Monday, May 4, 2020

Read the First Chapter of THE EARL NOT TAKEN by A.S. Fenichel


Title: THE EARL NOT TAKEN
Author: A.S. Fenichel
Publisher: Kensington Books
Pages: 236
Genre: Historical Fiction

BOOK BLURB:
Left standing on the side while their contemporaries marry into society, four young ladies forge a bond to guard each other from a similar fate . . .
 
Finishing school failed to make a proper lady of Penelope Arrington. But as a Wallflower of West Lane, Poppy has a far more vital role—she and her three best friends have made a pact to protect each other from the clutches of dangerous, disreputable men. So when one of them is about to be married off to a duke sight unseen, Poppy makes it her mission to divine the prospective husband’s true character. If only she didn’t require the aid of
London’s most unsuitable rake. 
 
Rhys Draper, Earl of Marsden, has known the headstrong Poppy since she was a young girl, na├»ve to the ways of men. To her eternal chagrin—and to his vague amusement—they have been at odds over the memory of their embarrassing first encounter all these years. Now, with his services in need, Rhys sees a chance to finally clear the air between them. Instead, he is surprised by the heat of their feelings. If the two do not tread carefully, they may end up in a most agreeably compromising position . . .

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Chapter 1
Six Years Later

“I’m sorry if I offend anyone, but I am glad he’s dead.” Poppy hated funerals, but as she walked into Aurora’s home on West Lane, she was happy her friend was free of that monster. The Earl of Radcliff had deserved what he’d gotten, and her friend’s three-year marriage had been too long. Poppy had behaved herself all morning. Now with only her three closest friends and Aurora’s brother, Rhys, to hear her, she had to let it out.
Rhys Draper, recently elevated to the Earl of Marsden after his father’s passing, frowned at her. “Really, Penelope. Must you say such things?” He stood with his arms crossed over his wide chest leaning against the wall near the window, and his blond hair touched his collar. All remnants of the skinny boy had been replaced by muscle over the last few years, but Poppy was determined not to notice. His roguish behavior far outweighed any pleasure she might take from his good looks.
The lady’s parlor of Aurora’s townhouse on West Lane was their gathering place. The Earl of Radcliff’s death was the only reason Rhys had tagged along after the funeral. It was the only room in the house with a feminine flair, cream-colored walls and a buttery rug. The overstuffed furniture was covered in a similar fabric, and lace curtains shielded them from the street.
Aurora pulled the black veil off her face and over the brim of her hat before removing the pins and tossing the hat on the table near the door. It bumped a vase of flowers sent by someone with condolences and slid to the floor. Her golden hair was coiled at the back of her head in tiny braids, and her pale blue eyes were clear. All the fear, which had marred them for three years, had died with Bertram Sherbourn, Earl of Radcliff. “You’ll get no argument from me, Poppy.”
Faith picked up the hat and placed it more firmly on the table. Taking a deep breath accentuated her full curves as she tucked her wild brown hair behind her ear. She took Aurora’s hand, and the two sat on the divan. “He was a miserable sod and none of us are sorry he’s gone. Still, Poppy, it’s not nice to speak ill of the dead.” Her sweet voice was in direct contrast with her words.
Holding back a chuckle at the double standard Faith set, Poppy shared a knowing look with Mercy, who shrugged and smiled. “I suppose I must say nothing at all then. I certainly won’t say anything nice about him.” Poppy sat on the chair to Aurora’s left.
Curling up on the chaise, her long legs bending until she took up little space despite her tall stature, Mercy pushed her spectacles up on her nose. Her strawberry blond waves pulled up to expose an elegant neck and shoulders. “Then we shall find another subject or sit in silence. What do you want to talk about, Aurora?”
“I think I’d just like to call for tea and sit here. Can we do that? Can we forget I was ever married and act as if we were just getting home from Lucerne, four wallflowers hell-bent on embarrassing our families?”
Patting her hand, Faith narrowed her eyes on Poppy as if daring her to continue the unwanted conversation. “Of course we can.”
Poppy stifled a chuckle and held her hands up in defeat. Faith rarely put her foot down, and it was clear this was one of those times.
“Should I leave you ladies?” Rhys asked, still manning his post against the wall.
Aurora smiled. “No. Come and sit with us, Rhys.”
“Ring for tea before you sit,” Poppy added with a smile. She had never gotten along with Aurora’s older brother. Her experience with him as a child had colored her opinion, and from the stories she’d heard over the years, he’d changed little.
There was that frown again. A typical man, he couldn’t bear one small order from a woman. Still, he pulled the cord and a maid ran in a moment later.
Aurora sent the girl for their tea.
The frown lines around Rhys’s mouth deepened, and his brows drew together. “I know Radcliff was a difficult man, but does he deserve so little respect in death? He did leave you a living, a title, and this house.”
All focus was on Aurora. She had kept her situation a secret from her brother because there was nothing he could have done about it. Their father had made the contract with the Earl of Radcliff while the girls were sill away at Miss Agatha Wormbattle’s School for Young Ladies in Switzerland. They had all been excited about the first of their misguided group to get married and about coming home after a three-year exile for bad behavior. The reality was far different and had kept the rest of them from accepting any proposals since.
“I don’t know if I can tell him.” Aurora looked at Mercy and Poppy with eyes filled with tears, not for her dead husband but for the pain she was about to inflict on her brother.
“Shall I do it?” Poppy would open a vein for any of the Wallflowers. Telling a horror story to an arrogant earl was nothing.
Aurora nodded and wiped her eyes.
Arms once again crossed over his broad chest and his mass of blond hair hiding one eye, Rhys peered across the coffee table at Poppy. Awkward in the ornate French country–style chair, he waited. “Well?”
Where he had been gentle with Aurora, his tone was harsh when he addressed Poppy.
For her friend’s sake, she would be as kind as possible. “Demon’s breath. Bertram Sherbourn was a monster. He abused your sister on a daily basis when he bothered to come home.”
“Poppy?” Mercy pushed her glasses up on her nose, her eyes holding a warning.
Poppy glanced in Mercy’s direction before returning her attention to Rhys and continuing. “It’s best to tell him the truth at this point. Besides calling her all manner of names and forcing his attentions on her, he beat her so badly that on several occasions, we had to call a doctor. Once she lay unconscious for two days....”
“Penelope…” Faith’s tawny eyes widened with alarm, and she shook her head.
Rhys flinched as if he’d been struck in the stomach with a bludgeon. “This cannot be true.”
“Of course it’s true,” Poppy said. “Your father married her to an earl because that was all he cared about. He did not bother to check to make sure she would be safe with a villain.”
White faced, his eyes begged for someone to contradict her. “Rora?”
Poppy felt a pang of remorse for her lack of grace with words.
“I’m sorry, Rhys. I’m afraid it’s true.” Aurora looked at her brother and then at her own hands twisting in her lap.
Faith patted Aurora’s hands and finally fought through her grip so she could hold one. “We would not lie to you, Rhys.”
He jumped up, and the chair fell backward, crashing to the floor. Staring into the corner of the room, his face burned bright red and his chest rose and fell in sharp breaths. His strong jaw ticked with strain before he picked up the chair and stood, gripping the wooden frame. “Why did you never tell me this while he was alive?”
Mercy said in a level voice, “There was nothing you could do. Aurora did not want you to harm yourself in some vain effort to save her.”
“You had no right to keep this from me. After Father died, I became the head of this family. I would have helped you. You could have come home this last year, Rora.” He clung to the chair as if he wanted to hurl it across the room, but he held his temper.
Poppy had to admit, she was impressed with his restraint. Though she would never tell him that.
Standing, Aurora’s smile was weak. She went to her brother and kissed his cheek. “He would have come after me. I was his property. There is no law to keep me away from him. He would have been even angrier and more violent and one of us would have died. Either me, because Bertram would have gone too far, or you because you came after him and he killed you. I couldn’t live with the possibility.”
“I can take care of myself. I would have bested Radcliff and you might have been free of him sooner.” Pain etched lines around Rhys’s mouth. His full and maddeningly interesting lips pulled taught. He ran his hand through his hair.
Cocking her head and pressing her palm to his cheek, she sighed. “And then what of you? You think you could have killed an earl and not endured some consequence? As it turns out, he took care of it himself.”
“Well, with the help of the owner of the gaming hell he tried to cheat.” Poppy couldn’t stop herself.
Faith gave her a stern look.
Mercy hid a chuckle behind her hand.
“I should have known.” He hugged her tight. “I’m sorry, Rora. Father should have judged his character before allowing you to be betrothed.”
With a last pat on his back, Aurora eased away from him. Always the most elegant of their quartet, she glided back to the divan. Aurora’s figure was slim but stronger now that the fear of her husband was gone. “Yes. Well, Father was only interested in my becoming a countess, and he got that before he died. I was no longer an embarrassment to the Draper name and well married. I’m sure he thought he’d done right by me. Not to mention, the piece of land somewhere in the north he received in trade for my hand and dowry.”
“I wondered where that Cheshire property came from.” He paced the rug. “I would give that property to you, if you want, Rora. It seems the least the family can do.”
Tipping her head, she put her pinky on her lip. It was what she always did when considering something. “That is very generous, Rhys. Let me think about it.”
The maid brought tea and some sweets. Once they were all served, Faith cleared her throat. It meant she had news but she was uncomfortable sharing. Another polite ahem and she sipped her tea.
“What is it, Faith?” Mercy asked, her amusement clear behind her spectacles. Mercy’s keen sense of all that was ridiculous in their lives had gotten Poppy through many hard days at school. She only wished she had shared some of her grace. While Poppy was clumsy, Mercy was lithe and agile like the goddess Diana.
“What? Oh, it’s nothing.” She took a large bite of biscuit and had to work to chew such a mouthful. It would take her a moment to decide she was going to tell whatever was on her mind.
There was little doubt she would eventually open a discussion. They just had to be patient.
Rhys sat in the chair, sipping tea and watching with interest. He had a knack for keeping quiet and observing. Poppy had seen him sit in the background on several occasions over the last six years of their acquaintance. He was quite young when Poppy stopped at Helmsbury Manor, his family estate, on the way to school, but even then, he took everything in and if possible would use the information later. Even though they always bickered when they met, she admired his patience and wished more young men were as mindful.
Putting her cup and saucer on the table, Faith plastered a fake smile on her face. It was a most annoying expression. “I’m to be married to the Duke of Breckenridge.”
“What?” Aurora’s eyes widened.
“When?” Mercy’s hand flew to her chest.
“How?” Poppy’s heart dropped.
The simultaneous questions didn’t seem to faze Faith. She folded her hands in her lap and tipped her pert chin up. The effect was meant to make her look as if she had leaner elegant figure, but it did nothing to hide the voluptuous curves that more than one man noticed each time they attended a ball. “Mother arranged it. I haven’t met him yet. He’s been in France for some months and only arrived back in England last week. I thought he might come to call but he hasn’t. Not yet.”
“Has your mother met him?” Poppy jumped up, hands flying in the air. She already guessed the answer but hoped for better.
Faith sniffed. “No. It was all arranged through letters. I read the letters when Mother informed me last week, and he seems quite…intelligent.”
Coming out of her skin, Poppy paced the room. She stumbled on the edge of the rug but righted herself. While her friends had become nimble young ladies, Poppy remained the clumsy oaf she’d always been. “We are not going through this again. You cannot marry a man we don’t know. I don’t care if he’s a duke or the prince himself.”
“I don’t see that I have a choice. It would be nice to meet him and perhaps for you three to get a look at him. Maybe then we’d know what I was getting into.” Another sniff and she pulled her handkerchief out of her sleeve and dabbed her eyes.
Mercy turned to Rhys. “Do you know him, my lord?”
“I think you can call me Rhys in this setting, Mercedes. I’ve known all of you since you were girls just shipped off to Switzerland to be turned into fine young ladies.” His gaze settled on Poppy before he continued. “Unfortunately, I have never met the Duke of Breckenridge. All I know is he’s well respected in the House of Lords and has a massive estate in Hertfordshire. Supposed to be one of the nicest homes in all of England.”
“What’s he been doing in France?” Aurora also abandoned her tea with the troubling news.
Rhys shrugged. “I’m sorry. I have no idea. It could be he has property or business in France, and he is checking how it all fared after Napoleon. Perhaps he just likes to travel, and it is safe to visit the Continent once again.”
Poppy didn’t like the way Rhys seemed fine with not knowing. “Well that’s not good enough. I’m not watching another of my dearest friends walk into the arms of a monster. I need to know who he is and what kind of character he has. I say we do some investigating and ferret him out.”
“You’re mad.” Rhys stood to face her. “You intend to spy on a duke. And just how will you go about it, Penelope? Will you slink by his home at night, listen at doors, break into White’s?”
Fury heated her cheeks and neck. “I’ll do whatever is necessary, and so will the rest of the Wallflowers of West Lane. We are all we have to protect ourselves.”
They had been called wallflowers when still at school. Instead of letting mean girls offend them, the foursome had adopted the name as their own. Once Aurora was married and they were meeting at her West Lane townhouse for tea on Tuesdays, they had let the address become part of the moniker.
Faith clapped and smiled. “I feel much better.”
“Do you have any idea when you will meet him, Faith?” Usually smiling and laughing, Mercy’s expression was drawn and serious as she uncurled herself and faced the divan fully.
“Mother said we will attend the Sottonfield ball and that is where I will finally meet him.”
Pacing again, Poppy started a list of things to do. “We have a week to get ready. Of course, Aurora will not be able to attend since she’s in mourning. What about you, Mercy, can you be there?”
“We leave tomorrow for the country. Aunt Phyllis wanted to leave already but stayed so I could attend the funeral. “I’m sorry. I’ll try to shorten the trip.” Worry etched in the corners of Mercy’s mouth, and her green eyes flashed with regret. She had no choice but to travel at the whim of the relations who had raised her after her parents’ death.
Dabbing her eyes again, Faith nodded. “It will all be fine.”
“Not to worry. I’ll be there with you, Faith.” Poppy rounded the furniture and kissed Faith’s cheek.
“Perhaps I can be of service,” Rhys said.
They all stared at him, but Aurora spoke. “You are going to the Sottonfield ball?”
He got up and folded his hands behind his back. “You four cannot do this without someone who might actually get close to Breckenridge. I know Lady Penelope means well, but she can be somewhat graceless in a ballroom. I’m willing to help. It seems the least I can do after failing Rora so completely.”
That he had never before agreed with anything Poppy said had her nervous, but it was hard to argue with his logic or his assessment of her. He was a member of the same gentleman’s club. He was a man and could, once introduced, befriend Breckenridge. The mention of her clumsiness hurt more than it should from someone whom she had no respect for, but the sting couldn’t be denied. “I have no idea how to explain you to my mother, and I can assure you she will be with me at the ball,” she said.
He gnawed on his thumbnail. “I suggest you tell her nothing. She’ll assume I’m courting you, but we can sort that out later.”
“You obviously don’t know my mother.” She’d said it under her breath, but from the quizzical look on Rhys’s face, she gathered he’d heard her. The idea of anyone, her mother included, thinking she would marry someone as arrogant and wild as Rhys Draper made Poppy nauseous. Mother’s own marriage might have been an embittering ordeal, but that didn’t mean she was immune to the notion of her daughter becoming a countess. It seemed to Gwendolyn Arrington being well married made up for her husband’s debauched behavior and mean spirit.
Even after he excused himself to take care of some business, she still worried about a venture that included Rhys and herself. How would they save Faith when they couldn’t be in a room together without bickering? There was no help for it. Someone had to make sure the same fate didn’t befall Faith as what had happened to Aurora.
“You will all still come for tea weekly, I hope,” Aurora said when the four of them were alone and the servants told not to disturb them.
Mercy pulled her strawberry blond tresses back into her bun. She rarely did more than a simple chignon with her soft waves, and they often pulled loose—the problems of not having a lady’s maid because her aunt was too stingy to employ one for her. “I’ll only be away a few weeks, then I’ll be here each and every Tuesday. More often if you need me.”
Patting Aurora’s hand, Faith forced her horrid bland expression. “You never need worry about that. Anyone I marry will have to understand Tuesday afternoons are dedicated to the three of you.”
“Even Radcliff seemed to understand.” After pacing the room since Rhys left, Poppy sat. “He was the worst man, but at least he never tried to separate us.”
“Only Headmistress Agatha ever dared try.” Mercy’s grin lit the room.
Aurora chuckled. “That did not work out very well for her.”
“No. Poppy put a frog in her bed and salt in her oats.” Faith covered her giggles.
“I seem to remember you putting salt in Miss Agatha’s tonic.” There was no way Poppy would let Faith pretend she’d had nothing to do with the strategic attack on the headmistress.
Aurora clapped. “Poor woman was only trying to teach us to behave like ladies, but she should never have dared separate us. After all, we arrived at Miss Agatha Wormbattle’s School for Young Ladies together and we made a pact. Nothing was ever going to keep us apart.”
Mercy laughed. “Even hateful Mary Yates calling us wallflowers after that first ball could not daunt us. We made it our own, embracing the title.”
“Then tea here at West Lane each Tuesday sealed our little club’s title.” Poppy loved each moment spent with her friends, and over the years they had become like sisters. Nothing would change that.
Faith took her hand. “No matter our marital status, we shall always be the Wallflowers of West Lane.”
It was true they could not be separated. Any one of them would fight to remain together. Poppy worried about Aurora all alone in her West Lane townhouse. “I realized Radcliff was not company, but will you be lonely here, Aurora?”
Looking around the room then down at her hands, Aurora sighed. “I had a mad thought that you three might like to move in here with me. We could hire more lady’s maids and until we do we can all share Gillian. Perhaps the upstairs maid, Jane, would also do. She’s been with me a long time.”
Mercy’s eyes lit up. “I see nothing mad about it. It won’t take much convincing. My aunt will be happy to be rid of her aging ward. I will tell her my plans while we’re in the country and move in here directly upon our return.”
Faith’s eyes were as wide as saucers. “My mother will not like the idea. I will tell her I am only staying here as a guest until you are feeling more yourself. Yes. That will work for a while anyway.”
It was a grand idea, and Poppy was not immune to the attraction of being away from Mother and Father on a daily basis. She had never been the daughter they dreamed of. In fact they had never failed to express their disappointment. Father wished for a son, and mother wished for a paragon. Poppy was neither. While Aurora was prattling on about the need for servants, Poppy was already planning what she would tell her parents. “I will speak to Father about an allowance and move in tomorrow if you are certain this is what you want, Aurora.”
Her smile was wide and filled with more joy than Poppy had seen in years. “If I’m certain? Of course, I’m certain. The four of us under one roof is all I have ever wanted. Now, with my new widowed status, I can serve as chaperone for the three of you.”
Giggling, Faith covered her mouth. “You as a chaperone is the funniest thing I’ve heard. As if you would ever censure any of us.”
“That sounds like the perfect chaperone to me.” Mercy’s sarcasm rang true with Poppy as well.
“It’s a pity you can’t go to balls and theater as you please yet,” Poppy complained. “I think it ridiculous you should have to wear black and stay home in mourning for a man who was not worth a halfpenny.”
“I agree,” Mercy said. “In fact, I think we must find ways of getting you out of this house. It would be nice to get out of the city together for a few weeks. I know we all can’t go now, as I have to accompany my aunt. But perhaps in a month or so, the Landons might invite us all for a fortnight?”
Faith’s eyes grew wide. “That’s a marvelous idea. I must make Father and Mother believe it was their notion, but I’ll get to work on it. They adore Aurora, and I’ll find a way to let them know they’d be helping her in her grief.”
It was impossible not to laugh. Poppy said, “Oh Faith, I do love you. Always so prim and proper until trickery and mischief is necessary. Maybe your mother would like to invite Nicholas Ellsworth to attend the house party as well?”
Frowning, she sighed. “It means I’ll have to pay him some attention, but at least it would give us a chance to find out if he’s a nice man.”
“That is the point, Faith,” Mercy said. “Unless you’ve already decided against him and you just want us to figure out a way for him to become unsuitable.”
“Let me decide after I meet him. Then perhaps we’ll need a secondary plan of attack.” Faith smoothed her skirt and fussed with a wrinkle, which wouldn’t release.
Aurora stood, went to the cabinet in the corner, and pulled out a decanter of wine. “Shall we toast our new covenant?”
“Oh yes,” Faith, said clapping and practically bouncing with excitement.
Poppy went over to help with the glasses, and once poured, she brought one for Mercy and one for herself, which she sloshed several drops of on the table. When they each had a glass and stood in a circle, she said, “To the Wallflowers of West Lane. No harm shall ever come to any of us every again.”
“Never again,” Mercy repeated.
“No harm,” Faith said.
Aurora nodded, and they all touched glasses with a musical clink of crystal.

A.S. Fenichel gave up a successful IT career in New York City to pursue her lifelong dream of being a professional writer. She adores writing stories filled with love, passion, desire, magic and maybe a little mayhem tossed in for good measure. Originally from New York, she grew up in New Jersey, and now lives in Missouri with her real-life hero, her wonderful husband and two temperamental cats.

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