When to Engage an Earl
Spinster House Series, Book #3
May 30, 2017
If love is a malady, the Spinster House ladies have caught it, one by one.
Miss Jane Wilkinson couldn’t be more delighted when her two best friends marry, creating a much-desired vacancy at the Spinster House. For the first time in her twenty-eight years, Jane can be free of her annoying older brother and enjoy complete solitude—with the exception of the Spinster House cat, Poppy. If only Jane’s unruly thoughts didn’t keep drifting to handsome Alex, Earl of Evans, in the most un-spinster like ways…
Though jilted once, Alex has always intended to marry and raise a family. Now that his two closest friends have tied the knot, he is more determined than ever to find a wife. If only it wasn’t the intriguing Miss Jane Wilkinson that his heart—as well as the rest of him—desired. Not only does she appear uninterested in marriage, it’s clear she’s the managing sort. And yet, despite Alex’s fiercely independent spirit, the idea of being managed by her is quite appealing. Now if he can only convince her to give up her beloved Spinster House in favor of a far more pleasurable home—in his arms…
Evans Hall, August 1817
Alex, Earl of Evans, rode slowly up the drive to his country estate. He’d left the little village of Loves Bridge shortly after the weddings of his friends Marcus, Duke of Hart, and Nate, Marquess of Haywood, and had spent the last two months wandering the Lake District with only the hills and water and sheep for company.
No, that wasn’t quite true. He’d had one constant, unpleasant companion: envy.
Marcus and Nate had found wives without even trying. Trying? Ha! They’d been trying to avoid marriage, believing Marcus was under the shadow of an ancient family curse. He was the one who’d been looking for a wife.
I’d be married now if Lady Charlotte hadn’t jilted me.
He scowled at his horse’s ears. Charlotte was in his past. In the days he’d spent scrambling up and down the fells, he’d vowed to leave the past with all its pain behind. There were plenty more fish in the sea, after all. He knew what he wanted: a quiet, restful sort of female, one who wouldn’t constantly busy herself about his or other people’s affairs, dragging confusion and hubbub into his life like his mother and sister still did on occasion.
The ton was littered with women who would suit. He just needed to put his mind to wooing one. He’d shop the Marriage Mart, attend the balls and house parties, and talk to every eligible lady. He was an earl, after all, albeit a jilted one. How difficult could it be? By this time next year, he’d have joined his friends in married bliss.
He stretched his neck, loosening the tension that had gathered there, and looked around at the familiar landscape. “It’s good to be home, isn’t it, Horatio?”
His horse shook his head in apparent agreement, making the bridle jingle.
He reined Horatio to a stop. That sounded like Rachel, his sister’s eight-year-old. Lord! Was Diana at the Hall?
Tension came rushing back, unease prickling the back of his neck and shivering down his spine. He loved his sister, but she would be certain to notice his blue-devils and hound him until she discovered their cause. If he let on that he was considering marriage again . . .
He shuddered in earnest. Diana was five years older than he and had always had a finger—or both her hands—in his affairs. She would tell Mama and the two of them would assemble a queue of eager matrimonial candidates before he could say Jack Robinson.
They might have his best interests at heart, but he didn’t want them meddling in this.
I’ll just have to paste a smile on my face for as long as it takes to get rid of Diana.
Rachel could have come with her father, Roger, Viscount Chanton.
He breathed a sigh of relief. Ah, yes, that was likely it. O’Reilly, his head groom, must have encountered an issue in the stables and Roger, thinking Alex still in the Lake District, had ridden over with his groom to offer his opinion. Rachel was horse mad and would have teased her father to bring her along.
If Roger noticed Alex’s low spirits—highly unlikely—he’d have the good sense to ignore them.
“Where are you, Rachel?” he called, looking around.
He heard giggling. Was it coming from the tree on his right? He turned Horatio in that direction.
Rachel was the fifth of Diana’s eight girls. Eight! With luck the baby Diana was carrying now was a boy so Roger could stop trying for an heir.
He snorted. The needs of the viscountcy had nothing to do with the matter. Diana and Roger had been nauseatingly in love since they were children, and while Roger must prefer a son of his own inherit rather than his cousin Albert, he’d never shown the slightest disappointment when Diana presented him with yet another daughter.
Where was his niece? “Rachel!”
More giggling, definitely from that tree. He rode closer and looked up.
Rachel grinned down at him from a branch about ten feet above his head. She had a streak of dirt across her forehead, an assortment of leaves in her hair, and her skirts—
Of course Rachel wasn’t wearing skirts.
“Where did you get those breeches?”
Her grin widened. “Papa had them made for me after I borrowed Jeremy’s and put a hole in the knee.”
All Diana’s girls were spirited, but Rachel was a complete tomboy. He didn’t envy his sister the task of introducing her to Society when the time came, though one could hope Rachel would learn a little decorum before then.
“And who might this Jeremy be?”
Rachel’s grin turned to a frown. “You know. Jeremy. The vicar’s son, the one who’s almost my age.”
The vicar had a lot of sons. Alex had never bothered sorting them out. “The one with the red hair?”
Rachel rolled her eyes. “No! That’s James. He’s ten, the same as Esther. Jeremy has curly hair.”
“Ah.” He’d take her word for it.
Horatio shifted, reminding him that he was keeping the horse standing.
“Horatio’s eager for the stables. Do you want to ride down with me?”
He wasn’t surprised to see Rachel’s face light up. She scrambled down the tree like a monkey and skipped over, extending her arms. As soon as he swung her up to sit before him, she leaned forward to pet Horatio’s neck.
“What a handsome fellow you are, Horatio. Mr. O’Reilly thinks you’d make lovely babies with our Ophelia. What do you say? Would you like to be a papa?”
“Rachel! O’Reilly never discussed, er, that with you.” He hoped. His head groom had a few rough edges, but Alex was almost certain the man wouldn’t talk about horse breeding with a young girl, even one as horse mad as Rachel.
She giggled again. “Course not. He was talking to Lionel. I was in Primrose’s stall, so they didn’t see me.”
Alex might not know the vicar’s children, but he knew his employees. Lionel was one of his stable boys.
“You should have let them know you were there,” he said. “It’s not polite to eavesdrop.”
“Oh, pooh. I’d never hear anything interesting if I didn’t eavesdrop.”
He bit back a laugh, suddenly reminded of Miss Jane Wilkinson, the new Spinster House spinster in Loves Bridge. She wouldn’t let a small thing like social proprieties keep her from her goals either.
He smiled. The woman was a good friend of Marcus’s and Nate’s brides, but she was also an extremely outspoken, independent female. At twenty-eight years old, she was firmly on the shelf—precisely where she wished to be. And now that she’d installed herself in the Spinster House, she’d never have to look for a husband.
In fact, he was quite certain she’d had a hand in turning her friends, the previous Spinster House spinsters, into wives. He’d been standing next to her when Nate and Miss Anne Davenport had announced that they, too, were leaping into parson’s mousetrap and for one brief moment, he’d thought Miss Wilkinson was going to hug him, she was so delighted.
He’d admit he’d been disappointed when she hadn’t.
Rachel looked over her shoulder at him. “Are you going to breed Horatio with Ophelia, Uncle Alex?”
He was not going to discuss that topic with Rachel, either. “I’ll have a word with your papa about it.”
“When we see him. Isn’t he at the stables?”
“No. He’s at Briarly.”
His stomach plummeted to his boots. Briarly was one of Roger’s other estates.
But wait, Roger didn’t like being away from his family. He always loaded them into his carriage—and Alex’s, since there were so many of them—and took them with him when he journeyed anywhere. Anyone encountering them lumbering along the road would think they were a traveling circus.
With that many children, they were a traveling circus.
“Why didn’t you go with your papa?”
“Because Mama can’t sit in a carriage that long anymore.”
“Ah.” Alex gave the house a nervous look as they passed it on the way to the stables. How pregnant was Diana? She’d spent the last twenty years in some stage of childbearing, so he’d stopped keeping track. “When is the baby due?”
“Any day now. Mama hopes it will wait until Papa gets back.” Rachel shrugged. “But babies come when they want to.”
Sweat blossomed in his armpits. “I would have thought your mama would wish to stay at home if she is so near her time.”
“Oh, no. She can manage the short trip to the Hall, and she and Grandmamma wanted to be certain they’d have uninterrupted time to discuss Bea’s come-out.”
His heart stuttered.
Lord, Mama is here too?
He’d thought she was in London. Sweat trickled down his sides now, and his collar was suddenly too tight. Diana was bad enough, but Mama? She would not give up until she’d ferreted out every last one of his secrets.
The only way to handle the situation was to take the coward’s way and run. But where? Mama might well follow him to Town.
Loves Bridge isn’t far.
And the village fair should be almost underway. He could use that as an excuse.
“Beatrice is old enough for a Season?” he asked while he considered his escape. He could see the stables now.
“She’ll be seventeen in October.”
He was momentarily diverted trying to imagine his bookish, opinionated, and dangerously outspoken eldest niece at Almack’s. Odds were Bea would dump a glass of punch over some Society popinjay’s head inside of her first hour in those hallowed halls. Hmm. He’d better keep an eye on her when she came to London. Roger and Diana hadn’t attended a Season in years. They might not be aware of all the traps awaiting a girl making her debut.
“Bea doesn’t want a Season,” Rachel was saying. “She is quite wild about it. She says that she will not be put on the Marriage Mart like a broodmare at auction.”
Good Lord! “It is not as bad as that.”
“How would you know, Uncle Alex? You’re a man.”
“Yes, but, unlike Bea, I have been in London for the Season.” And would be looking for a wife this year, though not for a girl as young as Bea. That thought was more than a little revolting. “And even if it were true that some parents treat their daughters that way, your parents would not. You know that.”
Rachel shrugged. “Perhaps, but I think she’s right not to want to go. Jeremy’s brother Jacob was in London last Season and he told Jeremy that the girls are all extremely silly and the ton parties dreadfully dull. The real fun happens elsewhere.”
“Where no respectable young lady ventures.” He could imagine exactly what mischief a young cub, even a vicar’s son—no, especially a vicar’s son—could get up to in Town. He’d got up to many of the same things in his youth.
“I know that, Uncle Alex. I just want to go to Tatt’s and see the horses.”
Tattersall’s was not a place for ladies, either, but there was no point in telling Rachel that.
They finally reached the stables. Alex had never been so happy to see O’Reilly’s craggy face.
“Milord, it’s good to have ye home. And I see ye’ve found yer niece. Let me help ye down, Miss Rachel.”
“I don’t need any help.”
That was foolishness. Rachel might be a respectable rider, but Horatio was far taller than her pony. “Perhaps you don’t need help, Rachel, but you shall let O’Reilly assist you anyway.”
She frowned, but since he had no intention of letting go of her until she agreed, she finally let out a short, annoyed breath. “Oh, very well.”
Alex stayed in the saddle.
“Milord?” O’Reilly looked up at him questioningly.
“Do get down, Uncle Alex. Mama and Grandmamma will want to see you.”
Of course they will. And they will ask me questions and give me advice and start thinking of eligible young ladies for me to marry and it will be hellish.
He’d probably sweated through his coat by now.
Horatio pawed the ground and shook his head. He was very well-behaved, but he was getting impatient.
“Shall I take Horatio to his stall, milord, so ye can go up to the house straightaway?”
He made his decision. He couldn’t run fast enough. “As it turns out I’m not staying, O’Reilly.”
His groom, not surprisingly, looked at him as if he was mad.
Rachel put her hands on her hips and frowned. “But you’ve just arrived, Uncle Alex.”
“Well, yes. But I’ve suddenly remembered somewhere else I need to be.”
“Where? Mama will want to know.”
He felt the cowardly impulse to ask Rachel and O’Reilly not to mention they’d seen him, but he discarded that notion at once. Several stable boys had walked past while they’d been standing here. There was no keeping his visit secret.
“I’m off to Loves Bridge for the village fair.”
Miss Jane Wilkinson put her hands on her hips and glared at the slimy little man. “You said you had a kangaroo.”
She and Mr. Waldo W. Wertigger, proprietor of Waldo’s Wondrous Traveling Zoo, were standing on the Loves Bridge village green. It was the afternoon before the day the village fair was supposed to begin.
“I do have a kangaroo.”
“A dead one.”
The object under discussion was propped against the side of what had clearly once been a simple farmer’s cart. Someone—likely the rogue standing in front of her—had added a canvas arch proclaiming the business’s name, or what would have been the name had someone with any skill or literacy been in charge: Waldo’s Wundrus Travling Zu. The concluding u was a muddled drawing of a snake—or perhaps a large worm.
She returned her attention to the only snake—or worm—at hand.
Mr. Wertigger tugged on his collar. “A stuffed one. It was alive once.”
“That’s beside the point. It’s dead now.” Her fingers itched to shake the fellow.
She felt partly to blame for this disaster. The Loves Bridge fair committee had been going to engage last year’s organ-grinder and trained monkey when the Boltwood sisters suggested that a traveling zoo would be something special and, as the Duke of Hart was back at the castle, married, and soon to be a father, they should make this fair special.
What they hadn’t said but everyone thought was that this might be the duke’s last fair if the duchess was carrying a boy. For two hundred years, thanks to an angry spinster by the name of Isabelle Dorring, no Duke of Hart had lived to see his heir born.
A thread of worry twisted in her chest. The duke’s new duchess was Catherine “Cat” Hutting, one of Jane’s two close friends. If the duke died . . .
She took a calming breath. Everything would be fine. Only superstitious cabbageheads believed in curses, but even if there was a curse, legend had it that it would be broken when a duke married for love, which this duke most certainly had. It was rather nauseating watching him and Cat together, they were so besotted.
In fact, love, like a miasma, had settled over the village. Just days after that wedding, Jane’s other close friend Anne Davenport had tied the knot with the duke’s cousin, the Marquess of Haywood.
An odd, hollow sensation formed in Jane’s stomach. It wasn’t envy, was it?
Nonsense! She was merely hungry. She had got exactly what she’d wanted from those weddings: the Spinster House. For the first time in her twenty-eight years, she was living all by herself.
Well, if you didn’t count Poppy, the Spinster House tricolored cat, but at least Poppy was a fellow female. She didn’t leave cravats festooning chair arms or crumb-filled plates on every horizontal surface like Jane’s brother Randolph did.
She turned her attention back to Mr. Waldo W. Wertigger. She had wanted to see a kangaroo—a live kangaroo—so she had supported the Boltwoods’ suggestion that they bring this . . . this charlatan to Loves Bridge.
If curses were real, she’d curse this humbug.
“Your advertisement claimed your kangaroo could jump over several grown men standing on one another’s shoulders.”
“And my kangaroo could”—he cleared his throat—“when it was alive.”
Jane took another deep, calming breath and tried not to shout.
She did not succeed.
“We wanted a live, jumping kangaroo, you despicable mountebank.”
The Worm tugged on his waistcoat. “Now, now. There’s no need to call names. My poor kangaroo, sadly, may no longer be able to jump—”
Mr. Worm Wertigger ignored her. “But I have other attractions. See my rare onager?” He pointed to a creature tethered to the back of his cart, contentedly grazing on the grass.
“That’s an ass.” As are you.
“An Asiatic ass.”
Jane snorted derisively.
“And I have Romeo, the talking parrot.” He wrestled a cage draped with a blanket out of his wagon and removed the covering with a flourish.
A gray parrot with a dark reddish tail cocked his head at Jane and gave a loud, rude whistle. “Hey, sweetheart—”
The Worm quickly dropped the blanket back over the cage.
“Sir! That parrot is not appropriate for a village fair.”
The miscreant shrugged a shoulder. “Well, he did come cheap. I got him from a brothel that was closing.”
She was shouting again. Fortunately, Poppy appeared at that moment to rub against her ankle, calming her—
“May I be of assistance?”
A jolt of some unidentifiable emotion shot through her at the sound of that male voice. It couldn’t be the Earl of Evans, could it?
Of course it can’t. Lord Evans left Loves Bridge almost two months ago.
She glanced over her shoulder.
Lud! It was the earl. He looked . . . rough. Not quite civilized. His dark blond hair edged over his collar, and his face was weathered, making his eyes appear even bluer.
That’s right. He’d gone off to walk the Lake District.
“What are you doing here?” She flushed. She was afraid that had sounded rather unwelcoming. She hadn’t meant it to. She liked the earl and was actually happy to see him. She just hoped he didn’t think to swoop in and save her from Mr. Wertigger. She could handle the Worm all by herself.
Lord Evans’s right brow arched up and his firm lips twitched into a brief smile. “I’m delighted to see you, too, Miss Wilkinson.”
“Pardon me.” She gestured toward the Worm. “I’m afraid I’m rather busy at the moment.”
“So I see. What seems to be the difficulty?”
The Worm’s expression brightened at the sight of a fellow male. “The lady is being most unreasonable, sir.”
“Unreasonable?!” She’d show him unreasonable.
“And emotional.” The Worm leaned toward the earl as if sharing a male confidence. “But that’s the way women are, isn’t it? A rational, calm, male head is needed to do business properly.”
Jane hissed—or maybe that was Poppy.
The Earl of Evans laughed. “You’d best look to your head, sir. I believe Miss Wilkinson would like to sever it from your neck and kick it all the way to London.”
Mr. Wertigger glanced nervously at Jane and then back to the earl. “Since you know the lady, perhaps you can explain matters to her.”
“I do know the lady and have found her understanding to be superior.” Lord Evans turned to Jane. “Can you explain matters to me, Miss Wilkinson?”
She did like Lord Evans. He was one of the few reasonable men of her acquaintance.
“This, Lord Evans, is Mr. Waldo Wertigger. The fair committee thought his traveling zoo would be a splendid addition this year because of its exotic animals”—she narrowed her eyes and was gratified to see the Worm tug at his collar—“specifically its kangaroo”—she pointed to the sad, stuffed creature propped against the wagon—“which Mr. Wertigger advertised as able to jump thirty feet in the air.”
Lord Evans pulled out a quizzing glass—she’d never seen him use one before, but he wielded it with great effect—and examined the kangaroo. “Jump, you say?”
“It did, milord.” The Worm tugged at his collar again. “Until it met its untimely end. Apparently the English climate did not agree with it.”
Jane suspected the Worm had not taken proper care of the animal, but since she had no proof of that—and it was beside the point anyway—she didn’t dispute his theory. “He says that sad-looking donkey is an onager.”
“It is,” the Worm insisted.
She couldn’t disprove that either, so she moved on. “And his parrot learned its conversation in a brothel. It’s completely unsuitable to be exhibited at an event with young children and sensitive ladies. People would be shocked and distressed.”
“Were you shocked and distressed, Miss Wilkinson?” Lord Evans asked, his eyes glinting with what might have been suppressed laughter.
“Yes.” Though not so much by what the parrot had said as by the realization that the entertainment she and the fair committee had arranged—and which she herself had so looked forward to—was a complete and utter disaster. And the fair was tomorrow! What were they—what was she—going to do?
There was no question—the Worm and his menagerie would have to go. She looked the man directly in the eye and said firmly, so he could not misunderstand, “We shall not have need of your services, sir. Please leave at once.” She wouldn’t put it past the fellow to lurk about and cause trouble.
Mr. Wertigger frowned. “I’ll leave after I’ve been paid.”
“Paid?! What do you mean, paid? You won’t be paid a single farthing, sirrah!” The gall of the fellow.
His jaw hardened. “I will be paid. You can’t drag Waldo W. Wertigger out to this sorry excuse of a village without paying him for his trouble. I’ve come quite a distance at considerable expense.”
“And under false pretenses!”
He looked at Lord Evans. “Milord, you are a man of experience. Explain to this woman, if you will, that she cannot contract for services and then decide at the last minute that she does not want them.” He paused to scowl at Jane. “We had an agreement.”
Jane could not believe what she was hearing. “Yes. That you would provide a live kangaroo and a zoo that was suitable for a village fair—a fair that would be attended by families, not by light skirts and libertines and . . . and other people of ill repute. You did not do that.” She crossed her arms. “Thus you shall not be paid.”
The Worm took a threatening step toward her.
“See here!” Lord Evans started to reach for him, but Poppy was faster. She jumped in front of Jane, arched her back, and hissed.
The Worm paused. “Madam, control your cat.”
“Poppy is not my cat, sir, but even if she were, she has a mind of her own. I would caution you to stay back if you don’t want your boots—and your flesh—slashed.” She said that last part with great relish.
The Worm looked at Lord Evans. “Milord, please.”
“I’m afraid Miss Wilkinson is correct, Wertigger. Poppy can be quite dangerous. She attacked the Marquess of Haywood’s boots on several occasions, and I’m sure she would not hesitate to do the same to yours.” He smiled. “Her teeth look very sharp as well, don’t they?”
Poppy hissed again to underline Lord Evans’s observation.
The Worm stepped back. “Very well, I’ll complain to the authorities then.”
“You can complain to anyone you want,” Jane said. “You are still not getting any money from me.”
“I’ll get it from someone.”
Her hands flew to her hips. “I shall be happy to watch you try.”
His hands curled into fists. “I will be paid, madam.”
“No, you won’t.”
Lord Evans sighed and reached into his pocket. “Enough. I find you a complete bore, Wertigger. Oblige me by taking yourself off.”
“You can’t pay him,” Jane said, but it was too late. The earl had already tossed the man a coin.
The Worm snatched the money out of the air and looked at it. “It’s only a quid.”
“And far more than you deserve,” Jane said, and then glared at the earl. “I can’t believe you gave that dastard anything.”
“I want him to go away, Miss Wilkinson, and this seemed the fastest way to accomplish that goal.” He looked back at the Worm. “I advise you to cut your losses, sir, and leave at once. My friend, the Duke of Hart, whose principal seat is here, and his wife—Miss Wilkinson’s good friend and another member of the fair committee—are unlikely to be sympathetic to your position.”
The Worm scowled, and for a moment Jane thought he’d take issue with Lord Evans, but then he let out a long breath and his shoulders drooped. “Very well. But don’t expect Waldo W. Wertigger to ever come back here.” His jaw hardened. “And I’ll tell my friends to avoid the place too.”
Jane very much doubted the scoundrel had any friends, but if he did, she certainly didn’t wish to meet them. She opened her mouth to tell him exactly that, but the earl laid his hand on her arm to stop her.
“You must do as you think best,” Lord Evans said, and then he turned his back on the miscreant, smiling down at Jane. “Shall we repair to Cupid’s Inn for a bracing cup of tea, Miss Wilkinson?”
She glanced over at the Worm to be sure he was indeed leaving.
He was, but he treated her to a very nasty look.
She might be independent, but she wasn’t stupid. Now that the fury of the moment had passed, she was happy to have the large, obviously fit earl at her side. Men could sometimes be dangerous. It was extremely annoying that women were at such a physical disadvantage.
Well, yes, Poppy had helped rout the fellow too.
She turned her attention back to the earl. If he wanted to put his nose in her business, he could help her solve her problem. The fair was tomorrow and the main act was departing.
If we go to the inn, we’ll get interrupted constantly. Everyone will want to know what he’s doing in Loves Bridge.
What is he doing?
Likely visiting the duke. His travels were none of her concern. The fair, however . . .
“Let’s go to the Spinster House instead. You can help me come up with a replacement for Mr. Wertigger.”
Jane shut the Spinster House door after the earl and Poppy entered, closing out the bright August afternoon and the drone of village life: the birdsong, the buzz of insects, the distant murmur of voices—
Suddenly, everything was dark and quiet and . . . intimate. It was a little hard to breathe.
Ridiculous! Lord Evans hadn’t grown nor the house shrunk. The man wasn’t even standing next to her. She should not be feeling crowded and, well, a bit overwhelmed.
Or, worse, expectant. Still and heavy like a summer day before a storm.
She leaned against the reassuringly solid door for a moment to steady herself and glanced at Poppy.
The cat looked oddly pleased before blinking and turning her attention to cleaning her paws.
Poppy never looks pleased unless I’m obeying her rare demand for petting or offering her some tasty tidbit from my dinner.
Truth be told, Poppy made her a little nervous. There was something vaguely supernatural about her, as if she’d once been a witch’s familiar or something—not that Jane believed in witches or any other such foolishness, curses included.
Lord Evans had moved farther into the sitting room and was examining a large, faded square on the wall. “Didn’t care for the picture that hung here, I see.”
She took a deep breath and shook off her peculiar feelings. “I did not.” She started toward him, but stopped a few feet away. She didn’t want to get too near—
Oh, for goodness’ sake, the man isn’t going to bite!
She forced herself to close the gap between them. “It was hideous. Haven’t you seen it?”
“No, this is my first time in the Spinster House.” He lifted a brow. “What was it of? Some very un-spinsterish bacchanal?”
He was teasing her again. She’d missed that. No one else—especially no other man—was as much fun to match wits with.
“It was a painting of a hunting dog with a dead bird in its mouth. Quite, quite bloodthirsty—and ugly. I don’t know what Isabelle Dorring was thinking when she hung it there.”
He frowned. “Oh, I don’t know. I’d say Miss Dorring was a bit bloodthirsty herself to have cursed the Duke of Hart’s line as she did. She caused centuries of anguish”—his frown turned to a scowl—“and is still cutting up the current duke’s peace.”
“And Cat’s peace, too.” Cat’s baby was due in just over six months’ time. If it was a boy—
No! Curses aren’t real. They’re as make-believe as witches and fairies—she glanced at Poppy who had moved on to grooming her private parts—and supernatural cats.
“The third duke was a scoundrel to get poor Isabelle with child and then marry another woman,” she said.
She’d always thought that duke a terrible villain—all the village girls had—but in a fairy-tale sort of way. She’d never considered how Isabelle’s curse would affect a real person until she’d met the current titleholder.
Lord Evans’s scowl deepened. “I’ll grant you that wasn’t honorable of him, but he didn’t force Miss Dorring, did he?”
“No.” Rape had never been part of the story.
“And Miss Dorring wasn’t some naïve young miss. The stone in the graveyard says she was twenty-four. Surely you knew how children were created when you were twenty-four?”
She flushed. “Of course.” She’d never had a man mention procreation to her. It was . . .
Freeing. Lord Evans was speaking to her as if she was an intelligent equal, not some fluffy-headed virgin who needed to be shielded from the world.
“And if I have the story right, her father was a wealthy merchant who left her this house and his fortune. She chose to invite the third duke into her bed. I’d say she bears some responsibility for the outcome.”
“Well, yes, but—”
Both brows went up. “What? Is independent Miss Wilkinson going to tell me that poor Isabelle was a meek, spineless creature who couldn’t make her own decisions?”
“No, of course not.” To be honest, she’d never understood why Isabelle had been so reckless. She’d had her freedom. Why had she squandered it? “Perhaps she was overcome by love.”
Gaah! Had she really just said that? But it was true. From her observations, love all too often disabled a woman’s good sense.
Lord Evans snorted. “Or perhaps she was overcome with a desire to be a duchess.”
That surprised her. The earl had a sharp wit, but he wasn’t normally caustic. “So cynical!”
“Sadly, Miss Wilkinson, it is not cynicism. I have observed such machinations firsthand.”
Of course he had. He was handsome, intelligent, amusing—and an earl. The London ladies must trip over one another to catch his attention.
She felt an odd mix of sympathy for him, anger at the ladies, and . . . jealousy?
No. Surely not.
“Do they hound you unmercifully, then?”
“Me?” His brows shot up in surprise. “What do you—oh. No. You misunderstood. I was referring to Marcus—the duke. Society women dragged him into the shrubbery on many occasions in the hope they could force him into marriage.” He smiled. “Though I’ll admit his last trip to the vegetation ended well.”
“You aren’t suggesting Cat was angling to be a duchess, are you?” Jane felt insulted on her friend’s behalf. “Cat went through with the Spinster House lottery just the day after she visited the trysting bushes with the duke, if you’ll remember.”
“Yes, I know, Miss Wilkinson. I’m not lumping her in with the Society misses.” He grinned. “I know Loves Bridge women are not at all like them.”
She would take that as a compliment. “I’m quite certain Cat loves the duke. And more to the point, the duke loves her.”
If the Duke of Hart hadn’t married for love, then the curse wasn’t broken.
If there was a curse.
Lord Evans nodded. “I agree.” He looked back at the empty square on the wall. “I suppose we’ll know for certain soon enough.”
Worry twisted in her chest again. “You don’t believe in the curse, do you?”
Ah, thank God.
But her relief was cut short by his next words.
“But Marcus does, at least on some level.” He frowned. “And there are those five dukes before him.”
“Yes.” Lud! If only they knew—
He put a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t worry.”
The weight and warmth of his touch were surprisingly comforting. She let out a shaky laugh. “How did you know I was worrying?”
That made him laugh. “Let’s just say it would be best if you not take up games of chance.”
No one had ever said her expression was easy to read. In fact, she prided herself on how well she hid her emotions. It was . . . unsettling to learn that the earl could see through her.
No. What was she thinking? Everyone in the village was worried about the duke. It didn’t take any great perception to know she was, too.
“Yes. Well. Let’s hope for the best. Now, I have a far more pressing concern. The fair is tomorrow, and I’ve just sent away the main attraction. What am I going to do?”
He grinned. “Shall I offer to put myself on exhibit? Though I’m afraid I’m not as interesting as a kangaroo, even a dead one.”
She laughed. “You are here in Loves Bridge. You are already on exhibit—you know how the village is. I’m surprised the Boltwood sisters aren’t peering in my window right now to see what you’re up to.”
They aren’t, are they?
She glanced over. Whew! No faces pushed against the glass.
“Now come along. I’ll make us a cup of tea and then we can put our heads together and come up with a plan.”
“I think I’ll need something stronger than tea,” he said as he followed her into the kitchen.
He might be right. “I’ll get the brandy.”
“Miss Wilkinson! You have brandy? I would never have thought the Spinster House spinster would be partial to spirits”—he glanced down at Poppy, who was sprawled on the floor in a patch of sunlight—“at least of the alcoholic sort.”
Did Lord Evans think there was something odd about Poppy too?
“I’m not responsible for bringing the brandy into the house—it was here when I arrived.” She put it on the table along with two teacups.
“Teacups, Miss Wilkinson?”
“The house did not come with brandy glasses, Lord Evans.”
He grinned as he reached for the bottle. “I see. I suppose it will look better if you are caught with a teacup rather than a brandy glass. May I pour?”
“No one is going to ‘catch me,’ Lord Evans. That is the beauty of the Spinster House. I live here quite alone”—she tilted her head toward the cat sprawled in the sun—“except for Poppy.”
She held out her cup for him to splash some of the amber liquid into it. He had a very nice smile. It wasn’t stiff or merely polite—it creased his entire face and lit his eyes.
“Right.” He raised his cup. “To spinsterhood.”
“Hear, hear.” She tapped her cup against his and took a sip. The liquid burned a path down her throat as she watched Lord Evans glance around the kitchen.
“This place looks as lost in the early 1600s as Loves Castle. Didn’t any of the spinsters feel the need to redecorate?”
“Apparently not. But I will.” She took another sip. Warmth curled through her stomach. She exhaled, feeling the tension start to drain from her shoulders and neck. She could finally relax—
No, I can’t! The fair is tomorrow and the Worm has just left with his stuffed kangaroo and profane parrot.
A vise clamped onto her forehead and tightened. She took another, larger swallow of brandy.
Mistake. She gagged and coughed.
Through blurry eyes, she saw Lord Evans jump up and pour a glass of water from the pitcher. In a moment he was offering it to her, his steadying hand on her shoulder again.
Odd. She’d never been much for having people touch her, but she didn’t mind the earl doing so.
“Here. Only a sip. I don’t want you inhaling it.” He smiled. “Don’t drink brandy much, do you?”
She scowled at him. “Of course I don’t drink brandy much, but that’s not what caused me to choke. Must I remind you that I have less than twenty-four hours to come up with a replacement for the much-anticipated kangaroo?” She moaned and dropped her head into her hands. “This is a disaster.”
“Oh, it’s not that bad. I’ve been to my share of village fairs, and unless the inhabitants of Loves Bridge are a very different sort, you’ll be fine as long as there’s plenty of food and drink. The adults just want to gossip and the children to run around outside.”
The annoying man was likely right.
“But we wanted this fair to be special because—” She raised her head and looked at him. “Because of the duke.”
He frowned, his right brow arching up. “Because he’ll be in attendance for the first time?”
“Well, er, yes.” Before May, the duke had only been to the village once. Twenty years ago, when he was a boy, he’d come to choose the Spinster House spinster—the one before Cat. “But more because if there is a curse, this might be his last time.”
The earl nodded, digesting that. “Let’s hope it’s not, but even if it is—” He smiled. “The duke has seen a kangaroo before, Miss Wilkinson.”
“Oh. Yes. Of course.” How silly of her. There were menageries in London, and a wealthy duke had wealthy friends who likely had their own private collections of exotic animals.
“But even if he hadn’t—even if you’d managed to assemble ten kangaroos riding on elephants, attended by giraffes, Marcus wouldn’t care. He’s still newly in love. All he can see is his duchess.”
That was rather sweet—nauseating, but sweet. And true, now that she considered the matter.
Did Lord Evans have experience with love? Cat had said something about him being jilted almost at the altar . . .
How could a woman do that? If she were going to wed—
Which she was not!
She must be letting Cat corrupt her thinking. Now that Cat was married, she believed every woman should be a wife. She was like a missionary, trying to convert all she saw—particularly Jane—to her religion.
Well, Jane was not going to be converted! She’d spent too many years waiting on her brother to wish to take on another male. And, as she’d come to realize as she got older, early exposure to her father’s temper had turned her against ever giving herself into a man’s keeping. Papa had never hit anyone—at least he’d never hit her—but his shouting had felt like a blow.
Still, Lord Evans wasn’t Papa. He’d yet to raise his voice or show any temper in her presence. She was here alone with him—except for Poppy—and she didn’t feel any of the expectant dread she’d always felt around Papa.
Well, she did feel oddly expectant. . . .
Her stomach twisted again. She really should eat something, especially now that she was drinking brandy. “Would you like some seedcake? It’s rather good.”
The earl’s expression turned guarded. “Did you make it?”
That made her laugh. “No. My culinary skills are quite limited, as I see you’ve guessed. Mrs. Chester up at Loves Castle baked it and Cat brought it by.”
He grinned. “Oh, well, then, I’ll definitely take some. Mrs. Chester is an excellent cook.”
She sliced her last loaf, put it on a plate—and watched in dismay as Lord Evans inhaled three pieces before she’d finished her first.
He was her guest.
She took a sip of water—no more brandy for her—and focused on business.
“Now, about the fair. I’m sure you’re correct that the duke won’t care what entertainment we provide, but that really doesn’t solve my problem. We’ve been promising people for weeks they’ll see a live kangaroo. I need to offer them something in its place.”
The evil man took yet another slice of cake.
She’d best act at once if she wanted any more. She reached for the last slice—and saw him eyeing her fingers.
“You’ve had more than your share, you know.”
The miscreant had the temerity to grin. “Yes. The seedcake is quite good, but I’ll be a gentleman and let you have that last bit.”
If he thought that act would win him the prize, he was very much mistaken. Jane liked seedcake too. She plopped it on her plate.
The earl brushed some crumbs off his waistcoat. “You aren’t going to find a kangaroo in the Loves Bridge bushes.”
“I know that,” Jane said, rather impolitely, her mouth still being full of seedcake.
“So we’ll have to come up with something else.”
She was surprised at the warmth she felt at his use of we. It was nice not to have to face this impending disaster alone.
“How about pig races?” Lord Evans said. “I enjoyed those when I was a lad.”
“We already have pig races.” She took a swallow of water to wash down the last bit of cake.
“A pet show, then?” Lord Evans looked down at Poppy. “I imagine Poppy would win most inscrutable.”
Poppy yawned and sat up to clean her tail.
“We have a pet show. People dress their animals in the most outlandish outfits they can think of.”
Lord Evans laughed. “I cannot imagine Poppy consenting to that.”
Neither could Jane.
They both looked at Poppy, who sneezed, stretched, and walked slowly to the door. She stopped on the threshold and stared at them.
“I think she wants us to follow her, Miss Wilkinson.”
“Don’t be silly.” Though it did appear Poppy thought—
No. Poppy is a cat. She doesn’t think.
And she certainly couldn’t read minds. . . .
Jane had lived with Poppy for two months now, and she’d admit, if only to herself, that, while the cat couldn’t really be supernatural, there was definitely something very odd about her.
“Don’t you wonder where Poppy wants to take us?”
She had no time for curiosity. “We’re supposed to be discussing the fair.”
“We can discuss the fair while we follow Poppy. There’s nothing keeping us in the kitchen.” He gave the empty seedcake plate a regretful look and stood, extending his hand to her.
She regarded his broad palm and strong fingers for a moment, her own palm itching to feel his skin against hers.
Good Lord. It’s a hand. Everyone—or almost everyone—has two. There’s nothing special about Lord Evans’s.
“Oh, very well.” She stood—without his assistance—and started toward the door, ignoring what sounded suspiciously like a chuckle from the man behind her.
Miss Jane Wilkinson was so prickly. It was quite amusing.
Alex swallowed his mirth as he followed the woman out of the kitchen. They made quite the parade: the cat strolling in the lead, tail high, tip curled as if in a question mark; Miss Wilkinson next, her back as straight as a fireplace poker, radiating annoyance; and him.
He’d made an excellent decision in coming to Loves Bridge. Sparring with this sharp-tongued spinster was exactly what he needed. It made him feel alive and energized again.
The cat led their little parade up the stairs.
He’d help Miss Wilkinson with the fair, and then he’d go off wife-hunting. Perhaps by this time next year, he’d not only be married, but on the verge of joining Marcus in fatherhood.
If Marcus is still alive, that is.
His heart stuttered, and he took a deep breath. Of course Marcus would still be alive—but Alex would be very happy once he saw Marcus holding his heir in his arms.
The parade arrived on the next level where there were three doors to choose from—two on the right and one on the left. Poppy darted through one of the right-hand choices.
“Your room, Miss Wilkinson?”
He had a sudden odd desire to see her bedchamber.
And her bed.
Does she lie there stiffly on her back every night, bedclothes pulled up to her chin, a long-sleeved, high-necked virginal—spinsterish—white gown covering every inch of her body?
A completely inappropriate part of his anatomy grew quite stiff at the thought.
What was the matter with him? Miss Wilkinson was amusing, and, yes, attractive, but she was a dedicated spinster—and most certainly not the restful sort of female he was looking for. He’d almost had heart failure this afternoon when he’d looked across the village green to see her brangling with that Wertigger fellow. She’d been all alone with him and clearly unwilling to give an inch.
Good Lord! The man was only about her height, but he was several stone heavier. If he’d turned violent, she would have been in serious danger.
She seemed not to have realized that. She certainly hadn’t looked relieved when he’d come up to them. Oh, no. He could tell she hadn’t welcomed his interference at all.
He frowned. He admired her independence and courage, but she could do with a little fear to keep her bravado in check. Caution was a virtue she appeared not to have.
“No, my room is the one on the left. It’s the largest.”
“Ah. So I assume it was Isabelle’s?” He stepped over to peer inside. It was rude of him to invade her privacy that way, but he couldn’t help himself. It was almost as if an invisible string pulled him to the doorway.
The room was rather dark, especially for a lady, with oak paneling and a large, red-curtained four-poster bed—a bed too large for one lonely spinster.
He’d like to—
Good God! He could not entertain lascivious thoughts about Miss Wilkinson. They weren’t married, and they weren’t going to be. She had no interest in that institution and he . . .
He scowled at the bed. He wanted a restful sort of woman remember, someone like Charlotte, someone who would let him protect her and not be annoyed by his efforts to keep her safe.
Zeus, Miss Wilkinson would probably try to protect him if they were ever in danger.
That sounds rather stimulating—
No, it doesn’t.
He’d felt strong and larger than life when he’d had Charlotte on his arm.
And a little bored—
No. He hadn’t been bored. He’d—
Oh, what did it matter? Miss Wilkinson had no interest in marriage. And he certainly didn’t wish to be rejected again. Once had been painful enough.
“Cat told me a full-length painting of Isabelle hung there when she moved in.” Miss Wilkinson pointed to a conspicuously empty portion of the wall.
“Are you going to replace it with something?”
“Of course. I just haven’t had time to—”
He looked over. Poppy was sitting in the doorway of the room she’d first disappeared into, tail twitching. She did not look happy.
“I think the cat has lost patience with us.”
Miss Wilkinson sighed. “Yes. We’d best do what she wants. I assure you, she’ll not give us any peace until we do.” She started toward the other room.
“Do you mind living with such a, er, managing cat?” he asked, following her. It was rather amusing how the strong-willed Miss Wilkinson danced to Poppy’s tune.
She laughed. “Poppy isn’t managing, precisely.” She suddenly frowned, as if annoyed with herself. “She’s not managing at all. She’s a cat, Lord Evans. An animal. She doesn’t think.”
He put too much value in his skin and the leather of his boots to argue with Poppy and her sharp claws. “She does appear to get the humans in her life to do what she wishes, however.”
Miss Wilkinson grimaced. “I suppose she does.”
They stepped over the threshold into what once must have been a study or a sitting room, but was now jammed with household castoffs.
“I’ve been meaning to ask the duke to send someone to help me clear all this out,” Miss Wilkinson said.
“Hmm.” Alex’s attention was caught by a large painting propped against a worn upholstered chair. It was of a girl dressed in clothes that looked to be from the early 1600s. “Is that Isabelle?”
“Yes. Can you imagine going to bed each night with her staring down at you?”
I can imagine going to bed each night with you—
He jerked his unruly imagination away from naked, sweaty, intimately entwined bodies back to the painting. “She doesn’t look like the evil, angry woman I’d thought her to be.” The girl was pretty, but not beautiful. More to the point, she looked young and happy—and vaguely familiar. He frowned. “She looks like the new duchess.”
“Yes, I suppose so. They’re related, you know—some sort of cousins.”
“Ah.” He hadn’t known that. “It’s hard to imagine this girl cursing the duke’s line and then drowning herself and her unborn child in Loves Water.”
“If she did those things. Cat told me she and the duke found a letter in there”—she pointed to a large cabinet—“which made them wonder if any of the story is true.” Miss Wilkinson shook her head. “But if the story isn’t true, where did Isabelle go?”
Marcus had mentioned something about a letter, but there hadn’t been time to discuss it before the wedding—and then Nate had got married and Alex had left for the Lakes.
“Perhaps she didn’t go anywhere. Perhaps she really is buried in the graveyard.” It would be a huge relief to prove now that there was no curse, rather than having to wait six long months. Not that he was about to exhume Miss Dorring.
Miss Wilkinson looked unconvinced. “But what about her baby?”
“He—or she—could have died in infancy. Many children didn’t live past their first birthday back then.”
Poppy sneezed, but whether the cat agreed with their theory or not, Alex couldn’t say.
“Oh, bother.” Miss Wilkinson’s voice suddenly held more than a touch of impatience. “This isn’t getting me any closer to a plan for tomorrow’s fair. Much as I might want to, I can’t take Isabelle’s painting out to the village green and invite people to throw things at it.”
“I said I couldn’t do it.”
Was Miss Wilkinson going to get into an argument with the cat? That would be unwise. Her nails were no match for Poppy’s claws.
“Perhaps Poppy will show us why she was so insistent we follow her.” He looked down at the cat. Was he going to talk to it?
“Do you have a suggestion, Poppy? As you can see, Miss Wilkinson is getting anxious.”
Poppy blinked at him and then turned her back rather pointedly and disappeared into the clutter behind the chair.
Miss Wilkinson emitted a short, annoyed breath. “Wonderful. What a wild goose—or a wild cat—chase this has been. I’ve less than twenty-four hours to come up with a substitute for Mr. Wertigger’s traveling zoo, Lord Evans, and I’m no closer than I was when we were in the kitchen. What in God’s name am I going to—”
Poppy had returned and was staring up at them from under the chair. Clearly, she wanted him to follow her—but he was not a cat.
He sighed and struggled out of his coat.
“Lord Evans, what are you doing?”
“Preparing to dig through this pile of things, Miss Wilkinson. Would you be so kind as to hold this?” He handed her his coat.
Her brows slammed down into a scowl as she took it. “We do not have time to waste looking for . . .” She waved her hand at the jumble and then glanced back at him. “What are you looking for?”
“I have no idea. Pardon me.”
Miss Wilkinson stepped back, his coat clutched absently in her hands, as he moved Isabelle over to lean against the cabinet.
“Have you lost your mind?”
“I don’t believe so, but I might be mistaken.” He eyed the chair. He couldn’t see anything leaning up against it now, but he didn’t want to move it and send the whole pile crashing down on Poppy.
But then cats had nine lives, didn’t they? And he’d wager Poppy had more lives than most. He was confident she’d find a way to avoid getting crushed.
“You might want to wait outside, Miss Wilkinson. This could get messy.” He sneezed. And dusty. Likely there were two centuries’ worth of dirt behind that chair.
Of course the woman ignored him.
Well, there was nothing for it. He grasped the chair’s arms. Lord, they knew how to make furniture two hundred years ago. The thing was incredibly heavy.
He wrestled it out of the way.
“Lord Evans, we really do not have time for this. You said we’d discuss the fair. I’m counting on you to help me come up with a plan.”
“I think that is what I am doing.”
He might have heard her grind her teeth.
He surveyed the clutter he’d uncovered. There was a small table with water stains marring its surface; a chipped pitcher and several chipped bowels; a broken mirror; and a cushion that looked like it might be hosting a family of mice.
Or had been hosting. One hoped Poppy, being a cat, had encouraged the rodents to move along, if she hadn’t made them her supper.
“Lord Evans, please. The clock is ticking.”
And the cat was growling. Where was she?
Ah, he saw the tip of her tail sticking out from behind a stack of boards someone had propped against the outside wall. He moved the table and other things aside—fortunately, no mice fled the cushion—and carefully picked his way across the room.
He squatted down to peer into the shadowy space between the boards and the wall. Poppy looked back at him—as did a pair of lifeless eyes.
He must have made some sound, because suddenly Miss Wilkinson dropped his poor coat on the floor and rushed toward him.
“Lord Evans! What’s amiss? Are you all right?”
He shot up to his full height. “Careful! You’ll trip.”
Which is exactly what she did, of course. He’d only a split second to brace himself before he took her full weight.
He wasn’t completely certain which of them had made that sound. Her momentum had propelled him backward so he’d collided forcefully with the wall—fortunately or they would have ended up sprawled on the ground, he on the bottom, likely impaled by a splintered table or discarded candlestick, and she on top.
His brainless cock ignored the impalement part of that story, focusing instead on the notion of Miss Wilkinson’s feminine curves pressing against it. It started to swell with excitement.
He took a calming breath—and breathed in Miss Wilkinson’s scent. Blast.
His unruly cock grew larger.
“Oh.” Miss Wilkinson gaped up at him, clearly stunned by her sudden change in position and—fortunately—unaware of his body’s reaction. If she’d noticed, he felt quite certain he’d be gasping in pain now, her knee having taught his cock proper behavior.
If I lean forward just an inch or perhaps two, our lips will—
Zeus! Was he losing his mind? He grasped her elbows to move her away just as she planted her hands on his chest to do the same. She stepped back—and stumbled again.
He reached for her, but she was able to recover without his help.
“What did you see? You made a noise, as if you were . . . startled. Was it something”—she swallowed—“alive?”
No. If the thing had been alive and was now dead, it would stink.
“I was startled—and I’m not certain what I saw. I’ll have another look, shall I?”
He started to squat, but Miss Wilkinson put a hand on his arm, stopping him.
“Are you certain it’s safe?” She glanced down nervously.
Poppy, sitting by the opening, interrupted her grooming long enough to look up at them.
He laughed. “Poppy apparently thinks so.”
Miss Wilkinson did not let go. “Poppy is a cat. She may not realize the danger.”
What did she think might be lurking in that shadowy space? If it was indeed dangerous, it would have already . . . what? Darted out and nipped their toes? “Are you afraid, Miss Wilkinson?”
She bristled. “Of course not.” Her jaw hardened. “I’ll look myself.”
“No, you won’t.” He certainly wasn’t about to let her take any risk, if there was one. That would not be at all chivalrous.
She squared her shoulders. “This is my house, Lord Evans. It’s my responsibility to see that it’s kept up properly.”
Oh, Lord, he’d only meant to tease her. “But consider my mortification, Miss Wilkinson, should word get out that the Earl of Evans had a female, ah—”
That was the wrong thing to say. Miss Wilkinson’s eyes snapped and she opened her mouth to blister his ears. Time to change course.
“And the floor’s very dusty. My clothes are already covered in dirt. No point in getting your dress soiled as well.”
That stopped her. “Oh.” She frowned. “Yes. Well, I suppose, when you put it that way, you have a point.”
Of course he did, but he didn’t waste any more time arguing. He squatted down again and peered into the shadows. The thing was still there.
Poppy butted her head against his arm to encourage him.
Very well. It was time to show some courage. He reached gingerly into the space—
“What is it?” Miss Wilkinson asked anxiously. “What have you found?”
Copyright © 2017 by Sally MacKenzie