Chasing the Chaperone (Preview)


Chapter 1

Autumn, 1819

My Lord,

I never thought to say these words to you. 

You must forget me. 

You must.

You are meant for high society and the Earldom while I… 

I am insignificant.

I am the bastard daughter of a baron; of a man I have but scant knowledge.

I cannot bear to bring you low by our association.

Forgive me that I must convey this in a letter.

I fear my resolve might disappear if I were to see you again.

I pray that you stay kind to those both above and below you, as you have always been to me.

Be happy for my sake.

With gratitude for all that we have shared,


For the thousandth time, Jonathan read the last note Lavinia sent him. The paper was thin and creased, the ink fading for all the times he had handled the paper.

Eight years had passed, and he still had not forgotten her, despite her solemn command. He could remember her golden tresses and the way the light danced in her green eyes when she laughed.

Jonathan sighed as he set aside the note and focused on the ledger his steward left for his review. Although Jonathan already had a fair idea of the dire contents, he began to go through the numbers again.

The Earldom was on the brink of bankruptcy. Courtesy of his late father’s love for gambling, lavish and lavish living. Everyone knew of Abingdon’s reckless ways. And Jonathan had last year inherited the title only to see it had been brought to ruin. Jonathan smiled ruefully. His father had sworn that Jonathan would be the downfall of the title, when in fact, Jonathan would have to find a way to be its savior.

After a while, Jonathan closed the ledger and stood up, leaving the desk to walk to the tall open windows. Outside, autumn was just beginning, the turning leaves bare hints of a season on the brink of change. He relished in the warmth of the sun and closed his eyes. Unbidden, another autumn day came to mind, the day that Jonathan had chosen Lavinia over the Earldom.

It had been warm, and the hues of the season were also abundant the day he left this very same study. Turning his back on his father and his future as an Earl. A young man who was very much in love. He waited for her where they first met; a secluded bench in the park, surrounded by trees shedding their multicolored leaves.

He’d arrived at dawn, and he was still waiting when the sun rose the next day. If not for the rain that began to pour that evening, he would have stayed longer. Indeed, the day started sunny, but Jonathan returned to Abingdon in the dismal rain of evening. His greatcoat was well-drenched, and his boots caked with mud. He walked on in a daze. So lost in his thoughts that the truth came to him only when he reached the massive doors of his father’s manor.

Lavinia had not come.

The thought shocked him. He’d sent word to Lavinia that they would run away to Gretna Green to be wed. But she did not come to meet him.

Jonathan felt the old pang in his heart. He abruptly ended his reminiscence of the past and sealed his eyes shut tighter. He bowed his head and willed the unwanted thoughts and bitter emotions back into the metaphorical box he’d locked them in so many years ago. Then Jonathan heard three knocks on the door.

His mother, Rebecca, Dowager Countess of Abingdon emerged from the door, dressed in a fine silk gown of dove gray that showed that she was still in half-mourning for her late husband.

She paused and asked, “Is everything all right, my son?” A look of worry crossed her face that showed thin signs of aging, but one which still retained the regal beauty of her youth. Jonathan turned and smiled in hopes he could fool his mother, but knowing he tried in vain, as his mother’s intuition was always sound regarding her only son.

She walked to him and took his hand in hers. The soft hazel eyes that were so like his own entreating him to confide in her.

“From the frown on your face, I fear my presumptions are true. Abingdon is as good as bankrupt.” Jonathan’s mother said as she glanced at the ledger on the well-polished desk. He nodded slightly.

“As your mother, I do not want to force anything on you, Jonathan,” The Dowager Countess paused as if she was deeply pondering her next words.

“But think of the people who depend on us, son. Perhaps it is time that you think of marriage.” Rebecca softly said as she placed her hands on both sides of his son’s cheeks.

“I know, Mother,” Jonathan abruptly responded. So abrupt that it slightly startled the Dowager Countess. In an attempt to soften his words, Jonathan smiled, though it was forced.

He had never thought to marry anyone other than Lavinia. Even if it meant never taking a wife. Even after his months and years of searching for her turned up nothing.

As the reckoning of his father’s errors drew near, however, Jonathan knew he had no choice. He was in a bind. His hands tied—locked by his duty and his eyes blindfolded. There was only one thing he could do to save his estate.

By the end of the season, if Jonathan did not marry a woman of sufficient dowry, his estate would be in ruins, and his mother would be forced to live in poverty. She had endured too much from his father, and Jonathan would not drive her into such a state.

He looked at his mother and saw the light sheen of tears that welled in her eyes. The sight pierced him, and Jonathan placed a hand atop hers and squeezed gently as if it was enough reassurance that all will be well.

“Well,” Rebecca croaked before she cleared her throat. She blinked back her tears and took a sharp breath of air as if to cleanse herself of the sadness that threatened to overtake her. Bitterly, she continued, “I will be at your disposal if you need help choosing a bride.”  She patted his hand and with the gentle sway of her dress, the Dowager Countess turned and left the room, leaving Jonathan alone with his thoughts once again.

Jonathan turned back to the autumnal scene of his estate. He looked on the gardeners going about their duties. Jonathan had a duty to perform as well. One that would protect his people but take away his last hope of happiness. One thrust upon him by the dissolute ways of his damned father.

For his people and for his mother, Jonathan had no choice. He must lay his heart aside and forget his hopes of finding Lavinia.

Head bowed low and hands clasped behind his back, Jonathan turned back to his desk and heaved a sigh of defeat. Reluctantly, he removed his maternal uncle’s note from a drawer. Lord Winston had found him a wife—a woman to whom he would be sacrificed for the sake of his mother and estate.

Jonathan’s uncle assured him that any of the arrangements he made were not final if Jonathan did not wish to proceed. But Jonathan knew he had little choice.

Lord Winston had arranged a tentative betrothal to a Viscount’s daughter who possessed a large dowry and was in her third season. Included in the note was the letter from Viscount Marsham himself. The Viscount asked Jonathan to visit his estate north of London so that they might meet and his marriage to his daughter Amelia may be finalized. Jonathan knew that his fate would be sealed if he agreed, and he would wed a woman he had never even met. A woman whose considerable dowry had not been enough to tempt anyone else to marry her.

Jonathan sighed. There was naught to be done; he must wed this heiress with all due haste.

His heart heavy but his resolve strong, Jonathan reached for his quill to pen his responses to his uncle and Viscount Marsham. He felt like a veritable scoundrel as he did so, for though Jonathan would wed this woman, he would never love her. His heart would forever belong to another.

But, what could a man do?

Very little, Jonathan grimaced. He had to focus on all that depended on him. His tenants, his servants, and his mother. The estate could not afford to have another failed earl. So Jonathan signed his name and sealed the letters that would change the course of his life.

The Viscount responded promptly, and within a sennight, Jonathan and his mother found themselves in a carriage approaching the estate of his betrothed’s father.

Absent of any genuine curiosity but bored by the journey, Jonathan peered out the carriage windows. The russet foliage of autumn leaves neatly lined the lane, and directly ahead, Jonathan could see Lord Marsham’s castle in all its glory. The castle alone was enough of a signifier of the extent of the Viscount’s wealth. Something Jonathan found peculiar as most Viscounts did not have such a fortune to warrant residence in a castle.

Jonathan wished they could have come in spring when the landscape would be awash in color and the air redolent of fresh-cut grass. The dull browns and yellows of autumn had a funeral air. One that matched the dull ache in Jonathan’s heart.

“Autumn was much more beautiful back home,” Jonathan muttered. He spoke to himself, but somehow, his mother had heard him.

“You think so, dear?” The Dowager inquired as she leaned closer to her window and viewed for herself what Jonathan had been contemplating.

“I believe the colors are quite the same. And the sun is shining for a change,” She sensibly replied, a bit puzzled.

“Perhaps so,” Jonathan answered dryly. Though in his mind, Jonathan rebelled, He had not wanted this. So, despite what his mother thought, he kept himself occupied with his thoughts of how depressingly brown the Viscount’s estate was. Yet, all too well, the sadness in Jonathan showed in his eyes and the Dowager Countess of Abingdon reached for Jonathan’s hand and squeezed gently.

“This is for the best, Jonathan.” She smiled in an attempt to soothe him, but Jonathan did not answer. The carriage came to a halt then. They had arrived.


Chapter 2

Lavinia watched Amelia wince as the maid pulled the corset strings tighter. “Forgive me, miss,” The maid said as she tugged even harder. “But the master did say he wanted your figure to show to the best advantage today.”

When the maid finished with the corset, she helped her mistress into her gown and bowed out when she was dismissed.

“Are you in much discomfort, Amelia?” Lavinia asked with concern.

“This will be the least discomfort I derive from this day,” Amelia responded with a small smile to her former governess, who was now her paid companion.

Lavinia returned the rueful smile. She knew that this was Amelia’s last chance for a match. After two failed seasons, if she did not marry soon, Amelia would be deemed unmarriageable in the eyes of society. Lavinia remembered all the times she dried Amelia’s tear after yet another disastrous ball where the girl had sat at the edge of the room, her shoulders hunched, as she watched others dance and laugh.

The memories wrenched Lavinia’s heart. Not one of those noble snobs deserved the tears that Amelia had shed every time she was snubbed. But Lavinia could not voice this out loud for fear of being dismissed for speaking ill of her betters.

“Do you think I can finally succeed in turning a man’s head?” Amelia asked in a whisper. “I fear my limp will yet again be the cause of my failure. Why would this gentleman be any different from all the others that father has tried to buy for me?”

“Perhaps this one will be the right man for you, Amelia. Mayhap he will be kind and gentle,” Lavinia smiled as she reached up and tucked a brown curl behind Amelia’s ear.

“So, think not of what society deems a success. Rather, listen to your heart,” Lavinia said, laying her hand upon her own breast. She saw Amelia smile slightly, but there was no joy on her face.

“I fear the men of the ton do not listen to their hearts, nor are they kind.” Amelia replied bitterly. “I do not think the man you speak of will ever come or even exists.” Lavinia could feel Amelia’s sadness as small tears formed in her friend’s her eyes.

What Amelia said echoed through the deep recesses of Lavinia’s memories. She remembered when she once had the love of a kind gentleman, and in an instant, her thoughts wandered to Jonathan. She wondered if he had ever married, for if he did, his wife would surely be the object of envy. Knowing such a wonderful man existed gave her hope that Amelia would find one for herself.

“He will come.” Lavinia coaxed as she stared right through Amelia’s eyes. “The right one will love all of you, limp and all,” Lavinia said warmly with a smile that said she was sure of what she spoke.

“I hope so, one cannot wait for an eternity.”” Amelia said in a serious tone, knowing that the chances were slim.

“Or. . . Maybe I can, for it already feels like I have waited at least that long.” Amelia scoffed, and her eyes crinkled

Lavinia giggled and jokingly mocked, “Forever? You are still but a child.” She now saw laughter reach Amelia’s eyes and was pleased. Lavinia wanted nothing so much as to see Amelia happy.

After breakfast, Lavinia and Amelia and enjoyed themselves outdoors. They were in the middle of discussing a book in the library after luncheon when Amelia’s father, Viscount Marsham, approached them with swift steps.

“I come with good news.” Lord Marsham said to Amelia. He was a bit breathless, having trotted upstairs to find his daughter.

“Your betrothed’s carriage is approaching and will be at the door at any moment. Everything will soon be arranged for you.” Lord Marsham kept his gaze trained on Amelia as she slowly rose from her seat.

Amelia’s body shook, and she placed her palms flat on the table in front of her to steady herself.

“But what of my limp, Father? I am afraid he will take himself off as soon as he lays eyes on me,” Amelia said in a voice so loud and anxious that Lavinia softly reached for her hand to comfort Amelia. With a warm look at her, Lavinia gently smiled with eyes that conveyed all would be fine.

“There is no need for you to worry. I have everything arranged. This marriage is a business deal meant for the benefit of our two families. The Earl of Abingdon is in a bind, and he cannot take back his word. He will marry you, of that I am certain.”

The Viscount’s pronouncement struck Lavinia to her core. She sucked in a sharp breath as her mind reeled. Jonathan. 

His name ran through her head over and over as her fingers became nerveless, and the book she held fell to the floor with a thud. The loud sound jolted Lavinia out of her careening thoughts.

Fearing that Amelia and her father might see the stricken look on her face, Lavinia apologized for her clumsiness and crouched down under the table to retrieve the book and gather her wits. She tried to slow her breathing and still her shaking hands.

How could fate be so cruel to bring her love back into her life only for him to wed her dearest friend and employer?

At that moment, the butler came into the room to inform Viscount Marsham that the Earl of Abingdon and his mother, the Dowager Countess of Abingdon, had arrived. The declaration was all too abrupt, and Lavinia jolted in surprise, catching her head on the underside of the table as she got to her feet.

Both Amelia and the Viscount looked at her quizzically before the Viscount said, “Capital. See that they are settled in the drawing room and given refreshments. I will be down directly.” To Amelia, he said, “Make haste to freshen yourself, Amelia. The Earl and his mother will be here for a few days, but I want you to make a good impression on them now.”

Amelia nodded, and the Earl departed on the heels of his butler. Lavinia searched her mind for any way she could keep from having to see the man she had jilted but still loved, but nothing plausible presented itself. When she saw that Amelia was still shaking with anxiety, she put aside her own worries and drew Amelia into a warm embrace.

“All will be well, Amelia. Just be your sweet self, and do not worry; all will be as it should be,” Lavinia said as she stepped back from her mistress.

Amelia nodded and straightened her spine. Just as she was going to ask Lavinia to escort her to the drawing room, Lavinia said, “Do forgive me, but I’m afraid there is a pressing matter I must attend to at once.” Before Amelia could utter a reply, Lavinia had fled the room.

As Lavinia walked to her room, she tried to compose herself and again attempted to think of a way, short of packing her things and fleeing the castle, to keep from seeing Jonathan. How could she meet him again as he was about to wed another?

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