Seducing the Earl

By: Maggi Andersen

Prologue




Linden Hall, Yorkshire

October 1817

The elegant ballroom was filled with guests enjoying the Hunt Ball. Laughter rose in the heated smoky air as decorative ladies mingled with the more soberly dressed gentlemen.

As they danced, Lady Sibella Winborne smiled mischievously at her host, John Haldane, Earl of Strathairn. “This is a splendid ball. I feel I should congratulate you, except I know Eleanor arranged it.”

Strathairn’s gray-blue eyes twinkled. “Come, am I not deserving of a little praise? But yes, my sister excels at these affairs.”

“Eleanor is remarkably efficient. Indeed, a wife could hardly do better.”

Strathairn’s hand tightened at her waist. “Eleanor intends to live in Devon. She dislikes London life since her husband, Lord Gordon passed away. I fear my grouse will now breed unchecked.”

“You do plan to marry at some stage?”

“I accept the need for an heir.” He arched his eyebrows. “Your brother still seeks a husband for you?”

Sibella sighed. “Yes. Chaloner is committed to marrying me off sooner rather than later.”

“Don’t allow him to push you into a marriage not to your liking.”

She lowered her lashes. “I should like very much to choose my husband.”

He grinned. “You will have quite a list to choose from. A man would be lucky to have you.” His matter-of-fact tone belied the warmth of his gaze.

Sibella feared that her hand trembled in his. She studied the tall blond man who led her gracefully over the floor in a waltz. Did he suspect her of encouraging him to propose? She was, in all likelihood, although she knew it to be a lost cause. Hopeless at flirting, she doubted he would fall for it. They had been friends for years. Before the war, John might have married her, but those years away on the Peninsula had changed him. Something held him back from marriage now. She wasn’t sure what it was, but he desired her, she could recognize ardor in a man’s eyes when she saw it, it was just that he didn’t want her enough it seemed.

“It’s desperately sad about Catherine, Harrow’s wife,” she said to change the subject. “The duke is a friend of yours, is he not?”

Strathairn sighed. “Yes. Tragic to lose your wife in childbirth. The babe survived. A daughter.”

“I’ve heard he’s devastated.”

“Dreadfully cast down. Andrew plans to leave England. He has taken up a diplomatic post in Vienna.”

“Are the children to accompany him?”

“No, that would be unsuitable. He is leaving them with his mother and the nursery staff. I believe a governess has been employed for his heir. Young William is now six.”

The dance came to an end. Sibella took John’s proffered arm, and they joined her sister Cordelia.

He bowed. “Viscountess Bathe.”

Cordelia curtsied. “Lord Strathairn.”

“You dance very well together,” Cordelia said after the earl left them. “Can’t you get him to propose?”

“Apparently my charms are not sufficient to lure him into matrimony,” Sibella said and puffed at a wisp of hair on her forehead that had escaped her coiffure.

“Well, you’ll have to stop mooning over him,” said her annoyingly pragmatic sister. “And find a husband.”

*

While wandering his ballroom, speaking to guests, Strathairn encountered Sibella’s brother, the Marquess of Brandreth, who had made a beeline for him through the crowd.

“I hope we bag a few more birds tomorrow,” Chaloner said.

Strathairn eyed him. He had something on his mind. “One trusts so. My chef plans a grouse dish flavored with juniper berries for our dinner.”

“Sounds delicious.” Chaloner raised his glass. “I’m willing to rise at the crack of dawn for that.” He took Strathairn’s arm and drew him away into a quiet corner. “I don’t wish to strain a friendship I value, John, but I feel I must offer a word of advice.”

“Oh?” Strathairn had liked Chaloner better before his father died. The man seemed to lose his sense of humor after inheriting the title.

“You are often seen in Sibella’s company. Don’t get too fond of her.”