The Weary Heart  -  Unmarriageable, Book 5

WearyHeart-web.jpg

Light, fun Regency romance from Mary Lancaster.

Welcome to the Hart Inn, a lucky house where love always seems to blossom, whatever the obstacles...

Pride versus passion

Sir Marcus Dain lives for adventure. Most other things, including his large estates and his inevitable marriage, he considers wearily to be matters of duty rather than pleasure. Until he encounters intriguing, self-possessed governess, Miss Helen Milsom, at the Hart Inn.

Sparks fly in terms of both temper and desire, but something in this quite unsuitable woman touches his cynical heart. Then old promises and devious, matchmaking mamas get in the way.

Helen, having lost her chance of marriage ten years ago, is resigned to spinsterhood. Holding onto pride, which has seen her through many difficulties, she fights her inappropriate attraction, even when she is falsely accused and loses her position, and Sir Marcus offers her only safety.
 
Misunderstandings and the villainous behaviour of Helen’s one-time betrothed, combine to part them, but Marcus will not give up and sets out to remove all the obstacles to their happy-ever-after 

 

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Chapter One

 

Rounding the bend in the drive, Miss Helen Milsom was dismayed to see the shutters closed over every window in the house.

 

She halted, dropping her bag on the frosty path. “Oh, no.”

Well, that explained the failure of the coach to meet her at Finsborough and her need to accept the spare seat in Jake Tapper’s ancient gig in order to reach the gates of Audley Park. The family had gone somewhere else without telling her.

There were, she reminded herself, many advantages to her position as governess to Lord and Lady Overton’s children. The most important were her charges, the slightly strange but lovable Eliza Maybury, and her brothers when they were home from school. Remuneration was as reasonable as her duties in a house of careless good nature, and she knew only too well that her position could be decidedly worse.

But today, after a leave of absence to nurse her sick aunt, she had returned at exactly the date and time agreed, only to discover they had forgotten her. That was less appealing, their impulsive behavior a little less charming.

Determinedly, she picked up the carpetbag once more and trudged on to the front door where, as she’d suspected, there was no answer to her vigorous knocking. With fading hope, she walked around to the coach house and stables, wondering rather wildly if she could sleep in a horse stall until morning, for it would be dark soon.

It was with sheer relief she saw the bent figure of Old John, John Coachman’s father, emerge from the stables.

“Ah, there you are, Miss,” he greeted her, touching his floppy hat. “Welcome back! Got a letter for you from her ladyship.”

 

“Thank you,” she returned mechanically, unfolding the short missive he produced from the depths of his overcoat.

 

It was short and dashed, explaining they had gone to the Earl of Silford’s house for a couple of weeks, and that she should join them there. Lord Silford was the grandfather-in-law of their daughter, Henrietta, who was recently married. Presumably, all the children had gone with them since Helen was required. She knew the boys were back from school early for Christmas.

“Um—I don’t suppose her ladyship told you how I was to get to Steynings?” she asked Old John, who grinned.

“I’ll drive you in the old carriage.”

Helen groaned aloud. She had spent the last two days and a night squashed inside two different but equally overcrowded stagecoaches. The idea of spending this night, when she was dog-tired and travel-bruised, traveling further in a bone-shaker of a vehicle that was liable to lose a wheel at any moment was entirely unappealing.

“Not tonight,” he said apologetically. “Don’t see too well in the dark. But if we start first thing, we’ll make Steynings easily before dark.”

“Then where can I spend tonight? Would your wife have a spare bed?”

“Oh, no, Miss, wouldn’t be suitable at all. Take you to the Hart. Just let me harness the horses.”

Three hours later, her whole body aching, even her teeth, Helen staggered down from the coach and walked stiffly up to the inn’s front door. All she required of life in that moment was a hot drink, a warm bed, and blessed stillness.

The house was busy. A wall of loud voices and laughter surged from behind the taproom door on her right. There were even a few men deep in conversation in the coffee room.

Lily Villin, the innkeeper’s daughter, came tripping out of the private parlor at the far end of the hall and caught sight of her. At once, she swerved toward her, smiling in welcome. “Good evening, Miss! Have you brought the children for supper before they go home to bed?”

Lily and her parents were quite familiar with Helen, who had stayed at the inn last summer with a bout of influenza—while her charges got into all sorts of mischief, a guilty memory Helen still struggled with.

“Oh, no, the children are with the family at Steynings. I will join them there, but the house is shut up, so I shall stay here tonight.”

 

“Oh, dear,” Lily said uneasily.

Helen’s heart sank. “You’re not telling me you have no bedchambers free?”

“I’m sharing with the scullery maid,” Lily confided.

“Drat,” Helen said, all but sinking to her knees with weariness. “I have nowhere else to go. I suppose Lady Verne might take pity on me.”

“The Vernes have gone to Steynings, too,” Lily said. “And the Laceys. I suppose the vicar might…but bless you, Miss, you look exhausted, fit for nothing but a bowl of soup and bed.”

Helen rubbed her forehead, trying to think. She didn’t even know if Old John was driving home in the dark or staying at the inn. He would be comfortable enough bedding down with the ostlers, but unfortunately such accommodation wasn’t open to her. She wished she had stuck with her original plan to share one of the horse stalls at Audley Park.

But Lily brightened suddenly. “Let me speak to this gentleman. I am sure he will be moved by your plight.”

With a surge of hope, Helen followed her to the parlor door, more than happy to plead her own case. But Lily stood in the doorway, bobbing a curtsey to the occupant, and Helen simply dropped her bag at her feet and waited.

“Excuse me, sir,” Lily began. “I was wondering, since you know how busy we are, if you’d mind very much if I made you up a bed here in the parlor? We’d see you were quite private and comfortable, with—”

“Yes, I would mind,” snapped a deep, male voice. “We agreed, I believe, on the private parlor and a bedchamber.”

 

“Indeed, we did, sir, but I have a young lady here, quite alone and in need of a bedchamber, and I thought that you, being a gentleman—”

“—might give my bed up to some wench I neither know nor wish to and who is clearly no better than she should be? Well, I won’t.”

 

Helen’s cheeks burned with indignation. How dare he make such assumptions, let alone, voice them to the innkeeper’s daughter?

 

Lily, too, seemed stunned. “But, sir—”

“I’ve answered you, girl. Be gone!”

“Come away, Lily,” Helen commanded before she could bite her tongue. “The wench may be no better than she should be, but she still refuses to demean herself by pleading for common civility from any rude person who miscalls himself a gentleman.”

 

Lily jumped back out of the room, looking as if she didn’t know whether to be terrified or burst into laughter. Helen bent and picked up her bag.

A pair of shining black boots appeared in front of it.

Helen straightened, taking in the strong, muscled legs within the skin-tight pantaloons, the well-cut blue coat above, worn over a plain buff waistcoat, and then the snowy white cravat, plainly tied, and the dark, sardonic face above. He was very tall.

 

Her heart skipped a beat, though she refused to be intimidated. The “rude person” stood just outside the doorway, his hard-grey eyes unblinking as they met hers. He was not a particularly handsome man. His features were too harsh, his mouth too uncompromising, and the shadowy stubble around his jaw gave him an air of rakish carelessness. Nor was he particularly young, perhaps just on the wrong side of forty. But he did have an undeniable presence.

“Madam,” he said curtly. “I perceive you expect an apology of me.”

“On the contrary, I expect nothing of you except further incivility. Good evening.”

As she turned away, the gentleman’s lips twitched. “Incivility? I was not the one listening at doors.”

Indignantly, she swung back on him. “No, you were the one speaking loudly enough to be heard as far as the taproom!”

 

“You exaggerate as well.”

“As well as what?” she demanded dangerously.

“As well as hectoring me and demanding my bedchamber.”

“Sir, be assured your bedchamber is entirely safe from my marauding. I would as soon sleep in the cellar as accept anything from you.”

“In that case, I shall bid you goodnight.” He stepped back into the doorway before adding thoughtfully, “If one might spend a good night in the cellar. I suppose it would depend on the quality of the brandy.”

Helen’s eyes narrowed. For the first time, it entered her head that he was deliberately provoking her for his own amusement—a suspicion confirmed when Lily scolded, “Please do stop your teasing, sir. A simple apology would do.”

The gentleman leaned his broad shoulder against the door frame. “We have already established that the lady does not wish an apology.”

“I said expect an apology,” Helen retorted. “Though you may imagine my gratification at being promoted to lady from mere wench.”

 

“Then I suppose if I were to grant you my bedchamber—along with my absence, I hasten to add before more serious charges can be leveled against me—I might rise from rude person to gentleman in your estimation?”

“Hardly,” Helen snapped, sure now she was being baited. “A true gentleman would have taken pity on any female he could help, not merely one whom he discovers to be a gentlewoman.”

“You have very strict definitions. How then would you define a lady? By her wealth or speech?” His eyes raked her. “By her dress, her baggage, the number of her servants and attendants? Or perhaps how well she civilly solicits assistance from gentlemen?”

 

Helen’s face flamed. “A man who cannot recognize a lady is no gentleman. There is clearly no hope for you.”

As soon as the words were out, she realized anger had driven her too far. But to her surprise, the stranger only let out a short bark of laughter.

“You are right on that score. Lily, have my man bring down my things, and I shall accept your offer of a bed in the parlor.”

 

Helen’s mouth dropped open, which he observed with a crooked smile.

“Thank you, sir,” Lily said at once. “I’ll bring your dinner directly, too. Miss, what will you have?”

“Share mine,” the gentleman said abruptly. “It will give everyone time to shift my bags, and frankly, you look ready to collapse.”

 

She was. But at his mention of the fact, she straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin. “Thank you, but I prefer to eat alone.”

 

“In my bedchamber?” he taunted. “Think nothing of it. I perceive you are afraid of me and my rough manners.”

 

“I detect no manners at all!”

A couple of men fell out of the taproom, distracting her, and both her tormentor and Lily drew her inside the parlor and closed the door before she registered what was happening.

“You don’t want to be standing out there in public any longer, Miss,” Lily told her. “They’re all three sheets to the wind if Dad is throwing them out. Look, despite his odd humors, Sir Marcus here is a gentleman. And as soon as you’ve eaten and his bags are brought down here, I’ll take you up to the bedchamber.”

Helen wasn’t sure whether it was inertia or his accusation of being afraid of him, but she dropped her bag and sank into the chair by the fire.

“This is Sir Marcus Dain,” Lily told her, already halfway out the door again. “Sir, Miss Milsom, who is governess at Audley Park.”

 

Surprisingly, he didn’t say anything for a moment, and when she looked at him, his frowning gaze was on her face. Lily had already left the room.

Helen roused herself to say, “I suppose you are thinking a governess is not a lady.”

“Why would I think anything so nonsensical? I was in fact thinking you are to be congratulated on the quick wit and natural manners of your charges.”

“You know the Overton children?” she blurted.

“I am acquainted with the Duchess of Alvan and Lady Dunstan. And Lady Sydney, of course.”

“Sadly, I can claim no credit for the married daughters,” she admitted. “Although I like them very much, they grew up while Lord and Lady Overton lived abroad. My employment with the family began less than a year ago.”

“And do you tell Lord Overton off in the same manner you do me?” he asked with apparent interest.

“No, for his lordship has shown me nothing but courtesy.”

“If that is so,” he said, sitting astride a wooden dining chair and resting his arms along its back, “how do you come to be alone at a public inn with no reserved bedchamber?”

Helen flushed. “Clearly, there was some misunderstanding.”

Fortunately, perhaps, Lily entered then with a tray of food that made her mouth water and her stomach rumble. And although she meant only to eat a bowl of ham soup, she found herself hungry for the pie and puddings that followed it.

Until she was halfway through the second course, she barely spoke. Neither did Sir Marcus, who addressed himself to his supper with equal concentration. Curiously, the silence was quite peaceful, and Helen realized almost with surprise, that she no longer felt anger or even tension in his company.

“Thank you,” she said with difficulty, “for sharing your supper with me.”

“It is of no moment,” he assured her. “I shall merely send the account to Lord Overton.”

She blinked. “No, you won’t,” she said dryly. “You must think me either gullible or hen-witted.”

A smile flickered across the hard face. “Neither, I assure you. On the contrary, I am amazed at Lady Overton’s perception in engaging so spirited a lady to teach her children. If they are anything like her elder daughters, they would run rings round a governess less…forceful.”

“You make me sound like a harridan. Or an army sergeant major.”

“Merely a lady of character. Though I suppose it is possible to be both.”

“A lady and a sergeant major?”

“A lady and a harridan.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Do you wish me to accept such a charge?”

“Not unless you wish to. I was thinking of several of my aunts.”

She almost laughed, until she saw the totally unexpected twinkle in his eyes encouraging her and immediately straightened her face. She was too uncertain of him to drop her guard.

“Smile if you wish,” he urged. “I shan’t hold it against you.”

“I gather you dislike your aunts, as well,” she observed, returning to her meal.

“As well as whom?” he asked, in deliberate echo of her earlier words to him.

“Me,” she said dryly.

One eyebrow shot up. “But I don’t dislike you in the slightest.”

She couldn’t resist curling her lip. “Now that you’ve decided I am not a wench no better than she should be?”

“That has nothing to do with anything,” he said with a hint of impatience. “Except my own ill-temper and occasional bouts of stupidity.”

She blinked. “Was that an apology?”

He considered, laying down his knife and fork and sitting back in his chair. “More of an explanation, which you can use to beat me at your leisure. But for what it’s worth, I am sorry for my unforgivable rudeness.”

He held her gaze, perhaps to convince her of his sincerity, though he did not seem the kind of man to care much for anyone’s opinion. A jolt of awareness shot through her, for he was an imposing man, a large, physically attractive man… And she had no business dining with him, bandying words with him as though this was some game, some stage play where she was not the Overtons’ governess.

“Thank you,” she managed.

Lily came in to take their plates. “There’s my mother’s famous plum pudding to follow,” she offered.

“Oh, not for me,” Helen said hastily, rising to her feet. “I must retire, for I have an early start tomorrow. Sir, whatever my hasty words—or yours!—I do thank you sincerely for the use of your chamber and for sharing your supper. Good night.”

He had risen with her and inclined his head a little sardonically at her civil words. “My pleasure, Miss Milsom,” he said politely. His lips quirked. “Or at least most of it is.”

This time, she allowed herself to laugh as she escaped.

All content Copyright Mary Lancaster, 2017.

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