Defying the Earl

Defying the Earl by Anabelle Bryant

Book: Defying the Earl by Anabelle Bryant Read Free Book Online
Authors: Anabelle Bryant
    Valerian did not expect to see his brother at Lady Bitford’s. A countryside garden party in the middle of the afternoon seemed the least likely place he’d find Jasper and Randolph, but find them he did. He’d taken only three steps down the well-worn path leading away from the folly when he recognized his brother’s laughter, the two men in conversation while skipping stones and disrupting an otherwise peaceful lake.
    “Gentlemen.” Valerian closed the space between them with his greeting, relieved to be introduced to Beaufort, the man who had generously opened his home and remained absent or unconscious since. “I’m surprised to see you here, Jasper. You’re usually in a deep drowse well past three. A garden party strikes me as an improbability within your libidinal lifestyle.”
    The brotherly jibe did not miss its mark and Randolph burst out laughing at his friend’s expense, the silver, azure and magenta threading on his finely embroidered waistcoat glinting in the afternoon sun as his body shook with amusement. “Usually we wouldn’t. Isn’t that true, Jasper? But it was time we ventured into the daylight. The last few nights we’ve spent hours under the moon.” Randolph leaned forward and lowered his voice as if revealing a confidence of great importance. “We’ve a bit of an experiment underway.”
    Randolph sent Jasper a knowing stare and a jovial snigger. Valerian watched closely as his brother slued his eyes to the sky, seemingly uncomfortable with admitting to such complicity.
    “We will talk about it later.” Valerian offered a tolerant smile.
    “Already you’re filled with vexation and you don’t know the half of it.” Jasper huffed a short breath and presented his brother the stone in his palm.
    Immune to his brother’s diversionary tactics, Val would not be distracted. “Be warned I expect the unvarnished truth and not the usual flummery.”
    Jasper offered his palm higher. “Why don’t you skip one? You’ve always had a lighter hand than I.”
    The double entendre was lost on Randolph, who appeared preoccupied with a trio of ladies strolling across the arched footbridge at the other end of the lake, but Val recognized his brother’s conciliatory tone and breathed a cleansing exhale before he replied.
    “No, I’ll leave you to your practice, but heed my earlier advice and keep to the festivities that won’t worsen our condition.” It was as eloquent a warning as he could muster considering he did not wish to embarrass his brother further.
    Dismissing the two, he arrived at the entrance to the expansive gardens yet neither Leonard nor Wilhelmina waited. Instead Fiona stood alone under a large wooden arbor, the whitewashed lattice overgrown with yellow tea roses framing the lady in a halo of beauty, a contrast to her expression, hardly serene. Something looked amiss as she shifted from foot to foot with impatience. Beneath the vine-covered arbor, cloaked in shadow, it was likely no one could discern her presence, but having approached from the opposite direction, Valerian was able to follow her line of vision straight across the green to where Leonard and Wilhelmina traversed. A well-meaning guest had waylaid them and their progress appeared stalled.
    “They will arrive within minutes.” Some long-lost empathy evoked the consoling comment. It would serve his purpose well if Leonard meandered with no meaningful purpose toward the gardens. Surely Leonard knew Fiona waited. His dalliance could only be considered an insult, but still he chatted amiably with Wilhelmina and each passerby who paused to offer conversation. Valerian should be thrilled at the effortless ease in which his
proceeded. Instead an unexplainable and desolate bleakness chased his words.
    “He doesn’t seem anxious to spend time with me. I might have perished from thirst had I truly desired lemonade.” She tapped her fingertip against her chin and flicked Valerian a narrowed stare

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