Taking the Earl – Sara Ramsey

He was coughing up blood again. Miss Lucretia Briarley couldn’t do anything about that. But her grandfather liked flowers. She could give him that, at least. “You’ve picked every living thing in Devonshire,” Lord Maidenstone said when his latest cough had rattled to a stop. “I’ve told you not to ruin your gardens for my sake.” “They’ll grow back,” she said, adjusting one of the blooms in the large bouquet. It was unbearably warm in his room. They’d kept the fire going and the windows closed for days now, and still he was wrapped in blankets. She was wearing her thinnest lawn dress, and she thought she might sweat through it. He coughed again. “Would tea help?” Lucy asked. “Or warm water, at least?” He shook his head. “I must tell you something. I’ve left it too long already.

” “You should save your strength, Grandfather. I’m sure it can wait until your cough improves.” She had trouble looking at his face. He’d burst a blood vessel in an eye during one of his coughing fits. But looking down at his hands didn’t help either. His skin was nearly translucent, paper-like, and prone to bruising. If she held his hand — as he was gesturing impatiently for her to do — her thumb would graze over the fragile vessels, feeling every weakening beat of his heart. She was a coward. She didn’t want to watch this happen. She’d seen enough awful deaths already.

At least this one wasn’t her fault. “Come here, Lucretia.” She couldn’t deny a direct request. She sat on the stool by his bed and took his hand. “What do you want to say?” “Has Octavia come home?” he asked. Octavia. Of course. Lucy’s cousin and former best friend. She hadn’t been home since the disastrous season three years before, when Octavia’s brother, Julian, had died in a duel and Octavia’s reputation had been ruined. “Octavia isn’t here, Grandfather.

” He sighed. “For the best, I suppose. You two would go after each other like wildcats. Although if you killed each other, it would solve the problem of my will.” He laughed a little, but it quickly turned into a cough. Lucy didn’t think it was funny. “I don’t want to kill Octavia,” she said stiffly. “But if she doesn’t want to come home, I can’t say I’m sorry about that.” She was sorry, though. Sorry that she’d caught Octavia in Lord Chapman’s arms at the last party of their debut season.

Sorry that she’d told Julian, who had called Chapman out for it. Sorry that both men had died — although if Chapman had to die from a bullet, Lucy almost wished it had been her hand instead of Julian’s that had pulled the trigger. Mostly she was sorry that she’d ever met Chapman, let alone trusted him with all that she had. Octavia hadn’t known about Lucy and Chapman’s secret “engagement” — an engagement that Chapman apparently had no intention of following through with. Lucy shouldn’t have been mad at Octavia for letting Chapman kiss her, but jealousy wasn’t rational — especially after Octavia began to act like she was the only injured party. And Lucy definitely couldn’t forgive Octavia for ignoring their grandfather’s last few requests to come home. “And Callista?” he asked, referring to the only other Briarley cousin of Lucy’s generation. “She’s either happy in America, or she’s dead,” Lucy said. “Or the war has blocked her letters. Either way, she doesn’t seem to be coming back.

” Her grandfather shook his head. “You’ve always been the loyal one, haven’t you? I hope you know how much I appreciate that.” She squeezed his hand. “I know.” His bloodshot eye made him look slightly sinister, but his smile was wistful. “I made a muck of my sons, but you’ve given me a chance to try again.” He was growing maudlin. Her grandfather was never maudlin. He often declared that hugs were for children and dogs. He was proud that his grandson had died in a duel, even though he’d lost his only heir.

He was happy that Octavia had become the most infamous courtesan in London rather than living in the country in quiet ignominy. He’d even accepted Lucy’s shocking mistake — he’d merely laughed when she had told him and said that he was glad she’d done something bold, for once in her life. “There will still be time to see Octavia,” she said. “We can go to London once you’re well enough.” If he wouldn’t stay alive for Lucy, maybe he would for Octavia. But he closed his eyes. “Don’t change the subject. I still have to say something.” “Well?” she asked. “Damned if I wouldn’t rather die and let you find out after I’m gone,” he muttered.

“But you deserve an explanation.” He coughed. She handed him a cloth and turned her head, giving him the illusion of privacy as he spat blood. When he was done, he grabbed her hand again. His grip was steady, even when so much else wasn’t. He’d held her hand like that after her parents’ funerals. After Julian’s funeral. After Octavia had left them. After he’d told her that he was marrying Emma — a girl who was younger than Lucy, and who was now the Countess of Maidenstone — and attempting to get another heir. But now, his fingers were weak.

They were anything but reassuring. “I appreciate everything you’ve done,” he said. “Everything you do. For me and Maidenstone both. But you shouldn’t have stayed here.” “What else was I supposed to do? Leave you alone?” “You’re a Briarley. You should be living your life and finding love and chasing adventures, not taking care of a sick old man.” She had never heard him call himself old before. He was too vain for that. And that’s when she knew that it was really the end.

She couldn’t stop the prickling of tears. “I don’t want adventures. I want to stay at Maidenstone.” He squeezed her hand. “That’s why I’m not leaving Maidenstone to you.” Lucy felt like the air had been sucked out of her lungs. “I beg your pardon?” “There are no male heirs. I’ve checked every line, and they’re all dead ends. The title will revert to the Crown, but the estate can go to anyone I choose.” “You should leave it to me.

I love Maidenstone Abbey more than anyone does.” “You’ll thank me later for not saddling you with this responsibility.” “Are you leaving it to Octavia?” she said. “She hasn’t been home in years.” “The three of you — you, Octavia, and Callista — will compete for it. I’ve written instructions to give Maidenstone to whichever of you makes the most appropriate marriage by the end of the year after my death.” Lucy was nearly too stunned to talk. “Is that even legal?” He shrugged. “The executor is the Duke of Rothwell — he agreed to it. You might be able to challenge the will, but that would take decades to work its way through the courts.

” Her world had just been thrown into complete turmoil. She shoved herself off her stool and moved to the window. She had to open it, if only for a moment, and get some air before she fainted. “Why is marriage the condition?” she asked as she pushed the window open. “Have you gone completely mad?” “I’m glad to see you’re angry enough that you’ve stopped treating me like an invalid for a moment,” he said drily. She took a deep breath. She was angry. Hurt. Furious. But under it all was grief — for the grandfather she was about to lose and the life he had decided to take from her.

“I don’t want to yell at you,” she said. “I’ll feel guilty forever if I’m angry when you die.” “You’ll be angry when I die anyway,” he responded. “You never have been very good at letting things go.” She ignored his usual jibe. “Why are you doing this to me?” “If I leave Maidenstone to you, you’ll sit here and do your duty to the estate until you rot. And Octavia and Callista will never come back and decide whether they want to take up their place in Briarley history.” “But marriage? Neither Octavia nor I can make a decent match, not with the way we’ve ruined ourselves. You may as well give the estate to Callista, if she’s still alive and well-behaved, and be done with it.” “If it’s announced that you have a chance to inherit Maidenstone, any man in Britain will overlook your past mistakes.

And once you’re married, they can’t divorce you even if you don’t inherit Maidenstone. I’d like to see you with someone who loves you — not that I’ll be here to see it, but that’s my hope. It’s the perfect way to ensure that you’re settled.” “It’s unacceptable,” she said flatly. “And I don’t want to marry.” “And I don’t want to die. But we each do what we need to when the time comes.” He was remarkably sanguine about all of this. But then, her grandfather was always sanguine. She adored him.

She also respected him. But for a moment, she understood why her father had hated him. Marriage was the last thing she wanted. She was supposed to inherit Maidenstone and have a safe place to stay, without needing to risk her heart and her security with a man. A husband would have complete power over her. A husband could do anything he wanted with Maidenstone — and with her and her children. And if she made the mistake of falling in love with him, a husband could destroy her just as badly as her first lover had. Worse, actually. A husband could trample her underfoot, be as unfaithful as he wished, and she’d still be stuck with him until she died. She would do anything for Maidenstone.

But love was something else entirely. “Do you forgive me?” her grandfather asked. She shut the window before returning to his side. “Briarley contra mundum. We don’t forgive.” The family motto, in Latin, meant “Briarley against the world,” but the Briarleys tended to be against each other more often than they were against anyone else. The last male Briarley smiled. “That’s my darling girl. Build a life for yourself, Lucretia. Promise me.

” She couldn’t stop her tears then. One moment she’d been angry; the next, the enormity of what she was about to lose flooded over her. “I promise, Grandfather.” He didn’t like hugs, but she hugged him anyway — that weak, shrunken body that only looked fuller because the blankets replaced the bulk he’d lost. She left her tears on his shoulder, as she had when he’d held her before at other deathbeds. But this time was different. “I love you,” he rasped into her hair. He’d never said that before. She was going to lose him, and that was what she wasn’t ready to forgive. But he was still enough of himself to let her go in the end.

“Send Emma to me,” he said. Lucy nodded. She couldn’t really speak anymore — it was all too real and yet somehow unbelievable all at once. So she left without quite saying goodbye — without articulating what she felt, because that was an impossible task. And anyway, he knew how she felt. She found Emma and sent her to be with the earl. Then she walked down the hall and down the stairs and through the corridors that made up the newer wings of Maidenstone Abbey: the wing her grandfather had built when he was young and the Palladian wing that had been built a hundred years before that. The Tudor and Gothic wings were older still. She knew every thread of carpet, every worn indentation on the stairs. Every memory of her life, save for those six disastrous months in London, surrounded her.

The ghosts of previous Briarleys were said to haunt the place. She didn’t quite believe it — but if they did, they’d always comforted her. And her grandfather didn’t want her to have it. The main entryway towered over her as she walked through it — two stories of marble designed to inspire awe in new arrivals. She’d met Lord Chapman in that hall, the first time Julian had brought him to Devonshire for a visit. She’d watched Octavia leave from there, Lucy covering her mouth to keep from vomiting as Octavia had disappeared — a reaction that she hadn’t realized, at the time, was due to something other than grief. She’d greeted Emma there when Emma’s engagement had been decided. Maidenstone had a history of unwelcome arrivals and hasty departures. Those memories were woven into her bones. If her grandfather’s will held, someone else would greet guests in that hall.

She would be a guest. She felt like vomiting, just as she had when Octavia had left. There were servants near the door, but they stopped their work when Lucy entered. She smelled freshly cut greenery. The butler, Claxton, was supervising the preparation of the mourning wreath to hang from the front door. Evergreens in the front hall always smelled like death to her. She didn’t stop to speak to them. She turned and ran up the stairs of the Palladian wing. She kept running until she reached the third floor, where she forced herself to slow down. She had to catch her breath.

She had to pretend to be calm. By the time she reached the nursery, she was in control of herself again. She pushed the door open quietly. It was time for a nap, but Julia — her precious, beautiful Julia — was wide awake. “Mama!” Julia said, looking up from the doll whose hair she was creatively destroying. Julia. Her mistake. Her disaster. Her life. “My darling girl,” Lucy said, and nearly choked because her grandfather had always called her that.

“Do you like what I did to ’Sephone?” Julia said, holding up her doll. “I gave her a haircut.” Julia was nearly three and couldn’t say “Persephone” very well. Persephone had been Octavia’s favorite doll when they were children. Octavia had left the doll, and everything else, behind. “I love it,” Lucy said. Julia’s nursemaid, Mrs. Pearce, who had been Lucy’s and Octavia’s nursemaid when they were children, hadn’t done anything to stop the destruction of the doll. Other servants would have refused to be employed by a woman with a bastard child, but the Maidenstone servants were fiercely loyal, and Mrs. Pearce had come out of retirement for Lucy’s child.

She, like most of the servants, was quietly offended that Octavia hadn’t come home to sit vigil next to the dying earl. They would have forgiven anything Octavia had done as long as she’d remained loyal to the estate. “How is his lordship?” Mrs. Pearce asked quietly. Lucy shook her head. She walked over to Julia and scooped her up instead of answering. “Have you taken your nap for Mrs. Pearce?” she asked. Julia shook her head, grinning with that special mischief that only three-year-olds could get away with. “’Sephone kept me awake.

” Her daughter was getting almost too big to carry, but she still wanted to hold her. Needed to hold her. Lucy hugged her tightly, burying her face in Julia’s hair — the same glossy brown curls that Lucy and Octavia shared. Julia had inherited very few of her features from Lord Chapman — so few that Lucy could pretend, sometimes, that Julia was entirely hers. “Do you want to play with ’Sephone, Mama?” Julia asked. Lucy didn’t know what she wanted. She wanted to cry. She wanted to run out into Maidenstone Wood and lose herself there, until the only company was the birds and the wild, untamed space of the forest. She wanted to scream. But mostly, she wanted to keep Julia safe.

To keep her at Maidenstone, where the servants loved her and no one would ever tell her, before it was time for her to know, that she was a bastard. Where she wouldn’t grow up to the taunts and jeers of her peers — where she would have time to become the girl she was meant to be before the world punished her for Lucy’s mistake. “Yes, let’s play with Persephone,” Lucy said, when Julia started to squirm in her arms. But playtime wasn’t meant to last. Lucy didn’t know if it would be hours, or days, or weeks — but sometime soon, her grandfather would be gone. The competition to win Maidenstone would begin. And Lucy would do anything — anything — to win it


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