Enjoy an excerpt from Stirring Passions by Maggi Andersen
Kate had walked for an hour. Grey clouds had drifted in from the horizon, the air heavy with the expectation of more rain. Hot and sticky, she stopped to swat a persistent bluebottle and spied juicy blackberries on the bushes along the river. She pulled off her bonnet and tucked up her dress, exposing her half boots and legs up to the knee, confident no one was there to disapprove. Then she clambered down the steep bank. She was absorbed with picking the ripest berries whilst avoiding the prickles, her fingers stained purple, when a horse nickered. She swung around. A rider had stopped to watch her.
Kate tugged her gown down over her legs. The rider was undoubtedly a gentleman. His tan riding coat hugged his broad shoulders in a fashion only a Bond Street tailor could produce. Kate eyed his glossy riding boots and, though she generally cared little for her appearance, hid her stained fingers behind her back.
The black stallion pawed the ground, its nostrils steaming. The man’s dark brows rose in inquiry, and his grey gaze swept over her, making her more aware of her disheveled appearance. A muscle quivered in his jaw. “What are you doing on my land?” She stared at him. “Your land?”
“I am Lord Broughton from the Hall.” His expression made her suspect he thought her simple.
Kate picked up her skirts and climbed back to the path, vexed, when she noticed the blackberry stain on a flounce her mother’s sharp gaze would find. “How can I be sure you’re telling the truth?” she said, annoyed with his attitude.
At her approach, the Arab stallion snorted and danced back. The man steadied his mount, a glimmer of amusement in his eyes. “As I carry no identification with me, you shall have to take my word for it. Are you a servant from Firth Manor?”
Insulted, Kate pulled her bonnet straight. Jutting out her chin, she managed to look the rather fearsome Lord Broughton directly in the eye without flinching. “I am Katherine Kilgarth of Roseheath Manor.” She pointed in an easterly direction with one berry-stained finger. “My home is but two miles away over that hill.” Curiosity got the better of her. “Are you about to reopen Broughton Hall? The house has been boarded up for years. No one has lived there for as long as I can remember.”
The stallion stamped its feet, a big black eye on her, which she fancied was filled with impatience. Lord Broughton merely rested his hands on the pommel. “That cannot be so long ago, Miss Kilgarth.” He nudged his chin back along the path. “Do you come this way often? Why?” There was a slightly teasing note in his voice that seemed at odds with the aloofness of his expression.
“It’s a shortcut when I visit the Manor. Surely, my small presence can’t bother anyone,” Kate said pointedly. She was beginning to feel like a poacher. “But if it does, please be assured I shall walk the long way around in the future.”
“So, my blackberries will be safe from further assault?”
Kate flushed. She glanced at him from beneath her bonnet. Was there the suggestion of a smile hovering about his mouth?
“Good day to you then, Miss Kilgarth. I daresay we shall see more of each other, village life being what it is.” He lifted his hat to reveal a thick thatch of coal-black hair. He was a Broughton all right. She’d seen a portrait of his father with the same hair and grey eyes.
Kate had little time to respond, as he’d given the powerful horse its head and galloped over the rise to disappear amongst the beech trees of the home wood. She trudged along the path, cursing her scruffy appearance. A man such as he would think her a rustic. Next time, she would wear her new spotted muslin with the yellow sash. But there would be no next time. He had been quite insistent about that. And he had not answered her question. Would he rebuild the west wing of the Hall? The village would be alive with gossip. She’d accompany her mother when she went shopping this afternoon.