Unexpected earl, p.30

Unexpected Earl, page 30

 part  #1 of  Hearts and Ever Afters Series


Unexpected Earl

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  Alice shifted in her chair, and smiled again, but it did not reach her eyes. “Yes,” she answered finally. “Yes, I did feel that way, of course. With your brother.”

  Jane continued to watch her, watch as a distant look appeared on her face, as if she were in a different place and different time.

  “Your brother was out of reach for someone like me. I found myself thinking of him often, and I felt as if I would be the happiest woman in the world if he were to but notice me…”

  She looked at Jane meaningfully. “When I found out he loved me too, I found myself in utter disbelief. Our places in society were so different…”

  “What did you do?” Jane asked, suddenly forgetting who she was and the situation that she was in.

  “Well, you know the story,” Alice said, rather softly. “After much strife and misunderstandings…” Alice paused and gave Jane a knowing look.

  Jane was one of those who had caused the strife, and the reminder was like a swift blow to her side.

  Alice continued. “It all worked out in the end, didn’t it? We are here.”

  “And you are both happy here? You feel as if you made the right choice?”

  Alice’s brow furrowed, and she looked intently at Jane. “Is everything all right? You look awfully pale…”

  Jane felt her jaw clench. She bit her tongue, and her breathing became rapid. She looked all about the room, realizing that she had led herself into situation in which she could not easily dismiss.

  Alice was still looking at her intently.

  Jane’s lip trembled.

  “Oh, Alice,” she said, tears forming in her eyes. Her hands, still holding the cup tightly, began to shake. “I find myself in a situation in which I can’t find an easy solution.”

  Alice appeared taken aback, but said nothing.

  Jane sat up straight and forced herself to quell the tears. She gathered her thoughts, for she still longed to share them, and told Alice everything that she was going through.

  Or everything that I am running from…

  It was very much the same way that she explained it all to Emmeline, except this time, she stood in front of a woman who she had mistreated from the very first moment they met.

  She decided that Alice did not need to know the depth of her own insecurities. She did not want Robert to find out about how afraid she was of the whole situation. She was vague about her encounter with Lord Greenshire and simply told her that Lord Hays had shown interest in her as well.

  “I don’t quite understand what choice I should make, or how I should even respond.”

  She looked at Alice.

  “And you,” Jane said with a smile. “Alice, I am so sorry. I spent such a long time being angry and frustrated with my brother for even considering his marriage to you. All I could see was my brother destroying his place in the world and ruining any chance he could have at happiness. And…” she laughed, but it was soft and hollow. “I worried about what it would mean for my sisters and I. I feared that it would ruin our chances of good matches as well. But, Robert never felt society’s rules were fair, and now he has found so much joy with you.”

  She leaned closer to Alice.

  “And I was wrong. Alice, I am so sorry. Until I met Lord Hays, I could never have understood that personal feelings could outweigh the feelings of propriety and duty. I misjudged you both so poorly for being victims of your own desires instead of doing what I, and what other members of my family, believed to be right.

  “I am sorry, Alice. I feel truly awful about how I treated you that one afternoon in your own home. I shouldn’t have barged in on you while you spoke confidentially to Agnes.”

  Alice’s face reddened, and she looked quickly down at the cup in her hand. “Oh, Jane, you are too kind. There is no need to worry. Besides, your intervention was the catalyst that solidified my relationship with Robert. Although your reaction to my relationship with your brother was painful at the time, it was brought Robert and I together.”

  Jane laughed. “Alice, you are too kind.”

  “And, if I may,” Alice said, intently. “I do not think that it will be wrong or right to choose one over the other. You must decide which man is right for you.”

  “Yes, but who?” Jane asked, sitting back in her chair.

  The warmth of the room felt more comfortable now, and Jane found herself fond of all of the little things scattered about. It was cozy and charming, and she could see herself living happily in such a place.

  “You will have to see them again,” Alice responded. “That is perhaps the only way for you to make any sense of all of this.”

  Jane smiled at Alice, who smiled back at her. “Perhaps you are right. I will need to spend time with them both in order to determine who truly is the best match for me.”

  Soon after, Robert returned home, and Jane excitedly greeted him. He was pleased that she had arrived safely and insisted on showing her around the house. He shared the details of each and every piece of furniture. His entire home was furnished by gifts from parishioners, friends, or family.

  Jane was in awe. She had never seen Robert so happy in his entire life. And she told him so.

  He beamed at her. “Well, of course! With all of the wonderful blessings that God has given us! Including our newest one! Isn’t it exciting?”

  “Of course, being married is a great blessing!”

  Robert looked at her curiously. “No, sister! Our other news! Surely Alice told you?”

  He looked around at his wife, who sat on an light blue upholstered settee by the window.

  “Dear wife, did you not tell my sister our news?”

  “What news?” Jane asked.

  Alice looked up at Robert. “Well, dear, Jane came and we spoke of many things. She needed some advice on some matters, and I felt it would be better if we were to tell her together.”

  “Tell me what?” Jane asked again, tugging at her brother’s sleeve. “What did you need to tell me?”

  Robert looked at her, his eyes shining, and with a wide grin on his face, said, “We are expecting our first child next spring!”

  There was much excited laughter and exclamations from all three of them as they rejoiced together in their happy news. Jane was to be an aunt again, and Robert was to be a father!

  Jane went to bed that evening feeling more at peace with the world around her than she had in a long time. In addition to her joy for the upcoming baby, Jane was glad that she shelved her pride and made things right with Alice. The world around her seemed to make more sense.

  She was determined that she was going to stop running from the two men. She would have to face Lord Greenshire and what had happened when he had come to her home. She would also have to face Lord Hays and what he had said to her, for if he had said it once, what would he say to her the next time they saw each other?

  It was not until she had spoken with Alice and Emmeline that she realized that she had been running from it all.

  She sighed. She felt she didn’t know the men enough to be able to make a proper decision.

  I must know, she told herself. Lord, please help me; I must figure this out.

  Chapter 6 – A Lack of Character

  Jane’s journey began in the autumn, but ended in winter at the home of her maternal aunt. She had always been close with her aunt, and since her eldest daughter was only six months older than Jane, she formed a close friendship with her cousin, Lady Esther.

  In celebration of Christmas, her aunt and uncle decided to host a ball, and Jane was excited to enjoy the festivities. Esther told her time and time again that she would be most pleased about some of the guests who were coming, some of whom were very eligible gentlemen.

  Jane thought of it, a time or two, and believed that being with some young men and women who were her own age might be good for her. Perhaps she would meet a different man entirely who would sweep her off of her feet and help her to forget about Lord Hays and Lord Greenshire.

  A fanciful th
ought, she knew.

  During her stay with her family, Jane received two letters from Lord Greenshire. Both letters were cordial, but he did not offer any indication that he still held affection for her.

  The ball was on a cold, windy night at the beginning of December. It was a small affair, just like her aunt and uncle had said it would be. Jane stood inside the doors with her cousins, allowing her uncle to introduce her to anyone who came near. She was relieved when no one arrived who she did not know. Handsomely dressed people crowded into the ballroom, including a couple men who Jane found interesting. According to her Esther, one was an earl with much to inherit, and the other was a marquess who inherited a vast fortune. Both were amiable, and both were somewhat handsome. Neither were as handsome as Lord Greenshire, and neither were as charming as Lord Hays.

  She reprimanded herself for thinking of them.

  “Well, well, well! Fancy meeting you here, Lady Jane!”

  She felt her heart fall all the way to the floor felt beneath her feet.

  Lord Hays?

  Lord Hays grinned at Jane, and all her feelings gushed forth like a torrent, like a dam that had broken, and she had to resist the urge to dance across the space between them to stand beside him.

  No, she scolded herself. No, allow him to come to you. Show some decorum in front of your family.

  He sauntered over to her, slowly, deliberately. He smirked at her the entire way.

  When he reached her, he stood before her, and she held out her hand to him. He scooped it up and gently pressed his lips to her hand.

  “This is perhaps the best surprise I have had in a very long time,” he told her in a soft, velvety voice.

  “I had no idea that you were acquainted with my cousins.”

  He grinned. “I had no idea that these lovely people were your family, though I suppose I should have. Shame on me.”

  Without another word, he turned to her side and offered her his arm. He looked meaningfully at it.

  She smiled in return, and slid her arm easily into his.

  It was amazing to her how easy it was to be with him, how familiar it was. She had not realized how much she had missed seeing him until she was with him once more.

  “How long has it been since we last saw one another, Lady Jane?”

  “It is as if you read my mind, Lord Hays.” She smiled as they came to stand beside a long table filled with trays of small sandwiches, pastries, mince pies, and lovely tarts. “I believe it was at the Duchess of Kirkland’s ball in September.”

  “It has been months…” Lord Hays said, looking down at her through his long eyelashes. The look made her heart skip a beat. “That is far too long, my fair princess.”

  “I am no princess,” she said, and she laughed lightly. It felt so nice to be with him, to be conversing with him. To be looking into his eyes and not just in her dreams.

  “Compared to where I stand, my lady, you very easily could be.”

  She felt a pleasant tingle of glee travel up her arms. She picked up a pretty lavender tart from one of the shining silver trays. She was pleased to see that some of her grandmother’s belongings were being used at such a fine function.

  “So tell me, Lord Hays, what has brought you all the way down to Baton Ridge?”

  “I happen to be staying with my friend, Lord Beverly, who lives just a short distance from here. He and his family are well acquainted with your aunt and uncle.” He took a sip from a metal goblet he held in his hand. “I am still so very surprised that they are your family. As I said, I should have guessed it. Your cousins are so very pretty, and you all share similar features.”

  “She is my mother’s sister,” Jane began. “She is the youngest of their family, and she met her husband, my uncle, when they were…”

  She trailed off. She noticed Lord Hays shift his gaze to just over her shoulder, at something behind her. She fought the urge to turn and look around.

  “Well, she met him when they were very young.”

  “Oh, yes,” Lord Hays responded, his gaze moving back to hers. “Very interesting. And your cousins, they all seem to be the same age as you,” he continued.

  She straightened and moved a loose curl out of her line of sight. “They are, yes.”

  “Where are your parents?” he asked. “I am surprised that you are here all alone.”

  “I have been traveling to visit friends and family.”

  “Oh?” he asked.

  She noticed him quickly glance over her shoulder again.

  She peered closely at him.

  “Yes,” she said slowly.

  Why is he looking away from me? What is so interesting over my shoulder?

  She shook her head. I’m being foolish. I’m sure it is nothing.

  “I am returning home three days from now,” she continued. “I’ve been here for almost three weeks now, and I promised my mother I would be home for…”

  She swallowed. Lord Hays was clearly not paying attention to her.

  Jane turned and looked over her shoulder, in the direction of his gaze. He was flustered that she had noticed, but she looked anyways. She noticed Esther, and standing with her was a pretty woman with curly dark hair and rosy cheeks. The dark-haired woman laughed at something Esther had said, and then she turned and looked at Jane and Lord Hays. She smiled nicely, and then looked back at Esther.

  Jane turned back to Lord Hays, who was still gazing at the woman, with a small smile pulling at the corners of his lips. His gaze shifted immediately back to Jane’s.

  “Yes,” he said, rather smoothly. “You promised your mother that you would be home for what?”

  Jane smile faded. He was listening to her, but not giving her his full attention. Jane tried make excuses for his behavior. Perhaps he was just curious. Perhaps he thought he knew the young woman and was watching her passively until he decided if he did.

  Heavens, I need to get myself under control, she told herself.

  A tall, elderly man appeared at the shoulder of Lord Hays.

  Lord Hays introduced the man to Jane, “Lord Cheshire, may I introduce you to the lovely Lady Jane Stone.”

  “It is a pleasure to meet you, my lady,” the elderly man responded.

  “The pleasure is all mine, my lord.”

  Jane had to admit that the Lord Cheshire looked to be kind and gentle in spirit. He beamed at her and inclined his head. “My apologies, my lady, but there is some quick business we need to attend to. “Lord Hays, may I borrow you for a moment?”

  “Not at all, sir,” Jane replied. “I shall be here, Lord Hays.”

  He grinned at her. “I shall miss you every moment we are apart.”

  Relieved, she returned to her cousins and spent some time with them before dinner.

  Dinner was an elaborate affair, and Jane was disheartened that she was on the opposite end of the table from Lord Hays. She could not see him past all of the tall candelabras and flower vases, but she had pleasant company with her aunt and uncle and some of their friends.

  She was enjoying her torte when she overheard one of the young ladies a few sitting nearby. “This very handsome gentleman approached me right before dinner!”

  “Did he?” her friend asked. “What did he say to you?”

  “He told me that he had never seen a more beautiful woman in all of his life, and that he would have never forgiven himself if he had not spoken to me.”

  “My heavens, did he really say all that?”

  Jane looked up in time to see the young woman nod her head, with stars in her eyes. “He did! And I found myself entirely captivated by his words! When he smiled at me, it made my heart feel as if it were going to explode.”

  Jane felt a cold, icy fear force its way through her veins.

  If I didn’t know any better, I would think that she was speaking of Lord Hays.

  She shook her head. I am overreacting. Most men are raised to be gentleman. How do I know that some of the other men here are not as articulate and charismatic as
Lord Hays?

  She glared down at the pink cake on her plate, her silver fork poised for another bite.

  You know that Lord Hays had the very same effect on you when you first met him. Not only then, either. Have you been so naïve?

  She was grateful that her cousin distracted her with a story of her own, and drew her from her own reverie.

  The night was winding down, and she wished to find Lord Hays before he left. She’d danced all night, but she did not see Lord Hays on the dance floor, nor did he ask her to dance.

  She searched through the house to find him. Many of the guests still remained, but several were fearful of the weather and had departed early.

  Jane wandered into the library and found several guests who had retired there enjoying glasses of wine. They must have needed a break from the music. Lord Hays was standing in the corner. He was leaning in close to the dark-haired woman that she saw him looking at earlier in the evening.

  Jane felt a flare of anger. She should have listened to her instincts that had been trying to tell her all evening that something was amiss.

  Lord Hays whispered something in the woman’s ear, and she laughed softly, her hand on his shoulder. If she did not know him, she would have expected them to have been married or at least engaged.

  How could she have been so foolish to believe that he only treated her with such charm? Was she so naïve to believe that she was the only woman with whom he was so enraptured? Jane should have known and should have listened to all of those in her life that had warned her.

  She could have struck him where he stood. She could have screamed at him and made a scene, but she smiled maliciously instead. Jane was a lady, and she had a reputation to uphold. She straightened her dress, and in doing so, pushed all of the feelings for him out of her mind and slowly crossed the room over to where he stood.

  He did not even notice her approach, but the young woman who was standing with them did. She glanced up at Jane and appeared to give her little notice. The smile on her face was still for Lord Hays.

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