At Spinster House, a woman can enjoy the spoils of single life—or find the love of a lifetime…
It has been twenty years since Lord William Wattles laid eyes on Annabelle Frost. Still, he remembers everything—her ethereal beauty, her bookish intelligence, her surprisingly modern attitudes about love...and lust. But Belle's allegedly wanton behavior led her father to send her away to save the family's reputation. Now she resides at Spinster House in the village of Loves Bridge, where an unmarried lady can live—and in Belle's case, support herself as a librarian—in peace...
Beautiful, passionate Belle—sworn off marriage? William can't believe the woman he once knew could end up like this. But when the hands of fate bring him to Loves Bridge, his long-lost love might just end up back in his arms. Is their unwavering desire worth the sweeping scandal that is sure to follow them both? Absolutely.
Finalist 2015 National Readers’ Choice Awards, Novella
Dornham Village, 1797
March 1—William has been sent down from Oxford. I suppose it’s wrong of me to be happy, but I am. The dreary days of late winter are suddenly looking brighter.
—from Belle Frost’s diary
Loves Bridge, May 1816
“Belle? Belle Frost, is that you?”
Miss Annabelle Franklin’s heart stopped. She stared down at the book she’d been reading, but she no longer saw the words.
Good Lord, that’s William’s voice.
No, it wasn’t. It couldn’t be. She took a deep, calming breath. The third son of the Duke of Benton would have no reason to visit this small village library. Even the Duke of Hart, the lord of the manor, never came to Loves Bridge. It was just some fellow with a voice a bit like William’s.
But no one in Loves Bridge knows my real name.
She must have misheard. She forced her lips into a smile and looked up—
Oh, God. Oh, God. It is William. It can’t be, but it is.
She mustn’t let him know she recognized him.
She looked down again quickly, took another deep breath, and then slowly marked her place in her book. By the time she looked back up, she had her emotions under control.
“May I help you, sir?”
He was older, of course. He’d been only a boy of eighteen when last she’d seen him. Now he was a man of thirty-eight. His shoulders were broader and his features more chiseled. And there were lines that hadn’t been there before, on his forehead and at the corners of his eyes and mouth. They did not look like laugh lines.
But he was still devastatingly handsome. He grinned at her, and her silly heart leaped like an eager puppy.
Oh, no. Not again. Never again.
“Belle Frost, it is you.”
Thank God she’d thought to change her name. “I’m sorry, sir, but you have mistaken me for someone else.” Too true. She was nothing like the girl he’d grown up with. “My name is Miss Franklin.”
What is William doing in Loves Bridge? She glanced around. At least the library was empty. She needed to get rid of him before anyone saw him.
“May I help you find a book, sir?” She raised her brows in inquiry. Remember, he can’t know for certain I’m Belle Frost. Just keep denying it.
He frowned. “Don’t you recognize me, Belle? I’m Lord William.”
“Sir—I mean, my lord—I have told you, you have confused me with someone else.” Apparently William was as strong-willed and sure of himself as ever. It had been his personality even more than his handsome face and broad shoulders that had led her astray all those years ago. Daring, smart, witty. He’d been the flame to her moth, and she’d been very, very burned.
But she’d survived, and she’d healed. She was wiser now. She was not going to let any man, especially Lord William Wattles, ruin her life again.
She stood, not that it helped a great deal. William was still a good six inches taller than she.
“Are you interested in a book, my lord? I’m afraid that is all I have to offer you.” She forced herself to hold his gaze. “This is a lending library, you know.”
His brows snapped down into a deep furrow, but she thought his expression held puzzlement rather than annoyance. Perhaps now he was not quite so certain he knew her.
He didn’t know her. She wasn’t Belle Frost, the vicar’s daughter, any longer. That naïve girl had died when her father had thrown her out of the house twenty years ago. Now she was Annabelle Franklin, the Spinster House spinster, as strong-willed and independent as William.
“No, thank you,” he said, his blue eyes still studying her. “You’re very like Belle Frost, you know. Have you ever met her? She’s from the village of Dornham.”
She was thirty-seven now. It was really quite surprising he could still recognize her.
“Dornham? Isn’t that rather far from Loves Bridge?” She knew exactly how far it was. She’d felt every rut as the shabby old stagecoach she’d ridden in had jolted over the road from there to here.
She never wanted to be that frightened, mewling, pitiful girl again.
“Yes, I suppose it is.” He shook his head. “Still, I swear you look exactly like her.”
She had to get rid of him.
“If I can’t help you find a book, Lord William, I shall get back to my work. If you will excuse me?”
She started to sit down. He reached out as if to touch her, and she flinched.
Damnation. Hopefully he hadn’t noticed. She wasn’t afraid of him. She was...well, she was afraid of herself. She was afraid his touch would open the floodgates and she’d feel everything again.
His frown deepened. He had noticed, but at least he had the grace not to mention it. He clasped his hands behind his back.
“One more moment of your time, Miss, er, Franklin, if you please. I wonder if you might be able to tell me how to reach Mr. Randolph Wilkinson’s office? A woman tried to give me directions at the inn, but I’m afraid I couldn’t follow her.”
Likely it had been Mrs. Tweedon, the innkeeper’s wife. She was a lovely person, but she did tend to get her lefts and rights mixed up. And Mr. Wilkinson’s office was not easy to find. She should take William there—
Oh, no, she shouldn’t. And why was William seeking out the Loves Bridge solicitor? She could only hope it was on some brief errand, perhaps for a friend, and he would hie himself back to Dornham or London or wherever it was he now called home as soon as possible.
“Certainly, my lord. Go up round the back of the church. There you’ll find a gate. Go through it and follow the path down through the woods. Turn right when you reach the lane. Mr. Wilkinson’s house will be the first building on the left once the hedgerows end. Have you got that?” William had always had a good sense of direction.
He nodded. “Yes, I believe I have. Thank you for your help, Miss Frost—I mean Miss Franklin.”
“You’re welcome, my lord. I hope your business with Mr. Wilkinson is accomplished satisfactorily.” And you leave Loves Bridge immediately thereafter.
William gave her another probing look. She was afraid he was going to say more, but he just nodded. “Thank you. Good day, Miss Fro—Franklin.”
“Good day, my lord.”
And then, finally, he was out the door and out of her life again. Her legs gave way and she collapsed onto her chair.
It took several minutes for her hands to stop shaking.
That was Belle Frost.
Lord William Wattles stood on the walk outside the lending library. He’d swear that was Belle. Yes, it had been twenty years, but she hadn’t changed so very much. Her face might be thinner, but her eyes were the same, large and golden with green flecks and long lashes.
Yet they were different, too. They used to be full of intelligence and humor—and passion. Today they’d been strained. Shuttered. And he’d not liked the way she’d flinched when he’d reached for her. Not at all.
Had some man mistreated her? Was that why she was so far from home?
Bloody hell! He should go back inside and demand she tell him the scoundrel’s name. He’d find the miscreant and darken the fellow’s daylights.
Guilt whispered through him, but he shrugged it off. Belle couldn’t be afraid of him. They hadn’t seen each other for years, and, in any event, she’d wanted everything they’d done together. There’d been no doubt of that.
He would go back inside and demand she tell him everything.
But how was he to manage that? She’d been adamant she was not Belle but this Miss Franklin.
Miss Franklin—not Mrs. At least she’d not made his mistake and got married.
“Oh, sir? May we help you?”
He blinked at the young women standing in front of him. He’d been so lost in thought he hadn’t seen them approach, and given they were strikingly beautiful and twins, that was astounding.
If he wasn’t more careful, he’d start the village rumor mill running at fever pitch. Likely it was already firing up. A stranger always provoked comment in a small village.
“No, thank you, ladies.” He bowed, giving the girls—they couldn’t be long out of the schoolroom—his most polished smile. It had the hoped-for effect, setting them to blushing and giggling. “My apologies for blocking the walk.”
“Oh, sir, that is quite all right.”
“You weren’t blocking the walk.”
“Not at all.”
“We just wondered if you needed assistance.”
“Since you are obviously new here.”
They paused, clearly expecting him to introduce himself.
He wasn’t ready to do that. He, like Belle, wished to keep his identity to himself. “Thank you, ladies, for your offer, but I believe I know where I am headed now. If you will excuse me?”
He bowed again, stepped around the girls, and walked briskly toward the church.
Had they seen him come out of the lending library? If they had, would they ask Belle who he was—and would she tell them?
He hoped not. Even though Loves Bridge was a social backwater—which was precisely why he’d chosen to come here—it was an easy ride from Town. If he lived here as Lord William, word would get back to the London gabble grinders and everyone would know where he was.
He crossed a road and entered the churchyard, climbing the slope through the gravestones.
Why was Belle living here under an assumed name?
He’d looked for her when he’d come home after Trinity term. He’d hoped they could take up where they’d left off. But she wasn’t in Dornham, and no one seemed to know where she’d gone. Not that he’d actually asked anyone directly. Showing an interest in Belle’s whereabouts would have got the Dornham gossips speculating. And then Father had finally faced the fact that his third son was neither a scholar nor a suitable candidate for the Church. He’d bought William his colors, and Belle had slipped from his thoughts.
He snorted as he passed behind the church. The army certainly hadn’t been what he’d expected. He’d marched and drilled all right, but the only action he’d seen had been of the bedroom variety. He’d looked very good in uniform.
And then he’d met Hortense, the Earl of Cunniff’s daughter, and made the colossal mistake of thinking himself in love.
He jerked the gate open and went down the wooded path. There were tree roots everywhere. He stepped carefully so as not to go sprawling in the dirt.
He used to roam the woods with Belle when they were children. Belle’s father, the vicar, was an insufferable, self-righteous arse, and her mother, now gone to her reward, a quiet, colorless mouse. But Belle...Belle had been so full of life. She’d been willing to follow him on any adventure. It hadn’t been until he was sent down from Oxford that he’d seen her as anything but a childhood playmate. But then...
He reached the lane safely and turned right.
He hadn’t thought of that day in years. He’d gone out walking—well, he’d gone out to escape Father’s constant jawing about what a dreadful student he was—and been caught in a sudden downpour. He’d dashed to take refuge in the Grecian folly; as soon as he’d crossed the threshold, he’d seen Belle, snug in a nest of blankets, reading by candlelight in the dim interior.
Her head snapped up and she gasped, flushing. She looked very guilty.
“What are you reading?” he’d asked.
She tried to hide the slender book, but he caught her hand and pulled it out of her grasp.
“Good God! It’s a copy of Cleland’s Fanny Hill! Where did you get this?”
“In my father’s library.” She sounded defiant and breathless and...needy? “Hidden behind some Greek tomes.” She’d shed her fichu; he could see her pulse beating wildly at the base of her throat.
The room was suddenly very quiet and warm and intimate.
“How much have you read?”
“M-most of it.”
And then she touched the tip of her tongue to her upper lip, and he was lost. He leaned forward, slowly, slowly, and gently brushed her mouth with his.
She’d moaned—he still remembered the sound all these years later—and her fingers had forked through his hair, holding him still while she kissed him back.
God, he’d never before or since got his breeches open so quickly. They were both too desperate to do more than shove offending cloth aside. In seconds he had plunged deep into her hot, wet body—and discovered her virginity.
He’d stopped, appalled by what he’d almost done—
And she’d grabbed his arse and urged him to finish, to bring her to her pleasure.
Zeus! He was all alone on a narrow country lane and his cock was as hard as an iron rod.
Belle. Oh, Lord, Belle.
She’d been so innocent and yet so wanton. He hadn’t been able to get enough of her. He’d had some of the best bed play of his life those few weeks they’d been together.
Perhaps she’d be willing to comfort him now. They were older, with more experience—
Did Belle have more experience? She’d looked so straitlaced, sitting behind that desk, her lovely chestnut hair pulled ruthlessly back into a tight bun and covered with a hideous cap, her dress a dull gray affair buttoned up to her chin.
He paused as he reached the walk to Wilkinson’s office. What had happened to her?
“May I help you, sir?”
He looked up to see a man of medium height in the process of shutting the front door.
“Are you Mr. Wilkinson?”
The man nodded. “Yes.”
William didn’t wish to have this conversation where any passerby could overhear. He walked closer. “I’m sorry to come upon you unannounced, sir, but if you have a few minutes to spare, I have some matters I’d like to discuss”—he dropped his voice—“privately.”
Wilkinson regarded him for a moment and then bowed and turned back to reopen the door. “I was only going out for my luncheon. It can wait.” He gestured for William to precede him.
“Thank you. I promise I won’t take much of your time.”
The man was too polite to say he certainly hoped so.
A large desk, covered with papers, sat to William’s right. Wilkinson led him past that and into another room with a larger, even more cluttered desk.
“My sister, Jane, acts as my secretary, but she is off with some village ladies at the moment,” Wilkinson said as he closed the door. “Please, have a seat. May I ask whom I have the pleasure of addressing?”
“Lord William Wattles.”
Wilkinson’s eyebrows shot up.
Ah, so at least some denizens of Loves Bridge read the London gossip columns.
“Quite so,” William said, taking one of the chairs in front of Wilkinson’s desk.
Wilkinson blushed faintly as he, too, sat. “I’m afraid it has been in all the papers, my lord.”
Yes, it had been. Hortense’s escapades had become more and more outrageous with each passing year. This one, however, had outdone all the others, involving an orgy and a naked game of blind man’s bluff. He’d not been able to go anywhere in Town without encountering whispers and sniggers and pitying looks. His father had called him down to Benton again to ring a peal over his head, going on and on about how Hortense was sullying the family name.
As if that was news to him.
And then to top it all off, his brothers, the insufferable prigs, had had the effrontery to read him a scold as well. Being many years older than he, they treated him as if he were still in leading strings.
“Then perhaps you can understand my desire to disappear from London society for a while.”
Wilkinson nodded. “Well, er, yes. But why Loves Bridge?”
“My secretary, Mr. Morton, suggested it. I believe you are acquainted with him?”
The man grinned. “John Morton? Of course. We were at university together. How does he go on?”
“Quite well.” William shrugged. “Though he’d go on better if my wife saw fit to behave with even a modicum of respectability.”
Wilkinson wisely held his tongue.
“John pointed out that Loves Bridge is quiet, close to London in case he has need of me, and completely overlooked by the ton. Even the Duke of Hart never comes to his castle. It’s the perfect place to vanish for a while.” More perfect with Belle here. “He assured me you could find me a suitable place to let.”
Wilkinson frowned. “And your wife?”
“Will be remaining in London, of course. In fact, I wish to arrange matters so discreetly that she—that no one—knows where I am.”
Wilkinson’s frown deepened.
“Don’t worry. She won’t miss me.”
“That’s not what I’m concerned about, my lord.” Wilkinson hesitated, moistening his lips. “I merely wondered if perhaps your presence in Town might keep her from further, er, unfortunate activities.”
God! If only that were the case. “It hasn’t yet.”
“Yes, I see. But you will let your family know your whereabouts? I’ve heard your father’s not well.”
His father had been well enough to bellow at him for close to an hour just four days earlier. “The duke has returned from death’s door too many times to count. It’s not as if I’m the heir, after all.”
In fact, his arrival had been an unwelcome accident. Father got Albert and Oliver within two years of marrying the duchess. William came along ten years later, and his birth had caused the duchess’s death. No one had ever forgiven him for that.
“Both my brothers are hale and hearty. I expect they’ll live another twenty or thirty years.”
“Still, you will wish to be able to be found quickly should anything happen to the duke.”
Spoken like a bloody solicitor. “I merely propose to leave London, Mr. Wilkinson. Not the earth—or even England.” He forced himself to smile. No need to get sharp with the man. “John will know how to reach me. Now tell me, is there anything for let in the village? Nothing ostentatious. A small place will do very well.”
“Yes, of course. I know you can rely on John. Now as to a place...” Wilkinson shook his head, picking up his quill and twirling it between his fingers. “There’s really nothing suitable.”
“Nothing at all?” There had to be something.
Wilkinson shifted in his seat. “Well, Charles Luntley, the village music teacher, will be leaving for a while. His mother has taken ill, so he’s going home to oversee her care.”
“Perfect! I can even cover his lessons for him while he’s gone, if he’d like.”
Wilkinson’s eyes widened. “You’re a musician?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that, but I’m competent with the pianoforte.” He’d learned the basics as a boy, and in recent years he’d found that music took his mind off his disastrous marriage.
“But, Lord William, Luntley rents only a small room from the Widow Appleton. There’s barely enough space for a bed and a chair.”
“I don’t need more than that.”
“And the widow is old and almost blind.”
“That’s fine. Good, in fact. I assume Mrs. Appleton’s not one to ask prying questions?”
“Lord, no. She’s deaf as a post. As long as you pay your rent on time, my lord, she’ll leave you alone.”
“Splendid.” He started to rise, and then paused. “Oh, and since I’m trying to drop out of sight, I think it best if I’m simply Mr. Wattles from now on.” Hopefully Belle would not spread his title about. “The fewer people who know my identity, the better. Indeed, I’m afraid I must ask you to keep it secret even from your sister.”
“Jane is very discreet, but—” Wilkinson shrugged. “Women sometimes do talk. I see no reason why I need to involve her in this.”
“Excellent. So may I ask you to arrange matters?” William took out his card. “Here is my direction in London. If it meets with your approval, once I have moved into Luntley’s place, I will tell Morton to contact you if he has need of me. That way he can truthfully tell anyone who asks that he has no notion of my whereabouts.”
Wilkinson blew out a long breath, clearly not enamored of the plan. “Very well, my lo—I mean, sir.”
“Thank you.” William stood, and Wilkinson walked with him to the door. “Oh, and one more thing.”
I shouldn’t say anything. I know I shouldn’t say anything.
His stupid mouth was forming the words quite independent of his brain.
“I stopped at the lending library to ask directions, and I swear the librarian—I believe she said her name was Miss Franklin—looked familiar, but I’ve never been to Loves Bridge before. Is she from the village?”
“No, not originally, but she’s been here about twenty years.”
Twenty years. So Belle came to Loves Bridge directly from Dornham.
“She’s the Spinster House spinster.” Wilkinson opened the front door for him.
William stopped on the threshold. “Pardon?”
“Oh, right. You wouldn’t know.” Wilkinson shrugged. “The story is rather complicated, but the gist is the village has a house—the Spinster House—that is provided to one dedicated spinster for her lifetime. Or until she marries, I suppose, but as far as I know that has never happened. There is a stipend that comes with the tenancy, so the ladies are quite secure.”
Good God! Beautiful, passionate Belle has sworn off marriage? Impossible.
“I see. And you don’t know where Miss, er, Franklin came from?”
“No, I’m afraid I don’t. I was only a boy when she arrived. My father handled the affair.” He suddenly frowned. “I do remember there was talk, though, when she first came to the village. She stayed with the Widow Conklin, who has”—he flushed—“an unfortunate reputation. But I assure you, no hint of scandal has ever touched Miss Franklin.”
Conklin. Hmm. That name isn’t familiar. Ah, well.
“Thank you, Mr. Wilkinson. Please send me word once Luntley’s room is available.” William bowed and set off down the walk. He needed to get back to London and let Morton know his plans.
He grinned. It looked as if he would have the opportunity to discover Belle’s secrets—and maybe give her a few more.
Copyright © 2015 Sally MacKenzie