Agreeing to a fake betrothal should suit both society dressmaker Belle Marchmain and landowner Adam Davenant fittingly – clearing Belle's debts and keeping Adam's husband-hunters at bay. Even if blue-blooded Belle, with her extravagant clothes and razor-sharp tongue, despises the very air that nouveau riche Adam breathes!
If Adam wants a wife who's agreeable he has his work cut out. Yet when his demanding mouth caresses Belle's for the first time ever she's lost for words. Maybe Adam's found the one way to tame the only woman who's ever stood up to him and make her say, 'I do...'
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About the Author
Lucy Ashford, an English Studies lecturer, graduated in English with history at Nottingham University,and the Regency is her favourite period. Lucy, who has always loved to immerse herself in historical romances, has had several novels published, but this is her first for Mills and Boon. She lives with her husband in an old stone cottage in the Peak District, near to beautiful Chatsworth House and Haddon Hall, all of which give her a taste of the magic of life in a bygone age
Read an Excerpt
Sawle Down, SomersetMarch 1819
It was the kind of spring afternoon that touched these green Somerset hills with magicor so the locals, whose heads were filled with old folk tales, would say. Adam, a hard-headed businessman, had no time for superstitious nonsense, but he found himself doing exactly what an old quarryman would do. He let his long, lean fingers rest on the great slab of honey-coloured stone that had just been hewn from the groundthen he tapped it, once, twice, thrice. For luck.
May there be three hundred, three thousand times this wealth in the earth below me.
His big roan Goliath was tethered nearby, unconcerned by the noise of the quarry workers and their equipment as they toiled at the excavations in the heat. Adam turned to the man at his side with just the hint of a smile curving his strong mouth.
'So it's going well, Jacob?' he asked softly.
Old Jacob, in his dusty quarryman's garb, clearly couldn't wait to tell him just how well. 'Like a dream, Master Adam! Me and the lads, we were resigned to this quarry being worked out for good. Some of them never thought to get a job like this again.' The old quar-ryman could scarcely conceal his glee. 'But then you came last month and told us there was fancy folks in London interested in our stone.'
'More than interested, Jacob. Believe me, builders are clamouring for it.'
'And so they should be!' Jacob gestured towards the fresh-hewn blocks and rapped one with his callused knuckles, just as Adam had done. 'Rings true as porcelain, do you hear, sir? No faults inside her!'
Jacob followed as Adam headed across the uneven ground to speak to a group of bare-chested workers who'd been vigorously plying their pickaxes at the rock face. Clouds of dust rose and clung to their sweating backs, but they put their picks aside and grinned when they saw who was there.
Adam had slung his dark riding coat over one shoulder and moved easily amongst them asking questions, offering words of quiet praise. He was owner of this quarry and much else besides, but the rumour ran that the master had been known to wield a pickaxe himself when the going got tough and had vowed he'd never be too grand to stand shoulder to shoulder with his men.
Jacob Mallin kept close to his side, beaming with pride. 'You promised the lads you'd get this quarry workin' again, sir, and you've kept your word.'
Adam turned to him, the sun glinting on his cropped dark hair and hard cheekbones. 'I always do,' he said softly. 'Tell the men they'll be handsomely paid for their work. If there's anything else you need by way of equipment or supplies, just let my manager Shipley know.'
Jacob nodded approvingly. His men would whisper between themselves, He's a good 'un, is the master. None works harder than him or treats us better. Yes, Master Adam had his grandfather's instinct for making money. But he was also a fair man, a man who kept his promises, and the reopening of the old quarry had brought fresh hope to many lives round here.
'Aye, I'll tell the lads,' Jacob promised. 'Will you be sendin' the stone up to Bristol, sir, when it's ready?'
Adam gazed at the rolling green countryside which surrounded them, then turned back with a new light burning in his dark eyes. 'No. I'm going to build a railway to the Avon canal, and from there this stonethis new stonecan be taken by boat to the Thames and to London itself.'
'But it's not your land between here and the Avon canal, Master Adamleastways, not all of it!'
Adam had moved towards his big roan and was already securing his rolled-up coat to the back of his saddlefar too warm for the garment on a day like this. 'My grandfather never let a simple obstacle like that hold him up. And neither will I,' said Adam in a voice edged with steel.
Jacob shook his grizzled head in wonder as he watched him ride off. 'There's no stopping him,' he murmured, eyes shining with delight. 'No stopping him, that's for sure.'
Goliath was ready to gallop and Adam let him. There's nothing like the feel of the land under your horse's hooves being yours, my lad. Especially when that land but recently belonged to men who'd cross to the other side of the street rather than acknowledge you.
Those were the words of his grandfather, who with his work-roughened hands and west country vowels had laboured night and day to remove the shame of the name the upper classes scornfully gave himMiner Tom. But they'd all come to Miner Tom's funeral, oh, yes. All the gentry of Bath and London had hurried eagerly to the lavish ceremonybecause they'd realised by then how much the man they'd despised was damned well worth.
Adam's grandfather had wanted nothing more desperately than for his grandson to be accepted by the society that had spurned him. That wish had come true. But now Adam often thought that he was happiest on days like this, riding Goliath across Somerset's lush green hills and knowing that the chief wealth of those hills, the fine stone beneath them, was his to be harvested.
They'd said the Sawle Down quarry was finished. It had last been profitable fifty years ago; then the expense of extracting the stone had deterred any prospect of new investment. But Adam had anticipated the surge in demand and hence in price for good building materials; he'd made his calculations and investments and proved the doomsayers wrong.
Now his detractors would say there was no way he could get the valuable stone to the canal, that vital water link to the Thames and London. Well, he would prove them wrong again.
Suddenly a distant movement caught his eye. Another rider was enjoying the afternoon sunand blatantly trespassing on private land. A woman. Eyes narrowed, Adam urged Goliath into a canter towards her.
He swore aloud when he saw her turn her pretty dappled mare's head and set off away from him at a reckless pace. A stupid pace, that was taking her towards the edge of another old quarry.
Adam swung Goliath into a broad circle to head her off. The ground here was treacherous. Yes, the grassy slopes of Sawle Down looked inviting, butdisused quarries asidedecades of quarry debris lurked beneath the sheep-cropped turf, waiting to catch the unwary. And indeed it was only a matter of moments before the dappled mare suddenly stumbled and sent its foolish rider crashing to the ground. Adam was there in moments, swinging himself out of the saddle to kneel beside that prone body.
She was clad in a riding habit of crumpled crimson velvet. Her abundant black curls fell in loose array; her little crimson hat, set with ridiculously jaunty red feathers, lay nearby. He saw that her face was a perfect oval, with a tip-tilted nose, a rosebud mouth and thick lashes dark against creamy skin.
The faint scent of lavender drifted up to him. Who was she? What the hell was she doing, riding up here on her own? She was a lady of quality, that was clear. Apart from her fine clothes he registered that her complexion was dewy, her figure lissom. Then Adam realised that her eyes were fluttering open. He noted the tremor of fear that surged through her as she saw him towering over her. Adam was suddenly aware that his boots and breecheshis open-necked shirt, too, quite likelywere covered with dust from the quarry.
She was struggling now to stand up. He fought the impulse to offer her his dirty hand. 'Are you hurt?' he said. 'Perhaps I'
'Stay away from me!'
Adam's lip curled. As he'd thought. Quality. And her age? Twenty-six, twenty-seven, perhaps, and that disdain just had to have been with her from birth. 'You took quite a fall just then, ma'am,' he said. 'I only came over to see if you needed my help.'
She looked so pale, yet there was such determination in that small pointed chin; something rebellious in those startlingly green eyes that were assessing him. Dismissing him, God damn it.
On her feet now, she brushed down her brightly coloured habit, pushed her luxurious curls back from her face and started hobbling after her horse. 'Poppy!' she called. 'Poppy! Here, girl!'
But the mare just whinnied and trotted off to join Goliath, calmly grazing nearby. The woman bit her lip, hesitating, uncertain.
'That's horses for you,' Adam said. 'Your mare's had a fright. It was perhaps a little unwise of you to ride up here. Don't you know there are quarry workings nearby?'
'How can one ignore the hateful things?' she shuddered. 'Always so busy. So noisy.'
'Particularly at the moment, yes. But they provide work and wages for many men, and food for their families.'
She stared up at him as if he talked a foreign language, then said, 'Excuse me. You're in my way.'
He did not budge. 'Quarries are no place for sightseers,' he pointed out. 'I'm trying, incidentally, to find out exactly what you're doing up here.'
He saw her tip-tilted nose wrinkle a little at his open-necked shirt and the dust on his boots. The old, familiar bitterness surged in his veins. So. Some lordling's wife, to judge by her mount and her attire, and the wedding band on her finger. She was the kind of woman who would look down on himuntil someone enlightened her as to who he was.
He was damned if he was going to be the one to tell her.
She darted sideways to pick up her crimson hat then went marching off towards her horse again, clearly wanting no more conversation with a man she'd dismissed as a labourer. Something clenched warningly in Adam's gut as he absorbed the way she carried herself. Noted the way her pert little behind swayed under that luxurious fabric.
He called after her, 'Didn't you come up here with a companion or a groom?'
She swung round, her face still pale. 'I like riding alone. I like being alone.' She carried on stubbornly towards her mare, holding her hat with one hand and the red velvet skirt of her habit in the other. He couldn't help but notice small, neatly turned ankles in little leather half-boots.
Her dappled mare had trotted off again, away from her. Goliath watched, interested, and Adam called his big horse over. 'Here! Goliath!'
Goliath came and the little mare did, too; Adam caught the mare's reins and stroked its dappled silken neck. The woman walked back to him reluctantly.
'I'll help you up if you like,' Adam offered. 'Then I suggest you get off this private land before dusk falls. You could break your neck riding home once the light starts fading.'
'Private!' she breathed. 'Why, Mr Davenant has no more right to this land than' she swept her ungloved hand expressively 'than those black crows circling above the trees!'
A sudden cool breeze chilled the perspiration on his back. He said, 'I believe Mr Davenant bought this land a year ago, quite legally.'
She tossed her head. 'Money will buy anything, and anybody. Andlegally? Some would think otherwise.'
Hell! This time Adam felt the heat surging through his blood. If she'd been a man he'd have floored her for that!
But she was a woman all right. Her face was piquant even in defiance, her body all slender curves
Damn it. This was no time to be distracted. Adam said, 'Are you querying his right to this land?'
She faced him coolly. 'I assume you probably work for him, so I'll limit my words. I've not met Mr Davenant, but I've heard enough to know that he was not born to wealth and it shows.'
Adam hissed out a breath. 'Tell me. As a matter of interest, if you did chance to meet Mr Davenant, would you use those words to his face?'
She shrugged her shoulders, but he noticed she'd gone a little paler. 'Why not?' she said. 'He is no friend to my family. What else have I to lose?'
The sun passed behind a cloud; the moorland grasses shivered. 'You've clearly not lost your pride, ma'am,' Adam said at last. 'May I escort you on your way?'
'I know my way very well, I assure you!'
He clenched his teeth and said with icy politeness, 'Then will youcondescend to let me help you mount your horse? Or are we going to stand here till the sun goes down?'
She hesitated. 'My thanks.'
His mouth pressed in a thin line, he put his big hands round her waist and lifted her easily into her saddle. Then he went to check her mare's bridleand give himself time to cool down.
She was feather-light. She was icy with damned arrogance. She'd set his pulse racing with rageand a flicker of something else even more dangerous.
He looked up at her and patted her dappled mare's neck. 'All set,' he said flatly. 'You'd best be off.'
She nodded her head in curt thanks, then without a backward glance she rode swiftly and competently down the path.
Adam Davenant shrugged on his coat and watched her go, his gaze narrowed.
How her pretty green eyes had glittered with contempt when she spoke his name. Mr Davenant has no more right to this land than those black crows circling above the trees.
She hadn't recognised him. But one thing was very clearshe hated Adam Davenant like poison. He'd already guessed who she was. If his guess was correct, she had a brother who was heading for big, big trouble. With him.