This is the unedited version. All words subject to change.
Near Bartley Green, England, 1821
Bracebridge stayed where he was, determined to see this unpleasantness through. Coming across her here was nothing but pure luck, but he was prepared. This particular field between her home and the house where he was a guest offered a privacy they would not otherwise have had. He wasn’t entirely unfeeling or unaware of the possibility that he was about to hurt her badly. Better to meet like this and be done with it.
If the encounter went badly, which it likely would, he would remove to the inn at Bartley Green, conclude his private business, and, pray God, return to London an engaged man. His friendship with her relations would not survive, an outcome he had no choice but to accept as the consequence of his poor choices.
In the clearing ahead, Emily changed direction, running full out on the narrow path. A large, ungainly dog kept pace with her, its attention fixed on the stick she held aloft. She clutched a handful of her skirts high enough to display a good deal too much of her calves as she jumped over the perennially rutted and never-quite-dry portion of the path. She laughed and called out while she waved the stick, “Princess! Oh, Princess!”
Princess, he presumed, was the dog.
She skidded to a stop and heaved the stick. Her joyful laugh carried over the sound of the dog barking. The stick flew an impressive distance and landed not fifty feet from where he stood. The dog’s ears flapped around its massive head as it pounded across the field, leaving flattened grass in its wake. A deep, wet, throaty bay suggested bloodhound somewhere in its heritage.
The dog put its nose to the ground and began the arc of what would be a wide circle. A moment later he heard the crunch of teeth through wood. Emily, meanwhile, had come full stop. She saw him, and her eyes went wide; some emotion&emdash;Regret? Dismay?&emdash; flickered through her eyes, quickly extinguished. Some mingling of the two?
Emily headed for the dog, pretending he wasn’t standing right there, a much folded leash in one hand. Unfortunately, her beast of a dog, having reduced the stick to half its length, at last noticed him and ran toward him. The sound that came from its throat was a horrifying admixture of bark, snarl, and bay.
“Princess! No! Leave him be!”
For all the good that did. The dog came at him sideways, tail wagging so hard its entire body wriggled. The next thing he knew, the ugliest dog he’d ever seen in his life attempted to lick him to death.
She marched over, not the least out of breath from her dash across the field, and grabbed the monster by the collar. “No, Princess. No. Sit.”
The dog dropped to its belly, tongue lolling while it stared adoringly at her. With some effort, she affixed the leash to the dog’s collar.
“Good dog.” She patted its enormous head. Princess jumped to her feet then jumped on Emily who reeled back two steps but kept her balance despite the fact this monstrosity of a dog came close to outweighing her. “Bad Princess. Bad. Behave.”
He said, “It’s been my observation that royals rarely behave well.”
Her cheeks turned pink, and he felt a pang of regret at the remark. Well. She ignored him and turned with the plain intention of continuing on her way. This cut direct would have been more effective had not Princess gone the opposite direction, with the obvious intention of attempting another death by licking.
He laughed out loud.
Emily turned and said with impressive scorn, “What on earth do you find so amusing, my lord?” She tugged once on the leash, but the dog was having none of it. “Princess. Come along.”
“That dog.” He pointed and said, “Sit.”
At that very second, Princess sat to scratch her ear with a hind leg. He took take full satisfaction in the coincidence. “The dog is yours?” he asked at the same time Emily spoke.
“I am expected home soon.”
“Em,” he said.
“What do you want of me, Bracebridge?” She spoke crisply and with a hint of annoyance. Good. This was good. He began to harbor hopes this meeting would not end as badly as he’d feared.
“Nothing. To not be at odds. I did not mean to hurt you.”
Her mouth thinned with displeasure. “Believe me, you did not.”
“I’m staying at Rosefeld,” he said. This was a hopeful exchange, though they both knew she was lying.
“I am aware.” She stared steadfastly at the dog.
“Are we to remain estranged, then?”
She did not answer straightaway. Whatever her eventual answer, he did not regret his previous bluntness with her. They had been necessary words. Hard words, and likely hurtful. She gave a deep sigh
He held out a hand to the dog, and it stretched its head toward his fingers and licked them. The creature appeared to be some sort of a cross between a wolfhound, a bloodhound, and possibly a mastiff. One of Emily’s sisters had a dog with wolfhound in its uncertain background. This beast looked vaguely similar.
“She is some progeny of Roger’s, I take it?” Roger being her sister’s dog.
“I’ve no idea. Come along.” She tugged on the leash, but Princess dragged her to within a foot of him. He bent and rubbed the dog’s ears. Now that he was close, he could see she was ungainly in the way of adolescent dogs, compounded by the fact that she possessed the worst qualities of several breeds.
“She’s the same color as Roger and nearly as tall at the shoulder.”
“Roger has a much longer muzzle.”
“I’ll grant you that. But the resemblance is quite strong. Where did she come from?”
“Nowhere.” She cut off the syllables but relented at his skeptical look. “Oh, very well. I don’t know. I found her living in the alley near the bookshop.”
He continued to stroke the dog’s outsized head. “A literary dog?”
“Yes.” It was a relief to hear amusement in her words. “I’ve been making friends with her for weeks. Trying to at any rate. She’s shy.”
Princess rolled onto her back, legs splayed. He scratched her belly. “Yes, I see that she is shy of strangers.”
“She was until I convinced her I am her friend.” She stared at her feet, at the ground, anywhere but at him. “She was starving, and it was plain others had been cruel to her. People and dogs, I mean. Now, she’s the sweetest thing.”
“That I believe.” He patted Princess’s belly.
“If she is a descendant of Roger’s&emdash;” She kept her distance, physically and emotionally. This represented progress.
“She looks it, you must admit.”
“&emdash;then I absolutely cannot allow her to go about half wild and starved.”
Bracebridge, in no way a sentimentalist, nevertheless felt a pinch in the vicinity of his heart. “She’s a good girl.”
“She’s overjoyed whenever someone pays attention to her. She’s already won over Mary and Lucy. They adore her.” Mary and Lucy being two of her three elder sisters. This would work, he thought. They would have peace between them. “Anne, too,” she continued, “though she disliked Princess at the start and. . .” There followed another moment of uncertain silence. Conversation about a mongrel was safe enough, but the subject of Anne ventured into the personal. “My apologies,” she said softly.
“It would be odd if you were unable to mention your own sister to me.”
“But. . .”
Anne was the woman he still loved, though she’d been obliged to marry another man. He stared to the left where the path meandered through a stand of pines. Notwithstanding his plans to marry, he would love Anne for the rest of his life.
“I’ve been training Princess to obedience.” Another silence stretched between them, awkward from their trying so hard not to veer into the dangerous when nearly every subject was dangerous for them. Too quickly, she said, “Is your training going well?”
“I beg your pardon?” he asked with too much innocence. Not well done of him, since he knew what she meant. He had no intention of letting this past year of avoiding her unravel now. Thankfully, it seemed she felt the same.
Without looking at him, she said, “I only ask because Mr. Glynn mentioned he’d seen you at Johnson’s Academy.”
Mr. Harry Glynn was the current head of the Glynn household and, therefore, the man to whom Bracebridge must address his request to marry Clara. “Yes,” he replied at last. She was trying, as was he, to find conversation that did not bring up past hurts and resentments. The least he could do was cooperate. “I’ve kept fit.”
She swallowed once, floundering enough that he took pity on her and gave an encouraging smile. “I only meant that Harry&emdash;Mr. Glynn says you’ve trained together, and I wondered&emdash;” At his continued inquiring look, she said, “He loaned me his copy of Mr. Wilcott’s book.”
This, too, was a delicate business, finding their way through the quagmire of their past. “I cannot imagine you finding it interesting reading.”
A misstep, for she recoiled. “Why wouldn’t I want to read a book so popular it’s been stolen from the subscription library twenty-three times?”
“Twenty-three?” He wasn’t certain whether she knew the book’s author was none other than her sister Lucy’s first husband. Lucy’s marriage to the late English boxing champion Devil Wilcott had been a tremendous scandal, but Emily had been quite young at the time, and Anne had done everything in her power to shield her from the unpleasantness.
“I’ve read the book cover to cover,” she said. Princess pawed his leg, begging for attention. “Stop that, Princess.”
“I don’t mind.” He gestured at the path, ready for this topic to be done. “I’ll see you home.” There was a great deal he needed to say to Emily before he knew whether he would stay at Rosefeld or return to London. Fortunately, the Sinclairs lived to the northeast, so their respective routes would not diverge for at least half a mile. “Or were you on your way to Rosefeld?”
He knew she hadn’t been, but this entire conversation was based in a mutual agreement that the past had never happened. She continued this conceit with a perfect imitation of a smile. There was no life in her clear blue eyes. “No,” she said. “I was not.”
“Then I’ll see you safely home.”
For the briefest of moments, her pretense dropped away, and he was startled by the hardness he saw in her. This was new, that marble-smooth reaction. He was accustomed to his being able to read her every emotion. “Please don’t.”
“I’ll not allow you to walk alone. No gentlemen would.” He frowned. “You ought to have brought your maid with you.”
She dug the toe of her boot into the dirt. “I didn’t come from Bartley Green, if that’s what you’re on about. I came from the Cooperage.” The Cooperage being the Sinclair home. “Princess needs frequent exercise. I hadn’t any particular destination, we just ended up here.” She looked around them. “Where no one ever is.”
“Emily. You know I cannot leave you unescorted. Your sisters, if any of them heard, would have my hide.”
“Papa is home,” she said. He caught another flash of resentment. She could resent him all she liked so long as they managed to get along. “He’ll be angry if he sees you.”
This was a fact. He and her father had been in a state of enmity for several years. “I’ll walk you to within sight of the Cooperage, then.”
Her mouth thinned. “No.”
“As far as the bridge.” He crossed his arms over his chest while she grew another layer of resentment. “I insist.”
“Oh, very well. Come along, Princess.” She clicked her tongue, and the dog sprang to her feet. The three of them set off, Princess trotting happily at Emily’s side. He intended to broach the subject of Clara Glynn, but not until they were within sight of the Cooperage. She would not how far to walk should his news stir up old hurts. The silence became increasingly difficult, but she soon smoothed out the tension. “Mr. Wilcott maintained that the serious fighter must train four hours every day.”
“Anyone familiar with the book could have told you that.”
“Yes, but I read it for myself. In Mr. Wilcott’s book.”
“Are you planning to become a lady boxer?” He asked in jest, but her smile vanished long enough for him to realize he’d struck a nerve.
She stopped walking and faced him with fists raised to just below her eye level. She moved her hands forward and back. He had no idea how to react to this. “Mr. Glynn says if I were a larger woman, I’d make a good account of myself.”
He had to allow that her boxing stance was technically perfect so far as he could see. She appeared to have her feet in the correct position. She must have at least studied the illustrations contained in Wilcott’s book. “I believe you would.”
“He says I could fight a woman my own size.”
This was the problem with Emily Sinclair writ large and small. She’d got Harry Glynn, an upstanding gentleman of excellent breeding and a decent fighter in his own right, talking about women pugilists when that was no fit subject for any young lady. He laid the blame for that at Harry’s feet, not hers. Too many gentlemen lost their minds over her.
“I’ve been to the top of Butterfly Hill.” They resumed walking with her jabbing at an imaginary opponent. Princess gave a little jump every time the leash moved, but the dog settled down when she ceased her practice jabs.
“More than just the once?” That day on the hill. Unforgettable. Emily had sprinted to the top as if the feat hadn’t broken any number of prizefighters who only thought they were in good condition.
“Yes. Several times.” She punched the air three times in rapid succession, much to Princess’s delight. The dog made that odd bay of a bark and danced around her. “Do you like that, Princess?” She lifted her eyes to him, laughing now. He couldn’t help but be affected. She was one of the most beautiful women he’d ever seen. “For all we know, I might one day be required to earn my living with my fists.”
The idea was so ludicrous he burst out laughing. “Never.”
Abruptly, she lowered her fists. “You have no idea.”
“I don’t want such nonsense in my head, thank you.”
She said, “I’ve beaten Mr. Glynn up the hill several times, and it isn’t because he let me.”
As he well knew, Harry Glynn was passionate about the great art and sport of pugilism. He trained at Johnson’s Academy of Pugilistic Arts in Bartley Green and was frequently heard to sing the praises of the healthy effect of the science upon one’s constitution. Bracebridge had no disagreement there.
“What’s this about you and Harry Glynn racing up Butterfly Hill? You can’t be serious.”
She gave him a serene look. “He disagrees with his mother’s conviction that Sinclairs are best avoided.” She made a sour face and lifted a finger to the sky. It was all he could do not to guffaw at her imitation of Mrs. Glynn, for she mimicked the woman’s voice with eerie accuracy. “Glynns have always been gentry, unlike others to the east.”
This was Mrs. Glynn’s standard reference to the Sinclairs of Bartley Green. He heard it several times in the last year.
“You never answered my question,” she said.
“Do you maintain the training regimen recommended by Mr. Wilcott?”
This was a safer subject than the Glynn family just now. This spoiled young beauty would never understand the poverty and deprivation that had been his constant companion during the years he had been so hard put to scrape together enough for one meal. “The book remains an excellent primer for the student of the art.”
“Mr. Glynn follows Wilcott’s advice religiously.”
“Four hours of training is no longer a matter of religion for me,” he replied. “But I confess, I often come close to that. I dislike how I feel when I am not in condition.”
“Do you miss the battles?” Princess continued at Emily’s side. The Glynns kept bloodhounds. So did the Lenoards and other families of the area, so any conclusion about who had been irresponsible with their kennel was premature at best.
“I don’t miss knowing my future rests on my fists.” His life as a prizefighter had been no lark as she seemed to think. “I battled to put food in my belly.”
“At least you had a way to earn money.” She slowed. “Your brothers didn’t help you?”
“If they’d been caught assisting me in any way, they’d likely have found themselves on the streets, too.” He ignored her sympathetic glance. He did not need or want anyone’s pity, most particularly hers. “My eldest brother did, when he could.”
“You must have felt quite desperate,” she said. “I know I would have under similar conditions.”
He shook his head. “No disrespect intended, but there’s a line half a mile long of gentlemen who would marry you before your first hunger pang. And that’s only if your brothers-in-law were unaware of your straits.”
She pressed her lips together then said, too carefully, “What I meant, my lord, was that I wish your situation had been less dire. That’s all.” More of that hardness from her, and he still had no idea where it came from. “My particular situation does not prevent me from having sympathy for another.”
“I suppose not.” Her awareness of her good fortune did not change the essential fact that she had lived a life so privileged she could not possibly understand why he was the man he’d become. He remained a monstrous brute and violently fit. His appetites were equally monstrous. There was a reason Mrs. Glynn barely tolerated him.
She kept her gaze forward. “Bravo for your brother,” she said. “I’m glad he was able to help you. Families stay together. They support each other no matter what.”
No, he thought. They did not. “You have no idea how fortunate you are in your sisters.”
They’d now reached the point where they must turn toward the Cooperage. It was time to tell her why he’d come here after so many months of declining invitations and staying at the Pig and Crown rather than Rosefeld.
Irritation flashed over her face. “I don’t know why everyone assumes I am ignorant. Being the youngest does not make me unaware. I had eyes and ears even when I was a child. I knew Papa so much money he was going to send us away. Lucy and I were close. Close enough for me to guess what Papa did to her. If you think I never heard Mr. Wilcott’s name, you are much mistaken.”
He breathed through the pang of thinking about Anne in those days, when the two of them had been at least possible. Before her father had dashed his hopes with the most insulting and demeaning words possible.
“Bracebridge,” she said in a rush. She turned so that she stood in front of him. “Please don’t come any farther.”
“I don’t want you to.”
“Emily,” he said.
“You have no idea. None at all what it’s like to live there with him.”
He did not have a cool head when it came to Thomas Sinclair. “It’s nonsense,” he said. “You not coming to Rosefeld just because I am there.”
“It’s not that.” She shook her head. “I apologize if you think it’s so. But it’s not you. Not at all. It’s Papa. He’s been difficult. That’s all. I do not wish to explain you to him.”
He grabbed her hand and held on when she attempted to draw away. “I do not want this to be a surprise to you should my reason for coming here play out as I hope.”
He drew a breath and got out the words that would free him at last. “In the last year I have become better acquainted with Miss Glynn. I greatly admire and respect her, and I hope she will consent to marry me.”