• A Regency Romance Novel

    Amanda Sinclair is forced into a loveless marriage with a handsome but brooding earl. James Cavendish is in love with another woman, but no matter how hard he tries, he is unable to resist Amanda's charms. The morning after their wedding night, James returns to London, leaving Amanda at his Sussex estate. Taking the reigns in her hands, Amanda follows her husband, determined to win his heart and claim her status as his wife.
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  • Storm over Sussex Gainsborough Woodcutter's Cottage Sussex Woods in Spring Downsley Hall South Downs Rosewood Manor Rosewood Manor's Drawing Room Ancient Roman villa, mosaic tile floor, Sussex South Down Sheep Bottle feeding lambs

Chapters Eleven & Twelve…

… 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!

01 – Chapter One

Sussex, England

March 1813

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.

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Copyright, 1999

02 – Chapter Two

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?”

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Copyright, 1999

03 – Chapter Three

“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.

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04 – Chapter Four

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.

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Copyright, 1999

05 – Chapter Five

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?

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06 – Chapter Six

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.

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Copyright, 1999

07 – Chapter Seven

The yellow parlor was a sumptuous yet cozy room. Although Amanda normally loved its cheery atmosphere, she felt she would never be able to enter it again without remembering the earl’s icy proposal. She moved restlessly through the high-ceilinged, oval interior, smelling the fragrant bouquet of lilacs that graced the central round table, and touching the elegant flowers without thought. Then she sank unsteadily onto a settee and wept.

Helen Sinclair entered a short time later to comfort her daughter, shadowed by Rascal. The young dog trotted up to his mistress, and nuzzled her hand before curling into a tight ball at her feet. Helen opened her arms, and consoled Amanda until her daughter’s tears subsided.

“There, there, my angel, the worst is over. Lord Downsley has behaved honorably and your Papa has every confidence a scandal has been avoided.”

“Oh, Mama, how can I marry someone I neither respect nor admire? And as I told Papa, he is so very old.”

Helen smiled at Amanda’s artless outburst. At one and forty, she was only four years older than the earl. Except for an occasional gray strand in her flaxen hair and a few laugh lines around her mouth and eyes, she scarcely looked older than her daughter. “Old as he may be, my child, he is a handsome man and a most suitable prospect. I believe one day you will come to care for him, as he will you.”

“Never! The man is vain, arrogant, and insufferable to boot, and I absolutely loathe him!”

“I admit he treated you shabbily, and for that I cannot forgive him. But for your own sake and happiness, you must make the best of this situation. An arranged marriage is not the end of the world, and your father and I have every reason to hope yours will result in mutual love and esteem.”

“Lord Downsley loves only himself, Mama. He has no regard for others and certainly none for me.”

Helen silently disagreed, but knew better than to argue with her strong-willed girl. Through her own fathers’ close friendship with the earl’s father, she had known Lord Downsley almost all her life. He had won her affection the year of her coming out when he had developed a schoolboy crush on her and sent her the sweetest, most awkward poems.

Since Amanda had no knowledge of this, Helen only said, “I do know that he is loyal to a fault. Do you recall his friend, Charles Metcalfe, Lord Hungerford?”

Amanda nodded her head. She had vivid memories of the marquess, a blond, muscular man with a ready laugh and a joie de vivre that infected everyone around him. It was strange how well she remembered Lord Hungerford, but could scarcely recall the earl, except that he had always been with Lord Hungerford, a silent and frequently morose figure, always lurking in the background.
“You are likely too young to recall this, Amanda, but Lord Hungerford was a rapscallion and forever getting into scrapes, though he had the ability to charm his way out of a room full of snakes. I can’t think of two boys who were more opposite in looks and personality than Charley and Jamey, as my papa called them. Yet they were inseparable. Lord Hungerford always reminded me of a big sloppy lapdog. Loveable, yet irresponsible. It amazed everyone that he and Lord Downsley managed to be such close friends, for even at a young age, the earl was always so contained, so . . . quiet and dependable. One would have thought Lord Downsley would have been deeply offended by his friend’s escapades, instead he tempered Lord Hungerford’s excesses and saved him on more occasions than I can recall.”

“They must have had little in common.”

“Oh, but they did, at least on the surface. They were such a formidable pair – two male heirs who stood to inherit their fathers’ fortunes and titles. They were handsome and charming, and popular with everyone in the area, especially with the ladies.”

“If the earl is such a paragon of respectability, and is so very highly regarded, then why did he behave as he did yesterday?”

Helen frowned. “I don’t know, except that it was most uncharacteristic.”

“Perhaps not,” Amanda sniped, unwilling to attribute any good qualities to the earl.

“It’s understandable that we might differ in our opinions,” Helen allowed. “But I beg you to trust me in this. Although you may regard Lord Downsley as a spoiled and self-centered man, I know he has many agreeable qualities, and I have every confidence he will make you an excellent husband if you would only give him the chance.”

Amanda judiciously refrained from speaking. She admired her beautiful mother, and sought out her opinions in most matters, but in this instance she disagreed with her overly generous assessment of the earl. Although she’d had no choice but to accept his proposal, the thought of spending the rest of her life with a man she neither loved nor respected was more than she could bear. Feeling her tears start up again, she averted her face.

Observing her daughter’s quiet distress, Helen hugged her. “There are several household matters that require my immediate attention, my child, else I would stay. Don’t ever forget how proud your papa and I are of you. And try to keep in mind that, no matter how awful this situation seems to you just now, it will all resolve itself for the best.”

“Yes, Mama,” Amanda whispered, her anguished expression belying her words. Her life would never be the same again. By June she would be shackled to a man almost twice her age, a man who held no regard for her, and certainly no real affection. Worse, they would never experience the loving intimacy that her parents had always shared.

Amanda watched her mother leave, still in shock over learning that both her parents desired this union. She was on her own now. There would be no help coming from their direction.

She reclined against a cushion, her thoughts in a whirl. Warm breezes drifted through the tall window, teasing a strand of her hair across her cheeks. Tucking it behind her ear, she pulled her long legs under her and settled Rascal comfortably on her lap. Stroking his soft fur, she listened to the familiar sounds outside: the muffled talk of the stable lads, the horses nickering in the paddocks, a maid singing as she worked, a shepherd whistling his commands.

She would miss this house, she realized sadly. If only she had not promised her parents that she would marry the earl. She’d regretted accepting his proposal the moment the words popped out of her mouth. But there was no point in bemoaning her acceptance. The only recourse she had left was to make herself so objectionable that the earl would not want to marry her for ten times the amount of her dowry.

She thought hard for a few minutes, her brow creased with the effort. She just had to think of a ways to make his life miserable! Then an idea came to her mind, and Amanda instantly perked up. Since their engagement had not yet been publicly announced, she realized she had more than enough time in which to offend James Cavendish’s patrician sensibilities and to drive him back to London as fast as his horse could gallop. For the first time since encountering the earl, Amanda smiled.

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Copyright, 1999

08 – Chapter Eight

“Miss Amanda are you certain you want to wear this faded old dress?” Amanda’s maid, Daisy, held up a drab, outdated walking dress of an indeterminate color. “I thought you had tossed it in the charity bin ages ago.”

“Obviously I’ve changed my mind, Daisy. There’s still a lot of wear left in that old rag, and I think it’s perfect for today’s picnic.”

“But, Miss Amanda! Surely you’re not going out with the Earl of Downsley dressed like some dowdy hag, not when you have so many other lovely dresses?” Daisy’s pleasant round face wore an expression of prim disapproval.

“Pshaw, Daisy. Don’t be such a goose. The ground is sopping wet. I refuse to ruin a perfectly good outfit, even for the earl.”

Clad only in a chemise and pantaloons, Amanda stood in a sunny alcove adjacent to her dressing room. A variety of shoes were scattered over the floor, and she was deciding on which pair to wear for the outing. It was a toss between the brown clogs or the olive green walking shoes, which had been a mistake the moment she’d bought them. Her face scrunched deep in thought, she opted for the clogs. They made her large feet look ten times larger.

Amanda glanced in the cheval mirror. Good, she thought, I look utterly repulsive. Normally her wide cheeks and strong features were softened by the blond ringlets that framed her face. But she’d had Daisy twist her hair into a tight bun, and the Quakerish style was unflattering to say the least. Her thick hair had always been regarded as her best feature, but the earl would never know it. A devilish impulse had prompted her to comb a small amount of butter into the strands. Examining the effect, she was pleased with the truly hideous result. Her hair looked drab and unwashed, an oily sheen repressing its natural golden highlights. The butter had a slight odor, but she didn’t think anyone would detect it.

“My hair’s perfect, Daisy. Now I’m ready to be dressed.”

Her toilette completed, Amanda studied the high-necked, long-sleeved gown. It had no decorations, save for a worn, frayed ribbon, and its dull color made even her sun-toasted skin look sallow. He called me a mouse and that’s exactly what he’ll get, she thought, satisfied with the truly appalling results.

Amanda glanced at the clock, threw her hands up in the air, and exclaimed in a high falsetto, “Oh dear, where has the time flown? Daisy, my cloak and bonnet, please!”

This was her first attempt to oust the earl from her life, and Amanda had deliberately lingered over her morning toilette. Though she’d kept him cooling his heels for well over an hour, she descended the stairs at a snail’s pace, taking small, mincing steps in her ungainly clogs.

They were to join her parents and a select group of friends for a picnic and an exploration of an old Roman ruin found near Beachy Head. But she was so late that the others had departed in two large carriages over half an hour ago. Only the earl remained, waiting to escort her and Daisy in his new curricle.

Amanda toddled down the stairs, unaccountably pleased with herself. As long as she was stuck with the earl’s unwanted compa­ny, she might as well enjoy offending him.

“Good morning, my lord,” she trilled. “Isn’t the weather perfect for sightseeing?” Her effusiveness was designed to grateon his nerves. From his thunderous expression, she had been more than successful.

Amanda surveyed the earl’s modish attire with frank appreciation. He was impeccably dressed in a coat of black superfine, fawn-gray pantaloons, and gleaming Hessian boots. The contrast between her dowdy dress and his meticulous raiment couldn’t have been greater. Oh, how she was going to enjoy this lovely day! And with an impish smile, she offered him her hand in greeting.

James had been seething at just below boiling point for the past hour. A stickler for punctuality, few had the audacity to keep him waiting. At the sound of Amanda’s voice, he had turned to face her. Good Lord, but she looked worse than he remembered. James felt the betraying tic in his left temple as he observed her outfit up close.

Where had she found that awful bonnet and that hideous excuse for a cloak? he thought testily, loath to learn what else she had in store. Much to his surprise, he’d been looking forward to spending a day with his intended, but her infuriating tactics had quickly ruined his anticipation.

“Are you ready to join the others, Amanda, or do you still need to change?”

Ignoring him, she glanced at the ormolu clock on the mantle with wide innocent eyes. “Have they left already, my lord? My, but I had no idea of the time. The day just races by when one is happily occupied, does it not? Now where did I leave my gloves and reticule?” she muttered distractedly as she searched for them. “I seem to be always misplacing something.”

After finding her reticule under a cushion and her gloves already in her hand, she rang for the butler to bring Rascal on his leash.

“No, absolutely not! I forbid it! That infernal dog is not coming along with us!” the earl quickly objected.

“And pray why not, my lord?” she asked in her sweetest voice. ” Rascal is accustomed to coming along wherever I go.”

“Not when I’m escorting you. I don’t like the creature above half, not when it wants to sink its teeth into my thigh..” Without further ado, James whisked her outside.

Daisy, who had overheard their exchange with astonishment, hurried after them. La, the gentry were strange when they went courting, she thought to herself.

Two splendid matched bays were harnessed to a shiny curricle. Kept waiting too long, the horses pawed and snorted, tossing their magnificent heads in their desire to get going. Looking vastly relieved, James’s groom hopped up to his perch and handed the reigns over to his master. Swiftly, before Miss Sinclair could delay him further, James urged his team forward.

“What handsome horses!” Amanda exclaimed in genuine admiration. “May I drive? I’m said to be an excellent whip.”

“Most emphatically not,” the earl grumbled. A nonpareil, James seldom allowed others to control his vehicle, at least, not while he was in it. Still this did not excuse his appalling lack of manners. Miss Sinclair’s contrary behavior had grated on his usually steady nerves. Ever since his arrival at Rosewood Manor, the day’s events had completely slipped out of his control. When she appeared after keeping him waiting for over an hour, he’d wanted to throttle her. It galled him to think she could affect him so. Now, sitting next to this frumpy girl, he felt even more powerless. He couldn’t predict what she would say or do next, and she couldn’t have done a better job to overset him if she had planned it deliberately.

He had arrived at Rosewood Manor this morning feeling rather pleased with himself, resolved to courting his future wife properly and making the best of an awkward situation. After their marriage, he intended to have his orderly existence return back to normal. There was no reason his relationship with Eleanor could not continue much as it had before. If he could not take her to wife, he would make her his mistress. He could see no reason why Eleanor would object, or Miss Sinclair for that matter. It wasn’t as if Miss Sinclair loved him, and as long as she refrained from interfering in his business, he foresaw them living a relatively contented life. With Eleanor as his mistress and this strappingly healthy young girl as the mother of his many children, he would have the best of two worlds.

Of course when he’d been making his plans, he had not taken Miss Sinclair’s contrary behavior into consideration. What the devil was the chit up to this morning? Her father was as rich as Croessus, her mother was renowned for her fashion sense, yet she was dressed like a cast-off from a rubbish heap. James’s sensitive nose curled from an odd but subtle odor emanating from his intended. It seemed familiar, though he couldn’t quite place it. As a man of the world, he had a vast experience of women, but this fledgling was definitely teaching him a trick or two. With a flash of insight he understood her game: His mouth twitched in amusement. She lacked subtlety, that was for certain, but now that he was on to her, he intended to enjoy himself and follow her lead.

“That outfit is so much more becoming than the one you wore in the cottage, Mouse, though not half as charming as the one you wore yesterday.”

Amanda eyed him with suspicion. “Thank you.”

“I appreciate frugality in a female. And common sense. Wear­ing clogs is an excellent idea after a hard rain. It’s common knowledge that wet grass can ruin delicate slippers, though I wonder how comfortable you will be walking so close the edge of the cliffs? The terrain can be slippery and precarious, and clogs might not give you a proper toe hold.”

Amanda looked chagrined and spoke without meeting his eyes. I wasn’t planning on exploring the ruins, my lord. I’ve seen them several times already, I thought I’d pick some wildflowers instead, and observe, the, uh, . . . wildlife in general.”

The day was balmy, and the countryside sparkled under the sun’s bright rays. James tooled his curricle swiftly over the well-tended road. In no time he and Amanda had joined the rest of the party. The small gathering included Amanda’s friend, Letitia, and her father, the Reverend Abernathy, and the squire and his family. The group had spread out on several colorful blankets scattered over the grass. They chatted amiably as servants set out baskets of food.

Helen approached her daughter at the first opportunity. “What in heaven’s name are you wearing, Amanda? Isn’t that your governess’s old cloak? And where on earth did you find that bon­net? You look simply dreadful, child.”

“As I did not want to ruin one of my new dresses, I think it’s a very practical outfit for today’s outing, Mama.”

Helen’s gave Amanda a skeptical look. “We’ll talk about this later For pity’s sake, your bonnet is so old and musty it smells. Please take it off and use your parasol for protection. What must the Earl of Downsley think?”

That I am slovenly and undesirable, and not fit to be his wife.

Amanda prayed he would be repelled soon, for the butter had melted and her scalp itched dreadfully. She doubted she would use this particular ploy soon again.

Sitting on a blanket, Letitia motioned for Amanda to join her. “La, Mandy, tell me what happened at the cottage the other day. My papa won’t say a thing and has strictly forbidden me to ask you. But I’m dying to know, all the same.”

“First, how is your ankle?

“Much better, thank you. The physick said I merely twisted it, and he must have been right for the swelling is almost gone. So, do go on! Tell me what happened!”

“He was dreadful, Letty,” Amanda whispered. “The earl would not stop touching me, no matter how much I pleaded.”

Letitia’s pale blue eyes grew enormous. A plump girl with tiny doll-like features, she was almost a foot shorter than her friend. “Didn’t you like your adventure just a little bit, Amanda? Oh, why does nothing this exciting ever happen to me?”

“It wasn’t nearly as thrilling as you think, Letty. Lord Downsley’s an overbearing condescending know-it-all. Why he’s just an old lech.”

“An old lech?” Letitia was eyeing the earl with frank appreciation. “Why, I think he’s simply delicious. I’d let him paw me any day!”

“You have my blessing to marry him then, since I don’t intend to.”

“How can you say that, Mandy, in light of the fact that Lord Downsley practically . . .”

“Ssshhh, Letty, before everyone in England hears you! I’ve no intention of marrying that man. I don’t love him. I don’t even like him. Besides, he resides in London. You must recall the awful rows I had with my parents when I refused to go to there for my first Season. I had no desire to marry some citified dandy when I had by heart set on a man born and bred in Sussex. It took all my powers of persuasion to convince them to let me remain at home. Nothing, not even an introduction to the king and queen, would induce me to spend even a week in London, much less live there.”

“Well, you’ll have your wish in one respect, Mandy. Lord Downsley was born and bred in Sussex. On the surface yours would seem to be a perfect match, what with both your grandfathers having been best friends, and your father’s estate bordering the earl’s.

“But he does not love me, nor I him,” Amanda said emphatically. She then leaned over and whispered her plans into Letitia’s ear.

“So that’s why you’re looking so dreadful. I was wondering what you were up to,” Letitia said in awe.

“Will you help me in this, Letty?” Amanda begged her friend.

Letty looked doubtful. “I’ll try my best, but I don’t know how.”

“Oh, I’ll think of something.” Amanda was heartened by her conversation with Letty, blithely unaware that the earl was on to her tricks.

The group ate a substantial al fresco luncheon consisting of thick slices of freshly baked bread, assorted cheeses, pates, cold slices of ham and chicken, pickled vegetables, chocolate creams, macaroons, and lemonade and champagne on ice. Afterward they rested, enjoying each other’s company as they lounged on the blankets.

Seated next to the earl. Amanda chatted lightly with the squire and his family. Michael then regaled the group with hilarious anecdotes regarding the more colorful men with whom he conducted business, and thus the time passed pleasantly.

After a short interval, the group prepared to visit the nearby ruins.

“Are you certain you don’t want to change your mind and come along, Mandy?” Letty asked. “You can keep me company while I sketch.”

Amanda shook her head, feeling she could not back down without losing face with the earl. She thought sadly of her missed opportunity, for she had not seen these Roman ruins before. A particularly fierce storm had uncovered the remains of a small Roman villa, which was unearthed for the first time in the soft limestone in centuries. Teeter-tottering near the edge of a three hundred foot drop, the villa threatened to fall into the sea during the next major storm. Amanda was anxious to see it before nature completed its destruction, and it had been she who had originally suggested the trip several weeks ago to view the floor mosaics, which were almost intact.

As she awaited the party’s return, Amanda removed her hat, clogs, and stockings, and explored the area barefoot, picking buttercups. Inhaling the salty air, she turned her face to the sun, reveling in its warmth. She sat beside a stream and took off her bonnet. With her feet dangling in the cool water, she lay back among the tall rushes, looking at the clear sky. Listening to the buzz of insects and the soft chattering of the servants as they cleared the picnic items, she soon fell asleep.

James excused himself early from the group and returned to keep Amanda company. The rustle from his approaching steps awoke her, and she greeted him with a sleepy voice.

“Noticed any interesting wildlife from down there, mouse?” His eyes were riveted on her exposed feet and trim ankles.

Remaining prone, Amanda reeled off the creatures she had observed, including a kestrel and several flocks of migratory birds winging to their summer destinations. She pointed to the fox tracks criss-crossing the wet soil beside the rivulet, and the numerous mounds of rabbit warrens that pushed up from the soft spongy ground. Talking with the ease of a true nature lover, she continued to catalogue all the flora and fauna in the immediate area, some by their biological names, until he laughingly pleaded with her to stop.

Obeying him, she sat up, and gave him her buttercups. The earl thanked her. “These buttercups suit you,” he said, emphasizing the word “butter.”

Amanda shot him a quelling look, then asked him about the ruins.

He gave her a detailed description of the intricate mosaic patterns on the floors, and the bits of pottery shards lying about as so much confetti. Then he handed her some colorful tessera that had worked their way free from their ancient grouting.

She thanked him prettily for his gift and asked several intelligent, well-informed questions that indicated her knowledge of Roman history and architecture, and which the earl gladly answered. Their talk so engrossed her that she soon lost track of the time. When the rest of the group returned from their explorations and her father indicated it was time to leave, Amanda was amazed at how much she had enjoyed herself and how reluctant she was to end their conversation.

The earl helped Amanda off the ground. She rose off-balance and landed heavily against his arm. She jerked her head up only to look into a pair of smoldering gray eyes. Mesmerized, she leaned into the earl’s chest, drawn to his heat and his hard, male strength. Her heartbeat quickened. She could barely hear him speak over the pounding in her ears.

“I’d be honored if you returned here with me, Mouse. We could explore these ruins together. Better yet, I’ll take you to the Roman villa recently uncovered near Fishbourne. The mosaics there are said to be spectacular.”

The earl’s generous offer pleased her excessively. By offering to take her, he was showing a sensitivity that surprised her. Somehow she felt that her outing had not been ruined after all, and she gave him a grateful smile.

He cupped her face in both his hands and brushed his mouth to hers. Lips tingling, she closed her eyes and pursed her lips in expectation of another kiss, not realizing how delectable she looked, despite her odd appearance. He released her, and studied her face, his eyes lingering on the generous mouth with its full, red lips, the faint cleft in her chin, and the sprinkling of freckles on the bridge of her nose. Then he observed her hair, which glistened with a dull, oily sheen.

The earl’s mouth spread in a slow, lazy smile, and he whispered, “Next time, Mouse, go lightly on the butter. Let me recommend lemon juice. It increases the shine and smells so much better.” Then he kissed her perfunctorily on the tip of her nose, and offered her his arm.

Amanda’s face colored a beet red. Oh, how she longed to wipe that smug expression off his handsome face and take him down a peg or two! But for now she would have to bide her time. Tilting her chin at a proud angle, she marched past him to the assembled group, her reddened face averted from his amused gaze.

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Copyright, 1999

09 – Chapter Nine

That evening after dinner Amanda sat with her mother in the blue-and-white sitting room. The chambermaid had lit a cozy fire and drawn the curtains to ward of the nightly chill. Logs hissed and crackled, and the flames cast chiaroscuro shadows over the wood-paneled walls.

Both women sat quietly embroidering. As her mother chatted inconsequentially, Amanda concentrated on her irregular stitches, plying her needle with a vengeance. She pricked her thumb and sighed. An inferior needlewoman at best, Amanda preferred working on the ledgers instead. Since turning eighteen four years ago, she had helped to manage her father’s extensive sheep operations, taking over more of the responsibilities of the Southdown sheep each year. Why was it that she could add five and six column figures in her head and instantly calculate the number of bales of wool this season’s shearing would produce, but had not a domestic bone in her body? She gazed at her uneven stitches in dismay, acutely aware of her lack of talent in this direction. Still, this was a genial way to spend time with her mother, who was pleased to think her daughter was making progress in her housewifely endeavors.

After a companionable interval, her mother looked up from her exquisite needlework. “Amanda,” she began, “I’m somewhat confused. Did you not express a particular desire to see the Roman ruins today? Yet you were the only one of the party not to see them. Enlighten me please. What happened to change your mind? I trust you had good reason?”

Caught off guard, Amanda botched another stitch. She had hoped that in the confusion of a busy day her mother had forgotten the incident.

“I wore the wrong shoes, that is all, Mama.” Frowning at the stitch, Amanda began to pull it out.

Helen scanned her daughter’s expressive face. “It’s not like you to feign an excuse, child, Let me caution you that Lord Downsley will not be deterred simply because you have taken it upon yourself to behave like a schoolgirl and dress like a scullery maid. In the coming weeks I expect you to comport yourself with some dignity, and to wear all your pretty new dresses.”

Helen threaded her needle with silk floss, and continued her lecture. “Persistence is a virtue, Amanda, but not in this case. Don’t think you can win this game, and don’t think for a moment Lord Downsley didn’t see through your transparent scheme. If I were you I’d thank my lucky stars he chose to view the situation in a humorous light.”

Amanda turned her full concentration on her needlework. Her mother’s mild reproof had made her feel like a naughty child. She preferred mending all the torn linens in the house than to be the object of her disapproval.

Helen looked in suspicion at her submissive daughter. “Do I have your promise today’s silly nonsense will not be repeated? That you’ll dress and behave in a manner befitting a young lady? Or shall your father and I have to supervise you at every turn?”

“Yes, Mama, I promise,” Amanda began.

At that moment her father walked in. Well into his prime, he had begun to gain weight. Despite the increased poundage, Amanda’s resemblance to him was unmistakable. They shared the same bone structures, the same strong chins and high cheekbones, and similarly stubborn natures.

“So, Mandy, has your mother spoken to you?” He leaned over to kiss her mother’s hand.

“Yes, Papa.”

“Good.” Her father’s eyes scanned her face. “You’ve a rare quality, my girl – a genuinely caring and loving nature that would charm Downsley down to his immaculate toes if you bothered to reveal it to him.”

“But, Papa . . .”

Her father held up his hand and she instantly grew silent. “And though you can look astonishingly lovely at times, today was not one of them. I wish Downsley could see you as you are now, looking so elegant and subdued. Blue suits you, my dear, and you should wear it more often. Unfortunately you’ve inherited my accursed height, and nothing will disguise that. Thank God, Downsley’s taller than you.”

Papa, where are you headed with this – this conversation?”

“Let’s face it, Mandy, your mother and I have indulged you overmuch. The result is that you are far from easy to live with.”

Amanda did not know if her father had meant to insult her, but he had. “If my upbringing has been highly unconventional, it is no fault of mine,” she bit out, and pricked herself again.

Her parents had the good grace to look abashed. Amanda’s older brother, Marcus, had died of the fever at the age of six, and after her mother gave birth to a still-born son a year later, they had feared the possibility of losing her as well. They had scarcely let Amanda out of their sight after that and had indulged her every whim, raising her like the sons they had lost.

Unlike her female contemporaries, Amanda was trained to take over her father’s estates. After she had outgrown her governess’s limited knowledge, her parents had provided her with a series of tutors who had rounded out her education. Her father had then taught her the intricacies of his vast business holdings. He still spent countless hours with her pouring over estate ledgers, guiding her through the complicated maze of his investments, and bringing her with him as he inspected his estates. As time passed, she had been given more and more responsibilities in his various enterprises, until she was as knowledgeable about her father’s business affairs as his estate manager.

At the same time, her mother had taught her all the skills she would need to oversee several large households at once, although, much to Helen’s regret, she had never quite mastered the more lady-like pursuits of music, sewing, and painting.

“Given how I’ve been raised, is it any wonder that I’m not exactly a milquetoast? Or that I know how to make my way in this world without benefit of a husband?” Amanda said archly. “I have no need of one, I assure you, and I’m convinced that until I meet a man I can’t live without, I’m better off without one. The few suitors who have shown me any serious interest could barely abide my less than . . . feminine talents and interests. You must recall, Papa, that the last man who showed me any interest had the effrontery to tell me that when we married he would never allow me to continue managing the sheep farm. The nerve! ”

“How does this former suitor’s opinion explain your actions today, daughter?” Michael looked perplexed.

“Lord Downsley is as rigid in outlook and must share a similar opinion. For this reason alone I have no wish to marry him.”

“You have no choice in the matter, child,” her mother’s cool voice interjected. “No gentleman worth his salt cries off an engagement, and James Cavendish is no fool. He would never ruin his reputation, or yours, in such a manner. Besides, we have your promise.”

“How can you hold me to it, Mama?” Amanda cried out. “Aside from having children, marriage to the earl will offers me no benefits. If I’m to give up everything I hold dear, then I want more than a husband who merely tolerates me. I want what you have with Papa. Love, respect, and friendship. In light of the happiness you and Papa have had all these years, how can you force me into a loveless marriage?”

Amanda’s body shook with emotion. How could she explain to her parents that she had always desired a relationship like theirs? They had named her Amanda, which, as they had told her over and over, meant “worthy of love,” and she deserve nothing less. The shallow, superficial lust she and the earl felt for each other was no substitute.

“I think we are all agreed that our society does not much value intelligence in a woman, Mandy,” her father said. “It will take a strong-willed, self-assured man to handle you child, but I believe Lord Downsley is up to that task.”

Feeling tears start in her eyes, Amanda averted her head.

“The earl possessed most of the qualities that I want in a son-in-law,” he continued. “He is more than capable of managing your fortune. It is well known that he has paid off his father’s enormous gaming debts. That he did so in a swift, efficient manner has earned him my respect. I understand he has had to live frugally these past seven years, exchanging his sire’s ruinously expensive mansion on Grosvenor Square for a smaller, less ostentatious dwelling. Not only has he paid off all his father’s markers, but he’s satisfied all the tradesmen, to whom, it was rumored, his father owed upwards of fifty thousand pounds.

“I only comprehend that Lord Downsley must have been ecstatic at seeing the size of my marriage portion,” Amanda said softly. “But aside from that, what does his reputation for parsimonious living have to do with me, since I’m perfectly capable of looking after myself?”

Michael raked his hands through his thinning red hair. “Not much, I suppose. Your fear of being under Lord Downsley’s ruling thumb is entirely unfounded, except where it pertains to my unentailed lands, which he will manage upon my death. You will inherit a sizable estate in your own right, Mandy, including the sheep farms and your mother’s marriage portion. When we are dead you will have complete control of those properties, including an independent income. What more could you possibly want? Your mother and I are only asking that you rein in your headstrong impulses and show the earl your gentler side.”

“I am not some vulture who sits patiently in a tree waiting for you to die, Papa. Am I to be under the earl’s beck and call until then? I doubt I would survive such an ordeal, and might well precede you to the casket.”

Michael shook his head at his daughter’s histrionics. “Marry the earl, Mandy, and I will hand over the sheep farms to you. The income derived from the sale of the wool alone will guarantee your independence.”

“Your father has made several excellent points,” her mother interjected. “We’re not expecting you to change as much as asking you to give Lord Downsley a chance. Do that, my child, and I think you will be pleasantly surprised to see how quickly and easily your relationship develops.”

Amanda stared at her parent nonplused. Had they gone mad? Knowing her views on marriage, did they still expect her to marry someone she so actively disliked? “Then you wholly support this marriage?”

“We have no choice, Mandy. The die is cast,” her father said implacably.

“Very well,” she said with all the dignity she could muster. “I shall do as you wish.” But as she ascended the stairs to her bedroom, Amanda’s resolve was hardened, and she was more determined to get rid of the earl. She would simply have to think up a way to honor her parents’ wishes, and force him to break off the engagement instead. How hard could that be?

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Copyright, 1999

10 – Chapter Ten

“How dare you go riding without me!” Amanda turned her full fury on the earl. Still dressed in her emerald green riding habit, she had spent the past several hours pacing up and down her sittingroom before coming down to the drawingroom to confront him. “I have never been treated so cavalierly by anyone in my life!”

“Much to your surprise, I suspect.” The earl inspected the sleeve of his immaculate black riding coat with lazy detachment and flicked off an imaginary piece of lint. “As you are undoubtedly aware, Miss Sinclair, I have no objection to waiting a few minutes. In fact, I can think of not one instance these last few weeks when you’ve greeted me on time. But asking me to cool my heels for over an hour and a half is simply too much for even someone of my good nature. I assumed you had the headache or forgot to inform me of a change of plans.”

Amanda stopped pacing and thrust her face into the earl’s. “You -you left me without as much as a by your leave.”

Calmly he replied, “Not exactly. I did ask Soames to convey my regrets to you. We promised to meet the others at King’s Crossing at precisely ten o’clock so that we could view the Norman ruins and be back at a reasonable hour. Having made that commitment, I felt I could not break it.”

“Letty and the Brighams are accustomed to my being a trifle late. They would not have minded.”

“I beg to differ, but I believe they did. They’re simply too polite to say anything. But be assured I gave them your apologies.”

Amanda wanted to scratch the earl’s eyes out and kick him where he would remember her forever. Anything to shake him out of his complacency and wipe that supercilious expression off his handsome face.

James stared back in appreciation, admiring the angry sparkle in her eyes. “Give me credit where credit’s due. You went beyond being, what did you say . . . a trifle late? You cannot always be expecting others to cater to you.

“Especially you,” she grumbled.

“Most especially me.” James found the discussion tedious, and wondered why he had returned to speak to her at all. It wasn’t his place to point out how impossibly rude she’d been. Not yet, at least. Though after weeks of enduring Miss Sinclair’s unreasonable conduct, he had finally drawn the line. As he had waited for her to make her appearance, he had reached the limits of his patience. Giving little thought to her feelings, he had simply left to join the others. If he had not locked horns with her this morning, she would have continued in her mistaken impression that she could trample all over him any time she pleased, and if he continued to allow her to have her way, their married life would become hell on earth.

James studied her agitated features. Perceiving the hurt beneath the bluster, he said gently, “Must we always be at loggerheads with one another, my dear? Can’t we at least hope to be friends?”

“Friends do not abandon their friends, my lord,” she huffed. She could barely trust herself to speak. Angry tears threatened to form, and it took all her effort not to show them.

Seeing her struggle for control, James wanted to sweep her in his arms and kiss her senseless. Though he deplored Amanda’s unruly conduct, he was, inexplicably, more attracted to her than ever. Granted she was the most obstinate and exasperating female he had ever met, but she was, if anything, a fascinating woman, as lively as she was intelligent, and a delight to be with when she forgot to be rude.

In the three weeks of their courtship, he had not been bored a single minute. He looked forward to their verbal sparring matches more than he cared to admit. And how he had ever thought her mousy was beyond him. Her opulent green riding dress set off the fiery highlights in her golden hair, and made her sun-toasted skin glow a rich, creamy almond. At this minute he was finding it almost impossible to keep his distance from her. He could barely wait for his wedding night when all her fire and energy would be his for the taking, when he could sate himself with her and get his raging lust for her out of his system.

Amanda had no such wanton thoughts in her mind. She had finally reached the limit of her patience. Although she had succeeded in making the earl’s life miserable, and had done so without alerting her parents, she was no closer to ousting him from her life than she had been several weeks before. Despite all her efforts, the man had displayed the patience of a saint. Until this morning he’d ignored her habitual tardiness, as well as her penchant for misplacing personal items. When she had worn her least flattering outfits and had mismatched her accessories, he had not seemed to notice. Nor had he objected when she had ignored him at balls and assemblies, or flirted outrageously with other gentlemen of her acquaintance. She had disagreed with him on every subject he introduced, and chattered incessantly when they were alone in the hope of giving him the headache. But nothing had ruffled his composure.

He remained unfailingly polite and indisputably the gentleman. Oh, there were times when she had caught him looking at her with an expression so forbidding that it made her skin crawl, but he had restrained himself from reacting . . . until now.

Letty had tried her best to help her. She had flirted disgracefully with the earl on several occasions, but he had ignored her. Instead, he had continued to act the role of her ardent suitor with such zeal that Amanda had begun to suspect he enjoyed playing the part entirely too much. If the man hadn’t been so infuriatingly stubborn about honoring their betrothal, she might have even begun to like him.

With the engagement ball fast approaching, Amanda realized she would have to step up her campaign to eject him from her life. Toward that end, she had kept him waiting this morning for a ridiculously long time. But instead of taking umbrage, he’d turned the tables on her and taken charge of the situation.

Amanda gazed absently at the earl, who was staring back at her with unmistakable hunger in his eyes. Sweet heaven, but this couldn’t be! She’d done nothing to attract him, nothing to make herself desirable. Apparently he didn’t care.

Her mind worked overtime. Could she turn his lust to her advantage? Could she make him insanely jealous? What if she could convince him that she had slept with someone else? Would he become so enraged that he would immediately discard her as a piece of soiled goods?

Amanda smiled to herself. It just might work! If she had learned anything about the Earl of Downsley was that his honor and pride took precedence over all other considerations. He would not abide her infidelity, perceived or otherwise.

Confident with her new plan, she flashed him her most brilliant smile. “Are you still escorting us to Lady Beasly’s ball tonight?”

He returned her smile with a sweetness that set her teeth on edge. “Have no fear, my dear. I plan on joining you and your parents as prearranged. By the way, you look exceedingly lovely in that outfit. Might I suggest that you wear it the next time we go riding?”

He bowed over her hand, and kissed it, his soft lips lingering over her knuckles in a slow, sensuous movement that made her shiver.

Amanda jerked her hand away as if an electrical current had passed through it.

Mischief sparked his eyes. “And Miss Sinclair?” He tilted her chin so her eyes met his. “Surprise me by being on time. It would be such a novelty I might not survive the shock, and that, I suspect, would please you.”

“It would,” she hissed.

Much to her chagrin, he merely laughed before Soames let him out the door.

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11 – Chapter Eleven

“Let me recommend the tweed coat, my lord,” James’s valet ad­vised as he finished tying the earl’s cravat. “It should survive a variety of conditions.”

“Good point, Simpson, as it looks like rain again.” James shrugged his shoulders into the coat Simpson held up for him and wondered what devilish plans Miss Sinclair would set in motion today. In an odd way he was looking forward to her next imaginative ploy to annoy him.

During the nineteen days of their courtship she’d led him a merry dance, but as soon as he had taken over the reigns and taught her a lesson, the spoiled Miss hadn’t liked it one bit. Last night she had tried to punish him with behavior more suited to an infant than a full-grown woman, pointedly snubbing him at Lady Beasly’s ball, and flirting shamelessly with every male under eighty, including a few young bucks. Had she been trying to make him jealous? He brushed off the thought.

Before Miss Sinclair appeared in his life, his days had been order­ly, even predictable. He had enjoyed his creature comforts in solitude and had his wishes followed without fail. In his few serious relationships with women he had been able to set boundaries and keep a certain distance. His affairs had been conducted with decorum, their termination had been polite and civilized. Indeed, he had managed to remain friendly with all his former lovers, most of them married ladies who were looking for a bit of flirtation on the side.

Now all that had changed. In less than two weeks, Miss Sinclair had ridden roughshod over his peaceful existence. To be honest, she had not bored him one moment, though he’d often felt as if he’d landed in the middle of one of Napoleon’s battlefields.

He’d been aware from the start that Miss Sinclair wanted him to break off their engagement. Did she not realize that a battalion of charging soldiers couldn’t force him to rescind his offer? Oh, he’d come perilously close to doing so several times, but he was a gentleman, and he would rather be lanced by ten bayonets than to create such a scandal.

The earl finished dressing and descended Downsley Hall’s wide marble staircase, which curved in a graceful arc and ended at the far end of an enormous front entrance hall. Built by his father, who had replaced the narrow wood Tudor stairs, the Italian carved steps had almost doubled his father’s debts.

“Will you be dining at home tonight, my lord?” Cowper in­quired as he handed the earl his hat and gloves.

“I doubt it, Cowper. Don’t have Cook prepare anything spe­cial on my account.” James dined at Rosewood Manor most evenings and was seldom home before ten. His growing friendship with Mi­chael and Helen Sinclair had been an unexpected bonus, although he often wondered how this sensible couple could have raised such a hellion.

Stepping outside on the gravel drive, James mounted Falconer as soon as the groom brought him round. Since Miss Sinclair had never been ready on time, he planned on enjoying a leisurely ride to Rosewood Manor and inspect his holdings along the way.

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Copyright, 1999

12 – Chapter Twelve

“Good afternoon, my lord,” Rosewood Manor’s butler said in a dignified voice. Soames’s respect for Lord Downsley had increased each time he encountered the earl.

In Soames’s estimation, the Earl of Downsley was Quality with a capital Q. Miss Amanda’s careless treatment of him ruffled the staid butler’s sense of propriety. Blood will tell, and Miss Amanda simply lacked breeding from her father’s side of the bed. This subversive thought had often entered Soames’s mind, though the loyal manservant would rather be drawn and quartered than publicly voice such a thought. The butler held a grudging respect for his employer. Michael Sinclair might have married an earl’s daughter and he might be the richest man for miles around, but the world would always view him as just plain Mr. Sinclair from the carriage trade.

“Please tell Miss Sinclair I have arrived, Soames.”

“I regret to inform you that she’s not in at present, my lord. An emergency has detained her and she sends you her apolo­gies.”

Soames watched Lord Downsley’s reaction with the relish of a true connoisseur. Only a slight tic in the earl’s left temple betrayed his annoyance as he took the news with aristocratic aplomb.

“Pray, where is she?” The earl spoke in a soft but dangerous tone.

“In the central barn, my lord. The girl in charge of the orphan lambs has taken ill, and Miss Amanda has gone to su­pervise their feeding.”

“I see.” James had never heard a more lame-brained excuse. If Miss Sinclair thought she could fob him off this easily, she had another think coming.

“Please direct me to the barn, Soames. I’ll join her there.”

A few minutes later James strolled past Rosewood’s bustling stable yard and a carriage house designed to accommodate six vehicles, and walked through a small copse of woods that served to divide the main house from the barns. The manor’s effi­cient operations extended to its barnyard, where order and neat­ness reigned.
Three wood and stone structures stood in the center of a large clearing. James found Miss Sinclair kneeling in the middle barn, holding a newborn lamb who was ravenously sucking from a bottle. Her head was bent down at an angle, and she didn’t notice his entrance. A slim girl of ten or eleven was observing her intently and hanging on to her every word.

“Do you see how I am holding the bottle at an angle, Millie? And grip it tight. The greedy creatures suckle with such force that, unless you grasp the bottle firmly, it will fly out of your hand. Be sure you don’t feed it overmuch, as that will create another set of problems. Now, would you like to give it a try?”

They exchanged places. Amanda kneeled in the straw to supervise her young charge. Wearing an apron and a simple gown she looked scarcely older than her tiny red-haired assistant. Her honey blond hair had worked itself loose from her cap, framing her face in a tangle of curls, and softening her features.

James’s loins tightened at the sight of his betrothed looking so sweet and natural. Good Lord, he thought, here she was intent on her duties and he was lusting after her like a goat in rut. He coughed and she looked up. Her wistful half smile deep­ened into one of genuine welcome. “I see that Soames has given you my message.”

“Tell me what happened,” he said gruffly.

She wiped her hands on her linen apron. “The girl in charge of our orphaned lambs has the fever. Those who might oth­erwise have helped are occupied with other duties, including the shepherds, who are bringing in the sheep from higher pastures. Since it is already past feeding time . . .”

A chorus of fifteen bleating lambs interrupted her to under­score the point.

Amanda laughed. She rose and walked over to a milkpail, and expertly poured goat’s milk into several bottles. “We’ve had an uncommonly difficult lambing season this spring and sustained more loss­es than usual. Normally we find substitute mothers for the orphans, using the ewes who have lost their own lambs. But this year not enough ewes survived the harsh weather.”

She deftly capped a bottle with an artificial nipple, placing a hard ring between the bottle and soft nipple to prevent its collapse during feeding. Handing the bottle to the little girl, she introduced her. “Lord Downsley, this is Millie. I’m training her to take over until her older sister recovers. Millie, Lord Downsley.”

The tiny girl bobbed her head and mumbled a courtesy, and continued to concentrate on her work.

Amanda capped a few more bottles, then settled back in the straw to feed more lambs. As she held a bottle aloft, James asked, “May I help?”

She smiled. “Are you certain, my lord? Your clothes . . . ?”

“. . . are not worth the consideration.”

Sparing no thought for Simpson’s handiwork, James kneeled beside her. She placed a bleating lamb at his left side, and handed him a bottle. In demonstrating to him the correct feeding angle, a tendril of her silky hair brushed his cheek. He felt a shiver of sensation go through him.Striving for control, he concentrated on his task even as he observed Amanda. Her efficiency was a revelation. This purposeful woman in no way resembled the willful creature he’d been courting in recent weeks. He’d thought her flighty and forgetful, but in this barn she was all business as she showed Millie how to fill the remaining bottles.

Before long, all the lambs were fed. He watched Amanda demonstrated to the child how to tidy the stalls, add hay to a low-hanging man­ger, pour grain in the trough for the older lambs, and clean the bottles and pails. Since the lambs were fed a mea­sured amount every four hours, Millie would have to live with them and sleep on a pallet in the loft.

“Call me if you need help, Millie,” she said, rising from the straw in graceful movements.

The little girl gazed at her mistress with adoring eyes. Few had shown her such patience, and she longed to prove her worth.

Amanda took off her apron and shyly thanked James as she hung it on a hook. “I know you expected to go riding, my lord. I hope you weren’t too bored?”

James assured her he hadn’t. In fact, he’d enjoyed himself immensely. He had learned more about his betrothed in this short hour than in all the other days put together, and liked what he’d discovered.

“It’s kind of you to help out like this, Miss Sinclair.”

“It was out of necessity not kindness, my lord. I’ve been managing the sheep for four years, and training Millie was simply part of my duty.”

On hearing her words, James felt a keen sense of disappointment. Michael Sinclair’s Southdown sheep were renowned. His success in breeding champions was unrivaled. He doubted that Sinclair would have turned his highly profitable ranching operations over to his daughter, regardless of his confidence in her. “You mean to tell me that you’re in charge of overseeing the shepherds, the lambing, the breeding, the rotation of the pasture lands, the shearing, the marketing of wool and mutton . . . ” he began, his tone incredulous.

Amanda whirled on him, her eyes flashing. “What exactly are you implying, my lord? Would it help you to know that my father’s success with the sheep has continued under my direction? That I regularly consult with my father and Mr. Kingston, our stewart? That I was apprenticed to my father and Mr. Kingston for six years before I began to manage this small portion of my father’s estate on my own? Or is this beyond the scope of your antediluvian thinking?”

He felt himself bristle. “I don’t doubt your father has given you many responsibilities, Miss Sinclair …” he began, but he did not complete his sentence.

“But?” she challenged, not noticing a change in his expression. The earl’s silence was all the proof she needed of his disbelief.  Wordlessly she spun on her heels and marched toward the house, leaving him behind without a backward look.

A few hours later, Amanda surveyed herself in the cheval mirror, and pinched her pale cheeks to give them some color. It would not do to show the earl how much his obvious doubt of her responsibilities had affected her. As she descended the stairs to the drawing room, she could hear the genial bantering between Lord Dowsnley and her father. The growing friendship between the two men was another matter that rankled. As Amanda entered the drawing room, her father called out to her in his jovial voice. “Mandy, my dear, Lord Downsley tells me you saved the day with the lambs.” Giving her an exuberant hug, he enveloped her in his arms.

“Millie’s a very quick study, Papa. We should consider keeping her, even after her sister gets well.”

“Do what you please, love. I trust your instincts implic­itly.”

Amanda remained at her father’s side, her eyes averted from the earl.

Since she was avoiding him, Lord Downsley crossed over to her. “Will you accept my apology for not quite believing you, my dear? Your father quickly put me in my place, though I assure you I understood my mistake the instant after I expressed my doubts. Your talents continually surprise me. I meant nothing more.”

Still hurt, she coolly studied the earl’s repentant face. “It is accepted, my lord,” she said curtly.

His expression hardened. Her acceptance had been a mere formali­ty, and they both knew it.

As they waited for her mother to arrive, the earl continued his friendly discussion with her father. The silver tea tray was brought in, and Amanda busied herself with
pouring and serving. Only two days remained before the engagement ball. Even now, Rosewood Manor was being readied for the grand event. Floors gleamed with a spit polish shine. Furniture and wood paneled walls smelled of beeswax. Aromas of deliciously prepared food wafted through the open windows.

Amanda’s mind was in a whirl. After their verbal exchange, she had begun to realize that once they were married, the earl would most likely prohibit her from pursuing any worthwhile occupation, including her oversight of the sheep. Time was running short. Unless she came up with a plan, her papa would formally announce their engagement tomorrow evening. Once the deed was done, there would be no turning back, and her life would be irrevocably altered.