Saturday, January 16, 2016

Jade Lee's Winning a Bride (Part 10) - Free Newsletter Serial

 






Men with picks and shovels muscled the muck out from the bottom of the river. It was a sight to behold, but only one man held her attention.



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Chapter 10
 

Will heard the news with his morning oatmeal. He’d come in well past midnight the night before, so he was late out of bed. Late, angry, and not in a mood to hear chatter. Especially chatter about Josephine’s engagement to the damned Scot.

Bloody hell! He’d been gone a week. A single damn week, and in that time she’d gone from coming apart in his arms to engaged to another man? Certainly, he’d known that had been the intention. That was why the bloody Scot was here. But he hadn’t expected to hear that Josephine had acknowledged the engagement. That she had sat next to the man during afternoon calls and started talking about their wedding.

He had half a mind to storm to the manor and demand to see her. But what could he say? He was their steward, for God’s sake. Nearly five years ago, her father had made his opinion of Will eminently clear. Especially where it concerned his daughters. So her father wouldn’t accept him as a son-in-law, and he couldn’t very well expose what they’d been doing at the creek. It would ruin her.

He had to wait. He would see her tonight. If nothing else, she would want to say good-bye to him. He would have to keep his hands off her. He would not touch another man’s acknowledged fiancée. Unless the urge to throttle her overcame him.

He cursed again at his oatmeal while his mother settled in across the table from him, her expression reserved. He glanced at her, then flinched away. Lord, she was going to try to talk to him. When all he wanted to do was go kill a damned Scotsman.

“You didn’t find him?”

“What?” He had to get to the canal. There was rain coming, and he feared the destruction that could cause. But mostly, he wanted to chop down some trees in the hopes that he could ease his fury.

“Grant. I assume that’s why you were gone for so very long. You went to London, didn’t you? To find your brother.”

William cursed again, but this time for an entirely different reason. His mother was much too clever and he didn’t like anyone—even her—exposing his failures. But she had a right to know. She was Lady Crowle, after all.

“I didn’t find him. I went to all his usual haunts and then the unusual ones.”

She winced at that. She knew he’d spent the last week crawling through every damned pub and gambling hell in all of London.

“There was no news of him?”

“No one has seen or heard of him in years. Years.”

“What of the solicitor?” she asked.

He shook his head. “Grant appears the second Monday of every month. That’s why he didn’t show for father’s funeral. He didn’t get the news until well after everything was over.”

“But where has he been?”

Will shook his head. “No one knows. Not even the solicitor. The man’s a bloody ghost and…” Will cut off his words. His mother didn’t need to hear his venom. He pushed up from the bench. “I need to get to work.”

Then she touched him. It was meant to be a fond caress, a gentle touch of support from mother to son. But what he saw instead was the thinness of her skin and her dark tan from working in their vegetable garden. He didn’t feel the warmth of her touch, but the callouses she had from years of toil. She was Lady Crowle, for God’s sake, and her hands looked like a scullery maid’s.

“Mother, it doesn’t make any difference. I know you have written him back, asking him to come visit, so we’ll see him this fall. As for the rest, I will see to it. We will have food and shelter as we always have.”

She shoved his hand away with her own very unladylike curse. “Do you think I care about that? Yes, I want to see Grant, but it is you who worries me. How long can you work as you do and not collapse? How long before the bitterness I see in your eyes poisons your entire life? How long can you go on this way before you break completely?”

He stared at her, his mouth slack with shock. She worried for him? But why? “Mother, I am here. I am fine. I am taking care—”

“Taking care of everything. Yes, I know. And yet every day I watch your soul shrivel another inch.”

“You cannot see my soul, mother.”

“You’d be surprised what I see, son.”

He swallowed, a little frightened by the heavy weight of her stare. He did not want his mother seeing him—his soul or anything else. She did not need his burdens. But one look at her solemn expression and he knew she understood far more than he’d ever thought possible. And so he gave her the only answer he had.

“Mother, I am trying. I thought I had found a way out, but everywhere I turn the path is blocked.”

“So don’t try so hard. We have a good life. Of all my children, I never thought you would be the one so trapped by the Crowle name.”

He frowned. “I am a Crowle. You are Lady Crowle. There is no ‘trapped.’ It is simple fact. We are—”

“No, son, you are not.” Her voice was gentle as she spoke, but he heard the steel underneath. She must have been thinking of this for a long while, and now was finally able to say it to his face. “Will, you are a second son who has made a good life for himself. And you have cared for me and for your father’s legacy far better than any Crowle ever has. But it is not your place. Let it go. Accept what you have and quit fighting for something that will never be yours. You are a second son. Can you not find a way to be content?”

Content? With nothing? With being discounted or discarded at every turn? He stared at her, fury roiling inside him. It was like a churning black pit that darkened every breath and poisoned the very air he breathed. He had no words for his mother. In truth, he’d hardly heard anything beyond her denial of him. So he was not a Crowle? Perhaps then she was not his mother.

So with a final glare, pitch-dark and full of hatred, he spun on his heel and headed for the door. He didn’t speak. He didn’t dare give vent to the poison in his head.

“Will!” she cried.

He answered by slamming the door.

He made it to the canal in record time. He was in too foul a mood to check on crops or visit sick livestock. So he went straight to the canal and asked his foreman for the dirtiest, most dangerous job in the pit. It was digging, of course. Deepening the river while others tried to shore up the sides with wood or brick or metal, whatever they had on hand. Lawton wanted the canal done fast. Well it would be done fast and cheap, and Will would be in the thick of it sweating out his life blood for someone else.

Because that was the destiny of a second son.
 

***


Josephine heard the news from Megan, who heard it from her maid, who heard it… well, it didn’t matter. If someone was saying it in Crowlesby Village, then Megan would know of it.

The news was that Will was back and that he was in a devil’s own temper. That he was digging the canal almost singlehandedly in his fury. There wasn’t any more information, but Josephine could speculate on the rest. He must have heard about her engagement to Alastair. He heard and was angry, though God alone knew why. It wasn’t as if he had asked for her hand. It wasn’t as if he even liked her all that much.

Of course, given what they had done by the creek, maybe she had the wrong of it. Maybe there was something between them. But what? Anger and… what had he called it? Seduction. That wasn’t the same thing as affection. And if she were choosing a husband, logic would suggest affection should rule the day. Still, he was back after an eternity away and she had to see him.

She used the excuse of giving Nanny a break. The twins always wanted to see the canal, and so she gathered up the boys and headed off. They were in high spirits, of course. They were always in high spirits when they could escape the nursery. So the three of them made it to the edge of the canal quickly enough.

They weren’t the only ones there to see. Despite the fact that Lawton owned the land, Will was the lord here in Crowlesby. He was the one who nursed the ill livestock, who worked side by side with the men to bring in the harvest, who rose earlier and bedded later than anyone else. Anyone with eyes could see that he was the core of this land, and so when he returned to throw himself into a river, everyone else came to watch.

Most were kept back by the foreman. After all, this was a work site, not a menagerie viewing. But she was Miss Josephine, so she was allowed to slip through. And in truth, she needed to follow Tadd, who could wiggle his way anywhere.

She broke through the wood to stand on the muddy cut of road beside the canal. Eventually, horses would walk along this track as they pulled the boats. Far behind her—a good quarter mile upstream—a lock was being built with thick logs and huge iron nails. But downstream from them was the shallowest part of the river. It needed to be deepened and widened, and so there was Will, along with a dozen other men, waist deep in water as he shoveled the dirt out. Men with picks and shovels muscled the muck out from the bottom of the river. It was a sight to behold, but only one man held her attention.

Will shone in her eyes like a god among men. He wasn’t the largest or the even the strongest, but he riveted her attention nevertheless. It was the intensity with which he worked. There was a dark power in his movements. He stabbed his shovel deep into the water, then steadily pushed to the bank. Without his shirt on, she could see his back rippling as he worked. There was no fat on the man and his hair was slicked down from the wet. She saw his body, corded and virile. She saw strength in his physical presence, but also in the way men shied away from him. They worked as he did, but all gave him space, and the few times he barked a command, men rushed to respond.

Then he chanced to look up. She didn’t know what could possibly draw his attention, but in that moment when he straightened from his work, his gaze shot to hers. Dark and cold, it froze her where she stood. All thought drained away. She was simply pinned there by his stare. And by the certain knowledge that she had hurt him. She didn’t even know how, but it didn’t matter. He was in pain, and she was the cause.

She didn’t break the spell. She couldn’t. But a second later, he dismissed her. After the stark power of his stare, his slow shift in stance as he looked away from her was like a jagged knife being drawn out of her body. Slowly and cutting deeper as it went. Pain blossomed in her body the longer he looked around him, his eyes unerringly picking out every other woman in the crowd. How she could feel physical pain from a simple look, she didn’t know. But she did. And it was all she could do to hold in her sob.

She didn’t hear the splash. She didn’t even hear Tegur’s cry that his brother had fallen into the water. But others did, and they screamed for her attention.

She figured out what had happened in a blink, but it was still much too slow. She picked out the thin indentations in the mud where Tadd had slid from the edge into the water. But she couldn’t see him. Couldn’t find the boy in the churning dark water.

Everyone stopped as she rushed to Tegur. “Where is he?” she cried. “Do you see him?”

Tegur pointed, but she saw nothing in the dark water. Then she heard another splash. It was Will as he dove for the deepest part of the river. The current was too fast there, she knew, for a little boy. Dangerous enough for a man, but deadly to a child.

She pressed a hand to her mouth, too horrified to do more than stare and pray. She gripped Tegur, who was straining forward. He wanted to follow his brother, but she would not lose him.

Will didn’t find the child. Not at first. But then a tiny head popped up from the waves, gasping for air. A dozen people cried out, everyone pointing at the child, Josephine included. Will seemed to see her and immediately swam for the boy in powerful strokes.
It took too long. Much too long, but man and boy finally connected far downstream. Josephine and Tegur had run to follow, their feet slipping on the muddy road. But there were many hands to help them, many people rushing along as well. They came to a stop at the next lock, half constructed and dangerous. But there were ropes in place to stop their headlong rush downriver and logs to help them clamber up.

Tadd came first, grinning from his adventure as he scrambled like a monkey to the bank. Will came next, weariness slowing him down, but fire still blazed in his eyes. Josephine was on her knees, hugging Tadd while checking him for injuries. He was fine, and so he told her over and over while she scolded him for not staying at her side.

Her words dried up as Will emerged in front of her. He wore pants cut tight and short, tucked into an old pair of boots. All of it dripped wet, and all of it clung to his body so that no part of his outline was left to the imagination.

She looked up slowly, taking in spread legs, thick thighs, tight hips, and golden belly. A dusting of hair darkened his chest, but she couldn’t linger on the broad expanse of flesh before her. Her eyes were drawn up past his broad shoulders to his chiseled jaw and the seething anger in his eyes.

“Will—” she began, but he didn’t allow her to speak.

“Boys will always make mischief,” he snapped. “What fool brings a child to a place where men work? Go home, Miss Josephine.” Her name was spit out like a curse. “Back to your parties and your dandies. You have no place here where good people labor.”

She swallowed. Another time she might have argued back. She might have flaunted her position and her right to be anywhere on her father’s land that she wanted to be. But she couldn’t. Not with Tadd narrowly escaped from disaster. Not with the men who should be working standing there glaring at her. And not with the women slipping away back to their tasks.

She was at fault here. None of this would have happened if she weren’t Miss Josephine. If she hadn’t been allowed—with the boys—to be too close to the edge. He was right and she was a fool.

She bowed her head, fighting the tears. Her throat was too choked to speak. She simply grabbed both children and left. She heard Will curse, the word loud and short. She heard the foreman order the men back to work. But most of all, she heard herself—her heavy steps and her cut off sobs as she trudged away.

He was right. She didn’t belong here. Sadly, she didn’t belong in London either. She was a misfit wherever she went and a fool to boot.

 

***

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Original post: kkmalott.booklikes.com/post/1325819/jade-lee-s-winning-a-bride-part-10-free-newsletter-serial

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