Emma and Alex both turned their faces to her expectantly.

Belle took another sip of her tea, letting it warm her up. "I met a rather odd man, actually."

"Oh, really?" Emma leaned forward.

Alex leaned back, his eyes glazing over with a bored expression.

"Yes. He lives near here. I think his land borders yours. His name is Lord John Blackwood. Do you know him?"

Alex shot forward. "Did you say John Blackwood?"

"It was John, Lord Blackwood, I think. Why, do you know him? John Blackwood is probably a fairly common name."

"Brown hair?"

Belle nodded.

"Brown eyes?"

She nodded again.

"About my height, medium build?"

"I guess so. He wasn't quite as broad in the shoulders as you are, but I think he was nearly as tall."

"Did he limp?"

"Yes!" Belle exclaimed.

"John Blackwood. I'll be damned," Alex shook his head in disbelief. "And a peer now. He must have been granted a title for military service."

"He fought in the war with you?" Emma asked.

When Alex finally responded, his green eyes were far away. "Yes," he said softly. "He commanded his own company, but we saw each other frequently. I always wondered what happened to him. Don't know why I didn't try to look him up. I suppose I was afraid I'd find out he was dead."

That certainly caught Belle's attention. "What do you mean?"

"It was strange," Alex said slowly. "He was an excellent soldier. There was no one you could depend on more. He was absolutely selfless. Constantly putting himself in danger to save others."

"Why is that strange?" Emma asked. "He sounds like quite an honorable man."

Alex turned his head to the two ladies, his expression suddenly clear. "The strange thing was that for a man who seemed to have such disregard for his own well-being, he behaved quite remarkably when he was wounded."

"What happened?" Belle asked anxiously.

"The surgeon said that he'd have to cut off his leg. And I must say, he was rather callous about it. John was still conscious at the time, and the leech didn't even bother to tell him directly. He just turned to his assistant and said, 'Bring me the saw.'"

Belle shuddered, the image of John Blackwood so ill-treated surprisingly painful.

"He went crazy," Alex continued. "I've never seen anything like it. He grabbed the surgeon by his shirt and pulled him down until they were nose to nose. And considering the amount of blood he'd lost, his grip was remarkably strong. I was going to intervene, but when I heard the tone of his voice, I held back."

"What did he say?" Belle asked, on the edge of her seat.

"I'll never forget it. He said, 'If you take my leg, as God is my witness, I will hunt you down and saw off yours.' The doctor let him be. Said he'd leave him to die if thaf s what he wanted."

"But he didn't die," Belle said.

"No, he didn't. But I'm sure that was the end of his fighting days. Which was probably all for the best. He was a superb soldier, but I always got the idea that he abhorred violence."

"How odd," Emma murmured.

"Yes, well, he was an interesting man. I quite liked him. Had an excellent sense of humor when he chose to exhibit it. But he was more often than not silent. And he had quite the strictest sense of honor I have ever experienced."

"Really, Alex," Emma teased. "No one could be more honorable than you."

"Ah, my lovely, loyal wife." Alex leaned forward and dropped a kiss on Emma's forehead.

Belle slumped back in her seat. She wanted to hear more about John Blackwood, but there didn't seem any polite way to ask Alex to say more about him. It rather irritated her to admit it, but she couldn't deny that she was incredibly interested in the unusual man.

Belle had always been very practical, very pragmatic, and the one thing she had always refused to do was deceive herself. John Blackwood had intrigued her this afternoon, but now that she knew a bit of his history, she was fascinated. Every little thing about him, from the quirk of his brow to the way the wind ruffled his slightly wavy hair suddenly took on new meaning. And his insistence upon walking made much more sense. After fighting so fiercely to save his leg, it was only natural that he'd want to use it. He struck her as a man of principles. A man you could trust, depend upon. A man whose passions ran deep.

Belle was so surprised by the turn of her thoughts, she actually jerked her head back a little. Emma noticed her movement and inquired, "Are you all right, Belle?"

"What? Oh, just a little headache. More like a twinge, actually. It's gone now."

"Oh."

"It's probably from all my reading," Belle continued, even though Emma seemed perfectly willing to let the subject drop. "I have to try very hard to make the words focus these days. I think that perhaps I ought to have my eyes examined."

If Emma was surprised by her cousin's sudden admission that her eyesight was not quite what it should be, she made no mention of it. "Excellent. There is a very good doctor in the village. We'll see what he can do."

Belle smiled and picked up her tea. It was getting cold. And then Emma said a marvelous thing.

"You know what we ought to do," the duchess said to her husband. "We ought to invite this John Blake person-"

"John Blackwood," Belle interjected quickly.

"Sorry, this John Blackwood person over for supper. With Belle here we'll be evenly matched and we won't have to go out hunting for an extra woman."

Alex put down his glass. "An excellent idea, my love. I think I'd rather like to renew our friendship."

"That settles it, then," Emma said matter-of-factly. "Shall I send him a note or would you rather go 'round yourself to invite him in person?"

"I think I'll go. I'm eager to see him again, and besides, it would be rude of me not to considering the fact that he saved my life."

Emma paled. "What?"

One corner of Alex's lips tugged upwards in a sheepish smile. "Just once, my love, and there's no point in getting upset over it now."

The look that the couple shared at that moment was so tender that it was almost painful for Belle to look at them. Excusing herself quietly, she slipped out of the study and headed upstairs to her room where the last few pages of The Winter's Tale awaited her.

John Blackwood had saved Alex's life? She could scarcely fathom it. It seemed that there was more to their new neighbor than his somewhat churlish exterior.

John Blackwood had secrets. Belle was sure of it. She'd wager that his life story put Shakespeare to shame. All she had to do was a little investigating. This excursion to the country might prove more exciting than she'd anticipated.

Of course, she wasn't going to be able to uncover any of his secrets until she befriended him. And he'd made it rather clear that he didn't much like her.

It was damned irritating, that.


Chapter 2

Belle woke up the next morning to the rather unpleasant sound of Emma retching. Turning over in her bed, she opened her eyes to see her cousin crouched over a chamber pot. Belle grimaced at the sight and muttered, "What a lovely way to start off one's day."

"And good morning to you, too," Emma snapped, standing up and walking over to a pitcher of water which had been left out on a nearby table. She poured herself a glass and took a gulp.

Belle sat up and watched her cousin swish the water around in her mouth. "I don't suppose you could take care of this sort of thing in your own room," she finally said.

Emma shot her an annoyed look as she gargled.

"Morning sickness is normal, you know," Belle continued in a matter-of-fact tone. "I don't think it would put Alex off if you got sick in your own room."

Emma's expression turned positively peevish as she spit the water out into the chamber pot. "I didn't come here to avoid my husband. Believe me, he's seen me sick plenty of times in the last few weeks." She sighed. "I think I threw up on his foot the other day."

Belle's cheeks pinkened in a sympathy blush for her cousin. "How awful," she murmured.

"I know, but the fact of the matter is I came in here to see if you were awake, and I just got sick along the way." Emma turned a little green and suddenly sat down.

Belle got up hurriedly and pulled on a dressing gown. "Do you want me to get you anything?"

Emma shook her head and took a deep breath, valiantly trying to keep the contents of her stomach down.

"You're not giving me a lot to look forward to about marriage," Belle quipped.

Emma smiled weakly. "It's mostly better than this."

"I certainly hope so."

"I thought I could keep down the tea and plain biscuits I ate for breakfast," Emma said with a sigh. "But I was wrong."

"It's easy to forget that you're expecting," Belle said kindly, hoping to buoy her cousin's spirits. "You're still so slender."

Emma flashed her a grateful smile. "It is very kind of you to say so. I must say, this is a new experience for me, and it is all very strange."

"Are you nervous? You haven't mentioned anything to me."

"Not nervous exactly, more-hmmm, I don't quite know how to describe it. But Alex's sister is due in three weeks, and we are planning to visit her the week after next. I hope to be there for the birth. Sophie has assured me that we are welcome. I am sure I won't feel so nervous once I know what is expected of me," Emma's voice was laced with more hope than certainty.

Belle's experience with birth was limited to a litter of puppies she had seen her brother deliver when she was twelve, but nonetheless, she was not at all certain that Emma would feel more at ease about the procedure after witnessing Sophie having her baby. Belle smiled weakly at her cousin, murmured something unintelligible which was meant to convey her agreement, and then shut her mouth.

After a few moments, Emma's complexion returned to its normal color, and she sighed. "There. I feel much better now. It's amazing how quickly this sickness passes. It's the only thing that makes it bearable."

A maid entered, carrying a tray with morning chocolate and rolls. She set the tray down on the bed, and the two ladies positioned themselves on either side of it.

Belle watched as Emma hesitantly took a sip of her chocolate. "Emma, could I ask you a question?"

"Of course."

"And you'll be frank in your answer?"

One corner of Emma's mouth tipped up. "When have you ever known me not to be frank?"

"Am I not likeable?"

Emma managed to grab her napkin just in time to avoid spitting out her chocolate all over Belle's sheets. "Excuse me?"

"I don't think I'm not likeable. I mean, I think most people like me."

"Yes," Emma said slowly. "Most do. Everyone does. I don't think I've ever met anyone who didn'tlike you."

"Just so," Belle agreed. "There are probably a few who don't care about my existence one way or another, but I think it's rather rare for someone to actively dislike me."

"Who dislikes you, Belle?"

"Your new neighbor. John Blackwood."

"Oh, come now. You didn't speak with him for longer than five minutes, did you?"

"No, but-"

"Then he couldn't have taken you into dislike that quickly."

"I don't know. I rather think he did."

"I'm sure you're mistaken."

Belle shook her head, a perplexed expression on her face. "I don't think so."

"Would it be so terrible if he didn't like you?"

"I just don't like the idea of someone not liking me. Does that make me terribly selfish?"

"No, but-"

"I'm generally considered to be a nice person."

"Yes, you are, but-"

Belle squared her shoulders. "This is unacceptable."

Emma choked back laughter. "What do you plan to do?"

"I suppose I have to make him like me."

"I say, Belle, are you interestedin this man?"

"No, of course not," Belle replied, rather quickly. "I just don't understand why he finds me so repugnant."

Emma shook her head, unable to believe this rather bizarre turn of conversation. "Well, you'll be able to work your wiles on him soon. With all of the men in London who have fallen in love with you without the least bit of provocation on your part, I can't imagine you won't find success in getting this Blackwood fellow to fall in like with you." "Hmmm," Belle murmured. She looked up. "When did you say he's coming to dinner?"

Lord Blackwood may not have been born a lord, but he did come from an aristocratic, albeit impoverished, family. But John had the misfortune or being the seventh of seven children, a position which almost guaranteed that none of life's favors would come his way. His parents, the seventh Earl and Countess of Westborough, certainly hadn't intended to neglect their youngest child, but there were, after all, five ahead of him.

Damien was the eldest, and as the heir, he was cosseted and given every advantage that his parents could afford. A year later, Sebastian came along, and since he was so close to Damien in age, he was able to share in most of the perks that come with being the heir to an earldom. The earl and countess were nothing if not pragmatic, and given the childhood mortality rate, they were aware that Sebastian had quite a good chance of becoming the eighth Earl of Westborough. Soon after, Julianna, Christina, and Ariana arrived in rapid succession, and as it was apparent at a very young age that all three would become beauties, much attention was paid to them. Advantageous marriages could do much to fill the family coffers.

A few years later a stillborn boy arrived. No one was particularly happy about the loss, but then again, no one grieved overmuch. Five attractive and reasonably intelligent children seemed an abundance of riches, and truth be told, another baby would have been simply another mouth to feed. The Blackwoods may have been living in a magnificent old house, but it was a trial each month just to pay the bills. And it certainly never occurred to the earl to try toearn a living.

But then tragedy struck, and the earl was killed when his carriage overturned in a rainstorm. At the tender age of ten, Damien found himself with a title. The family scarcely had time to mourn when much to everyone's surprise, Lady Westbor-ough discovered that she was once again with child. And in the spring of 1787, she produced one last baby. The effort was exhausting, and she never quite regained her strength. And so, tired and irritable, not to mention more than a little worried about the family finances, she took one look at her seventh child, sighed, and said, "I suppose we'll just call him John. I'm too tired to think of anything better."

And after that somewhat inauspicious entry into the world, John was-for the lack of a better word-forgotten.

His family had little patience with him, and he spent far more time in the company of tutors than relations. He was sent off to Eton and Oxford, not out of any great concern for his schooling, but rather because that was what good families did for their sons, even the youngest ones who were irrelevant to dynastic lineages.

In 1808, however, when John was in his final year at Oxford, an opportunity arose. England found herself entangled in political and military affairs on the Iberian peninsula, and men of all backgrounds were rushing to join the army. John saw the military as an area where a man might make something of himself, and he presented the idea to his brother. Damien agreed, seeing it as a way to honorably get his brother off his hands, and he bought a commission for John.