• 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

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

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