Naughty Earls Need Love Too by Merry Farmer

Upon reflection, Avery O’Shea wasn’t particularly proud of the way he’d ducked behind a stand of knitting needles and hidden from Lord Kilrea and Lord Stamford when they’d crossed in front of Mrs. O’Toole’s wool shop the day before. It was beneath the dignity of an earl to hide from other men when he found himself in a potentially embarrassing situation. If he was worth his salt, he would have stood bravely and proudly in the center of that explosion of color and softness and faced whatever teasing Kilrea and Stamford would have hurled at him.

Then again, the reason he had leapt into hiding was because he knew full well that teasing was the one thing he had a ridiculously hard time enduring—as witnessed by the harassment he was getting from his cousins and brother-in-law.

“I’ve never met a man more frightened of marriage in my life,” Lord Fergus O’Shea, Avery’s first cousin and, arguably, the patriarch of the family, laughed at him from his wheelchair. “Marriage is hardly the sort of thing a man needs to run screaming from.”

“Says the man who fought against the idea of marrying himself for years,” Cousin Caelian fired back at Fergus from the sofa in Avery’s afternoon parlor, where he was entertaining his kinsmen with a sampling of new whiskeys he’d picked up on his trip to Belfast. Caelian was recently-married himself, and by all reports, the institution agreed with him.

“I had my reasons for dodging Henrietta’s advances,” Fergus argued, sending the rest of them as pointed a look as he could make with his one eye. They were all well aware that Fergus had fought against succumbing to the attraction between him and his wife, Henrietta, because of the crippling injuries he’d receive after an attack years ago. That attack had cost Fergus his eye and his ability to walk, but it hadn’t cost him Henrietta. She’d insisted on marrying him anyhow, and after a fight, she’d won.

“Women like Henrietta do not grow on trees,” Avery reminded his cousins, taking a sip of his whiskey. “And if you ask me, Fergus was damned lucky to end up with her in the first place.”

“Yes, that woman puts up with quite a bit,” Rory Feeney, the latest addition to the O’Shea clan, commented with a laugh. “I can’t think of any man as obstinate as you, Fergus.”

“Except, perhaps, you?” Fergus fired back at him.

“I am not obstinate,” Rory said with feigned offense, lounging back in his chair and putting a foot up on the ottoman in front of him, “I just know the right way to do things.”

That earned a laugh from the rest of them.

“And is my sister aware of this?” Caelian asked.

Rory hid his besotted look behind his glass of whiskey. “Siobhan is coming around to the truth.”

“Which means she’s running roughshod over you,” Rafe—Lord Rothbury, husband of Avery’s sister, Angeline—said with a laugh. He added, “Poor thing,” with a teasing wink for Rory.

“We’ve strayed from the point,” Rory said, flushing an even darker shade of pink. “We were ribbing Avery here for dragging his heels on the whole marriage issue, weren’t we?”

“Yes, we were,” Fergus took up the topic with enthusiasm. Avery was beginning to regret plying his kinsmen with whiskey so early in the day. “Why haven’t you married yet, you old rake?” he asked with a laugh.

“I’m hardly old,” Avery answered, wishing there were a way to get the teasing over with. “Thirty-two is not old.”

“It is in marriage years,” Rafe said. “You’re wasting time galivanting around, having one pointless tryst after another, when you could be enjoying yourself with a fine and lovely woman.” He saluted Avery with his whiskey glass.

Avery laughed at the idea. “You married one of the few fine women I know,” he fired back, “and I could hardly have married my sister to begin with.”

“Yes, Angeline is the most marvelous woman in the world,” Rafe said with a satisfied smile, settling back into his chair.

“I think my Erica might vie for that title,” Caelian said with a proud grin of his own.

“No, that would be Siobhan,” Rory added, looking as though he might fight someone over the issue.

Fergus shook his head. “Henrietta has them all beat.” Before another silly argument could start, he went on with, “And the only reason Avery here doesn’t agree that a married life is the best sort of life is because thus far, he has only seen women as bits of fun and not as the glorious creatures they are.”

“Yes, Avery, and why is that?” Rafe asked with a mockingly serious look. “I’ve seen you walk out with dozens of London’s finest debutantes, and I’ve also spotted you carousing with some of the more sought-after courtesans that ply their trade in town, but I’ve never known you to be serious with any of them. Why is that?”

Avery shrugged. “Why call it a night when there is so much more entertainment to be had?” he answered.

The truth was far more complicated than that. He did enjoy a bit of fun. At least, he had in his earlier years. It had been thrilling to be a young earl with ready money to spend bashing his way through London’s naughty entertainments. At least, it had been in his twenties. And it wasn’t that he’d been averse to settling down into a comfortable married life, like his cousins and some of his friends. It was just that he found the sort of woman who preferred a husband to a lover to be painfully dull. He’d found it tedious to have every dignified, respectable, insufferable young woman out to nab a titled husband thrown at his head during the last few seasons in London.

The sort of woman Avery preferred was flirtatious and free. She embraced the modern values of suffrage—not to mention the relaxed morals that often went along with those beliefs. And while the sort of women with those values that he’d come across bashing about London were willing to spend the night with him, they weren’t particularly open to the idea of longer-term arrangements.

“It isn’t that I don’t want to marry and do my duty to my family and my title,” he said with far more introspection, interrupting the continued conversation, which he’d stopped paying attention to. “It’s that I’ve yet to find the right woman.”

“Ah,” Fergus said knowingly. The rest of them hummed and nodded and made sounds of consideration as well.

“There’s the rub,” Caelian said. “It’s always about finding the right woman.”

Avery would have spoken up and said they were damnably hard to find, but a face popped to his mind that stopped him.

Miss Maeve Sperrin. If he were honest with himself, he’d fancied her right from the start. Miss Sperrin had that crack of intelligence to her in all of the encounters they’d had. She was beautiful, with dark hair and eyes, a creamy complexion, and a mouth that he wanted to do wicked things to. She was brave and loyal as well. The way she stood up for her friend, Miss Woodmont, was one of the most admirable things he’d ever seen. He knew the truth about Miss Woodmont—thanks to the way Cousin Siobhan had pulled him into the dramatics of her suspicions about Rory over the summer—and Avery found it remarkable that a woman mere inches from being on the shelf would steadfastly stand by her friend when it was entirely possible that the association might ruin her.

He liked Miss Sperrin. That was all there was to it. But she wasn’t the sort of woman an earl would immediately consider as a potential bride. She was respectable middle class, not aristocracy, and he feared for the reception she might have among London society if she were suddenly made a countess.

“There’s something about that look on your face, Carnlough,” Rafe said, dragging Avery’s mind back to the conversation once more. Rafe wasn’t nearly the sort of joker that Avery’s cousins were, but he still wore a sly grin as he studied him. “That could only be the look of a man who already has his sights set on a woman.”

“Which would explain why he’s just ignored every suggestion we’ve made,” Fergus laughed.

Was that what they’d been discussing while he’d been away with the fairies, contemplating the wonder that was Miss Sperrin?

“Let me guess,” Rory said, swirling the whiskey in his glass as he narrowed his eyes at Avery. Even with those eyes narrowed, Avery could see the mischief in them. “He’s thinking about one of two ladies.”

“One of two?” Fergus glanced to Rory in surprise. “Have we narrowed it down that far already?”

“These wouldn’t be the two he was seen flirting shamelessly with at your wedding, would they?” Caelian asked, grinning like a fool.

“Miss Maeve Sperrin and Miss Alice Woodmont,” Rory said, as though declaring some sort of victory.

The others hummed and exclaimed as though it should have been obvious.

Avery wanted to smack them all for turning his muddled thoughts into their joke of the day, even as he reluctantly desired their counsel on the matter.

“You don’t think they’re too far beneath me?” he asked, wincing as he did. He hated sounding like a cad, especially since the rigid lines of class that had governed their fathers and grandfathers were slowly—very slowly—eroding.

“They both come from spectacularly well-respected families,” Fergus said with a shrug. “Neither of them have aristocratic blood, but I daresay they’re both women of nobility.”

“Yes,” Rafe agreed. “I might be a mere visitor to these shores, but even I have heard fine things said about both the Sperrins and the Woodmonts.”

“And they’re both quite pretty and charming,” Rory added. “Lady Coyle herself was intent on tossing me at one or both of them just a few months ago.”

Avery tilted his head to the side and considered that. An endorsement from Lady Coyle was one of the greatest signs of respect a woman in County Antrim could have. Of course, Lady Coyle had likely picked out Miss Sperrin and Miss Woodmont for Rory because he, too, was not an aristocrat. She likely wouldn’t have the same opinion about Avery’s connection to either lady. Not that Avery cared what Lady Coyle thought.

He took another sip of his whiskey—it was far too early in the day for him to feel as tipsy as he did, but that was simply what happened when a man spent time with his male relatives—and contemplated the problem. “So you do not think it unsavory for me to choose a bride of common birth?” he asked.

“Not at all,” Caelian answered.

The rest of them gave him similar answers.

Of course, there was one vital fact that none of the others—save for Rory—knew. Miss Woodmont could never be a suitable choice for his bride. As engaging and clever as she was, and as much as Avery enjoyed her company, Miss Woodmont’s fate was already sealed. At least, as far as considering her as the future Countess of Carnlough was concerned. Even though it hadn’t been her fault, the woman had already ruined herself by having a child with Michael Feeney. Avery could not, in good conscience, subject the poor woman to the stress and travails of attempting to keep that dangerous secret while functioning in London society—or in County Antrim, for that matter. The moment one whisper of her sins got out, she would be ruined. And not the way Cousin Siobhan was nearly ruined either.

Fortunately, Avery’s true interest lay with Miss Sperrin. She was the one who had caught his attention from the start. She was the one he thought of late at night, when he took himself in hand and contemplated the other benefits of a wife he got along well with. And if his kinsmen thought the bright and clever young woman was countess-worthy, then who was to stop him from pursuing her?

“Pardon me, my lord,” Tatum, Avery’s butler, said, stepping into the room. “A Miss Sperrin is here to see you.”

Avery jolted to sit straight, splashing some of his whiskey as he did. How could the young woman have known they were talking about her? The others sat up and took notice as well.

“Send her in,” Avery said before he could think better of it and ask Tatum to show her to a more private parlor. Tatum nodded and stepped back into the hall before Avery could correct him.

“What a stroke of luck for the rest of us,” Fergus laughed as the others set their drinks down and straightened themselves out, preparing for a female guest.

“We’ll assess Miss Sperrin’s chances and tell you what we think,” Caelian said with a wink.

Avery felt terrible for the woman. She had no idea what she was walking into.

“Miss Sperrin, my lord,” Tatum announced her a moment later.

Miss Sperrin walked boldly into the room with a pleasant smile on her face. She opened her mouth to greet Avery, but her words and her smile froze for a moment when she saw he was not alone. For half a second, Avery thought the poor woman would dissolve into some sort of a fit and turn to run, but after only a whisper of a moment, her smile returned in full force. With it, there was a twinkle in her eyes that immediately had Avery on his guard.

“Good morning, my lord,” she said to Avery, then nodded to the others. “My lords.” She turned back to Avery, presenting the cloth sack she’d brought with her. “I’ve come to deliver the purchases you made yesterday in Belfast, since you dashed out of the shop before your order could be rung or packed.”

The sinking feeling in the pit of Avery’s stomach grew. “Thank you, Miss Sperrin,” he said with the kindest smile he could manage, stepping forward so that he could take the bag from her before the other men grew too curious.

“I took the liberty of having Mrs. O’Toole parcel up the skeins she said she had recommended for you,” Miss Sperrin went on, a devilish flash in her eyes as she peeked past him to the other men. “Since you had yet to definitively select which ones you wanted for your project.”

“What project is this?” Fergus asked, looking as delighted as it was possible for him to look.

Avery cleared his throat as Miss Sperrin handed him the bag. “Never you mind,” he said in a low growl.

“Aren’t you going to show them?” Miss Sperrin asked, looking deceptively sweet as she glanced from Avery and Fergus, then back. “I thought the colors were particularly nice.”

“Colors?” Caelian asked, his grin looking as though it would burst into full laughter.

Heat flooded Avery’s face, and he shuffled his feet as he opened the mouth of the bag. There was no getting out of it now. His kinsmen knew they had the perfect opportunity to tease him literally and figuratively in the bag, and Miss Sperrin seemed to be delighted with the fact that she could help the teasing along.

In fact, she faced the other men with a bold grin of her own—which was remarkable for a young woman in a room filled with noblemen and men of distinction—and said, “I was fortunate enough to encounter Lord Carnlough in Belfast yesterday, while on a shopping excursion.”

“And where did you encounter him?” Rory asked, as though reciting a line in a comedy to set up the punchline of a joke.

“At Mrs. O’Toole’s wool shop,” Miss Sperrin told them all with the most charming grin Avery had ever seen.

He wanted to throttle her.

He wanted to kiss her into oblivion.

And then he wanted to do it all over again.

“Mrs. O’Toole’s wool shop?” Rafe asked, barely able to hide his laughter as he glanced to the others.

“Is that the lovely shop on the corner of the high street?” Caelian asked, starting to break down into laughter in earnest.

“I have been told that Lord Carnlough is quite the accomplished craftsman,” Miss Sperrin said, making Avery’s private shame sound like a glowing accomplishment.

Fergus’s one eye suddenly went wide. “Is that where that bright green muffler you wore all last winter came from?”

Avery cleared his throat and glared at his kinsmen. That only served to have them all dissolving into laughter. Avery loathed being laughed at—although he didn’t mind the sly sparkle in Miss Sperrin’s eyes nearly as much as he thought he would. In fact, it made him feel rather warm, inside and out. Which, of course, presented another kind of embarrassment as his trousers suddenly felt too tight.

“Miss Sperrin, perhaps you would allow me to thank you for bringing these things in a different parlor?” he suggested, sending her a pointed look that he hoped she would interpret correctly.

“I think that would be wise,” Miss Sperrin answered, sending Avery’s heart soaring. She understood him without needing an explanation. “It was a pleasure meeting you all, my lords, however briefly,” she said to the others, then let Avery escort her from the room.

Once they were across the hall—a journey that was accompanied by the sound of laughter bursting from the others—Avery glanced briefly into the bag.

“I hope those are the colors you wanted,” Miss Sperrin said, a hint of apology in her softened voice once they were alone. “And I hope you can forgive me for a bit of teasing.”

Avery glanced from the bag to her, a lightness in his chest that he could only describe as fondness. “Yes, of course,” he said.

He wanted her. The truth hit him square in the chest as he took in the sight of her clever, smiling face, her pink cheeks, and her dark, flashing eyes. He couldn’t be certain so early in the game, but something within him told him that Miss Sperrin was precisely the sort of woman that his kinsmen had been raving about. She was the sort of woman he could be happy with.

“Mrs. O’Toole included the bill in the bag, if you should feel the need to reimburse me for the purchase,” Miss Sperrin went on when the silence between them went on for too long.

“Good Lord,” Avery cursed himself, reaching into the bag. He took out the receipt and raised his eyebrows at the amount. “I am so terribly sorry to inconvenience you this way. You most certainly did not have to settle my accounts for me or deliver the wool at all.”

“I must admit, I had an ulterior motive,” Miss Sperrin confessed, her smile as fetching as ever. “I did not expect you to be entertaining, however.”

Another lurching throb passed through Avery’s chest. Miss Sperrin had risked her reputation, in a manner of speaking, to bring him knitting wool. Young ladies generally did not call on single earls unchaperoned. It was precisely the sort of forwardness Avery loved in a woman, and at the same time, Miss Sperrin’s reason for calling could be considered a simple, domestic errand. Clever indeed.

“Miss Sperrin, would you care to walk out with me sometime?” he asked before he could lose his nerve. “Perhaps on Friday? It is the least I can do to thank you, and I will have cash to reimburse you by then. And…and I would simply like to spend an afternoon with you.”

Miss Sperrin’s entire countenance lit up in a way that made Avery feel like a green boy with his first fascination. “I would love to, my lord,” she said. The way she tilted her head down slightly and glanced up at him through her lashes was perfection.

“I will call on you Friday, then,” he said. He turned to glance at the doorway and into the hall. “I would invite you to stay for a while, but as you saw, I already have company.”

“And I would not wish to disturb what I am certain is quite a serious conversation,” she said with mock solemnity.

Avery found himself wondering how soon it was seemly to drop to one knee and ask a woman to marry him.

“Perhaps we could discuss knitting on Friday,” Miss Sperrin went on, taking a step toward the door. “I have fallen out of the habit, but I do know how.”

“I’m certain we could find a great deal of more interest to discuss,” Avery said. He set the bag down on one of the chairs, then held an arm out to escort Miss Sperrin into the hall and along to the front door. “Something tells me we could find quite a few things that we have in common to talk about.”

“I’m certain we could,” Miss Sperrin said with a smile as they stopped by the door. “Until Friday, then, Lord Carnlough.”

“Until then,” Avery said, unable to drag his eyes away from her.

As far as he was concerned, Friday couldn’t come soon enough.