Lady Caroline Trelawney Dowling has always wanted a child of her own and her wish comes true when two abandoned children are temporarily turned over to her. She's finding new purpose and joyeven more so after the handsome baron next door requests her help in renovating his house and refining his manners.
As the new Lord Warrick, Jacob has a host of duties, including updating his estate and providing an heir. Lady Caroline's expertise in etiquette proves invaluable, and spending time together is a delight. But as the children's origins are finally uncovered, can he keep her newfound family intactand unite her dreams with his own?
Matchmaking Babies: Seeking forever families and speeding up the course of true love
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Porthlowen, North Cornwall
Jacob Warrick pushed his spectacles up on his nose as he followed a footman and wished he could be anywhere else. Not that his surroundings were not pleasant. In Cothaire, the great house overlooking Porthlowen Cove, elegant furniture and artwork filled the hallway. The walls were not pocked with chipped paint. No dust or wet stains created strange scents in the corridor. Servants moved in an easy, efficient rhythm through the home, doing tasks needed to keep the Trelawney family in comfort.
Everything was exactly as the manor belonging to the Earl of Launceston should be.
Everything was the complete opposite of Warrick Hall, his estate.
Until last night, he had not been bothered by the sorry condition of the house he had inherited from his uncle, along with the title of Lord Warrick. He had easily looked past the peeling wall coverings and the definite stench of mildew. Instead, he had focused on safety at the estate's mines. His uncle had apparently paid as little attention to maintenance at the mines as he had at his house.
Jacob had intended to repair the ancient manor house someday until the letter arrived from Beverly Warrick, his stepmother, announcing she and his brother, Emery, and Emery's wife, Helen, would be arriving at Warrick Hall to spend Christmas with him. It was not until the final line of her excited note that she had mentioned Helen's sister, Miss Faye Boltonin his stepmother's opinion, a well-polished young womanwould be traveling with them.
He knew exactly what those few words meant. His stepmother was not satisfied with having arranged the marriage of her niece Helen to his brother. She intended to wed her other niece to him.
Understanding that had set him to pacing his bedchamber all night. One of the great advantages of moving to Cornwall, far from the rest of his family, was he could escape his stepmother's meddling. Ignoring her was impossible, and resisting her plans created an uproar. He should have guessed his new title would attract her interference in his life like a hound to the fox's scent. And she would be as persistent as a dog on the trail of its prey.
He had no time for courting. In his few spare moments, he had begun the arduous task of writing a textbook on engineering for mine operators. He had considered himself a skilled engineer after years of study and teaching, but many aspects of tin mining surprised him. Once he completed the manuscript, he would have the book printed. The profits from its sales would allow him to continue updating the mines. That would save lives, for conditions at the estate's mines when he had arrived in Cornwall last year had been deplorable. Two years ago, a half dozen miners had died. He prayed every night the miners would emerge from underground alive the next day. So far, his prayers had been answered, but he was determined to make the mines as safe as possible.
Finding a wife was a task everyone expected he must put his mind to at some point. The title, along with its obligation of assuring that it continued in their family, coming to him was like a cruel joke. How could he risk suffering that grief another time? After Virginia Greene had died, he had vowed never to fall in love again.
Yet, even if he wanted to marry, his concentration now must be fully on replacing the out-of-date equipment at the mines. Since he had started updating the machinery, fewer men had been hurt and none had died in the depths of the Warrick mines. He did not want anyone else to die because of his negligence.
That had been his plan, but now everything had changed. One look at Warrick Hall would confirm his stepmother's belief he was in desperate need of a wife.
Even a single breach of etiquette would provide the proof his stepmother needed to show he was unprepared to find a proper baroness on his own. Without a doubt, she was already convinced, which was why she was providing him with the "well-polished" Miss Faye Bolton. The description made him think of a glossy table rather than a wife. A wife who could die as Virginia had because of his carelessness.
He had tried to tell his stepmother the truth about that horrible night. Or at least what he knew of it, because his memories were unreliable in the wake of the injury he had sustained. She refused to listen. She insisted on calling it an unfortunate accident. She was wrong, and he would not endanger another young woman who was foolish enough to fall in love with him and believe his promise she was always safe with him.
There was only one solution. Jacob needed to have Warrick Hallor, at the very least, the parts of it any guests might seemeet his stepmother's exacting standards by the time of her arrival. That way, he could show he did not need a wife straightaway.
He could scrape together funds for repairs, but where to begin and what to do? Those questions had kept him awake, and he hoped he would find the answer at Cothaire.
The footman stopped by a closed door Jacob recognized. The room beyond it overlooked the back garden and was small enough to be cozy. He had been in the informal parlor the last time he had called at Cothaire. Then he had come seeking the Trelawneys' assistance in finding a child he believed had been abducted from his estate. The missing child had been found unharmed and returned to her family. All had ended well.
His mouth tightened as the footman placed a knock on the door and waited for an answer. He forced himself to relax. He could not greet the earl's older daughter, Lady Caroline, with such a grumpy expression. Most especially when he was about to ask her to grant him a very large favor. He was not accustomed to asking others to help solve his problems.
The footman opened the door, stepped aside to let Jacob enter, then followed him in. Puzzled why the servant was shadowing him and clearing his throat quietly, Jacob glanced across the room to where Lady Caroline waited by the hearth. The light from the flames danced with blue lights off her sleek, black hair. Her neat bun accented her high cheekbones and crystal-blue eyes. She wore a simple yellow gown beneath a fringed paisley shawl draped over her shoulders. As nearly every time he had seen her, a baby girl was not far away. The infant and a little boy were on the rug in front of the fireplace.
"Good morning, my lady," Jacob said, pushing his spectacles up his nose again after bowing his head toward her. "I appreciate you receiving me when I arrived without an invitation."
The footman cleared his throat again, this time a bit louder.
Had Jacob said something wrong? Already? He hoped the heat rising from his collar did not turn his face crimson. He seldom blushed, but when he did, there was no hiding it.
That was why he preferred speaking plainly as he had while teaching math and science at Cambridge. Unlike Lady Caroline, who was poised and never seemed to say the wrong word, he had the manners of a man who had spent most of his life with his nose in a book and his fingers upon some piece of machinery.
Another deficiency his stepmother had put on her litany of the faults that would keep him a bachelor unless she stepped in to provide him with a bride.
"By this time, you should know our neighbors are always welcome at Cothaire, my lord." Lady Caroline smiled, and the room lit up as if it were the sunniest summer afternoon instead of a chilly November morn. She walked gracefully to a chair near where the baby slept while the little boy played with wooden blocks. Sitting, she asked, "Will you join us here by the fire?"
"Thank you." He took a single step, then halted when the footman cleared his throat again.
When Jacob glanced back, the liveried man repeated too quietly for Lady Caroline to hear, "Ahem!" Did the man have something stuck in his throat?
"My father will be sorry he is not here to speak with you himself," Lady Caroline said.
"If this is not a good time"
"Nonsense. As I said, you should always consider our door open, my lord." Again she motioned for him to join her by the fire, then reached down to check the little girl. The baby had opened her eyes and stared at him sleepily. Lustrous curls topped her head.
"She has grown so big!" he said.
That brought an even warmer smile from Lady Caroline. "Yes, Joy is thriving at last. Just as Gil is." She stretched to ruffle the little boy's brown hair. "All six of the children have settled in well, whether here or at the parsonage with my brother or with my sister on the other side of the cove."
The Trelawneys, from the earl to his four children, had taken six abandoned waifs into their hearts after the children were discovered floating in a rickety boat in the cove. The family had never stopped looking for the children's parents, even though he guessed it would be a sad day when the Trelawneys had to return the children.
The footman cleared his throat yet again.
About to ask the man to stop making the annoying sound or take his leave, Jacob realized he still wore his greatcoat and carried his hat. Even he was familiar enough with propriety to know the footman had expected to take them upon Jacob's arrival. He hastily shrugged off his coat and handed it and his hat to the servant, who had the decency not to smile.
He turned his gaze to Lady Caroline. He needed to obtain her help. She was the perfect choice, and not only because she had taken on the task of overseeing Cothaire after her mother's death five or six years ago. From what he had heard, she had no interest in remarrying since her husband's death around the same time, though he suspected such a lovely, gentle-hearted woman had many offers. She treated Jacob with respect but had not flirted with him during their previous conversations. Because of that, he was willing to ask her this favor. Another woman might see his request as a prelude to a courtship.
Stepping carefully around the children, Jacob went to where she sat primly. He lifted her slender hand from the chair's arm and bowed over it before sitting across from her. His hope that he had handled the greeting correctly withered when he adjusted his spectacles and saw astonishment on her face. What faux pas had he made now?
He bit back the question as the little boy grinned at him, then pointed to the baby girl as he announced,
"Gil is very protective of Joy." Lady Caroline smiled when the baby smacked the little boy on the arm and giggled. "Though some days, I feel I should be protecting him from her." Her voice was soft and soothing as she bent toward the baby and said, "Do not hit Gil, Joy. You don't want to hurt him, do you?"
"Gil is a big boy," Jacob said with a smile Gil returned brightly. "He can take care of himself."
"Gil big boy." He tapped his chest proudly, then turned to Lady Caroline and repeated the words. Standing, he leaned on Jacob's knee. "Big, big boy."
"That you are, young man."
When the little boy laughed, Jacob could not help doing the same. He could not recall the last time he had a conversation with a child as young as Gil. He had been more accustomed to talking to his students at the university, and now most of his discussions were with the miners who worked on his estate.
The baby girl picked up a shiny stick from the rug and stuck it in her mouth, holding it by one end that appeared to be made of silver.
Jacob's bafflement must have been visible because Lady Caroline said, "Joy is getting her first tooth."
"And the stick helps?" he asked.
"It appears so. She chews on the coral. Because it is hard, the coral seems to give her relief from the pressure of the tooth on her gum."
"Do you have another teething stick?"
Her light blue eyes narrowed. "Yes, but why do you ask?"
"I would be interested in examining such a helpful device, but I dare not ask Joy to relinquish hers. She seems to be enjoying it far too much."
She rose and walked past him without a word. He jumped to his feet belatedly. Was she going to the nursery now? He glanced at the children playing on the floor. She was leaving him with two babies? If she knew the truth of how untrustworthy he could be when his thoughts were elsewhere
No! He was not going to blurt out the truth. Nobody in Porthlowen knew of his past, and he intended to keep it that way. He had no worries about his family discussing the tragedy that had left his darling Virginia dead the night he proposed to her; they preferred to act as if the accident had never happened.
Too late, he realized Lady Caroline held a bell to call for someone to fetch the teething stick. He should have guessed, but he was too unaccustomed to having servants ready to answer any summons.
Somehow, he managed to say, "If it is an inconvenience."
"None." She rang the bell, and the door opened in response.
While she spoke to a maid, Jacob tried to regain his composure. How she would want to laugh at him for being unsettled at the idea of being left alone with a two-year-old boy and a baby! Not that she would laugh. She was far too polite.
The maid returned moments later with another smooth stick. Lady Caroline took it, then handed it to Jacob before thanking the maid, who curtsied before leaving. As Lady Caroline went to sit by the children, Jacob examined the coral stick. The flat sides resembled a table knife.
"Fascinating concept," he said, glad to concentrate on something other than his disquiet. He ran a single finger along the smooth, cool coral. The silver handle, which was connected to a ribbon, was embossed with images of the sun and flowers and birds.
"The ribbon can be tied to a child's waist to keep the teething stick from getting lost, but my mother stopped doing that after I almost knocked an eye out with mine when I was a baby. Apparently, my cheek bore black bruises for a week."
Jacob tried to envision Lady Caroline as an infant with a black eye. The image banished his dark thoughts temporarily, and he laughed. "It sounds as if your mother was a wise woman."
The sorrow in her voice subdued his laughter. What a fool he was! Speaking of her mother's death would remind her as well of her husband's. He knew how impossible it was to forget someone loved and lost forever. Unsure what to say, he fell back on the cliched. "You must miss her."
"Yes." She squared her shoulders and looked at him directly. "Now tell me what has brought you to Cothaire this morning, Lord Warrick. I know you are a busy man, and I doubt this is a social call."