Miss Rosanna Cabot, a grieving twenty-two year-old heiress, manages to avoid arranged marriage, and purchases an estate called Honor’s Point. She plans to set up a refuge for other young society women fleeing undesired marriages.
On the way, she falls into the arms of Lord Peter Winstead, and her refuge plans hit a snag.
Romantic encounters with the neighbor ensue, but happily-ever-after may not be in their future. Peter must seek forgiveness, and Rosanna must release her heartbreaking past. . .A mysterious intruder, missing treasure, and a daring rescue contrive to stand in their way to happiness.
Rural England, 1816
Carriage wheels thundered, breaking the blessed solitude of the rustic road.
Peter’s shoulders tensed. So far, his hard-won, hermitlike existence provided the escape he craved. If he kept to himself, no one would ever find out his past sins. Fists clenched, he wavered and thought to hide from view, but a shred of pride and tattered honor rooted him to the ground. The right to live, and to breathe, regardless of what he’d done, still existed. This well-deserved misery would lift someday.
He decided no he wouldn’t hide in a ditch, although he might belong in one. His reputation already tattered, nobody’s opinion mattered. He didn’t matter, either. When the traveling carriage lumbered into view, he planted his feet shoulder width apart, hands clasped behind his back. The vehicle rolled to a stop, the door directly in front of him.
A burly, whiskered coachman leaned around, peered down, and lifted his hat. He scratched his head, clearly lost. “Can ye direct us to, um…ah?”
The door opened, and a young lady peered out. Shiny dark curls escaped her bonnet and framed large, sensitive brown eyes set in a face complete with dimples and bedecked with an enticing curve of a smile. Pretty though she was, something else called to his spirit—was it her sincerity? Yes, she glowed with it.
“Can you tell us the way to Honor’s Point?” A dainty shoe peeked out from under the ruffled hem of her skirt. “It appears we took the wrong road.” The young lady’s foot shifted, stepping into air. The next instant, she fumbled in the doorway, a squawk of alarm escaping her lips.
Peter leaped forward and tightened his arms around her as she landed against him. She weighed no more than a feather. Her closeness and hints of lilac perfume raised a surge of attraction in his veins.
“Thank you. I might have been injured,” she whispered. She then bent in a failed attempt to loosen the hem of her dress from her heel.
The plume on her bonnet tickled his nose, and he sneezed. She glanced up, her luscious lips, so close, beckoned.
A faint surge of recognition pulsed. What was her name? Rebecca, Rosanne, Rose? Something with an R. He’d seen her in London, surrounded by pinks of the ton. She’d attended the Banting ball in London little more than a month ago—the last ball he’d ever go to. Even in her rumpled and dusty state, she appeared as delightful as across the candlelit ballroom.
Please don’t let her recognize me, he prayed. As much as I’d like to meet her, it’s impossible now. Discovery terrified him.
She pointed to her foot. “Would you be so kind? My hem is caught.”
Keeping silent, he braced her weight against his thigh, and extricated the snagged hem as requested. Setting the woman down with tender care, he checked her stability before retracting his light hold on her waist.
She tugged at her short spencer jacket, and passed gloved hands over a lavender gown, smoothing away the wrinkles. She tilted her head. “We are searching for Honor’s Point. Perhaps we took a wrong turn, or missed a turn, or…are we off course? The coachman was sure he knew the way.” She gazed at him, her brown, doe eyes waiting in innocent expectancy.
He swallowed. “No, ye be on the right path, Miss. Yer almost there.” Peter mimicked the local villagers’ accent, as he dragged his gaze from hers and fixed it on the ground. He winced at the bad impression he’d made. She’d think him a rustic nobody—and she’d be correct. He tugged his forelock, slumped his shoulders, and gestured forward. “Take a right at the next drive, and it’s nigh on a quarter mile to the house.”
To avoid further conversation, he affected a limp and hastened to the path skirting the field. He whistled a tavern tune to suit his general aura of shabbiness. As a gentleman, he’d have helped the young woman back into the coach. But he dared not risk detection. As a common villager, he wouldn’t be expected to do the pretty.
He desired no encounters like this, no matter how intriguing. On a scrap of land that was once part of the Honor’s Point estate sat the cottage where he lived in rural solitude. The only shred of the property left to him now.
A fair distance from the road, he chanced a look back. No longer in sight, the distant, faint rumble of carriage wheels indicated the vehicle continued on its way. Alone again, he ceased the uncomfortable limp, straightened his shoulders, and headed home.
He looked down at his coat. Limp from too many pressings, and frayed spots at the cuffs, it reminded him of his reduced circumstances. At least his self-imposed exile involved no tailor fittings, no dancing to society’s tune, no invitations, no debt-collectors—and no shame. Neither did it allow him to pursue the attractive young lady who’d fallen into his arms.
Belatedly, Rosanna called to his retreating back, “thank you.” She clambered back into the carriage Uncle George provided for the trip. With its well-padded squabs, it gave superior comfort compared to a rented coach, and since he wanted to do this, she’d not quibble. Guilt and gratitude warred for prominence when she thought of her uncle. He’d taken good care of her affairs in the aftermath of the sudden loss of both parents to an epidemic.
However, she objected to Uncle George’s philosophy that all young ladies should be married—the sooner the better—to men chosen by the relatives of the young females. Even ones like her who wanted nothing to do with marriage, especially loveless, arranged ones. His kindnesses, however, outweighed the mischief done by his numerous efforts to arrange a match for her.
Settling in, she straightened her skirts, clucking over the torn hem. Where was that workbasket? She’d pin up the hem quickly. It wouldn’t do to arrive at one’s new property with a torn dress. While she worked on pinning the awkward tear, memories of the indignity of falling into a man’s strong arms soon gave way to recalling her battle to arrive at the estate called Honor’s Point.
She’d won the right to leave London, and set up her own establishment in the country, away from society. The death of her first love, Clarence, permanently broke her heart. Why must guilt spoil and adulterate her accomplishment of achieving freedom from the pressures of the marriage mart?
No man ever raised a flicker of interest within her. Not after Clarence. If a man to love and respect would have ever crossed her path, a decent interval after Clarence’s untimely death, she wouldn’t have needed to flee convention.
Once she had experienced love, it had been impossible to accept anything less. She didn’t hate the idea of marriage, just being forced into one for money, property, or bloodlines.
After months of negotiating, she’d finally convinced dear old Uncle George to agree to her plan to purchase a secluded estate using her own inheritance she’d received when she’d turned one and twenty. She planned to help other less fortunate young ladies attain refuge from forced matrimony. She was one of the blessed few to successfully refuse to be leg-shackled into a marriage of convenience. Convenient for the man, she was sure.
Hem pinned, thoughts turned to what Barton would say if she’d been awake when Rosanna toppled right into the arms of that strange man. The strength of his hold lingered in her memory. He must be a local farm laborer, perhaps a tenant—except he exuded an appealing dignity.
Rosanna stowed the basket, grabbed her parasol, and thumped the roof of the coach, signaling the coachman to proceed.
At the lurch, fiftyish Barton cracked open one eye and let out a yawn. “Did we stop?”
“Yes, we got directions from a local. Barton, we’re almost to our safe haven. It’ll be wonderful.” Rosanna allowed her enthusiasm free rein. She wanted everyone to be happy.
Taciturn, Barton reached up to tidy her smooth black hair, put on her bonnet, and tied the ribbons under her chin. “Indeed.”
Preoccupied so long with the acquisition of the estate, and the move from London to Honor’s Point, relief cascaded over Rosanna as the arduous journey neared its end. She mulled over her motives, and hoped she’d thought of everything. Buying this property outside the small village of Woodvale caused her relatives and advisors to question her wisdom.
She’d always struggled to be taken seriously, so what did it matter if they thought her a fool? Why did people think all pretty women were stupid? Standing up to them required all the determination she could muster.
A seed of doubt rested within her heart—doubt she admitted only to herself. Since the plan met her needs and fulfilled her dream she forged on, trusting all to work out. She’d been through an ordeal in gaining Honor’s Point, the sanctuary she longed for. Perhaps her last niggle of uneasiness would leave when she at last gazed upon the reputed natural beauty of the estate.