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For exactly one season, Lady Charlotte Wentworth played the biddable female the ton expected—and all it got her was society’s mockery and derision. Now she’s determined to be in charge of her own future. So when an unwanted suitor tries to manipulate her into an engagement, she has a plan. He can’t claim to be her fiancé if she’s engaged to someone else. Even if it means asking for help from the last man she would ever marry.
Ethan, Viscount Amesbury, made a lot of mistakes, but the one he regrets the most is ruining Lady Charlotte’s reputation. Going along with her charade is the least he can do to clean the slate and perhaps earn her forgiveness. Pretending to be in love with the woman he’s never forgotten is easy. What isn’t easy is convincing her to give him a second chance.
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Somewhere in Warwickshire, Late August 1819
Ethan Ridley—Mac to his friends, Lord Amesbury to everyone else—lounged outside the Boar and Hound. With his face lifted toward the sky, he closed his eyes, taking in the familiar smells of horses and the hearty breakfast served at the inn. Scents of perfectly cooked sausages and fresh bread had him considering a second helping.
Thin wisps of fog would soon give way to the warm August sun, but for now, they clung, hovering in the trees like wraiths. The cool brush of a breeze lifted goose bumps on his throat, where yesterday’s cravat hung in a haphazard knot, the linen limp from a second day of being tied. When packing, he’d forgotten a second cravat but remembered the book he was currently reading, so Ethan wasn’t terribly upset about the lack of fresh accessories.
He shifted from one foot to the other. Not for the first time this morning, he considered leaving Calvin behind. They’d traveled all the way from London to visit a highly regarded brewery to see how its processes could be applied to his own budding business venture. After waiting for over thirty minutes past the agreed time, he suspected at least another quarter hour would pass before Calvin appeared looking fresh and annoyingly rested.
Running a hand through his hair, Ethan winced as the strands snagged on calloused fingers. No doubt the unruly curls were assuming their usual vertical position, so he jammed his hat down over the mess. One of these days he’d get a haircut, but today was not that day. Tomorrow didn’t look promising either.
The clattering of hooves caught his attention as a wreck of a woman barreled into the stable yard. “There’s been an accident! I need a surgeon.”
It was the blood that stopped him from acting right away. God, so much blood. It covered her face and the top half of her traveling gown. She rode astride with her skirts hiked up and had the fiercest expression he’d ever seen on a woman. Like a warrior goddess hell-bent on dragging the next poor sod who got in her way into the afterlife, she didn’t rein in the mount until they were nearly upon him.
Forcing his legs to move, he shouldered through the taproom’s doorway. “We need help out here!” Without waiting for the occupants to jump to attention, he returned to the woman. Ethan swiped a palm over his brow, clearing away fear-ridden sweat, then placed a steadying hand on the heaving chest of the horse. For a moment, his mind had tried to retreat to another accident five years before. Blood had soaked a different roadside while he held his friend, calling for aid until his voice failed. But the past, with its dark, clawed memories, would have to wait.
“My coachman has a broken leg.” The woman slid off the horse’s back. She touched her forehead, and her fingers came away wet and red. With a grimace, she wiped them on her skirts. One eye had swollen shut, and a cut near her hairline seemed the probable source of most of the blood. “He was unconscious when I left. My maid is with him.”
“Where’s the accident, miss?” a man from the inn asked, taking the long leather traces she’d used as reins. Men spilled out of the taproom to lend their aid while grooms readied mounts and gathered carts to form a rescue party.
“By my best guess, they are perhaps three miles away. Directly down this road. You can’t miss them.” She pointed back in the direction from which she’d ridden.
Waving over a fellow whom he’d seen eating with the locals at the morning meal, Ethan said, “We’ll need the surgeon. Sir, do you know where tae find him?”
“Yes, milord. I’ll fetch ’im.” The man donned his hat and scurried down the road toward the village.
The woman swayed on her feet, appearing less warrior-like by the minute and more like a maiden about to faint from blood loss. Before Ethan could say something, Calvin arrived and offered his arm to escort her inside. Just as well. Ethan might want to help, but Cal’s particular skill set would be more useful to a damsel in distress. She went with his friend willingly enough, no doubt won over by his charm. Charm wasn’t Ethan’s strongest trait. Better to stay in the stable yard until everyone had a job and was on their way.
* * *
A gentleman with hair that glowed like a halo grasped Lottie’s elbow, speaking in the same tone she would use with a frightened horse. “Perhaps you should sit. Your head wound is still bleeding. Frankly, you need help as much as your coachman.” Her escort offered Lottie a seat in the public room, which she took, moving with precision to avoid further irritating the bruises making themselves known.
After crawling out of the wreckage, she’d not thought beyond flinging herself atop a carriage horse, then praying she’d stay seated long enough to find a doctor. The shaking in Lottie’s legs began, and she feared the rest of her body would follow suit until twitchy, useless nerves overtook her. Lacing her fingers together steadied her somewhat while she waited for her vision to clear. Dear Lord, one of her eyes wasn’t working correctly. No wonder her face hurt.
She tried to focus on the man who’d helped her. His striking features and perfect attire seemed more suited to a London drawing room than a Warwickshire country inn. “What brings a pretty fellow like you to a town like this?” A disconnect between her ears and mouth made the words come out slow and slurred. Mercy, her head hurt.
Following his gaze to a sparkling window overlooking the yard, she spied the behemoth of a man they’d left behind deploying volunteers and taking control of the situation with an air of command no one questioned. Ah, he must be here with the man using his impressive presence to get things done. The man’s confidence amidst an emergency didn’t hurt his aura of competence.
Fresh blood seeped past her lashes. Wincing, she turned from the scene and wiped an already filthy hand over her eyes.
The innkeeper’s wife arrived with water and a stack of cloths. “I’m Mrs. Pringle, dearie. Let’s look at your head and see what we’re about, shall we?”
Lottie waved a hand. “It’s nothing. Nothing serious at any rate. I’m sure I’ll be fine after a bath and rest. My coachman needs a doctor far more than I do.”
Clean tables and the scent of fresh bread made the inn warm and cozy. Hopefully, the rooms upstairs would be as welcoming. She desperately wanted to get her bearings, then find a tub and a bed. A bath would be heaven.
The elegant stranger pushed: “Please, miss, let her clear away the blood—”
Chilly air danced over her cheek as the commanding man from the courtyard entered the room. With a blunt “Give me the rag,” he once again took charge, swiping the cloth from Mrs. Pringle’s hand.
Her charming escort rolled his eyes. “Fine, Mac. Take over. I’ll see if I’m needed outside.”
The giant grunted an acknowledgment. Really, were actual words too much to ask? A few moments before he’d been kind, but now surly impatience colored his demeanor. The sheer size of him overwhelmed her—an unusual circumstance for a woman her own father referred to as “sturdy.” Even sitting, he dwarfed everyone in the room. Only one other man of her acquaintance had made her feel delicate in comparison, but that had been a lifetime ago.
The man tossed his hat on the table, revealing a mass of dark curls. Another wave of dizziness swamped her as recognition hit. Please, God, let her be wrong. And if she didn’t humiliate herself by fainting, she’d tithe double the next time she found herself near a church.
Maybe the head wound caused the buzzing in her ears—it couldn’t possibly be because this man still affected her after so long. But no. Even seven years later, Lord Amesbury, the one who had saved her, then callously ruined her, evoked a visceral response. If he thought to save her again, she’d best remember what he’d done the last time they’d met.
Amesbury leaned forward, sparking an almost-forgotten heat of awareness in her belly. His dark brows were broody slashes under a disobedient lock of hair that fell over his forehead, providing the only softness on his face. Shadows played in the hollows under his cheekbones, where at least a day’s growth of beard made him look as roguish as she knew him to be.
“I know your concern is for your coachman. ’Tis commendable. But you’re useless if you don’ see tae yourself.” That lilting brogue did something funny to her chest, creating flutters she’d rather not ponder. “Now please hold still so you don’ make a bigger mess on this good woman’s floor.”
Mrs. Pringle didn’t seem sure if she should leave or stay. The older woman stared at the floorboards while holding the water basin, no doubt wishing to be anywhere else. Lottie felt the same.
Although his exasperated tone rankled, Lottie allowed the examination. Knowing this man, of all people, saw her in such a state set her cheeks aflame with a mix of embarrassment and fury. Fate, that fickle fiend, always tossed her in his path at her worst, casting him as a hero. With a finger under her chin, Amesbury raised her face toward the morning light streaming through the window. His gruff words were at odds with gentle fingers as he brushed the blood-soaked hair off her brow and prodded at a painful area near her hairline.
How had he grown more attractive while she’d merely gotten older? Every year her body grew softer, rounder, despite daily rides all over the estate. As the butterflies in her belly would attest, the small lines at the corners of his eyes and a new hardness to his jaw didn’t diminish his appeal. Grossly unfair, in her opinion.
Over the years, she’d imagined a different meeting. In her version, she always wore a stunning new gown—the picture of intimidatingly competent femininity. Lord Amesbury would stop in his tracks, recognizing her in an instant. Then his striking face would flood with regret, evoking her pity—but only for a moment. A strong cup of tea would help the sensation pass once she snubbed him and went on her way.
No matter the scenario, Lottie served witty set-downs while looking ethereally beautiful, then left the man with an unrelenting grief to haunt him for the rest of his natural life. Really, was that too much to ask? In her imagination she would marry a gorgeous duke—even though young available dukes weren’t exactly thick on the ground. Especially for spinsters.
Logic had no jurisdiction in daydreams and fairy tales.
Reality was sorely lacking. Her traveling gown’s tattered bodice barely clung to modesty, she’d just dripped blood on his boot, and any fool could see Viscount Amesbury didn’t remember her.
Perhaps it was immature to wish the circumstances of their meeting were different, but the fact was that she found herself in another embarrassing situation requiring his help and he didn’t even have the decency to remember her. Inhaling deeply, she searched for calm and instead filled her head with the scent of him—not the wisest course of action. If only Amesbury favored the usual perfumes or bottled tonics, or smelled of rotten onions with a trace of dock water. Instead, he smelled like a man who bathed, then gave no further thought to his appearance. It reminded her of fresh air, leather, and an underlying warmth she couldn’t place. Now her heart pounded for a different reason.
The one thing her old suitor-turned-nemesis did well was confuse her. He always had.
Some things didn’t change, even after seven years. Lottie exhaled his essence, pushing the tangle of emotions from her body. A man she hated so thoroughly shouldn’t smell so comforting.
Heaven’s above, lass. What did you hit your head on? Or rather, what hit you?” he asked.
“The sides of the carriage. The floor. Probably the roof once or twice. I woke up after the accident.” Their gazes clashed for a heartbeat before Lottie stared down at the table.
“My guess is you’ll need stitches tae close this wound.” Amesbury brought her hand up to her face. “Press this rag tae your head. There’s a good lass. We have tae slow the bleeding.”
Lottie winced at the pressure of the cloth but followed his instructions. That commanding presence at work again, convincing everyone around him to do his bidding. But she’d give the same advice to someone else, so Lottie pressed harder and tried not to whine about it.
Clearly, there wasn’t much more to be done before the doctor arrived. Which meant nothing forced her to sit here with this man, letting him play hero to her damsel in distress—again. Anger sparked, overriding the myriad pains. “Thank you for your help, my lord. Now I need to check on my horse and secure rooms for my staff.” Ignoring her shaking legs, Lottie straightened, forcing herself to move as if she weren’t battered and bruised.
As she brushed past him, Lottie deliberately knocked his shoulder with her hip, and he had to grab the edge of the table to keep his seat. A huge man like him probably lumbered through life without expecting women to push him around. A onetime event, to be sure, but she welcomed the petty thrill.
Predictably, he argued. “No, you need tae sit and rest. Wait for the doctor. You’ve suffered a great deal today.” Lord Amesbury looked annoyed. Or maybe that was just his face.
“I’ll see the doctor when he arrives.” She flicked her skirt hem away from Amesbury, smiling her thanks to Mrs. Pringle, who stood silently by, watching the exchange. “If you’ll excuse me, I have things to see to. Mrs. Pringle, I will speak with you privately in a few moments.”
The man who’d helped her inside returned to their table. A bit of a dandy and less intimidating than his giant friend, he must be the Earl of Carlyle. The name brought forth vague memories involving a gorgeous gentleman who sent the debutantes’ imaginations down church aisles. It would seem Lord Amesbury’s circle of friends hadn’t changed.
Lord Carlyle’s eyes widened, then he reached out to catch her although she hadn’t wobbled. “Please, miss, your color is not good. Why not sit? Wait for the surgeon.”
“Thank you, but no. I’ve spent enough time in Lord Amesbury’s presence to last a lifetime.”
Lord Carlyle rounded on Amesbury. “It’s been five minutes, Mac. What in God’s name have you managed to bungle in that time?”
Ah, that’s right. They called him Mac. Of all the obnoxious names to give a Scotsman. But then, Mac had done far worse, hadn’t he?
Amesbury’s clear bafflement at the situation would be funny if she were not the joke. He didn’t recognize her.
Seven years before, she’d sat in her drawing room, wondering where he was, when news that he’d turned her into a gossip-rag headline arrived with the first tittering visitors. Instead of offering the expected proposal, her handsome suitor had ruined her. It should be harder to lose one’s reputation.
Back then, she would have bitten her tongue rather than speak her mind, for fear of being deemed unladylike. Now the words flew like barbed razors, and she hoped they cut wherever they landed. “What’s the matter, Lord Amesbury? Am I supposed to ooze gratitude like a ninny after you playact the savior? Unlike you, I remember that we’ve done this once before, and you only impersonate a hero. It’s a convincing act, I’ll give you that. But I no longer simper, and you’re not a gentleman.”
Turning to Lord Carlyle, Lottie said, “I thank you for your timely assistance. Please stand aside.”
Finally, as if puzzle pieces fell into place, Amesbury’s eyes widened with recognition. “Lady Charlotte.”
Lottie cocked her head. “I’ll accept nothing less than ‘Your Highness’ from the likes of you. After all, you made me royalty, and the title rolls off the tongue so nicely—the Paper Doll Princess. Oh, so witty. I’ve certainly never been able to forget it—nor the humiliation of having thought you were a friend.” Pouring sarcasm into her voice, she bent her knees in a mocking dip of a curtsy, one hand holding the wadded rag to her wound. “For that, sir, you can go to the devil.”
As she swept from the room with her head held high, she heard Lord Carlyle chuckle and say, “Damn. If that was round one, I’m putting five pounds on Lady Charlotte.”
When she marched out the front door of the inn, there was an odd empty quality to the stable yard now that aid had been dispatched to the wreckage site. “Is there any more to be done?” she asked the lone hosteler shoveling horse droppings into a pile.
“Nothing, milady. The big gentleman took care of everything. A few blokes should return with news soon, and the doctor will be along shortly.” He tipped his cap to her before returning to work.
Well, damn. Was there anything worse than waiting? If only she’d been able to ride back with the men to help her servants. At least that would be doing something.
Lottie entered the cool, dark stables and found Samson, the carriage horse who’d served her so well, resting in a stall. She ran a hand down his neck to his withers, then grabbed a fistful of hay, letting him nibble from her fingertips. The soft muzzle hairs tickled the pads of her fingers as if he were petting her too.
Willing her tension away, Lottie leaned against the stall and let the barn scents and sounds work their therapeutic magic. Barns smelled of productivity, hard work, and home. Over the years, barns had been more welcoming than ballrooms. Horses wouldn’t mock your mistakes. Sheep didn’t care if a dress was a few years old or if a woman wore breeches.
This madcap mission she’d undertaken was foolish but necessary if she was to have any control over choosing her own future. If Father had his way, she would be announcing the banns now with Mr. James Montague, youngest son of the Earl of Danby. Having never met the man, and with no desire to do so, she’d dismissed a match between them and thought no more of it. Father had other ideas though, deciding that this—her unmarried state—would be the first thing he took notice of since they’d buried her brother and mother. While it might have been easier to cave to Father’s wishes, the high-handedness of his demands rubbed her the wrong way. If she absolutely had to marry, she’d do so on her terms, thank you very much.
So here she was, on her way to find a husband before her father’s deadline of the beginning of the Season. While summer wasn’t a logical time to husband hunt in London, it was ideal when one desired a spouse who wouldn’t want to spend any time with her in the country. She needed a city gentleman, preferably one who’d contentedly let her go on her way once the vows were exchanged and a tidy living hit his bank account from her dowry. If she failed to find a fiancé before the House of Lords convened in late November, she’d be forced to marry Mr. Montague. Those were Father’s terms.
Either way, she’d avoid the Season—a blessing, considering her advanced age and the utter disaster of her debut.
In the late spring of 1812, while London reeled from the assassination of the prime minister, Spencer Perceval, the ton had obsessed over one piece of gossip that gave them reason to laugh—her. And they didn’t know the half of it.
They didn’t know she’d been caught in the mob on the streets that had formed after word of the shooting spread. More people than she’d ever seen in one place gathered, cheering the actions of a desperate murderer. A frantic chaos had ruled that crowd, creating a danger she’d never experienced before. After being separated from her footman, she’d tried to push against the bodies to find her way to a quieter street. Each second that passed birthed more tension in the air—until a firm hand had grasped her elbow, and the excessively large man who’d danced with her at parties and perched on the tiny chairs in her drawing room had bullied through the throng, guiding her to safety. He’d oozed confidence then too, as his brawny arms anchored her to his side.
There’d been a moment when their eyes locked and the world stopped. She’d swear to it. When he kissed her hand at her door and promised to call the next day, it had felt loaded with meaning, as if his promise held more than mere words.
Instead, she’d waited for a visit that never came. And the day after that, the assassin John Bellingham and the Paper Doll Princess dominated the newspapers. For a while, she’d shared notoriety with a murderer.
Samson’s forelock was silky under her hands when the big horse pushed into the caress, shoving away the echoes of shame these memories brought. “Those saddle lessons you had last spring saved the day, my fine fellow.” The bay whuffled a response, making her smile. “Extra oats for you. Maybe even a treacle swirl on top. You earned it.”
Through a rough timber window, Lottie spied the two men she wanted to avoid walking across the courtyard to where a stable boy waited with their horses. The coast was clear. Time to get a room from Mrs. Pringle, wash, then await the physician.
Lottie tucked a sticky curl behind her ear and wrinkled her nose. She needed a bath as much as she needed her next breath. Perhaps Mrs. Pringle had a soap fragrant enough to induce amnesia and erase all memories of blood and screaming horses. Although, anything would be better than her current odor. Le parfum du tragédie was never en vogue. A shaky sigh tried to become a sob, but she stifled the sound behind a dirty fist.
Not now. Just a few more moments of pretending all was fine. Once alone, she could let herself cry. Sharp pains all over her body hinted at how many times she’d tumbled around inside the carriage as it careened off the road toward the trees. As if her aches weren’t enough, Lord Amesbury’s appearance had created another layer of emotional chaos. At least she’d finally said her piece. That was a small comfort.
Tears threatened. The need to rant hammered at her composure. To rehash what she could have said when faced with the man who’d treated her so callously during her first Season. But more than anything, she wanted privacy so she could fall apart.
Blowing a lank curl out of her face, Lottie fought for a thin thread of control, squeezing her good eye closed as she counted her breaths. Inhale, one, two, three. Exhale, one, two, three. The pressure in her chest released, and her mask of composure slid back into place. She must not forget why she was London bound. The scandal of her debut wouldn’t be repeated. This time, she’d play society’s game by her rules.
The doctor’s sewing skills rivaled those of a seamstress. Although he wasn’t quite finished, a glance in a hand mirror showed small stitches that would eventually heal and disappear into her hairline.
“You have commendable skill with a needle, Doctor. Does your wife ask you to handle the mending? You would turn out a beautiful seam in no time.” Lightening the mood didn’t distract her from the pain, as she’d hoped. His flat expression displayed no emotion, which didn’t help either. What the physician lacked in personality, he made up for with ability. Better that than a charming quack armed with bottles of mystery tonic and foul river sludge.
Each prick of the needle burned instead of stabbed, as if her body’s sensitivities were so overloaded, her brain could no longer accurately categorize individual injuries. She held her tongue against more comments and tried to stay still.
Wishing to be anywhere else, Lottie closed her eyes. In her mind she saw herself at home, at her desk in the sitting room, sunlight streaming through the multipaned windows as she made lists for the week’s work. Organizing and prioritizing the needs of the tenants or scheduling the planting and harvest in each field soothed her. An especially painful stitch sent daggers of sensation through her skull, pulling her from the mental retreat.
The inn’s maid arrived at the door as the doctor finished packing his case. Lottie invited the girl in as the physician left to await the arrival of Darling and Patrick from the carriage rubble. A moment later, hot water from the servant’s buckets splashed into the tub, letting off swirls of steam into the tiny room.
The young woman asked, “Will there be anything else before your bath, milady?”
- "Everything I adore in a Regency—wit, steam, and heart!"—Grace Burrowes, New York Times bestselling author
- "In [a] splendid Regency-set debut . . . Bennett turns a spotlight on the class distinctions and gender restrictions of 1819 England, with a formidable leading lady and a swoon-worthy hero with lower-class roots. Filled with gripping drama, strong characters, and steamy seduction, this tantalizing story is sure to win the hearts of Regency fans."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
- "This is a fast-paced and spicy debut, with likable characters and a feel-good finale that boasts a just-right blend of tenderness and groveling."—BookPage, starred review
- "This debut novel has everything regency fans love—wit, drama, loveable characters, steam, and romance all in an entertaining story."—All About Romance
- On Sale
- Oct 13, 2020
- Page Count
- 368 pages