An unseemly proposal...
Juliet Winters has come up with a wonderfully devious plan to avoid marrying her vile cur of a cousin. First, she'll propose marriage to her handsome, reclusive neighbor, Lord Colwyn. Then, once she has both name and financial support, she'll be able to pursue her true (if rather unladylike) passion -- breeding dogs. But when Lord Colwyn rejects her proposal... Juliet must take matters into her own hands.
The last thing Benjamin Colwyn expected was for the spirited Juliet to blackmail him into marriage -- especially not by kidnapping his beloved canine companion. Yet despite his yearning for peace and isolation, he finds himself wanting to help her, if only to protect her from a marriage to a disreputable scoundrel. He certainly doesn't expect the woman who pilfered his dog to steal his heart, as well...
|Publisher:||Entangled Publishing, LLC|
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About the Author
Frances Fowlkes lives in South Carolina with her high school sweetheart, three red-headed sons, and a spoiled standard poodle. When not writing about ardent heroes or strong-willed heroines, she enjoys spending time with her family, playing with making, and planning her next vacation.
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Miss Winters Proposes
By Frances Fowlkes, Robin Haseltine
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2015 Frances Fowlkes
All rights reserved.
Surrey, England Early Winter 1818
Thief, blackmailer, and wife were three titles Juliet Winters had hoped never to claim. They did not suit, describe, or otherwise reference her person. She was the daughter of a wealthy baron, a law-abiding Englishwoman, and at the age of four and twenty, a happily confirmed spinster.
And yet, in the space of this one morning, she had earned the first title, was on the verge of risking the second and, despite her own preferences in the matter, praying Lord Colwyn would offer her the last.
The words were spoken with utter bewilderment, as though even the speaker could not believe Juliet had succumbed to the desperation that had forced her hand and now had her scrambling for a seat in Lord Colwyn's warm and sunlit parlor.
Juliet lifted her eyes to meet his addled gaze. Her neighbor looked much the same as when she had seen him last—tall, well-groomed, with dark brown hair cropped close to his head, much like an imposing statue of some ancient Roman senator. A shadow of a beard covered a wide and dimpled chin, while a pair of soft, sad brown eyes stared at her in confusion.
He was devilishly handsome. But only a means to an end.
"Lord Colwyn, I wonder if I might have a moment of your time?"
Her voice was even and controlled, unlike her stomach, which roiled and churned and threatened to displace itself on the intricate print of his Axminster carpet.
"I-I-why, I suppose, yes." His dark brows furrowed. "Is there something amiss?"
Of course there was something amiss. As a general rule, her sex did not invite themselves into a gentleman's home. They did not call before luncheon. And they most certainly did not steal a man's prize bitch in whelp.
Blood roared in her ears. Perspiration chilled her fingers. "Yes and no. It depends on you."
"Me?" he asked, surprise saturating his words. "I'm afraid I don't understand."
Juliet cleared her throat and lifted her chin. "I require your assistance." More than he could ever hope to understand.
He pulled at the crisp linen of his cravat, the swell of his Adam's apple bobbing over the top of the creamy white-colored fabric. "I shall do my best to aid you in any way I can."
Spoken as a gentleman ought, much to his credit. Juliet folded her hands on her lap, her heart racing as she sought to summon the courage required to state her farcical, and yet vital, request.
"I wonder if you might consider offering your hand."
"My hand." It was statement, not a question, uttered in the same tone one might ask for another piece of cheese or glass of champagne.
Which, at the moment, Juliet would have liked to indulged. But seeing as how it was only ten in the morning and she was not likely to be offered a glass, she simply nodded her head.
"Yes. In marriage."
The creases disappeared, his forehead smoothing into one of unfettered enlightenment. "And to whom would you have me tender such an offer?"
Juliet laced her clammy fingers together and swallowed. "Me."
His intense scrutiny forced her gaze to the intricate Oriental design of the carpet. Juliet knew she wasn't the most attractive creature. She was all skin and bones, without any curves at all. And while she possessed fair and unblemished skin, one could hardly see it for the dense layer of brown freckles covering its surface. Even her hair rebelled against her. Instead of a coveted blond or raven black, her strands were a startling shade of ginger, unable to be dulled or muted with any tonic or peddler's dye. Her only redeeming feature was her eyes. They resembled her mother's, a shade of blue her father said rivaled the sky.
But blue eyes, no matter how deep or rich their color, could hardly compensate for the rest of her lacking features, as her cousin was so oft to remind her. And it seemed Lord Colwyn agreed, for the room was silent, save for the occasional crackle of firewood burning in the grate.
At the point when she thought she might die from asphyxiation, Lord Colwyn answered.
"No?" She hadn't really thought he'd say yes, but anticipating the rejection and actually hearing it were two entirely different things.
"I'm afraid I cannot marry you, Miss Winters."
"But why not?" Was she truly so dreadful? She knew her accomplishments were few, but her reputation was impeccable, she had all of her teeth, and honestly, he had not even asked after her dowry, which, to some spendthrift peer, would be quite welcome.
"Because I am not in need of a wife." His tone was definite. Conclusive. And utterly ridiculous.
Juliet snorted. "Every nobleman is in need of a wife. How else will you perpetuate the viscountcy?"
A thick brow lifted. "Are you saying you wish to marry me for my title?"
"No, no, heavens no." She vigorously shook her head in the negative, working loose a stray curl that floated in front of her face. His title was of little consequence. What was important, however, was that he was an eligible bachelor who was of sound mind and good character, and one who would likely ignore her after they wed, if rumors of his reclusiveness held true. "I simply assumed you would wish an heir, sir."
"Indeed I do not."
This was not going well. But if Juliet was anything, she was prepared. If her first reason did not convince him, she would have to keep trying until she hit upon one that would.
"I have a considerable dowry."
"A circumstance that should get you easily married to another."
Well, now he was being rude.
Juliet let out an exasperated huff. "Aren't you the least bit curious to know why I went against social mores to call on you and ask for your hand?" The slight lilt in her question betrayed her nerves.
His gaze fixed on hers. "Since you have claimed disinterest in the viscountcy and have no need of my meager income, what with the riches of your own dowry to offer, I can only presume it was desperation that compelled you, Miss Winters."
"Yes, but not the kind—"
"To which I take offense."
Juliet's mouth hung open. Did he think she carried another man's child or some other equally outrageous scheme? Why, the only pregnant one involved in this whole mess was his bitch.
This was not going at all as she had planned. He was supposed to thank her for her thoughtfulness and the willingness to perpetuate his line—something she did not even wish to do. "I did not mean to offend, sir. I meant it as a—"
"A compliment?" He peered at her with a pair of questioning eyes. "I am to believe, then, that being proposed to by a woman at the very last inch of her rope, one who has admitted to being driven by desperation to ask for my hand, is a compliment to my character?"
Well, when he put it that way, she didn't suppose it was. "I hold your character in the highest regard, sir. Indeed, it was why I sought you above your peers. I thought perhaps if I were to—"
"Forgive me for not conceding to your request, but I find I cannot accept your offer, regardless of your reasons for coming here."
Juliet gaped. Forcing her mouth into motion, she uttered, "But—but, perhaps if you knew my circumstances, you would then realize how I—"
"You must understand, should any other woman come seeking my hand, I would deny her as well. I do not wish to marry, nor do I have any plans to do so in the future." He tugged on his cuffs, adjusting the fit of his tailored jacket. "Now, if there is nothing else you wish to ask me, I have some pressing business that requires my attention."
She had been dismissed, tossed aside as though she were an unwanted piece of toast at a harried breakfast.
But Juliet was not finished. She had desperation on her side. And desperate people were ... well, desperate. And persistent if nothing else.
"There is one last thing." Exasperation drenched her words, but she stared at the man with determination.
The reluctant viscount closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. "And what is that?"
"As you have refused my offer, you now force my hand."
"Miss Winters, please. I have important business—"
"Agree to marry me, my lord, or you will never see your prize English pointer in whelp again."
* * *
He should be flattered, really, that a woman thought so highly of his reputation she resorted to blackmail in order to force his hand in marriage.
But he wasn't. Benjamin Stephenson Colwyn, the sixth Viscount Colwyn, was not flattered. In fact, he was rather horrified by his neighbor's daughter's ludicrous proposition.
Not because he feared marriage, though he did. He had no desire to enter into an arrangement that had previously brought him nothing but pain, sorrow, and guilt.
No, he was far more terrified by what the small, almost pixie-like woman who sat rigid in his mother's old arm chair, had threatened. The one thing his sister's, indeed, her entire family's future depended upon: Artemis.
"My prize English pointer?" he rasped, disbelief and anxiety coloring his inquiry.
Miss Winters tilted her head to the side and gave a little shrug. "Well, I assume she is a prize, as my father would hardly let anything less mate with the pride of his kennel."
"Devil take it." He ran a hand over his bristly jaw, his pulse thundering in his ears. "You've taken Artemis?"
Eyes the color of summer delphinium held his gaze, their clear depths assessing his. "I did not stop to introduce myself to her, and therefore am unacquainted with her name. But, if you refer to the fine liver-and-white English pointer you brought to Hollington to breed with my father's stud, then yes, I believe I took your Artemis."
This could not be happening. He needed that dog. More importantly, he needed her puppies and the opportunities they promised. Benjamin swallowed, his throat dry. "What have you done with Artemis, Miss Winters?"
"Nothing that will bring her harm, I assure you."
He placed a hand on his head and began pacing the length of the room, beads of perspiration trickling down his neck. "Then what exactly have you done with her?" Dainty elfin hands fidgeted in her lap. "I have simply relocated her. She will be perfectly fine, should you accept my proposition."
Her proposition. The one she demanded and he could not give. That he would not give. She was being irrational. There must be another way to make her see reason.
"Then I'll simply speak with your father. He can force you to end this charade and divulge her location."
Her narrow chin lifted. "You could try, but I doubt you would have much success."
Benjamin stilled. "Is that a challenge?"
"No." She shook her head. "More of a promise, really."
He dragged a hand over his face. This slip of a girl had emptied the last store of his patience. "You have yet to give me a reason why I should not ride over to Hollington right this moment and demand an audience with your father."
"Only one reason, my lord? That hardly seems challenging at all. Why, I shall give you several." She held up her hand and ticked items off on her fingers. "The first being my father is still abed and would not be able to grant you an audience at all."
Benjamin held back a string of epithets. "That is easily remedied."
"Second, should he be awake, he may or may not receive you. He has been rather disagreeable as of late. Maddeningly stubborn, he is."
He rang for his butler, readying himself for the ride to Hollington. "This is absurd.
Your father was fine when I saw him last."
"Yes, I suppose he was. But five weeks ago his body was not plagued with chills or ravaged by fever."
He had not heard of the baron's illness, indeed he had not heard from the baron at all in the weeks since Benjamin had left Artemis in the man's capable care. The two held an arrangement, one where Benjamin's presence was only required when the bitch whelped, thus enabling Benjamin to maintain a strict distance from a hound that was fast becoming more than a source of financial income, but also one of camaraderie, and worse, affection.
The baron's silence had been welcome. No news was good news. Though now that appeared to not be the case.
"You have my sincerest sympathies. I was not aware of his afflictions."
She peered up at him with her breathtaking eyes. "Are you aware my dowry includes his dogs, Lord Colwyn?"
Benjamin's hand's fell from the satin bell pull. "His dogs?"
Lord Roughton's line was known the country over, indeed, across the entire isle. Scottish lords and English aristocrats vied for the baron's champion English pointers. He had created the perfect hunting companion, one with an innate ability to sniff out the slightest hint of bird. That she should receive his legacy was nonsensical.
"A part of it, yes. My mother's grouse moor, Evenrood, in Northumberland, is also included."
"A very tempting dowry. I am certain many a gentleman has offered for you."
"A few have sought my father's permission." She peered out the window where the last of autumn's leaves refused to fall. "I rejected them."
Benjamin near toppled over the side table in front of him. "I beg your pardon?"
She straightened her skirts, the attractive muslin rustling against her legs. "I do not wish to be married."
Benjamin's mouth fell open before he had the decency to clamp it shut. The girl must be jesting. "You proposed to me. Is that not in contradiction to your goal?" Her head swiveled toward him. "I may not wish to be married, my lord, but my father desires it. Specifically to his heir, my cousin."
It made sense Lord Roughton would wish to see his daughter settled and provided for before he passed. That he should choose his heir, the man who would inherit his property, even more so. Clearly the man still had his wits about him. And yet ... Benjamin allowed his gaze to wander over the petite woman sitting in his parlor. She was not a typical beauty, what with her cinnamon-colored hair and freckle-covered skin, but then, he had never held much regard for conventional standards. There was a hint of defiance in her eyes, a flare of passion that might tempt a man. Had he known her before Amelia's death, even he might have been intrigued.
But not now. Not when he was so close to setting up a deal easing his sister's financial woes.
"You reject his logical selection, Miss Winters?"
Of course she did. "Might I ask why you believe I would make a better choice than the man who stands to inherit your family's home? The same man who already has your father's approval?"
"Because my cousin and I do not suit." Her mouth puckered as though she had tasted something sour. "He wishes to pursue politics."
Benjamin let out an exasperated sigh. "Some would consider that a noble pursuit."
She stood, her green skirts swishing over her ankles. "I am a solitary creature, much happier amongst hounds than humans. I would not do well attempting to fill the social obligations required of a politician's wife."
He could sympathize with her. He, too, preferred his docile canine companions to the savagery of London Society. But her quandary was not his concern. He was fighting his own demons, one of them being the slender thief in his parlor who now stood, awaiting his reply.
"While I sympathize with your predicament, I fail to see how marrying me will resolve your problem. You will still be married to someone you do not suit."
"On the contrary, my lord. As neither of us want to marry, and as both of us have interests in breeding hounds—"
"You wish to raise hounds?" This slender creature desired to pursue a masculine pastime?
She gave an enthusiastic nod. "Yes indeed. I am on the cusp of creating a new line, one that will rival my father's." She blushed and glanced toward the floor. "Which is why I cannot marry my cousin. A politician's wife can hardly engage in such unfeminine pursuits, even if I require a husband's name and financial backing to continue to do so."
"A situation I'm certain you will resolve once you are married. I'm sure your cousin will be quite understanding." Benjamin clasped his hands together. "Now, if you could lead me to Artemis, I would be most appreciative. I am eager to see how she is faring."
"Three weeks, my lord."
The baron's daughter strode toward him. She smelled of nutmeg and ginger, and Benjamin was quite certain, were he to lean forward, her hair would smell like the spice its color so closely resembled. He stepped to the side and headed toward the window.
Excerpted from Miss Winters Proposes by Frances Fowlkes, Robin Haseltine. Copyright © 2015 Frances Fowlkes. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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