Amelia knew what she needed to do. In fact, she'd known ever since Captain Graham Sterling returned to Eastmore Hall.
Her plan would work. It must work. She had addressed every detail and anticipated every objection. Now nothing remained but to convince the captain.
Her only regret was sharing her intentions with her younger cousin Helena.
"This is madness. Absolute madness!" Helena's russet curls bounced in animated vigor with every syllable. "Whatever would possess you to even consider such a thing, let alone see it through?" She tossed her embroidery on the small side table and jumped up from the settee. "Captain Sterling will think you are a lunatic, and then where will you be?" Helena waved her hand in the air to silence Amelia's protest. "I will tell you where you will be. You will be without a husband, without money, and without prospects. That is where you will be."
"Oh hush. You are overreacting." Amelia shifted the sleeping baby in her arms. "You will wake Lucy with all of your carrying on. The last thing we want is for her to be out of sorts when she finally meets her papa."
Helena huffed. "Don't you dare change the subject, Amelia Barrett. The child is fine. It's you who is clearly daft. How could you even consider proposing to a manand a veritable stranger at that? It's just not done."
Amelia lowered Lucy into a small cradle. "Captain Sterling is not a stranger. Well, not really. And as I told you before, I am resolved. Let us speak of it no more. Now, will you kindly hand me that coverlet?"
Helena snatched the yellow knit blanket and tossed it in her cousin's direction. "And what do you think Mr. Littleton will think about this, hmm? Five weeks, Amelia. Need I remind you that you are to marry in five weeks? Why, for you even to have a private meeting with another man, let alone"
"Shhh! There's no need to get so excited." Amelia averted her eyes as she coaxed the conversation back to the captain. "There is no impropriety in my meeting with Captain Sterling. He has every right to visit his daughter. After all, she's nine months old, and he's never even laid eyes on her. And my proposal to Captain Sterling will be a business proposition, nothing more. If he refuses it, no harm is done. Edward need never know."
"No harm? No harm!" Helena's hazel eyes widened. "Do you not consider your reputation? I shudder to think what will happen when news of this reaches the gossipmongers. Edward could think"
"He could think a number of things, Helena, and will no doubt do so. But I cannot stand by and say nothing. Do nothing. For if I did, Captain Sterling could take Lucy away from us forever, and that I could not bear. Furthermore, I will not break my promise to Katherine."
A pretty pout darkened Helena's fair features, and she tipped her small nose in the air.
"You and Mrs. Sterling may have grown close, but you had not known her a year before she died. I sincerely doubt she would expect you to go to such drastic measures to keep a promise." She leaned closer, not allowing Amelia to look away. "And need I mention that you have never even met this man, this captain? He could be a monstera scoundrel who will take advantage of your giving nature. Why subject yourself to such a fate and risk your fortune when you already have secured such a fine match in Edward Littleton?"
Helena's warning resonated with Amelia. Had not those concerns crossed her mind? The thought of being bound in matrimony to a cruel man sent a shiver through her. But had Katherine not praised the captain's fine qualities? His gentleness? His upright character?
Amelia set her lips in a firm line. This was a risk she was willing to take. "He cannot be that dreadful, Cousin, else Katherine would never have married him. Besides, he is a captain in His Majesty's navy. You've heard the stories as well as I. He will be gone for monthsnay, yearsat a time, at least for as long as England is at war. No doubt we will live completely separate lives."
"But Mr. Littleton, Amelia. Consider Mr. Littleton." Helena's voice softened. "He loves you, I am certain. Why would you treat him so unkindly and risk a happy marriage for a child who is not even a blood relation?" Helena stepped toward Lucy, looked down at her, and smoothed the child's blanket. "It pains me to speak to you so bluntly, Amelia, but I love you too much to watch you proceed in such a fashion without at least speaking my mind. You have far too wonderful a future ahead of you to risk it now."
Amelia opened her mouth to protest but then snapped it shut. She could not deny that her cousin's point was valid. But how could she make Helena understand her dilemma? She would never have agreed to marry Edward Littleton had she not been genuinely fond of the man. Indeed, his handsome face and passionate nature still had the ability to stir her romantic sensibilities. But as their wedding drew closer, her hesitation mounted. His actionsincluding his refusal to allow Lucy to continue to reside at Winterwood after their weddinghad planted questions in her mind regarding his character and suitability as a husband. And the thought of her sweet Lucy being raised without a mother, as she had been, unnerved her.
No, she was certain she was taking the right course, difficult though it may be. She simply had to steel herself for the awkwardness of the coming interview with the captain.
A shout sounded outside the window, followed by the crunch of carriage wheels on the gravel front drive. The women locked gazes. Ready or not, the time had come.
Amelia dashed across the room and grabbed her cousin's hand. "Promise you will not say a word."
Helena offered a weak smile. "I do wish you would heed my words, Cousin, but since you are resolved, you have my word. Just, please, at least consider what I have said." With a sweep of her primrose muslin skirt, she quitted the room.
Amelia's slippered feet made little sound as she stepped over the Italian rug to the window. She lifted the corner of the green velvet curtain in time to see the back of the barouche, shiny and slick from the morning's rain, slow to a stop at Winterwood Manor's front entrance.
She smoothed a curl and forced a slow breath. Like it or not, her task was before her. She must not fail. She hurried to the teak writing desk and checked once again to ensure that Katherine's letter was in its place.
A knock echoed in the paneled room. The door unlatched and swung open, revealing James, the aging butler. "Captain Sterling to see you, miss."
"Will you show him in? And please send Sally in with some tea."
Amelia waited for the mahogany door to close before gathering the sleeping Lucy in her arms. Footsteps echoed on the hall's planked floor. She straightened. James reappeared, but Amelia barely noticed. Her eyes fixed on the tall figure filling the door frame behind him.
Captain Sterling stepped into the light. She had expected him to be fair like his brother or stout like his father had been. He was neither. Sable hair curled over the high collar of his charcoal tailcoat, and his sideburns framed high cheekbones. Stormy gray eyes peered from a fringe of black lashes and darted from Lucy, to her, then back to the baby. His freshly shaven skin, bronzed dark from the sun, gave evidence of months spent on board a ship. She had half expected him to be dressed in uniform, but his dress was that of a gentleman.
At the sight of him, a nervous wave pulsed through Amelia's veins. For weeks she had anticipated meeting this man. She had practiced what she would say and rehearsed it at length. But she had never expected to be affected so by startling smoky eyes. With a deep breath she pushed her anxiety at bay, stepped forward, and forced her best smile. "We meet at last! I am Amelia Barrett."
He bowed and their eyes met once more, but his interest was not in his hostess. His attention fixed on the child nestled in Amelia's embrace. Amelia shifted to give the captain a better view, and at the movement, Lucy stirred and opened her eyes.
Amelia stepped even closer and lifted Lucy into her father's waiting arms. "Captain Sterling, I would like for you to meet your daughter, Miss Lucille Katherine Sterling."
A tentative smile tugged the corners of his mouth. The captain accepted the child in his arms and cradled her against his chest. Father and daughter stared at one another for several moments, until Lucy lost interest in him and found the fabric-covered button adorning his tailcoat. He touched his fingertips to the copper curls that escaped her lace bonnet. "She has red hair."
She nodded. "Like her mother."
Lucy wiggled in her father's arms and released a shrill cry. The captain stiffened. "Whatever is the matter?" He extended the small body away from him, at which point Lucy's face scrunched and a wail escaped. His eyes widened in what could only be panic. "Why is she crying?"
Amelia masked a smile. Had the man ever held a child? "She is just getting comfortable, I am sure. Here, allow me."
The captain, all too eager to hand over the crying child, deposited Lucy in Amelia's arms and stepped back. She soothed Lucy until the child calmed. With a wave of her hand, she directed the captain to a wingback chair by the fire. "Please be seated."
Amelia placed Lucy in the cradle next to the captain's chair and looked up as Sally, the downstairs maid, appeared with a tray of tea and biscuits. Grateful for the distraction, she turned to direct the servant. But out of the corner of her eye she watched the captain lean over the arm of his chair and stare at his daughter.
As Sally fussed over the refreshments, Amelia feigned interest but kept her peripheral gaze fixed on the father and daughter. For the first time, the captain smiled at the baby, who promptly rewarded him with a grin. He reached into the cradle and pulled out a small wooden horse. Lucy grabbed it and stared in wonder before banging it against a nearby flower stand. Amelia's heart raced. The scene made her feel more like an intruder in her home than heiress to the estate. Desperate to keep her hands busy when she could find no words to speak, Amelia dismissed the maid and moved to stoke the dying fire.
"I must correct you."
Amelia turned from the fireplace, poker still in hand. "Pardon me?"
"You were mistaken when you said, 'We meet at last.' I doubt you remember, but we've met before."
The poker clattered as she returned it to the stand. "Have we?" Amelia pushed her hair from her flushed face and moved to pour him a cup of tea. The task should have been simple, but her hands trembled and the steaming liquid threatened to splash onto the saucer.
"I lived in Darbury for the first twelve years of my life. I remember seeing you when you were not much older than my Lucy."
Amelia handed the captain the tea, poured a cup for herself, and settled into the chair opposite him.
He looked over his shoulder. "Is your uncle not at home?"
Amelia shook her head. "Uncle George has traveled to Leeds on business. He should return tomorrow. My aunt is away also, calling on an acquaintance."
The captain stretched out a booted foot. His posture relaxed. "Well, as I understand from my brother, you are the person to whom I am indebted. Not your uncle."
Heat crept up from the neckline of her dress, and she looked down at her hands. "You are not indebted to me, sir."
"I cannot begin to thank you for the care you showed my wife. And for what you have done for my daughterI could never repay you."
Uncomfortable under the weight of his attention, she jumped up from her chair and crossed to the window. She drew back the curtains, allowing a fresh wave of gray morning light to flood the room. "How long do you intend to stay in Darbury, Captain?"
"Just long enough to find suitable arrangements for Lucy. I must return to my duties within the month. I hope to have everything settled by then."
A month. She sank her teeth into her lower lip and moved to the desk. The letter lay right where she had left it. She tapped it lightly. If she waited too much longer, she might lose her nerve. "I think I may be able to help you find care for Lucy."
Interest flashed in his eyes. "I would be most grateful for any assistance. I have met with two nurses since my return to England. They were unimpressive at best."
At least he is open to a discussion. She took a steadying breath. "Before Katherine died, I made her two promises. The first was to give you this." Amelia picked up the letter and held it at arm's length.
Captain Sterling eyed the correspondence. As he reached to take it, Amelia noticed a wide purple scar that crossed over the top of his hand and disappeared under his coat's cuff. The scar looked fresh. She diverted her eyes and thrust the letter into his hand.
He flipped the sealed letter to read the inscription. His countenance sobered. He stood and took a cautious step in her direction. "This is from my wife?"
"Yes, written a few days before she died. She asked that I place it directly in your hand." When he failed to respond, she continued. "She was afraid it would never reach you if we sent it by post."
The captain stared at the letter, his square jaw clenched, his expression controlled. He looked from the unopened letter, to his daughter, and then to Amelia. But even as his eyes met hers, Amelia sensed his mind was far away. He seemed to look right through her.
He tucked the unread letter in his pocket and sat down again. "You said you made two promises, Miss Barrett. What was the second?"
Amelia returned to the chair opposite her guest. She paused long enough to regain control of her emotions before speaking. "I promised to stay with Lucy always. Never to leave her alone."
His dark eyebrows arched, but he remained silent.
"With your blessing, I fully intend to honor this promise, and I have had these nine months to consider how to do so. I have devised a plan that I think will work to the best interest of all involved."
He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. "What do you recommend?"
Her clasped hands tightened in her lap. "Since you are from Darbury originally, you may be aware that I am to inherit Winterwood Manor."
He nodded, his gaze never leaving her face. He no longer looked through her, but at her.
"When my father bought this estate, many years before he died, it was in ruins. He dreamed of restoring it to its former glory, and now I share his dream. I am his only child, and there was no specified entailment, so Winterwood will pass to me when I marry. Until then it remains in the hands of my uncle."
Her next words flew from her mouth in a rushnot at all as she had rehearsed. "I would like Lucy to live here with me. She will want for nothing. She will have the best governesses, the finest clothes. And when the time comes, her dowry will be significant."
The captain's eyes widened. He stared at her as if she had grown a second head. Self-consciousness forced her to lower her gaze. She held her breath and waited for his response.
Finally he spoke. "I confess I had hoped you might offer some guidance in the matter."
Amelia exhaled. She straightened her sleeve, carefully smoothing the lace cuff. She must choose her next words very carefully. They were crucial to the success of her plan.
"Lucy is notand never will bea burden to me. Having said that, there is one barrier to her continuing to live at Winterwood. You see, in order to fully inherit, I must be married by the time I turn twenty-four years of age or the entire estate will pass to one of my distant cousins. If that happens, I will have nothingno home, no money, no means of caring for a child ..."
Her words trailed off. She leaned closer and lowered her unsteady voice. "I am currently engaged to marry Mr. Edward Littleton of Dunton. But Mr. Littleton has made it clear that once we are married, Lucy cannot continue to live at Winterwood."
No longer able to sit, Amelia jumped from her seat and stepped toward him. "Captain, I have raised Lucy these nine months. I could not love her more if she were my own. She is more important to me than a hundred Mr. Littletons and a thousand Winterwoods. Believe me when I say I will do whatever necessary to see her well cared for."
The captain stood to his full height. "You said you had a plan, Miss Barrett."
Amelia's hands shook. It was useless to even try to prevent her lip from quivering as she spoke. "In order to continue raising Lucy when you return to your duties, and in order to inherit Winterwood and have the resources to provide Lucy with what she needs, I would need to marry someone besides Mr. Littleton in the next few weeks."
His eyes narrowed. "What exactly are you suggesting?"
"You, Captain Sterling. You and I should marry. Immediately."
Excerpted from THE HEIRESS OF WINTERWOOD by SARAH E. LADD Copyright © 2013 by Sarah Ladd. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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