A social pariah due to her scandalous activities, Lady Sarah Beauchamp yearns for redemption to obtain a husband. The assistance of Society darling Mr. Jonathon Annesley gives her hope of success. However, the more effort he puts into helping her, the more she realizes the only esteem she wishes to earn is that of the handsome Jonathon. However, her reputation would potentially ruin his political aspirations.
Offering a gentleman's promise to help his sister's friend regain the favor of the ton should be easy for son of a viscount, Jonathon Annesley. After all, he's well liked and considered a rising star in Parliament. Until he learns Sarah's ultimate goal is a husband. No man is good enough and could ever appreciate her for all she is. But she is not for him
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The Gentleman's Promise
The Daughters of Amhurst
By Frances Fowlkes, Robin Haseltine
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2017 Frances Fowlkes
All rights reserved.
Lady Sarah Beauchamp was in want of a husband.
Her dowry was large, her looks agreeable, and her bloodlines as blue as the hydrangeas that bloomed in her mother's garden every summer.
And yet, she remained unattached.
Despite her benefactor's attempts at adding more money and a winning Thoroughbred racehorse to increase her appeal, the offers continued in the same vein as they had before.
It did not take a substantial amount of intelligence to discern precisely why such an eligible woman retained her unmarried status. It did, however, require indifference on her part where it pertained to the censure of others, a fair amount of courage to remain stalwart, and extra reserves of patience while waiting for the elusive proposal to appear.
If one were to be given at all.
A willing suitor had the matter of her past and of her poor choices to take into consideration. Specifically those regarding her shy elder sister Henrietta, and Sarah's attempts at helping her gain the attentions of the love of her life, The Black Earl, the very man who stood to inherit their family's estate.
While she had achieved her goal and seen her sister happily married, the assistance came at a cost and was, admittedly, done in poor taste and with great regret. For Sarah had, without caution, created noxious teas intent on putting the other women vying for the earl under the weather to improve her sister's chance of being noticed.
Good intentions, to be certain. Her sister's happiness meant more than the consequences acquired to achieve it.
Or so Sarah had believed.
She'd erred. And grievously so. Her overenthusiasm and lack of understanding Henrietta's avocation had caused greater illness than intended. The sight of her sister Albina ailing in her bed, beads of perspiration dampening her pale flesh as she moaned from stomach cramps inflicted by Sarah's teas, still haunted her. She had naught but to close her eyes to revisit the anguish she had caused her family once they discovered it was her inexperience that had laid Albina near death. The earl's sharp admonishments and the gasps of horror from both Henrietta and her mother at her admission rang in her ears — along with the whispered pronouncement that any chance to see her reputation redeemed was impossible.
She had offered her sincerest apologies and had sworn to no longer dabble with poisonous herbs or to sink to subterfuge to obtain her ends. But her repentance was too little, too late, and the damage done to her reputation irrevocable.
Thus, she remained unattached. And living quite apart from her sisters, both of whom had secured love matches of their own.
The thought of returning to Rosehearst without her sisters' laughter echoing through the halls or their voices of encouragement and support sounding in their favorite garden was enough for Sarah to consider drinking one of her own botched concoctions. She could handle many things, but being alone with the guilt suffocating her like a cloying perfume, and continually reminding her of past regrets, was not one of them.
Besides, Henrietta and Albina were both blissfully happy. And married. Their contented state only served to prove matrimony equated happiness. And happiness was exponentially granted in marriage.
Sarah, however, was neither. But she was determined to be both.
"You are not yet one and twenty, Sarah. You are as far from claiming the title of spinster as I am." Olivia, her dearest friend and hostess for the next month, peered at her over a colorful arrangement of mid-autumn flowers.
Olivia's pale blond curls complemented the mint-green walls of her private sitting room, with its gilded framed paintings of wild flowers the same hues as those at her fingertips. Her friend had a consoling yet animated air about her, every clip of a stem done with a flourish and an energy that Sarah's downtrodden countenance had long forgotten.
"You did not, however, unintentionally poison your sister."
"Only because I do not have a sister. Were I in possession of one, she would have undoubtedly been the victim of my well-intended meddling, same as yours. Besides, you could not have planned for Albina's overindulgence. How were you to know she would take to your particular blend of licorice tea and consume it in such vast quantities?" She stuck the chrysanthemum into a cluster of dahlias protruding from a porcelain vase.
A crackling fire in the stone hearth did its best to ward off the chill of the glum October afternoon. Wrapping the knitted yarn around her shoulders, she said, "If only you were so lucky to have a sister."
"I have four brothers." Olivia reached for Sarah's hand and clasped it between her own. Her flesh was warm in spite of the chill. "It is I who should be fearing spinsterhood. There is not a man alive who is brave or silly enough to seek my hand. Not when they must cross paths with each of my brothers first."
"Were I to have a house full of brothers who could share in intelligent conversation —"
"You would seek out female companionship as I have done. While brothers are diverting, they do not possess a basic understanding of fashion, gossip, or human emotion." She gave Sarah's hand a squeeze. "It has been a joy having you here these past few days. Be assured, when the time for your departure arrives, I will not let you go easily. Unless ..."
"Unless what?" Sarah asked.
"You are ensnared by Cupid's arrow and the husband you seek has arrived to whisk you away to your happily ever after."
Sarah pulled her hand from Olivia's and laughed. "Then it looks as though mine will be a difficult departure, indeed. When my mother's carriage arrives to return me to Rosehearst, grieving shall be the order of the day. There is nothing for me there but empty rooms reminding me of what my sisters have ... and I have not."
"I thought you were to return to your sister and assist with her lying in."
"I did as well. However, I received word this morning that Albina believes Henrietta, as the elder with two children of her own, would be of more assistance than I with none."
Olivia slid another chrysanthemum into the arrangement. "Rosehearst is a fine home."
"That it is," conceded Sarah with a small smile. "But a home is only a building without the souls who dwell within its walls. My sisters and I are close. Or at least we were. I feel as though they are slipping away, their conversations more about married life, their children, and their homes than the books we used to read so voraciously or which fashions we thought the most ridiculous. Albina's decision to choose Henrietta over me, her own twin, for her lying in only serves to strengthen my purpose." She peered at her friend through the fragrant greenery. "I need a husband."
Olivia craned around the flora to stare at Sarah. "So that you may share in your sister's conversations?"
Were it only conversations, Sarah would not have the stench of desperation clinging to her like a cheap bombazine. What kept her awake at night, what had worn her fingernails into painful, torn stubs, was a fear that was quickly becoming a reality — her isolation from everything she once held dear.
She was a societal pariah. A leper. A stain on her family's once good name. And her sister's children would suffer because of it. She needed a husband to polish off the tarnish and redeem her in the eyes of those whose opinions mattered.
"You must think of the positive and indulge in a little whimsy," Olivia persisted. She snatched a pink aster from the pile and twirled it between her forefinger and thumb. "You only need a little faith like the heroines in your beloved books."
Sarah blinked away her wayward thoughts to stare at her friend. "All the leads in my stories end up alone. Or dead."
"Everyone is owed a second chance. Especially when they have repented and shown remorse, which you have done and continue to do. Multiple times over."
Sarah brought a sprig of light pink Daphne to her nose and inhaled the faint citrus scent. "If only the rest of the ton believed as you. I'm afraid my future as a spinster is guaranteed. Unless you are Cinderella and possess a wish-granting tree."
"Why would two beautiful ladies require a magical tree?"
Sarah turned her head toward a deep, familiar voice. Mr. Jonathon Annesley, Olivia's eldest brother by seven years, stood in the door frame, his light brown hair brushing against the white trim. Sarah's lips spread wide, despite her dispirited mood. She couldn't help smiling in Jonathon's presence. His good-natured humor was infectious. One could never be downhearted around the viscount's firstborn.
"To keep meddling brothers out of their affairs, of course," Olivia said with a laugh.
"Ah, but those same brothers have their sister's best interest at heart." He strode toward them, his forest-green eyes sparkling with mirth. "She does not require a tree when she has brothers. If she is in want of something, she need only speak, and her wish is granted." He snatched a sprig of Daphne from Olivia's collection and twirled it between his fingers.
Olivia's eyes narrowed. "Is that so? Well, then, I wish to dance a waltz at the next ball."
Scrunching his nose, he shook his head. "I'm afraid the wishes have limitations, and that particular one has been denied. There are rules to be followed."
Olivia rolled her eyes. "Would the same rule apply to Sarah?"
Sarah plucked the flower from Jonathon's grasp and handed it to Olivia. "Any willing partner outside of my kin and over the age of twelve will do. The last time I danced with my cousin's son, he stepped on my toes more than on the dance floor."
"When I think to the last ball, I believed your dance card full."
"I dance with those listed on my card," Sarah said, matter of fact. "I'm afraid my card was quite empty when I visited the nursery the day after Lady Dalton's ball. He took all of my spots and would have taken more, but Nanny said he was due for a nap, and I didn't wish to get him in trouble."
Jonathon glanced between Olivia and her, disbelief etched into the stark lines of his broad forehead, square jaw, and dimpled chin. "I don't understand. When last I saw you at a ball, a line of men fought for your attentions —"
"And when, precisely, was the last time you saw me dance at a ball?"
His cheeks stained a light shade of pink. "I suppose it has been two years past. At Lady Dewbury's annual spring fete."
Sarah nodded. She remembered his comforting hold on her hands, his encouraging smile, as he twirled her around the crowded dance floor. He had been so strong and certain, both confident in his steps and assured of his conversation. She could not help but feel at ease in his arms, a gentleman in every sense of the word. "Lady Dewbury's was my first outing after my introduction into Society. I believe you saved me a dance then."
"Of course I saved you a dance. Any man would be a fool not to."
Her face warmed. He had always been kind to her, doling out the occasional compliment or two. Her physical reaction to his pleasing words was a natural response to positive affirmation. Something she no longer heard, at least outside of her family and most intimate circle of friends. "I fear your memories of my popularity are from an earlier time — one prior to my botched attempts to secure the Earl of Amhurst for Henrietta."
"Are you suggesting that as a result of your misguided attempts to aid another, your sister no less, you no longer have dance partners?" He glanced between them, as though daring them to prove him right.
Which Olivia did. And without blinking. "Yes. Although it extends past the dance floor, to the drawing room and to Society in general. Sarah has not had an invitation to dance from a man outside of her family and ours in almost two years."
* * *
Were it not for Olivia's solemn tone and somber face, Jonathon would have believed himself the victim of yet another of his younger sister's japes. She was always about some folly or ploy to elicit a smile and gain revenge for his or one of their siblings' jesting.
They had, however, an unspoken rule amongst them. All mocking, while at times irritating, was never done with malicious intent. Their play was good-natured and done out of love.
Which was why he had to believe Olivia was completely serious in her words, and the dark English beauty standing beside him was being served a punishment undeserving of the crime.
He had heard the rumors. In his spheres of influence, it was hard not to hear the whispers of scandal and those ensnared in the societal death it delivered. But when the tongues had started wagging over Sarah's bout with poisoned tea, he had dismissed them out of hand as the simple misunderstanding he believed them to be.
Lady Sarah Beauchamp, the youngest daughter of a deceased earl, should in no way be hurting for a dance partner. With ink black hair and pleasing tawny-colored eyes, she was a natural beauty, a gem among the hordes of debutantes shoved in his direction.
He supposed, however, she was no longer a debutante but an unmarried woman at the end of her second season, same as Olivia. Though, as it were, Olivia's single status was purposely imposed. His father had deemed no man worthy of her hand, and he and his trio of brothers, agreed.
Sarah, however, had no stipulations attached to her proposal. In fact, the current earl had increased her dowry two-fold, if rumors were to be believed. Jonathon had thought it an act of generosity in appreciation for her work in bringing about the earl's marriage to Henrietta, her sister. He was wrong. Her dowry had doubled not out of gratitude but so she might entice a husband, because a small scandal had deemed her unworthy of a second chance.
Surely her situation was not as dire as she claimed. Lady Sarah Beauchamp did not need money to draw a gentleman's attention. Not when she possessed a mind as sharp as any man's and a face far more pleasing than most women.
"Your dance card remains empty through no fault of your own," he said soundly. "I'm afraid the ton is populated with cowards intimidated by your wit, charm, and excellent dancing skills."
A light chortle sounded as a smile pulled at her pink lips. "You, sir, are far too kind."
His blood stirred, as it did whenever a pretty girl paid him a compliment. This girl, however, was not another society darling, but his sister's best friend.
Shaking his head, he mastered mind over body. "I only speak the truth."
Her gaze fell to her hands as she trailed a finger along the edge of her cream-colored shawl.
Transfixed by the simple action, he stared. His pulse skipped as his skin warmed, heated by the sensual flick of her forefinger as it touched upon the corner tassel ...
He closed his eyes and let out a low breath. He'd abstained from his carnal pleasures for too long, his desire to gain the favor of the older conservative Tories with his impeccable behavior now backfiring at the most inconvenient time — when he was not only attempting to right a grievous wrong, but also doing so in front of his sister and her friend.
Jonathon brushed a piece of lint off the navy sleeve of his jacket. "Know the ton and their way of thinking can be swayed. They need only a gentle push in a different, and apparently new, direction."
Olivia stabbed another aster into the vase. "What are you saying?" "I am saying opinions can be changed if the right heads are turned."
The women exchanged a glance. "Who deems which heads are needed to be turned?" Olivia asked.
"I do." He said the words with the same conviction he felt — he had swayed more than one vote in his father's direction, and over matters far more concerning than one girl's reputation.
Sarah's forehead wrinkled. "Are you suggesting you would assist in helping me earn the forgiveness I seek?"
"I am." It couldn't be that difficult to cull favor in a few influential houses. Her peccadillo was not as serious as others and ought to be easily forgiven ... with the right incentives, of course. A few coins in the right pockets would need to be dispensed, but heads were easily turned for the right price.
Now that he thought of it, he was rather surprised her benefactor had not considered this venue. Then again, the Earl of Amhurst had a few blemishes on his own name and did not carry the influence Jonathon and his father had worked so long to achieve.
"But why? What do you stand to gain in helping me?" she asked.
Jonathon returned his attention to Sarah and her furrowed brow. He had an overwhelming urge to smooth the creases wrought by her anxiety. She was far too fair to have her delicate features marred by the judgment of others, though she had a valid point. What did he hope to accomplish in assisting her with a dilemma that did not benefit his standing in the House of Lords, but could, in fact, jeopardize it with her tarnish?
Excerpted from The Gentleman's Promise by Frances Fowlkes, Robin Haseltine. Copyright © 2017 Frances Fowlkes. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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