HOW THE EARL ENTICES
I wrote this book twice. The first version simply did not work, so I scrapped it and started over. In the original, Ross and Ethan have a lot of interaction, and at the end, Ethan runs away to London to make Ross marry Grace. Unfortunately, the original version didn't work. But there was something just so precious about Ethan and Ross in this scene, and I knew I had to share it with you. Enjoy!
Silence and stillness settled over the house. With a long sigh, he rested his head on the back of the chair and closed his eyes.
Christopher was right, Ross knew it in his gut. The king would appoint him as an ambassador, perhaps even giving him the newly vacated post in France, now that its former occupant sat behind bars in Newgate awaiting trial and certain execution. It would be the apex of his diplomatic career, one befitting the duty and loyalty he’d shown to his country…and exactly what he’d wanted since he joined the Court of St. James’s a decade ago.
But now, he also wanted Grace.
All day he’d been too focused on the ambassador and avenging Sir Henry’s murder to let her slip unbidden into his mind and distract him. But now she returned with the force of a punch to his gut.
Rather, it was the absence of her in his life that hit him. Because she should have been right here waiting for him when he returned, to welcome him home and put him to bed.
Instead, she was half a country away, and he was nursing a drink alone.
Nothing odd about that; he often finished the evening with a drink in his study. Alone. But never before had the silence and stillness of the house bothered him as it did tonight, because he now knew what it was like to have a woman’s warmth, affection, and trust, only to have it taken away.
A soft scratch at the door, followed by the clearing of a throat. “Your lordship?”
His butler Wilkins. Most likely there at his valet’s urging. “Tell Hodges I’m staying in for the rest of the evening. I’ll take a bath and a dinner tray in my rooms.”
“Certainly, sir. But you have a caller.”
Without bothering to open his eyes, he made a half-hearted dismissive wave with his hand. “No visitors this evening.” He added, “Or tomorrow.”
All day the house had been bombarded with friends, well-wishers, and other bloodsuckers simply looking to use him to gain advantage for themselves, and enough of them to cover the silver salver on the entry hall table beneath a mound of calling cards. He didn’t have the energy nor the desire to sit through stilted social calls. Certainly not tonight.
“But this one is unusual, sir,” Wilkins ventured, undeterred.
Ross opened one eye and crooked its brow.
“A boy,” the butler explained. “Master Ethan Alden.”
“Ethan Lockwood Alden,” the boy corrected from the hall behind the butler as he stuck his head around the corner of the doorway.
Ross bolted up from the chair. He rushed past Wilkins to grab the boy into his arms and laughingly whirled him in a circle, all his fatigue instantly gone. His heart leapt with happiness. Grace had come to London! She’d decided to be with him after all, and he could barely contain the raw pleasure surging through him.
“Where’s your mother?” Ross released Ethan and ran into the hall. “Grace! Why didn’t you—”
He froze mid-step. Grace wasn’t there.
He charged down the hall to the drawing room, only to find it empty. When he returned—taking desperate glances into each room he passed, although his sinking heart knew he wouldn’t find her in any of them—Ethan stood in the doorway, his little chin lifted into the air defiantly, and his young eyes blazing.
Ross stopped in front of him, and the happiness he’d felt just heartbeats earlier melted into cold dread. “Where is your mother, Ethan?”
The boy folded his arms across his chest. “Do you care?”
That rocked him back on his heels. “Of course I do.”
“You made her cry!”
And that ripped the rug completely out from under him.
He knelt down onto the balls of his feet, bringing his eyes level with Ethan’s angry ones. “What happened, Ethan?” he forced himself to ask calmly, although his heart lurched into his throat at the thought of Grace in pain. “Tell me.”
“Mother came home and she was in tears and it was all because of you!”
The words rushed out, with such intensity that the boy shook. If Ethan had been older, Ross was certain he’d have found himself at the end of a dueling pistol.
Then he choked out, his bottom lip wobbling as tears welled in his eyes, “And because of me.”
“Slow down,” Ross cajoled gently. He placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “What happened? Tell me, and start from the beginning.”
Sniffling back tears, Ethan nodded and told Ross everything he’d overheard at the cottage window. Each word stabbed into his chest, so did every choked-back sob.
Ethan finished his tale, terrifying Ross to death with how he’d sneaked onto the mail coach and then asked his way, stranger after stranger, to Spalding House. It wasn’t unusual for young boys his age to travel alone to and from school, and he and Kit had done something similar when they were boys. But what Ethan did in order to find him…Jesus.
Needing time to digest all of that, Ross rose to his full height and led the boy back into the study. He carried his glass back to the tray on his desk and reached for the bottle of cognac, to top off his drink. Good Lord, his hands were shaking!
“Does your mother know where you are?” Ross asked, trying to sound nonchalant when what he wanted to do was toss the boy over his knee and spank him for the worry and panic he must be putting Grace through.
The boy nodded. “I left a note.”
“Good.” If what he’d wanted to do was give his mother apoplexy. Ross glanced at Wilkins as the butler appeared in the doorway, there to ask if he wanted any refreshments brought in, as he would have done with any other guest at Spalding House. “Wilkins, would you send for James Eady?”
With a glance at Ethan, Wilkins nodded and excused himself with a short bow, knowing exactly what Ross wanted with the young groom.
The boy drew a deep breath and rushed out, “And I’ll go away to school, if I have to, so I’m not in the way.”
Ross paused as he reached for Kit’s empty glass, not even pretending to understand the reasoning behind that. “You’re not in anyone’s way, Ethan. And I don’t think that sending you away would make your mother happy.”
“But you marrying us would.”
At that, he spilled cognac onto the tray. With his heart flipping somersaults, he steadied his hands and looked up at the boy, who didn’t seem at all affected by the earth-shaking comment he’d just nonchalantly leveled.
Ross blinked. “Pardon?”
“You need to marry us,” Ethan doggedly repeated as he took a hesitant step toward Ross. “Then Mother will be happy again, the way she was when you were with us in Sea Haven, and she won’t cry anymore.”
If only it were that simple. Recovering his senses, he splashed a swallow’s worth of the brandy into Kit’s empty glass and heavily deluded it with water.
“I think you and I should have a talk.” Ross held out the glass to the lad and nodded toward the two chairs in front of the fire. “Man to man.”
The boy’s chest puffed out with pride, and he gladly took the glass, then hopped up into one of the leather chairs. Ross grimaced—Ethan’s feet didn’t touch the floor.
He settled into the chair facing the boy and took a moment to sip at his glass. He’d been raked across the coals before by ladies’ fathers, but this was the first time he’d ever had to face a son. It was damnably disconcerting.
“I care about your mother—and you—a great deal,” Ross began.
Ethan beamed. “I know.”
That smile tugged at Ross’s chest. “But our lives are complicated. Marriage isn’t an option for your mother and I.”
The smile wavered, then faded completely. “Why not?”
“Well, for one, you and your mother live in Sea Haven, and I live here, or at my country estate when I’m not in London.. That’s at least two days’ travel between us. What wife would want to be separated that far from her husband?”
A furrow formed between his brow as he considered that, then he nodded and said solemnly, “That is a problem.”
Ross smiled faintly with relief at winning the argument. “Yes. You see—”
“So we’ll live here.”
His heart skipped. “Here?”
The boy nodded and raised his eyes toward the ceiling, contemplating the grand town house around him. “You do have more than one bedroom, don’t you? Our cottage does. Mother and me and Alice could all share one, and you could have the other.”
Ross stared at him. Then blinked. “It’s not about the number of bedrooms—”
“Mother can make her lace right here in front of this fire, and Alice can open a new shop next door.”
Amusement tickled at Ross. What would the ton say to having a country apothecary open shop on their tree-lined square? “Not here, I’m afraid.”
His young face twisted with confusion. “People don’t get sick in London?”
“Well, yes, they do, but…” Knowing he was about to concede the point to the boy, Ross tried a different tack. “The villagers in Sea Haven need Alice there.”
“Mrs. Dawson can sell the medicine from her store. Mrs. Alice says that Mrs. Dawson won’t be happy until she owns the whole darned village. So this would make her happy, too.”
Ross stared silently at the boy. How was it possible that he was losing this argument? He took a swallow of cognac.
“People who marry should love each other,” he said quietly, looking down into his glass. “And your mother doesn’t love me.”
“Oh yes, she does! She said so.”
His eyes snapped up, and his heart lurched into his throat so hard that he winced. “She did? When?”
“She told Alice so. That she loves you.” He repeated slowly, as if reciting a school lesson, “More than she’s loved any man in her life.” Then he added quickly, and rather territorially, “But she didn’t mean more than me, you know.”
“Of course not.” He fought back a silly grin as his chest warmed. Grace loved him. He could barely believe it.
“And you love her, right?”
He couldn’t put voice to the emotions swirling inside him, not when he couldn’t do anything about them. “Everyone loves your mother,” he dodged.
“So you can be married, and we’ll all live here, and I won’t have to go away to school!” Once more beaming with happiness, Ethan began to swing his legs excitedly in the air.
Ross shook his head. “Your mother and I are too different to be happy together.”
“I know.” He took a swallow of his drink, then made a scrunched up face at the taste. “You’re a man, and she’s my mother.” He sighed as he put the unwanted drink down on the little side table. “Mrs. Alice says men and women are as different as cats and horses.”
Ross suspected that Ethan had been spending far too much time eavesdropping on Alice Walters for his own good. “It isn’t that.” He leaned forward, elbows on knees and holding the glass between his hands. “We’re different in other ways.”
The boy frowned. “How?”
“I’m going to be an ambassador,” he admitted, hitting at the heart of the dilemma. “And I can’t be married to your mother and be an ambassador.”
Ross hesitated. Because ambassadors cannot marry fishermen’s widows…But to put voice to that made him sound like an elitist arse. “I just can’t.”
It was Ethan’s turn to blink at him with bewilderment. “But you’re already an earl. Isn’t that good enough for you?”
Ross stared at him, skinned raw by that innocent question.
A soft knock sounded at the door, and Wilkins appeared in the doorway. “James Eady is waiting in the hall, my lord.”
Thank God. Grateful to the butler for interrupting a conversation Ross had lost all control over, he tossed back the last of the brandy and set the glass aside, then pushed himself out of the chair before the lad could ensnare him further. And make him feel like an even bigger arse.
“You have a brilliant career ahead of you in parliament, Ethan,” he mumbled to the boy as he crossed to his desk. “Wilkins, would you please show Master Ethan upstairs and introduce him to Hodges? I think a bath and change of clothes for both of us are in order.” He smiled at the boy. “So we can venture out as two bachelor men on the town.”
Excitement glowed on Ethan’s face. “Honest?”
Ross winked at him. “Tell Hodges I said to shave you with the off side of the razor.”
The boy laughed, then bounced out of the study in Wilkins’s wake. He stopped suddenly in the doorway and looked back.
“When you marry my mother,” he asked quickly in afterthought, “you won’t send me away to school, will you?”
Ross’s throat tightened with sudden emotion. “Never.”
After Ethan left, Ross stood there for several moments, staring after the boy and taking deep breaths to steady himself.
Marrying Grace wasn’t as easy as Ethan made it out to be, damn it. It was far more complicated than simply having enough bedrooms and loving each other, far more problematic than learning to be content with what he already possessed as a peer.
He blew out a harsh breath and sank into this desk chair. He reached for a piece of linen stationery and ink well. “Eady, come in.”
The young groom twisted his tweed cap nervously in his hands as he nervously entered the room. When he saw Ross, he tugged at his forelock in courtesy. “Your lordship.”
Ross cast a quick glance at him as he dipped his steel pen into the ink. “Didn’t you used to be a jockey in the Ealing races?”
He frowned, puzzled at that question. “Yes, sir.”
“Good. That makes you the fastest rider among my grooms.”
Repeatedly dipping the steel stick as he wrote, Ross penned a quick message to Grace to let her know that Ethan was safe and with him in London, that he would bring the boy home to her himself as soon as he could. And not to worry.
He grimaced at that last as he signed the missive, then blotted it. Of course she would worry. The boy could be surrounded by guards in the Tower, and she would worry every second until she could see him again.
“I need you to deliver this message.” He folded it, then held the wax stick in the candle flame until a drop fell onto the paper to seal it closed. He pressed his mark into the wax, then waved the paper to quickly harden the seal. “And leave tonight.”
He scratched out across the front of the note…Mrs. Grace Alden, Sea Haven Village, Pegwell Bay, Kent. “Take our fastest horse and get funds from Wilkins for your trip. It’s imperative that this message be delivered to Mrs. Alden as quickly as possible. Ride through the night if necessary, but do not risk your own personal safety.” He held up the note and leveled a hard gaze on the young groom. “Understand?”
Eady took the message with a determined nod. “Yes, sir.”
Ross leaned back in his leather chair and heaved out a deep breath as the groom hurried from the room.
His heart pounded at the chance to see Grace again. To be able to spend time with her again in Sea Haven, and this time not as a fugitive running from the law but as the peer he was. No more hiding. No more pretending to be what he wasn’t. He would spoil her, treat her like a princess, buy her every scrap of ribbon in the mercantile just so that old biddy Mrs. Dawson would never belittle her again.
And then…what? He had no idea.
But Ethan was right about one thing—they belonged together. And he’d be damned before her let her get away again.
“Where are they?” Grace wrung her hands and continued to pace the length of the Spalding House drawing room. They’d been there for over an hour, waiting for Ross to return. At least the butler hadn’t refused them entry, because she would have been pacing on the footpath in front of the house if he had. And the man had been kind enough to tell her that Ethan had arrived safe and sound on the earl’s doorstep several hours earlier. Thank God.
“They’ll be back when they’re back,” Alice said calmly from her seat on the blue velvet settee. “And you’re going to wear a path so deep in that rug that we’ll be charged for replacing it.”
Grace slanted an irritated glance in Alice’s direction and kept pacing. Chasing after Ethan for nearly two days had exhausted her to the bone and frazzled her nerves.
“He’s fine, Grace,” Alice reassured her as she rose and took Grace’s shoulders in her hands. “He’s with the earl, and that man will protect him. I know it. So sit and have some of those biscuits and tea the butler was kind enough to bring up for us ‘fore it turns ice cold.”
“No, thank you.” Grace pressed her hand against her belly. She couldn’t stomach the thought of food, not until she saw for herself that Ethan was safe. For the past ten years she’d so carefully avoided everything to do with her past life, only to find herself right in the middle of the lion’s den. Every passing minute here put her further on edge. “I need to keep moving. You can understand that.”
“Aye.” Alice’s face darkened solemnly. “Unless you mean running away again. That I won’t let you do.”
Grace stiffened. “Only if I have to.”
“No. You don’t have to.” Alice tossed up her hands in exasperation. “You can’t keep running away from the past. You’ll never have a moment o’ peace if you do.”
“I’m not running from the past.” The past kept catching up with her.
Alice shook her head, disbelieving. “You’ve got a real chance now to—”
The drawing room doors slid open. “Mother!”
Ethan ran into the room toward Grace, who dropped to her knees to embrace him as he threw himself into her arms. The tears she’d been holding back since leaving Sea Haven let loose, and she wrapped her arms around him to make certain he was safe. All of her shook with relief as she pressed him close.
“You’re hurting me!” he squeaked.
She released her hold but didn’t let go of him as she reached up to brush his hair off his forehead. Her vision blurred from her hot tears. “Are you all right?”
She clutched at his shoulders and fought the urge to shake him. “Don’t ever run away like that again, do you hear me? I was worried sick about you. So was Alice. We had the entire village looking for you.”
“I’m sorry.” He lowered his face toward the rug. “But I had to see Mr. Thomas—I mean, the earl. You were crying, and I knew it was all my fault.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” she choked out.
He whispered, “But you said—you said you couldn’t marry him because of me.”
Oh God, he’d overhead that! Guilt swelled inside her. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Then how did you mean it?”
She knew better than to answer that, especially with Ross watching and listening. He might be leaning his shoulder casually against the doorframe as if he didn’t have a concern in the world, but she knew better. Nothing slipped past that man’s attention. And if he thought she’d been crying over him, wanting to marry him no less, she’d be too mortified to bear it.
Instead, she dodged, “You could have been hurt traveling all that way by yourself.” Or worse.
“I wasn’t by myself. There were lots of people on the coach with me.”
“I think your mother means traveling without her or Mrs. Walters,” Ross interjected quietly.
Ethan scowled at all three adults. “I’m not a baby.”
She cupped his face in her hands and said with every bit of resolve inside her, “You will always be my baby, do you understand? And I never want anything to happen to you. Because if it does, then I will cry again, and I will never stop crying.”
His bottom lip quivered. “I’m sorry, Mother. I was only trying to help.”
“I know.” She kissed his forehead, resisting the urge to yank him to her and hold him tight again. Her sob-racked voice emerged as a throaty rasp. “Do not ever do that again.”
His eyes glistened with watery tears, and he pressed his lips tightly together to keep from crying as he nodded. Then he asked in a shaking whisper, “Will I be punished?”
“No.” She couldn’t bear punishing him for normal, everyday misbehaviors. Having him safely back with her now pulsed so much relief through her that she couldn’t even contemplate punishing him for this. “I think you’ve learned your lesson.”
He threw his arms around her neck and gave her a quick hug, then he stepped quickly back from her arms, as if afraid she’d change her mind and banish him to his room for the next ten years. Which was not a bad idea, now that she considered it.
Ross straightened. He crossed his muscular arms over his chest, then widened his stance. Grace caught her breath at the sight of him standing in such a commanding posture in this richly decorated room, wearing clothes that would have cost five times what a fisherman made in a year in Sea Haven, and exuding the authority and power of a man born to the peerage.
She felt as if a veil had been lifted, as if she were truly seeing him for the first time. And it shook her to her soul.
“A good man doesn’t worry his mother,” he called out. “Does he, Ethan?”
“No, sir.” Then Ethan mimicked him, crossing his arms and raising his chin with a look of slight impudence so imperial that it startled her. In that stuttering heartbeat, she saw his father in him, and it stole her breath away.
She swallowed hard to gather herself, and her gaze raked over her son from head to toe, sending her heart into a fearful pounding.
Ethan frowned. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“It’s just—I—you—” she stammered before seizing upon a good answer. “Where did you get those clothes?”
“Mr. Hodges,” he announced proudly, then struck a dandyish pose as posturing as any Regency Street gentleman. He looked like a miniature version of a peer in elegant finery, right down to a ruby cravat pin at his throat. Had the sight of him dressed like that not terrified her so, she might have wept at all those clothes symbolized—the life he was meant to have, but now never would.
“My valet,” Ross clarified, misunderstanding Grace’s silence. “He took in some of my old clothes from my Harrow days and improvised the rest.”
“ ‘Cause we had to look deba—deba—” Stuttering over the word, he glanced at Ross for help.
“Debonair,” Ross supplied with a lazy grin.
“I see,” she forced out, her nervousness rising. It wasn’t Ethan appearing debonair that she worried about, but his resemblance to George.
“Mr. Thomas and me—I mean, the earl and me—went out as bachelor gentlemen on the town.” He threw a wide grin over his shoulder at Ross, who remained by the doorway to let her have her reunion with her son. “We ate roast pheasant and drank whiskey and gambled!”
She arched a brow at Ross. “Did you now?”
“It was deuces!” Ethan shouted out in excitement.
“Yes,” she said tightly, “I’m certain it was.”
At the new tension filling the room, Ross stepped up to Ethan’s side and rested a large hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Ethan has a room upstairs where he dressed.”
Ethan leaned in and whispered happily into Grace’s ear, “The earl has four bedrooms upstairs. One for each of us!”
Not pretending to understand that, she raised her perplexed gaze to meet Ross’s. Not looking away from her, he turned his head slightly to call out to Alice. “Mrs. Walters, would you like for Ethan to show you his room? Maybe you could take him upstairs, and he can tell you all about his day, while Mrs. Alden and I remain here.” Then he added, “To talk.” But his words were made even more rakish for all their attempt at propriety.
A shiver twined down her spine. The predacious gleam in his eyes told her that he certainly wanted her alone, with no intention of talking.
“Certainly, yer lordship.” Alice hurried to take Ethan’s hand and lead him away, understanding completely what Ross wanted from her. And blast it, readily giving it to him, too. She’d rushed Ethan so quickly from the room that Grace didn’t have time to think of an excuse to keep them there with her.
The butler slid the pocket doors closed behind them, leaving Grace alone with Ross.
“You took my son to a club?” she demanded. Fresh panic and worry began to swallow her.
He quirked a crooked grin at her. “Never too early for a man to learn to be a rake.”
“That is not funny.” She blinked rapidly to keep the stinging tears at bay. “You took him to a club?”
“To White’s.” Keeping his voice calm and solemn, he crossed the room to her. “But it’s not what you think.”
“I think you took him onto St. James’s Street and surrounded him with dukes and earls and—” Oh dear God…viscounts.
“It was fine.” He took her shoulders in his hands. “We had dinner at the club. I gave him a swallow of some very watered down port and then let him have two tosses of the dice at hazard, ensuring that he lost at both. He was by my side the whole evening, and he never spoke to anyone of questionable character.”
“Who was there?” she demanded, fighting down her rising panic. “Who saw him?”
He gave a puzzled shrug of his shoulder. “Chatham and Chesney, St. James and his brother the colonel, my cousins the Carlisles…”
If George had been there, if he or any of his friends had seen Ethan and made the connection— Terror gripped her so fiercely that she could barely breathe. “Who else?”
“I don’t know. The usual crowd.” His brow furrowed. “What does it matter? It was White’s. He was safe there.”
An agonized cry tore from her at the irony of that. Oh, the last place he was safe!
“Grace,” he murmured, taking her into his arms to calm her. “Ethan is fine. He’s safe and unharmed. You can stop worrying now, love.”
She shook her head and squeezed her eyes closed. Hot tears clung to her lashes. “I can’t! I can’t ever stop—”
He silenced her with a tender touch of his lips to hers.