Janna MacGregor

Excerpt: Rules for Engaging the Earl

Book 2: The Widow Rules

Prologue

Portsmouth
1805

Only one person in the entire world had the power to make Jonathan Eaton, the Earl of Sykeston, push everything aside and ride like the devil over the fields at breakneck speeds to reach her.

Constance Lysander.

With each gallop of the horse’s hooves, his eagerness grew. Finally, he’d come upon the stately home that sat on a hill overlooking the English Channel. He slid off his horse, then with a natural ease vaulted the stone wall that surrounded their meeting place.

Most saw Constance as a serious-minded fifteen-year-old, but not Jonathan. If you looked long enough at her steady gaze, you could see an extraordinary world open before you. Her intelligence, spirit, and kindness never ceased to amaze him. Her insights on what mattered most in life helped keep him on a steady course. After their respective parents had died from an influenza that had swept through Portsmouth years ago, he’d discovered how much they had in common. When he told her of his hopes for his future and his ambition for life, she’d listen and offer her advice without censure.

She was his best friend, and he couldn’t wait to share his unexpected news with her.

Jonathan removed the dust from his ride with a few well-placed slaps of his bicorne hat against his thighs, folded it under his arm, then entered her house. It was her late parents’ vacant home and their secret meeting place. Constance lived next door with her widowed aunt, Mrs. Venetia Hopkins, whom everyone called Aunt Vee.

Jonathan headed toward the conservatory where they always met. As he was about to call her name, a muffled conversation drifted toward him.

“Come lie next to me.”

Jonathan’s quick strides came to a halt. There was no mistaking it was Constance’s voice.

“What a handsome fellow you are? Give me a kiss,” she crooned.

A kiss?

Jonathan hurried on his way. There was only one creature she’d murmur such sweet nothings.

Reggie.

Damnation. He’d always wanted to kiss her but foolishly thought it might change their friendship. Now he might never have the chance.

“Don’t, Reggie.” Her tone changed from playful to warning. “Reggie, no.”

Jonathan entered the room where there was only one piece of furniture. A sofa sat in the center facing the endless banks of windows that overlooked the sea. A massive animal slowly rose and peered over the sofa back, then emitted an ungodly sound.

A belch.

“Don’t move, Constance.” Jonathan took a running leap and jumped over the sofa with the beast watching his every step. He landed on his feet and faced her nemesis. “What have you done, you cretin?”

With deliberate ease, Constance sat up. “It’s too late. He ate my sandwich.” She released a woeful sigh. “Thank you for your valiant try.” She turned her attention to the beast. “Reggie,” she scolded. “You’re a naughty pup.” Her voice melted into a cooing sound like a mother to a child. “That sandwich wasn’t yours.”

Jonathan closed the distance between them. When he reached her, he took her hands in his then pulled her off the sofa. Without another thought he hugged her close.

She stiffened slightly, then melted into his embrace.

Her body fit perfectly against his. He inhaled her clean scent. It reminded him of the wind that skipped across the sea right before a rainstorm—wild and beautiful at the same time.

“What’s that for?” she said softly.

“I couldn’t remember the last time we hugged.” Jonathan didn’t want to think that it might be their last. He pulled away and looked into the deep blues of her eyes. Midnight blue, sapphire, and indigo all melded into a unique color that was hers alone.

“That’s sweet.” She playfully swatted his chest, then grabbed his hand and brought him to the sofa. “Come and sit with me but give Reggie enough room.”

“You care for that mastiff more than me, I think.” Jonathan slid his gaze up and down the gigantic animal while the animal did the same to him, licking its chops. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were trying to make me jealous.”

She slid him a side-eyed glance, then smiled. “Perhaps.”

Jonathan felt an instant sense of relief. With his leaving, Reggie offered protection and companionship for Constance and her aunt Vee. “You’re home early from the shipyard today.”

Her face grew animated. “After I finished my morning studies, I helped Mr. Bridges. He’s teaching me the business. Soon, I’ll be the ‘Sons’ in Lysander & Sons Refitting Company.” She waggled her eyebrows.

Jonathan waggled his own. “I’d say there’s not much resemblance between you and sons.”

“You think so?” She waved a hand down the front of her muslin dress. “I can still wear my breeches, but they don’t fit as well as they did last year.”

He was quite aware of that fact. She was an attractive young woman. Even more so, there was a beauty to her innocence. Jonathan had seen it from the very first time he’d met her. Young men had started to notice her too. They were already vying for her attention. Every Sunday after church, Jonathan would escort Constance and Aunt Vee home. His chest tightened. Which of the young bucks would escort her when he was gone?

“I’ve started to wear dresses to the dockyard.” She exhaled. “I guess all good things must come to an end.”

“True.” He took her hand in his, and together they sat on the sofa. “How are the knots coming along?”

She smiled sheepishly. “I spent half the night working on them. I may have conquered the figure eight, but the bowline still has me for a loop.”

They both laughed.

“You’ll master it, I’m certain.” Still holding her hand, he clasped it tighter, not wanting to let her go. “I have news.”

Her gaze flew to his, and a brilliant smile appeared. “I do too.” When the dog tried to nose his way between them, she patted him on the head. “Lie down.”

Instantly, the dog obeyed.

“Why didn’t you tell him to do that before?” Jonathan asked. “He wouldn’t have stolen your sandwich.”

She bit her bottom lip as she stared at him. “He doesn’t listen if there’s food involved.” She laughed, then regarded Reggie. “But I still consider him my second best friend.”

“Who’s your first?” He rubbed his neck as a flush of heat crept up his cheeks.

“You are.”

He lifted his gaze to hers. The tenderness on her face held him spellbound.

“You’re my best friend and one of a kind, Constance Lysander.” One of her dark-brown locks fell forward on her face. He lifted his hand, the tremble in his fingers visible to both of them, then gently pushed it behind her ear. “I’d do anything for you.”

She nodded once. The movement so slow that they never broke eye contact. “The same for me. For whatever reason.”

Her gaze did strange things to him. His body felt hot and the need to hold her again became nigh unbearable. He swallowed and studied her face. The pink of her cheeks was a tad lighter than her full lips. At first sight, some might consider her eyes too large for her heart-shaped face. Jonathan never thought that. They were perfect. Every spark of light seemed to be reflected in them. The dark waters of the sea below paled to the deep blue of her irises.

Only inches separated them. He leaned forward slightly and lifted his hand again. Only instead of brushing back a fallen lock, he brushed the back of his fingers against the supple softness of her skin.

She leaned against his touch, and his breath stood suspended in his chest. Something magical was happening between them, and he never wanted to forget this moment.

As he would never forget her.

“Have you ever been kissed,” she whispered, the hint of berries on her breath.

“No.” With any other, he’d be too ashamed to admit that at seventeen he’d never experienced such a simple thing. Yet with her, there were no secrets. “You?”

She shook her head. At the answer, he leaned closer, his lips a mere inch from hers.

Suddenly, an absurd sound erupted, as if the earth split apart and bellowed.

She drew back. “Isn’t he lovable? He’s snoring.”

“Adorable,” Jonathan groused.

With a laugh, she put her hand over his and squeezed. “Tell me your news.”

“You first,” he said quietly hoping to recapture the magic between them. The joy on her face stopped him cold. Her expression was a rare foretaste of the beautiful woman she’d become. He blinked slowly. He wouldn’t be there to see her grow into such a person. Telling her his plans was becoming harder by the minute.

“I’m attending my first country assembly next month. It’s my official introduction into Portsmouth society. I have a new dress for the occasion. I’m saving the first and last dance for you.”

He did his utmost to keep the smile on his face, but his heart hiccuped that he would miss such an important event in her life. He was leaving on the morrow.

* * * *

Constance sat on the edge of the sofa facing him. “My dress is white silk trimmed in dark-blue ribbons with matching ones for my hair. Aunt Vee thinks we should braid blue and white flowers into my hair ribbons.”

Jonathan’s handsome face had frozen in a half smile.

“What’s wrong?” She tilted her head, then her eyes widened. “Don’t tell me you’re bored.” She released their hands before gently pushing him in the chest. “I always listen to your stories. You could do the same for me.”

He took her hands again and pulled her closer. “You will always keep me enthralled. It’s . . . I’m a little dejected that I won’t be there to see you.”

“I can’t imagine that you’ll not be there. It’s the biggest social event of the year outside of Lysander & Sons’ annual party.” A profound cloud of bewilderment settled around her. “Why won’t you come?”

“Because that’s my news. I’m leaving for London on the morrow.”

“For how long?” The disappointment he wouldn’t be there for her first dance stung, but she’d always considered herself an optimist. “If you’re not there for the assembly, then we can dance at my company’s party . . .” The shake of his head stopped her from finishing. “Tell me,” she whispered.

He looked to the sea for a moment. “I’ll be gone for years.” His resigned gaze locked with hers. “I may never come back.”

“What?” She didn’t hide the hint of hysteria in her voice.

“Some men from the war secretary’s office came to see me today. Seems they discovered I speak French, Spanish, and German fluently and have a keen ability to shoot. Said I’m precisely the man they’re looking for. They’ve asked if I’d be interested in a special assignment. It’s quite the honor. I’ll be stationed with the British army on the Continent wherever they need me.”

“No, Jonathan.” She shook her head as if she had the last word in denial. “Did your guardian agree to this?”

“Yes. My father had discussed it with him before he passed. He’d want me to do this if he were alive today.” Emotion flared in his dark chocolate-colored eyes. “I thought you’d be happy for me.”

Why couldn’t he be the best farmer in all of England instead of the best marksman the country had ever seen?

“How could I be happy with you being sent into danger?” She sucked in a breath after having the proverbial wind knocked out of her. He gently tilted her chin until they could see into each other’s eyes.

“Besides Mr. North, you’re the only one I’ve told that I’ll be on a special assignment. It has to remain secret.” He cupped her cheek with his palm. “You can’t save a dance for me.” His eyes clouded with some emotion she’d never seen on him. “You can’t wait for me either.”

“Why not?” she asked softly.

“Because it wouldn’t be fair to you if something happened to me.”

“For instance?” As soon as she uttered the words, she understood his meaning. “You mean if you’re killed? No. I beg of you, do not go.” She closed her eyes at the horror of what he was saying. “I won’t allow you to go and die over there. Whatever they want you to do is not worth giving up your life. I always thought . . .” For the love of heaven, what was she saying? They’d never discussed their future together. But ever since she’d known him, she thought they’d somehow, some way be a part of each other’s lives.

“You mean the world to me.” Jonathan pulled her into his arms, and she drank in the familiar evergreen scent. Chest-to-chest, their hearts beat in rhythm. “I’ll be helping our country.” He pulled away and looked into her eyes. “I’ve always thought that we’d build something together, but sometimes life has other plans. Listen, I’ll do my best to come home, but I can’t”—his voice broke with emotion—“I won’t ask you to wait for me.”

The pounding of her heart urged her to defy him. “You can’t tell me what to do. I will wait for you.” Tears were streaming down her face as she angrily wiped them away. “I hate those men who came to see you. They have no right to take you away from Portsmouth and me.”

“I don’t want you pining away for me. I want you happy.” He brought her hand to his heart and held it there. “If you care for me, you’ll promise me this.”

His heart’s steady beat encouraged her to look at him, but she held her ground.

Then the kind and handsome fiend threw down the gauntlet. “I need you to support my decision.”

She drew her hand away, then wiped her remaining tears. She nodded, but they both knew that her heart wasn’t in the gesture.

He reached into his inner coat pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. “I have some suggestions of what to look for in a man. He has to earn the right to court you.”

She wrinkled her nose much like when she smelled something foul. Which was appropriate. The idea that she’d even consider anyone besides him was putrid.

“Don’t look at me like that.” He stood holding a piece of foolscap in his hands.

She immediately felt the loss of not having him near, and for an instant, she wanted to pull him back. Their moments together dwindled by the second.

“You should settle for nothing less than a man who loves you for who you are. He shouldn’t try to change you.” He peeked over the paper. “He should love who he becomes when he’s with you.”

“All right,” she said softly. “Is that all?”

“Hardly. I have an entire list.” He took a step closer. “He should revel in your accomplishments.”

With every word, his deep voice laid claim to her heart.

“His heart should be revealed to you through his kindness and his care. He should love you with every part of his being. He should never ever say a harsh word or glare at you in anger. And, finally”—Jonathan lifted his eyes to hers—“he should worship all the bountiful gifts you possess that are uniquely yours. Only that man is worthy of you, Constance Lysander.”

Though only several feet separated them, it felt like two miles. “Please . . .”

In seconds, he stood before her, his eyes red with unshed tears. He pressed his list into her hand. “Keep this as a reminder of me and what I want for you.”

She nodded. “I promise to save a dance for you at every event I attend.” Her voice grew softer until it became a whisper, a vow that she’d keep until her dying die. “Whether it’s next week, next year, or the next decade, I’ll save one for you whether you’re there or not.” She cupped his cheeks with her hands. “But I beg of you . . . come back to me.”

She searched his face, and the tenderness threatened to steal her breath. How could she let him go?

Without another word shared between them, she pressed her lips to his. Her breath caught at the softness of his lips against hers. For a moment they didn’t move as this newness between them unfurled, then wrapped them together in its embrace.

With a soulful sigh, he pulled her tighter, never letting his mouth leave hers. It wasn’t simply a kiss but a sweet, soulful conversation about the past they’d shared and the future that had been robbed from them.

When they broke, he traced his thumb across her lips, the look of awe clear on his face. “I’ll cherish you forever.” He reached for his satchel, then pulled out a book. “For you.”

She took the book and reverently opened it. Her gaze flew to his. “It’s an illustrated copy of Nautical Knots.”

He clasped his hands behind his back as he rocked back on his heels. “I thought it might be easier to learn the knots if you had a manual of sorts.” He bent close and lowered his voice. “I don’t want you staying up for nights on end trying to create them from memory.”

“It’s perfect. Thank you.” She turned to the front page where he’d inscribed it. To my best friend, Constance Lysander. May our lives always be entwined no matter the time or distance that separates us. “Oh, Jonathan,” she murmured. It was all she could manage as her heart tumbled in a free fall. She wanted to pull him to her and never let go. Without hesitating, she rushed to her basket and pulled out her journal. “I want you to take this.”

A line formed between his brows. “But it’s your book of essays. You always carry that with you.”

“I can always start another. I’ve written about Portsmouth, the sea, and our neighbors. It’ll be as if you have a little part of home when you . . .” Her words trailed to nothing as she tamped down the swell of emotion.

With their gazes locked, he cupped her cheek. “More important, I’ll have a part of you with me . . . forever.”

The bell from the village tolled, reminding them both that evening would soon be upon them.

“I must go,” he whispered before pressing his lips to hers again in a brief kiss.

“Jonathan,” His name on her lips left her breathless. “Come back to me.”

He smiled with a wistfulness she’d never seen before. He reached for Reggie and patted his head. “Take care of our girl, Reginald.”

Once more, he pressed his lips to hers, then he was gone.

Gone from the room. Gone from her life.

She forced herself to run after him. By the time she reached the drive, he was already galloping across the fields. He turned back once. When Jonathan saw her, he bestowed that heart-swelling, familiar, confident smile and waved his hat in the air as a goodbye. She lifted her hand in answer.

The image of him assured and happy was permanently etched in her mind.

Then and there, she made a vow. If God would bring him home, she would keep Jonathan’s silly rules and do her level best to follow them. The simple truth was that she’d never meet a man who would compare to Jonathan.

He already ruled her heart.

 

Chapter One

London
Ten years later

The coach lumbered so slowly that pedestrians were traveling faster than Jonathan’s carriage. Once again, he pulled his timepiece from his waistcoat. Time was of the essence, and he was wasting it. Hell, at this speed, even he could outrun his coach.

After a few minutes, they started to move faster through the streets.

“My lord?” Thomas Winstead, his persistent estate manager, demanded his attention again.

Without warning, the carriage tilted, knocking Jonathan against the side panel. A ragged pain tore through his leg at the sudden jarring from hitting a rut. He sucked in a breath desperate to keep from crying out. “Damnation,” he muttered.

“Lord Sykeston?” Thaddeus North, his butler, leaned forward with his brow creasing into neat lines.

“I’m fine.” Jonathan let out the breath he’d been holding.

“Your mind is elsewhere.” North’s lips turned downward. “It’s perfectly understandable.”

“The sooner we arrive, the sooner it’ll be over,” Jonathan grunted in response. He didn’t acknowledge or deny the butler’s comments.

“As I was saying, I’ve climbed every tenant’s roof,” Thomas continued. “Two hundred and thirteen pounds for roofing supplies and labor should cover it.”

Jonathan stared at his estate manager. Only a couple of years older than Jonathan, Thomas was the perfect specimen of a man at his best. Jonathan subdued the urge to curl his lip at the thought. There was a time he had relished climbing the ladders with Thomas by his side and inspecting his tenants’ roofs.

Now he couldn’t look at a ladder without grimacing.

Jonathan couldn’t deny that Thomas was a godsend. He completed the tasks that Jonathan could no longer perform. Strong and swift, Thomas had earned the promotion to estate manager.

“Fine,” he answered. “I’ll prepare the funds when I return to Portsmouth. Start work when it’s convenient for the tenants and you.”

“Perhaps you’d like to visit when Thomas starts the repairs?” North prodded gently.

It was the same litany Jonathan had heard repeatedly since he’d returned home. North goading him to see his tenants. Encouraging him to call on his neighbors. It was a waste of time.

“I’m certain they’d welcome your interest.” North’s tone sounded similar to a nursemaid coaxing her charge to take his medicine.

Jonathan carefully swung his gaze to his butler. “I show my interest by paying for whatever repairs are needed. I offer fair rents and don’t gouge them at the end of the harvest season. My share of the bounty is quite minimal compared with others. That’s how I show my interest.”

Thomas’s Adam’s apple wobbled at his curt tone.

Years ago, Jonathan had found immense pleasure working on the betterment of his estates. Now he was thankful Thomas relished the estate work. It gave Jonathan more time for designing the perfect pistol cartridge and his plan for a training school for army marksmen. Too many of them didn’t have the proper training when they were dropped into battle. Even his former commanding officer, the Marquess of Faladen, thought it an excellent idea when Jonathan had presented it to him last month.

The carriage pulled to a stop in front of a modest townhouse in Mayfair.

“We’re here,” North announced with a hint of excitement in his voice.

“Finally,” Jonathan mumbled. “Let’s hope I’m not too late.”

A footman opened the door, and Jonathan carefully made his way down the steps while holding to the handle inside the carriage. Once on the ground, he took his cane from North, then patted the pocket inside his blue broadcloth morning coat, the crinkle of paper reassuring. A special license was a rare and expensive investment, but this moment called for the extraordinary.

Sometimes for the greater good, a man had to venture into the world and claim his wife. Jonathan doubted if today’s events could be considered good for anybody especially him. Being saddled with a wife would upset his routine, but a promise was a promise. Though he’d left his full-time position in the army years ago, he was still a man of habit. And his habit didn’t include entertaining a wife.

A sensible, more balanced man might have turned on his heel and never looked back. Since Jonathan’s right leg had been completely mangled by two snipers’ bullets, he’d been anything but balanced.

In more ways than one.

Jonathan adjusted his beaver hat with a tug.

“Good luck, my lord,” North called from the coach.

Without acknowledging the kind words of his butler, he made his way to the town house door. What was he even doing here?

He smoothed a hand down his waistcoat. Honestly, he wanted to see her. But if she gave him one pitiful look, he would turn on his one good foot and leave—marriage or no marriage. It made little difference that she had asked for his hand in marriage. With his fist, he knocked on the door. When no one answered, Jonathan repeated his movement, but this time a little more forcefully.

“Come in,” a woman called out, her voice muffled behind the wooden panel.

He entered the modest but elegantly decorated town house not far from the Duke of Randford’s Mayfair home. Christian Vareck, the Duke of Randford, was a friend, one might even say his best friend. Which meant Jonathan should have made the effort to call on him, but that would have required even more pretending on his part to be amenable to social calls and gatherings. A visit to Doctors’ Commons was enough for one day.

Jonathan’s throat narrowed to the size of a small twig, and he tightened his grip on his ever-present walking stick. It was only natural to be a little queasy. It wasn’t every day that a man married, particularly, when his bride-to-be was carrying a baby.

To be precise, she was carrying another man’s baby.

But his wife-to-be had asked him to marry her before the baby was born to ensure it was legitimate. Simply put, Jonathan couldn’t refuse.

Because it was her.

With a small tea tray in her hands, an older woman looked up and immediately her eyes widened. “Lord Sykeston, is that really you?”

“Indeed, Mrs. Hopkins,” Jonathan answered. Frankly, he was amazed that he sounded so amiable. “Pleasure to see you once again.”

Still striking with white hair and blue eyes that noticed everything, Mrs. Hopkins, Constance’s aunt Vee, smiled at him. “Shall I escort you to her?”

He nodded once.

“Follow me.” Her directions sounded like marching orders.

“I have a clergyman who will be joining me shortly,” Jonathan said. “Perhaps we should wait?”

“Let’s leave the vicar to his own devices,” the woman said cheerfully. “Constance is anxious to see you.”

Everything within him stilled. It had been a decade since he’d last laid eyes on Constance Lysander. Memories swept through him faster than a storm-swollen stream. He still remembered that kiss. At the touch of her lips against his, he’d found something special.

She was the sweetest thing he’d ever tasted.

Years ago, when he lay injured in the surgeon’s tent, all he wanted to do was die. The surgeon insisted he had to lose his leg, but Jonathan had said no. He was at his breaking point with the unrelenting and excruciating pain. He couldn’t bear the additional torment of an amputation. The surgeon’s special recipe for laudanum made him sick and did little to provide much comfort. As he lay in the cot praying death would steal him away from the agony so he could be at peace, Constance wouldn’t let him go. Her face haunted his dreams, compelling him to fight for survival.

Now Jonathan stood in her home ready to marry and give her his name. He’d never thought to marry, but when she’d asked if he’d wed her, he couldn’t turn her away.

Aunt Vee started up the staircase, not waiting for him.

Jonathan took a step forward and exhaled. Bloody stairs. They were punishment for him and his disfigured leg. If there was any god above, he or she or they would make certain there weren’t too many for him to maneuver.

With measured steps, he carefully climbed the set of stairs, each one a torture device.

By the time he reached the top, his heart pounded and sweat covered his brow. God, he always felt weak like a newborn colt after ascending a flight.

“You’ll find my niece in the second bedroom to the right.” Aunt Vee turned her back on him to continue down the hallway.

“Madame, shouldn’t you announce me?” Jonathan asked. Though he didn’t participate in society, he was raised a gentleman. Thus, he was acquainted with polite society’s dictates that it was uncouth to barge into a lady’s bedchamber unless invited.

“I can’t,” Aunt Vee said dismissively. “I have to see about great-niece.”

All sound ceased as he stood stock-still. “Constance had the baby?”

“Yes. Three hours ago. She named her Aurelia. In my humble opinion, the child looks like her father,” Aunt Vee said dreamily.

Jonathan smirked slightly. Hopefully, the baby didn’t inherit any of her father’s other traits. Indeed, the baby’s father, the late Lord Meriwether Vareck, was the golden child of the dissolute, no-good men who lost what little morals they possessed to chase their own selfish pleasures. After practically marrying three women at the same time, Meriwether had all but ruined Constance, then disappeared leaving a plethora of gossip in his wake.

It made little difference that the baby was born before they married. Jonathan had paid the vicar enough to say that the child arrived in the world after the “I dos.”

“Miss Aurelia Jane Vareck,” Aunt Vee sighed. “She’s an angel and her name is perfect.” Aunt Vee put her tea tray down on the side table in the hallway. “It’s a fairy tale, wouldn’t you agree?”

“How so?” Jonathan asked, all the while thinking it was a tragedy.

“Constance discovered she was the real Lady Meriwether, and now, Aurelia won’t suffer the stigma of being illegitimate.”

For a moment, Jonathan didn’t hear anything but his pulse thrashing through his body. “Pardon me?”

“She doesn’t need to marry you.” Aunt Vee smiled. “But I’m sure she’ll still want to hear your proposal. You’d best make it a good one.” The woman continued on her way down the hall humming a merry tune.

With an awkward couple of steps, Jonathan found himself outside the designated door. He lifted his hand to knock, then lowered it slowly.

The news was for the best, but a sudden melancholy that Constance didn’t need to marry struck with such force that he almost dropped to his knees. It was illogical.

The truth was Constance didn’t deserve someone like him. He’d make a horrible husband, let alone a ghastly father. With a resigned sigh, he knocked twice, then heard the dulcet tone of a woman saying, “Come in.”

He stepped into the room the same time that the earth stopped its orbit.

At least, that’s what it felt like.

My God, the years have been generously kind to her. She was breathtakingly beautiful. Her dark locks shone and her eyes twinkled as if the sun’s rays adorned her. She was one of those rare women, a natural beauty who didn’t need any jewels or fancy gowns to be stunning. Her eyes widened. Her unique smile, the one he’d longed to behold for years, proved her delight in seeing him.

He blinked to make certain she was real. He shook his head slightly. He’d best get ahold of his emotions before he made a fool of himself.

“Hello, Jonathan.” The softness of her voice calmed his ridiculous impulse to flee.

“Lady Meriwether,” he said with a slight bow.

“It’s good to see you.” Another devastating smile appeared.

It thrilled something deep inside him. But he dismissed it as a fond memory of his youth.

“How long has it been?” She straightened slightly and held his stare, but the constant smoothing of the bedcovers betrayed her anxiety.

“Ten years give or take,” he answered. “Your aunt met me at the door. She told me you delivered your baby.”

“Yes, a healthy, beautiful girl.” That radiant smile appeared again.

His first year back from the war, he’d spent most of his time in London handling his deceased sister’s estate. By then, Constance had married Lord Meriwether, and Jonathan didn’t bother to call and wish them happiness. It would have been too painful to see them together. Yet he’d heard that Constance’s husband had married two other women practically at the same time as he’d married her. The lout disappeared with their dowries before he met his untimely death by drowning in a mud puddle.

“Your aunt said you’re the rightful widow of Lord Meriwether. What happened to the other two wives?”

She let out a sigh. “I just found out the truth about my marriage. Randford sent a letter informing you. Didn’t you receive it?” she asked.

“No.”

Constance glanced downward, then she drew her gaze to his. “My friend Katherine, the new Duchess of Randford, discovered her marriage to Meriwether was void because the vicar who married them had been defrocked. And my friend Miss Blythe Howell was the third woman he’d married.” Her gaze strayed to the window.

“You’re Lady Meriwether.” He shook his head trying to clear the muddle created by these new facts. The story was incredible.

She nodded slightly. “I’m his wife . . . I mean widow. That changes my circumstances somewhat, doesn’t it?” She lightly worried her lower lip by clasping it between her teeth. The action emphasizing the fullness of the tender skin.

He closed his eyes at the sight. Everything within him tightened into a knot that he doubted would ever be untangled. He had to remember that her change in circumstances was the best for him. He could return to his previous existence as a recluse. That’s what he was good at.

Yet he’d never considered himself lonely until now. For some odd reason, he tasted a disturbing new flavor on his tongue.

Bitterness.

Return to Rules for Engaging the Earl

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