• 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

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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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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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.