Major John Harris squinted between his horse's ears, willing himself to ignore the throbbing in his knee and the pounding like hoof beats in his head.
He had survived the bloody siege of Ciudad Rodrigo. He would not die of a hangover now that he was home.
Now that he had a home.
And all his limbs.
He had not expected either outcome. He was a man used to dealing with life's harsher realities. But he could not be sorry that life, for once, had frustrated his expectations.
He lifted his face, letting the wind tatter the remnants of his nightmare and blow his hangover out to sea. The air smelled of earth and sea, brush and brine. Neptune jingled his bridle, bobbing his massive head in approval. The rawboned gray had carried Jack on the winter retreat from Corunna and through the blistering march to Talavera. The long Peninsular war against Napoleon had left the big horse scarred and past his prime.
Like his rider, Jack admitted ruefully.
At least Neptune seemed to be taking the transition to civilian life in stride.
In the weeks since his cousin's lawyers had found him in the stinking Lisbon hospital, Jack had learned to walk again without a cane and to sleep again in a room with four walls. But he was as ignorant as the rawest ensign when it came to managing his unexpected inheritance.
He was a soldier, not a farmer, determined to carry out his duty to the best of his ability, grimly aware that his tenants' lives depended on his decisions as surely as his troops' had.
He only hoped his best would be good enough.
The rutted road meandered over hills as worn as his bones. The land--his land, now--swept in a ragged curve around the harbor, anchored at one end by the peaked roofs and chimneys of Arden Hall and on the other by furrowed cliffs. Fishing boats bobbed in the shining flat water. A bleak, spare church, an unprofitable inn, and a score of small dark houses clung like mussels to the rocks, their inhabitants prickly as barnacles and close-mouthed as clams.
Jack was used to bivouacking in hostile countryside. But Spanish bandits had nothing on these stubborn Scots. Almost a third of his tenants were Highlanders driven west by the Clearances and carrying a grudge against all things English.
Including their new landlord.
Jack closed his knees, urging his horse onward, leaving the village behind. His thoughts clamored, restless and strident as the seabirds haunting the cliffs. He could hear their plaintive cries slicing the air, the rush of wind drumming in his ears, the waves curling to shore like distant music, like singing.
Actual singing, he registered in surprise.
A woman's voice, husky and cool, rising and falling with the breeze, tangling him in lines of music, knotting in his soul.
He stopped, searching the shore below for the singer. Just beyond the reach of the tide, in a patch of tangled garden and blowing grass, a cottage nestled in the shelter of the rock.
Jack narrowed his eyes. Who would choose to live beyond the village outskirts, outside the protection of the harbor and neighbors?
A flash of white at the water's edge caught his gaze, a billow of movement like a sail.
Not a sail. A woman's skirts, a woman's hair, flowing loose in the wind, shining like sea foam in the sun.
His breath caught. Her song plucked his heart from his chest. She was all white and gold like an angel in a dream, a vision concocted of loneliness and spray and too much whiskey. Neptune snorted, his iron shod hooves slipping on the rock.
Jack tightened the reins, collecting his horse, recovering his balance. The angelic vision became simply a girl without hat or shawl, singing a song he'd never heard in a language he did not know.
Who was she?
One of his tenants, he thought, setting Neptune at the descent. A fisher's wife, a farmer's daughter, a serving girl perhaps. No gentlewoman went bonnet-less and barefoot on the beach.
At the sound of their approach, the song ceased. The girl turned, pushing back her tumbled hair with one hand. The pose and the wind molded her gown to her body.
Lust slammed into Jack like a bullet.
She was tall and lovely, her breasts high and round, her skin as pale as pearl. Her face was almost savage in its beauty, her broad jaw and level brow balanced by a full mouth and strong cheekbones.
Jack sat like stone, his blood pounding in his head and his groin. Beneath him, Neptune stood like a monument, iron muscles quivering.
He should say something, Jack thought at last. Reassure her. He was a stranger, after all, and she was alone.
"Major John Harris at your service, ma'am." His voice grated on his ears.
She regarded him without expression, her eyes tarnished gold.
"From the hall," he said since she seemed not to recognize his name. "And you are...?"
No surname. A servant, then?
He cleared his throat. He was not accustomed to the company of women. But his years of military service had given him the habit of command and some small store of social conversation. "I saw you from the cliffs," he said.
And promptly plunged down the bluffs like a sailor diving after a mermaid's song.
She would think him mad.
Perhaps he was.
"You were singing," he added. As if that explained or excused anything.
"I was not calling you."
A dismissal, by God. She did not speak like a servant. Despite the absence of gloves, her hands were tapered and smooth. Her dress...Well, he didn't know much about women's fashions, but the fabric appeared very fine. Perhaps she was a gentlewoman fallen on hard times.
He should ride on. He could not stay, looming over her like the lord of the manor riding out to debauch village maidens.
She met his gaze boldly, like a woman willing to be debauched.
His blood thrummed. Before he could consider the consequences, he swung from his horse, landing hard and heavily on his right leg. He gripped the saddle and breathed deep and evenly, willing the pain to subside.
"You are injured," she said behind him.
He turned stiffly. "Nothing to signify."
She considered him, those strange golden eyes traveling down to his boots and up again, lingering in places no well-bred woman would look. He felt the stroke of her gaze like a smooth gloved hand.
She nodded. "We had better go to my cottage, then. There is a bed there."
Jack's mind reeled with shock and possibilities. She was a whore.
Or he was still stupid from a lack of sleep and a surfeit of whiskey. She looked nothing like the prostitutes he had seen on London's streets or the camp followers he had known in the army.
Yet she was living outside the village. She had invited him to her bed. Surely he had not misunderstood?
He attempted a smile. "A chair would suffice."
Her face lit suddenly with humor or awareness. "It might suit you," she said. "It would not suit me."
As if - the image fired his brain - he had suggested they engage in sexual congress on a chair.
He shook his head to clear it.
"Come." She smiled at him and turned. "This way."
She glided toward the tree line, all billowing skirts and floating hair.
After a moment's hesitation, he stomped after her, alert as if he rode into ambush. His riding boots slipped and skidded on the shale. Neptune plodded behind.
Jack had spent the past week riding over the estate, trying to familiarize himself with his new duties. This was not the first time a cottager had invited him to inspect a chimney or a leaking roof, to listen to a list of complaints or take a cup of tea.
Surely she was offering more than tea.
Or was it was only her beauty and his own soul deep loneliness that made him wish for more.