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October 7, 1818, Adare, Ireland
IN THREE DAYS, she was getting married. How had this happened?
In three days, she was going to marry the gentleman everyone thought perfect for her. In three very short days, she was going to be Peter Sinclair's wife. Eleanor de Warenne was afraid.
She leaned so low over her galloping horse's neck that she saw nothing but his dark coat and mane. She spurred him, urging him to an even faster, more dangerous pace. She intended to outrun her nervous-ness—and her dread.
And briefly, she did. The sensation of speed became consuming; there could be no other feeling, no thought. The ground was a blur beneath the pounding hooves of her mount. Finally, the present had vanished. Exhilaration claimed her.
Dawn was breaking in the pale sky overhead. Eventually, Eleanor became tired, as did the stud she rode. She straightened and he slowed, and instantly, she thought about her impending marriage again.
Eleanor brought the bay stallion to a walk. She had reached a high point on the ridge and she looked down at her home. Adare was the seat of her father's earldom, an estate that reached into three counties, encompassing a hundred villages, thousands of farms and one very lucrative coal mine, as well as several quarries. Below, the ridge turned to thick forest and then into the achingly lush green lawns and riotous gardens surrounding the huge stone mansion that was her home, a river running through them. Although first built in Elizabethan times, very little of the original structure remained. Renovated a hundred years earlier, the front of the house was a long three-story rectangle, with a dozen columns supporting the roof and the triangular pediment above it. Two shorter wings were behind the facade, one reserved for the family, the other for their guests.
Her home was filled with family and guests now. Three hundred people had been invited to the wedding and fifty guests, mostly Peter's family, had been crammed into the east wing. The rest were staying at village inns and the Grand Hotel in Limerick.
Eleanor stared down at the estate, breathless and perspiring, her long honey-blond hair having come loose from its braid, wearing a pair of breeches she had stolen ages ago from one of her brothers. After her come-out two years earlier, she had been required to ride astride in a lady's proper riding attire. Having been raised with her three brothers and two stepbrothers, she had decided that was absurd. She had been riding at dawn since then, so she could ride astride and leap fences, an act that was impossible in skirts. Society would find her behavior shocking—and so would her fiancé, if he ever discovered she was inclined to ride and dress like a man.
Of course, she had no intention of letting that happen. She wanted to marry Peter Sinclair. Didn't she?
Eleanor could not stand it then. She had thought her grief and sorrow long since gone, but now, her heart broke open. She had wanted to marry Peter, but with her wedding just days away, she had to face the terrible and frightening truth. She was no longer certain. More importantly, she had to know if Sean were alive or dead.
Eleanor walked her mount down the hillside. Her heart beat swiftly and painfully, stirring up feelings she had never wanted to again entertain. He had left her four years ago. Last year, she had come to terms with his disappearance. After waiting for his return for three interminable years, after refusing to believe the conclusion her family had drawn, she had woken up one morning with a horrific comprehension. He was gone. He wasn't coming back. They were right—as there had been no word, he must be dead.
She had locked herself in her room for several days, weeping for the loss of her best friend, the boy she had spent a lifetime with—the man she loved. On the fourth morning, she had left her rooms, going directly to her father.
"I am ready to marry, Father. I should like you to arrange a proper match."
The earl, alone in the breakfast room, had gaped at her in shock.
"Someone titled and well-off, someone as fond of the hunt as I am, and someone passably attractive," she had said. She had no emotions left. But she added grimly, "Actually, he must be a superb horseman or we will never get on."
"Eleanor—" the earl had leaped to his feet
"—you are making the right decision."
She had warded him off. "Yes, I know." And she had left before he might inquire as to her sudden change of heart. She had no wish to discuss her personal feelings with anyone.
An introduction had been made a month later. Peter Sinclair was the heir to an earldom, the estate seated in Chatton, and his family was well-off. He was her own age, and he was handsome and charming. He was a superb horseman and bred Thoroughbred racehorses. She had been wary of his English background, having been chased improperly by some English rakes during her two Seasons, but upon meeting him, she had liked him instantly. His behavior had been sincere from the first. That very night, she had decided he would suit. The match had been arranged shortly thereafter, due to her enhanced age.
Suddenly Eleanor felt as if she were on a bolting horse, one she could not bring to a halt. A horse-woman her entire life, she knew the best recourse would be to leap off.
But she had never bailed from a runaway, not once in her twenty-two years. Instead, she had exerted her will and skill over the animal, bringing it under her control. She tried to remind herself that all brides were nervous and it was not uncommon.After all, her life was about to forever change. Not only would she marry Peter Sinclair, she would move to Chatton, live in England, run his home and soon, bear his children. God, could she really do this?
If only she knew what had happened to Sean. But she did not know his fate, and she was probably never going to learn of it. Her father and Devlin had spent years searching for him, using Bow Street Runners. But his name was not an unusual one, and every lead had turned out to be false. Her Sean O'Neill had vanished into thin air.
Once more, she blamed herself for ever allowing him to go. She had tried to stop him; she should have made an even greater attempt.
Abruptly Eleanor halted her mount and she closed her eyes tightly. Peter would be a perfect husband, and she was very fond of him. Sean was gone. Not only that, he'd never once looked at her the way Peter regarded her. It was a great match. Her fiancé was kind, amusing, charming, blond and handsome. He was horse-mad, as was she. As the English debutantes she had once been forced to attend would say, he was a premier catch.
Eleanor quickly moved the stallion forward. At this late hour, she was lying to herself. Peter was a dear man, but how could she marry him when there was even the slimmest chance that Sean was alive? On the other hand, she couldn't break the contracts now!
Suddenly real panic began. She had been a failure in London. She had hated every ball, where she had been snubbed because she was Irish and tall and because she preferred horses to parties. The English had been terribly condescending. She was going to be a failure in Chatton, too—she was certain of it. Even if Peter had never questioned her background, once he got to know her he would be condescending, too.
Because she wasn't proper enough to be his English wife. Proper ladies would not dream of riding astride in breeches, let alone doing so alone. And while a few were brave enough to foxhunt, ladies did not shoot carbines and fence with masters; ladies loved shopping and gossip, which she abhorred. Peter didn't really know her—he didn't know her at all.
Ladies don't lie.
It was as if Sean stood there beside her, his silver eyes oddly accusing. If only he hadn't left her. How could it still hurt, on the eve of her wedding, when she had invested the entire past year of her life in her relationship with Peter?
And Eleanor knew she was on that runaway horse yet again. Her wedding was in three days and until recently, she had been pleased. In fact, she had been very caught up in the wedding preparations and she had been as excited as her mother. It would be the scandal of the decade should she now call it off. She was having bridal jitters, nothing more. Peter was perfect for her.
Very purposefully, Eleanor halted and closed her eyes, trying to find an image that would chase away, once and for all, every fear and doubt she had. She saw herself in her wedding dress, the bodice covered with lace and pearls, the huge satin skirts boasting pearl and lace insets, the train an endless pool of satin trimmed in beaded lace. Peter was standing beside her, blond and handsome in his formal attire. They were exchanging vows and Peter was raising her veil so he might kiss her.
The veil was removed from her eyes. Peter was gone. Standing before her was a tall, dark man with shockingly silver eyes.
Ladies don't lie, Elle.
Eleanor could not bear the renewed surge of grief. She did not need this now. She did not want this now.
"Go away!" She almost wept. "Leave me alone, please!"
But the damage was done, she thought miserably. She had dared to let him back into her mind, and now, just days before her wedding, he wasn't going to go away. She had known Sean O'Neill since she was a child. His mother had been widowed by the British in a terrible massacre, and her own father, a widower at that time, had married Mary O'Neill, taking Sean and his brother in.Although he had never legally adopted the O'Neill boys, he had raised them with his own three sons and Eleanor, treating both boys as if they were his own.