The Daring Exploits of a Runaway Heiress

 

PROLOGUE

January 4, 1888
Millworth Manor

 

“You want to do what?” Jackson Channing stared at Lucinda Merryweather as if she had suddenly grown two heads. Which would have been most curious even here at Millworth Manor. Although from what Lucy had gathered during her stay thus far, it might not have been the oddest thing ever to have occurred at Jackson’s father’s ancestral estate.

“No, Jackson,” Lucy said firmly, resisting the urge to heave a long-suffering sigh. She had known he would not take this well. Apparently, it was one thing for Jackson to head toward the unknown and a life of grand adventures and quite another for Lucy to do so. Regardless, he no longer had any say in what she did or did not do. She settled into one of the chairs in front of the desk and cast him her most pleasant smile. “I don’t merely want to do this. I fully intend to do this.”

“You intend to somehow set right the regrets of a woman you never met.” Disbelief rang in his voice.

“That’s not entirely true. I did meet my Great-aunt Lucinda, but I was very young and simply don’t remember. She died when I was five.”

“Nonetheless–”

“There is no nonetheless, Jackson.” Goodness, the man made her want to stamp her foot in frustration. Fortunately she had given up such childish behavior years ago. Still, it would have been most satisfying. “I was named for my great-aunt and she left me her fortune, which I received on my twenty-first birthday.”

“Yes, I know that but–”

“There were no stipulations on the inheritance, if you recall. However, I also received a letter from Lucinda as well as a thin journal. A book of regrets, if you will.”

“Just because she had regrets does not mean that you are under any obligation–”

“I know exactly what it does and doesn’t mean, Jackson. And I do wish you would stop being so . . . so disapproving.” She glanced around the Millworth library and the numerous family portraits interspersed between endless shelves of books. Each and every portrait glowered with disapproval. “Although this does seem to be the place for it.”

“Lucy, I–”

“And do sit down.” She rolled her gaze at the ceiling. “I hate the way you’re standing behind that desk glaring at me.”

“I like standing. It gives me the advantage.”

“Not really.” She smiled sweetly.

He huffed, took his seat, and leaned forward over the desk. “I have known you for all of your life and I have always felt, well, responsible for you.” He paused. “Just because our circumstances have changed does not negate that responsibility.”

“Actually, Jackson,” she said in as kind a voice as she could manage. “It does.”

For years Lucy and Jackson, as well as their respective families, had assumed they would one day marry. But whenever the time had come to officially announce their engagement, there had always been some perfectly legitimate reason to put it off. It had slowly dawned on Lucy that perhaps they were not meant to be together. And perhaps deep down inside, both of them knew it.  The realization had brought with it a great deal of relief. She truly loved Jackson and suspected she always would, but the affection she felt for him was not unlike that she had for her brothers. And it did seem to her if one was going to marry a man, the feelings one had for him shouldn’t be anything remotely brotherly.

Both their lives had changed when Jackson discovered the father he had long thought was dead was not merely alive but had no knowledge of his son’s existence. And discovered as well he was heir to an English title. When Jackson came to England with his newfound father to meet his family, it did seem that fate had handed Lucy the chance she had assumed lost forever. She had freed him from any obligation to her and set her own plan for her life in motion, at least tentatively. It was the specifics that were vague. But again fate stepped in and Lucy had jumped at the chance to accompany Jackson’s mother, Elizabeth, to England. Now that she was here, she had no intention of returning home to New York anytime soon. No intention of becoming once again the placid, well-behaved daughter of a director of Graham, Merryweather, and Lockwood Banking and Trust.

“You will always be my dearest friend,” Jackson said staunchly.

“As you will be mine.”

Poor, dear Jackson had fallen head over heels for a friend of his family’s. Unfortunately, she was as independent as she was lovely, and a few days ago both their hearts had been broken. Lucy had tried to talk to Jackson, to encourage him to go after the lady, but it was to no avail. He was as stubborn as the woman he loved. Still, Lucy firmly believed in the notion of true love and soul mates and destiny. And wasn’t the mere fact that she and Jackson were not together proof of that? Lucy was confident Jackson and Lady Theodosia would eventually find their way back to each other.

However, as there seemed to be nothing Lucy could do about Jackson’s life at the moment, it was time to turn her attention to her own.

“I am well aware that I am under no obligation to Great-aunt Lucinda, at least not legally, but I feel a, well, a moral obligation if you will. I was quite moved by the letter she left for me and by her regrets, but there was nothing I could do about it when you and I had our lives planned out for us. Now, everything has changed.” She shook her head. “I do not want to reach the end of my life and have a list of those things I wanted to do but failed to so much as try. The very idea terrifies me. I don’t want regrets of my own.” She met his gaze directly. “And if I don’t do this for her–for me–I know I will.”

“Perhaps . . .” He settled back in his chair and chose his words carefully. A deceptively casual note sounded in his voice. “You should do those things you’ve always wanted rather than those someone else wished to do.”

“Excellent, Jackson.” She fixed him with a firm look. “And just what do you suggest those might be?”

He shrugged. “I have no idea.”

“Unfortunately, neither do I.” She crossed her arms over her chest and drew her brows together. “Every bit of my life has been planned and expected up until now. I’ve never veered from  the course set out for me. Why, I never even questioned whether you and I should marry. At least not aloud.”

“Nor did I,” Jackson said under his breath.

“But as I am no longer expected to marry you, I’m not sure what I want to do.”

“Surely you wish to marry someone someday?”

“Oh, probably someday, but at the moment . . .” She shook her head. “I feel very much like a bird who has at long last been released from its cage.”

“Thank you,” he said wryly.

“Come now, you know what I mean.” She waved off his comment. “Now that I am free, I have no idea what I want to do with my freedom. Until I determine that, it seems the best course is to do those things my great-aunt never had the opportunity to do.”

“I’m not sure that is indeed the best course. Still . . .” He studied her for a moment. “You haven’t told me what these regrets of your aunt’s are. I’m assuming the worst, you know. That they are all improper or scandalous or dangerous.”

“Not all of them.” She had no intention of telling him everything on Lucinda’s long list, but she could tell him one or two items. “Some of them are a little silly and some are really rather sweet. For one thing, she always wanted to have a dog but was never able to have one as dogs made great-uncle Charles  sneeze. There are quite a few that are as innocent as that.”

His eyes narrowed. “But not all of them?”

“Well, some are a bit more daring.” She cast him an innocent smile. “But not substantially so.”

“I don’t believe you for a moment.” He shook his head. “I don’t think this is the least bit advisable, Lucy.”

“Why not? You’re going off to do exactly what you want. Aside from the notion of following in your father’s adventurous footsteps, your plans are even less definitive than mine. Why shouldn’t I do what I want?”

“For one thing, you’re female,” he said in a distinctly patronizing manner. She did so hate it when he was patronizing. It was the banker in him, no doubt. And even though he was now foregoing his life as a banker in favor of something far more exciting, it was obviously easier to take the man out of the bank than the bank out of the man. “For another, you have no practical experience at being on your own. Although I could hire someone to make certain of your safety, I suppose. A bodyguard or some sort of private investigator–”

“You most certainly will not! I do not need a nursemaid or a watchdog.”

“I don’t like leaving you here alone with no one to watch over you.”

She raised a brow. “Goodness, Jackson, I had no idea you had such a poor opinion of my abilities and intelligence.”

“I didn’t mean that quite the way it sounded.” Jackson shook his head. “You’ve simply taken me by surprise. I’ve no doubt you’re probably extremely capable underneath all that”–his eyes narrowed–“pleasantry.”

“I am unfailingly pleasant.”

“Yes, I know.” He studied her for a long moment. “You’re determined, aren’t you?”

“I am.”

“Well, I suppose you’re right.” He heaved a resigned sigh. “There’s no reason why you can’t do what you wish. And I suspect there’s nothing I can do to stop you.”

She cast him her sweetest smile.

“Therefore, I have no objection–”

“Oh, lucky, lucky me.”

He ignored her. “However, I do have conditions.”

“Conditions?” She scoffed. “I thought we had established that it’s no longer your right to have any say whatsoever about what I may or may not do. I am nearly twenty-four years old, you know.”

“I have the right of a good friend, as someone who cares about you. But if you would prefer not to agree to my conditions”–he shrugged–“I might feel compelled to write to your parents, or better yet, your brothers, and tell them of my concerns.” It was his turn to smile pleasantly.

Lucy narrowed her gaze. She had no doubt he would do exactly that if she didn’t give in to his demands. “Very well. What are your conditions?”

“One, that you restrict your pursuit of these adventures of your great-aunt’s to England and reside either here at Millworth or at Channing House in London.” He held up his hand to forestall her objection. “My parents and aunt and uncle will all be traveling, so you would be as independent as you plan. Of course, the servants will be here.”

Lucy bit back a satisfied smile. She was well aware that very nearly everyone in his family would be heading toward different parts of the world in the coming days. She was only telling Jackson all this in the first place because she intended to ask if she could stay on in his family’s residences while they were away. She had already decided to pursue her quests in England for several reasons. First and foremost, she was here, delightfully far from home and everyone she knew. Besides, her great-aunt had always wanted to travel to England as her mother, Lucy’s great-grandmother, was born here. Lucy’s visit to England meant she could already cross one regret off the list. Beyond that, as this would be Lucy’s first attempt at adventure of any kind, it did seem it might be easier to have grand adventures if she fully understood the language. While she had studied French and Italian, languages simply eluded her and she could do little more than ask for directions to the library or the train station. She nodded. “I can agree to that.”

“And you will periodically call on my cousin, Lady Dunwell, so that someone will be assured of your well-being.”

“Your cousin Beryl?”

Jackson nodded. “As everyone else will be out of the country, Beryl is an excellent choice. Her husband, Lionel, is expected to be prime minister one day. I doubt that I could leave you in better hands.”

Apparently Jackson was not aware that, while Lady Dunwell and her husband were most respectable at the moment, the gossip  about their past was extremely interesting and not the least bit proper. Lucy couldn’t think of a more perfect watchdog. She forced a resigned note to her voice. “Very well.”

“And.” His tone hardened. “You will allow me to hire a companion for you.”

“I don’t need a companion.”

“And I have been lax in my correspondence.”

She narrowed her eyes. “You do realize there is a word for what you’re doing?”

“I daresay there are any number of words for what I’m doing.” The smug note in his voice matched the satisfied look in his eyes.

“Blackmail and extortion immediately come to mind.”

He cast her a completely unrepentant grin. She could not recall ever wanting to smack that grin off his face before.

“All right.” She sighed. “A companion it is then.” Still, she could always discharge any companion Jackson found once he was out of the country.

Jackson paused. “You do realize once your parents find out–”

“They shall no doubt send someone to bodily haul me home.” It was awkward to sail off into the unknown when your family refused to accept that you were an adult. She wasn’t entirely sure how she was going to deal with that situation should–when it occurred. She’d always been a perfect daughter. She’d never done anything unexpected or improper in her life. It was a pity, really. If she’d had more experience with impropriety she’d probably know how to handle the repercussions of doing the unexpected. “Yes, I do realize that, which means I probably don’t have a great deal of time to accomplish what I want.”

“You will write to them?”

“I already have.” She forced a note of indignation to her voice. “I would never want to worry them. Besides, your mother wrote to them as well.” Unfortunately, as Mrs. Channing’s letter had been placed on a hallway table to be posted, Lucy might possibly have dropped it into the fire. Accidentally, of course.

“And you did tell them that you are no longer accompanied by my mother.”

“Goodness, Jackson.” She drew her brows together. “One would think you didn’t trust me.”

“I didn’t mean–”

“Have I ever in my entire life lied to you?”

“Not that I know of.”

“And do you consider me to be a liar? Someone who prevaricates? Who hides the truth?” She pinned him with a firm look. “Well?”

“Of course not.” Jackson shook his head. “I am sorry. It’s . . . well . . .” He ran his hand through his hair in an endearingly familiar manner. For a moment she could see the future they had both expected. It would have been quite pleasant and it was a tiny bit sad to see it vanish. But not marrying Jackson would never be one of her regrets. “It’s been a difficult few days.”

“Not to mention the months preceding it.” She again resisted the urge to bring up Lady Theodosia.

“Still, you’re right.” He shrugged apologetically. “I have no reason not to trust you.”
“Thank you, Jackson.” She beamed at him. Perhaps there was something to be said for having a spotless reputation after all. And it wasn’t a complete lie. She had written, she simply might not have mentioned that Jackson’s mother had decided to travel the world with her estranged husband in the hopes of rekindling what they once had. It was terribly romantic. And extremely convenient.

Nonetheless, even though Lucy had assured Jackson’s mother she would write to her family, as indeed she had, Lucy had no doubt that at some point Elizabeth Channing would again write to her dear friend Pauline Merryweather. Said letter would surely  mention Elizabeth’s travels with her husband and that Lucy had stayed in England. At which point Pauline would realize she wasn’t entirely certain exactly where her only daughter was or what she was doing, and there would be hell to pay. As frustrating as the slow speed of mail and transport across the Atlantic was, at the moment, Lucy was grateful. By her calculations, she had a minimum of a month to do what she wanted to do. If she was lucky, she would have far more.

She was under no illusions that she could do everything on her great-aunt’s list, but it did seem to her that the worth was as much in the effort as the success. After that, Lucy had no idea what she would do, but her future certainly didn’t need to be decided here and now. She had time and money and freedom.

“You are absolutely certain you want to do this?” Jackson asked.

“Aside from not marrying you”–Lucy grinned–“I have never been more certain of anything in my life.”

“Again, thank you.”

She laughed. She would always treasure Jackson, but they were choosing their own roads to follow. She hadn’t the slightest doubt that one day he would walk his with Lady Theodosia by his side. Precisely as it should be.

Lucy’s own road was a bit less clear. Which should have concerned her but didn’t. It was as exciting as it was daunting. Besides, when fate offered you a hand, you would be a fool not to take it. Adventure was where one found it, after all, and opportunities were not to be squandered.

What Jackson didn’t know, what Lucy had never revealed to anyone, was that her great-aunt wasn’t the only young girl to make a list of those silly or improper things she wished to do in her life.

Lucinda Wilhelmina Merryweather had long had a secret list of adventures of her own.

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