The Earl Is Mine | Prologue
The figure who slid into the Earl of Westdale’s coat every morning wasn’t happy. His name was Gregory Sherwood, and he had everything a man could want. But like a prisoner who can’t bask in a beautiful day outside his barred window, Gregory couldn’t enjoy his family, his wealth, or his title.
He was the legitimate heir to the Marquess of Brady.
But he wasn’t his son.
And he was doomed to a lifetime of lies.
“You know Mother meant for us to save those pieces for the women we’re to marry,” his brother Peter said in the light Irish accent all three Sherwood boys shared. He peered over Gregory’s shoulder as he sorted through a small chest on his dresser and pulled out a silk box. In it was a ruby ring their late mother Nora had left him in her will. “Are you going to propose?”
Gregory stopped his search and glared at his younger brother. “What do you think?”
“Really?” Peter gave a short laugh. “You’re jesting, aren’t you? Marriage is a long time.”
A very long time.
But then Gregory remembered sweet, shy Eliza last night, how he’d known exactly what he was doing when he laid her down on a sofa in an out-of-the-way sitting room at a Mayfair mansion during the height of a masquerade ball and slipped up her gown. Her parents had been throwing her at him for years, so it wasn’t as if the seduction would take her by surprise. She’d given a virginal cry when he’d first entered her, and there was the moment right before she’d peaked, her slender legs wrapped around his back, her hips arching upward while she sighed softly against his neck.
He’d felt more than his usual pleasure when he released his seed into her. There would be no turning back. Eliza was a lady. The knowledge that he’d do right by her had focused him, had cast away the shadows for just a moment. She’d be the beginning of a life he created on his own, not one that had been thrust upon him–as blessed as it had been, as grateful as he was for what he clearly didn’t deserve.
“But why tie yourself down now?” Peter asked him. “You’re much too young.”
“Mind your own business.” Gregory strode past his brother and brushed shoulders with him, just hard enough to drive the message home. He tucked the small box in an inner pocket of his jacket, adjusted his cravat, and left the bedchamber, a cavernous oblong space almost like a hunting box bunk room. Father had designed it when the boys were small, and Gregory still shared it with his two brothers when he was home.
“I’m coming with you,” said Peter, and followed him out the front door.
“Go away,” Gregory told him.
“No. I’m not going to let you do this without a fight. This is serious, Gregory. You can’t give away Mother’s ring so easily.”
On the pavement, Gregory whirled around. “So easily? Do you think that little of me? Or the woman to whom I’ll present this symbol of my devotion?”
“Devotion? Is that the same thing as love?”
“Go away, Peter. You know nothing of love.” Not that Gregory truly knew anything of the romantic kind, either. He couldn’t begin to guess whether his mother and the marquess, the only father he’d ever known, had been in love. And if they had, did it count–when one of them was keeping a secret from the other?
But Father and Caroline, his second wife, whom Gregory called Mama the way his three stepsisters did, were most certainly in love, even after a decade of being together. And while he was glad of it, they were awfully in each other’s pockets.
The thought of such intimacy at the soul level made Gregory’s cravat feel tight. He’d be faithful to Eliza, and they’d no doubt meet regularly between the sheets—she had a sweet, welcoming nature and wouldn’t deny him his conjugal rights, he was sure—but as for staring into each other’s eyes and sharing dreams, hopes, and all that balderdash…
Well, no. A monolithic no, actually.
It was his duty to take a wife to secure the Brady line. But a part of him would never, ever belong to the House of Brady. That part that would remain undutiful. Would seek illicit pleasure. Would work desperately hard to forget his impossible position—that he belonged nowhere.
That part would take a mistress and leave his gentle, dutiful wife at home.
His brother huffed. “You’re not ready.”
“I am ready,” Gregory uttered low. “I don’t take this step lightly. I’ve put a great deal of thought into the matter.”
And he had, for a man whose attention was drawn more to other things: his interest in design; his sporting life; politics and gaming; and his more mundane duties as heir, which Father and Mama were anxious for him to take up. And then there was his constant need to play a role—to hide the ugliness that was his secret. Some nights, he went to bed exhausted from its weight.
Peter’s pupils were wide and black, his mouth thin. “You haven’t considered this enough. Not nearly.”
“Wait a minute.” Gregory moved closer, his chest up to his brother’s. “Are you implying that Eliza isn’t worthy of my regard?”
Peter didn’t back away. “I’m not implying anything. I’m coming right out and saying you’re too besotted to see straight.”
“I will never be besotted, Peter, by any woman.”
“Then explain why you look so feverish searching for that ring? I could have shot a pistol next to your ear, and you wouldn’t have turned to look. If that’s not besotted—“
“You don’t trust me,” Gregory said, feeling the irony of his words.
“Not about this, no.” Peter’s tone was firm. “You don’t value that ring the way you should, and I’m glad Mother’s not here to see what you’re doing with it.”
“I’ve had it with you and your insults.” Gregory pushed him hard on the shoulder. Peter flinched but didn’t lose his footing. “Come on, little brother.” Little half brother. “Show me what you’ve got besides words.”
“Forget it.” Peter stared at him, his eyes flat and hard. “Go ahead with your stupidity. See if I care. You’ll regret it later.”
He spun on his heels and stalked off.
Gregory stared after him, annoyed that he’d succumbed to childish temper. Here he was, feeling man enough to marry Eliza. And yet Peter had managed to put a damper on the day.
If someone could so easily do that, how strong was his commitment, really?
He pushed the thought aside as ridiculous. Even apart from the fact that marriage was now a real necessity, he could easily see himself marrying Eliza. Her pedigree was impeccable. She was a good conversationalist and a pleasure to look at. And she accepted him at face value, which was imperative in a bride.
If he was on the young side, then so be it. His friends would get over their pique—and they’d damn well better get over any amusement—if they wanted to continue calling themselves his friends.
He walked the several blocks to his intended’s house with a purposeful stride. Every step he got closer, the muscles in his thighs, his calves, and his belly grew more tense. So proposing marriage was hell on even the most self-assured man, he was discovering. What would she say when he gave her the ring?
What would he say?
Dear God, he hadn’t even thought of practicing a speech. Being cast adrift without a map at a young age had given him practice navigating an uncertain world. He raced his best races when he handled the reins loosely, when he didn’t analyze every curve in the road. And his finest work as a new architect had all been done when he’d acted upon inspiration, the kind that grabbed him mid-sentence while sitting in a café on the street. Or came to him in a dream. Or seemed to unfold as he was sketching, not knowing exactly in which direction he was pointed.
One benefit of losing his mother, his father, and his entire identity in a day: Life couldn’t throw anything at Gregory he couldn’t handle.
He rang the bell, sure at least of his welcome. The family appeared to approve of him—even the butler–as well they should. He was heir to a marquess. Of what could they disapprove?
He intended to ask Eliza to marry him first—a secret, intimate proposal that would take her by surprise, as all properly romantic gestures should; he owed her that—and then he’d play the usual societal game and request an audience with her father, which would be a matter of course. After her father’s approval was won, Gregory would pretend to ask her to marry him for the first time in Lord Baird’s library—but he and Eliza would know otherwise.
“Lord and Lady Baird are out. Lady Eliza’s in the back garden,” the butler informed him before Gregory could even ask. “She’s showing Lord Morgan and Lady Pippa Harrington her mother’s roses.” An invisible mantle came down at the mention of Pippa. Not her. “May I take your cane and hat?”
“Thank you.” Gregory concealed his annoyance at being thrown off kilter and handed the cane and hat over.
The silk box burned a hole in his pocket, but he’d have to delay the big moment. Dougal could be got rid of easily, but Pippa was another story. Gregory saw her once a year at a birthday dinner for her great-uncle Bertie, his godfather, in Devon, and had done so since he was eight—old enough to travel alone without crying–and she was three. She was rarely in Town, so he couldn’t simply fob her off. And prying her loose from her old friend Eliza might be difficult, as well.
Nevertheless, he’d get rid of the two interlopers—and they wouldn’t even know they’d been dismissed. He’d use the effortless charm that came straight from his mother—and not Father, as everyone assumed–to convince them they were leaving of their own accord.
“The quickest way is through the billiard room,” the butler said, indicating the route with a sure hand.
Gregory strode through the house and out one of the French doors onto a small pebbled path.
There came Pippa, striding toward him, her face slightly flushed. She’d never be able to sneak into a room with that fiery Titian hair. And she always wore at least one thing that was unusual. Today, it was a dramatic yellow-gold velvet spencer with tight sleeves that ended in large cuffs with outrageously large emerald paste buttons. Beneath it was a simple ivory muslin frock. There was no bonnet in evidence, but that wasn’t a surprise.
She was like Mother, who’d never shown the smallest regard for whether anyone approved of her. Of course, Gregory knew now that his mother’s insouciant manner had been an act. She had cared what people thought. Very much so.
“Swear you won’t tell our secret, Gregory.” Mother cradled his head on her frail chest and stroked his curls. “It would only hurt your father’s feelings and embarrass the family. But I had to tell you, darling, else I can’t fly. I can’t fly straight to Heaven as I know you want me to do.”
“I swear, Mother. I’ll never tell. Never.”
Lucky him, helping his mother to Heaven. Thirteen, he’d been, and he’d lived in his own sort of hell ever since.
“Gregory?” Pippa glowed as usual. She wore the same broad smile he’d seen the day she’d come into her great-uncle’s house from the moor with her two front teeth missing, a smudge of dirt decorating her nose, and a field mouse cupped in her hands, a birthday gift for Bertie. “You’re looking straight through me–as if I were a ghost.”
“You’re the furthest thing from one,” he said smoothly.
And he meant what he said. She was more alive than anyone he knew, which was why he couldn’t help being suspicious of her.
Did people like Pippa and his mother ever consider what their private joys did to other people? What price the rest of the world paid for their adventures?
Since Mother’s death, Gregory had ceased joining Pippa in their annual childish high jinx–he was always called Captain, and she was Lieutenant; their crabapple wars were legendary—and he’d refused to spend time with her exploring the dramatic fells of Dartmoor, claiming to prefer his godfather’s library.
But that was a lie.
He simply didn’t want to be around her—a girl with bright eyes and a ready laugh and an earnest readiness to conquer the world.
“What’s wrong, Gregory?” she’d asked him in Bertie’s library once. Out of the blue, when he’d been quietly perusing the shelves. She’d stood at the door, her head cocked to the side like a robin’s.
“Nothing,” he’d told her. He’d been sixteen. She’d been eleven.
She did the same thing several other years as well, the last time occurring when he’d just graduated from Oxford.
“What is it?” she’d said over dinner, when Bertie’s attention has been diverted by Pippa’s mother and obnoxious second husband.
“None of your business,” he’d said quietly. It was the first time he’d ever admitted to anyone that anything was wrong. “Don’t ask again.”
Small tears had formed in her eyes, and she’d looked away, at a candle flame wavering on its wick on the mantel.
Since that night, nothing else had been said.
Everywhere else, he was Gregory, the successful, sociable eldest son of the Marquess and Marchioness of Brady. But there was no hiding from Pippa, who seemed to read him as well as she did the sky and the moor she so loved. She sensed his misery. His darkness. It pressed against his polite smiles, made it difficult for him to maintain his façade as the London wit, the ambitious young architect, and the substantial heir.
Now he lifted her gloved hand to his mouth and brushed a polite kiss across her knuckles. “It’s a rare thing to see you in Town, my lady. And a distinct pleasure to see you so soon after Bertie’s birthday. How is he? Aside from the fact that he’s—“
“Older?” There was a twinkle in her eyes.
“Yes, older.” She had a clever way of handling awkward moments.
Of handling him.
“My uncle’s very well, thank you.” Her grin was demure. Knowing. She was well aware that he avoided her. “Mother and I wanted him to come to the Danvers-Tremont wedding, too, but you know Uncle Bertie. He’s determined that the next wedding he attends must be my own.”
To Gregory, was the unspoken conclusion to that sentence, they both knew.
“So you are here for the wedding festivities, I see,” he said.
“With Lady Eliza?”
“Old schoolmates always have much to talk about.”
“And weddings only add to the conversation,” she said, the merest flash of discomfiture crossing her face.
Or was it heartbreak? Gregory somehow doubted it. The groom was a bland, boring aristocrat, not Pippa’s type at all, he should think.
And then he realized. Perhaps she wanted rid of him, too. “I’m sorry,” he said immediately, feeling foolish. “I’m preventing you from leaving. Perhaps you plan to stop by the new exhibit at the British Museum?”
She wasn’t a ribbons or baubles sort of girl, he knew. But surely the exotic animal exhibit would tempt her.
“I’ve already been,” she said, “and it was fascinating. No, my lord, I’m in no rush to leave Eliza’s. I’m enjoying my chat with you.” Although when she smiled this time, it seemed to take her some effort. “I was just going to retrieve my reticule in the drawing room. I brought a bit of charcoal and a small pad of paper—I wanted to sketch the back of the house.”
“That’s interesting.” He fought to suppress any impatience in his tone.
“I’m exploring a new hobby.” She looked to the right and left—as if they had company—and leaned toward him. “Making sugar sculptures.”
Dimples peeked out, and she nodded vigorously. “I’m mad for them. Garden scenes with tiny temples and shepherdesses, gilded horses, fanciful flowers, woven baskets. So when I visit a place I like”—she lifted a hand to encompass the garden and the house—“I sketch it. In case someday I’ll want to reproduce it as part of a pastoral scene for a dessert table.”
He looked all around him. Eliza’s house was the most boring edifice he’d ever seen. An imposing structure with stark and unimaginative lines, it sat like a fat salt box on the kitchen counter. The gardens weren’t much more interesting, either, with nary a fanciful thought put into their design.
“It is lovely back here,” he lied. “Shall I fetch your reticule for you?”
She stole another glance around the garden and blushed. “Oh, no, thank you, although—“ She hesitated, and that awkwardness came between them once more. “Would you like to accompany me? I could catch you up on all Uncle Bertie’s theaters. The newest one recently opened in Bristol.”
“Of course.” He opened the door to the billiards room again. And as he listened to her, something began to niggle at him. It wasn’t anything particularly important. But it was a matter of slight curiosity: What was Dougal doing here? He’d had the occasional dance with Eliza at various balls, spoken with her at soirees, and said hello to her if they met up in the park when she was in Gregory’s curricle. But other than that, they were mere acquaintances.
In the drawing room, Gregory was distracted when Pippa removed her gloves, placed them by a modest straw bonnet lying carelessly on top of the pianoforte, and retrieved the charcoal and pad of paper from her reticule. Her movements were sure and capable.
Eliza had delicate, tapered fingers. Last night, they’d felt like butterflies on his back.
Pippa’s hands were entirely different, and seeing how ordinary they looked gave him a slight sympathy toward her. She might know her way around a moor, but in more polished company, she didn’t have the élan of his Eliza.
Then again, who did? Eliza, demure as she was, ruled the ranks of young ladies out in society. But she did it with an understated elegance that charmed all those who came in contact with her.
“So are you staying with Lady Eliza?” he asked.
They began to make their way through the house back to the gardens.
“No.” Pippa paused by the billiard table. “Mother, Mr. Trickle, and I are at the Grillon Hotel. I escaped to see Eliza this morning. She told me it was her only opportunity. She’s very popular. I don’t know how she manages her schedule.”
Gregory could swear she saw her fingers clutch the charcoal stick and pad tighter.
Something wasn’t right. She swallowed oddly.
“All you all right?” Gregory leaned toward her, and smelled lavender in her hair. “Shall I get you some water?”
“Oh, no, indeed, but thank you,” she said in a tone that was overly polite, and somewhat distant at that. She sounded as though he were a stranger.
He knew they only saw each other once a year, but he was certainly was no stranger. And it was he who usually acted cool—not her. It was an odd feeling.
Pippa didn’t dislike any person.
He suddenly didn’t want to be the first.
He threw open the billiards room door again, and they walked back outside. “Forgive me for prying, but I wonder what brought Dougal here today?”
She glided smoothly ahead of him on the narrow path. “I’ve no idea,” she said over her shoulder. “He and Eliza must know each other.”
“They must,” he agreed.
Where were they?
Pippa paused to take in the view of a lush hydrangea. “Those colors are so beautiful, aren’t they?”
“They are.” Although to Gregory the hydrangea was no more worthy of a compliment than any other hydrangea he’d ever seen.
Impatience to see Eliza gripped him, and he had to strive to remember to loosen his fingers, let them hang at his sides, and relax his jaw.
Pippa looked up at him with bright eyes, hazel turned green against the backdrop of garden shrubbery. “It’s odd seeing you away from Uncle Bertie’s.”
She was nothing if not frank.
“It is,” he said, and it was. It felt wrong somehow. Perhaps that was what accounted for his unease. Seeing Pippa in the wrong place. And sensing her nervousness.
That was it.
She seemed hesitant to move.
He’d be glad to take the lead. With one deft move, he sidestepped her on the path. “If you’d like to sketch, there’s a bench right there you might have missed, three hydrangeas over.” He pointed to the east. “I’ll find Dougal and Lady Eliza.”
“Very well.” Her voice was a little thin.
He sensed that she didn’t dislike him, after all, which brought a feeling of relief followed swiftly by guilt: he was too hard on her. Much too hard. It wasn’t her fault that she was free, more free than anyone he’d ever known, even as society—and Uncle Bertie, in particular–shackled her to the usual expectations.
How had she done that, anyway? Learned to live within her bonds so well?
“I’ll see you in a moment, my lady.”
She looked up, a flash of trepidation in her eyes. “Yes,” she whispered.
Good God, she wasn’t even trying anymore to hide it—she was worried about something, something that must be going on in amidst the flora and fauna.
He took long strides over the grass, abandoning the pebble path, and headed to the back of the garden, where a line of rose bushes stood like sweet sentinels surrounding a statue of Mars.
Where the deuce were Dougal and Eliza, anyhow? They didn’t really know each other well. They couldn’t—
And there they were.
Past Mars, on the right, behind a tree. Dougal had her up against the trunk, and he was kissing her deeply, his hand roving her waist and caressing her breast.
Eliza was like a different woman. Her hands clung to Dougal’s shoulders in a fierce grip. Her back was arched into him, as if she couldn’t get enough of his mouth.
She hadn’t been nearly as fervent in her response to Gregory. She hadn’t been passionate with him at all, truth be told.
For the second time in his life, he felt as though he’d been shot three times through the heart in rapid succession: The woman he’d come to claim as his bride had betrayed him. His best friend had, too. And so had Lady Pippa Harrington, who despite their differences shared a rare bond with him: they were both mutual survivors of Uncle Bertie’s annual birthday dinner.
He left the entangled lovers to their own devices and strode to the bench where Pippa was making lame sketch marks and snatched the pad from her hands. All that was there was a doodle of a heart with an arrow through it, and then of a face, a man with curly hair and distinctive brows—
Gregory tossed it on the bench beside her. “So much for you and your sugar sculptures.”
She stood, her face white, stricken. “I’m so sorry. But don’t despair. You can do anything you want. Go anywhere you want. Whereas I—“
He pulled her close. Her face was an inch from his, her breasts pressed against his jacket.
“Stop talking,” he told her in a low, dark voice.
She gulped and refused to take her eyes off his. He could feel her heart beating hard in her chest. Her eyes were so very green, and her lashes—those thick lashes….
And then he kissed her as if she’d had practice, but he knew she hadn’t. Not Pippa. She was as fresh as that morning air on the moor, as untried as a closed rose bud.
He was unrelenting, demanding more of her with every passing second.
And when he found her responding, moaning low in her throat when he pinned her in his embrace between his muscular thighs, he didn’t care that the hardness of his arousal butted into her belly, that after this kiss was over, he was done with her.
He took what he wanted, caressing her derriere and her waist with a possessive hand, plundering her mouth with the desperation of a man who was angry and alone.
A host of images paraded through his head: the ruby ring in his pocket; his dying mother’s whisper that his natural father, whom she wouldn’t name, had died long ago; the smiling faces of his family on Christmas morning, a holiday which had felt vaguely sad to him ever since he’d learned the truth; his friends at Oxford, laughing and drinking without a care in the world—
“No,” Pippa managed to gasp against his mouth, and slid out from under his arm. She stood there trembling. “You won’t use me like this. I’m sorry what’s happened, but it’s not my fault.”
The careless sound of a jaunty bird whistling on a branch nearby sounded oddly chilling. But fitting. There was no sunshine. Nor songs. Not really. They were a cover—like Pippa—for deceit. For wrong.
Gregory turned on his heels and strode toward the house.
“Gregory!” she called after him.
But he ignored her.
“Gregory!” she called again, this time from right behind him on the pebble path.
He shut the door to the billiards room in her face.
Then he strode through the house and took his cane and hat from the hall tree before the astonished butler could hand them over himself. He walked directly home, seeing nothing along the way.
Peter came in as he was packing a bag in the quiet of their bedchamber. “Where are you going?”
“The United States,” Gregory said, then reached into his pocket, removed the silk box containing their mother’s ring, and tossed it to him. “Keep it. I don’t want to see it again.”
Peter said nothing, just held the box in his hand.
Gregory went back to tossing cravats and shirts into his bag. “You knew, didn’t you?”
Peter still said nothing.
“You knew.” Gregory stood tall and stared down his brother. He was the fourth person to dupe him today.
“I suspected she was in love with Dougal. But I had no proof. I tried to warn you—“
“Out of my way.” Gregory grabbed his suitcase and stormed out of the room.
He didn’t belong here.
He didn’t belong anywhere.
Pippa was right. He could do anything he wanted, be anyplace he wanted. He was a novice architect, and while Father and Bertie had been the ones to turn him in that direction, it was up to him how far he wanted to go with it.
His first stop in America would be Federalist New England. He’d go next to the District of Columbia, followed by Jefferson’s Monticello in Virginia, and then perhaps further south to Charleston and Savannah and St. Augustine. After that, nothing was stopping him from going out West to see how Americans housed themselves and built their institutions—churches, schools, banks, mercantile shops—on the frontier.
Other than Peter, the only family member home at the moment was Mama. He’d already sent word to her that he was leaving imminently. At the front door with the carriage waiting, the marchioness embraced him as hard as she could. “I wish you could wait for your father—“
His father. Gregory never got used to the pain of hearing those words. It pressed on him now. He had to fight—fight—to hold it back.
“I can’t.” His voice was hoarse. It was so unlike him to reveal his true self to Mama or anyone in the family. He had to leave. For their sakes, too.
“Something terrible has happened.” Mother held tight to his arm. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” He ignored the hurt and confusion he saw in her eyes and put on his hat.
“Oh, Gregory. Don’t leave like this. Please. We love you, dearest.”
However high the wall of hurt between him and the world, the tenderness he saw on Mama’s face reminded him of his duty. He paused long enough to kiss her cheek. “I’ll write when I get there.”
He schooled his tone to sound reassuring. “Don’t worry about me.”
Then, without waiting for a reply, he jogged down the front steps of the house, onto the pavement, and into the carriage—without a backwards glance at the House of Brady.