Embracing the Earl (The St. Clairs Book 3)
Read Book 3 in the bestselling "The St. Clairs" series for free with Kindle Unlimited!
Luke St. Clair, Earl of Mayfield, has tired of his empty, carefree life and seeks to find a spouse he can love and cherish, much as his brother and sister have done. Ridding himself of his mistress and lover, he commits to entering the upcoming Season with an open mind. Before the Season can even begin, however, Luke meets an independent beauty who does more than interest him.
After Lady Caroline Andrews loses her beloved sister, she decides she needs a change of scenery and travels to Boston to visit her aunt, only to be stranded for three years when England and America go to war. Once the peace accords are signed, Caroline returns to London. Discovering that her father has died deeply in debt, leaving his daughter nothing, Caroline uses an inheritance from her aunt to open her own bookstore and tearoom. Needing to support herself, Caroline declares she will never marry. Falling in love with Luke St. Clair wasn't in her plans, but Luke is convinced the spirited, independent Caroline is the one for him.
Will the rogue with a heart for children persuade the stubborn bookseller that fate demands they wed?
Each book in The St. Clairs Trilogy is a standalone story that can be enjoyed out of order.
Book #1 Devoted to the Duke
Book #2 Midnight with the Marquess
Book #3 Embracing the Earl
Book #4 Defending the Duke
Book #5 Suddenly a St. Clair
Release date: June 20, 2019
Publisher: Dragonblade Publishing, Inc.
Print pages: 272
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Embracing the Earl (The St. Clairs Book 3)
Lady Caroline Andrews helped her mother into their London townhome. Though she’d recently turned forty, the Countess of Templeton moved as if she were eighty. Ill health and losing her younger daughter had aged her overnight.
“Mama, let’s go upstairs. I’ll have tea brought up to warm us.”
The blustery winter day had chilled Caroline to the point her teeth chattered during the entire graveside service for her sister.
“No. Nothing for me,” her mother said wearily. “I just want my bed.” She leaned heavily into her only child.
By now, the countess was on the verge of collapse. Caroline motioned to their butler to join them since her father had already passed them by without a backward glance and gone into his study. The Earl of Templeton had a marked disdain for any kind of weakness or illness and obviously couldn’t be bothered to aid his grieving wife.
“Stinch will help get you up the stairs, Mama.”
The butler took the countess in hand and between the two of them, they were able to get her upstairs, where her lady’s maid anxiously awaited. The countess slumped in a chair, sobbing.
“Have tea sent up, Stinch,” Caroline said quietly and watched the butler slip from the room.
She took out a night rail for her mother as the maid undressed her mistress. It took both women to dress the countess and get her into bed. By then, the tea had arrived and Caroline insisted her mother drink some. After only a few sips, she pushed it away.
“Give me some laudanum.”
Reluctantly, Caroline nodded and the maid slipped from the room. She thought her mother took too much of it, which was why it was now kept under lock and key.
“It will be here soon,” she said soothingly, stroking her mother’s hair, noticing the gray was starting to dominate the fading, blond locks.
“What will I do without Cynthia?” her mother wailed, dissolving into fresh tears.
She had no reply.
Her sister had always been delicate in health, favoring her mother in that respect. Caroline had the hardier constitution of their father, along with his caramel-colored hair that was streaked with blond highlights throughout the brown. She did resemble her mother some, with the same warm, brown eyes and porcelain skin, as well as having her ample bosom.
“Please, Mama. Try not to weep. It won’t bring Cynthia back and it upsets you so.”
She took a handkerchief and wiped away her mother’s tears. Caroline had already cried ones of her own when her sister passed two days ago—on Caroline’s birthday. She doubted she could ever celebrate the day of her birth again with any joy, knowing she was alive while Cynthia lay cold in her grave.
The last year had been emotionally draining, especially because the two sisters had been so close. They were eleven months apart in age and had always been the best of friends. Caroline even delayed her come-out, choosing to make her debut with Cynthia when she turned eighteen. Instead of the two girls dancing at balls and attending the opera and garden parties last spring and summer, Caroline had been nursing her sick sister. Always frail, Cynthia had begun having trouble breathing and could only walk a few paces without tiring. Their physician had diagnosed a faulty heart and told them it was only a matter of time before Cynthia succumbed.
Her sister encouraged Caroline to go ahead with the come-out since she was already nineteen and a year older than most girls who made their debut, but she’d resisted, staying home to care for Cynthia and spend as much time with her as she could. Papa refused to be around her, claiming it ate at him to see his younger daughter wasting away. Caroline supposed that was also his excuse for ignoring Mama all these years since she, too, was frail. It had fallen to Caroline to nurse Cynthia.
And now she was gone.
The maid returned with the laudanum and Caroline gave her mother the dose that would put her to sleep for the rest of the afternoon and most likely until tomorrow morning. She sat holding her mother’s hand until the countess closed her eyes and her breathing evened out.
“Stay with her,” she instructed the maid.
She poured herself a cup from the teapot and took it with her. The tea took some of the chill from her body but nothing could comfort her soul at the loss she’d suffered. For the last month, a piece of her had died every time she looked at her sister and saw how she slipped further and further away each day. She believed now that Cynthia was gone, the same would happen with her mother. Mama was already so weak in body and spirit. It wouldn’t surprise her if Mama simply lost the will to live.
As she reached her bedchamber, she heard a voice call her name and saw Stinch coming toward her.
“The earl wishes to speak with you, Lady Caroline. He’s in his study.”
A confrontation with her father was the last thing she wanted. She knew exactly why he wanted to see her—and would resist what he had to say.
“Thank you, Stinch.”
The butler’s eyes misted over. “We are all sorry for your loss, my lady. Lady Cynthia was always kind to the staff. She will be missed.”
“Thank you.” She stiffened her spine and handed him the half-drunk cup of tea. “Would you see this back to the kitchen?”
Caroline walked resolutely to her father’s study. She knocked and was bidden to enter.
He sat in his favorite chair, a crystal tumbler of brandy in his hand. She remembered in her youth thinking him handsome but not anymore. Drink and too many late nights at the gaming tables and with his various mistresses had etched deep lines into his face.
“Sit,” he commanded.
She did and decided he would need to make the first move in their verbal chess game. When she remained mute, he finally spoke.
“You are now twenty, Caroline.”
“I am aware of my age, Papa. Cynthia passed on my birthday two days ago.”
He winced slightly and she mentally awarded herself the first point.
“You delayed your come-out so you could do so with your sister. That did not occur last spring because of her infirmity. This year’s Season will start in a little over two months’ time. I want you to be ready for it. It’s time you got yourself a husband, Caroline, though at your advanced age you won’t have as great a selection as most women.”
Score one for the earl.
“I don’t plan to take part in the upcoming Season, Papa. I will be in mourning. It would be inappropriate for me to be seen dancing when I’ve recently lost my beloved sister.”
Two for her.
He frowned. When he saw she wasn’t moved by his disapproval, the frown morphed into a glare. “I was afraid you’d say that. I suppose I’ll give you another choice.”
“My only choice is to mourn, Papa.”
“You do love your mother?” he asked.
“Of course.” She wanted to ask if he loved his wife but kept quiet. “What has that to do with anything?”
“Your mother is not well. She has always been fragile, even as a girl. When I married her, I’d hoped for sons and only got two daughters off her. After that, the doctors said more children weren’t possible.”
Caroline had always wondered why no other babies came after her and Cynthia. Knowing her father, he must have hated his wife for not providing an heir.
She remained silent, so he continued. “Losing Cynthia has been hard on her.”
Naturally, it had been hard on her mother. It was hard on Caroline, too. The only one who didn’t seem to care one whit was her father.
“Because of that, I think she needs a change of scenery.”
Would her father send them to the country? They rarely went to their country estate. He adored life in London, with his mistresses and gambling and friends. She looked blankly at him, as if she didn’t know what he was about to do. He was going to dump them in the country. Who knew how long they would be there before he would remember he had a wife and a daughter? Her anger stirred and she tamped it down, unwilling for him to see he’d gotten under her skin.
“Knowing you would reject the Season, I’ve already made arrangements for you to go to America.”
“What?” she cried. “Why on earth would you send Mama and me there?”
“Your aunt lives there. My sister.”
Caroline was baffled. “I’ve never heard you mention a sister. Why?”
He shrugged. “Because I disowned her years ago.”
“I’m sure she displeased you,” she snapped.
His eyes narrowed at her words. “Evangeline disgraced the Andrews’ family name. Instead of wedding the viscount she was engaged to, she eloped with an American sea captain.”
She’d never heard any of this—and she’d listened to servants gossiping her entire life, learning early that eavesdropping had its benefits.
“Evangeline presented him to me. I told her how she’d embarrassed herself and humiliated me. The ton is an unforgiving lot. She would never be accepted in Polite Society again. I told her I never wanted to see her again. She abruptly left for America after that.”
Caroline already liked this aunt a great deal.
“She wrote to me recently, however. Her husband is now dead. Though I would never accept her back into my household, she did know of you and Cynthia. Evangeline left with her husband just after Cynthia’s birth. I told her you—and your mother—might come to visit her in Boston.”
Excitement filled her. She’d barely been outside of London, much less beyond England’s borders. The chance to go to America and meet this blood relative who’d stood up to her father appealed to Caroline greatly. Still, she kept her features composed, not wanting the father whom she once did everything to impress to know her true feelings.
“Those are your choices,” he said firmly. “Either take part in the upcoming Season when April arrives or journey to America with your mother and spend a few months getting to know your aunt.”
She wouldn’t dishonor Cynthia’s memory by refusing to mourn her sister.
“It looks as if Mama and I will be visiting Boston,” Caroline proclaimed.
Caroline finished dressing and went downstairs where her usual tea and toast awaited her.
“Good morning, Mrs. Johnson. How is today’s weather?”
“Frigid,” the housekeeper replied tersely. “Tippet did his business and raced back in.”
She seated herself and the dog left his spot next to the fire to come close in order for Caroline to pet him. She stroked his shiny, black fur and the dog sighed in contentment before curling up partly atop her feet.
Pouring herself a cup of tea, she added one lump of sugar and a splash of cream before stirring. Mrs. Johnson sat opposite her and did the same. Both women spread jam on their toast.
Sometimes, Caroline still marveled at how different America was. The thought of one of their servants in London sitting down and eating breakfast with her would have been laughable, yet here in Boston it was not only accepted but encouraged. She wasn’t called Lady Caroline by anyone. Friends of all ages referred to her as Caroline, while she introduced herself to strangers as Miss Andrews. Being a loyal subject of England’s king was frowned upon, especially since the United States was at war again with its former Mother Country.
At first, she’d resented being in Boston. Though she’d taken to Aunt Evie immediately, Caroline’s mother hadn’t fared well on the eight-week transatlantic crossing and she’d died at the end of April, only two weeks after they’d arrived from England. Already grieving her sister’s passing, Caroline had to deal with losing her mother, as well. Aunt Evie had been her saving grace, instantly becoming family and close friend in the following weeks. Evie was kind, comforting, and yet no-nonsense all rolled into one. Caroline supposed her aunt had learned to be self-sufficient in the four years since her husband’s death. They’d had no children and Evie had to look after herself.
The two women decided Caroline would stay for a few months so they could get to know one another better. Then news of war came that June, effectively trapping her in Boston for the duration of the war.
It looked as if the war might be coming to an end soon. General Jackson had soundly trounced the British in New Orleans only last month and hopes ran high in Boston. New England had never been in favor for what was harshly termed Mr. Madison’s War since shipbuilding and ship trading provided the lifeblood of the region. Only the western and southern states had voted to go to war against England, seriously dividing the young nation to the breaking point.
Caroline finished her breakfast and took the dishes back to the kitchen. Mrs. Johnson told her to leave them so Caroline could get to the bookshop. She placed her heavy, plain cloak about her and called Tippet, who came bounding toward her, and they set out for her bookstore. She was finally thinking of the place as hers. It had been exactly a year to the date—and once again, Caroline’s birthday—when Aunt Evie had been struck by a runaway team of horses and died of her injuries. Much to her surprise, Caroline found herself the sole heir of Evie’s estate. Her aunt had sold Captain Morton’s ship after his death and used the proceeds to open a bookstore.
She’d worked in the bookstore alongside her aunt during the first two years in Boston, learning all aspects of the book trade from ordering books to balancing the ledgers. When Aunt Evie died, Caroline grieved but found herself well prepared to run the shop on her own, though she’d hired Josiah Long to help her. In the last year, the shop had its best year of profit, a source of great pride for her.
Tippet kept close as she walked through the narrow streets of Boston, a light snow falling. Once again, she marveled at how she was able to walk the streets of the city alone, with only her dog for company. In London, she would have had to take her maid everywhere. It would be totally unacceptable for her to be unchaperoned. Coming to America had granted her freedoms she never would have experienced if she’d remained in England after Cynthia’s death.
By the time she reached the bookshop, the snow had stopped. As she arrived, she saw Jordy, Mr. Frain’s apprentice, carrying a bundle of newspapers and headed her way. She unlocked the shop and opened the door for him. Jordy breezed through and set the newspapers on the counter, taking out a pocketknife to cut through the string that bound them together.
“Good morning, Caroline,” he said, his usual smile in place. “Do you think today we’ll get good news?”
For Jordy, good news meant hearing if the Americans had won another battle.
“It’s possible,” she said.
“With Jackson’s victory in New Orleans, surely the British will give up now.”
“They’re a tough lot, Jordy. Just look at me,” she teased.
He cocked his head. “I forget you’re British sometimes, Caroline. It seems as if you’ve been in Boston forever.”
Josiah entered the shop and greeted them.
“I’ll be off,” Jordy said. “See you tomorrow.”
After the door closed, Josiah asked, “Was he talking of the war again?”
“Yes. You know he lost his older brother in battle last year. If Mr. Frain didn’t need him so badly at the print shop, I believe Jordy would have run off and joined Harrison’s or Jackson’s army by now.”
He shook his head. “It was a foolish war to fight. Even if we win, it’s crippled our economy.”
She smiled at his New England logic. “At least people still like buying books—and newspapers.”
It had been her idea to carry the local newspaper in the shop. Once upon a time, Caroline had been interested in nothing more than fripperies. Matching ribbons to bonnets. What size and color of reticule to carry. Being in Boston made her more aware of politics and economics. She’d become a voracious reader of the news and found she was in similar company. Both men and women in the city were drawn to the topics.
Because of that, she’d encouraged Aunt Evie to buy large bundles of the newspaper each day to entice people to come to the bookshop. Evie had been reluctant at first but let Caroline try her idea out. Within a fortnight, they had regular customers appearing every day. She’d cleared out space for them to sit and read the news sheets. Sometimes, they stayed to browse—and buy. Her best idea had been to stock licorice and toffee in glass jars near the newspapers. When customers purchased a paper, they inevitably saw the nearby sweets. At times, it was hard keeping the candies in stock because they sold out so frequently.
They opened the shop and the usual group filed in. Over the next several hours, she and Josiah sold all of the newspapers and seven books.
Jordy suddenly flew through the door, his cheeks flushed not from the cold but from the excitement that bubbled up and out of him.
“Caroline! Josiah! The war is over!” He waved a handful of half-sheets of news. “Mr. Frain had me bring these over, knowing customers would flock to your store. They are the first off his press.”
Happiness filled her. She’d hated that her birth country and the one she’d grown so fond of were at war with one another. It was bad enough that Englishmen had to fight Bonaparte, much less their American cousins.
“Quick, let me see.”
Jordy handed her a news sheet and she skimmed it quickly before starting at the beginning and reading every word. What struck her most were the dates mentioned in the article—and the ones she’d read about previously. Diplomats in Belgium had signed a peace treaty at Christmastime, about six weeks ago, but this news was only filtering across the Atlantic. In the meantime, General Jackson and his men had fought the British army under Pakenham at New Orleans on January eight. Both Pakenham and his second-in-command, Gibbs, had been fatally wounded in the battle. The British had lost twenty-six hundred men to injury, death, or capture as prisoners of war, while the Americans only had six wounded and seven killed in action.
That meant that Jackson’s resounding victory came after the peace accords had been signed. Since Americans were only hearing about the Treaty of Ghent now, they would assume it was Andy Jackson’s win in Louisiana that forced the British hand for both sides to lay down their arms. The British would know better but the Americans would cling to their own point of view.
Caroline looked to Jordy. “Go back to Mr. Frain. Bring me double what you brought now. Tell him I’ll be good for it and will settle up with him tomorrow.”
The young man ran out without a backward glance and, soon, the bookshop was filled with patriotic Americans, buying both news sheets and licorice. Somewhere outside the shop a barrel appeared, and customers came in with mugs of ale as they gossiped about the end of the war.
Amidst all the noise, Josiah turned to her and asked, “Will you go home now?”
Caroline finally understood that she had a choice for the first time in three years. Though she loved her newfound freedom, she longed for London.
Slowly, she nodded. “As soon as I can make the arrangements.”
Caroline disembarked from the packet boat, Tippet’s leash in one hand and Davy Redmond’s hand in the other. The ship had made good time and crossed the Atlantic in six weeks. She’d been one of a dozen passengers aboard and would now travel from Bristol to London by coach.
It surprised her how quickly things came together once she decided to leave Boston. Aunt Evie’s will had left everything to Caroline. She’d found a buyer for the bookshop and made keeping Josiah on a part of the sale agreement. The house sold even more quickly and Mrs. Johnson had decided to stay on and work for the couple who purchased it. They had seven children and the childless housekeeper was looking forward to having young people in the house.
She waited near where they disembarked for her two trunks to arrive. Once they did, she left Davy with Tippet to guard them while she went in search of transportation. She had quite a bit of money from the sale of the shop and house but had grown frugal during her stay in Boston, aware of money for the first time. Instead of hiring a post-chaise, which would cost her approximately a pound for each mile they traveled, she looked for a mail coach instead. After asking, she was directed to a mail coach office only a stone’s throw away.
A mail coach was loading as she arrived. Already, the interior of the coach had filled up with four passengers and bags of mail and she watched as seven people climbed atop the vehicle, one sitting next to the coach driver. She had two trunks, Davy, Tippet, and herself. They would need a mail coach all to themselves if that was how she chose to journey to London.
The vehicle took off and Caroline marched inside the office. After haggling with the clerk on duty, she purchased every ticket on the mail coach that would depart in two hours. It meant not only buying every ticket available but paying double to three passengers that had already bought their tickets. They seemed delighted to accept twice what they’d paid for their tickets and would be able to take a different coach in the morning. The cost still came out to be reasonable and affordable. It would also be much more comfortable for their journey to London.
She hired one of the pleased ticket holders to bring her trunks to the loading area and accompanied him to where Davy and Tippet patiently waited. The boy, only seven, had been orphaned and worked on the packet ship she’d taken from Boston. When he wasn’t on duty working as a cabin boy, he’d spent every waking minute with Caroline while she taught him to read. Davy was a quick study and she knew she could find a place for him in her father’s household. It would have been criminal to leave him aboard the ship, especially since he’d taken so to her. She’d speak to Stinch about Davy being trained as a footman or stable boy and never bother her father with the details.
Tippet, on the other hand, would be something that required a deft hand. Her father despised dogs and cats equally. Though she and Cynthia had begged for a pet, he’d always refused. The old Lady Caroline would have hidden Tippet in the stables and only visited him each day. The independent Caroline Andrews of Boston would boldly march in with Tippet and dare her father to say anything. Of course, that would mean he would actually have to be home when she arrived. Knowing the Earl of Templeton, he would be at one of his clubs with his cronies, playing cards and drinking the day—or night—away. Or with one of his many mistresses, which he never bothered to hide from his family. She hoped her future husband would use more discretion when it came to having a mistress.
If she even bothered with a husband.
Caroline had thought about that long and hard during the endless days at sea. She would be arriving in London the last week in March. The Season would begin in about two and a half weeks. She had no clothes appropriate to wear to any ton event. She would have received no invitations to said events since she’d been gone for over three years and had never made her come-out. Moreover, she was now twenty-three years old, which would be considered on the shelf by most bachelors sampling the Marriage Mart. Those three strikes against her were enough to dissuade her from attempting to participate in her first Season.
The largest factor, though, was the fact that she didn’t think she wanted a husband. Her time in Boston had radically changed her. She wasn’t the meek, sweet-tempered girl she’d been when she left London. She’d returned informed, opinionated, and with some wealth. If she married, the profits she’d made from the bookshop and selling Aunt Evie’s home would belong to her husband the moment she spoke her vows.
Caroline wasn’t sure if she wanted to give up her independence and money for some man.
Finally, she had both trunks in hand, along with Davy and Tippet. She sent Davy to buy something for them to eat and he returned with meat pies. Tippet, in particular, enjoyed the treat. They boarded their mail coach when the time came. Her trunks were placed on top, along with several bags of mail, while she and her companions shared the interior with more sacks of correspondence. They changed horses about every two hours and arrived in London early the next afternoon.
Caroline flagged down a hackney driver and had him load her trunks while she hustled Davy and Tippet inside. She gave the driver the address to her father’s townhome and then settled in for the ride. Davy had never seen a city as large as London and kept shouting about the sights they passed. It delighted her to see him happy. Tippet barked occasionally, as if chiming in with his own opinion.
As they pulled into the square where the townhouse was located, she saw three riders exiting from the property that sat directly in front of them. It thrilled her that they might finally have neighbors. The place had stood vacant for periods of time and then was leased on occasion for a few months at a time. She’d heard rumors about a boy who was a marquess owning it but never living there since he was at school during the year and at his country estate in the summers. She hoped the boy had grown up and finally taken ownership of it. Perhaps, he’d even wed and had children. Caroline hoped so and that she could befriend his wife.
The cab turned and came to rest in front of her own residence. She lowered Davy to the ground and Tippet jumped out, barking. The driver helped her disembark and then removed her trunks as she watched the three on horseback turn from the square and head toward Hyde Park. The driver finished toting the trunks to the doorstep and Caroline paid him. Taking Davy’s hand and Tippet’s leash, she started toward the door as the cab pulled away.
Immediately, she halted in her tracks.
A black wreath adorned the front door. It could only mean one thing.
The Earl of Templeton was no more.
Luke St. Clair, Earl of Mayfield, lay propped upon pillows, bare to his waist. And bored.
His current mistress, Catarina, pretended to be Scheherazade, dancing in some filmy costume that she’d concocted. He hadn’t the heart to tell her that Scheherazade was a storyteller, not a dancer, as Catarina tossed off another layer of the gauzy material she wore and it floated to the ground. Catarina often confused things. Even her own origins. At one point, she’d claimed to be from Florence. Another time she led him to believe she was born in Barcelona. Or perhaps Madrid. Luke couldn’t remember. And didn’t care.
He had definitely tired of Catarina.
His morning had already included parting ways with his current ton lover. A pretty widow who was almost thirty, the baroness had actually taught him a thing or two in the bedroom during their torrid affair of the last few months. When he’d broken the news to her earlier that he was ending things between them, she’d cried and clung to him—until he produced a pair of ruby earrings. After that, she couldn’t get him out of her rooms fast enough.
Luke had stopped for lunch at his club and then come straight here, ready to do the same with Catarina. He was in no mood for the games she wished to play. Often, she had them pretend to be great lovers, such as Caesar and Cleopatra or Romeo and Juliet. She knew the names of these famous pairs but not the fact that their love ended in tragedy and death. Catarina was beautiful and fun to be with. He had no doubt she would find someone new before he returned to his London townhome tonight.
In the meantime, he needed her to stop what she was doing and listen to reason. At times, she had a volatile temper. He was in no mood to deal with it. Tears, possibly, but not shouting and objects being tossed about, particular ones aimed at his head. He glanced up and saw that the last layer of cloth danced through the air. His mistress climbed onto the bed on all fours and made her way up the mattress to him, a ravenous look in her eyes. She was an incredibly beautiful woman.
And Luke felt absolutely nothing for her.
Catalina reached him, her fingers dancing lightly up his bare chest as she straddled him. She pushed them into his hair and bent to kiss him. He allowed it. She broke the kiss almost immediately. He smiled up at her.
“Your mouth is smiling at me, my earl, but it does not reach your eyes,” she said sadly. “Is this our end?”
Her palms flattened against his chest and she ran them up and down it, as if committing his body to memory.
“I’ll help you find a new protector,” he offered.
She laughed. “I have turned down many in the year we have been together, my earl. That won’t be a problem. Besides, you leave me in fine shape.” She placed a kiss upon his chest. “This wonderful house is paid for. You also found me the best cook in London.”
“I may actually want her back,” Luke teased.
Catarina playfully swatted at him. “You may not have her. She is mine. Loyal to me alone.” She studied him a moment. “It was always going to end this way, wasn’t it, my earl?”
She’d never called him by his name, a fact that he appreciated. Only a handful of people called him Luke. The next woman that called him by his Christian name would become his wife.
He was ready for one.
He’d had three mistresses and several lovers over the past few years. They’d all pleased him in one way or another. There was a time when he thought he would be happy in this kind of life for years to come, only settling down once he passed thirty. The trouble was, his siblings’ happiness had affected him more than he’d care to admit.
Jeremy, his older brother and Duke of Everton, had wed Catherine Crawford after his first wife died. They now had four children and were more passionately in love than before they wed and had little ones running around. Rachel, his younger sister, had married Evan Drake, Marquess of Merrick, last summer. She’d given birth to his nephew, Seth, just over three weeks ago. They, too, were madly in love. Both couples were the talk of the ton because they didn’t bother to hide their deep affection for their spouses.
Luke wanted what they had. Desperately.
Some of his happiest times had been playing with his nieces and nephews. The pull of having children of his own had caused him to part ways today with the two women he was currently involved with. He would go into the upcoming Season unencumbered by any liaison. Hopefully, he would discover his soulmate among the women paraded about on the Marriage Mart.
He looked deeply into Catarina’s eyes. “You have given me many happy moments over this past year. I will always look upon you fondly.”
Luke kissed her lightly in goodbye and then leaned down and reached for his coat. He withdrew a diamond bracelet and held it up to her.
“A parting gift. I hope you’ll think of me sometimes when you wear it.”
Her eyes lit up. He could see her calculating the bracelet’s worth.
“Will you put it on me?”
He unfastened the clasp and brought it about her slender wrist. Once he secured it, she held her arm out, admiring her new bauble.
“It’s quite beautiful,” she said, looking at it from different angles.
“Not as beautiful as you.”
Her eyes misted over. “I will miss you, my earl.” She pushed away from him and left the bed. “I don’t think you need my help to dress. Please, see yourself out. Goodbye.”
She reached for a dressing gown lying across a nearby chair and shrugged into it before opening the door and exiting the room. Luke quickly dressed, a sense of relief overwhelming him. Catarina had been demanding, both physically and emotionally. He was looking forward to not being drained as he had after every visit to her. Slipping on his Hessians, he glanced about the room a final time and then left the bedchamber and house without seeing anyone.
Outside, his horse awaited him and Luke mounted it. He would ride to see Rachel and Evan and visit with his new nephew. They’d only arrived in London two days ago and this would be his first time to see the newest addition to the St. Clair family. Luke knew Seth was only a St. Clair through his mother but he hoped the boy would have the St. Clair emerald eyes and black hair.
Arriving at the Merrick townhouse, he glanced across the square and saw the mourning wreath adorning the door of the late Earl of Templeton. The ton had been scandalized to learn the earl had been set upon by footpads, robbed and stabbed, and his body thrown into the Thames. Rumor had it that Templeton was destitute at his death and that everything would have to be sold in order to pay his debts. Luke felt sorry for his widow and any children left behind. He couldn’t remember hearing of any. He hadn’t gone to school with any Templeton boys or danced with any Templeton girls at balls since he’d graduated from university. It would be for the best if the earl had died with no wife and no children left behind to bear the shame of his behavior.
Luke handed his horse off to a groomsman who hurried to greet him and then knocked upon the front door. Kent, the Merricks’ butler, opened the door.
“Good afternoon, Lord Mayfield.”
“Hello, Kent,” Luke replied as he stepped inside the residence.
Taking Luke’s hat and cloak, the butler said, “Follow me and I will announce you to the marquess and marchioness.”
“I really didn’t come to see them,” he confided. “I’m strictly here for my new nephew.”
Kent’s lips twitched in amusement. “Lord Seth is already a favorite of everyone’s, my lord.”
The butler led him upstairs to the drawing room. Luke saw Rachel on a settee with her son in her arms and her husband sitting next to her. She gave her brother a joyful smile as Evan stood and greeted him with a handshake.
Leaning down, Luke held out his arms. “I’ve got to hold him.”
Rachel handed the baby over and Luke gazed down, instantly falling in love with his latest nephew.
“He’s absolutely perfect. Of course, I would expect nothing less from you and Evan.”
“He is, isn’t he?” Rachel agreed.
Luke took the baby and sat opposite the couple in a large wingchair. Seth slept on, oblivious to the world.
“How was the trip from Edgemere to London?” he asked.
“Uneventful,” Rachel said. “Seth slept most of the way.”
“Unlike Everton’s brood,” Evan said with a wicked smile. “From what Catherine told us yesterday, Philip exercised his lungs most of the way, while Timothy and Delia bounced from cushion to cushion. Only Jenny seemed to be at rest, quietly reading her latest book from Merrifield while her siblings drove her parents close to madness.”
Luke chuckled. A friendly competition had sprung up between Jeremy and Evan, first centered on how much each one loved his wife. Luke could see it had extended to their children.
“How is Merrifield?” he asked, referring to the earl who’d courted Rachel last Season, only to lose her to Evan.
Surprisingly enough, Merrifield remained good friends with both Rachel and Evan and Luke had grown close to him, as well. Along with Leah, Catherine’s sister, and her husband, Alex, the group comprised Luke’s best friends.
“You just missed him. He left not half an hour ago. He brought Seth his first book.” Rachel picked it up from the table and Luke laughed. “I see it’s one Catherine authored.”
Their sister-in-law had begun writing children’s books during the years she’d cared for her invalid father. Jeremy had encouraged her to continue since it was something she enjoyed doing. Now, every book the Duchess of Everton’s wrote became a bestseller.
“Are you ready for the Season?” he asked, deciding to bring up the purpose of his visit.
“My brother is actually mentioning the Season?” Rachel asked, studying him. “Have you changed your mind? Do you want me to look for a bride for you when I do the same for Merrifield?”
His sister, feeling guilty that she’d let down Merrifield, had determined she would make it up to her former beau by finding him a wife. She’d offered to do the same for Luke, who’d put her off, claiming Merrifield was older and needed her help before he did.
“Yes,” he said simply.
A satisfied smile lit up her face. “You’re ready to wed.” Then she frowned. “What about Catarina?”
“What? You know about her?” Luke glared accusingly at his brother-in-law.
Evan held up his hands. “It wasn’t from me. You know how the ton gossips. Rachel could have heard about your mistress from any number of people.”
“I pride myself on being discreet,” he said testily.
“I’ve known about all three,” his sister proclaimed. “And a few of your lovers, as well. Lady Morton, for instance.”
Surprise rushed through him. “How could you know about her?”
“I overheard her gossiping about you in the ladies’ retiring room last summer,” Rachel said. “You’d be amazed at what you can overhear while you’re adjusting your hair.”
“What did she say?” he asked guardedly, knowing their relationship hadn’t ended well.
“She claimed you were the best lover she’d ever had and that when you decided to end your affair, she threatened to tell her husband. Lady Morton admitted she hadn’t slept with Lord Morton since she gave birth to his spare.” Rachel grinned. “And then she said her husband would challenge you to a duel.”
Luke certainly remembered that conversation. He’d told the woman that she didn’t want to do that because he was a crack shot and would shoot to kill. He convinced his lover that she needed her husband around for the sake of their two sons. She’d considered his words and then screamed for him to get out. He hadn’t spoken to her since. They’d coolly nodded at one another at social events. Luke had heard she’d taken on a new lover—as had Lord Morton.
“Have you gotten rid of them—all of them?” Rachel demanded.
Luke pressed a kiss to his nephew’s forehead. “As a matter of fact, that’s what has occupied my time today. I parted ways with a lovely widow this morning. I think she cared more about the earrings I gifted her with than our time together. As for the fiery Catarina? I just came from her house. That, too, has ended.”
“You are serious,” Rachel said, approval in her voice. “What changed your mind? The last you told me, you were going to sow your wild oats and worry about a wife and children years down the road.”
He glanced at his nephew. “Seth, for one. And my other nieces and nephews. I can’t seem to get enough of them.” He sighed. “And seeing how batty my brother and sister are for their spouses.”
He rose and handed Seth back to her. “I can’t help but feel there’s something missing in my life. I enjoy being around my family and friends but I want more. Someone to share what happened during my day. Someone that understands me better than anyone else I know. Someone to care for—and love. If I can find her. If she even exists.”
Evan met his eye. “You won’t have to find love, Luke. It will find you.” He put his arm around Rachel and tenderly kissed her brow. “I was the last man who wanted a wife—and I found the perfect one for me.”
Rachel turned and kissed her husband. Luke was used to it by now. Both she and Jeremy never shied away from expressing their feelings for their spouses, despite the ton’s mixed reactions to their behavior. Luke knew that when Evan had come home from war, he’d suffered not only physical wounds but emotional ones, as well. He’d been prickly, holding everyone at arm’s distance, but he had been irresistibly drawn to Rachel. Seeing their happiness—along with Jeremy and Catherine and Leah and Alex—was what now led Luke to admit how much he wanted to find his soulmate.
“Let’s go riding in the park,” Rachel declared.
“Are you ready for that?” Evan asked, concern crossing his brow.
“The doctor said I could whenever I felt so. Besides, I’ve missed being on Calypso. Let me take Seth to the nursery for his nap and change into my riding habit.”
After she left, Luke teased, “You know my sister only married you for Calypso.” The dapple gray had been a wedding present from Evan to Rachel.
“She is mad for that horse,” Evan agreed. “She spends almost as much time atop it as she does me.”
Luke roared with laughter. “Wouldn’t the ton like to hear you admit that in public?”
“They already think I’m scandalous enough. I don’t care. I love my wife and adore making love to her.”
Evan rang for Kent and asked for their horses to be saddled. By the time Rachel returned and they went outside, their mounts awaited them. They swung into the saddle as a carriage passed, pulling around and stopping in front of Templeton’s place. Curious, they all turned and glanced over their shoulders before riding from the square and turning toward the park.
“Who could she be?” Rachel asked, referring to the woman they’d all seen leave the carriage. “She had a boy with her. And a dog. I wonder if she’s Templeton’s daughter. She looked a little older than me.” She turned to her husband. “What do you think?”
“I haven’t the foggiest idea. You know we haven’t lived here but two years though the property was mine for years before that.”
“You and Rachel weren’t friendly with your neighbor?” Luke asked.
Evan laughed. “Not in the least bit. Templeton was years older than us. His drinking and gambling were legendary.”
“Well, I thought her quite pretty,” Rachel said. “If she is his daughter, I wouldn’t mind getting to know her. She could certainly use a friend in town, especially after what happened to her father. If he’s her father.”
Luke thought of the glimpse he’d gotten of the woman, whose trim figure looked very fine to him. The sun had struck her hair, burnishing its caramel color. He only wished he could have seen her face. He wouldn’t mind getting to know her, now that he was of a mind to open his heart to the possibility of love.
Wouldn’t it be an odd twist of fate if he’d just seen the woman that might actually be his soulmate?
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