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A game of hazard plays an important part in this book. For more information on the dice game Hazard click here

For a fun look at divination with dice, look here.

Chapter 1
    "The toad. The slimy, warty, toad!"
    Lady Anne Peckworth snapped around to stare at her sister. Frances was working through her day's letters, and clearly one of them had called for the Peckworth family's worst acceptable insult.
    Before she had time to ask, Frances looked at her and her stomach cramped.
    It was like lightning.
    It didn't strike the same person twice.
    Frances's mouth pinched as if to hold back the words, but then she said, "According to Cynthia Throgmorton, Wyvern is married. And to a nobody! A bastard daughter of a lady of Devon, who was working -- would you believe? -- as his housekeeper. She has it from Louisa Morton, who lives near Crag Wyvern and is absolutely to be relied upon, she says. Of course, neither she nor Cynthia has any idea that this gossip is of particular importance...." Her furious face softened into sympathy. "Oh, Anne..."
    What did one say?
    The same as last time, she supposed.
    "I hope they'll be very happy."
    "Anne! The man has as good as jilted you! And after Middlethorpe, too. Father must take him to court over it."
    "Good heavens, no!" Anne shot to her feet. "I could not bear to be such an object of curiosity and pity." She bit her lips and controlled herself. "The Earl of Wyvern and I were not engaged, Frances. He had not so much as mentioned marriage."
    "But he has been paying you such attentions!"
    Since Frances was late in pregnancy and had been down here in Herefordshire for the past five months, the family letters must have been flying. Anne wasn't surprised. Her family was in a collective fret over poor Anne.
    Poor crippled Anne.
    Poor jilted Anne.
    Poor destined-to-be-a-spinster Anne.
    Late last year, their neighbor, Viscount Middlethorpe, had courted her. It had been understood by all that he would soon ask her to marry him, and she would accept. Then he'd been summoned to his estate by some problem.
    She had next seen him with his beautiful and scandalous wife on his arm. Not a housekeeper in that case, but the widow of a man known as Randy Riverton, which was almost as bad.
    "I wonder if this one is in an interesting condition, too."
    "What?" asked Frances.
    "Have your gossips not told you that Lady Middlethorpe is expecting to be confined in the summer?"
    "What?" Frances repeated, color mounting. "That would mean that the cad got her with child while...."
    "While he was courting me. Yes. As you see, he was no great loss."
    She hadn't felt that way at the time, but she'd pretended to. How else to salvage her pride?
    Frances scanned her close-written letter. "Cynthia says nothing of the lady's condition. Of course that could be the explanation."
    Anne laughed, genuinely amused at the absurd situation. "I doubt it. He's only been in Devon ten days. Ten days," she repeated. "It is like lightning, isn't it?"
    "Oh, Anne."
    Frances began to heave herself off her chaise, so Anne limped over to push her back. "Don't distress yourself. It's not good for the baby. In fact, this is no great tragedy. I'm realizing that if I feel anything, it's relief."
    She'd begun her speech thinking to soothe her sister, but by the end of it, she realized that it was true.
    She sat in the chair by the chaise. "Truly, Frances, I have never been sure that I wanted to marry the earl."
    Frances clearly did not believe her.
    She tried to explain. "He needed a wife, and I liked being needed. After so many years of war, and the death of his father and brother, he was shadowed. If I could lift those shadows it would be a worthy task. But I was uncertain. We did not have a lot in common. In fact," she said, staring at a window dismally streaked with rain, "I was never sure why he was wooing me. I thought love would come, for both of us...."
    Frances took her hand. "We had no idea. We all assumed that you felt warmly toward him."
    Anne pulled a face. "I'm not sure I understand these emotions. But I know one thing. I do not have even a crack in my heart over Wyvern." She decided to get one thing out in the open. "I would be celebrating, I think, if not for the family."
    Frances's color bloomed again, but this time with embarrassment. "We only want you happy, dearest."
    "But not if I want to be happy living on as a spinster at Lea Park."
    "It doesn't seem a life worthy of you, love, and," she added, "when Uffham inherits and his future wife rules the roost who knows how it will be?"
    A chill shot through Anne. "Good heavens. I've never thought of that. And Uffham, sad to say, cannot be depended upon to choose wisely."
    "Precisely. You would not want to be another Aunt Sarah."
    Aunt Sarah, their father's sister, lived, mostly ignored, in a suite of rooms in the north wing in the company of a few servants and a lot of small dogs. The family generally referred to her as "dear Aunt Sarah," but it really meant "poor Aunt Sarah."
    If she didn't marry, would she be "poor Anne" forever? Poor Aunt Anne. Poor Great-aunt Anne....
    To escape her sister's keen eye, Anne returned to the sofa. "You're right. I must think about this."
    As cover, she picked up her piece of craft work again.
    The instructions were in the magazine open beside her. Pastimes for Ladies: a cornucopia of elucidation, education, and recreation for the fair sex of our land. She took that to mean `the bored fair sex of the land.' Only extreme boredom could have driven her to attempting to make "a charming bon-bon holder out of straw."
    She looked her grievance at the weeping windows that rattled with occasional gusts of wind and showed only gray sky and pouring rain through the condensation. It was May, after all -- time of blossoms, lambs, and courting birds when the world was in good order.
    In a proper May she could escape the house, she could ride so that her turned foot didn't hinder her. With speed and fresh air she would be able to handle this better. As it was she was trapped in the house, virtually trapped in this room, since it was the only one with a fire.
    Trapped in Benning Hall in the rain.
    Trapped from birth in a crippled body.
    Trapped from birth by being a duke's daughter, expected to marry well, expected to behave well, even when jilted.
    Trapped by her loving family's damnable concern, by their need that "poor Anne" be happy.
    Her hands tightened on the woven straw and she relaxed them.
    It was the unseasonable weather that had her in the blue devils. Not Middlethorpe. Not Wyvern.
    She focused on the magazine, on the instructions. She had finally finished the tedious plaiting and weaving. All she had, however, was a misshapen blob.
    `Squeeze into shape,' the useless instructions said. She squeezed at one end and another part popped out. She pushed that in, and the whole thing changed again. "Do you have any idea how to make this into a heart shape?"
    "No," Frances said, as if she'd been asked how to clean a kitchen grate.
    "I've followed the instructions to the letter, done just as I ought. Perhaps the bottom should be flatter." She turned it over and squished, fearing to ruin it.
    "Throw it on the fire, dear. Such a silly thing."
    "This silly thing has taken up two days of my time. I will not give up now!"
    "I wish you would put as much effort and resolution into finding a husband."
    Anne stared at her. "What?"
    Frances was red again, but resolute. "You need to go into society more and meet all the eligible men, Anne, rather than sitting at Lea Park and waiting for the occasional suitor to come to you."
    "We have grand parties at Lea Park."
    "With the same, generally married, guests."
    "I go to London for a few weeks every year."
    "And attend exhibitions and the theater."
    "What else am I to do? Limp around routs and sit with the dowagers at balls? I do not like to walk any distance, and I cannot dance!"
    She pinched the wretched basket hard. It instantly formed the perfect heart shape of the illustration.
    She began to laugh. "Oh dear. Perhaps I am just too kind and gentle for my own good."
    "What? Anne?"
    She waved her sister back down to her chaise. "I'm all right. I think perhaps I do need to make some changes."
    Anne put the heart-shaped basket on the table. "The problem is that I don't know what I want. I truly am happy at Lea Park, among people I know so well. I don't like meeting strangers."
    "The people of your new home will only be strangers for a little while."
    "But there's that limping around London first." Anne sighed. "Did you not feel a pang at leaving home?"
    "No, none. I was delighted to be coming to a home of my own and out from under mama's eye." The Duchess of Arran was a strict mother. "And of course, I would be happy anywhere with dearest Benning."
    Anne thought Benning boring. Love was a strange affair.
    "I really am a strange creature, aren't I?"
    "It will be different when you do fall in love, dearest. Then you will be delighted to go to your husband's home."
    "I suppose so. It is the way of the world, after all."
    Anne felt a special tie to her home that she hadn't mentioned -- her work with the papers of the Peckworth women. She knew that her family considered it as strange a pastime as weaving straw hearts, and something she'd leave behind when she had a full life.
    Perhaps they were right. At the moment, however, it absorbed her. She wished she was home now. Rainy days were a perfect excuse to spend hours with the neglected diaries, letters, and assorted documents of her female ancestors.
    Idiotic to stay a spinster just for that. Not poor Anne. Crazy Anne....
    Then she heard a faint clanging. "Was that the door bell?"
    Frances sat up, a protective hand going to her belly. "Who could be visiting on such a day? I pray it isn't bad news!"
    "I'm sure not. It's probably a neighbor as cast down by the weather as we are and seeking company."
    Anne went to peer through the blurred and fogged window. "Two dripping horses being led away," she reported. "Visitors, for sure."
     She limped toward the door, but heard rapid steps. She only had time to step back before the door was flung open.
    "Hello, Frannie and Annie!"
    "Uffham!" Anne exclaimed. "You scared Frances half to death turning up in this weather-" But he had already swept her into a damp hug.
    He went on to hug Frances a bit more gingerly. "How is it?" he asked vaguely.
    "Active," said Frances, glowing. "You did half scare me to death, but it's wonderful to have a visitor. Sit down and tell us all the news from town. You are come from London, aren't you?"
    "Yes." But Uffham cast an anxious look at Anne.
    So it was public now. "I know about Wyvern, Stuff."
    No one in the world could get away with calling Lord Uffham Stuff except his sisters. He was a tall, handsome young man with stylish brown hair who enjoyed pugilism, neck-or-nothing steeplechases, and the wilder sort of entertainments.
    "How?" he asked, clearly rather peeved. "It only appeared in this morning's paper."
    "One of Frances's correspondents. I do thank you for wanting to break the news to me."
    "I've half a mind to go to Devon and call the cad out."
    "No! There was nothing settled between us."
    Before he could say more, Frances interrupted. "Do ring, Anne. Stuff must be chilled through and starving."
    "Ain't that the truth? But I've brought a guest along, Frannie, if you don't mind."
    "A guest? In this?" Frances looked at the window as if the weather might have changed to sun.
    "Army man. Tough as a highland sheep. Name's Racecombe de Vere. Derbyshire family."
    "Tough as a Derbyshire ram?" Anne asked.
    A vision popped into her mind of a weathered, hairy specimen of huge proportions. This was alarming because she suspected that her brother had reacted to the notice in the paper by rushing here with a replacement suitor.
    "Now, now, don't go scaring him away, Annie." Having confirmed her fears, Uffham turned back to Frances. "You can put up an extra guest for a day or two, can't you?"
    "Of course! I'm bored to tears, and Anne is reduced to making small items out of straw. Anne, ring for refreshments. Stuff, go and bring up your friend! I plead my belly as excuse for not venturing from this cozy room."
    He swept out. Anne first closed the door he had carelessly left open, then pulled the bell rope. "He's brought this Derbyshire ram for me. How absurd."
    "It's a kind thought."
    "At least it gives him time to cool. He mustn't call Wyvern out. There's no cause. Probably no one in society even realizes that I had hopes...."
    She hoped so. Pity -- more pity -- was the one thing she could not tolerate. She'd been born with a twisted foot and lived with pity all her life.
    She regarded a china ornament on the mantelpiece -- a shepherd and shepherdess obviously well-matched and happy. It was presented as so natural and easy, this falling in love and marrying. Why was it so very tangled in her case?
    She turned to her sister. "I think Stuff dragged Wyvern to me to try to heal my pride over Middlethorpe, and you can see how disastrous that was. What am I to do about this one?"
    "Enjoy his company."
    "Someone calling himself de Vere? The de Veres died out a century ago. He's an impostor of some kind."
    Frances's eyes brightened. "Really? How intriguing. I've always wanted to meet an adventurer. Don't take everything so seriously, dear. Flirt a little. You need the practice."
    "With a hairy Derbyshire ram?"
    Frances laughed, and Uffham returned at exactly that moment.
    Anne blushed with embarrassment. Had his companion heard her last words?
    And the Derbyshire ram.... wasn't.
    "Mr. de Vere, ladies. De Vere, my sisters, Lady Benning and Lady Anne."
    The slender blond man with the fine-boned features and laughing blue eyes bowed with perfect -- if rather excessive -- grace. "Your servant, ladies! Especially as you provide shelter, this luscious warmth and, I am given to understand, nourishment."
    Frances was blushing and looking as if she didn't know whether to be ecstatic or laugh. Anne was wondering what had possessed Uffham. When it came to marriage, to entrusting her life to some man, she demanded someone of more substance than this.
    The maid arrived and left with instruction for tea and hearty fare. Uffham threw himself into the chair by the fire, sticking his boots so close that they began to steam.
    "Uffham, your boots," Anne said. "You've tracked mud across the carpet."
    She turned to stop de Vere doing the same. He, however, had not advanced beyond the wooden floor at the edge of the room.
    "Don't fuss, Anne," said Frances. "It is easily cleaned. Come in, Mr. de Vere."
    "Perhaps I might ask to be able to change my damp clothes before eating, Lady Benning."
    "Of course! Anne, take Mr. de Vere to the east bedroom. It's not far."
    Not far for your poor foot. That made it hard to refuse. "Of course, but Uffham could take him."
    "I just got comfortable," Uffham protested, "and the harm's done now. Only make it worse to walk back out, and I can't get these boots off without a jack. Call for someone to help me with them, that's a good girl."
    Anne rolled her eyes but gave in. She rang the bell again. Then she picked up the knitted shawl she kept to hand, wrapped it around herself and headed for the door. De Vere opened it for her, and closed it behind them.
    At least he had good manners. That was something. She had grave doubts about Uffham's new crony. He was too ... slight. Slight in build and slight in manner. Slight in substance, too.
    Frances had been right. He was an adventurer. Uffham had fallen into bad company again, and now he thought she might marry a man such as this?

On to Chapter Two

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This book links into The Dragon's Bride

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