The Earl in My BedSophie Jordan
THE EARL IN MY BED
A Forgotten Princesses Valentine Novella
For my mother
* * *
An Excerpt from How to Lose a Bride in One Night
An Excerpt from Firelight
Also by Sophie Jordan
About the Author
About the Publisher
* * *
She could delay no longer.
As much as she hoped to put it off another day, another fortnight, Paget could wait no longer. As it were, the winter winds might freeze her to the bones if she did not return home soon. With a heavy breath, she took the final step that brought her to the crest of the hill overlooking the sprawling manor house that belonged to the Earl of Winningham. Exposed to the elements atop the rise, her wool dress whipped around her legs.
Paget swallowed thickly. The earl himself was in residence. As he had been for the past month. He was all anyone discussed in the village. Every tongue wagged with his name. Speculation was ripe as to when he would surface. Whether he would attend Sunday service. Or even the annual Valentine’s Day fête. Everyone desperately craved a glimpse of him.
Everyone except her.
She released a heavy breath, blowing aside a pale strand of hair that dangled in her face. Every Sunday she sat in the first pew, eyes trained on Papa at the head of the church, hands folded neatly in her lap as she braced herself for the telltale titter among the congregation, signaling the earl’s long-anticipated arrival.
Thus far it had not occurred.
She fervently hoped he did not attend the baronet’s Valentine fête. The annual gathering had always been such a happy time. Memories of it were always tangled up with her memories of Owen and Brand. Not Jamie. Never Jamie. He had never deigned to attend. He had looked down his aristocratic nose at such country gatherings. Only Owen and Brand had ever cared.
She blinked back the hot press of tears at the memory of her friends. Both were gone from her. One dead. The other fighting in a war halfway around the world. They should be here. Either one of them. Both of them.
An image of Jamie rose in her mind, that stiff walk of his with his hands clasped behind his back, his countenance dour, reflecting none of Brand’s warmth or Owen’s playfulness. He was the stiff, proper earl even when he had not been. Something dark twisted inside her heart. Perhaps he had always known the title would be his. Brand had always been weak and frail, after all.
Shaking off her bitter thoughts, she adjusted her grip on the basket handle. The aroma of warm biscuits drifted up to her nose as she sucked in a breath and descended the hill.
She wouldn’t be the first to call upon him. Her father had done so, of course. An obligatory visit. She usually accompanied him on his calls, but on that occasion she’d stayed behind, blaming an aching head. Sitting in the Winningham’s opulent drawing room without either Brand or Owen . . . knowing Jamie was the new earl . . .
She could not have borne it.
She still could not stomach it, but her father had looked askance at her when she declared that she would not be calling upon the earl with her customary basket of homemade lemon biscuits that she presented everyone with for all noteworthy occasions. The birth of a new child, the announcement of a betrothal, the passing of a relation. The new earl returning home after years of war certainly warranted a basket of baked goods, and well her father knew it. Well she knew it.
All was quiet in the morning light. Swans glided across the lake, faint ripples stretching out in ever-widening arcs. She eyed the manor’s wide double doors as she approached.
The Earl of Winningham. Jamie was now the earl. This truth rattled around in her head as if looking for a place to settle. Dear, sweet Brand lay buried in the family cemetery on the other side of the sprawling manse. He’d never been long for this world. Never robust, never able to keep up and play with her or Owen. She and Owen always had to backtrack for him. For all that he had tried, Brand had always been more ghost than man.
Now the title belonged to Jamie. Taciturn and aggravatingly proper James. Always looking down at Owen. Always making certain Owen never forgot he was a mere half-brother. Always looking down at her, a mere vicar’s daughter.
Unbidden, the memory flashed of Jamie happening upon Brand and Owen saddling mounts in the Winningham stable for an afternoon ride. She had stood alongside them, dancing in place, beyond excited. They promised to let her ride their new thoroughbred.
“Really, Brand. You’re father’s heir. You should know better than to consort with a girl of her ilk. I would expect such lack of judgment from Owen but not you.”
She did not give Owen the chance to defend her before she sent a dried clod of manure smacking Jamie in the middle of the face. A wholly reckless thing to do. Even if she was only a child of tender years. She was the vicar’s daughter. She should have known better. She should have regretted her actions and apologized immediately. But of course she had not.
Instead she’d planted her hands on her hips and thrust out her chin. “There’s more where that came from, you stodgy prig!”
Jamie had brushed the filth from his face and looked down his arrogant nose at her. Only three years her senior, he towered over her. “And I believe that only proves my point at how very ill-suited you are to keep company with my brothers.”
The rejoinder had hit its mark. It stung even now. She should have behaved better and shown just how dignified and gracious she could be . . . that it wasn’t a trait reserved to the aristocracy as he seemed to think.
Now that haughty peacock was home while Brand was dead and Owen was left fighting in a rebellion across the ocean. It was vastly unfair.
She flexed her hands around the handle of her basket and knocked on the heavy front door.
Mr. Jarvis, the ancient butler, promptly answered.
“Miss Ellsworth,” he greeted very properly, eyeing the length of her. His eyes brightened when they landed on the basket and she had no doubt he would filch one of her infamous biscuits from within before it ever made it to the earl’s hands.
“Hello, Mr. Jarvis. Is Lord Winningham receiving?”
“He’s not in at present.” He paused, his gaze still fixed on her basket. “Shall I take your parcel? I’ll see he gets it upon his return.”
Her heart skipped with delight as she quickly passed the basket into the butler’s hands. “Would you be so kind, Mr. Jarvis?”
She was cowardly, she knew, but she would not have to face him after all and feign happiness at his return. Relief coursed through her. She could rest easy and face her father having done her duty.
Jarvis nodded. “Quite so. Thank you, Miss Ellsworth. I’ll see the basket is returned.”
With a hasty wave and murmured thanks, she descended the wide front steps, her gaze skittering left and right as though the earl himself might appear and put a stop to her retreat.
With every step that distanced her from the estate, her breathing eased as the tension ebbed from her shoulders. At the crest of the hill, she paused beside the old oak and looked back, her hand curling into the rough bark as she stared at the sprawling manse that reeked of wealth and privilege.
Tears sprang to her eyes at the thought of Owen. He deserved to return home just as much as James did.
Please, let him be well. Safe. Alive and whole.
she was struck with the unfairness of it all. Jamie had returned, but Owen remained in India, fighting for his life while servants waited hand and foot on his wretched brother. She read the papers. She knew of the atrocities being played out abroad. Civilians were not spared. She could not fathom how dangerous it was for a soldier.
Swiping at her eyes, she edged back a step, eager to be gone from the house that filled her with such somber thoughts. Whenever she grew morose, she penned Owen a missive. Whether her letters actually reached him was doubtful, she knew. Or at least she surmised as much, given he had ceased to correspond back to her. She had received only three letters, in the beginning, years ago. Since then, nothing. And yet she still wrote him, telling herself that if he received even a fraction of them, she could be offering him much-needed comfort.
Sniffing back threatening tears, she nodded decisively. Fully intending to return home and write him a new letter, she spun around and smacked into a wall. Hard.
She staggered. Strong hands steadied her, singeing her through the sleeves of her cloak and dress.
A gasp escaped her. “Oh! Forgive—pardon—I wasn’t—”
Her awkward apology died as her gaze lifted to the face in front of her. “Jamie,” she said before she could consider that she should address him with more formality. Heat flooded her face. He was an earl now, and they had scarcely been friends before. On the contrary. He would expect her to be more circumspect.
“Miss Ellsworth.” The proper, crisp pronouncement of her surname jarred her. His hands fell from her arms and he distanced himself with a smart step back. His voice was deeper than she remembered. She actually felt it. Like a physical touch . . . a feather stroke along her stretched nerves.
She blinked up at him, her head tilting back. Was he always this tall?
She had braced herself for this moment. Even as unwanted as it was, she knew it would come. She would see him somewhere about the village. Still . . . she was not prepared for this sight of him.
Gone was the gangly young lordling she remembered. The pup, it seemed, had grown into his limbs and paws.
“Lord Winningham.” This time she managed a more proper tone.
They stood awkwardly, staring at one another. His face was harder, carved granite. His skin sun-kissed. Then it occurred to her that he didn’t appear awkward at all. That condition seemed reserved for her alone. He seemed perfectly at ease and comfortable within his skin. He looked her up and down mildly. She detected faint curiosity brimming in his blue-green eyes as he assessed the changes that four years had wrought.
She tried not to fidget, smoothing her hands against her sides. She doubted she had changed much. She was merely an older version of the girl he and Owen had left behind. He, without a thought. Owen, with a kiss. Her first and last since.
She felt compelled to fill the silence. “You look . . . well, my lord.”
He looked more than well. She was loath to admit it—and a little startled at his impact on her—but he looked handsome. Strong and virile. Certain she did not look half so polished, she felt the insane need to reach up and tidy her hair.
He nodded brusquely but did not return the compliment. Of course not. That would require him to be polite to a person he deemed lesser then himself.
“My condolences on the passing of your brother, my lord.” She spoke the words because she must. Even though the condolences might be owed more to her. It was she who had kept Brand company these last years. While other girls in the village cavorted and made marriages for themselves, she had remained steadfast at Brand’s side, reading to him and playing the pianoforte for him, watching him as he labored for breath. He had been so pale and frail at the end that she could not imagine what kept the air pumping out of his thin chest.
Her words failed to move him. The earl stared down at her, his expression bemused. As if he did not know her at all. And she supposed he did not. She had only spent every free moment with Owen and Brand since she was seven years old. He, in fact, did not know her. Not then. Not now.
He looked away from her then, his sea-colored eyes gazing off toward the house. She studied his profile, the sharp blade of his nose, the press of his well-carved lips. Even tightly set she could see the bottom lip was full. Another thing she had not noticed before. Surely his lips had not changed, too.
“For the best, I suppose,” he murmured.
For the best? Brand’s dying was for the best? He could not mean to say that.
With a hissing breath, she squared her shoulders. “Whatever do you mean?”
He faced her again, leveling those seawater eyes on her. “He had suffered quite long enough—”
“I can assure you that he did not think dying was for the best.”
He angled his head, his expression growing rather intense as he studied her. That much hadn’t changed. He had always looked at her with such intense eyes. Always so serious. Even as children. “Indeed?”
She continued, “As you were not here, allow me to enlighten you.” Unfair, she supposed, to fling that accusation at him. He couldn’t really be blamed for being away at war, could he? If she blamed him for that, she must blame Owen, too.
He settled back on his heels. The action seemed to make him look only more formidable. His chest vast, broader. “Pray continue.”
“Brand did not want to die. His spent every breath fighting for the next. He wanted to live.” Hot emotion burned though her, scalding her all the way to her eyes, but she could not stop. “He talked of tomorrow. Of what he wanted to do. Marriage. Children. Of seeing Owen again.” Her lip curled ever so faintly. “Of even seeing you, my lord.”
Something passed over his countenance. Anger? Hurt? Regret? It was gone too quickly for her to identify. And then she dismissed it entirely. Staring at his implacable expression, the flatness of his gaze, she knew her words had not affected him.
He inhaled. “I suppose I owe you for those long hours at my brother’s bedside, Miss Ellsworth.”
She pulled back in affront. “Owe me?”
“Yes. I dare not assume your time and attention to Brand was without value. You were here for him when no other relations happened to be. I’m more than happy to compensate you—”
Her hand lashed out. She could not stop herself. Could not even think before her palm connected with his cheek with a sharp crack.
His head whipped to the side. Instantly, a white handprint marked his swarthy cheek.
Horror washed over her. Her palm stung where she’d connected with his face.
His eyes glittered as he looked down at her, his fingers lightly fingering his afflicted cheek. “Some things, it seems, have not changed overly much.”
* * *
She did not confuse his meaning. Or his smug tone. He meant she had not changed. In his eyes, she was the little heathen he’d always judged her to be.
Still fuming over his offer to compensate her for attending to Brand, her friend, she ignored the voice inside her that insisted she apologize.
“On the contrary.” She nodded, her fury still smoldering. “Things change all the time. People change.” She very deliberately raked him with her gaze. “They become worse.”
More arrogant. More unbearable.
He dropped his hand from his face, his seawater eyes frigid as they roamed over her.
With a hot exhale, she nodded stiffly. “Good day, my lord.”
She strode past him, her strides cutting angrily as she began to descend the hill. That had gone even worse than she imagined possible. She had actually struck him. She would need to apologize. Only not now. Now she couldn’t. She simply had to get away.
His deep voice called after her, “Do you not even care enough to inquire after Owen?”
It was the one question that could stop her in her tracks. She halted, her spine rigid. She didn’t want to rise to the bait. She didn’t want to turn and face him again. She winced.
Nor did she not want to miss out on anything he could
impart about Owen. Whether, for instance, he had received any of her countless letters.
She turned slowly and walked back toward him. Her gaze scanned his face. Something twisted inside her at the red handprint on his cheek.
She moistened her lips. “How is he?”
“Alive,” he rejoined, his voice flat. “At least the last time I saw him.” So cold. So matter of fact. Did he not even care?
“Does he . . .” Speak of me? She wanted to say it, wanted to ask, but could not bear to utter the words and all it would reveal of her. All the doubt and uncertainty she felt toward the boy she had loved all her life. The boy she had imagined she would marry someday. For no one had ever understood and accepted her the way Owen had . . . a girl more comfortable running barefoot on the hills. It seemed only natural that they should always be together. Natural to her and everyone else.
Instead, she asked, “Does he receive my letters?”
Jamie stared at her, his gaze penetrating. “Yes.”
Hurt flashed through her. And he never wrote. No matter the doubts she harbored for their future—if they should actually marry each other—she still cared for him. He could have penned at least one letter. “All of them?”
“Well, I cannot know how many you wrote, can I?” he countered.
She felt herself flush. “No. Of course not.” He continued to stare at her, waiting, but she did not care to elaborate and admit she wrote him every week. Sometimes more. At least in the beginning.
Of late she had not mailed half the missives she penned . . . hating to think they went unread. She wrote them and locked them in her desk.
And there was something she could barely admit to herself. She was afraid that if she did mail them, they might reach Owen. He would read her words and sense that she wasn’t the same girl he’d left behind. Perhaps, in the scrawl of her script, in the words spoken and unspoken, he would hear that she wasn’t certain they were quite so perfect for each other anymore. That what they once had was nothing more than the fancy of childhood. Perhaps he would detect her hope that he had forgotten his commitment and devotion to her.