• 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

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.”

“Never!”

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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Copyright, 1999

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