LOVE & OTHER PERENNIAL HABITS
All Margaret Reedy’s despicable husband left her when he died was the title of Countess of Everly, a ramshackle estate, and a pittance to repair it. Fortunately, he couldn’t deny her the most important perk of widowhood: freedom. A chance to become the woman she might have been if a forced marriage hadn’t gotten in her way. Problem is, she’s not entirely certain who that is.
Oliver Ludlow’s only desire is to spend the next month with his hands buried in the soil of his greenhouse, escaping London and his newly appointed role as the Marquess of Greenwood. Instead, he offers his help renovating the gardens of Baron Manor, which means spending his days in the company of the peculiar countess who owns it. As he gets to know her, however, he begins to find her quirks intriguing… and alluring.
An idyllic autumn in the country has a way of becoming the perfect backdrop to fall in love, but with their lives leading them in two completely opposite directions, will their newfound happiness be strong enough to weather not only their expected roles in society, but the seasons of life?
The Earl of Everly was dead, thank God.
The bastard had met the grim reaper in his sleep at the ripe age of sixty-six, an easy way to go for someone so terrible as him, but nevertheless, he was dead. Margaret Reedy, Countess of Everly, watched the carriage pull away, the black plumes on top of the horses’ heads dancing in the wind as they merged into the traffic of Mayfair. Everly would be buried at the family estate in Salisbury, and Margaret, being a lowly woman, was not allowed to attend the proceedings.
Not that she would have. Her husband was a miserable man who had made it his purpose in life to ensure her days were a living hell. No, she would bid goodbye to the arse from the front steps of their Grosvenor Square home, then head inside for a nice cup of tea and some biscuits.
“How are you, dear?” her mother, Lady Veerson, asked from the couch of the sitting room. Her blue day dress showed nary a wrinkle as she sipped from her teacup, her perfectly coiffed grey hair immaculate, not a single strand out of place. The woman had not moved from the spot since she arrived that morning, and Margaret envied her carefree existence, but that was it. Her mother,
after all, was married to her father and that was a sentence she would not wish upon anyone. It had been her sire who had determined the trajectory of her fate, forcing her to marry the aged earl, a man nearly forty years her senior, and sentencing her to an existence of wretchedness that only death could save her from. Unfortunately for them all, her father was very much alive.
“I’m well. Ready for this all to be completed.” She brushed at her black crepe dress before sitting and taking the proffered cup of tea from her mother.
“The hard part is over, dear. The earl will be buried and once his will is read and Lord Harrison officially takes over the title, you’ll be the dowager countess. Do you have any notion of what your settlement will be?” Lady Veerson sipped her tea so delicately at the question it set Margaret’s teeth on edge.
She shook her head. “Walter wasn’t too forthcoming about what his plans for me were once he perished. I’m sure he intended to outlive me.”
Her mother frowned at her words. The acknowledgment of oppression she had been dealt at the hands of her husband was a topic her parents wanted little to do with. Just the mere mention of Walter’s domineering personality sent them both into lamentations of her being overly dramatic. It had not mattered when Everly demeaned her in public, calling her all sorts of horrible names, and it certainly did not matter now. No, her parents cared very little for the well- being of their eldest child, only that she married well, and gained a title in the process. After all, what were a few harsh words when you could be a countess?
Margaret pasted a smile on her lips. “I can only hope Daphne’s marriage is nothing like mine. It’s a shame she could not come today.”
“What nonsense, Margaret. She’s at finishing school, readying herself to become a nobleman’s wife. That is much more important than sitting idly by as her sister tends to her husband’s funeral.” Lady Veerson glanced at the clock but shook her head as she realized the timepiece remained unmoving because of mourning constraints. “I should be off. I have my monthly orphan society meeting. You should be grateful I was available to support you in your time of need.”
“Of course, Mother. You are very thoughtful.” The words left her lips with force, their necessity grating, given the circumstances.
Lady Veerson nodded. “I am.” She set down her teacup and stood. “Let me know once the will is read and you learn your fate. Your father and I will be happy to have you return home for the duration of your mourning. I know he is eager to begin the search for your next husband.”
Margaret bit the inside of her cheek to hold in her retort. Her mother did not need to know that she would never remarry, nor that she would rather live in a shack than return to her parent’s household. No matter the outcome of the will, Margaret knew this was her chance for a new beginning, and she was not intending to let it pass without a fight.
After her mother took her leave, Margaret walked the home, her fingers dancing over the furniture that Everly had picked. Walter designed each room to his taste after he stated without affliction that she had little knowledge of what was up to fashion for the home. He had picked each piece meticulously. And he had lorded each room over her, another dagger in his reasonings for why she would never be a good wife and countess. The temptation to break each piece had her removing her hand and holding them tightly behind her back. Lord Harrison would not appreciate learning the items had become damaged in a manic rage, no matter how terrible her husband had been.
Yet the idea held merit. She imagined lining each precious possession on top of the dining room table, then maliciously hitting each of them with a Pall Mall mallet. Margaret smiled at the joy the image brought, allowing her mind to run through each cherished item Everly had boisterously taunted her with. She catalogued them from most hated to least, then imagined each swing and the resounding crash of the beloved item as it met its end. In terms of comfort, it was minimal, but she would take what she could get. After all, anything was better than Everly being alive.
The clearing of a throat behind her brought her out of her musings and she smiled at their butler, Sterns. “Sorry to interrupt, my lady, but the solicitor is here. I’ve already informed Lord Har-er, I mean the earl, that I have set him up in the study.”
Margaret chuckled at his stumble of the title of the new Earl of Everly. It seemed it was not just her that was adjusting to the new life that did not include a temperamental old man with a penchant for malevolence. “Thank you, Sterns. If you could have some refreshments sent in, it would be greatly appreciated.”
The butler nodded. “Of course, my lady.”
Heading to the study, Margaret could not contain the nerves that danced around in her stomach threatening to bring up her breakfast. Her impending fate would decide the entire trajectory of her escape, and if Everly had ensured she be in hell even after he was gone, she was uncertain what her next steps would be. But she would escape, of that she was certain.
Inside the study, Lord Harrison Metcalf sat across from the solicitor, who presided over the previous earl’s massive desk, the ankle of one leg resting on his knee as his brown eyes met hers, his usually meticulous blond hair falling over his face. A single sheet of paper sat before the solicitor, a stoic-looking man, and Margaret swallowed the bile that attempted to rise from her throat.
“My lady,” the solicitor said, bowing to her. Lord Harrison nodded his head at Margaret as if to reassure her that all would be well. He had been her biggest champion and closest confidant during her marriage to the earl, and his friendship now was invaluable. And if the will read as she suspected it would, Lord Harrison would no doubt do everything in his power to ensure that she was taken care of. While she was grateful for his thoughtfulness, it did not escape her notice that she would be indebted to another man for the rest of her life.
Lord Harrison had been Walter’s nephew and only heir, his presence truly underscoring the age difference in their marriage, but Harrison’s always ready smile and quick wit had soothed the sting of her husband’s vicious treatment. Within very little time, his weekly dinners with the earl had become the highlight of her week, the only bright spot in an otherwise dreary landscape of her marriage.
Taking the seat beside Lord Harrison, Margaret folded her hands primly in her lap and took a deep breath.
“First, I want to extend my condolences to you, Lady Everly, on the passing of the earl. I wish you comfort and support in this terrible time,” the solicitor said, his voice a croak.
Margaret nodded even as his words made her hands tighten. “Your words are more comfort than you know,” she said, forcing a smile to her lips. “I’ve rung for some refreshments before you read the will.”
The solicitor nodded his head. “Thank you, my lady, but that will not be necessary. It seems the previous earl kept his legal matters rather simple, so I do not believe it will take much time at all to go over it.”
Margaret’s stomach dropped at the words. “What do you mean?”
The solicitor rubbed at the back of his neck before adjusting a pair of spectacles and picking up the solitary piece of paper that sat before him. “Perhaps I should just get to it.” He cleared his throat, not that doing so would make the croaking of his voice any less pronounced, and said, “I, Walter Reedy, twelfth Earl of Everly, being of sound mind and body declare this to be my last will in testament. To my wife Margaret Reedy, Lady Everly, I leave the jewelry I gifted to her, which includes a pearl necklace, a sapphire ring, and a pair of emerald earrings. I also leave to her the unentailed property known as Baron Manor with the hopes she puts the same amount of love and care into it as she has shown to our other homes.” The solicitor adjusted his spectacles once more. “He
mentions your marriage settlement, where it seems a provision of ten pounds a year is allotted if you should become a widow.”
Lord Harrison growled beside her. “You cannot be serious. How is she expected to live off tenpounds a year?”
“I believe the intent was for the countess to return to her family with the hope that she remarries,” the solicitor said, swallowing audibly at Lord Harrison’s rough tone.
“She is the Countess of Everly. The only one to decide she should remarry should be herself. This is unacceptable.” Lord Harrison stood as if to lunge at the man, but Margaret placed a hand on his arm. His knight in shining armor act, though thoughtful, was entirely unnecessary.
Walter’s will, evil as it was, was set in stone and there was nothing either of them could do tochange it.
“It’s all right, Harry,” she said, even as her mind replayed the solicitor’s words on repeat, a soft chant that slowly grew louder as the moment went on.
“It’s not all right, Meg. The bastard gave you a run-down property to call your home as a dowager and almost no money to get by. I won’t stand for it.”
Margaret squeezed his arm before turning back to the solicitor, who seemed paler than he had before. Poor dear. “Please continue.”
The man nodded and glared at the paper before him. “I’m afraid the rest is regarding the new earl and the entailed properties that come with the title. I’m sorry, my lady, but that was the only mention the previous earl made regarding your settlement.”
“That’s quite all right. If you’ll both excuse me, I’ll leave and allow you to get on with the rest of the will.” Margaret stood and smiled at the solicitor before nodding her head to Lord Harrison and taking her leave. Her hands shook as she headed to her apartments and quickly shut the door behind her, turning the lock. Leaning against the portal, Margaret took a deep breath.
She was free.
Most widows would respond to her settlement with shouts of outrage followed swiftly by someone fetching the smelling salts, and yet Margaret could not contain the smile that overtook her face. The jewelry meant nothing and could easily be sold for a respectable profit, but the house, oh heavens, the house.
Everly had referred to Baron Manor as Bitch Manor, the estate he had relegated his late mother to. Their relationship had been tenuous at best, and he had found much delight in telling all and sundry the story of his mother’s involuntary isolation in Woodingdean. After she passed, the home sat in disarray and disrepair and was no doubt in a rather shabby state, but it was hers. Never mind that Everly had gifted her with the manor he most hated, never mind that he had written a final barb to strike her heart in his assumption that she would never care for it. The blighter could kiss her arse, thank you very much, because what he failed to realize in his idiotic attempt at revenge was that she could purchase an unentailed property. And now, not only did Margaret have
the funds, but she had very little fears when it came to getting her hands dirty.
The smile that took over her lips was painful it was so large, and even as tears filled her eyes, she could not help the laughter that bubbled from her lips. It began quietly, then turned into a raucous noise. Combined with the tears, the pair of emotions were so contradictory yet meshed with one another in a display so awful, so joyful, that, for a moment, fear nearly overcame her. It was like a dream and Margaret was scared she would awake at any moment to find Everly still alive and the gilded bars to her prison firmly in place.
A knock at the door had her jumping, and she shook her head, wiping away the tears. Unlocking it, she found Lord Harrison on the other side. “May I come in?” he asked. “Of course. It is, after all, your house now.”
“Meg…” he said, his tone exasperated.
“Meg, let me help. You can stay here, or if you insist on going to Baron Manor, I’ll pay for the renovations. I’ll hire a full staff and make sure the place is at least habitable before you journey there.”
She shook her head at him. “No. I’m going to do this on my own.”
“Why must you be so stubborn? That bastard left you a dilapidated building that he called Bitch Manor and barely enough funds to pay for food and clothing, let alone renovate an entire home. Half the rooms aren’t even safe enough to venture into.”
Margaret laughed at his outrage. “Well, then I shall just avoid those until they are repaired.”
“Repaired by whom? And with what money?” Lord Harrison stalked the floor of her sitting room, his brow in a deep furrow. “You’re talking nonsense. Why won’t you let me help?”
“I know you won’t understand, but I need to do this on my own.”
“That’s utter bullshit and you know it.” Lord Harrison rubbed at his face. “I’m sorry, Meg. I just hate knowing that he’s done this to you.” He sat in the chair near the fireplace, his hands clenched together as he stared at the floor. “I wish you’d let me fix this.”
“There’s nothing to fix. Whether or not you see it, Walter gave me the key to my cage and I’m going to take it.” She smiled at him. “If I promise to ask you for help should I need it, will that pacify you?”
“I think the only thing that will pacify me at this point is bringing the blighter back from the dead so I can kill him.” With a sigh, Lord Harrison stood and walked over to her, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder. “Shall I send up some maids to help you pack?”
Margaret smiled at him. “Not for packing, but I would appreciate the help.”
He raised a brow at her. “Do I want to know what you have planned?”
She went to her closet and examined the mass of gowns inside. “I plan to take my life back.”
Emmaline Warden lives in Colorado with her husband, four kids, and a menagerie of animals. Her love of romance began with an accidental copy of Susan Elizabeth Phillips and a trip to D.C. She’s been reading and writing romance ever since.