About the book


Nothing ends a romance faster than a lie...

Miss Emily Fletcher, cannot believe her luck when a fire breakout becomes her ticket to salvation. Escaping the clutches of the man her father sold her to, she finds a job as a governess in the employ of the most intriguing Earl.

Duncan Kinsley, the widowed Earl of Sulby, is in desperate need of a new governess after his children chased away yet another one. And the moment he enters the agency, he finds her standing before him and his heart skips a beat.

But when a deal is made, the price must be paid. And Emily is her father’s currency. When the people who are hunting her lock her in a brothel's room, Emily realizes that out of all her mistakes, the worst was wearing that pastel pink gown...

Chapter One


Emily sat on an old damp crate, reading aloud to the three children who were paying her absolutely no mind. Farmer John Carter paid her three pennies to watch them while their mother was off to market. They were quite the handful and sometimes Emily wondered if it was worth the aggravation.

At the moment, Anthony was trying to climb over his brother Aidan, in order to get to the top of the hay bale while their sister, Judy pulled Aidan’s hair in some misguided attempt to stop Anthony from reaching his goal. All three children had begged her to read them the story of Cinderella. However, at the moment, they did not seem at all impressed with her adventures.

Emily sighed deeply. She really could not blame them. For how was a girl sweeping a hearth supposed to compete with hay bales to push one’s brother off of? Anthony, Aidan, and Judy were only three, four, and six and their ability to pay attention was severely limited. Still, Emily enjoyed reading and Cinderella was one of her favorite fairy tales where good triumphed in the end and evil was vanquished.

She could relate to poor motherless Cinderella as well because she’d only recently lost her own mother. It had been three years since a particularly bad flu had swept through Whitehaven and taken her mother, but some days it felt as fresh as if it happened yesterday. She knew she was barely coping with the loss but was more afraid for her father who seemed to have given up completely. She barely saw him anymore and when she did, he looked haggard, was likely drunk, and barely spoke to her. He spent all his time gambling and he had practically left Emily to fend for herself.

She didn’t know what to do about it. A wave of helplessness swept through her every time she set eyes on him. The villagers made sure she was all right by giving her these menial jobs so that she could earn some money to feed herself.

Whatever money Arthur Fletcher was still making as a shipping merchant was eaten up by his profligate lifestyle. Once he had been a highly successful businessman but after her mother’s death, everything had gone downhill. He barely went down to the docks where he had an office but relied solely on his clerks to keep things running.

Ruthlessly pushing these thoughts away, Emily went back to her story. There was not much she could do for her father and she knew it. All she could do was pray that one day he would find his way back to her and they could be a family again.

“Emily! Emily! Look at me!” Anthony was about to hurl himself off the top of the bales of hay and Emily quickly got to her feet and rushed to him.

When did he even get all the way up there?

“No, no, come down here right now Anthony!” she waved frantically at him even as he grinned at her, wide and mischievous, and then jumped.

She could not hold back her scream of terror as her body froze in shock. She was further shocked when she did not hear the thud which would signal that Anthony had broken every bone in his body. Instead, the sound of laughter filled the barn. She shuffled slowly behind the mountain of hay to find that Anthony was lying in a bed of hay, his eyes alert with mirth as his brother jumped all around him in excitement.

“Oh, lawks, Anthony, never do that to me again,” Emily clutched her heart to try and slow down its frantic pounding. It was useless. She had never been so scared in her life. The sound of baritone laughter from behind her had her whipping around to see Farmer John leaning against the door of the barn.

“Those lads will be your death if you let them, Miss Emily. You must keep your wits about you or else they’ll have you running around chasing your tail.”

Bosom still heaving, hand on her heart, her mouth quirked, “I see that.”

“Come on into the house and have some baked apple.”

Suddenly it was as if a wind had blown past her as three children dashed out of the barn at speed, headed for the house. “Oh!” she exclaimed and then laughed.

Farmer John smiled at her before gesturing for her to follow. Mood lifting, she thrust the thoughts of her father away and went to eat some dessert.

***

Emily had just finished tidying up the house for the evening when she heard her father’s key in the lock. There wasn’t much food in the house but she’d left him some porridge warming over the embers of the fire in the kitchen. She hesitated, wondering if she should retire to her room before he came in.

She did not want to see him weaving about, his eyes swollen and bleary with dissolution. She did not want to look into his big, sad eyes and remember the man he used to be when her mother was alive.

So she slipped behind the screen that separated her bed from the rest of the cottage and burrowed under the sheets, still fully dressed. She drew them over her head and concentrated on breathing evenly.

Her father’s heavy tread on the wooden floor was audible even from her nook, but Emily stiffened when she realized that there were two sets of footsteps. “Make yourself at home.”

Her father’s voice sounded grudging and she was tempted to poke her head out and see who he was with. She knew her father did not want her to know anything about his gambling. He may have been neglectful, but he had so far managed not to bring his troubles home with him. It seemed that was about to change.

“Thank you, kindly,” a smug voice replied in a low baritone. There was some squeaking as someone no doubt made themselves comfortable on the wooden chair. One of its legs was loose and tended to threaten separation from the bench whenever anyone dared put too much weight on it. She and her father were well aware of that, so she could only assume that it was the stranger sitting in the chair.

Her father shuffled about a bit more in silence which surprised her.

Even if he is inebriated, if he has a guest, shouldn’t Papa be trying to make conversation?

Eventually her father stopped moving and the house fell silent. “I have just one bed that you’re welcome to use.”

The chair squeaked again and then footsteps, a heavier tread than her father’s, walked across to the room, undoubtedly toward her father’s chambers. When their mother was alive, they had lived in much grander quarters, with a guest room for visitors. But since her death, everything had been eaten up by her father’s gambling debts. A door closed and Emily supposed whomever the visitor was had gone to bed. She heard her father sigh before shuffling about a bit and then settling down undoubtedly on the floor of the sitting room.

She closed her eyes tight and prayed for sleep.

***

Laurence Blackmore awoke feeling refreshed. He did so enjoy these games that he played. He had a perfectly good room at a boarding house but seeing Fletcher’s fear at the thought of inviting the shylock into his home was worth the discomfort of sleeping in this hovel. He knew, thanks to Adrian Hough–Fletcher’s clerk and a man on Blackmore’s extensive payroll–that the man had received a shipment of Chinese silk. A great investment but one which required capital in order to yield maximum gains.

Fletcher had none. Laurence had plenty. They could help each other perhaps. But in order to do that, he needed Fletcher to be in a certain, vulnerable, state of mind. He got up, noting that there was no water or basin to perform his morning ablutions. He sighed, rolling his eyes.

Undoubtedly these bumpkins do their business in an outhouse as if they’re mangy colonials who don’t know any better.

For a moment, he briefly regretted not sleeping at the boarding house. Then he took a deep breath and stepped out of the room, shivering a bit in the cold morning air wafting in through the open door. Fletcher lay sprawled on the floor, fast asleep, so unless he’d left the door open, it must mean there was somebody else in the house. He stepped out, using his cane for balance and stopped short at the sight of a derriere clad in brown muslin.

He cleared his throat and the woman shot up so fast that she stumbled, the clay pot in her hands falling to the ground. She was standing in front of a pump and the water that had undoubtedly been meant for the pot was now splashing on the edges of her dress, making it stick to her body. He looked her up and down, getting stuck on the amber of her eyes, gleaming yellowy in the sunlight with flecks of brown and green floating within their irises.

She should have been unremarkable with her wispy brown hair and unremarkable height. But the contrast of lily-white skin with the deep earthy brown of her hair falling like rain down her back made her seem like a delicate forest nymph brought to life by the sunrise. She stared at him seemingly in wide-eyed terror and he relaxed his features, trying to smile.

“Well…good morrow to you, my dear. And what is your sweet name?”

She made a sound like a mouse squeaking and Laurence had to suppress his laughter.

“I beg your pardon? I didn’t quite hear that.”

“My name is Emily Fletcher.”

His smile grew wider and he bowed. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Fletcher. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Laurence Blackmore, at your service.”

She smiled tentatively back. “Pleased to meet you, Sir.”

His eyes dropped to the clay pot, trying not to be too obvious as he mapped her body beneath the thin muslin of her gown. “May I help you with something?”

Her eyes followed his down to the pot and she flushed, her skin warming to an attractive rosy glow. His eyebrows lifted in pleasure. She would make a magnificent addition to his stable. “N-no, I was just getting some water to make porridge.”

Laurence suppressed a moue of distaste.

These provincials eat like pigs.

“Please do not put yourself out on my account. I shall just make use of your facilities and then I shall be on my way. I have a busy day ahead of me.”

She nodded, trying to hide the relief in her eyes. He walked away, thinking hard.

He caught up with Arthur Fletcher once more as he closed the door to his warehouse with a loud sigh. Having the man’s clerk in his pocket was indeed a boon he had not expected.

Difficult to do without money. Thank the devil I have a lot.

He cleared his throat behind Mr. Fletcher and suppressed a laugh as the impoverished merchant jumped. He then whipped around, surprise on his face to behold Laurence once more darkening his door. Laurence stood in front of him, his arms folded.

“Well, well, Mr. Fletcher. Fancy meeting you here.”

Mr. Fletcher huffed, clearly refraining from rolling his eyes. “What do you want now, Blackmore? Was my hospitality not enough for you?”

“Of course it was. My night was exceeding comfortable. My morning, even better,” Laurence smirked, “Your daughter is a vision. Where have you been hiding her?”

Mr. Fletcher ground his teeth his face reddening.  His hands fisted and for a moment, he looked as if he was thinking of throwing a punch. Laurence was almost disappointed when he didn’t. He might have relished beating the other man into submission.

“What do you want, Mr. Blackmore?”

Laurence’s mouth turned down in a mock pout, “Now is that any way to speak to a friend?”

“You are not my friend, Mr. Blackmore.”

“Friend, debtor…” the man waved a hand airily, “whatever you wish to call it.” He stopped smiling abruptly and took a step closer, seeking to intimidate, “You are beholden to me and I will thank you to keep a respectful tongue in your mouth.”

Mr. Fletcher took a fearful step back, his behind bumping against the closed door of his office, eyes wide with fear. He lifted a trembling hand in supplication, “F-forgive me. I spoke out of turn. M-may I offer you a cup of tea?”

Laurence inclined his head to the side, “Actually, I should be grateful for your daughter instead. I wish to make her my bride.”

Mr. Fletcher blinked at him as if he did not comprehend his words. “I-I beg your pa-pardon?”

“You heard me Mr. Fletcher. Now, I can see from the…state of your dwellings that you are at the end of your tether. So I shall sweeten this agreement for you. If you give me your daughter, I shall cancel your vowels. You will owe me nothing. In fact, I shall return to you all the money you have already paid–little as it is. You will be able to start a new life.”

He watched Mr. Fletcher’s face pale and fixed him with a determined gaze. “Come Mr. Fletcher, what say you? Your daughter in exchange for clearance of your debt? I happen to know you are cleaned out at the moment.”

And thank you, clerk, for that piece of information!

He watched Mr. Fletcher think about it. He watched with triumph as the man’s shoulders slumped. Mr. Fletcher lifted his chin, looking Laurence in the eye. “Very well then. Give me some time to speak with her.”

Laurence very graciously agreed.

***

Emily shook her father until he woke up.

“Wha…?” he mumbled blearily, rubbing at his eyes.

“What’s wrong, Father? Why are you asleep on the floor?” she did not know why, but she was so afraid. Her father reeked of whisky and it was barely noon and here he was, passed out on their floor as if he’d barely made it home.

“Aslee…?” he blinked in confusion, looking around like he did not know where he was and then his eyes landed on her and clouded with despair. “My dear child.”

Emily tensed at his tone. “What’s wrong, Father?”

Her father swallowed and then tried to smile, failing miserably. “I have some happy news for you, my dearest treasure. I have found you a husband.”

His eyes told her that this was far from the happy news he was trying to pass it off as. That only increased her sense of trepidation.

“Who is it?” she tried to smile back to reassure him.

“Mr. Blackmore. He is a well-to-do merchant from the city. You will be going to London at last, my dear.” His voice rose at the end as if to fool her and disguise his distress as excitement.

She had not cared for the manner in which the man had looked at her, even less for how he spoke. He was no gentleman.

“What if I have no interest in marrying Mr. Blackmore, Father?”

He just looked away. That was when she knew that he had even less choice in this than she did.


Chapter Two


The Earl of Sulby took a deep breath before walking into his London townhouse. Duncan Kingsley was a man of many talents. He had managed to grow the fortune his late father had left him by making shrewd business decisions without getting his hands dirty in the daily miasma that was commerce. He dealt with the big picture and left the details to his highly intuitive steward, Stephen Julius.

Negotiating international treaties was a lot easier than wrangling his three children who seemed to grow ever wilder as each day passed. He did not know if it was a consequence of age or simply the absence of their late mother.

He sighed, his heart sinking with despair. Children needed a mother to nurture them, he knew that. But he was not ready to entrust his heart or his life to another woman. Marrying for convenience was not something he would consider because he knew himself too well. He could not live with a woman, have her warm and soft in his bed, and not become mawkish about her. It was an unfortunate side effect of having grown up under the influence of his dear mother who filled his head with the joys of love.

As a child the words of Charles Perrault’s Cendrillon ou la petite pantoufle de verre in its original French had lulled him to sleep. He dreamed of being the prince that would find the glass slipper and sweep Cinderella off her feet. His distant father could not hope to compete with his mother’s influence; nor her sentimental nature or head for business.

“Papa!”

He braced himself for impact and a moment later was hit in the stomach by a mass of blonde hair and sticky hands. He put his hands around his twins, smiling indulgently. He had only been away overnight and so there really was no need for his children to be throwing themselves at him as if he had come back from war.

He was not complaining though.

Looking up, he saw his first born, Nancy, standing by the stairs, her mouth pursed, arms crossed. The smile fell from his face as they regarded each other. Of all three of his children, Nancy was the one that was changed the most by their mother’s death. She was angry and resentful and Duncan missed her smile. He did not think he’d seen her smile in years. It saddened his heart immeasurably.

“Nancy, how are you?”

She huffed. “You need to speak with the governess. She lets them run amok all the time,” she indicated her brother and sister. “She has no idea how to control them.”

Nancy’s complaints about a governess were not new to him. Every single one he’d brought was found lacking by his elder daughter although the twins were a bit more accepting.

“Papa, did you bring us anything?” Anne piped up from within the circle of his arms.

He looked down at her and smiled. “I’m sorry, pumpkin. I did not have time to–”

The twins didn’t let him finish before erupting in moans of protest.

“You never have time for us!” Harry complained, tugging at his shirt.

Duncan quirked an eyebrow. “I have time for you now.”

The twins immediately let go of him and ran off. He looked after them with a sigh and a shake of his head before his eyes met Nancy’s again and he smiled ruefully. Her brow furrowed in response and she put her leg on the stairs.

Talk to her now before you lose her forever.

The voice seemed to come out of nowhere and startled him slightly. “Wait,” he said with urgency.

Nancy paused, one foot on the bottom step and looked toward him.

“I…would like to have a discussion about the governess if you have some time.”

His meek tone seemed to do the trick because she removed her leg from the bottom step and turned to face him, taking a deep breath. He forestalled her no doubt comprehensive tirade by lifting his hand. “I am exhausted from my journey. Can we retire to my study and have a drink together?”

She hesitated a moment before nodding. He sighed inwardly as he led the way to his study, wondering what the key was that would unlock her unhappiness and enable her to smile again. Whatever it was, he suspected that he did not have it.

He held the door open for her and she stepped in, still frowning. Crossing to the tray that held his bottles of brandy, whisky, and wine, he poured her a glass of wine before filling his snifter with brandy. He handed her the glass of wine before attempting to toast. She ignored his toast as she took a sip.

“Well then, Nancy. Tell me what the matter is with the new governess.”

“Well, for one thing, she treats me like a child!”

Duncan suppressed a smile. “I suppose, to her, five-and-ten is barely out of the schoolroom.”

Nancy scoffed, “I shall be coming out in two years! Furthermore, I’m the only mother Anne and Harry have known since they were four.”

Duncan did not want to demur although he liked to think that he had not placed that burden on his oldest daughter. When Jane had tragically died, he had tried his best to shield his children not only from the effects of losing a mother but also the reason why they had. There was nobody to blame really, but he had tried to introduce a bill in parliament to regulate the sale and use of opium although he did not get very far. It was the only thing he could do to mitigate the sense of helplessness that permeated his being when Jane had become an opium eater and it subsequently killed her.

The guilt was crippling.

He felt as if he was answerable for the fact that his children were motherless. Sometimes, he was quite sure that Nancy held him responsible too. If she did, he could not blame her, but he just wanted her to be happy again. He remembered the early days when she was a babe. He and Jane had been so happy together, young and carefree. They had met at her coming out ball–it was love at first sight–two years later, they were married.

They had been so filled with the certainty of youth with just a year separating them in age. Jane had fallen pregnant within three months and on his one-and-twentieth year of life, he had become a father.

It had been the greatest joy of his life and he had felt as if he could not be more in love with his family. Unfortunately, time and commitments drove a rift between them that just seemed to get wider with every overseas trip Duncan had to take, every time he missed an anniversary in favor of securing a new business agreement…he had thought that they had plenty of time. That once the children’s futures were well secured, he would stay home more and they would recapture the magic of the early days of their marriage.

Unfortunately, life had other plans.

“Nancy dear, would you like us to speak to the governess together? I am sure if we expressed our concerns in a polite manner she would be amenable to making adjustments.”

“No! She has to go, Father. The twins are ten years old now. They can go away to school. They spend too much time together in any case. Harry can go to Eton and Anne can attend charm school in Switzerland. She is running amok and needs to be reined in. Somebody has to teach her to be a lady and she does not listen to me.”

This wasn’t the first time Nancy had come to him with this argument. Every time they lost a governess, she tried to get him to send the twins away. She did not understand that he could not stand to have his children far from him. He had very little time with them as it was; he was not about to make it even more impossible for himself to do that.

“No, Nancy. I do not believe that is the right course of action.”

She huffed in annoyance, crossing her arms. “Well then…” she stamped her foot and stormed toward the door.

“Nancy!”

She hesitated but did not turn around to face him. Instead she flung the door open and stormed out. Duncan collapsed in his chair and closed his eyes in despair.

***

Even without waiting to be told to do so, Mrs. Climes had packed her bags. The twins had informed him that they had seen the governess walk into her chambers and find the broken vase. Her shoulders had slumped in defeat as if she knew her time was up.

 The vase had pride of place in the children’s nursery. When their mother was alive, she used to pick flowers every single day and fill the vase so that her children had something beautiful to look at as they learned their letters and languages.

They did treasure that vase. It was one of the last remaining relics of their mother they had.

Duncan did not blame her at all if it was an accident. But he knew from her mien that she had not done it.

He had seen for himself the myriad of pieces in which the vase lay on her floor. The helpless look in her eye. She knew there was no way that she could prove that she had not broken it. Duncan knew that Mrs. Climes was a very careful person. That was not the issue, he knew.

She had left the pieces as she found them, picked up her bags and walked down the stairs. It was early evening which meant that they were sitting down to their supper. Mrs. Climes put her bags down at the foot of the stairs, they heard her request that a footman call her a hackney carriage.

Then she walked to the dining room and knocked softly on the open door. Having been expecting her since the twins had rushed in–late–to the dining hall and explained why, Duncan sighed with resignation. How was he to reassure the governess that she was welcome when someone was clearly out to subvert her?

“Yes, Mrs. Climes, can I help you with something?”

She shook her head. “No, My Lord. I simply wanted to inform you that I have placed my letter of resignation on your desk.”

“May I ask why?”

Her gaze traveled over all three children before she met his eyes. “I am unable to work where I am not wanted.”

The Earl sighed. “Will you not reconsider Mrs. Climes?”

She shook her head sadly, “I wish I could My Lord. But I fear that it is just a matter of time before things come to a head. The only way to avoid that is to leave now.”

The Earl got to his feet. “At least let me give you your last wages.”

Mrs. Climes nodded with evident relief.

Duncan sat in his chair and took the drink his valet handed him. He relaxed into the wing chair, and closed his eyes as Roberts began to rub his jawline with soap in preparation for shaving his stubble. As soon as Roberts began to apply the razor, Duncan made sure to stay absolutely still. He trusted his valet but he did not want to risk being accidentally decapitated by moving at the wrong moment.

The room was silent aside from Roberts’ quiet humming. He liked to do so as he worked, said it helped him focus. Duncan also suspected that the humming was meant to soothe him into a sense of security so that he did not feel the need to move. If so, it definitely worked.

It did not stop him from thinking though.

Another governess had left them. Which meant that if he did not want to give in to Nancy’s demands, he would have to find another one soon. It was becoming embarrassing to have to walk into the agency every time and request yet another young lady to tutor his children.

Maybe next time I should try retaining an old woman. That might make the difference.

He was willing to try anything if it might result in his retaining a permanent employee.

Or maybe I should let the children pick.

He almost perked up at the thought before remembering that he was under a very sharp blade. He subsided, still wondering if that was the solution. Before she…became ill with the opium, Jane used to read to the kids in the school room. She would play with them and take them for long walks in nature, naming all the flowers and leaves and trees. The children had adored her and they had learned almost in spite of themselves.

When he was home, Duncan would sometimes join them. They would walk in Hyde Park before settling under the trees for a picnic. In those times, he had felt as if nothing could ever touch his family. Nothing could ever destroy the bond they shared. They were invincible.

He would smile over at Jane and she would smile back and everything would be perfect. After the picnic, the children would nap on the blankets while Duncan and Jane held hands and spoke quietly to each other. It was moments like those that Duncan knew great happiness.

Knowing full well how rare and special it was for them to have married for love, he wanted to make sure his daughters had that same chance. He thought the way to do that was to ensure that their dowries were substantial enough for them to pick and choose. Everything he did, was with his family in mind.

So it was doubly a blow when he arrived home early from a business trip to find Jane stumbling in, a flush on her face, her pale pink gown slightly askew. She had looked at him with such guilt as he narrowed his eyes at her. He had not wanted to know, but he had had to. He pressed her, until she gave in and confessed.

His knees had buckled as she told him of her affair.


Chapter Three


Arthur Fletcher carried two buckets of slop to feed the pigs and the horse. His head was pounding even though he had not indulged as much as usual last night. He suspected it had something to do with the stress of feeling as if an anvil hung over his head, suspended by the thinnest string and ready to crush him at any minute.

He could not stop thinking about Laurence Blackmore and his bizarre proposal. He poured the slop in the pig pens before trudging to the stables to rake some hay for their dray horse. He had long ago sold his couch and four in service of his gambling debts but the dray horse was useful for pulling the wagon when going to market as well as plowing the field.

Once the horse was fed, he headed back to the house, his head hanging, long hair falling over his eyes. He was startled to see booted feet in front of him and stopped short, lifting his head. Laurence Blackmore stood in front of him, hands on hips and a smarmy smile on his face.

“Good day to you, Mr. Fletcher. I come with good news.” he said jauntily.

Arthur’s heart sunk. “Is that so? And pray tell, what news is that?”

Blackmore’s smile widened. “I have concluded my business in town and so it is time to collect my bride and leave. Did you manage to speak with her?” he announced, arms spread wide and magnanimous.

Arthur shook his head, avoiding Blackmore’s eyes. He had told Emily of her impending engagement but had not had the heart to say more. “I…”

Blackmore’s countenance darkened. “I hope that you did because I am here to take her with me.”

Arthur’s eyes widened in shock. “I beg your pardon.”

“Your daughter,” Blackmore repeated as if he was deaf, “the one I am to marry? She will come with me to London and we shall be wed before the month is out.”

Arthur was silent for a long time. Blackmore simply stood there, staring unblinking at him.

“D-do you mean it?”

“Of course! I am a man of my word.”

Arthur thought about his business, practically on its last legs. He thought of his farm, emptied of everything that could be sold. If his debt was cancelled, he would be able to use the profits from his imports to jump start the business again. He could return to respectability. Furthermore, Blackmore was a well-to-do gentleman with many business holdings.

All I have to do is convince Emily of that.

“I-I-I must speak with her alone,” he said.

Blackmore inclined his head in acquiescence. “Go ahead, but make it fast. I mean to take tomorrow’s stagecoach back to London.”

“Oh! But Emily cannot travel alone with you.”

Blackmore frowned. “What do you take me for? Of course I have brought a chaperone.”

“You…brought a chaperone with you? Why? Were you here to search for a wife?”

Blackmore’s eyes slid away from Arthur as he laughed. “No, no. But it just so happens that I brought my maid with me. She traveled with me as her kin live around here and there was a funeral she wished to attend. As I am a benevolent employer, I let her come with me. She will make an appropriate companion and chaperone for Miss Fletcher until I can secure a marriage license.”

Arthur opened his mouth to utter further protest, but Blackmore lifted a hand to forestall him. “I know that in the normal course of events, the father settles a dowry upon his daughter at a time like this. I am willing to forego this, in addition to forgiving your debt. I would say those are very generous terms, don’t you?”

Arthur’s shoulders slumped. “And if I refuse?”

“Well then…I do hope you have all my money ready otherwise I may have to confiscate all of this.” he contemptuously stretched his hand in a circle to indicate Arthur’s home, “And then your precious child will be on the streets. Would you like that?”

Arthur wiped the snot that was running down his nose as he acknowledged that Blackmore had bested him. “You will treat her well?”

“But, of course!” Blackmore lifted an eyebrow as if shocked that he would ask, “she shall be the jewel in my crown.”

Arthur released the breath he was holding. “All right then. You may marry my daughter. She is but twenty years old and very sheltered out here in the country. She has no knowledge of city ways, so I hope you will have patience with her,” he pleaded softly.

Blackmore stepped forward and clapped him on the shoulder. “Never fear, Fletcher. I shall teach her everything she needs to know.”

Arthur dropped his head so that Blackmore could not see his face and blanched. His stomach twisted with fear for his child but there was little he could do about it now.

“Where is the lovely girl?” Laurence smiled wide and smarmily.

Arthur’s breath hitched as something in him protested loudly. “She is gone to collect a pail of milk from the neighboring farm. She should be back soon.”

“Excellent.” He turned and gestured to somebody in his carriage. A door opened and a lady decked in a blood-red gown stepped down, her eyes on her footing. She had chestnut hair tied up in an elegant upsweep at the back of her head and held together with a myriad of pins. Her bosom was substantial in a way that was almost obscene. She had painted lips which smiled beguilingly at Arthur and he had a hard time picturing her as a maid.

She sashayed to Blackmore’s side before executing an elegant curtsy. “Madam Lilly Bainbridge at your service.”

Arthur raised an eyebrow.

Madam?

Undoubtedly noting the disbelief in his face, the woman hastened to explain. “I am responsible for the uh, school for girls that Mr. Blackmore has begun out of the goodness of his heart.”

Arthur’s eyebrow rose higher. “Mr. Blackmore called you his maid.”

She trilled a laugh that sounded very artificial to Arthur’s ears. “Ah, a slip of the tongue no doubt.”

“Indeed,” Blackmore agreed with a smile, “a slip of the tongue.”

Arthur looked from one to the other. “Well…you may come in and wait.”

He led the way indoors and indicated that the two visitors should seat themselves on the bench. He busied himself with lighting the fire and putting a cauldron of water to boil atop it. Blackmore and his Madam spoke quietly to each other and Arthur ignored them. He was trying to find a solution which did not involve handing his daughter over to the shylock but he could think of none.

If he refused, Blackmore would have them out on the street and that would leave his daughter even more vulnerable than before. At least this way she not only had a roof over her head, but also a respectable position as the wife of a well-to-do merchant. Blackmore was a man four decades old. Undoubtedly he would die at some point, leaving Emily with his fortune. She would be a well-heeled widow and able to live as she wished.

The door opened and his daughter came in, stopping short as she caught sight of the visitors. Arthur summoned a smile for her. “Emily, you have returned. Do come in, there is someone I would like for you to meet.”

He went to her and grasped her hand, looking into her eyes and trying to convey his love and protection in his glance. Her brow furrowed as she followed him to the parlor. “This is Mr. Laurence Blackmore; I believe you met him this morning. And this is Madam Bainbridge, his companion.”

She nodded, curtsying quite correctly but did not utter a word.

Arthur took a deep breath. “Mr. Blackmore is here to formally ask for your hand and I have acquiesced.”

Emily swallowed, reminding herself that there was not much she could do about this. “Is that so?”

“Er, yes, as I said earlier, Mr. Blackmore was very much taken with you when you met this morning and he would like your hand in marriage.”

Emily focused on keeping her face blank of emotion, lips pursed but uttered no protest.

Another deep breath. “You will travel with him and his companion to London, where you will be wed.”

She made a gurgling sound in her throat but uttered no demur. He tried to smile at her but could not quite manage it. Mr. Blackmore clapped his hands. “This is a happy day. Allow me to treat you to dinner at the inn.” His eyes flitted to the empty hearth of the kitchen and then to Arthur. His meaning was clear.

“Th-thank you.”

Arthur turned to Emily. “Come then daughter, go and pack your bags and we shall go with Mr. Blackmore.”

She stared fixedly at him for a few more moments before turning and heading to her room. Blackmore smiled. “I like her obedience.”

Arthur did not know if that was what it was. He suspected that she knew what was at stake or else she might have her own reasons for not uttering a protest. Either way, he knew it was not obedience that made her follow instructions so silently.

He sighed inwardly, wondering how they had all come to this.

***

Emily’s hands were shaking as she packed her things. Inside, she was continuously screaming but she worked hard to keep her face blank. From what she had observed in the living room, she had confirmed to herself that Mr. Blackmore had her father over a barrel. Whatever he was holding over him must be truly awful to put that look in her father’s eyes and for him to think that marriage to that man was the best option for her.

Wife? He wants me for a wife?

She had no doubt that marriage to Mr. Blackmore was quite possibly the worst thing that could happen to her but until she knew more, she was not going to protest. She would go along with her father and keep her eyes open.

They traveled to the inn in the man’s fancy carriage, her father following on the horse. She would apparently be staying at the inn for the night so that she could leave with Mr. Blackmore and his companion early in the morning. He knew Mrs. Brewster well, the innkeeper’s wife, and felt that she would be safe for the night.

This is not how I wanted to see London, however.

If her heart wasn’t pounding with fear at what her future might bring, she might have been excited to at last be heading for the city. She had heard and read many stories about London and was curious about many things. She had a feeling though, that seeing it in company with Mr. Blackmore might not be enjoyable.

He had apparently told her father that he was taken with her, yet he did not spare her a glance the entire ride to the inn, nor as they ate. He looked with greater appreciation at his companion than he did at her. Try as she might, she could not think of any advantage he would gain by marrying her.

Is he looking for a country bumpkin to mistreat?

His gaze was cold, when he smiled, his lips twisted cruelly as if he did not know any other way to be. He seemed to calculate the value of every person and thing based on some criteria that only he knew. While the woman he was with smiled pleasantly enough, Emily could see the fear in her eyes when she looked at him, how tightly she wound her hands together as if to stop them from shaking. Her father would not meet her eyes, his own shimmering as if he would burst into tears at the slightest provocation.

What should I do for the best?

She clutched her hand tightly together and decided to wait and see. That was all she could do.

***

The ride to London was largely achieved in silence as Laurence made a point of focusing on his papers and ignoring the tense atmosphere within the carriage. The haul from Whitehaven was light–he flicked his eyes briefly toward the young lady sitting opposite him–but good. She was so fresh-faced, clearly a virgin and wholesomely beautiful.

A veritable gold mine.

He tried not to smile too obviously but could not completely hide his smug pleasure. The more money that the brothel made, the better for him. Laurence Blackmore was a pragmatic man. He did not put more resources in a venture than he got out of it. So if his girls wanted to eat well, have the midwife see to them should one of them fall pregnant, and sleep in comfortable bedding, they had to make sure that he was earning.

He was already plotting ways to best explore her unique gifts.

Perhaps we should have an auction; sell her virginity to the highest bidder. Or we could make a show of it.

Lily would no doubt have some idea; he aimed a smile toward her as she sat primly beside him, playing the part of Madam to perfection. Laurence would rely on her to make the most of this opportunity and he knew she would not let him down. She looked across at the girl and smiled as kindly as she knew how. The girl’s only response was to furrow her brow and look away.

Not such a green girl then.

It was clear that she knew something was amiss. Laurence was quite sure however, that the girl did not know what that might be or just how much trouble she was in.

***

Emily watched the scenery pass her by and tried to slow her breathing so that she could calm herself. The further away they got from Whitehaven, the more she felt anxiety take over. She did not like the way Mr. Blackmore’s companion was watching her. The speculation in her eyes was similar to how Farmer John accessed a horse he intended to purchase at the market.

Mr. Blackmore, meanwhile, sat back reading some papers, his face closed and blank. She did not know what these people wanted with her but she was absolutely sure it was nothing good. She tried to focus on the scenery, to pay attention to the journey they were on, and the many other people that they passed on the road, but all she could think was…

What do you want from me?

Her stomach twisted with terror as her instincts screamed that whatever it was, she would not like it.

They came to a stop and she tensed further before peering outside the window to see that they were at an inn.

“Why are we stopping?” her voice was shaking slightly.

Mr. Blackmore ignored her but his companion smiled. “We need to change horses, of course.”

“Oh, of course. May I…may I powder my nose?” she flushed, looking away from them.

“Yes of course. We shall stop here for luncheon before we continue our journey.”

Blackmore made an annoyed sound. He and his companion exchanged loaded glances and then Mr. Blackmore seemed to submit, looking over at her with a smarmy smile.

“Yes, we shall stop here. Make sure you refresh yourself well. love.”

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24 COMMENTS

  1. Fabulously good so far. Loved the story and can’t wait to read the rest and see how the relationship develops further between Emily and Duncan and how he saves her……sigh. Love a good romance with a hero who rescues a damsel in distress. Can’t wait!! Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to read the first few chapters.

  2. This is a very interesting beginning and the h and h are going to have alot of issues to deal with going to love reading the whole story!

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