An Autumn Kiss
An Autumn Kiss
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- Friends to Lovers
- Desperate Factory Owner
- Heiress and Baroness
- Three Short Novellas
- "A Railway Through the Roses" by Lisa H. Catmull
- "Mr. Dowling's Remedy" by Annette Lyon
- "The Plucky Miss Ruth" by Laura Rollins
Mr. Adrian Everard has tried everything to keep his father’s factory open, but a single solution remains. Marry an heiress before Christmas to fund the desperately needed railway.
The local landowner, Lady Anne Baxter, will not agree to sell her garden—or her heart. Indeed, his childhood friend is determined to sabotage all his efforts to find a wife.
As the deadline for Adrian to choose a bride draws close, one thing becomes painfully obvious. Saving the factory will mean losing the woman he loves forever.
Intro to Chapter One
Intro to Chapter One
Adrian Everard was the last man I
wanted to see first thing in the morning while carrying a vase of flowers, but I forced my best smile. My baroness smile. I held out a hand and hid my annoyance. “Mr. Everard. To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?”
“Lady Anne.” He clasped my hand and gave me his most dangerous, adorably sheepish smile. The one that had almost convinced me to agree to his preposterous idea. “I apologize for the earliness of my visit. I neglected one detail from our conversation yesterday.”
He hadn’t let go of my hand yet, and my fingers fit perfectly in his. It was hard to remember that we stood in my entrance hall instead of a ballroom, as we had so many times before.
I shifted the vase to my other arm and tried to pull my hand out of his grip. He startled and dropped my fingers abruptly. I motioned awkwardly toward my library. “Shall we?”
“After you.” Adrian rubbed the back of his neck. “The guests arrive any moment for my father’s blasted house party.”
I stopped abruptly and arched an eyebrow coolly.
Adrian held up his hands. “Don’t look at me like that. You’re invited to all the events.”
He had always been a bit oblivious, so I wondered if it was even worth an effort. “It’s not that.”
“What?” Adrian shifted from one foot to another. “I called you Lady Anne instead of Annie. I’m on my best behavior today. I knew you’d be awake, and the early hour really can’t be helped.”
I sighed and set the vase on the closest sideboard. “Adrian, why is your father hosting this blasted house party?”
He grinned. “It’s not really swearing if I’m around you.”
He was hopeless. “And the party?”
Adrian tugged at his waistcoat. “Father rounded up some heiresses for me to marry.”
My temper rose at his casual tone, but I took a deep breath and resumed my walk down the hall. “And will you tell the charming and intelligent heiresses about your deuced bad luck or the blasted contraptions that pass as train carriages?”
He cleared his throat behind me. “You’ve never complained before. We talk man-to-man about all our business.”
I stopped again. “Man to man?”
“You know what I mean, Annie. Business associate to business associate. You own half the countryside around here, so I treat you like an equal. Why should I start watching my language now?”
I shook my head and continued to my library, muttering beneath my breath, “And you wonder why you’re still unmarried.”
“I heard that,” Adrian said. “I don’t swear around women, just around you.”
I picked up my pace. “You may be my closest neighbor and oldest friend, but sometimes I want to strangle you.” It didn’t matter what I wore or how I did my hair, Adrian never saw me as a woman, just as another business partner.
“What? I won’t say one inappropriate thing at the house party, I swear.”
“Wrong choice of words,” he admitted. That grin was going to be the death of me. I couldn’t stay mad when one side of his mouth tilted up and that single dimple appeared.
We both knew I would agree to anything he asked, but I intended to put up a fight first. Adrian put a hand on my arm to stop me at the door of my library. “Promise you’ll come to some of the events.”
I tried to say no. “You can be miserable on your own,” I said. “I have no desire to marry at present.”
“I know,” Adrian said, glancing around. His hand fell off my arm. “Where’s Fenton? Is he joining us?”
“He and Aunt are just finishing breakfast.”
Adrian’s smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Good chap.”
I nodded. “The kindest and best.”
We hovered in the doorway together. His pale green eyes, flecked with auburn, were framed by thick eyelashes. His eyebrows were an odd mixture of rust and brown, almost as dark as his hair.
The clock chimed the hour as my cousin rushed down the hallway. “Didn’t know we were starting early today.” He looked between us. “What did I miss?”
“Nothing.” Adrian rushed past me into the burgundy-wallpapered room. “Morning, Fenton.”
I seated myself behind my mother’s thick mahogany desk as Adrian slipped into his favorite chair across from me. His gaze caught mine, and my stomach flipped. I steeled myself to refuse the request I knew he had come for. “What matter is so urgent that Nicholas must abandon his sausage and mash yet again?”
Adrian’s playful look deepened into something serious. “If I cannot secure the hand of an heiress in the next week, my father cannot build the railway in time. I must marry by Christmas to secure funding from the bank.”
Nicholas choked. “Rough luck, old man.”
Adrian shrugged. “Can’t be helped.” He reiterated the finer points of his father’s proposal to run a railway line through my estate, through my beloved rose garden, and pushed yet another map toward me. “I found a solution for the orangery.”
I stared at the maze of lines in front of me. He spoke so carelessly of these things. Marriage. Blasting open the countryside with dynamite. Years of work. Tens of thousands of pounds. Endangering lives of hundreds of workers.
And my gardens. My only physical reminder of my parents.
“We already allowed a canal along the edge of our estate,” I argued. Again. “That must be enough. I cannot give up the rose garden and orangery for the rail line. I spent many of my happiest times there with my parents.”
Adrian drew his chair closer to my desk and sketched a line across the map. “Your land is the only way to get a rail line into the area. I can move your orangery and build a new hothouse for the citrus plants anywhere. The canals are overloaded, and railways are the future.”
A sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach warned me that he might be right. I turned my gaze to Nicholas.
“I’ve studied his proposals and talked with other stewards. Everyone agrees that our valley needs this.” He pointed at the papers strewn across my desk. “This is the only place for miles where the rail can continue through at a reasonable expense.”
I shuffled the papers on my desk. “Sure, take his side.”
“That’s what friends do.” Nicholas thumped Adrian on the back. “Loyal, through and through.”
“Traitor,” I muttered. “You’re my cousin and my steward.”
Nicholas thumped him even harder on the back. “He’s my mate. My best friend. Sorry, Anne.”
Adrian continued as though Nicholas hadn’t spoken. He got like this at times, so focused that he hardly heard a word anyone else spoke. “Rebuilding the orangery is a small expense compared to the cost of running the line through a mountain.”
We locked eyes. My mind raced with all the information he had presented over the last few months. “Surely it can wait a few years. The canals can handle the traffic.”
Adrian’s gaze pierced mine. “Can you honestly say that the location of your orangery is more important than the economic well-being of your tenants and this community?”
“Low blow,” I muttered. He knew that was one of the few remaining obstacles.
But I had other objections. I would hear the loud trains barreling through my private gardens several times a day. It would disrupt my peace and change the entire feel of our quaint village. It might be necessary at some point—eventually—but it meant giving up everything I loved.
The gardens were my sanctuary. My escape. The canal was busy at times, but the boats and the river were quiet and beautiful, sunken below the level of the green, where I couldn’t see them. But a train? It would disrupt so much of the countryside and tear apart my parents’ rose garden as well.
“Anne, we’re all making sacrifices. You’re not the only one.”
I looked at Adrian and detected a hint of sadness in his face.
I shoved the stack of papers aside. “This is too much.”
He sprang from his chair and paced around the confines of my small library. “I’ll do what I can. I’ll drop the train tracks lower than your grazing fields to hide them. I’ll build tunnels to preserve your view. I’ll work with the best engineers my new wife’s money can buy.” His humorless laugh caught in his throat. “The livelihood of so many people depends on you and me and this railway. At least consider it.”
I looked at the timepiece pinned to my shirtwaist. “I have another appointment.”
Adrian gathered the papers on my desk. He placed the map on top and tapped his finger on the stack of papers. “No more stalling. You always have a solicitor coming or a tenant to visit. I won’t get another chance to talk to you all week because of my guests. Time is running out, and the village is dying. Shops on High Street are closing. Men are out of work, and the other factory owners are pressuring my father to cut wages because of transportation costs.”
That should have been more important than anything else. As baroness, I knew it had to be the most important thing, no matter the personal cost. I inclined my head ever so slightly. “I’ll give it some thought if you secure the funding from another source.”
Adrian’s eyes widened. “Another source?” He exchanged a glance with Nicholas, who shrugged.
I pushed away from my desk to face him. “Yes.”
Adrian ran his fingers through his hair. The tips stood on end, where the curl couldn’t be tamed. He stared quizzically at me. “There is no other source. Our funds are tied up in loans for the new factory equipment.”
I cracked open the door of the library. “Then the railway must wait until the loans are paid.”
Adrian paused in the doorway, his presence uncomfortably close once more. Didn’t the man know how to pass through without stopping? I breathed in the scent of bergamot and sandalwood soap. His beard was neatly trimmed, and the same flecks of auburn dotted his sideburns.
His brow furrowed. “This blasted house party, Annie. After this, I’ll have a wife and a fortune.”
I took a deep breath. “Mr. Everard.”
The crease of his brow deepened, and I wished I had remained seated. His nearness was distracting. “What?”
“You cannot marry a stranger.”
He jammed his hands in his pockets. “Why not? We’ll get acquainted over the next week.” He grinned with catlike charm, the corner of his mouth lifting on one side. “Then we won’t be strangers.”
I shook my head and sighed. “Be serious for one moment.”
His face fell, and the facade cracked. “What else can I do but joke? My father insists there is no other way to fund it. We need a railway, and a railway costs a fortune.”
Blood rose in my cheeks. “A woman is not a fortune. I am not a fortune.”
He had the grace to look ashamed.
“All these years, you and Nicholas have been scaring the fortune hunters away from me. Every time a penniless man tries to ask me to dance, you or Nicholas appear to fend him off.”
Adrian stared miserably at the floor. “Please come to the house party.”
“I won’t allow you to treat a woman like another transaction in your business dealings.” The remark felt a little too personal. How many times had Adrian only seen me as a task and not as a person?
Adrian stiffened. “I’ll treat her well.”
My temper rose at his response. He was going to dismiss my concerns and walk away.
I stepped back inside the library to control my anger and maintain my calm demeanor.
Adrian’s jaw was set. “It’s not your choice. It’s mine.”
I scoffed. “It is her choice. You cannot fall in love in a week.”
Nicholas laughed, as if to cut the tension. “My cousin doesn’t believe you capable of capturing a woman’s heart.”
Nicholas gestured toward me. “Show her what you’re like in London.”
I backed away until my legs hit the wingback chair by the fireplace. “That’s not necessary.”
“You only dance with Annie once during each ball. She doesn’t see what you’re like the rest of the time.” Nicholas arched his brow suggestively.
I did see. I saw Adrian’s behavior, and I resented it. He treated every woman differently than he treated me. He spoke to me like he did to Nicholas, but I saw the way he acted around the debutantes, and it made me feel small and insignificant and unseen, even with all the other men pressing around me, eager to marry my title and estates.
“Really.” I moved around the chair to put as much space between myself and Adrian, who hovered in the doorway, one foot out of the library and one foot inside.
“I insist.” Nicholas leveled a commanding glare at his best friend. “Otherwise, she’ll hound you and run the heiresses off.” His tone left no room for argument.
Adrian tossed Nicholas a confused look. My cousin responded with an emphatic nod. “Throw your best at her. Give her a taste of what your future wife will be getting.”
Adrian slowly dragged himself back into the library, then locked eyes with me and shoved one of the wingback chairs aside.
I swallowed. I hadn’t really seen this side of him intent on me. He stalked me like a tiger at Regent’s Zoo. His green eyes glittered with pent-up energy as he moved slowly toward me. With each step, my breath grew shallower until I could hardly breathe at all.