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THE HONORABLE SCOUNDRELS  series

by Sophia Barnes

 

THE HONORABLE SCOUNDRELS series:

 

 

****

 
The Governess Who Captured His Heart:
Temptations or Priorities…?
Determined to help her oldest sister make ends meet, Louise Potter accepts a governess position in the northern part of England. If this means accompanying an older gentleman on his travels, then she will. There’s only one problem: Louise is about to discover that her travelling companion is not the elderly man she expected, but rather seduction itself…

Alistair Langley has no desire to share his carriage with his niece’s newly hired employee. But the matron he expected to find at his door is instead a beautiful young woman, one he knows he can’t travel alone with. After all, he’s going to visit his brother who is pressuring him to marry and produce a Langley heir–or be cut off from inheritance. When he confides in Louise, together they form a plan. But the closer they become, the more temptation beckons…
Until finally a choice must be made: Love or money? Or is it possible to have both?

Chapter One

Lowering the letter she’d been reading, Louise Potter held the expensive sheet of paper between her fingers and glanced at both of her sisters in turn. “I have been accepted for the position. Lady Channing would like me to start immediately.”

“That is what you wish to do, is it not?” Josephine asked. At six and twenty, she was two years older than Louise and six years older than their youngest sister, Eve.

“It certainly is a welcome opportunity.” With the townhouse serving as their only inheritance, and Josephine working hard to make ends meet for all of them, Louise wanted to find a way to help her older sister. As a result, she now had the chance of becoming a governess to three young children. “My only regret is I shall miss Christmas with the two of you.”

“Perhaps the countess will allow you to see us on that particular day?” Eve suggested.

Louise bit her lip. Her employment would require a major move, which was something she hadn’t yet mentioned to either of her sisters. “I’m afraid not. If I’m lucky, I shall be able to come to Town during the spring and part of the summer while the Season is underway. Otherwise, most of my time will be spent near Whitehaven.”

Her sisters stared at her. “I forget where that is,” Eve finally said.

“I believe it is in the north,” Josephine told her.

Louise nodded. “It is indeed.”

Eve’s mouth dropped open. “But then we shall never see you again!”

“As I mentioned, I might return to Town once Parliament opens and the Radcliffe family chooses to relocate to their London home.” She paused to consider their unhappy faces. “Unless I decline the offer and remain here. I can do so if you are loath to see me go.”

“No.” Josephine quickly smiled, though the effort did appear slightly strenuous. “You have been given the chance to accept respectable employment with a highly regarded aristocratic family. Neither of us will stand in your way.”

“Are you certain?” Louise was beginning to doubt her own resolve.

Travelling north had seemed like a grand adventure until she’d told her sisters about it. They’d never been apart before, and since their father’s death, they’d been especially dependent upon each other, not only to get through the grief, but also to find a way forward in the following whirlwind of chaos.

Louise’s grandfather had been the third son of an earl. As such, he’d gone into law and had eventually, upon his death, left his thriving practice to his son. But he had not been as skilled a barrister as his father, nor did he have a head for the business. After he lost a  string of cases, clients had chosen to seek counsel elsewhere. As time had progressed and the funds had dwindled, the larger houses had been sold and the meeker residence where Louise and her sisters now lived had been purchased instead. But even this house would be lost to Louise and her sisters unless a decent income could be secured. Especially since their uncle, the current Earl of Priorsbridge, had neglected to take on his responsibility as their guardian.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for you,” Josephine said. Meeting Louise’s gaze, she did not need to say the money her work would produce could ease their concerns. Instead, she asked a practical question. “When do you intend to leave?”

“Tomorrow.” Knowing how surprising this comment was, Louise hastened to say, “The countess has offered conveyance if I do. It seems her uncle, Lord Alistair, will be travelling up then as well, so it has been suggested we go together for practical reasons.”

“I suppose doing so would provide you with a better carriage for such a long journey,” Josephine said. “But is it wise for you to travel alone with a man whom you’ve never met before?”

Louise made a face. “At my age?” She shook her head. “You know as well as I that I am almost as firmly on the shelf as you are. And since I am not a young lady with marriageable prospects but rather a soon to-be-governess, I dare say no one will think much about it. Not to mention this uncle must be at least fifty years old considering the countess’s age.”

“How can you possibly know her age?” Eve asked. “It doesn’t seem like the sort of thing she would share in her letter to you.”

“Quite right,” Louise told her, “but her eldest son is eleven, so I can make an intelligent guess.”

“I suppose that is true,” Josephine murmured. “Which means you’re probably right about Lord Alistair. Besides, I doubt the countess would suggest his escort unless she was sure you’d be safe in his presence.”

Louise agreed. “It is settled then?”

“I believe so.” Josephine said.

Her remark propelled Louise to hug both her sisters. She then hurried on through to her room and pulled her valise out from under the bed. It was time for her to start packing.

#

Enjoying a last minute brandy in his study, Alistair Clay Hedgewick, considered his niece’s request to bring her new governess with him to Whitehaven. He groaned at the prospect of it–of having to spend a week with a middle-aged spinster instead of alone in his own company as he’d been expecting. Dreading it, he took another sip of his drink. It was a bit early in the day to be imbibing, but under the circumstances he felt he needed the fortification before setting out in another half hour.

He glanced toward the clock on the fireplace mantle. An hour had passed since he’d sent his carriage to collect her, so she should be arriving at any moment. A knock sounded at the door, and Alistair called for his butler to enter.

“My lord,” Mr. Fox said while maids and footmen scurried around behind him, gathering last minute items in need of packing. “Miss Potter has arrived. Would you like me to show her in?”

Alistair considered the question. He could hardly say no, could he? It was tempting since doing so would allow him that extra half hour of peace before embarking on a journey that would force him to stay on his best behavior. Taking his shoes off and relaxing his feet would not be possible. Nor would sleeping, since he had no desire to snore in her presence. In fact, he was giving up a great deal of comfort for a woman he’d never met and did not care about.

“Very well,” he sighed, before downing the rest of his drink and rising. He might as well meet his travelling companion, he reasoned, since it was the polite thing to do. Like it or not, he always strove to do what was right and play the part of the well-mannered gentleman, no matter how impractical or aggravating it could be. His behavior, however, reflected not only on him but on his entire family, and being called to task by his brother was something he always tried to avoid.

Mr. Fox returned. “Miss Potter,” he said, before stepping aside so a slim woman, wearing a grey gown and a matching pelisse, could enter. On her head, she wore a straw bonnet beneath which he was able to spy a golden display of neatly combed hair. But what shocked him the most was her face, because it did not belong to the middle-aged, rotund matron he’d envisioned, but rather to the angelic youthfulness of a woman in her prime. More than that, she was the perfect picture of beauty, her delicate features lending an elegance even the highest ranking ladies of society lacked. Her eyes, he noted, were a bright glow of hazel while her lips, parting now with undeniable surprise, were the sort men dreamed of in their wickedest fantasies.

Aware he was staring, he gathered his wits, schooled his features, and stepped toward her. “Miss Potter, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

She gaped at him. “Are you Lord Alistair?”

“The one and only.”

She shook her head. “You can’t be.” Glancing around as if seeking another gentleman, she gradually returned her gaze to him when none was to be found. “You…you…” Waving her hands as if hoping to fashion the necessary words, she finally blurted, “You are twenty years younger than you ought to be!”

#

Clamping her mouth shut, Louise stared at the man who stood before her. He was not the older gentleman she’d anticipated. Instead he was young, about a head taller than she, and solidly built, judging from his stance. His face, constructed from angular planes, contained a pair of serious eyes, a patrician nose, and a mouth set in a firm line. Whether or not the last feature was capable of smiling had yet to be determined.

“You are not who I expected either, Miss Potter,” he said, boldly allowing himself to assess her.

She didn’t like the nervous quickening of her pulse or how her insides squirmed with discomfort. Determined to fight it, she raised her chin and squared her shoulders. “How do you mean?”

He drew a breath and appeared to consider. “I assumed you to be in your forties and in possession of a plump figure. All the governesses I have ever seen have been like that. Apparently, that opinion is misguided. You do not fit the image I have of governesses at all.”

“I do not know if I should be flattered or insulted,” Louise confessed.

His eyes widened with a distinct look of surprise. “How can you think my comment was anything but a compliment?”

“Because you appear to be judging me solely on my appearance.”

“Naturally.” His tone was dry. He paused as if wondering what to say next, then asked, “What else would you have me judge you on?”

She stared at him. What a typical male thing to ask. It was no different than the sort of comments she’d gotten from her father as a young girl. As well-meaning as he’d been, she’d resented the insinuation that she would do well in life because she was pretty. Which prompted her to say, “My mental faculties for a start.”

His lips twitched as if he found her statement amusing, which made her want to hit him right there in the middle of his own study. But then he spoke. “While I may be more capable of judging you on such a fine attribute now, after we’ve had a brief exchange of words, I certainly wasn’t at the time when I made my remark.”

Acknowledging her mistake, she gave a tight smile. “Forgive me, my lord. It was not my intention to sound ungrateful.”

“And yet you managed to do so anyway,” he murmured, making her want to hit him all over again.

The man was not only arrogant but infuriating, and she was meant to spend several days with him in a carriage? She would rather enjoy the company of rodents and was contemplating saying so – or something equivalent but less rude – when the butler returned. “Your carriage is ready, my lord.”

“Thank you, Mr. Fox,” Lord Alistair said. He cast a contemplative glance at Louise before telling the butler, “I’d like you to ask one of the housemaids to join us.”

Louise almost sighed with relief.

The butler dipped his head. “Understood.” He then turned on his heel and strode from the room.

Considering Lord Alistair, Louise wondered if he might be dreading their journey as much as she was. But he gave her no reason to suppose such a thing. Instead, his expression remained inscrutable as he gestured toward the door. “After you, Miss Potter,” he said. “I believe we had best be on our way.”

#

Alistair knew the sort of woman she was. He was familiar with her type – the type of woman who wanted to be admired for her brain rather than her beauty. The countess was the same way, but unlike Miss Potter, Abigail had good reason to demand such admiration since she’d written several renowned books on the principals of mathematics.

Miss Potter, on the other hand, had yet to prove herself worthy. For as he’d suggested, looks was all he’d really had to assess her by so far. It was much too soon to determine whether or not she was simply a pretty face or if there was actually a sharp mind behind those hazel eyes of hers. Considering her stalwart manner, he suspected there might be more to her than he imagined.

At any rate, she would probably prove to be better company than the sort of woman he’d been expecting, even if he still wouldn’t be able to take off his shoes or sleep in her presence. One thing was certain, she would be easy on the eyes even if she elected not to speak with him for the duration of their journey. A possibility, judging from her determination to admire the view from the window.

They’d left London without exchanging another word. A muttered, “Thank you,” was all he’d received upon helping her into the landau. Then nothing for the next half hour. And since Bridget, the maid who’d been chosen to act as chaperone, had nodded asleep almost instantly, Alistair could not rely on her for conversation either.

Which brought them to this point.

Discreetly, he considered Miss Potter’s profile, which was not so easy to do because of her bonnet. With her face turned away from him as it was, the brim concealed most of her face and all of her hair. A shame, since he would have liked to study those golden tresses more closely.

“It will be at least five hours before we arrive at the first posting inn,” he told her.

Starting as if surprised to hear him speak, she turned away from the window, those hazel eyes of hers meeting his from beneath her long lashes. “I suspected as much,” she said.

Ignoring her rigid tone, he relaxed against the squabs and stretched out his legs. “Feel free to make yourself comfortable. You can take off your bonnet, if you like. Nobody would fault you for doing so.”

She seemed to consider this suggestion which had been equal parts selfish and considerate. Forcing a blank expression, he held his breath in anticipation of what she might do. Her eyes slid toward the spot on the bench where he’d placed his own hat and gloves. A frown puckered her forehead, and he instantly knew what was going on in her head. She wanted to take off her bonnet, perhaps even her gloves, but she worried doing so would remove a shield – break down a necessary barrier between them – and perhaps… No. He would not allow his thoughts to wander in that direction. Still, he found himself praying she would surrender to comfort and sate his damnable curiosity.

After a moment, she returned her gaze to the window. Her hands remained in her lap, and Alistair felt a peculiar pang of disappointment. Not that he would allow it to bother him. She was only a woman after all – perhaps the most delectable one he’d ever seen – but a woman nonetheless.

She was not worth thinking about for any extensive length of time.

He had other, more important, matters to consider. Perhaps he ought to set his mind to them instead of wondering about Miss Potter’s hair. Reminding himself she was nothing more than an inconvenient obligation, he prepared to reach for his satchel and pull out his newspaper, when a movement at the corner of his eye caught his attention.

Glancing toward her, he noted her hands had risen to the bow at her chin where her fingers now carefully tugged at the ends, loosening it with a slow pull that made Alistair’s mouth go dry.

Never in his life would he have presumed a bow might be untied so sensually or that he would ever consider the act of doing so arousing. But he did, damn it. His entire body responded, forcing him to cross his legs and straighten in his seat.  Then she carefully plucked the bonnet off her head, and as she did so, it took every bit of willpower he possessed to stop himself from staring. Because her hair was indeed as glorious as he had imagined it– more so even – for it wasn’t blonde alone, but streaked with silky strands of honey, gleaming in response to the light coming in through the window.

His only regret was how it was tied back in a tight knot at the nape of her neck. Because now that he’d seen it, he wanted to know its length and how it might look spilling over her shoulders. And once he knew this, he’d probably want something else – something far more dangerous than simply taking a look at her hair.

“Feel free to remove your gloves as well, if you like,” he said as he bent to retrieve his newspaper.

He would not look at her any more – not directly at least – lest she worry about being trapped for a week with a man she’d be wise to steer clear of. Honestly, he would have to have a word with Abigail once he saw her. Neglecting to inform him of Miss Potter’s young age had been a careless omission on her part. It had also resulted in a twenty minute delay while Bridget packed a bag and prepared herself for departure.

“Thank you,” Miss Potter said – the first words she’d spoken to him since climbing into the carriage. She made no effort to do as he suggested, but she did, much to his surprise, continue talking. “I am sorry if I seemed defensive earlier. It was not my intention.”

Drawn by the hushed sound of her voice, Alistair allowed his eyes to meet hers. A mistake, since he found himself thoroughly transfixed by their color. To say they were hazel was far too simple. They were a brilliant shade of green at the center, surrounded by warm tones of toffee. Years of practice allowed him to maintain his serious demeanor and not reveal the physical torment which he was starting to suffer. Only two hours in her presence and his gentlemanly ways were being severely tested. It did not bode well for the remainder of their journey.

“Then what was your intention, Miss Potter?”

Her lips parted on the precipice of speech, but then she appeared to force back whatever remark she’d been meaning to make, paused for a second, and finally said, “Beauty can be a blessing as well as a curse. It has always been assumed I would get by on my looks – that men would flock to my door after taking one glimpse and then promptly offer me marriage.”

“Most women would be glad if they were so fortunate.”

“Perhaps,” she conceded. “But in my case, circumstance got in the way. I found myself in a situation where a pretty face would not suffice. Fortunately, my mother, bless her heart, always strove to prepare my sisters and me for such a possibility. She was a practical woman. So while our father insisted there was no need for anything more than basic lessons, Mama demanded proficiency in mathematics, science, literature and French. And because our father doted on her, he allowed it, affording us all an education we can now use to our best advantage.”

He took a moment to consider this forthright statement. “You speak of both parents in the past tense.” Noting the way her eyes shifted, he quietly said, “I take it they are no longer with you?”

She gave a tight nod. “We lost Mama four years ago. Papa passed last summer.”

Which explained her dull attire. “I am sorry to hear it.”

A weak smile was her only response, and then, as if seeking a different topic, she quickly asked, “How is it you are as young as you are? Lady Channing referred to you as her uncle, so I rather assumed you were going to be a bit older.”

“Yes. You did make that quite clear the moment we met.”

Blushing, she glanced at him timidly from beneath her lashes. It impacted him in the strangest of ways. “Forgive me. It was terribly rude of me to respond as I did. I’m afraid surprise got the better of me.”

She wasn’t the only one, he reflected. “The fact is, my father was thirty years old when my brother, the current Duke of Langley, was born. His mother died in childbirth, and our father remarried, to a woman who bore him no children. After her death, our father married his third wife. By then he was in his fifty-seventh year, while his wife, my mother, was a widow twenty-five years his junior. Hence, there are twenty-eight years between my brother and me since I was born a year after the wedding. Indeed I am closer in age to my niece, Lady Channing, who is only three years younger than I.”

“How strange,” Miss Potter murmured. “I cannot imagine what that might be like. You’re practically an only child.”

He couldn’t deny it. “The duke has been more of a parent to me than a brother. I was only ten when Papa died.”

What he would not say was how much the death had affected him. His father had doted on him, perhaps because he’d been the spare he’d been trying to have for two full decades. There was also the possibility his father had tried to avoid the mistakes he felt he’d made when raising his brother. From what Alistair gathered, little love had been given to the current Duke of Langley. Everything had been about duty and discipline. So when Papa died and Langley stepped in and took his place, Alistair’s carefree childhood had come to a grinding halt.

“I am sorry to hear it,” Miss Potter said, capturing his attention. “No child should have to lose their parent at such a young age.”

Appreciating the sympathy but disliking the mood their discussion had led to, he nodded, then turned his attention back to the newspaper he’d brought along for the ride. Opening it, he set his mind to finding a new investment opportunity – something that would save him from bending to Langley’s will.

#


Hoping she managed to do so discreetly, Louise considered Lord Alistair while he read the crisp newspaper he held. His brow was knit in serious contemplation, his eyes skimming the pages with intense interest. Turning a page with a rustle, he leaned slightly forward as if studying part of the text in greater detail.

Being a relatively large man, he seemed to fill the carriage with his presence. The space had felt even smaller when he’d been looking at her. Thankfully, he’d stopped doing so now, allowing the fluttery feel in her belly to settle into something much calmer and more relaxed. His dark perusal invariably made her tighten up inside. It bothered her to no end that she couldn’t discern what he was thinking. To do so was impossible when he kept the inner workings of his mind carefully masked behind layers of strict severity. What shocked her most, perhaps, was her reaction to this, for it made her want to shake some emotion out of him. Of course, doing so would likely result in the termination of her employment before it even began.

As she watched him, a dark lock of hair fell across his brow. It made him appear more carefree somehow, even if his expression did no such thing. Flexing her fingers, she fought the urge to reach out and force the errant hair back into place. To do so would be scandalous – completely and utterly shocking.

With this in mind, she drew the blanket he’d given her at the onset of their journey tighter across her lap. As concerned as she’d been about travelling with him after their initial meeting, she had begun to warm to the idea of sharing his company.

For one thing, it was a chance in a lifetime, because being confined to a small space with the best looking man in England was not the sort of thing that was likely to happen ever again. For another, she would not be alone with him. Even if the maid who’d joined them slept the entire way to Whitehaven, her presence ensured propriety would be maintained.

So why worry? Rather, Louise decided she might as well spend the next few days admiring Lord Alistair’s perfect figure, the breadth of his shoulders, and how perfectly his well-tailored clothes hugged him in all the right places. This was a rare treat she’d been given, and she’d be a fool not to take advantage.

So she sat back and let her gaze wander up the length of his legs and across his thighs. He turned another page, and she studied the movement, admiring the size of his hands. They were so much larger than hers, though elegant in their own right as they carefully held the newspaper.

Sliding her gaze upward, she took in the leanness of his chest. Many men would have a belly protruding when sitting down, but he did not. Rather, his jacket sat completely flat against his torso, which rather intrigued her. Continuing up over his chest, she reached his shoulders and then the side of his neck where a few fine tufts of hair curled right beneath his earlobe.

“You’re staring at me,” he murmured.

Louise’s heart slammed against her chest and her gaze shot toward his. He was studying her with those dark eyes that revealed nothing of what he was thinking, but they did produce a rush of heat that instantly made her think of flinging herself from the carriage if only to escape her own embarrassment.

****
 
The Earl Who Loved Her:

A chance meeting…

Eve Potter can hardly wait to arrive at Amberly Hall for the Christmas season! The hope is that she will make a match with an eligible gentleman. But as fate would have it, she misses the coach that is sent to collect her from her point of arrival, and starts out on foot…only to go in the wrong direction. Nearly frozen, she arrives at BlackHall, where she is invited inside and introduced to the master of the house, the Earl of Ravenworth. Eve is smitten, for he is beyond handsome, which makes him a temptation she must avoid. But can she…?

Bryce Harlowe lives as a recluse, shuned by Society and even his own family after being falsly accused of taking a woman’s virginity and then refusing to marry her. The young woman at his door cannot stay at Blackhall less her reputation be ruined. And yet, when the pesky winter climate leaves them snowed in together at Blackhall, Bryce and Eve grow closer, each discovering a mutual respect and longing for the other. Until Bryce’s past is revealed, threatening to rip apart their newfound love…

Chapter One

The days were getting colder. Eve could feel it in her bones. Glancing toward the empty fireplace, she addressed her sister, Josephine. “Are you sure you want me to go?”

“Yes.” The word was spoken without the slightest hesitation. “Going to Amberly Hall to visit with your friend Margaret is a wonderful opportunity for you, Eve – one you mustn’t pass up.”

“You didn’t mention my going there to Louise before she left,” Eve said in reference to their other sister, who was four years older than Eve and two years younger than Josephine. She’d left the day before, after being offered a position as governess in the northern part of the country.

“I worried she would postpone travelling or decide not to go at all if she knew. She didn’t like the idea of leaving us alone for Christmas, but she took some solace in knowing we would at least have each other.”

“Except now you will be by yourself in this miserable house.”

Josephine gave her a sharp look. “We are fortunate to have a house at all. Things could be worse.”

Knowing how true that was and how hard Josephine had worked to keep a roof over their heads, Eve apologized for the comment and said, “Perhaps we should let our guardian know about our difficulties.”

“No! Absolutely not, Eve. We have managed to get by without relying on any man this past year since Papa died, and we shall continue to do so. Because to take money from a stranger…”

“He is our uncle.”

“And yet we have never made his acquaintance.” Josephine shook her head. “It wouldn’t be right to ask for his help, and I would hate to feel beholden.”

“Very well. We will find another way.”

“It will be easier now after Louise has found employment.”

Eve was well aware. She wished there were more she could do so she could stop feeling guilty about her sisters working while she did nothing besides look pretty. But Josephine wouldn’t even let her sweep the floors. Hoping to provide Eve with the season she and Louise had been denied, Josephine insisted Eve should not show any signs of work, which meant her hands had to be kept smooth and unblemished.

Eve picked up her tea and took a sip, wincing in response to the tepid water as it slid down her throat. She drew her shawl tighter around her shoulders. “There is no guarantee my going to Amberly Hall will benefit us in any way.”

“No, but it is more likely to do so than your staying here would.” Pressing her lips together, Josephine turned a fierce pair of eyes on her. “Margaret’s family is well connected. You are lucky she still remembers you, now our positions are no longer what they once were.”

“We’ve known each other since childhood, Josephine. It would have been cruel of her not to do so.”

Josephine sighed. “No, dearest. It would have been expected. But her kindness and consideration–the fact she has invited you to stay with her for the holidays–does speak highly of her character.”

“Perhaps I should ask her if you might join me.”

“Absolutely not,” Josephine said. “To do so would be taking advantage, which is something I refuse to do. Besides, I have my work here. It does not pause for the holidays. So you will go to Amberly alone and enjoy yourself with your friend. I will be perfectly content here, Eve. My only concern is for you travelling alone.”

“The distance isn’t too great. There are no overnight stays along the way, and I’m sure other travelers will be joining me. So I won’t be without company.”

“I suppose that is true.”

But in spite of the smile Josephine gave her the following day when Eve stepped onto the stagecoach, Eve sensed her sister was doing her best to put on a brave face for her sake. It was the first time they would be apart for more than a day.

Squeezed into a spot by the window with three other passengers beside her on the bench and four more across, Eve caught a final glimpse of Josephine as the carriage lurched into motion.

“Write to me when you get there!” Josephine called.

A quick nod was all Eve could manage before the conveyance turned right, carrying her through a series of streets and out toward the Great Western Road that would take her to Bournemouth. If all went well, she ought to be there by late afternoon, in time to enjoy a cup of tea with Margaret before preparing for dinner.

The carriage charged ahead, stopping every hour to change its team of horses. Sleep proved impossible with every bump in the road jostling her until her bottom got sore. Her comfort did get somewhat better as other passengers arrived at their destinations, allowing for a bit more room inside the cabin.

“Amberly Hall,” the coachman finally called, pulling the carriage to a halt at around four o’clock. Darkness was already setting in, encouraged by the thick clouds blocking the sun.  Eve climbed down and retrieved her bag from the top of the coach. Gripping it in her hand, she watched the coach lurch into motion once more and disappear down the road.

Right.

She glanced about. Margaret had said she would send a carriage to collect her, but the coach had made good time, so she’d arrived a half hour earlier than expected. With the wind picking up and the light growing dimmer by the second, she elected to start walking toward the lights she could see in the distance. Perhaps she would meet the carriage on her way. One thing was certain, however, and that was the fact she might freeze to death if she stood still for one more second.

#

Bryce Elliot Harlowe, Earl of Ravenworth, was preparing to enjoy the brandy he’d poured when a knock at the door brought his butler into the library. “My Lord,” Radcliff said, “a woman has arrived.”

“Does she have a name?” Bryce asked. He glanced across at his favorite chair. Enjoying a peaceful moment of reading by the fire would clearly have to wait.

“Miss Potter. She says she is here to see Mrs. Havisham.”

“Then she must have taken a wrong turn somewhere.” The Havisham home was six miles in the opposite direction.

“ I wish to know if I might offer her the use of your carriage. It is almost dark outside, you see, and it has started to snow. Sending a young woman back out without escort would not sit well with me.”

Bryce had to agree. It wouldn’t be right to send any woman away again under such circumstances, no matter her age. “Have Peter make the necessary preparations, and in the meantime, please ask Miss Potter to join me.” He received few visitors these days and was starting to grow weary of his isolation.

“Very well, my lord.” Radcliff left, returning moments later with a woman who stood encased in a long black pelisse. She wore a floppy bonnet which dipped across her forehead, concealing her eyes. Several shawls were wrapped tightly across her shoulders and chest. “May I present Miss Potter?”

The woman attempted a curtsy even as she shivered, which prompted Bryce to step forward quickly and guide her toward the fireplace. Once there, he took a step back and sketched a short bow. “It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss Potter. I am the Earl of Ravenworth.”

She tipped her chin up, her surprise unmistakable. It encompassed her entire face. But what caught his attention the most were her dark blue eyes. They left him completely dazed.  Radcliff coughed, pulling Bryce out of his trance and enabling him to gather his wits. He turned toward his butler. “Please arrange for some tea and sandwiches to be brought up and—”

Miss Potter sneezed and then she sneezed again. And a third time.

“Oh dear,” she murmured as she took a step closer to the fire.

Oh dear, indeed.

Bryce gave her an assessing look before addressing Radcliff once more. “I believe we should get her out of her wet pelisse and hang it to dry in the kitchen next to the stove. The same goes for her shawls.”

“Yes, my lord.” Radcliff, being the practical, no-nonsense man he was, crossed to where Miss Potter was standing and held out his hand. “If you’ll please give me your outerwear, miss.”

Miss Potter hesitated. She glanced at Bryce, who gave her a reassuring nod. “We would hate for you to catch a cold,” he said. “Such a thing could very well ruin your Christmas.”

That seemed to get her cooperation. Her fingers quickly untied her shawls and peeled them away before going to work on the buttons of her pelisse. This garment came off too, revealing an equally black dress. But not without hinting at a slender yet curvaceous form. Beneath the other layers of clothing, her breasts had been undefined and unremarkable. Now, their rounded curves stood out, drawing Bryce’s attention in a way that made him wish she would keep on undressing.

Of course she didn’t. But she did take off her bonnet as well, exposing a pile of blonde curls that appeared to have been twisted and pinned down by force. It made him wonder what her hair might look like if it were set free – allowed to fall down over her shoulders and…

He swallowed and turned away, grabbing his glass and tossing back his brandy before swinging around to face Radcliff. “That will be all for now.”

The butler hesitated, gave a curt nod, and took his leave without closing the door as he usually did. The gesture was not lost on Bryce, reminding him that Miss Potter, whatever her station, was a young, most likely unmarried, woman. Being alone with her behind closed doors would not be appropriate, even if it meant losing heat from the room.

Sighing, he considered the figure she presented, standing there warming her hands, and he found his attention drawn by the shape of her neck. It curved so delicately, joining with her shoulders before disappearing beneath her gown. A few stray strands of hair curled against it, and for reasons unknown, his fingers itched to draw them back into place.

Wincing, he stepped toward her. “Would you like to sit?” he asked, indicating the armchair closest to the fire.

“Thank you.” She turned and lowered herself to the seat, then focused her captivating eyes on him. “I am sorry to intrude upon you like this, my lord.”

Bryce’s muscles flexed. The way she said, my lord… Damn, but he could too easily imagine her addressing him so in a far more intimate setting, a setting in which fewer clothes would be required.

“You needn’t be,” he managed to say while he claimed the other chair. His voice sounded rougher than he would have liked.

“It is kind of you to offer your carriage, give me tea and sandwiches, and allow me to warm myself by your fire.” She averted her gaze. “You did not have to.”

“No. I don’t suppose I did,” he agreed. “But turning you away would not have been right.”

This brought her eyes back to his with aching vulnerability. “Do you always do what is right?”

“I try to. Yes.” Though you might tempt me to toss that principle straight out the window. It was a good thing she wouldn’t be staying long. He’d not had a woman in quite some time, and with Miss Potter’s arrival, he was starting to recognize the strain of it.

“That is admirable,” she said, and he could see she meant it, which in turn made his chest tighten around his expanding heart.

A maid arrived with a tray, setting it down on a small table before departing the room once more. Bryce watched Miss Potter fill two cups with tea. “Milk and sugar?” she asked.

He shook his head. “No thank you.”

She poured a splash of milk into her own, picked up the cup, and set the rim to her lips. Her eyes had initially distracted him from this particular attribute, but he took greater notice now. And as he did so–as he watched that soft piece of flesh press against the delicate china–arousal took hold. Never in his life would he have imagined the simple task of drinking tea could look so bloody erotic, yet Miss Potter, dressed in her modest black gown, managed to make it so.

Crossing his legs, he deliberately strove to hide the effect her arrival was starting to have on him. Clearly, he’d put off procuring a mistress for far too long. Tomorrow, he’d set his mind to it.

First thing in the morning.

In the meantime, however, “I understand from my butler you were trying to reach Amberly Hall?”

“Yes. Mrs. Havisham is a longtime friend of mine. She invited me to visit with her and her husband for the holidays.”

“And when you are not in this part of the country, you are in…”

“London,” she said, finishing his sentence. “I live there with my older sister.”

“What about your parents?”

She gave a small shrug as if to diminish the importance of her next words. “Papa died last year, three years after we lost Mama.”

Bryce frowned. “I am sorry to hear it.” And he was. He knew all too well how hard it could be to lose a loved one.

“At least my sisters and I have each other.”

“So there is more than one?”

“Yes. But Louise no longer lives with us. She has recently accepted the position of governess for the Earl and Countess of Channing’s children. In fact, she left for the north of England yesterday.”

So Miss Potter was working class. He’d suspected as much, considering her attire, but he hadn’t been sure because of her friendship with Mrs. Havisham. He was curious to know what the older sister she’d mentioned did for a living and what she herself planned on doing, but couldn’t quite think of how to ask without imposing.

As it turned out, he didn’t have to. She revealed the answer by saying, “Josephine, my oldest sister, is an accountant at the Park View hotel in London. Her earnings are enough for all of us to get by on, but since she would like to give me a Season, she…” Miss Potter drew a deep breath. “Forgive me. I don’t know why I’m telling you all of this.” She made a nervous chuckling sound and reached for a sandwich, filling her mouth with the bread, ham, and cheese.

“That’s quite all right. I was interested, so you needn’t apologize.” But the mention of a Season… Perhaps he’d been wrong about her being working class. “In fact, I must confess you have managed to heighten my curiosity.”

“Really?” A few fine breadcrumbs spilled into her lap, and she hastily set about trying to gather them up and discard them on her plate.

“What is your family’s background, if you don’t mind my asking?”

She went completely still, and he wondered if she might give him a set down for such an imposing question. They were strangers after all. He really had no right to pry. And doing so was doubly wrong in light of what he knew about her deceased parents and working sisters. So much for her impression of him doing the right thing.

“My great grandfather was a viscount,” she eventually said. “His third son, my grandfather, went into law and opened a successful business. Unfortunately, Papa did not have the same legal acumen, and when Mama died, he gave up on making the effort. Money was lost in an effort to maintain a lifestyle we couldn’t afford, assets were sold, and my sisters were denied the Seasons they’d always expected to enjoy, until work became their only option.” She dropped her gaze, but not before Bryce was able to notice the sheen of moisture gathering against her lashes. “Josephine and Louise have made so many sacrifices for me. I have to get to Amberly, if only to make the connections I am sure to make with Mrs. Havisham’s help.”

“Of course.” So she was gentry, and if her sisters had anything to say about it, she would remain so, even if they had to join the working class. Understanding the guilt and responsibility she probably felt, he chose to turn their conversation toward a more positive subject. “The annual Christmas dance will be hosted at the assembly hall this Saturday. I’m sure the Havishams will take you.”

“Oh.” Miss Potter’s face brightened. “That would be diverting. I’ve never attended such an event before.” She gave him an uncertain look before asking, “Will you be there too?”

He almost laughed at the absurdity of such a question but managed to maintain his composure. “No. I prefer to keep to myself.”

“Why?” She slapped her hand over her mouth, eyes widening with chagrin as she hastily apologized for asking.

“There’s nothing wrong with being curious,” he told her gently. He himself was finding it difficult not to be when every word she spoke made him eager to find out more about her. Clearly, this self-imposed seclusion of his was beginning to have its toll. “However,” he went on, “it is my prerogative to refrain from answering, and I intend to do precisely that.” He did not want the only person with whom he enjoyed a bit of conversation for the first time in three years to hate him as much as everyone else did. “We all have our secrets, Miss Potter. You must allow me to keep mine.”

#

The gravity with which the earl spoke and the shadows darkening his eyes prompted Eve to wonder what sort of secrets he might be keeping. Her curiosity regarding this man had been gradually increasing since the moment she’d stepped into his library and laid eyes on him.

An angular jaw and well-defined cheekbones provided his face with a rigid structure. It was not as displeasing as it might have been without the soft curve of his mouth and the dark brown warmth of his eyes. His hair, she noted, was almost black, shot through with lighter chocolate-colored tones.

Standing tall, at least a full head above her, he  exuded confidence and power, the sort that could send fear shooting through any man who crossed him, and Eve found her heart beating more rapidly than it had upon her arrival. Left alone with him to enjoy her tea and the warmth of the fire, she’d calmed her nerves with talk of her sisters and her situation without once considering how little interest a man like him would have in such matters.

But when she’d glanced at him, he hadn’t appeared the least bit bored. Rather, he’d considered her with compassion, then brought up the country dance, which had prompted her to take leave of her senses and ask a most forward question. His response had only made her wonder more about him and why he might choose to avoid a social gathering. As far as she could tell, the house was fairly quiet. Surely his wife would have materialized by now, if he had one.

She bit her lip and glanced around, wondering when the carriage might be ready so she could be on her way once more. However hospitable the earl was proving to be, she was certain he would prefer to return to whatever plans he might have for the evening.

“This fireplace would be perfect for roasting chestnuts,” she said, when the silence seemed to drag on for longer than what was comfortable.

Lord Ravenworth’s eyes filled with amusement. “Is that what you were thinking about?”

Unwilling to tell him he’d been the subject of her musings, she quickly nodded.  “The house I grew up in had an equally large fireplace. Roasting chestnuts on it was such a lovely pastime activity on cold winter days.”

He chuckled lightly. “You’re too young to be getting nostalgic, Miss Potter.”

“Perhaps. But the path my life has taken has made it impossible for me not to be.”

“You sound as though you have regrets.”

Averting her gaze, she stared into the dancing flames. “Not regrets so much as a feeling of overwhelming loss. I miss the comfort of my childhood and the simplicity of my life when both my parents lived. I miss them both terribly, and I miss the bright future my sisters and I looked forward to with innocent anticipation.”

A knock sounded at the door, drawing her attention to the butler who had returned. “My lord,” he said, addressing his master. “May I have a private word with you?”

Looking over at Ravenworth and noting his deep frown, Eve couldn’t stop apprehension from coursing through her. He gave a curt nod and rose to his feet, departing the room and leaving her alone to wonder what might have occurred. Of course, there was the possibility it had nothing to do with her. After all, this was a large household. Any number of things might demand the earl’s attention.

But when he returned a short while later and pinned her with his serious eyes, she knew the matter he’d been made aware of had everything to do with her. “Forgive me, Miss Potter, but there seems to be a snag in our plan to get you to Amberly Hall tonight.”

Lips parting with surprise, she blinked.  The significance of his comment began to sink in. “I cannot possibly remain here,” she said. “Unless there are other women living under this roof, it would be most—”

“Improper,” he said. He held her gaze. “Believe me, I am quite aware of the fact, and to answer your question, I am the only person in residence, besides the servants.”

“Then you must agree my staying here is impossible.” If anyone were to find out, as Margaret and her husband eventually would, her reputation would be called into question. And while she might be able to convince them that nothing untoward happened while she spent the night in a bachelor’s home, they would not in good conscience be able to introduce her to eligible young gentlemen. “If there is a problem with the carriage or one of the horses, I’ll be more than happy to walk the distance. You need only point me in the right direction.”

“Absolutely not.” The adamancy with which he spoke sent a jolt through Eve’s body. “No gentleman would ever send a woman out into the freezing night so she can walk six miles to her next destination. It is unconscionable for me to treat you with so little consideration. And what would your sisters say, or your friend, Mrs. Havisham, if something were to happen to you? I would be to blame!”

He drew a shuddering breath and raked his fingers through his hair. “My apologies. I did not mean to be so brusque about it, but the fact of the matter is, ice has formed on the road within the past hour. To venture out by carriage, on horseback, or on foot will be hazardous. I’ll not risk it. Which means you will remain here as my guest.”

“But surely—”

“Your reputation may remain intact if you simply inform your friend that the coach with which you were traveling lost a wheel and was forced to stop at an inn for the night.”

“You want me to lie?”

“Either that or risk ruining your chance of enjoying the Season your sisters are working so hard to give you.” It was as if he could read her mind. “In the meantime, I will ask my housekeeper to have the maids prepare a spare bedroom for you. You may even have a hot bath brought up if you like. And once you are ready, I would like you to join me for dinner. I find I’ve been eating alone for far too long.”

Without further comment, he left the room while Eve was forced to admit that, as much as she dreaded the possible impact of staying here, she was secretly thrilled with the prospect of spending more time in the Earl of Ravenworth’s company.

****
The Duke Who Came To Town:

She doesn’t want to be a kept woman…

Josephine Potter knows she must retain her employment to provide for her younger sisters and to maintain the house.  While a young woman working as an accountant – at a hotel no less – could be frowned upon by some, it’s still a respectable way to earn a living. No matter what a certain duke might think. Besides, Josephine has a few rules she lives by: Don’t rely on others, don’t accept money from someone you don’t know, and never allow a man to control your life. But when she is fired from her job, Josephine may have to bend a few rules…

Devon, the Duke of Snowdon, has never met a more bull-headed woman than Josephine Potter! The Potter sisters are granddaughters of a Viscount and should not have to work for a living. So despite Josephine’s arguments, Devon insists she end her employee status immediately and accept a stipend for her and her sisters. When she is then fired, she accuses him of meddling in her life…and things are about to heat up despite the cold winter weather. As they work together to figure out why Devon’s hotel is losing money, a mutual attraction that won’t be denied, grows between them.

But when rumors of impropriety abound, can Josephine’s reputation be saved…or will her life be destroyed by scandal?

 

Chapter One

Josephine waited until the coach carrying her youngest sister, Eve, out to the Great West Road had turned a corner, disappearing from sight. She then wrapped her shawl tighter around her shoulders and started making her way back toward the townhouse they’d shared with their other sister, Louise, until yesterday. The place would be empty now with both sisters away. Eve had been invited to visit with a friend for the holidays, while Louise had gone to Whitehaven in the northern part of the country to become a governess to three young children.

Some extra income would certainly be welcome. Josephine wasn’t sure how much longer she would be able to cover their expenses on her own. The townhouse, alone, took most of her wages, while food and clothing swallowed the rest. It was a struggle, but to accept defeat and relocate to humbler lodgings was out of the question. Already, they’d had to give up the status their Mayfair home and country estate had once afforded them. As the great-granddaughters of an earl, they’d enjoyed a comfortable position in society—until their father had squandered it all in a downward spiral of drink and depression.

Pushing the unpleasant memories as far back as they would go, Josephine determined to focus on the future. The townhouse wasn’t the only thing at stake. There were also Eve’s prospects and their reputations. While Josephine and Louise had resigned themselves to working for a living, they both hoped Eve might still be able to enjoy the Season they’d been denied, that she might marry well, and that her life might be a little easier and happier than what they faced. There would be no large dowry, only the meager sum Josephine had managed to put aside during the last year since their father’s death: a few wages here, a bit of pawned jewelry there.

Turning onto Vine Street, Josephine bowed her head against the gust of wind sweeping toward her. She’d used the last firewood that morning and would have to see about buying more –yet another cost eating away at her income. But this was England, and they were only in December. It would be several months before she’d be able to forego heating. Unless she wished to get sick and not only risk losing her job but also having to pay the exorbitant fee of seeing a doctor. To do so was not an option, so when she spotted a woman with firewood strapped to her back, Josephine crossed the street and made her approach. “How much for three pieces?” It was all she could carry.

“Thirty pence, love.”

Swallowing the bitterness of surrendering the sum, Josephine exchanged the coins for the wood and resumed walking, pushing through the wind as it whipped her skirts around her legs.

She was almost at her door before she noticed the carriage parked at the side of the road. The two black horses hitched to the front of it silently watched her progress. Giving them a wary glance, Josephine balanced the firewood in one arm so she could retrieve her key from her pelisse pocket.

Her face burned with cold and she took a step forward, prepared to seek refuge indoors, when the carriage door opened and a tall, broad-shouldered figure stepped down onto the pavement. His hair was black beneath his beaver hat, his features matching the harsh winter climate. Eyes as dark as night caught hers, and his jaw immediately set with distinct determination.

“Miss Potter?” He shoved the carriage door shut and strode toward her. The wind caught the hem of his somber greatcoat, forcing it out behind him in jerky movements.

Josephine raised her chin. “Who wants to know?”

Halting his approach, he told her frankly, “The Duke of Snowdon.” He dipped his head and touched the brim of his hat. “At your service.”

#

The woman standing before Devon stared at him with incomprehension. Her lilac eyes, set against an oval face, had widened to the size of saucers, her rosy lips parted with undeniable shock. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected the Potter sisters’ appearances to be, but this one was certainly prettier than he had imagined. Cautious, too, judging from her response to his presence.

“Your guardian,” he said, deciding to put her mind at ease, “has asked me to look in on you and your sisters.”

Knitting her brow, she pressed her lips together and moved a bit closer to the door. “The Earl of Priorsbridge?”

“Precisely.”

Her expression turned increasingly wary. “Forgive me for saying this, but I don’t believe you.”

Devon tried not to be affronted by the insult, but he couldn’t resist asking, “Are you calling me a liar?”

She seemed to consider the question but chose not to answer it in the end, saying instead, “He has never showed any interest in us before.” Her gaze slid toward the door and the welcome warmth no doubt waiting for her beyond.

“Perhaps you’re thinking of his father.”

“His father?” Confusion seemed to bring interest with it.

Which surprised Devon. “Have you not heard of his recent passing?”

She shook her head. “No. I do not read the papers very often.”

“Then allow me to inform you that he died last month. It is his son who has asked me to make sure you’re well and in no dire straits.” Retrieving his calling card from his pocket, Devon handed it to her so she could confirm his identity. Her fingers trembled, the firewood pressed against her chest like a barrier of sorts. Devon drew a breath and expelled it in a ghostly mist. “Might I suggest we continue this conversation indoors?”

Her hesitance could not have been more obvious if she had actually told him she did not want him in her house. But the chill air must have banished the thought, for she quickly nodded and handed him the firewood. “If you will please hold this.”

She unlocked the door and led the way through to a tiny foyer with barely enough space for the two of them to stand. Devon shut the door behind him to block the cold.

“In here.” Miss Potter spoke briskly as she opened the door to a modest parlor and led the way through.

He followed her inside, noting it was only marginally warmer in there than it had been in the foyer or even outdoors, with the fire in the grate reduced to embers. Crossing the floor, he considered the orange sparks glowing amidst the ashes. He hadn’t lit a fire in years, not since his father had taught him how when he’d been a lad. A lesson in practicality, his father had called it. As heir to a dukedom, Devon would probably never need the skill, but his father had insisted upon him knowing it all the same. It was being put to good use now, he decided, as he crouched down and set the logs on the floor. He reached for the fireplace spade and broom.

“What are you doing?” Miss Potter asked from somewhere behind him. She sounded slightly appalled.

Devon started to clean out the ash. “What does it look like?” She probably wasn’t accustomed to dukes stopping by and ensuring comfort.

There was a pause–a very distinct one–and then, “But you cannot possibly…I mean, I can easily do this, Your…er…ah…Grace.”

It was curious really, but there was something charming about her perplexity. Something amusing too. Devon glanced at her over his shoulder and instantly sucked in his breath. While he’d been busying himself with the fireplace, she’d removed the bonnet she’d been wearing to reveal the fairest hair he’d ever seen. Wisps of it curled against her cheeks with untidy abandon, tempting him to stand and approach her so he could examine it in greater detail.

Instead, he returned his attention to his task, blocking her from his view. “It’s no trouble.” His voice was slightly gruffer than before. “I am more than happy to help.”

Especially since he’d promised Priorsbridge – Edward – he would ensure the Misses Potter were well taken care of until he was able to do so himself. Some might call it a tall order, given its inconvenience, but Devon owed Edward, and the time had come for him to pay his debt.

“I see.”

She said nothing further while he continued to clean out the ash and proceeded to build the fire. He lit it using the tinderbox sitting on the mantle and stoked it with the bellows. “That ought to do it,” he eventually said, unable to hide the pleasure he found in the task. “Come warm your hands, Miss Potter.”

Carefully, as if she feared he might bite, she moved toward the welcoming heat with a gentle tread. Devon stepped to one side, allowing more space to fall between them, but not enough to prevent him from seeing the shades of blue unfurling around her irises. Her eyes were stunning, remarkable in their transformation of color. And her hair… It wasn’t white, and it wasn’t blonde. Rather, it was something in between, something he could not adequately describe, though it held him riveted with its uniqueness.

Stretching out her fingers, now free from the gloves she’d been wearing, she allowed a sigh of distinct pleasure. Devon followed her example, but it wasn’t the fire that held his interest. It was her – the rosy glow brightening her cheeks,  the dark lashes feathering across her skin, the soft curve of her nose, and the plush fullness of her lower lip. He considered each feature discreetly, all the while pretending he needed warmth too, when the truth was, he hadn’t felt cold since catching his first glimpse of her without her bonnet.  

He shrugged aside the distraction and glanced around the room. For a house inhabited by three women, it was unusually silent. “Where are your sisters, Miss Potter? Priorsbridge wrote there ought to be three of you living here.”

“And so there were until recently.” After flexing her fingers as if hoping the action would force the heat to penetrate further, she lowered her hands and turned slightly toward him. Her eyes were now entirely blue, a deeper shade quite similar to the one found at sea on a hot afternoon. “Louise left for Whitehaven the day before yesterday in order to accept a position as governess to the Earl and Countess of Channing’s children.”

Devon felt his jaw tighten with displeasure. “But she is gentry, the Earl of Priorsbridge’s cousin and ward. Allowing her to work for a living is highly irregular—unacceptable in so many ways—and likely to suggest Priorsbridge has failed to do his duty by you.”

Her eyebrows rose. “You speak as though you imagine we had a choice, as though we could afford to continue living in this house without seeking employment.”

Briefly, Devon considered their humble surroundings, the wornout velvet upholstery covering the nearby sofa and chairs, the lack of rugs and display pieces. The tables and sideboard were bare. Not a single vase or ornamental figurine could be seen. And then the manner in which she’d spoken hit him. His eyes found hers, lost for a moment in the clarity of her gaze. “We?”

A shrug shifted her shoulders.  “I work as an accountant, Your Grace.”

“I beg your pardon?” He’d never heard of a female accountant before, and was so surprised to be faced with one now, he tactlessly followed his question with, “But you’re a woman!”

“Yes.”

The clip of her tone suggested she wasn’t the least bit pleased with what he said. Still… “That is even worse than being a governess, Miss Potter. The scandal you might cause. Why, it is—”

“I don’t see how my position would cause an ounce of scandal for anyone.”

Blinking, he stared down at her upturned face. “You are doing a man’s job, which might not have been too bad if you had been born into the working class. But you were not. Your status, most particularly as it relates to Priorsbridge, demands a certain…” He waved his hand, unsure of how to finish his sentence, especially since she was glaring at him now with distinct hostility. “The point is, your actions reflect upon him.”

“What would you have had me do instead, Your Grace? Starve? Lose my home? Allow my sisters to do so?” She jabbed a finger at his chest, the blunt point of contact scolding him as effectively as her words. “I did what was necessary in order to survive after Priorsbridge proved to have no intention of helping us in any way.”

“I will agree the former earl was lax in his duties toward you, but his son means to right that wrong. He intends to do what his father did not. It is why he asked me to come here personally and check on you.”

She gave a snort. “It must be nice to have a duke at your beck and call.”

Gritting his teeth, Devon leaned toward her. “He helped me when my father passed and I was out of the country. He saw to the funeral arrangements and ensured my mother and sister were well taken care of.  Since he is otherwise occupied at the moment with the details surrounding his new inheritance, he asked if I could return the favor and handle this particular matter on his behalf.” Drawing a breath, he forced calmness into his voice before saying, “So you will hand in your notice at wherever it is you work, and then you will write to your sister and ask her to do the same. Immediately.”

#

For a long moment, Josephine could do nothing but stare at the duke. The aloof manner in which he’d just spoken made it abundantly clear he was accustomed to getting his way. And in case his voice did not accomplish this goal, he wore a stern expression indicative of his strength and power, an expression intended to intimidate and defeat a weaker individual. Josephine knew there were men and women who would swiftly surrender to his demands when faced with the hint of his impending wrath, but she wasn’t one of them. Not when she’d faced much worse.

So she straightened her spine and squared her shoulders, addressing him with more honesty than a man of his rank had likely ever been subjected to before and said, “Your arrogance is astounding.” His jaw went slack, fuelling her resolve. “The fact you would presume to have the right to tell me what to do is preposterous. How dare you come into my home and play the entitled lord? How dare you behave as though I am subservient to you, as though I must bow to your will?”

She fairly shook with anger, the cold she’d felt consuming her body a moment ago, completely forgotten. “You…” She pointed a finger at him, and he actually took a step back. “You pompous ass!”

Her breaths were shallow, her chest heaving beneath the weight of each inhalation while she struggled to calm herself to some degree. She’d never been the sort of person to raise her voice to anyone or to throw insults around. That she did so now with a duke was testament to how deeply his overbearing manner had offended her.

“Are you quite finished?” Irritation had banished all signs of the shock he’d portrayed in response to her outburst. Instead, he now encompassed more fierceness than ever. She chose to hold her tongue this time, allowing him to have his say. “Considering I’ve been tasked with ensuring your welfare and quarrelling is unlikely to be productive, I will pretend you did not insult me in such direct terms.”

“Would you rather I did it in indirect terms?” The words were out before she could stop them. Inwardly, she cringed at her childish inability to resist the jab, while managing to maintain an outward appearance of stubborn defiance. Thank God.

His teeth ground together, nostrils flaring while his hard stare drove boldly into her. “If you think coming here is enjoyable to me, think again, Miss Potter, for I can assure you I would rather be elsewhere. However, I have made a promise to Priorsbridge, and being a man of my word, I intend to do precisely what he has asked, however undeserving I think you are of anyone’s good graces at the moment.”

He drew a deep breath as if gathering his strength. Affording her with the most patronizing stare she’d ever borne witness to in her life, he said, “So you and your sisters will receive a monthly stipend of seventy-five pounds, and in exchange, you will do everything in your power to ensure your actions do not reflect negatively on Priorsbridge.”

“In other words, you are bribing me.”

Muttering something beneath his breath–a curse, no doubt–he closed his eyes for a second, squeezing them tight before opening them again with frustration. “What woman in her right mind would rather toil away her days than accept a relative’s generosity?”

She knew it seemed ridiculous, especially to a man like Snowdon who’d never been shunned by his peers or faced the threat of destitution. But for her, the idea of taking money from a man she’d never even met was no different than stealing. “I do not wish to be a charity cause, nor do I want to take advantage. What I desire is to prove myself capable of self-sufficiency.” She would prove to the world and, more importantly, to herself she did not require anyone’s help. Two men had failed her already—her father and her uncle—and she would be damned if she was going to allow herself to rely on a third.

“Why?” He studied her as though he considered her utterly hopeless. “Isn’t life difficult enough? Why complicate it further by insisting on making it more so?”

“Because nothing worth having is easily won,” she muttered, casting a glance toward the crackling flames. A log snapped, sending up a flurry of sparks.

His sigh, long and laborious, filled the air between them. “I suppose I can relate to that.”

Snorting, she crossed her arms. “Really?” She didn’t believe him for a second. He was a duke after all, the sort of man for whom roads were paved with gold and doors were flung wide open.

He glanced toward the fire. “The day I turned eighteen, my father came to inform me it was time for me to prove my worth. Turns out, he’d purchased a small cottage in Cornwall where he expected me to live for the duration of a year without relying upon the conveniences to which I’d been accustomed.”

It was Josephine’s turn to be shocked. “You cannot be serious.”

“Indeed, I am quite so. For you see, my father believed such an experience would allow me to relate to my tenants and servants, while giving me a true appreciation for what I have. He felt forcing me to lead a life of hardship for a year would make me a better duke in the end, and I suspect he was right.”

“You never accepted any help from him during this time?”

“No. I made my way by selling fish and wood carvings at the market. The last thing I wanted was to fail, to have to return home and admit defeat.”

Amazed by his confession, she studied him for a long moment. “So you understand why I cannot give up my position or accept a stipend from Priorsbridge.”

“I do.” A hint of sympathy warmed his eyes, and for a second Josephine believed she’d won. Until he said, “But your situation is different from what mine was. For one thing, great care was taken to ensure my identity would not be discovered. Can you honestly tell me nobody knows you’re related to Priorsbridge?”

She thought of lying, then decided against it. “No.” The gossip columns had written extensive articles on her father’s pitiable downfall and on his daughters’ struggle to survive in the wake of his death. Their family history had been used as an example of how far one could fall when gripped by vice. And when Josephine and her sisters had been forced to sell their Mayfair home, whispers had followed in their wake, assuring them they would not easily be forgotten.

“Then consider this, Miss Potter. It is no longer your reputation alone that’s at risk, but his as well. If word gets out he failed to support you, that you were forced to make your own way in the world, he will be painted a heartless man.”

Josephine frowned. “Nothing of the sort has been said of his father. What makes you think anyone will care about Priorsbridge’s actions now?”

“Because having acquired the title no more than a month ago, he will be scrutinized in every imaginable way. So please, show some consideration and help him avoid criticism.”

When put like that, it was difficult for Josephine to maintain her determination. Still, she could not allow two men–one whom she’d never met and the other to whom she was not related –to guide her future. “While I sympathize, I cannot accept Priorsbridge’s support. I am sorry.”

“You are, without a doubt, the most stubborn woman I have ever met.” He said it as though it were an affliction, his hand raking furiously through his hair, ruffling it in a way Josephine found disturbingly charming under the circumstances. “The stipend is not the only item on the table. I’ve also been asked to help ease your way back into society. I have family and friends on whom I can call, contacts who can help you regain your position. Surely this must be desirable in some way or other, if not for you, then for your sisters.” Her hesitance must have shown, for he pounced on it like a lion catching its prey. “What of your youngest sister? You’ve made no mention of her seeking employment, but if you’re what— ” He was suddenly giving her a critical assessment. “Seven and twenty?”

“Six and twenty,” she corrected, doing her best to ignore the blush threatening to burn her cheeks.

“Then your youngest sister must be of marriageable age. Correct?”

Josephine nodded. “Eve set out for Amberly Hall near Bournemouth yesterday morning. Her friend, Mrs. Havisham, has offered to introduce her to her social circle. If doing so yields no result, there is still the coming Season. I have been saving what I can with the intention of giving Eve the debut she deserves.”

He went completely still, his eyes fixed on her face with pensiveness, twisting her stomach and making her heart beat a little bit faster. It unnerved her, and she had no choice but to remove her gaze from his. So she considered the lackluster floorboards beneath her feet instead, until he said, “As confounding as you are, I must confess my admiration for your stalwart perseverance.”

Instinctively, her gaze latched onto his. A pause followed, one in which all of her problems, her future, her sisters’ happiness, and Priorsbridge’s interference with all of it remained suspended. The only two people in the world at the moment were her and Snowdon, caught in a most peculiar web from which escape seemed increasingly difficult.

It didn’t help that he looked like sin and seduction or that she was old enough to consider herself a spinster, a woman who might enjoy a man’s kiss without the threat of marriage. Was it wrong for her to feel desire? To secretly long for some shred of passion before she became too old to gain a man’s attention? She had no prospects, had inherited nothing but shame, and yet here she was, attracted to an aggravating aristocrat whom she didn’t much care for, if for no other reason than principal.

It was a wretched notion, and it brought her promptly out of her reverie. “Thank you,” she managed to say with a steadier voice than she’d ever imagined possible. A bit of awkward silence passed between them while she gathered her composure. “If that is all, I believe I must ask you to leave. Your presence here is far from appropriate, and your carriage the sort bound to gain attention from those with nothing better to do than observe the lives of others. Whatever my reputation may be, it will suffer even more the longer you stay. Especially once my neighbors discover my sisters are no longer here, and I invited you into my home without chaperone.”

A frown pinched his brow. “Forgive me. I should have excused myself the moment I discovered you were alone, though you ought to have conveyed such information sooner rather than later.”

“Duly noted.” He was right, but she’d been freezing with cold outside, and he’d obviously had a great deal to say. You didn’t mind having a handsome man’s attention to yourself for a while.

She was ashamed to acknowledge the fact, but her life had lacked excitement for so long. It had revolved around her mother’s death, her father’s decline, his death, financial loss, and a dire future from which she’d struggled to protect her sisters. With Louise, she’d failed, but there was still hope for Eve. More so if you simply surrender and take the money Priorsbridge is offering.

Her pride, however, would not allow it. Not when she stood to succeed on her own. It would be harder, the sacrifices greater, but in the end, she wouldn’t owe anyone a thing. Her life would be her own. It would not belong to another man. She would have the freedom to make her own choices without interference or criticism or any other kind of involvement from anyone.

Snowdon strode toward the door and paused, his hand on the handle. “I expect you to take my advice seriously, Miss Potter.” There it was again, the blasted arrogance grating on her nerves. “Priorsbridge is my friend, so while I sympathize with your situation and admire your effort to survive without anyone’s assistance, I will not allow you to tarnish his name in any way. Is that clear?”

“Perfectly, Your Grace.”

His eyes narrowed, no doubt in response to her tart tone. It couldn’t be helped. Not when he meant to strip her of her freedom.

A curt nod followed. “Good,” he said. “I shall expect a missive from you no later than tomorrow afternoon, informing me your position has been terminated.  Then we shall see about taking you out in Society. I’ve a sister who likes the occasional project. She’ll no doubt be thrilled to make your acquaintance.”

He tipped his hat and made his exit, leaving Josephine to wonder if he knew how offensive he was being, or if he simply didn’t care.

She nodded. “You do not know what it is to be poor or to be exiled from your social class. If you choose that path, you will come to resent me as much as I will come to resent you for denying me the chance to help Eve. And what will we have then besides bitterness and regret?” When he said nothing, she knew she’d opened his eyes to a world that waited beyond the passion he felt right now – a world in which he would have to live out the rest of his days. “Marrying Lady Gwendolyn is the right thing for you to do. She’s a marquess’s daughter – an earl’s sister – and she will make a good match for a man of your rank.”

“So then, this is really it?” He sounded as though he didn’t want to believe it, and yet she could see by his stark expression he already did.

“I’m afraid so.”

#

The remainder of their journey passed with stilted bits of mundane conversation. By the time they arrived at the final posting inn, Louise escaped upstairs to the room where she would spend the night and elected to take her supper alone. Alistair made no effort to stop her. If she felt as raw inside as he did, she would need some time alone to prepare for the following day’s arrival at Whitehaven.

So much had been left unsaid between them. He’d seen it in her eyes, the misery there enough to shatter his heart. Taking a moment to search the depths of his soul that evening, he contemplated a life without Louise in it. Was such an existence worth having?

No.

She was the only woman he would ever consider marrying. Not because of her beauty or because of how desperately he wanted her in his bed, but because he’d fallen in love with her – completely, madly, irrevocably – and no other woman would do. Which meant he would have to fight for the right to make her his, firstly by ridding himself of the problem his brother had created when he’d picked Gwendolyn as his bride.

So he set out at dawn after penning a note to Louise and hiring a horse from the inn. Riding fast through the bitter cold, his breath like steam from a boiling kettle, he reached Whitehaven by ten.

“My lord!”

One of the grooms ran to greet him, grabbing the horse’s reins while he swung himself down from the saddle. Thanking the lad, Alistair climbed the steps to the front door and opened it sharply.

“Lord Alistair,” the butler exclaimed, hastening toward him. “We weren’t expecting you quite this early. My apologies for not being there to greet you.” He looked past him for a second before asking. “Is Miss Potter not with you?”

“She will arrive later. I chose to ride ahead.” He removed his hat and pulled off his gloves, handing the items to the butler. “Has the family risen yet?”

“Indeed.” The butler gestured in the direction of the dining room. “They are having breakfast as we speak.”

Alistair didn’t wait for the man to show him the way, striding forward briskly until he reached his destination. Halting for a moment, he drew a deep breath, steadying his resolve before opening the door wide and striding through it. Four pairs of eyes turned to stare at him.

“Alistair!” Abigail was the first to convey her surprise. She prepared to rise, but he motioned for her to stay seated. “Is Miss Potter with you? I’m so eager to meet her.”

“She will arrive later,” he said.

A bit of silence followed that revelation, and then Lord Channing gestured toward a vacant chair. “Do come and join us, Alistair. I’m sure you must be eager for some refreshment after your journey.”

It was tempting to accept, but the anxiousness coursing through him would not make sitting still at the table a pleasant experience. “Thank you, but I would prefer to wait in the library.” Addressing Gwendolyn, he added, “If you would please join me there when you’re ready, I’d be much obliged.”

Gwendolyn’s eyes widened. “Of course,” she murmured.

Silence followed for an awkward moment.  Alistair met his brother’s grave expression with one of his own and then quit the room, closing the door behind him.

#

Pacing back and forth in the library, Alistair waited for what seemed like an insufferable length of time, even though the clock said no more than fifteen minutes had passed by the time Gwendolyn arrived.

“I trust you are well,” she said, before taking a seat on the sofa.

He remained by the fireplace. “Quite. And you?”

“I wish the weather were warmer, but aside from that, I have no complaints.”

Nodding, Alistair wondered how best to broach the subject he wished to discuss with her, and then decided directness might serve him best in this instance. “Regarding my brother’s insistence we marry…” he began.

A tiny crease appeared upon her brow. “He says it will be the perfect match.”

“Is that what you believe?”

Her silence unnerved him, forcing him to cross the floor. He paused, then turned and strode back, flexing his fingers while doing his best not to yell with frustration. Drawing a fortifying breath, he pinned her with his gaze. “Gwendolyn?”

She bit her lip and looked away. “Yes.”

His heart plummeted all the way to his toes. This would not be as simple as walking away. And yet, there was something in her expression and posture that gave him pause. “Then allow me to ask you a different question. Will marrying me make you happy?”

She raised her head so sharply he took a step back. Her eyes met his, and he felt his heart pause on a thread of hope. “I mean no offense when I tell you this, but I have no desire to be your wife.”

That thread of hope began to expand. “You don’t?”

“No. I’m in love with someone else – an untitled gentleman, as a matter of fact. Channing wants to see me happy, so he approves of the match.”

“Does Langley know about this?”

She shook her head. “We thought it best for me to break the news to you directly before informing your brother.”

The thrill Alistair felt in response to those words was so acute he could scarcely credit it. He stared at Gwendolyn, at the woman who’d represented a dreaded fate until she herself had saved him from it. “I don’t know what to say.”

“I hope you’re not too disappointed or angry.”

“No. Of course not.” His heart was humming with joy. “I am none of those things. On the contrary, I am grateful to you, and so incredibly pleased on both our behalves.”

#

By the time she arrived at the manor that would now be her home, the enthusiasm Louise had felt when she’d set out from London had completely vanished. Still, she did her best to smile as she greeted her employers.

“You’re younger than I expected,” Lady Channing said when Louise met her in the parlor after settling in. “Prettier too.”

A petite woman with dark brown hair, big eyes, and a wide smile, Lady Channing was proving herself to be as kind as Louise had judged her to be by the tone of her letters. She’d even given Louise a choice between two bedchambers, informing her which one faced east, in case she favored the morning light.

“Did I not mention my age in our correspondence?” She could have sworn she had.

“You wrote that life has been difficult for you in recent years, that you were well past the age of marriageability, and that you anticipated a quiet and peaceful life in the country.” Lady Channing dipped her chin and quirked her lips. “It seemed like something a middle-aged woman might say.”

“Forgive me. It was not my intention to deceive you in any way.”

“Perhaps not, but I can assure you I would not have suggested you travel alone with Lord Alistair if I’d known your age. At least, I would have insisted upon a chaperone.”

“Thank you, my lady. I fear I am to blame for this misunderstanding. You may rest assured however that Lord Alistair did ask a maid to accompany us, but she became ill the first night and was unable to continue onward with us.”

“It is a relief to know that he made an effort to protect your reputation.” Lady Channing gave Louise a sharp look. “I trust he treated you well?”

“Yes. He was the perfect gentleman.”

Expelling a breath, Lady Channing nodded. “I didn’t expect him to be anything less, but when he arrived before you, looking as though he’d escaped hell to get here, I couldn’t help but wonder. Especially after seeing you for myself.”

“I can assure you that you have no cause for concern,” Louise told her. “If anything, I believe he was eager to arrive here so he could speak with Lady Gwendolyn.”

“Yes.” Lady Channing gave Louise a pensive look. “They will make quite a match, don’t you think?”

Recalling the other woman she’d met upon her arrival, Louise gave a curt nod. “Without a doubt.”

“Hmm…” Lady Channing rose, as did Louise. “Papa only wants what is best for his brother.”

“Of course.” Louise couldn’t help but wonder why Lady Channing was sharing all of these details with her. She was a servant, nothing more. Being a confidant was not in her job description. Uncomfortable with it, she tried to keep her responses as short as possible. Speaking of Alistair and the woman he would eventually marry was not something she wanted to continue doing. So when they entered the hallway, she chose to say, “Perhaps I should go and spend some time with the children.”

“You arrived this afternoon, Miss Potter. Nobody expects you to start work until tomorrow.” Linking her arm with Louise’s, she drew her toward the back of the house where French doors overlooked a snow-covered lawn sloping down toward a lake. “And as you can see, the children are otherwise occupied at the moment.”

Louise watched as the three boys skated across the lake. Allowing her gaze to wander, she studied the men who stood to one side, their heads bowed in what appeared to be serious discussion. Lord Alistair and his brother, Langley. “I see,” she said, before turning away. Squaring her shoulders, she faced the countess. “In that case, perhaps you’ll allow me to go and rest. This past week has been rather trying, and I should like to recover from it by tomorrow.”

The countess took a moment to answer, her eyes resting on Louise’s in quiet contemplation. Eventually, she smiled. “Of course. Supper is at eight, if you would like to join us.”

Surprised, Louise couldn’t help but say, “As grateful as I am for the offer, I am a servant, my lady. Sitting at your table would hardly be appropriate.”

“Perhaps not,” the countess agreed, upon which Louise took her leave and headed up the service stairs to her chamber.

#

“I have spoken with Gwendolyn, Langley, and she is no more thrilled about the idea of marrying me than I am with the idea of marrying her,” Alistair told his brother. His conversation with her had managed to expel the pain that gripped his heart.

His heart.

He’d never wasted much time considering that particular organ. But then Miss Potter – Louise – had swept into his life and stirred a fiery passion. He’d wanted her desperately, struggling each day to do what his conscience demanded, even going so far as to suggest marriage for the  sole purpose of getting his hands on her.

Until she’d delivered her emotional speech in the carriage.

I have never admired a man as much as I admire you.

He’d felt as though pain was pouring out of her, and it had not only caused his own heart to break but had made him realize what he felt for her was more than lust and passion. It went deeper, the roots of it digging into the depths of his soul. And when he’d suggested marriage again, and she’d given him every reason why such a thing was impossible, he’d felt as though life had finally lost its meaning.

Hating the weight of lost hope, he’d suffered the rest of that day’s journey in a disheartened state. When they’d arrived at the posting inn, he’d given Louise her privacy, retreating to his own room in order to contemplate his fate. By morning, his depression had turned to fury, and he’d left the inn with one clear intention in mind – to have an honest talk with Gwendolyn and then to confront his brother.

The first part had gone surprisingly well, and he was now ready to argue with Langley in whatever way was necessary in order for things to play out to everyone’s advantage.

“Really?” Langley asked. He was looking out over the lake where his grandchildren skated.

“Did it ever occur to you that we might want to marry other people?”

That comment seemed to grab his brother’s attention. He turned his hard blue eyes on him and frowned. “Have you formed an attachment, Alistair?”

Swallowing, Alistair crossed his arms. His eyes settled on a nearby tree.  “Not precisely,” he said, since the woman he wanted had so adamantly refused him.

His brother snorted. “I didn’t think so, though I was hoping you might have. Forcing your hand was never my intention.”

“Really?” Alistair looked at him with incredulity. “Insisting I marry or forego my stipend was not an attempt to do so?”

Langley’s frown deepened. “What I hoped was that it would give you some incentive to do as I’ve been asking you to do since you turned thirty. You’ve had three years in which to find a wife. Surely that’s enough.”

“Perhaps, but I was reluctant to settle down with someone I felt nothing for.”

Sighing, Langley shifted his weight so he faced Alistair more fully. The hair that had once been a dark shade of brown was now threaded with grey, but that did not distract from his power. “I know this is going to be difficult for you to believe, all things considered, but I’m doing this for you, because it is what I believe to be in your best interest.”

“You’re right,” Alistair murmured, “I do find that difficult to believe. You’re only trying to secure the title. You had no sons of your own, so you want me to give it a shot whether I want to or not.”

Smiling, Langley stared straight into Alistair’s eyes and shook his head. “You’ve judged me harshly if that is what you really think.”

“Am I wrong?”

Allowing his gaze to slide away from Alistair’s, Langley looked out across the lake. “Your mother and I are both in our fifties. You have no other siblings and no close family besides my daughter and her husband and children. Which means the day will come when you will be faced with a lonely existence. If you live to be as old as I, you’ll have seventeen years to get through on your own. Your niece has her own family to occupy her time, so while I’m sure she will always welcome you for the occasional visit, you cannot rely on her to give your life meaning.”

“It would never occur to me to do so.”

“And I doubt your friends will have much time for you either,” Langley continued as if he hadn’t spoken. “As far as I know, they’re all members of the aristocracy and faced with their own responsibilities. From what I hear, Gratford and Townsend are already setting up their nurseries, while Everton has recently gotten himself engaged. Before you know it, you’ll be the only bachelor left, and what then?”

Rankled, Alistair gave a shrug. “I’m sure I’ll find a mistress with whom to divert myself,” he said, for the pure sake of being argumentative.

Langley blew out a breath and stuck his hands in his coat pockets. “The point is, I want you to be surrounded by love and laughter, to know what it’s like to hold your children in your arms and feel their kisses upon your cheek. And I will take comfort in knowing that you will be happy.”

“Then let me pick the woman of my choosing.”

Scoffing, Langley slanted a look in Alistair’s direction. “Does such a mythical creature exist?”

It was Alistair’s turn to surprise his brother. “Yes. I believe she does, and if happiness is what you want for me, then you’ll give me your support.”

#

Avoiding Alistair required more skill than Louise would ever have imagined. She’d thought the house big enough to prevent their paths from crossing, but somehow, whenever she passed through a hallway, he’d materialize before her, forcing her to turn on her heel and hasten away in the opposite direction before he could say something gut-wrenching, like, “How do you do?”

Four days passed like this, and twice she had to say she’d promised to show the children something before hurrying from the room right after he entered. After that, she’d remained upstairs in her bedchamber unless she was busy with lessons.

“Tomorrow will be Christmas Eve,” Lady Channing said when she sought her out one afternoon. “We would like to invite you to join us for supper.”

“That’s really kind of you, but—”

“You cannot refuse,” the countess told her. “I shan’t permit it.”

“In that case, I will be happy to attend,” Louise lied. “Thank you.”

She’d then waited for the countess to leave before putting on her coat and boots. A brisk walk in the frosty outdoors was what she needed. But as she made her way along one of the paths, she found the peaceful silence to be the most devastating thing in the world. It left her alone with her sorrow, filling her mind with him—the intensity of his gaze, the dimples at the edge of his mouth, the passion with which he tore down the boundaries between them and opened her eyes to a promise she dared not let him fulfill. She’d fallen in love with a man she could not have, and the pain of it was tearing her apart.

Yet she would now have to sit at the dining room table with him. She would have to smile and laugh and pretend she was enjoying every torturous moment. The thought of it led her back toward the house on heavy feet. She climbed the service stairs and drifted along the corridor. When she reached her bedchamber, she stepped inside and closed the door. She then drew an anguished breath and began removing her coat.

“Chasing you has become a tedious process, Louise.”

Startled by Alistair’s voice, she spun to her left where she found him reclining in the armchair next to the fireplace. “You can’t be in here!” She glanced around at the room as if to ascertain that she hadn’t entered the wrong room by mistake. “It isn’t proper.”

Tilting his head, he allowed his gaze to appraise her. “No it isn’t, but apparently it is necessary if I am to speak with you at all.”

“I thought we said what there was to say in the carriage,” she told him, hoping he’d leave.

Instead, he stretched out his legs as if getting more comfortable. “You might have done so, but I did not say nearly enough.”

Turning away from him, she hung up her coat and then clutched her hands together. “Please leave,” she whispered, without daring to look at him further. “If anyone finds you here I’ll lose my position.”

The sound of seat cushions shifting beneath his weight caught her attention. He was standing. A pause followed and then the muted tread of shoes upon the carpet. Next came the touch of his hands upon her shoulders. “Don’t.” The word was wrought from her chest on a sob of despair and she felt herself tremble against his touch. “I cannot bear it. I simply cannot.”

“Then marry me, Louise.” His hands smoothed over her arms, nudging her closer until she felt his solid form against her back. “Tell me you love me as much as I love you and that you will be my wife.” Shocked into silence, she tried to make sense of his words. “Come,” he whispered gently. “Let’s end this state of torment we are in and follow our hearts.”

“But…but…” Was this really happening or was it a dream? “What about Gwendolyn? What about your brother’s threat?”

“You know I meant to avoid marrying Gwendolyn either way. You also know I meant to do so by finding a way in which to increase my income. And so I have.”

“That’s…wonderful.” She blinked as she stared up into his handsome face.

“There’s a new club opening in London,” he explained. “I wasn’t aware of it until Langley mentioned it to me this afternoon.” His throat worked as though he was struggling with what to say. “Turns out all he wanted was for me to be happy.”

Frowning, she tried to wrap her head around that. “I don’t see how forcing you to marry someone you do not want to marry was going to accomplish such a goal.”

“I’ll explain it all later. First, you ought to know, before you commit to anything, that I have asked him to remove my stipend. It’s time for me to stand on my own two feet, which means life might not be as easy as I would like it to be for a while, but eventually, it ought to improve. I’ll still support your sisters. That goes without saying. My affairs aren’t as bad as all that.”

“Speaking of which…” Moving away from him, she went to pick up yesterday’s newspaper. “I found something that might be helpful to you.” She handed it over and watched while he read the text to which she pointed..

“Eastern European wine?”

“It’s just an idea, but the article says they’re much cheaper than the French wines and equally good. The journalist even describes some sweet varieties as tasting like nectar. I just thought it might be worth looking into.”

“And so it is,” he murmured. “I cannot believe you continued to think of this, that you kept on trying to find a business opportunity for me.”

“I just wanted to help.”

He stepped toward her. “Because you care about me?”

“I…”

“The truth is in your eyes, Louise. Please tell me you’ll spend the rest of your life with me.”

“But…” Oh, how she wanted to say yes. “My father was not well respected. Everyone knows he died a drunk. To attach yourself to me would only harm your reputation. You cannot possibly—”

“My brother knows all of this and has given us his blessing. With his support and our love for each other, we can weather whatever storm comes our way. I’m absolutely certain of it.”

Blinking, she tried to gather her thoughts, which was proving to be increasingly difficult now that his hands were smoothing down over her arms. “What about my position? What about—”

“Say yes, Louise. The rest will sort itself out.”

And she knew deep in her heart that he was right and that as long as they had each other and his family’s approval, they stood a chance of true happiness together. So she allowed her eyes to meet his. “Yes.” Joy washed away her pain to leave a smile upon her lips. “I love you, Alistair, and nothing would please me more than being your wife.”

“We’ll have to see about that,” he told her gruffly. And then his mouth descended on hers, unleashing all the pent-up passion he’d been holding back since the moment they’d met in his study.

****

By Sophie Barnes

Novels

A Most Unlikely Duke

His Scandalous Kiss

The Earl’s Complete Surrender

Lady Sarah’s Sinful Desires

The Danger in Tempting an Earl

The Scandal in Kissing an Heir

The Trouble with Being a Duke

The Secret Life of Lady Lucinda

There’s Something About Lady Mary

Lady Alexandra’s Excellent Adventure

How Miss Rutherford Got Her Groove Back

Novellas

The Earl Who Loved Her

The Governess Who Captured His Heart

Mistletoe Magic (from Five Golden Rings: A Christmas Collection)

 

****

 

About The Author

Born in Denmark, Sophie has spent her youth traveling with her parents to wonderful places around the world. She’s lived in five different countries, on three different continents,  has studied design in Paris and New York and has a bachelor’s degree from Parson’s School of design. But most impressive of all – she’s been married to the same man three times, in three different countries and in three different dresses.
While living in Africa, Sophie turned to her lifelong passion – writing.
When she’s not busy, dreaming up her next romance novel, Sophie enjoys spending time with her family, swimming, cooking, gardening, watching romantic comedies and, of course, reading. She currently lives on the East Coast.

You can contact her through her website at www.sophiebarnes.com

Or stay in touch with her via the following social media links:

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And Please consider leaving a review for this book.

Every review is greatly appreciated!

 

Other Books In This Series

 

Find out what happens to Eve in The Earl Who Loved Her.

 

 

Look out for Josephine’s story in The Duke Who Came To Town.

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