The Earl’s Beguiling Botanist (Preview)

Chapter One

Lady Aurelia St Clair, eldest daughter of the Duke of Brampton, pushed through the thicket. The bag strap was heavy across her chest though she had to admit, she rather liked the sensation. Indeed, the sport of hiking through the woods with her load left her flesh tingling all over. Her body was always tuned to feeling imagined hands stroking her thighs. Stepping over a fallen tree, she spotted a cluster of mushrooms at the base of the tree and grinned to herself. 

“Excellent!” 

She bent down and snipped the stalks, depositing the mushrooms carefully into her bag. Antoine, their cook, would be thrilled at today’s finds and, as always, put them to very good use. She looked forward to sampling his delights. 

She straightened up and looked around, her eyes eagerly seeking out her next item. Foraging, next to botany, had become one of her greatest passions in the last few years, and there was nothing she liked better than to wander the woods of Gloucestershire county in the hopes of finding tidbits that were both tasty and useful. She had a book in which she wrote about each of the plants she found—their physical properties and their uses. A study, of sorts, though her sisters mocked her mercilessly for it. 

“Ah!” 

There, across the way, she saw some truffles—a tasty delicacy whenever she could find them! She dashed across to them, carefully picking the sweetest of the selection. She would remember this spot for future reference. 

At two-and-twenty, Aurelia lived rather according to her own rules. Though the daughter of a duke, she had yet to marry. There was still time, of course, still plenty of good prospects on the horizon. But the truth was, Aurelia had no desire to give up the freedom and independence she had fought for after her mother’s death only a few years earlier. Then, she became responsible for her two younger sisters, Margaret and Daphne, growing into today’s fierce young lady. 

Her blue-grey eyes spoke of a quick wit and intelligence that could, in truth, outshine that of most men. Indeed, this independence set her against the rest of the ton and a world of constricting rules and beliefs. She was different and celebrated that fact rather than forcing herself to conform. She was free-spirited by nature and so eager to learn that she devoured every book, journal, newspaper, and release she could get her hands on. She rather suspected this both frightened and intrigued many a gentleman. 

She was beautiful; there was no doubting that, though, in truth, it did not matter to her much. Tall and willowy, she had hair a deep and rich chocolatey brown. It was pretty enough, though impractical, and she so often pushed it haphazardly beneath a cap. She had never, nor would she ever, be one for preening herself in front of a looking glass or wearing delicate pearls entwined in her locks. Only in the deepest darkness of night would she allow her hand to run through her silky hair or her fingers to trail the length of her stomach, searching for something to tantalize and tease, imagining it was the hand of some handsome earl or baron. 

She shook her head of that thought. This was neither the time nor the place, and the very thought of her nocturnal actions sent flushes to her cheeks and neck, her chest warming with both desire and embarrassment. Instead, she probed into the undergrowth, searching for something else she could add to her collection. There, she saw a bush red with berries and rushed over to pluck them from their stalks delicately. She popped one into her mouth, the juice flooding her tongue as she bit into it and moaned in ecstasy. Sneaking delights like this was another reason she wanted to disappear into the woods alone. 

“All right,” she muttered to herself as she stood up. “Time to head back.”

She slipped her secateurs into her bag, alongside the day’s foraging, and rubbed her tired eyes. It had been a long but profitable morning. She lifted the hem of her gown to prevent it from snagging, though it had long ago become torn and sullied by her activities. The colour matched her hair, the fabric thick and durable, and she wore it because it was expected of her. Alas, she could not shun all the rules. 

Still, she allowed herself the smallest of rebellions. More often than not, she wore men’s trousers beneath her skirts, enjoying the sensation of the fabric covering her legs entirely. And when she took turns around the woods, she wore a long coat that had once belonged to her father. It wasn’t that she wanted to be nor even look like a man, but rather that their clothes were infinitely more practical than those designed for ladies—and she could not deny that she liked how they rubbed at her thighs when she moved. Aurelia would wager that women’s clothes were designed impractically for a reason but again, that was not a popular belief. 

She turned to head back to the house, the snap of the twigs beneath her feet sounding out through the quiet of the woods. It was then that she heard something, or perhaps someone. It sounded like … Yes! She paused and listened again, more closely this time, and she was certain it was not a bird or a fox that made the noise but rather a man. And a man with a mouth of filth, at that, for the words that rang through the air were vulgar and unpleasant. It made Aurelia chuckle. 

She continued on her way, imagining what fun she could have with a man who had a mouth like that. But he cried out again. This time, there were no words but a cry of anguish, and Aurelia stopped once more, her body stiffening with concern. She could not bear to hear people in pain, and this man, whoever he was, sounded like he was in a lot of pain. No wonder he had sworn so openly. She turned and dashed in the direction of the noise. 

“Where are you?” she called, her ear raised to the wind so she could follow the sound of his reply. 

“O … Over …” 

The man’s words became growls of pain and frustration, causing Aurelia to pick up her pace. Her coat snagged on a tree, but she pushed on, allowing the fabric to tear anew. She could always repair it later, though perhaps the stranger needed urgent attention. 

The clearing came about so suddenly that she almost tumbled into the space, only managing to keep herself upright by the tree trunk she clung to. There, lying amid the copse, the trees looking down on him like some sort of audience, lay a man, ashen and damp with sweat. He caught sight of her, their eyes meeting, though his head soon swam back, and his eyes closed. It was in their brief meeting, though, that she could see in his eyes how handsome he was. How he was very like those gentlemen she pictured in the privacy of her chambers. 

Aurelia’s shocked pause did not last even a second, for she could see something was terribly wrong. She licked her lips, forcing her inappropriate thoughts away. She ran over to him, pulling the bag over her head and letting it land with a thud on the hard ground, not caring a jot for her prized mushrooms any longer. She fell to her knees by his side, looking from his pale face to the ankle he clutched and back again. 

“What happened?” she asked. “Are you all right?” She wanted to reach out and touch him but waited, knowing it was improper. 

His eyes were screwed shut now, and his words tumbled out in mumbled hiccups. From the look of him, he was in awful pain. She took in his clothes. The fine, clean cloth told her he was a man of some means; the tools that hung from his belt told her he had been hunting. Perhaps for foxes or deer—both roamed the woods in the area. 

“S-snake,” he managed. “S-snake.”

The thin sheen of sweat across his forehead and how he scrunched his face up told her he was dizzy and struggling to breathe. An adder. She had seen their bites before. Their poison quickly took hold of their victims, and if it wasn’t dealt with rapidly, the consequences could be fatal. 

She grabbed her bag, sliding her hand in and pulling out a sharp knife. She reached out and touched his hand, feeling a jolt of something move between them. Her breath caught, and she looked at the man’s face once more. Her bottom lip fell open, and she blinked before shaking it away again. 

What has got into me today?

With renewed vigour, she gently pried his hand from his ankle and deftly cut away the fabric. There was indeed a bite, the flesh around the entry already discolouring and swelling. Thinking quickly, she tore a strip from her gown and dowsed it in water from the bottle she always carried with her in case of emergencies such as this. She wondered if he had caught a flash of her ankles as she had raised her skirt, then remembered her trousers.

He hissed as she cleaned the wound. She winced at the sound, but the truth was, she could not clean it without causing him more pain. She only hoped the excess pain would ultimately lead to healing. 

“It’s all right,” she muttered as she worked. “It really is quite all right.”

He made only noncommittal sounds in reply. 

“By the looks of you, you’re wearing entirely inappropriate footwear,” she scolded as she worked. “A pair of boots would have been far more appropriate for walking through the woods and would have saved you from this pain.”

He grumbled in reply, the words not making any sense. She glanced up at his face, all colour drained away, and she could see his agony written across his features. Still, he was handsome, and she found it difficult to pull her eyes away from him. She winced again, turning back to her work. She would have to draw the poison out somehow and then treat the wound. In moments like these, she was endlessly grateful for her drive to study the medicinal nature of plants and herbs. She thought, as she often did, that it was something everyone should know to prepare themselves for situations such as these. 

She looked around for a tool and, spotting a large stick, she grabbed it and shoved it at the man. “Here, take this. You’re going to want to hold onto something.”

“Wh-why?” he managed, the word barely more than a croak.

On her knees, knife in the air, she looked down at the swelling just above the ankle. “Because this,” she said, “will hurt.”

His scream was so loud and soul-wrenching that even the birds flocked from the trees, their movement sending leaves scattering around them. She paid it no heed—she had no time to. Instead, she continued to slice into the soft flesh of his leg, drawing out the snake’s venom as quickly and efficiently as she could. Once she thought it was all clear, she dowsed her cloth in cold water again and placed it upon the wound. His screams petered off to quiet whimpers. 

“Hold this,” she said, pushing his hand against the cloth. She began to get to her feet. “Put as much pressure on it as you can.”

He opened his eyes for the first time since she’d arrived, and though she could see he was having trouble focusing on her, he furrowed his brow in confusion. 

“I’ll be back,” she assured him. “I just need to fetch something.”

And with that, she dashed into the trees. She knew those woods inside out and knew exactly what she was hunting for: echinacea. Not only would it help the poor man with the pain and inflammation, she knew it was useful for fighting infection too. She searched for the pink petals amongst the blankets of greens and browns, picked a few, along with a few other plants she knew to be useful, then made her way back to the clearing and the stranger who had tumbled into her life. 

Chapter Two

Before Hugh could ask her what she was doing, the strange young woman had disappeared through the trees. He clutched his ankle as tightly as he could, just as she had instructed, and let his head drop back against the bed of fallen leaves. He wasn’t sure he’d ever experienced such pain in his entire life. And then this stranger appeared, mirage-like and miraculous, seemingly knowing just what to do. He wanted to know more, his thoughts probing at his mind, begging questions, but he was befuddled with pain and poison and couldn’t focus. Despite himself, he let out another moan of agony. 

His chest throbbed with concern, terrified that something was dreadfully wrong. The mysterious stranger seemed just as worried, leaving him even more scared. He cursed himself—she was quite correct when she told him off for wearing the wrong boots. He’d got ready in a hurry and rushed out of the door before realizing. If he had been wearing the right boots, that snake wouldn’t have been able to get to his ankles, let alone sink its venomous teeth into his flesh. 

But then, I would never have caught sight of such a beautiful young woman.

He groaned again, his back rolling against the floor as he still clutched his leg. What a nonsense thought to enter his head at such a moment! He suspected he was going delirious, the beauty of the woman the result of his pain and gratitude rather than anything else. And even if it was not, surely he was a fool to think of such things at such a time. 

But he couldn’t deny that shock of feeling he’d experienced when she’d first touched him. His flesh was sensitive thanks to the bite, but even so, he wanted to feel her hands upon more of him. She intrigued him, drew him in, and images passed through his poison-ridden mind that would have made him blush were he not in such agony. 

“Christ!” 

He screamed the word, letting his voice take the weight of his pain and distract him from his strange thoughts. It was not as though he’d never thought about a woman in such a way before—of course he had. He’d even experienced it once or twice. But to think of it now? After the day he’d had? No, it was ridiculous, and he knew it!

Today, everything had gone wrong. It was supposed to be a pleasant afternoon in the woods with his dear friend, Elliot—an afternoon so like every other afternoon. He was no novice when it came to hunting and riding, nor was he a child incapable of looking after himself. And yet, here he was. 

Somehow, he and Elliot had been separated during the hunt. Hugh had taken a few turns in search of him, eventually dismounting his dappled grey mare and walking her through the thicket. But now, even she had disappeared into the woods, deserting him, no doubt frightened by Hugh’s cries of pain. Blasted snake! He rolled on the floor, whimpering to himself and waiting for the stranger—a woman, no less—to come back and rescue him. 

What have I become?

Earl Hugh Bastable of Ashton had always lived a somewhat carefree and even rakish lifestyle. He’d never been one for following the rules of the ton nor adhering to society’s norms. Indeed, he had scoffed at the notion of marriage, the idea of hard work, and the concept of propriety and respectability. He had done everything he had been warned against by his family. 

But he was getting older now, and he had of late been considering changing his ways. There was nothing worse than an ageing rake, after all. Since his father’s death and his inheritance of the title, Hugh understood the importance of performing his duties correctly. So it was that he was making a conscious effort to be a better man. 

But I cannot do so if I die from some foolish snake bite!

Nor, he realized, could he do so if he let himself be tempted by a beautiful face like the stranger’s. He let out another moan, silently hoping she would not be long. Whatever she had gone for, she seemed to know what she was doing, and he hoped it would help him back on his feet. He couldn’t very well lie on the ground all day, moaning in pain and musing about his life. If she did help him heal, he would find a way of thanking her, for he could very well owe her his life. 

At one-and-thirty years of age, he had become distinguished and all the more handsome in his looks. His brown hair, so dark it was almost black, was thick and long, the slight wave in it giving the impression of something fluid and free. His hazel eyes spoke of a past that had seen and done many things—not all of them good—but also of a desire to be a good man, the man he knew he was deep down. The man his father had always been convinced he was. And still, at his age, he maintained a tall and athletic physique, his muscles rippling from the hours he spent hunting, fencing, or riding. Even he appreciated how handsome he was when he admired himself in the looking glass, though he didn’t like to admit it. Even he knew how unattractive arrogance was. 

Where is she? 

As if the thought summoned her, the stranger came bursting through the trees again, her arms laden with plants and flowers he did not recognize. She knelt beside him again, then pulled more things from her seemingly bottomless bag. She laid her tools out around her, then pulled the petals from the flowers and dropped them into a pestle. She added a few other ingredients from her bag, though he was too confused to see what they were, and she began crushing them together, working diligently at making a paste. 

“Wh-what are you doing?” he asked, his voice barely above a croak. “What is that?”

She didn’t answer him but continued to drive the mortar into the paste, the sound of stone against stone making Hugh shudder. He wanted to look up at her face but found he could not pull his eyes away from the swift, knowing movement of her fingers. He licked his lips, their firm and rhythmic action making him wish he were the pestle. 

Despite the pain, the situation, and his worry, he felt a bolt of something, watching her work. Attraction? Perhaps. He couldn’t be certain. All he knew was that those fingers and the way they moved were entrancing, and were he not in so much agony, he would have thrown a hundred questions at her by now. 

“Bastable? Where are you?” 

Hugh stiffened at his friend’s voice, calling through the woods. He was not close; that much was clear. The words, though loud, were still muffled by trees. 

“Bastable! For goodness’ sake, I’ve been looking for you all bloody afternoon!”

Hugh would have laughed if he’d had the energy. Elliot sounded frustrated, annoyed at having his time wasted. Oh, how Hugh would have loved to waste his afternoon in such a way, instead of lying prostrate while a woman he had never met tended to him with some strange concoction that smelled light and sweet like honey. While some woman spread her fingers across his flesh, making him shiver and quake. 

“Bastable!”

The woman’s head jerked up at the sound of Elliot’s voice, and Hugh thought he saw a flash of panic. Her hands started working more quickly as if she didn’t want to be caught. 

“It’s just Elliot,” he managed to say, though the words were almost a rasp. 

She looked at him properly, fully, and her eyes entirely captured him. He had thought her fingers enchanting, but her eyes … The blue-gray sparkled in the light, and they had such depth that Hugh felt he could dive right into them. As if there was so much of her to explore, to experience. How he wanted to reach out and take her head in his hands, to let his lips fall upon hers. 

“Bastable!”

He reluctantly pulled his gaze away, a spell broken by reality. Elliot was closer now, his voice echoing around the trees. 

“H-here,” Hugh called out, but his voice was barely above a whisper. He cleared his throat and tried again. “I’m here!” 

With two fingers, the mirage in front of him scooped the paste out of the pestle, then smeared it all over the bite mark. He hissed until the sting settled into a cooling sensation that spread from the point of the bite across his leg. He let his head fall back once more and sighed in relief. 

“Works quickly, doesn’t it?” she said, glancing up at him with an eyebrow raised. 

He met her eyes again and smiled gratefully, nodding. Yes, it does. How he wished he had the energy to ask her more, to find out who she was and what she was doing in the woods. A maid, perhaps? Though she had far too much poise and grace to be a servant, even if her clothes were somewhat worn and untidy. 

He watched as she gathered her belongings, shoving them roughly back into her bag. Had she been sent out to forage? He couldn’t work it out. There was something about her, something real and true. Something that was not common, certainly. And yet she wore a man’s coat, and he was certain he had glimpsed a pair of trousers when her skirt had risen slightly earlier on. A shame, no doubt, for the sight without the trousers would surely have been better.

Good Lord, I really am going delirious. 

Whoever she was and whatever she was doing, she was mesmerizing and with a charm he had rarely seen before. Though his head still swam with pain and confusion, he knew without a doubt that she was intriguing. And he knew, already, that she would soon disappear from his life as quickly as she had entered it. She would forever be a question mark in his mind, an image in his mind that he could replay repeatedly in the darkness of his chamber. 

“Bastable!” 

Hugh let his head flop to the other side, looking in the direction of the voice. He turned just in time to see Elliot crashing through the thicket on his horse, Hugh’s own dappled mare on a tether beside him. 

“Bast—” Elliot stopped when he saw what was in front of him, pulling the horses to an abrupt stop. Hugh let a chuckle escape from his lips. His poor friend looked shocked and really rather flustered. 

Viscount Elliot had been Hugh’s best friend since the moment they began at Eton. Even at seven years old, they’d known they would grow up together and had remained close ever since. Elliot had always been somewhat of a calming influence on Hugh, steering him away from the worst troubles. Now, he actively encouraged Hugh in his bid to be a better person. 

With curly blond hair and eyes as green as bottles, Elliot had a quirky, playful look to him. Between the two of them, most ladies found something or other that they liked the look of, and as a result, they had developed a reputation. Though the truth was, Elliot was a faithful soul who believed more than anything in love. He only ever wished Hugh felt the same. 

“What happened to you?” Elliot asked. He swung his leg over the horse and jumped down, then tied both creatures to a tree. 

“Snake,” Hugh replied. His voice was slowly returning to him as the pain in his leg lessened. It was still there, of course, but it was manageable now. “This angel has been helping me.”

Noticing her for the first time, Elliot started, blinking at her as if not entirely sure she was there. “Good afternoon, Miss,” he said. 

The woman glanced up at him but didn’t reply. Instead, she got to her feet, swinging her bag over her shoulder and roughly handing the poultice to Hugh. 

“Here,” she said. He blinked at her, taking the mortar from her hands. “Put some on the bite every few hours and wrap it in clean cloth each time. It’ll take a few days, but you’ll heal completely.”

Hugh struggled into a sitting position, wincing at the pain of the movement. 

“I can’t even begin to th—”

But she cut him off, refusing to hear his thanks. “Wear better boots next time,” she said, raising her eyebrows at him before she spun on her heels and disappeared through the woods. 

Hugh and Elliot both stared after her for a long moment, neither saying a word. Hugh was so lost in his desire to know more about her and have her tend to him again that he’d forgotten the situation he now found himself in. She was kind and knowledgeable, mysterious and beautiful. She stirred something within him. How could a man not crave more of someone like her?

Snapping them both out of their reverie, Elliot bent down to Hugh’s side. “Can you stand?” he asked. 

“I’ll try,” Hugh said with a shrug. 

With Elliot’s help, Hugh got to his feet. His eyes, though, kept glancing at the gap in the trees through which his guardian angel had vanished. Perhaps he hoped to catch another sight of her. Perhaps he wanted to follow her. He didn’t know. The truth was, he didn’t understand the feelings that coursed through him at all. But he knew one thing for certain: he needed to know more. 

Chapter Three

“Ah, ma chérie!” 

Antoine Henri, chef to the Brampton estate, greeted Aurelia with open arms, as he always did when she returned from a day’s foraging. He was a tall, thin man with dark hair greyed only by the flour he baked with. At one-and-twenty, he was already at the top of his game and had travelled the world. As a chef, he had dreams beyond what any estate cook could imagine, but he was a determined soul, and Aurelia had no doubt he would get what he wanted in the end. 

“Good afternoon, Antoine,” she replied, depositing her bag on the table. She pushed a stray lock of hair back into her cap, then shrugged off her coat. “We’ve got a bit of a treat for you today. Truffles!”

Ma chérie,” he said, smiling warmly at her. “You are so good to us with your collections. I shall make something truly magnifique!”

“I don’t doubt it,” she said with a snort of laughter. She began unpacking the mushrooms and truffles from her bag, lining them up on the table. Then she hung the bag over the hook behind the back door, there with her coat ready for the next time she ventured out. 

Then, she spotted her youngest sister, Daphne, perched on a high stool in the corner of the room. Daphne had remained deathly quiet, and even now, she barely moved. It was as if she was hoping she would not be discovered in this room with the cook. Aurelia frowned. 

“Daphne, surely you have something better to do than sitting in here, pestering Antoine as he works,” she said, eyeing her sister carefully. 

“No, no, Lady Aurelia,” Antione said, his accent thick. “Da—er, Lady Daphne is no trouble whatsoever.”

“Perhaps not,” Aurelia replied, the matron of the room. “But there are plenty of more appropriate pastimes for a young lady, Antoine, and I must ask you not to encourage her further.”

Suitably reprimanded, Daphne slipped from the stool onto her feet and dutifully followed her sister from the kitchen. At ten-and-eight years, Aurelia knew Daphne to be endlessly curious, always wanting to learn. But the girl was as naïve and sweet as she was eager to please, and Aurelia was always worried about her. 

This year was her debut into society, chaperoned as always by Aurelia, and the girl had the looks of an angel. Innocent and rosy-cheeked, her lips were the shape of rosebuds, and her eyes were as blue as cornflowers. If Aurelia was the handsome, elegant one of the family, Daphne was the cherubic one. 

“You ought to be more careful about with whom you become familiar,” Aurelia said as they made their way down the corridor, Daphne just a step behind her sister. 

“I know Father doesn’t like us fraternizing with the help, Sister, but I would have thought you—”

Aurelia interrupted her with a laugh. “It’s nothing to do with the fact that he’s the help, as you put it. You know I pay no heed to titles. We’re all human, after all. It’s a mere luck of birth.”

“Exactly. Antione is a perfectly decent man and a wonderful conversationalist.”

“That’s my concern,” Aurelia replied. She pushed open the drawing room door and picked up Daphne’s embroidery basket, shoving it into her hand. Daphne took it, though continued to follow Aurelia across the room. 

“And why should his conversation skills be of concern to you?” she asked. 

“It’s not his conversation as such, but your appreciation of it.” Aurelia stopped walking abruptly and turned to face her sister. Daphne, not noticing, almost tumbled into her, and her embroidery scattered over the floor. As she scrambled to pick it up, running her hand over the carpet for rogue needles, Aurelia continued, “He’s young and exceedingly handsome.”

“Is he?” Daphne said as she stood again. “I can’t say I’d noticed.”

Aurelia laughed again, louder and more outrageously this time. “You hadn’t noticed? Then perhaps, dear girl, we need to get your eyes checked.”

She turned on her heels again, continuing to the window seat where she had left her notebook. She wanted to jot down the placement of those truffles before she forgot. It seemed a particularly fertile spot, and one she wanted to explore further. 

“All right,” Daphne said, picking up her pace to keep up with her older sister. “I admit it. He’s handsome. He’s French, too, if you hadn’t noticed. What exactly is your point?”

Aurelia rolled her eyes, then changed direction, again heading for the door. Once in the corridor, she tucked her notebook under her arm and lifted her skirt, beginning to mount the stairs. 

“Because he’s not suitable for you, Daphne, and as your guardian, it is my duty to ensure you do not make a mistake.”

“Says she who has the perfect marriage!” Daphne declared. 

“My own marital status does not affect my good judgement, Daphne.”

She could be married, of course. She’d had plenty of offers and knew without doubt that had she given one of them a chance, her marriage would be a good one because she knew the right ways to behave. But knowing how to behave and wanting to behave in that manner were two entirely different things. Could a married woman, one no doubt with a child or a babe in tow, wander through the woods exploring the world of plants and flowers? No, she could not. Could a married woman hold the freedom Aurelia now had? Of course not; that was not part of the deal. There was only one reason that being married appealed to her, and she knew she could satisfy those urges by herself. She’d had enough practice, after all. 

“I don’t know why we’re even talking about this anyhow,” Daphne said, trotting behind her. “I was simply talking about what was for dinner. You read far too much into the situation.”

“Yes,” Aurelia replied, her tone denoting her complete disbelief. “I’m sure I did. Ask Mrs Jenkins to fill a bath for me, will you?”

“I can’t,” Daphne said. “She’s gone into town.”

Aurelia sighed. Their housekeeper seemed to spend more and more time in town. She would need to deal with that. They did not pay her to take jaunts of her own. 

“Then ask one of the maids,” she said. “I care not as long as I can wash this grime from my skin!”

“You wouldn’t be covered in grime if you stayed in the house like the rest of us,” Daphne muttered, though she did not wait to hear her sister’s reply. To Aurelia’s relief, the girl trotted down the stairs, embroidering in hand, searching for a maid to do her bidding. 

Once in the privacy of her chamber, Aurelia closed the door quietly, then slipped into the chair at the desk by the window. The bright sun shone through the half-closed drapes, dust motes dancing and swimming through the rays. Aurelia opened her notebook and then dipped her quill into her ink pot. The nib hovered there momentarily while Aurelia thought what to write. 

She never normally had any trouble. Indeed, on any other day, her hand would fly across the parchment, her letters scratchy and uneven in her haste to get her thoughts and discoveries written down. Today, though, she had other things on her mind. Today, she could not get rid of the image of the man she had met in the woods. 

And how very handsome he was. 

With her lack of movement, a blob of dark black ink dripped from the end of the quill, the colour quickly soaking into the parchment and spreading. 

“Damn!” 

She swore out loud and jumped from her seat, depositing the quill in its holder and reaching for the blotting paper. She desperately blotted as much of the ink as she could, praying it had not ruined her entire workbook! She riffled through the pages and sighed. It had soaked through three of them, but at least they had been blank. Her work from previous days had not been destroyed. 

She sat back down and sighed, staring at the dark blot in front of her. It was a stain that would forever remind her of this day. A stain that would remind her of the thoughts that had run through her head as she touched the stranger, allowing her fingers to brush against his undamaged flesh when she thought he would not notice. 

Licking her lips, she allowed her mind to go back there. It was such an odd draw, a pull on her very being like she had never before experienced. It wasn’t only that he had been sick. No, she had dealt with many sick people in the past. This desire to know and be near him was something else. Something was binding them together, something that made her want to find him, search him out. Though she knew that was nonsense. She knew she would never see him again. Even if she did know where to find him, it would be entirely inappropriate, and she had her sisters’ reputation to consider. 

She closed her eyes and let herself imagine him near her, his hand creeping up her thigh. Letting her head fall back with a murmur of desire, she could almost feel how his fingers brushed against her womanhood or rubbed against her nipples. She wanted to reach out and kiss his neck, her lips catching his earlobe as he pleasured her, moaning into his ear. 

Forcing herself back to the real world, she closed the notebook with a sigh. She would not be able to make notes today. Her mind swam heavily with thoughts and feelings she had never experienced—and ones she could not understand. He was a stranger, after all, and a foolish one at that! What kind of idiot walks through the woods without adequate protection? 

No, she wouldn’t think of him any longer. Not once. Except thoughts of him followed her as she got up from her seat and found her way to her bath, now filled with warm, calming water. They followed her as she stripped out of her grubby clothes, letting the fabric brush across her skin as it fell to the floor. And thoughts of him invaded her mind as she slipped into the water, letting it engulf her. He would not leave her alone as she washed the day’s grime from her flesh. 

She closed her eyes, pushing his image away, but it would not go. And so, lying back, she allowed him to take over her completely.


“The Earl’s Beguiling Botanist” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!

Amidst the enigmatic woods of Gloucestershire county, Lady Aurelia St. Clair, the unconventional and free-spirited botanist, guards secret desires and resists the constraints of marriage. Her heart thrills for the mysterious plants and herbs she studies, and she finds solace in the allure of nature’s beauty. As she chaperones her younger sisters through the marriage market, an intriguing Earl enters her life, igniting a profound curiosity and an fire she cannot ignore.

Aurelia’s heart yearns to embrace the fierce passion she shares with Hugh, and to follow a destiny of love and desire she never thought possible…

Earl Hugh Bastable of Ashton, once a reckless rake, now seeks redemption and a path to a more settled life. However, fate has a different plan when he finds himself bitten by a snake in the woods, only to be saved by an alluring guardian angel—a woman who disappears without a trace, leaving him yearning for more. As he unravels the truth behind her mysterious presence, Hugh embarks on a relentless quest to find her…

Will he be drawn back into the shadows of his scandalous past, or will he succumb to the allure of a love he never knew he craved?

As they explore the uncharted territory of their intense connection, conspiracies abound as enemies plot to keep them apart. In a dance of whispered secrets and heated glances, Aurelia and Hugh must navigate a treacherous path strewn with betrayal and danger. Will their passion ignite an inferno of desire, defying all expectations and societal norms?

“The Earl’s Beguiling Botanist” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.

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