Chapter Twelve ~ by Ann Lethbridge
Thoughts racing, Araminta stepped out of the tunnel into bright daylight. A broad shouldered fellow blocked her path. Dazzled after the dimness in the tunnel, she blinked. Her mouth dried. Her head spun. While the strong physique resembled that of the highwayman she’d kissed minutes before, the unmasked features slowly taking shape were those of...
“Gabriel?” Her knees gave way. Darkness swallowed her up.
Seconds later she came to her senses cradled in a pair of strong arms and sitting once more on those delectably strong thighs. But looking down at her anxiously was the face of her... her dead husband. “No,” she whispered, shaking her head. “Who are you? Some long lost relative come to claim the title?”
He groaned. “Minna. Oh dearest Minna, forgive me, I did not wish to alarm you. I felt sure you would guess it was me when we kissed.”
Well yes the kiss had felt achingly familiar, and no one else ever called her Minna, but... “You died. I went to your funeral. I wept.” She struggled in his arms. “What is this? Some sort of horrid jest?”
“Please, darling, let me explain.” He took a deep shuddering breath. “And then if you cannot forgive me, you will never have to see me again.”
Never had she seen her stern husband so anxious. He who had been as cold as granite and twice as strong. She stilled in his arms. “Very well, explain.” She folded her arms across her chest.
“Remember our last conversation. When you railed against my wrapping you in cotton wool, keeping you from having any fun?”
She winced. She’d been feeling very guilty about what she’d said that last time. Even if it had been the truth. “I remember,” she said far more calmly than her racing heart would suggest.
“That day, I realized how selfish I’d been. The first time I saw you, a chit barely out of the schoolroom, I knew I wanted you as my wife. You were the one. So lovely. So full of life. How could I let you loose on the town and risk losing you to some other fellow with far more address, far more charm? Look at the way these other men fell at your feet today.” He glowered, then straightened his shoulders, which seemed broader and more muscular than before. “That day, you showed me how wrong I’d been. Losing my parents at such a young age made me overprotective. Unable to bear the idea of losing you too, I locked you up in an ivory tower, guarding you from harm. I should have trusted you.”
“Yes, you should have. I am not a possession. I am a person.”
He took her hand in his and kissed the inside of her wrist. “A clever, spirited and lovely person.” He looked up at her, his eyes full of regret, and if she wasn’t mistaken, somewhat misty. Her heart gave an unsteady lurch.
“That day, I knew I had to make amends,” he said.
She stared at him, shocked. “So you faked your death?”
“I was so ashamed. I...” his voice became husky, “I loved you so much. And I had treated you so badly. I wanted you to have your heart’s desire. The freedom you craved. To choose the man of your heart.”
“Oh, Gabriel,” she whispered. “Then why all this, today?”
He closed his eyes briefly. “I’m a new man. I’ve made a life in America based on my abilities. But God, Minna, darling, I can’t take much joy in it. Not without you. When Silverthorne told me you’d not danced on my grave and not found yourself a new man, I had hope. Still, I was determined you should have your choice."
His chest rose and fell. “You can choose any of these fine men. Honorable. Good friends. Or at least, any but the Dashing cousins. They are a lot of loose screws. Or you can go to London and have your pick. I won’t stand in your way, but I wanted a second chance. To be in the running. To tell you how much I loved you.”
A spurt of indignation coursed through her. “So what happened today was all staged?”
“Not entirely. Those men have adored you from afar for ages. But it was what you said you wanted. Life. Adventure. Freedom to be yourself. And very daring you were too. Kissing a highwayman.”
She raised a brow. “I notice you were the only one who offered a kiss.”
“The others knew they’d be dead if they tried anything of the sort,” he said with a rueful smile. “But whoever you chose, I would abide by the decision. I’m not coming back, Minna. Gabriel, Lord Ambleforth is gone. I’m simply Gabe Blackhawk now, trapper and hunter extraordinaire, farmer. And I am begging you to be my wife, my partner, my own true love.”
Her eyes felt hot and prickled with tears. “Oh, Gabe, I realized how much I loved you only once you were gone. It broke my heart that I never told you, not once, how I felt. You were always so distant. So self-assured. I always felt like a silly schoolgirl.”
“Not silly. Beloved. I was an idiot. Bound by the stupid rules of the ton that never let me tell you how much I truly loved you,” he whispered brokenly, his heart in his eyes. “Kiss me, darling girl, say you forgive me and will be mine henceforth.”
“I do, Gabe. I will.” She reached up and did something she would never have dared in the old days. She kissed him full on the lips, with all the passion she could muster.
When they finally came up for air she glanced around. “Where is Deepwater? Oh and what about all those poor men, trapped in the tunnel?”
He had the grace to look shamefaced. “The other end was never closed. We couldn’t kill off all those Dukes, now, could we? They are all in the Great Hall at Ambleforth, awaiting your decision. If they haven’t killed each other.”
A laugh bubbled up and she set it free. “You have some very good friends Mr. Blackhawk.”
“Mmm,” he murmured nibbling on her ear. “And by the way, Silverthorne’s D stands for devoted friend. As I am devoted to you, my dearest darling heart of my soul.”
Joy filled her smile. “Dear Gabe. Thank you for my splendiferous afternoon. Now let us free the rest of your cast of characters and set sail for a new adventure, just you and me, together. For the rest of our lives.”
“Darling Minna, I do not deserve you, but I am far too selfish to give you up.” On that he rose and side by side they wandered off, hand in hand, with only the occasional kiss to delay their progress as they started their lives anew.
I hope you enjoyed this tale as much as we enjoyed writing it. Believe me, it was not easy picking up where another author left off, but as writers and risk-takers we could not resist the challenge. Will we do it again? Who knows. Let us hope so. Check back to the blog from time to time and find out.
If you want to know more about me and my books you can find me at http://www.annlethbridge.com