Lucy Betancourt’s future looks bleak. The daughter of an ailing vicar in a village with no eligible bachelors, her only hope is to find employment as a governess or companion. As she helps her childhood friend, the new Duchess of Worley, through her pregnancy, the ever-practical Lucy makes her plans. But life—in the way of the dashing Bex Brantwood—has something else in store for Lucy…
Upon meeting Bex, the duke’s cousin, Lucy offers herself up to him. But Bex is no family man looking for a governess. And Lucy is not exactly mistress material. Still, the misunderstanding ends in a kiss neither can
forget . . .
Bex finds the proper vicar’s daughter and her most improper proposal endlessly amusing—and attractive. But, saddled with debt, he’s in no position to keep a woman, much less marry one, which is what a woman like Lucy deserves. Little does he know that even with her reputation at stake, Lucy will take the biggest gamble of her life by following her heart—straight into his arms . . .
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There were times in which one could be cognizant that one's perspective on a situation was at once both absurd and entirely sensible. As Lucy watched her dearest friend retch violently into a chamber pot, she held back pangs of envy even as she held back her friend's thick, plaited hair.
Lucy did not normally desire to toss up her breakfast, of course, but Emma's uneasy stomach was in fact an unmistakable sign that she was expecting her first child. Envy, as it happened, was an unfamiliar and awkward-fitting cloak for Lucy. She flushed with shame for the feeling, grateful Emma could not see her face and, as dear friends are capable, divine her thoughts.
No matter how much one envied the situation of another person, Lucy reminded herself while handing her friend the damp cloth she held at the ready, one should always be conscious that no situation was entirely free of difficulty. Certainly, this wisdom applied most fittingly at the present. Just as dismal circumstances often held silver linings, so did the sunniest of situations possess the occasional black cloud. Were these black linings?
Emma was recently married, and to a duke, no less. She was deeply in love with her husband, she was the mistress of a stately manor, and she had recently learned she was expecting the first of likely many children from her marriage.
She was also violently ill on a daily basis, and the illness had not subsided as her pregnancy progressed.
Lucy, by contrast, was unmarried with no prospects and no connections other than the recent elevation of her childhood friend to the rank of duchess. The plans she was currently making for her future meant she would likely never know motherhood. She did, however, feel quite well at the present. She'd only moments ago been contemplating her delicious morning repast. Breakfast at the vicarage with her parents was usually quite simple: strong tea, toast, a boiled egg. The elaborate meals served at the London residence of the Duke and Duchess of Worley had proven one of the great delights of the visit.
It was as simple as that. She was ashamed to have experienced even a moment of jealousy. For all of Emma's happiness today, she had paid dearly for it, suffering the loss of her parents and the shame of society for a broken engagement. Lucy had never before compared her friend's circumstances, good or bad, to her own situation.
She should feel nothing but joy for her friend's expectant state and empathy for her present discomfort. And she did feel all of those things, but there was a tiny seed of a sinful voice that whispered, This will never be me.
She studiously ignored it.
"Oh, Lucy," Emma croaked. "I am so sorry." She rocked back on her heels and exhaled heavily.
"Do not apologize again," Lucy chided, taking back the cloth. "I shall be horribly offended if you believe we are not dear enough to witness the contents of each other's stomachs."
Emma grimaced toward the metal pot. "Will you help me to bed, Lucy?"
Lucy assisted Emma in rising to her feet and supported her as she walked unsteadily to the stately four-poster bed. Still holding Emma with one arm, Lucy used her free hand to pull back the delicately embroidered coverlet and plump the soft pillow in preparation for her friend.
"You are such a sport to care for me this way," Emma said with a sigh as she lowered herself into the spot Lucy had prepared. "I fear I am building a debt I shall never repay."
"Nonsense." Lucy helped Emma the rest of the way into bed and pulled the coverlet up to her gently rounded middle, smiling as she did so. "It's the reason I'm here, isn't it?" Emma rolled onto her side and drew up her knees. "It was supposed to be a ruse. When I invited you to come, I knew you wouldn't agree unless you thought there was some greater purpose to your visit. I never truly expected to need so much help. I just wanted your company. The sickness was supposed to have ended weeks ago."
Lucy stepped back and stood, arms crossed, assessing her patient. "You are not as sly as you might think. I knew you were planning more for a companion than a nursemaid, but you will accept both graciously or I shall feel horribly manipulated."
Emma placed one hand on her stomach while she sucked in and expelled heavily a deep breath of air. "I daresay it's beginning to pass now." She took two more similarly deep breaths, as though testing this declaration, then rolled gently onto her back again, keeping her knees in their bent position. "Would you mind propping me up a bit? I seem to do better that way than lying flat."
Lucy obliged her. "Take care for your stubbornness, Emma. There is no need to push yourself to recover instantly."
Emma flashed Lucy a wide-eyed look of innocent confusion.
Lucy responded with a chiding grimace. "Do not pretend you've no idea what I'm about."
"Oh, be fair, Lucy, you're no less stubborn and independent than I," Emma said, beginning to regain her color as though by force of will.
"But I am not the one applying that trait to defy a present ill state," Lucy said, pulling the bell to have the soiled pot removed. "I've had no less than three letters from your sister-in-law insisting that I be particularly vigilant for your overdeveloped sense of independence."
Emma's eyes lifted heavenward. "It's lovely of Charlotte to be concerned, but she's just as mule headed as the two of us. She says she detests London so much, she will not come until I've provided a niece or nephew to visit, even though we have seen neither her nor Hugh since their wedding."
"With or without a visit, she has very strong opinions on the attention and care you are to receive and I will be quite unable to face her if I fail," Lucy said with a teasing smile.
"You are a tyrannical caregiver, Lucy, and I love you for it. I'm certain I shall be well by dinner. I was reckless to choose cake at tea. I've had a very tenuous relationship with sweet things of any kind. They always look so appealing, but are absolutely certain to turn my stomach of late." She released a wistful sigh. "It really is a wretched tease. I have never craved sweet things before. Now I want them more than ever, but am not allowed to partake without dire consequence."
"It is cruel, isn't it?" Lucy asked, taking a seat in the small chair nearest Emma's bed. "I promise you, once you have delivered this child into the world, you shall have all the cakes and sweet things you desire. For now, I shall kindly request your cook help you avoid temptation."
Emma reached out and placed a warm hand over Lucy's. "I am fortunate in my choice of caregiver, it would seem, even if it was not my intention that you should be called into service."
Lucy clasped her hands in her lap and spoke firmly. "I'm glad you think so, as I've made a decision, Emma, and I will need your help."
Emma's hands paused in the motion of smoothing her coverlet over her lap and she peered at Lucy. "What sort of decision?"
Lucy straightened her shoulders and fortified herself against Emma's disapproval. "A decision about my future," she said, with what she hoped was a convincingly decisive dip of her chin.
"You were always one for making plans, Lucy, so I cannot say I am surprised, but I will caution you, with myself as an example. You cannot always plan what your future will hold." She patted Lucy's hand. "But I am rambling. Go ahead, please. What have you decided?" "I have decided that you have done me a great favor by bringing me to London as your companion. The particular recommendation of the Duchess of Worley will be invaluable in gaining another post as a companion or governess after the baby is born and you are no longer in need of my help."
Emma's distaste for the plan was evident a full breath before the peppering of questions began. "But what need have you of a post? Why would you want to be a governess? Has something happened to your father?" Lucy shook her head. "Perhaps I should not have upset you while you are still recovering. We can discuss this later."
"Nonsense. You cannot make such an announcement and simply leave it alone. We'll discuss it now," Emma said, regaining possession of the full imperiousness that allowed her to appear every bit a duchess when she so desired.
Lucy, who had played with Emma as a girl and helped the woman after tossing up the contents of her stomach mere moments ago, was not so susceptible to the intimidating tone. "Don't play duchess with me," she said, leaning forward in her chair. "I'll have your rooms littered with cakes and see where you are then."
"But why, Lucy?" Emma asked, ignoring the teasing threat. "What has happened? Is your father ill?"
Lucy felt a pang of guilt at the worry that once again depleted the color in her friend's face, when she had only recently recovered it. "My father and mother are both well enough. There is no cause for concern."
"Then whatever has prompted this ... this ... preposterous idea?" Emma lifted her arms and dropped them to the bed again in a huff to punctuate her statement. "Positions as governesses and companions ... these are for women in need of a position — women with no family support. You are not without a home. You are not without friends."
"The idea has been prompted by good sense," Lucy explained pertly. "My father is not ill, but he is aging. He has decided he is no longer able to proceed without the assistance of a curate. That will mean extra cost for wages, not to mention the addition to the household. It is past time I ceased to be a burden to my parents." She swallowed heavily. "And my father will not live forever. He will be gone someday."
My, but it was disturbingly final to say it aloud. She'd thought of it, of course, but when given a voice, it seemed so much more ... imminent.
"Well, all men will someday be gone," Emma declared.
"That was true of your father before you were even born."
"But he is older now," Lucy said with quiet resolve, "and I am grown. I cannot pretend that my future life has not arrived. I am four and twenty this year. My father will be nearly sixty years. One day, my father will be gone and there will be a new vicar, and he will live in the parsonage house with his family. I cannot remain there."
"Of course not. You will be married with a brood of children by then," Emma declared.
That seemed very unlikely to Lucy, as she had received no offers, nor encountered any likely prospects, in all her twenty-four years. Though her parents had not said as much, Lucy knew the decision to employ a curate changed their situation considerably. The expenditure would gradually whittle away any funds set aside for supporting Lucy or her mother once her father was gone. How could Lucy in good conscience accept a dowry of any amount if it left less for her mother in the event of her father's death?
She did not burden Emma with these details, but instead said, "Perhaps," with a shrug of her shoulders. "Taking a position as a companion or a governess does not prevent me from marrying someday, it simply provides a safeguard against the possibility that I do not."
Emma speared Lucy with a dubious expression. "You are not likely to meet any eligible gentlemen from a position caring for children too young or ladies too feeble to be out in society."
Lucy laughed. "I am no less likely to meet a man as a governess than I am hiding away in Beadwell, where all the gentlemen are either far too young or far too old."
Emma sighed, but she did not dispute Lucy's rationale. Both women knew well there were no eligible men of any station in the little village.
There was a knock on the door followed by the entry of a maid who, at Lucy's nod toward the offending pot, hurried to collect it and left the room with a promise to return shortly with a clean replacement.
"Still," Emma said once the maid had gone. "I repeat my point. All men will someday be gone. What has created the present urgency?"
"It is not so much urgency, as opportunity," Lucy explained. "Serving as companion to a duchess during her confinement will serve as a very high reference. Especially," she added, her eyes wide with meaning, "if I may rely upon said duchess to make a few useful introductions to those families who may be in need."
Emma sighed. "I'll grant your rationale is not entirely illogical. Still, I find I don't want to go along with it. Any of it. In fact, at the moment, I rather dislike this penchant of yours for forward planning."
Lucy stood and placed closed fists on her hips. "Must I remind you again you are being stubborn?"
"But I am stubborn for good cause, Lucy," Emma said from her bed, not in the least quelled by having to look up from her supine position. "I understand your desire to take responsibility for your future, but I don't believe you've sufficiently thought this through."
"But I have," Lucy insisted. "My circumstances are exactly the sort that lead a woman to take a position of employment. I am gently bred, but of little means. My prospects for marriage are slim, but I am respectable and well read. I've benefited from lessons alongside the daughter of an earl," she said with a pointed look toward Emma. "I am capable of conducting myself properly with the highest levels of society, and I play both the pianoforte and harp." Lucy lifted her chin. "When viewed objectively, I have excellent qualifications."
Lucy waited for Emma to rise to their debate, but she did not.
Instead Emma gazed up at her with such sorrow, Lucy could have just as well announced the death of a beloved mutual friend. "I beg you to reconsider. It is a lonely position in which to be in any household, Lucy. You will be neither family nor staff. Do you really want to take all your dinners on trays sent to your room and be left to yourself for long stretches of time when the family have no need of you?"
"I believe most women in service would consider long stretches of time to themselves a rather luxurious perquisite," Lucy pointed out.
Emma shook her head, having none of Lucy's rationalizations. "What a waste of your endearing personality, Lucy, to be shut up in a room and no one upon whom to bestow it."
"But you make it sound as though I shall be caged," Lucy said on a laugh. "I'm sure if I've the benefit of free time, I shall be allowed to leave my room." She put one hand to her mouth and whispered loudly, "They may even task a maid to walk me now and then. Pets do benefit, I understand, from the fresh air."
Emma pressed her lips together and shook her head. "Do not tease, Lucy. My concerns are for your happiness. I only mean to caution you of the consequences of your choice."
Lucy sat again. "And so you have, dear. And I am grateful for it, but I have been considering this with great care. It truly is the most sensible thing for me to do. You have provided me with an opportunity too convenient to dismiss."
Emma pouted. "I would much rather spend this time in London introducing you to eligible gentlemen."
Lucy laughed again. "Aren't we disregarding a rather obvious impediment to your sponsoring any debutantes this coming season?" She glanced meaningfully at the recently replaced chamber pot.
Emma scrunched her lips together. "Well the timing is poor, I'll grant you. , but Aunt Agatha could do it." She shrugged her shoulders. "And I would be there to ... advise you."
Lucy laughed. "But you had a horrid debut season!" She sat down next to her friend. "Emma, your willingness to disregard all obstacles in pursuit of my happiness is why you are the very best sort of friend." She smiled, dreading Emma's disappointment. "You know this cannot work. Presenting me at society events full of lords and ladies will not make me any more likely to be married than I am today. I am not a worthy match for the sort of society you and the duke keep. I will be tolerated as your friend, but will otherwise be entirely out of place. That is all. No one would be queueing up to pay calls or make offers to me."
Emma opened her mouth, but Lucy stilled her friend's objection with a hand on her shoulder. "Besides," Lucy said, "Aren't well-bred ladies supposed to retire to their country houses when they're increasing?"
Emma sniffed. "Not this well-bred lady. John is anxious to take his seat in the House of Lords and do what good he can in furthering the reform agenda. And I am not keen to be apart from him. I can be perfectly respectable remaining here, in London. Besides," she said, displaying the first bright smile since she'd become ill that morning, "I've discovered the benefit of my rank is that I am less likely to be deemed 'not respectable' and much more likely to be considered merely peculiar."
Excerpted from "The Offer"
Copyright © 2017 Sara Portman.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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