Brianna Penderley has a knack for getting into precarious situations, especially when it comes to her love for archaeology. In the heart of Naples, her terrible Italian has her accidentally becoming engaged to two men at the same time. Of course, Daniel Wolcott-the Earl of Thornton and the only man ever able to vex her-shows up to rescue her.
Daniel has spent the majority of his life exercising rigid control over his emotions, determined never to become the rake his father was. But when he goes to aid his mentor's danger-prone niece once again, he finds himself struggling to control his attraction to a woman who is his complete opposite.
When their situation goes from bad to worse, Daniel and Brianna find themselves swept up into a perilous adventure, and they must work together to set things right. Now, if they can just avoid killing each other in the process.
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1856 — London, England
Miss Penderley was in trouble again. Of course she was. He should have known that was the case as soon as he'd received the summons from Sir Walter.
Daniel Wolcott, the Earl of Thornton, leaned back against the blue-brocade-covered armchair and regarded the man seated across the expanse of the desk. "She managed to become accidentally engaged to not one but two men and at the same time? Whilst in Italy, of all places. Do I have that correct?"
Sir Walter Penderley sighed heartily. "Yes, apparently so. Though, I do not know the exact details, my boy. Unfortunately, my wife's letter was rather absent of important information. Apart from disclosing of my niece's accidental betrothals, all she added was that help would be needed to delicately untangle Brianna from the predicament."
Daniel swore softly. For over ten years, Sir Walter Penderley had been in charge of the intelligence department for the War Office, and for twenty years before that, a spy himself. Looking at him, though, with his easy smile, gray hair, and jovial girth, he would be the last man you would expect to have such authority and power on behalf of the British Empire. But he was excellent at his job. Just not so excellent at keeping his niece under control. "No offense, Sir Walter, but wherever trouble is, Miss Penderley is sure to be at its very center."
"Yes, my niece has a tendency to get herself into some rather unusual predicaments," Sir Walter agreed.
"Putting it rather mildly?"
"Possibly," Sir Walter conceded. "But I must implore you to travel to Naples and extract her from the situation, Thornton. My wife and daughter are there with her, but I feel, considering the circumstances, a man needs to be there to assist. I would go myself if it wasn't for this nasty Frantleigh investigation, but time is of the essence. You know what Italian men are like; they are particularly hot-headed when it comes to affairs of the heart. And I don't wish for Brianna to try to intervene between the two and get hurt, or worse, married."
"She should be married. Someone needs to control her impulsive ways." The woman was far too headstrong and used to running headfirst into situations without properly considering her actions beforehand. She should have married years ago, and then perhaps, whoever the poor chap was could have had her well in hand before now.
But then Daniel shook his head. Who was he fooling? Miss Penderley was like a bright, burning flame, and one he doubted any man could control. He suddenly felt sorry for her unfortunate fiancés. They obviously had no idea what they were getting themselves into, becoming engaged to the chit.
"Are you offering, dear boy?" There was a look of eagerness on the old man's face that alarmed him.
"Good God, no," Daniel exclaimed. The thought of marrying Miss Penderley, and the ensuing mayhem it would cause to his well-ordered life, sent a chill down his spine. He wouldn't wish that hoyden on anyone. "Any man who ends up stuc — ah, married to your niece would be in for a life of constant chaos, with her rash and headstrong nature. No disrespect, Sir Walter, but that is certainly not my idea of a suitable marriage. Besides, you know I have no particular wish to marry until I absolutely must."
Sir Walter looked at him appraisingly for a moment. "You are not your father, my boy."
The mention of his father had him stiffening up reflexively. No, he was not his father, and he damn well wasn't going to end up like him either — a rake and a wastrel who had broken his mother's heart time and time again, until eventually, he'd broken her spirit and been the catalyst for her death. A man Daniel had spent the better part of twenty years doing his hardest to never emulate, particularly as the man's blood flowed in his veins. Hence why Daniel adhered to a well-ordered regime, at least in his personal life. There was no way in hell he was going to lead such a chaotic life as his parents had, nor would he take part in such a disastrously tempestuous relationship.
"It's a moot point in any event." Sir Walter slumped slightly in his chair. "She wouldn't have you."
"Wouldn't have me?" For some reason, the man's words rankled. He did, after all, have to spend the majority of his time at balls and assemblies fending off determined mothers from foisting their darlings on him. His sister enjoyed reminding him that he was considered quite the catch, thanks to his title and fortune — and much to his annoyance. But here Sir Walter was, saying the irrepressible Miss Penderley wouldn't have him?
"No. She dislikes your 'stuffy ways' — her words, not mine — as much as you abhor her rather free-spirited nature."
"Well, at least in that, we are agreed," Daniel allowed. But still, the fact that she thought him to be stuffy annoyed him. Clearly, she didn't know about the occasional clandestine missions he assisted Sir Walter with. She wouldn't think him stuffy then. Although, why he was allowing Miss Penderley to affect him while she was over a thousand miles away was a mystery.
"Will you go to Italy for me? I do love the gal, as much as she's caused me headaches over the years. I'd hate to see her forced to wed some foreigner she didn't mean to marry."
Now it was Daniel's turn to sigh. Sir Walter had been the one to recruit him to spy for The Crown over fifteen years ago, believing in him as no one else had. He was also one of the few people who knew that Daniel's father had very nearly bankrupted the earldom. So, when he'd presented Daniel with an offer to covertly use his position as the new Earl of Thornton to periodically gather intelligence for the War Office, both to help his country and retain a rather decent fee, Daniel had jumped at the opportunity. And over the years, Walter had become not only his mentor at the War Office but a friend.
Not to mention that the indomitable Miss Penderley was one of Daniel's sister Sophie's best friends. And Sophie would throttle him if he let anything happen to her.
Of course he would go and rescue Miss Penderley again, as he had done for umpteen years. As much as she vexed him with her devil-may-care attitude, he felt duty bound to ensure she remained safe, even if she failed to appreciate any of his efforts to do so.
Irritated at the thought, he ran a hand through his hair, caring little that his valet's styling work was ruined in the process. "If I am to rescue her again from another tight scrape, tell me how, exactly, she got herself accidentally engaged to two men at the same time? I would never have believed such a thing possible."
"We are talking about Brianna," Sir Walter reminded him, a fatherly smile of indulgence at the corner of his lips.
Daniel picked up the glass of whisky in front of him and swallowed the contents in one mouthful. Of course they were talking about Brianna. He sometimes wondered if Walter had really recruited him simply to rescue his wayward niece on the many occasions that she needed it. "Yes, her recklessness and propensity to dive into situations, with no thought to the consequences, often gets her into these sorts of predicaments. Although, two fiancés are a first, even for her."
Sir Walter bobbed his head morosely. "Yes, but she is half Italian. She cannot truly be blamed for her somewhat passionate nature. It is in her blood, after all."
"Does Brianna take after her mother then?" Daniel asked.
A long, drawn out exhale echoed through the room as an expression of sadness spread over Sir Walter's face. "I don't actually know, as I never met Edward's wife in person. My brother eloped with her in Italy, and it was over a year after the fact that we even received word of their marriage. Then, another year later, I received a missive informing me of their deaths." His jaw tightened for a moment. "I have heard, though, from all accounts, that Bree's mother was a very passionate and stubborn lady, fierce in protecting those she loved. So it would appear that yes, Brianna does indeed take after her mother."
"So it would seem." The thought of Brianna being fiercely protective of those she loved was uncomfortable. Daniel had to resist the urge to tug at his cravat.
"Yes, well, Brianna has always been stubborn and determined, even as a babe," Sir Walter continued. "I remember when I traveled to Italy after my brother died; I was shocked to discover that not only had Edward and his wife had a daughter, whom I hadn't known about, but that the child was the sole survivor. After my brother and his wife were murdered, a man by the name of Fabrizio Bianchi smuggled her out of the town, apparently in contravention of his employer's instructions."
"His employer?" Daniel questioned.
Sir Walter drummed his fingers on the desk. "He refused to tell me the man's name, superstitious that if he did so, the man would find him. A load of nonsense of course, but there was clearly fear behind Fabrizio's refusal, which was probably well-founded, as the fiend had ordered Fabrizio to kill Brianna by drowning her. What sort of monster would order such a thing?"
In Daniel's work over the years, he unfortunately was never surprised by the evil some would sink to. But even still, to order the death of a child was, without question, the very depths of depravity. "But this Fabrizio did not carry out his employer's order?"
"Thankfully not," Sir Walter said. "And luckily, he sought me out when I traveled to the region seeking answers about my brother's murder. That is when he presented me with Brianna."
Daniel had never had to deal with a baby being foisted upon him on one of his missions. Thank the Lord. "That must have been a handful for you ..."
Daniel put the glass onto the table with a deliberate clunk. "Regardless of her nature, how do you expect me to extract her from such a situation?" He'd helped get her out of various scrapes in the past; the time when Walter had asked him to travel to Cairo and assist her after she'd managed to infuriate a bunch of tomb thieves on her expedition there came readily to mind.
She had been helping on an archeological dig, with her aunt playing chaperone, when some thieves had confronted them, trying to steal one of the artifacts Brianna had uncovered. Thus Bree had used one of her shovels to successfully fight the two bandits off; however, the men had apparently suffered great dishonor by being bested by a woman.
Sir Walter had received word from his various sources that the thieves were going to attempt to seek retribution. Which is how Daniel found himself there, attempting to rescue her yet again. In the end, some gold coins had been enough to satisfy the men's honor. An offer she'd already made through an intermediary before Daniel arrived, but it had been refused as it was coming from a woman.
Then there was the time when she'd alarmed the Egyptian government by trying to take some relics out of the country. They were fakes, but the officials who'd confronted her hadn't let her explain before confining her and her aunt to their hotel room under house arrest. It was only when Sir Walter sent Daniel down to negotiate on her behalf that they'd been allowed to leave the country.
He had no doubt she'd have eventually charmed her way out of that one without him. But she kept putting herself into these situations with her endless gallivanting and treasure hunting, and one of these days, she was going to get herself into more trouble than she could handle.
Like getting engaged to two men. This specific problem she was currently in may not have been life-threatening — yet — but it was completely unique.
"Come, my boy." Sir Walter's eyes twinkled. "You're creative enough to come up with something that will untangle her from the mess she's in."
Daniel was careful to keep his own face devoid of any expression. "Why don't you simply tell me what you have in mind?"
"No plan, my boy," Sir Walter replied.
The old codger was expecting him to traipse to Italy and rescue his niece with no plan? No. That did not sound like the Sir Walter he knew and had been recruited by all those years ago.
"But perhaps this might assist." Leaning down, the older man opened one of the desk drawers, pulled out a single piece of parchment from inside, and pushed it across the top of the desk.
Daniel took the paper and scanned it. His gaze flew to Sir Walter, who wore an expression of compete innocence. But Daniel knew better. "Absolutely not," he said. "Not a chance in hell."
Sir Walter harrumphed noisily. "It is not a real marriage certificate."
"I would bloody well hope not. I shall not be using it."
"Well, apart from dueling with the two Italian Romeos, which I am sure is as illegal in Naples as it is here, what do you intend to do?" Sir Walter asked, taking a measured sip from his own whisky glass.
"I shall figure something out, but not this." Daniel held out the paper to Sir Walter. Certainly not. Even the thought of being in a pretend marriage with such an impetuous woman, who would literally turn his life upside down, sent an uncomfortable shaft of something that felt an awful lot like fear down his spine. She was reckless and rash, just like his father. He didn't do well with those types of people.
"Keep it, dear boy. It just might come in handy." Sir Walter smiled genially across at him. "And you know from experience, 'tis always best to be prepared."
Daniel stared at the offending piece of parchment, then reluctantly folded it and shoved it into his jacket pocket. It felt uncomfortable nestled against him, like it was going to burn a hole clear through the cloth. But darn it, he did like to be prepared.
"Good chap." Sir Walter stood. He wandered across to the side table and picked up another letter before handing it to Daniel. "This is the letter my wife sent."
Taking the pages, Daniel quickly scanned their contents. Sir Walter had been correct; Lady Penderley really hadn't provided many details, apart from where they were staying in Naples and that Brianna had gotten engaged to two Italian men who spoke little English, which is how she thought the mishap occurred. The lady didn't even disclose who the men were. "So, there was some sort of miscommunication?"
"It would seem so," Sir Walter agreed. He perched his bulky frame on the edge of his desk.
"Why the language barrier?" Daniel asked, feeling once again confounded. "Brianna's half Italian. Does she not, at least, speak some of the language?"
Sir Walter shook his head. "Not one shred, I am afraid. My stubborn niece refused to learn any Italian whatsoever, no matter how hard I tried to get her to. I think she felt she was already different enough here in England with her Italian heritage, and she did not wish to seem even more so by learning to speak her mother's native tongue."
Morosely, Daniel shook his head. "She should have listened to you. Then at least she wouldn't be in this wretched predicament. Entirely of her own making, of course." The woman's stubbornness would be her undoing.
"Yes, well, what is done is done," Sir Walter's no-nonsense manner was back in place. "We must move forward and find a way to rectify the situation. And immediately, too."
"I shall sail for Naples tomorrow." The sooner he left, the sooner he could get this situation in hand and return. "I will retrieve her and bring her straight back to London. That should rectify the situation."
"She may not wish to leave immediately." Sir Walter straightened and returned to his chair, carefully avoiding Daniel's gaze. "I'm certain my wife and youngest daughter will see the benefit of doing so. But I doubt Brianna and Travis will."
"Your son is also with the ladies? Then why is Travis not assisting with this situation if he is there, too?"
Sir Walter steepled his hands together in front of him. "He's apparently gone off chasing some sort of archaeological treasure on his own. You know what Travis is like."
"Rather like your niece, to be frank, sir," Daniel replied.
Sir Walter paused for a moment. "Yes, well, there are only six months separating them, and they did grow up in the nursery together. They are rather like two peas in a pod, and both share a passion for collecting antiquities. Which was the purpose of their visit to Naples. Travis and Brianna were searching for some specific antiquities, and you know what they're like if they haven't found what they are after, particularly when it comes to those old objects they both collect."
"They're like ruddy dogs with bones."
"An apt description." Sir Walter sounded rather pained in his agreement. "However, now that Travis has gone off somewhere, I rather doubt he is even aware of the pickle Brianna has gotten herself into."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Elusive Earl"
Copyright © 2018 Maddison Fitzsimmons.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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