The first time she’d come to this place had been five years ago. She’d been restless and excited. It was the last summer before her debut in London, and she was so anxious to be gone from Yorkshire she could barely stand it. So late one night, she’d gone outside to run wild. Her nervous energy had brought her stumbling, cursing, and laughing to the side of a creek where she collapsed on the muddy bank and howled like a mad dog.
He’d been leaning against a tree, so still she hadn’t noticed him. She’d thought he was part of the gnarled bark. He hadn’t moved while she acted the beast. Or if he had, she hadn’t seen. She’d been so caught up in the whirling noise in her head that she’d never looked. Not until much later when the wildness had eased. When she’d collapsed against a neighboring tree and closed her eyes in relief.
The storm had left her—at least for a time—and she rested quietly, her hair tangled in the tree bark and her feet lifted up onto a rock. That’s when he’d moved, so silent she only saw him because she’d been looking straight at him.
She’d cried out in alarm. He’d apologized for disturbing her, identifying himself as William Benton, their steward. At which point her embarrassment had become humiliation because she’d just acted like a wild dog in front of the one person Papa needed to respect them. After all, she and her family were the interlopers in this sleepy northern land. He was the second son of the rightful owners, or so they said over and over in the village.
But he hadn’t seemed to hate her. In truth, looking back, he had spoken to her as he might a wild creature, his voice quiet and manner soothing. And it had worked. She’d calmed, they’d talked, and in time—week after week of nightly visits—they had formed a kind of friendship. She told him about India and how she’d loved the exotic land. He spoke about school and being laughed at because he was both a second son and poor. Together they’d looked at the stars, waded in the creek, and generally spoken of everything and nothing all at once.
By the midsummer festival, she’d half fancied herself in love with him. And then it had all changed. In one hideous conversation, he’d made it clear that despite all the shared confidences by the creek, she was nothing more than an untidy, unladylike child. Don’t mistake things here, Miss Josephine. We all want you back in London, permanently. You don’t belong here and you never will.
From then on, he couldn’t even look at her without his expression tightening into a frown. And in her hurt and confusion, she responded in kind, flaunting her position as his mistress and the future lady of this land. Looking back, she knew she’d been cruel to him, her words cutting, her actions mean. He’d done no less, saying “yes, miss” and “no, miss” with such a sneer in his voice even the dullest servant knew that she was an outsider. And that, in this horrid little Yorkshire village, was the worst sin a woman could commit.
They roundly hated each other and had since the festival so long ago. And yet, three times a week—sometimes more—they would end up at this bend in the creek together and they would converse. Sometimes it was in cold, polite tones. Other times the anger had been a palpable force between them. The words changed, the nights were different, but the meaning was always the same. He thought very little of her, and she hated him for it. It was a deep and abiding hatred because he knew her deepest secret: that she was wild and flawed and not a lady.
So tonight, on the very night she had resolved to act respectably for the mysterious Mr. Montgomery, he was here to remind her that she was doomed. “Respectable” was something a wild child like her could never be.
She came quietly to the creek. Most nights she would have run here, flopped down against her tree, and stripped out of her stockings. She loved walking barefoot through the creek, the cool rush of water as delightful as the squish of the mud between her toes. But not tonight. Not when she still had a headache and the heavy weight of all those thoughts about husbands and compromise.
So she stepped slowly into the area, her eyes finding his shadow immediately. He looked broader somehow tonight. As if his shoulders had thickened over the winter. Or perhaps it was how his head was bowed, and his body slumped against his tree. He was tired, she realized. And no wonder. Building a canal was no easy task.
He didn’t speak. Not before she did. Never before she did, and some nights his silence had mocked her as he waited to see how long it would take for her to break. She always did, hating the silence between them even more than the disdain. If he was going to be nasty to her, she might as well get it over with, right? And he would be. She would poke him until it happened. Because that’s what they did on these midnight rendezvous.
She didn’t wait long. She already knew he could out-silence her, so she settled gingerly on her rock and spoke. “You look tired. Is it just the canal or is something else happening?”
He straightened, turning to look at her. “It’s…” He cut off his words, his whole attitude becoming more alert. “Your head pains you.”
She blinked, startled. “You can’t possibly know that.”
He dropped his head back against his tree. “Of course, Miss Josephine.” Spoken with his usual sneer plus a touch of exhaustion.
She grimaced. Even when she resolved to be a lady, he brought out the worst in her. “It’s nothing,” she said. “Thank you for your concern.” She spoke stiffly because he hadn’t voiced concern at all.
If this were a typical night, he would bow mockingly to her and withdraw. But apparently this wasn’t typical because he stayed exactly where he was. And five minutes later, he broke the silence first. And that all by itself told her that this was not a typical night.
“Your father wants the canal done by September. He’s offered me a generous reward if I finish it by then.”
“September!” she cried. That seemed so soon. When she’d gone to collect the twins all she’d seen was a thicket of trees where there needed to be a track for horses to pull the barges. “Is it possible? Can you get it done by then?”
“Your father thinks so.”
Not an answer. “Have I mentioned how irritating it is when you refuse to answer a direct question?”
He turned to face her and the moonlight spilled across his face. She immediately regretted her harsh words. She could see the lines of weariness in him, as if a great weight hung on every inch of his body. It wasn’t just that his shoulders seemed bowed again, but that his eyes were weary. His normally bright blue eyes seemed dark, and even his dark blond hair seemed flat. His mouth was set in its usual frown—at least when he was around her—but instead of being pinched tight, it seemed to just… be. Not smiling, but not really scowling either. Just world-weary.
“Why are you so sad today?” she asked.
He arched a brow and it was the only animation on his face. She didn’t even blink. Did he really think to cow her with an arched brow? Apparently not, because his gaze soon drifted away from her to the dark trees beyond her shoulder.
“I learned today that my brother tried to be a good man.”
She tilted her head, confused. “But that’s lovely, isn’t it? That your brother’s a good man?”
He didn’t answer, and she had to replay his words in her mind.
“Oh,” she said quietly. “You said he tried to be a good man. He didn’t succeed?”
“Not that I’m aware of.”
“Well,” she said slowly, “he did try, at least. Intentions matter. We can’t be perfect all the time.” She couldn’t manage to be perfect any of the time.
He kicked dully at a stone. “Intentions are like wishes.”
“And if wishes were horses then beggars could ride. Yes, I know. But it’s not the same thing. You said he tried to be a good man. What did he do? And why did it fail?” As she peppered him with questions, she tried to recall everything she knew about his older brother. All she remembered was his name was Grant and he was now Lord Crowle.
“He gave himself five years to buy back our land. This land.”
“Five years? So that would be…”
“In two months, two weeks, and six days.”
“Oh. Does he have the money?”
He shrugged. “I have no idea. I haven’t spoken to him since the day he sold everything.”
Even she knew about the happenings on the night nearly five years ago. Megan had told her all about it, or as much as everyone hereabouts knew. On the evening after the Crowle daughter married Lord Dengler, the two Crowle brothers had a right good row. William, the second son, had stormed off, likely coming to this very spot to kick at stones and curse the creek.
The older son, Grant, had done the one thing the Crowles excelled at: he’d gotten drunk and made a stupid mistake. In this particular case, it had been to accidentally burn down the barn. There were no casualties as he had been rather heroic in rescuing the cattle, but the act remained as yet another black mark on the Crowle name.
That alone was bad enough, but two days later the village received quite a shock. Apparently, in addition to burning down the barn, the older Crowle had sold every inch of unentailed land to Josephine’s father. Soon after that, her family had moved in, the younger Crowle son became their steward, and no one had heard from Grant since. Not even on the day of his father’s funeral, which happened about a year after the wedding.
It was quite the history, but obviously not the whole truth. And if Will’s face was anything to judge by, there were more layers to the story. She leaned forward, trying to think through the possibilities.
“So Papa promised to sell the land back—”
“At a fair price—”
“But you’ve only got a few more months to do it. Well, if your brother can’t do it, what about you? Do you have enough money?”
He snorted, the sound harsh in the night air. “Maybe if I’d known five years ago. Maybe if he’d told me, I could have managed something.”
“But you have been saving, haven’t you? I mean, what is there to buy in Crowlesby Village?”
“Besides food and a new roof?”
“Yes, besides that.” Will and his mother lived in the entailed land—Crowles Castle—and it was a crumbling, dangerous mess. He’d managed to keep one corner of it standing and somewhat habitable, but all the village children were warned away from it because the entire place was falling apart.
“Nothing,” he said dully.
“So you haven’t spent your money foolishly, have you?”
“So do you have enough to buy—”
“Oh.” She huffed. What was she missing? He was clearly angry about something. “I don’t understand. Your brother tried to save the land. He may or may not have been able to do it. So why are you here kicking at stones and acting as though your brother has done some horrible thing?”
“Because I do have some money. Not enough, but maybe if Grant has some too… Maybe we could scrape together enough.”
“So write him.”
“I have—to our solicitor—but nothing will come of it.” He slid down the bark until he squatted on one of the roots. “People don’t change. My grandfather was a gambler and a drunk. My father, too. Do you know how many promises they broke? How many good intentions they had that never came to anything?”
She waved that away. “That’s them. What about your brother?”
Will shrugged. “He burned down our barn.”
“What is that to the point? I once fell off a fence and landed in the wallow. Doesn’t mean I’m a pig.”
He turned to stare at her. “You say the oddest things.”
As if she needed the reminder. “You don’t know what your brother has done, so don’t damn him until you know the truth.”
He sighed. “Here’s what I do know. Your father has offered me a small piece of land if I finish the canal by the time the five years are up. He called it incentive, and it is. It’s a very good piece of land.”
Was that the reason for the urgency? Because Will’s family might up and buy the land? But that made no sense.
Will stretched out his legs in front of him, his breath easing out of him on a long sigh. When he finally spoke, his tone was matter-of-fact. “The sale is for a fair price. If I finish the canal, then the price for the land triples. There’s no chance that my brother could have gotten that much money together in five years.”
“But you’ll have Papa’s bonus, right? The small piece of land.”
“But if I don’t get the canal done, the land is worth more, but not triple. Maybe Grant has that much money. Maybe he still plans to buy it all in six weeks.”
“But if you get the canal done—”
“Then the price is too high. There’s not a chance Grant has made that much money. No one could make that much in five years’ time.”
She understood the problem now. He could work hard, take the safe bet, and finish the canal. He’d get the bonus plot of land and be happy. Or he could risk everything on his brother making good on a five-year-old promise. He could give up his bonus and delay finishing the canal, then maybe Grant would appear in six weeks with enough money to buy it all back. “But you have no idea what Grant has done. So you have no idea whether he has any money at all.”
He nodded. “Do you know what it would mean for this land to be owned by the Crowles again? This has been our place since Henry II. The village is named Crowlesby. Seven hundred years undone by three generations of idiots.”
“Two,” she corrected. “Your father and grandfather. You don’t yet know about your brother.”
“I know he’s gone. I know people don’t change.”
“Of course they can!” she cried. Else she would be doomed to be the odd, unladylike, wild thing she’d always been.
He didn’t respond because he didn’t believe. Of course he didn’t because she very much feared he was right. After all, wasn’t that what the stubborn Yorkshire people prided themselves on? That generation after generation everything was exactly the same, done exactly the same way in an unceasing roll of Not Changing.
“I’m going to prove it to you,” she said, not fully understanding why she was being so vehement. “People can change.”
He shoved to his feet. “This is not a game, Miss Josephine. This is my home and my land.”
“So fight for it!” She stood to face him square on.
“How?” He threw up his hands. “It was all sold out from under me!”
“I don’t know! Find your brother. Make a new deal with my father. Do something, but don’t sit here kicking at stones while someone else—”
“Burns down my barn?”
She swallowed. So she’d guessed right. He’d been here glaring at the stones when his brother had made his Stupid Mistake.
She took a deep breath and suddenly made a vow. “This summer is going to be different,” she said. “You’re going to find your brother and figure out how to fix things. And I’m going to finally grow up and become a proper lady. It’s time. For both of us.”
He pulled back with a frown. “What makes you think you’re not a proper lady?”
She laughed though there was no humor in the sound. “Being twenty-six and unwed might be an indication.” Then she waved him to silence when he opened his mouth to speak. “It doesn’t matter. Tell me what you’re going to do to find your brother.”
He looked at her long and hard. For a moment, she didn’t think he’d answer her as his mind was clearly on her statement. But in the end, he lifted his chin and spoke, his voice ringing firm in the clearing.
“I’m going to do what I always do,” he said firmly. “I’ll do my job. I’ll build the canal and take my reward.”
“But what about your brother?”
He shrugged. “He can go to hell. Of course, knowing him, he’s probably already there.”
He started to turn away, but then she did the boldest thing she’d ever done with him. She grabbed his arm and held him hard. Usually she couldn’t wait to escape him, but not tonight. For whatever reason, she was desperate to make him believe.
“Why must you always believe the worst in people?”
“Because that is the only part they show me.”
She shook her head. “Not true. You look for it. You always have.” She knew that from personal experience.
He glowered at her, but she refused to give in. As she was still holding onto his arm, she felt the tension knot his muscles there. She felt him struggle to think about what she’d said. And then she knew the moment he let it go by the sudden release in his arm. Except the moment he spoke, she knew he hadn’t given in so much as given up. He was just too weary to argue with her.
“You’re different this summer,” he said. “What happened in London?”
She pulled back, startled into releasing him. How did he know these things about her? How did he guess?
“Nothing happened,” she said as clearly as she could manage. “I am the same as I have always been.” She said the words, then could have kicked herself for them. Hadn’t she just sworn she was changing? And he, damn it, knew exactly how she’d slipped.
He arched his brow and his lips curved in a mocking smile. “If that’s true, Miss Josephine, then this summer will go exactly as all the other ones.”
Meaning at the end of it all, she’d still be unwed and unruly. And he’d still be here making her all too aware of her faults.
“No,” she said. Then she repeated it with a strength born of desperation. “This summer will be different. You’ll see.”
Then he did something that rocked her down to her toes. Just as she’d broken some unwritten law when she grabbed his arm, he pushed the bounds of their relationship and touched her, too. Only what he did was caress her. A slow, delicate brush of his finger across her cheek. The shock of it rooted her to the ground. She stood unmoving except for the burn of sensation across her face.
“If it is different,” he said gently, “then it can only get worse.”
“How can you say that?” she whispered, her throat incredibly dry.
He didn’t answer with words. Instead, he looked at her and as the moonlight illuminated his face, she saw the truth as she’d never seen it before. She saw a longing in his eyes. A desperate emptiness that begged to be filled.
Long before her mind latched on to its meaning, her body began to react. She felt her belly go liquid and her breath shorten. Her breasts grew tight and she opened her mouth though she had nothing to say.
But then the moment was lost. With a curse, he jerked himself away. She didn’t even have time to call out before she heard his tread—hard and fast—as he rushed away.
Damn, blast, and bloody hell! Will tore through the woods toward his home, being reckless as he fumed. What demon inside of him made him torture himself with that woman? Why did he loiter in that midnight place when he knew she’d come? She always came! And they always argued!
Except for this time, of course. This time she proved that she was more than just a beautiful woman set to tempt him. This time she spoke with him. She wasn’t deterred when he snapped at her, wouldn’t leave him alone when he’d merely wanted to fume in the darkness. No, she’d persisted, damn her. With her words of possibility that his brother wasn’t the wastrel everyone knew him to be. Words of determination when he’d lost all perspective. Words of hope when he knew his desires were hopeless.
So what did it all mean? That he wanted her.
And he wanted his land back.
And he wanted them both with a desperation that would not die no matter how many times he reminded himself that none of it would ever be his. In truth, none of it had ever been in his grasp. Not the land which went to his older brother and not the woman who was destined for a Scottish lord.
Oh, but he wanted them. And he’d be damned if either would go to someone else.
So with a last vicious swipe at a tree branch that blocked his way, he found a determination that had been absent until he’d spoken with her. Whereas before he’d been struggling, trying to decide what his path should be, suddenly he saw it all with crystal clarity.
His brother was a lost cause. Grant could go to the devil. But the woman—Josephine—she was not lost. At least not yet. And if her father thought he could bring in some Scottish lord to sweep her off her feet, well then he was sadly mistaken.
Did Lord Lawton want a husband for his daughter? Enough that he would put all the Crowle land in her dowry? Well then, the answer was clear. Forget building a damn canal. Forget Grant and the possibility of buying the land back.
This Crowle was going to grab his land in the usual way: he was going to marry it. Her father was a problem, of course, but the man wasn’t a true villain. He loved his daughter. So if Will could seduce Josephine, then she would convince her father. After all, the man wouldn’t let his beloved girl starve. It was a gamble, to be sure, but it was a much better bet than any other possibility.
The more he thought about the future, the more he realized how easy it would be. He’d try to finish the canal, but that was a long shot at best. Meanwhile, he’d seduce sweet Josephine to his side. Better yet, Gretna Green wasn’t that far away. If he could convince her, they’d just spirit away to Scotland. Once there, they’d marry and then he’d claim her in every way it was possible for a man to claim a woman.
And that, he decided with a wolfish grin, would make this a very different summer indeed.
Part 4 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.