The Rake to Reveal Her

By: Julia Justiss

Chapter One

Suffolk—spring 1816

His ears still ringing from the impact of the fall, Dominic Fitzallen Ransleigh levered himself to a sitting position in the muddy Suffolk lane. Air hissed in and out of his gritted teeth as he waited for the red wave of pain obscuring his vision to subside. Which it did, just in time for him to see that black devil, Diablo, trot around the corner and out of sight.

Headed back to the barn, probably, Dom thought. If horses could laugh, surely the bad-tempered varlet was laughing at him.

It was his own fault, always choosing the most difficult and high-spirited colts to train as hunters. Horses with the speed and heart to gallop across country, jumping with ease any obstacle in their paths, but needing two strong hands on the reins to control their headstrong, temperamental natures.

He looked down at his one remaining hand, still trembling from the strain of that wild ride. Flexing the wrist, he judged it sore but not broken. After years of tending himself from various injuries suffered during his service with the Sixteenth Dragoons, a gingerly bending of the arm informed him no bones were broken there, either.

His left shoulder still throbbed, but at least he hadn’t fallen on the stump of his right arm. Had he done that, he’d probably still be unconscious from the agony.

Resigning himself to sit in the mud until his muzzy head cleared, Dom gazed down the lane after the fleeing horse. Though the doctors had warned him, he’d resisted accepting what he’d just proved: he’d not be able to control Diablo, or any of the other horses in his stable full of hunters, with a single good hand.

Sighing, Dom struggled to his feet. He might as well face the inevitable. As he’d never be able to ride Diablo or the others again, there was no sense hanging on to them. The bitter taste of defeat in his mouth, he told himself he would look into selling them off at Tattersall’s while the horses were still in prime form and able to fetch a good price. Sell the four-horse carriages, too, since with one hand, he couldn’t handle more than a pair.

Thereby severing one more link between the man he’d been before Waterloo, and now.

Jilting a fiancée, leaving the army, and now this. Nothing like changing his world completely in the space of a week.

Could he give it all up? he wondered as he set off down the lane. Following in his hunting-mad father’s footsteps had been his goal since he’d joined his first chase, schooling hunters a talent he worked to perfect. Before the army and between Oxford terms, he’d spent all his time studying horses, looking for that perfect combination of bone, stamina and spirit that made a good hunter. Buying them, training them, then hunting and steeplechasing with the like-minded friends who called themselves ‘Dom’s Daredevils’.

Stripped of that occupation, the future stretched before him as a frightening void.

Though he’d never previously had a taste for solitude, within days of his return, he’d felt compelled to leave London. The prospect of visiting his clubs, attending a ball, mixing with the old crowd at Tatt’s, inspecting the horses before a sale—all the activities in which he’d once delighted—now repelled him. Sending away even his cousin Will, who’d rescued him from the battlefield and tended him for months, he’d retreated to Bildenstone—the family estate he’d not seen in years, and hadn’t even been sure was still habitable.

He’d sent Elizabeth away, too. A wave of grief and remorse swept through him as her lovely face surfaced in his mind. How could he have asked her to wait for him to recover, when the man he was now no longer fit into the world of hunts and balls they’d meant to share?

Ruthlessly he extinguished her image, everything about her and the hopes they once cherished too painful to contemplate. Best to concentrate on taking the next small step down the road ahead, small steps being all he could manage towards a future cloaked in a shifting mist of uncertainty.

Fighting the despair threatening to suck him down, he reminded himself again why he’d left friends, fiancée, and all that was familiar.

To find himself...whatever was left to find.

Wearily he picked up his pace, his rattled brain still righting itself. He traversed the sharp corner around which his horse had disappeared to find himself almost face to face with a young woman leading a mare.