Duty to the Crown

by Rebecca Cohen

Duty to the Crown - Rebecca Cohen
Editions:ePub - Second Edition: $ 6.99
ISBN: 978-1-63216-129-1
Pages: 210
Paperback - Second Edition: $ 14.99
ISBN: 978-1-63216-128-4
Pages: 210

Sequel to The Actor and the Earl
The Crofton Chronicles: Book Two

Despite the uncomfortable clothing and the gossip at court, Sebastian Hewel is still enjoying the role of Lady Crofton, wife of Anthony Redbourn, Earl of Crofton. But when Queen Elizabeth asks a favor of Anthony, Sebastian’s world fractures and his heart threatens to break. The Queen wants Anthony to seduce Lady Marie Valois, the beautiful daughter of a French noble, to discover the whereabouts of her father, who is wanted by the King of France.

Sebastian knows Anthony can’t refuse the Queen, especially since he has something of a reputation at court. But the situation is further complicated when Lady Marie meets Sebastian without his disguise—and starts flirting with him. Her brother, Lord Nicholas, arrives at Crofton Hall, not happy that his sister has been linked to a man like Anthony, only to find his own head turned by Lady Crofton and her acerbic wit. Contending with the attentions of both siblings—and a very jealous Anthony—would be bad enough. But then Sebastian’s uncle demands Sebastian and Anthony stage Bronwyn’s death to avoid discovery…

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Excerpt:

SEBASTIAN HEWEL watched with amusement as Anthony Redbourn, Earl of Crofton, tried to escape the clutches of Lady Tenmor, a widow with a fondness for men several years her junior. From his position to the side of the room, he had seen Anthony politely try to excuse himself several times, but she either didn’t understand his subtle pretext or simply didn’t want to. A servant offered Sebastian a goblet of wine, which he accepted, and despite enjoying watching Anthony’s discomfort he wondered if he should go to Anthony’s rescue or wait to see if one of the earl’s many friends at court would be his salvation.

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They’d been at Richmond for the afternoon. The palace was resplendent, befitting its status as one of the royal residences. Queen Elizabeth, although in residence, had not left the privy chamber, but had treated her guests to a spectacular display of birds of prey on the grounds of the palace. Guests were now waiting for the evening banquet to begin, and Sebastian couldn’t wait to sit down. An afternoon of standing in the heat of summer, coupled with the layers of Lady Crofton’s dress, had left him light-headed, and he was worried that he was in danger of fainting. He tried to gain some relief with his fan, but playing Bronwyn, the wife of Lord Crofton, lent him few ways of relieving himself of the heat. And on several occasions he’d had to stop himself from scratching under his periwig in case he dislodged it or swiping at his brow lest he smear his ceruse, the white paint even more uncomfortable than usual. At least the others at court also appeared to be suffering, but unfortunately not enough to stop them from gossiping.

Two women behind him were whispering about the latest scandal concerning the Duke of Norfolk and a married Italian countess, but spotting Sebastian, they changed their topic.

“I wonder what it is about her?”

“It can’t be her face. I’ve seen prettier horses.”

Sebastian turned to face them. They were two of the commonplace, overpainted women who floated around court with little better to do than hold inane conversations about the current fashions or spread malicious rumors. Usually he’d let the empty-headed chitchat wash over him, but whether it was the heat or the fact he was tired after a late night with Anthony, his patience had worn dangerously thin and he was in no mood to let it pass. “Perhaps if you spent less time talking about me and more time devoted to the needs of your husbands, you’d know how to keep a man interested.”

Sebastian didn’t wait for their answer—their scandalized faces were reward enough. He strode away, smiling smugly as he came to stand by the open door to a terrace, a vantage point that still allowed him to keep an eye on Anthony and offered a pleasant breeze. Anthony, dressed in a new golden doublet, was a striking sight, and Sebastian was happy to admit he would willingly pass the time watching his lover. The picture Anthony painted as he valiantly tried to remove Lady Tenmor’s hand from his arm without causing offence was as entertaining as Anthony was attractive.

“Lady Crofton?”

Sebastian turned his attention away from Anthony to see who had addressed him. He didn’t know the woman’s name but recognized her from a previous visit to court. He’d initially considered her one of the ilk more likely to whisper behind his back than talk to his face. She had sharp features, but while not classically pretty, he thought she was very beautiful with expressive green eyes, and, he noticed, she also appeared troubled by the heat.

“Yes,” he finally answered. “I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage.”

“Lady Abigail Foster,” she said, waving her fan. “I thought I’d introduce myself, since you seem to be all alone.”

“I’m waiting for my lord.” He nodded in Anthony’s direction.

“Ah, yes, Lord Crofton.” Lady Foster laughed. “How things have changed. You really are a miracle worker. It wouldn’t have been that long ago that Anthony would’ve been encouraging the dowager duchess rather than fending her off.”

Sebastian didn’t think he’d ever become accustomed to how some members of the nobility spoke their mind, as if their opinion was not only wanted but actively sought.

“I cannot for the life of me understand why people are so interested,” he replied, trying to sound dismissive.

“Because you are different!” She laughed again. “You have a fresh face and a sharp tongue, and the ability to tame one of the wildest men at court—of course people are going to be interested.”

“Well, I would rather they weren’t.”

Lady Foster’s eyes sparkled with amusement as she smiled wryly. “And I wish my husband was less interested in card games, but we can’t have everything.”

“I am hardly asking for everything.”

“Come now, Lady Crofton, surely a few wagging tongues are a small price to pay to have the court watching you in fascination rather than enduring their pitying stares, which was the case when you first came here.”

“Maybe so, but it does not mean I relish it—either way.” To hear that the views of court had changed was oddly comforting. Sebastian had no reason to doubt Lady Foster’s word, but equally, he was highly cautious of why she’d attempted to befriend him, and he had no wish to engage in further conversation. “I’m afraid you must excuse me, my husband may need me.”

“Of course. But don’t be surprised if it just encourages more talk—Lord Crofton rescued from the clutches of the too-friendly widow by the intriguing Lady Crofton.”

Sebastian couldn’t help but laugh at that. “Intriguing I could live with.”

He curtseyed, which Lady Foster returned, and approached Anthony, who resembled a deer trapped by the hounds of the hunt. He waved his fan and let out an overly loud sigh. “Oh, there you are, my love. Isn’t it awfully warm?”

Anthony’s relief was obvious. “My lady, I hope you are not suffering too badly.”

“I must admit that I am feeling a little faint. But I think a short walk in the gardens before the banquet will help.”

Anthony turned back to Lady Tenmor. Her eyes had narrowed in annoyance when Sebastian had joined them, and as Sebastian had spoken, her frown had transformed into a scowl. “You must excuse me, Lady Tenmor. I should accompany my wife—I would not want her to succumb to a fainting spell out in the grounds on her own.”

With Anthony’s hand on his lower back, Sebastian headed out into the garden. The relief of the light breeze was immediate and he sighed happily.

“Are you all right?” asked Anthony.

“Nothing fresh air and being out of the palace won’t solve. And I thought you might need a reason to escape.”

Sebastian took Anthony’s arm and they meandered toward a number of chestnut trees, their wide span providing a shady patch that Sebastian was glad to reach, and he thanked the Lord a bench was underneath it to sit.

“I really don’t know how you do it,” said Anthony, leaning over and picking up a fallen leaf.

Sebastian watched Anthony twirl the leaf by its stem. “Do what?”

“Wear that dress and everything that’s underneath it in this heat. I don’t think I could survive being wrapped in so many layers—the material of my doublet is bad enough.”

“Bronwyn can hardly spend the whole summer out of sight just because I’m feeling a little warm,” said Sebastian, and he saw Anthony’s brow wrinkle slightly.

“But that doesn’t mean I should drag you to sweltering London. Perhaps we should return to Crofton Hall sooner than we had planned.”

Sebastian smiled and laid his hand on Anthony’s arm. “You worry too much, my love. I’d be the first to tell you if I didn’t want to be here.”

They shared a tender kiss, Sebastian not allowing more in case Anthony smudged his thick white ceruse. “We should go back.” Sebastian stood up, but as he did so, a wave of uncomfortable dizziness assaulted him and he swayed on the spot.

Anthony grabbed him. “I think you need to lie down.”

“I’m perfectly all right.”

“Nonsense.” Anthony pushed him back to sit down on the bench. “Wait here. I’ll have the coach brought around and we’ll return to the town house immediately.”

Before Sebastian could argue, Anthony was striding away. He watched as Anthony stopped the first servant he came across, and while he couldn’t hear what was said, Anthony’s exaggerated arm movements left Sebastian in no doubt that the servant would be swift to answer his demands. His dizziness passed as quickly as it came, and Sebastian intended to tell Anthony that he had no need to leave. He didn’t want Anthony to remain at court on his own—and more importantly, not give the likes of Lady Tenmor the impression that, with his wife gone, Anthony was available—but Sebastian didn’t get the opportunity.

Anthony returned and pulled him to his feet. “The carriage is being brought around.”

“You worry too much. I am much better now.”

“I will not argue about this—you’re in no state to endure an evening at court. What you need is a good night’s sleep.”

“And whose fault is it that I didn’t get a good night’s sleep last night?”

Anthony grinned but schooled his features. “Even more of a reason that I should ensure you get one tonight.”

Sebastian let Anthony lead him back to the palace and through the hall into the entrance. The entire time Anthony’s arm remained around his waist in support. He had learnt many ways to deal with Anthony’s stubbornness over the last year or so, but none of them worked when directly confronted by it.

The coach stood waiting, the door already held open by a servant. With a sigh, Sebastian climbed aboard and resigned himself to an evening of reading alone in the town house, so he was surprised to find Anthony getting in behind him.

“You’re leaving too?” asked Sebastian as the coach pulled away.

Anthony appeared confused at the question. “Why wouldn’t I?”

“I just thought you’d prefer to remain at court.”

Anthony stretched out, Sebastian enjoying the view of his long legs. “After all the trouble we’ve gone to show the court how besotted I am with you, if I were to remain after you had been taken ill, they would doubt my sincerity.”

“Of course. And it does not hurt to add some realism to the ruse that Bronwyn often takes to her bed due to an illness that has left her physicians perplexed.”

Anthony leaned in close, and Sebastian shivered at the kiss placed in the crook of his neck. “Anyone would think you didn’t want me to return with you. Should I be worried that you are tiring of me?”

Sebastian laughed. “Hardly. But I will not pander to your pride, my lord. You have a high enough opinion of yourself already.”

With a playful grin, Anthony knocked him backward onto the bench. The action made Sebastian’s head spin and he gasped as the interior of the carriage whirled before his eyes. He flailed and his hand caught Anthony across the nose. Swearing, Anthony sat back, and no longer pinned to the bench, Sebastian slid ungracefully to the floor.

With difficulty, Anthony managed to help Sebastian back onto the seat without covering him with blood from his dripping nose. The two of them sat side by side, Anthony stemming the blood flow with the sleeve of his doublet, and Sebastian clinging onto Anthony in the vain hope that the world would stop spinning.

The ride to the town house was awful, and though the journey was a mere fraction of the distance they usually traveled between London and Crofton Hall, to Sebastian it was interminable. The smell of the city—which, although fetid at times, never usually affected him greatly—made his stomach roll. Every cobble the coach rattled across or rut that caught a wheel meant Sebastian had to fight to keep down the wine he’d drunk earlier.

If Anthony hadn’t been there to catch him, Sebastian was convinced that when they finally arrived back, he would have ended up sprawled across the ground in the courtyard at the Crofton London town house. He didn’t even complain when Anthony scooped him into his arms and carried him indoors, barking orders at a servant to fetch Miriam, Bronwyn’s maid, and to open the doors as he carried Sebastian upstairs.

Once behind the closed door of his room, Sebastian allowed Anthony and Miriam to remove his clothing. Each piece’s removal brought relief, the heat around his body dissipating as he lay out on the surface of his bed in just his shift.

“Should I send for a doctor?” Anthony asked Miriam.

Miriam brushed Sebastian’s hair away from his forehead, placing a cool cloth across his brow. “I don’t think so, my lord. Many ladies have trouble in the heat.”

Anthony hummed, and Sebastian was sure Miriam’s explanation did not convince Anthony, but didn’t argue. “If he’s no better in the morning, I will send for someone,” insisted Anthony, “and I think it fortunate that I had planned to take Sebastian to the theater tomorrow, without the trappings of Bronwyn’s dress.”

Sebastian drifted off to sleep, his exhausted mind blocking out Anthony and Miriam’s conversation regarding his health.

 

 

HE MUST have slept for several hours, for when Sebastian opened his eyes the room was dark save for a single lit candle. Surprised that anyone would have bothered to light the room since he was asleep, Sebastian rolled over to quench the candle, but a hand on his side stopped him.

“Go back to sleep,” ordered Anthony, who sat propped up on a pile of cushions reading a pamphlet, dressed only in his shift.

“What are you doing here?”

Anthony chuckled. “And here’s me thinking you would have welcomed my company.”

Sebastian struggled to sit up, relieved that he was no longer dizzy and the oppressive heat had lifted. “Oh, believe me, I’m not complaining, I just didn’t expect to find you here.”

“It’s not like me being in your bed is an unheard-of event, Sebastian.” Anthony set down the pamphlet. “And I had nothing better to do than read. I thought I could do that as well here as anywhere else.”

“I’m glad you’ve chosen my bed for convenience and not for undue concern over my health.”

One by one Anthony threw all the cushions he had been resting on to the floor, and then leaned over Sebastian and extinguished the candle.

“Surely you’d prefer to sleep in your own bed?” Sebastian asked in the darkness. “This one is nowhere near as comfortable.”

Anthony maneuvered Sebastian onto his side and curled around him. “I cannot be bothered to move next door—this bed will suffice for one night.”

Sebastian wasn’t fooled for one moment, but decided he would much rather have Anthony show he cared in such a fashion than for him not to show any care at all. “If you must, Anthony, but let’s not make a habit of it. I much prefer Lord Crofton’s bed.”

COLLAPSE

About the Author

REBECCA COHEN spends her days dreaming of a living in a Tudor manor house, or a Georgian mansion. Alas, the closest she comes to this is through her characters in her historical romance novels. She also dreams of intergalactic adventures and fantasy realms, but because she’s not yet got her space or dimensional travel plans finalised, she lives happily in leafy Hertfordshire, England, with her husband and young son. She can often be found with a pen in one hand and sloe gin with lemon tonic in the other.

First published in 2011, Rebecca primarily writes gay romance but in many sub-genres (historical, sci fi, fantasy, contemporary), and she simply can’t bear not to follow a story even if it is set in a different time, space or reality.


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