The Formidable Earl – Sophie Barnes

WEARY OF TRYİNG to find an acceptable bride, Simon Garrison Nugent, Earl of Fielding, had ceased all attempts at marriage and was currently steering clear of debutantes. Instead, he chose to pass his evenings with friends. At his age of three and thirty, marriage was expected. He knew it had to happen soon if he was to maintain his dignity. After all, the longer he remained unattached, the more it looked like he’d not yet recovered from losing his fiancée to another man. It had been three years since the incident, yet it still rankled. Gabriella, now the Duchess of Huntley, would have made the perfect countess. The very idea of her choosing an ill-bred ruffian, even if he did happen to have a prestigious title, was bad enough without Simon having to worry about what people would think of the next bride he picked. She would have to be at least as high born, graceful, and accomplished as Gabriella. Raised to manage large households and host grand events with natural flair, the Duchess of Huntley had proven herself to be an undeniable asset to her husband. Unfortunately, Simon had not yet found another lady who compared. Seated in a quiet corner of White’s together with Baron Hawthorne and the Earl of Yates, Simon sipped his brandy and tried to force his thoughts away from the past by focusing on what Yates was saying. “It was never meant to get this out of hand,” Yates explained while looking precisely like the sort of man whose neck was being squeezed by a noose. He was a good fellow – one of the few who seemed to tolerate Simon’s company – though sadly too kind for his own good, seeing as he’d gotten tangled up with an untitled woman who lacked a dowry and connections. “All I meant to do was help the girl.

She’s a friend of my sister’s, after all.” “If every man with a sister offered to step out with all her unremarkable friends, he’d have gotten himself engaged a dozen times over,” Baron Hawthorne muttered. He tossed back the remainder of his drink and poured himself another. “It’s your own damn fault for being too nice.” “He’s right, you know,” Simon said. Stretching out his legs, he crossed them at the ankles and cradled his snifter between his hands while pondering Yates’s dilemma. Apparently there had been a compromising situation which just happened to have been witnessed by a group of matrons hoping to find a reprieve from the stuffy ballroom. Simon sighed. “The trouble is,” he said, deciding to meet Yates’s gaze dead on, “hell, the trouble has always been, that she’s not your equal. Socially, I mean.

” “Well done, Fielding,” Hawthorne said with a smirk. “It’s always good to know you’ll remind us of what’s acceptable.” Simon fought the urge to roll his eyes. “Tell me I’m wrong.” His demand was, as expected, met by silence. Not even Yates attempted to argue. “Miss Harlowe is not countess material. This doesn’t mean she cannot be perfectly lovely, but no matter how you turn it, she’ll always be born into the wrong family.” There was a heavy moment of silence, and then Hawthorne asked, “Has your outlook on life always been this sunny?” Simon snorted. “I’m just trying to be realistic.

If Yates marries Miss Harlowe, he will no longer be welcome in certain circles, people will talk, and his life as he knows it will be forever changed, which I very much doubt is something he wants.” “From determined wife hunter to cynical loner,” Yates murmured, his narrowed eyes fixed on Simon with interest. “Don’t think I’ve forgotten your eager pursuit of Gabriella Matthews. Hell, you were even engaged to her for what, ten seconds or so, roughly four years ago?” “The Duchess of Huntley?” Hawthorne inquired with wide eyes. “I don’t recall that at all.” “Three,” Simon clipped. “It was three years ago.” “You must not have been at the Coventry Ball that season,” Yates said to Hawthorne. “Fielding announced the betrothal – even kissed Gabriella before one and all – only to let the whole thing fizzle away into nothing. A short while later, Huntley and Gabriella were married, and you,” Yates tilted his almost empty glass in Simon’s direction, “haven’t proposed to anyone since.

” “Perhaps because I haven’t met anyone else worth asking,” Simon said. Yates leaned back, his expression suddenly distant and thoughtful. “I think you need to fall in love,” Hawthorne told Simon with a grin. “God forbid,” Simon muttered. Worrying over his future was difficult enough without throwing love into the mix. “I don’t think he believes in love,” Yates said. Simon gave his friend a deadpan look. “Of course I do. There have been so many blissful unions of late, I’m inclined to believe we live in a world full of rainbows where cupids lurk behind every bush. Even Carlton Guthrie, the Scoundrel of St.

Giles – a man I would have sworn had no heart – is smitten with his young wife.” “Sounds like an epidemic.” Simon snorted in response to Hawthorne’s comment and took another sip of his drink. “By the by,” Yates murmured in a more discreet tone than earlier, “I’ve promised Celeste I’d try and find her a new protector, in case this thing with Miss Harlowe doesn’t blow over and I end up marrying her.” “I don’t understand why you’d want to give up your mistress if you’re not in love,” Hawthorne said. “Out of respect for my wife,” Yates said. He emitted a heavy sigh and looked at Simon. “I don’t suppose you would be interested?” “I’m afraid not. In my experience mistresses are demanding and hard to get rid of.” His last one had even made a spectacle, chasing after him on Oxford Street when he’d tried to end things with her.

It had been most embarrassing. “Celeste isn’t like that. She’s quite agreeable and sweet.” “Nevertheless,” Simon said. “No wife or mistress,” Hawthorne said with a pitying look that put Simon on edge. “You must be in need of a good tup.” “It’s not so bad,” Simon said. Hawthorne raised an eyebrow. “Really? How long has it been since you last had a woman?” Simon shrugged. He hated this – hated being made to feel lacking in some way.

Attempting to show indifference, he busied himself with refilling his glass. “Three months or so.” “Damnation,” Yates murmured. “Hell, it’s no wonder you look so tense.” Hawthorne reached inside his jacket pocket, retrieved a card, and handed it to Simon. “If I may, I suggest you stop by Amourette’s on your way home tonight.” “It’s a brothel, is it not?” Simon asked. When Hawthorne nodded, Simon instinctively winced. “I don’t think so.” “I think it would be good for you,” Hawthorne said.

Simon glanced at the card, then swung his gaze back to Hawthorne. “This is in St. Giles.” “Well, yes. But it’s clean,” Hawthorne promised, “and so are the women. In fact, they receive regular health checks at the local clinic.” “That may well be,” Simon said, “but it’s still located in the worst possible part of Town. You can’t honestly think I’d go there.” “Why not?” Hawthorne asked. “I do.

” “Yes, but Fielding isn’t like you,” Yates said. “He’s much more…” “More what?” Simon asked when Yates failed to finish his sentence. Yates averted his gaze. “Never mind.” “No,” Simon said, unwilling to let the comment go. “I’m more what?” “Reserved,” Yates said. “And stuffy.” “I beg your pardon?” “What he means to say,” Hawthorne murmured, bringing Simon’s attention back to him, “is that you don’t want to take any risks.” “I fail to see how that’s a bad thing,” Simon said with a frown. Silence followed before Yates quietly asked, “Has it never occurred to you that Gabriella chose Huntley because he was more exciting?” Simon stared at his friends.

“No. Not once.” “You’re an unmarried man,” Hawthorne said, looking Simon straight in the eye. “A trip to Amourette’s won’t tarnish your reputation. If anything, it will make you more normal and less…” “Less what?” Simon prompted when Hawthorne’s words trailed off. The baron shrugged. “Boring, I suppose.” Simon stared at him. “You think I’m boring?” “You don’t really have any interesting stories to tell,” Yates said. “Because you never do anything worth mentioning,” Hawthorne added.

Simon looked at them each in turn. “If I’m so boring, then why the hell do you keep my company?” “You’re my moral compass,” Hawthorne said. “Considering some of my other friends,” Yates said, “being seen with you on occasion is good for my reputation.” “We enjoy playing cards with you too,” Hawthorne added. “You’re not easy to beat.” “Right,” Simon said when neither man added anything further. He stood. “I think it’s time for a change of scene.” “Don’t be like that,” Yates said. “We’re just being honest.

” “Yes. Thank you for that.” Simon glared at them both. “I’m leaving.” “It’s only a little after nine,” Hawthorne protested. “Please don’t tell me you’re already going home.” “Of course not,” Simon said. It had been his intention to do precisely that. A warm bath and a glass of brandy before bed would be heavenly, but with his friends pressing him for an answer, he quickly changed his mind. “I’m doing something different.

” “Are you really?” Hawthorne asked. “Yes.” Simon added a nod. “If you can visit Amourette’s, then so can I.” “Do you think he’ll really do it?” Yates asked Hawthorne while Simon started toward the exit. He’d not gone more than two paces before he heard Hawthorne say, “Probably not. Care to wager?” Gritting his teeth, Simon continued toward the foyer where he collected his hat and gloves before stepping outside. Everything he’d ever done had been with Society’s approval in mind. His parents had drilled the notion of keeping a perfect façade in place at all times into him from an early age. When he’d taken a fall as a child, tears had not been permitted.

“You must never look weak,” Papa had said while Mama denied him the comfort he’d so dearly wanted. This, together with countless other lessons in how a peer ought to behave, had shaped his awareness of how the world perceived him. It was among the reasons he’d always allowed Society to dictate his actions and his behavior. But maybe it was time for a change – time for him to break free just a little. He’d show his friends. Stuffy and boring indeed. Ha! A detailed description of Amourette’s interior would prove to them both he’d been there. And then they’d be forced to eat their words. As had become her habit of late, Ida Veronica Strong snuck from her bedchamber at Amourette’s and made her way quietly onto the landing. She was supposed to remain hidden, but after four years of doing so, of not venturing out, and of only engaging in conversation with the women who worked here, she’d begun relaxing that rule a little.

Her aunt, Philipa Harding, who ran the brothel, would disapprove if she knew. And perhaps she’d be right to do so. Philipa had made a promise to Ida’s father – had assured him she would protect his daughter and keep her safe from those who’d betrayed him. And so she had. With Carlton Guthrie’s help. Once the Scoundrel of St. Giles, now the Duke of Windham, the former crime lord who’d owned The Black Swan tavern and whose real name was Valentine Sterling, had come to her rescue before, one year ago when she’d been kidnapped and made available to the highest bidder at a vile auction. He was a good man at heart and although Ida knew much of London continued to fear him, the story of his plight along with the truth concerning his actions had helped redeem him. Principled and a longtime friend of Philipa’s, he’d placed Ida under his protection as soon as he’d learned of her situation. And when he’d married Lady Regina Berkly last year and relocated to Windham House, he’d told Ida to seek him out if she ever needed his help.

She hoped it wouldn’t be necessary. One year still remained until she reached her majority and received the money her father had left her, but once she did, she would be free to go anywhere in the world. Free to start over somewhere fresh where no one would know who she was. Free to put the loneliness of her current existence behind her. Free to marry and start a family of her own, preferably with a man who could love her as much as her father had loved her mother. Most importantly, she would be free to escape the danger she faced until she got out of the country. Death had almost claimed her once before because of the threat she posed. Shot and left for dead after publically vowing to hunt down the man who’d sent her father to the gallows, she’d heeded her aunt ever since, had accepted that her life was not worth risking – that it wasn’t what her father would have wanted – and that it was best to stay hidden. Lowering herself to the floor at the top of the stairs, she prepared to watch the goings-on in the foyer below. The men who came here to enjoy a decadent evening of debauchery included only those with enough coin to afford it.

This wasn’t the sort of cheap establishment one might expect in St. Giles, but one that prided itself on quality. The exclusivity kept the riffraff away and even resulted in the occasional peer walking through the doors. Everything was possible here, every fantasy just one payment away from being realized. Provided no harm came to the girls. They weren’t dressed in common clothes but in silk and lace with dozens of ribbons, the occasional feathers, and enough crystal beads to dazzle any man looking to have a good time. Few clients were bachelors. The majority were either betrothed or married, which was why Amourette’s was as popular as it was. Because it promised discretion. Leaning forward for a clearer look, Ida watched as Philipa played the hostess.

She paired each man who arrived with one of the available courtesans, who then either escorted her companion into the parlor or upstairs to her bedchamber. None of the men ever spotted Ida. They were much too preoccupied by the courtesans to do so, and in any case, she was sitting away from the steps, on the landing just past the spot where the banister turned. Her face pressed against the balusters for a better view. She’d recognized the previous man who’d arrived. He was a regular client who came once a week and always asked to see the same girl. Ida watched as her aunt escorted him toward the red parlor, engaging him in conversation as they went. Their voices eventually faded, leaving nothing but silence behind in the now empty foyer. The front door opened again and a new gentleman entered. Seen from above, it was hard for Ida to gauge his height except by measuring him against the painting that hung immediately to his left.

His shoulders appeared to reach the lower part of the frame, making him several inches taller than she. He removed his hat, allowing her to see the top of his head, which was covered by lustrous hair colored in shades of oak and chestnut brown. His build was both imposing yet somehow elegant at the same time. Perhaps because of the authoritative way in which he moved that suggested high social standing and power. He glanced around and, finding no one about, looked up. Ida froze. Even though she knew she ought to hide, she could not seem to move. Her gaze locked with his, her heart pounding harder with each passing second. Heavens, he was far more handsome than she had expected, perhaps the most handsome man she had ever seen. Eventually, it was he who spoke.

“You there.” His voice was not unpleasant, but the arrogance of his tone made Ida tense with irritation. “Will you keep me waiting forever or do you plan on serving me? I haven’t all night.” Hawthorne hadn’t exaggerated his description of Amourette’s. Simon was impressed with how nice and respectable the building looked, considering its location and the business it housed. The tavern next door, slightly askew with timber-framed walls leaning into the street, seemed to fit the area better. By contrast, Amourette’s appeared to have been built with a love for precision. When he’d first stepped inside, he’d been both surprised and relieved to find the place empty. In spite of what his friends had said, he’d worried about potentially coming across someone who might know him. As it turned out, his concerns had been unfounded.

Unsure of how to proceed, he’d remained where he was. Waiting. Wondering if he should call out for some assistance. Until he’d glanced up and spotted her. Even though the woman was partially hidden behind a railing, her eyes peered through the dimly lit interior to hold him captive. She shifted her gaze to the doors on either side of him before responding. “It will likely take an hour before one of the women is free and ready to accommodate you.” Her eyes met his once more. “They’re all fully occupied at the moment.” “You’re not,” he said with challenging boldness.

Her eyes narrowed. “I’m not available,” she told him plainly. He tilted his head and continued to study her. It was impossible for him to see her entire face, but based on her eyes alone, he believed she had to be somewhat pretty. “A pity,” he finally murmured. There was a pause, and then she slowly stood, revealing a heart shaped face with a delicately positioned nose, a wide mouth with a plump lower lip, and hair spun from strands of gold. Simon’s gaze followed the woman’s every movement as she began descending the stairs. She was slim of build with curves in all the right places, and it occurred to him that pretty didn’t suffice when it came to describing her. Stunning was a much better word. His heart kicked up a notch.

“If you’re willing to wait, I can have some food brought up from the kitchen,” she said. “A plate of sandwiches perhaps? There are also newspapers available to help you pass the time.” Simon merely nodded while she stepped off the bottom step. She passed him and as she did, he caught a whiff of something wonderfully fragrant, a blend of citrus and honey. He was almost tempted to lean in and sniff the air, but managed to resist the urge at the very last second. Instead he turned, following her movements as she continued toward the front desk. “Name?” she inquired. When he didn’t answer immediately, she glanced up, her eyes wide and, he noticed for the first time, a bright shade of blue. “It doesn’t have to be your real name.” Unsure of which pseudonym to provide, he stared back at her for a long drawn out moment while giving the matter some thought.

“Mr. N will do,” he eventually said. “Excellent.” The woman made a quick note. “And do you have any particular tastes, Mr. N?” Was she serious? Simon flexed his fingers. He’d not expected her to ask such a personal question or for a visit to a brothel to be so complicated. With the tip of her quill hovering in mid-air, the young woman kept her eyes trained on the paper where she’d been writing, her bent posture offering him a delicious view of her décolletage. “Why do you need to know that?” Simon asked. She took a deep breath.

Expelled it. Her bosom rose and fell in response. “Some of the women here specialize in more uncommon modes of…um…gratification.” Simon forced his gaze toward the more appropriate vicinity of her head. Was that discomfort he heard in her voice? A bit unusual for someone in her line of work. “I see.” He paused while trying to decide what to say. The first word that came to mind was no. He’d never been the daring sort and generally let other men behave like scoundrels while he did his best to look respectable. Except, maybe Hawthorne and Yates were right.

Maybe he did need a healthy dose of excitement in his life. Truth be told, he was so damn tired of always being proper, and besides, he was here now, in a place where no one would judge him. Taking comfort in this he leaned forward and said, “Does asking her to pretend she’s my maid fall into that category?” There was no mistaking the pink hue that colored the woman’s cheeks. “No.” The word seemed to catch in her throat. The quill scratched across the paper as she made a note of his comment. “How about if…” Accommodating himself to the role he’d chosen to play for a moment, he deliberately let his voice trail off and pretended to ponder all manner of vice. But just when he’d settled on the perfect suggestion, he noticed her bracelet. The air rushed from his lungs and before he could think, he reached out, grabbed her wrist, and jerked it toward him. “Where did you get this?” Naturally, the woman tried to pull her wrist back, but Simon was stronger and refused to release her.

“Let me go,” she demanded while glancing around as if seeking assistance. “Not until you tell me why you’re wearing this.” She went utterly still and her eyes grew impossibly wide. “It was a gift,” she whispered. “I…I don’t know where it was purchased, if that’s what you want to know.” Simon narrowed his gaze, gave the bracelet one final look, and let her wrist go. “It isn’t. I already know that part.” She took a step back, dropping the quill in the process. “Matthew Strong ordered it from a jeweler on Bond Street when he returned from France.

He said it would make a fine gift for his daughter.” Panic materialized on her face. When she spoke again, her voice was hoarse. “Why would you say that?” “Because I was there.” Her lips parted with pure shock and Simon studied her features more closely. It couldn’t be. Not here in a brothel. And yet the resemblance was now unmistakable. Filled with disbelief, Simon stared back into her gorgeous blue eyes. “My God.

You’re her, aren’t you? You’re Ida Strong.” She shook her head and stepped back further. “I should tell the girls you’re waiting.” “One moment. I have questions pertaining to you and your father.” Simon rounded the desk but Miss Strong was swifter. Before he was able to reach her, she darted toward the nearest door and thrust it open. “Vince. I need your help.” “Miss Strong.

Wait!” Simon strode toward the room she’d disappeared into. “What’s going on?” a deep voice asked from within.


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