Good Earls Don’t Lie – Excerpt
His head was killing him. It felt as if a hundred horses had trampled his skull, and right now he tasted blood and dirt in his mouth. After a moment, Iain Donovan gathered his senses, clearing his head.
The last thing he remembered was riding toward the Penford estate. He dimly recalled having passed a grove of trees when, abruptly, he’d been knocked off his horse. A shattering pain had crashed over him, and he vaguely remembered voices arguing and shouting.
But no one was here now.
Iain tried to sit up, and blood rushed to his head, threatening a loss of consciousness once again. He reached out to touch his brother’s signet ring, only to find it gone. A sense of fear rose up in him, and he uttered a foul curse.
No one knew him here. He’d never left Ireland before now, and this country was completely foreign to him. While his mother had taken his older brother Michael to London every season, teaching him all the skills necessary to become the Earl of Ashton, Iain had been left at home. She had done everything in her power to ensure that he was the invisible spare, the hidden son of no importance.
None of that mattered now. He was the only heir left, and he intended to prove that he was a man of worth. He would rebuild Ashton and help his people-even if that meant traveling across the Irish Sea to meet with strangers.
The wind sent gooseflesh rising over his skin, and when he realized he was no longer wearing a shirt, he let out another curse. Who would do such a thing? The bloody bastards had seized the shirt off his back, devil take them all and eat them sideways.
The thieves had stolen not only the ring and the few coins he possessed, but his horse, his coat, waistcoat, and shirt-even the shoes he’d worn. A fine welcome to England this was. After leaving the nightmare of Ireland behind him, he’d thought that here, everything would be better.
Iain rose to his feet and studied the land around him. It was a fair day, with the sun shining over rolling hills and meadows. He supposed he could walk the remaining distance to the Penford estate, for it was only a few miles farther. Though he didn’t particularly like the idea of walking in his trousers and stocking feet, he had no other choice.
He grimaced as he followed the road leading toward Penford. All the baggage he’d brought from Ashton was gone now. He’d have to borrow clothes and shoes, and no one would possibly believe he was the Earl of Ashton. Without a coach, servants, clothing, or a signet ring, they’d think him a beggar at best.
His head was pounding from the mild wound, but more than the physical pain was a rising sense of panic.
Calm down, he ordered himself. He would tell the truth about his ill luck, and surely someone would believe him. Lady Wolcroft had visited Ashton a few years ago. Surely she would remember him. After all, she was the one who had invited him to visit, when she’d learned of the troubles they had suffered with the famine. His mother, Moira, and Lady Wolcroft’s daughter, Iris, had been good friends at boarding school. Moira had spent all her school holidays with Iris’s family and was like another daughter to them.
But friendship aside, he couldn’t suppress the rise of uneasiness. Aside from Lady Wolcroft and his tenants, very few outsiders even knew there was a spare, in addition to the heir. His gut twisted at his mother’s disregard, but he pushed the anger back.
Despite the circumstances, his younger sisters were depending on him to save their estate. For Colleen and Sybil, he would not fail. Could not fail. The task before him was greater than any he’d ever imagined, but he was determined to prove his mother wrong and restore Ashton to its former wealth.
And so it was that Iain had decided to travel across the sea, to leave his familiar homeland and dwell among strangers. And most of all, to offer himself up in marriage, in the hopes of wooing a wealthy bride.
Most men would never dream of such a thing, but his pride had crumbled as surely as the estate of Ashton. His brother was dead, and his sisters needed him. He’d be damned if he’d turn his back on them, forcing them to wed strangers. No. There was a way out of this mess, even if it meant offering himself up as the sacrificial lamb.
With each step, Iain gathered command of himself until he was confident that he would be welcomed at Penford, despite his bedraggled appearance.
As he continued along the dry road leading toward the hills, he saw sprouts of barley and rye emerging from the soil. The sight was a sobering contrast to the rotting fields he’d left behind at Ashton. The blight had destroyed their potato crops, until there was naught left, save a crumbling castle and enough debts to bury the family alive.
His mother and sisters had gone to stay with their aunt in New York, while he managed the affairs at Ashton. He had no intention of abandoning the estate or the people who had called it home for all their lives.
For they were starving. Too many of them had watched their crops rot in the earth, and they had nothing left. No livestock, no money-nothing to trade for food. Hundreds had left in the hopes of finding work elsewhere, but no one wanted Irish refugees.
Iain knew that if he wed an heiress, his bride’s dowry could help the tenants survive until the crops improved. And though he had little to offer, save his Irish charm and a decrepit castle, he had to try.
The road curved over a hill, and when he crossed the apex, he saw Penford within the valley. On the west side of the estate, he spied a lake, gleaming silver and gold in the morning sunlight. For a moment, he paused to enjoy the sight. The estate was near a village, though it lay in an isolated part of Yorkshire-not exactly the best place to find a wife.
But Lady Wolcroft had her own motives for bringing him here . . . and he would do anything necessary to form an alliance with the matron. She could bring him into her circles in London, introducing Iain to potential brides-and he was well aware that she had her own unmarried granddaughters. He would certainly consider the young ladies as marriage prospects before he left for London.
He continued the painful walk down the road, and when he turned the corner, he spied two adolescent boys on horseback. On his horse, Darcy.
Damn them all and may the crows feast upon their bones.
Iain didn’t call out to them, for they could easily outpace him. Instead, he began running lightly, hoping he could overtake them before they noticed his arrival. The rocks dug into the soles of his feet as he ran hard, and he bit back the pain. Almost there . . .
â€œThe horse is mine,â€ one of the boys insisted. â€œI found him first.â€
â€œNo, he’s mine,â€ the other boy glared. â€œI’m going to tell Father that he followed me home.â€
They couldn’t have been more than thirteen, he guessed. Their thievery was likely adolescent mischief, and he fully intended to get every last one of his possessions back. He quickened his pace, but within seconds, Darcy grew skittish and neighed, alerting the boys to his presence.
At that, Iain shouted out, â€œStop, both of you! That’s my horse!â€
â€œI told you we shouldn’t have done it!â€ one cried out, urging Darcy faster. â€œGo!â€
His idiot horse obeyed the command and galloped hard until there was no hope of catching up to them. Iain ran as fast as he could, hoping to glimpse where they were going, but the boys disappeared into the trees.
He cursed beneath his breath, furious at the way this day had begun. It was bad enough to be robbed, much less by boys. But it wouldn’t take long to identify them to the authorities.
His feet were bleeding through his stockings, and his body was perspiring from the hard run. A sight he would be, arriving at Penford like this. He’d have to improve his appearance before arriving, or else they’d toss him back into the road like yesterday’s breakfast.
Iain walked the remaining distance to the manor house, keeping off the gravel road. Several of the tenants eyed him as he passed, but he kept walking, his shoulders held back as if it were the most normal thing in the world to arrive at an estate wearing only trousers.
Tall hedges stood beside the house, and a small arbor led into a garden. He hurried toward it, feeling sheepish about his lack of attire. It might be that he could find a footman or a gardener who could help him with clothing. But as he approached the garden, he realized that he had entered a maze of hedges. Curiosity got the better of him, and he began wandering through the boxwood aisles.
At one end, he saw a stone fountain with rosebushes planted beside it. Deeper within the maze, he found a bed of irises, their purple blossoms illuminated by the sun. And when he reached the farthest end, he saw lilies of the valley.
He stood for a moment at the edge of the maze, where it opened onto a green lawn. A lovely woman was seated upon a stone bench, a book lying beside her. Her hair was reddish brown, tucked into a neat updo beneath her bonnet. She closed her eyes for a moment, lifting her face toward the sun like a blossom.
The sight of her stole the words from his brain, and Iain decided that his missing horse could wait, for the time being.
Who was this woman? One of Lady Wolcroft’s granddaughters? It was possible, given her white morning gown trimmed with blue embroidery. Every inch of her appeared to be a lady. Iain took a few steps closer, fascinated by her.
The young woman dug her fingers into the stone bench, and her face tightened. Slowly, she eased herself to the edge of the seat, and she hunched her back. She gripped the bench hard, as if every movement was a struggle. Iain tensed, trying to understand her difficulty. It was only a moment later when he realized what she was doing.
She was trying to stand up.
The woman leaned heavily against the bench as she tried to force her legs to bear weight. When her knees buckled, she sat down again, her spirits dismayed.
Iain let out the breath he’d been holding. The pieces were beginning to fall into place. It might be that Lady Wolcroft had asked him here to help her granddaughters. If this young woman couldn’t walk, there was no chance of her finding a husband.
And yet, she had a courage that he admired. There was a quiet determination in her eyes, a woman who would not give up. He understood her.
Softly, he emerged from the hedgerow, wanting to know who she was.
* * *
There was a strange man standing in her garden.
Lady Rose Thornton blinked a moment, wondering if her imagination had conjured him. Because he was also half-naked and smiling at her, as if nothing were the matter.
â€œYou’ll have to forgive me for being half-clothed, a chara,â€ he apologized, â€œbut I was robbed on my journey here by a group of damned thieving boys.â€
Now what did he mean by that? Rose shut her eyes tightly and opened them again. No, he was still there. She filled her lungs with air, prepared to scream for all that was holy.
â€œI won’t be harming you,â€ he said, lifting his hands in surrender, â€œbut I would be most grateful for some clothes. Not yours, of course.â€ He sent her a roguish grin.
She gaped at him, still uncertain of who he was. But she had to admit that he was indeed an attractive man, in a pirate sort of way. His brown hair was cut short, and his cheeks were bristled, as if he’d forgotten to shave. She tried not to stare at his bare chest, but he cocked his head and rested his hands at his waist. His chest muscles were well defined, his skin tawny from the sun. Ridges at his abdomen caught her eye, and it was clear enough that this was a working man. Perhaps a groom or a footman. Gentlemen did not possess muscles like these, especially if they lived a life of leisure. His green eyes were staring at her with amusement, and Rose found herself spellbound by his presence.
â€œDo you not speak,â€ he asked, â€œor have I cast you into silence with my nakedness?â€
â€œY-you’re not naked,â€ she blurted out. Her anxiety twisted up inside her, and she began babbling. â€œThat is, you’re mostly covered,â€ she corrected, her face flaming. â€œThe important bits, anyway.â€
Not naked? What sort of remark was that? She was sitting in the garden with a stranger wearing only trousers, and she hadn’t yet called out for help. What was the matter with her? He could be an intruder bent upon attacking her.
But he laughed at her remark. It was a rich, deep tone that reminded her of wickedness.
Rose couldn’t help but wonder why on earth a footman was naked in her garden. â€œStay back,â€ she warned, â€œor I’ll scream.â€
He lifted his hands. â€œYou needn’t do that. As I’ve said, I have no intention of harming you. I fear you’ve caught me in a kettle of pottage. Could you be helping me, if it’s not too much trouble?â€ With a slight lift of an eyebrow, he added, â€œI am here at Lady Wolcroft’s invitation.â€
That nudged her curiosity. Why would her grandmother summon a stranger to Penford? Mildred loved nothing better than to meddle, but she wasn’t even here at the moment. She had gone to Bath only a few weeks ago.
Then again, it was entirely possible that this man was lying. Probable, even.
â€œWho are you?â€ she managed to ask. â€œAnd why are you here?â€
â€œI am Iain Donovan, the Earl of Ashton,â€ he answered. â€œAt your service.â€ He bowed, and in his grin, she detected a teasing air. An Irishman, she was certain, given his speech patterns. But an earl? Exactly how empty headed did he think she was?
Rose folded her hands in her lap. â€œThere is no need to lie, sir,â€ she told him. â€œI know full well that you are not an earl.â€
He blinked at that, his face furrowed. But honestly, had he really thought he could pull off such a deception? She was no country miss, easily fooled. â€œAn earl would travel in a coach with dozens of servants. Never alone.â€
Before he could argue with her, she continued. â€œYou may go to the servants’ entrance, and our housekeeper, Mrs. Marlock, might have some old clothes to lend you. Perhaps a bit of food, and you can be on your way.â€ Though she kept her tone reasonable, she had no way of knowing whether this man was dangerous. Perhaps she should have screamed after all. There was still time to do so.
The man crossed his arms over his chest and regarded her. In an even tone, he said, â€œI’ve not spoken any lies, miss.â€
â€œIt’s Lady Rose, Mr. Donovan,â€ she corrected. As far as she was concerned, this man was a commoner with no claim to any title. â€œI should like for you to leave. Now.â€ Her nerves tightened, for if this man dared to threaten her, she could do nothing to stop him. Especially since she couldn’t run.
Even if she did call out to her footman, Calvert, he might not arrive quickly enough. Her gaze seized upon a rake nearby, and she wondered if she could reach it, if the need arose.
â€œI’ve no reason to speak untruths,â€ he said. â€œAs I told you before, I was robbed on my way here.â€ He paused a moment, adding, â€œThe axle broke on our coach, and my servants stayed behind to fix it. I thought it best to continue on horseback, since Lady Wolcroft invited me to stay as her guest.â€
â€œAn unlikely story,â€ Rose countered. â€œIf you really were the earl, you’d have brought several footman with you.â€
He raised an eyebrow. â€œAnd how many footman was I expected to have?â€
â€œEnough to bring several of them with you. A gentleman never travels alone.â€
The man’s expression turned thunderous. â€œHe does, when there’s no other choice.â€ It looked like he was about to argue further, but instead, he tightened his mouth and said, â€œLady Wolcroft’s eldest daughter and my mother were friends. She wants to marry me off to an Englishwoman, and that is why I am here.â€
She didn’t believe him one whit. No, he had to be a vagrant of some sort, a man down on his luck who was attempting to take advantage by lying. â€œWell, sir, you do spin an entertaining tale. I’ve heard that the Irish are excellent storytellers, but you can take your story back to our housekeeper.â€
â€œIt’s not a story, Lady Rose. I am here to find a bride.â€ The intensity in his voice was rather strong, and made no secret of his annoyance.
She leaned as far over as she dared and managed to reach the rake handle. It made her feel better having a makeshift weapon.
â€œWhat are you planning to do with that rake, a chara?â€ he inquired, taking another step closer. Rose gripped the handle with both hands and drew it closer, using the tool to keep him at a distance.
â€œNothing, if you go away.â€ Truthfully, she didn’t know exactly what she would do with the rake. It wasn’t exactly suitable for stabbing someone. She could poke him with it, but not much else.
This time, she did call out to her footman. â€œCalvert! I have need of your assistance!â€ She hoped he would guard her against any threat. Right now, she wanted the strange man gone from her presence.
Even if he was quite handsome. And a charming liar.
The Irishman’s mouth twisted, and he bowed. â€œAs you like, then, Lady Rose. I’ll be seeing you later, when I’ve better clothes to wear than these.â€
She wasn’t certain what to think of that, but she gripped the rake tightly. â€œBe on your way.â€ Or I’ll have my footman remove you.
But as the stranger disappeared into the maze, she was aware that her heart was beating swiftly, out of more than fear. Although she had seen her brother without a shirt before, never had she seen a man like Iain Donovan. His dark hair had a hint of curl to it, and those green eyes fascinated her. His cheekbones were sharp, his face lean and chiseled. He looked like a man who had walked through hell itself and come out stronger. There was nothing at all refined about him. She’d wager that he’d never worn gloves in his life.
No. He could not possibly be an earl.
And yet . . . she’d been intrigued by his physical strength, wondering if his muscles were as firm as they appeared. His form could have been carved out of marble, like a statue.
When Calvert arrived upon the path to take her back to the house, she stole a look back at the maze. As soon as she was safely inside, she intended for her footman to follow Mr. Donovan and find out the real reason why he was here.
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