What's an Earl Gotta Do? - Courtney McCaskill - E-Book

What's an Earl Gotta Do? E-Book

Courtney McCaskill

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He lost her once. He can’t bear to lose her again.

Michael Cranfield, the Earl of Morsley, has been hopelessly in love with the girl next door, Lady Anne Astley, ever since they were fourteen years old.

This made it particularly jarring when she went and married someone else when his father sent him on a secret mission for the Crown in the wilds of Canada.

Now Anne is a widow, and Michael has a second chance to be with the woman he loves. He’s determined to marry Anne, take her back to Canada (where’s he’s spent the past four years training to be Governor General,) and wrap her up in cotton gauze so he'll never have to be parted from her.

Anne still cringes when she recalls the day she learned with absolute certainty that Michael only saw her as a friend. But she isn’t the biddable girl Michael remembers, not any more. She’s found that being a widow, answering to no one, and running her London charity precisely as she sees fit suits her just fine. She does want to remarry because she’s always yearned for a large family, but only if she can find a husband who will support her in the charity work that means everything to her.

And if Michael Cranfield thinks she’s going to give up her charity to move to Canada, or let him boss her around, then he’d better think again!

What price will Michael be willing to pay to be with the woman he loves? What’s an Earl Gotta Do?

Please note that the heat level is red hot!

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What’s an Earl Gotta Do?

Book Two in the Astley Chronicles

Courtney McCaskill

Hazel Grove Books

Contents

The Astley Chronicles

The Astleys of Harrington Hall

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

42. Preview: The Sea Siren of Broadwater Bottom

Author’s Note

About the Author

Acknowledgments

The Astley Chronicles

Book 1: How to Train Your Viscount

Book 2: What’s an Earl Gotta Do?

Coming Soon:

Book 3 (Available Spring 2022): The Sea Siren of Broadwater Bottom

Book 4: The Duke’s Dark Secret

For more information, visit www.courtneymccaskill.com.

The Astleys of Harrington Hall

Edward Astley IV, Earl of Cheltenham

Georgiana Astley, Countess of Cheltenham

Edward Astley V, Viscount Fauconbridge, age 26

Harrington Astley, age 25

Anne Northcote (née Astley), Countess of Wynters, age 23

Lady Caroline Astley, age 19

Lady Lucy Astley, age 18

Lady Isabella Astley, age 18

John Astley, deceased at age 2

Frederick Astley, age 13

First published in 2021 by Hazel Grove Books.

What’s an Earl Gotta Do?, Copyright © Courtney McCaskill, 2021.

Excerpt from The Sea Siren of Broadwater Bottom Copyright © Courtney McCaskill, 2021.

All rights reserved. The moral rights of the author have been asserted. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. All inquiries should be made to the author.

Paperback ISBN: 978-1-63915-003-8

Kindle ISBN: 978-1-63915-004-5

eBook ISBN: 978-1-63915-005-2

This is a work of fiction. Names, principal characters, events, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination. One real historical figure, Lord Hobart, makes a cameo appearance. Although I attempted to make this cameo appearance generally consistent with Lord Hobart’s activities in 1802, the scene in which he appears has no factual basis. As discussed in the author’s note, there is also one scene that was inspired by George Smart and the manner in which he invented his “Chimney Cleansing Machine.” Any other resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Created with Vellum

Prologue

London

March 1798

Michael Cranfield leapt from the carriage before it came to a full stop in front of the white stone town house on Cavendish Square. His legs, cramped after the overnight journey, were unprepared for this sudden exertion, and he almost went sprawling face first onto the pavement. He managed to keep his feet and sprinted up the steps of the Astley family’s London residence, ignoring the footman’s bewilderment.

“Is Anne here?” he asked, panting as he crossed the threshold. “I must speak to her right away.”

An older man who had a butlerish look about him, between his ramrod-straight posture and air of silent disapproval, raised a single eyebrow. His expression was that of a man who had smelled something exceptionally unpleasant, and he seemed to be pondering which was the graver offense, the fact that Michael looked every bit as rumpled and dusty as one would expect after spending eighteen hours on the road, or that he’d had the audacity to refer to the Earl of Cheltenham’s daughter by her first name. He lifted his chin high enough that Michael could see right up his nose. “Could you possibly be referring to Lady Anne?”

“Yes—Lady Anne, of course. It’s just—I’ve known her all my life, so I—” Michael swallowed. He didn’t have time to explain. “Is she here? I need to speak with her. Urgently.”

“She is not. Perhaps you could leave your card, Mr.—”

“There isn’t time for that.” Oh, God. The most important conversation of his life, and he was going to miss her. “Where did she go?”

The butler puffed out his chest. “This is most irregular, sir. You may leave your card. If Lady Anne wishes to receive you—”

“In two hours, there is a ship sailing for Canada, and I must be on it,” Michael bit out.

The butler looked him up and down. “Rather urgent business for a man of your years. Do tell what it might be.”

“I am not at liberty to disclose it. But suffice to say, the matter is urgent enough that my father just pulled me out of Oxford.” Michael detected the tiniest sliver of interest in the butler’s stony expression. “Please, sir,” he begged. “I have to be on that ship, and I must speak to Anne before I go. I could be gone a full year, and I—I’ve never told her that I—” He swallowed, unable to believe he was admitting this to a complete stranger. “I mean, I’m fairly certain she already knows, but—” Lord, this was mortifying. The butler’s mouth was hanging open in a most unbutler-like fashion. But Michael plowed on because he had to convince the man somehow. “But I haven’t actually asked her to—to be my—”

The butler’s eyes sharpened. “You are the boy next door. Lord Morsley.”

“Yes. Yes, I am.” Michael felt his face reddening, all the way to his large, sticky-outy ears. He shouldn’t be surprised. Everyone back home in Gloucestershire seemed to know he was hopelessly in love with his best friend, that he had been for years.

But it was lowering to discover that his feelings were so openly discussed that someone had mentioned them to this man whom he had never met, who lived a hundred miles away.

At least his confession had the desired effect. “A thousand apologies, my lord. Carter!” the butler snapped at the man posted at the door. “Gather the footmen, as well as Lady Anne’s and Lady Cheltenham’s maids.”

“Yes, sir!” Carter said, already sprinting toward the back of the house.

It was quickly ascertained that Anne and her mother had gone out to pay a round of social calls. Nobody knew their precise itinerary, although between Yarwood (this proved to be the butler’s name) and the ladies’ maids, they were able to put together a list of several dozen possibilities.

Footmen were dispatched at a run to inquire at the houses on the list. Michael was pacing past a drawing room when a gentleman with short brown hair peppered with flecks of grey appeared in the doorway. Michael started, and the man laughed.

“I’m sorry. I probably should have made myself known earlier. I’ve been waiting for Lord Cheltenham.” He extended a hand. “I’m the Earl of Wynters.”

“Lord Wynters.” Michael pumped his hand. “I am the Earl of Morsley.”

“Come, sit.” Lord Wynters gestured to a chair before the fire. He strolled over to a decanter in the corner and filled two glasses. “I daresay you could use a spot of this,” he said, handing one to Michael.

Michael was raising the glass to his lips when a great clattering sound almost made him spill his drink. It proved to be Lord Wynters’s walking stick, which he had knocked over as he resumed his seat on the sofa. As the earl leaned it against the couch once more, Michael noticed that the shiny black lacquered stick had a silver handle shaped like an icicle.

“I could not help but overhear your predicament,” Lord Wynters said.

Michael cringed. “I… er…”

The earl laughed. “Come now, there’s no need to feel embarrassed. I, too, was once”—he paused, studying Michael assessingly—“seventeen?”

“Nineteen,” Michael said, unable to keep a hint of defensiveness from his voice.

“Nineteen. My apologies.” Lord Wynters sipped his drink. “Lord Morsley—that would make you Redditch’s heir.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then you’ve nothing to worry about. Your father is tall, as was your mother, God rest her soul. I’ll wager that, within the next year, you’ll grow into those hands and feet.”

“Thank you,” Michael muttered, even though he felt the opposite of grateful. He was all too aware that, unlike his friends, who had shot up dramatically in the last few years, he remained on the shorter side of average. Not only that, he was scrawny and terrifically awkward, with hands and feet so large they looked like they could not possibly go with the rest of his body.

Throw in his gigantic ears, and he wasn’t exactly a fairy-tale prince.

But Anne wasn’t shallow. She didn’t care about things like that.

At least, he hoped to God she didn’t.

The earl was shaking his head, looking wistful. “You remind me very much of myself when I was not too much older, when I began courting my first wife. You’ve chosen well for yourself, if you don’t mind my saying so. Lady Anne actually bears a striking resemblance to my Clara.” He gazed across the room, lost in thought. “A very striking resemblance indeed.”

“I see,” Michael said. He was so anxious, it was difficult to attend to what the man was saying, but he was trying not to be rude.

There was a rush of footsteps in the foyer as the first footman returned. “Excuse me,” Michael said, already halfway across the room.

“They were at Lady Grenwood’s house earlier,” the footman said, hands on his knees, breath coming in gasps. “But they left a half hour ago, and her ladyship didn’t know where else they were heading.”

Yarwood gave the man no quarter, handing him another slip of paper. “We’ve thought of three more houses.”

“Yes, sir!” the footman said, hauling in one last breath before rushing out the door.

Time passed both agonizingly slowly and all too quickly. Somehow every time Michael checked his pocket watch, another five minutes had disappeared. Soon all the footmen but two had returned, and still there was no news.

Michael sighed and turned to Yarwood. “If I am to make my ship, I must depart in ten minutes. As much as I hate to convey such a message in a letter, it appears it has come to that.”

“I believe you are right, my lord,” Yarwood said, leading Michael back into the drawing room, where the earl was still waiting before the fire. Yarwood opened a writing desk and gestured for Michael to sit.

Over the years, Michael had imagined proposing to Anne in hundreds of different ways. On the balcony at a ball. In the Greek folly behind her house. On the pond where, years ago, they had whiled away many an hour playing pirates (Michael had quickly rejected that one. They had been prone enough to overturning the skiff without anyone attempting to go down on one knee).

But he had finally decided that he would propose in the meadow next to Cranfield Castle, the glorious old ruin that had been in his family for almost five hundred years. This happened to be the spot they had been picnicking the summer they had both been fifteen, when Michael had come oh so close to kissing her.

Proposing in a letter therefore tasted like the bitterness of defeat, and what Michael was able to compose in the space of ten minutes left much to be desired. But at least he was able to cover the essentials: that he loved Anne, that he had for years; that he wanted no one but her for his wife; that he never wanted to be parted from her; and that if she would but wait for him, he would rush back to her side just as soon as he had completed the task his father had set before him.

“There,” he said, putting a final crease in the paper and rising to his feet. He consulted his pocket watch and was dismayed to discover that he should have left five minutes ago. “I must hurry.”

“I will ensure that Lady Anne receives it,” Yarwood promised.

“Thank you, Yarwood,” Michael said with feeling. “For everything.”

The earl had crossed the room to shake Michael’s hand. “Good luck to you, young man.”

Michael accepted his hand. Plague take it—he was in such a state he had entirely forgotten the man’s name. “Thank you, my lord.”

And so Michael hurried down the steps as quickly as he had rushed up them, anxious for Anne’s answer and knowing he would have to wait months to learn what that answer might be.

Lord Wynters glanced about the drawing room. The house was still aflutter following the excitement caused by young Lord Morsley’s unexpected arrival. The footmen were chattering amongst themselves in the foyer.

Yarwood, the only one who seemed to recall that they still had a guest, had taken up a position just outside the door.

“Yarwood,” Lord Wynters called, “I suppose I won’t wait any longer. But I wonder if I might ask a favor before I go.”

“Certainly, my lord.”

He raised his empty glass. “I happen to know that Cheltenham keeps a bottle of Martell up in the library. Would you mind fetching me a glass?”

“At once, my lord.”

As soon as the butler was out of the way, Wynters crossed to the writing desk and seized Lord Morsley’s letter. He didn’t bother to open it; he knew well enough what it said.

He threw it straight into the fire.

He then scrawled a quick note of his own, which he positioned on the desk at the precise angle of Lord Morsley’s missive.

By the time Yarwood returned with his drink, Wynters was back in his seat, arm draped across the back of the sofa, looking for all the world as if he had never moved.

Chapter 1

London

July 1802

Four Years Later

Anne Northcote, the Countess of Wynters, crept into the foyer of the Falmouth mansion, naked but for a sheet of black lace net.

At least, she mused grimly, that was how she appeared.

In truth, the black net was fully lined with beige muslin. But the muslin matched Anne’s skin tone so closely, at first glance it gave the illusion that... that...

That she wasn’t wearing anything beneath the net.

Oh, this dress was a terrible idea. Her little sister Caroline’s terrible idea, to be specific. Anne’s husband, Lord Wynters, had died in his sleep precisely one year ago, and tonight was her reentry into polite society. Anne never had time to keep up with the latest styles, and after a year spent in mourning, her wardrobe was badly out of fashion. Asking her stylish little sister to commission a few gowns for her had seemed like the perfect solution.

This scandal of a dress was apparently Caro’s notion of half mourning. Anne felt her cheeks flush beneath the rouge her maid had applied.

Rouge! She never wore rouge, but she was wearing it tonight, and lip pomade, too. Along with a crimson hothouse rose tucked behind her ear, and a black lace mask to match her gown.

Halfway across the foyer, Anne decided she couldn’t go through with it.

Really, considering the day she’d had, who could blame her?

Her shoulders slumped as she thought of the messenger who had called upon her earlier, bringing tidings of her impending humiliation. No, pasting on a false smile and pretending to enjoy herself, knowing that everyone here would be laughing at her tomorrow morning, would only make things worse. She would make an excuse to Lady Falmouth and—

“Just where do you think you’re going?”

Anne steeled herself before she turned. “I’m feeling unwell, Mama.”

“Are you?” Georgiana Astley, the Countess of Cheltenham, circled Anne like a shark, eyeing her from behind her peacock-feathered lorgnette mask.

Anne wrung her hands. “It’s nothing, just a headache—”

Lady Cheltenham snapped her mask down. “Stop slouching. We both know your discomfort has nothing to do with your head and everything to do with that dress.”

“It’s not the dress.”

Her mother cocked a skeptical eyebrow.

Anne sighed. How like her mother to see right through her. “At least, not entirely. I do feel a bit ridiculous. But I—I received some bad news.”

“What happened, dear?”

Anne closed her eyes. “I am to be the subject of a cartoon.”

The countess frowned. “A cartoon? What do you mean, a cartoon?”

“This morning I intervened on behalf of a chimney sweep’s apprentice stuck in a flue in Holborn. The boy survived,” Anne said, seeing consternation fill her mother’s eyes. “I was able to persuade the building’s owner to open up the wall to cut him out.”

“Of course you did.” Her mother puffed out her chest. “That’s my girl.”

“But the owner was very resistant to damaging his building on account of a lowly sweep, and in order to sway him, I had to be a bit”—Anne waved a hand, searching for the right word—“fervent.”

The countess arched an eyebrow. “Fervent?”

“You might even say vehement.”

“What did you say, darling?”

Anne knotted her hands. “I might have shouted that he should be ashamed of himself, that he had no right to call himself a Christian, and if he didn’t let us open up that wall, I would make sure his name was on the front page of every newspaper in London tomorrow. In front of a crowd of two hundred,” she added in a rush.

The countess flipped open her fan. “Considering a child’s life was at stake, I think you had the right of it.”

“Yes, and in truth, I wouldn’t do anything differently, if that is what it took to save the boy. But a cartoon is to be printed tomorrow, picturing me dressed in a Roman helmet, towering over a cowering man. I am shown prodding him with a spear and reciting a version of my speech. The caption reads, ‘Lady W, London’s very own virago.’”

“How do you know this?” her mother demanded.

“A messenger came by the Ladies’ Society’s offices today.”

“Darling, perhaps it’s not as bad as you—”

“It is. I saw it.” Anne looked away, feeling tears forming in her eyes.

Her mother stepped forward and took her hands. “Oh, darling, I know it’s unpleasant. But this cartoon will be forgotten in a week’s time. You’ll see. Besides, you should wear this as a badge of honor. If someone isn’t saying something nasty about you, it only means you aren’t worth remarking upon.”

Anne sighed. Her mother would have considered it an honor, just as her mother could have worn this dress with her head held high. Anne had always marveled at her mother’s (and sister’s) unwavering confidence.

But she just wasn’t like that.

“The point is,” Anne said, “I’m not much in the mood for a ball.”

“Have you considered,” Lady Cheltenham said carefully, “that a little diversion might be exactly what you need?”

“I doubt I’ll find any tonight. I’ll probably spend most of the evening standing in the corner, as usual.”

Her mother snorted. “You do not stand in the corner so much as hide in the corner. If you would stop doing that, your dance card would be full every night.”

“Mama,” Anne protested, “my dance card has never been full. Not even once.”

“That’s because when you came out, you spent all of three weeks on the Marriage Mart before accepting the first proposal you received. And you spent most of those three weeks hiding in the ladies’ retiring room.”

This was a difficult point to argue, as her mother’s facts were essentially correct. Not that she had drawn the right conclusion. “Are you saying I shouldn’t have accepted Lord Wynters?”

“Not if that was what you truly wanted. Just that there was no need to be so hasty about it.”

Anne struggled to keep a note of accusation out of her voice. “It’s just that—you were the one who always used to comment on how I was going to be a countess someday. Or sometimes you would say marchioness.” She bit her lip. “I understood my duty. When Lord Wynters proposed, I knew it was my only chance to marry someone of the rank and standing you and Papa expected—”

“Oh, my darling child.” Her mother’s eyes were full of sorrow as she took Anne’s hands and pressed them. “How I wish I had never said a word. Had I known how thoroughly you misunderstood me—” The countess broke off, looking down. “The point is, had you given it a little more time, you would have had a dozen proposals from which to choose.”

“No, I wouldn’t have. I’m not like you, Mama. I’m… boring and plain.”

Her mother had been hailed as the most beautiful woman of her generation, with her honey-blonde hair and her stunning blue eyes. The Astley eyes, they were called, as five of Anne’s six siblings also had them.

Anne, on the other hand, had plain brown hair and plain brown eyes. She was the only daughter not to inherit her mother’s beautiful eyes.

And she knew vanity to be a sin, but sometimes she felt like a plow horse in a family of unicorns.

“You are neither of those things,” her mother insisted.

But with the prospect of having to re-enter the Marriage Mart hanging over her like an axe, Anne had spent the past year musing upon the many things that rendered her unmarriageable, and now they came pouring out. “I’m boring. I’m plain. I spend too much time on my charity work. I didn’t produce a child in three years of marriage—”

“No one will hold that against you. Everyone knows Lord Wynters didn’t father a single child in any of his three marriages.”

“—I’m a virago—”

The countess huffed. “I, for one, would consider that a compliment.”

“—and I’m too tall,” Anne concluded.

Her mother scowled. “You most certainly are not.”

“Of course I am.” Anne laughed. She was only two inches shy of six feet. How her mother could even suggest—

The countess fanned herself dismissively. “Your figure is elegant.”

“I’m taller than most of the men in that ballroom!” Anne hissed.

“Many men don’t care about that, Anne.”

Anne shook her head. A lifetime of experience had taught her differently. “No man wants a wife who makes him feel unmanly.”

“Well,” her mother said, snapping her fan closed, “you don’t have to marry every insecure fool in that room. You just need one man smart enough to know a thoroughbred when he sees one.”

“A thoroughbred? I’m not a thoroughbred—”

“That is exactly what you are.” Her mother peered at her. “Really, Anne, I don’t understand what happened to you. You were always so confident growing up.”

Anne sighed. It was true. Growing up in the Cotswolds, she had been best friends with the boy next door, Michael Cranfield, and had spent most of her childhood riding hell-for-leather across their fathers’ adjoining lands, climbing trees and having adventures. Anne had been an unrepentant tomboy, and it had never occurred to her to doubt herself.

She sometimes wondered where that confident girl had gone. Perhaps Michael had taken her off with him when he left for Canada. He’d never returned, and Anne hadn’t heard a single word from him in four years.

Of course, as soon as she had arrived in London, she’d realized that the rules were all different here. The qualities she used to prize in herself, the same ones Michael had valued in her as a friend—her courage, her determination, and her sense of adventure—were the worst sorts of liabilities on the Marriage Mart.

So she had adopted a new identity, as the most respectable woman in all of England. It had been necessary to get her charity off the ground, as no one would donate to an organization run by a hoyden. That was what made her rare slip this morning especially galling—she had more on the line than just personal embarrassment. If people stopped donating to the Ladies’ Society because she had lost her temper—

Her mother interrupted her train of thought. “You, my dear, are about to be pleasantly surprised. Besides, you want to find a new husband, do you not?”

“I do.” And that was the rub of it. Anne needed a husband if she was to have children. And Anne wanted children. She wanted them just as much as she wanted the air that filled her lungs.

And Lord Wynters had not given her any.

“You’re dressed to find one tonight,” her mother said, seizing her by the shoulders and steering her across the foyer. “Do look for someone more stimulating this time, dear.”

Anne bristled. “As I mentioned, you were the one who said I needed to marry an earl—”

“I know I did. But you married the wrong earl, darling.”

“Surely the words wrong and earl do not go together. They are inherently nonsensical.”

“Hmmm. Well, I’m sure you’ll do better this time. Now, quit slouching, and for God’s sake, smile,” her mother said, all but shoving her into the ballroom.

Well, there was no helping it. Anne threw her shoulders back and cocked up her chin. Two gleaming marble staircases curved down to the parquet floor below. The Falmouth ballroom, normally sedate in tasteful shades of cream and gold, had been transformed into a lush fantasy for the occasion of the masquerade. Purple velvet flounces draped the balconies overlooking the ballroom below. Wine-red roses overflowed from vases perched on pedestals. The candelabras had been draped with wisps of gold netting. Even the stand where the musicians were setting up had been transformed into a sumptuous grotto. Half the guests had come in full costume—Anne saw Helen of Troy, Oberon, and the usual assortment of nuns and friars—and the other half had simply added a mask to their usual evening finery.

As she reached the bottom of the stairs, a gentleman wearing a green Highland kilt passed in front of her, bearing two glasses of lemonade.

She watched his jaw drop. He swiveled his head so he could continue to gape at her as he crossed the room…

... until he crashed at full speed into a column and went sprawling on his backside.

Oh, dear God. She glanced around and saw people openly gawking at her. Her dress must be even worse than she’d feared. Every instinct demanded that she flee, but… why wasn’t anyone checking on the fallen gentleman? What if he were truly injured? She couldn’t just leave him lying there on the floor.

Tamping down her annoyance, she hurried to his side, relieved to see that his kilt had settled modestly. “Are you all right, sir?”

He stared up at her, looking rather dazed. “That depends upon your answer.”

“My answer? I—I don’t understand.”

She extended her hand to help him up, only to find it firmly seized. The man kissed the back of her gloved hand (actually kissed it—Anne had never been so scandalized in her life!) “Tell me at once—do I stand a chance?”

“I… I don’t know what you mean, sir—”

“I mean,” he said, “that tonight I have seen beauty such as I never dreamed could exist. Say you’ll take pity on me, fair goddess, and grant me the favor of a dance.”

Oh dear, Anne mused. He must have hit his head. “I apologize, sir,” she said, struggling to free her hand, “but I… I don’t even know you, and—”

“Alexander Fitzroy, at your service, Madame. May I know the name of my enchantress?”

A tall man who wore his blond hair in the sort of casually windswept style that probably took an hour to arrange spoke. “She is Lady Wynters. And I would like a dance as well.”

Anne stared at the masked man for a beat, then realized it was the Viscount Scudamore.

Strange. Lord Scudamore was the treasurer of the Royal Military Asylum. They were both actively involved in the charity world, so Anne knew him fairly well. He’d been showing more and more interest in the Ladies’ Society over the past year, and Anne had him on her short list of candidates for a vacant position on her board as vice president.

But he had never asked her to dance before. He was precisely the type of man who never asked her to dance. He was rich; although the estate he had inherited had been mired in debt, Lord Scudamore had worked a miracle, turning it around in three short years. He was also young. Titled. Handsome, even.

Anne blanched, realizing that Lord Scudamore was awaiting her response. “Um, certainly, my lord. And you as well, Mr. Fitzroy,” she added hastily, seeing his woeful expression.

She penciled their names onto her dance card. “You look surprised, my lady,” Lord Scudamore said.

“A bit,” Anne admitted. “You’ve never asked me to dance before.”

“You were never available before,” Lord Scudamore countered.

She was blinking at him in surprise when a man dressed as Sir Walter Raleigh drawled, “We’ve all been waiting for you to come out of mourning.” Anne’s mouth fell open, and chuckles broke out from the cluster of men surrounding her.

That cluster was growing in size and increasing in volume.

“Lady Wynters, would you do me the honor—”

“May I have the pleasure—”

“I would particularly like to request the supper dance—”

Anne quickly surrendered her dance card. She recognized most of the gentlemen in spite of their masks, but not all, and it seemed simpler to let them write their own names.

After penciling in his name, Nathaniel Bartindale smiled. “Just one dance left,” he said, holding the dance card aloft.

A half-dozen arms shot out at once, and three men managed to take hold of it.

Augustus Mapplethorpe gave it a sharp pull. “Come on, you two, give it here.”

“No, you give it here,” William Davison retorted.

“Let go, the both of you,” grunted Baron Gladstone, who was dressed as Julius Caesar.

Gracious, this was the strangest night of her life! None of these men had ever shown her the slightest interest before. But now they were scrapping after her dance card like a pack of starving dogs. Anne took a hasty step back as Mr. Davison’s elbow came within inches of grazing her ribs.

And then, at the top of the stairs, she saw him.

He was difficult to miss, towering as he did over every other person in the room. His black hair had the windswept look that was so popular, a wave falling artfully across his forehead. She could see little of his face, as he wore one of the plain black masks their hosts had been handing out to those who needed one. But she felt a strange certainty that underneath that mask, he would be handsome; surely only an exceptionally handsome man could carry himself with such confidence. She knew that if her sister Caro had seen him, she would have huffed, because he was wearing boots and buckskin trousers, which were fine for riding, but completely inappropriate at a ball. And just as horrifying, even Anne could tell that his coat was several years out of fashion. But gad! That coat looked marvelous on him.

Goodness, Anne never had such thoughts about men. She valued character over appearances. The most important qualities she required in her future husband were that he be kind, meticulously respectable, and supportive of her charity work.

But it was just so hard not to notice a man’s appearance when he had shoulders that were so broad and so... firm. His stomach had none of the paunch most gentlemen had, it was as flat as a board. And those trousers...

Those trousers fit him to perfection.

Oh, gracious, he was headed right this way! Had he noticed her gaping at him? At his trousers? Oh, how mortifying, whatever was she going to do?

Anne had been so distracted by the handsome stranger, she had scarcely been paying attention to her more immediate surroundings, and she saw that the struggle for her dance card raged on. Lord Gladstone jerked his arm suddenly to the right, and Mr. Davison lost his grip. He gave a yelp of surprise and began to topple backwards.

Unfortunately, Anne was standing in exactly the wrong place; Mr. Davison was going to crash into her. She closed her eyes and braced herself for the impact...

... only to feel herself swept off her feet, high into the air.

There was a firm arm behind her shoulders and another under her knees, and she felt her right side pressing against a rock-hard chest. She was suddenly enveloped in the scents of smoky cedarwood and leather, and… something strangely familiar she couldn’t quite place. Just as quickly as he had picked her up, her rescuer swung her around and set her down. Off-balance, she grabbed his arms. They felt like a pair of tree trunks, they were so thick and firm. She jerked her hands away as if she’d been burned, and promptly swayed backwards. He grabbed her around her ribcage, steadying her, and not only were his hands deliciously warm, they were so big they almost encircled her waist.

Anne squeezed her eyes open and found herself staring directly into a cravat.

There was only one gentleman in attendance who was tall enough that Anne would be at eye level with his cravat. She glanced down, and the buckskin trousers confirmed it. Oh, God. It had to be the beautiful, dark-haired man she had been gaping at moments ago.

Heat rose to her cheeks. His hands were still wrapped around her waist. Up close, she saw that he was even more ridiculously gorgeous than she had imagined from across the ballroom. At least, from the neck down he was—she wasn’t at an angle to make out much of his face, to say nothing of the fact that he was wearing a mask. But if a better-proportioned man existed in all of Christendom, she had yet to see him. She suddenly thought of a sketch she had seen of a statue of Hercules. It was really just a headless torso reclining on a pedestal, a barrel chest and rippling stomach covered with ridge upon ridge of thick, bulging muscles, with the barest scrap of linen draped across his hips.

Hercules, that would be the perfect costume for this man.

Anne would quite like to see him in that loincloth.

Oh, gracious heavens—where had that thought come from?

A rich baritone rumbled above her head. “Have a care, Davison. You almost injured her.”

To his credit, Mr. Davison did look horrified. “My deepest apologies, Lady Wynters. I hope you won’t hold it against me, as I was dearly hoping to lead you out—”

“She’s not dancing with you,” the deep voice snarled.

“But I—”

Her mystery man didn’t say a word, but turned to glare at Mr. Davison, who recoiled under the man’s ire as if it were a physical blow.

“I… I… of course not. Please accept my most abject apologies, Lady Wynters.”

“Of course,” she whispered.

The orchestra was starting to tune up. Tristan Bassingthwaighte, dressed as Shakespeare, stepped forward, a smug smile upon his face. “I believe the first dance is mine.”

“You’re mistaken, Bassingthwaighte,” her rescuer growled. “She’s dancing with me.”

“Now see here,” Mr. Bassingthwaighte protested, snatching her crumpled dance card from Lord Gladstone and holding it aloft. “Lady Wynters promised this dance to me. It is my dance, and if you take it, then I will—”

“Then you’ll what?” Her rescuer leaned in, towering over Mr. Bassingthwaighte by almost a full foot. “Are you challenging me? Because if you are, I accept.”

Mr. Bassingthwaighte had turned a peculiar shade of green. He glanced mournfully at Anne, then back toward the tall man. “My apologies, sir. Enjoy your dance.”

“Believe me, I will. Come, Anne.”

Anne? Had he just called her Anne? There wasn’t a single man in London, save her own brothers, whom she had given leave to address her by her first name. She had never been more confused in her whole entire life!

Her partner took her hand and towed her toward the center of the ballroom. Everyone, absolutely everyone, was staring at them. And no wonder—she was wearing the most scandalous dress imaginable, she had almost incited a duel, and now she was being dragged across the ballroom by a perfect stranger, as if she were the spoils of war. She, the most respectable woman in all of London! Well, not anymore, clearly, but still.

She spied her two older brothers standing near the refreshment table and shot them a beseeching look. Help, she whispered. As expected, Harrington was laughing at her. Honestly, she hadn’t expected any differently, Harrington thought everything was a joke. But to her surprise, her eldest brother, Edward, also ignored her entreaty. He was smiling broadly, his dimples flashing, and he raised his glass in salute.

That was strange because Edward was the most honorable man she knew. It was completely unlike him to stand by when any woman was in distress.

Oh, but there was her Mama. Surely she would save her. She shot her mother a desperate look, but the countess wore a smirk that rivaled Harrington’s, and carried on fanning herself in smug satisfaction.

Well, there was no helping it, she was going to have to dance with the man. She took up her place in the set and forced herself to smile.

The music began. Their first turn was unremarkable, but on their second, the man leaned down and whispered in her ear, “You look beautiful tonight, Anne.”

She shivered, actually shivered, as his deep voice rumbled up and down her spine. Goodness, he had called her Anne—again! And she still had no idea who he even was. She felt certain they had never met before.

This man she would have remembered.

And yet clearly, he knew her. She peered up at him, baffled. The mask fit him poorly enough that she couldn’t make out his eyes. But what she could see of his face was every bit as handsome as she had suspected it would be from across the ballroom. He had a strong jaw, freshly shaven but already showing a hint of a dark shadow. His ears stuck out a bit, but somehow it suited him, balancing out the broadness of his shoulders.

He also had the most perfectly shaped lips she had ever seen.

Why did she keep thinking these things, about… lips and loincloths? What was wrong with her?

As they circled each other a third time, the deep voice returned to her ear. “Let’s go somewhere where we can talk.”

“Talk?” she sputtered.

He was already leading her toward the open balcony doors. If there had been any doubt that everyone was staring at her before, they certainly were now! What on earth were they going to talk about? She didn’t even know the man. Oh, this was a disaster, of the most epic proportions.

He led her out onto the deserted balcony. Anne managed to extricate her hand and took up a place at the balustrade overlooking the garden.

She cast about for a topic. “It’s chilly tonight, isn’t it?”

“Funny,” the deep voice replied, “I feel positively warm.”

What on earth did that mean? She was trying to think of a response when the man took her by the shoulders and turned her to face him. “Anne,” he said, laughing, “you don’t recognize me.”

It was true, but she could hardly admit as much. “Of course I... erm... that is to say...”

“I know it’s been four years, but I didn’t think you would have forgotten me entirely,” he said, reaching up to unhook his mask.

Anne froze, her heart suddenly pounding. Four years? There was someone she hadn’t seen in four years. Someone she had missed every single day, so much it hurt. But it couldn’t be...

The mask came off, and she found her gaze riveted to his eyes. Even in the dim torchlight of the balcony, she could see they were a deep, emerald green.

There was only one man in the world who had eyes that green.

“Michael!” she gasped, and without thinking, she threw her arms around his neck.

Chapter 2

Anne had sometimes wondered how she would feel when this moment finally came, the moment she saw Michael again. She had honestly never been sure. There were times when she had missed him so much, she would have given anything to have him with her, even for just an hour.

But then there were times when she had cried herself to sleep, wondering why her one-time best friend, the boy who used to write her twice a week from school without fail, wouldn’t answer any of her letters.

There were moments when she thought of Michael warmly, as her dearest friend. But if she was being honest, there were also moments when she felt hurt. Confused.

Even angry.

And so she had never been sure what her reaction would be. But now that he was here…

She was glad to see him. So glad.

It was such a relief to find that she felt that way.

Michael embraced her warmly. When Anne drew back, they were both smiling, even if she had tears in her eyes. He reached up and carefully removed her mask.

Standing mere inches from him as he unfastened the ties, Anne felt shy. Her first instinct had been correct: without the mask, Michael was everything that was tall, dark, and handsome.

Sometime in the past four years, the little boy she’d grown up with had turned into this magnificent specimen of the male species. It was going to take some... getting used to, that was all.

She took a hasty step back once he finished with her mask. “It’s so good to see you.”

“It’s wonderful to see you, too.” He gave her a look. “And I’m relieved to see you still remember who I am.”

Anne laughed. “I can’t believe I didn’t recognize you! In my defense, you were wearing a mask. And you must know, Michael, how much you’ve changed in the last four years. Why, you must be a full foot taller than you were when last I saw you.”

“Not quite. Only eight inches. I now stand six feet, five inches.”

“Well, you look marvelous.” Anne’s voice broke on the last word, and tears formed in her eyes anew. “I’m so sorry, I…” She looked away, unable to continue.

Suddenly she was in his arms again. She found herself flush against a warm, solid expanse of chest. Those tree trunk-thick arms enveloped her completely, and it felt wonderful. She could feel his breath in her hair and the slight scrape of his jaw when it brushed her forehead.

Her breath was shaky, and her heart was racing like a hummingbird’s wings. Which was ridiculous! This was… this was nothing. It wasn’t as though Michael meant anything by it. Why, this was just like all the times she’d hugged him right before he left for school, the exact same hug she had given her brothers.

This felt distinctly unlike hugging her brother.

“It’s all right,” he murmured into her hair.

“I just…” She swallowed, squeezing her eyes shut. “I missed you so much, Michael.”

His voice was rough when he replied, “I know, Anne. Believe me, I know.”

They remained there for a moment before it dawned on Anne that anyone might come out onto the balcony and discover them in what appeared to be a compromising position. Not that it was, of course! Michael wasn’t interested in her in that way.

Her face fell a trifle as she recalled the day she had learned that with absolute certainty.

Anne stepped back. “Look at me, crying when I’m happy.” She dabbed at her tears with the back of her glove. “Tell me all about Canada.”

“Canada is...” The corners of his lips turned up and his green eyes sparkled. “Do you remember how when we were younger, you and I could always dream up the best adventures?”

“Of course, I remember. Pirates and sea monsters. Knights and dragons and damsels in distress.”

“I don’t recall you ever having been in distress.”

She strove to make her voice light. “I was referring, of course, to Caro. And occasionally to Harrington.”

He laughed, a full-throated sound that made her heart squeeze, she hadn’t heard it in so long. “Indeed! And that’s what Canada is like. I had adventures there. Real adventures.” He paused, and when he looked at her again, his eyes were very... intense. “When I was there,” he said carefully, “I felt like I had almost everything I’ve ever wanted.”

Her cheeks flushed. This is Michael, you dolt, she reminded herself. He didn’t mean that the way it sounded.

And yet, the look in his eyes when he said it… Anne and Michael were so close growing up, they’d joked that they could read each other’s faces. Her siblings even had a rule that they weren’t allowed to be partners in whist, because he would take one look at her face and throw down a trump card, able to intuit when she couldn’t pick up the trick. Sometimes Anne felt like she could glean more from the quirk of Michael’s eyebrow than she could from an hour of someone else’s conversation.

And the way he was looking at her right now… Why, if Anne didn’t know better, she would have said his expression was… ardent.

She shook herself. That was the crux of it, she did know better. “I look forward to hearing about every one of those adventures.” She forced a bright smile.

But she found she couldn’t hold it.

“Michael,” she said, dropping the mask of false cheerfulness, “what happened?”

It felt unreal to Michael, after four years of struggling to accept that Anne would never be his, to be standing on the balcony of this fancy London town house, different in every way to the square log cabin he had inhabited out on the Canadian frontier, with Anne standing close enough to touch.

He was so glad her mask was off and he could finally see her. She looked much the same as he remembered—perhaps a touch paler than she’d been four years ago and missing the spray of freckles that typically appeared across her nose in the summertime, which made him wonder if she spent too much of her time stuck indoors. Her figure had ripened a bit since last he saw her, and although she couldn’t be described as anything but slender, she’d lost the slightly coltish quality she’d once had. Michael didn’t much mind either way—he’d thought she looked perfect before, and she looked every bit as perfect now.

Those were the only changes he could detect. She wore her warm brown hair the same way, piled atop her head, highlighting her long, elegant neck. As for her eyes… Michael knew Anne wished she had blue eyes like her sisters, but he’d never understood it. He could stare into Anne’s big, rich, gorgeous brown eyes for days.

He drew in a breath, and there it was: a hint of strawberries. She had always smelled like strawberries; he happened to know it was from the hand cream she used. He’d caught the scent the second he swept her into his arms, and his knees had gone slightly weak, so much did that sweet, familiar scent remind him of her.

He felt the way you did after a bad chest cold, the kind where no matter how desperately you gasped and struggled, you could never get a satisfying lungful of air.

Seeing Anne again… it was as though he had drawn his first full breath in four years.

He found his gaze drifting to her lips. Anne’s lips were naturally rose-pink, and they were full and wide enough that when she smiled, that smile had a way of taking over her whole face. No one could smile at you like Anne Astley. When she did, it all but knocked him flat.

Notably, she was not smiling at him at the moment. And he couldn’t say that he blamed her.

He cleared his throat, recalling that she had asked him a question. “I’m so glad I can finally tell you. I’ve been wanting to explain everything for so long. Although—” he broke off, inclining his head toward the crowded ballroom “—perhaps not right here.”

Anne nodded. “I understand. Your father told me… well, nothing detailed. But he implied that you were on some sort of mission for the Crown.”

“I was. Although the details shouldn’t get out, at this point, there’s no reason I might not confide in you. And I will, Anne. I swear, I’ll tell you everything, just as soon as we’re somewhere we won’t be overheard.”

“It’s not so much that. I mean…” A guilty look crossed her face. “Of course, I want to hear about it. But it’s more…” She looked down, and he watched her steel herself. “Did you receive my letters?”

He had known this was coming, too. How could it not? They had corresponded regularly for all the years he was away at school, first at Eton and then at Oxford. It must’ve been jarring when he stopped writing altogether.

The problem was that it was impossible to write a coherent reply when one hadn’t read the recipient’s original missive. After Michael had completed the task that brought him to Canada, he’d made his way to his father’s farm near Lake Simcoe. There he’d found a small mountain of correspondence waiting for him. He could remember searching through the pile for Anne’s hand and struggling to open her letter with fingers that shook, his heart in his throat at the prospect of reading her answer to his proposal.

But it contained no answer, no mention of his proposal at all. It was as though she’d never received his letter. And what was more, it contained such unexpected, horrific news that he fell to his knees when he read it: she had married someone else.

He hadn’t opened any of her letters after that. He couldn’t bearto. If they had contained one word of her happiness with another man, it would have gutted him.

Anne was waiting for him to respond. He decided to tell her the truth.

At least, some of it.

“I did receive them,” he said.

It was physically painful to see the heartbreak steal over her face. She swallowed. “Then may I ask why you didn’t reply?”

Michael froze, scrambling for a response.

After a moment, Anne continued, “I wondered if it was something I’d done, if you were mad at me, or—”

“I’m not mad at you,” Michael said. That at least was true.

To be sure, there had been moments when he had been furious, not with her but with himself (why had he let her go to London without declaring himself first? How could he have been so stupid as to assume she knew?) He had also been mad at fate, which had seen fit to separate them at the worst possible moment, when Anne was making her debut upon the Marriage Mart.

But as he worked his way through the rest of his mail, it became clear that something had gone terribly wrong. That Anne had somehow never received his letter. That her parents had formed the impression that she had refused him and had therefore given their consent when she announced her wish to accept this Lord Wynters.

And by the time they realized she had never received his proposal it had been too late.

However miserable he had been, he’d always known deep down that it wasn’t Anne’s fault.

She was awaiting his answer. He studied her face, hating to see sadness in her eyes. “I hurt you. I mean—of course I did. How could it not have hurt?” He took both of her hands in his. “I am sorry for it, Anne. Because hurting you is the last thing I would ever want to do. There’s a reason I didn’t write back. That I couldn’t. And I’ll explain everything, I promise you.” He made a sound of frustration. “Just as soon as we’re not surrounded by four hundred people.”

She peered up at him for a moment, and Michael could scarcely breathe, so anxious was he for her reaction. Then he saw her brow slowly unknot, her shoulders relax, and he felt her squeeze his hands. “Thank you for that,” she said. “I’m sure once you’ve had a chance to explain, it will all make sense.”

It was such a relief to see the sorrow gone from her face. “So,” he said, eager to redirect the conversation, “I’ve been travelling for the past three months. How are you?”

“I’m doing well, just focusing on the Ladies’ Society, as always.” A smile stole over her face. “The most wonderful thing happened recently. It’s a long story, but I came into possession of this little bejeweled box that turned out to be an ancient Egyptian artifact. It sold at auction last month and fetched enough that the Ladies’ Society will be able to double in size.”

“That’s marvelous. An Egyptian artifact—how on earth did you come by that?”

Anne’s eyes went wide as guineas. “Oh dear, you probably haven’t heard. My husband died a year ago.”

Oh, he had heard, all right. “I’m so sorry,” he said, which wasn’t even a little bit true, but seemed like the correct thing to say.

“He won it at a hand of cards just before he passed away.” She pressed a hand to her heart. “I hope I didn’t imply I was glad my husband died!”

Michael for one wouldn’t have minded. “Not at all.” He cleared his throat. “So… you’re a widow now?”

She tilted her head. “Well, of course. What else would I be?”

“Indeed, I was just wondering if you had perhaps remarried already, or were promised to someone else,” Michael said, the words spilling out in a rush. This was his greatest fear. As soon as Wynters had died, everyone he knew had immediately written to him with the news.

His friends had been so prompt that their letters had all gone out on the same ship.

And that sack of letters had gone astray, moldering in some godforsaken corner for six months, so that he only received them twelve weeks ago. His father’s more recent missives, asking what the hell was taking him so long, had suddenly made sense.

He’d rushed back as quickly as he could, feeling sick with worry that Anne would accept another man’s suit before he got there. He peered at her, his heart in his throat. “Are you?”

“I am not. I only just left off full mourning.”

“And are you planning to remarry?” Michael asked, striving to make his tone conversational.

“I am. You know I’ve always wanted a large family. And I didn’t have any children. With Lord Wynters.” She flushed, turning to rest her hands on the balustrade and gaze out over the gardens.

Michael took up a position next to her. “I see. Well, are there any leading contenders?”

“None so far. I’ve only just started my search. It’s actually the reason I’m here tonight—to look for a husband.”

Suddenly Michael felt better than he had in… about four years. “And you’ve found him,” he muttered under his breath.