Unexpected earl, p.21

Unexpected Earl, page 21

 part  #1 of  Hearts and Ever Afters Series

 

Unexpected Earl
 



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  “Take as much time as you need,” Amos heard himself say. “It is an important decision and not one to be rushed.”

  “Thank you, Your Grace,” Esther repeated, finally able to lift her eyes to his. A spark shot between them, and she dropped her gaze again, rising to her feet as she excused herself. She had responsibilities in the morning and needed her rest. Embraced by Lady Heber, she spoke quietly to Bernard for a few moments before leaving the room. As Esther left, she sent the Duke one final, enquiring glance over her shoulder.

  None of them saw the shadow of a maid scuttling along the floor who, only moments earlier, had her ear pressed to the door.

  ***

  Amos could not sleep. He tossed and turned long after the household had gone to sleep. He told himself it was the shock of finding out that Mrs. Edwards was, in fact, Lady Esther Bertram, but it was something more than that. When Bernard had proposed marriage to her, he sat as though pinned to his chair, with something like ice racing through his veins. He had forced himself to look at her face, seeing her astonishment, and then her gratitude. Something had kicked him in the gut, and he couldn’t explain his anguish.

  Amos threw an arm over his eyes, his mind tormenting him further. He knew that by both his words and his tone, he had expressed a wish to never marry the lady, but when Bernard had put his own proposition forward, he had found himself regretting his haste. The woman was beautiful and hardworking, taking on paid employment in order to escape from her ruthless father. She was not a feather-brained miss whose only goal in life was to marry for money; she was much more than that.

  If he was honest with himself, he had been intrigued by Lady Esther, catching himself wondering how long her hair was and whether it curled when it was down. Of course, at the time, he had considered her a servant in his household, so he had pushed thoughts like that away. But now, knowing that she was a lady, that changed things. Then why had he appeared so disgruntled over the idea of marrying her to save her reputation? He groaned, punching the pillow as he grew frustrated with his own behavior. Regardless of how he felt, it was too late now. Bernard had proposed first and, as a gentleman, he would say nothing until she had made her decision. Rolling over, he tried to put her from his mind and eventually drifted off into a dreamless sleep.

  Chapter 12

  Esther spent the next two days in a dream, her mind foggy from everything that had happened. She managed her responsibilities well enough, but found her thoughts constantly turning to the Duke pushing the idea of marrying her firmly to one side. How humiliating it had been. Remembering that he was most likely a rake with a stellar reputation amongst both the ladies of the ton and the household staff, she told herself that he would not have made a good husband—but her heart refused to listen.

  It was Sunday, and most of the servants had the afternoon off. Esther was enjoying sitting in the kitchen with a cup of tea. Bernard was a true gentleman, and she knew they would, most likely, get along quite well. But what of the Duke? Shaking her head, she realized how ridiculous she was, hankering after the man. He already made his position quite clear.

  A sudden cough caught her attention. The butler informed Esther that the master wished to speak to her and was waiting in the study. Taking a deep breath, she drank the last of her tea before making her way up the stairs, wondering what the Duke wanted.

  Taking a breath and shaking her hands out in an attempt to get rid of her nervousness, Esther knocked on the door and walked in, not lifting her eyes.

  Amos let out a frustrated sound. “Lady Esther, you need not act so deferentially now, considering I know your true status. Please, sit.”

  She did so, sitting carefully on the chair opposite him and folding her hands in her lap. Even though he’d requested it, she could not help but keep her eyes on the ground, still feeling a keen sense of embarrassment.

  “Lady Esther,” Amos began, feeling a little flustered. “I wished to speak to you about our situation.”

  “Yes, Your Grace?” she replied, not lifting her eyes for a moment.

  Amos clenched his jaw, trying to think of a way to express what he had wanted to tell her all day. “Yesterday, Lord Heber proposed marriage to you.”

  “He did,” Esther said, wondering where this was going. “It was very kind of him.”

  “Are you going to accept him?” Amos asked, his voice quiet.

  Esther shook her head. "I have not yet decided, Your Grace. Why? Are there some concerns you wish to share with me?"

  “He is a dear friend to me,” Amos began, still not sure how to express his feelings. “I should not wish him to be hurt in any way.”

  Esther sat quietly, but her face began to burn with both anger and shame. Did he really think she was deliberately going to hurt Bernard in some way by accepting his hand?

  “We have been friends for a long time,” he continued. “Bernard is a good, kind man and someone on whom I depend on.” And that is why I am struggling to tell you that I want you to marry me and not him, he wanted to say.

  Esther got to her feet, her eyes flashing as she looked at him for the first time. “I would not upset or hurt Lord Heber for the world,” she cried. “You forget that his mother is my godmother, and I, too, have known him since I was a child. Although we do not know each other well, he is a most generous man, and it is only because of his kind nature that I have taken some time to consider his proposal.”

  Amos got to his feet, startled by her sudden ire. “Lady Esther, that is not what I meant—”

  “After my mother died, I was left completely without help,” she continued. “It is only because of my godmother that I have managed to find any kind of sanctuary away from my father and Lord Thompson. Do you think I wished this for myself? Wished it for Lord Heber? I did not, I assure you! I want Lord Heber to have his own choice of bride, not to feel compelled into matrimony with a woman he barely knows.” Her chest heaved as she spoke, tendrils of blonde hair coming loose as she gesticulated wildly. “I had hoped that going into hiding would have been enough of a stain on my reputation for Lord Thompson to reject me completely, but according to my godmother, it appears I am still in a dire situation.” She paused for a few moments, her green eyes filling with sudden tears. “But you are right, Your Grace. I do not wish to injure Bernard in any way. It is not fair. I shall refuse his proposal, so that he will have a chance at happiness.”

  Esther’s voice grew quiet and her face fell, her whole body relaxing into a depression. Her gaze moved from his face back to the floor as she felt the enormity of her decision crashing down on her.

  “Then what will you do?” Amos asked, softly, moving a little closer to her.

  She raised her eyes, water-filled emerald pools, to his own. “I shall marry Lord Thompson,” she whispered. “I can see no other way out.”

  His mind going wild at the thought, Amos strode to her, catching her up in his arms and pinning her against the wall. His breath came hard and fast as he watched astonishment climb into her eyes, her mouth opening slightly at the suddenness of his actions. Without even thinking, he dropped his mouth onto her own, kissing her with such a ferocity that she was momentarily stunned, unmoving under his caress. Slowly her resistance began to thaw, and she allowed her arms to twine around his neck, softening her lips as he continued to kiss her.

  Amos’s senses were swimming as he pushed his body closer to Esther’s, finding no objection as he pulled the pins from her hair and dug his hands into the fallen tresses. It glided over his hands as he ran his hands through it, down her shoulders and arms. Grasping her hands in his, he angled his head and intensified his kiss.

  A sudden knock at the door threw them apart. Gasping for breath, Esther stared at him with terrified eyes, putting a hand to her unpinned hair.

  “Duke, I...” Bernard walked in, closely followed by his mother.

  The atmosphere grew tense as they each stared at one another.

  Bernard spoke first. “I see,” he said, quietly, moving to a chair.
“So this is how it is to be? May I congratulate you, Duke.”

  Esther took great gulps of air, hastily pinning up her hair as her cheeks flamed red. Whatever had come over her?

  “My dear,” Agnes said, coming over to her clearly distraught goddaughter. “Are you all right?” There was not a hint of disapproval in her voice, but Esther stood, humiliated nonetheless. Agnes patted her hand and walked with her to a small couch.

  “Heber, I am sorry,” Amos said, walking to the chair opposite and flinging himself into it. “I didn’t mean for this to happen.” He stapled his fingers and looked honestly at his friend, quite prepared to take anything that Bernard threw at him.

  Bernard took a long breath, looking first at Esther, and then back to Amos. “It is quite all right,” he said, heavily. “Whilst I admit I had been hoping that she would become my bride, I know you would not have done this had your heart not been engaged.”

  Esther hardly listened, the blood roaring in her ears as she felt her cheeks still hot. She was barely able to look at either man.

  Amos swallowed a sudden lump in his throat, hating how humiliated she was. "I must apologize, Lady Esther," he began, using her given name without permission. "I didn't mean for that to happen. I wanted to show both you, and Lord Heber, the respect you deserve, but my heart would not let me."

  Esther's head shot up. "I beg your pardon?" she exclaimed. "Your heart?" She let out a mirthless laugh, feeling panic and mortification pulling her under with every moment she spent in his presence. "I know your reputation well, Your Grace. Telling me to make sure the servants do not seek you out for a dalliance? And your previous two housekeepers gone, for similar reasons, I am sure! I am another conquest, no? And I gave in to you so easily."

  Amos did not know how to respond, his reputation one of his own making. He had once thought it a good thing, and now it was the biggest stumbling block in his path. Bernard, wishing to ease her discomfiture and the situation, got to his feet and came to sit beside her. Lady Heber, wishing to leave them both alone for a time, got to her feet and moved to talk to Amos, trying to hold back a smile at his embarrassment.

  “Lady Esther,” Bernard began, taking Esther’s hand, “I would have married you tomorrow, should you have wished it, but my heart would not have been yours. I know that I said that it did not matter to me, and perhaps it still doesn’t, but wouldn’t you prefer to marry a man who has already starting falling in love with you?”

  “It is all a farce,” Esther whispered, refusing to believe it. “I know of his reputation, and I cannot allow myself to be another notch on his bedpost.”

  Bernard smiled, patting her hand. "Do not believe everything you have heard about this man," he said softly. "He has encouraged his reputation undoubtedly and, at times, flirted with his staff in a way that ultimately led to their dismissal, but he is not the rake you imagine him to be."

  She studied his face for a long time, trying to spot any tell-tale signs of a lie, but she found none. “Truly?” she whispered. “You are not just saying that to make me feel better, Lord Heber?”

  He kissed her cheek. "No, not in the least," he said, smiling. "I am not in the slightest bit upset over our proposed engagement being so swiftly at an end. Not when I know you will be vastly happier with him than you could ever be with me.”

  Esther got to her feet, thanking Bernard before turning to Lady Heber and Amos. “I am just going to wash my face,” she said, a little tremulously. “When I return, perhaps we can have a conversation, Your Grace.”

  Amos got to his feet, moving forward to take her hand. “Please, call me Amos. I will be waiting for your return.”

  Gently removing her hand, Esther gave him a wobbly smile before exiting the room.

  Chapter 13

  “Esther has been gone for quite some time,” Agnes commented, looking a little worriedly.

  Bernard frowned. “It has been quite a while, Duke. Where could she have gone?”

  “I’m not sure,” Amos replied, getting to his feet. “Excuse me while I go downstairs to check.”

  "I'll come with you," Bernard said, following him from the room. Lady Heber, of course, was not about to be left behind, so the three of them trooped downstairs, only to find her parlor empty. There were only a few servants about, who all quieted their chatter the moment the Duke and his guests arrived.

  "Have you seen Mrs. Edwards?" Amos asked the cook, who shook her head. Further inquiries were met with no positive answers, and Bernard, Amos, and Agnes made their way outside, now becoming highly concerned over her disappearance.

  “Pardon me, Your Grace," came a quiet voice, and Amos spun around to see a scared looking chambermaid at his elbow.

  “Yes?”

  “Tis only that there’s been talk that Mrs. Edwards is, in fact, Lord Bertram's lost daughter."

  Amos's face lost all its color.

  "When did you hear this?" he asked, trying not to sound too severe.

  "Within the last couple of days," she replied, her eyes staring at his boots.

  “Thank you,” Amos replied, watching her scuttle away. Dread rose in his heart. “If the servants know, I must assume that her father also knows,” he said, seeing Lady Heber’s face whiten.

  “What shall we do?” she cried, grasping Bernard’s arm. “If he has her, she will not easily escape him!”

  Amos thought quickly, his mind running through various possibilities. “He will want her to marry Lord Thompson as soon as possible,” he said aloud, seeing the comprehension on Bernard’s face.

  "So, he will have taken her to Lord Thompson's townhouse," Bernard continued. "That way he can claim she has been staying with him, make it look like some lovers’ tryst. She will have no choice but to marry the man."

  Amos did not wait to hear another word, taking off towards the stable, shouting for his horse. Bernard followed quickly, telling his mother to wait behind. She kissed his cheek and bade him hurry, watching them thunder away a few moments later.

  ***

  Esther’s eyes fluttered as she became aware of a strong pounding in her head. Lifting her hand, she found her hair wet and sticky, struggling to open her eyes through a haze of pain.

  “If you had not struggled, then I wouldn’t have had to hit you so hard.”

  Blinking hard to focus her vision, Esther saw her father’s face come into view.

  “What have you done?” she asked groggily, struggling to sit up.

  Her father studied her with distaste in his expression. “Nothing a father wouldn’t do for his daughter,” he sneered. “Hiding yourself as a housekeeper and thinking the servants wouldn’t talk. Foolish girl!” He sat back, the carriage rocking her from side to side as she tried to remain upright. “Luckily for you, Lord Thompson is most eager to make you his bride. Your foolish ways have not dissuaded him in the slightest.”

  “I will not marry him,” Esther replied, resolutely. “You cannot force me.”

  “I can, and you will,” her father said, his face becoming red and spittle flying from his mouth. “Should you not, you and I will find ourselves in the gutter.”

  Esther closed her eyes, blocking out the light and the sight of his fury. “What do you mean?” she asked, wearily.

  Her father let out a wicked laugh that shook Esther to her very core. “Lord Thompson is willing to pay a great deal for you, my girl. He has been watching you for a long time, and we were able to strike quite a deal.”

  Esther shuddered. “I am not for sale, father.”

  “Oh, yes you are,” he replied, leaning forward. “You are for sale as much as anything else in my possession. You are the most valuable, it has to be said. The price I will get for you will cover my debts and set me up for the rest of my days.”

  Esther shook her head, in spite of the pain that shot through it. “I will not marry him, Father.”

  He sat back, seemingly unruffled by her words of refusal. “You will have no choice. When you are found at Lord Thompson’s house, you will have
to marry him or have such a stain on your reputation that even I will not be able to have you in my house.”

  “I shall go to my sister’s house,” Esther replied, panic rising up her throat.

  “And mar her reputation also?” her father asked, mocking her. “I should have thought you cared more for your sister than that.”

  Esther closed her eyes, not able to find a way out. She knew that her sister would welcome her with open arms, but Esther would not allow her to be besmirched by what would then be her own tattered reputation.

  “You have become a monster,” she whispered, keeping her eyes shut. “When did you stop being my father and instead become my captor?”

  He said nothing, the turn of the carriage wheels on the cobbled streets the only sound. Esther wanted to cry but refused to allow a single drop of moisture to fall. She would not show any weakness to her father, would not allow another word to pass her lips.

  “Almost there,” her father jeered. “I am sure Lord Thompson will be expecting us.”

  A sudden sound of hooves met her ears as the carriage began to slow, and the sounds of shouting caused Esther’s spirits to lift. Had the Duke come for her?

  Chapter 14

  Thundering down the street and pushing his stallion to its limit, Amos finally caught sight of the Bertram carriage, making its way towards Lord Thompson’s townhouse. Relieved, yet filled with rage, he spurred his horse on, hearing Bernard close behind him.

  "Esther? Esther!" he roared, riding alongside it and managing to catch a glimpse of her face before her father pulled the curtain closed. "Stop the carriage!" he shouted to the coach driver. "Stop it now!" Moving his horse directly into the path of the carriage, the driver had no choice but to rein the horses in, and slowly, the carriage stopped moving.

  Leaping from his horse, he threw open the carriage door, only to be thrown back as Lord Bertram punched him directly in the face. The force of the blow threw him backward, and, as he scrambled to his feet, he saw Lord Bertram was already dragging Esther from the carriage. Ignoring the blood pouring from his nose, he staggered to his feet and ran to them. Knocking himself bodily into Lord Bertram, he managed to loosen Lord Bertram's hold on Esther's arm and, pushing her behind himself, stood, ready to fight.

 
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