Garden of Dragons

By: Meara Platt

Chapter One




The Lake District

March 1818

A chill March wind blew in as Saron Blakefield, Duke of Draloch, peered out of the window of his carriage while it wound its way up the snowy drive to Harleigh Hall. A young woman stood alone, apparently in wait for him, atop the steps of the simple manor house, her red-gold hair gleaming in the sunlight and framing her face in a delicate halo. She appeared small and slender, not at all what he had been led to expect, but it was hard to judge her height from this distance and her formless black gown hid more than it revealed.

Ah, yes, he recalled. The girl was still in mourning for her father. That excused her poor choice of gown. However, he thought with no small disappointment, Lady Anabelle Harleigh was decidedly plain.

He could not blame her for being so, and in the course of his months of legal battle with her, he had indulged in picturing her a fiery temptress, tall and strong, in the tradition of the Valkyrie, the sort of woman who could save a man’s damaged soul. He ought to have realized that no such woman could exist in the quiet English countryside.

“What does she know about me?” Saron asked his companion, for he knew Lord Chalmers fairly well and thought him a good fellow. More important, Lord Chalmers knew Anabelle very well for they had been friends and neighbors for all of Anabelle’s twenty years.

“I’ve told her nothing, Your Grace, as you instructed. However, it does not sit well with me that so much should be hidden from her. She ought to know what she is getting into before–”

“Enough, Chalmers. I know what must be done.” All the more foolishly, he had been intrigued by Anabelle’s impassioned letters seeking the return of Harleigh Hall to the Harleigh family. Indeed, he had looked forward to her weekly correspondence and often read her delightfully forthright letters before opening more important mail. He had even enjoyed the legal battle Anabelle had initiated and readily admitted goading her into it.

But the game now neared its conclusion, and he realized wearily it had all been for naught. The brave and beautiful woman of his dreams did not exist. Before him stood Anabelle, meek and ordinary.

Disillusioned, Saron nevertheless continued to gaze at her. As if sensing his scrutiny, she stiffened her stance and for the first time, he noticed the hunting rifle at her side. He smiled imperceptibly before turning to Lord Chalmers once again. “Do you suppose she plans to shoot me?”

“One never quite knows what Anabelle plans to do until she does it,” he said, letting loose a jovial chuckle. “A most impulsive creature, but kindhearted in the extreme. I doubt you will meet your untimely demise at her hands, Your Grace.”

Saron stretched his legs before him. He was a large man and found the enclosed space of his carriage most confining. “Are you certain? She detests me, believes I stole Harleigh Hall from her father. Perhaps she believes that, however indirectly, I caused her father’s death. He died shortly after losing the estate.”

“Your refusal to part with the place, considering the circumstances under which you acquired it, did hurt her deeply.”

“The card game was honest. Her father understood what he was doing and the risk involved.”

“Yes, yes, there is not a man in all of England who would disagree. Even her little imp of a brother, the young Earl of Cleve, will not blame you for his father’s death. He understands you have every right to Harleigh Hall and is displeased with his sister for initiating those legal proceedings against you. However, Anabelle will not accept Lord Markby’s decision.”

Saron patted his breast pocket and the judicial decree contained within. “She will have to, now that he has ruled.”

Chalmers sighed. “I cannot envision Anabelle without this place. Her spirit is so closely bound to it.”

Saron merely raised a quizzical eyebrow, for although Anabelle was a most determined young lady, she was no match for the Dragon of Draloch, as Society had taken to calling him. Few understood how appropriately the name applied and he meant to keep it that way. “Nonsense,” he said with a scowl. “Harleigh is an unimpressive estate situated by a secluded lake in the middle of nowhere. What young lady would wish to remain here if given the chance to live lavishly in London? Though Anabelle is an unwelcome burden to me, I shall do my duty as honor demands.”

Chalmers began to shift nervously in his seat. “Your Grace…”

“Yes?”

“That is to s-say…”

“Out with it. You know you may speak freely to me. What is it you wish to ask?”

“Yes…well…” Chalmers drew a deep breath and closed his eyes. “What I wish to know…what all of London has been dying to know, is why did you let the game go so far? Why is Lady Anabelle so important to you? You could have simply sold Harleigh back to her and ended your entanglement. She would have given you anything for it.”

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