From Waif to Gentleman's Wife
· Harlequin Historical #964
*Finalist, 2010 Daphne du Maurier Award*
When a destitute governess faints on Sir Edward Greaves’s threshold, chivalry demands that he offer her temporary shelter. However, the desire Ned feels when he catches her in his arms isn’t at all gentlemanly.
In spite of his attraction to her, Ned finds it extremely suspect that a lady claiming to be the sister of the fired estate manager happens to end up on his doorstep just after his carriage has been attacked by Luddite agitators. But Joanna Merrill’s large, troubled eyes and slender frame call to something deep inside this guarded man. For one who has purposefully shunned the conniving beauties of London society, just how much is Ned risking by allowing this intriguing woman under his roof?
“An enjoyable read with absorbing characters and a slice of English history.”
"Emotionally charged and heartwarming, as two lonely hearts fall in love, only to be ripped asunder by secrets and betrayal."
"History and romance weave together to make for one heck of a good story."
“Like opening up a window on a warm spring day after a very long, dismal winter…a quick, charming read, so refreshingly different from a lot of the other Regency historicals currently cramming the shelves.”
“Justiss not only sets her expertly crafted story in the English countryside in the midst of industrialization but she also authentically portrays ordinary people…thus giving this Regency historical a delightfully different twist.”
“Danger and passion combine with betrayal and love to produce a wonderful story that will amuse, sadden and delight…”
from FROM WAIF TO GENTLEMAN’S WIFE
The evening was already far advanced when Joanna Anders Merrill climbed stiffly down from the farmer’s cart in which she’d hired a ride after missing the mail coach run to Hazelwick, the village closest to Blenhem Hill. She’d hoped to arrive here early enough to be able to send word to her brother to come fetch her before dark, but once again, circumstances had conspired against her.
It had been a disaster of a fortnight. When she left the Masters estate at Selbourne Abbey, she’d expected to spend no more than a few days on the road, a week at most. Her small stock of coins would stretch for coach fare and perhaps a few modest dinners, as long as she caught every stage on time and spent most of the day traveling.
Instead, during each segment of the journey some accident or disaster had brought her progress to a halt. From a horse pulling up lame on the first stage, to a broken axle on the next, to the wild driving of a drunken Corinthian who’d forced the mail coach off the road into a ditch, she’d ended up each time too late to make her connections and had been forced to spend extra nights on the road.
After splurging on accommodations the first few nights, bespeaking a chamber had become impossible, but even for a dry place under the stable roof she’d been forced to part with a few more precious pence. Her stomach rumbling at the savory smell of stew emanating from the Hart and Hare, Hazelwick’s inn, while she doled out her last coin to the farmer who’d given her space in the back of his wagon, she tried not to recall how long it had been since she’d eaten.
Though he’d agreed with reluctance to convey her to Hazelwick, that taciturn gentleman had flatly refused to bring her to her final destination. She hoped to wheedle someone at the inn into performing that task, on promise of payment when she arrived at Blenhem Hill.
The prospects of convincing someone to do so had been fair when the trip could be completed in daylight. Now that darkness had fallen, her chances were fast diminishing.
Somehow, she must make it happen. With her purse emptied of its last coin, she could neither afford dinner nor accommodations for the night.
“Need lodgings, miss?” The innkeeper of the Hart and Hare walked over to greet her as she entered the taproom. “The missus has a right fine stew on…“ As his practiced gaze took in her dusty, travel-stained apparel, single bandbox and solitary state, he stopped short and his welcoming smile faded.
No respectable gentlewoman traveled with so little luggage, unaccompanied by a maid or companion to lend her countenance. She felt her cheeks flush with chagrin at what he must be thinking of her character even as he said, “The Hart and Hare be an honest house. I don’t let rooms to the likes of—“
“I don’t require a room,” she interrupted. “I need transport to Blenhem Hill. I have business with the manager there.”
“I wager you do, missy,” the innkeeper replied, his tone scornful. “Well, I expect if ye’ve coin to pay, Will in the stables might be able to take you, even with night fallen, for I’d as lief not have you standing about the place.”
Though she felt her flush deepen, she tried to infuse her voice with authority. “I do not intend to pay in advance. Your man will reimbursed after I am safely conveyed to Blenhem Hill.”
The innkeeper shook his head impatiently. “I’m not sending out the boy and my gig without I get payment first.
‘Tis the way we’ve always done it, bad enough business that it is, and I ain’t about to change the arrangement now.”
Joanna worked hard to keep desperation from leaking into her voice. “You will be well-paid, I assure you. Twice the usual rate.”
She had no idea what the innkeeper normally charged to transport items to Blenhem Hill and could only hope her brother wouldn’t be furious with her for cavalierly doubling the price. But with her strength, her funds and her spirits exhausted, she absolutely must get to Blenhem Hill tonight.
“Double the rate! Must think pretty highly of yer charms,” the innkeeper said snidely. “But the answer’s still ‘no.’ If you’ve not got the ready, take yourself off before the wife comes in and gives you a jawing. Go on, off with you!”
The man approached, waving his arms in a shooing motion. Affronted by his insinuation that she was a woman of low repute bent on enticing her own brother, Joanna hesitated, torn between standing her ground to argue and the risk of having him drag her bodily out of his establishment.
“I’ll see her out,” a feminine voice said.
Joanna jerked her attention from the advancing innkeeper toward a girl who tossed her apron down on the bar.
“Very well, Mary, but you step right back. There be paying customers to tend,” the innkeeper said, giving Joanna one last scornful glance.
The barmaid motioned her to the door. Her momentary courage failing, her tired brain unable to reason out what she must do next, Joanna gave in and followed.
“Not a bad man, but none too bright,” the girl said as they stepped into the evening chill. “Otherwise he would have seen in a blink you’re no doxy. Have business out at Blenhem Hill, do you?”
Heartened by the first kindness she’d encountered in her long travels, Joanna said, “Yes. And I very much need to find transport there tonight.”
“Can’t help you with that, but I can tell you how to get there. See the road that forks by the forge? Follow that straight on and it’ll take you to Blenhem Hill. Not above five miles or so, and there’ll be some moon tonight.”
Five miles. Tired as she was, it might as well be five hundred. But it appeared that if she meant to get to Blenhem Hill tonight, her feet would have to take her there.
“Thank you, Mary,” Joanna replied. “When I come to town next, I’ll bring you a coin for your kindness.”
The girl shrugged. “Hard fer a woman traveling alone to keep trouble from finding her. Stay to the road and you can’t miss it, but have a care. If you hear anyone approaching by horseback or cart, you duck into the woods right quick until they go by. Best of luck to you.”
Five miles. She could keep her feet moving for five more miles. Taking a deep breath, Joanna grasped her bandbox and set off.
With the fall of night, the wind picked up, chilling her despite her traveling cloak. So desperately tired she could scarcely think, she plodded along, keeping her eye on the road ahead and concentrating only on placing one numbed foot after the other.
Once, she stumbled into an unseen pothole and fell, losing her grip on the bandbox, which rolled away from her over the side of the road. Almost she was tempted to lay her head down into the mud and give up.
Papa toiled away in the fetid heat of India, she tried to rally herself, ministering to the army and the members of John company, far from home and all things familiar. Her brother had followed Wellington through the dirt and misery of Waterloo. Her own dear Thomas had braved the baking summers and monsoons of India, proudly serving his nation. All she need do was walk a few more miles along an English lane.
Mustering all the will she possessed, she forced herself to stagger upright and collected her bandbox.
She fixed her mind on the image of Greville receiving her warmly, distracting herself from her present misery by painting mental pictures in her head of the estate he managed for Lord Englemere. There’d be a neat sturdy manor house, fields plowed and newly planted in corn, tenant cottages with thick roofs of fragrant thatch.
Maybe he’d have a wife to welcome her; children, even. She imagined dawdling a chubby toddler on her knee, filling the emptiness in her soul by nurturing a girl like little Susan, instructing her in her letters and numbers and the sewing of samplers. Perhaps, after she had rested and recovered, Greville or his wife would know of a genteel family who might have another position for her.
She must find something else. She’d no more rely upon remaining as a burden upon her brother than she would consider contacting her late husband’s family for assistance. Thomas’s father had made it quite clear upon their last painful meeting that the Merrill family wanted nothing further to do with the woman who, he insinuated, had used some potion of the east to bewitch a young man far from home into a most unsuitable match.
Her heart twisted again, remembering the coldness on Lord Merrill’s face, more hurtful still since she could see her dear Thomas’s features echoed in his sire’s countenance. The snug bungalow she’d shared in India with Papa, where she and Thomas had met and fallen in love, had been her last real home. Not since she’d lost their unborn child and Thomas insisted she leave him and the malevolent fevers of India for the healthier clime of England had she felt there was a place she truly belonged.
Ironic that she’d swiftly recovered after the miscarriage, while it was Thomas who succumbed to a fever. Alone in her London lodgings, she’d patiently awaited his return. He’d been dead for weeks by the time the news reached her.
A surge of grief swept through her, bringing her dangerously close once again to despair.
With Lord Winston having at the last moment cavalierly awarded the living on his estate, promised to Papa when the current incumbent retired, to some distant connection, the joyous reunion she’d looked forward to when Papa and the rest of her family returned from India had never happened. Anticipating their reunion had been her sole comfort as she’d struggled to cope with the enormity of Thomas’s death. The loss of that consolation was yet one more charge she could lay at the feet of a venal, uncaring aristocracy, she thought resentfully.
And as if her spirits were not already low enough, the moon dipped behind a bank of clouds and it began to rain.
She wouldn’t think any more of sad things, she told herself, straining through the gloom to follow the dim road and keep her feet moving while rain dripped off the brim of her bonnet and soaked through her cloak.
She’d think of Greville, his genial smile, his easy-going temperament. He’d always been a charmer, if a bit slow to bestir himself. But having served with Wellington, a notorious taskmaster, would surely have cured him of his lazy ways. The army would be the making of him, Papa always said.
A sudden flow of icy water dripped from an overhanging tree down her neck, shocking her back to the present. It seemed she’d been walking for hours, days, her whole existence. Her feet and fingers beyond numb, she forced herself onward through sheer willpower, knowing if she missed one step she might lose her balance and fall. This time, she’d not be able to rise again.
She’d begun to fear that this would indeed be her fate when finally, in the distance, she perceived a faint glimmer of light.
Blenhem Hill! She must be approaching Greville’s manor at last.
Now that the moment of reunion had almost arrived, her heart jolted with a gladness tempered by anxiety.
What if Greville were not happy that she’d sought him out uninvited? Certainly she must look a sight, her sopping skirts muddy, her cloak and bonnet soaked through.
Still, regardless of what her brother thought about her unsolicited midnight arrival, surely he would take her in. With a shiver, she made her clumsy-cold feet pick up the pace until, a few moments later, she stood before the front door and knocked, wincing at the pain to her frozen knuckles.
She waited, but when no response was forthcoming, she knocked again. It was late enough that she might have believed everyone within already abed, but for the light still glowing through one of the windows. She’d almost decided to try rapping on that when at last the portal swung open.
A man in butler’s attire gazed out at her, the mis-matched buttons on his waistcoat suggesting that he had indeed been abed and only hastily re-donned his clothing.
“Good evening, sir,” she said. “I know it is late, but I should like to see your master, please.”
For a silent moment the man looked her up and down. Then without a word, he moved to close the door on her.
“Just a minute!” she cried. “I demand to see the manager!”
“The manager?” he said finally. “And who would that be?”
Did he think she’d wandered aimlessly across the countryside with no definite destination? “Mr. Greville Anders, of course,” she snapped back. “Please tell him that Mrs. Merrill has arrived and wishes to see him at once. He will receive me, I assure you.”
“It be Mr. Anders you’re wanting?”
“Yes,” she replied impatiently. “And I warn you, he will be most displeased when I tell him you forced his only sister to stand forever in the doorway before admitting her.”
“His sister, are you?” the man asked with a sly look. “When did he send for you?”
Though her brain was muddled with cold and fatigue, she thought it was probably best not to admit that she hadn’t been sent for. “That’s not your concern,” she replied. “All I require is that you convey me to him at once.”
“Must have miscalculated the date,” she heard him mutter before he said in a louder voice, “Nothing here for you, miss. Best go back where you come from.”
“Go b-back?” she repeated, her voice breaking as alarm jolted through her. Desperately summoning up her best governess tone, she said firmly, “At this hour of the night? You must be mad! Why are you keeping me here on the threshold, nattering on in this stupid manner? Just inform Mr. Anders I have arrived.” Ducking around him, she darted into the hall.
And stopped on a sigh. Ah, how heavenly it was to get out of the wind and cold!
The butler-person, mouth pursed in disapproval, stomped after her. “Haven’t ever laid hands on a woman and don’t expect to start, so I suppose, being a good Christian, I’ll let you dry off and sleep in the kitchen. But you must be gone first thing in the morning.”
Anger filtering into her desperation, Joanna crossed her arms. “Have you heard nothing that I’ve said, my good man? I am not going anywhere until I’ve seen the manager. If you force me out, I will simply come back.”
For a moment they stared at each other, nearly nose-to-nose. Finally the butler nodded. “Very well, I’ll fetch you to the manager. Follow me.”
Eagerness and trepidation stirred in her again as he led her on. He halted, she realized, before the door that opened into the room whose lights she’d glimpsed from the road, the lights that had led her to the manor.
Greville’s room! Illumined as if he’d meant to send a beacon of hope and welcome out to her in the darkness.
As the butler opened the door, warmth and the faint scent of wine wafted out. Her stomach growling at the hint of sustenance, her numb fingers and toes luxuriating at the caress of heated air, she scarcely heard the butler announcing her.
At last, she would see Greville and all would be well again. Pushing past the butler, she stumbled over the threshold, her chilled body drawing her like a moth to the flames dancing on the hearth. After the misery of the rain and chill, the temperature of the room made her feel light-headed and giddy, almost as if she might swoon.
Only then did she look up into the face of the tall man who’d risen from his chair behind the desk.
A man who was frowning at her.
A man who was not Greville.
“W-who are you?” she gasped.
“Who did you expect?” he asked, his faintly hostile gaze running with insulting familiarity over her figure.
“G-Greville,” she stuttered again. “Greville Anders. This is Blenhem Hill manor, is it not? He--he manages that estate for Lord Englemere.”
“Not any longer,” the tall man said curtly. “Lord Englemere discharged Mr. Anders. Almost a month ago.
For a moment she blinked stupidly at him. “Greville…isn’t here?”
“No.” His implacable gaze held her motionless, mesmerizing her like a python regarding its prey.
Greville. Discharged. Not here. In her dazed and exhausted mind, syllables detached themselves from words and meaning, echoing down into her empty belly, up into her woozy head. Images swirled before her eyes: the rain-swept road. Her stiff cold fingers. Her empty purse.
She felt as if she were swaying in a high wind. The disapproval on the face of the tall man by the hearth was the last thing she saw before the images dissolved and she slipped into blackness.
Copyright © 2009 Julia Justiss
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