Puddling-on-the-Wold, September 1882
“It’s Lady Maribel all over again,” the grocer Frank Stanchfield muttered to his wife, checking the lock to his back room. “How the girl discovered the telegraph machine is a mystery.”
Not really. Lady Sarah Marchmain—Sadie to her few friends—had eyes, after all, and there it was behind an open alley window, gleaming on a worn oak desk. She had climbed in, her tartan trousers very convenient for hoisting oneself into the building. After being caught trying to send a message to who knows who, she was now unrepentantly inspecting the jars of candy on the shop counter.
She might try to steal some of it, if only the shopkeepers would stop hovering over her.
“Bite your tongue!” Mrs. Stanchfield whispered, looking over nervously at Sadie. No one wanted another Lady Maribel de Winter in Puddling. The first had been bad enough. Even Sadie had heard of her in snatches from the villagers, and the woman’s portrait hung in the parish hall. Her wicked reputation had outlived her, even if her decades of good works once she had married had mitigated some of it. She had been a wild young thing who would have made Napoleon quake in his boots.
Or take her to bed. She had been, according to gossip, irresistible to men. Fortunately her husband, a local baronet called Sir Colin Sykes, had taken her in hand as best he could once they were married.
Sadie was determined never to be taken in hand.
Puddling was known as a famous reputation-restorer, a place to rusticate and recalibrate. Prominent British families had sent their difficult relatives here for almost eighty years, Lady Maribel among the first to be gently incarcerated within its limits in 1807, according to the elderly vicar’s wife, who seemed to know everything about everyone dating back to William the Conqueror.
Now it was Sadie’s turn to be gently incarcerated, and she didn’t like it one bit.
The village had a spotless reputation. It was a last resort before a harsher hospital, or worse, killing one’s own offspring. Lady Sarah Marchmain had angered her father so thoroughly that they’d come to blows. When the Duke of Islesford dropped her off, he had been sporting a significant black eye.
Well-deserved, in her opinion.
Sadie’s eyes were unshadowed and light green, the color of beryl, or so her numerous suitors had said. Occasionally they threw in jade or jasper—it was all so much nonsense. Right now she was examining the penny candy in a glass jar, lots of shiny, jewel-like drops that looked so very tempting. Sweet, edible rubies and citrine, emeralds and onyx. Frank Stanchfield hustled over to the counter and screwed the lid on tighter.
She licked her lips. Unfortunately, she didn’t have a penny to her name. She was entirely dependent on her housekeeper Mrs. Grace to dole out a pitiful allowance every Friday, and Friday was millions of days away. Sadie had spent the last of her money on a cinnamon bun earlier and had reveled in every bite.
Her father’s draconian restrictions were designed to sting. Or so he thought. Sadie didn’t really mind being impoverished and hungry in Puddling-on-the-Wold. It meant she was not about to be auctioned off to Lord Roderick Chastain, or any other idiot her idiot father owed money to.
The Duke of Islesford’s taste in men and luck at cards was, to put it bluntly, execrable.
So far Sadie had overstayed her visit by one week. Originally consigned to her cottage for twenty-eight days, she had somehow not managed to be “cured” in that time.
Brought to reason.
Knuckle under was more like it. She was not getting married.
In fact, she’d like to stay in Puddling forever. It was very restful. Quiet. The little lending library was surprisingly well-stocked, and she’d gotten a lot of reading done between lectures from the prosy ancient vicar who instructed her daily and helping Mrs. Grace keep the cottage up to a ducal daughter’s snuff.
Despite the fact that Sadie had no interest in becoming a wife, she was remarkably domestic. It came of hanging about the kitchens of Marchmain Castle, she supposed. The servants had been her only friends when she was a little girl and she’d been eager to help them.
All that had changed after she was presented to the Queen, wearing those ridiculous hoops and feathers that threatened to put out someone’s eye. Suddenly, Sadie became a commodity, a bargaining chip to improve her father’s ailing finances. A surprising number of gentlemen—if you could call them that, since most men were absolute, avaricious, thoughtless pigs—were interested in acquiring a tall, red-headed, blue-blooded, sharp-tongued and two-fisted duke’s daughter as wife. For the past ten years, she’d avoided them with alacrity, aplomb, and those afore-mentioned fists.
Needless to say, her reputation was cemented in ruination.
It amused Sadie that her father was using the last of his funds to lock her away here in this very expensive Puddling prison, hoping that she would change her mind, acquiesce and marry the one man who remained steadfastly interested.
Not bloody likely.
She touched the glass jar with longing.
“What may we help you with, Lady Sarah?”
The poor grocer sounded scared to death. His wife hid behind him.
Sadie batted her lashes. Sometimes this feminine trick worked, although these Puddling people seemed remarkably impervious to charm. They were hardened souls, harboring the odd, uncooperative and unwanted scions of society for a hefty fee, believing that being cruel to be kind was the only way.
“Do forgive my transgression, Mr. Stanchfield. I so longed to communicate with my old governess, Miss Mackenzie. Miss Mac, as I so affectionately call her. I found a book on telegraphy in the library and wondered if I had any aptitude for it,” she lied. In truth, she’d read nothing but gothic romances since her arrival, very much enjoying the fraying sixty-year-old books written by an anonymous baroness. Science in all its forms confounded her.
Moreover, Sadie’s old governess had been dead for five years and had been an absolute Tartar in life. There had been little affection on her part, Sadie thought ruefully. The woman was at this moment no doubt giving the Devil a lesson on evil and grading him harshly.
“You know that’s forbidden, miss. No telegrams, no letters. Perhaps when you are r-r-released, you may visit with the lady. A r-reason for good behavior, what?”
Goodness, she was causing the poor fellow to stutter. She stilled her lashes.
“Ah.” Sadie gave a dramatic sigh. “But I just can’t seem to get the hang of it. Being Puddling-perfect, that is. Every time I get close, something seems to happen.”
Like stealing Ham Ross’s wheelbarrow full of pumpkins. It had been very difficult to push uphill, and so many of the bloody orange things chose to roll out and smash along the road.
Or turning up in church in her tartan trousers…her stolen tartan trousers. Some poor Puddlingite was foolish enough to hang them on a clothesline to tempt her. After some tailoring—Sadie was handy with a needle—they fit her slender waist and long legs as if they were made for her.
Her father had always wanted a son. Instead her horrible cousin George would be the next duke, and Sadie would lose the only home—well, castle—she’d ever known.
It wasn’t fair. She sighed again.
“Here, now, Lady Sarah. I don’t suppose I’ll miss a few boiled sweets.” Mr. Stanchfield relented and unscrewed the jar, his wife looking disapproving behind him. He filled a paper twist with not nearly enough, and passed them to her.
Sadie saw her opportunity. She dropped to the floor on her tartan-covered knees and howled.
She had been practicing howling at night once her housekeeper Mrs. Grace went home. Her neighbors were under the impression a stray dog was in heat in the village, or perhaps even a pack of them.
“Oh! You are too good to me! I shall remember this always!” She snuffled and snorted, slipping a red candy into her mouth.
Red always tasted best.
“A polite thank-you would do just as well.”
The voice was chilly. Sadie looked up from her self-inflicted chest-pounding and the candy fell out of her open mouth.
Good heavens. She had never seen this man before in all the walking she was made to do up and down the hills for her daily exercise. Where had he been hiding? He was beautiful.
No, not beautiful exactly. His haughty expression was too harsh for beauty. Compelling, perhaps. Arresting.
But, she reminded herself, he was a man, and therefore wanting. Lacking. Probably annoying. Not probably—certainly. Lady Sarah Jane Elizabeth Marchmain was twenty-seven years old and had more than enough experience with men.
He was reaching a gloveless hand to her to help her up, but it didn’t look quite clean. Something green was under his fingernails—paint? Plant material? Sadie took a chance and gripped it anyway, crunching her candy underfoot when he lifted her to her full height.
He was still taller than she was.
Not lacking there. Not lacking physically anywhere that she could see.
His hair was brown, curly and unruly, his eyebrows darker and formidable. His nose was strong and straight, his lips full, his face bronzed from the sun. His eyes—oh, his eyes. Blue was an inadequate adjective. Cerulean? Sapphire? Aquamarine? She’d have to consult a thesaurus.
But they weren’t kind.
She found herself curtseying, her hand still firmly in his.
“Thank you, sir, for coming to my rescue.” She fluttered her eyelashes again.
“You were in no danger on the floor. Mrs. Stanchfield sweeps it thrice a day. One could eat off it, it’s so immaculate.” He dropped Sadie’s hand and kicked the crushed candy aside.
The grocer’s wife pinked. “Thank you, Mr. Sykes.”
Sykes. That was the name of the family the infamous Lady Maribel married into. Interesting.
“I only speak the truth, madam.”
Sadie considered whether she should fall to the floor again. It would be fun to gauge this Mr. Sykes’s strength if she pretended to swoon. Would he pick her up and hold her to his manly chest? Whisper assurances in her ear? Smooth loose tendrils of hair behind her pins?
But perhaps he’d just leave her there to rot. He wasn’t even looking at her anymore.
Sadie was used to being looked at. For one thing, she was hard to miss. At nearly six feet, she towered over most men. Her flaming hair was another beacon, her skin pearlescent, her ample bosom startling on such a slender frame.
She had been chased by men mercilessly, even after she had made it crystal clear she had no interest. These past years had tested her wits and firmed her resolve. She was mistress of her own heart, body, and mind, and determined to remain so.
Mr. Sykes probably knew that—apparently everyone in Puddling had received a dossier on her. She’d come across a grease-stained one at the bakeshop tucked under a tray of Bakewell tarts, and had tucked it into her pocket for quiet perusal, along with one delicious raspberry pastry.
It had been most informative. The dossier, not the tart. Sadie had been gleeful reading an account of her past recalcitrance. She rather admired the clever ways she’d gone about subverting her father’s plans for her—she’d forgotten half of them.
It had meant, however, that she had to exercise creativity in Puddling and not repeat her previous pranks. No sheep in the dining room. No bladder filled with beet juice tossed out the window. No punching fiancés or fathers.
There was only the one father, but Sadie had endured several fiancés. The latest, Lord Roderick Chastain, was getting impatient. He’d given her father quite a lot of money to secure her hand. To be fair, he’d tried to woo Sadie with credible effort.
There wasn’t anything really wrong with Roderick, she supposed. But there wasn’t anything right about him either.
If Sadie could just resist the pressure to marry, she’d come into a substantial fortune when she turned thirty. She wouldn’t have to turn it over to some man, and her father wouldn’t be able to touch it. She could live her life just as she liked. She might even buy herself a small castle, if one could be found. One that wouldn’t fall down around her ears. One that had working fireplaces and no rats.
However…and this was a huge however…the Duke of Islesford was threatening to have her declared incompetent, seize her funds and lock her away in a most unpleasant private hospital. Sadie did not think it was an idle threat, and to some, it might look as if she deserved to be there.
She was too old now for the tricks she’d played, and three years was a very, very long time to stall. Sadie was beginning to realize she hadn’t done herself any favors with the pumpkins or the trousers or the howling.
But she couldn’t succumb—she just couldn’t. No matter how many times Mr. Fitzmartin, the elderly vicar, reminded her of a proper woman’s place—as helper to her husband, silent in church, subordinate, obedient—she felt her fingers close into a fist.