Lord Lucas Cavanaugh stood on the steps of Castle Bascomb, a letter from his mother in one hand, a lead rope attached to a disgruntled donkey in the other. The beast of burden emitted a plaintive bray, his grizzled gray coat capturing the quickly falling snowflakes in soft, plush hair.
Behind Lucas, the walls of his family’s estate soared upward to the expansive roofs. Snow sifted over the sand-colored stone and piled on the window embrasures, drifting in white piles at the corners where weathered towers jutted out from the main building.
Before him, the stable hand’s figure grew steadily smaller as he crossed the drive and turned toward the stables, eaten up by the winter sky.
Lucas sighed, stepped down onto the compact gravel drive, and repeated the man’s explanation out loud. “From Her Grace, my lord.”
The donkey brayed a second time; his plaintive call seemed faintly foreboding and was perfectly timed. “Right you are, donkey. Anything to do with my mother is cause for concern.”
Lucas squinted as he read the scarlet letters embroidered on the halter’s black leather nose strap. “Reginald? Rather stuffy name for an ass, wouldn’t you agree?”
As it seemed unlikely the donkey would reply, Lucas turned to the missive and broke the wax seal, unfolding the creamy foolscap to reveal his mother’s grand, scrawling handwriting.
Reginald was discovered in the greenhouse, happily nibbling away on Cook’s parsley and chives. Needless to say, Cook was not amused. The donkey must go. Please return him to Jane at once.
And Lucas, might I suggest you take full advantage of this opportunity to tell Jane you love her? As your dear father (God rest his soul) was so fond of saying, “There is no time quite like the present.” Besides, your moping about the castle is casting a rather gloomy pallor upon the holidays, my dear.
With the greatest of affection,
Lucas hastily refolded the letter and shoved it into his vest pocket. Staring hard at the long leather strap in his hand, he wrestled with the dark, cold regret that had settled in his chest the moment he’d read Jane Merriweather’s name.
And with good reason. He’d realized Jane was the love of his life some seven months past, then promptly escaped to the Hebrides, driven by wild panic and irrational fear.
Seven months, as it turned out, was not a sufficient number of hours, days, and weeks to recover from such cowardice. Nor, unfortunately, was it enough time to forget a woman. Especially not the woman.
Reginald brayed loudly and tossed his head, the lead bobbing and dancing about in the gathering snow that was swiftly covering the gravel drive beneath a light blanket of white.
There were days Lucas regretted telling his brother Matthew, the Duke of Bascomb, the entire, painful story. Because Matthew had confided in his wife, Matilda, who’d then felt it necessary to inform the dowager duchess.
This was one of those days.
Lucas reluctantly recalled last spring. Having just returned from a fishing trip to Scotland, Lucas had no more than settled in to the Bascombs’ London townhome when word of Jane’s broken engagement reached him. They’d spent the following week together, nearly inseparable as Lucas consoled his dear friend with leisurely strolls in Hyde Park, ices at Gunther’s—anything and everything that London could offer to keep her mind from dwelling on Baron McKee’s elopement to Gretna Greene with Lord Smelten’s horse-faced daughter.
Their week together had been, in a word, revealing. Lucas could not recall a time when they’d had only each other to focus on, with no clamoring family or well-meaning friends to interfere.
Jane’s infectious smile had suddenly sent twists of happiness spiraling in his heart. Fractured patterns of sunlight capturing the golden hue of her hair forced unexpected sighs from his lips. The quality of her voice as she spoke of life, of their home, of their triumphs and failures, soothed his senses and spoke to his soul.
Had Lucas really been so monumentally stupid for all those years? He loved Jane. There was a distinct possibility this had been true for some time. And he’d mucked up perfection in order to satisfy his wanderlust. He’d mentally kicked himself for such foolishness, then gone straightaway to confront Jane, only to find her in the most shocking condition.
Jane had been foxed. Thoroughly so.
Nothing could’ve surprised Lucas more, until she suddenly professed her love for him and begged him to stay the night. The candlelight had warmed the room with a low glow, the heavy intent in her sapphire blue eyes intoxicating. She’d fallen asleep against his shoulder before he could answer. He reluctantly released her into her maid’s care, and then proceeded to walk the streets of London until the sun shone over Tower Bridge, acquainting himself with the idea that life, as he knew it, would never be the same again.
When he’d returned to Jane’s townhome on the edge of Grosvenor Square, intent on telling her what he should have the night before, she’d gone. A letter explained that, while she was very thankful for his kindness, Jane did not wish to keep Lucas from the undoubtedly thrilling adventures he’d planned for the near future. He was not to follow her. She couldn’t bear the embarrassment of facing him after the unfounded and silly pronouncements she’d made in her “rather unsteady state.” But she would be well, she’d assured him. As she wished him to be.
Had he imagined her sincerity? There’d been no way to confirm or dispel the painful notion, other than chasing her down on the road to Surrey, which she’d specifically told him not to do.
Lucas was both a coward and a fool for not going after her.
Avoiding Jane for the next two weeks would be impossible. Besides, Lucas didn’t want to. When it came right down to it, he’d missed her terribly these many months. “Did it have to be an ass? They’ve a large stable at Juniper Hall. Surely one of the draft horses could have appeared? Would have made for more of a proud entrance, wouldn’t you agree?”
Clearly affronted at Lucas’s insult, Reginald’s ears lay flat against his head and his wiry tail swished back and forth at a menacing pace.