The Spurned Viscountess
glanced at the woman but her attention was on a pile of flotsam washed up by the tide. His eyes narrowed as he casually searched the top of the cliff where the path ran. Nothing. Yet his gut screamed at him to tread cautiously. He scanned the beach but could discern nothing out of place. Still, the hairs at the back of his neck prickled. He slowed, having learned to trust his instincts.
    Up ahead on the expanse of sand exposed by the retreating tide, he saw footprints. More footprints than one man would have reasonably made while collecting seaweed.
    Oberon snorted, sensing his watchful concern. Lucien frowned while splitting his attention between the woman and the rest of the cove. The nagging feeling that wouldn’t go away suddenly bloomed into a concrete thought. He’d watched smugglers landing their prize last night at high tide. At the time, the sea had covered most of the sand, yet this morning several sets of footprints were clearly discernible. It looked as though they led to the network of caves he’d discovered at the far end of the cove. Which meant this cove was definitely not a safe place for the woman to walk alone. Even one of the burly footmen Lady Augusta employed would be little deterrent against a smuggler’s gang intent on mischief. Although he hadn’t heard rumors that this group was prone to violence, the excise men ran an ongoing bloody battle with smuggling gangs farther down the East Sussex coast.
    The woman meandered up the beach, and Lucien made a clicking sound to Oberon to hurry him up. It was best if he kept a close eye on her. Hopefully, she would soon tire of wet boots and sand clinging to her fair skin.
    The length of the cove later, she was still skipping along, pouncing on each new pile of washed-up debris with childish delight. A grudging smile tugged his lips, only dying when he had to follow her back to the other end of the cove. Shaking his head with rising impatience, he strode forward. “It’s time to go.”
    At the same time, the woman turned to him. The look on her face was grim, her mouth pursed tight in annoyance. “Look what I’ve found.” She thrust a scruffy black thing at him. “Look!”
    Before he was able to offer an opinion or even discover what had raised her ire, she clutched the mass of black to her chest.
    “Look at what?”
    Her mouth smoothed out, like a flower blossoming, and turned up into a ravishing smile of delight. Lucien blinked at the suddenness of her mood change.
    “It’s alive. I’m taking it home with me.” Her blue eyes deepened in color about the same time her dainty chin tilted upward in the small act of stubbornness he was coming to recognize. Some sort of creature, he deduced, but he had no idea of its identity since she clutched it protectively to her bosom.
    “What is alive?” Annoyance simmered through him. Did she think he was some sort of unthinking monster? Then he answered the question himself. Of course she did.
    Only monsters looked like him.
    “It’s a cat. A kitten. We should return to the castle. I need my herbal remedies.” That chin of hers was still pointing upward in determined defiance, imperious despite her small stature.
    Lucien sighed, more than ready to leave the cove and not about to offer an argument to the contrary. He bent from the waist in a stiff bow. “After you, my lady.”
    The look of surprise that flickered across her face almost made him smile. Perhaps he was learning how to manage the woman. A rusty-sounding chuckle escaped at the thought. He sobered immediately, arching one brow in silent enquiry when she remained rooted to the spot, gaping at him.
    “Do you want to walk up the path in front of Oberon?” Lucien had noticed her reticence when it came to his mount. Despite her obvious liking for the kitten, she wasn’t a lover of horseflesh.
    “Thank you.” The words were stiff and a little ungracious as she swept past with her nose in the air.
    Lucien grinned, the action feeling foreign and

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