Dec 23 2016 12:04pm
Alexandra Hawkins Excerpt: Waiting For an Earl Like You
Justin Reeve Netherwood, Earl of Kempthorn—a.k.a. Thorn—has never cared much for his neighbor’s daughter. But his twin brother, Gideon, befriended the wild, reckless, and wholly inappropriate Miss Olivia Lydall in youth, and two have been close ever since. So when Olivia finds herself in a state of romantic conflict and seeks out Gideon for advice, he’s only too pleased to oblige. Only problem: The man Olivia is speaking to is Thorn. And now it’s too late for him to tell Olivia the truth…
Thorn always believed that Olivia was too smitten with Gideon for her own good. So what’s the harm in steering her away from him? But Thorn’s charade turns out to be anything but harmless once he begins to see Olivia for who she really is: A woman full of spirit and passion…and someone he can’t live without. But how can Thorn claim Olivia’s heart when their deepening connection—and burning desire—is built on lies and deceit?
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Malster Park, England
It was a typical Netherwood gathering.
His mother, the Marchioness of Felstead, had sent invitations to all of her closest friends and anyone within a twenty-five-mile radius of their country estate. There wasn’t a single room in the entire house that wasn’t overflowing with guests. To accommodate the individuals who preferred to take part in the numerous outdoor activities, large tents had been erected to provide refuge from the sun and places to feed everyone.
Justin Reeve Netherwood, Earl of Kempthorn—or Thorn as he was called by his family and friends—had lost track of the marchioness hours ago. Nevertheless, he had no doubt his mother was savoring the large assemblage as she discreetly directed the servants with the confidence of any general in the British Army.
He had just left the library where his father and a dozen of his friends were engaged in a heated political discussion that had resolved no issues and given him a slight headache. If the argument had dissolved into fisticuffs, it might have been amusing to linger. However, the fifty-six-year-old marquess was well aware that his wife disapproved of such barbaric displays so he would step in and quell any discord between his friends.
Which was a shame, really, because there was nothing like a good fight. It dispelled unspoken grievances, fired the blood, and lightened his mood. Fighting made him think of his identical twin brother, Gideon. Thorn ground his molars in annoyance. Although he would rather cut his tongue out than admit it, he regretted his decision to join the family at Malster Park. There was only so much civility he could bear. Perhaps it was time to concede defeat and rejoin his friends in London.
His grievances with Gideon could wait a little longer.
Thorn strolled through the front hall. Liveried footmen were positioned like sentries at each door as they directed guests who lingered to other amusements or awaited direction from their mistress. The shriek of a young child echoed, and he abruptly halted as the two-year-old ran into his legs. He bent down and picked up the blond-haired boy and held him until their gazes met.
“And whom do you belong to?” he inquired, noting the boy wore nothing under his white frock.
In response, the child stuck his thumb and forefinger into his mouth and grinned.
“Unrepentant about the state of your undress, I see,” Thorn murmured and was rewarded with a garbled reply. “Let’s say we look for your mother before—”
A wet spot appeared on the front of the boy’s frock and was expanding at an alarming rate. Thorn groaned as held the child away from him. Bystanders pointed and giggled at his wretched predicament while urine dripped from beneath the sodden frock and onto his mother’s marble floor.
Thorn glared at the nearest footman. “A little assistance if you do not mind.”
The boy chortled with glee.
“Yes, yes … you have made a fine mess, my lad,” he said, handing the child to the servant.
From the corner of his eye, he noticed the approach of his nine-year-old cousin. Lady Muriel Oldman was a beautiful child, with strawberry blonde hair and light green eyes. Her parents, who were distantly related to his mother, had tragically perished in a house fire three years earlier. With no immediate family, Lord Felstead had petitioned to be her guardian. Thorn’s younger sister, Fiona, had taken the orphaned little girl under her wing, and the child had flourished in the Netherwood household. He had come to regard her as another sister.
“Muriel, do you know this boy?”
The girl nodded as she grimaced at the puddle forming beneath the wiggling child who was attempting to free himself from the servant’s grasp. “He is Mrs. Staple’s son.”
“Be a good girl and fetch his mother,” Thorn said, retrieving a handkerchief from his waistcoat. He grinned at the boy. “Before this mischief-maker has a chance to escape again.” He leaned down and wiped the wetness from the toes of his boots.
Always eager to help, Muriel was already walking away. Over her slender shoulder, she said, “I will find her for you.” She stopped and turned around. “Oh, I almost forgot to tell you.”
“Tell me what?”
“Your brother cannot be found.” She sent him a knowing glance. “Lady Felstead has tasked you with finding him since you know him best.”
Not as well as I should, Thorn thought. “I will see to it immediately.”
Her message delivered, Muriel waved farewell and rushed off to find Mrs. Staple.
He glanced at the footman and his soggy burden. “Hold on to the lad until he is reacquainted with his mother.”
“You can count on me, milord,” the servant replied, grimacing when the boy accidentally kicked him in the ribs.
Thorn winced in sympathy. He avoided the puddle on the floor and headed for the open front door to find his errant twin.
* * *
Forty minutes later, Thorn was in no mood to be polite to anyone, including Gideon. He had searched the grounds surrounding the house, but his brother had managed to disappear without a trace. It did not help that he could not take five steps without someone calling out his name and begging a few minutes of this time. With each delay, his annoyance increased.
He had lost count on how many people stopped him to inquire, “Oh, where is your charming brother? Or are you him?”
Thorn and Gideon had been asked similar questions their entire lives. No one could tell them apart unless they deliberately went out of their way to reveal themselves. There were very subtle differences between them, like the faint half-inch scar on his outer thigh from a mock sword duel in his youth and Gideon’s small mole on his right buttock. And since his mother frowned on them strolling about naked in public, even she had trouble telling them apart.
From a young age, he and his brother had reveled in the confusion, often using it to their advantage. It had been a mischievous game to them, one they had perfected as they became young gentlemen.
Until the day Gideon had announced that he was leaving England to seek his fortune and he did not require Lord Felstead’s heir to accompany him on his travels. His brother’s decision had cut him deeply, and had left him wallowing in an unrelenting cycle of ennui that still plagued him.
For the first time in his life, his brother’s abandonment had left Thorn alone in the world. Now, after years of separation, Gideon was back in England and Thorn was uncertain he could cast aside his unspoken resentment.
The freshly cut lawn gently sloped into a terrace garden. As boys, he and Gideon had raced up and down these same gravel paths as they explored the gardens and swam in the lake that had been created a hundred years earlier. The gravel path became cobblestones beneath his feet. The lake occasionally flooded and washed away the gravel, so his mother had insisted that a few changes needed to be made to the back gardens. That was ten years ago. Now the hedge walls that lined the walk to the lake towered over him. Ornate pots overflowed with pink rhododendrons and white azaleas adding a touch of color. Three paths intersected with the main one and led away from the lake. One led to a private garden that was one of his mother’s favorite places to enjoy the good weather. Another took the stroller to a cottage that was offered to guests who valued their privacy. The last one led to a Greek-style temple. He and Gideon had held mock battles beneath the folly’s Doric columns as they fought with wooden swords.
Thorn should have found the familiar surroundings and the memories that the gardens evoked soothing. Instead, he felt restless. As if he was on the precipice of another change in his life, one he was uncertain he desired or could accept. The pathway opened to the right, and he stepped onto the wooden platform that extended over the water. It was large enough for an orchestra, but it also served as a dock. He used his hand to shield his eyes from the sun and the reflective glare of the smooth surface of the water as he directed his attention to the man and woman seated in the small sailboat in the middle of the small lake. On the other side, sheep grazed on the overgrown grass.
He did not recognize the lady. Her back was to him, and the bright-red parasol she was holding concealed the upper half of her body as she conversed with his brother.
The pair appeared to be engaged in an earnest conversation, and they had yet to notice Thorn’s presence as he stood on the white wooden platform. Annoyance tightened the muscles in his jaw and neck. If Gideon had not been so dismissive of family and friends who had gathered to celebrate his homecoming to Malster Park, he might have left his brother alone to flirt with the chit.
However, their mother had put a great deal of effort into planning this house party for his ungrateful twin. The least he could do was show his appreciation—and if Gideon had lost all semblance of civility during his travels, Thorn was more than willing to remind him by beating some manners into his thick skull.
From the sailboat, masculine laughter floated on the warm air, crossing the distance until it reached the dock.
Thorn scowled. He could not recall the last occasion when he had heard his brother laugh. His gaze lingered on the woman as he attempted to discern her identity.
Lost in contemplation, he did not notice the precise moment when Gideon had become aware of his presence.
“Huzzah, brother! What a timely arrival. A fine day, is it not? I did not think anything could pry you from our father’s library.”
Gideon’s mysterious companion turned and slightly elevated her parasol so she could view him discreetly, but her face was still hidden.
Thorn cupped the sides of his mouth with his hands and shouted, “I have been sent to remind you that you are the guest of honor this afternoon. Perhaps you should think more of our mother and less of yourself.”
Even from a distance, he noted Gideon’s grimace. His twin murmured something to the woman, and she placed her hand on his arm as if to soothe him.
Gideon glanced upward at the sky and shrugged. “It appears we have lost the wind.”
Thorn doubted there had been much of a breeze when his brother coaxed his companion into the sailboat. “A pity,” Thorn said, feigning sympathy. “I recommend that you remove your frock coat before you paddle back to the dock. It would be a shame if you strained the seams on such a fine garment.”
Thorn’s lips thinned with grim satisfaction as his brother cursed. A minute later, the sailboat wobbled as Gideon hastily removed his coat and handed it to his companion. With his task accomplished, he could have left the dock and returned to the house. However, his curiosity held him in place. He wanted to meet the lady who had charmed his twin into forgetting his obligations.
Not that Gideon required any assistance. He was quite capable of avoiding unsavory tasks all on his own. This fete was a perfect example. His brother had been on English soil for ten months and only now had he yielded to Lady Felstead’s demands that they celebrate his homecoming with a formal gathering.
Thorn crossed his arms and observed Gideon’s progress. Once the sail had been secured, his brother picked up the oar and paddled toward the dock. He took his time as if concerned that his efforts might stir the air and ruffle his hair. His casual strokes sliced through the water while he maneuvered the little sailboat until it glided mere inches from the edge of the dock.
Thorn crouched down and reached for the coiled rope at the bow. He cast an inconspicuous glance at the woman as he tied a knot to prevent the boat from drifting away. She pointedly ignored him. Straightening, he held out his hand and waited for her to close her parasol. “Perhaps I may be of service, Miss—?”
Gideon set aside the oar and held on to the dock to minimize the rocking. “Take Thorn’s hand, my dear. I promise he will not bite. He will be too busy lecturing me on my rudeness.”
“It is the least you deserve,” was Thorn’s terse reply.
The woman sighed, and Thorn could not decide if she was bored or vexed by his intrusion. She tipped the parasol in his direction and collapsed it, revealing her bowed head. All he could see was the top of her plaited straw bonnet with cream silk taffeta ribbons cascading down the front like a waterfall.
With an air of impatience, he snatched the parasol from her light hold, causing her to gasp in surprise. She lifted her face and their gazes met and locked as recognition gave way to mild dismay.
Almost a year had passed since he had last spoken with Miss Olivia Lydall. Her father, Lord Dewick, owned lands that shared a border with Malster Park to the north. Six years younger than Thorn and Gideon, Miss Lydall had often found her way onto their lands when she was a child. Gideon had befriended her, but Thorn had been more guarded. Even though she had two older brothers, for some unfathomable reason, she preferred to spend her days exploring Netherwood lands and sharing secrets with his twin. He wondered where the little baggage had been hiding all of these months. There was a time when he could not take a step without running into the young woman. Of course it came as no surprise to him that Gideon’s homecoming had lured her back on to his family’s lands.
Thorn tucked her parasol under his arm and offered her his hand. “Miss Lydall,” he said, daring her to refuse. As a boy, he had been envious of her friendship with Gideon and had not always been kind. As they grew older, the only occasions she risked approaching him was when she had mistaken him for Gideon.
He should have been flattered that she was wary of him. Instead it irritated him.
“Lord Kempthorn,” she said politely, her cornflower-colored gaze sliding down to his hand. A few stray dark reddish brown curls had escaped the confines of her bonnet. Catching the sunlight, the hue blazed with an internal fire. Oblivious to his unspoken fascination with her curls, she slowly rose from her seat and struggled to keep her balance.
“Steady,” Gideon advised, tightening his grip on the dock. “There is too much slack in the rope.”
Thorn switched his attention to his brother. He arched his right eyebrow as the line of his mouth thinned with grim amusement. “Critiquing my efforts, brother?”
“I would not dare,” was Gideon’s mocking retort. “Everyone knows that Lord Felstead’s heir is perfect in all things.”
Miss Lydall’s nervous gaze switched from Gideon to Thorn. “Ah, gentlemen.” She held her arms away from her sides to maintain her precarious stance.
Thorn made a soft chiding sound with his tongue. “I see your insults have not improved with age.”
“What does that mean?” Gideon demanded.
“Uh.” Miss Lydall reached out her hand, but neither brother was paying attention to her.
Thorn glared at his twin. “Simply put, I thought your time away from England would have seasoned you. I expected to reacquaint myself with a gentleman, not some young puppy who continues to whine over the circumstances of his birth.”
“Good god, you are such an arse!” Gideon snarled. In his fury, he lost his grip on the dock.
Miss Lyndall cried out, her arms flailing in the air as the sailboat rocked and floated away from the dock.
“No!” Thorn shouted and lunged for one of her arms so he could drag her onto the dock.
Gideon made things worse by throwing his weight to the side in an attempt to catch hold of the dock again.
Disaster loomed. For a moment, time seemed to slow down for Thorn. His fingers brushed against Miss Lydall’s arm, but the rocking boat sent her backward. Without thought to his own safety, he made a second attempt to grab her. A soft cry of distress escaped her lips as he seized her wrist while Gideon clutched at her skirt and Thorn’s leg in a futile effort to avoid the inevitable.
All three tumbled over the side of the boat and into the water.
Thorn was the first to recover from the shock of the cold dunking, his face breaking the water’s surface as he stood. The water level came to his chest, so there was little chance that any of them would drown. Gideon appeared splashing about several yards away.
His brother howled and then shuddered. “Bloody hell, the chill just shrinks a man’s—” His jaw snapped shut as he recalled a lady was present and glanced around for Miss Lydall.
Thorn plunged his arm into the water. To his relief, his hand grasped a section of wet fabric and he unceremoniously hauled the lady to the surface.
Miss Lydall choked and batted at the veil of water that was cascading from her straw bonnet. Sputtering, she exclaimed, “Oh, it is wretchedly cold!”
The poor woman lost her footing and would have slipped under the water again if not for Thorn’s tight grip on her arm.
“And I think I swallowed a bug.” She pushed the soggy taffeta ribbons away from her eyes. “I doubt this day could get any worse.”
Thorn glanced at his brother, and the intimate connection they had always shared flared to life. Gideon’s slow grin mirrored his own. Neither man could hold back his laughter.
Copyright © 2017 by Alexandra Hawkins.
Learn more about or order a copy of Waiting For an Earl Like You by Alexandra Hawkins, available January 3, 2017:
Alexandra Hawkins is an unrepentant Anglophile who discovered romance novels as a teenager and knew that one day she would be writing her own. The USA Today bestselling author has combined her love of English history, mythology, and romance to create sensual character-driven stories that, she hopes, will touch readers’ hearts. Her novels include All Night with a Rogue, Till Dawn with the Devil and After Dark with a Scoundrel. Alexandra lives in Georgia with her husband and three children.