Undercover With the Earl excerpt

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Taken from Chapter One…

Essex countryside, just outside of London, 1838


It is a truth universally known that a girl entering her twenty-first year must be in want of a husband. But it was not a truth that Evelyn Marrington took to heart. She had no desire to marry now or any other time. Instead, she wanted to hole herself up in a sweet little cottage and write adventurous novels until her hair greyed and no one cared if she was a spinster.

Due to her family’s financial straights and their middling social standing, Evie’s chances of doing just that seemed rather good. Since then, however, her two older sisters had made very advantageous matches, thrusting their entire family into a more elevated social sphere. Flush with that success, Evie’s mother was now determined to land an equally impressive husband for her middle daughter. Never mind that Evie’s own wishes were modest and veered away from marriage. Her family obviously saw things quite differently, a fact she could not ignore with her mother pointing to every eligible man in the vicinity.

At the moment Evelyn longed to have a book in her hand. She could close her eyes and imagine the sound of the paper turning, the bold print of the words beckoning her into their adventure. Rather, she stood at the edge of the small ballroom doing her best to blend into the tapestry behind her while the rest of the guests of this house party danced merrily.

“Evelyn, dear, if you continue to sink yourself into the background, how are any of the men to see you and ask you to dance?” her mother said placing a forceful hand on Evie’s back, effectively shoving her forward.

“I do not care for dancing,” Evelyn said knowing full well that her protests would fall on deaf ears.

“Nonsense, what girl doesn’t care to dance?” her mother asked.

There wasn’t much that she and her mother agreed upon except for the fact that they didn’t agree on much. They were as different as the morning was from the night, and though Evelyn did her best to refuse, her mother still worked her hardest to squeeze her middle daughter into the pretty package that was a perfect debutante. One might think that already achieving success with her first two daughters would have been enough to appease the Marrington matriarch, but she was not so easily pacified.

Evelyn sat precisely in the middle of the Marrington children. Portia and Jillian were her elder sisters and then came Catherine and Meghan. The two eldest Marrington girls were beautiful, lovely, poised and had made a splash in Society. Portia was already married to the handsome and kind Viscount Handlebrook and the Earl of Bellview had recently asked for Jillian’s hand. Which left Evelyn uncomfortably in the center of attention as the next Marrington daughter to find herself a good match.

If she had her sister’s temperament, grace, and beauty, no doubt she would make such a match. Unfortunately, she was too quick-witted for simpering flirtations, too practical for ethereal grace and, worst of all, her hair was an unpleasantly violent shade of red. In short, she did not currently have her sisters’ options when it came to marriage.

In fact, her most promising suitor was the Viscount Edgerly, a portly widower sixteen years her senior. Not that she particularly minded, the kindly Lord Edgerly, after all, beggars could not be choosers. It was his eleven children she minded. Based on his frantic desperation to find a wife, she suspected he was no more eager to parent them than she was.

While she was sure the Edgerly children were perfectly lovely, the fact that there were eleven of them meant marriage to the Viscount—no matter how advantageous in the eyes of her mother—was simply out of the question. She would have no time to write. Nay, she would have no time to breath or eat or sleep.

In short, she would do anything to escape that fate.

Unfortunately, her other options were not much better.

“Didn’t you dance with Sir Winters at the last Brighten soiree?” her mother asked. “I believe I see him across the room now.”

Evelyn caught a glimpse of the man and winced. “And my toes are still bruised.”

Portia smiled and linked her arm with Evelyn’s. “Mama, Evie is right, that poor man should not be allowed to dance, especially when he wears such heeled boots.”

“He’s quite obviously trying to mask the fact that he is shorter than a man out to be,” Jillian said.

Not to mention at least thirty years her senior, but Evelyn refrained from adding that. She slid her body behind her sisters’ so she would not be so easily visible to the older gentleman. He’d already been standing up on his toes, searching in their direction. He’d made it quite clear to her during their last dance that he was taken with her and interested in courting her. She’d come home from that ball and told her father, in no uncertain terms, that she was not available if the man came to call. Fortunately for her, her father did not seem too eager to marry her off to a man closer to his age than Evelyn’s, and he’d artfully dismissed the man when he’d paid a visit midweek.

Their mother laughed, but caught herself, and placed her fan in front of her mouth. “Be that as it may, the man has a decent annual income and I don’t believe our dear Evie can afford to be quite so selective when it comes to picking a suitor.”

Because she wasn’t as pretty as her older sisters. Or as gregarious. Her mother would never come out and say those things, but Evelyn felt certain that was what was missing.

“If you are smart, you will do what is necessary to trap that man into marriage this very weekend,” her mother said.

“Honestly, mother! I am not intending to trap any man into marriage,” Evelyn said.

“Evie, you won’t have to. You shall find the right man for you, just as Portia and I have,” Jillian said.

She was so kind. She wasn’t even trying to pander to Evelyn, she actually believed that, believed that Evelyn, the middle Marrington girl would be able to find a love match just as her perfect, beautiful sisters had. But Evelyn knew the truth of her reality, and she had done her part to prevent from being put on the marriage mart. She’d begged her parents to not make her come out and they had agreed, but only partly. They did not have a ball to introduce her, but they had seen to it that she was properly introduced, and she obliged them by attending parties with the family and dancing at least once per evening.

It wasn’t that she couldn’t abide people, but rather couldn’t stand to have people look at her, compare her to her sisters, or even her mother, who after five children was still quite the beauty. Evelyn looked more like her father’s side of the family. She was shorter than most women and because of that her body stubbornly held onto curves. So instead of her sisters who were delicate and graceful, she felt clumsy and stout.

Her two younger sisters ran over to them, all giggles and grins, whispering excitedly to their mother.

“What is it, stop hissing in my ear. You know that drives me to distraction,” mother said, swatting at the air by her ear.

“Two new gentlemen have arrived,” Meghan said breathlessly.

“They are drenched from the rain and stand dripping in the corridor,” Catherine finished.

Their mother clapped her hands once and leaned in. “Of course Evelyn shall have first choice among them.”

It was more than enough for Evelyn to simply fade into the background and step away, but she knew her mother would find her. Two new gentlemen indeed.

“It is only Ellis,” Jillian said from beside her, standing up on her toes. “Our dear cousin.”

“Yes, but it does appear as if he has brought a friend,” Portia said. “A very large and handsome friend.”

Evelyn glanced out into the corridor and saw the man in question. He was tall, impossibly broad, and rain dripped from his fair hair and into his face.

“Isn’t he dashing?” Catherine said dreamily.

“How could you possibly tell if he’s handsome?” Evelyn asked before she thought better of it. “He’s scowling.”

Whispers scurried through the ballroom; the hushed words didn’t take long to reach their ears, as the room was smaller than those public balls in London.

“’Tis Bennett Haile, the Earl of Somersby,” the woman next to her mother said.

“An earl,” her mother said eagerly. She looked over at Evelyn and smiled, that sort of secret, conspirator smile.

Another woman nodded approvingly. “I’ve heard he’s some manner of a spy.”

Two more women walked over to join the conversation. “All I’ve ever heard about him is that he jilted some poor girl, left her to marry a penniless viscount.”

“Scandalous,” the other whispered.

“Indeed, he’s quite the rogue,” the first woman stated.

“Good heavens, but he is a large man,” her mother said.

“What is he doing here?” Jillian asked.

“It would seem that Ellis has brought him,” her mother said.

“Whatever he’s doing here, he seems to be staring directly at you, Evie,” Portia said.

Evelyn looked again at the stranger and he did, indeed, seem to be looking pointedly at her. Beneath the weight of his stare, she felt every bit the dowdy mess that her mother accused her of being earlier that day. Ellis said something to the hulking earl and the man gave a nearly imperceptible nod.

Her mother chortled delightfully. “Oh, it would seem that our dear cousin has finally answered my requests and brought Evelyn a suitor. And an earl, no less. Positively splendid.”

Would that she could disappear into the floor, but Evelyn had never been that fortunate.

 Copyright © 2015. Robyn DeHart. All Rights Reserved.

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