Masochists were a sorry lot. And he, William Benton, second son of the useless Crowles, was the sorriest of them all. Why? Not for the usual reasons, but because he was smart enough to see his foolishness and yet was still unable to stop himself.
He was watching the girl. Watching, for God’s sake. When he was accounted as a man who did things. Not today, and never with her. Rather than act, he always stood in the shadows and watched like a damn Peeping Tom.
He’d been on the way to see her father, but then had seen a flash of color. Her bright reddish hair, of course, and her dress. Then he’d heard her laugh. It was unmistakable, that throaty combination of girlish delight and womanly seductionflying free on the afternoon breeze. She was on the back lawn, and he had skirted the manor home so he could see her.
He wasn’t surprised to see her playing with the village children. She couldn’t have arrived from London more than a couple hours before, but the little ones always found her. That’s because she was more kin to them than the adults who watched critically from the sidelines. She was playing tag, running around pell-mell and with her bonnet off, no less. Her hair was pulling free, of course. Nothing about her was ever restrained. The sun picked up the streaks of red in her auburn hair until she seemed crowned in fire.
Her dress was equally vibrant: a yellow so bright he wondered how the dye master had managed the color. And she was running in careening circles until the children finally caught her. He counted seven of them as they surrounded her until she had nowhere to run. Then in one mass, they jumped on her and she went down to the grass in squealing laughter.
For a woman on the hunt for a husband, she was completely undignified and he couldn’t have adored her more. No, he reminded himself, he despised her just as she despised him. It was a well-established feeling, their mutual dislike years in the making. It had begun during the midsummer festival nearly five years ago when he’d loudly and publically tossed her aside. What he’d said to her still haunted him: Don’t mistake things here, Miss Josephine. We all want you back in London, permanently. You don’t belong here and you never will.
He’d said the words and meant them because God knew having her here was like looking at a sparkling diamond that he could never have. Or worse, a meal to a starving man, but one held too far away for him to reach. So he wished her in London, and that sentiment would not change just because her laugh seemed to settle uncomfortably at the base of his spine.
He sighed, reminding himself that he needed to go see her father. And yet he didn’t move as he stood watching from the shadows. He was fresh from the ditch, covered in Yorkshire mud, and smelling of sweat or worse. The summons had come from her fatherLord Lawtonand he’d been told not to tarry. Those were the exact words: do not tarry. As if he spent his days sipping tea and reading the racing forms. He was a steward, for God’s sake, trying to build a canal while overseeing the crops.
So he had climbed out of the muck and ridden over to the manor house. A fit of pique had him appearing in his filth without more than a cursory mop of his brow. After all, he’d been told not to tarry. Let Lord Lawton suffer the consequences of his ridiculous order.
Except he was tarrying. Right here in the shadows as Miss Josephine Powel played chase and catch with the village children. With a grimace, he turned away. She was not for him, nor did he want her. So he tromped over to the servants’ entrance before stripping out of his boots to walk in stocking feet to visit his employer.
Lord Lawton looked up the moment Will was ushered into the library. That was quicker than His voice trailed off as he took in his steward’s attire.
You did say not to tarry, Will responded, doing his best to keep his irritation out of his voice.
Lawton frowned. No, actually I didn’t. Then he glanced out at the hallway with a grimace. Bloody butler. Loves issuing orders in my name, doesn’t he? Are you sure I can’t fire him?
Will ducked his head. You can, of course, do exactly as you please. After all, that’s what his own forefathers had done. But
Lawton waved him to silence. I know. He’s the village’s bloody Rock of Gibraltar. Seems to me that would be you, but you northerners have your own rules. The man leaned back in his chair in a huff. I take it you were at the canal.
Will nodded and settled more firmly into his stance. Work is proceeding. It’s slow, dirty, and exhausting, but we’ve made good progress. We’ll have it all connected up next year for sure.
Think you can get it done by September? I’ll give the men a bonus.
Will felt his jaw go slack in astonishment. No bonus can make a miracle, my lord. Rain’s good for the crops, but we’re slogging through mud. If we get a drenching, we lose a week’s worth of work.
Lord Lawton nodded. But if the rains hold off. If the weather’s good
We don’t have the men.
So I’ll bring in more.
Then you’ll get too much money flooding the village, Will snapped. Then he flushed, moderating his tone as he ducked his head. But it’s your choice, my lord.
Lawton wasn’t fooled by Will’s attempt at humility. He frowned, but as he was a temperate man, that was the extent of his disapproval. Wouldn’t a lot of money be a blessing? he asked dryly.
Will tamped down his temper. This man didn’t deserve it, and Will couldn’t afford to release it. Besides, it didn’t matter what he said. The man would do what he intended no matter how Will tried to dissuade him. Such was the way with the titled. Always having ideas, always refusing to listen to those who knew better. Still, he had to explain his thoughts. Maybe Lawton would be different.
There’s a rhythm and a balance to life up here. It’s not what you’re used to.
His employer agreed with a soft grunt.
I’ve seen it before when workers flood a village. It upsets things. We’ve a sleepy hamlet up here. Bad enough that people are worried about what the canal will do
Wake it up a bit, I should think.
Yes, but in a slow way. Next year gives people time to anticipate. To look at their coffers and be more amenable to change. Force that change now and it upsets everything. Especially adding in strangers with tempers. Supplies will run short. Do you sell the last shirt to the stranger or to Mr. Garret for his standing summer order?
You make another shirt.
Will shook his head. Doesn’t work that smoothly, my lord, and you know it. He huffed out a breath, knowing he had to say it all. The thing is, we’ve already had problems. Supplies running short, missing tools.
Lawton sat up, his gaze sharp. Sabotage?
Will shrugged, unwilling to acknowledge what was probably truth. These were his friends and neighbors, people he’d grown up with and worked alongside his entire life. So he lied, moderating it as best he could. Mischief, more like. And nothing I can’t handle, assuming we go slow.
Lord Lawton rubbed his chin with his hand. What if I made it worth your while to see that it went faster?
Will felt his belly clench tight. There was only one thing he wanted, and Lawton wasn’t going to give her to him for finishing a bloody canal. For a moment, her laughthe one that had settled at the base of his spinesent a tingling rush through his body. But he shut that out of his thoughts. Fortunately, he had long practice doing that.
It just can’t be done, he said, even as his mind began considering possibilities.
Poppycock. If I get you the men?
Will shook his head. Just because it can be done, doesn’t make it smart. He studied Lawton, trying to judge the man’s game. Why would you do this? Why the hurry?
The man frowned and his gaze wandered out the window to where his daughter continued to run wild with the children. She turned twenty-six a month ago, did you know that?
He had, but it wasn’t seemly for him to say so. Felicitations to you and her. She’s a lovely woman.
Of course she is, he said, but it was clear that the man’s mind wasn’t on his daughter’s beauty. But do you know the one thing she did not get for her birthday? The one thing she should have had years ago, but never received?
Will swallowed. He could think of any number of things, but he just shook his head. No, my lord.
A wedding ring. She’s twenty-six, Will. Twenty-bloody-six. Heard a gent refer to her as an ape-leader. Nearly called the man out.
Will stiffened, anger surging below the surface. Ape-leader wasn’t just a term for an old maid. It implied that her unmarried state was her own fault and she’d be punished in the afterlife by leading apes into hell. It was wrong on so many levels, and he was angry on her behalf.
I would have punched him myself, said Will.
Lawton snorted, a dark look on the man’s heavy features. Fortunately, Josephine is not your concern. She never has been and never will be.
Will understood the message: the Lawton daughters were off limits. Most specifically, Josephine was not meant for a second son of the feckless Crowles. Lord Lawton had made that message clear every summer since he’d purchased the land. So Will swallowed his pride and gave a socially acceptable response, even as his gaze was drawn inevitably back out the window to her.
She’s no ape leader. Surely she’s had offers.
None that were acceptable to either of us. He leaned back. It’s the Welsh blood, I think. Makes her wild, and no one in London likes wild.
Not in their women, Will said. The London men, on the other hand, seemed to turn wildness into an art.
Hmmm, was Lawton’s only response as he too stared out at his eldest daughter. She was spinning on the lawn. The children were too, but it was Josephine who turned the fastest, her hair and her skirts flying outward. Will couldn’t stop himself from looking at her trim ankles and neat calves. Any man would look, and every man could with the way she was spinning.
Eventually her speed got the best of her. She stumbled and went down, her laughter carrying through the walls. Will couldn’t see her face, but he knew what she would look like. Her cheeks and her lips would be red, her brown eyes would seem to shine from the sun, and her hair would be a wild tangle in the grass. He’d seen her as such many a time. Only once in truth, but a thousand times more at night when he closed his eyes.
She was a rare beauty, Lawton’s wild eldest daughter, and Will’s loins tightened at just the thought of her. So he did what he always did when he wanted something he couldn’t have: he brought up a hatred of it. He reminded himself of all the flaws in a woman who would flash her legs to any man who passed. And in this way he got through the moment.
Until his employer turned back to him, his tone brusque. It was nearly five years ago that I bought this land from your brother. My plan was very clear at the time. I meant to build the canal and turn this sleepy land into a byway for the future. He snorted. I never counted on Yorkshire stubbornness.
We are a hardheaded lot.
Lawton sighed again, his eyes again shifting to his daughter. Rather than get lost in her, Will kept his eyes downcast. Meanwhile, his employer continued talking.
I promised your brother I’d wait five years to sell this land. I know he meant to buy it back and reestablish the Crowle name. Those years will be up in August. Does Grant have the money?
Will blinked, startled dumb for the first time in years. His brother had negotiated to buy the land back? What foresight! Not something he usually associated with his mercurial brother. The shock on his face must have shown because Lord Lawton’s brows came down in a dark look.
You didn’t know, did you?
Will slowly shook his head. Had his brother Grant really meant to reestablish the family fortune? He thought back to the day of his sister’s wedding, that horrible day and the worse night afterward. It was the night Grant had sold everything that wasn’t tied down. It was his brother’s right, of course, but it still stung, especially since Will had been steward here since boyhood.
Grant He had to clear his throat. Grant said a lot of things that day. Promises, as usual. Nothing of substance.
Lord Lawton grimaced. That’s the way with gamblers. Make lots of promises, mean them too, but
Will nodded. I learned early not to put my trust in promises. It had been his father who had been faithless, but Grant had shown every sign of walking in their sire’s drunken footsteps.
So you haven’t heard from your brother?
Not a word.
I saw him last year. Looked bad, to tell the truth. Said he’d had some sort of sickness, but was coming out of it. Wearing clothes that hung on him. Sad to see, if I’m honest.
Will didn’t want to ask, didn’t want to hope, but it was there. A strange flickering belief in his older brother that he knew would be squashed. Still, he had to ask. Did Grant did he say anything? About coming home? About buying back the land? About anything?
Lawton grimaced. You’ve heard nothing? You haven’t seen him? What about holidays?
Lawton sighed. He said he would have the money, Will. He said he would, but
You didn’t believe him.
He didn’t have the look of a man with the blunt he’d need.
No, his brother always looked like a charming ne’er-do-well. Which was exactly what the man was: a rogue with good intentions but nothing solid about him. Nothing solid at all.
I’ll uh, I’ll try to contact him, Will said. Though God only knew how he’d manage that. The family solicitor, he supposed. Then Lord Lawton took that worry from him.
Don’t bother. Sent a letter myself to his solicitor. Told him the five years are almost up and I need an answer.
Will felt his hands clench by his sides as a useless fury built inside him. This was Crowle land being so casually dispensed, and by a Welsh lord, no less. Grant had sold the land nearly five years ago, and now it was about to be sold again. Again! And just like before, Will had absolutely no say in the matter. None at all, when it had been his sweat, his blood, and his every waking moment that had made this place the haven it was.
The unfairness of it all burned down his spine, easily destroying every other thoughtevery other sensationin his body.
Don’t you want to know what I’m planning to do? Lord Lawton asked.
Will had to force the words through his constricted throat, but he got them out. Isn’t my place to ask.
Lawton smiled, appreciation lightening the weight around his eyes. That’s a Yorkshire man for you. Knows his place even when questions are burning a hole through his gut.
Will didn’t answer. He was, after all, a good Yorkshireman, and so he kept his peace.
All right, I’ll tell you. He dropped his hands on his belly and grinned. Here was a man who was pleased with himself. All this landthe manor house and the canal propertiesall of it goes into her dowry. If your brother finds a way to buy it, the money will go to Josephine. If he can’t, then it’ll be the land in her dowry.
Will’s head shot up, shock making his jaw drop. The whole property? All the former Crowle lands would be given to the man she married? Possibilities churned through his mind, none of them honorable. After all, he’d tried for nearly five years to court the girl honestly. Her father had steadfastly refused. But could he afford his principles when he could recover the entire Crowle fortune in one easy stroke?
Meanwhile, Lawton was watching him closely with narrowed eyes. The bastard knew what Will was thinking and just as quickly, he dashed all hopes. The land’s a promise right now. I won’t make it legal until the day she’s wed.
Wed to a man of Lawton’s choosing. Which would never be Will. So he buttoned his lip and looked down at the floor.
Just so, the man said, obviously pleased that his message had gotten across. Then he abruptly leaned forward, gathering a stack of papers on his desk. But I don’t mean you to think I don’t appreciate what you’ve done. If it weren’t for you, we’d have been run off this land that first summer. I know that. You’ve been a good steward and a good man, protecting my family even when everyone else called us interlopers.
You bought the land honestly, he said, pushing the words through though his throat felt unbearably tight. Can’t have a man’s family harmed just because the villagers don’t like change.
Well, I mean to give you a real chance, Will. Your brother’s a fool, and your father too, but you’re made of sterner stuff. If any man can do what needs to be done, it’s you.
Will looked up. I don’t understand, my lord.
This landthis bloody Yorkshire landit’s worthless without that canal.
Will bristled, needing to defend the land of his birth. It’s not worthless, my lord. It’s just not worth as much.
Well, I need to get my girl wed. These damn Seasons are bleeding me dry, but the land right now isn’t enough of a dowry. It needs to be profitable land.
Will swallowed, finally understanding. That’s why you want the canal finished by September. You need to show that the canal is done and working properly.
Lawton nodded. That’s right. And that’s where you come in. You’ve got to complete it by the beginning of the fall Season.
Can’t be done, my lord.
Are you sure? Lawton challenged as he offered up the stack of papers. Look at this and tell me you can’t get it done.
Will took it slowly, wariness keeping his movements slow. Then he looked down, reading the legal document carefully. But no matter how many times he read it, the message was still the same. But just in case he didn’t understand, Lawton explained it.
I’ve carved off a piece of farmland for you, Will. It’s good land, and once the canal’s done, it’ll be worth a small fortune.
Will’s mouth went dry. He knew the farm, knew the dimensions as they were set there in black and white. It was a good, solid piece of land.
You’ll get it free and clear. It won’t go into Josephine’s dowry. It’ll be yours. Lawton pushed to his feet just to emphasize his next words. Yours, Will. Not your brother’s nor any other damn fool’s. You’ll have that land if you get the canal done by the fall Season.
Why? Will rasped. Why would you offer me this?
Lawton smiled, the expression almost sly. To give you incentive. Then he shrugged. And because you deserve it. A place of your own. Something that can’t be sold out from under you. He grunted as he dropped back into his chair. It’s a damn shame you weren’t born the Crowle heir. I doubt I’d be sitting here if you were. But that’s the way it is sometimes. Life doesn’t do what’s right.
I get the land if the canal is finished by September, Will repeated.
Lawton nodded. And no one can touch it. Not even Viscount Thrupp.
Will jerked, momentarily thrown. Who is Viscount Thrupp?
Oh. Didn’t I say? Lawton leaned back with a self-satisfied smirk on his face. Mr. Alastair Montgomery, the future Viscount Thrupp, is going to be my new son-in-law. He’s Josephine’s intended.