The Earl Most Likely
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An independent young woman with an eye for detail helps restore a castle and solve a murder in this Victorian romance by the author of The Bad Luck Bride.
It’s not every day a young woman is offered ten thousand pounds for a few months’ work—especially the plain, shy daughter of a tin mine owner. The only thing special about Harriet Anderson is her extraordinary memory for even the smallest, most obscure detail. So when she’s asked by a gentleman to help restore his once magnificent ancestral home, she simply can’t refuse, no matter how scandalous the position. The money will mean freedom from her callous parents, and a life of independence. Harriet doesn’t imagine dreaming of anything more . . .
Augustus Lawton, Lord Berkley, cares about only one thing: restoring his beloved Costille House to its former, historically correct, glory. His late wife had taken great vindictive delight in transforming the old castle into a modern Victorian nightmare. Harriet’s remarkable memory will be invaluable in repairing it—and in helping him solve his wife’s murder. Yet as they work together, Augustus finds that besides her uncanny gift, Harriet possesses other priceless qualities. And as the castle’s beauty is gradually revealed, he can’t help noticing, so is hers . . .
Praise for the novels of Jane Goodger
“Fun, delightfully romantic—and sexy.” —Sally MacKenzie on The Spinster Bride“A touching, compassionate, passion-filled romance.” —RT Book Reviews on A Christmas Waltz
Release date: January 16, 2018
Publisher: Lyrical Press
Print pages: 400
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The Earl Most Likely
Long before Augustus Lawton saw Costille House, his ancestral home, he heard it. Loud strains of music flowed in the breeze, distorted and haunting, along with raucous laughter and the occasional delighted scream.
His wife was having a party, apparently. And to think she’d lamented to him in her last letter about how bored she was. How lonely. Her infrequent letters were no more than long lists of complaints that were entirely justified. Unhappy wife, unhappy life. A truer sentiment had never been uttered.
Lenore was deeply, unfathomably unhappy and had been since the day she’d married him. Their wedding night had ended with her shouting, “I hate you! If you ever touch me again, I shall kill you.” He’d obliged, being rather fond of life.
As he turned the bend on the long, tree-lined road that led to Costille, he pulled up short on the reins of his mount and had the ridiculous urge to double back to be certain he was on the correct lane. It had been nearly two years since he’d been home, after all. But no, that brilliantly lit medieval castle was Costille, except the last time he’d been home they’d had no gaslights, nothing to modernize the old place, not even water closets except in the private quarters. Augustus’s father, the Earl of Berkley, had generously allowed Lenore to stay at Costille in his absence, mostly because he knew she would hate living there (they disliked one another intensely). Her stay was allowed with one caveat: She was to do nothing to change the house.
Trepidation filled Augustus as he urged his horse to move toward Costille, the sounds of the party getting louder the closer he got. Costille was a sprawling old castle, with a square turret that dominated the back of the structure. When he’d been a boy, it had been a source of pride that the turret could be seen from nearly every place in St. Ives. He could never lose his way, as long as he could see his home. His father, as strong and indestructible as this castle, shared only one thing with his son—his love of Costille.
Augustus rode his horse slowly beneath a smaller square tower with an arched entry that led to the courtyard just as a drunken reveler spilled from the home’s main door. He was easy to spot because several large gas lanterns hissed in the courtyard, putting off a light so strong Augustus was tempted to shield his eyes.
“Hey,” the man called. “The stables are in the back, you dumb sod.” He was wearing formal attire, but his tie was askew and his hair a rumpled mess, as though he’d been recently under the covers servicing a lady friend. Augustus wondered, without a bit of jealousy, if it had been his wife.
“As this is my home, I know very well where the stables are, sir.”
The man squinted at him, swaying on his feet. “Lord Berkley?” he asked, clearly confused to see such a young man before him.
“His son, Augustus Lawton, Lord Greenwich.” It felt strange to say his title when for the past two years he’d only been known as Gus. The American West was not a place where a man held himself higher than his fellows. His gun, his ability to shoot and ride a horse, these were the measures of a man’s worth. When he’d decided to return home, part of him had wanted to keep his beard, his long hair, his fringed leather jacket and thick canvas trousers, just to see his father’s reaction. But when Augustus made the decision to return, he did so wholeheartedly. It was time to grow up, to take his place in society, to try to be some sort of husband to the bride he’d abandoned. Someday he would be the Earl of Berkley and by God, he wanted heirs. Lenore would be horrified to know what had precipitated his return.
When Augustus told the man his title, he straightened and saluted, and Augustus couldn’t help but smile. He wasn’t one to stand on ceremony so wasn’t at all insulted. His drunk acquaintance wandered to the far side of the courtyard and pissed in some bushes as Augustus dismounted and tied his borrowed steed to a post. The noise of the party suddenly got louder and the courtyard even brighter, and Augustus realized it was because the drunken fool had gone back into the house and left the doors wide open.
That was when Augustus let out a small sound, the type a man makes when he is stabbed or shot or some other horrible thing has happened to him. It was difficult to breathe, to stand, to see.
For through that well-lit door, Augustus saw a nightmare. A Victorian floral, modern nightmare.
“I’ll bloody kill her.”
The next morning, his wife’s body was found at the base of the castle’s tallest tower.
Harriet Anderson had long ago realized she would never light up a room with her bubbly personality, would never make a man’s head turn with her beauty, would never provoke anyone’s interest. She was a dimmer version of her sister, Clara, a shadow in the moonlight, not quite seen.
What a glorious thing that was.
Harriet knew that her friends felt sorry for her. Poor Harriet, so shy, so reserved. So free.
Just that afternoon, her parents and sister had climbed aboard a carriage for a three-hour drive to visit some distant relative who’d mentioned they were hosting Baron Such-and-Such, a widower with seven children. Harriet had been excused, much to her delight. They would be staying overnight at least, which meant Harriet had twenty-four hours of doing whatever she liked. Clara, ever cheerful, scrambled aboard the carriage and waved good-bye, completely oblivious to the unfairness of leaving Harriet behind. Harriet never complained, for the times her parents were gone were perhaps the most wonderful days of the year. Being dragged around whilst they showed off their elder daughter was something Harriet didn’t miss in the least.
Truth be told, it was embarrassing the way her mother pushed Clara in front of every titled man in her vicinity. Her parents and their ancestors had come from strong Cornish stock, working men and women, the sort who never would dream of being more than they were. But her father, through grit and hard work and a great deal of luck, had managed to accumulate enough money to buy one of the many tin mines in Cornwall. The mine had been abandoned years before and thought tapped out, but her father had a sixth sense about such things and purchased it for a pittance. And now they were rich, so rich that an impoverished lord just might be persuaded to marry a woman far below his station. Or so her mother hoped. Clara was beautiful and her dowry was impressive, and for those reasons she had garnered quite a bit of attention over the years, though her heart had never been engaged. At twenty-four years old, Clara was still lovely and youthful and had stirred the heart of many a man.
Harriet, on the other hand, counted herself lucky if anyone asked her to dance at the limited balls she attended. On those rare occasions when she was asked, her mother would critique her the way a director critiques an actor’s performance. You laughed too loudly. You smiled too much. Why didn’t you smile? Did he ask about Clara? You really mustn’t dance the reel—you’re much too clumsy. And so, she was rather relieved when no one did ask her, for her mother would always make her feel stupid and silly. It used to hurt far more than it did now, but it did still hurt a bit, to be that unwanted child who never could match her mother’s great expectations. She couldn’t change her sex; nor could she become another Clara. And that was enough for her parents to dismiss her as a being who lived in their house but had nothing at all to do with their life.
Any time that hurt made her stomach clench, Harriet would push it down and remember that she had the afternoon free to do as she pleased. She could walk to the shore, work on her needlepoint, sing badly in her room, read a book. This time, she’d had quite a bit of notice of their little trip, so Harriet had enthusiastically arranged a luncheon with her friends, something she was very much looking forward to.
Her closest friend, Alice, was recently married and just beginning to show her pregnancy. Such an odd thing to think about, that a little being was growing inside Alice, the same girl she used to make paper dolls with.
Looking in the mirror, Harriet stuck out her tongue at her reflection and laughed. Sometimes she would look at Clara, then into her mirror, and find it startling how much plainer she was than her sister. It was not self-pity, not every time at any rate, but rather a pragmatism that had made her realize long ago she would never be a beauty like Clara. Perhaps it would have bothered her if Clara had been mean or vain, but her sister was kind and sweet and Harriet loved her dearly. Two years ago, Harriet stopped trying to be lovely, to wear the latest fashions, to ask her mother to buy new gowns each year. Perhaps the worst of it was that no one even noticed.
Harriet smiled at her reflection, then tilted her jaw. She wasn’t ugly. In fact, if she turned her head just so, she was actually pretty. Narrowing her eyes, Harriet studied herself objectively and came away moderately pleased with her appearance. Her dress was a dark gray, which complemented her light blue eyes, and her hair, usually a frizzy mess, held a few soft curls. Those curls were thanks to the light oil the girls’ maid had given her, and Harriet made a mental note to thank Jeanine for her hair tonic. If she were going out, Jeanine would usually iron Harriet’s hair, then take the stiff, coarse results and apply an iron to curl a few select locks. But with Jeanine completely occupied by Clara, Harriet had simply brushed out her hair, applied the tonic, and pulled it back into a tight knot, allowing a few tendrils to spring loose.
As Harriet left the house, she kept an eye out for their housekeeper, whom she suspected reported to her mother any transgression. It was easy enough to thwart the woman; Harriet had long ago realized no one, including her mother, could fault her for “going for a walk.” And if Harriet happened to walk to St. Ives village and meet her friends, who was to be the wiser? Sometimes she wished she had something more adventurous to do, something slightly dangerous, so she could really feel victorious.
Today, a walk into St. Ives was enough adventure for her. It was a lovely morning, with a brisk wind blowing off the Atlantic, making her cheeks pink. She huddled into her old woolen coat and adjusted the soft wool scarf around her neck. It was October, and though it never got too cold in St. Ives, it was a day that called for a thick coat and a soft scarf.
When she reached the cobbled streets of the village, her boots tapped loudly, a sound that made her smile, for it meant she would soon see her friends. Teague’s Tea House was a favorite of the villagers, and on this day it was fairly crowded with patrons. Harriet liked going there because she always felt so sophisticated, taking tea in a shop rather than at home. The store held a half-dozen small tables with smooth white linen table cloths, and the soft clink of silverware and china, as well as the soft murmur of voices, always made Harriet feel a small rush of warmth. When the Teagues had first opened the tea house, the locals thought it a bit grand, but over the years it had become a popular place for both visitors and natives.
“Hello, Miss Anderson,” Mrs. Teague called out. Harriet often wondered if the Teagues truly liked having a tea shop or if they felt it was necessary to take advantage of their last name, but she was too shy to ask.
In the far corner, she saw her friends—Alice, Eliza, and Rebecca. Eliza and Rebecca were staring rapt at Alice’s tummy, slightly rounded, as if it were some sort of oddity. The first of them to marry, the first to have a child, Alice was a bit of a celebrity amongst them. When they spied Harriet coming toward their small group, they stood, smiling widely, happy she was able to come that day. When her mother was home, she was not allowed to go into the village without a chaperone—and one was rarely available, as her mother was always too busy to accompany her.
“I don’t mean to be terrible, but I’m awfully glad your mother is traveling,” Alice said, giving her friend a hug. Her belly got in the way a bit, and Harriet laughed at the feeling.
“You’re so round,” she said. It had been a few weeks since Harriet had seen Alice, who had recently been in London.
“I know. My mother is already admonishing me to not go out. ‘No one wants to see that,’ she says.” Alice laughed. “If Queen Victoria could go out in public en famile, then I can too. That’s what I told her anyway.”
“And how did your mother respond?”
Alice wrinkled her nose, her green eyes bright. “She said Queen Victoria set a bad example for all women.” This she said in a whisper, as if she were committing some sort of treasonous act.
Once they were all seated, they caught up on each other’s news. Alice, of course, had the most to relay, having been recently to London and being newly married. For the first time in her life, Harriet was jealous of a married woman. Perhaps it was because Alice seemed so completely happy, as if a new and brilliant light shined from within her. Or perhaps Harriet was, for the first time, aware that she might never find what Alice had. Any awkwardness she’d felt over Alice marrying Henderson Southwell had long since dissipated. When Harriet was a girl, she’d had a terrible crush on Henderson. She’d treated it as a lark, but she’d truly liked him, had dreamed that perhaps one day he would return to St. Ives and realize he liked her too. Instead, he’d returned and realized he was in love with Alice. Harriet hadn’t been devastated by any means, but it had served as a reminder to her that she might not find love.
When conversation lulled, Rebecca pulled out a silk scarf and said, “Let’s play the game. Harriet, will you?”
Harriet groaned, even as her friends expressed their support of Rebecca’s suggestion. Despite her groan, Harriet was secretly pleased; her memory was the only singular thing about her. She would never be the most beautiful or talented or lively, but no one could recall details the way she did. As a girl, she hadn’t realized she held any special talent for memorization. It was little things, like her sister misplacing a book or a maid unable to find a particular hair piece, that tipped her off. Harriet always knew where everything was, because the minute someone would mention a missing article, a picture appeared in her head of its exact location. Recognizing her ability one day, Clara blindfolded Harriet and started quizzing her. What color tie does the man in the painting wear? Is the blue vase to the left or the right of the statue on the mantel? It didn’t matter how small the detail, Harriet knew it. And so was born the game.
Rebecca jumped up and placed the blindfold across Harriet’s eyes, and the three other women started peppering her with questions. Around them, the other patrons grew quiet as they watched the game unfold.
“What color flowers are in the vase on the counter?” someone called out.
Harriet started, realizing others were listening, but she smiled. “Come, now, that’s hardly a challenge. Yellow.”
More patrons called out their questions, and Harriet laughed. For a girl who did not like to be in crowds, this was somehow wonderful. Perhaps it was because she was blindfolded and could not see them gawking at her. Or perhaps it was because she was among her friends. Normally painfully shy, she felt almost not herself.
“On the shelf, there are three containers, each with a different picture. Tell me, in order from left to right, what pictures are on those containers.”
Harriet straightened, and beneath the blindfold, she furrowed her brows. That deep baritone, commanding yet somehow tinged with something close to…fear? She knew that voice. Her memory for sounds wasn’t quite like her memory for sights, but somewhere in her mind, trying to get out, was a name…
“Lord Berkley,” she said, slightly louder than a whisper. They had met once, at the John Knill ball. Alice’s husband had introduced them, and he’d muttered a proper greeting, thoroughly distracted by the sight of Clara, who had been especially pretty that night. It had been a small moment, a snippet in time, but Harriet still remembered feeling suddenly more alive than she ever had in her life because he was just that beautiful. And then he’d walked away, without even really looking at her.
She could almost see his mouth lift in a slight smile as she said his name before he replied simply, “Yes.”
“Three containers.” She looked through the pictures in her mind. She’d been in this tea shop on numerous occasions, and she waded through the images until, finally, she found the right one. Tucked up high, so high she couldn’t imagine there was anything stored in them that was used on a regular basis, were three small white ceramic containers with red lids and small rounded filials on top.
“On the left is a picture of a man on a horse.” She stopped, looking at that image. “And there’s a dog, running beside the horse.”
“Go on,” Berkley said, and Harriet couldn’t help thinking that he wasn’t nearly as calm as he sounded, though she couldn’t have said why she felt so.
“In the middle is a small cottage, with a tree on the…right. A woman is standing in the door. And on the right is a horse and carriage, with a man wearing a top hat.”
* * * *
Augustus stared at the small containers as this woman, this ordinary woman, perfectly described the containers. She sat with Alice Southwell, his good friend’s wife, and two other women he vaguely recalled seeing before. The blindfolded one sat straight, her head tilted to one side as if she could see through the blindfold, though he was quite certain she could not. She was facing away from the containers at any rate.
When he’d walked into the tea shop, as he did nearly every day about this time, he sat by himself with his copy of the Times and ignored everyone else around him. Once in a great while, someone would acknowledge his presence, but these occasions were rare enough to make the shop pleasant. He’d seen Mrs. Southwell enter, but chose to pretend he didn’t, and lifted up the newspaper, hiding his face from view.
Two other women entered, and Augustus took the time to note how pretty they were. One with deep auburn hair, the other with hair thick and black and curling, and both with fine figures. He was tempted for just a moment to make his presence known to Mrs. Southwell, who would certainly have introduced him to her two pretty friends. While they looked familiar, he was quite certain he’d never met them formally; he would have remembered both of their lovely faces.
Shortly after the women arrived, a fourth entered, smiling a greeting at her friends. She was exceptionally ordinary, wearing an ill-fitting gown that was too loose and too ugly to even contemplate. If she had a figure, it was certainly hidden by that gown. Her hair was neither blond nor brown, the color and texture of straw, and the hat she wore was something his dear grandmamma might have worn. He dismissed her immediately. Life was too short to waste any thought on such a creature.
Picking his newspaper up again, he continued reading, only to be interrupted a short time later by raucous laughter of a type never heard in Teague’s Tea Shop. Lowering the paper, he glared in the direction of the noise, only to be surprised by the subject of everyone’s attention. The fourth woman was wearing a blindfold, facing him, and, oddly enough, he was fascinated by her mouth. He hadn’t noticed it when she’d first come in, but her mouth was the sort that drew a man’s attention—soft and pink and plush. He could stare at that pink flesh all day, he decided.
It didn’t take long to get the gist of what game they were playing, and at first Augustus thought it was some sort of trick the girl was playing. No one could recall with such uncanny accuracy the details she did. The questions, he realized, were easy enough. Even he was able to get one or two without looking. But as her audience became more demanding, more particular, more obscure with their questions, Augustus realized he was witnessing something extraordinary.
That was when a painful idea bloomed in his chest. A woman who could recall such detail would be invaluable to a man who was trying to restore his ruined house. Costille’s public rooms, the ones that held the most historical value, had been obliterated by his late wife and he had no idea how to go about restoring them. Tapestries, coats of arms, mosaics, paintings, furniture, chandeliers, centuries of collections, all ripped from their foundations and thrown haphazardly into a large barn on the property. He’d stood there amidst the ruin and wanted to weep, for he had no idea where anything went, and it had become critical that everything be restored to its rightful place. If this woman had toured his house as so many had over the years, she could be his savior. It almost unmanned him, the hope that bloomed in his heart.
She pulled off the blindfold and looked up at him, and he realized with a start that this plain woman had yet another remarkable feature—pale blue eyes, the irises rimmed with a blue so deep it was nearly black.
“I have one more question for you,” he said, his heart pounding in his chest even as he silently chastised himself for his hope. “Have you ever toured Costille House?”
Her beautiful lips turned up in a smile. “Indeed, I have, my lord. Twice, as a matter of fact.”
Augustus took a step back, her words too perfect even to contemplate. “Allow me to introduce myself—”
“We have met, my lord. At the John Knill ball.” She looked down at the table, annoyingly shy or coy, and Augustus wondered what he could have said or done at the ball to create such a reaction to his presence. “Mr. Southwell introduced us.” She looked over at Alice Southwell and let out a small laugh. “It was at that very moment you saw my sister, Clara Anderson.”
He hadn’t the first idea what she was talking about. Oh, he remembered Clara Anderson; she was not the type of woman easily forgotten. But he had no recollection of being introduced to anyone at the John Knill… Then he remembered Henderson making some sort of introduction to something in a dress, but he’d already been looking at Clara, and once a man did that, nothing else mattered.
“Yes, Miss Anderson. I do recall now,” he said. He stopped and greeted the other women at the table, who were watching their exchange with interest.
“Would you like to join us, Lord Berkley?” Alice asked. It would hardly be comfortable, five around a table that was better suited for three, and Augustus had no desire to make idle chit-chat with the women. Besides, he didn’t miss the look of pure panic on Miss Anderson’s face when Mrs. Southwell issued that invitation.
“Thank you, no,” he said. What he needed to ask Miss Anderson required privacy and no doubt his most persuasive arguments. He had no idea what he would do if she said no to his proposition. Kidnapping might be one solution. But, no, it was bad enough he’d once been a murder suspect; he didn’t need kidnapping on his list of transgressions.
Augustus’s late father kept a book of secrets on nearly every man of importance in England, and he wondered if his sire had bothered to create a file on Mr. Anderson. Likely not, since the man was not involved in politics, but it was worth searching for if Miss Anderson decided not to help him. He wasn’t opposed to blackmail, even if the subject was a woman with lush, pink lips.
He waited for her outside a small distance away, pretending to enjoy the scenery of the place. As a boy, he’d spent most of his time in St. Ives; it was the home of his heart. These streets were familiar, like friends he hadn’t seen in decades—changed but somehow very much the same. When he was seven, his father had sent him away to school, and he returned only in the summer, angry and sullen but secretly exultant to be back home. He’d always feared that if he’d shown how very happy he was to be home, his father would not have allowed it. Now, with his father dead, Costille House was his, at least what was left of it.
Finally, the four women emerged, three with their brightly colored dresses: blue, yellow, burnished red. And then Miss Anderson in gray. They embraced, laughed at something Alice Southwell said, then split apart—two going north, Mrs. Southwell south, and Miss Anderson west. He waited for her to take a few steps before following behind, puzzled by the sudden change in her. She’d been lively in the little tea shop, eyes sparkling, joyful, at least until he’d inserted himself into their game. Now as he watched, it seemed as if before his eyes she’d turned into another woman altogether. She walked quickly, head down, body tense, as if she were waiting for something to bound out and attack her. Her hands were fisted in her skirts, and he wondered if she were late and worried about being in some sort of trouble. Then she stopped abruptly outside a small shop and stared into the window, a small smile on he. . .
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