George’s former fiancée, Miss Caroline Mirringham, harbors a secret. She has trusted no man except her father and George, and now considers her future to be a desolate one. When her father proposes that Caroline marry Nicholas, she is filled with dread. The captain is nothing like his amiable brother. He looks altogether too strong and harsh. He would demand far more from her than she could give.
When Caroline arrived at Debenham Park with her parents, the mourner’s carriages were lined up along the gravel drive. The rambling stone house, which she’d begun to think of as her home, looked unfamiliar and unwelcoming, as if George’s spirit had left it. Inside the long drawing room, everyone gathered in a quiet huddle while food and drink was served by the sober-faced servants. She knew every member of the staff. They had suffered a sad loss too. George was universally liked.
The new earl stood with his Aunt Henrietta, holding a glass of Scotch, while recalling episodes from his and George’s childhood, his mellow baritone voice at odds with the stark expression in his eyes. Caroline stood close enough to hear him praise George: his love of horses and his skill at riding to hounds. The earl recalled how George had ridden bareback from an early age. “Taught me a few riding tricks too,” Lord Debenham said. “They came in handy at times on the Peninsular.”
Two of the guests standing behind her spoke of how strange it was that this had been George’s ultimate demise. “A woman can be a dangerous distraction,” one gentleman said.
Caroline flushed angrily and turned to glare at him. He had the grace to look shamefaced. She despised the opinionated men of the beau monde. She’d never met one she liked except George. George’s brother had given her little reason to warm to him, either.
When the captain spoke of his brother, his taut features softened. Seeing him vulnerable had a disturbing effect on her. George could never have been called handsome, but Nicholas undoubtedly was. Even while he stood with a glass in his hand, he seemed like a coiled spring. He tightened his chiseled jaw when he glanced at her, and his brown eyes drilled into hers, causing a nervous stirring deep in her belly.
Caroline smiled at Harold, the house’s lone footman, who, like Kettle, the butler, had been in service at Debenham Park for many years. She refused his offered plate of food, fearing her stomach would reject it. The image of George lying dead still flashed into her consciousness. A vigorous rider forever stilled. Her fingers trembled and she put down the crystal tumbler of lemonade on a table. Would that image never fade? It might be easier if she didn’t meet Nicholas Debenham again. She calmed herself with the realization that as her father hardly ever attended parliament and then only the Commons, he was unlikely to run into Lord Debenham. He rarely went to London these days preferring to remain in the country. It was unlikely she’d meet the earl socially here either so her withdrawal from society could continue undisturbed.