When Penelope Barnes arrived at the Home with her young daughter, she discovered a knack for horticulture—and for cultivating the hops needed to produce a superlative pint. She put her scandalous affair with Harry Graham firmly in the past, along with the wrenching pain she felt when he went off to war. After all, she’d always known a farmer’s daughter had no future with an earl’s son. Now she has the pleasant memory of their passion, and she has little Harriet, for whom she would do anything—even marry a boring country vicar . . .
Harry went off to fight for the Crown unaware that his delightful interlude with his childhood friend had permanent consequences. Now he’s back in England, catapulted into the title by his brother’s untimely death. He sorely misses his former life of unfettered adventure, so when he has reason to explore Little Puddledon, he jumps at the chance. But what he finds there is something—and someone—he never knew he’d lost, and a once forbidden love whose time has come, if only he can persuade Pen he’s home to stay . . .
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A Friday evening in August, Duke of Grainger's estate
She's very beautiful.
Harry Graham, Earl of Darrow, stood in the Duke of Grainger's music room and listened to Lady Susan Palmer, the Earl of Langley's daughter, talk about ... something. Ah. A dress she'd seen at someone's ball — Lady Norton's? — during the Season.
She had a very English sort of beauty that he'd missed in his years on the Continent. Porcelain skin. Blond hair. Blue eyes.
Dark blue, not the light, clear blue of Pen's ...
"And then I asked Lady Sackley for the name of her mantua-maker though I already knew the answer. I was just trying to make conversation. And she said ..."
How was Pen? She must be married and a mother several times over by now.
He'd hoped to see her when he'd come home to England — just as old friends, of course — but he'd discovered she'd left Darrow not long after he had.
He hadn't asked any more questions. It might have looked odd for the new earl to be inquiring about a tenant farmer's daughter. Someone might remember how much time they'd spent together that summer before he'd left to fight Napoleon.
Not that there'd been anything particularly scandalous about their affair. His brother, Walter, had certainly sown his share of wild oats among the local maidens, many of which had taken root. He'd had so many bastards, people had given them a name — "Walter's whelps." It was easy to pick them out — they all had the distinctive Graham streak, a blaze of gray hair among otherwise dark locks.
He frowned. He didn't like to compare himself to Walter on any front, but particularly this one. He wasn't a monk, but he hoped he treated his paramours with more respect than Walter had. At the very least, he was careful not to gift them with a child.
Walter hadn't been the only one frequenting the maidens'— and matrons'— beds. Felix, the blacksmith's son, had given him stiff — ha! — competition. It had been so bad that far too often, no one, including the mother, knew which man was a new baby's father until the Graham streak showed up, if it did.
It had been better for all concerned when Felix was the father. Then, if there was a husband involved, the man might never realize he'd been cuckolded. Harry still remembered all too vividly the time one of the tenants had come, pitchfork in hand, to find his older brother. Usually, the Graham streak appeared by the time a child was two or three years old, but this man's firstborn son's hair hadn't shown its silver blaze until his tenth birthday.
"Exactly! I'm so glad you agree with me, Lord Darrow."
His attention snapped back to Lady Susan. Good Lord, he had no idea what she'd been rattling on about. He was losing his touch. He'd never been so unaware of his surroundings when he'd been working for the Crown.
He had to keep his mind focused on matters at hand. He'd promised Mama he'd propose to the woman, after all. He was planning to pop the question tonight.
Lady Susan laughed. "To tell you the truth, I was amazed Madame Merchant —"
"Marchand," he said, correcting her and giving the name its French pronunciation. Apparently, she was still droning on about dresses.
If I take her into the shrubbery, at least she'll stop talking.
Though, on second thought, he wouldn't bet on that. Even if he attempted a kiss, he'd likely not slow her verbal torrent. "Madame Marchand. She has her shop just off Bond Street."
"Oh, yes. I suppose you are correct." Lady Susan sniffed. "As I was saying ..."
He kept one ear on Lady Susan's monologue while his thoughts drifted off again, this time to the French dressmaker. He'd visited Bernandine a few times when he was in London. He liked to practice his French — and other skills — with her. But once he married ...
There was no need for any of his habits to change when he married, especially not if his wife was Lady Susan. She'd likely thank him to take his male lust somewhere beside their marital bed.
And he was going to marry Lady Susan — if she would let him edge a word in. He'd never met a woman who could talk so fluently about nothing.
Do I really want to wed such a jabberer?
No, he didn't, but he didn't have much of an alternative. She was the best of a bad lot.
His mother had laid the matter out quite clearly the moment he'd set a foot back in Darrow Hall after almost ten years abroad. He had to marry and get an heir as soon as possible.
He'd been in Paris when he'd got word that Walter had broken his neck going over a jump. Zeus, he'd never forget how he'd felt when he'd read that letter. It had been as if someone had administered a flush hit to his breadbasket and followed it by dumping a load of bricks on his head.
I never expected to be earl. I never wanted to be.
He'd liked the life he'd built for himself. He'd spent the last decade in Portugal, Spain, France, Austria, living by his wits, dealing in ideas, in stratagems and politics, not in crops and drainage ditches and leaky roofs.
But he was the earl now and with that came the duty to continue the succession. And Walter's death had proved all too conclusively that no one was guaranteed another day on this earth.
Which Mama had pointed out most emphatically. He needed an heir, she'd said bluntly. There was no time to delay. Walter had been only thirty-five, and here he was, dead. And, as Walter had also illustrated all too well, Harry couldn't be assured of having a son on his first attempt. Or his second. Or third. His sister-in-law, Letitia, had produced a baby a year: Adrianna, Bianca, Cassandra. Likely she and Walter would have carried on through the alphabet until they'd got a boy if she'd been able, but she'd lost the last three pregnancies and then, if rumor was to be believed, had refused to let Walter back into her bed.
So, Mama had handed Harry a list she'd made of eligible women, young females with the proper pedigree and several brothers. All he needed to do was choose one, marry, and get down to swiving his brains out.
Well, Mama hadn't said that last part, at least not in so many words. But her message had been painfully clear: the sooner he got an heir and a spare, the better.
She'd wanted him to make his selection on the spot, picking a name off the list, but he'd insisted on meeting the women first. They'd all still been in the schoolroom when he'd left England. So, they'd compromised. Mama had agreed to let him take a Season to shop the Marriage Mart without constantly badgering him. And he'd agreed to make his choice once the Season was over.
The Season had ended in June. He hadn't encountered a single woman who made his heart — or even his baser organ — long for a closer relationship, but he'd given his word. He had to choose one.
Lady Susan would do as well as any other. Better, perhaps. At least she was in her early twenties, older than most of the others on the list. Mama would have preferred he choose a debutante — she'd argued that he'd get more breeding years from a girl in her late teens — but he couldn't stomach the thought of taking what to him felt like a child to bed. And since, as far as he could discern, Lady Susan harbored no tender feelings for him, she wouldn't be offended by his inability to feel any affection for her.
He only hoped he didn't go deaf from her constant chatter.
At least she was pleasant to look at. And Darrow Hall was a big place. It wouldn't be hard to avoid her there, and when he was in London, he'd spend all his time at his clubs. Except for the obligatory swiving. With luck, he'd get her with child on their wedding night, and their first two children would be male.
Lady Susan's fashion commentary showed no sign of abating, but time was marching on. He could feel his mother's and his sister-in-law's eyes boring a hole in his back. It was the last day of the house party. He was supposed to invite the woman for a stroll in the vegetation where he would perhaps steal a kiss and discover if she was agreeable to him asking her father for her hand in marriage.
Of course, she was agreeable. She wouldn't be at this infernal party if she wasn't. Her father was likely sitting in a room somewhere, waiting for him to make his appearance.
His stomach twisted, and he took a settling swallow of brandy. He'd faced worse assignments during the war. At least he wouldn't die from their trip to the garden — unless he drowned in her never-ending stream of words.
The sooner he married and got a son, the sooner he could reclaim his life. He wasn't looking for a love match, after all. Hell, he wouldn't know love if it bit him on the arse.
What I'd had with Pen had felt very much like love. ...
Ha. He'd been eighteen. What had he known of love? Nothing. His feelings had been lust, pure — very pure — and simple.
This union with Lady Susan would be a typical marriage of convenience. A business arrangement: a title, prestige, and wealth in exchange for a son or two. It was a very common sort of thing among the ton. Once his wife — once Lady Susan — completed her side of the bargain, she'd be free to go her own way as long as she took sensible precautions.
He just hoped he'd be more efficient than Walter at getting an heir.
He stiffened his spine, metaphorically speaking. There was no point in delaying the inevitable. He opened his mouth to utter the words that would seal his fate —
And then a bolt of lightning lit the room, followed by a great crack of thunder and a torrential downpour.
God had saved him. There would be no stroll in the garden tonight.
The Lord had even managed to stop Lady Susan's chatter.
"My, that was a surprise. I don't like storms. Why, last summer I was caught in a terrible one."
Was he now doomed to listen to an accounting of every raindrop that had ever hit Lady Susan's lovely head?
No. The Duke of Grainger came over to finish what the Almighty had begun.
"Good evening, Lady Susan," the duke said into the silence he'd created by his appearance. "I hope you don't mind me stealing Darrow away, but I'm afraid it's getting late and I have an urgent matter I must take up with him in private."
Harry glanced around, surprised to see that almost everyone else — except his mother and sister-in-law and old Lord Pembleton, sipping his sherry in a corner by the potted palm — had left.
"Oh?" Lady Susan looked uncertainly at Harry. "But I thought ... That is, I expected ..." She frowned. "Lord Darrow, I was given to understand we had something of particular interest to discuss."
Then why did you drone on about dresses?
Harry opened his mouth, not entirely certain what words would come out, but Grainger clapped him on the back and spoke before he could.
"Well, there's always the morning, isn't there? I'm sure it will keep. Unfortunately, my issue will not. Please excuse us."
And with that he hauled Harry away.
Harry had never been one to allow himself to be led anywhere, but he also wasn't an idiot. He could see salvation when it was dangled before him. He went meekly — and quickly — along until they were in Grainger's study with the door firmly closed.
"Zounds!" Harry collapsed into one of the leather chairs by the hearth.
Grainger laughed and went over to a cut-glass decanter. "Can I offer you some more brandy?" He grinned. "It's even better than what you have there."
Harry tossed off the last drops in his glass and then held it out for Grainger to refill. "I should have finished my conversation with Lady Susan, you know."
Grainger chuckled as he took the chair across from Harry and put the decanter on the table between them. "Good luck at finishing any conversation with that woman." He cocked a brow. "You weren't about to suggest what I think you were, were you?"
"If you mean was I going to offer for her, yes, I was."
Grainger shook his head, a mixture of disgust and sympathy on his face. "Offer for that magpie? You'd be deaf before the ceremony was over." He snorted. "I wager you'd have to gag the woman so you could say your vows."
Possibly. "She's very beautiful."
"Then commission a painting of her and hang it in your study. Paintings don't talk."
If only that would solve the problem. "I promised my mother I would find a wife this Season."
Grainger's nose wrinkled in distaste. "And you picked Lady Susan?"
Harry shrugged a shoulder as he took another swallow of brandy and stared into the fire. "I wasn't going to marry a child just out of the schoolroom. Lady Susan will do."
"For what? To drive you mad? She'll manage that in short order, I assure you." Grainger pulled a face. "I've had the misfortune to be seated next to her at more than one meal. The lips move and words come out. They even make sense most of the time, but they are so soul-sucking boring, you want to pick up your knife and stab her to make her stop — or slit your own throat to end your misery." He shook his head. "And she doesn't listen. Ever. I wouldn't wish her on my worst enemy."
Grainger leaned forward and waggled his index finger at Harry. "Marry her and I'll never invite you here again. I value my sanity too much. Good God, man, I swear I lose a little more intelligence with every word she utters."
Grainger was making rather too much of the matter.
"So then why did you invite her to this house party?" Granted, this had not been the usual ton country gathering. The guests were older — none of the just-out-of-the-schoolroom girls here. A few were widows with young children in tow, which would make sense if Grainger was considering remarriage. Grainger's wife had died several years ago, just days after their son was born.
"I was afraid I could see the way the wind was blowing with you. I don't want to have to cut your acquaintance. I was hoping extended exposure to her would bring you to your senses." He grinned and said hopefully, "And has it?"
Harry's senses had never been at issue. "You seem to be missing the point here, Grainger. I need an heir. Ergo, I need a wife."
"But perhaps not this particular wife." Grainger poured them both more brandy. "What's the rush? You're not even thirty yet."
"True, but my brother's sudden death — Walter was only thirty-five, you know — has made me —" Might as well lay it all out on the table. "Well, mostly my mother and sister-in-law acutely aware of the uncertainty of life. I could overturn my carriage leaving here and break my neck."
"Which might be preferable to marrying Lady Susan."
Harry almost snorted brandy out his nose. "I wouldn't say that." Though if he were being brutally honest, he didn't completely disagree with Grainger.
I can't really prefer death to marrying Lady Susan, can I?
No, of course not.
Grainger cocked a skeptical brow, but didn't argue the point. "Don't you have a cousin or some relative who will inherit if you should meet an untimely end?" he asked instead.
Harry nodded. "Yes. A very distant cousin in my great-grandfather's brother's line."
"Ah. Now that would be quite the calamity, wouldn't it?" Grainger said with a perfectly straight face.
Of course, Grainger wouldn't see the problem in letting ... Harry wasn't even sure of the fellow's name who was next in line to be earl. Searching among the distant leaves of the family tree was precisely how Grainger had succeeded to his title. Until early this spring, he'd been merely Edward Russell, London solicitor — and then the fourth Duke of Grainger, along with his wife and children, had died suddenly and unexpectedly of influenza.
Harry shrugged, acknowledging Grainger's point. "Perhaps it wouldn't, but Mama and Letitia aren't eager to have their comfortable lives upended."
Grainger's other brow rose as well, and then both settled into a frown. Clearly, he was biting his tongue.
Well, Grainger wasn't saddled — er, blessed — with female relatives.
"Don't make it bleed," Harry said. Grainger grinned.
"And it's not just them, of course," Harry continued. "I have a responsibility to all the people on the estate." He might not have given a thought to being earl, but his years in the army and working for the Crown had impressed upon him the need to look out for the people who depended on him.
Grainger still looked unconvinced. "I see. Well, then, I am very sorry to have put a spoke in your wheel. I hope — well, I don't actually hope because I think it's a dashed bad idea, but if you're really set on it, then I imagine you can propose to Lady Susan in the morning."
Harry grunted and took another swallow of brandy. He'd never been enthusiastic about offering for Lady Susan, but now suddenly he felt trapped.
Blast Grainger for cracking open the door to his prison. He was very tempted to bolt. It must be the brandy's fault.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "What Ales The EARL"
Copyright © 2018 Sally MacKenzie.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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