2015 National Readers Favorite Award for Historical Romance
For fans of A Knight In Shining Armor…
“Forever Mine is the best time-travel romance I’ve ever read, rivaling Jude Deveraux for intensity and chemistry between the hero and heroine.”
— Lucy Monroe,USA Today bestselling author
“I don’t believe it.”
“Which is precisely why you owe me fifty pounds, oh, ye of little faith.” From her seat on the brown leather couch behind him, Nora snorted with laughter.
Nick Barrows ignored his sister’s gloating comment as he stared in amazement at the two paintings set up on easels beneath the Barrows Art and Antiquities logo. Once authenticated, the landscapes by Constable would be the biggest pieces the shop had ever acquired.
“And you found these in Nebraska?”
“I told you unclaimed property auctions were worth the travel expense.”
“Are you telling me there weren’t any other art dealers there? “
“A few. Like other states, Nebraska puts ads in the papers about their yearly sale, but most of the time the items are jewelry, coins, electronics, and other collectibles. I don’t think anyone realized what these were.”
“I suppose you’re going to want to go back,” Nick Barrows looked over his shoulder and grinned before looking back at the paintings.
“Of course, and you know, I think this brilliant acquisition of mine deserves a raise.”
“Uncle Charles gave you a raise a year ago,” Nick chuckled at his sister’s teasing jab. A second later, he realized his mistake and closed his eyes. He was an idiot. Filled with regret, he turned to face his sister. “Damn, I wasn’t thinking, Nora.”
“It’s okay. He would have said the same thing.” She shrugged her shoulders then laughed softly. “Then the next minute he’d be waltzing me around this tiny office of yours.”
Nora was right. Uncle Charles would have been overjoyed by her find and its impact on the shop. The old man had loved this place as if it were his child. He’d always said the shop possessed a soul. Nick had never understood his uncle as well as Nora had. The two of them had often talked ghosts, past lives, and supernatural theories well into the night. It was one of the reasons Nora had taken his death so hard. She’d lost the one companion who ‘got her’ as she was fond of saying.
“Somehow I think he’d be more proud than excited,” Nick said. “We’ve come a long way from those two angry American teenagers he brought to England and took into his home.”
“I don’t know how he managed it. Confirmed bachelors aren’t poster children for parenthood.” Nora shook her head in disbelief. “And we weren’t exactly easy to live with.”
“He understood. We were grieving for mom and dad, just like he was.” Nick stared down at his shoes for a second before he looked up at his sister. “It always amazed me how he seemed to know exactly what we needed and when.”
“I miss him, Nick.” Sadness filled his sister’s voice.
“I do too.”
His gaze swung to the portrait of the Countess of Guilford on the wall across from his desk. His uncle had taken him to the Brentwood Park estate sale years ago and the moment Nick had seen Lady Guildford’s portrait he’d stopped dead in his tracks. Uncle Charles had simply squeezed his shoulder then bought the portrait and given it to Nick with nothing more than a simple statement that the portrait was his to do with as he wished.
How the elderly Englishman had sensed how much he’d wanted the countess’ portrait, he would never know. But he’d worked hard to show his uncle how grateful he was for the extraordinary gift. Emotion pushed its way to the surface, and he swiftly buried it. Determined to lighten the atmosphere, he folded his arms across his chest and pinned his gaze on Nora.
“I imagine you’re going to be impossible to live with for the next month or two.”
“Oh, you can count on that.” His sister’s forced laughter revealed how close she’d been to tears.
“Especially since a certain someone said my trip would be a waste of money.”
Nora eyed him with a scowl, and he released a rueful sigh. She was going to make him pay dearly for having questioned her unusual gift at finding extraordinary pieces.
“Truce.” He held his hands up in a gesture of surrender. “From now on, your word is law when it comes to acquisitions. Satisfied?”
“It’s a start.” This time her laughter wasn’t filled with tears, and she waved a hand at the portrait hanging on the wall behind the couch. “What about her, are you going to start listening to me about the countess as well?”
A familiar tension slid through his muscles, tightening his chest. His amusement disappeared in an instant. His gaze flitted back to the portrait of Victoria Thornhill, Countess of Guilford before he frowned at Nora.
“That implies I need advice, and I don’t. The woman’s been dead for more than a hundred years.”
“But you have to admit your attachment to her portrait is a little extreme.”
“It’s not unusual for an antiquities dealer to have art work hanging in their office.” His comment made Nora snort.
“Artwork yes, but not a portrait you’ve drooled over ever since we were teenagers.”
“You’re exaggerating again.”
“Am I?” She eyed him intently for a long moment. “Then prove me wrong. Sell it.”
“No.” Tension charged the air with electricity he glared at his sister.
“That’s what I thought.” Her matter-of-fact tone rubbed him the wrong way.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“If I tell you, you’re just going to tell me to fuck off.”
She was right. He knew what Nora believed, but he just wasn’t buying it. The notion that he’d known the Countess of Guilford in a past life was just as crazy an idea now as it was every time Nora broached the subject with him. Nick saw her sly look, and he clenched his jaw as he refused to take her bait.
Without a word, he turned away from her and picked up several invoices off the top of his desk. The figures were a blur as the image of Lady Guildford filled his head. What if his sister was right? What if he was—Christ, if Nora could read his mind right now, she’d hound him until the day he died. Who was he kidding, she’d do that anyway. He blew out a harsh breath of annoyance. At the sound, Nora scrambled to her feet.
“Oh for Pete’s sake, Nick. Isn’t it time you took a really hard look at yourself and that portrait?”
“Is there a point to this line of conversation?” he asked as nonchalantly as possible, while continuing his pretense of studying the invoices.
“Yes. The point is—you’re in love with a ghost.” Nora had never confronted him so bluntly before. He scowled at her over his shoulder then returned to his feigned review of the paperwork in his hand.
“Don’t look at me like that, Nicholas Barrows. That bloody portrait is what keeps you from leading a normal life. When was the last time you had a date? Even a one night stand?”
“My sex life isn’t any of your damn business,” he said through clenched teeth. The invoices in his hand crackled in his tight grip.
“Right. Sorry.” The tense atmosphere hung between them for several seconds, before he released a noise of frustration. Dropping the papers onto his desk, Nick turned around to face her. Leaning back, he rested his hips against his desk then folded his arms across his chest.
“Look, you and Uncle Charles have always believed that old family legend. I never have.” He didn’t flinch as his sister glared at him. “That damn necklace is a myth. Even if the earl gave his wife those sapphires, they were either sold or stolen a long time ago. My money’s on the sold theory. And I sure as hell don’t believe Lady Guildford is coming back from the dead to reclaim the damn thing. It’s a story. Nothing more.”
“All right, if you don’t believe the legend, why do you keep the woman’s portrait on the wall?
“For Christ’s sake. I like the painting. It gives me pleasure, how is that an issue?”
“It’s an issue because you’re pining after a dead woman.”
“God damn it, Nora. It’s just a portrait.”
“All right, then answer me this. Why is it you only date women with auburn hair and blue eyes like the countess?” The accusation in his sister’s voice made Nick rolled his eyes, while scrambling for an excuse that would stop her inquisition.
“I don’t only date women with auburn hair.”
“Oh please,” Nora snorted. “Shall I list them by name? Vivian, Viola, Veronica, Virginia, and my personal favorite, Vickie. Notice a pattern here? And isn’t it ironic their names all start with the same first letter as Lady Guildford’s name. Victoria.”
“Coincidence,” he snapped, glaring at his sister.
“The landscape painting? What about that?” Nora eyed him with that unnerving shrewdness that always made him think she could see through him or anyone else she talked too.
“What of it?”
“It’s taken you almost twelve years to agree that we put it up for sale. Why don’t you ask yourself why you’ve not been able to part with it or, for that matter, the portrait of the countess?”
“Fuck,” he snarled. “You’re blowing this out of proportion.
“And the third painting?” Nora narrowed her gaze at him. “The one Uncle Charles kept stored away? The moment you discovered it in his things after the funeral, you took it home.”
“Christ almighty, Nora. I deal in art and antiques. What’s wrong with me admiring the work of a man who painted two different portraits of the same woman as well as a landscape?”
Nick strode toward the window that overlooked the showroom. The second portrait of the countess had been far more intimate than the one he kept in his office. Although discreetly covered with a sheet, it was still a seductive, enticing portrait, one he’d not been willing to share with anyone. Even allowing the framer to see the portrait had filled him with a possessiveness he founded confusing. Hands braced against the waist high window sill, he stared down into the gallery. There were a few customers studying various items, but they were nothing but blurred images in his head.
Nora’s voice echoed with irritation at her failed attempt to persuade him that he was obsessed with the Countess of Thornhill. Deep inside, he knew it was a true assessment on his sister’s part, but admitting that to Nora would open up doors he wasn’t willing to go through.
Nick fought to focus his gaze on the people in the gallery, but instead, the lovely features of Victoria Brentwood Thornhill, Countess of Guildford filled his mind as clearly as if she were alive and in front of him. Dark auburn hair framed around an oval face. Full lips curved in an inviting, sensual smile. Brilliant sapphire eyes sparkling with mischief.
Nick tightened his grip on the window ledge. Nora was right. He was in love with a ghost, or at least the image of one. A shrink would tell him he was avoiding personal relationships because of some trauma in his past, but it went deeper than that. There was a knowing that filled him every time he looked at the countess’ portrait. He couldn’t explain it, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to tell his sister about it either.
About to turn away from the window overlooking the gallery, Nick’s gaze caught sight of a woman standing in front of their collection of English pastoral scenes. When she tilted her head to study one of the canvases, the muted light from the ceiling’s track lighting set her auburn hair on fire. In the next moment the woman turned to face one of the sales clerks, and he inhaled a sharp breath.
Almost immediately, his chest constricted and his heart slammed into his ribs. Only twice before had he ever experienced this sensation, and each of those times it had been when he’d found a portrait of the countess. Transfixed, he stared down at the woman.
“God, Nick, are you okay? You look like you’re ready to pass out.” Nora joined him at the window. The moment his sister’s gaze landed on the woman, she gasped loudly. “Holy crap.”
Without a word, Nick brushed past Nora. As he headed toward the door, her hand caught his arm. He paused to meet her gaze and shook his head in a silent order not to stop him. Reluctance visible on her face, his sister released his arm. Nick wanted to run down the steps to the showroom, but he forced himself to descend the stairs at a slow pace. He was insane to think this was anything more than a coincidence. As he approached the woman, her distinct American accent floated through the air as she spoke to the salesclerk.
“I don’t know—thirty-five hundred pounds is a little more than I can really afford.”
“Think of it as an investment, miss.”
“An investment in the exchange rate you mean.”
The dry note in her voice forced Nick to cough as he stifled a chuckle. She turned at the sound, an impish smile curving her full mouth. But it was her eyes that made him stare at her. They were the same sapphire blue as the countess’. Again, he marveled at the resemblance. Without warning, she queried his opinion.
“What do you think?” she asked without warning.
Nick met the brilliant blue gaze twinkling up at him. If he didn’t know better, he would have sworn Lady Guildford had stepped out of the portrait hanging in his office. The woman tipped her head back as she returned his stare with equal intensity. In an absent-minded gesture, her long fingers brushed a stray strand of auburn hair off her cheek. A quickening surged deep inside him like the sudden stirring of a long lost memory. The sensation swelled.
Stunned by the force of the emotion, he realized somewhere in his past he’d experienced a moment similar to this one before. The sensation grew in strength. The smile curving her full mouth faded as confusion furrowed her brow. Mentally shaking his head, Nick forced himself to answer her question.
“Like Robert says, art is an investment, but I like to think of it more as an investment of the heart. Ask yourself if you can live without it.”
“No, I don’t think I can.” She turned back to the painting. Under the track lighting her auburn hair shone like lustrous silk. She sighed. “There’s something so familiar about it.”
For the first time, he looked at the canvas she was interested in purchasing and went rigid. He’d been so focused on her, he’d not even bothered to look at the painting she was standing in front of. It was Lockwood’s oil painting of Goodman Cottage at Brentwood Park. The landscape depicted a pond glistening in the afternoon sun as it played host to a pair of swans. Not far from the water’s edge, the thatched roof cottage sat nestled in the warm embrace of a small grove of trees. The sparsely covered trees with red, gold, and purple leaves indicated it had been close to the end of fall when the artist had painted his picture.
Nick had found the landscape in his uncle’s bedroom after the man’s heart attack. A little known artist, John Lockwood had painted both portraits of the countess as well as the landscape. The barely legible inscription on the back of the Goodman Cottage canvas, for my wife, Victoria. Nicholas – Christmas 1897, indicated the landscape had been a gift from Lord Guildford to his wife.
“Have you ever been to Brentwood Park?” He clenched his teeth. Why the hell had he asked her that?
“Brentwood Park?” She shook her head in puzzlement.
“It’s an estate a little southeast of the city. The cottage in the painting still sits on the grounds.” He nodded toward the canvas on the wall, but kept his eyes on her.
“I’ve never heard of it. If I have time next week, I might be able to check it out,” she murmured as she turned back to the painting and reached out to touch the frame. Uttering a small noise of decision, she turned her head toward the sales clerk. “Well, I guess I can’t leave without it.”
“Very good, madam. If you will come this way, I shall be happy to arrange the sale.”
“Robert, I’ll take care of the sale,” Nick said quietly as he reached out to grasp her arm and hold her in place.
He never heard the sales clerk’s response as electricity shot up his arm. The strength of the sensation barreling through him was as if someone was pummeling his entire body until he had no breath left in his lungs. Images flashed through his head like a carousel of pictures careening out of control.
Of all the faces dancing through his brain, she was always there. She was like the North Star, guiding him to a place he didn’t know existed. He couldn’t explain it, but it was as if this moment had happened before. As he stared down into her blue eyes, she shook her head slightly, and he was certain she was experiencing the same sensation.
“What’s your name?” His voice was hoarse as he struggled not to say something bizarre that would frighten her or worse make her dart out of the shop.
“Victoria Ashton,” she breathed as she reached up to brush a lock of hair off his forehead. In the next instant, she jerked her hand away, clearly horrified by her action.
“Oh Lord, I’m sorry…that was incredibly rude of me.”
“No. It felt right.” He didn’t have the slightest idea why her touch seemed so natural and perfect, but then nothing about the last couple of minutes made any sense to him.
“I…have we met somewhere before?”
“That’s my pickup line I think,” he said with a grin.
“Yeah, I suppose it was.”
Her laugh was as full-bodied as he remembered. The Freudian slip barely registered in his head as he watched a flush of pink rise in her cheeks. Without thinking, he brushed his fingertips across her face. The moment he touched her, her hand came up to cup his, and she turned her mouth into his palm. The visceral emotion the action stirred in him made him pull in a sharp, deep breath.
“I don’t know what the hell is happening,” he rasped. “But you better tell me to stop now if you don’t want me to kiss you.”
Her sapphire eyes widened, before she closed the distance between and there was only a hairs breath of space between. Her hand reached up to touch his brow and she smiled.
“I won’t stop you,” she whispered.
Locked in the grip of something he didn’t understand, Nick bent his head toward her. God, all he wanted was to taste her again. He needed to know if she tasted as sweet as he remembered. His mouth never touched hers as the explosion roared through the shop like a freight train.
The force of the blast threw him backward, and he fought to stay on his feet. A screech of metal tugged his gaze upward. Before he could react, the ceiling’s track lighting crashed downward then slammed into Victoria’s head and chest. He heard her grunt with pain as the blow sent her staggering backwards. In an involuntary effort to remain standing, she flung her arm outward to grab hold of something to save her from falling.
Before he could leap forward or shout a warning, she grasped the black wire dangling from the ceiling. Agony contorted her features as electricity flowed through her then sent her flying backward to hit the wall like a rag doll. The unframed landscape of the cottage fell from the wall to the floor and landed beside her limp hand, the painting brushing against her fingers. Screams of pain and fear from inside and outside of the shop filled the air.
Leaping past the live wire, he crouched down beside Victoria’s still form. His hands shook as he gently rolled her onto her back sliding the painting away from her. She wasn’t breathing, and he couldn’t find a pulse in her neck or on her wrist. A wave of helplessness rolled over him. It had been like this the last time. He’d not been able to do anything to save her.
A growl of rage erupted from his throat. No. Not this time. He’d lost her in the past, and he refused to lose her now. Without thinking, he began to administer CPR. He didn’t know if he was doing it right, but he couldn’t just stand by and do nothing. He’d failed the last time. He couldn’t let it end like that again. Quick chest compressions then two strong puffs of air into her mouth. Repeat.
Somewhere in the distance he heard the sound of an ambulance. Panic set in as his efforts to revive her received no response. In a voice he didn’t recognize as his own, he called out her name then blew two hard breaths into her before increasing the strength of his compressions against her chest.
“Fight, Victoria, fight,” he commanded in a savage tone. “Do you hear me? I said fight.”
His command was harsh and inflexible, and he sensed a stranger slipping into his head. Relentlessly, he alternated between breathing into her mouth and returning to the sharp cadence of chest compresses. Deep within his memory, he recalled the pain and agony of a similar experience long ago. The indefinable connection to her that he’d experience moments ago had become something even more tangible. A gentle hand touched his shoulder.
“Nick, she’s gone.” His sister’s words ripped a roar from him throat.
“No. You’re wrong,” he snarled as he knocked his sister’s hand aside.
With renewed force he pounded on Victoria’s chest then breathed air into her lungs. Logic disappeared to become raw, agonizing desperation. Unfamiliar images from a distant past merged with the present to fill him with dread. The savageness of his anguish choked him and threatened to push him over the edge as he worked to breathe and pound life back into her.
“God damn it, Victoria. Fight, damn you. Come back to me.”
The savage command went unanswered, and his anguish was an unbearable vise engulfing his body. A wounded howl of grief ripped out of his throat. She was gone. He’d lost her again. Life had lost its meaning.
The darkness of the dream enveloped Victoria as she spiraled downward to land on her bed with a jerk as pain rippled through her. Thousands of razor sharp needles stabbed at every inch of her. God, it was as if someone had doused her in gasoline then set her on fire.
The dream had become a nightmare of agony, and she ordered herself to wake up. She forced her eyes open to see nothing but a white mist filled with gray shadows. Oh God, she was blind. Panic flooded her veins as she tried to reassure herself it was a nightmare. Her eyes fluttered closed for a fleeting second. When she opened her eyes again, but there was nothing except the fog cluttered with dark shapes. Voices echoed nearby, but a loud ringing in her ears made it difficult to make out what they were saying. Yet out of all the indistinguishable voices there was one she recognized. It was
demanding. Arrogant. But she couldn’t remember where she’d heard it before.
Victoria tried to turn her head toward the voice, but the movement sent a stabbing pain through her temple. She cried out. A dark shape suddenly blotted out the cloudy landscape of her vision. A warm hand touched her forehead before the shape abruptly disappeared. Slowly, the voices and ringing in her ears ebbed away. Victoria blinked several times in an attempt to clear her vision then sat up.
The instant she moved, she uttered a cry of misery at the explosion of pain in her head. The heel of her palm pressed against her forehead, she bit back the bile threatening to rise in her throat. After several long moments of anguish, the pain and nausea eased.
This had to be the worst fricking hangover she’d ever had. Not that she’d had that many. She winced. Had she gone to a bar last night? She didn’t remember going to one. Hell, she didn’t remember much of anything over the last several weeks. The one thing she did remember was her argument with her father a year ago and what had happened a few hours later. She pushed back the tears. Images whirled and flitted through her brain. She was on vacation. She remembered that much at least. But there was one thing she was certain of. This was not her hotel room. Her gaze swept over the simplicity of the stark room. Despite the brilliant stream of sunlight flooding through the window it was cold. She shivered. Someone had set the AC way too low.
If it weren’t for the fire in the hearth the room would be even colder. It didn’t make any sense why someone would have a fire with the AC going. Her gaze swept across the room’s meager furnishings. Planks of rough-hewn wood served as the floor, while a white plaster covered the walls. It looked like something out of a Jane Austen movie. Oh God, had she decided to do one of those reality vacations? No, she couldn’t afford something like that, even if she’d wanted too. What was the last thing she’d been doing? She breathed in a quiet breath as she tried to ignore the hot needles that assaulted the back of her head. Where was she, and exactly how had she gotten to wherever here was? She groaned as the headache spread to her temples.
Victoria tossed her blanket off to one side and swung her legs out of bed. Fire streaked across her skin once more, while her chest hurt like someone had kicked her repeatedly. Had she been mugged? Even though she was in pain, self-preservation had her on her feet the minute a woman scurried into the room.
“Good heavens, my lady. You shouldn’t be out of bed just yet.”
“Who are you?”
Her words sounded hoarse, stiff, and stilted. Laryngitis. Could you get that from a hangover? If you were shouting over loud music all night long? Maybe she’d been mugged and choked in the process. It would explain her voice, the pounding in her head, and the way her body ached. It would also account for not knowing where the hell she was.
“I’m Bessie, my lady. Thomas Goodman’s wife. He found you near the pond this morning. You were like death warmed over when my Thomas brought you in.”
“Pond?” The hoarseness in her voice had disappeared, but it still sounded funny to her.
“Yes, my lady. Soaked through and through. If my Thomas hadn’t found you I fear the worst might have happened.”
Victoria shook her head in denial and winced as she pressed her hand against her forehead. She hadn’t been anywhere near a pond. She’d been in an art gallery. The sudden sliver of a memory tantalized her before it evaporated and pain took its place.
“Where am I?”
“Why Brentwood Park, my lady.” Bessie patted Victoria’s arm in a comforting manner.
“Brentwood Park,” she murmured. Where had she heard that name before? Another stab of pain erupted in her head, and she groaned softly.
God, jackhammers were going off inside her head. She looked down at the white cotton gown she wore. She never wore nightgowns. Normally, she chose to sleep in the nude, although she would occasionally sleep in a pair of pajamas. Nightgowns? Never. They were little more than straight-jackets, and she never got a good night’s sleep with one on. Beside the bed, her hostess poured water from a beige earthen pitcher into a matching bowl. Wringing out a cloth in the basin, the woman turned her head to Victoria and smiled.
“Now then, my lady, let me see if I can clean that cut of yours.”
“Cut?” Victoria blinked with confusion.
“I don’t believe it will need stitching.” Bessie’s weathered features wrinkled up into a reassuring look as she dabbed gently at Victoria’s forehead. “Lucky is what you were. Another inch lower and you could have lost an eye.”
Baffled, Victoria gasped as cold water stung a tender spot just above her right eye. She lightly touched the wound and drew in a breath of surprise as Bessie gently pulled her hand away. When had she cut her head? Questions. Every time she answered one, half a dozen more sprang to life. She pulled away from the woman who was clucking over her like a worrisome mother hen.
“You said I’m at Brentwood Park. Is this a hospital of some kind?”
“Heavens, no, my lady. This is Goodman Cottage. Thomas and I are tenants of his lordship.”
“Lord Guilford, my lady. Don’t you remember?” The woman stared at her with a worried frown.
“I don’t know any Lord Guildford.” Victoria wanted to shake her head, but was afraid to for fear of pain.
“Oh dear…you must have hit your head much harder than we thought.” Bessie clucked her tongue in sympathy. “Now don’t you fret, I’ve seen this happen before. Your memory will come back right enough when you’re ready.”
“I haven’t lost my memory,” Victoria muttered stubbornly.
She remembered her name, her childhood, the night her father had died. She shoved that particular memory into a separate compartment. Right now she had to focus on figuring out where the hell she was. England. She was in England on vacation, by herself. It was impossible to know how long she’d been out, and right now all she wanted was to get back to her hotel. She frowned. Why didn’t she hear traffic outside? The quiet reminded her of the woods near Kerrigan Stables where she rode twice a week. A chill ran down her spine. If it were quiet outside, it meant she was in the country. She’d been in the city. How in the hell had she gotten from London to wherever this was?
“If you don’t mind, I’d like my clothes back so I can return to my hotel.”
“But, my lady, you just can’t—”
“Can’t what?” she snapped, more out of fear than anger. “Please bring me my clothes. I want—”
The door swung open with a loud screech. Instantly, she turned toward the sound and inhaled a sharp breath. Everything receded into the background as she met the hard, green-eyed gaze of the man entering the room. Before his arrival, the room had been comfortable in size, but now it closed in on her.
Power. Sheer power was the first thing that came to mind as her gaze ran over him. His was dressed for riding, but he wasn’t wearing jeans as one might expect. His apparel seemed more appropriate for a horse show. Fawn-colored breeches hugged sleek, muscular thighs. The snug fitting pants were tucked into a pair of shiny black boots with a dark brown cuff at the top. A starched collar jutted upward to part slightly at his throat, while a narrow, black tie encircled his neck. Dark wavy hair and those piercing green eyes of his completed the image of a man born to command. She swallowed hard.
The man didn’t just ooze sex appeal, he defined it.
Deliberate and unhurried, he removed his black riding gloves and slapped them into his hand with a vicious crack. She jumped. Like an animal fascinated with its predator, she met his narrowed eyes warily. His barely restrained anger saturated the room with its raw heat.
Okay, now she was worried. Had she wrecked her rental car and damaged his property? Wait, did she even have a rental car? Damn it, how could she remember things from months ago, while the past couple of days and weeks were hazy at best?
“That will be all for now, Bessie. You may bring the countess her clothes shortly.” Despite her apprehension, the deep timbre of his voice turned her inside out. The man could easily give a woman an orgasm with that voice. Wait. Countess? What countess?
“Yes, my lord.”
Bessie quickly left the room as the stranger’s gaze remained locked with hers. The door closed behind the older woman, and something flashed in the man’s eyes as he moved forward. Victoria instinctively jumped backward as he brushed past her. He walked with a distinct limp as he crossed the room to the small window beneath an eave. Had he been in an accident or was the handicap from birth? The vague whisper of a memory teased her as she studied the back of his dark head. She tried to catch the thought, but it winked out of her grasp. Frustrated, she grimaced then started as the man turned and directed a harsh look in her direction.
“Do you want to tell me where the devil you’ve been for the last three weeks, Vickie?”
“I’m sorry?” She scowled at him. She’d never liked people calling her by that nickname. For some unknown reason, it had always had a negative connotation to it, and she hated the way it made her feel when someone called her by the name.
“Three weeks, Vickie.” The sharp words cracked through the air and made her flinch. “I’ve had private investigators looking for you for the past three weeks.”
“Look, you’ve obviously got me confused with someone else.” Bewildered, she shrugged her shoulders.
“I don’t know you. My name is Victoria Ashton, and I don’t know this Vickie person.”
“Memory loss? You creativity astounds me, my dear.” The condescension in his voice made the hair on the back of neck stand upright. Sex appeal or not, the man was an arrogant bastard. Victoria narrowed her eyes at him.
“I didn’t say I’d lost my memory. I said I don’t know you.” She silently dismissed her inability to remember the past couple of days or weeks. That didn’t count. She knew who she was.
His eyes were shards of green ice as he stared at her for a long moment. Then with an indifferent air he took a seat in the room’s only chair. Sitting sideways, he draped an arm over the wooden chair’s spindled back and crossed his bad leg over one knee. His relaxed posture only enhanced his commanding presence. Sexy or not, she was certain he’d be a dangerous man to cross.
“So you think I’ve confused you with someone else.” He surveyed her from head to toe with an insolent gleam before looking at the ring on his finger. “An odd statement considering I’d be hard pressed not to recognize my wife.”
The soft words sent her reeling back two steps. Frantically, she tried to recall what she’d been doing before she woke up in this nightmare. There was no way in hell she could be married. Was there?
She squeezed her eyes shut as if that would help her remember. The image of a large room with paintings flitted through her head. An art gallery. She’d been debating whether to buy a landscape. Hadn’t she? Images flew through her head so fast she couldn’t recognize most of them. An explosion.
Had there been an explosion? It would explain the cut on her head if she’d been near glass.
Desperately, she tried to remember more. She’d been with someone. Who? Acute pain pulsed viciously in her head. Victoria tried to ignore it, but the harder she tried to pull answers from the shadows, the more intense the vicious pounding in her head. She released a soft sound of misery and gave up trying to recall the last couple of days. The moment she did so, the pain eased to a minor throb.
She was barely aware the stranger had moved until the sudden proximity of him enveloped her in a white hot heat. Firm fingers grasped her chin, and he tilted her face toward the sunshine streaming into the room. The pads of his fingers seared her skin, and she drew in a sharp breath. Hell, this man wasn’t just hot to look at. With one simple touch, he’d managed to make her legs wobbly as Jell-O. She dragged in another quick breath.
He smelled of horse, leather, and something spicy. He was raw male and the potency of him made her ache for something she hadn’t had in a long time. All the man had to do was kiss her, and she’d be melting in his arms. The thought made her lick her lips nervously. His gaze narrowed and his eyes darkened to a shade of evergreen before he jerked away from her and put several feet between them.
“I grow weary of this game you’re playing, Vickie.”
“I’m not your wife,” she snapped.
“Then tell me who you are, my dear.” The cold contempt in his voice could have frozen the air between them, and for the first time she realized she might be in real trouble.
“I told you, already. My name is Victoria Ashton,” she said as calmly as possible. “I don’t know you or how I got here. I just want my clothes back so I can get a ride back to London.”
For the briefest of moments, she could have sworn she saw doubt in his green eyes before a shutter fell into place, revealing nothing but amused cynicism. The insolence of his smile made her draw in a breath of irritation.
“A convincing tale, madam, but it lacks a certain, shall we say, finesse,” he drawled.
“Are you calling me a liar?” She wanted to kick herself. Of course he was.
“I’m simply stating the obvious. Your acting abilities have improved considerably, but this is a bit much, even for you.”
“Look, this is crazy. I was in an art gallery in London. I think there was some kind of explosion.
The next thing I knew, I woke up here.” Her words instantly made her head hurt, and she winced.
“I’m a patient man, Vickie, but this charade is growing tiresome.” Anger tightened his sensual mouth. The fact that she was even thinking about his mouth annoyed her as much as his refusal to call her Victoria.
“So help me God, if you call me Vickie one more time…” She gritted her teeth and suppressed her anger. It wasn’t going to help things if she lost her temper. “I’m not your wife. My name is Victoria Ashton. I don’t know how I got here, and at the moment I don’t really care. If you’ll just give me my clothes back, I’ll get out of your hair.”
“Enough.” The barely controlled fury in the command made her flinch. “If you continue with this farce, I’ll be forced to have you examined by a physician from the county asylum.”
“Don’t you dare threaten me,” she said fiercely as she returned his glare.
“It’s not a threat, Vickie. You’re clearly unwell.”
There was something about his icy demeanor that sent a shiver down her spine. He was dead serious. Fear slithered through Victoria. The man was clearly off his rocker, her clothes were missing, and no one knew where she was. Hell, she didn’t even know where she was. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the door and lunged toward it.
With the advantage of surprise, she was slamming the door behind her before the stranger could stop her. Victoria heard him utter a violent curse, but didn’t wait to hear more. A cramped stairwell was only a couple feet away, and she plunged her way down the steep, narrow steps.
As she reached the last step, she stopped and stared. The large room looked like a historical exhibit. The woman who’d cleaned the cut on her head stood bent at a huge open fireplace stirring something in a kettle. Victoria hadn’t paid much attention to the woman’s apparel earlier, but now she realized Bessie was a walking advertisement for a tourist attraction. The rotund woman wore a brown dress that almost brushed the floor with a white apron tied around her waist. Victoria looked around the room in the hope her clothes might be close by, but they were nowhere in sight.
“God damn it, Vickie. Stop.”
The stranger’s voice held a dark and dangerous edge to it, and Bessie looked up from her kettle to stare at Victoria in astonishment. Not about to let the woman stop her, Victoria threw open the only door in the room and bolted outside. The cold air and patches of snow on the ground stunned her. It was the middle of May. Did England have snow as late as this? She squinted against the sunshine and paused to let her eyes adjust to the light. Behind her, the door to the small house swung open.
“Bloody hell, Vickie. Don’t be a fool. You’re not dressed.”
Victoria ignored his harsh words as she fled. Rough stones bit at her bare feet as she sprinted along the dirt path leading away from him. In front of her was a large pond, and at the water’s edge, the trail split to follow the shoreline all around the pond. Behind her, she heard her jailor call out a man’s name. A responding shout echoed out of the woods surrounding the water. Horrified, she saw men emerged from the forest on each side of the pond.
With a glance over her shoulder, she saw her delusional interrogator gaining on her. For a man with a limp, he moved quickly. Frantic, she realized the water was her only hope of escape. She was a fast swimmer. If she swam to the opposite end of the pond, she might be able to escape. Self-preservation drove her forward, and she ran the last two steps to the water and dived in head first.
Cold fire engulfed her the instant she hit the water. The shock of it sent her up to the surface with a loud gasp. The icy water sucked the air out of her forcing her to fight hard to draw air back into her lungs. The fire feeding on her skin was almost as intense as the pain she’d endured when she’d woken up in this terrible dream. She was a strong swimmer, but the frigid water stole every ounce of strength she had. Desperately she fought to breathe as her legs gave way, and she sank beneath the water.
Come back to me.
The whisper echoed in her head, and she recognized it. But from where? Victoria stretched her hand out toward the sound. Strong fingers gripped her hand and pulled her back from the brink. Air filled her lungs as she sputtered and coughed violently. A moment later, a steely grasp encircled her waist to pull her upright.
Panic sailed through her again as she looked into a pair of green eyes, blazing with anger and something else. Although she was exhausted and horribly cold, she found the strength to struggle against his grasp.
“Damn it to hell, Vicki. No one’s going to hurt you. Stop fighting me,” he growled as he swung her up into his arms and carried her out of the water.
The sincerity in his voice pierced the fear twisting through her as his heat pushed its way into the icy cold layer of her skin. When they reached the shore, he set her down. Deprived of his warmth, a shudder whipped through her followed by another until she was shaking like a piece of paper dancing in the wind. A second later his riding coat covered her shoulders.
“Come, Bessie will get you out of this wet garment,” he said.
Before she could protest, he swung her up into his arms again and started back toward the cottage. She didn’t want to go back, but she was so damn cold. Worse, she didn’t know where to run to. Despite his warmth, she continued to shiver. The sound of his boots crunching against a small patch of snow on the trail made her wince.
“Why is there…snow on…the ground?” she asked through her chattering teeth.
“It’s not unusual for snow to fall in October, you know that.”
“October.” Victoria looked up at him in horror. Her teeth still clicking rapidly, she shook her head. “It can’t…be…October. It’s…May.”
“I can assure you, my dear, it is October.”
“I believe it’s the thirtieth.”
“October…thir…thirtieth.” Something deep inside prompted her to ask what she didn’t want an answer to. “The…year?”
“The year is eighteen ninety-seven, my dear,” he said quietly as he came to a halt.
“Not…possible,” she chattered as shock rippled through her. Her stomach began to churn savagely, and she pushed at his shoulder. “Please…I’m…throw up.”
Without hesitating he lowered her until her feet rested on his boots in apparent attempt to keep her bare feet off the ground. Bile rose in her throat, and she violently twisted free of his grasp then stumbled into the snow-patched grass lining the path. A moment later, she threw up as if she’d been out drinking all night.
Cool hands gently pulled her hair away from her face, holding it out of the way as she threw up whatever was in her stomach. As her heaves abated, he offered her a linen handkerchief lightly scented with the crisp odor of mint. Victoria wiped her mouth with the white square and closed her eyes.
“It’s a dream. Just a really bad dream,” she mumbled to herself. Screw Einstein’s theory of relatively. It wasn’t possible to travel through time. “Wake up Victoria. It’s just a nightmare.”
Victoria slowly opened her eyes and sucked in a quiet breath of despair. She was still here. Silently, she stared at the cottage in front of her. It looked so familiar, but she couldn’t remember where she’d seen it. Snow dusted the roof, and brightly colored leaves clung with desperation to tree branches hanging over the small house. She drew in a sharp breath. The art gallery. She’d been about to buy a painting of this cottage.
A shudder hammered through her, and she pulled the stranger’s riding jacket close around her. He uttered something harsh under his breath then swooped her up into his arms again. In silence, he carried her toward the cottage. Scared, exhausted, and confused, she didn’t have the energy to protest. She closed her eyes again as she struggled to accept her situation.
“You recognize the cottage.” The quiet statement made her glance up at him, and she nodded.
“I saw it in a painting,” she answered hoarsely. “At the art gallery in London.”
“And yet you still maintain you don’t know me.” There was a hard note of skepticism in his voice.
“Perhaps your head injury is more serious than Bessie suspected.”
“What? Oh, yes, my head.” She probed the swelling cut at her temple. She instantly regretted it as her head throbbed with pain again.
“I believe the first order of business is to get you into dry clothes. At the moment, your appearance is in a sad state of disrepair, and I have no wish to see my wife bounding about the countryside in a nightdress.”
“I’m not your wife.” With her chattering teeth, it was impossible to sound convincing.
“I believe we should have Dr. Bertram call on us. I’m sure he would find this unusual story of yours quite interesting.”
The threat of a doctor made Victoria flinch, and she looked away from him. Whether this was a dream or reality, she needed to bite her tongue. Mental health had only just come out of the dark ages in her own time. If she really was in the past, the last thing she wanted was a ticket to an insane asylum.
“I don’t need a doctor.” Her quiet response appeared to satisfy him. Several seconds later, he carried her into the cottage where Bessie greeted her like a mother hen would a lost chick.
“Bessie, I believe it’s time the countess was dressed properly,” he said as he kept his gaze on Victoria. “I’ll wait for her here.”
“Aye, my lord.”
“My coat, madam, if you please. It’s a bit chilly today.” Victoria’s shudder was more out of regret than her frozen state. He’d been cold because of her.
“I’m sorry. I was scared.”
She still was, but she wasn’t about to admit it to him. With a grimace, Victoria removed his coat and handed it back to him. Surprise flashed across his face before he masked the emotion with indifference. He bowed slightly.
“I’ll leave you in Bessie’s capable hands. When you’re dressed, I’ll take you home.”
“But…I don’t even know who you are.” Her cheeks grew warm with embarrassment at the look of disbelief he directed at her.
“So you’ve said,” he said dryly as he arched his brow in icy disdain. “Very well. I’m Nicholas Thornhill, Earl of Guilford. And you, madam wife, are Victoria Brentwood Thornhill, Countess of Guilford.”
With that introduction, he turned and limped away to stand in front of the fireplace with his hands outstretched to warm them. Something about his posture made Victoria long to run to him and reassure him that everything would be all right. She blinked at the crazy thought. She had enough to worry about. She shivered.
“Come along, my lady. We’ll get you warm and dry in a moment.” Half-hearing Bessie’s chatter, Victoria allowed the woman to lead her up the stairs to the room she’d fled a short time ago. After a few minutes in front of the fire, Victoria was feeling less frozen.
“Here you are, my lady.” Bessie held up a royal blue dress. “I’m afraid the gown’s ruined, my lady. Thomas found you lying by the pond.”
Huge patches of caked mud declared the silk gown had seen better days. As she stared at the dress, her shivering returned. Ice sluiced over her skin as if she were drowning in the pond again. A shadowy image flashed in front of her eyes, and she jerked in surprise. More images streaked through her head in a wild whirlwind of incomprehensible events. A singular, horrifying sound accompanied the pictures swirling in her mind. It was the distinct sound of a shovel hitting the ground with a sickening thud before earth scraped across the metal. Fear lodged in her throat as she saw part of a blue gown disappear beneath clumps of soil. It was the same gown Bessie was holding. Victoria’s stomach lurch violently.
“My lady, are you all right?” Bessie exclaimed. “You’re white as a sheet.”
“I’m fine,” she focused her gaze on the older woman as the images faded into oblivion.
“Now don’t you worry about it how it looks, my lady. As soon as you get back to the manor you’ll have dozens of gowns to choose from,” the woman murmured soothingly. The motherly clucks of dismay returned, as Bessie helped Victoria change out of her wet nightgown. In need of more information about the countess to help her navigate the minefield she was in, Victoria cleared her throat.
“Bessie, do you know anything about the…my disappearance?”
“Well, as I heard it, you left Guildford House for a fancy ball, but never arrived. His lordship searched high and low for you, he did. But you’d just upped and disappeared.” As the woman rattled on with her tale, Victoria dried off in front of the fire. “Of course, Lord Darby didn’t help matters none when you went missing. Thomas’ brother, George, works for the man. George says Lord Darby was running about all crazed like. He said Lord Darby accused his lordship of doing you in. And right there in front of the Prince of Wales himself, no less.”
When she was dry, the servant woman threw a white, lacey undergarment over Victoria’s head. Engrossed in the tale, Victoria didn’t protest as Bessie helped put a corset on. It was more like a bustier, and she was surprised it fit her full-figured curves so well. As Bessie reached for the muddied gown, the woman shook her head.
“Bless me if it wasn’t a scandal. There was talk of a magistrate and all sorts of doings. Right glad I am that you’re back, my lady. Lord Guildford is a good man. He don’t deserve to be treated like a criminal. He’d never hurt anyone.”
Victoria didn’t respond as she tried to process everything Bessie had shared. A murder accusation. No wonder the man was furious. The real question to ask was since she wasn’t Lady Guildford, exactly where was the earl’s wife? The memory of the dark images she’d seen made Victoria shiver. What if…no, she wasn’t going down that road. Wherever Lady Guildford was, Victoria didn’t like thinking the woman was in a shallow grave somewhere. Deep in the back of her mind, a voice argued with her, but she ignored it.
As Bessie slipped the gown’s soft, blue silk over her head, Victoria prepared herself for more unpleasant imagery. When nothing happened, she exhaled a sigh of relief and stood still as Bessie buttoned the dress the earl’s wife had worn. What was her connection to the earl or his wife? With everyone mistaking her for the countess, did she actually look like the woman? What if she didn’t look like herself. A shaft of panic shot through her.
“Bessie, do you have a mirror?” she rasped.
“But of course, my lady. It’s just a hand mirror, but it should do well enough. Let me fetch it.”
Bessie hurried from the room leaving Victoria to stare down at the mud on her dress. No, the countess’ dress. Where had the woman been to get so dirty? Dark images fluttered through her mind again, and Victoria pushed them out of her head. A moment later, Bessie returned and handed her a mirror. With a trembling hand, she lifted the hand-held mirror. Relief streamed through her as she recognized the reflection.
“Thank God.” A split second later she inhaled a sharp breath of fear. Her voice was different. Oh God, what she’d thought was laryngitis wasn’t that at all. A crisp, aristocratic accent had replaced her American one.
Nick paced the floor of the hospital waiting room. It had been almost an hour since he’d been ordered out of the trauma room filled with doctors bent over Victoria. Where his CPR skills had failed, the paramedics had succeeded, but she’d failed to regain consciousness. God, if he lost her again. Again?
Why in the hell would he think he’d gone through this before? He shoved a hand through his hair and stopped his pacing. What the fuck was happening to him? He was beginning to think he’d lost his mind.
He’d just met the woman, and yet deep down in his soul, he knew his life would never be the same if she didn’t survive. The sound of feminine heels clicking against the floor made him turn around. As Nora entered the small visitors’ lounge, Nick closed the distance between them and gave her a hug.
“You okay?” he said huskily as he stepped back and inspected her face for any injuries.
“Just shaken up a bit. I was still upstairs when the explosion hit.”
“Christ, the shop—”
“It’s fine, just minor damage. I left Robert in charge,” Nora said in her practical manner that was at odds with her personal beliefs. “He’s making arrangements for security and repairs.”
“What the fuck happened? A gas leak?” Nick eyed his sister with disbelief.
“No. A bomb.” Anger darkened Nora’s features. “Some environmental extremists targeted the ad agency across the street for a recent campaign the agency did for an oil company.”
“Christ almighty,” he said with a shake of his head.
“I hope they catch the bastards and put their balls and heads on the Tower’s spikes,” Nora snapped viciously then eyed him with a look of worry. “Have you seen a doctor about this cut?”
“Cut?” He reached up to touch his face, and Nora immediately smacked his hand aside.
“Don’t be an idiot. You need to have a doctor look at this. It might need sutures.” Nora’s gaze swept over him then gasped in horror. “Oh my God, your leg.”
“My leg?” Nick looked downward to see his pants leg was split open and a long, deep gash that ran the length of his calf.
“Aren’t you in pain?” Nora asked, her face pasty white.
“No,” he said as he realized that wasn’t quite true. His leg had been aching from all the pacing he’d done. “It must be deep enough to have cut off the nerve endings. And stop looking at the damn thing before you pass out.
“You need to get that leg looked at, now,” his sister said firmly despite the sick look on her face.
“I’m not doing anything until I know Victoria’s all right.”
“Victoria?” His sister arched her eyebrow at him in a silent demand for an explanation.
“She told me her name right before the explosion.” He heard the defensive note in his voice. “She’s been in the trauma center for more than an hour. Fuck, if you’d seen the way she looked in the ambulance…”
Nick’s throat tightened and closed as fear threatened to suffocate him. His fingers gripped the back of his neck. He would never forget the light fixture as it crashed downward and slammed into Victoria or the look of agony on her face when she grabbed the live wire. Tension hardened his muscles as he remembered the way her entire body had jumped on the gurney when they’d shocked her heart.
“The ambulance? They don’t let people ride in the back.”
“They didn’t have much choice,” he muttered with a grimace. “I told them I was her fiancé, and I was going with them.”
“Good lord, Nick. What were you thinking?”
“I don’t know what I was thinking. It’s like someone else has been in my head from the moment I first saw her. The only thing I’m certain of is that I can’t lose her again.”
“Again?” Nora stared at him like he’d lost his marbles, which was precisely how he felt at the moment as he met his sister’s gaze of astonishment. “How can you lose someone you don’t even know, Nick?
You’re confusing her with that damn portrait.”
“Now you’re the skeptic? And yeah, I’ve been questioning my sanity,” he said between clenched teeth.
“But tell me Nora, what are the odds of a woman who’s a dead ringer for the Countess of Guildford, with the same first name of said Countess, coming into our shop out of all the hundreds of galleries in the city to buy the Goodman Cottage painting.”
“Lockwood’s painting?” Nora gasped. He waited for her to say something, but she simply stared at him in shocked disbelief.
“What? No words of wisdom or insight as to the fact that there are no coincidences in life?”
He knew she didn’t deserve the sarcasm, but he was fresh out of polite sentiment at the moment. Fresh out of patience with all this past lives talk of hers. He’d been listening to it for so long he was beginning to believe it himself. What the devil made him think he knew Victoria? His imagination was running amok because of guilt. Guilt that he was okay and that Victoria had nearly died and still might. He ignored the voice protesting vehemently in the back of his head.
“What would you like for me to say?” Nora asked quietly. His jaw tightened as he noted the pained expression in his sister’s brown eyes.
“You didn’t deserve that. I’m an ass,” he said as she dismissed his words with a wave of her hand.
“Do you want to tell me what happened?” she asked.
As much as he hated to admit it, he didn’t know how to talk about it. He didn’t have the words to explain how one brief touch had bonded him to a woman who was a total stranger. How the fuck was he supposed to explain something like that? Especially when he didn’t understand it himself.
Nora sank down into a nearby chair as he returned to pacing the floor. Silence drifted between them for several long moments until another sound echoed in the hallway. Turning toward the door, Nick recognized the man entering the lounge as the trauma room physician.
“Mr. Barrows?” The doctor crossed the floor to close the distance between them and shook Nick’s hand.
“I’m Doctor Bertram. We’ve stabilized Miss Ashton. She suffered second degree burns on her hands where the electrical current entered and exited her body. They’re not life-threatening, but you’ll need to avoid touching her hands when you see her. We’ll continue to monitor her for any other physical reactions to the electrical shock.”
“What else,” Nick demanded as he saw something flicker in the man’s eyes.
“Unfortunately, Miss Ashton has slipped into a coma.”
“A coma?” Fear knotted his gut at the doctor’s resigned expression.
“It happens sometimes in cases such as this. She was resuscitated three times before we managed to stabilize her heart rate.”
“When will she wake up?”
“There’s been a great deal of stress to your fiancée’s system. She’s lucky to be alive, and a coma is often the body’s way of healing itself.”
“You didn’t answer my question. When will Victoria wake up?” He watched the man closely. Searching for something, anything that would tell him Victoria was going to be all right.
“I can’t answer that, Mr. Barrows.” The regret on the doctor’s face sent an icy chill through Nick. Barely meeting his gaze, the doctor cleared his throat. “Her brain activity readings are unlike anything I’ve seen before. I’m not able to determine the level of brain damage.”
“What do you mean, brain damage?” Nick snarled as his insides tightened with dread.
“Her brainwaves appear to be continuously fluctuating between an active and almost vegetative state.”
A perplexed frown wrinkled the doctor’s brow. “I’m at a loss to explain it. I’ve called in our best neurologist to see if she has any answers.”
“So, Victoria could easily wake up at any moment.”
“Possibly, but I’ve no idea how extensive the brain damage—”
“I want to see her.” Nick’s demand made the other man nod.
“Of course, but first we need to sew up that gash on your leg and cheek. The cut on your face isn’t too bad…” Dr. Bertram frowned. “But that leg definitely needs attention now. I’m surprised one of the nurses didn’t shuttle you off to one of the trauma bays.”
“It can wait.”
“No, Mr. Barrows, it can’t. When we’ve fixed your wounds, I’ll make sure you see your fiancée.”
“Fine.” Reluctantly, Nick agreed to the doctor’s inflexible command with a sharp nod. “And I’ll need something to sleep on. I intend to stay with her.”
“Is that wise, Nick?” His sister’s brow was creased with worry. “What good does it do if you stay with her?”
“I want to be there when she wakes up.”
“Mr. Barrows, even if she does wake up, it could be days, weeks, even longer before she does so.” The doctor’s protest only reinforced the conviction taking root inside him and growing stronger by the second.
“Have you ever had a medical case surprise you, Dr. Bertram?”
“On occasion, but your fiancée—”
“My fiancée is going to surprise you. Victoria is going to surprise everyone, except me. Now get me sewn up so I can see her.”
Nicholas ushered Vickie out of Goodman Cottage. His wife looked presentable despite the mud-stained gown she wore. He also noted there was a significant amount of blood on the shoulder of her dress. More than one might expect from the size of the cut on her forehead. That fact didn’t just puzzle him, he found it disturbing.
Usually it was easy to see through Vickie’s deceptions, and it irritated him that he’d failed to catch her in an outright lie yet. But that was about to change. Nicholas walked to where Zeus was tethered and quickly mounted the stallion. Pawing the ground, the restless animal danced about as Vickie drew near. Without any visible effort, he brought the animal under control.
“You’ll have to ride pillion, madam.”
He smiled coldly at her as he offered his hand to her. If there was one thing Vickie was afraid of, it was horses. She never rode, and even riding behind him would probably terrify the hell out of her.
“Don’t you have another horse?”
“Another horse?” Nicholas murmured with satisfaction as he waited for Vickie to demand he return home and send a carriage for her.
“Yes. One for me to ride.” Her response was so unexpected all he could do was stare at her in amazement. It wasn’t a pleasant sensation to be at a loss for words where Vickie was concerned.
“Why the devil would I bring a horse for you when you don’t ride?” he snapped as he gestured for her to step forward.
“Because I’ve been riding since I was a kid,” she said with obvious exasperation.
Without blinking an eye, she boldly and fearlessly walked up to Zeus. The stallion turned his head in her directions, and she stroked the bridge of his nose as if it were something she’d done a thousand times before. Stunned, Nicholas remained silent as his wife hitched up her skirts, accepted his hand, and jumped up behind him. The instant his hand touched hers a bolt of electricity vibrated through him. It was the same sensation he’d experienced every time he’d touched her today.
She wiggled into a comfortable position behind him then wrapped her arms about his waist. The heat of her pressing into his back made him go rigid. Christ Jesus, what the hell was wrong with him reacting to her like this. This was Vickie. A woman who enjoyed humiliating him whenever the opportunity presented itself.
With a nudge of his heel, he urged Zeus forward, guiding them into the trees behind the cottage. The trail they followed opened up onto a large green expanse of pasture land sprinkled with patches of melting snow. As they rode out into the sunshine, Vickie rested her forehead on his shoulder. Was she going to be sick again? God help him, she could be pregnant with Darby’s bastard. He wanted to kill her in that brief second. He grimaced. Ironic given so many people thought he’d already done so.
“Are you feeling ill again?” he asked coldly.
“No,” she said. “Your shoulder just makes a good sunshade. I wish I had my sunglasses.”
Tension crept into his muscles at the response. It was a minor complaint, but nowhere in her voice or words was there a hint of the spoiled, petulant woman he was married to. Whatever game she was playing, she was doing so with a skill that surpassed anything Vickie had displayed before. As Zeus reached the top of the knoll overlooking Brentwood Park, she raised her head and gasped.
“Is that Brentwood Park?”
“Yes. It was part of your dowry.” He failed to keep the bitterness out of his voice. Damnation, he knew better than to let her see she could evoke a response in him.
“That was a wedding present?” she muttered with disbelief.
Once again, her reaction baffled him. A dowry wasn’t a wedding present. It was a business transaction. But the incredulous note in her voice actually sounded genuine. He suppressed a snort of disgust. Vickie had never been sincere about anything in her entire life. Her first and only concern was for herself.
“Which of your friends shall we notify first about your safe return?” he asked coldly.
“Do we have to tell anyone?” Her trepidation ignited a bitter rage inside him.
“Madam, in the past three weeks, I’ve been questioned by the police, accused of murder, and subjected to veiled insults from most of the Marlborough Set,” he snarled. “Considering the rumors surrounding your disappearance, I intend to let everyone know you’re alive and well.”
“Oh Lord, I’m sorry,” she gasped. “I didn’t realize—of course we’ll have to tell people your wife has…that I’ve returned.”
“I’ll send a notice to the Times and Daily Telegraph today,” he bit out fiercely.
“I really am sorry, but the thought of questions…I’ve never really liked being the center of attention.” Her soft comment made him snort with a hefty dose of cynical amusement.
“I don’t recall you ever being reticent when it came to talking about yourself, my dear.”
“Well that must have been boring.”
The dry note of humor in her words shot a bolt of tension through his body. God help him, he could almost believe she wasn’t Vickie. Bitterness quickly crushed his doubts.
“Your exploits have been never boring, my dear. Decadent and depraved perhaps, but never boring.”
Her gasp illustrated the brutality of his statement, and his immediate regret angered him. Damn it. Once again, she’d succeeded in making him feel like a bastard. It was a sensation his wife had never aroused in him before, and he didn’t like it. Silence surrounded them as Zeus carried them with ease across the pastures until they reached the manor’s front door. Tall and cadaverous looking, his butler, Jamieson, hurried down the wide, marble steps to greet them.
“Welcome home, my lord. May we express our delight at her ladyship’s safe return?”
Nicholas smiled grimly at the man. Behind him, Vickie sighed softly. Was there a hint of regret in that sound? No, he knew his wife too well. With a limber movement, he swung his good leg over Zeus’s neck and slid to the ground.
“Thank you, Jamieson. Her ladyship and I appreciate your good wishes.”
Nicholas turned and grasped Vickie by the waist then lowered her to the ground. The intensity of the heat flooding through him as her body slid down his chest sucked a sharp breath from him. What the fuck was wrong with him? Not even before their wedding had he experienced this visceral type of sensation where his wife was concerned.
It was such an intense physical connection with her that it stunned him. Staring into the brilliance of her sapphire eyes, he saw a glimmer of fear. Nicholas frowned at her, and she averted her gaze. Why would she fear him? He mentally shook his head. He was letting her odd behavior get the better of him. Disgusted with his reaction to her, he put some distance between them and turned to his butler.
“Jamieson, the countess has suffered a head injury and is having difficulty with her memory. Please inform the staff she may require assistance remembering where things are.” Not waiting for the butler to reply, he turned back to her. “If you require anything ask for Mrs. Beechum.”
“Thank you.” Her quiet, pleasant reply aroused the devil in him.
“Perhaps I should mention that we have guests coming for the weekend.”
“Guests?” The alarm in her voice amused him. He’d rarely seen Vickie unnerved by anything, but her apprehension was clearly visible.
“Friends of mine. Naturally, if the idea of entertaining is an overwhelming one, I’ll be happy to express your regrets.”
Nicholas couldn’t resist taunting her. The moment Vickie learned Eleanor was in the house, she’d reveal herself, and this ridiculous game she was playing would end. With restrained amusement, he watched uncertainty flit over her features before she narrowed her gaze at him.
“Why do I get the feeling you’re hoping I’ll make a scene?”
“Hoping? My dear, I’ve come to expect tantrums where you’re concerned,” he said with a scornful smile.
The Countess of Guildford was in for an unpleasant surprise. A twinge of guilt pricked his conscience at the confused look of alarm sweeping over her features. He crushed the emotion. Vickie had never displayed a care for anyone’s feelings, and he was not about to have her make a mockery of him with this pretense of hers.
“Your wife must be a real bitch to make you hate her so much.”
The quiet words make him jerk with surprise as he tried to convince himself the sympathy on her lovely face was a farce. Speechless, he managed to maintain a stoic expression as she turned and followed Jamieson into the house. He’d fully expected a tirade, not this dignified condemnation of his mockery.
With a shake of his head, he watched her disappear into the manor. Damn if the woman wasn’t acting strangely. If he didn’t know better, he’d say she was telling the truth. But then Vickie only told the truth when it suited her. He’d learned that particular lesson all too well the day of their wedding.