Sadie Campion marched across the damp ground after dropping a loaf of Mrs. Rowell’s fresh bread at Sadie’s eldest brother’s cottage. He hadn’t been at home—he was out in the sheep pasture with their father—and his wife had been chasing their three-year-old son around the parlor while clutching the one-year-old boy on her hip. That had prompted Sadie to take her youngest nephew and amuse him for a good half hour so his mother could have a respite. But now Sadie was behind in her regimen for the day.
Quickening her pace, she glanced up at the gray sky. “Don’t you rain again. Or at least do me the courtesy of waiting until after I clean the front door. I’d rather not have to add changing clothes to my list of things to do.”
Sadie strode to the front of the house where she’d placed the broom and ladder that she planned to use outside the door. When she reached the porch, she put her basket down and set the ladder in place. She plucked up the broom and climbed the ladder, frowning at the cobwebs that had been there for too long now. But what was she to do? There simply wasn’t enough time in the day for her to complete everything that needed to be done.
Though her father would balk and say he didn’t want to spend the money, Sadie needed to talk to him about hiring at least one more person to help. It didn’t have to be a housekeeper, though that would be nice, just someone who could take on a variety of tasks that never seemed to be completed because there weren’t enough people at Fieldstone to do everything.
Working quickly—both because she was behind, and she was now slightly irritated by her father’s obliviousness to how hard she worked—she didn’t look to see if there was anything living in the webs. So when the spider landed on her forehead, she yelped. She also let go of the ladder and lost her balance, falling backward.
Panic flashed through her. She didn’t have time to be hurt!
Instead of hitting the ground, she landed on…someone. The large figure didn’t quite catch her, but his strong arms came around her. “Careful,” a masculine voice murmured near her ear.
His deep tone and solid form against her back soothed her. She inhaled his sandalwood scent and felt a stirring of awareness as well as curiosity. This was obviously not one of her brothers or her father. Nor was it their groom or the land manager. Who, then, was it?
Sadie turned to see an astonishingly handsome gentleman she’d never clapped eyes on before. Tall and white with deep-set eyes the color of walnuts and lips that were surely too full for a man, he regarded her with concern. His features were strong and patrician, with a prominent brow and a square jaw, and he looked to be about thirty years of age. He wore a stylish hat, but she could just make out blond hair beneath it.
“Why on earth are you climbing a ladder without assistance?” he asked, sounding a trifle annoyed as his brows pitched down over his eyes. “What if I hadn’t been here to catch you?” His presumptuous questions dispelled the enchantment that had come over her.
Sadie took a step back, clutching the broom. The gentleman wasn’t alone. There were two other men standing just beyond him. One, who was a few years older than the rude Adonis, cradled his left arm and wore a pained expression. He possessed a snub nose and thick, dark brows. The other man was perhaps twenty years older than the man who’d caught Sadie. He had a long nose and a sharp chin. His cravat was perhaps the most intricately tied neckcloth Sadie had ever seen.
“Who are you, and why are you here?” Sadie asked pertly, even as her body still tingled from where her body had touched his.
“He is the Duke of Lawford, and you should mind your tone,” the older man answered, his dark gray brows pitched into an angry V.
The blond man shot a look toward the older man before addressing Sadie. “Our coach has lost a wheel. My coachman has injured his arm, and my valet knocked his head.”
Sadie gasped. “You lost a wheel? Goodness, you are all lucky you weren’t more seriously injured.”
“I’m fine,” the older man insisted as he continued to glower at Sadie. She looked back toward the “duke.” Was he really a duke? Perhaps they weren’t more badly hurt because the accident had never happened. Indeed, this entire scenario seemed highly unlikely, and it would be just like her brothers to play a joke like this. Sadie narrowed one eye at Adonis. “How do I know you’re a duke? And did you really suffer a mishap?”
“Of all the impertinence!” the older man snapped, his eyes flashing in outrage.
The supposed duke exhaled. “If it’s not too much trouble, Mrs…?”
The duke’s eyes widened slightly as if he found her unmarried state surprising. Perhaps he did. As a woman of twenty-four, she was practically on the shelf.
“Miss Campion, I am indeed the Duke of Lawford. If it’s not too much trouble, might we borrow a vehicle to continue to the nearest town so we may find a physician and someone to repair my coach?” the duke asked.
Oh dear, it sounded as if he had no idea where they were. Or when.
“Ah, why don’t you come inside?” Sadie said, summoning a smile as she was about to ruin their day even more.
“I don’t wish to trouble your employer,” the duke said smoothly.
Her…what? He likely thought she was a maid. Or the housekeeper—perhaps that was why “Miss” instead of “Mrs.” had surprised him. As housekeeper, she would be Mrs. Campion, whether she was married or not. Sadie glanced down at the mud on her hem from walking across the estate earlier and didn’t have to touch her head to know that a great many curls had escaped her chignon. It was more than believable that she was an employee at Fieldstone instead of the daughter of the owner.
She didn’t take the time to disabuse the duke of his assumption. “You really need to come inside…to sort things out. Please allow me to offer you some refreshment, and I’ll send for the doctor. Marrywell isn’t two miles down the road.” She gestured west with the broom.
“Marrywell? I am not familiar with it,” the duke said with authority. “Perhaps someone can drive us into town to see the doctor? Then I can hire a coach to continue driving us to our destination.”
The man was likely used to getting his way. She gave him a bland smile. “If you’ll just come inside, I’ll be happy to explain why none of that will be possible, unfortunately.”
The duke blinked, and his blond brows arched. “I beg your pardon?”
“You’ve arrived on the first day of the Marrywell May Day Matchmaking Festival. No one is available for hire to drive you anywhere, and I daresay there won’t be anyone to repair your coach. Not until the festival concludes. In a week. We could take all of you to town in our, ah, carriage or the much sturdier cart, however I think you will be more comfortable waiting here while the doctor is alerted to your needs.”
The older man—the valet, Sadie deduced—stepped forward. “That is unacceptable. This is the Duke of Lawford.”
Goodness, did the man think the duke was some sort of deity?
Sadie tried one last time. “Please come inside, at the very least so your coachman can rest.”
The duke’s gaze flicked toward the house, a sprawling, several-times-expanded farmhouse that lacked a uniform style. One might call it “charming” or “quaint.” She could only imagine what an esteemed peer thought of it.
“It sounds as if we’ll need to secure lodging,” the duke said with a slight frown.
Sadie gave him a sympathetic look. “I’m afraid that won’t be possible either. Every inn within a ten-mile radius will be booked to the rafters for the festival. Please, just come inside. We can discuss your options while your coachman rests.”
The duke turned his head to the man holding his arm. “Come, Holden, let’s get you some tea.”
“Thank you, Your Grace.” The coachman winced as he moved forward, and Sadie noticed he was also limping.
Sadie hastened to move the ladder. While she set the broom down first, however, the duke picked up the ladder and moved it out of the way of the door.
“Thank you,” she murmured, adding, “Your Grace.” She picked up her basket and opened the door, gesturing for all three men to go inside.
Walking into the entrance hall, she led them on through the staircase hall into the parlor. She’d never been embarrassed of her home, and she still wasn’t, but she had to think their modest domicile was not up to ducal standards. The furniture was well cared for, but certainly not new, and the room, as a whole, didn’t pretend to possess any sense of style.
Sadie held out her hand. “Please sit wherever you’d like. I will have our groom run into town to fetch Dr. Bigby.”
The coachman sat carefully in a chair and the valet on the settee while the duke remained standing. “Your groom?” Lawford asked. “Who are you exactly?”
Before she could respond, her father and eldest brother, Esmond, burst in.
“Damn me, there’s a wrecked coach on the road!” Esmond blinked his jewel-green eyes at the three visitors.
Sadie’s father, Winchell Campion, glanced toward the duke and his men, his brown gaze cautious and perhaps even judgmental. “Sadie, who are these gentlemen?”
“Father, Esmond, allow me to present His Grace, the Duke of Lawford. That is his coach on the road.”
The duke’s eyes narrowed slightly as he regarded Sadie with a sudden blatant curiosity. “Your father owns this estate?”
Sadie gestured to her father and then her brother. “Yes, this is Winchell Campion, owner of Fieldstone and squire. This is my eldest brother, Esmond.”
“Your wheel came clean off!” Esmond said excitedly, sweeping off his hat to reveal his dark brown curls. “I bet that scared the piss out of you!” He laughed jovially, and Sadie stared at him.
Their father jabbed an elbow into Esmond’s side. “That is no way to greet a duke. Or anyone else, for that matter.”
Esmond straightened and schooled his features into a more serious expression. It was an astonishing transformation and one that typically only their dear departed mother or Esmond’s wife could provoke. “Welcome, Duke,” he said.
“It’s ‘Your Grace,’” Sadie said softly. “Father, we need to fetch Dr. Bigby. The coachman’s arm is injured, and the valet hit his head.”
The duke pivoted toward her father. “I said we could call on the doctor in town since we have to find lodging. However, your daughter has indicated this will not be possible.”
“No, it will not,” her father said with a laugh. “There’s nary a room between here and Winchester.”
“Then we’ll hire a coach to drive us to our destination,” the duke said, as if Sadie hadn’t already explained that wouldn’t be possible. Did he not believe her?
“I told him that wouldn’t work either.” Sadie didn’t bother hiding her exasperation.
“Listen to Sadie,” her father said. “She knows what’s what, and you won’t find a more clever girl.”
“She mentioned you have a carriage. I would pay you handsomely if we could borrow it. I’ll have it returned as soon as possible.”
Sadie’s father laughed. “That carriage barely makes it to Marrywell and back. No, no, I’m afraid I couldn’t allow you to risk yourselves, especially not after the bad luck you’ve already experienced. Indeed, there’s no vehicle at Fieldstone that will suffice. Do not despair, however! You’ll stay here. We’ve plenty of room, especially since Philip wed a few months ago.” He referred to Sadie’s other older brother, who, like Esmond, lived in a cottage on the estate.
“We couldn’t impose,” the duke said tightly.
Her father walked to him and clapped him on the shoulder, oblivious to the duke’s eyes subtly rounding. “You must, and that’s all there is to it. Your coach is in dire need of repair, and you won’t find anyone to fix it until after the festival. Is your, er, wife with you?”
The duke’s aristocratic jaw clenched as he looked down his nose at Sadie’s shorter father. “I do not have a duchess. When, pray tell, will the festival conclude?”
Sadie had also told him that detail. Had he heard nothing she’d said? She pursed her lips at him in annoyance.
“In a week.” Sadie’s father looked positively delighted.
“That is unacceptable!” the valet snapped.
“It is unfortunate,” the duke murmured.
While Sadie’s father might be pleased to host the duke, Sadie found him arrogant. As well as attractive. No! That didn’t signify. “Can’t Jarvis repair the coach?” she asked. Jarvis was their retired groom and coachman. He lived in a small cottage on the estate.
“We can’t ask him to do that, not with his arthritic hands,” her father protested.
“Perhaps he could advise Esmond and Philip, and they could do the actual work,” Sadie suggested. “I’m sure Adam and Richard could help too.” Those were her younger unmarried brothers.
“I can direct them,” Holden said. “Can’t do much with my arm like this, but mayhap tomorrow, I can instruct them on how to repair the coach.” He shifted in the chair and promptly grimaced. Sadie felt certain he would hurt even more tomorrow and would need to rest.
“Yes,” the valet said quickly. “We must do whatever is necessary to see His Grace on his way at the earliest possible moment.”
“Yates, everyone will do their best, but our accident has occurred at an inopportune time,” the duke said to the older man, sounding beleaguered. Lawford then shifted his gaze to Sadie. “I would appreciate if you could enlist whomever you can to work with Holden to complete the repair. I’ll pay you for the work and whatever you need.” The duke looked to his coachman. “I can help you if necessary.”
Yates appeared horrified. “You cannot perform manual labor. They must have a coach we can borrow,” he insisted.
Lawford swung his gaze back to Sadie’s father, but it was Sadie who responded. “We do not have a vehicle sufficient for your needs. Our coach is old and…well, it’s inadequate for long trips.” Decrepit was the best description, but Sadie wasn’t going to say that.
The valet appeared thoroughly outraged. “But His Grace has important business that he must attend to.”
Yes, well, Sadie needed to not have her orderly life interrupted either. She thought of all the tasks that weren’t getting done while she dealt with this crisis. And would continue to deal with if they hosted a very important guest for a week. Not to mention how their arrival would affect her plans to attend the matchmaking festival. The welcome reception was that very afternoon and set the stage for the entire weeklong event. All young ladies seeking to be matched attended the reception, as well as the May Queen, who chose seven of those ladies to be maidens fair. The queen and her court were the focal point of the festival, and being a maiden fair meant almost certain betrothal by the end of the festival. At twenty-four, Sadie was the same age as the oldest maiden fair ever chosen. This year was her last chance to find a husband—to have a home and family of her own.
Sadie needed to finish her chores so she could get ready. “I’m sure my brothers—with Holden’s or Jarvis’s instruction—can manage the repair, and you’ll be on to your destination in no time. Mayhap even tomorrow.”
Her father shook his head vigorously. “Impossible. Replacing the wheel will take a few days at least.”
Yates opened his mouth, but the duke held up his hand toward him while keeping his focus on Sadie. The older man pressed his lips together.
Their maid Mavis came in and glanced around the room with interest.
Sadie had meant to ring for her, but things had been too chaotic. She moved next to Mavis and spoke quietly. “This is the Duke of Lawford and his coachman and valet. Their coach lost its wheel, and they’ll be staying with us for…a while.”
“Bad luck for them unless they’re happy to attend a matchmaking festival.” Mavis grinned, then her gaze settled on the coachman. “I wouldn’t mind if he came along,” she whispered.
Ignoring the maid’s saucy observation, Sadie continued, “We need rooms prepared and a tea tray. Are you terribly busy helping Mrs. Rowell?” Their cook made the cakes for the welcome reception, and they were likely in the middle of boxing them all and loading the cart.
“Gwen and Bryan can keep helping her,” Mavis said, referring to the other maid, who primarily assisted Mrs. Rowell in the scullery, and Mrs. Rowell’s son, who was their groom.
Sadie grimaced. “We need Bryan to summon Dr. Bigby. His Grace’s coachman has hurt his arm, and his valet hit his head. But if you’re all leaving soon to set up at the reception, he can just take care of it then.”
Mavis shook her head. “I’ll send him now.”
“And Gwen should bring tea,” Sadie said.
“I’ll let her know.” Mavis waggled her dark brows. “Nothing like a bit of excitement on the first day of the festival!”
Sadie didn’t want this kind of excitement when she was trying to get her chores done so she could go to the reception!
Mavis looked to the coachman, who was wincing at that moment. “He looks to be in pain. I’ll get his room sorted straightaway.” She left the parlor with haste.
Sadie addressed their guests. “We’ll have tea in a few minutes, and hopefully, the doctor will arrive within the hour. Your rooms will be ready shortly. Is there anything else we can do for you at the moment?” Sadie was desperate to get on with the things she needed to complete before the reception, but wondered if she ought to stay and entertain the duke. She dearly hoped not.
“I don’t suppose you could see about removing my coach from the road?” the duke asked.
“Of course.” Sadie turned her head toward her father and brother. “Papa? Esmond?”
“Yes, yes,” Papa said. “Esmond! Fetch your brothers and move His Grace’s coach.”
Sadie should have realized her father wouldn’t help. He much preferred to direct, and even then, he was content to let Sadie manage nearly everything.
Before Esmond could go, the duke stopped him. “Mr. Campion, if you also wouldn’t mind bringing our cases to the house since we are to be…staying here, I would be most appreciative.”
Esmond nodded. “Right away, My Grace.”
Wincing inwardly, Sadie hoped the duke hadn’t noticed that her brother didn’t know the slightest thing about proper address. Sadie wasn’t sure she knew all the rules.
The coachman, Holden, stood abruptly. He clenched his jaw and clutched his injured arm more tightly. “I must retire. Doesn’t matter if a room’s prepared. Do you have something in the stables?”
“I’m afraid not,” Sadie replied, hating to see the man in pain. “You should be in the house anyway, so the doctor can examine your arm. We’ll have your room ready in no time. In fact, I’ll go see to it.” That would get her out of the parlor so she could finish her chores.
Pivoting, she left the room but was stopped in the staircase hall by her father, who’d followed her. “Where are you going?”
“To help Mavis prepare the rooms. That should have been obvious since I said as much.”
“I mean, why are you leaving the duke? You need to stay and entertain him.”
Sadie looked down at her attire and tucked a loose curl behind her ear. “Am I garbed for entertaining? No. I’m dressed for chores. Please let me complete them before I need to prepare for the reception.”
“You’re going?” he asked, surprised.
“I’m sure I mentioned it.”
“I would have remembered,” he said with misplaced certainty. “You’ve only attended—as a potential bride—once. I thought you never meant to return.”
That had been her intent after the disastrous first year she’d attended the festival as a potential bride. Sadie brushed the memory away. She couldn’t afford to let it occupy her mind when she was, in fact, hoping to use the festival for what it was intended—to find a husband. “I’m twenty-four, Father.” Sadie was out of time, which was why she needed to attend the reception this year. “Don’t you think it’s time I wed?”
“In fact, I do,” he said, shocking her. He’d never shown the slightest interest in her marital prospects. He was content to have her here managing Fieldstone’s household. “And we must thank divine intervention for the arrival of a duke on our doorstep.” He grinned, his dark eyes dancing with excitement.
What on earth was her father doing? “I would appreciate you not matching me with the duke. That isn’t even within the realm of possibility.”
“Why not?” he asked, sounding petulant. “You are pretty and capable. I wager you could manage his ducal estate with ease.”
She stared at him, wishing he expressed appreciation of her skills when there wasn’t a duke involved. “Then consider this: I don’t want to manage his ducal estate.” The idea of wedding a duke was preposterous. She wouldn’t know the first thing. “I’m going to the reception, where, if I am lucky, the queen will choose me to be crowned one of her seven maidens fair tonight.” That was Sadie’s best chance of making a match. The maidens fair were the most sought after by the bachelors seeking to wed.
Her father appeared nonplussed. “Why do you need to be a maiden fair or even attend the festival when you have a duke right here?”
Sadie exerted considerable effort not to roll her eyes. “I’m going to prepare the rooms, then do the rest of my chores. You entertain His Grace. And do not play matchmaker. He’s a duke and I’m a…I don’t know what I am,” she muttered.
She marched up the stairs and met Mavis in the corridor. The maid carried a stack of linens. “I was just taking these to His Grace’s chamber. Then I’m going to run up and take care of the room for the coachman and valet.”
“I can make the duke’s bed,” Sadie offered, taking the linens. “Put the coachman and valet in the room at the end of the corridor.” It was the largest on the second floor and had two beds. Only two rooms on that level were occupied—by Mavis and Gwen. Mrs. Rowell lived in a cottage on the estate with her husband and their son.
“That was my thought as well,” Mavis said. She inclined her head down the corridor. “The duke will be right across from you.”
Sadie briefly closed her eyes. “You aren’t going to play matchmaker like my father, are you?”
The maid, who was a few years older than Sadie and had been with the household for over five years, smiled as disbelief flickered in her gaze. “That’s surprising to hear, but I suppose it’s not every day a duke lands on one’s doorstep.”
“What is it about a duke that makes everyone atwitter?” Sadie mused.
“Come now, don’t tell me you don’t find him handsome,” Mavis said with a sly smile.
She did, in fact. And arrogant. Shaking her head, Sadie walked past Mavis feeling disgruntled.
Everyone viewed the arrival of a duke as some sort of splendid opportunity for Sadie, but to her, it was a massive imposition. She liked order and routine as she had a great many things to manage on a daily basis. This week, she’d planned on attending the entire festival for the first time in four years, and now that was in jeopardy because of the additional work having the duke here would bring.
She would just have to make do. This was her last chance to be chosen as a maiden fair, which would all but guarantee she would wed. Then, she could manage her own household and have her own family.
If not, she’d become the Spinster of Fieldstone. And life would pass her by.Return to Beguiling the Duke