Genre: Historical Romance
Length: 157 pages
Heat Level: 1
eBook Price: $0.99
Print Price: $8.99
Genre: Historical Romance
Length: 157 pages
Heat Level: 1
eBook Price: $0.99
Print Price: $8.99
Leah Hunter must choose between two men. Valet Daniel Barlow makes her laugh, fills her heart with delight, and answers her body’s desire for love. But Felton Kensington would give her a better life. Security. Prestige. And choosing him would take away the one thing that plagues her mind with worry and confusion.
Felton Kensington scoffs at the valet’s attempt to steal away Leah. With what Felton has to offer, he’s quite confident Leah will be his. In every way.
Daniel Barlow knows what he wants. And that’s Leah Hunter. He’s trying everything in his power to win her over. But competition from Felton Kensington is stiff. How can a valet compete with a wealthy gentleman?
Leah Hunter shook her head while at the same time keeping an eye out for anyone who might happen upon them as they talked in the upper hallway. “Leave it to a valet to point out the barely noticeable tear in my dress.”
“I’d be glad to repair it, if you like.” Daniel Barlow reached out a tentative finger toward her bodice.
She swatted his hand, the sound like a whip striking the air. “Thank you, no. I’ll see to it myself.” Although, her recent rise in status from merely a lady’s maid to Cecilia’s companion didn’t require her to do so many of the menial tasks any more. Still, part of her found it difficult to see herself as more than a maid.
A smile played on Daniel’s mouth, his lips full and soft. “But this is what I do. I believe that a valet trumps a lady’s maid in the area of clothing.”
“I think not.” It sounded like Daniel was having a little trouble remembering her change in status too. Did it bother him that she was now a little above him? The man still lived to tease her, though. What had he done with his free moments before she came to live there a few weeks ago?
“Come now, you must admit I’m right.”
“I’ll admit nothing of the sort.”
“Is that a smile I see?”
“No.” She tried her best to remain serious, but a blasted grin tugged on her lips. Traitorous lips.
He nodded and crossed his arms. “It’s as I thought.”
“You can’t resist me. Go on. Admit the truth.”
“Daniel Barlow, I think you wouldn’t know the truth if it dropped from the sky and landed smack on your head.”
“Are you comparing truth to say, a hat?” His brown eyes widened.
“Of course not.”
“What else would I wear on my head?”
She laughed. “Let me see… How about I borrow one of Cook’s roasting pots? Might look quite fetching on you.” Anything would look good on the man.
Daniel scowled, but his heart didn’t seem to be in it, the corners of his mouth quivering. “You’re breaking my heart, fair Miss Hunter. Dooming me to a life of drudgery in an ugly black piece of iron headwear.”
“Ah, poor man,” Leah crooned. “Don’t think the ladies will follow you around if you had that covering your dark locks?” Leah reached up to flick some of his hair above his ear.
Daniel grabbed her hand, his grip tight. “Don’t be thinking you can have your way with me. Making me feel all sordid and cheap.” He let out an exaggerated huff, his warm breath floating across her forehead.
“Have my way with you? What must you think of me? I’m a decent girl. You know it to be true.” Leah tried to tug her hand away, but he held fast.
“Yes. Playing the part of the jester with you is all.”
“You play it well.” A door closed from somewhere nearby. She had no wish to be caught wasting time standing around talking to Daniel. Perhaps she should make her exit. But she didn’t really want to. Although he teased her, she found that she enjoyed his company a little bit. Very well, quite a bit.
Daniel released her hand and bent from the waist in a mock bow. “Thank you very kindly, m’lady.”
“Stop that. Someone might hear you.” Leah glanced around the hall but saw no one. When she peered down, her left hand was rubbing her right as if to warm it. Right after Daniel’s touch had left her, the skin cooled. Odd, that. Almost as if his hand had somehow belonged with hers.
He ran his finger along her jaw, his touch as light as the flutter of a butterfly’s wing. “But what if I think of you as a lady? Doesn’t that count for something?”
Leah had dreamed of being a lady when she was a little girl, but now that she was grown, she realized how fortunate she was to have become Cecilia’s companion. “You are the silliest man I’ve ever met.”
Daniel leaned close. “Come now. I know you’ve spent time with Percy. Please tell me you’re not comparing me to him.”
Leah bit her lip, nostrils flaring as she tried not to giggle. “True enough. Much as I like the man, I believe he would be right at home at Bedlam.”
“That he would.” Daniel held up his hand. “Don’t misjudge me. I too enjoy spending time with him. But the loveable cork-brained wishes he was a bird. One time I passed by a room where he spoke with his nephew, and Percy was actually cawing. Like a crow.”
Leah widened her eyes. “Perhaps it’s worse than I thought.”
“So you see, you have no cause to compare me to Percy, saying I’m the silliest man. Because I beg to differ.”
“There, there.” Leah tapped Daniel on the shoulder, wishing she could place her hands on his broad chest instead. “Don’t go getting teary-eyed on me. How would you explain that to Mr. Radcliff?”
“I’ll not be doing anything like that. Especially not in front of a woman. You are the ones to get sentimental and weep at a moment’s notice. Men, on the other hand, are like warriors. Hard. Tough.” He glanced down and back up. “Rogues in valets’ clothing, if you will.”
Leah shook her head. “You think quite a lot of yourself, don’t you?”
“I only tell the truth, my dear.”
“My dear? What are you about?” She protested, but a thrill coursed through her at the endearment.
He stepped closer. So close she could smell a small trace of boot blacking on his hands. “It’s not a secret, Leah. I’d be yours, if you’d have me.”
“The way you tease…” Leah shook her head. Honestly, the man could have been a jester in another life. Surely he wasn’t serious? No… Daniel was never serious.
His brow furrowed but just as quickly lifted. Had she imagined it? “’Tis what I do. My whole purpose in life is to entertain you. Didn’t you know?” With a wink, Daniel turned, whistling a tune off-key as he left her standing in the hallway.
She watched him go. Someone she’d only known for a few weeks and should be a mere acquaintance. But when Daniel said such things, Leah wasn’t sure what to think. In her heart, she wished it to be true, that he would want her for his own, but Daniel was such a tease, always trying to make her laugh.
When had she ever seen him serious? Not making light of this or that? While she loved spending time with him and wished so much that he could have a tendre for her as she did for him, it didn’t seem likely that someone so carefree would want to settle down to take a wife.
Leah peered down at the area on her bodice with the almost invisible tear and sighed. No matter how often she mended her things, they fell further into disrepair. Guilt crept into her thoughts. Cecilia had had two lovely dresses made for Leah, but wearing them somehow felt wrong. As if she lived a lie that would soon be discovered, forcing her to give up the wonderful new life as Cecilia’s companion.
“Leah?” Cecilia’s voice carried down the hall.
She gasped and headed toward Cecilia’s rooms. What had she been thinking? She didn’t have the luxury of free time to stand around and daydream when her mistress might have need of her.
“Ah, there you are.” Cecilia smiled.
“I’m so sorry to have kept you waiting.”
“What have I told you about that? You’re my companion now, not a servant. No need to apologize.” Cecilia stepped forward and grasped her hands.
Leah nodded. “I love being here. With you. Sometimes the changes are a little confusing, I guess.”
Cecilia tugged her over to sit on the bed. “I know. Believe me.”
Yes, Cecilia knew. She’d been nothing more than the daughter of an injured surgeon-dentist when she met her husband. At her half-brother, the earl’s, insistence, she had taken on the role of his cousin so he could present her to society. Thankfully for Cecilia, it had worked out beautifully, even after Mr. Radcliff had found out her true identity. “I know you understand. Before, when I was at the Loftons, it wasn’t a problem being your friend, because we were…”
“Similar? Yes. You’re right. But I don’t want that to change anything now. While it’s true you are my companion, I still think of you as my friend first. Do you believe me?”
Leah gazed into Cecilia’s blue eyes, so like her own, except Cecilia’s were a lighter shade. The two could have been sisters with their coloring and blond hair. “I believe you.”
“Good. It’s one of the many reasons I pleaded with Amelia to let you come here, you know.”
“Thank you. That warms my heart.”
Surely Cecilia hadn’t called her simply to chat? “Is there something I can assist you with?”
“Actually, yes. Barrington is taking me to Almack’s this evening. I loved the way you dressed my hair last Saturday. Would you mind doing that again?”
“Of course not.” It’s the least I can do in appreciation of all she’s done for me.
Cecilia sat down at her vanity and faced the looking glass. With deft fingers, Leah removed the pins and brushed out her mistress’ long blond locks. What would it be like to have someone wait on her? Dress her hair? Take care of her gowns and rooms? Silly to even give it thought. It would never happen. Yes, it had happened to Cecilia, but what were the chances a wealthy gentleman would ever want Leah?
But it wasn’t even so much for herself. It was about any children she might someday be blessed to have. Leah’s family had been so poor. Fighting for every scrap of food. Handing worn-out clothing from one child to another that by the time the youngest acquired it, the item was little more than a rag.
No, Leah wanted more than that for her own children. Security. Freedom from worry of where their next meal might come from. Spending time with Daniel gave her heart joy, but even if she thought him serious about wanting to marry her, how would that help her fulfill her dream of a better life for her children?
Sadly, it wouldn’t.
“You’re quiet today, Leah.”
She jumped, nearly poking a hair pin in her finger. “Oh, I…”
“If something is weighing on you, you can tell me. Nothing has changed in that regard. We used to share everything, remember?”
“I do. And… I have missed it.”
“Then please, tell me what has you so troubled?”
Leah put the last touches on Cecilia’s hair and set the brush on the vanity. She tilted her head as she studied her friend in the mirror’s reflection. Leah shook her head, not wanting to give voice to her wishes. Saying them out loud would sound like she was ungrateful for everything Cecilia had given her. As if she craved more than what she already had.
Cecilia turned so they were face to face. “You know you can say whatever you wish. Anything, dear heart. Tell me.”
“I… I can’t.”
“Friends don’t judge each other, you know.”
With a nod, Leah let out a breath. “Ever since you met and married Mr. Radcliff, I’ve been feeling…” I can’t say it. I can’t! What would she think of me?”
“Have you been feeling perhaps as if you’d like something as wonderful?”
Leah gasped. “Please don’t think I’m ungrateful. Please. It would break my heart if you believed that. You’ve given me more than I’ve ever had. More than I could have hoped for. I guess… sometimes our hearts long for things that we don’t even give serious thought to. Does that make any sense?”
“Since I had been in the same situation, spending so much time with my brother and his new wife, I understand completely. I watched them fall in love. I never really thought it would happen to me. To find the love of my life.”
“You do understand.”
“It sounds terrible to actually say it out loud. As if I’m not content here with you. But I am. You must know that.”
“I do. But you want to find love for yourself. Isn’t that every woman’s dream?”
“Yes.” Should she tell Cecilia the rest of it? Surely she of all people would understand her need for her own children to not have to suffer as she had. Still… Leah glanced at her friend again. No. She had no wish to tarnish Cecilia’s happiness in any way. And bringing up her own needs would certainly do that, as Cecilia cared so much for her.
“There’s something else, isn’t there?”
Leah waved her hand in dismissal. “No. It’s nothing.”
“Are you certain?”
“Positive.” Leah smiled, hoping to convey her love and gratitude for Cecilia.
“You are my friend. More like a sister. I won’t rest until we’ve come up with a suitor that you find acceptable. Someone with whom you can find happiness and love.”
Warmth encased Leah’s heart. She wiped tears from her cheek and bent down to hug Cecilia. “You have the kindest heart. I truly love you.”
“And I you.”
Hyde Park was crowded with those of the ton, and also companions, like Leah, who accompanied them. Cecilia stayed closely beside her, a habit since before she’d married Mr. Radcliff.
The spring air had a nip to it, making the tip of her nose feel chilled. But the day was lovely, with dim sunshine peeking out from behind whitish-grey clouds and then hiding as if daring someone to catch it.
Flowers lined the path on each side, beckoning park guests to stop and admire them, for they wouldn’t last long and would soon give way to those of summer. Leah sighed. As much as she loved living with the Radcliffs, she was often lonely. Not that she couldn’t spend time with maids as they worked or share some laughter with Daniel, but Leah longed for more.
Her heart jumped at the mere thought of his dark eyes, the stubborn lock of hair that often fell over his forehead, the way the left side of his lips rose a tiny bit higher than the right when he smiled.
Cecilia grinned. “Now what, or should I say who did I catch you thinking about?”
“Nothing. I mean, no one.”
Cecilia took Leah’s arm and led her to a bench that rested beneath a large oak tree. “Let’s sit here for a while.”
Leah sat. And waited. Because once Cecilia got an idea in her mind, she wasn’t able to shake it loose. Leah eyed her reticule, Cecilia’s hand-me-down, as she counted the seconds for Cecilia to ask her questions.
“Something is bothering you. Isn’t it?”
“I suppose you could say that.”
“You can talk to me about anything, you know.”
More like anyone. She nodded but couldn’t make the words form.
“Are you going to make me toss you to the ground and sit on you to force you tell me?” Cecilia’s lips quivered as if laughter longed to leap out.
Leah wasn’t as successful and chuckled. “Now wouldn’t that be a sight? I’m sure everyone in the park would carry news of Mrs. Radcliff assaulting her companion in the shade of an oak tree.”
“Don’t make me resort to such measures.” Cecilia gently bumped her shoulder against Leah’s.
“I was thinking about… Well…”
“How did you know that?”
“My dear, I’m recently married. It hasn’t been that long ago that I was exactly where you are now.”
“Sitting on this bench?” Leah smirked.
“You know what I meant.”
Leah giggled. “Yes.”
“Is there someone for whom you’ve a tendre?”
Leah sighed. Oh my yes. She nodded.
“Someone with whom I’m familiar?”
She nodded again.
“Come now, Leah. I’m still considering tossing you to the grass for information.”
“If you insist.”
“I do.” She crossed her arms and waited.
There would be no escaping telling her friend what she wished to know. But that was for the best. She and Cecilia had indeed confided in each other quite a lot before Cecilia married. “There is someone for whom I… have developed a fondness.”
“You have made his acquaintance.”
“Hmm.” Cecilia tapped her chin. The grocer’s son?”
“The apothecary’s assistant?”
Leah shook her head, causing a loose curl to bounce against her cheek.
Cecilia’s eyes lit up. “Wait. Someone closer to home, perhaps?”
Leah’s face heated.
“Ah, I’m correct. Then it’s someone of the household, is it not?”
Leah swallowed. Cecilia would have it figured out in no time.
“Presumably someone about our age. Handsome? Friendly? Someone you might see when he performs his duties near my rooms and Barrington’s.” She placed her hand on Leah’s. “Ah…”
Now. She’ll say his name now.
Without meaning to, without consciously giving her body permission, Leah let out a breath that sounded half sigh, half frustration.
“Does he feel the same?”
Leah finally looked Cecilia in the eye. “He says… that is, he teases me unmercifully, saying if I would but accept him, he would be mine.”
“Then I don’t understand the problem.”
“I’m not at all sure he means it. The man is never serious. Always joking, trying to make me chuckle.”
“A man who makes you laugh is good, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but if I knew, really knew that he was serious about this one thing when he’s not serious about anything else, then I would gladly accept. I long to find a man who will treasure me, take care of me, and love me above all else. Such as your Mr. Radcliff does you.”
“Perhaps Daniel isn’t the one for that?”
“Oh that he was. That would be a dream come true. Although…” Leah raised her hand as if to finish her sentence, but lowered it again as the right words refused to come.
“There’s something else?” Cecilia leaned closer, lowering her voice even though there was no one else close by.
“I know you’ll understand when I say that…” Leah glanced down at her hands that seemed to have minds of their own as they fidgeted in her lap. “I do have strong feelings for Daniel, but I’d wanted, that is, I’d hoped that the man I married would be able to provide better for me.” Now she sounded greedy. What would Cecilia think?
“Hmm. Then let’s study this in a practical manner, shall we? You’re not at all convinced that Daniel, although you’ve a tendre for him, feels the same, correct?”
“So you’d rather not set your cap for him if he’s not serious about things. But perhaps there might someone else… someone who would care for you the way you wish as well as have the necessary wealth with which to provide for you in comfort?”
Hearing Cecilia say it out loud made it seem not quite as bad, somehow. “Yes. But I suppose finding a man whom you loved with all your heart and having that man also be somewhat wealthy might not be so easy.”
“But it does happen. I never dreamed I could love someone so much as Barrington.”
“I know. But how often does a miracle like you and Mr. Radcliff occur?”
Cecilia’s lips turned down at the corners. “I’m sorry, Leah. I guess in trying to help, I’m only making things worse.”
The last thing I want to do is upset her. Leah grabbed Cecilia’s hand. “No. Please don’t say that. I appreciate—”
A rustling in the grass caught her attention. A tall man stood a few feet away and gave a slight bow. Cecilia nodded to him.
Leah stopped, her mouth still open, ready to speak her next word to Cecilia. Instead, she snapped her lips closed and stared up at the speaker. That man… I’ve seen him somewhere before.
“Ah, Mr... Kensington is it?” asked Cecilia.
“That’s correct. What a wonderful memory you have.” His eyes squinted at the corners as he smiled.
He switched his attention to Leah.
Why is he watching me? His blue eyes studied her as if he was deeply curious of some new creature he’d like to study further. Leah squirmed on the seat of the bench, feeling as if she’d like nothing better than to jump up and run the other direction. But she wouldn’t do that. She’d not do that to Cecilia.
Never taking his gaze from Leah, Mr. Kensington took a step forward. “And Miss, Hunter, I believe?”
Why would someone like him, someone of the gentry remember her name? She glanced at Cecilia, who, with raised eyebrows, gave an almost imperceptible nod.
“Y-yes. That’s correct, Mr… Kensington.”
The corners of his lips rose, and he closed his eyes partway against an errant ray of sunshine edging through the tree branches. “How fortuitous to meet you here again.”
That’s it… Now she knew where she’d seen him. Mr. Kensington was an old classmate of Mr. Radcliff’s. He’d come upon the three of them several months ago in Hyde Park when Leah had been Cecilia’s chaperone on an outing before she and Mr. Radcliff were wed. Like today, Mr. Kensington had made a point of wanting an introduction to her.
Cecilia tilted her head to the side. “If I remember correctly, you went to Eton with my husband.”
“That’s right. He and I have known each other for quite a few years.”
“It’s pleasant to renew old acquaintances.”
“That it is. And also make new ones.” He bowed slightly in Cecilia’s direction and then with purpose, did the same to Leah.
He was very handsome. Leah either hadn’t noticed it during their prior meeting or had forgotten. Though how she could have forgotten was a mystery. When he smiled at her, a warm, pleasant sensation flowed through her, as if the sun had come out of hiding just to shine on her.
He took another step closer. “Might I interest you ladies in a stroll around the park? It would be so pleasant to acquaint myself further with my friend’s wife.”
Cecilia glanced quickly at Leah and then back to Mr. Kensington. “Thank you. That would be… lovely. I only wish Mr. Radcliff was here to join us.”
“As do I. Perhaps next time.” He assisted first Cecilia and then Leah to stand. Offering an elbow to each woman, he beamed a smile at each of them.
They made their way from the bench, through the grass, to the path where several couples and groups passed by. Mr. Kensington skillfully directed them into the fray, urging them to increase their steps for a moment until they were at the common speed of the other walkers. It was as if half of London was at the park.
He regarded Leah specifically. “I do so love escorting beautiful women on a wonderful spring day.”
Leah ducked her head and averted her gaze to watch her boots as they stepped in time with Mr. Kensington’s and Cecilia’s. Perhaps it will be a short stroll and the heat from my face can subside. How she longed for her fan right now. Perhaps she could retrieve it from her reticule.
She tried to loosen her grasp on his arm, but with a quick movement, so fast she thought to have imagined it, he pulled his arm closer to his side, bringing her fingers in contact with the side of his coat.
Her fingers burned as if seared. As if she’d done something terribly wrong by touching more than his offered hand from the bench or his sleeve during the walk. Curiosity, soon overcame embarrassment and Leah darted a quick glance up at him. He was handsome, even more so now that she viewed him up close. Tall, thin but not too thin, blue eyes, darker than she’d first thought, and light hair. Older than she, perhaps about thirty. Why was someone of his age, a man who was handsome and by all appearances wealthy, not married?
Cecilia broke into Leah’s thoughts with her words. “Tell me, Mr. Kensington, what was my husband like as a boy at school? I’m guessing he was one of the smartest?”
Mr. Kensington chortled. “Why yes, he was. And how marvelous that you have such high expectations of him.”
“How could I feel any other way?” Cecilia grinned, eyeing Leah to include her in the conversation.
But I wouldn’t know what to say. Best to keep silent until the stroll is finished.
Leah swallowed the startled gasp that lodged in her throat. “Y-yes?”
“What do you do for enjoyment?”
Fix Cecilia’s hair, accompany her on outings, repair her clothing, although Cecilia scolds me when I still perform such duties…
He tilted his head in her direction. “Surely there’s something?”
Oh. She hadn’t answered him yet. “Um… I enjoy…” Think, Leah. Say something or you’ll appear the fool. “Um… cats.”
“Cats?” His face paled. “How… wonderful.”
Did he have an aversion to them? Leah thought they were wonderful. Their purrs, soft fur, and long tails. The way they curled up on a person’s lap as if they had not a care in the world. And that they never, ever judged a person but simply loved them.
She wanted to voice her thoughts out loud to aid the conversation, but the words wouldn’t come. A nod was all she could manage.
“I love them too,” Cecilia quickly added. “Everything about them.”
Thank you, Cecilia. Had she noticed Leah’s discomfort? It must have been obvious with Leah’s lips formed in a thin seam.
Mr. Kensington frowned. “I prefer dogs.”
“Dogs are pleasant too.” Cecilia said. “Have you always had them, Mr. Kensington?”
“Yes. My entire life. My father always had hunting dogs, so I do as well. Marvelous creatures. They can spot a fox hiding in a shrub from a hundred yards away. I love to aim my gun at the fox and shoot at the exact moment it’s flushed out.”
How revolting. Leah bit her lip against a grimace. A glance at Cecilia showed her eyes widening for a second before her features returned to their normal placid appearance. Leah knew, of course, that some hunting was necessary for sustenance. She had no quarrel with that. For some people that was the difference between eating and starving. But to hunt an animal simply for sport? Poor things.
Not really wanting to speak but desperate for a change in subject, Leah blurted out, “Look at that bird!” As soon as the words had flown from her lips, she covered her mouth with her hand. Oh no… I did not just utter something so inane in a loud voice to him in Hyde Park.
Cecilia bit her lip as well. But not in embarrassment. Was she trying not to laugh? Leah’s face heated. With her pale complexion, her skin was sure to be as red as the roses planted by the Radcliff’s gardener each year.
Mr. Kensington’s eyebrows were raised. “Do you… like birds, Miss Hunter?”
Leah glanced at the feathered creature in question, the one she’d practically shouted about. She’d been so quick to point it out that she hadn’t even noticed what it was. Large. Black feathers. Some sort of crow? “I… Yes. Birds are so… pretty.” Pretty? He must think me daft.
Wait. Why do I even care? He’ll likely brush off the encounter as amusing and I will forget it even happened after a time.
Within a few minutes, they had once again reached the bench. Startled, Leah hadn’t paid attention to the fact that they must have gone in a circle. Either way, she was relieved it was over. Her cork-brained comment about the bird still caused her to cringe.
Mr. Kensington bowed. “Thank you, ladies, for a lovely walk. Mrs. Radcliff, it was so nice to see you again. Please give Mr. Radcliff my regards. And, Miss Hunter?”
Leah blinked. “Yes, Mr. Kensington?”
“I greatly anticipate seeing you again.” He turned and left, heading toward the park’s entrance.
Suddenly, Leah’s legs felt like pudding, as if they could no longer bear her weight. She plopped down on the bench.
Cecilia sat down beside her. “That was certainly… unexpected.”
“Yes. At the least.” Add to that odd, strange, and peculiar, and you might have it.
Ruth J. Hartman spends her days herding cats and her nights spinning sweet romantic tales that make you smile, giggle, or laugh out loud. She, her husband, and their three cats love to spend time curled up in their recliners watching old Cary Grant movies. Well, the cats, Maxwell, Roxy, and Remmie, sit in the people's recliners. Not that the cats couldn't get their own furniture. They just choose to shed on someone else's. You know how selfish those little furry creatures can be.
Ruth, a left-handed, cat-herding, Jeep driving, farmhouse-dwelling romance writer uses her goofy sense of humor as she writes tales of lovable, klutzy women and the men who adore them. Ruth's husband and best friend, Garry, reads her manuscripts, rolls his eyes at her weird story ideas, and loves her in spite of her penchant for insisting all of her books have at least one cat in them. Or twelve. But hey, who's counting?