The Substitute Lover – Merry Farmer

Suzanne Porterfield’s heart pounded in her chest and her breath came in short, shallow gasps as she dashed from the post office into the first shady alley she could find. She pressed her back against one side of the alley, glancing this way and that to make certain no one had noticed her. It was a huge risk to be seen in daylight, picking up a letter at the post office. It was a risk to register her name at any sort of post office to begin with. The last thing she should be doing was leaving any sort of trail for Hugh Stanley to follow. If he found her— She swallowed. She couldn’t bear thinking about it. She scooted deeper into the alley, the letter from her sister pressed against her stomach as she sought out a place where she could read in peace. Not that she was likely to find any sort of peace any time soon. There was a dreadful chance that she would never feel at peace again for the rest of her life. The alley was hot and the humidity of the tropics hung in the air, but Suzanne was willing to endure any and all sorts of discomfort to stay out of Hugh’s clutches. St. John’s, Antigua was an accident. She’d fled Charleston, South Carolina two months before with only a satchel packed with whatever she’d been able to stuff in it before the carriage that was supposed to take her to her wedding arrived. She’d resorted to climbing out the window of her parent’s town house and racing through the streets before dawn to reach the harbor.

From there, she’d bought passage on the first ship to depart, not caring where it was headed. It was only after hiding below deck all day that she’d discovered she was bound for the Caribbean. Fortunately for her, St. John’s was precisely the sort of town where she could hide. It was a conglomeration of stately plantation houses inhabited by wealthy, mostly British landowners, the miserable souls who those men believed they owned, and every sort of scrounger, miscreant, and ambitious dreamer who wanted to set up a business to serve the vibrant trade that passed through the ports all around the island. Some of those businessmen were legitimate and industrious. The ones Suzanne had found it necessary to conceal herself among were anything but. She tucked herself into the doorway of a salon that, if her observations over the last months were correct, sold far more than coffee and chocolate to the rough and tumble sailors who patronized it. At least that meant no one would question the presence of a bedraggled woman in the back alley. It had been weeks since she’d informed her sister where she was, and at last, a reply had reached her.

She tore open the letter, scanning its contents as though they were water and she was parched. “Dearest Suzanne. As overjoyed as I am to hear from you, it was madness for you to contact me. Father nearly found the letter you sent, in spite of your efforts to address it to Mrs. Merriweather next door. He has been in a rage since you ran away. But that is nothing to the cold, vengeful reaction Mr. Stanley has had to your departure. He considers himself humiliated and he has vowed to find you and teach you never to cross him again. It would all be talk, except that he disappeared last week.

A few private inquiries on my part have revealed that he has set sail for the Caribbean. Dearest Suzanne, I fear that Mr. Stanley knows where you are and is coming for you. Please, dear God in heaven above, run. Run as fast and as far as you can. And whatever you do, do not send me another letter telling me where you have landed. Your loving sister, Grace.” Suzanne gulped for air as she scanned the letter a second time. Hugh couldn’t possibly know where she was. She hadn’t known where she was going herself.

Although, if he’d made inquiries at the port in Charleston, he might have been able to surmise which ship she’d booked passage on. By process of elimination alone, he might know where to go. The thought made Suzanne feel sick. She pushed away from the doorway, hurrying on past refuse from the buildings around her, discarded fishing nets, and broken bits of barrels. Grace was right. She had to run. She had to find another place to go, another hole to hide in. The problem was that she had only been able to steal so much of her father’s money before running away. That meager sum was running out. She’d sold everything of value she had.

Well, except one, crucial commodity. She glanced warily at the doxies flirting with sailors and merchants as she stepped out of the alley and into the street that would take her to the third-rate inn where she’d been staying since her arrival. She had one last thing she could sell, but the thought turned her stomach. Though, perhaps not as much as the thought of Hugh catching her and teaching her whatever lesson he had in mind. “Oy, deary, you look as though you’ve swallowed an entire bilge,” Mrs. Lacey, the landlady of the inn, greeted her as Suzanne hurried into the dingy pub that made up the downstairs of the inn. “What’s gotten into you, love?” Desperation gnawed at Suzanne’s insides. She had to say something to someone, if only so that Mrs. Lacey could alert the authorities if Hugh really did catch up with her and her body was found floating in a tidal pool somewhere. “I received a letter from my sister,” she said in a haunted voice, approaching the bar behind which Mrs.

Lacey stood. “And it made you look like that?” Mrs. Lacey stepped away from the receipts she was tallying with a compassionate look. The woman might have been rough and a bit crooked, but she was the kindest person Suzanne had met in her flight. Suzanne swallowed before saying, “The man I was supposed to marry might know where I am.” Mrs. Lacey’s expression filled with grave concern. “The slave-owner?” Suzanne nodded sickly. “I suppose he wants revenge and all,” Mrs. Lacey went on.

“Just like a man.” Suzanne nodded again, pressing the letter she still held to her stomach. “I don’t know what to do, Mrs. Lacey. I need to flee here. I need to get away, find somewhere else to hide. But I don’t have the money for passage to…to anywhere.” “Poor deary.” Mrs. Lacey reached for Suzanne’s hand, patting it.

Suzanne glanced slowly up at her. “I only have one way to make money.” Judging by the frankness in her eyes, Mrs. Lacey knew exactly what Suzanne meant. “Yes, you do,” she agreed. Suzanne’s heart sank. She’d hoped Mrs. Lacey could come up with some other way. But the landlady was a woman of the world, and she likely knew the harsh realities of life. “I don’t know how I’m going to do it.

” Suzanne began to cry, more miserable than she’d ever been. “I’ve always been a good girl. I never dreamed of doing anything so scandalous or inappropriate.” “You can fetch more money that way,” Mrs. Lacey told her with a circumspect look. “Virgins can charge more.” That did nothing to improve Suzanne’s spirits. She burst into a sob and plopped into the stool nearest her. “I feel so wretched.” “There, there.

” Mrs. Lacey continued to pat her hand. At least until her face suddenly lit up. “There may be a way to make this as easy on you as possible, lovie,” she said. Suzanne dragged her eyes up to meet Mrs. Lacey’s with a questioning look. “You’ll still have to give it up,” Mrs. Lacey went on, tilting her head to the side in thought. “And it may be worse than a simple poke in the back alley. But if what I’ve heard is correct, at least the man’s a gentleman.

” “What have you heard?” Suzanne asked in a weak voice. Mrs. Lacey leaned across the counter, staring straight into her eyes and lowering her voice to a whisper. “There’s a gentleman, see? A British lord what recently inherited his title when his da was killed by bloodthirsty pirates. Apparently, he’s in the market for a babe.” “A baby?” Suzanne blinked, jerking straighter. “But I don’t have a baby.” “That’s the thing. He’s looking to get one on a woman. Says he needs a babe of his own blood.

” “Why doesn’t he just marry and have one the usual way?” Mrs. Lacey shrugged. “Who am I to question the queerness of noble folk? All I know is that he’s willing to pay top dollar to a good, pure woman who’s willing to let him get her in the family way, then hand over the babe to him.” Suzanne stared at Mrs. Lacey, trying to determine if what the landlady was saying was true or if she was dreaming everything. “Who is this nobleman?” she asked at last. “His name is Killian, or so I hear,” Mrs. Lacey said. “He lives in that big plantation out east of the Catholic church. At least, he lives there for now.

Word is that he’s trying to sell up.” Suzanne blinked. “He’s looking to have a baby of his own blood and he’s trying to sell his plantation?” “That’s all I know about it,” Mrs. Lacey said, straightening and returning to her work. “If you want to know more, you’ll have to ask the man yourself.” Suzanne slumped on her stool, her mind racing. A British nobleman in the process of selling his plantation. If he was selling, it meant he planned to leave Antigua. And if he planned to leave, the odds were good that he might be returning to England. England would be an ideal place to hide, especially if she could make it there without having to purchase her own passage and thus leave a trail for Hugh to follow.

The price of escaping her predicament might be steep, but it was a far-sight better than stepping out of the inn and tugging down her bodice to show her breasts in the hope of enticing a buyer. “Thank you, Mrs. Lacey,” she said, standing. “I think I know what I have to do.” “I WANT İT ALL GONE,” Benedict, Lord Killian, explained to his solicitor, Gordon, as they marched through the vast halls of his father’s plantation house. “The land, the house, and I want the slaves freed,” he emphasized, stopping to face Gordon. “My lord,” Gordon addressed him with a look that was far too condescending for his station, “this is all highly inadvisable. The plantation brings in a staggering amount of income. It is unwise to release valuable property the way you are suggesting.” “They are people, not property,” Benedict said, marching on.

“Well, my lord, in fact, they—” Benedict stopped whatever disgusting thing the man was on the verge of saying by whipping to face him with a furious glare. Gordon stopped, cleared his throat, and schooled his expression. “You do have a few interested buyers, my lord,” he went on. “Of course, the price you are asking is steep, but two investors in particular have expressed an interest.” “Good.” Benedict nodded firmly and marched on. “I want the whole thing sold so that I can return to England as soon as possible. I have something very special waiting there for me.” In fact, what Benedict had waiting was as much of a speculation as selling his father’s sugar plantation. His heart expanded in his chest at the very thought of Miss Lucy Haverbrooke, her sweet smile, her shapely figure.

She was his ideal in every way. Her temperament was fresh and flirty, and her smile haunted his dreams at night. Her smile and her flat rejection of his marriage proposal. He frowned at the bitter memory. How could a woman as wonderful as Lucy reject a man like him? He was intelligent and industrious. And, at the time of his proposal, he’d been in line to become a marquess. Since his father had been killed, he was a marquess. But that hadn’t been enough to convince Lucy. “You should know, my lord, that the winds and tides are not, at present, right for a voyage to England,” Gordon said, following him into the receiving parlor of the grand house. “It will be several months still until you are able to set sail.

” “Which should give me plenty of time to accept the right offer for this place,” Benedict answered.

.

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