Title: Lady in Waiting
Written by Marie Tremayne
Series: Reluctant Brides, #1
Published by Avon Impulse
Publication Date: March 13th 2018
Genres: Historical Romance
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When her father arranges her marriage to a titled but brutal lord, young heiress Clara Mayfield escapes by slipping away under the cover of darkness, finding work as a domestic servant in a grand country manor, the last place anyone would ever think to search for her. But her safety depends on hiding her true identity from both the staff and her intriguing new employer, the Earl of Ashworth.
William, Lord Ashworth is no stranger to tragedy. His father and older brother's deaths placed the weight of an earldom squarely on his shoulders, and now he must seek an eligible bride from the ton in order to produce an heir. But when a beguiling new housemaid arrives at his estate, he can't dismiss his fascination with this woman whose eyes hold secrets...and desire.
As Clara weighs the need for secrecy against her growing feelings for the Earl, she finds herself losing a man who was never hers to love in the first place. And when circumstances beyond his control rip the lovely servant from the safety of his estate, the Earl of Ashworth is forced to make a choice that could forever shake his family name.
“My lord, are you well?”
Ashworth’s hand slowly dropped from the doorknob and he stared openly at her, his expression unreadable. Clara guessed it could have been weeks or months since he’d had a loved one or a friend ask him that question.
He cocked his head to the side, eyeing her curiously. “Do I appear to be unwell?”
Clara bit her lip. Of course, he appeared very well indeed. She couldn’t stop her eyes from scanning over him and felt herself flush hotly in response.
“Yes…no…that is, you look distressed. As if something is wrong.”
Ashworth stepped forward. “I am in charge of an earldom. There could be many things wrong.” He paused. “And this concerns you because…?”
“Well, I am aware it shouldn’t concern me,” she answered nervously. “But—I find it does.”
He mulled this over in silence as his restless gaze roamed over her, starting at her cap, alighting on her face, moving down the dark rose-colored fabric of her morning dress, skimming over her apron, and landing on her sturdy black shoes. His eyes snapped back up to hold hers in their sway.
“I appreciate your concern, but rest assured, it is misplaced.” The earl took another step in her direction. “However, since we’re on the subject of appearances, I would tell you that you seem tired today.” The corner of his mouth lifted in the barest hint of a smile. “Is there something amiss?”
Clara’s lips parted in surprise. “That was neatly done, my lord. You managed to avoid answering my question while directing one at me instead.” She hesitated. “Well if you must know, I am tired. My room is like an icebox at night.”
He blinked. This time he really did look concerned. “Is it?”
“Yes,” she replied. “But that’s really beside the point. You are under no obligation to confide in me, I only thought perhaps—”
“And I told you,” he said, cutting her off, “that I appreciate the concern. But you and I both know it’s against all proprieties to discuss personal matters—”
“Have you always been so set on adhering to the proprieties, my lord?”
The earl straightened, eyes widening in disbelief, and she immediately knew the conversation had been taken too far.
Clara lowered her head and tried to avoid him, skirting around the edge of the room toward the door. “Forgive my intrusion. It was wrong of me to insert myself where I do not belong.”
She passed Ashworth and his hand shot out, securing her wrist in his hold before she could flee.
“Was that an insult? Or simply an observation?” he inquired.
She swallowed, weighing her response with caution. “No, my lord. On the contrary, I think it an admirable quality in a peer to be willing to break with tradition.” Ashworth’s gaze drifted from her face to the place where his fingers were wrapped around her arm. After a moment, he gently released her. Disappointment flooded through her as the heat of his hand evaporated off her skin.
Stepping backward, he spread his arms wide in mock invitation.
“Since we are ignoring decorum, is there anything else you wish to ask?” Then he added wisely, “I may or may not choose to answer.”
She considered this in silence, her hand moving to cover the wrist that still tingled from his touch. This game had already started. Why stop now?
“Yes, my lord. There is one thing.” Clara took a deep breath. “Has your steward much experience with flooded farmlands?”
“Pardon me?” His voice was low. Possibly annoyed.
“My lord, your land steward is another servant, regardless of his accomplishments. I’d wager your tenants would value a visit from you, the Earl of Ashworth, along with the opportunity to discuss their thoughts on resolving the flooding.”
She had managed to say the words, but she had also begun to tremble uncontrollably. She clenched her hands into fists and held them tightly at her sides to conceal her shaking.
Lord Ashworth stood stock still. He simply stared at her as if she had spontaneously recited the Russian alphabet. When he did speak, he sounded calm, but his voice was hoarse.
“What do you know of flooded farmlands, Helen?”
A trickle of sweat raced down her back.
Ashworth stepped closer to her, his face expectant. Clara’s breath came in gulps as she attempted to maintain her composure. “I–my father had experience in such matters.”
“Your father?” he asked, intrigued.
“Yes, my lord,” she responded hastily, hoping to change the subject. “I’ve no wish to interfere, but I was thinking a meeting might help connect you more closely to your townsfolk.”
The earl’s eyebrows arched. “Why do you take such an interest in my affairs?”
“I’m not. I don’t,” she stammered. “I’m only thinking as a commoner. Speaking as a commoner…”
“Speaking as a commoner,” he interrupted thoughtfully, taking another step forward. “A commoner would know when to hold her tongue, and yet you, somehow, do not.” Another step. The alarm bells she had chosen to ignore earlier were now clanging again, more insistently.
His words were true. She was being Clara Mayfield right now, and she needed to correct her course immediately. Before he was close enough to touch her.
“Of course, you are right, my lord,” she forced out, hoping to put an end to the conversation. “I only meant to help. I can see now that I’ve overstepped my bounds.”
A huff of amusement escaped him. “A habit of yours.” Then softly, “And how can you possibly help me?”
The earl took one last step in her direction, and it wasn’t until Clara felt her back collide with the far wall that she realized she had also been retreating. He was only inches away, so close she could feel the heat radiating off his body. Being at eye level with his broad chest, he suddenly seemed far too large, far too close.
Ashworth had an incomparable sensual grace, unmatched by any man she’d ever seen. Without thinking, Clara reached out and placed her fingertips on his chest—whether a defensive reflex or an invitation, she couldn’t be sure. At her touch, he tensed and closed his eyes, a small gasp hissing through his teeth.
Any lingering doubts melted away as she witnessed his reaction. He wanted her hands on him. She flattened her palms across the lawn of his shirt, feeling the contrast of hard muscle to soft fabric.
Clara had always believed her inexperience had caused her to be shy with men, but now it was apparent part of the problem had been that she had not yet been with the right man. Here, with Ashworth, fire flowed through her veins as she allowed her hands to roam. His clenched jaw and fists were an indication of resistance, but his refusal to halt her caresses challenged her to continue.
What could she possibly do to help him?
He had asked, and now she burned to find out.
Her fingers traced along the length of his blue satin cravat, and he made a sound low in his throat.
The sound raced through Clara like wildfire. Disregarding everything…the woman she was, and the woman she was pretending to be…she rose high up on her tiptoes and brushed her lips against his.