Seducing Mr. Knightly (The Writing Girls #4) by Maya Rodale

Prologue

Young Rogue Crashes Earl’s Funeral

OBITUARY

Today England mourns the loss of Lord Charles Peregrine Fincher, sixth Earl of Harrowby and one of its finest citizens.

The Morning Post

St. George’s Church

London, 1808

DEREK KNIGHTLY had not been invited to his father’s funeral. Nevertheless, he rode hell for leather from his first term at Cambridge to be there. The service had already commenced when he stalked across the threshold dressed in unrelenting black, still dusty from the road. To remove him would cause a scene.

If there was anything his father’s family had loathed—other than him—it was a scene.

The late Earl of Harrowby had expired unexpectedly of an apoplexy, leaving behind his countess, his heir, and one daughter. He was also succeeded by his beloved mistress of over twenty years, and their son.

Delilah Knightly hadn’t wanted to attend; her son tried to persuade her.

“We have every right to be there,” he said forcefully. He might not be the heir or even have his father’s name, but Derek Knightly was the earl’s firstborn and beloved son.

“My grief will not be fodder for gossips, Derek, and if we attend it shall cause a massive scene. Besides, the Harrowby family will be upset. We shall mark his passing privately, just the two of us,” she said, patting his hand in a weak consolation. Delilah Knightly, exuberant darling of the London stage, had become a forlorn shell of her former self.

In grief, Knightly couldn’t find the words to explain his desperate need to hear the hymns sung in low mournful tones by the congregation, or to throw a handful of cool dirt on the coffin as they lowered it into the earth. The rituals would make it real, otherwise he’d always live with the faint expectation that his father might come ’round again.

He needed to say goodbye.

Most of all, Derek desperately wanted a bond to his father’s other life—including the haute ton where the earl had spent his days and some nights, the younger brother Derek never had adventures with and a younger sister he never teased—so it might not seem like the man was gone entirely and forever.

Whenever young Knightly had asked questions about the other family, the earl would offer sparse details: another son who dutifully learned his lessons and not much else, a sister fond of tea parties with her vast collection of dolls. There was the country estate in Kent that Knightly felt he knew if only by all the vivid stories told to him at night before bed. His father described the inner workings of Parliament over the breakfast table. But mostly the earl wanted to step aside from his proper role and public life to enjoy the woman he loved and his favored child—and forget the rest.

Knightly went to the funeral. Alone.

The doors had been closed. He opened them.

The service had begun. Knightly disrupted it. Hundreds of sadly bowed heads turned back to look at this intruder. He straightened his spine and dared them to oppose his presence with a fierce look from his piercing blue eyes.

He had every right to be here. He belonged here.

Derek caught the eye of the New Earl, held it, and grew hot with fury. Daniel Peregrine Fincher, now Lord Harrowby, just sixteen years of age, was a mere two years younger than his bastard half brother who had dared to intrude in polite company. He stood, drawing himself up to his full height, a full six inches less than Derek, and declared in a loud, reedy voice:

“Throw the bastard out. He doesn’t belong here.”

Chapter 1

A Writing Girl in Distress

DEAR ANNABELLE

I desperately need your advice . . .

Sincerely,

Lonely in London

The London Weekly

Miss Annabelle Swift’s attic bedroom

London, 1825

SOME things are simply true: the earth rotates around the sun, Monday follows Sunday, and Miss Annabelle Swift loves Mr. Derek Knightly with a passion and purity that would be breathtaking were it not for one other simple truth—Mr. Derek Knightly pays no attention to Miss Annabelle Swift.

It was love at first sight exactly three years, six months, three weeks, and two days ago, upon Annabelle’s first foray into the offices of The London Weekly. She was the new advice columnist—the lucky girl who had won a contest and the position of Writing Girl number four. She was a shy, unassuming miss—still was, truth be told.

He was the dashing and wickedly handsome editor and owner of the paper. Absolutely still was, truth be told.

In those three years, six months, three weeks, and two days, Knightly seemed utterly unaware of Annabelle’s undying affection. She sighed every time he entered the room. Gazed longingly. Blushed furiously should he happen to speak to her. She displayed all the signs of love, and by all accounts, these did not register for him.

By all accounts, it seemed an unwritten law of nature that Mr. Derek Knightly didn’t spare a thought for Miss Annabelle Swift. At all. Ever.

And yet, she hoped.

Why did she love him?

To be fair, she did ask herself this from time to time.

Knightly was handsome, of course, breathtakingly and heart-stoppingly so. His hair was dark, like midnight, and he was in the habit of rakishly running his fingers through it, which made him seem faintly disreputable. His eyes were a piercing blue, and looked at the world with an intelligent, brutally honest gaze. His high, slanting cheekbones were like cliffs a girl might throw herself off in a fit of despair.

The man himself was single-minded, ruthless, and obsessed when it came to his newspaper business. He could turn on the charm, if he decided it was worth the bother. He was wealthy beyond imagination.

As an avid reader of romantic novels, Annabelle knew a hero when she saw one. The dark good looks. The power. The wealth. The intensity with which he might love a woman—her—if only he would.

But the real reason for her deep and abiding love had nothing to do with his wealth, power, appearance, or even the way he leaned against a table or the way he swaggered into a room. Though who knew the way a man leaned or swaggered could be so . . . inspiring?

Derek Knightly was a man who gave a young woman of no consequence a chance to be something. Something great. Something special. Something more. It went without saying that opportunities for women were not numerous, especially for ones with no connections, like Annabelle. If it weren’t for Knightly, she’d be a plain old Spinster Auntie or maybe married to Mr. Nathan Smythe who owned the bakery up the road.

Knightly gave her a chance when no one ever did. He believed in her when she didn’t even believe in herself. That was why she loved him.

So the years and weeks and days passed by and Annabelle waited for him to really notice her, even as the facts added up to the heartbreaking truth that he had a blind spot where she was concerned.

Or worse: perhaps he did notice and did not return her affection in the slightest.

A lesser girl might have given up long ago and married the first sensible person who asked. In all honesty, Annabelle had considered encouraging young Mr. Nathan Smythe of the bakery up the road. She at least could have enjoyed a lifetime supply of freshly baked pastries and warm bread.

But she had made her choice to wait for true love. And so she couldn’t marry Mr. Smythe and his baked goods as long as she stayed up late reading novels of grand passions, great adventures, and true love, above all. She could not settle for less. She could not marry Mr. Nathan Smythe or anyone else, other than Derek Knightly, because she had given her heart to Knightly three years, six months, three weeks, and two days ago.

And now she lay dying. Unloved. A spinster. A virgin.

Her cheeks burned. Was it mortification? Remorse? Or the fever?

She was laying ill in her brother’s home in Bloomsbury, London. Downstairs, her brother Thomas meekly hid in his library (it was a sad fact that Swifts were not known for backbone) while his wife, Blanche, shrieked at their children: Watson, Mason, and Fleur. None of them had come to inquire after her health, however. Watson had come to request her help with his sums, Mason asked where she had misplaced his Latin primer, and Fleur had woken Annabelle from a nap to borrow a hair ribbon.

Annabelle lay in her bed, dying, another victim of unrequited love. It was tragic, tragic! In her slim fingers she held a letter from Knightly, blotted with her tears.

Very well, she was not at death’s door, merely suffering a wretched head cold. She did have a letter from Knightly but it was hardly the stuff of a young woman’s dreams. It read:

Miss Swift—

Annabelle stopped there to scowl. Everyone addressed their letters to her as “Dear Annabelle,” which was the name of her advice column. Thus, she was the recipient of dozens—hundreds—of letters each week that all began with “Dear Annabelle.” To be cheeky and amusing, everyone else in the world had adopted this salutation. Tradesmen sent their bills to her addressed as such.

But not Mr. Knightly! Miss Swift indeed. The rest—the scant rest of it—was worse.

Miss Swift—

Your column is late. Please remedy this with all due haste.

D.K.

Annabelle possessed the gift of a prodigious imagination. (Or curse. Sometimes it felt like a curse.) But even she could not spin magic from this letter.

She was never late with her column either, because she knew all the people it would inconvenience: Knightly and the other editors, the printers, the deliverymen, the news agents, all the loyal readers of The London Weekly.

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