The barn bore the comforting scent of horses and hay on a raw day. The four great beasts that had pulled the loaded wagon into the yard the previous day contentedly inhaled great piles of fodder, while the wagon stood in the barn’s high, arching center aisle.

Sara had just hung up the lantern when she realized something wasn’t right. A shuffling sound came from the far side of the wagon where little light penetrated. The sound was too big to be Heifer investigating under the tarps, not big enough to be a horse shifting in its stall.

She shrank into the shadows. Damn and blast if a vagrant hadn’t spotted the laden wagon and decided to follow it to its destination in hopes of some lucrative larceny. The country roads were not heavily traveled, and such a load would be easily remarked. Silently, Sara directed her footsteps to the saddle room, sending up a prayer for Polly and Allie—may her sister and daughter remain in the house, or anywhere but this barn.

She chose a long-handled training whip from the saddle room wall, then retraced her steps and heard muttering from the far side of the wagon.

“And what in blazes is this doing here?” a man asked no one in particular. “As if one needs to fiddle while rusticating. Spices, too, so we might not want for fashionable cuisine in the hinterlands.”

A daft vagrant, then. Sara paused in her slow, silent progress around the wagon. Maybe he was harmless, and simply brandishing the whip would suffice to chase him off, but in this weather… She considered putting the whip down.

A man could catch his death in this miserable wet and cold. Times were hard and getting harder, and there were so many veterans of the Corsican’s foolishness still wandering the land, many of them ailing in both body and spirit. Shouldn’t she offer the man a little Christian charity before she attacked him for merely being curious?

An arm clamped around her neck; another snaked around her waist.

“One move,” said a voice directly behind her, “and you will be the first thing planted this spring.”

Without seeing him, Sara knew many things about whoever owned the rumbling baritone voice at her ear.

First, he was broad, strong, and quite, quite tall. The angle of the arm at her throat told her so, as did the heat radiating from the muscular chest to which she’d been snugly anchored.

Second, he was no indigent. The wool around her neck was soft, expensive, and clean, for all it had gotten a soaking. And beneath the stable smells and the aroma of damp wool, sleet, and cold, there was an unmistakable bergamot fragrance to this man. He bore the kind of scent blended from cologne, French soaps, and assiduous personal hygiene no vagrant veteran practiced.

Third, if Sara didn’t diffuse the situation immediately, she could well end up dead. For herself, she had no great objection to that outcome, being in reasonably good standing with her Maker and profoundly weary of life.

But Sara’s death would leave Allie an orphan and Polly without a sister, and to that, Sara had great objection indeed.

“Unhand me, sir. I pose no threat to you.” Her voice quavered only a little. She raised her chin so the hood of her cloak dropped back, revealing her cap and, apparently, her gender.

“My apologies.” The man dropped his arms and stepped back. “I’ll put aside my knife if you’ll drop that horsewhip. Beckman Haddonfield, at your service.”

Sara took a deep breath and held her ground, not at all looking forward to being disappointed. No man’s looks could make good on the promise of that voice. As a musician—a former musician—she was sensitive to beautiful sounds, and this man’s voice was… too much. Too rich, too deep, too smooth, too lovely in the ear. His words sneaked along Sara’s nerves and sank into her bones like a sweet, lilting adagio played on a fine violoncello. That voice had to belong to some low-browed brute, a backhanded gift from a Creator with an occasionally ironic sense of humor.

When she didn’t turn, large hands settled on her shoulders and gently brought her around.

“And you are?” the intruder asked softly as he pried the whip from her fingers.

Sara looked up, and up some more, to gaze upon a face that more than suited the voice. Oh, damn, Polly would want to paint him. The thick blond hair, sculpted lips, and well-proportioned nose would have testified to aristocratic breeding if the height and stature had not. That nose bordered on arrogant but stayed just this side of noble. The chin was firm too, coming close to stubborn but stopping at determined instead.

“Ma’am?” In the dim light, a slight smile revealed perfect white teeth—of course it did—two rows of them, that disappeared with a sardonic lift of one blond eyebrow. And heaven help her, she let her gaze stray to his eyes.

Those eyes were a surprise, not what Sara would expect of a lordling off on a lark. They spoke of the weary humor exhibited by those inured to suffering. They had passed from sad to bleak to endlessly patient.

“Sara Hunt.” She bobbed a semblance of a curtsy and wanted to draw her hood back up. “I gather you are Lady Warne’s grandson?”

“Step-grandson, to be precise,” the man replied, giving Sara the sense he was always precise. “I see my belongings have arrived safely, as have my father’s horses.”

“The wagon arrived yesterday.” God help them, Lady Warne’s step-grandson bore no resemblance whatsoever to a Town fribble. “Your rooms are ready, and I will inform our cook you’ll need some sustenance.”

A great deal of sustenance, from the size of him. Polly would be thrilled.

“I trust you are not the stable boy?”

Sara took a moment to realize he was teasing her. She had no idea how to tease him back, though his smile said he wouldn’t mind such insubordination.

“Mr. North manages the livestock, but he’s in the village today,” Sara said, her words clipped. Big, gorgeous, and possessed of a voice that could promise a lady ruin at fifty paces, he had no business teasing the help.

Mr. Haddonfield glanced around, his smile fading. “Mr. North would be the steward?”

The barn was snug, tidy, and as clean as such a space could be, and while Sara drew breath, nobody would cast aspersion on North’s efforts to keep it so. “Mr. Gabriel North is the land steward, stable master, house steward, arborist, harness maker, horse doctor, plowboy, blacksmith, whitesmith, drover, and much more. Your grandmother has not taken a direct interest in this estate for some years, sir, and you will find much evidence thereof.”

Mr. Haddonfield’s expression underwent a subtle transformation. The last hint of banter left his eyes, and by the shadowed lantern light, his features took on an air of resignation.

Not even one night on the property, and Three Springs was already taking its toll on the man.

Rather than gawp at his bleak countenance, Sara took the lantern down from its peg. “Come, sir. You have to be tired, and standing about in wet clothing is not well advised. Your rooms are ready, and a hot meal will soon await you.”

“Then I have arrived to heaven.” He hefted some soft leather version of a portmanteau, rummaged under the tarp, and emerged carrying an oilskin bag and—of all the unexpected things—a violin case.

Sara ignored the violin case but paused when they gained the stable yard. Full darkness had fallen, and the sleet had shifted to a thick, pretty snow.

“It was snowing over the South Downs,” Mr. Haddonfield said, “and here I thought April was fast approaching.”

“We get odd weather down here,” Sara replied. The bleakness was now audible in his lovely voice. “The Channel and the Solent and the time of year conspire to make it so. How is Lady Warne?”

“My grandmother continues in great good spirits. She anticipates the Season as if she were making her come out each and every year.”

Sara stopped and regarded Mr. Haddonfield by lantern light as snowflakes dusted his hair and eyelashes. He was a young man—a man in his prime, an earl’s son—and yet he sounded puzzled that anybody should enjoy the social whirl.

Three Springs tended to collect refugees, and perhaps another had found his way here. The thought was dangerous, suggesting Sara might have something in common with this handsome, wandering man who knew enough to get a violin out of the elements.

She pushed open the back door to the kitchen hallway, only to be greeted by Polly and Allie, holding hands, both in cloaks and boots, and blinking at Sara and her escort.

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