Excerpt: Attracted To The Earl
Book 3: Imperfect Lords
Argyle House, Cambridge—August 1817
Guy’s late father had gone to great lengths to ensure no one knew the Earl of Argyle had an idiot son. Guy had never been sent away to school. The tutor who was employed for the boys had died not long after Reginald had been sent to Eton. Guy had run away and joined the army before he’d reached fifteen. He’d hidden his background, enlisting as a simple foot soldier. It was only when his father died that Reginald found him and had bought him an officer’s commission.
His cousin, Patrick must know something though, or else he would not be taking such an interest in Guy’s affairs.
He had wanted to tell Patrick that if only he were patient the estate and title would likely come to him anyway—or his children. How could Guy, when he kept such a secret, ever marry? What woman would want a man who could not read? Who was an idiot? A man who wouldn’t be able to read the marriage register?
“Do you think Miss Abigail Pinehurst will become a problem when Patrick arrives?” How did Kit read his mind like that?
“I doubt it. This visit was arranged before Reginald died. Even Patrick could not have foreseen his death. We don’t really know what Patrick is hoping to accomplish on his visit. If we work together—”
“Even if he does learn that you cannot read, it does not make you unfit.”
“He would likely have a case to be made trustee though. If I cannot read I am at risk of being cheated. But I don’t trust Patrick. Why this sudden interest in our family estate?”
“If rumors are to be believed he’s after the money and security. Patrick likes to live way above his means. He’s always been envious of Reginald and your family holding the purse strings.”
Guy longed to prove that he was capable of overseeing his responsibilities. To show his brute of a father he was wrong about his idiot son. Reginald had always had faith in him and he wanted to do this for his brother too. Plus Kit was adamant that Guy was capable. Hell, he’d commanded his regiment to many glories. But he could not read anything that was put in front of him to sign. He had to trust those who helped him. He trusted Kit with his life. Kit had helped him command his regiment. And now he trusted Kit to read and advise him. He had to rely on his staff being honest, and his friendship with Kit, and that made him and the estate vulnerable. That was the truth.
He poured himself another brandy, the knots in his stomach tightening.
Patrick would have a good case to be made trustee of the estate. Guy was vulnerable to fraud and deception.
Guy drank from his glass, the brandy burning his throat. “I shall just have to prove to Patrick that I’m capable. I have spent the past weeks memorizing all the accounts as far back as ten years. We have worked out our signals to provide information as to what Patrick will be looking at, and we will ensure I am never alone in the study or library with him.”
“Or with Miss Pinehurst. For all we know, her visit could be to spy on us.”
“You think Patrick would be clever enough to recruit our visitor?”
“You taught me to never underestimate the enemy. It has kept us alive. Why the rush to get here in the rain?” Kit refilled his glass. “Patrick could have approached Lady Calthorpe. He could be paying our Miss Pinehurst, the beautiful Miss Pinehurst, a large sum of money.” At Guy’s look of disbelief he added, “You know I’m right. What woman as beautiful as Miss Pinehurst chooses to remain unmarried at her age? She must be close to our age, perhaps not quite thirty. She could easily marry a man who is very comfortably off. We should investigate any connection.”
Guy sat quietly sipping his brandy and thinking on Kit’s words. True. Any man would be proud to call a woman as stunning as Miss Pinehurst his wife. Finally he spoke. “You are right. We cannot trust our visitor with family secrets.”
Kit clapped his hands together. “I think I should spend some time with Miss Pinehurst. You know the saying, keep your friends close but your enemies closer.”
Guy laughed. “Oh, what hardship that will be for you, spending time with the beautiful Miss Pinehurst. Do try to remember she is a guest in my house.”
“You don’t mind, do you?” Kit asked seriously.
“Of course not. It would not be appropriate for me to dally with such a woman. As a respectable woman she would expect and deserve marriage, and she is too lowly for that to be a serious option for me. For you, however . . .” Immediately he wanted to take his words back, even though he knew they expressed the honorable course of action. The idea of dallying with the tantalizing Miss Pinehurst inflamed his blood. “Besides, it would be safer for me to spend as little time possible with our guest until we have ascertained any connection to Patrick.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Kit said with a wide smile. He was silent for a few moments before adding, “Perhaps it is time for both of us to marry. As your mother keeps stressing, if something happens to you, the title and estate goes to . . . Bloody hell, it goes to Patrick. You don’t think he would . . .”
“I would not put it past him, but they told us Reginald died from a burst appendix. I doubt Patrick had a hand in that.”
“He might find it a convenient option now though. If you die with no issue Patrick gets the title and the estate. You must be on your guard.” Kit’s concern was palpable. “I didn’t save you on the battlefield for you to die by your cousin’s hand.”
“I am fully aware of what my cousin is capable of. In fact, I’m hoping killing me is a conclusion he comes to, and then I shall set a trap for him. I am not a man to threaten. I’ve fought back all my life and a man like Patrick is not going to best me.”
Kit rose and moved toward the door. “Well, I’m going to try and best you in one more game of billiards tonight. Are you coming?”
“You cannot leave it at a draw, can you?” he said, shaking his head. Guy rose to follow his friend.
Guy lost the game—but then, his mind was filled with the challenge the weeks ahead would bring. Kit was right that he would have to be on his guard. He also thought about the sudden tempting guest sleeping upstairs, and while her arrival was prearranged by his brother, he did not like coincidences.
He couldn’t risk the truth coming out. Look what his father had tried to do to him. What would those who didn’t know him do? Would they throw him in an asylum? All his life that threat had hung over his head. Sometimes he still woke in a cold sweat, dreaming he’d been locked away.
He would speak to his mother in the morning and learn all he could about Miss Pinehurst. At least when she was outside hunting for the orchid, she would be out of the way and not a threat.
As he climbed into his cold and lonely bed he tried desperately to believe Miss Pinehurst would not be a threat of another kind. That she was attractive—no, gorgeous—was undeniable. Her looks coupled with the intelligence and humor he saw sparkling in her green eyes drew him in. If he were still the second son, the idiot son, he might have pursued a woman such as her. Mature, confident in her own skin—she’d not been fazed at dining with an earl in a borrowed gown unlike any she’d probably worn before.
He began to fantasize what she would look like under that gown, when he heard a dull crash. He looked at the clock on the mantel but couldn’t make out the time in the firelight. All the servants should be abed. He rose, slipped on a robe, and opened his door.
He entered the hallway and stood listening. He couldn’t hear anything further and was just about to turn back to his room when a glimpse of a candle flicker a floor below caught his eye.
He began to walk down the stairs, leaning over the bannister to follow the light, and a faint aroma of rose water hit him. He recognized the scent. The person was heading toward his study—Abigail Pinehurst was heading toward his study. He sped up, closing the gap as he all but slid silently down the bannister.
He saw Miss Pinehurst walking along the hall; she was nearly at his study. She turned her head to look at the door but kept walking. So not spying? She kept going and he suddenly realized she was heading toward the library. His rapidly beating heart began to slow to normal. He was being ridiculous. He supposed she couldn’t sleep, although she had told them earlier she was tired?
He kept moving and when he reached the open library door he stood watching her.
Abigail took a few short breaths to calm her screaming nerves. That had been close. His lordship was following her. She’d almost been caught trying to enter his study. If she had not heard the swish of his robe and briefly glanced behind her she would have stopped and gone into his study. Luckily, she’d decided to keep walking and feign sleepwalking if necessary, when, thank the Lord, she’d spied the library.
She moved around the shelves now, holding up her candle, pretending to look at the books, all the while conscious he was standing in the shadows of the doorway. She was, for all purposes, trapped. The usual ice cold dread at being vulnerable in a man’s presence filled her.
Pretending a very powerful man was not standing watching her as if she were a common criminal, which is what she did feel like, made her shake. She continued to search the shelves as she held the candle up to the book covers, desperately looking for a book he would believe she would want to read to help her sleep. Finally she spied Moll Flanders, a book she’d loved to read to remind her what happened to fallen women, and how lucky she was to have built the life she had. She pulled it from the shelf and then she gave a yawn she didn’t really even have to pretend. She was literally dead on her feet, but the sooner she found out whatever secret Patrick wanted to uncover, the sooner she and Dora would be forgotten and she could concentrate on the orchid.
Hence why she’d decided to explore tonight before Dora and Molly arrived, and they asked her questions she did not wish to answer. Why couldn’t Argyle be asleep? She’d heard his door close over twenty minutes ago, and she couldn’t wait any longer before slipping out. She would’ve fallen asleep if she had not gone now. However, it would appear his lordship wasn’t tired this evening.
She pretended to have her nose in the book as she slowly walked toward the door to the library, where he stood waiting for her. She hoped she was a passable actress.
When he made his presence known she gave a strangled cry and dropped the book. They both bent to retrieve it, banging heads, and she gave a moan this time. To stop herself from falling, her hand went out and connected with a heated expanse of bare flesh and she quickly withdrew her tingling hand. He was naked beneath the robe and fear gripped her harder. Why was he naked?
“I’m so sorry, my lord. You scared me. I did not see you there.” How many Hail Marys would she be forced to say by the end of her stay here?
He merely rubbed his head with a forced laugh and handed the book back to her. He didn’t even look at the cover. She pulled the book in front of her and pondered her options. Lord Argyle stood blocking the doorway. Could she slip past him? Would he let her? She held the candle close. She could always burn him if he tried to . . .
“Rather late to be wondering the halls,” he said, his tone bland. Was he angry or not?
Her candle illuminated his lack of appropriate attire. His bare feet were visible if she looked down; but if she looked up, a tantalizing portion of his chest was on display. She focused on his handsome face instead, although that probably wasn’t any safer. All of him made her body react in a primal feminine way.
Had he followed her on purpose? She grudgingly thought that perhaps the earl did not like guests roaming his house at night.
She took a step back, understanding she was vulnerable here. She was in a strange house with a man she really knew nothing about. What kind of man was he?
Be brave. “I hope you don’t mind me borrowing a book to read. I’m so excited at the thought of the orchid hunt tomorrow I could not get my mind to sleep even though I’m dead tired.”
“There are books in your room you could have read.”
True. He was correct. What to say? She held up the book for him to see. “But none as stirring as this story.”
His face remained blank.
“You are not a fan of Daniel Defoe’s work?” she asked.
A look of relief passed over his features. “As a boy I found his adventures of Robinson Crusoe thrilling—but then, I was too young to understand the hardships.”
She showed him the cover again. “Not Robinson Crusoe, this is Moll Flanders’s story.”
His smile died. “Oh, I didn’t see the cover properly in the candle light.”
“Have you read this, or only Robinson Crusoe?”
He ran a hand through his hair, eyeing her for a moment before stepping away from the door. “I best not keep you up any longer,” and he indicated with a sweep of his arm that she should precede him from the room. She hesitated, still concerned at allowing herself to get within his grasp.
As if sensing her reluctance, he walked backwards into the hall and put his hands behind his back. She moved her candle so it was in front of her, ready to burn him if he tried anything, but he simply waited until she passed him and made her way back up the stairs toward her room.
She tried not to think of him silently walking behind her. She wondered what he was thinking. Had she raised any suspicion? She hoped not or else he would be forever watching her. How would she find out anything . . . how would she keep herself and Dora safe from Patrick . . .
She noted he had stopped behind her. She glanced over her shoulder as she continued up the stairs.
“I have some papers to go over in my study. I shall see you on the morrow. Once your sister and companion have arrived, I will accompany you into Brentwood Forest, as I know it very well. It is easy to get lost. I don’t think it’s a good idea to go into the woods on your own, so I shall ensure a groom is with you at all times.”
“Thank you. That would be most appreciated. I’m hoping that it won’t take me too long to find the plant. Then of course I have to hope it flowers. Then draw it.”
He studied her for a moment. “You really are very excited about this orchid. Why is that? Help me understand.”
She did not have to pretend where the orchid was concerned but her face flushed at having to admit her lowly situation. “To be the first illustrator to find and draw the Ghost Orchid will mean my name will be known throughout England and perhaps farther afield even. It will make Lady Calthorpe very happy and will likely secure my future position. Or I may get a better offer from another benefactor.”
“I beg your pardon for the insensitive question, but a woman such as you, with your beauty and intelligence, would make a man a very suitable wife. I’m sure that would offer you the best security.”
The idea had entered her mind on many occasions, and she’d almost married once but her fiancé had died from lockjaw, and then there was Dora. “Your opinion of my intelligence will likely be changed when I say I would prefer to manage on my own unless I find a man I can admire and who stirs my heart.”
Softly he uttered, “It does not change my opinion of your intelligence. It merely makes me admire you more. Most people look for the easiest option in life.”
She looked away from his heated gaze. “The easiest options often do not make us happy.”
“Very true. I hope the estate can deliver all you require.”
With that he turned and entered his study, closing the door softly behind him.
A yawn escaped, or maybe it was simply the breath she had been holding tight in her chest. The earl was not at all as she’d thought. She’d seen the look of longing in his eyes when she’d mentioned “stirs my heart.” He was a gentle soul with sad eyes. She wondered if the war still haunted him—silly, how could it not?
She liked him and that was dangerous.
Walking back to her room she knew she’d had a lucky escape tonight. She shuddered to think what would happen to her and Dora if she had been caught. If her reputation became tarnished, who would employ her? She could not let herself feel sorry for this man.