(Leicester Manor, 1813)
Kane de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, could not stand the fact that he was left stranded in the woods… again. Served him right for going against his better judgement thinking he could tame that wild beast. Blowing out a long exasperated sigh, he pushed a low-lying branch out of his way, drier ones crunching sharply beneath his boots. The humongous beast of a horse had none but thrown him off its back and down into a pile of, what he’d never admit to anyone was, animal droppings. Using a handkerchief to remove the excess filth from his cloak, he then took hurried strides in the direction of his house.
It was evening and he could already imagine the pitiful glare his mother, the dowager countess, would be giving him the moment he stepped through the foyer. Lady Victoria always had thought him too impulsive for his own good. Whatever the case, Kane de Montfort thrived on the thrill of any intense a situation. It was his way of passing time actually. Perhaps, his only way of forgetting the one thing that his mother thought he should be devoting his attention to at the moment. And that was finding himself a wife and eventually, his an heir to the earldom. Lady Victoria never hesitated or ceased to remind him exactly of how old he was getting; bear in mind, Kane had only just turned five and twenty. Regardless of what the dowager thought was best, he was in no hurry to make a heir. Nor did he feel entirely hasty to attend any of those boring Season balls, sieving through the light-headed debutantes who were all desperate for a title. He was far better off downing some whiskey with his friends, Davenport and Ridley, while pinching some brothel maids on their rounded bottoms.
Reaching for his cravat, which all of a sudden felt to be choking him, he loosened and removed it from his neck, and then smiled when he saw the third story of Leicester Manor’s main house coming up into his view above the tree tops. The sudden splashing of water broke his focus and Kane found himself staring blankly at the trunk of a large oak tree; the rushing stream that lay merely feet beyond it. His brows furrowed. It was spring, the birds chirping away even at irritatingly inappropriate times never let him forget. But he couldn’t imagine what fool could be out for a swim in that stream which must be freezing, nonetheless. Giving the house one last glance, knowing someone would be out looking for him by the lone return of that beast of a horse, he then turned in the direction of the stream. Cursing as another branch almost gouged his eye out, he impatiently stomped his way through the sticks and stubble, and emerged out onto thick flat grass and the open sunlight. Flicking a stray lock of hair from his eye, he stared out into the wide flowing waters and frowned. Whoever–or whatever–had been enjoying an evening bath must have sensed his presence and taken a hasty leave. A sensible one at that. For no one should be swimming in these waters, least of all servants who, he no doubt knew, must have their hands full and could afford no spare time at such an hour. Letting out a low breath, Kane turned on his heel and was about to be on his way, when surprise almost knocked him on his ass.
He knew his mouth must have dropped open but he quite could not help himself. He swallowed down a gulp as he watched a thick mass of dark brown hair emerge from the water, thrust over one slender shoulder and then ripples of water descending down a quite ravishing back. A naked back at that. Whoever the woman was, she was faced away from him, completely oblivious to his ogling eyes. Kane felt heat rush to his groin immediately and it took all his willpower not to shrug his clothes off and give the wench a good time. A sly smile curved his lips and he, besides his conscience warning him not to, took a few steps towards her. As if sensing his silent approach, the woman swung around with her arms barely covering her luscious breasts and the most beautiful brown eyes he had ever seen were wide with shock. And then shame. He frowned and faltered in his step. A hot blush crawled up her neck and then over the cheeks of a complexion he could not–did not–know how to decide properly. It was not as pale as the conventional beauties he’d met. Nor was it as dark as some of the several Negro servants he’d glimpsed around the manor. His eyes narrowed on her face. No, her complexion was somewhere in between. By God, the woman was gorgeous! Lust punched him in the groin and he sucked in a sharp breath. He could tell she was years younger than he was, probably eighteen. But light years more beautiful than many he had ever seen. Then she lowered her head and curtsied awkwardly.
“M-my Lord, I-I did not see you th-there… I beg your forgiveness.”
For a moment, he frowned with confusion and then sighed, shaking his head. Of course… She was a servant.
“Have you gone mad? That water must be freezing!” He forced his voice to be harsh.
“…’tis not that cold, my lord,” she said, besides the obvious shivering of her limbs.
“I disagree, wench. Now come out. I won’t be having anyone under my employ catching a chill if I can help it.” The blush in her cheeks deepened and she chanced him a pained glance. It was then that he realized her silent request and he tore his eyes away from her, smiling smugly. Many men he knew would have just taken her right there and then, but somehow the gentleman within him won over. Turning his back reluctantly to her, Kane decided to count to twenty. ….. eleven.. twelve..
“I must be on my way now, my lord.”
“Ahh… You must be, don’t you?” And he spun around to face her again. She was dressed in a plain brown dress which, besides its ugliness, clung to her damp body sweetly in his favour.
“Yes, my lord.” Her head remained bowed. “It was stupid of me to–“
“I daresay, why is your name?”
She stiffened. “Marie, my lord.”
“Marie,” Kane muttered, as if tasting the substance of her name. “Tell me, Marie, how long have you been working at Leicester Manor?” Kane sourly could not believe he had not seen her before. Either way, it was not as if he had paid much attention to the servant girls anyway. But this one… This one, this beautiful face, he knew he could never have missed.
“Two days, my lord. I was hired for the wash rooms.”
Kane blinked and glanced at her small graceful hands. He could not picture them in their delicateness, scrubbing and pounding linen from dusk till dawn. “I see…” he muttered and eyed her through hooded eyes. Her hair hung in a tangled damp mess and her face was slightly pale from her chilled soak. He allowed his gaze to travel over her countenance. A small pink mouth sat above a slightly cleft chin, tempting him like none had ever before. He’d never felt so intrigued by a woman, least of all a servant girl. He must be losing his mind. Her nose was small, plump but cute, and her eyes like rich mocha with tiny light-brown linings around the pupils. She lowered her gaze to the ground and he smiled. She was nervous. He’d never had such a response from a woman before (most would readily be flinging themselves at his feet). And it did certain things to his manhood that should be deemed illegal. “You have quite beautiful eyes.”
She gasped, her head jerking upwards. She then shook it rapidly and lowered it once again. “My lord, please… I must get back to my duties.”
“Very well, then.” He gave a dismissive wave of his hand. “But we shall meet again. Marie.”
Nodding, she curtsied again and then gathered her skirts in her hands, speeding off in the direction of the manor. It was a few seconds later that one of the stable boys, named Ben, called out breathlessly from behind him.
“My lord… are you well? When Mystic returned without you I suspected some sort of… tragedy.” The boy choked out that last word.
“Tragedy?” Kane laughed and puffed out his chest. “Ben, my boy, must you insult my lineage. Am I not the formidable Earl of Leicester?”
Ben blinked and lowered his head. “So I’ve heard. M-may I speak openly, my lord?”
He swallowed visibly and stammered. “I don’t think it’s my place, my lord, but–“
“Out with it already, Ben.” Kane scratched the back of his head with impatience.
“I’ve heard around that you’re quite f-famous with the ladies, my lord.” Ben grinned crookedly and more confidently just now. “You are somewhat of a legend within the village, I’d say. No wonder Her Ladyship has brought Lady Jessica to the manor to see you. I hear that you two are new–“
“Hold your bullets, boy!” Kane’s lips flattened into a thin line as he regarded the teenage boy suspiciously. “Lady Jessica is here? Now?”
He nodded, looking somewhat frisky. Perhaps because he knew he was providing significant information. “Yes, my lord. I tended to her carriage myself.”
Kane could not believe what he was hearing. His mother was at it again. Bloody matchmaking woman! And with that… that blabbering Lady Jessica at that. He had never met a female more talkative and conceited in his life. His taking that woman as his countess would be a matchmaking for Lady Victoria, alright. But for him… a damn matchmaking from hell! He had tried his very best to avoid the pompous Jessica Barnaby, daughter of Viscount Gerald Barnaby, for weeks. And now, she was in his house… Presumably, soon getting ready to sit her loquacious behind at his dining table. Kane could not think of a worst punishment.
Groaning, he glanced at the boy who was still grinning away and then sighed. The first thing he’d make sure to get as soon as he stepped through those doors…
…was a few downs of scotch.