No one spoke on the ride home. Alastair had simply lifted the women onto horses, grabbed one himself, and silently followed the ladies home. He didn’t speak, and a single glance at his profile showed he was rigid with anger. Nanny looked as miserable as Josephine felt.
After they reached the manor house, he ordered baths for the women before turning around and going back to the canal. It was still raining hard, so Josephine didn’t know what he expected to accomplish, but whatever it was, the message was clear. The men would handle the canal. The ladies were to wait at home.
So they did while Mama clucked and Megan regarded her with sad eyes. Josephine didn’t speak. How could she? The guilt was crushing her while the rest of the day passed in a tedious, awful parade of slow seconds.
The rain stopped sometime in the afternoon. Her father came back by evening, but was too exhausted to speak. She and Megan stood in the hallway outside his bedroom door, shamelessly eavesdropping while he and their mother spoke.
The lock was destroyed. There was no chance that the canal would be finished by September. It was likely sabotage, and Will had a relatively clear idea who had done it. In fact, Alastair was even now out searching for the blackguards.
He didn’t tell Mama what Josephine had done. He didn’t say that she’d been staring across the water at Will, not obeying her fiancé. He didn’t say anything except that the canal would not be done by September and that all his plans were ruined. Her mother asked why. After all, she still thought Alastair intended to marry her. Father disabused her of the idea by simply saying he wasn’t so sure of Mr. Montgomery’s intentions right then. Because, of course, she had been there looking at Will.
It was too much, the guilt too awful. In the end, Josephine crept away to stare out the window at the dark night, her body and her mind restless with anxiety. Usually, she’d go to the creek to sit or to scream, whichever suited her mood better. But Will wouldn’t be there tonight. Everyone had been ordered to their beds—Will included—because in the morning, there would be plenty of work to do at the canal.
She might have gone anyway, but the rain picked up. The woods would be a muddy mess. And… well, she didn’t know what she would say to the man. She had to settle things with Alastair first. So she sat in her bedroom and stewed, passing a horrible night wrapped in a blanket as she stared out the window.
She woke to sunshine that hurt her eyes. Her body ached, and it took some moments to uncurl from her position by the window. One glance outside told her she’d slept most of the morning away. So she dressed as quickly as she was able—not even bothering to call her maid—and headed to find out any news she could. She found it at the breakfast table, and not in the guise she wanted: Alastair. He was seated at the table drinking coffee as he read a stack of newspapers which must have arrived this morning from London. He looked as he always did: fair of face, broad of form, and tempting as sin. At least that’s what Megan had said of him, along with a host of other silly phrases. Mostly he looked as a gentleman ought: calm, well dressed, and smiling coolly as he bid her good morning.
Then, of course, he saw the horror on her face. She tried to cover it, but she was very bad at acting. Her greeting was a forced mumble, and then—face flaming—she sat down and asked the footman for something to eat. When the servant tried to ask what she would like, she shook her head, unable to think of anything.
In the end, she muttered, “Anything Cook has available. And tea, please. Strong, strong tea.” Then she glanced nervously at her fiancé and released a nervous titter that sounded horrid. “What happened, Alastair? Did you find the people who…”
“Sabotaged the lock? Yes, we did. It wasn’t hard to track them. The men in question are in custody.”
She swallowed. “Someone from here? Someone who didn’t like—”
“All the men? All the work? All the to-do in this sleepy Yorkshire village? Yes. But rest assured, it’s done now. The canal will go on as planned. Though the work has been set back a great deal.”
She nodded. And here they were back to the problem at hand. Her dowry, the canal, and would she wed a man she did not love. That was the realization she’d come to in the middle of the night. In truth, it had nothing to do with Alastair. She had known from the very beginning that she didn’t love him. After all, she barely knew him. She was happy to marry him because she didn’t love anyone else.
But now she did. She loved Will and probably had been in love with him for a very long time. Which meant that she had to end things with Alastair before they became any more entrenched.
“Alastair—” she began, only to have him interrupt her.
“Your father came to speak with me this morning. As soon as I rose.”
She blinked, trying to keep pace with the conversation. In the end, all she could manage was a weak “Oh?”
“He wants us to be married next week.”
“Next week!” she gasped. She stared at him, but could read nothing from his expression. “I don’t understand. I thought we had to wait until fall when the property can be added to my dowry. I thought the papers had already been filed but that it would take weeks to settle properly.”
“That’s all correct. He assured me that everything would go through as planned. The land would still come to me, even if the courts take a while to sort through everything. But now that the canal will never be done by September, he worries that I will back out of our arrangement. So he wants us wed as soon as possible as a way to lock me in, so to speak.”
Josephine took a fortifying gulp of her tea, but it did nothing to calm her thoughts. “How gratifying to know that he has my best interests at heart.” Her words were bitter, her heart even more so. Her father was terrified that she would never wed.
Alastair grimaced. “I believe he has spent too much time in India. You understand that his time there generated a great deal of money for him extremely quickly.”
She nodded. Yes, her father was rather unseemly sometimes in his pride at making all that money. “But what has that to do with anything?”
“I think he has forgotten that wealth has a slower pace in England.”
“It’s tied to the land,” she said, remembering some of the discussions she’d had with Will.
“And the land’s profit follows nature’s rules, not man’s. Of course there are other ways of making money. Factories, for example. The world is changing, and the way to wealth is shifting along with it.”
She sighed. “But I still don’t understand. What is that to the point?”
He was silent a long time. And as he sat, he toyed with his cup of coffee, twisting it in the saucer. “I believe it is because your steward spoke with your father yesterday. He asked permission to pay his addresses to you.”
She gasped, her mind suddenly reeling. Will had asked for her hand? Well of course he had! What they had done that night—
“Your father showed him the door. I believe he had some choice words to say about the Crowle name.”
Josephine winced. “How awful for Will,” she murmured. Certainly his family’s reputation was not the best. But Will wasn’t like the other Crowles. Why couldn’t her father see that?
“No doubt he is used to it. I have been here barely more than a week, and yet I have heard countless tales of the feckless Crowles.”
She shook her head. “The locals exaggerate—”
“I should think so.”
“And besides, Will has never done any of that.”
“Yes, I am aware.”
His tone was excruciatingly dry, and Josephine experienced a shot of alarm. There was something in his voice. Suspicion perhaps? Did he know what she had done with Will? He couldn’t, and yet there was something in his face. Something that did not bode well for her.
“Alastair? What did you say to Papa?”
“I told him no. I find that impatience leads to bad decisions.”
She exhaled in relief. At least she would not be wed before she could sort things out for herself.
“And I also told him I wished to speak with you.” He leaned forward, setting his forearms on the white tablecloth. “Josephine, are you aware your father promised Will a piece of property if the canal is done by summer’s end?”
She nodded. She knew.
“Since the canal has no hope of being finished in time, the only way for your steward to get the land he wants is by marrying you.”
She stared at the man, her jaw slack. Then she blinked, her face flushing hot. “But he wouldn’t do that! He’s not… ” She cut off her words abruptly, stopping them before she said too much. But Alastair wouldn’t let her get away with silence.
He steepled his fingers and looked hard at her. “He’s not what, Josephine? Pray do not parse your words now.”
She grimaced. Fine, he wanted the truth, she would say it baldly to his face. “He’s not a gentleman like you. He doesn’t think about land and dowries and…” She gestured wildly in his direction. “He doesn’t think like that.”
But even as she said the words, she knew it was a lie. She absolutely did know that he thought about land. In fact, Will’s driving force had been to find a way to rebuild the Crowle name. And the first step in that was to get back the Crowle land. What better way to do that than to seduce her, then expose her, then marry her?
The only reason he hadn’t told everyone what they’d done was because the land didn’t end up in her dowry until the end of the summer. He couldn’t risk her father finding out and then changing the terms of her dowry.
“But he’s not like that,” she whispered. But in her heart, she wondered.
“Are you so sure?” Alastair challenged. “I’ve seen the way he looks at you.”
Her gaze jumped to his face. “What way? How?”
His lips twisted into a wry grimace. “Like a poor man looks through a blocked iron gate. There’s hunger and desperation.”
“No. That’s not Will.”
“I assure you, it is.”
She pushed up to her feet, unable to sit still. But where was she to go? She stood there uncertainly, not wanting to leave the room. Alastair was speaking plainly to her. She didn’t want to abandon this discussion. And it wasn’t as if she could run to Will and demand the truth. Had he seduced her for her dowry? Did he feel nothing for her at all?
So she walked awkwardly to the window, staring out at the green expanse before her. And beyond that to the unfinished canal that she couldn’t see. “Is everything about property?” she asked.
She hadn’t intended the words to be for anyone but herself, but Alastair answered her. He was standing up. She could hear the scrape of his chair, but she didn’t turn to look at him. Not even when he touched her shoulder.
“Did you know that I am counted quite a good judge of character?”
She frowned. Another leap in the conversation. She had no interest in following it, so she didn’t answer. In the end, he kept speaking until he eventually came around to his point.
“I am. They say I read people very well, but in this, they are very wrong.”
She sighed, drawn into his words only because they distracted her from her whirling thoughts. “You do not understand people?”
“Goodness, no. I understand situations. And I have a general idea of what people want. Based on that information, I make good guesses.”
She shrugged. She didn’t see what that meant to her at all.
“Let me explain. I want a political career. That means a financial base in your dowry and a wife who will be an asset.”
She grimaced. She would never fit that particular mold.
“Your father wants you married well and as soon as possible. That is his impatience showing, I think, so he contacted me some months ago. Your steward wants your land as well, but I think he wants you too.”
She swallowed. She certainly hoped that was true. She would hate to think she had no allure to anyone beyond her dowry. And the idea that Will could touch her the way he had, all simply for the land? That was too painful a thought to believe.
“But in all this, Josephine, I have yet to see what you want.” He released a short laugh filled with self-disgust. “Women are a mystery to me, I’m afraid. I cannot guess what they think or want.”
“Then we are a pair,” she murmured, “because I cannot understand how men could want so little.”
He jolted at that. She saw his body jerk out of the corner of her eye. He was close enough to touch her. The sunlight from the window was on his face. But he kept himself apart from her, and for that she was thankful.
She turned to face him, speaking aloud as she sorted out her thoughts. “I cannot speak to ‘women,’ Alastair, but I can say what I want. I want my father to cease worrying over my married state. I want my mother to stop despairing over my lack of polish. I want this restlessness in my heart to disappear. And I want…” Will. She wanted Will to love her and cherish her outside of any damned dowry.
His eyes narrowed in on her face. “Do not stop now. What do you want Josephine?”
She grimaced. “Something a great deal more than a hobby.” But what that was, she couldn’t say. And neither could he as he simply looked at her, his brow furrowed in thought. So she decided it was time to take control of her life as never before. “Alastair, I am afraid we will not suit. I cannot marry you. I wish you the very best, but I have no desire to marry you.”
He nodded. Once. A simple jerk of his chin, followed soon after by a brief bow. Then he straightened. “I will pack my bags immediately.” And then he left. That quickly, that easily. Her engagement was done. That fact might have depressed her if she hadn’t somewhere else to go. Immediately. So she went in search of her father. He wasn’t the one she really wanted to see, but he would do for a start.
She found him in his office, as usual. He looked up with a frown when she walked in without preamble. She didn’t give him time to speak.
“We will not move up the date of my wedding, Papa.”
He grimaced. “Sweetheart—”
“And you do not get to decide whom I marry.”
His face darkened at that. “You heard about Will’s request.”
“I should have heard it from you.”
He threw up his hands. “He’s not suitable. You know that as well as I. And he just wants—”
“My dowry. Yes, I know.”
He settled back in his chair. “If you know that, then why are you so angry?”
“Because if I am to sell myself, then at least allow me to pick my purchaser.”
He reared back at that, horror on his face. “I am not selling you!”
“No, Papa, I am.” And with that, she spun on her heel and went to find the one man she really wanted.