» The Fetching Foundling

Besieging His Lady cover

Blurb

Description: Annie Smith has been raised as a foundling by a stern village vicar and his wife. With her eighteenth birthday near, Annie is shocked to learn she has an aristocratic benefactress who wants her to come to London so a suitable marriage can be arranged. Annie goes hoping to learn something about her past.

The recently widowed benefactress is not the kindly little old lady Annie expected, but rather a glamorous former actress who married a much older baron. The baron has died and his nephew has succeeded him. The baron’s household seems to be surprisingly short of funds, and Annie begins to suspect she’s being used in a plot to raise money. She grows suspicious of her benefactress but is drawn toward the nephew, Lord Harry Hayward. While she knows the dashing, former cavalryman is too far above her to marry, Annie can’t stop herself from falling in love with him. And then shocking revelations come.
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Excerpt

It was time to speak of unpleasant things. Lord Harry Hayward toyed with his brandy glass and glanced at his aunt-by-marriage. Her hopeful expression made it more difficult for him to start.

Lady Hayward shifted impatiently in her dainty, padded chair. Then she took a deep breath, stretching the low neckline of her dress tightly across full mounds of creamy flesh. “Did you find any trace of the Hayward jewels?”

He shook his head. “The safe was just as you said, full of nothing but papers, most of them bills. I searched every nook and cranny of that old house and have been to both of the banks my uncle did business with. The jewels are well and truly gone.”

She sighed. “Osmond must have sold them, although I don’t know when or where. He told me he was keeping them locked away for safety’s sake. I wish I’d noticed his deteriorating mental state sooner. I might have been able to do something. Of course, he had strong feelings about women being sheltered from all business matters. I had no idea his affairs were in such a state until he was no longer able to contend with the bill collectors, and they started coming to me. What will we do now?”

We again. Harry had to force his jaws apart to keep from grinding his teeth. With his mother, two aunts and assorted cousins all looking to him to be the head of the Hayward family, he was beginning to feel as if he were buried in needy relatives. Most of the family blamed the woman in front of him for the sorry state of affairs now existing within the Haywards. They said she’d disrupted the bonds of familial love between Baron Osmond Hayward and his blood relations and had led her elderly husband into spending them all into near-bankruptcy.

Harry had been in school when the twenty-year-old Veronica married the sixty-year-old baron. After that he’d been too involved with his career in the army to pay much attention to the gossip swirling about the couple. But he did remember the family’s vehement disapproval of the marriage had caused the baron to break ties with them. Veronica, on the other hand, had stayed with the querulous old man for seventeen years, and now found herself left with a small fund that didn’t earn enough to support a lady in proper style.

He couldn’t help feeling sorry for her plight. He just didn’t want to be responsible for her, too. If his cousin, Rodney, hadn’t gotten so drunk he couldn’t stay on his horse, none of this would be Harry’s problem.

He took another sip of his brandy. “The truth of the matter is I don’t know how I’m going to stay afloat in this sea of bills I’ve inherited. The money I received for selling my commission won’t come close to settling my uncle’s debts. Conditions on the estate in Dorset are so poor I don’t know when I can hope to turn a profit there. I promised you could stay in this house, but it’s the only property in the estate that isn’t entailed. I don’t see how I can avoid selling it, or at the very least, letting it out. You are, of course, welcome to live on the estate in Dorset.”

Her pained expression didn’t surprise him. She’d made her distaste for the old Elizabethan house in Dorset well known. She’d lived mostly in this London house, even when his uncle had chosen to remain in the country. That’s why Harry could well believe her claim to have been unaware of her husband’s dwindling mental capacities in the last years of his life.

“If you put this place on the market with bill collectors in hot pursuit, everyone will know you’re in a hurry to sell and offer much less than it’s worth,” she said.

He shrugged. “I know, but it’s unavoidable.”

She braced her elbows on the arms of her chair and leaned back. “I might be able to help you. At least raise enough money so that we can maintain the appearance of solvency for the time being.”

“Oh?” Surely the dowager baroness isn’t considering returning to the stage?

She tapped two slender fingers against her cheek as if she were having trouble selecting her words. “A long time ago, the Duke of Windingham and I were friends. He got into a bit of a scrape, and I offered to help him out. A baby girl needed to be provided for, but he didn’t want his name connected with her. Down through the years he has advanced me the money, and I have paid her caregivers. The girl is nearing eighteen, and he wants to see her properly married.

“With your help, he’ll surely place me in charge of such matters as obtaining a new wardrobe and a trousseau for her. There will be ample opportunity to add extras to the bills I send him.”

Her plan was so preposterous Harry could only stare at her with his mouth slightly agape. In the first place she was suggesting they steal from one of the most powerful noblemen in the realm. Secondly, Harry had spent ten years as an officer and, he hoped, a gentleman in her majesty’s army. Damned if he’d let this title he’d inherited drive him to into dishonesty.

She apparently saw his resistance for she waved a hand dismissively. “Don’t worry about the duke causing trouble. All he cares about is keeping the world from knowing he has any connection with this girl. He owes me for hiding his dirty little secret all these years, and anyway, he’s as rich a Croesus.”

Harry suspected there was a lot more to this story than a friend helping out a friend, but Veronica had evidently been obtaining money from the duke for some time, so why did she need him? “What part would I play in this scheme?”

She took her hand away from her face and leaned closer as if she were about to share a great secret. “Aside from the nuisance of my being in mourning, my ton isn’t as high as the duke’s.”

Harry eyed her as she spoke—her crimson dress looked nothing like widow’s weeds. He also knew that a number of doors in the higher reaches of society had always been closed to her.

She continued. “These facts might inspire the duke to think I won’t be able to arrange a suitable marriage for…the orphan. However, if he thinks I might snare a young baron for her, that would clearly be an excellent match, and he’ll be eager to support my efforts.”

Harry immediately shook his head. “I’ll not marry a stranger for the price of a couple of dresses.”

“Of course, not. You need to marry a woman with a larger income than the duke will undoubtedly settle on his little waif. But if you and I are seen with her in a few public places, say museums and such, talk will get back to him. God knows everybody in this town loves to gossip about me, and they’re always curious about new lords. The duke will assume you’re interested in the girl, and since I’m your uncle’s widow, he’ll see I’m best qualified to promote the match. Getting money out of him after that should be easy.”

“And what happens when he learns there’s to be no marriage?”

“I’ll simply say you two didn’t suit and that I’ll look elsewhere. I’ll see the girl decently matched. We won’t get vast amounts of money. The duke’s amazingly tight-fisted for such a wealthy man; but we’ll get enough to calm the creditors and give you time to raise more in a less helter-skelter manner. Did you notice the artwork in the house in Dorset? I know nothing about art, but your uncle used to brag about how old some of those pictures were. Surely they’re worth a good deal?”

Harry didn’t know what to say to this scheme, so he just stared at her.

After a tense moment of silence, she spoke again. “I talked your uncle into buying this house. By rights, it should have been left to me. Now it’s the Hayward estate’s most valuable asset.” Her voice became tremulous. “I had hoped to, at least, live out my year of mourning here, before having to make my own way in the world. Six more months, and I’m offering to help you pay household expenses. Is that too much to ask?”

Guilt weighed on Harry’s shoulders. “What do you want me to do?”

The twinkle came back into her eyes. “First we must fetch the orphan. She’s in the village of Peavey. It’s not far from London, but unfortunately it’s not on the rail lines and making travel arrangements for such a trip will be difficult for a woman.”

A small burst of annoyance filled his chest at the thought of being responsible for yet another woman. “Surely you don’t want me to travel alone with her

“Of course not. I’ll send Mrs. Walters with you. We must guard the girl’s reputation carefully. She’s living with a clergyman and his wife. I’ll write him a letter saying you are my appointed agent.”

Harry questioned his own sanity as he let Veronica talk on about the arrangements that must be made. He’d just agreed to participate in a scheme to get money under false pretenses by misleading a young woman he’d never set eyes on. Of course, he wouldn’t actually court her. He could be friendly, but do nothing to raise her hopes. And he’d be helping her come to London where she could make a better marriage than she could ever hope for in some backwater village.

Reviews

“The Fetching Foundling is a delightful erotic romance set in Victorian England. Ms. Winn sets the scene with the dramatic Crystal Place as an enchanting backdrop to the love story between these two unlikely lovers. It is an intriguing time and place, which she uses to full effect.” ~ Sky, The Romance Studio

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