The Bachelor Earl by Darcy Burke

Chapter 1

October 1803

The sky had grown increasingly darker as they neared the Blickton estate, and not because night was falling. A fat raindrop hit the window of Eugenia St. John’s coach as they turned up the drive toward the manor house. Trees dressed in gold and orange swayed in the wind, and Genie wondered how many leaves would be left on the branches come tomorrow.

Pity, for she loved the glorious colors of autumn. As had her dear husband. The familiar ache in her chest had lessened gradually over the past two years since his death, but it was still there. She wondered if it would always be. At least now when she thought of him, she smiled, and any tears she shed were due to fond memories instead of grief.

The house finally came into view, its pale stone Palladian structure rising into the blackening sky. Built less than a hundred years ago, Blickton was not as grand as Lakemoor, but then few estates were. Her husband, the Duke of Kendal, had kept Lakemoor and its land in excellent condition, and his son and heir was continuing that commitment, which Genie observed from the dower house.

The coach came to a stop in front of the door, and a footman rushed out with an umbrella. The rain began to fall in earnest as Genie stepped from the coach and hurried inside, her maid trailing behind.

“Welcome, Your Grace,” the butler greeted her. “The guests are gathered in the drawing room.”

Genie might have asked to go to her room first to change out of her traveling costume, but the hostess, her cousin Lady Cosford, bustled into the cavernous entry hall, her shoes tapping on the marble floor.

“Genie, you’re here at last! Come and meet the rest of the guests. I promise you can retire after a short introduction.” Cecilia smiled broadly, her sherry-brown eyes sparkling. She was always effusively cheerful. Genie had been particularly grateful for that trait after her husband had died.

It was because Cecilia had been so supportive and wonderful that Genie had agreed to come to her house party. The event would be her first major social occasion since Jerome’s death.

Genie summoned a smile. “Of course.” She removed her hat and gloves and handed them to her maid.

Cecilia linked her arm with Genie’s and swept her through several rooms until they reached the large drawing room that overlooked the vast parkland of the Blickton estate. “Everyone, please welcome the Dowager Duchess of Kendal!”

Dowager. Genie bristled inwardly at that title. She’d never thought to be a widow at the age of forty-two.

Surveying the room, she recognized only a handful of faces. She estimated there were twenty or so people in attendance. It also seemed at first glance that there was a rather equal ratio of men and women.

“Welcome, Genie!” One of the people Genie knew came forward, smiling brightly, her pale blue eyes sparkling with delight. Lady Bradford, a fellow widow, had been a dear friend.

Had been. Because Genie had isolated herself at her dower house at Lakemoor for the past two years.

Genie smiled warmly, genuinely glad to see Letitia. “I’m so pleased to see you, Lettie.”

“And I you.” She lowered her voice as she moved closer so that only Genie could hear. “I was afraid you wouldn’t come.”

“I nearly didn’t,” Genie whispered, surprising herself at the disclosure.

“Now that everyone is here,” Cecilia said, “let us have proper introductions. We’ll go around the room, and when it’s your turn, say your name and something about yourself.”

“What should we say?” one gentleman asked, his brow arching.

Cecilia lifted a shoulder. “Whatever you choose. Though perhaps refrain from something so mundane as how many children you have or what you ate for breakfast. I’ll start. I’m Lady Cosford, your hostess, and I sleep with the window open all year round.”

“Even on a day like this?” a lady asked from the other side of the room.

“Especially on a day like this. I love the smell of the rain.” Cecilia turned her head to the gentleman on her left. “Your turn, Mr. Sterling.”

Since Genie stood on Cecilia’s right, she would go last. Another quick review of the room said this was going to take forever. Genie exhaled softly.

Slightly taller than average, Mr. Sterling possessed a charming smile and dark blue eyes that crinkled at the corners, giving the impression he was a man of good humor. “Then I shouldn’t start by extolling the virtues and follies of my four children.” This was met with laughter and shouts of “No!” from a few gentlemen, followed by more laughter.