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Authors: Elizabeth Rolls

A Shocking Proposition

BOOK: A Shocking Proposition
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Northumberland

Madeleine Kirkby must marry quickly—or lose her family estate to a distant cousin! And after a chance encounter with the man she lost her heart to years ago, she has the perfect prospective husband in mind.

Lord Ashton Ravensfell hasn’t seen Maddy since before he went to war, but it’s clear she has grown into a fetching young woman. So he’s shocked to receive a letter from her, proposing a marriage of convenience. They must be married before Twelfth Night! Ash cannot stand by and watch as Maddy and her tenants are turned out of their homes, and there’s no denying their obvious mutual desire has him more than looking forward to their wedding night....

A Shocking
Proposition

Elizabeth Rolls

Award-winning author
ELIZABETH
ROLLS
lives in the Adelaide Hills of South Australia
in an old stone farmhouse surrounded by apple, pear and cherry orchards, with
her husband, two sons, three dogs and two cats. She also has four alpacas and
three incredibly fat sheep, all gainfully employed as environmentally
sustainable lawnmowers. The kids are convinced that writing is a perfectly
normal profession, and she’s working on her husband. Elizabeth has what most
people would consider far too many books, and her tea and coffee habit is
legendary. She enjoys reading, walking, cooking and her husband’s gardening.
Elizabeth loves to hear from readers, and invites you to contact her via email
at
[email protected]
.

Dedication

For Michelle Styles, with grateful thanks for a wonderful few days exploring Northumberland.

Chapter One

The dusty clock on the chimneypiece ticked inexorably
as Madeleine Kirkby swallowed hard, gloved fingers tightened on her reticule.
“The court won’t rule in my favor? You are quite, quite sure, sir?” If Mr.
Blakiston was correct, then a little mental arithmetic would allow her to
calculate the exact seconds left for the clock to count down before she lost her
home.

The old lawyer, in his dusty black, sighed. “I am afraid not,
Miss Maddy. You see, it is not considered wise to leave property, an
estate
, in the control of an unmarried woman. In your
case, a young woman.”

“But I have been running the estate for
years!
” she said. “Even before my brother died.” Fury lashed her.
Stephen had left her to manage his inheritance while he disported himself in
London. Yet
she
was considered unfit to own
Haydon.

Mr. Blakiston’s mouth was grim, but he reached over the desk
and touched her hand gently. “I know, my dear, and I put all those arguments,
but your grandfather’s will was hard to argue against, and your
cousin—well.”

It didn’t need to be said. Edward, fifth Earl of Montfort, not
content with his own much larger holdings, was determined to wrest Haydon from
her hands. He and his father before him had bitterly resented that the third
earl had dowered his daughter, Maddy’s mother, with the old manor house and its
estate.

“I suppose he’d have the judges in his pocket,” she said
bitterly.

Mr. Blakiston, his ears a little pink, said carefully, “There
was some talk that you are taking in women of, er, dubious reputation, and that,
in short, there was some question as to your own, er, behavior.” By the end of
this Mr. Blakiston’s ears were glowing.

Outrage bubbled up. “I took in a dairymaid that my cousin had
ruined. Raped, in fact. She is fifteen! A child! And what of Edward’s refusal to
permit my marriage?”

As her nearest male relative, the moment Stephen had died,
Edward had petitioned the courts to name him her natural protector. He had no
power over Haydon—Mr. Blakiston was her trustee—but he had the power to block
any marriage until she turned twenty-one.

The lawyer cleared his throat. “As to that, apparently his
lordship has made you an offer of marriage himself?”

Maddy clenched her fists at the hopeful note in her lawyer’s
voice. “You think I should marry the sort of man who rapes the dairymaids? Yes,
he did offer. I refused and he made it clear he would not consent to any other
marriage for me! That if I did manage to get married without his consent he
would have the marriage set aside. In fact, he has made it utterly impossible
for me to fulfill the requirements of our grandfather’s will.” And not just by
refusing his consent. He had smirched her reputation at every turn, making her a
social outcast here in Newcastle. She doubted there was a gentleman the length
and breadth of Britain who would have her to wife now. Certainly not one
anywhere between the Tweed and the Tees. Not that she particularly wanted a
husband, unless it helped her to save Haydon.

“I’m sorry, Miss Maddy,” said the lawyer quietly. “But unless
you mounted a challenge in Chancery there is nothing you can do. His lordship
takes possession of Haydon on the seventh of January.”

She didn’t have the money to mount a case in Chancery and her
twenty-first birthday was not until Christmas Eve. Hardly sufficient time to
find a husband before Epiphany in the best of circumstances. And now, with
Christmas coming, she would have to tell her people that she had failed them.
That she had lost.

“They would not give me until Lady Day?” she suggested. The end
of March; that might be enough time...

Mr. Blakiston shook his head. “No, my dear. I did suggest that,
but it was not looked upon favorably.”

Maddy’s heart sank. Her home and her people were lost. She knew
what Edward would do. Kick everyone out, and demolish the manor for the dressed
stone. All he wanted was extra acres for his sheep. He didn’t care about the
people who would lose their livelihoods, families broken apart, children who
would end up in factories.

The office door opened and a clerk put his head in. “His
lordship is here, Mr. Blakiston, sir. Should I ask him to wait?”

Maddy went cold. “His lordship?” Surely—

Mr. Blakiston smiled reassuringly. “Lord Ashton Ravensfell, the
duke’s brother. He has some business with me. You are acquainted with him?”

“Yes.” Memory swept over her and her clenched fists relaxed.
“But I haven’t seen Lord Ashton for years. Not since he bought his commission.”
She had cried her eyes out when he had gone to war.

Mr. Blakiston looked at the waiting clerk and a considering
look came over his face. “Thank you, Felton. Show his lordship straight in.”

Biting her lip, Maddy accepted that as a hint. She had probably
wasted quite enough of the lawyer’s time asking him to tilt at windmills for
her. She rose. “I’ll bid you good day, sir. Thank you for—”

“No, no, Miss Maddy.” Hurriedly he rose and waved her back.
“There is no hurry. I am sure Lord Ashton will be happy to renew his
acquaintance with you.”

She flushed, gathering her documents. “No, I’d better go.”
She’d been about fifteen when she had last seen Lord Ashton, and foolishly in
love with him in the way that only a fifteen-year-old girl could be. She hoped
devoutly that he’d never realized how her heart skipped at the sight of him and
all the times she’d tried to imagine what it would be like if he suddenly swept
her into his arms and declared his love. “I doubt he would remember—”

“Lord Ashton, Mr. Blakiston.” Felton the clerk was holding the
door open.

Mr. Blakiston went forward. “Lord Ashton. I believe you are
acquainted with Miss Kirkby?”

To her embarrassment, her heart leaped just as it always had at
the sight of him. And then she froze, as bleak gray eyes raked her and a frown
creased his brow as he stared at her. And not as if he recalled her at all, let
alone fondly.

Lord Ashton, brother to the fourth Duke of Thirlmere, was not
quite as she remembered him. Oh, he was still tall, and with that head of fair
hair and sea-gray eyes that proclaimed his Viking forebears. And years of
fighting Napoleon’s forces in the Peninsula had left him with all his limbs and
no obvious scars. But there was an indefinable difference in him that had little
to do with age and everything, she thought, to do with experience.

“Miss—?” The frown lightened a little, and his mouth achieved
something that might have been a smile, but didn’t warm his eyes. “Of course.
Miss Kirkby.”

He held out his hand, bowed over hers, exquisitely polite. Heat
and cold swept Maddy as his gloved hand held hers, and she managed to get out a
polite reply even as her heart still thumped and her pulse skittered.

God help me!
It’s you again.
Nuisancy brat!

She remembered him calling her that. Then he’d smile at her and
tell her to tie her pony up and keep her misbegotten dog out of the way.

Those pleasantries aside, Ash Ravensfell had always had a
friendly smile for her. Even when he was grumbling at her and threatening her
pony and herself with a gruesome death if either of them stood on any of the
Roman antiquities he had found near her home. Papa had never minded Lord Ash
digging near the Wall.

No time for that nonsense.
He’s welcome to it all.

Sometimes he’d let her uncover something he’d found. A coin, a
piece of pottery, once a little bronze horse, its head upflung. He’d explained
what the discovery was. What he thought it meant. Then the gray eyes had held
laughter. Now they held ghosts, as if he’d found things he’d rather forget, and
he mouthed stiff, polite greetings as if to a stranger.

He’s a duke’s brother.
You’re far beneath him in the scheme of things.

Only, the Ash Ravensfell she remembered hadn’t seemed above her
at all. He’d been a friend.

She got a smile onto her face, and made her excuses in a
stultifyingly proper voice that even her great aunt Maria couldn’t have faulted,
and left.

* * *

Mr. Blakiston saw her out, ignoring her protests. “Not
at all, my dear. I am only sorry I cannot help you any further. I had better get
back to his lordship. Rather an awkward commission. He wishes to buy a property
of his own.”

Something about the way his eyes held hers alerted her. “A
property?”

“Yes.” The lawyer shook his head. “Not too large, you know. And
near the old Roman wall. His lordship is very interested in antiquities.”

“Yes,” she said slowly. “I remember that.”

Mr. Blakiston patted her hand. “Sadly, I have not the
particulars of a single property like that to interest him yet. One or two that
might do at a pinch, but I fear he will be disappointed. They are either too far
away or too large. Well, I had best go and break the bad news. Goodbye, my
dear.” And he squeezed her hand.

* * *

Maddy made her way slowly back toward the Three
Shepherds Inn where she had stabled her horse and gig, stopping off on the way
to buy tea, her mind spinning.

Her mind continued to spin as she left the tea merchant’s shop.
Mr. Blakiston was usually the soul of discretion. She didn’t think he had ever,
in all her dealings with him, had another client ushered in while the previous
client was still with him. Of course, that might be because he no longer
considered her a client. In just over a month she wouldn’t be. But then, why had
he confided Lord Ashton’s business to her? He had a reputation for being
closemouthed. He
never
gossiped about clients...did
he? Surely he hadn’t been giving her a hint?

But what if he had? Was there a way to save her home? Her
people?

She knew Ash Ravensfell. Or she’d thought she did. For all his
familiarity, the man in Blakiston’s chambers just now had been a stranger.

But if he wants a property near the
Wall...what if...?

She was nearly at the inn and her steps
slowed. Christmas was so close. She would have to tell her people that there
was no hope, unless—

“Well, well, well. It’s my little cousin.
And did Blakiston break the news gently?”

Maddy looked up. Edward, Earl of Montfort,
stood there by the archway leading into the stable yard of the Three
Shepherds. Tall, dark, handsome, his aristocratic features had been known to
make maidens sigh.

Maddy wanted to spit in them.

“Or were you looking for lodgings here?”
Edward’s smile oozed gloating self-satisfaction. “Haydon will be mine on the
seventh of January. You’d better start packing.”

It was his smug assurance that did
it.

“You’re counting chickens rather early,
aren’t you, Edward?” she said sweetly. “You really ought to wait until
they’re hatched. And even then a fox might take them if the run isn’t
secure.”

He laughed at her. “You’re a fool,
Madeleine. If you’d had any sense, you’d have accepted my offer of
marriage.”

“And spent the rest of my life protecting
the dairymaids?” she shot back.

Determined to wrest Haydon back, he’d
offered marriage only because he wanted everyone to know that he hadn’t
simply kicked her out. That, and it would have made taking Haydon easier.
Marrying him would have saved her, but not Haydon. He’d made it very clear
that he intended to demolish the old manor for the building stone and the
section of the Roman wall that marched across the estate.

He roared with laughter. “Did that rankle?
Were you expecting me to save myself for you?”

“You mean, did I expect you to behave like
a gentleman, Edward?” she suggested. “Good God, no.”

That wiped the smirk from his face and he
came toward her. She held her ground, telling herself there was little
enough he could do here in a busy yard.

“Everything all right, Miss Maddy?” called
a stableman crossing the yard with a horse.

Edward swung toward him. “You’ll mind your
own business, fellow, if you know what’s good for you!”

The man hesitated and Edward gripped her
arm, ignoring him. “We’ll have a little talk in private, cousin,” he said in
a low, hard voice. “And if you put up a fuss and one of these gapeseeds is
fool enough to interfere, I’ll see that he loses his position!”

“A great many witnesses, Edward,” she
said, digging in her heels. “Talk here.” The last thing she wanted was Jed
the stableman interfering on her behalf and getting into trouble for
it.

She bit back a cry as Edward’s grip
tightened, and, exerting his strength, he began to drag her to the side
entrance. Fear rose, a choking ball in her throat, and with her free hand
she struck at his face, mentally cursing her gloves that made scratching
impossible.

He jerked his head back to avoid the blow.
“Bitch!”

“Miss Kirkby!”

Booted footsteps sounded on the cobbles behind them and with a
muttered curse, Edward released her arm.

She turned, resisting the urge to rub her arm, and her heart,
already pounding, skipped a beat. Lord Ashton stood there, gray eyes narrowed to
blazing slits as he confronted Edward. Several stablemen had appeared and ranged
themselves nearby, including Jed.

“I suggest that you leave the lady alone, Montfort,” Lord
Ashton said quietly.

“Who the he—” Edward broke off, staring. “Good lord! It’s
Ravensfell, isn’t it? I saw your brother the other day. He mentioned you were
back.” He approached Lord Ashton, holding out his hand. “Traveling on the
Continent, weren’t you?”

Lord Ashton merely stared down his nose, and Edward took an
involuntary step back. He recovered, waving his hand at Maddy with a
conspiratorial smile for Lord Ashton. “Just a little cousinly spat. You know how
it is with women. I’m forever telling her she ought not to jaunter about alone,
but will the silly chit listen to me?”

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