Oxfordshire, England, 1821
Devastated by the disappearance of his sister, the Earl of Stranraer has gone to extraordinary lengths to find the notorious rake responsible, and enters his household incognito to wreak his vengeance. But his enemy has an unexpected protector--the innocent but headstrong Miss Cassandra Blythe.
Cassie is determined to learn the art of seduction. But she is blindsided by her body's thrilling response to the wrong man--a mysterious servant who shows up at the most inauspicious moments to spoil her lessons in love with warnings of her imminent ruin. When she learns the handsome servant's identity and the reason for his deception, she resolves to help Stranraer, but only if he abandons his vow to destroy his enemy.
The earl is sorely tempted to give the meddlesome beauty a lesson in seduction she'll never forget. But she turns the tables, and he gets his own lesson in forgiveness...and love.
Each book in the Wayward in Wessex series is STANDALONE:
* Distracting the Duke
* Unmasking the Earl
* Vanquishing the Viscount
About the Author
Elizabeth first started writing fiction when she was eight, encouraged to do so by her Head Teacher father, who needed something to keep her quiet during school holidays. Her favorite topics were mermaids, ghosts, Norman knights and quests, and she illustrated and decorated her own books. She emerged from the world of her imagination to read History at the University of London, after which she spent many years working as an archaeologist and artifact illustrator. She then became a primary school teacher, after which she moved to museum education work, and display and collections management.
Elizabeth has been involved in Medieval, Tudor, and English Civil War re-enactment and has enjoyed sword-play and traditional archery, excelling in neither. She lived for seven years on a Knights Templar estate in Essex where she pursued her interest in historical textiles, cookery and medicine. She loves anything to do with the past, and still looks down holes in the ground to see if there's anything archaeological in them. There generally isn't.
She has written fifteen historical romances since moving to the West of England in 1997, the landscape and history of which have inspired the "Wayward in Wessex" series.
Read an Excerpt
Unmasking the Earl
Wayward in Wessex
By Elizabeth Keysian, Nina Bruhns
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keysian
All rights reserved.
Oxfordshire, England May 1821
"To love and not be loved in return is the worst torment of all."
Cassandra Blythe turned and looked into the sympathetic eyes of her cousin, Rebecca.
"Well, yes, indeed," Cassie replied, plying her fan and trying to appear unconcerned as she gazed around the crowded ballroom. "But don't worry about me. My dance card is quite full. See? I have no reason to repine."
Becca examined the small piece of ivory dangling from Cassie's wrist. "How odd," she said. "I see Julian's name down for dances which have already happened, but I don't recall seeing the two of you together."
Cassie sighed and ignored the fist of pain that struck at her heart. "True. Mr. Carnforth has been distracted tonight. He's confused me with Lady Lucy Dyer twice. Look here," she said, jabbing a finger at the finely penciled letters. "He marked himself down for the cotillion and the quadrille with me, but ended up dancing with her on both occasions."
Becca gave a tinkling laugh. "I can't imagine how! Our hosts have bought up every chandelier and candelabrum in Wessex and installed them in their ballroom. I declare I can see a good deal more than I wish to! Julian should have had no difficulty recognizing you, despite the crush."
Cassie looked down at the clump of violets wilting at her breast. She felt like wilting, too, but said brightly, "Anyway, I don't see why you should single out Julian for mention. There are plenty of extremely eligible gentlemen here."
"Ah, but only one who has made you stammer in his presence since you were thirteen," said Becca sagely.
"Oh, Becca, don't tease. I'm too hot and weary to dispute with you. In fact, I think I'll go upstairs and try to cool down a little. Had you better check on Papa? I don't want him getting overtired."
"I have been given my congé," her cousin said cheerfully, and disappeared back into the throng.
Casting a dark look in the direction of Mr. Julian Carnforth, Cassie swept through the crowd of dancers, head held high, and made her way up the grand staircase of Highmore House and into the ladies' powdering room.
It was a relief to find it unoccupied. She swiftly undid the catch on the shutters, pulled them back, lifted the sash window, and leaned out, desperate for the touch of cooler air on her face.
Oh, Julian. What a disappointment! She'd done her best to look beautiful tonight for their old family friend. She'd pushed up her bosom, pinched her cheeks, curled her hair to within an inch of its life, and practiced fluttering her eyelashes in front of a mirror — all to no avail. He just couldn't see past the fact that they were childhood friends. Recently, he'd even remarked that she was like a sister to him.
The man she'd loved for years thought of her as no more than that. The pain she experienced whenever she heard him use that word cut like a blade.
Her vision blurred as she gazed out across the Duke and Duchess of Paxton's vast gardens and grounds. She gave a little hiccup of distress, then blinked rapidly as a dark shape came into view on the gravel below the window.
It would have been sensible to withdraw her head immediately and close the shutters, rather than submit herself to the impertinent gaze of the man looking up at her. But good sense hardly seemed important compared to a broken heart. She stiffened, tilted her chin, and glared right back.
When their eyes locked and held, an involuntary shiver shot up her spine. Not a gentleman. This was a servant, simply clad, with shadowed eyes and a frowning brow.
That any such fellow should appraise her so brazenly was disgraceful. She'd a good mind to find out who his master or mistress was and complain. She could, of course, just call down and admonish him, but that would be lowering herself to his level. Besides which, he looked a rough and powerful man, the sort who could very easily scale the nearest drainpipe, throw her over his shoulder, and make off with her into the night if the fancy took him.
The image of him doing just that made her flush and wish her corset were less tight.
By Juno! It must be hotter than she thought. She couldn't possibly be affected by the insolent appraisal of a manservant. Could she? Her frustration over Julian was getting the better of her. If only he would throw her over his shoulder and make off with her ...
Suddenly, a giggling couple burst forth from the house and scurried down the steps to the gravel drive. Arm in arm, they set off, swaying slightly, along a double line of flickering flambeaux which led toward the formal gardens.
Whatever spell had held the handsome servant transfixed was broken. He was already striding off.
Releasing a pent-up breath, Cassie was about to turn away when something struck her about the laughing couple. She looked again. Sweet Venus. Surely that was Julian's slender figure, his particular way of walking, that way he had of tilting his head to listen to one as if one were the only person in the room?
Good Lord. Julian Carnforth was sneaking away from the ball with Lady Lucy Dyer.
The air crashed out of Cassie's lungs, then returned with a great gush ... which brought with it a blast of righteous fury.
How dare that woman toy with Julian!
And how could he behave with such lack of honor?
Cassie folded her arms across her chest and caught sight of the wilting violets. With a growl of anger, she tore them from her bosom, flung them through the window, and slammed it closed.
"Damn you, Julian Carnforth," she spluttered indignantly. "I'm not letting you ruin your reputation with a light-skirt like that!" Pausing only to grab an abandoned shawl from a chair, she hurried out of the room and cantered down the staircase in pursuit of Julian and his new ladybird.
Clenching her fists, she vowed, "I'll work out a way to stop you, just see if I don't!"CHAPTER 2
Something flew out of the window.
Catching sight of it as it fell to earth, Ned Ganstridge turned on his heel and strode back to where he'd seen the girl on the upper floor of Highmore House. What could she have thrown, and why?
Scouting around on the gravel in the shifting shadows was a difficult task, but he found the object eventually and examined it.
A bunch of violets. One that was overdue a watering. Foolish girl. Had no one told her violets were far too delicate for a corsage, especially while dancing?
He twirled the limp stems between his fingers, stroked the silk ribbon binding, and pressed his lips together.
Had his sister done the same with her lover, he wondered. Had Georgiana dropped letters, love tokens, even keys from her bedroom window as she carried on her clandestine affair? No one had any proof, of course, just suspicion and hearsay — there was no way of knowing for certain what vile twist of Fate had overtaken her. But Georgiana was gone, and Ned was no longer fully himself.
A soft chuckle made him spin round, just in time to see a couple of Paxton's guests hurrying away from the mansion. They were headed for the hot houses, or perhaps the maze, but wherever they were going, they were surely up to no good. In fact, wasn't the female Lady Lucy, his master's latest fancy piece?
Well, it certainly wasn't Captain Francis Wycherley who was with her now.
Ned's lip curled up in grim satisfaction. Wycherley would be furious, but it was about time that devil got a taste of his own medicine. A man who tangled with the demimonde must expect to be given the runaround.
Ned didn't give a fake farthing. He very much doubted Captain Wycherley's fickle heart — if he had a heart at all — would feel the pain for long.
"I hope she gets thrown on her back by that lusty beanpole she's with and returns to you with an unwelcome gift," he said vehemently, glaring after the departing pair. A good dose of the clap or the pox — now, that would be much more painful.
His fingers started to curl into a fist but were halted by the small bunch of flowers in his hand. He peered down at them. Had the bronze-haired beauty thrown them to him? No one had ever done that before. No one back home would ever have dared such a thing.
Tucking the limp blooms into the pocket of his nankeen waistcoat, he sauntered back along the line of carriages to join the straggling throng of coachmen and flunkeys. Matthews, Wycherley's footman, gave him an appraising look, then reached into the pocket of his caped coat and produced a flask.
"It's about time, Mr. Ganstridge," he said, "to lighten your spirits. Have a sip of my mountain dew. That'll warm up your gizzard and wipe the scowl off your face."
"Thankin' you," replied Ned briefly, accepting the flask.
He took a sip. Huh! Call this mountain dew? It was weak as maid's piss. Pretending enjoyment, he said casually, "I see our master's been cuckolded by Lady Lucy."
"Has he, now?" inquired Matthews. "Who's she gone off with?"
"No idea. A skinny longshanks, by the look of it. Good-looking, from what little I could see."
"Master won't mind," commented Matthews, retrieving the flask. "He were never going to marry her, anyway."
"She don't seem the kind to care about marriage," Ned observed, matching his accent to the coarse dialect of the other servants.
"Isn't that what they all want, women? Get their fambles on some poor unsuspecting cove, dig their claws in —"
The flask was offered again, but Ned gestured to Matthews to keep drinking. If the liquor loosened his tongue, it could be extremely useful.
"How d'ye know he wouldn't want to marry her?" Ned asked. "She's comely enough."
"Aye. But he won't marry nobody. Not now."
"He's told you this, has he?" he inquired, raising a mocking brow. Masters didn't generally confide such things to their footmen, coachmen, or menservants. But Matthews was more likely to talk if he thought he wasn't being taken seriously.
"He has, Mr. Ganstridge," was the reply. "Though I can't see as it's any business of your'n. But I'll tell you this. He can't wed the one he wants, so he'll not wed at all."
No, he can't, thought Ned grimly, as the woman he wants may be dead. Or ruined and hiding in some godforsaken hovel.
"Will he take Lady Lucy back if she comes running, d'ye think?" he inquired.
"Mayhap. He's soft-hearted underneath, our master. If he likes her well enough, she'll be forgiven."
"Pah!" Ned pretended to spit, though he detested the habit. "She'll not get away with going off with another man, I wager."
"Like I said, if she talks to him pretty-like, and promises not to do it again, he'll let her off and take her back. But only if he likes her enough."
Then the man's a fool, Ned thought, but didn't say it out loud. He could never care for a woman who couldn't make up her mind between two paramours ...
Matthews tucked the flask away and stood up straight. He leaned across and hissed into Ned's ear, "Happen he won't need to forgive her for cheatin', as he's about to do the exact same thing 'imself!"
Ned turned and saw the unmistakable form of Captain Wycherley descending the steps from the main doors of Highmore House. He was not alone.
Clinging to his arm and looking every inch a fellow conspirator was the bronze-haired beauty who'd thrown down the flowers.CHAPTER 3
As Cassie stepped out onto the terrace with Captain Francis Wycherley, she felt a thrill of mixed fear and excitement. If it was grossly improper for an unmarried lady to leave a ballroom without her chaperone, it was even more so to do it in the company of a notorious rake.
But running into the captain at the precise moment she'd decided to chase after Lady Lucy and Julian had been fortuitous.
Because they both had exactly the same purpose in mind.
"I don't wish to seem cruel," she said as Wycherley offered his arm to guide her down the sweeping steps at the front of Paxton House. "But I think it very shallow of Lady Lucy to accompany you to the ball and then run off into the night with another gentleman."
The captain inclined his handsome head toward hers and said good-humoredly, "Lady Lucy has her faults, I agree, but she has many ... advantages, too. Enough to win my forgiveness."
Assuming you don't find her draped around Julian Carnforth with her back to a tree, Cassie thought bitterly, then shook the unwelcome image from her mind. Julian wouldn't do that. He was being foolish, perhaps because he'd had too much punch. He couldn't seriously be interested in that flirt, could he?
Cassie's feet crunched on the gravel of the drive, and she and her accomplice paused a moment, gazing out into the flame-speckled darkness. There was a gaggle of servants and coachmen lounging nearby, smoking pipes and swigging back tankards of ale, while the grooms and tigers walked the horses so they'd be fresh for the homeward journey.
Of Julian and Lady Lucy there was no sign.
"Any idea what direction they took?" Wycherley asked.
"They were heading that way," Cassie said, pointing her fan toward a distant ornamental lake. "But more to the left. They could be heading for the hot houses. Or the maze."
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she knew it had to be the maze. She'd no idea if Julian knew the key to mastering it, but it didn't matter. What better place for a tryst?
Her heart thudded painfully. She couldn't bear the thought of Julian with another woman. Especially one so completely undeserving of his attentions.
"Is there a shortcut?" Wycherley asked. "If our aim is to separate them, it would be best to head them off before they reach the maze. Otherwise, we're going to need reinforcements."
There was a shortcut, but it would be awkward to navigate in the dark.
"There is, sir, but those paths are unlit."
"My man can bring a light for us. Here, Ganstridge," Wycherley shouted in the direction of the coaches. "I know you're over there lurking. Stop swigging ale and fetch a lantern for us. We're undertaking a quest for a damsel in distress."
In response to Wycherley's shout, a tall, strapping man separated himself from the throng of coachmen. Cassie felt a twinge of uncertainty as he plucked a lit flambeau from its sconce and strode toward them.
As he came closer, the hairs rose on the back of her neck.
It was him! The man who'd been gazing up at her in that intensely intimate way. She gulped and dipped her head, hoping he wouldn't recognize her in the looming darkness.
Oh. My. Goodness. Up close, the fellow was practically a giant, with the shoulders of an ox and a chest to match. It had been impossible to tell when looking down on him just what an impressive figure he made. She gulped again and clung tightly to Wycherley's sleeve.
"Don't look so dour, man," said her noble knight. "You can return to your ale presently. Pray, walk beside us so Miss Blythe can see her way."
Cassie cringed. Now the manservant knew her name. He would have a juicy tale to tell about her when he returned to his cronies, and who knew where her name would end up? On the gossiping tongues of the tabbies? At the gentlemen's card tables? In the conversation beneath the church porch?
She bit her lip anxiously. Now would be the time to return to the ballroom, before her reputation was put at any further risk.
Then she thought of Julian dallying in the darkness with the flirtatious Lady Lucy and steeled her nerve. She would risk anything to save him from such an unsuitable companion.
"Lead on," Wycherley said encouragingly, patting her hand.
She lifted her chin and stared straight ahead, trying to look as if it were the most natural thing in the world for a young lady to be stepping out into the night with two men.
As they set off, Cassie became aware of a kind of restless energy about Wycherley, which communicated itself to her through the silk of his sleeve. He was fit, he was fast, and his sense of urgency spurred her on as she went over in her mind the paths they must follow to overtake their quarry.
The servant, Ganstridge, on the other hand, seemed in no hurry at all. Indeed, his heavy tread suggested he'd been called out on this errand much against his will. He was close enough for her to feel the heat emanating from his body, and despite Wycherley having a terrible reputation, she couldn't help but feel this Ganstridge was the more dangerous of the two.
"So tell me, Miss Blythe," said the captain, "now that we are fellow adventurers, might I call you by your first name?"
Ganstridge's flambeau jerked up violently, creating a well of darkness in front of them. "Keep it steady, man," snapped Wycherley. "You don't want us to trip and break our necks!"
The light steadied, but the lack of apology from Wycherley's servant made Cassie wonder if he perhaps wouldn't mind if his master actually did break his neck.
Excerpted from Unmasking the Earl by Elizabeth Keysian, Nina Bruhns. Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keysian. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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