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It’s a matter of honor, duty… and desire…
Griffin Nash, Earl of Devonwood, wants to believe that he’s seducing Miss Emmaline Farnsworth out of protectiveness for his young brother. After all, if his brother is convinced that the tantalizing professor’s daughter is unworthy of his trust, perhaps Teddy will lose all interest in such an inappropriate choice for his station.
But in truth, something else motivates Devonwood: a scintillating vision he’s had of a future tryst with the lovely Emmaline. A vision too realistic to be doubted—and too scaldingly passionate to be denied.
Yet Emmaline is not as easily tempted as Devonwood might have hoped—nor is she actually in pursuit of a wealthy husband. No, the real reason for her visit to the manor is something much more shocking… though being enticed by a dashing earl may prove to be a most welcome by-product of her schemes…
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Devonwood Park, 1844
Griffin rarely prayed in church. He used the time when everyone else’s eyes were closed to sneak a peek at Sabrina Ashcroft’s rapidly growing bosom. Every fourteen- year-old boy in the shire was fascinated by the new bumps sprouting on her chest. Ogling those lovely mounds sent urgent sensations coursing through his body, driving all thought of prayer from his mind.
But he talked to God now as he urged his gelding to the top of the rise.
“Let the delay be enough,” Griffin repeated. His mount’s powerful haunches bunched and flexed under him as he forced it up the steep incline. He didn’t say please, to the horse or the Almighty. He was his father’s heir, after all, and the earldom of Devonwood was an old and venerated estate.
A peer of the realm demanded obedience from those subject to him and gave restrained courtesy to his equals. Griffin loved and feared his father as much as the vicar admonished him to love and fear God. In his mind, the two had always been intertwined so tightly, he suspected the earl spoke to the Lord as if they were on the same footing.
But a sense of urgency crowded Griffin’s chest and he began to add a silent “please” to his repeated prayer.
He reined in the gelding and surveyed the rolling meadows of his family’s ancestral seat. A blur of movement caught his eye. He narrowed his gaze at the lone horseman barreling down the tree-lined drive toward the haphazard castle that crowned Devonwood Park. His gut clenched with apprehension.
The sun burst from behind a westering cloud bank, dazzling with unexpected brightness for so late in the day. The sweet scent of newly cut hay wafted over the hedge rows. Larks threw their songs to the heavens. It was a moment to gladden any lad, but the eerie sense of having lived through this slice of time once before stripped away any joy Griffin might have felt.
His palms grew clammy and a hard shell formed around his hammering heart.
He didn’t have to wonder what news made the horseman push his mount to such a breakneck pace.
The Sending that morning had been so specific, he had dared break his father’s rule and warned the earl about what his “gift” had shown him. Griffin hesitated to call it that, but his mother had insisted the ability to glimpse the future by touching inanimate objects was part of his birthright from her side of the family, inherited just as directly as his raven hair and storm-gray eyes.
The earl, however, didn’t hold with such outlandish things. He thrashed his son every time he admitted to having a vision of the future, even though events always unraveled just as Griffin said they would.
Griffin was never able to anticipate what would set off the miasma of lights in his head. It might be an accidental brush against a scrap of leather or a piece of carved wood. A china teacup might whisper the future to him. When he and his father had shaken hands to say good-bye that morning, his father’s signet ring had all but screamed what was to come.
Once Griffin had Seen what the morning held for his father, he’d pleaded with him to change his plans and remain in the country for another day.
“Ballocks!” his father had said, and then whipped him for “gypsy-ish nonsense.” The punishment had caused a mere fifteen-minute impediment to the earl’s schedule, so Griffin had slashed through the harness on his father’s equipage with his belt knife. That set the earl’s schedule back a full hour and earned Griffin the promise of another thrashing when Lord Devonwood returned in a sennight.
“I don’t dare do it now,” the earl had said through clenched teeth. “I’m too furious with you to trust myself to stop once I start.”
Griffin didn’t care. He’d welcome the beating if it meant his father would return. The only thing that mattered was undoing the future he’d Seen.
“Please let it have been enough time,” he whispered as the future roared toward him with the horseman galloping toward his home.
Griffin dug his heels into his horse’s flanks and charged back down the hill to meet the rider. Once he clattered over the drawbridge, under the portcullis, and into the bailey, he saw his mother had come out to greet the horseman. Baby Louisa was balanced on her hip and his brother Teddy clung to her skirts. Maman had never held with nannies or governesses for her little brood. It was yet another of her eccentricities that made Griffin wonder sometimes why his thoroughly conventional father had chosen her.
By the time Griffin reined in his horse and dismounted, the rider had begun his report.
“It was a deucedly freakish accident,” the man said, twisting his cap nervously. “The earl’s carriage collided with the mail coach at a blind corner. I’m sorry as I can be to tell you this, milady. The driver and the footman will mend, but Lord Devonwood was trapped inside the equipage and we had the devil’s own time getting him out. His lordship …died before a doctor could staunch the bleeding.”
“But the mail coach should have gone much earlier.” The words tasted of bile as they passed through Griffin’s throat.
“It was delayed,” the man said. “Had to replace a wheel just outside of Shiring-on-the-Green.”
All the air rushed from Griffin’s lungs. If he hadn’t interfered . . . if he had let his father leave at the time he’d intended …His vision tunneled until he forced himself to inhale. The welts on his back from his thrashing stung afresh.
Tears streamed down his mother’s face. When she wobbled a bit, he wrapped his arms around her to keep her upright. Since their mother was crying, little Teddy began to howl and baby Louisa offered sympathetic whimpers.
In that surreal moment, Griffin noticed suddenly how short his mother had become. The crown of her head fit neatly under his chin.
“What would ye have me do now, Master Grif—I mean, Lord Devonwood?” The rider gave his forelock a respectful tug.
Lord Devonwood. He was the earl now. The full weight of the estate and all its retainers settled onto his fourteenyear- old shoulders. Between one breath and the next, Griffin’s boyhood slipped away forever.
“Ride to Shiring-on-the-Green and make arrangements to return my father’s body for burial,” he said, grateful his voice had not chosen that moment to break in an adolescent squeak. A pinprick of a headache began to form behind his right eye. It happened sometimes when he’d had a vision. This was the first time the onset of the migraine was so delayed. “Then call on our man of business in London and tell him to prepare an accounting of the estate within the week. There are things that require our attention.”
He noticed he’d already adopted his father’s habit of speaking of himself in the plural.
As he helped his mother back into the house, Mr. Abercrombie’s lesson from last week haunted him. His tutor had told him that theologians and philosophers often debated whether the future is immutable.
“Does Fate or the stars or a benevolent God dictate the course of our lives?” Mr. Abercrombie asked. “Or do we pilot our own souls?”
Griffin had argued for free will, but it was a debate he would never join again.
After today, he knew the answer.
The future was fixed, whether by God or the devil or plain dumb luck. He’d tried scores of times to prevent the realization of his visions, but he’d never been able to change a single outcome.
Fate even used his interference. It was like trying to stop the wind. Pitiless time only swept him along, no matter how he struggled against it.
He resolved not to try ever again.