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The Earl’s Dilemma
He’s running out of time…
James Hargrave, Earl of Arden, urgently needs a wife. He’s resigned himself to a marriage of convenience and has even chosen a bride: Kate Honeycourt, his best friend’s sister.
Kate has been on the shelf for years. Why, then, does she turn him down? Surely she can’t be holding out for a love match?
But Kate has a proposal of her own: she’ll find James a bride he can fall in love with.
Armed with a list of requirements, Kate sets out to find James the perfect wife. But things don’t progress as either of them have planned…
“A lovely, well-developed central romance between two strongly characterized protagonists. Sweetly sensual. I really enjoyed The Earl’s Dilemma.”
~ Caz @ All About Romance
“Utterly delightful friends-to-lovers story. This is by far the funniest that I’ve read, and the most adorable too.”
~ Buried Under Romance
KATE HONEYCOURT WAS sitting on the floor of the priest’s hole when he arrived. The library door opened and she heard his voice, and her brother’s. She started, spattering ink over the page of her diary. James was here!
Her gaze jerked down to the diary in her lap. I shall, of course, treat James as if my feelings go no deeper than friendship. That goes without saying. But why does it grow no easier? One would think, after all these years, that— The sentence ended in a splotch of ink.
The voices became louder. Her secret hiding place had become a trap.
Kate dropped the quill and hastily snuffed the candle. The hot wick stung her fingertips. She blinked and for a moment could see nothing. Then her eyes adjusted to the gloom. The darkness wasn’t absolute. A tiny streak of light came from the peephole.
“―can’t offer you any entertainment,” her brother said.
Kate rose to her knees in the near-darkness. The diary slid off her lap with a quiet, rustling thump that made her catch her breath.
“I don’t expect to be entertained!” James sounded affronted. “Honestly, Harry, what do you take me for? You didn’t invite me. I invited myself!”
Kate leaned forward until her eyes were level with the peephole. She saw her brother, Harry, the Viscount Honeycourt.
“Don’t cut up stiff,” Harry said, grinning. “You’re always welcome. You know that.” He walked across the room to where the decanters stood. “Sherry? Scotch? Brandy?”
“Brandy,” James said. He came into Kate’s line of sight and her pulse gave a jerky little skip. His back was towards her, but his tallness and the strong lines of his body were unmistakable. He ran a hand through his black hair and turned. Kate’s pulse jerked again at the sight of his face, with its wide, well-shaped mouth and slanting black eyebrows. His features were strong and balanced, handsome, but some quirk of their arrangement gave him an appearance of sternness. The planes of his cheek and angle of his jaw were austere. When lost in thought or frowning, his expression became quite intimidating. She’d seen footmen back away rather than disturb him. The sternness was misleading; anyone who knew James well knew that his face was made for laughter.
Had been, Kate corrected herself. James hadn’t laughed during the past months and today his face was unsmiling. He looked tired, and as always when not smiling, stern.
Kate clasped her hands together and wished she knew how to make him laugh again. She watched as he walked over to one of the deep, leather armchairs beside the fire and sat. He stretched his long legs out and leaned his head back and closed his eyes, his weariness almost tangible.
“Your timing is excellent,” Harry said, a brandy glass in each hand. Late afternoon sunlight fell into the room. The crystal gleamed and the brandy was a deep, glowing amber. “My cousin Augusta has gone to Bath for two months.”
James opened his eyes. “I count myself very fortunate,” he said, as he accepted a glass.
“So do we!” Harry sat so that Kate could only see the back of his head, his hair as bright red as her own. “Well? Your letter didn’t explain a thing. What’s this matter of urgency?”
Kate drew back slightly from the peephole. Should she cover her ears? Whatever Harry and James were about to discuss was none of her business. She raised her hands. To eavesdrop would be—
“Marriage,” James said.
Kate flinched. Her heart seemed to shrink in her chest. She’d known this moment must come one day, but that didn’t stop it hurting. James is getting married. She lowered her hands and leaned closer for a better view of the library.
“Ah.” Harry settled back in his chair. “You’ve found a suitable wife?”
James’s laugh was short and without humor. “No,” he said, and swallowed some of his brandy.
“You want me to help you? Is that it?”
James frowned at his glass. “My birthday’s soon,” he said. “You know I must marry before then.”
Kate wrinkled her brow. What?
“You could let Elvy Park and the fortune go,” Harry said in an offhand tone. “I’m sure your cousin would appreciate them.”
James transferred his frown from the brandy to Harry. “Would you?”
Her brother, possessor of an extensive estate and a comfortable fortune, shook his head. “No.”
“Of course not. And neither will I. I’ll marry before my thirtieth birthday, but . . .” James rubbed a hand over his face and sighed. “I wanted— Oh, God, I know it sounds stupid, Harry, but I wanted what my brother had.”
He didn’t need to explain what that was. Harry knew as well as she did: a love match.
Her brother didn’t scoff. “It doesn’t sound stupid,” he said quietly. “It’s what I want.”
It was what Kate wanted, too, but she’d given up hope of it years ago.
James acknowledged Harry’s reply with a brief, bitter movement of his lips. He said nothing, but drank deeply from his glass.
“Are you certain the will is legal?” Harry asked.
“It’s legal.” James’s smile was humorless. “Edward tried to find a way around it, but the lawyers said there wasn’t one. And then he met Cordelia and it didn’t matter.” His face twisted. “Oh, God! If only he―”
For a moment Kate thought that James might cry. The notion shocked her. Even after the tragedy last year, when a carriage accident had taken the lives of his father and brother and sister-in-law, she’d not seen James lose control of his emotions. His face and manner had been composed, but his eyes . . . She’d wept in the privacy of her bedchamber for the silent grief in his eyes.
James shook his head, his expression bleak, and swallowed the last of the brandy. “I never expected to inherit Elvy Park and—and everything else. Never wanted to! But damn it, Harry, I’m not going to give it all away now that I’ve got it.”
“No.” Harry sighed and got to his feet. He walked over to the brandy decanter. “More?”
Kate’s knees began to ache from kneeling on the hard floor. She shifted slightly and wished she’d brought a cushion in with her.
“You’ve got two months to find a bride,” her brother said, as he refilled James’s glass.
“So what the devil are you doing in Yorkshire?” Leather creaked as Harry sat down again. “The Season has started. You should be in London.”
“Débutantes.” An expression of distaste crossed James’s face.
“What’s wrong with débutantes?”
James swallowed a mouthful of brandy. “You don’t get mobbed by them—and their mamas.”
Harry laughed. “Of course not! I’m not half so well-favored as you.”
Much as Kate loved her brother, she had to admit he was correct. Poor Harry had the Honeycourt red hair and freckles. James had no such flaws, unless the stern cast of his features could be called one. He’d always been handsome, but in his uniform, with his grin and his slanting black eyebrows, he’d been astonishingly so. She had heard—with no surprise—that he’d cut a swath through ballrooms in England and abroad, despite being a younger son with no title or fortune.
That status was a thing of the past, as was his military career. James no longer wore a hussar’s colorful uniform. His riding-dress was somber-hued, the breeches dun-colored and the coat a dark brown. The clothes were elegant and expensive, as befitted an earl, but not dashing. Even so, he looked finer than any gentleman Kate had ever seen.
James’s appearance wasn’t the only reason débutantes and their mamas sought him out, but Harry didn’t mention the earldom or the fortune. “What’s wrong with débutantes?” he asked again.
“I could have my pick of a dozen of them,” James said, frowning at his brandy.
“Only a dozen?”
James looked up. His mouth curved into a reluctant smile. “All right, I could have almost any débutante I wanted.” The smile faded. “But I don’t want one.”
“I don’t want a chit straight out of the schoolroom.”
James shrugged. “They giggle too much.”
“Nonsense!” Harry said. “A young and pretty miss would be just the thing.”
“I can get young and pretty from an opera dancer,” James said, exasperation in his voice. “We’re talking about a wife.”
“So, I want a wife whose company I can tolerate. Damn it, Harry, I’ll be spending the rest of my life with the woman. I want her to be someone I like!”
“And you can’t like a débutante? Come on, James, that’s a bit steep.”
“Remember Maria Brougham?” James asked, swirling the brandy in his glass.
Kate had heard the name before, but she couldn’t recall the context. Harry clearly did. He nodded. “Those eyes,” he said. “That mouth. And her breasts!”
“Yes,” James said. “Exactly. And look at her now. She’s become a regular Devil’s daughter. Poor Edgeton lives in terror of her tongue.”
“She’s still beautiful,” Harry protested, while Kate realized who Maria Brougham was: the Duke of Edgeton’s wife. A woman with the figure of a Venus and face of an angel—and the sharp tongue and uncertain temper of a shrew.
“Certainly,” James agreed. “But would you want to be married to her?”
“No,” Harry said. He tapped his fingers on his knee. “I offered for her, you know.”
Kate’s eyes widened. Her brother had offered for the waspish Duchess of Edgeton?
James grunted as he looked at his brandy. “So did I.”
Kate blinked, astonished. She wasn’t sure what surprised her most; that James had proposed, or that Maria Brougham had refused him. How could anyone refuse an offer of marriage from James?
“She held out for a duke,” Harry said, his tone faintly resentful.
James glanced up. A hint of a smile touched his mouth. “For which we should both be thankful.”
Harry made a brief sound of agreement.
James eyed him, and Kate watched as his smile widened. “I remember you fought a duel over her.”
Harry cleared his throat. “Mmm.”
“Some slur on her appearance. What was it? Her lips?”
“Her eyelashes,” Harry said, shifting uncomfortably in his armchair. Kate stared at the back of his head. Her brother had fought a duel over the Duchess of Edgeton’s eyelashes?
James grinned, and Kate’s breath caught in her throat. She hadn’t seen him look like that in a long time. “Her eyelashes.”
“You fought a duel over a pair of boots.”
James’s grin faded to a reminiscent smile. “So I did. I’d forgotten. Lord, what a young fool I was.”
“And you broke Camden’s jaw over that opera dancer.”
The amusement left James’s face. His features became stern once more. “Bella,” he said. “Yes, I did.” He looked at his brandy and swirled it gently in the glass. “He hit her, you know.”
“I liked Bella,” James said. “She was . . .” His voice trailed off.
James shrugged a shoulder. “Worth it.”
“If you say so.”
James looked up. His brown eyes seemed very dark and his mouth was almost smirking. “I do,” he said, and something in his voice made Kate’s cheeks flush hot.
The library was silent for a moment, apart from logs shifting in the fire. Harry cleared his throat again. “So, not a débutante?”
James’s face became blank. “No,” he said. “A woman whose character is formed. I want to know what I’m getting. I have no wish for a wife whose company will grow irksome.”
“And you want my help. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”
James looked at Harry. It seemed to Kate that he didn’t wish to speak. “No,” he said finally. “It’s not.”
“Not?” Harry sat up straighter, his tone baffled. “What then?”
James frowned past Harry at the wall. It was as if he stared directly at Kate. She shrank back in the priest’s hole.
“I’m here because I want to marry your sister,” James said.
Harry choked on his brandy.
Kate jerked back, knocking over the candlestick. She reached for it desperately, blindly, and missed. The muted clang went unheard beneath Harry’s coughing.
She knelt in the dark, unable to breathe, while the candlestick rolled across the floor of the priest’s hole. James wanted to marry her?
“You want to marry Kate?” Harry said, when he’d regained his breath. “Why?”
Yes, why? Kate leaned closer to the peephole again and looked at James’s face. There was a crease between his eyebrows. His lips were pressed tightly together.
“Because I think we should deal tolerably well together.”
She closed her eyes. No.
“That’s no reason to marry,” Harry said.
“I have to marry.” James’s tone was flat. “And I like Kate better than any other lady of my acquaintance. I know her. She’s not going to turn into a shrew on me.”
“But you don’t love her.”
For a brief, foolish second there was hope. James’s words extinguished it: “Of course I don’t.”
“James . . .” Harry sounded worried. “You’re my best friend and I’d be pleased to have you for a brother, but―”
“You think it’s a bad idea.”
“I want you to be happy. Both of you. And I don’t know whether this . . .” Kate opened her eyes to see Harry shaking his head.
“It’s the only choice I have left. Damn it, Harry, if it must be a marriage of convenience, then I want a wife I can tolerate.” James’s voice was hard and his expression would have sent a dozen footmen scurrying for cover.
Tolerate. Something in Kate’s chest clenched miserably.
“But would you be happy?”
“Happy?” The word sounded bitter in James’s mouth. He shrugged. “Why not?”
“She’d be mistress of Elvy Park. She’d have a title and a husband who respected her.”
“Respect,” Harry said. He shook his head. “Respect is all very well, but―”
“But . . .” Harry shifted in the armchair. Leather creaked. When he spoke, he sounded uncomfortable, embarrassed even: “Shouldn’t a happy marriage have an element of . . . of passion?”
James’s mouth tightened. “Many women would prefer a passionless marriage.”
Not I. Spinsterhood would be preferable to such a fate.
Harry stiffened in his chair. “You don’t believe the marriage bed should be pleasurable for both parties?”
James clenched his jaw. “Damn it, Harry, don’t lecture me!” His grip tightened on the brandy glass, becoming white-knuckled, and then his anger appeared to ebb. His face became devoid of expression. His voice, when he spoke, was flatly neutral: “You think I can’t give a woman pleasure, even if I feel no desire for her?”
Harry put down his glass and leaned forward in his chair. “I’ve no doubt you can. But would you be happy doing so?”
James lowered his gaze to the brandy. A muscle worked in his jaw. “One woman is like another in the dark,” he said.
“You really believe that?” Harry’s voice was disappointed.
James looked up. His eyebrows drew together in a savage frown. “Damn it, Harry,” he said fiercely. “What do you want me to say? I have to believe it!”
Harry was silent.
Weariness replaced the scowling anger on James’s face. “If I could marry for love, I would,” he said. “But my time’s run out, Harry, don’t you see? I have no other choice. I’ve thought about this seriously. I don’t love Kate, or desire her, but I like her. If she married me I’d see that she was happy; you know I would.”
Harry sighed. “Very well,” he said. “Ask her. I don’t know what her answer will be.”
James looked momentarily startled. “You think she’ll refuse me?”
Harry shrugged. “She’s refused several offers.”
“Really?” James’s eyebrows rose. Kate was stung by his surprise. Resentment stirred in her breast. He needn’t be so astonished. He wasn’t the only man to see some use in her as a wife. “Such as?”
“Reginald Pruden proposed when she first came out.”
“Pruden?” James laughed, but there was little amusement in the sound. “Dear God, no wonder she refused! The man’s a pompous ass.” He drank a mouthful of brandy and then shook his head. “Pruden.” His upper lip curled with scorn.
“And . . . oh, there was Sir Thomas Granger, five years ago.”
“Granger? Don’t know the man.”
“You haven’t missed anything,” Harry said. “He’s a local baronet. Resembles a peahen.”
The description should have made Kate smile—for Sir Thomas Granger did resemble a peahen—but instead she shuddered with memory of that proposal: Sir Thomas clasping her fingers with a plump, damp hand and leaning earnestly towards her, and then, when she refused him, flushing with rage and calling her a bran-faced dowd who set herself too high.
James laughed again, a humorless sound. His voice held pity: “Poor Kate.” He looked at Harry and swirled the brandy in his glass. “Do you class me with Pruden and your baronet?”
Harry shook his head. “Of course not.”
“So why should Kate refuse me?”
Why indeed? James Hargrave, Earl of Arden, was a prize on the marriage mart. His wealth and title made him one of the most eligible men in Britain. And he was handsome. He could have his pick of ladies. His offer was extraordinary.
I should be flattered. Why, then, did she feel so wretched?
Harry shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m just saying, she might. Kate has a mind of her own. You know that. She’s not some milk-and-water miss.”
“She would have jumped at the offer eleven years ago,” James said, raising his glass to his mouth.
Kate flinched at this comment. Hot humiliation rose in her cheeks. The memory of that girlish infatuation was hideous. It made her cringe to think of it.
“Do you think she’s still partial to you?” Harry sounded surprised.
“No.” James shook his head and swallowed a mouthful of brandy. “She treats me the same as she does you—thank God! Having Kate making sheep’s eyes at me all the time would be dashed uncomfortable.”
Harry grunted agreement. His tone, when he spoke, was unexpectedly glum: “When will you ask her?”
“Tomorrow,” said James, looking as if the brandy had left an unpleasant taste in his mouth. “Unless you have an objection?”
“No.” Harry was silent for a moment. “I suppose I should wish you luck.”
“Thank you,” said James. “But I doubt I’ll need it. Kate’s been on the shelf for years. Of course she’ll accept my offer.” His voice was even, toneless almost, and his face was without expression. He looked trapped, Kate thought. As trapped as she was in the dark priest’s hole.
WHEN THE MEN had gone, Kate fumbled for the tinderbox and lit the candle again. In the flickering light she stood the goose feather quill in its holder and tried to blot the spattered ink. It had dried. The page was ruined. Not that it mattered; no one but herself would ever see it.
Kate gathered the diaries together. There were eleven of them, one for each year she’d been using the priest’s hole. She picked up the earliest one and opened it at random. Her handwriting was young and unformed, the entry hastily written. He’s coming again. I am determined to treat him as if he is nothing more to me than an acquaintance. No one must know of my feelings for him.
She closed the diary. She’d been seventeen when she’d written those words, seventeen and desperate not to make a fool of herself again. Her pretense had worked. James didn’t know, and neither did Harry.
Kate made a pile of the diaries and sat looking at them. What was she to do? She was no longer in the throes of a foolish infatuation, stammering and stuttering whenever she spoke to James and blushing hotly if she met his eyes. That youthful passion had long since matured into something deep and lasting. She loved James, and would do so until the day she died. There was no other way it could be.
He was going to ask for her hand in marriage. What would she say? What should she say?
Kate touched her mouth lightly with a fingertip, imagining James kissing her. She wasn’t a complete innocent. She knew something of what the marriage bed entailed: kissing, and much more intimate acts. To do those things with James would be marvelous beyond anything—except that he wouldn’t really want to touch her. He’d do so because he had to, because it was his duty, not because he desired her.
And why should James desire her? She was too tall to be considered feminine, and quite plain. The natural curl in her hair might be the envy of other ladies, but the color was a garish red and was accompanied by that worst of disfigurements, freckles. Looking as she did, it was inconceivable that any man would feel passion for her.
Kate closed her eyes. She wanted nothing more than to marry James—only not like this, without his love. He’d said that one woman was like another in the dark, but he was wrong. He might be able to imagine away her hair and her freckles, but darkness couldn’t give her a voluptuous figure. He would touch her and, even if he couldn’t see her, he would know that she wasn’t the woman he wanted in his bed.
She couldn’t do that to him. Or to herself.
Kate opened her eyes. She reached out and picked up a diary. It was dated 1813. Three years ago. She flicked through the pages. James has sailed to Spain again with his regiment. I am so afraid . . .
She closed the diary. Eight years he’d served in the 10th Hussars. She touched the calfskin cover lightly with her fingertips, tracing the date and remembering the changes she’d seen in him. It had been more than the uniform. He’d become quieter, more serious, although he’d never stopped laughing. The loss of laughter had occurred in the past nine months. Perhaps it had something to do with the action he’d seen at Waterloo, which she’d heard had been bad, but she thought mostly it was because of his father and brother. Grief could stop a person laughing, and so could responsibility.
She wanted James to laugh again, and she wanted him to have a wife he loved. Not someone he could tolerate, such as herself, but someone he could love. Someone who would make him happy.
When he asked her tomorrow, she knew how she would answer.