My Darling Caroline

By: Adele Ashworth

Chapter 1





England, 1815

Caroline Grayson gently reached in and, carefully avoiding thorns, snipped the stem from the rosebush, pulling the bud toward her with nimble fingers to have a closer look. She eyed it with the detachment of a scientist, the expertise of a scholarly botanist, turning the rose slowly in her hands, taking careful note of its structure, its delicate beauty.

It was magnificent, the loveliest and healthiest plant she’d bred so far. It would take time to find a name dignified and unique enough for such a creation, though. She needed something perfect for such a perfect rose.

The sudden rustle of skirts made her turn. Stephanie, her youngest sister, was all but running toward her through the garden, the early-morning sun playing shiny cords of light through the richness of her blond hair and off the blue silkiness of her gown.

“Come and look at this one, Stephanie,” she called out, smiling with complete satisfaction, her attention again focused on her rose.

“Caroline,” Stephanie said, gasping as she approached, “you’ll never guess—”

“Slow down,” Caroline admonished as her sister grabbed her sleeve.

Stephanie took two deep breaths and wiped stray hair from her cheeks, stained pink from the cool morning air, her eyes wide and glowing with apparently delicious news.

“The Earl of Weymerth”—she gulped for air—“is here, and Father wants you to meet him.”

Caroline, however, was much more concerned with the lovely creation resting firmly between her forefinger and thumb. “Do you like it?”

Stephanie dropped her gaze to the flower and gave a squeal of delight. “Oh, this one’s lovely! Two colors of purple.”

Caroline grinned pridefully, placing the rose in her sister’s outstretched hand. “More a lavender fading into purple, really. Now explain yourself. Who is here?”

Stephanie’s eyes danced in merriment. “The Earl of Weymerth,” she replied very slowly.

Caroline looked at her blankly, prompting Stephanie to sigh with exasperation. “Really, Caroline! Brent Ravenscroft, the Earl of Weymerth? Society’s talked about him for years—some sort of family scandal, I think, though nothing that really damaged him socially. For a time he was courting Pauline Sinclair. You know, of the Sinclairs of Harpers Row. Then she dumped him on his arse—”

“Stephanie!”

“—and everybody speculated that he was mean, or foul-tempered and ugly, and that’s why she didn’t want him.” She dropped her voice to a mischievous whisper. “But I just got an excellent look at him, and he’s not ugly at all.”

Caroline smiled lightly as she dropped her clippers to the soft earth, wiping her sleeve over her perspiring forehead. In many ways Stephanie, although only seventeen, was a total innocent, for she had always felt that any vice a man might have could be ignored if he were attractive. Evidently she thought Lord Weymerth now above reproach.

“I don’t think you should be taking such an interest, Steph,” she chided as she took the lavender rose out of her sister’s fingers, starting her way up the stone path toward the house. “You’re betrothed, if you’ll remember.”

Stephanie fell into step behind her. “I wasn’t considering him for me, Caroline. I was considering him for you.”

“That’s ridiculous,” she returned through a laugh.

Stephanie groaned softly. “There are other things to consider in this great big world besides plants and…Sir Alfred Markham—”

“Albert Markham,” she corrected.

Stephanie said no more until they neared the house. Then smugly she disclosed, “I think Father is considering Lord Weymerth for you as well.”

Without pause, Caroline opened the kitchen door and walked into the house, placing her rose on the counter to free her hands for washing. The thought of her marrying anyone was just so incredibly unbelievable it wasn’t even worth discussing. “I don’t know where you get these ideas—”

“From Father’s mouth,” Stephanie cut in sarcastically. “I heard him say he’s giving you to the earl along with some things he’s selling him.”

Caroline reached for a towel, gazing at her sister speculatively, quick to note the cunning grin playing across her lips, the sparkle in her pale blue eyes. That disturbed her a little, as Stephanie was the only living soul who knew of her plans to leave England and study botany in America, and she had more than once expressed her desire to have her older sister remain close to home.

Still skeptical, Caroline brushed a stray curl from her cheek. “I’ll talk to him.”

“I’d bathe first,” Stephanie piped up in a melodious, mischief-filled voice.

Ignoring the comment, Caroline picked up her rosebud and headed toward the study. Brimming with confidence, she approached the closed door, but before she could knock she heard tense, male voices. Suddenly oblivious to her position, she instinctively leaned closer to listen to the argument between the two pompous oafs on the other side.

“I’ll pay you whatever you’re asking, but I refuse to marry for what rightfully belongs to me,” she heard a stranger’s voice say in a deep, husky timbre. “My property was sold unfairly, probably illegally.”