Desperately Seeking a Scoundrel (Rescued From Ruin Book 3)

By: Elisa Braden

CHAPTER ONE

“Avoiding the discomforts and indignities of desperation requires cleverness. Sadly, no amount of pleading will increase your allowance of that coveted commodity.” —The Dowager Marchioness of Wallingham to her nephew upon receiving his request for an increase in funds.





August 20, 1817

Keddlescombe, East Devonshire





“He fancies you, Miss Battersby. When do you suppose you might marry?”

Sarah avoided her young student’s gaze, focusing instead on the basket of apples at her feet. Little of the fruit in this tree had yet ripened, but there was enough for today, and that would have to do.

“We are not engaged, Miss Cresswell.”

A leafy branch recoiled and shook as the long-limbed, redheaded Lydia Cresswell plucked another blushing-green apple and plunked it into Sarah’s outstretched hand. The girl was thirteen and positively enraptured by anything to do with courtship and romance, which made her companionship trying. Still, while she was ten years younger than Sarah, she had already sprouted taller by an inch and possessed frightfully long arms, so she had been assigned ladder duty.

“Oh, but Mr. Foote has been saying so.”

Sarah frowned. “To whom?”

“Well, everyone, I suppose. He insists you have accepted him.”

Throat tightening, she glared up at the girl’s narrow back. “You must not fall prey to gossip. Do you recall our recent lesson from Proverbs?”

Lydia sighed loudly and recited, “He that keepeth his mouth keepeth his life.”

Sarah propped her hands on her hips. “Very good. God approves discretion. Let us practice that virtue, shall we?” She considered the basket. “I believe this is sufficient.” Her stifling tone must have penetrated, because the loquacious Lydia glanced over her shoulder and nodded before descending the ladder.

They had managed to procure twelve apples—enough to make the pies Sarah had been promising the girls. Picking up the basket, she worried her lip between her teeth. Flour and sugar remained. For that, they must visit the market in the village square. And for those items and her mother’s tea, she must spend her last few shillings.

She glanced at Lydia, who was liberating loosened leaves from her fiery hair. “Here,” Sarah said, heaving the basket into the girl’s arms. “Carry this back to the school and inform Mrs. Blake she may heat the oven. I shall be along shortly with the remaining ingredients.”

“Oh! Are you certain you do not wish me to come al—”

“Quite certain.” The last thing she needed was for the budding young gossip to observe her haggling with the miller over every ounce of flour. Poverty was humiliating enough. Sarah waved at the road toward the vicarage. “Off with you, now.”

Watching Lydia descend toward the northern end of the long, green valley, Sarah pressed her lips together and fought against the despair that always crouched nearby. She let her eyes drift to her right, where the valley widened before ending at the sea, then left, where St. Catherine’s Church stood in a narrow, emerald juncture. Most mornings, it was surrounded by mist, but by afternoon, one could see it from anywhere in the valley. The Norman-era church with its proud, thirteenth-century stone tower and oversized oak doors was as familiar to her as her own hands. Her father had been the vicar here since before she was born.

On the opposite slope of the valley, halfway up the hill from the church, sat the vicarage—a white, two-story cottage nestled beside a larger, older stone building that had once been part of an abbey, now home to St. Catherine’s Academy for Girls of Impeccable Deportment.

Behind her lay the neighboring valley, where the white, cob-and-thatch cottages of Keddlescombe dotted the lush, green landscape.

She closed her eyes. These twin valleys by the sea cradled her home—the stalwart church that had withstood time and turmoil and Tudor suppression; the cottage where she had been born and reared; the school that gave her both purpose and income; the village where no stranger lived. All of it should bring her comfort. Should.

Her hand covered her mouth, a moment of weakness. No. She would not cede ground. She would fight, as she had for two long years. She would find a way.

Dropping her arms to her sides, she tightened her jaw and patted the pockets of her worn, striped overdress. The quiet jangle of sadly few coins only raised her chin higher. With a determined stride, she took the hill road down to the village.

As she entered the central square, the blacksmith, Mr. Thompson, shouted a greeting. She forced herself to smile and gave him a friendly nod. Glancing around, she noted that the open green at the heart of the village was fair teeming with farmers, fishermen, and their wives. She had hoped to encounter fewer people on this particular day, but now was the thick of harvest time, and such busyness was to be expected. Lowering her eyes and the brim of her straw bonnet to avoid drawing attention, she headed for the miller’s cart, spotting it in its usual location on the east side of the green.

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