Read The Complicated Earl Online

Authors: Audrey Harrison

Tags: #Nov. Rom

The Complicated Earl

The Complicated Earl

Prologue

              Tom ran up the large oak staircase, almost stumbling in his hurry to follow the sound drifting tantalisingly down the stairs. He reached the first floor and rushed down the hallway to approach his mother’s dressing room. The sound came from beyond the closed door, the sound of his mother’s laughter. It was so rare to hear her laughter ringing through the large house that he had been drawn to hear it, desperate for the sound to continue, for it to seep through every corner of the house and make it feel warm and inviting unlike the cold place it usually was. He reached for the door, a smile already on his lips, it was not often his mother and father laughed together and the urge to be part of a happy moment was irresistible to a lonely young boy.  He opened the door quietly, not wanting to stop the moment by his entrance, but wanting to join in, the need in him to belong to something warm and happy was almost physical. The door revealed his mother sitting at her dressing table, turned sideways to the table. She was dodging being kissed, throwing her head back with laughter whilst at the same time encouraging the next kiss.

The smile fr
oze on the fifteen year olds face as the scene before him sank in. His mother was being kissed and teased not by his father, but by a man who called regularly to the house, a man he had thought was his father’s friend. The shock of the situation stunned Tom into silence for a few moments and the grotesque scene continued to be played out before him. It was clear his mother encouraged the gentleman’s advances, holding onto the lapels of his coat and if he tried to move away from her she pulled him back to her lips. Tom did not know all society’s rules, but he knew this was wrong, very wrong.

             
“Get your hands off my Mother!” He eventually said with a low growl, wanting to sound as menacing as he could. In reality he would be no match against this fully grown man, but he knew he had to intervene in some way. He stood tall, his slender figure rising to its full height in an effort to appear a threat, his fists clenched at his sides ready to respond in any way he could despite the odds against him. He had to try and grasp onto the thought that his mother was not in the wrong, perhaps the gentleman was forcing her to behave in this way? Even as the thoughts raced through his mind, he realised he was clinging in desperation to anything that would not place his mother as a co-operative party in this horrific spectacle, to think otherwise was too galling to comprehend for someone who cared for his family as much as he did.

             
His words stopped the frivolity, but only for a moment. “Oh Tom, don’t be a silly child, run along and play with Sophie. Do something useful by entertaining your sister instead of interfering where you are not wanted. You can be a damned inconvenience sometimes.” His mother said, dismissing his protectiveness with a wave of her hand.

             
Tom stared at her in disbelief; she had never been an overly affectionate woman. Some would say she was cold towards her children, but he had never been made to feel so rejected by her as if he was nothing more than a servant to be dismissed. She showed no embarrassment at being seen in such a compromising position. No matter how he tried to excuse her actions, Tom suddenly realised just how little she valued his good opinion and how little he must mean to her. The realisation was hurtful enough, but more than his own hurt Tom stung because his father was in the house. How could she do this with another man when his father was downstairs? How could she risk Father calling this man out, bringing shame on herself and the family? How could she behave so wantonly?

             
“Sophia, don’t be hard on the boy, he is trying to protect his mother’s honour,” the gentleman laughed looking Tom over. “You should be proud of him.”

             
“If his timing had been better I might be, but I have other things on my mind at the moment,” came the reply from a woman determined not to let Tom’s interruption stop her from having her fun. She did not look towards Tom again, but untied the cravat of the gentleman, using it to pull him closer. “Go away Tom and in future knock before you enter my room.” Her speech ended, she kissed her lover fully on the mouth, oblivious to the effect on her eldest child.

             
Tom faltered in the doorway, uncertain what to do, before storming out of the room, slamming the door behind him. The crash of the door into its frame did little to make Tom feel better. He was humiliated and ashamed by his mother’s words and actions and felt lost in a situation that he knew he was powerless to stop. He ran along the corridor away from the horrifying scene and almost fell down the stairs, the same stairs that had carried him up only a few moments before when the promise of laughter and joy seemed to stretch out before him as he hurried to reach the library. He needed the help of his father. He needed to stop this somehow.

             
Tom found the Earl seated in a deep red leather winged back chair near an empty fire. It was early afternoon but the curtains were half drawn and the brandy bottle half empty, a glass hanging precariously out of his father’s hand. The chair arm alone prevented the glass from falling to the floor. No recognition was given of Tom bursting into the room breathless and obviously upset.

“Fat
her, you must come quickly! Mr Ollerton is with Mother in her dressing room! They are....well, It isn’t proper!”Tom saw his father wince at his words, but the only action the words stirred was for the Earl to lift the glass to his lips and drain the liquid.“Father, are you not going to do anything?” Tom asked in disbelief.

             
“And make her hate me even more? No I am not going to do anything,” came the slurred response.

             
“It isn’t right! Why is she doing that? What about us?” Tom shouted. He was responding in fear, his parents were supposed to be good people, not behaving as if they had both gone mad.

             
“You don’t understand,” his father slurred. “You will one day, when you marry.”

             
“This is normal?” Tom asked in disbelief, his young mind reeling while he tried to make sense of the situation. He had wondered if perhaps there were things he did not know and this was considered normal between adults, but it did not feel right. He desperately wanted to understand why his parents were behaving this way because he had never felt so lost and unsure before and for the first time in his life he felt that there was no-one there to offer support and protection.

             
Tom’s words seemed to waken his father from his stupor and he looked at Tom with almost clear eyes. “Not always, but happiness is unusual in marriage at our level Tom. Your mother is not satisfied with everything that I give her and believe me over the years I have tried and tried to make her happy. I have bought her everything she has wanted. I have never forced myself onto her and I have been faithful to her, even though she has rejected me in every possible way,” he said bitterly. “We are not unusual in this. Many women take on other men. You may need to guard your heart in order to get used to gentlemen visiting your wife when she tires of your visits to her chamber. It may happen even to you my boy, better you realise it now.” This seemed to amuse the Earl as he started to laugh and then hiccup, but soon his body began to shake as the laughter turned to tears and loud sobs.

             
To see his father reduced to such a state disgusted and angered Tom beyond all feeling that he had yet experienced. He withdrew from the library and ran out into the garden ignoring the servants he passed along the way. He had to be out of the house. The house that was his home had suddenly become a living nightmare for him.

             
He knew his parents were not madly in love, a fool could have seen that. Tom spent much of his time at boarding school, but during the holidays he had become accustomed to his mother making snide comments to his father and picking arguments where there were none. He had never questioned how their marriage had come about. It was common knowledge that it had been a joining of two fortunes, his mother being a number of years younger than his father. Tom had been an only child until his sister Sophie had been born a few years earlier and although the marital discord was not consciously at the forefront of Tom’s mind he remembered that he had hoped Sophie’s arrival would help to make his parents happy. He had the impression that his father had hoped so too. But his mother rejected every attempt at civility by Tom’s father after Sophie’s birth, so normal hostilities had been resumed.

             
As his run turned into a breathless walk had anyone had seen the young man, they might not have realised they were looking at a boy whose childhood was at an end. There was a physical change as his shoulders squared and he began to walk that little bit taller. He had to be strong for his sister Sophie. She must never see the sights he had today, that way one of them would grow up in blissful ignorance. His protective instinct came to the fore. If no-one was there to protect him, he would make sure he would be there for Sophie. He thought about the wider world. The servants would know what was going on and his skin prickled with embarrassment, but he was practical enough to realise he could do nothing about that. But whatever the cost he would not let anyone outside their home know that his family was a sham, no-one would ever get close enough to him to see the shame his family now made him feel.

His f
ather’s words rang in his ears. Surely marriage could not really be like that? Why was it so popular if it was so hurtful and destructive? There was a lot about marriage he had not known but if that was the way marriage had to be he wanted nothing to do with it. He vowed that he would do all that he could to protect Sophie, but he would never put himself in a position where a woman would make a fool of him as his mother was doing of his father.

             
From that day on Tom Fulwood, future Earl of Standish would never allow a woman to touch his heart. He built a steel-like shell around his emotions. He was determined that he would never be found crying in his library over a glass of brandy while his wife frolicked upstairs with another. If that was marriage, he was determined to remain single for the rest of his days and his rakish lifestyle developed over the coming years to such an extent that no respectable woman would ever consider marrying him. No-one gained the affections of the future Earl of Standish. Few were brave enough to try.

Chapter 1

Isabelle breathed a sigh of relief when her last morning caller left. She loved her independent life, she truly did, but sometimes she could scream with frustration at the people that surrounded her. They were content to carry out their lives, going from call to call, gossiping about the latest fashion or love interest, but never having a real conversation, never challenging each other’s views or opinions. It was all very polite, very civilised and very dull.

After the door shut on the final visitor s
he settled down to read her brother’s letter. She knew that to have read it before the callers arrived would have result in her being distracted, and she felt she owed it to them to try to fully attend to their conversation. Although a visit may be tedious, she did not want to gain the reputation of being rude. Slightly eccentric she could accept, but a slur on her manners would be too much. The letter was to be the reward to herself after a morning of gossip and nonsense.

S
he sat at her writing bureau near the window of her drawing room. It was a large square room on the first floor of her home. She had looked long and hard for the perfect house to live in when she had moved to Bath, and sitting in her chair the feeling settled over her that she had chosen well. Thirty-eight Great Pulteney Street offered everything she had wanted in a home. The view along the street never failed to make her smile. The Bath stone of the houses seemed to glimmer even on the dullest of days and whenever she looked out of the window there was always some activity going on. This was a street that thrived with life since it was one of the main thoroughfares in Bath.

She took a deep breath
of anticipation as she broke the seal, letters from James always proved to be exasperating or funny. One could never tell which emotion was going to emerge at the start of any correspondence from him.

James was the eldest of the family, the heir to the family fortune, but he had never thor
oughly taken to the role of being in charge of the household. Isabelle had often thought that her second brother, only two years younger than James, was more suited to the role of head of the family. Frank was steady, sensible and loyal and if truth be told a little bit staid, all traits needed to ensure the family name and reputation were kept intact. He had married early to a pleasant, compliant, if slightly dull girl, and had already ensured the continuance of the family name by producing two boys in quick succession. As James did not appear to want to settle down and start a family, Frank alone ensured the family name would continue.

Isabelle
benefited from James’s wayward lifestyle; she had managed to break convention herself by rejecting the marital state and setting up her home in Bath with a cousin. This had occurred without the censure of her family that could have been forthcoming if James had been of a different character, not every brother would accept a sister’s refusal to comply with tradition and expectation. She often wondered if an aversion to marriage was a family trait, as the revered state had never appealed to either of them.

A reputed beauty
, she had certainly made a hit during her first season in London, how could she not with her tall slender figure, full mouth, dark hair and darker eyes? The suitors had courted her to the best of their ability, but she had turned down the offers that had been forthcoming and as an indulged younger sister her brother had not forced her to consider marriage when he had been approached by suitors requesting her hand. He had wanted her to marry a person she chose, rather than one he decided was best for her.

Isabelle had ofte
n wondered herself why she had not been tempted to marry. Her suitors had all been eligible and because of her own fortune, she did not need to marry for money. During her first season instead of being flattered by the men that had flocked around her, she had soon become cynical by the way she had been courted. Many gentlemen had not even tried to hide the fact that it was her money they wanted, her beauty and personality were an added bonus, but not as important as the money. Faced with the reality of courtship she had chosen to take control of her life and had informed her brothers that she was going to set up her own establishment in Bath. The number of single women in Bath outnumbered the single men by around two to one, so she expected to be able to enjoy the pleasures that Bath had to offer, without the trials she had faced in London.

Frank had been completely against the idea, the thought of his sister embracing spinsterhood
when she had no need to appalled him and he was supported in his view by his wife. He voiced his opinions loudly and Isabelle had borne them as patiently as she could knowing they were only expressed with her welfare at heart and understanding that her usual strong-willed nature would not achieve anything by trying to battle with a person who was used to having his opinions accepted unquestioningly at home. So she had let him vent his spleen. When he had run out of breath arguing with someone sitting opposite with a serene smile on her face, Isabelle had thanked him for his concern and proceeded with her plans as if he had not spoken. Frank had resented this, but he was powerless to force his will on his sister without his brother’s support.

James would have been the one to stop the plan, but he wa
s in some ways an unlikely ally when faced with this situation. He had expressed the desire to see Isabelle married well, but when she had asked James which one of her suitors she should marry, citing their advantages and making James laugh out loud with the imitations of the bumbling ways they had tried to hide the fact that her fortune was more important than herself in the marriage, he had been forced to acknowledge that he knew exactly how she was feeling. One of the few candid conversations was held between the brother and sister after Isabelle’s performance and each had agreed that although welcome in most instances, their individual fortunes could also be a curse. James had been sympathetic because he had been courted by all the single women and their mothers in an attempt to secure a marriage. His trials had gone on for longer than Isabelle’s, but he had developed a wayward lifestyle as a defence that had put off all but the most determined of women.

In reality
James would have found any request of Isabelle’s difficult to refuse, he was a good deal older than his sister at thirty-two to her twenty-four. Frank was thirty. The gap of six years between Frank and Isabelle had been a result of five unsuccessful pregnancies by their mother. The Doctor had advised her to let her body rest, but a fiercely determined woman, who desperately wanted a large family, she had insisted on continuing to try again and again to have more children. Isabelle had finally been born healthy and strong, but the strain of the other pregnancies had taken its toll as the Doctor had feared. Isabelle’s mother had died within days of holding her daughter.

Isabelle’s f
ather had been devastated at his loss, theirs had been a marriage based on love. The result of his loss had been that he had not rejected his family after his wife’s death, but indulged them beyond the levels that would have been allowed had their mother survived. It was a credit to each child’s nature that they did not turn into spoiled beings; instead they accepted their father’s indulgence with amusement and fondness, but without changing their early lessons learned from a sensible mother. Isabelle did not receive that grounding, but luckily an Aunt was brought in to help care for the little one and she offered the guidance needed to enable Isabelle’s development to progress into the young woman who turned so many heads during her first season.

Her brother
s had always seen Isabelle as their last link with their mother, she looked so much like her and as she developed it was obvious to everyone that she had the same fierce determination and calm confidence about herself that made her self-reliant and capable of making her own decisions, just as her mother had done. Isabelle had inherited her mother’s fortune, which was added to when her father died when she was twelve. She had grieved for her father, but the pain had been eased by the support and care of her brothers, who in their own way had always acted like father figures around her.

Isabelle had
always thought she would marry. She had no personal experience of her parents’ marriage, but she knew she was the result of a loving union and marriage was always spoken of in such a positive way, that she could not but hope to achieve a similar alliance when she entered society. Unfortunately the closeted upbringing she had had made Isabelle slightly naive with regards to the politics of marriage and her first beau had seemed to be everything she had hoped for. An intelligent girl though, she was quick to pick up on inconsistencies from her suitor and had raised her concerns with her brother. He had made enquiries that had shown her to be the victim of a fortune hunter and the suitor was told to leave his sister alone in terms that left no doubt of the consequences if he were ever to approach her again.

Although her heart had been bruised, it was reassuring
for her and those around her to realise that it was not broken, but she was more cautious after her first encounter. She did not know whether it was her increased cynicism after her first brush with romance, or that her suitors were particularly transparent, but she had been faced with one fortune hunter after another and had to face the possibility that she would not have the happy ever after that she had expected and hoped for.

The realisation of the shallowness of society had been a blow, but Isabelle was determined to make the best out of her situation, she was not one to be down for long. She had asses
sed her options and come to the conclusion that life in London was not for her. She could not trust most of the people she met and she knew that this was not a healthy way to live. Her options included setting up with her brother in the family home in Hampshire, but he could marry at any point and she was sensible enough to know she would not want to step down from being mistress of her own home once used to it. She also did not want to spend her life in the country, visits to her home were a pleasure, she loved the place, but living there with James would result in her spending a lot of time alone, as he spent the season in London and a lot of time in Brighton. Frank would have happily had his sister live with him; he only lived twenty miles from their Hampshire home. But Isabelle could not go and live with them to be seen as the maiden aunt and made use of when it was convenient. She may have wanted change in her life, but she was not giving up on it.

She had grown
up visiting Bath regularly and enjoyed its location, facilities and possibilities. Once the decision was made to move out of London she knew almost instantly that Bath was the place she wanted to be. Frank had been horrified and had tried his best to persuade, argue or bully in order to change her mind, but she had been firm. When James had realised her determination, the only stipulation he had made was that she have some sort of companion with her.

Isabelle had accepted James’s reasoning and had approached an older unmarried cousin. She was pleasant and Isabelle had always been fond of her,
she had spent much time with them at their home, so she was more like a sister in many ways. Mary would enhance rather than hinder Isabelle’s enjoyment of her freedom.

So,
it was when Mary had left Isabelle alone after the morning visits that she took the time to open the letter from James. She had not heard from her brother for a while, which usually meant that he was being completely outrageous and trying to avoid his sister finding out what he was doing. That he eventually told her himself of his exploits never seemed to bother him, he just did not want her to hear what he was doing until the latest exploit was over. Isabelle braced herself for the latest mad scheme.

Dear
est Izzy,

Hope you are well as always and still surviving in that Godforsaken place. I never understood why you chose Bath over Brighton, but nevertheless I hope you are finding some things to amuse you.

As much as I dislike Bath I intend to make a visit for a little while. I could try and fool you into believing that I need to take the waters, but once you set eyes on me, I know you would no longer believe that I was ill, I am positively glowing with good health, but it is for this I need to be in Bath.

Well Izzy, I have finally done it, I have met the woman I want to call my wife! Can you believe it? I still cannot, but once you see her you will understand why, she is everything I would want and more. There is one issue in that she is a little younger than me, only twenty, but that does not matter to either of us. Another issue, yes
, I realise I said there was only one issue, but I did not wish to concern you unduly. The other issue is her brother. She, like us, has no living parents and her guardian is her brother. I know him, went to Oxford at the same time, he is a little older than me, but he has been listening to stories of my reputation and although is not totally against the match, he wants us all to spend some time together away from London and suggested a trip to Bath.

I agreed to it readily, even though I can’t stand the place, excepting it holding you my dear, but what else could I do? He wants me to prove to him that I am worthy of his sister and I can understand that, he could be a little more pleasant though, his manner is abrupt and abrasive,
more so than I remember it being at Oxford, although Sophie says that he is like this with everyone and it is not just because of any disapproval of me.

I shall be arriving the day of the tenth and hope to be with you for the fortnight. Hopefully
that will be long enough to convince Tom Fulwood that I am worthy of his sister. I did think of inviting Frank along to show Fulwood that at least one member of our family is respectable, but thought it best not to inflict the whole family on him at once. I can avoid Frank’s monologues until I receive Tom’s consent.

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