From Ruin to Riches(9)

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 She shook her head in silent refusal to confide. Will studied the composed, withdrawn, face in the firelight. He had never met a woman like her. Even in this state she seemed to have the self-possession of someone older, an established matron, not a girl of perhaps twenty-two or three.

 In the candlelight her skin was not fashionably pale, but lightly coloured by the sun. Her hands, clasped loosely in her lap, were like her whole body—strong and graceful with the physical confidence that came from fitness and exercise. She moved, her cuff pulled back and he saw bruises on her wrist, black and purple and ugly. That a woman should be under his protection and yet he could not avenge such treatment was shameful. No, she must not go back to that, he could do that for her at least.

 ‘I hope your father did not know that his heir would wilfully ignore the expertise you could have shared with him,’ he said at last when a log broke in the grate, sending up a shower of sparks and jerking him back from his bitter reverie. ‘I know all too well the character of my own heir, my cousin Henry. He’ll squander away the lifeblood of the estate within a year or two—that’s all it took him to lose what was not tied down of his own inheritance.’

 ‘You are estranged from him?’ Miss Prior’s face was expressive when she allowed it to be. Now the little frown between the strongly marked dark brows showed concern. She was too tall, no beauty. One would almost say she was plain, except for the regularity of her features and the clarity of her gaze. And the generous curve of lips that hinted at a sensuality she was probably unaware of.

 Will felt a frisson of awareness run through him, just as he had when she had held him in her arms on the bridge, and cursed mentally. He did not need something else to torture him and certainly not for his body to decide it was interested in women again. If he could not make love with the stamina and finesse that had caused his name to be whispered admiringly amongst certain ladies, then he was not going to settle for second best.

 A wife, he had realised, was out of the question. He had known he must release Caroline from their betrothal, but it had shocked him, a little, how eagerly she had snatched at the offer amidst tearful protestations that she was not strong enough to witness his suffering. She was a mass of sensibility and high-strung nerves and he had found her delicate beauty, her total reliance on his masculine strength, charming enough to have talked himself half into love with her. To have expected strength of will, and the courage to face a husband’s lingering death, was to have expected too much.

 Miss Prior was waiting patiently for him to answer her question, he realised. Will jerked his wandering thoughts back. ‘Estranged? No, Henry’s all right deep down. He’s not vicious, just very immature and spoilt rotten by his mama. If he wasn’t about to inherit this estate I’d watch his antics with interested amusement. As it is, I’d do just about anything to stop him getting his hands on it for a few years until he grows up and learns to take some responsibility.’

 ‘But you cannot afford to do that, of course.’ Miss Prior had relaxed back into the deep wing chair. Another five minutes and she would be yawning. He was selfish to keep her here talking when she should be asleep, but the comfort of company and the release of talking to this total stranger was too much to resist.

 ‘No. I cannot.’ I cannot save the only thing left to me that I can love, the only thing that needs me. My entire world. There must be a way. In the army before he had inherited, and in the time he had been master of King’s Acre, he had relied both on physical prowess and his intellect to deal with problems. Now he had only his brain. Will tugged the bell pull. ‘Go to bed, Miss Prior. Things will look better in the morning.’

 ‘Will they?’ She got to her feet as the footman came in.

 ‘Sometimes they do.’ It was important to believe that. Important to believe that he would think of something to get King’s Acre out of this coil, important to hope that the doctors were wrong and that he had more time. If he could only make time, stretch it...

 ‘Goodnight, my lord.’ She did not respond to his assertion and he rather thought there was pity in those grey eyes as she smiled and followed James out of the room.

 The ghost of an idea stirred as he watched the straight back, heard the pleasant, assured manner with which she spoke to the footman before the door closed. A competent, intelligent, brave lady. Will let his head fall back, closed his eyes and followed the vague thought. Stretch time? Perhaps there was a way after all. Unless he was simply giving himself false hope.

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