Awakening an Earl’s Flame (Preview)

Chapter One

Somerset, England, 1816

“Marianne! Are you planning to gaze out that window daydreaming forever, child?” 

Miss Marianne Windham, who was eight-and-twenty years and well on her way to being a settled spinster, turned at her mother’s gentle scolding. Mrs Windham’s eyebrows knotted as she gazed upon her only daughter in a familiar look of slightly exasperated worry. Sitting beside her mother was Fanny Harding, Marianne’s very best friend in the entire world, waiting patiently to head into town.

Marianne sighed. “I am quite ready, Mama. I was only peering across the street for a moment.”

Mr Windham frowned. “You and Fanny really should get going, Marianne. You do not want to miss the final dress fitting with Miss Markle. The gown must be ready to pick up tomorrow. The ball is only three days away …”

“I know, Mama,” said Marianne wearily. “It shall be ready in time for the ball. Miss Markle promised it would be. You worry too much.” She exchanged a look with Fanny, who smiled tightly, but refused to be drawn into the discussion.

Her mother gave a painful sigh. “You know you must look your best for the ball, Marianne. Mr Russell shall be there, and your courtship with him is at a crux. I do believe he may propose very soon, daughter. I am only trying my best to ensure you look wonderful for him.” She paused. “I should not need to remind you that you are not getting any younger, Marianne. This may be the last chance you get at marriage.” Her voice was gently chiding.

Marianne smiled at her mother without speaking. This was a very old topic of conversation, and she refused to get drawn into it anymore. It was entirely pointless. She was very well aware that she was approaching the doddering age of thirty and that offers for her hand would dry up. If she didn’t encourage Mr Richard Russell, then this may well be her last chance to marry.

And everyone knew being a spinster was a fate worse than death for a young lady.

Marianne’s face tightened. She could argue with her mother that sometimes she simply didn’t care if she remained a spinster forever, but that would only further distress the older lady. And Mama really was trying to do the best by her. A widow for many years, her mother wanted to see her well settled. Also, it was a promise she had made to Marianne’s father on his deathbed that their beloved only child would find the ultimate happiness, and that she would do her very best to secure it.

I wonder what it would have been like married to the one who left me, she thought suddenly. I wonder where he is now.

As soon as the thought entered her mind, she banished it. It had been years. There was no point in thinking this way any longer, ruminating over the past, remembering what it had been like to be young and in love, delirious with happiness. She had tried so hard to put it behind her and was still trying. 

“I am very well aware of it all, Mama,” she said, in a voice sharper than she intended. “Fanny, shall we go? We do need to get your aunt along the way.”

Fanny nodded, looking relieved. She stood up. “Yes, let us go, dearest. I have decided I do want to purchase that new bonnet in Collin’s millinery shop window. Perhaps Aunt Petunia and I could go there while you are at your fitting?”

Marianne smiled. “Perfect. Let us away. We shall see you very soon, Mama.”

She walked over to her mother, pecking her on the cheek. Her mother would have loved to play chaperone on this outing, of course, but her rheumatism was playing up today, as it often did in the colder weather, so Fanny’s aunt was filling in. Miss Petunia Harding only lived a street away in Acton-on-Rye and enjoyed outings with her niece and friends. They were planning to walk the short distance into town and pick up Fanny’s Aunt Petunia along the way.

Her mother rested a hand lovingly on her daughter’s face, gazing up at her. “Take your time, my darling. Have some tea and scones in the tearooms after your fitting, if time allows.”

Marianne frowned slightly. “We cannot afford such luxuries, Mama. The gown is costing more than I would prefer already …”

Mrs Windham sighed. “Tea and scones are not going to break the budget, Marianne. Please, enjoy your outing.”

Marianne bit her lip but didn’t contradict her. There was no point. Her mother was still determined that she act the part of the affluent young lady around town, so no one would suspect the somewhat dire financial situation they were in since her father’s passing. A charade, of course, but it made Mama happy. 

Her heart shifted slightly. She knew she should be pragmatic and try to secure this match with Mr Russell for her mother’s sake and her own. Richard Russell was very wealthy. He owned a sprawling country property on the outskirts of Acton-on-Rye. He would make sure her mother was well taken care of. 

It might not be such a hardship, she thought. She liked Richard very much. He was clever, well-read, a very good conversationalist. Being married to him would not be odious at all. They might have a very pleasant life together.

But you do not love him, Marianne. Not in the way you loved the one who is gone.

She ignored the small, insistent voice in her head. She no longer trusted it. It had led her astray too many times. It had made her reject three suitors in the five years since. It had made her heart bleed too much.

Yes, she would encourage Richard Russell. She simply must. He was far and away the best suitor. He was a charming man, and it truly would be no hardship. And she needed to look after her mother. Many people married for convenience, after all. Why couldn’t she?

                                                                                     ***

Marianne linked arms with Fanny as they meandered into town, just behind Aunt Petunia, who insisted upon striding ahead. Fanny’s aunt was very sprightly for just shy of sixty. 

“I am sorry about Mama,” she mumbled. “Her talk of marriage for me is relentless.”

Fanny laughed. “You do not need to apologise my sweet friend. She is only trying to do the best by you, as my mother does for me also. They start to get alarmed when their daughters are not safely matched by our age.”

Marianne sighed. “I know. And the Lord knows I realise the precarious financial situation we have been in since Papa passed two years ago. Even though we have the house for perpetuity, the annual income he left us was small. I do need to secure a good match for her sake.”

Fanny turned to gaze at her solemnly. “But what about you, Marianne? Could you marry Mr Russell and be happy?” She hesitated. “After all that has happened in the past?”

Marianne bit her lip. Fanny knew all about her misguided love affair five years ago. She had cried on Fanny’s shoulder about it for months afterwards. And Fanny loathed the gentleman responsible for her broken heart even more than she did. 

They rarely talked about it now, though. As if by mutual agreement, they didn’t speak of that gentleman at all. But that had become easier as she hadn’t seen him for years now. He was no longer on the local social circuit; she didn’t bump into him at all. A blessing, for it would only have ripped open her heart anew every time she saw him. 

“I think I could be happy,” she replied in a hesitant voice. “Mr Russell is amiable. He is clever. He reads widely, and we can talk for a long time about books. In short, he is everything that I need to be happy. As well as being so financially secure, of course.”

Fanny frowned slightly. “You sound as if you are discussing the merits of a new parasol, dearest. It does not sound like he makes your heart sing.”

“Many people marry for convenience, Fanny,” she sighed. “You know it. Love matches are rare in our world. And we are not getting any younger. My mother is my responsibility now.” She paused. “You know Edmund does not give a deuce about our lives anymore. His wife makes very sure of that.” She couldn’t keep the note of bitterness out of her voice as she thought about her older brother and his wife, Helena.

“She does have him on a leash,” remarked Fanny wryly. “She so besots your brother he cannot see that she is a virago, hoarding all the family’s wealth for herself and their two children. You and your mother have been left out in the cold. It is a crying shame. I am certain your late father never intended things to be this way.”

Marianne blinked back tears. She knew her darling father had assumed Edmund would take care of them financially, but by law, everything had passed to the eldest son, and their house belonged to him. Her brother let them live there, but he didn’t make their lives comfortable. He could easily have allotted them more income, but he hadn’t. Only last week, they had no choice but to let go of their parlour maid. Now, they only had the cook and one maid to serve the entire household.

“Edmund seems determined to see us live in penury,” said Marianne tightly. “Papa would roll over in his grave if he knew.”

Fanny squeezed her arm. “Well, if you are quite determined to accept Mr Russell when he proposes and that you can accept a marriage of convenience, then I am certain you shall solve your mother’s financial woes and find a measure of happiness in the bargain. He really is a very nice gentleman, as you say … But does it not worry you that he is somewhat older?”

Marianne shrugged. “He is only five-and-thirty, Fanny. Hardly aged.” She hesitated. “But we are jumping ahead. He may not propose, you know.”

Fanny laughed lightly. “Mr Russell is enamoured with you, Marianne. He shall propose if he is given sufficient encouragement. I do not doubt it.”

They had reached the main street of town. A few carriages were parked alongside and a dozen or so people wandering along, peering into shop windows. Acton-on-Rye was a small town, but it was always busy at this time of day. It had several shops which served the outlying villages. 

Aunt Petunia stopped suddenly, gazing back at them. “Where are we heading first, girls?”

“Miss Markle’s dressmaking shop, dear aunt,” said Fanny. “Marianne has a fitting for the coming ball. We shall deposit her there, then go the milliners, if that is agreeable to you?”

Aunt Petunia raised her eyebrows. “Lead the way. It makes little difference to me. I am too old to care about fripperies like bonnets any longer, but we need to see you are always smartly attired, niece.”

Marianne and Fanny laughed as they strolled down the street. 

Marianne thought about what her best friend had claimed as they walked—that Mr Richard Russell was certain to propose to her and that he was smitten with her. She didn’t know if that were true at all. The gentleman was affable and gracious towards her, but she had never discerned overwhelming admiration … or love. Still, he sought her out constantly, was always calling upon her, and it did seem that he was serious in his regard for her.

He will give me a good life. He will make sure Mama is well provided for. How much more can I expect at my stage of life?

Her heart twisted. She had always hoped that perhaps she might fall in love again one day. But it seemed that it would never happen now. And she simply must accept the way her life had unfurled. For better or for worse.

Chapter Two

Joseph Weston, the new Earl of Bedford, whistled as he walked into town, gazing around with interest. It had been a long time since he had been in Acton-on-Rye – so long that it was as if he saw the town and district surrounding it completely anew. 

His heart clenched. There was the old mill. Just beyond it lay rolling green hills dotted with white sheep. He had forgotten how charming this pocket of Somerset was. It looked like a scene out of a painting – an artist’s view of how pastoral English life should be. He had been living in London for far too long and hadn’t even ventured to the family’s main ancestral country home in Kent for years, never mind this far out of the capital, to the house they owned in this town.

Memories started to assail him of when he had been a younger man, walking this route. Firmly, he pushed them aside. What was the point in picking over the past?

His old friend, Mr Fredrick Knightley, who had agreed to accompany him on this flying visit to Somerset, stopped walking, glancing at him curiously.

“Do you think it has changed much, Bedford?” he asked.

Joseph shrugged. “Not really, but we have not reached the main part of town yet.” He gazed around. “The river Rye is still the same as ever. As is the mill.”

“Agreed,” said Fredrick, smiling. “It is quite charming. I must admit, I had forgotten.” He stared at his friend curiously. “You have not been back … since all that unfortunate business.”

Joseph reddened. His friend was trying to be tactful in not mentioning what had happened here all those years ago. Fredrick knew all about it, of course. But it wasn’t something Joseph wanted to recall. He felt a hot knife of shame. It surprised him that it was still as strong as ever, after all this time.

Where is she now? Did she marry? Does she now have a family? Does she still even live here?

His heart twisted slightly. He could still remember her face as vividly as if he had only seen it yesterday. The last time he had seen her, when she had ignored him utterly, passing by him as if they were strangers to one another.

He didn’t blame her. Not at all. He was well aware that he had broken her heart. How could he not be?

“No, I have never returned,” he said eventually, his heart pounding. “And the only reason I am back now is to dispose of the house here, as you know. You said you might know someone who may purchase it.”

Fredrick nodded. “An old acquaintance. His name is Thomas Dewhurst. He received a large inheritance and is eager to acquire a property portfolio.” He hesitated. “Shall I set up a meeting for the two of you?”

“Yes,” said Joseph abruptly. “The sooner I can get rid of the house and leave this district, the better, old chap. There is nothing but ghosts here for me now.”

Fredrick looked sad. “I completely understand, my friend. And now that you are the earl, you must be eager to take up residence at the old manor in Kent. I was always surprised that your late father held such a fondness for the house here. It is rather out of the way. Such a small town in the middle of nowhere.”

“He liked Somerset,” said Joseph quietly. “He said the people here were honest and didn’t kowtow to him all the time.  They didn’t care that he was a grand earl. He liked being treated like just another country squire, said it was refreshing. But that was Father.” His heart contorted with pain, thinking he would never see his father’s face again. They had their differences, God help them, but he had still loved and respected him.

“Your father was a good man, Bedford,” said Fredrick slowly. “I always liked him. How is the dowager countess coping?”

“You know Mother,” said Joseph lightly. “Always trying to put on a brave face. The show must go on and all that. But inside, I think she is devastated. She refuses to leave the London townhouse and go to Kent.” He hesitated. “She is subtly pressuring me to find a new wife.”

Fredrick nodded. “I suppose that is to be expected. It has been three years since Cassandra passed away, and now that you are the new earl, she wants grandchildren for the line. An heir and a spare.”

Joseph laughed wryly. “Yes. It is always all about the line.” He frowned. “But the thought of marrying again leaves me cold, Knightley. I honestly do not think I can do it, not even for Mother. Not even for the continuity of the Bedford earldom.”

Fredrick raised an eyebrow. “Why is that old chap?”

Joseph hesitated. He felt disloyal even thinking it, felt disloyal talking about it. But the truth couldn’t be denied, and Fred was his best friend, after all.

“I did not like marriage overmuch,” he replied eventually. “Cassandra and I were never close. We led separate lives, really. The marriage was as cold as a blizzard. And the thought of entering such a union again unnerves me.”

Fredrick nodded slowly. “I see. I did suspect that you and Cassandra were not overfond of each other. I had hoped you would grow to love. But it never happened.” He hesitated. “I suppose it was hard for you after what happened here, Bedford. Very hard to open your heart again, even to your wife.”

Joseph’s heart started pounding. “Yes, it was. I was willing to try, but it never worked. Cassandra was always so frail and disinterested. We never bonded. Not for a moment.” 

“It does not have to be like that a second time around,” said Fredrick, staring at him with sympathy. “Just because you and Cassandra were never a love match does not mean you shall never find one. Or at least a lady with whom you are more compatible.”

Joseph sighed heavily. His friend meant well, but how could he explain that he just didn’t have the will or the desire for love or marriage any longer? Or perhaps that his heart had been so badly bruised the first time he had fallen in love that he wasn’t willing to risk it again?

It wasn’t only the fact that he feared another abysmal attempt at marriage. It was that he feared he could never open his heart again at all. Was that why he and Cassandra had never found affection? He thought he had tried his hardest to make his marriage work, but had he? Did his wife ever suspect that he could never give his heart to her, no matter how hard he tried, and thus gave up on their marriage as well?

He would never discover any answers to the questions that constantly dogged him. His wife had been cold in her grave for three years. A baffling, sudden illness had taken her when she was only four-and-twenty. He still mourned for the loss of her young life and all that she had never done, even while admitting to himself that he was secretly relieved that he didn’t have to go through the charade forever. That he was free of it.

How could he take the risk that he wouldn’t enter another union like that? He would be trapped anew. He didn’t know how he could bear it, even if he got the longed-for heir to the earldom. Something that his mother would never understand.

Best to leave well enough alone.

They had reached the town. The main street was busy, and Joseph noted there were several new shops. Acton-on-Rye had prospered in his absence, expanded. They strolled along its streets, peering into shop windows. He stopped at a tall building with a gilt-edged sign attached to the wall that read Newcombe & Sons, Solicitors, and turned to Fredrick.

“Well, here I am,” said Joseph. He checked his fob watch. “Mr Newcombe senior is expecting me at three. It is almost that time. What shall you do?”

Fredrick smiled. “Why, I shall keep browsing the shops, old chap. One never knows what one may find, even in a small town like this. How long is your appointment?”

“Half an hour at the most,” said Joseph. “I just need to run over the details of the house deed, so I am in a position to offer it immediately for sale if I find a potential buyer.”

Fredrick nodded. “Very good. I shall meet you here in a half-hour. Good luck.”

Joseph smiled absently, opening the door. He had never been inside this solicitor’s office before, but then, he had never had cause to. Bartok House had belonged to his late father. Now it belonged to him, along with all the properties in his father’s portfolio. There were quite a few. Their ancestral manor home, Lethbridge Manor, in Kent. The London townhouse on Grosvenor Square. A rambling manor house in Scotland, which was only used for grouse season. And this house, in Acton-on-Rye.

The office seemed empty. He sat down on a wooden chair while he waited, staring at the bare brown wooden wall opposite. He was starting to feel a little odd now. As if something was pressing upon him like a vice. A memory was swirling in his mind, gathering force, like a grey fog sweeping along a road, that he could not avoid no matter how hard he tried …

He was walking along this street. It was the height of summer, and the sun was blazing. He had seen her before she saw him – only the second time he had ever laid eyes upon her. He still remembered the gown she was wearing – lavender muslin, with a very high empire line and short puffed sleeves as befitted a hot day. She was twirling her parasol, laughing, and walking with a friend.

He had stopped abruptly in his tracks, taking her in. Her sheer beauty. She was like a radiant star, making everyone around her disappear into shadow. Her long neck. The tumble of honey gold curls falling from her chignon. Her skin was almost the same colour, the shade and velvety texture of a ripe peach. And then, the shock of those light green eyes, turning towards him …

“My Lord?”

Joseph jumped. An elderly man with thin silver hair and a stooped gait was standing in front of him, gazing at him expectantly. 

“Mr Newcombe?” He stood up, alarmed to discover his voice was shaking slightly. 

The man nodded. “Yes. I must say, you look so much like your late father at the same age, My Lord. My sincerest condolences to you on his passing.”

Joseph cleared his throat. “Thank you, Mr Newcombe.”

“Shall we?” The man indicated the door opposite. 

Joseph nodded, following him inside a small room, trying to shake off the memory. It was unsettling. He hadn’t remembered that particular encounter with her in years. Why had it suddenly sprung into his mind, as fresh as if it had happened yesterday rather than five years ago?

But he knew why. It was because he was back in this town. How had he ever believed that he could come back here and it wouldn’t happen? It was like the town was filled with tiny triggers, all designed to set him off when he least expected it.

He took a deep breath, sitting down. He needed to sell this house as soon as he could and get out of Acton-on-Rye. There was no point picking over the past, like a vulture at a corpse. What was done was done. He couldn’t change any of it, and besides, she was probably married and happy now. She probably never thought of him at all. 



“Awakening an Earl’s Flame” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!

As far as the tantalising Miss Marianne Windham is concerned, the past is best left buried deep. It all started when the seductive Lord Weston left her for another lady and her heart was shattered into thousand pieces. Marianne has been rejecting suitor after suitor since, but thinks she has finally found the right match, in the calm, kind and intelligent Mr. Richard Russell and she is finally laying the sinful past to rest.

Yet, what will happen when an old passionate love comes back to town?

The captivating Joseph Weston is now the Earl of Bedford. With his father’s passing, he is back in Somerset, where his family used to stay for summers, many years ago, while also dealing with the tragic loss of his wife, Cassandra. When he returns, he is suddenly overwhelmed by memories of his lost love, the tempting Marianne. Some things can not be denied, but surely he is in no danger from her again… Or is he?

What wicked game will fate hold for him this time?

When the old lovers finally meet again, it seems that some affairs can never be truly forgotten and neither can their hot, sizzling passion. However, Marianne is courting another man and Joseph is being targeted by a lady with her eye on being his new countess… Can they truly leave the past behind, and start afresh, or will their flaming romance be overpowered once and for all from sinister forces?

“Awakening an Earl’s Flame” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.

Get your copy from Amazon!

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