To Catch A SpinsterThe Reluctant Bride Collection, Volume One Written by Megan BryceNarrated by Maureen Cavanaugh Prologue Miss Olivia Blakesley watched as her youngestsister was married and thought, “That does it, old girl. You are officially on the shelf.” Truthfully, she wasn’t quite yet. But at the ripe old age of seven and twenty,with two older sisters and three younger sisters all married, she was close enough. What man would want the sister who had beenleft behind? More importantly, why would she want the manwho would want her? She wouldn’t. So it was a good thing she had her studiesand responsibilities. She was fairly certain she would have gonestark raving mad these last eight years waiting for a suitor who would never come if she hadn’tstarted studying the stars or helping her father with the accounts. Not exactly respectable activities for a gentleyoung woman, but she enjoyed them. Her mother blamed those activities for hercurrent matrimonial-less state. What woman would rather sneak outside to paintstars than flirt with a beau? What woman who was at least pretending shewanted to get married would wear those high-necked, front-buttoned, somber-colored old maid rags? Olivia handed her mother, who sat snifflingin the pew beside her, a clean handkerchief. “Thank you, Olivia. I can always count on your handkerchief tobe dry at weddings, can’t I? I don’t understand how you can be so emotionless.” “I’m not emotionless, and you should begrateful as you now have two handkerchiefs to drench.” Olivia’s father winked at her as he pattedhis wife’s hand. “It’s not as if this wedding was a surprise,my dear.” No, Eugenia had been promising that she wouldbe snatched up the quickest since Prudence had taken nearly two years in the marriagemart. Eugenia had lasted a mere two months. The Blakesley sisters were nothing if notgoal-oriented. Olivia had her own goals and, unfortunatelyfor her mother, they did not include catching a husband. Even so, she did not want to die inexperiencedin love, estranged from her sisters because they knew something she didn’t. Lust. She did not want to die a virgin spinsteraunt, caring for her aging parents. It would be much better if she could die anexperienced spinster aunt, caring for her aging parents. She glanced at the cross hanging above thevicar’s head. Dear Lord, what was she considering? Was she really thinking of… No. It was a sin. And she was in a church, for heaven’s sake. But as her father was wont to say: In thecourse of life, some commandments must be broken. For emergencies. For science. Thou shalt not kill. Definitely one to be broken in an emergency. Thou shalt not worship any graven images. A few might say that Olivia worshiped herDutch-made telescope. For science, of course. Honor thy father and mother. She had never been any good at that one. Thou shalt not commit adultery… Well, she just wouldn’t choose a marriedman.
Well, she just wouldn’t choose a marriedman. This was, after all, a scientific emergency. She was not going to die an old maid. Olivia looked back at the altar. Her beautiful sister in her lace-trimmed ivorysatin wedding gown beamed at her new husband, who looked down at her with obvious love anda little bit of panic. Olivia would never have that. She would never fall in love. Never have someone to depend on– only herself. She nodded. So be it. If she could not have everything, she wouldhave something. If she could not have love, she would havelust. She would find someone to teach her desire. Amen. Chapter One Mr. Nathaniel Jenkins had never wanted todunk himself in the punch bowl and drown himself more than he did at that moment. The young lady before him was slowly turninghis brain to mush and he was afraid it would start dribbling out his ears at any moment. “And then I told the seamstress I wantedsix ruffles. Three on the bodice and three on the hem.” Of course, if it gave him an excuse to leavehe wouldn’t mind a little dribbling. He glanced at his mother, who wasn’t eventrying to hide her scowl, and decided not even that could get him out of this evening. Nathaniel sighed into his glass. What he needed was something a little strongerthan punch. He took a small sip and sighed again. What he really needed was a mother who lefthim alone. The woman had four grandchildren already,wasn’t that enough? If her expression was anything to go by, no. “I had to pay nearly double. Outrageous.” The young lady fingered a ruffle on her bodiceand smiled coyly. “But it was worth it, don’t you think?” She looked like she would fly away in a stiffbreeze but Nathaniel nodded. “You look quite…lovely.” Her next dance partner came to relieve himand Nathaniel downed the rest of his punch in relief. He had done his duty, now he might be ableto make his escape. His mother slipped up beside him. “Nathaniel, really. You were quite rude, you hardly said a wordto Miss Mayes.” “I could hardly get a word in, Mother. She did allow me to compliment her, though.” “Hmmph. Can you not try to like these girls? You need a wife, Nathaniel. You are the head of this family now and youneed an heir.” “I already have one. Diana’s son is my heir.” “No matter how much we love Matthew, a nephewis not an acceptable heir. I do not understand how you can be so thick-headedabout this.” He knew his duty. Marry a young girl from a respectable familyand father an heir. But he could not find it in himself to marryany of these empty-headed, brightly-colored chatterboxes. They looked like they should still be in thenursery. As for bedding one?
As for bedding one? Unless he could glue their mouths shut, itseemed impossible. Perhaps he was too old. At thirty-nine, an eighteen-year-old girlseemed as foreign as a sunny day in February. Or perhaps he was too young. In another ten years he might jump at thechance to marry a young chit with her hair in braids. All he knew was he couldn’t do it now. And if all he was being offered were thesegirls, he would not be getting married. “Mother, if you really have a desire tosee me married, I would suggest finding girls a little older. And quieter. And not so…frilly.” “You are a bigger stick-in-the-mud thanyour father.” “It is the custom nowadays for new heirsto outdo their father in some way. How gratifying to know I’ve achieved it.” She tapped his arm lightly with her fan. “Perhaps I could ask your sister to lookaround.” Nathaniel groaned. “Diana pops around with her unsuspectingfriends enough as it is.” “I doubt her friends are quite as unsuspectingas you think. You’re quite the catch, if I do say so myself.” “Just what a man wants to hear from hismother.” She nodded decisively. “It’s true, nonetheless. You have a stable fortune, good relations,and, if not a title, then land.” “I feel like a prize stallion.” “Don’t be so melodramatic, dear. Even the lowliest stable-boy will find a mate. So should you.” His gaze slid slowly over the crowd. “It seems that a lowly stable-boy wouldhave more choice than I.” His mother waved her hand impatiently. “There are as many different girls as thereare fish in the sea.” “They seem to be all the same species tome, Mother.” “Hmm. Well, we’ll just have to find one that’sa little different.” Nathaniel watched her inspect the girls nearestto her and bit back a laugh. “Good luck to you. Until then I’ll be at my club.” Mrs. Anne Jenkins smiled up at her son, slippingher arm through his. “I don’t think you’ll find any suitablegirls at your club. Besides, you agreed to take me home tonight. I see you so little as it is.” “This would be so much easier if you wouldjust arrange it all for me.” “I would, dear, if you’d let me. But you have so many requirements for a wife.” “I have three: not young, not chatty, notfrilly. It’s not as if I’m being uncooperative.” Mrs. Jenkins looked at the sea of young, chatty,frilly girls and patted his arm. “Well, I’m sure I’ll find someone foryou.” She let out a long breath. “Hopefully.” Olivia had been studying the men at the ballsince she arrived. Since her sister’s wedding she had donenothing but imagine the perfect seducer. Tall, but not too tall. Handsome, but not diabolically so. Experienced, but not a rake. Good Lord, definitely not a rake.
hidden object the bride Good Lord, definitely not a rake.
Good Lord, definitely not a rake. She did have a reputation to preserve. To be seen with a libertine would embarrassherself and her family. She would like a gentle introduction, nota dunk in a cold pond. He would need to be a gentle man, but notthat gentle since he would have to seduce her. Obviously, not married. And above all, the very most important traithe would need to possess would be discretion. He could not tell anyone. Ever. The list she’d made for a husband had notbeen this long. It really was no wonder she hadn’t foundanyone yet. She’d been searching for a husband eightyears and that task was beginning to sound like a walk in the park compared to this. The only gentleman she hadn’t dismissedoutright was the one in the corner who looked like he wanted to poke his eyes out. She’d spoken to his companion a few timesherself and understood the feeling. That unfortunate shade of orange didn’thelp the girl either. But while Miss Mayes might look supremelysilly, he looked quite responsible. Mature. Stoic in the face of adversity. Tight-lipped. He did not look the sort to tell tales atall. He did look a bit tall but she supposed lyingdown it wouldn’t matter. His dark brown hair was a bit longer thanfashion dictated but as it was slightly curly, she approved. Her own stick-straight hair refused to curl,even with tongs. His form was pleasing. Firm thighs, wide shoulders. Quite manly, actually. Hmm. Olivia leaned toward her younger sister, Mary. Not only was she Olivia’s closest sister,but she also had a knack for knowing interesting tidbits about nearly everyone. “Do you know who the gentleman in the farcorner is?” Mary looked discreetly. “Mr. Nathaniel Jenkins, the only son ofMrs. Anne Jenkins. Her husband died almost two years ago andMr. Jenkins has still not taken a bride.” “If she insists on him talking to sillyyoung girls with too many flounces, it’s no wonder. I would like to be introduced to him.” “Olivia, really!” “Could you find your husband, Mary?” “You are being quite forward.” Olivia sipped her punch. Yes, indeed she was. The season was nearly half over and this washer last one– no matter what her mother said. Olivia said, “Time is running out.” “Oh, well, yes. I see what you mean. I’ll go find him.” Olivia smiled slightly. “Thank you. That would be most helpful.” Olivia watched as Mary wound her way to Rufus. He smiled at his wife and for once in herlife Olivia envied one of her sisters. With his quick charm, ready laughter, andsilly pranks, Rufus was her favorite brother-in-law. He was rarely serious and had been in lovewith Mary for longer than anyone could remember.
He was rarely serious and had been in lovewith Mary for longer than anyone could remember. They were a good match, but then they’dlived next door to each other since birth. They’d been married at eighteen. If Olivia could have chosen her fate, thatwould have been it. Best friend and lover, rolled into one. Rufus looked in surprise at Olivia, then winked. She sighed and shook her head. Of course, she much preferred Rufus as a brother-in-lawthan as a husband. She’d be much too tempted to smack him ifhe was her husband. Nathaniel nodded as Rufus Eliot hailed him. Though Eliot was part of the younger set,they were acquainted through their club. A likable enough fellow, if one wasn’t tooconcerned about being the butt of a good joke. Nathaniel wondered briefly if he was the entertainmentor if he should warn the unfortunate woman accompanying Eliot. Eliot gestured to the woman. “Mr. Jenkins. May I introduce my sister-in-law, Miss Blakesley.” “Miss Blakesley.” Nathaniel could not help but stare at poorMiss Blakesley. If ever the word spinster applied more he’dnot met the woman. Here was a paragon of womanly failure. Her hair was pinned back in a widow’s knotand she was dressed in hideous brown bombazine with buttons clear to her neck. She looked quite capable of taking a swatchto his backside for any impropriety. She caught his eye and he couldn’t helpbut feel that she was laughing at his perusal of her dress. She said, “I prefer orange myself but itis so hard to find nowadays.” Nathaniel glanced to his right and saw nofewer than four orange dresses. He said, “Oh, yes. Fashion.” A small smile lifted the corners of her mouth. Her eyes flicked down, taking in his conventionalevening wear. Not out of date, but definitely not in fashion. Nathaniel preferred clothing that would bein style for more than a season, preferably a decade. Miss Blakesley seemed to prefer clothing thatwould never be in style. One would save money, at least. Rufus Eliot said, “Do you by any chancestudy the stars, Jenkins? It is Miss Blakesley’s passion.” Knowing his duty, Nathaniel turned to her. “I am sorry to say I do not. What is it about the stars you enjoy, MissBlakesley?” “I can study them in peace and they alwayswear the same thing. Do you have a passion, Mr. Jenkins?” “I have not had the luxury of late but Ido enjoy fishing.” Rufus Eliot smiled. “A country man.” Nathaniel nodded. “I prefer it. There are more fish there.” Miss Blakesley nodded. “And better smelling rivers.” “It does increase the pleasure somewhat.” She laughed. “Indeed. I find London terrible for star-gazing. It must be even less suited for fishing.” “I will admit that the thought of spendingthe day near the edge of the Thames leaves me quite cold.” Nathaniel looked into her sparkling eyes andwas interested despite himself. “Do you continue your star-gazing whilein town, Miss Blakesley?” She nodded. “It is a dismal business here but I keepup the habit. I have sketch after sketch of fog.” He smiled. “Do you find fog just as fascinating?” “Not in the least. It is too transitory for my liking.” She cocked her head. “Somewhat like fashion, actually.” A laugh escaped him. Miss Blakesley smiled back at him, then flickedher eyes behind him and sighed. “It was nice to meet you, Mr. Jenkins. But my mother has spotted me and I fear neitherone of us is safe. Once one reaches a certain age, one becomesa mother’s pet project.” “I’ve noticed the phenomenon myself.” “Have you? Then I feel for you, Mr. Jenkins. If you’ll excuse me.” “Certainly, Miss Blakesley. Eliot.” Nathaniel watched her walk quickly towardsthe other end of the room and thought he had never met a more curious woman. Mary fluttered her fan. “Well?” “I only spoke two sentences to him beforeMama noticed and started making her way towards us.” “So? What did he say in those two sentences?” “He likes the country and fishing. But does not care much for the stars.” “Who does, besides you? If that is what you are waiting for in a husbandthen you will die a spinster.” Olivia shook her head. “He does not need to share my passions. I simply wanted to take a measure of his character.” Rufus nodded towards the door. “He does not seem to like having his charactermeasured. He’s leaving.” Mary said, “Perhaps he is being a dutifulson and taking his mother home. That is Mrs. Jenkins he is escorting.” Olivia glanced quickly at the departing Mr.Jenkins. “Well, my two sentences with him did notgain me much information. There must be a better way of learning abouta gentleman.” Mary smiled knowingly. “Perhaps Rufus can make some inquiries. Dear, can you find out if Mr. Jenkins wouldmake a suitable brother-in-law?” Olivia frowned. “Don’t say anything so foolish in frontof Mama. I will never hear the end of it.” She looked at Rufus. “Could you? Discreetly.” He winked theatrically. “Leave it to me, Sis.” “I am doomed,” Olivia said and began tolecture on the constellations as her mother swooped in with hope in her eyes. Nathaniel helped his mother into the carriagewishing he could escape to his club. His mother would want to rehash the last hour,lady by lady. He wished, not for the first time, that hewas not such a dutiful son. She said, “Who was the woman you were talkingto right before we left?” “Miss Blakesley. Her brother-in-law and I belong to the sameclub.” “She’s a little older, isn’t she?” “A bit, though I wouldn’t say thirty. Should I warn her that you are getting desperateto marry me off to anyone not in braids?” “I should think if she was nearing thirtyI would need to warn you. I doubt the desperation I feel can compareto hers.” Nathaniel grunted, and for an instant feltsympathy for the poor woman. If her mother was anything like his, she mustindeed be feeling desperate. He at least did not live under the same roofand could retire in peace, far away from her anxious schemings. In truth though, Miss Blakesley had not seemeddesperate. Interested, certainly. But also curious. She was not indelicate about her scrutinybut he felt it nonetheless. As an eligible bachelor, he had been appraisedbefore. And as much as he did not appreciate the experience,he understood it. What woman would want to give her life andlove to someone she did not know? However, Miss Blakesley’s scrutiny had beendifferent. He, for once, had not felt like she was calculatinghis fortune but instead felt she was sincerely interested in knowing him. She was definitely not your average youngchit. His mother smiled and gazed out the window. “She didn’t seem quite as talkative asthe other girls. You at least had conversation with her.” He nodded. “About fishing the Thames. And sketching the stars in London.” His mother blinked. “Well, that is certainly a different kindof conversation then what you are used to.” She paused. “She’s not young, and certainly not frilly. Perhaps we’ve found a different speciesof fish, after all. Would you call her chatty?” Nathaniel groaned and leaned his head back. His mother smiled, and wondered about MissBlakesley. Chapter Two Miss Olivia Blakesley had made up her mind. After a few sleepless nights and a littlesip from her father’s brandy. Awful stuff. Rufus had come back with an all clear on Mr.Jenkins. She wasn’t going to give a stranger thekeys to her family’s downfall unless she was sure he wouldn’t use them. One could never be sure but it appeared asif he wouldn’t. Mary, of course, had told everyone of herinterest. They kept humming the wedding march undertheir breath whenever her mother was out of earshot. Olivia had no interest in telling them herreal plans for Mr. Nathaniel Jenkins. She was going to seduce him. Or rather, have him seduce her. She wasn’t at all sure how to go about it,her education so far teaching her how not to be seduced. And, she might add, she had been led to believeit would be a difficult task. Men apparently not being able to control theirbaser instincts. But Olivia had never been accosted. Not once. No suitor had ever tried to dally in a darkenedcorner, offer her a stroll in a deserted garden, or taken advantage of an accidental meeting. She was starting to think the voracious appetitesof the male species to be an exaggeration. Perhaps she should have chosen a rake afterall. If all else failed, she could always lowerher standards. She spotted Mr. Jenkins on the dance floor,twirling another entirely too young woman in a decadent waltz. The Donner’s Ball was quite the smash, despitea few disapproving looks for the choice of dance. It was a bit crowded but Olivia hoped to takeadvantage of that. Sometime tonight she was going to corner Mr.Jenkins and proposition him. She smoothed her skirt in a sudden nervousspurt of energy. If she was wrong about his character she wouldbe a ruined old spinster by tomorrow morning. On the bright side, it might be easier tocatch a rake if she was ruined. On the dark side, she might be the laughing-stockof the ton. Oh, wouldn’t that be wonderful. Well, nothing for it. All she had to lose was her reputation. Self-respect. Trust of her family. Dear God, I’m a hoyden, she thought andwent to position herself for an accidental encounter. Nathaniel didn’t know what was worse, beingtwittered at by a brainless child or stared at without pause. He’d at least had experience with brainlesschatter. And she wasn’t even flirting! Miss Blakesley simply stared. No coy smiles, silly fan work, flutteringlashes. Just watching him– sizing him up, he couldn’thelp but feel. He wondered if she found him lacking. Was there something on his nose? His cravat in ruins? Surely his mother would have rushed over tosave herself the embarrassment. He excused himself from his partner, thankfulthat tonight there were men enough as dancing partners. He had done his duty; his mother could notfault him tonight. Although, unless he introduced her to a newbride this evening, she would anyway. Perhaps he would make his escape and leavehis sister and brother-in-law to escort her home. “Mr. Jenkins? Please excuse me for intruding on your thoughts.” He turned and found Miss Blakesley inchesfrom him, staring. “Miss Blakesley, forgive me. I did not see you in the crush.” She smiled slightly. “I do apologize. You looked quite ready to leave and thereis a…a small matter I wish to discuss with you.” He nodded, looking down at her. Up close, she was prettier than he remembered–in a serious, studious way. From afar she looked ready to battle the world. But to his surprise he towered over her; herpersonality loomed much larger than her small frame. And her all-seeing eyes were a pale shadeof blue. “Shall we dance, Miss Blakesley?” She looked at the dance floor longingly, thenshook herself. “I would like that, Mr. Jenkins. However, the matter I wish to discuss is abit private.” Private? Was the girl trying to catch him? Being seen together in a compromising situationwould certainly speed things along. He said, “I’m afraid there is not muchprivacy offered tonight. A waltz may be the closest we can get.” “A waltz? Oh, yes. Well, perhaps that would work. Shall we?” Nathaniel grinned down at her, offering hisarm. “Why, thank you.” Miss Blakesley blushed, taking his arm. What was she up to? No gently bred lady had ever tracked him acrossa ball before, nor wished to speak to him in private. Or stared at him with icy blue eyes, makinghim feel like an open book. He led her once around the floor, noticingthe rigid corset under her dress. He said, “What was it you wished to speakabout?” Miss Blakesley cleared her throat and lookedover his shoulder. “I want to assure you that I am in earnest. I can only imagine what you will think, butI… I would like you to seduce me.” Nathaniel missed a step and tripped over herfoot. A blush rose again to her cheeks. “Perhaps waltzing wasn’t a good idea.” He was silent while he tried to think of anappropriate response. Had she really just asked him to seduce her? She glanced at him, her cheeks glowing, andhe decided she had. “Are you completely mad?” She glanced at him quickly, then continuedto stare over his shoulder. “No. I’m inexperienced and wish to change that. I had hoped you could help me.” “I hesitate to ask why out of all the menof your acquaintance you have chosen me to relieve you of your inexperience.” “You are not a rake.” “No?” “No. Having been through eight seasons I assureyou I can spot the type.” He couldn’t stop his eyebrows from raisingat her frank admission of eight seasons. He didn’t know how old his mother was andhis sister wouldn’t admit to any age. “Miss Blakesley, this is absurd. Even if I were a rake, I could not…assistyou.” The waltz ended and Nathaniel escorted heroff the floor. She gripped his arm. “Teach me the acts of seduction, Mr. Jenkins.” He steered her to a blissfully empty cornerand sat her in a chair rather abruptly. “I don’t think you know what you’reasking,” he said, taking another chair as far from her as possible and still be in theconversation. “I assure you I do. But all my knowledge is second-hand. I would like to experience it myself.” Nathaniel muttered a curse word not intendedfor polite ears and crossed his legs. Simply talking about the subject in a mostclinical way he was tempted to haul Miss Blakesley out of her chair and ravish her senseless. She wanted him to seduce her! What was the world coming to. “Miss Blakesley, this is highly irregular,and very definitely immoral. I must advise you to do as every other womanand find yourself a husband. You are a gently bred lady with a good reputation.” “And I am seven and twenty. Far too old to ‘find myself a husband’.” “You are not so old; I would not have guesseda day past twenty-five.” One of her elegantly cynical eyebrows raised. “Fine. Would you marry me?” Nathaniel pushed himself back in his chair. “Me? Miss Blakesley…” “Exactly. I am too old and too set in my ways, withfar too many freedoms–” Nathaniel muttered, “Amen to that.” “–to make a good wife, and I doubt I wouldenjoy a husband. I would enjoy a lover though.” She studied him a bit, eyeing his polishedboots, the breeches molding his thighs, his hands clasped in his lap. “I would enjoy you.” Nathaniel cleared his throat. “Miss Blakesley, I still can’t help butthink you don’t know what you are asking, else you wouldn’t be asking a practicalstranger.” “It would be perfectly acceptable to marryyou after such a short time. I don’t see how this is any different.” What logic. If she couldn’t tell the difference betweenmarriage and what she was suggesting there was no hope he could point it out. She said, “I’m willing to pay you.” His mouth fell open. “Pardon?” “I have access to the money saved for mydowry. I’m not willing to part with all of it,since you won’t be marrying me, but I’ll be able to pay what you think is fair.” Nathaniel felt his face go red. “You want to pay me? I am not a damn prostitute!” Miss Blakesley blinked, then coughed discreetly. “I had not thought of it like that. Male prostitution? Would I call you a gentleman of the night?” She chuckled and the low sound sent a chilldown his spine. He said, “You belong in Bedlam.” She chuckled again. “I did not mean you would be a prostitute. I would like you to seduce me, woo me, notjust…you know.” “You want to pay me to woo you.” “Yes. This is my one chance; I think I should haveit all. I would like to be courted. You can come calling, dance with me, escortme to the opera. My sisters were never so happy as when theywere being pursued. I would like the same.” “And then presumably after I have wooedand won you, I would seduce you, and then jilt you in the eyes of the ton when I neversee you again.” Miss Blakesley tipped her head. “I know it will cause a very minor stirbut I will take the blame. I have no one to impress, while one day youwill have to take a wife.” She leaned forward, her expression thoughtful. “I would suggest girls a little older. Not too old, but not ones right out of thenursery. You seem to need a little heavier conversationthan they can provide. Just a thought.” “Thank you for the advice, Miss Blakesley.” “You’re welcome. Now where were we?” “You were turning me into a rake.” “I wasn’t!” Nathaniel said, “That is what it soundslike to me. I court you, make you fall in love with me,take your innocence, and leave you. I can’t think of a better definition thanthat. Perhaps you should find a man with more experiencewith that than I.” She stared at him, her forehead wrinkled inconsternation. “But I specifically do not want a rake. I do have my reputation to consider and Idon’t want even a breath of scandal surrounding my family. Surely no one would think that you had compromisedme.” “I hesitate to ask what you mean by that.” “Well… I mean… You seem quite… Oh, dear. I didn’t mean to attack your virility.” Nathaniel guffawed. “I didn’t know you were attacking my virility.” “I just meant you have a reputation yourself. You never let your passions overwhelm you. You don’t drink or gamble to excess andyou are quite discreet with your…lovers.” He stared at her. Where this woman got her ideas and informationfrom he didn’t know, but she had to be the most informed woman in the ton. Miss Blakesley smiled a little at him. “I do have five brothers-in-law, Mr. Jenkins. I usually can wheedle what I need out of them.” “And I assume you have their blessings forthis insane scheme of yours?” “They all agree you are excellent husbandmaterial so I will have to assume you are excellent seducer material as well.” Nathaniel rubbed his forehead, thinking hercircular arguments would land him in Bedlam as well. “Miss Blakesley, I must admit that thoughI am intrigued by your proposition, I must decline. My honor would not allow me to compromiseyou in such a fashion.” Her shoulders seemed to sag a little but sherallied quickly. “Of course. I do understand, Mr. Jenkins. Your refusal tells me I was right about yourcharacter.” She smiled wryly. “I shall have to find someone with not somany morals. Could you recommend any other gentleman ofyour acquaintance?” He stood sharply. “Certainly not. This entire affair is a foolish idea. Find yourself a husband.” Miss Blakesley stood as well. “As I have told you, that is impossible. I have a few extremely bad habits and I donot desire a husband.” He took a step closer, ignoring her sad eyesand pert nose. “I’m afraid, Miss Blakesley, that youmust be ruined without my help.” She glanced at his lips and whispered, “That’sa shame, Mr. Jenkins.” He stared at the maddening woman, then turnedbriskly away. The faster he got away from her the better. Honor was beginning to seem a poor consolationprize for what she was offering. Chapter Three A week later, Nathaniel waited impatientlyas his carriage slowly wound its way to the Hamilton’s. He had prepared for this ball with more excitementthan he had felt in a long time. Possibly ever, as he wasn’t more than apassable dancer and the conversations had always run toward fashion. Now, however, there was Miss Blakesley. What scandalous dialogue she would insiston spouting while buttoned up to the neck, he had no idea. But he did not doubt it would be amusing. And intriguing. And arousing. He had thought of little else than her thislast week, playing again their conversation. No wonder. He had never before been approached by a womanto ruin her. He could in all honesty say she did not lookmad. Or devious. Or even passionate. And yet, she was all three. She looked like the scholarly spinster thatshe was. But underneath she was so much more. He was looking forward to her shocking himagain tonight. Oh, he had no intention of taking her up onher offer; he would talk her out of her madness if she continued to insist upon it. But he could not seem to stop thinking aboutit or her. His mother intruded on his thoughts. “You look quite eager tonight, Nathaniel.” He immediately dropped the curtain and satback on the seat. “Perhaps I have accepted the necessity ofall these social engagements.” “Mmm. What’s her name?” Nathaniel grinned at his mother, who sat backwith an expression of shock on her face. He laughed. “Come, Mother. I can’t be such an ogre that a grin throwsyou.” She composed herself. “Of course not. But you must admit this is quite a changefrom last week when I practically had to drag you.” He nodded. “On reflection, I have decided I enjoyedmyself immensely last week. And I have every intention of doing so again.” He skewered her with a stare. “But I do not want you jumping to conclusionsabout every young lady I come in contact with.” His mother opened her fan, waving it idly. “You could do worse than find someone whoexcites you, Nathaniel.” It was true. However, he doubted his mother would approveof the lady if she knew why he was excited. As if reading his mind she said, “If itis Miss Blakesley, I think it a good match. She does seem to have a certain indescribablecharacter about her.” “Yes, she is fascinating.” “And really dear, don’t think too muchon the age. It is true she is not fresh from the schoolroombut she is still young enough. She is from a good, quiet, respectable family.” Nathaniel snorted. If Miss Blakesley was anything it was notgood, quiet, or respectable. Olivia searched the crowded ballroom withlittle enjoyment. Since Mr. Jenkins had so very effectivelydismissed her, she had been hard pressed to get excited about the project. It didn’t help to know that he was right–it was a foolish idea. And the chances of her succeeding were shrinkingevery day. She needed to find a good, decent man andask him to act in a reprehensible way. Foolishness, indeed. She hadn’t actually thought he would rejecther. What man could ignore his baser passions whenoffered an unplucked flower on a platter? Obviously, when it was her unplucked flower,it was easy. At this rate she was going to have to finda rake after all. And one who didn’t have high expectations. It was turning into a thoroughly depressingaffair. Olivia stiffened the instant Mr. Jenkins walkedin the door. She didn’t even have to see him to knowhe was there. She pasted a smile on her face and turnedto say something witty to her sister, hoping he would ignore her for the night. Mary poked her in the ribs. “Ooh, look who’s just arrived. He’s looking over here.” “He is not.” “He is. And his mother is staring at you.” Olivia’s face flushed and she whipped herhead around to find both of them watching her. Mr. Jenkins nodded, looking almost happy tobe there. Wasn’t that just wonderful for him. His mother looked quite intrigued. Even worse. Olivia couldn’t imagine he had told hismother anything, but he wasn’t exactly being subtle. Mary whispered behind her fan. “He looks almost enamored, Livvy. What did you speak of last week?” Olivia refused to blush again. “Nothing, really. I didn’t talk of fashion though. Perhaps he’s simply never met a woman whodidn’t know a flounce from a ruffle before.” Mary snorted. “I’m sure he hasn’t and I’m sure that’snot why he’s coming over here right now.” Olivia took a quick breath, ignoring her speedingheart. Hopefully he wasn’t coming to give her anotherset-down. “Mrs. Eliot. Miss Blakesley. Would you still have a waltz free?” Olivia ignored Mary’s wide smile. If she could have, she would have ignoredNathaniel Jenkins and his unexpected dance offer as well. “Yes, thank you.” He bowed slightly and left. Mary’s fan went into convulsions and shesing-songed, “Olivia has a suitor.” By the time Mr. Jenkins came for her, shewas ready. She would not blush again. She had propositioned him for goodness sake;she could certainly dance with him without turning red as a cherry. The music started, the couples began dancing,and he said, “I hope you have given up on your extremely foolish idea, Miss Blakesley.” So much for gently breaking into the subject. She eyed him coolly. “Of course not. A child learning to walk does not quit afterthe first tumble.” “You must agree this is a little more foolhardy,and certainly more sinister, than learning to walk.” “The principles are the same no matter theendeavor, Mr. Jenkins.” His eyes flashed and he brought her closerfor a spin. “Very well. Then tell me who you are considering.” Olivia sniffed. “Why?” “Because I am an excellent judge of character. And who else will you be able to ask?” Olivia considered. It would be nice to have a second opinion. And he would have heard more about the darkerside of a gentleman’s character than she. She hadn’t the heart to go ask her brothers-in-lawanymore, they teased her endlessly about Mr. Jenkins. “Fine. Mr. James Woolthy.” “Jimmy? Too fat. He’ll have no stamina for the activitiesyou have planned.” Olivia bit her tongue and glared at him. He seemed entirely too cheerful. “Mr. Marcus Matthews. He is not fat at all.” “No, but he is too young. He’ll not have enough experience to makethe experiment worthwhile.” “Mr. Simon Rawling.” “Too much in love with the bottle. He won’t be able to get the old boy up.” Olivia pondered that for a moment. Mr. Jenkins watched her, his fingers grippingtighter around her waist. She said, “Well, I fear my options are becomingquite limited. It seems I am left with Mr. Damien St. Martins,the youngest son of Lord Waverley.” Mr. Jenkins tripped over his own foot. “Miss Blakesley! He is a rake of the worst kind. Your reputation won’t survive that scandal.” “Can you think of anyone better?” He stared over her shoulder and sighed. “I suppose it shall have to be me.” Olivia huffed. “If it will be too much of a bother, don’tput yourself out, sir.” He glanced at her. “Was I not enthusiastic enough for you,Miss Blakesley?” “No, you weren’t. And if I do decide to go ahead with you, Iwould like an assurance that you’ll do better in the future.” Mr. Jenkins choked back a laugh. “Of course, Miss Blakesley. It was thoughtless of me. How can I show you my enthusiasm? Shall we take a stroll through the gardens?” “Are you funning me, Mr. Jenkins?” “Of course not, Miss Blakesley. I’m simply wondering if you would like tosample the goods before you decide.” He’d meant it as a joke, surely, but Oliviathought it a sensible idea. What if they were incompatible? She said, “Perhaps a quick nip outside forsome fresh air would be beneficial, thank you.” Mr. Jenkins stared at her, then shook himself. “Remind me not to offer any more inappropriatesuggestions. You seem to run away with them.” Olivia merely looked at him. He was either going to seduce her or he wasn’t,and even if there were no other suitors in line for her she would not be desperate. She could have married long ago if she’dbeen willing to settle for just anybody. The waltz slowed and ended, and Olivia continuedto look at him. He cleared his throat. “Very well. Shall we take a stroll, Miss Blakesley?” “Thank you, it is a bit warm in here.” Mr. Jenkins escorted her to the terrace where,unfortunately, two matrons sat taking the air and watching another couple. He led her to the other side, well away fromprying ears if not prying eyes. He said, “I dare not take you into the gardenswith those two watching.” Olivia quietly sighed. “I understand, Mr. Jenkins. And I appreciate your care for my reputation.” He grasped her hand lightly between his, rubbingit gently. “I would like to take you into those gardensand kiss you senseless, though. I wouldn’t want you thinking I was unenthusiastic.” She gaped at him. “You want to kiss me?” A light twinkled in his eyes. “I would not have agreed to this crazy schemeif I didn’t.” He lightly touched her, right below her ear. “I want to nuzzle you here, surround myselfin your scent.” Olivia cleared her throat. “That does sound inter–”His finger slid inside the cuff of her sleeve and stroked her soft skin. I’d start here at your wrist and kiss andnibble my way up your arm, stopping to lick the crook of your elbow. And then I’d kiss your lips, softly at first,gently, feeling the softness press warmly back. And you’d open your mouth to sigh and I’dslip my tongue in to play with yours.” Olivia jumped, staring at his mouth, and whispered,“Is that pleasant?” One side of his mouth quirked. “Oh, yes.” It didn’t sound like it would be but Oliviatrusted that he knew what he was about. One hoped he had more experience than she. He couldn’t possibly have less. “What is also pleasant is if you circleyour arms around my neck and kiss me back, your body stretching along mine. Olivia’s heart beat furiously and the needfor air seemed to have deserted her. She looked up into his face, saw passion andwant, and understood power for the first time in her life. She had done that to him. Perhaps this wasn’t a good idea after all. I don’t want to have to ravish you withan audience.” Satisfaction stole through Olivia. “Do you want to ravish me?” “Miss Blakesley, you are two steps awayfrom being swept into the garden and seduced quite thoroughly.” The light laughter of another couple comingout to enjoy the air intruded upon them and Mr. Jenkins stepped back. His heat left her and Olivia realized justhow hot he had been. He adjusted the front of his breeches discreetlyand cleared his throat. “I had meant to shock you out of this madidea, Miss Blakesley, not incite myself.” Olivia shook herself. “If that was indeed your plan, Mr. Jenkins,you failed magnificently. But if we are to continue, I think there willhave to be a few rules.” He paused for a moment as if he was willinghis better sense to take over. She held her breath. He nodded and she began to breathe again. He said, “Yes, and number one will be touse our Christian names.” That seemed quite scandalous. Even her mother still called her father Mr.Blakesley. Of course, the whole affair was quite scandalous. “Agreed, but only in private.” “Agreed. Olivia.” Olivia’s stomach flopped and she lookedup into his brightly burning eyes. She had thought him quite ordinary looking,that was one of the reasons she had chosen him, but at that moment she would be hardpressed to find someone more arresting. He seemed quite powerful, manly. Dear Lord, she would have to go back insideto cool down the way they were going. “Rule number two,” he growled. “There will not be any other men aroundwhile I am pursuing you.” Olivia fanned herself. “Of course not. A true experiment would require a comparison,but this is an experience. I will be delighted to simply have the opportunity.” And she would not forget that it had beenhard enough to find one suitable and willing seducer. She would not bet with herself that she couldfind two. The next dance started up and Olivia reluctantlylet him lead her inside. “I have not told you any of my rules, Mr… Nathaniel.” He escorted her to her sister, sketched abow, and grinned at her. “I am sure there will be ample time foryou to read me the list tomorrow morning, Miss Blakesley. Until then.” She watched him walk the length of the ballroom,thinking she had picked the best of the lot. At least if one was comparing backsides. And seductive capabilities! “Olivia?” Mary poked her with the fan. “Hmm?” “I said, a waltz and the terrace? My, oh my. He is coming calling tomorrow?” “It would seem so.” Olivia grinned at her sister. “I may be in need of more fresh air.” Mary laughed. “Of course, sister dear. You do look a bit peaked.” Olivia rushed to an open window, remindingherself not to break into song and dance. She was a respectable young lady. She could not create such a spectacle of herself. She settled for vigorously waving her fan,hoping it hid her too-large smile and too-warm cheeks. She, Miss Olivia Blakesley, spinster extraordinaire,had found herself a seducer. Chapter Four “Rule number one: You can tell no one ofour arrangement.” Nathaniel escorted Olivia through the parkon his arm, her maid following discreetly. Since this was the first time her maid hadever acted as chaperone, she was doing remarkably well at keeping nearly out of sight. Olivia wondered idly if her mother had toldthe maid to stay as far away as possible. Olivia wouldn’t put it past her mother tothink a slight scandal might move a marriage along. “Of course, Olivia. A gentleman does not kiss and tell.” She nodded. Yet one had to wonder how all the gossip startedif not for a little kiss and tell. She knew of at least two young ladies whosereputations had been ruined by hearsay. She would have to trust Nathaniel that hewould not ruin her. Or, at least not tell anyone that he had ruinedher. “Rule number two: I may at any time decidenot to go through with our agreement and you will respect that. I will, of course, still pay you.” Nathaniel stopped in his tracks. “Do you think you’ll change your mind?” “Well, I don’t know, do I? What if I find the marital act terrifying? One hears so many stories. I just would like your assurance that you’llstop if I ask.” “You won’t find it terrifying, Olivia. Thrilling, certainly. And you won’t want me to stop.” He pulled her hand back through his arm andcontinued walking. “However, if you wish to stop, I will. But mean it if you say it. Starting and stopping is very hard on a man.” “I will certainly take that into consideration,Nathaniel. Hopefully it will not be necessary.” Nathaniel nodded. “And you won’t be paying me.” “I certainly will.” “No, you won’t. I will not be a paid courtesan, a prostitute,or your mistress…master… Anyhow, I will not be paid.” “Then why are you doing this? There’s nothing in it for you. I will not be charity.” Olivia glared at him. “Don’t laugh at me.” “I’m not laughing at you. Women are paid for this kind of service becauseit is not always pleasurable for them. For a man it is. That will be my payment.” “Hmm. I still think you should be paid.” “No. That is final.” Olivia sniffed, watching the other coupleswalking along the green. They all looked quite young. And hopeful. And young. And most definitely innocent. She doubted any of them were having a conversationquite like theirs. “There is one thing you haven’t thoughtof, Olivia. What if you become pregnant?” She continued to look away from Nathanielas she answered. She was really getting quite tired of blushingin front of him. “I have thought of it. I read somewhere that there is a precautiona man can take to prevent pregnancy. Do you know of it?” Nathaniel cleared his throat. “Yes. It isn’t foolproof, though.” Olivia had been afraid it wasn’t. Was it worth the risk? She took a deep breath. It was. If worse came to worst, she could visit relativesuntil the baby was due. She had five sisters, one of them would surelyraise her baby if need be. Mary would, definitely. “I hesitate to ask how you know such things,Olivia.” “I do have–”“And don’t tell me you have five brothers-in-law. I doubt any of them would have mentioned sucha thing.” She glanced at him, noting his dark expression. “Almost anything can be found in a book,Nathaniel.” “Not any books you should be reading.” True. She had an extremely naughty book hidden undera floorboard in her room. She might let him look at it when they kneweach other a little better. She had a few questions for him. “Well, I’ve read quite a few things Ishouldn’t have. I will accept full responsibility should somethingunfortunate happen.” He muttered, “Bloody hell,” and she ignoredit. She was putting him in an extremely stressfulsituation after all. She said, “Would you like me to pay youafter all? I understand the method is not so pleasurablefor the man.” He was turning a bit red and his collar seemedto be bothering him. “No, you will not pay me.” She patted his arm. “Of course, Nathaniel. I did not mean to insult your manly pride.” This was really turning into more work thanOlivia had planned. They resumed walking and he said, “Was thatthe list, then? You only have two rules?” “I did have a third one, but after lastnight’s demonstration I am no longer worried about your devotion to the project. I think we’ll do quite well together. Although, I’m certain I’ll think of morerules as situations arise.” “I’m certain you will.” “I would like to know why you changed yourmind, though. You seemed quite put out with me when I originallyasked.” “You surprised me, Olivia. It was like having a dog come up and ask forits dinner. Wholly unsuspected.” Olivia turned to stare at him. “Are you comparing me to a dog, sir? A talking dog? Surely it could not have been as unbelievableas that.” Nathaniel grimaced. “That wasn’t what I meant. Of course I was not comparing you to a dog.” “It sounded like you were.” “I was not expecting a gently bred ladyto proposition me. I was expecting you to talk about your stars,or since you wanted to be private, I was expecting you to try and compromise yourself.” Olivia nodded. “I see. You expected a bark and instead found I couldspeak. Do the ladies often try and compromise themselveswith you?” “Not often, no.” “You seem to have a low regard for my sex,Mr. Jenkins.” “Or a very high regard for dogs.” “I wonder, sir, why you are not married. It has left me quite baffled.” He bent his head and laughed. His shoulders shook as he quietly gave into the inevitable. Olivia tried very hard to keep her lips pursed. “I apologize, Olivia. My charm has deserted me, it seems. If my mother knew I had just compared a ladyto a dog, I’m sure she would disown me completely.” “Which I’m sure you would deserve.” “I would indeed. How may I make this up to you?” Olivia patted his arm. “Let us simply forgive and forget. I believe the situation we find ourselvesin will lend itself to the occasional social blunder.” “Thank you, my dear. But perhaps a rest in this gazebo will showI am not completely without manners.” “Thank you, Nathaniel. It is getting a bit warm. I’ve always thought gazebos so nice to cooldown in.” Nathaniel grinned, pulling her into his armsas soon as they entered. “I don’t think you’ll do much coolingdown in this one.” Her surprised look congratulated him as heslowly bent his head and touched his lips to hers. He gently flicked her upper lip with his tongue,expertly guiding it in at her gasp. His tongue flicked hers playfully. Olivia grasped his lapels, breathing faster,daringly touching her tongue to his. “Oh, Nathaniel. That is pleasant.” He traced the back of her corset, slidinghis fingers under her arms, tempting himself. She murmured something and stepped closer,crushing her chest against his. Nathaniel traced the rise of her breast andgroaned. Olivia’s maid called out and he pushed heraway quickly. Her chest heaved as she tried to gulp downair. She said, “So, this is the fascination withgazebos.” “Yes, but we may be seen at any moment bysomeone other than your maid.” “I think that is part of the fascination.” He smiled as they exited and found her maidwaiting, pointedly looking at the trees. Nathaniel said, “Well, my dear. I believe you requested an escort to the opera. Will you join me?” She wrinkled her nose, then squared her shoulders. “I did want the full experience and a nightat the opera does seem de rigueur for courting couples. Thank you, Nathaniel, that will be…wonderful.” Nathaniel had lost his mind. Or rather, he kept losing it whenever he wentnear Olivia Blakesley. He had meant to talk her out of getting seduced,not talk himself into it. But here he was, courting her, wooing her. Taking her to the opera! The last time he’d let his pants do thetalking for him, he’d been eighteen and had come home with a black eye. If he continued with this mad scheme, he’dbe coming home with a bullet in his gut from one of her brothers-in-law. Madness. She was a gently-bred woman. An oddly-reared, stubborn, passionate, intelligentwoman. And he couldn’t help but feel that if herefused her, she would find some other man. Another man who might hurt her or her family. He shook his head in disgust. He was grasping for straws here, any excusethat would let him do what he wanted. Because he wanted her. Wanted her more than he’d wanted a womanin a very long time. He had not felt so excited to be alive sincehis father had died. She shocked him, amused him, aroused him. He wouldn’t hurt her, as some other menmight. He would give her what she wanted; an experienceto last a lifetime. No one would know, no one would be hurt. He could go ahead with his conscience clear. And he would gag the voice in his head thatwas telling him that this would be the final nail in her spinster’s coffin. Mary arrived later that evening to join themfor dinner and stole up to Olivia’s bedroom to hear all the juicy details one couldn’ttell one’s mother. Since there were far too many juicy detailsone couldn’t tell one’s sister as well, Olivia glossed over her morning outing andwent straight to the next planned encounter. “You want to go to the opera?” Mary looked at her oddly. “Since when?” “Since a handsome man asked me to attendwith him.” “Ah, of course. I should have expected that. Well, I’ll certainly join you, and Rufus,too. He loves the music.” Mary looked at Olivia’s pained face andlaughed. “You did know there was singing involved,didn’t you?” “I suspected. Is it awful?” “It’s nothing like Prudence and her screeching,if that’s what you’re asking. You should ask Rufus to explain it beforeyou go. I’ve actually started to enjoy it.” “Poor Rufus, to be married into our unmusicalfamily.” “Mmm. Perhaps I should warn your Mr. Jenkins.” “Perhaps I should bop you over the headwith my telescope.” Mary tsked at her. “So violent. Never fear, I won’t say a word to him aboutthat. What will you be wearing? Mama says she almost got you to the dressmakersthis week, but lost you to a bookseller on the way.” “I told her before we went that I didn’tneed any new dresses.” Mary looked down at Olivia’s gray bombazineand raised an eyebrow. “Gray is not your color, Livvy. It makes you look deathly. I think you should take Mama up on the offerand get a nice spring yellow. You’d look lovely.” Olivia made a face and gagged. “Yellow? Be serious, Mary. I am nearly eight and twenty. No spinster should wear bright yellow. It would just be sad.” Mary looked at her crossly. “You are not a spinster, Olivia Blakesley. I hate when you say so.” Olivia sighed. “I am. And what’s more I don’t mind. I don’t mind gray bombazine, either. I need never worry that I’ll stain it.” “That’s because it’s ugly and no onewould care if you burnt it. And I doubt Mr. Jenkins thinks you a spinster.” “Mr. Jenkins is not exactly in the firstflush of youth either.” Mary laughed. “I don’t think you can say that aboutmen, Livvy. He is more mature.” Olivia agreed. He certainly was. And she got the distinct impression he likedher ugly dresses. He certainly talked encouragingly enough aboutgetting her out of them. She smiled as she followed Mary down to dinner. Even despite the looming threat of the opera,she could not wait until she could see Nathaniel again. He had already exceeded her greatest expectations. She would just have to remember not to mentionany more activities that she did not want to participate in. He was entirely too good a listener. Chapter Five The opera house was filled to the rafterswith perfumed ladies and foppish men. Even with her blind fashion eye, Olivia couldtell that here was where the ton fawned themselves. Striped pantaloons, cherry red lips, and powderedwigs. The women were even worse. One woman’s hat looked as if it was aboutto fly away. Mary looked at her face and laughed. “Regretting the bombazine now?” “No. I was thinking it an improvement over mostof the costumes here.” Nathaniel bent to whisper in Olivia’s ear. “Have you never been to the opera, Olivia? I should have warned you.” “And I should have expected something likethis. I knew there was a reason I’d never comebefore.” “Well, I hope the music is to your liking.” She kept a purposefully hopeful expressionon her face. “They can’t come just for the fashion,can they? I expect to be dazzled by beautiful singingand an emotional story.” Nathaniel laughed. “Is that a quote from the Times? If not, I believe your interests lie in thewrong field. You should become a critic. Do you speak German, then?” Olivia frowned at him. “German?” “This opera is in German.” “What, the singing? All of it?” She turned to Rufus. “You forgot to mention that.” He folded his pamphlet, laughing at her. “I thought you would guess by the title.” “I thought that was a gimmick. You told me it was beautiful and emotional;how was I to guess it was in German?” Nathaniel pulled her away gently. “Come, my dear. Let’s find our seats, shall we?” “Do you come much, Nathaniel?” “I confess, no.” Olivia followed him, secretly pleased thathe did not regularly attend. And even more pleased that he had gone tothe effort to take her. She smiled pleasantly at him. She would try to enjoy this experience knowingshe wasn’t likely to be subjected to it again. Despite her sister’s assurance, she couldnot imagine a beautiful melody, only torturous screeching. Thankfully, her mother had wisely chosen otheraccomplishments for her daughters to exhibit. One’s ears were blissfully left alone bypainting. The four of them sat and Olivia leaned towardMary and whispered, “How long is this supposed to last?” Mary spoke behind her fan. “Three hours.” Olivia stared at her incredulously. “Of singing? Nothing but singing? In German?” “There’s an intermission where you canwalk around and look at everyone’s pretty dresses.” Olivia glared at her. No wonder she had never come to the operabefore. Music and fashion, her two most favorite subjects. Less than half an hour after the curtain rose,she glanced at Rufus. He sat forward in his chair, listening inrapture to the music. She wished she could hear what he so obviouslyenjoyed, but she hadn’t a musical bone in her body. The only one of her sisters who could singat all decently was Eugenia, and that was only through hours and hours of tortuous practice. Give her the beautifully silent stars anyday. Olivia peeked at Nathaniel, half afraid hewas in bliss himself. Though why she should care was beyond her. He wasn’t really courting her. She wouldn’t have to spend years accompanyinghim to the opera if he did enjoy it so. Nonetheless, she let out a sigh of reliefat his carefully neutral face. He glanced at her and Olivia couldn’t helpbut feel that they shared a moment of complete understanding and togetherness. She felt a twinge of regret that it couldnot last, but then shook herself. She would not poison this experience. Even if this had been a true courtship, itwould end anyhow. She had enough married sisters to know thatthe thrill would fade. She would simply enjoy it while it lasted. She was startled when Nathaniel’s hand foundhers in the darkness. His thumb began to draw lazy patterns on herglove and she suppressed a shiver. She glanced at him but found he was suddenlyquite fascinated with the show. All of a sudden she was finding it quite excitingas well. The beating of her heart drowned out all othersound as he continued to fondle her suddenly sensitive fingers. Her breath came faster and her stomach flippedand flopped. She fanned herself vigorously; the room hadbecome inexplicably warm. She noticed a slight smirk on Nathaniel’sface; the man needed a taste of his own medicine. She began to fondle his fingers. His breath hitched and she feared there wasa little smirk on her face now. She glanced at him and met his eyes. They were bright and shining and he smileda little at her. His own fingers once again sought to takecontrol of the situation and she choked back her laugh as they fought for fondling dominance. The longer she and Nathaniel courted the moreshe thought how well suited they were together. He was quite the most wonderful gentlemanshe’d ever gotten to know. They had the same interests, the same non-interests,and he made even the most head-pounding evening fly by. Every once in a while she thought it was ashame this was not a real courtship. Would they suit for real? Of course, it wouldn’t be very fair to himif she started thinking and acting like this was a real courtship. They had a deal and marriage wasn’t partof it. She had propositioned him, so it wasn’tlikely he still thought her a proper young lady fit for a gentleman. Intermission came quickly enough. Nathaniel’s hand fiddling had kept her quiteoccupied, but she still begged Mary to leave early when they visited the lady’s withdrawingroom. Hand fiddling, while quite exhilarating, couldnot silence the interminable screeching. “No. You asked us to accompany you, and Rufus hasbeen so excited to come. We can’t leave halfway through.” “I don’t understand how he can be so passionateabout it.” “None of us can understand what you findso all-consuming about the stars, yet we let you get on with it.” Olivia could think of quite a few instanceswhere her family had not left her alone in peace to study her stars. Yet, she knew that Rufus felt quite passionateabout music and she wouldn’t want to deny him the pleasure. No matter how much it made her want to yell. Mary said, “Besides, aren’t you enjoyingsitting so close to your Mr. Jenkins?” “I am. But he doesn’t seem to be enjoying himselfso much either.” “At least you have that in common. You won’t have to attend with him in thefuture if neither of you enjoys it. Rufus says Mr. Jenkins prefers the country;you two can squirrel away to the countryside and be happy forevermore.” “The stars are clearer in the country. Town is all about fashion and gossip. I dare say this will be my last season here.” Mary grinned at her, happy. “I dare say it will be, too.” Olivia shook her head. “Even if nothing comes of Mr. Jenkins. I am about ready for spinster-hood.” Mary glared at her. “I will be ever so grateful when I no longerhave to hear you call yourself a spinster. I am quite tired of it.” They left the lady’s room and found themselvesin quite a crush. They wound their way through to the gentlemenand Olivia could hear whispers and laughter. It was mostly gossip about fashion, but thenshe heard “…gray bombazine…” and realized it was she they were laughing about. She smiled at such foolishness. She really did not understand what the fusswas about. She had dressed appropriately for the opera,if not fashionably. “…Jenkins doing with her?” “…do much better…”“…joke? Not like him…” And she stopped smiling. Would his reputation suffer because of hissupposed interest in her? At least no one could believe that Nathanielwas really courting her. Why would they? He was a solid gentleman with a solid fortune,he could have any woman he wished. He wouldn’t choose to court a set-in-her-waysold maid. Oh, if they only knew the real reason he washere with her. It was good he was such an honorable man. He would never tell anyone of their arrangement,that much she was sure of. When their arrangement came to an end, noone would think anything but that he had come to his senses and stopped pursuing such anunsuitable match. She had benefited extraordinarily from hisattention. She had experienced walking the green, flirtatiousdancing, attending the opera, and been the object of a man’s studied attention. It was getting hard for her to pretend itwasn’t for real, and it seemed it was getting hard for others to ignore his attention aswell. She hadn’t meant to make anyone believethey had an attachment, least of all herself. She had simply wanted to know what it feltlike to be wanted. Now she knew. She also knew it was time to end the publiccourtship. She did not want his reputation to sufferfrom their association. She liked him far too well to cause him anyharm. At last the opera ended and they escaped. Nathaniel kept her close, ostensibly to guideher through the masses of people. He said, “That was an experience I won’tbe quick to forget.” “Nor I. Thank you for suffering through it for me.” “Of course, Olivia. I did enjoy parts of it, though I hope wewon’t have to again for quite some time.” She shook her head. “Once was more than enough for me. But thank you, Nathaniel. This has been a wonderful courtship.” “Do you consider yourself wooed and won,then?” She laughed, squeezing his arm. “I do, indeed.” She paused, looking away. “But I wonder when the next part will come.” “I admit I’ve been hesitating.” “Why?” “I’ve been hoping you would change yourmind.” She scowled at him. “I won’t.” “And also because once a couple unites,it changes their relationship. Sweet kisses and passionate embraces are nolonger enough, the act itself becomes all important. It is very hard to go back to what one wasbefore… Are you sure you want to continue, Olivia?” As they stepped outside, the cool air madeher shiver. She took a deep breath. “Yes. That was what we agreed to, Nathaniel. I want to know. I want to know why the act becomes so important. I want to know why passion grips men’s soulsand makes women go all aflutter.” She looked up at him and whispered. “Please show me.” He stared in silence at the line of carriages,then chuckled. “Will you be watching the stars tonight?” Olivia glanced at the foggy sky, then smiledat him. “I expect not for long.” Nathaniel smiled, too. “No, not for long.” Chapter Six If Mr. Nathaniel Jenkins didn’t get heresoon, Olivia was going to beat him with her telescope. They would find him bludgeoned to death andher only excuse would be that he’d promised to seduce her and hadn’t. Could anyone blame her? Disown her certainly, but not blame her. She had rushed outside as soon as it was dark–eager and expectant. That had been a good three hours ago and shewas tired. The thrill had worn down to a dull achingin her stomach. Perhaps he had changed his mind. He was a gentleman after all. He had been taught from birth to never dallywith another gentleman’s daughter. One only married those. She should have paid him. Then he would’ve had to come back to seduceher. She should have made him swear on his honor. “The way you’re glaring at that chimneymakes me think I’m late.” Olivia jumped out of her chair, half out offright, half out of righteous indignation. “Yes, you’re late. I’ve been out here for three hours. I’m freezing, my lower extremities havefallen asleep, and you’ve made me wait so long that I am not interested in you or anythingyou think you can teach me.” She took a breath, pacing in front of him. Nathaniel watched her with the intensity ofa lion-tamer, his eyes following her ragged pacing. “I apologize, Olivia. I should have been more specific. I didn’t want to come when anyone wouldbe awake.” Olivia hastily lowered her voice to a whisper. “Well, everyone has been asleep for a goodwhile. I think I’ll join them.” Nathaniel caught her wrist as she swept byhim. “Olivia, wait.” She stopped, refusing to look at him, andwished the ache in her stomach would go away. She had not felt this ill since her coming-out. Nathaniel slowly pulled her to the chair,settled himself, arranged her on his lap, and draped the blanket around them. He held her, his chin resting on her head,and said nothing. Olivia relaxed unwillingly against him, hisheat warming her. She breathed deeply and the scent of horseand man and bay filled her. Men smelled so differently than women. They smelled warmer somehow. Or perhaps they just felt warmer. She’d been held by her mother before, andshe’d hugged her sisters. None of them had been so hot. Nathaniel’s heat almost burned her. She was getting a bit warm under the blanket. Nathaniel’s armed snaked around her waist,holding her closer. “You can change your mind.” “I don’t want to change my mind, I justwish I hadn’t had so much time to think about it.” Olivia turned to face him, watching him inthe moonlight. “May I kiss you?” He smiled slightly and his armed tightenedaround her. “Yes.” Her heart pounded and her breath came faster. He had always kissed her before. It was all well and good to be seduced, butsometimes a woman had to take control. Otherwise, there was too much time for thinking. She leaned forward and brushed his lips. Again and again she ran her closed lips gentlyagainst his. They were soft, gliding smoothly against herown. She moved to his cheek, brushing her lipsback and forth. “You shaved.” She felt him smile, but he remained silent. She stood, warmed by his heat, warmed by herown. She leaned over him, running her lips overhis nose, slipping across his lashes and his closed eyes. His hands grasped lightly around her waist,caressing down her hips and thighs, and up around her rib-cage, gently nudging her breasts. Her breath caught. He rose swiftly, wrapping the blanket aroundher. “Stay here a moment.” He knelt by his saddle-bags, pulling out athick blanket and spreading it on the small deck. He placed a thinner blanket on top, then heldhis hand out to her, motioning for her to come. In his hand was a small red rose. She walked toward him slowly, taking the roseand inhaling the sweet scent. She whispered, “Thank you, Nathaniel. This is more than I expected.” “You wanted to be wooed and seduced, Olivia. I am a man of my word.” She smiled, ignoring the butterflies in herstomach. She knelt on the blanket beside him and hetook her hand, pulling her to press against him knee to chest. He kissed her cheek and lips and whispered,“You wanted to learn the art of seduction, Miss Blakesley?” “I believe I called it the acts of seduction.” He nibbled her bottom lip. “You’ll learn that, too.” Olivia awoke to sunlight streaming throughher window, the songs of birds serenading her, and the smell of hot sausages tantalizingher. She stretched lazily, smiling to herself. What a glorious morning. Her mother knocked on the door, entreatingher to get up. “What if your Mr. Jenkins comes this morning,Livvy? I don’t want to have to tell him you arestill abed.” Olivia doubted that would shock him at all. “I’m up, Mama. I’ll be down presently.” She bounded out of bed, nearly falling tothe floor, and groaned as all the muscles in her lower extremities protested. Dear heaven, she was sore! She winced as she took another step and silentlyberated herself. How was she supposed to comport herself infront of her parents when it felt like she had been thoroughly used! How was she supposed to walk down the confoundedstairs without killing herself! No one had ever mentioned this little sideeffect, thank you very much. She expected her nether regions to be a bitsore, which they were, but not nearly as sore as her backside. Perhaps that was from the hard deck. Her next lesson would need to be on somethinga bit softer. Olivia dressed slowly, stretching her abusedmuscles, and praying her parents would not know by looking at her that she was no longera virgin spinster aunt. She was a ruined spinster aunt, thank youvery much. The stairs gave her pause. She held firm to the rod, groaning with eachstep, thankful no one could see her. Her mother and father were already sittingat the table and eating when she arrived. Her appetite ravenous, she filled her plate,and stiffly sat in her chair. Her mother glanced at her. “Are you ill, Olivia? I hope you haven’t caught a cold. A man’s attention is very fragile and nowwould be a bad time to lose Mr. Jenkins’ interest.” Olivia tucked into her eggs. “I am not ill. I fell asleep in my chair last night and ama bit stiff.” Her father frowned over his spectacles. “Shall I send Haskins out with you, my dear? I know you do not like company, but this isnot the country. Even if you are on the roof.” “No, Papa. I shan’t be falling asleep again, trustme.” Her mother sighed. “What Mr. Jenkins would say about your nocturnaltendencies, I know not.” She pointed her fork at her daughter and shookit. “You are not a normal girl, Olivia.” Olivia bit back a laugh. “I rather think he knows that, Mama. I don’t try to hide it.” “Well, don’t tell him that we let yououtside at night alone. I shudder to think the scandal that wouldbring. Better if he finds out after the wedding.” Chapter Seven It had been almost a se’nnight since Nathanielhad come to her that night and Olivia was feeling quite a bit restless. Anxious. Impatient. Oh, she saw him nearly every day. He came calling regularly, and danced withher repeatedly, and everyone in the family called him her Mr. Jenkins. She refused to be seen anywhere else in publicwith him and had tried to limit one dance per night with him, but she could hardly refusehim a second one, especially as he asked when she was surrounded by her family. She had explained that she was trying to bediscreet to protect his reputation but he had merely laughed. She couldn’t help but feel a tiny bit excitedand alarmed with his public attentions. But if her Mr. Jenkins did not commit to aprivate rendezvous soon she was going to start screaming. Olivia took a deep breath and smiled at Mary. She now realized why Nathaniel had been cautiousin introducing her to the acte d’amour. No longer was she content with dances andkisses. She wanted more. Needed more. No wonder young women were kept obliviousto the marital act until safely married. It would not do at all to have young womenchasing after men, knocking them to the ground and having their wicked way with them. She saw Nathaniel enter the room and triednot to run to him like some lovesick ninny. She smiled pleasantly when he caught her eyeand ignored her rapidly beating heart as he made his way to them. “Mrs. Eliot, Miss Blakesley.” “Mr. Jenkins.” “Would you have the next dance free?” Olivia scowled at him. “Really, Na– Mr. Jenkins. You just can’t come dance with me as soonas you walk in the door. Wander around a bit, mingle. You are giving the gossips too much to workwith.” Mary hid a laugh behind her fan. “Are you often scolded by the women youseek out, Mr. Jenkins? I’m surprised you take it so well.” He smiled. “I don’t take it to heart, Mrs. Eliot. She insists on preserving my bachelor reputationdespite my decided lack of enjoyment in it. If it weren’t for how sweetly she welcomesmy company when she is not worrying what others think, I would leave her be.” “My sister? Worrying about what others think? Sweet?” Mary looked at Olivia and smiled so happilythat Olivia shuddered. Her mother would take one look at Mary andassume Nathaniel had proposed right then and there. Mary sighed. “Oh, Olivia.” Olivia turned away from her. “Oh, all right. Let’s go dance.” Nathaniel chuckled, taking her hand in his. “Nathaniel, you are all but declaring yourintentions with this tomfoolery. My family will be stricken when nothing comesof it.” “Perhaps something will come of it.” Her face darkened with anger. “You and I both know that isn’t true. We have an agreement. You are not holding up your end.” “I thought part of it was wooing and winning.” “You’ve wooed, you’ve won. Now stop it.” “I wonder why I don’t feel as if I’vewon.” Olivia muttered, “It is because you havenot been fulfilling all your contractual obligations.” A diabolical smile lit his face and Olivianearly tripped over her own foot. “Do you feel as if I have been ignoringa certain aspect of your education, Olivia?” She chose to ignore him rather than risk lookinga besotted fool and was taken completely by surprise when her mouth opened of its ownvolition and hissed, “A week!” “It has seemed like an eternity to me.” She felt slightly mollified. “Then why have you not come?” “It was to give you time, Olivia. You were quite sore after.” “True, but that went away quickly.” “And then it was because I wanted to visityou.” She thought for a moment. “You didn’t visit because you wanted tovisit?” “It does sound silly when you say it, butI do not like my passions to get out of control.” “Ah. Yes.” She smiled. “I do turn most of the men around me intoravenous beasts.” “You make one out of me.” She laughed. “I don’t believe you but it is a prettyexcuse.” “It is the truth but if you won’t believeit then let’s move on from excuses and on to plans.” Her stomach flopped. “Plans? Have you resumed control of your beast then?” He shook his head. “I am afraid he will be in control for quitesome time. I no longer care.” “Well then, when shall I expect your ravenousbeast?” And why, oh why, was that thought so titillating? Nathaniel so in passion that he lost all control? “Perhaps tonight I can rein him in enoughto not scare you.” “Please don’t on my account. I am slightly interested in meeting him.” Nathaniel coughed, nearly missing the nextstep. “Dear God.” And Miss Olivia Blakesley, for the first timein her life, giggled. Mr. Nathaniel Jenkins had come to the conclusionthis past torturous week that Olivia Blakesley was the woman he had been waiting to marry. He had never met a woman who intrigued himmore. Who could surprise him with her thoughts andconclusions. Who tormented him with her diabolical choiceof dress. He was not made to marry any young girl whothought the color orange was sophisticated. He preferred somber colors. He preferred high necks, not floating cleavage. He preferred conversation and debate. He preferred Olivia. He wanted to marry her. They were perfect for each other. He did not in the least fear that she wouldhave nothing to do with her day, her life, than coddle him or want him to coddle her. She had interests. Even better, she had interests that wouldnot cost him an obscene amount of money. Of course, he would marry her even if shewanted him to build an observatory, but he considered that highly unlikely. She was passionate. Far more passionate than he had expected fromany gently bred lady of the ton. She was far more curious than any lady ofthe ton. He would need to keep her satiated, intrigued. He wouldn’t want her trying to buy othermen. A dark moment passed while he wondered ifshe would proposition some young buck if Nathaniel did not keep her satisfied. He shook his head. She had resorted to that out of desperation,and she was at least twenty-seven. It wasn’t as if she had begun propositioningstrange men as soon as she’d entered society. His previous vision of a cold, duty-filledmarriage died around her. No sneaking off to a mistress for love, orto his club for thought-filled conversation. He could easily imagine years of happinesstucked away in the country arguing and laughing. Yes, Olivia was perfect. And thankfully, already his. They were meant to be. This time Olivia had provided the blanket,and she paced beside it waiting for him. She had waited every night for a week, onthe chance that he might come. She had felt like a silly ninny every nightwhen he hadn’t. If it weren’t for his attentions duringthe daylight hours, she would have assumed he’d had his pleasure and was done withher. Truthfully, he had performed his obligations. They should end the whole thing. But she didn’t want to. When he’d told her starting a physical relationshipchanged things, she’d thought he’d been exaggerating. Perhaps it was simply because it was new toher, but she found herself thinking of him all day long. When he was close and she could smell him,she often thought she might faint from longing. It was embarrassing! She, of all people. Felled by passion. Olivia exhaled loudly when he found her. He had come. The night was cool and she was glad she didnot have to wait long for him, for his heat. Nathaniel bent to one knee, bringing a bouquetof flowers from behind his back. Olivia took a step back. “What are you doing?” “I’m asking you to marry me.” “Oh, Nathaniel. I can’t marry you.” Nathaniel stared. “Pardon? Have you become engaged to someone else whileI wasn’t looking?” Olivia frowned. “Of course not. But you are simply feeling guilty for takingmy…” “…maidenhead?” “My innocence.” “As you said before, Olivia, you were notan innocent. Inexperienced, and I rectified that, but youwere definitely not an innocent.” True. But she couldn’t help feeling that thiswas a mistake and blamed it on his honor. He had ruined her for marriage, she was surehe thought so, and proposed to her out of guilt. “Nathaniel. I can’t marry you.” “Why not? We are eminently suited for each other.” “I would make you a terrible wife. I have been alone for too long.” Nathaniel shook his head. “Yes, I have. Not even you would let me sneak outside everyclear night.” “Well–”“And what about children? I’m not sure I’m mother material. I don’t like being constantly distracted.” “Olivia–”“I do like being an aunt, it’s true. But I get to go home at the end of the day. When they stub their little toes, it’s notme they go running to.” “Olivia, I hate to mention this but we havebeen intimate. You may already be pregnant.” Olivia stared at him indignantly. “I thought you had taken care of that!” Nathaniel shrugged. “There is always the possibility.” She sat down in silence, considering. Finally, she shook her head. “I don’t think so.” “And you’re right, I wouldn’t let yousneak outside every clear night. It’s too dangerous and I can’t believeyour father allows it.” “I told you.” “But I would build you a tower. An observatory that you could escape to butwould be safe.” She stared at him, torn between laughter atthe idea and amazement. Had he considered this already? “An observatory?” “With your easels out there already– achair, blankets. You could simply slip up there and I wouldn’tworry.” He laughed. “I was just congratulating myself on choosingan inexpensive wife.” Olivia shook her head. “It wouldn’t be the same.” “It would be better.” “I like helping my father with the estate. Truthfully, he hasn’t cared for the booksin nearly five years.” “I don’t see why you would have to stopdoing that. Indeed, I would enjoy input from you aboutmy estates.” She shook her head. “I am as free as any woman could ever be. My life is exactly as I want it.” He took her hand. “When I am with you, my future does notseem so dark. When I am with you, life is colorful and wonderful. Can you not say the same?” She whispered sadly, “Nathaniel…” He let go of her hand. “Think on it, Olivia. We are perfect for each other.” She shook her head. “It’s impossible. Perhaps we could go on like this.” Nathaniel rose, taking a step back. “Perhaps not. One day we will both tire of sneaking around.” He pointed at the hard deck. “We will tire of bruised backsides. We will tire of having to separate at theend of the day.” Olivia said nothing, merely watched him withsad eyes. He turned to leave and she rose from her chairquickly. “Will you not stay tonight?” He shook his head. “I came offering you the stars and all youwant is the moon. I will not settle for less, Olivia.” Chapter Eight Nathaniel found his mother at home the nextmorning. He threw himself into a chair, flopping intoa boneless heap. “Good morning, Nathaniel.” “Mother. Prepare yourself; I’m getting married.” “Hallelujah. I assume to Miss Blakesley?” “You assume correctly. However, there is a small problem.” His mother said, “And you’ve come to meto fix it? How odd. Are you feeling quite well, dear?” “No. I have a recalcitrant bride-to-be who willnot listen to me at all.” “Hmm. You’ve picked well for yourself. I’d hate for you to be saddled with a womanwho ran to do your bidding.” Nathaniel tipped his head. “Thank you. Now will you help me?” “Of course. A woman always needs more grandchildren.” Nathaniel muttered under his breath. Where the idea came from that the female wasthe weaker sex, he had no idea. They always did exactly what they wished. Anne said, “First, I must make sure thatthe lady in question does want to marry you. I would hate to coerce Miss Blakesley intomarrying an ogre if she didn’t love you.” “Thank you again, Mother. Why don’t I ask Barters to stab me in theback as well.” “Your valet would never do such a thing,even if you begged. Blood is quite awful to get out of cloth.” She skewered her son with the look. “Why does Miss Blakesley refuse your hand?” “I don’t know. Yes, I do. Because she has had too much freedom in thepast. Too much time to think. She should have been married ages ago. She says she would make me a terrible wife.” “Hmm. Have you considered that she may not loveyou, Nathaniel? I do not mean to be cruel, but perhaps shewas being tactful.” “Olivia? Tactful? She’s never heard the word. If she didn’t want to marry me she wouldhave come right out and told me I was an under-educated toad.” He sighed. “She came damned close to tears when sherefused me. She is simply being stubborn.” She nodded, satisfied. “I shall call on a few ladies. How do they say it in the militia? I will gather my forces. It is a mother’s duty to see her childrenmarried.” Anne held her hand out to Nathaniel and herose to his feet swiftly. She said, “Shall we plan on an autumn wedding?” “I would prefer summer. Perhaps I’ll apply for a special license. Or carry her off to Gretna Green. I’ll need some rope and a gag.” She shook her head. “No, Nathaniel. I only have two children and I will have fullweddings for the both of you. Leave Olivia to me.” “Thank you, Mother. I knew I could count on you.” “Of course, my dear. That’s what mothers are for.” “Mrs. Anne Jenkins is here to see you, Ma’am.” Mrs. Blakesley nervously ran her fingers overher cap and fingered her fichu. “Anne Jenkins? Send her in, send her in. Oh, dear!” What in the world was Mrs. Jenkins doing overhere at this hour? The housekeeper escorted Mrs. Jenkins in andMrs. Blakesley rose. “Mrs. Jenkins.” “Mrs. Blakesley. I do apologize for intruding at this hour,but I fear it is an emergency.” “Of course, of course. Sit down, please.” “Thank you.” Mrs. Jenkins sat demurely, barely glancingat the arrangement of the room and offering no courtesies. “Mrs. Blakesley, you must be aware of theattachment between our children.” Mrs. Blakesley nodded. Then her eyes widened and her hand flew toher chest. “Tell me they have not run off to GretnaGreen, Mrs. Jenkins! Oh, the scandal!” “They have not run off to Gretna Green.” “Oh. Then, pray tell, what is the emergency?” “Perhaps I spoke in haste. However, there is a matter that must needsbe drawn to our attention. It is our duty to see our children marriedfortuitously, happily, and if at all possible, before our deaths. You must agree with me, Mrs. Blakesley.” Mrs. Blakesley held her breath, trying todampen her growing anger. “I do quite agree with you, Mrs. Jenkins. And I find the match to be fortuitous andhappy for both sides.” “As do I. Which is why we must act together to marrythem off.” Mrs. Blakesley blinked. “Pardon me, Mrs. Jenkins. For a moment there I thought you had cometo run my daughter off.” “Oh, dear. Of course not. I find the match perfectly acceptable. Miss Blakesley is not as young as some girlsthese days, but I find that suits my son better. He would never be happy with a silly girl. The matter I wish to bring to your attentionis the fact that my son has already proposed to Miss Blakesley.” Mrs. Blakesley fluttered her handkerchiefand bit back a squeal. “All six of my daughters married! Oh, Mrs. Jenkins, this is not an emergency!” “She refused him.” “Pardon?” “Miss Blakesley turned him down.” Mrs. Blakesley’s eyebrows drew togetherand she leaned back heavily in her chair. “My daughter has refused the only marriageproposal she will ever receive?” Mrs. Jenkins nodded. Mrs. Blakesley folded her hands carefullyin her lap. “I understand the emergency now, Mrs. Jenkins.” “Thank you. We both have children who remain unmarriedfar longer than one would wish. I intend to rectify that.” “Indeed. I shall help.” “Olivia.” “Mama? What is the matter?” “I was visited by Mrs. Jenkins today.” Olivia looked down at her painting, mentallycursing herself. She should have expected this. Nathaniel was not the sort to give up easily. “I was not aware you knew Mrs. Jenkins.” “Of course we’ve met, Olivia. Our children were spending quite a bit oftime together. In fact, some people would have been expectingan announcement soon.” Olivia sighed. Whatever Mrs. Jenkins had told her mother,and Olivia was more than a little worried about that, it wasn’t good. She could tell by the calm, monotonous voice. “An announcement seems a bit premature tome. But perhaps tongues start to wag as soon asa man asks for a dance.” Her mother bent down until her nose nearlytouched Olivia’s cheek. “It wouldn’t have been premature if youhad accepted his proposal.” “Ah. That was a bit quick. I hadn’t expected you to hear of that quiteyet.” Or Mrs. Jenkins. Had Nathaniel told her? Everything? Mrs. Blakesley walked to an empty stool anddragged it across the room, positioning it beside Olivia. She smiled stiffly and sat. “I had thought Mr. Jenkins to have the approvalof your brothers. Have you discovered some serious flaw in hischaracter?” Olivia muttered, “Brothers-in-law, Mother. You of all people should know I have no bloodbrothers.” Her mother’s forced bonhomie was more frighteningthan her anger. Mrs. Blakesley ignored her. “Perhaps he has a gambling addiction?” “I doubt it.” “He lost his temper and frightened you?” “Mr. Jenkins? Please, Mother. He’s certainly lost his patience with me,but never his temper.” Her mother watched her for a moment, thenturned to stare out the window. “He’s kissed you, hasn’t he?” Olivia couldn’t stop the blush from blossomingacross her cheeks. She ducked her head, hoping her hair blockedher mother’s view. “Oh, Olivia. He has!” She cleared her throat. “A man’s passions are not to be feared,Livvy.” Olivia’s mouth dropped open and she staredat her mother in horror. “Moth–”“No, it was not proper for him to kiss you, but not entirely unexpected. He has scared you.” Olivia placed her paintbrush gently on theeasel. Perhaps she could tiptoe out of the room anddrown herself? Her mother continued. “A man’s urges are sometimes wild anduncontrollable, Livvy. But a wife’s duty is not always a duty. It is possible to…to enjoy a husband’sembrace.” Oh, dear God. “Mother, please! There is no need, really. Mr. Jenkins did not scare me!” Her mother breathed a sigh of relief. “Good, good. Because there really is nothing to fear.” Olivia turned to her mother and grabbed herhands, hoping to forestall any more embarrassing reassurances. “He did not scare me, Mother. And if I were to marry, I would be quite luckyto have him as a husband. But I am not wifely material. I would be awful! I do as I please and neither you nor Papahas ever been able to make me do otherwise. That is not a good quality for a wife. You must admit that.” Her mother looked torn between a stubbornrefusal to admit the truth and the dashed hopes of seeing all her daughters happilymarried. Olivia squeezed her hands. “I respect Mr. Jenkins far too much to saddlehim with me for a wife.” “Perhaps you do not respect him enough tolet him decide what he wants in a wife.” Olivia stood, stowing her paints and brushesquickly. “He shouldn’t want me. I should never have accosted him. He is a good man, a decent man, an honorableman! And I, dear mother, am an idiot. I should have seen this.” “Seen what? That a good, decent man would want to marryyou? Of course he would! You have many good qualities to offer a husband.” “Oh, yes? Do you think he would want me to take overthe books for him? I shall certainly offer my services, but thatdoes not mean he should marry me. I am what I am, Mother. A spinster extraordinaire.” “Olivia Blakesley! Do not use that foul word in this household!” “It is not a foul word. And just because you attack anyone who uttersit doesn’t change the fact. Can you not see what I am, who I am? Nothing! Nobody! Five daughters married is enough! I am happy! I want nothing more! I do not want Mr. Nathaniel Jenkins!” Chapter Nine Nathaniel was unsurprised when his sisterburst into his library. He’d expected her much earlier. “Nathaniel.” “Diana. How are you?” “Good. Hold him, won’t you?” She thrust Nathaniel’s latest nephew intohis arms. “He will not be put down and insists oncrying in my ear.” Nathaniel held his nephew expertly, jigglingthe boy and making faces until he stopped his wailing. “What a mean mama you have, Jacob. Doesn’t she know that crying is simply yourway of saying you want a biscuit?” “Oh, Mama knows it. His fondness for biscuits is why my arms areabout ready to fall off.” She eyed him. “It looks like children are in your futureafter all, hmm?” “If Mother has anything to say about it.” Diana said, “She always does. She approves of the girl, at least. Not the usual shrinking violet and not a gold-digger.” “No. Olivia is quite unique.” “And older? I always thought an older girl would do betterfor you.” Nathaniel said, “Yes, amazing how everyonecomes to that conclusion after I’ve already found her.” “Oh, shush. When am I to meet her?” Nathaniel gratefully accepted a biscuit fromhis butler, offering it to a suddenly alert Jacob. “That’s better, hmm little one?” Diana eyed her youngest as he munched happily. “Only if you’re not the one who has tocarry him all day.” “Where’s the nanny?” “Left. He’s gone through four already. I’ve started offering three days off withpay to keep them a little longer. You didn’t answer my question.” Nathaniel grinned at her. “No? Well, I expect Mother has already told you.” “That she won’t marry you? Have you mentioned your sizable fortune?” “Thank you, Diana. I’m sure that will solve everything.” She shrugged. “If the girl is over twenty-five, I don’tsee what she is waiting for. Perhaps she is simply worried about the businessend of marriage.” “I’m not sure what she’s worried about.” “Mother says she cried when she refusedyou.” He shook his head. “Nearly cried. Was there anything Mother didn’t tell you?” “She didn’t tell me when I could meether.” “I believe she is going to the Mayes affairtonight.” “Oh, really? What extraordinarily good luck.” “Don’t scare her off, Diana.” She gave a ladylike snort. “I assume you have not met her sisters. She has five, did you know? They can all hold their own quite well. The eldest came out the same year as I. Ihad thought her quite the original but each sister seems to surpass the others one wayor another. I doubt Miss Olivia Blakesley would even blinkat anything I said.” “Nevertheless, I want her to join the family,not run screaming from it.” Diana smiled. “She’s not met Mother, then? Perhaps Miss Blakesley is refusing becauseshe is unsure of your sincerity. She’s not met any of your relations, afterall.” Nathaniel wiped biscuit crumbs from his kneeand offered another to Jacob. “I fear she will find out all too soon thatI was showing her my fondest respect by keeping my relations from her.” “I’ll endeavor not to overwhelm her, butI really don’t think you need to worry. I fully expect Miss Blakesley to be able tohold her own against me or Mother.” She picked Jacob up, preparing to depart,and raised an eyebrow at her brother. “She is, after all, holding her own againstyou.” He grimaced, rising and kissing her cheek. “It is my greatest character fault– findingsweet, biddable women utterly boring.” She laughed. “Then you should be grateful you have nonein your life. Till tonight brother, dear.” Mary burst into Olivia’s room, the bedchamberkey dangling from her finger. “A little trick I learned from you.” Olivia glared at her. “Go away. That door was locked for a reason.” “Yes, I know. So you could mope about. Oh, poor me. I have been proposed to– the horror of itall. However will I survive!” “Rot you, Mary. You don’t have Mother harassing you intoan unsuitable marriage.” Mary sat on the bed. “Oh. So you don’t love him then? Forgive us. We all thought you had formed quite the attachment. I suspect he thought it as well.” She watched Olivia intently. “Tell me you don’t love him.” “I don’t love him. I should have cut it off but he is remarkablypersistent.” “And you are quite the accomplished liar. You should be treading the boards.” “Must I fall in love with the first gentlemanwho comes calling?” “I have never seen you happier. I have never seen a connection between twopeople as I see with you. It is as if you’ve known each other foryears, grew up with each other.” She stood, taking Olivia’s hand. “Olivia. He is who you have been waiting for. Why do you say no?” Olivia whispered, “I tricked him. He is infatuated only. One day he will wake up and realize his mistake.” Mary hugged her, squeezing hard. “You’re a ninny.” Olivia tried to pull away, but Mary held fast. “He is not a boy, he is a grown man. I would expect he is remarkably hard to trick.” “Then how do you explain this madness, hmm?” Mary laughed. “He loves you, you silly twit!” She shook her head. “We must disagree.” “Let’s go ask him.” Olivia reared back in horror. “What!” “I’m sure he’ll be at the Mayes’ tonight. We’ll ask him why he insisted on doing somethingso foolish as proposing to you.” “You have gone mad.” “I don’t think I’m the mad one in thisroom.” Olivia pointed her finger at Mary. “Do not dare embarrass me by asking himanything.” “Oh, do you care then what he thinks ofyou and your family? Intriguing.” “Mary, promise me.” Mary shrugged, heading toward the door. “You’ll have to try and keep me from himthis evening. And Rufus.” She laughed. “That would be even worse, don’t you think?” Olivia sat unseeing on the bed, imaginingMary and Rufus accosting Nathaniel and demanding his declaration of love. She whispered, “You are horrific.” Mary stopped at the door. “I would do anything to secure the futurehappiness of my favorite sister. Anything at all.” “I thought you would be the one person Icould count on to be on my side.” “Perhaps you should examine why I am not. Perhaps you are in the wrong, Olivia.” She waved. “See you tonight, my dear.” Olivia lay back on the bed. For the first time in her life she felt outmatchedby her family and did not in the slightest enjoy the experience. “A Mr. Edward Blakesley to see you, sir.” Nathaniel sat back unexpectedly. He had not spoken to her father about hisintentions, mainly because he wasn’t certain Olivia would ever accept him. “Show him in please.” Her father entered the study dressed as thecountry gentleman he was. His spectacles perched on his nose, his grayinghair clipped short. Olivia took after him with her willowy frame. Mr. Blakesley reminded him of his own father. Quiet, calm, and ruled by the women in hislife. Nathaniel’s mother and sister had run hischildhood home and he could see a similar situation with Mr. Blakesley. He felt a twinge of camaraderie for anotherman surrounded by forceful women. Mr. Blakesley smiled and took the seat Nathanieloffered. “Thank you, m’boy. Once a man becomes a grandfather it seemshis energy is sucked away.” “My father said something similar when myoldest nephew was born.” “It reminds us how far away our own childhoodwas.” Mr. Blakesley cleared his throat. “I understand you have been pursuing mydaughter.” “Yes, sir. I’m sorry I have not spoken with you, butconsidering she hasn’t accepted I thought it prudent to wait.” Mr. Blakesley chuckled. “Yes. That is what I came to speak to you about. I thought I’d warn you that once Oliviagets an idea in her head, it is notoriously difficult to get out. You have an uphill battle, I’m afraid.” “I’ve noticed she does forge her own path.” “That is certainly one way of putting it. I’m the father of six girls, Mr. Jenkins. They each have their own personalities andtraits, it seems like from birth. I love them all dearly. But I must confess that Olivia has alwayshad a special place in my heart. There are not many men who know exactly whatthey do and do not want, and go after it with single-minded abandon the way she does. It has turned my hair gray and given her motherapoplexy on many occasions.” Nathaniel smiled. “I can certainly believe that, sir.” “And I would not want anyone to change thatabout her.” “No, sir.” Mr. Blakesley stared at him, appraising him. Finally he nodded. “However, none of us are infallible. She has been wrong before and I think sheis wrong this time. Olivia has never been so happy and I creditthat to you. You seem to understand her and that is somethingwe should all be so lucky to find.” He stood to his feet, waving Nathaniel down. “I will give you a tip, m’boy. Force will only make her dig her heels indeeper. But she will listen and gather evidence, andwhen she has enough proof, she will change her opinion. Don’t give up. Have patience.” Mr. Blakesley winked. “You’ll need plenty of it.” Chapter Ten The Mayes’ Ball was crowded and merry; everyonewas laughing and being overly happy. Olivia could not keep a scowl off her face. She had never been in a worse temper. Her head pounded with every step she tookand every beat of the music. Mary was attached to her like a limpet ona rock and her mother watched her like a hawk watching a mouse. What were they expecting her to do? Make a run for it through the garden? She was here to keep them from confrontingNathaniel! She had been threatened and bullied into comingand now they acted as if she was their prisoner. It was nearly too much to bear. Not to mention she had not seen Nathanielfor days, not since he had lost his mind and proposed to her. Would he even be here? If he came, would he acknowledge her? Would she acknowledge him? “Miss Blakesley?” Olivia turned to find an elegantly dressedwoman she had never met before. “Very shocking, I know– we have not beenintroduced– but really, I can’t stand to wait on such niceties. I have a few words I’d like to say to you.” “Perhaps a few of those words would be yourname?” Diana smiled. “I told Nathaniel I could not run you off. I am Diana Cracraft, his sister.” She nodded at Mary, though kept her focuson Olivia. Mary did not even try to hide her glee-filledsmile. Olivia sighed. “Oh. Have you come to harass me into marrying yourbrother?” “Of course I have. He seems quite taken with you despite yourrejection and I wanted to see why.” “I really don’t know why he sees fit totell everyone I refused him. I would think most men would keep that tothemselves.” “Ah well, my brother is not like most men,is he? Besides, he expects to win you eventually.” Diana stared at Olivia, as if willing herto divulge her innermost secrets. Olivia stared back, the silence lengthening,until finally Diana conceded defeat, smiling slightly. “No, no. Don’t tell me why you’ve refused. That is, apparently, between you and my brother. I will simply warn you. If you have good reason not to accept Nathaniel’shand, then steer clear of him. I will not have his heart broken– he isa most sensitive man– and he deserves to marry and have children. Soon.” Olivia inhaled deeply. “Steer clear of Nathaniel? So says the sister who has accosted me.” Diana laughed. “And if you don’t have good reason, thenstop playing with him and welcome to the family. I assure you Mother and I are not so formidableonce you get to know us.” Diana patted her hand, then waved to a friendthrough the crowd. “Ah, there is Emily Mayes. I really must tell her to stop wearing thatdreadful feather in her hair. I’ll come and have a chat sometime thisweek, yes? Until then, Miss Blakesley.” Olivia watched as Nathaniel’s sister navigatedthe crowds, then surreptitiously patted her dress and hair. She felt as if a very strong wind had blownthrough. No wonder he seemed to have a limitless supplyof patience and fortitude. His sister had bred it into him. Olivia shuddered at the thought of meetinghis mother. Did the man have to tell all his relations? Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him. She turned, glaring, and her temper sparked. “Let go of my arm this instant, Mary. There is someone I wish to yell at.” Mary turned to look. “Shall I come with you?” “No, I don’t want you anywhere near him.” Mary laughed and let go of her arm. “Say hello from Rufus and me. I think I will go contrive an introductionto his sister. She seemed an interesting sort.” Olivia bit back her scream and made good onher escape, targeting Nathaniel through the crowd like a dog on a fox. He met her halfway. “Olivia, you look lovely.” “Nathaniel, call off your family.” He took her arm and they began to circulatearound the fringe of the dance floor. “Are you being hounded, my dear?” “As you well know. Your mother has colluded with my mother, yoursister accosted me just moments ago, my family will not give me a moments peace. It is all your fault.” “I don’t think you can lay your family’sattentions on my shoulders, although I will accept that my mother and sister can be quitefearsome.” “It is your fault. If you had not told all and sundry that youhad proposed, I would not be the subject of my family’s machinations. If any of them approach you, you must makea hasty exit; I fear a few of them have gone quite mad.” He laughed. “My dear, you do know that all of this wouldstop if you would simply say yes.” “That was not our agreement.” He sighed loudly. “I do not know how to make this more plain,Olivia. I wish to make a new agreement.” She sniffed. “Our old agreement was working just fine.” “Not for me.” “This is really quite vexing. You do know that normally it is the womanwho cannot get marriage out of her mind and the gentleman who wants nothing more thansome fun. I really was not expecting this scenario.” Nathaniel stopped suddenly. “Are you saying, my dear, that I am goodenough for some fun but not good enough for marriage?” She looked at him reproachfully. “Of course that is not what I am saying. Don’t be silly.” “I am trying to understand. You do not wish to marry me, yet you seemquite happy to have my company. Is it the idea of marriage to me or the ideaof marriage at all that you object to?” She squeezed his arm. “Oh, Nathaniel. If I were to marry, I think you are the onlyman I would ever risk it for. But I do not think I will agree with marriageat all. I refuse in order to save us a great dealof torment.” He was silent a moment, thinking. “Then I can only see two ways out of ourcurrent predicament.” She looked at him suspiciously. “And they are?” “One, we continue to abide by our originalagreement while I try to encourage you to accept a new agreement.” “And the other?” “We say goodbye, end all public and privateinteractions, and never see each other again.” Olivia’s stomach knotted, her heart ached. She whispered, “That would probably be forthe best. It is the ending we agreed upon; it will happeneventually.” “If you have your way, yes.” “I do not like that option at all.” Nathaniel looked down at her. “Neither do I. I much prefer to live withthe hope that one day I can talk you into accepting my outrageous proposal.” “Those are my only options, then? Live with constant harassment or never seeyou again?” “That is how it appears to me.” She eyed him critically. “I am not at all sure you are worth theaggravation.” He deposited her to Mary and Rufus, bowing. “Then I must prove that I am.” Nathaniel joined his mother and sister ona settee away from the dancing. His sister raised an eyebrow. “I assume there is no change in her answer?” He nodded. “Are you quite sure she is worth the effort? Perhaps she has a very good reason for notwanting to marry you.” “It is not me she objects to but marriagein general. I think she quite likes me despite her reservations.” “And you like her?” He smiled. “She constantly surprises me, makes me laugh,challenges me.” He laughed. “I quite expected that whoever I proposedto would fall over dead with gratitude. I would win her hand in marriage but haveno desire to win her heart. Olivia is the complete opposite. I have her heart but she refuses my hand. It is a most enjoyable skirmish.” “You are a very strange fellow.” “I wanted a different kind of girl. There’s no one more different than Olivia;her refusal only proves that.” His mother smiled. “You are so much like your father. I’m afraid he had to ask me more than onceas well.” She laughed. “Stubborn women do very well in this family. I shall pay her a visit.” Diana nodded. “Shall I come, too? “Let’s keep you in the reserves, darling. This may be a protracted battle.” Nathaniel smiled. “Don’t be put out, Diana. I fully expect that Olivia will need constantirritation.” A few mornings later, Olivia was sitting withher mother when the housekeeper announced a visitor. “Mrs. Anne Jenkins is here, ma’am.” “Thank you, Hill.” Olivia jumped to her feet and turned to hermother reproachfully. “Oh, Mother.” “You sit down, Olivia.” Mrs. Jenkins entered the cozy room, smilingat Mrs. Blakesley. “Mrs. Blakesley, how are you this morning?” “In fine spirits, thank you. Have you met my daughter Olivia?” “Miss Blakesley.” “Mrs. Jenkins.” Mrs. Jenkins settled herself on the sofa,accepting a cup of tea. “So, Miss Blakesley. I hear you have refused my son’s offer ofmarriage.” Olivia sighed. “Yes, Mrs. Jenkins.” “And why is that? He is my son, and therefore I am biased ofcourse, but I cannot think why anyone would refuse him.” Olivia heard the unspoken– especially byan old spinster like you. She said, “I must assume, since he toldyou I wouldn’t marry him, why as well.” Mrs. Jenkins waved that suggestion away. “He’s a man, what would he know abouta woman’s reluctance to marry.” Olivia sat down and Mrs. Jenkins leaned forwardto pat her hand. “Are you surprised that I understand? Every woman must wonder about the man sheis marrying. Every woman must wonder how her life willchange.” Olivia turned to her mother. “Were you apprehensive when you marriedPapa?” Mrs. Blakesley patted her other hand. “Of course I was, Olivia. I left my family to live with a man I’dspoken to a handful of times. It is upsetting at the best of times. My father had made all of my decisions beforethen, I knew what to expect, and suddenly another man was to make those decisions. I married a good man but there is a relearningperiod no matter how good.” Mrs. Jenkins said, “My son is a good man. Although I wonder if you will have the sameworries and expectations your mother and I did. You are older, and with that comes a certainindependence of spirit. I doubt if you will let my son make any decisionyou do not approve of in regards to your situation.” “It’s true, Olivia. You never let your father or myself coerceyou into doing what we think is best. And I hesitate to say this in front of hismother, but I doubt you will let Mr. Jenkins harass you into what he thinks is best either.” Mrs. Jenkins smiled. “I believe this proposal is a perfect example. You won’t be pressured into marrying himuntil you are ready. I applaud that. But I would like to see grandchildren beforethe Good Lord calls me home.” Olivia said, “Well, despite my apparentlynormal hesitation, there are other reasons.” Mrs. Jenkins sat back to get comfortable. “And they are?”Olivia blushed. “Well…” “Let me make this easy for you, Miss Blakesley. Do you love my son?” “There is nothing not to love.” “That wasn’t the question.” Olivia sighed. “I refuse because I love him. I will never be a biddable wife, never taketea, go to operas, or follow the latest fashions. I will do as I have always done. Paint the stars, read my journals, and gomy own way. That is nobody’s definition of a good wife,Mrs. Jenkins.” “A very pretty defense. But Nathaniel would be bored silly with abiddable wife, will never know the latest fashions either, and abhors the opera. You two seem perfect for each other. And despite all your talk I think that iswhat you are afraid of. You have met your match, my dear.” Mrs. Blakesley beamed at Mrs. Jenkins. “I thought the same thing. It comforts me to know you agree, Mrs. Jenkins.” Olivia shook her head. “It really is quite a pity then that oneof the parties involved has no intention of changing her mind about this marriage business.” Mrs. Jenkins put her cup down. She cleared her throat. She looked to Mrs. Blakesley and said quietly,“Would you mind if I had a moment alone with your daughter, Mrs. Blakesley?” Mrs. Blakesley looked reproachfully at Olivia,then stood. “Good luck, Mrs. Jenkins.” Mrs. Jenkins studied Olivia until the doorlatched. She leaned forward. “I applaud your tenacity. If I didn’t think you were being a fool,I would congratulate you on remaining true to your principles. If I hadn’t heard with my own ears thatyou love my son, I would say no woman should be forced to marry. And yet, you are an idiot.” Olivia remained silent. “Know this, Miss Blakesley. My son finds you a fascinating challenge. I have not seen him so happy or alive in manyyears, and I would accept nearly any girl who could make him smile as much as you do.” She stood. “I hope you are prepared for a siege, mydear. The Jenkins do not give up so easily.” Chapter Eleven Olivia crept through the darkness, cursingherself for all the foolish ideas she had ever come up with. It seemed that old age was not giving thewisdom promised. Indeed not, since this was by far her maddestscheme yet. Nathaniel would probably not even be at homeand the evening would be wasted. Where was she to sleep tonight? She couldn’t go back home, she’d toldher mother she would be staying with Mary. And how would she explain to Mary if she arrivedat her house after dark? She should have left the sneaking to Nathaniel. But that was the problem. He hadn’t done any sneaking for days, weeks,months. It felt like an eternity. She counted softly to herself. Two weeks? Was that all? She’d fallen into blithering madness becauseof two weeks? Nathaniel was right. The act of love was positively addicting. Olivia peered at the number above the door,praying this was the right one. Dear Lord, what if it wasn’t? She pulled her cloak lower over her face andsilently cursed Nathaniel. This was all his fault. He had not come calling since he’d proposed;the last time they’d had any real conversation had been at the Mayes’. Instead, he sent his mother to badger her. Her entire family was pestering her. The one person she wouldn’t mind arguingwith stayed away. She missed him. The man was going to pay. She knocked discreetly, terror gripping herat the idea that this wasn’t his home. What if it was his home but he was not here? Where would she go? The door was opened by a pair of shiny blackboots. “Yes?” Olivia swallowed and said in a bad Frenchaccent, “I am come for Mr. Jenkins. It is a matter of…l’amour.” That was greeted with silence and Olivia wantedfervently to hide behind a bush. What had she been thinking! “I don’t suppose you have a card, madam?” “Um, non.” The shiny black boots sighed. “Please follow me.” He led her down the hall into a study andtold her to wait. She looked up after he had gone, studyingthe comfortable chairs, books stacked on tables, and a fire burning itself out. She sniffed trying to place the scent in theair, wondering if the butler had gone to fetch Nathaniel or the authorities. The door opened behind her and she quicklylooked down again. “How may I help you, madam?” Nathaniel asked and Olivia nearly swoonedwith relief. “Oh, Nathaniel!” She ran to him, throwing herself into hisarms. “Olivia! What’s wrong! What has happened!” She pushed away from him, glaring at him,remembering her anger. “What’s wrong? Where have you been! I’ve been waiting for you for days, sittingin the damp for nothing!” He guided her toward the fire, taking offher cloak. He rubbed his forehead. “Olivia, you refused me. I was staying away to give us both time tothink.” “If you’ll remember, Mr. Jenkins, we hadan agreement. And it had nothing to do with marriage!” “Sit down, Olivia.” He walked to the sideboard, filling a glassand thrusting it at her. “Drink this.” “What is it?” she asked as she sipped,then coughed. “Brandy. It should warm you up.” He stared at her, a perplexed look in hiseye. “How did you get here?” “I hired a hackney from the Rutherford’s. I told Mother I was going home with Mary. I walked a distance before choosing one; youknow they line up waiting to take everyone home later. I’m amazed it was so easy, really.” Nathaniel slumped into a chair. He muttered to himself, “Is this what marriagewould be like? Afraid of the next harebrained scheme my wifewould come up with?” Olivia rose in indignation. “Since we will not be married, that is notin question.” “Then why have you come tonight, if notto accept my hand and tell me how ardently you love and admire me?” “Don’t tease me, Nathaniel. My nerves are shot from all this sneakingaround.” “I am not teasing you, Olivia. I am simply wondering why you have gone tothe trouble and risk of coming to my home at night?” She looked at him, unwilling to admit to himthat she couldn’t go two days without seeing him, two weeks without feeling him. It seemed too pathetic. Better to blame it on curiosity. He said, “And don’t feed me a line ofscientific studies. Your parents may buy that mumbo-jumbo butI do not. The stars are the only thing you study.” She sat down. “It’s not mumbo-jumbo. I wanted to see you purely for scientificedification.” His eyebrows raised. “I mean I wanted to see if I could leaveundetected and as you are the only one I know I chose to come here. Obviously, it worked quite well.” Nathaniel sat in silence, gazing at her. “So you didn’t come to be kissed.” “Of course not. It has only been a few weeks, I assure youI can last that long.” “And you didn’t come to investigate mybedroom.” “How shocking!” He smiled. “I am constantly being surprised by you,my dear. I just wanted to make sure.” “You can be quite sure I have no interestin your boudoir, Nathaniel.” “Are you certain? Not even for scientific edification?” Olivia clasped her hands in her lap. “Well…for science… I have actually never seen a man’s bedroombefore.” “That reassures me no end. Shall we?” He stood, holding his hand out for her. She took it gingerly, thankful that he hadnot kicked her out into the night, and thankful he had given her an excuse to stay. Perhaps she could make it up to him. He really was quite patient with her. He guided her hand through his arm and whispered,“I missed you as well, Olivia.” She pulled her cloak over her head, in casethey ran into any servants, and Nathaniel chuckled. “Do you think that will keep your identityhidden, my dear?” “It will if you use a little decorum.” “I hate to tell you this but my butler wasstanding outside the library door listening. I’m quite sure I used your Christian name.” “You should never have got into that badhabit.” “Of course. Would you have preferred me to use your familyname, Miss Blak–” “Nathaniel! Can’t you pretend I’m one of your doxies?” “I am not in the habit of bringing womento my home, Oli–” She glared at him from under her cloak and he corrected himself. “My dear.” Olivia dug into the reticule dangling fromher wrist. “I’m sure I shouldn’t show you this,since you are behaving quite poorly.” “It’s the shock.” “But I thought you might help me with afew scientific inquiries tonight. Since I’m here.” “Indeed?” She pulled a miniature book out and handedit to him as he opened his bedroom door and ushered her in. Olivia took a step in, surveying his largefour poster bed and dark masculine furnishings. His scent filled the air and she breatheddeeply. She had entered the lion’s lair. Forbidden territory. It was all quite exciting. She said, “Your bed is quite a bit biggerthan mine.” She turned to find him flipping through hernaughty book. He looked up at her. “Olivia, this is a… This book is about…” She grinned and hopped onto his bed. “It’s quite dirty, isn’t it? Page thirty-two, if you please.” Nathaniel cleared his throat and turned toa well done drawing showing a couple in obvious ecstasy. “Where did you get this?” She waved her hand in the air. “That’s not important.” “Yes, it is.” She sighed. “I ordered it through the post, directingit to a Mr. Oliver Balkesley. My family thought it quite diverting and insistedon calling me Oliver Balkesley for months after.” “And no one asked to see it? They weren’t curious as to what a mysteriouslymisdirected package contained?” “Nathaniel, I am constantly receiving packagesin the post. I told them it was a pocket guide to the stars.” Nathaniel folded his arms. “You have entirely too much freedom.” She laughed. “Which is what I’ve been telling you.” She paused and looked at him expectantly. He cleared his throat again. “I should say no.” “Why?” “A misguided attempt to curb your impetus?” She raised an eyebrow. “I believe you are too far gone down thisroad to become morally superior now, sir.” She pointed to the little book clasped inhis hands. “Have you ever performed such a feat?” He groaned. “Olivia.” “I suspect you have, else you would havebeen outraged at such a suggestion. I would like to experience it please. If you feel up to it, that is.” She couldn’t quite keep the smirk off herface after her pun. She finally understood what that meant. Nathaniel said, “Shall I throw you to thebed and ravish you, then?” Olivia clapped her hands. “Oh, would you please! You be the dashing pirate and I’ll be theinnocent virgin you have stolen to satisfy your diabolical lusts.” Nathaniel laughed. “You were never an innocent virgin and theonly one with diabolical lusts in this room is you.” “Then you be the innocent virgin and I thedashing, devilish pirate. Hand me your pants, sirrah!” He groaned. “I have no idea where half your ideas comefrom.” “That’s the trouble with genius, so hardto follow. Now come here and let me ravish you.” Chapter Twelve Olivia woke next to a warm body, a heavy legtrapping her. She shoved against it, whispering, “Nathaniel,I can’t feel my leg.” He grunted and slid his leg off. She cuddled beside him, his arm snaking aroundher. “Good morning, Olivia.” “Good morning. It’s quite nice waking up with you, evenif you did crush my leg. You’re very warm.” He grinned. “Just think, Olivia, that could be yoursevery morning if we married.” “Harrumph. Why do you have to ruin a perfectly good morning.” “It’s my nature. Would you like breakfast?” “What about the servants?” “I’ll have them make up a tray.” He winked. “That, too, could be yours every morning.” Olivia sniffed. “As if I was so lazy. And I believe my waking up in a man’s bedis proof positive that I would not make a good wife.” “As long as it was my bed you woke up in,I believe you would make a very good wife.” He began ticking off his fingers. “Because you are entertaining. You are intelligent. You are passionate. You have irresistible taste in dresses. I really can find nothing wrong with the ideaof marriage.” “I have thought of a new rule, Nathaniel.” He murmured, “Only one?” “No more mentions of marriage. It quite puts me off. And stop sending your family to change mymind. I have had enough lectures. I’m surprised you haven’t sent for themagistrates. Tie this girl up, she refuses to marry me.” “I could quite easily force your hand, Olivia. You are in my bed, we have had intimate relations. Your father has the right to force me to marryyou at sword-point.” “Well, he wouldn’t force me at sword-pointand I would advise you not to try either.” Nathaniel flung the covers off and rose. He said, “If you do not wish to be forcedinto marriage, I would advise that you dress quickly. I’ll need to deposit you somewhere lessquestionable.” “You can take me back home. I’ll tell them I woke early.” “Lies come unnervingly quick to you, Olivia. Won’t your mother ask your sister?” “No. I go over often enough, she doesn’t questionit.” He shook his head and muttered, “Too muchfreedom, entirely.” The cold ring of steel silenced the cricketsmid-song. Nathaniel pushed Olivia behind him, cursinghimself for escorting her this early in the morning. Olivia gasped. “Rufus! What are you doing?” He answered coldly. “I could ask the same of you, Olivia. And of you, Jenkins.” She muttered, “Oh, bother,” under herbreath and attempted to push Nathaniel aside. “He has a drawn sabre, Olivia. Please stay behind me.” Her very angry brother-in-law gazed in furyat Nathaniel, and truth be told, he couldn’t fault the look. He deserved everything he got from the wickedlooking sword. But he’d be damned if he got it in frontof Olivia. Nathaniel said, “Mr. Eliot–”“Unless you are going to tell me the announcement has already been sent to the papers, I don’twant to hear it, Jenkins.” Olivia shouted, “Rufus!” “Olivia, he is escorting you home in theearly morning. And you told your mother you would be stayingwith us last night.” She gasped again. “You didn’t tell her…” “…No.” “Oh, thank you. I’m sorry, it was a dreadful thing to do,but–” “It was a stupid thing to do. You are not only risking your reputation butyour entire family’s as well.” Olivia said, “Yes, well, luckily I’m theonly one unmarried.” Nathaniel interrupted. “And luckily, I have already asked for MissBlakesley’s hand.” The sharp end of the sword gently fell toearth. “Good. But this is still a stupid idea, Jenkins.” Olivia tugged at his coat. “Uh, Nathaniel–”“She however has refused me.” She uttered a very unladylike word as Rufusspeared her with his iron-gaze. “How extraordinary.” “Rufus–”“If you have no feelings for him, Olivia, why are you sneaking around with him?” Nathaniel turned to face her, secure in theknowledge that he would not be stabbed in the back by her angry relative. Mr. Eliot’s anger was directed where itshould rightfully be. “Yes, Olivia. That question has been bothering me as well.” Her eyes narrowed, her chin rose, and shetapped her foot. “As I have explained, at length, I do notwish to marry.” Rufus Eliot guffawed. “It seems to me that you wish very muchto marry.” Olivia blushed. “You know nothing of it, Rufus. And you, Mr. Jenkins, know what this is andwhy I won’t marry you. Rufus, please escort me home. It would be a disaster if anyone else sawus together.” “It’ll give me a chance to tan your backside.” “I dare you to try.” Nathaniel rubbed his forehead. “I’ll leave you to it, Eliot. And you, Olivia, I shall see later.” He spun on his heel, frustration flashingin his eyes. Olivia sighed, cursing herself for her brainlessideas. Cursing the world in general, and men in particular,for making mountains out of mole hills. Rufus sheathed his sabre, his jaw tight. “Please don’t tell Mary, Rufie.” “Why not? You don’t seem to care who knows.” “I care! I was just stupid.” “Olivia, you are walking a tightrope. Jenkins has every right to force you intomarriage; he is being too soft-headed. One word to your father would end this.” “Rufus Eliot, you know nothing of the matter. And not you, nor Father, nor Mr. Jenkins,will make me do what I don’t want to. So tell the whole world if you want.” Olivia stomped off. She could hear Rufus muttering and followingbehind her. This plan was going downhill and she wonderedif she’d ever been in control of this experiment. Men were a lot harder to understand than thestars. Mary’s strident tones echoed through thehouse. “Hello, Mother. Where’s Olivia?” Olivia cursed Rufus and then herself. He couldn’t keep his big mouth shut andshe had been the fool to try and sneak about. Mary peeked her head around the door and Oliviaglared at her. “I am going to kill your toad of a husband.” “Mmm. I believe you have some explaining to do.” “He could have kept his big mouth shut.” “And you could have stayed at home. Now tell me, was it your idea to sneak offwith Mr. Jenkins? Or did he pressure you in some way.” Olivia sighed. “It was my stupid idea. I wanted to see him and I wanted to know ifI could sneak away undetected. Obviously I forgot to plan for sneaking back.” “Obviously.” Mary sat beside her and stared. “So?” “So what?” Mary wiggled her eyebrows. “So how was your first night alone witha man?” “Mary!” “Olivia!” Olivia wiped her brush on the cloth. “It was enjoyable.” “Enjoyable. This was your first night together, wasn’tit?” Olivia refused to look at her. How could she tell Mary that it wasn’t? Mary laughed. “You little sneak. Don’t tell me you’ve snuck off with himbefore.” Oh, to confide in someone. Mary didn’t seem upset with her and it wouldbe nice to share her secrets. She and Mary had always been close. Olivia glanced at her. “He came here. After dark.” “Ah. So it’s not only the stars you’ve beenstudying. How is your Mr. Jenkins, then?” “Mary! Now you want details? You wouldn’t give me any after you marriedRufus. Technically, this is all your fault. If you had told me anything, anything at all,I wouldn’t have needed to conduct such an experiment. I would have taken your word on the subject.” Mary said, “And stowed it away, problemsolved. I know you, Olivia. You have never worried about pleasing Mamaand finding a husband, and you’re too independent to think you need one. What does that leave? You would die a spinster, living your wholelife under Papa’s roof, having the run of everything, exactly as you please.” “I’m sorry, is something wrong with thatscenario? It seems quite pleasant to me.” “Thankfully, I know better. That is boring, Livvy. Yes, yes, you would have your studies, butno family. No interruptions, no surprises. Having a plan is all well and good, but distractionsare sometimes better.” Olivia raised her eyebrows. “I find this hard to believe coming fromsomeone who has known who she would marry since she was five years old.” “That wasn’t a plan, Livvy, that justwas. I can’t help it if I found my mate so young.” “So you want me to have distractions. That’s why you wouldn’t tell me aboutyour wedding night.” Olivia narrowed her eyes. “It was your wedding night, wasn’t it?” Mary gave her a small smile. “Of course it was my wedding night, as wewere married that day. But was that the first time we were intimate? That was the night before we became engaged. Rufus was so distraught about the whole thinghe ran to Father the next day.” “I can’t believe you never told me!” “I didn’t tell you because I didn’twant you getting any ideas. That was clearly short-sighted of me; youdon’t need my help in thinking up crazy ideas.” Olivia balled her fist and pounded her leg. “And I can’t believe your toady husbandwas so self-righteously smug!” “Olivia, you have a strange concept of theworld. Rufus, although of course he loved me, hadruined me, therefore he had to marry me. Mr. Jenkins has ruined you, therefore he hasto marry you.” “Our situations are vastly different, Mary. You were but eighteen and I am twenty-seven. If you and Rufus and Nathaniel will simplybe quiet about it, no one need know that I am ruined. It’s not as if I was marriageable materialbefore, anyway.” Mary fingered the paint pots. “Do you not like Mr. Jenkins?” “Well, of course I like him. I would not have done such a thing if I didn’t.” Mary eyed her. “Sometimes I think it doesn’t matter ifyou like the idea or not, as long as you find a solution to your problem.” Olivia glared at her. “That is a terrible thing to say. I am not immoral.” “I believe the vicar would argue that.” “I believe the vicar would argue that youare immoral. Simply because you married afterward doesnot change the fact.” Mary shrugged. “The vicar would likely argue that the kingis immoral.” “The king is immoral.” “So he is. But that doesn’t change the fact that youare a ruined woman. You must marry Mr. Jenkins. Soon, Olivia. There are consequences to your actions thatwill not wait for you to change your mind.” Olivia stared out the window. “There is nothing to worry on that regard,Mary. There are no unexpected consequences.” “Do you not wish to have children?” Olivia glanced at her. A touchy subject, she knew. “I am an aunt many times over. That’s enough for me.” Mary snorted. “You can lie to yourself, Livvy, but I atleast know there is a vast difference between being an aunt and a mother.” “I know, but it doesn’t call to me. I don’t lie awake picturing my child.” Mary rubbed her belly lightly, then nodded. “I understand. It won’t be the end of the world if youdon’t have one.” “No matter what Mama thinks. How many grandchildren does one woman need?” “I think she wants granddaughters.” Olivia conceded the point. The newest generation was overrun with boys. Mary said, “What of Mr. Jenkins?” “What of him?” “Where does he stand in all this? I thought you liked him. I thought he liked you.” “I do like him, and I believe he does likeme. But that was never part of our agreement. He agreed to certain rules.” Olivia sighed. She should end it now. She should write him a quick note tellinghim his services were no longer needed. She didn’t know if she could do it, though. How could she give up the best times of herlife? Why should she have to? Damn men and their rules. Damn marriage. She could be quite happy as a kept woman. As long as she was Nathaniel’s kept woman. What need had she of society? She could endure the jeers of the ton, theinsults. Oh, if only she was an only child, with nofamily to suffer for her actions. Mary looked intrigued at the idea of an agreementbut merely said, “Agreements change, Olivia. You like him, he likes you. Why are we having this conversation? We should be celebrating your engagement.” “It is marriage I do not care for.” “What have you against marriage?” “Have you met our parents? They’re miserable.” Mary studied her. “I don’t think they’re miserable.” “They have nothing in common, rarely talkto each other, and remember the fights they used to have? I’m surprised any of us married.” “I don’t remember them fighting. And they have six children in common. I think that’s something.” Olivia sighed. “You’ve been in love with Rufus sincebefore you could walk. You were oblivious to our parents strife.” “And you are too sensitive. You notice every little detail, but miss thebig picture. They’re happy together now, don’t youagree?” Olivia shrugged. “They seem resigned.” Mary narrowed her eyes. “What of Rufus and me? Do you think that we fight all the time andhave nothing to talk about and nothing in common?” “No.” “But?” Olivia pinched her lips. “But I don’t think it will last. I don’t want to be mean, but I’ve neverseen any marriage stay happy. For instance, Prudence. She’s so miserable, I can hardly stand tobe around her.” “Prudence is pregnant with her fifth childin six years and you know how swollen she gets at the end. I don’t think that’s a fair example. Besides, just the fact that this is the fifthbaby means that she and Marcus have something in common.” “A bed.” Mary laughed. “Yes, a bed. And don’t knock it. Prue could keep him out if she wanted. Just as Mama could have kept Papa out andthey had six.” Olivia shook her head. “I know she has what she wants, as doesMama, and so do you. It’s just… It’s just that I don’t want it. I don’t want to be stuck with someone thatI hate, eating meals in silence, or relying on my children for love. I don’t want that, Mary.” “And you think that will happen with Mr.Jenkins?” “It’s inevitable. One day he will look at me with loathing insteadof passion. One day he will think himself a fool for lettinghis emotions push him into marrying so unsuitably. I need only look at Papa to see how it willhappen.” She shook her head and whispered, “I couldnot bear it if I saw Nathaniel look at me like that.” Mary took her hand gently. “I never realized how pessimistic you are.” “I’m realistic. I refuse to be blinded by love.” “No, you’re blinded by fear.” Olivia was silent. Mary patted her arm. “You are not Mama, Mr. Jenkins is not Papa. If anyone can have a marriage worthy of love,it is you, Livvy. You can make anything work. The only question is, do you want to makeit work with Mr. Jenkins?” Chapter Thirteen “Aunt Livvy, Aunt Livvy! We have a surprise for you!” “You do?” Olivia grunted as she caught her five-year-oldnephew as he flung himself into her arms. Olivia’s eldest sister Prudence lumberedfrom the coach. “Yes, but not yet, Richie. It’s a surprise.” “I told her it was a surprise.” “Hmm. We’ll have to work on that.” Olivia let Richie go as he spied his cousins. She kissed Prue on the cheek and said, “How’sthe little devil?” Prue grunted. “This is the last one, I swear. I can’t sleep, I can’t eat, and my ankles! I look like a cow.” “You’ve said each one was the last one,so I can hardly believe you now.” “I keep having boys! Four boys in a row! Even God could not be so cruel. I deserve a girl, surely.” Olivia said, “And if this one’s a boy?” “Don’t curse me. If this one’s a boy, Marcus will be sleepingwith his horses.” “Mmm. And you’ll have another. Mother didn’t learn her lesson until shehad six. I doubt you’ll give up before then either.” Prudence groaned. “Every night I pray to God that I will doanything, anything, if He’ll just make sure this one is a girl.” “Then how can He refuse. Come, Prue. I have a seat all set up for you in the pasture.” Prudence swatted her. “Just wait until you start waddling around. I’ll not hold my glee.” Prudence eyed her. “Is your Mr. Jenkins coming today?” “He is not my Mr. Jenkins.” “I think the lady doth protest too much. He is certainly no one else’s. He only dances with you at balls, I hear. Two dances, then poof.” Olivia narrowed her eyes. “I’m going to cut out Mary’s tongue.” “Tut-tut. Does your Mr. Jenkins know how violent youare? Oh, never fear, dear. I certainly won’t tell him. He’ll find out soon enough after the weddingwhen you lock him in his bedroom so you can paint in peace.” Was Olivia never to live that down? She had been in braids when she had pulledthat little stunt. She changed the subject. “Have you heard if Eugenia is coming today?” “She said she would try, although she isfeeling a little under the weather.” Prudence winked. “I believe a wedding-night baby is on theway.” “Egad. Two sisters expecting at the same time? How will we ever survive.” “Mmm. At least I’m almost done. I feel bad for Mary, though. She laughed it off when Amelia became pregnantright away, but it has been four years now. What will she think when she hears about Eugenia?” Olivia said, “Probably the same thing Ithought when I heard Eugenia was getting married. Rot her. The youngest should never do anything beforethe eldest have had their turn.” Prudence chuckled. “I would have given you my monthly allowanceif you’d said that to Eugenia when she was getting married. Perhaps I’ll mention it to Mary.” Luncheon was served picnic-style. Cold ham, diced potatoes, and light wine. The men and children sprawled in the grass;the ladies sat in chairs. Eugenia stood up and announced that, yes,she was in the family way. Mrs. Blakesley clapped her hands, the mencongratulated Landon, and Mr. Blakesley said, “We can never have too many babies.” Olivia snorted. If this family had anything in excess, itwas babies. Mary entered the melée with, “Rot you,Eugenia,” and everyone turned to stare at her. Prudence hid her chortle behind a very loudcough that turned into a real fit. Olivia pounded her on the back. Eugenia fingered her lace collar. “I’m sorry, Mary. I don’t mean to be cruel but just becauseyou can’t have a baby doesn’t mean everyone can’t be happy for me.” Mary looked unperturbed. “I can have a baby, you twit. I simply wanted to tell everyone first.” Prudence stopped coughing. “Are you truly?” Mary patted her tummy. “Around Christmas.” Mrs. Blakesley jumped from her chair and ranto hug Mary. “A Christmas baby!” Marcus leaned toward Rufus and whispered,“About bloody time. Prudence wanted me to see if you needed anytips,” and Rufus turned bright red. Prudence narrowed her eyes. “I don’t remember you being ill at all.” Mary smirked. “Not a stitch. Felt better than ever.” “Rot you.” Mrs. Blakesley frowned at her. “Prudence, language!” Olivia rubbed her forehead. “Three sisters? That’s half the Blakesley bunch. I hope one of you has a girl. Poor little Margaret is surrounded over thereby seven boys.” Eugenia stamped her foot. “Hello! I’m pregnant as well, Mama!” Mrs. Blakesley hugged her. “I know, dear. And we are excited about that as well. It’s just we’ve been waiting so long forMary.” “I don’t see why that makes any difference.” Prudence sighed. “That’s because you’ve never learnedthe art of anticipation, Eugenia. The longer it takes, the better it is. That’s why Olivia’s wedding is going tobe the best of the bunch. Because we’ve all been waiting so long.” Mrs. Blakesley speared her third oldest daughterwith the look, but it was too late. “Rot you, Prue.” Eugenia sat beside Olivia. “Is your Mr. Jenkins coming today? I should think we’d all like to meet him.” Mary hid a snigger behind her hand and Oliviaglared at her. “No. And he’s not my Mr. Jenkins.” “Really? The way Mary tells it, the engagement is asgood as announced.” “Mary is a twit.” Mrs. Blakesley clapped her hands. “That is enough, girls! There are children present.” Little Richie peeked out from behind his father’schair and said, “Twit.” Prudence leaned over and whispered, “Don’tworry, Livvy. He didn’t learn that from you.” She pointed a finger at her eavesdroppingchild. “Run off and play with your cousins, Richie.” “But when are we going to give Aunt Livvyher surprise?” Mr. Blakesley jumped up. “Quite right. Shall we go get it, Richie?” “Yes!” Olivia turned to Mary. “And have you all known about this surprise?” Eugenia grinned. “Of course we have. And I’m surprised Mary didn’t let youin on it.” Olivia was surprised, too. Mary shrugged. “I would have told you if I’d thoughtyou wouldn’t like it.” “That is comforting.” Mrs. Blakesley swatted at Mary. “Oh, it’s quite exciting. I think, Olivia, that you will be over themoon.” Richie ran across the lawn, waving a smallwrapped package, Grandpapa trailing behind him. Olivia said, “I’ll have to assume it’snot breakable.” Margaret and six more little boys came runningover to sit by Aunt Livvy. Richie held the gift in his hands. “You must wait for Grandpapa.” Olivia nodded. “May I hold it?” Prue shook her head. “Don’t give it to her until Grandpapais here. We don’t want her cheating.” “Mama says no, Aunt Livvy.” “Well then, what does it feel like?” A chorus of yells and boos greeted her questionand she sat back, grinning at her family. It wasn’t even her birthday. A thought crossed her mind that it had somethingto do with Nathaniel and she nearly groaned. What would her family do when she broke offtheir agreement and never saw him again? Hang her, most likely. Mr. Blakesley resumed his chair. “Go ahead, Richie. Let her open it.” Richie solemnly handed her the gift and Oliviafelt through the wrapping. She bent it in half, and looked up. “It feels like a magazine.” The children yelled at her to open it, andso she did. She looked for a moment in consternation. “It’s my monthly star magazine. Have you renewed my subscription?” Mrs. Blakesley leaned forward. “No, silly. Open it.” She opened it and read the contents page andfelt the blood drain from her face. “My article,” she whispered. “They published my article.” Mr. Blakesley leaned forward. “With drawings! Look at the article, my dear. Everything is in detail. Quite extraordinary. None of the other articles have drawings halfso well done.” “You sent in my article to be publishedafter they’d already rejected it?” “And look, Olivia,” Mrs. Blakesley leanedforward,” with your own name, not some silly fake one.” She looked up at her family, all smiling andhappy for her, and bit back her retort. Not some silly fake name? This was exciting? The entire world was going to laugh at her. Oh, her family thought it fun that she studiedthe stars, but it wasn’t going to impress anybody else. It would just make them laugh harder. She said numbly, “Thank you.” Prudence nudged her. “Come, Olivia. Is that all you have to say? Your name! In a respected journal.” Olivia looked down again, scanning her article,eying her drawings. She had hoped one day to find her work accepted. But the article had needed more work. And she definitely wouldn’t have used herown name! “It’s overwhelming. I can’t think what to say.” Her father smiled. “Let the poor girl get her head around it. It’s not every day the Blakesley name isput in print.” Marcus slapped his knee. “Well, pass it around. Let us have a look at it.” The children gathered around him and theyloudly exclaimed at the drawings. Mr. Blakesley winked at her. “Well done, Livvy.” Olivia smiled, wondering how big a debaclethis would create. Mary slipped her arm through Olivia’s andsteered her towards the trees. “You hated it. Even I thought you would be excited.” “You thought I would like having my namebandied about? “Oh, Olivia. No one will care a fig if you’ve publishedin a magazine. I doubt anyone will even know.” “Did none of you think this would causea stir in society?” “Olivia, no one but you reads those dreadfullydull tomes. And no, I don’t think it will cause a stir. Why should it?” “Because I am already odd man out, that’swhy.” Mary eyed her. “Are you worried about your Mr. Jenkinsreaction?” “Aaargh! He is not my Mr. Jenkins.” Mary laughed. “Of course not. Anyway, everyone in the family is quite proudof you. Especially Papa. And I know you don’t care at all what societythinks of you anyway. We shall simply see if Mr. Jenkins is worthyof you, shan’t we?” Chapter Fourteen Olivia heard the murmurings as soon as sheentered the ballroom. She hissed at Mary, “See. No one will care a fig, my ars–”“Miss Blakesley, tell me is it true? Do you write for a magazine?” Miss Emily Mayes fluttered her fan. Oh, to confirm this scandal would be the heightof the season. Olivia took a deep breath. “I fear I don’t know what you are referringto.” Miss Mayes slipped her arm through Olivia’sand walked her round the ring of on-lookers. “Well, according to Papa, there was an entryin this month’s star journal done by a Miss Olivia Blakesley.” “Hmm. I would like to see that. But Miss Mayes, it’s not an uncommon name. Perhaps there is another Olivia Blakesley.” “Who is batty over the stars?” “That is a bit of a coincidence, but I assureyou, I would never send an article to a magazine.” Under her own name. Olivia bit back her anger. How dare her family do this to her. Was it not enough to be the black sheep ofthe family, did they have to advertise that fact? Mary came to rescue her, expertly slippingbetween Miss Mayes and Olivia. “Miss Mayes. Have you heard the news?” “Indeed I have. Although Miss Blakesley is playing dumb.” Mary looked confused for a moment, then wavedher hand. “Oh, that. Diverting isn’t it, that there could betwo Olivia Blakesley’s nutty over the stars? But have you heard about Caroline Drew? She has gone to the continent!” Miss Mayes sucked in her breath. “No!” Olivia slunk away, thankful for Mary and hergossip for once in her life. Poor Miss Drew’s exodus to the continentduring the season could only mean one thing in the eyes of the ton. Poor Miss Drew had been ruined and she wasleaving to hide the evidence. For one brief moment Olivia felt a littlesympathy nausea for Poor Miss Drew. What if Olivia needed to escape to the continent? Dear Lord. “Hello, my dear,” a soft voice murmuredbehind her. She turned unsteadily. “Mr. Jenkins.” One eyebrow arched at her, funning her attemptat formality. “I thought we were passed all that, Olivia.” She shook her head. “I have begun to rethink my actions in lightof this latest news.” “Come, Olivia. You don’t think an article in a scientificjournal would make me think less of you?” For an instant her anger resurfaced. “My damn family.” Nathaniel chuckled. “Indeed, it must be slightly embarrassingfor you, but you seem to be handling it. And, in all truth, the article doesn’t surpriseme at all. I think you are capable of anything.” “I don’t think that was a compliment,Nathaniel.” He squeezed her hand. “You should take it as such.” “But that wasn’t what I was rethinking. Poor Miss Drew has made me reconsider ouragreement.” “Aah.” “Yes, aah. What if–”“My dear, Miss Drew’s situation and your own have nothing in common. If the unthinkable happened, then I wouldsimply kidnap you and tie you to a horse until we had reached Scotland.” Olivia’s mouth dropped open and she staredat him. Why, he seemed quite cheerful about the prospect. “Mr. Jenkins! You would do no such thing!” “I would. I’ve been considering it already.” Olivia had nothing to say to that. Nathaniel said, “Shall we dance, my dear?” “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” “Oh? Do you think attracting everyone’s attentionback to yourself after being so fortuitously diverted by Miss Drew is a better one? I shudder to think what rumors would circulateif we did not dance together. A falling out, perhaps? Or do I disapprove of my future wife havingher name published? I can think of no better way to acknowledgeyour accomplishment, my dear.” Olivia narrowed her eyes. “You have a serious flaw, Mr. Jenkins.” He bowed, his eyes twinkling. He swept her on to the dance floor, holdingher at a respectable distance. He said, “Your brother-in-law is glaringdaggers at me.” She sighed. “I will have a word with him. I am sorry, Nathaniel.” “I don’t think speaking with him willalleviate the situation, Olivia. I have taken advantage of you, I must makerepairs. Or perhaps you would tell him that you tookadvantage of me? He might not believe you, but it is a generousoffer.” “You are being uncommonly cruel tonight.” “I apologize. I am uncommonly frustrated. I was told you were stubborn, but I had notexpected to find a mule in so becoming a bonnet.” Olivia gritted her teeth. “And I had not expected to find a jackassin hat and tails.” He quickly covered his guffaw with a largecough, smiling his apologies at the other couples. He held her tighter for one moment, beforeletting her move to a more polite distance. He said softly, “Marry me.” “Why?” “Because I have never found another ladywho could call me vulgar names while waltzing. It’s intoxicating.” “You are very strange, Nathaniel.” “We are a perfect match then, aren’t we?” Olivia bit back her answer. For one moment, she had almost agreed withhim. “Nathaniel–”“If you’re going to berate me, I’ll have you know it will do no good. I am just as stubborn as you.” “More so, I would say. I was merely going to remind you of the NoMarriage Rule. You agreed to not bring it up.” He shook his head. “I don’t believe I did, my dear.” “Yes, you did. When we began our tra–”“If you call our relationship a transaction, I shall dump you on the floor.” “–relationship, you agreed to abide bymy rules.” “I don’t believe I did. I agreed to listen to your rules and tellyou if they’re complete twaddle. This No Marriage Rule is complete twaddleand I won’t abide by it.” Olivia stared at him in frustration. “If we weren’t dancing I would bash youover the head with my reticule.” “Then it’s a good thing we’re dancing. Are you free for the next one as well, mydear?” A small growl escaped her throat and Nathanielgrinned down at her. “If I had any compassion at all, I wouldleave you alone. Alas.” “You are deliberately goading me.” “Yes. It livens things up a bit for me. And it confuses your brother-in-law. He doesn’t know who to glare at, you orme.” Olivia had thought women were the diabolicalschemers, the ones unable to think of anything but marriage. Nathaniel and Rufus would give the most intensemama a run for her money. Nathaniel twirled them around the dance floor,keeping hold of her between dances, ignoring her token protest. At this point, no one would be surprised attwo dances in a row. He said, “I trust, my dear, you have noadventures planned for this evening?” She scowled. “You trust correctly. While it was quite exhilarating, I found theending not to my liking. I have no desire to run into Rufus again;no doubt he would be dragging a vicar along with him this time.” She looked at him from the corner of her eye. “Do you have any adventures planned forthis evening?” “Perhaps. If I can find the fortitude to brave the cold,the hard, the unrelenting.” Olivia shook her head, her eyes beseechingthe heavens. “Fortitude may not be necessary; I am notout there studying the stars every night. Perhaps you will discover there is no oneto share the cold and the hard with you.” “A fate I would no doubt deserve.” She said, “Indeed,” and he laughed. Nathaniel escorted her back to Mary. Olivia glared daggers at her sister. She would not put it past Mary to demand Nathaniel’sdeclaration here and now. And Olivia feared he would oblige, professinghis undying love for everyone to hear. Thankfully, they remembered propriety, thoughMary conversed with an evil twinkle in her eye. The headache that had weakened in Nathaniel’scompany came back with force, and Olivia excused herself as soon as he left. She found a quiet chair, hidden slightly bya tall potted plant, and allowed herself a moment to relax. She wondered briefly if she had the staminato continue fighting Nathaniel and her family. She was finding them more wearisome than she’dexpected. Conversation flowed around her, easily ignored,until she heard a strident feminine voice say, “And there goes Mr. Jenkins. He’s done his two with Miss Blakesley.” A second woman snickered. “And still no announcement. What is the delay, I wonder?” “Someone must have an objection to the match,his mother perhaps? Her family must be over the moon. If I was Miss Blakesley, I would be pressingfor an announcement soon. An angry mother-in-law would be worth theprize. She can’t afford to lose him at this point;who knows how she managed to snare him.” The women wandered off and Olivia remainedsitting behind her plant. She was not surprised by their conversation. She only felt sorrow that Nathaniel and hisfamily suffered from such gossip. She sighed, a heartfelt sound that seemedto encapsulate her predicament perfectly, and then rose tiredly to find her family. She could not bear to stay any longer. Despite her threats, Nathaniel found Oliviaexactly where he thought she would be. It was a clear night, after all. She was sitting in her chair, her sketchbooklying at her feet. She glanced in his direction, then returnedto her stars. He sat companionably at her feet, watchingwith her. A few clouds skidded across the night sky. “Tell me why your father allows you outsideany night you wish.” “He really didn’t have any say in thematter. When he found I’d been sneaking out, hegrounded me and took away my telescope. So I stole the house keys and locked everyonein their bedrooms while I went outside to paint.” “Remind me not to forbid you anything youdesire.” He looked down at her sketchbook. “May I?” Olivia nodded, trying to see her art withnew eyes. Trying to see what the world saw. A hopeless hack? Or a passionate artist? He flipped the papers, then looked back upat her. “Tell me why you study the stars so.” Olivia pointed to a group of stars, sketchingthe shape with her finger. “That’s the great bear, Ursa Major. It always comes back to the same place inthe night sky, but it’s always moving. Predictable, but not stagnant.” Nathaniel watched her. “Olivia, I didn’t tell you the most importantreason why I wanted to marry you.” She looked down at him. “I love you. Now that I have found you, I cannot live withoutyou.” She looked so sad, her faced bathed in moonlight. “I could never marry anyone other than you,Nathaniel, but I’m afraid.” “I didn’t think you were afraid of anything. You sit outside alone at night and propositionstrange men.” She smiled slightly. “You were never strange. I knew you at first glance.” “So what are you afraid of? You know me.” He pointed at the stars and grinned. “I’m always the same and predictable,but never stagnant.” He rose to his knees, kissing her gently. “I love you, Olivia. Be my bright light in the darkness.” She grabbed his hand, willing herself notto cry. “Nathaniel. You have been so patient, waiting for me torealize how much you love me, how much I love you. And I do.” He kissed her, his eyes shining. “But I will not change my mind. No matter the advice my family heaps on me,no matter how kind-hearted you are, no matter the promises you make. Marriage and I do not mix. I can’t marry you. And it has been cruel of me to keep you. Your sister told me that you deserved a family. Wife and children and a happy home. You do. More than anyone I have ever known, you deserveto be happy.” Nathaniel stared at her, his face closed. “So you wish to continue with this, then? Sneaking about, hard grounds, whispers behindfans. You enjoy this?” Olivia stood, clutching her sketch pad toher chest. “No. You have taught me passion, and lust, andlove. Everything I wanted to learn. It was never meant to go on forever. I believe our transaction is over.” He flinched, his jaw clenched, and he lookedpast her shoulder. Olivia willed the tears not to fall. She could not marry him, and she could notgo on as they were. The humane thing was to let him go, let himlive his life without her. She said, “I hope you find a–”“If that is your last word on the matter, I will leave you to your stars. Goodbye, Miss Blakesley.” He strode from her angrily, his hands fisted. His eyes met hers as he descended down theladder and she saw what she had always feared. Hate. Loathing. And hurt. She whispered, “Goodbye, Nathaniel. I hope you find someone better than me.” Chapter Fifteen Olivia watched sadly as the last of Londonflew by. Her last season, her last trip to London,the last of balls and rumors and dirty air. She would not be coming back, and for a momentshe grew wistful. This year had been different. Nathaniel had changed everything. For once she had not been the object of pitifulstares and fearful comparisons. For once she had not been laughed at. She, Olivia Blakesley, spinster extraordinaire,had been normal. Except for the article. That hadn’t been normal. But Nathaniel’s obvious unconcern had shortenedthe life of the scandal considerably. Olivia’s reputation would be even more infamousnow. In the eyes of the ton she had either lostor rejected Nathaniel’s suit. She would take odds that no one thought shehad rejected him. What sane woman would? What sane spinster would? She sighed, dropping the curtain, and settledback into her seat. Thankfully, she need never hear the whispers,the rumors, again. She would go back to her quiet house and herquiet stars and paint. She would live her life as she planned it,with no distractions, no surprises. With no Nathaniel. She had done the right thing. No matter how it hurt to let him go, he deservedbetter. In a few months, after they had spent timeapart, they both would realize their affection for each other had been passing. She would remember for the rest of her dayswhat it had been like to love and be loved. That was all she had asked for. A moment. Not a lifetime. That was enough for her. And she would continue to tell herself sountil she believed it. Her father cleared his throat quietly. He had sat across from her in the small confinesof the coach reading quietly until now. “I hear Mr. Jenkins asked for your hand. And you refused.” Olivia glanced at him. “Yes. I wasn’t sure you knew; you didn’t sayanything.” “I knew. Your mother has been quite distraught.” She smiled slightly. “Yes, I’ve heard her. All of London heard her. But Papa, it will work out fine. I’ve planned it all, and no one should worry. The spinster’s life will work well for me. I’ll have plenty of time for my studies. And I can run the estate just as well as youcan. Marcus will let me stay here after you andMama have gone.” She touched his arm, apologizing for bringingup a sad subject. He said, “I do not doubt that you will runthe place better than I. But that is not what I’m concerned about.” He looked out the window. “The greatest pleasures I have had in mylife have been at home. With my wife and children surrounding me.” He sighed. “When you children were young, the housewas filled with noise and activity. Scraped knees to be kissed, tears to be dried,dolls to be admired. Looking back at my life, I realize those arethe memories I return to time and again. I would not want you to miss that, Olivia. You, of all my children, study and watch andlisten. You have great insight into the human condition.” “I like to make sense of life, Papa.” He smiled and patted her hand. “Yes. But I fear you sometimes prefer to watch ratherthan do. A student of the wind and waves would nothesitate to jump on a boat or frolic in the ocean to study more deeply. I would not want you to miss this opportunityto study life more in depth. A husband and children would not take fromthe experience, but add.” Olivia stared unseeing out the window. “But what if I’m afraid?” “Do you fear Mr. Jenkins?” “I fear myself. I wonder if I’ll forget who I am and tryto be his perfect wife.” Mr. Blakesley laughed. “You have never tried to be a perfect anything,Olivia. Not a perfect daughter, a perfect sister,a perfect aunt. You have always walked your own path. I doubt you would stop now. And I doubt Mr. Jenkins would want that sinceyou are the woman he wishes to marry.” “He would probably be quite shocked if Iturned up in a frilly orange ball gown.” “The man would probably demand the returnof the real Olivia.” “What if he doesn’t let me out at nightto watch the stars?” Mr. Blakesley’s eyes twinkled. “Then I dare say you would do the same thingwhen I forbade you to go outside after dark: Steal all the keys to the bedchambers, lockeveryone inside, and continue your studies in peace.” Olivia smiled. “I don’t know why you didn’t tan myhide.” Mr. Blakesley chuckled. “It wouldn’t have done any good.” She looked at her father and said quietly,“How do I know it will be a happily-ever-after?” “You just have to believe. And be prepared to take some action to getit.” The carriage ride was long and uncomfortable,but at last they arrived. Four boys ran out to greet them, yipping andhollering. Marcus helped her down from the carriage,her backside protesting profusely with every step. “Ah, Olivia. Have you come to see my wife’s pride andjoy?” She smiled. “You know I have. They heard the cry in Scotland, I’m sure. A girl, a girl! Prudence has had her girl!” Marcus laughed. “If you want anything from her, now is thetime to ask. She has already told the boys they may havewhatever they wish as a gift from their sister.” “No more threats of Papa sleeping with hishorses?” “I believe I’m safe. For now.” Olivia spied her mother behind him. She had arrived weeks earlier to help Prudencewith her lying-in, and Olivia was not looking forward to hearing her mother’s thoughtson losing Mr. Jenkins. But her mother merely looked at her, not sayinga word, and went straight to her father, fussing over him and exclaiming how happy she washe had made it safely. Olivia sighed in relief and instructed oneof the boys to take her to Prudence. She lay on the bed, her daughter asleep inthe cradle of her arms. Prudence radiated joy, her eyes bright andshiny. “Congratulations, Prue.” “Isn’t she beautiful, Livvy? The most beautiful sight in the whole world.” Olivia smiled and stroked the baby soft skinof her niece. “Far be it for me to contradict a deliriouslyhappy mama.” “Tell me she is beautiful, Olivia, or Ishan’t let you hold her.” “She is the most precious thing I have everseen.” Prudence grinned, relaxing her hold as Oliviatook the baby. Olivia looked down at her niece. “Have you thought of a name?” “Nothing. I wouldn’t think of it while I was pregnantand now I can’t think of a single one. I’ve been calling her my little angel andthe boys have taken it up.” Prudence looked at her sheepishly. “What do you think?” “I think she will be the terror of the houseif you name her that. She will boss her brothers around, get whatevershe wants from her papa, and be doted upon by her mama.” Prue sighed happily. “I know. She’ll be the most spoiled little girl inthe whole world.” Olivia grinned down at her niece. “It doesn’t sound too bad a life, doesit, Angel?” “Mother is going to have a fit. I can hear her already, What kind of nameis that?” “I think I’d surprise her with it at thechristening.” They sat companionably, simply admiring thebaby. Olivia stroked the wisps of her hair and marveledat the size of her fingernails. Olivia said, “Mother’s not speaking tome.” Prudence rolled her eyes. “Lucky you. I hear all day long about Mr. Jenkins andyour rejection of him. Pray that she continues punishing you.” Olivia snickered. “How long do you think it will last? Do I have until tomorrow, at least?” Prudence shook her head. “If she makes it to dinner, I’ll eat agoat.” They laughed until a tear slid down Olivia’scheek. She whispered, “I want this, Prue. I thought I had everything I wanted, but now… I feel empty. I feel like a great hole is missing in mylife, in my heart.” “Get him back.” She shook her head. “Impossible. You don’t know what I did, what I said.” “No, nor do I want to since it was likelyunforgivable. You really need to learn to hold your temper.” “Oh, that’s rich coming from you.” “What I’ve found useful is to say I’msorry. Grovel a bit.” Prudence laughed. “Kissing usually loosens up an angry man.” Olivia said, “How have you stayed marriedfor so long? Why hasn’t he killed you yet?” Prudence shrugged, unconcerned. “He loves me, and I him. It’s really not so hard, Livvy. May I have my baby back so you can go winover your man?” Olivia kissed the top of Angel’s head andhanded her back to Prue. “Don’t think so much, Olivia. Just go.” Chapter Sixteen Olivia arrived back in London after anotherlong carriage ride, dropping her trunk off at Mary’s and seizing Rufus’ curriclewith hardly a hello. She raced to Nathaniel’s, arriving breathlessand minus her hat. She vaulted from the coach and rang the bellrepeatedly. The butler, in his shiny black boots, answeredthe door with a curt, “Madam!” “Could you please tell Mr. Jenkins thatMiss Olivia Blakesley is here to see him. It is something of an emergency.” “He is not at home, Miss.” “Is he really not or did he just tell youto say that? I know he is mad at me, but I really musttalk to him. I need to tell him what a toad I am.” The butler stared at her expressionless. He looked behind him, then leaned toward herconspiratorially. “He has gone to the green.” “Oh, thank you! I could kiss you!” He reared back in alarm. “But I won’t, of course not. Good day!” She hopped back into the buggy, crying forthe horses to GO! The cook peeked out from behind the butlerand nudged him. “You should have told her he was with thatMiss Mayes. That’ll be a shocker.” “I have no doubt Miss Blakesley can takeMiss Mayes with one hand tied behind her back.” “Ooh, would you like to make a little wageron that, sir?” He looked at her in surprise. “Are you betting on Miss Mayes?” “Course not. Just how long it’ll take Miss Blakesleyto get rid of her.” “Mmm.” “Nathaniel!” He turned in surprise to hear his name shoutedacross the green and stared in disbelief as Olivia came racing through on a curricle. Miss Mayes peered toward the contraption. “Who is– Is that Miss Blakesley? What is she doing?” Nathaniel shut his mouth quickly and tuggedon his waist coat. “It appears she is trying to run over thepedestrians.” Miss Mayes slipped her hand through Nathaniel’selbow and chuckled. “It does appear that way. Ho, Miss Blakesley, where’s the fire?” Olivia jumped from the rig, pausing when shesaw Miss Mayes. “Are you still wearing that dreadful featherin your hair? Really, Nathaniel, could you not have pickeda girl who at least didn’t walk around looking like a chicken?” Miss Mayes screeched, “This is the highestfashion, I’ll have you know! And at least he picked someone who knew whatfashion was!” “He doesn’t even know what fashion is! He doesn’t care! Nor does he like opera, nor does he like ballsand dancing. He did all that for me. And he definitely doesn’t like silly littlegirls who think life is about parties and dresses!” “Oh, you think he would rather have someonewho cared for naught but the stars? Who publishes in magazines? Mr. Jenkins is a gentleman, he would neverwant so low a wife.” Nathaniel watched in amazement as they nearlycame to blows. He held Miss Mayes firmly away from Olivia. “Olivia! What has come over you?” “You! Look what you’ve done to me! I was quiet before I met you. Content. Now I’m screaming like a fish wife at MissMayes, who I may not have been bosom buddies with but I never hated her. Nathaniel, what are you doing with her?” “I’m attempting to live my life, Olivia.” Her face crumpled. “But you love me. I am your life. And I was stupid and threw that away, likeit was nothing. Like it wasn’t the most romantic and sweetestthing anyone has ever said to me. Like you didn’t mean it, when I knew youdid. When I knew you were the best man I had evermet. The only man I could ever love.” She searched frantically for her handkerchief. Nathaniel handed her his and she buried herface in it. She wailed something into it. Nathaniel watched her, his heart warming atthe ridiculous sight of Olivia flustered and sobbing. “Olivia–”“I’m a toad!” she cried. “I don’t deserve you. But I want you! I want to marry you, and live with you, andwake up with your leg crushing mine–” Miss Mayes gasped.“–and argue over who gets to read the paper first, and lock you in the bedroom soI can paint outside, and have little screaming babies who look exactly like you– exceptnot the girls, I would prefer they take after me. Please, Nathaniel. I will be your perfect wife, please.” “I rather think you will be.” Both women looked at him and said, “What?” “I think you will be the most perfect wifefor me, Olivia.” Miss Mayes looked between the two of them–Olivia in her ugly brown dress with buttons to her neck, her hair skewed, hat missing;Nathaniel, who watched her with obvious admiration. “I think you both belong in Bedlam.” Nathaniel drew her hand from his arm. “I apologize, Miss Mayes.” She looked between them again. “No, I think this is probably for the best.” She called to her maid, who had stayed wellback from the commotion, and walked off– happy to have some very titillating gossipto share. Olivia stepped closer, gazing into his eyes. “Do you really still want to marry me?” “God help me, I do.” She frowned. “Did you kiss her?” “Of course not. She is a proper young lady.” Olivia smiled slowly– hope crowding outthe panic, happiness warming the cold. “I am not a proper young lady.” Nathaniel offered his arm. “Believe me, Olivia, I had noticed. Would you like to swing by the gazebo beforewe depart?” She laughed and entwined her arm with his. “Indeed I would.” Epilogue Nathaniel climbed the curved wooden staircase,cooing at his crying daughter. “We’ll find your mummy, little one. I’ll lay odds ten to one she’s up herepainting her stars.” He opened the door, the baby giving him away. Olivia turned, her face a picture of rapture. “Nathaniel, look! It’s a shower of falling stars. Look, Eloise!” Nathaniel handed the baby to Olivia, watchingas Eloise stopped crying and looked with rapture at the stars. “Ungrateful child. I’m the one who built this tower.” Olivia laughed. “She’ll thank you when she’s older.” She reached up and kissed him passionately. “I’ll thank you right now.” “You can thank me tonight.” “Nathaniel!” He wrapped his arms around her, staring atthe night sky. “I’m sorry the tower wasn’t finisheduntil after Eloise was born, Livvy.” He squeezed her. “I was quite tired of sleeping outside inthat chair.” Olivia smiled. “I couldn’t have climbed the stairs anywaywith that big belly.” They watched together until the shower ofstars faded, until Eloise began crying again. Olivia and Nathaniel looked at each otherand shared a moment of complete togetherness. She said loudly over the wails, “Thank youfor teaching me the acts of seduction, Mr. Jenkins. And the art of love.” Nathaniel kissed her tenderly, also speakingloudly. “It was my pleasure, Mrs. Jenkins. Entirely my pleasure.” And they went downstairs, tossing ideas backand forth on how to silence the interminable screeching. This has been To Catch A SpinsterThe Reluctant Bride Collection, Volume One Written by Megan BryceNarrated by Maureen Cavanaugh Copyright 2012 by Megan BryceProduction Copyright 2014 by Megan Bryce