Chapter 1

Hawthorne Mansion, Danbury, England. 1816.

Georgiana Ashton stared out her window into the pouring rain. She sighed, longing for the comfort of her horse, Thane. In her current mood, she would very well have gone out for a ride just to get away from that horrid crow that she was cursed to call Aunt. Having just returned from finishing school, of which she was most certainly finished, she was shocked - no horrified to find her home under the control of that tyrant, Lady Eileen. Her father, whom she had always preferred at a distance, had let her aunt take over and despite Georgiana's attempts to get him to force her aunt off the throne, he seemed content to let her rule and add his own two pence when necessary. Georgiana had never been particularly fond of her father and he had always returned the sentiment. He had wanted a boy and had never hid that fact from his daughter. At first Georgiana listened to her mother and tried to be the best daughter he could have in the hopes that he would realize that she was as fine as any male. But when her mother died, Georgiana, at the age of seven, stopped trying. It was futile and she took comfort in the fact that one day she would leave Hawthorne for good. Finishing school was merely a temporary escape route. She detested it but, with her only other choice being her home, it had been no choice at all. Someday she would get married and leave for wherever her husband's home was. She wasn't opposed to marriage, the right marriage; a marriage where both parties were in agreement and she would be regarded as a partner not an elevated servant.

A sharp pain pulled her out of her reflections and caused her to look down in disgust at the needle work her aunt had ordered (and her father had agreed!) her to do in order to "improve herself". A drop of blood formed where the needle had pricked her and in a moment of defiance she smeared it across a half completed swan. Standing up, she smiled grimly and placed her work on the seat; hopefully her aunt would discover it, since she seemed to find sneaking into other people's rooms an amusing sport. When she looked out the window it was to discover that the rain had stopped. Every leaf glistened and beckoned her outside. Eager to acquiesce she picked up her riding crop which lay on her bed. She took in her clothing and shrugged; in her opinion she was ready for a ride in breeches, a white cotton shirt and sturdy black boots. She wore the breeches more to defy and scandalize her aunt than anything. She flicked a glance at a jacket she had thrown over a chair but rejected the idea and instead unpinned her hair and ran her fingers through the long black tresses with a silent apology to her maid, Ruth. After all in for a penny, in for a pound; if she was going to look like a hoyden then she might as well do it properly. Regarding herself in the mirror on her vanity, she grinned; she really looked a wild thing.

She left her room, made her way down the hallway then crept towards the stairs where she stopped and listened. She didn't fear a confrontation with her aunt but then again if she could avoid it, why bother. Hearing nothing, she continued down the stairs and, taking the back entrance out, emerged in the dense forest that formed a semi-circle around the manor. She followed the path leading to the stables, enjoying the aromatic smell of wet trees. Leaving the cover of the green tunnel, she entered the stable and was surprised to not see anyone there. She had expected at least one of the grooms and had been certain she would see little Nicolas, the chief groom's son, who could not ordinarily be separated from the horses. Shrugging her wonder off Georgiana headed for Thane's stall. The grooms called her 'The Goddess' and Georgiana agreed; the beautiful beast was snow white from mane to tail with a black flame on her forehead. At the moment Thane was nuzzling her pocket in which lay an apple which Georgiana had picked up on her way out. With a smile, Georgiana held the apple out, saying, "I knew you'd like that, smart girl." The horse took the apple from her hand and crunched it contentedly. She ran her fingers through the horse's mane then, opening the stall, entered and set about saddling her. After which she led Thane out of the stable, mounted and urged her into a slow trot towards the woods which acted as a boundary between Hawthorne and Chesterfield. Feeling Thane's restlessness, she let the horse gather speed and go into a full blown gallop. Trees whizzed by and rabbits scampered in the underbrush as Thane flew over the ground at an amazing speed, winding through the woods. Georgiana was just imagining how wonderful it would be to continue at that pace forever with the wind tearing at her hair, tossing it wildly, when a loud bang came. Thane stopped so suddenly, Georgiana was nearly thrown over her head. The sound came again and Georgiana realized what it was; someone very close was using a gun.

Dismounting, she looped Thane's rein around a sturdy oak, waited a minute, whispering comforting words in her ear with the hope that she would stand quietly, and struck out towards Chesterfield where she suspected the sounds had come from. As she walked, a rage was building up in her; she hated being scared and she hated surprises and the idea that someone, who she would bet was trespassing, had managed to do both to her irked her and as she reached the clearing, fueled her into yelling out at the three men she saw.

"What in the bloody hell do you think you're doing!?"

They all turned in her direction obviously startled. Two of them were on horses and held rifles while the other was operating some sort of catapult. The one on the roan was one to turn heads, with auburn hair and sparkling blue eyes, the other on a magnificent black stallion, was…she couldn't call him merely handsome - although she grudgingly allowed him that - it seemed such a small description. On his horse he sat tall and proud, lean and superbly fit. His jaw was firm and well carved, his nose straight. The breeze lightly ruffled his hair which was blue-black and beneath equally dark brows, surprising gray eyes observed her with thinly veiled annoyance. Georgiana was momentarily distracted but the aggressive virility and uncompromising authority that he seemed to exude brought her anger back into boil. How dare the man sit there looking so arrogant when he and his friends were obviously prowlers of some sort!? She tossed her locks over her head, prepared to brow beat them into contrition when Gray-eyes asked in a voice laced with condescension.

"Who are you?"

She bristled at his tone and assumed a haughty look which would have sent a lesser man scurrying. Gray-eyes met her stare with a supercilious eyebrow raised and almost forced her to look away as she snapped.

"Miss Georgiana Ashton."

She had put in enough arrogance and impatience into her words to distinguish herself as their better but they didn't seemed impressed and instead rode forward and circled her like wolves would a rabbit. Auburn hair seemed to find the whole thing exceedingly funny, much to Georgiana's disgust, and asked in laughter tinged voice.

"Would it be too much to ask why you're here Miss Ashton?"

Georgiana heard the patronizing tone and felt her hackles rise; she itched to wipe the grin off his face; perhaps a bloodied nose would do the trick. "I am here, sirs, because you seem to be under the impression that this land is open to everyone. Now if you and your companion," she nodded towards the third man who she couldn't distinguish but who seemed to be avidly watching the by-play, "value your freedom then I suggest you leave the premises. Now." The men exchanged looks and then Gray-eyes said, "You seem to be under some misconception, Miss Ashton. You see, this land belongs to me and if you are extremely lucky I will refrain from pressing charges against you for trespassing." His eyes had raked over her contemptuously when he'd said the word 'lady' implying that he didn't think her one and Georgiana felt her face heat up as she said more to herself than to either of them.

"This land is your land."

The realization of what she had just done hit her in the stomach and she valiantly prayed for the earth to open up and swallow her.