The Matchmaker's Rogue
January 10, 2020 (ebook and print, Edwards and Williams)
Polished Jesslyn Chance has one of the most enviable positions in the little Regency coastal village of Grace-by-the-Sea. She is the hostess of the spa, arranging introductions and entertainments and playing matchmaker to the ladies and gentlemen who come to take the waters, promenade through the shops, and dance at the assembly. But when a rogue returns from her past, Jess finds herself suddenly at sea.
Always an adventurer, Larkin Denby left Grace-by-the-Sea to right the wrongful death of his father. Now he's back on a mission: to identify the mysterious Lord of the Smugglers who allegedly sails from Grace Cove and takes England's secrets to France. But Grace-by-the-Sea is the perfect little spa town, run by the still oh-so-perfect Jesslyn Chance. When the village's future is threatened, Jess must work with Lark to solve the mystery and protect the town's own. In doing so, the matchmaker of Grace-by-the-Sea may just find that the best match for her is the rogue who stole her heart years ago.
Grace-by-the-Sea: Where romance and adventure come home.
"I thoroughly enjoyed the plot and characters of The Matchmaker’s Rogue, but what truly sets it above other books is the hint of whimsy, the snappy zingers, and personalities ingrained in Grace-by-the-Sea. I SO can’t wait for more! Thanks again Regina for another amazing read and start of a new wonderful series!" -- Gina Hott, Hott Book Reviews
5 Stars! "This was a delightful and clean Regency tale! Romance with a dash of mystery and danger mixed together in the beautiful and tranquil setting of Grace-by-the-Sea." Britt Reads Fiction
"Oh, hooray! Another adventure series by Regina Scott. And it started out with a bang in The Matchmaker’s Rogue! Among the Reads
"A great beginning to a new series by one of the best names in Regency Romance. It is easy to see that some of the secondary characters will have their own stories told in the future. The writing flows smoothly and the story holds a bit of suspense and a few twists to keep the reader off balance. The focus of the story is on the mission; however, the author does not skimp when it comes to the blooming romance between the two main characters. I finished this tale with more than a little satisfaction and an eagerness to begin the next exciting title in the series!" -- Detra Fitch, Huntress Reviews
Grace-by-the-Sea, Dorset, England, May 1804
Everything at the spa was exactly the way she preferred it-elegant, tranquil, civil-until her rogue returned.
Jesslyn Chance didn't notice Larkin Denby when he first strolled into the Grand Pump Room. The columned space, which served as the social center of the spa, was already crowded. She could only catch glimpses of the light blue walls and bronze wall clock across from her.
And she had been busy welcoming the other arrivals-a pair of spinster sisters, hair pulled back from their wrinkled cheeks; a weathered-faced general who'd served in India; and a mother and daughter fresh from London, their pale muslin gowns proclaiming the latest fashion. She guided the general to a gentleman of his era for conversation and pointed out an eligible bachelor to the mother and daughter, who promptly inveigled an introduction.
She thought perhaps the elderly sisters might enjoy her aunt Maudlyn's company, as her aunt had yet to take up her place at the harpsichord in the southwest corner of the Pump Room. But her tiny aunt positively vibrated with excitement, standing on the toes of her black leather half boots.
"It's him," she whispered to Jess as they stood behind the tall desk holding the Welcome Book that listed everyone who had ever visited the spa. "The pirate."
Oh, was it pirates today? She'd thought it trolls now. Maudie was given to odd fancies like that. She claimed friendships with mermaids and was equally certain Napoleon's agents were hiding in the vicar's wardrobe. Her tendency to whimsy was one of the reasons the Spa Corporation Council had made Jess the official hostess of the spa a year ago instead of her older aunt.
The other reason was pity, but Jess chose not to dwell on that.
"And where is this pirate?" she asked, attempting to look serious. "Do you mean Admiral Walsey there by the fountain? I could see him with a cutlass between his teeth." Perhaps twenty years ago. The four stone of pounds the good Admiral had gained since then might prevent him from climbing the ropes these days.
Maudie shook her head so hard her grey curls bounced against her round cheeks. "Not the Admiral." She pointed at the man approaching through the crowd. "Him."
"Oh." It was all Jess could manage as she took in the confident strut and cocky smile. Golden brown hair framed a face poets would have praised, a face she still saw in her dreams sometimes. Lark? Now?
Maudie nodded as if she'd noticed the change in Jess. "You see it, don't you? He's a pirate, a rogue. He's out to steal our greatest treasure."
He'd certainly stolen her heart once. But not today.
"Larkin Denby is no pirate," she informed her aunt. "His mother and sisters live in Upper Grace. Very likely he's merely here to visit." Maudie dropped back onto her soles in a rustle of black bombazine as he came to stand on the opposite side of the mahogany desk from them. "Rubbish. He's here to cause trouble."
Jess was only glad Lark either hadn't heard her aunt or had decided not to respond. In fact, he didn't appear to notice either of them as he studied the names of the others who had come before him. Was he as nervous as she was at the thought of renewing their acquaintance? Or had he forgotten her completely in the eight years since they'd parted? Did men remember their first loves?
Best to remember her role now. She wasn't a girl on her first Season, unsure of herself and filled with awe of the world. This was her spa. She was its guardian. Larkin Denby was no match for her.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Denby," she said, launching into her prepared speech. "Welcome to the spa at Grace-by-the-Sea. I am your hostess, Miss Chance, and this is my assistant Mrs. Tully. If you have any questions or would like an introduction, you have only to ask."
His head snapped up. Though his brown eyes held her gaze only a moment, as was proper, she felt as if he were memorizing every feature, from the blond curls clustered around her face to her gloved hands resting on the table beside the book. His smile bloomed, and, despite all her intentions, something inside her bloomed with it. "Miss Chance. How nice to see you and your charming aunt again."
A simple statement, similar to many she'd heard over the years. She should not feel such pleasure in it. She'd welcomed nearly a thousand guests, first as a volunteer, then as an assistant to her father, and now in her own right. She arranged introductions, friendships, courtships! On any given day, she kept as many as three dozen people healthy and happy, and that didn't count her younger brother, Alex, or her aunt.
"We are delighted you could join us," she said. There. That was perfectly noncommittal.
He smiled as if she had said so much more. "Hostess now." He sounded impressed. "But of course you'd want to serve beside your father." He glanced around as if seeking the spa's physician.
Jess's throat tightened, but her voice came out all politeness. "My father passed away a year ago, sir. We are without a physician at present."
His gaze swung back to her, softening, until she wanted to lean closer. "I'm sorry to hear that. Your father was a good man."
He'd been a great man, one sorely needed. She could never fill his shoes, and Alex did not seem to want to try.
"Thank you," she managed and purposely directed the conversation back onto the proper path. "Allow me to reacquaint you with the spa." She picked up the carefully worded pamphlet from the Council and offered it to him.
"The water is poured from nine to four Monday through Saturday, noon to three on Sunday. Bathing is on the low tide and by appointment. Tea is served at four Monday through Saturday and one on Sunday here in the Grand Pump Room, and we close early every Wednesday for an assembly in the evening in rooms just up the hill. I do..."
"Hope you'll join us," Maudie finished for her, and rather breathlessly at that.
Lark accepted the pamphlet from Jess. His fingers touched hers, as briefly as his glance, yet warmth flowed up her arm.
"I look forward to it, ladies," he said. He turned and continued his stroll about the room.
Jess took a deep breath, feeling as if she'd been wanting air for the last few moments. What was wrong with her? She'd been pursued by two other men in the time since Larkin Denby had shaken the chalk soil from his boots and ridden away from Grace-by-the-Sea. Neither of those courtships had been successful, of course, but she'd realized that her skill lay in matching others. And she had to deal with men every day-visitors to the spa, shopkeepers in the village. None were quite that handsome, that confident, but still.
"Two hours yet until tea," she told her aunt, attempting to return things to normal yet again. "Are you pouring today, or shall I?"
But Maudie started around the tall desk as if intent on chasing after their newest guest. "You can pour. I'll be watching Mr. Denby. I tell you, there's something odd about him. He doesn't look the least bit ill. He has no limp, no squint, no sign of a scrofulous cough."
Jess caught her arm to keep her from following Lark. "Neither did most of our visitors to arrive this summer. Not everyone comes to the spa because they are ill." She released her aunt to tidy the stack of pamphlets, then noticed her hands were trembling and shook them out. At this rate, her aunt might suggest that Jess take the waters!
But Maudie had narrowed her grey eyes over her sharp nose. "We have few enough healthy ones. You have only to ask the Corporation."
She had no need to ask. The state of their visitors had been a constant topic of conversation at the monthly council meetings she was expected to attend. Famous spas like inland Bath or Lyme Regis farther along the coast brought people for the society as much as the healing waters. Despite improvements Jess had suggested and the presence of two great houses nearby, the spa at Grace-by-the-Sea had never achieved such fame among the wealthy and titled. They catered instead to the gentry and yeoman class. The reason remained more of a mystery than Lark's reappearance.
Though his reappearance was something of a mystery. He'd originally left the area to seek his fortune. Grace-by-the-Sea had been too small for a man looking for adventure and advancement. So, why return now? The only adventure here was the potential meeting of two hearts, and he'd forsaken that.
"Be that as it may," Jess said with a stern look at her diminutive aunt, "you may not harass the Newcomers. You promised."
Maudie humphed. She had developed the taxonomy of visitors years ago. Regulars were like family; Jess knew their stories, their reasons for coming each summer to the spa, their hopes and fears for the future. Irregulars had come often enough to be remembered; they were acquaintances with the possibility of becoming friends. Newcomers were the strangers, the ones first visiting the spa. It remained to be seen what would become of them.
She could not see Lark ever becoming a Regular. His story wouldn't be sad enough, his needs consuming enough, that their little company would satisfy, in the end. As before, he would be in her life as briefly as a wave cresting the shore. This time, she would make sure he left as little mark, on her village, her spa, and her.
So, Jess was in charge of things now. Lark hadn't expected that. Just because he hadn't been ready to marry eight years ago at the tender age of twenty didn't mean another man wouldn't have leaped to offer for Jesslyn Chance in the meantime. She was pretty, she was clever, and she had the unique ability to tell people what they didn't want to hear, in a way that had them thanking her for it. Couple all that with a respectable family, and she would never lack for suitors.
Just not him. He'd been too young to settle down before, and his work was too dangerous now. He would not want to leave a wife behind the way his father had left his mother.
He excused himself from a conversation with a portly former general. While the fellow had admirable experience plotting strategy, his questionable health made it unlikely he was the man Lark sought. He was also far too obvious with his booming voice and portentous manner. The man Lark had been sent to discover would be subtle, used to living in the shadows, a spider awaiting a fly.
Perhaps that was why Lark had protested this assignment.
"Tarry in the spa? What possible good can that do?" he'd asked Commissioner Franklin at Weymouth only two days ago as he'd stood before the man's desk in an office overlooking the harbor. "I was needed in Kent. Two thousand ships and nearly one hundred thousand troops are massing across the Channel. We cannot afford for smugglers to pass information to them."
The commissioner had snorted, bushy grey brows bristling. "We've been told Napoleon brags about having smugglers in his pay, but it isn't just Kent that's in danger from his invasion. Smugglers ply the waters off Dorset as well, bringing out information and bringing in spies along with their duty-free goods."
"And you think that they sail from Grace Cove?" Lark pressed. "I've visited Grace-by-the-Sea some years ago, sir. It did not seem the sort of place to attract a criminal class."
"The very fact that you are known in the area is why you were chosen for this assignment," his superior insisted, thick body leaning back in his padded chair. "We've tried everything else-revenue cutters off the headland, dragoons along the shore. It's time for something unexpected from the Excise Office. You're one of the best Riding Officers we have, you can pass for a gentleman, and your presence will not be remarked upon."
He wasn't so sure about that. His mother had moved him and his two younger sisters to the village just north of the area, Upper Grace, after his father had died. He'd spent his youth riding the Downs, sneaking off to the shore. And one memorable summer, he had accompanied his mother to the spa and met the golden-haired Jesslyn Chance. Some might recall that. Besides, if word got back to his mother and sisters that he was in the area and had failed to stop by, there would certainly be remarks.
"I am your devoted servant, sir," he told the commissioner. "But surely there are other ways to identify these smugglers than to spend my time sipping the waters."
"I don't care if you sip them, dunk yourself in them, or pour them on the ground," the commissioner had replied, face tight and eyes steely. "Our source says the man we're after sails from Grace Cove, and we have reason to believe he moves among the gentry, perhaps even the aristocracy. Where else would you expect to find him but at the spa?"
Glancing around the Grand Pump Room now, he could not help but doubt the wisdom of this assignment anew. The spa at Grace-by-the-Sea was peace itself. Pastoral scenes decorated the arched ceiling; white wicker chairs waited with open arms along the blue walls. With the creamy stone fountain in one corner, waters sparkling in the sun shining through the nearby windows, and the white-lacquered harpsichord in another, the place resembled nothing so much as a conservatory in a great house.
The people crowding the space seemed just as benign. A few looked ill, their faces pinched, their shoulders stooped, their steps slow. More were intent on conversation and company rather than a cure. They laughed, they exchanged pleasantries, they took the waters. It was entirely too civilized. He wanted to shout at them, splash them with water from the fountain, throw the precisely folded pamphlets into the air, anything to wake them up to the impending danger.
"Is there something you need, Mr. Denby?"
It appeared he'd circumnavigated the room again. His booted feet had stopped of their own accord before the tall desk, the Welcome Book, and Jesslyn Chance. Her aunt, Mrs. Tully, had gone to pour some water for two elderly women who were obviously sisters. He had seen their signatures in the Welcome Book. He'd hoped the tome would give him some clue as to a possible suspect, but the list of names had told him nothing.
Jess could have told him more, if he could confide in her, but the fewer who knew his purpose, the better. While many decried the lawlessness of smuggling, a good percentage welcomed the lower-cost commodities the Free Traders brought in. Those who worked for the Excise Office were not always appreciated, or safe.
"Merely enjoying the view," he said, watching the pink climb in her cheeks.
She turned to gaze out the windows overlooking the cove. "Yes, it is a lovely day today."
And she was just as lovely as he remembered. Her thick blond hair was pulled back in a high bun, but curls danced about her cheeks. Her lips were as warm a pink as those little shells his sisters used to collect from the shore. Her curves showed to advantage in a high-waisted cotton gown printed in blocks of pink and white and topped with a modest white collar.
Yet it was her eyes that had always drawn him. Large, wide-spaced, and a delicate blue, they made her look as if she were perpetually amazed by the world around her. A world that might be much darker than she knew. How could he gather the information he sought without seeing her harmed?
He leaned closer. "Tell me, Miss Chance, how are things in the area? Grace-by-the-Sea always appears to be one of those quiet little villages where all seems placid, peaceful on the surface. I wonder whether there could be a current below."
"You will find none of that here," she said with a bright smile. "Grace-by-the-Sea is as sheltered as our cove. There hasn't been a murder in the area in more than sixty years, and our magistrate, Mr. Howland, hasn't had an offense worthy of holding over for the Assizes during his five-year tenure. I fear if you crave excitement, you shouldn't have returned."
He shared that fear, but he could only hope she was mistaken, for his future, the future of the village, and likely the future of the nation depended on there being something very wrong at Grace-by-the-Sea.
And it was his job to prove it.