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Only an Earl Will Do
The reigning queen of London society, Lady Elizabeth Worthingham, has her future set out for her. Marry well, and marry without love. An easy promise to make and one she owed her family after her near ruinous past that threatened them all. And the rakish scoundrel Henry Andrews, Earl of Muir whose inability to act a gentleman when she needed one most would one day pay for his treachery.
Returning to England after three years abroad, Henry is determined to make the only woman who captured his heart his wife. But the icy reception he receives from Elizabeth is colder than his home in the Scottish highlands. As past hurts surface and deception runs as thick as blood, so too does a love that will overcome all obstacles, unless a nameless foe, determined with his own path, gets his way and their love never sees the light of day...
England 1805 – Surrey
Elizabeth stood motionless as her mother, the Duchess of Penworth, paced before the lit hearth, her golden silk gown billowing out behind her, the deep frown between her eyes daring anyone to follow her. “No. Let me rephrase that. The family is ruined. All my girls, their futures, have been kicked to the curb like some poor street urchins.”
Elizabeth, the eldest of all the girls, swiped a lone tear from her cheek and fought not to cast up her accounts. “But surely Henry has written of his return.” She turned to her father. “Papa, what did his missive say?” The severe frown lines between her father’s brows were deeper than she’d ever seen them before, and dread pooled in her belly. What had she done? What had Henry said?
“I shall not read it to you, Elizabeth, for I fear it’ll only upset you more, and being in the delicate condition you are we must keep you well. But never again will I allow the Earl of Muir to step one foot into my home. To think,” her father said, kicking at a log beside the fire, “that I supported him to seek out his uncle in America. I’m utterly ashamed of myself.”
“No,” Elizabeth said, catching her father’s gaze. “You have nothing to be ashamed of. I do. I’m the one who lay with a man who wasn’t my husband. I’m the one who now carries his child.” The tears she’d fought so hard to hold at bay started to run in earnest. “Henry and I were friends, well, I thought we were friends. I assumed he’d do the right thing by our family, by me. Why is it that he’ll not return?”
Her mother, quietly staring out the window, turned at her question. “Because his uncle has said no nephew of his would marry a strumpet who gave away the prize before the contracts were signed, and Henry apparently was in agreement with this statement.”
Her father sighed. “There is an old rivalry between Henry’s uncle and me. We were never friends, even though I noted Henry’s father high in my esteem, as close as a brother, in fact. Yet his sibling was temperamental, a jealous cur.”
“Why were you not friends with Henry’s uncle, Papa?” He did not reply. “Please tell me. I deserve to know.”
“Because he wished to marry your mama, and I won her hand instead. He was blind with rage, and it seems even after twenty years he wishes to seek revenge upon me by ruining you.”
Elizabeth flopped onto a settee, shocked by such news. “Did Henry know of this between you and his uncle? Did you ever tell him?”
“No. I thought it long forgotten.”
Elizabeth swallowed as the room started to swirl. “So, Henry has found his wealthy uncle and has been poisoned by his lies. The man has made me out to be a light-skirt of little character.” She took a calming breath. “Tell me, does the letter really declare this to be Henry’s opinion as well?”
The duke came and sat beside her. “It is of both their opinions, yes.” He took her hand and squeezed it. “You need to marry, Elizabeth, and quickly. There is no other choice.”
She stood, reeling away from her father at such an idea. To marry a stranger was worse than no marriage at all and falling from grace. “I cannot do that. I haven’t even had a season. I know no one.”
“A good friend of mine, Viscount Newland, recently passed. His son, Marcus, who is a little simple of mind after a fall from a horse as a child, is in need of a wife. But because of his ailment, no one will have him. They are desperate to keep the estate within the family and are looking to marry him off. It would be a good match for you both. I know it is not what you wanted, but it will save you and your sisters from ruin.”
Elizabeth stood looking down at her father, her mouth agape with shock and not a little amount of disgrace. “You want me to marry a simpleton?”
“His speech is a little delayed only, otherwise he’s a kind young man. I grant you he’s not as handsome as Henry, but…well, we must do what’s best in these situations.”
Her mother sighed. “Lord Riddledale has called and asked for your hand once more. You could always accept his suit.”
“Please, I would rather cut off my own hand than marry his lordship.” Just the thought was enough to make her skin crawl.
“Well then, you will marry Lord Newland. I’m sorry, but it must and will be done,” her mother said, her tone hard.
Elizabeth walked to the window that looked toward the lake where she’d given herself to Henry. His sweet whispered words of love, of wanting her to wait for him, that as soon as he procured enough funds to support his Scottish estate they would marry, flittered through her mind. What a liar he’d turned out to be. All he wanted was her innocence and nothing else.
Anger thrummed through her and she grit her teeth. How dare Henry trick her in such a way? Made her fall in love with him, promised to be faithful and marry her when he returned. He never wished to marry her. Had he wanted to right now he would be on his way back to England.
She turned, staring at her parents who looked resigned to a fate none of them imagined possible or ever wanted. “I will marry Viscount Newland. Write them and organize the nuptials to take place within the month or sooner if possible. The child I carry needs a father and the viscount needs a wife.”
“Then it is done.” Her father stood, walking over to her and taking her hand. “Did Henry promise you anything, Elizabeth? The letter is so out of character for him, I’ve wondered since receiving it that it isn’t really of his opinion but his uncle’s only.”
“He wanted me to wait for him, to give him time to save his family’s estate. He did not wish to marry a woman for her money; he wanted to be a self-made man, I suppose.”
“Lies, Elizabeth. All lies,” her mother stated, her voice cold. “Henry has used you, I fear, and I highly doubt he’ll ever come back to England or Scotland, for that matter.”
Elizabeth swallowed the lump in her throat, not wanting to believe the man she’d given her heart to would treat her in such a way. She’d thought Henry was different, was a gentleman who loved her. At the look of pity her father bestowed on her, she pushed him aside and ran from the room.
She needed air, fresh, cooling, calming air. Opening the front door, the chilling icy wind hit her face, and clarity assailed. She’d go for a ride. Her mount Argo always made her feel better.
It took the stable hand only minutes to saddle her mount, and she was soon trotting away from the house, the only sound that of the snow crunching beneath her horse’s hooves. The chill pierced through her gown, and she regretted not changing into a suitable habit, but riding astride in whatever they had on at the time was a normal practice for the children of the Duke of Penworth. Too much freedom as a child, all of them allowed to do whatever they pleased, and now that freedom had led her straight into the worst type of trouble.
She pushed her horse into a slow canter, her mind a kaleidoscope of turmoil. Henry, once her father’s ward, a person she’d thought to call a friend, had betrayed her when she needed him most. Guilt and shame swamped her just as snow started to fall, and covered everything in a crystal white hue.
She would never forgive Henry for this. Yes, they’d made a mistake, a terrible lack of decorum on her behalf that she’d never had time to think through. But should the worst happen, a child, she had consoled herself that Henry would do right by her, return home and marry her.
How could she have been so wrong?
She clutched her stomach, still no signs that a little child grew inside, and as much as she was ruined, could possibly ruin her family, she didn’t regret her condition, and nor would she birth this child out of wedlock. Lord Newland would marry her since his situation was not looked upon favorably by the ton; it was a match that would suit them both.
Guilt pricked her soul that she would pass off Henry’s child as Lord Newland’s, but what choice did she have? Henry would not marry her, declare the child his. Elizabeth had little choice. There was nothing else to be done about it.
A deer shot out of the bracken, and Argo shied, jumping sharply to the side. Elizabeth screamed as her seat slipped. The action unbalanced her and she fell, hitting the ground hard.
Luckily, the soft snow buffered her fall, and she sat up, feeling the same as she had when upon her horse. She rubbed her stomach, tears pooling in her eyes with the thought that had she fallen harder, all her problems would be over. What a terrible person she was to think such a thing, and how she hated Henry that his refusal of her had brought such horrendous thoughts to mind.
Argo nuzzled her side as she stood; reaching for the stirrup, she hoisted herself back onto her mount. Wiping the tears from her eyes, Elizabeth promised no more would be shed over a boy, for that was surely what Henry still was, an immature youth who gave no thought to others.
She would marry Viscount Newland, try and make him happy as much as possible when two strangers came together in such a union, and be damned anyone who mentioned the name Henry Andrews, Lord Muir to her again.
America 1805 – New York Harbor
Henry raised his face to the wind and rain as the packet ship sailed up the Hudson River. The damp winter air matched the cold he felt inside, numbing the pain that hadn’t left his core since farewelling the shores of England. And now he was here. America. The smoky city just waking to a new day looked close enough to reach out and touch, and yet his true love, Elizabeth, was farther away than she’d ever been before.
He rubbed his chest and huddled into his greatcoat. The five weeks across the ocean had dragged, endless days with his mind occupied with only one thought: his Elizabeth lass.
He shut his eyes, bringing the vision of her to his mind, her honest, laughing gaze, the beautiful smile that had always managed to make his breath catch. He frowned, missing her as much as the highland night sky would miss the stars.
“So, Henry, lad, what’s your plan on these great lands?”
Henry took in the captain on the British Government packet; his graying whiskers across his jaw and crinkled skin about his eyes told of a man who’d lived at sea his entire life, and enjoyed every moment of it. He grinned. “Make me fortune. Mend a broken family tie if I can.”
The captain lit a cheroot and puffed, the smoke soon lost in the misty air. “Ah, grand plans then. Any ideas on how you’ll be making your fortune? I could use some tips myself.”
“My uncle lives here. Owns a shipping company apparently, although I’ve yet to meet the man or see for myself if this is true. I’m hoping since he’s done so well for himself he can steer me along the road to me own fortune.”
The captain nodded, staring toward the bow. “It seems you have it all covered.”
Henry started when the captain yelled orders for half-mast. He hoped the old man was right with his statement. The less time he stayed here the better it would be. He pushed away the thought that Elizabeth was due to come out in the forthcoming months, to be paraded around the ton like a delicious morsel of sweet meats. To be the center of attention, a duke’s daughter ripe for the picking. He ground his teeth.
“I wish you good luck, Henry.”
“Thank ye.” The captain moved away, and he turned back to look at the city so unlike London or his highland home. Foreign and wrong on so many levels. The muddy waters were the only similarity to London, he mused, smiling a little.
Henry walked to the bow, leaning over the wooden rail. He sighed, trying to expel the sullen mood that had swamped him the closer they came to America. What he was doing here was a good thing, an honorable thing, something that if he didn’t do, Elizabeth would be lost to him forever.
He couldn’t have hated his grandfather more at that moment for having lost their fortune at the turn of a card all those years ago. It was a miracle his father had been able to keep Avonmore afloat and himself out of debtor’s prison.
The crewmen preparing the packet ship for docking sounded around him, and he started toward the small room he’d been afforded for the duration of the trip. It was better than nothing; even if he’d not been able to stand up fully within the space, at least it was private and comfortable.
Determination to succeed, to ensure his and Elizabeth’s future was secure, to return home as soon as he may, sparked within him. He would not fail; for once, the Earl of Muir would not gamble the estate’s future away, but fight for its survival, earn it respectably just as his ancestors had.
And he would return home, marry his English lass, and spoil her for the remainder of their days. In Scotland.
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