Authors: Jennifer Ann Coffeen
Jennifer Ann Coffeen
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.
A Deal with Lord Devlin
COPYRIGHT © 2013 by Jennifer Ann Coffeen
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author or The Wild Rose Press, Inc. except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
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First English Tea Rose Edition, 2013
Digital ISBN 978-1-61217-840-0
Published in the United States of America
Praise for Jennifer Ann Coffeen and…
“A delight to read.”
~The Romance Reviews
“Big on thrills.”
~RT Book Reviews
“A solid, enjoyable read and I’ll be looking forward to reading something more by Jennifer Ann Coffeen.”
~Romancing the Book (4 Roses)
Lord James, the Earl of Devlin, smoothed down the front of his double-breasted tailcoat, tailored obscenely close to the body and dyed the color of crushed plums, before carefully placing a diamond-rimmed monocle over his left eye.
He looked like a damned fool.
“Tell me the truth, James. Does
le gateau de fruit
look crooked to you?”
Squinting through the monocle, he stared past his mother in the direction of the monstrous fruit-and-pastry swan sculpture that festooned the entrance to the dining room. The Dowager Countess of Devlin stood next to him. A long, elegant finger tapped against her lips as she critically studied her decoration.
He cocked his head to one side. “Is the swan supposed to look alive or dead?”
“Don’t be impertinent,” she snapped. “It is meant to be a symbol of Andrew’s love for Francesca.”
“A dead swan symbolizes the marriage of idiots?”
That comment gained him a sharp glare over her shoulder. “Our livelihood depends on making Andrew happy tonight. Without him we are penniless and your sisters will be forced to marry beneath themselves.” With a quick snap of her fingers, she signaled the servants to add more cherries.
“It’s obviously leaning. I fear the goose lard is beginning to melt.”
Before he turned away, he muttered something about reducing the number of candles around the hideous thing.
Personally, James would prefer a French guillotine to hosting this ridiculous engagement party. His mother was right, though. Due to an unfortunate turn of events, Sir Andrew Greenshaw now held the Devlins’ future in his hands. Unless James wanted to be known as the poorest earl in England, he had little choice but to hold his tongue.
With a deep scowl, he turned his attention to the entrance of the ballroom. A few early guests were beginning to trickle in, mostly young debutantes and their chaperones, in awe of his mother’s bizarre decorations and overly lavish supper table. James didn’t recognize anyone, but that wasn’t much of a surprise. The most fashionable of London’s
wouldn’t dare make an appearance at Devlin House until past midnight.
He shifted uncomfortably in his butter-colored silk breeches, wondering how a man was ever supposed to breathe in such restrictive clothing. He let the ridiculous monocle drop from his eye, leaving it dangling on its gold chain.
“Put that back immediately!” Lady Devlin tore her gaze away from the melting animal fat and sugared fruit to glare at her only son. “Didn’t we discuss this? You are to wear your monocle tonight. It’s all the fashion.”
James sighed, obeying his mother. For now.
“Much better.” Her blue eyes took him in as though he were another one of her decorations. “I’m happy to see you’ve managed to dress yourself fashionably, for once. Lucy and Penelope said you even allowed for your hair to be done.”
James silently cursed his younger sisters, who felt it their duty to inform Mother of his every move. Was there no privacy in this house? He jerked a hand through the mass of hair that had been forcibly curled and combed to the front of his head.
“Perhaps I’m finally setting my sights on marriage,” he said, knowing how sensitive the topic was.
Her lips puckered. “It’s not the worst idea to take a wife with a large fortune. Then you can set aside a sizable inheritance for your sisters—and a sum for your dearest mother, of course. These things are terribly important, James! Your father thought he would live forever, and look what happened.”
I became the new Earl,
bitterly. James’s life turned upside down the day his father challenged Lord Vestin to a high-speed race down Oxford Street. Both gentlemen were well past their youth, drunker than goats, and oblivious to an oncoming mail coach. The crash had been horrifying. His father had died on impact, while Lord Vestin retreated to his country home with crushed legs. It was the talk of London for weeks, but what followed generated even more gossip.
Since the late Earl of Devlin had always doted on his nephew Andrew (“treats him like his own bastard!” moaned Great-Aunt Hilda), he apparently had decided to leave the bulk of his personal fortune to a mere nephew instead of his son. Of course the title went to James along with Devlin House and the country estate, both being entailed, but the family fortune was for the late Earl to do with as he pleased. And he obviously had no qualms about leaving his wife, son, and two daughters without a shilling. The Devlin family had been thrown into a panic.
James and his cousin Andrew Greenshaw were born the same year, but the similarities ended there. For the men of the family, Andrew was the obvious favorite. He had just the right amount of looks, charm, and self-indulgent laziness to make him extremely popular with the
and with the late Earl
James, on the other hand, had been little more than a thorn in his family’s side since he was old enough to prefer hunting in the country to drinking brandy in gambling hells. After several weeks of arguments and threats, including Great-Aunt Hilda nearly impaling the family solicitor with a knitting needle, it was decided that the will was indeed legitimate, and Andrew was a very wealthy man. James’s life of peaceful independence came crashing to an end.
“How could Melvin have left his entire fortune to Andrew?” Lady Devlin burst out, launching into her favorite topic. “What is the point of my son being Earl if we are too poor to throw parties?”
“You are throwing a party right now,” he informed her.
“Entirely on credit, my dear,” she replied. “We are in debt up to our ears trying to impress Andrew. You had better be on your best behavior.”
His lack of funds was only one of his many shortcomings as the new Earl of Devlin. James was also expected to find the perfect wife, produce an heir, and rebuild the family home. The fact that Andrew now held almost all of the Devlin fortune made this task next to impossible.
“Of course, you could always marry for money, if you don’t wish to be nice to your cousin. Have you been introduced to Pippa Maybury? She is seventeen and plays the harp.”
A worse combination he could not imagine. “Isn’t Pippa Maybury the girl who ran screaming from the Prince Regent’s garden party?”
“She has a terrible fear of squirrels.” His mother turned back to scrutinizing her sculpture. “I’m only trying to help. Everyone is quite fearful you’re not up to par for your new position, especially dearest Andrew. He has his hopes pinned on becoming Earl someday.”
“I won’t accommodate Andrew by dying.”
“Well, no one expects you to do that,” she sniffed. “Still, you should apologize to your cousin.”
He ignored her continued chatter, instead turning his gaze toward the perfectly coiffed guests being forced to step around the wilting rose garland placed in front of the entryway. It would only be a matter of time before Andrew arrived, and James wanted to be as far away as possible.
“My God.” A bony hand gripped James’s arm like a talon. “What is
He followed his mother’s venomous gaze to the entryway. Stepping under the garland was the infamous Lady Mallen. James spent most of his time at his mother’s country estate, but even he had heard the vicious rumors circling Lady Mallen this past year.
“You didn’t invite her?”
“I most certainly did not!” Lady Devlin looked panicked, glaring at an eavesdropping servant until the girl scurried behind the swan. “What impudence that woman has! She should know better than to show her face in good society after divorcing her own husband.”
James felt a flash of irritation. Hypocrites, all of them. He had yet to meet a married couple of the
that had managed to stay faithful to one another. Including his own father, he thought grimly, who had not been the least bit secretive about his mistress, even setting the woman up in her own townhouse in Bath. A gesture James found utterly distasteful. His mother had turned a blind eye to it all, preferring to focus her attention on spending her husband’s money on gold candelabras and gilded armchairs for her lavish homes.
But Lady Mallen was different; she had publicly denounced her husband for his rakish ways and left him. James had heard she even took his dog. The thought made him smile.
“The Marquis of Mallen is a real bastard and, if I recall, about three times her age.” He found himself unable to resist defending the woman everyone seemed determined to shun. Independence certainly seemed to agree with her. Her long honey-colored curls shone gold beneath the candlelight, and even from across the room he was entranced by the soft smile on her lips. Charlotte, he recalled suddenly.
Her first name is Charlotte.
“It matters not, darling! The woman is considered damaged goods. Now,” his mother surveyed the room, “how on earth can we get her out of here without causing a scene?”
Adjusting his monocle, James watched as Lady Mallen drifted through the crowd like a long-lost queen. She certainly knew how to make an entrance; there wasn’t a single head that didn’t turn in her direction. Despite all the whispers and stares, Charlotte’s slightly bored, haughty expression didn’t crack. She stared straight ahead, making her way toward the back of the ballroom where James stood with his mother.
“Outrageous.” Lady Devlin made a clucking noise with her tongue. “And after all the trouble the family went through to end her little dalliance with Andrew.”
“Andrew was courting Charlotte?” The very idea of this bold, beautiful creature with his dandy of a cousin annoyed the hell out of him.
“I didn’t realize you were on such intimate terms with
.” His mother’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Do you know her?”
James shrugged. They’d shared a dance several years ago at a small supper party, but he scarcely knew her. Still, he took offense at his mother’s outright dislike.
“I hope you aren’t planning to fall for her bewitching ways. Andrew actually claimed to be in love with her!” His mother clutched at her heart. “Can you imagine? Luckily, our Andrew came to his senses and tossed her aside.” She shuddered. “A
has quite the nerve to show herself here tonight.”
Lady Mallen passed by them at the exact moment his mother loudly made this statement. The damage was done. Every eye in the room turned to her, their glances ranging from curious to downright hostile.
The beautiful woman came to a sudden stop and very slowly turned toward his mother.
“I beg your pardon, Lady Devlin,” she said, her voice as sweet as sugared fruit. “Were you speaking to me?”