About the book
Theirs is a love forbidden in the eyes of men…
When her brother, the Viscount of Willowdale, announces her impending nuptials to a man she loathes, Miss Thea Miller has a lot to say on the matter and it all leads to one verdict: absolutely not!
In love with Thea all his life, loyal footman of the Willowdale estate Liam Carter, has kept his affections buried deeply within him. After saving her from a near-fatal accident, old feelings return, and the flame is rekindled.
But the scorn of society is not the only obstacle they need to overcome, and bad things come in threes. First comes sickness, then comes poison, and then Liam goes missing…
He rode through the dead of the night, laughing, sometimes weeping, his black cloak whipped out behind him from the wind of his speed. The nearly full moon gave him enough light to see by and his horse certainly saw quite well. At a dead run, he rode, his madness following him, ever keeping pace. Of course, he knew he was mad, as insane as the King himself. However, unlike the King, he kept his madness reined in, on a short leash, mostly silent and subdued, save for times like these.
Laughing hysterically, he spurred his horse to greater speed, scattering flocks of sheep and cattle. His mount leapt a low stone wall with the grace of an African gazelle. He galloped on, dodging large rocks and thickets of bramble. “I will have what is mine,” he screamed into the night. “I will have what is mine.”
Blood flecked his spurs. Flattening his neck, his ears back, the madman’s horse reached an even faster pace, foam lathering his neck. On the gelding raced, urged on by his rider’s insanity. Another stone wall rose in his path and, yet again, he soared over it as though possessing the wings of Pegasus himself.
Half blinded by the tears he wept, the man laughed, shrieking, “They cannot stop me, they will not stop me, I will have my due.”
Lights glimmered in the distance. A house. By the sheer number of lights glowing in the darkness, it was a very large house. Slowing his mount to a hard gallop, the man reined toward it. Even at this hour, lamps were lit along hallways and corridors, glowing through the windows. He laughed again, recognizing it, even as he knew this was his destination all along.
The Willowdale estate.
“I will have what is mine,” he repeated, muttering now, sunk into the depths of his own mind. “He will not stop me.”
Throwing back his head, he howled like a wolf, his voice echoing across the black hills. Over and over he laughed, then broke into coarse, heavy sobs before howling to the moon again. Screaming wildly, he galloped his horse in circles, staring at the house and dreaming of his possessions inside it.
At long last, his fit of madness left him. His throat raw, he wiped the tears from his face with his hand. Reining his blowing horse to a stop, he let the animal rest for a moment or two as he gazed, now quiet, at the Willowdale home. “None of you can ever stop me,” he whispered as the night breeze ruffled his hair, drying his sweat and his tears. “I swear it, Willowdale. You cannot keep me from what is mine. I will not let you and I will do whatever it takes to have my due. Even if it means your death.”
Turning the horse around, he nudged the beast into a ground-eating trot. He knew he had pushed the horse too hard, but his madness would never permit him to feel guilt over it. His obsession with Willowdale consumed him – he could think of nothing else, even when his fits of insanity had not sent him over the edge.
“I swear I will kill you,” he muttered. “Do not make me kill you, Willowdale. Give me what is mine.”
Thea Miller stared at her older brother, stunned and incredulous. “Surely you are jesting, Freddie. Father and Mother have not been in their graves a month.”
“Why does that have anything to do with it? You are nine-and-ten now, Thea, it is time to find you a husband.”
The stiff breeze off the lake, a beloved area of the Willowdale estates for time out of mind, whipped her hair across her face. Black as a raven’s wing, Thea tended to break social protocol by leaving it loose and unfettered, to fall like a silken river to her waist. Her light brown eyes studied Freddie as he gazed out over the waves lapping at the gravel on the shore.
Though he was three years older and over a foot taller than she, they could almost be twins, she had often thought. His hair coloring and eyes were, like hers, both inherited from their mother. Their father, the late Viscount of Willowdale, had been short and stout, with the blue eyes and blond hair of a Viking. Of course, family jests abounded that the Lady Martha Willowdale and her children were true descendants of the native people who lived among the former colonists across the ocean.
“Then why do you not get married, Freddie?” Thea asked. “You have to carry on the family name.”
Freddie finally looked at her, his handsome lips bowed in a slight frown. “I will, little sister, in time.” He glanced down, away from her, as though uncomfortable. “I am still getting used to being the Viscount of Willowdale. I feel much too young for such a heavy title, and the responsibilities that go with it.”
Thea tilted her pert nose up, a trait she knew had irritated her parents to no end, and one she used on her brother almost as often. “I am not ready to get married either.”
Walking to the edge of the lake, she gazed out at the tiny whitecaps pushed upward by the wind, wondering if her father had made such plans for her marriage before he died so unexpectedly. “I suppose you already have a candidate picked out,” she said, her voice hard, her back to him.
“Of course not.”
Thea heard the crunch of his boots on the gravel as he stepped up to stand beside her. Bending, he picked up a rock and threw it out as far as he could, the stone skipping across the water’s surface before sinking at last. “Why are you being so hard headed about it? You have to get married eventually.”
“Why are you so quick to sell me to the highest bidder?” she retorted, glancing sidelong at him through thick tendrils of her hair.
Though Freddie tended to be more tidy and conscientious about his appearance than Thea, his ice blue cravat had loosened to the point it would soon flap under the force of the wind. With her hand on his arm, Thea turned him toward her.
“Here,” she said. “Let me fix that.”
Freddie raised his chin to grant her access to his cravat, his pale brown eyes amused. “Perhaps I should keep you around as my valet. I swear, sometimes I believe Nicholas would serve better sweeping the stable.”
“The man does his best,” Thea replied tartly. “You should have more patience with him.”
Freddie’s full white teeth gleamed, even under the muted sunlight as he grinned down at her. “You are always running to the defense of the servants, Thea. One might think you have an affinity for them.”
“And why should I not be?” she inquired, her eyes snapping in annoyance. “They have no advocate, can be dismissed without a word and turned out into the gutter at a moment’s notice. Someone should behave as though they cared.”
“But you truly do care.”
Her hands at her sides once more, Thea stared out over the water. “I want to marry for love.”
The irony in his voice was unmistakable. “Does Miss Miller have a well-heeled and wealthy suitor she has not told her brother about?”
“No,” Thea replied, wheeling on him. “But that does not mean it is not possible. Why should I not marry the man I fall in love with, Freddie? Why is it that the servants and the peasants in the village can marry for love, but I cannot?”
Stepping lightly toward her, her brother smiled as he gently tucked strands of her black hair behind her ear. “Because we of the aristocracy are expected to marry for the benefit of the family, Thea. Even I cannot marry for love. If a Duke or an Earl were to propose a union of our families and estates by marrying me to his daughter, then I can hardly refuse.”
Thea did her best not to sulk. She knew he was right. She had been raised from infancy to know that her place was to marry a man who her father selected, or in his place her brother, to beget heirs of her husband’s family line. It was her duty. Her mother had instilled that principle into her, and would no doubt have swooned to hear Thea’s rebellious talk of marrying for love.
“I know,” she said softly. “I just wish it did not have to be that way.”
Freddie’s warm and loving expression grew into a playful grin. “It is those romance novels you constantly read that are putting such notions into your head. Perhaps I should ban them from the library.”
Although she knew he was joking, and that he read those same books as lavishly as she, Thea feigned horror and outrage that he dared to threaten such an atrocity. “You do, Freddie Miller, Viscount of Willowdale, and I swear I will spread honey in your bedsheets and pour ants into it.”
Freddie jumped, his expression horrified, and scratched at his arms. “Do not even think of doing that again, Thea. My God once in a lifetime was enough. I still have nightmares.”
Crossing her arms over her breasts, Thea smirked. “That was for the snake you set loose in my chambers.”
Freddie gaped. “But it was a harmless snake. Those ants bit me all over.”
“Just so you know I am not to be trifled with, brother,” Thea declared, her nose up. “I can and will make your life very difficult indeed. Now, what were you going to do with the romance books in the library?”
Freddie eyed her with no little humor. “I expect they will stay put. But please consider helping me find you a suitable husband.”
Startled, Thea’s nose drifted down, her eyes widened. “You mean that? You will let me help decide?”
“If it means no more biting ants in my bed,” he replied, his tone dry, “I will do anything.”
“Oh, all right,” he snapped. “Yes, because I love you, Thea. I want what is best for both you and the family, even if it means permitting you to get involved.”
Thea wanted to throw her arms around his neck, but as Freddie was a terrible stickler for protocol and for what was proper and what not, Thea refrained from such an obvious show of affection. But she gave him such a warm, happy glowing expression, Freddie harrumphed and turned his face away, clearly out of countenance.
“Yes, well, it is time for luncheon, Thea,” he said, half turning toward the grand estate house that had been in their family for generations. “Come along.”
Strolling at his side, Thea noticed the footman that waited attendance upon them, and a wide smile crossed her features before she could halt it. Liam Carter had been her friend since both of them were little, until she grew older and her mother put a stop to it.
“Well-bred ladies do not associate with the hired help, dear,” she had said, her dark hair in a perfect coiffure. “Do not get your fingers dirty.”
While she resented her mother’s implication that her friend Liam was ever dirty, Thea obeyed her mother and ceased inventing new hide and seek games with Liam. Taller and of greater width than her brother, Liam owned shaggy red-gold hair and brilliant green eyes, the heritage of his Scottish sire. The son of the Willowdale’s family housekeeper, Liam’s sailor father died at sea when he was but a baby.
Thea, while maintaining a polite social distance with Liam and the other servants, never forgot how much she liked Liam, or ever forgot their games. Freddie feigned a distaste of such antics with the son of a mere housekeeper, but Thea knew her brother had watched from hiding and envied them.
“My Lord,” Liam intoned formally, bowing low, his voice deep and rich with the tiniest Scottish flare in his accent. “Miss Miller. The butler wishes to inform you that luncheon awaits your pleasure.”
“We are on our way now,” Freddie replied, hardly seeing Liam at all. “Thank you.”
Unwilling to treat the servants as though they did not exist save when they did something wrong, Thea dipped her chin into a sober nod toward Liam. “Mr. Carter,” she said as she and Freddie passed him, “thank you very kindly.”
She liked the way his green eyes sparkled when they looked at her, the somber yet fullness to his voice when he said Miss Miller and, most especially, she loved seeing the near reverence in his strikingly handsome face. He bowed again, his scarlet and silver livery pristine.
Aware of him following them as she and Freddie strolled toward the house, Thea resisted the urge to turn and gaze upon him again. She certainly did enjoy staring at him. He is too good looking for my own good. She hardly heard Freddie speaking until his very last words.
“ – party for you.”
“Er, excuse me, what?”
Freddie shook his head, his expression one of mild exasperation mixed with love. “I do so hope you are not planning some devilish reprisal for my jests earlier, Thea.”
“Of course not. Why do you want a party? It is far too soon after Father and Mother’s funerals.”
“But inviting all the bachelors of the kingdom will permit you to meet them.” Freddie gazed down at her, his brows furrowed, his lips thinned. “I do worry so over you, sweet sister.”
Still conscious of Liam following a few paces behind and no doubt overhearing every word, Thea lowered her head and her voice. “I appreciate that Freddie, I truly do. But my heart still grieves for our parents. You simply must give me more time.”
Freddie nodded. “Perhaps I am pushing you too hard, Thea,” he admitted, his longish black hair caught under the throes of the wind. “Just promise me to keep an open mind.”
Thea agreed, her nose not rising an inch. “I can do that. And I do thank you for worrying over me.”
Freddie gazed down at her, not an ounce of humor anywhere. “I told you I love you, sister, and I do want what is best for you.”
Somehow, I fear what is best for me is not what you have in mind.
Feeling his heart break in his chest, Liam despaired. It cannot be true, he told himself, Lord Willowdale would surely not marry her off to some husband who may treat her badly. Would to God I had been gently born so that I may face her as an equal and beg her hand in marriage. Bitterness rose to his throat and stuck there, choking him, cutting off his breath. He was not gently born. He was not her equal and never would be. Asking for her hand in marriage was like reaching into the night sky to seize the moon, then paying a jeweler to set it into a wedding ring.
Walking a few steps behind the brother and sister, Liam could not help but overhear their speech, as Lord Willowdale’s voice tended to carry. Miss Miller’s was softer, a true lady who spoke like an angel. Lord Willowdale wanted a party to bring together the cream of the realm’s aristocracy for Miss Miller to pick a husband.
I should be her husband. No one else will care for her as I do.
The instant Liam had struck adolescence, he knew he was in love with Miss Miller. Of the same age, they played together as children – the daughter of the Viscount and the son of the housekeeper. He never truly understood when she ceased their games, had told him she had so many other things to do. When he grew angry at the ripe old age of thirteen, his mother, Mary Carter, drew him aside.
“Ye must let her gae, laddie,” she said, wiping his angry face with her apron. “Her maw dae be tellin’ her that ye be a servant and such. Noo ye best be realizin’ that she be gentry and ye nae.”
“But I ken it, Mum,” he protested. “I loves her, sae I dae.”
Mary gazed at him, sympathy in her clear blue eyes. “I ken it, son. But ye must let her gae.”
Liam did not let her go. Instead, he practiced his English accent until his throat was raw. He banished as much of the Scots from his blood as he dared, and grew older. By his mid-teens he became a household footman, the Scottish in his voice barely recognized by those who heard him speak. Liam waited and he watched, loving Miss Miller from a distance as she grew from the gangly, knobby-kneed child he had played with, to the stunningly beautiful lady she had become.
His duties as a footman made him all but invisible. His livery, his powdered wig, made him anonymous, a nobody, one among many just like him in size and stature, but gave him access to following and watching her. Without making it obvious, Liam made certain he was the nearest to her when Miss Miller needed her packages carried. He made himself indispensable on her shopping trips to the village, flipped coins with his fellows to make sure he accompanied the family to London.
Liam grieved with her when her parents were killed in the robbery and longed to hold her in his arms as she wept in her grief. He rejoiced at her every smile and knew she smiled at him, at Liam her old friend, and not just another footman. He loved her with every fiber of his being, would slay himself at her bidding and would lay down his life for her if she but asked.
“I appreciate that Freddie, I truly do. But my heart still grieves for our parents. You simply must give me more time,” Liam heard her say.
If she needs time, then perhaps I can find a way to convince her of how much I love her. He knew quite well that commoners married aristocrats, and the world had not yet ended, despite many opinions to the contrary. If I can show her my heart, then perhaps she will consent to marry me.
Following the siblings from the lake to the vast old house, Liam trailed behind Miss Miller, Thea as he preferred to think of her, as she climbed the stairs to her rooms to get cleaned up for the afternoon meal. He waited outside in the hall until she emerged, then bowed to her as she ambled past him and back down the stairs. He lived for attending upon her every need, recognizing that he, perhaps, had grown obsessed with her.
Standing with other footmen along the wall in case they were needed to run errands for their master and mistress, Liam listened to their low voiced conversation, and learned Thea planned to spend the afternoon reading in the library. So that is where I will be.
“Let us go out riding, Thea,” Lord Willowdale said to her. “We have not spent any time on horseback in ages.”
As Thea faced him, due to Liam’s strategic positioning of himself where he could watch her, he saw her tilt her head as she pondered his invitation. “Not today, Freddie. How about later in the week?”
“That will be fine,” he replied, cutting his roast with his knife. “I believe Robert plans to visit tomorrow.”
Thea wrinkled her nose in distaste. “Then I will find an excuse to be out when he calls.”
“I will never understand why you do not like him. He is my best friend, after all. And he certainly likes you well enough.”
“I never have,” Thea replied, her voice firm. “And I never will. Please do not encourage his pursuit of me, Freddie. I have no desire to marry him.”
“But he’s one of the most suitable candidates, Thea,” Lord Willowdale said. “He is a Baron and quite wealthy, and close to your age. I know you could learn to, if not love him, then have some affection for him. I know he would love you.”
“I am not certain as to why I do not care for him,” Miss Miller went on, shaking her head. “I feel dirty every time he looks at me.”
“He would make a far better match for you than some old Earl with children your age.”
To Liam’s ears, it sounded as if Lord Willowdale were growing angry, but as he could not see his face, Liam could not be sure.
“Already planning to renege on your promise to let me assist in finding a husband?” Miss Miller asked, growing annoyed in her turn. “That did not take long.”
“Of course I am not going back on my promise,” Lord Willowdale said, his voice rising. “But you are not making this task easy at all.”
Thea pushed her plate away and stood up. “Nor do I plan to, brother. Good afternoon.”
Storming from the huge dining room that could easily hold a hundred guests, Miss Miller slammed the door behind her. Liam heard Lord Willowdale mutter what sounded like curses under his breath, as he pushed his own half-eaten meal away. Though he did not leave the table, he drummed his fingers on its top, obviously irritated. Liam dared not leave to follow Miss Miller in case his master needed him.
Sure enough, Lord Willowdale turned in his chair and snapped his fingers at Liam. “Fetch me paper, ink and a quill pen.”
“Right away, My Lord.”
Liam bowed, then left the dining room to obey, heading to the butler’s small office not far from the kitchen. Returning with the requested items, he stood once more against the wall as Lord Willowdale wrote on the paper. Finishing his writing, he folded it, then put it in his pocket and rose from the table. Lord Willowdale then left the dining room, permitting Liam and the other footmen to begin clearing the table.
Deep in his thoughts and worries that Miss Miller would marry another, Liam barely listened to the conversation around him as he worked, and hardly noticed when his mother, Mary, entered until she stood beside him. Busy cleaning the silver, he started in surprise to find her at his elbow.
“Mother,” he said, bending to kiss her cheek. “Are you well?”
“Aye, lad,” she replied. “I didnae see ye in the servants’ quarters breakin’ yer fast this mawnin’. I came to check on ye. Hae ye been eatin’, son?”
Liam shook his head. “I have been attending Lord Willowdale and Miss Miller.”
“I cannae hae ye wastin’ away, lad. Ye must eat.”
Striding firmly toward the butler who was busy inspecting the footmen’s work, Liam heard her say, “Wi’ ye permit me lad tae come wi’ me, Mr. O’Bannon? Me foolish bairn dinnae ken how tae care fer himself these days.”
The butler nodded gravely. “He has been working quite hard, Mrs. Carter. Yes, take him with you.”
Obedient, Liam followed his mother to the servants’ wing of the great house and to a big chamber where the household staff ate their meals. Several other footmen and cleaning maids sat around the big table, dining on their midday meal. The maids eyed Mary uneasily, as though caught idling without her permission. Pushing Liam toward the end of the room where they could talk in private, Mary fetched both of them plates of cold roast, wedges of cheese and hard black bread.
“Noo, lad.” She took a chair across from him, glancing down the table to make sure none could overhear. “Whet be botherin’ ye?”
Discovering himself famished once the foods’ odors reached his nose, Liam stuffed his mouth full of bread and cheese while Mary ate more delicately. She had plaited her blonde hair, spotted with grey, into a braid and pinned it atop her head. Her sharp blue eyes watched him from her narrow face. Always a strong woman, she had risen in the Willowdale household over the years from a simple cleaning maid to the head housekeeper.
When he could speak, Liam said in a low voice, “Lord Willowdale is pressuring Miss Miller to marry.”
Mary scowled. “Sae that be whet be stuck in ye. Ye ken better, Liam. I love the lord and lady like me own bairns, but ye cannae marry the lass. Ye must ferget these mad notions ‘o yers.”
Liam dropped his eyes to his plate. “I cannot, Mum,” he said softly. “I have tried and tried. I love her so much.”
Mary sighed. “Perhaps it be best if ye left the household, lad. Find work else where. Get away from her and this place.”
“No.” Liam’s heart ripped wide open at the very idea of never seeing Miss Miller again, breaking into a cold sweat. He swallowed hard, his stomach in knots. “Please do not suggest that, Mum. Not ever.”
“Whet ye gonna dae when the lass marries and gaes away?” Mary asked. “She must marry to please her family.”
Leaning his elbows on the table, Liam folded his hands and leaned his brow against them. “I do not know,” he whispered. “Maybe I should tell her how I feel.”
“Nay.” Mary’s voice was firm. “Dinnae confuse the lass. I ken ye both were fond ‘o each other when ye were young, but she cannae return yer love, lad.”
Liam raised desperate eyes to his mother. “Yes, she can. It is possible for us to marry. I heard Lord Willowdale tell her she can choose her own husband. If she knows how much I love her, she may choose me.”
“Dinnae get yer hopes up, Liam,” Mary said sternly, her lips bowed down in exasperation. “Uir master may let her choose, but he wi’ ne’er permit her tae choose a footman o’er a husband ‘o noble birth. Noo get that right oot ‘o yer head.”
Shunting his eyes away from hers, Liam swallowed hard. “I will try, Mum.”
Reaching across the table, Mary took his hand in hers. “Yer love and dedication dae make me proud ‘o ye, Liam. Ye be a guid lad. Ye be turnin’ heads all o’er the house, ye ken.”
Liam tried to smile. “I expect I did not notice.”
“Aye. All the lasses be watchin’ ye, hopin’ ye wi’ notice them, and wishin’ ye wi’ offer to court them. Handsome lad ye be, strong and able.”
Trying to imagine himself courting one of the household’s wenches, and he did realize many of them were quite pretty, Liam could not do it. Not a one of them could compare to Miss Miller in good looks or replace her in his heart. He merely said, “Perhaps. If Miss Miller marries and leaves this house, then I will consider it.”
“All I can ask, lad.”
After Mary left to return to her duties, Liam finished eating, though he had no appetite. Miserable, he knew there would be no getting over Miss Miller once she married and went away with her new husband.
I am sorry, Mum. Should that happen, my life will be over. I cannot live without her.
After supper, during which neither she nor Freddie spoke much, Thea left the house to walk to the lake. Though full darkness had fallen, she had little difficulty in finding her way. The small lake had been her favorite place and her solace since she was a little girl. She loved the sound of the small waves lapping the shore, the tiny splashes of the trout leaping up to snack on bugs over its surface, its utter peacefulness, and its tranquility.
Stepping out onto the long dock where Freddie tied his rowboat he used when he went fishing, Thea gazed up at the stars. Near tears, she said, “If you can hear me, Mother, Father, I miss you both so much.”
The authorities never caught the robber or robbers who waylaid her parents as they traveled home from London. The highwaymen even killed the coachman and the two footmen accompanying them, thus there were no witnesses to the crime. Thea often wondered if the little jewelry and money the robbers received were worth the lives of five people. “Was it worth your soul?” she asked the inky sky and glittering stars. “Because surely you will go to hell for what you have done.”
Leaning against the post at the end of the dock, Thea wept, grieving for her Mother and Father. Perhaps it was because of her quarrel with Freddie that she felt so depressed and weepy, as well as missing her parents, that made her cry. She had never been one to shed tears as so many other women were wont to do, and even remained stoic and dry-eyed when she fell from her horse and broke her arm several years ago.
Only the death of her parents brought the tears now. “I miss you,” she sobbed, hanging onto the post with both arms, salty tears coursing down her face and wetting her gown. “I miss you so much.”
Her heart aching, Thea heard the post creak, yet paid it no heed under the force of her sobs. An instant later, it gave way. With all her weight against it, she plunged, along with the wood, headlong into the cold water of the lake. Gasping for breath, her face broke the water’s surface. Frantic, she tried to grab hold of the post, but in her thrashing, it danced just beyond her reach.
Unable to swim, Thea sank under the water, struggling and panicking. Bubbles burst from her nose, the lake filled her mouth, choking her. Trying to kick upwards, she fought against the dead weight of her clothes. Like her mouth, they filled with the water and dragged her downward, as heavy as stones. Still flailing, Thea struck the thick mud and muck of the lake’s bottom, drowning, unable to see, unable to breathe.
I am dying.
Panic seized her mind. Sucking in air to scream, she only inhaled water, choking, gasping and coughing. Fighting to breathe, she barely felt the hands grab and lift her, forcing her upwards to the surface of the lake. Her head burst into the night air as she spluttered, wheezing as a strong hand hit her hard between her shoulder blades. The water she had inhaled was forced from her lungs, enabling her to breathe past her coughs and chokes.
Blinded by her hair, Thea felt herself dragged to the lake’s edge, then picked up and carried to higher ground. Her chest on fire, she breathed raggedly as her rescuer set her carefully down on a bench.
The voice in her ear was deep, masculine and more than familiar. Liam! Swiping her hair from her face with a hand that shook, Thea peered through the water that still dripped down her face. She tried to speak, but a fit of coughing caused her to bend over, holding her chest against the terrible pain.
“Do not try to talk,” he told her. “Just breathe. Just breathe.”
Obeying him, Thea focused on drawing in one careful breath after another, the hot burning receding a fraction. She shivered, goose pimples erupting all over her skin as the cool night air chilled her wet body to the bone. When she felt she could speak, she turned her face up to him.
“Thank you,” she whispered past her raw throat. “You saved my life.”
“I saw what happened, Miss Miller,” he said. “But I was back that way, it took me a moment to get to you.”
“You were there for me.”
“Can you walk?” Liam looked her up and down. “I must get you inside and warm.”
Thea nodded and did not mind at all when Liam slid his arm around her waist to help her to stand, and then to slowly make her way back to the house. Lights gleamed in windows all over the huge structure, even in her own that faced the lake. Despite her near death by drowning, Thea liked having him so close to her and enjoyed his powerful strength holding her up. She craved to lean into him, resting her head on his shoulder, but dared not. If he did not feel the same way toward her as she did Liam, she knew she would feel horribly embarrassed.
Still supporting her, Liam opened the main door into the house. “Easy there, Miss Miller,” he said his rich voice in her ear. “There you go.”
In the entryway, a passing footman halted mid-step to gape. “Fetch Lord Willowdale,” Liam ordered. “I will take Miss Miller to her rooms.”
The footman rushed away even as Liam picked her up in his arms and carried her up the stairs. He grinned down into her uptilted face. “Much easier on you, Miss Miller, in your weakened state.”
Inside the house and under the light of the lamps, Thea could now see his red-gold hair plastered to his face, still dripping water down his cheeks. His lips were tinged with blue, as no doubt her own must be, while wet and cold. “Your livery,” she whispered. “Is it ruined?”
“Have no worry about such small matters, Miss Miller,” he said, carrying her up the stairs with the same ease he might display in carrying a puppy. “Your life and health are far more important.”
At the door to her chambers, Liam turned sideways to turn the handle, then pushed it open with his foot. Her personal maid, Felicity, gave a small screech of shock as he brought her inside. “Fetch Miss Miller a blanket,” he ordered as he set Thea gently on her feet. He gazed down at her while Felicity bolted into the other room, and said, “I will leave you in the care of your abigail, Miss Miller. But should you have need, I will be right outside the door.”
Thea nodded. Liam smiled, then bowed low and turned to leave. He closed the door behind him, Thea wishing she could ask him to stay. Her fingers numb, she plucked at the lacings on her bodice even as Felicity returned with the thick wool blanket.
“Let me get you out of those wet clothes, Miss Miller,” she said, fussing over Thea like a mother cat over her litter of kittens.
Within minutes, Thea had been stripped and dried, her wet hair wrapped in a towel. Warming up, at last, Felicity helped her into a night-dress, then insisted she get into her bed. But a knock at the door took the maid away from Thea before she could. Suspecting it was Freddie on the other side, Thea wrapped the blanket around her shoulders to cover herself properly.
Freddie burst in, apparently unmindful that she might be stark naked when he did so. “Are you all right?” he demanded.
Finding it still too painful to talk, Thea nodded. In spite of his strict adherence to never showing affection, Freddie threw his arms around her and held her close to his chest. “The footman informed me you fell in the lake and were drowning.”
“He saved me,” Thea whispered.
“I could not bear it if I lost you, too,” he muttered against her hair, his voice thick. “I love you so much, Thea.”
Contenting herself with just letting herself be held, Thea closed her eyes, her arms around Freddie’s waist. Their quarrel seemed so distant now, so trivial and unimportant. She suspected that was what happened when one almost dies – one learns what is important and what is not. When at last her brother let her go, Thea smiled up into his face. “I love you.”
Freddie lightly touched her nose with his finger. “I will send a servant up with hot tea and honey. Get yourself to bed, and get some rest. All right?”
Thea nodded. As Freddie went to the door, she saw Liam standing outside and looking in, and raised a tiny grin for him. He bowed low as Freddie passed him, still damp, but most of his drips appeared to be gone. But Felicity shut the door in his face before he could answer her smile.
“Come,” Felicity ordered, ushering her into her bed chamber. “To bed, Miss Miller.”
Thea let herself be herded like a sheep, feeling exhausted and unwell. She shivered even under the warm sheets and blankets of her bed, wondering if she had caught a fever. Not even the tea, well laced with honey, helped. When Felicity put out the lamps, it took her a long while to get to sleep.
When she did manage to drift off, Thea dreamed of death coming for her on a black horse, dread filling her even as she slept.
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