The Unsuitable Earl CHAPTER ONE

~ COMING THIS YEAR ~



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London
Spring, 1665

They called him the Imposter Earl.

He cared little for the notoriety, except for the attention it brought from the ladies. The rich ones would leer at him and gossip in a way that made him feel his collar was too tight. Among the orange girls, he had developed a reputation for being a generous spender and a generous lover—which, like so many things, were exaggerations. That was because at the ripe old age of almost one-and-twenty Jeremy Welles was yet a virgin.

Wrist ruffles flouncing gracefully, he straightened his lace-trimmed cravat with his work-hardened hands. It was to his constant amazement that he wore a stylish brocade doublet, blue silk breeches with green ribbon sashes, silk stockings, and new black leather shoes. His buckles—made of real silver—reflected the candlelight. His tailor, hatter, and shoemaker addressed him as “your Lordship,” which made Jeremy want to cough or blush or beg their pardon. He, more than anyone, knew that beneath all the frippery beat the heart of a stableman—not the Earl of Ashton.

He’d arrived at the Theatre Royal just as the doors opened, while the musicians were tuning their instruments. If he had paid a poor man to hold his seat, he would have missed the burgeoning excitement as the gallants and apprentices settled in the pit around him. He wouldn’t have seen the gentry and vizard-wearing nobles filling the box seats behind him. And he wouldn’t have witnessed the friendly jostling of the hoi polloi as they crowded into the gallery above him, where, by all rights, he belonged.

The wisp of a conversation floated by, just loud enough for Jeremy to hear the words, “undeserving bastard.” A head nodded in his direction, and an artfully flexed brow seemed to point straight at him.

Jeremy smiled and took a seat. Since it was his birth, not his character, they referenced, he wouldn’t argue the point. He was a bastard, and admittedly undeserving and ungrateful for his sudden, dramatic elevation to the nobility. While most nobles received their titles by outliving other nobles, plotting political maneuvers, performing feats of courage on the battlefield—or in the bedroom—Jeremy had done none of that. In fact, he’d done nothing at all and had been quite unprepared when it had happened to him. Like some contrivance in one of the new comedies, he found the situation marvelously funny. At least he tried to most of the time. But when the jibes of his new peers and the uselessness of his new life was too much to bear, losing himself in a play was just the thing.

“Yer Lordship,” a whispered voice came from behind him. Orange-scented fingers wrapped around his face, covering his eyes. “Guess who ’tis?”

Jeremy frowned even though he already knew the answer. He didn’t want to spoil the flirtation. “Hmmm,” he said, drawing out the moment. “A kiss would tell me. I’m quite sure of it.”

The hands on his face readjusted and featherlight lips glanced off his cheek, knocking his hat askew.

He pulled it off and laid it beside him on the bench. “A real kiss,” he amended. Eyes still closed, he swiveled toward his taunter and pulled her into his lap. “I won’t look. Promise.”

Laughing, she relaxed against him as her lips came to rest on his, teasing and sucking in a far more suggestive manner than he had expected.

He pulled his mouth away slowly. “Mmmmm. You must be…” He paused a long moment for the drama of it before he said, “Could you be Bridget?”

A giggle met his ridiculous guess. Bridget was easily twice the size of the petite young woman in his lap.

“Let me try again?” Jeremy murmured, coming up against the oranges in her apron when he settled her more closely to him. Eyes still closed, he inhaled the sweet scent of orange blossoms and enjoyed the press of her breasts against his doublet while he waited for her answer.

She gave it to him in a second lingering and lustful buss that left him slightly breathless.

“Well then, you must be Jane? Margery? Cordelia? The fair Rosalind?” he hazarded a mix of names of orange girls and heroines in the plays he’d seen since returning to London.

“I am not.”

“I know,” he said triumphantly, “you must be Mawd!”

“No,” she laughed this time. “Give up?”

“Yes!” He opened his eyes to see Peggy, who he’d known it was all along, smiling prettily back at him. Her brown eyes sparkled.

“’Tis Peggy come to tempt me with an orange,” he said, planting a quick kiss on the tip of her freckled nose. He pulled a pocket from his doublet and fished out two silver sixpence from the bag of coins. Tucking the first one into her hand, he brought her closed fist to his lips, and kissed it lightly. “For an orange. Your best.” Then he placed the second sixpence into the palm of her other hand. “This one is for you.” He wrapped her fingers around it and looked squarely into her big brown eyes. “Don’t let Moll have it. She gets enough as it is.”

Peggy nodded and wiggled off his lap. Carefully selecting an orange from the supply in her apron she handed it to him and struck a saucy pose. “If you like I could meet you after. It’s not an apple, you aren’t Adam, and I don’t have a garden. But would you like to enjoy my fruit after the play?”

Earls could buy all the fruit they wanted, orange girls too. Earls could strew their bastards all about the countryside. But Jeremy could not do any of those things.

Sighing inwardly, he sniffed the gentle fragrance of the orange she’d given him. “This is no doubt the best orange I will ever taste, and I am sure all your fruit is of the highest quality. Yet, I must decline.”

Earls did not owe explanations. Besides the clothing, Jeremy found this to be one of the true benefits. There were so many moments when he did not know what to say.

She didn’t press, but, with a shrug and a wink she acknowledged his refusal, and turned away, already looking for her next customer. 

Something bumped Jeremy’s knee and he shifted his feet just in time to avoid being trod upon. Putting his hand on his hat to confirm possession of the space beside him, he looked up to see a large woman whose face was adorned with beauty patches so elaborately arranged it appeared she wore the constellation Orion on one cheek. She frowned down at him, but then an appraising gleam filled her eyes, and her countenance took on a predatory leer before she moved past him. The small man at her heel nodded politely as he stepped carefully over Jeremy’s toes.

Jeremy shrugged the tension out of his shoulders and looked around for Clarence, who had promised to arrive early, and, as usual, had not.

The music swelled, and the chatter of voices rose with it. Jeremy caught snatches of a conversation, but no sight of Clarence.

“Black spots… plague…”

“No reason for alarm,” another voice cut in.

“St. Giles… not inside the walls,” hissed a third.

Jeremy had heard these rumors already, if rumors they were. Every year had its share of plague deaths accounted for on the weekly bills of mortality. There would always be those who worried unduly about such matters, people who thought every sneeze and sniffle was a death knoll. Until someone he knew to be sound and sensible told him they were having an epidemic, he was determined not to think about it. He was not going to get excited about gossip. If he believed even a quarter of the things people said about him, he wouldn’t recognize himself at all.

Looking once again for Clarence, his neck froze as he spied a face in one of the box seats many rows behind him. A hot flush of heat burst in his chest. His breath caught.

Rose!

His Rose, who by any other name—especially her real one—would smell as sweet. He’d been shopping for a picture frame when his eyes had landed upon the miniature. It had been love at first sight. A vulnerability in her eyes had captivated him, and he’d purchased the portrait without bargaining, all thoughts of his original errand forgotten. In the days that followed he’d decided she was so perfect she could not possibly be real, instead she’d been conjured from the artist’s imagination.

But she was real, very real, and sitting inside the same theater, waiting to see the same play as he. 

Jeremy exhaled in wonder and his heart pounded with expectancy as he took her in from across the pit.

Rose.

Breathing in once again, Jeremy compared her against the image in his mind. Her hair was the same lustrous shade of chestnut brown, hanging in ringlets on the sides of her face in the way of all fashionable ladies. In person, it had a special gleam as the tightly sprung coils danced in the candlelight. Creamy white skin, wide-set eyes, and rosebud lips sat above a determined chin just and the creamy skin of her exposed décolleté, as they did in the miniature. But there the resemblance ended. He couldn’t detect the cool but sweet defenselessness that made him yearn to hold her.

A much older lady, white hair piled under a lacy white cap, sat beside her, but his Rose’s words were directed at a man who stood before her. Leaning with casual negligence against a post that ran up to the gallery, Jeremy realized it was Clarence who had her attention.

Who was she? And of what did she speak so intensely?

Rose’s delicate brows pulled together in a frown, and she shook her head at his friend in such a way that showed she was not at all pleased. As she stopped speaking, her beautiful lips formed into a pout. Clarence took that moment to doff his hat and bow. Turning, he caught immediate sight of Jeremy and with visible relief moved in his direction.

And Rose… his Rose… looked away, apparently uninterested in Clarence’s progress into the pit and completely unaware of Jeremy’s interest.

“You are early.” He nodded at Clarence’s approach. “By that I mean you are not late.” He removed his hat from the bench and slid over.

Clarence dropped into the space Jeremy had made for him. “Had I known my cousin was here, I’d have waited until tomorrow to arrive.”

“Cousin?” Jeremy restrained himself from looking back at her.

“Yes.” Clarence frowned. “First-cousin-once-removed, but not removed far enough for my taste. Would that I were much farther from that shrew than I am at this moment.” He released a long, dramatic sigh that was quite unlike him. “One look from her is enough to make milk curdle.” And then he smiled. “Even when still in the cow.”

“But she looks like an angel,” Jeremy protested mildly.

“Angel from Hades perchance. She’s an unholy terror.”

“There did appear to be some disagreement between you.”

“All on her side, I assure you. I get along with everyone.” Clarence made an uncharacteristically irritated shrug.

Even on their brief acquaintance, Jeremy knew this to be so. Clarance was truly an affable fellow.

Jeremy allowed himself a glance back at her. She was listening to the other woman with a gentle smile, her face radiant and ethereal. He wanted to know if her eyes were the same blue as in the portrait. Did she smell of rose? She must! Or was it honeysuckle? Perhaps another scent altogether? Was her voice musical? Would she sound like a viola? Or a dulcian? And what would those curls feel like running through his fingers? What would those lovely lips feel like against his? His work-roughened fingers absently brushed back and forth over the smooth satin of his breeches while his imagination provided the sensual details of their joining.

Clarence coughed and looked about. “Will the play ever begin?”

Jeremy blinked, jolted back to the present marvelous situation. He cleared his throat. “I did not know you had family here. In London. Your cousin…”

His friend shrugged. “I am surprised she is here. She does not live in London but is visiting her grandmother,” Clarence nodded back at the two women, “that nice old lady she is sitting with. The Dowager Countess of Huntington is not my relation. Eliza’s father, the Duke, is my mother’s brother.” He let out a low chuckle. “Apparently his Grace is finally marrying her off. Or trying to.”

She was not married!

It had not occurred to Jeremy that she would be, but now that he knew she was not the relief pouring through him was palpable. He inhaled deeply, a mixture of candle wax, human sweat, and Clarence’s aromatic scent of clove from the pomander he always carried with him.

“Has she a name?” Jeremy asked, trying to sound casual and not really pulling it off.

Clarence looked at him curiously. “Of course, although I cannot see what you would do with it.”

Jeremy shrugged. Earls didn’t owe explanations.

Clarence regarded him for a moment. “When we were children I would call her Loathsome Lizzie, which was nothing compared to what she would call me.”

“Lizzie?” Jeremy frowned. The name did not suit her at all. “What did she call you?”

“Words I will never utter. But I will give you her true name: Lady Elizabeth Stanfield, daughter to the Duke of Suffolk. And now,” Clarence lifted his hand dismissively, “I will say no more of her.”

Jeremy let out a quiet sigh. Lady Elizabeth Stanfield was way out of his league. But now that his lady had materialized into flesh and blood, he simply wanted to meet her and see her close-up, to catch her scent, hear her voice, bask in the glow of her smile.

Just once.

While a duke—and therefore his daughter—was well above an earl, further above an imposter earl, further yet above a bastard, imposter earl, Jeremy was nevertheless in far better position than were he yet a stableboy. He was, after all, still an earl.

“Does this mean you will not introduce us?” Jeremy pressed. Clarence owed him that at the very least. He raised his brows as imperiously as he could. “Because you must. I insist,” he said, purposefully repeating the lines he’d heard his friend often declare.

Clarence gave him an unblinking stare. “I do believe you have lost your good sense. When one tells you to beware of a viper, the best thing to do is to leave it alone not to poke it with a stick.” When Jeremy didn’t take back his request, Clarence shook his head. “After the play, if I must. But have no doubt, you will be sorry.”

Jeremy could barely keep himself from reassuring Clarence he would not be.

Never did it take so long for a play to begin and never did acts drag on as they did in Beggar’s Bush that afternoon. Jeremy kept restraining himself from glancing back at her. Even so, he managed a few glimpses and each time her gaze was fixed firmly on the characters on the stage.

The play held little charm for him, including the scene changes which he usually found to be magical. Even the asides the actors aimed at the audience lacked their usual humor.

At last the play ended, the final bows were taken, and the announcement of the next day’s performance was made. Jeremy rose immediately, and then had to wait for Clarence, who seemed put out by Jeremy’s quick readiness. Glancing back, he was relieved to see she was still seated with her grandmother and not rushing to leave with the rest of the crowd.

Clarence in the lead, they painstakingly worked their way to the back of the pit with the rest of the crush. In his urgency, Jeremy stepped on more than one set of toes, eliciting complaints and a hard elbow to his middle from—of course!—the big woman with Orion on her cheek.

As they finally reached the back balustrade, Jeremy looked toward the face that had captivated him for so long. Having risen, Lady Elizabeth was helping her grandmother to stand. This put both women several heads above the men.

Jeremy nudged his friend to speak.

“My dearest cousin,” announced Clarence, loud enough to get her attention. He removed his hat revealing a head of wavy brown hair.

The women paused, turning in their direction.

Clarence smiled stiffly. “If I may, I would like to make an introduction.” The older woman inclined her head. “Lady Huntington, Lady Elizabeth Stanfield,” he stepped aside, “may I present the Earl of Ashton.”

Jeremy doffed his hat and bowed awkwardly since the crowd had him pressed against the railing.

Lady Huntington examined him carefully, as if she knew exactly who he was and did not approve. Her lips remained pressed together and she said nothing.

Expression blank, Lady Elizabeth’s eyes seemed to be focused on his cravat.

Jeremy swallowed as if his neckpiece had suddenly become too tight. “Did you enjoy the play?” he blurted out.

Her eyes rose to meet his. She looked at him for a long moment. It was too dark to see the shade of blue in her eyes—or if they were blue at all. But he could see that she was far more beautiful than in the miniature. Far more distant. Far more aloof.

Far more untouchable.

When she didn’t respond, Jeremy leaned forward. “It’s very loud in here,” he said raising his voice. “I asked if you enjoyed the play?”

One dark brow arched high. “I heard you the first time. And, no,” she said her voice like ice. “I did not.” Turning her glacial gaze upon her cousin, she dismissed Jeremy. “When next you seek to present one of your cohorts, Clarence, have the decency to do so in a respectable fashion, rather than accosting us from the pit.” She lifted her chin as she took the Countess’s arm. “Neither Grandmére, nor I, are one of your orange girls to be shouted after like the rabble. See to it that you do not forget yourself in the future.” And with that, she and the Countess turned their backs on the two of them and left.

“Oh god, how I loathe her.” Clarence shoved on his hat in an obvious huff. “Maybe next time you’ll listen to me.”

“Maybe…” Jeremy said, still clutching his hat to his breast and following the straight back of Lady Elizabeth until she disappeared into the crowd.

…but I doubt it.

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