Brighter Than the Sun
When Charles Wycombe, the dashing and incorrigible Earl of Billington, toppled out of a tree and landed at Ellie Lyndon's feet, neither suspected that such an inauspicious meeting would lead to marriage. But Charles must find a bride before his thirtieth birthday or he'll lose his fortune. And Ellie needs a husband or her father's odious fiancée will choose one for her. And so they agree to wed, even though their match appears to have been made somewhere hotter than heaven...
Ellie never dreamed she'd marry a stranger, especially one with such a devastating combination of rakish charm and debonair wit. She tries to keep him at arm's length, at least until she discovers the man beneath the handsome surface. But Charles can be quite persusasive—even tender—when he puts his mind to it, and Ellie finds herself slipping under his seductive spell. And as one kiss leads to another, this unlikely pair discovers that their marriage is not so inconvenient after all... and just might lead to love.
Inside the Story
Brighter Than the Sun had the working title of THE COLOR OF THE SUN. I had wanted Charles to say that Ellie's hair was the exact color of the sun at sunset. In the end, however, I thought it would be more romantic for him to say it was actually brighter than the sun.
A lot of people have asked me why Robert and Victoria (hero and heroine of Everything And The Moon) never made an appearance in SUN. The answer is that the plot wouldn't allow it. If Victoria had been anywhere in the vicinity, her sister Ellie would have had the option of moving in with her, and thus would never have entered a marriage of convenience with Charles. It would have been a very short book
Charles makes a very brief appearance in my third novel, Minx, when he offhandedly mentions that he needs to marry soon. When I wrote Minx, I had no idea what his desperate situation might be, but I figured it would be a great set-up for a future book.
The berry jam incident is entirely true. In 1988, my father sustained second-degree burns over 25% of his body, when a pressure cooker popped open (it was his fault; don't go trashing your pressure cookers), and scalding hot plum jam exploded across the room. He was hospitalized for three days, but I'm happy to report he made a complete recovery. Thanks to my dad for providing me with all the details of the accident. Incidentally, it required a flotilla of housecleaners to clean the kitchen after the explosion. Picture a patina of plum, on every surface, in every nook and cranny.
Brighter than the Sun received a facelift in 2004. But while the cover changed, the words did not. The story is exactly the same as when it was originally released in 1998.
Start Reading This Book
Eleanor Lyndon was minding her own business when Charles Wycombe, Earl of Billington, fell -quite literally- into her life.
She was walking along, whistling a happy tune and keeping her mind busy by trying to estimate the yearly profit of the East and West Sugar Company (of which she owned several shares) when to her great surprise, a man came crashing down from the sky and landed at, or to be more precise - on her feet.
Further inspection revealed that the man in question had fallen not from the sky but from a large oak tree. Ellie, whose life had grown decidedly dull in the last year or so, would have almost preferred that he had fallen from the sky. It certainly would have been more exciting than a mere tree.
She pulled her left foot out from underneath his shoulder, hiked her skirts above her ankles to save them from the dirt, and crouched down. "Sir?" she inquired. "Are you all right?"
All he said was, "Ow."
"Oh, dear," she murmured. "You haven't broken any bones, have you?"
He didn't say anything, just let out a long breath. Ellie lurched back when the fumes hit her. "Sweet heavens," she muttered, "You smell as if you've imbibed a winery."
"Whishkey," he slurred in response. "A gennleman drinks whishkey."
"Not this much whiskey," she retorted. "Only a drunk drinks this much of anything."
He sat up - clearly a difficult endeavor. "Exactly it," he said, waving his hand through the air, then wincing when the action made him dizzy. "I'm a bit drunk, I'm afraid."
Ellie decided to refrain from further comment on that topic. "Are you certain you're not injured?"
He scratched his reddish-brown hair and blinked. "My head pounds like the devil."
"I suspect that isn't only from the fall."
He tried to get up, weaved, and sat back down. "You're a sharp-tongued lass."
"Yes, I know," she said with a wry smile. "It's why I'm a longtoothed spinster. Now then, I can't very well see to your injuries if I don't know what they are."
"Efficient, too," he murmured. "An' why are you so certain I've got an injurty, er, injury?"
Ellie looked up into the tree. The nearest branch which would have supported his weight was a good fifteen feet up. "I don't see how you could have fallen so far and not been injured."
He waved her comments aside and tried to rise again. "Yes, well, we Wycombes are a hardy lot. It'd take more than a- Sweet merciful Christ!" he howled.
Ellie tried her best not to sound smug when she said, "An ache? A pain? A sprain, perhaps."
His brown eyes narrowed as he clutched the trunk of the tree for support. "You are a hard, cruel woman, Miss whatever your name is, to take such pleasure in my agony."
Ellie coughed to cover up a giggle. "Mr. Whosis, I must protest and point out that I tried to tend to your injuries, but you insisted you didn't have any."
He scowled in a very boyish sort of way and sat back down. "That's Lord Whosis," he muttered, but his voice lacked true ire.
"Very well, my lord," she said, hoping that she hadn't irritated him overmuch. A peer of the realm held much more power than a vicar's daughter, and he could do much to make her life miserable if he so chose. She gave up all hope of keeping her dress clean and sat down in the dirt. "Which ankle pains you, my lord?"
He pointed to his right ankle and then grimaced when she lifted it in her hands and inspected for broken bones. After a moment's examination, she looked up and said in her most polite voice, "I am going to have to remove your boot, my lord. Would that be permissible?"
"I liked you better when you were spitting fire," he muttered. Ellie liked herself better that way, too. She smiled. "Have you a knife?"
He snorted. "If you think I'm going to put a weapon in your hands..."
"Very well. I suppose I could just pull the boot off." She cocked her head and pretended to ponder the matter. "It might hurt just a bit when it gets stuck on your hideously swollen ankle, but as you pointed out, you come from hardy stock, and a man should be able to take a little pain."
"What the devil are you taking about?" Ellie started to pull at his boot. Not hard - she could never be that cruel. Just enough to demonstrate that the boot wasn't coming off his foot through ordinary means.
"Youch!" he yelled, and Ellie wished she hadn't tried to teach him a lesson, because she ended up with a face full of whiskey fumes.
"How much did you drink?" she demanded, choking for air.
"Not nearly enough," he groaned. "They haven't invented a drink strong enough-"
"Oh, come now," Ellie snapped. "I'm not that bad."
To her surprise, he laughed. "Sweetheart," he said in a tone that told her clear as day that his usual occupation was rake, "you're the least bad thing that has happened to me in months."
Ellie felt an odd sort of tingling on the back of her neck at his clumsy compliment. Thankful that her large bonnet hid her blush, she focused her attention back on his ankle. "Have you changed your mind about my cutting your boot?"
His answer was a knife in her palm. "I always knew there was some reason I carried one of these things around. I just never knew what it was until today."
The knife was a bit dull, and soon Ellie was gritting her teeth as she sawed through his boot. She looked up from her task for a moment. "Just let me know if I-"
"-poke you," she finished. "I'm dreadfully sorry."
"It is astonishing," he said, his voice liberally laced with irony, "how much sorrow I hear in your voice."
"Oh for the love of God," he muttered. "Just laugh. Lord knows my life is laughable."
Ellie, whose own life had descended into the miserable ever since her widower father had announced his intention to marry the village of Bellfield's biggest busybody, felt a pang of empathy. She didn't know what it was that had prompted this remarkably handsome and well-heeled lord to go out and get himself blindingly drunk, but whatever it was, she felt for him. She stopped her work on his boot for a moment, leveled her dark blue eyes at his face, and said, "My name is Miss Eleanor Lyndon."
His eyes warmed. "Thank you for sharing that pertinent piece of information, Miss Lyndon. It isn't every day I allow a strange woman to saw off my boots."
"It isn't every day I nearly get knocked to the ground by men falling from trees. Strange men," she added for emphasis.
"Ah yes, I should introduce myself, I s'pose." He cocked his head in a manner that reminded Ellie that he was still more than a touch inebriated. "Charles Wycombe at your service, Miss Lyndon. Earl of Billington." Then he muttered, "Much as that's worth."
Ellie stared at him unblinkingly. Billington? He was one of the county's most eligible bachelors. So eligible that even she'd heard of him, and she wasn't on anybody's list of eligible young ladies. Rumor had it that he was even more wealthy than her sister Victoria's new husband, the Earl of Macclesfield. Ellie couldn't personally vouch for that, as she hadn't seen his personal finance ledgers, and she made it a point never to speculate on financial matters without hard evidence. But she did know that the Billington estate was vast and ancient.
And it was a good twenty miles away. "What are you doing here in Bellfield?" she blurted out.
"Just visiting my old childhood haunts."
Ellie motioned toward the branches above them with her head.
"Your favorite tree?"
"Used to climb it all the time with Macclesfield."
Ellie finished her work on the boot and put the knife down. "Robert?" she asked.
Charles looked suspicious and a bit protective. "You're on a first name basis with him? He's recently married."
"Yes. To my sister."
"The world grows smaller by the second," he murmured. "I'm honored to make your acquaintance."
"You might rethink that sentiment in a moment," Ellie remarked. With a gentle touch, she slid his swollen foot from his boot.
Charles looked down at his mangled boot with a pained expression. "I suppose my ankle is more important," he said wistfully. But he didn't sound as if he meant it.
Ellie expertly prodded his ankle. "I don't think you've broken any bones, but you've a nasty sprain."
"You sound experienced at this sort of thing."
"I come to the rescue of any wounded animal," she said, arching her brows. "Dogs, cats, birds."
"Men," he finished for her.
"No," she said pertly. "You're the first. But I cannot imagine that you'd be that much different from a dog."
"Your fangs are showing, Miss Lyndon."
"Are they?" she asked, reaching up to touch her face. "I shall have to remember to retract them."
Charles burst out laughing. "You, Miss Lyndon, are a treasure."
"That's what I keep telling everyone," she said with a shrug and a wicked smile, "but no one seems to believe me. Now then, I fear you will require a cane for several days. Possibly a week. Have you one at your disposal?"
"I meant at home, but..." Ellie's words trailed off as she looked around her. She spied a long stick several yards away and scrambled to her feet.
"This should do," she said, picking it up and handing it to him. "Do you need assistance getting to your feet?" He grinned wolfishly as he swayed toward her. "Any excuse to be in your arms, my dear Miss Lyndon."
Ellie knew she should be affronted, but he was trying so hard to be charming, and devil take it, he was succeeding. Handily. She stepped around to his back and put her hands under his arms. "I warn you, I'm not very gentle."
"Now why doesn't that surprise me?"
"On the count of three, then. Are you ready?"
"That depends, I suppose, on-"
"One, two... three!" With a grunt and a heave, Ellie pulled the earl to his feet. It wasn't an easy task. He outweighed her by a good four stone and was drunk, to boot. His knees buckled, and Ellie only just managed to keep herself from cursing as she planted her feet and braced them. Then he started to topple over in the other direction, and she had to scoot to his front to keep him from falling.
"Now that feels nice," he murmured as his chest pressed up against hers.
"Lord Billington, I must insist that you use your cane."
"To walk!" she fairly yelled.
He flinched at the noise, then shook his head. "It's the oddest thing," he murmured, "but I have the most appalling urge to kiss you."
For once, Ellie was speechless.
He chewed thoughtfully on his lower lip. "I think I just might do it."
That was enough to spur her into motion, and she jumped to the side, sending him sprawling on the ground.
"Good God, woman!" he yelled. "What did you do that for?"
"You were going to kiss me."
He rubbed his head, which had hit the tree trunk. "The prospect was that terrifying?"
Ellie blinked. "Not terrifying, exactly."
"Please don't say repulsive," he grumbled. "I really couldn't bear it."
She exhaled and held out a conciliatory hand. "I'm terribly sorry for dropping you, my lord."
"Once again, your face is a picture of sorrow."
Ellie fought the urge to stamp her foot. "I meant it this time. Do you accept my apology?"
"It appears," he said, raising his eyebrows," that you might do me bodily harm if I do not."
"Ungracious prig," she muttered. "I am trying to apologize."
"And I," he emphasized, "am trying to accept."
He reached out and took her gloved hand. She pulled him to his feet again, stepping out of his reach once he had steadied himself on his makeshift cane.
"I will escort you to Bellfield," Ellie said. "It isn't terribly far. Will you be able to get home from there?"
"I left my curricle at the Bee and Thistle," he replied.
She cleared her throat. "I would appreciate it if you would behave with gentility and discretion. I may be a spinster, but I do have a reputation to protect."
He sent a sideways look in her direction. "I'm considered something of a blackguard, I'm afraid."
"Your reputation was probably shredded the moment I landed on top of you."
"For heavens' sake, you fell out of a tree!"
"Yes, of course, but you did put your bare hands on my bare ankle."
"It was for the noblest of reasons."
"Frankly, I thought kissing you seemed rather noble, but you appeared to disagree."
Her mouth settled into a grim line. "That is exactly the sort of flippant remark I am talking about. I know that I shouldn't, but I do care what people think of me, and I have to live here for the rest of my life."
"Do you?" he asked. "How sad."
"That isn't funny."
"It wasn't meant to be."
She sighed impatiently. "Contrive to behave yourself when we reach Bellfield. Please?"
He leaned on his stick and swept into a courtly bow. "I try never to disappoint a lady."
"Will you stop!" she said, grabbing him by the elbow and pulling him upright. "You're going to knock yourself over."
"Why, Miss Lyndon, I do believe you are beginning to care for me."
Her answer was a marginally ladylike grunt.With fisted hands, she began to march toward town. Charles hobbled behind her, smiling all the way. She was walking much more quickly than he, however, and the space between them grew until he was forced to call out her name.
Ellie turned around.
Charles offered her what he hoped was an appealing smile. "I cannot keep up with you, I'm afraid." He held out his hands in a gesture of supplication and then promptly lost his balance. Ellie rushed forward to straighten him.
"You are a walking disaster," she muttered, keeping her hand on his elbow.
"A limping disaster," he corrected. "And I cannot-" He lifted his free hand to his mouth to cover an inebriated burp. "I cannot limp quickly."
She let out a long-suffering sigh. "Here. You can lean on my shoulder. Together we should be able to get you into town."
Charles grinned and slid his arm over her shoulder. She was small, but she was a sturdy little thing, so he decided to test the waters by leaning on her a little more closely. She stiffened, then let out another loud sigh.
Slowly they moved toward town. Charles felt himself leaning on her more and more. Whether his incompetence was due to his sprain or his drunkenness he didn't know. She felt warm and strong and soft all at once next to him, and he didn't much care how he had gotten himself into this fix -- he just resolved to enjoy it while it lasted. Each step pressed the side of her breast up against his ribs, and he was finding that to be a most pleasant sensation indeed.
"It's a beautiful day, don't you think?" he inquired, thinking he ought to make conversation.
"Yes," Ellie agreed, stumbling slightly under the weight of him. "But it is growing late. Is there no way you can move a little bit faster?"
"Even I," Charles said with an expansive wave of his hand, "am not such a cad that I would feign lameness merely to enjoy the attentions of a beautiful lady."
"Will you stop waving your arm about! We're losing our balance."
Charles wasn't sure why, and maybe it was just because he was still decidedly un-sober, but he liked the sound of the word "we" from her lips. There was something about this Miss Lyndon that made him glad she was on his side. Not that he thought she would make a vicious enemy, just that she seemed loyal, levelheaded, and fair. And she had a wicked sense of humor. Just the sort of person a man would want standing beside him when the going got rough.
He turned his face toward hers. "You smell nice," he said.
"What?" she screeched.
And she was fun to torture. Had he remembered to add that to his list of attributes? It was always good to surround oneself with people who could take a bit of teasing. He schooled his face into an innocent mask. "You smell nice," he said again.
"That is not the sort of thing a gentleman says to a lady," she said primly.
"I'm drunk," he said with an unrepentant shrug. "I don't know what I'm saying."
Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. "I have a feeling you know exactly what you're saying."
"Why, Miss Lyndon, are you accusing me of trying to seduce you?"
He didn't think it possible, but she turned an even deeper shade of crimson. He wished he could see the color of her hair under that monstrous bonnet, but her eyebrows were blond, and they stood out comically against her blush.
"Stop twisting my words."
"You twist words very nicely yourself, Miss Lyndon." When she didn't say anything, he added, "That was a compliment."
She trudged along the dirt road, pulling him with her. "You baffle me, my lord."
Charles smiled, thinking that it was great fun to baffle Miss Eleanor Lyndon. He fell silent for a few minutes, and then, as they rounded a corner, asked, "Are we almost there yet?"
"A little more than halfway, I should think." Ellie squinted at the horizon, watching the sun sink ever lower. "Oh, dear. It is growing late. Papa will have my head."
"I swear on my father's grave-" Charles was trying to sound serious, but he hiccupped.
Ellie turned toward him so quickly that her nose bumped into his shoulder. "Whatever are you talking about, my lord?"
"I was trying-hic-to swear to you that I am not-hic-deliberately trying to slow you down."
The corners of her lips twitched. "I don't know why I believe you," she said, "but I do."
"No," she said thoughtfully, "I think you're just a nicer person than you'd like people to believe."
He scoffed. "I am far from-hic-nice."
"I'll wager you give your entire staff extra wages at Christmas."
Much to his irritation, he blushed.
"A-ha!" she cried out triumphantly. "You do!"
"It breeds loyalty," he mumbled.
"It gives them money to buy presents for their families," she said softly.
He grunted and turned his head away from her. "Lovely sunset, don't you think, Miss Lyndon?"
"A bit clumsy as changes of subject go," she said with a knowing grin, "but yes, it is quite."
"It's rather amazing," he continued, "how many different colors make up the sunset. I see orange, and pink, and peach. Oh, and a touch of saffron right over there." He pointed off to the southwest. "And the truly remarkable thing of it is that it'll all be different tomorrow."
"Are you an artist?" Ellie asked.
"No," he said. "I just like the sunset."
"Bellfield is just around the corner," she said.
"You sound disappointed."
"Don't really want to go home, I suppose," he replied. He sighed, thinking about what was waiting for him there. A pile of stones that made up Wycombe Abbey. A pile of stones that cost a bloody fortune to keep up. A fortune that would slip through his fingers in less than a month thanks to his meddling father.
One would think that George Wycombe's hold on the pursestrings would have loosened with death, but no, he still found a way to keep his hands firmly around his son's neck from the grave. Charles swore under his breath as he thought about how apt that image was. He certainly felt like he was being strangled.
In precisely fifteen days, he would turn thirty.In precisely fifteen days, every last unentailed scrap of his inheritance would be snatched away from him. Unless-
Miss Lyndon coughed and rubbed a piece of dust from her eye. Charles looked at her with renewed interest. Unless - he thought slowly, not wanting his still somewhat groggy brain to miss any important details - unless sometime in these next twenty-four days, he managed to find himself a wife.
Miss Lyndon steered him onto Bellfield's High Street and pointed south. "The Bee and Thistle is just over there. I don't see your curricle. Is it 'round back?"
She had a nice voice, Charles thought. She had a nice voice, and a nice brain, and a nice wit, and although he still didn't know what color her hair was, she had a nice set of eyebrows. And she felt damned nice with his weight pressed up against her.
He cleared his throat. "Miss Lyndon."
"Don't tell me you misplaced your carriage."
"Miss Lyndon, I have something of great import to discuss with you."
"Has your ankle worsened? I knew that putting weight on it was a bad idea, but I didn't know how else to get you into town. Ice would-"
"Miss Lyndon!" he fairly boomed.
That got her to close her mouth.
"Do you think you might-" Charles coughed, suddenly wishing he were sober, because he had a feeling his vocabulary was larger when he wasn't tipsy.
"Lord Billington?" she asked with a concerned expression.
In the end he just blurted it out. "Do you think you might marry me?"