It was a rare sunny day in Essex, and Leah felt the unfamiliar prick of sweat on her brow in the late summer heat. She breathed in the calm humidity, running her needle back and forth through the embroidery work on her lap in time with the hum of the nearby cicadas. Beside her, her brother had been reading aloud to her from some adventure novel, but as soon as it became obvious that she wasn’t listening to him, Michael had decided to save his voice. Leah didn’t mind; her thoughts were far away from the pretty meadow they were in.
As far as siblings go, Michael and Leah got along better than most. Their mother had passed away when Leah was just shy of ten years old, and their father hadn’t been able to face the world without his beloved wife. Just a month later, his health took a serious downturn, and his will to fight dissolved. By the time Leah’s eleventh birthday approached, she and Michael had lost both their parents. As the older brother, Michael had easily taken up the mantle as head of the family and took it upon himself to look after his sister.
Leah almost felt Ezra approach before she heard his voice or the sound of his horse’s hooves against the soft ground. She looked up to see her brother’s best friend looking very handsome atop a new steed, his hat perched perfectly over his brown curls. Leah looked away from him sharply as soon as their eyes met, more out of nerves than anything else. She’d been half in love with her brother’s best friend ever since she’d been a young girl, and constantly terrified that he could read her mind every time his hazel eyes looked into hers.
“I thought I would find you two here,” Ezra called out as he dismounted. Michael looked up and waved, urging Ezra to join them. Leah immediately curled her legs further under her skirt to make room on the blanket, and self-consciously tucked a piece of loose copper-coloured hair behind her ear.
“We have to enjoy all the country sun that we can get before we head to London for the Season,” Michael explained.
“Of course, of course, and what a Season it will be. Are you nervous to be coming out for the first time?” Ezra asked Leah. His tone and gaze were so direct that her cheeks flushed, and she had to swallow before answering. Thankfully, her voice came out with more confidence than she felt.
“Slightly, though it’s mixed in with a certain amount of excitement. I only wish that Michael wasn’t so furiously set on finding me a husband immediately. I must admit that it adds a certain amount of pressure to the whole matter,” Leah confessed. She’d wanted to convey more confidence, but honesty got the better of her.
“It can be overwhelming indeed, but your brother will take good care of you, and I’ll be there every step of the way as well. It feels like just yesterday we were running around the countryside pretending to be knights on our way to save you from our imaginary dragons.” Ezra and Michael laughed, and Leah forced a giggle. It was for that precise reason that she’d never allowed herself any hope that Ezra would ever stop seeing her as a kind of younger sister. Though there were only five years between them, she would always be a knobbly kneed girl to him.
“Yes, the years have flown by, and I’m eager to find a suitable match. Is there anyone that you think might be worthy, Ezra? You’ve spent more time in London than Leah and I combined, and you know the ins and outs of fine society. Father made it clear to me before he passed that he wanted Leah to be taken care of in just the way that she deserves. It is not enough that we find a gentleman of equal wealth and title. We must marry her to someone who can improve her way of life,” Michael explained. Leah bristled at the way he was speaking about her as if she wasn’t there, but to his credit, Ezra immediately turned to her and involved her in the conversation once more.
“I know just what kind of a man your brother hopes for you to marry, Leah, but what kind of a man are you hoping to meet?”
Ezra’s question left Leah more tongue-tied than ever. The truth was that he was exactly the kind of man she wanted to meet, kind-eyed and intelligent. Beyond that, she always had a difficult time not staring at the way his riding jacket hugged his long, slender torso, in contrast with his broad shoulders and strong arms. He was in every way her ideal man, and she was half worried that no one else would ever compare to him in her eyes.
“I…I’m not sure,” she floundered, not wanting to perfectly describe the man sitting in front of her, but no alternative adjectives or descriptors came to mind.
“You see, this is why she needs our help, Ezra. The girl doesn’t know what she wants or needs, but we’ll find someone quickly enough. You’ve grown into a fine woman, though the colour of your hair will put some people off, I’m sure,” Michael teased. Leah rolled her eyes at him. Of all the things she was insecure about, it certainly wasn’t her hair. In fact, she thought that the brightness of her hair complimented her emerald-green eyes beautifully. The effect had been described to her as “arresting” on more than one occasion.
It was the plumpness of her cheeks, set high in her heart-shaped face, that always made her frown whenever she looked at herself in the mirror. They gave her a youthful look that she wished to do away with. How would someone like Ezra ever take her seriously if she didn’t have the profile of the sophisticated ladies he was accustomed to associating with in London?
“I’ve always liked the colour of your hair, Leah. When you were a young girl, it was more of a pale blonde, but I think this kind of copper gives you distinction. There are plenty of blonde curls bouncing around London. It’s better to stand out, in my opinion,” Ezra explained. Leah forgot to breathe for a full minute. She’d never received a compliment so meaningful to her in her entire life. Could it be possible that he could consider himself a suitor to her heart after all?
The spell was broken almost immediately as Ezra continued to speak. “I can certainly think of a few gentlemen who might be appropriate. If finding someone with a good yearly income and attractive titles is your only goal, then I think you’ll find London teeming with such gentlemen. Whether or not they have anything in common with Leah is another matter entirely,” he joked.
Leah’s heart sank. As she’d suspected, Ezra saw her as nothing more than a sisterly confidant. The fact that he was so ready to offer up his recommendations for potential husbands told her that clearly, he didn’t consider himself in their ranks.
“It will be difficult, I’m sure, but I’ll do my best to find someone willing to marry you, Leah,” Michael teased again.
Leah’s more spirited side got the better of her, and before she thought it through, she pulled her needle out of the palette and pricked her brother lightly. He yelped and laughed.
“That’s what you get for talking about me so rudely!” she exclaimed before remembering that Ezra was still right in front of her. She was about to apologize for her childishness when she saw a letter lying between the pages of the book Michael had supposedly been reading.
“Who is that letter from?” she asked with genuine curiosity, reaching out for it before Michael pulled the paper away. She could’ve sworn that it was covered with the handwriting of a woman.
“No one,” Michael snapped.
“That can’t possibly be true. You can’t receive a letter from no one. Unless it was a letter that you wrote yourself and have yet to send?” Ezra asked, clearly just as curious as Leah.
“It’s not written in his handwriting, so it must be from someone else. Who do you think it could be from?” Leah leaned towards Ezra conspiratorially, forgetting her previous nervousness.
“Perhaps some kind of secret admirer. You aren’t the only Appleby heir in need of a spouse after all,” Ezra said playfully. Michael huffed in frustration, leaving Leah and Ezra chuckling to themselves.
“No, I’m not…I mean to say that finding a husband for Leah will require all of my attention this Season. Once I find a suitable man for you, Leah, then and only then will I begin to think of myself. I owe it to you and to our father’s final wishes.” Michael’s face grew serious, and Leah felt bad for a moment. She knew her brother just wanted the best for her. He felt the burden of their parents’ expectations on his shoulders and wanted to make sure he would be making them proud.
“You’re taking this all too seriously, Michael. It will be no great tragedy if I don’t find a husband this Season, and it would be joyous indeed if you happened to find a wife for yourself instead. After all, you are the eldest sibling,” Leah pointed out.
“That is neither here nor there, though you are correct about one thing. We are most likely to find success if you are genuinely enjoying yourself at all the various events. You must make some fast friends and find your allies. Tell me…will Mariah be spending the Season in London?” Michael asked. His tone turned to gentleness, which gave Leah pause. He’d never asked after her friend Mariah in such a manner before.
“Yes, she plans on being in town for the Season.…”
Michael interrupted before Leah could ask the reason for his query. “Good. She will be able to introduce you to many appropriate gentlemen. Ezra as well will be able to make some introductions. I have a feeling we’ll be celebrating your nuptials in no time at all.”
The conversation turned back to Ezra’s new horse, and Leah turned her attention back to her needlework. She wondered to herself if there would be anyone in London who could replace Ezra in her heart. Would there be anyone with his playful eyes, his same sense of ease and deep smiling dimples? Would there be anyone who made her heart flutter the way that one look from him did? Surely there could be. Surely Ezra wasn’t the only man in the country capable of turning her head.
If all went well, it would be a successful Season for both herself and her brother. Perhaps she’d be able to find a man like Ezra who thought of her as a woman and not a little girl. As she looked up at his handsome frame riding away at the end of the afternoon, she thought to herself that his would be difficult shoes to fill, but she owed it to herself to open her heart to someone else. Everyone who met Ezra was charmed by his friendliness and quick wit. It was only a matter of time before he fell in love with one of the many women who longed for him. Leah was well aware that she needed to prepare herself for that eventuality.
“Are you sure you can’t tell me who that letter was from?” she asked her brother cheekily after Ezra had taken his leave.
“My affairs are none of your business. Perhaps you’d better focus on your needlework. If you spent more time doing your own work instead of nosing into mine, then you might have more than five stitches completed!” he bantered.
Leah parried with another teasing comment, and the two of them dissolved into a playfulness that was very familiar to them. The prospect of her first Season was daunting indeed, but with such a wonderful brother by her side, she was sure to enjoy herself regardless of the outcome.
London was just as bustling and lively as Leah thought it would be, though it was the deafening sound of the city that caught her off-guard as she stepped out of the carriage and walked up the steps to the townhouse Michael had arranged for them to take for the Season. The sound of hooves on the cobblestone streets, the merchants calling out, the grumble of nearby factories and the constant clanging of bells was a far cry from the quiet country roads that surrounded their Essex estate.
“Be careful, miss!” a young boy said from behind her. Leah turned around to see him holding out a glove that she’d dropped, and she took it back gratefully before walking into the grand hall before her.
“Well, what do you think?” Michael asked, waving around at the high ceilings and marble floors before them. There was a spiralling staircase that seemed to lead up to the heavens with an impossible large window behind them, though presumably, they lead to the bedrooms. It was brighter than she’d expected it to be, and she smiled in astonishment as Michael led her through to the wide drawing room with windows that looked out over the courtyard in front of the house.
“I think it’s wonderful. I’ve always thought of London as so cramped, but this is quite spacious, really,” she gushed.
“I appreciate your enthusiasm, but you really mustn’t leave your mouth agape like that. No man will want to marry a woman who looks like a fish.”
Leah was vaguely taken aback by her brother’s rudeness, but it didn’t bother her too much. She was used to his teasing and knew that he was simply overwhelmed with worries about their future, though he needn’t have been.
“Michael, must you really be so insistent that I find a husband of greater fortune than we already have? We have all that a family could ask for and then some. I don’t understand the pressure to rise above my station.” After all, Michael was already the Lord of Harlow, and apart from finding some royal family to marry into, there was really no further level of nobility that they desperately needed to attain.
“I am simply trying to do as father asked me to before he left this world. He wished to see our family name rise and for you to have all that your heart could possibly desire,” Michael said simply before relaxing onto the chaise after their long journey. Leah likewise let herself relax beside him.
“Is there anyone in particular that you have in mind?” she asked sheepishly, knowing full well that she’d asked the question already. Really, she was hoping that the name of his best friend, Ezra, would come out of his mouth, but she knew it was unlikely that she would be so lucky.
“I know you are anxious about the matter, Leah, but you really must stop asking. I promise you that I will tell you the very minute that I come across anyone that might be worthy. In all honesty, Ezra was supposed to help consult with me on the subject and bring forth some of his own suggestions, but he’s been in the country for the past week or so,” Michael sighed.
“Oh? The country? For what reason, I wonder?” Leah inquired. Truth be told, her heart immediately sank, and she assumed that Ezra must have found some country beauty worthy of his heart. As long as she had known him, he’d never courted anyone that she’d known of, though it was only a matter of time before he did. Leah had spent the past two or so years resigned to some impending news of his engagement, though it never came. She could think of no other reason for Ezra to escape to the countryside when he already had an estate in Essex besides a courtship, or perhaps enjoying the lake country with a lady. She’d often dreamt of taking a trip like that with him herself.
“He’s busied himself with imparting his riding skills upon some village children, apparently. According to him, there’s been a rash of horse-related accidents amongst some children because their working parents are too busy to teach them how to properly ride, so he’s taken it upon himself to remedy the problem. It’s a noble cause to be sure, yet I find myself slightly resentful that he has not taken more time to aid me in my task of finding you a husband.” Michael’s exhaustion from the journey made him sound more vexed than he really was. If Leah hadn’t been so tired herself, she would have teased him for his callousness.
Instead, her mind immediately imagined the pleasing sight of Ezra atop a powerful steed, patiently caring for the children around him like the gentleman she’d always known him to be. She herself hardly knew how to mount a horse, but she would have given up the opportunity to learn in a second, if instead, she could just watch Ezra mid-lesson.
For a moment, Leah allowed a touch of hopefulness to enter her heart. Could it be that Ezra had avoided helping Michael find her a husband because he couldn’t face the prospect of her marrying another? Quickly she brushed the thought aside, as it was a foolish one. Ezra had never shown her an ounce of romantic interest, despite his platonic care and love for her over the years. It made her feel as if she was floating every time he paid her special attention, knowing that every other lady in a given room was likely seething with jealousy. Still, she knew he thought of her as family. His pulse did not race from her nearness the way that hers did for him.
“I see. Is he expected to stay in the country for long?” Leah asked, trying to keep a sense of casualness in her tone.
Michael shook his head and yawned, still slumped back in the chaise. “No, he will be joining us for dinner this evening, though now I am regretting having extended the invitation. Honestly, I could fall asleep right now. At least Ezra won’t mind my exhaustion. You may have to shoulder the burden of conversation yourself, Leah. It will be good practise for your future courtships.”
Leah nodded and smiled, though panic was rising inside of her. She had not planned to see Ezra that day. Though she’d grown accustomed to being unprepared for his presence over the years (as Michael’s best friend, there were some weeks Ezra spent more time at their house than his own), she’d wanted to make a new start in London. There she was ready to transform herself into the adult woman she’d grown into and shed the girlish dresses Ezra had come to expect to see her in. With the dinner hour fast approaching, there would be little time to freshen herself after the long drive. Instinctively, her hand went to her cheeks she was sure were deathly pale and not in the kind of glamorous way other ladies seemed to enjoy.
“H-he will be coming back from the country today?” Leah clarified.
“Yes, unless the children have held him hostage. He does seem to have a way with youth. They take to him very quickly.”
“Well, he is a warm-hearted, friendly person, so it’s only natural. He’s always been a good man. Better than the rest of us, most likely,” Leah joked. Michael did not smile, and instead, a cloud seemed to pass over his face, and he stood up abruptly.
“Yes, he is a good man and a good friend. For the sake of everyone, I think it best if friends remain just that…friends.”
Michael looked around distractedly, and Leah took a moment to digest his last words. I think it best if friends remain just that…friends. What did he mean by that? Could it be possible that Michael had at some point considered Ezra to be a potential match for Leah and then changed his mind? Or had Ezra expressed his interest in her hand without her knowledge, only to have then been rebuffed by her brother? The latter was far less likely but filled her with excitement. At the very least, it was a very strange comment for him to make and one that begged for clarification.
Unfortunately, the housekeeper interrupted to announce that Ezra had arrived, and that dinner was to be served soon, so there was time to further inquire into Michael’s meaning. Leah tucked the comment away, admittedly looking forward to the prospect of mulling over its meaning before falling asleep that night.
For the moment, the gracious presence of Ezra kept her distracted. His smile lit up the room immediately, and her heart skipped a beat as he kissed her hand in greeting, his hazel eyes looking up to meet hers as his lips met her hand. He had a special way of making her feel like the only person in the room, yet she knew from experience that he had that effect on most people. Still, she enjoyed the feeling while it lasted and completely forgot about her flyaway hair and dull skin.
“Ezra, how nice to see you. I apologize for our appearance. We’ve only just arrived ourselves. I’m afraid the journey took longer than we’d anticipated,” Leah explained breathlessly.
“I think you both look radiant. I can’t tell you how lovely it is to see you both here in London. Still, don’t feel like you have to entertain me! I can busy myself nicely if you need to refresh yourselves before dinner.” True to the Ezra she’d grown to know and love, he was again being thoughtful in all respects.
“Oh, I daresay you’ve seen us both in worse condition. Let’s go in to dinner. I’m famished.” Michael strode past Leah, greeting Ezra with a pat on the shoulder as he passed by.
“At the risk of delaying the meal, I might take a moment to change.” Leah glanced up at Ezra’s smiling face, hoping to escape any derisive comments from her brother, but she was not to be so lucky.
“Must you, Leah? That could take ages, and the rumbles that my stomach is making are echoing through my bones,” Michael whined in his brotherly way. Ezra laughed.
“Come, Michael, don’t begrudge the girl for wanting to dress for dinner. It’s perfectly natural, and I’d venture to say that you’re an animal for not wanting to do the same. Go do as you’d like, Leah, and I’ll manage your brother and his inconvenient hunger,” Ezra said with a chuckle before throwing an arm around Michael and silencing his protests. Before they left the room, Ezra looked back in her direction with a nod of his head, almost as if he was tipping his hat except that he wasn’t wearing one. The way his eyes sparkled under his unruly mop of brown curls was enough to make her swoon, but she held steady. She’d long considered how wonderfully the almost pretty perfection of his elegant nose and noble jaw was complemented by his messy, chaotic hair. It was a beautiful contradiction and matched his personality sublimely.
The housekeeper led her to her room, and Leah was pleased to find that she didn’t look quite as frazzled as she felt. Carefully, she picked out a dress to wear that was not too audacious, would not signal to anyone that she was attempting to make an impression, yet remind Ezra that she was no longer the little girl he played in the brook with as a child.
Perhaps it was her imagination (it likely was), but she thought she saw Ezra glancing up at her more than a few times during the course of the dinner. Her peach-coloured gown added a glow to her skin that she was sure he noticed. Whether or not such an observation was one of fantasy or reality, she nodded off to sleep that night, dreaming of the glint in his eye meant only for her.
“Two whiskeys, if you will,” Michael ordered as soon as he and Ezra walked into the mahogany lined club. Ezra chuckled to himself but resisted teasing his friend. Just a few hours before, he’d been complaining of exhaustion, but after a hearty dinner it seemed as if he was prepared to stay up the entire night. Truth be told, Ezra himself was feeling the weight of the day, but he was not in the habit of denying his friends. If Michael wished to close the night with a drink at the club, Ezra was more than happy to oblige.
“Well, what do you think? Is there anyone here you think might be a good match for Leah?” Michael asked, looking around the small dining area feverishly. Ezra glanced around but saw no one that he recognized or at least no one that approached a reasonable match for Leah.
The whiskey arrived, and Ezra took a sip, hoping that the draught would calm his friend somewhat.
“I promise, I’ll let you know the moment I think of someone worthy. In truth, it’s strange to think of Leah as being of a marriageable age. I still remember her scraping her knees on the boulders behind the stables as she tried to keep up with our capers. Now she’s…well, I suppose she’s a proper lady,” Ezra observed. It was true, her long hair that used to look like a horse’s red tail had been calmed into a strawberry gold that framed the delicate features Leah had grown into. That night at dinner, she’d looked like a proper lady and not the young girl he remembered teasing as a boy.
“In truth, sometimes I think I ought to have found her a match ages ago, but selfishly I will miss her company once she is married. Still, I must do as our father told me to before he died and ensure that she will be taken care of in a manner that befits our noble name,” Michael explained, almost dismissively.
“What of yourself? Do you think this Season will find a match for yourself as well? After all, you are even older than Leah. Perhaps it’s time for you to start thinking of starting a family.”
The question seemed to make Michael shudder, which made Ezra laugh.
“No, no. When father passed away…I was still so young. I’ve carried the burden of the family name and business for so many years now, I must confess that I’m looking forward to some time to enjoy myself once Leah is married. Perhaps it is selfish, but I think I’m owed at least a few years of smaller responsibilities to live my life the way that other young men do before settling down. Once I’m married…well, my freedom will not be a luxury I can afford, so best to take advantage of it now.” Michael’s eyes darted around the room, and Ezra could tell that he was not interested in continuing that particular subject of conversation.
It occurred to Ezra that what his friend claimed to be a desire for independence was actually more like fear. He’d experienced a similar feeling himself after his own father had passed away the year before. Of course, Michael had lost his parents at a much younger age. Still, even at twenty-four, Ezra felt the burden of familial responsibility overwhelming. The prospect of marrying and properly becoming the head of his own family was daunting.
“What about you, Ezra of Maldon? You’ve spent several Seasons in town now and have yet to show an interest in any of London’s finest ladies. Has no one caught your eye at all?” Michael pressed, a sly grin on his face.
Ezra smiled back and shook his head. “What can I say? I have no defence besides the fact that I suppose I just haven’t come across the right person as of yet. I’m none too worried, however. I’m sure that in time I’ll meet someone, and there’s no sense in rushing it.”
It was true. Ezra had spent many Seasons in town, dancing with the prettiest ladies England could boast of, yet he always came home feeling empty. The whole process felt superficial, and he yearned to find someone with whom he shared a deeper connection. Arguably, that was partially his own fault, seeing as there had been plenty of women open to getting to know him over the years, yet he’d held back his heart. His smile was easy, and he’d been seemingly born with a sense of effortless charm, but at times it was nothing more than a facade he employed to maintain a general pleasantness.
“Good,” Michael said definitely, leaning back in his chair as if they’d just reached some sort of business deal. “In all honesty, I’d feel rather abandoned if you decided to take a wife. Who would join me at the club night after night? I’ll be losing Leah soon enough, and she barely has the patience for me as is.” Michael’s self-deprecating sense of humour always amused Ezra.
“Come now, she won’t be lost to you. Yes, she’ll be living somewhere else, but who’s to say your future brother-in-law, whoever he may be, might not become another close friend to you?” Ezra pressed, forcing some positivity into Michael’s perspective.
“Oh, I’m none too worried about that. I already have so many requirements for whomever Leah marries, to insist that he also be the kind of man I could be friends with might be a bridge too far.” Michael waved his hand in Ezra’s direction dismissively.
“Well, if that’s truly the case, then you wouldn’t mind introducing Lord Browne, the Earl of Carthage, to your dear sister. He has quite an impressive fortune, his appearance is…tolerable, his titles almost unparalleled, and I’ve heard that his manor has the most beautiful gardens in the entire country. I believe such a list of accolades is enough to impress even yourself, Michael. That being said, he’s a notorious bore at best and seriously annoying at worst, so there will be no hope of the two of you becoming friends. He’s just sat down in the corner over there if you would like an introduction,” Ezra offered. He was only being half-serious but was surprised to find Michael’s eyes light up at the suggestion.
“Earl of Carthage, I like the sound of that! Which one is he?”
Ezra subtly gestured towards the portly gentleman sitting in the far corner of the room by the fireplace. He was at least fifteen years Leah’s senior, but certainly had income and fortune to sustain her every whim and desire. Many women had tried in vain to persuade him to marry over the years, but he’d stayed a staunch bachelor instead, preferring to toy with potential young ladies like playthings.
“A bit older than Leah, to be sure, but still, he has a head of hair. Has he never been married before?” Michael asked.
“Not to my knowledge. Be warned, I believe he enjoys the pursuit of a wife to marriage itself, but that’s not to say that Leah wouldn’t turn his head. I’m sure her coming out in society has piqued the interest of many, though I doubt any will have half the salary that Carthage can boast of.”
“Is that so…well, what are you waiting for? We ought to send over a bottle of port and introduce ourselves posthaste!” Michael exclaimed excitedly.
Ezra wavered for a moment, but he wasn’t sure why. There was no particular reason why Leah wouldn’t have been a good match for Carthage, yet he hadn’t really thought it through in a serious manner. The prospect of the marriage really going through took him aback somewhat.
He managed to keep his thoughts to himself and obligingly took his old friend across the room to meet the older Earl. Ezra hardly knew the man well, but his own father had been an associate of Carthage’s, and he’d suffered through more than a few dinners with him in his younger days. It wasn’t that he was completely intolerable, but there was just something about him that grated on his nerves, and he wasn’t the only one. Ezra’s father had tired of Carthage’s somewhat aggressive company by the end of their acquaintance.
His smile was too large, the grip of his handshake too firm, the volume of his voice too loud. Nothing you could point to as particularly bad, per se, just off-putting. When Carthage swung his cold blue eyes in your direction, it was hard to believe if his happiness was genuine, or if it simply covered a deep-seated anger.
“Ezra! It’s been too long. How are you my dear boy?” Carthage jumped to his feet as soon as he saw Ezra and practically crushed his fingers in a handshake while baring his teeth in a wide smile.
“I’m well, thank you. Please, meet my good friend Lord Michael Appleby, Earl of Harlow. He’s just come to town for the Season…with his younger sister,” Ezra announced somewhat reluctantly. Carthage’s eyes lit up at the mention of a sister.
“Ah, very nice to make your acquaintance indeed. Where, pray, are you staying whilst you are in town?” Carthage asked, clearly making a sly inquiry as to the wealth of Michael’s estate, to be judged by the street he currently resided on.
Michael went along with the line of questioning before engaging in his own, eyeing the Earl of Carthage up and down with a small smile. At one point, Carthage laughed generously at something Michael said, causing him to flinch slightly at the loudness.
“Well, I certainly wouldn’t want to be married to him, but it isn’t me he’s interested in. Leah would be able to manage him nicely, I suppose, and as you mentioned, I don’t need to be friends with the man necessarily. His fortune speaks for itself, and I’m certain my father would be pleased with the match. Thank you for making the introduction. I’ll be sure to introduce him to Leah just as soon as possible,” Michael said with a grin.
They toasted one another in a preemptive celebration, though the smile on Ezra’s face was a forced one. Something twinged uncomfortably inside of him at the prospect of Leah living out the rest of her days with a man like Carthage, and he regretted making the suggestion and the introduction in the first place. What had come over him, that he’d thought it a reasonable idea to say that it was unnecessary to develop a friendship with one’s brother-in-law?
Ezra’s mind flashed back to the sight of Leah’s bright green eyes looking at him from across the dinner table earlier that evening. The candlelight had sparkled against her flawless skin, and he would not soon forget the way her dress hugged her figure. He shook the image away. Clearly, there was something about the girl that had gotten under his skin, and it was likely the fact that she wasn’t a girl anymore at all. She’d grown into a fine young woman, and it would be a shame to have her married off to a man like Carthage. Perhaps after practically growing up in one another’s presence, he’d grown to consider her something…something more than just a friend.
As soon as the thought entered his mind, Ezra tried to distract himself. Michael, Leah’s brother, was his best friend in the entire world, and he could not risk their friendship over a vague sense of jealousy. Leah was like a sister to him, nothing more, and a marriage with Carthage would be nothing less than fortuitous for the girl.
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Lady Leah Appleby is a charming young woman who, after her parents’ loss, must tolerate her strict older brother. His desperate efforts to match her with a wealthy nobleman fill her soul with despair, as she watches the dream of her old unrequited love fading away forever. Her secret crush on her brother’s best friend is inevitably overshadowed by this grim reality that forces her to find a match by the end of the season. As fate would have it though, just when a proper and approved by her brother suitor claims her hand, her beloved Earl of Maldon will finally reciprocate her hidden feelings… Will Leah accept her miserable fate, or will she find the courage to reveal what lies deep in her heart?
Ezra Blythe is the attractive and vigorous Earl of Maldon, known for his kindness and love for horseback riding. His old friendship with Leah’s brother unexpectedly leads him to act as her guardian, making him responsible for finding her suitable partner. Little did he know though, that every time he would watch her even near someone else, his chest would tighten with jealousy. Never could he imagine that the woman of his dreams was standing right next to him all this time. Even though training her to ride to impress another man is heartbreaking for him, he feels trapped by his sense of duty. Will Ezra risk betraying his old friend’s trust by admitting his deep love for Leah?
As destiny encourages Leah and Ezra to grow closer every day, they will both get overwhelmed by their strong emotions for each other, and their love will start blooming in a way they never expected. Suddenly, as they find themselves unable to tame their growing feelings, they must either risk it all and listen to what their heart commands or consent to a loveless future. Will they finally admit their unique connection and reach for what they deserve, or will their fairytale be doomed to never blossom?
“The Earl of Her Heart” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.