Authors: Caroline Warfield
Tags: #romance, #holiday, #children, #family, #historical, #free, #regency, #earl, #bastardy
Copyright © 2015 by Caroline Warfield.
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This book is a work of fiction. Names,
characters, places, and incidents are either a product of fiction
or are used in a fictitious manner, including portrayal of
historical figures and situations. Any resemblance to actual
persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.
Cover design by Mari Christie
Pounding hooves and frustration drove the
Earl of Chadbourn in a fog of discouragement toward an unfamiliar
fence line. He rode head down into the wind until an unexpected
sight startled him out of his dismals. He pulled Mercury to a
sudden stop. The fence looked to be in good repair. Thank God, he
Frustration had driven him from his sister's
house, but his neck-or-nothing ride across the fields had done
nothing to ease his burdens, raise his spirits, or banish his
demons. This did.
Can some part of Emery Wheatly's benighted
property actually be in repair?
William Landrum, 10th Earl of Chadbourn badly
needed some sign of order. In the two months he had spent
struggling with his late unlamented brother-in-law's over-grazed
estate, falling fences had been the norm. So had unrepaired tenant
cottages, sodden fields, and poorly managed pastures. The only
things in good heart he had found so far were those that directly
impacted the late Duke of Murnane's personal comfort. If it weren't
for Chadbourn's nephew, the duke's son and heir—now his ward—the
urge to chuck the whole thing and throw it back on the Crown might
be irresistible. He longed to get back to his own land.
Will breathed deeply of the crisp November
air, leapt down, and gave his mount a reassuring caress along its
neck. He bent to examine the fence, sliding his gloved hand across
the top rail. He shook the posts to test their stability. He
examined the crossbars. Perfect. The earl admired quality
workmanship; he rated this work highly indeed.
A short walk took him past a neatly pruned
orchard. The cuttings appeared recent, done just after last week's
hard frost. The orchard could not be on the Duke of Murnane's land.
Eversham Hall boasted no such careful husbandry. He had ridden
farther than planned. What neighbors are these? he wondered. Sylvia
never mentioned them, but then, my sister doesn't tell me much
The fence turned at a lane and curved past
the orchard. Still leading Mercury, he let his curiosity pull him
along until a farmhouse came into view. He stood at the top of a
gentle slope looking down at a trim, thatched cottage, solid barn,
and garden beds, neat even in late fall, the dried remnants of
flowers to the front of the cottage, vegetable patch out
In five years of marching through mud and
blood, dreams of just such a scene had been his safe talisman, the
peace of rural England keeping the horrors of death and
dismemberment at bay. Seeing it in reality, after two months of
managing Murnane's damaged legacy, warmed his heart.
He walked down the lane bathed in
contentment, drawn by the need to absorb the place's serenity and
order until barnyard chaos upended his fanciful notions. He had
stumbled onto a domestic crisis. He chuckled as he went.
Piglets ran in several directions, while a
goat charged up the hill toward him, eyes wide with panic. Two boys
ran in circles trying to catch rioting pigs. The more they ran, the
more they sent a flock of geese into a frenzy of honking and
feathers. A dog barked frantically on one side, only to run to the
other and bark more. In the center of the chaos a woman stood, one
hand raised above her head and the other holding her skirts above
Will's vision narrowed to the woman. Tall and
serene, she put him in mind of Athena, striding above the fray to
command calm. Intense longing for her serenity, for her strength,
and for order filled him. For a moment, he could think of nothing
Frantic bleating brought him back to earth.
The goat pelted up the hill toward him. He caught the piece of rope
dangling from a loop around the animal's neck before it could
charge past him. The panicked beast sent Mercury skittering to the
side. A hard yank brought the bleater to an abrupt stop, and a
gentle hand and soft voice calmed it. He could see that the rope
had been violently torn from a longer piece. There's a story here,
he thought, a smile twitching his lips. He led the goat down the
lane trusting his horse to follow.
"Enough!" Catherine shouted. "Quiet." The dog
at least obeyed. Her youngest brother, Randy, skidded to a halt and
glanced at her sheepishly while he shouted, "Behind you, Freddy.
There's one behind you!"
"Frederick, stop this instant and look at
The older of her two siblings stopped his
gleeful pursuit reluctantly and turned to look at his sister.
"But the pigs, Cath, I—gore!" Freddy
exclaimed. His eyes widened, fixated on a sight past Catherine's
shoulder. "That's a fine beast."
Catherine spun on her heels and gasped. A
man—and a fine specimen indeed—stood not ten feet away. Tall and
broad shouldered, the man exuded the unmistakable confidence of the
upper classes. Sunshine did interesting things with the lights in
his soft brown hair and his eyes… She found herself momentarily at
"This animal belongs to you, I presume?" the
man asked. His deep rich voice rumbled through Catherine's bemused
distraction. She looked up at the huge bay stallion following the
man as meekly as a lamb, opened her mouth to deny it, but caught
sight of the ragged rope in his hands. He had dragged her irritable
"Yes. Rosalinda. Thank you." Catherine
stumbled over the words.
Randy rushed forward to take the rope.
"Thank you ever so much, sir. So frightened
she was, I might have had to chase her clear to the road. If she
went onto His Grace's land again, the steward said he'd roast her
for dinner." The boy chattered while he tied the animal to the
broken gate of the pigsty. "As it is, the mother hog is probably
halfway to Wheatton by now."
Warm brown eyes held Catherine's. She found
herself unable to speak.
"I say, sir. That horse is a beauty, Mr.—"
"Chadbourn. At your service."
Chadbourn? The earl? Catherine looked in
chagrin at her third-best work dress with its patched hem and faded
colors. The one time someone from that family appeared on their
doorstep, and he found her looking bedraggled.
"Chadbourn?" Freddy echoed. "You can't be.
They never come here."
The earl looked confused.
"Frederick!" Catherine snapped, coming
sharply to attention. "Mind your manners."
Freddy remained unrepentant as always.
"Sorry, Cath, but they don't." He looked at the earl. "May I pet
him?" He didn't wait for permission, and the horse seemed willing
"Gently, now," Chadbourn told him.
The sound of the geese faded as the birds ran
through the barn. It reminded her that the earl also found Songbird
Cottage in confusion. He ought at least to know they possessed
manners. She looked to her own manners and began introductions.
"Thank you for your assistance, my lord.
"Your vegetables!" the earl exclaimed.
He strode past Catherine. She turned around
to see that the piglets had settled down to root happily among the
last of the unharvested potatoes and turnips, just beyond the
Freddy started to run toward them. The earl
put out a hand.
"Steady on. Let them think they've outwitted
us, and we'll take them by surprise."
Freddy grinned up at the man and mimicked his
stealthy moves until they were almost upon the little beasties. In
short order, the boys, the earl, and Catherine held seven piglets
by their rear legs and deposited them back in their sty, Randy
holding the gate so Freddy could tie it shut.
"Th-thank you for your help, my lord,"
Catherine stammered, wiping her hands on her skirt and to avoid
looking at him. Must he watch me so intently? "We would have
managed, but thank you, all the same."
"That pen will require mending."
She nodded. "Our man-of-all-work will see to
it. Frederick and Randolph, you two may spend the rest of the day
restoring the hay to the loft. You've undone two days' work."