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An AudioFile Earphones Award winner, Alison Larkin is a classically trained actress who has appeared on Broadway with the Royal National Theatre and Off-Broadway with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Her unusually wide range of voices can be heard in award-winning audiobooks, cartoons, and movies.
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The Earl's New Bride
A Daughter's of Amhurst Novel
By Frances Fowlkes, Robin Haseltine
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2015 Frances Fowlkes
All rights reserved.
Kent, England 1819
Lady Henrietta Beauchamp was about to faint.
She teetered on a precarious edge, where one more whiff of Mr. Livingston would knock her quite senseless.
Unless Lady Georgiana's practiced squeals of delight didn't do it first.
Of course, her dizziness could have been avoided entirely had she: one, not been invited to a party so obvious in its purpose to aid in the new earl's selection of a wife, and two, not been bound and determined to marry said earl so she might remain in her ancestral home.
Henrietta's fingers curled around the wooden blades of her fan, warm tingles of numbness distracting her from the sour remnants of breakfast seeping onto her tongue.
"You look positively green."
Lord, she felt it. A light, sick color of green.
Sarah, Henrietta's younger sister by eighteen months, eyed her with concern. "Are you feeling well?"
Ill, yes. Nervous, most dubiously so. Well?
"'Tis better than a red complexion," Albina, Sarah's twin, murmured on Henrietta's left. "Think of how red would clash with the apricot of her gown."
Henrietta glanced down at her newest muslin, a piece her mother insisted she wear for the sole purpose of meeting their father's successor — and the man she needed to take as her husband.
She could only pray her distant cousin thought green a complimentary color to apricot, and silence more alluring than conversation.
Sarah touched her hand to the sleeve of Henrietta's dress. "Remember to breathe. He is only a man."
A man who held both her past and her future in the palms of his hands.
Were it possible to marry a house, she would have already done so. A more devoted, committed, and loving wife would never be found. Alas, young women were not granted the consent to marry houses.
She was allowed, however, to marry the men who owned them.
Perspiration trickled down the side of her ear, a warm coastal breeze wafting through Plumburn's largest drawing room, further adding to her malaise.
"Have you any lavender?" Sarah asked, her hand growing heavy on Henrietta's arm.
Lavender. Of course. The tiny purple flowers always made her feel better, their palliative scent an immediate balm to her anxiety. And when she had the time and foresight to pin a small nosegay of the flowers to the inside of her corset, she was soothed with a discreet sniff of its contents.
Or at least, when she had the time and foresight. This morning's toilette had been rushed, and her thoughts focused not on her beloved herbs, but on one man and the gravity of today's meeting.
"I-I-I did n-n-n-"
As they usually did at nerve-wracking, nausea-inducing functions, her tongue went lax, refusing to yield to her will and the words she wished to speak.
Pursing her lips, Sarah gave Henrietta's arm a gentle squeeze.
"We will have to find an alternative. Perhaps Mrs. Ellsworth had the foresight to place some lavender flowers in plain sight."
Of course she had. The elderly housekeeper was more than familiar with Henrietta's impediment and her requirement of calming tonics.
Henrietta's gaze roamed over the room and the assorted gathering of the bon ton, including the cluster of Society's most desirable misses, all three of whom were poised and primped to perfection, sitting in rapt anticipation of the earl's arrival.
While she did her best not to cast up her accounts on their satin slippers.
Spotting a large floral arrangement to her left, Henrietta took a deep breath and headed toward the assorted blooms, including bright purple lavender sprigs Plumburn's thoughtful housekeeper had placed there for more than a visual aesthetic.
Henrietta stepped around the Countess of Dewbury and her daughter, the always composed, always prim Lady Isabella, to better acquaint herself with the scented bouquet of flowers. They were settled atop a quaint little side table her father had brought home from one of his numerous trips to the Continent.
The memory of her father brought a small measure of comfort, and even the semblance of a smile. It did not, however, calm the churning in her stomach or soothe her anxiety. With another deep inhale, Henrietta nestled her nose amongst the colorful blossoms, including bright pink peonies, her father's favorite — and sneezed.
Dropping her fan, she gripped the edge of the table.
Her nerves were obviously the farthest thing from settled. In fact, they were worse. Far worse.
Dipping down to retrieve her fan and discreetly swipe her nose, she assessed the damage done to her coiffure, running her fingers over her carefully placed strands. Perhaps her maid's handiwork had held, and all the pins remained in their rightful place.
Or, as she dragged her leather-encased fingers across the metal tips of three pins, perhaps not.
She pulled the stem of a hothouse rose from her hair, as another sneeze tore through her body, snapping her chin against the table. The pain would have been tolerable had the vase, the last gift her father had given their mother before he passed, not wobbled, threatening to spill its contents. Henrietta popped up and made a grab for the priceless porcelain. Unable to stop its trajectory, she was only able to watch the contents splatter down the front of her gown.
Horror, embarrassment, and a fresh wave of dizziness gripped her. The muslin was thin on its own, the gossamer fabric illuminated by the equally sheer petticoat lining the skirt of her gown — which was now damp, transparent, and stained with at least a pint worth of water.
"Ladies. Gentlemen." Alfred, Plumburn's butler for the past thirty years, projected his voice to fill the large room. "Allow me to present the Earl of Amhurst."
If ever Henrietta had a choice word to utter for cursing's sake, now would have been the moment to declare it.
She stood stock still, her back to the room's entrance, her eyes lifted heavenward, pleading for a miracle, an absorbent cloth, a hole to open in the middle of the floor to swallow her whole. Anything to stop the trembling of her limbs and the chill shooting straight down her spine.
The room was silent, a feat in and of itself with something close to fifteen people in attendance. They were no doubt muting their conversations to stare at the recently returned earl.
She resisted the urge to turn her head to view the scandal-tainted man. She'd spent hours, days, and far too many sleepless nights imagining this moment when she would finally lay eyes on the man whom she needed to marry.
The Black Earl. The devil himself.
But now that the moment had arrived, she didn't dare peek, not with her gown ruined, and her hair likely in disarray, covered with bright yellow specs of pollen.
Why, she must look positively wild.
Her heart racing, she set the vase upright on the side table, the light thump of the porcelain on wood echoing in the far too silent room.
Perhaps the earl was so handsome, everyone had been rendered speechless, their tongues tied and bound by the attractiveness he exuded.
Or perhaps, as she began to fear, they were not staring at the earl at all.
Her hands grew damp, and her heart threatened to stop altogether.
Calm yourself. Deep breaths.
Her father's voice sounded in her head, his gravelly tenor filling her with a confidence she did not feel.
She had sneezed, for heaven's sake. While the man she hoped to impress had entered the room.
The timing was rather off. And horribly bad. But certainly the man could overlook her slight infraction.
After all, as the Black Earl, he had incurred a few missteps. And she was more than willing to overlook his breaks in decorum.
Then again, he did not have a room full of people staring at him. Or at least, she didn't think they were staring at him.
Her father's encouraging words faded, replaced by snarls of doubt, fear, and utter panic.
She needed to secure the earl's hand. The consequences, should she fail, were catastrophic.
With shaky breaths, Henrietta turned to face her family. Her competition. And the man who held her home tight within his grasp.
* * *
Simon DeVere was in hell.
A hell of his own creation, to be sure, but a hell none the less.
He was in a room full of females. Eligible females. Who all wanted a stab at his title and wealth to secure a place for themselves in the echelons of high society.
And he was the idiot who had gathered them together. The irony was not lost on him. He was the Black Earl, a man who had killed his lover to avoid the parson's mousetrap.
Or so, despite his recently proven innocence, the rumors went.
And now he wished a wife. More specifically an heir, and since he could not have the one without the other, he had his steward select the most eligible, forgiving, and desperate females of the beau monde, along with those men who still retained the title of his friend, and had them invited to his acquired estate in Kent.
The most desperate females, it seemed, and the most intriguing.
Simon, along with the rest of the room, kept his eyes trained on the back of a miss in an almost sheer, pale-colored gown.
Her petite frame and somewhat narrow backside would not have garnered his attention in and of itself, but in combination with the lush, ripe, and most comely set of womanly curves displayed by the diaphanous fabric of her dress, he found it impossible to avert his gaze.
Were he a gentleman, he would have diverted the rest of the room's attention away from the girl's trembling form and onto something less ... revealing.
But Simon, as the ton was so apt to remind him, was not a gentleman, at least not outside of the title. So he continued to stare. And think the most deliciously wicked thoughts.
She must have realized everyone's gaze was centered on her, for her shoulders straightened and she turned.
Dear, God. If he thought the back of her gown revealing, the front might as well have been transparent. Dampened and darkened, the flesh-colored fabric did little to hide the white shift beneath, so wet itself one could almost make out the outline of her thighs.
If he hadn't already been thinking thoughts given to the devil, he most certainly was now.
His entire body warmed, his lifeblood pulsing through his veins at a speed not felt since, well ... not for some time, but certainly fit for arousing parts of his body he did not wish to have on display.
He swallowed, willing his gaze upward to a face so delicate, were he a man given to whimsy, he would describe it as elfin. Wisps of raven black hair partially hid a set of round eyes animated with the same horror, humiliation, and embarrassment he felt whenever he glanced at a looking glass.
He might not be a gentleman, but he could not allow the girl to be ogled like an exotic animal in a menagerie. Even he had a modicum of honor.
Shrugging off his jacket, he strode toward her and slipped the tailored wool over her set of narrow shoulders.
"Th-th-thank you, my lord." Small gloved hands gripped the edges of his jacket, pulling it close around her.
Were warm air not swirling through the room, he would have dismissed her tremors to a chill wrought by the water spilt down the front of her gown. As it was, sweat trickled down his neck, dampening his cravat.
But he knew better. The trembling creature did not shake from cold. She shook with fear.
Most women did. His reputation alone was enough to elicit weak knees in the most jaded of women, the murmurs of murder making them leery of his presence. Those few who were apt enough to disregard the rumors were scared off by his scars. The shriveled skin. And the black patch covering what remained of his glassy and lifeless eye.
Clasping his hands behind his back, he resisted the urge to adjust the irritating piece of silk protecting his injury. He had gotten used to the whispers, the second glances, and the averted gazes. What he had not been able to conquer were the looks of pity.
Terror. Disgust. Revulsion. All were better than the pity so oft reflected in two whole perfect eyes, and the apologies one uttered upon viewing his injury for his first time. Pity, however, was not evident in the quick, furtive glance of the woman adjusting his jacket over her shoulders.
A flicker of fear, yes, but so too of blatant curiosity.
"Your predecessor's daughter, Lady Henrietta."
Simon started at the words. He hadn't seen his butler approach.
"I beg your pardon?" he asked. He could have sworn the man had announced something absurd.
"Your predecessor's daughter, Lady Henrietta." His man jerked his head to the side, motioning toward the girl still shivering before him.
She lowered into a graceful curtsy. "My lord."
Three more women positioned themselves behind her, each bowing a dark head while the butler continued his introduction.
"Your predecessor's wife, the Countess of Amhurst, and her daughters, Lady Albina and Lady Sarah."
These were the women with whom he shared blood and a common ancestry?
He was aware the former earl possessed a family, indeed, had known the man had three daughters, all of them dowdy innocents with horsey faces, and lanky physiques.
Or so he had assumed.
The earl, at least what he recalled of him, was a tall thin man of no particular distinction. A titled peer who had attracted a wife with his coffers and not with any physical attribute. Simon presumed the earl's women would follow in kind and be the suitable, yet unattractive and least enticing creatures imaginable.
He certainly had not entertained the possibility the earl had married a woman of great beauty. And he sure as hell had not given any sort of consideration to the idea the old man might have fathered not one, but three handsome daughters.
It was clear they were related to each other. All of them were in possession of dark hair and fair-skin, with high cheeks and pointed chins. One, however, stood apart from her sisters, her beauty resplendent, with full lips and round, brandy-colored eyes — eyes that still observed him while her hands trembled and clutched his jacket to her chest.
This would not do. At all.
He required a wife, yes, but not one who would tempt him. And certainly not one with features so similar to Anne's. He was in need of an heir, not bed sport. He had learned his lesson. He would not tempt fate again. Not when the earldom and its money were at stake.
He glanced past the cluster of dark-haired women to the remaining guests and their inquisitive stares — at least those brave enough to look in his direction. Most avoided his assessing gaze, each finding something else to focus upon, namely the floor.
Their averted faces were enough for him to assess that none of them bore hair darker than a shade of wheat. Indeed, none of them possessed anything more than mildly pleasing features.
One of them would do splendidly. He'd leave the Amhurst daughters to his male guests. With their creamy complexions, the girls would undoubtedly garner a proposal or two. Just not from him.
Bringing his attention back to the sodden enchantress and her kin, Simon dipped his head to offer his acknowledgement of their introduction — as an ear splitting sneeze rent the air.
Lord, he'd heard quieter sounds from squealing piglets.
Were it not for the red stain infusing Lady Henrietta's cheeks, he would not have believed her to be the source of the sound. Surely such a delicate creature could not have the lung capacity to — another sneeze escaped her body, shaking the girl from head to foot.
He stood corrected.
Though he could hardly discredit the genuineness of her reflex, his head throbbed from its effects. In an effort to put both of them out of their misery — he from her headache-provoking sternutation, and her from further public humiliation, he stepped backward, slipped his fingers into his waistcoat pocket, and pulled out a white linen handkerchief.
He handed her the pressed square, the pale skin of her face further darkening to the shade of a perfect, ripe summer berry. Her lips parted, full, rosy things that made his chest tighten.
Her gloved fingers took his gift, brushing against his, her eyes flicking upward through a fringe of lashes the same shade of black as the ink standing in his well.
Excerpted from The Earl's New Bride by Frances Fowlkes, Robin Haseltine. Copyright © 2015 Frances Fowlkes. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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