Trial By Desire Excerpt | Courtney Milan, Historical Romance Author

trial by desire excerpt

Chapter One

Berkshire, 1841

a  shoulder-high wall hugged the dirt road that wound its way up the hill Kate was climbing. Last night, when she and the nursemaid had crept by on foot, the dark stones of the wall had seemed menacing, hunched things. She’d imagined Eustace Paxton, the Earl of Harcroft, crouching behind every rock, ready to spit vile curses at her.

But through the diffuse morning fog, she could make out little yellow-headed wildflowers growing between the rocks. Even this aging edifice had become friendly and bright. And Harcroft was thirty miles away, in London, unaware of her involvement in his latest misfortunes. She’d won a respite, and for the first time in two weeks, she breathed easily.

As if to belie her certainty, the plod of horse hooves carried to her on a breeze. She turned, her heart accelerating. Despite the flush of heat that rose in her, Kate clutched her heavy cloak about her. She’d been discovered. He was here—

There was nothing behind her but morning mist. She was imagining things, to think that Harcroft would have uncovered her secret so quickly. She let out a covert breath—and then gulped it back as the creak of wooden wheels sounded once more. This time, though, it was clear the noise came from up the road. As she peered ahead of her, the dark form of a cart, lumbering up the hill, resolved in the mist.

The sight was as calming as it was familiar. A blanket of fog had obscured the sound’s origin. The cart moved slowly, drawn by a single animal. As Kate trudged up the hill, her calves burning with the exertion, she made out more details. The conveyance was filled with heavy wooden kegs, marked with a sigil she could not make out from here. The animal that pulled this cargo seemed some nondescript color, unidentifiable in the mist. From this distance, its coat appeared to be both spotted and striped with light gray. It strained uphill, bone and muscle rippling underneath that oddly-colored pelt.

Kate sighed with relief. The man was a common laborer. Not Harcroft; therefore, not someone who posed a threat, if he discovered the role she’d played last night. Still, Kate pulled her hood up to shield her face. The scratchy wool was the only disguise she had. As if in reminder of the nightmare that Louisa had escaped, a whip-crack sounded in front of her. Kate gritted her teeth and continued up the hill. Half a minute later, and a number of yards closer, the whip cracked again. She bit her tongue.

She had to be practical. Lady Kathleen Carhart might have had sharp words for the man. But right now, Kate was wrapped in an ill-fitting cloak, and the servant she was pretending to be would keep her eyes downcast. A servant would never speak up, not to a man with a horse and a whip. He would never believe her the lady of the manor, not dressed as she was.

And besides, the last thing Kate needed if she intended to keep her secrets was for society to hear that she’d been skulking about, dressed as a servant. As she climbed the hill, the lash continued to fall. She gritted her teeth in fury as she drew abreast of the cart. Perhaps that was why, at first, she didn’t hear it.

Above the complaining rumble of the cart wheels, the noise had been at first indiscernible. But the wind shifted, and with it, brought the rhythmic sound of a gentle canter to her ears.

Kate glanced behind her. A horseman was coming up the hill.

A simple carter might once have caught a glimpse of Lady Kathleen at a harvest festival—a close enough look to boast, over a tankard of ale, perhaps, about seeing a duke’s daughter. He wouldn’t recognize her when she was swathed in a heavy cloak and a working woman’s bonnet.

But a man on horseback could be a gentleman. He might, in fact, be the Earl of Harcroft, come looking for his missing wife. And if Harcroft came upon Kate dressed in this fashion—if he recognized her—he might guess the role she’d played in his wife’s disappearance.

All he would have to do was trace her path back a few miles. That shepherd’s cottage wasn’t so very far away.

Kate pulled the hood of her cloak farther over her eyes and slunk closer to the wall. Her hand brushed against grit on its uneven surface. Even though she huddled in her cloak, she set her chin. She was not about to surrender Louisa to her husband. No matter what he said or did.

The man on horseback came into view through the mist just as Kate crested the hill. Shreds of fog splashed around his horse’s hooves, like gray, slow-moving seawater. The horse was a gentleman’s beast: a slim mare, gray as the wisps of vapor that clung to its legs. Not Harcroft’s chestnut stallion, then. Reassured, Kate studied the gentleman himself.

He wore a tall hat and a long coat; the tails flapped behind him, in rhythmic counterpoint to the fall of his mare’s hooves. Whoever he was, his shoulders were too broad to belong to Harcroft. Besides, this man’s face was covered by a sandy beard. Definitely not Harcroft. Not any man she recognized.

That didn’t mean he wouldn’t recognize her, or that he wouldn’t carry stories.

Slowly, she let out her breath and turned to look forward. If she didn’t draw attention to herself, he wouldn’t notice her. She looked like a servant; she would be virtually invisible to a man of his class.

The mare’s light hoofbeats pattered up the hill. It moved in effortless contrast to the other poor animal, which was still dragging its Sisyphean burden to the summit. Kate had her own burdens to think of. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the horseman pull ahead of the cart. The tails of his coat flapped briefly across the beast’s blinkered vision. A foot or so of fabric; nothing more.

The horse pulling the cart, however, stopped and shied, pinning its ears against its head in a gesture of equine distress. Kate pressed against the wall as the cart’s wooden shafts creaked. Another flap of the coattails in the wind; when the whip cracked again, Kate winced. The carter’s horse did more than that: It let out a frightened cry and reared up on its hind legs. The cart tilted precariously; the hooves thundered down. Kate heard the crashing splinter of wood, and she whirled to face the animal.

One of the cart shafts had split down the middle. The horse was tangled in halter and traces, and no matter how it strained, it could not escape. When frightened, horses ran; and when they couldn’t run—

Kate caught a glimpse of a dark eye rolled back, ears flattened against the long head. The horse’s blinkered gaze momentarily fixed on hers. Crack went the whip, and the horse reared in response. It was so close, Kate could see its iron shoes as it pawed the air above her head. She felt frozen in that moment, as useless as a rabbit cowering in the grass with a hawk plummeting down. Her hands went cold. Her mind moved sluggishly. She might have counted the horse’s ribs, every prominent ridge, as the hooves descended towards her.

And then the moment of fear passed, and practical considerations overtook her disbelief.

She dropped to the ground in a crouch, just as those massive hooves hit the crumbling wall where her head had been. Once, and bits of stone and crumbling grout rained on her head; twice, and flying chips of rock struck her cheek. The animal whinnied and reared again.

Before the hooves could land a third time, someone stepped in front of her. Whoever it was jerked her to her feet—the sockets of her arms twinged in protest. His body pressed against hers momentarily, a brief imprint of hard muscle fitting against her curves. He turned his back to the beast, shielding her from those iron-clad hooves. It was the horseman—the gentleman on the gray mare. He must have dismounted and come to offer assistance.

She had no chance to protest, even had she wanted to, no opportunity to pull away. His hands clasped her waist, and he lifted her up, up, until her palms scrabbled along the top of the wall behind her. She pulled herself atop it, heart thumping, and glanced down. The horseman was looking up at her. His eyes, liquid brown pools, sparkled at her over that shaggy beard, as if this were the best excitement he’d come upon in weeks. For one instant, she felt a sick thrill of recognition.

I know this man.

But he turned away, and that feeling of familiarity slipped through her fingers, as hard to hold on to as the gritty pebbles on the wall she clung to.

Whoever he was, he had no notion of fear. He turned back to the careening beast. He moved on his toes with a graceful economy of motion. It was almost as if he were leading the horse in a waltz. The man sidestepped another furious stamp of those hooves.

“There now, Champion.” His voice was quiet but carrying. “I don’t want to crowd you so closely, but you’ll never calm down if I can’t cut the traces.”

“Cut the traces!” protested the carter, clutching the handle of his whip. “What the devil do you mean, cut the traces?”

The gentleman paid him no mind. Instead, he made a half-turn, and stepped behind the animal.

The carter held his whip back, his mouth pursed in ugly disapproval. “What in blazes do you think you’re doing?”

The gentleman turned his back on the furious driver. He was talking—murmuring, actually. Kate couldn’t hear his words, but she could catch the tone of his voice, soft and soothing. The beast pawed the air once more, and then danced from hoof to hoof. It whipped its head to the side, trying to keep its eyes on the gentleman behind it. A swipe with his knife, then another; one final adjustment of leather, and the animal came free of the cart.

“What the devil are you doing? That’s my animal you’re freeing, it is!”

The horse surged forward. The carter still held the reins in one hand, and so it couldn’t bolt far. But without the bits of cart swinging around it—and more importantly, with the carter left to impotently clutch his whip now that the beast was out of range—the horse pranced, pawed the ground in distress once, and then, eying the people around it, lapsed into a restive silence.

“There,” the gentleman said, “that’s better, isn’t it?”

And like that, it was better. All the other sounds of the autumn morning seemed to resume with his words: the thump of Kate’s heart, the horse’s uneasy stamp on the road below her; the impatient sound of the carter beating the handle of his whip against his other hand. She clutched the wall beneath her.

“You gentlemen are all alike. You’re coddling it,” the carter complained. “Stupid animal.”

The last was directed at the horse, which still trembled despite the so-called coddling, its ears flat against the sides of its head. The bearded gentleman—and by the cultured drawl of his voice and the fashionable cut of his coat, he was surely a gentleman—turned to face the carter. He walked towards him and then reached down and gathered the animal’s reins in his hand. The carter relinquished them, staring in front of him in stupefaction.

“Coddling?” the fellow said gently. “Champion here is an animal, not an egg. Besides, I make it a point to be kind to beasts that are large enough to stomp me to bits. Particularly when they are frightened enough to do so. I’ve always thought it foolish to stand on principle, when the principle is about to trample you to death.”

That evanescent sense of familiarity came to her again, troubling as an unidentified smell on the wind. Something in his voice reminded her of something, someone—but no, she would remember that tone of quiet command if ever she’d heard it.

Kate took another deep breath—and froze. She’d only seen the beast in sidelong glances up until now. In the fog, that strange coloration, those odd white spots, had seemed as if they were some curious form of natural marking. But from her vantage point atop the wall, she could see the marks for what they were: scars. Scars where a whip had drawn blood; scars where an ill-fitting harness had rubbed over the course of who knew how many years.

No wonder the poor animal had rebelled.

The carter was holding his hands out. “Here now,” he complained. “It don’t hurt him. My mam always used to say that tribulation was sent to make you stronger. It’s in the Bible. I think.” The carter trailed off, giving the horseman a hapless shrug.

“How curious.” The fellow smiled disarmingly; even through that thick beard, his grin was infectious, and the carter echoed it with a gap-toothed smile. “I cannot recall the commandment to beat animals. But then, I disagree with the premise. In my experience, tribulation doesn’t strengthen you. It’s more like to leave you with a bronchial inflammation that lingers for years.”

“Pardon?”

The gentleman waved a hand and turned back to the animal. “Never trust aphorisms. Any sentiment short enough to be memorable is undoubtedly wrong.”

Kate suppressed a smile. As if the gentleman could see her, his lips twitched upward. Of course, focused as he was on the trembling cart-horse, she doubted he even knew she was still here. Slowly, she slid from the wall to the ground.

The gentleman fished in his pockets and pulled out an apple. The animal’s nostrils widened; its ears came forward slightly. Kate could see its ribs. They were not prominent enough to indicate starvation, but neither were they covered with a healthy amount of skin and muscle. Underneath those healed lacerations, its coat might once have been chestnut. But coal dust and road mud, stretched over scarred skin, had robbed the pelt of any hint of gloss.

“Oh, don’t feed it, for the love of all that is precious,” the carter protested. “The beast is useless. I’ve had it for three months, and no matter how I beat it, still it shies away from every last mother-loving noise.”

“That,” said the gentleman, “sounds like an explanation, rather than an excuse. Doesn’t it, Champion?” He tossed the apple on the ground next to the horse and then looked away into the distance.

He seemed good with the beast. Gentle. Kind. Not that it mattered, because whoever he was, she couldn’t speak to him. No matter how kind he was, he couldn’t know what Lady Kathleen had been doing, not if she intended to keep her secrets safe. Kate began to sidle away from the scene.

“Champion? Who’re you calling Champion?”

“Well, has he got another name?” The man had made no move to get closer to the horse. He stood a reins’ distance from the beast, looking away from the valley. Towards Berkswift, actually. Kate’s home, just beyond one last rise and a row of trees.

“Name?” The carter frowned, as if the very concept were foreign. “I’ve been calling it Meat.”

“Meet?” The gentleman frowned down at the reins gathered in his hands. “As in a championship meet? A tourney?”

“No. Meat. As in, Horse Meat. As in, I could get a ha’penny per stringy pound from the butcher.”

The gentleman’s fingers curled about the reins. “I’ll give you ten pounds for the whole animal.”

“Ten pounds? Why, that’s barely what the knacker—”

“If Meat here panics on the way to the knacker, you’ll be out far more than that in property damage.” The man glanced at Kate, where she’d been sneaking away from the battered cart.

It was the first time he’d looked at her directly, and Kate felt his gaze settle against her, disturbing and familiar all at once. She pressed against the wall.

The gentleman simply shook his head and looked away. “You should be brought up on criminal charges, for endangerment.” He reached into his pocket, produced a small purse, and began to count coins.

“Here now. I haven’t agreed. How am I supposed to move my cart?”

The gentleman shrugged. “With that shaft broken? I don’t imagine a horse would prove much help.” But as he spoke, he added a few more coins from his purse and then dropped them on the cart driver’s seat. “There’s a village yonder.”

The carter shook his head and collected the pile. Then, he stood and left his cart, trudging on towards the village. The gentleman watched him go.

While the man was still distracted, Kate began to walk away. The horse was safe, and if she left now, her secret—Louisa’s secret—was safe, too. Whoever this man was, he couldn’t have recognized her. No doubt he thought her some servant, off on her mistress’s errands. An unimportant thing, as nondescript as the beast he’d rescued.

He touched his hat at her, and then turned back to his own manicured steed, which waited in nonchalant obedience ten yards down the track.

Kate had supposed the newly-purchased beast would follow docilely in the gentleman’s footsteps, beaten-down specimen that it was. But it did not hang its head; instead as the fellow led it back to where he’d loosely tossed the reins of his steed, Horse Meat tossed its ragged mane. It lifted one lip in disdain and stamped its bone-thin, lacerated legs.

The gray mare ducked its head and backed away a step.

“Do you suppose they’ll walk calmly together?” the gentleman asked.

With the carter gone, there was nobody else around. He had to be addressing her.

Kate glanced at him, in the midst of her escape. She didn’t dare speak. Her voice would betray her as a lady, even if her clothing hadn’t. She shook her head.

Horse Meat curled its lips at the mare, showing teeth. It could not have communicated more clearly, had it spoken: Stay away from me. I am a dangerous stallion!

The gentleman looked from animal to animal. “I suppose not.” A soft smile of bemusement passed over his lips, and he turned to meet Kate’s eyes, once again halting her forward progress.

There was a restless vitality about those eyes that resonated with her. Something about him—his voice, his easy confidence—set her skin humming in recognition. She knew him.

Or maybe she just wanted to know him, and she’d invented this subtle sense of familiarity. She would have remembered a man like him. Unlike other gentlemen, underneath his hat, his skin was sun-warmed gold. His shoulders were broad, and not by any artifice of padding.

He was walking away from his steed, towards Kate.

No, she couldn’t possibly have forgotten a man like him. His gaze on her made her feel uneasy, as if he knew all her secrets. As if he were laughing at every last one.

“Well,” he said, “this is a pretty pickle, my lady.”

My lady? Ladies did not wear itchy gray cloaks. They didn’t cower under shapeless bonnets. Had he seen the fine walking dress she wore underneath when he lifted her up? Or did he know who she was?

His eyes flicked up and down, once, an automatic, male survey of her figure, before returning to her face.

Kate was not fool enough to wish he’d let the horse trample her. Still, she wished he’d been on his way earlier. At least he didn’t remark on her outlandish garb. Instead…

“This,” he told her, gesturing with the reins of the animal he’d just acquired, “puts me in mind of one of those damnable logic puzzles a friend of mine used to pose when we were at Cambridge. ‘A shepherd, three sheep, and a wolf must cross a river in a boat that fits at most two…’”

Understanding—and disappointment—took root. No wonder he wasn’t courting her ire by asking inconvenient questions about her cloak and her lack of companionship. He was one of those men. He addressed her with easy intimacy. A tone of expectation warmed his voice, entirely at odds with his formal “my lady.” She recalled his hands on her waist, that brief flash of heated contact, body to body. At the time, she’d noticed nothing more than a fleeting impression of hard muscle pushing her out of harm’s way. Now, her skin prickled where he’d touched her, as if his gaze had sparked her flesh to life.

If he knew her well enough to attempt to win that wager, then he knew her well enough to gossip. He knew her well enough to spread the word in town, and well enough for that word to travel round until it reached Harcroft’s ears. It was no longer a question of if Harcroft would hear about this episode; it was a matter of what and when.

Kate didn’t dare panic, not now. She took a deep breath. She needed to make sure that the crux of his story had nothing to do with the clothing in which he found her.

“This isn’t the time for games of logic,” she said. “You know who I am.” He stared at her in befuddlement. One hand rose to touch his chin, and he shook his head. “Of course I know who you are. I knew who you were the instant I set my hands on your hips.”

No true gentleman would have alluded to that uncouth contact. But then, no true gentleman would make her want to wrap her arms around her own waist, to press her palms where his had been before.

She cast him a brilliant smile, and after a moment, he responded with a like expression. She crooked her index finger at him, and he took a step towards her.

“You’re thinking about that bet, aren’t you?”

He stopped in his tracks and shook his head stupidly—but all that false bewilderment could not fool Kate. She’d seen too many variants upon it over the years.

“It’s been on the book for two years now,” Kate said. “Of course you’re thinking of it. And you”—here, she extended her gloved hand to point playfully at his chest—“you have convinced yourself that you will be the one to claim the five thousand pounds.”

His brows drew down.

“Oh,” Kate said with false charity, “I know. A lady ought not to mention a gentleman’s wager. But then, you can hardly be deserving of the term gentleman if you’ve entered into that pact to seduce me.”

That brought his shoulders straight up, and wiped all expression from his face. “Seduce you? But—”

“Am I making you uncomfortable?” Kate asked with pretend solicitousness. “Are you perhaps feeling as if your privacy has been violated by my inquiry? Now, perhaps, you can imagine how it feels for me to have my virtue discussed all over London.”

“Actually—”

“Don’t bother protesting. Tell the truth. Did you linger here, thinking you would have me in bed?”

“No!” he said in injured tones. Then he pressed his lips together, as if tasting something bitter. “To be perfectly truthful,” he said in a subdued tone, “and come to think of it, yes, but—”

“My answer is ‘no, thank you.’ I already have everything a lady could wish for.”

“Really?”

He was watching her intently now. She could imagine him reporting this speech to his friends. If he did, the sum of the gossip would be her words, not her clothing. Harcroft would hear, but he’d think nothing of it. Just another man, who failed to collect.

Kate counted items off on her fingers. “I have a fulfilling life filled with charitable work. A doting father. Virtually unlimited pin money.” She tapped her little finger and shot him another disarming smile. “Oh, yes. And my husband lives six thousand miles away. Now why in heaven’s name do all you fools believe I should want to complicate my life with a messy, illicit love affair?”

He froze, then recovered himself enough to reach up and rub the tawny bristle on his chin. “Would you know,” he said softly, “my solicitor was right. I should have shaved first.”

“I assure you, your slovenly appearance makes not one iota of difference.”

“It’s not the beard.” His hand clenched briefly into a fist at his side, and then relaxed.

She felt a grim delight at that sign of confusion. It wasn’t fair to take all men to task for her husband’s failings—but then, this one had set out to seduce her, and she was not in the mood to be kind. “You seem out of sorts,” she said, imbuing her voice with a false charity. “And foolish. And bumbling. Are you quite sure you’re not my errant husband?”

“Well, that’s the thing.” He glanced at her almost apologetically. And then he took another step towards her.

This close, she could see his chest expand on an inhale. He reached for her hand. She had time to pull away. She ought to pull away. His thumb and forefinger caught her wrist, as gently as if he were catching a dried leaf as it fell from a tree. His fingers found the precise spot where her glove ended and her flesh began. She might have been that leaf, ready to combust in one heated moment.

She desperately needed to escape, to reconstruct the feeling of success that had been so rudely taken from her. He smiled at her again, and his eyes twinkled ruefully. And suddenly, horribly, she knew what he was going to say. She knew why his eyes had seemed so unnaturally familiar.

She did know this man. She had imagined meeting him a thousand ways in the last three years. Sometimes, she had said nothing. Other times, she’d delivered cutting speeches. She always brought him to his knees, eventually, in apology, while she looked on regally.

There was nothing regal about her now. In all of her imaginings, not once had she met him wearing an ill-fitting servant’s cloak, with smudges on her face.

Her fingers still burned where he touched her, and Kate jerked her hand away.

“You see,” he said dryly, “I’m quite sure that I am your husband. And I’m not six thousand miles away any longer.”

~ divider ~

This is an uncorrected excerpt, although I've done my best to render it error-free.

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