Secrets of a Runaway Bride

By: Valerie Bowman

CHAPTER 1

London, Late September 1816

Annie Andrews was halfway up the side of Arthur Eggleston’s town house—scaling an oh-so-convenient and strong ivy vine—when the telltale clip-clop of a horse’s hooves stopped her. She squeezed her eyes shut. Oh, this was not good.

Despite the fact that she was in the alley at the back of the house and it was dark as pitch, she’d just been discovered. She knew it.

Please let it be a servant.

But even as she wished it, she knew it couldn’t be. A servant in the alley on horseback? No.

And the odds of it being Aunt Clarissa were decidedly low as well. Annie had ensured that lady had been well into her cups and asleep before she’d even attempted tonight’s little escapade. Besides, Aunt Clarissa was horribly frightened of horses.

Annie bit her lip. Then she slowly turned her head.

She gulped.

It was worse than a servant. Much worse.

“Lost?” The arrogant male voice pierced the cool night air.

Jordan Holloway, the Earl of Ashbourne, swung his leg over his saddle and dismounted.

Oh, drat. There was absolutely no plausible way to explain this. Annie lifted her chin in an attempt to retain her dignity. As much as one could when one was clinging precariously to a vine.

The moon peeked from behind the clouds, casting a bit of its glow upon the scene as Lord Ashbourne strode up the steps and stood regarding her, his arms crossed over his chest. He leaned back against the stone balustrade, crossed his booted feet negligently at the ankles, and watched her with a mocking look on his oh-so-handsome—too handsome if you asked her—face. The man was easily two inches over six feet tall, possessed broad shoulders, narrow hips, a straight nose, dark slashes for brows, dark, ruffled hair, and the most unusual knowing gray eyes.

“If it isn’t the runaway bride.” He grinned. “What are you up to this time, Miss Andrews?”

Annie gritted her teeth. She hated it when Lord Ashbourne called her by that ridiculous name. The runaway bride. Hrmph. As the closest friend of her new brother-in-law, Lord Ashbourne had just so happened to have been involved in coming after her following an unfortunate incident in which she’d run away to Gretna Green with Arthur last spring. But that had been months ago and things were different now. Ahem, present circumstances notwithstanding. And it was so like Lord Ashbourne to mock her while she wasn’t in a position to kick him or at the very least give him a condemning glare. It was exceedingly difficult to conjure condemnation while perched on a plant.

Her palms sweaty, Annie tightened her hold on the vine and summoned what indignation she could muster. “I don’t see how it’s any of your business.” But even as she said the words she knew how ludicrous they were. “How did you even know I was here?”

“Let’s say I made an educated guess. But, before I assist you in removing yourself from this ridiculous … situation,” he drawled. “I insist you tell me why, exactly, you’re doing this.”

Annie blew an errant leaf away from her mouth. “I don’t require your help, Lord Ashbourne. I’m quite capable—” She glanced down. It was at least a five-foot drop to the porch below. She’d just have to jump. She tugged away from the vine, but discovered, to her dismay, that the hem of her gown was snagged upon the brambles.

Lord Ashbourne shook his head. “Seriously, Miss Andrews, why?”

She expelled her breath, still trying to retain a modicum of dignity. Oh very well. Some explanation was obviously in order. “It’s not as bad as it looks. I merely wanted to get Arthur’s attention. I planned to toss a rock at his window and—”

“A note sent round to his door would not suffice?” Lord Ashbourne’s mocking tone did not waver.

Annie clenched her jaw. Why, oh, why was she always at her very worst when Lord Ashbourne appeared? It was quite a phenomenon, actually.

“And Aunt Clarissa?” Lord Ashbourne continued. “She’s asleep, is she not? After imbibing a good bit of port?”

Annie bit her lip. “Sherry.” As companions went, Aunt Clarissa was a great deal of fun, but an apt chaperone she was not. The woman was overly fond of spirits, in a variety of forms.

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