The Earl and the Spinster
The Culpepper Misses, #1
Formerly titled Brooke: Wagers Gone Awry
It’s a winner-takes-all bet. The stakes have never been higher.
Let the battle of wills—and hearts— begin…
Brooke Culpepper has no time for frivolous pursuits like love and romance. She’s too busy trying to keep a struggling dairy farm afloat and prevent her family from starving. So, when a man claiming to be the farm’s new owner arrives, she’s willing to do anything to get rid of him. Even if it means proposing a wager with the only thing of value she has. Her virtue…
Heath, Earl of Ravensdale, wants no part of the farm he won at the gaming tables. He plans to sell the detestable place and evict the five women who call it home right away. It was not his intention to accept the lovely Brooke’s challenge. But he’s dismayed to realize that for some reason, denying her just isn’t within his power…
Is happily ever after a possibility for a pair of opposites who met under the worst possible circumstances? This desperate spinster and angry earl are about to find out…
This book may contain adult content and language.
2016 RONE Nominee
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“Readers will find themselves enraptured …A truly masterfully-plotted story unfolds into a delightful romance.” ★★★★★ ~InD’Tale Magazine – Crown of Excellence
“If you are a fan of… Regency romances this is definitely a must-read.” ★★★★★ ~Night Owl Reviews Top Pick
“A snort and cry-worthy romance of hilariousness.” ★★★★★ ~Flame Resistant Undies Romance Reviews
“Read it! Read it! Read it! If you enjoy romances at all, this is a must read novel.” ★★★★★ ~Pure Jonel
“Witty, passionate and a treasure to read.” ★★★★★ ~My Book Addiction Reviews
“Such a fascinating page turner from page one through to the last…This author has a permanent place on my reread keeper shelf.” ★★★★★ ~Rhonda K.
“Suffice to say that readers are going to fall in love with this series.The characters are written perfectly.” ★★★★★ ~Connie Fischer
“I absolutely LOVED this book!!! Collette Cameron has the unique ability to put you in the characters shoes.” ★★★★★ ~Dee Foster
“5+ first book in a new series. Collette has the unique ability of writing laugh out loud humor and great secondary characters on her books.” ★★★★★ ~Debbie Lou M
“Regency romance packed with captivating punch and witty dialogue!” ★★★★★ ~Katherine Bone
“Collette Cameron’s writing is out of this world. She draws the reader in from the first few sentences and captures their interest and attention all the way through to the last word.” ★★★★★ ~Choir Lady
“I was so engrossed that I didn’t want the story to end.” ★★★★★ ~Chatty
Chapter One Excerpt
Near Acton, Cheshire, England
Early April 1822
Was I born under an evil star or cursed from my first breath?
Brooke Culpepper suppressed the urge to shake her fist at the heavens and berate The Almighty aloud. The devil boasted better luck than she. My God, now two more cows struggled to regain their strength?
She slid Richard Mabry, Esherton Green’s steward-turned-overseer, a worried glance from beneath her lashes as she chewed her lower lip and paced before the unsatisfactory fire in the study’s hearth. The soothing aroma of wood smoke, combined with linseed oil, old leather, and the faintest trace of Papa’s pipe tobacco, bathed the room. The scents reminded her of happier times but did little to calm her frayed nerves.
Sensible gray woolen skirts swishing about her ankles, she whirled to make the return trip across the once-bright green and gold Axminster carpet, now so threadbare, the oak floor peeked through in numerous places. Her scuffed half-boots fared little better, and she hid a wince when the scrap of leather she’d used to cover the hole in her left sole this morning slipped loose again.
From his comfortable spot in a worn and faded wingback chair, Freddy, her aged Welsh corgi, observed her progress with soulful brown eyes, his muzzle propped on stubby paws. Two ancient tabbies lay curled so tightly together on the cracked leather sofa that determining where one ended and the other began was difficult.
What was she to do? Brooke clamped her lip harder and winced.
Should she venture to the barn to see the cows herself?
What good would that do? She knew little of doctoring cattle and so left the animals’ care in Mr. Mabry’s capable hands. Her strength lay in the financial administration of the dairy farm and her ability to stretch a shilling as thin as gossamer.
She cast a glance at the bay window and, despite the fire, rubbed her arms against the chill creeping along her spine. A frenzied wind whipped the lilac branches and scraped the rain-splattered panes. The tempest threatening since dawn had finally unleashed its full fury, and the fierce winds battering the house gave the day a peculiar, eerie feeling—as if portending something ominous.
At least Mabry and the other hands had managed to get the cattle tucked away before the gale hit. The herd of fifty—no, sixty, counting the newborn calves—chewed their cud and weathered the storm inside the old, but sturdy, barns.
As she peered through the blurry pane, a shingle ripped loose from the farthest outbuilding—a retired stone dovecote. After the wind tossed the slat around for a few moments, the wood twirled to the ground, where it flipped end over end before wedging beneath a gangly shrub. Two more shingles hurled to the earth, this time from one of the barns.
Flimflam and goose-butt feathers.
Brooke tamped down a heavy sigh. Each structure on the estate, including the house, needed some sort of repair or replacement: roofs, shutters, stalls, floors, stairs, doors, siding…dozens of items required fixing, and she could seldom muster the funds to go about it properly.
“Another pair of cows struggling, you say, Mr. Mabry?”
Concern etched on his weathered features, Mabry wiped rain droplets from his face as water pooled at his muddy feet.
“Yes, Miss Brooke. The four calves born this mornin’ fare well, but two of the cows, one a first-calf heifer, aren’t standin’ yet. And there’s one weak from birthin’ her calf yesterday.” His troubled gaze strayed to the window. “Two more ladies are in labor. I best return to the barn. They seemed fine when I left, but I’d as soon be nearby.”
Brooke nodded once. “Yes, we mustn’t take any chances.”
The herd had already been reduced to a minimum by disease and sales to make ends meet. She needed every shilling the cows’ milk brought. Losing another, let alone two or three good breeders…
No, I won’t think of it.
She stopped pacing and forced a cheerful smile. Nonetheless, from the skeptical look Mabry speedily masked, his thoughts ran parallel to hers—one reason she put her trust in the man. Honest and intelligent, he’d worked alongside her to restore the beleaguered herd and farm after Papa died. Their existence, their livelihood, everyone at Esherton’s future depended on the estate flourishing once more.
“It’s only been a few hours.” Almost nine, truth to tell. Brooke scratched her temple. “Perhaps the ladies need a little more time to recover.” If they recovered. “The calves are strong, aren’t they?” Please, God, they must be. She held her breath, anticipating Mabry’s response.
His countenance lightened and the merry sparkle returned to his eyes. “Aye, the mites are fine. Feedin’ like they’re hollow to their wee hooves.”
Tension lessoned its ruthless grip, and hope peeked from beneath her vast mound of worries.
Six calves had been guaranteed in trade to her neighbor and fellow dairy farmer, Silas Huffington, for the grain and medicines he’d provided to see Esherton Green’s herd through last winter. Brooke didn’t have the means to pay him if the calves didn’t survive—though the old reprobate had hinted he’d make her a deal of a much less respectable nature if she ran short of cattle with which to barter. Each pence she’d stashed away—groat by miserable groat, these past four years—lay in the hidden drawer of Papa’s desk and must go to purchase a bull.
Wisdom had decreed replacing Old Buford two years ago but, short on funds, she’d waited until it was too late. His heart had stopped while he performed the duties expected of a breeding bull. Not the worst way to cock up one’s toes…er, hooves, but she’d counted on him siring at least two-score calves this season and wagered everything on the calving this year and next. The poor brute had expired before he’d completed the job.
Her thoughts careened around inside her skull. Without a bull, she would lose everything.
My home, care of my sister and cousins, my reasons for existing.
She squared her shoulders, resolution strengthening her. She still retained the Culpepper sapphire parure set. If all else failed, she would pawn the jewelry. She’d planned on using the money from the gems’ sale to bestow small marriage settlements on the girls. Still, pawning the set was a price worth paying to keep her family at Esherton Green, even if it meant that any chance of her sister and three cousins securing a decent match would evaporate faster than a dab of milk on a hot cookstove. Good standing and breeding meant little if one’s fortune proved meaner than a churchyard beggar’s.
“How’s the big bull calf that came breech on Sunday?” Brooke tossed the question over her shoulder as she poked the fire and encouraged the blaze to burn hotter. After setting the tool aside, she faced the overseer.
“Greediest of the lot.” Mabry laughed and slapped his thigh. “Quite the appetite he has, and friendly as our Freddy there. Likes his ears scratched too.”
Brooke chuckled and ran her hand across Freddy’s spine. The dog wiggled in excitement and stuck his rear legs straight out behind him, gazing at her in adoration. In his youth, he’d been an excellent cattle herder. Now he’d gone fat and arthritic, his sweet face gray to his eyebrows. On occasion, he still dashed after the cattle, the instinctive drive to herd deep in the marrow of his bones.
Another shudder shook her. Why was she so blasted cold today? She relented and placed a good-sized log atop the others. The feeble flames hissed and spat before greedily engulfing the new addition. Lord, she prayed she wasn’t ailing. She simply couldn’t afford to become ill.
A scratching at the door barely preceded the entrance of Duffen bearing a tea service. “Gotten to where a man cannot find a quiet corner to shut his eyes for a blink or two anymore.”
Shuffling into the room, he yawned and revealed how few teeth remained in his mouth. One sock sagged around his ankle, his grizzled hair poked every which way, and his shirttail hung askew. Typical Duffen.
“Devil’s day, it is.” He scowled in the window’s direction, his mouth pressed into a grim line. “Mark my words, trouble’s afoot.”
Not quite a butler, but certainly more than a simple retainer, the man, now hunched from age, had been a fixture at Esherton Green Brooke’s entire life. He loved the place as much as, if not more than, she, and she couldn’t afford to hire a servant to replace him. A light purse had forced Brooke to let the household staff go when Papa died. The cook, Mrs. Jennings, Duffen, and Flora, a maid-of-all-work, had stayed on. However, they received no salaries—only room and board.
The income from the dairy scarcely permitted Brooke to retain a few milkmaids and stable hands, yet not once had she heard a whispered complaint from anyone.
Everybody, including Brooke, her sister, Brette, and their cousins—Blythe, and the twins, Blaike and Blaire—did their part to keep the farm operating at a profit. A meager profit, particularly as, for the past five years, Esherton Green’s legal heir, Sheridan Gainsborough, had received half the proceeds. In return, he permitted Brooke and the girls to reside there. He’d also been appointed their guardian. But, from his silence and failure to visit the farm, he seemed perfectly content to let her carry on as provider and caretaker.
“Ridiculous law. Only the next male in line can inherit,” she muttered.
Especially when he proved a disinterested bore. Papa had thought so too, but the choice hadn’t been his to make. If only she could keep the funds she sent to Sheridan each quarter, Brooke could make something of Esherton and secure her sister and cousins’ futures too.
If wishes were gold pieces, I’d be rich indeed.
Brooke sneezed then sneezed again. Dash it all. A cold?
The fresh log snapped loudly, and Brooke started. The blaze’s heat had failed to warm her opinion of her second cousin. She hadn’t met him and lacked a personal notion of his character, but Papa had hinted that Sheridan was a scallywag and possessed unsavory habits.
A greedy sot, too.
The one time her quarterly remittance had been late, because Brooke had taken a tumble and broken her arm, he’d written a disagreeable letter demanding his money.
His money, indeed.
Sheridan had threatened to sell Esherton Green’s acreage and turn her and the foursome onto the street if she ever delayed payment again.
A ruckus beyond the entrance announced the girls’ arrival. Laughing and chatting, the blond quartet billowed into the room. Their gowns, several seasons out of fashion, in no way detracted from their charm, and pride swelled in Brooke’s heart. Lovely, both in countenance and disposition, and the dears worked hard too.
“Duffen says we’re to have tea in here today.” Attired in a Pomona green gown too short for her tall frame, Blaike plopped on to the sofa. Her twin, Blaire, wearing a similar dress in dark rose and equally inadequate in length, flopped beside her.
Each girl scooped a drowsy cat into her lap. The cats’ wiry whiskers twitched, and they blinked their sleepy amber eyes a few times before closing them once more as the low rumble of contented purrs filled the room.
“Yes, I didn’t think we needed to light a fire in the drawing room when this one will suffice.” As things stood, too little coal and seasoned firewood remained to see them comfortably until summer.
Brette sailed across the study, her slate-blue gingham dress the only one of the quartet’s fashionably long enough. Repeated laundering had turned the garment a peculiar greenish color, much like tarnished copper. She looped her arm through Brooke’s.
“Look, dearest.” Brette pointed to the tray. “I splurged and made a half-batch of shortbread biscuits. It’s been so long since we’ve indulged, and today is your birthday. To celebrate, I insisted on fresh tea leaves as well.”
Brooke would have preferred to ignore the day.
Three and twenty.
On the shelf. Past her prime. Long in the tooth. Spinster. Old maid.
She’d relinquished her one chance at love. In order to nurse her ailing father and assume the care of her young sister and three orphaned cousins, she’d refused Humphrey Benbridge’s proposal. She couldn’t have put her happiness before their welfare and deserted them when they needed her most. Who would’ve cared for them if she hadn’t?
Mr. Benbridge controlled the purse strings, and Humphrey had neither offered nor been in a position to take on their care. Devastated, or so he’d claimed, he’d departed to the continent five years ago.
She’d not seen him since.
Nonetheless, his sister, Josephina, remained a friend and occasionally remarked on Humphrey’s travels abroad. Burying the pieces of her broken heart beneath hard work and devotion to her family, Brooke had rolled up her sleeves and plunged into her forced role as breadwinner, determined that sacrificing her love not be in vain.
Yes, it grieved her that she wouldn’t experience a man’s passion or bear children, but to wallow in doldrums was a waste of energy and emotion. Instead, she focused on building a future for her sister and cousins—so they might have what she never would—and allowed her dreams to fade into obscurity.
“Happy birthday.” Brette squeezed her hand.
Brooke offered her sister a rueful half-smile. “Ah, I’d hoped you’d forgotten.”
“Don’t be silly, Brooke. We couldn’t forget your special day.” Twenty-year-old Blythe—standing with her hands behind her—grinned and pulled a small, neatly-wrapped gift tied with a cheerful yellow ribbon from behind her. Sweet dear. She’d used the trimming from her gown to adorn the package.
“Hmph. Need seedcake an’ champagne to celebrate a birthday properly.” The contents of the tray rattled and clanked when Duffen scuffed his way to the table between the sofa and chairs. After depositing the tea service, he lifted a letter from the surface. Tea dripped from one stained corner. “This arrived for you yesterday, Miss Brooke. I forgot where I’d put it until just now.”
If I can read it with the ink running to London and back.
He shook the letter, oblivious to the tawny droplets spraying every which way.
Mabry raised a bushy gray eyebrow, and the twins hid giggles by concealing their faces in the cat’s striped coats.
Brette set about pouring the tea, although her lips twitched suspiciously.
Freddy sat on his haunches and barked, his button eyes fixed on the paper, evidently mistaking it for a tasty morsel he would’ve liked to sample. He licked his chops, a testament to his waning eyesight.
“Thank you, Duffen.” Brooke took the letter by one soggy corner. Holding it gingerly, she flipped it over. No return address.
“Aren’t you going to read it?” Blythe set the gift on the table before settling on the sofa and smoothing her skirt. They didn’t get a whole lot of post at Esherton. Truth be known, this was the first letter in months. Blythe’s gaze roved to the other girls and the equally eager expressions on their faces. “We’re on pins and needles,” she quipped, fluttering her hands and winking.
Brooke smiled and cracked the brownish wax seal with her fingernail. Their lives had become rather monotonous, so much so that a simple, soggy, correspondence sent the girls into a dither of anticipation.
My Dearest Cousin…
Brooke glanced up. “It’s from Sheridan.