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The Reluctant Suitor
by Kathleen E. Woodiwisss
Avon, 2003

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Chapter One

Wiltshire countryside, England
Northeast of Bath and Bradford on Avon
September 5, 1815

Lady Adriana Sutton whirled through the gracefully arched portico of Randwulf Manor, spilling effervescent laughter over her shoulder as she deftly avoided the reaching hand of an eager young swain. In copying her lead, he had jumped down from his mount and raced after her in his zeal to catch her before she could dash up the stone steps and escape into the Jacobean mansion of her family's closest neighbors and friends. At her approach, the massive door was drawn open and, with quiet dignity, a tall, thin, elderly butler stepped aside to await her entrance.

"Oh, Harrison, you're positively a dear," Adriana warbled cheerily as she flitted through the spacious vestibule. Safely ensconcing herself in the hall beyond the steward, she spun about and struck a playfully triumphant pose for the benefit of her pursuer who came to a teetering halt at the threshold, causing her to lift a brow in curious wonder. As zealously as Roger Elston had dogged her heels in his nearly year-long quest to claim her for his very own, even intruding when not invited, it seemed as if his dread of the late Lord Sedgwick Wyndham, the sixth Marquess of Randwulf, had actually intensified rather than abated in the months following the nobleman's death.

If there had been occasions when Lord Sedgwick had grown exasperated by the apprentice's impromptu visits, it certainly hadn't been the elder's fault, for Roger had seemed unusually tenacious in his endeavor to win her hand, as if that had been even remotely possible. His gall had reached amazing limits. Whenever formal invitations had been extended to select groups or close friends were enjoying private dinners with the Wyndhams or her own family, as long as she had been a participant, her single-minded admirer would present himself on some pretext or another, if only to speak with her for a moment or two. It made her rue the day she had ever yielded to his first unannounced visit to her own home at Wakefield Manor. Even after his audacious proposal of marriage, which her father had answered forthrightly by explaining that she was already committed, Roger had continued to chase her hither and yon.

As much as she had foreseen the need to issue a stern directive that would have permanently banished the apprentice from her presence, Adriana had not yet subdued the qualms that plagued her. At times. Roger seemed like such a lonely individual, dearly evincing his troubled youth. Whenever she came nigh to severing their association, she found herself mundated with reminders of all the helpless creatures that her lifelong companion, Samantha Wyndham, and she had once nurtured as children. To exhibit less compassion to a human being in desperate need of a little kindness had seemed inequitable in comparison.

"I do believe that dastardly fellow is afraid of you, Harrison," Adriana teasingly surmised, lifting her riding crop to indicate her boyishly handsome admirer. "His reluctance to confront such a man as yourself has plainly led to my advantage. If you hadn't opened the door when you did, Mr. Elston would've likely caught me and made me rue the fact that Ulysses and I left him and that paltry nag plodding along behind us again."

Although Roger had not been invited on their planned outing today, he had nevertheless shown up at Wakefield Manor just as her friends had arrived on horseback to join up with her and a recent female acquaintance. What else could she have done other than politely offer the man a mount? In spite of his awareness that she was obliged to another by a formal agreement her parents had signed years ago, Roger's perseverance seemed indefatigable, causing her to wonder if the man actually thought he could, by his own resolve, put to naught such a contract and win her hand.

In a guise of perplexity, Adriana gathered elegantly arched brows as she laid a slender finger aside her chi. "Still, as much as I've tried to rein in Ulysses, I fear he can't abide the sight of another steed racing ahead of him. He refuses to walk beside any of the geldings from our stables, as Mr. Elston can well attest by his efforts to keep up today. Indeed, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the gray considers it a personal affront to be associated with them. You know yourself, Harrison, that Lord Sedgwick used to complain fairly often about the stallion's indomitable spirit"

The steward's ephemeral grin hinted of a humor more often masked by a dignified mien. "Aye, my lady, that he did, but always with a twinkle of pride in his eye because of your ability to handle such a headstrong stallion. His lordship took enormous delight in boasting of your accomplishments to any who'd lend an ear. Why, he was just as proud of you as his own darling daughter."

Having been in the Wyndhams' employ for several decades, Harrison had a fine recollection of the Suttons' arrival at Randwulf Manor in a quest to show off their third and newest daughter. Slightly more than a score of years later, the lady now held claim to the affection of nearly everyone living on the premises. As for her riding skill, Harrison had heard enough praise from his late lordship to be conversant of the fact that the girl rode well enough to ruffle the pride of equestrians who considered their own talents unmatched. In view of her present companion's lack of experience in that area less than a year ago, it wasn't at all surprising that he continued to lose without fall. If anything, his defeats had strengthened his determination to succeed, to the degree that he usually fared better now than other participants in their spontaneous races. At least this time he had been nigh upon the girls heels when she had darted through the doorway. But then, considering the long climb from the hitching posts to the manor, her pursuer's leaping strides had allowed him more of an advantage in the final moments of their contest.

Excerpted from The Reluctant Suitor by Kathleen E. Woodiwisss. Copyright © 2003 by Kathleen E. Woodiwisss. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of the publisher. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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