Not Your Average Beauty
Stephen Pembroke, the Marquess of Barronsfield, believes that where his love of beauty goes, death follows. Cursed to loveless existence, and with his legacy at stake, Stephen makes a desperate proposal of marriage to Rosalind Schofield, his steward’s new ward - and the plainest girl he has ever met. Rosalind has spent a lifetime being overlooked for prettier faces, when she is singled out for her lack of beauty by the Marquess, she begins to doubt if she is deserving of the love she inwardly craves.
When unusual things start happening around her, Rosalind can’t help but wonder if Lord Barronsfield or his curse are who and what they appear to be. When she openly challenges Stephen about the curse, he begins to doubt everything – and comes to realize that this apparently plain, ordinary woman is not as unremarkable as he believed. Strange things are happening in Barronsfield. As they move closer to the truth, Rosalind unwittingly finds herself in the sights of the real beast in Barronsfield, and Stephen must decide if his growing love for Rosalind will be his salvation or her doom.
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From Chapter One...
“My dear,” her uncle began, clearing his throat. “I have the great honor to introduce you to my employer and your host, Stephen Pembroke, sixth Marquess of Barronsfield. My lord, my niece, Miss Rosalind Schofield.”
Rosalind’s head snapped up, and she stifled a groan. Rosalind had imagined her eventual meeting with the marquess. She’d practiced what to say a thousand times on the journey to Yorkshire. She’d envisioned her graceful address. Yet here he stood, having just picked her off the ground while she prattled on unawares. Heat flushed into her cheeks.
She dipped quickly into what she hoped was the ladylike curtsey she had originally planned for this occasion. The marquess said nothing at first, stood there, examining her as if she were a new species of cabbage.
Rosalind waited for him to say something—anything—to her. She clasped her fingers together and willed her herself still. She shouldn’t have been so nervous, but then she’d never met someone of his rank before. This was the devil the townsfolk had spoken of? He looked to be an ordinary sort of man. Well, perhaps ordinary was not quite the right word for him. Handsome, more like. His eyes were an incredibly dark brown—nearly black in fact—with an intensity that might have been off-putting if not for the gentle line of his brow. His cheeks were ruddied, and there was a haggardness to him that was unexpected for a man of his stature, yet it leant an air of wildness she found at once appealing and a little dangerous.
“Thank you for letting me stay with my uncle, my lord. It is very generous,” she said at last as she tried to control her nervousness.
“Think nothing of it, Miss Schofield,” he replied. “Allow me to extend my condolences to you on the loss of your father.”
“Thank you,” she said, surprised he would stoop to comment on her circumstances.
An uncomfortable silence followed. Every rustle of fabric, every shuffle of boots over the dirt begged for a response. Rosalind’s mind raced for something to say, but nothing of consequence was forthcoming.
He pressed his lips together, giving Rosalind the impression he wished to be miles away. Gone was the easy manner present when he spoke with the men in the village, or any hint of the smile she saw when he spoke with her uncle a few moments ago. He was guarded, and even a tad awkward. The tension stretching across his brow suggested he was suffering some discomfort.
“Are you cold, Miss Schofield?” he said at last.
“No, my lord,” Rosalind replied, confused.
She cast a glance over to her uncle who casually bounced once or twice on his toes, then with the slightest of nods, gestured to her feet. Rosalind, embarrassed, took the hint. She hadn’t realized she’d been bouncing on her toes, an old habit she’d tried without success to banish. “My apologies, my lord. The journey has been long. I can be a horrible fidget when I am forced to sit for any great length of time.”
“I was extolling the beauty of Barronsfield on the journey. She is quite eager to explore the grounds, and the village as well,” her uncle said.
“Especially the bookshop,” she continued, her nerves taking over, speeding up her speech. “I probably should not own to it, but I adore novels and fairy tales, though I suppose they have the admirable quality of keeping me still.”
“No Fordyce’s Sermons, or Mrs. Chapone’s Letters?” the marquess asked.
“Heavens no. I have tried, you see, but then I fidget even more.”
His only reply was a smile, but Rosalind caught something in his face that took her breath away. And then, as magically as it appeared, it disappeared.
A whiff of not-so-freshly killed hen brought her back to the mess around her. Trampled feathers littered the damp ground. A flash of brown fabric nearly escaped her notice in the hardening muck. Removing her glove, she bent and pulled the object out of the ground.
“What is that?” the marquess asked.
“I’m not certain. It looks to be a reticule, though a very modest one. Perhaps it belongs to the vicar’s wife?”
The marquess motioned to her uncle. “Schofield, perhaps this might be useful to your investigation?”
“Here my dear,” her uncle took the mud soaked purse. “I will inquire with Mr. Darling.” He exchanged an uneasy glance with Lord Barronsfield before leaving to find the vicar.
Rosalind returned to her scrutiny of the trampled ground, and scrunched her brow in concentration “Do the authorities have any idea of who or what did this?”
The marquess started, surveying her with a new interest. “You have not heard of me.”
“Interesting.” The tension in his brow lifted, and something approaching a smile teased his mouth. “Very interesting.”
Confused, she cast a glance over each shoulder then back to Lord Barronsfield. His hands were on his hips, his dark gaze fixed on her. Swallowing deeply, she tried to ignore the excitement rising in her chest and push aside any idea that she might be the object of his attention. Feelings like that only ended in disappointment. Luckily, her uncle returned before she could allow herself to be distracted by them.
“My lord, if you would permit me, I will see my niece home and then return to assist with the clean up,” her uncle said.
“Of course, Schofield,” the marquess said. “I do not wish to delay your journey further, Miss Schofield.”
“I hope the villain will be found.”
The marquess’s mouth hardened into a line. “I assure you, the villain is paying for his crimes.” He bowed politely. “I bid you good-day.”
Rosalind watched the marquess mount his horse and ride off until he disappeared down the road. A lightness carried her steps as she climbed into the carriage. She settled in, smiling at nothing in particular until she caught sight of the worried look on her uncle’s brow as he took his seat opposite her. He smiled, but distress kept the joy from reaching his eyes. The carriage moved along as before, but silence was no longer easy. She had a dozen questions for him.
“Uncle,” she said at last, no longer able to contain her worry. “I could not help but notice the rough manner with which some of the villagers were treating you.”
“Pay no mind to that, my dear.” He shuffled on the bench. “’Tis nothing but the foolish superstitions of simpletons, fueled by bad luck and ale.”
The obvious false bravery her uncle put forth didn’t make her feel any better. “Does his lordship know?”
“Heavens no, Rosalind. My dear, you must understand. The marquess is a very important man. Now, let’s get you home and think of more pleasant matters, shall we?” With that, he continued on about the details of her new parlor as if nothing unpleasant had happened. Rosalind chose to relax and allow herself to be swept up in her uncle’s enthusiasm once more. But somewhere in the back of her mind, the threatening voice from behind the carriage lingered.
So did the marquess’s intoxicating gaze, a look laced with sadness. She shook her head, chiding herself for even daring to give him a second thought. Though he was flesh and blood, she had a better chance with a mythical prince from one of her books. Or a fortune hunter. That would surely be her fate in London, where a plain girl with a good dowry might find marriage, but not love.
Better to have no marriage at all.
Though the morning fog had dissipated by the time Stephen returned his mount to the stables, the gloom was more reflective of his mood. What a mess. He’d forced himself to stand still when Mr. Darling showed him the broken body of his beloved little terrier, even while it tore at Stephen’s insides. And when he heard about Jack Gates, a stone had dropped in his gut. From what Stephen could discover, the lad was hurt, but would recover. Another night like this and even the most loyal of his tenants might turn their backs on him.
Walking across the fields of his estate, the small meandering lane that led to the steward’s cottage caught his attention. After years of absolute loyalty and dedication, it was very little for him to grant Schofield the favor of allowing his niece to stay at the cottage with him. But after this morning, he wondered if Schofield might change his mind.
He strode past the rose gardens, their blossoms long spent, thinking about the girl who had traipsed through the Darling’s poultry yard, her skirts rumpled from travel. That unceremonious exit from the carriage onto his boots pulled his mouth into a smile every time he reflected on it. He hadn’t spent much time around women in the past five years, but Miss Schofield was undoubtedly one of the more unconventional ladies he’d met. Unconventional was fine, but beauty was another matter. Beauty, he had discovered even as a boy, was dangerous for him. And far more dangerous for the ones he’d dared to love.
Miss Schofield would be safe from the Beast’s curse. She was neither too short nor too tall. Her figure was pleasant enough; she wasn’t thin, nor was she overly plump. Her complexion was neither drab nor brilliant; she had a light sprinkling of freckles across her nose that some might consider charming. Her eyes appeared unable to make up their mind as to color; at one moment they attempted blue, then seemed to settle on a greenish-gray. Her hair was not golden, like Catherine’s, neither was it raven black like Anne’s. Rather it was a shade of non-descript brown, worn back in the conventional fashion.
She was, without a doubt, the one of the plainest girls he had ever seen. She lacked title and privilege and she was perhaps a few years older than the ideal, though still young enough to bear him an heir. At one time he might have been more particular, but he was running out of time. He was willing to forgo his scruples on that point. Barronsfield needed an heir.
He needed the most unremarkable woman he could find. And here she was.
There were no fireworks, no arrows to the heart, no rapturous pangs of any kind, nor even the hint of a note from a choir of angels singing above proclaiming she was “the one.” His breath did not catch in his throat at the sight of her, nor did he feel his palms tingle when he picked her up off the ground.
Still, her smile was pleasant. Nothing that set him into raptures, but warm, and even comforting. She spoke as if she had a brain in her head, which might make for pleasant conversation. By the ease of her manner with him, it was clear she was unaware she was speaking to the Beast of Barronsfield, or that such a creature even existed. It had shocked him into silence, and opened him up to the possibility that he would not lose Barronsfield after all.
Yes. She would do. Buoyed by hope, Stephen raced back to the manor, quite certain he could shortly have this whole marriage business neatly sewn up.