New Release: The Love Match
A Sisters of Scandal Novella
To her family, Olivia Middleton is a problem of the most vexing sort. With her older two sisters married off, Olivia is now the target of her mother’s matrimonial scheming. Shy and somewhat plain, Olivia prefers the thrill of a gothic novel to the hunt for a husband. And as far as her family is concerned, something must be done. But Olivia has no interest in the men paraded before her-except, perhaps, the sought-after bachelor William Cross. But she’s not about to inflate his already oversized ego by telling him so.
William has sworn never to wed, but that doesn’t mean he can’t enjoy women. What he excels at most is flirtation… unless the woman in question is Olivia Middleton. She barely bats an eyelash at his most creative compliments. She laughs at his attempts to flatter her when other ladies would swoon. William is reluctantly intrigued by Olivia, particularly when he discovers the passion simmering beneath her wallflower facade. A passion that should be to his benefit…
Because he’s determined to impress her, by fair means or foul…
Pricing is not guaranteed
The Love Match
by Lily Maxton
Copyright © 2014 by Lily Maxton. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
Hampshire, England, 1818
Olivia Middleton was the only daughter left.
Olivia didn’t begrudge her two sisters marrying, but she did begrudge their freedom. As soon as they were out of the house, their mother, Lady Middleton, had turned a matchmaking eye to her youngest daughter with all the fierceness of a hawk seeking its prey, and Olivia, like the scurrying field mouse, was rightfully terrified.
When news came to them of Elizabeth’s hasty marriage to a bookseller, Mother had fainted on the chaise longue—rather strategically—and had to be revived with smelling salts. She’d been triumphant when Anne, the second oldest, had married the Earl of Thornhill—who had actually proposed to Elizabeth first, and coincidentally was the cousin and heir to Elizabeth’s deceased first husband, making Lizzie the dowager Countess of Thornhill and Anne the new Countess of Thornhill.
The titles were really a bit of a tangle.
But they both seemed happy in their new lives.
And Olivia was happy for them. Truly, she was. But now, she’d been left alone with her parents, who wanted to get her married off quickly and be done with the business of raising daughters. Mother was becoming increasingly unbearable.
Lady Middleton liked to tell Olivia she’d never catch an earl like her sainted middle sister, whom her mother didn’t even like that much—Elizabeth had always been her favorite. And she treated Olivia, who was insufferably shy around men and preferred reading—the most vulgar of pastimes for a lady—to being out in society, as more of a nuisance than a daughter.
If Olivia were bolder, she might have pointed out that Anne hadn’t caught an earl by being a perfect lady—far from it, in fact.
But Olivia wasn’t bold.
And whenever she uttered something her mother didn’t like, a vein throbbed in Lady Middleton’s forehead, so she usually kept her mouth shut. She might not enjoy her mother’s company, but she didn’t want to give her an apoplexy, either.
What Olivia liked to do most of all was curl up in an armchair by a window—open, if the weather allowed—and read, unhindered by her mother’s frequent diatribes.
I gazed upon the Spectre with horror too great to be described. My blood was frozen in my veins… The Apparition rose from her seat, and approached the side of the bed. She grasped with her icy fingers my hand which hung lifeless upon the Coverture, and pressing her cold lips to mine, again repeated,
“Raymond! Raymond! Thou art mine!”
Olivia heard the slightest creak first, as if someone were stepping softly. And then a weight landed on her head, obscuring her field of vision. Darkness descended.
“Ahh!” she shrieked, lashing out with her hand and striking something fleshy.
“Good Lord, Olivia!” her mother snapped.
She lifted the sinister thing from her head, which turned out to be a bonnet with pink ribbons. Not very fear-inducing, unless one disliked pink.
“What are you doing with this?” she asked when her heart began to slow again.
“We’ve been invited to a house party,” her mother said as merrily as though they’d just been asked to dine with the king and queen. “Your father will go pheasant hunting, and we will hunt barons!”
She was alarmed by the glittering of her mother’s gray eyes, so like her own. “I fervently hope that is a metaphor.”
Lady Middleton yanked the bonnet away and adjusted one of the ribbons before placing it back on Olivia’s head with an equally glittering and alarming smile. “We must decide what you’ll wear, my dear. Baron hunting is a very serious business.”
Lord Ashworth’s ancestral home, Eastwold Abbey, looked like something from one of her gothic novels.
To reach the abbey, the carriage had to travel through a path cleared in the dense wood that surrounded it, under the dappled shadow of leaves that were just starting to change colors.
Once the horses clopped nearer and Olivia could see through the trees to the small meadow where the house rested, she imagined the wood was enchanted and the trip through it had taken her to an earlier time.
There was nothing Greek or modern or light about this house—it was all dark and old and cruel angles. Something that would have been quite content in the 1500s, and possibly had been built that long ago, with few renovations in between.
It was a sprawling structure made of a dark stone, or a light stone that had darkened with age, and a jumble of steeply pitched roofs and variously sized windows that didn’t look like they’d been arranged in any particular way. Smoke curled from chimneys, rising up, searching, like the tendrils of some lonely phantom.
“How lovely,” her mother said crisply.
“I would call it old,” her father stated.
Until then, most of the trip had been spent in silence and gloomy stares—or excited stares, on her mother’s part.
“Perhaps haunted?” Olivia asked hopefully.
A vein, a deep blue one that ran from her mother’s hairline to her eyebrow, gave a twitch. “There is no such thing as ghosts. If Lord Ashworth hears you speak like that, he’ll be gravely insulted.”
“Why should he take it as an insult? Ghosts give a house character.”
Olivia clamped her lips together. Her father gave her hand a dry pat—the most affection he ever showed his daughters.
Then the carriage halted, the footman laid out the steps, and they were ushered into Eastwold Abbey with all the proper pomp and circumstance.
Olivia’s first impression on meeting Lord Ashworth was of hair. The man had hair so crimped and pomaded it could have rivaled Lord Byron’s tousled locks for sheer sullen beauty. She wondered what kind of man was under all that carefully disheveled glory, but his lips eased into a relaxed smile as they were introduced. He seemed good-natured enough.
While Lord Ashworth’s middle-aged sister, the hostess of the party, drew Olivia’s father into conversation, Lord Ashworth spoke to Olivia.
“Do you like the country, Miss Middleton?”
“Yes,” she said. At her mother’s sharp look, she tried to continue the conversation, though she was horrible at making small talk. Moments like these made her want to draw back into herself and disappear. “I like to…uh…ride.”
She bit her lip nervously. She didn’t like horses that much—Anne was the best rider of the three sisters. But she hadn’t known what to say, and, sometimes when she didn’t know what to say, she said anything she could think of just so people would stop staring at her in expectation of an answer. Even if what she said was untruthful.
She didn’t like people staring at her. She would much rather fade into the background.
“Indeed?” said Lord Ashworth. “There must be wonderful land for riding at Middleton Hall.”
“Yes, but I prefer to walk.” She winced.
He blinked, but he kept his face smooth, ignoring her sudden change of topic. “Walking is invigorating, as well.”
Her mother chose that moment to grab the reins of the conversation before they were lost completely. “You’ll have to show my husband the stables, my lord. We’ve heard many good things about your thoroughbreds.”
“Of course. Whenever is agreeable to you. But I’d like to give a tour of the abbey once all the guests have arrived.” And then he politely turned back to Olivia. “Miss Middleton, do you enjoy reading? Our library is one of the best in the county.”
“Yes, very much.” Which at least was the truth, but she still couldn’t think of anything to add to it. She was saved by the rattle of another carriage pulling up the drive.
While Lord Ashworth waited to greet the other guests, a maid led Olivia and her mother upstairs to their rooms, while her father was led in a different direction.
“You’re hopeless, my dear,” her mother said as she oversaw the unpacking of their things. “Oversaw” meant she cast a disapproving eye at the maid and barked out an occasional reprimand. “Elizabeth and Anne never had so much trouble conversing.”
Olivia rolled her eyes when her mother wasn’t looking. “Elizabeth might not have, but men were put off by Anne’s forthrightness.”
Her mother gave an airy laugh. “You’re exaggerating. Anne married an earl.”
Was her mother’s memory damaged? “Because he liked her forthrightness.”
“Nonsense. Anne simply learned how to charm a man,” Her mother turned away from the unpacking to fix her with a glare. “I never would have dreamed I’d have two daughters married to earls. Now it is your time, and I do hope you won’t fail me.”
Olivia didn’t point out that Elizabeth was no longer married to an earl but a bookseller. Her mother liked to forget that, as well.
“Now, come,” her mother commanded, yanking Olivia’s book out of her hands as soon as she picked it up. “We can’t get you married if you hide away and read.”
She said “read” like it was a curse word. Olivia glanced back once, longingly, at the novel on the bed, then put her head down and followed her mother.
Olivia tugged at the pink ribbons on her bonnet as she watched some of the other guests participate in a game of lawn bowls. At the moment, her mother was too busy gossiping with the hostess to notice she had chosen to remain on the sidelines instead of throwing herself into the midst of the game.
Lord Ashworth had partnered with Lady Sarah—the beautiful, spoiled daughter of an earl—and they appeared to be having a delightful time marked by lots of smiling and giggles. Olivia wasn’t certain that spoke well of Ashworth, unless Lady Sarah was only charming around young, eligible men.
It was a definite possibility.
Olivia finally yanked off her bonnet. Something about the lining made her forehead itch. She was giving her head a vigorous scratching when a deep, male voice spoke right beside her ear.
“What have I missed?”
Taken off guard, she yelped and hopped back a step, then nearly overturned. Her arms windmilled out to save her balance, and she hit her companion hard across the chest. He gave a muffled grunt.
She wanted to die from embarrassment right there. She forced herself to turn and look at him, and that made things even worse.
Standing beside her was Mr. Cross, one of the most handsome men she’d ever seen. His dark golden hair was cut a little shorter than the current style and was downright tame compared to Lord Ashworth’s curls, but it still managed to look dashing. His eyes were a warm brown, his mouth wide, his chin strong and square.
She’d met him during the last London Season. She doubted he remembered her since she’d barely spoken in his presence before he’d been pulled away by someone else.
He didn’t have the reputation of a rake—yet—but it was said he was so charming and unattainable that he broke hearts wherever he went. He had made the mistake—or was it a devious tactic?—of saying to one of the matrons that, as he had a secure living and no desire for a title, he would only marry for true love. The matron had told everyone, and the ladies of the season had looked upon him as a sort of Golden Fleece. They all wanted him desperately. They all tried, and failed, to win his affection.
When he bowed and muttered Olivia’s name in greeting, proving that, through some fluke, he remembered her even though she’d spoken a total of four words to him, she backed away almost unconsciously. She was certainly not interested in having her heart broken.
“Forgive me,” she said with a curtsy, looking somewhere in the vicinity of his cravat.
“I…” Yes, she was skittish, but he really shouldn’t be going around whispering in people’s ears. “You rather sneaked up on me.” An accusatory note rang in her voice.
“Yes, I suppose I did. I apologize,” he said lightly, as though he didn’t really see what all the fuss was about. “Shall we join the game? I would be delighted to have you as a partner.”
She stopped twisting her bonnet in her hands. She glanced up at him, puzzled and a bit irritated. She had been enjoying her moment of solitude. It was probably one of the few she would receive over the next two weeks. “I’m not playing.”
“You would deprive the other guests of the pleasure of your company?”
Was he simply lacking his legendary charm today, or did the women in London have a very different idea of charm than she did? Maybe they swooned over his good looks and called that “charming.”
“I’m not certain how pleasurable my company is.” She hoped he would take the hint. She didn’t think she could muster the nerve to tell him she preferred to be alone.
He didn’t move.
“I’ve injured myself!” she blurted out. “I can only limp around, and I didn’t want to slow the game.” She nearly winced at the ridiculous lie. If she were more like Anne, she would simply tell him she didn’t want his company. If she were more like Elizabeth, she would be able to charm him and gently steer the conversation until he left.
But she was only herself, so she settled for the ease of lying, even though she was quite certain she didn’t do it well.
His eyes swept over her entire body, causing a strange tingling along her spine, and then narrowed. He didn’t believe her. “I see. I could escort you to the house.”
“No, I like the sunshine.” She mustered a smile.
“I see,” he repeated. “At least let me fetch you a chair. Should you really be putting weight on an injured limb?” he asked, all innocence and concern.
She glanced down. “I suppose not.”
He strode away with long, confident strides and returned with a chair in tow. “Here you are.”
“Thank you.” She lowered herself gingerly, as she assumed one would do if one had, indeed, hurt one’s leg.
“Olivia!” her mother shrieked, rushing toward her. She stopped when she noticed Olivia was with a man. Stopped in her tracks, really. It was rather unprecedented. She gave a graceful curtsey as Mr. Cross bowed.
But it seemed that all the earls in the family had caused her mother to aim high, even for her youngest, most hopeless daughter. “Why aren’t you playing lawn bowls with Lord Ashworth?” she leaned down and hissed in Olivia’s ear. So loudly there was no doubt Mr. Cross could still hear the conversation.
“I’ve injured myself,” Olivia muttered.
“Since when? All you’ve done is walk from the house!”
“There was a hole in the yard,” she said. “I stepped right into it. They must have moles tearing up the place.”
“Moles!” Her mother shrieked, then lowered her voice. “For God’s sake, it’s almost as insulting as ghosts.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Olivia saw Mr. Cross tilt his head curiously. And she could have almost sworn she saw the flash of a smirk.
How nice that he found them entertaining. She felt no such thing.
Miss Ashworth approached them before Olivia could respond. “Lady Middleton, it completely slipped my mind. My brother wanted me to ask your advice on the chairs in the drawing room.”
Her mother liked it when people asked her for advice, she was so certain of her own opinion. She rushed away without a backward glance.
But Olivia had been mistaken if she’d thought she was safe. Mr. Cross placed his hand on the back of her chair as he leaned down to speak to her. It made her feel rather crowded and warm. “I’ve been to Eastwold Abbey many times and I’ve never spotted any mole hills. If you are going to continue lying, Miss Middleton, I would suggest you practice.”
Then he straightened, flashed her a dazzling smile, and strode out to join the game of lawn bowls.
She sat there, stunned.
Content Copyright Lily Maxton