The Husband Campaign

By: Regina Scott

Chapter One

Hollyoak Farm, Peak District, Derbyshire, England

July 1815

Why was the most beautiful woman of his acquaintance sleeping in his stable?

John, Lord Hascot, pushed a lock of rain-slicked dark hair out of his eyes and raised his lantern to peer more closely through the shadows. He hadn’t visited the crumbling, thatched-roof outbuilding near the River Bell since he’d first purchased the Derbyshire property five years ago. He and his horse Magnum wouldn’t be out this direction now if his horse Contessa hadn’t gone missing. Only a chance late-afternoon thunderstorm had driven him to seek shelter.

He hadn’t expected to find the place inhabited, and by Lady Amelia Jacoby, daughter of the Marquess of Wesworth, no less. Even if he hadn’t recognized the plum-colored riding habit of fine wool, he would have known those elegant features, that pale blond hair. In the light from the lantern, he could see golden lashes fanning her pearly cheeks.

He’d never mastered the rules of London Society, but he was fairly certain they didn’t cover how to properly react to a lady found sleeping in the straw. Some might expect him to take Magnum out in the rain from the opposite stall where he’d made his horse comfortable and leave her to her peace. He rejected the idea. For one, he refused to mistreat Magnum. For another, how could he call himself a man and abandon a defenseless woman in a storm?

John snorted. What, was he being chivalrous? He’d thought that habit long broken. He ought to wake her, order her to take her troubles elsewhere. Lady Amelia’s concerns were none of his affair.

The storm made the decision for him. Thunder rolled, shaking the stable. With a squeal of fear, a white-coated mare threw up her head from the next stall. With a cry, Lady Amelia jerked upright. It was either comfort her or her horse.

He had more faith in his ability to comfort the horse.

As she climbed to her feet, he handed her the lantern, then turned to the other stall before she could question him.

“Easy,” he murmured, moving slowly toward the mare. He kept his muscles loose and his face composed.

Out of the corners of his eyes, he saw Lady Amelia staring at him. He didn’t dare take his gaze off the mare. He stroked her withers, murmured assurances in her ears. He could feel the horse relaxing, settling back into the stall.

Turning, he found Lady Amelia’s pretty mouth hanging open. Very likely no one had ever favored her horse over her.

Then her eyes widened in recognition. “Lord Hascot?”

John inclined his head. “Lady Amelia.”

Lightening flashed, and she glanced up with a gasp. John came around the wall before thinking better of it.

“Easy,” he said, putting a hand on her arm and taking the lantern back from her before she dropped it in the dry straw. “It’s just a storm.”

She nodded, drawing in a longer breath this time as if trying to settle herself, as well. Odd. He could feel the dampness in the wool of her habit, yet the mare had been dry, and now he noticed a sidesaddle slung over the low wall separating the stalls. Had she seen to her horse’s comfort before her own?

“Forgive me,” she said. “I shouldn’t be so timid. I simply wasn’t expecting such a storm. Will it pass soon, do you think?”

The quick recitation sounded breathless. He couldn’t blame her if she was nervous. Very likely he wasn’t the most comforting sight to a well-bred young lady. He didn’t bother with navy coats and cream trousers when working. His tan greatcoat covered a rough tweed jacket and chamois breeches that were more practical for a horse farm. And he’d been told more than once that his black hair and angular features could be intimidating. Particularly when he scowled.

He could feel himself scowling.

“Summer rains generally pass quickly in the peaks,” he told her. “Best to wait it out.”

She nodded, then hurried to the other stall. “Did you hear that, Belle?” she murmured, stroking the mare’s mane. “We’ll just wait a moment, and then we’ll be able to go back to Lord Danning’s. There’s my sweet girl.”

She talked to her horse as if the mare was a person. She might be the only one besides him who treated a horse like a friend, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t the typical Society miss, self-absorbed, fixed on marrying the finest. She would have no use for a country baron, which was all for the best.

“Why are you here, Lady Amelia?” he asked, locating a nail in the beam above his head and hanging the lantern from it.

Her hand fell away from Belle, but she didn’t look at him. “I was caught in the rain and sought shelter.”