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About the Author
Grace BurrowesGrace Burrowes is the pen name for a prolific author of historical romances whose manuscripts have so far won, finaled, or garnered honorable mention in Romance Writers of America contests in Georgia, Indiana, New Jersey, and Florida. Burrowes is a practicing attorney specializing in family law. She lives in rural Maryland.
“Why is that sitting on my fountain?”
Devlin St. Just, the Earl of Rosecroft, directed his question to the wilted specimen who passed for his land steward. &ldq...
“Why is that sitting on my fountain?”
Devlin St. Just, the Earl of Rosecroft, directed his question to the wilted specimen who passed for his land steward. “And why, in the blazing middle of July, is my fountain inoperable?”
“I’m afraid, my lord, the fountain hasn’t worked in several years,” Holderman replied, answering the simpler question first. “And as for the other, well, I gather it conveyed with the estate.”
“That”—the earl jerked his chin—“cannot convey. It is not a fixture nor livestock.”
“In the legal sense, perhaps not,” Holderman prevaricated, clearing his throat delicately. He’d given the word a little emphasis: lee-gal, and his employer shot him a scowl.
“What?” the earl pressed, and Holderman began to wish he’d heeded his sister’s advice and stayed pleasantly bored summering on their uncle’s estate closer to York. The earl was not an easy person to work for—well over six feet of former cavalry officer, firstborn of a powerful duke, and possessed of both arrogance and temper in abundance.
The man was a Black Irish terror, no matter he paid well and worked harder than any title Holderman had run across. Devlin St. Just, newly created first Earl of Rosecroft, was a flat, screaming terror. Gossip, even in York, was that the French had run for the hills when St. Just had led the charge.
“Well, you see, my lord…” Holderman swallowed and stole a glance at the fountain. He was the land steward for pity’s sake, and explaining the situation should not be left to him.
“Holderman,” the earl began in those low tones that presaged a volcanic display, “slavery and trade therein were outlawed almost a decade ago here in merry old England. Moreover, I have no less than nine younger siblings, and I can tell you that is a child, not chattel per se, and thus cannot convey. Make it go away.”
“I am afraid I cannot quite manage just precisely what you ask.” Holderman cleared his throat again.
“Holderman,” the earl replied with terrifying pleasantness, “the thing cannot weigh but three stone. You pick it up and tell it to run along. Tell it to go ’round the kitchen and filch a meat pie, but make it go away.”
“Well, my lord, as to that…”
“Holderman.” The earl crossed his arms over his muscled chest and speared the land steward with a look that had no doubt quelled insurrection in junior officers, younger siblings, miscreant horses, and drunken peers, regardless of rank. “Make. It. Go. Away.”
Holderman, in a complete abdication of courage, merely shook his head and stared at the ground.
“Fine.” The earl sighed. “I shall do it myself, as it appears I have to do every other benighted task worth mentioning on this miserable excuse for a parody of an estate. You, off!” He stabbed a finger in the general direction of the distant hills and bellowed at the child as he advanced on the fountain.
The child stood up on the rim of the dry fountain—which still left the earl a towering advantage of height—pointed a much smaller finger in the same direction and bellowed right back, “You, off!”
The earl stopped, his scowl shifting to a thoughtful frown.
“Holderman.” He spoke without turning. “The child is too thin, dirty, and ill-mannered. Whose brat is this?”
“Well, my lord, in a manner of speaking, the child is, well… Yours.”
“The child is not in any manner of speaking mine.”
“The responsibility for the child, I should say.”
“And how do you reach such a conclusion?” the earl asked, rubbing his chin and eyeing the child.
“That is the former earl’s progeny, as best anyone can figure,” Holderman said. “Because the Crown has seen fit to give you Rosecroft, then its dependents must fall to your care, as well.”
“Sound reasoning,” the earl allowed, considering the child.
But, dear God, St. Just thought on a spike of exasperation, it needed only this. The former title holder was dead and had left no legitimate issue. As the Rosecroft estate was neglected and in debt, the Crown had not looked favorably on taking possession of it through escheat proceedings. An earldom had been produced from thin air, as a minor title would not do for the firstborn of a duke, and the estate had been foisted off on a man who wanted nothing to do with titles, responsibilities, or indebtedness of any kind, much less—merciful God!—dependents.
“Listen, child.” The earl sat on the rim of the fountain and prepared to treat with the natives. “You are a problem, though I’ve no doubt you regard me in the same light. I propose we call a truce and see about the immediate necessities.”
“I won’t go,” the child replied. “You can’t make me.”
Stubborn, the earl thought, keeping his approval to himself. “I won’t go, either, but may I suggest, if you’re preparing to lay siege, you might want to store up some tucker first.”
The child scowled and blinked up at him.
“Eat,” the earl clarified. It had been quite a while since he’d had to converse with someone this small. “Armies, as the saying goes, march on their bellies not on their feet. You need to eat.”
His opponent appeared to consider the point. “I’m hungry.”
“When was the last time you ate?” The child might be as old as seven, but it would be a thin, puny seven if that. Six seemed more likely, and five was a definite possibility.
“I forget,” the child replied. “Not today.” As the sun was lowering against the green Yorkshire hills, the situation required an immediate remedy.
“Well, come along then.” St. Just held out a hand. “We will feed you and then see what’s to be done with you.”
The child stared at his hand, frowned, and looked up at his face, then back down at his hand. The earl merely kept his hand outstretched, his expression calm.
“Meat pies,” he mused aloud. “Cheese toast, cold cider, apple tarts, strawberry cobbler, sausage and eggs, treacle pudding, clean sheets smelling of sunshine and lavender, beeswax candles…” He felt a tentative touch of little fingers against his palm, so he closed his hand around those fingers and let his voice lead the child along. “Berry tarts, scones in the morning, ham, bacon, nice hot tea with plenty of cream and sugar, kippers, beefsteak, buttered rolls and muffins…”
“Muffins?” the child piped up wistfully. St. Just almost smiled at the angelic expression on the urchin’s face. Great blue eyes peered out of a smudged, beguiling little puss, a mop of wheat blond curls completing a childish image of innocence.
“Muffins.” The earl reiterated as they gained the side terrace of the manor and passed indoors. “With butter and jam, if you prefer. Or chocolate, or juice squeezed from oranges.”
“Had them all the time in Spain.”
“You were in Spain?” the child asked, eyes round. “Did you fight old Boney?”
“I was in Spain,” the earl said, his tone grave, “and Portugal, and France, and I fought old Boney. Nasty business, not at all as pleasant as the thought of tea cakes or clean linen or even some decent bread and butter.”
“Bread and butter is good. I’m the Earl of Helmsley.”
The Earl of Rosecroft stopped and frowned. “Better you than me. I’m Rosecroft, of all the simple things to name an earldom.”
“This estate is Rosecroft, and it belongs to the Earl of Helmsley.”
Would that it still did, St. Just fumed silently. Had no one told the child of Helmsley’s death?
“We are in the midst of a truce,” the earl reminded his companion. “A gentleman does not bring up conflicted matters during a truce.”
“I’m still the Earl of Helmsley. Can we have supper anyway?”
“We can.” The earl nodded his agreement and began towing the child up the stairs. “But one must be decently turned out for dinner, and you, my friend, are sadly lacking in both wardrobe and proper hygiene.”
The child looked down at scruffy britches, a tattered shirt, and very dirty brown toes. “I’m decent.”
“But when opposing generals show one another hospitality the night before a great battle, they do not merely present themselves as decent.”
“They don’t?” The child peered around at the private suite the earl had appropriated. The rooms were spacious and full of interesting things no doubt begging to be touched.
“‘Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look,’” the earl quoted. “Have a seat.” He half lifted, half led the child to a settee, though even on that modest piece of the furniture, those dirty little toes swung several inches above the carpet. St. Just began to divest himself of his garments, having long since learned to make do without a valet, batman, or other sycophant.
“Well, get busy,” the earl said when he was in the process of shucking his breeches. “A gentleman doesn’t go down to dine unless he’s properly bathed, and you, I fear, will take a deal of bathing.”
“I am not a gentleman,” the child said, the truculence back in full force. The earl glanced down at his own naked chest and recalled that grown men were not necessarily an easy thing for not-so-grown men to compare themselves to. He shrugged into a dressing gown and tossed his shirt to the child. “For your modesty. Now let’s be about it, shall we? The sooner we’re clean, the sooner we eat.”
He eyed the child’s hair and suspected getting clean might involve a quantity of shampoo, but merely held out his hand again. “Come along, child.”
“I am not a gentleman,” the child said again, scooting back against the sofa.
“We can remedy that,” the earl said with what he hoped was a reassuring tone. “A little scrubbing, some decent attire, small refinements of speech.” He slipped the child’s shirt off in a single motion. “If I can master it in not quite thirty-two years, there is certainly hope for you.”
“I am not a gentleman,” the child ground out, standing on the sofa cushions and swatting at the earl’s hands, “and I do not want to be a gentleman.”
“Then you can be a pirate,” the earl reasoned. “But if you are eating my food, you shall do so with clean fingers.” He made a deft grab for the scruffy britches, yanking them down over narrow hips and bony knees with a swift jerk.
The child stood up on the sofa, naked and indignant.
“I am not a gentleman. I do not want to be a gentleman!”
“Jesus, God, and the Apostles!” The earl swiftly wrapped the child in his shirt and stood panting in shock. “You are a benighted damned female!”
“Do I still have to take a bath?”
“What is a benighted damned female?”
They were dining in the breakfast parlor because the earl refused to put his staff to the trouble of a formal evening meal for one person, and the breakfast parlor was closer to the kitchen. “You will forget I said that,” the earl instructed. “Elbows off the table, and what is your name?”
“Brat,” the child replied, elbows slipping out of sight. “My mama used to call me Winnie, but everybody else calls me brat.” The earl raised an eyebrow, and his dinner guest dropped her gaze. They called her worse than that, but he knew she wasn’t about to share it with him—yet.
“I will call you Miss Winnie. Where is your mama?”
“In heaven. May I have some more peas?”
“You are an unnatural child,” St. Just said as he spooned more buttered peas onto her plate. “Children abhor vegetables.”
“I like what comes out of the garden.” Winnie tucked into her peas as she spoke. The earl suspected, watching her consume her food with single-minded focus, she liked what came out of the garden because she could help herself to it all summer long.
“Then you will like apple tarts.”
“Do you like them?” Winnie didn’t take her eyes off her peas as she asked.
“No talking with your mouth full. I am very fond of apple tarts, particularly when made with lots of butter, cinnamon, and a brandy glaze. For pity’s sake, child, nobody is going to steal your peas.”
“Not if I eat them first.” Winnie tipped her plate to scrape the butter sauce onto her spoon.
“None of that.” The earl put the plate back down on the table. “You need to leave room for your apple tart.” He signaled a footman. “Miss Winnie will be having some very weak tea with her apple tart.”
“Of course, my lord.” The man bowed and began collecting plates, stoically ignoring the look of longing with which Winnie watched his departure.
“So tell me, Miss Winnie, did you enjoy the lavender bubbles?”
“They smelled like lavender but they weren’t lavender colored.” Winnie eyed the basket of rolls and the butter, the only food remaining on the table.
“You wanted purple bubbles in your bath?” St. Just almost smiled. “Fine earl you’ll make.”
Winnie’s chin came up. “I am Helmsley. My mama said so.”
“You can be Helmsley all you like, as long as you take your baths, say your prayers, and behave yourself. Who looks after you?”
A sly look came across the little girl’s features, or it would have been sly were it not such an obvious prelude to dissembling.
“A lady. She lives in a house down by the river.” The Ouse flowed past the western boundary of the property, so the earl concluded that like all good lies, this little tale was somewhat grounded in truth.
“Is she a nice lady?” the earl asked, wondering when the damned apple tarts would be arriving.
“She’s old, but she bakes pies and cakes and they smell ever so lovely, especially in winter. She has two cats, and they are hugely fat from eating cheese.”
The earl stifled another smile. “And what are their names? Scylla and Charybdis?”
“Io and Ganymede.”
The earl’s eyebrows rose, as most children would not know the names of Jupiter’s moons. “Are they friendly?” he asked, getting ready to ring for his damned tart if need be.
“Very.” Winnie nodded vigorously. “At least to me. They don’t like everybody, but I share my cheese with them, so we get along famously.”
“And what is the name of this lovely old dear who lets you cozen her cats and steal her pies?”
“Miss Emmaline Farnum,” the child informed him, her air serious. “I call her Miss Emmie. She is my best friend.”
“How sweet.” The earl drummed his fingers on the table, but it occurred to him that since arriving at Rosecroft more than a week ago, he’d not seen one other child. In all likelihood, Winnie had no playmates her own age. Then, too, children could be cruel, particularly to an orphaned by-blow of a penniless and unpopular earl.
“My lord, I beg your pardon!”
The door to the little dining parlor banged open, the apologetic footman rushing in behind a young woman St. Just had not seen before. She was trussed up in a shapeless black bombazine dress covering her from ankles to wrist to neck, an equally hideous black bonnet on her head.
“That is not my tart,” the earl observed to no one in particular.
“Bronwyn!” The woman leapt across the room and wrapped her arms around Winnie, the bonnet tumbling off in her haste. “Oh, Winnie, you naughty, naughty child, I’ve been searching all over for you.”
“Hullo, Miss Emmie.” Winnie beamed a grin, hugging the lady back. “Rosecroft says we’re going to have apple tarts.”
“Madam?” The earl rose and bowed. “Rosecroft, at your service.”
“My lord.” She bobbed a nervous curtsy then swiveled back to the child. “Winnie, are you all right?”
“I had to take a bath.” Winnie frowned at the memory. “But I ate and ate and ate. I am not a gentleman, though.”
“You took a bath?” Miss Farnum’s eyes went round. “My lord? Did I hear her aright?”
“With lavender bubbles,” the earl replied gravely. “And you would be?”
“Miss Emmaline Farnum,” she said, eyes narrowing. “Just how did you get her to take a bath?”
The earl narrowed his eyes, as well. “Perhaps that is a discussion we adults might reserve for later. And as I wouldn’t want to be guilty of breaking my word to a child, may I invite you to join us for apple tarts, Miss Farnum?”
The footman withdrew at the earl’s lifted eyebrow while the child’s gaze bounced back and forth between the adults. Winnie sat, all innocence in an old nightshirt somebody had dragged out of a trunk. Her golden curls gleamed, and on her feet were wool socks many sizes too big.
“Apple tarts sound delicious,” Miss Farnum said. The earl graciously seated her, taking the opportunity to notice that the lady—for all her egregious taste in attire—bore the scent of lemons and meadow mint, a tart, pleasing combination that went well with the summer evening. His gaze happened to stray to her neck as he pushed her chair in, and the smooth expanse of female skin suggested she wasn’t as mature as he’d first surmised.
“Miss Winnie was just telling me about your cats,” the earl began, continuing his assessment of his latest guest. She was a dressmaker’s disaster, but then, what else would one expect in the wilds of Yorkshire? Fading black was seldom a good color for blondes, and she was no exception. “Your cats have interesting names.”
“Gany and Io?” Miss Farnum replied, removing her gloves. At the earl’s discreet signal, the gloves were whisked away, but not before he noticed the tear on the right fourth finger. “They were from a litter of four, the other two were named Europa and Callisto.”
“Somebody enjoyed either stargazing or mythology,” the earl said as the tarts were brought in. He would have to settle for one, he supposed, as the third tart would go to his uninvited guest. “Winnie, may I cut yours for you?”
The question hung in the air just as Winnie reached for her tart with her fingers.
“Bronwyn?” Miss Farnum’s voice was perfectly polite. “His lordship has offered to cut up that delicious tart for you.”
The child sighed mightily but nodded. “Yes, please.” She watched, eyes near crossed with anticipation, as the earl cut hers into small pieces, then slid the plate to her.
“Go ahead. Mind you don’t choke, lest I have to turn you upside down and whack at you to save your scrawny neck.”
Miss Farnum looked like she’d take great exception to his comment, but when Winnie only picked up her fork and began taking dainty bites, the lady held her peace.
“I take it you are a neighbor, Miss Farnum?”
“I am,” she said, regarding her tart rather than her host.
“Shall I cut yours, too, madam?” The earl lifted an eyebrow when she blinked at him. Rustics were an odd lot, and women left to rusticate too long were the oddest of all. She wasn’t old by any means, but her expressions and mannerisms were old. Careful, as if she expected to be unpleasantly surprised at any moment.
“Thank you no, my lord.” Her frown was aimed directly at him now. “I am your neighbor to the immediate north, or I am if you now own Rosecroft?”
“I do,” he said, knowing full well the gossip mills in rural settings were never idle. “As the place has been neglected in recent years, I expect I will be spending a fair amount of time here, at least in the foreseeable future.” There was no part of him, however, seeking to spend the winter in Yorkshire. Picturesque, idyllic, dress it up a thousand different ways, the dales were miserably cold and prone to heavy snows, and there was an appalling paucity of company. Even York itself offered far less than London in the way of society and entertainment.
“Will you rebuild the greenhouses?” Miss Farnum asked, spearing a bite of tart.
“I honestly don’t know. Winnie, you have a serviette for that purpose.” Winnie paused in the act of wiping her mouth on her sleeve, then picked up the linen on her lap as if noticing it for the first time.
“Heavenly days,” Miss Farnum expostulated on a soft breath. Her eyes were closed, and her mouth was moving in a slow caress over the bite of apple tart. “Where on earth did you find your chef? This is the best dessert I can ever recall having.”
“Better than your gran’s plum cake?” Winnie asked between bites.
“Better. I must winkle the recipe out of your cook, my lord.”
“I can write it down for you,” the earl said, polishing off his own serving. “It’s not very complicated, provided you get the crust right.”
“You expect me to believe you know the recipe for this apple tart?” She aimed her smile at him, and he had to push the last bite of tart down his throat with a concerted swallow. Despite the awful black clothing, despite her hair being scraped back into a nondescript bun, despite the complete lack of anything approaching feminine adornment, that smile charmed. It made him aware her mouth was generous and her lips were full. Her eyes, he noticed, were a soft gray blue, and her features were actually pretty.
Not classically pretty—her nose was by no means small, but rather would be accurately described as giving her face character. Her chin was cast in the same, probably Teutonic, mold, and her jaw followed suit. But graced with that smile, the whole was pleasing, winsome, and utterly, arrestingly feminine.
“Start with a clean, cored apple,” the earl recited, “and one quarter of a piecrust, preferably made with butter, not lard, and white flour twice sifted, a dash each of cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, and salt added to the flour. Shall I go on?”
“You know a recipe,” Miss Farnum said, her smile softening into a muted glow. “I own I am impressed.”
“I can count to ten, as well, provided I am not interrupted. Winnie,” he waited until the child raised her eyes to his, “you need not sit here and listen to me boast of my culinary and arithmetic talents. Would you like to go up to bed?”
Winnie’s gaze locked on his. “I can sleep here?”
“You are more than welcome to sleep here. You are Helmsley, after all.”
“Where? The stables are hot, up in the haylofts, anyway. Down by the river in the trees, it’s cooler, but the cows like to go down there, and my feet would get dirty.”
“Child, you will sleep in a bed, with clean sheets, pillows, and a nice cup of peppermint tea to aid your digestion.” Ye gods, had no one taken any interest in this girl?
“Will I have to take another bath?” Winnie searched his gaze, and the earl knew she was alert for warning of when he would start lying to her.
“Not until you are dirty again, though it being summer, one can find oneself in need of frequent ablutions.”
Winnie’s expression was wary. “What are blutions?”
“Bubbles.” The earl signaled a footman. “If you would fetch the tweeny who was so helpful at bath time, she can escort Miss Winnie up to the bed. Now attend me, Winnie. When you want to leave the table, you inquire of your host, ‘May I please be excused?’”
“Are you my host?”
“I have that great honor.”
“May I please be excused?”
“Well done. You may, but don’t forget to wish Miss Farnum good night before you go. I gather she was concerned about you.”
“G’night, Miss Emmie.” Winnie hopped down from her chair, scampered over to the lady, and gave her a tight hug around the neck. “G’night, Rosecroft!” She inflicted the same affection on St. Just, grabbed the footman’s hand, and pattered out, leaving the earl an unobstructed field upon which to upbraid Miss Farnum.
“Miss Farnum, shall we adjourn to the library for a cup of tea, or perhaps you’d prefer a cordial?”
“The apple tart was quite sweet enough,” she replied, seeming to realize the child’s absence meant matters were no longer going to be so neighborly. “If you could just answer a few questions for me, then I will be going, though I’ll collect Winnie in the morning, shall we say, and my thanks for the very delicious…”
The earl stood beside her chair, waiting for her to rise, and as her voice trailed off, he offered his arm.
“I must insist on just a little more of your time.” He picked up her hand and placed it on his arm. “You are my first visitor here, you see, and I wasn’t aware the custom in Yorkshire was to burst in upon a neighbor at table, without explanation or invitation, and disturb his meal.”
As they made a leisurely progress through the once-gracious manor, Emmie Farnum reminded herself that, drunk and mean, the late Earl of Helmsley hadn’t been able to make her back down. Sober and chillingly polite, the Earl of Rosecroft wasn’t going to be any greater challenge. Life’s circumstances had made her a good judge of character, particularly a good judge of male character, as it was invariably a shallow, trifling subject. In less than ten minutes in the earl’s company, she’d come to understand he was a very deceptive man.
Not willfully dishonest, perhaps, but deceptive.
He looked for all the world like an elegant aristocrat come to idle the summer heat away in the country. A touch of lace at his collar and throat, a little green stone winking through the folds of his neckcloth, a gleaming signet ring on his left hand, and even in waistcoat and shirtsleeves, he projected wealth, breeding, and indolence.
His speech was expensively proper, the tone never wavering from a fine politesse that bespoke the best schools, the best connections, the best breeding. He wielded his words like little daggers though, pinning his opponent one dart at a time to the target of his choosing.
His body deceived, as well, so nicely adorned in attire, tailor-made for him from his gleaming boots to his neckcloth, to everything so pleasantly coordinated between.
And he was handsome, with sable hair tousled and left a little too long, deep green eyes, arresting height, and military bearing. His face might be considered too strong by some standards—he would never be called a pretty man—but it had a certain masculine appeal, the nose slightly hooked, the chin a trifle arrogant, and the eyebrows just a touch dramatic. No honest female would find him unattractive of face or form.
Beneath the well-tailored clothes, great masses of muscle bunched and smoothed with his every move. The hands holding Emmie’s chair for her were lean, brown, and elegant, but also callused, and she’d no doubt they could snap her neck as easily as they cut up Winnie’s apple tart. He was clothed as a gentleman, spoke as a gentleman, and had the manner of a gentleman, but Emmie was not deceived.
The Earl of Rosecroft was a barbarian.
But then, there was the most puzzling deception of all: He was a barbarian, but barbarians did not notice when small children grew tired, they did not think to cut up a little girl’s tart for her, they did not coax and charm and guide when they could pillage, plunder, and destroy.
So he was an intelligent, shrewd barbarian.
Emmie let him seat her on a green brocade sofa in the paneled library. “My lord, if you would permit me to ask just one or two questions?”
“I will not,” he replied, seating himself—without her permission, barbarian-fashion—in a wing chair opposite the sofa. “I will ask the questions, as you are under my roof and without my invitation.”
“I apologize for interrupting your meal,” Emmie said, trying for humility, “but I was concerned for the child.”
“So I gather. Tea, Miss Farnum?” He excused the footman when the elegant service was sitting on the low table between them.
“Tea would be lovely,” she said automatically, resenting the delay in his inquisition. “Shall I pour?”
“No need. I will pour for you so I might pour for myself, as I abhor a cup of tea prepared not as I prefer. Worse than no tea at all.”
“I see. Well then, cream and two sugars in mine, if you please.” He passed her the tea cup, his fingers brushing hers as she accepted it, and Emmie felt a low current of awareness spark up from her hand.
“Thank you, my lord,” she managed. Barbarians, she knew, had that ability to seem exciting. It was a deplorable truth, one she had learned early on.
The earl prepared his own tea and took a cautious sip. “What is your relationship to the child?”
“One might say I am her cousin, of sorts, though it isn’t common knowledge, and I would prefer to keep it that way.”
“You don’t want the world associating you with the earl’s bastard?” her host asked, stirring his tea slowly.
Emmie met his gaze. “More to the point, Bronwyn does not realize we are related, and I would prefer to be the one to tell her.”
“How does that come about?” The earl regarded her over the rim of his teacup even as he sipped.
“My aunt was kind enough to provide a home for me when my mother died,” Emmie said, lips pursed, as the recitation was not one she embarked on willingly. “Thus I joined her household in the village before Bronwyn was born. When the old earl got wind of that, he eventually sent me off to school in Scotland.”
“So your aunt brought you here, and you were then sent off to school by the beneficent old earl.”
“I was, and thereafter, my aunt became the young earl’s mistress. I suspect his grandfather sent me off to spare me that fate.”
“And Winnie is the late earl’s by-blow? Your aunt must have been quite youthful.”
“She was ten years older than Helmsley but said, since his mama died when he was young, she suited him.”
“Did you know the late earl?”
“I knew him. When the old earl grew ill about three years ago, I was retrieved from where I was a governess in Scotland, with the plan being that I could help care for him. When his lordship saw I was subjected to unwanted attentions, he established me on a separate property.”
“In what capacity?” The earl topped off her teacup, a peculiarly civilized gesture, considering he was leaving her no privacy whatsoever.
“I support myself,” Emmie replied, unable to keep a touch of pride from her voice. “I have since returned to Yorkshire. On the old earl’s advice, I never rejoined my aunt’s household in the village, hence Winnie doesn’t understand we are cousins. I’m not sure it ever registered with Helmsley, either.”
“Did it register with Helmsley he had a daughter?”
“Barely.” Emmie spat the word. “My aunt did well enough with Winnie, though she was careful not to impose the child on her father very often. Helmsley was prone to… poor choices in his companions. One in particular could not be trusted around children, and so Winnie was an awkward addition to her father’s household after my aunt’s death.”
“And now she’s been appended to your household?”
“She is… she finally is.” For the second time that evening, Emmie smiled at him, but she teared up, as well, ducking her face to hide her mortification.
“Women,” the earl muttered. He extracted his handkerchief and passed it to her.
“I beg your pardon.” Emmie tried to smile and failed, but took his handkerchief. “It was difficult, watching her grow from toddler to child and seeing she’d had no one to love her since my aunt died.”
“One must concede, you seem to care for the child.” The earl regarded her with a frown. “But one must also inquire into what manner of influence you are on her. You aren’t supporting yourself as your aunt did, are you?”
“I most assuredly am not supporting myself as you so rudely imply.” She rose to her feet and tried to stuff his damp hankie back into his hand. “I work for honest coin and will not tolerate your insults.”
“Keep it.” He smiled at her slightly while his fingers curled her hand around his handkerchief. “I have plenty to spare. And please accept my apologies, Miss Farnum, as your character is of interest to me.”
“Why ever is it any of your business how I earn my keep?” She resumed her seat but concentrated on folding his handkerchief into halves and quarters and eighths in her lap rather than meet that piercing green stare of his again.
“I am interested in your character because you are a friend of Miss Winnie’s, and she has become my concern.”
“About Bronwyn”—Emmie rose again and paced away from him—“we must reach some kind of understanding.”
“She is my family,” Emmie pointed out, then more softly, “my only family. Surely you can understand she should be with me?”
“So why wasn’t she?” One of his dark eyebrows quirked where he sat sipping his tea. Emmie had the thought that if he’d had a tail, he’d be flicking it in a lazy, feline rhythm.
“Why wasn’t she what?” Emmie stopped her pacing and busied herself straightening up a shelf of books.
“Why wasn’t she with you? When I plucked her off that fountain, she was filthy, tired, and hadn’t eaten all day.”
“I couldn’t catch her.” Emmie frowned at the books.
“I beg your pardon?” The earl’s voice came from her elbow, but she was damned if she’d flinch.
“I said, I could not catch her.” Emmie did peek then and realized the earl wasn’t just tall, he was also a big man. Bigger than he looked from across a room, the scoundrel.
“And I could not run her off,” the earl mused. “It might comfort you to know, Miss Farnum, I am the oldest of ten and not unused to youngsters.”
“You do seem to get on well with her, but I have an advantage, my lord. One you will never be able to compete with.”
“Yes.” Emmie said, feeling a little sorry for him, because he really would not be able to argue the point much further. “I am a female, you see. A girl. Well, a grown woman, but I was a girl, as Bronwyn is.”
“You are a female?” The earl looked her up and down, and Emmie felt herself blushing. It was a thorough and thoroughly dispassionate perusal. “Why so you are, but how does this make yours the better guidance?”
“There are certain things, my lord…” Emmie felt her blush deepening but refused to capitulate to embarrassment. “Things a lady knows a gentleman will not, things somebody must pass along to a little girl in due course if she’s to manage in this life.”
“Things.” The earl’s brow knit. “Things like childbirth, perhaps?”
Emmie swallowed, resenting his bluntness even while she admired him for it. “Well, yes. I doubt you’ve given birth, my lord.”
“Have you?” he countered, peering down at her.
“That is not the point.”
“So no advantage to you there, particularly as I have attended a birth or two in my time, and I doubt you’ve managed that either.”
“Why on earth would…?” Emmie’s mouth snapped shut before she could ask the obvious, rude, burning question.
“I was a soldier,” he said gently. “And war is very hard on soldiers, but even harder on women and children, Miss Farnum. A woman giving birth in a war zone is generally willing to accept the assistance of whomever is to hand, regardless of standing, gender, or even what uniform he wears.”
“So you’ve a little experience, but you aren’t going to tell me you’re familiar with the details of a lady’s bodily… well, that is to say. Well.”
“Her menses?” The earl looked amused again. “You might have some greater degree of familiarity than I. I will grant that much, but as a man with five sisters, I am far more knowledgeable and sympathetic regarding female lunation than I had ever aspired to be. And surely, these matters you raise—childbirth and courses—they are a ways off for Miss Winnie?”
“Bronwyn,” Emmie muttered. Standing so close to him, she could catch the earl’s scent, and it managed to combine both elegance and barbarism. It was spicy rather than floral, but also fresh, like meadows and breezes and cold, fast-running streams.
“She answers to Winnie,” he said, “and she got away from you.”
“She did.” Emmie’s shoulders slumped as some of the fight went out of her. “She does. I’ve lost her for hours at a time, at least in the summer, and nobody has any real notion where she gets off to. It wasn’t so bad when my aunt first died, but it has gotten worse the older Bronwyn gets. I was terrified…”
“Yes?” The green eyes steadily holding hers bore no judgment, just a patient regard with a teasing hint of compassion.
“I was terrified Helmsley would take her south, or worse, let that cretin Stull get hold of her; but Helmsley was her father, so I’d no right to do anything for her nor to have any say in how she goes on.”
“And had your aunt lived, the law would have given Helmsley no claim on the child, nor any obligation to her either.”
“Oh, the law.” Emmie waved a dismissive hand. “The law tells us the better course would have been to allow the child to starve while her dear papa gambled away the estate. Do not quote the law to me, my lord, for it only points out what is legal and what is right do not often coincide where the fate of children is concerned.”
“Legalities aside then, I am in a better position to assist the child than you are. Just as the old earl gave you an education to allow you to make your way as a governess, I can provide every material advantage for Winnie, too. If it comes to that, I can prevail upon the Moreland resources for the child, as well.”
“But I am her cousin,” Emmie said, feeling tears well again. “I am her cousin and her only relation.”
“Not so, though the reverse might be true. The child’s Aunt Anna is now married to my brother, which makes me an uncle-in-law or some such, and I am one of ten, recall. Through her aunt’s marriage, Winnie has a great deal of family.”
“But they don’t know her,” Emmie quietly wailed. “I am Winnie’s family. I am.”
“Shall we compromise?” he asked, drawing Emmie’s arm through his and escorting her to the sofa. “It seems to me we are considering mutually exclusive outcomes, with either you or myself having Winnie’s exclusive company. Why can’t she have us both?”
“You could visit,” Emmie said, warming to the idea. Maybe, she allowed, he was an enlightened barbarian, though his arguments for leaving Winnie in his care were sound. “Or perhaps Winnie might spend time here, as she considers this her home.”
“I do not visit my responsibilities, Miss Farnum,” the earl replied, resuming his seat across from her. “Not when they require regular feeding and bathing and instruction in basic table manners that should have been mastered long ago.”
“So how do we compromise?” Emmie ignored the implied criticism by sheer will. “If Winnie lives here with you, how is that a compromise?”
“Simple.” The earl smiled at her, a buccaneer’s smile if ever she saw one. “You live here, too. You’ve said you have experience as a governess; the child needs a governess. You care for her and hold yourself out as entitled to assist with her upbringing. It seems a perfectly feasible solution to me. You remain as her governess until such time as I find a replacement, one who merits your approval and mine.”
“Feasible.” Emmie felt her mouth and eyebrows working in a disjointed symphony of expressions, none of which were intended to convey good cheer. “You want me to be a governess to Bronwyn?” She rose, and the earl watched her but remained seated. “There’s a difficulty.” She hoped her relief did not show on her face.
“It is formidable.” Emmie eyed him up and down. “I am qualified to supervise a child of Bronwyn’s age, but I have always been more a friend to her than an authority figure. I am not sure she will listen to me, else I would not find myself fretting so often over her whereabouts.”
“Having not had a papa to speak of and having lost her mother, the child has likely become too self-reliant, something that can only be curbed, not entirely eradicated. And while the child may not listen to you, I have every confidence she will listen to me.”
“Every confidence?” Emmie arched an eyebrow and met his gaze squarely.
“I got her into the house.” The earl started counting off on his fingers. “I inculcated basic table manners, I engaged her in civil discussion when she was intent only on repelling boarders, and”—he arched an eyebrow right back at her—“I got her into the bathtub, where she was soaped and scrubbed into something resembling a lovely little girl.”
“You did.” Emmie scowled in thought. “May I inquire how?”
“Nelson at Trafalgar. One can only demonstrate sea battles under appropriate circumstances.”
“You gave her a bath?” Emmie’s eyes went wide.
“Soap and water are not complicated, but the tweeny is hardly likely to comprehend naval strategy. I’ll provide the child the right bath toys, and my direct involvement shouldn’t be necessary from this point out. You do, I assume, have a grasp of naval history?”
“Naval history?” Emmie all but gasped in dismay.
“Well, no matter. I can teach you a few major battles, and any self-respecting child will take it from there. So are we agreed?”
“On what?” Emmie felt bewildered and overwhelmed, perhaps as if a cavalry regiment had just appeared, charging over the nearest hill, and her all unsuspecting in their path.
“You will be her temporary governess until we find somebody we both approve to serve in that capacity. I shall compensate you, of course.”
“I will not take money for looking after family.”
“And how will you support yourself if you do not take money for services rendered?”
“That’s the other reason I cannot agree to this scheme.” Emmie all but snapped her fingers, so great was her relief. “I cannot let my customers down. If I stop providing goods for any length of time, they’ll take their business elsewhere, and I’ll get a reputation for being unreliable. It won’t serve, your lordship. You’ll have to think of some other compromise.”
“What is your business that your customers would be so fickle?”
Emmie smiled with pride. “I am a baker, my lord. I make all manner of goods… breads and sweets especially.”
“I see. There is no impediment, then.”
“Of course there is.” Emmie gave him a version of the local art-thee-daft look. “I cannot abandon my business, my lord, else I will have no income when we find a permanent governess for Bronwyn.”
“You don’t abandon your business,” the earl informed her. “You merely see to it here. The kitchens are extensive, there is help on hand, and you were obviously prepared to look after your cousin and your commercial obligations at the same time, so you should be able to do it easily at Rosecroft.”
“You would have me turn Rosecroft into a bakery?” Emmie all but squeaked. “This is an old and lovely manor, my lord, not some…”
“My customers would not be comfortable coming here to pick up their orders. Helmsley was not on good terms with most of his neighbors, and you are a stranger.”
“Then we’ll have your goods delivered. Really, Miss Farnum, the measures are temporary, and I should hope the good folk hereabouts would understand Winnie has lost both father and mother. As her family, we must put her welfare before somebody’s tea cakes and crumpets.”
She met his gaze and sighed a sigh of defeat, because he was, damn and blast him, right. Nobody’s tea cakes, crumpets, or even daily bread could be as important as Bronwyn’s future. And he was also right that Bronwyn did so have family—powerful, wealthy family—who could offer her much more than a cousin eking out a living baking pies in Yorkshire.
“I’ll want your apple tart recipe,” she said, chin up. If she was to allow this man to take from her the child she loved most in the world, then she was owed that much compensation at least.
The earl’s lips quirked. “Dear lady, why wouldn’t I give out such a thing to everybody at whose table I might someday sit? I’ve never understood the business of hoarding recipes. Now, how quickly can we arrange for you to start?”
He was gracious in victory. She had to give him that. He’d also gotten Bronwyn into the tub, and he had the best apple tart recipe she had ever tasted. The picture wasn’t entirely bleak. Moreover, the Rosecroft kitchens might need a thorough scrubbing, but as he led her on a brief tour, she saw the ovens were huge, the counter space endless, and the appointments surprisingly modern and well kept.
“My inventory will have to be moved, and I will need storage for it, as well.”
“Details, and ones I’m sure you’ll manage easily.” The earl put her hand on his arm as they left the kitchen. “As we’ve lost the light, Miss Farnum, I must conclude the hour has grown late. Will you allow me to call the carriage for you?”
“I am not but a half mile up the lane. It will not serve to bother the stables for so paltry a journey. I walked here; I’ll enjoy the walk home.”
“As you wish.” He led her through the house to the front door, where her frayed gloves and ugly bonnet were waiting on a table. “Shall I carry it for you?” He held the bonnet up by its ribbons, her gloves folded in the crown. “It’s not as if you need to protect your complexion at this hour.”
“I can carry it.” She grabbed for the bonnet, but his blasted eyebrow was arching again.
“I do not comprehend yet all the local nuances of manners and etiquette, Miss Farnum, but I am not about to let a young lady walk home alone in the dark.” He angled his free elbow out to her and gestured toward the door held open by the footman.
Barbarian. She wanted to stomp her foot hard—on his—and march off into the darkness. She’d capitulated—albeit grudgingly and perhaps only temporarily—to his idea of sharing responsibility for Bronwyn. She’d put up with his sniping and probing and serving her tea. She’d agreed to move her business activities to his kitchens, but she would not be bullied.
“I know the way, my lord,” she said, glaring at him. “There is no need for this display.”
“You are going to be responsible for Winnie’s first efforts to acquire a sense of decorum and reserve, Miss Farnum.” He picked up her hand and deposited it back on his forearm, then led her down the steps. “You must begin as you intend to go on and set a sincere example for the child. She’ll spot fraud at fifty paces, and even my authority won’t be able to salvage your efforts then. A lady graciously accepts appropriate escort.”
“Is this how you trained recruits when you were soldiering?” She stomped along beside him, ignoring the beauty of the full moon and the fragrances of the summer night. “You box them in, reason with them, tease, argue, taunt, and twist until you get what you want?”
“You are upset. If I have given offense, I apologize.” His voice was even, not the snippy, non-apology of a man humoring a woman’s snit. She hauled him through the darkness for another twenty yards or so before she stopped and heaved a sigh.
“I am sorry,” Emmie said, dropping his arm. “I suppose I am jealous.”
He made no move to recapture her hand but put his own on the small of her back and guided her steps forward again. “You are jealous of what?”
“Of your ease with Bronwyn. Of the wealth allowing you to provide so easily for her. Of your connections, enabling you to present her a much better future than I could. Of your ability to wave a hand and order all as you wish it.”
“Are we being pursued by bandits, Miss Farnum?” the earl asked, his voice a velvety baritone in the soft, summery darkness.
“We are not.”
“Then perhaps we could proceed at less than forced march? It is a beautiful night, the air is lovely, and I’ve always found darkness soothing when I took the time to appreciate it.”
“And from what would the Earl of Rosecroft need soothing?” She nearly snorted at the very notion.
“I’ve felt how you feel,” he said simply. “As if another had all I needed and lacked, and he didn’t even appreciate what he had.”
“You?” She expostulated in disbelief but walked more slowly and made no objection to his hand lightly touching her back. “What could you possibly want for? You’re the firstborn of a duke, titled, wealthy; you’ve survived battles, and you can charm little girls. How could you long for more than that?”
“My brother will succeed Moreland, if the duke ever condescends to expire. This harum-scarum earldom is a sop thrown to my younger brother’s conscience, and his wife’s, I suppose. He and my father had considerable influence with the Regent, and Westhaven’s wife may well be carrying the Moreland heir. Anna made the suggestion to see Rosecroft passed along to me, and Westhaven would not rest until that plan had been fulfilled.”
“How can that be?” Emmie watched their moon shadows float along the ground as they walked. “A duke cannot choose which of his offspring inherits his title.”
“He cannot. According to the Moreland letters patent, it goes to the oldest legitimate son surviving at the time of the duke’s death.”
“Well, you aren’t going to die soon, are you?” She glanced over at his obviously robust frame, puzzled and concerned for some reason to think of him expiring of a pernicious illness.
“No, Miss Farnum, the impediment is not death, but rather the circumstances of my birth.” There was a slight, half-beat pause in the darkness, a hitch in her gait he would not have seen.
“Oh, indeed. I have a sister similarly situated, though Maggie and I do not share even the same mother. The duke was a busy fellow in his youth.”
“Busy and selfish. What is it with men that they must strut and carry on, heedless of the consequences to any save themselves?”
“What is it with women,” he replied, humor lacing his tone, “that they must indulge our selfish impulses without regard to the consequences even to themselves?”
“Point taken.” For a barbarian, he reasoned quickly and well, and he was a pleasant enough escort. His scent blended with the night fragrances, and it occurred to her he’d already admitted to being comfortable with darkness.
And in his eyes, in odd moments, she’d seen hints of darkness. He referred casually to serving King and Country, and he admitted now to being a ducal bastard. Well, what would that matter? By local standards, he would be much in demand socially, and the squire’s daughters would toss themselves at him just as they did at Helmsley once long ago—poor things.
She was so lost in her thoughts she stumbled over a gnarled old tree root and would have gone down but for the earl’s arm around her waist.
“Steady on.” He eased her up to find her balance but hesitated before dropping his arm. In that instant, Emmie gained a small insight into why women behaved as foolishly as her mother and aunt and countless others had done.
“My thanks,” she said, walking more slowly yet. The heat and strength of him had felt good, reassuring in some inconvenient way. For twenty-five years, Emmaline Farnum had negotiated life without much in the way of male protection or affection, and she’d been at a loss to understand what, exactly, men offered that would make a woman suffer their company, much less their authority.
And she still didn’t know, exactly, what that something was, but the earl had it in abundance. The sooner they found Bronwyn a real governess, the better for them all.
“Why do you still wear black?” the earl asked as he ambled along beside her. “Your aunt died several years ago, and one doesn’t observe full mourning for years for an aunt.”
“One doesn’t have to, but my aunt was like a mother to me, so I dyed my most presentable wardrobe black and haven’t had the coin to replace it since—nor much need to. Then, too, wearing black made me less conspicuous to Helmsley and his cronies.”
“You did not respect my predecessor. I suppose you don’t respect many men, given your aunt raised you alone.”
Another pause, but again his hand was lightly at her back, steadying her.
“My mother told me my father tried hard, but he became restless, and she could not find it in her heart to force him to stay.”
“She did not care for him?”
“She did. I never want to fathom a love like that, a love that puts a loved one aside and says it’s for the best.”
“Did she know she carried his child when she wished him on his way?”
“No.” Emmie sighed, feeling his hand at her back as she did. “She was not… she did not have clear indications of her predicament, early on, and by the time she was convinced the unthinkable had happened, her fellow had shipped out for India.”
“Be very, very glad she didn’t follow the drum,” the earl said, something in his voice taking on the darkness. “It is no life whatsoever for a woman.”
“Particularly not when the man ends up dying in battle, and there you are—no man, no means, no home and hearth to retreat to, and babies clinging to your skirts.”
“This is an abiding theme with you, isn’t it?” The earl’s voice was merely curious now, but he was identifying a pattern accurately.
“I have avoided the Rosecroft grounds as much as possible,” Emmie said, her steps dragging. “Helmsley was an eloquent reminder of how dishonorable a titled, supposed gentleman can be.”
“He was a thoroughly disagreeable cad,” the earl agreed. “A more disgusting excuse for a man, much less a gentleman, I have yet to meet, unless it was that porcine embarrassment colluding with him, the Baron Stull.”
“So you met Helmsley?”
“I killed him,” the earl said easily, taking her hand in his. “Watch your step. We’ve reached a rough patch.”
“Step into a world of passion, intrigue, secrets and pure undulated romance with a kick!” - Romancing the Book
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“Step into a world of passion, intrigue, secrets and pure undulated romance with a kick!” - Romancing the Book
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“Grace Burrowes will become a mainstay for historical romance... ” - The Romance Reader
“Grace Burrowes passes "the hair rose on the back of my neck" test... The writer's voice embeds itself in your brain.” - USA Today
“She has a talent for drawing her readers in with super charged romance that will leave you reaching for the next Grace Burrowe’s novel.” - Romantic Crush Junkies
“Well paced, well plotted, brilliant characters. I truly hated to see this book come to an end, although I am anxiously waiting for Val’s story” - Royal Reviews
“A heart warming story of love and devotion... a witty, sensitive read full of seduction and romance.” - Eva’s Sanctuary
“All the best elements of a regency historical romance... Burrowes’ has created a wonderful story that engaged my heart... ” - Dark Diva Reviews
“You can feel the intensity flying off the page... Fantastic. ” - In the Hammock
“I can not properly say how much I love this book. There is so much emotion and romance between Emmaline and Devlin. I cried several times and couldn’t stop smiling when I finished the book.” - The Book Girl
“A novel that readers won't soon forget.” - Debbie’s Book Bag
“A sweet,sexy,tender,historical romance that will leave you breathless... A must read. ” - My Book Addiction and More
“Burrowes has a real knack for writing sensual and emotional love scenes that mean something.” - Rakehell
“A delightfully engaging story... Charming, elegant, tender. ” - Reviews by Martha’s Bookshelf
“A lovely book about how love truly conquers all.” - Book Girl of Mur-y-Castell
“Flawless... exceptional storytelling... unforgettable characters. Starred Review” - Library Journal Xpress
“An enormously satisfying story.” - B&N Review
“As in her previous book, The Heir, Ms. Burrowes has again written my favorite kind of hero, a decent man whose suffering has made him a better man.” - Historical Hilarity
“What a sweet book, with a bit of spice on the side. ” - Book Loons
“Burrowes’ character development, use of imagery, and her ability to create a strong sense of place make The Soldier a breathtaking love story that lingers in the mind and heart. ” - The Long and Short of It
Length: 6.875 in
Width: 4.1875 in
Weight: 7.04 oz
Page Count: 416 pages