I am so excited to get to share this bonus material with you all! I originally wrote this as a preorder incentive, but now I'd love to give everyone a chance to read it. If you haven't read Otherwise Engaged yet, this scene is from the first two chapters of that story, so there aren't major spoilers (except for Rebecca and Nicholas's meet cute).
Otherwise Engaged - Bonus Scene from Nicholas's POV
Of the many things that could be depended upon to drive a man mad, a sister certainly topped the list.
I blew out a breath and reined in my mount as I searched the unfamiliar landscape. The estate of Linwood Hall—our rented house—was not particularly vast, and yet Olivia had vanished as quickly as a sloop in a deep fog. My eyes narrowed at the thicket of trees that marked the edge of the lake. I’d told her not to go near the water when she’d asked to go for a walk. Likely she’d taken that as an invitation rather than a warning, and I hadn’t any idea if she could swim.
I turned my horse toward the lake, urging him into a canter across the swaying summer grass. In truth, I didn’t know much at all about Olivia, tight-lipped as she was, even though she’d been in my care for two months now. I knew she was eleven years old, that she frowned more than any other expression, and that the only thing she disliked more than me was cold pea soup.
Pulling my horse to a walk as we approached the trees surrounding the lake, I looked for any sign of my half-sister—a flash of fair curls or her white dress. I had thought to assign a maid to walk with her, but Olivia insisted, of course, that she could go alone. And besides that, Linwood Hall was still adjusting to once again being occupied. The maids had their hands full as it was, dusting and cleaning, while I… well, I was a naval lieutenant without a ship. Olivia was my responsibility now, and somehow she managed to make twice the trouble of any normal eleven year old girl. Not that I knew a great many girls—normal or otherwise—but surely they weren’t all so taxing as Olivia.
The summer sun pressed down on me, and I removed my hat to swipe at my brow. For a moment, I closed my eyes, trying to remember the feel of a cool sea breeze against my face, the shouts of a crew at work, the rise of the Rachel’s deck as we crested a wave.
A scream broke through my reverie and my eyes flew open. I would know that sound anywhere—Olivia’s nightly terrors had made certain of that. But she could not be dreaming of her mother now.
I kicked my horse and he surged forward, trees thickening around us as we darted into the woods. Another scream, and my stomach twisted into a knot that would have impressed even the Rachel’s scrutinizing bosun.
We burst through the last thicket of undergrowth. The lake spread before us, the rocky shore and blue-green water. On the opposite shore, a golden horse pawed the ground. But my eyes riveted on the splashing and shouting a few yards into the water.
Olivia was in the lake.
I cursed, pushing my horse around the curve of the lake, treacherous rocks skittering beneath my mount’s hooves. What had I been thinking, letting her come alone?
My blood pumped hot in my veins, as if I stood on the gun deck facing down a broadside from a French corsair. Nothing but battle had ever caused such dread to claim my lungs. Time sped faster than a gull on the wind, and every second that kept me from diving into the water felt an eternity.
I kept my eyes on the commotion in the water even as my vision bounced with my horse’s gait. When we finally reached the edge of the water, I leaped from my mount and nearly crashed into the shallows, boots slipping over the mossy rocks.
And then I came to stumbling halt. Olivia was not alone in the water.
A woman—a young woman—was holding Olivia, knee deep in water as she lurched toward the shore. Olivia was shaking, her face pressed into the woman’s shoulder, but she was there. She was alive.
“Olivia!” Her name rasped from my throat, a shout and a whisper all at once.
The woman started—she hadn’t seen me. She went down on one knee, nearly going under again, but she held Olivia tightly as the girl gave a whimper. I sloshed to them, my gaze fixed on Olivia’s closed eyes and trembling shoulders. I took her easily into my arms—she was a tiny thing, even if she was eleven—and the cold lake water seeped through my waistcoat and shirt. It said something for how frightened she was that she did not protest or push me away.
Which frightened me even more.
“What happened?” I demanded. But both Olivia and the woman were gasping for air, unable to speak. I wanted nothing more than to whisk Olivia from the water and inspect her for injuries, but the woman was crouched in the shallows, slipping over the silt and rocks. I freed a hand and offered it to her, which she took after a short hesitation. I pulled her upward until she found her footing and then she followed as I waded to the edge of the water, holding Olivia tightly against my chest. She shook violently, her eyes closed, wet hair splayed across her face.
I set her on a wide rock and immediately shrugged off my jacket, wrapping it around her as I rubbed her shoulders. She opened her eyes and stared up at me, her chest heaving as she tried to catch her breath. I examined her quickly—no blood, no apparent broken bones. I closed my eyes. Safe, and well enough.
“Are you all right?” I asked her, my voice barely audible. She gave the tiniest of nods, her eyes now fixed down on the rocks beneath her feet. That was likely the most answer I would get from her. So I turned to the young woman who had collapsed on a mossy log a few feet away, only to find she was already staring at us.
“What happened?” I repeated my question from earlier.
Her eyes narrowed, and I drew in a long breath. I’d spoken too loudly, too gruffly. I hadn’t meant to, but my chest felt like it had been crushed beneath an anchor. Olivia was here before me, safe, and yet I could not stop imagining the what ifs.
“I could venture a guess,” the woman said sharply as she scrutinized the lake behind me, her lips pursed. “Your daughter fancied a climb, and the tree branch went too far over the lake.”
“She’s not my daughter,” I said even as I turned to face the lake. A jagged branch hung above the surface of the lake, directly above where a large, leafy bough floated in the water. My lips tightened. “Olivia,” I very nearly growled.
“You only said not to go in the lake.” Olivia finally spoke, and of course it was in that high, indignant tone she used when she knew she was in trouble but refused to admit she had done any wrong. Meaning, it was the way she always spoke.
“Yet, that is exactly where you ended up.” I had told her. I had told her to be careful, and here she had gone and nearly drowned because of her foolishness. I exhaled sharply and pushed myself to my feet, stalking away a few paces with my hands at my waist. I wanted to shout, to reprimand, to kick a rock into the lake. How did anyone do this, raise a child? And why in the devil had my step-mother named me Olivia’s guardian?
I started and turned as the young lady stood, her arms crossed over her shivering body. Her defiant blue eyes met mine, refusing to look away as her curls dripped onto her shoulders. I could not stop my gaze from running over the length of her, her slim figure revealed by her soaked riding habit.
“But delightful as it has been to make your acquaintance,” she went on, “I’m afraid I will be going now. I wasn’t anticipating a swim today.”
I stared at her. What was wrong with me? This young woman—whoever she was—had saved Olivia from drowning, and all I could do was muse about my shortcomings as a guardian instead of thanking her.
“Curse it.” I took a step toward her. “I am sorry. I am being terribly rude. Please forgive me, Miss . . . ?”
She hesitated. “Rowley,” she finally said.
Her name struck a memory in me. I squinted at her. “Rowley, you say? Related to a Mr. William Rowley?” I’d met the man a few days past when he’d introduced himself in town. He owned Havenfield, the estate bordering Linwood Hall’s lands.
“Yes. William is my brother.” She shifted her weight.
I could see the resemblance now. Golden brown hair, wide eyes, and a scattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks.
“And you are?” she pressed.
“Avery,” I said. “Nicholas Avery. This is my sister, Olivia Avery.” I waved in Olivia’s general direction, still not entirely sure I could keep myself from shouting at her.
“Half-sister,” Olivia muttered behind me. She always liked to clarify that bit, as if she were more embarrassed of me than I was of her. I closed my eyes, saying a prayer for patience that I had very little hope of being answered at the moment.
When I looked again at her, Miss Rowley was eyeing me, her gaze flicking over me from head to boots. From my meeting with her brother, I’d gathered that the Rowley family was both wealthy and influential. No doubt meeting a strange man in the woods while soaking wet was far from how she generally met new neighbors.
She raised her chin. “Am I correct in my assumption that you are rather new to the neighborhood, Mr. Avery?”
“Lieutenant,” I said without thinking.
I cleared my throat. Why had I corrected her? Lieutenant or mister were both appropriate means of addressing a man like me. But the events of the last ten minutes had rattled me. I missed the order and efficiency of the navy—life on land was far too complicated.
“That is, you may call me Lieutenant Avery, as I’m still on half-pay" I spoke quickly, fiddling with the hem of my waistcoat. “And yes, we’ve just arrived in Millbury. I’ve let Linwood Hall for the time being.”
At the mention of the estate, Miss Rowley’s eyes narrowed, her lips pinching. Was she so disappointed already in us as neighbors?
“Will your sister often be wandering without proper supervision?” she asked, her voice curt. “I cannot be rescuing her every time I ride.”
My shoulders tightened. I’d already apologized, hadn’t I? “Olivia is eleven years old,” I said. “She hardly needs constant observation.”
“I would say she very plainly needs supervision,” Miss Rowley said. “Or have you for- gotten why we are all so wet?”
I bristled. Only minutes before I had been berating myself for letting Olivia go alone, and now to hear this young woman—hardly more than a girl herself—reprimand me for the same thing…
“An accident,” I said, waving off her words. “And in any case, I was following her and was not a minute behind you.”
“You were following me?” Olivia’s voice came from behind me, and I turned as she stood, her face spotted with red.
I clenched my jaw. Why on earth would this surprise her when we both knew she never listened to a word I said? “I wanted to ensure you would obey my instructions, which you obviously did not.”
Olivia glared at me then shrugged off my jacket so that it fell in the mud at her feet. She undoubtedly had planned that. “You are not my father. You are barely my brother.”
Her words hit me with more force than she could have imagined, and my lungs clenched. Although I was aware enough to know that she felt that way, she’d never said so aloud before. And the fact that she was right only made her voice cut deeper into my chest.
She took a step back, her eyes ablaze. “I needn’t obey you.” Then she darted off into the woods without a second glance.
“Olivia!” I shouted after her. “Come back here.”
It was useless, of course. I knew she would not listen, and she knew I could not force her to. Blast it all. If she had been a ship’s boy, I would have--
But she wasn’t. And the discipline of a naval frigate had no bearing here in the countryside of Hertfordshire.
“I do not think she is coming back,” said Miss Rowley’s dry voice.
I turned, staring at the young lady once again. She had an amused gleam to her blue eyes, as if watching Olivia defy me was quite worth the effort of saving her life. And even with her riding habit soaked and her hair a sad mess atop her head, I could not deny she was pretty.
Very pretty, really, with her pert features and slim shoulders. Or perhaps too many voyages at sea had made every female of a decent age and appearance seem more appealing than they actually were. Not that I had even the least intention of courtship or marriage, but one could hardly blame a man for looking.
“Well, this has been just lovely,” she said, pulling at the fabric of her skirts that clung to her admittedly shapely legs. “I do hope we meet again on slightly better terms.”
She stepped back, as if desperate to escape my company. But then, I had been something of a lout, my anger at Olivia taking control of me.
“Miss Rowley, please wait.” I moved forward and she paused, albeit a bit reluctantly. I rubbed a hand over my face. How did one apologize for everything wrong that I’d done in the last ten minutes? “I am sorry for all that happened and for the way I acted. I hope you will forgive me.”
Miss Rowley considered that for a moment, those shrewd eyes not leaving mine. Then her face softened. She exhaled and brushed back a brown lock of hair, just beginning to dry in the warm air. I knew nothing about this woman, but it seemed she was indeed about to forgive me. There was something about her expression, an openness I saw but rarely in another person.
Then her hand froze on the back of her head, where the rest of her hair hung limply from its pins, bedraggled and decorated with stray leaves. “Dash it all,” she said unexpectedly.
Was she upset her hair was ruined? But then she strode to the edge of the lake and peered into the murky water as though in search of something. I followed. “Did you lose something?”
“My hat,” she said shortly. “I daresay it is at the bottom of the lake by now.”
“Oh.” I grimaced. “I am sorry for that as well. Perhaps you’ll allow me to replace it.”
She pressed her lips together, as if she had not even heard my words. Then her eyes widened and her mouth dropped open, as if in panic. What on earth? But she only desperately dug her hand into her pocket, pulling it out to reveal a clod of white pulp—what I could only assume had been paper before her foray into the lake. Miss Rowley’s face was aghast as she stared at her hand, and I let out a sigh.
“Is it too much for me to hope that this wasn’t terribly important to you?” I asked.
She glared at me. “No, of course not. I am mourning the loss of my shopping list.”
If the situation had been slightly less serious, I might have laughed at that. She was quick-witted, that much was clear. But as it was, I forced an expression of regret to my face. “Ah. It was something important.”
“Irreplaceable.” She threw what I assumed were the remains of a letter into the lake and spun, marching across the pebbled shore to where the golden mare waited patiently, chewing on grass. I went after her; I had to do something to repair what had assuredly been the worst first meeting we could have had.
“Please,” I said as she stopped beside her horse, “let me assist you up—”
My voice cut out. The mare’s back was bare, no blanket or saddle, not even reins or a bridle about her head. What— “Do you not have a saddle?” Perhaps it had somehow fallen off in her rescue of Olivia. But that made no sense. The horse had not gone near the water.
Miss Rowley did not move for a long moment, then she cleared her throat. “I do not need a saddle,” she said as though there was nothing odd in the idea of a young lady riding without one. “But thank you all the same.”
She grasped the horse’s mane and stepped back. Was she truly going to mount now, with no saddle or block to stand on?
She certainly made a valiant attempt, but as she began to pull herself up, her horse took a quick step forward. Miss Rowley stumbled back to the grass, steadying herself against the horse’s shoulder.
Now I could not help the smile that claimed my mouth, nor the chuckle that escaped my chest. I coughed as a cover. “Are you certain you do not need help?”
“Quite certain, thank you,” she said tightly, still not facing me. She said something in a low hiss to her horse, and though I could not make out the precise words, I could imagine it was nothing particularly pleasant.
Miss Rowley again took up her mounting position and this time, her leg at least made it over her mare’s back. Unfortunately, the restriction of her wet riding habit did not allow any ease of movement, and she was forced to wriggle herself upright, not at all the dignified mount she had undoubtedly been hoping for. But she only kept her chin raised as she straightened her skirts and sent me a look that dared me to mock her.
Which I never would have done, even though the situation was so absurd there was no possibility of hiding my amusement. I tried nonetheless, crossing my arms and pressing my lips together. I tried to think of what to say—because, really, what did one say at a time like this?—but she spoke before I had the chance.
“Good day, Lieutenant Avery,” she said briskly, then kicked her mount’s flanks, and she bounded away without a backward glance. I took a step after her, shaking my head as I watched her disappear into the trees, her skirts and loose curls flying teasingly behind her. Who was this woman who rode bareback and rescued young girls from drowning? My circle of female acquaintances was admittedly small, but even I knew those were not conventional activities for a Society lady. But then it was quite clear even after our short meeting Miss Rowley was not conventional in any way.
I took one last look around the lake—my eyes searched for a hat in the water, but to no avail—and then I walked back to my horse. Olivia was likely nearly home by now, and as much as I wished to escape on a bruising ride, I had responsibilities. Even if I wasn’t her father, I was her guardian. She needed to learn respect—though how I would manage to teach her that was still a mystery.
Mounting and turning my horse back to Linwood Hall, I allowed myself a glance back in the direction Miss Rowley had ridden. Bareback. Again, my lips turned upward. Apparently I would be surrounded by strong-willed young women here in Millbury.
But even strong-willed women had their weaknesses, and perhaps I’d discovered Miss Rowley’s—it seemed a visit to the milliner’s was in order. Because it was just occurring to me that I’d never actually thanked her for rescuing Olivia, and neither had my weak apology been particularly well-received. I was not so eloquent as to hope I might earn her forgiveness with words alone, but perhaps a new hat might do the trick. Women liked gifts, did they not?
Although, if my first meeting with Miss Rowley was anything to go by, I could not depend on what I thought I knew about women. It was quite clear now that my knowledge was rather lacking in that area.
But something about Miss Rowley’s bright eyes and sharp tongue made me want to change that.
I shook my head and kicked my mount into a gallop. I would replace her hat and express my thanks for her help—my stomach still twisted at the memory of Olivia in Miss Rowley’s arms—but I needn’t further our acquaintance more than that. I hardly wanted any more complications in my life at the moment, not when all I wanted was to return to the sea.
Soon, I told myself. Soon I would find Olivia a governess and I would receive a new assignment. I simply had to bide my time until then and hope that no other obstacle would find their way between me and my goal.
Especially not one so pretty as my confounding new neighbor.
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed this little glimpse into Nicholas's mind. If you haven't read Otherwise Engaged, you can click HERE to learn more about it!
I'm a romance addict, lover of all things historical, and a writer mom who loves her job!
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