The Wild Child
The Bride Trilogy #1
Dominic Renbourne has been bribed to take his twin brother Kyle's place at Warfield Manor, where he is to pay gentlemanly court to Lady Meriel Grahame, the extravagantly wealthy heiress Kyle intends to marry. The deception need only take a few weeks and no one will be the wiser, especially the strange Lady Meriel who is whispered to be . . . mad. The last thing Dominic expects when he arrives is to be entranced by a silent woman whose ethereal beauty is as stunning as her mystical relationship to the intoxicating flowers and trees that surround her.
Until now, Meriel has kept her distance from society, spending her days at one with the earth and safe from the nightmare that nearly destroyed her as a child. She is content to live alone, but suddenly this handsome intruder begins to inspire dreams of life beyond her sanctuary. He senses her restlessness, her awakening desire, and the truth that she is much more than she seems.
Theirs is an extraordinary courtship. Without words, Meriel teaches Dominic to appreciate the natural splendors of her isolated world. While Dominic's sense of duty barely restrains his longing for his brother's future bride, Meriel's untamed spirit proves more powerful than Dominic can resist. But will Meriel forgive his deceit once she learns he is not Kyle? Moreover, will their love be able to save them both from the treachery that still secretly shadows Meriel? And will their passion endure the rift that will divide two brothers?
Told with Mary Jo Putney's incomparable intelligence and grace, The Wild Child is an unforgettable tale about the infinite possibilities of love.
When switched identities, arranged marriages, and even the mildest case of insanity meet, a novel is bound to be an absolutely entertaining hoot. As well as creating sympathetic characters and their realistic development, Mary Jo Putney has a talent for capturing the complex rivalries of siblings and the conflict between our internal and external lives... Putney has once again written a solid historical novel that should support her reputation as one of the finest romance writers of our time.
~Nancy R.E. O'Brien, Amazon.com Reviews
The Wild Child is an exceptional romance about two extraordinary people and the power of love to overcome obstacles. Meriel and Dominic are wonderful characters, deftly drawn and well-developed, who must come to terms with the past in order to embrace their future. Mary Jo Putney is a master storyteller and The Wild Child showcases her amazing talents. The story is well-crafted, spellbinding, and thoroughly enchanting. The Wild Child is a keeper -- and a strong contender for best historical romance of the year!
~Susan Lantz, Romantic Fiction Forum Leader
This excerpt is from about a quarter way through the book, and is part of the hero's ongoing attempts to discover what Meriel, the "wild child," is really like.
If not for Dominic's tracking skill, he never would have found Meriel's trail. She moved over the landscape as lightly as the retreating mists. But here and there she left flattened grass or a trace of footprint, and he'd catch up with her soon.
Then what? He was tempted to spank her, but he doubted that was appropriate for a young lady of twenty-three. Even one with a deplorable sense of humor.
His heart congealed when a blood-chilling female scream pierced the woodland air. This was no mock suicide, but a cry of genuine disaster. He broke into a run, wondering what could threaten her. Surely there were no dangerous animals in the park.
He should have remembered that the most dangerous beast was man. Bursting into a small clearing, he saw Meriel lying on the turf and a strange man on top of her, both of them struggling frantically. A rage unlike anything he'd ever known blazed through him. "You bastard!"
He dived into the fray and yanked the intruder off Meriel. Then he spun the man around and knocked him to the ground with one furious blow to the jaw. Dominic stood over him, fists clenched as he fought the desire to kick the rapist to a bloody pulp. "What kind of beast would assault a helpless girl?"
"Helpless!" the man protested in a thick Shropshire accent. Bleeding marks on his face showed where Meriel's nails had connected. "'Twas her that came after me! I'm just tryin' to keep her from scratchin' my eyes out."
Dominic glanced at Meriel, who'd risen from the ground. She did not look like a delicate maiden who had just been attacked by a rapist. Narrow-eyed and self-possessed, she watched the stranger with an expression as feral as a wolf.
A quick scan revealed a trapped fox, a dropped skinning knife, and a game bag stained with dried blood from past kills. "A poacher," Dominic said with disgust.
The man lurched to his feet. Meriel instantly sprang, swinging a sharpened stick at his face. Dominic caught her in mid-leap, pulling her hard against him. Her small body was taut with furious strength. Gods above, to think he'd begun to think she was more or less normal! If this was an example of the tantrums Mrs. Rector had mentioned, no wonder the girl was thought mad. She was genuinely dangerous.
But her violence was not random, for she didn't turn on him when he grabbed her. He gave silent thanks. Subduing the little hellcat without one of them being hurt would be difficult. Luckily she fell still, glaring at the poacher with lethal intensity.
Seeing that the intruder was on the verge of flight, Dominic said dryly, "Stay put or I'll turn her loose, and she's fast. Very fast."
Watching Meriel warily, the man--or boy, really, he couldn't be more than seventeen, and skinny at that--said, "I wouldn't hurt the young miss. 'Tis known she's not right in her head." He rubbed his bleeding cheek. "She came after me like. . . like…."
"Like an avenging angel?" Hoping that Meriel would behave, Dominic released her before he became too distracted by the feel of her body against his. "No need to attack him, Lady Meriel. The law can handle a poacher. Seven years of transportation. New South Wales, I should imagine. Or maybe Van Diemen's Land."
The poacher turned white. "Please, sir, I meant no harm. What are a few more hares to a lord like you? You don't need them. Nor does she, with a fortune to last a thousand lifetimes." He bit his lip, looking very young. "If I'm transported, my mam and the little 'uns will starve. It's been hard since my pa died. There's no work."
Dominic's anger began to fade. He'd never approved of the law that made it a major crime for a landless man to take small game for the cooking pot. "I think Lady Meriel's fury stemmed from the fact that you hurt that fox, and to what purpose? Foxes are vermin, not game animals."
"If you're hungry enough, a fox isn't bad eating," the boy said bitterly. "Though a hare would've been better."
Dominic studied the boy's bony face and shabby, outgrown clothing. Such stark need put his own situation into perspective. He might be a younger son with no expectations, but he'd never missed any meals.
He dug into his pocket, hoping he had some money with him. Finding a coin, he pulled it out and tossed it the boy. "Take this and buy food for your family. And if you value your freedom, don't ever set foot in Warfield Park again."
The boy gasped as he caught the gold sovereign, but Meriel flashed Dominic a darkling look. Tersely he said, "It's hard to condemn a man for trying to feed his family."
Perhaps she understood. Though she shifted rebelliously from foot to foot, she didn't make another move toward the poacher.
"Th . . . thank you, sir," the boy stammered, still staring at the coin. It was quite possible he'd never held a sovereign in his life.
Dominic frowned. A piece of gold could feed a family for a few days or even weeks, but it wasn't a permanent solution. "Tell me your name. I'm merely a guest at Warfield so I can't make any promises. However, if you think a job would keep you from poaching, I'll ask the steward of the home farm if he needs laborers."
"Oh, sir!" The boy looked stunned. "I'll do any honest work."
A laborer made little enough, but at least the boy wouldn't risk being transported and leaving his mother with a cottage full of starving children. Dominic bent and picked up the fallen game bag and knife. "You can take these, but the trap stays here."
The boy nodded with resignation. There was no way he could use the trap legally; in fact, he could be arrested and convicted of poaching if he was even caught carrying the wretched thing. "Thank you, sir. My name is Jem Brown."
"Jem Brown. Very well, the day after tomorrow, present yourself to the Warfield steward. I'll have talked to him by then. Now go." Dominic donned the fierce scowl he'd learned during his brief career as a cavalry officer. "And don't forget what I said about staying out of the park."
Jem darted away before Dominic could change his mind. Meriel made a sound like a hissing cat as she watched him go. It would have been funny, if her behavior didn't underline how far she was from normal.
Putting aside that painful thought, he said, "It's time to see what we can do for that poor vixen. Just a moment."
He had passed a small brook on his way to the clearing, so he backtracked and soaked his handkerchief in the water. Then he returned to the trapped fox. Meriel crouched near the animal, concern in every line of her body.
The fox growled when Dominic knelt beside it. Knowing this would be harder than physicking a distressed horse or dog, he looked the vixen in the eyes as he mentally projected calm and good intentions. That he was a friend.
"There, there, old girl," he said softly. "Let's get you free, then we can look at that leg. No need to worry. I used to think about becoming a veterinary surgeon, you know. I followed the Dornleigh farrier and the cowman and the shepherds around whenever I could, learning how to treat horses and cows and sheep. My father would have died of an apoplexy if I'd chosen to follow such a low trade, though."
The talk was mostly to soothe the fox with his tone of voice. He remembered just in time that he shouldn't say anything that would indicate he wasn't Kyle. While becoming a veterinary surgeon might be appalling in a younger son, it would be quite unthinkable for the heir to Wrexham.
Rather than speak more about his one-time ambitions, Dominic switched to talking about the fox--how splendid her white tipped tail, how beautiful her cubs must be. When he thought she was calm enough, he laid an experimental hand on the thick, springy reddish fur of her shoulder. She quivered a little, but accepted his touch.
He turned his attention to the trap. The Dornleigh gamekeeper sometimes used traps to keep foxes from destroying the eggs of nesting game birds, but Dominic had never handled one. Wicked metal teeth clamped on the vixen's foreleg, with the tension supplied by a flat steel spring by the hinge.
Once he'd puzzled out how it worked, he rose and stepped on the spring. The metal jaw opened, and Meriel gently pulled the injured forepaw free.
"Just a little longer. Then you can go home to your cubs," Dominic murmured as he let the trap snap shut. He hoped he was telling the truth; if the injury was too severe, it might be kinder to destroy the poor beast.
Kneeling again, he used his wet handkerchief to carefully clean the damaged leg. He could sense Meriel's amazement that the vixen allowed the handling, but he didn't glance at her. All his attention was on the fox, whose sides heaved with distress.
After he'd washed away the crusted blood, he said with relief, "You're in luck, old girl. No bones broken, no tendons cut."
There was still some sluggish bleeding. If he were working on a lacerated horse or dog, he would apply salve and a bandage. He doubted that would work here, though. The vixen would probably gnaw at the bandage, possibly worsening the damage. He sat back on his heels. "Follow your instincts, Madame Fox."
The vixen bent her head and a rough tongue came out to lick the wound. After several minutes of lapping, the ooze of blood had almost stopped.
"Are you ready to go home now?" he asked softly.
Shakily the vixen got to her feet. A sharp vulpine bark sounded from the edge of the clearing. The vixen's head shot up and her ears pricked. Then she bounded away to join her anxious mate. Though she favored the injured paw, she moved well. The dog-fox gave a leap of joy, then escorted his lady into the woods.
Dominic sat back on his heels, touched by the sight. "I think she'll recover. If you know where her den is, though, you might want to leave food nearby for a few days, to help the family out until she's in better shape."
He looked at Meriel, still crouched a yard away. She was gazing after the foxes, an expression of profound gladness on her small face.
Then her head swung around, and for the first time she looked full into his face. He caught his breath, stunned by the depths and complexity visible in her clear green eyes. He'd thought her simple, he'd thought her mad, but from the beginning, he'd believed her to be a poor, deficient creature.
Now he realized how wrong he had been. Meriel's mind might be different from the minds of normal women, but she was not simple. She was as complex as he was, perhaps more so. Like a pagan nature spirit, she knew this land, these creatures, and had been willing to defend them no matter what the risk to herself. Now, because he had helped the fox, she was permitting him a glimpse into her soul.
She touched his hand briefly in an unmistakable sign of thanks. He wanted to capture that small, strong hand in his own so he could feel her warmth and strength. Instead he drew an unsteady breath. "I was glad to help, Meriel."
The awareness between them had been transformed. Any future relationship must be as equals.