Romantic Times Bookclub awards 4 1/2 stars to The Best Intentions. Their review says: "With fresh, crisp characterization and unerring romantic sensibility, Ms. Hern brings to joyous life all the wonder of falling in love in this deceptively simple, impeccably crafted keeper for the heart."
The Romance Reader gives The Best Intentions their highest 5-heart rating. Their review says: "Don't miss The Best Intentions. Candice Hern has crafted a joyous, passionate tale full of life and laughter, one that readers will savor long after the cover is closed."
Rendezvous says: "This adorable romance has the kind of setting that makes the time and place come alive and is a real page turner, full of winning characters, from the sympathetic vicar of the ancient church to the captivating children who look to Hannah for the love they miss. This is one Jane Austen herself would enjoy. Candice Hern once again delivers a sparkling romance."
Under the Covers Book Reviews says: "Ms. Hern has a special knack for creating a marvelous blend on incredibly true-to-life characters; touching scenes and emotion; and subtle humor. The Best Intentions will send Candice Hern to the top of the Regency charts."
The Best Intentions is the second in a pair of books set at English
The Earl of Strickland is aggravated that his sister is coming to visit his estate with two of her husband's cousins in tow a young girl about to make her bow in Society along with her older sister, a widow. Though he is ready to take on a new bride, he resents his sister's matchmaking, particularly as he has decided against the notion of marrying a young girl in her first Season.
Miles stood on the steps of the Tudor porch in the inner courtyard and watched his brother-in-law's elegant carriage make its way through the open archway. Godfrey himself rode close behind on horseback. It was like him, Miles thought, to steer clear of a carriage full of females. Another carriage could be seen coming up the straight gravel path from the gatehouse. Winifred's luggage, no doubt. With two additional ladies along, Miles wondered how many other carriages poor Godfrey had been forced to bring. But there was no time to find out as the first carriage rolled to a halt at the porch steps.
Miles kept his hands clasped tightly behind his back. He experienced an unexpected twinge of nervousness at the prospect of meeting the young woman who had almost certainly been brought to Epping Hall for consideration as his future countess. Though he had every intention of remaining steadfast in his refusal to be a party to his sister's infernal matchmaking and trust to his own inclinations in the matter, he nevertheless harbored a nagging curiosity about the young woman. Had she been encouraged to expect a formal courtship from him? Perhaps even an offer?
The devil take Winifred and her confounded interference.
A footman put down the steps and opened the carriage door. Miles offered a hand to Winifred, who gave him a broad smile as she emerged from the carriage.
"Winifred, my dear, it is good to see you," he said, keeping hold of her hand. Despite his trepidation about this visit, he meant it. He was always glad to see her. "You look wonderful. One would hardly guess you have been traveling for days."
"Your flattery is wasted on me, Miles," she said and offered her cheek for his kiss. "But I have brought along two ladies who may have more appreciation for it." She tilted her head toward the open carriage door.
Miles narrowed his brows in a quick scowl for her eyes only, then turned to hand out the first of the other passengers. His proffered hand was taken by the nearest of the two ladies, who ducked beneath the door and stepped out in a single fluid movement. She was slender and wore a dark green pelisse and matching bonnet. Although he knew little about such things, he felt certain the bonnet, with its brim turned up at the front and a small ostrich feather sweeping down over it, would be considered the height of fashion. Winifred spoke before Miles had time to steady the woman and release her hand.
"Miles, allow me to present to you Godfrey's cousin, Lady Abingdon. Charlotte, my dear, this is my brother, Lord Strickland."
So, this was the chaperone, Miles thought as he released her hand. She looked up at him for the first time briefly before dropping into a curtsey, and it was only due to years—nay, generations—of good breeding that his composure did not slip. This was no pinch-faced, aging duenna. Though clearly not in the first bloom of youth, she was strikingly pretty. Soft auburn curls arranged themselves artfully along the bonnet's upturned brim, and its plume curved against a fair-skinned cheek that could not belong to the fortyish widow Joseph had described. This was a young and beautiful woman.
Collecting himself before he began to gape like a schoolboy, Miles nodded in acknowledgment of her curtsey. "Welcome to Epping Hall, Lady Abingdon. I hope you will enjoy your stay here."
"It is a pleasure to meet you at last, my lord," she said in a voice so soft, it was little more than a whisper, and Miles had to lean forward in order to catch every word. Her gray eyes drew him closer and twinkled with something that eradicated the initial impression of youth and innocence. All at once she was the sophisticated widow, and Joseph's notion of a bit of dalliance seemed not so far-fetched after all. Damn the man for putting such an idea in his head.
"Cousin Winifred has spoken often of you and of Epping Hall," she went on in that maddeningly soft voice, her eyes never leaving his. "My sister and I cannot thank you enough for allowing us to visit."
Ah, yes. The sister. Her charge.
"You are both most welcome," Miles said as he reluctantly turned his attention back to the carriage. The figure inside was busily gathering up what looked to be books and papers strewn about the floor at her feet. "Miss Fairbanks, I believe?" He held out a hand to help her down the steps.
She looked up, but, still enveloped in shadows, Miles could not make out her features. "Oh. Thanks, awfully," she said and thrust a stack of books toward him.
He only just managed to grab them in time before she let go, and the unexpected and unwieldy pile bobbled precariously in his hands for an instant before he was able to get a good grip. The tiniest of gasps, apparently emanating from Lady Abingdon, was followed by the familiar sound of his sister's chuckle.
Curse it all, what was going on here?
Miles lifted an eyebrow and a footman was instantly at his side, retrieving the books and patiently awaiting any other items that might precede the exit of the young lady. In fact, only one more untidy stack of papers and notebooks was forthcoming, this one with a pen box and a small pair of compasses perched on top. The footman took them and stood aside.
Once again, Miles reached out a hand, somewhat more tentatively this time. "Miss Fairbanks?"
A small gloved hand took his. As he gently guided the young woman out of the carriage, he noticed dark smudges on the fingertips of her gloves. Despite his gentle efforts, the girl practically tumbled down the steps. One hand held onto a lopsided straw bonnet, attempting to straighten it as she descended. Her efforts were for naught. The bonnet listed slightly to the left and its bow of wide blue ribbon hung limply beneath her chin.
Miles kept hold of her hand to steady her. She looked up at him with huge, guileless blue eyes. "Oh, dear," she said. "Are you the earl?"
Miles was quite simply dumbstruck. The girl standing before him could not be a day above sixteen. A mass of unruly brown curls spilled out from beneath the skewed bonnet. A sprinkling of freckles danced across a pert nose. But the small, heart-shaped face— very similar though slightly more rounded than that of her sister—was dominated by the enormous blue eyes that stared up at him, awaiting his response.
Good Lord, she was only a child. What could Winifred be thinking, expecting him to pay court to this ... this schoolgirl?
He quickly composed himself and determined not to let his sister out of his sight before having a serious discussion with her.
"Yes, I am afraid I am indeed the earl," he said and offered a smile to the girl, hoping to put her more at ease.
"Miles," Winifred said, "allow me to present to you Miss Fairbanks, Lady Abingdon's sister. Hannah, my dear, meet my brother, Lord Strickland."
"I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Fairbanks," he said. "Welcome to Epping."
"My lord," the girl said and bobbed a creditable curtsey.
What she did next almost knocked him off his pins. While looking him straight in the eye, a huge grin spread across her face, forming two deep dimples in her cheeks. Then she glanced over to her sister, raised her brows, and cocked her head toward him. "Not bad, Lottie," she said.
Another tiny gasp came from the direction of Lady Abingdon.
So, the girl had indeed been apprised of a potential match between them and found herself pleased with the situation.
Winifred chuckled again, and he would like to have throttled her on the spot.
"Oh, dear," Miss Fairbanks muttered. "I'm in for it now, aren't I?" She cast an earnest look at Miles, who was busily planning ways to murder his sister. "I do beg your pardon, my lord. Things just seem to pop out of my mouth before I know it. But you see, we had thought... well, you being an earl and all and already having a family ... we thought... that is, I thought... well, I thought you would be older and not so ... not so ... I thought you would be different, you see. Well, of course Cousin Winifred told Lottie you were handsome, but she's your sister, isn't she, so she would have to say that. And so, we didn't know what you'd be like, did we?"
Miles had no idea how to respond to such a speech. Winifred, however, burst into laughter. What sort of joke was his sister playing? "Hannah, my dear child," she said, "you ought to have listened to me. Though I am loathe to admit it publicly, there is no getting around the fact that Miles is my younger brother, don't you know."
"Oh." Miss Fairbanks smiled again and the dimples reappeared as she returned her attention to Miles. "Well, I am pleased to meet you, my lord. I am truly sorry for having conjured up such unflattering images of you. And I hope that you will not hold it against Lott—"
"I believe you have said quite enough, Hannah," Lady Abingdon said, her voice as soft as before but decidedly firm.
At that moment, Godfrey, bless the man, joined the group and brought an end to this awkward conversation.
"Hullo, Miles," he said and gave his brother-in-law a hearty slap on the back. "How d'you do, old man? How d'you do? Good to see you. Ah, here're the boys."
A third carriage had pulled up, and almost before it came to a full stop, the door was flung open and two small, freckled-faced boys bounded out and ran to their father.
"Slow down, you little wags. Slow down," Godfrey said with a fond smile at his sons. "Come say hello to your uncle Miles. Say hello."
Miles crouched down and beckoned the boys to him. The twins threw themselves against him with their usual exuberance, almost knocking him over. His dignity was no match for youth and enthusiasm. "Hold on, lads," he said, "don't throw me to the ground just yet, if you please. Not in front of the ladies."
"Oh, they won't mind," said young Henry as Miles ruffled his hair. " 'Specially not Hannah. She's a right one, she is."
"Is she now, Charlie?"
"I'm not Charlie," the boy said with a gap-toothed grin, anticipating the who's who game they always played with their doting uncle.
"No, I'm Charlie," the other boy announced.
"So you are," Miles said, ruffling Charlie's tousled hair. "Then you must be Henry," he said to the first boy. "When will I ever learn to tell one from the other? I have it." He reached a hand into his coat pocket. "I shall simply have to draw a large H on your forehead and a large C on yours. Shall I?"
"No, no, no," the boys shrieked and squirmed as Miles pulled a piece of charcoal from his pocket, put there in anticipation of their arrival, and teased them with it.
"Enough, you little demons," Winifred said, pulling the eight-year-olds away from Miles's threatening charcoal. "And you are just as bad, Miles, tormenting them like that. How shall I ever teach them manners with you and Godfrey as models?"
Miles arched a brow at Winifred, and she grinned. They both knew that no one was more conscious of manners and propriety than the Earl of Strickland.
"Miss Barton," Winifred said, waving toward the prim governess, who stood quietly beside the carriage looking the worse for wear. But who wouldn't, after three days confined in a carriage with two rambunctious boys? "Take them away and beat them soundly until they learn to behave like gentlemen," his sister continued. "You know the way to the nursery."
"Yes, my lady," the governess said. After both boys had been hugged and kissed by their mother, giving lie to her harsh words, Miss Barton took them each by the hand and followed a footman into the hall.
"Come up later, Hannah?" one of the twins shouted as he was being led away.
"Try and stop me, Charlie," the girl replied.
"I believe we should all be seeking our rooms," Winifred said. "It has been a long trip."
"Indeed," Miles said. "Mrs. Harvey?"
The housekeeper, who had been standing regally in the doorway, quietly directing Epping footmen, visiting maids, and baggage into the hall, now stepped forward. "Yes, my lord." Nodding to Winifred and the other ladies, she said, "This way, if you please," and led the way into the vestibule, through the Great Hall and up the Grand Staircase.
Miles put a restraining hand on his sister's arm as she approached the stairs. "A word with you please, Winifred."
She turned around and glared at him. "Now?"
She heaved a weary sigh. "All right," she said, "but let us be quick about it. I am anxious to be out of these traveling clothes and am in great need of a restorative cup of tea."
He led her to a corner of the Great Hall where a grouping of carved oak chairs from the seventeenth century stood against a wall. He indicated that she should be seated.
"Good heavens, Miles," she said after settling her self comfortably, "what on earth have I done to bring on that murderous look of yours?"
"You know very well what you have done."
"I am sure I do not. Have we come at an inconvenient time? If so, you had but to tell me, my dear, and we would have postponed the trip. But you know Godfrey. He would steal a march on the masses that will gather in November for the hunts. He will shoot all your grouse if you don't keep a close watch on him."
"That is not the issue, and you know it," Miles said.
Winifred sank back against the chair. "It is his cousins, is it not? You would not have had me bring them."
"I would not have you managing my life for me."
"Oh, bother," she said with a dismissive wave of her hand. "I am not trying to manage anything. It is just that it is high time you thought of marrying again—"
"—and I know you will not make any sort of effort on your own behalf."
"Hmph," he snorted. He was not about to tell her of his abortive efforts on his own behalf last month at Chissingworth.
"I merely brought along a perfectly lovely lady who might, just might, make you a suitable countess. But I am not 'managing' anything. It is up to you to—"
"Winifred!" Miles's voice rose with irritation. "She's just a child!"
"How can you imagine," he said in an exasperated tone, "that I would even entertain the idea of courting a girl who cannot be much above sixteen years old?"
Winifred glared at him. "Miles, you idiot."
"I am sorry, Winifred, but I will not—"
"My dear brother, I am not so stupid as you seem to think, though I must tell you that Hannah is in fact older than she looks. She is nineteen, Miles, soon to be twenty."
He raised his brows in disbelief. "Even so—"
"And poor Charlotte despairs of ever properly firing the girl off," Winifred continued. "She has no polish, as you no doubt observed, and fights every attempt to be made into a lady. I will say, though, that she does clean up rather nicely. Hannah can look quite lovely when she makes an effort."
"Yes, but I will not be the one to—"
"It is just that making the effort doesn't seem to be important to her. Her thoughts are always elsewhere. Thinks of nothing but her old buildings and churches and such. So many stops we had to make along the way! Including that perfectly horrid old tower at Earls Barton. The poor thing has had so few opportunities to be out and about, what with her mother's illness and death and then the year's mourning, that I felt obliged to indulge her a bit. Oh, and I did promise, by the by, that you would show her around the hall. She is quite a keen student of architecture, my dear. Though she is devoted to all things Saxon, I suspect you could pique her interest in Epping. She seemed anxious to hear all about Mr. Jones."
"Yes, of course," Miles said impatiently. "But really, Winifred, she is so young. You cannot truly believe I would have the least interest in courting the girl."
"No, of course not, you ninny. I haven't a clue what is to be done about Hannah. I brought Charlotte for you."
"Yes," Winifred replied, with a look that clearly said she thought him a complete fool. "Lady Abingdon. Surely you noticed her? She's a widow these last two years and more, and has no children of her own, poor dear. But then, Lord Abingdon was quite a bit older. Charlotte's not quite thirty, and she's very beautiful. Silly me, I thought you might suit."
Lady Abingdon? Not the scruffy schoolgirl with the uncontrollable tongue, but the lovely widow of the soft voice and sultry eyes? Winifred thought they might suit, did she?
"Indeed, my dear," he said, "you intrigue me."
"Aha! The beautiful widow intrigues you."
Miles hesitated, pacing in front of Winifred's chair. He had, after all, decided that if he married again, he wanted a more mature woman. Could the stunning Lady Abingdon be the right woman? Would she be able to accept him on his own terms? Would she like his daughters? Would they like her? Could she be content with a home, security, and no more than a general sort of affection? Would she understand that he could not offer love or passion?
Hold on a moment, he thought, and stopped pacing. She was a beautiful woman. And she had given him a look that spoke volumes, or so he believed. Perhaps he was being too hasty—about the passion, anyway.
He turned to face his sister. "Yes," he said. "I am intrigued."
Winifred gave a shriek worthy of her sons, flew out of her chair and threw her arms around her brother. "This is an historic moment, my dear. A day for the annals of Prescott history!"
"Hold on, madam. As always, you jump to conclusions. I said I was intrigued, not that I would marry the woman."
"Oh, that is neither here nor there, and entirely up to you in any case. The really important thing is that this is the first time in memory you have agreed with me on anything of significance."
"Well then," he said with a mock scowl, "I should hate to ruin an unbroken record of contrariness. Perhaps I should rethink the entire matter." His scowl became a teasing grin. "How old did you say Miss Fairbanks is?"
Winifred pulled her reticule from her wrist and rapped him soundly on the head with it.
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