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Her Perfect Earl

Her Perfect Earl

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One priceless manuscript. Five untamed children. A widowed earl in search of an heiress. And a scholar-disguised-as-a-governess with designs on his library.

Has a happy ending ever been more unlikely?

Plain Esmerelda Fortune must make her own way in the world, which is difficult for a lady when the men of her class seem to want beauties with no brains. She plans to take employment with the Earl of Ashforth for as long as it takes to gain access to the Life of Corinna—a rare manuscript rumored to belong to the earl and the key to her paper for a scholarship prize. That prize will allow her to open a school for young ladies who want more from education than painting and embroidery skills.

Julian, Earl of Ashforth, needs an heiress or the Ashforth name and estates are forfeit. Julian is no stranger to sacrifice and duty in the name of maintaining the Ashforth façade of perfection. He’s resigned to marry for money, but first he must tame his unruly children. Miss Fortune seems the perfect candidate for the job—that is until the gray-eyed governess arrives at Ashforth Abbey and proceeds to turn his life head over ears.
One priceless manuscript. Five untamed children. A widowed earl in search of an heiress. And a scholar-disguised-as-a-governess with designs on his library.

Has a happy ending ever been more unlikely?

Plain Esmerelda Fortune must make her own way in the world, which is difficult for a lady when the men of her class seem to want beauties with no brains. She plans to take employment with the Earl of Ashforth for as long as it takes to gain access to the Life of Corinna—a rare manuscript rumored to belong to the earl and the key to her paper for a scholarship prize. That prize will allow her to open a school for young ladies who want more from education than painting and embroidery skills.

Julian, Earl of Ashforth, needs an heiress or the Ashforth name and estates are forfeit. Julian is no stranger to sacrifice and duty in the name of maintaining the Ashforth façade of perfection. He’s resigned to marry for money, but first he must tame his unruly children. Miss Fortune seems the perfect candidate for the job—that is until the gray-eyed governess arrives at Ashforth Abbey and proceeds to turn his life head over ears.

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Published by: BelleBooks Publishing House on Sep 13, 2013
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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10/28/2013

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Chapter One
England, 1822
ESMERELDA FORTUNE half hung out of the carriage window, ignoringboth decorum and the blustering of the Earl of Ashforth’s coachman.“Women. A great lot of trouble and not worth ’alf the bother!” Thecoachman’s imprecation stung, but Esmerelda Fortune ignored histhunderous objection. She could not come so close to the manor house
her 
manor house—without stopping. Her late stepfather, the Duke of Nottingham, had left her the property, derelict as it was. A man woulddesire to see his inheritance if he passed through the neighborhoodwhere it was situated. She was no different simply because she wasfemale.With a growl, the earl’s coachman turned the carriage off the mainroad and down the rough lane. The verdant shades of June shimmeredin the unkempt hedgerows. Spikes of ragwort and prickly thistlesflourished amongst the gravel of the short drive, but the slender, silverbeech trees along the lane stood vigilant guard. Esmie waited, breathheld, until the house came into view. A lump rose in her throat. To anyone else’s eyes, the modest manor house covered in ivy andsoot might appear as a poor dowager whose jointure had long run out. To Esmie, the damp, crumbling house was everything. Here, tuckedaway across the River Isis from the spires of Oxford, lay her future. The coachman pulled the horses to a stop in the overgrown drive,and Esmie scrambled from the carriage.“Five minutes,” he barked. “The earl don’t tolerate tardiness.”Considering that the earl’s offspring had driven off threegovernesses since Christmas, Esmie didn’t think he could afford to beintolerant, but she couldn’t afford to annoy the earl before she’d evenbegun her employment. She flung open the door and jumped to theground.Her steps slowed as she approached the house, and a fierce senseof possession spread through her, thick as honey. Here she was at last.Home. The ancient oaken door of the manor house had been placed askewin the façade, flanked on either side by irregular, mullioned windowsthat gave the house a topsy-turvy appearance. To Esmie, though, itwas as good as a palace. With trembling fingers, she fished the keyfrom her reticule. She had worn the metal surface dull from muchhandling, and it almost slipped from her fingers. Often, at night, sherubbed it for luck and dreamed of her future in this place, when shemight escape her life of service and call her days her own. The rusty lock proved a bit of a challenge, but Esmie would not be
 
denied. After some impatient jiggling, she coaxed the door open andstepped into the cool air of the foyer.Relief flooded her, allowing her heart to resume its normal rhythmas her eyes traveled over every feature. Nothing had changed, savethat the faded green wallpaper showed even darker streaks from thedamp and mold. Almost forgetting to breathe, she crossed the tiledfloor and opened the drawing room door. Here, the bits of furniture hermother had not sold out from under her had grown more faded underthe strong effects of sun through the curtainless windows. For the firsttime her spirits drooped at the visible price of neglect. Time wasgrowing short. The house could not stand inattention much longer andbe restored to its former state.One by one, Esmie moved through the familiar rooms, as if bystepping foot in each of them she could assure herself they still waitedfor her to make this her permanent home. Drawing room, morningroom, dining room—all lay empty, the plaster moldings andmantelpieces covered in dust. Upstairs, the six bedrooms remainedundisturbed except for the scratching of mice within the walls.Esmie leaned against a doorframe and allowed herself to indulgeher fancy. She pictured the bedchambers filled with serious youngstudents who would sleep soundly after a day of vigorous study. Thedrawing room would serve as a schoolroom. In the evenings, in theoak-paneled dining room, they would eat their simple fare, for thatwould be all she could afford. But someday . . . She had heard tales of the sumptuous dinners served in the halls of the Oxford colleges. Oneday her students, too, would feast on beef and turtle soup with asmuch enthusiasm as they feasted on Greek, Latin, and logic.She trailed her fingers along the rickety banister as she returned tothe ground floor. At the rear of the house, the medieval kitchenshowed the worst signs of neglect, but beyond the door, the overgrownfoxgloves still bloomed, and a few hardy asparagus pushed up throughthe tangle of the kitchen garden. Esmie stepped outside into the littlehaven before her and walked to the quince tree that grew in the cornerbeside the dissolute stone wall. Honeysuckle spilled over the top, fillingthe air with thick perfume. In the quince tree, the buds of the hard fruithung thick on the branches. By fall, there would be a good harvest anda great quantity of jelly to be made.Anxiety clogged her throat. Would she be here in the autumn tocollect the fruit? To establish a credible school, two things werenecessary: money and a reputation as a scholar. Unfortunately, shehad neither, but she did have a plan to procure both. Then the youngwomen in her mind’s eye would no longer be figments of herimagination but flesh and blood students, books in hand, ink stainedand hardworking and happy. She, Esmie Fortune, would beheadmistress of a school for girls, but not a frivolous seminary thateschewed the mind and taught only drawing, dancing, and the

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