skip to Main Content

Jilted by a Cad

Jilted by a Cad

Josephine Bates only ever wanted to marry and have a home of her own.  At age eighteen, when a handsome suitor swept her off her feet, she believed all her dreams were about to come true.   But he was actually a cad who stole her dowry and jilted her at the altar. Since then, she’s been wary of men and their motives.  She’s accepted the notion that she’ll never escape her dreary, quiet existence, and she’ll most likely live out her days as a spinster…

Peyton Prescott is a ship’s captain in the Royal Navy.  He’s a man of action and adventure, and his years have been filled with danger and excitement.  But his brother has died, so he’s inherited a title and earldom he never sought or wanted. He’s afraid his new position will force him to abandon the thrilling life he loves, and he’s loafing in England, feeling landlocked and desperate to return to the sea.  He’d give anything for a diversion, and when pretty, lonely Josephine crosses his path, he’s fascinated and can’t resist…

But Peyton isn’t looking for a bride, and Josephine could never be interested in a handsome, dashing scoundrel.  Yet as friendship blossoms and passion flares, can love be far behind?

 

* * * * *

JILTED at the altar!  The worst humiliation of all…

* * * * *

Buy Links

buy-kindlebuy-nookbuy-ibooksbuy-kobo

CHAPTER ONE

Jo walked down the pretty lane, enjoying the summer day.  The sky was so blue, the woods so green. It was a perfect morning to have snuck away from home, to be out on her own.  She was glad she’d seized the chance to have an adventure.

She spent too much time on her own and—with Maud’s wedding approaching—her sister was in London, shopping for her trousseau, so the house was even quieter than usual.

Jo was bored and lonely, so her current task had arisen just when she needed it the most.  It gave her an excuse to fritter away several hours that otherwise would have been wasted by watching the minutes tick by on the clock.

Maud had received the strangest letter from the Earl of Benton’s estate agent, a Mr. Richard Slater.  Since Maud was busy in town, Jo opened all the mail, even the correspondence addressed to Maud. Mr. Slater’s message had made no sense, and she’d had to read it over and over before the import became clear.

He seemed to believe—when Maud had been a decade younger—she’d engaged in salacious conduct with the Earl that had resulted in the birth of a child named Daisy.  The notion was so preposterous that Jo chuckled whenever she considered it.

Maud was the fussiest, grumpiest, vainest female in the kingdom.  She would never have succumbed to passion.

She and Jo had the same father, but different mothers.  Their father, Harold, had been a gentleman, and Maud’s mother—his first wife—had been a baron’s daughter.  Jo’s mother had been their father’s second wife. She’d been the fetching, sweet nanny hired to tend Maud after her own mother had died.

Because of it, Maud viewed herself as being grand, interesting, and very much above Jo in class and station. She lorded herself over Jo, constantly referring to the disparity in their antecedents and reminding Jo of their separate places in the world.

After his horrid marriage to Maud’s mother, their widowed father hadn’t been able to resist Jo’s mother.  His fixation had been disturbing and scandalous, and it still shocked the conscience of many of their neighbors.

Maud definitely never forgot about it, and Jo should have been offended by Maud’s condescension, but she was twenty now, and she was used to Maud’s irksome ways.

Her sister would never change, and Jo thought Maud was quite ridiculous.  When—precisely—would straitlaced, finicky Maud have found the opportunity to participate in a wicked fling with Lord Benton?  How and where would she have perpetrated it?

Maud was twenty-five, five years older than Jo, and they had always lived at Bates Manor, the lovely mansion on the large estate that had belonged to the Bates family for generations.  Then, after their father had perished and they’d had to sell to pay his debts, they’d moved to the small house outside Telford that Maud had inherited from her grandmother.

There was nothing odd about their childhood or adolescence.  They’d been raised as typical British girls by their very typical British father.  Maud was pious, prim, and moralistic, and Jo was positive Mr. Slater had contacted the wrong Maud Bates by mistake.  Yet there was that year when Maud had been sixteen, and she’d gone abroad to France on a school trip.

With Mr. Slater’s troubling missive to Maud, Jo couldn’t deny being curious about that trip.  Maud hadn’t written Jo a single letter, and when she’d returned, she hadn’t brought any souvenirs.  Jo had barely been eleven, and she’d been hideously disappointed.

Should Jo be questioning that entire event?  Could it be? Could Maud have birthed a love child fathered by Lord Benton when she was sixteen?

No!  It simply wasn’t possible…

As far as Jo was aware, they’d never met the Earl of Benton and weren’t acquainted with the Prescott family.  And Maud wasn’t an attractive female. She was blond and blue-eyed, but chubby and fleshy, and there was a hardness in her expression that made her appear cruel.  It put people on edge.

If an earl had been bent on seduction, Maud was the very last woman such an exalted nobleman would have selected.

Jo intended to speak with Mr. Slater, apprise him of his error, and urge him to locate the correct Maud Bates so the poor girl, Daisy, could have a beneficial conclusion.  Then she’d hurry back to Benton village and take the public coach to Telford. It was only ten miles, and the summer sun was setting very late. She’d be home in plenty of time to have a quiet supper with just the servants for company.

Finally, she arrived at the gate to the estate, and a man was approaching from the other direction.  He was older than she was, probably thirty or so. He waved a greeting, and she waved too.

She dawdled as he neared, but she should have kept on.  After all, she was on a deserted stretch of road. Since she’d left Benton village, she hadn’t stumbled on another soul.  But he seemed friendly, and she perceived no menace.

He was incredibly handsome—tall, broad in the shoulder, thin at the waist—with black hair and striking blue eyes.  He had a firm stride and erect bearing that had her wondering if he’d ever been a soldier. He looked the sort who would be proficient at barking orders and having them obeyed.

While she wasn’t concerned for her safety, she caught herself bracing nonetheless.  Ever since the pathetic afternoon when Holden Cartwright had jilted her at the altar, she’d been wary of handsome men.

Mr. Cartwright had proved she had no aptitude for judging a person’s character.  She was as naïve as the flightiest debutante and effortlessly swayed by outlandish comments that couldn’t be true.

She’d gotten past that terrible episode, had forgiven herself for her stupidity.  She’d forgiven Maud too, even though it had been difficult to absolve her sister. Maud was Jo’s guardian, and a few days before the wedding, she’d signed over Jo’s dowry to Mr. Cartwright.  He’d absconded with it and had vanished without a trace.

They’d been gullible fools who’d seen no reason to be suspicious, so they’d been easy prey for such a dodgy fiend.  Who could have imagined such duplicitous cads existed? Not Jo and Maud, that was for certain.

Jo had accepted her fate as a penniless spinster, that she’d have to live with her unlikable sister forever.  The situation would be even more untenable when Maud married her betrothed, Thompson Townsend, in September.

Jo couldn’t abide Mr. Townsend.  He teased Jo and whispered risqué remarks—as if he and Jo shared a secret.  Her circumstances had always been trying, but with Mr. Townsend about to move in, they would become quite horrid.  But with her dowry squandered, there would be no escape.

She’d adjusted her thinking and lowered her expectations, but she hadn’t shed her distrust of handsome men—and she never would.

“Are you headed to the manor?” the man asked.

“How did you know?”

“It could be that I’m possessed of uncanny mental abilities, or it might also be that you’re standing under the Benton sign.”

She laughed.  “You’re very clever.”

“It’s what everyone says about me.”  He gestured up the lane. “May I walk with you?  Allow me to brighten your stroll.”

“Yes, of course.  I’m sure you’ll brighten it.”

“People say that about me too.”

“What?  That you brighten strolls?”

“Strolls and other…things.”

There was a profusion of innuendo in the boast that she didn’t like.  “Are you flirting with me?”

He grinned.  “Maybe.”

“We haven’t even been introduced, which makes you appear very fast.”

“Or very friendly.”

She scoffed.  “I’ll stick with very fast.”

“May I hope friendly will soon follow?”

“It depends on whether you mind your manners.”

“I shall be the epitome of decorum.”

“I’ll be the judge of that.”  Her prim tone was evidence that she spent entirely too much time around her sister.

Like a trained gallant, he offered his arm.  She hesitated, then took it.

What could it hurt?  It was hardly a crime to walk with a manly man on a sunny day.  It wouldn’t kill her. Anymore though, she was just so accursedly cautious.

Gradually, she realized she was enjoying herself.  Since her debacle with Mr. Cartwright, she rarely socialized.  In Telford, it wasn’t as if there had been a line of swains waiting to grab his spot.  Because of her mother—who was viewed as a voracious hussy who’d snagged the king of the castle for her own—Jo was suspected of inheriting the same base tendencies.

Men kept their distance—except for Mr. Cartwright who’d been from London and hadn’t been apprised of her dubious antecedents.

She’d forgotten how pleasant a gentleman’s company could be.  Though it sounded odd, there was a peculiar charge in the air, as if the universe had engineered the encounter and approved of their meeting.

“Are you employed at the estate?” she asked.

He paused forever before answering.  “Yes, you could say I’m employed there.”

“It was awfully difficult for you to admit it.”

“I was debating my response.  I’m not positive what I do should be called work.”

“Your comment has ignited my curiosity.  What is your position?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“I might.”

“I doubt it.”

He gazed down at her, his expression warm and full of mischief.  For a quick instant, they seemed frozen in place, as if they were locked together in an arresting way.  She didn’t care for the sensation at all, and she yanked away and focused on the lane where the manor was visible through the trees.

“Why are you at Benton?” he asked.  “Will you tell me straight out or shall I guess?”

“I’d force you to guess, but I’m afraid I’d be alarmed by your replies.  I peg you as the type who likes to make a girl blush.”

“You’d peg correctly, but I’ll guess your purpose anyway.”

“I wish you wouldn’t.”

His keen attention was unnerving.  He was acting as if he found her pretty and fascinating, and no one had ever stared at her like that but for her dastardly ex-fiancé.

She knew she was very pretty. She had two eyes in her head and could see herself in a mirror.  Her mother had been a great beauty, and Jo resembled her exactly:  auburn hair, big blue eyes, rosy cheeks, pert nose.

Standing just five-feet-five inches in her shoes, she was thin but curvaceous, and her shapely figure caused men to steal second glances when she passed by. Yet she didn’t want a man to think she was fetching. She didn’t want him to behave in a flirtatious fashion. She was too much of a dunce to assess male regard with a clear lens.

He was studying her outfit, and his appreciation was so blatant that she had to tamp down a spurt of vanity.

She never had any money, but Maud did, and she spent it on clothes.  When she tired of an item, she let Jo have her castoffs. Over the years, Jo had become adept at tailoring.  She could take anything Maud gave her and turn it into a delightful piece. She had a knack for style and color, and she liked simple designs, but the simplicity left her looking extremely glamorous.

“You must be here to have tea with Lady Benton,” he said.

She sputtered with amusement.  “Do I appear to be the sort of female who would pop in to have tea with a countess?”

“Yes, you absolutely do.”

“My goodness. You’re practically spouting poetry.”

“I guarantee it’s very unusual for me, but you have that effect.”

“I’m flattered.”

“The lavender fabric of your gown matches your eyes perfectly.  Is it from Paris?”

“No.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes, I’m very sure.”  She scowled. “If I was here to see the Countess, wouldn’t I have ridden up in a grand coach-and-four with outriders hanging from every corner?”

“Perhaps you like to flout convention.”

“I can categorically state, sir, that I have never once flouted a convention.”

“How dreary your life must be.”

“It can be terribly dreary,” she facetiously said, “but I try to muddle through.”

“You poor thing.”

“You still haven’t told me your position at Benton.”

“Nor have you told me the purpose for your visit.”

“I’m not certain of my purpose.”

“Ah…a woman of mystery.”

“Yes, mystery is my middle name.”

She wasn’t about to confide her intent. She had to speak with the estate agent, Mr. Slater, had to inform him that he’d contacted the wrong Maud Bates, but she would inquire about the girl, Daisy, too.

Mr. Slater had warned that the Earl was ending his financial support.  What would happen to her? Would she be sent away? To what future?

“Are you acquainted with the Earl of Benton?” she asked him.

“Oh, yes, I know him exceedingly well.”

“What’s he like?”

“He’s quite an ogre.”

She missed her step, and he leapt to steady her.

“How is he an ogre?”

“He’s bossy and dictatorial, and he thinks he’s very special.  He never listens, and he demands to have his own way at all costs.”

“Wouldn’t that describe all aristocrats?”

“He’s worse than most of them.”

“You don’t seem to like him very much.”

“Sometimes, I like him just fine, but more often than not, I can’t abide him.”

“So the two of you are close?”

“We are.”

“Would you say he can be cruel?”

“When cruelty is required?  Yes—much as I hate to admit it.”

He was grinning, his eyes alight with mischief again, and she scoffed with aggravation.

“You probably don’t even know Lord Benton.  You’re probably the gardener—or not even that.  You’ve likely never even been inside the manor.”

“I’ll never confess the truth.”

She couldn’t decide what to believe.  He was definitely full of himself, but he wasn’t a common laborer. His speech and mannerisms proved him to be from the upper classes. His clothes gave him away too.  He was wearing casual attire—blue jacket, tan trousers, black boots—but they were sewn from expensive fabric, and they fit him like a glove. He had the money for a skilled tailor.

“What is your connection to the Prescotts?” he asked.

“Is that the Earl’s family?”

“Yes.”

“I’ve only heard of one of them.  Neville Prescott? Isn’t he the Earl?”

After another lengthy hesitation, he said, “Yes, that’s him.”

“As I have entrusted the remainder of my stroll to you, might I have the honor of knowing your name?”

“How about if you call me Peyton?”

She was startled by the request.  “Is that your Christian name?”

“Yes.”

“That’s dreadfully bold of you, and I can’t imagine why we should be on familiar terms.  You must have an ulterior motive. What is it?”

“Considering the kind of life I live, I don’t have many reasons to stand on form.”

“The kind of life you live?  What does that mean?  Do you travel with a pack of wolves?  Are you a performer in the circus? What?”

“No, I simply can’t predict what might transpire from one day to the next.”

“Why are you in such constant peril?”

“I’m a sailor—in the Royal Navy.”

“I suspected you were in the military—or that you had been in the past.”

He raised a brow.  “I can’t determine if your keen appraisal should make me happy or wary. I like to assume I’m an enigma. Am I actually very transparent?”

“Yes, but then, it wasn’t hard to deduce your vocation.  You have the demeanor of a fellow who likes to shout commands and have them obeyed.”

“You are a shrewd judge of character.”

Not really…  “Are you home on furlough?”

“Yes, and now that you’re aware of my dangerous profession, you understand why I refuse to miss out on a friendship.  I asked that you call me Peyton, and I’m afraid I have to insist.”

“That’s quite a mouthful.”

“I don’t like to beat around the bush, especially when I meet a pretty girl.”

The compliment was like a warning bell, and her pulse fluttered with alarm.

“It’s occurred to me,” she said, “that you are very brash.”

“Yes, I am incredibly brash.”

“So you’d be much too forward for me.  It’s not in the cards for us to be friends.”

“You can’t be sure of that.”  He switched subjects. “What is your name?”

“It’s Miss Bates to you.”

“Won’t you give me more information than that?”

“No.”

He smirked and crushed a fist over his heart.  “You wound me, Miss Bates.”

“I couldn’t possibly have.”

“What is your Christian name?”

Why not tell him?  What could it hurt?  “If you must know—”

“I must.”

“It’s Josephine.  Josephine Bates.”

He studied her so meticulously that she might have fidgeted if she was the type of female to fidget.

“You’re so small and slight,” he said.  “I feel compelled to point out that Josephine is too much name for you.”

“It’s the only one I have.”

“If it were up to me, I’d shorten it and call you Jo.  Jo would suit you much better.”

“I won’t fan the flames of your vanity and state that everyone calls me Jo.”

“Then on the day when I’m allowed more liberties, I shall call you Jo too.”

“I doubt that day will ever arrive, so you will have a very long wait.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t count on it.”  He sounded cocky and confident.  “Who can guess what might happen in the future?”

“Who indeed?”

They walked out of the trees, and they halted for a moment so she could absorb the breathtaking vista.  The property was glorious, and her initial thought was that the Prescotts were much richer and grander than she’d realized.

The manor looked like a modern castle.  It was several stories high, constructed from a russet brick.  There were hundreds of windows, spires, and turrets on the corners.  An impressive driveway meandered to the imposing front doors. It was surrounded by park land, with acres of manicured gardens and a placid lake behind.

Sheep grazed in a meadow, and horses frolicked in a pasture.  It was bucolic, like a painting that depicted rural England on a perfect summer afternoon.

“Well, isn’t that just lovely,” she murmured.

He wrinkled up his nose.  “It’s a bit ostentatious for my tastes.”

“Don’t be churlish.  It’s lovely. Admit it.”

“I suppose some people might think it’s lovely”—he flashed a dour glare at Jo—“but the rooms are cold in winter, and the chimneys don’t draw smoke as they should.  It takes too many servants to run it, and it drains money like a sieve.”

She tsked with irritation.  “I’m convinced you’ve never even been inside.”

He chuckled.  “I’ll never tell.”

“You’re such a dreary complainer.  Does any topic make you happy?”

“I’m always happy when I’m chatting with a pretty girl.  Other than that, no, there’s not much that makes me happy.”

“Stop flirting.  I don’t like it.”

“You don’t like flirting?”

“No, and stop complaining.  I don’t like that either.”

“Your wish is my command, my lady.”  He gave a mocking bow.

“It is not.  I’m positive you’ve never obeyed a woman in your life.”

“Probably not.”

He winked at her.  He winked! And she yanked away and started toward the manor.  He accompanied her to the front doors.

“It was delightful to meet you, Miss Bates,” he told her.

“I’d say the same, but I haven’t decided if it was delightful or not.”

“You’re charmed by me.  Don’t deny it.”

“I’m something all right, but it’s not charmed.”

“You never did tell me why you’ve come.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“You’re not here to have tea with the Countess.”

“No, I’m not.  I don’t know her.”

He leaned nearer and whispered, “You’re fortunate you don’t.”

“Honestly!  You are horrid.”

“I can be.”

“Go away.”  She shooed him off with her hand.  “I have an appointment, and since I have no idea who you are, I don’t want the butler to peek out and find you with me.  If you’re a notorious character, I’d be so embarrassed.”

“I am notorious.”

“I’m certain you are.”

He grinned wickedly.  “Who is your appointment with?”

“That’s none of your business, and it’s excessively impertinent of you to inquire.”

“Seriously, Miss Bates.  Who is it with? I’ll give you my opinion of the person.”

“There’s no reason to seek your opinion.   I wouldn’t believe you, and I like to make my own assessments.”

“You wound me again, Miss Bates.”

“I pray none of the blows have been fatal.”

“What if they have been?  After we part, I may languish and waste away.”

“I’ll offer up a prayer for you at church.”

Their banter dwindled, and they tarried, the quiet settling. As she studied him more closely, he looked tired and weary, as if he was carrying heavy burdens, and she suffered a spurt of guilt.  Perhaps she should have been kinder, but then, he was a rogue who needed to be kept in his place.

“Good luck with your appointment,” he said.  “I hope it goes well.”

“So do I.”

“Will you visit us in the future?  Should I expect you? It would elevate my mood if I thought you might return.”

“No, I don’t think I’ll ever be back.”

“What a pity,” he mused.  “Will you call me Peyton? Just once?”

“No.  Why would I?”

“I’m simply eager to discover if I can coerce you into it.”

He was precisely the sort who could coerce a female in numerous ways that didn’t bear considering.  She was lonely and much too isolated, and she was already wishing she could see him again. Would she never learn?

“Goodbye,” she said.

“Goodbye.  Thank you for enlivening my day.”

“Have I enlivened it?” she asked.

“Definitely.”

He spun and sauntered away, and she watched him until he vanished around the side of the house.  She wondered if he would use the servant’s entrance, but he hadn’t seemed like a servant. She couldn’t figure out what he seemed like, and it dawned on her that she felt a bit sad at his departure.  The afternoon was no longer quite so vivid or fun.

She’d assumed he’d glance back at her before he disappeared from view, but he didn’t, and she shook her head at her foolishness.  Then she went to the door and banged the knocker.

Coming Soon!

Coming Soon!

Print Cover
Sample Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

Jo walked down the pretty lane, enjoying the summer day.  The sky was so blue, the woods so green. It was a perfect morning to have snuck away from home, to be out on her own.  She was glad she’d seized the chance to have an adventure.

She spent too much time on her own and—with Maud’s wedding approaching—her sister was in London, shopping for her trousseau, so the house was even quieter than usual.

Jo was bored and lonely, so her current task had arisen just when she needed it the most.  It gave her an excuse to fritter away several hours that otherwise would have been wasted by watching the minutes tick by on the clock.

Maud had received the strangest letter from the Earl of Benton’s estate agent, a Mr. Richard Slater.  Since Maud was busy in town, Jo opened all the mail, even the correspondence addressed to Maud. Mr. Slater’s message had made no sense, and she’d had to read it over and over before the import became clear.

He seemed to believe—when Maud had been a decade younger—she’d engaged in salacious conduct with the Earl that had resulted in the birth of a child named Daisy.  The notion was so preposterous that Jo chuckled whenever she considered it.

Maud was the fussiest, grumpiest, vainest female in the kingdom.  She would never have succumbed to passion.

She and Jo had the same father, but different mothers.  Their father, Harold, had been a gentleman, and Maud’s mother—his first wife—had been a baron’s daughter.  Jo’s mother had been their father’s second wife. She’d been the fetching, sweet nanny hired to tend Maud after her own mother had died.

Because of it, Maud viewed herself as being grand, interesting, and very much above Jo in class and station. She lorded herself over Jo, constantly referring to the disparity in their antecedents and reminding Jo of their separate places in the world.

After his horrid marriage to Maud’s mother, their widowed father hadn’t been able to resist Jo’s mother.  His fixation had been disturbing and scandalous, and it still shocked the conscience of many of their neighbors.

Maud definitely never forgot about it, and Jo should have been offended by Maud’s condescension, but she was twenty now, and she was used to Maud’s irksome ways.

Her sister would never change, and Jo thought Maud was quite ridiculous.  When—precisely—would straitlaced, finicky Maud have found the opportunity to participate in a wicked fling with Lord Benton?  How and where would she have perpetrated it?

Maud was twenty-five, five years older than Jo, and they had always lived at Bates Manor, the lovely mansion on the large estate that had belonged to the Bates family for generations.  Then, after their father had perished and they’d had to sell to pay his debts, they’d moved to the small house outside Telford that Maud had inherited from her grandmother.

There was nothing odd about their childhood or adolescence.  They’d been raised as typical British girls by their very typical British father.  Maud was pious, prim, and moralistic, and Jo was positive Mr. Slater had contacted the wrong Maud Bates by mistake.  Yet there was that year when Maud had been sixteen, and she’d gone abroad to France on a school trip.

With Mr. Slater’s troubling missive to Maud, Jo couldn’t deny being curious about that trip.  Maud hadn’t written Jo a single letter, and when she’d returned, she hadn’t brought any souvenirs.  Jo had barely been eleven, and she’d been hideously disappointed.

Should Jo be questioning that entire event?  Could it be? Could Maud have birthed a love child fathered by Lord Benton when she was sixteen?

No!  It simply wasn’t possible…

As far as Jo was aware, they’d never met the Earl of Benton and weren’t acquainted with the Prescott family.  And Maud wasn’t an attractive female. She was blond and blue-eyed, but chubby and fleshy, and there was a hardness in her expression that made her appear cruel.  It put people on edge.

If an earl had been bent on seduction, Maud was the very last woman such an exalted nobleman would have selected.

Jo intended to speak with Mr. Slater, apprise him of his error, and urge him to locate the correct Maud Bates so the poor girl, Daisy, could have a beneficial conclusion.  Then she’d hurry back to Benton village and take the public coach to Telford. It was only ten miles, and the summer sun was setting very late. She’d be home in plenty of time to have a quiet supper with just the servants for company.

Finally, she arrived at the gate to the estate, and a man was approaching from the other direction.  He was older than she was, probably thirty or so. He waved a greeting, and she waved too.

She dawdled as he neared, but she should have kept on.  After all, she was on a deserted stretch of road. Since she’d left Benton village, she hadn’t stumbled on another soul.  But he seemed friendly, and she perceived no menace.

He was incredibly handsome—tall, broad in the shoulder, thin at the waist—with black hair and striking blue eyes.  He had a firm stride and erect bearing that had her wondering if he’d ever been a soldier. He looked the sort who would be proficient at barking orders and having them obeyed.

While she wasn’t concerned for her safety, she caught herself bracing nonetheless.  Ever since the pathetic afternoon when Holden Cartwright had jilted her at the altar, she’d been wary of handsome men.

Mr. Cartwright had proved she had no aptitude for judging a person’s character.  She was as naïve as the flightiest debutante and effortlessly swayed by outlandish comments that couldn’t be true.

She’d gotten past that terrible episode, had forgiven herself for her stupidity.  She’d forgiven Maud too, even though it had been difficult to absolve her sister. Maud was Jo’s guardian, and a few days before the wedding, she’d signed over Jo’s dowry to Mr. Cartwright.  He’d absconded with it and had vanished without a trace.

They’d been gullible fools who’d seen no reason to be suspicious, so they’d been easy prey for such a dodgy fiend.  Who could have imagined such duplicitous cads existed? Not Jo and Maud, that was for certain.

Jo had accepted her fate as a penniless spinster, that she’d have to live with her unlikable sister forever.  The situation would be even more untenable when Maud married her betrothed, Thompson Townsend, in September.

Jo couldn’t abide Mr. Townsend.  He teased Jo and whispered risqué remarks—as if he and Jo shared a secret.  Her circumstances had always been trying, but with Mr. Townsend about to move in, they would become quite horrid.  But with her dowry squandered, there would be no escape.

She’d adjusted her thinking and lowered her expectations, but she hadn’t shed her distrust of handsome men—and she never would.

“Are you headed to the manor?” the man asked.

“How did you know?”

“It could be that I’m possessed of uncanny mental abilities, or it might also be that you’re standing under the Benton sign.”

She laughed.  “You’re very clever.”

“It’s what everyone says about me.”  He gestured up the lane. “May I walk with you?  Allow me to brighten your stroll.”

“Yes, of course.  I’m sure you’ll brighten it.”

“People say that about me too.”

“What?  That you brighten strolls?”

“Strolls and other…things.”

There was a profusion of innuendo in the boast that she didn’t like.  “Are you flirting with me?”

He grinned.  “Maybe.”

“We haven’t even been introduced, which makes you appear very fast.”

“Or very friendly.”

She scoffed.  “I’ll stick with very fast.”

“May I hope friendly will soon follow?”

“It depends on whether you mind your manners.”

“I shall be the epitome of decorum.”

“I’ll be the judge of that.”  Her prim tone was evidence that she spent entirely too much time around her sister.

Like a trained gallant, he offered his arm.  She hesitated, then took it.

What could it hurt?  It was hardly a crime to walk with a manly man on a sunny day.  It wouldn’t kill her. Anymore though, she was just so accursedly cautious.

Gradually, she realized she was enjoying herself.  Since her debacle with Mr. Cartwright, she rarely socialized.  In Telford, it wasn’t as if there had been a line of swains waiting to grab his spot.  Because of her mother—who was viewed as a voracious hussy who’d snagged the king of the castle for her own—Jo was suspected of inheriting the same base tendencies.

Men kept their distance—except for Mr. Cartwright who’d been from London and hadn’t been apprised of her dubious antecedents.

She’d forgotten how pleasant a gentleman’s company could be.  Though it sounded odd, there was a peculiar charge in the air, as if the universe had engineered the encounter and approved of their meeting.

“Are you employed at the estate?” she asked.

He paused forever before answering.  “Yes, you could say I’m employed there.”

“It was awfully difficult for you to admit it.”

“I was debating my response.  I’m not positive what I do should be called work.”

“Your comment has ignited my curiosity.  What is your position?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“I might.”

“I doubt it.”

He gazed down at her, his expression warm and full of mischief.  For a quick instant, they seemed frozen in place, as if they were locked together in an arresting way.  She didn’t care for the sensation at all, and she yanked away and focused on the lane where the manor was visible through the trees.

“Why are you at Benton?” he asked.  “Will you tell me straight out or shall I guess?”

“I’d force you to guess, but I’m afraid I’d be alarmed by your replies.  I peg you as the type who likes to make a girl blush.”

“You’d peg correctly, but I’ll guess your purpose anyway.”

“I wish you wouldn’t.”

His keen attention was unnerving.  He was acting as if he found her pretty and fascinating, and no one had ever stared at her like that but for her dastardly ex-fiancé.

She knew she was very pretty. She had two eyes in her head and could see herself in a mirror.  Her mother had been a great beauty, and Jo resembled her exactly:  auburn hair, big blue eyes, rosy cheeks, pert nose.

Standing just five-feet-five inches in her shoes, she was thin but curvaceous, and her shapely figure caused men to steal second glances when she passed by. Yet she didn’t want a man to think she was fetching. She didn’t want him to behave in a flirtatious fashion. She was too much of a dunce to assess male regard with a clear lens.

He was studying her outfit, and his appreciation was so blatant that she had to tamp down a spurt of vanity.

She never had any money, but Maud did, and she spent it on clothes.  When she tired of an item, she let Jo have her castoffs. Over the years, Jo had become adept at tailoring.  She could take anything Maud gave her and turn it into a delightful piece. She had a knack for style and color, and she liked simple designs, but the simplicity left her looking extremely glamorous.

“You must be here to have tea with Lady Benton,” he said.

She sputtered with amusement.  “Do I appear to be the sort of female who would pop in to have tea with a countess?”

“Yes, you absolutely do.”

“My goodness. You’re practically spouting poetry.”

“I guarantee it’s very unusual for me, but you have that effect.”

“I’m flattered.”

“The lavender fabric of your gown matches your eyes perfectly.  Is it from Paris?”

“No.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes, I’m very sure.”  She scowled. “If I was here to see the Countess, wouldn’t I have ridden up in a grand coach-and-four with outriders hanging from every corner?”

“Perhaps you like to flout convention.”

“I can categorically state, sir, that I have never once flouted a convention.”

“How dreary your life must be.”

“It can be terribly dreary,” she facetiously said, “but I try to muddle through.”

“You poor thing.”

“You still haven’t told me your position at Benton.”

“Nor have you told me the purpose for your visit.”

“I’m not certain of my purpose.”

“Ah…a woman of mystery.”

“Yes, mystery is my middle name.”

She wasn’t about to confide her intent. She had to speak with the estate agent, Mr. Slater, had to inform him that he’d contacted the wrong Maud Bates, but she would inquire about the girl, Daisy, too.

Mr. Slater had warned that the Earl was ending his financial support.  What would happen to her? Would she be sent away? To what future?

“Are you acquainted with the Earl of Benton?” she asked him.

“Oh, yes, I know him exceedingly well.”

“What’s he like?”

“He’s quite an ogre.”

She missed her step, and he leapt to steady her.

“How is he an ogre?”

“He’s bossy and dictatorial, and he thinks he’s very special.  He never listens, and he demands to have his own way at all costs.”

“Wouldn’t that describe all aristocrats?”

“He’s worse than most of them.”

“You don’t seem to like him very much.”

“Sometimes, I like him just fine, but more often than not, I can’t abide him.”

“So the two of you are close?”

“We are.”

“Would you say he can be cruel?”

“When cruelty is required?  Yes—much as I hate to admit it.”

He was grinning, his eyes alight with mischief again, and she scoffed with aggravation.

“You probably don’t even know Lord Benton.  You’re probably the gardener—or not even that.  You’ve likely never even been inside the manor.”

“I’ll never confess the truth.”

She couldn’t decide what to believe.  He was definitely full of himself, but he wasn’t a common laborer. His speech and mannerisms proved him to be from the upper classes. His clothes gave him away too.  He was wearing casual attire—blue jacket, tan trousers, black boots—but they were sewn from expensive fabric, and they fit him like a glove. He had the money for a skilled tailor.

“What is your connection to the Prescotts?” he asked.

“Is that the Earl’s family?”

“Yes.”

“I’ve only heard of one of them.  Neville Prescott? Isn’t he the Earl?”

After another lengthy hesitation, he said, “Yes, that’s him.”

“As I have entrusted the remainder of my stroll to you, might I have the honor of knowing your name?”

“How about if you call me Peyton?”

She was startled by the request.  “Is that your Christian name?”

“Yes.”

“That’s dreadfully bold of you, and I can’t imagine why we should be on familiar terms.  You must have an ulterior motive. What is it?”

“Considering the kind of life I live, I don’t have many reasons to stand on form.”

“The kind of life you live?  What does that mean?  Do you travel with a pack of wolves?  Are you a performer in the circus? What?”

“No, I simply can’t predict what might transpire from one day to the next.”

“Why are you in such constant peril?”

“I’m a sailor—in the Royal Navy.”

“I suspected you were in the military—or that you had been in the past.”

He raised a brow.  “I can’t determine if your keen appraisal should make me happy or wary. I like to assume I’m an enigma. Am I actually very transparent?”

“Yes, but then, it wasn’t hard to deduce your vocation.  You have the demeanor of a fellow who likes to shout commands and have them obeyed.”

“You are a shrewd judge of character.”

Not really…  “Are you home on furlough?”

“Yes, and now that you’re aware of my dangerous profession, you understand why I refuse to miss out on a friendship.  I asked that you call me Peyton, and I’m afraid I have to insist.”

“That’s quite a mouthful.”

“I don’t like to beat around the bush, especially when I meet a pretty girl.”

The compliment was like a warning bell, and her pulse fluttered with alarm.

“It’s occurred to me,” she said, “that you are very brash.”

“Yes, I am incredibly brash.”

“So you’d be much too forward for me.  It’s not in the cards for us to be friends.”

“You can’t be sure of that.”  He switched subjects. “What is your name?”

“It’s Miss Bates to you.”

“Won’t you give me more information than that?”

“No.”

He smirked and crushed a fist over his heart.  “You wound me, Miss Bates.”

“I couldn’t possibly have.”

“What is your Christian name?”

Why not tell him?  What could it hurt?  “If you must know—”

“I must.”

“It’s Josephine.  Josephine Bates.”

He studied her so meticulously that she might have fidgeted if she was the type of female to fidget.

“You’re so small and slight,” he said.  “I feel compelled to point out that Josephine is too much name for you.”

“It’s the only one I have.”

“If it were up to me, I’d shorten it and call you Jo.  Jo would suit you much better.”

“I won’t fan the flames of your vanity and state that everyone calls me Jo.”

“Then on the day when I’m allowed more liberties, I shall call you Jo too.”

“I doubt that day will ever arrive, so you will have a very long wait.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t count on it.”  He sounded cocky and confident.  “Who can guess what might happen in the future?”

“Who indeed?”

They walked out of the trees, and they halted for a moment so she could absorb the breathtaking vista.  The property was glorious, and her initial thought was that the Prescotts were much richer and grander than she’d realized.

The manor looked like a modern castle.  It was several stories high, constructed from a russet brick.  There were hundreds of windows, spires, and turrets on the corners.  An impressive driveway meandered to the imposing front doors. It was surrounded by park land, with acres of manicured gardens and a placid lake behind.

Sheep grazed in a meadow, and horses frolicked in a pasture.  It was bucolic, like a painting that depicted rural England on a perfect summer afternoon.

“Well, isn’t that just lovely,” she murmured.

He wrinkled up his nose.  “It’s a bit ostentatious for my tastes.”

“Don’t be churlish.  It’s lovely. Admit it.”

“I suppose some people might think it’s lovely”—he flashed a dour glare at Jo—“but the rooms are cold in winter, and the chimneys don’t draw smoke as they should.  It takes too many servants to run it, and it drains money like a sieve.”

She tsked with irritation.  “I’m convinced you’ve never even been inside.”

He chuckled.  “I’ll never tell.”

“You’re such a dreary complainer.  Does any topic make you happy?”

“I’m always happy when I’m chatting with a pretty girl.  Other than that, no, there’s not much that makes me happy.”

“Stop flirting.  I don’t like it.”

“You don’t like flirting?”

“No, and stop complaining.  I don’t like that either.”

“Your wish is my command, my lady.”  He gave a mocking bow.

“It is not.  I’m positive you’ve never obeyed a woman in your life.”

“Probably not.”

He winked at her.  He winked! And she yanked away and started toward the manor.  He accompanied her to the front doors.

“It was delightful to meet you, Miss Bates,” he told her.

“I’d say the same, but I haven’t decided if it was delightful or not.”

“You’re charmed by me.  Don’t deny it.”

“I’m something all right, but it’s not charmed.”

“You never did tell me why you’ve come.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“You’re not here to have tea with the Countess.”

“No, I’m not.  I don’t know her.”

He leaned nearer and whispered, “You’re fortunate you don’t.”

“Honestly!  You are horrid.”

“I can be.”

“Go away.”  She shooed him off with her hand.  “I have an appointment, and since I have no idea who you are, I don’t want the butler to peek out and find you with me.  If you’re a notorious character, I’d be so embarrassed.”

“I am notorious.”

“I’m certain you are.”

He grinned wickedly.  “Who is your appointment with?”

“That’s none of your business, and it’s excessively impertinent of you to inquire.”

“Seriously, Miss Bates.  Who is it with? I’ll give you my opinion of the person.”

“There’s no reason to seek your opinion.   I wouldn’t believe you, and I like to make my own assessments.”

“You wound me again, Miss Bates.”

“I pray none of the blows have been fatal.”

“What if they have been?  After we part, I may languish and waste away.”

“I’ll offer up a prayer for you at church.”

Their banter dwindled, and they tarried, the quiet settling. As she studied him more closely, he looked tired and weary, as if he was carrying heavy burdens, and she suffered a spurt of guilt.  Perhaps she should have been kinder, but then, he was a rogue who needed to be kept in his place.

“Good luck with your appointment,” he said.  “I hope it goes well.”

“So do I.”

“Will you visit us in the future?  Should I expect you? It would elevate my mood if I thought you might return.”

“No, I don’t think I’ll ever be back.”

“What a pity,” he mused.  “Will you call me Peyton? Just once?”

“No.  Why would I?”

“I’m simply eager to discover if I can coerce you into it.”

He was precisely the sort who could coerce a female in numerous ways that didn’t bear considering.  She was lonely and much too isolated, and she was already wishing she could see him again. Would she never learn?

“Goodbye,” she said.

“Goodbye.  Thank you for enlivening my day.”

“Have I enlivened it?” she asked.

“Definitely.”

He spun and sauntered away, and she watched him until he vanished around the side of the house.  She wondered if he would use the servant’s entrance, but he hadn’t seemed like a servant. She couldn’t figure out what he seemed like, and it dawned on her that she felt a bit sad at his departure.  The afternoon was no longer quite so vivid or fun.

She’d assumed he’d glance back at her before he disappeared from view, but he didn’t, and she shook her head at her foolishness.  Then she went to the door and banged the knocker.

Reviews

Coming Soon!

Fan Reviews

Coming Soon!

Back To Top