The Irresistible Earl
June 2011 (ISBN 0-373-82874-6, Love Inspired Books)
"Readers who miss traditional Regency romances will find Scott's humorous, impeccably crafted inspirational historical romance irresistible." --Booklist
Yorkshire Coast, England, 1811
"Help! Help me!"
Meredee Price's head jerked up at the cry echoing across the waters of the North Sea. She'd been so intent on scanning the golden sands that she'd lost track of everything else. But if someone was in trouble, she had to help.
She scanned the area, eyes narrowed against the summer sun. The sweep of shore below the town of Scarborough was crowded with fashionable ladies in fluttering muslin gowns and gentlemen in high-crowned hats, strolling and chatting under a cloudless sky. The clear waves brushed against the bathing machines lined up in the surf to allow refined ladies to take the treatment of dipping into the cool waters. Each lady was attended by two burly women bathers, every machine pulled by two docile horses. All seemed calm, congenial.
There! A girl floundered in the water a little ways away, near one of the bathing machines. The two lady bathers who would normally be attending her were struggling to lower a red and white canvas hood over the exit door of the white wood box on wide brown wheels. Their client simply hadn't waited for their help. Already she'd plunged into water up to her chest. Whipping her honey-colored hair away from her pale face, she waved a thin hand at Meredee. "Help me!"
The cry pierced Meredee's heart, and she took a step forward. Behind her she heard a sharp intake of breath. "Where are you going?" her stepmother demanded.
Meredee smothered a sigh. A quick glance over her shoulder showed that Evangeline Price was still shivering from her dip. Mrs. Murdock, one of their bathers, had her strong arms around her to steady her, and their other bather, Mrs. Lint, was standing ready to help, but Meredee's stepmother did not look comforted. Like Meredee, she stood in little more than a blue flannel shift, gray hair plastered to her thin cheeks, sea water streaming down her face and lapping at her waist.
"You haven't had your treatment yet," her stepmother protested. "And I will not pay our bathers to watch you look for shells!"
"It's not that," Meredee called. "Someone's in trouble."
"Oh, she'll be fine," Mrs. Murdock said in her booming voice, her vowels as long and fluid as the waters stretching out behind them. "Just put your foot down now, Miss," she shouted to the girl. "It's not so deep here."
But the girl was clearly becoming panicked. Barely keeping her mouth above the water, she flailed her arms. "Hurry! Please!"
Meredee could see the fear on the girl's face, hear it in the sharp little cries. Surely someone should go to her aid! Mrs. Murdock evidently thought better of her words, for she started forward. But Mrs. Price held her back, clinging to her and Mrs. Lint as if afraid the sea would rise and swallow her too. And there was no help anywhere else. Up and down the beach, the dandies and fine ladies who flocked to Scarborough for the summer were staring, pointing.
"Will no one help!"
At the sound of the anguished cry, one of the horses reared in its traces. Meredee gasped as the wagon jerked and swung to one side, knocking one of the bathers into the waves with a splash. The other clung to her perch, face white, as the wagon teetered on two wheels, overshadowing the girl, who stared up at it as if in a trance.
Enough! Meredee didn't wait another second. She waded over, seized the girl under the arms, and dragged her away from the wagon. Still the girl struggled, her slender body colliding with Meredee's. Her fear was very nearly contagious. The sand shifted under Meredee's feet; the waves broke against her back. The cold was nothing to the chill inside her.
Help me, Lord. I can't lose someone else at Scarborough.
She widened her stance and tightened her grip. "You're safe," she said against the girl's temple. "I have you." She nearly cried out in relief when the girl went limp in her arms. "Just put down your feet."
Wet skirts brushed hers as the girl complied.
"There," Meredee said soothingly, as much to calm the girl as her own pulse. "You see? We're fine."
She released her hold, and the girl turned to face her. Her eyes were deep brown and wide with shock. "Oh, thank you! You saved my life!"
Meredee shook her head, but, before she could protest, one of the girl's bathers waded up. "Everything all right here?" "This woman is a savior," the girl declared. "I might have drowned if it wasn't for her."
The bather's face tightened. Meredee knew that even a rumor that she had been negligent might keep others from patronizing her. Rumors flew fast in the little resort town and quickly grew out of proportion.
"You know, you might have drowned at that," Meredee's bather declared as she splashed up to them, Meredee's stepmother in tow. "A body can drown in just a few feet of water. That's why you have us."
"And that's why we pay perfectly good money for the treatment," Mrs. Price said with a pointed look to Meredee. The refrain was all too familiar. Though her scholar father had left the family with a comfortable living, his second wife refused to allow a single penny to leave her fingers until she had wrung the life from it.
As if the other bather sensed Meredee was about to be scolded, she stepped closer. "Ah, but look at your daughter, now. Perhaps we should hire her out. Regular mermaid, isn't she."
Meredee was certain her cheeks would have reddened in a blush if they hadn't been tingling with the cold. Her thick, wavy hair might qualify as golden and her late father had always said her eyes were the color of the sea in a storm, but she was hardly a mermaid. Her interests in Scarborough lay cradled in the sands, not out among the waves.
"She is not my daughter," Mrs. Price said, eyes narrowing. "I'm quite certain I am entirely too young to have a daughter of five and twenty."
That she had a son two years older by a previous marriage did not seem to trouble her. It was only Meredee she found such a terrible burden.
Lord, give me patience.
"Now, come along," Mrs. Price said, her lips a determined shade of blue. "You can see this person is fine."
The girl didn't look fine. She clutched her soaked gown to her chest, trembling. Meredee's heart went out to her, but she knew her duty lay with her stepmother. She offered the girl a smile before turning to go, but the girl reached out for Meredee's arm. "No, wait. I must know the name of my savior."
The title felt entirely wrong. "I know only one Savior," Meredee told her, "but my name is Meredee Price."
"Lady Phoebe Dearborn," she replied, voice trembling as well. "And I shall be forever in your debt."
Meredee thought her stepmother might try to curry favor now that she knew the girl was titled, but Mrs. Price's financial concerns proved paramount. "Then perhaps you would be so good as to pay our bathers," she put in, nose in the air. "They charge by the hour, you know, and we are taking up a good deal of their time."
Lady Phoebe dropped her gaze and her hold on Meredee's arm. "Of course. I'm sure my brother would be delighted. I'm terribly sorry to have inconvenienced you."
Meredee couldn't bear to see the girl so forlorn. She enveloped her in a hug, the chill of the bathing costumes warming for a moment, then stepped back. "It was no trouble, I assure you. Perhaps we'll see each other in town."
An answering smile lit Lady Phoebe's dark eyes.
"I suppose we've forfeited Meredee's time for a cure," Mrs. Price said, heaving a martyred sigh as Meredee followed her and Mrs. Murdock back to their bathing machine.
"Not at all," Mrs. Murdock said with a wink to Meredee. "I'll be more than happy to give Miss Price the cure, no charge. Anything for the savior of Scarborough Bay."
Meredee smiled at her but shook her head. "No, I wouldn't want Mrs. Price to take a chill." She gazed down into the waters one last time, but the movements of the horses and bathers had so muddied her view that she knew she'd never spot what she'd been searching for now. Suppressing a sigh, she climbed the few steps into the bathing machine for their trip to the shore.
Mrs. Price's mood improved along the way as Meredee helped her into her under things and the sprigged muslin gown that had been hanging from pegs on the white enameled walls of the cozy wooden box. But then, Meredee had found, her stepmother's moods generally improved so long as Meredee devoted herself to her comfort.
"I suppose Scarborough isn't the end of the world," Mrs. Price said with a final shiver. She took a seat on the bench that lined one wall as Meredee began changing as well. "Still, I never intended to see this place again. I cannot imagine what Algernon was thinking to bring us here. Surely there are more fashionable bathing places."
Oh, there were no doubt more fashionable bathing places - like the Prince's favorite summer haunt, Brighton. Still, each summer since the 1600s, Scarborough had attracted people from the aristocracy to the merchant class to tarry along the cool shores, drink of the famous healing spa waters, bathe in the sea, and congregate at the spa house, Assembly Rooms, or St. Mary's Church. Even now Meredee had heard the Governor of the Spa, William Barriston, chortling that the population of the town had doubled to nearly seven thousand souls.
No, her stepbrother didn't need any more crowds than the ones at Scarborough. Meredee had been the one who had convinced him to make for the Yorkshire coast when he'd come to her in a panic a fortnight ago. She still could not understand what he'd done to so anger someone as powerful and vindictive as the Earl of Allyndale. People generally liked Algernon's beaming smile and charming conversation, even if they shook their heads over his colorful choice of clothing. She could not imagine why Lord Allyndale would threaten a duel, but she certainly wasn't willing to stand by and see her stepbrother killed.
And she had a promise to keep in Scarborough, one she'd neglected for five years. What she really needed was a good low tide, preferably after a decent storm. And an hour or so to herself.
But she wasn't likely to be left alone anytime soon. As Mrs. Murdock opened the door to help Meredee and Mrs. Price from the shadows of the bathing machine onto the dry sands, a cheer went up. Meredee blinked into nearly two dozen faces. It seemed every notable touring the crescent of the beach had heard Lady Phoebe's cries and watched Meredee's rescue. Now they gathered from the Spa House at the southern tip to the lighthouse sheltering under the watchful eye of Scarborough Castle, just to congratulate her. She wanted to shrink back into the box. She was supposed to help Algernon remain in hiding, keep from calling undue attention to themselves. What had she done?
Mrs. Price did not seem worried. She preened at the attention, patting her damp gray tresses and putting on a long-suffering smile. "Yes, yes, dreadful, isn't it?" she lamented to the plump countess in breezy white muslin who was the first to step forward. "I'm certain the poor girl would have drowned if I hadn't directed Meredee to rescue her."
Meredee could only wish for rescue herself. Sun hot on her cheeks, she had to give an accounting of her stunning heroism to a country squire from Devonshire, an Italian nobleman, two Knights of the Bath with wives in tow, and a silk merchant from Carlisle before another man elbowed his way to the front. He was tall and powerfully built, with hair nearly the color of the sands and eyes like the North Sea. The others stepped aside when they saw that he was interested in questioning her. From the scowl on his craggy face, she would have been tempted to flee as well, if Lady Phoebe hadn't been at his side.
Though the girl could not have reached the shore much sooner, she had traded her flannel bathing costume for a high-waisted muslin gown embroidered all over with yellow daisies. Her damp hair curled into waves around her lovely face. Meredee, in her simple blue cotton gown, hair in a braid down her back, felt like a country cousin beside her.
"I simply had to thank you again, Miss Price," the girl declared in awed tones. "And so did my brother. Mrs. Price, Miss Meredee Price, may I present my brother, Chase Dearborn, Lord Allyndale."
Chase watched as both women blanched. Mrs. Price went so far as to take a step back, but Miss Price's hand on her arm kept her from fleeing. Though he knew a few men who would run at the sight of him, he couldn't recall a time when a lady felt the need to escape.
And they were certainly ladies. In fact, Mrs. Price reminded him of his late mother - high jutting cheekbones; long aristocratic nose; narrow, elegant frame. But he had never met anyone quite like Meredee Price. She had the thick golden hair and wise gray eyes of a Saxon princess, yet the impressive curves of a heroine in one of Botticelli's paintings. He could easily imagine her lifting the fragile Phoebe from the waves, or riding into battle against the Norse forces.
She dropped her gaze, dipped a quick curtsy, and spoke in soft tones, with a musical lilt. "An honor to meet you, my lord. But I wish you would not refine on what happened in the waves. It was truly nothing."
The rest of the crowd insisted on her heroism, which only set her cheeks to blushing. Was she truly a shy, retiring creature, then? And why did that so disappoint him? After meeting any number of young Society misses while escorting his sister, he'd resigned himself to being surrounded by shy, retiring creatures.
"Nothing!" Phoebe cried, reaching out to snatch up her hand and press it close. "How can you say that! I could not live with myself unless I found a way to thank you properly. You saved my life!"
Normally Chase would have stepped in to temper his sister's unbounded enthusiasm, but in this case he rather thought she had the right of it. Despite his efforts to raise his sister, who was twelve years his junior, the girl seemed to invite disaster. He hadn't been able to see her from where he had waited along the shore, but he'd heard Phoebe's cries for help and could well believe it had taken Miss Price's intervention to save his sister.
"Please allow me to thank you property for your kindness, Miss Price," he said as the poor lady visibly squirmed in Phoebe's fervent grip. "We've rented a house here in Scarborough for the summer. Perhaps you could join us for dinner tomorrow night, along with your mother, of course."
"I am not her mother," Mrs. Price put in, laying a hand on the woman's arm and acting as if she would tug her away from Phoebe. "And I think we truly must go."
Meredee Price did not seem agitated to find herself the rope in the middle of a tug-of-war contest. "What my stepmother means," she said calmly, gaze rising to meet his and serving to fix him in his place, "is that we haven't decided how long we'll be staying in Scarborough. We may post out this very afternoon. I'll send word if we're able to accept your thoughtful invitation."
He'd been mistaken. No Saxon princess this, but clearly the queen and just as regal. He inclined his head in acceptance of her dismissal, but Phoebe's face crumpled. "Oh, but you can't leave! I just know we'll be the best of friends!"
Miss Price's smile was a gentle quirk of her peach-colored lips. "Then I'm certain our friendship will survive any absence. Good-day, Lady Phoebe, my lord."
Chase could see the protest building in the stubborn set to Phoebe's little chin. He refused to allow her to stage a greater scene than she had already done. He took Miss Price's hand from his sister's and bowed over it. "Your devoted servant, Miss Price."
She curtsied more fully this time, and when she rose he was surprised to see a shadow cross her eyes, like a raven swooping across storm clouds. Although Phoebe and Mrs. Price made their farewells in polite tones, Chase didn't think it was his imagination that Meredee Price's grip on her stepmother's arm was every bit as fevered as Phoebe's as they hurried up the beach for the shops and houses beyond.
He only wondered who she was running away from: Phoebe or him.
Copyright © 1998-2013, Regina Scott