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The Earl of London by Louise Bay (1)

One

Darcy

There was something magical about the English countryside on a spring morning. From the dew-covered spiders’ webs to the early sunshine encouraging the snowdrops and crocuses out of hiding until they were riotous blots of color that bloomed despite the odds of winter. It was my perfect paradise.

My favorite thing to do on a Sunday morning was to ride across the Woolton Estate. It was land that had been in my family for generations and was now my responsibility to maintain for the future Westbury family. I’d lived here almost my entire life. It had been the constant when first my father, and then my mother, abandoned me and my brother to our grandparents. It was home, a safe and happy place where I could forget anything bad in the world existed. And I did my best to keep it as it always had been. I wanted to honor the people who had done it before me and preserve it for the people who would come after me.

It was a huge responsibility. Not just because of the generations who would follow, but also the livelihoods that depended on it now from gardeners to gamekeepers, stable staff and then all the people who maintained the house—Woolton Hall. Their families trusted me to provide work for their loved ones. I saw it as an honor as well as my duty. And on days like today, it was a complete pleasure.

As we pulled up at my favorite spot, I dismounted from Bella. It had rained overnight, so although it was dry now, the ground was covered in slippery, muddy grass. Technically, I was checking out the boundaries of the estate and ensuring everything was how it should be, but really I just loved the view from here.

“You’re going to have to hold me upright, Bella,” I said, holding her reins tight and guiding her toward the view. “Look at that. I reckon you can see a hundred miles.” In the distance, the rolling hills of the Chilterns broke up the horizon and a patchwork of fields were divided up by hedges, trees and church spires, as if cars and people didn’t exist. Birdsong floated toward me on the breeze and I closed my eyes and breathed in the fresh morning spring air. I was so lucky to live in a place this beautiful.

Out of the corner of my eye I caught movement in the trees. Had one of our deer wandered into the woods?

Squinting, I realized it was a person. A man. A very tall man who seemed to be focusing on the phone in his large hand while headed in my direction. I watched as Bella and I went unnoticed. In his mid-thirties, in jeans and walking shoes, I didn’t recognize him. He swept his hand through his chocolate-brown hair, the edge of his sharp jaw catching in the hazy morning sunlight as he looked up, just to check the ground ahead of him. Perhaps he was an estate agent, or a surveyor. He was on Badsley House’s land, which had just gone up for sale since Mrs. Brookely had died. I was torn between wanting to be left alone with my horse to enjoy the view and wanting to know what this man’s business was on the border of my family’s land. And perhaps I wanted to see whether or not he was as handsome close up as he seemed to be from a distance. He strode toward Bella and me, his head down, the morning mist swirling about his feet. What a shame that he was missing out on the beautiful morning, on this fantastic view.

As he came closer, he pulled at his collar, revealing a smooth, tan neck and prominent Adam’s apple. A small ridge burrowed between his eyebrows as if he was irritated by what he found on the screen in front of him—or perhaps was trying to figure out a puzzle. If he lived in Woolton Village, I would recognize the difference between the two expressions on him and for no explicable reason it niggled at me that I didn’t know him a little better.

Catching me off guard, the man who by now was just a few meters away from us suddenly looked up and right at me watching him, his blue eyes pinning me to the spot. I wasn’t the sort of girl who stared at men. I understood that personality outlasted looks and that what was on the inside was more important than the outside, but apparently this guy’s outside had me staring. And I’d been caught. “Good morning,” he bellowed, waving.

Before I could decide if embarrassment would stop me greeting the stranger, Bella caught my attention as she whinnied and struggled against the reins. As I tugged the leather to reassure her that everything was okay, she pulled in the opposite direction, breaking free of my grasp. Shit. As I charged after her, my foot slipped on the wet grass and I fell, face down into a muddy puddle.

“Bella!” Spread-eagled on the ground, I lifted my head and saw the man running after her. To my considerable surprise and relief, he caught her reins and began to lead her back. It was unlike Bella to do anything a stranger told her, but she must have taken pity on me.

Struggling to my feet, I glanced down at myself, covered in mud. Sloppy, cold water dripped down my face onto my neck. So much for my perfect morning.

I grabbed the reins from him and smoothed my palm over my face, trying to make the best out of the situation.

“Thank you,” I said, a little flustered. If I’d been embarrassed at being caught staring at this handsome man, the fact that I now looked like a character from a zombie movie didn’t make things any better.

“You’re welcome,” he said. “It’s a beautiful day. I presume you’re from around here?” he asked.

Concentrating on Bella, I addressed the stranger without looking at him, unsure whether I’d be able to look away. Didn’t he know we were on the Woolton Hall estate? “Yes, and I presume you’re not,” I said, hoping he’d fill in the blanks.

When he didn’t respond, I turned to find him regarding me as if I were a zoo animal. “You’re completely covered in mud.” He started to laugh.

Perfect. The first good-looking man I’d run into in a year, and I was providing his entertainment. This was just my luck. And why I was single. I just wasn’t one of those glamorous girls who men found attractive. I liked being outside too much and was a little too comfortable in the mud.

“I’m sorry. Can we start over? I’m Logan Steele,” he said, and held out his hand.

I held up my palms to show him how the last thing he wanted to do was shake my hand, and I certainly didn’t want to further embarrass myself by covering him in mud.

“I just wanted to wish you a good morning, what with you being on my land and everything.”

Your land?” The clearing before I reached the woodland skirting Badsley House was most definitely not his. I squinted, ignoring the mud still trickling down my face. “I think you’ll find this is part of the Woolton Estate. The boundary is…” There used to be a small post indicating where our ownership of the land ended.

“Over there?” Logan pointed behind me toward Woolton.

For years, I’d taken no notice of the boundary between Badsley and Woolton. Because the woodland and the stream where my brother and I would play when we were children was right at the edge of Badsley House’s land, it provided a natural fence, but technically, the three or four meters this side of the trees also belonged to Badsley. I winced and then realized what he’d said. “You’ve bought the place? I thought it only went on the market yesterday?” This tall, handsome man was going to be moving into the village? Great first impression I was making. First falling over and getting covered in mud. Now I was trespassing.

“I don’t think it technically went on the market. I signed the paperwork yesterday afternoon.”

“Oh,” I said. I was pleased Badsley hadn’t laid empty for too long but it was a bit of a shock to find the place had already been sold. And to someone like the man in front of me who, looked more like he’d be at home in a London penthouse rather than a country house. “So, you’re all moved in already?”

He shook his head, grinning at me while I searched my pockets for a tissue so I could wipe my eyes clear of mud.

“Not yet. Three days ago, I didn’t know the place was coming up for sale.” He held out his scarf. “Use this if you want to wipe your face.”

I smiled but shook my head. “Thank you. But I wouldn’t want to ruin it.” It looked expensive. “I’ll just …” I pulled taut the sleeve of my riding jacket and wiped around my eyes. Could I feel any more ridiculous?

“You decided quickly about the place then?” I asked. “Had you been looking in the area long?”

“Sort of.” He shoved his hands in his pockets and tilted his head. “So, you said you were local, do you ride over here often?” he asked.

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t meaning to trespass. The previous owner didn’t mind me—”

“And I don’t either,” he said. “It’s a beautiful view.” He glanced over toward the Chiltern Hills.

So he had noticed his surroundings a little.

“It really is. And with the stream just over there,” I pointed to beneath the trees to the place where my brother and I used to play. “This is my favorite spot in the village.”

“It’s beautiful. Any other places I should make sure I visit around here?”

“Well, it’s all beautiful. You’ll have to explore and decide,” I said, trying to ignore the fact I was covered in mud. “It’s so peaceful up here. It’s good to get away and escape. But you might prefer…something else.” By the looks of him, he spent a good deal of time in the gym.

“Well, perhaps next time I run into you at one, I won’t spook your horse and you won’t end up covered in mud.” For the first time since I’d fallen over, I was grateful for the muddy camouflage. I hoped it was covering my blush at the mention of seeing him again. I always complained about there not being enough single men in the area, and here it seemed Badsley House had planted someone right next door.

“It’s fine. At least you caught her.” Normally, I’d be furious that someone wasn’t more thoughtful around my horses but I could hardly chastise someone new to the village. “Do you ride? Or your…wife?”

He chuckled. “No, I never learned. And I’m not married.”

“Oh,” I said. “That’s a shame.” Now I sounded like I wished he was married, which definitely wasn’t the case. “That you don’t ride,” I corrected. “It’s a wonderful way to get out into the countryside.”

“I see that. Maybe I’ll learn.” His eyes sort of twinkled and I couldn’t tell if he was making fun of me or it was just his normal charming way.

“Well, I’d better be going,” I said, feeling a little awkward and out of my depth. I was used to being neither. I needed a hot shower and not to be talking with a ridiculously handsome man looking like I did.

“I didn’t get your name,” he said.

I’d rather have slunk away without introducing myself. That way, maybe the next time I saw him, he wouldn’t recognize me without the mud and I could have a do-over. “Darcy,” I muttered.

“Good to meet you, Darcy. I hope I’ll see you again.”

“Woolton Village is a small place, I have no doubt we’ll run into each other again. Hopefully I will be a little cleaner.”

He grinned, and those eyes did that sparkle thing again. “What’s a little mud between friends?”

I looked back toward Woolton Hall, unsure of what to say. “Well, nice to meet you.”

“See you soon, I hope,” he replied.

I turned and began to walk away, trying not to fixate on the fact he’d just said he hoped to see me soon. Because he was just being polite. Neighborly.

Glancing over my shoulder, I saw he was still in the same spot, watching me as I led Bella back to Woolton. Crap, I should have worn my magic jeans that made my arse look half the size it actually was. I also shouldn’t have fallen over into the mud. Or trespassed on his land. But despite all of it, I did find him a little bit charming. And more than slightly handsome. And I didn’t run into men like that very often. I could think of worse neighbors to have.

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