A man sprawled in Richard's favorite chair, one foot stretched out before him, the other bent at the knee,
his fingers laced over his flat stomach. He gazed out the window, his face averted. All she could see of
his head was a carelessly pulled back tail of coal black hair, tied with a limp ribbon.
He wore coat of deep burgundy velvet, a white linen shirt beneath it. Brussels lace fell gracefully over
the first knuckles of his long, lean fingers and more lace cascaded beneath his chin. His breeches were
tight and made of tawny doeskin, his boots, dark leather that climbed past his knees and were folded
over his muscular thighs in deep cuffs. The tip of his sword, sheathed in a leather scabbard and hanging
from his belt, touched the floor beside him.
He would have been exquisite had he not been so disheveled. The burgundy coat was dusty and the white
linen shirt went wide of being pristine. The lace of one sleeve, delicate as gossamer, was ripped and
soiled. His boots were stained and scarred and the scabbard contained his sword was likewise ill-used.
He did not look like any lawyer Rhiannon's imagination would have conjured.
A bit of pique soured Rhiannon's curiosity. A gentleman— particularly a London gentleman— visiting the
Fraiser's home should have stopped at one of Fair Badden's inns to repair the damage travel had caused.
But then, honesty goaded her generous mouth into a smile, a lady receiving a gentleman should have paused
to repair the damage a hunt had caused.
He turned his head carefully, as if he were concerned to startle her and she thus knew that he'd been
allowing her time to assess him. He looked tired, worn too thin and used too roughly. His eyes were
jetty dark, the brows above slanting like black wings, but the skin beneath them was dark and bruised
looking. He sported a clipped goatee amidst the shadows of lean, unshaven cheeks and his skin was very
pale and very fine and looked somehow fragile.
Fleeting emotion, subtle and reserved, flickered over his aquiline features.
"Rhiannon Russell, I presume?" His voice was baritone and suave. He didn't bother to rise and his pose
remained preternaturally still, like a cat at a mouse hole, watchful but not hungry— not yet.
"Yes." She became unaccountably aware of the hair streaming down her back, the sweat and grime from her
leather gloves embedded beneath her short nails, and the mud splattering her bottle green skirts.
He rose. He was tall and slender. His shoulders were very broad. His mouth was kind and his eyes were
not. His throat looked strong. The torn lace ending his shirt sleeves tangled in the carved gold setting
of a great blue stone ring on his little finger. He flicked it away.
Even without the cachet of being a Londoner, the ladies of Fair Badden would have found him attractive,
Rhiannon thought. Since he was, they'd find him irresistible. She herself could find much to recommend
in his black and white good looks— if she hadn't already succumbed to a golden-haired youth.
"You're not English." He sounded amused.
"I am. A quarter,"she said. "On my father's side."
"I wouldn't have guessed." Having spoken, he fell silent, studying her further.
She struggled to remember the lessons in courtesy Edith had instilled but none of them applied to meeting
strange, elegantly shabby young men alone in her foster father's library.
"I'm afraid you have the advantage of me, sir," she finally ventured.
"Could I only be so fortunate to claim as much with all my… acquaintances," he said and then, "but didn't
Mistress Fraiser inform you of my name?"
"No." Rhiannon smiled. "My… Mistress Fraiser has no head for names, unless they're the names of
unscrupulous tradesman. She only said that you'd come from London to see me and that you had news
regarding my future."
"I am Ash Merrick." He sketched an elegant bow, his watchfulness becoming pronounced, as if that should
mean something to her and when he saw that it did not, he went on. "The name Merrick is not familiar to
She cast about in her mind and found nothing there to trigger a memory. "No," she said. "Should it?"
His mouth stretched into a wide grin. Whatever negligence he had about his garments did not extend to his
personal habits. His teeth were clean and straight and very white.
"Perhaps," he said, "since it's the name of your guardian."