ALL’S FAIR IN WAR…
Raised in wealth and privilege, Eliza Greenleaf was a dutiful daughter—until she met Bertram Gage. The dashing young cavalryman swept her into a passionate affair, winning her body and soul. But low-born Bertie wasn’t good enough for the Greenleaf family, who thwarted the headstrong couple’s plans to elope. Chastened, Eliza threw herself into the whirl of polite society, while Bertie returned to battle on the Continent until a bullet ended his career and almost took his life.
Ten years after first meeting Eliza, Bertie is hunting for a sense of peacetime purpose—and a subtle revenge on the Greenleaf family that once shunned him. Their fortunes now fallen, the ever-proud family must let their ancestral home, and Bertie takes the lease that shoves them from their doorstep. When Eliza crosses his path again after years apart, their passion is as strong as ever. But the wounds of the past still have power, and family honor and secrets might ruin their second chance at love.
“Ms. Romain’s prose is luminous and very eloquent, making everything come to life before our very eyes. It’s a wonderful story tinged with melancholy, where shadows give way to light, and hope replaces regrets…. Magnificent!”
—Buried Under Romance, 5 stars
“Charming stories filled with likeable characters, scenes rich in humor, and happily-ever-afters for each of the four seasons. …If you are a fan of historical romance, I recommend you add this one to your list. …I can almost guarantee that you will finish with a smile on your face.”
—The Romance Dish, 4 stars, on A Gentleman for All Seasons
“Ms Romain captures Bertie and Eliza’s feelings of regret, forgiveness and renewed love beautifully.”
—Rakes and Rascals, 4 stars
“Marvelous and well written…well thought out and unique. These authors know their craft well and the characters in their stories, even though short as they are, are all complex and entertaining.”
—bookworm2bookworm on A Gentleman for All Seasons
About the Book
This is a stand-alone reissue of my novella from the A Gentleman for All Seasons anthology. If you’ve read the anthology (thank you!), then you’ve read this story. But if you want to buy it again for the gorgeous cover art, go right ahead. 🙂
A plaster chunk dropped to the middle of the breakfast table.
So it had come to this. Bertram Gage, former major in the 13th Light Dragoons, was being assaulted by the ceiling of his rented house’s breakfast parlor.
“Oh no! Did the ceiling fall into the toast, Bertie?” Georgie’s voice held a laugh.
Bertram had to smile. He had received his nickname years ago from—well, never mind the identity of the lady who had first called him Bertie. But his military friends had adopted it next. Now his sister, Georgette—at not quite twenty, fifteen years his junior—had embraced it as well.
“It did.” Bertie pushed aside the toast, removed the lid from a fat blue-and-white teapot, and placed the pot beneath the troubled spot on the ceiling. “There. The problem is fixed.”
It was nothing of the sort, of course, but it was as fixed as the ceiling and broken-slated roof of the Friar’s House was going to get while he was leasing it. Over the past few months, the plaster ceiling had cracked and bubbled under the pressure of each summer rain, and now with the first cloudburst of autumn, it had given way.
The Friar’s House was a beautiful pile of medieval stone and modern brick not far from the health resort of Tunbridge Wells—though neither its location nor appearance were the principal reasons he’d let this particular house during Georgie’s lengthy recovery from illness.
No, he had chosen it because it belonged to the Greenleaf family. Ten years ago, they had been too lofty to give the time of day to a brash young cavalryman of low birth. But they weren’t too proud to take his money now.
With grim satisfaction, he watched a rusty raindrop slide down the branching bronze of a graceful chandelier.
“You should have the roof repaired,” Georgie said, as though hearing and contradicting his thoughts.
“We’re not permitted to alter the house. It’s a condition of Greenleaf’s lease.”
Not that he didn’t do what he could to keep the ancient home livable. The expensive but threadbare carpets were clean. The graceful, if scratched, furniture was kept in high polish. Windows gleamed on sunny days, though the frames about the fine old diamond-shaped panes were rotten.
“Nonsense, Bertie. Even if it would make us more comfortable, and the Greenleafs or their future tenants? You’ve replaced half the furniture in the drawing room, and—”
“The structure of the house, then. I agreed not to alter that.” Andrew Greenleaf, the old ass, had insisted. As though he thought Bertie was a savage who would knock the walls down as soon as he took possession. “And the new furniture will return with us to London when our lease ends. The old pieces have only been moved to the attics. Greenleaf will get back every bit of his heritage, just the way he left it.”
Even a man as prideful as Greenleaf wouldn’t mind having his roof slates replaced, surely. But Bertie hadn’t offered, and he wouldn’t. In his own way, he was as prideful as Greenleaf—which was why he had let a house long forbidden to him, and why he would make no improvement to it that he couldn’t pack up and take with him at the end of this year.
As he looked about the breakfast room, he wondered whether this decision was for the best. In the tidy chamber, busy paper hung on the walls, vertical stripes in cream and green overlaid with spiraling vines. They hugged the scents of toasted bread and cooked meat close, as did the heavy red velvet draperies that stretched almost from ceiling to floor. A fireplace at one side spit and smoked as rain found its way down the chimney and played over the coals.
It could so easily have been a pleasant room.
The Friar’s House could so easily have been everything Bertie ever wanted.
Overlaying all, though, was the chill of water and damp. The sharp odor of wet wood and rotting plaster.
Plop. A chunk of the ceiling fell wetly into the teapot.
What a change in fortune ten years had wrought. Not for the first time, or even the hundredth, he wondered: What had happened to the Greenleaf fortune, which they’d once held as dear as their ancient bloodline?
Oh, probably it was unseemly for a graying thirty-five-year-old war veteran with a bullet wound to feel grim triumph about a decrepit plaster ceiling. Especially when sitting with his convalescent sister, who he had rather hoped would eat the toast. That seemed unlikely now that it was adorned with a chunk of mildewed plaster the size of a man’s thumb.
Georgie toyed with the food remaining on her breakfast plate, which was—for now—free of fallen pieces of the Friar’s House. In appearance, she and Bertie were not un-alike. Though only half siblings, they shared their father’s dark brown hair and dark eyes. Bertie’s olive complexion was a legacy from his Spanish mother, who died in childbirth. Patrick Gage, grandson of an earl, had eventually made a second marriage as scandalous as the first: to a brewery heiress whose birth was as low as her fortune was great.
Georgie’s mother. She’d been a kind stepmother to Bertie, the only mother of any sort he had ever known. When she died of an illness a few years after Georgie’s birth, the so-called family home in London’s Kensington neighborhood stopped seeming like anything of the sort.
Drip. Drop. Drip. Outside, the morning sky had a dim gray luster. Within, the ceiling wept another chalky tear into the teapot.
Georgie laid down her fork with a clatter. “Why do you obey Mr. Greenleaf’s every wish? Even the foolish ones? You were such a fine leader during the war.”
Bertie snorted. “No one’s following me now. I can’t even persuade my own sister to eat a decent breakfast. Besides, it’s Greenleaf’s house. Changing the furniture is easily undone. Neglecting the upkeep of the house or land is not.”
Georgie muttered something profane, which Bertie pretended not to understand. “I’ll ring for more toast.”
“No need, I’ve finished.”
“Nonsense. You’ve hardly eaten anything.”
This time, the profane response was unmistakable. More loudly, she said, “Three rashers of bacon? Toast, before it wore the ceiling? Cheese? An apple?”
“Are you listing foods that exist? Because you cannot be naming everything you ate this morning.” He sighed. “You are still far too thin. Some beef broth, maybe, to take back to your room?”
He tried to keep his tone gentle, but fear nibbled it ragged about the edges. Surely her cheekbones were still too sharp? Her eyes hollow? Pneumonia had made her so ill that not even nine months of fine country air had returned her to robust health.
How close he had come to losing her—after losing his parents, his stepmother, and in war, almost his own life. She was dearest of all to him, this half sister almost a generation his junior. When they were younger, she adored him.
Adoration was hardly the expression on her face now. “I. Ate. Enough,” she said through gritted teeth. “And I already heard the same ‘poor invalid, have some beef broth’ speech from Mrs. Clotworthy when I saw her in the corridor outside her chamber this morning.”
She referred to her companion and chaperone, a distant cousin of middle age and mild temperament who seemed always occupied with knitting something useless rather than ensuring her charge was cared for.
“Besides which,” Georgie added, “it’s time to clear away. You’re to have a caller this morning. Any minute, possibly, so—here, let me adjust your cravat. You look a bit rumpled from your tussle with the teapot.”
He swatted away her hands. “I do not. The cravat of a former major doesn’t dare rumple. Not that it matters, unless the caller is someone of great elegance. Who is it? The prime minister?”
“No, she is even better.” His sister replied to his joke with perfect seriousness.
Bertie narrowed his eyes at her over the rim of his teacup. Since taking up residence in the Friar’s House, Georgie had developed a fascination with matchmaking. The last time she had started flinging about unidentified feminine pronouns, Bertie’s visiting friend Peregrine Lochley had tumbled into a tumultuous affair with a local woman.
Not that this was a bad thing, since Lochley and Caro Martin were now happily married. And Lochley had turned farmer, for God’s sake. How love changed a man.
Or so Bertie had observed. He had once thought to fling himself into the same experience, a heedless headlong delighted dive. But in that—as in so much else a decade before—he had been disappointed.
“Be more specific,” he was just beginning to say, when the door of the breakfast parlor was flung open.
“Monsieur Gage, à la porte! C’est une femme…” The butler continued in his native French, the tails of his coat flapping along with his agitated hand gestures.
“Florian, en anglais,” Bertie reminded him gently.
The older man grimaced, drawing himself up straight. The subtle ways of an English butler were no more native to him than the language, yet no one could have been more loyal. During Bertie’s long months of recovery in France, the stern, stocky Florian had tended his gunshot wound—after informing him that it had surely been inflicted by a Frenchman horrified by monsieur’s execrable accent.
Their lands destroyed by war, the aging farmer—and his wife, now the cook, along with their grown daughters, sons, cousins, and other sundry relatives—had returned to England with Bertie once peacetime made such travel possible. They had accompanied him from London to the village of Hemshawe, and now there was hardly an English accent to be heard in the servants’ hall of the Friar’s House.
The butler tried again. “You have a…lady at the door,” said Florian in an accent as thick as chocolat chaud.
“Is the pause because you are not sure she is a lady?”
“Of course she’s a lady,” scoffed Georgie. “He couldn’t remember the word ‘caller,’ that’s all. Isn’t that right, Florian?”
The butler pursed his lips in the French expression that meant no, but this isn’t the time to argue. “C’est Mademoiselle Greenleaf,” he explained.
The name was a blow to Bertie’s chest, halting his heart before setting it to a furious gallop. With nerveless fingers, he set down his cup. “That’s impossible. Eliza Greenleaf is in London, making fashionable young men fall madly in love with her.”
“Clearly not, because she’s on the stoop,” Georgie pointed out. “She is visiting her friend Lady Sturridge in Hemshawe.”
“In the entry, not on the stoop,” corrected Florian. “It makes the rain. She waits in the entry hall.”
“But…” Bertie fumbled for sense. “Why did she come from Lady Sturridge’s to our entry hall?”
Georgie became occupied with the arrangement of the crusts and crumbs on her plate. “I…might have sent word that you needed help on quarter day.”
Bertie closed his eyes. “Oh God. Quarter day.” His tone was the same he had once used in war to say things like horse carcass or French marksman.
Quarter day, on which rents were collected and accounts settled, had proved a particular sort of hell in March and June. Tenants on the Greenleaf lands flocked to the Friar’s House, as per custom, and there had followed a nightmare of tangled communication between them, Bertie, and Andrew Greenleaf’s sons. The landlord’s offspring had returned to Hemshawe to oversee the events of the day, but were as ignorant and careless of the family’s rent rolls as a complete stranger would have been.
More so. For Bertie was little more than a complete stranger, wasn’t he? And there was something about the stream of tenants wanting a little more time to pay…just a bit more…
It wrung his heart. The country was still recovering from an uncommonly bad harvest the previous frigid year. The crofters’ cottages were in no better shape than the tumbledown bits of the Friar’s House. Andrew Greenleaf should be here to keep an eye on them.
Bertie’s usual flash of triumph at the thought of possessing the Greenleaf house, even for a year, was absent this time. There was nothing quite so grating to the nerves of a former officer as encountering people who needed help and being powerless to provide it.
The ceiling grizzled into the teapot, a slow mournful drip.
“Damnation, Georgie. You had no right to send such a message.” He shook his head. “To Eliza. Eliza Greenleaf.” He had to say the full name again, wondering if it would seem less odd that she, split by years from him, now stood only a room or two away.
Georgie lifted her head and smiled. “You really do need a Greenleaf about on quarter day. She can help you with some of your questions.”
“I don’t have questions,” Bertie said.
This was untrue. He did have questions where Eliza Greenleaf was concerned, and he had for ten years.
Florian was still hesitating in the doorway. “Shall I show the…lady…in for petit déjeuner?”
“No,” said Bertie.
Plop. Another sodden fleck of the ceiling fell, this time into a bowl of marmalade.
“Exactly,” said Georgie. “It’s not as though she’d want to come in here and eat toast with plaster all over it.”
This, Bertie ignored. “Show mademoiselle to the study,” he told Florian. “I’ll see her in the study. My study.”
Not that Florian was the one who needed convincing. Not when everything around them, from the crumbling ceiling to the ancient mahogany table, truly belonged to Andrew Greenleaf.
Even, Bertie knew from dreadful experience, the will of his daughter.
* * *
But he did not meet her in the study. He encountered Eliza Greenleaf in the corridor just outside the breakfast parlor, wandering the house as though it still belonged to her.
Catching a brief impression of slim height and a rich sweep of a purple-red gown, he ducked into an ironic bow. Cutting words. He needed cutting and brilliant words of greeting. Right now.
As he straightened, though, he saw that Miss Greenleaf’s leaf-green eyes were not clapped on him at all. They were directed over his shoulder at the interior of the breakfast parlor, and her dark brows had lifted in surprise.
“Good God,” were the first words he heard in ten years from the woman he’d once hoped to marry. “What has happened to the ceiling in there? It looks ready to collapse onto your sister.”
* * *
Like it? Order it!