Unexpected earl, p.13

Unexpected Earl, page 13

 part  #1 of  Hearts and Ever Afters Series

 

Unexpected Earl
 



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  A Duke’s Heart for Christmas

  By: Caroline Johnson

  A Duke’s Heart for Christmas

  Chapter 1

  July 2, 1814

  Eleanor Chatham sat on the wooden pew of the church and tried to concentrate on the sermon. Despite her best efforts, her thoughts drifted to other more tempting subjects. She knew she should feel ashamed, but she was already familiar with the sermon. This morning marked the third time she heard it all the way through, in its entirety. Her father, the Vicar of Lansdowne, had been rehearsing it all week.

  In truth, her thoughts were drifting to the invitation to the Summer ball that her family had only just received yesterday afternoon in the post. Eleanor could hardly contain her excitement. Music and dancing brought joy to her heart. Secretly, she also hoped that Mr. Charles Selkirk would finally propose at the ball.

  Of course, she knew that was a silly thought, but still, a girl could wish. She smiled as her thoughts turned to Charles. He was so handsome, his dark hair fell into soft waves that framed his masculine face, and his eyes were riveting. She sighed thinking about his steel gray eyes. Lost in her daydreams, she hardly noticed the jab at her side.

  Her slightly younger sister, Emma, had elbowed her. Eleanor turned to her sister and raised her eyebrows to question Emma’s actions, but realized that everyone was standing for a hymn. Eleanor quickly stood up. Emma had the hymnal open to the right page and thrust the book in front of her sister. Eleanor could not believe how distracted she was today at church, but the thought of Charles and ball wouldn’t leave her mind.

  The congregation sat down and Eleanor’s father gave the final prayer. At the last amen, Emma was overcome with curiosity.

  “Eleanor, I have never seen you in such a state, what is the matter?” whispered Emma.

  “I am feeling all right; I just was not paying attention,” Eleanor answered in a quiet tone.

  “I could see that. You know we have a standard to uphold, especially you.”

  “I know, Emma, I cannot account for my behavior this morning. It’s that invitation from yesterday; it has me quite distracted.”

  “The Summer ball? I must admit I can think of little else either. I suppose you did have a valid reason this morning,” replied Emma.

  Eleanor was often struck by how Emma always said just the right thing and always acted responsibly. She was younger than Eleanor, but she managed to act years older. Eleanor walked out of the church with Emma and was followed by her brother, her other younger sister, and her mother.

  The stone church with its high ceilings was cool and dark compared to the bright sunshine and warm temperature in the church garden. Eleanor was enjoying a glass of lemonade under the shade of an ancient oak tree. She enjoyed the receptions held every Sunday in the garden. The food was always delicious, and she had at least an hour of uninterrupted time spent in the company of Charles.

  “Would you like to RSVP, or should I wait for your family’s official reply?” asked Charles as he strode confidently towards Eleanor.

  “You are bold; you know I will be there. How could I miss such a grand affair? I may even meet a duke or baron to marry,” She teased.

  “I highly doubt that any such noble gentlemen will be attendance at our little party. You may have to content yourself with my company.”

  “Oh dear, how will I manage?” she answered in mock indignation.

  “Very well, I say. I am the most eligible gentleman in all of Lansdowne,” he boasted.

  “I suppose you are right, Mr. Selkirk. You are the son of the highest-ranking member of our society. However, you do face a little competition.”

  “Competition? Who can match my handsome features and humble charms?” he said in his loftiest tone.

  “Mr. Selkirk, you are a scoundrel. As the eldest daughter of the Vicar, I should pay heed to being seen with you,” she answered as haughty as she could without laughing.

  Eleanor and Charles had known each other for many years, ever since Eleanor’s family had moved to the small town. Eleanor was madly in love with him, and yet she was unsure if he shared those feelings for her. He often flirted with Eleanor, but even after all this time, he still hadn’t asked to court her. Worried that he only regarded her as a close friend or sister, Eleanor longed to tell him how she felt to see if his feelings matched her own. But, as a proper young lady, she kept her feelings to herself.

  Decorum was not the only reason she felt it impossible to confess her true feelings; she was terrified of the answer he would give. How would she recover if her love was unrequited? They fell into their usual pattern of easy conversation and laughter. She enjoyed every minute of the time she spent in his company.

  On the way home from church, Eleanor remained quiet. She pondered every word and action during her exchange with Charles. She tried to find some indication, a clue perhaps, that he felt as she did. It was maddening.

  Eleanor had resolved to be content with his company when they could see each other and hoped that the only reason he had not pursued her in matrimony was because of his rank in society. He was the eldest son of a baronet. It was not a very prominent title, but his family was quite wealthy. She, on the other hand, was the daughter of a Vicar. She was not penniless, but she was not titled. It was the most compelling reason she could imagine for his lack of romantic interest, or so she hoped. Was it better to not know if he loved her, or was she better off knowing that he did not love her?

  Chapter 2

  July 5, 1814

  The Chatham household sat in the drawing room in silence. Important news had arrived in the afternoon post that turned their world upside down. The news had appeared in the form of a letter addressed to Edward Chatham, Eleanor’s father. Edward read the letter’s contents to his family at tea.

  My Lord,

  It is with the deepest regret that I inform you of the sudden passing of your brother, Jonathan Chatham, Earl of Gloucester. His death was the result of an illness, and the doctors assure me that he did not suffer in his final hours. Allow me to offer my deepest sympathies at this time.

  In accordance with the laws and ordinance of inheritance, you are the successor to the title of Earl of Gloucester and are herewith the possessor of all lands and properties belonging to the holder of the title.

  I urge you to come to London to meet with me at your earliest convenience as there is a considerable amount of documentation that requires your immediate attention.

  Sincerely,

  Cecil Stewart

  Eleanor did not know how to react or quite what to say. The news of her uncle’s passing and her family’s ascendancy to the peerage was astounding. Eleanor tried to recall the last time she had seen her uncle. It had been several years ago, as her uncle and her father were not close. As she sat in the small drawing room of the rectory, she decided that it was much too taxing to consider. She sat in stunned silence, as did her sisters and her brother. Her mother had turned white as a sheet, and her father turned the letter over as though he was looking for more information.

  Eleanor’s mother expressed her sympathies to her own husband, “My dear, I am so sorry to hear about your brother.”

  “It is a part of life; I am thankful to God that he did not suffer,” answered Edward. He had lost his brother, yet he did not feel the loss as deeply as he might. His brother had always been distant and far too worldly.

  “Father, what has happened?” asked Katherine, Eleanor’s youngest sister, who had just turned ten years old.

  “Well my dear, your uncle was a very wealthy man; he died without leaving behind any sons, so I now stand to inherit his property and his title.”

  “Oh, did he leave behind any daughters?” she asked suddenly concerned about her own place in the world.

  “No. My brother’s wife died, and he had yet to remarry. He never had any children.”

  “Father, what happens now? Do we stay here in Lansdowne or do we move to Gloucester?” Eleanor asked quietly, her thoughts on
Charles.

  “Eleanor, unless I am greatly mistaken, we will move to the estate at Gloucester. If you will excuse me, I have much to attend to. I will be in my study.”

  Edward folded the letter and left the drawing room. Eleanor knew her father must be grieving. She wanted to give him comfort, but she felt that he needed the time alone to mourn. She looked at her sisters, brother, and mother. They all seemed to be deep in thought. Earlier in the day, her thoughts had been consumed by the summer ball and dancing with Charles; now she found herself facing the prospect that if they moved, she might never see him again.

  “Mother, why is everyone so glum? Does this mean father will be rich?’ asked Katherine, who was still learning to hold her tongue.

  “Yes Katherine, it does,” said her mother, too exhausted to teach a quick lesson in manners.

  “How wonderful!” said Katherine.

  Chapter 3

  July 7, 1814

  Eleanor chose a beautiful pale pink dress to wear to the summer ball. It was the nicest dress that she owned. The light pink color complemented her fair complexion and blue eyes. Emma had spent an hour fixing her hair into an elaborate up-do. Emma had even accented Eleanor’s blonde tresses with pink rosebuds from the garden. Eleanor looked at her reflection in the mirror; she looked radiant.

  “Emma, what would I do without you?”

  “Not look nearly as beautiful, I would suspect,” Emma replied

  “You are quite right. How can I thank you?”

  “You can thank me by not wasting this chance,” smiled Emma.

  “What chance is that?” questioned Eleanor.

  “If Mother is right, and we are about to move to Gloucester, this may be the only chance you have to win the heart of Charles,” Emma said, matter-of-factly.

  “Emma! I am sure I don’t know what you mean,” Eleanor felt her face turning red.

  “Eleanor, I know you have been sweet on Charles since we were children. I am just trying to tell you that this may be your only chance.”

  “Oh Emma, what if you are right?”

  “I am, now let’s hurry; we don’t want to be late.”

  Eleanor and Emma rushed downstairs and out the front door of the rectory. Eleanor’s parents were already in the carriage waiting. Eleanor was the last one in, and the driver closed the door behind her. She sat down, taking care not to wrinkle her gown. The carriage ride to Deerfield Court was not very long. Eleanor could feel her pulse racing. She knew Emma was right; this may very well be her last chance to win the heart of a man she had been desperately in love with for as long as she could remember.

  They arrived at the stately home of the Baronet at Deerfield Court. Candles blazed in the windows, and footmen waited to greet them as the driver steered the carriage to the entrance. A footman held the carriage door open as Eleanor and her family stepped onto the gray stone steps. She could hear music intermingled with the sounds of laughter. She took a deep breath and walked inside.

  The Baronet and his wife greeted Eleanor’s family. Eleanor’s parents remained in conversation with the host and hostess, while Eleanor and Emma made their way to the ballroom. Eleanor had never seen so many people at Deerfield Court. She was certain that every prominent person in the county was in attendance. However, no matter how many handsome men were there, she was only interested in one: Charles.

  Eleanor searched the faces of the guests, looking for the man she loved. Emma directed Eleanor’s gaze to the couples on the dance floor. Charles was dancing and seemed to be having a marvelous time. Eleanor felt her heart ache as she watched him dance with an auburn-haired woman who moved gracefully. When Eleanor stared a little too long at Charles and the mystery woman, Emma gave her a quick nudge. It wasn’t acceptable to seem too eager.

  When the song ended, Charles made his way over to Eleanor and Emma with his companion. Eleanor tried not to feel envious of the expensive ball gown that Charles’s dance partner was wearing. It was green silk with silver gossamer trim, and it looked as though it must have cost a fortune. Eleanor looked down at her own plain pink gown and felt unattractive by comparison.

  “Miss Eleanor Chatham and Miss Emma Chatham, I am glad that you were able to attend. May I introduce my delightful dancing partner, Lady Beatrice Hughes?”

  Eleanor and Emma both curtsied out of habit. They were now the daughters of an Earl, but this was still unknown outside of their family. Eleanor tried to smile and greet Lady Beatrice with genuine kindness, but all she felt was envy.

  “Miss Chatham, Miss Chatham. I am honored to meet both of you. Charles has told me so much about you both and about Lansdowne. I feel as though I already know you.” Lady Beatrice beamed. Her face had a beautiful glow from the physical exertion of dancing.

  “Lady Beatrice, what an honor it is to make your acquaintance,” said Emma.

  Eleanor noticed that Lady Beatrice used Charles’s familiar name, instead of addressing him as, Mr. Selkirk. As she took a closer look at Lady Beatrice, Eleanor noticed her flawless ivory skin and striking hazel eyes that hid behind dark lashes. She was beautiful. Another nudge from Emma warned Eleanor that she was being impolite by her silence. As she was lost in thought, Eleanor didn’t realize she was staring at the woman in front of her.

  Quickly, Eleanor offered her acknowledgment of the introduction, “Lady Beatrice, what a pleasure it is to meet you.”

  Charles carried the conversation with talk of the weather and spoke kind words about a recent sermon he enjoyed from Vicar Chatham. Eleanor smiled and feigned interest in the conversation as her mind raced. Lady Beatrice talked about her enthusiasm for hearing Mr. Chatham’s sermons when she moved to Lansdowne. Eleanor wondered what Lady Beatrice meant by saying she was moving to Lansdowne. Why would she be moving to Lansdowne? She had a sinking feeling and needed to get Charles alone to understand his relationship with Lady Beatrice. Eleanor hoped that Lady Beatrice was a distant cousin, or another relation, but she suspected the truth was quite different.

  “Miss Chatham, I was hoping I might have the pleasure of the next dance,” said Charles.

  “Thank you, Mr. Selkirk, that would be lovely,” said Eleanor.

  “Shall we?” he asked as he offered his arm. She placed her hand on his arm and accompanied him to the floor. Eleanor and Charles lined up with the other couples. She looked at her dance partner, and he smiled back. He seemed to be his usual, charming self. The music began to play.

  The dance was a slow one, and she suspected that this might be her one and only chance to speak to him. She tried to think of what to say or even to ask. Charles spoke first.

  “Miss Chatham, you don’t seem to be your typical jovial self. Are you not enjoying the ball?”

  “I am enjoying it very much.” Eleanor paused as she gathered her courage before saying, “Mr. Selkirk, I was wondering if we may speak in private?”

  “Of course, Miss Chatham. I do hope that you are all right.” Charles looked over in the direction of Lady Beatrice and Emma, “It seems that Lady Beatrice is occupied in conversation with your sister, so I don’t think she will mind if I step away for a moment. Let’s go out onto the balcony.”

  The dance ended, and Charles escorted Eleanor through a set of ornate glass doors and outside to the balcony. The evening was warm, and the stars glittered in a clear night sky. From the light of the ballroom shining through the windows, she could see several couples enjoying this perfect summer’s evening. Charles led her to the rail, where they would have some privacy.

  “Mr. Selkirk, I have known you for many years and we have so much in common.”

  “Yes, I know isn’t it delightful?”

  “Yes, growing up together from the time we were children has given us many fond memories,” Eleanor was unsure of what to say next. She needed to say just the right words, and maybe he would realize that he loved her as much as she loved him.

  Charles continued the conversation when Eleanor paused, “We have been close, that is why I wanted Lady Beatrice to mee
t you most of all. I have something important I want to tell you, but you must keep it a secret.”

  Eleanor could feel her heart race. She gripped the stone rail of the balcony for support as she urged him to continue, “Mr. Selkirk, please, do tell. You know I can keep a secret.”

  “It’s not official. Well, it is official, but my father has yet to make the announcement. Lady Beatrice and I are to be married this autumn. Her father is the Earl of Arrowbanks, and it’s an important connection for my family. The engagement happened fast, but it is a fortuitous match.”

  “Yes, Mr. Selkirk, indeed. That is quite a fortuitous match.” Eleanor was sure the pain she felt in her chest was her heart breaking into pieces. The agony was so swift and sharp. “Do you love her?” whispered Eleanor.

  “I feel that I will grow to love her.”

  “Mr. Selkirk, I do believe you make a lovely pair. I wish you all the best,” said Eleanor, trying to hide her coldness.

  “Is that all you have to say?”

  “Mr. Selkirk, I am unsure of what else you would like me to say.”

  Charles looked down, unable to meet Eleanor’s eyes. He knew that she was in love with him, and he was in love with her, too. But his father had encouraged a match with Lady Beatrice, and he couldn’t say no. “Say that you will be at my wedding and that we will always be friends.”

  “Mr. Selkirk, I cannot promise such a thing.”

  “Please be happy for me, Eleanor,” said Charles.

  “Mr. Selkirk, I do believe your fiancé would not approve of you being so familiar with me. Please address me as, Miss Chatham. Congratulations on your engagement. I do hope you are blessed with happiness. Now, if you will please excuse me, I must join my sister.” With that, Eleanor turned on her heels and headed back to the ballroom.

  Keeping her composure, she walked through the ballroom to find Emma. Much to her dismay, Emma was still deep in conversation with Lady Beatrice. Emma smiled in her direction, so Eleanor knew she had been seen and had to say something.

 

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