Never Envy an Earl
e-book original, July 13, 2018 (Edwards and Williams)
print book original, July 30, 2018 (CreateSpace)
The saucy Yvette de Maupassant is used to danger. She's spent the last 10 years spying for England in Napoleon's court. Now that her work has been discovered, she must hide, and what better place than the remote wooded estate of the Earl of Carrolton? Her friend Miss Thorn and that delightful cat Fortune place her in a position where she can pretend to be companion to the earl's sickly mother. Yet one look at the earl has Yvette rethinking why she wants to stay.
Gregory, Earl of Carrolton, is used to power. So why does one moment in the company of his mother and spinster sister leave him feeling powerless? And why does the look in a certain Frenchwoman's eyes leave him weak at the knees? As danger draws closer, Gregory and Yvette must work together to protect her, his family, and the future of England, as they discover the greatest danger and delight is falling in love.
This sweet, clean Regency romance is the sequel to Never Borrow a Baronet. Fortune's Brides: Only a matchmaking cat can hunt true love.
Surrey, England, April 1812
How far did she have to go to be safe?
Yvette de Maupassant peered out the window of the coach her friend Sir Harold Orwell had loaned her and saw nothing but wilderness. Well, perhaps wilderness was too strong a word for the sweeping fields and patches of woods, bright with the glory of spring. But after spending the last ten years stealing secrets from Napoleon and his sycophants and traveling among the French elite, the Surrey countryside seemed as foreign as Africa.
"And you had no one in London you could trust?" she asked her companion.
Meredith Thorn smiled from her side of the coach. She would have been at home among French society. Her lustrous black hair was properly confined under a broad-brimmed velvet hat of a lavender that matched her eyes. The ostrich plume that curled down one cheek had been teasing her pet Fortune since they'd left London four hours ago. Yvette had seen the grey cat eyeing the thing from time to time on her perch on the bench beside her mistress. She'd only batted at it three times. Such restraint!
"London was unsuitable," Meredith said, wiggling her gloved fingers against her purple poplin skirt as if to direct Fortune's copper-colored eyes away from the tantalizing feather. "Too many people. We were lucky to spirit you into the War Office for your meeting and out again with no one being the wiser. Your enemies will not think to look for you at Carrolton Park."
"Because no one can find it," Yvette said, but she smiled as Fortune pounced toward her mistress' fingers, missing them by moments as Meredith pulled away.
Yvette scratched the plush seat, and Fortune's ears pricked, gaze narrowing in on the movement. Ah, to have such a life, with no more worries than where to play next. Her life had once been as pleasant, though it had changed forever the day the mob had come for her family.
Now the long hair her maid had faithfully brushed each night was cut short in curls about her head like a strawberry blond cap. It had been easier to care for when her cousin had insisted she serve as the lowliest chore girl in his home. In defiance, she had not changed it when Napoleon had demanded that she be brought to his court instead to serve his wife. How her cousin had preened that one of his family had been close to the Empress. As if she would ever have claimed her cousin Claude as family.
The coachman turned off the main road onto a graveled track that plunged deeper into the wood. The shadows lengthened this late in the day, multiplied until she felt them reaching into the coach with greedy fingers. She shivered and touched her wrist, where her dagger and sheath were strapped inside her sleeve.
What, was this fear? She had played the game of espionage, discovering secrets and sending them to Harry in England. She had matched wits with men on both sides of the Channel. She had been willing to risk her life to see the Corsican Monster brought down, her hated cousin humbled. The last time she'd known fear was when she'd been forced to live with him after Empress Josephine had left the court. Claude could not touch her here. If she did not fear him, she should not fear this earl she was about to meet or his dismal little park. But she wasn't about to trust him either. Time had taught her she had only herself to rely on.
The forest parted then to reveal a wide plain. Sunlight sparkled on a winding stream. Roan deer bowed low, as if offering homage to the emerald lawn. They glanced up complacently at the passing carriage, as if knowing themselves secure in this place. She could scarcely look away.
The lane led through iron gates fashioned to resemble ivy entwining around the letter C up over the stream and onto an area of golden gravel. A regal multistoried home with turrets at each corner sat serenely among the simplicity, like a castle in a child's storybook.
She blinked and turned to Meredith. "This is Carrolton Park?"
Meredith smiled, gathering Fortune in her arms as the carriage slowed. "It is indeed. I understand the current earl helped redesign it when he ascended to the title five years ago. I always thought he had good taste."
"I concur." The house was shaped like a U, with the open end facing the drive and spanned by a white marble colonnade. The warm stone of the rest of the building made the entrance look like a pearl in a gold setting.
Two footmen in blue livery hastened down the steps to help with the coach. Following them with a statelier tread was a tall, wide-shouldered butler. Black hair slicked back, he looked down his hawk-like nose at the coach, inclining his head as the footman handed down first Meredith and Fortune, then Yvette.
"Miss Thorn," he said, correctly divining that she was the leader. "Welcome to Carrolton Park. His lordship asked that you be brought to him at your earliest convenience. Would you care to refresh yourself first?"
He spared Yvette a glance, but his gaze was more kind than condemning. After all, he thought he was looking at Lady Carrolton's new companion, not the celebrated beauty who had once been the daughter of a comte herself.
She had tried to look the part of a poor relation. So much of playing a role depended on attitude and clothing. She had borrowed a plain navy gown from her friend Patience Ramsey, who was engaged to dear Harry. Miss Lydia Villers, whom she had recently met at Harry's Easter house party, had been persuaded to offer a straw bonnet, though, like Patience, she did not know exactly where Yvette would be hiding.
How Patience would laugh when she learned Yvette was to take up her previous position in this very house. Yvette hid her smile and kept her gaze respectfully down as she and Meredith followed the butler toward the house.
"I think it would be best if we speak to the earl first," Meredith was saying as they crossed the flagstone-floored courtyard behind the columns. Windows on all three sides regarded them with curious eyes.
"Very good, madam," the butler said, holding the double doors open for them.
They passed into a wide entry hall, and Yvette's smile broadened. Meredith had said the earl had good taste. She was wrong. If he had had any hand in the interior design, he had exceptional taste and an eye for beauty. The walls were the color of the mist over the Channel, the floor like the waves, patterned in white marble and a stone through which blue and purple swirled, much like Meredith's eyes.
Alcoves along the walls held Grecian statues, and fluted columns held up the entry to the stairway at the back, where the banisters and balustrades were made from silver-veined marble, the walls covered in carved reliefs of forests, bringing the setting inside.
The butler crossed to the door leading to what must be the north wing of the house and held it open for them. With a pang of regret, she turned away from the beauty. But the corridor proved equally wondrous. Light from the tall windows on one side made the tapestries on the other side glow like rubies, emeralds, and sapphires. Polished tables held Chinese vases and bronze sculptures. She recognized the prized Sevres porcelain in a bowl holding crimson roses. Napoleon would not be pleased to know his private pattern had been smuggled to England.
And who exactly had done the smuggling? Perhaps Harry, but surely not the earl!
Even more curious to meet the fellow, she followed the butler through the closest darkly paneled door into a withdrawing room. Everything glittered, for the bronze-on-gold pattern of the wallcoverings to the tall multi-armed standing candelabra to the gold filigree around the door and the fanciful gilt edging and button tufting on the armchairs and settee.
The man moving toward them in his simple coat and trousers did not seem to belong.
A man? No, surely a giant, one of the legends of this land. Had she stepped close enough, her nose would have bumped his breastbone. Instead, she could only gaze in surprise. The tweed coat stretched across powerful shoulders, and the tan chamois trousers encased legs worthy of the statues she'd just passed. Top it all off with a square jaw, warm brown eyes, and raven hair, and he was as impressive a specimen of a male as his house was a home.
He offered them both a bow. "Ladies. Welcome to Carrolton Park. I am Lord Carrolton, and I am delighted to be of service." He nodded to his butler. "Marbury, will you let my mother know that we will be up shortly?"
"Of course." With a dip of his head, the butler turned and saw himself out.
"Please, sit down," the earl said, striding back to the sofa near the fire. The deep voice made the request sound more like a command. "You must be tired from your travels, but I thought we should be clear on our course of action first."
What, did he think they were planning a campaign? After so many years of working alone, daring to trust no one with her secrets, she found his assumption of collusion amusing. Yvette took a seat beside Meredith on the sofa, and the earl sat opposite on a dainty chair she could not credit would hold him.
"Excellent," Meredith said, settling back with Fortune cuddled close. "You received word from London, then?"
He nodded, leaning forward until his elbows rested on his thighs, black boots pressed deep in the ruby- and gold-patterned carpet. "I was informed that Miss de Maupassant has provided critical information to support England in its efforts against the French tyrant. Her efforts have put her life in danger. My task is to hide her until someone from the War Office comes for her." His lips turned up in obvious distaste. "Is it necessary that she pretends to be no more than a servant?"
Yvette spread her hands. "I am a servant, my lord. My family was guillotined, our lands and titles stripped. I now serve a noble cause, to stop this war and restore sanity to France."
He had paled at the mention of the guillotine. Most men did. Yet he could not possibly understand the reality of it, the horror, the shouts, the dull thunk as the blade came down. Here he sat, in his beautiful home, with nothing and no one to trouble him. She envied him that.
"It is best that no one knows her true identity," Meredith told him. "As I'm sure Lord Hastings told you, we've had some trouble already."
He nodded. "The spy Sir Harry caught. Hastings seems to think more are coming."
One more, if the boasts of the spy could be believed. His superior would be coming to finish the job. This new threat would meet the same fate as his predecessor: capture and imprisonment. There were too many in England waiting for him, her included.
"We cannot be certain," Meredith said to the earl. "But make no mistake. Yvette de Maupassant is guilty of treason to the Emperor. The penalty is death. Therefore, she must disappear. I give you Miss French, your mother's new companion."
Yvette pasted on a happy smile, sat up tall, and fluttered her lashes for good measure.
The earl frowned, dark brows lowering until he looked rather formidable. Was subterfuge below him? Would he refuse her refuge after all? Had she come all this way for nothing?
Gregory, Earl of Carrolton, didn't like dissembling. It seemed cowardly, disrespectful. And he'd never been terribly good at it. His square-jawed face was too open, betraying his least emotions. The few times he'd shaded the truth as a child, usually to soften the blow of bad news, his tutors or his father had caught him immediately. Now the War Office wanted him to lie to his mother, his sister, and his staff. He couldn't help his qualms.
"I cannot stress the importance of keeping Mademoiselle de Maupassant safe," Lord Hastings had written. The wily marquis led an elite band of aristocratic intelligence agents, each hand-picked, their identities only hinted at on the ton. Together, they had uncovered secrets, brought down spies, and saved England from disaster time and again. That Hastings was asking Gregory to undertake even a tangential role in this work was a great honor. Gregory had been chafing at his inability to help with the war. Here was his chance to be of worth.
"Miss French," he acknowledged now, trying not to sound as doubtful as he felt about the new name. "And are you content in playing the role of companion?"
Once more she fluttered her golden lashes, blue eyes sparkling. That smile was all charm. "Mais oui. I assure you, it will be far easier than some roles I have undertaken."
Her lilting voice was confident, but she could not know his mother. The countess had run off three companions before Patience Ramsey had consented to stay for three years. Gregory suspected the good-natured blonde had remained because she had nowhere else to go. She had been a treasure, forever tending to his mother's many ills. But when she'd announced she'd found another position, he'd gladly let her leave. She deserved better than what they could give.
"If you have any trouble," he told Miss de Maupassant, "you must come to me."
Her smile tilted up, inviting him closer. "But of course, my dear earl."
He sat back in the chair, feeling his cheeks warm. He was never sure how to act around the fairer sex. Most of the ladies of his acquaintance acted as if they were fragile creatures. An ill-considered word, a firm glance, and they dissolved. The mincing manners employed by so many gentlemen on the ton seemed to please them, but the movements looked ridiculous on his larger frame. And the one time he had emboldened himself to propose, the lady had kindly let him know that he could never be more than a friend. No doubt he would have to marry one day to secure the line, but he was not looking forward to adding another lady to his already tempestuous household.
"You must treat her as you would any other staff member," Miss Thorn cautioned him, gaze pinning him in place. She had the purple-blue eyes of Lavendula, or at least that was how it seemed to his befuddled brain.
"Ah, but I am to be a companion," Miss de Maupassant said. "That is a special sort of staff, non?"
Gregory shook himself. "Yes. You'll keep my mother company from the time she wakes until the time she retires. I believe Miss Ramsey read to her, sang songs to brighten her day."
"How sweet," the Frenchwoman said.
That face was equally sweet, her bonnet and gown more practical than pretty, yet he struggled to see her being servile.
"Miss Ramsey took dinner with the family and attended church services and social gatherings with my mother as well," he continued.
"We may want to forego social engagements for the time being," Miss Thorn said, hand stroking the cat in her lap. The creature regarded Gregory with copper-colored eyes, tail twitching, and he sat straighter.
What was wrong with him? Was he seeking the cat's approval now? He could fell an opponent in the boxing square with one blow of his fist, slice a sapling in half with one swing of his cutlass, urge his horse over gate and gulley. He had spoken before Parliament, addressed His Highness, the Prince Regent. Why did one glance from a lady, even a feline one, make him want to run back to his greenhouse and hide among the plants?
"I'll do whatever is needed to keep Miss…French safe," he assured them, palms starting to sweat.
"Excellent," Miss Thorn pronounced. She stopped her hand as she gazed down at her pet.
The cat rose and stretched high on its paws, setting the lamplight to flashing on the white blaze that ran down her chest like a stream. She stepped off her mistress' lap onto the damask of sofa's upholstery.
"This is Fortune," Miss Thorn informed him. "Fortune, meet Lord Carrolton."
She was introducing him to her cat? How was he to react to that?
As if she'd spotted a plump mouse, Fortune leaped across the space between them and landed on his thigh. He held himself still.
Fortune eyed him a moment, then rubbed her head against the tweed of his coat.
Miss de Maupassant beamed. "She likes you."
"I suspect she likes everyone," he demurred, afraid to touch the lovely creature lest he inadvertently harm her.
"No, indeed," Miss Thorn assured him. "Fortune is quite refined in her opinions. You may pet her."
It seemed this was an honor too. Gingerly, Gregory stroked his hand down the silky fur. Fortune turned her head from side to side, and he obligingly rubbed behind each ear. Well, who would have thought?
Miss Thorn's smile spread. "It appears my work here is done."
Miss de Maupassant leaned forward, cocking her head to gaze at him out of the corners of her eyes. "But you will allow Meredith and Fortune to spend the night, oui? They have traveled far the last few days with me."
"Of course," he said. "And I hope you'll join us for dinner as well, Miss Thorn. I can have someone watch Fortune."
The cat glanced up at him as if she recognized her name, but her gaze seemed to chide him.
"My mother has been unwell," he said. Was he telling the cat or Miss Thorn? "The doctor advises us to keep her away from any sort of animal." Fortune pulled back from him, hopped from his lap, and stalked off across the carpet, tail in the air. Had he offended her?
Miss Thorn inclined her head. "I understand."
That made one of them. "We keep country hours," he explained. "No need to dress. Say six?"
"Perfect." She raised her head to keep an eye on her pet, who seemed to be inspecting the standing candelabra.
Miss de Maupassant rose, forcing Gregory to his feet. "Thank you for your explanations and your hospitality, my lord. And now, you must introduce me to your mother. It has been a long day, and I have only so much charm to spare."
He nodded, but he was certain the nearly christened Miss French was wrong. She had entirely too much charm. He felt it tugging at him even now. Would his mother take to it, or was this ruse doomed from the start?