Undressed by the Earl

London, 1815

Amelia Andrews had waited four excruciatingly long years to marry the Viscount Lisford. Although everyone said he was a wicked rake who gambled and took advantage of innocent women, she didn’t care. He was, by far, the handsomest man she’d ever seen. His hazel eyes were mysterious, and his golden hair reminded her of a prince. This was going to be the year he finally fell in love with her, even if she had to throw herself at his feet.

Well, she could faint in front of him, anyway. Diving at a man’s shoes wasn’t exactly what her mother would deem ladylike.
In her mind, she envisioned reforming him, until he fell madly in love with her and-

“Planning your attack, are you?” came a voice from behind her. Amelia suppressed a groan. David Hartford, the Earl of Castledon, was here again. Sir Personality-of-a-Handkerchief, as she’d once nicknamed him.

He never danced and had never courted a single woman in all the years since his wife had died. He was just there all the time. Watching, like a wallflower.

“I’ve never understood why the ladies here are so fascinated by Lord Lisford,” he remarked. “Would you care to enlighten me?”

She shouldn’t be speaking with Lord Castledon, although they’d had numerous conversations in the past year with him addressing her back. If she didn’t turn around to face him, it seemed less improper.

Besides that, Lord Castledon was safe-a man she would never consider as a suitor. He wasn’t so terribly old, but he’d been married and widowed. He wasn’t at all dashing or exciting. Honestly, he was perfect for her sister Margaret.

A hard sense of frustration gathered in Amelia’s stomach at the thought of her prim and proper eldest sister. There had been a time when she’d been devastated,for her sister had nearly married the man of Amelia’s dreams. The viscount had cried off only days before the wedding, leaving Margaret a spinster and Amelia a shred of hope. She felt sorry for Margaret’s humiliation, truly she did, but it had been an impossible situation with both of them wanting the same man.

That had been years ago. Surely her sister would forget all about Viscount Lisford, especially if she had another man to wed. And Amelia strongly believed that sensible people ought to be paired together. She was not at all sensible. Impulsive, her mother had called her. Amelia preferred to think of herself as spirited.

“Lord Lisford is quite wicked,” she told the earl. “When you dance with him, you sense the danger. It’s delicious.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” he said drily.

From behind her, she sensed him stepping closer. Lord Castledon was quite tall, and even without turning around, his presence evoked a strange sensation as if he were touching her. The air between them grew warmer, and she grew conscious of him in a way that made her skin prickle.
She stole a quick glance behind her and saw the solemn cast to his face. It didn’t seem that he ever smiled, though the earl wasn’t unattractive. Aside from being tall, he had black hair and shrewd blue eyes. She’d never seen him wear any color except black. And he rarely spoke to anyone but her. She had no idea why.

“Dangerous men are nothing but trouble,” he continued, moving to stand beside her. “You’d be better off choosing a more respectable man.”

“That’s what my mother says.” Amelia opened her fan, adding, “But marriage to a man like Lord Lisford would never be dull.”

“Marriage is not meant to be entertaining. It’s a union of two people with a mutual respect for one another.”

She eyed him with disbelief. “That sounds awful. Surely you don’t mean that.”

From the serious expression on his face, she realized he did. “Didn’t you ever have fun with your wife?” she asked. “I don’t mean to pry, but I thought you loved her.”

“She was everything to me.”

There was a glimpse of grief that flashed over his face before he masked it. And suddenly, her curiosity was piqued. This boring man, who all too often lurked near the wallpaper, had enjoyed a love match. Try as she might, she couldn’t quite imagine him engaged in a passionate tryst. But perhaps there was more to him beneath the surface.

Amelia’s heart softened. “No one will ever compare to her, will they?” She stared at him, trying to imagine a man like the earl in love with anyone.

“No.” There was a heaviness in his voice. “But I made a promise to my daughter that this Season, I will find a new mother for her.” His features twisted as if it was not a welcome idea.

A thought suddenly sparked within Amelia. There was nothing she loved more than matchmaking. She’d successfully paired her sister Juliette off with her husband, Paul, and here was another chance to find a match for Lord Castledon. Her sister Margaret was nearing five-and-twenty, and after being jilted once, she might be amenable to a man like the earl.

“I have an idea,” she told him, unable to keep the excitement from her voice. And oh, it was simply perfect. “We could help one another.”

The sidelong look he cast at her was undeniably cynical. “And what could you do for me, Miss Andrews?”

“Reconnaissance,” she said brightly. “You’ll tell me all of your requirements in a wife, and I shall investigate your options. I know all the eligible ladies here, and I’m certain I could find the perfect woman for you.”

If Margaret wouldn’t suit, there were a few wallflowers who might fit his conditions.

His mouth twisted. “Indeed. And for this ‘service,’ what do you want from me?”

She hid her face behind her fan. “I want Viscount Lisford. You could speak to him and put in a good word for me.”

He crossed his arms, staring across the room. “You’re not worthy of a man like him, Miss Andrews.”

Amelia felt her cheeks grow hot. “And why not? Is there something wrong with me? I know I talk too much, and most people believe I’m a featherbrain. But surely-”

She didn’t finish the sentence, for she suspected what he would say. You’re too young. Too innocent.

And while that might be true, why couldn’t she set her sights on the man she wanted? Why couldn’t she marry the handsomest man in London who set her pulse racing? Why should she settle for a titled gentleman with a respectable fortune, when she could have so much more?
No. She didn’t need Lord Castledon’s help. Not in this.

There were ways to capture a man’s attention, and she was certain that this was her year. To the earl, she remarked, “Thank you, my lord, but I don’t need your help after all. Especially if you believe I’m not worthy of the viscount.” She marched in the direction of her aunt Charlotte, hoping no one would see her embarrassment.

The Earl of Castledon stared at the young woman as she took long strides away from him. Amelia Andrews was impulsive, spirited, and filled with more joie de vivre than anyone he’d ever met.

“No, you’re not worthy of the viscount,” he remarked under his breath. “You’re worth far more.”

* * *

He didn’t know if he could do this again.

David Hartford, the Earl of Castledon, stood with his back against the wall. He felt as if a hundred bayonets were pointed at him. God above, he needed a drink to get through this night. Or three.

In his pocket, he had a list of instructions that he’d penned to himself, prior to this ball. Be introduced to a new lady. Hold a conversation with her that lasts longer than thirty seconds. Ask her to dance.

The last one made him want to shudder. He hadn’t danced in six years and likely didn’t remember how.

Who was he trying to fool? He didn’t want to wed anyone again. Though he was no longer in mourning, he still wore black, out of habit.
Every moment he attended a social gathering of any kind felt like a mockery. His friends in the House of Lords kept sending him invitations during each Season, and he accepted a few from time to time, so as not to offend them. He was here out of courtesy, not because he wanted to make merry or flirt with anyone fanning herself. That wasn’t his way.

Truth to tell, he wasn’t quite certain how he’d won his wife’s hand in marriage. They had been wallflowers together, if he remembered correctly. Mary had smiled at him, and that had given him the courage to venture into conversation. Twelve years ago, he’d been one and twenty and an empty-headed fool.

Now, he felt as if he were living his life encased within a column of glass. He could see the world and speak to those around him, but an invisible barrier kept him from enjoying the years remaining. It seemed like a betrayal to be happy, though he knew that was illogical. Sometimes at night he reached across to the empty pillow beside him, wishing Mary was there. The loss of her was a physical ache that hadn’t diminished at all in the years since she’d died. He still had silent conversations with her ghost. If that made him a madman, so be it.
He reached into the pocket of his waistcoat, fingering the list. You’d be angry with me, I know. I broke my promise to you by not remarrying. I know it’s my duty to sire an heir.

But his only child was a daughter.

Christine was now eleven years old and the very image of Mary. It hurt to look at her blue eyes, knowing that she would grow up to look like the woman he’d loved more than life itself.

I can’t do this, he told her ghost. No one can replace you.

As always, Mary’s ghost never answered him. Nothing would bring her back, and on her deathbed, she’d made him swear to marry again. Even Christine, upon her last birthday, had wished for a new mother.

David stared at the room filled with ladies and gentlemen of the ton. He wasn’t a man who broke his promises. He’d avoided this for six years, even knowing it was the right thing to do.

This year, he would try. And Christine, the mischievous imp, had warned that if he did not find a suitable new wife, she would find one for him. He already knew she had her eye on her governess, Miss Grant, as a potential candidate. Her desire to be a matchmaker amused him. In many ways, she reminded him of Amelia Andrews.

He’d never met a young woman who talked so much. Even when Miss Andrews had been invisibly chained to her chaperone, her mouth had continued without ceasing. He suspected that if one put a potted plant before her, she would talk it to death.

As he went to get a glass of lemonade, he saw her speaking to a group of young ladies. Her gown was a vivid yellow, like a daffodil. The color suited her, transforming her into a splash of joy amid an otherwise dismal evening. She was not at all a woman he could marry-far too young at the age of twenty. Or perhaps one-and-twenty for all he knew. Yet, it didn’t mean he wasn’t entertained by her. Her earlier suggestion, to help him find a proper wife, wasn’t a bad idea after all. Amelia Andrews was popular among the young ladies, and she could easily discern who would suit him and who would not. It might be worth paying a call upon Miss Andrews, to find out which ladies would be the strongest possibilities.

His requirements were fairly straightforward. He wanted someone of a pleasant personality, someone who liked children and would get along with his daughter. And most of all, someone who would not expect him to love her.

He’d already loved one woman and lost her. Never would he go through that again. This time, he wanted a companion and a friend-nothing more.
Against the far end of the room, David spied Miss Andrews’s prey-Charles Newport, the Viscount Lisford. David wasn’t alone in his vast dislike of the man. Lisford was a known rake who flirted with anyone wearing skirts. Not a word he spoke could be trusted, and the man desperately needed an heiress to save him from drowning in debt.

Amelia wasn’t at all the sort of woman the viscount would marry; he’d already spurned her older sister Margaret. But Lisford wouldn’t hesitate to use Amelia if it would further his own causes.

David set down his glass of lemonade and made his way toward the viscount. He wasn’t alone when he spied Miss Andrews moving in the same direction. Margaret paused a moment and nodded to him, for they had been formally introduced in the past.

“Miss Andrews,” he bowed in greeting.

“Lord Castledon.” Even though she maintained courtesy, he could tell that she was distracted by Amelia.

“Is something the matter?” he inquired. “You look as if you want to murder your younger sister.”

“It wouldn’t do any good,” Margaret said beneath her breath. “She won’t listen to me when I tell her that man is up to no good.”

David shrugged. “She did say that he was dangerous and…what was it? Delicious, I believe she said.”

“If she dares to throw herself at Lord Lisford, she’ll regret it for the rest of her life.” Margaret gripped her hands together, watching Amelia standing near the viscount. “He’s nothing but a blackguard.” Her face was twisted with more than sisterly worry. There was bitterness, too, of a woman set aside.

“Perhaps you’d rather murder him, then,” he suggested. “Except that it would leave a lot of blood on Lady Rumford’s floor.” He knew that the elder Miss Andrews had once been engaged to the viscount. Everyone knew of her humiliation, which was yet another reason to dislike the man.

“I am Amelia’s chaperone,” she added. “Which, I suppose gives me the right to drag her away, if she won’t listen.”

“Would you allow me to intervene?” he asked. “I may be able to assist.” Though he ought not to get involved, he understood her concern.
Margaret stopped a moment and her eyes held relief. “Could you? She doesn’t understand that I only want to protect her.” A flush of embarrassment crossed her face, followed by the hardened determination he recognized.

David bowed and nodded. “Allow me.” He wasn’t entirely certain how he would distract Miss Andrews, but perhaps there was a way.

He continued toward the viscount, noting the man’s circle of female admirers. When he approached, Lisford greeted him, “Castledon! Good to see you, my friend.” Although his voice was jovial, the man’s gaze turned guarded.

David inclined his head, though he didn’t repeat the sentiment. Quite frankly, he had little respect for the viscount. Thinking fast, he said, “Forgive me for interrupting, but Miss Amelia Andrews has promised the next dancing set to me.”

Amelia turned to face him in startled shock, already shaking her head in refusal. He sent her a warning look, but she was clearly choosing to ignore him.

“I’m afraid you’re mistaken, my good man,” the viscount insisted. “For she already promised it to me.” He took Amelia’s hand, and from the blush on her face, she was falling hard beneath his spell. She didn’t see the reality of Lisford’s intentions, nor did she seem to care. The other women dissipated among the crowd, leaving David to feel like a fool for even trying to draw her away.

She held the devil’s hand while the other couples lined up for the dancing. The excitement in her eyes revealed a young woman’s dream that the viscount would fall in love and marry her.

Nothing could be further than the truth. A man like Lisford would seduce and ruin her, nothing more.

Go and warn her, his conscience urged. Join the dancers and use the moment to speak to her again.

But then, David hated dancing. Hated it. He’d learned how as a boy and had endured it only because Mary had enjoyed it. Now, he would sooner set himself on fire than willingly join a set.

But when he saw the viscount’s eyes linger upon Amelia’s bosom, his hand sliding down her spine, something snapped within him. This man wanted to use an innocent girl and then cast her aside. Amelia didn’t need that sort of heartache.

Margaret walked up beside him, her eyes upon the dancing. “I thought you said you were going to stop her.”

“She has a mind of her own,” David countered. “But I suppose we can try another approach.”

He offered her his arm, and Margaret hesitated. “If I dance with you, I might end up as Lisford’s partner.”

“It’s possible,” David agreed. “Likely, even.”

Her stern face held the look of a woman who hadn’t at all forgiven the man for what he’d done. “I don’t want my sister to endure what I did. I know that I’m a spinster now and likely won’t ever marry anyone. But I can’t stand aside and let him hurt her in that way.”

David agreed with Margaret on that point. “Shall we?” She put her arm in his, and they waited to join the next dance. He repressed a groan when he learned it was to be a cotillion. Though it would indeed involve switching partners frequently, it wasn’t a dance that he remembered too well. From the moment he and Margaret paired up, he spied a gleam of interest on Amelia’s face. He managed to stumble his way through the steps until he finally partnered with her.

“I see you did find someone to dance with,” she remarked. “But I don’t know what you were thinking, claiming that I promised you a dance. It was Margaret’s doing, wasn’t it?”

Not entirely, but he didn’t say so. “Your sister was worried about you.”

Annoyance tightened her expression. “Margaret should worry about finding her own husband instead of interfering with me.”

“Perhaps she’s trying to spare you from the man who broke her heart.”

Amelia sobered, just as they switched partners. He left her to mull it over, and saw the guilty expression upon her face when she crossed paths with her sister. David was forced to concentrate on the steps he’d forgotten until once again he was paired with Amelia. “I don’t mean to spoil your dreams, but think of me as the older brother looking out for you.”

“You’re nothing like an older brother,” Amelia interjected. When he was about to argue with her, she continued, “An older uncle, perhaps.”

“I’m not that ancient, Miss Andrews.” Even so, he saw the mischief in her eyes.

“You might need a cane, soon enough. Or an ear trumpet.”

Insolent wretch. And in spite of himself, he smiled. “Stop trying to change the subject. Men like Lord Lisford, who flirt with every woman, will continue to do so, even after they marry. He won’t remain faithful.” Whoever the viscount ended up marrying would no doubt be humiliated by a string of Lisford’s paramours.

“Unless he’s besotted with his wife,” Amelia pointed out. “The way you were with yours.”

They switched partners again, and her remark pushed back at the memories David didn’t want to face. He stumbled a moment, thinking of Mary. He had been besotted with her, and the fog of melancholy descended once more. He spoke a little to Margaret, but there wasn’t much to say. While he agreed with her assessment of Lord Lisford, Amelia would make her own choices. When he was partnered one last time with Amelia, he squeezed her gloved hand tighter.

“Have a care, Miss Andrews. Lord Lisford is indeed a dangerous man, as you said.” He didn’t want her believing that she could reform a man who lived a Bacchanalian life, seeking pleasure wherever he could find it.

From the dark look in Amelia’s green eyes, he could see that he’d offended her. She wanted to believe that Viscount Lisford would care enough about her to put aside his past. “I can take care of myself,” she pointed out. “You needn’t concern yourself with me.”
The dance ended, but the viscount did not return to Amelia. Instead, he stood across from another young woman whose name David couldn’t remember. But she wore diamonds around her throat, and that was enough to attract Lisford’s eye.

When Amelia was about to leave his side, he refused to let go of her hand, forcing her to join him for the next dance. While she didn’t appear happy about the idea, neither did she protest. He could have this dance with her and speak freely, since Viscount Lisford had been her partner earlier.

But this dance turned out to be a reel, and David despised the quicker dances. He felt awkward spinning about the dance floor. And Amelia appeared gleeful at the trap he was caught in.

“Have you finished chiding me about Viscount Lisford?” she asked, whirling alongside him.

David ignored her taunt. “Perhaps I should form a list of suitable men for you,” he suggested, “since you’re going to do the same for me.”

“I was not intending to give you a list of men.” She sent him a mischievous look. “Unless that’s what you’d rather have.”

Wicked girl. He sent her a dark look. “No, thank you. But I could advise you on which suitors are your best marital prospects.”

“You mean the ones my father would approve of.”

“Precisely.” David kept her at his side, keeping her arm in his.

“Let me guess. They would be mature men, with good fortunes, who tell their wives what to do and expect nothing except obedience.”
He strongly suspected that obedience was not Amelia’s strong point. “Is there any harm in that?”

She cleared her throat. “I would die of boredom within a week.”

His arm moved around her waist, and there was a sudden flush upon her cheeks. Though the gesture meant nothing, he grew conscious of the heat of her body beneath the silk. His smile faded as he imagined a woman like Amelia with her hair undone, lying upon a bed.

The image sent a dormant surge of desire bolting through him, and he let go of her waist.

“Send a list to me within the week, if you please. I’ll do the same for you.” He stepped back as the dance ended, needing to move away from her.
“Thank you, but I’ve already found the gentleman I want,” Amelia said softly. “I’ve no need for a list.”

(Available in late spring/early summer of 2014)

From the book Undressed by the Earl
Copyright © 2013 by Michelle Willingham
® and ™ are trademarks of the publisher.
The edition published by arrangement with Montlake Romance.