The Deserted Heart - Unmarriageable, Book 1
Light, fun Regency romance from Mary Lancaster.
Welcome to the Hart Inn, a lucky house where love always seems to blossom, whatever the obstacles...
Unmarriageable? Or simply unusual?
There can only be one reason for the proud Duke of Alvan’s proposed visit to Audley Park. He means to offer for Lord Overton’s beautiful daughter, Thomasina, thus saving the family’s waning fortune. In the midst of the hectic preparations for his arrival, Overton’s least marriageable daughter Charlotte remembers to collect her young brothers from school for the holidays.
When fog forces them to spend the night at the Hart Inn, they are astonished to find the house deserted, save for one other enigmatic traveller who deals most capably with armed intruders. Drawn to their unconventional new friend, Charlotte enlists his help to solve the mystery.
Amidst the upheaval of the duke’s visit, to say nothing of the chaos caused by Charlotte’s unmanageable pet terrier, the Hart becomes the focus of nefarious doings, kidnappings and romantic entanglements. For Charlotte is unwise enough to fall hopelessly in love with her sister’s intended husband, and the duke hides too many secrets of his own.
Will they find their happily ever after with each other?
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"a delightful heroine... full of diverse adventure, with romance being only one steamy thread." - InDTale
"Wickedly wonderful! ...I absolutely loved this story! ...great fun" - Amazon
"a fun story with mystery, drama, and humor" - Amazon
"Delightful read...so vivid" - Amazon
"The humor in it sneaks up on you... If I could give this 10 stars, I would." - Amazon
Charlotte jumped down from the coach and peered into the swirling mist. Her brothers clambered down behind her.
“Don’t let the dog out yet,” she warned.
“He’s still lying across Nurse and growling from a safe distance,” Richard reported.
“It’s as well poor Nurse is still asleep,” Charlotte commented.
“Is this really an inn?” Richard said doubtfully. “They’re not exactly rushing to serve us, are they?”
“I ex…pect they can’t see us,” Charlotte replied, the slight hesitation in her speech all that now remained from her painful childhood stammer. She turned, calling to the coachman, “John, this is the Hart is it not?”
“Yes, it is,” the coachman said, lumbering down from his box. “Here, Master George. You hold the horses while I go and scare up the innkeeper.”
John Coachman vanished into the mist, the tendrils closing over him like some opaque sea.
“It’s like porridge,” Horatio said admiringly. He swiped at it with both hands. “Who wants a game of hide-and-seek in the porridge?”
Charlotte reached out and seized his collar. “Not yet,” she said mildly. “Look! The mist moved and I caught a glimpse of a ...building! John must know this place very well.”
“He probably drinks here on his day off,” Richard suggested, “where no one knows him or can report him to Papa.”
“That is…probably slander,” Charlotte said in a distracted way. “He told me he met his wife here.” She wanted to follow John, but was unwilling to leave her over-lively brothers playing in the fog close to cliffs. At least, she thought they were close to cliffs. The very silence of the place, which seemed to be due to more than simply the muffling effect of the mist, piqued her curiosity.
“Footsteps!” Horatio exclaimed as the echoing sound drifted toward them. “Halt, who goes there?”
“I do,” John Coachman said dryly. “But I can’t find a trace of anyone else. Looks like the whole house is empty.”
“Drat,” Charlotte responded with a scowl. It was not safe to travel farther until the mist lifted. “Is it all locked up?”
“No, anyone can go in—though there’s no one about but us. Looks like they’ve only popped out for a couple of hours. Just all at once, which is no way to keep a thriving inn,” he finished with stern disapproval.
“Then I think we should go inside and wait for them to return,” Charlotte said firmly. “Richard, wake Nurse and put Spring on the leash. John, will you need help looking after the horses?”
“No, Miss, I know my way around. Just you follow the path and you’ll soon be at the inn door. There’s a comfortable coffee room off to the left. I’ll find you there when I’ve settled the horses.”
Richard, being sensible, put the leash on the terrier and hauled him off Nurse’s lap before he woke her. Charlotte took the leash as Nurse woke with a mighty snort. The older boys helped her out and they walked up the barely visible path until a long, L-shaped building loomed out of the mist.
Charlotte pushed open the door and led the way inside.
The surrounding fog cast everything in a somewhat gloomy light, but the house appeared be clean, and the coffee room on the left looked cozy and comfortable. When everyone was inside, Charlotte dropped the leash, threw off her bonnet and old travelling cloak and knelt by the fire, which was built but not yet lit. With the tinderbox and spills from the hearth, she set about kindling it, while the boys encouraged Spring to run madly round the room, bouncing from lap to lap like a fluffy ball.
Nurse squawked in protest. “Make him stop, this instant!” she demanded.
The boys, clearly, were having too much fun to notice her. But Nurse was old and journeys were difficult enough for her now.
“Boys,” Charlotte said quietly.
With ill-grace, Richard caught the dog on his next bounce and hugged him close until he calmed down to mere demented face-licking.
George slouched over to Charlotte with some discontent. “Why did you bring her? She spoils all the fun and it’s not as if we need a nurse anymore!”
“No, but Mama was keen that I accompany you and she wouldn’t let me come without a female of some kind.” She didn’t have to say that no one else could be spared from a household already sparse of servants.
George grunted. “What poppycock when we’re all your brothers. And Richard is fifteen. He’s almost grown-up.”
Be kind to Nurse. She misses you all when you’re away at school.”
George gave a slightly sheepish grin. “Sorry. I was just pleased to see Spring, too.” His grin broadened. “And you, of course, Charlie.”
“Of course. I just don’t generally bounce around the room and make you laugh all the time.”
“He doesn’t do it all the time,” George pointed out. “He’s just excited.”
Since Spring had escaped Richard’s clutches and was now sniffing busily around the room, things quieted down.
“So, is he at Audley Park yet?” Richard asked suddenly.
“Who?” Charlotte asked absently.
“This great duke who wants to marry Tommie for some reason.”
Charlotte, satisfied with the fire’s progress, rose to her feet and dusted off her skirts. “You do know your eldest sister is an accredited beauty?” she said dryly. “She is well-born, well-mannered, and fashionable to boot. Why wouldn’t even a duke want to marry her?”
“Because she’s as poor as a church mouse,” Horatio contributed. “Are you hungry, Charlie? I’m starving.”
“Hopefully, the innkeeper will return soon,” Charlotte soothed. “And no, Richard, his grace has not yet arrived. He isn’t expected for a few days, but Mama has turned the whole house upside down to clean it and make it shine as best it can.”
“Don’t see the point,” George said. “It’s not as if they’re going to live with us.”
“No, and I believe his grace is well aware of our financial difficulties. I suppose he doesn’t care, being so wealthy himself.”
“And is Tommie happy about this?” Richard asked with a trace of anxiety.
Charlotte cast him a wry look. “About being a duchess?”
Richard laughed, for Thomasina had always said she would be a grand duchess one day. “Well, obviously she’d like that! But it would be better if she actually liked him.”
“I believe she does,” Charlotte assured him, although this was a matter that occasionally troubled her, too. In truth, Thomasina barely knew the Duke of Alvan, having met him only a handful of times. “She is very excited about the whole thing. So is everyone, since it will solve most of our current difficulties. And Henrie is positively desperate for her chance to solve the rest.”
Henrietta, Charlotte’s younger sister, was looking forward to her London debut in the coming Season. It was hoped she would make as good a match as Thomasina.
John Coachman came in shortly afterward, looking very disapproving. “No other horses in the stable,” he told them, “but plenty of hay, so ours are quite happy. It’ll be dark in an hour, too, so unless the mist lifts quickly, we’re going to be stuck here.”
“No sign of the innkeeper?” Charlotte said hopefully. “Or his wife?”
“There’s no one but us in the entire building.”
“Wretches,” Horatio said with feeling. “I’m so hungry I’d eat Spring…if he wasn’t so small.”
Spring wagged his tail hopefully as Charlotte stood up. “Come on, let’s see what we can scavenge from the kitchen.”
The kitchen, too, gave a definite impression of sudden departure. A covered beef stew sat by the stove, just waiting to be warmed up, and fresh bread, butter, cheese, and apples were discovered in the larder.
“We’ll just have that,” Charlotte said decisively, reaching for an apron hanging behind the door. “The fire is still glowing, so it shouldn’t take us long. Boys, find us plates and cutlery and take it up to the coffee room.”
She had just taken the warmed stew off the stove when George shouted with great excitement, “Someone’s coming!”
Charlotte, unwilling to be caught in another woman’s kitchen uninvited, whatever the difference in their status, wiped her hands on her apron and left the kitchen to explain her invasion.
“Is it all of them, do you think?” she asked John, who was peering out of the front door, George and Horatio at either shoulder.
“None of ‘em,” John said flatly. “If you mean the inn staff. It’s another guest.”
He stood back and a very superior looking man walked in carrying a valise. Of middle years and immaculately dressed, he was immediately recognizable as a gentleman’s gentleman.
“A bedchamber for my master,” this worthy flung at John. “He will also require a private parlor and dinner. Be so good as to see to the horses.”
John scratched his head. “Well, I’ll help with your horses but—”
Another man strode in behind the valet. Undoubtedly the master, he was younger, taller and much better looking. At least, he would have been without the haughty curl to his thin lips and the deep scowl on his dark brow. His face was lean, the cheekbones high and well defined, his nose thin, straight and aristocratic. But it was his cold, grey eyes that most captured Charlotte’s attention. Wintry and somehow disinterested, they seemed to belong to a man who cared nothing for anything or anyone. His grey overcoat was well cut and expensive looking and within it, he moved with superb grace and confidence.
In all, he was not the kind of man she would have chosen to share a deserted inn with. Or a fully staffed one.
“Give your ostlers a kick,” he advised John, his voice dry and deep. It was impossible to tell if the advice was humorous or if he expected it to be carried out. “I expect the weather muffled our arrival but the animals are tired and my coachman needs assistance.” His impatient gaze flicked from John to the bewildered boys to Charlotte. His gaze lightened somewhat, as if he recognized the promise of dinner on her stained apron.
“I have not booked ahead, but the mist obliges us to stay the night,” he said impatiently. “I take it you have room?”
“Oh, there’s room,” Charlotte said fervently.
At that, Horatio grinned, dashed across the hall, and flung open a door next to the coffee room. Obviously, he’d been exploring. “Here’s a parlor, sir!”
“I’ll help John with the horses,” George said cheerfully and went off. The valet dropped the valise and hurried after him, presumably to make sure his master’s possessions were treated with respect.
The master strode past Horatio into the parlor with a curt nod.
“I’ll dine here, if you please,” he threw over his shoulder at Charlotte.
Laughter caught in her throat as she glanced down at her apron. She probably still had the sooty smudge on her nose, too. Oh well, she couldn’t let the man go hungry. Or inflict her family upon him without warning. No one was at their best without dinner.
She went back to the kitchen and started gathering a meal together on a tray. She found a jug of ale, although she supposed he would prefer wine. She would look for that later. She ladled out a generous helping of stew, a few slices of bread and butter. Then she hefted the tray and carried it out into the hall.
Richard stood at the coffee room door, frowning. Raising his eyebrows, he jerked his head toward the parlor.
“Knock and open it for me,” Charlotte commanded.
Richard’s frown returned, but he obeyed, throwing the door wide for her to sail in.
Either Horatio or the gentleman himself had lit candles, which illuminated a pleasant enough parlor and the figure who sat in the winged armchair, a sheaf of papers in his hands. His coat was unbuttoned, his cravat hanging loose about his throat. The sight surprised her for some reason. Perhaps because beneath the perfect clothes, there was a hint of muscle in the strong column of his throat, causing her to wonder if he was more than the stuffed shirt he appeared.
He glanced up at Charlotte’s entry but said nothing.
“Here you are, sir,” she said cheerfully, depositing the tray on the nearby table with some relief. “It doesn’t look much but it tastes good. Do you mind ale?”
A frown tugged at his brow. “No, I don’t mind ale.”
She smiled at him. “Excellent, then I’ll leave you to your dinn—” She broke off, catching sight of the unlit fire in the grate. “Goodness, no wonder it’s cold in here.”
With rapid efficiency, she dropped down by the hearth and, ignoring his scrutiny, set about bringing the fire to life.
“There,” she said with satisfaction and jumped to her feet. “That should be more comfortable.”
His gaze was fixed on her face. “Thank you. Now you have a smudge on both cheeks.”
She swiped her face against her shoulder, trying not to blush. “I’ll bring you some cheese in a little,” she said in a rush and hurried out of the room, closing the door behind her.
Richard still stood where she’d left him, scowling. “What the devil are you about, Charlie?”
“He’s hungry, just like us,” Charlotte said firmly, “and there’s plenty to go around. Are the others back from the stables, yet?”
The younger boys seemed to be having a great time pretending to run the inn. As they ate, George in particular was full of praise for the gentleman’s bang-up horses.
“Though to be sure, the innkeeper’s going to get a big surprise when he comes home and finds his house full of guests and his stable full of horses.”
“Where is the wretched man?” Charlotte wondered, swallowing the last of her stew and reaching for some bread to mop up the delicious juices. “And what are we supposed to do about bedchambers?”
“Well, that valet person has nabbed the best one for his lordship,” Richard said disgustedly.
“Is he a lordship?” Charlotte asked with interest.
“No idea who the devil he is, but—”
“Watch your language, Master Richard,” Nurse said severely. “Your sister is not a schoolfellow and neither am I.”
“Sorry,” Richard muttered, casting his eyes to heaven.
Charlotte swallowed her bread and stood. “I’ll fetch us some cheese,” she said, “and when we’ve finished, we’ll sort out bedchambers. You’ll be exhausted, Nurse.”
“Not I,” said the old nurse stoutly.
Charlotte put a plate of scraps on the floor for the dog and gathered up the rest of the used plates and cutlery.
“This isn’t fitting,” Nurse observed.
“But it is necessary,” Charlotte said cheerfully.
Depositing the used plates in the kitchen, she collected the cheese, apples, and nuts, and returned to the coffee room, where she cut a portion for their fellow guest and arranged it on a plate with an apple and a handful of nuts.
“For his lordship?” Richard asked with disapproval. “We’re not obliged to feed him, you know.”
“Of course, we’re not,” Charlotte agreed with a mischievous smile. “But it’s quite fun being the innkeeper’s daughter.” She whisked out of the room with the cheese plate.
With sudden inspiration, she crossed the hall to the eerily empty taproom and found a bottle of what claimed to be brandy, which she also took to the parlor.
He was seated at the table, although to her surprise, he had retied his cravat and fastened his coat. What’s more, he stood up as she entered.
“I found some brandy,” she blurted, nervous for no obvious reason as she deposited the tray on the table. There was something altogether too proud about his posture. “I thought you might like it.”
“I doubt it,” he said dryly. “But I thank you for the effort. Tell me—” Before he could finish, a sudden explosion of noise erupted from the coffee room next door. A joyful bark, followed by the thud of a heavy object—or body—on the floor, and then a door slammed.
“Oh, no,” said Charlotte.
A small, furry whirlwind hurled itself into the parlor and leapt straight into Charlotte’s arms. She caught him automatically, received an enthusiastic slobber across her face, and a demented tail wag before the terrier broke free again, and bounced onto the stranger’s chest.
“Oh, you awful animal!” Charlotte exclaimed, reaching for the dog who had, by now, discovered the stranger to be an excellent stepping stone to the table and a little extra dinner. He was scrambling over the man’s shoulder when George burst into the room.
“Sorry, Charlie!” George panted, “Horry left the door ajar and he bolted out before we could catch him. Oh, the devil!” He uttered the last as Spring leapt for the table.
However, before either Charlotte or George could grab him, the stranger reached behind and caught the dog in both hands.
“Well?” he said sternly, holding Spring in front of him. “Are we on such terms that you think you can help yourself to my dinner?”
Spring wagged his tail and looked sheepish.
“He doesn’t think at all, sir,” George observed. “We think he’s insane, but Charlie would keep him.”
Spring’s tongue shot out and licked his captor’s nose. The stranger’s lip twitched.
Encouraged, Charlotte said, “There isn’t a mean b-bone in his…body. He’s just too excitable.”
“Much,” agreed the stranger, bending his tall body to place the dog on the floor. George hastily backed to the door to close it. “Sit,” the man commanded. “And stay.”
Charlotte almost laughed at such wild optimism. But to her astonishment, Spring did sit, although his tail wagged so hard she could feel the draught.
“Good God,” George uttered. “Do you see that, Charlie?”
“Oh, I do,” Charlotte replied, awed.
“There, I knew you were good at heart,” the man said to Spring and, swiping a small leftover piece of meat from his plate, he fed it to him. Spring gazed up at him adoringly.
Charlotte took the leash from George and slipped it over the dog’s head. “Thank you, sir,” she managed. “And my apologies.”
“I suspect the gratitude should all be mine,” the gentleman said obscurely as she led the dog to the door, “Might I have a word?”
Charlotte hesitated, then passed the leash to George. “Let’s try to keep him calm now —no more games with him.”
George sighed. “Very well.” He cast a quick grin over his shoulder at the stranger. “Sorry, sir, but you must admit he is funny.”
“He is,” the gentleman agreed, with a faint twitch of his lip. He seemed not to be a great smiler. But George grinned back all the same and led the dog out. He only pranced a little.
Charlotte held the door open for them, but did not close it behind them.
The gentleman indicated the chair opposite his own. “Please, join me.”
Her eyebrows flew up. “Oh, no, I couldn’t do that.”
“Just for a few minutes.” He met her gaze. “You have no idea how desperate I am to know what’s going on.”
“Going on?” she repeated, playing for time.
“Exactly. Come, sit down. You may share my cheese if you wish, and I wouldn’t make such an offer to just anyone.”
She continued to regard him uncertainly from just inside the door.
He sighed. “Madam, you’re no more the innkeeper’s wife than I am. Or his daughter or sister. In fact, I begin to suspect he is not even the innkeeper but your servant.”
“Well, if you know all that, there is nothing for me to explain,” Charlotte said at once.
His eyebrows flew up. “On the contrary, there is everything to explain! Where is the wretched innkeeper, and why are you serving me dinner?”
She took a step farther into the room. “Truthfully? I have no idea where the innkeeper is, or any of his family or servants. The inn was deserted when we arrived. The …boys were hungry and we gave up waiting. So, I went to the kitchen myself and heated up the stew. It seemed only fair to share since you were in the same…boat as us. As it were.”
“And the boys I’ve seen are your brothers?” he guessed.
“For their sins or mine.”
“Are there any more of you?”
“There is our old nurse. And John the coachman who helped you with the horses.” She swallowed. “We didn’t mean to mislead you. Exactly. It’s just we make somewhat chaotic company—especially with Spring!”
A flash of amusement warmed the stranger’s cold eyes. “Spring? Is that his name? I’m guessing you didn’t call him after the season of his birth.”
Encouraged, Charlotte laughed. “Indeed not. He was the runt of the litter and I foolishly imagined he was small enough to make a pretty lapdog for my mother or my sister. But by three months old, he could jump to head height and caused chaos wherever he went. He is virtually untrainable, although I suppose we laugh at him too much to be very strict. I have to say, you were excellent with him.”
For an instant, the stranger looked startled by such praise, though when he blinked, the expression vanished into one of mere thoughtfulness.
He stirred, abruptly changing the subject. “And what is your theory about out absent hosts?”
“That they all went out—perhaps to a wedding or something the whole community might attend—and then stayed put because of the mist.”
“But this inn must be fairly well-used. Why would they not leave someone in charge?”
“Perhaps they did,” Charlotte suggested, “but without supervision he simply took himself off.”
“So, they are all lost in the mist while strangers like you and me found our way here?”
“When you say it like that, it doesn’t make much sense,” she allowed. “But John does know the house. It was his idea to come here when we realized we shouldn’t get home tonight and would have to put up somewhere.” An involuntary smile began to form on her lips. “You think there is some great mystery here,” she guessed.
“Well, I hope for one,” she confided. “I often do, though I am usually disappointed by some thoroughly mundane explanation.”
An amused glint entered his steady eyes. “A lady after my own heart. There is nothing more lowering than discovering one’s dinner being late is due not to foreign spies or some dastardly murder plot, but to the scullery maid dropping a previous incarnation of one’s meal on the floor.”
“Exactly,” Charlotte said warmly. She hesitated, then, “If you wish, sir, you are welcome to join us in the coffee room, though we shall not be offended should you choose peace.”
One black eyebrow lifted. “Peace over mystery? Never.” He lifted the tray from the table and inclined his head for her to precede him. “Lead on, Miss…?”
“Charlotte,” she said thoughtlessly. Because of her difficulty speaking the letter b, she often missed out her surname when she could. Fortunately, Thomasina, as the eldest sister, was officially Miss Maybury, while Charlotte was merely Miss Charlotte Maybury.
But her reticence seemed to amuse her new friend, who murmured, “Of course. Why spoil such a mysterious evening with commonplaces like surnames?”