Canals were boring. That was Josephine’s inescapable conclusion as she endured yet another excited discussion with the twins about the latest developments in construction. And it wasn’t just the twins. It was on all the men’s lips, from the lowliest bootblack to her father. Even the minutest detail seemed to fascinate the men.
The village was boring too as the women all talked about the new influx of workers. Most hated it, and the talk was turning uglier by the second. The men were rough, they were scary, and as there were only four rooms in the inn, the workers camped out anywhere there was open space. There had already been three brawls and countless “very strange” incidents. She had no idea how much truth was in the gossip, but the mood in the village was as frightening as it had been nearly five years ago when the Lawtons were the horrible outsiders.
All in all, the men grumbled and the married women were very anxious. The only ones who seemed happy were the unmarried girls, who remained annoyingly excited and giggly. They dressed better, they practiced coy glances, and they universally tried to duck away from their mothers.
Josephine thought it was boring. The men were just men of a certain ilk. She didn’t want to speculate about them because she was busy thinking about one man in particular. One man who had to go to town, damn it, to manage supplies. One frustrating steward who disappeared right when things were so very different between them. Which meant that man was not at their spot on the creek for a week’s worth of nights because of supply problems. For the damned, boring canal!
But no one wanted to talk about Will’s absence. No one cared except to wonder if his new second-in-command could do the job. And it wasn’t like Josephine could talk about what really consumed her thoughts: the way he’d touched her, the things they’d done. No unmarried woman talked about that, and even the married ones only whispered.
Besides, Josephine didn’t have any confidantes in Yorkshire. Her best friends from school were scattered about England with their husbands and new babies. The closest friend she had here was Megan, and she wouldn’t trust Megan with a secret this big. But if she didn’t share it soon with someone, she very much feared she would explode.
“Does the grass offend you that much? Or is it some insect in the blades that bothers you?”
Josephine spun around at Mr. Montgomery’s questions. Her thoughts tumbled about, refusing any type of order, as she struggled to find something appropriate to say.
“I’m… I’m just tired of Yorkshire, is all,” she said. It was a lie. She was tired of her own company.
He raised his eyebrows. “Truly? I thought you loved it here.”
How to answer that? “I do. And I don’t. And truthfully, I’m terribly out of sorts, so be warned. I’m not likely to be pleasant company right now.”
They were on the back lawn, an hour before afternoon tea. The nanny and the boys were—as usual—at the canal. The village children who always hung about were with the boys, again at the canal. Megan and Mama were probably stitching or doing some other very ladylike activity. Which left her at loose ends wondering what to do with herself.
“I have no fear of ill temper,” he said with a congenial smile. “Actually I find it rather invigorating at times.”
“Then we are a match made in heaven,” she returned before immediately regretting her words. Lord, why had she said that? Everyone knew the whys and wherefores of his presence here, but did she have to allude to their marriage so bluntly? “I’m terribly sorry,” she mumbled. “I—I don’t know why I said that.”
“Why not say it?” he asked, his expression still pleasant. Rather sheeplike, she thought, then immediately regretted her uncharitable thought. “Our match is the question at hand, isn’t it?”
She nearly groaned. Did he truly want to discuss this now? Right out in the open? It boggled the mind, especially as she had labeled him a “gentleman” in her thoughts. And gentlemen, as a rule, did not speak so openly about marriage. “Um, of course, sir. If you wish,” she said dully.
“Come, come,” he chided. “Don’t grab hold of your temper now. As I said, I enjoy ill humor. Cuts to the heart of things. If you turn polite on me now, I shall become very bored indeed.”
“And that is the very worst, isn’t it? Becoming bored?”
“I detest it. I will go to great lengths to avoid it.”
She twisted to look at him more fully. Megan was right, his red hair was rather intriguing, especially in the afternoon sunlight. But she found more interesting the arch to his brow and the sparkle of interest in his eyes. It wasn’t flirtatious, by any means. It was simply curiosity, as if he saw her as a person and truly wanted to know her thoughts. But they were talking about nothing! She narrowed her eyes in thought.
“How much do you detest it?” she challenged.
“I cannot think of anything worse.”
“Then why are you here with me?”
His brows shot up at her bold question.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
She regarded him, deciding to be completely blunt. It would, after all, get some of her endlessly whirling questions out of the way. “You have come here for the land and to learn how to manage it after we are wed.”
His lips tightened at that, but he didn’t speak. And in his silence, she pressed on.
“You have spent most of your time doing exactly that. Meeting the crofters, surveying the canal.” Always the canal. “You and my father seem to have found some sort of understanding. Mama adores you and even Megan thinks you are my best suitor ever.”
“Surely she doesn’t think that!” he said.
“I assure you, she has said so repeatedly.”
He pursed his lips. “But you don’t agree?”
“Oh, I do,” she said quite honestly. “My suitors, on the whole, have been a sad lot.”
“Damned by faint praise,” he drawled.
She shrugged and then resumed her slow meandering about the edge of their lawn. He followed, of course, even as she looked longingly at the surrounding trees. She wanted to run wild through the woods, but this was her very last clean, good gown, and so she had to be careful with it. At least until after the laundry was done. Meanwhile, he was dancing attendance on her and she needed some answers.
“So the question is,” she repeated, “why are you here with me?”
“Because if I am to wed a woman, I should get to know her first, don’t you think?”
She threw up her hands. “Well, I thought so at first. But it has been over a week and we have barely spoken more than pleasantries. So what has happened now, sir, to bring you to my side?”
He shrugged, and far from being annoyed by her question, he seemed rather embarrassed. “I have lately come to think that perhaps the woman does make a difference.”
She snorted and echoed back his words. “Damned by faint praise.”
He acknowledged the hit with a nod of his head, then focused on her with a steady gaze. “Does the man make a difference to you?”
“Yes,” she said. “A very great deal.”
“Then I suppose I have a very great deal to make up for.”
She kicked at a stone and watched it fly into the trees. “Mr. Montgomery, may I be blunt?”
His lips curved in a smile. “By all means, be more blunt.”
She winced. “I told you I was out of sorts,” she groused.
“Fair enough. I was warned.”
“You were.” Then she waved his comment away. “I want to get married. I want to have children. But mostly, I want something to fill my days and nights.”
“You do not think running a home will do that? That children will absorb your time?”
“Well, of course they will, but… but I don’t like running a home. And besides, Mrs. Ransey, our housekeeper does that. And yes, I will adore my children—I adore all children—but they don’t appear the day after we are wed. And really, they’re not very interesting until they can walk and talk.”
He reared back as if struck. “You don’t like babies?”
“Of course I do! Everyone likes babies. But after a little cooing and cuddling, they spit up on you and need to be cleaned.”
“I suspect that will change once the child is your own.”
She nodded. “No doubt. But…” But what? What did she want? She wanted Will to come home so they could meet by the creek again. She wanted to explore more of what they had done. But even he had warned that what they did was only a temporary solution. Eventually this restlessness would return.
“I see you are correct,” he said in absolute seriousness. “You are out of sorts.”
She nearly laughed out loud at that, but she held it back. If she once let out the sound, she feared it would rapidly descend into hysteria. And how ridiculous was that? Will had only been gone a week, and yet she felt she would go mad if he did not return immediately!
Meanwhile, Mr. Montgomery stepped around her, as if he wished to consider her from another angle. Then he leaned against a tree, his eyes alight as he studied her. “What did you do in London? Did you like it there?”
“Well, of course, I was busy there.”
What did any unmarried woman do? “Dressmaker, dance instructor, luncheon parties, musicales, and balls. Then there was Almacks and of course in between were the discussions.”
No way to delicately explain that. “The merits of each gentleman, speculation as to his interest, and recommendations on how to attract it.”
He shuddered. “Goodness, that couldn’t possibly have taken up all your time in London.”
“Oh, I assure you it did.”
“And you disliked it?”
“On the contrary, I adored it at first. It was very exciting meeting all those men. Would this one be my husband? What about that one? I shall snare an earl at the very least!”
“Ah. But you didn’t?”
“Didn’t want to! Have you met any of the dukes? Old, lecherous, and…” And not a one of them appreciated her tendency to speak her mind. She couldn’t imagine having this discussion with any of them.
“And I believe you are much too forthright a woman to make them want to risk their dignity with you.”
Was that a kind way of saying she was too routinely out of sorts to attract a titled man? Well, of course it was! And what was worse: it was true!
“Bloody hell,” she moaned as she dropped down onto the grass. Then a moment later she remembered she was in her last clean dress and she had now gotten it filthy. Which made her moan in disgust again.
He laughed at that, the sound rich and full in the afternoon air. It was startling and rather annoying, so she glared up at him.
“You need not poke fun at me, Mr. Montgomery. I warned you—”
“That you were out of sorts, yes. But as I say, I enjoy other people’s temper.”
“Then you are extremely odd.”
He acknowledged that with a grin as he settled onto the grass beside her. “I am indeed. But we were discussing your mood.”
“Pray do not tell me to take up stitching. It will likely encourage me to start throwing rocks.”
“So long as you do not throw them at me—”
“I make no promises, sir.”
He chuckled. “Very well, stitching is a very bad idea. On no account should you venture near needle and thread.”
“Thank you. Now if you could share that with my mother, I would be ever so grateful.”
He leaned back on his elbows as he stretched his face to the sky. She took a moment to be surprised that he would be so careless with his clothes, then shrugged off the idea. His attire was already slightly dirty. He’d worn it at the canal just this morning. She could tell by the distinct odor in the fabric.
Meanwhile, he spoke, his eyes not on her but the darkening clouds. Would there be rain? “You were with your father in India, were you not?”
“We all were. Mama didn’t wish to separate us. That’s why I had my first Season so late: because we spent so much time there.”
“And do you remember India?”
“Of course I do. I loved it!”
He rolled slightly to look at her, a gleam of interest in his eyes. “Really? What did you love?”
She shrugged. “I know I am supposed to say that it was beastly hot. And to tell you the truth, it was. The people smelled funny, and it was always so noisy.”
“But you loved it?”
“I did! Everything was different, everything was new! No matter what I did, where I looked, there was something different to see. I spoke to everyone, you know. Mama despaired of me ever learning polite conversation, but I wanted to know! Why did they put dots on their faces? What was the beggar saying? Could I go to the market too?”
“And did you? Ever get to the market?”
She grimaced. “A few times, yes. But only with a nanny who was perpetually nervous and constantly grabbing my arm to keep me by her side.”
“I understand India can be a very dangerous place. Especially for pretty English girls.”
She noted that he’d just suggested that she was pretty, or had been a pretty girl, but she really didn’t care. Her mind was back in India and everything she had seen and done there. Which, truthfully, hadn’t been all that much. For all that she had done, there were a million more things that she had wanted to do and wasn’t allowed.
“I used to spend as much time as I could talking to our butler.”
She nodded. “He told me about his religion, mostly. I think he was trying to convert me.”
“And were you converted?”
“To Hindu? No, but I did find the ideas interesting. Mama was appalled—”
“But I just wanted to learn more.”
“And did you? Did you read about it? Did you discover as much as you wanted?”
She nodded. “For the most part, yes. I can never be put off when I really want to know something. I found people to ask. There weren’t many books, but I learned what I wanted to. And then I met my maid’s mother. She was a… well, a witch healer of some sort.”
“Really? How extraordinary. I wonder that your parents allowed it.”
“Oh, well, they didn’t. Not once they found out. And she wasn’t really a witch, you know. She just made potions of a kind. Teas for aches, love spells, that sort of thing.”
He leaned toward her, his eyes sparkling with interest. “And did they work?”
“The teas, yes. The love spells, no. And before you ask, yes I did try the love spell. Once in London.”
She snorted and pulled up a too tall blade of grass. “Absolutely nothing, but perhaps I was doing it backward. I wanted to fall in love with a very acceptable man who adored me.”
She sighed. “Not in the slightest. But some of her other recipes work. Especially the one for face cream.” She sighed. “I wish I could write her, but she never learned to read.”
“Hmmm,” he said, his gaze turning back to the sky. “So did you get bored in India as well?”
“Definitely.” She sighed. “I suppose I bore easily.”
“I suppose you have been too restricted in your life to not get bored. Imagine living in India and not being allowed to explore.” He shook his head. “I can’t imagine how frustrating that must have been.”
She laughed, feeling more relaxed than she had in a week. “Beyond frustrating!”
“So do you want to go back?”
She blinked. “To India?” Then she grimaced. Of course he meant to India. “I have never really considered it.” She dumped her chin on her palm. “How odd. I loved it there, and yet I have no real desire to go back. I was ever so excited to come back to England. And then I was in school, and that was fun. I had friends there and studies that were interesting.”
“Anything in particular?”
“In what? The studies? No. I mean I’m glad I learned them, but I am no scholar.”
He nodded, rolling back onto his elbows to look up at the sky. “So it seems to me that you need a project.”
She looked down at him, then decided if he was practically lying down that she could too. Especially since she’d already dirtied her dress. So she flopped onto her back and stared up at the sky. She found it to be a beautiful blue in between the clouds, but really of not much interest at all.
“A project,” she repeated. “Other than trapping you into marriage with my feminine wiles?”
“I assure you, I cannot be caught by any wiles, feminine or otherwise.” Then he twisted his head to look at her. She saw the dusting of freckles on his cheeks and found them oddly endearing, though they did mar the handsomeness of his face. “But I do find you interesting, Miss Josephine. And I think you need to find something worthwhile to do. Something,” he added with a frown, “that has absolutely nothing to do with me.”
She grimaced. So he had no interest in marrying her. Mama would be crushed, and Papa would be furious. Curiously, she felt nothing other than a vague kind of disappointment. “I suppose I shall have to start making plans for the new Season. I shall be an heiress then.” She huffed out her breath, vaguely amused when a lock of her hair flew off her face.
“What? No, no, I still plan to marry you, Josephine. And yes, we will have to make an appearance in London as husband and wife, but I do want to return here as soon as possible.”
She rolled back to stare at him, completely stunned. She couldn’t get past his casual words. He planned to marry her. Spoken in the same tone as if he planned to buy new boots.
“Oh, I’m terribly sorry,” he said, clearly realizing he had erred. “We were talking so plainly, I forgot I was speaking to a gently reared lady. I should be wooing you, shouldn’t I?”
And now his tone seemed to be more like he was discussing socks. He ought to be wearing the thinner ones rather than the thick.
“The thing is,” he continued rather awkwardly, “that you already understood the whys of our marriage. You know I want your land and, forgive me, your steward is a wonder all on his own. Good man, that Benton.”
“Yes,” she said numbly. “He is a good man. If things were a little different, he would be the lord here.”
He nodded, his expression grim. “Yes. Sadly, life rarely goes as it ought. But never mind that. We were discussing our marriage.” He shifted up so that he was seated while she was still flat on her back. “The thing is, this is a prime piece of property, and I would be a fool not to want it. Especially with the canal going in.”
Of course. Men and that damned canal.
“And you seem like such a practical woman. You understood exactly why I am here, and I have yet to see any missish airs out of you.”
“Those only happen when I am in sorts as opposed to out.”
He laughed, the sound rather grating now to her ears. “And that is exactly why I like you.”
“Because I am out of sorts?”
“Because there is no pretense in you. I adore that in a woman. We are talking frankly, and you haven’t gone weepy or silly at all.”
She sighed. Much as she didn’t want to hear it, she understood exactly what he meant. “You believe we shall tolerate each other well over the years.”
“Exceedingly well. I shall let you have your head, you know. Pick a project—anything you like within reason—and we shall be very happy together. Eventually we shall have children to occupy your time. Meanwhile, I shall be very busy with my factory.”
She frowned. “What factory?”
“Oh, well, there are some textile mills nearby that I believe I shall buy. Both need a steady hand, so to speak, and I believe I can make them very profitable.” He glanced at her. “I’m horribly vulgar that way. I believe it’s why your father and I get along so well. We both simply adore making money.”
She nodded. Yes, she had noticed that similarity between them.
“So that will be my project,” he said. “You are quite correct that the children will take some time to appear.” He said it as if he thought they magically popped out of a woman’s belly without any aches or pains whatsoever. “So all that needs to be done is that you find something to do to occupy yourself. And then…” He spread his hands with a grin.
“We shall be very happy?”
She sat up as she studied him. She watched his friendly expression and felt his genuine warmth. The truth was that she liked him. And more importantly, everything he said made absolute sense. She needed something to occupy her time, something that was not husband hunting or… or scandalous. Of course, once she was married, she could do those very scandalous things with her husband, and so perhaps the restlessness would be eased there, too.
While her mind churned, she squirmed on the lawn, readjusting her feet so they tucked beneath her rather than sprawled out in front. She was supposed to be a lady, she reminded herself. Kicking her legs every which way at the creek was one thing, but she was now sitting with Mr. Montgomery and discussing their marriage, their lives, and their children. The problem was she couldn’t imagine doing the things that created children with anyone other than Will. But once she married, she and Mr. Montgomery would share a bed. And what happened by the creek would have to stop.
“You are frowning rather fiercely. I am quite afraid.”
She immediately schooled her expression to calm. “I am thinking, Mr. Montgomery—”
“Please call me Alastair.”
She nodded. “Very well, Alastair, I am thinking that perhaps you are right.”
He brightened abruptly, straightening up to match her pose. “I am?” Then he flushed. “Well, I know I am, but I am just surprised to hear you say it so quickly.” He shrugged. “Most people fight good sense at first.”
She had no answer to that, so she simply deflected it with a shrug. “I am counted rather different from ‘most people.’”
“Something I shall cherish, I assure you.” Then he leaned forward and captured her hand. “So are we in agreement? We shall marry?”
She swallowed. Of course they were in agreement. After all, that was the plan wasn’t it? And in truth, he was about a million times better a man than she had ever dared to hope. So she flashed him her best smile.
“Of course, Alastair, I shall be happy to marry you.”