Shocking family news forces Madeline Wetherby to abandon her plans to marry an earl and settle for upstart Manchester merchant Nash Quinn. When she discovers that her birth father is one of the weavers her husband is putting out of work—and a radical leader—Maddie must decide which family she truly desires, the man of her heart or the people of her blood.
An earl’s second son, Nash chose a life of Trade over Society. When protest marches spread across Lancashire, the pressure on him grows. If he can’t make both workers and manufacturers see reason he stands to lose everything: his business, his town, and his marriage.
As Manchester simmers under the summer sun, the choices grow more stark for Maddie and Nash:
Family or justice.
Love or money.
Life or death.
Nash first saw her as an apparition, a gilt London trinket set down by mistake at a dusty crossroads three miles north of town. A straw bonnet atop a traveling suit of thick French silk perched on the largest of those seven mismatched trunks he’d later had to find space for in his life. But on that odd, chill May afternoon, he’d needed to make room for them only in his wagon.
“Lost your carriage, miss?”
The green of her too-wide eyes seemed to drink him in, but the corner of her too-full lips puckered down. Did his coat not meet her standards? It was good Manchester cotton, but cut for comfort, not frills. Or was it his ill-behaved hair, far too curly for this humidity? He broke her gaze to check the skies. Rain, but a half-hour away yet. Served her right to get sodden through, if she looked so askance at a worthy mode of transport.
“The letter said the stage should drop me here, and someone from the castle would fetch me.” She looked up the track, the document clutched in her glove, hope drooping like her forlorn skirt.
That decided him. Fine-drawn females should not loiter in the fields alone, especially not in these times. “And here I am,” he said, casting a leg over the side of the wagon to climb down from its seat.
She stood, an alert little rabbit, mouth twitching. Slimmer than he thought, and chin height at the most. “But you come from town,” she said.
“Aye, and I’m not a fancy carriage, but I’m going the right direction. You’ve been waiting these five hours or more, if you took the daily coach. Shall I leave you, and trust someone else to divine your presence? Or do you dare take advantage of one of the few conveyances that can readily carry all this baggage?”
She rocked back on her heels and swung her arms up. He was sure she was going to slap them onto her hips, but the lady’s training caught her, and she hesitated, dropping her hands into the pose of a prim schoolteacher instead. First point to her, then. He could fight fair.
“How far to the castle?”
“Straight, not three miles. In or out?”
She released her hands with the same tiny gesture of surrender he’d seen French sailors use after he’d boarded their ship. Even score.
She gave him wide berth, but wasn’t above taking one handle of the largest box. Together, they hefted it into the wagon, pushing his cargo to either side. The paper wrap had torn on one of the bolts of cloth, showing a swath of dark blue. She reached for it, stroking, as if she couldn’t help it.
“Is this silk?”
“Frenchie trade. Like what you’re wearing.”
She snatched her hand away. “You sound as if you disapprove.”
“Bad bargain on my part.” Nearly a fatal one, for his fledgling trading company. “Mancunians prefer local-made silks. And they’ll look sidewise at the likes of you, too, half-mourning or no. Is that all that’s in here?” He slapped a palm on the nearest trunk.
“Everyone in Bath buys their fabrics from France. We’re not at war. And it’s better quality.”
“You’re behind the times, miss. Manchester matches their best, and beats it.”
“So says the man of sales.” She followed him to the front of the wagon and held her hand out for him to help her up to the bench. Then she saw the anger on his face, and put her hand on her chest instead.
He forced his mouth into a grimace of a smile and willed his tone to be light. “I may be a lowly man of business, sure, but I also serve for a magistrate for this town. And I was born to Shaftsbury.”
“Then it’s welcome home for you, as well.” She used the bench for a hand-hold, fortunately for him, as he was shocked to a standstill. He never called that bloody dungeon of a castle home. Why had he now? And what did she mean, “as well?” He didn’t know her, and she would be hard to forget. Before he’d gained his seat, she’d already changed the topic.
“You are fortunate the Quinns will take your silks, then.”
He tugged the reins a bit too hard, and his pair lurched into motion. Her shoulders swung back, her hands reaching past her hips to the wood of the seat to hold her steady. Served her right, her smelling like sunlight on grass, yet biting sharp as any asp.
A gently bred lady, with no companion, traveling to Shaftsbury. He knew of no poor relations, in Bath nor any place else. She didn’t appear a lightskirt, not with those trunks. Nor a servant, with those cultured accents and pretty manners. Now she sat as if on a church pew, hands folded, yet her feet were braced wide, one on the side of the board, the other against his foot.
“You’re the new housekeeper?”
She glanced at him, eyes narrowed, mouth cool. “Shaftsbury lacks one?” But she quickly looked down at her gloved hands, one still mauling that letter of hers. He felt a bumpkin, snapping at some lost girl merely because he could not snap at those who better deserved it.
“I’m sorry we haven’t been introduced. I’m Nash Quinn.”
She looked up at him, eyes wide. Cat’s eyes, he decided, and the lips, turning up into the first smile he’d seen all day, a blooded rose.
“I am so relieved. I mean, your face, your hands, your hair. Just like your father.” She stopped short, her smile falling away.
Nash concentrated with effort on the too-familiar track. He couldn’t look at her. She’d thought him born on the wrong side of the blanket? Well, why wouldn’t she? An earl’s son in trade? It might have been better if he were a bastard.
“You knew the old earl?”
“I am sorry for your loss. He was a good man.” Her mellow alto softened further, as if she believed it.
He might debate that, but for the moment he let it go. “How did you meet?”
“He was my godfather. My name is Madeline Wetherby.”
“The little lost Wetherby?” He’d heard vague tales whispered of a blond child spirited away in dark of night.
“I could as easily call you the little lost Quinn. Your fa—” She stopped herself.
“My father did.”
“I apologize for my rudeness.”
“You’d as well apologize for your dropped R’s and Southern speech. As well as your silks. You may have been born here, Miss Wetherby, but you don’t belong here.” Truly, on this cart, in this country, she looked as out of place as a dove at a cockfight.
Trying not to look at her and failing, he couldn’t help but see the glint of moisture at the corner of her eye. He was a cad, just as his brother Deacon, the new earl always said. “Don’t. You know you’ll need tannery skin to survive the castle.”
“Your father was the one who wrote to tell me to come today. But he isn’t here.”
“It’s him you’re mourning? Deacon will make you welcome, no doubt. He has to. This blasted affair, begging your pardon, it’s all for him. The grand summoning.”
“How many are invited?” She pretended to flick a dust speck from her eye. He felt his chest ease.
“Eight or ten, I believe. But it’s quality that counts. Well, nearly. The illustrious head of your house is expected, our Lord Wetherby.”
He couldn’t pretend not to hear her gasp, or see her shoulders hunch, as if warding off a blow. “Not a favorite, Miss Wetherby? Can’t say I like him, either. But he’s Deacon’s best beau, so fair warning.”
“Your own speech is an interesting combination of cant and King’s English.”
He snorted. “It’s not me you’re wanting to fight, little lost Wetherby.”
She pursed her lips. “My shining knight in dull loom-spun.”
All he could come up with was a repetition. “Save it for the castle.”
Point and match to the lady.
TO WIN A COPY OF AN UNTITLED LADY ENTER AT RAFFLECOPTER AND ANSWER THIS QUESTION IN COMMENTS:
Why is Madeline wearing a dress made from French fabric?
About the Author
Nicky Penttila writes stories with adventure and love, and often with ideas and history as well. She enjoys coming up with stories that are set in faraway cities and countries, because then she *must* travel there, you know, for research. She lives in Maryland with her reading-mad husband and amazing rescue cat.
She’s chattiest on Twitter, @NickyPenttila, and can also be found at nickypenttila.com and on Facebook.