Nicolette McFarland will do anything to prove her worth as a Veterinarian, but when a man from her past comes back to interrupt her life, she doesn’t know what to do. Desperate, she sends a letter to a newspaper article for advice. While waiting for The Lovelorn to respond, Nicolette tries her best to show everyone around her how good she really is. Unfortunately, the vexing man from her past, Captain Adrian Robinson, ends up getting shot, and it’s up to her to help him even if she doesn’t want to. All she knows is that The Lovelorn had better hurry and reply to her letter because Nicolette is in grave danger of losing her heart – or having it broken forever.
I have just received some unsettling news, and I’m not sure how to handle it. I’ve lived with my aunt since I was nine years old, and although my aunt and her husband have treated me well and raised me to be a lady, those first few years with her family were not pleasant. My aunt’s stepson was a thorn in my side since before he joined the military several years ago. Now he’s coming back and he’ll stay at his father’s house until he can start a new life. I have been enjoying life and the rituals of courtship, but I still haven’t found anyone to love, so I must continue to live with my aunt. Please, Lovelorn, tell me how I can handle my aunt’s womanizing stepson who has no morals. I fear he’ll return to his childhood tactics that made my life intolerable, and I might not have the patience to put up with him. What if I strangle him… or shoot him? I’m anxiously awaiting your advice.
Sincerely, Vexed in Vermont
Nicolette McFarland set her writing pen down and reread her letter to The Lovelorn who wrote a daily column in the St. Louis Gazette. She’d been following the column for quite a while and enjoyed reading the responses from The Lovelorn. It was her turn now. She needed advice.
Adrian Robinson, her aunt’s stepson, would be surprised to see how much Nicolette had changed. No longer was she the simpering little girl who cowered every time Adrian came near, nor was she the cry-baby who went bawling to her aunt whenever Adrian hurt her. But Nicolette had grown to be a strong, self-assertive woman. Nobody stopped her from accomplishing her goals, not as long as she could use the brain God had given her. If Adrian dared try to go up against her this time, he would discover quickly what kind of a monster he’d turned her into. Revenge would be sweet, indeed!
It didn’t matter that he was seven years older than her, she’d show him that he couldn’t hurt her anymore. However, it would be difficult to forget how many times he locked her in the cellar late at night, telling her that the devil would find her if she cried or made a noise. Thankfully, she grew to realize that Satan didn’t work like that – only the evil Adrian Robinson did.
And what about those times he had shortened Nicolette’s dresses or ripped the seams right before her parties? She’d been humiliated in front of her friends. There were even times he had tied her up in the backyard behind the tall hedges and singed the edges of her long light-brown hair. She reached up and stroked her palm down her wavy locks of hair. Luckily, her hair had grown back long and was now soft and silky like it should be.
Nicolette quickly slipped the letter in an envelope and addressed it to the St. Louis Gazette. She held it tightly in her hand as she tiptoed out of her bedroom and headed downstairs. Mornings were usually quiet in the Robinson household. Teddy, Adrian’s father, owned a profiting lumber store in Woodstock, Vermont, where they had been living since Nicolette first came to stay with them.
Teddy and his oldest son, Jacob, were already at the store this early in the morning. Aunt Betty was probably still sleeping since the middle-aged woman usually stayed up late at night attending social functions. The few servants the Robinson’s had knew that they weren’t really needed until Aunt Betty was awake, especially since Nicolette could dress herself and fix her own meals – and had done that since she was nine.
She moved into the kitchen and found an apple. This would work just fine for breakfast. Of course, she also didn’t want to waste another minute eating when it was most imperative that she get this letter to the Post Office.
The family dog, Bandit, jumped on her several times in the stable to get her attention, but she ignored the long-eared, furry animal and moved to a horse. Trying to eat and saddle a horse at the same time was a little more time-consuming, but soon she was on her horse and heading quickly to deliver her letter. The roads were quiet this morning, thankfully, because usually when riding to town, people were out and about, which meant that someone would want to stop her and chat.
Thankfully, she made it to the Post Office and gave them her letter without any interruptions. She mounted her horse and took off toward home. Another bonus about being an early riser and going into town without many people around, was that she could wear her trousers. Riding astride was much easier with pants. Of course, most men hadn’t understood her need for comfort. Neither had they understood how she enjoyed going fishing and actually gutting the fish herself. Nicolette figured that stemmed back to days of yore when her father took her fishing and taught her so many things that most girls never learned. And speaking of fishing…
She eyed the Ottaquechee River, and slowly, her mouth turned up into a grin. She hadn’t been fishing for over two weeks, and suddenly, the prospect of being one with nature – and getting her feet wet, of course – became too much of a temptation, and she urged her horse a little faster.
As she came almost to the edge of town, she saw a tall man with wide shoulders, walk out of the bank. Nicely dressed in his long over-coat, hat, and of course, his fancy boots, was the mayor’s son, Eugene Dickson. The man with blondish-brown hair was the most recent gentleman to take an interest in her. He was sweet and not as serious as the last man to court her, but Eugene was also not exactly her type of man. He didn’t enjoy getting his hands dirty… and unless a man was all right with getting his hands slimy from fish guts, she lost interest in him quickly.
Ducking her head, she urged the horse with her heels, trying to get the animal to go faster so that Mr. Dickson wouldn’t see her. He would be absolutely appalled if he saw her wearing trousers, and she didn’t want to embarrass him in any way.
As she kept low, she pushed her horse faster. Soon, she was out of town and in the wooded area, so she pulled gently on the reins to slow the animal down. At that moment, a jackrabbit zipped across the road, startling the horse. The horse came to a sudden stop and reared, lifting his front legs in the air. Not prepared for this sudden action, the reins slipped out of her hands and she fell back, tumbling to the hard ground.
Her breath was knocked out of her, and for a few moments, she couldn’t breathe. Nicolette struggled to a sitting position, trying not to panic as she tried to force her lungs to start working again. Finally, her body allowed breath to come into her lungs, but then other places on her hurt. Her ankle actually throbbed.
Great… just great. Nicolette frowned. A sprained ankle was something she didn’t need.
She pulled her knee up to her chest, and tried to feel her ankle without taking the boot off. She didn’t dare do that right now. The swelling would keep the boot from going back on, and if she had to walk home she needed the boot.
She moved her attention around her and through the trees on both sides of the dirt road, searching for her horse. Dagnabbit! This was not a good place for her horse to run off, because now she couldn’t see him.
As she tried to stand, she gritted her teeth against the pain shooting through her leg coming from her ankle. She couldn’t allow the pain to halt her goal, and yet, if she couldn’t stand, she couldn’t walk, and therefore she’d never get home. She applied pressure to her foot, but the pain had her crumbling back to the ground and crying out.
So perhaps crawling back home was her only option. She’d do whatever she must, but after a couple of crawls in the direction of home, she realized her knees weren’t made for this kind of rocky road. Still… she must keep moving, even if she huffed and puffed the whole way. At least she realized why Uncle Teddy had named the animal Bucky.
The rush of the nearby Ottaquechee River was louder than normal. Of course, they had gotten a lot of rain lately, which was probably the reason why there was so much water, but it was difficult to hear anything else. She grumbled under her breath again, knowing that she wouldn’t be going fishing anytime soon – not with her sprained ankle.
The neigh from the horse followed by the crushing of footsteps on the rocky road, caught her attention. She stopped and swung her attention over her shoulder. The sun nearly blinded her, but a man’s tall, broad-shouldered figure was silhouetted in the gleam as he pulled his horse behind him holding the reins. He was dressed in a blue soldier’s uniform.
“Pardon me, but do you need assistance?”
His kindness warmed her heart, but she was sure she looked a fright… and wearing men’s trousers, no less. “Thank you. I was bucked from my horse and in my fall, I twisted my ankle.”
“Then allow me to help.” He walked closer and stopped, bending down and scooping her in his arms.
She gasped from the suddenness and wrapped her arms around his neck, holding tightly for fear of him dropping her. Immediately, she noticed his masculine – and clean – scent, as if he’d just taken a bath not long ago.
Once he situated her in his arms, she glanced at his face. He was too handsome, and being this close to him made her nervous. His short hair was black as coal, and his eyes were hazel. In fact, he reminded her a little of…
When recognition hit, she lost her breath. Realization turned her blood cold and made her stomach churn. She prayed the fall on the ground had somehow knocked something loose in her head, because she didn’t want to think of Adrian Robinson being this handsome… or sweet. He was exactly opposite.
He lifted her on top of his horse to where she sat sideways, and she quickly made the switch, swinging her legs astride as she tried to get further away from him when he mounted. That’s when she realized her hands hadn’t been as cold as the blood flowing through her. In fact, she felt quite flushed, and just thinking about jumping into the river to cool off became tempting as each second passed.
“Th-thank you,” she said, almost having to spit the words out. She’d never had to thank him before. It was hard to start now.
He glanced up at her and smiled a devilish, wicked smile. “I couldn’t leave a stranded woman helpless, now could I?”
It was on the tip of her tongue to tell him that he’d done this very thing several times when they were younger. Instead, she gritted her teeth, not daring to say anything at all as he situated himself behind her.
His arms reached around her as he gripped the reins and urged the animal into a trot. As much as she tried to hold herself still, her body couldn’t stop from bumping against him. The ride home would be agony.
“Are you going to tell me where to take you?” he asked in a deep voice.
Warm shivers ran over her back. Even his voice had changed from what she’d remembered. She would just have to look at his face while talking to him, because then she’d be reminded of how utterly mean he’d been to her before he’d left the house to join the military.
It bothered her that he didn’t recognize her. Then again, it had been almost ten years. She’d been a girl in pigtails the last time he had seen her.
“I suspect,” she kept her voice steady, looking over her shoulder, “that I’m going in the same direction as you, Adrian Robinson.”
His gaze dropped to her face. Confusion filled his expression as he studied her face, slower this time.
She waited for him to remember, but he still showed no signs of knowing her. It appeared as if she would have to help his memory along.
“It’s been nearly ten years. I’m surprised you don’t recognize your stepmother’s niece.”
His eyes grew wide and his mouth hung agape. This time when his gaze moved over her, it was faster, and she could finally see the light of awareness in his eyes.
“Lottie? That can’t be you.”
Inwardly, she groaned. She really hated that nickname he always used to use. Not once had he called her that name using a pleasant tone. “Yes, it’s me, Nicolette.”
Even with the stunned expression across his face, his mouth stretched into a grin. “The years have been very kind to you. I cannot see the imp I used to know.”
Imp? She fisted her hand, wanting to punch him in the face. However, she refrained. Making him upset right now wasn’t a good idea. How else would she get home?
“And I must admit,” she replied in a tight voice, “that those years in the military has turned you into a strapping man.”
He straightened, smiling wider. “I made it to the rank of Captain.”
“Congratulations. What made you want to return home?”
The light in his eyes dimmed enough to notice. Even his smile slowly faded. “I knew it was time I did something else with my life.”
Part of her wanted to know what had brought him to that decision, and yet, another part of her didn’t really care. As long as he found his new life quickly and left the house, she would be very happy for him. Unfortunately, her luck had never been good when Adrian was around.
“And what about yourself?” He arched an eyebrow. “Have you made some man happy by becoming his wife?”
Nicolette hesitated, thinking she heard a touch of sarcasm in his voice. “It’s really none of your business, but no, I haven’t. I’ve had other things directing me.”
He blinked with wide eyes. “Other things? What could they possibly be?”
“That’s for me to know, and you never to find out.”
She wasn’t sure what it was about Adrian that grated on her nerves all the time, but she was tired of this conversation, and tired of feeling as though he thought less of her just because she wasn’t married.
He shrugged and moved his attention back to the road. “As long as it makes you happy, I suppose you can do whatever you’d like.”
She fisted her hands in her lap and gritted her teeth. In her letter to The Lovelorn, Nicolette worried that she might strangle – or shoot – Adrian. At this very moment, she wanted to do both, and she didn’t care what kind of problems it would cause. All she wanted was him out of her life, and she’d do anything to make it happen.
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