Wanted: an engagement of convenience. Found: A noble suitor.
Raised on a remote Scottish estate by her adoring grandfather, Lady Theodora Worth has inherited an earldom as well as the land itself. But when an upstart duke challenges her claim to the title and the Ladykyrk estate, Thea is suddenly in need of a husbandin name, at least. An elderly neighbor with a thoroughly modern sensibility and a dashing great-nephew just might be the answer to Thea’s prayers. Except she has no intention of marrying the first man she meets. That would be utterly ridiculous.
It just can’t be him. . .
Lord William Cavensham is entirely too devoted to his family’s estateever since he was jilted as a ladto wed, but he agrees to meet the woman his aunt has taken under her wingand introduce her to possible suitors. But after just one meeting with beautiful, spirited Thea, Will is determined to help her reclaim her title. And even moreso, he can’t stop thinking that perhaps marriage to this bold, passionate woman may be the one thing he’s been missing all along?
Praise for the Cavensham Heiresses series
“Full-bodied romance…with intelligence and heart.”New York Times bestselling author Cathy Maxwell
“Sparkling…MacGregor brings England’s Regency era to life.” Publishers Weekly
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About the Author
Janna MacGregor was born and raised in the bootheel of Missouri. She credits her darling mom for introducing her to the happily-ever-after world of romance novels. Janna writes stories where compelling and powerful heroines meet and fall in love with their equally matched heroes, and her novels include the Cavensham Heiresses series. She is the mother of triplets and lives in Kansas City with her very own dashing rogue, and two smug, but not surprisingly, perfect pugs.
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Gentle Readers beware! A Man-Eating Countess Has Set Her Course for London. Be sure to secure your daily editions. We planned to be the first to bring you the news.
Respectfully submitted, The Midnight Cryer
Ten years later in the late spring
Ladykyrk Estate, Northumberland near the Scottish border
"The new Duke of Ferr-Colby is challenging your right to the Earldom of Eanruig. He plans on moving his staff to the estate within the next couple of days." The old solicitor shook his head. "If the duke were alive to hear this, he'd shoot the man."
Lady Theodora Worth, the new Countess of Eanruig, studied the cup of tea in front of her. Her throat was drier than year-old fireplace kindling, but she didn't dare take a sip. With the trembling of her hands, she'd more likely be wearing the beverage instead of satisfying her thirst. Desperate to calm the rage that ran wild through her thoughts, she clenched her hands into fists.
"If my grandfather were still alive, we wouldn't be having this discussion. He'd still be the Duke of Ferr-Colby and the Earl of Eanruig, and I'd still have my old life."
Six months out of mourning, Theodora stood and smoothed the dull lilac muslin of her day gown. Her grandfather, the old Duke of Ferr-Colby, had been a typical duke, one with an ancient ancestral home, Dunbar on Ferr, and other entailed properties.
But he also held another title, a lesser one but no less noble — the Earl of Eanruig. It was an old Scottish title from his grandmother on his father's side. The earldom's entailed holdings consisted of property in southern Scotland. Thea's ancestors had purchased more property adjacent to the earldom's holding in Northumberland and built Ladykyrk. When Thea's grandfather had died, she'd become the Countess of Eanruig, with all the dignities that came with the title. Such titles were rare, but some of the Scottish peerages allowed women to inherit.
Her grandfather's ducal title and the entailed properties of the dukedom had passed to the duke's heir, Mr. Garrett Fairfax, a distant cousin whom she'd only met twice during her life.
For some odd reason, the solicitor stood now too. "Is something amiss, Mr. Blaze?"
"No, Lady Eanruig. It's custom that if a lady stands, then a gentleman should also stand." His reddened cheeks resembled a freshly stoked fire.
Thea blinked, then waved him to take his seat. She wasn't used to being treated as a proper lady because it had been just her and her grandfather for so long. They tended to prefer informality.
In his sixties, the old solicitor carefully took his seat once Theodora reclaimed hers. "Thank you for sitting. My knees protest all this up-and-down movement."
Thea nodded. There wasn't much call for the rules of etiquette around Ladykyrk. She and her grandfather had led a secluded life since he'd become ill. She'd missed her introduction to society, but it mattered little. Her grandfather had needed her. Though a duke, he employed few servants and acted more like a small farmer. He preferred to live at Ladykyrk instead of his ducal estate, Dunbar on Ferr in Norfolk.
They'd been each other's only family, and she missed him every day. Though elderly, he'd raised her after her parents had died when she was barely a year old. Ladykyrk was her birthright, and she'd be damned if she'd let some outlier claim it as his.
"Why is the new duke challenging me?" she asked.
Mr. Blaze pulled out a piece of paper from his lap desk. "He's well aware that the dukedom and earldom are two separate titles. The Ferr-Colby dukedom is an English title and passes through the male heirs of the body, while yours is a Scottish title that passes through the general heirs of the body. That small difference in language allows you as a female to possess the title of Countess of Eanruig and all the entailed properties."
"Then I don't see how he can challenge me."
Mr. Blaze scratched his head. "We can't find the charter bestowing your title. The fifth Earl of Eanruig gave the original back to King Charles II in 1681 as a show of allegiance. His majesty immediately wrote a new charter for the title and returned it to the fifth earl. The new duke claims it's an English title, and English law normally dictates that the earldom goes to the male heirs. Since we can't find the paperwork bestowing the earldom, you're going to have to answer his challenge by producing a written history of the title."
Thea moved to the edge of her seat. "He's saying my title is English?"
"Yes. He believes the title should have been enfolded under the Ferr-Colby dukedom when your grandfather assumed both titles." The solicitor swallowed hard. "The new duke wants the title and Ladykyrk and has sent his staff to take inventory of the assets. After the hearing, the duke plans a short visit to Ladykyrk."
"He acts as if he's already won." She tried to swallow the disbelief lodged in her throat, but it was firmly stuck. "He can't have it. This is my home."
Mr. Blaze pushed his eyeglasses back in place after they slipped to the tip of his nose. When he regarded her, his eyes appeared to have grown five times in size. "But the new duke claims he's the rightful male heir."
All she had left in the world was her title and home. "How are we going to prove he's wrong? What are we going to do?" she asked in a flurry of questions.
"It's what you're going to do, my lady." Unease etched deep furrows across his brow. "You see, my visit today is my last duty to your grandfather. I now work for the new duke. He's already petitioned the Prince Regent to award the title to him. You need to see this." He handed Thea a broadsheet.
Thea scanned the paper. The title, The Midnight Cryer, sat centered at the top. Underneath, an article appeared with the headline: "Lord William Cavensham Proves Once Again He's a Duffer When It Comes to Love."
"What does this have to do with me?"
Mr. Blaze blinked rapidly. "Look below the feature on Lord William, my lady."
Beneath the article about the man unfortunate with love, there appeared another article.
GRANDDAUGHTER DISGUISED AS A MAN-EATER CHALLENGED IN THE HOUSE OF LORDS
Gentle readers, it's come to our attention that the new Duke of Ferr-Colby is challenging the Countess of Eanruig for her earldom. You may remember that the prior duke died under mysterious circumstances. Some say the countess killed her grandfather to inherit the earldom sooner rather than later in order to marry one of her handsome footmen. Reports say the footman has been her lover for years. Could this be the reason no one has seen hide nor hair of the old duke for ages? Thank heavens, the new duke isn't afraid of this viper.
Thea breathed deeply in an attempt to calm her roiling stomach. "What utter depraved nonsense. Is this from London?"
Mr. Blaze nodded.
"Why is my family even a topic of discussion? We're so far removed from society. How can they create such lies?"
Mr. Blaze shrugged his shoulders. "Because they're dukes, my lady. Everyone wants to read about dukes. They sell papers."
She wrapped her arms around her waist. Could any worse luck seem to find her? She had no idea how to find another solicitor. Who would represent her with such rumors swirling about her? Where would one go to find someone well-learned in peerage law? For God's sake, she'd never even been to London. She'd never been anywhere except her grandfather's properties.
She focused on the opened French doors at the north end of her grandfather's study. A beautiful pond shimmered as it basked in the sunshine of a perfect late-spring day. Serene, the scene before her directly contrasted with the turmoil running amok in her heart and mind. With no warning, the biggest fish she'd ever seen broke the calm peacefulness of the water by hurling itself high into the air, twisting its tail. It seemed to defy gravity for a moment as it took command of its surroundings. With a natural grace, it fell back into the blue depths of the water.
Perhaps it was a sign that she needed to break out of the solitary existence she'd known and fight for her rights in London. Indeed, the extraordinary sight was a call to action if she'd ever seen one. Whatever it took, she planned to win.
"Thank you, Mr. Blaze." She lowered her voice. "Will you see yourself out?"
The solicitor nodded and gathered his things. He stood, and she matched his movement.
"My lady, before I leave, allow me to give you the best advice I possess. Your grandfather was a great man, and it was his wish you receive the title of Countess of Eanruig and the estate, including Ladykyrk Hall. These types of disputes are rare and will in all likelihood result in the matter being decided by the House of Lords' Committee for Privileges. They're a conservative lot who cling to precedent like a lamb to its ewe." He grinned slightly.
She didn't smile in return.
He cleared his throat, then returned to his earlier gravity. "They'll want an interview in London to take your measure. Perhaps you should review a few etiquette books. You should marry or, at least, become betrothed. Quickly. Find some English fop with noble blood. Such a measure ensures that the title will continue once you conceive a child. As important, it'll squelch the rumors. It'll be easier for the House of Lords to make the decision that you're entitled to the earldom. Oh, one more piece of advice."
Thea nodded for him to continue.
"Hire Odell as your solicitor. Good luck."
Thea didn't watch him leave. All her thoughts were consumed by the declaration that the new duke wanted Ladykyrk — her home, her life. Not only must she find a new solicitor, but also a husband. The only man she felt close to was her elderly butler who also happened to be her footman and groomsman. However, he was already married to Ladykyrk Hall's elderly housekeeper. The only local gentry who'd ever visited were old friends of her grandfather. No one was younger than the age of seventy.
She had no clue as to how to find a suitable man. Besides, who would agree to such a union? She couldn't give up her home. It was the only thing that tied her to her family.
Though she suffered loneliness from time to time, she'd become quite adept at pushing it aside and concentrating on more important things, like managing the estate, seeing the tenants were well cared for, and creating the gardens she and her grandfather had spent hours discussing and designing. Now that it was spring, she relished the idea of getting her hands dirty in the rich, cool soil as she planted in the new garden. She never imagined that her life and identity would be challenged by anyone.
Thea stared at the pond, the sun dancing in descent while the evening skies painted the horizon with brilliant blues and purples. The beautiful sight normally captivated her, but not tonight.
The responsibility for Ladykyrk belonged to her. Only she could protect the great estate from the duke. In order to save it, she needed help finding the charter and a husband.
There was only one avenue for her to pursue.
Her neighbor directly to the east, Lady Stella Payne, had been a friend of her late grandfather. She'd always been kind to Thea.
Surely, a woman of Lady Payne's stature would offer assistance and guidance.
After all, any woman who had been married three times should have a world of advice for a countess in desperate need of a husband.
* * *
"Madame, the Countess of Eanruig to see you."
Next to the towering footman who resembled a young golden Adonis, Theodora felt foolish and out of place. In happier times, she'd visited Lady Payne's estate on numerous occasions, but always in her grandfather's company. She'd never been in the spotlight — always the companion. With the handsome footman's gaze on her, she didn't know whether to enter the room or wait outside until summoned. Moments like this proved she needed a refresher in etiquette lessons.
"Come in, child," a brisk but cheerful voice called out.
Decorated in a palette of pinks, oranges, and turquoises, the massive sitting room overpowered Thea's vision for a moment. A cornucopia of settees and sofas in corals and blush-pink brocades were spread before her. There was much to admire and study in the light, colorful house, and the sitting room was no exception. But Thea pushed the natural urge to explore aside.
"Over here, Thea." Sitting near a bay window on a tangerine-colored chaise longue, the grand dame waved her jewel-encrusted fingers in the air.
As Thea approached, Lady Payne held her index finger to her mouth, signaling quiet. The biggest emerald Thea had ever seen engulfed Lady Payne's finger.
"Lord Fluff is taking his morning nap. Mustn't interrupt his lordship's routine." With a surprising agility for a lady in her mid-seventies, Lady Payne stood and pointed at a longhaired, cream-colored cat with a gray face. He opened one blue eye and inspected Thea. Finding her of little interest, he closed his eye and continued his nap.
Lady Payne took Thea's hand in hers and led her to another sitting area away from his lordship. The grand dame's fingers were cold, but the physical contact with another person warmed Thea's insides. Outside of her grandfather, she couldn't remember the last time she touched a person.
They settled into the cozy sitting area. Before long, an elderly maid presented a tea service. Lady Payne performed the elaborate ritual of pouring the tea and offering the various condiments to add to the beverage while she made idle chitchat. She selected several biscuits and sandwiches for Thea's plate and handed it to her. After she finished with her own tea and plate, she turned all her attention to Thea. "I should have invited you sooner, but I just returned from Brighton. Lovely place. With my husband's passing last year and closing up the other properties, I couldn't come back north until now. I'm so sorry for your loss."
"Thank you." She bit her lip to keep her grief hidden. Now was not the time for tears. "Will you teach me how to do that?" Thea pointed to the tea set. Alone with her grandfather, she'd never learned the proper way of pouring tea. They each had their own pots sitting on the breakfast table, and their butler never poured.
The baroness studied her. Unlike her grandfather's rheumy eyes, Lady Payne's blue eyes flashed with a brilliance that bespoke intelligence, then softened with a hint of kindness. Thea straightened her posture in a poor attempt to withstand the lady's scrutiny. Though it was a nearly hopeless endeavor, she needed Lady Payne's guidance to turn her into a suave and elegant lady, someone who could prove to all of London she was the true heir to the Eanruig earldom.
Lord Fluff decided at that moment to join them in their tea. He'd obviously discarded his disinterest in Thea since he settled on her lap. She touched the soft fur, and the cat rewarded her with a purr that made his whole body vibrate.
"Of course, Theodora. It would be my pleasure," Lady Payne said. Leaning close, she patted Thea on the knee. "Somehow the look on your face indicates there's more that you want."
Thea nodded and studied her lap where Lord Fluff currently resided. It was beyond humiliating to seek help in acquiring a husband, but she had no other choice, certainly not if she wanted to keep her house and protect her tenants. And truthfully, she'd always wanted a husband and a family. Though she'd felt adrift and feared solitude after her grandfather's death, she couldn't leave. The estate demanded her attention every waking moment since it was springtime. Crops had to be planted, and the livestock sheltered and herded to different pastures. Tenants needed as much, if not more attention.
"Lady Payne, I don't know where to start," Thea murmured.
"Lady Payne sounds off-putting for this conversation. Call me Stella," the grand dame coaxed. "Whatever is troubling you, we'll find a solution."
With a deep breath for fortitude, Thea launched into the tale. "Grandfather's solicitor, Mr. Blaze, visited me today and told me that the new Duke of Ferr-Colby is challenging my claim to my title. Months ago, Mr. Blaze submitted my petition to the crown for recognition of my claim as the Countess of Eanruig. I thought everything was in order. But today, he told me he didn't submit the charter bestowing the title because he couldn't find it. And now the new Duke of Ferr-Colby has challenged my right to the earldom."
She glanced briefly at Stella's face and found a frown along with a sudden pink stain painted on her cheeks.
"The new duke disagrees that it's a Scottish title," Thea said. "He claims it's an English one that should only be awarded to male heirs. The solicitor suggested it'll strengthen my claim if I became betrothed and marry someone noble as quickly as possible. At the very least, he recommends an engagement. I must go to London and defend myself in front of the House of Lords' Committee for Privileges. Mr. Blaze thinks ... the committee won't rule against me if I have an aristocratic family supporting me."
Completely nonplussed, Stella's eyebrows shot straight up. "Where's the charter that bestowed the title? That will have the answer."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Rogue Most Wanted"
Copyright © 2019 Janna MacGregor.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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