Read The Reluctant Earl Online

Authors: Joan Wolf

Tags: #Regency, #Romance

The Reluctant Earl

 

 

THE
RELUCTANT
EARL

by

 

Joan Wolf

 

 

 

PROLOGUE

 

“Carstairs, do you know where Lord Woodbridge is?” the Earl of Welbourne demanded in his usual chilly tone of voice.  “He is supposed to be studying with his tutor, but apparently he’s nowhere to be found.”

Carstairs, Lord Welbourne’s butler, knew quite well where his lordship’s son was, but he maintained a blank face.  The staff at Welbourne had grown adept over the years at protecting their young lord from his father.  “I believe he went into the village to meet with a school friend who is visiting nearby, my lord.  Shall I have him sent for?”

“No.  I just happened to notice his tutor chatting with one of the maids - and that is
not
what I’m paying him for.  Her either, for that matter.”

The earl’s aristocratic face was looking annoyed.  It was the way he always looked when his eldest son was concerned.

The butler said, “Which maid was it, my lord?  I shall speak to her.”

“Do that, Carstairs.  It was the young pretty one with the red hair.”

“Kitty.  I shall speak to her.”

“See that you do.”

“Will that be all, my lord?”

“Yes.  Carry on Carstairs.”

“Yes, my lord.” 

The tall, gray-haired butler moved silently out of the library.  In the hallway he met Mrs. Willis, the housekeeper, who was looking worried.  With one accord they stepped into a small salon on the far side of the hall and lowered their voices.  “I heard he was looking for Lord Woodbridge,” she said.

“Yes.  I said he was in the village visiting with a school friend.”

Her worn, pleasant face broke into a smile.  “Very good.  That should satisfy him. ”  She glanced at the door  “What in the world made him ask for his young lordship?  He never does that.”

“He saw Mr. Allen talking to Kitty and was afraid his money was going to waste.”

Mrs. Willis rolled her eyes. 

Carstairs said, “I had better send a message to Mr. O’Rourke to make certain Lord Woodbridge comes home for dinner tonight.”

She nodded, then lifted a hand to keep him from leaving.  “Don’t forget to include the excuse you gave his lordship.  Lord Woodbridge will need to know what to say if he is asked.”

“I’ll do that.”

Mrs. Willis said, disapproval clear in her north-country voice, “Not that Lord Woodbridge will be invited to eat in the dining room.”

“He’s better off in the school room,” Carstairs said with a sigh.  “Dinner with Lord and Lady Welbourne would be torture for the poor lad.”

The housekeeper glanced toward the door, then said urgently, “Mr. Carstairs, Lord Welbourne must
never
find out how much time his young lordship spends with the O’Rourkes.”

Carstairs produced a grim smile.  “He won’t if we can help it, Mrs. Willis.”

The two of them had been in service at Welbourne Abbey since before Simon was born.  They had been his fierce champions ever since his mother’s death when he was five.

“I’ll send Gregson down to the stud farm with a message,” Mr. Carstairs said. 

They both glanced once more toward the salon door.  “I’ll leave first,” Mrs. Willis said.  After he had given her enough time to get down the passageway, Carstairs followed.

 

#      #      #

 

When Claire and Simon arrived back at the stables from their daily ride, her father, Liam O’Rourke, met Simon with the news that he needed to go home.

Since Simon ate his dinner every night at Claire’s house, this was an unusual statement.  It was Claire who asked, “Why, Da?”

Liam looked at the beautiful blond boy who was standing next to his daughter.  “Mr. Carstairs sent a message that your father was looking for you, boyo.  Carstairs told the earl you were in the village meeting up with a school friend, so you’d best be showing yourself at the abbey this dinner time.”

Simon handed his reins to a groom with a genial, “Thanks, Davey.”  Then, looking back to Liam, he said, “I’m amazed he even noticed I was gone.”

“Mr. Carstairs didn’t say why, but if he felt it was that important you return home, you had better go.”

“You don’t think your stepmother found out you were seeing Charlie?” Claire asked worriedly.

Simon shook his head.  “Nanny would never peach on us.”  Like her husband, the earl’s second wife disliked Simon - partly because the earl disliked him, but mostly because he, not her son, was Welbourne’s heir.

“When you come back tomorrow, Maurice is ready,” Liam said.  “That abscess in his hoof has cleared.”

Simon’s young face lit with pleasure.  “Good.  How do you want me to start him?”

“Just hack him through the woods at first.  We need to make certain he can go along quietly before we do anything else.”

Liam O’Rourke had come to work for the Earl of Welbourne nine years ago, when an Irish horse he trained won the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket in stunning fashion.  The earl had bought Fergus and hired Liam to come along as Head Trainer of his racing stable.  Since then the Welbourne Stud Farm had known outstanding success.  Liam had become the golden boy of English racing, with job offers pouring in every time one of his horses won a major race. 

The earl paid Liam well, but there were other reasons why he didn’t want to leave Welbourne.  For one thing, Fergus, the grand horse that had brought him to England, was still at Welbourne, producing winners year after year.  Then Elise, his wife, was very happy here.  Elise was the daughter of a French comte, who had fled the revolution and ended up in Ireland, where Elise had met and married Liam.  He adored his wife, and if she was happy, he was happy.  And last, but certainly not least, he couldn’t begin to imagine how he could part Claire from Simon.  During the summer, when Simon was home from school, they were inseparable.  She loved Simon like a brother, and Liam himself had come to love the boy like a son. 

“Go along with you now,” Liam said to both youngsters, and watched as the two of them walked up the long grassy aisle that ran between the mares’ paddocks.  At fifteen, Simon was six feet while Claire, at fourteen, came barely to his shoulder.  As Liam started to turn away, he saw Simon bend his silver blond head toward his daughter.  Claire slid her arm naturally through his and looked up to reply.  Her dark brown hair, neatly tied at her nape, spilled down the back of her riding jacket.

For one unsettling second an alarm rang in Liam’s brain.  He frowned and looked more closely at the two figures walking up the hill that led to the cottage that was his home. 

They looked the way they always did, walking side by side, absorbed in conversation.  Claire’s arm had returned to her side.  Liam shook his head as if to clear it, then turned back to resume his day.

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

It was the end of term, and seventeen-year-old Simon was packing his belongings when he heard a knock on his door.  Simon had been elected Head Prefect for the last three years, which why was he had the luxury of a room to himself.  “Come in,” he called, and turned to see who his visitor might be.

Christopher Clarkson, a boy in Simon’s year, opened the door.  “Hullo, Kit,” Simon said, straightening from the leather portmanteau he had been putting shirts into.  “What can I do for you?” 

The blond haired, baby-faced boy said hopefully, “I know you’re not leaving until tomorrow, Woodbridge, and my father would quite like to meet you.  Will you dine with us?  He’ll take us to the Turk’s Head.”

The Turk’s Head had the best food in town, and Simon was tempted.  He was also puzzled.  “Why does your father want to meet
me
?”

Kit ducked his head and looked embarrassed.  “I suppose I must talk about you a bit when I’m at home.”

This surprised Simon even more.  Once he was home with Claire, school completely vanished from his mind.  But he could see Kit was embarrassed, so he said, “It sounds splendid.  Tell your father thanks and I’d love to dine with you.”

Kit came to fetch him at five so they could walk into town.  The boys passed by the school’s magnificent stone buildings, built in the time of Henry VIII, and all Simon felt at their sight was gladness he would never have to come back.  They walked through the glorious stone gate on the west side of the quad and Simon suggested they shorten their walk by cutting across the meadows.  Kit agreed and, as they trod across the damp grass, Simon inhaled the fresh scent of the earth and thought that tomorrow Liam would fetch him home and he would see Claire.

Kit’s father was already sitting at a table along the wall when Simon and Kit arrived.  The Clarksons were the sort of landed gentry that Simon’s father regarded with casual contempt.  They had property, and they could call themselves gentlemen, but they did not have riches, rank, broad acres and ancient lineage.  They could never aspire to the world of the Earl of Welbourne, and Simon knew his father would be annoyed if he learned his son was dining with them.  This thought disturbed Simon not at all.

Kit’s father stood and Kit said formally, “Lord Woodbridge, may I present my father, Henry Clarkson.”

Simon smiled politely and held out his hand.  Mr. Clarkson leaned over the table to shake it, and the smile that had formed on his lips died.  The blood drained from his face and he clutched at the table as if he were going to fall.

Simon stepped around the table to grab the man by his upper arm.  Kit grabbed his father’s other arm and the two boys helped him to sit.  Kit asked urgently, “What’s wrong, Papa?  You’ve gone awfully pale.  Are you going to faint?”

Mr. Clarkson shook his head.  “No, no.  I’ll be all right.  Get me some water, Kit.”

Simon signaled for a waiter and a glass of water was brought to the table.  Mr. Clarkson picked it up in a shaking hand and drank.  When he had finished he put the glass down, visibly struggled to pull himself together, and said to Kit, “I’m all right, son.  Just a bit of a shock, that’s all.”

“A shock? What shock?” Kit asked, looking around as if to locate the source.

Clarkson looked at Simon again and said in a strained voice, “Please sit down, Lord Woodbridge.  Sit down, Kit.  I’m fine.  Please don’t make a fuss.”

Simon didn’t think he looked fine, but he sat as requested, his worried eyes on Clarkson.  He hoped the man’s heart wasn’t failing.  How awful for Kit if his father died right in front of him!

The man shook his head, as if to clear it.  To Simon’s relief, some color came back into his face.  He said in a stronger voice, “You see, Lord Woodbridge, you very much resemble my younger brother.  So much so that I was rather stunned, I’m afraid.”

Simon, who was accustomed to people staring at him, was surprised by this particular comment.  He picked up his napkin and tried to think of something to say in response to this extraordinary statement.

Kit spoke first. “Do you mean Uncle Tommy, Papa?”

“Yes.”  A little more color had returned to Clarkson’s face.  He said, “You must think me a strange sort of person, Lord Woodbridge, and I apologize.  But the resemblance is remarkable.  You see, my brother died some years ago, so for a moment I thought I was seeing his ghost.”  He tried to smile.  “I do not normally do this sort of thing, I assure you.”

Kit turned to Simon, “My uncle was a soldier.  He was killed while on duty in Ireland.”

Simon thought Liam and Claire would have little pity for an English soldier who was helping to garrison Ireland, but he murmured something sympathetic.

Mr. Clarkson’s eyes were still fixed on Simon’s face.  “There is some difference.  Tommy’s eyes were gray, not blue, and he had a cleft in his chin.  But otherwise the resemblance is very close.”

The man’s stare was making Simon uncomfortable, but he only said mildly, “I suppose these things happen sometimes.”  He glanced around the room and noticed a number of other students from the school in the dining room.  Kit’s father wasn’t the only parent treating his son to a good dinner on this last day of term.

The server, a rotund man with a splendid mustache, arrived to take their orders.  All three chose the Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding that was the inn’s specialty.  Mr. Clarkson ordered brandy for himself and a glass of wine for Kit and Simon. 

Simon could see that Kit’s father was still a bit shaken, and Kit was looking embarrassed.  He cast around for something to say and came up with,  “My father has an estate in Ireland.  Near Limerick, I believe.  He used to go every year to hunt, but he hasn’t been in a long time.”

Clarkson said,  “Tommy was posted at Limerick Castle when he was killed.”

Simon thought it was more than time to change this subject, but couldn’t think of any other topic to introduce.

Mr. Clarkson continued, “He was riding by himself along a country road when he was shot.  He was in uniform, and his colonel told us an Irish rebel hiding in the woods probably picked him off.  Tommy should never have been on that road by himself; the Irish resistance was quite active in the area.  His colonel was very upset about it.”  He shook his head slowly.  “He was only twenty-two years of age.” 

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