Excerpt: Rogue Most Wanted
Book 5: The Cavensham Heiresses
Let us put the rumors to rest.
There are no “wedding bells” ringing for the perennial bachelor Lord William Cavensham.
Dear readers, it was the fire brigade.
The Midnight Cryer
“Absolutely, not. I will not marry her.” Will raised an eyebrow as he delivered his refusal to the two elderly women before him. “You’d have more luck marrying me to the devil.”
“Imagine the local vicar reading the banns. Would he refer to the devil as Beelzebub or Lucifer? What about a last name?” Lady Edith Manton, Will’s great-aunt Stella’s best friend, mused as she arranged the myriad of papers that lay in front of her.
The latest copy of Debrett’s Peerage along with ancient books and outdated prints on the histories of England and Scotland’s peerages were strewn across the massive bird’s-eye maple library table. Great-Aunt Stella sat across from Lady Edith with her always-present artist pad in front of her.
“Lucifer Beelzebub or Satan Beelzebub, I would presume,” Great-Aunt Stella answered while sketching another family tree of some obscure family. Suddenly, she looked up with a startled expression that could only be described as a revelation. “They couldn’t marry in a church. The devil would never be allowed inside.”
“Special license, then. They could marry anywhere and anytime in London,” said Lady Edith.
“Perfect.” Great-Aunt Stella chortled. “You always have the answers.”
Dirty, dusty, and tired, Will ran a hand down his face. After traveling at a hectic pace, he’d arrived in Northumberland within four days. All he wanted was a bath and bed, not a confrontation regarding marriage. He sat in a wingback chair at the head of the library table. He’d rather chase a feather in a windstorm than continue this outlandish conversation.
Stella turned to Edith. “Will came straight from Falmont to see us. He’s been there for the last two weeks building a barn. His father purchased Lord Culder’s stables and put Will in charge of the new breeding program,” she announced proudly.
“How marvelous and educational,” Edith exclaimed. “You’ll have to share that with Thea. She’ll be impressed.”
Stella clasped her hands together in glee. “Another thing they have in common.”
There hadn’t been a single mention of emergency or catastrophe since he’d arrived. His aunt and Lady Edith could only chatter about the neighbor directly to the east of Payne Manor. Will tamped down his temper but swore he’d get to the bottom of the urgent matter his aunt had summoned him to manage. When he’d received the missive that he attend Aunt Stella immediately, he’d put aside his work on the account books for Falmont, his father’s ducal estate, and raced to her side. He pulled the letter from his coat pocket and reread it.
My boy, I need you to handle a very dire emergency on the estate.
Will slowly stood, then walked to his aunt’s side. With one outstretched arm resting palm down on the table, he leaned close to stare her in the eyes. “What exactly is the emergency that required I drop everything and attend you, Aunt Stella?” He slid the letter in front of her. “In your summons, I believe you used the words, dire emergency and crop failure.”
Stella’s wrinkled brow added a few lines as she considered his question. “I think the hay and clover in the north field look a little puny.”
Lady Edith nodded vigorously. “It could be excess rain. The grasshoppers are plentiful.”
“There is no emergency that requires my presence, I take it?” He’d laugh at their antics if it wasn’t so ridiculous. His workload had exploded within the last month. He was thankful as it kept him sane, but he was behind in evaluating the proposed costs for several expansion projects for Falmont. His father had wanted them completed last week. “Matrimony is the real reason you called me up here?”
The ladies regarded him with wide-eyed innocence.
“We always have your best interests at heart.” With her five-foot frame, Will’s great-aunt Stella sat up straight in her chair in a blatant attempt at authority. “Think on it a moment. You wouldn’t have come if I’d said I had the perfect woman for you.”
“There is no such woman.” Why couldn’t Stella and the rest of his family see he wasn’t interested in marriage? “Besides, I haven’t seen a woman whom I’d want to share my life with.”
“You’ll want Thea.” Stella dismissed his comment with a wave of her hand. “She’s a countess in her own right, and she’s trying to behave responsibly. And you’ve met her before.”
“Because I met her that makes her a perfect candidate for my bride?” he asked. Remarkably, his tone had remained civil. “When did I meet her?”
Great-Aunt Stella slowly tapped one perfectly powered cheek with her forefinger. “You were five, and she was just under the age of one.”
“I’ve visited Payne Manor yearly since I was seventeen, and I don’t recall ever meeting her. For the last four years, I’ve stayed the summers, and this woman has been nonexistent. And where has this paragon resided the other twenty-four years of my life?” Will asked, deceptively calm.
“For years she resided at Dunbar on Ferr with the late duke. For the last seven years, she’s lived at the Ladykyrk estate. Hidden away from the world. It’s a sad story, my boy,” Stella said.
“Isn’t it always,” he said under his breath.
“What did you say, young man?” Lady Edith challenged. Her hearing had the most amazing power to ferret out sarcasm fifty feet away.
Stella waved her hand in the air. “Edith, over the years I’ve discovered it’s best to ignore his comments. He’ll give in faster that way.”
Their conversation reminded him of an out-of-control Greek chorus. He had little doubt now. His great-aunt’s house had been turned into Bedlam, and the patients were in charge.
Great-Aunt Stella turned slightly in her chair to gaze at him. Her face beaming. “She’s lovely.”
“And the sweetest temperament,” Lady Edith added. “When I met her, I thought her an angel, a perfect lady for you.”
“Did I mention it’s a marriage to a woman with her own title, a countess?” his great-aunt asked.
“Several times.” Like that was all he ever dreamed of in life—a marriage of convenience to a supposed title-hungry elusive countess who needed a husband to secure her title? He let out a deep breath. He had a massive amount of work in London waiting for him. He’d promised his brother, McCalpin, their father’s heir, that he’d perform the quarterly audit on the tenants’ rents. He was already three weeks late on that project. Instead, he sat in the wilds of Northumberland fending off marriage plans that his great-aunt had dreamt up.
“Since we’re speaking of churches, where would you prefer to marry, William?” Stella turned another page in her sketchbook and started to draw something. Her gaze flitted repeatedly from the page to him.
Edith stood slowly as her bones creaked in protest and moved to Stella’s side.
“We weren’t speaking of churches. But to answer your question, no place since I’m not marrying,” he instructed. He rose from his chair and made a straight path to the ornate Etruscan-style side table where Aunt Stella kept the brandy.
“Don’t move, young man,” Lady Edith commanded while she studied Stella’s sketch over her shoulder. “Stella, you’ve always been an incredible artist. But you’ve outdone yourself with this. You’ve managed to capture his fury as well as an intriguing vulnerability hidden in his eyes. Are you going to paint him nude?”
“Of course not. He’s my nephew.” Stella thought for a moment. “I could paint him as a knight on a great black steed with a shield and jousting lance waiting to wear his fair lady Thea’s ribbon around his wrist as a token of good luck.”
“Wouldn’t it be a delightful wedding present for Thea?” Edith’s voice had risen an octave with unbridled excitement.
“Can we return to the subject at hand?”
Completely ignoring him, Stella nodded to Edith. “Remember the one I painted for Ginny of Sebastian?”
A wicked smile graced Edith’s face. “The one you painted with Sebastian facing forward while taking off his shirt?”
“I was especially proud of that portrait.” Stella nodded. “I hated to give it up. I hung it on the wall in my bedroom until they married. Sebastian was a gloriously handsome specimen.”
“Still is,” Edith said.
Stella nodded while still concentrating on her drawing.
“Will you stop discussing my parents?” Will growled.
“Certainly, my boy,” Stella said with a conciliatory tone. “Now, what were we discussing?”
“This Theodora person,” Will answered.
“Lady Theodora Eanruig—pronounced Yahn-reek,” Stella admonished. “Stay on the subject at hand, William.”
“That wasn’t it,” Lady Edith announced. “We were discussing poses. Perhaps Will could be taking Thea’s hand after he’s won his challenge?”
“Edith, you are simply brilliant,” Stella exclaimed.
Will closed his eyes. This couldn’t be happening. Great-Aunt Stella was his mother’s aunt, and she was kindly regarded as eccentric by their family. His parents, the Duke and Duchess of Langham, even credited her with their loving marriage. To call his great-aunt unconventional or unorthodox didn’t adequately describe her. But Will adored her and loved every odd inch of her—completely. She was more like a grandmother than a great-aunt. Simply put, she was a precious gift he appreciated every day.
But sometimes his precious gift didn’t know when to quit giving. What she was asking was out of the question.
“Aunt Stella, I will not marry this countess.” He lifted a brow and delivered his most serious gaze, the one he reserved for ensuring he had the last word of any argument. “Understand me. I’m not marrying Theodora. I’m not marrying anyone.”
Clearly taking his chastisement to heart, Lady Edith swallowed hard, then returned to her seat at the table and busied her hands with the papers.
The sudden silence in the room made Will feel like a scoundrel. He didn’t want to upset the two ladies, but he also wanted to make it clear where he stood on the idea of marriage.
Stella slid away from the table and came to stand by his side. When she took his hand, cold permeated her skin, a sign of her increasing fragility and age. More than anything in the world, he wanted to make her happy. If she was worried, he’d drop everything to help her.
That’s why he was here.
But not to help by marrying the next-door neighbor. “Don’t doubt my word, Aunt Stella, I’ll not marry her.”
“Will, darling,” she soothed. “You’re always so suspicious of everyone.”
“I’m not suspicious. I’m just not interested.” Which begged the question of why he wasn’t at least curious about the woman. Probably because he hadn’t been interested in any woman—much less anything else—except his ever-increasing pile of work for years.
“This girl has been alone for months. She needs friends. All I ask is that you go talk to her. She’s a lovely person who’s had a tough time of it.” Stella handed him the latest issue of The Midnight Cryer. “Besides, don’t you think it’s time you settle down with a wonderful woman? It’s what you were born to do. Marry and have children. Plus, if you marry Thea, it’ll put these articles to rest about the two of you.”
Will didn’t spare the gossip rag a glance. Why should he when he knew what it said? His irritation started to boil into a raging ire when he threw the paper onto the nearest table. That damnable Midnight Cryer haunted him—even in Northumberland. Regularly, it featured him in some incredible story of how he had no luck with love.
He didn’t want love or marriage right now.
All he desired was a hot bath and a good night’s sleep.
But even he would admit living alone wasn’t as satisfying as it used to be. Perhaps it was time to find someone. Recently with all his siblings and cousin married, he had no one to share his life with. But what would he share? He received a generous allowance from his father, but besides that, he brought nothing else except a mountain of responsibilities to the duchy.
He exhaled loudly. “For you, my favorite aunt, I’ll talk to her. But, fair warning, it’s a wasted effort.”
“I’m your only aunt, you rogue.” Stella pulled him down for a gentle kiss against his cheek. Her rose fragrance wafted to meet him. “I love your brother and sister. I love your cousin Claire like she was one of Ginny’s own. But you are special. You favor your mother, who just happens to be my favorite niece, and you act like my brother William. That’s who you’re named after.”
“I know, love,” Will answered affectionately. She was a dear sweet soul, and he’d never hurt her. He’d do as he promised and talk with Theodora—but nothing more.
“I just want what’s best for you and Theodora.” Stella smiled, and the lines around her eyes crinkled into neat rows. “Now, get some rest, and you can visit her tomorrow.”
“You’re incorrigible.” Will leaned down and kissed her cheek in return. “Thank you for your hospitality. After traveling all day, I’m ready for bed. Don’t stay up late.”
Stella slyly glanced at Lady Edith, who winked. “We won’t. We’ve just a few more things to do before we retire.” Stella patted his arm.
“Good night, young man,” Lady Edith chirped.
Though he was about ready to fall over with fatigue, another half hour wouldn’t kill him. “Do you need my help with whatever it is that you’re doing?” Will offered.
“Of course not.” Stella waved a jeweled hand in the air. “We’re just planning your wedding.”
With her new clocked stockings, slippers, and the elegant formal morning gown she wore, Thea actually felt pretty for the first time in ages.
Would Stella’s nephew consider her new clothing pleasing? She had little doubt that her one hundred-thousand-pound fortune would be attractive.
Though Stella suggested marriage to Lord William, Thea had decided another course of action would better suit her. She wasn’t going to marry the first man she met. But it was fortuitous that Lord William had sent a note that he planned to visit. She needed his help with Stella and a few other items.
His great-aunt had invited her to come to dinner this evening where they’d make plans for travel to London and the marriage ceremony for her and Lord William. Poor Stella would not be pleased when Thea announced that she would not marry him. Undoubtedly, he was a perfect gentleman, but this was her journey, and she had to do what was right for Ladykyrk, her tenants, and herself.
Thea stood behind the door as Miles, her elderly butler who wore many hats in the household, stood ready to greet their visitor. Outside of the weekly deliveries of goods and sundries necessary for running the estate, she had no other callers.
The brass knocker tapped against the door plate.
“My lady, are you ready?” Mr. Miles asked softly.
“As ready as I’ll ever be.” She nodded, and Mr. Miles opened the door.
“Lord William Cavensham to see Lady Theodora.”
She couldn’t see him, but the deep raspiness of his voice caused her heartbeat to trip in her chest. She smoothed the skirt of her pink muslin gown in an attempt to calm her nerves. If his voice was an indication, he was as handsome as Stella had promised.
“There is no Lady Theodora here.” Miles’ monotone pronouncement held a hint of reprimand. “If you’re referring to the Countess of Eanruig, I’ll see if she’s accepting callers.” The butler caught her gaze as he handed her the calling card and winked.
Thea smiled in return. With renewed hope that her luck would change, she stepped forward to greet her guest, then slammed to a halt.
The man on the other side of threshold wasn’t just attractive. He was breathtakingly masculine. His sable-colored hair caught the late morning rays of sunshine, causing the almost black locks to shimmer in reflection. With a square jaw, high and perfectly angled cheekbones, along with a straight patrician nose, he was striking. But it was his eyes that made her rudely stare. Blue sapphires would pale in comparison to their color. His eyes were huge, but faultlessly proportioned with the rest of his features. Piercing in intensity, he studied her as she studied him.
Heat bludgeoned her cheeks, and her gaze darted to his lips.
That was a mistake.
His full lips were as perfect as the rest of his face. If she pressed her mouth against such perfection, would they be as soft as they appeared? She exhaled deeply to compose herself.
Her musings quickly faded like wisps of smoke when his perfect mouth lost its pleasant shape only to be replaced with thin, pursed lips.
He was scowling at her.
Quickly, she recognized her error. She had more important things to concern herself besides kisses. He must be put out that she had left him standing at the door. Was he to bow first, or should she curtsey? What was the order of precedence Stella had tried to teach her? Did a second son of a duke come before a countess? What about the only granddaughter of a duke? Did it make any difference if he was coming into her home as a guest? She shook her head slightly. Best to get him inside before he left in a fit of pique.
“It’s lovely to meet you, Lord William,” she offered. She stepped aside and waved her hand inviting him in. Her heartbeat slowed from a gallop when he elegantly swept his beaver hat from his head then bowed slightly. He wasn’t leaving.
“Lady Eanruig, it’s my pleasure.” Though pleasant enough, the words caused a gaggle of goose bumps to explode across her exposed arms. Like the lick of a cat’s tongue, the roughness in his tone surprised her, but the slightly lopsided grin put her at ease once again.
She waited until he entered the brightly lit vestibule, then proceeded to escort him to her favorite sitting room. Plain and simple in design, the brownish-gray walls, Roman sculptures, and intricate wooden molding in the neoclassical style gave the room an airy but sophisticated style.
She chose a sitting area that provided a lovely view of the grounds. After she’d received his note that he’d visit this morning, she’d instructed her housekeeper, Mrs. Miles to have the tea service prepared. Not only was serving tea the neighborly thing to do, but it would allow her to practice the ritual. Without asking, she poured the tea. Silently, he placed his hat on a side table, then sat near her.
Her hands trembled to such a degree that she spilt tea with her first pour. Her reaction could only be attributed to the fact that she hadn’t served tea to a guest ever before. It had nothing to do with the handsome man sitting across from her.
She took a deep breath to calm the butterflies swirling in her chest. Instead of handing him that cup, she poured another. This time she accomplished the feat successfully. When she handed him the beverage, the cup rattled in the saucer betraying her fraying nerves.
For the first time, she saw him really smile. The sight caused her breath to catch. It only enhanced his attractiveness.
“Nervous, are we?” he drawled. “There’s no need to be. My aunt asked that I call on you, but I’m afraid my visit will be short.”
“Oh, I hope not. I have several matters to discuss.” She reached for a plate to serve the apricot tartlets and small cucumber sandwiches. With a quick glance at Lord William’s tall physique, she could tell he’d probably eat at least six dainty pastries and three sandwiches. “Let me first say, I’m sure you’re a very nice man with a charming disposition.” She carefully arranged the delicacies on the plate then handed it to him.
“What a lovely compliment.” Completely at ease, he chuckled as he set the plate on the table before him. “Yet I think there might be a but coming.”
She nodded in answer, then took a bite of her own tartlet and chewed. They were still warm, and the sweet apricot filling melted in her mouth. At the taste of heavenly perfection, she moaned. Before she could take another bite, she noticed a dab of rich apricot filling had landed on her thumb. It would be a waste, not to mention a sin, to wipe it off with her napkin. With the tip of her tongue, she licked it clean.
His wide-eyed stare enhanced the blue of his eyes.
“I didn’t want to waste a drop of goodness.” She smiled and shrugged.
He blinked twice as if coming out of a trance. “You seem to be a person who loves her sweets.”
Thea nodded as she pointed to his plate. “You should eat yours while they’re still warm. As I was saying, you seem to be a lovely man”—she smiled slightly—“but I’m not going to marry you.”
“Pardon me?” He leaned back in his chair.
“Your aunt graciously offered you as my groom, but I’m not going to marry you.” She said it a tad louder this time so there was no misunderstanding. “I hope that doesn’t hurt your feelings. I don’t want to hurt hers either, but truthfully, I haven’t met many men. If I must find a husband, it’s best that I wait until I arrive in London and see all the available choices. Not that you wouldn’t fit the bill nicely.” She smiled in reassurance. “But this is too important a decision for me to rush into.” She exhaled her frustration at her predicament, then tried to soften the blow of her rejection. “If my hand is forced and I can’t find any one that I want to marry, then I’ll accept you as my fiancé. Of course, only if you’re so inclined.”
He leaned forward close enough she caught a whiff of his scent. He smelled of expensive soap, sunshine, and the outdoors. Without hesitation, she leaned forward to match his movement.
“You don’t want to marry me?” His voice held a hint of humor interlaced with a tad of disbelief that she was rejecting him.
She nodded slowly. The poor man. She’d shocked him with a refusal before he even popped the proposal.
“I’ve thought quite a bit about my situation over the last several days.” She fisted one hand in her lap to keep her anger at bay. “The Duke of Ferr-Colby is challenging my right to the Earldom of Eanruig. The Committee for Privileges isn’t expecting him to find a bride. But I’m expected to find a groom. He’s still unattached, and they’re allowing him to go on his merry way and throw me off my own land.” She forced herself to breathe deeply and slow down. “It’s simply unfair that I have to marry quickly for the committee and propriety’s sake. Wouldn’t you agree?” The look of utter astonishment on his face sent a pang of regret through her chest that she’d caused him any discomfort. “I’m sorry.”
She shifted her gaze to her hands. When her grandfather was well, he’d instilled in her a sense of pride for their heritage. It was why she was so passionate about her circumstances. Her fight to protect this title and property from the new duke would succeed. She would carry on the line of rugged, proud, descendants from the Eanruig line. It would be her memorial to her grandfather.
Thea returned her attention to her guest.
“We’re in complete agreement. I don’t want to marry you either, and it’s completely unfair that you’re being forced to marry. The Committee for Privileges should follow the goose-gander rule.”
“Goose-gander rule?” she asked.
“What sauce is good for the goose is good for the gander. Whatever you have to do, Ferr-Colby should have to do.” He rested his elbows on his knees and studied her with a smile that made her insides tingle. His intense regard sent frissons of awareness through her, and she couldn’t look away.
“You remind me of my sister, Emma.” His deep voice dipped even lower. “She would say the same thing about the position you’re in.”
“I would like her.” Thea leaned a little closer until she could see the flicks of gold in his kingfisher blue eyes.
“And she would like you,” he answered.
“Thank you,” she said softly. Though he didn’t know anything about her, her heart had skipped a beat at his kind words. More than anything in the world, she wanted friends and family. He was truly a nice man to say that his sister would welcome her friendship. Plus, he was taking his rejection extremely well.
“If I can help you in anyway, please ask.” He picked up his plate and popped two tartlets in his mouth at the same time.
“Excellent. I was hoping you would say that,” Thea said with the warmest smile she could muster. “Do you by chance read Latin?”