Published by Scardsdale Publishing on May 14th 2017
He bargained for a lady, but the hoyden stole his heart…
Signing a wedding contract for the third daughter of a duke sight unseen is the first impulsive thing by-the-book Navy Lieutenant Patrick Chalmers has ever done. When he arrives on his wedding day to claim his bride, he never dreams the beautiful woman walking down the aisle is the spitfire he saved from falling out of a tree.
Book 1 Worth of a Lady--No one guessed that an innocent would bring the Devil of Delny to his knees…
Book 2 The Marriage Wager--He lost at cards, but won at love…
Book 4 How to Catch an Heiress--It takes cunning to catch an heiress…and a handsome face doesn’t hurt
Inverness, Scotland 1817
Lieutenant Patrick Chalmers knew that only a fool fights an unseen enemy.
Unfortunately, he’d just seen his. Not that he could truly call his family’s green lady a foe. If anything, she was a tradition. A pathetic apparition known to drift about Baldain House in search of her husband or lover, a long-dead man believed to have lost his life at the dreadful Battle of Culloden.
However, much as he sympathized, he did not care to be haunted. He most especially did not desire spectral company on a night of chill wind and driving rain. Such weather was unpleasant enough on its own, and ghosts were even more unwelcome. So he decided to ignore the storm and pretend he hadn’t seen the green-glowing lass. To that purpose, he rolled onto his back, readjusted the bed covers, and willed his sleep to return. His war injury might have stolen his ability to stand as straight as he would wish, but his eyelids remained in perfect working order. If he wanted them to stay closed, they would obey him without question.
Regrettably, his mind rebelled. He kept reliving the sight of the ghost in her old-fashioned clothes hovering before his dresser, her green haze shimmering about her.
Patrick couldn’t stop the gooseflesh that prickled his nape. He also tamped down the resentment that began to coil in his gut, the frustration that—he knew—could so quickly turn into a throbbing ache at his temples. In truth, there was only so much a man could endure.
Was he asking too much simply to want a quiet and peaceful life? No upsets or scandal, no debt collectors pounding on his door or shadowing him through the muddy, crowded streets of Inverness as if they expected him to turn a corner and miraculously happen upon a coffer of gold.
As if to bedevil him, a shimmer of glowing green penetrated his tightly-closed eyelids and he thought he caught the rustle of a woman’s skirts, a faint and eerie sound against the night’s howling wind and hammering rain.
“Do not come to me again,” he warned. “I cannae help you.”
I can hardly help myself.
No matter. He would persevere. He’d already taken measures to keep Baldain from falling to ruin. He’d even put a sizeable dent in his father’s massive debts. He took care that his behavior now was just as regimented and above reproach as it had been during his military years. If he focused upon his father’s loans, he would not have to redeem his own reputation. Unlike his sire, he did not have a reputation of weakness, unable to resist the pull of drink, women, cards and horses. Not to mention, unproven business schemes.
He, Lieutenant Patrick Hugh Alexander Chalmers, would not sink in the soot and ash left to him. Nor would anyone take Baldain House from him and his heirs—sons he’d sire on the good and decorous wife he’d find as soon as he put his life back into equally respectable order. Regrettably, he suspected that would take years. Perhaps even decades. But he was doing all he could.
In the morning, he’d make even more progress when his solicitor and two of his debtors came to call. For that reason, he needed sleep. A clear head would be required for that meeting. But somewhere in the house a shutter came loose and the wind banged it against the wall, a nuisance he couldn’t tolerate at this or any other moment.
The banging came from Baldain House’s top floor, the erstwhile servants’ quarters, which now held only dust and echoes. Upon ‘inheriting’ his father’s less than enviable legacy, he’d been unable to keep the staff. Only his manservant, Cobbs, remained, but his reason for staying was one of loyalty.
Cobbs also slept too soundly to hear the shutter knocking, so Patrick tossed back the bedcovers, leapt to his feet, and floundered about the room’s shadows until he found the chair which held his dressing robe, neatly folded. He quickly donned the robe, grabbed his night light—a poor man’s rush light set beneath a perforated metal shade—then left the meager comforts of his bedchamber for the dimness of the icy-cold corridor and the even darker stairs up to the top floor.
Once there, he did not have to search long for the offending shutter. The nearest door in the passage stood open and the shutter banged loud enough for him to know the room beyond was the one he wanted…the room with the best view of Baldain’s gardens. Vast and almost regal in design, the gardens stretched the width of Baldain, and reached a great distance in length to the wood and old medieval road that formed the estate’s western boundary.
In recent times, Patrick much preferred the views from Baldain’s front windows. The nearness of the River Ness was a pleasant boon. The continual flow of the river reminded him that no matter how dire the circumstances, life, like the river’s water, continued on. The road that ran alongside the river was a different matter. Ever muddied and soiled with all manner of refuse, the least offensive being horse manure, the busy thoroughfare with all its hazards didn’t let him forget that he could never be too careful. A single careless step, and he could land on his arse. Or worse, slip clear into the river to be swept out to sea before he knew what had happened.
Now, however, the gardens held a message. Sadly overgrown and neglected, they drove home the urgency of his plight. The dire need to secure enough funds to repay his father’s remaining loans.
If he could not…
His life, his world, would end in a worse state than Baldain’s once-proud gardens.
He drew a steadying breath, ignored the pain in his leg—he was quite good at doing that, at least—and entered the empty room that smelled of dust and dilapidation. Patrick strode across the bare, wooden floor to the window, then closed and barred the warped shutters. He did not peer out at the night-blackened gardens. The green lady was known to walk there, and family legend claimed she favored stormy nights. If she’d gone there after leaving his bedchamber, he did not want to know. What he did know of her was damaging enough, for her appearance was said to herald one of several important events…a birth, marriage, death, and impending ruin were the most notable. As he hadn’t fathered a child and had no intention of marrying anytime soon, those reasons could not qualify. He had no wish to die, however trying his circumstances, but that would solve his problems, which probably meant she wasn’t delivering a message about his death.
The remaining reason, impending ruin, was likely why he’d seen her. If so, he had no intention of worsening his fate by spying her floating along the rain-soaked garden paths. One glimpse in a night was bad enough. He turned as quickly as his achy thigh allowed and made haste to exit the room and return to his waiting bed.
He would be up and dressed with the sun, as was his wont, but the morrow’s sunrise would be different. He would meet three men in Baldain’s morning room and do the one thing he never believed he’d consider…
Sell his soul to save his home.
At precisely lunch hour the next day, a cleared throat announced Cobbs’ presence at the morning room’s threshold.
“They have arrived, sir.” As a broad-shouldered man with work-roughened hands, harsh features that included a nose broken more than once, and little more than a stubble of hair on his head, Cobbs was a formidable-looking soul on the best of days. But this day, his grim-set face and down-turned mouth made him appear downright dangerous.
“Their carriage is just drawing up outside,” he informed Patrick.
Patrick stood, but remained behind his desk. “See them in.” A terrible cold twisted through his innards. “And try not to look so glum.” He glanced down at the thick folder of papers on his desk, the remaining loan draughts that represented both his father’s squandering of the family fortune and now, the only means to salvage what Patrick could.
“It is the only way,” he added, sure he could feel Baldain’s neglected gardens glowering at him through the windows behind his desk. “I would not agree to this otherwise.”
The door knocker echoed through the house, heralding the arrival of Patrick’s solicitor, Mr. Thornhill and the two bankers. Cobbs humphed, then turned and disappeared from view.
Moments later, Cobbs returned alone, or so Patrick thought, until the single set of approaching footsteps halted at the room’s threshold.
“I told Cobbs I didn’t need an escort,” said the tall, well-dressed, rakish scoundrel whose coat, waistcoat and highly polished boots bore nary a speck of the muck that clogged the muddy road outside Baldain’s front entry. “He’s in a jolly mood this morning,” Sir Stirling James added, striding into the room. “You look equally soured,” he observed as he claimed one of the tufted leather chairs in front of Patrick’s desk. “It’s been some time since we’ve seen one another. Not expecting me, were you?”
“Nae, and this is no time for a social call.” Patrick remained standing. “I’m expecting my solicitor any moment.”
To his surprise, his friend grinned. “Aye, him and two noxious, well-fed bankers.” He settled back in the chair. “They will not be coming. It seems they had other plans this afternoon.”
Patrick scowled. “What would you know of their business? Or mine, while we’re at it.”
“Everything that matters.” Stirling’s gaze dropped to the thick folder on Patrick’s desk. “Those are your father’s bank draughts, are they not?”
“And if they are?” Patrick placed the flat of his hand on top of the folder. “What then?”
Before Stirling could answer, Cobbs entered the room carrying a linen-covered tray. Still stony-faced, he placed the tray on the desk beside the bulging folder. “A light repast, milords.” He swept up the linen covering to reveal a pot of tea, an assortment of scones, sandwiches, and thick slices of spiced cake.
When Cobbs made no move to retreat, Patrick gave him a long look. “That will do fine, Cobbs.”
Cobbs turned on his heel and marched from the room.
Patrick locked gazes with Stirling. “Why are you here in Thornhill’s stead?”
“Thornhill and your last two debtors.”
“My father’s debtors, no’ mine.”
Stirling poured two cups of tea, set a cup in front of Patrick, then leaned back in his chair. Patrick gave in and sat down, then took a sip of his tea.
“Leastways, they were until this morning,” Stirling said. “I repaid the loans.”
Patrick choked on his tea. He set his cup back on the saucer with a clatter. Stirling jumped to his feet, hurried around the desk and thwacked him on the back a few times.
When he could speak again, Patrick grabbed a napkin and wiped up the tea that had sloshed onto the desk. “Are you mad? The sum owed was staggering. How could you—”
“Would you no’ have done the same for me?” Stirling dropped back into his chair and reached for a sandwich. “Tell me you would, or I shall be forever injured.”
“Of course, I would.” If I had a coin to my name.
“So, all is well, then.” Stirling bit into his sandwich, his gaze going past Patrick to the rainy gardens. “You did not truly want to sell Baldain’s last parcel of land?”
“Nae.” It would have gutted me. “But I saw no other option.”
“Well, it is no longer a concern.” Stirling took another sandwich. “Did you know that one debtor, Lord Dicketts, aimed to build tenements on every inch back there.” He waved his sandwich at the windows. “You would have kept your house, but you’d have gone witless having a towering hive of humanity mere steps from your rear terrace, Baldain’s gardens nothing but a memory.”
That was true.
Patrick’s heart hammered so fiercely, his mouth so dry, that he could not speak for a long moment. Hoping his hands wouldn’t shake, he tossed back the remaining tea in his cup in one gulp. He looked across the desk at his long-time friend—a man he would never have dreamed of asking for help—and had no idea how to adequately thank him.
“I am at a loss for words. I also do not know how or when I will ever be able to repay you.” His gaze went to his great-grandfather’s sword that held pride of place above the morning room’s fireplace. The ancient hilt gleamed with a scattering of rubies and emeralds. “I have sold off nearly everything of value. I’d hoped to keep that family sword, but it could put a minor dent in what I owe you.”
“You owe me nothing,” Stirling returned, now topping his tea cup. “I do no’ expect or desire repayment.”
Patrick shook his head. “If you will not accept reimbursement, I cannae allow you to do so much for me.”
“Ah, well…” Stirling glanced again at the windows. Mist rolled in, swirling threads of gray that floated across the weed-grown paths and impenetrable tangles of shrubbery. “I could ask a favor of you…”
“Anything.” Relief swept through Patrick. “Name what you’d have of me and it is done.”
Stirling arched a brow. “You are certain?”
“On my honor, you have my word.”
Stirling raised a hand. “Not a price. Instead, I will be granting you something of much greater value than coin.”
“Aye, a boon for the debt-free lord of Baldain House.”
Patrick frowned. “You aren’t making sense, old friend.”
“Ah, but I am,” Stirling said. “I would see you wed to Lady Jessica Hamilton, the Duke of Roxburgh’s third daughter.”
Patrick stared. “You can’t be serious.”
“Never more so.” Stirling sipped his tea. “She is a fine lass. Beautiful, with glossy chestnut hair. Grass green eyes and—”
“I am in no position to marry.” Patrick shook his head. “I can hardly feed myself and Cobbs. How am I to support a duke’s daughter?”
Stirling leaned toward him. “The same way you will have your gardens cleaned up and landscaped.” He withdrew a folded paper from an inside coat pocket and set it down on the desk. “Another bank draught, this one wholly yours—a small but tidy sum to help you put things to right before you receive Lady Jessica’s three-thousand-pound dowry and thousand-pound yearly stipend her father is settling on her.”
Patrick stared. “Three-thousand-pound dowry—a thousand pounds a year?” He glanced at the bank draft. “How much is the draft?”
“A mere two thousand pounds.”
Patrick thought his head would explode. “This is insanity. What is this all about? Why are you playing at matchmaking? Christ, I cannot marry her—I cannot marry anyone.”
Stirling’s eyes glittered. “Did you no’ just give me your word?”
“Aye, but…” Patrick stared. “You scoundrel, you planned this all along.”
“Nae.” Stirling sat back again. “But I won’t argue that I seized the opportunity.” He laughed. “Don’t look as though you’re about to walk the plank. One day, you will thank me. Lady Jessica will make the perfect wife.”
“I am sure she will,” Patrick muttered.
Three thousand pounds? All his debts paid, Baldain saved, and a duke’s daughter as a bride…
Patrick didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. He started to reach for the tea pot, then twisted round and grabbed the whisky decanter off a small table against the wall.
Have you done anything outrageous in the name of love? Leave your comment below for a chance to win and also visit the Giveaway.