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Neither man spoke again until they'd reached the rise above the gardens and reined in their mounts. The cover of the trees shielded them well, yet they had a clear view of the guests strolling about the gardens of the duchess's estate below.
"Hell, Colin, I feel like a schoolboy."
His friend laughed. "Leave it to the duchess to go overboard," he remarked when he noticed the crowd of musicians filing toward the lower terrace. "She hired an entire orchestra."
"Ten minutes, Colin, and then I'm leaving."
"Agreed," Colin placated. He turned to look at his friend. Nathan was scowling. "You know, she might have been willing to leave with you, Nathan, if you'd-"
"Are you suggesting I send another letter?" Nathan asked. He raised an eyebrow over the absurdity of that possibility. "You do recall what happened the last time I followed your advice, don't you?"
"Of course I remember," Colin answered. "But things might have changed. There could have been a misunderstanding. Her father could have-"
"A misunderstanding?" Nathan sounded incredulous. "I sent the note on a Thursday, and I was damn specific, Colin."
"I know," Colin said. "You told them you were going to collect your bride the following Monday."
"You thought I should have given her more time to pack her belongings."
Colin grinned. "I did, didn't I? In defense of my gentlemanly behavior, I must say I never imagined she'd run away. She was quick, too, wasn't she?"
"Yes, she was," Nathan replied, a hint of a smile in his voice.
"You could have gone after her."
"Why? My men followed her. I knew where she was. I just decided to leave her alone a little longer."
"A stay of execution, perchance?"
Nathan did laugh then. "She's only a woman, Colin, but yes, I do suppose it was a reprieve of sorts."
"There was more to it than that, though, wasn't there? You knew she would be in danger as soon as you claimed her. You won't admit it, Nathan, but in your own way you've been protecting Sara by leaving her alone. I'm right, aren't 1?"
"You just said I wouldn't admit it," he countered. "Why bother to ask?"
"God help the two of you. The next year is going to be hell. You'll both have the world trying to do you in."
Nathan shrugged. "I'll protect her."
"I don't doubt that."
Nathan shook his head. "The daft woman actually booked passage on one of our own ships to run away from me. That still chafes. A bit of an irony, wouldn't you say?"
"Not really," Colin answered. "She couldn't have known you owned the ship. You did insist upon remaining a silent partner in the company, remember?"
"We wouldn't have any clients otherwise. You know damn well the St. James men aren't liked by the members of the ton. They're still a little rough around the cuffs." His grin told his friend he found that trait appealing.
"It's still odd to me," Colin announced, switching the topic. "You had your men follow Lady Sara-watch out for her, too-yet you never bothered to ask any of them to tell you what she looked like."
"You didn't ask any of them either," Nathan countered.
Colin shrugged. He returned his attention to the crowd below. "I suppose I thought you'd decide the contract wasn't worth the sacrifice. After all, she..." He completely lost his train of thought when he spotted his sister strolling toward them. Another woman walked by her side. "There's Becca," he said. "If the silly chit would just move a little to the left..." That remark went unfinished. Colin's indrawn breath filled the air. "Sweet Jesus...could that be Lady Sara?"
Nathan didn't answer him. In truth, he doubted he was capable of speech right then. His mind was fully consumed taking in the vision before him.
She was enchanting. Nathan had to shake his head. No, he told himself, she couldn't possibly be his bride. The gentle lady smiling so shyly at Rebecca was simply too beautiful, too feminine, and too damn thin to belong to the Winchester clan.
And yet there was a hint of a resemblance, a nagging reminder of the impossible four-year-old he'd held in his arms, something indefinable that told him she really was his Lady Sara.
Gone was the wild mop of honey-colored curls. Her hair was shoulder-length, still given to curl, but as dark as chestnuts. Her complexion looked pure to him from the distance separating them, and he wondered if she still had the sprinkle of freckles across the bridge of her nose.
She'd grown to only average height, judging by the fact that she was eye level with Colin's younger sister. There certainly wasn't anything average about her figure, however. She was rounded in all the right places.
"Look at all the young bucks moving in," Colin announced. "They're like sharks circling their prey. Your wife seems to be their target, Nathan," he added. "Hell, you'd think they would have the decency to leave a married woman alone. Still, I suppose I can't really fault them. My God, Nathan, she's magnificent."
Nathan was fully occupied watching the eager men chase after his bride. He had an almost overwhelming urge to beat the foppish grins off their faces. How dare they try to touch what belonged to him?
He shook his head over his illogical reaction to his bride.
"Here comes your charming father-in-law," Colin said. "God, I didn't realize how bowlegged he is. Look how he shadows her," he continued. "He isn't about to let his prize out of his sight."
Nathan took a deep breath. "Let's ride, Colin. I've seen enough."
Not a hint of emotion was in his voice. Colin turned to look at him. "Well?"
"Damn it, Nathan, tell me what you think."
"Lady Sara," Colin persisted. "What do you think of her?"
"The truth, Colin?"
His friend gave a quick nod.
Nathan's smile was slow, easy. "She'll fit through the window."
Copyright © 1991 by Julie Garwood