My One and Only Earl by Stacy Reid






Chapter 1





Lincolnshire





James Alexander Delaney took a deep breath of the cold crisp air into his lungs, a tight band of sorrow clutching at his throat. Everything seemed to be observed through clouds or as if he were swimming underwater at the lake in Derbyshire, and he had opened his eyes in its murky depth.

The heavy rumble of thunder and the rattle of the carriage traveling on the rutted country road was a distant hum in the backdrop of his grief. One of his very best friends, Mr. Richard Ashford, was interred a few hours before. It was by chance James had been notified of the funeral, and though he’d traveled with all haste down from London, he had missed it.

“Two years,” James murmured. “My very best friend, but I’ve not seen you in two years.” He wanted to roar his anguish, but he ruthlessly composed himself and quieted the raw emotions raging through his heart. “I am so damned sorry, Richard. So damn sorry.”

Turning to face the modest but well-maintained manor in the distance, James wondered if he should traverse inside to see the family. What could he say to them? He had never met Richard’s family. He only knew them through amusing and sometimes wry anecdotes. It had been Richard’s eldest sister, Poppy, who had surprisingly sent James a letter, which had reached him in London, informing James of Richard’s passing.

He alighted from his carriage along the driveway, hoping the trek to the house would aid him in gaining his composure. Thunder rumbled in the distance, and the sky, which had appeared overcast, finally opened with a torrential burst of downpour. Being a man who believed in preparation for all eventualities, he’d taken his umbrella from the carriage. With efficient motions, he opened the large umbrella and held it above his head. A few people who’d been walking sedately toward the manor’s entrance burst into hurried movements.

“Lord Kingsley,” his valet, Timothy, called, hurrying over to his side. “Will you go inside, milord? It is raining awfully hard.”

Lord Kingsley. There were times it jolted James to be referred to as the Earl of Kingsley despite occupying the role for a little over two years. “No. I am not staying. We’ll return to the village’s inn and then back to Town tomorrow.”

His valet’s face creased into mild surprise but wisely made no reply.

“I will walk back to the inn. Order the carriage to depart.”

“It is raining heavily, my lord!”

“I am aware of that, Timothy.”

“Your gloves, my lord. Shall I fetch them from—”

“No.” James wanted to feel the bite of the cold against his knuckles, feel the handle of the umbrella in his palm.

His valet looked like he wanted to protest but bowed and scampered away. James did not see the point of going inside the house and invading the family’s grief. He was a stranger to them, and now was not the time to introduce himself and explain the connection he had with Richard. James knew the pain they currently endured. He too had suffered a similar misfortune.

His beloved brother, the previous earl, had suffered a stroke some two years ago. The pain of it had cut their family deeply, and James had immersed himself in taking up the mantle his brother had died for—working tirelessly to save their family from penury.

It had consumed him so much he hadn’t found the time to visit Richard, and now regret, so much regret sat heavy in his bones. James was the one responsible for his best friend’s death. It was James who had been restless and chomping at the bit as the second son, bored with the constant pursuit of debauchery and frivolity, and wanted to forge his own path swathed in honor and glory. And that path had been purchasing a commission. It had been very stupid of him because he’d since learned there was no honor and glory in war and carnage.

Richard had been determined to follow James, and how merry they had been. Laughing and singing raunchy ballads while marching to get their papers. Jesus. James raked his fingers through his rain-dampened hair. He had made Captain, but Richard’s army career had ended quite prematurely after picking up a ball in his knee. He had returned to his home with an amputated limb and a disheartened spirit.

Richard had not recovered well, and James had not been there for him. Even though they had exchanged letters, and Richard had assured him all was well, James should have made a trip down and seen for himself.

Now I will be forever late to see you one last time, my friend.

How many blows could one endure before crumbling? James shifted the umbrella and lifted his face to the sky, accepting the icy sting of the rain pelting his forehead. Many. I am now the earl with immeasurable responsibilities. I will bear and shoulder a thousand blows if necessary.