An Accidental Seduction

Hollingford House, England

Well-mannered ladies were not supposed to chop wood. They were supposed to paint with watercolors, embroider cushions, and pray for the day when they landed a rich husband.

“I wouldn’t mind having that rich husband now,” Emily Barrow muttered to a fallen log as she struggled to lift the heavy axe. It was freezing outside, unusually cold for early February. The clouds brooded overhead, threatening snow. And since she had no coal and didn’t want to burn any more of the furniture, she’d decided to attempt chopping wood in the forest. It was not going well.

“Servants would be nice, too. A footman, perhaps.”
But then, she’d had to dismiss all of the household help. There simply wasn’t any money left. Her brother Daniel had spent most of it on the governess he’d hired to care for his two children. Which was as it should be. Emily could cook for herself, bargain for what she needed, and make do with what she had. She was nearly twenty-five, a woman firmly on the shelf. There would be no husband to rescue her from this drudgery.

But she would survive, even if it meant becoming a servant herself. And that predicament wasn’t too far away, unless Daniel returned.

Emily bit her lower lip and heaved the axe skyward. With a resounding thunk, the dull metal bit into the wood. It would have been satisfying, except that now she couldn’t get the axe out of the wood.

“Stupid axe,” she muttered, pulling with all of her weight against the trunk. She let out a growl, wishing the blasted thing would let go.

Behind her, she heard the crunch of footsteps in the snow. Probably Mr. Barmouth from the village, come to demand payment for the dry goods she’d bought a week ago. Without turning around, she asked, “Could you please help me with this?”

Dove-gray gloves reached around for the axe. She lost her breath when she saw Stephen Chesterfield, the Earl of Whitmore, standing before her. Dark brown hair framed a strong jaw and steel gray eyes. Her pulse quickened at the sight of his firm mouth.
“You’re back,” she breathed.

Immediately, she wished she could knock her head against the tree. Not a polite hello, how are you, I haven’t seen you in ten years. No, she’d blurted out the first words that came to mind.

And good heavens, she’d just asked an Earl to soil his hands by hefting an axe.

“Miss Barrow.” Lord Whitmore grasped the handle of the axe and wrenched it free of the wood. For a moment, he stood, eyeing the blade. “Are you planning to use this against me if I give it back to you?”

“Now, why would I do that?” She tried to behave as though nothing were wrong. Her heartbeat galloped in her chest, her face burning with embarrassment.

“Because I left you and never said goodbye.” He leaned the axe against the fallen trunk.

“Oh. That.” She waved her hand, as though he hadn’t broken her heart into a thousand pieces years ago. “Well, that was then.” The Marquess of Rothburne had caught them kissing in the stables. It had been enough for him to pack his eldest son off to Eton before the summer holidays had ended. She hadn’t seen him since.

“What brings you to Hollingford House?” she asked brightly. Pretend as if nothing’s wrong.

“I am visiting Falkirk. Escaping my meddling family,” he admitted. “I hadn’t seen you in so long, I thought I’d stop to pay a call. But no one answered the door.”

“The footman must not have heard you,” she offered. Because he lived over five miles away and had been dismissed last November.

Lord Whitmore glanced again at her fallen axe. “Do you require assistance with the wood?”

A lie poured from her mouth. “No, no. It’s fine, really. I was just . . . trying to see if I was strong enough to lift the axe.” Not because the house was freezing cold, and she desperately needed the wood to build a fire. No, no, that had nothing to do with it.
Whitmore looked as though he wanted to argue, but instead, he tipped his hat. “I am sorry I interrupted you at an inconvenient time. Would you prefer it if I returned another day?”

“No, no. If you’d like, I could make us some tea.” Her face reddened when she remembered that they were out of tea. “Or . . . if you’re too busy just now, perhaps another time.”

“Thank you, but I cannot stay long.” He glanced toward Hollingford House and frowned. “I came to invite you to a small gathering for dinner tomorrow evening at seven o’clock.”

If that were the only reason, then why hadn’t he simply sent an invitation? Earls didn’t typically pay calls, not when there were servants to do their bidding. Her suspicions deepened when he didn’t elaborate.

But she voiced a polite reply, “Dinner would be lovely. I’ll see you tomorrow, then.” At the very thought of it, her stomach wrenched with hunger. Food. Oh, sweet heaven, there would be glorious food.

“What about your axe?” he inquired.

“Oh, one of the servants can bring it back.” The lie poured from her mouth, for she had no intention whatsoever of admitting how desperate her circumstances had become. She walked with him around to the front of the house where his gleaming black brougham waited.

“I look forward to renewing our acquaintance.” he said, tipping his hat again. His deep baritone was like rich toffee pudding, tempting her back to her past infatuation.

When his carriage reached the end of the drive, Emily walked calmly inside her brother’s house. Curse it all, she hadn’t a thing to wear. All of her expensive gowns had been sold. She had nothing but the brown cotton day dress she was wearing now, a black serge mourning gown, and a threadbare blue tarlatan dress.

The tarlatan dress had been mended so many times, it was scarred with seams. But perhaps with a good shawl . . .
Her gaze fell upon the printed sofa in the drawing room. Sometimes desperate measures were necessary.

From the novella “An Accidental Seduction”
Copyright © 2009 by Michelle Willingham
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The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
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