In Regency England, the same time period as Bridgerton and Poldark, Patience Creighton has devoted her life to running her father’s boarding school. But when the enigmatic master of the estate appears at her door, battered and unconscious, the young headmistress suddenly finds her livelihood—and her heart—in the hands of one dangerously handsome gentleman.
At twenty-five, Patience Creighton is already a spinster. The busy headmistress of Rosemere always expected a dashing man to sweep her off her feet and take her away . . . but that man never came. And since her father’s death, keeping the school running and her mother happy has been plenty to keep her occupied.
William Sterling dallied his way into financial trouble and mortal danger. When he is assaulted by his creditors’ henchmen on the road home from a tavern, he guides his horse to the doorstep of his tenant, the Rosemere School for Young Ladies. After being tended to by Patience, the wounded William rides off into the dawn—but makes a point to learn more about the lovely headmistress.
As he spends more time at Rosemere, something delicate begins to develop between William and Patience. But that will not deter William’s creditors. With little money to repay his debts, and less for the upkeep of his estate, it becomes clear that sacrificing Rosemere may be the only way to preserve his legacy. But it may also cost him his happiness.
- Book Two of the Whispers on the Moor series. Books do not need to be read in order.
- Book One: The Heiress of Winterwood
- Book Two: The Headmistress of Rosemere
- Book Three: A Lady at Willowgrove Hall
- Book length: approximately 85,000 words
- Includes discussion questions for book clubs
- Chaste, kissing-only Regency romance
About the Author
Sarah E. Ladd received the 2011 Genesis Award in historical romance for The Heiress of Winterwood. She is a graduate of Ball State University and has more than ten years of marketing experience. Sarah lives in Indiana with her amazing family and spunky golden retriever. Visit her online at SarahLadd.com; Instagram: @sarahladdauthor; Facebook: @SarahLaddAuthor; Twitter: @SarahLaddAuthor.
Read an Excerpt
The HEAD MISTRESS of ROSEMERE
By Sarah E. Ladd
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2013 Sarah Ladd
All rights reserved.
Darbury, England, February 1816
There was no doubt in William Sterling's mind. He was being followed.
He was an easy target—now more than ever.
He knew better than to travel at such a late hour in the moors, when midnight's haze shrouded the moon's gray light and the new-fallen snow gave the illusion of an even terrain.
An owl's mournful cry sliced the night's uncomfortable silence, and with a sharp click of his tongue, William urged his mount into a faster gait.
He'd avoided the main road that leads directly to Eastmore Hall's iron gate, for it was too broad. Too exposed. He chose, instead, the cart path leading from Darbury's town square to Wainslow Peak. For although it was narrow and masked with snow, he'd be hidden.
The thoroughbred beneath him pranced and skittered to the left, tossing his magnificent head in tenacious indignation. William regarded the horse's caution. Perhaps the stubborn beast was wiser than he was.
He could dismount and lead Angus back to Eastmore Hall on foot. Considering the ice and wind, it would be less treacherous. But the walk would be long and would slow his pace considerably. As quickly as he had the thought, the memory of the two suspicious men who'd been eyeing him at Griffin's End Inn came back.
No, he needed the protection of Eastmore Hall. Now.
William tightened his knees against the animal's sides and cast yet another glance over his shoulder. "Ya!"
In spite of the frigid air, perspiration trickled down his temples. Time seemed sluggish in the uncertainty. He crested Wainslow Peak, which was little more than a shallow hill with outcroppings of ancient stone, and circled his horse in the clearing next to Sterling Wood. He filled his lungs with the bitterly cold air and scanned the shadowed landscape.
The snow-covered grass swept down to the valley of the River Thaughley. The moon's waning light fell on Rosemere School for Young Ladies—his tenant.
If only Eastmore Hall were that close.
With a jerk of his gloved hand, he tipped his wide-brimmed hat low and turned his mount toward home. Without warning, a great, dark horse catapulted from the cover of the ash and birch trees and skidded, blocking the path and sending up a cloud of snow and earth. Plumes of white breath spewed from the horse's nostrils. Angus reared up, his frantic, high whinny piercing the eerie silence. With the strength afforded by shock, William tightened his legs around the horse's girth and pitched forward. He whipped his head around, searching for a pass to break free from the stony crags caging him. But instead of finding an exit, he faced another man on horseback.
"Get off the horse, Sterling."
Pulse hammering, William licked his lips and tugged the reins, circling his frenzied horse, desperate for escape. Every sordid incident that had led to this moment flashed before him in vivid detail. Remorse would do nothing now, not with a pistol pointed straight at his chest.
"I said dismount!"
William lurched around. A third pistol barrel challenged him.
Muttering, William slid from the saddle and planted his top boots in the swirling snow. If he were a praying man, now would be the time to employ such a plea. But he was beyond such saving.
William released the reins and raised both hands in the air.
The first man stepped toward him, pistol pointed. "Introductions not necessary, are they, Sterling? I daresay you know why we are here."
William shifted as the man wearing a caped coat stepped closer. He forced his voice to be low. "I have little money on me, if that is what you've come for."
"It's not your money I've come for. It's Captain Rafertee's money."
Perspiration stung William's eyes. "I have given Rafertee my note of hand. We agreed on the terms. I have three months left to provide the funds, and I will."
The man smirked and called over his shoulder to the men behind him, "Three months, lads. What do we think about that? Seems like an awfully long time to me."
The men snickered. William clenched his teeth as the pistol pressed against the wool fabric of his greatcoat.
The stranger's gravelly voice was as threatening as the pistol. "I got concerned, you understand. You left London in a hurry. Secretly, as if to avoid us. Why, you didn't even say farewell. And you've been gone for so long." A sneer cracked the man's face, and the moon's light fell on his crooked teeth.
The pounding in William's head intensified. The men behind his accuser cackled.
"We need to remind this fine gentleman that the captain won't take kindly if his money's not there when he sets foot on land again after all those months at sea. And it's my job to make sure the captain stays happy."
The man grabbed William's coat, yanked a button free, and ripped his leather pouch from the safety of his person. Without glancing down at his prize, the stranger tossed the leather packet to one of his partners.
William's attacker leaned in closer. His breath reeked of ale. If it had been only the one man, William would have taken a chance and fought—he could hold his own in a brawl. But with three, experience affirmed he'd stand little chance. A man standing behind the others walked over and slapped Angus's hindquarters and shouted, sending the animal off into the black of night.
Without a horse, William was at their mercy. He pressed his lips together and looked toward the stirring clouds.
Tonight I will meet my maker.
The gun dug into his belly. Chest heaving, William forced himself to look at his assailant. He knew not the man's identity, but he knew one thing with certainty: Rafertee cavorted with the darkest sort. The most dangerous, evil men.
William should know, for he had done the same.
William shifted. "All my money is in there. I've nothing else to give you. If you kill me, you'll never get the rest of it. What would Rafertee have to say then?"
The man's low, wide-brimmed hat shadowed his eyes. "Consider our visit a reminder. Either the good captain gets his money or you die." A sardonic laugh oozed from the man's unkempt face. "Just so you are fully aware, I'll be the one who has the pleasure of carrying out that order."
Without another word, the man's balled fist slammed into William's gut, stealing the wind from his lungs and hurling him backward. He lost his footing on the moor's icy carpet, and the sudden jolt hurled him back against a rocky crag. Before he could regain his balance, someone grabbed his coat and a fist slammed into his jaw. He fell. His head struck rock. He moved to stand, but as he did, one of the cloaked figures kicked his middle.
William collapsed, his cheek flat against the snow. A form approached, but William did not move. He could not move, even if he so desired.
"Three months, Sterling."
Another sharp kick thrust white stars across his vision, curling him in agony. His breath came in jagged gasps and burned like fire.
The voices were muffled. William could no longer decipher their words. A tunnel of sound whirred around him. Then the ground beneath him trembled as he heard the horses' hooves thunder off.
William lay still on the icy ground and groaned. The voices in his head were taunting him louder than his attackers and were impossible to ignore.
Considering the sorry state of you, you should be grateful.
Then all was still, quiet, save for the whistle of the wind through barren branches. William assessed his condition, limb by limb. Nothing appeared to be broken, but one eye was swelling shut and salty blood covered his lips.
After several attempts, William managed to roll over onto his knees. Fresh snow had begun to fall and had accumulated on his coat. He shook his arms and it scattered.
He attempted a whistle, hoping that by a miracle Angus would hear, but his upper lip was beyond such a task. So he waited and listened for any indication that his horse had not abandoned him.
He heard nothing, save for the mournful too-wit call of the owls on a distant moor.
He shouted as loud as his lungs would allow, "Angus!"
Head throbbing, ribs aching, he winced at the pain of simply breathing. He scanned his surroundings, disoriented. Had he been a more attentive estate master, he would know exactly how far he was from home. He'd be familiar with every tree. Every stump. Every vale. But in his confusion, he wasn't sure. As he turned, he noticed the black outline of chimneys rising above snow-covered trees.
Heavy snow had ridden in on the sharp easterly wind. William reached for his hat, which had fallen in the attack, and slapped it against his leg. His left eye was now swollen shut. Something warm trickled down his cheek, but his muscles ached too severely to try to wipe it away.
The familiar sound of hoofbeats clicked toward him and stopped.
Panic seized him. He scrambled under the shelter of a low bush, then turned and saw not Rafertee's men but Angus enter the clearing and toss his head.
Perhaps he would be able to return to Eastmore after all.
But when he stood, the ground beneath him spun and he staggered. He managed to put one foot in front of the other, but after two attempts to mount the horse, it became clear he'd never be able to ride the animal, not in his state. He looked back down to Rosemere, barely able to make out the tiny stable that sat just inside the courtyard wall. Did he have any other choice?
Patience Creighton clutched her loosely woven shawl tightly around her neck with one hand and lifted her lantern above her head with the other.
"Is he ... dead?"
Not waiting for her manservant, George, to respond, Patience knelt next to the stranger's battered form and winced at the sight of his swollen, purple eyelid and the dried blood on his lips.
"No, not dead." George's ever-present scent of leather signaled that he'd drawn near. "Yet."
With a trembling hand, Patience reached out to touch the man's chest, hesitant, as if with one touch he would spring to life and grab her. But her shivering fingertips landed on the damp, rough wool of his caped greatcoat, and he did not so much as wince.
"Who is he?" she asked, her eyes not leaving the still form.
"'Tis William Sterling. Do you not recognize him?"
Her landlord's name was the last name she expected to hear. "Surely not William Sterling of Eastmore Hall?"
"Aye. One and the same."
Shocked, Patience lifted the lantern higher and leaned down, squinting to make out his features in the flickering light. Mr. Sterling's hatless head rested against the dirt floor. A deep gash marred his forehead, and stubble darkened his square jaw. "Where did you find him?"
"Right here. Came down to do my morning duties, like I always do, and here he was, sprawled out on the stable floor, looking just as you see him now." The manservant knelt next to her. "His horse was in the courtyard, right outside the stable, saddled. Charlie is tending to him."
A sharp gust of wind curled in through the half-open door, slamming the door against the side of the wooden stable wall and pelting them with stinging sleet.
Patience gave Mr. Sterling's shoulder a gentle push, hoping for a response, but none came. His breath appeared so shallow that she wondered if he was still breathing. "We must get him out of the cold. Mary has a fire started in the kitchen. Quickly now."
George nudged her aside and leaned down to loop his arms under William Sterling and called to the stable boy. "Charlie, get over 'ere and help me!"
"Shh, George!" Patience waved her hands in an attempt to keep the manservant quiet. She cast an anxious glance over her shoulder to the dark house. The last thing she needed was for Rosemere's twenty-nine impressionable young students to wake and see a half-dead man being carried from the stable.
Hysteria would ensue for months.
"We mustn't wake the girls." Patience stood and tightened her thin shawl around her. "Take him in through the kitchen, and we will figure out what to do there."
Leaving George and Charlie to carry their visitor, Patience scurried from the stable and took the path to the kitchen entrance at the back of the house, the harsh wind nearly pinching the breath from her lungs.
Patience burst through the door. Mary, the aging housekeeper, looked up expectantly, her face already flushed from tending the fire. "Well? What is it?"
Patience hung her shawl on a hook, her pulse still racing from the morning's disruption. "It's Mr. Sterling from Eastmore Hall. He's unconscious. Must have been thrown from his horse." She glanced at the blaze flickering in the grate. "We are going to need hot water and linens."
Patience did not wait for Mary's response. She went to the shelf next to the wide stone fireplace where they kept her father's wooden medicine chest. Reaching up with both hands, she slid the oblong box off the shelf and tucked it beneath her arm.
Mary grabbed an armful of linen strips from a chest. "Where are you going to put him?"
Patience bit her lip as she struggled to balance a jar of ointment on top of the teak chest. She hesitated. It was imperative that none of the girls be aware of the man's presence, and George, strong as he was, would never be able to carry a man up the stairs to a proper bedchamber. She nodded toward a narrow hallway that led to the manservant's small quarters. "In George's room."
Just then, Charlie flung open the door and rushed in, prancing eagerly from foot to foot as he held the door open. George was carrying the limp William Sterling over one broad shoulder. "Where do you want 'im?"
Patience pointed toward the corridor. "Put him in your room until we can figure out a better arrangement."
Patience grabbed one of Mary's candles with her free hand and followed Charlie and George to the small bedchamber. The candlelight flickered odd shapes on the walls and slanted ceiling. Patience's heart thumped in an erratic cadence as George sat Mr. Sterling's unresponsive body on the straw mattress and peeled the soggy coat from his broad shoulders.
She set the medicine chest on the bureau. "Has he woken yet?"
George's response was none too quiet. "Hasn't made a peep."
Patience pushed her long braid over her shoulder and knelt down, positioning her candle to illuminate the man's face. Years had passed since she last encountered Mr. Sterling, but now, in the candlelight, she recognized his straight nose. The cleft in his chin. And yet, the sight before her made her cringe, for he was almost unrecognizable. His left eye was bruised and swollen shut. Dried blood and dirt crusted his lips and whiskered chin. A thick lock of dirty light brown hair swept over his forehead, and his head drooped forward in complete unresponsiveness.
Patience stood and reached for a blanket at the foot of the bed. "We must get him warm. Mary, fetch water and a compress."
George let Mr. Sterling roll back against the pillow and lifted his legs onto the bed. Patience draped the blankets over him, noting how his boots hung off the bed's end. She could not recall the last time she had seen Mr. Sterling. He may very well be the school's landlord, but he never called—his steward had attended to all matters related to the property and buildings. He never attended church. She did not doubt he paid calls to town, but she rarely had cause to leave Rosemere. Indeed, she would have had difficulty recognizing him even by the light of day when he was well, let alone in his current state.
She felt Mary at her elbow, leaning in to look. "Merciful heavens. Master Sterling looks dead."
Patience drew a shaky breath, then pressed her lips together. This man, whether he was their landlord or a common vagabond, needed their help. And as the woman in charge of the school, she would see that he received it.
"Mary, where is that compress? And get the hartshorn from Father's medicine box, will you?"
Patience sat down on the bed as gently as if it had been a bed of nails and leaned closer to study the marks on his face. "What do you suppose happened? Do you think he was thrown from his horse?"
George gave a coarse huff. "Not with that lip."
Patience's stomach churned as the meaning of his words sank in. George needn't expand on his thoughts for her to understand. The thought of a man being beaten in such a manner in such close proximity to their school! To her girls!
Excerpted from The HEAD MISTRESS of ROSEMERE by Sarah E. Ladd. Copyright © 2013 Sarah Ladd. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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