“Have you heard?” Josephine’s bedroom door burst open and her sister rushed inside, speaking the whole time. “You must have heard. You’re hanging upside down. What do you think?”
Josephine opened her eyes but couldn’t see anything but the hem of her sister’s skirt. She tried to tilt her head, but that just made it roll painfully along the rug. She was lying with her feet on her bed and her head and shoulders dangling down toward the floor. At least, she’d started that way. Over the last ten minutes, she’d slipped ever lower until now her throbbing head rested on the floor.
“Oh do get up,” her sister huffed. “I can never talk to you while looking at your feet.”
“Another minute,” Josephine answered. Just another minute while she waited for her head to explode. It never did, of course, but it felt like it would. And wouldn’t that be a marvelous relief from her migraine?
“But don’t you want to know about your husband?”
“My what?” Josephine frowned, which caused an acute flair of pain around her temples.
“Papa’s picked you a husband! And he’s arriving the day after tomorrow!”
Clearly the blood throbbing in her head had distorted her hearing. Slowly, she reached out her hand to her sister. “Help me up.”
Megan grabbed her sister’s hand. Together they hauled her upright with more force than was necessary. Then Josephine was sitting ramrod straight on her bed, the blood flowing south with such speed that it actually made her smile. Because with it went her headache. Or at least some of it.
“I never understand why you do that,” Megan said as she settled onto the bed.
“Because it feels better when I stop,” Josephine answered in a whisper.
“So do you want—”
Josephine held up her finger, temporarily silencing her sister. Then she slowly—gingerly—scooted backward on her bed to rest her head against the wall. She released a sigh of relief. Her headache really was better. Sadly, she had the feeling that her peace was going to be short lived. She could feel her sister’s excitement vibrating in the air, though the woman did nothing more than sit patiently on the side of the bed.
“Very well,” Josephine finally said with a sigh. “Start again.”
“Have you heard the news? About Mr. Montgomery coming day after tomorrow?”
“No, I haven’t heard that news.” Nor could she currently place who this Mr. Montgomery was and why she should be so excited to know he was coming for a visit. “I was with the village children all afternoon. And then the twins somehow managed to make it to the canal. I’ve never seen two boys so filthy.” The twins were eight-year-old cousins visiting for the summer. Personally, she thought it was because Aunt Helen needed an escape from her demon offspring.
“I heard about that,” Megan said with a chuckle. “Nanny was beside herself. You took them to the creek to wash off.”
Josephine wasn’t surprised her sister knew about the boys’ misadventures. Her sister knew everything about everybody. The family, the servants, and the villagers. They’d been back in Yorkshire less than a day, but trust her sister to know all the gossip.
“So who is Mr. Montgomery?”
“Don’t you remember Uncle Bean, Lord Thrupp? The Scotsman? He and Papa have been friends forever.”
“Papa has a lot of friends.” Josephine frowned, then immediately smoothed her brow at the pinch of pain. She did remember a gentleman with a bristly beard and a hearty laugh. But mostly she remembered his name and title because it had sounded so funny.
“Well, this friend is father to your husband, Mr. Alastair Montgomery, heir apparent to a Scottish viscountancy.”
Josephine paused, trying to sort through her sister’s words. Only one stood out: husband. So she had heard that part correctly. If she weren’t feeling so wretched right now, she’d be downstairs yelling at Papa for being so free with her hand. “He can’t pick my husband for me,” she said firmly.
“Of course he can. He told you he wouldn’t frank another Season. He gave you this spring, but you didn’t bring anyone up to scratch.”
“I know, I know!” Josephine snapped. Then a bolt of pain shot through her head and made her moderate her tone. “I tried.”
Her sister reached over and wrung out a cloth in the basin of water that always sat beside her bed. She was smooth in her motions as she gently laid the cloth on Josephine’s forehead. It wouldn’t help, but Josephine appreciated the effort nonetheless. Or she did until her sister spoke.
“You know, there’s trying and then there’s trying.”
“You punched Lord Addersly in the nose.”
“I punched a lecher known as Lord Addersly in the nose, and he deserved it.”
Megan didn’t speak. She didn’t need to. Josephine had her eyes shut, but she still knew her sister’s mouth would be pinched tight in judgment. After all, in Megan’s world, no lady—and certainly no lady looking for a husband—would ever punch anyone for any reason at all.
Josephine kept her voice at a moderated level. “I repeat: he deserved it.”
“And maybe you deserved it for going out into the gardens with him.”
“It was hot!”
“It was scandalous!”
Josephine pulled off the cloth and glared at her sister. The woman was the picture of a proper lady. Her light brown hair was pulled into a neat plait without even a wisp out of place. Her gown was pristine and her skin was creamy perfection. Not even a bump or a mole touched her sister’s cheek, unlike the blotchy riot of freckles on Josephine’s face.
“I could hate you,” Josephine groused, “for being so perfect.”
“And I could hate you for getting away with nonsense that mother would never tolerate in me.”
Josephine snorted. “You don’t like nonsense.”
Josephine retorted by sticking out her tongue, which Megan promptly flicked with her finger. A moment later the two were giggling the way they used to back before there had been such pressure to find a husband. Back before Megan had shown herself to be the perfect lady and Josephine anything but.
She sighed. “I really did try to find a husband.”
Her sister echoed the sound. “I know. But it doesn’t matter now. Papa’s found you one, and I think you’ll like him.”
“You don’t even know him.”
Megan stiffened. “Of course I do. I know he’s got plenty of money, or he will have once you’re married. I know he’s considered handsome and he’s got red hair. Match that with yours, and you’ll have very handsome ginger children.”
Josephine opened her eyes…slowly. Her headache was better. The light from the candle didn’t feel so blinding anymore. “I’m not going to marry just to have redheaded babies.”
“Well, it’s distinctive. And you do like standing out.”
“I like cherry pie too, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to marry it.” She looked down at her hands. She was going to have words with her father. Harsh words. Just as soon as she figured out the best way to approach him to get the result she wanted. Meanwhile, she had to learn everything she could. “Does Kenneth know him?” Kenneth was their only brother, and at twenty-two years of age, he knew many of the wealthy or titled men. Sadly, Kenneth had chosen to remain in London this summer rather than join the family, so he was no help at all, even if he did know the mysterious Mr. Montgomery.
Megan shrugged. “I think they spent a holiday together three years ago. Something about a jolly good time hunting.”
Josephine groaned and closed her eyes. “Kenneth has a jolly good time hunting no matter who he’s with.”
There was a long pause, and Josephine thought her sister was preparing to leave. Instead, she heard the telltale sound of her cream pot being opened. “That’s mine,” Jo said without heat. “You should go make your own.”
“But it never works out the same.”
Josephine didn’t answer because it was true. For all her faults, Josephine had one talent: she could make an excellent facial cream from a recipe she’d learned when they’d lived in India. She’d been given it by the mother of one of their maids. The woman had all sorts of unguents and recipes, everything from facial cream to drinks against the ague. Josephine had followed her around like a puppy, learning everything she could until they’d left the country. That was nearly a decade ago, but she still remembered. And she still made facial cream that worked miracles. Sadly, soft skin was only half the battle. She still needed the peaches and cream look of her sister, but no recipe had helped with that. Her face was fated to remain hideously blotchy.
Meanwhile, Megan’s thoughts were still on Josephine’s husband. “Papa isn’t going to force you,” she said in a reasonable tone. “Not really. But Mr. Montgomery’s coming for the summer and you’re to fall in love with him.”
Josephine sighed. If only it were that easy. If so, she’d have fallen in love three Seasons ago with the future Lord Sumpter. He’d adored her. Or with Baron Hickens or even Mr. Greenley, who had a distant connection to a duke. Any of those men were acceptable husbands. They were good, kind men who’d appreciated her dubious charms. They’d called her beautiful and laughed when she spoke her mind.
Her father would have accepted any of them as a son-in-law, but when she’d pictured growing old with them, she… well, she just couldn’t see it. She knew that however sweet they were now, they’d come to hate her within a decade. And even if they didn’t, she would despise them. She could already see the seeds now. One was a flirt, the other a bore, and the worst was rather dull-witted. Perfectly charming now, but as the years rolled by? It would become intolerable.
“You’re looking for a grand passion,” her sister accused, “when you know they don’t exist.”
“Of course they exist. They just haven’t for me.”
“They don’t exist,” Megan repeated firmly. “And you’re going to give up your life waiting for something that will never come.”
Josephine didn’t answer. She was too busy fighting the tears. She knew she was being illogical. She knew that women her age were usually married and with their second babe on the way. “Compromise” was the word among her friends. It meant giving up on romantic fantasies and finding a man who was acceptable. In other words, someone who was amiable now and would be stable as he aged. As if stability was the be-all and end-all in men!
She’d spent years laughing at such a ridiculous notion, except that her friends had proved it true. One by one they’d married. None of them had been desperately in love with their husbands, most had settled for quiet companionship. The happiest among them lived in separate residences from their spouse and only came together as a family on holidays. And all of them sang the praises of that word: compromise.
She knew of only one woman who had married for love, and it had been a disaster. The man had been a charmer with a secret penchant for gambling houses. After he’d run through her dowry, he’d run off entirely. The girl had moved back in with her parents and was now raising her son thanks to their generosity.
So if this Mr. Montgomery was a good, stable man who could afford separate residences, then why shouldn’t she consider him? After all, she’d failed miserably on her own. Perhaps she could learn to compromise. She could try, couldn’t she? Even though every cell in her body rebelled at the thought.
“So you’re going to do it?” her sister pressed, apparently seeing Josephine’s every thought written on her face. “You won’t go yelling at Papa just yet? Not until you’ve met Mr. Montgomery?”
Josephine sighed. “I’ll try,” she said, each word feeling like it weighed a ton.
“He’s the man for you,” Megan said, certainty vibrating in her voice. “You’ll fall in love with him and it will be lovely!”
“I thought you didn’t believe in grand passions.”
Megan clicked her tongue. “Well, not for normal people. But you seem to do everything with a grand passion. Why not fall in love that way too?”
Josephine looked at her perfect sister and felt hope spark within her heart. Perhaps it was possible. Perhaps this Scot was the man for her. Perhaps…
“Just try,” her sister pressed. “You’ll really like him if you try.”
“Of course I will,” Josephine said, trying to make it true just from sheer determination. But as her sister pressed a kiss to her cheek, Josephine felt the weight of despair settle into her bones.
What if he didn’t like her? What if he took one look at her blotchy skin and was dismayed? Then all she need do was say one thing out of turn and that would be the end of it. He’d walk away as easily as all the other gentlemen in five years worth of Seasons. And what if she managed to cover her blotches and act the lady for one very long summer? Then he’d marry her only to realize that he’d shackled himself to a woman who had blotchy skin beneath the powder and an acid tongue beneath the sweetness.
The questions started swirling in her head, making her headache worse. So rather than let them get the better of her, she turned to the source of all information: her sister. “So tell me more about the future Viscount Thrupp. What have you learned?”
“Well,” said Megan with a delighted grin, “I heard Papa talking to Mama and he said Mr. Montgomery is rather handsome.”
“Papa doesn’t know how to judge handsome,” Josephine said.
Megan giggled, then continued. “Since he comes from Scotland, he understands the need for a canal.” Both girls waved that away. Neither of them really cared about canals. Shipping goods from one place to another was simply… shipping. And therefore boring. “He’s got political ambitions, so once everything is set tight here in Yorkshire, you’ll be living in London.” Megan abruptly leaned forward. “Isn’t that wonderful? London all the time! No more terrible summers up here!”
Josephine nodded because her sister wanted her to, but honestly, she didn’t think Yorkshire was so awful. There were woods to wander in, clean air to breathe, and a particular spot by a creek that had built to mythic proportions in her mind. It was quiet, it was special, and every time things got bad in London, she longed to be there. Meanwhile, Megan had started to wander dreamily about the room.
“You’ll let me plan the wedding, won’t you? You hate that sort of thing, while I—”
“Yes, you adore it, but don’t you think you’re getting ahead of things? What if Mr. Montgomery hates me?”
Megan let out a frustrated sigh. “You don’t understand, do you? It’s not you that will be the problem. It’s Yorkshire. If he hates it here, I doubt he’ll marry you to own it.”
Josephine grimaced and looked away. How lowering to realize that you weren’t even the least bit important in your own marriage. Meanwhile, Megan was following her own meandering thoughts.
“Remember how awful it was when we first got here? Everyone hated us. They threw tomatoes at you in the village! What if they do that to Mr. Montgomery?”
Josephine did remember. And she remembered how their steward, Mr. Will Benton, had defended them to the villagers. After the horrible tomato incident, he’d been practically heroic in how he’d punished those awful boys.
Sparked by thoughts of their handsome steward, her gaze wandered to the window. In another hour it would be dark enough to leave. Another hour after that, everyone else would be asleep. She could go out then. Her secret path, her quiet rendezvous. Soon.
“Josephine? Are you listening?”
Josephine blinked, her mind jerking back to her sister. “What?”
Suddenly her sister was contrite. “It’s your head, isn’t it? You’re not going to be worth anything until you feel better.”
Grabbing onto the excuse, she gave her sister a weak smile. “I’ll feel better in the morning,” she promised. And she would. Especially after an hour spent in her favorite spot in all of Yorkshire.
Her sister left a few minutes later. Josephine spent the rest of the evening waiting in her bed. She didn’t sleep. She was too anxious, too excited, too much herself to do anything but wait. But when the house finally, blessedly quieted, she got up and dressed quickly. Just a quiet walk to no place in particular, she told herself, even though she knew she was lying.
Slipping outside through the servants’ door, she headed down the familiar path. She ought to walk a different way, but she never did. She meant to walk in silent contemplation as a lady, but that never happened either.
Not in Yorkshire. Not for the last five years.
No, she went to the creek, to the gentle gurgle of the water and the sweet drone of insects. And him.
Part 3 of Winning a Bride will be delivered into your inbox tomorrow morning. In the meantime, you can shelve this title on Goodreads and connect with Jade on Facebook and Twitter.