please?” she said aloud, as her hands pressed even tighter against her body.
“I’m sorry, Miss Veaton, but I cannot pretend your beauty does not exceed any I have so far laid my eyes upon.”
Unwillingly, Layla found herself smiling at the compliment, although she winced at it. What are you doing, you dolt? This man makes the same compliment to every lady he passes. Why should it make you smile like a simpering idiot?
She felt even guiltier at her reaction to his words. Any innocent lass should be spared the earl’s well-practiced advances and tactics. After all, it was not as though she was a stranger to the tales of his charms and his ridiculous flirtations.
Layla’s ears were regularly filled with stories of his conquests from her various sources. In fact, she felt she knew his behavior by heart. She wasn’t about to fall prey to his deceptions herself, whatever the situation.
“Lord Darrow!” she said tersely, “I would appreciate it greatly if you would refrain from such inane flattery.”
“But I do not flatter when I -”
“I consider it empty flattery, my lord. Kindly consider our short but necessary sojourn together merely as one forced by extreme circumstances. My only aim here is to see out the end of the storm safely.” She turned away from him, so her stern face would not falter before his intense scrutiny.
“Very well, Miss Veaton. If that is what you desire, I shall humbly succumb to your wishes.”
When he averted his gaze from her, she suddenly felt something close to tears within her. She could now see clearly how such a man might have a long history of breaking women’s hearts. He was, though she hated to admit it, a charmer.
Despite everything she had heard and written about him, she still wished she could summon enough courage to ask him about himself. At least, it would be interesting to hear things from the horse’s mouth for once, she thought. But she shook off the notion at once; she already had more than enough knowledge of him, she told herself. Probing further might reveal her intentions and even her identity to the earl.
Without doubt, Layla’s definition of a perfect man was a man with Christopher Eston’s physique and evident charm, but surely not one who had lived such a debauched life as the earl.
“Not many people who meet me like me instantly, it’s true. I completely understand if you do not like me … yet.” He said it innocently, in the manner of a man forever persecuted for always doing good.
She wished she could tell him how much of her life she had invested in trying to bring down the likes of him. She wished she could tell him she was fully aware of all his unsavory deeds. There were many too shocking to have mentioned in her column. When she spoke, only five words escaped her lips.
“I do not like you.”
How could I … or anyone respectable for that matter, ever be expected to like someone like you?
Christopher’s eyes fluttered open to, once again, behold the most beautiful face he had ever seen. At first, waking up seemed to him like a dream. He brooded over the bittersweet memories of the previous night, remembering what being awake offered.
The previous night he had struggled to convince the lady, Miss Layla, now sleeping before him, that it would be completely safe for them to sleep together in the same bed. It hadn’t been easy, given the nature of the woman in question.
Shortly after the fire had dried their bodies and she had ignored all his attempts at conversation, he had courageously inspected the other darkened rooms to find the safest place for them to sleep.
There was only one old bed in the cottage. When he told her that, she insisted she would sleep on the bare floor, near the fire, like a commoner. He waved the idea away.
“Once the fire is out, the floor will be cold,” he reminded her. “You’d catch your death before the morrow.”
His point was clearly valid, and she had no defense to justify an objection. She reluctantly followed him and examined the bed critically before agreeing to sleep on one side of it. He found her condition amusing – they must demarcate the sides of the bed with the only blanket available.
“We could wake tomorrow with the entire roof and blanket gone. You’ve seen what the storm is capable of,” he said in a teasing manner.
She laughed almost hysterically. “If the storm was capable of blowing the roof off, it would have done so when it swallowed several carriages,” she replied.
“Brilliant observation, Miss!” he responded with a genuine smile. The teasing compliment had her smiling and then frowning again almost at the same time. “I’ll think of this experience as a way of experiencing first-hand the way that commoners share beds in small inns. Or bundling.”
“Please do not read anything further into our predicament. I am fully aware of what bundling means. Kindly keep your hands to yourself,” Miss Layla stated with a blush. He realized she was well learned and knew certain things most people of the peerage did not. He wondered if she was from an upper-class family or a slightly lower social station. He also began to wonder how much she really knew about him, given the gossip among the ton and that damned Gazette, but he wasn’t going to force it out of her. They still had plenty of time together before help was likely to come their way.
True to her intentions, they slept with the blanket separating them. He told her a story about how a couple who slept with a blanket between them woke up in different countries. She laughed at his joke, but nothing he said convinced her she was safe with him.
“You are an interesting man to spend time with, Lord Darrow. Now please be quiet, so we may get some rest.” That was the last thing she had said to him before light snores overtook her.
Christopher kept staring at her face in the dim light of the stubby candle they had found in a drawer near the fire and mounted in the tinderbox candlestick.
He had slept soundly, but woke wishing he knew why she behaved so coolly toward him and seemed impervious to his charms. He wished to know why she clearly did not feel free in his company and why every time she laughed at his jokes, she quickly recoiled back into an impenetrable shell of reserve. He assumed she must be the type to listen and believe all the false tales of how he regularly coerced unwilling maidens into his bed, only to later throw them out once he had had his fun. While he admitted to bedding plenty of women, he had never forced himself upon them, and they had been willing participants. In some cases, the lady would initiate their encounter and ask him to be discreet, so as not to tarnish her reputation. He hoped he would eventually be able to put Miss Layla’s mind at ease and prove to her he was not a brute who took what he wanted without asking.
As the dawn light started to spread from the window, he rose from the bed and quietly looked down at her still sleeping peacefully. He could have stood watching her sleep all day, staring at her pretty, defenseless little person deep in slumber, but he reckoned he would have a better chance of winning her over if he found her something to eat for when she awoke.
He went out to the main room, which doubled as the kitchen, to see if there was anything they could have for breakfast, but there was nothing that hadn’t either been spoilt or consumed by rodents.
He stood by the window and stared outside. The storm was not yet over. It continued to rain heavily and dark pillars of cloud loomed once more on the horizon.
He noticed an apple tree standing outside the cottage. Good Lord! What great luck, he thought, as he hurried out, braving the downpour, to fetch as many apples as he could carry.
Enduring the cold drenching to fetch himself something to eat wasn’t something he would have bothered with, but doing so to feed the most beautiful woman in the world, however, was very much worth the effort.
* * *
If you tell him who you are, what do you think he’ll make of you then? a voice asked Layla.
Layla did not realize she was dreaming when she found herself hunched over her desk in the Gazette’s office, dashing off another article for the paper. She found her pen dancing furiously in her hand, as if it had a mind of its own which had already decided its low opinion of the rakish earl.
When she was done writing a list of candid opinions about him, making plenty of references to scandalous things she had heard about his reckless lifestyle, she held out the piece of paper, and the paper itself asked her if she was certain everything she had written upon it was true.
“I have these from reliable sources!” she replied to the paper.
“Some reliable sources are anything but reliable,” the paper replied.
It was during her argument with the paper that she felt a hand run over her toes, and she flinched awake.
When she woke, she realized it had been the blanket slipping off that had been responsible for the touch, and the man she had slept with atop the bed was nowhere in sight.
At first, she felt relieved the man had not made any attempt to harass her during the night. What if he had tried to? And how dreadful it would be to have to tell people she had actually consented to lying in the same room, and even more scandalously, in the same bed with him!
Layla shoved the blanket away and went into the other room to fetch her gown from the fireplace.
She imagined not seeing the earl again, imagined he had stolen away into the storm when she was fast asleep. If he had left her, it would give more credence to her already poor opinion of him. How could a man leave a defenseless woman to fend for herself in the woods, during a storm, no less? A man who had told her she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen surely wouldn’t be doing his words justice if he stole away like thief in the night. But then again, he was not known to be the most honorable man…
Something told Layla she still had a lot to learn about the earl. She was curious to see if he truly was all the things she had heard he was. He had not mistreated her yet, only complimented her beauty and teased her. But was his true nature hidden due to their current predicament?
When she got to the main room and didn’t see him, she gave in to the thought that he had walked out of the cottage and left her there. Surprisingly, the thought left her feeling sad and dejected, even when she told herself she ought to celebrate the liberation.
Layla plucked her gown from where Christopher had hung it. She remembered how he had made an elaborate drama of simply hanging it high enough to be sure it would dry, and she laughed out loud.
As soon as she was back securely in the gown, Christopher appeared from the garden with a basket filled with apples.
If she felt any flicker of delight upon seeing him, she concealed it well enough, making her face a mask of studied indifference.
“You don’t seem pleased to see me, Miss Layla,” he said with a smile.
“Should I?” she asked, suppressing her own smile.
“Here are some apples. I’ll wager you’re famished.”
As soon as he placed the basket on the table, she picked up an apple and bit hard into it.
“This is sweet,” she said with a thin smile, as she bit into the apple again. “Thank you. And by the way, how is the wound on your shoulder?”
He smiled, “I’m glad you remember that and show proper concern. Last night I’m sure you nearly wished me dead.”
She nodded; her face still stiff. She was conscious, however, that a reporter was expected to have an open mind toward everyone and look at facts from every angle. If she was being honest with herself, her only reason for maintaining her stiff expression was because of her rather fixed notion of him.
“I am sorry, Lord Darrow. I truly am grateful for the help you have rendered me so far. I feel my view of you is starting to shift … somewhat,” she found herself confessing, but with a stoic expression.
“You are most welcome. And I hope I can continue to change your opinion of me.”
“It is possible, I suppose,” she replied before looking away.
He paced around the main room and settled on one of the chairs. “It seems this deluge will continue forever.”
She looked outside and shook her head, “I believe we might still reach safety before the next torrents begin.”
He chuckled. “I am sorry, Miss Layla, I do not mean to be rude, but it is apparent to me we would not even make it to the nearest village before we catch our deaths – even if we knew where the next village is.”
“Don’t be so pessimistic, Lord Darrow.”
The earl remained silent and stared outside, as though seeking to prove his claim. As if on cue, there came an enormous clap of thunder which showed beyond doubt the storm was still raging.
“There is nothing I want more than to leave this dungeon.” He smiled at her as he continued. “Not that I do not enjoy your company, but I have … we both have another life outside these walls to return to. But we cannot endanger our lives.”
She nodded in agreement just as a fresh torrent of rain began to fall outside.
“I’m so worried about my maid, Cassidy. I hope help reached her quickly, and the others, too.”
“We need help ourselves,” he chimed in.
“I seriously doubt the Duke of Norrington will ever hold a ball at this time of the year again,” she remarked.
He laughed at the suggestion. “Of course, he will! Everything happens for a good reason. This storm, for instance, brought us together. I consider that a blessing whenever I tell myself we could have been alone somewhere far more isolated and dangerous during our confinement.”
Layla was grateful for their safety and now considered her meeting with Christopher something of a blessing, too. She had a front-row seat to observe the rakish earl, who didn’t seem as bad as the lurid tales made out. But all that could change, as while they might be out of harm’s way amid the raging storm, there was no telling how long their confinement would last, giving ample time for his true predatory nature to emerge.
“Now that you have provided us with breakfast, sir, I shall search the cottage for clothing and anything else that might sustain us while we remain here.”
“That’s thoughtful of you, Miss, but—”
“Kindly call me Layla,” she corrected.
“Very well. Miss … Layla. I’ve already looked around for anything useful and found nothing.”
“I shall still check again anyway. Perhaps you have not looked everywhere,” she insisted.
Layla needed the distraction. She needed time to sort out in her mind the differences between her own experience of the earl and the version she had fixed in her head from her many interviews with various sources, who painted a very different picture.
In the room she had been afraid to go into the previous night, she found suitable, though old, clothing for ladies close to her size and height. She rolled them in a ball and tucked the ball carefully into a drawer; just in case help did not come quickly. She then searched for masculine clothes that might fit Lord Darrow.
Layla could not keep the man’s face from her thoughts. She still could not fathom how the man she had thought she had an eternal hatred was turning out to be a somewhat decent man, who did not succumb to carnal urges every time he was alone with a lady. The clothes she found were obviously smaller than his size, but she still took them to him anyway.
She walked hastily to meet him in the main room. Her intention was to see his face again, but she told herself it was to see if the clothes would fit him.
“These are ridiculously small,” he said with a laugh. “But I’d like to try them still.”
She liked his manner of complimenting her efforts. How many men would be willing to compliment a lady and make her laugh with an honest intention?
Before I commit myself to this new idea of him in my head, Layla thought, I must give him time to exhaust his pretense. This could all be a façade, after all. However, her new resolve did not last long.
As soon as Christopher came into the main room, wearing the clearly undersized breeches and shirt, she reeled off her chair with boisterous laughter.
He sang in a voice not meant for singing and danced so much, she found herself laughing uncontrollably. She had imagined him as many things, but she had never imagined him as a man who could allow himself to wear terrible clothes and dance in front of a lady he barely knew.
When he had finished dancing to the song he sang so terribly, he insisted he wouldn’t take off the attire, since it made her laugh. He would wear it until it no longer looked funny to her. Even that insistence made her laugh indecently. She marveled at how easy it was to enjoy his company, not once feeling unsafe around him.
Who are you really, Christopher Eston?
Hard as he tried, Christopher could not resist staring at Miss Layla’s face. She was beautiful, and he admired her slim build; it was his definition of perfection. He liked her slim fingers too, which were carefully manicured. He liked the way her eyes shone when she was teasing him. And whenever she was making a joke against him, she had a way of giving it away by smiling before the end of her sentence.
If ever he had imagined a situation where he was trapped with the most amusing person, he would never have thought it could be as interesting as it was being trapped in this tiny cottage with such an amusing lady.
With her around, he found himself wishing help would never come. There were, however, some realities they could not shy away from. A good example was the shortage in their rations. He had provided apples and even caught a few fish for her in a stream near the cottage, when she had wanted something different to eat. But that would not be enough to sustain them if they stayed at the cottage much longer.
It had been great fun to show her how to grill the fish for lunch. Miss Layla had never tried her hand at anything like that in her life, always having had her meals prepared for her, and she wasn’t shy to tell him that it was delicious.
In the end, she had liked the taste of the food and, as night drew near, they realized they had spent the day together as though they had known each other all their lives.
When they finally retreated to the room with the bed, he saw her demarcating the bed again with several blankets this time — she had found more while hunting about the house. He frowned at the feeling of disappointment that rose within him.
He had been occupying himself with thoughts of when help might come, which made him even more surprised at the way she piled the blankets carefully down the middle of the bed in preparation for sleep.
“Don’t tell me we shall be doing that again tonight?” he quipped ruefully.
Miss Layla chuckled. “We shall.”
He laughed. “But we should not.”
“And why, if I may ask?”
“Yesterday,” he replied, “we were strangers; today, we are not.”
She did the thing with her eyes again, lighting them up with an excitement that intrigued him.
“Really?” she inquired.
“And if I insist?”
The moon was already high in the sky. He was sure she must be as disappointed as he that help had still not arrived.
“If you insist Miss Layla, I’d also have to insist,” he said with a shrug.
“Oh,” she narrowed her eyes and nodded. A furtive look crossed her face. “Let’s see then.’’
She proceeded with her plan. She placed a pillow on the pile of blankets and watched almost horrified as he yanked one of the blankets from the pile. Her first instinct was to snatch the blanket from him, but he was clever and held it fast in his strong fingers. The best next move, therefore, was to secure the other blankets which she had piled up.
He threw the blanket in his hand away from her reach and tugged at the pile. The wall of blankets scattered across the bed and she struggled to build it back hastily. In the end, she was laughing so much, she fell sprawling against the bed.
“You’re no gentleman after all,” she declared.
“No, I am not,” he conceded teasingly.
The sound of their laughter pierced through the night’s silence. He did not know it then, but that would become a memory he would never forget.
She probably felt cheated by his destruction of her blanket wall, for she grabbed a blanket and swatted it against him out of revenge. He chuckled as he tried to block the blanket, inching closer to her. She continued swinging the blanket, until he got close enough to send an arm snaking around her waist and drew her close to him.
As their bodies touched, with him holding her hands, there was a spark in her eyes. He slid his hand down to her waist and drew her even closer, until they both breathed each other’s air. He tilted his head to close the small distance between them. He was only an inch away from kissing her, but he chose not to.
“You do not need to build any walls between us. If I had wanted to, I could have had you craving me, and you would have enjoyed every bit of it.”
Having expressed his mind, he smirked and winked at her, as he released her from his hold, leaving her standing, her eyes flashing.
“Good night, Layla,” he said. Satisfied with the results of his teasing, he turned to his side of the bed and left her to build whatever walls she wanted to.
* * *
Layla had not imagined she could be so consumed by passion. Even as she knew it was written in her eyes, she could do nothing to wipe the emotions from her face.
Their bodies had stayed together for only a few seconds. During that time, she had felt both restless and powerless. A part of her wished he had brought down his lips to hers. She reprimanded herself for falling for his charm and allowing her guard to drop so completely.
As she watched him slide back to his side of the bed, she burned with embarrassment, then slid to her own side, not bothering to build up her blanket wall again. Clearly, there is no need for a barricade.
Her hands patted the space between them, found the last blanket on the bed and drew it over herself against the encroaching cold.
The night was still young but the available wood in the fire would soon burn out. Bitter cold was gradually encroaching within the cottage, and she didn’t want to freeze all night.
When she had covered herself with the blanket, she kept her eyes open for several seconds longer. Even though she had, in a sense, given way to him on the need for a barricade between them, she secretly found herself wishing he had not given up on her quite so quickly. She lay still, curled up under the warmth of the blanket and wishing for the torment in her mind to cease.
Something snaked around her waist, and she was shockingly delighted to realize it was his arm. What she didn’t know was whether the hand was up for any mischief.
Layla didn’t need to think about that too much. As soon as she had felt his arm around her, she felt his body against her, too.
“I’ll need some warmth too, sweetheart,” he said, as if he couldn’t have easily retrieved one of the blankets sprawled on the floor around the bed. Of course, she secretly didn’t want him to do that, so did not argue. “And since you are unwilling to share the blanket,” he said in a sleepy voice, “then I shall use you for that instead.”
She didn’t mind at all. She didn’t even mind his slipping under the blanket and snuggling very close to her. She didn’t mind the feeling of his warm breath on her neck. In fact, she found herself enjoying it more than she would ever admit.
* * *
Morning came quickly. She opened her eyes and realized the man’s arm was still carefully resting on her waist beneath the blanket.
She was surprised to find it was the part of her waist she had injured in the accident, but he had not hurt her at all.
The blanket still covered them, and the night had been warm and short.
She peeped through window and saw a calm, clear sky. She frowned, choosing to ignore it and closing her eyes in hopes it would go away. Then, the sound of carriages approaching the cottage had them both sitting bolt upright in bed. from outside the door however, sent her eyes, and his, opening sharply.
“Hello!” a voice called. “Is anyone there? Can you hear me?”
“Help is here,” Christopher muttered with a sleepy voice.
“Indeed,” she replied. She felt slight annoyance at his promptness in rising. He took up his shirt, flung it over himself, and went into the main room, clearly to acknowledge the calls from outside.
Layla leapt up, straightened her clothes, and examined herself in the tiny, cracked mirror. The morning was so bright, it seemed to have no relation to the storms of the previous days. Ready at last to face their rescuers, she went to the main door and opened it, to see Christopher standing beside one of the carriages talking to a man. Every stride she took toward him felt heavy with an unexpected disappointment; she couldn’t have imagined she could ever have wished for help not to come in such a situation, or at least, not so soon. Against all her expectations, she secretly wished she could spend one more night nuzzled in his embrace. But she reminded herself sternly, simply because it had felt so … comfortable … did mean it held any emotional tune to it.
He took her hand and kissed it in the noblest manner. She felt alive once again, and something stirred within her. Looking up into his face, he gave her that dashing wink. A wink she would spend the entire day thinking about.
She hoped her emotions were not so obvious to the other eyes peering at her from the carriages.
“All right, Miss Layla Veaton,” he said quietly, “this is clearly the end of it.”
She smiled, though it pained her to do so. “It was a pleasure meeting you and getting to know you better,” she murmured, knowing he would not understand the full extent of her emphasis.
“I’m delighted you say this at our parting. As they say, better is the end of a thing than the beginning.”
Even upon departure, he still showed his witty nature.
“I shall think of the moments we have shared,” she said in a low voice. She hoped she wasn’t saying things she would regret when she returned to her normal life.
“I wouldn’t dare to forget,” he assured.
As soon as she got into the carriage, she found herself conflicted about the world she was returning to. How was she going to tell her family that the flirtatious, rakish man she had written so passionately about in such a poor light was in fact a perfect gentleman? How would she even tell anyone that she had spent two nights with him and kept her chastity intact? Everyone would have expected her to seek any alternative, however desperate, if they ever thought about her in that situation.
Why had she not said anything about herself to the man? she thought with guilt. What if he finds out about my life outside the cottage? Will he seek retribution for all the ways I’ve described him in my articles? She hoped he would never find out she worked at the paper. However, the hope didn’t make her feel better. Even if he never found out about the things she had done before meeting him, she knew she could not sustain a relationship, or even friendship, with him, without telling him the truth first.
Goodbye for now, Christopher.
* * *
Cassidy was waiting impatiently outside the manor. Everyone was anticipating the return of the lost mistress, but the maid was even more keen to see Layla than anyone else.
As the carriage finally stopped in front of the manor and Layla descended from it, everyone ran to embrace her.
She looked pale, everyone declared, as though she had not had any good food in several weeks.
“My darling!” cried her mother, the baroness, embracing her daughter tightly. “Thank God you’re alright!”
“Mother,” Layla said respectfully, as she inhaled the sweet scent of her mother’s perfume. It had been only a few days, but in her heart, it seemed like a lifetime ago since she had last seen them. She was embraced by her father, and then her sister, Leann.
“You’ve grown so thin, in just a few days!” Leann exclaimed.
“But my beauty is intact, I hope?”
“Quite, my dear,” replied her father. ‘’Come, you must tell us everything that has happened.’’
As she approached the house, she felt delighted to finally see Cassidy had not been hurt in the accident. She would later learn that when the carriage had crashed, Cassidy had strayed from the path and fallen unconscious. She had been brought back home by a rescue team.
She wondered about how fate seemed to have made her meeting with the earl inescapable. If she hadn’t walked off and found the cottage, she could have been rescued by the same team that had saved Cassidy. Secretly, she found she much preferred the way things had turned out instead.
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