London’s Most Elusive Earl – Anabelle Bryant

William Cromford, Earl of Lindsey, was laughing in his grave. Edward Barlow, the late earl’s personal solicitor, was certain of it. Ensconced in Kingswood Manor, Lindsey’s grand country estate in Bedfordshire, Barlow had decided it best to disclose the contents of the earl’s will and its many contingencies in a tranquil pastoral surround, and thus had summoned those named in the document to the sprawling bucolic property. Barlow assumed the beneficiary wouldn’t find peace with the deceased’s legacy, and it was his intention to use the return trip to London to diffuse the anticipated shock and anger evoked when the gentleman heard his respective inheritance instructions. Barlow glanced at his pocket watch to note the hour and settled his gaze on his leather satchel. Inside were confidential packets of information. Specific, life-altering, rule-dictating, document bundles that detailed exactly what the heir would claim were the requirements met. Today he would begin a process with myriad outcomes and far-reaching repercussions, not all of them pleasant. He strode to the mullioned windows of the library and watched as an elaborate equipage rolled to a stop in the gravel drive. The distinctive gilded emblem shimmered on the carriage door and declared its owner. Jonathan Cromford, the rightful heir and new Earl of Lindsey, inherited a title and expansive compilation of land and investments with confidence and aplomb, despite he never experienced the same within a relationship with his sire. Pity the late nobleman considered his son a wastrel. Far worse, the rightful heir hadn’t ever given a damn what his father thought. From what Barlow had learned, the new earl was an uncompromising sort, whose rakish reputation and scandalous escapades kept the tongue-wags busy while the social elite turned a blind eye, all too quick to live vicariously through his exploits rather than censure his activities. Still, the automatic possession of title and funds which occurred upon the sire’s death were nothing but a modicum of the inheritance.

So much more needed to be accomplished. Best to serve this medicine swiftly. Barlow reclaimed his seat after Lindsey entered, their handshake brief yet firm. “Nine months seems an exorbitant waiting period for the contents of my father’s will, but I’m not surprised at the delay,” Lindsey commented. “I’m sure there are numerous conditions included in the document. He was a complicated man, and by no reason would he abandon that particular quality for something so inconvenient as death.” Barlow nodded, unsure a response was necessary. Instead he broke the seal on the packet before him and pushed his spectacles farther up his nose so he might continue the process. “Your father granted me an ample length of time to assemble the necessary documentation and ensure matters were in order before his instructions led to this day.” He couldn’t offer more in way of explanation and busied himself with the task of brushing wax crumbs to the left side of the blotter.

“He also included a letter for me to read to you aloud.” “Like a child hears a story before bedtime? He chose his death to perform a paternal kindness? Perhaps that decision before any other finally stopped his empty heart.” Lindsey barked a laugh that held no humor. “Indulge my impatience. I’ll have that letter and be on my way, Barlow.” “I’m afraid my reading it to you is a condition set forth by the binding contract of his lordship’s last testament. The instructions are detailed and specific. I must insist on following each one with exactitude to uphold the integrity of the probate process.” He cleared his throat, his usual calm demeanor unsettled at the intensity of Lindsey’s stare. “Unless I read the contents aloud and observe you’ve received the news, I would never be sure you’d actually opened the packet and hadn’t thrown it into the flames of the nearest firebox.

” “Get on with it then.” Lindsey’s voice held a sardonic edge as he waved his hand in a gesture of dismissal and settled deeper into the wingback chair. His eyes sparked with anger kept on a short leash. Barlow bypassed the first two sheets of foolscap before he extracted the note written in the late earl’s hand, the black ink on the page the last bequest for his son, albeit a sly situation nonetheless. He cleared his throat a second time and began to read aloud. “Jonathan, By now you’ve gained the title and taken control of the earldom, a right you claimed by birth as a peer of the realm. Though we haven’t spoken in years, I’ve known of your habits and tolerated your excessive indulgence without complaint. You spare no expense on tailoring, horseflesh, and property, your roguish lifestyle enabled by the precedence and unquestionable power of the Lindsey heritage.” Barlow heard the young earl’s grunt of complaint but he kept his eyes on the page and continued to read, unwilling to be lured into a disruptive conversation. “As with many things, time alters life with indelible impact.

The day one is born and begins to live, one also begins to die. Yet we are hardly prepared when the time is upon us. Therefore, I’ve set ink to paper in a formal legacy overseen by my solicitor to ensure you have fulfilled specific conditions before collecting the remainder of the settlement. There are but two requirements. Restore the fiscal solvency of the earldom. You will be supplied with the accounting of an unfortunate situation. The cof ers have suf ered and so will you if the monies are not recovered. Wealth, like life, is not unending. You will understand more fully when you receive the records from my man of business. The second condition is of a personal nature.

You must produce a legitimate heir as soon as possible. Your philandering ways need to come to an end. I’ll not have my heritage die by your foolish neglect. Until these conditions are met, Barlow will limit the funds made available for your expenditures. As each month passes, if my legacy remains unfulfilled, the allowance will narrow significantly. This is meant to hurry along the process. There are others who benefit from my passing, and your success impinges upon their livelihood. Make haste. Mr. Barlow will oversee the particulars.

William Cromford, Earl of Lindsey Chapter One London Two weeks later Lady Caroline Nicholson withdrew into the shadows of Lord Albertson’s study, a peculiar place to pass the time considering the first event of the season was well underway. At least two hundred guests were shoulder to shoulder amidst the festivities in the ballroom, dining room, and adjoining halls. She wasn’t lost, though. More the opposite. She’d purposefully snuck across the expansive estate and slipped into her host’s private sanctuary in search of solitude. Which in itself made little sense when Lord Tiller, the most desirable bachelor in London, remained in the ballroom, no doubt dancing with a flirtatious, unmarried female. As intended, Caroline had gained an introduction, offered engaging conversation and a not-sosubtle desire to dance, and yet the gentleman hadn’t requested her card or lingered longer than etiquette required. Apparently, she’d failed to impress. She raised her linen handkerchief to her nose and solidified her emotions with a valiant sniff. A few minutes of solitude would restore her confidence, and then she’d return to the ballroom with nothing more than mildly bruised pride and a lingering twinge of disillusionment.

Suitable gentlemen were plentiful. It mattered little if the one who first caught her eye found her lacking. There were others who qualified as outstanding husband material. Across the room a clink of the latch snared her attention and she swung her focus toward the entrance, where the door cracked open and two people swept inside. Concealed by the shadowy depth of the corner, she’d likely go unnoticed, though she had no cause to stay hidden. Propriety demanded she make her presence known. The last thing she needed was to be caught in an embarrassing scandal when she’d set her heart on making a match this season. Contemplating how to negotiate the impropriety of the situation, she squinted her eyes and peered into the dim interior. This part of the house was not included in the festivities, and the room was lit by only one box lantern and the waning flames of a dying fire. Upon recognition, the irony of the situation struck her with brilliant clarity.

Lord Jonathan Cromford, Earl of Lindsey, notorious rakehell and, in her opinion, least desirable bachelor in London, lured a lady into the room. His infamous half-smile was rumored to set London’s fairer population into an automatic swoon. Having never experienced the impact, she doubted the result, although one could never be sure. At times, women made a fuss over the silliest fascinations. It would be interesting to witness such a phenomenon. She shook her head slightly at the inanity. Then again, her cousins had managed to educate her on every member of society who crossed her path or attended a function, and she appreciated their attention to detail. It enabled her a smoother entry into society here in London. Half a room away stood a prime example of an unrepentant rogue, even though the marriageminded set dismissed his bold exploits as daring and appalling. Certainly, the female in tow seemed enamored by the scoundrel’s legendary charms.

Caroline watched as the earl lent the room a cursory glance, his attention riveted to the lady at hand. Had the scene before her not progressed with slapdash speed, she would have assembled a few polite words and made her presence known, but hesitation proved her downfall. Intrigued and inordinately curious, she took a miniscule step backward into the recessed alcove. Her bottom pressed against the wall. There was nowhere else to go. The moment to object had passed. She was trapped by her own prevarication. Hopefully the couple would complete their assignation with a brief kiss and return to the ballroom. Any more time wasted would be unjust punishment. The music was scheduled to end soon and all opportunities to dance would be lost.

How foolish to have allowed the earl to distract her, but distract her he did. She’d have to wait it out in utter silence. One shallow sniffle or misplaced exhale would bring about her discovery and inevitable ruin. * * * * Things weren’t going as planned. Jonathan Cromford, Earl of Lindsey, tugged Lady Jenkin into the silent darkness of Lord Albertson’s study. The lady had never played such a persistent game, and while he was after something specific, he hadn’t imagined she would be equally as particular. “Kiss me now, Lindsey.” Her voice held just enough demand to be petulant. “You’ve led me on a chase all over this estate and I haven’t yet been rewarded. I can’t wait another moment.

” “I couldn’t very well kiss you while you stood at your husband’s side. You shouldn’t fault me for the impossible.” He stripped his gloves and dropped them to a nearby chair before he gathered her close. “He doesn’t deserve my attention. All he cares about is his precious collection, kept in a private gallery for his eyes only. It makes for tedious conversation night after night. He allows no one to view it, yet he can speak of nothing else.” She smoothed her palms over Lindsey’s shoulders and encircled his neck, her lips drawn into an alluring pout. “And is that what you want from me? Interesting conversation? Small talk and niceties?” He kept his mouth above hers even though she angled her chin higher. “Never.

” Her answer was nothing more than a breathy sigh. “I want much more, and I shall have it. Now kiss me. I’ve waited all night to taste you.” He tightened their embrace and her gratuitous décolletage crushed against his chest. Then he captured her mouth in a brief, teasing caress. “Is that better?” “No,” she objected in husky complaint. “Not nearly enough. Why must you torture me? Kiss me again.” He kissed her hard, deep, stealing her breath and drawing her closer still.

“Do you always get what you want, darling?” “I want you and your wicked kisses.” “Not your husband’s attention? Not his precious fortune in paintings?” “No. Your kisses are more valuable.” She shifted slightly and twined her hand between them. “This…” She slid her hand downward. “This is priceless.” Startled by her boldness, he smothered the urge to pull away as her palm pressed against the placket of his trousers, her fingers tight around his cock. The lady was shameless, and apparently more than determined to have what she wanted. Two qualities that would lend themselves to his cause. He nuzzled several kisses along her neck and bare shoulder, all the while enduring her audacious strokes along the ridge of his erection.

At least his body had cooperated. “No man should long for oils and artwork when a woman as breathtakingly beautiful as you can be his greatest treasure.” He eased his hand over the curve of her hip and around to grasp her firm bottom. “I don’t want to talk about paintings. I don’t want to talk at all.” She loosened the ribbons at her neckline with her free hand and lowered the scraps of lace that composed her sleeves. The plump swells of her breasts pressed high above the edge of her corset. “I need to feel you touch me. I can’t wait any longer.” Knowing he’d never achieve his goal if he didn’t first appease Lady Jenkin’s appetite for wantonness, he trailed kisses across the top of her bosom, dipping his tongue into the silky vee of her cleavage, all the while concentrating on the most advantageous approach to the more important subject.

“I think about you every night alone in my bed.” Her chest rose and fell with the confession as he continued to lavish attention to her body. He stroked his thumb across her nipple, and she shuddered with his touch. “And what do you imagine, darling? What naughty deeds do you pretend we commit together?” Tempering his impatience, he lifted her by the waist and placed her on the corner of Albertson’s walnut pedestal desk. A clatter of accessories fell to the floorboards. Sorry, old boy. “I want you stripped of all these bothersome garments, skin to skin, touching, tasting, the endless passion we’ll find together.” The lady would not be deterred. She tightened her grasp on his breeches and he shifted, disguising his escape in a maneuver to reposition her as he bundled her skirts in his fist. She shivered when cool air caressed her exposed thighs.

“Would that it wasn’t just fantasy? You deserve so much more than a quick moment of gratification on a hard wooden desk in the dark. I can’t worship your magnificent body like this. I’m left to envision your beauty hidden from view.” Somehow or another all that foolish poetry foisted on him at Eton proved useful in this moment. He’d tell her anything she needed to hear if it assisted in his objective. His words gave her pause. Her hand stilled, abandoned of purpose, and she inhaled sharply. “It doesn’t have to be this way, Lindsey. I want you in my bed.” “What are you saying?” He pulled away, effectively distancing himself although he still held her skirts.

“You’d have me take you in your bedchamber in the middle of the night with your husband’s bedroom next door?” And his collection of priceless paintings ten paces down the hall in his private gallery?


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