Josephine stumbled ahead, surprised that she could walk at all. It’s Crowle land. No, it wasn’t, she screamed in her head. It was her land. It was in her dowry and therefore hers to dispose of as she willed, along with her hand in marriage. And at the moment, she’d rather give the whole damn lot to a flea-bitten tinker than let Will have it.
“Jo!” he cried again, but she didn’t answer. She just kept walking. Until he abruptly stood in front of her, gripping her arms as he held her in place. He was still half naked, his hair still wet. He was a beautiful man, but all she saw were his eyes. They were dark, and they were tortured. “That’s not what I meant to say,” he said.
“Yes, it is,” she said, a sob catching in her throat. “All of it—it was simply about the land.” Then she abruptly shoved him backward. He rocked on his heels, but he didn’t leave her side. “God, I was such a fool!”
“Yesterday wasn’t the first time I asked for your hand in marriage.”
His words were so abrupt, so desperate, that at first she didn’t understand his meaning. But eventually it penetrated her misery enough for her to focus on him. She frowned. “What? When?”
“The first time was three weeks to the day after you came to the creek that first night.”
“When I was howling like a dog?”
He flashed her a quick smile. “I thought you were amazing. I wanted you even then, but I was still so angry. It took me three weeks before I had the nerve to speak to your father.”
She shook her head. “You couldn’t have. We’d only spoken a few times.” That wasn’t exactly true. By the end of three weeks, they’d made their midnight assignation a nightly event. But there hadn’t been anything romantic in it. She’d been a girl with big London dreams. He’d been a man with some education and an open mind. They’d talked of everything, but in that time, he’d never so much as touched her hand. “You didn’t want me. You didn’t even touch me.”
“I burned for you, Jo. Burned.” The way he said it—with his eyes so dark and so intent—made her want to believe him. Could he have wanted her even back then? “But I’d wanted to court you as was proper.”
She struggled a moment, thinking back. In the end, she didn’t believe him. She couldn’t possibly have been so blind as to miss a man who burned for her. “No,” she said firmly. “At midsummer festival, you made your opinion very clear.”
He huffed out a breath. “Do you remember what it was like when you first came to Yorkshire? The villagers—the crofters and everyone in the area—they all hated you.”
She grimaced. She remembered. It was bad enough constantly feeling like an outsider, but it had been much worse than that. She’d heard names like “tart” and “upstart.” Their carriage was routinely vandalized, and once when Josephine had gone into the village, a gang of boys had thrown rotten fruit at her. She’d sported the bruises for a week. She knew because Will had found the boys and made them till a field as punishment. They’d worked from dawn until dusk every day in the hot summer sun until her bruises had faded. And in all that time, he had stood over them, lecturing them on what it takes to be a man. He’d said that a man doesn’t hurt women. He cherishes and protects them.
She’d fallen in love with him then. Looking back, she saw it so clearly now. But that was also the first night he had not appeared at their spot on the creek.
“You talked to the boys and the villagers. You changed things around. And then Papa had the idea for the mid-summer festival—”
“That was my idea.”
She blinked. Of course it had been his idea. Papa understood the value of engineering, of the canal, and how he could make the land profitable. But Will was the one who understood the people and how to relate to them. This was his home, these were his people. And he had been right. The festival had turned around the mood of the village.
“Megan and I played Lady Bountifuls,” she said. They’d dressed in new clothing, all purchased at the village. It had been so much fun delivering lavish baskets of food while Will trailed behind with a cartload of pigs—all gifts from Lord Lawton. Yes, Papa had gifted people with pigs, and then they’d thrown a huge mid-summer festival with dancing and drinks that lasted throughout the night.
Everything had all turned around then. The grumbling stopped and the vandalism, too. People smiled, at least to their faces. There was still resentment—some of it continued still—but everyone agreed that at least the Lawtons threw a great festival. And it had all been Will’s idea.
She looked at him, knowing that for all the problems between them, he did what was right for the village. He respected the land and the people. Which brought them right back to where they’d started this argument. He did everything for the land not for her. And it had never been more clear than on that night.
“I went to dance with you and you turned me away,” she whispered. “You said you wanted me gone, never to return.”
He bit his lip, and she saw anguish in his eyes, but he didn’t disagree. She’d come to him late, well after midnight. They were all in the main village square, everyone dancing and a whole lot more. She wasn’t supposed to have any of the local ale, but she’d sneaked some anyway. And then she’d sauntered over to where he stood on the side. Flushed and bold from drink, she had asked him to dance. She knew he had responsibilities. It had been his task to watch over the proceedings, to make sure that no one got too wild, but he’d managed a few dances. With his mother. With other unmarried girls. She’d wanted him to dance with her.
So she’d approached him. She’d taken his hand and tried to pull him out into the main square. But he’d looked at her sternly, and then he’d leaned down to whisper into her ear.
“It’s a party, sure,” he’d said, “and we’ve shared many a sweet night. But don’t mistake things here, Miss Josephine. We all want you back in London, and the sooner the better. You don’t belong here and you never will.”
His words still stung, and she blinked back tears. She took a shuddering step and pulled back from him.
“You said then that I didn’t belong here.”
“I lied! Damn it, Jo, you fit here!” He gestured wildly to the stillroom and garden. “And you fit here. With me.” He tugged her into his arms, wrapping them around her as he settled his cheek against her forehead. She didn’t want to go to him, but in this he was right. Their bodies fit perfectly. He’d proved that in a variety of glorious ways. Then he spoke, his voice low as it rumbled from his body into hers. “Did you ever ask your father what the cost of that festival was?”
She frowned. Money was not something ladies ever discussed. But yes, she had wondered at it. And when she’d mentioned it, her father had simply laughed and told her it was worth every groat. She’d assumed he meant because of the change in the villagers. Because after that festival, the tide had turned on accepting the Lawtons into the area.
Will exhaled in a gruff sigh. “You, Jo. You were the cost for the festival.”
She pulled back enough to look at his face. “I don’t understand.”
“It took me three weeks to gather the nerve to ask. Three weeks, and in that time, your father had seen something. He knew how I looked at you, and he’d seen you looking back.”
Yes, she supposed she had. She’d been so young then, and even the excitement of London in the fall couldn’t compete with their nightly talks by the creek.
“I asked to court you, Jo, and he refused. Said he wouldn’t let his daughter marry a Crowle ever. And certainly not out of summer boredom.”
She flinched. Yes, that sounded like her father.
“But things were getting worse in the village. We both knew that it would get ugly soon. It did get ugly when you went into town.”
“And they threw rotten fruit at me.”
“So I thought of the festival, and your father agreed. On one condition.”
Josephine bit her lip. She was starting to remember what her father had been like back then. He’d been furious with the slow, stubborn pace of life in Yorkshire, and he had been hot for his daughters to snag an earl at the very least in London. It was only after four years’ worth of Seasons that he had come to accept that Josephine would be lucky to catch any titled aristocrat. In truth, he’d had to buy her a man in the form of Alastair.
But back then, he would not have looked on Will favorably. Still, she was compelled to defend her father. “But Papa adores you. He says you’re the best—”
“The best damn steward ever. Yes, I know. But that’s very different from a son-in-law.”
She nodded, knowing it was true. “What was his condition, Will?”
“That I turn your head away from me. He said it was only summer boredom that had you looking my way anyway.”
“And if you refused?”
He shrugged. “He would sell the land to someone else and be done with the lot of us. Jo, you have to understand—the village needed your father’s money. We needed his livestock gifts and his plans for the canal. All of that would have disappeared if he sold the land. Plus, I’d never see you again.”
“So you were mean to me?”
He nodded. “Your father was watching. I had to throw you off.”
“You should have told me! When we met at the creek again, you should have said.”
“And break my word to your father? To what end? He would never let me marry you. Not then. And you were so full of everything you wanted to do in London.” He sighed. “It was summer boredom, Jo. You know it was.”
She shook her head. It wasn’t. It had never been just boredom when it came to him. Not when they talked about so much by the creek. Not when he defended her to those boys. Not when he seemed to understand her as no one else did.
He reached forward and gripped her hands. “It needed time, Jo. I thought if I worked hard, if I showed your father my worth, then it would all come out right. Jo, I’ve asked for permission to court you every year without fail. And every year, he has refused.”
She saw it all so clearly now. The way he had tried to court her honorably, only to be forestalled by her father. The way he had constantly poked at her about her time in London, probing to see if someone had caught her fancy. And when no one did, how he toiled ever harder, always trying to prove himself to her father.
And when that hadn’t worked, when her father had brought in Alastair, he had come to the creek with a very different thought in mind: a seduction. He’d told her so. Because the honorable path had been denied him.
“Good God,” she murmured, the situation becoming painfully clear. “You are an idiot.”
He reared back, obviously shocked by her words. “What?”
“In all your asking, in all the different ways you planned to court me, did you ever once think to talk to me?”
He gaped at her. “We were hardly civil to each other these last years. And your father’s opinion remained very clear.”
“Summer boredom, the feckless Crowles, yes I know. But did you never think that as much as you see me, that perhaps I see you?”
He frowned. “I… what?”
God, how could the man be so brilliant and so stupid at the same time? “All you had to do was tell me. My father had plans, my mother had plans. You had plans, but I am of age. They can do nothing without me. Not Papa, not Alastair, and not you.” She touched his cheek. “But you didn’t talk to me because you didn’t think I would understand you. That I couldn’t possibly see you just as clearly as you see me.”
She looked up at the crumbling castle. The only reason that it still stood at all was because of Will’s work shoring up the walls. The only reason the village prospered was because Will managed the lands and the canal. Because he knew the people and how to get them to work together for the right things.
But in all that, he still saw himself as a second son. As the man who had nothing of his own and no respect from anyone. But she truly saw him. She knew his worth.
“Don’t you understand, Will? Why can’t you believe that I want you just because you are you? That I’ve never wanted a title or trips to London. What I want is—”
“Love,” he said, his voice a heavy rasp.
She stilled, her body twisting so she could see his face. “Love?” she whispered, hardly daring to breathe.
“I love you, Jo. I always have.”
Funny how life went sometimes. After five years, after being rejected in Yorkshire, then over and over again in London, she had given up on hearing someone say that to her. Ever. Sure she had hoped, but there had been no expectation. And in the absence of that expectation, she had felt anxiety, frustration, and an abiding restlessness that would not let her sleep. That sent her outdoors in the middle of the night to howl at the moon.
But now he was saying it to her. He was looking at her with his heart in his eyes and his hands on her body, and the words she’d never thought to hear seemed to vibrate in the air between them.
“Jo? Say something.”
She shook her head. She couldn’t. It was as if those words were still settling inside her and taking root. It would be a moment yet before they started to grow, to fill her, and maybe, possibly, push out all the aching pain she’d felt for so long.
Eventually they did, but the ache wasn’t all gone. Not until she said the words that had been trembling at the back of her own mind. “I love you too, Will,” she whispered. “I have for a very long time.”
There was more she wanted to say. About what this all meant. About her dowry and how she’d refused Alastair. But she didn’t have time. He kissed her as soon as the words left her mouth. He kissed her and didn’t stop kissing her until they were wrapped around each other so tightly she lost the idea that they were separate people.
But then he broke away. He pulled back, his breath coming fast and harsh, and his eyes seemed to go straight through her.
“Will,” she whispered.
“I have something to show you.” But he didn’t move. He was holding her too tightly. And even if he let go, she was gripping him. “Please, Jo. It’s important.”
She looked at him, seeing his intense expression. “Always so serious, Will.” She trailed her finger across his cheek, outlining his tight jaw, then abruptly pushing up on her toes to kiss his mouth. She meant it to be a quick press, but he tightened his arms, holding her there. Then he kissed her again, as thoroughly as before, but this time more slowly. Intimately. And when he pulled back, she whispered. “Anything you want, Will. Right now. Anything.”
His eyes widened slightly as he figured out what she meant. Then he abruptly scanned the area. She knew what he was thinking. They were outside in the sunshine. Anyone could walk up on them at any moment. But no one was around. His mother wouldn’t interrupt them. Most everyone else was working at their farms or at the canal. The only reason he wasn’t with them was because he was cleaning up this room for her.
He looked down at her, his eyes searching her face. “Are you sure?”
She grinned. “Oh yes.”
Then he lifted her up. She squealed in surprise, but he was so strong that he carried her easily into the room. There was a heavy stone worktable against one wall. He set her gingerly on top of it. Or he tried to, but she was busy kissing whatever part of his body she could reach. His face, his jaw, his neck. And when she slipped her hands behind him and squeezed his bottom, he nearly dropped her.
He didn’t, of course, and when she was finally set down securely, he pushed back from the table. “One minute, Jo. Please.”
She smiled, then leaned back, striking as seductive a pose as she could manage. She wasn’t very good at it, or rather she didn’t think she was. But as she put her weight on her hands and lifted her chest higher, she heard Will groan.
With a muffled curse, he walked to the opposite corner of the room and grabbed a satchel. Pulling out some papers, he quickly offered them to her.
“What is it?” she asked, straightening up on the table. She looked down at the documents, trying to sort through the legal language. She understood the words individually, of course, but the meaning would not sink into her brain.
“It says that upon our marriage, I will sell the land to Montgomery. Every last inch of it for the amount of ten pence.”
“Ten pence?” Josephine cried. “But it’s worth—”
“Less than you,” said Will. He touched her face, pulling her gaze up to his. “I’m going to give it to the damned Scot. He only wants the land anyway. I want you.” His expression grew fierce. “Do you understand, Jo? I want you.”
She looked down at the document, her mind piecing together facts. “You had these made in London. But that was before…”
“Before we made love, before I dishonored us both.”
She shook her head. “I don’t regret it. Not for a second.”
“I wanted to court you openly, Josephine. I always have. But your father forbade it—”
“I cried off.”
“I’ve tried every way I could think of—”
“And this will make it very hard. I won’t have a job, Jo—”
“Will! I cried off.”
He blinked, a frown creasing his brows. She didn’t like it, so she stroked her fingers across his forehead to smooth it. “Mr. Montgomery and I have gone our separate ways, Will. I have no interest in marrying him. He is probably leaving Yorkshire at this very moment.”
“But—But he and your father had an agreement.”
She shrugged. “But I am the one who must say I do. And I don’t. Not with him.” Then she lifted the papers and casually tossed them to the wind. “We don’t need these.”
“Jo, your father—”
“Do you love me, Will?”
His hands gripped her thighs, tightening hard before gentling. “With all my heart. With my body, my soul, my honor—”
“Just say the words, Will.”
“I love you.” Then he abruptly dropped down to one knee before her. “Miss Josephine Powel, will you do me the greatest honor and become my wife? Will you let me love you and cherish you every day for the rest of my life?”
She leaned down and kissed him. It was a quick kiss, but in it she tried to tell him of the joy that was soaring through her heart. And in case he didn’t understand the message, she pulled back and said loudly and clearly. “Why yes, Mr. William Benton. It would be my greatest delight to marry you.”
He straightened up. “Because you love me?”
She grinned. “Because I love you with everything I am.” And this time when they kissed, there was nothing delicate about it. And as his tongue was claiming every inch of her mouth, her hands were unbuttoning his pants and pushing them down his hips.
He hiked up her skirt. And when it caught on her bottom, he lifted her up. Within moments, she was bared to him, and he was holding her spread and open but not yet impaled.
“Will,” she whispered. “God, don’t keep me waiting.”
“Promise me we’ll marry soon,” he said, his voice a husky rasp.
“Yes. Yes, yes, yes!”
He lowered her down slow and easy. She was so slick that he filled her by incredible inches. A little here, a little more, a slow descent that had them both groaning with delight. And then they just stood there like that—her held tight in his arms, him gripped strong inside her.
She grinned. “I shall like being married, I think.”
He didn’t answer except to kiss her. And when the duel of their tongues was not enough, he braced her half on, half off the stone table. She held onto the wide expanse of his shoulders and then she gripped him with her legs.
She didn’t have to tell him what she wanted. Their eyes were locked together, communicating silently as he finally—blessedly—began to move. A slow withdrawal, a faster thrust. His face grew tight, his teeth bared and his breath grew short. But he was no different from her as she gripped him with every sweet impact. Harder. Faster.
“I love you, Jo.”
Her ecstasy brought on his. Together they gripped each other, their bodies contracting as their hearts soared. And she watched every moment of his flight just as he held her gaze throughout hers. And when they finally settled back on Earth, she found the breath to whisper back.
“I love you too, Will.”
His eyes flashed with joy. “Oh sweet Jo, I swear to you—”
“That you love me too?”
He nodded. He was still catching his breath. “Of course. But there is one other thing.”
“I swear that I will not always bed you outdoors. There is much that can be done inside. In a bed.”
She frowned. “In a bed? How novel.” Then she looked about her. Not just at the stillroom, but at the sky and the land. At Yorkshire in general. She knew that she had finally found a home. Not only land, but a place where she fit: right here in Will’s arms. “I care not where it happens, Will. So long as it is with you.”
“Always,” he said, the word half promise, half demand.
“Yes,” she said. “Always.”