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Resisting Miss Merryweather
Sir Barnaby Ware made a mistake two and a half years ago. A massive mistake. The sort of mistake that can never be atoned for.
He knows himself to be irredeemable, but the captivating and unconventional Miss Merryweather is determined to prove him wrong.
The daughter of a dancing master and a noblewoman, Miss Merryweather had an unusual upbringing. She sees things no one else sees—and she says things no one else says.
Sir Barnaby knows he’s the villain in this piece, but Miss Merryweather thinks he’s the hero—and she is damnably hard to resist…
*Desert Isle Keeper*
“A charming, romantic novella that shows how magical life can be with the right person at your side.”
~ Sara @ All About Romance
“A lovely story of redemption, forgiveness, love, and magic. I wholeheartedly recommend this novella.”
~ Lady Blue @ Romantic Historical Reviews
“Larkin has created a warm and welcoming magical historical world, and two deeply sympathetic heroes. Fans of historical romance crossed with enchantment will anxiously await upcoming volumes in this series.”
~ Amber @ NetGalley
April 6th, 1807
BARNABY WARE LET the curricle slow to a halt. He gazed past the horses’ ears at the high-banked Devon lane that opened like a tunnel on his left. The knot of dread that had been sitting in his belly all morning tied itself even tighter. Picturesque, a voice noted in his head. The tall banks were clothed in grass and wildflowers and shaded by overhanging trees.
“This’ll be the lane to Woodhuish Abbey, sir,” his groom, Catton, said, with a nod at the lightning-struck oak on the far bank.
I know. But Barnaby didn’t lift the reins, didn’t urge the horses into motion.
Four days it had taken to get here, each day traveling more slowly. Today, he’d practically let the horses walk. And now, with less than a mile left of his journey, all he wanted to do was turn the curricle around and head back to Berkshire.
“No mistaking that oak,” Catton said, after a moment’s silence. “Split right in half, just like the innkeeper said.”
I know. The dread was expanding in his belly, and growing apace with it was a bone-deep certainty that he shouldn’t be here. So what if the invitation had been in Marcus’s handwriting? I shouldn’t have come.
Barnaby glanced over his shoulder. The road was empty. And there was plenty of space to turn the curricle.
Catton would think him a coward, but what did he care what the groom thought? What did he care what anyone thought any more?
“Sir Barnaby Ware?” a female voice said.
Barnaby’s head snapped around. He searched the shadows and found a young girl in a dark-colored redingote, up on the nearest bank, in the deep green gloom of the trees.
“Er . . . hello?” he said.
The girl descended the bank nimbly. She wore sturdy kid leather boots and a straw bonnet tied under her chin with a bow. How old was she? Twelve? Fourteen?
“Sir Barnaby Ware?” she asked again, stepping up to the curricle and tilting her head back to look at him.
Sunlight fell on her face, showing him sky-blue eyes and flaxen ringlets.
Barnaby blinked. Not a girl; a woman in her twenties, trim and petite. “Yes.”
Was this Marcus’s new wife? Surely not. The gossip was that the new Lady Cosgrove was a plain woman, and this woman was definitely not plain.
“I’m Anne Merryweather,” the woman said, with a friendly smile. “Lady Cosgrove’s cousin. May I possibly beg a ride to the abbey?”
“Of course,” Barnaby said automatically, and then his brain caught up with his mouth. Damnation. He managed a stiff smile. “It would be my pleasure, Miss, er, Mrs . . . ?”
“Miss Merryweather,” she said cheerfully. “But most people call me Merry. It’s less of a mouthful!”
Half a minute later, Miss Merryweather was seated alongside him and Catton was perched behind in the tiger’s seat. Barnaby reluctantly lifted the reins. It appeared he was going to face Marcus after all.
His stomach clenched as they entered the shady lane.
“I saw you once at Vauxhall,” Miss Merryweather said. “Several years ago.”
Barnaby wrenched his thoughts back to his companion. “Er . . . you did?”
“At one of the ridottos.”
Barnaby looked more closely at her—the heart-shaped face, the dimples, the full, sweet mouth. Did she expect him to recognize her? “I’m afraid I don’t recall meeting you,” he said apologetically.
“Oh, we weren’t introduced. I was there with my fiancé, and you were with Lord Cosgrove and his fiancée.”
“Oh.” His face stiffened. The familiar emotions surged through him: guilt, shame, remorse.
Barnaby looked away, and gripped the reins tightly. God, to be able to go back to the person he’d been then. To be able to relive his life and not make the same dreadful mistake.
“I noticed you most particularly. You were the best dancer there.”
It took a few seconds for the words to penetrate the fog of shame and regret. When they did, Barnaby blinked. “Me?”
“Marcus dances fairly well,” Miss Merryweather said. “He’s a natural athlete, but he’s a pugilist. He’s trained his body for strength, not grace. You, I’d hazard a guess, are a better fencer and horseman than Marcus.”
“Not by much,” Barnaby said, staring at her. What an unusual female.
“It takes a number of qualities to make a truly excellent dancer. Not merely precision and grace and stamina, but a musical ear as well, and of course one must enjoy dancing. You have all of those qualities, Sir Barnaby. You’re one of the best dancers I’ve ever seen.”
Barnaby felt himself blush. “Thank you.” He refrained from glancing back at Catton. The groom was doubtless smirking.
“Marcus’s neighbors are holding a ball tomorrow night. I know it’s terribly forward of me, but I hope we can dance at least one set together?”
“Of course.” And then he remembered Marcus. The blush drained from Barnaby’s face. Dread congealed in his belly. “If I’m still here.”
Miss Merryweather’s eyebrows lifted slightly. “You’re staying for two weeks, aren’t you?”
“Perhaps not.” Perhaps not even one night. It depended on Marcus. Depended on whether Marcus could bear to be in the same room as him. Could bear to even look at him.
Barnaby’s stomach twisted in on itself. This is a mistake. I shouldn’t have come. Some errors could never be atoned for. His hands tightened on the reins. The horses obediently slowed.
“Marcus expects you to stay for a fortnight, you know. He’s been looking forward to your visit.”
Barnaby felt even sicker. He glanced at Miss Merryweather. Her gaze was astonishingly astute. Oh, God, how much does she know?
He halted the curricle. “Miss Merryweather, I―”
She laid her gloved hand on his arm, cutting off his words. “Don’t make any decisions now, Sir Barnaby. Wait until you’ve met Marcus.”
She knows I’m about to turn around and run.
Miss Merryweather removed her hand and gave him a warm, sympathetic smile. “He says you’re his best friend.”
To Barnaby’s horror, the words brought a rush of moisture to his eyes. He turned his head away and blinked fiercely, flicked the reins, urged the horses into a brisk trot. He concentrated on the shade-dappled lane, on the horses, on the reins, on his breathing—anything but Miss Merryweather’s words.
The lane swung right, the grassy banks lowered, and a view opened out: woodland, meadow, a sweeping drive leading to a large stone building that must be Woodhuish Abbey. The abbey was a sprawling, whimsical structure, with gracefully arched windows and a crenelated roof parapet. Ivy climbed the stone walls.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Miss Merryweather said.
Barnaby’s brain was frozen in a state between dismay and panic. It took him several seconds to find a response. “Very gothic.”
The curricle swung into the driveway. Gravel crunched beneath the wheels. Dread climbed his throat like bile. Oh, God, I can’t face Marcus again. The last time had almost crucified him. But it was too late to turn back now. Far too late. They were within sight of the windows. Another minute and they’d be in front of the great, arched doorway.
Barnaby sat in numb horror while the horses trotted down the driveway.
“It was a monastery for more than three hundred years—Augustinian—they built the most marvelous walled gardens—but it’s been in private hands since Henry the eighth. Marcus says the previous owner remodeled it in the Strawberry Hill style. Are you familiar with Strawberry Hill, Sir Barnaby?”
Barnaby managed to unstick his tongue. “Walpole’s place. Gothic.”
He brought the curricle to a halt at the foot of the steps. Catton leapt down and ran to the horses’ heads.
“Thank you for the ride, Sir Barnaby,” Miss Merryweather said.
Barnaby’s throat was too dry for a response. He managed a stiff nod. His fingers didn’t want to release the reins.
The door swung open. A butler emerged into the sunlight. Behind him was another man, taller, younger, darker. Marcus.
Barnaby’s stomach folded in on itself. Oh, God.
MERRY JUMPED LIGHTLY down from the curricle. Sir Barnaby appeared to have forgotten her existence. He was sitting as stiffly as a statue, watching Lord Cosgrove come down the steps, and the expression on his face . . .
Merry looked quickly away, and up at the earl. Marcus’s face was mask-like, but she’d lived in his household for ten months now, and she knew him well enough to see his painful hope.
She smiled up at him. “I met Sir Barnaby at the end of the lane. He was kind enough to give me a ride.”
Marcus nodded, and halted on the final step. Merry heard the front door open again, heard quick, light footsteps. Charlotte. She allowed herself to relax slightly. Marcus seemed to relax slightly, too. He glanced back, and held out a hand to his wife.
Lady Cosgrove came swiftly down the steps. She was smiling, but beneath the smile she was anxious. She took her husband’s hand, glanced at Merry, and then at Sir Barnaby.
Sir Barnaby climbed down from the curricle. He had mastered his expression. His face was as mask-like as Marcus’s.
The groom cast a nervous glance between Sir Barnaby and Lord Cosgrove; he’d know the history between the two men.
For a moment they made a silent tableau, and then Marcus said, “Barnaby. Welcome to Woodhuish Abbey.”
Sir Barnaby gave a jerky nod. His face was pale beneath the curling red-brown hair. “Thank you.”
“I’d like you to meet my wife. Charlotte.”
Sir Barnaby bowed. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Your Grace.”
“And you, Sir Barnaby,” Charlotte said, with a warm smile. She held out her hand to him.
After a moment’s hesitation, Sir Barnaby took it.
“I’m so glad you could come.”
Charlotte’s sincerity was audible in her voice, but Sir Barnaby didn’t appear to hear it. He gave another jerky nod, and released Charlotte’s hand and took a step back, as if to put distance between them. “Thank you for your invitation. I’m . . . pleased to be here.”
Merry almost snorted at this patent lie. He wants to be anywhere but at Woodhuish. He’d be on his way back to Berkshire if I hadn’t met him in the lane.
“The stables are around the back,” Marcus told the groom. “Come inside, Barnaby.”
Sir Barnaby seemed to rock back slightly on his heels. He inhaled a shallow breath. He was painfully tense, and beneath the tension was wariness. He was bracing himself for . . . what? Recriminations?
They climbed the steps in a stiff, awkward gaggle. Merry watched Sir Barnaby as he stepped beneath the pointed gothic arch of the great door. He seemed to draw even more closely into himself.
Their footsteps echoed on the polished flagstone floor. The butler closed the huge door and stood silently, as poker-faced as only a butler could be.
“Are you hungry?” Marcus asked. “Would you like some refreshments?”
“No, thank you.” Sir Barnaby glanced around the entrance hall, his gaze skipping over the iron-bound oak chests that were each six hundred years old and the great curving staircase with its traceried stonework.
“I thought . . . perhaps you might like to go for a walk? I could show you Woodhuish. If you would like?” The invitation was diffidently extended, but Merry saw how anxiously Marcus waited for the response.
Sir Barnaby hesitated, and then nodded.
“In fifteen minutes?”
Sir Barnaby nodded again.
Marcus seemed to relax. “Good,” he said. “I’ll meet you down here. Yeldham will show you to your room.”
The butler stepped forward. “If you would come with me, Sir Barnaby.”
MERRY FOLLOWED MARCUS and Charlotte into the front parlor, with its tall French windows and view of the park. She peeled her gloves off thoughtfully and removed her bonnet. She had never before witnessed such a painful, awkward meeting between two people.
Charlotte took a seat by the windows, where sunlight fell across her lap. Marcus sat beside her and fidgeted, shuffling through the books on the side table, stacking them in a pile, glancing at the clock on the mantelpiece, restacking the books. The sixth time he looked at the clock, he said, “I, uh, I should go.”
Charlotte touched his cheek with her fingertips, and then leaned over and kissed him. “I hope it goes well, love.”
Marcus gave a brief nod, as jerky as Sir Barnaby’s. He tugged at his neckcloth as if it was too tight and headed for the door.
When he had gone, Charlotte met Merry’s eyes. “I’ve never seen him so nervous.”
Faintly, came the sound of men’s voices, the sound of the great front door closing. Charlotte tilted her head, listening, and then said, “What do you think of Sir Barnaby?”
“He doesn’t want to be here. He almost turned around at the end of the lane.” Merry spread her gloves on her knee and smoothed out the limp fingers.
“I’m not surprised. Marcus said the most dreadful things to him the last time they met. Sir Barnaby practically begged for a second chance, and Marcus refused.” Charlotte’s lips twisted. “I’ve never seen a man look so stricken. I thought he was going to cry.”
I saw that look on his face only a few minutes ago. Merry nodded soberly. “I think he’s been even more damaged by this than Marcus. And I don’t mean his reputation.”
Outside, on the lawn, movement caught her eye. Marcus and Sir Barnaby came into view. Merry had seen hundreds of men walk into her father’s dancing studio, but none had looked as uncomfortable as Sir Barnaby did now. He held himself stiffly, tensely, as if trying not to hunch in on himself.
Marcus was tense, too, but his was an eager, hopeful tension. He was half-turned to Sir Barnaby, talking, gesturing towards the abbey.
Sir Barnaby listened with his head slightly lowered, slightly averted.
He can’t bring himself to meet Marcus’s eyes.
“They’re talking,” Charlotte said, a note of hope in her voice.
“Hmm,” Merry said. The difference between the man she’d seen dance at Vauxhall four years ago and the man now crossing the lawn was stark.
Her noncommittal response brought Charlotte’s head around. “What do you see?”
A man who has built a dungeon for himself at the bottom of a deep, dark pit.
“I think . . . Sir Barnaby no longer believes that reconciliation is possible.”