Title: A Masked Earl
Author: Kathleen Buckley
Genre: Historical Romance
Eight years ago, Aurelia sparked a duel and refused both offers of marriage which might have saved her reputation. Ruined, she is resigned to spinsterhood, knowing she will have to leave her family’s home when her brother inherits. He has never forgiven her for the humiliation of the scandal. When at the request of its solicitor, she helps to determine the true heir to a neighboring estate, one of the claimants presents a challenge to her mind—and heart.
The search for the late Earl of Barlyon’s surviving son rips away John Barlicorn’s life in London’s underworld. If he ignores it, his mother and sister may be cast upon the charity of the next heir, a distant relative. Returning to Barlyon, he faces a rival claimant, the risk of being revealed as a criminal, and the fascinating Aurelia. But how can he marry any lady, given his own discreditable past?
As they walked, Aurelia was tolerably sure that the man beside her was the Earl of Barlyon. His pace slowed, and they fell a little behind Phoebe and her beau, which she thought reckless. However, the pair were not far behind Lady Barlyon and her escort.
“My dear Aurelia, or may I call you Aurie?”
The moon had risen. Being at the full, it flooded the way with light. So much for the Dark Walk! Romantic as that cool nacreous illumination was, those wanting more privacy for their courting (or dalliance) had slipped away, probably to the Druid’s Walk. Aurie rather wished they had returned to it. But given that they had this path almost to themselves but for an unaccompanied gentleman sauntering toward them and the rest of their party some distance ahead, it would do. The moonlight was a charming accompaniment to a ramble with a man she found too attractive for her own good. If indeed he was Barlyon and not one of the others. She stifled a sigh.
The oncoming walker exclaimed, “Aurelia?”
She stopped. The man’s back was to the moon, leaving his face invisible, but his form and his tone were all the clue she needed. “My lord marquess?” Her voice raised in pitch almost to a squeak.
“Who is this fellow and what pretensions does he have, that you are alone with him?”
Furness uttered the demand in a voice thunderous enough to frighten the bunnies in the undergrowth or any couples dallying there. Nine years vanished in a blink as she was catapulted back to the seventh of June, 1732.
Ahead of them, Barlyon saw Hawkins wheel around at the sound of Furness’s raised voice, inadvertently pulling Lady Barlyon with him. Then a slight man pelted past, startling Barlyon, who had not heard his thudding footfalls approaching, so intent had he been upon Furness. Who the devil—?
In the silence as he and Aurelia and Furness stared after him, the sounds of hasty passage through shrubbery were audible. Before he reached Lady Barlyon and Hawkins, the runner cut into the thicket at an oblique angle.
Aurelia breathed in sharply. “Where have they gone?”
His mother and Hawkins had been first in their procession, and he and Aurelia had been third. Now there was no one between them.
The girl must have bolted into the trees; Sol would be following her, as areas off the walks sometimes harbored robbers or men who molested women. While guards were posted at the ends of the walks to prevent assaults, they could not be everywhere.
Not that lurking ruffians were the chief danger. That distinction belonged to Phoebe and her brother, if it were he. Damnation! He had expected some member of the Stanwood chit’s family to be lying in wait for her to decoy him into a compromising situation. The attempt would have to come now, just when Furness had created a crisis.
Barlyon would have to follow. Hawkins could not pursue the fellow because he could not drag Barlyon’s mother through the trees and brush, certainly not fast enough to do any good. Instead he was ambling back toward Barlyon with Lady Barlyon, who could not walk swiftly in her delicate, heeled shoes. The presence of two more people might calm the waters, leaving Barlyon free to deal with the girl and her defender.
Furness, ignorant of what Barlyon and Aurelia were all too aware, spat out, “If you are no seducer, unmask and give me your name.”
Lady Barlyon withdrew her arm hurriedly as she and Hawkins reached them and tripped to Aurelia, who looked nigh to swooning. Drawing her aside, she put her arm around Aurie and whispered reassurances.
Barlyon pulled off his mask. “Barlyon. À votre service.”
The icy, drawled words and French phrase were as unlike John Barlicorn’s careless, cant-filled diction as he could make them.
“Barlyon…” The man’s face was in shadow, masking his expression, but something in his pensive tone prompted Hawkins to interrupt.
“Sir, your words and manner distress the ladies. What cause have you to accost my friend?” Hawkins had left home at an early age—like himself, come to think of it—but he too could mimic the beau monde’s speech, even if in Wapping he often sounded like the veriest Jack Tar.
“Earl or no, he has separated Mistress Aurelia from her party, enticing her into indiscretion. My dear, let me help you out of your difficulty.”
Aurelia, to whom this was addressed, had recovered from her momentary alarm rather than being plunged into a fit of vapors. Barlyon liked a woman with courage.
“My lord, I was in no difficulty whatsoever until you approached and accused me of impropriety. May I present the Earl of Barlyon and…” She hesitated. He had not introduced the two other men by name.
“Hawkins,” Barlyon interpolated.
“Mr. Hawkins. Robert Sedgewick, Marquess of Furness.”
Hawkins gave a curt nod.
To Barlyon’s surprise, his mother entered the fray. “Lord Furness. Mistress Aurelia was not separated from her party. I and another lady, accompanied by Mr. Hawkins and another gentleman, were a few steps ahead, close enough to hear your outburst.”
“Which seems to have terrified Mistress Phoebe Stanwood, Baron Axton’s daughter, into precipitate flight into the woods,” Barlyon added.
“Lord Barlyon, should we not attempt to find her?” He knew Aurelia well enough now to recognize her unease. She had not mentioned that Sol must have gone after the girl, which was probably as well.
“I mean to do so at once, now that Hawkins and my mother are with you. If you will excuse me, Furness?”
“Go, by all means.” He turned to face Aurelia. “My dear, we had an understanding.”
Furness caught her by the wrist before she could move away.
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When you think you’ve left your old life behind, sometimes fate drags you back. When you’ve resigned yourself to a bleak future, sometimes fate gives you a second chance. Aurelia’s opportunity comes in the guise of a mystery, Barlicorn’s by taking up an unwelcome duty. Even when the burden seems too heavy, or the chance of success too small, can you turn it down? Would you?
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Kathleen Buckley has wanted to write since her childhood in Alaska. Until she retired from a career as a paralegal with side trips into temporary work, light bookkeeping, and a stint as a security officer, her writing was mostly limited to instructions for office procedures, legal documents, and post orders. Creative writing remained little more than a hobby. Then she wrote An Unsuitable Duchessin an attempt to write historical romance in the style of Georgette Heyer’s Black Moth. When it was accepted, she kept writing: the second, Most Secret, was followed by Captain Easterday’s Bargain and A Masked Earl. She expects the fifth, A Duke’s Daughter, to come out in Spring, 2020. No bodices are ripped in her books, though her characters do sometimes use language stronger than “Zounds!”
She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, has cats, and enjoys studying earlier periods and especially reproducing the foods of those periods. At the moment, she is concentrating on 18th century baked goods. Apart from that, she writes historical romance (or maybe historical fiction with a strong romantic element) set in the 1740s.
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