To Charity Mayfield's shock, she discovered a year after her father's death that his debts could mean losing her home. Only by marriage could she touch her inheritance and save Hazelhurst. The only sensible candidate would be Edward, newly come into the Earldom, and the Mayfields' neighbour, so impetuously Charity wrote to propose!
But she'd made a mistake; the new earl was Jack Riversleigh, and he wasn't at all disposed to help out - which led Charity rashly to bet him that she could find a husband within a month ...
There were catkins in the hedge and Charity picked some, meaning to take them back for Mrs Mayfield. In the distance she could hear the sound of hounds in full cry and she was dimly aware that the hunt was out, but it was not until the fox ran straight past her and out through the gate that she realised how close it was. She swung round and saw the first of the hounds racing towards her across the field.
Later she couldn't explain what she did next, but at the time she was only aware of a sudden uncharacteristic anger at the dogs. Perhaps she felt a momentary affinity with the fox because she felt it was being driven from its home in much the same way that she was being driven from hers.
Whether that was the case or not, with Charity thinking inevitably led to action. She dropped the bunch of catkins, heaved the heavy gate up on its hinges and staggered round to close it, letting it fall back in place just as the first of the huntsmen came over the opposite hedge, hard on the heels of the hounds. At the same moment the enormity of what she had done occurred to her - and she realised she had shut herself on the wrong side of the gate.
She wasn't frightened of the hounds, but the dogs would be followed by men, and even Charity's courage failed her at the thought of what Sir Humphrey Leydon would have to say about what she'd done!
She began to edge her way along the hedge, hoping that in the heat of the chase no one would notice her. The hounds had already reached the gate and checked. They couldn't get through it, or below it - it was too low to the ground and the bars were too closely spaced. They whined and spread out on either side of it, forcing their way through gaps in the thick hedge. The firsts of them were through, but they checked again: they had temporarily lost the scent.
Charity kept walking along the hedge and, to her relief, it seemed that nobody had noticed her, or knew what she had done. She spotted Sir Humphrey and some red-faced tenant farmers and a thin-faced man she didn't recognise, but none of them saw her. They were anxious for the gate to be opened, for the chance to continue the chase.
There was a fuss and some delay. It was a heavy gate, not easily opened from the back of a horse, and one of the whippers-in had to dismount. Then the last of the hounds went through, followed by the riders, and Charity was alone again, listening to the sounds of the retreating hunt.
'Charity! What the devil did you do that for? How dare you ruin my father's hunt?'
Charity stopped and turned round slowly.
Owen Leydon was riding up behind her - and he was furious.
'I don't know what you mean,' she said weakly; she couldn't afford to argue with Owen now!
'I saw you close the gate. How dare you do such a thing?' Owen was almost shaking with rage.
'Oh.' She realised he must have been the first rider over the hedge, and she could hardly deny his accusation. 'I don't know what came over me,' she said, trying to propitiate him. 'I think I must have been startled when I suddenly saw all those hounds bearing down on me.'
'Nonsense! You're no more frightened of the hounds than I am. You were deliberately trying to sabotage the hunt! What were you trying to do? Make my father look like a fool? Don't you know we have an important visitor from London staying with us?'
'Indeed I don't know. How should I?' Any intention Charity might have had to apologise disintegrated completely at this unfounded accusation. 'Why should I want to ruin your stupid hunt?'
'I don't know,' Owen said disagreeably. 'I've never understood the crazy notions you take in your head. But I do know a more contrary, obstinate, self-willed girl can't exist!'
'I beg your pardon?' By now Charity was so rigid with indignation that she hardly cared what she said. 'But this is Hazelhurst land you're riding across - and cutting up with all your pounding hoofs - and if I want to close the gate on my own land I have every right to do so!'
'Not when the hounds are running! Well, all I can say is that it's fortunate my father doesn't know what you did. Good day, Miss Mayfield,' Owen ended, and wheeled about to follow the hunt without waiting for Charity to reply.
She stepped back to avoid the mud thrown up from the horse's hoofs and tripped over a rut in the ground, falling heavily.
It hurt; but instead of calling out she sat up and rubbed her elbow, watching Owen disappear through the gate, unaware of her accident.
'And a perfect opportunity missed,' said an amused voice behind her.
She looked up quickly to see Lord Riversleigh dismounting from a fine bay gelding.
'Are you hurt, Miss Mayfield?' He pulled the reins over the horse's head and led him over to her.
'No, of course not!' Charity exclaimed, feeling rather annoyed at being discovered in such an undignified position by someone who seemed so very point-device. Nevertheless, she accepted the hand he offered her and allowed him to pull her to her feet.
'Thank you. What are you doing here? What do you mean, "a perfect opportunity"?' she asked, running one question straight on from the other.
'And I'm delighted to meet you again, Miss Mayfield. Very fine weather we're having for the time of year, don't you think?' Jack said, looking at her in some amusement.
Charity blinked at him, then she laughed and held out her hand. 'I'm sorry, I've never been very good at polite conversation. How do you do?'
'Very well, thank you.' He took her hand and kissed it gracefully, and she felt her fingers tingle at the touch of his lips.
'As to your first question, I was out riding when I heard the sound of the hunt and thought I'd watch it pass,' he explained as he straightened up. 'And as to your second ... am I by any chance correct in suspecting that that's the young man who is destined to take Edward's place in your marriage plans?'
'What if he is?' Charity asked cautiously. She was trying, ineffectually, to brush the mud and pieces of dead twig from her skirts, and feeling at a decided disadvantage.
'Then I stand by my first opinion: you did indeed miss a perfect opportunity,' Jack declared.
'I don't understand,' Charity said. She was still feeling ruffled from her encounter with Owen and she wasn't at all sure she cared for the amused expression in Lord Riversleigh's grey eyes. He was so entirely different from the other men she knew that she couldn't predict his reactions at all.
'You should have cried out when you fell,' he explained gravely. 'A few tears, perhaps a little raillery against his brutish conduct in causing you to fall, and he would have been your devoted servant. You could probably have had the whole thing settled in a trice.'
Charity gasped. 'How could you think me so ungentlemanly?' she demanded. 'It wasn't Owen's fault I fell over. I should scorn to use such devious methods!'
Jack shook his head in mock sadness.
'Then I fear that if you cannot bring yourself to be ungentlemanly in the pursuit of a husband you are destined to remain a spinster, Miss Mayfield,' he said.
'I am not!' Charity declared, outraged. 'I wager you ten guineas I'm married by the end of the month.'
Lord Riversleigh laughed. 'Come, allow me to escort you home,' he said, and offered her the support of his arm.
She stepped away from him. 'Are you refusing my wager, sir?'
'Well, it's certainly not my habit to make bets on such a subject.' Jack looked at her in some exasperation. 'Are you coming down to the gate or are you going to try to force your way through the hedge?'
Charity stopped backing away - it was perfectly true that the sharp hawthorn twigs were beginning to dig into her - and looked at him challengingly. 'I think you're afraid I'll win,' she said.
There was a moment's silence. Then, 'Very well, Miss Mayfield,' Lord Riversleigh replied. 'I accept your wager. If I lose I'll buy you a wedding present - unless you'd prefer cash.'
'Thank you,' Charity said regally. 'But perhaps you'd better not make the wager after all. I'm afraid you'll soon be sadly out of pocket.'
'I hope so, Miss Mayfield,' said Jack politely. 'I would hate to see you dwindle into an old maid.'
From the book: Ten Guineas on Love by Claire Thornton
Imprint and Series: Mills & Boon® Masquerade Historical™ and Harlequin Historicals®
Publication dates: 1992 and 2003. ISBN: 0-263-77782-0 and 0-373-30417-X
Copyright © 1992 by Alice Thornton
® and ™ are trademarks of the publisher. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books SA