Unexpected earl, p.31

Unexpected Earl, page 31

 part  #1 of  Hearts and Ever Afters Series

 

Unexpected Earl
 



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  Jane forced a poised look onto her face, and she tapped Lord Hays on the shoulder.

  He lazily turned his face toward her, and as soon as it registered who he was looking at, his eyes grew wide, and fear passed over his face.

  “Oh, Lady Jane,” he said, and he took a deliberate step back from the dark-haired woman.

  The woman glared at her.

  “There you are, Lord Hays. I am glad that I found you,” she began, and her grin widened. “I was hoping that we could discuss something that we spoke of a few weeks ago. Silly me, I had just remembered it.”

  He swallowed hard, his cheeks growing more pale by the moment. He tried to force a smile, but he reminded her of a rat in a trap. “Of course, my lady. What is it that you wished to speak of?”

  “Your marriage proposal,” she replied flatly. She fixed him with a snaring glare, and he nearly cowered beneath her.

  “Marriage proposal?” the young woman asked, her anger turning from Jane to Lord Hays.

  “Of course,” Jane said casually. “I finally have my answer for you.”

  He looked helpless as he gaped up at her. “Oh, Lady Jane, surely you knew that all of that was in jest! I knew that Lord Green—”

  “You proposed to her in jest?” the woman cried, her voice rising. She looked just as shocked as he did, though Jane’s anger seemed to be spreading.

  “No, no, that is not what I meant,” Lord Hays answered, looking back to her, sweat beading on his forehead. “Of course not. I simply meant that—”

  “Well, it was no matter,” Jane answered, and Lord Hays looked back at her. “I would never marry you,” she continued, and her tone was firm and steady. “For I would not disgrace my family in such a way as to bring a man such as yourself into a family as noble and honorable as my own.”

  He looked perplexed, and he opened and closed his mouth a few times, unable to respond.

  “And do not think it has a thing to do with your place in society,” she said in a low tone. “That matters not to me. No, sir, it has everything to do with your character, or lack thereof.”

  Jane looked at the young woman, who was staring at Lord Hays with an expression of utter disgust. She smiled gently at her.

  “Would you care to walk back to the ballroom with me?”

  The dark-haired woman looked at Jane as if she had just noticed her. She straightened her shoulders and walked to stand beside Jane, away from Lord Hays.

  “With pleasure,” she replied.

  Jane turned away with the woman, and looked over at Lord Hays over her shoulder.

  He looked devastated.

  Jane smiled at him. “Do not fear, Lord Hays. You had won my affections for a short time. Unfortunately for you, I saw you for who you truly are. You can be assured that you will never be invited to any balls, dinners, or house parties hosted by my family or friends.”

  Feeling far better than she had in a very long time, Jane turned and walked out of the room with the young woman whom she had rescued from Lord Hays.

  “I am so terribly sorry,” the woman said to Jane when they were out of the room. “I had absolutely no idea that he had proposed to you.”

  Jane shook her head. “It is of no consequence. As he said, it was in jest.”

  “How deplorable,” the other woman said.

  Jane shrugged. “I am quite relieved that thoughts of Lord Hays will no longer fill my mind.”

  “I do hope that many other women were not hurt in the same ways that we were,” the woman added.

  Jane nodded her head. “I do hope so as well. I hate to think of how many other women he has pursued.”

  “I am so embarrassed. I do hope that nobody saw me with him. He was never honest, was he?”

  Jane looked back at the other woman. “I do not know. Perhaps there is something redeemable in him. I do hope that he chooses his actions more thoughtfully in the future.”

  Jane and the dark-haired beauty said farewell, as Jane stood in the foyer with her cousins as the rest of the guests departed the estate. Jane smiled at them all, telling them all what a lovely time she had had.

  When Lord Hays passed through the hall with Lord Cheshire, Lord Hays looked at Jane sadly. She supposed if she was a weaker woman that his look would have broken her and caused her to rush to him.

  But she wasn’t weak. She simply waved at him, standing tall and straight, with a smile on her face. She gave him no indication of forgiveness. He would know that he would not cross her or her family. She would not allow it.

  Chapter 7 – The Cold, Dark of Winter

  Three weeks before Christmas, Jane arrived back at the estate. She was so pleased to be home, feeling refreshed and lighter than ever. Every chance she had, she thanked the Good Lord that He had given her the means to see Lord Hays for who he truly had been. It may not have been much that she had seen, but it was enough to know that he was trouble.

  She informed her aunt and uncle, as well as her cousins, about his behavior. His uncle went ahead and did just as she had hoped for; he sent letters to all of the extended family, warning them of his ways with women. Jane felt pleased that he would not be able to torment any of the other women that she knew in the way that he had tormented her.

  What had bothered her most was that he likely had no idea what sort of pain he caused her. He had no idea that his frivolous tongue had caused her to lie awake for hours at night, questioning herself and her own beliefs. She was proud that she had grown to accept the fact that she would not disregard someone based upon their station, but it did not change who he was as a person. So she felt that, overall, she had emerged the victor.

  She received exactly two letters from him. The first she allowed her cousin to read, and it was so full of lies and begging for her to return to him that they both decided to toss the letter into the fireplace. The second had arrived the day after, and she did not even bother opening it. It was fuel for the kitchen fire.

  Jane decided that her heart belonged to Lord Greenshire. She reprimanded herself for not following through with her logic to choose him in the beginning. He was kind, gentle, and a suitable match that her parents favored. She found herself almost giddy with excitement about seeing him now that there was nothing to distract her. She hoped that she would have the chance to see him again once she arrived home.

  Jane did not have to wait very long. In fact, when her carriage pulled up to her house and she walked inside, her sisters immediately told her that Lord Greenshire was visiting and would arrive in time for dinner.

  That evening, Lord Greenshire had already arrived when Jane descended the stairs for dinner. The relief that coursed through her at seeing his tall, handsome frame was almost palpable, and she smiled at him so genuinely that she knew he could not have missed the affection in her eyes. He smiled at her just as happily, and she felt as if she could have cried with joy.

  “I have come to stay for a week, with your father’s permission of course,” he told her as they walked to the dinner table together.

  “I am so pleased that you are here,” Jane said heartily. “I hoped I would see you soon.”

  She saw his cheeks color, and he cleared his throat, allowing her to pass through the doorway ahead of him.

  He pulled out Jane’s chair for her, and the duchess insisted that he sit beside Jane. Her mother’s gaze was almost mischievous, as she watched the two of them from across the table.

  “I sent your father a letter asking if I could visit, and he told me that you would be returning today from your journey,” he said as they sat down together.

  Jane’s father, the Duke of Edgefield, sat at the head of the table and smiled at the two of them. “I did indeed. I was hoping that the weather would not delay either of you.”

  “It is most fortunate that you are to stay with us for the rest of the week, Lord Greenshire,” the duchess said. “The weather outside looks as if we are about to have a terrible storm.”

  “Well, I could not imagine more pleasant company
to weather the storm with,” he said, a genuinely pleased look on his face.

  Jane smiled with happiness.

  “So, dear Jane, do tell us about your trip!” her mother asked, thanking the servants as they laid steaming bowls of stew down in front of them all.

  “It was lovely, really. I absolutely loved my time with Lady Emmeline. We had the most wonderful time dining with families I have not seen in a long while. Her parents’ chef is from Germany, and I was introduced to some delightful dishes that I had never tasted!”

  “How wonderful,” the duchess responded.

  “Lady Emmeline, is she well?” Lord Greenshire asked. “I only ask for my sister has great admiration for her and asks after her often. I did not know that you that you were well acquainted with her.”

  Jane laughed. “Acquainted? My Lord, she and I have been friends since we were just young children, barely able to speak.”

  “Truly?”

  She nodded her head.

  Lord Greenshire smiled at Jane. “What a very small world. That news brings me great joy. Now I know why she interrogated me so ferociously the last time I saw her!”

  “When was that?” Jane asked.

  “Oh, about two weeks ago. My parents know her parents well, so we visited them for a weekend. Lady Emmaline seemed unusually intent about engaging in conversation about you.” He looked intently at Jane. It seemed he was rather amused. A smirk curled up his face.

  “Oh goodness,” Jane said, lifting her goblet to her face in order to hide behind it. “I wonder why that would be.”

  And the two of them laughed together.

  “And what of Robert?” her mother asked a little while later.

  “Yes, how is Robert?” Beatrice asked.

  “And Alice!” Margaret chimed in.

  “Of course. They are both quite well!” Jane looked around at them all. “They are expecting a child!”

  “Oh, come now, dear, we knew that!” the duchess said.

  “We got the letter before you arrived!” Margaret said.

  Jane slumped. “Oh, well, it wasn’t my news to share I suppose.”

  Lord Greenshire laughed. “Not the reception you were hoping for?” he teased.

  Jane glared at him playfully.

  “And your sister is quite well, Mother,” Jane continued. “I had the most wonderful time with them. The ball they threw was just charming. We had the most pleasant time.”

  “I’m glad to hear it, dear,” the duke said. “It has been far too long since we have made the trip to see them.”

  “Shall we invite them to come and visit after Christmas?” the duchess asked. “I would so love to have some company once your family leaves.”

  “Of course, dear,” the duke answered.

  “Who attended the ball?” Lord Greenshire asked.

  Jane was suddenly nervous. Lord Greenshire knew many of the same families in her social circle. Of course he would wonder who had attended. But the last time that they had spoken of a ball, Lord Hays had come up in the conversation, and that had led them down a very uncomfortable path.

  If she told him that Lord Hays had been at the ball, Lord Greenshire would not receive the news well. It might even ruin any hope she had of him proposing to her…if he still intended to at all.

  Jane spoke of many of the ball’s guests. Lord Greenshire asked after many of them, and the conversation was pleasant. She felt there was not need to mention Lord Hays.

  Lord Greenshire then asked, “If Lord Cheshire was there, does that mean that Lord Hays was there as well? I do know that Lord Cheshire is helping his nephew, Lord Hays, get his affairs in order.”

  The dining room fell silent as he looked over at her. Jane felt Beatrice and Margaret watching her closely as well.

  The duchess glanced up at Jane, and she realized she only had a moment before her slow reply would give away all of the truth she did not want to reveal.

  “He was,” she replied. “I only saw him briefly. I was far too interested in my cousins’ company.”

  She saw Lord Greenshire’s jaw clench as he looked down at his plate.

  Jane tried to change the subject. “Mother, did I tell you that I saw Lady Henrietta?”

  “Did you really? I thought she had taken ill!” the duchess responded.

  Jane was thankful that her mother helped her to change the conversation. The name Lord Hays was not mentioned again at dinner.

  After dinner, they retired to the sitting room. The warm fire illuminated the Christmas tree that made the room festive. Jane’s sisters were happy to sit at the pianoforte and play some of their favorite songs. The duke smoked a cigar beside the fire and clapped along, and the duchess stood at the piano and sang in a slightly off-key tone.

  Lord Greenshire stood beside the window while everyone else was engaged, and Jane could not ignore it. She rose from her chair and crossed the short distance to him.

  “It’s lovely out there this time of year,” she said, looking out at the fresh blanket of powdery snow that had fallen in the last few hours since dinner. “It so perfectly quiet that it just makes you wish you could stand out there, all alone, and enjoy the peace of it all.”

  He looked at her, and his cold gaze softened. “I understand,” he replied eventually. “Winter may be miserable because of the cold, but at least it is beautiful.”

  His eyes fixed on hers. “Just like you.”

  Her breath caught in her throat. She was sure that she could fall in love with this man, and it would be effortless.

  “Lady Jane,” he said, his voice soft. “If we are to…if anything is to happen…I must know something.”

  Jane looked down at her hands clasped in front of herself. She took a deep breath before looking back up at him.

  “Anything,” she said.

  She had nothing to hide. She would tell him anything that he needed to know. She owed him that.

  “Lord Hays keeps coming up in conversation. You avoided mentioning his attendance at the ball. What I want to know is…why?”

  She bit the tip of her tongue to prevent herself from losing her nerve. She straightened the fabric of her dress and looked back up at him.

  “I did not wish to displease you at all. I knew that you were not fond of the man,” Jane mustered.

  “Because he is fond of you,” Lord Greenshire replied frankly.

  The honesty of the statement was great, and it caused her to stare up into his face. He loved her, and she did not deserve him.

  Jane didn’t answer right away, so Lord Greenshire continued. “Do you enjoy his company?”

  “No. At least, not anymore. I used to, and –”

  She stopped herself. Again, she had said the wrong thing.

  “I need to be honest with you,” she replied quietly, desperately. “I cannot allow you to believe that I have any interest in Lord Hays because I do not.”

  “Your sisters told me that he…” Lord Greenshire turned and looked out the window. “That he proposed to you.”

  She gaped at him. She spared only a second to glare at the backs of her sisters. How could they? She made a mental note to discuss their lack of etiquette by discussing such matters with Lord Greenshire. Perhaps one of Margaret’s favorite dresses would go missing, and Beatrice’s favorite book might…

  She watched the side of his face and suffered with him in his distress.

  “He told me that it was a joke,” she answered. She felt tears form in her eyes. She hadn’t realized that he had been hurting so much. And something in his tone frightened her, reminded her that there was nothing aside from his affections for her keeping him there.

  “Did you know that from the beginning?”

  She swallowed hard, but forced the word out. “No.”

  “And did you think at all, even for a moment, that maybe he was serious?”

  “Yes, I did wonder. Of course I did.”

  “And did you think about accepting if he had been serious?”

  There was t
he question that all of this was building up to, all of her fears and his fears reaching a pinnacle moment.

  Some tears splashed down onto her cheeks and fell easily onto her dress.

  “I did.”

  He turned away and strolled out of the room.

  “Please wait,” Jane called after him.

  Her sisters and her mother turned their heads, but she ignored them.

  “Wait!” Jane’s loss of composure was an embarrassment for her family, and she would be scolded by her parents later. She didn’t care.

  She chased him from the room and found him striding down the hall toward the foyer. The hall was considerably colder than the sitting room had been, and she wrapped her arms around herself as she caught up to him.

  “Please listen to me,” she told him.

  She was surprised that he stopped. She could tell that he was breathing heavy, watching his shoulders rise and fall.

  She had hurt him, and it broke her heart to see him in such pain.

  “Please listen.”

  When he did not start to walk again, she spoke as fast as she could so he could hear everything that she had to say.

  “I met him a year ago. He was handsome, of course, and charming. But I had not seen him for quite some time. I had met you much earlier, and I have always enjoyed our time together. I have longed for the day when you and I might be together.”

  She wiped the tears from her face.

  “You seemed interested, but I could not be entirely sure of it, and that is not your fault. I blame myself entirely.” She took a hesitant step toward him.

  “When he proposed, it startled me, and it made me question…everything. About my standards, about myself, about what I believed. I had momentarily believed that I was the only one he had cared about, and it made me question whether I would have been good enough for you.”

  She saw him look over his shoulder, his silhouette moving, the light from the windows beside the door darkening his face. She could not see his expression.

  “I avoided telling you that he attended my aunt’s ball for I saw him for who he truly was. He is a flirt, and he is contemptible.” She took a deep breath to steady herself. “I saw him flirting and speaking the very same way he used to speak with me to another woman. She was also very pretty.”

 

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