Late July, 1835.
Near Glossup Hall, by Ashmore, Dorset.
Hell and the devil!” Simon Cynster reined in his bays, his eyes narrowing on the ridge high above Ashmore village. The village proper lay just behind him; he was headed for Glossup Hall, a mile farther along the leafy country lane.
At the rear of the village cottages, the land rose steeply; a woman was following the path winding up the berm of what Simon knew to be ancient earthworks. The views from the top reached as far as the Solent, and on clear days even to the Isle of Wight.
It was hardly a surprise to see someone heading up there.
“No surprise she hasn’t anyone with her, either.” Irritation mounting, he watched the dark-haired, willowy, ineffably graceful figure steadily ascend the rise, a long-legged figure that inevitably drew the eye of any man with blood in his veins. He’d recognized her instantly—Portia Ashford, his sister Amelia’s sister-in-law.
Portia must be attending the Glossup Hall house party; the Hall was the only major house near enough from which to walk.
A sense of being imposed upon burgeoned and grew.
“Damn!” He’d yielded to the entreaties of his longtime friend James Glossup and agreed to stop by on his way to Somerset to support James through the trials of the house party. But if Portia was going to be present, he’d have trials enough of his own.
She reached the crest of the earthworks and paused, one slender hand rising to hold back the fall of her jet-black hair; lifting her face to the breeze, she stared into the distance, then, letting her hand fall, gracefully walked on, following the path to the lookout,
gradually descending until she disappeared from sight.
She’s no business of mine.
The words echoed in his head; God knew she’d stated the sentiment often enough, in various phrasings, most far more emphatic. Portia was not his sister, not his cousin; indeed, she shared no blood at all.
Jaw firming, he looked to his horses, took up the slack in the reins—
And inwardly cursed.
“Wilks—wake up, man!” Simon tossed the reins at his groom, until then dozing behind him. Pulling on the brake, he stepped down to the road. “Just hold them—I’ll be back.”
Thrusting his hands into his greatcoat pockets, he strode for the narrow path that led upward, ultimately joining the path from the Hall that Portia had followed up the rise.
He was only buying himself trouble—a sniping match at the very least—yet leaving her alone, unprotected from any wastrel who might happen along, was simply not possible, not for him. If he’d driven on, he wouldn’t have had a moment’s peace, not until she returned safe and sound to the Hall.
Given her propensity for rambling walks, that might not happen for hours.
He wouldn’t be thanked for his concern. If he survived without having his ego prodded in a dozen uncomfortable places, he’d count himself lucky. Portia had a tongue like a double-edged razor—no way one could escape being nicked. He knew perfectly well what her attitude would be when he caught up with her—precisely the same as it had been for the past decade, ever since he’d realized she truly had no idea of the prize she was, the temptation she posed, and was therefore in need of
constant protection from the situations into which she blithely sailed.
While she remained out of his sight, out of his orbit, she was not his responsibility; if she came within it, unprotected, he felt obliged to watch over her, to keep her safe—he should have known better than to try to fight the urge.
Of all the females he knew, she was unquestionably the most difficult, not least because she was also the most intelligent, yet here he was, trudging after her despite his certain reception; he wasn’t at all sure what that said of his intelligence.
Women! He’d spent the entire drive west considering them. His great-aunt Clara had recently died and left him her house in Somerset. The inheritance had served as a catalyst, forcing him to review his life, to rethink his direction, yet his unsettled state had a more fundamental genesis; he’d finally realized what it was that gave his older cousins and his sisters’ husbands their purpose in life.
The purpose he lacked.
Family—their own branch of it, their own children—their own wife. Such things had never seemed critical before; now they loomed as vital to his life, to his satisfaction with his lot.
A scion of a wealthy, wellborn family, he had a comfortable lot in life, yet what worth comfort against the lack of achievement he now felt so acutely? It wasn’t his ability to achieve that was in question—not in his mind, nor, he’d warrant, in any other—but the goal, the need, the reason; these were the necessities he lacked.