Unexpected earl, p.20

Unexpected Earl, page 20

 part  #1 of  Hearts and Ever Afters Series

 

Unexpected Earl
 



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  “He is,” Agnes replied, frankly. “But he insists that, even when you are found, you will marry Lord Thompson.”

  Esther’s face went white with shock, and she sat down heavily, barely managing to hold onto her steaming cup of tea. “What?” she breathed.

  Agnes set her mouth in a thin line. “I am sorry to tell you this, Esther, but the man is insistent, it seems.”

  With a shaking hand, Esther placed her cup of tea and saucer onto the small table to her left. She didn't know what to think, her whole body trembling at the thought.

  "It has taken so much for me to leave him behind, and it has been for naught?" she whispered, panic clawing at her throat. "No matter what I do, Lord Thompson is always going to be waiting for me."

  Agnes moved to sit next to her goddaughter, flinging a comforting arm around her shoulders. "It will not come to that, Esther. We will find a way out."

  Esther let out a harsh laugh. “There is no way out. The only thing I can do is hide until… until Lord Thompson dies!” She covered her hands with her face. “Who knows how long that will be?” Her voice was muffled as she took in great heaving breaths, forcing the tears back down.

  Agnes rubbed Esther’s back in small, comforting circles. For once in her life, Agnes did not know what to say. They had both thought that as soon as it became clear that Esther had run away, the stain on her reputation would be enough to send Lord Thompson far from her. Neither of them had ever considered the possibility that the man would still be chasing a betrothal to Esther.

  “Whatever shall I do?” Esther asked, dropping her hands down to her lap, the tears she had been holding back no longer at bay.

  "I don't know," Agnes confessed. "But we shall think of something. For the time being, you can remain here and continue doing a marvelous job of running the estate."

  Esther sniffed. "He seems to be a very good man. Is he pleased with me?"

  "Of course he is!" her godmother exclaimed, patting her hand. "You needn’t have any worries on that account." Getting to her feet, she smoothed her skirt and took a breath. "Well, I must be getting back. Although I shall not apologize to your father, I must ensure that I appear contrite over my harsh words."

  A glimmer of a smile appeared on Esther’s face as she stood up, embracing her godmother once more. “Thank you for everything you’ve done for me,” she said, truly grateful. “I know we can find a way out of this.”

  “Of course we will,” Agnes replied, patting her back. Moving towards the door, she laughed as a sudden idea hit her. “Perhaps Bernard can be persuaded to marry you.”

  “I do not think she is quite his type,” a voice said, as the door swung open to reveal the stern face of the Duke of Hawdon.

  Chapter 9

  “Your Grace!” Esther gasped, executing a clumsy curtsy, not sure where to look. Her heart seemed to stop completely in her chest before catching itself and beginning to tear out a frantic beat.

  Agnes collected herself almost at once. "Duke!" she cried, immediately feigning ignorance. "Whatever can you mean?"

  Amos said nothing, walking into the room and carefully shutting the door behind him. Without a word, he turned and faced the two ladies, seeing the carefully executed blank expression on the Lady Heber’s face and the milk-white face of his housekeeper.

  “Tell me the truth,” he began, quietly, his gaze fierce as he turned to Agnes. “This…” he gestured to Esther, “…is the Lord Bertram’s daughter?”

  Agnes did not know what to say, looking helplessly at Esther, who was staring at Amos with a tortured look. Closing her eyes briefly, she let out a long breath and nodded.

  Amos exploded.

  “How dare you do this to me, Lady Heber? I am harboring a runaway daughter whose father is currently a guest at my dinner table? Are you aware of what dangers you have put her in, and me as well? If she is discovered, what do you expect me to do? Marry her? Both of our reputations will be ruined!”

  “I—” Esther began, trying to tell him that she did not ever intend to force him into marriage, but Amos did not even look in her direction.

  “I cannot believe that you would deceive me in such a manner! Even with the difficulties the girl is in, why did you not simply speak to me? I am sure that, together, we could all have come up with a reasonable solution to help your goddaughter.” He flung a look at Esther, seeing her tremble, but his heart did not care. He was too angry to care about anything.

  Agnes drew herself up as tall as she could. “Duke,” she commanded, gazing at him severely. “That is quite enough.”

  “Don’t you dare—” Amos began, his voice growing louder, but Agnes was not to be interrupted.

  "I said, that is quite enough," she repeated, talking to him as though he were a small boy. "Now, you will return to your guests and spend the remainder of the evening being your usual charming and amiable self." She held up a hand to put a stop to the diatribe about to fall from his lips. "Esther, Bernard and I will meet you in the drawing room once all your guests have left, and we will talk all of this through then." She did not even wait for a response from him, opening the parlor door and waiting for him to walk out.

  Amos was inwardly seething, but, for some reason, found himself walking out of the parlor door and up the back stairs. Agnes was right; he was too angry to listen to anything either of them had to say. He hated the thought of returning to his guests and making idle conversation with them when he had an important situation to deal with, but he had no choice. Plastering a smile on his face, he returned to the drawing room where the rest of the gentlemen had only just returned to join the ladies, having enjoyed their port and cheroots.

  Lord Bertram, Esther’s father, had obviously been drinking in excess; his red cheeks and nose were an outward indication of too much liquor. He was speaking far too freely, his laugh loud and abrasive. Despite all that, Amos found his way over to the man, managing to pull him into their own private conversation.

  “I am so sorry to hear about your daughter,” Amos began, seeing the glint in Lord Bertram’s eye. “I can imagine it must be very distressing for you to not know her whereabouts.”

  “It is most distressing,” Lord Bertram agreed, picking up his newly refilled glass of port. “For myself and Lord Thompson, of course!”

  “Indeed,” Amos agreed, covering his disbelief with a sympathetic look. “Has it been a long-standing engagement?”

  Lord Bertram laughed. “My daughter has not even agreed to the match,” he chortled. “But I have no doubt she will find it a most amiable proposition once she receives a firm talking to.”

  “Oh?” Amos asked, raising his eyebrows. “She is a good daughter then?”

  “She is that,” Lord Bertram agreed, sloshing a little port onto his cravat. “Always does what she’s told in the end. Especially when I tell her that if she does not do what I ask, her poor papa could end up a pauper.”

  “Lord Bertram, you cannot be serious!” Amos exclaimed, feigning shock.

  Lord Bertram chuckled again. “Have no fear, Your Grace, that will not happen. The moment Lord Thompson marries my daughter, he is to give me a large sum for her. It will be enough to clear my debts and ensure I have a comfortable living for the remainder of my life.”

  “How fortunate,” Amos muttered, feeling a stab of sympathy for the girl. Amos was also embarrassed for Lord Bertram. Surely, he was only sharing his grievances because he had consumed too much alcohol. It was well known that Lord Bertram enjoyed gambling, and it seemed he had wasted much of his wealth at the tables.

  “He has had his eye on Esther for a long time,” Lord Bertram continued, a disgusting grin on his face. “Her disappearance just makes him more keen to wed her.”

  Amos could barely hide his disgust.

  "I take it you and Lord Thompson are friends?" he continued, attempting to smile. "He must be quite a gentleman if he has been deemed worthy of your daughter."

  Lord Bertram threw back the rest of his port, a little dribbling d
own the side of his mouth. “Your Grace, so long as the man has money, I care very little about who marries the girl. She is already on the shelf and had no prospects to speak of, so if she is taken off my hands, then the better I am for it. She will be someone else’s financial burden, instead of my own.” He laughed uproariously, as if he had made some wonderful joke, and Amos felt nausea ripple through his stomach. Leaving Lord Bertram to his port, Amos walked out of the dining room and back to his study, seeking a little peace and solitude. Whilst he knew he was being a terrible host, he did not care in the slightest. He needed the quiet. He needed to think.

  Chapter 10

  Amos had no idea how long he had been sitting when Bernard came in. He had thought long and hard about the situation, and about Lord Bertram. The idea of a man the same age as Lord Bertram marring Mrs. Edwards—no, Lady Esther—made his skin crawl. He could not blame the girl for running away, but in doing so, she and Agnes had put him in a difficult position. Should anyone discover the secret that she was the daughter of Lord Bertram, then she would be assumed to be compromised, her reputation in tatters. The only way to scrape some of it back would be to marry the girl. He let out a sigh, staring into the flames.

  “Duke?” Bernard ventured, seeing him jump as Bernard’s voice startled him. “My apologies, but I couldn’t find you. The last of the guests are leaving.”

  “I’m sorry for leaving them with you,” Amos replied, gesturing his friend into the armchair opposite. “I had something weighing on my mind.”

  Bernard waved a hand. “It was no trouble. I told them all that you had taken ill. Lady Jane was very concerned.” He winked, but Amos could not find even a half smile to give to his remark. “Good grief!” Bernard continued, surprised to see his friend so stoic. “Whatever’s the matter?”

  Amos let out a long sigh, throwing back his whisky before answering. "It appears I have been harboring Lord Bertram's daughter."

  There was a beat of silence before Bernard shook his surprise enough to ask, “You mean my mother’s goddaughter? She’s been hiding here?” He looked around the room, as if he might spot her somewhere.

  “Here, in the house, right in front of my very nose,” Amos replied, his words growing in both volume and intensity. “Hiding here, under the guidance of your mother.”

  “My mother!” Bernard exclaimed, shock on his face. “Whatever has she done now?”

  Amos rubbed a hand across his eyes. “It seems that my new housekeeper is, in fact, Lady Esther Bertram.”

  Bernard said nothing, his mouth hanging open. The fact that he had not even recognized the housekeeper to be Esther was something of a shock, and the deceit of his mother even more of a revelation. He knew his mother was both blunt and outspoken, but he had never imagined she would do such a thing. "I suppose Mother was trying to protect Lady Esther in her own way," he mumbled, running a hand through his hair.

  Amos let out a long breath. “I know that,” he said, quietly. “I am just a little shocked at the deception of it all.”

  “I need to talk to her,” Bernard said, getting to his feet and walking urgently to the door. “Do you know where she might be?”

  "She and Lady Esther are meeting us in the drawing room," Amos replied. "They should be there now since the guests have left."

  ***

  “What if he throws me out?” Esther whispered, her nerves jangling. “Where shall I go?” She took a breath, her face showing her tortured thoughts. “What if he tells my father?”

  “Hush now, Esther,” Agnes soothed, taking her hand to stop her from twisting it into her skirts. “You just let me do the talking. I can sort this all out.” Seeing the door open, both she and Esther got to their feet, waiting for both men to walk in.

  “Lady Esther,” Bernard said, bowing to her. “May I say how relieved I am that you are safe and well.” He turned to his mother with a look of both hurt and fury in his gaze. “Mother, I do not know what on earth you were thinking.”

  Lady Heber did him the courtesy of looking a little abashed but held her ground nonetheless. “I was thinking about Esther,” she cried, pointing to her. “Her mother is gone, and I am the only one who seems to be concerned about her welfare. Do you really think I’d allow the girl to wed to Lord Thompson?”

  There was a brief silence.

  “No,” Bernard said, glancing at Esther who stood quietly, her face a stark white against the darkness of her housekeeper’s dress. “But you should have spoken to me, Mother, and certainly to the Duke.”

  Amos said nothing, choosing to pour himself another whiskey before sitting down, facing the two women. He studied the woman he now knew to be Lady Esther Bertram, wondering how she was feeling in all of this. Now that his anger had faded to nothingness, he felt sorry for the woman. Had he been in her position, he was certain he would have done the same thing.

  “I am sorry, Your Grace,” Esther tried to say, sinking down into the soft chair. “I know what I did was beyond forgiveness. I should not have deceived you so.”

  “What you did?” Amos asked, lifting a brow. “What you did was put my house in order. There is nothing here that I have found fault with, other than pretending to be Mrs. Edwards.” He found himself smiling at her, as both Agnes and Bernard sat quietly, listening to his words.

  “You are not furious with me?” Esther asked, keeping her eyes fixed on the carpet.

  “I was at first,” Amos admitted. “But then I chanced upon your father and, after what I have heard from him, I suddenly found myself having a great deal of sympathy for your situation.”

  “Thank you, Duke,” Agnes said, feeling a heady mixture of astonishment and relief. “The problem that lies before us now is what we are going to do about it all.”

  “Can Lady Esther stay with you, Mother?”

  “The servants would talk,” Lady Heber replied, with a shake of her head. “It would soon be common knowledge that Esther was staying with me.”

  “Oh.” Bernard sat back glumly and stared into the fire.

  “Could I not simply remain here?” Esther squeaked, trying not to sound like a timid little mouse.

  “No,” Amos replied, firmly. “If you are found to be here, then I should have to marry you to save your reputation, and that simply will not do.”

  Esther said nothing, flushing deeply as she heard the censure in his voice. The thought of having to marry her clearly disturbed him, although she found that she could not say the same. The thought of being the Duchess of Hawdon made her stomach flutter, but she pushed the thought away almost the moment it entered her head.

  “I have it,” Bernard said, slowly. “Lady Esther, I would be honored to have you as my wife.”

  Chapter 11

  Esther turned to Bernard, staring at him with wide eyes whilst Agnes clapped her hands together, her face glowing with joy.

  “Oh, Bernard! How wonderful!”

  Bernard shrugged his shoulders, his eyes on Esther. "What do you say, Lady Esther? I know we do not know one another all that well, but I know the kind of woman you are, and I am sure we shall do quite nicely together."

  Esther felt as though someone was squeezing all the air from her lungs as she stared at Bernard. She heard his words as though they were coming from far away, buzzing around her head. Trying to take deep breaths, she found she could only take short, shallow ones, beginning to feel a little dizzy.

  “Here.”

  Esther looked down to see the Duke bending on his knees in front of her, pushing a whiskey glass into her hands.

  “Take a sip,” he said quietly, looking into her eyes. “It will help.”

  With a trembling hand, she lifted the glass and took a small sip, the liquid burning her throat and electrifying her senses. Catching her breath, she felt Amos take her other hand, his thumb rubbing the back of her hand gently.

  “Are you all right?” he asked, his hazel eyes focused on her face.

  Esther nodded, her own eyes focusing on the glass in her hand and not on his
handsome face. He was close enough for her to reach out and touch his cheek or his hair, even though she had just had a proposal of marriage from Bernard.

  “Thank you,” she whispered, handing him back the glass. Getting to his feet, Amos walked back over to his chair, leaving Esther feeling a little bereft.

  “Are you well, my dear?” Agnes asked, moving to sit next to her goddaughter. “I know this is quite a lot to take in, and ultimately it is your decision.”

  "What choice do I have?" Esther asked, helplessly. "Not that I don't appreciate your offer, Lord Heber, because of course I do. It is most generous of you."

  “You will be a great match, my dear,” Agnes said, softly. “I know Bernard will take good care of you.”

  “I don’t doubt it,” Esther replied, a soft smile on her face. “Yet, I do not want to deprive Bernard of the chance to marry for love, to marry someone of his own choosing.”

  Bernard got to his feet, coming forward to take her hand. "Pray, do not concern yourself with such things," he said, gently. "It is high time I took a wife, and if my mother approves of you, then that is all the confirmation I need. I am sure we shall suit. What do you say?"

  Esther took a deep breath. “May I think about it? It is all so sudden, and I must confess my head is spinning. I think you will make a fine husband, and it would please me to get to know you. However, I do not want to make the wrong decision.”

  “Of course, my dear,” Bernard replied, pressing a kiss to the back of her hand. “Take all the time you need.”

  “Please just give me a few days to take all of this in,” Esther said, pulling her hand from his. “I shall not keep you waiting long.”

  “But where shall you stay while you consider his offer?” Agnes asked, frowning a little.

  Amos cleared his throat. “She can stay here,” he said, firmly. “The ruse can continue for a few more days, just until you make your decision.”

  Esther sagged a little in relief, thanking him profusely. “It will just be a few days, Your Grace.”

 
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