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Earl to the Rescue by Jane Ashford (1)

One

Gwendeline Gregory put her pen down on the elegant gilt-inlaid writing desk and looked up, frowning; she brushed at the crumbs of muffin she’d let fall on her new black gown and poured herself another cup of nearly cold tea. This was her last breakfast at Brooklands, and there was nothing to be done about it, it seemed. She looked sadly around her parlor. The fragile straw-colored velvet and gilt furnishings, bestowed on her absentmindedly by her parents on her eighteenth birthday last summer, the figured wallpaper and pale blue hangings chosen by herself with such pleasure, the ormolu clock brought in from the unused drawing room, the flowered carpet—all these things would be offered to strangers at auction. For a moment, she felt like crying, then she shook herself and turned back to the list she’d labored over half the morning. Her seldom-seen parents were dead, killed four months ago in a carriage accident, and Brooklands was to be sold by her father’s creditors. There would be nothing left, the lawyer had told her, but her clothing and personal jewels, so she had to plan for her future.

She picked up the list and scanned it. “Relatives” was the first item she’d written. Gwendeline frowned again. The usual recourse of young ladies in her situation was to take refuge with some member of the family. Unfortunately, Gwendeline’s parents had no surviving family. Their parents were dead, and they had left no brothers or sisters; in fact, her father’s solicitor was still searching for a male heir to take the title. He’d find one, no doubt, but Gwendeline didn’t intend to ask a complete stranger for a home. She had no family feeling herself—her parents, having been utterly uninterested in family, had never instilled such an emotion in her—and she saw no reason why the new baron should wish to take her in. But that was beside the point; on the exceedingly rare occasions they’d noticed her, her parents had made no mention of relatives. She knew of none. Gwendeline sighed and drew a neat line through “relatives.”

The same objections arose when she moved to the second item, “friends.” Gwendeline had never been introduced to any of her parents’ friends, and the neighbors here in Devonshire were distant acquaintances at best. Not having officially “come out” despite her age, Gwendeline had never been invited to their houses; and her governess had not permitted her to ride with the local hunt, as she had often wished to do. There were no family friends to give her a home.

“Guverness” was the third item on her list. Looking at it, Gwendeline wrinkled her nose and wondered about the spelling. Her education had been erratic. Though her parents had exerted themselves to the point of hiring an excellent governess to teach her, Miss Brown had been too kind to resort to severe punishment, and in the end, Gwendeline had gotten little from their association beyond a clear sense of her governess’s worth and a respect for her principles. Left mainly to her own devices in the great rambling house, Gwendeline had learned only what she chose—riding, a bit of French, drawing. She’d neglected the pianoforte and the more serious subjects, and since Miss Brown had left last year, she’d scarcely opened a book. No one would think of employing a girl to instruct others who’d been the despair of her own teacher.

Even had her schooling been satisfactory, everything else about her was unsuitable. She was too young, she exhibited far too much levity (or so she’d often been told), and her rank was a hindrance. Her clothes were all wrong for a governess, she concluded, smoothing the folds of her modish mourning frock. The fact that this final objection raised only feelings of complacency in her breast further argued her unfitness for such a post. I might sell my clothes, Gwendeline thought wistfully, and buy others with the money. But then she did not wish to do anything of the kind. And most likely, when she had done it and was supplied with a wardrobe of ugly, dowdy dresses, she’d still not be hired, and she would have lost her pretty gowns. She scratched item three off her list.

This left only “seamstress” and “actress” of her long-pondered alternatives, and she knew both of these to be entirely unsuitable, even had she been qualified or eager to try them. She put the list back on the desk and turned to butter another muffin. At least her last breakfast here would be a fine one, she thought rebelliously, putting out a hand for the pot of marmalade next to the teapot.

At that moment, there was a soft tap at the door and the butler entered. “Pardon me, Miss Gwendeline,” he said, “but there is a gentleman to see you.” The news barely ruffled the air of gloom that Reeves, and indeed all the servants, had exuded since the funeral, an air that originated partly from sympathy for Gwendeline and partly from disgust at their former masters’ profligacy, which had deprived them all of expected pensions.

“One of the neighbors, Reeves? I thought all of them had called long since.”

“No, miss,” he replied lugubriously. “A stranger. He gave me his card.” Reeves handed her the square of pasteboard with a gesture that conveyed his lack of faith in its genuineness. “The gentleman says he knew your father,” he added with a touch of disdain.

Did this unknown gentleman have any idea, Gwendeline wondered, how poor a recommendation acquaintance with her father was in this house? The man who had squandered every penny of the Gregory fortune and estate was not popular or much respected in his former household. She glanced at the card. “The Earl of Merryn,” she murmured to herself. The name sounded familiar; she almost felt she should know it. Had she met this friend of her father’s? No memory surfaced, and after a moment, she looked up. “Ask the gentleman to step in, Reeves.”

“Yes, miss,” the butler answered doubtfully. “And shall I remain in the room while you see what he wants?”

Thinking of the final item on her list, Gwendeline was amused. A girl about to be thrown into the street was to be protected to the last moment, it appeared. “I see no need of that. You may bring some refreshment later if you wish to see that I’m all right. I’m sure the man hasn’t come to ravish me.”

Reeves looked shocked. “No indeed, Miss Gwendeline. It’s just…the gentleman struck me as, well, formidable.”

“Really?” Gwendeline paused. “Well, I expect Papa owed him some gambling debts or something of that nature. I’ll have to speak to him, if only to tell him that there’s nothing I can do. I’ll ring if I need you. Send him in. And bring some of the good Madeira. We may as well serve it while we can. They mean to sell it all at the auction, you know.”

Reeves smiled dolefully and went out. Gwendeline moved to the sofa under the long window overlooking the garden, puzzled and rather intrigued by this unexpected visit.

The latter emotion intensified when Reeves ushered the earl into the room. Alex St. Audley, fifth Earl of Merryn, was a striking gentleman, well above middle height, with the broad shoulders and powerful thighs of an athlete. He moved with unstudied grace and the air of one who knows his own superiority too well to require reassurance. His auburn hair was brushed into a fashionable Brutus, and though the points of his starched collar did not even approach his high cheekbones, the exquisite tailoring of his dark blue coat, the gleam of his tall Hessian boots, and his intricately arranged neckcloth proclaimed the nonpareil. His eyes, cool and gray, surveyed Gwendeline with obvious surprise, rapidly changing to approval. “Good day,” he said when she remained silent. “I expected a child. It appears I was mistaken.” He bowed, and when he straightened, a smile lit his features, quite transforming his rather austere countenance.

Gwendeline, dazzled, didn’t reply at once. Her father, the only other gentleman of fashion she’d ever encountered, had been accounted very handsome and modish, but Baron Gregory’s careless style of dress and heedless manners couldn’t begin to match this stranger’s elegance. But when her initial reaction passed, Gwendeline found herself assailed by another, less rational feeling. For some reason she resented this man. The unconscious assurance with which he strolled into her private room, the cool way he appraised her, as if amused by something she would never comprehend, and the general effect of his appearance, which fairly cried out his wealth and independence, set her back up. The charming smile somehow heightened the emotion rather than dissipated it. “How do you do,” she answered him coolly. “I am not a child, as you see.”

“I do indeed,” he replied, taking a seat, uninvited, on the sofa beside her. “Most of Roger’s acquaintances were astonished to hear that he had any children at all, and we simply assumed you must be still in the nursery. What an irresponsible pair your parents were. Did they mean to leave you rusticating here forever?”

“I was to have come out this season,” said Gwendeline stiffly. “And now, my lord, if you would tell me how I may serve you? If my father owed you money, I must tell you that I can do nothing.”

The earl raised his eyebrows. “You think I drove halfway across Devonshire to dun a child?” He paused. “I’ve been precipitous, but I was surprised to find a beautiful young lady when I expected a wailing brat surrounded by troops of nurses and governesses.” The corners of his mouth lifted as he watched the effect of these words. “You look a good deal like your mother, but I never saw Annabella blush.”

To her chagrin, Gwendeline’s color deepened further. She started to speak but was interrupted. “The same coloring,” added the earl. “The pale blond hair, those aquamarine eyes. I daresay they’ll inspire as many sonnets as hers did. The nose may be Roger’s, however.” He reached out and took her chin, turning her face to the side. “Yes, I think Roger’s nose.”

Gwendeline pulled away from him and rose to her feet, outraged. The man’s casual arrogance was intolerable. She went to the corner of the room and put her hand on the bellpull. “I think perhaps you had better leave, sir,” she said, and started to ring for Reeves.

The earl regarded her with bland surprise, though his gray eyes twinkled. “Such heat,” he said, taking in the picture she presented with amused appreciation. Gwendeline’s slender, erect figure was admirably set off by the pale wall, and anger had made her blue-green eyes sparkle. Though her gown was of country make and the wispy curls of her hair not precisely in the current mode, she was indisputably a very pretty girl indeed. “You’ve mistaken me,” he drawled. “I’m the knight in shining armor, not the ogre. I have come to rescue the damsel in distress.”

Gwendeline wished desperately to give him a setdown. She opened her mouth to speak, but Reeves chose that moment to enter with a tray holding a decanter of the good Madeira and some biscuits. He looked uneasy at finding Gwendeline holding the bellpull and the earl standing in front of the sofa. Putting the tray on the table, he said, “Will there be something else, Miss Gwendeline?”

Before the girl could reply, the earl had strolled over and was pouring out a glass of wine. “Is this some of the Madeira Roger used to boast of?” he asked. “I must try it.” He glanced toward the corner. “While I explain the purpose of my visit, of course.” He raised his glass to Gwendeline, forcing her to come out of the corner and sit down, feeling foolish.

“That will be all, Reeves,” she said, and the butler reluctantly left the room.

“Very good,” Merryn remarked as the door closed. Gwendeline glared at him. “I mean the wine, naturally.” He smiled again at the girl’s set expression. “I do apologize. I should have explained myself at the outset, but as I said, I was surprised. And in any case, you’ve hardly given me the chance.” Gwendeline began a hot retort, but he went on quickly. “I’m sorry that we’ve come to cuffs so soon, and I’m sure it’s my fault entirely. Will you accept my sincere apologies and listen to my explanation?” He looked down at her with a mixture of amusement and what appeared to be genuine contrition.

A little mollified by his politeness, Gwendeline nodded.

“Thank you. Well then, when we heard in town that Gregory had succeeded in killing himself at last, and Annabella with him…” He paused. “I hope I haven’t offended you again?”

Gwendeline looked at the floor, shaking her head. “No. I scarcely knew my parents. And I’ve heard enough talk of my father’s wild habits in the last few weeks to believe your expression deserved.”

“Scarcely knew them?”

“I saw them only when they came down for a few weeks each summer, with a house party. They never asked me to join it, even lately, when I was ready to come out. And they didn’t seem to like Brooklands.” Gwendeline didn’t hear the wistfulness creep into her voice.

“Hmm. Perhaps your mother retained some remnants of sense after all. My respect for her increases.” He continued before she could comment on this enigmatic statement. “At any rate, it was some time before word got about London that Roger and Annabella had a child. We heard about you at the same time that rumors began to circulate about the extent of Roger’s debts, and the combination was appalling. One of the finest estates in England thrown to the winds in twenty years and a daughter left with nothing.”

Gwendeline looked down, not knowing what to say to this.

“So, ah, several of us decided to do something about it. And as a consequence, I’m here to offer you one thousand pounds a year and a small house in London for your use. It’s not what you should have had by right,” he finished, looking around the delicate parlor, “but it is something.”

Gwendeline simply stared at him for a long moment, then began to stutter. “A small… Some of us… One thousand.” She stopped, knowing she sounded demented. “Are you mad, or am I?” she asked finally.

Lord Merryn smiled. “I hope neither of us is mad,” he said. “I know this is a surprise, but I hope it’s a pleasant one. I had thought to provide for an infant.” He paused for a reply and when none came, continued. “It’s a pleasant little house; it belonged to a great aunt of mine who died last year. Not in a particularly fashionable neighborhood.” His expression was becoming progressively more meditative as he spoke, and he seemed to be thinking aloud. “You can’t live there alone. I had thought there would be nurses and plenty of time to make arrangements. We can bring some of the servants from here, I suppose, but—”

“You actually intend to give me a house and an income,” Gwendeline interrupted. “A girl you’d never met, had never even heard of until some weeks ago, if I’m to credit what you say?” The earl started to speak, but she held up a hand to forestall him. “A man appears at my door, a stranger to me, and offers me money and a house. I’m not addicted to novel reading, Lord Merryn, but even to me this seems unbelievable and highly suspicious.”

He looked at her, the corners of his mouth twitching. “Do you think I’m making an improper proposal?” he asked. “I see that you do.” To Gwendeline’s chagrin, he began to laugh. “I came here to rescue a child, a little girl, and as far as I can see, that’s exactly what I’m doing. You’re older than I expected, yes, but a schoolgirl still, my dear Miss Gregory.”

Gwendeline bridled. “I’m nearly nineteen and not at all a schoolgirl. I’m afraid I must refuse your kind offer, my lord, though I certainly acknowledge your goodness in making it. And now, I think there is nothing more to discuss.” She rose haughtily from the sofa and looked down at him.

Unfortunately, the earl showed no signs of taking her cue. He simply looked vexed. “I suppose my mother was right, as usual. She said I’d make a mull of it and begged me to bring her along, for propriety’s sake if nothing else. But I refused to listen.” He frowned. “I daresay it’s not too late to get her here. When do you leave Brooklands?”

Gwendeline, taken by surprise, answered. “Late this afternoon.”

“So soon.” He tapped his chin with one finger. “It would be difficult to return with my mother in less than a week. What are your immediate plans? Visiting somewhere?”

Things were going rather fast for Gwendeline. She glanced toward the desk where her list still lay and shook her head. “I have a little pocket money left. I thought of going to an inn near here and…and thinking what to do,” she faltered.

“An inn? With all your luggage?”

“I won’t have much really, only one trunk. I never had many clothes and…” She thought of her “jewels,” one Christmas locket and a pearl ring she’d been told belonged to her grandmother. “Ellen, my maid, is staying with me for a while. Indeed, all of the older servants wished to do so, but I could not even feed them, of course, so…” To her horror, Gwendeline felt her lower lip begin to tremble, and she bit it convulsively.

“This is outrageous,” said the Earl of Merryn. “You are coming to London with me immediately.”

At this new instance of his arrogance, Gwendeline rallied. “Nonsense,” she replied. “I shall do no such thing.”

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