When Miss Althea Claywell overhears her uncle’s decision to marry her to his sixty-year-old friend, she runs away. Her escape lands her in a small village where she encounters Lord Preston Ambrose, Viscount Melcombe, who is also in need of a governess for his five nieces. Althea accepts the position with little reservation. Her uncle would never think to look for her at Ambrose Hall.
Preston had wanted Miss Claywell from the first moment he spied her in London, but only managed to secure two dances before he had to return home. When he stumbles across Miss Claywell in the village, he offers her the only position that she’s likely to accept. What he really wants is to have her in his bed.
Will desire rule, or will they manage to find love before Althea is found?
Northumberland, England, December 1815
“We should return home,” his oldest niece, and now ward, Delia, said as they walked past the Hemsley Coffee House and Inn. “We’ve already taken up too much of Uncle Preston’s time.”
Preston Ambrose, Viscount Melcombe had brought his nieces into the village today in hopes of bolstering their spirits. “I am the one who asked the five of you to accompany me today,” he reminded her.
Maybe they didn’t want to spend time with him. That often seemed to be the case. If they didn’t take meals together, he’d hardly see his nieces as they kept to themselves on what had been the nursery floor.
That wasn’t completely accurate because he did encounter the youngest two, Winifred and Lila, as they ran through the house, usually playing hide and seek. They were the happy diversion to his otherwise dull day of running the estate. Winifred’s favorite place to hide was usually under his large desk. When Lila came looking, he always claimed that he’d not seen her, but Winifred’s giggles always gave her away. Preston would then tease that he needed to see about hiring a governess or three. One for the older girls, one for Lila, and one for Winifred. He didn’t mean it of course, which they knew as well.
He’d also thought, even hoped, that today would be as enjoyable as it had been the year before. Then they’d talked non-stop and kept pulling him in one direction and then another. They had wanted to explore every shop. Today, they followed along and barely glanced into the storefront windows. When he suggested they step into what had at one time been a favorite shop, they, in turn, declined because they didn’t want to be a bother and there was nothing that they needed.
Everything had been so much easier a year ago. His only purpose had been doting on his nieces. They also happened to be a handful of females that he could converse with and not stumble over his words. The others had been his sister-in-law and two females that he encountered only with regard to business matters. As for all other females, he was awkward and uncomfortable, but the worst had been his humiliation in not being able to properly engage Miss Claywell in conversation last spring. No doubt she thought him a dolt, as she should.
Preston didn’t understand why his nieces thought they were a bother. They never had been, and they weren’t now. Last year was filled with laughs and teasing. This year, quiet and somber.
The change hadn’t come about because they had matured because, for the most part, they were still children. It had happened because they’d lost their parents nine months ago and their lights seemed to have died along with their parents. Now Preston was at a loss as to what to do.
The most excitement he’d seen from them today was when he suggested sweets from the bakery. Well, other than when Winifred decided to explore, and she had disappeared while he made certain that the boots he ordered were a proper fit.
“Uncle Preston promised that we’d visit the bakery,” Lila reminded her sister.
It wasn’t bread or cakes they wanted. The bakery was also a confectionary, and he knew the girls would spend time looking over the jars of colorful sweets and cases of delights before making a decision.
“When will Willanton ever get a bookshop or lending library?” Matilda complained. “Why must we live in such a provincial village?”
“I will send for more books,” Preston promised.
“That is not necessary,” Matilda quickly responded. “I’ve enough to read.”
Whenever he made an offer, they quickly declined, and it was maddening. Before their parents died, he’d spoiled them, but they wanted nothing from him now. He knew he wasn’t a parent, but they’d enjoyed his company then.
“Why don’t you go into the bakery and pick out what you’d like.” He handed funds to Delia.
“I’ll make certain they do not overindulge,” Delia assured him with seriousness more suited for a governess than a child.
They were without guidance, except for himself and the household staff. He really did need to hire a governess. His nieces had been without one these past eight months, but he’d been reluctant to even interview, let alone hire anyone after Miss Halton had been dismissed.
What did he even know about governesses, or how to go about hiring one, or how to even determine if one was qualified? Then there was the possibility of allowing a string of female strangers into his home that he’d be forced to converse with during an interview and he’d still have no idea if they’d make a worthy governess.
His cousin, Alec Winters, the Earl of Harwich, was of the mind that Preston needed a wife before a governess and then said wife could hire someone.
His stomach churned at the very idea of trying to court someone as he had no idea how to go about doing so. Besides, there was only one woman he’d ever wanted to court, and she had probably already forgotten him or thought him more a fool now than when they’d walked in Hyde Park.
Damn his cousin, Alec. He should have never said anything about Miss Claywell, but once he had, Alec never let it go. Further, had Alec not encouraged him and had Preston not been drinking brandy at the time, he would have never written his uncle and asked him to extend an offer of marriage to a woman he barely knew.
No doubt she had rejected the offer.
At the sound of the coach, Preston glanced up to note the arrival of the mail coach, punctual as always.
Just as it pulled to a stop, his nieces ran onto the pavement, full of excitement for the first time in months, surrounding him. They each told him of the treats they’d purchased, talking over each other, and he couldn’t understand what they were saying individually but loved this glimpse of their former selves. He tried to pay attention to each but was distracted. “A bunny,” Winifred cried and took off running and right through the passengers from the coach now gathering on the walk.
That child still needed to be on leading strings simply so she couldn’t run off, especially through passengers disembarking a coach.
Though he knew it was unlikely Winifred could go far, he tried to keep watch of her and waited for the passengers to go into Hemsley Coffee House for refreshments before he pursued. Except, when they’d all left the walk, Winifred wasn’t anywhere in sight, and a panic he had never experienced before, not even when facing Napoleon’s army, set in.
If she were correct, the mail coach would deliver her to Eyemouth in Scotland before tomorrow.
Even though Althea had left her uncle’s home that very first night she’d overheard the discussion with Mr. Smith, she’d had to take a room at a coaching inn until she could book passage on a mail coach traveling north. For over a day she’d hidden in her room awaiting the morning that she was to depart, then feared that she’d been found when she spied a most anxious Mr. Smith speaking with the postmaster as he handed off a missive. She’d hung back in the shadows until he gained his carriage and she felt safe enough to board the mail coach without being seen.
It certainly wasn’t her preference of travel, however, she had no complaints of the speed at which they arrived at each destination. Had she been in her uncle’s carriage, the journey would have taken twice as long.
At least Uncle Clarence hadn’t caught up to her, though he probably assumed her destination—to her mother’s family—so it was only a matter of time before he found her. Though in truth, at the age of three and twenty, she had reached her majority and couldn’t be forced to marry anyone. She’d been so used to living with Uncle Clarence since she was a child that Althea still thought of him as her guardian.
There had been no reason to run away, but the panic had sent her in motion. It was a very foolish thing to do, and quite outside of her normally reasonable character. However, she still had no access to her inheritance. As stipulated in her father’s will, it would not be hers until either she married or turned five and twenty.
As the coach drew to a stop, the man across from her opened the door and stepped out, and Althea followed. This was one of the few stops in which they were allowed to disembark and only long enough to stretch and purchase foodstuffs before they were on their way again.
Once free of the coach, Althea was once again able to take a deep breath of fresh air. It was growing quite warm within the coach despite it being December, and odors had developed that were far from pleasant. She’d been forced to spend the last few hours with her perfumed handkerchief close to her nose.
At the squeal of a child, she turned to find a little girl pushing her way through the legs of the passengers disembarking.
Althea waited for an adult to follow in pursuit, yet none did, and Althea grew alarmed, especially when the child cried out “Bunny” and disappeared around the side of a building. A rabbit trying to evade a child brought on different circumstances in which to be concerned. Either the child could run for a long distance trying to catch the rabbit and get lost, or she might manage to capture it, which could bring injury to the rabbit. Neither was a good outcome and as there appeared to be no adult attending the child, Althea ran after her before harm could be done.
As soon as she turned the corner, Althea spotted the girl crouched down before a large bush. It was likely she had the rabbit cornered.
She approached and leaned down next to the child. “What are you looking at?”
The little girl didn’t even startle at her presence.
“I wanted to pet the bunny.” She pointed.
Althea looked inside to see a rabbit and five younger rabbits, and her heart melted.
“I think you’ve frightened her,” Althea whispered.
“I didn’t mean to,” the little girl assured her.
“The mama just wants to protect them,” Althea said gently. Except, these bunnies weren’t exactly young and old enough to venture out on their own. She’d seen smaller ones hopping around on her uncle’s estate without a mother anywhere nearby.
The girl plopped on her bottom.
“At least they still have a mama.”
Oh, dear! It was then that Althea realized that the little girl was wearing black. She’d been near the same age when she also had to wear black for a mother and father.
“Let me take you back to your governess, or nurse, so they don’t worry.” Someone had to be in charge of the girl.
“I don’t have a governess.”
“Are you all alone today?”
“Winifred!” The panicked voice of an adult male called. “Winifred! Where did you go off to?”
“Might you be Winifred?”
The little girl dipped her head in a sheepish manner and gave a quick nod. She had the look of knowing that she was going to be scolded, but no fear of being punished.
Althea stood and held out her hand. “Your father sounds worried.”
Winifred stood and accepted Althea’s hand. “I don’t have a papa either.”
The poor child. But at least someone cared enough to note that she’d gone missing.
Just as they reached the walk, a gentleman came barreling around the corner, nearly colliding with Althea. He quickly steadied her with his hands clasped about her upper arms, the palms branding her skin from the heat. A familiar touch, one imprinted in her memory, and Althea looked up into his concerned eyes. “Major Ambrose?”
He stilled, stared at her as if shocked. Then, as if remembering himself, let go and stepped back. “My apologies.”
He didn’t remember her. Althea had thought and dreamed of him for the remainder of the Season, yet his lack of greeting was as if they’d never met.
The disappointment at being forgotten nearly crushed her heart. She tried to reason with herself that it was quite ridiculous to be in love, or even something as simple as infatuated with a gentleman after so few encounters, except she failed. How could she dismiss her emotions when her entire being seemed to come alive, as if waking from a deep hibernation, when in his presence. As it did just now.
Major Ambrose dropped down to one knee and looked Winifred in the eyes. “You gave me a fright running off like that.”
“I’m sorry Uncle Preston,” Winifred murmured. “But there was a bunny.”
“I gathered as much.” He rubbed the top of her head affectionately. “But you also know better than to run off, especially through a group of strangers who were not expecting to trip over a little girl.”
Althea had never heard him say so much in one sentence.
“I wanted to pet the bunny, but the lady said that I couldn’t.”
He glanced up, his blue eyes darkening. “Thank you, Miss Claywell,” he murmured, then cleared his throat as he stood.
Her heart hammered as his eyes met hers once again. He did remember her.
“My uncle isn’t major any longer,” Winifred said sadly, “but Viscount Melcombe.”
The only way in which one gains a title is upon the death of another.
Oh, dear! Why hadn’t she made the connection? Althea recalled Mr. Smith speaking of a nephew who had died unexpectantly, and she knew he hadn’t been speaking of Major Ambrose, as he’d been in London at the time. Now she knew why he’d left, and why he hadn’t returned.
“Thank you for seeing to my niece,” Lord Melcombe stood and held out his hand to Winifred. “We should return to your sisters.”
“Sisters?” Althea asked in surprise.
“Yes. I am their guardian.”
Available for Preorder on Amazon
Out on 2/22/22