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 it's Ethan who first finds Ross when he wakes up. This shaving scene was moved in the published version toward the end, and it's Grace who ends up shaving Ross. 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!
Ross winced at the pounding headache behind his eyes as he shoved himself out of bed with a soft groan. He stood steadier on his feet now, although his legs still trembled beneath him. Yet it was a decided improvement over the last time he rose from bed, when he’d confronted Grace Alden and nearly ended up on the floor.
Something told him he wouldn’t be the first man to fall at her feet.
Rubbing his hands over his face, he felt better than he had the last time he woke. Barely. His arms and legs moved less like immobile lead now and more like wobbly wooden beams. The swelling at his brow and lip had gone down, but the cuts were still painful to the touch. Fortunately, the ache at his side had dulled, no thanks to Mrs. Alden and her object lesson of how she could cripple him with just a finger’s poke. Damned brazen woman.
The pain was still intense enough that he didn’t risk bending at the waist, so he fished the chamber pot out from beneath the bed with his foot and flipped open the fall of his trousers to relieve himself. He nearly laughed at the scene he must have made. His face covered with cuts and bruises, two-days’ growth of scratchy beard, clad in borrowed trousers, pissing into a stranger’s chamber pot...Anyone who looked at him would have thought he was a homeless invalid.
Although at that moment, wasn’t he?
With a grimace at his situation, he shook himself off and fastened up his trousers, then nudged the pot back beneath the bed. He reached for the mug still sitting on the bedside table and sniffed the cold potion. Wrinkling his nose, he set it away. He wasn’t that weak.
He stiffly crossed the room to the dresser and stared at his reflection in the mirror.
Good God. It was worse than he’d suspected.
Between the beard and the bruises, he almost didn’t recognize himself. At least looking like this, he decided as he turned his head from side to side to assess the damage, no one would recognize him as the Earl of Spalding. Or as a human being.
“Thank God Christopher isn’t here to see this,” he muttered, wincing as he touched the cut at his brow. The last thing he needed was another argument with Kit about how he was foolishly placing himself into danger without any clear avenue of escape. For that matter, with no resources whatsoever to help him now that his mission had gone to hell. Just as Kit had predicted it would.
But his younger brother didn’t understand. How could he, when he had the whole of the Home Office at his disposal should he get himself into trouble, but Ross had only himself? The king and Court would certainly disavow him. They wouldn’t risk revealing the network of traitors he’d uncovered when others could continue after him.
Are you out of your mind? Kit had demanded when he’d learned what Ross had been doing. Have you lost all sense?
“Hypocrite.” Kit had some nerve to chastise Ross when he’d risked his own neck in service to his country time and again.
That became the biggest rift between them. The one they still hadn’t found a way to resolve. If anything, the past year had only made it worse, with Ross’s frequent trips to the continent and Kit’s repeated insistence on becoming a vicar. Just to irritate him.
A vicar! His little brother was as far from being a dedicated man of the cloth as King George himself. But he’d publicly announced it. And repeatedly. Yet what Kit didn’t dare share with the ton was the rest of his threat, one he’d leveled harshly without remorse—
I need a way to keep up with my big brother’s attempts to martyr himself.
Ross nearly throttled him right there in his study.
A movement by the doorway caught his attention. He slid his gaze sideways to find a young boy peeking curiously into the room. Not more than seven or eight, he was slight in build with delicate features and a tuft of mussed red-brown hair that stuck straight up on his head. His lavender-colored eyes noticed everything.
“Good afternoon,” Ross called out quietly, not wanting to frighten the lad.
To the boy’s credit, he didn’t flee. Instead he remained in the doorway, not yet brave enough to come into the room. “Hello.” Then he added, as if prompted countless times by his mother, “Sir.”
He smiled. “You must be Master Ethan.”
The boy laughed at the formality of that. “I’m Ethan Lockwood Alden,” he corrected. Then he scrunched up his nose. “Who are you?”
“Someone who lacks all good luck,” he muttered. He felt a twinge of guilt at dodging the lad’s question, but he didn’t know how much his mother wanted the boy to know about him.
“But you are lucky that you washed up onto the beach.” The boy grew grim. “The other man wasn’t so lucky.”
Coming face-to-face with death like that couldn’t have been good for the lad. “You’re the one who found me, then?” When the boy nodded, Ross carefully steered the conversation away from the dead Frenchman. “Thank you for saving my life. You were very brave.”
The boy shrugged, as if he did such things every day, but he fought to hide a proud expression threatening to blossom on his face.
Ross turned back to the mirror and rubbed at his scratchy beard.
“You don’t look so good,” the boy commented.
“I don’t feel so good.” Ross grimaced. “I’d look better with a shave.”
The boy’s face lit up eagerly. “Stay right here!”
He ran off before Ross could assure him that he didn’t have the strength—or the clothes—to go anywhere. A glance around the room told him that the lovely Mrs. Alden hadn’t had time to finish letting out the rest of the clothes for him, just as it gave no evidence of anything in the room that spoke of her late husband. Peculiar. And telling. Because even widows who lost their husbands decades before kept mementos in their bedrooms. But not here. No miniatures, no beloved belongings, no men’s personal items of any kind. Another intriguing layer to her puzzle.
But widowed or not, she certainly didn’t belong in a tiny fishing village.
Ethan came running back. In his hands he held a small wooden box that he shoved at Ross. “Here!”
The lad beamed. “My shaving kit.”
“I see.” Ross fought to keep his face serious. The boy was a decade away from experiencing his first whisker. He opened the lid. “That’s a fine kit you’ve got.”
Ethan nodded proudly. “It belonged to Mr. Walters. Mrs. Alice keeps it on her dresser in her bedroom.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t use it, then.”
“She won’t mind, honest. She said it would be mine once I got old enough.” Then Ethan frowned, a worry suddenly striking him. “You do know how to use it, don’t you?”
“I do.” Ross set the box on the dresser and pulled out the razor, then ran his thumb along the edge. Mrs. Walters had recently sharpened it on a strop, even though her husband was long dead. That was the kind of tender detail missing from Mrs. Alden’s room.
“How?” the boy puzzled.
“My father,” he mumbled, examining the razor’s handle. “He taught me when I was just a bit older than you.”
Ethan avoided his gaze. “I don’t have a father.”
The quiet comment tugged at Ross’s chest. He offered gently, “Shall I teach you, then?”
The boy hesitated, then nodded.
“Stand on that chair, over there by the window. We’ll need good light.”
As the boy scrambled onto the chair, Ross carried the shaving mug to the water basin and poured in a splash of water from the pitcher. He stirred up the shaving soap with the horse-hair brush into a thick lather, then tossed a towel over his shoulder.
“The first thing you do is work up a good lather,” he explained as he stopped in front of Ethan, then pretended to consider the lad’s non-existent beard as he took him by the chin and turned his face from side to side. “Hmm...Is this your first shave, Mr. Alden?”
“Yes, sir.” The boy’s lips trembled as he fought back a smile.
Which had Ross fighting back one of his own. “Then we’ll use the special side of the razor.”
Ethan frowned. “The special side?”
Ross nodded and began to lather the lad’s face with the brush, applying an exceedingly large amount of soap for effect. “When you’re older—after your mother tells you that it’s okay to start shaving, mind you—you’ll use the sharp side. But until she gives permission, you’ll use the off side. And only when she’s watching you.”
“Off side?” he asked, a tinge of disbelief lacing his voice.
“I’ll show you. Give me your finger.”
Ethan put out his hand, his forefinger extended. Ross held up the razor. “This is the sharp edge, you see?” When he nodded, Ross very carefully moved the blade over the boy’s fingertip at an angle so that he could feel the scrape of the blade but not be cut. “And this is the off side.” He repeated the movement, this time flipping the razor over and holding its wooden handle open at the joint so it wouldn’t fold up as he brushed the unsharpened side smoothly over the boy’s fingertip. “This is the side you’ll use until your mother says it’s okay to use the sharp side.” And Ross planned on telling her about the boy’s curiosity with the shaving kit so she could hide it away in the meantime. “Razors are sharp and very dangerous,” he warned. “They’re not to be played with, understand?”
The boy nodded soberly.
“Now.” Ross made great show of checking the lather on the boy’s downy cheeks and upper lip. “This is the most important part.”
“Yes?” Ethan asked, gravely serious.
“When another man is shaving you, whether barber or valet—”
“What’s a valet?”
“A very unfortunate man,” he quipped, remembering his own man. Hodges was currently stranded in Paris, although Ross hoped he’d had the sense to flee the country. “The most important thing is to not move. Not even a hairsbreadth. Understand?”
“Ah! You moved. Stand still, understand?”
Carefully holding his head immobile, the lad moved his eyes up and down in agreement.
Ross bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing.
This was nice, being with Ethan like this. Someday he would have to marry and sire an heir, or else leave the earldom to Kit and his progeny, which was not a welcome prospect for either of them. He hoped he could prove as good a father as his own.
He swiped the backside of the blade over the boy’s cheek, removing a wide swipe of lather. Only when he wiped off the blade on the towel and heard the boy heave out a sigh did he realize the lad had been holding his breath in an attempt to stay as still as stone.
“It’s okay to breathe,” Ross assured him, clearing away another strip of soap. “Just don’t move your head, or...”
He waited, and the boy’s curiosity got the better of him just as he knew it would. “Or what?”
“The barber will lop off your nose!”
He swiped the blade beneath Ethan’s nose, turning it just in time to fill his nostrils with lather. The boy startled, his eyes blooming wide with surprise. Ross laughed, and then the lad joined in, snorting out the soap.
“Ethan,” a quiet voice cut through their laughter and twined warmly down Ross’s spine. He knew before he turned—
He met her gaze. “Mrs. Alden.”
“Mother!” Ethan beamed from beneath the lather. “I’m getting my first shave!”
Her lips pressed together tightly as she entered the room. “So I see.” Her eyes flicked to Ross, then back to her son. “You shouldn’t be bothering our guest.”
“He isn’t bothering me,” Ross assured her. He’d enjoyed it.
“He’s showing me how to shave.” Ethan pointed at the razor in Ross’s hand. “With the off side.”
Despite arching a brow, she wisely didn’t ask for explanation. “Your books arrived.” She held out a small stack toward him. “Why don’t you take these downstairs and look through them?”
His slender shoulders slumped as he heaved out a sigh. “But I’m in the middle of a shave!”
Ross nearly laughed at that. How many gentlemen in London had used that same excuse to avoid speaking to the women in their lives?
“I think we got all your whiskers,” Ross assured him. When the boy went to jump down from the chair, he stopped him. “Wait.” He wiped the towel over Ethan’s face and removed the rest of the lather. “There you go, Mr. Alden. The best shave this side of Mayfair.”
The boy beamed, then grabbed the books from Grace’s hands and started to run out of the room. Her hand on his arm stopped him.
“What do you say?” she prompted.
Ethan beamed back at him. “Thank you, sir!”
Ross’s chest warmed. “My pleasure.”
Then the boy ran from the room, his feet thundering on the boards all the way down the stairs. He grinned at the boy’s exuberance.
But when he turned toward Grace, he found her staring at him. Frowning darkly.
His smile faded, and he cleared his throat. “He offered the shaving kit to me,” he explained, returning to the basin to splash more water into the mug for his own shave. He hoped she couldn’t see the wobbliness in his steps, his legs as firm as jelly. “He thought I looked terrible.”
She agreed, “Ghastly.”
“Thank you.” He grimaced as he stepped back toward the dresser and mirror, whipping up the lather with the brush. He propped a hip against the dresser to steady himself.
“You shouldn’t be out of bed,” she scolded gently.
“I’m fine.” He looked at his reflection—Good God, his face was ghastly—and began to lather up his cheeks. A decided improvement. His eyes flicked to her reflection in the mirror. “You’ve been to the village?”
She stiffened. Not so much than anyone else would have seen. But Ross noticed. “Yes.”
“And the mail coach?”
“Leaves tomorrow at noon.”
“Did you buy a seat for me?” He set down the brush and mug and reached for the razor.
“I’ll reimburse your expense,” he assured her, hesitating as he tried to get the best angle of the blade around the cuts and bruises on his face.
When was the last time he’d shaved himself? Years, no doubt. He gritted his teeth and took a tentative swipe at his jaw—
“Here.” With a sigh of exasperation, she held out her hand. “Let me do that before you cut off an ear.”
That stung his male pride, even if it were most likely true given his current condition. “I’m quite capable of shaving myself.”
She shot him a dubious look. “Haven’t you shed enough blood already?” She pointed at the wooden chair by the window. “Sit.”
Conceding that she was right, he sat and leaned back the way Hodges preferred him to do, lifting his face into the air. She applied more lather to his jaw, then opened the razor and raised it to his cheek. The sharp side.
He chuckled nervously. “Do you know what you’re doing?”
“Well,” she murmured as she slid the blade deftly over his cheek in slow, short strokes, shaving away the stiff beard beneath. “Last week, I scraped all the hair off a pig’s head we’d planned on making into soup.” She wiped the blade on the towel still draped over his shoulder, then raised it back toward his face. “In my experience, there’s not much difference between a dead pig and an earl.”
He grabbed her wrist and stilled her hand, the blade an inch from his throat.