Unexpected earl, p.19

Unexpected Earl, page 19

 part  #1 of  Hearts and Ever Afters Series

 

Unexpected Earl
 



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  "What on earth can her father be thinking?" Bernard asked, taking a sip of his port. "Lord Thompson is almost as old as he is."

  “I don’t know, dear,” Lady Heber replied, faintly. “Although, I do quite agree with you.”

  “Perhaps you should ask him, Mother,” Bernard said. “He is to be invited to the dinner on Friday.”

  Agnes swallowed hard, feeling a sudden thrill of nerves. “He is?”

  Bernard nodded. “Amos wanted to get the latest news, so what better way than to invite the man?”

  Agnes studied her son. He had obviously met the housekeeper but had not recognized Lady Bertram at all. “Is the new housekeeper working out well, Bernard?”

  He nodded. “By all accounts, she is most excellent, Mother. Although she is younger than I expected. The Duke appears taken with her, although he denies it.”

  Agnes frowned. “He does have a reputation after all. Although he assured the woman—”

  “The Duke has never dallied with any of his servants, Mother,” Bernard interrupted. “He will not either; I can assure you. The housekeeper has a pretty face, that is all.”

  Feeling a little relieved, Agnes nodded and tried to smile. She would certainly be attending the dinner on Friday. Perhaps she would be able to catch a few moments with Esther to see how she was doing. It was the best she could hope for.

  ***

  “Mrs. Edwards,” Amos said cheerfully, smiling as she walked into his study. “Thank you for coming when I am sure you have a lot to do.”

  She lowered her head respectfully, studying his study table instead of his face. The man was handsome, and she hated how her stomach jumped whenever she caught sight of him. Trying to remember about his supposed reputation helped push her attraction down a little, but not quite enough.

  "Of course, Your Grace," she replied, quietly. "What can I do for you?" She wished she could sit down, having grown weary from her work of the day.

  “I wish to go over the menu for the dinner party,” he began, looking down at his scribbled notes. “Six courses should do it, don’t you think?”

  “Whatever you would like, we can do,” Esther replied, the ache in her legs becoming almost unbearable. She found her own notebook and small bit of pencil, standing poised, ready to write down his instructions. She swayed from one foot to the other as inconspicuously as possible, hoping to relieve the throbbing.

  “Soup, first? And then fish?” Amos said, raising his eyes to the housekeeper. Noticing her slight sway and the weariness on her face, he immediately waved her to a seat, ignoring her look of astonishment. As a rule, servants were never permitted to sit, but she was not going to refuse such an offer.

  “Thank you, Your Grace. Yes, soup and fish. What kind of soup?”

  “Please make that decision with the cook,” he said, waving a hand. “I do not have a preference.”

  Breathing out a long sigh, Esther felt her legs grow a little less painful. “Very good, Your Grace. The rest of the dinner?”

  "Chicken, rabbit, beef, mutton, turkey, crab, and prawns," Amos listed. "Then cakes for dessert; although, ensure the cook knows not to scrimp on the fruit. I know Lady Heber, in particular, likes her grapes!"

  “Yes, she does,” Esther smiled, forgetting herself completely.

  Amos studied her for a moment, a little suspiciously. "I did not understand you and Lady Heber were so close."

  Haltingly, Esther tried to come up with a good excuse. "We are not particularly close, Your Grace. I have heard her mention her partiality for the fruit.”

  “I see,” Amos said, his face a little shuttered. “That will be all. Thank you, Mrs. Edwards.”

  Esther took her leave, rushing back to her own quarters. She pressed her hands to her burning cheeks. How could she have been so stupid? Another mistake like that, and her employer would be highly suspicious of her if he wasn't already! Shaking her head and pressing back angry tears, she made her way to her room, flopping down onto the bed in exhaustion.

  Amos thought about Mrs. Edwards and her comment for a long time after the lady had left. The woman had smiled as she'd said it, as though there was an affection for Lady Heber, but there would not be such an affinity between a servant and a lady of the Dowager Countess's caliber. Staring out the window, Amos remembered how Mrs. Edwards's face lit up when she'd smiled. It transformed her into a beautiful woman, and Amos, once more, felt that swift kick of desire. Mayhap he was suspicious of the woman’s freely spoken comment because he wanted a reason to have her out of his home; she could no longer tempt him. Letting out a low groan, he put his head in his hands, giving in to the knowledge that he was attracted to his housekeeper, the quietly beautiful Mrs. Edwards.

  Chapter 7

  The day of the dinner party dawned bright and clear, although Esther could not find a single thing to appreciate about the day. Nausea dogged her, and at times she felt so light-headed, she was almost unable to stand. The fear of what would happen should she see her father was overwhelming. On a practical level, she knew that the housekeeper remained below the stairs, overseeing all the duties and ensuring food was sent up on time. However, she could not help but fear that the Duke might send for her and she would have no choice but to obey. Her one relief was that her godmother was going to be in attendance and, Esther hoped, would be able to pre-empt any disastrous meetings.

  The Duke, of course, was completely oblivious to any of her concerns, and she fully intended to keep it that way. Nothing more had been said over her obvious slip, and she had breathed a sigh of relief at their next formal meeting, in which Lord Heber was also in attendance. It was as her godmother had said; Bernard had not recognized her the slightest; in fact, he barely looked at her. That could not be said for the Duke. He always spoke and looked at her directly, and even though she knew she should not, she had often studied him when she thought he was not looking.

  It was to her shame that she admitted the man was attractive. She remembered the evening when they planned the dinner. He had shown her a great kindness by allowing her to sit and rest her weary legs, even though she was a servant in his household. Then at their last meeting, the sun had shone directly through the window and around the Duke of Hawdon, clothing him in an almost ethereal light. His hair, which she had thought of as merely brown, became a mixture of tones and shades, and his eyes had been bright like the sky. The sudden rush of her heart had been a reaction to his handsome features, and despite her knowledge that society called him a rake, she had found herself lost in his mesmerizing hazel pools. He had grinned at her lazily, and she'd dropped her eyes at once, hating the chills that crept up her skin as she realized she'd been staring at him. It had been a particularly awkward moment.

  “Ah, Mrs. Edwards!”

  “Your Grace,” Esther replied, butterflies dancing in her stomach as she dealt harshly with the rush of attraction towards him. Putting it to death, she bobbed a curtsy. “What can I do for you?”

  “Nothing, particularly,” Amos replied, appreciating how her gentle nature intensified her beauty. “I am wondering if everything is in place for tonight?”

  “Yes, of course, Your Grace,” she replied, keeping her eyes on his feet. “Everything is ready. The dinner will run smoothly; I assure you.”

  “I am glad to hear it. I expect the guests to be arriving six o’clock, and we shall sit to dine at seven o’clock precisely.”

  “Very well, Your Grace,” Esther replied, demurely. “I will ensure everything is ready before six o’clock.”

  "Thank you," he replied, his voice becoming a little softer. He paused for a moment before continuing. "How are you settling in, Mrs. Edwards?"

  She glanced at him, a little taken aback. "Very well, Your Grace. I thank you."

  "I am glad to hear it," he replied, his eyes caressing her face. "I should hate to lose you. You are doing such an excellent job."

  "Thank you," she said, lowering her gaze to the floor. To her astonishment, she felt his fingers tip up her chin.
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  "Don't be afraid to look at me," he said, quietly, a slight smile on his face. "I enjoy seeing your smile."

  Esther was unable to speak. His hand was strong, but gentle, and the hammering in her chest became almost painful. Raising her eyes, her breath hitched as she took in his tender look and the lightness of his eyes as he gazed at her. A sudden sound of footsteps broke the spell, and Amos moved back from her, a slightly frustrated look on his face.

  "Thank you, Mrs. Edwards," he muttered, dropping his gaze. He began to move on, walking past her down the hallway before spinning around. "I quite forgot. Lady Heber will be joining us for dinner. I am sure you will wish to thank her for her recommendation, so I shall arrange for you to see her at some point in the evening."

  The panic that swirled through her veins caused Esther nearly to blurt out that she could not possibly do such a thing, holding herself back by sheer force of will. “Thank you,” she replied, keeping her tone light. “I would be most grateful, Your Grace.”

  Nodding, the Duke continued down the hallway, leaving Esther breathing hard and eventually leaning heavily against a beautiful marble piece. The cool alabaster helped calm her senses, and she eventually was able to walk back to the kitchen. There was simply nothing she could do. She just had to hope that her godmother could find a way to prevent Esther from having to go above stairs. Touching her chin where the Duke had placed his fingers, she smiled to herself a little dreamily. As much as she tried to prevent it, he was making his way into her heart.

  ***

  “Lady Heber, how glad I am to see you. How are you feeling?” Amos bowed, kissing her hand.

  “Thank you, Duke. I am quite well,” she replied, looking around at the assembled guests. “I believe we are in for quite a feast tonight!”

  “Indeed,” he replied. “The cook has been hard at work.”

  Agnes smiled. “Bernard tells me that the new housekeeper is doing very well. I am so very glad.”

  “She is excellent, I must confess. She will wish to thank you, I am sure. I shall have her sent up to speak to you, if you would like?”

  “Oh no, Duke!” Lady Heber laughed, patting his arm and trying her best to remain offhand. “The poor woman will be frightened out of her wits coming to speak to me in front of all your other guests. I shall go to see her myself, once dinner is over.”

  Amos frowned. “You will go downstairs? To the servants’ quarters?”

  She shook her head at him, a tiny smile on her lips. “I am not as arrogant as you might think, Your Grace. I have no concern about going below stairs. Now, shall we go through?” Trying to quickly change the subject, Agnes took his arm and, together, they walked through to the dining room.

  ***

  “She has run off; I am certain of it!”

  Agnes refrained from rolling her eyes, however much she wanted to. Lord Bertram had been going on about his missing daughter for quite some time, and she wished he’d change the subject. The other guests, however, were all agog, asking more questions.

  “Has she eloped?” one asked.

  "Come now!" Lord Bertram laughed. "That girl has neither beauty nor brains. She had not one single suitor!"

  Agnes felt herself grow angry, twisting her hands in her lap as she kept her expression empty.

  "No one would have eloped with her," he continued, before taking a long slurp of his wine. "That is why I encouraged her to engage her affections to Lord Thompson."

  “Lord Thompson!” one of the ladies gasped. “He is so much…older than she!”

  Lord Bertram shrugged. “It was not as if my daughter had any other offers, my dear Lady Johnstone. I would have seen her settled and happy.” He put a hand on his heart, as though he was quite distraught over her disappearance. “I feel something terrible must have happened to her. I cannot for one moment think why she would hide from me.”

  "I can," Agnes muttered before she could stop herself. She closed her eyes for a moment, praying that no one had heard her unguarded words, but her prayers were not to be answered.

  “What do you mean, Lady Heber?” Lady Johnstone asked, her face alive with interest. “You are her godmother after all, are you not? You must know why she has run away.”

  Agnes groaned inwardly, hating that she had to now feed the gossip mill. Lady Johnstone was known for gossiping, and anything Agnes now said was sure to be passed around the drawing rooms of other respectable ladies by morning. “I have no idea why the girl would disappear,” she replied, coolly. “Although, of course, we are all very concerned that she is missing.”

  “Of course,” Lord Bertram boomed, attempting to capture everyone’s attention once more. “Nothing would make me happier than her safe return.”

  “She will be quite ruined, of course,” another gentleman remarked. Mutterings of agreement rippled around the table, and Agnes felt her anger begin to rise.

  “None of that matters to me or to Lord Thompson,” Lord Bertram continued, his words silencing the crowd. “All we want is her to return home safely so that she can wed Lord Thompson, just as was arranged.”

  “You mean, the man will still have her?”

  “Of course,” came the reply. “The man is quite in love with her, I am sure. Since there is no possibility of elopement, we have concluded that she is simply hiding somewhere and that there will be no stain on her reputation.”

  Agnes’s eyes flashed. Lord Thompson was still waiting to marry Esther? She couldn’t believe it. “What has the man got over you, Francis?” she asked, loudly, glaring at Lord Bertram.

  Complete and utter silence filled the room.

  “I beg your pardon, Lady Heber?”

  “I said,” she replied, her voice deadly. “What has Lord Thompson got over you that you would so willingly sell your daughter to him?”

  Bernard stared at his mother, aghast. Getting to his feet, he tried to mumble an excuse for her behavior, but she cut him off with a swipe of her hand. Shamefaced, he sat back down, dreading what his mother was going to say next.

  “The man has nothing on me,” Lord Bertram blustered, his face reddening. “He loves my daughter; that is all.”

  “Codswallop,” Agnes replied, stoutly, inciting a gasp from the other guests. “You know that is not true, and so do I. You must have lost a great deal of money to him, Francis, and it should be you who deals with the consequence of that, not your daughter.”

  “You speak too freely, Lady Heber,” Lord Bertram seethed, rising to his feet.

  She shook her head, the anger continuing to pulse through her veins. “You are a selfish, low-down, greedy man who has pushed his daughter to the very brink, so the only choice she has is to run away! You would have coerced her to marry Lord Thompson, despite him being the same in years as you, and she would have obeyed eventually because, despite everything, she still loves you. For what it is worth, Francis, I am glad the girl had enough sense to leave you, despite what it might do to her reputation. I can only hope she can stay well enough hidden so that you will never find her!”

  Her voice rising to a roar, Agnes thumped the table with her fist before dramatically leaving the room. The entire room stayed silent only for a moment before it rose to a hubbub of frantic conversations and excited whispers. Only Amos stayed silent, a thoughtful expression on his face as he gazed at the door that Agnes closed as she left.

  Chapter 8

  Ignoring the surprise of the servants, Agnes made her way down the back stairs, rage practically billowing from her as she walked. “The audacity of the man,” she seethed under her breath. Her love for her goddaughter filled her with a protective rage, and the news that Lord Thompson still expected a betrothal to Esther was quite shocking.

  Esther was busy overseeing the last of the dishes, thankful that soon her responsibilities of the evening would be over. A lot of tidying up had to be done and many dishes needed washing, but that was not within the housekeeper's duties. Leaving the kitchen, she almost walked straight into Lady Heber.

&n
bsp; “Godmother!” Esther gasped, grasping Agnes’s hands. “How glad I am to see you!”

  Agnes squeezed Esther’s hands, but whispered to her, “Not here, my dear. Any of the servants may spot us at any moment, and I am quite sure they are already wondering why I am downstairs. Have you a room?”

  Esther nodded. "This way." She and Agnes walked quickly into Esther's private parlor, set apart for both her personal and business use. Closing the door, she and Agnes embraced.

  “I have been so worried about you,” Agnes exclaimed.

  “I am quite well, Godmother, but I am so glad to see you,” Esther began, hugging her tightly. “I have been so anxious this evening. My father being among the guests has rattled my nerves. I keep expecting him to march in here and demand my return home.”

  Agnes let out a small laugh. “My dear, you have nothing to fear, I assure you. Your father will certainly not be making his way downstairs any time soon. I assured His Grace that I would come and speak to you myself, so that you would not have to make an appearance in front of the other guests.”

  Moving to sit in a chair, Agnes settled back with a sigh, her soul happy as she saw her goddaughter was truly safe and well.

  “Some tea, Godmother?”

  “Please,” Agnes replied, her anger blowing away like the steam that rose from the teapot. “I am afraid I said some harsh words to your father.”

  “In front of the guests?” Esther exclaimed, turning wide eyes onto her godmother. “Surely, you didn’t!"

  Agnes smiled a little contritely. “I’m afraid so, Esther. You are well aware of my outspoken nature, and I could not let the things that loathsome man was saying pass without censure.” She glanced at Esther, her face a little remorseful. “I am sorry, my dear. I know you love your father still, but I must confess, I find his treatment of you utterly dreadful.”

  Esther shook her head, pouring the tea. “Is he very angry?”

 

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