• 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.
  • Pages

  • Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape
  • 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

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 Amanda’s maid, Daisy, held up a drab, outdated walking dress of an indeterminate color.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.

Click here to go HOME                                   Click here to read the next chapter

Copyright, 1999

Advertisements