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Authors: Vivienne Lorret

This Earl Is on Fire

BOOK: This Earl Is on Fire
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D
EDICATION

To Marshall Brown,
for placing the broken pieces of a dream into my hands
and never doubting that I would find a way to fix them

C
ONTENTS

P
ROLOGUE

The night before . . .

L
iam Cavanaugh grinned at the corrugated lines marking his cousin's lifted brows. It wasn't often that Northcliff Bromley, the Duke of Vale and renowned genius, showed astonishment.

Bending his dark head, Vale peered closer at the marble heads within the crates. “Remarkable. Even seeing them side by side, I hardly notice a difference. The
fellows
will be fascinated when you present this to the Royal Society at month's end.”

“It was pure luck that I had the original as well.” Liam shrugged as if he'd merely stumbled upon the differences between a genuine article and an imposter.

Vale turned, and his obsidian eyes sharpened on Liam. “No need to play the simpleton with me. You forget that I know your secret.”

Liam cast a hasty glance around the sconce-lit, cluttered ballroom of Wolford House, ensuring they were alone. Fortunately, the vast space was empty aside from the two of them and a dozen or more large crates filled with artifacts. “By definition, a secret is that of which we do not speak. So lower your voice, if you please.”

No one needed to know that he actually studied each piece of his collection in detail—enough that he'd learned how to spot a forgery in an instant.

“Afraid the servants will tell the
ton
your collection isn't merely a frivolous venture? Or that your housekeeper's complaints of dusty urns and statues crowding each room would suddenly fall silent?” Vale flashed a smile that bracketed his mouth with deep creases.

Liam pretended to consider his answer, pursing his lips. “It would be cruel of me to render Mrs. Brasher mute when she finds such enjoyment in haranguing me.”

“She may have a point,” Vale said, skirting in between two crates when a wayward nail snagged his coat, issuing a sharp
rip
of rending fabric. He stopped to examine the hole and shook his head. “Your collection has grown by leaps and bounds in the past few months. So much so that you were forced to purchase another property to house it all.”

“The curse of immense wealth and boredom, I'm afraid.”

His cousin's quick glower revealed that he was not amused by Liam's insouciant guise. Then, as if to punish him for it, he issued the foulest epithet known to man. “You should marry.”

Not wanting to reveal the discomfort slowly clawing up his spine, Liam chuckled. “As a cure for boredom?”

Vale said nothing. He merely crossed his arms over his chest and waited.

It was a standoff now. They were nearly equal in regard to observation skills, but apparently Vale thought he had the upper hand.

Liam knew differently. He crossed his arms as well and smirked.

If anyone were to peer into the room at this moment, they might wonder if they were staring at matching wax figures. The two of them looked enough alike in build and coloring to be brothers, but with subtle differences. Vale's features were blunter, while Liam's were angular. And Vale's dark eyes were full of intellect, while Liam's green eyes tended to reveal the streak of mischief within.

“Marriage would do you good,” Vale said.

Liam disagreed. “You're starting to sound like Thayne, always hinting of ways to improve my social standing.”

The Marquess of Thayne was determined to reform Liam into the
ton
's favorite pet—the Season's
Original
. In fact, Thayne had been so confident in success that he'd wagered on the outcome.
What a fool
.

“I never hint,” Vale said.

Liam offered his cousin a nod. “True. You are a forthright, scientific gentleman, and I appreciate that about you. Therefore, I will give you the courtesy of answering in kind: No. I should
not
marry. I like my life just as it is.” He lifted his hands in a gesture to encompass his collection within this room. “Besides, I could never respect a woman who would have me.”

Vale scoffed. “Respect?”

“Very well. I could never
trust
a woman who desired to marry me. Not with my reputation. Such a woman would either be mad or conniving, and I want neither for a wife.”

He'd nearly succumbed once, falling for the worst of all deceptions. After that narrow escape, he'd vowed never to be tricked again.

“Come now. There are many who care nothing for your reputation.”

That statement only served to cement his belief. If his despoiled reputation were the only thing keeping him far afield of the
ton
's conniving matchmakers, then he would make the most of it. And the perfect place to add the crème de la crème to his list of scandalous exploits would be at Lady Forester's masquerade tonight.

After all, he had a carefully crafted reputation of unrepentant debauchery to uphold.

Liam squared his shoulders and walked with his cousin to the door. “If the Fates have it in mind to see me married before I turn sixty, then they will have to knock me over the head and drag me to the altar.”

C
HAPTER
O
NE

T
he moment Adeline Pimm saw the body slumped against the doorway, she knew that London was a city full of adventure. Oh . . . and, of course, danger.

A series of indrawn breaths followed.

Father's gasp was more of a wordless exclamation as the man beneath the narrow portico of their rented townhouse tipped over the threshold and crumbled into his arms. Mother's accompanied a jolt of her limbs, an ever-preparedness to manage any given situation. While Adeline's stalled in her throat. Tiny grains of gooseflesh rose on her arms. Her skin tingled. And some strange force clutched her heart.

Her own response made little sense to her. After having been shielded from . . . well . . .
everything
for her entire life, a more understandable reaction might have been to faint, perhaps. Yet instead, she felt compelled to rush across the foyer to offer aid.

Her body answered this urge. Automatically she took a step forward. Unfortunately, so did her mother, effectively blocking her path.

Hildebrand Pimm—
Bunny
to all those who knew her—clapped a hand over her daughter's eyes. “Adeline, hasten to your room. This sight is too troubling for
your
eyes.”

Not just any young woman's eyes, Adeline noted, but hers and hers alone.

She knew her parents loved her. They wanted to protect her. They wanted what—they believed—was best for her. And for the majority of the past twenty-two years, Adeline had rarely put up a fuss. Usually, she followed her mother's instruction without question. There had never been an ounce of discord between them, and even less rebellion from Adeline. However, since the last year or two, easy acceptance of the way her life always had been and always would be—so it seemed—had become unsatisfactory.

She wanted to take risks. She wanted adventure. Instead, she was cosseted and safeguarded from morning till night. Yet, as she had explained to them not long ago, if she was old enough for the marriage mart, then it was past time for her to stand on her own two feet. Or rather, in her case, stand firmly on one foot, while the other balanced on tiptoe.

Gently, Adeline lowered her mother's hand. “You promised not to coddle me any longer, remember?”

Beneath a frilled cap and a mass of light brown hair, much like her own, Mother's indigo gaze darted down to the tip of Adeline's shoe—the one with the extra inches of cork added to correct her limp, caused by an accident at birth. “Dearest, now is not the time to assert your independence. There is a man at our door, and we do not even know if he is alive.”

“Aye. He's alive enough for now,” Serge Pimm said, supporting the stranger's head against his barrel chest, his arms curled beneath the stranger's as he pulled him into the foyer. “Bunny, could you see to the door? And Adeline—”

“I am a grown woman, Father,” she interjected before he could order her to her room as well. “I can help. And since the servants are not here, you need me.”

After leaving their quiet country village, the family had arrived last night, a full day earlier than expected. Their coachman, Gladwin, had made a point of setting out before a storm had swept through Boswickshire. Unfortunately, the carriage filled with a half dozen of their servants had been delayed because of it. Not only that but, at first light, Mother had sent Gladwin and their tiger, Sean, to market with a list.

Normally, the absence of servants wouldn't have caused issue. Her parents, the Baron and Baroness Boswick, made a point of being models of self-sufficiency, unlike other aristocrats. In this particular moment, however, there was an unconscious man on the foyer floor.

Father glanced at her, a hank of thick salt-and-pepper hair falling over his forehead. His burly brows furrowed, and the spray of lines beside his brown eyes drew tight. “There's blood. A good deal of it.”

In that instant, she realized he was not ordering her to leave. He was not shielding her as he'd always done. Instead, he was offering her a choice.

Without hesitation, she took a step forward. “I'm certain the blood won't bother me.” After all, young women were no strangers to it.

Mother saw to the door and scurried over to the sideboard for a lamp. She had an uncanny ability to anticipate a need before it became apparent. Adeline wished she'd thought of it, because at first, all she could see was the top of the stranger's dark head, the sleeves of his blue coat, two long, immobile legs in speckled gray trousers, and a pair of muddied boots.

Yet as soon as Mother lowered the lamp to the floor, Adeline realized it wasn't mud on his boots. It was blood.
A good deal of it
. The speckles on his trousers were not mud either. Nor were the puddle-shaped stains on his waistcoat. And his face . . .

Adeline felt herself sway, the room spinning beneath her feet. She sank to her knees beside him. Crimson smudges covered his flesh, matting in the black slashes of his brows. All that she could see of his eyes were two swollen folds of flesh. Bloated and raw, the left side of his face looked as if it took the worst of the beating.

Her stomach roiled, though not in sickness. In anger. A surge of it gripped her lungs, turning each breath so hot that it scorched her throat. She glared at the gash splitting his bottom lip near the corner and yanked a lace handkerchief from her sleeve. “Who would do this to him?”

Father shrugged off his coat and tucked it beneath the man's head. “By the cut of his clothes, he appears to be a gentleman. Perhaps he was set upon by ruffians or thieves. Though with his gold watch chain in plain sight, I doubt it was the latter. Whatever the reason, they meant to be thorough.”

She gently dabbed at the stranger's face, but the blood was sticky, like red quince jelly, and the handkerchief too dry for her ministrations to be effective. Thankfully, Mother brought a white glazed pitcher into view and handed it to Father.

“Thank you, Bunny. And see if there's a bottle of spirits in the—”

But Mother already had a bottle of honey-colored liquor in her other hand. Then, setting it down on the floor, she hastened up the stairs, likely preparing for the next unforeseen necessity.

Father poured a few drops of water onto Adeline's handkerchief before withdrawing his own. “Be gentle, child. We don't know how broken he is yet. When Gladwin returns, I'll send a missive to my Uncle Peirce and see if he is in town. When I was a lad, he was the best
leech
in three counties.”

Father also had a knack for healing. Adeline had always wondered if she possessed that trait as well. Yet each time she'd attempted to assist a maid or footman who might have a cut finger or twisted ankle, they'd ended up trying to take care of her instead. As if her limp made her an invalid.

But she wasn't. She just needed a chance to prove it.

Beside her, the stranger's chest rose and fell in hitched, shallow breaths as if each one pained him. She settled her hand over his heart. Hard, labored beats met her palm.

Peculiarly, she already felt an inexplicable fondness for this stranger. As she tenderly cleansed his face, she felt somehow tethered to him. She didn't know where the abrupt, fledgling feeling came from. All she knew was that he needed help.

Right now, in this moment, he needed
her.

“It will all be better soon,” she promised on a whisper, a sense of certainty washing through her. “You were meant to find our door.”

Since they'd arrived at such a late hour, they hadn't had an opportunity to see the façade of their temporary lodgings. With the first rays of dawn coming through the transom windows, they were just going outside when they'd found him instead.

“I've no doubt he was.” Father carefully sifted through the blood and matted hair as he continued his examination. “Not many would have discovered him on their doorsteps for hours yet to come. Divine providence deals a fine hand when we least expect it, and likely when we need it most.”

As Adeline nodded in agreement, an odd sensation occurred beneath her breast. Her heart wavered out of rhythm. It sped up for a moment, pounding hard and heavy, then slowed, but not to its original tempo. Instead, it matched beat for beat with the organ beneath her fingertips.

She lifted her hand and stared down at it as if it were a foreign limb. Then, like one pole of a magnet being drawn to another, she settled it over the man's bloodstained waistcoat once more.

“What is it?” Father asked, placing his own hand beside hers. “Is his heart fading?”

She swallowed. “I don't know how to explain it, but just now I thought I . . . Well, my own heart did the strangest thing.”

Her gaze darted to her father and saw that his was equally startled. Then a knowing smile, of sorts, lined his countenance, appearing more worried and wistful than glad. “Then we will do all that is in our power to heal him.”

She was close enough to her parents that she understood this expression. She knew their story. Knew a similar malady had struck her father when he first laid eyes on her mother.

This was why they'd been so understanding when Adeline had refused Mr. Wittingham's proposal. They knew she hadn't been thunderstruck by anyone yet. They even feared that, because of her deformity, she never would be, and that was the main reason they had agreed to let her come to the
treacherous city
of London in the first place.

“No.” She shook her head, answering Father's unspoken assumption. She had no plans to fall in love and refused to resign herself to a life of more coddling. Which was precisely what any marriage would do. Her reaction was the result of eating her breakfast porridge too quickly. That was all.

But wouldn't it be just her luck if the only trait she'd inherited from her parents was a tendency toward overblown romantic notions?

A sense of panic flooded her. All Adeline had wanted was an adventure—to experience London as if she were just any other debutante, not a pitiable, feeble creature. Now, this strange feeling put that in jeopardy. She felt cornered, almost as if this man were threatening to take it all away from her.

Wanting distance, she scrambled to her feet. When her corrective shoe caught the hem of her morning dress, she stumbled back.

Righting herself, she reached out a shaky hand and waved it in his direction. “Perhaps we should send him away instead. H-he isn't well. And, well,”—she swallowed—“he should be at home. His home. Wherever . . . that . . . may . . . be.”

“Oh dear, I feared this would happen,” Mother said, rushing down the stairs to her side and placing a hand against her forehead. “This is too much of a shock.”

A shock, indeed. And an unwelcome one at that. Though she wasn't entirely sure if her mother was referring to the man's injuries or to the fact that Adeline was experiencing the most peculiar sensation of . . . of . . .

Indigestion
. That was all this was. Adeline couldn't acknowledge that it might be anything else, even if only to herself. Once was enough. And she would never admit that she
had
felt anything for the man lying supine on the foyer floor—not aloud, at any rate.

She would much rather pretend that the past five minutes had never occurred.

Yes
. That thought calmed her.

Adeline slowly exhaled, forcing herself to relax. After all, once the stranger recuperated, then she need never see him again. Gradually, her breath came easier. Yet that uncomfortable pinching around her heart remained.

She shook her head, gently dislodging her mother's hand. “I am perfectly well. The stranger is our main concern. I should fetch more cloths . . .” Her excuse stalled the moment she saw the neat pile of fresh cloths her mother had brought. “Or perhaps a basin”—but there was one on the floor next to Father now too.

During her smallish bout of hysteria, Father had cleaned the blood from the stranger's head and face. Then he'd shifted, hovering over the body with his back to Adeline and Mother.

“His fingers are distended,” Father said, proceeding with his examination, his movements concealed from their vantage point. “He gave back as much as he got, I imagine. There are no visible signs of broken bones. His arms appear sturdy. His ribs, however . . . A wealth of bruises tells me that he took quite a few blows to the left side, and”—Father hissed—“at least one in the shape of a man's boot.”

The stranger issued a low moan. Heedless of the fear that caught her off guard minutes ago, Adeline rushed forward. Again, she sank to her knees beside him. When she took his hand in hers, a warm, comforting feeling washed over her, as if this gesture were a habit of many years instead of a first touch.

She chose to ignore the sensation. “What can I do, Father?”

“Even if we knew where he lived, we could not send him away in his condition,” he said, gazing at her with a measure of caution and worry.

She could see the struggle within him—the desire to protect her, competing with the desire to honor his promise of not coddling her. As always, she was grateful for his well-meant affection. However, she had a choice to make. Did she want to remain the cosseted, helpless girl that her parents saw? Or was she ready to prove herself capable of facing any circumstance?

It didn't take long to come to a decision. Adeline squeezed the stranger's hand. “Then we shall see to his care.
All
of us.”

L
iam Cavanaugh's cranial bones seemed to shift and throb like rock over magma. The flesh surrounding his skull and the pulpy gray matter beneath pulsed in a constant hellish fire of searing, unending pain.

What had happened to him?

He tried to remember, but consciousness was limited and somewhat hazy.

When he concentrated, all he saw were blurry fists plunging through shadows, white light flashing behind his eyes, and a gritty voice growling in warning, “
If you let her go, we could end this. Your choice, guvna.

BOOK: This Earl Is on Fire
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