In USA Today bestselling author Sally MacKenzie’s charming Spinster House series, love is always a welcome guest…Two possible futures loom before Miss Anne Davenport. The first option: sharing an unhappy home with her father and soon-to-be stepmother. The second: a life of independence at the Spinster House—if only her friend, Cat, would vacate the premises and marry the Duke of Hart. A well-placed whisper about the pair’s secret tryst might speed the course of true love. But the duke’s stubborn cousin poses an obstacle. A ridiculously handsome, very persuasive obstacle…
Nate, Marquess of Haywood, has spent his life looking out for the duke, hoping to stave off a family curse. The only way to keep his cousin alive is to keep him single. That means convincing the intriguing Miss Davenport that her lovely lips could be put to far better use than gossiping. Kissing, for instance. In fact, Nate is beginning to hope that Miss Davenport’s destiny lies not in the Spinster House at all, but with him …
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Baron Davenport’s daughter, Miss Anne Davenport looked at the Spinster House. It wasn’t a remarkable edifice. In fact, the place looked like all the other village houses— two stories, thatched roof, of average size. It was much smaller than Davenport Hall, the comfortable house she shared with her father.
And might all too soon share with a stepmother and stepbrothers.
Anne’s fingers closed into two tight fists. How can Papa wish to marry a woman a year younger than I am?
She forced her fingers to uncurl. There was nothing mysterious about the situation. Mrs. Eaton was a widow with two young sons. She’d proved her procreation abilities—and Papa needed an heir.
And if—when—Papa married Mrs. Eaton, Anne would have to turn over all control of Davenport Hall to her, after almost a decade of making the household decisions herself. That thought had been so distressing, she’d considered marrying anything in pantaloons just to have a home of her own.
But then she’d thought what must happen when the pantaloons came off.
She shivered—and not with anticipation. Not that she knew precisely what happened in the marriage bed, but she had a general idea. And even if a woman’s marital duties were no more demanding than shaking a man’s hand, that would be too much. She’d yet to find a male she wished to spend five minutes with, let alone a lifetime.
She looked back at the Spinster House. It would be spacious for a woman living alone.
She’d not given the place much thought before. She’d been only six when Miss Franklin, the current—no, the former—spinster had moved in. Miss Franklin had been very young at the time. Everyone expected her to be the Spinster House spinster for forty or fifty or even sixty years, if she enjoyed good health. So when Papa had taken up with Mrs. Eaton, Anne hadn’t thought the house might offer a solution to her problem.
But just days ago, to the surprise and shock of the entire village, Miss Franklin had run off with Mr. Wattles, the music teacher, who had turned out to be the son of the Duke of Benton and was now, with his father’s passing, the duke himself. Even the Boltwood sisters hadn’t sniffed out that story, and they were almost as accomplished at ferreting out secrets as Lady Dunlee, London’s premier gabble grinder.
Which all meant the Spinster House spinster position was open again. The Almighty—or possibly Isabelle Dorring— had answered Anne’s prayers.
But Jane and Cat want the house, too.
Jane Wilkinson and Catherine Hutting were her closest friends, Jane a little older than Anne, Cat a little younger. They’d grown up together, giggled together, shared confidences, cried on each other’s shoulders. Cat and Jane had comforted her just the other day when she’d told them the sorry tale of Papa and Mrs. Eaton. She would do anything for them.
Except give up my chance at the Spinster House.
Speaking of Cat, was that her voice she heard? She glanced across the road, up the hill to the vicarage—
Her jaw dropped, and she blinked. No, she hadn’t imagined the scene. Cat had just darted into the trysting bushes— and the Duke of Hart had gone in after her!
Her thoughts raced. What should she do? Run for the vicar? No, Cat might be ravished before she got back with him. Scream? That would only have people rush to help her.
I’ll have to save Cat myself.
She took a step toward the vicarage—and stopped.
Wait a minute. Cat led the duke into the bushes, not the other way round. In fact, the duke had hesitated, as if he wasn’t entirely certain joining Cat in the foliage was a good idea.
Perhaps he was the one who needed rescuing.
Anne stared at the shrubbery. It had been several minutes, and neither Cat nor the duke had emerged. There was no screaming. The branches weren’t thrashing about. Clearly no one was struggling to get free.
Which could only mean they were doing something other than fighting in there.
Heavens! There was only one reason a couple went into the trysting bushes, and it wasn’t to discuss the weather.
Excitement bubbled up in her. If Cat married the duke, there would be only two candidates for the Spinster House: herself and Jane.
But Cat didn’t want to marry. She wanted to live on her own and write novels.
Or maybe she just didn’t want to marry Mr. Barker, the stodgy farmer Cat’s mother had been throwing at her head these last few years. The duke was nothing like Mr. Barker. He was handsome and wealthy. And he didn’t have an annoying mother living with him. If Cat married the duke, she’d have time and room to write as many novels as she wanted. She could—
“Ack!” She jumped several inches above the walk. Dear God, the Marquess of Haywood is at my elbow.
Her heart gave an odd little jump as well. And why not? The man presented a very, er, pleasant picture. With the strong planes of his face, his straight nose and sculpted lips, he could be a Greek statue come to life. Any woman would find him attractive.
Not to mention his warm hazel eyes seemed to look straight into her soul. When he’d opened the door for her at the inn the other day, she’d had to clench her hands to keep from brushing back the lock of brown hair that fell over his brow.
He’d been so serious then, so unlike his friend, the Earl of Evans. Lord Evans had laughed and flirted, but when Lord Haywood had spoken—just a few polite words—odd tendrils of warmth had curled low in her belly. Even now, though his tone had been rather harsh, his voice sent excitement fluttering through her.
“I didn’t see you approach, my lord.” Anne mentally chided herself for how breathless she sounded.
At least the man hadn’t noticed. Or perhaps he had and it annoyed him. His brows slanted down farther.
“You didn’t see me because your attention was elsewhere.”
He sounded disapproving. Well! She wasn’t the one engaged in scandalous behavior.
“Indeed, it was. I was quite surprised—shocked, really— to see His Grace bringing his London tricks to Loves Bridge, exploring the vegetation with a marriageable female.”
Lord Haywood’s mouth flattened into a hard, thin line, his aristocratic nostrils flaring. “Miss Davenport, I—”
His frown moved from her to the large black, white, and orange cat who’d appeared at their feet. “What the—?” He pressed his lips together, clearly swallowing some less-than polite comment. “Go along, cat.”
The cat sat down and stared at him.
“That’s Poppy,” Anne said to fill the oddly strained silence. “She lives in the Spinster House.”
The marquess transferred his glare from the cat to Anne and then back to Poppy.
“Now what’s the matter with the animal?”
“What do you—? Oh.” Poppy was behaving rather strangely. She’d arched her back, hair standing all on end, and was hissing. But it wasn’t the behavior in the vicarage bushes that she was objecting to. It was something down the walk toward the inn.
“I think the Misses Boltwood are coming this way,” Anne said.
Poppy must agree. She yowled and darted toward the Spinster House.
“Blo—” Lord Haywood caught himself again. “Blast. I just encountered them headed the other direction.”
“Well, I suppose it might be another set of elderly ladies. They are still too far off for me to be certain. In a moment I’ll be able to—what are you doing?”
The marquess had grabbed her hand and was tugging her in the direction Poppy had taken. She dug in her heels and tugged back.
“Oh, good Lord.” The marquess gave her a very exasperated look. “I’m hauling you out of harm’s way, of course. Perhaps they haven’t seen us yet.”
Sadly, a part of her wanted to go with him, but the more sensible part urged her to resist. Vanishing into the trysting bushes with a man was bad enough, but going inside an empty house—with bedrooms and beds!—was far worse. “Lord Haywood, the Spinster House is locked.”
“I know that. I’m following the cat into the garden.”
She’d just come from the garden. It made the trysting bushes look like a few small shrubs. “The garden is completely overgrown.”
“Precisely. The vegetation should hide us nicely.” He pulled on her hand again. “Hurry along, will you? Do you want those gossips to find us together?”
An unmarried man and woman conversing in public by the village green wasn’t at all remarkable, but with this man it suddenly seemed shocking. And it was true the Boltwood sisters could weave a tale that made sitting in Sunday services sound sinful.
All right. If she was being completely honest, the thought of going into the wild Spinster House garden with Lord Haywood was surprisingly thrilling. Silly, really. He looked like he was more likely to throttle her than kiss her.
She stopped resisting and let him pull her toward the garden. She would have heard if the ton considered the marquess dangerous. All anyone ever said of him was that he’d dedicated his life to keeping his cousin single—to the point of remaining single himself—and thus safe from Isabelle Dorring’s curse.
Perhaps she shouldn’t mention she was hoping the duke would marry Cat.