To Catch an Heiress
Book 1 in the
Agents of the Crown
When Caroline Trent is kidnapped by Blake Ravenscroft, she doesn’t even try to elude this dangerously handsome agent of the crown. After all, she’s been running from unwanted marriage proposals. Yes, Blake believes she’s a notorious spy named Carlotta De Leon, but for six weeks until her twenty-first birthday, when she’ll gain control of her own fortune, hiding out in the titillating company of a mysterious captor is awfully convenient—and maybe just a little romantic, too.
Blake Ravenscroft’s mission is to bring “Carlotta” to justice, not to fall in love. His heart has been hardened by years of intrigue, but this little temptress proves oddly disarming and thoroughly kissable. And suddenly the unthinkable becomes possible—that this mismatched couple might be destined for love.
It occurred to Blake as he was eating supper later that night that he would very much like to kill Miss Caroline Trent. It also occurred to him that this was not a new emotion. She hadn't just turned his life upside down; she'd flipped it sideways, pulled it inside out, and, at certain unmentionable times, lit a fire under it.
Inside the Story
- The working title of this book was Starry Night. If you read carefully, you will find a theme throughout the book about stars and starry nights.
- I had a lot of fun with the "definitions" that appear at the beginning of each chapter, but they turned out to be a LOT of work. It turns out that dictionary definitions are not public domain, which meant I would have to apply for permission to use them in my book. This meant that all the definitions would have to come from the same dictionary, so that I could make only one application for permission. The problem was, we discovered this after I'd written the book. So I ended up hunched over the Oxford English Dictionary (the kind you need a magnifying glass to read) for hours, looking up new definitions. Three cheers for Oxford University Press, who graciously waived their permission fees, obviously deciding that romance novels = excellent public relations!
- To Catch an Heiress is the only one of my books that was conceived out of an opening line. The sentence: "Caroline Trent hadn't meant to shoot Percival Prewitt, but she had, and now he was dead," popped into my head, and I knew I had to figure out a book to go with it. (Except that Caroline wasn't yet named Caroline. See below.)
- Caroline's name changed twice during the first few weeks of writing. First I named her Nathalie, but that didn't seem to fit. Then I named her Lily. After about two hours it became apparent that wouldn't work. Lily sounded too much like Ellie (the heroine of Brighter Than The Sun, which I'd just finished writing), and while this probably would not have confused any of my readers, it confused the heck out of me!
For Mama Chiks, Sister Song, Freener, and Nosk from Bools.
And also for Paul, even though it’s a miracle I got this book finished at all since he kept stealing my computer to play DOOM.
Enjoy an Excerpt
To Catch an Heiress
contubernal, noun. One who occupies the same tent; a tent-fellow, comrade. The thought of Percy Prewitt as my contubernal causes me to break out in hives.
–From the personal dictionary of Caroline Trent
July 3, 1814
Caroline Trent hadn’t meant to shoot Percival Prewitt, but she had, and now he was dead.
Or at least she thought he was dead. There was certainly enough blood. It was dripping from the walls, it was splattered on the floor, and the bedclothes were quite stained beyond redemption. Caroline didn’t know very much about medicine, but she was fairly certain a body couldn’t lose that much blood and still live.
She was in big trouble now.
“Damn,” she muttered. Although she was a gentlewoman, she hadn’t always been raised in particularly gentle circumstances, and her language occasionally left a bit to be desired.
“You stupid man,” she said to the body on the floor. “Why did you have to lunge at me like that? Why couldn’t you have left well enough alone? I told your father I wasn’t going to marry you. I told him I wouldn’t marry you if you were the last idiot in Britain.”
She nearly stamped her foot in frustration. Why was it her words never came out quite the way she intended them to? “What I meant to say was that you are an idiot,” she said to Percy, who, not surprisingly, didn’t respond, “and that I wouldn’t marry you if you were the last man in Britain, and– Oh, blast. What am I doing talking to you, anyway? You’re quite dead.”
Caroline groaned. What the devil was she supposed to do now? Percy’s father was due to return in just two short hours, and it didn’t require an Oxford degree to deduce that Oliver Prewitt would not be pleased to find his son dead on the floor.
“Bother your father,” she ground out. “This is all his fault, anyway. If he hadn’t been so obsessed with catching you an heiress…”
Oliver Prewitt was Caroline’s guardian, or at least he would be for the next six weeks, until she reached her twenty-first birthday. She had been counting down the days until August fourteenth, eighteen hundred and fourteen ever since August fourteenth, eighteen hundred and thirteen, when she had turned twenty. Just forty-two days to go. Forty-two days and she would finally have control of her life and her fortune. She didn’t even want to think about how much of her inheritance the Prewitts had already run through.
She tossed her gun onto the bed, planted her hands on her hips, and stared down at Percy.
And then… his eyes opened.
“Aaaaaaack!” Caroline let out a loud scream, jumped a foot, and grabbed her gun.
“You b–” Percy started.
“Don’t say it,” she warned. “I still have a gun.”
“You wouldn’t use it,” he gasped, coughing and clutching at his bloody shoulder.
“I beg your pardon, but the evidence seems to indicate otherwise.”
Percy’s thin lips clamped into a straight line. He swore viciously, and then lifted his furious gaze to Caroline. “I told my father I didn’t want to marry you,” he hissed. “God! Can you imagine? Having to live with you for the rest of my life? I should go bloody insane. If you didn’t kill me first, that is.”
“If you didn’t want to marry me you shouldn’t have tried to force yourself upon me.”
He shrugged, then howled when the movement sparked pain in his shoulder. He looked quite furious as he said, “You’ve quite a bit of money, but do you know, I don’t think you’re worth it.”
“Kindly tell that to your father,” Caroline snapped.
“He said he’d disinherit me if I didn’t marry you.”
“And you couldn’t stand up to him for once in your pathetic life?”
Percy growled at being called pathetic, but in his weakened condition he couldn’t do much about the insult. “I could go to America,” he muttered. “Surely savages have to be a better option than you.”
Caroline ignored him. She and Percy had been at odds since she had come to live with the Prewitts a year and a half earlier. Percy was quite under his father’s thumb, and the only time he showed any spirit was when Oliver quit the house. Unfortunately, his spirit was usually mean and small and, in Caroline’s opinion, rather dull.
“I suppose I’m going to have to save you now,” she grumbled. “You’re certainly not worth the gallows.”
“You’re too kind.”
Caroline shook a pillow out of its case, wadded up the cloth — the highest quality linen, she noted, probably purchased with her money — and pressed it against Percy’s wound. “We have to stop the bleeding,” she said.
“It appears to have slowed down,” Percy admitted.
“Did the bullet go straight through?”
“I don’t know. Hurts like the devil, but I don’t know if it’s supposed to hurt more if it goes through or gets stuck in the muscle.”
“I imagine they’re both quite painful,” Caroline said, lifting the wadded pillowcase and examining the wound. She turned him gently and looked at his back. “I think it went through. You’ve a hole in the back of your shoulder as well.”
“Trust you to injure me twice.”
“You lured me into your room under the pretense of needing a cup of tea for a head cold,” she snapped, “and then you tried to rape me! What did you expect?”
“Why the hell did you bring a gun?”
“I always carry a gun,” she replied. “I have since… well, never you mind.”
“I wouldn’t have gone through with it,” he muttered.
“How was I to know that?”
“Well, you know I’ve never liked you.”
Caroline pressed her makeshift bandage up against Percy’s bloody shoulder with perhaps a touch more force than was necessary. “What I know,” she spat out, “is that you and your father have always quite liked my inheritance.”
“I think I dislike you more than I like your inheritance,” Percy grumbled. “You’re too bossy by half, you’re not even pretty, and you’ve the serpent’s own tongue.”
Caroline pressed her mouth into a grim line. If she had a sharp way of speaking, it wasn’t her fault. She’d learned quickly that her wits were her only defense against the parade of horrible guardians she’d been forced to endure since her father had died when she was ten. First there was George Liggett, her father’s first cousin, who hadn’t been such a bad sort, but he certainly didn’t know what to do with a small girl. So he’d smiled at her once — just once, mind you — told her he was happy to meet her, and then tossed her into a country home with a nurse and governess. And then he proceeded to ignore her.
But George had died, and her guardianship had passed on to his first cousin, who was no relation of hers or her father’s. Niles Wickham was a mean old miser who’d seen a ward as a good substitute for a serving girl, and he’d immediately given her a list of chores longer than her arm. Caroline had cooked, cleaned, ironed, polished, scrubbed, and swept. The only thing she hadn’t done was sleep.
Niles, however, had choked on a chicken bone, turned quite purple, and died. The courts were at a bit of a loss as to what to do with Caroline, who at fifteen seemed too well-bred and wealthy to toss into an orphanage, so they passed her guardianship on to Archibald Prewitt, Niles’s second cousin. Archibald had been a lewd man who’d found Caroline entirely too attractive for her comfort, and it was then that she began her habit of keeping a weapon on her person at all times. Archibald had had a weak heart, however, and so Caroline had only had to live with him for six months before she attended his funeral and was packed off to live with his younger brother Albert.
Albert drank too much and used his fists, which resulted in Caroline’s learning how to run fast and hide well. Archibald may have tried to grope her on every occasion, but Albert was a mean drunk, and when he struck her, it hurt. She also became quite adept at smelling spirits from across a room. Albert never raised a hand against her when he was sober.
But, unfortunately, Albert was rarely sober, and in one of his drunken rages he kicked his horse so hard that his horse kicked him back. Right in the head. By then Caroline was quite used to moving about, so as soon as the surgeon pulled the sheet over Albert’s face, she packed her bag and waited for the courts to decide where to send her next.
She soon found herself residing with Albert’s younger brother Oliver and his son, the currently bleeding Percy. At first Oliver had seemed the best of the bunch, but Caroline quickly realized that Oliver cared for nothing so much as money. Once he learned that his ward came with a rather large portion, he decided that Caroline — and her money — would not escape his grasp. Percy was only a few years older than Caroline, so Oliver announced that they would marry. Neither of the prospective couple was pleased by this plan, and they said so, but Oliver didn’t care. He needled Percy until Percy agreed, and then he set about convincing Caroline that she ought to become a Prewitt.
“Convincing” entailed screaming at her, slapping her about, starving her, locking her in her room, and finally, ordering Percy to get her with child so that she’d have to marry him.
“I’d rather bring it up a bastard than a Prewitt,” Caroline muttered.
“What was that?” Percy asked.
“You’re going to have to leave, you know,” he said, abruptly changing the subject.
“Believe me, that fact is quite clear.”
“Father told me that if I don’t get you with child, he’ll take care of it himself.”
Caroline very nearly threw up. “I beg your pardon?” she said, her voice uncharacteristically shaky. Even Percy was preferable to Oliver.
“I don’t know where you can go, but you need to disappear until your twenty-first birthday, which is… when?… soon, I think”
“Six weeks,” Caroline whispered. “Six weeks exactly.”
“Can you do it?”
“I’ll have to, won’t I? I’ll need funds, though. I have a bit of pin money, but I don’t have access to my inheritance until my birthday.”
Percy winced as Caroline peeled the cloth away from his shoulder. “I can give you a little,” he said.
“I’ll pay you back. With interest.”
“Good. You’ll have to leave tonight.”
Caroline looked around the room. “But the mess… We have to clean up the blood.”
“No, leave it. Better I let you get away because you shot me than because I simply botched the plan.”
“One of these days you’re going to have to stand up to your father.”
“It’ll be easier with you gone. There is a perfectly nice girl two towns over I’ve a mind to court. She’s quiet and biddable, and not nearly as skinny as you.”
Caroline immediately pitied the poor girl. “I hope everything works out for you,” she lied.
“No, you don’t. But I don’t care. Really doesn’t matter what you think, as long as you’re gone.”
“Do you know, Percy, but that is precisely how I feel about you?”
Amazingly, Percy smiled, and for the first time in the eighteen months since Caroline had come to live with the youngest branch of the Prewitts, she felt a sense of kinship with this boy who was so nearly her age.
“Where will you go?” he asked.
“Better you don’t know. That way your father can’t badger it out of you.”
“Besides, I haven’t a clue. I haven’t any relations, you know. That is how I ended up here with you. But after ten years of defending myself against my ever-so-caring guardians, I should think I should be able to manage in the outside world for six weeks.”
“If any female can do it, it would be you.”
Caroline raised her brows. “Why Percy, was that a compliment? I’m stunned”
“It wasn’t even close to being a compliment. What kind of man would want a woman who could get along quite well without him?”
“The kind who could get along quite well without his father” Caroline retorted.
Percy scowled as he flicked his head toward his bureau. “Open up the top drawer… no, the one on the right…”
“Percy, these are your undergarments!” Caroline exclaimed, slamming the drawer shut in disgust.
“Do you want me to lend you money or not? That’s where I hide it.”
“Well, it stands to reason that no one would want to look in there,” she murmured. “Perhaps if you bathed more often…”
“God!” he burst out. “I cannot wait until you leave. You, Caroline Trent, are the devil’s own daughter. You are plague. You are pestilence. You are–”
“Oh, shut up!” She yanked the drawer back open, disgusted with how much his words stung. She didn’t like Percy any better than he liked her, but who would enjoy being compared to locusts, gnats, and frogs; the Black Death; and rivers turning to blood? “Where is the money?” she demanded.
“In my stocking… no, the black one… no, not that black one… yes, over there, next to the… yes, that’s it.”
Caroline found the stocking in question and shook out some bills and coins. “Good God, Percy, you must have a hundred pounds here. Where did you get this much?”
“I’ve been saving for quite some time. And I nick a coin or two each month from Father’s desk. As long as I don’t take too much, he never notices.”
Caroline found that hard to believe; Oliver Prewitt was so obsessed with money it was a wonder his skin hadn’t turned the color of pound notes.
“You can take half of it,” Percy said.
“Only half? Don’t be stupid, Percy. I need to hide for six weeks. I may have unexpected expenses.”
“I may have unexpected expenses.”
“You have a roof over your head!” she burst out.
“I might not once Father discovers I let you get away..”
Caroline had to concede his point. Oliver Prewitt was not going to be pleased with his only son. She dumped half the money back into the stocking. “Very well,” she said, stuffing her share into her pocket. “You have the bleeding under control?”
“You won’t be charged with murder, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“It may be difficult for you to believe, Percy, but I don’t want you to die. I don’t want to marry you, and I certainly won’t be sorry if I never clap eyes on you again, but I don’t want you to die.”
Percy looked at her oddly, and for a moment Caroline thought he was actually going to say something nice (or at least something as nice as she’d said) in return. But he just snorted, “You’re right. I do find it hard to believe.”
At that moment, Caroline decided to dispense with any last shred of sentimentality she might be feeling and stomped to the door. Hand on the knob, she said, “I’ll see you in six weeks — when I come to collect my inheritance.”
“And pay me back,” he reminded her.
“And pay you back. With interest,” she added before he could.
“On the other hand,” she said, mostly to herself, “there might be a way to conduct my affairs without meeting with the Prewitts again. I could do everything through a solicitor, and–”
“Even better,” Percy interrupted.
Caroline let out a very loud, very irritated exhale and quit the room. Percy was never going to change. He was rude, he was selfish, and even if he was marginally nicer than his father — well, that still made him a boorish lout.
She scurried along the dark corridor and up a flight of stairs to her room. Funny how her guardians always gave her rooms in the attics. Oliver had been worse than most, relegating her to a dusty corner with low ceilings and deep eaves. But if he had meant to break her spirit he had failed. Caroline loved her cozy room. It was closer to the sky. She could hear the rain against the ceiling, and she could watch the tree branches bud in spring. Birds nested outside her window, and squirrels occasionally ran along her ledge.
As she threw her most prized belongings into a bag, she stopped to peer out the window. It had been a cloudless day and now the sky was remarkably clear. It somehow seemed fitting that this should be a starry night. Caroline had few memories of her mother, but she could recall sitting on her lap outside on summer nights, staring up at the stars. “Look at that one,” Cassandra Trent would whisper. “I think it’s the brightest one in the sky. And look over there. Can you see the bear?” Their outings had always ended with Cassandra saying, “Each star is special. Did you know that? I know that sometimes they all look the same, but each one is special and different, just like you. You are the most special little girl in the whole world. Don’t ever forget that.”
Caroline had been too young to realize that Cassandra was dying, but now she cherished her mother’s final gift, for no matter how bleak or desolate she felt — and the last ten years of her life had given her many reasons to feel bleak and desolate — Caroline had only to look up at the sky to give her a measure of the peace. If a star twinkled, she felt safe and warm. Maybe not as safe and warm as that long-ago toddler on her mother’s lap, but at least the stars gave her hope. They endured, and so could she.
She gave her room a final inspection to make certain she hadn’t left anything behind, tossed a few tallow candles into her bag in case she needed them, and dashed out. The house was quiet; all the servants had been given the night off, presumably so there would be no witnesses when Percy attacked her. Trust Oliver to think ahead. Caroline was only surprised that he hadn’t tried this tactic sooner. He must have originally thought that he could get her to marry Percy without resorting to rape. Now that her twenty-first birthday was approaching, he was growing desperate.
And so was Caroline. If she had to marry Percy, she’d die. She didn’t care how melodramatic she sounded. The only thing worse than the thought of seeing him every day for the rest of her life was having to listen to him every day for the rest of her life. It was a terrifying prospect, that.
She was making her way through the hall toward the front door when she noticed Oliver’s new candelabra sitting majestically on the side table. He’d been crowing about the piece all week. Sterling silver, he’d said. The finest craftsmanship. Caroline growled. Oliver hadn’t been able to afford sterling silver candelabras before he’d been appointed her guardian.
It was ironic, really. She’d have been happy to share her fortune — give it away, even — if she’d found a home with a family who loved her and cared for her. Someone who saw in her something more than a workhorse with a bank account.
Impulsively, Caroline yanked the beeswax candles out of the candelabra and replaced them with the tallow ones in her bag. If she needed to light a candle on her travels, she wanted the sweet-smelling beeswax Oliver reserved for himself.
She ran outside, mumbling a short thanks for the warm weather. “It’s a bloody good thing Percy didn’t decide to attack me in the winter,” she muttered, striding down the drive. She would have preferred to ride — anything that would get her out of Hampshire faster — but Oliver only kept two horses, and they were currently attached to his carriage, which he’d taken with him to his weekly game of cards at the squire’s house.
Caroline tried to look at the bright side and reminded herself that she could hide more easily on foot. She’d be slower, though, and if she ran into footpads…
She shuddered. A woman alone was very conspicuous. And her light brown hair seemed to catch all of the moonlight, even with most of it stuffed into a bonnet. She’d have been smart to dress up like a boy, but she hadn’t had enough time. Perhaps she should follow the coast to the nearest busy harbor. It wasn’t that far. She’d be able to travel faster by sea, take herself far enough away from so that Oliver couldn’t find her within six weeks.
Yes, it would have to be the coast. But she couldn’t travel via the main roads. Someone was bound to see her. She turned south and began to cut through a field. It was only fifteen miles to Portsmouth. If she walked quickly and through the night, she could be there by morning. Then she could book passage on a ship — something that would take her to another part of England. Caroline didn’t want to leave the country, not when she needed to claim her inheritance in six short weeks.
The grass was soft and dry, and the trees shielded her from the view of the main road. There wasn’t much traffic this time of night, but one couldn’t be too careful. She moved swiftly, the only sound her footfall as her boots met the earth. Until…
What was that?
Caroline whirled around but saw nothing. Her heart raced. She could have sworn she’d heard something. “It was just a hedgehog,” she whispered to herself. “Or perhaps a hare.” But she didn’t see any animals, and she didn’t feel reassured.