I am celebrating the last of my seven releases this calendar year. A REGENCY CHRISTMAS PROPOSAL, a “clean” Regency anthology, featuring smart and somewhat sassy heroines, arrives TOMORROW, November 7. My contribution to the project is a story entitled “Last Woman Standing.” I think you will enjoy this one. Dreamstone Publishing in Australia is bringing this anthology to life.
HERE IS THE PREORDER LINK. THE ANTHOLOGY IS AVAILABLE FOR A MERE $0.99 TO PURCHASE.
JACKSON SHAW, the Marquess of Rivens, never considered the “gypsy blessing” presented to his family during the time of Henry VIII truly a blessing. He viewed it more as a curse. According to the “blessing,” in his thirtieth year, at the Christmas ball hosted by his family, he was to choose a wife among the women attending. The catch was he possessed no choice in the matter. His wife was to be the one who proved herself to be his perfect match, according to the gypsy’s provisions: a woman who would bring prosperity to his land by her love of nature and her generous heart. In his opinion, none of the women vying for his hand appeared to care for anything but themselves.
EVELYN HAWTHORNE comes to River’s End to serve as the companion to the Marchioness of Rivens, his lordship’s grandmother. However, Lady Rivens has more than companionship in mind when she employs the girl, whose late father was a renown horticulturalist. The marchioness means to gather Gerald Hawthorne’s rare specimens to prevent those with less scrupulous ideas from purchasing Hawthorne’s conservatory, and, thereby, stealing away what little choice her grandson has in naming a wife, for all the potential brides must present the Rivenses with a rare flower to demonstrate the lady’s love of nature. Little does the marchioness know Hawthorne’s daughter might not only know something of nature, but be the person to fulfill the gypsy’s blessing.
Excerpt from Chapter Three of “Last Woman Standing”
When alone last evening, Evelyn had uttered multiple words of self-chastisement regarding her complicity in relegating certain members of the marchioness’s guest list to the least desirable rooms in the manor house, but, at the time, with Lady Rivens’s encouragement, her actions had appeared so reasonable. Like her ladyship, Evelyn had declared her intentions honest, but, privately, she questioned whether the idea of a woman winning the attentions of the marquess simply by making an appearance at a ball with some sort of “exotic” plant in hand went against all things in which she believed. Her parents had been deeply devoted to each other. It was beyond Evelyn’s comprehension how those of the aristocracy had turned marriage into a business contract, with affection playing no part in the joining.
Only last week, when her ladyship explained knowing very little of Lord Justice Rivens until the night of the Christmas ball, Evelyn had asked innocently, “Were you not embarrassed from all the attention given to those vying for the marquess’s hand?”
Her ladyship had simply shrugged. “I was brought up with the knowledge I would marry into the aristocracy. My father was an earl, and I was the eldest daughter. A viscountess or a countess or a marchioness, or even a duchess. Those were the acceptable positions I was expected to claim. It was the same with Justice. He was groomed to choose an appropriate bride from among the members of the ton. We were fortunate, though, for our personalities blended well, and we grew to know true affection.”
“But not love,” she had mouthed the words when her ladyship had turned away. Hearing Lady Rivens’s explanation, Evelyn had told herself she was glad not to have been born into the aristocracy. She was a gentleman’s daughter, but, without a title, and prior to her father’s passing, she had held no restrictions upon her choices. A man with a title. A clergyman. A barrister. A man of trade. She supposed she would have been permitted more latitude in choosing a husband if her father had not known such a great loss with his wife’s passing, and Evelyn had not remained at his side, even when she came of age to marry. She had feared what would happen to him if she had abandoned him, for Gerald Hawthorne had had no one but her to love him. “Then he abandoned me,” she said softly to no one in particular.
“Who abandoned you?” a familiar voice asked.
Evelyn dipped a quick curtsey. “Good afternoon, my lord. Do you require my service?”
The gentleman stepped further into the conservatory. He nodded toward the small stove she had lit earlier. “It is quite chilly outside.”
“Yes, my lord.” She paused awkwardly when she glanced up at him, realizing once again how devastatingly handsome the marquess was. “I beg your pardon, my lord.” She repeated her question, “Did you seek me out for the marchioness?”
He shook off the idea. “My grandmother and I have finished our meeting with Mrs. Astor and Mr. Watkins regarding the arrangements for the house party. Her ladyship has taken to her bed for a short rest before supper.” He stroked the back of the leaf of a lemon tree. “I understand I am in your debt. Lady Rivens says it was your suggestion that I might choose to join the other single gentlemen in the dower house during the length of the party.”
Evelyn heaved a rueful sigh. “After Lady Rivens explained the number of ladies who would expect you to pay attendance—.”
He spoke in disapproving tones. “You mean those who wish to discover me in an empty room so they can claim being compromised?”
“There is that also,” she reluctantly admitted.
“Why is it you never scream the word ‘compromise’ when you and I are alone together, as we are now?”
Evelyn’s heart hitched higher with his question. “You are my employer, sir. Naturally, we might encounter each other when others are not about.”
“You and I do more than encounter each other in the practice of your duties,” he argued as he moved closer. “You must realize I seek you out repeatedly because I enjoy your company.”
Although the idea pleased her, Evelyn spoke in firm tones, as she moved one plant into a larger pot. “I, too, cherish our conversations, my lord, but I fully comprehend that once you take a wife, those conversations cannot continue. I am well aware of my place in your household, a position for which I am very grateful.” When she turned, Lord Rivens was closer than she had expected.
He caressed her cheek with his palm. “Then you do not fear me. You do not think I hold nefarious and, likely, self-serving, reasons for spending time with you?”
“No,” she replied quickly. Evelyn knew the marquess to be more than handsome, intelligent, spontaneous, and a bit prideful. She also knew, despite her original accusations regarding his character, he was a gentleman. A gentleman accustomed to having his own way, but a gentleman, nonetheless.
“Excellent. I do not debauch young maidens, especially those in my employ,” he said softly. “Even those who possess the softest skin I have ever touched.” He leaned slowly toward her. Evelyn knew she should put a stop to his manipulations, but she was excessively curious as to whether a second kiss might match the one he had given her previously. Unfortunately, the moment was not to be, as Mrs. Duckworth strolled through the still open door, followed by her brood of goslings. “Honk!”
His lordship jumped back before spinning around to face the intruder, but Evelyn nudged him aside before the marquess could reach the goose. “Mrs. Duckworth!” she exclaimed, kneeling down to greet the honking goslings.
“Dare I ask why you named a goose Mrs. Duckworth?” he demanded in questionable amusement.
“Mrs. Gooseworth sounded odd, and she does not seem to mind, do you, love?” She lowered her voice in a conspiratorial tone, “Moreover, as it is customary to c-o-o-k a g-o-o-s-e for Christmas, I thought it better to name her Mrs. Duckworth.”
He chuckled and said, “‘How ill white hairs become a fool and jester.’”
“Henry IV, Part Two,” she repeated automatically, “and you sound like your grandmother.” She stroked the goose’s neck and back. “Are you looking for your meal?”
“You feed the geese?”
She turned to note a slight shake of his head in what appeared to be disbelief. “Naturally. In Northamptonshire, I always fed Papa’s animals. That way he could keep them out of his precious plants. Is that not correct, Puddles?” She scooped up one of the goslings and held it to her chest.
The marquess barked a laugh. “Puddles?”
“You would understand if you had viewed this gosling when I first met him, or her,” she said with a grin. “Evidently, my darling Puddles ate something he should not. He squirted more water than food each time he took a step, leaving little puddles behind, rather than the customary nugget.”
“You are adorable, Miss Hawthorne,” his lordship said with a smile matching hers. “Do you intend to fatten Mrs. Duckworth up yourself?” He knelt beside her and claimed another of the goslings who were honking and pecking at the floor where she had earlier crumbled a stale piece of bread into tiny pieces to tempt them.
“If so, I shan’t enjoy Christmas supper,” she declared readily. “And I swear I give them only food from my own plate or what Cook must throw away. Please say you do not mind my acting so foolishly. I promise the geese will not be a nuisance.”
He smiled upon her. “I fear, my dear, such is a promise you do not have the ability to keep, for, surely, someone will complain about the noise or Puddle’s puddles, but I hold no objection to your indulging the animals upon the manor if it makes you happy.”
Evelyn could not recall a time since before her mother’s passing that someone had done something to make her happy. It was all she could do not to throw her arms around his lordship’s neck and kiss him in gratitude.
I HAVE THREE eBOOK COPIES OF THE ANTHOLOGY AVAILABLE TO THOSE WHO COMMENT BELOW. THE GIVEAWAY WILL END AT MIDNIGHT EDST TODAY. THE WINNERS WILL BE NOTIFIED SHORTLY AFTERWARDS and THE BOOKS PRESENTED ON NOVEMBER 7.