Autumn's Wild Heart (Seasons #4) - Laura Landon

Chapter 1

“Nella, look.”

Lady Petronella Westerly, eldest daughter of the Earl of Shelton, lifted her gaze to the spot where her best friend, Rosamonde, pointed.

“He’s here,” Nella sighed.

“Oh, doesn’t he look handsome tonight?” Nella’s second best friend whispered from Nella’s other side. Nella didn’t have to look to know that Patricia was gawping in a most unseemly fashion, because in truth, Nella couldn’t blame her. The man was indeed a vision of masculine perfection.

Ask anyone and they’d tell you Lord James Carmichael, Earl of Danvers was the most handsome man in all of London. No, she corrected her thoughts, in all of England.

Nella took the opportunity to study him as he stood at the top of the stairs. He certainly knew how to make an entrance. He seemed to pose there, as if allowing every female in the room ample time to take in his presence. From his towering stature to the confident set of his broad shoulders that were the envy of every man in the ballroom, to the muscular strength of his arms and legs, to his narrow waist and muscled thighs, he cut the quintessentially heroic figure. And Nella hadn’t yet dared to gaze on his face.

His profile was utter perfection, from the high cheekbones to his noble square jaw, to the inky blackness of his eyes and brows. His features were strong and captivating, and the look in his eyes a mixture of intelligence and assessment, as if he evaluated every person in attendance. And yet, when he smiled, every lady in the ballroom was captivated by the mischievous glimmer in his eyes.

Nella included.

Her response to the handsome earl had become proof to her that there was such a thing as love at first sight. From the first moment she’d seen him at her come-out ball five years past, she had never been moved as grandly by any other. That had been the night Nella realized the Earl of Danvers might well be her first and only love.

If she closed her eyes, she could relive that most embarrassing scene. It was her first ball, and Nella was more nervous than a cat in a kennel. Perhaps if she hadn’t been so terrified of having everyone stare at her, she wouldn’t have been so clumsy.

She’d entered the ballroom on her father’s arm—after enduring his lecture to try not to embarrass him—and instead of staying at her side to see her settled, he had led her to a chair against the wall and abandoned her.

And there she had sat—at her own come-out—for hours, watching the dashing young men ask female after female to dance, while she went ignored. Oh, she did dance twice—with the two fellows whose mothers had required them to do the polite thing and dance with the maiden of honor at her own come-out. They seemed so embarrassed to be seen with her that she fairly prayed nobody else would ask her to dance.

And of course they hadn’t.

She had thought her heart might break, and finally, when she couldn’t bear it another minute, she had risen to her feet and exited the ballroom as quickly as she dared. By then, tears blurred her vision and she couldn’t see where she was going, but she was in too much of a hurry to stop. And that’s why it happened.

In her headlong race to the nearest exit, Nella had seen her father step into the ballroom. Don’t make a scene, he’d warned. She’d promised him, and the memory of it nearly took her to her knees when one slippered foot slid out from beneath her. She had felt herself falling to the floor, but was miraculously stopped from going down when strong arms came around her and pulled her upright. She grabbed on to the man as he brought her against a wall of muscled chest as if she weighed nothing.

“Careful, my lady.” He said, his deep, masculine voice laced with concern. His arms came up and held her until she regained her balance. “Are you all right?”

“Yes, my lord,” she answered, then looked up to see who she’d nearly run over.

It was him. James Carmichael, Earl of Danvers.

For just the briefest of moments, his hands clutched her arms and he held her. Then, he lowered his gaze and smiled.

Nella had never known a face could arrange itself in such a heart-stopping manner. Nor had she ever known her own heart to tumble in such a way that she found it impossible to breathe. But in that moment she