BY: REGINA JEFFERS
Sterling Baxter, the Earl of Merritt, has married the woman his father has chosen for him, but the marriage has been anything 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.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In The Heartless Earl by Regina Jeffers, Ebba Mayer is a squire’s daughter in England, sure that she will never find a suitable marriage as she has no place in Regency Society. But when she meets the Earl of Merritt and his grandmother, the dowager countess suggests that she pose as a war widow with a small dowry, which will make her acceptable to the ton. The plan backfires, however, when Ebba becomes a pawn in an unscrupulous baron’s scheme for control. Now, the Earl of Merritt must find a way to protect Ebba as well as save himself when he is frame for the disappearance of his wife.
Written with Jeffers’s flare for Regency romances, this one is charming, fast paced, well written, and full of surprises. A really great read.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: The Heartless Earl by Regina Jeffers is the story of Ebba Mayer, a squire’s daughter without much hope for her future, and Sterling Baxter, an earl caught in a bad marriage. After her father dies, Ebba’s brother settles a small allowance on her and pretty much sends her “off to seek her fortune.” Ebba has a small dowry, but it is not enough to ensure a suitable marriage, so she is determined to work and save her money until she has enough for a proper dowry. But on her way to London, the public coach Ebba is in has an accident and Ebba ends up in the coach of the grandmother of the Earl of Merritt, Sterling Baxter. The old woman takes a liking to her, and Ebba’s life is changed forever.
Like Jeffers’s other Regency romances, The Heartless Earl is well written, fast paced, and suspense filled, with a ring of truth common to all Jeffers’s historical romances. A charming, intriguing love story, this is one you won’t want to miss.
A cracking lurch had come from the coach’s depths, and Ebba wondered who had screamed and then she realized it was she. The public coach swayed sharply to the right, and as foolish as it would sound when she repeated this tale, she took note of how Mr. Wagner fought to keep his weight from barreling into her. He had caught the interior strap, but he could not prevent the “whipping” effect of their quartet, occupying the coach, from being thrown against each other, and she considered whether this was the moment the gypsy fortuneteller had predicted. A man associated with the letter S shall be your destiny. See the hook in your lifeline? He will save you from Death’s grip and claim you as his own. With him, you shall know adventure and passion and love. The coach rocked forward and back, and exploding wood filled the air above her head.
“Grummp!” Ebba slammed into the coach’s side as the carriage tipped and skidded along a graveled ditch. The four occupants, a tangled mass of arms and legs, clung to any finger hold for safety. She had buried her fingers into the ripped leather of the coach’s bench, one finger wrapped about an exposed nail. Finally, the carriage skidded to a halt, but the noise had ceased to lessen. From a distance, Ebba could hear the driver cursing, along with the cacophony of an injured animal, but inside the coach, grunts and groans and sighs drowned out those less immediate concerns.
“Are you injured, Miss Mayer?” Mr. Wagner asked as he lifted himself from her twisted form.
Ebba shoved her bonnet from her face. “I’m not certain,” she groaned.
“Permit me to assist with your escape,” he said, his voice still a bit shaky.
Slowly, he disengaged himself from their fellow travelers. Sensing the unsavoriness of their coach mates, over the past few days, Mr. Wagner had guarded her, and Ebba had been thankful for the man’s company. From the moment she had boarded the coach in Northumberland, the man had offered his protection. She knew him to be a gentleman from the manner in which he spoke and the care with which he oversaw her place in the coach. They had kept each other company, even sharing their evening meals the previous two evenings.
Ebba had recognized the man’s interest in her, but she had purposely given him no encouragement beyond what she considered to be polite society. She wanted to be no man’s wife, at least, not in the immediate future. She desired a bit of adventure, having always wanted to see London and to experience life before she must resign herself to the mundane duties of overseeing some man’s household. She had done enough of that for both her father, and, later, for her brother. Before she left Northumberland, James had bestowed a meager allowance upon her to rid himself of his responsibility for her well-being. A clearly thankless message to “repay” all she had done for him.
Her father had left Ebba a small dowry, but it was not enough to secure her future. Therefore, she was determined to find gainful employment and save an additional five hundred pounds so she could claim a respectable husband, perhaps even one such as Mr. Wagner. And his Christian name was Samuel. She knew that particular fact because she had asked him that very question over last evening’s supper. Samuel started with the letter S.
Could the coach overturning be called “Death’s grip”? Had he actually saved her? Looking at the gentleman’s face as he tended to the crisis in which they had found themselves, Ebba could not imagine the word passion associated with the man. Even now, he methodically conducted their “rescue.” But there was a lot to said about a man built for protection.
Reaching above him for the coach’s door, Wagner strong-armed the bent wood. Loosening the latch, he shoved upward on the door, opening it like a root cellar’s hatch. Then he used his arms to shimmy his way through the hole, but before Wagner could orchestrate his escape, the coach’s driver appeared in the opening. He caught Wagner’s coat and lugged the man to safety.
Ebba heard the driver ask, “Anyone hurt?”
“Not certain,” Wagner grunted in what sounded more of irritation than gratitude. He turned immediately to reach into the opening for her. “Come, Miss Mayer.” He extended his hand.
Ebba pushed the older man’s head from her. She suspected that the heavily bearded ex-soldier had enjoyed resting against her. “Move!” she ordered, giving the man an elbow jab. In a coughing fit, he reared up, and Ebba scooted free.
“You men look away,” Wagner warned from above as Ebba rose up on tiptoes to reach for his hand. “Or deal with me when you reach safety.” Again, this stranger, for all intents and purposes, had protected her, and in a feminine twist of her mind, Ebba found the idea pleasurable.
She smiled up at the man. “Thank you,” she murmured through an embarrassed blush.
Dutifully, the other two coach occupants turned their heads as Wagner caught her hands and lifted Ebba from the coach’s interior. When he could secure her, the man placed her hands on the carriage’s side. “Hold on,” he ordered, and then he unceremoniously lifted her lower body through the opening. Thankful for his rescue, Ebba ignored his grasp on her waist and hips. “Take her,” Wagner ordered the driver.
“I have you, miss.” The man lifted her to the ground.
As Wagner and the driver turned their attention to the other two travelers, Ebba tested her legs. The energy coursing through her but a few moments earlier had suddenly waned, and she found herself swaying in place. The blackness rushed in, but Ebba fought through it. Placing a hand to her forehead, she attempted to clear her vision. One of the horses lay on its side, no longer stirring. One hobbled free of its harness. It favored its right front leg. The animal snorted, and puffs of its breaths hung heavily in the air.
“Oh, God, now what?” she wondered aloud.
The soldier stepped beside her. “Bloody mess!” he observed, but Ebba walked purposely away from him. She was unaccustomed to rough language, and she had already begun her own analysis of the situation. They had lost their mode of transportation, and, worse yet, the sky had turned black with approaching clouds.
“How far?” she called to the driver. “How far to the next village or inn?”
Wagner and the driver lifted the last man, a youth, really, no more than sixteen or seventeen, from the overturned coach. She had overheard him telling one of the stable hands at the last stop that he was to live with a distant cousin. When the cousin died, the boy would inherit. The young man had appeared none too happy with his prospects.
Ebba repeated the question as the men climbed down to stand before her. “How far to safety?”
The driver removed his wide-brimmed hat and raked his fingers through his hair. “Six to seven miles. Not much out this way. A few farms.”
“Look at the sky.” She gestured to the dark cloud bank. “The heavens will open on us soon.”
“Can everyone walk?” Wagner asked as he assumed charge of their situation. They all signaled their agreement. “Then I suggest we take what we can carry from the coach and set out before we become drenched.”
The driver climbed on the coach’s top and loosened the straps holding their luggage. As they both anticipated an extended stay when they had reached their destinations, Ebba and the boy had trunks. The soldier hefted a worn bag loaded with his worldly possessions, while Wagner secured his smaller portmanteau.
“Which way?” Wagner asked as he handed Ebba his smaller bag and hefted her trunk.
“You cannot,” she protested, but the sound of an approaching carriage brought her protests up short.
The driver and footman in scarlet livery guided the coach, not much larger than a landau, to a stop. “Thank goodness,” Wagner murmured.
“What is it, Mr. Potter?” A silver-headed lady of fashion lowered the window to look upon their situation. “My!” she gasped. “I hope everyone is well.”
“We are, ma’am.” Wagner led the men in the obligatory bow. “A few bumps and bruises are all.”
The footman opened the lady’s carriage door. “How might we be of assistance?” she asked as the servant braced her step to the ground.
It was then Ebba recognized the family crest upon the carriage door. Before she could disguise her disdain, she recoiled, stepping behind Mr. Wagner, instinctively seeking his protection. She certainly wanted nothing to do with the likes of the Baxter family. She knew more of them than most, and there was nothing about the earls of Merritt she wished to claim as her own—not even the comfort of a carriage ride when rain threatened to drench her completely. Even so, she curtsied appropriately when the woman turned an eye on her.
The lady assayed the scene with an aristocratic eye. “My carriage is small, so I shall be unable to take more than one with me.” She gestured to Ebba. “I suppose it should be the young lady.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Wagner extended a hand to Ebba. “This is Miss Mayer.”
“Thank you, ma’am, for your hospitality, but I will walk,” Ebba began, but Wagner interrupted.
“It’s too dangerous, Miss Mayer. I insist you accept her ladyship’s kind offer.” Without her permission, he captured Ebba’s ungloved hand and led her toward the coach. First, he braced the older woman’s return to the carriage and then Ebba’s. “Thank you for your kindness, my lady,” he murmured and stepped back.
Ebba blurted out before he closed the door. “But what of my belongings?”
The older woman motioned to the footman. “Secure Miss Mayer’s trunk to my coach.”
“Yes, my lady.”
“I will sit all the way to one side,” Ebba declared. “We may put Mr. Wagner’s portmanteau and Mr. Jones’s bag and the mail bag beside me on the seat. See. I take very little room. And if we could put the boy’s trunk on top, the men could walk faster. Maybe even ride the two remaining horses.” Ebba ignored the woman’s raised eyebrow.
Wagner flushed. “Her ladyship may have other plans, Miss Mayer.”
The woman chuckled lightly. “Heaven forbid I should interfere with such a thorough strategy.” With a flick of her wrist, she motioned for her footman to follow Ebba’s suggestions. “The additional weight shall slow our progress, but we’ll inform the Blue Boar’s proprietor of your peril. At least, your belongings shall arrive dry.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” Wagner bowed again and assisted the footman with the additional bags. After securing everything as needed, he returned to the coach’s open door. “Your ladyship, we are indebted to you for your generous condescension.” To Ebba, he said with a knowing nod of his head, “Miss Mayer, I will seek you out at the inn.”
Ebba nodded, and then the coach rolled away into the waiting storm.
For several minutes, the woman raptly eyed Ebba. Finally, she said, “Would you care to place one of the bags on my seat?”
Ebba purposely lowered her eyes in respect. “Your ladyship has been very kind. I would not think to importune you further.” She pulled Wagner’s bag closer.
A long silence ensued. “I know your name is Miss Mayer,” the woman said softly. “Yet, you are not curious regarding mine.”
Embarrassment flamed Ebba’s face. “I recognized your crest upon the coach’s side.”
Amusement danced across the woman’s countenance. “Then tell me my name,” she ordered.
“You are part of the Baxter family. The coach bears the emblem of the Earl of Merritt.”
The woman sat forward. “And you have a dislike for the Baxter name?”
Instinctively, Ebba looked away from the woman’s intensity. “It is one to which I would prefer not to be indebted.”
The woman sighed in exasperation. “I see.” Silence again. “I am Lady Hermia Baxter, formerly the Countess of Merritt.”
“Formerly?” Ebba forgot to stifle her words.
Her curiosity did not seem to disconcert the woman. “When a lady reaches a certain age, she maintains her husband’s title, but she loses her position in Society to the next generation. I have lost my husband and my son. My grandson now holds the title.” Silence returned. “Is there a particular issue with the Baxter name of which I should be aware? Especially, as you are sharing my equipage.”
Ebba bit her bottom lip. Debating on what to say, she finally decided on honesty. “My late maternal grandfather was one of your husband’s employees. He was the steward on the Hampshire property at one time.”
“And his name?” the countess demanded.
“Robert Gaynor, ma’am.” Silence. “My grandfather never spoke of the earl’s countess,” Ebba conceded lamely.
Her ladyship studied Ebba for several elongated moments. “How long ago was your grandfather employed in Hampshire?”
Ebba screwed up her face in remembrance. “I suppose it was nearly thirty years prior.”
“I fear my memory is not what it once was,” Lady Merritt admitted. “In those days, I would like to think I held influence over my husband, but, in reality, we kept traditional roles. I was betrothed to Spencer at birth. I never knew him before we were married. I was raised as a lady, a woman who assumed the duties of the estate’s mistress—of the household. I never dealt with the land or the manorial staff. That was Spencer’s domain.” Silence. “As it appears your family’s objection dwells with a man long passed, it seems you and I should make our own decisions. Do you hold an objection to my presence, Miss Mayer?”
Ebba blushed thoroughly. “No, ma’am. You were a God-sent angel of mercy.”
The countess barked a laugh. “I would certainly not go that far,” the woman teased. “Angelic is not a word customarily associated with me.”
Ebba smiled, despite her being uncomfortable. “I would say it a foreign word in describing me, as well, your ladyship. I am far from having hoydenish ways, but my brother offers more colorful adjectives regarding some of my choices,” she admitted.
Lady Merritt beamed in delight. “Good. I feared you one of those prim and proper moralists.” The countess adjusted her gloves. “Are you to London, Miss Mayer? Do you plan to take a position in our Capital?”
“As I travel alone and by public coach, it is obvious I am not to London for the Season.” A bit of sarcasm laced her words. She should have had the opportunity to make her bows, but life had a habit of slapping the faces of those who asked for more than they deserved. And she had been told often enough how she was “the least deserving” individual to walk this earth. “I simply wished to see some of the world before agreeing to a life of doldrums. Although I possess a small allowance, I mean to take a position as a lady’s companion or to work in the shops. I have some talent as a seamstress. My brother does not object to my coming to Town. He is happy not having me spend the rest of my days under his roof.”
“I recognized Mr. Wagner’s interest in your welfare,” the countess noted with a lift of her eyebrow.
Ebba blushed. “It was unforgivable of me to permit the gentleman to offer his protection, but a woman alone is an easy target. Mr. Wagner kept an honest eye on my safety.”
The countess smiled knowingly. “Men prefer to think we women cannot see to our own needs. As you traveled many miles together, I do not blame you for accepting Wagner’s attentions under the circumstances.” Silence. “Perhaps you would agree to dine with me, Miss Mayer. I am in need of company, and it would politely put a halt to any notions Mr. Wagner has formed about you.”
Despite her earlier protestations, Ebba considered the countess’s advice. Even though she had meant nothing by her actions, it was terribly wrong of her to mislead Mr. Wagner. “I would be honored, your ladyship.” Silence. “I apologize for my earlier terseness,” she added quickly.
“You had your reasons,” the countess conceded. “If you care to share Mr. Gaynor’s story, I would gladly listen. Perhaps my grandson might make his own form of amends. If you choose to keep your confidences, I shall understand.”
Ebba sat straighter. “If you will agree, your ladyship, it seems preferable for our meeting to be between two strangers, rather than what might have happened some eight and twenty years prior.”
The countess nodded. “We shall follow our own paths.” The sound of raindrops hitting the carriage interrupted their thoughts. That was quickly followed by a brilliant bolt of lightning and a crack of thunder. “We should arrive at the inn in an hour or so. It shall be none too soon.”
Ebba said no more. Instead, she stared at the slanted rain. She thought of the men struggling in the storm. If they had ridden the two uninjured horses, they would have to do so without saddles. It would be a miserable ride, but her taking the bags in Lady Merritt’s coach had lessened their obstacles. She congratulated herself for her forethought while chastising herself for permitting Mr. Wagner to place a noticeable claim upon her person. Yet, as she considered her foolishness, Ebba remembered the gentleman’s kindness. Possibly, I shall seek the man’s attentions again after my London adventure, she told herself. Wagner had told her where he lived, and, in her very limited opinion, the man would make as good a husband as any.
© 2019 by Regina Jeffers