AMAZON

Regency Romance

Eugenia Hawthorne, daughter of a deceitful highwayman, saves the life of the Earl of Trentham after he’s deposited at her door suffering from a bullet wound. Outsmarting her father, the earl becomes her guardian and takes Eugenia to live as his ward in his beautiful country estate, Lilac Court. But what does he really want from her? It seems there’s a mystery attached to an emerald necklace, which he wishes her to wear at a London ball. Could Eugenia be the daughter of a powerful duke, but born on the wrong side of the blanket? Her mother refused to tell her.
As Brendan, Earl of Trentham, works to bring down a hated foe, he and his sister instruct Eugenia in the ways of the ton. She is beautiful and, despite the cloud over her birth, will be desired by many men. Why doesn’t that prospect make him happy?

 

Reviews:

A Reader’s Opinion
“The Earl and the Highwayman’s Daughter is indeed a Cinderella story with Eugenia as our young beauty and the Earl as her “prince.” I was delighted to spend a few hours with the characters while they navigated their way through society’s dos and don’ts, all in the name of hope and sweet romance.”
Books & Benches

Excerpt:

Chapter One

 

Olverston Wood, Kent, England 1819

 

BRENDAN FANSHAW, 5th Earl of Trentham, shoved a dueling pistol at his groom with a quick sidelong glance. “You’ve had experience with pistols?”

Neal Pollitt eyed it, his fingers flexing around the walnut grip. “Only hunting rifles, I’m afraid.” He hunkered down beside Brendan. “Not in your league, milord. Never seen nothing like that shot of yours that brought that scoundrel down in full flight.”

The moonlight painted the grim scene in silver and deep purple shadows and alighted on the body of the dead highwaymen spread-eagled on the ground.

“Served under Wellington at Waterloo.” Brendan reloaded his pistol, the acrid smell of gunpowder stinging his nostrils. “Never expected to use these, though. A present from my father-in-law. They were intended for a different purpose.”

After the coachman was shot, the horses bolted and dragged the coach off the road into a ditch. The young lad traveling on the box with him had run for his life and disappeared into the trees.

There was little sound bar the rustle of the wind through the leaves and the distressed whicker of the two horses. “I’ll get the horses, milord.”

“Check the coachman too if you can.”

With Brendan covering him, Neal darted out and unhitched the horses. He led them back to where they hid behind the coach.

“The coachman’s dead. The horses don’t seem to have suffered any injuries, milord. None that I can see at any rate.”

The barrage of shots they’d expected never came. Neal grunted, his gaze raking the dense trees of Olverston Wood. “I wonder if the rogues have taken off.”

“Might be that they don’t want to give away their position. I doubt they’re finished with us,” Brendan said. “Lean pickings to be found here. I carry all my valuables with me. They won’t like that we’ve killed their partner and left them empty-handed.”

“No, they’re a persistent lot, these scoundrels, milord.”

“I prefer not to wait for them to either give up or regroup. Let’s get out of here. We’ll have to ride the horses bareback.”

“Take the bay, milord. It’s more accommodating, having been ridden postilion.”

Brendan gave a tight smile. “I won’t argue, Neal, not after you won that race on Ajax for me at Newmarket.”

Spooked and nervous, the horses shied as they prepared to mount them. Brendan patted the bay’s neck and leapt onto its back. Neal fought to steady the roan as it sidled and reared in an attempt to throw him off. Speaking in a soothing tone, he gathered up the long rein and turned the horse’s head.

Brendan eased his horse into a canter. “We won’t return to Chatterton Hall or Canterbury, although it’s closer. That’s what the highwaymen would expect us to do. We’ll take the road to Maidstone and find a coaching inn where we can get fresh horses.”

They rode as fast as the poor light allowed. The moon played with them, lighting their way and then plunging it into darkness. Nothing other than the rustle of bushes, the bark of a fox, and the clatter of their mounts’ hooves over the stony ground pierced the quiet.

Hope of some prize must lurk in the blackguards’ hearts. Were they waiting for an opportune time to attack? Brendan leaned forward and urged the horse to go faster. The sooner they were out of this damned wood, the better.

The ground thudded. Horses were hard ridden behind them. A warning shiver climbed Brendan’s neck as two shots echoed through the forest. He grunted at the flash of hot pain slicing through his shoulder. Gritting his teeth, he tried not to slacken off the pace. After they’d ridden another half a mile or so, the leathers slipped through his fingers as blood seeped down his hand. He’d been confident he’d stay on the horse, but a sudden wave of dizziness hit him. He slumped over the horse’s neck as Neal angled his horse alongside and grabbed the bridle. The reins dropped from his slack fingers.

“Hang on there, milord. We’re almost to the end of this cursed wood. I doubt they’ll follow us onto open ground. Their kind prefer to attack where they can escape into the trees.”

Brendan bit down hard, struggling to stay conscious. It took every ounce of his strength to stay upright. The sky lightened to slate as they galloped out of the wood into clear air. On either side of the road, meadows rolled away painted silver under the moon. The hope of escape drove him on. He tried to listen for sounds of movement but could hear only the buzzing in his ears. His vision blurred, and he feared he would faint.

Neal led his horse around a sharp bend. “Hold on, milord. I see candlelight up ahead at a farmhouse. Someone’s awake.”

The last of Brendan’s strength ebbed away. He was dimly aware that Neil led the horses through the gate and pulled them up outside a wattle-and-daub, thatched farmhouse.

He was falling. After a pair of strong arms caught him, he knew no more.

***

 

At the banging on the door, Eugenia jumped up from the table where she’d been sewing by the light of a candle. She seldom felt vulnerable here alone at night, aware that her father’s reputation would protect her. Still, the feel of the heavy pistol in her hands made her braver. She unbolted the door a crack and poked the pistol through it. “Who’s there?”

“Don’t shoot, miss. We’re in need of help. My master’s been shot.”

A wiry-haired man stood on the step, struggling to hold up a much bigger man, who sagged in his arms. Blood dripped down from his hand onto the step.

Eugenia opened the door wide. “Bring him inside.” He hefted the man into the room. “Lay him on the settle by the fire.”

She lit the lantern and went outside to check the road. There was no sound of approaching riders and nothing moved in the shadows beyond the arc of light. She shut the door and eased the bolt across.

“We were set upon by highwaymen in the forest,” he explained while laying the man down on the wooden seat. “Milord’s been shot. I suppose it’s too much to hope there’s a surgeon in the village?”

“Just an apothecary. I know more than he does. I’ll tend to him. Help me get his coat off.”

Moving him gently, they peeled off the man’s greatcoat and dark blue tailcoat, exposing his waistcoat and fine linen shirt beneath, soaked with blood. “His lordship, did you say?”

“Earl of Trentham.”

She took her scissors from her sewing box. “How long ago was he shot?”

“Not long ago and not far from here. If you can manage without me, I’ll put the horses in the barn. They’re a signpost to our whereabouts for anyone that’s looking.”

She nodded and cut the shirt away from the wound exposing his lordship’s well-muscled chest. He was a healthy specimen. That might stand him in good stead. The ball had passed through the soft flesh high on his shoulder and bled freely.

“At least we don’t have to dig for the ball.” Eugenia poured water from the kettle on the hob into a bowl. She added cold water from a jug, soaped her hands, then dried them thoroughly. What evil was afoot this night? She feared for her father. The man came inside and shut the door behind him. “What is your name, sir?”

“Neal Pollitt, miss. I’m his lordship’s groom.”

“Mr. Pollitt, take this cloth and press it against the wound. I’m going to pick some herbs.”

She knew every inch of her garden even in the dark and located what she sought with little trouble. Her arms full of yarrow, Lady’s mantle, lavender and garlic, she returned to the house.

Pollitt stood by his master’s side. “We should cauterize the wound.”

“Yes. I’ll do it if you hold him down.”

Pollitt nodded at her, admiration in his gaze.

Eugenia fetched gunpowder and tapped a little into the wound. She held up the taper. “Ready?”

The groom took a firm hold of his lordship’s arms. “Do it.”

Eugenia lit the taper from the fire and touched it to the gunpowder. As it ignited and flared, the injured man groaned deeply and struggled against Pollitt’s firm hold. The acrid smell of burnt flesh filled the air.

Eugenia winced. “Poor devil. Soothing herbs will aid him.”

She poured hot water into a bowl and added lavender. Taking a cloth, she dipped it in the bowl and wrung it out then wiped the worst of the blood and gunpowder away. She continued until the wound was clean. It now bled a good deal less.

“You are close to the forest here, Miss…”

“Hawthorne.”

“Might be that the robbers will return, Miss Hawthorne. I should stay and keep guard.”

They wouldn’t come to her father’s house. “My father swears blind he saw a specter there. That wood is said to be haunted. A highwayman was strung up there, many years ago.”

“Ghosts don’t shoot people, do they? Anyway, his lordship shot one.”

She swung around and studied his face. “Was he killed?”

“Yes. Stone dead.”

She frowned. “What did he look like, this highwayman?”

“I didn’t stop to see. He wore a kerchief over his face. Red hair and he was young. Might you know him?”

“No,” she said with relief. “Where does his lordship hail from?”

“His country seat, Lilac Park, some miles from here. Over in Surrey.”

She nodded as she worked. “I’ve heard some mention of it. The place sounds pretty. Is it?”

“Indeed it is.” He examined his master with a worried frown. “Be all right, will he?

“Too soon to tell. Why are you traveling in these parts?”

“We were on our way home from a visit to Chatterton Hall.”

“I know of that manor house. It’s very grand.”

“’Tis the home of his lordship’s father-in-law.”

She gazed at the big man crumpled on her settle. “His lordship’s married then?”

Pollitt shook his head. “A widower, these two years past.”

“Sad to see his children orphaned.”

“He doesn’t have children.” He stepped closer to peer at his master. “He breathes well. You don’t think he’ll die, do you?”

She held his lordship’s sturdy wrist in her hand. “Gunshots are tricky, but his pulse is strong. He has a good chance I’d say.”

“You must have heard of Lord Trentham? He married Lord Chatterton’s daughter, Lady Anne.”

Eugenia shook her head. She didn’t listen to village gossip; it was often untruthful. She’d seen Chatterton’s daughter ride past once on a handsome grey, with two well-dressed men and another woman. They’d stopped at the village inn for luncheon. Lady Anne’s hair was dark beneath her hat, and she’d worn an exquisite habit of emerald green velvet. Eugenia had suffered a bout of envy. Not for those people and their privileged lives exactly, but just for that green velvet. The color would suit her. One day she would have a gown like that.

She ground herbs in a bowl with a mortar and pestle. When would her father see fit to return? A chill of unease snaked up her spine. She made a poultice and placed it against the man’s wound then bound it with cloth. “There’s boysenberry wine in that jug on the shelf. Help yourself before you brave the cold.”

“Don’t mind if I do. I’ll ride to Lilac Court and return with a carriage to take his lordship home. He’ll do better there with the family doctor.”

“Maybe he will. Although doctors…” She shrugged. “They’re as likely to kill you as not.”

Eugenia frowned. She was anxious to get rid of his lordship and the sooner, the better, but he did look poorly. “He should not be moved tonight,” she said with some reluctance. What would her father say when he came home and found him here? She didn’t trust her father an inch.

The groom put down the tankard. “’Tis a good drop, miss. Anything more I can do before I go?”

“You can lift his lordship onto my father’s bed. He’s too tall for the settle.”

“Right you are.”

Pollitt was stronger than he looked. He heaved the unconscious man up and laid him on the bed. Lord Trentham groaned but didn’t wake. “I’ll pull off his boots, shall I?”

She nodded, caught by the earl’s handsome face. Dark lashes feathered his cheeks, his thick dark brown hair disheveled. Long powerful legs stretched over the cot. A fine figure of a man.

Pollitt pulled off a boot. “I hope he’ll be safe here if I leave. Looks like the highwaymen have given up.”

“He will be,” Eugenia said firmly, determined to make it so.

When the other gleaming Hessian boot dropped to the floor, Pollitt headed for the door. “I’ll be off then.”

“The longer he has to rest before you move him, the better.”

Pollitt nodded with one last glance at his master. “I’ll return as soon as I can. And thank ’e, Miss Hawthorne. His lordship will be most grateful.”

When the door closed behind him, Eugenia returned to her patient. She sprinkled lavender over the pillow and covered him with a blanket. He was deeply asleep. She wondered what color his eyes were. Her fingers itched to trace his brow, his fine straight nose and well-formed lips. But he was so far above her the one thing he might want from her she’d never be prepared to give. She rose quickly and fetched her mending to keep herself busy. She would not sleep; she would listen to his breathing. He must live. Despite the differences in their station, their futures were linked in some way. She felt it in her bones. Her mother had pronounced Eugenia to be far-sighted. She leaned over and smoothed back his dark waves, like silk beneath her fingers. She hoped it was true.

 

Chapter Two

 

BRENDAN COULD SMELL lavender. Had he been left in a garden? He opened his eyes and gazed around. Through the small window above him, the soft slate-blue sky was tinged with the rosy pink of early dawn. He closed his eyes for a few minutes and listened to the birds begin to wake. Then, concerned about his lethargy, he raised his head. “Where the devil am I?” The room spun. A pain racked through his shoulder so fierce that it brought an oath to his lips. With a groan, he lowered his head to the pillow. He lay in a strange bed in a room he’d never seen before. Was he in one of his tenant’s houses? He had no recollection of how he’d got here.

“There’s no need for foul language,” a pleasant voice said behind him.

He eased onto his good side. A young woman sat on a settle beside the fire. He admired the graceful movements of her slim fingers as she darned a stocking. “I beg your pardon, Miss…?”

“Hawthorne. I forgive you in the circumstances.” She put down her sewing and crossed the floor to sit on a stool at his side. “I must check your wound.”

Unequal to questioning her further, he lay still as she unwound the bandage that bound his shoulder with deft fingers.

“Good, it’s stopped bleeding.”

His gaze took in his bloodied coat, shirt, and ruined neck cloth on a chair. “I seem to remember being shot. Highwaymen attacked us in the woods.” He ran a hand over his bare chest and gazed up into her startlingly green eyes. “I must thank you for your kindness. But where am I?”

When he tried, painfully, to raise himself, she placed a hand on his good shoulder and pushed him gently down. “Lie still.”

She seemed unconcerned about touching his bare skin. Had Neil left him with a whore? He dismissed the idea for she looked far too innocent and fresh faced to be one.

“You’re at Woodland Farm. It’s my father’s farm. Your groom brought you here.”

He tensed his jaw. “My coachman was killed. I’m not sure about his nephew. He’s just a young lad.” He tried to galvanize himself to think clearly. “I must make arrangements to have the coach mended and take my coachman’s body home.” He tried to conjure up a smile. “I believe you’ve saved my life, Miss Hawthorne. I’m most grateful.”

“It is your groom you should thank, my lord.”

“Where is Neal?”

“Mr. Pollitt left for Lilac Court during the night to fetch another carriage to take you home.”

She rose, went to the dresser, and, returning with two mugs, held one out. “Drink this first.”

He eyed it doubtfully. “What is it?”

“A mixture of herbs.”

Brendan painfully raised his head and drank the bitter mixture. He grimaced and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. She handed him the other mug, which contained water, and he drank thirstily. He lay back with a soft moan. If this young lady had wanted to harm him, she would have done so before this. He couldn’t make himself care either way. Weak as a kitten, he closed his eyes.

“Best you rest awhile.” Her voice sounded far away.

He must have slept, for when he woke again, it was bright daylight. Miss Hawthorne sat in a rocking chair still at her mending. A man’s shirt this time. Whose? he wondered. He glanced around. Through a door he spied another cot. “Have I put someone out of their bed?”

“No.” She put down the fine linen shirt and he saw it was his she was mending.

“Then who’s bed is this?”

“My father’s.”

“Was he here during the night?”

“He’s away on business.”

He frowned. “Then we’ve been alone together all night?”

She cut the thread with her pearly, even teeth and smiled at him. Brendan almost gasped at the beauty of her smile. I must be feeling better, he thought, bemused. This ministering angel was lovely indeed.

“Do not worry about my reputation, my lord. Villagers won’t concern themselves about me tending to an injured man in my care. We leave that sort of fuss to the gentry.” She folded the shirt. “I don’t envy you your fancy manners and morals. All a sorry lot of pretense, that is.”

“Is it?” Why was she so cynical about life? She couldn’t be more than twenty at most. Drawn to her slender white throat, his gaze drifted down to the curve of her thigh beneath the modest gown. Aware he was staring, he looked away. “What has caused you to think like that?”

“I worked for a while as a kitchen maid in a big house in Canterbury,” she said. “The lady’s maid told me her ladyship was miserable most of the time. She had nothing to do but embroider.” She pushed a wisp of golden hair off her brow. “Hardly a useful pastime. His lordship left her alone for weeks on end when he went up to London to visit his mistress and his clubs.”

“We are not all like that,” Brendan said while acknowledging that some men of his acquaintance were. Arranged marriages were commonplace amongst the ton, and there was often little love between a husband and wife.

He wondered about Miss Hawthorne’s kin. Such delicate looks were not often found in these parts, especially not slightly tip-tilted eyes of a deep, fascinating green-blue.

“Don’t you have a betrothed or a beau?”

She came to examine his wound, untying the bandage with gentle fingers. “No one around here I’d consider. My father wants to marry me off to a friend of his. I dislike the fellow and won’t agree.” She pushed away a golden curl from her forehead, and her sleeve fell back, exposing a dark bruise on her arm. Had someone held her in a cruel grip? Her father?

He took hold of her hand and turned her wrist to examine the purple discoloration on her tender skin. “Who did this to you?”

She pulled her hand away and drew down her sleeve. “’Tis nothing. A pig knocked me over in the pen.”

He doubted her story. He couldn’t dismiss so lightly that some brute had manhandled her in such a manner. But he knew she wouldn’t tell him more, because she frowned as she took up a pot of nasty-looking paste and applied it to his wound.

Brendan clamped down on his jaw. “Lord! What is that stuff? It stings like the devil!”

“Healing herbs.” She retied the bandage. “You shall be gone from here when your groom returns. If you make a fuss, I’ll be in a worse place. Father will be home soon.”

He grimaced as he considered this bit of information, his throat dry and scratchy. He was scarcely in any condition to take on a bully. “May I have some water?”

“I’ve made a potion from the bark and leaves of a willow. It will ease the pain.” She took down a jar from the dresser and mixed it with water in a mug then handed it to him. While he drank it, she added coal to the fire.

“You must eat.” She tied the strings of an apron around her trim waist. Taking down an iron pan from its hook, she greased the pan with bacon fat and added wafer-thin slices of bacon, which sizzled as they cooked. Then removing the bacon, she broke eggs into the pan and beat them with a fork with a deft touch. Keeping a careful eye on the eggs as she worked, she made coffee.

Brendan realized he was hungry; he hadn’t eaten since luncheon yesterday. The smell of frying bacon and the coffee made his stomach growl.

When it was cooked, he ate the tasty food with relish. “This is the best meal I’ve had in an age.”

“’Tis only bacon and eggs,” she said with a smile, toying with her smaller portion.

He watched her as she ate. She was like an exotic flower in a weed patch, this girl. Her golden hair was tied up with a yellow ribbon, her faded cotton gown, a bluish hue that had seen better days. Nothing could diminish her natural beauty. In the right clothes, she would be a diamond of the first water. She reminded him of someone. Those eyes…. “Were you born hereabouts?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know where I was born.”

“Cannot your father tell you?”

Before she could answer, the door creaked open and a swarthy, dark-haired man came in and hung his coat on a hook. “I smell bacon. You ain’t eating before you’ve fed the hogs, are you, Eugenia?”

Miss Hawthorne jumped up. “I did the chickens at sunup. I am just about to feed the pigs, Papa.”

“Cook me breakfast first, girl, and be quick about it.”

The man’s hard dark gaze settled on Brendan, and his brows rose. “And who be this then?”

Conscious of propriety, even if Miss Hawthorne wasn’t, Brendan struggled up on his elbow. “I’m Brendan Fanshaw, Earl of Trentham, sir. Your daughter took me in when I was attacked by highwaymen in the wood yonder.”

“Highwaymen you say?” The man grunted. “They’re busy enough catching the unsuspected on Shooter’s Hill on the Dover Road. Not Olverston Wood. Never known ’em to be there. That place is haunted.”

Brendan didn’t believe in ghosts. Only those conjured up in the minds of the guilty. “These were red-blooded men. I shot one of them dead.”

Mr. Hawthorne’s gaze widened. He pulled out a wooden chair and sat down at the table. “Killed one of them, did yer? Best I take a look presently.” He glanced at his daughter who was stoking the fire.

While the bacon fat spat in the pan, he loosened the red scarf around his thick neck and took out a clay pipe. He lit a taper and drew on the pipe then edged his boots closer to the fire. “Hurry yourself, girl. Then go and feed the pigs. His lordship and I have much to discuss.”

Miss Hawthorne swung around to face her father, a worried expression in her eyes. She didn’t trust her father it seemed. She handed him his meal, wrapped a shawl around her shoulders, and darted outside.

Brendan looked at the man’s crafty face. A touch of gypsy in him perhaps. Romanies were good at turning a situation to their advantage. But such a man would never have called his daughter Eugenia. Despite the deep throb in his shoulder, Brendan grew interested. Very interested indeed.

***

 

Eugenia returned to the cottage, chewing her bottom lip. Awareness of what her father was capable of worried at her. His lordship would be helpless as a rabbit in a trap when her father got his hooks into him. Once inside, she cast her father a speaking glance, but he merely scowled at her.

When he’d finished the last piece of bacon, her father tossed down his fork. “Now as I sees it….” He leaned back in his chair and narrowed his eyes.

His lordship waited politely for her father to continue.

“You’ve compromised my lass by spending the night alone with her. And heaven knows what you got up to in my absence. You aristocrats take what you want from us without a whisker of conscience to trouble ye.”

“But, Papa, his lordship has been wounded…”

He held up a hand. “Be quiet, lass. This is men’s business.”

Her father didn’t give a fig for such things, she knew. He planned to marry her to his widowed friend, Len Smyth. He was gone forty, but he’d pay good money for her. She’d run away before that happened. She knew her father well. He was settling in to bargain.

His lordship didn’t interrupt, but he watched with a keen eye. Sure enough, her father began to speak of his surprise and distress to discover his daughter so ill-used. She waited for the word “compensated” to pass her father’s lips. The request for money to set things to rights hovered in the air.

Lord Trentham frowned and raked a hand through his hair. When he moved in the bed with a grimace, she suspected he would have liked to leap up and take a jab at her father. She couldn’t blame him for that. “Your daughter has been kind and tended my wound very capably. I’m deeply grateful to her—”

Her father swatted the air with his hand. “It will be all around the village by now. Eugenia’s reputation is besmirched. The good marriage I was about to arrange for her will no longer come about.”

“I see.” Lord Trentham’s gaze swung around to contemplate her.

Papa shrugged. “I’m a reasonable man, milord. Just enough to allow us to settle somewhere anew.”

“I could hardly uproot you from your home,” his lordship said. He ran a hand over the dark shadow on his chin, which rasped beneath his fingers. “I believe the best thing to do is to take your daughter into my household.”

Flummoxed, her father gaped. “You’d take ’er in?”

Lord Trentham settled the pillow behind his head. “Miss Hawthorne can work in the kitchens. I believe she has done this sort of work before. Later, she can be trained for a better position.”

Silence fell. Eugenia held her breath. Her father was as red in the face as his neck cloth. He leapt to his feet. “Eugenia is the daughter of a duke I’ll have ye know.”

She had heard this story many times before when her father was drunk. She’d never believed it. His lordship’s eyes held their steady gaze. What would he make of this revelation?

“And which duke might that be, Mr. Hawthorne?”

“Don’t believe me, milord? My poor deceased wife was seduced by the Duke of Mortland. She was with child when I met her.”

“Can you prove this wild accusation?”

Her father hurried to a drawer and rummaged through it. He came back with the miniature in his hand that he’d shown Eugenia many times. “Found this after me wife died.” He thrust it at his lordship. “Have a squint at the duke’s visage.”

“I suppose it’s possible.”

Her father’s jaw dropped again. “You’re willing to consider it to be true?”

“It’s hardly evidence. Your wife might have stolen it. The young lady’s father could be anyone.” He studied the likeness. “There’s a vague similarity to your daughter. Still, what does it matter?” He shrugged. “Even if it is so, I imagine there are others.”

Her father changed his tone. “So, what will you offer me now? You’ve done me a great disservice, milord,” he said in a cajoling voice. “You’ve dishonored the daughter of a duke. I am a reasonable man, but you can’t put her to work in your kitchens.”

“I agree,” his lordship said with cool authority.

Eugenia, arms akimbo, glared at them both. “I am not a prize pig to be haggled over at market.”

Lord Trentham’s mouth stretched in an attractive smile. “Indeed you are not.”

Growing impatient, her father glared. “What say you, milord?”

“I agree to take your daughter under my protection as my ward, Mr. Hawthorne.”

Her father’s eyes became owlish. She almost laughed. He hadn’t expected that. He stalked around the room before whirling around to face his lordship. “That won’t do! Who will look after me house then, I ask you?”

“I will settle an annuity on you.”

A whoosh of air escaped her father’s lips. He sat down hard on the stool.

“On certain conditions,” his lordship continued in his beautiful, mellow voice. “You must sign away any future rights to your daughter.” He held up a hand as her father began to protest. “And make no further mention of her in connection with yourself. If you do, the money will cease.”

The earl’s steady blue gaze regarded her. Her heart thudded. He was clever, this man. Why did he want to take her with him? “I won’t be your mistress, milord.” She’d rather take her chances in the world than that. She’d heard too much that shocked her when she worked in the kitchens in Canterbury.

“Be quiet, daughter! How much do you have in mind, milord?” her father asked, having gained his breath along with his understanding of the matter in hand.

“Enough to make you comfortable for the rest of your days. You can hire more than one servant to care for you.”

“And so you should. Just look at her. She’s a beauty, is she not?” Her father sniggered. “Your ward you say? Her mother taught her to speak proper. And she can read and write too. I could have married her off many times these last few years. I refused—wanted something special for ’er.”

She glared at him. Something special for him more like.

“My ward, Mr. Hawthorne.”

“Done!” Papa jumped up and brushed his hands together. “Don’t stand there gawking, girl. Pour us an ale. This is a celebration.”

Sold to the highest bidder, she thought. She was so tired of her wretched existence and her father’s unpredictable nature that she’d go almost anywhere. But was his lordship a good or a bad man? She wasn’t to work in his kitchen but what did he intend for her? A shiver passed through her as she poured the ale into tankards. She glanced around the humble cottage that had been her home since her mother and father brought her here years ago. She would miss her garden—and what about Molly? She firmed her lips. She would not leave without her goose. Five minutes after she left, Molly would be in the pot.