Earl Lessons by Valerie Bowman
He never wanted a title
Fresh off the battlefield, Captain David Ellsworth has returned home to discover the shocking and unwelcome news that he’s the new Earl of Elmwood. Though David had no idea he was in line for a title, he and his sister must now navigate the snark-infested waters of the London ton. He knows how to be a soldier, an officer, and a brother, but he hasn’t a clue how to be an earl. David will need all the help he can get. Even if it comes from the undeniably beautiful woman…who is the darling of the world he detests.
She never wanted a husband
The younger sister of a marquess, Lady Annabelle Bellham moves through elegant ballrooms with the ease of a lioness traversing the jungle. She’s the most elusive belle at every ball, and gentlemen have long placed bets on which lucky man will finally win her hand. But Annabelle has no intention of falling prey to a man’s charms. She’s seen the destruction wrought by marriage and is dead set on avoiding a similar fate.
But here they are…
Thankfully, Annabelle’s older brother hasn’t pressured her to take a husband—yet. Which is why she feels obliged to agree when he asks her a favor: To teach the newly minted Earl of Elmwood how to act in Society. Still, the task shouldn’t be too difficult. All Annabelle must do is spend countless hours in the company of a handsome, brooding ex-soldier—who’s making her question every rule she’s set for herself.
She and David have nothing in common except a fiery passion and some highly inconvenient feelings…could it be enough?
The Marquess of Bellingham’s Town House, London, July 1797
The booming voice woke Annabelle from a sound sleep. Her heart beating rapidly, she clutched the covers to her chin. Oh, no. Oh, no. Oh, no.
It was dark in her bedchamber. She’d always been afraid of the dark, but the dark was nothing compared to what was happening down the corridor.
“By God, Angelina, I will not countenance your disobedience!” came his raised, terrifying voice.
Eyes wide, Annabelle hitched the bedclothes up to her nose, burying herself in their safety. Father was yelling at Mama again. It happened more and more often. It had been several weeks since last time, and Annabelle had been dreading the next time ever since.
“George, please. You’ll wake the children,” came her mother’s thin, frightened voice.
Annabelle gulped. She was only five years old, but she knew how awful this was. It always started the same way, with yelling and then the thumps. It always ended the same way too, with Mama’s screams and pleas.
Annabelle wanted to slide off the bed and hide beneath it. That was always her first instinct. To hide. But Beau might need her. Beau, her older brother. He was brave. Brave enough to try to fight off Father. Beau had suffered his fair share of bruises and even a broken arm trying to defend Mama from Father’s drunken rages in the past. Annabelle shook with worry for Beau now. He would put himself in harm’s way. He always did.
Annabelle had no doubt that Beau was already awake. At eleven years old, he considered himself the man of the house, ensuring that Mama and Annabelle were safe on nights like these, when Father became so unreasonable. But Beau was no match for their tall, brutish father.
Be brave. Be brave. Be brave.
Bracing herself for what was certain to be an awful encounter, Annabelle tossed off the covers and willed herself to slip from the bed. The darkness terrified her, but she forced herself to run across the wide expanse of the rug in her bedchamber to the door of her room. She cracked it open and peeked out into the empty corridor.
Silence wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Quiet was usually a prelude to the worst of it.
Be brave. Be brave. Be brave. She repeated the words again and again in her mind as she swallowed hard and forced herself to open the door wide enough to slip into the equally dark corridor. Her back against the finely papered wall, her breathing coming in bursts so heavy her lungs hurt, Annabelle slunk toward Mama’s bedchamber.
Just as Annabelle suspected, when she passed her brother’s room, his door was already open. A lit candle illuminated his empty bed. Beau had already gone to Mama’s aid. Of course he had. Annabelle straightened her shoulders. Be brave, be brave, be brave. She continued her tentative journey toward Mama’s bedchamber door.
The door was shut when she arrived. No doubt Beau had closed it behind him hoping she wouldn’t wake due to the commotion. Annabelle took a deep breath and carefully reached out to grasp the door handle. A sharp slam made her wince and snatch her hand away.
A whimper came from inside the room. Willing away the tears that sprang to her eyes, Annabelle forced herself to grasp the handle with her small hand. Turning the knob, she pushed open the door a crack to see Mama cowering in the far corner of the room. Father loomed over her, a long silver candlestick in one hand, a glass filled with brown liquid in the other. He always had that glass on nights like this. Beau, brave Beau, stood in front of Mama, dodging Father’s swings of the candlestick.
“Please, George,” Mama cried again. “Don’t hurt him. Beau, darling, go back to bed. Please.”
The desperation and fear in her mother’s voice made Annabelle shake. Her knees wobbled and her hand rattled the doorknob. She always felt as if she might retch on nights like these. But she couldn’t drag her gaze away from the awful scene playing out in front of her. Tears dripped down her cheeks as she stared in horror.
Instead of retreating, Beau held up his fists, aiming them at his father. Even from far away, Annabelle could see that he was shaking too. She was terrified for him. But Beau was brave. He would fight until he couldn’t fight any longer. There was nothing Mama could say to him to make him leave.
Annabelle briefly closed her eyes and said a prayer. She’d asked the vicar once what she should do if she needed God’s help. The vicar had told her to pray. Pray and ask for what she needed, and God would see to it. Annabelle prayed every time this happened, but her prayers were never answered. Father never stopped yelling. He never stopped hitting until he’d drawn blood or broken a bone.
“Get out of my way, boy. I won’t tell you again!” came Father’s thunderous voice. Annabelle opened her eyes again in time to see Father swing the candlestick at Beau, but Beau was faster and more agile than Father when he was in his cups. Beau easily jumped aside, missing the heavy candlestick’s blow, which only served to further enrage Father. Beau backed toward the door as the man advanced toward him and swung at him once more. He missed again and Beau continued to retreat. He was trying to draw Father away from Mama, trying to keep him from hurting her again. At his own peril.
Wiping away the tears with the backs of her hands, Annabelle opened the door wider. Hopefully, Beau would realize it was open and run through it if he needed to. But Beau wasn’t one to run from a fight. Even an unfair one with a man three times his age and size. Once he’d drawn Father away from Mama, Beau squared his small shoulders and lifted his chin, raising his fists toward his father again and standing his ground.
“If you want to hit someone, hit me,” came Beau’s angry voice from between clenched teeth.
Mama reached out from the corner as if to try to save her boy, but the next swing of the candlestick caught Beau on the side of the jaw with a sharp crack, and flung him. He fell on his back, blood bursting from his mouth.
“No!” Mama cried.
Annabelle gasped, running to her brother’s side. “Beau!” she cried, falling to her knees beside him, cradling his head in her night rail. A bright crimson stain was already making its way down the center of the garment.
Mama was there too, pushing Beau’s blond hair away from his sweaty, bloody face to assess the damage. Her eyes were frantic with worry as she tended to her son.
Father stood over the three of them, eyeing Beau’s limp body as if he didn’t care whether he’d killed him. “Serves the blighter right,” Father mumbled, before tossing the bloody candlestick onto the carpet and stumbling from the room. “He shouldn’t have got in my way. Mind your own business, you brat,” Father mumbled as he went.
Annabelle expelled her pent-up breath. Father was done…at least for the night. They all knew it. Once he’d seriously injured Mama or Beau, he always slunk away. It was a horrible way to guarantee his disappearance, but Beau had taken the hit on purpose for exactly that reason.
Silent tears slipped down Annabelle’s cheeks as she waited, praying even harder now, that her brother would wake up.
“Annabelle, darling,” Mama whispered, her own face wet from tears. “Go ask Mary for a hot cloth. Run.”
Annabelle nodded obediently. Mama didn’t want her to be here. Mama didn’t want her to have seen any of this or even know about it. But Annabelle wasn’t a baby any longer. She heard the screams in the night, and she had no intention of hiding in her bed while her mother and brother needed her. Only she hadn’t yet worked up the courage to step in and incur Father’s wrath herself. But she would. One day. She would. She promised herself. If she wasn’t such a coward, she would have done it tonight.
Letting Mama slip into place to cradle Beau’s head, Annabelle lifted the blood-stained skirt of her night rail and ran as fast as she could out of the room and down the dark corridor to the far end of the hall. Be brave. Be brave. Be brave. She opened the door to the servants’ staircase and scrambled up the lightless staircase as fast as she could to Mary’s bedchamber. Mary was her governess and the only servant Mama allowed to help them on nights like this. The bedchamber was the first one on the right on the fourth floor, and Annabelle slipped into the room without knocking, silently making her way through the terrifying darkness to the governess’s side. She gently shook her.
“Mary, wake up,” she said in a desperate whisper.
Mary’s warm brown eyes flew open. “Oh, Annabelle, dear. It’s you.” Worry creased the servant’s brow. Mary already knew why she’d come.
“Mama needs a hot cloth for Beau,” Annabelle breathed.
Mary had already tossed back the covers and stood. She lit a candle and pulled on her dressing gown. “I’ll go down to the kitchens and fetch it,” she said in a calm, soothing voice. “I’ll meet you in your mother’s bedchamber.”
Annabelle nodded. They’d had this conversation many times before. She didn’t have to explain. Annabelle turned and rushed back out the door and down the staircase.
By the time Annabelle arrived at Beau’s side again, her brother’s ice-blue eyes were open, and his jaw was a hideous shade of purple, blue, and black. Mama had wiped up the blood as best she could with her own night rail. She cradled Beau’s head in her lap, gently talking to him, and stroking his hair.
“Beau,” Annabelle breathed, searching her brother’s injured face. “Are you all right?” She laid a hand on her brother’s cheek.
Beau nodded and winced, before lifting his gaze toward his mother. “Mama, are you all right? He didn’t hurt you, did he?”
Tears fell from Mama’s eyes. “Shh, my darling. I’m fine,” Mama said to Beau. “You mustn’t move.”
“I’m almost big enough,” Beau replied, his jaw clenched. “I’ll be big enough soon to fight him.”
“Shh, Beau. Just rest,” Mama said, still stroking his hair.
A few minutes later, Mary came hurrying into the room with some cloths and a small basin of hot water. Without saying a word, she knelt next to Beau, dipped one of the cloths in the water, wrung it out, and applied it to his cheek. Mama and Mary exchanged a fraught glance before Mama’s eyes filled with tears again and she nodded to Mary. Mama took over pressing the hot rag to Beau’s cheek while Mary wrung out another cloth and began wiping the blood off Beau’s face and neck.
After that was complete, Mary wrapped another one of the clean cloths around Beau’s head to keep the rag in place against his injured jaw.
“I don’t think his jaw is broken,” Mama whispered as she helped Beau to his feet. “If it was, I doubt he’d be able to speak.”
“This time,” Mary said standing also. “Will you send for the doctor, my lady? To be certain it’s not more serious than you think?”
Mama shook with fear. “You know I cannot do that, Mary. He’ll make it worse next time.” Mama bent her head, and Annabelle felt the shame and fear emanating from her.
“I’m sorry, my lady,” Mary replied, her voice filled with resignation and sadness. She made her way toward the door with the wet, red rags and the bowl. Without looking back, she said, “I’ll bring fresh night rails for you and Lady Annabelle, my lady. And I’ll be back to fetch the others to wash.”
“Thank you.” Mama’s voice was hollow.
Pressing the hot rag to his jaw, Beau limped away to his bedchamber. Annabelle stayed with her mother until Mary returned. Annabelle hurriedly tossed her blood-soaked night rail over her head and put on the fresh new one that Mary had given her. Mama went into her dressing room to do the same.
“I’ll see to Lord Beaumont,” Mary said, pausing again at the door on her way out. “I’ll ensure his clothing is washed also.”
“Thank you, Mary,” Mama said again, before turning toward Annabelle.
“Annabelle, darling, do you want to sleep in my bed?” Mama asked after the servant had left.
“Yes, Mama,” Annabelle replied, nodding. This was their ritual. Annabelle liked to stay with her mother on nights like this, so she could see that Mama remained safe. She wasn’t being brave. Father had gone down to his study and would drink himself into a stupor, waking up halfway through the day tomorrow, gruff, and unapologetic. He always did.
Mama flung back the covers on the opposite side of her bed. Annabelle climbed up, then crawled over the mattress to snuggle at her mother’s side. Mama pulled the covers over them both and hugged her close to her warm body. Mama always smelled like rosewater. Annabelle breathed in the familiar scent and let out her pent-up breath. At least it would be weeks before she would have to be this worried again.
They sat in silence for several moments before Annabelle worked up the courage to ask the question she’d always wanted to ask on nights like this. “Why does Father get so angry?”
Mama smoothed her hand over Annabelle’s hair and hugged her closer. “Oh, darling. It’s because he drinks. If only your father wouldn’t drink.”
“Did you ask him to stop, Mama?” Annabelle ventured next.
Mama’s voice was resigned. “Many, many times, darling.”
Annabelle frowned. “Why won’t he stop, Mama?”
Mama rested her chin atop Annabelle’s head and sighed. “I don’t think he can, darling. I don’t think he can.”
“But why is he allowed to hit you, Mama?”
Annabelle felt the tiny pats atop her head as her mother’s tears dripped onto her hair. “Because he owns me. I am his wife.”