A Most Unconventional Match (9 page)

BOOK: A Most Unconventional Match
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‘Don't worry!' Mr Waterman stepped towards her, as if to take her hand reassuringly, then halted.

Her nightmares over landing in Newgate revived by his report so far, Elizabeth wished he hadn't stopped. Indeed, with an urgency that was more than just a need for comfort, she wanted to throw herself against his chest, rest her head on his wide shoulder, let him bind her with arms that looked strong and competent against the tall, hard length of his body. A heated urgency coiled deep within her.

‘Mustn't worry,' he repeated, recalling her attention. ‘Took care of Smith. Will take care of Blackmen too.'

Curiosity momentarily derailed her other concerns. If he wished to, she imagined the massive Mr Waterman could project an ominous presence his brevity of speech would only reinforce. She hoped the despicable Mr Smith had been thoroughly intimidated!

‘Manoeuvre rental funds, current balance in accounts,' he was continuing. ‘Need to find ledgers in office. But can continue to live in manner befitting gentlewoman. One not overfond of shops.'

It took her a moment to notice the slight quirk of his lip, the sudden sparkle in the clear grey eyes in a face whose expression remained sombre. He'd made a joke! she realised incredulously.

She burst out laughing. Mr Waterman looked startled before a slow grin tugged at his lips.

‘I think I can promise you that,' she assured him. ‘Feel free to work in Everitt's library whenever you wish. If there is anything else I can do to assist you, please don't hesitate to ask.'

‘Work there now, if you permit. Check on pony later. Tutor too?'

‘Are you sure it wouldn't be too much trouble? I must admit, I haven't any idea where to begin.'

‘Remember when Nicky found tutor for his son. And pony. Check his contacts.' Mr Waterman shrugged. ‘Not too bright, but know about boys.'

‘Not bright?' she echoed. ‘On the contrary, I think you are enormously clever—and very intuitive. You accurately assessed David's needs after just one meeting! And you seem to have made good progress already in sorting out the estate, even without the ledgers I hope you will find in my husband's office.'

His grey eyes searched hers for a moment, as if trying to ascertain whether or not she was mocking him. Apparently convinced by the sincerity of her expression, he looked quickly away, the tips of his ears pinking. ‘Kind of you,' he mumbled.

From his awkwardness at receiving her praise, she surmised he was not accustomed to compliments. She recalled once again Sir Gregory's scornful assessment of him, a belittling judgement apparently shared by his own mother. Had his slowness of speech led that lady to assume he was slow of intellect also?

The kernel of outrage she'd felt upon first hearing of his mother's disdain swelled until she found herself blurting, ‘Have you always spoken with such brevity?'

Bright colour suffused Mr Waterman's face. Mentally kicking herself for embarrassing him, she said, ‘Pray disregard the question! 'Twas both impolite and prying.'

He waved away her apology. ‘Sorry. Know I speak like block. Was worse, though. Used to stutter. Nicky helped. Taught me to concentrate on main thought.' He gave her an apologetic look. ‘Still mostly incomprehensible.'

‘Not in the least!' she countered. ‘I have no difficulty at all understanding you.' Recalling the effusive compliments showered upon her by the friends Everitt had sometimes brought home to dinner, she chuckled. ‘Indeed, in a society where many chatter on to great length about nothing, 'tis refreshing to encounter a gentleman who expresses only what is most important.'

Once again his eyes searched hers, catching her gaze and holding it while he assessed the honesty of her statement. ‘Thank you,' he said quietly.

Something trembled in the air between them, something almost palpable that sent a little shock through her, made her breath hitch and her pulse accelerate.

My! He certainly had an odd effect upon her, Elizabeth thought, hastily dropping her gaze. Whatever might cause that?

Though he projected an aura of mastery when dealing with finances, in other matters he seemed to completely lack that overconfident masculine arrogance so many men displayed around females. Perhaps it was the unusual combination of absolute competence and disarming humility that struck her so.

Nor, widow or no, was she immune to the masculine appeal of that impressively tall, well-made physique, she acknowledged, feeling another little quiver.

‘You are most welcome,' she murmured, still unsettled.

‘Should get to work. Have Sands show me library now?'

‘Of course. I've delayed you far too long.' She reached over to tug the bell pull. ‘Ask Sands for anything you might require. And thank you again. I'll never be able to adequately express my gratitude for all you are doing for David and me.'

He bowed deeply. ‘Pleasure.'

Sands knocked at the door so quickly, Elizabeth suspected he must have been lurking outside. After instructing the butler to conduct Mr Waterman to the library, she watched him walk out.

Perhaps she missed the company of a quietly attentive gentleman more than she realised, for she regretted having to send Mr Waterman off. Despite her slight discomfort over the disconcerting way he affected her, everything else she'd discovered about him excited either her admiration or curiosity. The little glimpses his curt speeches had given her into his character left her wanting more.

So he'd lost his father as a young boy. No wonder he felt such a deep sympathy for David. She was glad she would have the benefit of his advice, since growing up in similar circumstances ought to make him an excellent judge of how best to compensate David for the fatherly care of which fate had suddenly deprived him.

How sad, though, that Mr Waterman's mother had obviously not filled the gap for him. She tried to imagine David lost in grief, a severe stutter preventing him from being able to easily communicate his needs and feelings, watched over by someone who looked upon his affliction with distaste and disdain. Her mother's heart twisted.

She recalled how he'd blushed at her praise. She smiled. It was bad of her, but she'd quite enjoyed making him blush. It pleased her to know she could excite a strong reaction from him. And it seemed to her about time that he received the compliments he deserved for his kindness and his unselfish assistance.

Her smile faded. She might have a few things to say, mama to mama, should she ever encounter the incomparable Letitia.

Had Mrs Waterman been so distraught over the loss of her husband that she'd shut out her little boy all those years ago? It seemed she must have, to have elicited so strong a reaction from Mr Waterman today. Did he suspect she would become equally neglectful of David? Was that why he'd railed at her?

She'd just have to prove to Mr Waterman that she recognised
her
son's needs and was determined, in spite of her inadequacies and her own distress, to meet them.

She smiled wryly to herself. She wasn't sure why having Mr Waterman's approval should matter to her, but it did. She was glad that the necessity to go through the papers in Everitt's library would require him to call here for the next few days. With an anticipation that was beginning to equal her son's, she looked forward to becoming better acquainted with Mr Hal Waterman.

Chapter Eight

A
s he laid ledgers in orderly stacks on Everitt Lowery's desk a short time later, Hal found himself smiling. He, tongue-tied, blundering Hal Waterman, had made the incomparable Elizabeth Lowery laugh. Despite his cryptic wording, she'd understood his little joke—and found it funny.

Who could have anticipated such a miracle?

She'd surprised him in other ways as well. Having gritted his teeth, expecting to have his character and behaviour shredded for his presumption in criticising her, he'd been astounded that, instead, she'd thanked him.

He could only imagine how, with her razor-sharp wit, Mama would have left him bleeding on the floor.

But then, he was discovering that, despite her astounding beauty, Elizabeth Lowery was not very much like his mama after all. She cared little about dress, seemed completely uninvolved in society and, like her sister Sarah, she was kind. And though she'd claimed to be ignorant of how best to help her son, she was without question deeply committed to working out how to do so.

She'd even called him clever. Him, clever! Of course, Nicky and Ned often told him so, but that was concerning such masculine affairs as hunting, fencing or horsemanship. Without being arrogant, he knew he was excellent with a foil, a dead shot with any weapon, a tireless rider and skilled in all the attributes men considered important. 'Twas just in the polite society of ladies that he felt clumsy and backward.

No female had ever even hinted she found him intelligent. Probably intimidated by his size or put off by his monosyllabic speech, behind their fans and polite words they regarded him with expressions that said they thought him a dolt or a dullard. Like Mama did.

The mantel clock chimed, reminding him he had work to do here before going on to a meeting with several brokers in the City. He needed to focus on the task at hand, not linger here daydreaming of earning another smile from Elizabeth Lowery.

The canal project that had occupied him in the north was to open a new phase and he intended to buy in from the beginning. Transportation was the key to the further development of the British economy, a means to deliver raw materials to the mills that could turn them into finished goods and bring the products of England's fertile fields and small workshops into the cities, benefiting both the country folk and the burgeoning urban population.

Horse-drawn transport was the way of the past. Rather than refuse to acknowledge that and try to hang on to practices that must change, there was both economic benefit and profit to be made in investing in the future.

He paused, ledger in hand as the idea suddenly struck him. Even without as yet possessing all the papers he needed to get a complete view of the Lowerys' financial condition, he knew he must persuade Mrs Lowery to sell some of her husband's excellent antiquities collection. The proceeds of that sale would pay off the debts Lowery had accumulated and supplement the widow's income until the estate's crops came to market.

He'd intended to use the modest fees from the rental of Lowery Manor to cover the repairs and improvements to that property; since apparently Lowery hadn't inspected his estate in some time, there would inevitably be matters that needed attending to. Hal tried not to think unkindly of a man who'd not only borrowed beyond his means, but had neglected to properly oversee the assets he possessed.

But if enough remained after the estate's needs were met to fund an investment in the canal project, over the next few years Mrs Lowery might see large returns. Based on the performance of the shares he'd bought in the last project, such an investment might ensure that Elizabeth Lowery could live comfortably for the foreseeable future, whether or not she chose to remarry.

Young and beautiful as she was, she probably would wish to marry again, Hal thought. And, no, he must not let himself even consider that prospect.

She seemed to have genuinely loved her much older husband and would probably spend the full year society dictated in mourning him. If she then decided to remarry, Hal knew there would be a host of eager contenders to the hand of the beautiful Elizabeth.

Men who truly were gallant and witty and all those things ladies so prized. The only asset he possessed in feminine eyes, his wealth, didn't seem to hold much appeal for Elizabeth. He mustn't forget that kind and appreciative as she was of his assistance, Elizabeth Lowery would never look twice at a man like Hal Waterman.

He'd dreaded coming here today. He needed to cling to that sense of dread. Elizabeth the merely beautiful was dangerous enough to his peace of mind. He dared not imagine the damage that could be done to his well-ordered life by a lady who not only captivated his senses, but whose intelligence, kindness and thoughtfulness worked their way insidiously into his mind and heart.

And then there was David Lowery. He liked the boy and wanted to help him, but he shouldn't get too attached. Nicky would be back soon and would fill the gap in the boy's life that the loss of his father had created.

He needed to finish this work for the Lowerys and remove himself from their life…before he found himself craving to stay.

Whistling a cheerful tune as he returned after a successful session with the brokers, early that evening Hal trotted up the steps of his bachelor quarters on Upper Brook Street. He'd have some wine and change his garments before meeting at his club with Lord Montague and Lord Chelmsworth, two peers who, like Hal, were keenly interested in investing in the latest economic innovations. Hal was confident that after hearing details of the new project, both gentlemen would wish to buy shares.

With the last of the financing guaranteed, he could then travel north to consult with the engineers and get the project underway. His spirits lifted further at the idea of escaping London and returning to his element, negotiating the advances with the local banks, clambering in and out of earthworks with the engineers as they inspected the progress of the work, even taking a hand with a shovel himself from time to time, and, finally, the incomparable excitement of watching scaled drawings and his own vision slowly become reality.

He'd pledged a little more today to the broker than he'd originally calculated. If he could convince Elizabeth Lowery—or her trustees, for he still expected to turn up a will directing that Lowery's affairs be turned over to someone more competent than Eustace Scarbridge—he would sell the extra shares to the Lowery estate.

He'd be proud to report to Nicky upon his return that he'd not just straightened out the tangle in which Lowery had left his finances, he'd also made investments to allow the widow a sizeable income for the rest of her days.

He sighed. At least he'd leave Elizabeth Lowery something pleasant to remember him by, once Nicky returned and Hal had no excuse to see her again.

As he entered his town house, the footman stationed at the doorway held out a note. ‘From Mrs Waterman, sir,' the man said. ‘She said it was urgent.'

Hal's cheerful mood took an immediate downturn. Whatever Letitia Waterman wanted was always urgent. Stifling a desire to curse, with thanks Hal took the note and continued up to his bedchamber.

'Twas an invitation—a summons, really—to dine at Berkeley Square. Checking the mantel clock, Hal thought he would have enough time to call on his mama—hopefully before her protégée arrived—present his excuses and still meet his friends for dinner.

This time he would not let her browbeat him into remaining. He must also, he recalled, somehow manage to weasel out of the obligation to escort her and Lady Tryphena Upcott to that damned ball.

His good mood now ruined—at least until he could escape his mother's clutches and leave for his club—Hal rang for Jeffers and poured himself a large glass of wine.

Less than an hour later, Hal paced the floor of his mother's elaborate drawing room. He should have expected it would be impossible to see his mother early, that she would still be completing her
toilette
. He only hoped Montague and Chelmsworth didn't consume all of their dinner before he finally arrived.

Every minute he lingered increased the chances that Lady Tryphena might arrive before he could take his leave. When Holmes finally announced his mother's entry, Hal was so relieved, he was actually glad to see her.

‘Hal darling, you are early!' his mama said, giving him her hand to kiss. ‘Lady Tryphena and Lord Kendall should be here shortly. I thought we could have a cosy dinner and perhaps go on to the theatre.'

‘Sorry, Mama, can't,' Hal said, holding his mother's gaze steadily. ‘Glass of wine, then leave. Might have managed if invited earlier,' he added.

It never failed to irritate him that his mama, who claimed to be so meticulous about social niceties, thought nothing of summoning him at the last minute. As if he could never be committed to something of more importance than whatever she wished him to do.

‘Leave?' she repeated, frowning. ‘Surely your evening plans can accommodate having dinner with your closest kin.'

‘Prior business,' he informed her.

She made a moue of distaste. ‘Can you not confine meeting with Cits and merchants to daylight hours? Evenings should be reserved for mingling with your peers.'

‘Are peers, actually,' he replied. ‘Chelmsworth and Montague. Dining at White's.'

Since both men held seats in the Lords, she couldn't find fault with their breeding or the fashionable
ton
location. But his mama wouldn't give up that easily. Hal waited to see what other objections she could manufacture.

‘I suppose I must approve, for once, your choice of company,' Mrs Waterman allowed reluctantly. ‘We'll have to forgo the theatre, then. Send a note to White's and tell them you'll join them later.'

Hal shook his head. ‘Waiting dinner for me. Most impolite, send excuse at last minute.'

He had her there, Hal thought. Apparently conceding the point, she said, ‘Oh, very well. It would not do to give offence to men of their prominence. Perhaps you can spare the time to have some sherry with your mother?'

Ignoring her sarcasm, Hal took the glass Holmes handed him. He'd managed, with less difficulty than he'd anticipated, to avoid having his evening commandeered. Now he hoped his luck would hold and he could make his exit before Lady Tryphena arrived, sparing him the need to converse with her. That comment about her helping Mama to improve his speech had not yet lost its sting.

‘But I am most disappointed,' his mother continued. ‘I had counted on having you and Lady Tryphena become better acquainted before Lady Cowper's ball. Since you seem to have grown so exacting about your social obligations, 'tis fortunate I solicited your escort for that so early.'

So that was the reason behind the last-minute invitation. Euphoric as he was to have a valid excuse on this occasion, unfortunately he hadn't yet come up with anything as foolproof to escape the ball. His mother would hardly deem his preference for dining at his club and playing a few hands of piquet a sufficient excuse to refuse her invitation. Still, one way or another, he intended to wiggle out of it, so he might as well incur her censure immediately by beginning to lay the groundwork.

‘Not sure. New investment pending. Have other consultations. Best not count on me.'

‘Business consultations,' his mother said, dismissing those with a sniff. ‘I forgive you for tonight, since Lords Chelmsworth and Montague are both men of impeccable birth. But if I understand you correctly—never an easy feat—you're saying that for the night of the ball, you haven't a prior engagement with anyone of equal stature.'

In the face of her direct probing, Hal tried to think of some reasonably truthful positive reply—and failed. ‘No,' he admitted at last.

‘Tradesmen and bankers can be put off to another day. So, shall we say seven?'

Only desperation could have tumbled such an idea into Hal's head. But anything was better than suffering through an evening in the company of Lady Tryphena the bring-him-up-to-snuff. ‘Not gentlemen,' he said. ‘Lady.'

His mother put down her glass and stared at him. ‘You have a previous engagement with a…a
lady
? Someone of gentle birth? Then why do I not know of her? Who is she?'

‘Nicky's sister-in-law, Elizabeth Lowery.' Seeing that dreaded gleam appear in his mother's eyes, Hal's discomfort intensified. ‘Not what you think!' he added. ‘Recently widowed. Nicky away, just helping out.'

The last thing he wanted was to bring his mama down upon Elizabeth. The idea of her descending with imperial condescension upon Green Street, subjecting Mrs Lowery to a pointed interrogation about her intentions towards Hal and assessing her value as a potential daughter-in-law, was almost as humiliating as envisioning Lady Tryphena attempting to correct his speech.

His mother stared into the distance, mentally running through her catalogue of the
ton
. ‘Everitt Lowery's widow. Yes, I remember now seeing the announcement in the paper. I don't recall ever meeting his wife. She must not figure much in society.'

‘Lives very secluded,' Hal hastened to confirm, watching hopefully as the interest in his mama's eye faded.

BOOK: A Most Unconventional Match
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