Genre: Historical Romance
Length: 330 pages
Heat Level: 3
eBook Price: $.99
Print Book: $12.99
Genre: Historical Romance
Length: 330 pages
Heat Level: 3
eBook Price: $.99
Print Book: $12.99
Refusing her mother’s decree that she stay with her stepbrother in London for a Season in order to seek a husband was the easy part. Lady Annabella Price simply hid in a derelict old cottage on the estate and sent her maid instead. Between daily battles with field mice and sucking on her last lemon, life has been far from perfect. But Annabella prefers hiding out in the small abandoned house at Wyndham Green to being with the Duke of Wyndham for even a day. At least she did… until the insufferable Lord Seabrook showed up.
Jonathan Durham, Fourth Earl of Seabrook, offered to do a simple favor for his friend: travel to Haselmere to find the duke's stepsister, Lady Annabella Price, and make sure no harm had come to her. What he found was a willful, spirited lady, not a damsel in distress. The impetuous beauty intrigues Lord Seabrook, and he's curious to learn why she's hiding in the cottage. When they’re caught in a compromis-ing position, a hurried marriage seems the logical conclusion. Lord Seabrook sees the marriage as the per-fect answer to both of their problems. He needs a wife, and Annabella's mother wants her to find a hus-band. But how will he convince his unwilling bride to give their marriage a chance when's she's deter-mined to have it dissolved?
Sprowston Hall near Norwich
“Come along, Annabella, time for your afternoon lessons.” Miss Lucy spoke in her strictest governess voice, but the smile on her wrinkled face matched the twinkle in her eyes.
A small black slate rested on the round table near the fireplace. Miss Lucy liked to work there, said she needed the heat to warm her bones. Annabella didn’t know if it warmed her bones or not, but it did make her sleepy and that made the lessons hard to finish.
Annabella stood and began to shuffle across the room but stopped. “I need a moment,” she said, racing back to the window. She simply had to check one more time. Holding her breath, she pressed her face hard against the glass. There it was. A cloud of dust in the distance. Excitement made her heart race. “Papa…” she whispered.
It had to be. This time it just had to be her father coming home. Mama had said to expect him soon. How long had he been gone this time? Annabella had lost count of the days.
The dust obscured the coach as it traveled the long drive to the house. But then the sunlight flashed on shiny mahogany. “It is Papa’s coach!” Annabella leapt from the window seat and raced across the nursery floor.
“Annabella!” called Miss Lucy as she exited the room.
Heart thumping, she ran along the hallway to the main staircase then down the marble steps to the foyer. Papa, Papa, Papa. It’s Papa. He’s come home. Her feet slipped along the polished black and white marble tiles, but she didn’t fall.
She couldn’t wait to throw her arms around Papa’s neck as he lifted her in the air. He would smell of his favorite pipe tobacco and mint. And he would have sugar-stick candy in his vest pocket, even though he would pretend he hadn’t remembered to bring any.
“Annabella!” said her mother in that soft but stern tone.
She knew she should stop.
But it was Papa’s coach. “Papa’s home!” No time for further explanation — and none would be needed. Surely this time her mother would be just as excited as she. Papa had been gone much longer than usual. With scarcely a pause, she continued her mad dash. A startled footman opened the door, his movements jerky and uncertain.
“Annabella!” Her mother’s voice sharpened. “Please conduct yourself like a proper young lady.”
The admonition followed Annabella through the door, but her mother did not. She always waited inside, bemoaning Annabella’s unladylike behavior when she dashed outside instead of waiting for her father to enter the house.
The coach had stopped at the bottom of the long staircase. Annabella’s slippers slapped against the slate steps as she galloped down to meet it. A footman held open the carriage door.
Miss Lucy had explained about nobility and taught Annabella that her father was Bernard Lambert Price, Third Baronet of Kedelston. But to Annabella, he was just Papa.
A familiar face peered from the carriage, and then Papa unfolded himself through the door. Thick nut-brown hair fell across his forehead. The light breeze ruffled his curls, but he didn’t reach for his hat. Instead, he looked around, and his eyes lit up when his gaze swept over Annabella.
“Hello, my girl!” He opened his arms just as she reached him and used her momentum to lift her high in the air.
Squealing with delight, Annabella wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek. “Papa! I’ve missed you so!”
Her father chuckled as he hugged her and then set her on her feet again. “And I’ve missed you, Lady Annabella. But what’s this?” He held her away from him and looked her over. “Have you grown since I left?” His rich baritone warmed her heart. Maybe he would tell her stories of his travels before bed. He’d been simply everywhere in the world. And one day, she planned to go with him.
“Did you bring it, Papa? Did you bring my sugar-stick candy?”
“Oh…” A frown creased his forehead. “I knew I was forgetting something when I came through London.”
Patience wavering, Annabella stomped her foot. “Papa!”
He chuckled softly then cleared his throat as he pushed aside his brown tailcoat and patted his pockets. A tender smile widened his lips, and he withdrew a slender object.
It wasn’t candy but something even better. “A present!”
With a little flourish, Papa shook his hand and the object magically unfolded into a fan. Crafted of silk, in a pleasant shade of Egyptian blue, narrow ivory lace lined the edge. A spray of pink and orange flowers had been painted in the middle.
“Papa… it’s beautiful.” Her fingers ached to touch it. “Did you bring it home for Mama?”
His eyes widened in surprise. “This is yours, my little lady. I was in a far off land called Japan when I saw this in one of the marketplaces there. I thought of you and knew I must bring it home with me.”
He folded the fan and held it out. The silk was cool and light in her palm. Papa’s hand closed over hers as he showed her how to hold it then guided her in the motion to open it.
A delighted giggle slipped through Annabella’s lips, and her father smiled as she fanned herself. “Am I doing it correctly?” she asked. “Do I look like a proper lady?”
“Oh, most definitely you do, Lady Annabella,” he murmured, offering a courtly bow. When he straightened, he patted his vest pocket again. “Wait a minute. What have we here?” Smiling broadly, he removed a handful of hardened white sugar canes, each about the length of a goose quill but much thicker. “May I offer you peppermint and lemon, my lady?”
Annabella jumped up and down. “Those are my favorite!”
“Not quite yet.” Her father held them just out of reach and subjected her to a stern gaze. “First you must tell me… Were you a good girl for your mother?”
“I…” Annabella shuffled her feet in the dirt, trying not to recall her fit of pique at supper the night before. “I don’t like asparagus tips, Papa!” she burst out. “And Mama was going to make me eat them.”
Her father laid a hand over his heart and gave an exaggerated stagger backward. “Don’t like them? Why, my darling girl, have you ever tried them?”
She started to nod, but he raised one bushy eyebrow and she sighed. “They look odd, Papa, like green sticks with knobs on the ends.”
“Ahh… Am I to take it, then, that you argued with your mother?” he asked, gravely serious.
Annabella squirmed. “Yes, Papa,” she mumbled at the ground. “Mama was very angry. She said Cook had gone to the trouble of preparing the dish, and I must eat what is set in front of me.” Heat flooded her face as she dutifully repeated her mother’s reprimand.
Her father hunkered down in front of her. “I see. And then what did you do, since you’ve just told me you still haven’t tasted asparagus?”
“I threw the dish at Jerome.” She nearly choked on the words. As soon as the green spears smothered in cream had landed on the butler’s black coat and then rolled slowly to the floor, she’d regretted her impulse. “I’m sorry, Papa. It wouldn’t have happened if you were here.”
“You think not, eh?” A smile played at the corners of his mouth.
“Oh, no, Papa.” Annabella touched his cheek, enjoying the scratch of fresh whiskers beneath her fingers. “You never make me eat things I don’t like, and you don’t mind if I run down the staircase, and you tell me stories and take me for walks…”
Her father straightened and sent a long gaze in the direction of the house. Just as she thought he might have turned to stone, he clapped a hand on her shoulder. “Let us take a walk now, darling girl.” He handed her one of the candy sticks and tucked the rest back in his vest. As he buttoned his coat, he nodded toward the pasture.
Annabella licked the end of the candy stick as they walked. “Lemon!” She slipped her hand into her father’s. His touch was firm and warm, and he gave her a little squeeze. All was right in her world once more.
“Papa, do you have to go away again very soon?” She angled her head to see his face.
“Not for a little while.” He stopped at the cobblestone wall. “Maybe not for quite a long while this time.” Smiling, he gave the wall a pat. “Sit up here for a bit.” Then he set his hands about her waist and swung her onto the wall.
A lark trilled in the distance. “Hear that?” He sighed. “Ah, it’s good to be home.”
“It sounds happy, Papa.” Annabella kicked her feet against the stones.
Her father tilted his head to the side. “Why, yes it does.” He stepped closer and settled his loving gaze on her face. “And you, Annabella… are you as happy as that meadow lark?”
He raised one bushy eyebrow and held her in steady regard. “The truth now, Annabella. You know telling the truth is most important.”
“I am now, Papa.” She rolled her bottom lip against her teeth and stared at the bit of candy in her hand. “Now that you’ve come home.” A strand of hair blew across her face, and she wrinkled her nose against the tickle.
Her father lifted the strand on the end of one finger and tenderly tucked it behind her ear. “Has it been that hard on you, my dear? Me being away so often?”
Tears pricked at her eyelids. Distressed by her dilemma, Annabella plucked at the ivory muslin of her dress. She mustn’t lie. But the truth might hurt Papa’s feelings.
“It’s well to speak your heart, child,” he murmured.
“I like Miss Lucy,” whispered Annabella. “I like making my letters and learning how to stitch like Grandmother used to.”
“And your mother? Do you have lovely times with your mother?
Some of Annabella’s happiness faded. “Sometimes… when Aunt Charity and Aunt Harmony visit, Mama smiles a bit. And Aunt Charity plays the pianoforte, and Mama and Aunt Harmony take turns dancing with me.”
A frown settled over her father’s face, and he squeezed his eyes closed for a breath and then opened them. “You know your mother loves you, don’t you?”
Annabella blinked in confusion. “Yes, Papa. She tells me so when she sees me to bed at night.”
“She sees you to bed?” His voice seemed to swell with pleased surprise.
Taking another lick of candy stick, Annabella nodded, delighted that her answer appeared to have made Papa happy. “Every night. And sometimes she tells me stories about a lonely princess who’s kept locked in a castle.”
Her father’s head snapped up. His face turned the color of ashes, and his jaw hung slack. But he drew in a sharp breath and then released it in a long, heavy sigh. He stared into the meadow without speaking. The lark ceased her singing and flew off. Annabella traced the lace on the end of her fan as she tried to sit still and wait patiently. Papa had never looked so sad before. Was it because Mama told her stories?
After another sigh, he straightened and turned to her. “Annabella, you know nothing will change how your mother and I both love you.”
Unable to help herself, she giggled. “Yes, Papa. And I love you and Mama.” Confusion crowded into her mind. “Only sometimes… sometimes you go away, and Mama doesn’t miss you like I do. Sometimes she’s happier.” She lowered her voice to a whisper, although no one else was around to hear. “And I don’t know if she loves you as much as I do.”
Papa reached out and stroked her hair, his touch familiar and comforting. “Right. You’re a smart girl. I sometimes forget just how observant you can be.” He stepped to the wall and settled himself next to her. “I love your mother very much, and in her way, she loves me. But years ago, I made a dreadful mistake.”
Annabella twisted so she could watch Papa’s face. “What kind of mistake?”
Sadness clouded his eyes, and his mouth turned down. “That doesn’t matter just now. But it was a terrible mistake, and it had appalling consequences.” He shook his head. “And then in attempting to rectify the wrong I’d committed, I compounded that error by leaving your mother alone when she needed me most.”
Annabella frowned. Why did adults speak in such riddles all the time? “I don’t understand, Papa.”
“Yes, I know you don’t, and I pray you never will, darling girl.” He laid his arm across her shoulders. “You’re correct that your mother doesn’t feel the same affection for me that I feel for her. But I’d thought she was at peace with the decisions we’d made. I know she loves you, and I know she doesn’t regret your birth in the slightest. And I want you to know that nothing in this world or the next can steal you from my heart. Nothing.”
Tears welled, brought on by confusion and sorrow because Papa was obviously distressed about something. “But you go away so often.”
“Yes…” He nodded. “I do. I’ve been gone too much, especially of late, and I’ve missed time I would have chosen to spend with you. I suppose it has been my manner of hiding from the error of my ways. And…” He sighed heavily. “I’ve been attempting to right a grave wrong. Annabella, my girl, love is the greatest gift in the world, but it must be freely given and received. If you love someone, you will go anywhere with them, do anything for them. One must know when to fight for love when it goes off course, and sometimes—”
He drew her closer against him. “Sometimes it’s best to let go. Your mother had no choice but to marry me, you see. I didn’t give her one, her father didn’t give her one. And… I suppose you could say fate stole her choice as well.” He stroked Annabella’s hair again. “I love your mother enough to let her go. But as she has no place she can go to… I’m the one who’s been doing the leaving.”
Annabella blinked slowly, mulling over Papa’s words. Part of her had recognized some time ago that her mother kept out of his way whenever her father came home. And it had seemed to her that he’d slowly started traveling more frequently, staying away longer with each trip. The past few times he’d left had been unexpected. Her parents had argued wickedly before his last trip, and in the morning, he’d said goodbye and departed with no explanation of where he was going.
“Papa, when will you have to leave again?”
“I won’t be leaving any more, Annabella.” He set her away from him and gazed into her eyes. “You see, loving someone also means you must know when to stay. I love you, and I miss you so much when I’m gone. And I think — that is, I get the idea you miss me just a bit.”
She flung her arms around his neck and squeezed. “Thank you, Papa!”
He folded her against his chest. “One day, Lady Annabella, you will find you have choices of the heart. When that day comes, I pray you will choose love over what others might perceive to be the right course.”
Her sadness already evaporating, Annabella giggled. “Mama says I must behave as a proper lady would so a proper nobleman will appreciate me.”
“Annabella, my heart… if it’s a nobleman you want, I have no doubt a nobleman you shall marry.” He kissed the top of her head. “But whomever you marry, please marry a man you love, someone to whom you would willingly give your whole heart.” He laughed softly. “You may not understand that now. But one day… One day you will.”
He stood. “Come now. We must go and see what Cook is planning for dinner.”
Annabella hopped to the ground and tucked her hand into his. “I hope it’s creamed turnips.”
Papa shuddered. “I have no idea how you can eat those things with such relish.”
Wyndham Green, Haselmere, England
April 10, 1813
Six full seconds and not a word from the butler. Had he stopped reading? Jon shifted in his seat and stole a glance. But no, the sticklike man still concentrated on the missive, a little pucker between his eyebrows, focused eyes inching along a line. Probably the first line. If the printed words contained an unexploded bomb, would they ever learn of its existence? Or would it simply cease to be, if the blasted man’s crawling attention never deciphered the message?
If a tree only existed in a park whilst someone was present to perceive it, did a letter’s communication exist only upon the reading? What on earth was the man reading? The letter of introduction Grey had sent along had been less than a half page.
Jon went back to counting beats.
For some reason, every fourth beat fell flat. Jon drummed his fingers against his thigh. Mayhap that would speed up the clock. And the butler.
Finally, the gaunt man with the unsmiling face shook out the letter and then refolded the ivory paper, taking meticulous care to follow the original creases. “The Duke of Wyndham has instructed us to give you the use of Rose Cottage.” He cleared his throat. “It’s been some years since his grace has been here at Wyndham Green.”
Impatience flared again. That much, Jon had been aware of.
“Unfortunately, the guest cottage has been unoccupied for some time. I shall have it cleaned and aired immediately.” He bowed his head. “Please forgive the delay, my lord. May I offer you some refreshment whilst you wait?”
The butler hastened from the room. How did they all manage that same stealthy glide? Were they trained in it from birth?
Restless, Jon stood and wandered the drawing room. Lace curtains fluttered at the windows, a refreshing breeze chasing the musty air around. The wooden side table was spotless, but it attested long use by the fine scratches marring the surface. He ran an idle hand over the top, stopping at a set of deeper scratches along the edge nearest the window. Bending close, he noted someone had carved letters into the fine wood.
AP. A smile tugged the corners of his mouth. Annabella Price. How old would Grey’s stepsister have been when she felt the need to make her mark on a duke’s fine furniture?
“Begging your pardon, my lord,” murmured a soft voice from behind him.
Jon whirled about and found himself staring into a pair of tawny brown eyes that reminded him of a cat. Or, maybe more importantly, reminded him of a certain young miss in London who was currently going by the name Annabella Price. Obviously a misnomer, that.
Clad in gray and white, the maid’s white cap covered her conservatively styled, graying hair that still showed a fair amount of gold. So, unless the Duchess of Wyndham had taken to wearing a servant’s dress, the chit in London appeared to be the daughter of an upstairs maid.
The maid leveled her gaze on him, waiting. In her hands she carried a silver tray. Several scones lathered with blackberry jam and cream surrounded a bone tea service. This, she sat on the side table, her movements covering the carved initials. “You’ve traveled some distance, so I asked Cook to fix you something to eat.”
“Thank you.” Jon’s mouth watered as he settled himself into the faded and threadbare red chair near the window.
The maid tipped the teapot, and a stream of steaming brown liquid tinkled into the cup. “I’ve sent a girl to the cottage to see it’s opened and aired. I’ll send a kitchen maid with your meals… unless you plan to take your supper here at the main house?”
Jon frowned. Eat at the main house? The idea of being waited on, watched while he ate, held little appeal. “Er, no. I shall take my meals at the cottage.”
“Sugar or cream?”
Her hand hovered over the sugar bowl. A working hand. Not rough, but already developing thickened joints and fine wrinkles. Gran’s hands had looked like that years ago when he was a boy. Now—
“Sorry.” Jon blinked, almost surprised to find himself surrounded by the stark, threadbare furniture of Wyndham Green rather than the luxuriant accoutrements of Blackmoor Hall. “Both please.”
“Will there be anything else, my lord?”
“Thank you, no.”
With a curtsey, she turned and left.
Polite to a fault. Not as much fire in her eyes as in her daughter’s. He spared a thought for Grey and the imposter. Sparks had certainly flown between them. Maybe Grey would… Shaking his head, Jon expelled a long sigh. Since their school days, he and Grey had been like brothers, but Jon would never understand Grey’s tendency to take on the weight of the world. Maybe he’d avail himself of some innocent fun with the faux lady in his residence before their difference in status became too apparent.
Now, if only he could settle the riddle of where exactly his friend’s stepsister had hidden herself away…
“Drop that this instant, you scoundrel!” Annabella raised the iron cooking pot over her head with both hands and flung it in the direction of the gray rodent scampering across the floor of the dusty deserted kitchen. The pot landed with a dull thud about a foot from the mouse then rolled onto its side against one of the empty barrels in the pantry. With a hideous squeak, the mouse disappeared behind a worktable standing along the wall, dragging the crust of bread with it.
Annabella shrieked with rage and picked up an iron meat skewer, pitching it like a spear in the direction the filthy rodent had gone. “Devil’s fire! That was my last bit of bread, you vile creature!”
Silence fell like a blanket. The dust she’d raised in her battle with the little beggar floated in the air, and Annabella sneezed.
This is much better than going to London and spending the Season. Starving. Lonely. Having to sneak after dark to get water from the brook to wash. No way to get a message to Juliet. I certainly am teaching my mother and that son-of-the-devil Markwythe a lesson.
“Oh!” Annabella stomped her foot in disgust and glared at the cook pot. She should have chosen something lighter, easier to throw.
Then what? Wrestle the field mouse for the crust? Have you really sunk that low? Her stomach rumbled. She sipped from her glass of sugary water, but the warm liquid didn’t satisfy.
A single, horrid lemon sat in the middle of the worktable, its rough yellow peel mocking her. Of course the filthy mice couldn’t possibly have made off with that. No, they had to go for the bits of food she found palatable. She snatched up the oblong fruit and rolled it between her palms.
Why had she not rationed her food better so it would last longer? The little bit of food Juliet had packed for her had only lasted a couple of days, making a midnight trip to the kitchen in the main house necessary. She’d barely been able to wait until returning to Rose Cottage to feast on the blackberry tart, half a plate of cold shepherd’s pie, and loaf of bread she’d made off with. And she certainly hadn’t rationed it any better.
She picked up a long knife — the only one she had found in the derelict cottage. The dull blade fought with the thick peel and the lemon rolled out of her hand once, but finally she managed to slice off the end and squirt a bit into her water. The acidulous scent rose to torment her nostrils, and her hand shook as she raised the glass to her mouth.
Sour juice washed over her palate. She hadn’t added enough sugar. Of its own accord, her face pinched inward, and a shudder wracked her body. The liquid hit the back of her throat, and her stomach gave a mighty heave. Try as she might, she simply couldn’t bring herself to swallow. The bitterness intensified the longer she let it set on her tongue and she finally had to spit it out.
To say she’d made a muck of it was putting it mildly.
Annabella let loose with an unladylike curse then marched to the parlor. Pushing aside the lace curtain, she stole a peek through the window. Spring rains had produced verdant growth, but the sad state of the garden would have distressed her stepfather. She frowned at the thought of Alexander Markwythe. The old duke had been kind to her mother — and to her when she’d let him.
But he hadn’t been Papa.
Blinking away the tears stinging her eyes, she tamped back the troublesome thoughts. A splash of pink along the stone wall that fenced off the cottage from the lane drew her eye. The easy winter and quick spring must have brought the wild roses out early. Closing her eyes, she tried to recall their sweet scent. But when she drew in a long breath, the dust brought on another sneeze.
Surely she risked the insides of her head spilling forth with all the sneezing she was doing. She simply had to get out of the cottage — just for a while.
About to drop the curtain, she froze. What was that slight movement at the gate? Heart racing, Annabella pushed even closer to the window, uncaring of the sticky white webs that clung to her forehead. Had someone noticed her?
A lone figure wandered into the yard. He kept his head lowered and his shoulders hunched, but the battered tweed hat belonged to none other than that weasel, Sheridan Dawes! What was the estate manager doing at Rose Cottage?
She had been discovered! Hide!
But she stood frozen, unable to look away. Dawes cast a furtive glance over his shoulder. Then he straightened and settled his gaze on the cottage — on the window where she stood. Annabella ducked back into the shadows. Had he seen her? A chill clawed at her spine, sending icy fingers crawling along her skin.
Should she run out the servants’ entrance? Fighting just to breathe, she chanced another peek outside. The yard was empty! Had he moved round to the back? Was he about to—
No! There he was, just leaving through the little gate.
Annabella sagged against the windowsill. Apparently her hiding place hadn’t been revealed after all.
I should have stood up to Mother and simply refused to go to London. Mother could have gone on to Bath, and I would have been up at the main house as usual…
The thought of servants and the main house sent a twinge of loneliness to prickle at her heart. How she missed having her dear friend, Juliet, to talk to… to confide in.
“And some friend you are! You sent Juliet to London in your place because you’re a coward. And friend that Juliet is, she went, knowing the trouble she’d be in if she was found out.”
Guilt stabbed at Annabella like a sharp knife. What was Juliet doing now? Probably worrying herself mad and wondering why Annabella hadn’t contacted her as promised.
Annabella dropped the curtain and paced the room. The bodice of the dull gray maid’s uniform pulled tightly across her chest, pinching her bosom, and she tugged on it. But the sturdy cotton material had no give, and the strangling sensation remained. Why hadn’t she thought to place some of her own day dresses into Juliet’s tattered bag?
Because I was only supposed to hide at Rose Cottage for a few days.
She let out a sigh and threw herself down on the red velvet couch. The bolster was lumpy against her back. Annabella dug it out. The gray silk was as ancient and threadbare as all the rest of the furniture. It was ugly and she hated it. She hated the cottage, the hunger, her mother’s directive that her stepbrother would find her a suitable husband. But mostly she hated that her plans never seemed to go the way she wanted.
Before the first tear could fall, she covered her face, screaming as loud as she could into the bolster, kicking her feet against the sofa’s other end, taking her frustration out on the faded upholstery. She deserved to die alone in Rose Cottage for letting her pride get in the way and chasing her into hiding.
A thud and a gasp from behind her brought Annabella’s head bouncing up, and she leapt to her feet. A young housemaid stood in the doorway leading to the kitchen. At her feet, a wooden bucket lay tipped on its side, water running like a river over the dusty oak floor.
“Lady Annabella,” the girl screeched, eyes wide. “I thought you was in London.”
“Get out!” Heat rushed to her face. Had the maid seen her outburst? Annabella narrowed her eyes and stalked toward the startled girl. “I said, get out! I am not here.”
The maid’s jaw dropped. “B-but, m-m’lady. Ye’re standing right in front o’ me.”
Was the girl dense? Exasperated, Annabella blew out a breath. “Well then, you don’t see me!”
The girl opened her mouth and looked like she would argue but then clamped her lips shut and cast her eyes downward. “Yes, m’lady.”
Marvelous. She could add terrorizing a maid to her list of sins. Annabella sighed. She was never lost for words. Why couldn’t she figure out what to say? “I, er, decided not to go to Town after all,” she said, affecting a breezy tone. “But I, er… my mother. Yes, I did not wish to distress the duchess with my change of plans as she’s been… fatigued of late.”
A sly gleam entered the maid’s eyes. “Yes, m’lady.” Her gaze roamed over Annabella, no doubt taking in the filthy state of the dull gray dress.
Annabella drew herself up straight. “My luggage was mistakenly sent on to London with Juliet, whilst hers remained with me.”
One side of the maid’s mouth tilted upward briefly before she schooled all expression from her features. “Yes, m’lady.”
Should I return to the main house now that I’ve been discovered?
No. If she went back to the main house, she’d look the spoiled chit who’d run off and hidden away in the dirty guesthouse. Far better to let the servants think she’d chosen to stay at the cottage.
“It’s good that you’ve come by,” she said, keeping her voice even. “I had no idea the place was in such disrepair. Does no one see to its cleaning and upkeep?”
“Mr. Dawes gave orders over a year ago to leave off cleaning here. But I’m here to see to opening the cottage now, m’lady,” explained the maid. “Sorry to be so long. I had no idea t’was for you.”
“Very well. It needs a good scrubbing.” Annabella wiped at the soiled sleeve of her dress. “I shall need fresh clothing from my rooms. Two of the dresses from my wardrobe.” She frowned. “No, three dresses. My yellow day dress and the blue one. And my gray silk walking dress. And a Spencer. Oh, I’ve a new champagne and black gown from…”
The maid was staring at her wide-eyed. “Would you like me to pack as though you were going away, m’lady?”
Relieved, Annabella sighed with the imaginings of her entire closet at her disposal. “Yes, please.” The maid wasn’t going to make trouble. “I — what is your name?”
“My name’s Abby, m’lady.” Her head dipped in a slight curtsy as her gaze slid around the stark room then moved to the empty bucket. “Shall I see to tidying up first?”
“I shall wait here whilst you see to my fresh clothing, and you may clean up after that.”
Abby’s head bobbed. “Yes, Lady Annabella.” She snatched up the empty bucket and scampered off. The spilled water had long since been consumed by the dust coating the floor.
A smile spread across Annabella’s lips as she stepped to the cottage door and gazed after the maid running up the path. She’d been saved from a horrible demise after all. The scent of flowers beckoned, and she couldn’t resist stepping into the warm sunshine for the first time in days.
Humming softly, Annabella plucked a rose from the bush next to the steps and sniffed. The sweet perfume filled her nostrils until she found herself giddy. No more horrid lemons! Warm food — entire meals. Oh devil’s bells! She should have requested a meal! And perhaps a way to get a message to Juliet. When would Abby return?
Nearby, a bird sang. Annabella tried to imitate its call, but she’d never learned to whistle — no matter how many times Juliet had tried to teach her. So she started humming again. The bird trilled a reply, and Annabella opened her mouth and sang an upward scale of “ah-ah-ah’s.”
She closed her eyes and twirled, imagining the handsomest prince as her dancing partner. Juliet might think it a child’s tale to dream of true love, but Annabella didn’t think that at—
Strong arms caught her in mid-spin and a hand settled at her waist. Annabella’s eyes flew open, and she screamed. But the dashing stranger grinned and whirled her around then released her.
Kay Springsteen makes her home in Virginia near the Blue Ridge Mountains. In addition to having written five full-length contemporary romance novels and one Regency romance, she works as an editor. When she's not editing or writing, Kay is busy with her hobbies of reading, photography, gardening, hiking in the mountains with one of her rescue dogs, spending time with her terrific family. She is a firm believer in happily ever after endings and knows one is out there for everyone; it just may not be exactly what was expected. Find Kay on Facebook and at her Blog.
If you ask bestselling author Kim Bowman's husband, he'd say she spends her days emailing her cyber best friend and writing partner, Kay Springsteen, drinking soda, and eating white chocolate. While that might be true, she also chases their five-year-old son Cage around, thinks about the housework she should be doing, and brainstorms her next favorite book. She's had the writing bug since she was a teenager and is happy to now live her dream of being a full-time author. You can find Kim on Facebook, Twitter, and her Blog.