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Authors: Julia Quinn

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Brighter Than The Sun

BOOK: Brighter Than The Sun
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Brighter Than The Sun
Julia Quinn

The Lyndon Sisters – Book 2

For Auntie Susan— Thank you.

—Miss Julie

And for Paul, even though he just doesn't
understand why I can't end all of my titles with exclamation points.

 

Chapter 1

Kent, England
October 1817

Eleanor Lyndon was minding her own business when Charles Wycombe, Earl of Billington, fell— quite literally—into her life.

She was walking along, whistling a happy tune and keeping her mind busy by trying to estimate the yearly profit of the East & West Sugar Company (of which she owned several shares) when to her great surprise, a man came crashing down from the sky and landed at, or to be more precise—
on
her feet.

Further inspection revealed that the man in question had fallen not from the sky but from a large oak tree. Ellie, whose life had grown decidedly dull in the last year or so, would have almost preferred that he
had
fallen from the sky. It certainly would have been more exciting than from a mere tree.

She pulled her left foot out from underneath the man's shoulder, hiked her skirts above her ankles to save them from the dirt, and crouched down. "Sir?" she inquired. "Are you all right?"

All he said was, "Ow."

"Oh, dear," she murmured. "You haven't broken any bones, have you?"

He didn't say anything, just let out a long breath. Ellie lurched back when the fumes hit her. "Sweet heavens," she muttered, "You smell as if you've imbibed a winery."

"Whishkey," he slurred in response. "A gennleman drinks whishkey."

"Not
this
much whiskey," she retorted. "Only a drunk drinks this much of anything."

He sat up—clearly with difficulty, and shook his head as if to clear it. "Exactly it," he said, waving his hand through the air, then wincing when the action made him dizzy. "I'm a bit drunk, I'm afraid."

Ellie decided to refrain from further comment on that topic. "Are you certain you're not injured?"

He scratched his reddish-brown hair and blinked. "My head pounds like the devil."

"I suspect that isn't only from the fall."

He tried to get up, weaved, and sat back down. "You're a sharp-tongued lass."

"Yes, I know," she said with a wry smile. "It's why I'm a long-toothed spinster. Now then, I can't very well see to your injuries if I don't know what they are."

"Efficient, too," he murmured. "An' why are you so certain I've got an injurty, er, injury?"

Ellie looked up into the tree. The nearest branch which would have supported his weight was a good fifteen feet up. "I don't see how you could have fallen so far and
not
been injured."

He waved her comments aside and tried to rise again. "Yes, well, we Wycombes are a hardy lot. It'd take more than a—Sweet merciful Christ!" He howled.

Ellie tried her best not to sound smug when she said, "An ache? A pain? A sprain, perhaps."

His brown eyes narrowed as he clutched the trunk of the tree for support. "You are a hard, cruel woman, Miss whatever-your-name-is, to take such pleasure in my agony."

Ellie coughed to cover a giggle. "Mr. Whosis, I must protest and point out that I tried to tend to your injuries, but you insisted you didn't have any."

He scowled in a very boyish sort of way and sat back down. "That's Lord Whosis," he muttered.

"Very well, my lord," she said, hoping that she hadn't irritated him overmuch. A peer of the realm held much more power than a vicar's daughter, and he could make her life miserable if he chose. She gave up all hope of keeping her dress clean and sat down in the dirt. "Which ankle pains you, my lord?"

He pointed to his right ankle, and then grimaced when she lifted it in her hands. After a moment's examination, she looked up and said in her most polite voice, "I am going to have to remove your boot, my lord. Would that be permissible?"

"I liked you better when you were spitting fire," he muttered.

Ellie liked herself better that way, too. She smiled. "Have you a knife?"

He snorted. "If you think I'm going to put a weapon in your hands ..."

"Very well. I suppose I could just pull the boot off." She cocked her head and pretended to ponder the matter. "It might hurt just a bit when it gets stuck on your hideously swollen ankle, but as you pointed out, you come from hardy stock, and a man should be able to take a little pain."

"What the devil are you talking about?"

Ellie started to pull at his boot. Not hard—she could never be that cruel. Tugging just enough to demonstrate that the boot wasn't coming off his foot through ordinary means, she held her breath.

He yelled, and Ellie wished she hadn't tried to teach him a lesson, because she ended up with a face full of whiskey fumes.

"How much did you drink?" she demanded, gasping for air.

"Not nearly enough," he groaned. "They haven't invented a drink strong enough—"

"Oh, come now," Ellie snapped. "I'm not that bad."

To her surprise, he laughed. "Sweetheart," he said in a tone that told her clear as day that his usual occupation was rake, "you're the least bad thing that has happened to me in months."

Ellie felt an odd sort of tingling on the back of her neck at his clumsy compliment. Thankful that her large bonnet hid her blush, she focused her attention back on his ankle. "Have you changed your mind about my cutting your boot?"

His answer was the knife he placed in her palm. "I always knew there was some reason I carried one of these things around. I just never knew what it was until today."

The knife was a bit dull, and soon Ellie was gritting her teeth as she sawed through his boot. She looked up from her task for a moment. "Just let me know if I—"

"Ow!"

"—poke you," she finished. "I'm dreadfully sorry."

"It is astonishing," he said, his voice liberally laced with irony, "how much sorrow I hear in your voice."

Ellie caught another giggle in her throat.

"Oh, for the love of God," he muttered. "Just laugh. Lord knows my life is laughable."

Ellie, whose own life had descended into the miserable ever since her widower father had announced his intention to marry the village of Bellfield's biggest busybody, felt a pang of empathy. She didn't know what could have prompted this remarkably handsome and well-heeled lord to go out and get himself blindingly drunk, but whatever it was, she felt for him. She stopped her work on his boot for a moment, leveled her dark blue eyes at his face, and said, "My name is Miss Eleanor Lyndon."

His eyes warmed. "Thank you for sharing that pertinent piece of information, Miss Lyndon. It isn't every day I allow a strange woman to saw off my boots."

"It isn't every day I nearly get knocked to the ground by men falling from trees.
Strange
men," she added for emphasis.

"Ah yes, I should introduce myself, I s'pose." He cocked his head in a manner that reminded Ellie that he was still more than a touch inebriated. "Charles Wycombe at your service, Miss Lyndon. Earl of Billington." Then he muttered, "Much as that's worth."

Ellie stared at him unblinkingly. Billington? He was one of the county's most eligible bachelors. So eligible that even she'd heard of him, and she wasn't on anybody's list of eligible young ladies. Rumor had it that he was the worst sort of rake. Ellie had heard him whispered about at village gatherings, although as an unmarried lady she'd never been privy to the juiciest gossip. She tended to think that his reputation must be very black if he did things that couldn't even be mentioned in her presence.

Ellie had also heard that he was fantastically wealthy, even more so than her sister Victoria's new husband, who was Earl of Macclesfield. Ellie couldn't personally vouch for that, as she hadn't seen his personal finance ledgers, and she made it a point never to speculate on financial matters without hard evidence. But she did know that the Billington estate was vast and ancient. And it was a good twenty miles away. "What are you doing here in Bellfield?" she blurted out.

"Just visiting my old childhood haunts."

Ellie motioned toward the branches above them with her head. "Your favorite tree?"

"Used to climb it all the time with Macclesfield."

Ellie finished her work on the boot and put the knife down. "Robert?" she asked.

Charles looked suspicious and a bit protective. "You're on a first-name basis with him? He's recently married."

"Yes. To my sister."

"The world grows smaller by the second," he murmured. "I'm honored to make your acquaintance."

"You might rethink that sentiment in a moment," Ellie remarked. With a gentle touch, she slid his swollen foot from his boot.

Charles looked down at his mangled boot with a pained expression. "I suppose my ankle is more important," he said wistfully, but he didn't sound as if he meant it.

Ellie expertly prodded his ankle. "I don't think you've broken any bones, but you've a nasty sprain."

"You sound experienced at this sort of thing."

"I come to the rescue of any wounded animal," she said, arching her brows. "Dogs, cats, birds—"

"Men," he finished for her.

"No," she said pertly. "You're the first. But I cannot imagine that you'd be
that
much different from a dog."

"Your fangs are showing, Miss Lyndon."

"Are they?" she asked, reaching up to touch her face. "I shall have to remember to retract them."

Charles burst out laughing. "You, Miss Lyndon, are a treasure."

"That's what I keep telling everyone," she said with a shrug and a wicked smile, "but no one seems to believe me. Now then, I fear you will require a cane for several days. Possibly a week. Have you one at your disposal?"

"Right now?"

"I meant at home, but...." Ellie's words trailed off as she looked around her. She spied a long stick several yards away and scrambled to her feet. "This should do," she said, picking it up and handing it to him. "Do you need assistance getting to your feet?"

He grinned wolfishly as he swayed toward her. "Any excuse to be in your arms, my dear Miss Lyndon."

Ellie knew she should be affronted, but he was trying so hard to be charming, and devil take it, he was succeeding. Handily. She supposed that was why he was such a successful rake. She stepped around to his back and put her hands under his arms. "I warn you, I'm not very gentle."

"Now why doesn't that surprise me?"

"On the count of three, then. Are you ready?"

"That depends, I suppose, on—"

"One, two ... three!" With a grunt and a heave, Ellie pulled the earl to his feet. It wasn't an easy task. He outweighed her by a good four stone and was drunk, to boot. His knees buckled, and Ellie only just managed to keep herself from cursing as she planted her feet and braced them. Then he started to topple over in the other direction, and she had to scoot to his front to keep him from falling.

"Now that feels nice," he murmured as his chest pressed up against hers.

"Lord Billington, I must insist that you use your cane."

"On you?" He sounded intrigued by the notion.

"To walk!" she fairly yelled.

He flinched at the noise, then shook his head. "It's the oddest thing," he murmured, "but I have the most appalling urge to kiss you."

For once, Ellie was speechless.

He chewed thoughtfully on his lower lip. "I think I just might do it."

That was enough to spur her into motion, and she jumped to the side, sending him sprawling to the ground once again.

"Good God, woman!" he yelled. "What did you do that for?"

"You were going to
kiss
me."

He rubbed his head, which had hit the tree trunk. "The prospect was
that
terrifying?"

Ellie blinked. "Not terrifying, exactly."

"Please don't say repulsive," he grumbled. "I really couldn't bear it."

She exhaled and held out a conciliatory hand. "I'm terribly sorry for dropping you, my lord."

"Once again, your face is a picture of sorrow."

Ellie fought the urge to stamp her foot. "I meant it this time. Do you accept my apology?"

"It appears," he said, raising his eyebrows, "that you might do me bodily harm if I do not."

"Ungracious prig," she muttered. "I am trying to apologize."

"And
I,"
he said, "am trying to accept."

He reached out and took her gloved hand. She pulled him to his feet again, stepping out of his reach once he had steadied himself on his makeshift cane.

"I will escort you to Bellfield," Ellie said. "It isn't terribly far. Will you be able to get home from there?"

"I left my curricle at the Bee and Thistle," he replied.

She cleared her throat. "I would appreciate it if you would behave with gentility and discretion. I may be a spinster, but I do have a reputation to protect."

He sent a sideways glance in her direction. "I am considered something of a blackguard, I'm afraid."

"I know."

"Your reputation was probably shredded the moment I landed on top of you."

"For heavens' sake, you fell out of a tree!"

"Yes, of course, but you did put your bare hands on my bare ankle."

"It was for the noblest of reasons."

"Frankly, I thought kissing you seemed rather noble, but you appeared to disagree."

Her mouth settled into a grim line. "That is exactly the sort of flippant remark I am talking about. I know that I shouldn't, but I do care what people think of me, and I have to live here for the rest of my life."

"Do you?" he asked. "How sad."

"That isn't funny."

"It wasn't meant to be."

She sighed impatiently. "Contrive to behave yourself when we reach Bellfield. Please?"

He leaned on his stick and swept into a courtly bow. "I try never to disappoint a lady."

"Will you stop!" she said, grabbing him by the elbow and pulling him upright. "You're going to knock yourself over."

"Why, Miss Lyndon, I do believe you are beginning to care for me."

Her answer was a marginally ladylike grunt. With fisted hands, she began to march toward town. Charles hobbled behind her, smiling all the way. She was walking much more quickly than he, however, and the space between them grew until he was forced to call out her name.

Ellie turned around.

Charles offered her what he hoped was an appealing smile. "I cannot keep up with you, I'm afraid." He held out his hands in a gesture of supplication and then promptly lost his balance. Ellie rushed forward to straighten him.

BOOK: Brighter Than The Sun
13.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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