Tamed by the Earl – Carole Mortimer

Daniel breathed an inward sigh of relief as his carriage turned in through the iron gates and began the drive leading to the house on his principal country estate. He could not have been happier to be there, even if it had meant several days of traveling from the city following the end of the London Season. He had spent the past weeks and months attending balls and parties and endeavoring to avoid the attention of widows on the hunt for a second husband or—even worse—the mamas on the hunt for a favorable marriage for their debutante daughter. As a widower and father to a married man of one and twenty, Daniel considered himself well beyond succumbing to such youthful beauties as the Season’s debutantes. Nor did he have any desire to be caught in the parson’s mousetrap with one of the more experienced widows vying for his attention. Something that should have been obvious to all when he had remained single for the eleven years since his wife had died. He had no interest in ever remarrying. Once was quite enough, thank you very much. Nor did he have a permanent mistress. He was in London only for as long as he had to be, and when he was, he chose to visit the homes of the demimonde rather than taking on a permanent arrangement with one woman. He was not a monk, after all. Also while in London, he had dutifully attended the House. It had also been pleasant to spend time with his son, George, and his wife, Amelia. To visit often with his sister, Thea, and her husband, Julian, the Duke of Blackmoor, and become acquainted with their young son. Also to dine at his club or spar at the boxing saloon with several of his male friends.

But Daniel had little patience with the necessity of attending the social events of the Season. Which was why he was now looking forward to an uncomplicated summer at Latham Park, where he could involve himself in the physical labors of the estate rather than the tedious paperwork of the House. Indeed, he could feel himself both physically and mentally relaxing as he leaned out the carriage window and instructed his coachman to drive round to the back of the house where the stables were situated. His favorite mare, Lady Midnight, had foaled in his absence, and he wished to reassure himself as to her own and her foal’s well-being— “—going to fucking kill ya, yer fucking bastard!” “You an’ oose army?” Daniel’s brows rose upon hearing the sound of raised voices—and their content—drifting in through the open window of his now halted carriage. He used that same aperture from which to attain a view of two adversaries. There was a group of half a dozen men and boys standing round watching two more of their group, all of them stable lads from the look of their serviceable clothing. One of the two in the middle of the throng looked to be about nineteen or so, and was tall, dark and muscular. Daniel recognized him as Mickey Bates, one of the stable lads. The other was younger and much slighter, only an inch or two over five feet, and wearing clothes that appeared far too big for him. He had a dirt-streaked face and untidy shoulder-length hair Daniel believed should have been fair in color but was currently so greasy and dirty, it was difficult to tell.

Daniel did not recall ever having seen him before. “I don’t need no army to defeat a low-bellied worm like you!” Surprisingly it was the slighter of the two who was threatening the much bigger one. A threat he didn’t hesitate to carry out as he launched himself at the larger man by seeming to climb the man’s body, punching him soundly on the nose, before leaping agilely back to the cobbled stable yard. Mickey let out a howl of pain even as he raised a hand to his face to try to stem the flow of blood now gushing from his nose. “You little fucker!” His eyes had turned dark and feral as he stalked toward the younger boy, his intention obviously to administer suitable retaliation with a clenched and beefy fist. A retaliation Daniel feared might prove fatal for the other lad, considering the difference in the size of the adversaries. He did not hesitate by so much as a second as he stepped out of the carriage and pushed his way through the watching stable lads, before grasping the smaller of the two aggressors by the back of his grimy shirt collar and lifting him bodily out of harm’s way. “Stand down, Bates,” he growled at the other lad. Either the boy hadn’t heard Daniel or he was completely lost to the blood lust coursing through him as he continued stalking toward them. The blood was still pouring from his nose and tracking down his chin.

His malevolent dark gaze was fixed murderously on the boy Daniel still held suspended several inches off the ground, despite the thrashing of his arms and legs to be put down. Not only was the boy short of stature, but he also weighed next to nothing. Closer proximity revealed he also smelt rather unpleasant, as if he had been rolling about in the soiled straw of the horses he cared for rather than merely mucking out their stables. “What’s going on here?” The head groom cut through the silence that had fallen over the watching crowd at Daniel’s appearance. “Get back to work, the lot of you— My lord!” Haynes looked astonished at finding Daniel standing in the middle of his idle work force. “I had no idea… I had been told not to expect you until the weekend, my lord.” The man looked flustered. “I left London several days early,” Daniel dismissed. “A fortuitous decision, apparently.” He looked pointedly at the two boys who had been scrapping.

Jo had ceased thrashing to be set free and now turned slowly to look at the gentleman whose timely interruption had prevented what had promised to become a bloodbath. My lord? As in Lord Daniel Somersby, the Earl of Latham? Who else could it be arriving “home” unexpectedly! Unfortunately, his arrival had happened at the very moment the antagonism between Jo and Mickey had reached its zenith, passing from verbal abuse to physical. The language had been rather choice too. It must be the earl, and yet this man looked too young to be the man described as a widower with a married son and his first grandchild expected to be born before the year was out. He wore no hat, revealing his hair to be a most unusual shade of darkest auburn, brows and lashes of that same hue surrounding emerald green eyes. His complexion was a deep olive, either naturally or from spending time in the sun. His features might have been those depicted on the back of a Roman coin: high cheekbones, an aristocratic slash of a nose, sculpted lips, and a chiseled jaw. His dark green superfine was tailored perfectly to his impressively wide shoulders, broad chest, and tapered waist. Buff-colored pantaloons fitted his narrow hips and muscular thighs, brown-topped Hessians molding to his shapely calves. Daniel Somersby was visibly an arrogantly handsome gentleman in the prime of his life.

None of which Jo Turner, a lowly stable lad, should have noticed. Lady Josephine Kendall was a different matter, however… Except she had not been Lady Josephine Kendall this past month, the granddaughter of the deceased Duke of Cheshire, and now cousin to the new duke. It had been almost unbearable for Jo to continue to live at Kendall Hall once Cousin Edgar assumed the title and, within days of doing so, tried to force his attentions upon her. She’d barely escaped ravishment that night, and afterward ensured her maid slept on a pallet bed in her bedchamber with her. Jo had breathed a sigh of relief when Cousin Edgar left for London after a week. Only to know an even worse fate when he returned to the hall a month later and introduced Owen Pendleton to her, the man her cousin had decided she would marry. Except Mr. Pendleton wished to “try her out” first, and Edgar was eager to be audience to the coupling, hinting he might also “try her” once her future husband had settled his immediate lust. Realizing she could either suffer that indignity or flee, Jo had chosen to leave the hall that very day. She had cried as she cut her waist-length fair hair, but stiffened with resolve when she strapped her breasts flat to her chest and donned men’s clothing so as to avoid detection.

Her intention was to make her way to the home of her only other relative, an elderly great-aunt living in Hampshire whom Jo had never met but wished to appeal to for refuge and, if necessary, assistance. Instead, Jo had been set upon by robbers within days of leaving Cheshire, her money and possessions stolen from her, and leaving her barely conscious on the side of the road. The next few days had been something of a blur as she avoided the main roads and traveled across country, living off berries in the hedgerows when she could find them and going without when she could not. Somewhere along the way, she had lost her direction completely and somehow ended up in Kent rather than Hampshire. Too exhausted and hungry to go on any further, she had sought refuge in the warm stables at Latham Park. If not for the kindness of the head groom in offering her employment once he discovered her there, Jo truly believed she might have perished in her desperation to escape Cousin Edgar’s plans for her. It had taken her several days to recover her strength, but for the past two weeks, she had enjoyed the hard work in the stables, and with Lady Midnight in particular. Unfortunately, her affinity with the mare had caused Mickey Bates to take a dislike to her from the beginning, and he had proceeded to make Jo Turner’s life hell at every opportunity. None of which was of the least importance here and now. At Latham Hall, she was Jo Turner and not Lady Josephine Kendall, granddaughter of a duke.

From the disgusted wrinkling of the Earl of Latham’s nose as he continued to hold her at arm’s length and look down his haughty nose at her, he was far from impressed with the newest lad to be given employment in the stables of his vast country estate. Her grandfather had been something of an eccentric, preferring to remain at home on his estate in Cheshire all year round rather than attending the London Seasons. Having been his ward since she was six, Jo had not attended them either. Which possibly accounted for why she was still unmarried at the age of five and twenty, and so left as prey to her cousin’s lascivious nature. But one thing Jo’s grandfather had always insisted upon was good manners, with an emphasis on the importance of first impressions. The Earl of Latham’s first impression of Jo Turner had to be that of a foul-mouthed and odorous brat. The language and Cockney accent was something Jo had quickly picked up from working with the other lads in the stables. The smelly part she had deliberately nurtured by smearing horse piss over her clothes and tallow grease in her hair. This ensured no one wanted to spend more than a few minutes in her company because of that disgusting smell, nor did any of the other stable lads wish to share one of the rustic rooms over the stables with her. Which meant no one lingered long enough in her company to be able to ask any questions she would rather not answer either.

The dirt was applied only to the parts of her that showed. Jo could not have borne to have the whole of her body covered in such filth. The smell was truly disgusting, and Jo longed for nothing more than a perfumed bath and to wash her hair in something equally as pleasant smelling. But her filthy appearance and discomfort were a small price to pay if it meant she was not forced into ravishment and then marriage with the toad. Unfortunately, it also gave bully Mickey Bates ample ammunition with which to bait and insult her. The earl had begun to look slightly green around the gills. “Good God, boy, do you ever wash?” “I ’as a bath twice a year, wheffer I needs it or not, me lord,” she came back pertly with the addition of a loud and mucousy sniff as she wiped her nose on the sleeve of her shirt. “Once at Christmastime an’ the other on me birfday.” “Which is when?” She deliberately wrinkled her brow, as if it pained her to think too deeply. “Me mam couldn’t be sure, but she thought it might ’ave been sometime in July.

” He raised auburn brows. “Why could she not be sure?” Jo shrugged. “’ard to keep track when there was fourteen of us.” “It is July now.” “Is it?” She feigned surprise. “I loses track, me lord.” Daniel felt he might lose more than track if he did not soon remove himself from this foul-smelling brat whose deplorable accent indicated he originated from the backstreets of London. An impertinent, foul-smelling brat with the hugest and deepest blue eyes Daniel ever beheld. Indeed, if not for the ingrained grime on the boy’s face, his features would be rather fine, delicate even. Which was a very strange thought for him to be having in regard to another male, let alone a boy working in his stables! Daniel hastily placed the brat’s feet back on the cobbles before removing a handkerchief from his pocket and wiping the lingering dirt from his fingers.

“Your name, boy?” “Jo Turner, me lord.” He thrust out a hand as dirty as his face. A gesture totally out of keeping with their different stations in life. Nor did Daniel have any intention, having just wiped the dirt from his fingers, of touching that filthy appendage. “Well, Jo Turner, you will take your half-yearly bath this very afternoon, dress yourself in clean clothes, and either cut or tie back your unruly hair, after which you will present yourself to me in my study.” Those blue eyes widened in alarm, and the hand dropped back to his side. “I only ’as this one set of clothes.” Daniel decided to ignore Mickey Bates’s snicker. “Then Mr. Haynes will see that more are purchased for you.

” “Why do I ’ave to come to your study?” After a lifetime as Viscount Portland, and the past five years as the Earl of Latham, Daniel was unaccustomed to having his instructions questioned. By anyone. Least of all an East End guttersnipe. But perhaps on this occasion, he should make allowances for the fact the boy obviously knew no better. He would question Haynes later as to what he knew about the boy, other than his atrocious language and reprehensible appearance, which Daniel could hear and see perfectly well for himself. All of which made him question as to what his head groom had been thinking by employing such a disreputable boy in the first place. “Because I have requested it,” Daniel dismissed before turning to the larger half of the fight. “I am surprised at you, Bates, for engaging in fisticuffs with a boy half your size.” “’e started it, me lord.” Bates’s voice was slightly muffled beneath the grubby piece of rag he now had pressed against his still-bleeding nose.

Daniel didn’t doubt it, having arrived in time to see and hear Turner’s aggression. “Then you shall be the bigger man and finish it. The two of you will now shake hands.” He felt no compunction in issuing the instruction, despite his own aversion to touching Turner again. Nor did Daniel miss the rather gleeful gleam which now appeared in Turner’s eyes as he thrust his hand toward the older boy. Or the way Bates deliberately used his bloodiest hand to return the gesture. A clear indication there would be further conflict between these two. “Now be about your business.” Daniel, having been anticipating peace and harmony at his estate, had run out of patience with the whole situation. “All of you,” he added as Turner seemed about to linger.

Daniel waited until only he and Haynes remained before turning to the other man. “A curious choice of employee, Haynes…?” The older man looked discomforted. “He was starving and near death when I found him hiding in the stables a couple of weeks ago. I didn’t know what else to do with the lad once he’d recovered, other than put him to work.” “I see.” Daniel was relieved to hear he was not the only one susceptible to the appeal in those huge blue eyes. “You did not fear that both he and the family silver might disappear one night?” The other man’s cheeks flushed at the implied criticism. “I did not, my lord.” He nodded, satisfied with the man’s reply. “What do you know about him?” “Not much.

” Haynes grimaced. “The lad is reluctant to talk about himself. In fact, his conversation with you is the longest I’ve heard him talk with anyone. But I could see signs of a beating when he arrived, as well as the starvation. My guess, after hearing of his background just now, is that his mother, having too many mouths to feed, turned him out to fend for himself. He’s a feisty one, but his size would have been against him surviving the toughs that inhabit the backstreets of London.” Daniel could only imagine the possible dangers to be found there for a boy as delicate-looking as Jo Turner. At least physically; verbally the boy could probably out-swear a fishwife. “You know there will be further trouble between him and Bates?” “I’ll keep an eye on it, my lord.” Haynes nodded.

“The main thing to know about Jo, my lord, is that he has a way with the horses. Lady Midnight and her foal in particular flourish under his care.” Daniel laughed at the unhidden slyness of this last comment: Haynes knew of his weakness for the glossy black mare. “Very well, Haynes, I will give your protégé the benefit of the doubt for the moment. As long as you do something about his appearance and aroma before sending him up to the house to talk with me,” he added with a shudder for the memory of that lingering smell. He put the urchin Jo Turner and those huge blue eyes firmly from his mind as he followed Haynes into the stable, where Lady Midnight proudly displayed her new foal to him.

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