Reluctance by Jen Black
"Marriage might be the safest place to hide if you are afraid of love"
Blurb: You’d think he’d be grateful when Frances,
the richest heiress in England, saves him from drowning, but Jack is living in
his own private hell after the death of his wife. Frances thinks he’s a rude,
insufferable idiot and forgets him. When Holbrook arrives in his glorious
regimentals and dazzles the neighborhood, Frances fails to see his charm, but her
mother, match-making hat firmly in place, claims that he’s admirable husband
material even if he is without funds. He
thinks Frances is just the heiress for him.
Then the newspaper publishes an ugly letter
that questions her reputation. Horrified, she believes Jack is the culprit and
Jack could not breathe. A heavy
weight pressed on his chest. A spasm clenched his body. He rolled to his side
and vomited water onto the grass. Wheezing, he drew in a painful gulp of air,
and got rid of more water. The pressure eased. He sprawled on his back.
“As if I am not wet enough,” a
feminine voice remarked. “But I forgive you, for I thought you had left this
world for a better place.”
Jack frowned. Who the blazes… Dizzy,
half-conscious, he thought of Eleanor and opened his eyes. A blaze of sunlight
made him close them again. Squinting, he made out a kneeling figure with a
cloud of honey-coloured curls surrounding a pale face. His frown deepened. It
was not Eleanor.
“Who are you?” he croaked. Lord,
his throat was sore.
“How do you feel?”
Idiotic question, but he gave it
thought. “Cold, bloody cold. My throat hurts. And my head aches. Who are you?”
The breeze struck the wet cloth of
his shirt and plastered it against his skin. He shivered and saw his feet were
in the river. He drew them back and found it took far more effort than he
expected. No wonder he was cold. His shirt was naught but wet rags, his hair
dripped water, and he suspected half of the river sloshed around inside his
boots. He looked back at the young woman. The sun shone through her hair and
gave her a halo of gold. He shivered again.
It was not Eleanor.
Pain hollowed his body as it always
did when memory struck without warning. Struggling to hide his feelings and
gain control of his muscles, he turned from the stranger and stared at the sky
above the distant tree tops.
This was not London, but Streatham.
He had come to the old house in the middle of May, and already a fortnight or
more must have gone by. This morning he had set out to ride to Chopwell, and,
lost in memories of his wife, had taken a wrong turn. He remembered riding like
the devil. Something had unhorsed him.
“Where’s my horse?” He got an elbow
beneath him and tried to rise.
Moving had been a mistake. The
world whirled around him. When everything steadied, he glared at the dog, red
and glossy as a conker, crouched beside him on the opposite side to the young
lady. It whined and inched closer. “That damned dog unseated me.” He blocked
its affectionate approach. “Stupid dog.”
“Stay, Gyp.” The dog looked at its
mistress as if acknowledging her words, and then transferred its attention back
to him. “Sir, have a little gratitude.” Her voice had turned frosty. “That
noble creature helped save you from drowning.”
Jack glared at the dog. It was wet.
Soaked, in fact. “It was your damned dog that put me in the water in the first
place. It deserves all my displeasure and more. The animal is no more than a
bloody nuisance. Get off!” He pushed away the beast’s probing muzzle.
The dog obeyed her with such a
reproachful glance Jack might have laughed if he felt less like heaving his
guts up again.
“Now, sir, tell me how you do.”
Her air of calm confidence rattled
him. Jack contemplated the calm hazel eyes, pointed chin, and the swirling
cloud of hair. An image of the long, slow, sinuous coils of honey falling from
his breakfast spoon filled his mind.
He shook his head to clear it. Only
Eleanor’s long black hair and laughing eyes would do for him.
She put out a swift hand to shield
herself from cold water drops.
“Sorry,” he muttered. “God, I am
soaked.” He plucked at the sodden tatters of his shirt and then gave up. It was
He smelled a faint flower perfume.
It must come from her. Strong enough to survive the overpowering scents of
grass, river water, and mud; it awoke memories of long, love-laden nights with
Eleanor. Such things had ended with Eleanor’s death. He schooled his expression
before looking up to meet the searching gaze of his companion. Her fichu had
been knocked awry and a generous amount of bosom crowded into the neckline of
her round gown. The kind of dress Eleanor favoured for a day at home when she
expected no visitors; plain light cotton with double sleeves and silk ribbons,
now wet and bedraggled, dangling from beneath her bosom.
Her voice broke in on his thoughts.
“Sir, you must tell me how you feel.”
“As you might expect,” he snapped.
“Cold, wet, and none too happy.”
She sat back on her heels. “There
is no cause to be rude.”
“Your wretched dog was the reason
for my upset.”
The woman raised one eyebrow.
“Perhaps she did surprise your horse by leaping up the bank as she did, but
really, sir, part of the blame must lie with you.”
“How the hell do you make that
She smiled sweetly. “Because this
is private land, and you should not be riding across it.”