Heartbreaker

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Overview

The London Tattler - February 6

An ugly rumor has arisen, only to be proven no rumor at all, but rather, the unadulterated truth. It seems the proper Lord Farley has behaved in a decidedly improper manner...

James Lindford, Viscount Farley, has returned from the Orient, feted and celebrated ...until his past catches up with him. It seems his lordship's randy ways have resulted in the juiciest scandal of the season, producing endless fodder for ...

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Overview

The London Tattler - February 6

An ugly rumor has arisen, only to be proven no rumor at all, but rather, the unadulterated truth. It seems the proper Lord Farley has behaved in a decidedly improper manner...

James Lindford, Viscount Farley, has returned from the Orient, feted and celebrated ...until his past catches up with him. It seems his lordship's randy ways have resulted in the juiciest scandal of the season, producing endless fodder for the gossip mill. Now, his beleaguered lordship has shut himself up in his country estate, with more than a handful of trouble to cope with. Worse, the most tempting woman on earth is right next door...

Phoebe Churchill's peaceful country life, tending her cottage and rearing her abandoned niece is disrupted when Viscount Farley becomes her new neighbor. Undoubtedly, his powerful build and sensual charm have lured countless women to abandon all reason...except for Phoebe-she's far too wise to be seduced by a heartbreaker. But when she agrees to help James manage a household growing more riotous daily, she finds herself drawn to the man whose lingering kisses leave her yearning for so much more. And before she knows it, a stunning twist of events will lead her toward an impossible task: teaching a notorious heartbreaker the true meaning of love...

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A marvelous storyteller!" —Romantic Times
Publishers Weekly
Becnel's follow-up to The Bridemaker (2002) is a mild but unusual story of a lord struggling to care for his illegitimate daughters and the country lass who teaches him the difference between duty and love. James Lindford, Viscount Farley, gave little thought to the children he'd fathered during the casual affairs of his youth, but when he discovers one of his daughters living the life of a street urchin, he's determined to bring them home. The ensuing scandal drives him from London to his country estate and destroys his engagement to his very proper fiancEe. James's children soon disrupt both his household and the sleepy Yorkshire village where Miss Phoebe Churchill is raising her niece, an illegitimate child herself. When Phoebe discovers that her new neighbor's daughter is stealing from her farm, James entreats her to become his children's governess. Although both Phoebe and James are appealing, there's little chemistry between them. The conflict revolves around Phoebe's lust for James and her struggle to maintain her moral purity; however, that battle grows old, and the novel soon starts to feel more like a child-rearing primer than a romance. Despite the book's unusually straightforward look at illegitimacy, the relationship between the protagonists covers familiar terrain. (Nov. 4) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312983123
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 11/17/2003
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 4.00 (w) x 6.72 (h) x 0.95 (d)

Meet the Author

Rexanne Becnel's love of English history probably stemmed from the childhood years she lived in London. She now lives and works in New Orleans, another locale drenched in history and romance. She has won many awards for her historical romances.

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Read an Excerpt

THE HEARTBREAKER (Chapter One)

The wailing could be heard throughout the entire house. Though the nursery was on the third floor of Farley Park's east wing and the master's apartments occupied the second floor of the west wing, the baby's crying carried there, faint, but no less distressing. Even when James Lindford retreated to the book-lined estate office on the first level, he could not entirely blot it out.

What was wrong with the child that she spent every night screaming? Frustrated, he ran one hand through his disheveled hair, then turned and stalked away from the tall window and its view of the night-shrouded countryside.

More to the point, what was wrong with the nurse he'd hired that she could not appease the poor babe?

He ought to be able to sleep through the din. Young Clarissa had no trouble doing so. But then, the older of his two daughters had to sleep at night. She expended so much energy creating chaos during the day that she collapsed exhausted every night, only to begin the cycle anew come the morn.

He paused before the liquor cabinet, straining to hear. Was that silence?

Then it came again, little Leya's angry, sobbing wail. So far away, yet she might as well have been in the same room, for her cries pierced his heart and tortured him with guilt.

How had he gotten himself into such an insane situation? What had possessed him to think he could be a good parent to the two little girls he'd so casually fathered? If the investigators he'd hired ever located his third child and she turned out to be even half as unruly as these two, he'd end up in Bedlam.

Somewhere a cock crowed, though dawn was only a hint upon the horizon.

He would get no more sleep this night than he had any other during the past week. Rather than console himself with whisky, he ought to go up to the nursery and comfort his poor motherless child. Perhaps if he were lucky, Clarissa would sleep later than usual, and he would only have to deal with one unhappy daughter at a time.

In the nursery a solitary candle burned, but it revealed more than enough. The nurse lay on her cot, hidden beneath a heavy counterpane with a pillow clasped over her head. Meanwhile Leya sat in her bed, sobbing as if her heart were broken.

Guilt poured over James like frigid winter rain. The poor little girl was nine months old, yet already her mother had died, her mother's family had rejected her for her mixed Indian and English blood, and she'd been dragged halfway around the world to live in a chilly foreign land nothing at all like her warm native India. Cared for by strangers and an inept father, was it any wonder she wailed? Her heart was broken.

It was his responsibility, however, to mend it. So with another sigh, this time of resolution, he crossed the room, vowing to discharge the coldhearted, incompetent nurse and find someone—anyone—who could ease his little daughter's unhappiness.

"Hello, Leya. Hello," he said, hoping his raspy voice sounded more soothing to her ears than it did to his own.

Startled, she looked up, a sob catching in her throat. Her little chin trembled as if she were about to let out another wail. But a yawn overtook her first, and before she could work herself back up to a scream, he lifted her, tangled bed linens and all, and began to waltz her around the slant-ceilinged nursery. "One, two, three. One two three. It's time to dance with me."

He held her snug against him, for he'd learned that she cried less that way, as if the security of his hold was some sort of comfort. "One, two, three. One two three. We're just fine, you and me."

Leya yawned again, a huge, trembling exhalation, and after a moment the weight of her head came to rest on his shoulder. James smiled and nuzzled his cheek against the baby's silky black locks. Notwithstanding her unhappy temperament, she was the most amazing little thing, incredibly beautiful with blue-gray eyes set within thick black lashes. Right now those lashes were clumped together with tears, and even in sleep her little chin and baby lips trembled from her emotional storm. So he kept on waltzing, though slower now, and reduced his singing to a humming version of Strauss's latest offering.

Despite the pandemonium her presence had introduced into his life, James freely admitted that Leya was his child and his responsibility. So were Clarissa and another child whom he hadn't yet located.

It wasn't as if he hadn't known about his children. He'd supported every one of them from the moment of their births. For years he'd convinced himself that he was meeting his obligations by providing their respective mothers with adequate income to house, clothe, feed, and educate them. But two years ago his complacency about his role in their lives had been shaken when Marshall MacDougal had arrived from America looking for the man who'd so casually fathered him, then abandoned him.

That man had turned out to be James's first stepfather—his sister Olivia's father. But even though his stepfather had been dead for years, the man's long-ago actions might very well have ruined Olivia and their mother, as well as cast serious shadows on James's reputation and that of their other half-sister, Sarah.

But instead of ruining them all by claiming the inheritance that was rightfully his, Marsh had fallen madly in love with Sarah. After a tumultuous courtship they'd married and he'd taken her back to America with him. A happy ending for all involved. But James was acutely aware of the catastrophe barely averted. Property, money, inheritance claims—they had all teetered precariously near disaster, and all because Olivia's father had selfishly chosen to ignore one of his children.

Marsh's situation had started James thinking about the two children he'd fathered—especially since he finally had begun to seriously consider taking a wife. But James hadn't gone so far as to do anything about his daughters. Then he discovered he had sired another child, for on one of his trips to Bombay, Leya's grandfather had appeared at his door, announcing Senita's death from a sudden fever and shoving her baby into James's arms. His baby...

That day had changed everything. From his refusing at first to take the babe, to his coming to love her, the transition had been swift, if not smooth. It had taken two months to return from Bombay to London with the little girl, enough time for him to decide it was time to locate his other two natural-born children.

No child of his would have reason to destroy his legitimate family's life or reputation, he'd resolved. He would meet his daughters, get to know them, and supervise their education. He meant also to see to their future needs by providing adequate dowries for them.

Like all his business decisions, it had been a course of action based on practicality and his conviction that the investment of his time and money would someday prove to be well spent.

He could never have anticipated, however, the Pandora's box that simple decision would open. For when he'd located Clarissa, he'd discovered a creature as unlike innocent little Leya as possible: a ten-year-old street urchin whom he'd mistaken for a dirty little boy. A dirty, foul-mouthed pickpocket of a boy.

Her mother, once a gorgeous opera singer, had become over the years a drunken, abusive harlot. From what he could tell, she drank up every penny of the money he'd sent her for Clarissa's expenses.

Worse, he didn't doubt that given another year or two, Clarissa would have been pushed into the same line of work as her mother. It had sickened him to even imagine such a thing. But it had made his decision easy. He had no choice but to remove her from her mother's care and the threat of a life earned on her back.

Her mother had driven a hard bargain, but he'd paid her off. Only he'd found, to his daily despair, that Clarissa—Izzy, as she demanded he call her—was far more difficult to deal with than her pitiful, grasping mother. As determined as he was to educate her and make her presentable, she was even more determined to oppose him. She was like a feral kitten with her claws always at the ready, always hissing and looking for a way to escape.

To complicate matters further, it had proven impossible to hide the child's presence. Before he could explain the situation to Catherine and to her father, the truth had come out in one of those rags that called themselves newspapers. By then it was too late, for neither his humiliated fiance nor her enraged father would listen.

Like a speedy galleon come to ruin on uncharted rocks, both his social and political careers had been wrecked. Basingstoke had known precisely whom to talk to in government, while the gossip rags had done the rest. In frustration James had retreated with his daughters to Yorkshire to wait for the gossip to die down and reconsider how best to gloss over the situation.

As bad as the situation was, it was only a detour on the path to his ultimate goal of becoming the King's Counsel on Foreign Affairs. It wasn't a dead end; he wouldn't let it be. For now all he had to do was wait—and deal with his children.

He eased into a rocking chair, careful not to jostle Leya awake. Removing Clarissa from London had been a good idea, he told himself, as he leaned back in the rocker and closed his eyes. She'd run away twice in London, but she couldn't do that here. In the countryside she was completely out of her element. By the time she was brave enough to try another escape, maybe she would have come to trust him enough not to want to escape.

Meanwhile he had to find a governess for the child and hire another nurse for Leya...

High noon was not the best time for fishing, but the early spring day was so warm and lovely that Phoebe Churchill could not resist her niece Helen's entreaties to go afield. After all, the household chores were done, and they'd seen to the goats, the chickens, the bees, and the garden. There was no reason why seven-year-old Helen could not do her daily lessons outdoors just as well as she could indoors.

"How about things that begin with an l?" Phoebe suggested as she cast her line toward the deepest part of the pond.

"Hmm." The golden-haired little girl's brow puckered in concentration. "Ladybirds."

"Very good."

"And licorice sticks."

"Even better," Phoebe said, as she played the lure deftly across the surface of the quiet pond.

"Let's see. Love, and loons, and...lucky four-leaf clover!" Helen crowed, holding one up. "Look, Phoebe. Look what I've found!"

A strike on Phoebe's line just then prevented her looking. "I've hooked one. A big one too!"

"Don't lose him!" Helen shouted, scrambling to Phoebe's side.

"Come along, Master Trout," Phoebe coaxed as she fought the game creature, moving down along the pond bank. "You shall make a lovely meal. Or two," she added. He felt that big and strong.

It took several minutes of teasing him to the bank before she could land the silvery creature, and they were in high spirits as they made their way back to their lunch basket.

Except that their old willow basket was gone.

"What in the world?" Phoebe stared around in confusion. Not only was the basket and its half-loaf of bread, jar of pickles, and hunk of cheese gone, so was the tattered old blanket they'd spread in a grassy area near the trees.

"What happened to our lunch?" Helen asked, looking around as if their picnic were only misplaced.

"I don't know," Phoebe muttered, glaring toward the woods, searching for any sign of the guilty party. "Maybe Gypsies."

"Gypsies?" At once Helen pressed up against Phoebe's side. "Let's go home, Phoebe. Gypsies are bad. Grandma said they're murdering thieves who steal bad children right out of their beds."

A little shiver coursed through Phoebe as she scanned the familiar, yet now threatening forest. But to Helen she said, "Then you've nothing to fear, do you? For you're a very good child. The best."

They left at once. At least they had the trout, and her fishing rig. But that was little comfort to Phoebe. Maybe Mr. Blackstock was right, she fretted. Maybe they did live too far from town for safety. For if a thief could steal from them at midday, what might he do at night?

Or when they were away from the house!

"Hurry," she said, breaking into a trot.

"Are they after us too?" Helen asked, squeezing Phoebe's hand so hard it hurt.

"Oh, no, sweetheart. I'm just hungry, that's all."

Everything at home appeared fine. The three goats were still in the meadow; the chickens ranged around the yard and garden, and none appeared missing. But even so, Phoebe's worries did not abate. She would have to inform the magistrate about this the next time she went into Swansford, even though she knew Mr. Blackstock would point to this as one more reason why she must sell her cottage and farm, and move into town. But Phoebe refused to do that, at least not until she'd exhausted all her resources.

Come the morning, however, the bucket at the well came up missing, as did her little gardening bench. She could see the marks in the grass where it had been dragged away.

But why would Gypsies steal a bucket and a bench when a goat would be so much more useful to them? It made no sense. Perhaps it wasn't Gypsies at all. But then who?

"Put on your mourning dress," she told Helen. "We're going to town." She didn't have to explain why when she turned the barely used key in the ancient door lock. Too bad she couldn't lock up the carrots and turnips in the garden, or the tools in the shed next to the chicken house.

Dew still clung to the grass and heather as they made the two-mile walk to the small village of Swansford. Phoebe carried three dozen eggs, and Helen carried a round of soft goat cheese. They meant to exchange them at Leake's Emporium for flour, soap, and thread. She also had two books to return to Mr. Blackstock, who had the only library in town.

Outside Leake's, three old women with shopping baskets propped against their hips stood in earnest conversation with the vicar. A large farm wagon stood outside the store. Phoebe recognized it as belonging to Farley Park, though she hadn't seen it often. Already it was half full of supplies.

"Goodness, they're buying out the shop," Phoebe muttered. "Hurry up, Helen."

Inside, the normally quiet shop was abustle with activity. "D'you have the cakes of soap in there?" a wiry woman asked.

"Yes, ma'am. Right here, ma'am," Mrs. Leake's son, Martin, said, bobbing his head beneath the teetering load of flour sacks balanced upon his shoulder.

"And the molasses?"

"Already in the wagon, ma'am, beside the candles."

"Good. Now there's the matter of cake flour. I'll need some extra fine milled flour for my cakes."

Just then Mrs. Leake came out from the storeroom, her arms overflowing with bolts of linen. Spying Phoebe, she gave her a quick nod. "I hope you're not in a hurry, Phoebe girl."

"No. But will there be any flour and soap left for us?"

"I'll see there is. Meanwhile, just set your goods over there." She indicated one corner of the counter. "Mayhap you'll prefer to come back in a half hour or so."

"Perhaps I should. Is something going on at Farley Park?"

"Indeed. Himself has decided to take up residence. Not just a visit either, or so I hear. That's his housekeeper come to oversee the purchases. 'Scuse me, but I can't talk now."

As they wove their way past the scowling housekeeper and her two assistants, Helen tugged at Phoebe's sleeve. "Who's Himself? I never heard of anyone named that."

The wiry woman must have had ears like a cat, for she turned her sharp gaze on Helen, then Phoebe. "For your information, James Lindford, Viscount Farley, has taken up residence in his ancestral home after many years away. I'm certain he'll introduce himself to the mayor, the vicar, and the magistrate once he's settled in. Until then, I'll thank you and the rest of the villagers not to speculate on the reason for his return, or the duration of his stay."

Then with a pinching grip she halted poor Martin. "Let me see that salt. I'll not pay good money for salt with grit or chalk mixed in."

Outside Phoebe and Helen shared a look of consternation. "My goodness," Phoebe said as they started toward Mr. Blackstock's residence. "She certainly was cross, wasn't she?"

"Just like Grandmother used to be," Helen remarked. "That's what happens when you get old."

Phoebe shook her head. Out of the mouths of babes. But it was true. Phoebe's mother had died less than a fortnight ago, but already the difference in their home life was apparent. Without Emilean Churchill to disapprove and scold, there was no longer a need to tiptoe about, burying any hint of ebullience or joy or just plain silliness. No more excessive adherence to the polite manners her mother had demanded of her and her sister, Louise, and more recently, of Helen.

Duty, obedience, moral exactitude. Those were the bulwarks that had formed her mother's life. Their household had been a silent, unhappy place. But not any longer.

If only Phoebe could escape this nagging sense of guilt. She should be sadder that her mother had died. But her sadness was more for the way her mother had chosen to live.

She shook off those thoughts and said to Helen, "If Lord Farley's housekeeper is cross, I suspect it's because the viscount didn't notify her that he was coming. Just like a man," she added, under her breath.

Though she'd never met Lord Farley, Phoebe had heard talk of him all her life. For the most part he was considered a fine gentleman with quite the head for business, especially considering that he'd come into his title so young in life. His mother's pride and joy. A good landlord, according to his tenants, albeit an absent one. Apparently he'd had to be the man of the family for his mother and his two half-sisters, and had managed all their estates until they'd married.

Left unsaid, however, were the facts that he was past thirty and not yet wed himself. The gossips held that he preferred the excitement of town life and traveling abroad to the pastoral quiet of the Yorkshire countryside. It was also whispered that he was quite the ladies' man, and that he'd cut a considerable swath through society.

As the properly raised sister of a baron, Phoebe's mother had been prone to forgive the titled almost any sin. But even she had cautioned her two daughters that, rich or poor, men were lustful creatures who could never be trusted. A marriage contract was a woman's only insurance. Consequently, a man still not committed to marriage by the ripe age of thirty must be looked at with some mistrust.

But whether the viscount was an upright bachelor or a debauched rake was none of Phoebe's affair, so long as she could still trade for what she needed from Mrs. Leake.

Phoebe and Helen made their way up the steep brick road to Mr. Blackstock's grand two-story residence to find that even he was in a dither over Lord Farley's return to the district. It seemed that in his youth he'd been the previous Lord Farley's confidant. As a result, the return of the younger Lord Farley had stirred up a wealth of memories in him.

"'Tis a grand day for Swansford. A red-letter day. There's nothing like having the lord in residence. It benefits the whole countryside," he gushed, taking the books Phoebe returned to him.

"Mrs. Leake shall certainly benefit," Phoebe remarked. "Farley's housekeeper was purchasing everything in sight. How many people are in his party, anyhow?"

It was an innocent question, perfectly logical. Yet for some reason Mr. Blackstock averted his gaze and began restlessly to search the disorganized surface of his desk. "He, ah...I understand he has two, ah...guests. And of course, several additional servants to assist them."

"Two guests? Are they from London also? We haven't had any toffs in these parts in a very long time."

Mr. Blackstock cleared his throat. "I'm not certain about that. Here, Phoebe." He located what he was searching for on his desk and presented a neatly penned document to her. "This establishes you and your sister as your mother's heir—just as she was your father's heir. You and Louise are each half-owners of your family property on Plummy Head. You haven't heard from Louise yet, have you?"

"I doubt she's even received the letter I sent her in London." It had been over two years since they'd had any word from Louise. Not a Christmas letter, nor a note to Helen for her birthday. And of course, not a penny to help support the fast-growing child. No matter how many letters Phoebe sent, pleading for Louise to write her daughter even if she couldn't send money, the letters were never answered.

If Phoebe hadn't become inured to her sister's selfishness, she might have worried that something dreadful had befallen her. But Louise would always land on her feet, to the detriment of anyone standing too near. Louise was more likely too involved with her latest lover and her acting career to care about any of her family. Louise's response to the news of their mother's death would probably be little more than a shrug and an "Oh, well."

So much for being Emilean's favorite daughter, the beautiful one who, as a child, could do no wrong. The irony was that Louise had fled Plummy Head and Swansford just as soon as she possibly could, leaving Phoebe to deal with their aging parents.

Repressing a spurt of resentment, Phoebe scanned the document Mr. Blackstock had prepared, then signed as he indicated. Louise would write or show up when it was convenient for her to do so, and no sooner.

Meanwhile, Phoebe wanted to inquire further about the goings-on at Farley Park. But it was plain to her that Mr. Blackstock had no intention of gossiping about the exalted son of his exalted friend. Phoebe was no fool, though, and she drew her own conclusions. She might be a country bumpkin, well on her way to becoming a spinster. But she read widely, and she knew something of the world. Besides, her sister was an actress on the London stage and the most notorious woman to ever hail from Swansford. During her last visit four years previously, Louise hadn't minced any words—at least when their mother wasn't around—and the still impressionable Phoebe had soaked in every scandalous conversation.

So it seemed obvious to her now. If a bachelor lord had arrived unannounced at his country estate with two guests that a respectable gentleman like Mr. Blackstock could not acknowledge to an unmarried young woman like Phoebe, well, it must mean something improper. Most likely, women of questionable reputation.

Phoebe considered that a long moment as she stared blankly at the painstakingly penned document in her hand. How shocking if that were true. Certainly it would account for that housekeeper's short temper.

But it was no concern of hers.

"Now, Phoebe," Mr. Blackstock continued, clearing his throat. "Have you given any thought to what I said about selling the farm?"

She gave him an impatient look. "I'm sorry, but I'm still not ready to make that decision."

"You may be forced to do so. I cannot much longer ignore the fact that the taxes on your farm are seriously in arrears, child. How are you to assemble such a sum unless you sell out—" He broke off, then his lined face brightened in a hopeful smile. "Or perhaps if you were to settle on a husband? That's what you need, you know, a good hard-working husband to take care of matters like this for you—"

"Mr. Blackstock," she interrupted, barely repressing her frustration. Her mother hadn't been made particularly happy by marriage to a hard-working man. "I appreciate your concern for my financial predicament, but I came to town for another reason entirely. It seems we have a thief in our midst."

He blinked. "A thief?"

Though Mr. Blackstock was duly outraged by Phoebe's tale, his conclusion did not jibe with Phoebe's. "We haven't had a thief in Swansford since that Thornley lad was arrested eight—no, nine years ago. Robbed Leake's till he did, but we figured it out fast enough. No, he's the only thief from Swansford, 'less you count Dirty Harry and his habit of overcharging his customers once they get too soused to notice. So you see, Phoebe girl, it must be Gypsies. They're known to head up along the coast once the weather begins to warm up."

"It hasn't warmed up very much. Besides, Gypsies are more likely to steal chickens and goats."

"Well, now, I'm sure Gypsies use baskets and buckets like anybody else."

"And garden benches?"

He frowned, turning his bushy brows into one long gray line overhanging his eyes. "Maybe they took it for...for firewood."

"With a forest full of wood available for the taking? Besides, have Gypsies been seen anywhere in the district of late?"

"Well, no. But then, they're a sneaky lot," he said, clearly not willing to have his judgment overridden.

Phoebe let out an irritated sigh. "I don't believe it's Gypsies," she insisted. "The only new faces around Swansford are ensconced at Farley Park, and they're hardly suspect. So my thief must be someone local. Perhaps it's only a prank," she went on before he could disagree. "I know boys can be a troublesome lot. But I want my basket back, and my bucket and my bench."

"Yes, yes. Perhaps it was a prank," he admitted. "I'll look into it and see what I can find out. But you know, Phoebe girl, if you moved to town or got married, you wouldn't have this problem."

"I'm not moving. Not yet," Phoebe said, trying to remain pleasant. "And in order to marry, one must first find a willing partner."

Frowning, Mr. Blackstock leaned back in his chair and crossed his sausage hands across his tightly stretched waistcoat. "As you wish." He thought a moment, then his expression lifted. "There is another solution. Not for the taxes, of course, but for your protection. Indeed, I believe I made the very same suggestion to your mother after your father passed on—God bless them both. But she didn't like dogs, she said. Nor cats neither."

"A dog." As soon as the idea was planted it took immediate root in Phoebe's head. "A watchdog."

Mr. Blackstock nodded, well pleased with himself. "A watchdog," he echoed. "And it just so happens that Martin Leake's bitch whelped nearly a dozen pups. 'Course, four of 'em died. But there's seven or eight left. I 'spect he'll be glad to give you one."

A dog. When Phoebe fetched Helen from the Blackstocks' kitchen and her treat of blackberry jam on scones, she gave her the news. The girl's eyes lit up with delight. "A puppy? For us to take home?"

They found Martin behind his mother's store greasing the axle of their delivery wagon for Monday's trip to Louth. In a small pen near the store's tilting back steps were the wriggling puppies with their mother complacently nursing them.

"You come at a good time, Miss Phoebe. They're just about ready to leave their ma." He held up his hand. "They was born on St. Simon's day. Since then we've had St. Oswald's day and St. Frances's day. Then there was St. Maud's and St. Basil's." One by one he ticked off his fingers. "The vicar says they'll be ready on the feast of St. Rupert, and that's tomorrow."

"I see. I wonder, do you think it would be all right to take one of them a day early? Please?"

A silly grin came over his face and his ears turned red. "Well, I guess. I mean..." The red crept onto his already florid face. "For you, Miss Phoebe. Only for you."

"Oh, thank you. Thank you so much."

Martin Leake might look like a man, and his exacting mother certainly worked him like one. But he was a simple fellow, more like an overgrown child than a man. Still, he was good-natured, a diligent worker, and he had a gentle way with both animals and children. Phoebe sometimes suspected he had a bit of a crush on her, but then, he blushed when any woman paid particular attention to him.

"Well, Helen. We may select a puppy today. Which one will you have?"

It was a hard choice, but in the end, with Phoebe's encouragement, they selected the smallest of the litter, a little brown and white spotted fellow with a stumpy tail which nonetheless beat back and forth with feverish excitement every time Helen petted him.

"He's going to fuss the first few nights," Martin said as he placed the pup in Helen's arms. "But if you let him sleep with you he'll keep quiet. Plus, the closeness will make you his family, and he'll guard you extra special good."

Martin tied a length of string about the puppy's neck for the walk home, and though she'd not really accomplished her goal of finding their thief, Phoebe did feel better. She'd always wanted a dog. So had her father. But her mother had forbidden it. If Louise had wanted one, no doubt their mother would have relented. But Louise was no more enamored of dogs than their mother had been. Animals were for providing meat, milk, cheese, and eggs, she'd always said.

But their puppy was going to provide something just as important, Phoebe decided. Protection and companionship.

"What shall we name him?" Helen asked as they made their slow way home through the advancing afternoon chill.

"Whatever you like. Here, don't pull on the string so hard, sweetheart. Let's untie him and teach him to follow us. That way he'll learn the way home should he ever wander off."

They decided to call him Bruno, after rejecting Laddie, Brownie, Spot, and Mister. When Bruno's little legs would carry him no farther, Helen did. And when her arms grew tired, Phoebe took over the task. As they rounded the last craggy outcropping before their cottage, however, she put him down, and she and Helen ran the last slope of the stony path, with the little fellow trailing gamely behind.

"You're home now," Helen said, falling to her knees beside the front stoop, waiting for Bruno to reach her. "And you'll keep those mean old robbers away from us, won't you?"

It couldn't happen too soon, Phoebe decided. For to her dismay, she could see that someone had been there while they were gone. A small muddy footstep outside the kitchen door, a broken stick, and a scratch on the shutter at the side of the house verified that someone had tried to pry the shutter open.

But she didn't reveal any of that to Helen. At least it was only children, she consoled herself. The footstep was too small to be anything else. If she stayed close to home for the next few days, perhaps the little hooligans would give up and go bother someone else with their not so amusing pranks.

Three days later, however, the pranksters went too far. For when Phoebe finished washing Helen's hair and went outside to brush it in the first sunshine they'd had after two days of drizzle, she discovered that the thieves had struck again. And this time they'd stolen the watchdog meant to protect the household. They'd taken Bruno.

Phoebe had to swallow a very unladylike oath. Helen started crying, but Phoebe shushed her as she examined the scene. Sure enough, a trail of small footprints led across the muddy yard to the field, and probably the woods beyond.

"You've gone too far this time," she muttered. "Too far." She didn't pause to fetch a shawl or even lock the door. "Come on, Helen. They can't be that far ahead of us. If we have to, we'll capture these nasty little thieves ourselves."

For once Helen conquered her timidity. She dashed her tears and followed Phoebe without complaint as they tracked the line of footprints in the damp ground and across the crushed grasses in the meadow. It was more difficult to follow the trail through the forest. But Phoebe had grown up traipsing through these woods and she remembered every dip and hollow that had attracted her as a girl. Slowly they crept beneath the arch of the oak trees, following a narrow deer path until she heard something and froze.

For a moment there was nothing but the sough of the breeze in the newly greened trees, and the everyday rustle of birds and beetles and burrowing spring creatures. A nervous Helen crowded up behind her.

"Shh," she cautioned the child.

Then it came again, the high-pitched yip of a puppy. As one, Phoebe and Helen hurried on, following the yapping until they heard also the voice of a child.

"Are you hungry, then? Don't worry, Georgie. I'll swipe you a nice joint of mutton from the kitchen. You'll like that, won't you, my Georgie boy?"

The only answer was the puppy's enthusiastic barking. Was it just the one child? "Stay here." Phoebe mouthed the words to Helen. "Don't come out till I summon you." Then slow step by slow step she inched forward, past prickly holly and unfurling ferns.

"Fetch," she heard the child order the puppy. "Fetch."

But of course, the fat, stubby-legged little dog hadn't yet mastered that trick.

Around the trunk of a massive oak tree Phoebe finally saw the child. To her surprise it was a girl, a very dirty girl in what looked like a well-made coat but which had a torn pocket, and a dangling hem, with a pair of ruined stockings sticking out beneath. Even more surprising than her appearance, however, was that Phoebe didn't recognize the child. With her pale complexion and sandy-colored hair, she was definitely not a Gypsy. Nor was she from Swansford or any of the surrounding farms or cottages.

That was neither here nor there, however. The little thief's identity could be determined later. Right now Phoebe just wanted to nab the light-fingered hooligan before she could get away.

"If you won't fetch, what will you do?"

Phoebe watched as the girl sat down cross-legged in front of the panting puppy, then lifted it gently into her lap. "Are you tired, poor baby? Is it time for your nap?"

This was her chance, and Phoebe took it. She sprang from behind the tree and latched onto the girl's arm with the same strength she used to hold the occasional recalcitrant goat.

The little girl was stronger than she looked, though, and even wilder. The puppy went flying as the child twisted away. But Phoebe lunged forward, tackling her in a patch of newly budded wild blueberries. It took all her weight to trap the struggling child and pin her to the ground. Nothing, however, could halt the stream of filthy curses that spewed from the little girl's mouth.

"Let me go, you bloody arse! You stinkin' cunt! You stupid bitch!"

Phoebe could scarcely believe her ears. "You'd better hush that sort of talk right now!" she hissed.

"I'll cut out your bloody heart!" the girl screeched, trying to buck Phoebe off. "Just see if I don't, you whore!"

"And I'll wash your mouth out with soap. Where's my bucket and my bench?"

"Go to bloody hell!"

Had she not heard the words, Phoebe would never believe a child could speak so horridly. And a girl at that. She was sorely tempted to slap the nasty-mouthed creature, if only to silence her. But she'd been slapped often enough as a child to know such punishment only bred a fiercer sort of resentment. She'd never once hit Helen, and she wouldn't allow this poorly raised wretch to start her doing such things now.

"Where we're going," she muttered as she dragged the child upright, "is to the magistrate's office. Then we'll see how brave you are, my tart-tongued little friend."

"Rot in hell!"

"It'll be you who'll rot in gaol if you don't change your ways," Phoebe snapped back, manacling the girl's wrist with one hand while with the other she tried to smooth out her own skirts. And what a skinny wrist it was, she realized. She peered at the child, trying to see past the tangled mat of hair that fell over her face. "Who are you?"

"Bugger off!"

Phoebe's nostrils flared with distaste. As angry as her own parents had made her, she'd never said the sort of things this girl did, nor thought them either. It took every bit of her forbearance to remember that for all her bravado, the little girl was probably terrified.

"Tell me who you are, and perhaps we can settle this with your parents instead of the authorities."

At that the girl looked up. Slowly her angry glare shifted into a smug sort of cunning. "Do whatever you want. My father is the authority around here. He's the most important person in these parts, and you're the one as will end up in the gaol. Just see if you don't!"

Two things registered in Phoebe's mind. First, that the girl must be from London, for no one around here spoke with that peculiar sort of tough, clipped manner. Second, since Phoebe knew the child didn't belong to the magistrate, and since only one other person in these parts outranked a magistrate, that meant her father must be...Lord Farley?

But no. That couldn't be right. Lord Farley had no children. He wasn't even married, for she would have heard if he was. The entire district would have been abuzz with the news. And anyway, this child appeared to be a little older than Helen.

Then again, as she well knew, some children were born on the wrong side of the sheets. The fact was, the stealing had only begun after Lord Farley's arrival, and the child was heading toward Farley Park. The viscount could have brought his natural-born child to live at Farley Park. That would explain the fine quality of her clothes, if not the condition.

But the idea of so privileged a child stealing! That infuriated Phoebe more than anything. "What right has a girl like you to steal from poor folks like us?"

In short order they were marching through the woods, Phoebe dragging the nasty little beggar while Helen struggled to keep up with Bruno in her arms.

"Wait, Phoebe," Helen pleaded.

"Phoebe, the evil one," the other girl taunted. "Phoebe, the seedy. Phoebe, the frumpy, frightful-looking fool."

It was all Phoebe could do not to snap at either of the children. By the time they traversed the forest and the long hill that was the shortcut to Farley Park, Helen was crying and Phoebe was cursing under her breath. At least the wretched little thief she'd caught was huffing too hard to cast any more invective at them.

Just when Phoebe thought she'd have to tell Helen to sit and wait for her, she spied the chimney pots of Farley Park rising beyond the hill. And no sooner did she see the chimney pots than a horseman charged over that very same hill.

Upon sighting them, the rider drew up, then changing direction, spurred straight for Phoebe and the bedraggled pair of girls.

"You can sit down now, Helen," she said over her shoulder. "As for you," she said, holding tight when her captive tried once more to wriggle free. "You'd better hold still."

Then pushing back the tangled mess her hair had become, she straightened to her most imposing height and waited for the rider. Though mounted on a magnificent hunter, the man looked more like a reckless highwayman than a peer of the realm, and Phoebe felt a distressing shiver of fear. He wore neither coat nor hat, and his golden hair fell in disarray over his brow.

But she had no doubt he was Viscount Farley, for there was an arrogant, lordly bearing about him. He rode his elegant steed with that easy carelessness that bespoke privilege and education and a worldliness foreign to these parts.

But lord or not, Phoebe fixed the much-gossiped-about viscount with a censorious gaze. If he thought he could foist his unruly London ways on the good people of Swansford, well, she was just the one to set him straight.

As he pulled his animal to a plunging halt right before them, she took a steadying breath and tilted her chin up to an arrogant angle. She kept a close grip on his thieving little girl as she glared at him. "Could it be that this is your child?"

THE HEARTBREAKER Copyright 2003 by Rexanne Becnel.

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 27, 2004

    Not Becnel Quality

    This piece doesn't even come close to Ms. Becnel's normal level. A wishy-washy heroine and a manhandling hero. I sure hope this is not an indication of future books.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 15, 2004

    Excellent...excellent..did I mention EXCELLENT !!

    Do not miss reading this one...Rexanne does it again, with this tale of James Lindford(Viscount Farley), and the ever proper Phoebe ...Indulge and be delighted !!.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 20, 2003

    refreshing Regency romance

    As reported by the London Tattler, Viscount James Linford has returned home from spending two years abroad in India, his second trip overseas. Not long afterward, the paper announces that James is engaged to Lady Catherine Winfield. However as also accounted he has two children out of wedlock living with him. His betrothal ends and he hides in the country to escape the turmoil more than the scandal. <P>His oldest child ten year old Clarissa is a foul mouthed hooligan. Neighbor Phoebe Churchill catches Clarissa stealing from her. She takes the child to task and soon they become friendly. As James is amazed with the way Phoebe ¿handles¿ Clarissa, he falls in love with his neighbor. He wants her as his wife and mother to his three children (the third he has not brought home yet), help her raise her niece deserted by her mother, and perhaps have more children with her. <P>This is a refreshing Regency romance that will shake sub-genre fans not ready for a preadolescent with a vocabulary that would make a sailor blush. James is an intriguing protagonist as he faces up to his responsibilities though that costs him his fiancée and a sure seat on the Council of Foreign Affairs. Phoebe is a practical individual trying to do the right thing as she nurtures life¿s abandoned ones. However, the tale belongs to Clarissa who sets the tone with her thieving and flow of profanity that will either send readers running away or feeling empathy towards this potentially lost soul. <P>Harriet Klausner

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