I Kissed an Earl(4)

By: Julie Anne Long

“The one with very pale blonde hair—east of the entrance, near that emasculated-looking statue of some…Roman, I think? She’s wearing blue and has a feather poking up out of her headpiece? As I was helping myself to this…this…” Words failed him as he sorrowfully examined his fussy ratafia, but he rallied. “…I heard her say, and I fear I do quote, that she’d heard that the size of a man’s thighs was directly related to the size of his—the word she used was ‘blessing,’ but the inflection made her meaning unmistakable—and if that were indeed true then the new Earl of Ardmay’s blessing surely put Courtenay’s to shame.”

They immediately spent a moment in bemused silence in honor of the perilous little paradox that was the English female. They seemed as fluttery and brittle as their fans; their conversation—outwardly—was exquisitely polite and demure. And yet they used those very same fans to signal shockingly provocative invitations across ballrooms, and their stays lifted their bosoms up out of their bodices like pearls presented on pillows for a pasha to inspect. One gaze directed lingeringly at the wrong bosom and an inebriated, over-bred lordling would begin shouting about pistols at dawn. One right word and lingeringly directed gaze and one could be invited to hike up a handsome aristocratic widow’s delicate dress in an alcove at a dinner party and partake of the pleasures that lay between her thighs. Flint had been reminded of both of these things in his first few days on English soil. He’d apologized in the first instance and demurred with polite regret in the second.

“I don’t know which one Courtenay is,” Lavay added on a hush, since it was now impossible not to wonder who Courtenay was.

While Flint had met with the King regarding his mission and attended several tedious dinners in his honor attended by men who unsurprisingly begrudged him the resurrected title—born an English bastard, raised an American rogue—Lavay had spent considerably more of his time in the more hospitable environment of a brothel called The Velvet Glove. Flint spared a moment of longing for his Moroccan mistress Fatima, who had eyes like melted chocolate and a nose that ended in a hook and straight black hair that went on for ells and ells. Fatima would crook the finger of one hand while parting curtains between her sitting room and incense-scented bedroom with the other—this was the extent of her symbolic communication. And then she would clamber atop him, or he atop her, and they would spend an unambiguously sweaty and delightful afternoon. It was Flint’s firm opinion that societies lacking enough hard, honest work to do became needlessly intricate. The truth was: At the age of thirty-two, after traveling the seas for nigh on two decades, after having dined and slept in ships and prisons and palaces, having bargained for his life with princes and rogues, having captured criminals for bounties and made and lost more than one fortune, Captain Flint, mixed-breed bastard, privateer and trader, newly styled Earl of Ardmay, belonged everywhere and nowhere. He danced to no man’s tune but his own. The men in this ballroom could go to the devil for all he cared. He wanted what they had likely taken for granted their entire lives: an opportunity to build a dynasty. Something of his very own, something to belong to.

He’d need land, a fortune, and a wife. The land he coveted was in New Orleans, Fatima would do for the wife, as she was at least dedicated to his pleasure and comfort, but the necessary fortune remained elusive, and the seller of the New Orleans plantation was growing restive. A fortnight ago, everything had changed.

He ironically cursed again his fatal flaw, which is how he’d come to be in this ballroom in the first place: He never could leave well enough alone when it came to rescuing. He’d been anchored in Le Havre, wondering how to restore his badly depleted fortunes after a storm damaged his cargo of silk, when he’d rescued a drunken fool of a young gentleman from footpads in Le Havre. As it turned out, the grateful man was a beloved cousin of Lady Conyngham, the King’s mistress. Word of Flint’s heroics—which amounted to nothing more than swift swordplay and some menacing growls, really, though there were two footpads and one of Flint—reached her ear through Flint’s acquaintance, the Comte Hebert, in Le Havre. Which is how the King of England had learned about Flint and his talent for bounty collecting, and he’d seen an opportunity to both ingratiate himself with his mistress and to solve a sticky little problem on the high seas. He proposed to resurrect a grand English earldom and bestow it upon Flint. All Flint had to do capture a pirate called Le Chat who’d been robbing and sinking merchant ships, a number of them English, up and down the coast of Europe. The title was his to keep, as were the rich farmlands attached to it, lands that would provide a steady income—as well as require an enormous income to maintain.

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