A DOUBLE LIFE
Olivia Walgrave is finished with being a countess. Writing under a pen name, her controversial column for the scandal sheets provides her with some income and far more excitement than managing a country estate. Besides, in the three years since the wars have ended, her dashing husband hasn’t spent one night under their roof. So Olivia has prepared a plan, and an annulment. All she needs is his consent…
Harrison Walgrave, the Earl of Levesford, let his father coerce him into marriage, but his true devotion is to his Parliamentary career—and his secret work for the Home Office. Yet now, with freedom in his grasp, he finds he cannot so easily release his wife. Seeing her stirs a hunger no other woman has reached. A distraction now, when he is a breath away from revealing a ring of traitors, could be deadly. Still, wherever his investigations lead, the thought of Olivia lingers. It might be obsession. It might be treason. But the only way to escape the temptation is to succumb…
“Rachael Miles’ knowledge of the time period she writes about adds a depth of authenticity that enriches every page.” --Jodi Thomas, New York Times bestselling author
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Tempting The Earl
By Rachael Miles
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Rachael Miles
All rights reserved.
The man pursued her from the other side of the street, tracking her every step. Olivia had been lucky to notice him, or she would have led him straight to her next meeting. Now she needed to go somewhere — a market, a crowded shop — anywhere to give herself a chance to escape. If he hadn't already recognized her, then all could still be well.
But the street was quiet, and the shops too small. Nowhere to hide. She looked for her pursuer in the reflection of a shop window as she passed. Still there. She forced herself not to increase her pace. If she hurried, he would know she'd seen him.
Ahead, a carriage pulled to her side of the street, and two footmen carrying packages stepped out of a shop. Footmen and packages meant women shopping.
She looked at the shop's sign — an open book beside a stack of papers and a jar filled with quills. A bookshop and stationer. She could just read the name of the shop: The African's Daughter.
Olivia eyed the distance to the carriage, estimating how long it would take for the women to leave the shop and step into the coach, and for the coach to pull away. Each moment the women delayed leaving the shop became a moment gained for Olivia to reach the coach.
The footman opened the door to the shop and two women, well-dressed and laughing, stepped out. Olivia clenched her fingers on her worn reticule, holding it close to her belly. In the lining, she'd tucked the instructions Mentor had given her for meeting her informant. Usually she memorized the complicated dance of sign and countersign, but she had told herself it wouldn't matter, this once. But if he caught her, if he found the paper, then it would matter a great deal. And not just for herself.
More than a year had passed since she penned an essay on the struggles of returning soldiers and sent it off to the fashionable newspaper, the World. If she had believed the editor would publish it, she would have chosen a better pseudonym than "An Honest Gentleman." She hadn't intended to become the banner bearer for the rights of man. But her essay struck a chord with the British, weary from the wars and the ensuing poor economy. Her correspondence with the editor, a Mrs. Helena Wells, known for her deft editing of the World and her charismatic performances on the Drury Lane stage, had quickly turned to friendship. And soon her essays began appearing every week. Not long after, her former employers at the Home Office found a use for her new work. Having discovered that old enemies of England were using the periodical press to convey state secrets abroad, they asked her to pay careful attention to the path of the information that came her way. She'd almost refused, wishing to be free to advocate for political reform, but Mentor had assured her — and she believed him — that their aim was only to find those who wished to destroy, not mend. She'd agreed, with the promise that she would be allowed to tell the truth. From corruption in Parliament to abuse on the docks, An Honest Gentleman brought the news to a public hungry for an honest voice.
Soon she was receiving correspondence from across the land, asking for her help — or rather An Honest Gentleman's help — in revealing this or that wrong. From one informant in the London hells, she now had more than twenty across Britain. She'd become — according to Tories — the greatest threat to a peaceable England since Napoleon. But no one expected a short, softly rounded woman with a middle-class accent to wield the pen that caused MPs to shudder. She — and her old employers — had believed anonymity would protect her. Now, she was not so sure.
She looked ahead, dismayed by the remaining distance to the carriage. The women stood outside the bookshop, their heads bowed in conversation. Keep talking, she willed them. But they moved forward, where a waiting footman handed each one up a three-stepped stool, into the carriage.
She glanced at the nearest window. He still followed. She tamped down on her welling panic. What would she do if he caught her? Him, of all people? It was crucial that An Honest Gentleman's next essay appear before the upcoming Parliamentary session. One of her trusted correspondents had written that a bill widely supported by the conservative MPs was financed by a group of powerful criminals. But he'd refused to send the name through the mail. If she missed their first meeting, her correspondent might never agree to another.
Before her, the door to the carriage remained open, the footman still waiting. Olivia's heart rose. Someone else was in the shop!
Instinctively she quickened her pace, then slowed. But it was too late; he had increased his pace as well. With each long step, he narrowed the distance between them. But he had not yet crossed to her side of the street. The carriage would hide her escape.
Only four more shops and she'd be there.
The footman opened the shop door again, and a young woman with a brightly colored feather in her hat moved slowly toward the open carriage door. At the carriage, the younger woman stopped before the steps, then held out her hand. The postilion placed it on his shoulder, and the woman raised her right foot slowly to the first step, bringing her left up to meet it, then repeated the deliberate action. Another time Olivia would have wondered at the young woman's slow movements, but not today. No, all that mattered was reaching the shop. And she was almost there.
The footman opened the shop door once more, stepping back to let yet another woman out of the shop. Olivia's eyes met his, pleading, and he held the door another fraction of a second, long enough for her to leap into the bookstore. As the door shut behind her, she heard the coachman call out to the postilion to lash the steps on tight. For another moment or two, the carriage would hide her escape.
To the right of the entrance, two kind-faced women stood at a counter, one an aristocrat, the other a shopkeeper.
"I need ..." She saw the carriage begin to pull away from the sidewalk, and just past it, the man crossing the street to the shop. She turned back to the women, who waited expectantly. "A man is following me. Can you help?" Neither woman looked startled. The shopkeeper spoke quickly. "Follow me."
The aristocrat turned confident gray eyes to Olivia. "I'll give you time. Go."
Olivia obeyed without thinking.
"This whole row of buildings backs up to a marsh." The bookseller spoke softly, as they hurried toward the back of the shop. "No back exit."
Olivia felt her stomach tighten. He would find her. If she had time, she could hide the instructions in a book. But which one?
"The roof, however, connects this row of buildings almost to the tollbooth beyond the marsh."
"The roof?" Olivia felt her throat tighten. He'd found her on a roof once before. She pushed the memory away. He'd been angry enough then. This time he had more cause.
"If you are afraid of the roof, lock the attic door behind you and hide until I return."
"I'm not afraid."
"Good. On the roof, you'll find a path of sorts. Stay near the back of the buildings. That way, no one will see you from the street. At the end, climb down a series of lower roofs and balconies until you reach the ground — the descent is protected from view by the curve of the buildings. From there, you can slip into the street unnoticed. It isn't too hard." The woman smiled, then added, "If you have a bit of a tomboy in you."
The shop doorbell rang. Olivia looked toward the salesroom, the woman following her eyes. "I have more than a bit. Where do I start?"
The bookseller motioned to Olivia's right. A piece of heavy brocade pinned with dozens of broadsides covered the wall between two bookcases. The bookseller pushed against it. Not a wall. A door. The woman stepped into a small office, and Olivia, with a last quick glance over her shoulder, closed the office door behind them.
"He's here. I hear his voice."
"Go up three flights. My rooms, then the attic, then the roof." The bookseller opened a smaller door leading to a stairway, then held out a key. "Lock the door behind you. Leave the key on the hook beside the door."
"How will you retrieve it?"
"I have a second key. You must hurry."
The bookseller paused, searching Olivia's face.
"If you need help again, you will find it. The African's Daughter turns no one away. Now, you must go."
Olivia clasped the woman's hand gratefully, then ran up the stairs.
* * *
Sophia Gardiner, Lady Wilmot, prepared to be a distraction.
The shop formed a long rectangle, with the bookseller's counter at the front right, and bookcases down the outer walls. Large tables covered with the latest books filled the front quarter of the shop. Beyond that, tables ran down the middle of the store, flanked on either side by additional bookcases.
Sophia positioned herself at the table displaying her own just-published book, Mrs. Teachwell's Guide to Botany for Young Ladies and Girls. From her position, she could observe visitors through the mirrors at the tops of the walls, and she could easily intercept anyone who started down any of the rows.
Seeing a figure approach the door, she pretended to tidy stacks of her book. She made sure not to look toward the door, not even when the bell rang, signaling someone's entry.
A tall man stepped to the far left, looking down each row of shelves as he moved back toward the middle. Sophia watched him warily in the mirrors, until she realized she knew him and knew him well. It was Harrison Levesford, Lord Walgrave, a friend of her late husband's.
"Walgrave! How lovely to see you!" She welcomed him with a friendly embrace. "You've come to buy my book! I had no idea you were interested in botany."
Harrison looked startled, then recovered quickly. Admirably, in fact, Sophia thought.
"I hoped to support your efforts, my lady, both as an author and as a patron of this bookstore." He looked around the shop a second time. "But, I must admit, I've never considered that a bookstore might need a patron."
"Isn't it lovely? If my patronage can bring Miss Equiano's bookshop better trade, then I'm happy she approached me." She smiled broadly, hoping he would not notice the bookseller's absence. "Can I show you my books? I'm so pleased with the options John Murray, the publisher, has provided."
Lady Wilmot held her hand over the different piles of books, describing each one. "They come in a range of bindings — paper, canvas, or leather — and the engravings come either colored or not. Some copies, though they cost a bit more, come with a pretty purple ribbon to mark your place."
Sophia showed him the ribbon, giving the frightened woman more time to escape. Even so, she found it difficult to believe that any woman could be frightened of thorough, sober Walgrave. "As you can see, the print quality is quite fine, and the engravings — I'm especially pleased with their detail, such delicate lines." She turned to an engraving of a rose, alluding to the plot that had recently threatened her life, one that Walgrave had helped thwart. It was a further distraction, intended to draw Walgrave's attention from the dark-haired woman.
The bell rang to admit another customer, but Walgrave did not look to see who had entered. Instead he took the book from Sophia's hand. "A rose." He shook his head at the allusion. "I'm not sure how Forster manages you, my lady."
"I never try," a deep voice spoke from over Harrison's shoulder. Aidan Somerville, Lord Forster, extended his arms in brotherly welcome. As the two men embraced, Constance Equiano silently took a place across the table from Lady Wilmot.
"Walgrave, it's fine of you to come." Aidan patted Walgrave's shoulder. "How many of my fiancée's books are you buying? I hear they make fine presents for younger cousins."
"Just one ... for me. My cousins are unfortunately too old for Lady Walgrave's book."
As Walgrave and Aidan's conversation turned from books to more pressing parliamentary concerns, the men moved away from Lady Wilmot's table. Without speaking, Constance met Lady Wilmot's eyes, then looked out the large display window. Across the street at the corner, a well-dressed man talked with a severe-looking woman. As Sophia watched, the man shifted his position, clearly watching the shop. Sophia nodded her understanding to Constance. The woman could have been fleeing the man still waiting outside, and not Walgrave at all.
* * *
"I disagree, Forster. The immediate problem is the legislation," Walgrave said. "The Tories wish to make any public meeting with more than fifty participants illegal. They contend that the reform societies are fomenting sedition among the lower classes."
"But Walgrave, it is not the meetings that endanger English peace, but idleness and hunger. Idleness allows men to attend the meetings; hunger encourages them to believe any bad doctrine or to join any mad experiment that might alleviate their misery."
"Bravo, darling." Lady Wilmot joined them, twining her hand around Forster's elbow. "I'm sure Walgrave appreciates your skill at debate, but the poor man must have other errands before we meet at the theater." She turned to Walgrave. "Kean himself is on the playbill."
Looking out the window, Walgrave ran his hand through his thick blond hair. He needed an excuse to remain in the bookshop a little longer. "Actually, your ladyship, I wished to acquire some books." He patted his waistcoat at the pockets. "Yet I seem to have misplaced my list."
The bookseller intervened. "If you would send me your list, I can gather the books and deliver them."
"I'd prefer to wander the shelves, see if anything jogs my memory." Walgrave looked over his shoulder into the long row stretching back behind him and ending in darkness. "Do you have literature in Greek? I misplaced my old copy of Homer's Odyssey. I'd also be interested in books on navigation or seafaring."
"Thinking of returning to the navy, Walgrave?" Aidan lounged comfortably against the table of Lady Wilmot's books.
"Only when I need an escape from parliamentary controversy. More often, it's simply an abiding interest that I satisfy from my armchair."
"Then Constance, you must point out your father's book." Lady Wilmot put her hand on the bookseller's shoulder. "Surely, Walgrave, you know The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano?"
"Ah, yes." Walgrave gave Constance a more considered look. "The name of your bookshop, the African's Daughter — it makes sense now. I've always intended to read Mr. Equiano's autobiography, if you have a copy."
"I'm happy to show you." Constance beckoned him to follow her into the dark depths of the store. It was the sort of bookshop one could happily get lost in: long aisles of books, punctuated by a table or a comfortable chair. But he couldn't risk being drawn to the allure of the books — he had to keep his wits about him.
The bookseller seemed intent on remaining with him, so he expressed interest in one field after another. Periodically — seeing a book he recognized from a positive notice in the Monthly Review — he would add it to the growing stack in the bookseller's arms. By the time he and the bookseller reached the far back corner, he had more than twenty titles.
"My stack has grown almost too tall for you to carry." He looked longingly at the next shelf. "Perhaps I could continue looking, while you determine how much I owe you."
Constance gave a quick sidelong glance to the middle of the right wall — where broadsides and other papers covered a wide brocaded cloth.
Her eyes returned to his, the hope in them unmistakable. "All of these?" The set of her shoulders was tense. She clearly expected him to decide against his purchases.
True, he had intended only to buy at most three of the books, but he was unwilling to disappoint her.
A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth, then spread broadly. "Of course, your lordship. I will have the total at the desk." She hurried to the front, balancing his stack of books on her hip.
Once she was out of sight, he slipped away quietly to investigate. The brocade covered a wooden door, behind which a tiny room housed a desk, a chair, piles of books, and a stairwell up to the bookseller's lodgings. No outdoor exit on this level.
Excerpted from Tempting The Earl by Rachael Miles. Copyright © 2016 Rachael Miles. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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