Brooke Culpepper resigned herself to spinsterhood when she turned down the only marriage proposal she’d likely ever receive to care for her family. After her father dies, a distant cousin inherits the estate and becomes their guardian but permits Brooke to act in his stead.
Heath, Earl of Ravensdale is none-too-pleased to discover five young women call the dairy farm he won and intends to sell, their home. Desperate, pauper poor, and with nowhere to go, Brooke proposes a wager. His stakes? The farm. Hers? Her virtue. The land holds no interest for Heath, but Brooke does and he accepts her challenge.
Brooke loses, and her devastation is compounded when the cousin arrives, intending to haul the Culpepper misses off to London. Heath astounds himself and proposes in order to apply for guardianship of the other girls. Does Brooke dare marry the handsome stranger who’d been bent on compromising her? Will Heath regret his impulsive gesture, or will unexpected love flourish?
Purchase Links: Amazon * ~ * ~ * B&N * ~ * ~ * Kobo * ~ * ~ * Google Play * ~ * ~ * iTunes.
He’s come already.
Brooke’s hope, along with her heart, sank to her half-boots at the peeved expression on the man’s chiseled face.
Much too attractive, even drenched, mud-splattered, and annoyed.
The girls’ sharp intakes of breath hadn’t gone unnoticed. She hid her own surprise behind a forced half-smile. Her breasts tingled, the nipples pebble hard.
It’s the icy wind, nothing more.
She imagined his heavy gaze lingering on her bodice.
Why couldn’t he have been ancient and ugly and yellow-toothed and…and balding?
Shock at his arrival had her in a dither. She’d counted on a scrap of luck to allow her time to prepare a convincing argument. To have him here a mere hour after reading Sheridan’s letter had her at sixes and sevens. The letter must have been delayed en route, or her cowardly cousin had dawdled in advising her of the change in her circumstances.
She’d lay odds, ten to one, on the latter.
The gentleman still stood in the rain. That would make a positive impression and gain his favor when she broached the possibility of her continuing to operate the dairy and farm.
Come, Brooke. Gather your wits and manners, control yourself, and attempt to undo the damage already done.
“Looks like a half-drowned mongrel, he does.” Duffen sniggered, his behavior much ruder than typical.
Brooke quelled his snicker with a sharp look. “See to the horse, please, and tell Mr. Mabry we have a guest. Ask him to join us as soon as he is able.”
“Yes, Miss Brooke. I’ll get my coat.” Duffen bobbed his head and went in search of the garment.
She wanted the overseer present when she explained her proposition to his lordship. After all, although she’d read dozens of books and articles on the subject, Mabry’s knowledge of the dairy’s day-to-day operation far surpassed hers.
Brooke folded her hands before her. “He’ll return momentarily, Mister…?”
The gentleman, with hair as black as the glorious horse standing beside him, crooked a boyish smile and bowed. Yes, too confounded handsome for her comfort. The wind flipped his coat over his bent behind. “Heath, Earl of Ravensdale at your service, Mistress…?”
“Earl?” He’s a confounded earl?
An earl wouldn’t want to run a dairy farm, would he?
She scrutinized him toe to top. Not one dressed like him. His soaked state couldn’t disguise the fineness of the garments he wore or the quality of the beautiful stepper he rode. The wind tousled his hair, a trifle longer than fashionable. It gave him a dashing, rakish appearance. She shouldn’t have noticed that, nor experienced the odd sparks of pleasure gazing at him caused.
A lock slipped onto his forehead again. The messy style rather suited him. Where was his hat anyway?
She winced as a bony elbow jabbed her side.
“Tell him your name, Brooke.”
Ah, Blythe. Always level-headed. And subtle.
“Forgive me, my lord. I am Brooke Culpepper.” Brooke gestured to the foursome peering at the earl. “And these are my sister, Miss Brette Culpepper, and our cousins, the Misses Culpeppers, Blythe, Blaire, and Blaike.”
His lips bent into an amused smile upon hearing their names, not an uncommon occurrence.
Named Bess, Mama and Aunt Bea had done their daughters an injustice by carrying on the silly B name tradition for Culpepper females. Supposedly, the practice had started so long ago no one could remember the first.
Brooke dipped into a deep curtsy, and the girls followed her lead, each making a pretty show of deference. She wanted to applaud. Not one teetered or stumbled. They’d never had cause to curtsy before, and the dears performed magnificently.
Freddy lowered his shoulders and touched his head to his paws, a trick Brooke had taught him as a puppy.
Lord Ravensdale threw his head back and laughed, a wonderful rumble that echoed deep in his much-too-broad chest. At least, it looked wide beneath his coat. Maybe he wore padding. Silas Huffington did, which, rather than making him look muscular, gave him the appearance of a great, stuffed doll.
A very ugly doll.
“What a splendid trick, Mistress…?” His lordship inquired after her name again.
“It’s miss, your lordship.” Brette nudged Brooke in the ribs this time. “We’re all misses, but Brooke’s the eldest of the five and—”
Brooke silenced her with a slight shake of her head.
A puzzled expression flitted across the earl’s face. He took her measure, examining her just as she’d inspected him, and a predatory glint replaced his bewilderment.
Her gaze held captive by his—titillating and terrifying—the hairs from her forearms to her nape sprang up. Awareness of a man unlike anything she’d ever experienced before, even with Humphrey, gripped her.
A man of the world, and no doubt used to snapping his fingers and getting whatever he desired, including wenches in his bed, Lord Ravensdale now scrutinized her with something other than inquisitiveness. The look couldn’t be described as entirely polite either.
He wasn’t to be trifled with.
She’d bet the biscuits Brette made today, Brooke had piqued his interest. Why, and whether she should be flattered or alarmed, she hadn’t determined. What rot. Of course she was flattered. What woman wouldn’t be?
He approached the steps, his attention locked on her. “There’s no Mister Culpepper?”
Brooke tilted her head, trying to read him. Why didn’t she believe the casualness of his tone?
“No, not since Father died five years ago.” She pushed a tendril of hair off her cheek, resisting the urge to wrap her arms around her shoulders and step backward. The wind proved wicked for April. Why else did she remain peppered in gooseflesh? “Didn’t Cousin Sheridan inform you?”
“Cousin? Gainsborough is your cousin?” Disbelief shattered his lordship’s calm mien. His nostrils flared, and his lovely lips pressed into a thin line. His intense gaze flicked to each of the women, one by one. “He is cousin to all of you?”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bestselling, award-winning author, Collette Cameron, has a Bachelor of Science in Liberal Studies and a Master’s in Teaching. Author of the Castle Brides Series, Highland Heather Romancing a Scot Series, and Conundrums of the Misses Culpepper Series, Collette writes Regency and Scottish historicals and makes her home in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and five mini-dachshunds.
Mother to three and a self-proclaimed Cadbury Chocolate chocoholic, Collette loves a good joke, inspirational quotes, flowers, trivia, and all things shabby chic or cobalt blue. You’ll always find dogs, birds, quirky—sometimes naughty—humor, and a dash of inspiration in her novels. Her motto for life? You can’t have too much chocolate, too many hugs, too many flowers, or too many books. She’s thinking about adding shoes to that list.