Susannah gazed out of the parlour window, watching the last vestiges of snow melting on the ground. She breathed a sigh of relief. Winter was finally leaving. Very soon, the first blossoms and buds of spring would burst forth, in a flurry of colour.
New life, she thought wistfully. It is good, and right that the seasons change. Time stops for no man.
The days were getting slightly longer, too. Now, she could walk the vast grounds of her country estate in Shropshire, without feeling as if she were about to freeze to death. Without having to scurry back to the house and hibernate near a roaring fire. She had been housebound, the whole of the winter. Wandering the long hallways of her home like a ghost.
She kept staring out the window, pensive. He has been gone for nearly a year, she thought. A whole year, where he hasn’t walked this Earth. He never saw this winter. He does not know that spring is about to come again.
Abruptly, she dropped the lace curtain, walking back to the upholstered chair by the fireplace. Her favourite chair. The basket with her embroidery was by its side; easily accessed, as she sat there, night after night, by herself. She would embroider and stare into the flames of the fire until weariness overcame her, and she drifted up the stairs to bed.
She gazed around the parlour. It had been styled to her taste; she had picked out most of this furniture, when she had come to live here, many years ago. The Abyssinian rug. The paintings that hung on the walls. The mahogany dresser. The rest had already been here, but she had learned to love it, as well. Somehow, it all came together.
How could she even think of leaving it behind?
Her heart twisted. It would be so hard. But then she thought of her parents, so far away, in rural Lincolnshire. They had only been to visit twice in the seven years she had been here, and she had only returned to her childhood home once. She missed them, and what, after all, was really left for her here, now? Her life was as empty as the winter grounds outside.
There was a soft knock on the door. Susannah sighed. “Come in.”
The door opened, and Mrs Lambert, her housekeeper, entered, balancing a silver tray in her hands. She smiled broadly, as she deposited the tray on the small table next to Susannah.
“Ready for your tea, Mrs Drake?” she asked, in her soft voice.
Susannah smiled. “I have told you a thousand times to call me Susannah, Amy.” She paused, her smile dropping slightly. “Mrs Drake no longer exists. And besides, you are my only friend, now.”
The young woman’s hazel eyes softened as she gazed at her mistress. Susannah noted for the hundredth time how pretty she was. A pale complexion, unblemished, with large eyes, a womanly yet slender figure, and thick, golden hair. Mrs Lambert was only a courtesy title, for the housekeeper; Amy had never been married. Susannah knew that she was only three years younger than herself, but her meticulous and thorough housekeeping belied her years.
As Amy poured the tea, she thought back to when she had come to The Willows. It had been two years ago after fiery old Mrs Allen had finally retired. She had advertised in all the local newspapers for a new housekeeper and had been inundated with replies. Most of them had been older women, of the same ilk as Mrs Allen. But Susannah had taken an immediate shine to the eager young woman, despite her inexperience. There had just been something about Amy Lambert; an infectious spirit and goodwill.
She had never regretted her choice. Especially in the last year when Amy had become her only friend. They would often sit chatting of an evening. Susannah simply didn’t know how she would have survived without her. Her mother would have scolded her if she knew, telling her not to become over-familiar with the staff, but Susannah didn’t care a whit about such things. To her, people were just people; she didn’t have a snobbish bone in her body.
“Sit down, Amy,” she said now. “Pour yourself a cup of tea and talk to me.”
Amy complied, settling herself opposite Susannah.
“How are you feeling today?” asked the housekeeper, taking a sip of her tea. Her hazel eyes were as steady as frozen water as she gazed at her mistress.
Susannah sighed deeply. “It is just another day, I suppose,” she replied, in a quiet voice. “I get up. I get dressed. I see to the house, then take a walk.” She paused, her eyes filling with tears. “Tonight, I will eat my meal alone, before embroidering by the fire and going to bed. Tomorrow, I shall do the same thing, all over again.”
Amy sighed, too, putting her cup down. “It shall get better, my dear. Every day, you are growing stronger.” She gazed at her steadily. “You are young and beautiful. Your whole life is ahead of you …”
Susannah sniffed. She didn’t feel young anymore. She felt as ancient as the willow trees, which bordered this property, on all sides. The willow trees that the property had been named after. She felt like a husk, hollowed out, and dry. Had she ever once been young?
She knew that Amy was just being kind. Yes, she was only four and twenty in actual years. But inside, she felt about a hundred. So much had happened. How could she ever hope to move on and live again? The very thought was exhausting.
Amy took a deep breath. “You can move on if you want to,” she said hesitantly. “I know that you told me that you did not want to know, but you have received three gentlemen callers already today.” She rummaged in the pocket of her white apron, taking out three calling cards, and handing them to Susannah.
Susannah automatically took the cards, placing them on her lap. For a moment, she simply stared at them, taking in the names. Mr Roger Baker. Mr Phillip Byrd. And last but not least, a Mr Timothy Notley.
She sighed deeply. She recognised them vaguely. They were all local landowners in Shropshire or the sons of local landowners. She had probably met them at various social events over the years. They would have nodded to her politely but kept their distance. And now, they were hovering around her like vultures, intent on a feed.
“It seems so inappropriate,” she said slowly, looking up from the cards, and staring at Amy. “How can they be so callous as to try to court a widow, so soon after her husband’s death?” She gazed down at her gown. “I am still in half-mourning clothes. It hasn’t even been a year yet!”
“I have already said that you are young and beautiful,” answered Amy, staring at her intently. “That is why all the local gentlemen buzz around you, Susannah. They are like bees to a honeypot.”
“What nonsense,” Susannah scoffed, her face colouring. “It is not because of my supposed beauty or youth, my dear. It is because they all know that Gilbert was a very wealthy man, and by default, I am now a very wealthy woman. They are trying to get their greedy mitts on it. That is all.”
Amy stared at her sadly but didn’t say anything. Susannah quivered inside, feeling tears spring up in her eyes once more.
Her late husband, Gilbert Drake, had been a very wealthy man. But he had also been an orphan, with no siblings. He had no one to leave his vast wealth too, besides his wife. If he had even had one male cousin or nephew, the burden of his wealth would not be hers at all.
It was a curse, rather than a gift. If she hadn’t had the wealth, she probably would have gone home to Lincolnshire straight after the accident, to live with her parents again. But as it was, she had felt an enormous responsibility to keep The Willows going just as it always had. For him, because she knew how passionately he had loved the place.
The Willows, she thought, gazing around the room again. It had become her home, too, after Gilbert had brought her here, all those years ago. A sprawling, rambling house, perched on the Welsh border, deep in the countryside. She had fallen deeply in love with it; so deeply that the thought of leaving it was still anathema to her. But she wouldn’t have had a choice if it had just been taken away from her; if some distant cousin of her husband’s had inherited it. She would have had no choice but to pack up and leave it all to memory.
It might have been a blessing.
If she hadn’t inherited the wealth, all of these sycophantic young gentlemen would have left her in peace, too. She would simply have been a poor widow. She could have retreated to Lincolnshire, licking her wounds, without having the constant irritation of these gentlemen callers.
“There is some good news,” said Amy, interrupting her reverie. “I have had word that your new colt is arriving tomorrow …”
Susannah sat suddenly upright as if a bolt of lightning had suddenly pierced her from above.
“The colt!” she whispered, her eyes alight. “I declare I had forgotten that I had purchased him! I had forgotten entirely!”
Amy laughed, her own eyes alight. “Just as well that I did not forget, then! I have been in contact with the horse master, as well.” She paused. “He and his apprentice shall be arriving tomorrow afternoon. Hopefully, it will be around the same time as when the colt arrives.”
Susannah nodded distractedly. She didn’t care about the horse master and his apprentice; she didn’t even care to find out what their names were. All that she could think about was the colt.
She had purchased him a month ago at a local horse auction. He was beautiful; black as the night and spirited. Something had broken inside her when she had seen him; for some strange reason, he reminded her of herself, when she had been young. He had reminded her of that feisty Lincolnshire girl before everything had happened …
She had bid on him breathlessly, her heart in her mouth. She knew she would have paid anything for him; she would have paid five times his value. Eventually, all the other bidders had bowed out. She had been triumphant.
Tomorrow, he would arrive. He would join the other horses in the stables. The horses that she didn’t like to ride anymore. There was one, especially, that she avoided …
She shuddered. She didn’t want to think about that horse. Her husband’s horse.
The horse that had sent him to his death.
“I will clear my schedule entirely,” she said to Amy. “Let me know as soon as the colt arrives, and the horse master and his apprentice, of course.”
Amy nodded. “I will.”
“Amy.” Her voice grew suddenly firm. “If any more gentlemen callers come, throw the cards on the fire. I do not want to deal with any of them. Do you understand?”
Amy nodded, gazing at her sadly. “I understand. But if I may be so bold …”
Susannah shook her head firmly. “No, I know what you are going to say, Amy, and I do not want to hear it. I am not ready. I may never be ready.”
Amy nodded again, standing up. “As you wish.” She hesitated. “I will try to discourage them. But I think they will be persistent, my dear. It may take a while for them to get the message.”
Susannah nodded glumly. It was exactly as she thought, too. But she had to do it; soon, they would understand that she just wanted to be left alone, surely?
Jasper adjusted himself on the saddle, gazing around. He had been born and raised in Shropshire, but he had never travelled so far in this direction of the county before. Right on the edge of the Welsh border.
It was wild country; mountainous and green, covered in trees. Beautiful, but untamed. In the distance, perched at the bottom of a big hill, he could just see the property that was his destination. He knew now why it had been named The Willows. It was surrounded by many tall, willow trees, their branches sloping towards the ground, skimming it like fingers.
The Willows. Owned by the Widow Drake, one of the wealthiest women in the entire country. Or so he had heard, on the grapevine.
He turned to the man riding alongside him. His apprentice, David Bragg, was staring at the property as well, his eyes wide.
“It is magnificent,” the younger man breathed. “I do not think I have ever seen a house so grand.”
Jasper grinned. “I have seen many like it, but you are right, David. It is magnificent.”
“It is compensation,” said David, grinning as well. “For having to stay so long here, I suppose.” He rolled his eyes a little, but he was still smiling good-naturedly.
Jasper contemplated the house. They were getting closer; he could see the high battlements, grey against the pale blue sky. He had heard that the house had once been a castle, centuries ago; that it had been an outpost in the wilderness, where the English tried to control Welsh marauders. Legends surrounded it of battles fought on its grounds, of the daring feats of knights and the like. He mused that all ancient houses had such legends.
David was right. The magnificent house might be compensation, surrounded by wild mountainous forest, for having to stay so long in the area. They had been employed not only to break in a new colt the good widow had bought but to retrain all the other horses she had in her stables. It would be an extended assignment.
He briefly wondered why the widow didn’t have a horse master, or a groom if she had horses already, but it wasn’t his place to question, was it? He was merely employed to do a job, as always. A job that he could lose himself in. When he was surrounded by horses, and he was working on training them, it was the closest thing to heaven that he had ever encountered.
“Why are we staying so long here?” continued David, staring at him intently. “It’s not like you need the money, after all …”
Jasper sighed, adjusting himself on the saddle again. “It’s not about the money, David. You know that. I work with horses because I love to work with them. It gives me a good occupation …”
“Yes, but you could just hang around the horses in your parents’ stables, couldn’t you?”
Jasper sighed again. How could he explain properly to the young man when he didn’t even really understand the reasons himself?
Yes, his parents were wealthy landowners, with good acreage just outside the old town of Shrewsbury. He didn’t have to work for his living, at all. He could be an idle gentleman, his days filled with calls to neighbouring properties, and hunting and fishing, just like all the young men who had grown up alongside him. But he had never been satisfied with the life of the country squire, finding it boring and pointless.
Horses had always been his passion, and he had watched the various horse masters on his parents’ property over the years keenly. It had fired his soul to see how a horse could be tamed, made malleable and obedient, when once it had been wild and spirited. He had watched, and he had learned. An old horse master, Griggs, had taken him under his wing, imparting all his secrets of the trade.
“You have the gift,” Griggs had told him, one day. “Not many have it, lad. It takes skill, but it also takes intuition to tame a horse properly.”
His parents hadn’t been pleased, of course. They had argued that it wasn’t appropriate, in the least, for their heir to be gallivanting around the countryside, as a paid hand, training horses. But by that stage, he was barely listening to them. The urge to be away from Sandgate Lodge, and his old life, was like a fire boiling through his veins.
It had been too hard being there. With the ghosts of his previous life – the life that he had dared to dream might be his– crowding around him, invading his mind, sending him crazy …
The Willows was almost upon them. But his previous admiration of the property had fled, now, buried beneath the weight of painful memory. The memory of the betrayal. It had spurred him on, unfurled his wings; he just couldn’t stay at Sandgate Lodge, not for a minute longer.
And now, here he was, months later. He and his apprentice had gone from job to job, on country properties, in Shropshire and surrounding counties. All of them eventually leading them here, to this backwater part of England, that might as well be called Wales.
“Have you heard anything about her?” asked David now. “The Widow Drake?”
Jasper shrugged. “Not much. Just that she is dripping in coin since her husband died.” He smiled slightly. “Probably fat, fifty, and bitter, my friend. Her life over, now that her husband is gone, and just filling in the gaps. I have seen many widows like it over the years.”
David laughed. “A virago? I have seen many like it, too …”
Jasper laughed as well. “Let us just hope that the virago leaves us to it. It is always irritating when the owners try to interfere too much. They just get in the way.”
The high, wrought iron gates to the property were upon them, now. They rode through them, past the main entrance to the estate, towards the back, where Jasper knew the stables would be located. As they passed by, he thought he saw a slight twitching of a curtain from an upstairs window.
The housekeeper was waiting for them as they rode into the servants’ quarters at the back of the house. At least Jasper assumed she was the housekeeper – she was dressed like one, in a plain, severe gown, with a crisp white apron. He spied the large bunch of keys hanging from a chain at her waist. Her golden hair was swept up in a tight bun at the top of her head.
But as they got closer to her, he noted that she was young; far younger than most housekeepers he had ever encountered. They were usually older women, who had worked their way up the ladder in their households. But the woman smiled slightly, drawing herself up into a straight line, with an air of authority.
“Mr Stone?” she called.
He nodded, drawing the horse alongside her. He dismounted quickly, as did David.
“I hope you have had a pleasant journey,” she said in a clipped tone. “Welcome to The Willows. I am Mrs Lambert, the housekeeper here.”
Jasper nodded again. “A pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Lambert,” he said, staring at the woman. “Jasper Stone. And this is my apprentice, David Bragg.”
She inclined her head slightly. Jasper saw that David looked a little gobsmacked. He hadn’t been anticipating such a young, pretty housekeeper either, apparently.
“If you would both follow me,” she continued. “I will take you straight to the stables. The colt arrived only an hour ago …”
They followed her down a long garden path. He saw the stables almost immediately, and his heart quickened. There was nothing he loved more in the world than stables. He felt at home in them, somehow; comfortable in a way that he never felt in actual houses.
He spied the figure of another woman, standing at the entrance to the stables, as they approached. His eyes narrowed, gazing at her curiously. She had an air of expectation surrounding her, somehow.
They were almost upon her. Her face lit up into a wide smile as she approached them, walking quickly.
He felt his heartbeat thud harder. He didn’t know who she was, but he knew straight away that she wasn’t another servant at this property. Her gown was modest, in a muted lavender, but of an expensive cut of muslin. She wore little jewellery – just a small locket, hanging from a chain, around her neck, understated but elegant.
She is beautiful, he thought, his eyes devouring her.
The woman was young, probably only in her middle twenties, with hair a shade of titian red. It was swept back, into a low lying chignon at the back of her head, but he could see that it was thick and wavy. Her complexion was pale, the colour of porcelain. Slender, and tall, almost willowy. She had large grey eyes, which she fixed on him, in an open and friendly manner.
“Mr Stone?” she asked, smiling.
He nodded his head. “Yes, I am Jasper Stone.”
Her smile widened, exposing a row of even, white teeth. “I am Mrs Drake. It is a pleasure to meet you.”
He tried to suppress his surprise at her words. This was the Widow Drake? This beautiful young woman, who looked so maidenly and innocent? His mental picture of a corpulent, middle-aged virago suddenly vanished before his eyes like a puff of smoke.
He glanced quickly at David. He could see that his apprentice was surprised, too. They had never worked for a woman so young before.
Nor one so lovely, he thought, his eyes raking over her again.
Her smile was full and frank, but he sensed a slight reserve in her manner. There was some air of sadness which surrounded her like a cloud. Was she still grieving her late husband? He had no idea how long ago he had died. He had no idea about any of the details of her life. But then, he noted the colour of her gown. Lavender was a colour that a lot of widows wore when their initial period of mourning was over. Sometimes, they stayed in those muted shades for the rest of their lives.
Somehow, he just sensed she was different from other women. The intuition was strong; he never usually had such forceful first impressions about people. It was as if her pain had changed her, in some way, but it hadn’t twisted her or made her bitter like it did with so many others. The air of suffering became her, in some odd way.
Instinctively, his heart leapt towards her as if he sensed a kindred spirit. Someone else, who had suffered in the way that he had. The pull was almost irresistible.
She was gazing at him, expectantly. Suddenly, he pulled himself up. She was waiting for him to say something. The others were gazing at him curiously, too.
“Mrs Drake,” he said. “The honour is mine. May I introduce my apprentice, Mr David Bragg?”
“A pleasure, ma’am,” said the apprentice quickly.
Her smile widened. “Well! I am sure you are both eager to meet the colt,” she said quickly. “He is such a beauty! If you would follow me, I can introduce you to him …”
They all followed her further into the stables, past other horses, who gazed at them soulfully over their gates. Jasper stared at them but knew it wasn’t the time to greet them yet. Later, after he had met the colt, he could introduce himself to the others.
They reached the back stable. Mrs Drake opened the gate with a flourish, standing back so that they could all enter.
The horse was at the back, feeding from a bag hung over the stable wall. He was a beauty, to be sure; long-limbed, as black as coal, with a coat so shiny it seemed to gleam, even in the darkness.
The colt. The reason that he had travelled here. He felt a sharp stab of pleasure, even just gazing on him. This was why he did what he did – for this pleasure, at seeing a young, untamed animal, that he could guide and mould, little by little until it accepted a rider on its back.
“Hello, boy,” he said softly, approaching the beast cautiously.
The animal looked at him warily. He took another step forward, softly. But the colt’s eyes suddenly widened, wild, and he stepped back, shaking his head, so his mane undulated. His legs started to stomp, and he reared up, neighing in warning.
“Its alright, boy,” Jasper said, in the same low voice. “It’s alright.”
The colt continued to rear up for a moment before settling back down again. But Jasper could tell by the manic glint in the horse’s brown eyes that he would do it again, if he tried to approach, at the moment.
It was enough for the moment. They had an audience, as well. The Widow Drake was still standing there, as was Mrs Lambert, the housekeeper. He would start the long, laborious task of breaking the colt in when they were alone, with only David, learning how to do it.
“He’s a beauty,” he said, turning back to the widow. “A wild spirit.”
She smiled, her grey eyes alight. “Isn’t he? As soon as I saw him at the horse auction, I just had to have him.”
Without another word, she walked towards the colt, as if in a dream. Jasper put out a hand in warning, but she ignored it. The horse gazed at her warily, rearing up a little again, but she seemed unafraid. He couldn’t even discern a tiny quiver of nerves running through her.
She is intrigued and excited by his wildness, he thought. She has no fear.
He gazed at her, wondering idly what her history was. Had she always lived in this remote part of Shropshire? It was hard to tell by her accent. There might have been a hint of another area of Northern England, but it was faint, barely discernible. She had obviously lived here for a long time.
She turned to him as if she sensed his eyes on her. “Would you like to meet the other horses?”
He nodded, smiling. They drifted from the stable, approaching the other horses, one by one. She seemed calm and at ease until they got to the last one, when she flinched slightly, stepping back.
“That is Blitzen,” she said, in a strangled voice. “My late husband’s horse …”
Jasper approached the horse, whispering to it. It seemed tame and mild enough, letting him stroke it. As black as ink, fifteen hands high, its form was formidable. But as he continued to stroke it, it became slightly skittish, with nervous energy flowing through it.
He glanced back at the Widow Drake. She had paled and refused to look at the horse, gazing around the stable at anything but the beast. What had happened to make her have such a strong reaction to the horse? Or was it merely a reminder of her late husband, that brought back sweet memories of him, that tortured her?
“Thank you for the introductions,” he said, stepping back from the horse. “We will begin training of the colt in earnest tomorrow.” He paused. “We are going to find lodging in the local village and can be reached there if needed, in the meantime.”
“Whitmere?” she asked nodding. “It is a nice village, but very small. The amenities are scarce there. There is only a choice of two inns, and neither are the best.” Suddenly, she stopped, her grey eyes widening. “But why should you stay in the village when there is more than enough room here? The Willows is so large, and there are more than enough rooms to accommodate guests …”
Jasper stared at her. “Are you sure, Mrs Drake? We do not want to put you out at all.”
She waved a hand dismissively. “You are not putting me out, not in the least.” She smiled. “We have fine wine in the cellar, and my cook is one of the best in the countryside. I am sure you will be far more comfortable here than the local village; I do assure you.”
He was astonished at her candour and kindness. She was obviously as lovely in spirit as she was in looks.
He felt a stirring, deep within his loins, as he gazed at her. He hadn’t felt a stirring like this, towards a woman, in so long that it was almost alien to him; he almost didn’t recognise it. He had hoped that he would never feel it again, after what had happened, back home. He had prayed that he would never feel it again in his life.
Suddenly, he was deeply ashamed. She was a lovely woman to be sure, but she was a widow. One of the wealthiest widows in the country if reports were correct. And he had become a horse master; she would never look at him like that. He was far down the social ladder, now.
“Think about it,” she said slowly. “Would you like to go back to see the colt, while you do?”
He nodded, and they drifted back to the colt’s stable, stepping in, contemplating the beautiful animal again. He knew that the others were still behind them, but it was as if they were suddenly alone, with the horse. As if it were only the two of them in the entire world.
I shouldn’t stay here, he thought fiercely, as he gazed down at her. She is dangerous. She is making me feel things that I do not want to feel anymore.
She looked up at him, expectantly. He opened his mouth to refuse her kind offer. But all of a sudden, something else entirely was coming out.
“Thank you,” he said softly. “We would very much like to stay here, at The Willows.”
A sudden, loud crack of thunder shook the stable, almost immediately after Jasper uttered his last words, accepting the invitation to stay at The Willows. Everyone jumped, and the colt suddenly reared up, spooked.
Before anyone could react, the startled horse flew through the open stable door. Everyone jumped back. The horse almost collided with David, before veering to the left, sprinting out of the stables.
Susannah didn’t stop to think. She ran out of the stables after the startled horse. She knew that it couldn’t escape; it had headed out of the front of the stables, into the circular corral. The gates to it were firmly closed. The colt couldn’t bolt into the wilderness.
The black horse was stomping wildly, almost breathing out steam through his nose. Susannah gazed around. The sky was an ominous grey; the storm had come up quickly. Soon, it would bucket rain. The horse had to be calmed and led back into its stable before that happened.
Without another thought, she approached the horse, which was still rearing, and wild-eyed.
“There, there, boy,” she said, in her calmest voice. “You are safe …”
The horse stopped rearing, settling down, but still wild-eyed. Slowly, she laid her hands on him, stroking him gently. She could feel him quivering; it was as if his flesh was crawling with it. A thin sheen of sweat had broken out over his coat, as well.
She kept stroking him, feeling the quivering slowly subside.
The next moment, there were hands next to hers, on the horse’s flesh. Large, masculine hands, with long fingers.
She gasped inwardly. She knew those hands belonged to Jasper Stone, the new horse master.
She didn’t stop stroking the horse. His hands commenced stroking, too, and she heard him making soothing noises, deep in his throat. She shivered involuntarily. Just being so close to him, like this, was doing very strange things to her. Very strange things indeed.
Her eyes slid sideways, watching him. She had been struck by how handsome he was the minute she had laid eyes on him. A large man, well over six foot tall, with a sinewy physique, and dark brown hair. But it had been his eyes that had arrested her, causing her heart to beat just a little bit faster. They were deep-set, and icy blue, startling against the swarthiness of his skin.
It had been a most unexpected reaction. She had never thought that she would feel that way towards a man again. An almost instant physical attraction. It had only happened to her once before in her life. She could still remember the very first time she had laid eyes on Gilbert, at a local dance. The same frisson of awareness shuddering through her, almost in waves.
She watched his stroking hands, now, caressing the horse’s flesh. Suddenly, she was assailed by a vision of those large, dark hands on her own flesh, stroking, over and over …
Instantly, guilt and shame flooded through her, and she stiffened. Her husband was not even in the ground a year – what kind of a woman was she to be looking at another man in such a way? She had thought that those feelings had died and were buried with her husband; she had resolved to live her life from now on as a good widow, who never entertained such fancies. A respectable, emotionally withdrawn widow, of four and twenty, who would continue in the same way, for the rest of her life.
She was so deep in her reverie that she didn’t even notice until it was too late, that her right hand had strayed dangerously close to his until she felt his skin against her own.
The effect was instant. It was as if a bolt of lightning had forked down from the sky, burning her to her very core.
She jumped back, her heart beating fast. Jasper Stone kept caressing the horse, talking to him in a soft voice, but he stared back at her with narrowed eyes, almost clinically observing her.
He knows, she thought, her heart beating harder still. He knows how I felt when our hands touched.
Her face flooded with colour. The shame of it was almost too much to bear.
The colt was almost totally calm, now. Without another word to her, the horse master started to lead the animal back into the stables. The next moment, rain was pelting down.
She stared at Amy and the horse master’s apprentice. Almost as one, they started running, back into the stables, to escape the rain, laughing.
Jasper Stone had already secured the colt in his stable. He turned to her, gazing at her speculatively.
“He is jittery,” he said, in his calm, deep voice. “It will take a while to train this one. I hope you do not expect too much from him, too soon.” He paused, his ice-blue eyes raking over her. “You hardly need a master of horses, Mrs Drake. You handled that colt very well, out there. Almost better than I could.”
She blushed. “I have always liked horses, Mr Stone. I have always felt an affinity with them.” She hesitated. “But even so, I need you. I need you very much.”
The words hung in the air like droplets of rain. His eyes darkened, as he gazed at her, but he didn’t say a thing.
Suddenly, Amy stepped forward, clearing her throat. “Madam. It is time for luncheon …”
Susannah swivelled around, gazing at her, her heart beating fast. Amy was giving her an excuse to leave; had she intuited how deeply uncomfortable the new master of horses was making her feel? By the look in her steady hazel eyes, it seemed that she had. Her housekeeper wasn’t in the habit of reminding her of meal times.
“Yes, of course,” said Susannah, in a voice she hardly recognised as her own. It sounded somehow squeaky and disjointed, reaching her from far away.
A little fearfully, she turned back to Jasper Stone, who was still gazing at her speculatively. Once again, she was struck by how handsome he was.
This was dangerous. This was very dangerous, indeed.
“If you will excuse me,” she said slowly. “Mrs Lambert will show you to your accommodation.”
She didn’t wait for him to reply. Without another word, she turned away, walking quickly through the stables, back towards the house. It was all that she could do to stop herself from breaking into a run.
Jasper stepped out the back door of the servants’ quarters. All the staff at The Willows were busy, barely acknowledging him; the Cook and the kitchen servants were preparing dinner. He gazed around, into the distance, before walking out into the property, towards the rear, where a row of willow trees swayed in the wind.
He would take a walk, beyond the grounds, he thought. Perhaps into the mountainous wilderness for a little while before dinner. Perhaps it would satisfy this stirring restlessness that he was feeling that had been building all afternoon since he and David had been taken to their rooms within the house.
He set off, carefully monitoring the sky. The sudden storm that had spooked the colt had vanished as quickly as it had arrived, but there was a strange energy in the air. The wind had picked up again, whipping the trees into a frenzy. He wouldn’t be surprised at all if another storm was approaching.
He gazed around. It was wild, but beautiful, terrain; filled with evergreen trees, pointing towards the heavens, so thickly forested that he had to weave around them. It was steep and rocky. Twice he stumbled, correcting his footing.
When he had climbed a distance, he stopped, sitting down on a large mossy rock, gazing back at the house and property that surrounded it. From up here, it looked almost like a doll’s house; he could see it all spread out before him.
She is somewhere, in that house, he thought, his heartbeat starting to quicken slightly. What is she doing, at this very moment?
The beautiful Widow Drake, who had taken fright and run away from him after their hands had touched, stroking the horse. He knew that the strong, instant connection she had felt had spooked her, because it had spooked him, too. He had not expected that the physical connection would be quite so fiery.
He looked down at his hand, flexing it. It still tingled from where she had touched it.
She had run away as soon as her housekeeper had given her an excuse and hadn’t looked back. He doubted very much if he would see much of her again. She was probably hiding in her rooms, ashamed that she had felt such a way, with a man so low. Or a man that she assumed was low. He wasn’t the lower class servant she thought him, but that hardly mattered. He wasn’t about to advertise the fact that he was actually the son of a wealthy landowner, who didn’t need to work. It was his private business, after all; he hadn’t informed any of his previous employers, and he wasn’t about to start now.
He tilted his head to the side, contemplating the situation. It was probably for the best. It would only complicate things if he started some kind of relationship with her, however temporary. He was only staying here for as long as it took, and then he would be gone, to the next assignment. It was how he lived his life, now, and it worked for him.
Keep moving. Keep travelling. Stay ahead of it.
Abruptly, her sweet voice drifted into his head when she had told him that she needed him. He knew it wasn’t a personal comment – all that she was referring to was the fact that she needed someone to help her break in the colt. But still, his face glowed with pleasure, just thinking of it.
Another frisson of sensation swept over him, and he stirred uneasily on the hard rock. This was dangerous. He really should have refused her offer to stay at the property. Even if she kept her distance, which she probably would, he was bound to see her around the place. The connection between them was powerful. Would he be able to resist pursuing her?
He sighed, running a distracted hand through his hair. He couldn’t. He mustn’t. Apart from the shame she would surely feel about it – she was a respectable widow, after all, who was still grieving her husband – he just couldn’t handle it, either. It was too soon. Perhaps it would always be too soon. Perhaps he would never be ready to connect with another woman on a deep level.
Perhaps he just didn’t want to … ever again.
He sighed again. It was fraught with danger, but he had committed himself, now. He must complete this assignment; it went against his own code of conduct, to walk away. She was expecting him to complete a job, and he was going to do it. He would never run away from it.
All he had to do was avoid her, as much as possible. Be polite, and respectful, but keep his distance. So what if there was a connection between them? It could be managed. She would not be eager to pursue it, either. They could both ignore it, and nothing need happen.
Decisively, he stood up. Yes, that was exactly what he would do. He would avoid her as much as possible, and ignore it, and it would probably fade away, die a natural death anyway. Often these things did – he had been strongly attracted to quite a few women in his life, but not all had blossomed into anything significant.
He headed back down the hill towards the property, his heart lighter. All it took was conviction. The head could defeat the heart and the body. It was as simple as that.
“The Burning Passion of a Fiery Lady” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Susannah is still in mourning, wearing her widow’s weeds, for her husband who shockingly fell from his horse and died a year ago. They call her the “Widow Drake” because she is lonely and grieving, but there is much more around this mysterious widow. She carries secrets buried deep about her marriage that nobody should ever find out! For Susannah, the first glimpse of the tall, handsome master of horses will kindle something deep inside her, something that she never thought she would feel again. But with wounds from the past still bleeding, how can she ever hope to open her heart, and love again?
When Jasper Stone arrives at The Willows, to tame the new colt the Widow Drake has purchased, he mistakenly thinks there is nothing exciting about his new assignment. He has been drifting through the country, trying to clear his mind from the painful events that forced him to leave home many months ago…But the Widow Drake is not the middle-aged virago Jasper is anticipating. She is a young, beautiful woman; a passionate woman that might be dangerous. How can he hope to keep the fortress he has built around his heart intact?
Jasper is not alone in trying to attract the beautiful Widow Drake. A man from her past holds the key to the painful secrets of her past, as well as threatens her very future. As Jasper and Susannah grow closer, she knows she is being drawn to him, as irresistibly as a moth to fire. Can she find the courage to open her heart, even if danger swirls all around her once again?
“The Burning Passion of a Fiery Lady” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.