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A slender young lady stepped down from the carriage, taking the hand that was held out to her by one of the stable hands.
He smiled gingerly down at her as she released her hand from his. "Welcome back to Summerfield Manor, Lady Katherine."
"Thank you, Tye." She tilted her head slightly to give him an impish grin before she composed herself. Then gracefully, with her back erect and chin slightly raised, she walked up the steps and into the most praised mansion in all of London.
"Katherine!" someone called from the second story, and she turned around at the sound of the familiar voice. It was her older brother, Joshua, and she laughed joyfully as he rushed down the stairs and embraced her. "You've grown since I've seen you last, you little twit." But he smiled adoringly down at her as they made their way to the balcony overlooking the gardens.
"Does Mother know you have arrived?" He inquired as she took in the breathtaking view that made up Summerfield.
"You are the first to be informed, I suppose." She laughed freely again and threw her arms carelessly around her only brother. "How I've missed you Joshua. The Continent was not the same without your devilish charms beside me."
"Shh," Joshua sounded, looking about. "Your language will throw Mother in a rage if she catches you!"
"Let her, for I do not care in the least!"
Before he could say anything in response, an elegantly dressed older woman walked out on the balcony and threw a disapproving glance at their public embrace. "Katherine, by God, release your brother at once before you make yourself the center of public humiliation!" Once Katherine released Joshua and smoothed down the wrinkles on her dress, she looked up to see her mother watching her with a steady gaze.
"Your actions are still as childish as always," she observed, a harsh tone to her voice that was accompanied with a dissatisfied look clouding her already stern features.
Katherine was so glad to be back from her prolonged travels that she barely let her mother's remark faze her. "Oh Mama," she said with a grin. "I've missed you, also!"
"Well, control your manner Katherine. A real lady never lets her emotions run away."
Katherine's face fell and she looked at her mother with hurt clear across her face. "Mama, can you never be glad for me? For once in your life, can you tell-"
Her mother cut her off. "That will be enough, Katherine," she said in a firm voice.
"Mother." Joshua spoke up, an underlying coolness to his tone. "Please Mother, we do not need this so soon after your daughter's arrival. Try being civil for once."
Their mother kept her mouth pressed in a thin line, having just been put in her place by her grown son.
Joshua looked down at Katherine, sympathy clear in his blue eyes. He wrapped an arm around her slender shoulders and led her back into the receiving room. "Kat, I'm so sorry you had to endure that so soon after arriving," he spoke quietly, his voice deep.
Katherine's hands were folded across her chest. "It's fine Joshua, I've lived with her condemnations all my life. Hearing her say it once more does not change anything."
The butler, Farley, came through the open doorway and bowed deeply. "My Lord, dinner is ready." He turned to face Katherine. "I assume you will be taking dinner in your rooms as usual, Lady Katherine?"
"Correct, Farley. Thank you for your services. Joshua will be in shortly."
Joshua turned back to his sister and cupped his hands over her elbows. "Don't let her take your spirit, Kat. I know she wants to miraculously transform you into the image of the upper crust lady you are supposed to be, but we both know that is not who you are. You have spirit that ladies in high ranking society rarely do. I love you just the way you are, twit, so don't become a stiff neck, I would abhor it."
Katherine giggled, but long after he had walked to the dining room and her laughter faded, she stood and thought his words over carefully, warring with her inner thoughts.
It was close to midnight and all was still, the towering mansion was quiet as a figure raced through the fine gardens and made a mad dash to the stables.
Breathing hard, Katherine pulled back the stable door and searched frantically for Will, a stable hand, and only let her heart beat normally when she spotted him on a hay bale.
He sat up quickly when the wooden stable door creaked shut to find a disheveled Katherine riveted at the entrance to the barn.
"Katherine," he breathed, gazing at her as if he were dreaming. "You're back."
She finally took a step forward, and was cast in the glow of the small candle lit in the barn. Yet she lit up the room with the inner glow she possessed, he had no idea how she managed to do it, but the light seemed to be emanating from her instead of the candle now as she stood in her pale blue evening gown. Her hair had come undone from the run, and her light brown hair cascaded down her back as her gray eyes looked up at him adoringly.
"Hello, Will," she said breathlessly, her cheeks flushed. She looked uncertain for a moment, but it could have been a trick of the light.
"You shouldn't be here. Someone could catch us and you will be ruined for life!" He slid off the bale and walked toward her, his arms aching for the feel of her in his arms.
"It's time, Will." At her words, his eyes snapped up to lock with hers, his deep brown eyes growing serious as he looked her over for any regrets.
"Are you certain?"
"Positive. Father has been suspecting for some time and we cannot risk it anymore. I want to be with you Will, without any limits, just you and me." Her eyes glistened with unshed tears as she gazed solemnly toward him. "I know you had wished another way, but you have to understand, this is the only way we can both get out unscathed."
He nodded quietly, his eyes never leaving hers. But he came toward her and finally, when they were mere inches apart, he spoke. "You know I would do anything for you." His fingers touched the underside of her chin, caressing her jaw, her cheek. "We will leave tonight. You're sure your father did not see you exit the house?" After seeing her nod briskly, he relaxed a fraction.
A small, sad smile formed on her lips, accepting the fact that the sea would separate her from Joshua. Katherine brought herself up on her toes and leaned in toward Will, pressing her lips softly to his. Now, here with him, nothing in the world was of any importance. It certainly made no difference that he was her father's slave since once they reached the Americas, he would be considered a free man. In that moment, everything melted away, and it was just her and Will in each others' arms.
She pulled away slowly with a lingering smile, and he looked down as he embraced her, finally content after her long absence.
"I'll get Gypsy ready," he chuckled lightheartedly and extracted himself from her arms.
"Would you prefer side saddle-"
"God no, Will. Just a regular saddle will do splendidly, thank you." She smiled childishly at him as he went to fetch their saddles from the tack room.
While he was gone, she stepped out of her evening gown and donned on a pair of his breeches and an old lawn shirt. She was lacing up her boots as he came out of the stall with a beautiful chestnut Arabian mare in tow.
"Are you ready?" He inquired and she nodded briskly, then straightened.
"Yes, go and get Majestic saddled up; we haven't much time."
He looked appalled as she made that suggestion. "I couldn't possibly, Katherine! Majestic is your brother's champion stallion! He is one of the finest horses London has seen in a long time."
"It's exactly why you should take him, Will. Joshua wouldn't mind a'tall. My happiness means more than anything to him." Katherine was looking toward Majestic, his rich, black coat glistening from the soft candlelight. "For once, please. We haven't much time as it is and with Majestic and Gypsy, our time would be considerably shortened.
"Fine, but I swear if you harm yourself like you have done before on our excursions I will severely throttle you, Katherine. Mark my words." She grinned foolishly up at him and took Gypsy's reins from his extended hand.
"Thank you so much, Will. Being here, with you, has filled my mind during every society ball I was forced to attend." She gracefully straddled Gypsy like a man would and threw Will an impatient look. "Hurry up now, Will. We don't have all night to dally around."
He stood staring at this angelic form, knowing in his heart of hearts that he could never live with himself if something were to happen to her. He was head over heels in love with her for her delicate appearance and the strong soul that held her together.
They rode out into the dark pitched night, pushing their horses into a gallop. Faster and faster, her world dissolving behind them as their future stretched before them. Will looked around occassionally, trying to make out if there were any moving shadows.
Katherine glanced over to see Will's face concentrated was ahead.. Amazing how distance made her nerves settle, how looking at Will gave her assurance when she needed it the most. She gazed back one last time and saw something that was not there before. A flickering light.
"Someone's coming!" She shouted to her beloved, and he looked back, shock transforming his smooth face. His heels dug into the horse and they both took off at a dead pace, trying to get away.
Her heart thundered uncontrollably, thoughts racing through her mind. This is my choice, her mind yelled. Whatever happens next will not alter the way I feel for him, nor will it matter what they say. Because she knew her father was there, knew it with every fiber of her being that he was coming to hunt Will down. For him, image was everything. But not for her.
In a blur, someone appeared ahead, a pistol in one hand. Trapped.
"No, Father!" She yelled, recognizing the man atop the stallion, the one whose pistol was directed at Will. All her fears came true as a shot pierced the air and all went still, her mind, her breath, and even the man beside her. The blood left his face and oozed out of the bullet hole in his chest, covering the lawn shirt he wore with crimson.
He sagged off the horse and onto the ground, as she slid to the floor beside him, wrapping him in her arms. Sobs racking her chest, she stared down into his sightless eyes, ones that had looked upon her with so much love.
"Don't leave me, Will." Her voice came out in a whimper, touching his face.
His chest heaved as he sucked in air and she was back to their first meeting, when he had been bought at a slave auction as a boy of sixteen. He had worn tattered clothes that had been on his back for endless months, and she had run up to him with a cup of water which he had heatedly knocked out of her hand.
A second passed before he released the oxygen and breathed in again. Katherine wept as Will's smiling face filled her vision and he was spreading out a blanket in the meadows for a picnic. The image was replaced by countless memories of his kisses, as they had lain on the grass, and on the hayloft where he had confessed his love as he picked hay from her mussed hair.
A gasp came from Will as he struggled for breath and she endured the onslaught of his promises. "I'll marry you yet, Lady Katherine of Summerfield. You hear?" He swung her up in his arms as he grinned at her, his heart in his eyes. "You're mine, heart and soul. Mine." She had laughed and thrown her arms around him, screeching loudly as he twirled them around in the gazebo they habitually visited.
A gurgling filled his throat now and she sat, hopeless to help him. The sweetest memory invaded her minded as she gathered his head onto her lap. They had been spread out in the wheat field, breathless after he had mercilessly chased her. He moved a gentle hand over her flat abdomen and kissed the spot he had touched. "Our baby." And he had lifted his eyelids and looked into her eyes with so much adoration that she had grown teary eyed. It had been the last day before her departure on the Continent.
A rasping sound came from Will and Katherine tilted her face to see him trying to focus his eyes. Eyes full of pain, yet somehow still so full of love for her. "Take care...." He spoke softly as he lifted his hand to place it over hers. "Take care..of...o-our.Baby."
Katherine felt Will's chest release oxygen but never felt it rise again. His head fell back as he stared blankly up at the stars.
Her heart wrenching, unspeakable pain assailed her as she doubled over, fresh tears falling on Will's serene face.
"Is this what you wanted!" She screamed shrilly to her father, who stood stone still a few yards away. "All you and Mother ever wanted was a rich gentleman on my arm, thinking he would make me happy with his money. Now you've killed the only man that could ever make me happy! You've destroyed the father of this child that I now will have to raise alone. At what expense did you have to go to get what you desperately wanted?" The sobs took a hold of her and she let her head fall back, her throat exposed to the night air. Every dream she had ever had was shattered and Will could not be here to pick up the pieces. The only thing left was their baby still growing inside her.