Garden of Light

By: Meara Platt

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS




First and foremost, to my husband Neal, for his continued support and patience. To my children, Adam and Gigi, for the pride they’ve always taken in me—feeling is mutual, kids. To my terrific sisters and sister-in-law: Nora, Jackie, and Michelle. To my wonderful mother, Lily, and mother-in-law, Mickie. Special thanks to Laurel Busch, Samantha Williams, Kathryn Le Veque, Violetta Rand, and the Dragonblade team.





Chapter One




St. Lodore’s Vicarage

Borrowdale, England

May 1817

“Sir! Are you injured?” Melody Hargreaves asked, falling to her knees beside the unresponsive stranger who lay face down in her bluebell garden. How had he ended up there? St. Lodore’s vicarage was a walk from Borrowdale and involved a short climb up a mountain path—difficult for a hiker and almost impossible for a drunkard weaving his way home after a night’s binge at a local tavern.

He obviously wasn’t a hiker.

Whoever he was, she wanted him out. He was ruining her lovely flowers.

She shook him, cautiously at first and then raised his head slightly to feel his brow. It was cool to the touch. So were his hands, though the day was warm and the sun shone against a blue sky. A rare cloudless day like this always made Melody’s heart sing. Birds chirped in the surrounding willows and rabbits hopped in and out of the flower beds, completing what would have been an idyllic scene but for this stranger.

A sudden thought struck her. Was he dead? She hadn’t really considered that he might be.

Nor did he feel dead … not that Melody had ever seen or touched a dead man before, so she wouldn’t really know. There was an unmistakable vitality to this stranger. The way he now rested his head on his arms and the casual bend of his long legs made him appear to be merely sleeping.

Or drunk, she decided with annoyance when he let out a snort.

“Wake up!” Melody gave him a hearty push, intending to roll him out of the bluebells, but the grass had a slope to it and she’d pushed too hard. She scrambled to her feet and chased after him as he rolled toward the hot spring bubbling beside her garden. To her relief, she managed to grab hold of him before he fell into the water.

“Oh, dear! Stay right there,” she muttered, easing him onto his back and beginning to worry that he had not yet moved a muscle … and he did have quite a lot of those. Kneeling beside him, she hesitated but a moment before grazing her fingers along his hand again, which no longer felt cold. Odd, he now felt invitingly warm, as though he was heating to her touch.

She sighed and began to run her hands along his body. Not that she wanted to do it, but someone had to check him for cuts or broken bones.

She found nothing more serious than a few bruises.

Still worried, she poked him gently.

His chest rose and fell slightly in response.

“Your breathing is steady. Thank goodness. Now lie still while I dunk my handkerchief into the hot spring. Don’t be alarmed, I only mean to wipe the dirt off your face.” She dipped her handkerchief into the warm water, squeezed out the excess moisture, and carefully wiped the streaks of dirt off his cheeks and brow. “You look wretched. What happened to you? I don’t suppose you were attacked by a highwayman. You seem quite capable of defending yourself. Besides, no decent highwayman would waste his time out here. Behind the hedgerows on the road to Chester is where I’d hide if I were planning to rob a passerby.”

She wiped dirt off his neck. “I suppose it was a tall tankard of ale that did you in … or several tall tankards. Were you drinking alone? Or with friends? Well, they aren’t very good friends if you ask me. Friends don’t abandon each other. I wouldn’t have abandoned you. Forgive me for chattering, but I’m relieved that you’re alive. I so rarely have a companion … not that you and I are friends or even acquaintances, but you’re easy to talk to, especially now that you’re … not dead.”

The stranger opened his eyes.

Melody shrieked and rocked backward on her heels, spared a tumble into the hot spring when he grabbed her firmly by the wrist and drew her back to his side. Flustered, she lost her balance and fell atop his hard chest. “You’re awake! Why didn’t you tell me?”

He sat up as she scrambled off him, tossing aside the wet handkerchief she’d dropped on his head when she’d fallen. His gaze locked onto hers. Melody’s breath caught in her throat, for his eyes were a vibrant blue, as cold and deep as crystal lake waters, a stunning blue that contrasted with the magnificent raven-black of his hair falling in perfect waves below his shoulders.

He appeared only a few years older than her own twenty, but there was something in those blue depths that made him seem eternal. He had the look of a man who was used to being in command.

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