Life for Lady Adelaide Bell was easier if she hid in her older sister's shadow--which worked until her sister got married. Even with the pressure of her socially ambitious mother, the last thing she expected was a marriage of convenience to save her previously spotless reputation.
Lord Trent Hawthorne couldn't be happier that he is not the duke in the family. He's free to manage his small estate and take his time discovering the life he wants to lead, which includes grand plans of wooing and falling in love with the woman of his choice. When he finds himself honor bound to marry a woman he doesn't know, his dream of a marriage like his parents' seems lost forever.
"... sweet, sigh-worthy romance..."
"The third book in Hunter's Hawthorne House series is surprisingly poignant. The exploration into how to grow a relationship is at times raw and painful, but ultimately redemptive and meaningful. . . . The ending is beautiful and touching."
"... superb addition to Hunter's Hawthorne House series..."
~ USA Today Happily Ever After Blog
~ RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars
Read an Excerpt
Many a man has been inspired by a great father or a noble brother, and young six-year-old Lord Trent Hawthorne had been blessed with both. Standing by his father atop a hill that looked out over a large portion of their country estate, he didn’t bother asking why he, a younger son, had been brought out to talk about the estate. Ever since he was three Father had included him in lessons, saying, “Life is unpredictable and you have to be ready. I hope you both live to see your grandchildren, but God may decide He’d rather have you as duke one day.”
Trent didn’t understand all that, but he liked spending time with his father and brother, so he didn’t complain.
On the other side of the large man stood Trent’s older brother, Griffith. Even at ten years old Griffith was showing signs that he would be as big as their father, if not taller. Trent stretched his back as straight as it would go, even lifted a bit onto his toes to see if he too could make his head reach Father’s shoulder. The highest he could get was a little below the man’s elbow.
“What do you think, boys?”
Trent gave off trying to stretch his spine and looked out over the land below. The vine-covered walls of an old stone keep rose from the hillside across the way, beneath a crumbling stone watchtower. The valley below boasted scraggly trees and patches of grass scattered amongst large puddles of water. More tufts of grass stuck up through the shallow water, giving it an eerie, dangerous look. Maybe they should dig out the field and make the puddles deeper so they could swim in them. But of course, there was already a perfectly good lake closer to the house.
Griffith tilted his head and looked up at their father. “Sheep.”
Father squinted his eyes as he looked over the land, considering. “Sheep, you say?”
This was what Trent loved about his father. Most of the world would have been afraid to answer him. They’d have waited to see what he was thinking and then agreed with whatever it was. After all, the big man was a powerful duke. The only people in England more prestigious than he was had royal blood in their veins. But the truth was—at least when it came to his family— John, Duke of Riverton, was the most approachable man in the kingdom. Even if the idea involved throwing sheep into a boggy mess.
Trent had no idea whether sheep liked to swim. If they did, Griffith was smart to want to bring them here instead of having them dirty up the lake. It was probably a good thing he was the older son. Even though the title would never pass to Trent, he wanted to make his father glad that both sons were included in this discussion. He racked his little brain for anything he knew about sheep. “Won’t the wool shrink if we let them swim in that? Nanny said that’s why my coat shrank after I wore it into the lake last year.”
Father beamed at his younger son and ruffled Trent’s blond hair. Bright green eyes smiled down at him, making Trent feel six feet tall, even if he never would be. “I don’t think it works that way, son. It is a lot of water, though. Do you think the sheep like to swim, Griffith?”
Griffith looked from Trent back to his father with a hint of uneasiness that he quickly covered up. Griffith would be leaving for school soon, and their father had lately been pressing him more and more to start voicing his thoughts and opinions. He shifted his feet, almost tripping over the gangly legs of a tall ten-year old. “I’ve been reading about the drainage ditches they’re doing in Scotland. We could build some and turn most of the area into pasture for the sheep. Then plant crops in their current pasture.”
Father bent down to be at eye level with Griffith. “Drainage ditches?”
Griffith’s throat shuddered with his heavy swallow. “Yes, sir. We dig them out and put rocks in to keep the mud out. Then the water runs down to the river.”
“Where did you read about these ditches?”
Trent tried to copy Father’s impressed demeanor, but the wind kept pulling the hair from the short queue at the nape of his neck, sending a blond curtain into his eyes. It was hard to look composed, much less impressed, with hair blocking his face. He pushed the hair back with both hands to see Griffith gathering his words. Griffith always liked to think about what he was going to say. It took too much time as far as Trent was concerned.
After a deep breath, Griffith squared his shoulders and spoke without any of his earlier hesitancy. “When we visited Mr. Stroud several years ago, all he had were those peat bogs. But when he came to us last month he brought those excellent cabbages. I asked him what changed. He gave me a book about the new methods.”
Father straightened back to his full height with a wide smile. His shoulders pressed back, and he put his fists on his hips. Trent poked at one of the jacket seams that looked a bit stretched by his father’s proud stance. Had he worn his jacket into the lake too?
“As sure as I was blessed in birth, I’ve been blessed in progeny.” Father wrapped one strong arm around Griffith’s shoulders and pulled him in tight. “God knew what He was doing when He gave you to me. Let the Lord guide you, boy, and you’ll be a better duke than I ever was. In some ways, I think you already are.”
They tromped back through the fields toward home, talking about drainage ditches and throwing stones.
Four days later, the duke died.
Hertfordshire, England, 1814
Lord Trent Hawthorne was convinced that breakfast was one of God’s greatest gifts to humanity. What better way to celebrate the Lord’s new mercies and fresh beginnings than rejoicing in the day’s opportunities by eating a crispy rasher of bacon? Even after his father had passed, the morning meal had been a source of consolation for Trent, a reminder that God still had a reason for him to be in this world. Yes, for most of his life, Trent had awoken every day secure in the knowledge that nothing could ruin breakfast.
It took a wedding to prove him wrong.
Specifically, it took his wedding.
To a woman he barely knew.
Trent frowned at his plate, and the sweet roll plopped in the center of it frowned back. For the first time he could remember, the eggs looked unappealing, the bacon appeared dry and brittle, and the toast tasted like dust bound together by spoiled butter. He simply couldn’t see a positive side to the way this day was beginning—and he’d been searching for the past three weeks.
Three weeks of listening to the banns read in church, bearing the speculative glances and thinly veiled curiosity alone while his bride-to-be spent the weeks in Birmingham acquiring a new wardrobe, since clothes fit for an unmarried young lady apparently disintegrated into dusty rags when she finished reciting her marriage vows. He didn’t remember such a thing happening to his sisters’ clothing when they’d married last year, but Lady Crampton must have witnessed it at some point because she’d been adamant that her daughter be outfitted in an entirely new wardrobe.
Of course, she’d also been adamant that they not wait any longer than the required three weeks between the reading of the banns and the actual wedding, so Trent wasn’t inclined to think her the most logical of decision-makers.
Not that he’d ever cared much for Lady Crampton. Or her daughter—at least not the daughter he’d known about. As he’d probably known at some point in his life but had rediscovered only three weeks ago, Lady Crampton had a second daughter. A second daughter with no debility or problem aside from the fact that she’d been born second—and that Lady Crampton was already focused solely on devoting her time to raising a spoiled, selfish, scheming, socially ambitious viper in her own image and hadn’t found the time or inclination to raise a second one.
Of course, the countess was more than happy to claim that daughter today. She was marrying into the Duke of Riverton’s family, after all, and what more could a mother want for her daughter? In Lady Crampton’s case, she probably preferred that her daughter be marrying the duke himself instead of the duke’s younger brother, but all in all it was still a rather nice match for a girl who knew all the best places in the district to gather mushrooms— including the depths of an old stone keep on a neighboring estate beneath a half-fallen roof and a partially collapsed floor.
Trent poked at his eggs before letting the fork clatter to the plate. “I’m going to rip those ruins down with my bare hands.”
“Hardly necessary now that you’ve spent a whole day and night clearing the vines from one of the windows with a rock. An endeavor that did enough damage to your hands that I think you should reconsider using them on the stone wall.”
Trent turned his head to glare at his older brother, seated next to him and having no issue with the meal whatsoever if the dents he was making in mounds of food on his plate were any indication. Griffith, Duke of Riverton, was a mountain of a man, but Trent had trained with the best pugilists in the country. He was pretty sure he could take his older brother down.
Griffith shrugged as he cut a perfect square of ham. “Well, you did. How are they doing, by the way?”
Trent flexed the appendages in question, pleased to note that the pain in both had subsided to a tolerable level. A few faint lines remained from the cuts he’d sustained while hacking away at a dense covering of thorny vines with nothing but a sharp stone for assistance. The knuckles he’d smashed in the near futile task could finally bend enough to curl into a fist. “My hands are fine, though I’m going to be much more conscientious about having a knife on me in the future.”
A single golden eyebrow climbed Griffith’s forehead. “You intend to make getting trapped in old ruins a regular occurrence? I suggest you make sure the next one isn’t being occupied by a young lady. You can only propose once, you know.”
Trent groaned and rubbed his hands over his face before letting his gaze crawl across the room in search of his new wife. Her slender form was rather easy to spot in a group of well-fed aristocrats—and was likely the reason she’d been able to walk back and forth across the floor that had crumbled beneath him. Once the floor had given way, the stair joist holes she’d used to climb down to the bottom of the ruins had become a useless ladder to nowhere, and they’d been trapped.
And not just for the night. Trapped for the rest of their lives by the bounds of propriety that demanded Trent salvage her threatened reputation by marrying her. Never mind the fact that no one knew they’d been there. Regardless of the fact that they’d managed to free themselves by breaking through the vines as the sun crested the horizon the next morning. As a gentleman, Trent could not leave her reputation to chance when he was the one who caused the problem in the first place. “Actually, you can propose as many times as you like. You can only be accepted once.”
A spurt of laughter had Griffith lunging for his serviette as he tried to avoid choking while still keeping his bite of food in his mouth. He swallowed and dabbed at the corners of his lips. “Nice to see a bit of your humor coming back. For a while I thought you’d broken it along with your ankle.”
“I didn’t break my ankle.” Though he should have, given the way he’d fallen through the rotten floor of the old stone keep. “The surgeon said it was simply a bad sprain. Made worse by the fact that I left my boot on all night and then proceeded to ride without removing it the next day.”
Not that he’d had any choice. Escorting Lady Adelaide home from their adventure had been a necessity, as had discussing a wedding settlement with her father, the Earl of Crampton. Unfortunately the conversation had also included the sickening cloying of the socially ambitious Lady Crampton. That awkward meeting had also taken place over breakfast.
Griffith snagged the sweet roll from Trent’s plate. “If you’re only going to frown at this, I’m going to eat it. You might want to consider not looking so tortured, you know. People are starting to stare.”
Trent grunted but adjusted his posture and tried to smooth his facial features. “They’ve been looking since I sat down. Why do you think they’re avoiding this table?”
“Because they’ve all stopped by to congratulate you, and you’ve done nothing but nod in acknowledgment?”
Trent grunted again and shoved the rest of his plate in his brother’s direction. A somewhat familiar-looking brown disk lay on the edge of Griffith’s plate. “What is that?”
“Mushroom.” Griffith grinned. “I think your new wife might be a bit of a wit. They’re quite tasty. Would you like to try one now that it’s been properly prepared?”
“No, thank you.” Trent tried not to gag at the thought of eating the mushroom. During that interminable night, they’d had nothing to eat other than the flat, brown winter mushrooms Lady Adelaide had climbed down to collect. And while they were rather good even when raw, he wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to eat a mushroom again without thinking about being trapped, sitting in the dirt of a partially crumbled stone castle, watching his life plans slowly fade with the setting sun.
Trent picked up his napkin and ran the edge through his fingers. “I’ve never paid much attention to etiquette at these things. When do you think I can leave?”
“You do intend to take Lady Adelaide with you, don’t you?” A canyon of concern formed between Griffith’s thick blond brows as they lowered over deep green eyes. It wasn’t a look Trent saw very often, but it was the one that proved Griffith was going to make an excellent father someday.
“Of course.” Trent balled up the square of fabric and tossed it onto the table. “It’s no gentleman’s trick to leave his wife in her father’s house. Especially when it’s inhabited by a woman like Lady Crampton. I’m still not thoroughly convinced Lady Adelaide was raised by that woman. She’s far too sweet.”
“And you’ve spent how much time in her company?” Trent frowned. “A day and a night. But we spent those sitting in the dirt, and she didn’t turn into a shrew. That has to count for something.”
At least he hoped it did.