Never say never...
With her mother’s passing, Alexandra Bolton gave up on love to take care of her family. Now, with the Bolton name in disgrace due to her father’s profligate ways, marrying an elderly squire might be the only way to save her family from absolute ruin. But when she meets the infamous Duke of Clarewood, old dreams—and old passions—are awakened as never before. Yet she cannot accept his shocking proposition!
He is the wealthiest, most powerful peer in the realm, and having witnessed the cold horror of marriage as a child, he has vowed never to wed. But Alexandra Bolton inflames him as no woman has ever done, and she also serves him his first rejection! Now Clarewood—who always gets what he wants—will choose which rules to play by. But when passion finally brings them together, a terrible secret threatens to tear them apart...
From Chapter One
“I can no longer afford you,” the baron of Edgemont said.
Alexandra Bolton stared in some surprise at her grim, rather disheveled father. He had just summoned her and her two younger sisters into the small, shabby library where he occasionally looked at the estate’s books. Oddly, he seemed sober—and it was almost half past four in the afternoon. What did he mean, exactly? “I know how precarious our finances are,” she said, but her smile was reassuring. “I am taking in additional sewing, Father, and I should be able to earn an extra pound every week.”
Her father made a discouraging sound. “You are exactly like your mother. She was tireless, Alexandra, tireless in her efforts to reassure me—right up until the day of her death.” He walked away, his posture slumped, and took his seat behind his worn and equally tired desk. The desk was crooked. One leg needed repair.
Alexandra was becoming vaguely alarmed. She had been doing her best to hold the family together ever since Elizabeth Bolton had died—no easy task, considering her father’s terrible penchant for gaming and whiskey, which their mother had been able to restrain. The last time her father had asked her and her two younger sisters into the library, it had been to tell them that their mother was fatally ill. Of course, Elizabeth had been fading before their very eyes. The news had been heart wrenching, but not a surprise.
Elizabeth had died nine years ago. Since then, her father had lost all self-restraint. He did not even try to refrain from his bad habits. Corey was tempestuous by nature, and did as she pleased when away from Alexandra’s watchful eyes. Olivia had withdrawn into her world of watercolors and pastels, and although she seemed content, Alexandra despaired. And she had given up true love to take care of them all. But there were no regrets.
“Someone must be cheerful,” she said with a firm smile. “We may be short on funds, but we have a fine home, even if it could use some repairs, and we have clothes on our backs and food on the table. Our situation could be worse.”
Corey, who was only sixteen, choked. After all, every rug in the house was threadbare, the walls needed paint and plaster, and the draperies were literally falling apart. The grounds were as bad, as their staff had been reduced to one manservant, the gardener let go last year. Their London townhome had been sold, but Edgemont Way was within an hour’s drive of Greenwich, fortunately or not.
Alexandra decided to ignore her rather reckless, very outspoken and terribly beautiful little sister. “Father? Your demeanor is worrying me.” And he was not yet foxed. He was always foxed well before noon. What did this turn mean? She couldn’t be hopeful. She knew he had no reason to try to change is dissolute ways.
The baron sighed. “My last line of credit has been squashed.”
Her unease escalated. Like most of their peers, they lived on rents and credit. But her father’s obsession with gambling had caused him to sell off their tenant farms, one by one, and there were only two tenants left. Those rents might have been enough to support the family if he didn’t game compulsively almost every single night. But he did game excessively and obsessively, and within a few years of their mother’s death, she had turned her love for sewing into a source of income for them. But it was, at times, humiliating. The very women they had once enjoyed teas and dinner parties with were now her customers. Lady Lewis enjoyed personally handing over her torn and damaged garments, while making a huge fuss at how “sloppy” the repairs were. Alexandra always smiled and apologized. She was actually excellent with a thread and needle, and until the downturn, she had so enjoyed sewing and embroidery. Given a choice, she doubted she would ever thread a needle again.
But they did have clothes on their back, a roof over their heads and food on the table. Their clothes were out of fashion and well mended, the roof leaked when it stormed, and their diet was rather limited to bread, vegetables and potatoes, with red meat on Sundays. But that was better than nothing at all.
And her sisters did not recall a time of luncheons and balls. Alexandra was as grateful for that.
But how would they get on without credit? “I will take in more sewing,” Alexandra said, determined.
“How can you take on more sewing? You are already up all night with the customers you have,” Corey shot. “You have callous on your thumbs!”
Corey was right and Alexandra knew it. She was only one person, and she simply couldn’t manage more repairs, unless she forewent any sleep at all.
“Last summer, Lord Henredon asked me if I would paint his portrait. I refused,” Olivia said quietly. While Corey was a true golden blond, Olivia was that indistinct shade that was neither blond nor brown, but she was also very pretty. “But I could offer my services to the shire as a portrait artist. I think I could make quite a few pounds within a very short time.”
Alexandra stared at her middle sister, dismayed. Her sisters’ happiness meant everything to her. “You are a naturalist,” she said softly. “You despise doing portraits.” But there was more. Henredon had made improper remarks to her. Alexandra felt that as improper advances would have followed. Henredon was known for his gallivanting ways.
“It is a good idea,” Olivia returned as quietly, steel in her green eyes.
“I am hoping it will not come to that,” Alexandra said, meaning it. She was afraid her good-natured sister would be taken advantage of in many ways.
“I doubt that will be necessary, Olivia,” Edgemont said. He turned to Alexandra. “How old are you?”
Alexandra was mildly confused by her father’s odd question. “I am twenty–six.”
The baron flushed. “I thought you were younger, maybe twenty-four. But you’re still an attractive woman, Alexandra, and you keep a fine household, in spite of our means, so you will be the first—to show your sisters proper respect.”
Tension began, but she kept a firm smile in place. “I will be the first to do what, Father?” she asked with care.
“To marry, of course. It’s high time, don’t you think?”
Alexandra was disbelieving. “There’s no money for a dowry.”
“I am aware of that,” Edgemont snapped. “I am very aware of that, Alexandra. In fact, an inquiry has been made about you.”
Alexandra pulled a chair close and sat down. Was Edgemont mad? No one would ever consider an impoverished spinster of her age. Everyone in town knew of her “profession”, just as everyone knew that Edgemont gambled and drank every possible night away. The truth was that the good Bolton name was seriously tainted. “Are you serious, Father?”
He smiled eagerly now. “Squire Denney approached me last night to ask after Alexandra—and to ask if he could call.”
Alexandra was so surprised she sat up straight, causing her chair to rock on its uneven legs. Was there a chance of marriage, after all this time? And for the first time in years, she thought of Owen St James, the man she had given her heart to so long ago.
“Of course you know him,” her father continued, smiling at her. “You sewed his wife’s garments for the past few years. He has come out of mourning, Alexandra, and apparently you have made a considerable impression upon him.”
Alexandra knew she must not think of Owen now, or of the hopes and dreams they had once shared. She recalled the squire, a rather stately older man who had always been polite and respectful to her. She did not know him well, but his wife had been a customer. She had been saddened for him when his wife had passed away. And now, she did not know what to think, because it seemed that she might have a suitor after all.
She trembled. When she had given up marriage nine years ago, they had still been a family with respectable means. But they had been reduced to almost abject poverty now. The Squire was landed and wealthy. Marriage could so improve their circumstances, their lives.
“He must be sixty years old,” Corey gasped, paling.
“He is an older man, but he is very well off, and he is only fifty, Corey. Alexandra will have a closet full of the latest gowns. You will like that, won’t you?” He turned to her, brows raised. “He has a fine manor house. He has a carriage and a brougham.”
Alexandra started, gathering up her wits. She had a suitor—one with means. Yes, he was an older man, but he had always been kind and if he was inclined towards generosity, he could be a savior for their family. And suddenly she thought of Owen and his courtship and she was almost saddened. She must put Owen out of her mind. Squire Denney’s suit was flattering and it was a boon. At her age, in her circumstances, she could not expect more.
“You know I don’t care about fashion—I care about you and the girls,” she said carefully. She stood up and dusted off her immaculate skirts. And she stared carefully at her father now. He was sober and he was no fool. “Tell me about the squire. Is he aware that there is no dowry?”
“Oh dear,” Olivia murmured. “Alexandra, you cannot be considering Denney.”
“Don’t you dare even think about marrying him!” Corey cried.
Alexandra ignored their outbursts.
Edgemont leveled a firm gaze at them both. “You two will keep your opinions to yourselves. They are not wanted! Yes, he is very aware of our predicament, Alexandra.” And Edgemont’s stare was sharp.
“Is there any chance he will be able and willing to contribute to this household?” Alexandra asked, after a lengthy pause.
Corey ran over to her. “How can you consider marrying that fat old farmer!” She whirled. “You can’t marry Alexandra to a farmer, against her will!”
Edgemont glared. “I have had enough of your harping, missy.”
“Corey, please, I must discuss this opportunity,” Alexandra said, squeezing her hand.
“You are elegant and beautiful! You are kind and good! He is fat and old,” Corey cried. “This is not an opportunity. This is a fate worse than death!”
Alexandra laid her hand on her arm. “Please calm yourself.” She faced her father. “Well?”
“Our discussions have not taken that turn. But he is a very wealthy man, Alexandra, I have heard it said he has the largest lease of all the Harrington tenants. He will surely be generous with us.”
Alexandra chewed on her lip, a terrible habit of hers. Lady Harrington was an old family friend; Elizabeth and Blanche had been fond of one another, once. Lady Blanche came out to Edgemont Way once or twice a year, when she was passing by, to check on Alexandra and her sisters. Alexandra no longer called on Lady Blanche, mostly because their clothes were so out of fashion and so shabby—it was too embarrassing. But it might be time to call now. Lady Blanche would certainly know all about Squire Denney.
“Father, I will be frank. If he is inclined to be generous, I do not see how I could refuse his suit—if he truly makes one.”
Corey cried out.
“By god, Alexandra, you are such a fine and generous woman! You are exactly like your mother. She was selfless. And Denny has implied he will be a benevolent son-in-law. And Olivia can certainly run this household once you are wed.”
Alexandra looked at Olivia, who was clearly distraught. She wanted to tell her not to worry, and that it would be all right.
“He will call tomorrow afternoon and I expect you to be turned out in your Sunday best.” Edgemont smiled, pleased. “I am off, then.”
But Corey rudely seized his sleeve as he turned to leave. “You can’t sell her to Morton, Father,” Corey said, flushed with outrage. “She is not a sack of potatoes!”
“Corey.” Olivia seized her hand, jerking it away.
“But that is what he is doing.” Corey was near tears. “He is selling Alexandra off to a fat old farmer, so he can replenish his coffers—and then he will lose it all, once again, gaming at the tables!”
Edgemont’s hand lashed out, and his slap against Corey’s face rang loudly in the room. Corey gasped, her palm flying to her red cheek, and tears finally filled her eyes.
“I have had enough of your insolence,” Edgemont ground out, flushed. “And I do not like it when the three of you band against me. I am your father and the head of this house. You will do as I say–every one of you. So mark my words, after Alexandra, the two of you are next.”
The sisters exchanged wide looks. Alexandra stepped forward, wishing Corey could forgive her father for their circumstances, and knowing she was too young and she could not. But that was no excuse for their father’s harsh behavior. She barred her sister from Edgemont, while Olivia put her arm around her. Corey kept her head high, but she was trembling and furious.
“Of course you are the head of this house. Of course we will do as you say,” Alexandra soothed.
He did not soften. “I mean it, Alexandra. I have decided on this match, whether you agree to it or not. Even if he decides not to contribute to this household, it is high time you are wed.”
Alexandra stiffened. She did not speak her thoughts, but she was amazed. She was too old to be forced against her will into marriage or anything else.
He spoke more kindly. “You are a good daughter, Alexandra, and the truth is, I have your best interests at heart. You all need husbands and homes of your own. I can’t afford handsome young bucks! I wish that I could! But I will do the best that I can, and it is a stroke of great luck that you have attracted Denney, at your age. It has brought me to my senses, at last. Your mother must be rolling about in her grave, the way I’ve neglected your future.” He glared at Corey and Olivia. “And by damn, I expect some gratitude.”
No one moved.
“I’m off then. Plans for the evening, if you must know.” Head down and avoiding their eyes now, as they all knew what he would do that night, he hurried from the room.
When he was gone, the front door of the house slamming, Alexandra whirled. “Are you all right?”
“I hate him,” Corey trembled. “I have always hated him! Look at what he has done to us! And now, he will marry you off!”
Alexandra started and took her youngest sister into her arms. “You can’t hate him; he is your father. He cannot help his gambling! The drinking is an illness, too. Darling, I only want to help you and Olivia, I so want you both to have better lives.”
“We are fine!” Corey wept now. “Everything is his fault! It is his fault we are living this way! It is his fault that the young gentlemen in town offer me flowers and behind my back, send me rude looks and whisper about lifting my skirts! It is his fault my skirts are torn! I hate him! And I will run off before it is my turn to marry some horrid old man.” Corey broke free from Alexandra and ran from the room.
Alexandra looked at Olivia, who returned her gaze. A potent silence fell.
Olivia touched her arm. “This is wrong. Mother would choose a prince for you. She would never approve of this. And we are happy, Alexandra, we are a family.”
Alexandra trembled. Elizabeth Bolton had approved of Owen. In fact, she had been delighted that Alexandra had found such love. And suddenly Alexandra had the notion that Olivia was right. Mother would not approve of this imminently sensible and lucrative match with Denney. “Mother is dead, and Father has become entirely dissipated. This family is my responsibility, Olivia, and mine alone. This suit is a blessing.”
Olivia’s expression tightened. A long pause ensued. Then, “The moment father began to speak of this, I saw your face and knew that no one would be able to talk you out of this terrible match. You sacrificed yourself for us once, but I was too young to understand. Now, you will do so again.”
Alexandra started for the stairs. “It isn’t a sacrifice. Will you help me choose a gown?”
“Alexandra, please don’t do this!”
“Only a hurricane could stop me,” she said firmly. “Or some other, equally terrific, force of nature.”