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The Untamed Earl
By Taylor Jones
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2007 Jennifer Chance and Main Chance
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTo Have and to Scold
Castle Seabrook, Sussex September, 1818
As I write this, dearest Henriette, it is my wedding night. You must cherish this letter, cousin, for it is quite possible that you will never hear from me again.
The beast Godolphin is below stairs, relishing his moment of triumph, imbibing Bermuda rum and American whiskey, and some sort of rot gut French brandy which-do I dare suggest it?-he has probably smuggled across the Channel.
My heart quickens as I anticipate his approach to my poor bridal bower. Mama was unclear on the exact details of Ravishment, as I had feared she would be. I wish that you were here to explain to me what my fate shall be. For the moment, I am thankful that my door is equipped with a stout lock.
I do so wish I had heeded your advice to avoid pulling pranks on gentlemen. After my success with those hapless, spotty young peers in the ton, I had grown too bold, I suppose. And indeed, it turns out Godolphin is no gentleman-
A resounding thud on the bedchamber door made Estella jump on her dainty lacquered chair. Her quill flew from her hand to the carpet, the ink pot wobbled, then toppled over.
She stared as glossy ink flowed across the letter to her cousin, Henriette. "Who's there?" she called. She'd meant to sound airy and nonchalant. Instead, her words came out as a frightened little rasp.
There was another thump at the door. The heart-squeezing sound of a big, impatient fist.
Her spotted foxhound, Maggie, woke at last. She hobbled from the foot of the swaybacked four-poster bed, tail wagging drowsily, eyes only half open.
Estella stood, drawing her silk wrapper close. The corner of one ink-dappled page snagged on her sleeve, and black droplets splattered down her front, onto her bare feet.
"I said, who is there?" she repeated, turning to stare at the massive paneled door. In the shifting yellow light of a single candelabra, it took on the quality of a dungeon door. She felt the looming presence outside, could almost taste the electric crackle of anger.
She knew exactly who it was.
Her eyes widened as the tarnished brass knob twisted slowly. The door shuddered slightly under the weight of a large body, but held fast. Then the knob wiggled vigorously a few times before falling still.
Several hovering moments of calm were marked by the tick of the clock on the chimney piece.
"I know you're still out there, Godol-whoever you are!" Estella narrowed her eyes at the doorknob, daring it to wiggle even once more.
"Whoever you are?" a smoky masculine voice growled. It was muffled by the door, but sarcasm was still evident. "Then it comes as a surprise to you that your husband arrives at your bedchamber on your wedding night?"
"No-I, well yes." Perhaps it would be best to play the innocent. Though she had known he'd come. That was why she had locked the door. "Yes, it is indeed a surprise. I believe I bade you good night before I came upstairs. Most of the guests had gone home, and everyone else was too far into their cups to miss me. Including you, it seems."
A rumbling laugh, tinted with bitterness, floated through the keyhole.
"I noticed," Estella pushed on, ignoring a tremor of foreboding, "that you seemed particularly appreciative of the American whiskey Papa supplied for the festivities. No doubt you look forward to more gifts from him. It is a shame my parents embarked on their lengthy journey today. We can expect no more from them for at least six months."
"Estella," the voice said, this time stern as a schoolmaster. "Unlock this door."
"I won't." She clutched her arms across her chest. "I-I'm going to sleep."
"Sleep?" He pronounced the word as if it were foreign. Then he assumed a more pompous tone. "It is my right as your husband to gain admittance to your chamber."
Why did the thought of Godolphin in her chamber make her pulse flutter? She screwed her eyes shut, inhaled shakily. The air smelled of stale ticking and mildewy drapes, as though the room had been neglected for centuries. "I was told that husbands and wives, er, grew more acquainted with one another in ... bedchambers ... during their wedding trips. But as we shall have no wedding trip, I assumed I was exempt from sharing my ... bed." Her voice trailed off, uncertain. It was definitely better that she deal with the brute in England rather than Paris or Rome. Still, she felt somehow cheated out of her honeymoon. "So, then," she stumbled on, her voice chirpy, "I suppose I'll see you at breakfast."
She waited, holding her breath. There was another leaden silence, and then the floorboards creaked. She didn't breathe again until his footsteps receded to silence.
Returning to the writing desk, Estella glared down at Maggie. "You are no help, dog," she scolded. "Some protectress you are."
Maggie paid her no heed, lazily licking drops of ink from the floor.
The last crate was heavy. As he helped the men hoist it, his shoulder muscles cramped in outrage. This only made him pull all the harder. He wasn't about to forsake his youth for a leather armchair and a glass of brandy simply because of one mishap. Besides, his hand was calloused, the palm tough as shoe leather. He could barely feel the coarse rope or the splintery wood of the crate hovering above the deck. Amid the scraggly crew, the smell of ship's tar, the seaweed and salt tang of the starlit sea, he was at home.
Two other men grabbed the crate and swung it into position next to the others. As the heavy box hit the ship deck, its contents rattling dully, he heaved a sigh of relief.
He bent over the ship's rail. "That is all?" he whispered through the swirling predawn mist. "C'est tout?"
Bobbing in the rowboat below, the ship's motley captain glanced up with the jerky motions of a rabbit, nodded twice.
That, at least, was good news. Now and then these fools could do something right.
The first hints of sunrise launched lavender streaks across the horizon, over the rippled green-black surface of the sea. A glance over his shoulder revealed the silhouette of Castle Seabrook's tower, just visible over the tree-rimmed cliffs. Haze made its outline indistinct. But as soon as the sun burst over the horizon, any person in the tower might be able to see him, and the ship and rowboat, too.
He swore under his breath, then slid down the rope to the rowboat.
"Go," he hissed to the captain. "Vite."
"Must you sigh like that, madam?" Godolphin's fist came down on the tabletop with such an impatient crash that all the silver and breakfast dishes jumped. "It puts me in mind of a spoilt child who hasn't gotten the pony she wanted for her birthday."
Estella, after recovering from her initial shock, drew herself very straight in her high-backed chair. With its lumpy cushion and scratched legs, it had clearly seen better days.
"I did not sigh," she said coldly. She reached for the tarnished coffee pot. It was so heavy, her arm trembled as she lifted it and poured.
Godolphin glowered down the length of the table.
When he was angry-which, Estella was learning, was quite often-his big shoulders hunched, and his dark eyebrows drew down and together. Even in the clear morning sunlight streaming through the windows, his bruise-colored eyes were in shadow. Unreadable, with the dark heat of coals.
"You did sigh," he ground out. "Several times, in fact, and in a way that suggested you desired me to notice."
"Really!" Estella huffed. She smeared butter on a toast triangle so fiercely that the knife poked holes in it. "That is exceedingly unfair, sir." She said this with a bite of sarcasm. "I did not sigh, nor did I want you to hear." She took a chomp at the corner of the toast, chewed angrily.
Well, perhaps she had sighed. She'd been wallowing in a puddle of misery, trying not to fidget as Godolphin scowled in stony silence. First she'd wondered just how many more nights she could turn the ogre away from her bedchamber. Then she'd reflected at length on why this had to happen to her of all people. A more adult, regal young lady could have handled the predicament with grace. Without dropping crumbs on her lap.
The toast was too dry. She could barely swallow. After a sip of Turkish coffee, she cleared her throat lightly. "However, I must admit that I do know just how a child would feel when promised one thing only to get quite another." She eyed him pointedly, hoping to deflate his overbearing presence. Instead, he seemed to grow larger still, his tanned face enveloped in a fog of annoyance.
"Yes," he admitted, sawing at a bit of bacon so hard the knife screeched against the china, "you would know how a spoilt child feels, since that is exactly what you are. Papa's little princess."
Estella sucked in a sharp breath. His words felt just like a slap. And for the first time, she noticed that his jacket was rumpled, his neck cloth wilted, and there was a shadow of a beard on his square chin. His hair was tied behind his neck. But not neatly. In fact, he had the appearance and temper of a man who hadn't slept a wink.
A tiny twinge of compassion fluttered in her chest, but she ignored it. He was a tortured beast, not an insomniac earl. He had trapped her into marriage, and now she had nowhere to turn.
Feigning calm, she took another sip of coffee. It stung her tongue. She had always drunk chocolate in the morning at home, but she dared not request such a childish beverage at Castle Seabrook.
Godolphin's features had relaxed into gentleness. Perhaps the beast regretted his harsh words. His sad-lidded eyes drifted down from her face, taking in the high, snug bodice of her soft blue morning gown.
And her nearly flat chest. Estella's ears grew warm, and she made an elaborate display of tapping at her boiled egg with a spoon. Anything to make him stop looking there.
It seemed to work.
"Estella," he said.
He always said her name differently from anyone else. Lingering on the L's, as if the correct curling of his tongue over the consonants might summon the stars down from heaven....
Which was ridiculous, since he clearly did not care for her.
"Estella," he said again, "as I explained to you during our betrothal-"
"Such as it was," she cut in. "Four weeks is hardly a proper-"
"You know as well as I that your parents had to leave before the Atlantic grew too stormy for a safe passage, and-"
"Then we should have waited until their return in the spring." She knew how pressing Papa's business was, how hard he had to work to compete with other traders like the South China Company.
Godolphin leaned back heavily in his chair. Despite its gigantic proportions, it creaked in protest. "If we had waited that long," he said slowly, "I think we both know you would've found a way to slip out of your commitment."
Estella's jaw locked. He was correct, though she couldn't bring herself to admit it. She stared past him, out the windows, whose gold brocade drapes were speckled with moth holes, to the front lawn, the edge of the sea cliff, and the glimmering ocean beyond.
As he watched her, it seemed as if he were seeking out some sign of truth in her face. She willed it to remain impassive.
He ran a quick palm across his jaw, a habit that made him appear somehow vulnerable. "As I was saying, during our betrothal, brief though it was, I explained to you that I am extremely preoccupied with my work. That is why-" he caught her gaze and held it. His eyes were as deep and dangerous as the sea. "That is why you can't have your wedding trip until the spring."
"My wedding trip? Wouldn't it be for both of us?" He managed to make even a honeymoon sound like a child's treat.
He ignored her protest. "My work will keep me busy every day, often into the night."
"In my study. In the tower-but you mustn't go there. I cannot have my work disrupted."
"And what do you do?" Estella felt like laughing bitterly. What a pitiful question to ask of one's own husband.
"Mainly running my estate. Some shipping endeavors. I won't bore you with the particulars."
Shipping endeavors? She knew nothing of this. "Papa is in shipping," she reminded him. "I don't find it boring in the least."
"A young lady like you?" He sipped his coffee.
A frivolous young lady. That was his unspoken meaning. Estella wanted to flounce out of the room, or snap a shrewish retort. Instead, she gave her boiled egg another fierce crack with her spoon.
"It won't do to have you rattling about this big old barn with nothing to occupy you," Godolphin went on. "Mrs. Hobbs will continue to perform most of the housekeeping duties, which leaves very little for you. I'm well aware of your fondness for mischief-" He raised a knowing eyebrow.
Estella shifted in her chair.
"-so I've decided to give you a task to keep you occupied. You shall oversee the redecoration of the castle, as well as the restoration of the formal gardens. Before luncheon, my secretary, Teeters, will show you what needs to be done. You are to meet him in the main foyer at ten o'clock."
Estella gaped at him. Was he absolutely off his head? "This is a ... the castle is enormous! It's as big as a mountain. It'll take years. No, decades."
Godolphin stirred his coffee. The tiny demitasse spoon made a maddening clinking sound. "Precisely."
Theodore Wilfrid Mimsey-Hubert de Godolphin rode his elderly horse, Thunder, toward the village of Seabrook, his ancestral village. On his way he passed through healthy forests and rolling fields. But the fields lay fallow, instead of full of ripening grain. The thatch-roof cottages were in disrepair. In the yard of one fisherman's cottage, fish nets were draped over a stone wall, full of holes and dead leaves.
Godolphin's tenants turned their backs as he rode by. The few who tipped their hats in greeting did so with hostility in their eyes. They despised him.
Just the way Estella did.
She made his head spin and his heart pound with anger, frustration ... and desire. There was no point in denying it.
Shaking his head, he leaned forward and patted Thunder on the neck. "Good boy. Good old boy. You've stood by me since I was just a lad. Any advice on how to tame a willful filly?"
The horse just gave his head a toss, snorting gently.
Godolphin's lips twitched into a grimace. "On second thought, old boy, keep your secrets to yourself. I really can't afford the price of success."
He sighed. Any sort of daydreams he once might have indulged in concerning his wedding night had been soundly thrashed by grim reality. The reality was he could never bed his bride. An annulment would be impossible should that occur.
When he reached the village green, his thoughts were still snagged on Estella. How long after he'd first seen that lovely face had he wished he could see it every morning for the rest of his days? One second, perhaps? Maybe two?
Her sweet oval jaw, the curve of cheekbone tinted with an apricot flush, the unruly red-gold of the curls escaping along her hairline. The wide, luminous periwinkle eyes, fringed with thick lashes the color of honey.
And her lithe body, constantly in motion, impossible to pin down. Not a girl's figure exactly-there were lush curves in most of the places where it counted, though her small breasts-
Godolphin swore under his breath, shifted in his saddle. Thoughts of Estella tormented his body with little stabs of desire, poppy red blooms of heat.
"Impossible chit," he snarled into the September sky. In response, a sea-chilled gust of wind sent a handful of yellow leaves spinning from the trees.
Estella had been correct in saying their betrothal had been brief. They hadn't spent even five minutes alone together. During those short weeks, she had seemed shy and skittish, but he'd written her demeanor off as pre-wedding jitters. As they'd said their wedding vows, her eyes had been distant, all but hidden behind the white film of her veil.
And just this morning at breakfast, he'd noticed things about her face he hadn't seen before: the sullen thrust of her lips, a pout that might've been alluring if it weren't so aggravating, the contentious lifting of one delicate eyebrow. The flash in her eyes.
Excerpted from The Untamed Earl by Taylor Jones Copyright © 2007 by Jennifer Chance and Main Chance. Excerpted by permission.
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