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Authors: Gina Lamm

Kiss the Earl

BOOK: Kiss the Earl
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Copyright © 2015 by Gina Lamm

Cover and internal design © 2015 by Sourcebooks, Inc.

Cover design by Dawn Adams

Cover art by Blake Morrow

Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.

P.O. Box 4410, Naperville, Illinois 60567-4410

(630) 961-3900

Fax: (630) 961-2168

www.sourcebooks.com

eBook 1.0

To Nicole Resciniti, agent extraordinaire. Thanks to you, I'm looking forward to the future of my career. Straight to the top, baby!

One

April 2, 2015

Ella Briley chewed her bottom lip as she gripped her pencil tighter. The cape just wasn't right. Something about the way the fabric curled and flared against the hero's muscular ass didn't make her happy.

Carefully adding more shading didn't help. Using the corner of her gum eraser to fade it a bit didn't either. The clock ticked loudly, and she glared up at it.

“For chrissakes, I know it's late. Nagging me isn't going to help.” She hunched over the board again.

“I wasn't nagging you. I just wanted to see if you needed anything.”

Ella screeched as her pencil went skittering over the drawing, leaving a jagged line in its wake. Her chair tilted backward dangerously as she clutched her chest. The studio's owner, Anthony, stood in the doorway of her office, grinning at her. His dark hair fell over one eye, clearly gelled to stay put.

“Holy crap, Anthony, you scared me.”

Anthony proceeded into the room, flopping onto the ratty couch that occupied the opposite wall. “Sorry. I just wanted to see if you needed anything. It's not like you to hang out here this long.”

“I'm okay, really. Finishing up now.”

Steadfastly ignoring Anthony's presence, Ella sat back in her chair and stared down at the line drawing. A quick application of her eraser fixed the crooked evidence of her surprise. There. It wasn't perfect, but it would be good enough—she hoped. Whisperwind Comics's offer was an incredible break for her, and if she could land the lead artist spot on Admiral Action, she'd have a steady paycheck for at least twelve months—a nice setup in this business. Being a comic book artist, her lifelong dream, wasn't exactly the most stable of careers. But she'd loved Admiral Action since she was old enough to tie her dad's blue bathrobe to her back and zoom around the living room. She couldn't screw this up. It was too important.

Mentally crossing her fingers, she wrapped the board and carefully slid it into her portfolio with the others. She'd have to hand-deliver these to the inker. The extra step might take longer, but it would make the art look its best, and that was the most important thing.

“Hey, Ella?”

She looked up from packing her olive drab messenger bag. “Yeah?”

Anthony sat up on the couch, eyes narrowed in thought. His knee bounced up and down as his heel drummed the floor.

“Are you okay?” Ella asked.

“Yeah.” He laughed, an unfamiliar, nervous tremor in his voice. “Yeah.” He cleared his throat.

Bemused, Ella flopped the patch-laden flap over the top of her messenger bag. With Domo grinning up at her, she shouldered the bag, grabbed her portfolio, and went over to Anthony, who was still struggling to speak. She sank down on the couch next to him, careful to perch on the edge.

“What is it?”

He didn't look over at her. “I just wondered, um, I mean…”

Ella shoved her black braid over her shoulder. “Anthony, can you spit it out? I need to get to Max's before he cuts out for the night.”

Anthony squeezed his eyes shut and the words shot out of him like fizz from a shaken-up Dr. Pepper. “Would you go out with me?”

Ella froze. She couldn't have heard that correctly. She searched for the right words, the ones that would indicate that she had zero interest in the poor guy without crushing him. She didn't need a romantic entanglement right now. Her career was finally taking off, and the last thing she wanted was to screw that up with a boyfriend. Not to mention that Anthony was nice, but he wasn't her type. At all. He tried too hard, with his skinny jeans and ironic lens-free glasses. When she jumped into the dating pool, she wanted it to be with somebody who wasn't ashamed to be who he really was.

If
she jumped into the dating pool, that is. She was pretty sure that particular swimming hole was infested with sharks.

“I mean…” Anthony's laugh climbed even higher. “If you're not interested, that's cool. I know it's weird, since I own the studio and you sort of work for me. We're friends. I mean, we should just be friends. Probably.”

“No—I mean, yes, we're friends…” Ella's voice trailed off. She bit her tongue, trying to ignore the loud ticking of the clock in the room.
Come
on, Briley, say something.
“This is kind of sudden.”

“Well, you're great. I mean, you're attractive. And I thought maybe we could go catch a movie this weekend. The art museum is showing
Fight
Club
out on the lawn Saturday night. Besides, I think we'd look good together.”

Ella hoped that her wince stayed inside her head. It wasn't exactly the most tempting offer she'd ever had. “Gosh, that sounds like fun, Anthony, but I'm busy this weekend.”

Anthony leaned toward her, his lips parted. “Well, maybe we could skip the movie. I could just come over to your house, maybe get to know you a little better.” His hand rose to touch her cheek, and Ella wasted no time in jumping from the couch.

“Actually, you're kind of my boss, or at least my landlord, and it
would
probably make things weird. Gosh, it's getting late. Listen, I should probably get this to Max. I'll see you later.” She clutched her portfolio tight to her chest and bolted out the door.

Slumping against the side of her rusty yellow Jeep, Ella blew out a heavy breath into the muggy night air. That had been a way-too-narrow escape. Anthony had been after her to go out with him for a while, but he hadn't actually come out and asked until now. She probably should have handled that better, but damn it, she really didn't have a lot of experience with that sort of thing.

Ella glanced up at the rapidly darkening sky. The cloud cover was too thick to see any stars, but she wished anyway.

“I just want to be happy,” she whispered to the sky. “I think this job will do it, but if not? I'm sort of clueless. So if anybody's up there, I could use a little luck.”

No big voice boomed down to her, no star suddenly appeared with a hopeful wink. Even the wind fell silent as if to say,
Fat
chance
. Ella shook her head and yanked open the driver's door. It gave a loud, protesting squeak.

She carefully laid the portfolio in the passenger seat before pulling away from the small brown building that housed Dare Studios. Maybe someone upstairs had heard her plea. Maybe not. Either way, she was determined that her life was about to start.

* * *

April 2, 1820

Patrick Meadowfair, third Earl of Fairhaven, smiled politely as he bowed his farewell to the young debutante. Turning on his heel, he wound his way through giggling misses and avaricious mamas. The air was thick, clouded with perfume and the stench of too many bodies. His toes ached inside his boots. Though she was nice enough, the poor chit was possessed of two left feet, and that quadrille had seemed interminable.

Almack's was becoming more and more like a slaughterhouse, and gentlemen of his age and circumstance were the preferred victims. If not for Amelia, he'd never show up there again.

The young lady in question caught his eye before he could claim his greatcoat and make his escape into the bitter night. It was unseasonably cold for April, and the chill ran down to his bones. He had the sneaking suspicion that the shiver had less to do with the weather than with the company. Chaperones lined the walls like hungry vultures, and the dragons of Almack's, the patronesses, sat upon their dais, looking down on the mortals as if waiting for bloodshed. Lord, he wished he'd accepted his cousin Iain's offer of a visit to Madame Lisbon's. Though brothels weren't usually his style, a warm and willing female would have been just the thing to ease the chill of the night.

Amelia shot him a beckoning glance that was impossible to mistake. With a silent prayer for mercy, Patrick made his way toward her.

“Lord Fairhaven.” Amelia greeted him over with a desperate wave of her gloved hand. She stood in front of a paunchy gentleman whose forehead was shiny with sweat. “You must come and meet Mr. Cuthbert. He's ever so amusing.”

Patrick smothered his impatience to be gone and gave her a bow. He'd known Amelia Brownstone since he was a young man of only eleven and he'd been thrown from his pony on her family's property. The tiny girl had announced that he was her prisoner, and marched him nearly half a mile to Brown Hall. Thinking she was amusing, he'd played along at the time. Things hadn't changed much since then.

“Mr. Cuthbert,” Patrick said smoothly after Amelia made the introduction.

“Your lordship,” Cuthbert said with a bow and a bob of his glistening bald head. He grinned broadly at Amelia, who winced. “'Tis a pleasure to make your acquaintance. Just a pleasure. Such a fine lord as you, yes. I was just telling Miss Brownstone here about my new horses. A beautiful matched pair of bays, you see, with—”

The orchestra began again just then, and Amelia grabbed Patrick's arm with a polite—though thin—smile. “Oh, do excuse us, Mr. Cuthbert. The earl had reserved this dance ages ago, and I mustn't disappoint him.”

Before the surprised Mr. Cuthbert could respond, Amelia and Patrick had maneuvered their way into the crowd of waltzing couples at the center of the room.

As Patrick laid a careful hand on her back, he sighed. “You know I cannot rescue you again tonight, Amelia. This is our second waltz. The dragons would have us wed.”

Amelia thumped his shoulder surreptitiously with her fan. “Do be quiet, Patrick. I cannot think with your preaching.”

Patrick's eyebrows winged high. “Preaching? Dear girl, you were the one who summoned me like a fishwife hawking her wares. I believe that I'm entitled to a bit of friendly advice.”

“I suppose.” She blew out the words as if they tasted foul. “Thank you for rescuing me from that wretched bore, Cuthbert. He's third cousin to Viscount Langton, and Mother insisted that I meet him.”

“Is your father still determined to see you wed this Season?”

Amelia nodded, biting her pink lip in consternation as they made a turn at the corner of the floor. “He still refuses to believe that I love George as I do. He'll never let me marry a poor clergyman, Patrick. Since Father has no heir, he's determined to see me well settled. But I've loved George for so long. Father refuses to believe it, stubborn man.”

She turned her face up to him, and his heart softened at the pain in her blue eyes.

“What am I to do? He's threatening to force me to wed the next halfway-suitable gentleman to ask for my hand. I couldn't bear being separated from George forever.”

He considered this as their feet moved through the swirling patterns of the waltz. It was a knotty problem. Amelia had fallen in love with the soft-spoken clergyman, George Harrods, when he'd taken over the church in Cromer some three years ago. But Baron Brownstone was determined to see his daughter marry a well-to-do peer of the realm, and poor George hardly had two groats to rub together.

As much as Patrick cared for Amelia, he knew better than to offer for her himself. She'd drive him mad with her schemes. And besides, he was only nine-and-twenty—much too young to be leg-shackled.

“Don't worry. You're a clever girl. I'm sure you'll think of something. You always do, more's the pity.” He mumbled the last bit.

She laughed, and the sound made Patrick smile. He hated to see her so maudlin.

“I suppose you're right. If only you were more of a rakehell, Patrick. Then we could plan a scene that painted George as my rescuer.” She blinked dreamily, but Patrick's innards twisted at the sudden change in her mood. This did not bode well. He knew her schemes. Her lovesick brain was churning, and he was quite certain that whatever plan she'd concoct would be singularly dangerous to his—

“I've got it! Patrick, I know what we must do.” She gave a gleeful hop just as the violinist's string popped and the song ended.

“I have a definite feeling that I am not going to like this plan of yours,” Patrick said as he escorted her from the floor.

“You'll adore it! All the ladies will flock to you afterward, you'll see.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Women do so love a rake. Meet me in our park tomorrow at dawn, and I shall lay down what we must do.”

“A rake?” He nearly stumbled at the word. “Amelia, I am not a rake.”

Her eyes glittered, her smile wide. “That is what makes this such a brilliant plan.”

“What—”

She tutted. “I will reveal all tomorrow at dawn. The park, Patrick. Do not be late.” Tapping his shoulder with her fan, she turned and disappeared through the crowd.

Worry tensing his shoulders, Patrick made his farewell bows to his hosts and escaped into the chilly night. Once he'd mounted his stallion, he turned and headed straight for his club. He'd need a bottle of whisky or two to fortify him for whatever Amelia was planning, that was for certain.

* * *

April 30, 2015

Ella squealed as she danced around the living room of her apartment. Finally! The notice she'd been waiting for. Admiral Action was hers for the next twelve issues!

She dragged in an excited breath as she sat down in front of her computer to read the email again.

Ella,

We got your pages, and they're fantastic. Perfect for AA. I'm attaching the contract for you to sign. I'll be in touch next week to go over the scripts with you. With this relaunch, Admiral Action will gain a lot of attention, and we're going to do this right.

We're hosting a gala in Charlotte next Saturday night. There, we'll be unveiling lots of new AA merchandise, as well as the new series. As our artist, we need you there! Send an RSVP to my secretary when you can with your name and your date's name. Anthony Gorse still heads up Dare Studios, right? Feel free to bring him as your plus one if you're single—I haven't seen him in years.

BOOK: Kiss the Earl
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