“Stop the coach!” Cassandra Heywood,
Countess Westmore, demanded, pounding her fist against the carriage ceiling to
gain the driver’s attention.
“What’s wrong, milady?” asked Sophie, her
maid’s pretty face clouding with concern. “Ye look pale. Are ye unwell?”
The carriage rocked to a halt and she heard
Mr. Watley, the coachman, clamor down from his perch. “I’m...” Panicked.
Unsure. Dear God, am I making a terrible mistake? “...feeling a bit
unsettled.” A humorless sound caught in her throat at the understatement.
Mr. Watley opened the door and a blast of
cool, sea-scented air swirled into the warm interior. “Somethin’ amiss?”
“Lady Westmore is feelin’ peaked,” Sophie
said. “How much further do we have to go?”
“The Blue Seas Inn is less than a mile
ahead,” reported Mr. Watley.
Less than a mile ahead. Cassandra’s gloved
fingers tightened their grip on the black gabardine of her mourning gown.
“Perhaps we shouldn’t stop at the inn,” Mr.
Watley said, a frown puckering his weathered face.
Precisely the words that had repeatedly
circled through her mind since they’d climbed into the coach this morning for
the final leg of their arduous three-week journey to Cornwall.
“Gateshead Manor is only another two hours
away,” he continued. “I know ye planned to spend the night at the Blue Seas,
but if yer gettin’ ill, might be best to press on and get ye home.”
It wasn’t illness knotting her stomach, but
she couldn’t deny that it might indeed be best to continue. Coward, her inner
voice sneered. Indeed, she was. But she didn’t want to be. Not anymore. Yet
old habits died hard.
“I think...I just need some air,” she murmured.
She accepted Mr. Watley’s large, calloused hand and exited the carriage. Warm
sunshine and cool air fanned over her, and she stretched her back. Her muscles
ached and her temples pounded from the endless jouncing on the leather seats and
the monotonous grinding of the wheels.
Walking several yards away, she peered over the
hedges lining the narrow dirt road and drew in a quick, delighted breath at the
view. The sparkling wonder of St. Ives Bay greeted her gaze, an expanse of blue
that melted into the indigo of the Atlantic glittering on the horizon. Gulls
swooped over the golden sand dunes below then skimmed over the white capped
waves. Golden ribbons of early afternoon sunshine shimmered over the boats
bobbing near the shore, awaiting men to draw them out to catch pilchards and
haul up lobster pots.
She drew a slow, deep breath and briefly closed
her eyes, savoring the hint of salt that scented the summer air. Nostalgia
tightened her throat, and for the first time in ten long years the vise-like
grip of homesickness for her beloved Cornwall loosened just a bit. Gateshead
Manor in Land’s End, the childhood home she hadn’t seen in a decade, was only
another few hours away. A place she looked forward to seeing with both
anticipation and trepidation. A place saturated in memories, the site of some
of her happiest days, and her most heartbreaking.
The place where she’d be forced to come face to
face with her uncertain future.
Yet no matter how uncertain that future
remained, it couldn’t be worse than the past she’d left behind three weeks ago
when she’d escaped from the nightmare into which her life had deteriorated.
But should she continue on to Land’s End today?
She’d planned to spend the night here in St. Ives, but now that the moment was
upon her, misgivings plagued her. Her better judgment, her common sense warned
her that stopping here was unnecessary. Was foolhardy. Wrong. Highly
improper. And might even prove dangerous. That the past could never be
recaptured. Yet despite all those warnings, her heart...her heart refused to
And then the single question that had haunted
her during the entire three-week journey whispered through her mind once again:
would he be at the inn?
She tipped her head back to capture the sun’s
warmth and squeezed her eyes shut. There’s only one way to find out, Cassandra.
Opening her eyes, she looked out at the water,
and allowed the memories to overtake her. Memories that, after several minutes,
dispelled her doubts, making her choice clear. For years decisions had been
made for her, regardless of her feelings. This was her chance to find the
answers she sought. To finally do what she wanted. What she needed.
God knows when she might have such a chance
And what she wanted, needed was to stop at the
Blue Seas Inn.
Would he be there? And if so, would he remember
her? A long sigh escaped her. Of course he would remember her. But in what
way? With fondness--or indifference? Most likely he hadn’t thought of her in
years. He undoubtedly had a wife. Children. A happy, fulfilling life. They’d
probably run out of conversation within five minutes.
Yet, something inside her insisted that if she
allowed this opportunity to pass her by, she’d regret it.
And she’d promised herself no more regrets.
Her decision made, she straightened her spine
and walked back to the carriage where Mr. Watley and Sophie awaited her with
“We shall spend the night at the Blue Seas Inn,”
she said, proud of how sure and steady her voice sounded.
“As you wish, milady,” said Mr. Watley.
He handed her and Sophie back into the carriage
and they resumed their journey. A quarter hour later the carriage jerked to a
halt. Slipping on the mantle of outward calm that for years she’d worn like a
second skin, Cassandra once again placed her hand into Mr. Watley’s and stepped
from the coach.
Bright sunshine flooded her eyes beneath the
short brim of her bonnet and she lifted her hand to shade the glare.
Two stories of aged stone, mellowed to shades of
soft gray, indicated the Blue Seas Inn dated back at least one hundred years.
Yet the building was beautifully maintained, its mullioned windows sparkling
clean, the modest flower beds flanking the walkway well tended and blooming with
a profusion of colorful wildflowers. A livery, clearly a fairly recent
addition, stood directly next to the original building.
Looking at those stables, a memory flashed
through her mind, so strong, so vivid, it nearly stole her breath. Ethan’s dark
eyes smiling down into hers as they shared a joke while currying her chestnut
mare, his strong hands sure yet infinitely gentle with the animal.
She blinked away the image and her gaze shifted
to rest on the hand-painted sign swinging gently in the salt-tinged breeze. It
depicted a gull gliding over white-capped waters, the bird’s gray-tipped wings
reflecting the shimmering sunshine. Blue Seas Inn was scripted in indigo
letters, the perfect name for this charming setting, with the smaller letters
beneath: Ethan Baxter, proprietor.
Her gaze riveted on the name and she had to grip
her fingers together to keep from brushing their tips over the letters.
"Shall I accompany you inside to arrange your
rooms, my lady?" asked Mr. Watley.
Cassandra dragged her gaze from the sign and
turned toward the coachman. Her initial reaction was to pounce upon the offer,
to grasp the excuse not to venture inside the inn alone. But she firmly shoved
aside the yes that rushed to her lips. She’d come too far to hide behind anyone
now. Still, nervousness had her swallowing to locate her voice.
"No, thank you." She turned to Sophie. "Please
show Mr. Watley which pieces of luggage we'll require for our stay."
"Yes, milady." Sophia turned her attention to
the carriage and Cassandra forced her less than steady legs to move up the
cobblestone walkway toward the front door, her mind swirling with that haunting
question. Would he be here?
* * * * *
Ethan Baxter wiped at his sweaty brow with an
equally sweaty forearm then rolled his aching shoulders. Nothing like an
afternoon spent mucking out the stalls and currying horses to exhaust the body.
But it was a good exhaustion, one that came from an activity he loved, one he
didn't do often enough since he'd hired Jamie Browne to run the livery. But
when word had come at noon that Jamie’s wife’s labor had begun, Ethan had sent
the young man home. A smile tugged at his lips, recalling Jamie's expression--a
combination of awe, excitement, and complete, utter panic. A fissure of envy
seeped through Ethan, fading his amusement, echoing thru the hollow space inside
him, the space that longed for what Jamie and Sara had--a loving marriage. A
child on the way. A real family.
His jaw tightened with annoyance. That cursed
hollow space. ‘Bout bloody damn time he did something about it. And after much
soul-searching, he believed he knew just the thing.
Ethan left the livery and walked into the bright
sunshine. He immediately noted the unfamiliar carriage outside the inn, the
coachman removing a portmanteau from the stack of luggage, a lady's maid
pointing to another for him to remove. As the carriage was empty, the rest of
the party was clearly already inside to inquire about rooms, of which, based on
the coachman and the maid, they'd require at least two. Excellent for business,
which he always welcomed. The Blue Seas had a reputation for being a clean,
respectable, well-run establishment, and it was a distinction he’d worked hard
to establish over the past four years since he’d first opened the inn’s doors.
Having no desire to greet the newcomers smelling
like horse and feeling gritty with sweat, he headed toward the inn’s side door,
intending to make immediately for his own room to make himself presentable.
Certainly Delia was fully capable of handling things and seeing to their
comfort. Indeed, the inn’s housekeeper was so efficient, Ethan could probably
leave St. Ives for a month and not be missed. Not that he had any intention of
leaving for so much as a minute. St. Ives, the Blue Seas, was home--a place
he’d searched long and hard to find. A place where he’d finally located a
measure of the impossible-to-find tranquility he’d desperately sought. And if
at times his work didn’t exhaust his mind and body enough to forget the past, it
at least brought him a modicum of peace he hadn’t found anywhere else.
Of course, he suspected that Delia would note
his absence if he were to leave. He huffed out a breath and dragged a hand
through his sweat-dampened hair. Suspected? Hell, he knew it. Over the past
year--and more frequently of late--she’d made comments, looked at him with a
certain expression, both of which left no doubt that she wouldn’t mind being
more to him than an employee, more than a friend. She was an attractive woman
and God help him, he’d been tempted more than once to quit pretending he hadn’t
noticed her subtle hints.
Up until now he’d ignored them. Delia Tildon
was a good, decent young widow who certainly deserved better than him. He was
damaged goods, on both the inside and the outside. He liked and respected her
too much to take advantage of her kind nature and use her to slake his
Yet lately...over the past few months the
temptation to do just that was proving nearly overpowering. The ache of
emptiness eating at him seemed so much more acute lately, the memories
bombarding him so hard, so fast, it was a daily struggle not to drown in them.
A fact which never ceased to annoy him. Why the bloody hell couldn’t he just
Yet no matter how strong the temptation, he’d
thus far resisted Delia’s lure. A woman like Delia would want--and deserved--a
man’s whole heart. And he simply didn’t have one to give. To offer her any
less would be unfair to both of them.
Or so he’d thought until he’d spent the last few
days pondering the reality that loneliness was also unfair. The thought of
having someone to share his life with, someone to talk to, to listen to, had
taken root in his mind and in spite of his best efforts to dislodge it, it
refused to budge. He didn’t want to hurt Delia, but bloody hell, he was so damn
tired of being alone. Perhaps affection and respect were enough. Enough to
make a marriage. Enough to make him forget. Or at least make him stop wanting,
yearning for things he could never have.
It was time to give in to temptation. To
discuss the matter with Delia. Let her decide for herself if affection and
respect were enough. And maybe, if he were very, very lucky, they would be.
And he wouldn’t be alone any longer.
Feeling more lighthearted than he had in a long
time, he entered the inn through the side door, closing the oak panel softly
behind him. He stood for several seconds to allow his eyes to adjust from the
bright sunlight to the sudden dimness, and he heard Delia’s voice drift toward
him from the inn’s front room.
“So it’s two rooms ye’ll be needin’ my lady?”
“Yes, please, Mrs. Tildon. One for me, and one
for my maid. For one night.”
Ethan went perfectly still at the sound of the
newcomer’s voice, his heart seeming to stall in his chest as myriad images
flashed through his mind. Shiny hair the color of freshly harvested honey,
laughing blue eyes, a mischievous smile. He blinked away the mental pictures,
then with a sound of disgust, he shook his head. Bloody hell, bad enough that
even after all these years he couldn’t erase the thought of her, but now he was
imagining her voice as well.
“The coachman will require a bed as well,”
continued the soft, slightly husky voice that sounded so much like her he found
his feet moving of their own volition toward the front room. His mind, his
common sense knew it wasn’t her, that she lived hundreds of miles away, yet he
walked toward that voice, drawn to it like a thirsty man to an oasis.
“We’ve beds available for your coachman in the
livery,” came Delia’s voice. “Finest stables in St. Ives we have here at the
“With Mr. Baxter as the proprietor, I’m not surprised.”
Ethan rounded the corner and halted in the
doorway. He vaguely noted Delia’s raised brows, heard her ask in a surprised
tone, “Do ye know Ethan, my lady?” but his attention was riveted on the other
She stood in partial profile to him, the upper
half of her face obscured by her bonnet’s brim. But his heart lurched at the
glimpse of honey-colored hair, at the curve of her chin, the shape of her lips.
The slight indent in her cheek next to her mouth, one that he could almost see
deepening if she smiled.
Her head jerked in a nod. “Yes, I know him,”
she said softly. “Or at least I did, a long time ago...”
Her voice trailed off and she seemed to go
perfectly still--just as his heart began to pound in hard, fast thumps, as if
he’d sprinted across a decade’s length of time to arrive from very far away.
And then, as if feeling the weight of his stare, she turned slowly toward him.
And he found himself gazing into eyes he never thought he’d see again, beautiful
blue eyes that reminded him of the sea and that had haunted his nights and days
for more years than he could recall.
Her name reverberated through his brain then
rushed to his lips, but he couldn’t speak. Couldn’t do anything save stare.
Her skin paled then flushed crimson before his
disbelieving eyes and for several long seconds the only sound he heard was the
frantic beat of his heart. And then, in that same soft voice he still heard in
his dreams, she broke the silence.