Excerpt from Lady Midnight

   
     As she examined this mysterious landscape, breathed in the fresh, crisp air, her deep fears of being left alone melted away in her heart and she felt a measure of the great peace. All her life she had lived among noisy places where a girl could easily lose herself in the chaos—or never find herself at all.
     Maybe here, in the fresh, crisp air, she could begin to find out who Kate truly was. If she really wanted to know. Was she the daughter of the wild Lucrezia Bruni, looking forward to following in her mother's flamboyant footsteps? Was she dependent on other people to survive, or could she depend only on herself? What did she truly seek?
     That was why she had come here.
     Kate closed her eyes and inhaled deeply of the crisp, clean breeze, with no taint of the teeming city. She listened very carefully to the quiet. The distant bleat of the sheep, the whistle of the wind, the rumble of wheels...
     Wheels?
     Kate's eyes flew open, her moment of rural transcendence abruptly finished. Surely the post chaise driver could not be back so soon? She did want to reach Thorn Hill, to meet the people she would be living with and working for. But this time was surprisingly fine, too, this just being alone, being silent, not having anyone look at her or expect something from her. Before, the solitude frightened her. Now she found she was loath to let it go just yet. And she wasn't terribly eager to see who was coming, either. It might be someone like that leering coachman.
     She stood up and peered down the road, lifting her hand to the edge of her bonnet to shield her eyes from the gray glare of the sky. There was a carriage coming toward her, but not from the direction the coachman took off in. And it was not the portly coachman. It was a man wielding the reins of a handsome little curricle.
     The vehicle slowed as it reached the banked post chaise, rolling to a halt as the man tugged back on the reins. He twisted on the curricle seat to face her, his lips curved in a smile beneath the brim of his hat.
     Not just an ordinary, everyday smile. A dazzling sunburst glow of a grin that lit up the gloomy day. The sheer, unexpected beauty, the welcome wonder of it, made Kate involuntarily fall back a step. She felt the roughness of the rock at the back of her knees, forcing her to halt or fall backward in a most inelegant way. She glanced behind her to see if there was someone else he might be smiling at, someone who had crept up on the moors.
     There was no one. Only sheep.
     Kate turned back, and gave him a hesitant smile of her own.
     He climbed down from the high seat of the curricle, and Kate was absurdly shocked to see that the man with the heavenly smile moved in a distinctly earth-bound manner. His left leg was stiff, unbending, as he stepped to the ground. For one second, he held on to the carriage, as if to get his balance, but when he walked it was with a vigorous strength. He swept his hat off politely, and light brown waves of glossy hair fell over his brow in glorious disarray. The wind played with it, as if with caressing fingers, and he impatiently pushed back the unruly locks.
     Kate knew it was very rude of her, but she stared at him agape—she couldn't seem to help herself. He was like an avenging angel, a warrior god of ancient days, pulled out of a Renaissance fresco in Venice and deposited on this lonely English road. She recalled a Botticelli painting she had once seen, of Mars and Venus. Mars was reclining, asleep, under Venus's watchful gaze, his head thrown back, dark curls falling away from the sculpted planes of his face.
     Kate had stood there in that gallery, entranced by his beautiful face, wondering what the dreams of such a slumber could be. She wished she was that Venus, so quiet, so watchful, so—so triumphant that such a man was sprawled across her bed, all his thoughts of war melted away under her caress, leaving only love. Now Kate had an inkling of how Venus must have felt, since Botticelli's Mars stood before her now, dropped practically at her feet in this unlikely spot.
     He had the same sharp cheekbones, the same sculpted jaw and aquiline nose. If he wore a drape of gauzy cloth and nothing else, the resemblance would be absolutely complete.
     Kate almost laughed aloud at that mental image, and clapped her gloved hand to her mouth. Of course the man would not wear just a piece of gauze over his loins—this was Yorkshire, not Venice during Carnevale, when any sort of outlandish costume could be seen. Indeed, this man was dressed quite conventionally, even conservatively, in fawn doeskin breeches and a well-cut blue coat, his waistcoat a plain gray, his impeccable white cravat simply tied. A black greatcoat was pushed back carelessly, and the hat he held was black and low crowned, stylish enough but not ostentatious. Quietly expensive—and Kate should know, since judging a man's worth at first glance had been an important part of her education.
     His eyes narrowed a bit as he peered up the slope at her, tiny lines fanning out from the edges of his eyes. Eyes that Kate could tell, even at this distance, were blue. A sharp, piercing pale blue, vivid as the Italian sky.
     For one endless second, suspended out of time, Kate forgot to breathe. The moor whirled around her, dipping and swaying dizzily, until she was forced to close her eyes against it. She feared, knew, she would fall—until a strong hand caught her arm, steadying her.
     Her eyes flew open, and she stared directly up into that sky-blue gaze.
     His hand on her arm was so warm, burning, even through her sleeve and his glove. It felt safe. She had an overpowering longing to lean into him, into that heat, and she even swayed toward his broad chest before the deep flow of his voice stopped her.
     "Are you ill, madam?" he asked in obvious concern. It was a lovely voice, deep and slightly rough but warm, just like a prosecco on a chilly night. It matched the man. But it was not an Italian voice, lilting and flowing. The vowels were clipped, sharp with upper-class accents as Edward's had been. As Julian Kirkwood's.
     Somehow, that added to this man's powerful attraction, his aura of quiet strength—and made him slightly dangerous to her. She had come to England to leave old ways, old temptations and lessons, behind. She hadn't even looked at a man with attraction since her near drowning. She even thought those ways were buried beneath the waves.
     But old temptations were not so far behind her as she wished. She would have to be careful.
     "I—I am quite well, thank you," she murmured, stepping back from him. Her voice sounded weak and breathless, and she couldn't quite bring herself to look directly up into those heaven-colored eyes. So she stared at the knot in his cravat. But there was nothing she could do about his warmth, which beckoned to her like a mischievous demon.
     "You're trembling," he said. "It's too cold for you to be standing about here."
     Cold? No. It was not cold here. It was as hot as a Mediterranean island. The trembling came from deep inside herself.
     "Obviously there was some mishap with the post chaise. It was criminal of the driver to leave you here all alone, madam!" he continued, his voice full of indignation.
     "Oh, no, it was my fault. You see, I cannot ride a horse—" Her words broke off on a gasp as he suddenly pulled off his greatcoat and swept it about her shoulders.
     She was completely surrounded now by that heat, by his clean scent of pine soap, starch, wool, and—and something deeper. Darker.
     "That is no excuse for the driver," he said, drawing the coat closer about her. The leather of his glove brushed her throat, the tender underside of her jaw. A new shiver went right down to her very toes, making them tingle inside her thick stockings and half boots. "But this should make you warmer."
     "Now you will be cold!" she protested, and tried to give the coat back.
     His clasp tightened, holding the wool against her. "I'm used to the Yorkshire wind. You're not, madam."
     "How can you tell?" she asked, chagrined. She had worked so hard to fit in with English ways!
     He smiled at her, that bold, white grin she had thought an angel's smile when she first saw it. Now she knew she was wrong. It was a pirate's smile, one designed to draw hapless maidens across perilous oceans to his side, no matter what the danger.
     But Kate was no hapless maiden. She might still be a virgin, yet she had never been hapless. She had seen too much, learned too much, in her mother's house. Men were to be laughed at, humored, amused, and used.
     But here, at this moment, she felt very young and foolish. Hapless, helpless, before a pirate's smile.
     Don't be a fool, she told herself sternly. Don't ruin this new life before it has even begun.
     "I know most of the people in the neighborhood," the pirate angel answered, seemingly oblivious to her own inner turmoil. "I have never met you before, or I'm sure I would remember. Indeed I would."
     Kate laughed at this little flattery, at the mischievous glint in his gaze. She had seen such glints before, and it made her feel like she was back on a surer footing.
     His smile widened, as if encouraged by her laughter. "Also, madam, there is your accent. Most assuredly not of a Yorkshire bent."
     "I do not have very much of an accent, sir," Kate protested. "I was told that I speak English very well."
     "It is charming," he said assuringly. "And really hardly noticeable. It is just that I once traveled a great deal, and spent time in Italy." His smile turned wry at the edges, almost self-mocking. "In what seems like a million years ago."
     "Yes," Kate murmured. "I know what it's like to remember previous lives."
     One light brown brow arched inquiringly. "Do you? A previous life left behind in your homeland?"
     Kate deeply hoped so. "Of course," she said, forcing a careless little laugh. "It seems Italy is another world. A faraway star. Or maybe it was just a dream."
     "And speaking of Italy..." His voice trailed away as he paused, his smile fading. "I am ridiculously stupid."
     "Sir?" Kate asked, surprised by this sudden turn in the conversation.
     "Forgive me. Would you happen to be Mrs. Brown? I doubt any other Italian ladies would be running about the Yorkshire countryside." His expression turned apologetic, as if he was chagrined at what he called his stupidity. "I fear we did not expect you until tomorrow."
     Expect her? Kate stepped back from him, away from his warmth. Could this man be—was he her employer?
     Of course he was. Who else could he be? She had been faintly hoping that Mr. Lindley would prove to be old and plain, set in his ways, easy to disregard. Instead, he was an angel-god, well named for Michael the archangel.
     San Marco. But this was not good.
     "I—why, yes. I am Mrs. Kate Brown," she said, her throat dry and the words cracking.
     "I should have introduced myself immediately. I am Mr. Michael Lindley, of course. I believe you are to be our new governess." His smile, she fancied, was now not nearly so flirtatious. It was much more careful, more polite. He stepped back a bit, to a respectable distance.
     As she should be, at all times.
     She nervously touched her numb lips with the tip of her tongue, and said, "You are Mr. Lindley."
     His gaze flickered over her mouth, then shot away from her past her shoulder to some point in the scenery. So she was not completely alone in her strange, dizzy attraction—much good it could do her, since she was his respectable employee. Things must remain on a professional footing here in gray Yorkshire.
 
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