Unexpected Earl, page 6part #1 of Hearts and Ever Afters Series
“Your apologies will make no difference now,” she told him, shaking her head at him. “Do you truly intend to make things more difficult for me, simply because you dislike Lord Kerr?”
Lord Linton pressed his lips together for a moment, as if battling his temper. “Oh, Kitty,” he said eventually. “I am trying my utmost to save you.”
“He is not what you think!” Catherine protested, slamming her hand down on the table. “How you can say so is beyond me! I know him!”
“I am aware of that,” he said drily. “But you only see what he wants you to see. Trust me, Catherine, I have discovered things you would never have been able to find out for yourself. He is up to his neck in debt. He intends to marry you only for your inheritance.”
Heat rushed up Catherine’s neck, her hands balling into fists. “How dare you!” she cried, her eyes blazing with fire. “Lord Kerr means more to me than anything, and he cares for me with a deep, intense affection that you could never understand!”
Her voice echoed around the room, bouncing off the walls. Lord Linton did not move, did not speak, but he kept his gaze fixed on hers. Catherine, suddenly weary, chose to sit back down in her chair, hopelessness filling her.
“I do not know why you have done this, Linton,” she muttered, almost to herself. “You seem intent on ruining my happiness.”
“I am intent on shattering the illusions Lord Kerr has built up around you,” Linton said.
“And you propose to do that by breaking the two of us apart with your lies, is that it?” Catherine replied, her words dripping with mockery and disdain. “I can tell you now, my lord, that you have failed in your task already. You have only driven us closer.”
“Is that the case?” he asked, walking to the table. Uninvited, he took a seat and helped himself to a cup of tea. “Have you already written to him with the news of what has taken place?”
“I expect to hear from him very soon,” Catherine retorted angrily.
Lord Linton regarded her for a moment. “Kitty, we were friends for a long time. Is it truly so hard to believe that I might be doing what is best for you?”
“You cannot be serious!” Catherine exclaimed, seeing the flash of hurt in his eyes but not caring about it in the least. “I believe you think of no one but yourself. Somehow, this situation must improve your own status. Am I to save you yet again from another father, brother, or even husband searching for you after your appalling behavior with another woman? Am I to be used in an attempt to show you are decent or even moral?”
“No!” Lord Linton’s hand came slamming down onto the table, the anger and frustration in his expression startling Catherine into silence. “No,” he said more quietly, sinking back into his chair. “No, Catherine, you are not to be used in any of the ways you have suggested, I swear it.”
Much to her surprise, he put his head in his hands and groaned aloud, as though aware of just how terribly he was handling the entire situation.
“I know I am not a good man,” he continued, not raising his head to look at her. “I know you have every right to be as angry with me as you are, but I know that Lord Kerr is not the gentleman he claims to be. I only wish to prove it to you.”
“Prove it to me?” Catherine repeated, completely taken aback by the change in Lord Linton’s tone and demeanor. “You expect to be able to prove your accusations to me somehow? What is it that you plan to do, exactly?” Her tone became somewhat mocking, her eyes narrowing. “Do you intend to find a copy of his accounts and bring them to me?”
“No,” Lord Linton said calmly, his head rising from his hands. “I have other ways of doing such a thing. I intend to use you as a bargaining chip.”
Catherine’s stomach rolled. “You intend to barter me?” she whispered, breaking out into a cold sweat of fear and revulsion. “I will go to the highest bidder, is that what you intend? I tell you now, Lord Linton, I will not be used in such a way!”
Linton shook his head, holding up one hand to quieten her. “Now, now, there is no need for such vehemence. I have a much simpler plan in mind. I will write to him and offer him a great deal of wealth, so long as he will break off his acquaintance with you.”
Catherine recoiled at once, utterly horrified at the idea. “How dare you,” she whispered, tears pricking at her eyes. Her voice rose when she spoke again. “I am not something you can simply buy and sell!”
He gave her a wry smile. “And well I know it. This would only be to prove to you what I have said about Lord Kerr.” He tilted his head just a little, regarding her carefully. “Do you not wish to know the truth?”
“I already know the truth,” Catherine replied, hating that her words faltered, just a little. “I know that Lord Kerr cares for me, that he intends to marry me, and that we shall have a future together filled with love and affection.”
Lord Linton smiled softly. “Then you need not worry about what I will write him,” he said, arching one eyebrow. “If you are so certain of his reply, then nothing I say will induce him to do what I ask, will it?”
Catherine lifted her chin. “No, it will not.”
“Good,” he replied, lifting his tea cup as though toasting her. “Then, if he replies in indignation and anger, I shall step out of your life for good and wish you nothing but the best.”
“And, if he does not?” Catherine asked, cringing inwardly as the words escaped her mouth without her realizing it.
Lord Linton chuckled, aware she had not meant to ask such a thing. “If he accepts my wealth, then our agreement stands.”
Catherine frowned, confused as to what he meant. “Our agreement?” she repeated. “We have made no agreement.”
“Our engagement, Kitty,” he reminded her, lifting one shoulder. “It shall stand.”
Spluttering, Catherine set down her tea cup, unable to quite believe what she was hearing. “You expect me to wed you if Lord Kerr accepts the offer you make him?” she asked, shaking her head at him. “Goodness, it seems you have gone quite mad!”
“Those are my terms,” Lord Linton said, as calmly as if he were making a business proposition. “If you wish to discover the truth, which I know deep in your heart you do, then you shall wed me if Lord Kerr proves to be as unfaithful and as untrue as I know him to be.”
Catherine shook her head. “Why would you want to wed me? You have no affection for me—that, I know for certain.”
“Mayhap you do not know me as well as you think,” he said, something burning in his gaze. “I wish to wed you, Catherine, for I need to settle down and produce my heir. Who better than with a lady I have known for a great many years, a lady I know will suit me very well?”
She snorted in derision. Of course he would only desire to wed her for his own purposes. “If I was your wife,” she warned him, “you would not live as you do now. There would be no pleasures, and certainly no mistresses. Your life would not be one of enjoyment.”
Lord Linton chuckled, his chest rumbling. “I think I would quite enjoy that. It may come as a surprise to you, but I believe I can be a faithful and true husband, regardless of how much my wife intends to make my life a misery.” His eyes glittered. “The only question is whether you will accept my proposal.”
There was a short silence, the air humming with expectation. Catherine did not know what to think, whether she should agree or not to his proposal. She knew that the possibility of Lord Kerr being so untrue was virtually impossible, yet in order to prove it, she would have to accept Lord Linton’s terms.
“Very well,” she said softly, looking up at him with a clear, firm view. “I accept your terms, my lord.”
The slow smile across Lord Linton’s face gave Catherine a rather uncomfortable feeling, as though he knew for certain this would not bode well for her. Her mind worked over what she had just agreed to, a niggle of doubt ringing through her mind regarding Lord Kerr’s true intentions.
“Very good,” Linton murmured, getting up from the table and comi
Catherine looked up at him, her fingers tightening on her napkin as she twisted it in her lap. “Is that all that truly matters to you?”
He paused for a moment, thinking, only to shrug his shoulders, bend down, and plant a gentle kiss on her cheek. “This means I can save you from a marriage to a man who does not care for you, but only for your fortune,” he answered, and his voice was gentler and more tender than she had ever heard before. “I will inform you when I receive a reply, Kitty. Good day.”
Catherine sat quietly for some moments after Lord Linton had left the house, her stomach rolling still with what had transpired. Her skin burned where Linton had kissed her, heat spreading across her features and into her cheeks. The way he had spoken to her before he left had taken her aback, for his words had been filled with a tenderness she had not expected. She was forced now to consider the fact that Lord Linton might not be using her for his own gains, as she had convinced herself. There could not be any truth in what he said about Lord Kerr, however—he was quite mistaken on that count.
Catherine sighed heavily and poured herself another cup of tea, finding it a little too cold for her liking. She rang the bell and resumed her seat, not quite ready to go in search of her mother and father to discuss what had taken place.
The truth was, up until Lord Linton had spoken to her, she had no qualms about Lord Kerr. She trusted him wholeheartedly. He had never spoken to her of his past, nor of any difficulties, but then again, she was not expecting such discussions until they were engaged. She did not doubt that Lord Kerr’s intention was towards matrimony, given that he himself had told her such a thing, and he had never once discussed her dowry.
Of course, she had something of an inheritance because of her father’s status, but that had never once come to her mind when she had thought of Lord Kerr. As far as she was aware, he was running a profitable estate, and had never shown any specific interest in any vices whatsoever. He had been fixed on her, showering her with his particular attentions so that she would have no doubt of his intent.
Catherine had no reason to believe he was lying to her. So why did the niggle of worry continue to push its way into her mind now? She had not been close with Lord Linton for a number of years, even though they had known each other since childhood, so she owed him nothing. Recalling how she had been embarrassed to be in his company only a week or so ago, Catherine drew in a deep breath and chose to push him out of her memory.
Lord Linton was using her for his own ends, although what those ends were, she could not say. Mayhap having her as his betrothed, even for a short time, would convince those he had wronged that he was, in fact, a respectable and honorable man. Possibly they would stop chasing him for whatever it was he had done to them.
It was not as though she could expect him to have any true consideration for her reputation, or what the notice in the paper would do to her—even if he admitted it to be false much later. The damage had been done. Thank goodness Lord Kerr had believed her entirely. It meant that no matter what happened with Lord Linton, both she and Lord Kerr knew the truth and would cling to one another through the inevitable storm of rumors, whispers, and gossip that would come upon them very soon.
Satisfied in her own mind that she was right to believe and trust Lord Kerr, Catherine settled back into her seat and smiled at the maid as the fresh tea tray was brought in. She would push all doubt from her mind and would wait, already triumphant, for Lord Linton to return with news of his defeat. Lord Kerr would respond as she expected, telling Lord Linton to cease his nonsense.
Lady Hewson appeared in the doorway, looking quite horrified. “I heard Lord Linton came to see you. You should have sent him away at once, or at least sent for me while you discussed matters!” She settled herself at the table and looked expectantly at Catherine, waiting for her to respond.
“Everything is quite all right, Mama,” Catherine replied. “You need not worry about Lord Linton. He intends to fix what he has done.”
“But the newspaper—”
Catherine held up one hand, silencing her mother. “Mama, let us not worry,” she repeated. “He is to write to Lord Kerr this very day, and I am quite sure that there will be both a retraction and a public apology to me. All will be well very soon. I assure you.”
Catherine poured tea for both herself and her mother before turning the conversation to other things, quite ready to put Lord Linton away from her mind entirely.
“You have a visitor, my lady.”
Catherine tried to smile as her mother rose to greet their next caller: a Lady Melrose, who was one of the best-known gossips in town. To Catherine’s knowledge, Lady Melrose had never called on them before, which meant that Catherine’s engagement was the only reason for her visit.
Sighing inwardly, Catherine rose to greet their guest, knowing that it was expected, but also finding it more and more difficult to keep appearing jovial. She had endured more than enough over the last three days, and yet the visitors kept coming.
“Ah, Lady Melrose!” her mother cooed, as though greeting an old friend. “How good to see you!”
“And it is good to see you, Lady Hewson. I simply had to call on you both, in lieu of the exciting news that has all of London talking,” Lady Melrose said, sitting down at once. “Goodness me, Miss Hewson, you have got London in an uproar!”
“Do I?” Catherine asked a bit nervously. “That is a surprise. I was never so interesting before.”
“Oh, but you are now!” Lady Melrose exclaimed, her dark brown eyes fixed on Catherine. “Everyone is wondering whether or not you are engaged to Lord Linton, and there is such confusion that we talk of nothing else! You were great friends, were you not?”
Catherine cleared her throat delicately. “Lord Linton and I were friends many years ago, yes.”
“But now you are more than friends, are you not?” Lady Melrose asked with a twinkle in her eye. “How wonderful!”
Catherine did not know what to say, her frustration rattling through her.
“And when is the wedding? When are the banns to be called? And what is with all the secrecy?” Lady Melrose questioned. There was a calculating look in her eyes, and Catherine felt as though Lady Melrose was writing everything down in her head, storing it away so that she might repeat it to all and sundry once their visit was over.
“Lady Melrose,” she began, sitting a little further forward in her chair and fixing the lady with her gaze. “Lord Linton has deceived you all, myself included. This is some prank, that is all.”
Lady Melrose stared at Catherine for a moment before blinking rapidly, her face alive with excitement. “A sham? A prank? You cannot be serious.”
“And yet I am,” Catherine replied firmly, ignoring her mother’s flapping hands. “Lord Linton has caused a great deal of confusion for me, as I seem to be a part of his game. I cannot tell you how difficult this has been.”
Seeing the flash of sympathy in Lady Melrose’s eyes, Catherine shot a glance at her mother, who, much to her surprise, was looking somewhat relieved.
“Goodness me,” Lady Melrose murmured, her eyes still fixed on Catherine’s face. “You have been treated quite ill, have you not? Whatever were his reasons for doing so?”
“I cannot say,” Catherine answered, sighing heavily. “He is, as you know, something of a scoundrel. I believe he has been chased down the streets by those he has wronged on a previous occasion, which shocked a great many people.” She had no qualms in sharing such details with the lady, thinking that Lord Linton deserved every bit of gossip and rumor that came his way after what he had done to her.
Lady Hewson reached across and patted Catherine’s hand, her eyes bright with sympathy. “My dear Catherine has been so poorly treated, and even when she demanded it, Lord Linton did not write an explanation in the paper. My daughter has been left to pick up the pieces,
“Indeed,” Lady Melrose agreed, shaking her head. “And has this turned Lord Kerr away from you, Miss Hewson?”
Her words made Catherine pause, her eyes widening slightly.
“You will excuse my boldness,” Lady Melrose hurriedly added, “for it has been quite apparent that Lord Kerr has had something of an attachment to you.”
Catherine did not want to talk about Lord Kerr in great detail, so she satisfied Lady Melrose with a slight shrug. “Lord Kerr has had some business to deal with at his estate,” she murmured. “Although I know for certain that he understands Lord Linton just as well as I do.”
Thankfully for her, Lady Melrose seemed quite taken with this news, and she rose from her chair in a flurry of skirts, thanked them both for their kindness, and took her leave of them.
“No doubt to pass on what she discovered to her great many friends,” Catherine muttered, slumping back in her chair.
Lady Hewson, looking quite exhausted, said, “That should be all around town by the morning, Catherine! I do hope you know what you are doing, my dear.”
Catherine smiled softly. “I do, Mama. I think it best to be as honest as possible, whilst still hiding the truth in its entirety. Remember I am to garner sympathy from the ton instead of having my name dragged through the mud by Lord Linton. I think speaking to Lady Melrose in such a manner was necessary.”
Her mother nodded slowly. “Let us hope that it will be enough to satisfy the gossips until Lord Linton does… whatever it is he intends to do to clear this whole mess up.” She looked inquiringly at Catherine, who had to sigh and shake her head.
“He has not put in any kind of retraction yet, Mama,” Catherine said woefully. “For the moment, we must wait.”
She did not want to go into details with her mother about the letters that were to be exchanged between Lord Linton and Lord Kerr, for the less she knew of that, the better. In the end, Catherine was sure it would all be quite settled soon enough.
JOYCE ALEC SERIES:
Other author's books:
- A Lady's Mystery: Regency Romance (Ladies, Love, and Mysteries)Alice's Arranged Marriage (Home for Christmas Book 1)An Earl's Redemption: Regency Romance (Brides of London)The Shadows: Regency Romance (Ladies, Love, and Mysteries)A Viscount to Remember: Regency Romance (Brides of London)Diamonds of the Marquess: Regency Romance (Season of Brides)The Viscount's Promise: Regency Romance (Weddings and Scandals)The Aristocrat's Charade: Regency Romance (Brides of London)
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