Olivia Parker

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This is a prologue that I didn't include in GUARDING A NOTORIOUS LADY. As I hadn't planned on using it, readers who have already read the book might find a few inconsistencies. Still, I hope you enjoy reading it!  :)

Yorkshire, 1807   
            It was not Lady Rosalind Devine’s intent to get stuck in a tree. 
           However, she was undoubtedly caught and if she didn’t get down soon her predicament was about to become positively mortifying.
          “Dear Lord,” she muttered the benediction, her trembling arms wrapped tight around the trunk. “If you get me down, I promise . . .” She inhaled deeply, slowly, and then blurted, “I promise never to spy on Nicholas Kincaid again.”   
          The branch underneath her smooth-soled half boots gave an unexpected creak.          
          “All-right-all-right-all-right.” Rosalind squeezed her eyes shut. “So much for making half-hearted promises.          
          Swallowing a lurch of fear, she reconsidered her bargaining strategy, but her time was running out. Any minute now Nicholas Kincaid would come sauntering down the wildflower-lined path on his way out of the woods. And although the foliage on either side was dense, one would have to be blind to miss the sprawling oak tree--with an apparently daft young woman clutched within its ancient branches--that marked a fork in the route.     
          Twisting her chin, she blew at an errant lock of coal-black hair that tickled her nose. Far beneath her, a squirrel bounded around the base of the trunk, chattering as it went--or perhaps it was laughing.      
          In all of her nineteen years, she had only ever climbed a tree once before and it nearly ended disastrously. She vowed then to never put herself in such a precarious position again and upheld that oath--except, of course, for today. But once she spied that fiendishly pert Miss Tinker thread her arm with Nicholas’s outside the milliner’s in the village, Rosalind found it absolutely necessary to find out where they were going. 
            So, she had simply told her maid she’d be but a moment, turned the corner behind the shop, and followed Miss Tinker and Nicholas straight into the dense woods.
          It was a horrible idea.
           Once enveloped by the cover of trees and brush, Miss Tinker had yanked Nicholas off the path. Having lost sight of them, Rosalind climbed the nearest tree without another thought. She spotted them minutes later once they arrived at the base of a small knoll awash with filtered sunlight. And that’s when the fresh, spring-scented air had stuck in Rosalind’s chest. Miss Tinker launched herself at Nicholas, kissing him, tugging his shirt free, and making short work of unbuttoning it. Her grasping hands ran up and down his bare chest and she moaned. Rosalind nearly became ill at the sight. Those were supposed to be her hands, her moans, her Nicholas.
          Rosalind didn’t know why Nicholas had grabbed Miss Tinker by the shoulders to stop her, only that he had. And for a young lady with two brothers, Rosalind knew that what Miss Tinker was doing was exactly the sort of thing they lived for.  
        Whatever Nicholas’s reason for ending their tryst, Rosalind deduced that getting stuck in the tree was undoubtedly divine punishment for snooping--although she rather thought the sour taste of jealousy that turned her stomach was fitting chastisement enough. She would have shaken her head at her own stupidity, at her own frail resistance when it came to one man in particular if it weren’t for the fact that she was frozen in fear. What a fine time to discover one was afraid of great heights. She couldn’t even claim that her foot had become wedged or her hem caught on a branch—she was simply unable to move.
       A twig snapped in the distance followed by quickly approaching footfalls.  A moment later, Miss Tinker emerged from the side of the path they had disappeared into earlier. Surprisingly, she kept her head down, her wide-brimmed bonnet acting as a makeshift blinder. Her rigid posture and flushed face bespoke embarrassment—or anger—and she rushed past Rosalind and down the path that would lead her out of the woods and back to the village green.Rosalind exhaled. There was a chance she would be so fortunate as to escape Nicholas’s notice, as well.
       Someone cleared their throat.
       Ah, well. Apparently not.
       Slowly, she peered over her shoulder and saw nothing but an empty path. Then came the scrape of a boot on the gravelly path as he rounded the trunk of the tree to stand beneath her.Worried that he’d spy guilt in her expression, she quickly averted her gaze.
       “Can I be on some assistance, my lady?” he asked, his deep baritone tinged with a slight Scot’s burr.
       Rosalind nearly growled in frustration. She didn’t know what she despised more—his overly proper tone or the use of her courtesy title. She didn’t understand why, but he seemed to only address her in such a manner whenever they found themselves alone.
       She lifted her chin. “Ah. No. But thank you.”
       “No?” He chuckled softly, the melodic sound making her insides burn from the anticipation of being near him—even despite the circumstances.
        He stepped closer. She could feel the heat of him as he neared.“You may run along now,” she said stiffly.
       “Hmm. I see,” he intoned. “Why don’t you tell me what you’re doing up there?”
       “I’m looking for something.”
       “And that would be . . .?”
       “My kitten.”
       “You gave your kitten away last Tuesday to your aunt, Rosalind.”
       “Ah! He remembers my name.”
       He sighed, coming to stand before her, his eyes at level with her ankles. “You cannot stay there all day.” He quirked his head to the side in thought. “And aren’t you leaving for London this morning to make your ‘go out’?
       “It’s called a debut, Nicholas. Or my ‘coming out’.”
        He grumbled something she couldn’t decipher, and then drawled, “I have no knowledge of such things. I am a man of the country after all. ”
       “As I am a lady of the country.”
        “No, you are the sister of a duke.”
       Rosalind truly believed that his habit of frequently reminding her of their different stations in life brought him some level of comfort that she didn’t think she’d ever understand. Perhaps he hated London. Or the ton. Or her for that matter. His indifference in regards to her was fairly obvious--and had been ever since her brother introduced his friend to her two years ago. Oh, he was always nice, gentlemanly, but never flirtatious, never seeking her out. If anything, he seemed to endeavor to avoid her whenever possible.But Rosalind was a perceptive young lady and she did not miss the sparkle in his eyes when he spoke to her nor the way his touch lingered when he handed her a book she purposely dropped at his feet. She was simply addicted to the sound of his laughter and delighted that she managed to provoke it so often. Why couldn’t he see that she would be better for him than that Tinker girl?
       A sudden breeze stirred the hem of her soft blue dress, causing it to sweep playfully against his cheek. After gently brushing it away, he leaned a shoulder against the tree and crossed his arms over his chest. “Come along, Rosalind,” he coaxed, a touch of irritation in his tone, “let me help you down. I’m not angry that you were spying on me.”
       He must have seen her and that’s why he had stopped. She closed her eyes briefly and the unbidden image of Miss Tinker’s grasping hands flashed before her eyes. She had borne witness to an intimate act with the man she adored and it hurt, but it was her own fault for giving her heart away to someone who didn’t, apparently, want it.Rosalind swallowed heavily. “No, thank you,” she stressed, unable to meet his gaze. “I shall manage on my own.”
        “I’m not leaving until both of your feet are on solid ground, lass.”
       “You can go.”
        “Little sisters,” he said grimly, shaking his head.
       Lord, she hated when he treated her like this. “I am not your little sister.”
       He rubbed his slightly bristled jaw. “Aye, but I’ve been friends with Gabriel long enough to know the misery you’ve put him through.”
       Her jaw dropped and she swiveled to deliver a retort. But it died on her tongue as her feet skittered on the branch, and then slid off. The rough grooves of the bark scraped at her arms as she tried to regain her hold, but she was already slipping down the tree. One arm flailed out and she tipped over backwards and dropped--right into Nicholas’s arms.
       “See there,” he said with smug male satisfaction. “I’ve got you.” He hefted her slightly, adjusting her position in his arms so that she was more securely pressed against his chest.
       Panting slightly from fright, Rosalind couldn’t get her mouth to form words. She felt as light as a tuft of down and all she could think about was how wonderfully warm and solid Nicholas’s chest was and how strong his arms felt behind her back and under her legs. Her gaze traveled from the middle of his chest to the vee of his loose white shirt where a peek of honey skin teased her. Finally, she met his gaze and was surprised to see that his silvery eyes seemed to smolder today with an intensity she’d never witnessed before.
        “Well,” he said, with a lopsided grin that sent a jolt of heat straight through her heart. “You’re down.”
       She nodded dumbly, staring into his silver-gray eyes as he continued to hold her. And in that moment she almost blurted her admission. That she loved him. That she knew she was born with obligations befitting her station in society. That she knew she was expected to go to London to gossip and shop, attend countless fêtes and find a husband. But everything she wanted was here in Yorkshire. He was in Yorkshire. And he was all she’d ever want.
        Five years older than she, Nicholas was kind and protective, intelligent and strong, curiously secretive and handsome as sin. He taught her to play billiards and let her beat him at chess. And of course there was that day he had found her striding across a lonesome moor caught in a sudden downpour. To her delight, he had swept her atop his horse, settled her safely onto his lap, and raced her all the way back to her home, depositing her at the front door—and all without uttering a word.But somehow she knew that announcing her feelings now would be childish, foolish even. And last thing she wanted was for him to think of her feelings as a transient thing. An infatuation.
       He eased her down, setting her apart from him. “Did you hurt your arms on your way down?”
       She shook her head. In truth, she couldn’t feel anything but the thumping of her heart.
       “You should go home now.” He gave a nod in the direction of Wolverest.
       She nodded, suddenly unable to conjure words, and tossed a meaningful glance at the tree.  “I must thank you.”
       “Anytime, my lady,” he intoned, sketching a gentlemanly bow that contradicted his usual—but feigned, she suspected—provincial air. Straightening, he tossed his tousled mahogany locks from his forehead, revealing a glimpse of a dark, regretful look that caused Rosalind’s heart to skip. She had a notion that he did not intend for his mask to slip—or that she’d be so perceptive to catch it. But what did it mean?She would be in London for merely three months, but she knew she was going to miss the quiet simplicity of the country. She was going to miss him. Seeing him, having him visit or having him stay for supper--it was the best part of her day. But she wasn’t, apparently, the highlight of his day. Perhaps she never would be.
       A wave of uneasiness roiled through her. Rosalind already knew what a lifetime of indifference could do to a woman’s spirit, her soul. Her mother had been such a woman. Was she destined to suffer the same fate? To make the same mistake?The sting of unshed tears surprised her. She turned abruptly and sped down the path, all the while resisting the urge to turn back around and take one last look at him. Upon her return to Yorkshire in the autumn, she might very well find that he had married. And it would undoubtedly break her heart.
         Nicholas waited until Rosalind was out of sight before he turned in the opposite direction and headed home.
        Passing the tree, he gazed up into its branches and shook his head. Whatever compelled the silly creature to spy on him? She was a sensible lass—young lady, he corrected himself. He’d never seen her do anything so impulsive.Whatever her reasons, she was to go to London for her debut. He always knew that she would eventually. It was the way of the aristocracy and Rosalind was what the fops in London would call a ‘diamond of the first water’.
       The lass was such a beauty, had such a beguiling smile, he rather thought the young bucks would find themselves dazzled instantly and fall to her feet. Perhaps she would love all the attention, grow accustomed to it.
       Perhaps the delights of the city would change her.  
       Nicholas worked his jaw, belatedly realizing he was clenching it.She might not marry this season, Nicholas had no doubt that Gabriel would have the final say to the match, but there was little doubt that she would soon find herself with a hive of suitors. And eventually, she would choose one for a husband.
       And then . . . and then perhaps for the first time since he laid on eyes on Rosalind Devine, Nicholas would finally be able to exhale.

Guarding a Notorious Lady