In my Regency romantic suspense release, The Heartless Earl, Sterling Baxter, the Earl of Merritt, has married a woman who left him as quickly as she gave birth to their son. He is cuckolded in the eyes of Society and trapped in a marriage neither he nor Lady Merritt wish.
Meanwhile, his grandmother, the woman who essentially raised him, brings a woman into his household she intends to sponsor during the London Season. However, Ebba Mayer stirs something in Sterling he has difficulty concealing. Yet, before he can act, Sterling’s estranged wife turns up dead, and he is accused of killing her. Moreover, someone has kidnapped his young son. As the authorities move in to arrest him, Sterling must find a means to prove both his innocence and recover his child, but outside forces are vexing his every move. Only Miss Mayer’s good sense can save him and reunite his family, but does he dare to put her into danger?
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The Common Elements Romance Project included a variety of authors and genres, as well as settings, each including the same FIVE elements hidden within their novels. Those elements (in no particular order) are…
a Lightning Storm
a Set of Lost Keys
a Haunted House (or the Rumor of Its Being Haunted)
a Stack of Thick Books
a Character Called “Max”
Hopefully, you will recognize the elements in this novel, as well as the others available in this project. Happy Reading!
The Heartless Earl is a historical romantic suspense.
STERLING BAXTER, the Earl of Merritt, has married the woman his father has chosen for him, but the marriage has been everything but comfortable. Sterling’s wife, Lady Claire, came to the marriage bed with a wanton’s experience. She dutifully provides Merritt his heir, but within a fortnight, she deserts father and son for a baron, Lord Lyall Sutherland. In the eyes of the ton, Lady Claire has cuckolded Merritt.
EBBA MAYER, longs for love and adventure. Unfortunately, she’s likely to find neither. As a squire’s daughter, Ebba holds no sway in Society; but she’s a true diamond of the first water. Yet, when she meets Merritt’s grandmother, the Dowager Countess of Merritt creates a “story” for the girl, claiming if Ebba is presented to the ton as a war widow with a small dowry, the girl will find a suitable match.
LORD LYALL SUTHERLAND remains a thorn in Merritt’s side, but when the baron makes Mrs. Mayer a pawn in his crazy game of control, Merritt offers the woman his protection. However, the earl has never faced a man who holds little strength of title, but who wields great power; and he finds himself always a step behind the enigmatic baron. When someone frames Merritt for Lady Claire’s sudden disappearance, Merritt must quickly learn the baron’s secrets or face a death sentence.
Excerpt from Chapter Three
Sterling had stayed with Abbey longer than usual. With his grandmother’s arrival later in the day, he did not expect another opportunity to sneak off to The Gold Ring any time soon. Sated, he rode his favorite horse leisurely through the mid-morning London streets. Abbey had repeatedly seen to his needs, and Sterling languidly sat astride the animal, permitting the reins to remain slack. However, the chaos awaiting him on his doorstep changed his mood. “What is amiss?” he demanded as he slid from the saddle.
Lord Brayton turned to meet him. Evidently, the viscount and Sterling’s butler had argued over his whereabouts. “Merritt, thank God.” The viscount caught Sterling’s arm and directed him away from the waiting servants. “I came searching for you. It is your grandmother. Her ladyship has taken ill. She is at an inn some fifteen miles north. At the King’s Galley. They are seeing to her needs, but the countess has no medication with her.”
“Damn!” Sterling growled. “Do you know her condition?” The news had destroyed the indolent feelings of a few moments prior.
“Her ladyship has been given several herbal remedies. She was resting quietly when I took my leave of the inn.”
Sterling started away. “Thank you, Brayton.” He remounted. “I must be to her ladyship’s personal physician and then ride north.”
“Mrs. Mayer suggested you send your larger coach to bring the countess to London.” Brayton trailed Sterling to the waiting mount.
He nodded his agreement. “Would you instruct Mr. Sprout to order the coach and to send a change of clothing for me?” Sterling turned the horse in a tight circle. “I must hurry.”
“Certainly,” Brayton called as Sterling rode away.
It was only after he had interrupted an examination the physician conducted at his Brook Street office and was on the road again that Sterling asked himself, “Who in the hell is Mrs. Mayer?”
“Where is my grandmother?” Sterling demanded.
Fortunately, her ladyship’s maid waited for him in the common room. He should berate the woman for not attending to her mistress, but he possessed no time for foolish servants.
“This way, my lord.” Alberta led him through the common room and up the stairs.
When the maid held the door for him, he beheld only his grandmother’s fragile form on the bed. Fearing the worst, he rushed to her side, completely oblivious to the nondescript woman seated on the bed’s edge. “I am here, Gram,” he whispered hoarsely as he caressed her cheek. “It is Sterling.”
Her eyes flitted open and then closed again, but she gave him the hint of a smile. Sterling leaned forward to kiss her cheek.
“Did you bring her ladyship’s medication?” a voice behind him demanded.
Sterling reached into his inside pocket and removed the powder packets the physician had provided him. He extended his arm to the side, but his eyes never left his grandmother’s face. “Here.”
“Thank God.” The woman snatched them from his fingers. “Alberta, fetch fresh water and a clean glass.”
Sterling caught his grandmother’s hand in his. He rubbed it gently between his two. “Do you remember how you used to rub my hands just like this? I was so foolish. I would rush outside to build snowmen and forget my gloves. But you never reprimanded me for being a boy. You would laugh and then tend to my frozen fingertips with the most gentle touch.” He stroked the rheumatic hand with his fingertips. “Gram, Jamie desperately requires your touch as much as I once did. He has no one to love him but we two.”
Ebba watched in fascination as the earl tended his grandmother. Tears misted her eyes at seeing his gentleness. She had always longed for someone to care for her. Had never known it within her own family. Surprisingly, she felt a twinge of jealousy. What she would not give to have someone’s undeniable devotion. Such had been her dream for as long as she could remember. But the likelihood of such love would ever exist for her. Instead, she must choose a different route: an adventure to fill her days when no one else cared to think upon her.
“Here, miss.” Alberta returned with a fresh ewer of water.
Ebba poured a glass. “What is the dosage?” she said to the earl’s back.
“The whole packet,” he ordered without turning around.
Ebba stirred the powder into the glass to dissolve it. “If you will support her ladyship, sir, I shall spoon in the medicine.”
The earl stood and maneuvered into the tight space where he might lift the countess to a seated position. He braced her against his shoulder and held her head securely in place without Ebba needing to instruct him.
“Countess,” Ebba encouraged. “His lordship has brought your medication, ma’am.” She gently tapped the countess’s chin. “I shall feed you spoonfuls.”
Thankfully, the woman opened her eyes. “Ebba,” she murmured.
“Yes, ma’am. It is Ebba. I am here, and so is your grandson, Lord Merritt. We shall personally see to your care.” She began to spoon in the medicine. After each mouthful, she held the countess mouth closed and waited for the woman to swallow before offering another.
Sterling dutifully braced his grandmother’s frail body and waited for the woman to tend to his kin. He had thought the stranger unremarkable, but then he had looked upon her face. Heart shaped. Sun kissed skin. Reddish gold hair pulled back in a tight braid. Several strands had worked their way loose and brushed her cheeks and ears with the lightest of wisps and his fingers itched to touch them. The sun streaked across her features, emphasizing the fatigue that marked the lines around her mouth, but it was still a pouty mouth, one begging to be kissed properly. And she sported the bluest eyes he had ever beheld. The sunlight glistened off her eyelashes in flakes of gold, making the blue mesmerizingly enticing. Sterling forgot to breathe as he concentrated on her. Her small breasts pushed against the square neckline of her dress. And desire went straight to his groin. Barely seven hours earlier, he had taken his pleasure in Abbey’s soft and very curvy body, but somehow this was different. This woman did not flaunt her wares.
Ebba spooned the medication into the countess’s mouth, but she was completely aware of the man who supported Lady Merritt’s back. She could feel his concern for his grandmother. It was fierce. Primitive even. Protection with which she held few personal examples, but thankful to view its existence. From her eye’s corner, she could see his long fingers holding his grandmother’s shoulders. His hands fascinated her. They spoke of strength and love and dependability. Then she foolishly raised her eyes to meet his. Steel-gray. Nearly black. Framed by dark brows. Dark pools so deep, she sat transfixed.
“Is that all, miss? Anything else I should fetch her ladyship?” Alberta asked from somewhere behind Ebba.
She blushed. “That…that should be adequate,” she stammered. She placed the glass and spoon on the end table. “Do you wish to sit up, your ladyship?” She reached to straighten the countess’s clothing.
The earl moved from behind his grandmother. “Here, Gram. Permit me to assist you.” He gently lifted the woman as Alberta adjusted the pillows. Then he sat beside the countess again. “You gave me quite a scare. Thank goodness Lord Brayton knew to come to Baxter Hall.”
His grandmother motioned to the water pitcher, and he poured some in an empty glass before bracing her again so she might sip. Finally, she said, “I suspect Ebba sent the viscount.”
“Ebba?” Lord Merritt turned her. “Would that be you, miss?” She could hear the caution in his tones.
Instinctively, her chin rose in defiance. It appeared that the countess was the exception in the Baxter family. “I am Ebba Mayer, sir.”
He stared at her as if considering her for the first time. “Ah, yes. Lord Brayton mentioned you.” He stood and offered Ebba a bow. “I thank you, ma’am, for your attention to her ladyship. It was most kind of you to give up your travels to remain with the countess.” His words were meant as a dismissal—an arrogant dismissal, at that.
“No, Sterling.” His grandmother reached for his hand. “You do not understand.” She paused to catch her breath. “I have asked.” Pause. “Mrs. Mayer…to be my companion.” Pause. “And I shall provide her…my sponsorship for the Season.”
Lord Merritt stiffened, and he eyed Ebba cautiously. “From the time I returned to London to your departure from Yorkshire, you have made Mrs. Mayer’s acquaintance and taken on her sponsorship?” He stood by the countess’s bed and held her frail hand, but he did not remove his eyes from Ebba. “What might we know of Mrs. Mayer?”
“I know all I need to know, Sterling.” Pause. “Without Ebba, I would not have survived the night,” the countess declared. “Her quick thinking made the difference.”
He replied, “Then the lady has earned my deepest gratitude.” However, his body language spoke of his suspicions. Ebba recognized his critical eye: The earl had assessed her plain clothing and had drawn the conclusion she had taken advantage of his grandmother’s kindness. He said with circumspection, “I believe I will seek a room. At Mrs. Mayer’s suggestion, I have requested the traveling coach. When you have recovered, we will return to London in style.” He squeezed his grandmother’s hand.
Holding silent, Ebba lifted her chin and ignored the earl’s glare. “Alberta, shall you require assistance with her ladyship’s needs?”
“No, miss. I can attend the countess.”
“Then I shall freshen my things. I shall order a tray, Lady Merritt,” she said with more confidence than she felt. “Let us see if you can eat something.” Ebba started toward the door.
As she expected he would do, the earl followed. “May I have a word, Mrs. Mayer?” He caught her elbow and directed her to the hallway, politely closing the door behind him. Then he guided her along the passage. “Which is yours?”
She pulled up, breaking his hold. “I am afraid, sir, that despite my affection for your grandmother, I shall not entertain you in my chambers.”
Surprisingly, he reached for her again, jerking her into his body. “When I ask for something, Mrs. Mayer, I am not in the habit of being denied,” he hissed.
In bold disobedience, she stared intensely in his eyes, her pure fury unmistakable. “I would have thought you had had your pleasure satisfied already today,” she challenged.
Lord Merritt set his mouth in a tight line. “Explain, Mrs. Mayer.”
Undaunted, she accused, “Even after riding for hours across the English countryside, you still reek of your ladybird.” She could not disguise the look of triumph from her features when he reacted to her charge. His cheeks knew a slight flush of color.
“How does a genteel lady even know the word ladybird?” He gave her a little shake to emphasize his point.
Despite being held awkwardly against him, Ebba straightened her shoulders. “First, I never claimed sophisticated breeding,” she declared. “I am but a gentleman’s daughter and a squire’s sister, yet, I can attest neither ever came home from a night with their women, clothes rumpled, unshaven, and covered with the scent of a woman’s perfume. I suppose I should have pretended not to notice, but acting was never my strong point.” She braced herself for his retort.
The earl gritted his teeth in what appeared to be frustration. “Ours is not a conversation I care to have in this dark passageway,” he growled, but then swallowed his next remark before saying more calmly, “You will join me, Mrs. Mayer, in the inn’s private room for supper.”
His demand had surprised her, and she found herself saying, “As you wish, Lord Merritt. Now if you will pardon me, I wish to freshen my clothing before returning to your grandmother’s care.” Defiantly, she broke his grasp and strode away.
Despite the anger she had engendered in him, Sterling could not resist the vision of her hips’ gentle sway as she stormed away. Without thinking, he brought his sleeve to his nose and took a deep whiff. An amused eyebrow rose in recognition. The lady was correct. Abbey’s expensive perfume, a gift from him, in fact, lingered on his clothes. He heard the bolt shot seconds after the woman’s door slammed shut. He chuckled when he considered how he had treated her. “Not proper for a woman of the gentry,” he chastised himself in a soft whisper. Yet, he wondered: Would it be his relation or him who would suffer with the loss of Mrs. Mayer?