Welcome to the charming, fatefully named village of Loves Bridge, where a woman destined for spinsterhood can live a life of her own choosing—or fall unexpectedly, madly in love…
Miss Isabelle Catherine Hutting would rather be lounging in the library than circling the ballroom in search of a husband any day. So when Cat hears that the town's infamous Spinster House is open for a new resident, she jumps at the chance to put all this marriage business behind her. But first she must make arrangements with her prospective landlord, Marcus, the Duke of Hart—the most handsome man she's ever seen, and the only man who's ever impressed her in the least…
With her wit, independent spirit, and not least of all her beauty, Marcus can't help but be stirred by Cat. It's terribly unfortunate he's not looking to marry, given the centuries-old curse that left his family with the Spinster House to begin with: No duke shall live to see his heir's birth. But is there a chance the curse could be broken—in true fairy-tale fashion—by an act of true love? The race to Happily Ever After is about to begin…
A 2015 Amazon Best of the Month category pick in romance
Finalist 2015 National Readers’ Choice Awards, Historical
"Fun series launch."
"A humorous, mayhem-filled romantic comedy."
~RT Book Reviews
"...a masterful mélange of Regency romance pleasures."
Loves Bridge, 1617
April 1—I saw the Duke of Hart at Cupid’s Inn. Faith! He’s so handsome. My friend Rosaline says he won’t have anything to do with me—his mother won’t let him—but I know better. I’m going to be the next duchess.
—from Isabelle Dorring’s diary
London, May 1817
“You have compromised my daughter, Hart. I demand you offer for her.” Barnabas Rathbone sniffed and raised his receding chin. “At once.”
The drone of conversation in White’s crowded reading room stopped abruptly. Marcus would swear all the men inhaled at the same time and held their collective breath, the better to hear every word of this delightful drama. A few went so far as to peer around their newspapers.
He ignored them. “No.”
Rathbone’s prominent eyes widened, his fleshy jowls trembling. “W—what do you mean, no?”
The fellow was an even better actor than his disreputable daughter.
“No, I will not marry Miss Rathbone.”
Rathbone’s mouth dangled open briefly. Then his brows snapped down into a scowl, but not before Marcus saw the panic in his eyes. The man had likely been staving off his creditors by telling them he’d soon be a duchess’s father. Fool! Did he think he was the first to try such a trick on the Duke of Hart—or the Heartless Duke, as the wags liked to call him?
When they weren’t calling him the Cursed Duke.
“How can you be so cruel? The poor girl is beside herself.”
Marcus just stared at Rathbone. Sadly, he had plenty of experience dealing with conniving members of the ton. He was far too big a prize for them to resist. Thanks to the curse, if the woman he married had any luck at all, she’d conceive his heir on their wedding night and be a wealthy widow nine months later.
He was bloody well not going to die for Rathbone’s benefit.
“You cannot mean to ruin my dear daughter’s reputation!” A note of desperation had slipped into Rathbone’s bluster.
The other men in White’s deeply carpeted reading room leaned forward in their rich leather chairs, newspapers and books abandoned along with any pretense of ignoring the conversation. Their gaze swiveled between Marcus and Rathbone.
It focused on Marcus now.
“Since your daughter has no reputation, there is nothing to ruin, Rathbone.”
A gasp burst from their audience and more than a few sniggers—some muffled, most not.
Rathbone wisely chose not to dispute that. “Her heart will be broken.”
Now he was grasping at straws. The girl had no heart, either, which some would say made her the perfect match for the Heartless Duke.
Perhaps. But if he had to marry—and he did have to marry someday if he wished to ensure the succession—he’d rather choose a heartless girl with better deportment and perhaps even a little intelligence and wit to make his last days more bearable.
Rathbone opened his mouth again, but Marcus held up his hand to stop him.
“You and your daughter laid a trap, sir, which I refuse to be caught in. That is the end of the matter.”
He thought he heard Rathbone’s teeth grind.
“I see there is no reasoning with you, Your Grace. You are indeed as heartless as everyone says.”
Marcus inclined his head. “One does wonder why you thought otherwise.”
The men in the room didn’t even try to muffle their sniggers this time.
“Hart has a point, Rathbone,” one of them called out.
Marcus didn’t look to see which fellow spoke. It could have been any of them. They were like a pack of wolves, attacking at the first scent of blood. Not that he had any sympathy for Rathbone, of course.
Rathbone glared at the man who’d spoken and then glared at Marcus. “I shall take my leave then, Your Grace, but do not think your infamy will be forgotten.”
“I do not think it. But neither should you think I will change my mind. You and your daughter need to look for a more achievable way to address your pressing debts.”
Rathbone stiffened and lifted his chin again, but his eyes told the tale. He might try to make Marcus’s existence unpleasant for the next few weeks, but he realized he’d wagered and lost.
“Your Grace.” He jerked his head in the slightest of bows and strode from the room.
Marcus looked at the other men—they all dived back into their reading material. As he expected, none said a word to him about what they’d just witnessed, but he knew the moment the door closed behind him, they’d burst into excited whispers and then go spread the tale throughout the ton. Dolts! He was heartily sick of them.
The club manager came rushing up as soon as Marcus emerged from the reading room. “Your Grace, I apologize for Mr. Rathbone’s behavior. If I’d known—”
“It’s nothing, Montgomery. Rathbone is a member. He has as much right as the next man to be an idiot here.”
Montgomery frowned. “More’s the pity. Can I bring you a bottle of our best brandy, Your Grace, to take some of the sting from the encounter?”
If he dosed himself with spirits every time he had to deal with Rathbone’s sort, he’d be a complete sot. “My thanks, but no. I believe I’ll—”
Marcus grinned, shedding some of his ill temper. He knew that voice. He turned to see his cousin, Nate, the Marquess of Haywood, coming toward him with their friend Alex, the Earl of Evans.
“You look as if you’d like to hit something,” Nate said quietly, concern coloring his words as he grasped Marcus’s hand.
“Or someone.” Alex grinned. “And we can guess who that someone is. We just passed Rathbone.”
“He tried to pressure you to wed his daughter, did he?” Nate smiled, though the expression didn’t reach his eyes. “I’m glad you sent him about his business.”
“By Gad, yes. Can’t imagine a worse fate than being riveted to that girl.” Alex cleared his throat. “Though it is quite the story. What actually happened in Palmerson’s garden?”
Marcus glanced around. Montgomery had stepped away when Nate and Alex came up, but he was still hovering nearby, clearly waiting to produce that brandy. And he thought he heard Uppleton’s annoying voice approaching. There was little hope of having a private conversation here.
“Come along to Hart House with me and I’ll tell you over a glass of brandy.”
“We just came from Hart House, you know,” Alex said as they started for the door. “Your butler was quite insistent that, if we found you, we should tell you that a letter arrived from Loves Bridge.”
Loves Bridge? Oh, God. His stomach tightened as it always did when he heard the name of that damned village.
Nate gripped his shoulder briefly in support. “It’s probably just something from your steward.”
Marcus nodded. Of course Nate was right. It was just Emmett writing about some needed repair. He’d write back as he always did, telling the man to do as he saw fit.
He’d been to Loves Bridge—and his estate, Loves Castle—only once in his life, twenty years ago, when the terms of Isabelle Dorring’s curse forced him to select the next Spinster House spinster. The woman who’d applied—a Miss Franklin—had been very young, the victim of some scandal that made her unmarriageable or so Uncle Philip had said. Nate’s father had conducted the interview since Marcus had been only a boy.
He took a deep breath, and the anxiety gripping his chest loosened. Yes, clearly, the letter could not be about the Spinster House. Miss Franklin should live several more decades.
Something he’d not do.
“I will say Finch seemed to be in a bit of a fidget.” Nate shot him a worried look as they left White’s. “Said he hadn’t seen you for hours.”
Alex snorted. “A bit of a fidget? The man was almost in tears.”
“I don’t know why he would be. He could have asked Kimball where I was.”
Nate’s frown deepened. “Kimball seemed quite concerned as well.”
“That’s ridiculous.” Finch he might understand, but Kimball? His valet knew the only cure Marcus had found for his foul moods was walking. And he’d done a lot of walking recently. Miss Rathbone was the third girl to try to trap him into marriage, and the Season was barely underway. “I told Kimball I was going for a stroll. I find it clears my head.”
Alex laughed. “The only thing London’s smoke and stench clears is your stomach...into the nearest gutter.”
“Oh, it’s not as bad as that.” Truth was, he could have walked through a midden and not noticed.
“Perhaps Finch didn’t think you meant you’d be strolling for four hours,” Nate said.
Zeus! Have I really been gone that long?
Alex clapped him on the back. “If you like walking, why don’t you shake London’s dirt off your boots and go to the Lake District?” For once Alex looked serious. “Finch and Kimball aren’t the only ones who’ve noticed you haven’t been yourself recently.”
“Confound it! I’m perfectly fine.”
Silence. No one—Marcus included—believed that.
“Rolling around in the bushes with a marriageable female isn’t your normal behavior,” Nate said. He sounded just like Uncle Philip had when he’d scolded them for some infraction when they were boys.
Nate meant well, but his constant fretting was driving Marcus mad. He didn’t need Nate watching and hovering and—
But Nate had always done that to some degree. They were cousins, but they’d grown up as brothers, Nate being the elder by three weeks.
“Did you have the girl half out of her dress as Lady Dunlee has been saying?” Alex asked.
“Bloody gossips.” They’d finally reached Hart House. Marcus sighed. “Come in and I’ll tell you the whole sorry tale.”
As they climbed the steps, the curtains on one of the windows twitched, and then the front door flew open to reveal Finch, gray hair standing on end as if he’d been combing it with his fingers.
“Oh, thank God you’ve found him.”
For a moment Marcus was afraid the butler was going to fall on his neck and hug him to his elderly bosom, but fortunately the man caught himself in time.
“I only went for a walk, Finch,” he said as he stepped over the threshold.
Kimball appeared at Finch’s elbow. “But you were gone so long, Your Grace.” His fingers shook slightly as he raised them to tug on his waistcoat. “We were concerned. You were not in the best of spirits when you departed.”
What had these two thought he’d do—throw himself into the Thames?
Their expressions said that was precisely what they’d feared.
This just got worse and worse. “Well, as you can see, I’m perfectly fine.” He forced himself to laugh. “I’m a grown man. You don’t have to worry I’ll get lost.”
Finch looked at Kimball. Oh, Lord.
Kimball cleared his throat. “It’s just that your father took to disappearing when he was your age, Your Grace.”
Finch nodded. “ʹTwas the pressure, don’t you know.”
He should pension these two off. He hadn’t considered it before, but Kimball was well into his sixties and Finch had passed seventy.
Kimball swallowed. “It starts the day the Duke of Hart turns thirty and gets worse as time passes. It was that way with your father, and my father said it was that way with your grandfather.”
“The curse,” Finch said, doom in his voice.
“The succession.” Kimball looked as if he might cry. “Marriage and then....”
The last bit of color drained from both men’s faces.
Egad, was he doomed to have these two as well as Nate hover over him for the rest of his days? It made death look almost appealing.
“Well, since I have no plans to marry for many, many years, you needn’t look so Friday-faced.”
The two old men straightened.
“So you aren’t going to wed Miss Rathbone, Your Grace?” Finch asked.
“Of course not. Do you think me a complete cabbage head?”
Finch let out a long breath. “Definitely not, Your Grace.” He mopped his brow with his handkerchief.
“This is splendid news, Your Grace.” Kimball grinned so widely his cheeks must ache.
“Yes, well, perhaps now you can get back to your duties. Oh, and Finch, have a cold collation brought up to my study, will you?”
“At once, Your Grace.”
“Those two are worse than a pair of nervous nursery maids,” Marcus said once he and Nate and Alex were safely ensconced in his study. “Care for some brandy?” He certainly could use a generous measure.
“It’s not surprising, Marcus,” Nate said, taking a glass. “They’ve lived with the curse for years. They’ve seen it unfold.”
“But it’s just a story, isn’t it?” Alex took his brandy and sat down in one of the wing chairs, stretching his legs toward the fire. “For God’s sake, no one really believes in curses these days. The notion is laughable.” He looked at Nate and Marcus and frowned. “Except neither of you is laughing.”
“No.” Nate took one of the other chairs. “We’re not.”
Marcus tossed off the rest of his brandy and poured himself some more.
“You can’t mean all that drivel the ton whispers about Marcus dying before his heir is born is true?”
Nate scowled at Alex. “That’s precisely what we mean.”
Alex gawped at them. “That’s ridiculous. How can you believe that? You’re both intelligent men. It—”
“It started two hundred years ago.” Marcus leaned against his desk. Oh God, it was ridiculous, but history proved it true. “Exactly two hundred years ago in 1617 when my great-great-great-grandfather insulted Miss Isabelle Dorring, a merchant’s daughter.”
“He did rather more than insult her,” Nate said.
Yes, he had.
“He impregnated her.” Marcus took a steadying sip of brandy. “Apparently Miss Dorring thought my ancestor was going to marry her.”
Alex snorted. “A duke marry a merchant’s daughter? Not likely.”
“It seems Miss Dorring didn’t realize that.” Every time he allowed himself to consider the story of the curse, he wanted to wrap his hands round the third duke’s neck and strangle the blackguard. Unfortunately the fellow was already very, very dead. “The bloody man should never have bedded her without making completely certain she understood marriage was not part of their bargain.”
Alex arched an eyebrow. “Perhaps she trapped him just as Miss Rathbone tried to trap you.”
“Then he should not have allowed himself to be trapped.”
There was no excuse for the man’s behavior. None. What sort of scoundrel took advantage of a young woman that way? No, if the damned duke had had a shred of honor, he would have kept his breeches buttoned.
Just as he would keep his buttoned, no matter how many marriageable maidens tried to persuade him otherwise. Even if it killed him.
Which it might. It was getting harder and harder to resist temptation.
“Surely he offered to support the child,” Alex said, “if it was indeed his. Women have been known to lie about such things.”
“Miss Dorring didn’t lie,” Nate said. “The fact that no Duke of Hart since has lived to see his son born proves that.”
Marcus drank some more brandy, trying to wash away the bad taste this tale always left in his mouth.
The entire decanter couldn’t do that.
“And there’s no evidence my disreputable ancestor offered his support,” Marcus said. “By the time Isabelle Dorring realized her, er, problem, the duke had left on a bridal journey with his new wife.”
Alex grimaced. “That wasn’t well done of him.”
“No, it wasn’t.”
“So what happened to Miss Dorring?”
“She drowned herself—and her unborn baby—in Loves Water.”
“You don’t know that,” Nate said, as he always did. “Her body was never found.”
“What else could have happened?” Nate knew the story as well as he did—Nate’s parents had been the first to tell them it. He hated the thought, but he had to face facts. “You know Loves Water is very deep. It’s not surprising her body wasn’t discovered.”
Alex was shaking his head. “It’s a very sad story. Tragic, really. But that’s no reason to believe in a curse.”
“As Nate said, my family history proves the truth of the matter. My great-great-great-grandfather broke his neck going over a jump two weeks before his son was born. My great-great-grandfather died of the ague eight months after his wedding; his wife was delivered of a son two months later. Generation after generation, the same result.”
“Tripped on a loose pavement stone and cracked his head open on the marble steps of this house. I was born six weeks later.”
Alex scowled at him. “That’s bloody unbelievable.”
“Belief isn’t required. Finch told me my father scoffed at it all, and he’s just as dead as the other dukes.”
“So is there no way to break this, ah, curse?” Alex was looking at them as if they’d just escaped from Bedlam.
Nate tossed off the rest of his brandy. “The Duke of Hart must marry for love.”
Marcus snorted. “And what is the chance of that happening? Zero.” Nate’s parents were the only people Marcus knew who’d made a love match. His own mother certainly hadn’t.
She hadn’t even loved me.
His heart clenched. Stupid.
I’m thirty years old. It doesn’t matter any longer.
His mother had dropped him at his aunt and uncle’s estate on her way to the Continent when he was a newborn. Last he’d heard, she’d married some Italian count and was living on a Mediterranean island. Someone must be supporting her. She hadn’t touched any of her widow’s benefits in the years he’d been holding the purse strings.
He wouldn’t recognize her if she stepped into the library this moment.
It’s a good thing she abandoned me. It gave me a family. It gave me Nate.
Laurence, one of his footmen, came in then with a tray of ham, cheese, and bread. “Mr. Finch wanted me to be sure ye got the letter from Loves Bridge, Yer Grace. It’s on yer desk.”
“Ah, yes, thank you, Laurence. I see it.” News of a leaky roof or crumbling fence could wait.
“What did happen with Miss Rathbone?” Alex asked once Laurence left. “I thought you were far too wily to fall prey to her.”
“I thought so, too, Marcus.” Nate’s voice held worry, frustration, and perhaps a touch of anger. “You know you have to be careful, especially now.”
He was tempted to tell Nate he’d gone outside to get free of his bloody constant surveillance, but Nate hadn’t been the only one he’d wanted to escape.
“You know how stifling a crowded ballroom can be. I just needed some fresh air.”
The noise and the stink of too many people in too small a space had indeed been gagging, but he’d also wanted to get away from the Widow Chesney. He’d crossed paths with her at a few events, and she’d seemed willing to explore a more intimate acquaintance. He might be the Cursed Duke—the Heartless Duke—but he was also a man, with a man’s needs.
And I’m lonely.
There, he’d admitted it. He could not hope for a long, happy marriage, but he craved a woman’s touch, one that he wasn’t paying for.
He took another large swallow of brandy. But it had turned out the Widow Chesney did have a price—a wedding ring.
He slammed his fist into the desk. The pain felt good. “Rathbone must have been watching me. I played right into his hands.”
“He likely just saw an opportunity and jumped on it,” Alex said. “Rathbone’s not the brightest of fellows.”
Which made his error all the more galling. Maybe he did need a keeper.
And now Rathbone would spread his version of last night’s affair throughout the ton, and yet another layer of dishonor would attach to Marcus’s title.
“I can’t believe I swallowed his story that his daughter had gone missing.”
“At least you found her,” Alex said, trying with little success to muffle a snigger.
Yes, he’d found her. She’d had her hair down her back and her bodice loosened so her breasts were almost spilling out.
His mouth went dry at the memory, blast it all.
“She was hiding behind a bush and jumped out at me. I stepped back, stumbled....” He stared at his brandy glass. The situation would be ridiculous if it wasn’t so blasted embarrassing. “We ended up tangled on the ground, which is when Lady Dunlee came upon us.”
Alex choked back laughter.
“It is not amusing.”
“Not when you’re the one writhing in Miss Rathbone’s claws,” Alex said. “But when you’re not...” He sniggered again.
“You were very lucky Miss Rathbone didn’t say you raped her,” Nate said.
“It would be hard for her to make that claim. When Lady Dunlee came upon us, the girl had me pinned to the ground and was kissing me.”
Nate’s eyebrow rose. “And you couldn’t stop her?”
Fortunately the study was too dark for his flush to show—he hoped. “It was a good thing I didn’t try. If I’d had my hands on her, it would have looked like I was forcing her.”
The terrible thing—the deeply mortifying thing—was that he hadn’t been that anxious to remove Miss Rathbone. He’d enjoyed the feeling of the girl’s body on his.
This must be what had finally driven his ancestors into marriage, this overwhelming need for a woman’s touch. It was a hunger that went beyond the physical. He’d tried to satisfy it with an assortment of creative, talented light-skirts, and while that had worked for a while, now even a thorough, passionate session with one of London’s most skilled courtesans left him feeling unsatisfied.
Nate was frowning, of course. “The London Misses are shameless. You should leave Town for a while.”
“Let’s go to the Lake District,” Alex said. “You’re far more likely to encounter a sheep than a marriage-hungry female there.”
“Isn’t the Lake District rather cold and damp?” Though the thought of getting away from Town—and temptation—was enticing.
His gaze settled on the letter from Loves Bridge.
Hmm. That doesn’t look at all like Emmett’s hand.
“It’s not so bad this time of year,” Alex said. “What? Are you afraid of a little wetting?”
“Of course not.” He picked up the letter and turned it over. He didn’t recognize the seal, either.
“What does Emmett want?” Nate asked.
“This isn’t from Emmett.” He opened the single sheet. The handwriting was very cramped—illegible, really. At least his correspondent hadn’t felt the need to cross his lines, but even so, it was going to be a trick to decipher the message.
He held it closer to the lamp. Ah, fortunately the man had printed his name under his signature.
Randolph Wilkinson, solicitor.
That sounded familiar....
Oh, blast. Yes, it was familiar. Wilkinson, Wilkinson, and Wilkinson was the firm that oversaw the Spinster House. Getting a letter from Wilkinson could only mean one thing.
There was a Spinster House vacancy.
“It appears I have a destination.” He let out a long breath and dropped the letter back to his desk. “I’ll be leaving in the morning for Loves Bridge.”
April 5, 1617—The duke smiled at me as we were leaving church this morning. He has the most attractive dimples.
—from Isabelle Dorring’s diary
Miss Isabelle Catherine Hutting—Cat to everyone in the little village of Loves Bridge—wedged herself into one of the children’s desks in the vicarage’s schoolroom. Prudence, her ten-year-old sister, was curled up in the only comfortable chair, reading. Sybil, age six, sat by the window with her watercolors, and the four-year-old twins sprawled on the floor, building a fort for their tin soldiers.
A rare moment of peace.
She looked down at the blank sheet of paper before her. She’d been trying to begin this book for months. The characters whispered to her when she was helping Sybil with her numbers or looking at ribbon in the village shop or falling asleep in the bed she shared with her eighteen-year-old sister, Mary, but the instant she had a quiet moment and some paper, they went silent.
Well, she would force them to speak. She dipped her pen into the inkwell.
Vicar Walker’s oldest daughter, Rebecca, smiled at the Duke of Worthing.
No, that wasn’t quite right. She scratched out the words and started over.
Miss Rebecca Walker, the vicar’s oldest daughter and the village beauty, smiled at the Duke of Worthing.
Oh, fiddle, that sounded stupid. Who would wish to read a novel that began with a beautiful ninny grinning at an arrogant, persnickety duke? She should—
No, she should not. How many times had Miss Franklin told her she needed to write the story before she started to pick it apart? She—
Sybil screeched, and Cat’s hand jerked, spattering ink all over her paper and her bodice. Drat!
“What is it, Sybil?”
Not that she needed to ask. She could see what it was—or rather, who it was. Thomas and Michael had lost interest in their fort and come over to torture their sister. They’d managed to spill water all over Sybil’s painting.
“Look what they’ve done,” Sybil wailed, picking up her soaking masterpiece and flourishing it for Cat’s inspection just as Cat reached her.
The wet paint joined the ink on her bodice. It was a good thing this wasn’t one of her favorite dresses.
She peeled the picture off her front and inspected it. It was impossible to discern its original subject. Something blue and green and white and black judging from the paint smears.
“We just wanted to see the sheep,” Thomas said, his eyes wide with innocence—until you looked more closely and noted the mischievous gleam. He was only four, but he was going to grow up to be a complete terror, worse even than fifteen-year-old Henry or thirteen-year-old Walter.
How Papa, a vicar, had managed to beget so many wild boys was one of God’s many mysteries.
“Sheep?” Sybil screamed. “Those were clouds, you noddy.”
Thomas put his hands on his hips and rolled his eyes in an especially annoying way—a trick he’d learned from Pru. “Paint clouds? That’s m-mutton-headed.” He grinned, clearly pleased with the new word he’d learned, likely from his brothers.
She should be happy he hadn’t learned any worse words...or at least hadn’t used them yet.
Sybbie’s brows snapped down, and her jaw jutted out. Oh, lud. She was going to have one of her explosions, which was exactly what Thomas was trying for.
“Clouds are an excellent thing to paint,” Cat said quickly, laying a supportive—and restraining—hand on Sybbie’s shoulder. “Many famous artists include clouds in their work.”
Michael pulled on Cat’s skirt. “We just wanted Sybbie to play wif us.”
Sybbie saw the perfect counterattack. She raised her nose in the air and sniffed. “I don’t play with babies.”
God give her strength! Cat lunged for Thomas and caught him before he could reach Sybbie.
“We’re not babies.” Thomas, his little fists clenched, struggled to free himself from Cat’s grasp. “And you’ve made Mikey cry.”
Michael was the sensitive twin. Cat wrapped her free arm around him while keeping a strong hold on Thomas. Thomas was still determined to hit Sybil, and Sybbie, of course, wasn’t helping matters. She’d crossed her arms and curled her lip into a six-year-old’s approximation of a sneer.
Cat looked over at Prudence for help.
Prudence turned another page in her book. She didn’t even glance Cat’s way.
Cat had a sudden, almost uncontrollable urge to scream as loudly as Sybbie had. She didn’t want to play with the boys, either. She wanted to be left alone in blessed, wonderful, heavenly quiet to write. She wanted, desperately, to have a book she’d written sitting on the lending library shelves. Miss Franklin thought she had the talent. All she needed was time. Some quiet. A few moments to herself.
She might as well ask for the moon and the stars. When she’d mentioned writing a novel to Papa, thinking he might let her spend an hour or two in his study every day, he’d laughed. Neither he nor Mama saw the point in telling stories that had never happened about people who didn’t exist.
“No, you’re not babies, Thomas.” She forced herself to smile. She must remember that while they weren’t babies, they were still very little. They needed her. “Leave Sybbie alone. I’ll play with you.”
Michael’s face lit up. “Oh, good! I’d rather play wif you than Sybbie, Cat. Sybbie fusses.”
“I don’t fuss.”
“Sybbie.” Cat gave her a warning look. There was no need for more brangling. “Why don’t you get back to your painting?”
“But there’s water everywhere.”
Cat made herself smile again. Smiling made it difficult to shout. “Pru will help you clean things up, won’t you, Pru?”
Prudence kept reading.
Cat took a deep breath and smiled harder. “Prudence, please help Sybbie clean up.”
“Pru!” All right, sometimes shouting was necessary.
Prudence finally looked over at them. “Why? I didn’t make the mess.”
Another deep breath. “No, but there’s rather a lot of water, and Sybbie can’t reach the rags.” Plus Sybbie would probably leave a puddle on the floor that someone—likely Cat—would slip in. “And I’m busy with the twins.”
Pru rolled her eyes, heaved a dramatic sigh, and marked her place in her book before closing it. You would have thought Cat had asked her to lap the water up with her tongue. “If I have to.”
Cat kept smiling. She must set a good example. Anger was a waste of energy. Telling Pru exactly what she was thinking would only give Pru an invitation to start an argument, and arguing with Pru wouldn’t get the water mopped up.
“Cat.” Michael tugged on her skirt again. “You said you’d play wif us.”
And pulling caps with Pru would upset Michael and get Thomas stirred up again.
She swallowed her spleen. “Thank you, Pru.”
Pru grumbled, but she got the rags.
Cat allowed herself one longing look at the uncomfortable school desk and then sat down on the floor with the boys.
“You can have these,” Mikey said, pushing a few soldiers—the ones with faded or chipped paint—toward her.
She lined them up. She’d played this game before. It didn’t take any thought. She could spend the time planning her book. She—
“Make them attack,” Mikey said.
Thomas nodded. “They have to attack so we can capture and kill them.”
Boys could be so bloodthirsty.
She marched a soldier forward to meet his fate.
“Look, men, a bloody Frog!”
Thomas kept his eyes on his toys. “Soldiers don’t mind their language, Cat.”
“Perhaps not, but you will. What would Papa say?” Well, Papa might not care very much. “What would Mama say?”
Thomas made a face and then in a very high voice said, “Oh, dear, it’s a French soldier.”
Thomas was going to be even more of a handful than Henry or Walter.
But he was going to be Mama’s handful. Not Cat’s. She was twenty-four years old. If she didn’t find some way of getting free of her family, she would never write a paragraph, let alone an entire book. But what could she do?
If only she’d been born male. Life was so much easier for men. They could go where they pleased and do what they wanted. Just look at Henry and Walter. Mama never asked them to mind their younger siblings, but when Cat had been their ages—
Oh, all right. If Mama ever left either of those two in charge, the twins would be sure to free all the chickens in the coop and then race Farmer Linden’s pigs down the village green.
Mikey erupted into shooting noises. Thomas yelled and made the sound of horse hooves charging over the ground. Cat’s soldier was knocked down and dragged off to the dungeon.
Cat looked over her shoulder. Mama had poked her head into the schoolroom. “Yes, Mama?”
“I need you to take a basket over to Mrs. Barker. Papa said he heard her gout is bothering her.” Mama smiled as her eyes drifted to a point just over Cat’s head. “I thought she could do with some treats.”
Right. Nasty old Mrs. Barker whose son just happened to be a prosperous, churchgoing, unmarried farmer.
“Can’t Henry or Walter take it?”
“Of course not,” Pru said, giggling. She’d finished helping Sybbie with the water and was back to her book. “They can’t marry Mr. Barker.”
Mama laughed uneasily. “Now, Pru, don’t be silly. The boys are with Papa, studying their Latin.”
And they would leap at the chance to get free of their lessons. Neither was an enthusiastic scholar.
“And Mary?” Cat asked. But Mary would be busy, too, of course.
“Mrs. Greeley will be here shortly to finish fitting her for her wedding dress.”
Mama would love it if Mrs. Greeley could start in on Cat’s dress the moment she finished Mary’s.
Tory and Ruth, the two sisters right under Cat, were already wed and procreating. Mary was going to step into parson’s mousetrap in less than two weeks, and then there would be no more daughters but Cat to marry off until Pru was old enough in seven or eight years.
If things were bad now, they were about to get infinitely worse.
Perhaps she should consider Mr. Barker. He was certainly willing. He popped the question every few months and then laughed and patted her arm when she declined, promising he’d try again—and again—until she said yes.
Which only made her want to kick him in his patronizing shins.
However, marrying Mr. Barker would get her out of the vicarage—
And into his house with his cross-tempered, managing mother.
Oh, no, she was not doing that. Of course not! Even if Mrs. Barker were a saint—which she most certainly was not—her son had squinty little eyes and a beaklike nose and crooked teeth. He wore the distinct, pungent scent of manure the way other men wore eau de cologne.
And he would expect children. She’d have to—
Her stomach knotted.
She wasn’t that desperate to get free of the vicarage.
“Mama, surely someone else can take the basket.”
“I’m afraid there really is no one else.” Mama’s face was set, her eyes steely.
Cat sighed and played one last, desperate card. “All right. I’ll bring Michael and Thomas with me.” Neither Mr. Barker nor his mother liked the twins, so their presence should keep the visit short.
“I don’t want to go,” Thomas said. “Mrs. Barker’s mean. She has a wart on her nose just like a witch. And her cook makes nasty biscuits.”
Mikey nodded. “And Mr. Barker’s horse tried to bite me when I petted him.”
Mama frowned at the twins, but refrained from lecturing them for criticizing their elders. “It is much too far for you boys to walk.” She smiled at Cat. “You go by yourself, dear. Take your time and have a nice visit with Mrs. Barker.”
“There are no nice visits with Mrs. Barker,” Sybbie said.
Mama glared at Sybbie before turning back to Cat. “And then perhaps Mr. Barker will be free to give you a ride home in his gig.”
Now there was a treat. Mr. Barker’s sullen, plodding horse could make a fifteen-minute ride last thirty, and the man’s excruciatingly boring conversation made those thirty minutes feel like an eternity. The last book he’d read—perhaps the only book he’d read—was Jeramiah Johnson’s Thoughts on the Methods of Raising Sheep, including a Discourse on Breeding and Shearing.
“That will give him ample opportunity to propose.” Pru sounded as if she was going to choke on her laughter. “It’s almost time for him to ask again, isn’t it?”
“Pru!” Mama said sharply, her patience clearly at an end. “It is unbecoming to be so pert.”
“Yes, Mama.” Pru sounded contrite, but the look she sent Cat rivaled Thomas’s for evil glee.
Cat narrowed her eyes....
No, she was twenty-four. She should not stoop to a ten-year-old’s level.
Michael’s small fingers crept into hers. “You won’t really marry Mr. Barker, will you, Cat?”
“Now, Michael, Mr. Barker is a fine man,” Mama said. “I’m sure you’ll come to like him once you know him better.”
“Well, I won’t.” Thomas thrust his chin forward and crossed his arms over his little chest. “I’ll never like him.”
Cat gave Mikey’s hand a reassuring squeeze and hurried to speak before Mama could snap at Thomas. “I know Mr. Barker quite well, Mama, and I am convinced we shall not suit.”
Mama frowned. “But eligible men don’t grow on trees, Cat, and you are twenty-four, after all. Try to see the man’s good qualities.” She raised her brows, giving Cat her “significant” look. “None of us is perfect, you know. At least keep an open mind.”
An open mind? Did Mama think she was suddenly going to find footrot and tapeworm and other sheep maladies fascinating?
Not bloody likely.
Cat smiled. It was that or scream. “Yes, Mama.”
Why couldn’t she be free of her family like Miss Franklin was? The woman had the entire Spinster House to herself. She ran the village’s small lending library, but when she wasn’t there, she had the freedom to do what she wanted when she wanted. She could read or write or stand on her head, and no one would interrupt or criticize her. Just the other day, she’d told Cat she’d been learning to play the harpsichord.
If only she could have such wonderful solitude. Then she could write any number of books.
“I only want you to be happy, Cat,” Mama said.
She knew that. She just didn’t agree that marriage was her path to happiness.
Drat it all, she would find another way.
Mama’s eyes had dropped to Cat’s bodice. “Good heavens, whatever happened to your dress?”
“I had a bit of an accident.”
“I should say so. You’ll want to change before you go to see the Barkers.”
Normally she would, but Mrs. Barker hated any untidiness. Mr. Barker, too. This might be a golden opportunity to give them a disgust of her. “Oh, no. If dear Mrs. Barker is in pain, I shouldn’t delay an instant.”
Mama saw through her ruse, of course, but chose not to pursue the matter. “Very well. Just keep your cloak on.” She frowned. “Though you may be a trifle warm.”
She would be melting. Mrs. Barker always insisted on a roaring fire in her sitting room. “Yes, Mama.” She gave Mikey’s hand one more squeeze before she let go. “Where is the basket?”
“In the kitchen. And do give Mrs. Barker my best.”
Cat stopped in her room on her way downstairs and found Mary dancing around in her shift. She was tempted again to roll her eyes like Pru.
Mary paused to stare at Cat’s bodice. “What happened to you?”
“Sybbie and the twins got into a bit of a brangle.” Cat grabbed her cloak.
“Aren’t you going to change?”
Mary’s eyes narrowed. “Where are you off to?”
“To deliver a basket to Mrs. Barker.” At least once Mary wed, Cat should have a bed to herself...unless Mama decided to move Pru in with her. Pru often complained that Sybbie thrashed in her sleep.
“She won’t like it if she sees you’re not precise to a pin.”
“That’s what I’m hoping.”
Mary laughed. “And you know she’s sure to complain about it to Mr. Barker.” She shook her head. “I don’t know why you don’t accept the man’s offer. You could have been wed long ago.”
“And sharing a house with Mrs. Barker.”
Mary grinned. “There is that. I’m not sure even Mr. Barker’s broad shoulders trump his mother’s carping disposition.”
“They don’t. Nor do they trump his unattractive features, his barnyard scent, his braying laugh, or his deadly dull conversation.”
“Well, no one’s perfect.”
“I know that.” Did everyone think her a silly girl dreaming of a knight in shining armor? “I’m certain Mr. Barker will make a wonderful husband—for someone else.” She snatched her bonnet off its hook. “I have no interest in marriage.”
“You will someday, Cat. You just need to meet the right man.” Mary stared dreamily at herself in the cheval glass and started dancing again. “Someone like my Theo.”
Theodore Dunly was a nice enough fellow. He worked at Loves Castle as the assistant steward. He was even moderately well-read. But he’d never made Cat’s heart beat faster.
A good thing, as he was head over heels in love with Mary—as Mary was with him.
“I think I’m just not the marrying kind.”
She must have sounded a little wistful, because Mary’s face stilled into her annoyingly serious, slightly pitying expression.
Drat it, she wasn’t wistful. Or...well, maybe she was just a little, when she saw how happy her married sisters were.
“You will find a man to love, Cat. I’m sure of it.”
But once Cat reminded herself how much Mama and Tory and Ruth had to work, all the cooking and cleaning and sewing and nursing they did, how they never had a moment to themselves—then she was very happy she had no intention of marrying.
“I doubt it. But in any event that man is not Mr. Barker.”
Mary came over and touched her arm. “Perhaps not, but don’t give up hope.”
Cat snorted. “Hope? What am I to hope for? That one of the village toads suddenly turns into a prince? I’ve seen all the available men, Mary, and not one of them tempts me for even an instant to give up my freedom.”
Mary shook her arm, impatience creeping into her voice. “But you don’t want to live with Mama and Papa for the rest of your life, do you?”
“I’d rather live with them than Mr. Barker and his mother.”
Mary waved that away. “All right, I’ll agree Mr. Barker isn’t a suitable candidate for your hand, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a man out there somewhere for you.” Mary grinned. “Perhaps he’s riding into Loves Bridge right now.”
She would not roll her eyes. She was not ten years old. “Don’t be ridiculous. No one ever comes to Loves Bridge.”
“I don’t know why. We’re not that far from London.”
“Oh, come, Mary. You do know why. There’s nothing to see or do here. We’re a sleepy, little, boring village.”
Boring didn’t begin to describe Loves Bridge. Each day was exactly the same as the one before it. There were never any surprises. How could there be? Everyone knew every little detail about everyone else all the way back to their great-great-great-grandparents. Life was all gossip and weather and sheep. Perhaps if she lived in London, she’d have something to write about.
But she wasn’t going to Town. And, truthfully, the thought of London made her nervous. She’d never been there, but she’d read about its crowds and noise and filth.
Mary put her hands on her hips. “How can you say Loves Bridge is boring? What about...what about our fairs?”
“What about them?” The fairs were enjoyable enough, but only the villagers attended.
“I met Theo at the one last summer.”
“You didn’t meet him there—you just noticed him there. You’ve known him for years.” Or perhaps it was Theo who had noticed Mary. Whichever it was, the two had been inseparable ever since.
Mary stomped her foot. “Ohh, you can be so maddening, Cat.”
“Yes, I can, so it’s a good thing I have no plans to wed.”
“But what about love?”
Cat felt herself flush. Love—the love between a man and a woman—was not something she knew much about. She’d seen Papa catch Mama around the waist from time to time and try to steal a kiss while Mama laughed and pretended to push him away. And Mama and Papa did have ten children....
It was all exceedingly embarrassing.
Mary was blushing, too, but for other reasons. “Love is wonderful, Cat. When Theo kisses me...” Her eyes grew soft and dreamy.
Good God. She was going to lose her breakfast if Mary kept this up.
Frankly, kissing had never sounded the least bit appealing, not that she’d tried it. But having a man’s lips mashed up against hers? Ugh. And how did one keep from bumping noses?
She did not intend to find out.
Mary was quite correct about one thing, though—she did not want to live with Mama and Papa for the rest of her life. She just needed to think of some way to avoid that fate that didn’t involve yoking herself to a male. The Spinster House would be the perfect solution, but there was no vacancy. Miss Franklin would likely live there many more years.
Mary had waltzed back to the cheval glass and was looking at herself from various angles. “You never know what fate has in store for you, Cat. Perhaps the man you’ll fall in love with is standing on the vicarage steps right now.”
“I thought you said he was just riding into the village. He must move very quickly. Loves Bridge is small, but it’s not that small.” Fall in love? That sounded as pleasant as falling into a dunghill.
Mary glared at her. “Must you be so literal?”
Someone should keep focused on the real world. “Pardon me. Of course, he’s on the steps—right next to the king of the fairies.”
“Oh, you’re impossible. It would serve you right if you did go to your grave a spinster.”
“It would certainly serve me well.”
She left the room and started down the stairs. It should take her only half an hour—twenty minutes if she walked briskly—to get to the Barker farm. If she was lucky, Mrs. Barker would take one look at her stained dress, sniff, and send her on her way—after first grabbing the basket, of course. If she encountered Mr. Barker, a quick escape would be a bit more difficult, but she should still be able to—
There was a knock on the front door. It was probably Mrs. Greeley come to put the finishing touches on Mary’s gown. She hurried down the last few steps to let the woman in.
“Mary’s waiting for you—oh!”
She blinked. It wasn’t stout, bespectacled Mrs. Greeley. It was a tall, athletically built man. He took his hat off to reveal thick, brown hair, bowed slightly, and smiled.
He had the most attractive dimples.
She’d always thought dimples effeminate, but these were completely masculine and strangely seductive, inviting her to come closer, daring her to do something dangerous—
She took a deep breath. What was the matter with her?
The man was clearly wondering the same thing. His right eyebrow arched up. He’d been saying something, and she hadn’t heard a word of it.
She laughed nervously, feeling very much off balance. “I’m so sorry, sir. I wasn’t attending. I thought you were Mrs. Greeley. Not that you look like Mrs. Greeley, of course, but, you see, I was expecting her.”
Drat it, now she was blathering like a complete ninny. She had to get a grip on herself.
His eyes—his very nice brown eyes with long lashes that also should seem effeminate but didn’t—had widened and now gleamed with suppressed laughter.
The situation was rather ridiculous.
She pulled the door open wider. He was just another man.
The man she’d fall in love with...
Ha! He was just as likely—no, more likely—to be the king of the fairies. “Please come in. Are you here to see my father?”
“If your father is the vicar, then yes, I am.” He stepped over the threshold. “And who is Mrs. Greeley, if I may ask?”
His voice, now that she was finally listening to it, was warm, educated, and as seductive as his dimples.
And she was as shatter-brained as Mary, but with less reason. With no reason. Mary was on the verge of marriage; Cat was on the verge of making an utter fool of herself.
She did wish she’d taken time to change her dress though. His eyes had flicked down to her disreputable bodice.
Idiot! The man wouldn’t care if she was dressed in sackcloth—which this dress much resembled even without the stains. She’d never been very interested in fashion.
“Mrs. Greeley is the village dressmaker. She’s coming to finish Mary—my sister’s—wedding dress.”
He was taller than any man she’d met before, with broader shoulders—
No, he couldn’t have broader shoulders than Mr. Barker. It must be the cut of his coat.
He certainly smelled better than Mr. Barker. Not a whiff of the barnyard about him.
“I see. And you are...?”
“Miss Hutting, the vicar’s oldest daughter.” She forced her lips into a polite smile. The sooner she deposited this fellow with Papa, the sooner she’d get her errand done and her wits back. “If you would like to put your hat on the table there and come with me, I’ll take you to see my father.”
“I don’t mean to keep you.” He gestured to her cloak and bonnet.
“My errand can wait.” She hung her things on a hook by the door. “Who should I tell him is calling?”
“Hart.” His eyes watched her carefully as if expecting her to say something. Odd.
She turned toward Papa’s study. “Are you new to Loves Bridge, Mr. Hart?” Of course he was. A man who looked like he did couldn’t put his big toe in the village without everyone talking about it.
“Er, not exactly, though I haven’t been here in many years. And I’m not Mr. Hart.”
She turned, her hand raised to knock on the study door. “I’m sorry. Did I mishear?” Hart was not that complicated a name, but it did seem that her wits had gone wandering this afternoon.
The right corner of his mouth tilted up in a very attractive manner, his eyes still oddly watchful. “No. You merely misunderstood. Hart is my title, not my name.”
“Oh.” She hadn’t thought of that. Silly of her. He was clearly a London gentleman, though, in her defense, it was as she’d told Mary—no one, and certainly no member of the nobility, ever came to Loves Bridge. “My apologies, Lord Hart.”
“Not Lord Hart.”
He was still watching her.
Damnation, what was he about? He clearly expected her to recognize him.
“Well, why don’t you just come out and tell me who you are, sir, rather than have me play this silly guessing game?” She should be horrified at speaking so sharply to a guest, but she was too annoyed—and something else—to hold her tongue. “Are you King Hart or Prince Hart or the Duke of—”
His mouth curved into a sardonic smile. “That’s right. I’m the Duke of Hart.” He bowed again, but this time the movement was self-mocking. “Or, as you may know me, the Cursed Duke.”
Copyright © 2015 Sally MacKenzie