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Authors: Anna Bennett

My Brown-Eyed Earl

BOOK: My Brown-Eyed Earl
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For Mike

Because when the zombie apocalypse hits,

I know you'll protect us

and secure the necessities,

like Netflix and donuts.

And for a thousand other reasons.

 

Chapter
ONE

London, May 1817

Miss Margaret Lacey—Meg, to her family and friends—had the odd but unshakable feeling that the next half hour could alter the course of her life. Forever.

Which was just as well, because heaven knew that she and her sisters couldn't remain on their current paths—not if they wished to keep a roof over their heads and food in their bellies.

“Trust me, Meg. You're perfect for this position.” Her friend Charlotte linked an arm through Meg's and bustled her down the street toward a row of elegant Mayfair townhouses.


Perfect
is a bit of a stretch.” Meg had hoped to find work as a companion to an aging dowager, fetching fans and lemonade. Elderly people, she understood. Persons under the age of twelve were another matter entirely. “Shouldn't a governess have a way with children?”

“You've two younger sisters,” Charlotte said.

“They're only a few years younger, and the only useful thing I've taught them is how to ignore insults from puffed-up debutantes.”

“Nonsense. You're kind, intelligent, and patient. I've no doubt you can manage a pair of six-year old girls.” Charlotte stopped and faced Meg. “Show me your best governess expression.”

Meg glanced sideways at her friend and gave her an encouraging sort of smile.

“That will never do.”

“Why not?”

Charlotte sighed. “
The look
is your primary weapon.”

“Weapon? You said they were six.”

“Suppose the twins complain about doing their sums. A good governess does not deign to argue with her charges. She simply gives them
the look
. Now, let's see it.”

“Very well.” Meg did her best to imitate the withering, mildly disdainful expression that had seemed etched onto her own governess's face.

Charlotte grimaced and bit her bottom lip.

Oh dear. “They're not going to do their sums, are they?”

“Heavens no. They'll think you've eaten a bad kipper.” Charlotte took her arm, pulling her along once more. “Never mind—we shall work on that. But I can assure you that you
are
qualified. Honestly, Meg,” she added with a warm smile, “any child would be lucky to have you as a governess.”

Meg swallowed. She liked children, truly she did, in spite of their tendency to be terrifyingly unpredictable. “Let us hope I can convince my potential employers.”

And convince them she must. Dear Uncle Alistair would never admit it, but Meg and her sisters had been a tremendous burden on him and his dwindling fortune. He'd generously taken them in after the unexpected and tragic deaths of her parents eight years ago. But now she was twenty-three, old enough to venture out on her own—and to try to save Uncle Alistair from debtor's prison.

“Employer, actually,” Charlotte corrected. “He is a bachelor, and apparently at a loss for what to do with the twins.”

Meg arched an eyebrow. “A bachelor with twins?”

“I don't know the details of his situation, but I'm certain you'll learn more during the interview.” Charlotte pulled a scrap of paper from the pocket of her cloak and compared the address on it to the one above a stately town house entrance boasting polished stone steps and a gleaming black door. “This is it. You don't want to be late.”

“No, of course not.” Meg smoothed her hands down the skirt of her lilac dress, which was three years old and the nicest she owned. “Wait. You haven't told me his name.”

“He's an earl.” Charlotte consulted her paper. “Lord Castleton.”

Oh no
. The edges of Meg's vision turned fuzzy, and she stumbled on the pavement.

Charlotte steadied her. “You look as though you've seen a ghost. What's wrong?”

Everything
. Lord Castleton was the man her parents had chosen for her to marry.

She'd been a sullen, spot-faced fifteen-year-old when they'd summoned her to the drawing room to meet him. Mama and Papa assumed she'd be thrilled with the arrangement. After all, he was a handsome, strapping young man who would one day be an earl—more than the plain daughter of a vicar could hope for. And it wasn't as though they'd be wed right away. He and Meg could get to know each other over the next few years—easily accomplished, as his family owned the estate next to their humble cottage.

Meg hadn't objected to the match in theory—she wasn't daft. But she
had
objected to the way he'd looked at her, with the thinly veiled dread and horror of a young man receiving a life sentence in Newgate.

Her pride simply wouldn't tolerate it.

So she had tossed her head, crossed her arms, leveled her gaze at him, and said, “I would sooner shave my head and enter the convent than marry you.”

Burning at the memory, Meg pressed her gloved palms to her cheeks and turned to her friend. She'd never revealed that particular chapter of her past to Charlotte. It was tied up with too many painful memories. And did not cast her in a favorable light. “I can't do it.”

“But you must! He's expecting you.”

“Are you certain? That is, is he aware that I'm the candidate?”

Charlotte shrugged. “I'm sure Lord Torrington informed him. Why are you suddenly so anxious? Do you know the earl?”

Meg swallowed. “I used to—before he inherited the earldom.” She'd been careful to avoid him once she and her sisters came to London, which was easy, for they did not move in the same circles. He was the ton's golden boy, while she lived in the shadows. “I fear I made an awful impression.”

“You are being far too dramatic,” Charlotte said. “He probably doesn't even remember the encounter.”

Meg knew the words were meant to comfort and reassure, but the idea that he might have forgotten their meeting—the one that haunted her daily—pained her even more. “I suppose you are correct.” He had no doubt moved on. Still, it was horribly awkward to be in the position of needing his approval now.

Charlotte narrowed her pretty gray eyes. “Why do I feel like there is more to this story?”

“I promise to tell you the whole of it. Later.” Meg drew a long breath and willed her heartbeat to slow to a civilized pace. “Suffice it to say that if I was nervous before, I'm doubly so now. The earl is not likely to overlook my lack of experience.” Not when paired with her past indecorous behavior.

“It's natural to feel some trepidation before an interview,” Charlotte said kindly. “Is there more to it than that? Have you changed your mind about wanting the position?”

Meg hesitated only a moment. “No. Of course I still need it. It was just a shock, learning that my prospective employer is the earl.” She could not afford—quite literally—to let her pride overrule her good sense. “If he's willing to consider entrusting his children to me, the least I can do is meet with him.”

“Please, forget everything I said before. Just be your usual, charming self.”

Meg squeezed Charlotte's hands. “Thank you for arranging the interview. I shall endeavor not to embarrass you or Lord Torrington.” She winked at her friend. “But no promises.”

“Go on. You'll be late.” Charlotte gave her a little push toward the grand town house. “Tea this Sunday afternoon?”

“Of course.”

“With any luck, you'll be a governess by then.”

Meg's belly twisted in knots, but she managed a cheerful smile as she ascended the stone steps on wobbly legs. “Yes, luck. And there's some comfort in knowing the interview can't
possibly
go as badly as the ghastly scene I've conjured in my mind.”

*   *   *

“The young lady applying for the governess position is waiting for you in the drawing room, my lord.”

William Ryder, the Earl of Castleton, peeled his face off the surface of his mahogany desk and growled. “Damn it, Gibson. I asked not to be disturbed.”

Unperturbed, the butler set a tray on the corner of the desk. “Yes, I am quite aware, my lord. But you made that request three hours ago. I hoped that your, ah, condition would be much improved by now, and—”

“For the love of God, call it what it is.”

The butler's forehead creased. “Begging your pardon?”

“It's not a
condition
. It's the devil of a hangover.”

“So it would seem. In any event, I assumed that you would wish to keep the scheduled appointment. However, if you would like me to send her away—”

“No.” Will rubbed eyelids that felt like they'd been singed from the inside out. “I need to deal with the problem.”

As if on cue, one half of the problem slid down the hall outside his study, squealing in an octave that set Will's teeth on edge.

“My turn!” called her sister, a matching blond-haired sprite. A second later she, too, glided over the polished floorboards on stockinged feet, colliding with the first twin and sending the pair of them sprawling onto the floor.

“You should have waited,” cried the first.

“You should have moved out of the way,” retorted the second.

Will pressed his fingertips to a throbbing temple. “Gibson!”

“Allow me, my lord.” Turning to the girls, he said, “Diana. Valerie. Young ladies do not skate across the floor in their stockings.”

“They should,” said one. “It's quite fun.”

The butler cleared his throat, and two spots of color appeared on his cheeks. “I suggest that the two of you return to the nursery,” he said sharply. “At once.”

With another chorus of head-splitting squeals, the twins scrambled to their feet and tore down the hallway.

“I don't believe I've ever seen you so flustered, Gibson.” Will smiled. “I daresay I'm feeling a little better.”

BOOK: My Brown-Eyed Earl
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