The Heiress's Convenient Husband
April 20, 2020 (in ebook and print from Edwards and Williams)
As the esteemed magistrate over the little Regency coastal village of Grace-by-the-Sea, James Howland takes pride in protecting his village and the holdings of his distant cousin, the Earl of Howland. So, when he discovers a young lady hiding in the family's castle, his heart cannot decide which comes first-her rescue or his duty.
Outspoken Eva Faraday has been exiled to the castle for refusing to marry the man the earl picked for her. Her late father made the earl the trustee over her considerable inheritance, which she cannot access until she turns twenty-five or marries. And if she marries, her husband controls the money. She's not about to trust any Howland, but James seems ripe for rebellion. To thwart the earl's power, the two agree to a marriage of convenience, but there are darker forces afoot. Eva and James must work together to solve the mystery and stop the earl once and for all to make a marriage that is far more than convenient.
Grace-by-the-Sea: Where romance and adventure come home.
"This was such a good book on many fronts: a Regency to be proud of, a great plot, and full of perfect characters. I love it when a book makes me all excited inside. I loved it so much. Every. Single. Minute. Highly recommended. Now I can't wait for the next one!" Susan Gibson Snodgrass, Reviewer, on Goodreads (used with permission)
Grace-by-the-Sea, Dorset, England, June 1804
Whoever was using his castle was in for it.
James Howland grimaced as he rode up onto the headland. He might serve as magistrate for the village of Grace-by-the-Sea and local steward for the mighty Earl of Howland, but the castle he approached now was hardly his. Everything he had, everything he'd accomplished, was a result of his distant illustrious connection to the Howland family. Well, almost everything.
He glanced down the slope beside him to the village. As the sun neared the horizon on the warm summer evening, lamps were beginning to glow. A few couples strolled arm in arm, heading home from some event at the spa that nourished the local economy with the hundreds of visitors it attracted each year. Among those thatched-roofed cottages lived the men he had recently organized into the local militia to save them from conscription. His smile tilted up. He'd almost forgotten how good it felt to defy his lordship.
That feeling wouldn't last, of course. Once the earl heard James had refused his direct order to stay out of the king's preparations to defend the coast from Napoleon's impending invasion, James would have to pay the cost. Perhaps it would come as a tithe on his income. Perhaps a refusal to summon him to London for some event. He could only hope it wouldn't take the form of a slight to his mother, who served as companion to the earl's wife. At least his lordship likely wouldn't remove him as magistrate. It came in too handy that the man enforcing the law was in the pay of the Howland family.
In the end, he would have to accept whatever punishment amused the earl. The cost was a small price to pay for ensuring the safety of his neighbors, his friends, and his village.
And there he went again claiming ownership he could never have.
He clucked to the roan, and his gelding, Majestic, obligingly broke into a canter up the graveled drive. Majestic was becoming accustomed to the trip. James usually checked the earl's hunting lodge of a castle quarterly, but a strange light had appeared in the window twice recently. Ghosts, Mrs. Tully in the village claimed. Rubbish. Someone was sneaking inside.
He'd thought it might be his old friend, Quillan St. Claire, who was using the caves beneath the castle proper, but the former naval captain had disclaimed all knowledge. Quill had his own battles to fight. James did what he could to help. It was the least that might be expected of any Englishman with Napoleon massing his troops just across the Channel.
Then there was the recent unpleasantness with a smuggling gang. Try as he might, he had found no connection between them and the mysterious light. So, to determine who might be lighting that beacon, he had been stopping by at various hours every day for the last week. He'd never spotted anything out of the ordinary.
He reined in to stare at the turreted stone castle as it came fully into view among the trees that circled it. Light blazed from a dozen windows. Even the stables to the east were lit up. What affrontery! Blood roaring, he put heels to Majestic and galloped to the entry.
He leaped to the ground and looped the reins over the balustrade that edged the stone steps. Pulling out the pistol he'd brought with him as a precaution, he cocked it and took the steps two at a time to the terrace and the front door. His free hand was on the latch when it was yanked from under him.
The manservant in the doorway blinked as if just as surprised to find someone on the other side of the portal. He was tall and thin, with a thatch of black hair threaded with grey and a nose pointed enough to skewer apples. He didn't seem to notice James's weapon as he drew himself up.
"May I help you, sir?"
James pushed past him into the house, setting the fellow to sputtering like a wet teakettle on the hob. "Who are you, and why are you in my castle?"
The servant's bushy black brows came down. "Your castle? This moldering establishment belongs to the Earl of Howland. I have met his lordship, and you are not he."
"No, indeed." The warm voice came from above and danced with merriment. James glanced up the wide stairs that ran along one side of the great hall to the landing across the back. A lady was starting down the stairs. Her dark-brown hair was piled up at the top of her head in a loose pile of curls. Her ears dripped sapphires that caught the light as she moved. The simple blue gown showed off a slender figure.
She could not be called beautiful with that long nose and unruly hair. But as she reached the flagstone floor and started toward him, he felt the ridiculous urge to take a step back.
He held his ground. "Why are you here?"
Her eyes were the color of a perfect summer sky. They tilted up at the corners as she tsked. "I was banished here, sir. No need to introduce yourself. You must be James Howland, the earl's watchdog. I recognize that chin. I'm Eva Faraday, his prisoner."
He didn't respond. How very dissatisfying. But then, Eva could not say she had ever had a satisfying response from any of the Howlands.
He certainly seemed typical of the breed. He had the same golden-blond hair waving about a firm-jawed face, the same cold blue eyes that could spear her in place. His physique was as good as that of the earl's heir, Viscount Thorgood-tall, broad-shouldered. His many-caped great-coat swirled about long legs that looked ready to stomp on someone. Not that she cared. She'd refused to do the viscount's bidding, and the earl's, and she had no intention of doing this man's.
"I wasn't notified his lordship intended to house a prisoner in the castle," he said, watching her. Then he glanced at Yeager, her manservant. "Complete with jailer, it seems."
Yeager sniffed. "I've had the honor of serving Miss Eva and her late father since she was a girl."
"Thank you, Yeager," she said with a smile. "Would you see how Patsy is doing with the unpacking, then determine what's to be had for victuals?"
"Aye, miss." He cast Mr. Howland a narrow-eyed look before heading for the stairs.
Mr. Howland uncocked his pistol and put it away, jaw looking even harder. Did he eat rocks for breakfast? "Exactly how many people do you intend to house?"
"Five at the moment," she allowed. "I have a coachman and groom in the stables. We'd hoped we could hire additional help once we settled in."
Was that noise his teeth grinding? "I have received nothing to indicate any of you are allowed here."
"So you said," she replied. "But it's only to be expected, really, when you go off in a fit of pique. The earl, that is. Not you personally. I don't imagine you have the luxury."
Oh, but those eyes snapped fire. "Tell your maid not to bother unpacking. You'll all be staying at the Swan until I can confirm matters with his lordship."
Eva shook her head. "I'm afraid that's impossible. I have no money to pay for an inn."
He nodded toward the upper story. "You're paying your staff."
"My father's will left funds for their wages," she informed him. "My portion is held in trust until I reach the age of five and twenty." Or she married, but she refused to dangle that worm. The earl liked to use it far more than necessary already.
He crossed his arms over his impressive chest. "Nevertheless, I must insist that you leave."
Was every Howland this pig-headed? If only she could wash her hands of the lot of them! But the earl was trustee over her funds, and he would give her nothing unless she bent to his will. This man might find it acceptable to live like that. She didn't.
"And I must insist that we stay," she said. "I promise to disturb as little as possible. I'll need a bedchamber, a withdrawing room, the dining room and kitchen, and quarters for the staff. From what I can tell, that's less than a quarter of the space in this pile."
She thought she caught a sigh. "The castle hasn't been used as a long-term habitation in years. You'll need coal, candles, food. How do you intend to pay for them?"
She smiled. "I intend to put them on the earl's credit. He sent me here. He can pay for the privilege."
"No," he said, tone as solid as his chin. "The budget here doesn't allow for such expenses."
She waved a hand. "Then send the bill directly to the earl."
He caught her hand mid-air and held it, gaze fastened on hers. "Have a care, Miss Faraday. I'm only trying to protect you. This castle is more dangerous than you can know. It isn't safe for you here."
If he was trying to frighten her off, he was doing a good job. She could almost believe the concern in his voice.
But the earl could sound concerned too, even as he tried to steal her future.
She yanked her hand from his grip. "Then make it safe. Tell me what dangers to avoid. This is apparently to be my home until I earn my inheritance in ten months. Help me survive my imprisonment."
He eyed her a moment, and she steeled herself to keep fighting. Truly, what else was she to do? If her father had guessed the depths to which the Earl of Howland would sink to get his hands on her inheritance, he would never have made the man trustee and expected him to care for her. In the last six months since her father had died, she had learned to fight for what was best for her and her servants. James Howland would simply have to accustom himself to the fact.
"Very well, Miss Faraday," he said. "I'll help you. You may stay in the castle until I hear from the earl."
Best not to let him see her relief. "How very sensible of you."
He inclined his head. "But you must allow me to do my duty as well. I am responsible for safeguarding the earl's interests in Dorset."
And she would try not to despise him for it. "Of course. Shall I send you a report each week of what furniture I've moved? Which dishes we used?"
That smile could have frozen the waves on the Channel. "No need. I'll be able to verify all that on my own. I'll be moving into the castle with you, Miss Faraday."