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The Highland Earl
By Amy Jarecki
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Kensington Palace, London, 1st April 1713
Evelyn hesitated before she accepted the glass of honeyed lemon juice from the Frenchman. A royal ball was no place to demonstrate malcontent, so she held her drink aloft in a halfhearted toast while turning her head away from the crowd. "I wonder how many people suffered to bring us the queen's latest fancy."
Mr. Claude Dubois took a drink for himself and returned her gesture with an arch of a wiry eyebrow. "You grow bold, my lady."
"I am impatient."
"The bane of youth." As Dubois spoke, his keen gaze scanned the ballroom. "Tell me, what news from Nottingham?" In truth, the French emissary inquired as to the present status of her father's corrupt dealings.
Evelyn sipped her drink, the tartness tickling the recesses of her jaw. "Nothing of late. Though I expect mail in a fortnight." With these words she confirmed a shipment arriving from one of the Duke of Kingston-upon-Hull's many vessels.
"Are you anticipating anything of particular interest?" he asked, not surprisingly. The Frenchman's influence in the past year had been instrumental in raising support for the Jacobite cause, which included Evelyn's particular passion: to end the aristocracy's misuse of power. She herself had witnessed the devastating effects of her very father's treachery.
Checking over her shoulder, Evelyn confirmed no eavesdroppers lurked nearby. "Silk."
"Hmm." Mr. Dubois snatched a savory pastry from a passing footman's tray and popped it into his mouth. "At least it is not wool. And thank heavens for your fine work, my lady. If those two ships laden with wool had been smuggled into England without paying import duties, Scottish crofters would have gone hungry for an entire year."
Buoyed by a sense of achievement, Evelyn followed the emissary's line of sight to her father—Hull, as his peers called him. Beside Papa stood a well-dressed courtier with whom the duke was deep in conversation. Finding her father's companion to be an unusually attractive gentleman, she drew in a sharp breath. Truly, he might possibly be the most striking man she'd ever seen. A head taller than Papa, he wore a fashionable blond periwig and an expertly tailored suit of blue silk. And by the breadth of his shoulders, he appeared as if he could challenge any man in the hall to a duel of swords and win. Obviously a peer, the courtier had neither hair nor thread out of place.
"My," she said, the admiration in her tone unmasked. "Perhaps the ball will not be dull after all."
Mr. Dubois turned his back to the object of her admiration. "Do you have any clue who that is having a word with your father?"
Evelyn licked the sweet tartness from her lips. "I cannot say I do."
"Alors, he has been away since your arrival in London. Though now he has returned, I imagine your path will cross with the Secretary of State for Scotland now and again."
She nearly choked on her next sip. "That is the Earl of Mar?" Yes, John Erskine was oft in the papers—but not in a good way. The Highlander sat on Queen Anne's cabinet and had to be one of the absolute last men Evelyn would ever trust.
"Bobbin' John, the Scots call him. I'm surprised to see the man so soon. His wife's death was a shocking loss."
"He's a widower?" Unable to help herself, Evelyn stole another glance at Mar. In fact, it was all she could do not to openly gawk. No, she'd never met a man such as he. Beautiful, yet masculine. His face youthful, yet sophisticated and wise. The inability to put her finger on what made the earl more alluring caused her to stare more. "Poor man."
"He has children?"
"Two young sons."
"It must be devastating for them all. And the boys left without a mother." Attempting to mask her overt staring, Evelyn took another sip of lemon juice and watched the man from behind her glass. "I quite expected the Earl of Mar to be a short, gaunt man of advanced age, but he is rather imposing, is he not?"
Mr. Dubois's stout stature better reflected her imaginings. "I have no doubt he will soon be the most eligible widower in Britain if he is not already. 'Tis a shame no one knows for certain where his loyalties lie."
"Hmm." Evelyn forced herself to look at the French emissary, who now appeared far more wizened than he had two minutes ago. "I was merely appreciating the workmanship of Mar's tailor. A man with the earl's vacillating politics could never be of interest to me."
"I would think no less, though you'd be hard-pressed to find a husband with more influence over the crown." Mr. Dubois grinned and deviously waggled his gray brows. "Imagine the mischief in which you might embroil yourself under his roof."
If only they weren't at a ball with dozens of nobles surrounding them in courtly finery, she might have thwacked the Frenchman with her fan. "Is my father's roof not enough?"
"Pray, what is your age, my lady? You will have no choice but to marry soon." Dubois knew her age.
"I'm in no hurry," she said as Papa nodded at her, his gray periwig shifting with the movement.
"See there, the duke is coming this way. Oh my, that is interesting. Mar is on his heels. I'll bid you bonsoir." Mr. Dubois bowed. "My lady."
She curtsied. "Monsieur."
"There you are, my dear." Father approached, grinning as if he had embarked upon a profitable scheme with the nobleman. "Allow me to introduce the Earl of Mar."
Evelyn's gaze shifted to the man. With a sharp squeeze of her stomach, a gasp slipped through her lips before she had a chance to suppress her reaction.
Beneath a striking slash of brows, hawkish blue eyes stared at her with the intensity of a pointer homing in on his prey, yet his gaze was guarded, tormented, or wounded by something devastating. That such a tall and braw man might be cut to the quick by anyone was beyond Evelyn's imagination. He must have truly loved his wife. And yet, if her intuition was right, there appeared to be more underlying this man's grief. Something layered and complex.
After a pause, which for all Evelyn knew may have lasted ten minutes while she pondered the possibilities of her assessment, the corners of Mar's lips turned upward—a polite smile but still guarded. He stepped forward, grasped her hand, and applied a well-practiced kiss. A bit of a breeze must have wafted through the air, because she was suddenly bathed in a delicious fragrance. Clean. Masculine. A hint of the sea. Warm lips whispered over the back of her hand, sending tingles up her arm.
And when he straightened, Evelyn leaned forward just to sample his scent once again. "M'lady, 'tis a pleasure to make your acquaintance," he said with a deep, rolling burr. He might be dressed as an Englishman, but there was no questioning this man's Scottish pedigree.
Evelyn drew her hand from his grasp and quickly snapped open her fan to cool the sudden blast of heat beneath her stomacher. "And yours, my lord. May I be so bold as to express my sympathy for your loss."
After giving a nod, the earl winced and shifted his gaze aside.
Father rubbed his signet ring on his lapel—a habit which oft expressed his unease. "Mar has returned to London at the queen's request."
"I'm sorry to hear it," Evelyn said.
"The queen's business rests for no one." With his next breath, Mar assumed an air of unreadable pleasantry. "Ah, the orchestra has returned. Would you do me the honor of a dance, m'lady?"
The speed at which she fluttered her fan grew more vigorous. "Dance?" Evelyn didn't want to dance with the earl. As a queen's man, he represented everything she despised. Moreover, he must be in his midthirties, perhaps fourteen years her senior. And, bless it, he made her too self-aware.
"Her Ladyship would be delighted," her father answered, curse him.
Mar slid his fingers down the meticulously embroidered filigree along his doublet. "I wouldn't want to supplant someone else."
"This dance is presently not promised to any other gentleman." Snapping her fan shut, Evelyn tucked it into the hidden pocket designed by her modiste. If nothing else, she might gain a tidbit of useful knowledge. Mr. Dubois said one must draw near those with opposing views and come to know them well. "Shall we?"
Reluctantly, she placed her fingers atop Mar's forearm while he led her to the center of the ballroom. Good Lord, his muscles were like steel beneath his silk doublet. Worse, the silence between them stretched uncomfortably.
She watched him out of the corner of her eye—a wolf in sheep's clothing. What had he been thinking when he'd signed his name to the Act of Union to subjugate his native Scotland to England? Was he completely oblivious to the needs of the common man? Most likely, he was. Could there be a man more politically flawed? Her father suffered from the same highbrow affliction, after all.
"Are you enjoying the All Fools' Day Ball?" Mar asked, stepping across from her and joining the men's line.
She almost laughed aloud at the irony. "I am." Though enjoy mightn't be the right word. Amused was more apropos.
An accursed minuet began, one that would ensure they danced hand in hand throughout.
Poised like a man who'd spent the greater part of the past decade at court, he seemed oblivious to her discontent. "Your father tells me this is your first season in London."
"It is, though Father has brought me to Town many times before." The eldest of three girls with no living mother, Evelyn had avoided making her debut. But having reached her majority, Papa had insisted this was the year for her to come out. Though expected to marry well, she was in no hurry whatsoever, especially now she was in the employ of Mr. Dubois.
"Do you like Town?" Mar asked.
"I suppose, though if I had to choose, the countryside is more pleasant."
Goodness, the earl was full of questions. Why couldn't he simply enjoy the dance or the music or the hall, or do anything aside from make idle chat?
"For starters," she said, "a woman can breathe deeply in a pastoral setting without enduring the disagreeable odors that come with humanity living in close proximity."
"I agree with you there." Together they executed a half turn. "Though I'd think a young lady such as yourself would enjoy the access to the shopping one finds only in London."
Evelyn touched her palm to his as they promenaded. His hand was a great deal larger than hers. Quite warm as well. "Nottingham has most everything I need. And I prefer my modiste there."
He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye—not a glance, precisely. It was more like an examination. "A practical woman. I commend you."
If she'd known he'd reply favorably to her response, Evelyn would have sworn she adored to shop endlessly.
"What is it you enjoy doing most of all?" he asked.
Spying on people like you. A sly grin played on her lips. Aside from her talent at snooping, one of Evelyn's favorite pastimes was gardening. She loved to dig in the earth and make beautiful flowers grow. "Horticulture."
"Another surprise." Mar led her around in a circle. "What is your favorite flower?"
"The dog rose." Without hesitation, she stared straight ahead and spoke aloud a secret Jacobite symbol. Prolific in the Highlands of Scotland, the dog rose was far from the most beautiful, but it carried with it great meaning. Pinned to a man's lapel, the flower told those committed to the Jacobite cause the wearer supported Prince James as the first in the succession and the rightful heir to the throne.
If Mar was aware of the dog rose's significance, he didn't let on. "Pink or white?"
She smirked. "White, of course."
By the grace of God, the minuet came to an end and, hopefully, Mar's interrogation with it. She curtsied while His Lordship bowed. "Thank you, my lord. Your dancing is truly as polished as your mien."
John awoke the next morning with a minuet humming in his head, accompanying visions of Lady Evelyn Pierrepont. Though she'd not been what he expected, the memory of the young woman was a pleasant respite from his persistent woes. She seemed such a level-headed lass and her father quite keen to see her wed.
Eleven years ago, John had followed his heart and married a woman with whom he'd fallen deeply and irrevocably in love. Even though his father had left him saddled with debt, John had proposed to Margaret because he couldn't imagine himself with any other woman. Regrettably, he still could not.
And now she was gone…their two young boys left without a mother.
John sighed and looked to the bed-curtains above.
Lady Evelyn was a handsome woman. Not the beauty Margaret had been, but well proportioned and stately. The daughter of a duke, she would be more than acceptable as a candidate to assume the role of stepmother and countess. A woman who preferred a pastoral life, who was practical and even-tempered, would suit his needs ideally. And Her Ladyship came with a generous dowry. If all went as planned, at last John would be free of his father's creditors and loosen the chains Queen Anne had around his neck. How he longed to lessen his courtly duties in London and spend more time at his Scottish estate in Alloa. Invest some real capital into his coal mine and improve conditions for clan and kin.
Aye, Lady Evelyn's brunette locks had shimmered beneath the chandeliers like polished mahogany—quite a change from Margaret's blonde. Thank heavens. John could never bear to marry anyone who looked like his bonny lass. Her Ladyship posed a picture of everything Margaret was not—full-figured, English, shocking turquoise eyes, a heart-shaped face, and, most importantly, she was the daughter of a wealthy duke.
John stretched. Nay, 'twas not a decision to be made in haste. Yet, on the other hand, his creditors would see things differently. What was the purpose of waiting? To continue to draw out his misery? Hell, his misery would linger forever no matter the decisions he made.
Nonetheless, to be shed of Da's debts would bring a peace of mind John had never known. I cannot and will not leave such a burden to my sons.
John's father had died at the age of eight and thirty. And one year from now, John would be the same age. It was nigh time to ensure his estate was set to rights and be rid of the debt that had plagued him for so many years.
With his thought, the door burst open. Squealing with laughter, Thomas, aged nine, shoved past his younger brother, dashed into the chamber, and took a flying leap onto the mattress.
"Da! Why are you still abed?"
John wrapped his arm around the lad's shoulders and scrubbed his knuckles into his mop of unruly blond locks—the same color Margaret's had been. "Because I like to sleep, ye wee whelp."
Squealing with glee, Thomas scrambled aside while John hefted Oliver onto the bed. At the age of five, the youngest was a tad undersized but otherwise healthy and as sharp as the blade on John's dirk. "And how are you, son?"
The splay of freckles on Oliver's nose stretched with the lad's grin—not as wide as it once was before the death of his mother, but the boys were proving more resilient every day. "Ready to sail boats in Hyde Park."
"Och aye?" John looked between the two, both staring at him with hopeful faces bearing painful resemblance to their mother. "You've broken your fast? You've washed? You've completed your lessons?"
Thomas sat upright and batted a pillow. "'Tis Saturday, Da."
"Och, there's no better time to review what you learned during the week than Saturday morn before an outing." John pulled himself up and leaned against the headboard. "First I've an errand to run. That will give you plenty of time to eat, wash your faces, and review your lessons. We'll take luncheon here and then spend the entire afternoon with our wee boats."
Oliver's bottom lip jutted out. "But Da, I want to go now."
"Work before play. You'd best learn such discipline directly, else you'll not succeed when you grow older."
"Forgive me, m'lord." MacVie, the valet, cleared his throat from the servants' entrance. "Mrs. Kerr said the lads got away afore she woke."
John wrapped an arm around each of his boys' shoulders. "Not to worry. There's no better way to greet the morn than with the laughter of my sons." He gave them a squeeze. "Now off with you. I'll return by the noon hour."
Frances waltzed across the floor while Evelyn watched her sister from the reflection in the looking glass. "I'm fifteen. Papa should have let me attend the ball. It just isn't fair for you to have all the fun."
"You think you are excluded from everything?" Phoebe complained from her position lying on her side across the bed. "Try being the youngest. I'm never invited to do anything."
"Mind you, royal balls are full of pompous old men who are only in attendance to impress the queen." Evelyn cringed as her lady's maid dragged a comb through the tangle remaining from last night's coiffure. "Ow."
Lucinda withdrew the comb and began at the ends. "Forgive me, my lady. But you should have let me brush this out last eve."
Frances twirled up to the toilette, shoving her face in the mirror and twisting her brown locks atop her head. "I think I'd look divine with a pile of curls entwined with yellow ribbon."
"I think you'd look ridiculous," said Phoebe.
Evelyn glanced over her shoulder at her youngest sister, who had recently enjoyed her twelfth birthday. "Oh, really? You should have told me I looked ridiculous before I left for the ball and was presented to the queen."
Phoebe pushed up on her elbow. "I didn't say you looked ridiculous, but Frances has a thinner face and—"
"Beg your pardon, my lady," a footman's voice rumbled through the timbers. "You have a caller."
Brutus, the old Corgi, didn't quite raise his head from the mat in front of the hearth, but he managed an unconvincing growl.
"A caller?" Frances dashed across the floor and opened the door wide, regardless that Evelyn was still wearing her robe. "Is it a lady caller or a gentleman caller?"
The footman cleared his throat. "His Grace requests Lady Evelyn's presence in the parlor straightaway."
"But who is here?" asked Phoebe and Frances in tandem.
"'Tis the Earl of Mar."
Thank heavens her sisters' eyes were turned toward the messenger, because Evelyn nearly fell off her stool.
As the footman turned away, Frances shut the door, whipped around, and gave an accusing snort. "You said the ball was dull and pallid."
Quickly averting her gaze to the mirror, Evelyn casually pulled the stopper from a bottle of perfume and sniffed. "And I still say so."
"Then why is an earl calling, and at this hour?" asked Frances.
"I have absolutely no idea." Evelyn hastily dabbed the fragrance on her neck. "I need a moment to breathe before I face the likes of Mar. Both of you, go busy yourselves elsewhere."
Phoebe slid off the bed. "But—"
The bottle nearly tipped over as she replaced the stopper. "Go, I said. With the pair of you twittering like finches, I can scarcely think."
Lucinda stepped back, brandishing her comb. "What would you have me do with your hair, my lady?"
"Twist it into a chignon and put a few pins in it. I am by no means worried about impressing the man."
"No?" asked the lady's maid, setting to work. "Is the earl old and crusty?"
If Mar were old and crusty, Evelyn's stomach wouldn't be entertaining a dozen leaping lords. "He's a widower," she replied, as if that explained everything.
"Well, I'll have you set to rights in no time, not to worry, and the blue day dress ought to suit."
Usually Lucinda's efficiency was a boon, but today her deft fingers were maddening. If only the maid would have dropped the hairpins or broken the laces on Evelyn's stays or ripped a hole in her skirts or spilled the ewer of water down the front of her gown, she might have an excuse to send her apologies to the earl.
But in no time, she was presentable and walking out her chamber door.
Whyever was the earl here? There were all manner of lovely and marriageable gentlewomen at the ball, why in heaven's name had Mar come to see her? Surely he didn't have a mind to court her. They were utterly, unquestionably, unimaginably incompatible.
While she proceeded to the parlor, Evelyn considered his every plausible excuse. Had he seen her speaking with Mr. Dubois? Was he suspicious of her ties with the Jacobites—had she been too bold mentioning the dog rose? Did he know that a fortnight past she had informed the French emissary to the exiled Stuart prince about her father's shipments from the Orient—cargo which in turn would lower the prices of British goods, thus putting in jeopardy the incomes of local laborers?
How could he? Even though he is the Secretary of State for Scotland, Mar has only recently returned to London.
Perhaps he had come to see Father, and the duke had contrived some silly reason to send for her. Moreover, by the time she reached the bottom of the stairs, she was convinced Mar wasn't as tall as she had remembered or as handsome or as well mannered.
Remember his politics.
"Ah, here she is, my lovely eldest," said Papa, opening his arms and smiling as brightly as he had done last night. "Do you remember His Lordship, my dear?"
How could she forget? Mar not only had danced with her once, he'd persuaded her to the floor five times. Unheard of! And every time they'd danced he asked so many questions, Evelyn hadn't managed to inquire about a single of his interests. Not that she cared a fig about whatever amused him.
Every bit as tall and far handsomer than he'd been last eve, Mar stepped from behind a chair and bowed. "'Tis delightful to see you again, m'lady." Adding to his allure, the Highlander wore a kilt and had clubbed his hair back rather than wear a periwig. Bare knees with scarlet garters held his stockings in place. How on earth was she to resist such masculinity when he donned red-and-black plaid?
Before Evelyn managed to look away, His Lordship produced a bouquet of white roses from behind his back. "Regrettably, no street vendor in London was selling dog roses. I hope these blooms will suffice until I can procure your favorite. They tell me these are called Great Maiden's Blush, which I find quite uncharacteristic since they're white without a single trace of pink."
Oh dear, what was the swaying feeling in the pit of her stomach? A dozen beautiful, heavenly blooms presented by a man with the deepest brogue she'd ever heard. "This variety comes in white and pink." In truth, Evelyn far preferred these full blossoms to plain, five-petaled dog roses. But she couldn't admit to it now. "These are magnificent," she said, her voice full of sincerity as she accepted the gift and breathed in their rich fragrance.
"I say, dear, do you not grow these very blooms in Thoresby Hall's gardens?" asked Papa.
"I do." Deciding it best to concede on one point, she added, "Truly, I enjoy roses of all sorts."
"That's right, Mar," said the duke, "and you should see the wisteria trellises Lady Evelyn has nurtured. My master gardener has had quite an invested student over the years."
At the mention of the former gardener at Thoresby Hall, Evelyn's pulse pounded at her temples. Throughout his life, Mr. Wilson had been a faithful servant to the Pierreponts. Under the tenure of three dukes, he'd lovingly cared for the expansive gardens at Thoresby Hall. He'd taken Evelyn under his wing and taught her everything from soil to flowers to herbs and pruning. But when he'd fallen ill and a few weeds had sprouted in the flower beds, her father had dismissed him without a pension and no way to support himself.
The earl slid his foot forward and bowed again, distracting Evelyn from her thoughts and drawing notice to the sgian dubh peeking above his garter. "I'm glad not to disappoint."
"I've ordered tea and cakes. Please, sit and enjoy each other's company." Papa gestured to the settee. "Regrettably, I have some urgent correspondence I must attend."
Drawing her hand to her chest, Evelyn took a step back. "But—"
"Perhaps one cup of tea." Mar gave the duke a nod, then faced her with a smile warm enough to melt butter in a snowstorm. "I'm afraid I cannot stay long."
- "Intense adventure mingles with sensuous love scenes. Fans of romance with strong, socially progressive heroines will thoroughly enjoy this novel."—Publishers Weekly
- "A refreshing take on a historical romance, and Jarecki crafts immersive, sweeping scenes in bustling London and the lowlands of Scotland."—Shelf Awareness
- On Sale
- Jun 25, 2019
- Page Count
- 384 pages