Home > Romancing the Heiress

Romancing the Heiress
Author: Darcy Burke

Chapter 1
Marrywell, England
Late April 1817
* * *
As the coach turned onto the High Street, Leah Webster pressed her nose to the window. She’d been eager to return for one reason—rather, one person—but now that she was here, she found she was more excited than she realized. Seeing the familiar buildings provoked a surprising sense of nostalgia, and not just for the boy she’d left behind.
“My goodness, Miss Webster, you look as if you might leap from the coach.” The crisp observation came from Mrs. Dunhill, friend of Mrs. Selkirk, who was mother to Genevieve, to whom Leah was paid companion.
Schooling her features, Leah settled back against the squab. She said nothing in response to Mrs. Dunhill’s sarcastic comment.
“She’s happy to be home, I imagine,” Genevieve said from beside Leah. “Can you blame her? I don’t think she’s been back in a very long time.” She turned her head toward Leah. “A decade, was it?”
“Seven years.” Leah had mentioned that more than once, but Genevieve rarely recalled details and certainly not ones that Leah shared.
“Not so bad, then,” Mrs. Dunhill said with a sniff, as if there were a vast difference between seven and ten.
It wasn’t actually bad. Leah had left Marrywell with great enthusiasm for the adventures ahead of her. Her time with her previous employer, Lady Norcott, had been wonderful. The woman’s passing nearly a year ago after a short illness had been somewhat shocking, and Leah had been sure she would need to return to Marrywell. However, Lady Norcott, bless her, had taken care of Leah, explicitly naming her to become companion to her great-niece, Miss Genevieve Selkirk.
“Seven years is a long time,” Mrs. Selkirk said. “You must have missed it, since you suggested Genevieve attend this matchmaking festival.”
Leah had definitely missed the town and some of the people—notably two of her friends from childhood. But she’d been relieved to be free of her family.
Offering a slight smile, she said, “I’m looking forward to the festival. You’ll find it’s quite extraordinary.”
Mrs. Selkirk gave Leah a stern look. “Just so long as you remember that your primary purpose is still my daughter. Our goal in attending this festival is to see her wed to the most eligible bachelor in attendance.”
In this case, “eligible” meant best placed. She hoped for a title for Genevieve, who’d failed to attract any serious attention last Season. This Season had been marginally better, but there were still no offers. Leah couldn’t attest to how Genevieve was received in Society because she rarely accompanied the young woman to any events. As companion, her duties were to provide companionship, primarily at their home, and occasionally join Genevieve on errands. This situation did allow Leah to visit her favorite parks, gardens, and lending libraries more often than if her position were more demanding.
At this point, it seemed Mrs. Selkirk would now be satisfied with a gentleman who possessed an excellent pedigree and admirable social standing. Genevieve never disclosed what would satisfy her, let alone make her happy.
“There is no better place for Genevieve to find someone than the Marrywell May Day Matchmaking Festival,” Leah said with a reassuring nod.
Mrs. Selkirk’s blue eyes narrowed. “I hope so, since this entire endeavor was your suggestion. If your goal was merely to return home, I shall be incredibly disappointed and may need to rethink your employment.”
“Mama, you’re being too harsh,” Genevieve said. She turned her head toward Leah. “You’ve nothing to worry about.”
Leah didn’t think so either since Mrs. Selkirk had threatened that several times, and Leah’s employment had so far remained secure. Furthermore, Genevieve never failed to go on about how much she needed Leah—for precisely what, Leah wasn’t sure.
“Let us brighten the mood,” Mrs. Dunhill said. “We’ve two matches to make during this festival.” She was referring to herself as well as Genevieve. A widow with diminishing means, Mrs. Dunhill was eager to find a new, hopefully wealthy, husband.
Leah knew that some of the matches made during the festival were between widows and widowers, but the vast majority were young couples seeking love. There was something magical about the Marrywell May Day Matchmaking Festival. The oldest of its kind in all England, the festival was a time of joy, celebration, and of course many marital unions.
Perhaps that was the sense of nostalgia Leah was feeling. The festival was a special time, even when one wasn’t looking for love. As a child, she’d spent many festival days running about the botanical gardens with her friend Sadie. Goodness, Sadie was now married to a duke, matched at last year’s festival. And she was this year’s May Queen. Leah could hardly wait to see her. They’d consistently corresponded since Leah had left Marrywell and had finally met—once—last June after Sadie had arrived in London with her new husband.
But Sadie wasn’t the person Leah most wanted to encounter. That would be Phin. Would he be as happy to see her as she would be to see him?
The coach pulled into the yard of the oldest lodging in Marrywell, the New Inn. Built in 1515, if the etching in the cornerstone were to be believed, it was also the largest inn. It would be filled to the rafters during the festival. The May King and Queen typically lodged there, but Sadie would be staying with her family at Fieldstone, her father’s estate, along with her husband and newborn son.
They descended from the coach, Leah exiting last. She arched her back in a stretch as she stepped onto the ground. The wood façade of the inn greeted them, rising four stories with a half dozen dormered windows across the top.
Mr. Parker, the innkeeper, whom Leah had known all her life, came from the door with a wide grin. “Well, if it isn’t Miss Leah Webster!” He stopped short. “Unless you’ve gone and got yourself married by now.” He gave her a questioning look.
By now.
He meant nothing by the words, but at twenty-six, Leah knew she was fully on the shelf. Not that she’d ever truly had any expectation of marrying. Youthful dreams didn’t signify. Her mother had certainly never expected it either, always saying that Leah was too homely and too stupid for anyone to want to wed her. Her sisters, however, were beautiful and charming, and they were both married, matched at successive festivals. They also lived far from Marrywell.