|Cover artist: Erin Dameron-Hill|
Viola, so named by her benefactor, Hugh Beauchamp, Duke of Vale, has lost her memory, along with her respectability, after being found dressed in a male servant’s clothes. She is a mystery unto herself, with her knowledge of books and Latin, and her skill at the pianoforte.
The duke has found Viola a temporary home with his nanny in a cottage on his estate, while danger lurks in the shadows and darkens her dreams. Viola must leave beautiful Vale Park before Hugh marries Lady Felicity, the neighbor’s daughter; their marriage arranged when they were children. And before Viola and Hugh succumb to an impossible passion. But what fate awaits her beyond the walls of Vale Park?
(First published as Rules of Conduct)
A shout roused Hugh from his reverie. With a curse, the coachman hauled the horses to a stop in the narrow lane. Hugh’s manservant, Peter, jumped down from the box.
“What’s amiss?” Hugh threw open the carriage door and leapt out, pistol in hand. It was years since highwaymen were seen in these parts and they’d come off the worse last time, with one man dead and the other wounded in his escape.
With dusk falling, it was shadowy and dim beneath the dense canopy of leaves.
“Here, Your Grace!” Peter called.
After a quick appraisal of the bushes crowding the road, Hugh ran to join his groom.
Peter was crouched beside a body lying on the road, perilously close to the horses’ plunging hooves.
A trick? Hugh tightened his grip on the pistol. “Back up the horses,” he urged his coachman. “Be quick about it.”
Peter grabbed the traces, and he and Jack edged the nervous horses away, their flesh quivering and their nostrils steaming in the cool air. With another glance at the silent, dark woods encroaching on both sides of the road, Hugh hunkered down beside the inert form. Gently rolling the body over, he reached into the lad’s shirt not expecting a heartbeat.
Hugh pulled his hand back as if stung. “Devil take us, ’tis a woman!” As he moved her, the woman’s cap fell off and long strands of fair hair escaped, spreading over her shoulders. “Bring a lantern here.”
While the coachman held the lantern high, Hugh gazed speechlessly at her. The thin material of her shirt barely concealed the thrust of firm young breasts beneath it. Pantaloons hugged her slender legs, and her bare feet were thick with grime. The shirt strings lay open across a delicate throat, where a jewel-encrusted silver locket gleamed in the lantern light.
Hugh smoothed hair away from her mud-streaked face. “No sign of bleeding, but she has a bump on her head the size of an egg.” He took hold of her wrist. She was far too pale, but her pulse felt strong.
“Cor, she ain’t half dirty, Your Grace.” Peter wrinkled his nose in distaste. “She smells of the barnyard.”
“That she does.” Hugh slipped his arms around her shoulders and beneath her knees. With scant regard for his silk-lined, multi-caped greatcoat, he hefted her up and placed her inside the coach. She failed to stir as he tucked a traveling rug around her.
“On to Vale Park, Jack.”
Night fell quickly in the country. A mist-shrouded moon added its frail light to the dim coach lanterns. The young woman lay motionless, her chest rising and falling, the only sign she lived. Not so much as a flicker when Hugh chaffed her hands. He could only hope that burned feathers or smelling salts would bring her round.
He turned her small hand over in his large one. Nails well cared for, skin soft and callous free. No evidence of hard labor. Not a housemaid then. A seamstress or a governess from one of the big houses in the district? What had driven her to dress as a page then? He sat back and studied her, her delicate features and long limbs, the incongruous footwear a young page would wear, from a good house by the look of it.
He leaned forward and fingered the locket. Was she absconding with it?