One Good Earl Deserves a Lover – Sarah MacLean

There were benefits to being the second son. Indeed, if there was one truth in society it was this: Rake, rogue, or scoundrel—an heir required reformation. He could wreak his havoc, sow his wild oats, and scandalize society with his youthful indiscretions, but his future was cast in stone by the finest of masons: He would eventually find himself shackled to his title, his land, and his estate—a prisoner of peerage alongside his brethren in the House of Lords. No, freedom was not for heirs, but for spares. And Jasper Arlesey, the second son of Earl Harlow, knew it. He also knew, with the keen understanding of a criminal narrowly escaping the gallows, that —despite having to forgo heredity title, estate, and fortune—he was the luckiest man on Earth to have been born seventeen months to the day after Owen Elwood Arthur Arlesey, eldest child, first son, Viscount Baine and heir to the earldom. On Baine lay the heavy weight of respectability and responsibility that came with being heir. On Baine rested the hopes and dreams of a long line of Lords Harlow. It was Baine who was required to live up to the expectations of those around him—parents . peers . servants .

all. And flawless, proper, boring Baine lived up to every one of those expectations. Thankfully. Which was why that evening, Baine had chaperoned their younger sister at her first visit to Almack’s. Yes, Jasper had originally agreed to the task, promising Lavinia that he wouldn’t dare miss such an important evening in her young life. But his promises were more whisper than word— everyone knew that—and so it had been Baine who had done the chaperoning. Living up to expectations, as ever. Jasper, instead, had been busy winning a fortune at one of London’s wickedest gaming hells . then celebrating by doing precisely the kind of thing errant younger sons were wont to do. In the bed of a beautiful woman. Baine wasn’t the only one who lived up to expectations. One side of Jasper’s mouth kicked up in a private smile as he recalled the pleasure he’d found in excess that evening, then faded at the twinge of regret he’d felt as he’d climbed from warm sheets and willing arms. He popped the latch on the rear entrance to the Arlesey House kitchens and crept inside. The room was dark and quiet in the pale grey light of a bitterly cold March morning, dark enough to hide his disheveled clothes, half-tied cravat, and the love bite peeking out from beneath his loosened collar.

As the door closed behind him, a startled kitchen maid looked up from where she crouched, halfinside the hearth, stoking the flames in preparation for the arrival of the cook. She stood, one hand to her lovely, blossoming breast. “My lord! You gave me a fright!” Jasper tossed her a wicked grin before offering a bow that would make a courtier proud. “Apologies, darling,” he drawled, adoring the blush that flared high on her cheeks, forgiving him. He leaned past her, brushing close enough to hear the breath catch in her throat, to see the wild pulse at her neck, snatching a hard biscuit from the plate she’d prepared for the rest of the kitchen staff, lingering a touch longer than was required, loving the way she trembled in anticipation. He wouldn’t touch her, of course; he’d learned long ago that the staff was off-limits. But it didn’t stop him from loving her just a little. From loving all women—all shapes, all sizes, all walks of life. Their soft skin and softer curves, the way they gasped and giggled and sighed, the way the wealthy ones played their coy games, and the less fortunate ones looked at him, stars in their eyes, eager for his attention. Women were, without a doubt, the Lord’s finest creation.

And, at twenty-three, he had plans for a lifetime of worshipping them. He crunched into the sweet biscuit and winked at her. “You won’t tell anyone you saw me, will you?” Her eyes went wide, and she shook her head instantly. “N—no, sir. My lord, sir.” Yes, there were definite benefits to being the second son. With another wink and another stolen biscuit, Jasper snuck from the kitchens into the back hallway that led to the servants’ stairs. “Where have you been?” Cloaked in black, Stine, his father’s man of affairs, materialized from the shadows, accusation and something much worse on his long, pale face. Jasper’s heart raced from the surprise though he’d be damned if he’d admit it. He did not answer to Stine.

It was bad enough that he was required to answer to Stine’s employer. Jasper’s father. The man whose expectations for his youngest son were lower than all others’ combined. The son in question rocked back on his heels and grinned with practiced affectation. “Stern,” he drawled, enjoying the way the older man’s posture stiffened at the misnomer. “It’s rather early for haunting, isn’t it?” “Not too early for you.” Jasper smiled, a cat with a canary. “How right you are. Late, instead. I have had a night, and I would prefer you not ruin .

the afterglow.” He clapped the other man on the shoulder and pushed past him. “Your father is looking for you.” He did not look back. “I’m sure he is. I’m also sure it can wait.” “I don’t think it can, Lord Baine.” It took a moment to hear the words. To hear the title. To understand its meaning.

He turned, horror and disbelief coursing through him. When he spoke, the words were young and broken, barely a whisper. “What did you call me?” Stine’s gaze narrowed barely. Fleetingly. Later, it would be that nearly imperceptible movement over cold, black eyes that Jasper would remember. His voice rose, furious. “I asked you a question.” “He called you Baine.” Jasper spun to face his father, Earl Harlow, tall and strong and unbending even now. Even in this moment.

Even as his legacy crumbled around him, and he faced his life’s disappointment. Now heir. Jasper fought for breath, then for words. His father found them first. “It should have been you.” Chapter One Avenues for investigation have become severely limited, as has time. In the name of proper enquiry, I have made adjustments to my research. Secret Serious adjustments. The Scientific Journal of Lady Philippa Marbury March 21, 1831; fifteen days prior to her wedding Seven years later The lady was mad. He would have realized it five minutes earlier if he hadn’t been half-asleep, shocked as hell to find a young, blond, bespectacled female seated at his desk, reading his ledger.

He might have realized it three minutes earlier if she hadn’t announced, all certainty, that he’d miscalculated column F, ensuring that his understanding of her madness was preempted by shock at her pluck and admiration for her mathematical skill. Or perhaps the reverse. And he most definitely would have realized that the woman was utterly insane sixty seconds earlier if he hadn’t been rather desperately attempting to clothe himself. For long moments, his shirt had appeared to lose a rather critical opening, which was a distraction indeed. Now, however, he was quite awake, had closed the (correctly accounted) ledger, and was fully (if not appropriately) clothed. The universe had righted itself, and rational thought had returned, right around the time she’d explained what it was she wanted. And there, in the silence that followed her announcement, Cross had understood the truth. There was no doubt about it: Lady Philippa Marbury, daughter to the Marquess of Needham and Dolby, sister-in-law to the Marquess of Bourne and lady of excellent ton, was barking mad. “I beg your pardon,” he said, impressed with his ability to remain civil in the face of her utter insanity. “I am certain I did not hear you correctly.

” “Oh, I’m sure you did,” the lady said simply, as though commenting on the weather, big blue eyes unsettling and owl-like behind thick spectacles. “I might have given you a shock, but your hearing is quite sound, I should think.” She advanced on him, navigating a path between a half dozen towering stacks of books and a bust of Medusa he’d been meaning to move. The hem of her pale blue skirts brushed against one long serpent’s body, and the sound of the fabric rustling against bronze sent a thread of awareness through him. Wrong. He was not aware of her. He would not be aware of her. It was too dark in this damned room. He moved to light a lamp a good distance away, near the door. When he looked up from the task, it was to find that she had altered her course.

She came closer, crowding him back toward the heavy mahogany, throwing him off-kilter. For a moment, he considered opening the door just to see if she might charge through, leaving him in the office, alone and free from her. From what she represented. Able to close the portal firmly behind her, pretend this encounter had never happened, and restart his day. He knocked into a large abacus, and the rattle of ebony yanked him from his thoughts. He stopped moving. She kept coming. He was one of the most powerful men in Britain, part-owner of London’s most notorious gaming hell, easily ten inches taller than she, and rather fearsome when he wanted to be. She was neither the kind of woman he was conditioned to notice nor the kind of woman who expected to receive his notice. And she was certainly not the kind of woman who rattled his control.

Pull yourself together, man. “Stop.” She stopped, the word hanging harsh and defensive between them. He did not like it. Did not like what the strangled sound said about the way this strange creature had instantly affected him. But she didn’t see any of that, thank God. Instead, she tilted her head the way a puppy might, curious and eager, and he resisted the temptation to take a good long look at her. She was not for looking at. Certainly not for looking at by him. “Shall I repeat myself?” she asked when he said nothing else.

He did not reply. Repetition was unnecessary. Lady Philippa Marbury’s request was fairly burned into his memory. Nevertheless, she lifted one hand, pushed her spectacles back on her nose, and took a deep breath. “I require ruination.” The words were as simple and unwavering now as they had been the first time she’d spoken them, devoid of nervousness. Ruination. He watched the way her lips curved around the syllables, caressing consonants, lingering on vowels, turning the experience of hearing the word into something startlingly akin to its meaning. It had become quite warm in his office. “You’re mad.

” She paused, clearly taken aback by the statement. Good. It was time someone other than he was surprised by the events of the day. Finally, she shook her head. “I don’t think so.” “You ought to seriously consider the possibility,” he said, edging past her, increasing the space between them—a difficult endeavor in the cluttered office, “as there is no additional rational explanation for why you would be unchaperoned in London’s most notorious gaming hell, asking to be ruined.” “It’s not as though a chaperone would have been rational,” she pointed out. “Indeed, a chaperone would have made this whole scenario impossible.” “Precisely,” he said, taking a long step over a stack of newspapers, ignoring the scent of fresh linen and sunlight that curled around her. Around him.

“Indeed, bringing a chaperone to ‘London’s most notorious gaming hell’ would have been rather more mad, don’t you think?” She reached out and ran one finger along the massive abacus. “This is beautiful. Do you use it often?” He was distracted by the play of her long, pale fingers over the black rounds, by the way the tip of her index finger canted slightly to the right. Imperfect. Why wasn’t she wearing gloves? Was there nothing normal about this woman? “No.” She turned to him, her blue eyes curious. “No, you don’t use the abacus? Or no, you don’t think that coming with a chaperone would have been mad?” “Neither. The abacus is unwieldy—” She pushed one large disc from one side of the frame to the other. “You can get things done more quickly without it?” “Precisely.” “The same is true of chaperones,” she said, serious.

“I am much more productive without them.” “I find you much more dangerous without them.” “You think me a danger, Mr. Cross?” “Cross. No need for the mister. And yes. I think you a danger.” She was not insulted. “To you?” Indeed, she sounded pleased with herself. “Mainly to yourself, but if your brother-in-law should find you here, I imagine you’d be something of a danger to me, as well.

” Old friend, business partner, or no, Bourne would have Cross’s head if Lady Philippa were discovered here. She seemed to accept the explanation. “Well then, I shall be quick about it.” “I’d rather you be quick about leaving.” She shook her head, her tone rising just enough to make him aware of it. Of her. “Oh no. I’m afraid that won’t do. You see, I have a very clear plan, and I require your assistance.” He had reached his desk, thank God.

Lowering himself into the creaking chair, he opened the ledger and pretended to look over the figures there, ignoring the fact that her presence blurred the numbers to unintelligible grey lines. “I am afraid, Lady Philippa, that your plan is not a part of my plans. You’ve come all this way for nothing.” He looked up. “How did you come to be here, anyway?” Her unwavering gaze wavered. “The usual way, I imagine.” “As we’ve established, the usual way involves a chaperone. And does not involve a gaming hell.” “I walked.” A beat.

“You walked.” “Yes.” “Alone.” “In broad daylight.” There was an edge of defensiveness in her tone. “You walked across London—” “Not very far. Our home is—” “A half mile up the Thames.” “You needn’t say it as though it’s Scotland.” “You walked across London in broad daylight to the entrance of The Fallen Angel, where I assume you knocked and waited for entry.” She pursed her lips.

He refused to be distracted by the movement. “Yes.” “On a public street.” “In Mayfair.” He ignored the emphasis. “A public street that is home to the most exclusive men’s clubs in London.” He paused. “Were you seen?” “I couldn’t say.” Mad. “I assume you know that ladies do not do such things?” A tiny wrinkle appeared between her brows.

“It’s a silly rule, don’t you think? I mean, the female sex has had access to bipedal locomotion since . well . Eve.” Cross had known many many women in his lifetime. He’d enjoyed their company, their conversation, and their curiosity. But he’d never once met a woman as strange as this one. “Nevertheless, it is 1831. In the present day, females such as you use carriages. And they do not frequent gaming hells.” She smiled.

“Well, not precisely such as me, as I walked, and here I am. In a gaming hell.” “Who let you in?” “A man. He appeared eager to do so when I announced myself.” “No doubt he was. Bourne would take pleasure in destroying him if your reputation had suffered.” She considered the words. “I hadn’t thought of that. Indeed, I’ve never had a protector.” He could protect her.

Where had that come from? No matter. “Lady Philippa, it appears that you require an army of protectors.” He returned his attention to the ledger. “Unfortunately, I have neither the time nor inclination to enlist. I trust you can see yourself out.” She advanced, ignoring him. He looked up, surprised. People did not ignore him. “Oh, there’s no need to Lady Philippa me, really. Not considering my reason for being here.

Please, call me Pippa.” Pippa. It suited her. More so than the fuller, more extravagant version of the name. But he had no intention of calling her such a thing. He had no intention of calling her at all. “Lady Philippa”—he let the name stretch between them purposefully—“it is time for you to leave.”

.

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