The South of England, 1787
E's at it again, my lady." The groom jerked his head toward the stable as he steadied Brien Weston's stirrup and helped her dismount.
Shouts and wails burst from the stable door as she rushed toward it. Inside, down the brick-paved alley, she found a shirtless boy cringing against a mound of straw in an empty stall, begging for mercy from Seaton, the estate's raw-fisted stablemaster.
She froze for a moment at the sight of a dozen bloody streaks across the boy's naked chest and arms. Another blow fell, and the child cried out as the jagged shards of metal on the broken bridle bit into his flesh. Suddenly the bloody stripes on the boy's pale skin were all she could see.
There was a hitch in the stablemaster's movement. After a glance at her from the corner of his eye, he brushed aside the command and drew back for another stroke. She lunged for his arm and managed to stay it.
"Cease this! Now!" Anger poured strength into her limbs and made a biting rasp of her voice. "Or as God is my witness, Mr. Seaton, I'll see you receive ten blows for every one you deal this boy."
"Outta th' way, lady. Th' wretch needs a taste of th' lash to teach 'im to 'eel to 'is master."
Seaton tried to shake her off, but she threw the force of her weight against his arm and succeeded in immobilizing it. Their glares met as they stood locked in a shockingly physical contest of wills. It apparently took a moment for him to realize that to continue dispensing this punishment, he would have to remove his wealthy employer's daughter from his arm by force. Was he angry enough or brazen enough to set hands to a lady? He lowered his arm and wrenched it free with a growl, then jolted back a step.
"Your cruelty may know no limits, Mr. Seaton, but my sufferance of it does." She rubbed her hands down her skirts as if contact with him had contaminated them. "Your abuse of this boy has been your last act on Weston land. Pack your belongings, draw your wages, and be gone by sunset. Never set foot on Weston land again."
"I'll just wait an' see what 'is lordship 'as to say about that." His mouth twisted into a defiant sneer.
"No, you won't." Deep inside, a fierce calm settled through her, solidifying her resolve. "My father will not return for some time. And if you are found on these lands after sunset, any who find you will have free rein to mete out whatever punishment they see fit." She edged closer, eyes narrowing, her fury focusing, driving home her point. "Your manner has so endeared you to the people who live and work on these lands that you will do well to see the dawn."
A searing moment passed as the stablemaster searched the lady's resolve, sounding the depths of her determination. Abruptly he hurled the blood-flecked bridle against the stall, shoved past the grooms who stood gaping in the alley, and stormed out the doors. The sound of his furious oaths and the pounding of his boots on the packed earth of the stable yard wafted back through the stunned silence.
Brien slowly expelled the breath she had been holding and felt the surge of strength that had flooded her beginning to drain from her limbs. A moan from the nearby stall brought her attention back to the injured boy. She knelt in the straw and gathered his thin form against her, cradling his head, rocking him as she inspected his wounds and made soothing, shushing sounds. The small, thin shoulders quaked with sobs against her. Moments later she looked up and ordered the grooms who now stood at the opening of the stall to carry him into the house.
"His stripes are bloody, but with proper tending will heal well. Tell cook to salve and bind them up and then to put him in one of the empty maids' rooms while he mends. I'll come shortly to check on him." She gave the boy's hair one last stroke and his dark eyes filled with tears of both misery and gratitude as they lifted him from her.
"Thank 'e, my lady," he whispered, watching her as the grooms carried him out.
She sat for a time in the red-stained straw, alone, trembling. Then she closed her eyes against the blood on her hands and clothes, and let the tears come.
Several days later, just at dusk, the earl of Southwold reined up in front of his country house and Brien arrived at an upstairs window overlooking the entry court just in time to see him hand his mount over to a waiting groom. He had barely settled into a chair by the blazing hearth of his study when she saw the housekeeper, Mrs. Herriot, knock on the open door, pause to await permission, then enter and close the door behind her.
At dinner that night, Brien's suspicions were confirmed. Down the long, linen-draped table, between the well-polished silver candlesticks, she could read annoyance in every aspect of her father's posture and expression. Each scrape of silver, each clink of crystal against china caused her to start in expectation. She knew Mrs. Herriot had delivered the news about Seaton that afternoon, and she could tell from the way her father scrutinized her that he was deciding what to do about it.
"Brien." His tone was a command for attention. "Mrs. Herriot says you fired Seaton. I will have an accounting for that, my girl."
Her head snapped up. "I-I was returning from a morning ride when I came across Seaton beating a stableboy with a broken bridle. I ordered him to stop, and when he refused, I fired him."
"It is not your place to fire stablemasters," he said sharply, picking up his wine and rising. "Decent horse masters are hard to come by. Your meddling will cost me dearly."
Meddling? She reddened. As wealthy as he was, there was nothing her father hated more than being "cost." But she reckoned "cost" quite differently. Her heart thudded faster as the sickening image of the boy's wounds flooded back to her. Five days later, the child was only now able to move about without a great deal of pain.
"How can you call the man decent?" She shoved up from her chair so quickly that she had to steady herself against the table edge. "He took a cat's equivalent to a boy of nine. And he was no better with horses. He used cruel bits and whipped some of the carriage horses until they trusted no one."
Weston was clearly taken aback by her response. "Seaton's flaws are not at issue here. You had no right to take such act--"
"No right?" She stepped around the end of the table and moved quickly toward him, halting after only a few steps. "I had every right. I am lady here in your frequent absence, and it has been my lot numerous times to guard the well-being of Byron Place's people. Seaton was a brute. Cruel and callous. Frederick, at just sixteen, knows more about horses than he did."
"Enough!" Weston slammed his goblet down on the table, spilling ruby liquid over the pristine linen and upsetting a nearby water glass. "The man was placed in authority and would have been held accountable. By me. It was not your place to meddle in the affairs given in to his charge."
"The boy is my charge." She moved toward him, her chin up and her hands clenched at her sides. "He was entrusted into my care from the orphanage at St. Anne's. He needs a place to live and grow, not an overseer with a lash." She edged closer, her expression nothing short of defiant. "Will you declare me wrong and call Seaton back? Will you hand him the bloodied strap to finish the beating?"
After a long, acrid moment Weston stalked to where she stood and glared down into her upturned face. "You will never"--his voice came low and fierce--"ever presume upon my authority again. You will keep to your place and never again interfere with the running of this estate. Is that clear?"
It gave the earl little satisfaction to realize his daughter was trembling. Nothing else about her indicated the slightest fear or failure of will. He jerked his waistcoat down and stalked off to prop an arm on the room's great marble mantel, frustration visible in his every movement. Clearly the chastisement meant to subdue and humble her had missed its mark.
After a moment, he turned to stare at his daughter, searching her erect posture and regal bearing. That was what bothered him most, he realized: this display of unwomanly pride and assumption. Why wouldn't she weep and yield to his authority, or appeal to his fatherly mercy like any other young woman would have done?
"If you cannot learn to be a real woman," he muttered, jerking his gaze from her, "at least learn to bow to the God-given authority of men like a real woman does." Staring into the glowing coals on the hearth before him, he missed the way she steadied herself against the table and the color drained from her face. When he heard the soft click of the latch, he looked up just in time to see the door close behind her.
His taunt rumbled about in his own head. She deserved it, he told himself. She had overstepped her bounds and had to be taught a lesson. But even as he thought it, he sensed that it was he who had somehow stepped out of place . . . trespassed on ground he had long since abandoned.
He grabbed a decanter of claret off the dining table and made straight for the comfort and quiet of his study. Dropping into a chair before the fire, he drank with determination and brooded over his confrontation with his headstrong daughter.
He was loath to admit it, but she had been right about Seaton. He had seen evidence of the man's cruelty himself, but had brushed it off with one excuse or another. He was too busy to be bothered with such stuff. His conscience prickled. If he were too busy, why did it bother him so, that she had set the matter to rights?
Because she was his daughter, not his son. It wasn't right for a woman to mix in such things. As he thought of her standing there, meeting his anger, brazenly--confidently--defending her actions, uneasiness gripped him. He had not known exactly what to expect from her, but an apology or a spate of tears would have been more to his liking. Instead, she defended her action and glared at him as if he were to blame.
She had changed. He reexamined his impressions, noting each nuance of her appearance. She seemed more womanly than he remembered, more . . . ripened. Her hair was still that unusual combination of honey colors, but a bit more dramatic. Her features were finely sculptured and her mouth was full and her lips well-defined. Her dove-gray eyes seemed larger . . . striking, as they flashed at him. Despite her rounded form, she had a presence about her that spoke of strength and pride of bearing. He didn't remember her exhibiting such decisiveness, such composure.
Not that he had looked too closely of late.
He had spent most of his time at his London house since the death of his elder daughter, when not traveling and tending the far-flung interests of his trading company. How many years had he lived this way? Shuffling between cities, dining and sleeping alone, marking time by mergers and acquisitions? Ever since Denise was thrown from a horse. Four years? Five? Too soon after his beloved wife Alice's passing. The loss of both wife and daughter, coming barely a year apart, had overwhelmed him. In a fog of grief, he had moved Brien to his late wife's dower house, Byron Place, and then fled to London to immerse himself in his business interests.
He picked up an andiron and poked at the embers in the hearth before him. He had left her alone for too long; that much was clear. She'd grown independent and uncommonly self-possessed for a girl of--eighteen? Twenty? Twenty-two? Just how old was she?
That uncertainty skewered his last untouched bit of conscience. He didn't even know his daughter's age! A flood of guilt rose to overwhelm him.
What did he really know about her or her life here at Byron? Did she have friends? Did she go out? He was fairly certain she hadn't been to London in the last four or five years; she would have had to stay in their London town house and he had been there himself, alone, much of the time.
He ran his hands down his face with a groan, but forced himself to continue this painful inventory. Clearly, she was of marriageable age. When had she last been to a dance, a party, or even to a neighboring hall for a holiday dinner? She didn't have a chaperone other than the housekeeper, Mrs. Herriot. His eyes widened. Good God--the realization struck him dead center--she had never even been introduced into society!
Lawrence Weston, wealthy and powerful earl of Southwold, propped his graying head in his hands.
What had he done?
In the six weeks since the sacking of the stablemaster, the incident had almost been forgotten. The earl had stayed at Byron Place only long enough to see another stablemaster hired and then had left for Paris, citing urgent business. Now he returned in the dead of night, alone and riding hard, and summoned her to his study first thing the next morning.
Brien dressed carefully, choosing her best blue silk with a voile bodice insert gathered to a cameo, and pristine white cuffs. Her maid took pains with her hair and produced a simple but dignified chignon. She knew her father felt she was headstrong and unwomanly, and was determined to give him no grounds for criticism.
Pausing just outside the huge double doors to take a deep breath, she smoothed the folds of her skirt, squared her shoulders, and entered. The earl sat behind his ornate teak desk, seeming immersed in a document in his hand. He looked up as the click of the door latch and the rustle of her skirts announced her presence.
"You sent for me?"
"I have a matter of some importance to discuss with you." He waved her into a chair facing his desk.
"What matter is that, Father?" She sank onto the edge of the seat. He had made it painfully clear on his last visit that he wanted no interference or even help from her. What could be so important now, that he would actually consult her?
Excerpted from Not Quite Married by Betina Krahn. Copyright © 2004 by Betina Krahn. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.