Read The Earl Takes All Online
Authors: Lorraine Heath
For the awesome Jessie Edwards
the cold and dreary evening of NovemberÂ 15, 1858, Edward Alcott's life turned gray. The only thing that saved it from going completely black was Albert. At the age of seven, older than Edward by only an hour, his twin had become the Earl of Greyling that night when their parents were killed in a horrific railway accident.
Days later, Albert held Edward's hand as they sat dutifully in front of the caskets that contained whatever remained of their parents. During the evening of the day their parents were buried, Albert crept into Edward's bed so neither of them would feel so lost and alone. While they traveled to Havisham Hall, where they became the wards of the Marquess of Marsden, Albert unwittingly offered a distraction, providing a place for Edward to vent his anger and frustration over life's unfairness. They constantly shoved and slapped at each other until the solicitor traveling with them separated the boys. After they were abandoned so far from home, left in the marquess's keeping, Albert assured Edward all would be well, that they began life together in the womb and, therefore, would always remain together. Albert had been his anchor, his solace, his one constant in all matters, all things.
was stealing him awayâÂwith her silken black hair and her startling blue eyes and her sweet laughter and her gentle smile. Lady Julia Kenney. Albert was blinded by her beauty, her grace, and her attentions, allowing her to take up far too much of his time with rides in the park, rowing on the Thames, theater, dinners, andâÂGod forbidâÂpoetry readings. She was pulling him away from those closest to him, causing him to put aside his love for drinking, whoring, gambling, and traveling. In six weeks the Duke of Ashebury, Viscount Locksley, and Edward were going on a trek through the Far East. As far as Edward was concerned Albert should be going with them. He had been planning to go with them until Lady Julia asked him not to leave. Without so much as the blink of an eye, Albert had adhered to her wishes and cancelled his plans to travel with them.
She had managed to effectively wrap his brother around her littlest finger without much more than an occasional batting of her eyelashes and a fluttering of her fan. It was not to be tolerated. A woman should not have so much influence and control over a man's life.
Edward wasn't certain why he'd followed her out of the festive ballroom and into the quiet shadows of the garden, why he'd stopped to watch as she left the path and disappeared into the thicket of rose-Âadorned trellises and boughs. He knew only that he couldn't lose Albert to her.
He hesitated but a minute before darting into an area where the shadows were heavier, the glow from the gaslights lining the path held at bay. Proceeding cautiously until his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he finally saw her leaning back against the brick wall. Her lips slowly curled up to reveal her winsome smile. She looked so bloody glad to see him.
In spite of the gray darkness, as he stepped nearer he could see the adoration in her eyes. No other woman had ever looked at him as though every breath she took was for him and him alone, as though she existed only for him and his pleasures. It caused a tightening in his gut, a heady sensation of supremacy and purpose.
“I thought you'd never get here,” she said in a whispered voice that belonged to angels.
Temptation such as he'd never known tore through him, leaving him powerless against her siren's call. He didn't understand it. In all of his twenty-Âthree years, he'd never had a woman create such a maelstrom of confusing and uncomfortable emotions. He should leave now while he could, but she drew him in as though she had been created by the gods for him and no other.
With one hand, he cradled her face, felt the rapid thrum of her pulse against his fingers, and stroked his thumb along her smooth cheek. She released a soft sigh; her eyes turned languid.
He knew it was wrong, knew he would regret it, but he seemed incapable of rational thought or action. Leaning in, he took what he had no right to possess; he claimed her mouth as though it belonged to him, always had and always would belong to him.
She sighed again, a softer, warmer mewl that traveled through him, caused him to harden with such desire that he nearly doubled over. Drawing her in closer, he angled his head, took the kiss deeper, sweeping his tongue through her luscious mouth. She tasted of rich champagne with a hint of strawberries. Her slender arms came around his neck; her gloved fingers plowed through his thick blond curls. Her sigh this time turned into a welcoming moan. The passage of time seemed to come to a standstill like the clocks at Havisham Hall. No ticking, no movement of the hands, no tolling of the chimes.
He wanted to stay here forever. Wanted the night, and every night that followed, to belong only to them.
Drawing back, he held her languorous gaze. She touched her fingers to the wisps of hair at his temple, such a soft caress. It almost wasn't one at all. She smiled tenderly. “I love you so much, Albert.”
His brother's name on her lips was a punch to the gut that nearly took him to his knees. Her welcome hadn't been for him. Her passion, her spark, her desire, hadn't been for him. What a colossal fool he was to have imagined, even for a second, that they had been. Not that he was going to reveal to her exactly how she affected him, how badly he wanted her.
He forced himself to grin devilishly, triumphantly. “If you really loved him, wouldn't you be able to tell us apart?” Ashe and Locke could. Even the mad Marquess of Marsden, who had served as their guardian, could distinguish them.
“Edward?” she rasped, looking as though her dinner would soon be making a second appearance.
Her obvious revulsion delivered a hard blow to his pride, but keeping his expression impassive, he offered an exaggerated bow. “At your service.”
“You beast.” Her gloved hand met his cheek with such unexpected force that he staggered back.
He regained his footing, cocked his head. “You enjoyed it, Julia.”
“It's Lady Julia. When I marry Albert, it'll be Lady Greyling. I shall insist you address me properly. And I most certainly did not enjoy it.”
“Why would you do such a horrid thing, take such advantage? How could you be so cruel and deceitful?”
Because he'd never been able to deny himself anything he wanted, and he'd quite suddenly wanted her. Desperately.
“What's going on here?” a deep voice asked.
Edward spun around to see Albert standing a few feet away, a quizzical look on his face. Not angry, but with an almost innocent expression, as though it would never occur to him that Edward would do something as dastardly as kiss his betrothed.
“I was waiting for you as we planned,” Julia said sweetly, moving in against Albert's side, looking up at him with complete adoration that merely served to grind salt into Edward's wounded self-Âesteem. “Edward happened along, began telling me more details about the journey to the Far East that he and the others have constantly been discussing. It sounds as though it'll be the adventure of a lifetime. He'd so like for you to go.”
Edward hated being grateful for the lie she spun, but he knew that Albert would never forgive him if he learned how he had taken advantage of Julia. He wondered why she hadn't confessed the truth, why she hadn't taken the opportunity to create a chasm between the brothers that nothing on heaven or earth would have ever breeched. But more, why was she now encouraging Albert to go with him?
“You're adventure enough for me.” Albert shifted his gaze to Edward. “I've told you that I have no interest any longer in traveling. I don't appreciate you going behind my back to use Julia to try to persuade me to change my mind. Now I'd welcome your taking your leave so my little tryst in the garden with Julia can continue as intended.”
“Be on your way, Edward.”
The impatience mirrored in his twin's voice warned Edward that if he continued on this course, he would gain nothing except distancing himself from his brother. After giving them a slight bow, he strode away from the couple, the roses, the shadows.
He needed a glass of scotch. A bottle would be better. He needed to drink himself into oblivion until he could no longer remember the warmth of Julia in his arms or recall how glorious it had felt to have her mouth moving beneath his. He needed to forget that he had everâÂfor the briefest of momentsâÂwanted her for himself.
Mr.Â Edward Alcott, brother to the Earl of Greyling, met an untimely end during their recent travels in Africa. Sadder still is the knowledge that he failed to accomplish anything of note during his twenty-Âseven years upon this earth.
âÂObituary in the
, NovemberÂ 1878
But duty required that he stand outside the residence at Evermore, the ancestral estate in Yorkshire, and express his gratitude to the few lords and ladies who had attended his twin's funeral that afternoon.
“Awfully glad it wasn't you, Greyling.”
“Such a fine dancer, although he did tend to hold the ladies scandalously close during the waltz.”
“Shame he had to go before amounting to anything.”
“Drank me under the table more times than I can count, I tell you.”
The acknowledgments continued, painting the portrait of a wastrel and scoundrel. Not that he'd ever before minded how the earl's younger brother was viewed, but today it bothered him, perhaps because the epitaphs expressed were so damned accurate.
His childhood friends, the Duke of Ashebury and Viscount Locksley, stood nearby garnering their share of condolences, as everyone knew the four of them were as close as brothers, having been raised by Locksley's father. Although he'd had very little opportunity to visit with them before the funeral, he wished they were both climbing into their own conveyances right about now, but along with Minerva, Ashe's wife, they were staying the night. Julia had extended the invitation, thinking her husband would welcome more time with them. She couldn't have been more mistaken, but he knew she'd meant well.
Graciously expressing her appreciation to those who had come, she was a vision of loveliness even draped in black. She had handled most of the arrangements, sending out the mourning cards, informing the vicar of how the service was to progress, ensuring that refreshments were on hand for their guests before they began their trek home. He'd barely had occasion to speak with her throughout the day, not that he would have known what to say if he had. Since his return, they'd had far too many moments of awkward silence. He knew that needed to change, and quickly.
As the last of the carriages finally rolled down the drive, Julia wandered over, slid her arm around his, gave a slight squeeze. “Rather glad that's over with.”
Even swollen with child, she was the most graceful woman he'd ever seen. Reaching up, she placed her black-Âgloved hand against his cheek. “You look tired.”
“It's been a long week.” He'd returned from his travels ten days ago. Most of his grieving and mourning had occurred during the long and arduous journey home. For him, today was simply a formality, something to get through before moving forward.
“I could use a good stiff drink,” Ashe said as he, his wife, and Locke joined them.
“I know just where to find one,” he assured his longtime friend. After leading the group into the foyer, he placed a hand on Julia's lower back. “Will you ladies excuse us for a bit?”
She hesitated, a thousand questions swirling in those lovely blue eyes of hers. He didn't mean to dismiss her, but he was desperate for a drink and hoped she mistook his craving for wanting time alone with his friends. After searching his face for what seemed an eternity, she nodded. “Yes, of course.” Turning to Minerva, she smiled softly. “I'll ring for some tea.”
“We won't be long,” he assured the women, before heading down the hallway, his two friends not even half a step behind.
Once he entered the library, he charged forward to the sideboard, poured scotch into three tumblers, and dispensed them before holding his up. “To my brother. May he rest in peace.” He downed the contents of his glass in one long swallow.
Ashe merely took a small sip, then arched a brow. “That's hardly likely to happen, is it? What the bloody hell are you up to, Edward?”
His body froze while his mind reeled with the possibility of denying the accusation, but too much was at stake. He walked to the window and spied the spire of the village church where only a few hours earlier the funeral service had been held in his honor. Visible in the distance, ribboning through the rolling hills, was the road over which the black and glass hearse bearing the French-Âpolished casket with its elaborately carved moldings and gleaming metal handles had journeyed, while mourners followed, to the family mausoleum. “When did you figure out I wasn't Albert?”
“Shortly before the funeral began,” Locke said.
“Did you say anything to Julia?”
“No,” Ashe assured him. “We thought it best to hold our suspicions until we had them confirmed. What the devil is going on here?”
“I promised Albert as he lay dying that I would do all in my power to ensure Julia did not lose the babe she carries.” During their short marriage, she'd lost three, never carrying any of them to term. “Pretending to be my brother seemed the best way to go about it. I need to know how you deduced the truth. If Julia suspectsâÂ”
“Have you lost your mind?” Ashe bellowed.
“Lower your voice,” he ground out. He didn't need the servants to overhear.
“Do you truly believe that you can fool Julia into believing you're Albert?”
He'd been doing it for a little over a week already. Had convinced everyone: the servants, the vicar, the few mourners, Julia. But not these two, and that was a problem. He spun around. “Albert gave me no choice if I am to honor his request.”
“Surely she is far enough along now that she is past the point of a possible miscarriage,” Locke said, standing shoulder-Âto-Âshoulder beside Ashe, as though together they would be better able to convince him of his foolhardiness, as though he wasn't already perfectly aware of it.
Edward glowered at him. “Can you promise me that? Can you guarantee it? You know how much she loves him, how much he loved her. If she learns that he was the one killed, will she not crumble? Will she not make herself ill with grief?”
In answer, with a heavy sigh, Locke moved off to the sideboard, grabbed the decanter, and poured himself more scotch. Although Edward knew he'd made his point, he took little satisfaction in it.
“Do you have any idea what this deception will do to Julia, how she will feel when she learns the truth?” Ashe asked.
It was all he'd thought about as he trudged through the jungle with his brother's body in tow, as he sailed across the blue waters toward England, as he rode in the wagon that transported the wooden box that held the Earl of Greyling. “She'll think worse of me than she already does. I expect she'll attack me with the handiest object that can inflict a mortal wound. And she'll be devastated, her heart will be crushed, and her life will go dark.”
“Which is the very reason you must tell her now before you take this deception any further.”
“Then I bloody well will,” Ashe said, heading for the door.
Darting in front of him just as he reached for the latch, Edward cut him off. “Touch that door and I'll lay you flat.”
Ashe glared at him. “I refuse to let you do this.”
“You may be of the higher rank and older, but this matter does not concern you.”
Shaking his head, Ashe squared his jaw. “It bloody well does concern us. Locke, inform him that he's a fool and cannot do this.”
“Unfortunately, I agree with him.”
Clearly stunned, Ashe twisted around. The man whom he'd mistakenly believed to be his ally sat with one hip perched on the edge of the desk, glass of scotch in hand. “You don't think this is a bad idea?”
“I'm convinced it's the worst idea an Englishman has had since one decided to go crusading. But he's correct. It's not our business, and we don't have a say in the matter.”
“You might not care about Julia, but I do.”
“But if Edward has the right of it and telling her causes her to lose the babe, the last gift Albert will ever bestow upon her, how will you feel then?”
Ashe's shoulders slumping slightly, he stepped back. “I loved Albert like a brother.”
“But like a brother is not the same as being a brother,” Locke said. “Not to mention neither of us was there when Albert drew his last. We didn't hear his final words nor did we witness the desperation that might have laced them.”
Edward had never realized how much power two small words, four letters, could hold.
“Do you have to always be so bloody logical?” Ashe asked.
Locke raised his glass. “I wouldn't complain if I were you. My being logical contributed to you gaining your wife.”
Shaking his head, Ashe turned his attention back to Edward. “Have you truly thought this through? How far along is she? Somewhere between seven and eight months? You're looking at several weeks of pretending to love Julia when the two of you have never gotten along, when all of London knows you can hardly stand to be in the same room with her,” he said, getting to the crux of what he surely believed was the challenge Edward had set for himself.
If only it was that uncomplicated. After that blasted, ill-Âconceived kiss in the garden years ago, she'd never taken kindly to him, had barely tolerated his presence. Not that he blamed her. During the intervening years, his behavior had been less than exemplary. “I have considered it from every angle.”
Balling his hands into fists, Ashe scowled. “I can see nothing but disaster on the horizon if you follow this course.”
“Disaster on the horizon I can deal with when it arrives. My concern presently is avoiding disaster
the babe arrives. I know it won't be easyâÂthe past ten days have been horrendous, trying to behave around her as Albert would, and I know I've not managed completely because she studies me as though I'm a puzzle with a piece that doesn't quite fit. So far, I believe, Julia has kindly chalked my odd behavior and requests for solitude up to my grief. Yet I know I can't use that excuse much longer, so I need to know what gave me away. How did you deduce it was me and not Albert wandering around today?”
“I don't know that I can help you with this,” Ashe said. “Deceit does not sit well with me.”
“And you think it sits well with me?” Edward asked, the pain and agony from weeks of deliberation, guilt, and doubt slicing through his voice. “I convinced him to go with me because I selfishly wanted one last trip together. I wanted him to put me before her. And it cost him his life. All I can do now is strive to ensure it doesn't cost him his child. It's all that's left of my brother. I would have given anything to be the one we laid in the vault this afternoon. But that I cannot change. So I am left with only the ability to keep my promise to him. No matter the cost, no matter how mad it seems, I know no other way to ensure Julia does not lose this child. So help me. If you truly loved Albert as you claim, then help me.”
With a deep sigh, Ashe walked to the sideboard and poured himself a generous amount of scotch. “We've known you since you were seven. While your looks are identical, your mannerisms are not. You don't rub your right ear.”
“Ah, damn, yes.” He did so now, pulling on it until it hurt. When he was five, Albert had lost hearing in that ear after Edward shoved him into a frigid pond. Afterward, it pained him from time to time and he would rub it, especially when he was contemplating a matterâÂusually trying to determine the best way to bring Edward to task for some misconduct.
“And you toss back far too much scotch, far too quickly,” Locke said. “I don't suppose you've stopped doing that.”
“No, but I only do it after she's gone to bed.”
Ashe narrowed his eyes. “You don't go to bed with her?”
“God, why would I? I'm certainly not going to cuckold my brother even if he is dead.”
“I can't speak for Albert, but whether or not I make love to my wife, I sleep with her nestled within my arms.”
“Because you're disgustingly in love.”
“So was he.”
Edward shook his head. “They have separate bedchambers. I'm safe there.”
Ashe tilted his head. “So do we.”
With a harsh curse, Edward filled his glass to the brim with more scotch, walked over to the seating area by the fire and dropped into a comfortable chair. Surely, Julia would have said something if he was supposed to be in her bed. Unless she was crediting his absence as a need to grieve alone. How long before his odd behaviors caused her to worry, added strain to the situation, burdened her until he caused to happen exactly what he was trying to prevent?
Ashe and Locke joined him, taking nearby chairs. Neither appeared pleased to be there but at least they were no longer looking at him as though he were as mad as the Marquess of Marsden.
He stared into the writhing flames of the fire, imagined his eternity would be spent thrashing about in the ones ignited in Hell. “I thought about staying in Africa, sending her a telegram with an excuse for our delay, but I knew Albert would haunt me if I left her alone as her time carrying his child neared an end. I'm well versed in the dead haunting the living.”
“My mother's ghost screeching over the moors is nothing but my father's madness,” Locke said.
“Still, I grew up with it.” Edward glanced over at the two men who had been like brothers. “Do you know if Albert had a special endearment for Julia?”
Both men blinked, looked at each other, seemed at a loss for words. Finally, Ashe said, “He's the sort who would have had one, but I never heard him call her anything other than Julia.”
“Neither did I,” Locke admitted. “It was probably saved for intimate moments.”
Bloody hell. He'd had such confidence that he could adequately imitate his brother, but they were unveiling countless things he never considered. For the short term, he'd succeeded. For the long term, it was going to require more awareness and effort. “I haven't sorted through his things. Merely packed them up.” He'd had both his trunk and Albert's placed in the bedchamber that had been his when he visited. To be gone through later. “Perhaps I'll find a letter he penned that can provide some answers.” A letter possibly unfinished that would tear at his gut. Death left much undone.