The Reluctant Earl (Love Inspired Historical)

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9780373829538: The Reluctant Earl (Love Inspired Historical)
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Alone in a gentleman's bedchamber, rummaging through his clothing—governess Leah Vance risks social ruin. Only by selling political information can she pay for her sister's care. And the letter she found in Julian DeChambelle's coat could be valuable—if the ex-sea captain himself had not just walked in.

As a navy officer, Julian knew his purpose. As a new earl, he's plagued by trivialities and marriage-obsessed females. Miss Vance's independence is intriguing—and useful. In return for relaying false information, he will pay her handsomely. But trusting her, even caring for her? That would be pure folly. Yet when he sees the danger that surrounds her, it may be too late to stop himself....

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About the Author:

After leaving the corporate world to stay home with her children, C.J. Chase quickly learned she did not possess the housekeeping gene. She decided writing might provide an excuse to ignore the dust bunnies accumulating under the furniture. Her procrastination, er, hard work paid off in 2010 when she won the Golden Heart for Best Inspirational Manuscript and sold the novel to Love Inspired Historicals. You can visit C.J.'s cyber-home (where the floors are always clean) at cjchasebooks.com

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Somerset, England

31 December 1816

Snow drifted softly onto Julian DeChambelle's shoulders, so unlike the crushing weight of his newly acquired responsibilities. He stared at the cavernous hole of the open mausoleum while the rector's voice rolled over snow-blanketed graves and echoed off distant monuments.

Chilly summer had given way to frigid autumn and even more bitter winter—a winter of despair and deprivation, of desperation as the poor harvest brought scarcity and strife. Julian shoved his freezing hands into his greatcoat's pockets, his fingers fisting around the anonymous note that suggested the "accident" which overturned his father's carriage had been something more than accidental.

Something...intentional?

His gaze shuffled around the shivering throng gathered to pay their last respects. Did the author of the note even now slouch among the mourners where a few local gentry huddled in woolen cloaks and brushed shoulders with yeoman farmers? The late Earl of Chambelston had been universally loved by the common folk.

Or not, as the letter—delivered only this morning—testified.

Indeed, even his eldest sister Elizabeth had scorned the opportunity for one last chance at reconciliation.

"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust..." The clergyman's familiar words carried Julian back to countless burials at sea, all those services on all those ships during his two decades of war. Death had struck with unnerving unpredictability—taking young powder monkeys and experienced sailors equally and respecting neither the lowliest seamen nor the great Admiral Nelson himself.

"Our Father, who art in heaven..." The rector led the people in a cold, wavery recitation of the Lord's Prayer.

Julian's youngest sister Caroline followed as best she could, her reedy voice lagging a word or two behind the others. She was twenty years old, but with a mind forever childlike. Another burden bore down on him as he glanced at the top of her head. Caro was his responsibility now, for the rest of her life.

Of the six DeChambelle siblings, only three—Felicity, Caro, him—mourned here today. His brother Kit lived in America now and wouldn't even learn of these events for weeks. Elizabeth preferred her resentment to her relatives. And Gregory...

The rector snapped the prayer book shut, the clap of pages echoing as loudly as a cannon salute.

His father had been proud of Captain DeChambelle the officer, but what about Julian the man? The new earl? Anxiety once again closed around his mind with paralyzing fingers.

Baron Trethewey, his sister Felicity's husband, paused before Julian, hand outstretched. "He was a good man, Cham-belston."

Julian blinked as he mechanically shook his brother-in-law's hand, only now realizing that with his father's death he'd inherited not only the properties and responsibilities but his father's very name. The title fit him with all the discomfort of his civilian wardrobe. "Yes, he will be much missed."

"If there's anything you need, anything I can do to assist, send for me."

"Thank you."

Felicity wrapped a black-clad arm around him in an embrace of sympathy and shared sorrow. "Have faith, Julian."

"I..." The frigid wind stung his eyes, causing Felicity's features to waver. It wasn't supposed to be this way. Julian knew everything about commanding a frigate and nothing about overseeing an estate. His older—and now deceased—brother Gregory had been raised for this position, had been trained for the responsibilities of managing the Chambelston holdings. He would have known what to do to ease their people's suffering, what steps Parliament needed to take to becalm the brewing unrest as the poor and hungry petitioned—sometimes violently—for the government to intervene in the intensifying crisis.

"I know you'll make the right decisions when the time comes."

"Thank you." With an equanimity achieved by years of practice concealing his emotions from the men under his command, Julian squared his shoulders and fixed a resolute expression on his countenance for Felicity's benefit.

A few other intrepid mourners paused to offer their respects. Julian accepted their condolences with murmurs of thanks, then sent them on their way to escape the bitter conditions.

Maman touched his sleeve. Flakes of white glazed the top of her black bonnet. "We must get Caro home before she takes ill."

Julian glanced at his sister's pinched face, her nose reddened from cold and sorrow, her eyes reflecting the confusion of one swept up in events she didn't understand. "Come.

There is nothing more for us here." He grasped his mother's elbow and escorted the women to a carriage with its Cham-belston coat of arms on the door. The waiting horses stomped their feet in the packed snow, their harnesses jingling as they shook their heads.

Maman climbed in first, then Julian assisted Caro while Maman held her hand. His little sister tottered once, and Julian tightened his grip while she regained her equilibrium. Steps had always been—would always be—difficult for his sister. Like most other things in life.

Julian kicked the snow off his boots and hoisted his weary frame up behind them. As he dropped onto the plush upholstery, the paper in his pocket crunched, demanding answers. Demanding action. Demanding he travel to the one house in England where he was least welcome.

Maman tucked a woolen blanket around Caro. "A pity Felicity could not stay, no?"

"Indeed. It would have been nice for you to have some feminine companionship during my absence."

"You are not staying in Somerset with Caro and me?"

"I must go to Northamptonshire." Rowan Abbey, to be precise.

Maman's lips tightened, her only betrayal of how keenly she felt her eldest daughter's antagonism. "You do not need to defend me, Julian. I made my mistakes and offered my apologies. There is nothing more I can do. I have made my peace. Elizabeth knows she is welcome whenever she wants to put aside her grudge."

"Actually I'm not going to see Elizabeth. I'm going to meet with her husband." The undersecretary to the Home Secretary, the man whose job it was to ameliorate the people's suffering during this winter of famine before hardship and hunger drove them to outright rebellion. Perhaps he was aware of the relationship between Julian's father and the petitioners.

"Sotherton?"

"We have...business." Business involving an anonymous letter and a mysterious death.

The bare branches of a nearby rosebush shivered forlornly as the bitter wind whipped across the dormant garden and through the threadbare elbows of Leah Vance's coat. The gust whisked up snow from yesterday's storm and chafed her face with the sharp crystals. She leaned toward her warmly dressed charge, allowing herself to feel a bit of envy for Lady Teresa Sotherton's heavy cloak.

"Mother says I am to go to London in the spring—if the situation calms." Enthusiasm beamed in Teresa's eyes of sparkling blue-violet. A few of her inky curls escaped her hat and framed her smile.

"If the situation calms." A state of affairs Leah was doing her best to prevent. Turmoil would extend her earnings from both employers.

"Helen says the city is filled with handsome men."

"Which you hope to meet."

"Of course. As many as possible." Teresa threaded her arm through Leah's elbow and pulled her along a freshly shoveled path.

"How distressing to learn your enthusiasm doesn't stem from the city's many prospects for improving your mind such as museums and libraries."

"My dear Miss Vance, what could I possibly have left to learn after all these years in your tutelage?"

"Comportment, patience and French conjugations."

"My poor teacher, consigned to an indifferent pupil like me. Perhaps you should come along to keep my conduct above reproach."

"Truly, you do not wish for my company. I would force your focus to pursuits such as literary societies and philosophy studies."

"No, I would see you introduced to so many gentlemen so as to not allow you time."

"At my age? A ridiculous cake I would make of myself."

"An older gentleman, then. Older and scholarly and a bit mysterious."

Like Leah's father, a gentle and intellectual man who'd failed to adequately provide for his daughters. Or like the one upon whom she'd once pinned hopes...until adversity had driven him away. The wind shifted, carrying with it the acrid scent of the coal smoke that belched from Rowan Abbey's many chimneys. In her thin coat Leah shivered, longing for the fires that added a modicum of warmth to the drafty manor. "I would be content with meeting warmth come spring." Her future stretched before her as endless as the snowy landscape and as bleak as the leaden winter sky, a lifetime of caring for others' children but never her own.

Eight years she'd been here. When she'd arrived, Teresa had been a girl of ten and Leah scarcely twenty. What would she do when Lord and Lady Sotherton carted their daughter to the metropolis and its many eligible men? No doubt Lady Sotherton would write Leah a satisfactory reference that would procure her a position elsewhere. But where would she find one near her unfortunate, mind-damaged sister with the unique...situation that allowed her to earn the extra funds she needed for Phoebe's care? Asylums were expensive. Good ones—where the staff didn't abuse or exploit the inmates—especially so.

The jingle of harnesses rang through the cold stillness as a pair of matching chestnuts pulled a carriage along the snowy drive.

"I didn't know your parents were expecting a visitor." Leah had made a practice of knowing her employers' business.

Alas, the cold and freq...

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