Amelia Talbot has been issued a death sentence. At least it feels that way. The thought of marrying a man old enough to be her grandfather sends her into a panic. So much so that she sets off on a desperate search to find another man to marry her—quickly.
Conrad Croome, the Fifth Earl of Lofton, knows all too well that blackmail isn’t the way to form a marriage. How ironic that one Amelia Talbot uses a Croome family secret he’d thought long buried to force him to marry her.
Is Conrad doomed to a life of marriage based on an exposed secret, or could Amelia learn to love an unwanted earl?
LORD CONRAD CROOME, the Fifth Earl of Lofton, hurried toward the building. His entire jaw throbbed as if tiny men with hammers pounded away on his tooth. Or what was left of it. He didn’t want to visit that man, the surgeon-dentist, but short of pulling the tooth himself, which of course wouldn’t work due to his fear of the sight of blood, he had no choice. Slow footsteps plodded behind him.
Why in the world had she insisted on coming along? There were certain things a man must do alone. Screaming in pain while another man tortured him was one of them.
Alas, she’d given Conrad no choice. Bossy thing, she was. He stopped and turned, waiting for her to catch up. “Please try to hurry, Mother.” He rubbed his hand along his jaw. “I’m in agony.”
“Oh pish.” His mother, Miriam Croome, Lady Lofton, waved a chubby hand at him. “Don’t be such a baby, Conrad.”
When she reached him, she stopped as well. Not exactly what he’d intended. He should have just kept on going, as rude as it might have appeared to outsiders. But when had worrying about others’ opinions stopped him from getting his way?
The pain intensified, sending stabs of heat to his neck. Perhaps he was being punished for his past behavior. Toward his mother. Toward Lucy and Oliver. Everyone, really.
And don’t I just deserve it? He’d treated Lucy abysmally, dogging her every step for years, hoping to marry the girl just for her inheritance. And Oliver, now Lucy’s husband… Conrad had looked down on the man, scorned him for being something he was not. A lowly Sanctuary worker. It had been the shock of Conrad’s life when he found out who Oliver really was. And then there had been Conrad’s attempt to blackmail Lucy’s father…
His mother tugged on his hand. “Come quickly, then. Haven’t got all day to spend out here, now do we?”
Conrad rolled his eyes, which hurt. How could a sore tooth make everything from the neck up ache?
They reached the small ivy-covered building. Ghastly. The walls were crumbling and the windows were so dirt covered a person couldn’t see inside. Maybe that was the surgeon-dentist’s plan, though. Keep people from knowing the truth of what went on in there.
The pain. The torture. The screams of—
“Conrad.” His mother stomped her boot. The woman was so stout it was amazing the sidewalk hadn’t cracked.
“Coming.” More pain raced across his face, this time centering right below his eyes. He shouldn’t have rolled them at her. But honestly, calling him a baby? Now? Had the woman never had a toothache?
They neared the door. As Conrad reached his hand out, the door opened. A burly, unkempt man stepped out, one hand on a bandage near the front of his mouth. “May as well wait out here.” His speech was muffled. “There’s someone ahead of you.”
Perfect. “Thank you.” Conrad sighed. He’d finally worked up the courage to come here and now he’d have to wait.
Something hit his shoulder. He frowned and turned to his mother, whose gloved hand still hovered in midair, post smack. “Why are you thanking that man, Conrad? As a matter of fact, you shouldn’t even speak to his type. He’s quite beneath you.”
Conrad removed his hand from his jaw and rubbed his shoulder. “We don’t really know that, now, do we? Well, I’m sure you know…”
“Keep your voice down.” Her words came out as a hiss on the word ‘voice’.
He looked around. “We’re alone. No one to overhear.”
“Let’s hope not.” She edged closer and then stepped back again. “It’s past time for you to get that tooth removed.” She wrinkled her nose.
“I was afraid of that. I’ve had such an atrocious taste in my mouth that I wondered if others—”
“Oh trust me, Conrad. Others noticed. That might be why you couldn’t get Lucy Ashbrook to marry you.”
“It’s Lucy Shipley now.”
“No thanks to you.”
“I doubt my breath was the reason. Although I’m certain it didn’t improve my chances any.”
“If only you could have convinced her to marry you.”
“I didn’t love her. You know that.”
“What does that have to do with anything? You need to think about you.”
His mother mumbled something incoherent. “You need to do something and quick. We’re almost out of money.”
The truth was they were way past out. They were in the hole. Deep. “I’m trying. I’ll… think of something.”
She poked him in the chest. “See that you do. You lost your chance with Lucy, even though I told you exactly what to do and say. Now we need a new plan. I’ll not see my son living in poverty.”
Conrad clenched his teeth, a mistake, as a fresh wave of pain coursed through his jaw. “But since I’m not actually the son of an earl…”
A rustle came from behind them near the overgrown hedge.
His mother frowned. “Did you hear something? Is someone there?”
At that point, Conrad barely cared. All he wanted was to get the tooth out so he could hopefully regain his health. It was no wonder he’d had such foul breath and had lost so much weight lately. “I highly doubt someone is hiding in the hedge.”
“I suppose. Still…” She stepped closer, but covered her nose with her hand.
Conrad’s urge to roll his eyes again was strong, but not enough to risk another shot of agony through his eye. “I’ve known for years that you were—” His gaze flicked down to the ground and back. “—with child when you wed Father, but don’t you think I deserve to know who my real father is?”
Red patches flourished on his mother’s full cheeks. “How can you speak so indelicately of such a thing?”
He stared at her. “There is only one way to conceive a child, is there not?”
The redness faded from her face. She glanced away. “Believe it or not, I was young once. And young people often make stupid mistakes.”
“So you’re saying I was a—”
She paused only for a second, but long enough to put doubt in Conrad’s mind. “Of course not. But I wasn’t about to have my baby live in squalor if I could help it. Finding Lord Lofton was a stroke of luck. When I discovered his penchant for young women and strong drink, the rest was easy.”
“You make it all sound so romantic.”
She flipped her hand. “Sometimes in life, sacrifices must be made.”
“I’m sure your life would have been much happier, then, had I not been so inconveniently conceived.”
“Well…” Her gaze trailed to anywhere but his eyes. At the moment she seemed to be intent on his left ear.
The door opened and two women stepped out. The younger of the two wept loudly.
“I believe it’s your turn now.” Mother grabbed Conrad’s hand as if she thought he would make his escape. Which was exactly what he wished to do. He tried to pull away from her but her grip was like iron. “Come along, son. Let’s get this taken care of.”
Conrad swallowed hard. Cold chills ran up his back. He would have sworn his heart beat so fast that he might just expire on the spot. Each step closer to the door intensified his fear. They entered the dank, dreary enclosure and were told by a young woman near Conrad’s age to step through another doorway to see him.
Three little letters that terrified the very breath from his lungs. How much would it hurt? How much would it bleed? What if the surgeon-dentist was one of those quacks, who didn’t know what he was doing?
His mother pushed him. She would make sure he went through with the deed. He knew he had to do it, but wished she hadn’t come along. Wasn’t it embarrassing enough to have to come in the first place? How much worse for a grown man to have his mother literally shove him through the door? He could just hear the gossip now…
“The Earl of Lofton made a visit to the surgeon-dentist today… with aid from his pushy parent. Isn’t he man enough to go alone?”
While he might not be the true earl, he still deserved the respect of others because… well, because they didn’t know he was an imposter. There. Shouldn’t that be reason enough? At least, that’s what he’d always been told. He glanced over his shoulder.
A final push came from behind. Conrad half-skidded into the room of torture.
Him. The man, the one who would in the very near future surely inflict more pain than Conrad had ever experienced, stood next to a straight-backed wooden chair. His apron was covered in splatters of dark red blood and who knew what else. Queasiness assaulted Conrad’s stomach until he thought the contents of his meager breakfast would make an unwanted appearance.
Please, no. Not that. Not now.
He swallowed down the bile that threatened and tried to breathe deeply. A big mistake. The smells inside the room caused him to wish he could scurry toward the door for a quick gasp of fresh air. And that was saying something, considering he hated the outdoors.
“I’m Mr. Fletcher. Got a toothache, have you?” His hands were the size of bear paws. How, by all that was holy, was he going to fit them in Conrad’s mouth? And they did not look clean in the least.
Conrad nodded. I just want this over with.
“Have a seat, then.”
Mother stepped forward just as Conrad nearly wilted onto the chair. “My son, the Earl of Lofton, deserves the very best treatment. See that he gets it.”
Mr. Fletcher blinked at her and then lowered his bushy eyebrows. “Don’t I know you from—?”
“Just see to it!” She turned on her heel and scurried from the room.
Conrad flinched against another wave of pain. Searing agony exploded across his face, and he had no recourse but to endure it in order to gain relief.
The young woman who had told them that the surgeon-dentist was ready for them stepped into the room. She smiled at Conrad and patted his shoulder. The sensation was comforting and worlds apart from the slap he’d received from his mother.
“Just relax, now. This won’t take long. Mr. Fletcher is very good.”
All coherent thought fled from Conrad’s mind. “Wh-what’s your name?”
He stared at the pretty woman, suddenly afraid that if she didn’t hold him up in the uncomfortable chair he might just slide right onto the disgusting, grungy floor. It made him want to pick his feet up so he wouldn’t be touching it, but they were the only thing keeping him in the chair.
Mr. Fletcher stepped closer and smiled. The large metal instrument, bent and rounded at one end and pointed at the other, looked quite barbaric. “Open wide, please. This will only hurt for a minute.”
Only for a minute? That seemed an eternity. Conrad opened his mouth, just as he caught a whiff of blood from the man’s apron.
No… oh no…
Everything went dark.