Will growled as he tossed a heavy rock out the window of his brother’s crumbling castle. It was a loud growl, full of animal pain and fury. He was alone, so he could make whatever damn sounds he wanted. And with every grunt or groan, he mentally cursed his family name. Bloody. Worthless. Crowles. That’s what they were. And that’s what had damned him with Josephine’s father.
The man didn’t see Will’s work, didn’t see the good things he’d done here. All Lawton knew was Will’s family name. And no matter how hard Will worked, he would never escape that. He’d always be a worthless Crowle. And now that the lock was destroyed, the canal had no chance of being finished in time. So his bonus was gone, which meant he’d never have any property of his own.
He grabbed a young tree by its base and tried to haul it physically out of the ground. It was small and scrawny from growing indoors. It had survived from sun and rain coming in through the open window that had lost its covering decades ago. Somehow the thing had found purchase between the cracked tiles and through the hard earth below. And now it was growing inside the castle.
It had to go. But it was stubborn, its roots sunk deep. No matter how much Will cursed and hauled and dug around the base, the damn thing didn’t budge. He’d stripped out of his shirt, and the thin branches cut at his back while his sweaty hands fought for a handhold around the base. He could get an axe and hack it down, but that would require a tool. At the moment, he was more interested in besting things with his bare hands. So he grunted and hauled and cursed like a man possessed.
And during this fury of idiocy, she walked in.
He knew her by her scent. The sweet lavender water she used drifted through the air. It took a while for him to notice, but eventually he did. Lavender and woman. His woman, for all that she would marry a damn Scot. But his conscious mind didn’t register her presence quickly. Instead, it waited until he was gasping for breath and leaning—spent—against the tree. He hadn’t even the strength to lift his head, but his gaze shifted. He had to know if he was so crazy that he was imagining her.
She was real, and she was standing by his mother. Worse, both women looked highly amused. His mother spoke first, her voice as sharp as when he’d been a boy caught stealing a treat.
“What on Earth are you about, child?”
He closed his eyes, blocking out the sight. His mother couldn’t possibly have just called him a child. Not in front of her. Not now when he was sweating and grunting like a beast.
Then she spoke, stepping slowly inside as she looked around. “Will?” Only his name, but he felt compelled to respond. Bloody hell, he’d always answer whenever she called.
“I’m cleaning the room,” he said, working hard to keep his tone from being a growl. “A tree doesn’t belong inside a castle.”
Josephine was turning slowly, looking at every corner of the ramshackle room. She no doubt absorbed the fact that three out of its four walls were braced with thick boards with varying degrees of success. And the fourth wall—the exterior one—was more like a collection of large stones, some stacked, some scattered, and some no more than rubble. The original roof was long gone, but he’d fashioned a kind of covering made of branches and planks. It was slapdash work, done months ago just to protect the remaining walls. If the interior wall collapsed, so would half the castle.
“It’s not much of an inside anymore,” Josephine said. “It’s more like an…um…archway of sorts to the outdoors.”
His mother snorted. “No arch. Just a way. And a falling down way it is.”
Will pushed himself upright, exhaustion pulling at every muscle in his body. “Mother, I am working. Did you need something?”
“This isn’t work, son. This is folly.”
He didn’t answer. He just opened his eyes and shot his mother a look. It begged her silently to leave him alone. Sometimes a man just needed to be stupid.
She understood. She raised her hands in surrender and backed away. “Miss Josephine asked to see you, so I brought her. And now I’ll be going back to my baking.” She rolled her eyes at Josephine. “Maybe the boy will come back to his senses once he’s got food in his belly.”
“And maybe the man just wants to be left alone to work,” he shot back.
His mother’s only answer was a low chuckle as she waved her good-bye and departed. Which left him alone with her. She wanted to talk. That’s what all women wanted, and right now that was the furthest thing from his mind. So he glared at her and stomped over to a bucket of water. He’d brought it to wash what was left of the sturdy stone table that was part of the inside wall. But even in his fury, he didn’t want to stand in front of her covered in stink. So he grabbed it and wet the cloth. He cleaned himself quickly with angry swipes, but in the end it was useless. No cloth could get him clean, so he discarded it and grabbed the whole bucket and upended it over his head.
The water was cool and clean. A sweet delight, but it recalled to his mind the way they’d cleaned each other in the creek. They’d waded to the deepest part of the water and washed each other with their bare hands. Then their mouths. And then there had been no more cleaning. Just sweet erotic play that ended up with him embedded so deeply into her, he lost himself. That was the problem, he decided. Last night, he’d lost himself in her and he would never, ever recover.
He dropped the bucket, then wiped the wet from his eyes. When he could see, he looked at her. She was wetting her lips while her eyes had taken on a hungry cast. In this way, they fit. He’d more than proved that last night. But in all others? He turned his back on her, half to stop himself from looking at her tight nipples, half to hide his thickening cock from her.
“I meant to have this cleared by today. But yesterday—”
“I don’t care. Are you all right? I couldn’t stay. My father and Mr. Montgomery—”
“I know why you couldn’t stay.” Damn it, did she think he wanted to hear all the details? He knew she was engaged to marry Montgomery. He knew she couldn’t be seen standing on the side of the river with her heart in her eyes. That’s what haunted him. The sight of her, wet and terrified. For him. She’d been terrified for him, and then that damned Scot had taken her away. Made him want to kill the man, but he hadn’t been able to do that. It wasn’t his place. And he couldn’t talk about it now, so he nodded to her, his body and his words stiff. “Of course I’m fine. Come back tomorrow when I have this done.”
“What are you doing?” Her voice was husky, and he tamped down the feelings that were running riot inside him. He wanted her, and if what had happened yesterday was any measure, she wanted him too. But to her father, Will would never be anything but a damned, worthless Crowle.
“Will—” she began, but he cut her off.
Keeping his back to her, he gestured to the room at large. “This was what I wanted to show you. But tomorrow, after I had time to clear it.”
“This?” she asked. “But why?”
“It used to be the stillroom of the castle. A long time ago. Do you know what a stillroom is?”
“Of course. It was where medicines were made. It was usually attached to…” He heard her step to the window. She could have taken two steps to the side to walk through the wall. “To a garden out back. For herbs and the like.”
Unable to resist, he turned to look at her. The sun was on her face and in her hair. Her skin shown fair and clear. She was a beautiful woman, but most of all, he saw her quiet. She didn’t show it often, but he knew how to bring it out in her. It was when she was thinking, her mind leaping ahead to figure out his puzzle.
Lord, he wanted to go to her. He wanted to lie down with her in the sunshine and love her until she could do nothing but gaze at him. Instead, he crossed to his satchel, pulling out the heavy tome and unwrapping the oilskin that surrounded it. Without any more pomp than that, he extended the book to her.
“Here. This is what I meant to give you. And this room and garden if you want it.” It was a lie. He didn’t own this room or this garden. And it was a fair question if he owned the book. By rights, it was probably his brother’s. But for now, he had say over who used it, and he gave it to her.
She took the book, studying his face for a moment before looking down at the heavy leather tome. “The Leechbook of Bald?” She crossed quickly to the stone table and set the book down, opening it slowly and reverently. “How old is this?”
“I don’t know. The original was written centuries ago. That’s a copy with pages added by others. The last entries are by my great-grandmother.”
She flipped carefully to the back and gently stroked her fingers over the feminine writing. “Why would you give this to me?”
He shrugged. He’d meant to think of exactly how to show her this. He’d meant to prepare his explanation. But she’d appeared a day before he was ready, and so he could only answer honestly. “You said you needed a hobby, a task of some sort. We don’t have a doctor in the village. Nearest one is an hour’s fast ride.”
“I can’t be a doctor.”
He stepped forward. “Are you so sure? You once told me about following around an old woman in India. That she was the one who made potions and the like for the servants.”
“Magic potions. And most of it was nonsense.”
“But you followed her around. You learned what she taught.”
He watched her swallow, her gaze drawn back to the book. She turned the pages, scanning recipe after recipe. Her fingers traced over potions to cure warts, medicines against a cough, treatments for any number of ailments. She didn’t speak, her thoughts absorbed by what she read.
Unable to stop himself, he stepped close enough to fill his lungs with her scent. “You told me you were fascinated by that woman,” he said. “The stories behind her potions, the belief she had in herbs.”
“It wasn’t medicine. Not from a doctor.”
“And why can’t that be medicine? Up until six years ago, we had a witch-woman that we turned to. The doctor came for the serious illnesses, but it was the witch-woman who treated the little problems. And truthfully? Most people thought she did better than any London-trained doctor.”
“But…” She abruptly twisted to look at him. “You want me to be a witch-woman?”
He shrugged. “A woman who knows treatments. There are more books. This was my great-grandmother’s, but the witch-woman had maybe a dozen more. We could probably buy them from her son. If you were interested.”
She didn’t answer, but her body told him the truth. She’d drawn closer to the text, reading page after page. She was interested. More than that—she was fascinated.
“This information,” she said softly. “It shouldn’t be lost. We should definitely buy those books.”
“Then you could read them. Maybe mix some of the potions and see if they work.”
She lifted her head. “But that’s a massive undertaking.” She flipped back to some of the early pages. “Look, some of this isn’t even in English. Or at least not the English I understand.”
“But you can translate it, right?”
She bit her lip, her eyes going back to the page. “I could try. I could sort it out, I think. Maybe.”
“And maybe then you’d have something important to fill your time. Not stitching some silly design for another cushion that no one will use. But real medicine for people who need it.”
“This is not medicine. I’m not a doctor.”
He touched her arm. He couldn’t stop himself. “You don’t need to be a doctor. Just a woman who mixes potions. Someone who figures out what works and what doesn’t. That’s something you can do. And something we desperately need.”
She looked out at the garden, seeing the wild tangle of growth there. “You think I can grow these herbs here? But I’m not a farmer. I don’t know how—”
“I know how. And others too. There’s a boy—Harry—he’s of an age to be getting into mischief if he’s not occupied. We could hire him to make your garden. He just needs supervision.”
She nodded slowly. “I could do that. And maybe I could mix some of these things. The potion for sores, maybe. Or something to smooth wrinkles.”
He smiled. He could see the interest sparking sharp and clear in her eyes. She was willing. He stepped back from her then. He stood back and just watched her as she turned page after page, frowning and thinking the whole time. In the end she nodded, her gaze finding his. He expected her to say “thank you” then. Or perhaps start detailing her plans. She had them already, he knew. But instead she said one word.
He blinked. “Why what?”
“Why would you show me this? Why would you ask me to do this? Here and now?”
He raised his arms in a shrug. “Because it’s been six years since we had a woman to tend to the village. Because you would take to this; I know you would. But you were never allowed. You’ve been told since you were born that you are to live in London and marry a rich lord, but that’s not what will make you happy.”
“You can’t know that.”
He stepped forward, touching her arms and drawing her to look at him. “I can know that because you’re like me, Jo. You need solid work to do and space in which to do it. Just like me.”
She looked into his eyes, and he saw a yearning there. A desire to do everything he wanted. To stay here, to grow her garden and make her potions. To be with him at night and stand by his side during the day. He saw it all in her eyes.
Or he imagined what he wanted to see because a moment later, she shook her head and drew away. “It’s isn’t real,” she whispered. “And it isn’t for me.”
She stretched her hands to the open air, to the overgrown garden, and then finally to him. “Everything you’ve said, everything we’ve done—Will, it isn’t real. None of it was real.”
“Of course it was! Every damn minute of it!”
“Then why—after all this time—do you only come courting me after my father announces his intention with my dowry? Look me in the eye, Will, and tell me you don’t want me for my land.”
“It’s Crowle land,” he snapped. It was an automatic reflex, and it was the absolute worst thing in the world he could say. He meant to continue. There was more to that sentence, but he didn’t express it in time. Damn it, some things were hard to say! But by the time he managed to frame the words in his head, she was already walking away.