… Have been added. Look for the next chapters soon. My sincere apologies for not adding the new chapters weekly. The novel sat on an old computer, and the only way it could be retrieved is with a primitive method. I have not had time to reformat the chapters, which is a laborious process. Please have patience, until The Complete Jane Austen is over in April, then the chapter by chapter schedule will resume as normal. Thank you!
James Cavendish, sixth Earl of Downsley, stood frozen in the doorway of the woodcutter’s cottage. The sight of the young woman undressing struck him with such physical force, he felt the air leave his lungs. He had stumbled upon the small hovel while seeking shelter from a sudden storm, and it was obviously not abandoned, as he had supposed from its neglected exterior.
The girl sat on the earthen floor in front of a stone hearth, unaware of his presence. Holding one shapely leg in the air, she rolled down a serviceable woolen stocking and dropped it beside her mud spattered shoes. The laces of her bodice trailed over her breasts, her wet chemise leaving nothing to the imagination.
Woozy from the large quantity of brandy he’d consumed, the earl swayed on his feet. The storm roiling within him matched the storm raging outside. Sweat beaded his forehead and his heart pounded a painful rhythm. He tried to speak, but could not, any rational thought having fled his brain. All his senses were focused on the girl and his body’s tightening response.
Lightning flashed and thunder followed, shaking the walls of the small cabin. James moved toward the girl as if in a trance, his boots scraping the floor. At the sound, she turned her head and gasped, her pupils dilating with fear.
Then she rose. The girl’s lithe figure nearly matched his own six foot height, and her wet gown clung to her like a second skin, leaving nothing to his imagination.
The earl checked his progress, his mouth instantly dry.
Surveying the homespun, butternut clothes drying by the fire, he classified her as a servant. Or perhaps she was a lady’s maid, since her air was dignified and regal. Her hazel eyes, tawny skin, freckles and damp hair – everything about her – reminded him of simple country pleasures and the earthen colors of autumn.
He smiled when he thought of a name for her. Mouse. A delectable country mouse.
Unlike many of his peers, James had never forced himself on girls of the lower classes, but he was sorely tempted to do so now. Perhaps a short but harmless dalliance with this enticing creature would help him forget why he had resisted returning to this godforsaken region for over seven years. They could pass away the time pleasantly as they waited for the storm to abate.
“What have we here?” he drawled as he stepped forward. “I thought to find this hut deserted.”
The girl backed away, poised for flight.
Desiring her fresh, natural beauty more than anything he ever had in his thirty-seven years, James strode directly to her, his gaze riveted on her splendid body.
Amanda Sinclair eyed the dark-haired stranger with a mixture of anger and apprehension. Anger won out, and she shot him a quelling look, daring him to come closer.
Given her rotten day thus far, the man’s appearance shouldn’t have surprised her. The storm had materialized out of nowhere, and she had found shelter only after she’d been thoroughly soaked. She was cold, hungry, and distinctly unhappy, and now she had to contend with this strange man.
Amanda inspected his arresting features and tall, slim form, and realized he was the most spectacularly handsome man she had ever seen in her life. From the cut of his simple but stylish clothes and his aristocratic bearing, she deduced he was a gentleman and accustomed to having his way.
Her gaze met his, and she looked away quickly, reddening under his intense scrutiny.
“Sir, who are you?” she demanded, momentarily forgetting her state of undress.
Before he could answer, Rascal, her tan-and-black terrier streaked across the small space, barking, his fangs bared in defense of his mistress. He had been asleep in front of the fire, lulled by its warmth. Thunder and rain had masked the sound of the man’s entrance, but the stranger’s deep voice and the smell of his mistresses’ fear had roused the dog from his dream of chasing rabbits.
“Call off your dog,” the man commanded with an air of easy authority.
“Come here, Rascal,” she said, reassuring her dog with a pat on the head and gesturing him to her side. As she leaned over, the neckline of her chemise gaped open, exposing her breasts.
She heard his sharp intake of breath.
Mortified, Amanda turned to him, her arms covering her breasts. “I’d like you to leave my cabin – NOW.”
“Your cabin?” He glanced with disdain at the shabby contents. Dust lay thick and undisturbed on the meager pieces of bare wood furniture. Massive cobwebs hung from the rafters, and a faint, rotting stench permeated the room.
She noticed his faint look of distaste. “Very well, then. It’s not my cabin. Nevertheless, you must go.”
She looked at him puzzled.
“You asked for my name. It is Cavendish. What’s yours?” His hot breath reeked of brandy. Comforted by the presence of her dog, Amanda remained quiet. One signal from her and Rascal would be at the man’s throat.
He stepped closer.
“Don’t,” she said, putting out one hand. “Stay where you are.” She shuddered, but not from the cold. The room felt too small for comfort, and she could not back away without stepping too close to the fire.
“I had not expected to find anyone here,” he said.” He had not once taken his eyes off her since he entered the room.
Hugging her arms to her chest, she began to babble. “My-my dog ran away chasing a rabbit. I got lost searching for him. Then it began to rain. I managed to find this cabin, and – and … start a fire …” Her voice trailed off.
When she grew silent, he said, “You are soaking wet.”
Heat suffused Amanda’s body. She clenched her fists and began to shake with anger. The sheer insolence of the man! He still had not made a move to leave.
“My God, Mouse” he muttered. “You’re trembling from cold. Should you not be drying yourself off?”
What had he thought she was doing when he trespassed? And why was he calling her a mouse?
“Only after you’re gone!” she hissed.
He smiled, showing off a row of brilliant white teeth.
God help her, but he was simply too gorgeous for words. If she didn’t watch herself, she’d find herself in deep, deep trouble. “I am Miss Sinclair,” she announced in her haughtiest voice, hoping her name and standing in the community would convince him to go.
A frown creased his brow. “Miss Sinclair,” he repeated, as if her name sounded familiar. Then he shivered. “Mind if I take this off?” Without waiting for her answer, he shrugged out of his waterlogged greatcoat and flung it on a dusty stool.
“Now, step aside, Miss Sinclair, and share your fire. Unless you’d prefer to warm me yourself?” He lifted a brow and waited expectantly, the flashes of intermittent lightning lending his features a predatory look.
Amanda’s eyes grew wide with alarm. “Sir! I asked you to leave, and I meant it. Where’s your decency? I’m barely clothed as it is.”
He gave her a bemused smile. “Oh, I’m fully aware of that, Mouse, believe me.”
“Stop calling me Mouse!”
“As you wish.” He sketched her a bow. “Since I’m unable to persuade you to make yourself more comfortable, mind if I do?”
Infuriated that he’d mistaken her for a working girl, she tried to speak. Instead, she gawked at him like a slatternly tavern maid, and before she could utter a word he had removed his coat. She looked on helplessly as he quickly took off his waistcoat and cravat, keenly aware of how dangerously handsome he looked clad only in his boots, breeches, and soggy linen shirt. Rivulets of water dripped down his dark locks, over winged eyebrows and thick lashes, and onto the exposed flesh of his neck.
Lord a mercy, she thought in desperation, feeling her pulse quicken. Never before had she been alone with a strange man, much less with one who was in such a state of dishabille. Transfixed, she surveyed his lithe, muscular body, his wide shoulders, and narrow hips and long legs, and moistened her dry lips with the tip of her tongue.
He caught her furtive movement and cast her a knowing look.
Amanda held her breath, feeling for the first time the hot, pulsing need of sexual desire. Her nipples tightened and she felt a stirring sensation deep inside her womb. Mortified, she turned from him, facing the fire, and held out her hands towards its warmth. Her heartbeat sounded unnaturally loud to her ears. Distantly she was aware of the rumble of thunder and the rain pounding the roof.
The stranger stepped up to stand beside her, crowding her.
Her instinct was to move, but she remained rooted to the spot. Forbidden thoughts – thoughts so daring they made her blush – came to her mind. Amanda glanced sideways, and stared with fascination at the dark hairs that curled over his open collar. She wondered how he would look bare chested and … Lord a mercy, what was the matter with her? She’d been raised a lady, yet her she was ogling a complete stranger and wishing … She shook her head to clear it.
How could she be so entranced by mere physical charms? She had waited her entire life for the right man to come along, a man she could love and cherish, and who would love her equally in return. Those lofty goals bore no resemblance to the strange emotions she was presently feeling. Besides, she was no coy schoolroom miss, but a sensible woman of two-and-twenty, one who had too much self-respect to throw herself at the first man she found even remotely attractive.
Searching for the words that would make this obstinate man leave, Amanda hoped to appeal to his sense of decency. “Sir…Mr. Cavendish…you simply cannot stay here. This is highly unseemly. I beg of you, please go.”
“You’re trembling, Mouse,” he murmured, ignoring her. “Let me warm you.” He placed his hands on her shivering shoulders and pulled her to him.
That did it! Amanda whirled away from him. “Sir, take your hands off me and leave me alone! Have you not heard one thing I’ve said? I’m Amanda Sinclair. My father will tear you from limb to limb when he learns that you’ve …”
At that moment, Rascal, a low growl emanating from his throat, sunk his sharp canines into one muddied boot, and began to shake his head to and fro.
“What the devil…!”
Caught off guard by the ferocity of the dog’s attack, the man shook him off with one hard flick of his leg. The tiny dog landed with a thud on the floor, stunned, and with the breath knocked out of him.”
“You’ve killed him!”
Starting towards her dog, Amanda felt a hand restrain her. She wrenched herself free, then froze at the sound of ripping cloth. Instantly it dawned on her what had happened.
“I am so sorry,” she heard him say, his voice thick and barely above a whisper.
Amanda felt the air cooling her exposed breasts. Her cheeks blazing from shame, she tugged the torn edges of her chemise together and rushed towards Rascal’s prone body.
“At least allow me to cover you.”
“One step closer,” she said with clenched teeth, “and I will do you serious damage.” She experienced a short moment of relief when she saw Rascal’s chest rise and fall in a shallow but regular rhythm.
“I’ve overstayed my welcome. Believe me if you will or not, Miss Sinclair, but I am truly sorry for what has happened. For ripping your chemise. I will pay for another, of course.” He inhaled a long shaky breath, and reached for his clothes. As he grabbed his cravat and waistcoat, the front door flew open.
Michael Sinclair barged inside the room, his bulky form filling the small cabin.
“Papa,” Amanda whispered in horror.
“Bloody hell,” Michael uttered. “What the devil have you done to my daughter, Downsley? And what in blazes are you doing here?”
“Oh, Papa! “That awful man tried to kill Rascal.” Amanda ran to her father, oblivious to the shocked stares of the three men at the doorway and her state of dishabille.
When informed that his daughter was missing, Michael Sinclair had set out with his friend, Reverend George Abernathy, and two servants to search for her. The thin trail of smoke coming from the abandoned cabin had given him hope that he had found her.
“He has seduced you, is more like it!” Michael’s roar was that of a wounded bull. Sheltering his daughter from view inside his great coat, he glared with murderous intent at James, who stood silently by, cravat still in hand, his face reddening.
“I’ll have satisfaction for this Dowsley. What have you to say for yourself?”
But James’ mouth felt too dry for speech. Sinclair’s daughter! His gut tightened with certain, awful knowledge. Michael Sinclair, his neighbor and one of the richest, most influential men in the neighborhood, was no man to cross.
Christ, what a mess. What an awful muddle. Why had he not made the connection when she had identified herself? The damnable brandy he’d imbibed since mid morning was to blame. It had dulled his sense and turned his mind to mush. Given the way Miss Sinclair was undressed, how was he to know she was a lady? Even though it had been eight years since he last saw her, he should have recognized her voice. Honeyed and with a lovely musical lilt, it was the one thing about her that had not changed. James vaguely remembered a tall, gangly, laughing girl who looked nothing like this angry, voluptuous woman.
Well, he was sober now. He’d sobered the moment Michael Sinclair stormed through that door. Not that sobriety would get him out of this mess, Lord him help. James knew he was doomed, for obviously there was only one solution. He felt a momentary sense of rebellion. He did not want to marry this country mouse, not when he was so close to winning Eleanor’s heart.
“Sir, nothing happened …”
“That’s only your opinion!” Michael’s voice trembled from controlled anger. “You may wish to view this situation in a positive light, Downsley, but it should be as plain as the nose on your face that you have besmirched my daughter’s honor!” He paused, as if trying to collect himself, then continued. “You have done many things I’ve disapproved of, but I wasn’t aware you were in the habit of seducing young ladies. In that regard I had always thought you a gentleman.”
James’ face flushed a deep scarlet. He had always admired Michael Sinclair, and his words stung. For more years than he could count James had skillfully eluded the procession of high born virgins who had cast out their lures to him each Season. Instead, he’d preferred to conduct his affairs discreetly with a select group of experienced, preferably married ladies who understood the rules of the game, and who enjoyed a light-hearted dalliance as much as he. It was just his miserable luck to be caught on the one occasion that he failed to follow his own code of conduct.
“Sir, if I could undo the events of this past half hour I would.”
Having calmed down enough to listen, Amanda finally recognized him.
“The Earl of Downley? You? You told me your name was Cavendish, a rather common name in this area, wouldn’t you say? You conveniently forgot to mention your title, my lord. I should have recognized you instantly, but since you so rarely grace this area with your presence, I did not place you.”
The earl’s face showed a welter of conflicting emotions. “Miss Sinclair …” he began.
“Don’t!” Amanda hissed. “Don’t try to apologize! This cabin. It is situated on your lands, is it not? Tell me, my lord, are you always in the habit of treating your guests in this shabby fashion, or only young ladies who need your help?”
He blanched, but said nothing.
She turned her head toward her father, and begged, “Please, Papa. Don’t force me to marry that abominable man.”
Michael Sinclair’s expression softened for a moment, then hardened into resolve. “Mandy, love. You must trust me to decide what’s best.”
He then turned to George Abernathy, who had steered the gawking servants away from the door. “George, would you take Mandy home? Helen must be beside herself with worry, and someone ought to tell her of what has occurred. I would rather that it come from you, my friend.”
Nodding grimly, the vicar placed his cloak around Amanda’s form and led her to the carriage. When she had been bundled inside, Michael handed her Rascal’s small form.
“He’s still a bit winded, Mandy. Now, go home with Reverend Abernathy. We’ll talk later, I promise.”
Amanda appealed to her father once more. “Please, Papa. I don’t want to marry him.”
“There’s only one way to handle this situation, as you well know, child.”
“But I’m positive we won’t suit!”
At her artless statement, Michael Sinclair smiled. “The situation is out of my control, my dear. Reverend Abernathy will insist on the marriage even if I don’t. Now, please go home. Your mother will be worried.”
When the carriage disappeared around the bend of the narrow rutted lane, James met Sinclair’s stern gaze with a calm he was far from feeling. He had been in complete agreement with Miss Sinclair: They would not suit. She was so different from the sophisticated and elegant wife he had envisioned for himself, and he knew instinctively that this country-bred woman would feel like a fish out of water in London Society. As for living in Downsley Hall, nothing would induce him.
Sinclair quickly made his point. “I want satisfaction, Downsley, one way or the other, though my preference is to settle this matter peaceably. Do you understand?”
James understood all too well. Marriage was the only acceptable option. As a man of honor he had no choice but to offer for Miss Sinclair’s hand, or else her reputation would be irrevocably ruined. The earl accepted the situation with a cool panache he was far from feeling. Although a commoner, Michael Sinclair was not a man to cross. He had, through wise investments and shrewd trading, parlayed his merchant father’s modest fortune into one of considerable landed wealth. Thus he commanded great respect and influence locally.
The earl clenched his jaw. “I shall arrange to visit you at your earliest convenience.”
Good. That settles it, then.” Michael looked vastly relieved and oddly satisfied. He met the earl’s cool gray eyes with a speculative look. “Your presence surprises me, Downsley. I had not thought to ever see you on these lands or at Downsley Hall again.”
James merely shrugged, amazed to hear Sinclair speaking to him at all, and certainly never with such civility. Still, he supposed sharing a conversation with the man was better than being strangled by him. Not wishing to reveal the real reason for his visit, he offered a half truth. “An emergency recalled me.
Unfortunately, my steward’s taken a nasty spill from his horse and has been laid up with a broken leg, else he would have seen to the matter himself.”
Sinclair nodded in understanding. As tall as James, his thickset figure and massive shoulders gave the impression of a much larger man. He was still handsome in a rough hewn way, and must have made quite an impressive figure in his youth, James mused.
How long has it been since you’ve been here? Six years? Seven?” Michael’s gruff voice cut through James’s thoughts.
“Eight. To attend my father’s funeral.”
Silence greeted the earl’s answer. Unspoken between them was the scandal the earl had created when he failed to appear for his mother’s funeral two years before.
“Are you traveling alone?”
In a manner of speaking. I sent my valet on ahead in my curricle to alert the staff of my visit. I followed on horseback.”
“I see.” Sinclair hesitated for a brief moment, then spoke again. “I was sorry to hear of Charles, Lord Hungerford’s death. The news was shocking, to say the least.”
“Yes, quite,” James only said. In fact, he’d been devastated to hear of his friend’s death from a fall. Today marked the one year anniversary of Charles’s fatal accident and James’s grief was as raw as the day when he’d first heard the news. As he’d journeyed home, he’d imbibed an unaccustomed quantity of alcohol simply to put this day out of his mind.
Michael Sinclair coughed. “Come to my house later this evening, Downsley. Before dinner. That should give me some time to inform my wife and daughter of our plans. The marriage settlements, I assure you, will not take long.”
“Whatever you wish, sir. I suppose you keep country hours. Will six o’clock do?”
The older man nodded.
The two men parted, knowing the day’s events were far from settled and that they had much more to discuss. But as Michael Sinclair watched the earl mount his black horse with the ease of a sporting Corinthian, a half smile twisted his mouth.
The storm had subsided, leaving only a mild drizzle in its wake. Thunder clapped from a far distance, and overhead a fresh breeze chased the remaining clouds away. As James neared Downsley Hall, the woods thinned substantially. Trimmed of undergrowth by roaming cattle, the forest resembled a light, airy park. Colorful drifts of narcissus and wood hyacinths brightened the landscape, but the earl was unmindful of the lovely scenery unfolding before him. Guiding his black stallion, Falconer, he was in as foul a mood as he’d ever been.
What time is it? he thought dully, and checked his fob watch for the umpteenth time. He was amazed to discover it was still only a few hours past noon.
In less than an hour his life had been irrevocably changed. Not that he was afraid of change. Earlier this year he had decided to make some necessary adjustments to his well-regulated life. He was nearing forty, no longer a young man. It was time, he had realized, to take the responsibilities as head of his family seriously; to secure his succession and find a suitable wife. But marriage was an institution he’d deftly avoided. Marriage meant leg chains and shackles, and having a woman always underfoot.
In his usual disciplined way, he’d systematically searched for a wife this past Season, one who would not make too many demands of him. Unfortunately, he’d found all those fresh-faced, dewy-eyed innocents at Almack’s wanting. As he danced with one virginal girl after another, his thoughts would inevitably turn to Eleanor.
Eleanor Metcalfe was Charles’ widow. Her creamy white skin and eyes the color of cobalt came instantly to his mind. He’d desired this exquisite woman – his best friend’s wife – for over eight years. Before he’d been summoned to his ancestral home, he had been on the verge of asking Eleanor to marry him. Her year of mourning was over today, and he did not want to wait any longer. The earl winced and felt his gut tighten at the thought of losing Eleanor when he had been so close to asking for her hand.
After having been so careful to stay clear of virgins, what on earth had possessed him to dally with Miss Sinclair? Certainly not the girl’s looks, which were nothing out of the ordinary. Granted Miss Sinclair’s statuesque figure was more than passable, and her honeyed voice was truly remarkable, but at best she could only be described as pretty.
But something about her had drawn him to her, fatally, like a moth to a flame. Regardless of his momentary desire, she was not his physical type. She was too big boned. Too brown. Too tall.
Too blatantly sensual.
And why had she worn such an atrocious outfit? Observing her homespun clothes drying in front of the fire, he’d mistaken her for a servant. Her manners were as awful as her dress. She was too emotional, too loud, and too brash for his comfort.
A shudder went through the earl’s fastidious frame. Miss Sinclair needed taming, yes indeed, but he did not want to be the man to tame her. He could not imagine himself saddled for the rest of his life to such a virago.
If only he had stayed in London. If only he had not been beset by guilt over Charles’s death. Normally he would have sent his Stewart to solve the problems at his estate, but he had felt an urgent need to leave London. Had he stayed, he would not be in such a fix.
Approaching the gatehouse that marked the entrance to his estate, James recalled his last, painful conversation with Charles.
“Please, James, you must listen to me. You know better than any one how desperately I love Eleanor. I would have given her everything, including my life, had it been in my power to do so, but she’s incapable of loving anyone other than herself. It’s killing me, and I need you, my friend. I need your understanding or I shall go mad.”
James recalled gritting his teeth and talking in low, angry tones. “Don’t speak another word against her, Charles, else I won’t be responsible for my actions! I allow no one, not even her husband, to disparage Eleanor. Have you taken a good look at yourself lately? You’re drunk, and certainly in no condition to sit in judgment over her. You’re gone for days on end, or up at all hours doing God knows what. Poor Eleanor’s been worried out of all proportion. So don’t accuse her of the very qualities you lack.”
Charles’s expression had visibly fallen and he had answered tersely, “Ah, but you’re so wrong, James. She’s never loved me. When she bothers to look at me, which is rarely, it’s with contempt, and she treats me with even less respect than the servants. I’ve concluded that she only coveted my wealth and title. I could have ignored that obvious fact had she pretended some affection, but her revulsion for me, including having me in her bed, has robbed me of …”
He’d interrupted Charles’s tirade with a contemptuous gesture, but Charles had ignored him. “Be careful, my friend. She’s like a female spider that slowly sucks the life’s juices from any unsuspecting male caught in her web. It’s only a matter of time before you too are …”
“Get out of my sight,” James had bellowed. “Friend or no friend, I refuse to listen to your slander one moment longer.”
Charles, his face white, had walked away abruptly. From that day forward, he had studiously avoided James’s company. During those last few months of his life, Charles seemed bent on destroying himself. Formerly jovial and outgoing, he became secretive, frequenting the gaming clubs on St. James Street, gambling until dawn, and frittering his fortune away.
James had observed his friend’s decline with dismay, but knowing that Eleanor was the source of Charles’s suffering had made it impossible for him to reach out and mend the breach in their friendship. When Charles moved out of his London townhouse after a particularly bitter argument with Eleanor, James had steadfastly stood by Eleanor’s side. A few weeks later, Charles’s curricle had overturned during a road race, and he’d died instantly from a broken neck. James had been inconsolable from grief and guilt, knowing that his chance to reconcile with Charles was forever lost. Today marked a year since Charles’s fatal accident, and he’d drunk steadily to ease the pain of remembrance.
Grim-faced, the earl passed through Downsley Hall’s massive iron gates. God, how he detested the place. Now more than ever. Only Charles’ friendship had made his childhood here bearable.
Falconer’s hooves crunched on the pebbled drive leading to the massive, u-shaped mansion. When the original house had been built in Tudor times, it had stood further inland. Today the sixty-two room structure was poised precariously near the soft limestone cliffs. Someday the ever-encroaching seas would claim the great house through erosion, but for now Downsley Hall was beautifully situated, its two modern wings facing a breathtaking panoramic view of the ocean.
A brisk wind blew in from the east, carrying with it the tangy scent of salt-laden air. Without any appreciation of the beauty surrounding him, the earl led his horse to the mansion’s majestic front steps. Handing Falconer’s reigns to a liveried footman, he surveyed his ancestral home. For over four decades his mother had overseen its care.
Anna Cavendish had ruled Downsley Hall with an iron hand. Two years after her death it was apparent that the staff still followed her detailed instructions, her iron will still evident in the sharp lines of clipped boxwood hedges and in the perfect symmetry of the parterre gardens. Each window gleamed with crystal brilliance. Each curtain hung with exact precision.
Anna Cavendish had been obsessed by this house. It had taken up all her time, and all her love.
James dashed up the wide marble steps to the double-doored entry and crossed into the spacious domed entrance hall. Cowper, the elderly butler greeted him with a gentle, welcoming smile. Having known the earl since his birth, he had felt his lord’s absence keenly.
“Welcome, my lord. May I be the first to say how pleased I am to see you?”
And I you, Cowper.” For the first time that day, the earl smiled, for he genuinely liked the kindly, fatherly old man. “You haven’t changed one bit. I trust you are well?”
“Can’t complain, my lord. Though a touch of rheumatics has slowed me down a tad.”
James smiled again, handing Cowper his gloves and waterlogged greatcoat. “Has Simpson unpacked my bags?”
“Yes, I believe he has.” Keeping the greatcoat at arm’s length, Cowper exclaimed, “This coat is still dripping! Were you unable to find shelter, my lord?”
“Unfortunately, yes,” James replied tersely.
He hastened up one side of the double curved stairway, his mind on his appointment with Michael Sinclair. Their meeting would top a long and trying day. He needed to sober up completely before their appointment tonight, for his instincts warned him that he would need all his wits as they negotiated the terms of the marriage contract. For God help him, he could leave nothing else to chance in regard to his future with Miss Sinclair.
The thunderous storm that had swept over the South Downs had cleansed the hills with its refreshing rains. Rosewood Manor stood high on a promontory surrounded by a sea of wet, glistening fields, its whitewashed bricks glowing in ghostly iridescence under a full moon.
An hour after the evening’s meal, Michael Sinclair sat secluded in his study, reclining in his favorite leather chair. Feet propped on a massive oak desk, he was smoking a cheroot when he heard a soft rapping on the door.
“Papa?” Amanda poked her head through the opening. “May I come in?”
“Of course, love,” Michael said as he rose to greet her. “But why aren’t you with your mother?”
Amanda shrugged, and sank into a comfortable wing chair in front of the cozy fire. She’d come to make one last attempt to dissuade her father from forcing her into accepting the earl’s proposal.
Gazing thoughtfully at her drawn features, Michael asked softly, “Have you gotten over your tantrum, child?”
Recalling her less than gracious behavior at dinner, Amanda flushed. She had argued loudly and volubly, telling her parents in no uncertain terms how much she despised the earl and that she would kill herself before marrying him or bearing him any children. Then she had threatened to run away to join a convent. In the end she had calmed down, but inside she’d been seething. Accustomed to her parents’ unwavering support, she was bewildered by their firm attitude. Only death, it seemed, would change their minds, and if nothing happened to change this dire situation soon, she would be officially engaged to Lord Downsley in the morning.
“I came here to ask . . . that is, you never told me what you and Lord Downsley actually discussed after I left. Was there something you wished to tell Mama and me before I steered the conversation into another direction?”
Michael steepled his fingers and relaxed against the back of his chair. “Not much more happened than what I already told you, child. Lord Downsley arrived promptly at six, and we came to a satisfactory if rapid agreement. Not only was he astonished at the size of your marriage portion, but pleasantly surprised, I suspect. It was clearly obvious he did not know who you were when he . . . he . . .”
‘Michael paused and stared pensively at the fire. “That dreadful homespun outfit you always insist on wearing most likely put him off the scent. I believe he mistook you for a maid.”
“Which excuses his behavior?” Amanda countered, conveniently forgetting her momentary attraction to the earl.
Michael took a deep, calming breath. “Of course not! In fact I many never forgive him for manhandling you in such a manner. I thought my blood would boil and roast me alive when I first entered that room.”
Hearing her father’s distress, Amanda quickly changed the subject. “If only Rascal hadn’t broken his leash and run away!”
“I confess I’m curious to know how you got lost, child. Your mother’s already described some of this morning’s events, but I prefer to hear what happened in your own words.”
Amanda fingered the ribbons of her green silk gown “As you are well aware, Papa,” she began in a subdued voice, “it rained every day of Letty’s visit. Which was just as well, I suppose, as we hadn’t seen each other in ages and had much to discuss. When the weather finally cleared, we decided to go for a walk. Mama did express her concern, as I am always forgetting the time. Reverend Abernathy had told Letty he would come by at noon, and as Letty’s father is never late, Mama made us promise to return well ahead of schedule.”
“What surprises me is that Letitia agreed to walk with you at all,” Michael interjected. “She’s such a fastidious little thing. No matter how bored you two girls were, I doubt that she jumped at the chance to go tramping with you through miles of wet fields.”
“Oh, but she did, Papa,” Amanda protested.
Michael emitted a gruff sound of disbelief.
“I did not coerce her, if that is what you mean! We hadn’t exercised in ages, and her visit was almost at an end. Besides, you know how I get when I cannot take my walk.”
Michael had a good idea. His daughter became as restless as a Gypsy if forced to stay indoors for any length of time, and the rains hadn’t let up for a week. Even as a child she’d insisted on her daily walks, roaming for hours over the Downs, rain or shine. Only Letitia Abernathy’s daintier sensibilities, he suspected, had kept the two girls inside for all this time.
Unaware of Michael’s thoughts, Amanda continued her narration. “Letty was reluctant to come along at first, but only because she had brought a new walking outfit to wear and was afraid to get it muddied. When I suggested that she wear one of my old dresses, she changed her mind. Daisy carried our refreshments and a blanket, and I took Rascal on his leash.”
Amanda silently recalled how she had led her friend and maid to her favorite spot, a small hillock that boasted a spectacular view. No matter how many times she visited it, Amanda never grew tired of its beauty, or of seeing the Downs marching in gentle swells to the sea and the white cliffs rising dramatically above the Channel.
They had followed a narrow footpath that was barely discernble in the grasses, and had walked past blossoming fruit orchards and vast herds of grazing Southdown sheep until Letty had complained she couldn’t go one step farther.
“Our shoes and dresses were soaked when we reached the hill. And since the ground was too wet, even for a blanket, we decided to sit on a low limb of an oak tree. I tied Rascal’s leash to a bush before joining Letty and Daisy. Then we munched on apples and identified cloud shapes before heading back.
“Oh, Papa! Mama would have been so pleased to see us returning ahead of schedule, as she’s forever scolding me for always being late! But it was not to be. When Letty jumped to the ground, she slipped and twisted her ankle. Her scream startled Rascal, who broke free from his leash. That little bounder ran out of my reach whenever I approached him,
and after a while I gave up trying to capture him. By then Letty’s ankle had swollen to such an extent that she could barely walk.
“I was in a quandary. I wanted to stay with Letty, yet I couldn’t let Rascal out of my sight. Mama had warned us she would send a carriage to collect us if we did not return home at the promised time. Thinking I could overtake Rascal before then, Letty urged me to fetch him while Daisy kept her company.
“But you didn’t.” Michael said thoughtfully.
“No. Rascal had already run away. I caught up with him just as he was chasing a squirrel into the Downsley woods. Of course I went after him, but since I’ve never been in those woods before, I quickly became lost.”
“I had good reason to forbid you to enter that forest, Mandy. Years ago the old earl had his gamekeeper place numerous traps there. Even after all this time many are still capable of crippling or killing anyone who activates them.”
“I know, Papa. I had no desire to trip one of them, believe me.”
“Thank God they’ve been outlawed,” Michael remarked. “Still, I hope you didn’t stray far off the paths?”
“Not unless it was necessary. I’ve always given these woods a wide berth, which is why I became lost once I found Rascal. Clouds had already started to move in, and without the sun to guide me, I had no idea which direction to take home. Then the storm broke, drenching us instantly. There were no landmarks I recognized. I tried finding my way around by looking for moss and any other signs that told me which direction was north. Somehow I found a dirt road in all that rain and thunder and lightning. Then I spotted the cottage. When no one replied to my knock, I entered, only to discover it was abandoned. The storm was still at its height, and I realized I had to wait it out. I found a flintstone and a few dry pieces of wood, and started a fire, which gave off very little heat. Since I was soaked, my best chance of getting warm was to take off my clothes and dry them. The thunder terrified poor Rascal, who lay cowering in the corner. As both of us were preoccupied, was it any wonder that we failed to notice Lord Downsley’s arrival?”
Amanda’s voice broke. “Oh, Papa, I didn’t know whether to be frightened or not when that man entered the cabin. He was drunk, that was obvious. Perhaps that’s why he did not behave as a gentleman ought.”
A vein throbbed in Michael’s temple; his hands clenched and unclenched. He should have beaten Downsley to a pulp when he had the chance. Instead, like an opportunistic toady, he’d offered the earl his daughter’s hand, and had given him a father’s blessing.
“You can imagine how crazed I felt, child, when Letitia and Daisy returned and told me you were missing. George had already arrived to take Letitia home, and after checking that she was not seriously injured, he offered to help search for you. When the storm broke, he remembered the cottage. We would have arrived sooner, Mandy, but I was so certain you had not entered the Downsley woods that I . . . I . . .”
Amanda jumped from the chair, and placed her arms around her father. “Hush, Papa. Nothing happened. Truly. Which is why I’ve come to beg you one more time. Might you for any reason change your mind?”
“Regarding your betrothal to the earl? No, my dear. There were too many witnesses who saw him manhandle you. For pity’s sake, you were practically naked!”
Amanda’s face flushed instantly. “Is my happiness to be sacrificed only for propriety?” she cried out. “I don’t love the earl, Papa. And I don’t respect him. Besides, he’s, he’s … old!” she blurted.
“Believe me, child, marriage to Downsley will not be as bad as you fear. Until now I believed the earl to be an honorable man. And he’s still young enough to be setting up his nursery. To help stave off the worst of the scandal, Downsley’s agreed to give the impression that this match is one of long standing. Since our estates march side by side, this secret betrothal will surprise no one. And since everyone knows that the old earl practically gambled away all of Downsley’s inheritance, and that the poor lad’s been strapped for cash these past seven years, the size of your dowry alone will be regarded as sufficient reason for the earl to marry just a touch beneath him. Considering you won’t be wed until June, you’ll both have sufficient time to become acquainted with one another. Downsley’s agreed to court your properly for the next three weeks. As your betrothal won’t be officially announced until more than a month before you marry, I have every confidence you will at least come to like him.”
Michael frowned at his stubborn daughter. “I’ve known Downsley for a long time, Mandy. Since before you were born. And although I cannot approve of the circumstances in which you became reacquainted, I’m immensely pleased with the outcome. Simply put, I’ve wished for this betrothal for a long time.”
Amanda could only stare at her father in stupefaction.
“Close your mouth, child, before the bats mistake it for a cave,” Michael chided. “I know you’ve had a trying day, but my mind’s made up. Downsley is scheduled to return tomorrow morning at ten. Since you ought to look your best when he proposes, I suggest that you go to bed and get some rest. Think you can do that?”
Amanda nodded, barely containing her disappointment. This simply had to be a nightmare from which she would shortly awaken. How was it possible that after years and years of waiting for the right man to come along, she was to be sacrificed to an
insensitive, unfeeling cad?
Amanda kissed her father goodnight and walked dejectedly up to her bedchamber. She needed time to think. Needed to come up with a plan to thwart Lord Downsley and circumvent her father’s wishes. Although she’d promised her parents that she would wed the earl, there had to be some way in which she could force him to call off their engagement.
And since she was an intelligent and resourceful woman, how hard could it be to make the earl see reason?
Amanda traversed through Rosewood Manor’s vaulted gallery, renowned for its collection of master paintings. Shafts of golden sunlight illuminated the long hallway, casting intricate shadows on the parquet floor, but she was oblivious to the light’s magical effects, and of the fragrant scent of apple blossoms drifting through the open windows.
Pausing in front of the drawing room’s ornately carved oak door, she drew in a shaky breath before entering.
The earl stood waiting in front of the fireplace, his back to her.
“My lord, I hope I haven’t kept you waiting for long?” she inquired in her melodious voice, and closed the door. Soft morning light slanted through the lace-curtained windows, flattering her strong-boned features.
Lord Downsley turned towards her, his handsome face unsmiling, and lifted one dark brow. Eyeing the lovely honey-blond hair that cascaded in luxurious but unfashionably long ringlets to her waist, he murmured, “Good morning, Miss Sinclair.” Then he surveyed her stylish gown of creamy yellow, his eyes betraying obvious surprise at the charming picture she presented.
Disconcerted by his astonishment, Amanda could only stare back. Lord, what was wrong with the man? The earl needed only to follow the prescribed rules of conduct to make this awful situation somewhat bearable. Besides, he could not possibly be holding her responsible for his reprehensible behavior when he had only himself to blame. Had he maintained some modicum of control over his male impulses, had he not foolishly attempted to seduce her and gotten caught in the process, they would not now be in this fix.
Well, two can play this ridiculous game! she thought stubbornly. Squaring her shoulders, Amanda studied an elaborate still life of the Dutch School, and waited for him to continue.
Fingering his watch fob, the earl asked her without preamble, “Will you marry me, Miss Sinclair?”
She hesitated as if the question was completely unexpected.
He awaited her response with seeming indifference, leisurely inspecting the Carrerra marble fireplace with its intricate fruit and flower carvings, then casually returned his gaze to her person. Only a slight tic in his left temple betrayed his unease.
The silence between them stretched endlessly, like a wire tensing to the breaking point.
Then she replied, “Yes, I will marry you, my lord.” Amanda shivered in her thin morning gown as if a dark cloud had suddenly obscured the warming sun.
The earl’s mouth compressed to a thin slit. He frowned, drawing his rugged brows close together and giving his splendid features a saturnine look. As he continued to study her face and figure, Amanda felt an unwanted hot sensation prick up her spine. Torn by her conflicting emotions, she lowered her head.
Then the earl said in a clear, strong voice, “You are aware this marriage will not be in name only?”
Amanda jerked her head up. Hazel eyes met steely gray ones, and an electrical jolt of awareness arced between them. Oh God, not again! she thought in near panic, staring at the earl as if hypnotized. Fighting to control the quaver in her voice, she answered, “I have always wanted children, my lord, and I know my duty.”
Her forthrightness seemed to stun him, and he cleared his throat. “Very well then. I shall finalize the arrangements with your father.”
There was nothing more to add; nothing else to discuss.
As Amanda turned to the bell pull, her shoulder brushed against the earl’s chest. She heard his deep intake of breath, and before she could summon the butler, he had hauled her into his arms.
Then he kissed her. Gently, as if he wanted to. Passionately, as if he would never let her go. For a few unguarded moments she yielded herself to him, reveling in the feel of his male possession, intoxicated by his musky male scent. Enveloped in his strong embrace, she felt the strength of his desire and trembled with anticipation.
Then cooler thoughts prevailed, and she thrust him away.
What on God’s green earth was she doing? He did not love her, nor she him. Yet any time he came near her, she found herself unable to think straight, much less control her body’s traitorous responses. Dismayed, she moved away from him, all her senses focused on her burning lips and the sound of his raspy breathing.
Lord Downsley let out a harsh laugh, seemingly as disconcerted as she by his actions, and raked a hand over his jet-black hair.
“No, my dear. I won’t ravish you, especially not in your father’s house. I’ve learned my lesson quite well, I assure you.”
Appalled, Amanda stood motionless, teary eyes riveted on the Aubusson carpet, cheeks stained a bright crimson. Never in her life had she behaved with such reckless abandon. Never had she been so confused. The man was altogether too exasperating, too contradictory, and too dangerous to be around.
She wanted him gone.
At a loss of what to do next, she whispered, “Please leave.”
Without another word the earl crossed the room.
The door opened and clicked shut. And when Amanda looked up, he was gone.