Episode 1: Bedford and His Damned Horse
Aidan St. John, the seventh Earl of Bedford, maneuvered his new phaeton through the park, smiling and nodding to the passers-by, having a supremely rotten time. He prayed for this torture to be over and done with. And once it was, he was going to kill his sister Georgette for talking him in to this asinine ritual. He sighed, feeling old of a sudden. George reminded him often enough just how old he was, and today, he felt all of his thirty-six years. Plus a few extra.
A landau slowed as it approached, catching his attention. Two young girls with hawkish mamas watching their every move smiled up to him with lashes all aflutter. To hide his grimace, Bedford tipped his hat, and the girls batted those lashes so hard, he thought they might lift up and fly away with the birds. He supposed they were attempting to be coy.
Bedford hurried on. He would much rather be at home in his study with a brandy in hand, pouring over his ledgers, adding up his most recent fortune made on the ‘change. This month would surely be close to his best record, if not breaking it entirely.
He blew out a breath and checked his watch, wondering if he had been out here long enough. Damn, sixteen minutes. Georgette demanded at least an hour, the taskmaster. His older sister was much too motherly, and since her widowhood last year she thought it her life’s work to see him settled and wed with a family on the way. The thought rather soured his stomach. He liked his life just the way it was. Quiet and orderly.
Seeing a rather large group of debutantes charging in his direction on foot, Bedford glanced about for a quick escape. None. He was trapped. Praying they weren’t about to form a blockade before his phaeton, he nodded as they approached, careful not to make eye contact. The girls broke out into a fit of giggles and toddled by. Once they were out of his way, Bedford snapped the reins. He had to escape from that flock of guinea birds before they formed ranks and bugled out the charge signal.
Bedford shuddered and turned out of the park. Georgette be damned. He would rather be alone for all of eternity and have his vast fortune, titles, lands, and estates given to the crown at his death than subjected to one of those feather-brains for a wife. Hell, he would rather be burned alive at the stake.
Making another turn down a secluded street, Bedford signaled his horse to pick up speed. He couldn’t get away fast enough. He pulled off his hat and allowed the wind to rush through his hair. For the first time this morning, he could breathe. His eyes slid shut. He tipped his face up to the sun and took a deep breath of crisp spring air. What law said a man had to marry, anyway?
Feeling more the thing, Bedford opened his eyes. A strange green light flashed before him, making him squint, then a woman appeared out of nowhere. What the hell? Realizing his horse was about to run her down, he sawed back on the reins, his heart in his throat.
The woman turned, eyes wide, and threw up her hands to shield herself from the impact. But it couldn’t be helped. The momentum forward was much too great. His damned horse knocked her onto the cobblestones before stopping, the back of her head making a sickening smack against the hard surface.
Shaken, Bedford scrambled down from his phaeton and approached her. She lay on her back, eyes closed, unmoving. Swallowing hard, he hunched down, tore off his gloves, and looked for signs of her breathing.
Her chest rose and fell, and he rocked back on his heels, relieved. Wiping the sweat from his brow with his sleeve, he wondered what he should do. Get help? Bedford really didn’t want to leave her alone. He glanced around and found no one about. Dash it all, where was everyone? Perhaps he should try to rouse her.
Carefully, he reached out and touched her shoulder. “Miss? Can you hear me?”
Clearing his throat, Bedford tried again, a bit louder. “Miss, please come to.” He watched her face for any signs she heard him. And that’s when he noticed how lovely she was. Bedford frowned, wondering where the deuce that though had come from, and focused on helping this poor lady, whom he had just injured.
With rising fear, Bedford gave her shoulder a slight shake. “You will wake now!”
Her eyelashes fluttered. Bedford snatched his hand back, watching in rapt attention as she opened her eyes and focused on him. His heart slammed hard against his ribs. She had the loveliest eyes he had ever seen, some deep azure shade. After realizing he was gawking instead of helping her, Bedford cleared his throat. “Are you hurt, Miss?”
Without a word, she continued to watch him. “Do you understand my words, Miss?”
She blinked several times, then her rosy lips parted. “Yes, I understand you.”
Oh, what a relief! Bedford smiled down at her. “Well, that is a start. Are you all right?”
Pressing her brows together, she nodded, then grimaced. Her hand went to her forehead. “Yes, I’m fine. Just a bit of an ache in my head.”
Her words were slightly accented, but he didn’t recognize the dialect. “Do you think you can stand?”
As she attempted to lift herself from the ground, Bedford rose and placed a hand beneath her elbow. “Pray, permit me to assist you.” He tried not to notice how nice she smelled, some sort of exotic sweetness, quite intoxicating. She eased up to her feet, swaying for a moment. Bedford kept his hand at the ready in case she decided to crumple at his feet. “Easy, now.”
After a minute without incident, she reached up and rearranged some pins holding her honey-gold curls. Bedford grew curious about her. It was difficult to tell her age, although he felt certain she was above her twentieth year. Who was she? He eyed her clothing, looking for a clue. George would sometimes give her old dresses to her maid, but he didn’t think that was the case here. Not only was the expensive dress she wore tailored too perfectly, it was way too fashionable to have been a cast-off. So, where did she come from? And what in the hell was she doing out in the middle of the street like that? He narrowed his eyes, recalling the flash of green light.
She finished swiping the dirt from her blue dress, the exact color of her eyes, and adjusted her matching wrist bag. Then she lifted those eyes to his. “Thank you for your assistance, sir.”
Bedford had the absurd urge to pull her tight against his chest and kiss the fool out of her. Instead, he smiled. “You are being above kind, my lady, toward someone who nearly killed you.”
She stared at him for several seconds. He felt her gaze like a caress and had to hold on tight to his gloves to keep from touching her. How odd. Then her lips curled up at the corners, and her eyes lit up, turning his insides to butter. Bedford swallowed, unaccustomed to the odd sensations sparking to life within him.
“I was thanking you for assisting me to my feet, not for nearly killing me,” she pointed out.
“Yes, well,” he glanced around, trying to get his mind off kissing her. “Where did you come from?” He again recalled the strange green light and her sudden appearance. “It was as though you materialized out of thin air.”
Watching her smile vanish and her features slip into a cool, aloof mask, Bedford silently cursed himself. “I am actually late for an appointment, sir, so I must beg your leave,” she said and started past him.
He held out his hand. “Wait. Permit me to introduce myself. Lord Bedford.” He gave a slight bow. “At your service.”
Bedford waited for her to supply her name. Instead, she remained silent and thoughtful, just staring at him with those exquisite eyes. It occurred to him he had never had a lady stare at him like that. Then he remembered her accent. She must not be familiar with English etiquette. “I would very much like to know your name,” he prompted and waited, trying not to think of how much he really wanted to know.
She gazed toward the end of the street. Bedford wasn’t at all certain she would reply, which he found rather unusual. Then something occurred to him and he grew worried. Perhaps that knock to the head brought about some sort of memory loss? He should take her to see Will Parker, his good friend and physician. He was about to suggest that when she turned back to him. “My name is Sarina. Now I really must leave, my lord.” She took a step, wobbled, then closed her eyes and started to fall.
Bedford swore and caught her before she hit the ground, lifting her easily into his arms. As he hurried toward his phaeton, he knew he would never forget the feel of her pressed against his chest. Nor would he ever forget her sensually sweet scent.
How odd that she had given just a first name. Sarina.
Bedford tightened his hold on her. He had the absurd thought of never letting her go.
4 Parleons (6 Earth Months) Earlier…
The planet Cantar
The rumors must be true. She couldn’t have been summoned for any other reason. Sarina remained poised as she listened to the master chancellor, careful to keep her breathing even. Careful to keep her face schooled in calm. She really wanted to scream. Or pick up something heavy and throw it at him. Her insides shook with the force of a Cantari firewind.
How could they send her away?
Master Cronos shifted in his seat, his large black eyes sweeping over her face. “As you are aware, Sarina, your ancestors and many other humans wished to come to Cantar when we visited Earth for the first time just over three hundred sentons—five Earth centuries—ago. We’ve sent observers back once an Earth century since then to monitor the planet’s progress and human advancements. This century, we have chosen you to lead the expedition.”
Sarina knew she had to pick her words carefully. While part of her was flattered they wanted her as the first Earthling to lead the mission, not to mention how incredibly curious she was to see Earth with her own eyes instead of on a viewer, another part was terrified of leaving all she knew and loved. Something whispered to her if she left, she wouldn’t come back. That thought sent a cold chill down her back. “Master Cronos, you honor me beyond words to lead such an important mission.”
As she hesitated to find the right words, he leaned back in his chair and steepled his twelve blue fingers before him. “I get the feeling you are hesitant about leaving Cantar. Are you concerned about being mission leader? We could have Plyas lead, although you are a much better pilot and strategist, having broken nearly every record set at the academy. Some were hundreds of sentons old. Even now, almost five sentons later, your records remain intact. Every one of them.”
Sarina swallowed at the pride in Master Cronos’ voice. He rarely showed such deference. She took a slow, deep breath and released it. Duty would always come first. “Plyas would fly to the wrong planet and probably blow it up.”
She witnessed another rarity. Master Cronos actually smiled, revealing his blindingly white, pointed teeth. “You are no doubt correct, my pupil. Does this mean you will lead the mission?”
Gripping the arms of her chair until her fingers throbbed, Sarina nodded. “I will.”
And something again warned her she would never return.
To be continued…
Copyright © 2011 Tiffany Green