Unexpected earl, p.8

Unexpected Earl, page 8

 part  #1 of  Hearts and Ever Afters Series

 

Unexpected Earl
 



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  “Kitty?”

  Jerking in her seat, Catherine turned to see Lord Linton approaching, his expression grave.

  “I wanted to see how you were feeling,” he murmured.

  Catherine glared at him. “You do not need to pretend to care about my feelings now,” she retorted, even as a sudden rush of tears came to her eyes. “I am not in need of any company. Please, go away.”

  “No.”

  Much to her surprise, Linton sat down opposite her, his eyes searching her face as he took his seat.

  “You do not mind if I take the liberty of ringing the bell, do you?” he asked, reaching across and tugging at it. “I have not had too much to eat today, although I see that your food is barely touched.”

  Catherine, wanting to give the impression that she was quite well and did not need his company, tugged the tray over to her lap and began to eat with ferocity. They sat in silence as she ate, interrupted only by the maid, who took Linton’s request and then returned downstairs.

  Her stomach soon full, Catherine set the tray to one side and handed it to the maid, who returned with one for Linton, as well as setting down a fresh pot of tea for Catherine. Catherine glared at Lord Linton as he began to eat, growing angry with his incessant need to be in her company.

  “We shall eat a great many meals together when we are wed,” Lord Linton said pleasantly. “I think you shall be very good for me, Kitty.” He studied her for a moment before sighing heavily, setting his tray to one side. “I can tell you are unhappy.”

  “Of course I am!” she exclaimed, hot with rage. “Lord Kerr has proven himself to be the worst of men, and as if that were not terrible enough, I find myself engaged to the man I tried to avoid!”

  “I will not continue as I have been,” Linton promised. “You mean more than that to me.”

  She let out a snort of derision. “Forgive me if I do not believe you.”

  There was a short pause. “Would you like me to release you from our agreement?” he asked, suddenly and quietly.

  Catherine stared at him, her mouth forming a fine line.

  Had she heard him correctly?

  “I know that you are unhappy,” Lord Linton continued after a moment. “I want you to be happy. That is all I have ever wanted, truly. I will release you if you wish it.”

  “I… I do not know what to say,” Catherine whispered, her anger and frustration dying away as she looked at him in a sudden new light. He had been so insistent on having this arrangement, on having these as the conditions of their agreement, and now he was offering her a way out? “Are you truly willing to allow this to come to an end?”

  He chuckled, his expression gentle. “My dear Catherine, I suppose I must be honest with you. As much as I am willing to allow our engagement to come to an end, I do not wish it.” Leaning a little closer, he reached across and took her hand.

  Catherine was startled by the tenderness in his expression.

  “The moment I saw you with Lord Kerr emerging from that room, my heart froze within me,” he murmured. “I have been a fool, running around in the way that I have been. I had never considered anything like matrimony or the like before now, but I know that there can only be one woman who would make me happy.” His fingers gently caressed the back of her hand. “And that woman is you, Catherine.”

  “I do not know what you mean,” Catherine replied, butterflies beginning to flurry about in the pit of her stomach in the midst of her confusion. “We have only ever been friends.”

  “That is quite true,” Linton said, a half-smile on his face. “But seeing you with Lord Kerr made me realize that I did not want that any longer. I admit that posting the engagement in the newspaper like that was selfish, although it did bring about my desired goal, but I do not want to be without you any longer. The years we shared together as friends are dearer to me than ever before. I want a future with you, as my wife and not just my friend.”

  He remained as such for a few minutes, not saying anything more but still keeping a hold of her hand. A great swell of opposing emotions ran through Catherine, making it hard for her to think clearly. She was not quite sure what Lord Linton was saying, but it had more depth and more feeling than anything he had ever said to her before.

  “You will need some time to think, of course,” he finished, getting up from his chair and moving closer to her. “I will come and call on you again next week. Or do you need more time than that?”

  “Next week will do,” Catherine answered in a somewhat breathless voice.

  “Good.” He grinned, putting one hand on her shoulder. “One final thing I should say, Catherine, is that I fully intend to court you. If you agree to wed me, then we will behave as any other betrothed couple might. Balls, soirees, carriage rides, walks in the park—whatever you wish. I intend to show you that I am a changed man.”

  Catherine blinked up at him, her thoughts tumbling like raindrops.

  “It is all very sudden, I know,” Lord Linton continued, more quietly. “But you have brought about such a desire—nay, a need to change, that I will do anything I have to in order to prove it to you.” Bending down, he pressed a kiss to her cheek, lingering close to her for just a fraction too long. “Good evening, Catherine. I look forward to speaking to you next week.”

  Chapter Thirteen

  However, Catherine’s mind went from one thing to another over the following week. She simply could not come to a decision. One moment, she was terribly upset over Lord Kerr and grateful towards Lord Linton, and the next, she thought she could simply never allow herself to wed a man such as her old friend, no matter how much he promised to change.

  What did not help was that her mother insisted on dragging her to all kinds of social occasions, refusing to allow her to sit at home and mope as she wished. The recitals and soirees did very little to help Catherine’s state of mind, although at least she could throw herself into dancing for a time and forget about the whole thing entirely—although she still had to dodge those who wanted to get some kind of gossip from her. More eyes looked at her with curiosity than ever before, as though she was the latest morsel offered up to the hungry crowd.

  “Are you enjoying your evening thus far, Miss Hewson?”

  Catherine neatly avoided her foot being stepped on and tried to smile, wishing that she had managed to avoid Lord Dunstable’s request for a dance.

  “Yes, very much,” she murmured.

  “And is it true that you are engaged?” he asked bluntly, making her breath catch with surprise. “I must advise you against such a course of action.”

  “Is that so?” she returned, disinterestedly.

  “Lord Linton is not an honorable man, and you require an honorable man as a husband.”

  Catherine bit back the harsh retort that formed on her lips and instead gave him a tight smile.

  “After all, there are a great many honorable men within society, most of whom would be a much better choice than Lord Linton!” Dunstable laughed, shaking his head. “It will not be difficult for you to find such a man.”

  Catherine’s lips thinned in distaste, already aware of what Lord Dunstable was getting at.

  “I am such a gentleman,” he said, glancing down at her. “A gentleman already willing to step in to remove you from this union, should you wish it.”

  Choosing to remain silent, Catherine stared firmly over Lord Dunstable’s left shoulder, gritting her teeth so that she would not say another thing. Lord Dunstable mumbled something, apparently a little put out by her silence, but Catherine paid very little attention.

  “Excuse me!”

  Catherine blinked as the orchestra began to slow the music. Someone was shouting over the top of the music, over the buzz of voices, and bringing the dance to a sudden, unexpected end.

  “Might I have everyone’s attention?” the voice boomed, and as the music died away entirely and the clamor of voices began to diminish, Catherine turned to see Lord Linton standing where the orchestra was, looking out at the
crowd.

  Her heart turned over as his eyes searched the crowd. She knew who he was looking for, and she was torn between the desire to run away entirely or to wait and let him find her. She knew that, with her red curls, she would be quite conspicuous, and it would not take him too long to spot her.

  “Whatever is he doing?” Lord Dunstable spluttered, releasing her from the dance hold. “He is about to make a fool of himself yet again!” He snorted and folded his arms. “Not that it should come as much of a surprise.”

  Catherine’s blood roared in her ears as Linton’s eyes met hers, lingering on her for a long time. He gave her a small smile, and Catherine felt her cheeks burn. What are you doing? she wanted to call, but she was forced to simply remain standing silently instead.

  “My lords and ladies,” Lord Linton boomed, dragging his eyes away from Catherine. “I come to you this evening with a request.”

  A murmur ran through the crowd, leaving Catherine fraught with anxiety. Was he about to make a fool of her? Was he about to declare that they all join in a toast to congratulate their engagement when he had not yet heard a response from her?

  “It is a request I do not make lightly,” Linton continued, his voice echoing around the room. “It is one I make in the hope that you will realize just how much I wish to change.” He gave a slight smile, although his eyes grew serious. “I have recently become aware that my behavior over the last few years is not what should be expected of a gentleman such as I claim to be. I intend to make up for that in some small way, though I am aware that it will not cover all the hurt I have caused.”

  “So what is it that you are offering, exactly?” a gentleman shouted. “The chance to take a shot at you without retaliation?”

  A small ripple of laughter ran around the room, despite the fact that Catherine’s heart thundered with worry. As much as she was frustrated with Linton, she did not want to see him dead! She never had.

  “As much as I am aware that there are those who would delight in slicing me to ribbons, I am not, in fact, able to offer such a thing,” Linton answered with a wry smile. “However, to those I have cheated, to those I have hurt, to those I have caused harm to, I offer a financial settlement.”

  There was a stunned silence followed by a buzz of voices.

  “But that will cause you to be almost bankrupt!” one voice cried, surely in jest, only for Linton to smile quietly.

  “It will not push me to bankruptcy, but it will force me to live more quietly,” he said as the room slowly quietened again. “And that, I think, must be a good thing.” He looked directly towards Catherine, who stared back at him in disbelief. “No matter what should happen in my future, I am determined to live in a better way,” he finished. “Now, if you wish to speak to me, Lord Seagate has allowed me the use of his study, where I might be able to discuss any matter you wish, one at a time.”

  Catherine watched with utter astonishment as Linton made his way through the crowd, which parted for him like a sea. Something in Catherine wanted to follow, wanted to see if he would truly follow through with what he had said. She had no choice but to remain where she was, though, watching him depart with a trail of gentlemen following after.

  “My goodness,” she breathed, hardly able to believe what she was seeing. “Whatever has he done that for?”

  ***

  The following morning, Catherine, with her maid in tow, made her way to Linton’s home. It was just about time for morning calls, and given that she had barely slept a wink last night over what he had done, she had been terribly anxious to go and speak to him.

  The prior evening at the ball, she had waited as gentlemen began to reappear one after the other, each with a small smile on their faces. Catherine, not wanting to appear to be gossiping, had no choice but to eavesdrop on certain conversations, eager to find out what exactly Linton had done.

  “Recompensed me for what he had taken from me the last time we played cards!” one gentleman had declared, his smile broad. “I always knew that there was something funny going on at that game—although he has never admitted it.”

  “Promised to send back my greys in the morning,” said another, delight in his eyes as he spoke about the horses he had lost to Linton. “I am quite thrilled, I can tell you!”

  More and more gentlemen had spoken of Linton’s generosity, to the point that Catherine had no other choice but to believe that he was doing exactly as he had promised.

  Which meant he was now a poorer man, although his fortune was large enough that she knew it would not push him towards insolvency or the like.

  “Linton?” she asked the moment the butler allowed her entry. “Linton? Where are you?”

  “The study, my lady,” the butler murmured as her maid took Catherine’s bonnet. “Just this way.”

  Catherine, in her urgency, did not wait for either her butler nor her maid and hurried into the room, seeing Linton busy at his desk.

  “Kitty!” he exclaimed, shutting the door firmly behind her. “Whatever are you doing here? I thought I was to call on you?”

  “Whatever did you do that for?” she asked breathlessly, refusing to answer his questions.

  He frowned and rose to his feet. “Do what?” he replied. “Are you referring to last evening?”

  Catherine let out a small frustrated noise, her eyes narrowing.

  “I did that because I know that I need to be a better man,” he said calmly. “You have shown me that.”

  “But you did not need to do such a thing!” she exclaimed, throwing her reticule down onto the nearby chair. “You could have just started afresh, determining not to behave in such a way any longer.”

  Lord Linton gave her a soft smile, his expression gentle. “I could have, but I had to prove to myself that the change in me was real. When I made amends to those I had hurt—and, to my shame, there were a great many of them—some of the guilt in my soul was assuaged.”

  Catherine nodded slowly, a spiraling disappointment in her chest. “So you did not do it for me, then,” she murmured, unable to explain why she felt so let down by such a revelation. “You did it for yourself.”

  The sentiment should have brought her happiness, but Catherine found that she had wanted him to do such a thing in the hope of proving himself to her.

  “You sound a little frustrated,” Linton commented. “As I said last evening, I am determined to make amends so that I can live my life in a little less comfort but with a little more sense.” His smile broadened. “I will not pretend that it has been simply my own thoughts and desires that have brought me to this place. I think you know that this has come from you.”

  “From me?” Catherine repeated, swallowing the sudden ache in her throat.

  He chuckled. “Of course from you! Had I not seen you with Lord Kerr, then I do not think any of this would have happened.”

  Linton came around from behind his desk and took her hand, standing close to her. Catherine felt her breath catch in her chest, butterflies sweeping through her stomach as he stared at her with such an intensity that Catherine found she simply could not look away.

  “My dearest Kitty,” he said softly, his breath brushing lightly against her cheek. “I have you to thank for beginning the transformation in me from rogue to gentleman. Whether you agree to wed me or not, I will always be grateful to you. My wealth may be a little less, but my heart is no longer as cold.”

  Catherine looked into his eyes and realized that it was not only his heart that had changed; it had also been her own. By trying his best to make amends to those he had cheated or hurt, he had proved to her that he truly wanted to change. For years, Linton had enjoyed his wealth and had never given it away willingly. To do so now, at great loss to himself, was the proof she needed to know for certain that he was never going to revert to the behavior she had found so indefensible.

  “I will,” she found herself saying, almost without thinking. “I will marry you, Linton.”

  Something sparked in Lord Linton’s ey
es, his hand tightening around hers. “Are you sure, Kitty?” he asked, as though wanting to give her more time to consider his proposal. “Do not be hasty in this decision.”

  Catherine shook her head, feeling the certainty of her answer deep in her soul. “I am not being hasty, although I appreciate your concern in that regard.”

  “Then,” he said, his eyes glittering, “you will be my wife?”

  Looking up, Catherine gave him a small smile, her confusion, at last, finally abated. “Yes, Linton. I will be your wife.”

  Chapter Fourteen

  “What do you mean, you are going to marry him after all?”

  Catherine winced as Lady Hewson’s shrieked exclamations bounced around the room. “Linton is here this morning, Mama. We had a brief discussion, and now he has gone to Papa to seek his permission.”

  Catherine had no doubt that her father, whilst certain to be surprised, would agree to the engagement. After all, there were still questions over her supposed engagement announcement in the paper, and this would be the best way to avoid a scandal. That had left Catherine with the task of breaking the news to her mother, who, all in all, was not taking it particularly well.

  “Catherine!” her mother continued, still shrieking. “Why would you do such a thing?”

  “Because it is not a particularly bad arrangement,” Catherine answered. “Lord Linton is a childhood friend, Mama, and he has proved himself quite changed as of late, which I know you cannot deny.” She raised one eyebrow and looked directly at her mother, well aware that she had been present at the time of Lord Linton’s announcement at the ball. “Besides,” she finished, “you know it would be a good match.”

  That took some of the angst from her mother’s face. “I suppose,” she said a little more calmly, staring at Catherine as though she had lost her mind. “And I will not deny that I was as surprised as you to hear Lord Linton’s announcement at the ball. But still, you cannot be happy with him, Catherine. I would not want you to go into a marriage that will make you miserable.”

 
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