Excerpt from AN EARL TO ENCHANT
Was she late or simply not coming?
Lucas Randolph Morgandale, the ninth Earl of Morgandale, sat in his book room with his booted feet propped on the Louis XIV writing desk. He sipped brandy from a glass that had been warmed by his hand and listened to the rain gently beat against the windowpane. The foul weather, the indulgent amount of drink he’d consumed, and the fact that the woman hadn’t arrived, had him feeling restless, much to his irritation.
But it was more than the weather and the absent courtesan that had him in an ill humor. Morgan had watched both his cousins, Blake and Race, fall in love and marry during the London Season, and he had no intentions of falling prey to the same trap, despite their clever machinations over the past few weeks. In order to avoid any such confining pitfalls, he’d decided to quit the city early and spend the entire summer at his Valleydale estate in Dorset.
The first couple of weeks, it had been easy for him to fill his days with endless paperwork, hunting, and working with his thoroughbred horses. Later in the summer he had taken the time to ride over the vast lands of all his holdings, visiting with each of his tenants and thanking them for their hard work and dedication. In the evenings, he had enjoyed gaming at the local tavern or attending one of the many house parties that were scheduled at various estates around the area.
Still there was a void, an inexplicable feeling that something was missing in his life. Since a young lad, he had always enjoyed his stays at Valleydale, and he couldn’t put his finger on what made this time different.
Perhaps he had simply grown tired of the slower pace of country life. But every time he thought about going back to London, he remembered the knot of frustration over Blake’s and Race’s scheming in trying to show him how wonderful married life could be. He had told them on more than one occasion that he had no desire to be tied down by the bonds of matrimony.
Gambling, drinking, riding, and all the other things he’d done had not completely distracted him from the fact that his two best friends, cousins at that, had married. And while both of them had done the proper thing and invited him to dinner often, it hadn’t taken him long to realize that was half the problem. Every time he turned around, one of them was having him to dinner at their home with their wives and very conveniently happened to invite a string of uninspiring young ladies as well.
He was tired of being entangled in their schemes.
Morgan huffed under his breath and took another sip of the brandy, letting it settle on his tongue a few seconds before swallowing. They were mollycoddling him as if he couldn’t find feminine companionship for himself.
He had to get away. He had to get away from them. London Society was fueled by gossip, and all the scandalmongers were laying bets he’d be married by the end of summer. Morgan had scoffed at that ridiculous notion as utterly preposterous. But it hadn’t kept White’s from making it an official wager, much to his consternation.
Morgan would rather pay for his women so there would be no strings attached. But finding a suitable bedmate was obviously more easily planned than carried out so far from the City.
It wasn’t that there weren’t plenty of women around willing to share their beds or to give him a few minutes of pleasure, but Morgan had realized a few months ago, when he was at Valleydale with his cousins, that a quick romp with an upstairs wench at the local tavern no longer held any appeal for him. And unlike his cousins, Blake and Race, Morgan had never cared for the idea of a setting up a paid mistress in Town to be at his beck and call. Mistresses demanded time and attention that he wasn’t willing to give.
So in desperation, he supposed, he had come up with a grand plan to hire a woman never destined to be a wife to come and spend a couple of days with him at his estate; a beautiful, willing woman he could sink his flesh into with no strings attached, only relief.
With the help of his solicitor, Buford Saint, Morgan had gone to great lengths to arrange for an exclusive and quite expensive lady of the evening to travel out via a private coach to see him. Saint had assured him she was highly sought after, and even Prinny himself had been known to enjoy her services from time to time.
Morgan had a letter from Saint saying she would arrive this afternoon, but afternoon had turned to evening, and evening had become late night, and there still was no sign of Miss Francine Goodbody. When she hadn’t made it by nine o’clock, and it was clear she wouldn’t be taking supper with him, Morgan had sent his two house servants to bed. Since then, he had been in his book room drinking too much, as was evidenced by the pounding in his temples and the roar in his ears.
He hated the feeling of not being quite in control of himself. That and the cursed headaches the next day were the reasons he’d fallen out of favor with drunkenness years ago. But tonight, for some damned reason, he had uncharacteristically given in to frustration and ended up feeling justified for overindulging in the fine brandy his cousin Blake had given him before he left London.
While continuing to grumble over his unfortunate plight, Morgan heard a noise. A sharp sense of warning shimmied up his back for a second, and he regained control of himself instantly. Did he hear the sound of a carriage coming up the tree-lined drive that led to his house? Had the much-anticipated Miss Francine Goodbody finally arrived? As quietly as possible, he lowered his feet to the floor and placed the brandy glass on the edge of the desk. He rose, walked to the opposite side of the room, parted the sheers that covered the window, and looked out into the darkness.
A dense fog had settled over the landscape, and rain fell in a steady stream. No one should be out in this downpour, but he was certain that he saw the lights from a coach coming up the lonely road that led to the front of his house.
She had made it at last.
Morgan threw a glance to the brass-encased clock on the mantel. Almost midnight.
“It was probably Lord Chesterfield who said ‘better late than never,’” Morgan mumbled softly. And for once, he agreed with the pompous earl. Though he doubted Chesterfield had said half the stuff his grandmother attributed to the man.
If Morgan met Miss Goodbody at the door, perhaps he could get her above stairs and settled into her room without waking the servants. It wasn’t that he felt as if he had to sneak around in his own house or censure his conduct around his staff , but he would just as soon not have to deal with his butler, Post, or the man’s wife until tomorrow morning.
Three days ago, when he received the letter from his solicitor saying that all had been arranged and Miss Goodbody would be arriving today, Morgan had given most of the staff a week off. At first he had had no feelings for the servants’ sensibilities concerning this matter, but later, he wisely decided it was best to take precautions and be discreet. Why let his entire household of servants know about his dalliance with the courtesan?
The fewer eyebrows he raised with his aberrant behavior of inviting a woman to entertain him in his home, the better. Most of the servants at Valleydale had been with his grandmother for many years and were reluctant to leave, feeling they would be neglecting their duties to him to take a full week off. Morgan finally had to insist they take the holiday.
Miss Goodbody would be gone by the time the staff returned, and hopefully, because Morgan had complete trust in Post and his wife, no one else would be the wiser about Morgan’s rendezvous with the delectable-sounding woman Saint had selected for him.
Morgan grabbed the low-burning lamp from his desk and walked toward the front of the house. As he strode by the drawing room, he saw lights from the lanterns on the coach pass by the window. He picked up his pace, wanting to get to the door before Miss Goodbody hit the large brass knocker that was fashioned in the shape of a magnificent horse. The clang from that thing could wake the hounds of hell. He placed the lamp on a vestibule table, and then and as quietly as possible, he threw the latch and opened the heavy door. It creaked, but he hoped, not enough to wake the servants who slept on the second floor and off the main section of the house.
As he stepped onto the porch, the wet, chilling air filled his lungs and helped clear his head. In the distance, behind the coach and through the trees, he saw a break in the clouds. The moon shone down, giving an eerie cast to the whorls of fog that lingered and hovered close to the ground.
Through the rain, he watched the driver jump down and open the door to the coach. A lady covered head to toe in a black hooded cape stepped out. In the gray light from the lanterns attached to the outside of the coach, he saw another woman who looked to be wearing what he would consider a servant’s headpiece start to step down, too, but the lady on the ground turned and spoke to her.
Morgan couldn’t hear what they were saying, but it seemed to him that they were having a heated discussion. He assumed that the maid wanted to follow Miss Goodbody to the door, but she wasn’t having any of that. It struck him as odd that Miss Goodbody’s maid would take her to task over anything, especially considering the fact her employer was getting drenched from the cascading rain while she was doing it. After a few moments, the maid disappeared back inside the coach, and the driver shut the door.
It hadn’t dawned on Morgan that his courtesan would bring her maid, but it should have. He had intimate knowledge of how difficult it was to get a woman out of her clothing or back into it for that matter. That thought sent a wave of anticipation shooting through him. He could more than adequately handle that job for Miss Goodbody while she was at Valleydale. In fact, he was looking forward to it. There were times when unlacing stays could be quite titillating. He would find a place for the maid on the servants’ floor. Her services wouldn’t be needed tonight.
Miss Goodbody turned and headed his way. Though the rain pelted her, she remained unfazed by the downpour and calmly walked up the steps toward him, shrouded in a drenched, hooded cape that was lavishly trimmed along the edge in a brightly colored braid. She was tall and walked with a graceful, regal air that made his lower stomach clench in anticipation. Saint had said she was as cultured and polished as she was skilled, and Morgan was looking forward to finding out all about her talents.
Beneath her heavy cloak, he could see that she was slender and not as voluptuous a woman as Saint had promised, but that didn’t bother him. Morgan had learned many years ago that a woman’s prowess had nothing to do with her size. She stopped before him, and though he couldn’t see much of her face in the gloomy light, he was instantly struck by her ivory complexion and searching eyes. Was that uncertainty he saw in their sparkling green depths?
“Sir,” she said rather breathlessly as she took a quick, fervent look behind her before fastening her gaze on him. “I’m sorry to disturb you this late in the evening, but I’ve been traveling all day to get here.”
She had a beautiful lilt to her soft voice that surprised and intrigued him immediately. She was British, of that he was certain, but he heard a hint of a foreign accent, as well, that he could only identify as perhaps from a mid-Eastern country. He was certain it wasn’t French or Italian.
“Never mind all that,” he said. “The only thing that matters is that you are here now. Come in where it’s dry.”
He opened the door wider and allowed her to walk past him and into the front hall. Once inside, she folded back the dripping hood, exposing the most beautiful light auburn hair he’d ever seen, flowing over her shoulders in a cluster of rich-looking curls. As she untied the braided cord at her neck, the movements of her slender fingers and delicate hands were equally prim and sensual.
Morgan’s heart started beating a little faster.
With her hood off and in the light from the lamp he’d left on the entrance table, he could see she was quite a bit younger than he’d expected for a courtesan with the experience Saint had assured him she possessed. Morgan would trust that the man had thoroughly checked her out and knew what he was talking about.
Her soft-looking skin was uncommonly pale. He was surprised that her full lips had little color, and dark circles lay under her large, expressive green eyes as if she had recently been gravely ill or hadn’t had proper rest for several days.
In spite of her wan appearance, she was beautiful, enticing in a dreamy, exotic way that caused a sudden surge of heat in him that settled low. Already he wanted to reach out and caress her cheek. He wanted to bring her into the circle of his arms and pull her close to his chest. He wanted to bury his nose in the crook of her neck and breathe in her soft, womanly scent.
Saint had certainly done well for him as far as beauty and allure were concerned. From the heavy rise Morgan felt between his legs, there was no doubt he was physically attracted to her. That alone told him she would be worth every pound he was paying her.
“What delayed you?” he asked simply to make conversation. “It must have been the weather—or perhaps your driver was a laggard.”
Her dark, fan-shaped brows rose slightly as if to question him. “We didn’t let anything delay us. I came straight here,” she countered.
Morgan looked closer at the young woman. He couldn’t see her dress, but the fabric and trim of her cape were of fine, expensive materials that couldn’t be bought in ordinary shops in London. She had definitely piqued his interest.
“I suppose it rained all the way from London. But no worry, you are here now. I have your room ready. Let me help you with your cape, and then I’ll go tell your driver how to get to the carriage house. Your maid, of course, will be given a room as well.”
As he reached for her, she stepped away from him. Her eyes challenged him with a high-handedness he hadn’t expected from a woman he was paying.
“Excuse me, sir. You didn’t know I was coming. How could you have a room prepared for me?”
Morgan paused, confused for a moment, but quickly remembered that Saint had told him Miss Goodbody was excellent at role playing. She could be any type of woman he wanted. Morgan wasn’t really into masquerades and mystique, even though it was the current rage in London Society. He was much too conventional to find pleasure in hiding behind a mask or pretending to be someone he was not. But if it made Miss Goodbody happy, he supposed he could play along with her for a little while, even though his head was throbbing, and playing games at this hour of the night was the last thing he wanted to do.
“Madame, surely you know that I always have a room ready in case an unexpected guest arrives at my house in the middle of the night.”
Her darkly fringed gaze searched his face, and her uneasiness became more noticeable as she threw another furtive glance toward the front door. For a moment Morgan thought she was going to bolt out of it.
“This is your house? Sir, I think I should leave immediately. Because of the fog and rain, I believe my driver has brought me to the wrong door.”
Another snag of concern caught in Morgan’s head, but he immediately dismissed it. Did she think to arouse him by acting the part of a skittish, innocent waif who had lost her way and ended up at his mercy? If so, she should have been on time. It was far too damned late in the evening for her antics of the damsel in distress to work for him.
“Don’t be coy,” he said, wanting to end her ruse and get on with the matter for which he’d hired her. “I’m afraid your acting abilities, while really quite good, are wasted on me. Now allow me to take your cloak so we can retire.”
Her eyes widened in alarm. She took another step back, and her foot landed against the closed door. Morgan gave into the worrisome feeling that something wasn’t quite right, even though there was something infinitely compelling and mysterious about her.
Keeping her gaze riveted on him, she looked suspiciously at him and seemed to struggle for words. “I fear you have mistaken me for someone else.”
“Don’t be silly. I knew you were coming. I had Mr. Saint arrange your visit for me, though it is true I was expecting you earlier in the afternoon.”
She looked at him from eyes sparkling hot from outrage and surprise. “How dare you, sir! I don’t know what you are talking about. I have never heard of anyone by the name of Saint.”
More doubt about her stirred around Morgan. If she was acting, she was damn good. Could what he was thinking be possible? No, he didn’t want to believe that.
He tensed and allowed the silence between them to lengthen. He wasn’t sure he really wanted to know the answer, but finally he calmly asked, “Are you Miss Francine Goodbody?”
Her chin lifted defiantly as if an inner confidence surfaced, fortifying her. “Sir, I am not.”
Morgan groaned as the realization that he would not be enjoying the pleasure of this soft, alluring woman in his bed tonight seeped through him .
But another thought suddenly struck him as well, and he said, “My cousins sent you here, didn’t they?”
“They somehow found out about my arrangements, and this is their idea of a humorous trick. I suppose they waylaid Miss Goodbody and sent you in her place. No doubt they are having a laughing good time at my expense as we speak.”
The young woman bristled perceptibly. “I have no knowledge of Miss Goodbody, the cousins you speak of, or anyone else you might know.” She looked straight at him and very confidently said, “I am Miss Arianna Sweet.”
He eyed her skeptically at first, but the longer he stared at her the more he wondered what her role in this debacle really was. Could she possibly be telling the truth? She certainly looked like she was. A stab of disappointment struck him, and it instantly turned to anger.
Morgan swore softly under his breath.
Her assertion that she was not the courtesan he expected sobered him more than he liked. A sardonic chuckle passed his lips, and he shook his head. This situation would be laughable if it wasn’t so annoyingly unbelievable. A beautiful, tempting woman finally arrives at his door, but now quite obviously not the one he was expecting. What were the chances of that ever happening?
Spending his summer at Valleydale was not turning out to be one of his better ideas. Perhaps life in London wasn’t so bad after all.
Morgan fought to quell his frustration over the realization that this delectable young lady was not Miss Goodbody, and she would not be spending the night beneath him.
He stared at her, unable to look away from the intensity of her gaze. She was so indignant at his accusations that he felt forced to believe her.
“Obviously, I was anticipating someone else, Miss Sweet,” he said, unable to hide his frustration or his impatience. “So if you are not here by way of my cousins’ conniving or at Mr. Saint’s behest, by all means, tell me what is it that brings you to my door on this rainy, late evening? If it was directions you wanted, I could easily have spoken to your driver.”
His brusque tone didn’t seem to faze her as she took a commanding step toward him and said, “I came to speak to Lady Elder. I realize she is not receiving at this unbelievably late hour, but do you think she would mind if I waited until she’s available to see me?”
Morgan grunted another laugh. What madness was this woman up to?
“Lady Elder is not here,” he said, unable to keep the sarcasm he was feeling out of his voice.
Miss Sweet stared at him with guarded surprise. Morgan got the distinct impression she didn’t believe him.
“But she must be,” the young lady challenged him in a stiff voice. “This is Valleydale, is it not, or am I, indeed, at the wrong estate?”
“Yes, Miss Sweet, it is,” he said derisively. “You are here, but she is not.”
Her hand flew to her forehead in contemplation, and Morgan thought he saw her fingers tremble. He noticed vulnerability in her that he hadn’t seen before, and he was certain now she wasn’t acting.
Something troubled her, but what and why had she brought it to his door?
She looked up at him with imploring eyes, and in a soft voice said, “I came all this way to see Lady Elder. Tell me where she is at once, and I shall go there.”
The throbbing in Morgan’s temples increased. Just who the hell did this chit think she was?
Unable to keep a hint of accusation out of his voice, he stepped closer to her and said, “Excuse me, Miss Sweet, but are you issuing a demand to me?”
Morgan realized he’d spoken more sharply than he intended, but this encounter had gone beyond being a dreadful farce. It was more than comical or frustrating, it was damned maddening, and he was ready for it to end.
She seemed unruffled by his gruff behavior and looked straight into his eyes.
“No, of course not.” She took in a quick, deep breath and then slowly exhaled before adding, “All right, maybe it was a demand. But you don’t understand. It’s imperative that I speak to her as soon as possible.”
Miss Sweet was nothing if not direct; he would give her that.
Morgan shook his head and laughed softly under his breath. Of Lady Elder’s three grandsons, Morgan was the levelheaded one. He had always been rational, sensible, and clear-minded no matter the situation. He was a planner and never did anything without thinking through the consequences, and he never lost control. He was determined this intriguing young lady’s allure was not going to get the best of him.
He watched as she moistened her lips, giving them a little shine and color. Though she remained quiet, he could tell by her rigid stance and rapidly blinking eyes that she struggled to keep her composure. She lightly shook her head as if to clear her thoughts and to renew some inner strength that was weakening. There was a determined edge to the set of her jaw, and sudden fear that he hadn’t seen before shimmered in the depths of her beautiful green eyes that gave him a moment’s pause.
But only a moment.
Another time, Morgan might have been more indulgent with this captivating lady standing before him and enjoyed the conversation, but not tonight. She had picked the wrong evening to arrive at his door with her odd request to see his grandmother. His head pounded from the drink, and his stomach had begun to roil.
“I can tell you that it won’t be possible to see her or speak to her, and I should know. I’m her grandson.”
Alarm flashed in her eyes. Her gaze swept down his body as she took in his attire.
“Oh, my lord, or is it Your Grace?” She immediately curtsied. “I apologize for mistaking you for one of Lady Elder’s staff. I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions. I know that she has three grandsons, an Earl, a Marquis, and a Duke. Forgive me, but I don’t know which you are.”
Morgan glanced down at his clothing and silently cursed. Sometime during the long evening in his book room, he had not only discarded his neckcloth and collar but his waistcoat and coat as well. She had no way of knowing he was the master of the house. It was no wonder she thought him a servant, and a damned sloppy one at that, giving the state of his rumpled shirt that was more than half pulled from the band of his riding breeches.
He cleared his throat and said, “There is no need for an apology. I am the Earl of Morgandale and Lady Elder’s oldest grandson.”
“My lord, if your grandmother won’t be away for a long time, do you mind if I wait for her to return? I really must speak to—”
Morgan held up his hand to stop her from further discussion of his grandmother. For a moment, he thought he saw her body tremble.
Did she think him such a scoundrel that he wouldn’t offer her the hospitality of his house for the night before sending her on her way in the morning? That angered him. Damnation, he wasn’t an ogre, but his patience was already on a short tether before she had arrived. And it was damned frustrating that he was immensely attracted to her, since clearly he couldn’t do anything about that. Given the lateness of the hour and the foul weather, he really had no choice but to offer her shelter for the evening.
Still, he wasn’t in a mood to be kind along with having to be accommodating. “You will be waiting a long time to see her, Miss Sweet,” he said grimly. “My grandmother died over a year ago.”
A soft, anguished gasp fluttered past her lips. “No,” she whispered, shaking her head. “That can’t be.”
“I’m afraid it is,” he said, thinking it was rather odd that she seemed to be taking the news of his grandmother’s death so hard. Morgan watched the last shade of color drain from her beautiful face. Her green eyes blinked rapidly and then slowly.
But she didn’t respond.
Her head tilted back as her eyes fluttered closed, and despite a long night of drinking, he leaped forward just in time and somehow managed to catch her as her body collapsed and she fainted into his arms .
An Earl to Enchant
Sourcebooks; ISBN-10: 1402217617