The Enchanting of an Earl
Scandalous Spinsters Book 5
The second of five impoverished sisters, Miss Elinor Conley knows her dream of becoming a lady is farfetched. When an unmarried gentleman happens by her brother's smithy, it is up to her to act quickly—and rashly—to secure his interest. But Grantham Wendell, Lord Chelford, isn't in the market for anything more than a new horseshoe. What's a bachelor to do when an innocent miss turns up at his annual bacchanalia? He ought to make her leave, but his Twelfth Night party just became more entertaining...
Publisher's Note: This book was originally published as The Cheer in Charming an Earl
Miss Elinor Conley wasn’t the type to sabotage a carriage wheel. She wasn’t the sort who contrived tall tales or lied to her brother—she especially didn’t lie to her four sisters. She didn’t utter profane oaths aloud and, aside from the recent occasion of her brother’s elopement, she didn’t drink to excess.
That was, until she set eyes on Grantham Wendell, the Earl of Chelford, on the day he led his horse into her brother’s smithy.
Grantham, as she’d called him privately in the three months since—for why not first-name him in her head, when they’d never met formally anyhow?—was the finest horseman, the deepest poet, the lightest dancer, and the handsomest man in all of England. Or so she’d convinced herself in the time since he’d swung one well-muscled thigh over his horse’s white flank and ridden away.READ MORE
Oh, but she’d known it then, too! Even before she’d had the chance to examine her precious gossip rags from London and read the excellent things being said about him. Why, the moment she’d observed him soothing his stallion with calming, confident strokes while her brother affixed a new shoe to its hoof, she’d known Grantham’s heart was full of kindness.
That she’d seen hide nor hair of him since mattered not at all. That he hadn’t noticed her lingering in the doorway of her brother’s smithy and was therefore unaware of her presence in the world didn’t cause her the least bit of doubt. Her confidence in their suitability buoyed her; a few days in his company were all she required to confirm her suppositions true.
She hugged her mother then pulled her threadbare coat tighter about her shoulders so the wind’s bite couldn’t distract her from making her good-byes to the rest of her family. Her four sisters and her brother, his wife and her sister waited by the carriage, the entire Conley brood gathered together to see her off. In just a few moments, she’d be on her way to prove she and Grantham were destined to be wed. Truly, she could almost see her beloved in her mind’s eye. The wave of flaxen hair across his bold brow. The firm jaw, chiseled by a sculptor’s tool, that begged to be traced. The unsurpassed shine of his buttons and buckles. Oh, to behold Grantham again! The time could be reckoned in days, making her jubilation impossible to contain.
Her fleeting, somewhat flickering memory of his princely countenance was all she required to know that she was embarking on a mission that would be understood later, when the delicate details might be made public. Any reservation she felt today must be set aside for the greater good of tomorrow.
She was going to meet Grantham. It hardly mattered how.
“Are you certain you wish to do this?” Georgiana—her older sister who should never be called Georgie, though naturally it delighted Elinor to do exactly that—settled a sympathetic look on her at odds with her typically stoic demeanor. “Aunt Mildred is wretchedly infirm, Mama says, not at all able to introduce you about, and I do know how you so always wanted to marry a... well.” Georgie pressed her lips together in her firm, governess way. “Some dreams are quite silly. Surrendering them can be difficult, nonetheless, especially for a sentimental sort.”
Like you, Georgie meant, though she didn’t say so aloud. She clearly believed Elinor was abandoning her much-mocked dream of becoming a lady. And why shouldn’t the older and inarguably sounder of them conclude as much? Attaining such a prestigious position as lady did seem an impossible feat when they lived at the end of the earth, in a tiny village lacking eligible men, let alone lords, to whisk them off their feet and out of their dull drudgery of a life. Never mind their older brother had somehow managed to snag a viscount’s sister for a wife! He’d needed to leave the county to do it, however. Elinor had little hope of stepping out of her house, let alone her village, without careful planning and a bit of deception.
She sighed and did her best to appear forlorn. “I suppose I’m as likely to find a husband here as I am in Yorkshire,” she lied, for in truth, she was ever so much more likely to find a husband in Yorkshire, as that was where Grantham spent his winters. “But at least I will be comfortable. Aunt Mildred’s cottage may be small but I expect it’s tidy, and I don’t deny that I will enjoy having my own bed.” At least she wasn’t exaggerating the last. If things didn’t progress as desired with Grantham, she fervently hoped Aunt Mildred’s reluctant offer of a bedchamber and board would stand. But since she never intended to learn whether taking up residence with her spinster aunt would be an improvement on her lot, rather than a concession, Elinor turned from her older sister to make her good-byes to the rest of her family before Georgie could sympathize with her any more.
Miranda, Abigail and Charlotte, Elinor’s younger sisters, were peering into the awaiting carriage as though they’d never seen their brother’s primeval equipage before. Of course they had; Gavin owned just one conveyance, an ancient monstrosity that rarely left its post. Their village was five blocks in total, including their whitewashed house at the end of the cobbled street. But he insisted on keeping the rickety coach even if the carriage roof leaked, one glass pane was cracked through, and the whole of it smelled like ruined boots.
“I envy you to tears.” Charlotte’s declaration was followed by an enormously overdone sigh, considering she believed Elinor to be resigning herself to spinsterhood, and by way of a moldy, rattling carriage. “I wish I were the second-oldest.”
Miranda frowned. “Poppycock. You would detest being anything but the youngest. At any rate, it’s not as though Elinor is going on holiday. I shouldn’t wish to be the one who must shuffle our poor aunt off this mortal coil.”
Elinor shuddered. What a ghastly thought! Yet wholly understandable in the circumstances, what with the family believing her to be on her way to attend their estranged aunt’s deathbed. Her belly tightened. It wasn’t entirely her fault they thought Aunt Millie knocking at death’s door. Neither she nor any of her siblings had ever met their mother’s sister, nor did they correspond with her directly. Mama had always maintained six boisterous children were too much stimulation for a woman in Aunt Millie’s condition. Elinor had never thought much of it; there was no need to write their aunt letters on their own, for she sent news twice per month—letters delivered directly into Mama’s hand.
Until Elinor had decided to take matters with Grantham into her own hands. Then she’d written Aunt Millie secretly, to propose an arrangement that could benefit them both. For Mama had lamented her sister’s eventual passing for years, and while, insofar as Elinor knew, Aunt Millie was no worse for wear today than she’d been in the past decade, it had seemed reasonable to Elinor to offer up her company to a dying woman in exchange for a pretext to leave Gloucester.
Again she reminded herself that all would be understood once she was able to explain why she’d contrived such nonsense.
Charlotte turned to Miranda and pulled a face. “You’re right, of course. I shouldn’t know what to do with a dead body. Aside from scream, I suppose. A lady in distress is always allowed to scream.”
“How inefficient,” Elinor murmured. Why, if Aunt Mildred did cock up her toes while Elinor was supposed to be attending her bedside, Elinor would perish of guilt long before she thought to scream. But she put on a brave face when Georgiana shot her a suspicious look, and clasped one hand to her heart. “I will be strong for us, Charlotte. I promise.”
Charlotte cast her a look of adolescent condescension. Miranda gave her a curt nod of approval, and Georgie continued to watch her warily. Both Miranda and Georgiana were terribly sensible, unlike Abigail, who vied with pretty Charlotte for ridiculousness.
“If anything should happen,” seventeen-year-old Abigail said firmly, “anything of interest, that is, or at least more interesting than here, do send us a post. Gloucester is so tedious that it hasn’t even bothered to snow.” She rolled her eyes heavenward. Nevertheless, she rubbed at the thin coat covering her arms. It was mere days until Christmas, and the weather was quite cold.
Again, Elinor did her best to look resolved rather than impatient. “I shall. Right away. That is, when I have something to convey.” With any luck, that would be within the next day and a half—approximately the time required to reach Chelford House, just a few miles from Aunt Mildred’s cottage, and win Grantham’s heart.
Assuming she was ever allowed to actually leave.
Finally, her brother stepped forward. He opened his iron-band arms for her and she stepped into his strong embrace without hesitating. Gavin gave the best hugs in all of England. She needn’t travel the countryside to know it.
He squeezed her tight and bussed her fur-capped head as if she were still a little girl. “Be good for Aunt Millie. Remember to send Mama long letters about her. I shall read them in a falsetto after dinner, in my best imitation of your voice.”
Elinor laughed and hugged her brother tighter. If only she were going to Aunt Mildred’s, she would write pages and pages describing their unknown aunt. “I will.”
“Good girl.” He embraced her a second time before pulling back to examine her. “You do know how sorry I am that it’s come to this, don’t you? I’ll hold out hope that Aunt Millie calls for you to inherit her estate, to be sure, for a woman should have a house of her own even if she has no husband. But I never wanted you to live out your days alone.” He forced his lips into a hard line and glanced at her four sisters, who’d wandered away to investigate a frozen puddle. “I suppose you’d take in Miranda or Georgie in time, if nothing can be done for them. Abigail and Charlotte may make their debuts yet, but…” He shook his head. “How I wish one young man had caught your fancy before they’d all ridden off to war!”
Elinor’s heart wrenched. “Oh, Gavin, it’s not your fault we haven’t married.”
The strain across his brow didn’t ease. His wife laid a comforting hand on his arm, and Elinor’s heart broke for him. She buried her face in his scratchy wool coat and prayed he wouldn’t say more. Truly, he’d done his very best to see her and all of her sisters married off. What hope had he ever had for success, when there were no eligible men? Or even ineligible men?
“I’ll keep watching for a duke,” he said finally. A forced laugh indicated this was meant in jest, not in cruelty, and certainly not in seriousness.
If she could have eased his mind without explaining what she meant to do, she would have done so. She was entirely certain she’d be betrothed to Grantham within a fortnight. But her brother’s remark proved that while he did wish to see her wed, he had no confidence in her ability to attract a blue-blooded husband, or perhaps any husband. And in normal circumstances, she would have had to agree.
That was why the circumstances must be abnormal. Certainly what she intended to do qualified as the latter.
“Should I find your duke, I’ll write posthaste,” Gavin continued, drawing light laughter from their sisters, his wife and her sister, who had all gathered again in expectation of Elinor’s departure. “I might even shackle him to an anvil so he doesn’t escape.”
Elinor released a pent breath; now that her brother was in good humor again, the difficult part was past. She gave her sisters each a hug, then traded curtsies with Delilah, Gavin’s wife, and Lucy, Delilah’s spinster sister, who was staying with them for Christmastide.
Without warning, Delilah stepped forward and embraced Elinor as if they were indeed intimate. “Do have fun,” she murmured in Elinor’s ear.
Elinor nodded and hugged her sister-by-law back. She was coming to like the new Mrs. Conley, and in fact, she owed her entire plan today to her brother’s pretty wife. If Delilah hadn’t run away to Gretna Green with him, Elinor would have never thought to concoct a harebrained scheme to smash a rickety carriage into Grantham’s manor lawn.
But Delilah had indeed behaved badly, and it was rumored that her sister, Miss Lucilla Lancester, was cut from the same hoyden cloth. In light of the scandals these two had caused—actual ladies!—what Elinor intended to do paled in comparison. What was a crushed azalea or two in the pursuit of true love?
“Well, good-bye then,” she said to her family, for there was no point in delaying any more. She leapt into the carriage. It didn’t just squeak under her weight. It sobbed. Elinor smiled at the empty interior. When this pitiful contraption suddenly took a dive into a ditch, thereby tossing her into Grantham’s arms, would anyone be the wiser why it had given out?
Fortunately, she’d thought far enough ahead to ensure her safe arrival at Chelford House. She’d mended a strategic crack in the carriage wheel with a metal plate smuggled from her brother’s ironworks. She wouldn’t remove the plate until they’d reached Yorkshire, for she had no desire to be stranded anywhere between her brother’s house and Grantham’s.
Unfortunately, that meant she had more than a day’s time to pass in the nauseating conveyance before she could be free of it. Where was her Ladies’ Companion? She must have something to occupy her mind.
She withdrew the magazine from her satchel and set it on the bench beside her. One last round of waves to her sisters, then finally, the carriage lurched forward. She grinned.
Then she squealed and wriggled in her seat. She was off!
* * *
Almost a day and a half later, she rapped hard on the carriage roof. Her knuckles came away wet, and there was a dark splotch on the ceiling in the shape of her fist, but she didn’t mind. According to her calculation at the last toll road, they were mere miles from Chelford House, Grantham’s family seat.
Nothing happened. She rapped a third time, with the same results.
“Driver, driver!” she shouted, beginning to fear they would pass Chelford House and ruin her entire scheme.
“Jes’ call me James, miss.” The old man’s voice filtered through the sagging roof. “What can I do for ye?”
“I… Er… Is there a stopping point ahead? An area of convenience, perhaps?”
Mr. James’s guffaw was unmistakable. “I don’t think ye mean ’ta blackberry brambles, miss, though they look right ‘nough for me.”
Despite her request being nothing but a ploy, she shuddered at the thought of relieving herself in the wilds. “Is there nothing else ahead?”
“Mr. Conley said not to stop, ’cepting official post houses, so I can’t say there is, miss. I was jest teasing ye about ’ta brambles.”
She expelled a frustrated breath. “Is there one soon, then? A post house?”
“Oh, no, miss. Not for hours.”
“Hours?” She scrambled toward the window. “Mr. Conley may not want me set upon by thieves, but I am quite sure he’ll be displeased if he learns his carriage has been returned to him in less than pristine condition.”
“Likely it will pass his notice,” Mr. James called back, “as ’ta hack stinks of piss as ’tis.”
Elinor groaned at the truth of that. “Please, sir, have pity. I won’t tell Mr. Conley, I promise.”
Mr. James didn’t respond. Not long after, however, she felt the carriage pull to a halt.
“I am in your debt!” she cried as she jerked the door latch, attempting to act as needy as possible.
It gave suddenly and she tumbled out. Mr. James caught her against one arm, then set her on the ground. She didn’t spare the grizzled man a second glance. Thorny brambles tore at her skirt, but she reasoned such desperate-looking slashes would only aid her appeal for succor when she arrived at Chelford. “You’re an angel, Mr. James!”
His answering laugh came from far away. “I’ll just be on ’ta other side, miss. When yer ready, I’ll take us off again.”
After waiting a few heartbeats in the overgrowth, she fought her way silently back through the bare, thorny branches to reach the carriage again.
Mr. James was nowhere in sight.
She’d counted on his taking advantage of the stop, too. She felt under her skirts for the dull blade nestled snugly in her boot. It was warm from being pressed against her woolen stocking. Slipping the edge between the iron plate and the wagon wheel, she pried at several small nails tacking the assembly together. As she’d intended, the nails popped out easily. An excited breath hissed between her lips. She’d done it! Within half a mile, the wheel would come apart entirely, and the fracture would disable the carriage.
She sent up a silent prayer that no danger would come to Mr. James, or the horses. Though why would it? The carriage had three good wheels left.
After climbing back into the hack, she called through the open door, “Mr. James! We may continue.”
The carriage rocked as he returned and hefted himself into the driver’s seat. Acrid pipe smoke wafted through the open carriage door, ajar only because Mr. James had neglected to close it like a proper servant. “Did you need me to see to that, miss?” he asked of the door.
She eyed it, then her own threadbare clothing. Even Mr. James didn’t see her as a lady. “No, Mr. James,” she said with no small amount of resignation. “I am perfectly capable.”
“Mr. Conley’s brood,” he replied appreciatively. “Them’s the girls ye take to wife.”
She barely heard the crack of the reins before the horses leapt into motion. With a heartfelt sigh, she reached forward and pulled the door closed.
Grantham would never, ever treat her with anything less than perfect chivalry. He was an earl.COLLAPSE
Jean on Amazon Verified Purchase wrote:
If you like your novellas with lots of humor, plenty of romance and witty dialogue, Ms. Locke is an author to deliver on all counts.
This book is lighthearted and preposterous in many ways and a delight to read. Our h[eroine] is spunky enough to pursue her dreams but not sensible enough to have thought through the consequences. And yet, it turns out she was right, they did suit.
This is the first novella in The Innocents trilogy. These delightful novellas will interweave with Books 1-4 (The Courtesans) and Books 6-10 (The Hoydens). To start at the beginning, please see The Trouble with Being Wicked, where you'll meet Mr. Gavin Conley, Elinor's older brother.