Naughty Excerpt: THE ENCHANTED EARL m/m fantasy
The Enchanted Earl (MM)
Elven Treasure 1
[Siren Classic ManLove: Erotic Alternative Fantasy Romance, M/M, elves]
Mark Rampling, an openly gay young Englishman with little interest in history or his own aristocratic background, is less than thrilled when he inherits an earldom from his elderly, childless uncle. Even worse, the estate itself is run-down and nearly bankrupt. It is, however, surrounded by a deep, lush forest.
To distract himself, Mark goes walking in the woods and encounters Dorian Fairchild, a strange but alluring man whose clothing and mannerisms seem more suited to another century. Though the attraction between them is instantaneous and their forest encounters are smoldering hot, Mark soon discovers that Dorian has a secret that may make their love impossible.
A Siren Erotic Romance
THE ENCHANTED EARL
Elven Treasure 1
Copyright © 2011
“Will you require tea, my lord?”
It took Mark Rampling a moment to realize that Anthony was speaking to him. Grasping the cord around his neck, he jerked the iPod buds out of his ears and looked up.
An apology rose to his lips, but he choked back the words with a blush. An earl, including one who had held the title for less than twenty-four hours, didn’t ask his butler’s pardon. At least, Mark assumed that was the protocol.
He marveled that people even had butlers in the twenty-first century. Now, like it or not, he had one…not to mention a title, a run-down manor house, and a nearly bankrupt estate. What choice did he have but to act as though he knew the ropes? Anthony, who looked old enough to have changed Queen Victoria’s diapers, had always been a stuffy sort who wanted things done in the traditional manner. He seemed nonplussed at gaining a new employer, which was understandable considering that he had served Mark’s uncle for as long as anyone remembered. He wished he could find a way to let the old man know the discomfort was mutual.
Mark cleared his throat and attempted to look haughty, the way noblemen did in costume dramas on the BBC. “No, thank you, Anthony. I’m not in the mood for tea. My mother and Jason can have some, if they’d like.” His voice sounded shaky. Good thing he’d never longed to take up acting, he thought. Nonetheless, he soldiered on. “And my stepfather, too, obviously.”
Anthony tipped his wizened head to one side. “The three of them have gathered in the drawing room to await your arrival. Your mother requested that I inform you.”
“You may assure my mother that I have been duly notified. Meanwhile, you can go ahead and serve them.” Mark eyed the front door with sudden longing. “As for me, I think I’d prefer to get out for a bit. Maybe take a walk in the woods.”
“I would advise against it, my lord. Rain is expected, and dinner will be served shortly.”
“I’ll wear a jacket, then. And I’ll be back long before the food gets cold.”
“But my lord—”
“I appreciate your concern, Anthony, but it isn’t necessary. I’d like to have a look around my new estate. I’m sure things have changed since I last visited my uncle. That was years ago.”
Anthony’s skeptical expression never wavered. “I feel I must caution your lordship that the trees are thick and the paths unmarked. Your late uncle seldom ventured very far for fear of becoming lost. And I might venture to add that, unless he was indisposed, the former earl never missed his afternoon tea.”
“Well, I’m sure Uncle Edwin had his reasons on both counts. I’m grateful for your concern. But I’ll be careful, and I can take my cell phone with me.” Mark fished it out of his pocket and held it up, just in case the old man was so out of touch he wasn’t familiar with such a modern device.
Anthony raised his thick white brows in disdain. He averted his gaze from the phone as though he found its very appearance offensive. “I doubt there would be adequate reception out of doors, sir. The forest is quite dense.”
“I promise I’ll be fine.” Mark pushed up his sleeve and thrust out his wrist. “My watch even has a compass.”
“All the same—”
“Your objections are noted, Anthony. Thank you.”
Despite Anthony’s nervous look, or perhaps because of it, Mark cut the debate short and headed for the foyer, grabbing his windbreaker from the rack as he passed.
As he hurried out the door, Mark regretted letting his impatience flare, but the funeral and all that followed had worn his nerves paper-thin. After the endless parade of guests expressing formulaic condolences, local reporters, and solicitors, all of them far more excited about his inheritance than Mark himself, he craved some time alone. Enjoying the vast expanse of nature surrounding the manor seemed an ideal diversion before he had to face his family again at the dinner table. Why was Anthony so dead-set against it?
The moment he stepped outside, he felt as though he could breathe for the first time in days. The air in the decrepit old house—his house now—felt stale enough to choke him, but the atmosphere of prim respectability and the crushing expectations of his mother had almost finished him off.
Ever since Mark’s father had died, Eleanor Rampling had spoken of his great destiny as the future earl of Sidwell. He had never taken her seriously, assuming Uncle Edwin would eventually produce a son of his own. Only later, when Mark had realized the truth about himself, had he understood Eleanor’s certainty.
So here he was, holder of an outdated and irrelevant title at the age of twenty-four. His mother’s fondest wish for her older son had come true. He hoped his new status would make up for some of the other disappointments he’d caused her, like leaving university without a degree and turning out more like his Uncle Edwin than she could have imagined. After all, Mark wasn’t about to marry and produce future earls, either. He’d have to leave procreation, along with the brilliant legal career, to his younger brother, Jason.
He crossed the vast lawn, the overgrown grass and straggly weeds dragging at his boots, pausing only to inspect the massive stone fountain dominating the middle of the lawn. Sadly, the water had dried up long ago, and a layer of grime encrusted the carved dragon in the center. Dead leaves and other debris littered the basin.
Mark sighed. Uncle Edwin had certainly let the place go to seed, both inside and out. Restoring Sidwell Manor would take a small fortune and superhuman determination. Unfortunately, Mark possessed neither.
At least the woods required little upkeep beyond the posting of a few “No Trespassing” signs. Then again, it didn’t look like a single soul, trespasser or otherwise, had journeyed past the tree line in years, maybe decades. Mark had never seen a more pristine, or a more primeval-looking, forest. Pure silence, unbroken even by birdcalls, surrounded him. The path was thin and threadlike, forcing him to kick his way through brush and brambles in certain places.
Having gone on nature walks before, Mark knew how to memorize landmarks and check his watch from time to time to facilitate his eventual return. Luckily, he found an abundance of remarkable sights to use as signposts. Around him loomed an army of odd, gnarly trees that had probably been growing since the founding of the estate in the days of Queen Elizabeth I. Strange vines bristled with prickles, and dark misshapen leaves drooped from their outstretched limbs. Vaguely menacing rock formations lurched from the uneven ground at various angles, like hulking creatures pushing their way up through the soil. On the whole, his uncle’s private forest looked more like the set of a dark fantastical movie than a nature preserve.
He shuddered. No wonder people tended not to wander around the area. For some reason, though, the sheer grotesqueness of it all fascinated him. He marched on as if mesmerized.
Things soon got creepier. After a while, the sunlight began to fade, smothered by the tangle of overgrown branches overhead. The deeper he got, the cooler and sharper the air became. His windbreaker soon wasn’t enough. He hugged his arms together and shivered. Anthony had mentioned the possibility of rain—much as Mark hated the idea of spending the hours until dinner cooped up with his family, he wondered if perhaps he ought to head back.
Pausing, he opened his palms to check for droplets. He felt nothing, but he did spot a flash of movement a few paces ahead of him. A brief flutter of white cloth against the leaves told him the intruder wasn’t an animal.
So much for the virgin forest.
“Hey!” he shouted.
The bushes swished as the intruder stopped for a moment and then dashed away.
“Excuse me! This is private property!” Mark gave chase, though he wasn’t sure why. It occurred to him that he might have stumbled upon a transient who had been camping here and who could react violently to being rousted. Still, the guy was an unwelcome guest…and besides, after a long weekend cooped up indoors in a dark suit, Mark was eager for a diversion of any kind.
They ran, crashing through the brush, leaping over rocks and fallen trees. The stranger, no doubt familiar with the landscape and its rough features, easily kept a substantial lead. No matter how thick the brambles or how rocky the ground, he didn’t seem to slow down at all. In stark contrast, Mark soon found himself growing winded. He’d always been reasonably athletic, but the harsh terrain proved too much of a strain on his body. Before long, his chest started to burn, and the muscles in his legs ached.
Something else was slowing him down, too. Around him, the forest itself began to change. The air grew warmer and thicker, more like midsummer than early October. Though the massive trees still towered above him, their trunks now looked smoother and their limbs less grotesque. Bright sunlight poured through the gaps in the lush canopy of vibrant leaves.
Under his light jacket, Mark’s body began to swelter. As he loped along, he fumbled to peel it off and tie the sleeves around his waist. While he did, he caught a glimpse of the compass embedded in his watch. To his astonishment, the needle was swinging wildly back and forth, and the hands hadn’t moved at all since the last time he’d looked.
“Damn!” he muttered. Considering the price, he’d expected it to stay functional a little longer. He cursed Anthony for good measure, too, for tricking him into taking the jacket.
A few paces ahead of him, the runner paused and looked back. Mark heard the burble of water and noticed a sparkling stream winding its way between the trees. The man he’d been chasing stood on the banks, watching Mark as though waiting for him to catch up. When he did, the man went into a half-crouch, tensed his body, and sailed across the brook in a single, graceful leap. When his feet landed on the opposite bank, the stranger turned and faced him. Mark caught up and stood at the edge of the brook, gazing at him in wonder.
If this guy was a vagabond, he looked like he had wandered in from another century rather than a remote area of the estate. Tall and lanky, he wore a wide-collared white shirt, tied shut with a jaunty white-and-gold neckcloth. The frayed cuffs of his green swallow-tailed coat stopped just above his slender wrists, and his button-fly pants reached only to his knees. To Mark’s surprise, his feet and calves remained bare. How had he been able to sprint so efficiently through the woods?
More striking still were the man’s pale, flawless skin and startling green eyes. Spiky blond hair dragged against his collar, framing his face in a vivid burst of gold.
For one wild moment, Mark wondered if some kind of costume event or Renaissance Faire was going on in another part of the woods. Great—all he needed was for one of them to die in an accident or overdose on drugs, and the estate’s financial woes would increase exponentially. His brief exposure to law classes had taught him enough to know that places of Sidwell Manor’s stature attracted lawsuits like magnets, whether their owners had money or not.
“Who are you?” Mark asked, planting his feet in a way he hoped would command respect. When the man peered at him without responding, he sighed in exasperation. “Listen, mate, I want to know who you are and why you’re trespassing on my property. So speak up.”
The man tilted his head, causing flaxen strands of hair to brush his left shoulder. When his soft lips curved in a smile and his white teeth flashed in the sun, Mark felt an unexpected stirring between his legs. He struggled to keep his expression neutral. Until he knew what sort of trouble this fellow represented, he couldn’t afford to let his guard down.
“Well? Are you going to answer me? You do speak English, I assume.”
The man laughed. “Yes, I speak your language. I have been called Dorian Fairchild for as long as I can remember. If I had another name before then, I no longer know what it was,” the stranger said. Coming from anyone else, it would have sounded like a smart-ass response. With him, though, it seemed to fit. Mark noticed his voice had an odd but pleasant lilting quality. Perhaps he really was some kind of actor. “As far as trespassing, this property belongs to the Earl of Sidwell.”
Mark couldn’t resist puffing a little. “Damn right. And that’s just who you’re looking at.”
The man’s delicate face registered surprise. Then, in a flash, a grimmer expression took its place. “Yes…I heard the old earl was dead, and another would soon take his place. Yet you are not his son.”
The statement was issued as a challenge—or a test, maybe.
“No. His nephew. Uncle Edwin died childless. My father would have inherited the title, but he died ten years ago. That leaves me.”
“The last of a long and illustrious line,” Dorian said wistfully. “You are younger than I expected. Yet you resemble your uncle. I can see the common features now.”
“You have no idea.” Mark bit back a smirk. “Did…ah…did you know him well?”
“I had not spoken with him in some time,” Dorian admitted. “Yet I always honored and respected him.”
“I see.” Mark began to get the picture. Obviously, his uncle had made some kind of arrangement with this guy, and possibly a bunch of other squatters, to hang out on his land in exchange for manual labor, or maybe just company. Anthony likely knew about the situation and thus had not wanted Mark to wander down here. Edwin had certainly been a strange old bird, he mused. What other secrets had his uncle and his eccentric servant shared? “Well, I’m glad to hear all of you got on, anyway.”
Dorian gave an odd half-bow. “Of course. Loyalty was his due as lord and protector of these woods. As it is now yours.”
“Yeah, I guess so. Look, if your hanging about the estate was all right with the old man, I won’t make things hard for you. Just try not to get into any trouble that can come back to haunt me. Are there more of you out here?”
“These woods have been our home for as long as we can remember. There are generations of us here...and generations to come, I hope.” He raised his eyes and scanned the treetops as though his future progeny floated among the branches.
“Oh.” Mark scrubbed a hand through his hair and exhaled. So Uncle Edwin had invited a whole city of hobos to camp on his land? This didn’t sound promising. “In that case, I guess I should warn you about something. My uncle left this place in serious debt. So far, I can’t see any possible way to make it profitable. I may have to sell it or turn it over to the government as some kind of land trust. The new owners probably won’t be so understanding about you and your friends staying here.”
The easy smile returned, and those sharp green eyes flashed in the sun. Mark noticed they were shot through with flecks of gold, perfectly matching the man’s luxurious mane. “I’m not worried about being driven off the land,” Dorian said. “I’ve lived here for a long, long time. That won’t change. But frankly, I am surprised you would consider relinquishing your ancestral home. You should take pride in your heritage.”
“Now you sound like my mother. Unfortunately, she’s not inclined to invest much but lip service in the estate’s future. She’d rather haul her share of the family to Monte Carlo and help my stepfather gamble it away.”
“Gambling doesn’t interest you?”
“No. I don’t think it interests my mother, either, except that it pleases my stepfather. He’s about half her age. She tends to give him anything he wants.” As soon as the words spilled out of his mouth, Mark reddened. Why had he blurted out such personal details to a complete stranger? That wasn’t like him at all—usually he was reticent to the point that people mistook him for a self-centered snob. With Dorian, though, his tongue and emotions alike felt completely unfettered. Something about those wide green-and-gold eyes had mesmerized him.
“I believe you are immune to the lure of easy gold,” Dorian said. “Yet I suspect you would have a much harder time resisting the temptation of a younger man’s admiration and affection.”
“Well…” Mark paused, momentarily taken aback. Then he relaxed and laughed. Dorian could see right through him, he marveled, and he now understood why. “I’d have to see the guy first. But it might.”
Just like that, the man was back on Mark’s side of the stream. He’d moved so quickly that Mark hadn’t seen him actually step across. But somehow, he had. His face loomed close. So close. Mark inhaled his fresh, woodsy scent and half-closed his eyes. The power of Dorian’s presence made him shiver.
“What if the man looked like me?” Dorian whispered. His lips were almost—not quite—touching Mark’s. His long fingers rested against Mark’s forearms, subtly tilting his body forward.
Mark’s breath came out in a hard, forced rush. “Then…I guess I’d be tempted.”
The moment seemed to last forever. Mark felt his muscles go rigid and his groin flush with heat. His senses sharpened until he could hear every rustle of the trees around them, smell every droplet of dew clinging to the fresh leaves. His heart thundered in his chest, and he felt sure he could hear Dorian’s, too. At last, Dorian’s mouth came down on his.Cassandra Pierce
Paranormal Romance Author
Paranormal Romance Author