Marrywell, England, 1800
“I have slain the dragon!” Phineas Radford cried triumphantly from the small courtyard below the castle.
Leah Webster leaned out the arched opening from the top of the tower, which was just one story off the ground because their castle was only a folly. “Are you coming to rescue me?”
“Yes, fair maiden. Hold!” Phin brandished his wooden sword. At age eight, he was tall for his age, but the weapon was still nearly as long as his arm. Lowering the blade, he entered the castle.
Turning from the window, Leah heard his feet on the stairs. A moment later, he emerged into the small tower room. “Princess Leah!”
“My knight! Where is the corpse of the hideous dragon?”
Phin went to the window from which she’d just turned. “Yonder.”
Leah joined him and looked out into the botanical gardens where the folly was situated, rather, the castle’s extensive parkland. They were pretending, after all.
“If you squint, you can make out his scales as well as the swath of scorched earth.”
She narrowed her eyes, then cast a glance toward Phin. The breeze from the opening rustled his auburn hair. Looking at him made her feel funny inside. Warm and ticklish. Giddy. She loved those feelings. That was probably why she liked spending so much time with him. He was also excellent at make-believe, and he always made her laugh.
“Yes, I see it!” she said. “Except…is that an egg?” She pointed out the window.
Phin exhaled and swung toward her. “I can’t kill a baby dragon. Even if it isn’t real.”
Putting her hand to her mouth, Leah giggled. “I’m sorry. There isn’t really an egg. It was just a rock.”
He looked back out the opening and nodded. “Yes, ’tis a rock!” Then he grinned at her, and they both dissolved into laughter.
How she loved the time she spent with Phin, whether it was here, somewhere else in the gardens, or at his home, Radford Grange, which bordered the gardens because his family cared for them. His grandfather and father were so kind and welcoming to her. It was far better than being at home.
No, she didn’t want to think about home, especially her mother. She’d be angry that Leah had been gone so long. She’d rail that Leah was neglecting her chores, then she’d threaten to withhold dinner. Or worse. Leah prayed the woman would be too busy to notice her absence. Managing their household with her older brother and two older sisters, as well as their father, meant she didn’t always have time to terrorize Leah.
Shoving the awful thoughts away, Leah focused on Phin—his laugh, his bright smile, the way his auburn lashes fanned above his hazel eyes that were a touch more green than brown. “What shall we do next?” she asked, eager to stay in this moment, despite the nagging fear that she would be missed.
Leah froze, but only for a moment. Then she quickly stepped back from the window.
“Leah!” Her brother’s voice sounded again as he drew closer to the folly.
Phin reached for Leah’s hand and gave her a squeeze. His eyes met hers as he mouthed, trust me.
Leaning his sword against the wall beneath the opening, Phin stuck his head out. “Barn, we’re up here doing some cleaning for my grandfather.”
Leah didn’t dare move toward the window. In fact, she moved as far away as possible, pressing herself against the cool stone wall at the back of the room. She held her breath waiting for Barnabas’s response. Six years older than Leah’s nine years, he often did his mother’s bidding with regard to Leah, which usually meant looking for her when she disappeared into the botanical gardens when her chores were finished.
“Well, she needs to come home now,” Barn said, sounding much closer, as if he’d entered the castle’s courtyard where Phin had stood a few minutes earlier.
“Of course. Let me just give her the coin Grandpapa promised her. One moment.”
Helping the elder Mr. Radford, who was about as revered a person in Marrywell as one could ever hope to be, was something even Leah’s mother had to allow. And for Leah to be paid for something…well, nothing delighted her mother more than that. Because, of course, she took the money.
As Phin came toward Leah, he plucked a coin from his pocket. “Take this.”
“You don’t have to,” Leah whispered.
“Don’t argue.” He closed her hand around it.
Leah stared at him, so grateful for his kindness and his friendship. Her stomach did that silly flip it made sometimes when she stood this close to him. He smelled of grass and roses from his grandfather’s greenhouse and carefree joy. It was a heady scent.
“Thank you.” Impulsively, she stood on her toes, for even though he was a year younger, he had two inches on her, to press a kiss to his cheek.
But he turned his head, and her lips met his. She ought to have pulled away in shock, but there was a stone wall behind her. Even if there hadn’t been, she didn’t want to pull away. She wanted to savor the softness of his lips and the safety that being in his presence gave her.
At last, he lifted his head. “Sorry.”
Before she could respond, her brother yelled her name once more. Leah clutched the coin and dashed down the stairs and out into the courtyard where Barn stood with his hands on his hips.
She didn’t hear anything he said to her as they walked home. He could have said she was going to be sent to her room without supper. For a week. Or that she’d have extra chores for a month. He could even have told her she was going to be shipped to Australia, and she wouldn’t have cared.
Because the only thing that mattered was Phineas Radford and the fact that she loved him. And that she would love him until the day she died.
Late April 1817
As the coach turned onto the High Street, Leah Webster pressed her nose to the window. She’d been eager to return for one reason—rather, one person—but now that she was here, she found she was more excited than she realized. Seeing the familiar buildings provoked a surprising sense of nostalgia, and not just for the boy she’d left behind.
“My goodness, Miss Webster, you look as if you might leap from the coach.” The crisp observation came from Mrs. Dunhill, friend of Mrs. Selkirk, who was mother to Genevieve, to whom Leah was paid companion.
Schooling her features, Leah settled back against the squab. She said nothing in response to Mrs. Dunhill’s sarcastic comment.
“She’s happy to be home, I imagine,” Genevieve said from beside Leah. “Can you blame her? I don’t think she’s been back in a very long time.” She turned her head toward Leah. “A decade, was it?”
“Seven years.” Leah had mentioned that more than once, but Genevieve rarely recalled details and certainly not ones that Leah shared.
“Not so bad, then,” Mrs. Dunhill said with a sniff, as if there were a vast difference between seven and ten.
It wasn’t actually bad. Leah had left Marrywell with great enthusiasm for the adventures ahead of her. Her time with her previous employer, Lady Norcott, had been wonderful. The woman’s passing nearly a year ago after a short illness had been somewhat shocking, and Leah had been sure she would need to return to Marrywell. However, Lady Norcott, bless her, had taken care of Leah, explicitly naming her to become companion to her great-niece, Miss Genevieve Selkirk.
“Seven years is a long time,” Mrs. Selkirk said. “You must have missed it, since you suggested Genevieve attend this matchmaking festival.”
Leah had definitely missed the town and some of the people—notably two of her friends from childhood. But she’d been relieved to be free of her family.
Offering a slight smile, she said, “I’m looking forward to the festival. You’ll find it’s quite extraordinary.”
Mrs. Selkirk gave Leah a stern look. “Just so long as you remember that your primary purpose is still my daughter. Our goal in attending this festival is to see her wed to the most eligible bachelor in attendance.”
In this case, “eligible” meant best placed. She hoped for a title for Genevieve, who’d failed to attract any serious attention last Season. This Season had been marginally better, but there were still no offers. Leah couldn’t attest to how Genevieve was received in Society because she rarely accompanied the young woman to any events. As companion, her duties were to provide companionship, primarily at their home, and occasionally join Genevieve on errands. This situation did allow Leah to visit her favorite parks, gardens, and lending libraries more often than if her position were more demanding.
At this point, it seemed Mrs. Selkirk would now be satisfied with a gentleman who possessed an excellent pedigree and admirable social standing. Genevieve never disclosed what would satisfy her, let alone make her happy.
“There is no better place for Genevieve to find someone than the Marrywell May Day Matchmaking Festival,” Leah said with a reassuring nod.
Mrs. Selkirk’s blue eyes narrowed. “I hope so, since this entire endeavor was your suggestion. If your goal was merely to return home, I shall be incredibly disappointed and may need to rethink your employment.”
“Mama, you’re being too harsh,” Genevieve said. She turned her head toward Leah. “You’ve nothing to worry about.”
Leah didn’t think so either since Mrs. Selkirk had threatened that several times, and Leah’s employment had so far remained secure. Furthermore, Genevieve never failed to go on about how much she needed Leah—for precisely what, Leah wasn’t sure.
“Let us brighten the mood,” Mrs. Dunhill said. “We’ve two matches to make during this festival.” She was referring to herself as well as Genevieve. A widow with diminishing means, Mrs. Dunhill was eager to find a new, hopefully wealthy, husband.
Leah knew that some of the matches made during the festival were between widows and widowers, but the vast majority were young couples seeking love. There was something magical about the Marrywell May Day Matchmaking Festival. The oldest of its kind in all England, the festival was a time of joy, celebration, and of course many marital unions.
Perhaps that was the sense of nostalgia Leah was feeling. The festival was a special time, even when one wasn’t looking for love. As a child, she’d spent many festival days running about the botanical gardens with her friend Sadie. Goodness, Sadie was now married to a duke, matched at last year’s festival. And she was this year’s May Queen. Leah could hardly wait to see her. They’d consistently corresponded since Leah had left Marrywell and had finally met—once—last June after Sadie had arrived in London with her new husband.
But Sadie wasn’t the person Leah most wanted to encounter. That would be Phin. Would he be as happy to see her as she would be to see him?
The coach pulled into the yard of the oldest lodging in Marrywell, the New Inn. Built in 1515, if the etching in the cornerstone were to be believed, it was also the largest inn. It would be filled to the rafters during the festival. The May King and Queen typically lodged there, but Sadie would be staying with her family at Fieldstone, her father’s estate, along with her husband and newborn son.
They descended from the coach, Leah exiting last. She arched her back in a stretch as she stepped onto the ground. The wood façade of the inn greeted them, rising four stories with a half dozen dormered windows across the top.
Mr. Parker, the innkeeper, whom Leah had known all her life, came from the door with a wide grin. “Well, if it isn’t Miss Leah Webster!” He stopped short. “Unless you’ve gone and got yourself married by now.” He gave her a questioning look.
He meant nothing by the words, but at twenty-six, Leah knew she was fully on the shelf. Not that she’d ever truly had any expectation of marrying. Youthful dreams didn’t signify. Her mother had certainly never expected it either, always saying that Leah was too homely and too stupid for anyone to want to wed her. Her sisters, however, were beautiful and charming, and they were both married, matched at successive festivals. They also lived far from Marrywell.
Leah might have been able to wed someone from Marrywell, but her parents didn’t allow her to be courted. Rather, her mother didn’t. Her father simply went along with whatever his wife said. So Leah’s options had been to stay at home as a spinster—which hadn’t truly been an option at all—or find employment. She’d been lucky enough to do the latter.
Scooped up by Lady Norcott, the wife of a deceased baronet with no children of her own, as she’d passed through Marrywell during the summer seven years ago, Leah had found fortune as the woman’s companion. Leah had never imagined a life in London, where she’d be able to learn and experience things that she would never have been able to in Marrywell.
Belatedly, Leah realized she’d gone down quite a rabbit hole with her thoughts. “Pardon me, Mr. Parker, I was just reflecting on how long it’s been since I was here. No, I am not wed, nor am I suffering for it, as you can see. You look well. I imagine you are quite busy with preparations for the festival.”
“Yes, yes, as you well know! Introduce me to your…friends, and I’ll take you inside where Mrs. Parker will be delighted to see you.” He lowered his voice to add, “She’s got plenty of spice cakes.”
Leah had forgotten about Mrs. Parker’s spice cakes. How was that possible considering how many Leah had devoured in her youth?
“We are not Miss Webster’s friends,” Mrs. Selkirk said with a haughtiness that would likely perturb the easygoing innkeeper. “I am her employer. She is companion to my daughter.” Mrs. Selkirk gestured to Genevieve, who, with her dark hair and apple-kissed ivory cheeks, was prettier than Leah could ever hope to be. Her lips were an alluring pink bow, her eyes sparkling cerulean, and her nose a perfect button. “Allow me to present Miss Genevieve Selkirk,” Mrs. Selkirk continued. “She is likely to be one of the most sought-after potential brides at the festival.”
“Huh.” Mr. Parker sounded completely unimpressed, and Leah suppressed a smile. “Good for her, then. Welcome to Marrywell.”
“And this is my friend, Mrs. Dunhill,” Mrs. Selkirk added. “I do hope you’ve assigned us your best accommodations.”
Mr. Parker appeared nonplussed. “I, ah, well, yes. All our accommodations are excellent. I hope that you will find them so anyway. Come, let us move inside.”
Leah waited for the other ladies to precede her and took the opportunity to turn in a slow circle, her gaze moving over the inn, the stables, the High Street beyond the yard. She inhaled the familiar scent of spring grass which would always remind her of the botanical gardens, perhaps her favorite place in all the world. Because that was where she’d met Phin, and they belonged to his family—to him now.
Encompassing four hundred hectares, the gardens were located at the end of the High Street. Many of the matchmaking festival events would take place there—a risk in England in the spring. Leah had many memories of rain, cold, and wind.
It felt nice to be back. Nicer than she’d imagined. And she hadn’t even seen Phin yet.
Leah hastened into the inn and was immediately embraced by the low ceiling of the common room and the large, welcoming fire burning in the huge hearth on the opposite wall. She saw that Mrs. Parker was greeting the others, and then the innkeeper’s wife’s attention landed on Leah.
“Leah, my girl!” Mrs. Parker rushed forward and gave Leah an actual embrace.
Leah could do nothing but hug her back, nor did she want to do anything else. She closed her eyes briefly, thinking that Mrs. Parker smelled of mace and cinnamon, just like her spice cake that Leah had inexplicably forgotten.
Mrs. Parker stood back, her hands on Leah’s shoulders. “Let me look at you. My goodness, you’ve grown into a beauty.”
That wasn’t true, but Leah had always appreciated Mrs. Parker’s kindness. In her middle fifties, she was a few years older than Leah’s own mother and possessed a warm smile and cheery disposition that Leah’s mother did not.
“How are you, Mrs. Parker? It’s lovely to see you.”
“Same as always, my dear.” She took her hands from Leah. “Are you staying here, or will you be going to Black Sheep Farm?”
“Here.” Leah had no plan to visit her family’s farm. Named for its fertile land that had become decidedly less fertile over the past two hundred years and the ever-present sheep herd, Black Sheep Farm was where her parents and older brother, along with his wife and children, lived.
Mrs. Selkirk inserted herself into their conversation. “As my daughter’s companion, Miss Webster will sleep on the extra cot in Miss Selkirk’s room, which adjoins ours, or so I am expecting.”
“That’s precisely what we have for you,” Mr. Parker said kindly. “There is a cozy sitting room between your chambers. It should suit you nicely.”
Nodding with approval, Mrs. Selkirk glanced about the common room. “Marvelous.”
“I can show you there now, or perhaps you’d rather take tea here in the common room while your things are delivered to your suite.” Mrs. Parker leaned close to Leah. “I’ll make sure your bed is nice and cozy,” she whispered.
“Thank you,” Leah murmured, moved by the woman’s concern.
“We’ll take tea,” Mrs. Selkirk responded without soliciting input from anyone else. “That will allow our maid to unpack our belongings.” They’d brought Hardy, the maid who assisted both Mrs. Selkirk and her daughter. Leah found it slightly odd that an heiress like Genevieve didn’t have her own maid, but then, by all accounts, the Selkirks preferred to live somewhat frugally.
Leah desperately wanted to stretch her legs after the long coach ride. Or perhaps she was just eager to see the botanical gardens. Most accurately, she hoped to encounter a particular someone there, though it was unlikely. “Would you mind if I take a walk?” Leah asked. “The botanical gardens are spectacular.” She realized she should invite them. “You should all join me.” Hopefully, they wouldn’t, and since Genevieve generally disliked being outside, that was more than a distinct possibility.
All three women looked at her as if she’d suggested they walk back to London. As expected, Mrs. Selkirk replied for everyone. “We prefer to take our refreshment, but you may go for a short walk.” She gave Leah a real smile, which was unusual, and which spoke the truth—Mrs. Selkirk was delighted to be rid of Leah if even for a brief time.
“Thank you. I’ll be back before too long.”
Before Leah turned back toward the door, Mrs. Parker promised to have a few spice cakes waiting in her room.
“You are too kind,” Leah said softly before taking her leave.
The walk along the High Street to the gardens took almost no time at all, but Leah relished every moment, and not just because she was free of the Selkirks. She enjoyed the familiar sights and waved at a few people she knew and who recognized her. Most importantly, the gardens were just ahead.
As she carefully crossed Garden Street to the main gate, she lifted her gaze to the wrought iron arch, which had been installed when she was very young—an occasion she didn’t recall but had heard about. The sign hanging from the center emblazoned with “Marrywell Botanical Gardens” had been painted since she was last here.
The day was cloudy, but the sun kept trying to peek through here and there. The air was mild, the breeze light or nonexistent. It was a near perfect spring day, and as much as Leah adored Hyde Park, there was nowhere else she would rather have been than right here in these botanical gardens. There was just one thing—one person—missing.
As Leah walked toward the dais, which was the focal point of the matchmaking festival and where her friend Queen Sadie of the May would announce her choices for the seven maidens fair on the first night, she imagined years gone by. Pausing on the path, Leah closed her eyes for a long moment, allowing memories of music and laughter to wash over her.
Leah’s eyes flew open, and she instantly fixed on the large figure approaching her. Tall, handsome, his dark red hair a trifle too long, Phin looked nearly exactly as she remembered him. No, that wasn’t true. When she’d left, he’d been a boy of eighteen, his face rounder, his body lankier. Now, his shoulders were wider, his frame larger, and his features were more angular, his chin somehow more square.
Now that he was here, the day was truly perfect.Return to Romancing the Heiress