Persistent Earl : Signet Regency Romance (9781101578841)

BOOK: Persistent Earl : Signet Regency Romance (9781101578841)
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SIGNET REGENCY ROMANCE

The Persistent Earl

Gail Eastwood

 

 

 

 

 

 

INTERMIX BOOKS, NEW YORK

INT
ERMIX BOOKS

Published by the Penguin Group

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Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have control over and does not have any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

THE PERSISTENT EARL

An InterMix Book / published by arrangement with the author

PUBLISHING HISTORY

Signet Books edition / March 1995

InterMix eBook edition / December 2012

Copyright © 1995 by Gail Eastwood-Stokes.

Excerpt from
A Perilous Journey
copyright © 1994 by Gail Eastwood-Stokes.

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author's rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group,

a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

ISBN: 978-1-101-57884-1

INTERMIX

InterMix Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group

and New American Library, divisions of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

INTERMIX and the “IM” design are trademarks of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To Mare, because “old friendships are more precious than diamonds.”

Chapter One

“I won't have that man under our roof, Edward. I'm sorry. It is simply too much to ask.”

Judith, Lady Allington, stared fixedly out one of the rear-facing windows of the Allingtons' Wigmore Street drawing room, her back turned resolutely toward her husband.

Sir Edward sighed, noting the stubborn set of his wife's slight shoulders. Clearly, he had yet some distance to go before he would win her over to his side of their present discussion. He loved his wife dearly, and in over a dozen years of marriage they had managed to rub along with each other quite nicely, with four children of respectable ages plus a babe in the nursery to show for it. But if she felt she was right, she could tend to be headstrong. She had spirit, his Judith.

The baronet stopped pacing in front of the marble fireplace and crossed the carpet to join his wife by the window, as if closing the physical gap between them would somehow improve their point of view. Already the heat of the day could be felt in the sun pouring through the glass.

The Allingtons were still in London, despite the fact that July was turning into August and the summer temperatures had turned the city into an oven. The stone pavements soaked up the sun's relentless heat, baking the remaining inhabitants with callous disregard for either wealth or position. However, the temperature in the Allingtons' drawing room seemed to be rising quite of its own accord.

Edward and Judith's disagreement was an unusual occurrence, but then, in many ways. it was an unusual summer. Parliament had stayed in session well into July, delaying the customary exodus of
le beau monde
from the city accordingly. Wellington had finally defeated the little Corsican at Waterloo, but now no one knew whether France and England were still officially at war, or whether they actually had been in the past months. While the political questions were debated, and the fate of the man who had caused all the trouble was decided, the flow of wounded coming home continued, and the echoes of skirmishing still sounded in the French countryside.

The Allingtons had not expected these circumstances to affect them. They were still in Town now simply because the repairs to the roof of their country estate had run into delays. Yet, as so often happens, that one unforeseen change in plans had now set new events spinning, causing a small skirmish on the northern fringe of fashionable Mayfair.

“It is not like you to be so judgmental, my love,” said Sir Edward. “Devenham is an old friend. He needs our help,” Gently taking one of his wife's hands between his, Edward endeavored to position himself where Judith would be forced to look at him instead of the flowers wilting in the garden. “You know I wouldn't ask this of you if I had any doubts about his character.”

Judith did look at him then, searchingly. “Do you not think reputation is a reflection of character? You have been out of his circle for a long time, Edward. People change. Waterloo hero or not, he is accounted one of the worst care-for-nothing rakes in England—just like all the Earls of Devenham before him!”

“I do not credit all the tales the gossipmongers spread about him, and neither should you. He hasn't set foot in London in three years. We should feel honored that he has asked to stay with us.”

He paused, unsure what to say next. His wife had returned her gaze to the window, and now he looked out as well. He saw at once what had caught her attention.

“That is one of Phoebe's strays, is it not?”

The walled garden, with its formal beds and neat gravel walks, had flourished this summer under the supervision of Judith's sister, Phoebe, who had been living with them for some eighteen months now, since the death of her husband. A tortoiseshell cat was crouched low on one of the walkways, its head clearly following the activities of a sparrow hopping about farther down the path. The cat appeared content to study the bird, making no move to attack.

“They have become quite tame, really, since she started feeding them. I see them in the garden all the time,” Judith said distractedly.

Edward narrowed his eyes. “Do you think Phoebe would turn Devenham away if it were up to her?” he asked quietly. He took his wife gently by the shoulders and turned her to face him.

“Oh, Edward, I don't know. She has been through so much. I truly don't know what to do.”

The death of Phoebe's husband, Stephen, had shocked the
ton
and devastated the young woman. She had been subjected to cruel gossip to top off her terrible loss, and ultimately the strength and courage Edward knew she possessed in common with his wife had failed. Phoebe had sought refuge in the Allington household, finding a safe niche as a doting aunt and unpaid governess for the children. When they were in London, she never so much as set a single foot outside their residence except for the hours she would spend in the garden. Until today.

“Do you not think it a sign that today she has found the strength to attend Lord Tyneley's memorial service? I think it is Phoebe that worries you, not Devenham's reputation.”

Judith moved into her husband's arms then and rested her head against his broad, solid chest. “Oh, Edward. What Phoebe has been through has made her so fragile, and she is just beginning to recover. Our home has been her sanctuary. How might it affect her to suddenly have a stranger, a man, thrust in our midst? I fear she's not ready. And bad enough any stranger, but one like Lord Devenham? There is bound to be talk. Why must he come to us? Surely he has his choice of grander houses and higher-positioned friends.”

Sir Edward sighed, holding her close. “You love your sister very much, as do I. But she is a grown woman, not a child. She knows she must face the world again. She has taken a courageous step today.”

He cupped Judith's small face in one of his large hands and traced the lines of concern on her forehead with the fingers of his other one. “Devenham needs our sanctuary now, love. His wounds have made him very ill. Most of his friends are unattached gentlemen in no position to offer him care. Of those that are not, I dare say most have already left or are leaving Town now that the Season has ended.”

“If his friends are so unhelpful, I suspect it is only because he deserves it,” Judith said with an unsympathetic sniff.

“In contrast, we will be stranded here for some time,” Edward continued smoothly. “We have no daughters of marriageable age to worry over; doubtless Dorrie will fall head over heels for him, but she is only twelve. That we have Phoebe may prove our greatest blessing. Who could be more perfectly suited to nurse him? Phoebe has been a married woman, and she has a talent for nurturing. The maids needn't set foot anywhere near him.”

Judith tried to twist away from Edward's touch. “I like that! He can't be trusted around the servants, but you have no qualms about closeting him with my sister!”

In a quick motion, Edward deposited a playful kiss on the tip of his wife's ear, pushing a curl of dark hair and a lace-trimmed lappet from her cap out of his way. “You know they won't be ‘closeted.' Besides, the poor man is too ill to misbehave, even if he were such a rakehell as people say.” He ran a teasing finger down her nose and reached for her hand, bringing it to his lips. “Trust me, Judith. Have I been wrong so often in all our years of marriage?”

***

Quite unaware that she was a subject of discussion, Phoebe, Lady Brodfield, sat in St. George's, Hanover Square. She looked down at the tightly clenched hands in her lap and discovered to her distress that no matter how she tried, she could not make them stop shaking. The black silk handkerchief entwined in her fingers was crumpled and wadded beyond recognition, but she did not dare to loosen her grip. She was afraid the trembling would spread from her hands to the rest of her.

“He is gone at last to his heavenly reward, but today we remember Lord Tyneley as he was in life. . . .”

The droning voice of the eulogist floated up from the main floor to where Phoebe sat in the gallery. It seemed unbearably warm there, although the elegant interior of the church normally offered a cool respite from the summer heat outside. She had inched forward to let some air reach the damp back of her black twilled-silk dress, but now she pressed against the hard wooden bench, seeking its solid support.

“. . . loyal servant to the Crown, distinguished statesman, skilled diplomat, able parliamentarian, devoted husband and father,” the voice rolled on.

The church was crowded with mourners attending the memorial service for her father-in-law, the Earl of Tyneley. Stephen's father had been prominent and well-liked. Phoebe felt deep regret that she had had so little contact with the man since Stephen's death. Whatever the failings of his two sons had been, the old earl had been an admirable and kind man. She had learned to love him during her two years of marriage to Stephen. Coming here seemed the smallest gesture on her part—a chance to pay her last respects.

If her family had not still been in London, it would have been too difficult to try to come. But it had not seemed right to stay away when she was so nearby. It was almost as if Lord Tyneley had bestowed upon her one last gift: a chance to test herself and see if she was recovered enough to live a normal life again. She had wanted to prove to herself that she could handle this. She hadn't counted on this sort of betrayal by her own body.

I should never have come
, Phoebe berated herself silently.
I was a fool to think I could do this.

She had purposely slipped into St. George's at the last possible moment and had chosen to sit in the gallery where she thought she would attract no attention.
It should have been all right
, she argued to herself. A spark of anger ignited in the depths of her distress.
I have not had to face anyone, nor engage in conversation. No one here knows who I am.
Besides her unobtrusive seat and late arrival, she had donned a heavy veil that she thought concealed her identity quite effectively. She was not yet ready to be recognized by others.

As it was, she had set herself up for failure. The turmoil of emotion was too great, and the place itself held too many memories. So many times she had been here, among these people, in mourning or in joy. She and Stephen had been married here. The mere sight of the carved pulpit on its six columns had been enough to bring back momentarily all the exhilaration and expectation of that day, in bitter contrast to her present pain. The inspired faces in the painting of the Last Supper had no power to comfort her this day.

From the safety of her perch in the gallery, she had surveyed the throng of black-clad mourners on the level below her. She had recognized Stephen's stepmother, surprisingly discomposed for one normally so unflappable, and various cousins and friends of the family. The family servants were gathered in the back of the church, and the rest of the pews were filled with the members of London's upper circles, including Lord Tyneley's fellow peers and members of Parliament. One person was noticeably absent, and that was Stephen's half brother, Richard, who had not yet come home from fighting Napoleon.

Phoebe shivered, glad to be spared at least the sight of him. Even so, she should have known, she thought, that this test was too difficult. The sorrow of this occasion opened the gates to ever-deeper feelings she had been battling.

I must get out while I can still manage it discreetly
, Phoebe thought. She was beginning to shake all over. Her fear that someone might recognize her was coming back as overwhelmingly as ever, and she fought a rising sense of panic as she glanced around her to see what obstacles stood between her and the door.

A small collection of other people had already been seated in the gallery when she had arrived, but she was certain that none had taken any notice of her. She was dismayed to discover, however, that she had not been the only latecomer. She realized that she must have been so preoccupied with her own thoughts and emotions that she had not noticed two gentlemen who had taken seats behind her. She would have to walk directly past them to make her escape.

The two were young and fashionably dressed, she noted, regarding them indirectly through her veil. Friends of Stephen? No, she doubted such would be here. But they were far too young to have been involved in affairs of her father-in-law, which left only one other possibility—that they were friends of Richard. In that case, she thought it unlikely that they would know her, even without the veil.

With an effort, Phoebe placed a shaky hand on the rail in front of her and got up. She kept her head down and walked straight past the two men, holding her breath. She saw the astonishment in their faces as she passed them and carefully started down the stairs. She prayed her legs would support her.

As she gained the bottom, she began to feel steadier. She had made a dreadful mistake in coming, but she would be all right once she got outside, she was certain. When she saw a knot of people gathered under the church's portico, however, she hesitated, sick with dismay. They would be scandalized that anyone would leave in the middle of a memorial service. The town would be buzzing with speculation later as the gossips tried to identify her.

As she stood there, she heard the clatter of feet descending the stairs behind her. One of the young men she had passed in the gallery stopped beside her.

“Are you ill?” he asked softly. “Can I assist you?”

“No, thank you,” she managed to respond. It sounded like a croak to her own ears, and the fellow continued to stand there regarding her as if he had not heard. She shook her head. His presence left her no choice but to proceed on her way, out through the people in the portico and to the hired cab she prayed would still be waiting at the curb.

There was no other way to do it but boldly and quickly. As she pushed her way through the small crowd, her head bowed, she noticed Sir Charles Mortimer, who had always been so kind to her, among those she startled. Would he guess who she was? When she at last reached the safety of the hackney, she discovered clutched in her hand a spring of rosemary that someone must have thrust at her as she went by. She inhaled its scent, blinking back tears. Rosemary, for remembrance. How dearly she wished she could forget!

BOOK: Persistent Earl : Signet Regency Romance (9781101578841)
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