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You're the Earl That I Want
By Kelly Bowen
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For businessman Heath Hextall, inheriting an earldom has been a damnable nuisance. The answer: find a well-bred, biddable woman to keep his life in order and observe the required social niceties. But it’s always been clear that Lady Josephine Somerhall is not that woman. Once a shy slip of a girl, Joss is now brilliant, beautiful chaos in a ball gown.
. . . BUT THE LADY KNOWS BEST
In her heart, Joss has always loved Heath, the one person she’s always been able to count on. That doesn’t mean she wants to marry him though. Without a husband, Joss can do as she pleases-and now, it pleases her to solve the mystery of an encoded file given to Heath by a dying man. It’s put Heath in peril once, and Joss won’t let that happen again. She’ll do what she must to ensure the earl’s safety. And to remind him that what she lacks in convention, she makes up for in passion.
Table of Contents
A Preview of I've Got My Duke to Keep Me Warm
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London, December, 1818
I need a wife."
Beside him the Duke of Worth choked on his drink.
"And I need you to help find me one. As soon as possible," Heath continued, ignoring his best friend's reaction.
"I must be drunker than I thought," the duke said, dabbing his chin. "For I could have sworn the Earl of Boden just asked me to find him a wife. And if that wasn't strange enough, the aforementioned earl is supposed to be in Liverpool turning everything he touches into gold. He couldn't possibly be in a London ballroom, certainly not without letting me know he was back in town first." Worth sounded affronted, though he was grinning as he said the last.
"Don't be an ass." Heath felt his own mouth twitch with laughter, but managed to tamp down any feelings of levity before they could interfere with his sense of purpose.
"Well, I've missed you too." The duke thumped Heath on the back and signaled to a footman to bring another drink. "Did you just get back?"
"This afternoon." Heath sighed.
"How were the roads?"
"Cold. Miserable." Heath leaned on the balcony railing, the din of a ball in full swing filtering up to where they stood. "But passable."
"And after days of being confined in a coach, you chose to come here? To the Baustenburys' ball?" Worth said with some disbelief, eyeing the crush of people below them.
"I have an excuse. My mother wanted to come."
Heath kept his face carefully neutral. "Yes, I saw her earlier. You know she's carrying, ah, a live chicken around under her arm again?"
"Is she? I thought she was going to leave the poultry in the carriage tonight." Worth shrugged, and then his eyes lit up. "Did you know Josephine is back in town? She's here somewhere tonight too."
Heath frowned. Since his recent marriage, the duke had grown rather comfortable with the dowager's bizarre behavior. Which was odd, given how much his mother's eccentricities used to bother him. Yet for the moment, Heath decided to put that strange development aside in order to focus on an even stranger event: the return of Lady Josephine to London. "Your long-lost sister finally came home?"
"Yes." Worth laughed. "And Joss will be thrilled to see you. You'll have to find her and make yourselves reacquainted."
Heath had a sudden vision of the curly-haired hoyden who used to scramble after them every summer of his boyhood. A whip-smart girl utterly resolute in her intention to drive anyone around her to madness with near-constant lectures on a confusing array of topics. Heath would be very surprised if she had changed significantly over the years.
Which was not to say that he wouldn't be dutiful and welcome the duke's sister back to London. On the contrary, he planned to do so with every proper gesture of respect. But at the same time, Heath very much doubted Josephine Somerhall had given him a moment's thought since he'd last seen her, especially since he hadn't been overly gracious to her in his youth. In fact, Heath might describe the bulk of his past actions toward Worth's little sister as abysmal. With some discomfiture he shoved those recollections aside. He'd certainly grown up since then, and whatever idiocy he'd suffered as a boy had little bearing on the matters at hand.
As if reading his mind, Worth peered at him over the rim of his glass. "So what's your excuse tonight, Boden, really? You're not usually one for balls of any sort."
The footman reappeared, and Heath accepted a glass of whiskey. He took a healthy swallow before he spoke. "Like I said, I need a wife."
"Holy God, you're actually serious." Worth's forehead creased, and the smile slid from his face. "When did you decide this?"
"When I got home from Liverpool and discovered my housekeeper had quit and my valet had eloped with my only upstairs maid."
"I'm not following."
"I've managed my family's business for more years than I care to remember. I dug the damn earldom out of a financial hole so deep I'm not sure I ever did find the bottom. My mother is still hiding in Bath, unwilling and unable to face society after the fiasco otherwise known as my sister's short-lived engagement to a madman. I did what I could to mitigate that indignity—"
"Very admirably," the duke interjected.
"—only to find myself with another sister so determined to elevate her social standing through marriage that I am constantly extracting her from compromising situations. And so are you, if I may be so gauche as to remind you."
Worth winced. "Ah yes, the unfortunate Ascot incident. Please let's forget it."
Heath ran a hand through his hair in suppressed frustration. "Since becoming earl, I've had crumbling buildings repaired, leaky roofs replaced, fences mended, workers hired, and outstanding taxes paid. All while still maintaining my business. I simply have no energy left to deal with the domestic aspect of my life, Worth. I need a partner. A pleasant, even-tempered soul who will accept my protection and the comforts I can provide her, and in exchange will expertly manage my household." He glanced down at the crowds of people.
"You're surveying the prospects."
"You make it sound so mercenary. But yes, I am exploring my options."
The duke snorted. "Well, what you've described to me is a well-trained broodmare," he said. "And I have a stable full of them. I shall ask my wife to select one for you, and you can have it, no strings attached. There's no need to do anything rash."
"That's not funny."
"I wasn't trying to be funny. I was trying to convey that you're selling yourself short."
Heath let his eyes rove over the masses of pretty, pastel-clad women. "I don't think I am." He sighed. "I just want to be happy."
"You won't be happy with a match of convenience. You're too clever and too"—Worth struggled for a word—"passionate about life. You'll be bored to death."
"I like boring," Heath snapped. "For once, boring would be a nice change. What's wrong with wanting a wife who will not go looking to stir up trouble? One who can manage my household, bear my children, and provide pleasing companionship? Is that too much to ask?"
"The difficulties you've encountered in the past were not your fault," the duke protested.
"Not my fault, but my problem. And I'm bone-tired of solving problems." Heath sighed. Four years of ceaseless family scandal had exhausted his every mental and emotional resource.
"But that doesn't mean—"
"Not all of us are as immune to infamy as you," Heath said. "It just seems to roll right off your back."
"That is because I finally discovered what truly matters to me."
"It's also because you're a duke," Heath muttered.
Worth gave a self-deprecating snort. "Doesn't hurt."
Heath gave his friend a weary smile. He wished it were that easy. But Heath had a business to run, and his future success was linked to his reputation. He relied on his elevated social status and his good relations with suppliers and buyers and customers. He simply couldn't afford to ignore how the ton judged his family.
Heath drew another deep breath. "Boring," he repeated firmly. "I want boring. I want you to help me find the most boring woman here." Heath scanned the dancers. "What about that one?" He gestured to an attractive brunette standing near the edge of the floor with a woman who could only be her mother.
"Ah, Miss Alice Edget. Daughter of Viscount Edget. Impeccable breeding along with a spotless reputation. A lovely girl, but not known for her, ah, wit." Worth made a face. "Conversation, I fear, would be rather limited."
"She sounds perfect."
"You can't be serious, Boden."
Heath crossed his arms. "These days, I am always serious."
"I've noticed. You were far more fun when you were merely the son of a soapmaker. Inheriting a fancy title has been the ruin of you, you know."
"Are you going to insult me or help me?"
Worth sighed. "Of course I'll help you. But at least wait for another month. There will be more eligible ladies in town by then."
"Introduce me to Miss Edget."
"No?" Heath repeated more harshly than he'd intended.
"I have been your friend since we were three years old. I cannot in good conscience allow you to consign yourself to a lifetime of mediocrity."
"If you won't do it, I'll find someone who will."
"You'll be asleep before you're halfway through a waltz." Worth stared at him, but Heath refused to look away. "Fine," the duke relented. "But don't say I didn't warn you."
Miss Edget was flawlessly polite upon Heath's introduction to her, even if her mother seemed less enthusiastic than he would have liked. Though that was nothing he hadn't experienced before. Not every ton member believed his fortune could adequately compensate for the fact that his title had been completely accidental or that he depended on the vulgar practice of industry and trade to keep his coffers filled. But Miss Edget placed her hand on his arm with no hesitation when he'd made his bow and Heath was encouraged that he was well on his way to proving Worth wrong.
"Are you having a nice time tonight, Miss Edget?" Heath asked as she executed the steps with perfect precision.
"I'm having a lovely time, my lord," she replied, even as the music stuttered and shrieked.
"What do you think of the orchestra?" he inquired with a small chuckle, hoping to put her at ease. The musicians were spectacularly inept.
"It's lovely, my lord." She smiled up at him.
Lovely? A herd of tortured donkeys would sound better. Though perhaps she was simply too polite to remark upon it.
"Did you enjoy the supper?" he tried.
"It was lovely, my lord." Her smile flashed again.
Heath hid a frown. "Tell me something about yourself," he prompted.
Heath flailed for a suggestion. "Do you enjoy travel?"
Miss Edget shuddered, though she recovered with a brave face and another bright smile. "Not overly, my lord. I find it very upsetting to my constitution."
Heath struggled to keep a pleasant smile on his face. Well, that was no good. His potential wife might need to travel from time to time with him. Especially if he expanded his business in America the way he was planning.
"That is too bad. I believe you would like Boston very much."
"Is that in Scotland?" she asked, blinking prettily.
"Er, no," he managed.
"Is that where Lady Josephine was?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"My mother told me you are very close with the Duke of Worth."
"Yes. We've been friends for many, many years."
Miss Edget nodded, pleased with his answer. "That's lovely. It must be very advantageous to be friends with a duke."
Although Heath wasn't in the habit of viewing his closest friendship in quite such self-serving terms, he supposed it was the truth. But why were they talking about Worth at all? Or his sister?
"I heard my mother talking about Lady Josephine. She said she lived with savages. Is it true?"
"I'm sorry?" The question was so unexpected that Heath wasn't sure he'd heard properly.
"I heard she lived in strange places." Miss Edget was watching him with round eyes. "With savages."
"I can assure you, Lady Josephine did not live with savages. I believe she has resided in Italy for a good number of years." But even as he finished speaking, he realized he had no idea where Joss had really been for the last decade.
"Oh." She nodded. "Are there savages in Italy?"
Heath sighed. "No, Miss Edget, there are no savages in Italy."
In hindsight, Worth had indeed warned him, though Heath would never give him the satisfaction of knowing he'd been right. Alice Edget might not be exactly what he was looking for, but there were plenty of choices. He was an earl now, and an obscenely wealthy one at that. How hard could it be?
Heath had retreated back to the sanctity of the balcony overlooking the ballroom, nursing another glass of whiskey. He brooded darkly, examining the results of his efforts during the three hours since he had returned Miss Edget to the care of her mother.
He'd danced with at least a half dozen ladies, some seeming impossibly young, others impossibly jaded. The conversations had ranged from stilted to sycophantic, and Heath had been at a loss as to how to improve upon any of it. Worse, the topic of the Duke of Worth's sister had been introduced several times, veiled as a casual inquiry, but currents of speculation ran swiftly below each offhand remark. Heath most certainly hadn't come to this ball to be pummeled for information on the return of the prodigal Lady Josephine. He'd come as the Earl of Boden, to interview potential wives.
And he'd failed miserably.
Was there not a woman in London who possessed a modicum of intelligence paired with a pleasant demeanor? He wasn't looking for brilliance, though the ability to express an informed opinion about at least one worldly thing would be nice. He didn't require beauty, though a woman with a bit of backbone and confidence held a certain charm. And he wasn't so naïve as to think that his wealth wasn't the most important part of his appeal as a prospective spouse, but the poorly disguised hints about annual allowances were already starting to wear.
A subtle disturbance altered the pitch of the crowd in the corner of the ballroom below him, just enough to distract him from his musings. Something interesting was happening downstairs, and the revelers were chattering about it in voices that rose above the terrible clamor of the talentless orchestra. Idly Heath scanned the mob, looking for the cause, relieved to be a good distance from the disruption. It was comforting to know that at least one person here tonight had bigger problems than he did. A scandalous waltz danced between lovers, perhaps. The arrival of a man's mistress in the presence of his lady wife. Or maybe—His speculation died an abrupt death as he followed the craning necks and darting eyes of the guests closest to the refreshment table. Heath had finally found Josephine Somerhall.
When Heath was nine, he'd put a frog down the front of Josephine's dress.
He'd been skipping stones at the edge of a pond with Worth, and Joss had simply refused to leave them alone. She'd been like a gnat, dogging the two boys, unrelenting with her questions and her presence.
At first Heath had tried to evade the persistent five-year-old, but she had stuck to his side like an unwanted burr. When he'd grumbled to her brother, Worth had only shrugged, seemingly disinclined to order his younger sibling back to the house, where she was undoubtedly avoiding lessons in music or dancing or deportment. So Heath had been forced to take matters into his own hands.
Heath had frogged his own sisters before, with spectacular results. Shrieking and hysterics, but most important, the immediate and rapid departure of the both of them. His father, of course, had tanned his hide for it later, but the peaceful interval had been worth it. So when Heath had spotted the creature half hidden under a log and scooped it up, along with a goodly portion of pond scum and muddy slime, his expectations had been high.
Looking back, he might have wondered why Worth hadn't intervened. Why his friend had only raised a brow and gone back to skipping stones as Heath advanced on the imp who hadn't stopped to take a breath in her one-sided conversation in nearly fifteen minutes. And when he'd lunged at her and dumped his fetid handful of horror down the front of her dress, she'd only gone very still, her eyes slitting into turquoise shards of disbelief.
She'd shrieked all right, but for all the wrong reasons.
Amphibians, she'd snapped in her tiny, indignant voice, had very sensitive skin and should never be manhandled in such a fashion. She'd dug the struggling creature out from the front of her sodden bodice and had cupped it in her hands with great care. Heath had stammered something about its being just a dumb frog. Her sharp eyes had narrowed even further, and she'd informed him that it wasn't a frog at all, but quite obviously a common toad. The common frog, she informed him, had round pupils.
As if he should have known that.
He'd watched as she'd returned the toad to a safe crevice and then marched past him, her skirts bunched up in her hand as she used them to wipe the remaining muck from her throat and chest. She'd plunked herself down at the edge of the pond near her brother and picked up where she'd left off, only now her one-sided conversation was a lecture revolving around the biology of England's amphibian species. And for all of Heath's efforts, he had mud-splattered breeches, a filthy shirt, flaming cheeks, and the uncomfortable realization that he would never understand Josephine Somerhall.
Everything and nothing had changed.
The girl he remembered from carefree summers a lifetime ago had vanished, and in her place appeared a striking woman. She was dressed beautifully in amber silk, the simple style and color effortless on her body. Her face was sharper, more angular than he remembered, her generous mouth pursed in thought, the curve of her neck and shoulders graceful and efficient in their movement. Her blue-green eyes, always so expressive, still shone with the intense intelligence he remembered vividly. And her rich mahogany hair was cut short in defiance of the style of every other unwed woman in the room. Instead of waist-length, virginal hair bound tightly against her scalp, she had a riot of soft, careless curls falling over her forehead and brushing the lobes of her ears.
But the striking woman acted exactly like the young girl he remembered. He would have recognized her anywhere, even had she not just turned a priceless Chinese vase upside down and clamped it between her legs while she examined the bottom with a fierce concentration.
"Dear God," Heath mumbled under his breath. Lord Baustenbury had bought the Ming vase a month ago for a staggering sum. Joss was manhandling it like it was a cheap chamber pot, and if she were to drop it…
Around her, guests were casting looks of incredulity and disapproval in her direction. Lord Baustenbury, alerted by a footman to the potential peril of his new treasure, was rushing forward, a horrified look on his face. He reached Joss and, with exaggerated care, took the exquisite vase from her hands. She said something to him, and the rotund man almost dropped his treasure, righting it at the last second. His face went quite red.
A crowd was starting to gather, and Joss was gesturing now at the vase and speaking earnestly as he replaced it on its stand. Baustenbury was spluttering, and his complexion was now a shocking shade of purple. The man looked as if he were going to have an apoplexy.
Frantically Heath looked for Worth, but the duke had long ago disappeared somewhere with his wife, and Heath knew very well that he wouldn't be coming back anytime soon. He searched instead for the dowager duchess and found her settled in a chair on the opposite side of the ballroom, a multicolored hen roosting in her lap, deep in conversation with another matron and unaware of the disturbance in the ballroom. Not that she and her damn chicken would be able to help matters anyway.
Josephine Somerhall had always been somewhat oblivious to society's rules of decorum, and it would seem nothing had changed. Someone was going to need to intervene. And soon.
With a horrible feeling in the pit of his stomach, Heath understood that the someone in question was going to be him.
Everything and nothing had changed.
When Joss had decided to return to London, she hadn't given a great deal of thought to what to expect when she got here. She hadn't stepped foot on English soil for over ten years and hadn't been to London in twice that. Currently she was fighting a growing sense of disappointment, wondering if perhaps, in the years she'd spent abroad, something fundamental within her had changed. For she was already finding the ton's rigid expectations almost intolerable.
She'd spent the first part of the week with her family, rejoicing in the company of her mother and her brother and his new wife. There had been trips to the museums, explorations of dusty bookstores, and fierce debates that had lasted long into the night. But there had been very little interaction with outsiders, and so she'd been somewhat insulated from the opinions and judgments of others since her return.
This was the first ball she had attended since she'd been back, and she rather suspected it would be her last. Her attempts at conversation tonight had been met with patronizing chuckles from the men, all of whom suggested she not concern herself with matters that were clearly beyond her understanding. The women had simply edged away, snapping a barrier of prettily painted vellum in front of their faces as if their fans could protect them from whatever affliction had damaged the Lady Josephine.
A part of her knew she should make more of an effort to find common ground with the ladies and gentlemen here. Say what was expected of a duke's sister, which, as far as Joss had been able to determine thus far, was conversation restricted to gowns, shoes, and the weather. It was making for an incredibly long, dull evening, and she was trying hard not to give in to outright boredom.
Which was why, when Joss had spotted the beautiful vase set upon its pedestal near the tall terrace windows, her interest had been immediately piqued, if only for the beacon of familiarity it represented. Yet as she drew nearer to the piece, her heart had sunk. Examination of the bottom of the vase had confirmed her fears. She knew she was obligated to seek out Lord Baustenbury so that she might have a private conversation regarding the vase, as unpleasant as the prospect was.
No one liked to be told their treasures were fakes.
But the rotund earl had found her first and demanded that she remove her hands from his property, without giving her a chance to explain what she had been doing. Further attempts to clarify her actions had left the earl enraged and barely coherent. At the moment Joss was quite afraid that the man might suffer some sort of spell if he didn't take a deep breath soon. His complexion certainly suggested an elevated—
The address came from behind her, and she froze.
It was a voice from the past, deepened by age, but still wrapped with memories of hot summer days and crystal-cold ponds. It was the smell of fresh-cut hay and cowslips as she traipsed through the pastures, keeping up as best she could. It was the warmth of an indulgent smile, echoes of laughter and teasing, and as the years slipped by, it was the exquisite torture of a casual comradeship she had both treasured and despised for its inadequacy.
Very slowly she turned around.
The years had honed Heath Hextall in ways that were equally beautiful and disappointing. He was impeccably groomed, his gold-blond hair cut fashionably, his dress understated but more striking for its simplicity. But the mischief that had once lit up his beautiful blue eyes had been thoroughly extinguished, and Joss wondered if the charm and roguish good humor she remembered in the boy made up any part of the man Heath had become. She searched his face for hints of the ever-present grin she remembered, but his features remained severe and remote. Yet all of that did nothing to stop the flood of pleasure that rushed through her the second she met his gaze.
"I was hoping to run into you tonight," he was saying smoothly, as though he had just seen her last week. "Your brother said you were here." He turned to the enraged earl. "Lord Baustenbury, the duke and I were just discussing what a splendid evening you've arranged. His Grace asked me to pass along his compliments. A rousing success were his exact words, I believe."
Joss continued to drink in the sight of Heath while wondering two things: First, since when had an orchestra badly out of tune and watered-down rum punch become hallmarks of an evening's success? And second, when had Heath Hextall become such an accomplished liar? Her brother had said no such thing. And what's more, he'd left the ball hours ago.
Lord Baustenbury had stopped his spluttering, if not appeased by Heath's praise, then certainly soothed by the purported compliments of a duke. He smoothed a hand over the front of his evening coat and gave Joss one last glare before making the appropriate responses. The crowd, sensing that the potential drama had been diffused, started to dissipate, trading heated whispers. Joss resisted the urge to roll her eyes as Baustenbury lurched away under a full sail of righteous superiority.
"Lady Josephine," Heath said, "perhaps I might offer you a refreshment at this juncture?"
"I've never been Lady anything to you, Hextall, so don't think to stand on formality on my account." Joss was aware she was grinning stupidly as she took his proffered arm, but she couldn't bring herself to care. Her unabashed joy at seeing Heath after all this time was too great. "Unless you'd prefer I address you now as Lord Boden."
Heath winced at the mention of his title. "Your brother told you then."
"Of course he did. Both Worth and my mother kept me updated on the happenings in London via post," Joss said easily. "Imagine my surprise when I learned you had become an earl. My lord." She gave him a saucy smile.
"No need for formality," he said after a moment's hesitation.
"Thank heavens. I've called you Hextall for so long, I don't think I'd remember to do otherwise," she teased. "It's so very good to see you again." God, but that sounded blindingly inadequate. It felt more as if she had just found a piece of home that she hadn't realized she'd been missing.
"And you." His whole being was stiff. "I must ask what you said to Baustenbury." Heath steered her away from the vase and in the direction of the refreshment table. "And what exactly were you doing with his antique?"
"I told him he'd been swindled," Joss explained. "That vase he maintains is from the Ming dynasty is no more from the Orient than I am." She paused. "Well, that might not be entirely true. I suppose it could have been made in China. But certainly not four hundred and fifty to one hundred and seventy-five years ago. It's a very good fake, but a fake nonetheless." She sighed. "Lord Baustenbury didn't seem very receptive to my concern. Perhaps you should speak to him later. He might listen to you."
- "Where have you been all my life, Kelly Bowen? If Julia Quinn, Sarah MacLean, and Lisa Kleypas were to extract their writing DNA, mix it in a blender, and have a love child, Kelly Bowen would be it."—HeroesandHeartbreakers.com
- "This story has it all: romance, suspense, wit, and Bowen's trademark smart and slightly quirky characters. Bowen's thrilling plot, spot-on pacing, and savvy characterization will delight her current fans and seduce new ones."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
- "4 Stars! Humor shines throughout Bowen's final Lords of Worth novel. Her atypical characters' adventures quickly move the story forward, enchanting readers with their escapades and captivating them with their sexual tension. Bowen is at the top of her game, and all readers could desire is more."—RT Book Reviews
- "Fans of Julia Quinn and Sarah MacLean will adore Kelly Bowen!"—Lauren Willig, New York Times bestselling author
- "Kelly Bowen is a fresh new voice with a shining future!"—Teresa Medeiros, New York Times bestselling author
- On Sale
- Aug 25, 2015
- Page Count
- 384 pages