Seducing the Spinster – Diana Bold

Julian Tremaine, the Earl of Basingstoke, crushed Lady Jane Bennett’s hastily scrawled note in his fist as he strode quickly through the wooded hills that separated his own country estate from that of Jane’s father, the Marquess of Langston. He couldn’t imagine what had prompted her to send for him. Jane had never been given to dramatics, so he knew something must be terribly wrong. Meet me at our special place, she’d written. I need you. Though less than a mile separated his property from hers, the walk through the trees seemed to take forever, the chill wind cutting through him like a knife as his mind raced with the possibilities. When he finally crested the hill above the small hunting cottage where he and Jane had shared their first kiss just six short months ago, he found her waiting for him out front, the weak winter sun catching in her golden hair. Even from this distance, he could tell that she was crying. His heart seized in his chest, and he stumbled to a stop. Her tears reminded him of his mother, sobbing in her bed after the deaths of his older brother and younger sister. All of his subsequent memories of her had been filled with her tears, until she’d finally joined his siblings, dying of what he’d always been convinced was a broken heart. A woman’s tears had wrecked him ever since. Jane had always been so sunny and bright. In fact, that was probably what drew him to her, why he loved her so deeply. She represented happiness for him, and since his life sometimes seemed to be just one tragedy after another, he desperately needed that.

For one cowardly moment, he wanted nothing more than to turn and run back the way he had come, completely uncertain of his ability to give her the comfort she so obviously needed. Shaking himself, ashamed that he’d allowed such a thought to cross his mind, he ran toward her instead, sweeping her up against him in a tight embrace. “Jane,” he murmured into her lavender-scented hair, finding comfort of his own in the feel of her body pressed to his. “What’s wrong? Why are you crying, sweetheart?” She shook her head against his chest, sobbing even harder now. “It’s… my father…” she managed at last. “Your father?” he asked, cupping her chin and lifting her face, staring down into her lovely tearstreaked face. Her blue eyes were puffy and swollen, as though she’d been crying for days. “What happened to your father?” Her eyes welled with fresh tears. “He’s… gone.” Her bottom lip trembled.

“Oh, Julian. He didn’t come down for breakfast…. And when… his valet tried to wake him…” “Ah, Jane… I’m so sorry.” He hugged her even tighter, knowing all too well how it felt to lose a parent. His mother had died five years ago, and his father had drunk himself to death only a few years later. In all, he’d lost four of the five members of his immediate family in less than three years. Only his younger brother, Ethan, remained. Jane had also lost her mother, and she’d never had any siblings, so she had no one now. No one but me. As he pressed his face to hers, he felt how chilled she was.

Though the sun was shining, the day was bitterly cold, which seemed rather fitting, given what he’d just learned. Sweeping her up in his arms, he strode toward the cottage, kicking open the door and depositing her in the center of the small bed in the corner. Before she could protest, he tucked several rough woolen blankets around her. B “Stay there,” he murmured. “I’m going to start a fire.” He turned away, busying himself at the fireplace for several minutes as he got a small fire burning in the hearth. His mind raced as he forced himself to acknowledge Jane’s new circumstances. She’d just turned eighteen, and they’d always been expected to marry. Now that her father was gone, he didn’t know what she’d do, where she’d go. He had a feeling that her father’s estate would be deeply in debt, given the fact that the man had a gambling problem and had been burning through his fortune for years now.

The closest male relation, who was but a distant cousin, would inherit the estate, and Jane would be at his mercy. The obvious solution would be to officially propose. Then, after her mourning period was over, they could wed, and he’d give her the protection of his wealth and name. Panic surged through him. He loved Jane. She was his very best friend, and she’d helped him through his own father’s death. He wanted to marry her. Truly, he did. But he was only twenty. He’d just inherited an earldom.

He wasn’t sure he was ready to take on yet another responsibility. Sighing, he turned back to the bed and crawled beneath the blankets, pulling Jane into his arms. “I’m here,” he murmured, brushing a few strands of silky golden hair from her face. “I’m here for you, Jane.” “Thank you,” she whispered, snuggling her face against his chest, her small body shivering uncontrollably. “I shouldn’t have run away from the house. But… I couldn’t bear to be there with him… when he was gone. And… I wanted you. I knew you’d come. I can always count on you.

” “Of course,” he assured her, her words making him feel even worse about the doubts churning within him. “I’ll always be here for you, Jane. Always.” But her father’s death changed everything. Their relationship had always been a bit one-sided, with her being the one to give him comfort as he tried to work through his own grief and his anger at his brother Ethan, who he sometimes blamed for it all. Could he help her the way she’d helped him? Even now, he knew he shouldn’t be here like this with her. It went against everything society deemed proper. If they were caught alone together, despite the extenuating circumstances, her reputation would be ruined, and he’d be forced to marry her. Why was that idea suddenly so terrifying? Perhaps, deep down, he knew that he didn’t deserve her. She was too good for him, too sweet and perfect to be forever saddled with his darkness.

He should let her go to London, have a Season, find someone who would be better suited to her. His arms tightened around her at the very thought. Even if he didn’t deserve her, she was his. It would kill him to see her with someone else. For half an hour more, he held her, whispering inane platitudes and gently rubbing her slim back in an effort to soothe her pain. At last, her sobs subsided, and she lay passively in his embrace, completely hollowed out by the depth of her sorrow. “I should go back,” she whispered, her voice hoarse and raw. “There’s so much that needs to be done.” He hugged her tight, then reluctantly let her go. “I’ll go with you.

I’ll help.” She stared at him with those beautiful teary eyes, and the trust and love he saw there made him feel even more guilt and doubt. He wasn’t worthy of so much love. He knew that he’d eventually disappoint her. JANE HELD JULIAN’S letter in her trembling hands, tears streaking her cheeks as she forced herself to read it one more time. Dear Jane, I’ve been called away to London. I won’t be there for your father’s burial. Know that my thoughts and prayers will be with you. I’m so sorry. Julian She kept thinking she was missing something, that she’d somehow misinterpreted what he’d said.

Only yesterday, he’d held her so tenderly and promised he’d be there for her no matter what. What could be so important that he’d leave her when she needed him most? Her first thought had been to worry for him, to hope something hadn’t happened to Ethan, the only family member he had left, but in her heart, she knew that wasn’t true. He’d run away. Though he’d stood by her side all day yesterday, she’d sensed the restlessness in him, the fear. He’d said and done all the right things, but there had been something cornered and rebellious in his gaze. As though her father’s death had stripped him of his choices. She knew he felt as though he had to marry her now, and that obviously terrified him. Why? He was her best friend, the one person she’d always felt understood her. Their relationship had been so simple, so precious. She couldn’t help but feel hurt and betrayed by his actions.

She wasn’t trying to pressure him into marriage. She just wanted him to be here for her while she laid her father to rest. Was that too much to ask? A sudden surge of fury consumed her, and she ripped the letter to shreds, letting the pieces fall to the floor. Her father was gone, and the creditors were already nipping at her heels. A distant cousin was set to take the title and everything that had been entailed. All she’d have left was the London townhouse, but she knew her father hadn’t left her enough money to maintain it for long. Before his death, the marquess had gambled away most of his fortune, including her dowry, always convinced that he’d win it all back. If not for a small inheritance from her maternal grandmother, she wouldn’t make it through the year without having to impose upon some friend or distant family member to take her in. She could probably go stay with the Duke of Clayton, her mother’s brother, and be a companion to her cousin Natalia, but though she and Natalia were close, she would hate that. The last thing she wanted was to be a burden.

She’d thought she could count on Julian, but it was becoming clearer to her by the moment that the only person she could count on was herself. Straightening her shoulders, she dried her angry tears and lifted her chin. Somehow, she’d find her own way, no matter what that entailed. And above all else, she promised herself to never believe in a man again. Chapter One even Years Later London – June 1867 “Let’s get this over with.” Julian grinned at his friend Michael Blake’s grim pronouncement. “Those aren’t the words one usually uses when they are about to meet their future bride.” Michael glared at him as they strode through the theater, on their way to a private box that held Julian’s old friend, Lady Jane Bennett, and her companion, Miss Emma Marks. “I’m not in the mood to be teased about this.” Julian tried to hold back his mirth because he knew just how badly Michael dreaded meeting Miss Marks, the American heiress who was the key to his family’s financial difficulties.

However, he’d always enjoyed poking fun at his straight-laced friend. “You never know. You might actually like her. You should at least give her a chance before you fall into despair.” Michael sighed and swept an errant strand of blond hair out of his eyes. “Sorry. I suppose you’re right. I just hate being backed into a corner like this.” Julian gave him a sympathetic glance. Despite his amusement, he felt a bit cornered as well.

He hadn’t seen Jane Bennett in seven years—not since he’d walked out on her after her father’s death. In fact, he hadn’t even known she was in London until Michael had asked for an introduction earlier this evening. Michael had remembered that Julian’s country estate had bordered Jane’s father’s, and he’d thought Julian the perfect person to arrange his first meeting with Miss Marks. Julian had to admit that the prospect of speaking with Jane again both thrilled and terrified him. He was trying to act supremely confident about the matter, but he had no idea how Jane would react to him after all these years. He’d treated her so poorly… No, if he were being honest with himself, he had to admit that his actions had been worse than deplorable. He’d broken her heart. He’d held her that first day, when her grief over her father’s death had been fresh and traumatic, but the next morning, he’d made an excuse to go to London, where he’d lost himself in drinking and whoring, trying to forget how much he’d disappointed her. Weeks had passed, and one morning he’d woken with a pounding headache and a heart full of regret. He’d stayed away too long, and he’d known nothing he could say at this late date could make up for what he’d done.

He’d failed her so terribly that it was much easier to stay in London and pretend she’d never meant anything to him. In fact, after a few years, he managed to put all thoughts of her away and convince himself that she was simply the first of the many women who would come in and out of his life. He’d comforted himself with the thought that she’d surely wed some staid country lord and was happy and content raising children and dogs in some country pile, having forgotten all about him. But in all the years since, he’d never felt so comfortable, so much himself, around any other woman. He’d known none of the women who graced his bed actually cared about him. They simply liked the things he could give them—the power of his wealth and rank. As if all of this wasn’t bad enough, Michael had also revealed that Jane was apparently sponsoring the American girl, allowing Miss Marks to live in her Mayfair home while she introduced her to society. Rumor had it that she was being paid handsomely for this service. He hated to hear that S she’d been reduced to such dire straits. She was the daughter of a marquess, for God’s sake! Why hadn’t she married? Even though her father had gambled away her dowry, he’d assumed someone else would be thrilled to make her his bride.

He took a deep breath, shaking his head to clear it of his riotous thoughts, then stopped before the footman who stood on their side of the heavy velvet partition. “Please tell Lady Jane that Lord Basingstoke would like to speak with her.” However, before the man could announce them, Jane swept back the curtain. Her eyes widened, and her face went blank when she saw who stood on the other side. “Lord Basingstoke,” she said, her voice utterly emotionless. “What are you doing here?” Julian met her direct blue gaze, and something deep inside him, something he’d thought long dead, came roaring back to life. She still had the power to take his breath away, something he hadn’t anticipated. “Good evening, Lady Jane. I’ve come to arrange an introduction between my friend Lord Sherbourne and your lovely companion Miss Marks.” Jane recovered quickly from her surprise.

Whatever she might feel about seeing Julian after all these years, she was keeping it to herself. She stood slightly aside and gestured behind her. “Lord Basingstoke, Lord Sherbourne, may I present Miss Emma Marks of New York City?” “It’s a pleasure to meet you, my lords.” The dark-haired beauty behind Jane stood and curtsied gracefully. Julian didn’t know what Michael was so worried about. The girl had perfect manners. Sherbourne stepped forward in resignation. “The pleasure is mine,” he murmured, his voice clipped. Taking her gloved hand, he brought it briefly to his lips. Then he stepped back, and an awkward silence fell upon the group.

Wincing inwardly at his friend’s deplorable lack of charm, Julian smiled at the heiress, determined to smooth things over and save Michael from himself. “Are you enjoying your visit, Miss Marks?” “I’m enjoying London very much,” she responded brightly, obviously as determined as he to make polite conversation. “I hear you’re quite the world traveler.” Though Julian continued speaking to Miss Marks, he stared at Jane out of the corner of his eye, wishing she’d look at him, give him some clue how she was feeling. “Tell us about your journeys. Have you been anywhere fascinating and exotic?” “I’ve traveled extensively on the Continent during the past two years. I must admit, however, to being a bit of a history enthusiast, the older and dustier the better. I’d love to visit Egypt, but I haven’t yet had the chance.” Miss Marks’ enthusiasm for the subject was clear, and Julian suddenly felt more confident about the possibility of a match between Miss Marks and Michael. “What a coincidence.

” Julian glanced quickly at Michael, hoping he’d jump on the topic. “Sherbourne is an amateur archaeologist. He’s fascinated by all things Egyptian. In fact, he’s sponsored several expeditions and has an amazing collection of artifacts.” Emma turned to Michael, sudden excitement sparkling in her eyes. “Have you been to Egypt, Lord Sherbourne? Have you seen the great pyramids and the Sphinx?” “I’ve never left England,” Michael admitted, and Julian knew how much the fact pained his friend, who had an adventurous streak he’d never been allowed to indulge. “My responsibilities don’t allow for frivolities such as travel.” Though she obviously understood that he’d meant to rebuke her, Emma smiled. “Well, no wonder you collect Egyptian artifacts. Everyone needs a little something exotic in their lives.

I’d love to see your collection.” Jane gasped audibly at Emma’s forward behavior, but Julian merely chuckled and gave her a covert wink. He liked this girl. Michael looked slightly stunned, as though he had no idea what to make of her. “I keep my artifacts in the country, at Sherbourne Hall, but perhaps something can be arranged.” He took a deep breath, as though girding himself for something unpleasant. “In the meantime, would you allow me to call on you? At your earliest convenience?” “Of course, you may call upon me,” Miss Marks replied graciously. “I’d be delighted.” “Excellent. You may expect me tomorrow morning.

” Bowing stiffly, Sherbourne turned and left their box. Julian smiled and shrugged. “What can I say, Miss Marks? He’s an acquired taste.” Hoping Michael hadn’t ruined his chances with the heiress, he finally turned his entire attention to Jane “It was a pleasure to see you again, Lady Jane. You’ve been absent from Society for far too long.” Jane stared at him without comment, still unruffled, giving nothing of her feelings away. He met her gaze for a long moment, remembering the trick he had up his sleeve, surprisingly happy to be in her sweet, calming presence again after so long apart. Why didn’t I stay for her father’s funeral? She needed me, and I failed her. I can’t believe she isn’t ordering me to leave. Determined to keep things light, he laughed and produced a single red rose with a quick flick of his wrist.

His older brother Nathanial had taught him the trick before he’d died, and for some reason, tonight he’d hidden the rose in his jacket with the intention of performing it for some lovely lady. He’d just never expected that lady to be Jane. “Oh, Julian.” Jane’s mask finally fell, and she accepted the rose, sudden tears filling her eyes. “It’s beautiful.” He stared down at her, wanting to tell her that she was lovelier than any rose could ever be, but he knew he’d lost his chance to whisper sweet words to her. Suddenly, he regretted the rose trick. This was Jane. She wasn’t like all his other conquests, not merely a game to be won. In fact, she was the only woman he’d ever loved.

And as he gazed into her blue eyes, he wondered if he’d ever really gotten over her. Swallowing thickly, he whirled and left the box. His mind racing and heart aching, he hurried after Michael, who seemed determined to leave the theater entirely. Bloody hell. He’d never expected seeing Jane again to resurrect all those old feelings for her he’d thought long dead. But now that he’d seen her, now that he knew what had happened to her, how could he possibly ignore the fact that he was largely to blame for her reduced circumstances? She should have been his wife… He finally caught up to Michael on the bustling street outside. “I don’t know what all the fuss is about,” he commented, hoping to take his mind off of Jane. “I find Miss Marks quite refreshing.” Michael threw him an exasperated glance. “If you like her so much, why don’t you marry her?” Julian chuckled openly.

“Because I don’t need her dowry, my friend. And I haven’t any relatives breathing down my neck, insisting I breed an heir. Besides, if I married her, what would you do? There aren’t any other heiresses of her ilk this season.” “I’m aware of that. Otherwise, I certainly wouldn’t be considering an American,” Michael snapped. “American or not, she’s one of the most exotically beautiful creatures I’ve ever seen.” Julian raised one brow. “Don’t tell me you didn’t notice.” “I prefer my women blonde and biddable,” Michael replied, still angry. “Blonde and biddable?” Julian scoffed.

“You’d be bored to death in a month.” He shook his head. “If you ask me, I think your brother has the right idea. I don’t intend to wed until I find someone who makes me feel the way Dylan feels about Lady Natalia.” Michael gave him a disbelieving glance as Julian motioned for his driver to bring up the coach. “You can’t mean never to marry. What about your title? Surely, you don’t want your wastrel of a brother to inherit it?” “I don’t give a damn about my title,” Julian replied bitterly. “It’s brought me nothing but misfortune. Ethan is welcome to it, though I doubt he’d want it either.” Julian’s luxurious coach arrived, and they climbed in.

He gave a sharp rap on the roof to signal they were ready to leave. As the lumbering vehicle moved through the crowded streets of Mayfair, they both settled against the blue velvet cushions. Having inherited his title and lucrative estates at a very young age, Julian had never had to deal with the sort of pressure Michael did. The viscount’s gambling wastrel of a father was running their earldom into the ground while constantly pressuring Michael to wed an heiress to cover his losses. Julian’s own parents had been dead for nearly a decade now, and the title had always seemed like more of a burden than a blessing. It should have been Nathaniel’s, not his, and he was reminded of that fact every day. He met Michael’s icy gaze and gave him a sympathetic smile. “Sorry. I can’t imagine how hard this must be for you. I’ll try to keep my jests to a minimum.

” Michael managed a tight smile in return. “I do appreciate the introduction. I’d been at a loss on how to arrange it.” “Think nothing of it,” Julian said lightly. They both became lost in their separate thoughts of the women they’d just left. At least, Julian assumed Michael was thinking about Miss Marks. For his part, he couldn’t get Jane out of his mind. When he’d heard that she had let out her house and was sponsoring the American girl this Season, he’d been upset by the news, but now that he’d actually seen her again, he didn’t know how he could continue to ignore the situation. “I’ve known Jane since we were children. Although never official, there was always an understanding we would wed.

I’ve always been ashamed of myself for not proposing after her father died.” As the words left his lips, Julian realized how badly this had been weighing on him, how much he’d needed to talk about it. “I’d forgotten all about that.” Michael offered him a sympathetic glance, seeming glad for the distraction. “It’s not your fault the marquess had a gambling problem. No one expected you to marry the girl without a dowry.” “You don’t understand. I treated her quite badly, simply walked away and never looked back.” Julian winced as he thought of the tears she’d shed that last day that he’d seen her. How many more had she shed because of him? “Perhaps I should arrange an anonymous bequest.

I don’t want her to have to spend the rest of her life pandering to rich Americans.” Michael braced himself as the coach bounced over a deep rut. “You’re not the heartless rake you pretend to be.” “And you’re not the staid, joyless paragon you pretend either,” Julian retorted. “Come on, old man, admit it. Miss Marks is exactly what you need to make life interesting.” “I admit no such thing,” Michael countered, obviously aghast at the very thought. Julian sighed, turning away to look out the window once again. Now that he truly understood Jane’s circumstances, he couldn’t ignore them. And now that he’d seen her again, he couldn’t pretend that she hadn’t been his first—his only—love.

She was certainly the only person in his entire life who’d ever truly loved him. WHEN JANE ARRIVED HOME from the theater, she bid Emma goodnight and then hurried up to the sanctuary of her bedroom. She carefully placed the rose Julian had given her in a vase on her dresser then sank down on her bed and stared at it, overwhelmed with riotous emotion. How dare he! For seven years, she’d mourned his loss. She’d watched him across crowded ballrooms as he’d flirted and danced with eligible young ladies without a care in the world. As though he’d never told her that he loved her, that she was his best friend, that he couldn’t wait to spend the rest of his life with her. He’d made her promises, then broken them recklessly. Then tonight, out of the blue, he’d decided to impose upon that old friendship. He’d told her that he was glad she’d returned to Society, when she’d never left it. Apparently, he hadn’t been avoiding her at all those balls and soirees, he just hadn’t even noticed that she was there, which was even more insulting! And then, he’d made that stupid silly romantic gesture, gifting her with the rose… and she’d somehow fallen for him all over again.

Why did he still have to be so devastatingly handsome? He’d still been a lanky lad in some ways the last time they’d spoken, but now he had the power and grace of a jungle cat. His black hair had gleamed in the candlelight, and she’d wanted to run her fingers through it. His dark eyes still saw too much, holding a deep sadness she wanted to somehow soothe. I’m such a fool. She blinked back a rush of tears, furious, confused, and heartsick. How could she still feel something for that notorious womanizer, after everything he’d done to her? She should have refused to make the introductions, given him the cut direct. But she’d needed Emma to meet Lord Sherbourne, so she’d swallowed back the first rush of dismay upon seeing him, only to be taken in by his charm once more

.

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