The Lady's Second-Chance Suitor
April 19, 2021 (Edwards and Williams)
Hester Todd hoped never to run into her first love, Rob Peverell, again, until she does just that at the annual Grace-by-the-Sea Harvest Ball. Rob broke her heart seven years ago, sending her flying into the arms of a dashing naval lieutenant instead. Now a widow with a daughter she adores, Hester has finally found a little peace with her past. But one moment in Rob's company, and her heart begins to whisper of a different future.
A tragedy propelled the rapscallion younger son to the title of viscount, and Rob is struggling to become the man his sister and tenants need. Romance at the moment is out of the question, but Hester always knew the way to his heart. When smugglers once more try to infiltrate the little coastal village, Hester and Rob must find a way to trust each other and protect their families and friends. In doing so, they may find that true love always deserves a second chance.
"Regina Scott has dreamed up such a delightful place with a cast of characters that are able to worm themselves into my heart. And they are mighty spunky, too, when threatened! I loved every minute." -- Susan Snodgrass on Goodreads (used with permission)
Grace-by-the-Sea, Dorset, England, September 1804
Why did she compare every man to him?
Hester Todd smiled up at the silver-haired baron who had requested her hand in the dance. Lord Featherstone was a Regular at Grace-by-the-Sea, meaning that he could be found daily at the spa that supported the village, and he was a well-known figure among the shops and at assemblies like this one. He was old enough to be her father and then some, though he danced with the elegance and grace that fellows half his age might envy. He was well dressed, well spoken, a gentleman in all ways.
But he would never be as dashing as Rob Peverell. She felt no spark of excitement when his gaze brushed hers, no giddy anticipation that their fingers might meet. She'd learned there was something to be said for a lack of giddy anticipation. Peace and stability were not unwelcome, particularly as she had her daughter, Rebecca, to think of now.
Of course, peace was at a premium at the moment. The Harvest Ball was one of the most crowded of the year. Anyone from kitchen maid to lord of the manor might attend. The lovely pale blue walls of the assembly rooms were all but invisible behind the throngs of attendees. Muslin and cotton skirts swept past those of silk and fine wool. Rough-spun coats bumped shoulders against tailored velvet. It was a wonder the candles in the crystal chandelier didn't start melting from the rising warmth alone.
The music stopped; the dance ended. She curtsied to Lord Featherstone's bow, and he offered her his arm to escort her back to the wall, where the other widows awaited similar kindnesses.
"You are an accomplished dancer, Mrs. Todd," he said. "I appreciate you honoring my request, particularly when you have so deservedly attracted such a train of followers."
She and Rosemary, her sister, had garnered their fair share of late. Newcomers at the spa, such as the dapper Mr. Donner, who had been her first partner of the evening; curly-haired, curious Mr. Cushman; shy Mr. Nash; and determined Mr. Fenton; as well as an officer or two from the camp at West Creech and Alex Chance, younger brother of their sister-in-law, Jesslyn, the spa hostess. It ought to be gratifying.
Why did she persist in seeking a dusky blond, tousle-haired head among them?
"You are too kind, my lord," she told Lord Featherstone. "I would be delighted to dance with you whenever you have a free moment. But you too have amassed quite a following." She nodded to where Lady Howland was gazing in their direction. It was not quite a glare-the widowed countess was far too polished for that-but the look was decidedly chilly. It seemed the lady thought the gentleman hers.
He, apparently, did not. "No one who could eclipse my affections for you," he said with a gallant bow to Hester. "I envy the gentlemen who will beg for your hand in the next dances."
She inclined her head, and he strolled off, away from the countess, who huffed and stalked in the opposite direction. Well, at least Hester wasn't the only lady who made a favored gentleman run.
She took a seat on one of the few open chairs, trying to shake the feelings that crowded her more surely than the other attendees. It had been seven years since she'd laid eyes on Rob. If she thought of anyone with longing, it should be Lieutenant Jasper Todd, her late husband, father to her daughter.
She drew in a breath and glanced around the room, only to spy Rosemary strolling away from the dancefloor on the arm of her employer, the Earl of Howland. How proud Rosemary had been to win the position of governess to the earl's daughter. But Hester had seen more in the way the handsome widower gazed at her sister.
Rosemary was brave and clever. She'd worked with their uncle to learn all manner of things, including how to scurry about the cliffsides searching for evidence of ancient life. She was a devoted sister, a loving aunt to Hester's daughter. There wasn't much Hester wouldn't do for Rosemary, even to taking the earl aside for a private word.
"What!" Her darker-haired sister had yelped when she'd heard of it at one of the weekly assemblies in this very room. "What did you say to him?"
"I asked him his intentions," Hester admitted, "and warned him about sullying your reputation."
Rosemary snorted. "I'm surprised he didn't sack me immediately. What were you thinking?"
"I was thinking of you," Hester informed her. "An earl taking interest in a commoner? You know where that could lead."
"He is no Rob Peverell," Rosemary insisted. "I've not heard any stories of dalliances or flirting. He was by all accounts a devoted husband and remains a loving father."
Hester regarded her sadly. "Yes, I will grant you others claim him beyond reproach. But you are still in his employ, and he is an earl. It isn't seemly."
Rosemary sagged, as if all the fire had gone out of her. "I know. I could tell you it is all in your imagination, but he sent me flowers yesterday."
Which only proved how little Lord Howland understood the tragedies she and her bluestocking sister had survived. Hester touched her arm. "I'm so sorry. He couldn't know."
"Of course he couldn't know. I explained myself a few moments ago, so it shouldn't happen again."
She should hope not. She hadn't the aversion to the blossoms her sister had, but she would never forget finding their father dead among the wildflowers. He had been attacked by the smugglers he had sought to apprehend as a Riding Officer for the Excise Office. She and Rosemary had relied on each other then, while their mother and older brother dealt with moving the family from Kent to Upper Grace to live with their mother's brother. The only thing that had ever threatened to drive her and Rosemary apart had been Rob Peverell.
She raised her head now. Enough of these thoughts! She must find her next dance partner. She stood and set off around the edge of the dancefloor, as if she were intent on some errand. Still, memories chased her.
Rob, racing her down the road on horseback.
Rob, laughing as he spun her in a circle among the waving grass of the Downs.
Rob, meeting her on the shore to watch the sun set in a glory that was as fiery as his kiss.
Rob, disappearing with only the most casual of farewells, leaving her hurting.
No, no! She had made a fool of herself over a handsome stranger who had turned out to be the younger son of Viscount Peverell, one of the two local landowners. It had been humiliating, heart-breaking. But good had come of it. Because of her wounded heart, she had carefully considered Jasper's proposal of marriage when he'd been home between assignments in the Navy. Because she'd married her lieutenant, she now had a beautiful six-year-old daughter who brightened her life. Because of Rebecca's birth, her mother had opened her home to them, so Hester always had somewhere safe to live. Because she'd been widowed, she'd been accepted as the teacher for the dame school in Upper Grace, helping young minds to grow. And because of her service, she could live with her head high, a pillar of the community, respected wherever she went. Truly, it was all a blessing.
"Excuse me, dearie." A farmwife shoved past on her way to the door. Hester stepped back to avoid her and collided with a solid frame.
She turned to apologize, and the words dried up in her mouth.
Rob Peverell stared at her, light hazel eyes darkened by his evening black, hair tousled, chin just beginning to hint of stubble.
"Gwen?" he asked.
She wanted to shoot into the sky like one of Mr. Congreve's rockets, explode in a flash of lightning, sink to the bottom of the cove. Her cheeks were hot, her muscles frozen. Somehow, she managed to find her voice.
"You are mistaken, sir. I do not know you."
Then she turned and fled as fast as dignity allowed.
"Who was that?" his sister asked.
Rob, the recently elevated Viscount Peverell, shook his head. "I thought I knew, but perhaps she's right. Perhaps I was mistaken."
Elizabeth's hazel gaze, so like his own, followed the honey-haired beauty as she hurried away from them, ruby-colored silk skirts swaying. "She certainly didn't care for you. That was nearly the cut direct."
It had been. Over the years, he'd deserved it on any number of occasions. His dalliance with Guinevere Ascot had been one of them. Yet surely someone so lovely, so warm and giving as Gwen would have been long married. It had been, what, seven years now? She would have changed.
He was doing his best to change.
"Lord Peverell, Miss Peverell." The pretty hostess of the spa smiled at them as she approached, the curls at the sides of her face glinting like gold. "I've been asked to introduce you to several of our Regulars. Would that be permissible?"
Mrs. Denby had been a dewy-eyed miss, helping her hostess mother and physician father at the spa, when last he'd visited the area. His father and brother had been alive then, and he'd let them carry most of the conversations on the rare occasion they consented to appear in the village. He'd needed more than the spa, the village shops, and the assembly to enliven him.
Gwen had been everything he had wanted and more.
Now he inclined his head. "We'd be delighted. Perhaps first, you could answer a question for me. Do you know Miss Guinevere Ascot?"
She tapped her chin with one finger. "I don't believe we've ever had a guest by that name, and certainly no one locally."
He nodded across the room, to where a young military officer in scarlet regimentals was escorting Gwen out onto the floor. "What about that lady?"
She followed his gaze, and her smile warmed. "My sister-in-law, Mrs. Todd. But her first name isn't Guinevere. It's Hester."
"And her husband?" Elizabeth put in with a glance to Rob. "A stalwart sort, protective of his lady, perhaps?"
Did she think he intended to carry Hester Todd off? Once, perhaps, but not now. Too much depended on him finding a way to pretend he knew how to be the viscount.
"He was a valiant lieutenant in the Navy," Mrs. Denby assured his sister. "Gone now these past six years. Mrs. Todd teaches at the dame school in Upper Grace. Did you wish an introduction, my lord?"
Elizabeth narrowed her eyes at him.
"No, thank you," Rob made himself say. "But we will await your good pleasure on the others."
She nodded and swept off to find those desirous of making his acquaintance. Mrs. Todd would not be among them.
He couldn't have mistaken her. She had to be his Gwen.
She'd been rather proud of that name. "Guinevere," she'd said with a toss of her silky mane when he'd asked the intimacy of using her first name. "Like Arthur's queen."
"Then you shall be mine," Rob had vowed.
If she had given him a false name instead of her own, it had been only his due. He certainly hadn't advertised his name. His father would have had apoplexy if he'd known his younger son was improving a boring summer by romancing a local lass.
Beside him, Elizabeth's feet shuffled below her lavender silk skirts. "After Mrs. Denby makes these introductions, may we go? I'm not as ready as I thought to rejoin Society. I'm finding this all a bit much."
It was. And it was exactly the sort of evening he normally enjoyed. Dozens of people from all walks of life, mixing, laughing, conversing, dancing. Constant movement, constant buzz. No fellow could be bored in such a place.
But he was the head of the family now. He must think of more than his own pleasure. The act was still foreign, but necessary.
"Of course," he promised.
A short time later, he skillfully extricated himself and Elizabeth from a scintillating conversation about the weather and left the crowded assembly rooms behind. His coach was waiting. They had only to step inside before they were swept along the headland to the west of the village. He peered out, thinking of how many times he'd raced along these roads, but the sight of his triumphs eluded him. In fact, the carriage lamps made it difficult to see more than his own reflection out the window. And he'd had entirely too much time to reflect on himself of late.
"So," Elizabeth said, crossing her arms over her chest as he turned to face her. "Who is she, Rob?"
He did not want to have this conversation. "The goggle-eyed Mrs. Greer who gushed all over you? I distinctly remember our charming hostess saying she is the wife of the Spa Corporation Council president, who is the village allegory? No, actuary?"
"Apothecary," Elizabeth reminded him with a small smile. "And you know very well I wasn't referring to her."
"Glad I am to hear it. I would not want to think you had fallen into the habit of encouraging a sycophant, unless it is me, of course. Though, if you have, I might bring to your attention that pimple-faced youth who kept staring at you."
"Rob." Her voice hinted of both reproach and laughter. "Who is Hester Todd to you?"
"Apparently someone who would prefer not to renew our acquaintance."
She lowered her arms. "And why? Is there some scandal involved? You said you would like us to stay here through the winter. If I am to associate with these people, I should know if there's a matter best left unspoken."
"Precisely why I would prefer not to speak of it."
She rolled her eyes. "I will have the truth. You know that. You never could keep anything from me."
Far more than she realized, but Rob merely smiled at her. "Yes, you can be quite the sleuth when you put your mind to it."
She leaned forward. "And my mind is entirely engaged with thoughts of this Mrs. Todd. Where did you meet? What were you to each other? Are you intent on pursuing her now?"
Rob sighed. "Very well. You're right that someone else may know the tale, though we both tried hard to keep it quiet."
"Oooh," she said, leaning back, eyes kindling. "Secrets. Do tell."
"It is not to my credit, I assure you."
When she still regarded him, waiting, he knew there was nothing for it. "You may remember the summer you were finishing your first Season. Father, Thomas, and I came out to the Lodge to escape the London heat. They were quite content to while away the days reading, playing at draughts, and sailing. I wanted more."
She nodded. "Of course you did."
"Since I found the spa set insipid, I sought better game afield. Thinking to throw Father off the scent, I dressed like a commoner and took to strolling through Upper Grace until I fell in with a group of fellows about my age who knew how to have fun."
"Fun," she said, as if the word were foreign to her. "Racing horses, gambling, seducing women?"
"Certainly plenty of the first two, though not much of the last, I'm sorry to say."
She raised an eloquent brow.
"It's true," Rob insisted. "You will find the ladies of the area a clever lot. They were proof against even my considerable charms."
"I found it a challenge," Rob admitted, "and all the more so when we happened upon a young lady taking a walk out from the village. The others treated her with all deference and urged me to be off. I was instantly smitten and demanded to know more about her. She was reticent at first, but I soon won her over. She told me she was the daughter of a well-to-do merchant, who closely watched her comings and goings. She had barely managed to escape the house that day by climbing from her bedroom window."
"And that only made her more of a challenge," Elizabeth guessed.
"Of course. Nothing like a little subterfuge to whet the appetite."
"We can skip the part about your appetites," she informed him.
"No more than a few stolen kisses," he assured her. "She was in all ways the epitome of a lady in my eyes. She could do no wrong, and she felt the same about me. We spent part of nearly every day together."
She sighed, face softening in the lamplight. "How wildly romantic."
Was that envy in his little sister's voice?
"I thought so at the time," he said, "but I must caution you against attempting the feat. Someone always gets hurt."
Her face slumped. "Apparently Mrs. Todd."
"She must have been unmarried then," he said. "But yes, I have no doubt my defection hurt her. That is the saddest part of the tale. When Father was ready to return to London, I rather blithely told my angel that I would be leaving the area, but thank you very kindly for making my summer bearable. I doubt she knew who I truly was until then."
"Oh, Rob." She shook her head. "You're right. It is a sad tale. You were reprehensible. At least you are trying to change."
The word trying stung, but he could not denounce the truth of it. He'd been born the coddled second son, with no expectations of greatness, no pressure to perform. He'd done what he'd liked, and money or charm had resolved most of the consequences.
One tragic afternoon on the Thames, one vessel with everyone aboard lost, had changed all that. Now his sister, his tenants, and their family fortune depended on him doing the right thing, every time. He might have removed himself from the whirl of London, but a dozen duties awaited him at the Lodge on the headland even now.
His father would have found him a sad trial, for the thoughts foremost in his mind were those of Hester Todd and how he could go about seeing her again.