Forever After

Forever After

Coming July, 2017!

Book #3 of the FOREVER series

CHERYL HOLT continues the fun and excitement of her thrilling FOREVER series with another tale of passion, drama, and love forevermore…

SARAH HENLEY grew up as the rich, cosseted daughter of an earl, but when her father died and distant relatives inherited, she fell down society’s ladder.  To earn a living, she’s working as a lady’s companion and, with no dowry or prospects, she’s given up hope of ever marrying.  But when a dashing, dangerous rogue crosses her path, she starts to wonder if her fate might have changed…

NICHOLAS SWIFT is a gambler and wastrel who has always had to scheme and deceive others in order to get by.  He’s perfected a life of pretense and trickery that lets him thrive among the snobs of High Society.  When he meets beautiful, lonely Sarah, he can’t help but be intrigued, but he could never be interested in a penniless female…

Yet Sarah isn’t like any woman he’s ever met before.  Can her affection for him make any difference?  Can she persuade him to become the man he was always destined to be…

An Amazon “Top 100 “ author…

“Best Storyteller of the Year”

Romantic Times Magazine

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CHAPTER ONE

“What is your opinion of the place?”

Sarah Barrington Henley tamped down a frank response, politely saying instead, “It’s lovely.”

Her employer, Mildred Farnsworth, snorted with amusement.  “You can be honest with me, Sarah.  It’s pretentious and horrid.  I won’t faint from shock if you admit it.”

“Well, your nephew is a bachelor.  Perhaps it just needs a feminine touch.”

Mildred snorted again.  “As if he could convince a sensible female to wed him.  He’ll always be single, which means all women should feel extremely lucky.”

Sarah chuckled, then went to the window and stared across the property.  It was pretty, with woods and a manicured garden.  In the distance, she noted a small lake and imagined it would be marvelous to have a picnic in the grass.

She had only been with Mildred for a few days, and she was trying not to be shocked by how blunt and caustic she could be.  Luckily, her sarcastic comments were never offered in a cruel or spiteful way.  She simply had cutting views on most topics, and she wasn’t afraid to share them.

Sarah wallowed in a world where tepid civility was constantly practiced so it was jolting and refreshing to hear Mildred speak her mind.

“What time is it?” Mildred asked.

“It must be almost seven.”

“I’m starving.  I wonder if we’ll be fed before bed.”

“I’m sure we will be,” Sarah replied.  “When we were climbing the stairs, the butler mentioned that there will be a buffet on the rear verandah at eight.”

“So he did.  I’d forgotten.”

They’d been escorted to a bedroom suite, complete with sitting and dressing room, plus a maid’s room at the back where Sarah would have a bit of privacy.  They were in the bedchamber, and Mildred balanced her hips on the edge of her mattress and bounced up and down.

“I suppose I’ll be able to relax on this contraption,” Mildred said.  “On my last visit, it was hard as a rock.  I warned Clayton I wouldn’t return unless he promised me better accommodations.”

Clayton Farnsworth was her much-maligned nephew.  Mildred had a very low attitude about the man, and Sarah couldn’t wait to meet him.  She was curious if he would be as lazy and offensive as Mildred claimed.

“I’m delighted to learn that you’ll be comfortable,” Sarah told her.

“Don’t be surprised if your mattress is stuffed with rocks.”

“I’ve slept in many awful spots.  This house is like a palace compared to some of them.”

“How long have you been working?”

“For most of a decade.”

“You poor thing,” Mildred commiserated.

“It hasn’t been that bad,” Sarah said, and usually it wasn’t.  “Most of my postings have been fine.  My sister is a governess, and I could never watch over children.  I don’t have the patience.”

“Neither do I.  It’s another trait we have in common.  We’ll get on brilliantly.”

“I hope so.”

Sarah was twenty-four, and she’d been bumbling through as a lady’s companion ever since her parents and brother, Hayden, had died when she was fourteen.  She’d still been at school, and fortunately her final year of tuition had previously been paid so she’d finished her education.

Then the headmistress, Miss Peabody, had sent her to London, to Mrs. Ford who ran the Ford Employment Agency.  Mrs. Ford provided girls to various wealthy families who needed assistance.

Sarah had two sisters who were also represented by Mrs. Ford.  Abigail was the governess, while Sarah’s twin, Catherine, chaperoned debutantes in the hectic months leading up to their weddings.

Sarah liked helping older people who were lonely and spent too much time on their own.  The negative aspect of it was that the elderly passed away—typically when you least expected it—which was what had happened at her prior job.

Mildred admitted to being fifty, and she was short, thin, and energetic.  She was spry and vivacious and had a mischievous streak a mile long.  Sarah had trouble keeping up with her.

“How shall we occupy ourselves until the buffet is ready?” Sarah asked.

“I thought I’d lie down for a few minutes.  Why don’t you snoop around?  I can meet you on the verandah for supper.”

“Are you certain you don’t mind?”

“No.  You should mingle and introduce yourself.  This will be a young person’s party, and you’ll fit right in.”

“After so many hours in the carriage, I’d like to stretch my legs.  I think I’ll walk to the lake.”

“That’s a good idea.  There’s a path that circles it.  It will invigorate you.”

“I’ll be downstairs at eight.”

“If you stumble on my nephew, inform him that I arrived and he wasn’t here to greet me.”

“I will scold him to Heaven and back.”

“Please do.  He could benefit from being admonished by someone besides me.  He insists I’m a nag.”

Sarah grinned.  “Well then, I shall have to set him straight.”

Mildred grinned too and waved her out.  “Go, go.  Enjoy yourself.  I’ll see you at the buffet.”

“Are you positive you don’t need anything?”

“What could I need—except for a bit of food?  I’m rich and happy and healthy, and I have you to amuse me.  Go!”

Sarah nodded and hurried out.  She managed to wind through the halls and out the rear door without getting lost.  She crossed the verandah and went down into the garden without bumping into any other guests.

It was a beautiful June evening, the summer day long, the sun dropping in the west.  The colors were particularly vibrant, the trees a vivid green, the blue sky fading to lavender.  As she started off, she felt as if she’d won the lottery or as if she was suddenly laboring under a magic spell where everything had turned out to be perfect.

Mildred was a spinster who was funny and kind, and she acted as if Sarah was a favored cousin or daughter.  It was such a welcome change of circumstance, and she constantly pinched herself, afraid she was dreaming and would awaken to find it wasn’t real.

It was Clayton Farnsworth’s twenty-fifth birthday, so he was hosting a country party.  She and Mildred would stay for a week, then they were off to Bath where Mildred rented a house in the summer.  Then she was talking about traveling to southern France for the autumn, then perhaps to Portugal for Christmas.  She had the money for touring, and she had every intention of taking Sarah with her.

Sarah’s contract with her was for twelve months, and Mildred had been very clear that it wouldn’t be extended.  She liked to treat the girls who worked for her, then she would give another girl a chance.

But Sarah planned to be so even-tempered and agreeable that Mildred would want to keep her forever.

She strolled along, speculating about Clayton Farnsworth and his guests.  She hoped they wouldn’t be anyone she knew.  Whenever she ran into old acquaintances, the encounter was so awkward, and she hated the pitying glances and annoying questions.

She always had a dozen lies prepared to slip off her tongue.

Her father had been Earl of Middlebury so she’d grown up as the cosseted daughter of an aristocrat.  After his death, her cousin, Jasper, had inherited, and naught had been the same since.  She and her sisters had been cut loose from the family’s coffers and received no support.  Their dowries were squandered so they could never marry.  It was too humiliating to explain so she tried to never speak about any of it.

They even used a fake surname—their mother’s maiden name of Barrington—to hide their true status.  Mrs. Ford had suggested the ruse, feeling it would skew the lines of authority if a potential employer discovered their actual position.

But even though they’d begun using Barrington at her request, they were glad to have adopted it.  Jasper was a gambler and wastrel, and his wife, Desdemona, was even worse.  They’d destroyed the Henley reputation with their vices and extravagance.  Sarah was delighted to pretend she had no connection to them.

Up ahead, there appeared to be a gazebo—who didn’t love a gazebo?—and she would sit in it and contemplate her life and fate.

Her first order of business would be to write letters to her sisters.  In the past few weeks, they’d all flitted off to new jobs.  She wasn’t sure about their situations, and it was worrisome.  It was especially difficult to be separated from Catherine who was her twin.  They were like one person in different bodies.

She slowed, realizing she could hear laughter and splashing, and it sounded as if people were swimming.  Was it men and women together?  Could it be?

Without warning, the path ended and she was at the edge of the woods.  The lake was in front of her, and she dashed behind a tree, not anxious to bluster in when she was a stranger.  She peeked out at the revelers, and the spectacle that greeted her was too shocking to describe.

There were three women in the pond, and they were naked!  Two of them were kneeling down and immersed to their chests, and the third was standing, the water at her hips, her large breasts visible.

Sarah wrenched away, refusing to ogle the dissolute trio.  It was disconcerting and embarrassing.

A man was with them, and he dawdled on the sandy bank and watched them with a keen interest.  And why wouldn’t he be extremely interested?  It couldn’t be a sight he witnessed every day.

Apparently, he’d been in the water with them.  He was wearing only his trousers, and they were soaked and plastered to his thighs.  His feet were bare, his chest bare.  His black hair was wet and slicked off his forehead.  Droplets dampened his shoulders and arms, and for some reason all that sodden skin was incredibly enlivening.

Sarah was transfixed.

He was thirty or so, tall and slender, but muscularly built, his torso bronzed from the sun.

From how his blue eyes twinkled with merriment, he looked just like Mildred, and Sarah assumed she’d finally met the hapless nephew, Clayton Farnsworth.  The resemblance to Mildred was so uncanny she couldn’t imagine who else it could be, yet she was exceedingly confused.

There wasn’t a single detail about him that matched any of Mildred’s accounts.  She’d painted him as a dull wit, an obese sluggard, and a lazy, pretentious busybody who pestered her about her private affairs while he wasted his money on drink and gambling.

The man before her was breathtakingly gorgeous, his physique like a model’s an artist might have carved in a slab of marble.  Even from where she was lurking in the trees, she sensed a refinement and elegance that few males could ever possess.

Was Mildred blind?  Or had she denigrated him for so long that she didn’t see the sort of person he really was?

“Come and join us,” one of the women called to him, and the others took up the chorus.  “Yes!  Come in!  Come in!”

Sarah was agog, and she ordered herself to sneak away, but she couldn’t move.  She was terrified they would note her spying on them.  How would she explain herself?

It would put her on the wrong foot and cause a kerfuffle immediately after they’d arrived.  It might upset Mildred, which would be risky when Sarah’s place was so new and tenuous.

The woman who was standing had pulled her shoulders back to thrust her breasts toward him as if she was proud of her bosom and wanted to be sure he noticed.  As if he wouldn’t!

Sarah had never been courted or had a beau, but she’d been kissed several times by boring, inappropriate dolts.  Yet she wasn’t completely unschooled about amour.

The females with whom she worked—particularly the housemaids who had a lower moral code—were free with their gossip about carnal matters.  Men enjoyed naked flesh, and many adult behaviors were pursued in a nude condition.  But she hadn’t understood that a woman would so flagrantly flaunt herself.

She’d believed erotic episodes were perpetrated in dark bedrooms and under the blankets with the curtains tightly closed.  It had never occurred to her that people would frolic outside—and in a group!

The discovery was astonishing and riveting.

“I was already in the water with you.”  His voice was a cultured baritone that tickled her innards.  “It’s too cold.”

“We’ll warm you up!”

“We can do it!  You know we can!”

“I have no doubt,” he cockily retorted, and it sent them into peals of laughter.  “You ladies are all so lovely.  How could I not be entertained?”

“I get him first,” one woman said.

Another countered with, “No, you were first last time.  It’s my turn.”

He smugly replied with, “I have stamina enough for all three of you.  You don’t have to fight over me.”

Sarah had deemed herself hidden, but to her horror the man glanced over at her and winked.  He winked!

Had he seen her approaching?  Had he realized she was spying?  She was mortified to the marrow of her bones and worried he might point her out to the other women.  They’d snicker, and she’d be the butt of jokes.  What if they demanded she participate?  What if that type of conduct was expected?

Mildred had claimed the gathering was simply a birthday party, that her nephew held it every year, but was he planning an event that was much more risqué?

“Let me hear your opinion,” he called to them.  “Should I leave my trousers on?  Or should I remove them?  What is your preference?”

“Naked, yes, yes!” they crowed in unison.

One of them added, “Show us what’s concealed under all that fabric.  Are you worth it?”

“Am I worth it?”  He scoffed.  “I’m so worth it.”

As he spoke to them, he peeked at Sarah to be certain she was still watching him.  Was he teasing her?  Was he trying to scare her?  Did he find her discomfort to be humorous?  Was he trying to lure her into their scandalous game?

He was so debauched!  So were his companions.  Any possibility seemed likely.

He shifted slightly so he was angled away from them and directly toward her.  She had a full view of his broad chest, his handsome face, his mesmerizing blue eyes.  They were especially potent, his gaze enthralling in a fashion she didn’t comprehend.  She was frozen in place, spellbound by the powerful aura he emitted.

She’d never been stared at as he was staring, and if she hadn’t been so flustered she’d have tarried there forever just so he wouldn’t look away.

There was a hint of the devil in his expression, as if he was daring her or testing her mettle.  She couldn’t decide what reaction he was seeking, but his hand went to the front of his trousers and he flicked at the top button, then the second, then the third.

He stopped, his fingers hovering over the fourth one, the flap loose and flopping open.  She was fascinated and aghast.  Had he no shame?  Had he no sense of modesty or decorum?

His audacious grin widened, and he waited as if figuring she’d squeal with dismay.  She shook her head so he’d grasp that she was greatly offended—not that such a roguish oaf would care—and she whipped away and ran.

Behind her, his admirers chanted, “Strip!  Strip!  Strip!”

She continued on, and gradually their salacious noise faded to nothing.  She paused to catch her breath, and she peered back over and over, terrified the demented roué might chase after her, but he didn’t.

She wondered how arrogant he’d be when he arrived for supper and saw her sitting with his aunt.  She hoped he’d ignite with humiliation, but she’d never be that lucky.

The entire week would be incredibly awkward, but if anyone was going to be embarrassed, it would be Clayton Farnsworth.  He was an unscrupulous libertine, and she was Lady Middlebury’s daughter.  With the least condescending glower, she could cut him to the quick.

She started off again, and she took her time, slowing as she neared the manor.  It was a charming house—from the outside anyway.  It was three stories, constructed from red brick with black shutters and white window trim.  It was the sort of residence where a person could be content, but as Mildred had pointed out her nephew was a buffoon who thought it was important to follow all the trends.

Chinese art and furniture were the current rage among a certain set of idiots, and he’d remodeled the downstairs parlors with Oriental décor.  It seemed as if a crime had been committed against the beautiful old dwelling.

She struggled not to behave like too much of a snob, but she had been raised by her mother to recognize quality and value.  She had excellent taste and style, and she decreed Clayton Farnsworth to be an uncouth disaster.  When she was around him, she would let her haughty tendencies flow free so he would realize that she hadn’t been impressed by his childish, dissipated antics.

Up on the verandah, servants were assembling the buffet, and tables had been arranged so guests could gather in small groups to chat and eat.  Mildred was seated at one of them and drinking a glass of wine.  She noticed Sarah coming down the path, and she waved and beckoned her forward.

Sarah climbed the steps and plopped down.

Mildred studied her and scowled.  “Your color is very high, dear.  Are you all right?”

“Yes, I’m fine.  I had a bit of an…incident during my walk.”

“An incident?  My goodness!  Please tell me it wasn’t hideous.”

For a moment, Sarah debated if she should keep her mouth shut, but the nude escapade was the most depraved sight she’d ever witnessed.  The words were begging to spill out.  She couldn’t swallow them down.

She leaned in and whispered, “You won’t believe what I saw.”

“What?”

“There were several people swimming.”

Mildred wrinkled her nose.  “It’s a little cold for it.”

“They weren’t wearing any clothes!”

“Really?”  Mildred glanced toward the lake as if she’d like to rush out and check for herself.  “Are they still there?”

“I’m sure they are.”  Sarah whispered more quietly.  “It was three women and a man.”

“Well, well!  Maybe this party will be a lot more fun than I imagined.”

“I think the man was your nephew.”

“Why would you think that?”

“He looked exactly like you.  Same face, same blue eyes.  If he wasn’t Mr. Farnsworth, I’ll eat my bonnet.”

Mildred scoffed.  “Trust me, Sarah, Clayton would never allow himself to be viewed unclad.  He’s always been chubby, and he’s a dandy who likes his cravat to be perfectly tied.”

Just then, a man sauntered out of the house.  He was a few years older than Sarah, short and fat, with dull brown eyes and brown hair that was thinning in the front.  His lips were pinched as if he was holding in a permanent complaint.  He appeared fussy and persnickety and totally obnoxious.

“Ah, there’s Clayton.”  Mildred’s scathing assessment traveled down his torso.  “He’s very dry so I assume he wasn’t the one frolicking.”

“No, it was definitely someone else.”  Who had the elegant, dissolute fellow been?  “Have you another nephew in attendance?  Or perhaps a cousin?”

“No, Clayton is my only relative.  Unfortunately.”

“Then I have no idea who he was.”

“Might I hope he was desperately handsome?”

“Yes, he was very handsome.”

“Was he slender and fit, with muscles that tempted you to stroke your palms across them?”

“I suppose you could describe him that way.”

“And was his hair so dark and lush that you wanted to riffle your fingers through it?”

“Mildred!”

“I’ll take that as a yes.”  Mildred smirked.  “Maybe we should finish our supper, then sneak to the lake and see if we can catch a glimpse of him in his altogether.”

Sarah’s jaw dropped.  “Mildred!  Honestly!”

“I love to observe a gorgeous male—clothed or otherwise.”

Sarah’s cheeks flushed a bright scarlet.  “I have to admit he was quite dashing.”

“I’m eager to make his acquaintance, but if he’s a friend of Clayton’s he’s probably a boring dolt.  Let’s not raise our expectations.”

“I’m betting he’ll prove to be very interesting.”

“I’m counting on it.”

Mildred clinked their wine glasses in a toast, and she called to Mr. Farnsworth who was over by the door and conferring with a footman.

“Clayton!  I’ve been here for hours.  Mind your manners and say hello.”

At the sound of her voice, he whipped around like a marionette.  “Aunt Mildred!  There you are.  I was told you’d arrived.”

“Come and meet my new companion—Miss Barrington.  Then tell us who is swimming naked in the lake.  It’s a man and three ladies—although the word lady isn’t necessarily accurate.”

“Swimming naked?” Mr. Farnsworth turned an odd puce color.  “I can’t guess who it would be.”

“Miss Barrington and I will simply have to investigate for ourselves after the meal is over.”

She winked at Sarah, flashing a look that promised all sorts of mischief.  Sarah hunkered down to watch for the debauched cad to slink in.

Who would he be?  She couldn’t wait to find out.

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CHAPTER ONE

“What is your opinion of the place?”

Sarah Barrington Henley tamped down a frank response, politely saying instead, “It’s lovely.”

Her employer, Mildred Farnsworth, snorted with amusement.  “You can be honest with me, Sarah.  It’s pretentious and horrid.  I won’t faint from shock if you admit it.”

“Well, your nephew is a bachelor.  Perhaps it just needs a feminine touch.”

Mildred snorted again.  “As if he could convince a sensible female to wed him.  He’ll always be single, which means all women should feel extremely lucky.”

Sarah chuckled, then went to the window and stared across the property.  It was pretty, with woods and a manicured garden.  In the distance, she noted a small lake and imagined it would be marvelous to have a picnic in the grass.

She had only been with Mildred for a few days, and she was trying not to be shocked by how blunt and caustic she could be.  Luckily, her sarcastic comments were never offered in a cruel or spiteful way.  She simply had cutting views on most topics, and she wasn’t afraid to share them.

Sarah wallowed in a world where tepid civility was constantly practiced so it was jolting and refreshing to hear Mildred speak her mind.

“What time is it?” Mildred asked.

“It must be almost seven.”

“I’m starving.  I wonder if we’ll be fed before bed.”

“I’m sure we will be,” Sarah replied.  “When we were climbing the stairs, the butler mentioned that there will be a buffet on the rear verandah at eight.”

“So he did.  I’d forgotten.”

They’d been escorted to a bedroom suite, complete with sitting and dressing room, plus a maid’s room at the back where Sarah would have a bit of privacy.  They were in the bedchamber, and Mildred balanced her hips on the edge of her mattress and bounced up and down.

“I suppose I’ll be able to relax on this contraption,” Mildred said.  “On my last visit, it was hard as a rock.  I warned Clayton I wouldn’t return unless he promised me better accommodations.”

Clayton Farnsworth was her much-maligned nephew.  Mildred had a very low attitude about the man, and Sarah couldn’t wait to meet him.  She was curious if he would be as lazy and offensive as Mildred claimed.

“I’m delighted to learn that you’ll be comfortable,” Sarah told her.

“Don’t be surprised if your mattress is stuffed with rocks.”

“I’ve slept in many awful spots.  This house is like a palace compared to some of them.”

“How long have you been working?”

“For most of a decade.”

“You poor thing,” Mildred commiserated.

“It hasn’t been that bad,” Sarah said, and usually it wasn’t.  “Most of my postings have been fine.  My sister is a governess, and I could never watch over children.  I don’t have the patience.”

“Neither do I.  It’s another trait we have in common.  We’ll get on brilliantly.”

“I hope so.”

Sarah was twenty-four, and she’d been bumbling through as a lady’s companion ever since her parents and brother, Hayden, had died when she was fourteen.  She’d still been at school, and fortunately her final year of tuition had previously been paid so she’d finished her education.

Then the headmistress, Miss Peabody, had sent her to London, to Mrs. Ford who ran the Ford Employment Agency.  Mrs. Ford provided girls to various wealthy families who needed assistance.

Sarah had two sisters who were also represented by Mrs. Ford.  Abigail was the governess, while Sarah’s twin, Catherine, chaperoned debutantes in the hectic months leading up to their weddings.

Sarah liked helping older people who were lonely and spent too much time on their own.  The negative aspect of it was that the elderly passed away—typically when you least expected it—which was what had happened at her prior job.

Mildred admitted to being fifty, and she was short, thin, and energetic.  She was spry and vivacious and had a mischievous streak a mile long.  Sarah had trouble keeping up with her.

“How shall we occupy ourselves until the buffet is ready?” Sarah asked.

“I thought I’d lie down for a few minutes.  Why don’t you snoop around?  I can meet you on the verandah for supper.”

“Are you certain you don’t mind?”

“No.  You should mingle and introduce yourself.  This will be a young person’s party, and you’ll fit right in.”

“After so many hours in the carriage, I’d like to stretch my legs.  I think I’ll walk to the lake.”

“That’s a good idea.  There’s a path that circles it.  It will invigorate you.”

“I’ll be downstairs at eight.”

“If you stumble on my nephew, inform him that I arrived and he wasn’t here to greet me.”

“I will scold him to Heaven and back.”

“Please do.  He could benefit from being admonished by someone besides me.  He insists I’m a nag.”

Sarah grinned.  “Well then, I shall have to set him straight.”

Mildred grinned too and waved her out.  “Go, go.  Enjoy yourself.  I’ll see you at the buffet.”

“Are you positive you don’t need anything?”

“What could I need—except for a bit of food?  I’m rich and happy and healthy, and I have you to amuse me.  Go!”

Sarah nodded and hurried out.  She managed to wind through the halls and out the rear door without getting lost.  She crossed the verandah and went down into the garden without bumping into any other guests.

It was a beautiful June evening, the summer day long, the sun dropping in the west.  The colors were particularly vibrant, the trees a vivid green, the blue sky fading to lavender.  As she started off, she felt as if she’d won the lottery or as if she was suddenly laboring under a magic spell where everything had turned out to be perfect.

Mildred was a spinster who was funny and kind, and she acted as if Sarah was a favored cousin or daughter.  It was such a welcome change of circumstance, and she constantly pinched herself, afraid she was dreaming and would awaken to find it wasn’t real.

It was Clayton Farnsworth’s twenty-fifth birthday, so he was hosting a country party.  She and Mildred would stay for a week, then they were off to Bath where Mildred rented a house in the summer.  Then she was talking about traveling to southern France for the autumn, then perhaps to Portugal for Christmas.  She had the money for touring, and she had every intention of taking Sarah with her.

Sarah’s contract with her was for twelve months, and Mildred had been very clear that it wouldn’t be extended.  She liked to treat the girls who worked for her, then she would give another girl a chance.

But Sarah planned to be so even-tempered and agreeable that Mildred would want to keep her forever.

She strolled along, speculating about Clayton Farnsworth and his guests.  She hoped they wouldn’t be anyone she knew.  Whenever she ran into old acquaintances, the encounter was so awkward, and she hated the pitying glances and annoying questions.

She always had a dozen lies prepared to slip off her tongue.

Her father had been Earl of Middlebury so she’d grown up as the cosseted daughter of an aristocrat.  After his death, her cousin, Jasper, had inherited, and naught had been the same since.  She and her sisters had been cut loose from the family’s coffers and received no support.  Their dowries were squandered so they could never marry.  It was too humiliating to explain so she tried to never speak about any of it.

They even used a fake surname—their mother’s maiden name of Barrington—to hide their true status.  Mrs. Ford had suggested the ruse, feeling it would skew the lines of authority if a potential employer discovered their actual position.

But even though they’d begun using Barrington at her request, they were glad to have adopted it.  Jasper was a gambler and wastrel, and his wife, Desdemona, was even worse.  They’d destroyed the Henley reputation with their vices and extravagance.  Sarah was delighted to pretend she had no connection to them.

Up ahead, there appeared to be a gazebo—who didn’t love a gazebo?—and she would sit in it and contemplate her life and fate.

Her first order of business would be to write letters to her sisters.  In the past few weeks, they’d all flitted off to new jobs.  She wasn’t sure about their situations, and it was worrisome.  It was especially difficult to be separated from Catherine who was her twin.  They were like one person in different bodies.

She slowed, realizing she could hear laughter and splashing, and it sounded as if people were swimming.  Was it men and women together?  Could it be?

Without warning, the path ended and she was at the edge of the woods.  The lake was in front of her, and she dashed behind a tree, not anxious to bluster in when she was a stranger.  She peeked out at the revelers, and the spectacle that greeted her was too shocking to describe.

There were three women in the pond, and they were naked!  Two of them were kneeling down and immersed to their chests, and the third was standing, the water at her hips, her large breasts visible.

Sarah wrenched away, refusing to ogle the dissolute trio.  It was disconcerting and embarrassing.

A man was with them, and he dawdled on the sandy bank and watched them with a keen interest.  And why wouldn’t he be extremely interested?  It couldn’t be a sight he witnessed every day.

Apparently, he’d been in the water with them.  He was wearing only his trousers, and they were soaked and plastered to his thighs.  His feet were bare, his chest bare.  His black hair was wet and slicked off his forehead.  Droplets dampened his shoulders and arms, and for some reason all that sodden skin was incredibly enlivening.

Sarah was transfixed.

He was thirty or so, tall and slender, but muscularly built, his torso bronzed from the sun.

From how his blue eyes twinkled with merriment, he looked just like Mildred, and Sarah assumed she’d finally met the hapless nephew, Clayton Farnsworth.  The resemblance to Mildred was so uncanny she couldn’t imagine who else it could be, yet she was exceedingly confused.

There wasn’t a single detail about him that matched any of Mildred’s accounts.  She’d painted him as a dull wit, an obese sluggard, and a lazy, pretentious busybody who pestered her about her private affairs while he wasted his money on drink and gambling.

The man before her was breathtakingly gorgeous, his physique like a model’s an artist might have carved in a slab of marble.  Even from where she was lurking in the trees, she sensed a refinement and elegance that few males could ever possess.

Was Mildred blind?  Or had she denigrated him for so long that she didn’t see the sort of person he really was?

“Come and join us,” one of the women called to him, and the others took up the chorus.  “Yes!  Come in!  Come in!”

Sarah was agog, and she ordered herself to sneak away, but she couldn’t move.  She was terrified they would note her spying on them.  How would she explain herself?

It would put her on the wrong foot and cause a kerfuffle immediately after they’d arrived.  It might upset Mildred, which would be risky when Sarah’s place was so new and tenuous.

The woman who was standing had pulled her shoulders back to thrust her breasts toward him as if she was proud of her bosom and wanted to be sure he noticed.  As if he wouldn’t!

Sarah had never been courted or had a beau, but she’d been kissed several times by boring, inappropriate dolts.  Yet she wasn’t completely unschooled about amour.

The females with whom she worked—particularly the housemaids who had a lower moral code—were free with their gossip about carnal matters.  Men enjoyed naked flesh, and many adult behaviors were pursued in a nude condition.  But she hadn’t understood that a woman would so flagrantly flaunt herself.

She’d believed erotic episodes were perpetrated in dark bedrooms and under the blankets with the curtains tightly closed.  It had never occurred to her that people would frolic outside—and in a group!

The discovery was astonishing and riveting.

“I was already in the water with you.”  His voice was a cultured baritone that tickled her innards.  “It’s too cold.”

“We’ll warm you up!”

“We can do it!  You know we can!”

“I have no doubt,” he cockily retorted, and it sent them into peals of laughter.  “You ladies are all so lovely.  How could I not be entertained?”

“I get him first,” one woman said.

Another countered with, “No, you were first last time.  It’s my turn.”

He smugly replied with, “I have stamina enough for all three of you.  You don’t have to fight over me.”

Sarah had deemed herself hidden, but to her horror the man glanced over at her and winked.  He winked!

Had he seen her approaching?  Had he realized she was spying?  She was mortified to the marrow of her bones and worried he might point her out to the other women.  They’d snicker, and she’d be the butt of jokes.  What if they demanded she participate?  What if that type of conduct was expected?

Mildred had claimed the gathering was simply a birthday party, that her nephew held it every year, but was he planning an event that was much more risqué?

“Let me hear your opinion,” he called to them.  “Should I leave my trousers on?  Or should I remove them?  What is your preference?”

“Naked, yes, yes!” they crowed in unison.

One of them added, “Show us what’s concealed under all that fabric.  Are you worth it?”

“Am I worth it?”  He scoffed.  “I’m so worth it.”

As he spoke to them, he peeked at Sarah to be certain she was still watching him.  Was he teasing her?  Was he trying to scare her?  Did he find her discomfort to be humorous?  Was he trying to lure her into their scandalous game?

He was so debauched!  So were his companions.  Any possibility seemed likely.

He shifted slightly so he was angled away from them and directly toward her.  She had a full view of his broad chest, his handsome face, his mesmerizing blue eyes.  They were especially potent, his gaze enthralling in a fashion she didn’t comprehend.  She was frozen in place, spellbound by the powerful aura he emitted.

She’d never been stared at as he was staring, and if she hadn’t been so flustered she’d have tarried there forever just so he wouldn’t look away.

There was a hint of the devil in his expression, as if he was daring her or testing her mettle.  She couldn’t decide what reaction he was seeking, but his hand went to the front of his trousers and he flicked at the top button, then the second, then the third.

He stopped, his fingers hovering over the fourth one, the flap loose and flopping open.  She was fascinated and aghast.  Had he no shame?  Had he no sense of modesty or decorum?

His audacious grin widened, and he waited as if figuring she’d squeal with dismay.  She shook her head so he’d grasp that she was greatly offended—not that such a roguish oaf would care—and she whipped away and ran.

Behind her, his admirers chanted, “Strip!  Strip!  Strip!”

She continued on, and gradually their salacious noise faded to nothing.  She paused to catch her breath, and she peered back over and over, terrified the demented roué might chase after her, but he didn’t.

She wondered how arrogant he’d be when he arrived for supper and saw her sitting with his aunt.  She hoped he’d ignite with humiliation, but she’d never be that lucky.

The entire week would be incredibly awkward, but if anyone was going to be embarrassed, it would be Clayton Farnsworth.  He was an unscrupulous libertine, and she was Lady Middlebury’s daughter.  With the least condescending glower, she could cut him to the quick.

She started off again, and she took her time, slowing as she neared the manor.  It was a charming house—from the outside anyway.  It was three stories, constructed from red brick with black shutters and white window trim.  It was the sort of residence where a person could be content, but as Mildred had pointed out her nephew was a buffoon who thought it was important to follow all the trends.

Chinese art and furniture were the current rage among a certain set of idiots, and he’d remodeled the downstairs parlors with Oriental décor.  It seemed as if a crime had been committed against the beautiful old dwelling.

She struggled not to behave like too much of a snob, but she had been raised by her mother to recognize quality and value.  She had excellent taste and style, and she decreed Clayton Farnsworth to be an uncouth disaster.  When she was around him, she would let her haughty tendencies flow free so he would realize that she hadn’t been impressed by his childish, dissipated antics.

Up on the verandah, servants were assembling the buffet, and tables had been arranged so guests could gather in small groups to chat and eat.  Mildred was seated at one of them and drinking a glass of wine.  She noticed Sarah coming down the path, and she waved and beckoned her forward.

Sarah climbed the steps and plopped down.

Mildred studied her and scowled.  “Your color is very high, dear.  Are you all right?”

“Yes, I’m fine.  I had a bit of an…incident during my walk.”

“An incident?  My goodness!  Please tell me it wasn’t hideous.”

For a moment, Sarah debated if she should keep her mouth shut, but the nude escapade was the most depraved sight she’d ever witnessed.  The words were begging to spill out.  She couldn’t swallow them down.

She leaned in and whispered, “You won’t believe what I saw.”

“What?”

“There were several people swimming.”

Mildred wrinkled her nose.  “It’s a little cold for it.”

“They weren’t wearing any clothes!”

“Really?”  Mildred glanced toward the lake as if she’d like to rush out and check for herself.  “Are they still there?”

“I’m sure they are.”  Sarah whispered more quietly.  “It was three women and a man.”

“Well, well!  Maybe this party will be a lot more fun than I imagined.”

“I think the man was your nephew.”

“Why would you think that?”

“He looked exactly like you.  Same face, same blue eyes.  If he wasn’t Mr. Farnsworth, I’ll eat my bonnet.”

Mildred scoffed.  “Trust me, Sarah, Clayton would never allow himself to be viewed unclad.  He’s always been chubby, and he’s a dandy who likes his cravat to be perfectly tied.”

Just then, a man sauntered out of the house.  He was a few years older than Sarah, short and fat, with dull brown eyes and brown hair that was thinning in the front.  His lips were pinched as if he was holding in a permanent complaint.  He appeared fussy and persnickety and totally obnoxious.

“Ah, there’s Clayton.”  Mildred’s scathing assessment traveled down his torso.  “He’s very dry so I assume he wasn’t the one frolicking.”

“No, it was definitely someone else.”  Who had the elegant, dissolute fellow been?  “Have you another nephew in attendance?  Or perhaps a cousin?”

“No, Clayton is my only relative.  Unfortunately.”

“Then I have no idea who he was.”

“Might I hope he was desperately handsome?”

“Yes, he was very handsome.”

“Was he slender and fit, with muscles that tempted you to stroke your palms across them?”

“I suppose you could describe him that way.”

“And was his hair so dark and lush that you wanted to riffle your fingers through it?”

“Mildred!”

“I’ll take that as a yes.”  Mildred smirked.  “Maybe we should finish our supper, then sneak to the lake and see if we can catch a glimpse of him in his altogether.”

Sarah’s jaw dropped.  “Mildred!  Honestly!”

“I love to observe a gorgeous male—clothed or otherwise.”

Sarah’s cheeks flushed a bright scarlet.  “I have to admit he was quite dashing.”

“I’m eager to make his acquaintance, but if he’s a friend of Clayton’s he’s probably a boring dolt.  Let’s not raise our expectations.”

“I’m betting he’ll prove to be very interesting.”

“I’m counting on it.”

Mildred clinked their wine glasses in a toast, and she called to Mr. Farnsworth who was over by the door and conferring with a footman.

“Clayton!  I’ve been here for hours.  Mind your manners and say hello.”

At the sound of her voice, he whipped around like a marionette.  “Aunt Mildred!  There you are.  I was told you’d arrived.”

“Come and meet my new companion—Miss Barrington.  Then tell us who is swimming naked in the lake.  It’s a man and three ladies—although the word lady isn’t necessarily accurate.”

“Swimming naked?” Mr. Farnsworth turned an odd puce color.  “I can’t guess who it would be.”

“Miss Barrington and I will simply have to investigate for ourselves after the meal is over.”

She winked at Sarah, flashing a look that promised all sorts of mischief.  Sarah hunkered down to watch for the debauched cad to slink in.

Who would he be?  She couldn’t wait to find out.