Authors: Christie Kelley
At least that had been her plan. Seeing how Society scorned him, she doubted if her leaving would have any impact unless she told everyone the truth before she left. Doing that would mean never returning because there would certainly be another inquest. And she’d lied during the first one.
She glanced over to see her mother staring at her with a frown. “I’m sorry. I was woolgathering.”
“So I noticed. I called your name three times.”
“Oh,” Jennette replied as heat crossed her cheeks.
“I was wondering if you think Blackburn is using this marriage idea as an attempt to court you.”
“Court me? For what purpose?”
One dark eyebrow rose. “Shall I count the reasons? Money, status, reputation, not to mention you are a beautiful woman.”
Jennette waved a hand in dismissal at her mother. The idea of Matthew coming to call on her was the stuff of dreams. Maybe five years ago, he could have courted her. But not now.
“You’re being absurd, Mother. After all the rumors of him k—killing John because he actually loved me? The gossips would cut him dead.”
“Perhaps,” her mother drawled. “Still, remember what I said, there are far worse men who might have an interest in you.”
Matthew finished packing the few items he would need for a weeklong trip to Lord Aston’s estate in Surrey. As he placed a cravat into his bag, he wondered exactly how Jennette had managed this coup. Lord Aston was a very high-ranking member of Society. If everything went well this week, Matthew’s reputation would be raised a notch or two just for attending.
He supposed Jennette would have a group of women to introduce to him. While that had been his desire only days ago, since kissing her he now doubted any other woman would satisfy him.
He wanted her.
But every time he thought about how much he desired her, his guilt slammed into him again. If only he’d never told her how he felt that morning. If only he hadn’t kissed her that morning. If only John had kept his damned cock out of every other woman. Matthew would never have spoken to Jennette if he’d thought John could make her happy.
Damn. He was in a bloody mess. Marrying her was out of the question. She would never have him as a husband. There would always be John’s death between them, an invisible wedge driving them apart.
“Bloody hell man, aren’t you ready yet?”
Matthew turned to see Somerton standing at the threshold to his bedroom. “I had to let my valet go so I’m stuck packing things up.”
“So I see. I take it you let the butler go, too? I let myself in. Anyone might walk in and steal from you.”
Matthew laughed harshly. “What exactly would they take?” he asked, sweeping his arm throughout the stark room.
“Hmm, I see your point.”
“Welcome to the world of the poor nobility,” Matthew said sarcastically.
“Not for long.” A slow grin raised Somerton’s lips upward. “I have a feeling this week something special is about to happen.”
“Maybe for you, but I doubt anything interesting is in store for me.”
“Oh, it will be interesting for me. Lady Mary Greenly will be attending. That is a widow who truly misses her husband. Or at least one part of him.”
Somerton shook his head. “You only have a few weeks left. This week will bring you something fortuitous.”
“We shall see.”
“Shall we depart?”
Matthew nodded, thankful for Somerton’s offer to ride with him. Only Somerton knew the true extent of the appalling state of his finances. The gambling debts had forced Matthew to sell all but one of his horses and let go of all the servants except one cook.
“Has Lady Jennette created a list of eligible ladies attending this party?” Somerton asked as he grabbed the valise on the bed.
“I haven’t spoken to her in two days. The only word I received was to make certain I attended this function.”
Somerton chuckled. “Have you rendered her speechless? I didn’t think that was possible.”
Matthew suppressed a laugh. “No one would be able to manage that feat. She will express her opinion no matter what the consequence.”
“And yet, it saves one the necessity of attempting to discover what lies in a woman’s mind.”
Matthew grabbed the handrail as they walked down the cracked marble stairs. Reaching the bottom, he wiped his hands on a handkerchief to remove the dust.
“You haven’t told me how exactly you were invited to this soiree. Or have you decided to sneak in as you usually do?” Matthew remarked as he locked the door behind him.
“Quite odd, indeed. Two days ago, the invitation arrived at my doorstep. Perhaps Lady Jennette thought you might want some disreputable company.”
Matthew frowned. “But how did she arrange such a thing?”
Somerton laughed as the coach door closed behind them. “Lady Elizabeth, of course.”
“Lady Aston is Lady Elizabeth’s sister.”
Now everything made sense. Yet, he still wondered why Jennette hadn’t added Lady Elizabeth to the list of eligible ladies. She was the daughter of a duke so it stood to reason she had a large dowry. Even with her flaming red hair and freckles sprinkling her nose, she was an attractive woman.
Perhaps he should ask Jennette about her.
“Have you heard anything more about Blackburn?” Vanessa stroked her lover’s chest with her long fingernails. Baron Huntley was a handsome devil, but not the brightest. He would make the perfect pawn should she need him.
“I saw him at Lady Elizabeth’s literary salon.” Huntley skimmed his hand up her bare back.
“Hmm,” he said, nipping her shoulder. “Miss Whitmore was all but climbing on his lap, making a complete spectacle of herself. But I know for fact what a little strumpet that gal is.”
“Do you now.” Vanessa shrugged her shoulder to get him to remove his wet lips.
“Never met an easier girl.” He looked up at her with his hazel eyes flashing. “I had her at the Easton’s ball. Right in the butler’s pantry. Definitely wasn’t the first man in that girl either.”
Perfect, Vanessa thought with a smile. Once little Miss Whitmore married Matthew, he would discover exactly what he’d wedded and come running back to her. While she wouldn’t get marriage, Matthew would keep her in gowns and a nice house. It wasn’t what she wanted but Vanessa had always been a logical woman. Getting him back into her bed would have to do.
“Quite sure Blackburn saw right through her,” Huntley continued.
Vanessa stiffened. “Oh? Why would you say that?”
“Couldn’t help but notice him go into the billiard room and Lady Jennette follow him a few moments later.” Huntley lowered his head toward her breast, but she pushed him off.
“Lady Jennette Selby?”
“Yes. The earl’s sister.”
“I know exactly who she is. What I want to know is why did she enter the billiard room when Blackburn was there?”
Huntley shrugged and then slobbered a kiss on her neck. “Don’t know. Heard a rumor she’s helping him with something. Starting to cause some talk after what he did to her betrothed and all.”
Panic flickered through her. Matthew had loved Lady Jennette whether he admitted it or not. He’d told her of his attraction to Jennette but Vanessa knew he’d loved Lady Jennette.
There was only one thing Lady Jennette could be helping Matthew with—marriage. Vanessa’s mind whirled with the possibilities. Why would Matthew let Jennette help him? Perhaps it was her idea. A way to keep him from revealing the truth about her.
But Jennette was the type of woman who could make any man fall in love with her. And Vanessa would never let Matthew fall for Jennette’s charms again. Vanessa could accept Matthew marrying, but she knew he would never return to her if he loved his wife. And he would love Jennette.
There had to be a way to stop them.
Vanessa pulled Huntley closer until his chest brushed against her taut nipples. He groaned as her hand reached for his erection.
“Huntley darling,” she whispered, drawing her fingernails up his shaft.
“What?” he growled.
“I have a favor to ask of you.” Vanessa circled her hand around the head of his penis, then stroked downward.
“Anything you want,” he panted.
“I want you to seduce a woman.”
Jennette let out a sigh of pain as her feet finally touched the ground again. After spending most of the day in the coach, her limbs ached, her bottom throbbed, and her head pounded. All she wanted was a warm bath, a cup of tea, and some peace. She’d been stuck in the carriage with her mother, and Banning and Avis. The trip seemed endless.
Poor Avis couldn’t travel without being sick. But watching the newly wedded couple holding hands and whispering secrets to each other made Jennette’s stomach roil. Every time they were required to stop for Avis, Banning was there for her, comforting her.
They were so much in love.
Jennette wanted that so desperately for herself it pierced her heart with agony.
“Come along, Jennette,” her mother said in an impatient tone. “Lady Aston is expecting us.”
“Well, I require a bath before we greet her,” Jennette commented. “I am covered in dust.”
“Of course. But we can still make our initial greetings.”
Jennette followed behind the group. Footsteps crunched on the gravel drive. The large wood double doors of the manor house opened wide as they approached. A butler in full livery and powdered wig stood sentry. Banning held out his card and the man nodded slightly before moving away to let them inside.
She had never been to Lady Aston’s house. In fact, she barely knew the woman. Jane was ten years older than Elizabeth and well out of the house by time Jennette came to call on her friend.
“Lord and Lady Selby, welcome to our home.”
Jennette glanced up the sweeping staircase to see a woman in her mid-thirties looking down at them in a haughty manner. Her mother stiffened slightly and Jennette wondered briefly if it was because she was now the dowager Lady Selby. Wanting to give her mother a bit of comfort, Jennette clasped her hand. Her mother patted it in understanding.
“And of course, the dowager Lady Selby and Lady Jennette, welcome to my home,” Lady Aston said, slowly walking down the steps. She glanced over at Jennette with an upturned lip.
“Thank you for inviting us,” her mother replied in a soft tone so unlike her.
“I have put you two together,” Lady Aston said, motioning for a footman. “I assumed you would want to watch over your daughter.”
Jennette’s mouth gaped. She started to give the woman a proper upbraiding but her mother squeezed her hand forcefully.
“Thank you, Lady Aston. I appreciate your looking out for my daughter’s welfare.”
Lady Aston smiled tightly. “We mothers must watch over our children.”
Jennette could not believe the nerve of this woman. She had no idea why Lady Aston appeared to dislike her so. That question would have to wait until she could question her mother in private.
Following the footman, Jennette walked up the stairs and down the opulent hallway. To her, the house was overdone. Massive gilt picture frames hung on the walls. Heavy velvet curtains covered the large windows, blocking out most of the daylight. And the colors were dreadful. The footman opened the door to their room.
“Your maid will be up presently with your trunks,” he said then disappeared as he closed the door.
Jennette shook her head. “This room is oppressive.”
Her mother gave her an angry look. “Don’t even start refurbishing that woman’s house.”
“Why is she so distasteful?” Jennette plopped down on the bed closer to the window. “What does she think I will do whilst I’m here? Be found in a compromising position? Use the wrong fork with dinner? That woman was dreadful to both of us.”
Her mother removed her bonnet and tossed it on the bed. “This has nothing to do with you, my dear.”
“Indeed? Whatever did you do to anger the lady?”
Her mother’s mouth pinched and her dark eyebrows rose. “She had an infatuation with your brother when she was one and twenty. He was only eighteen and far from ready to marry. But she decided to attempt to compromise herself in order to force the issue.”
Jennette covered her mouth to keep from laughing. “What happened?”
“I overheard her talking about her plan with her best friend. She intended for her friend to walk in on them. I sent Lord Aston in Banning’s stead.”
Her mother only waved a hand at her. “When you have children, you will understand that a mother will do anything to protect them.”
Except Jennette doubted she would ever have children at this point in her life. She was already on the shelf by most people’s estimation. By the time she had settled into her new life in Florence, she would be in her late-twenties. How many men wanted a woman that old? They all wanted young and fertile ladies for brides.
There were days she wished she had allowed John a few more intimacies than he had taken. She wondered if it was too late for her now. Would she die an innocent spinster?
And why did that thought suddenly make her think of Matthew? Worse, she couldn’t help but remember the velvety texture of his tongue as it caressed hers. The feel of his large hands cupping her derrière, pressing her hips closer to his manhood.
She had to stop these dreadful thoughts. She could never have Matthew. He was a gambler who would go through her money like water.
Matthew lay back against the soft bed thankful for the private room. After a few hours in the carriage with Somerton, he needed to be alone. Not that anyone would call Somerton a chatty fellow—just the opposite, in fact. The stony silence in the carriage had felt strangling and uncomfortable.
But it had given him time to think and wonder about whom Jennette would introduce him to this week. He would give any lady his complete attention, no wandering erotic thoughts about Jennette.
She was out of the question.
She would always be John’s woman. While they had all been friends, Matthew had always known she preferred John. He’d had the title and someday would have inherited the lands and money. Matthew had been a second son with no prospects. John had the blond hair and blue eyes. She had loved him. They’d desired each other and just like five years ago, Matthew was the odd man out.
He’d been terribly envious of John’s relationship with her. And he’d known John wasn’t the perfect man for Jennette. Still, Matthew had lost two friends that day.
A knock pulled him out of his musing. “Yes?”
Matthew sat up and waited for the door to open. Instead, a slip of paper slid under the door. He walked to the note and read it quickly.
I need to speak with you in private. Meet me in the gardens in five minutes.
It was time to discover whom she planned to introduce him to this evening. Matthew dragged himself to the mirror. Brushing back his hair with his hands, he realized how badly he needed a haircut. His valet used to perform that duty. One more thing gone because of his father’s gaming.
After straightening his cravat and jacket, he headed to the gardens. A harsh November wind blustered, making him wish he’d brought his greatcoat with him. Dried leaves crunched under the weight of his boots. Wandering through the dead flowers and fallen leaves, he searched for her. He looked toward a small boxwood holly to see her sitting on a bench with her black, wool cloak wrapped around her.
She appeared innocent and, as she looked up at him, lonely. Her brilliant blue eyes held a haunting appearance.
“What is wrong, Jennette?”
She frowned and then smiled. “Nothing. It’s quite cold out here.”
“Why did you need to meet with me?”
“There are three ladies I think might approve of you.”
Approve of him? “Who?”
“Lady Anna Grange, Miss Mary Marston, and Miss Olivia Smithe-Taylor.”
“What about Lady Elizabeth?”
Her head darted upward. “Lady Elizabeth?”
“Yes. Your friend, I believe.” He crossed his arms over his chest as he stared down at her. “And unmarried.”
Her face paled in the dappled sunlight. “I do not believe she is the right woman for you.”
Anger surged through him. “So it is perfectly acceptable to toss me at some unsuspecting lady, as long as she isn’t a friend of yours.”
She rose and placed her hands on her hips. “How dare you suggest such an outrageous thing?”
“I am not at liberty to say,” she replied slowly.
“Has she specifically told you she doesn’t want me to court her?” he demanded.
“No…” Her shoulders sagged. “It’s not what you think, Matthew.”
“Promise me you shall tell no one what I’m about to say to you.” She looked up at him with pleading eyes and he knew he would have agreed to anything.
“Her father left her out of his will,” she whispered, staring at the ground.
She shrugged and shook her head. “She has never told any of us. I know she has a dowry but I believe it is not substantial.”
“The duke had a huge fortune and I can’t believe it was all entailed,” Matthew commented.
“I know. He was involved in some business transaction with Banning. My brother told me just those deals would have left Elizabeth with more than enough money to last her entire life. Instead, she has only a small allowance.”
Matthew sat on the bench she had occupied. “Do you know how much?”
“Jennette, the facts are quite simple. Enough money for me would be very different than enough money for you.”
Watching her face, he realized she didn’t understand his meaning. “I mean, you would require more.”
“I cannot believe you said that.”
He tilted his head and stared at her. “Indeed. What you spent on those orphans would have been enough to clear a large portion of my debts.”
“I highly doubt that.”
“You are used to a much higher standard than I, especially now. All I need is a woman who can help me clear my father’s debts and keep my tenants from being tossed out. Hopefully, next year will be far more productive for them and they can pay their rents again.”
“They haven’t been paying their rents?”
“How could I take food out of their mouths?”
Jennette stared down at him in wonder. Most men in Matthew’s position would have forced the tenants to pay or tossed them out. With the harsh weather this year, many crops had failed and even Banning’s tenants had asked for more time to pay their rents. Her brother had extended them credit to assist them, but he could afford it. Matthew hadn’t the money to be so generous.
“I’m sorry. I misjudged you.” It seemed that she misjudged him more than anyone.
“It’s not your fault. Perhaps I should have tossed my tenants out and leased the land to others.” He shook his head.
“But you could not do that,” she whispered. Again, he was far more of an honorable person than she.
“No, I couldn’t.”
He cleared his throat then asked, “Which of the three ladies do you think would be the most likely candidate?”
“Miss Mary Marston,” Jennette replied without a pause. “Her parents have decided that they need to up their station in life. Mary is very well received, better than her parents even, but she hasn’t caught the eye of a titled gentleman yet. Her sister recently became betrothed to Viscount Ellory.”
“Would you consider her reputation better than mine?” he asked softly.
Jennette tilted her head and nodded. “Her mother was the daughter of a viscount. She married for love but beneath herself.” And Mary’s father was the type of man who would make certain Matthew didn’t gamble Mary’s fortune away.
Nonetheless, it was a sad day indeed when an earl was held in lower esteem than the daughter of a banker.
“Very well, then. I should like to meet Miss Marston this evening.”
“I will arrange an introduction.”
She glanced up to see him staring at her, his gray eyes unfathomable. Without trying, she could lose herself in the haunting depths of his eyes.
“Jennette, we have very little time left.”
Her brows furrowed down. “I thought you said we had a month?”
“The first week is done and I still have no one to court. I expect it will take more than a quick introduction to procure a wife.”
“I suppose it will.” She smiled at him. “But you never know when a wife will just fall into your lap.”
He raised a chestnut brow. “I wouldn’t count on that happening. Time is running out.”
“It won’t be me, Matthew.” It could never be her because even if he wasn’t a gambler, he had honor for what he did for her five years ago. She would never be worthy of such an honorable man.
She often wondered if she was worthy of any man after what she’d done. Perhaps when she settled in Florence she would take a lover. But that idea left a dry, unpleasant taste in her mouth. There was only one man she wanted.
“Time will tell, Jennette.” He dipped his head and then turned to leave. Just before he reached the end of the garden, he glanced back at her.
If only her life was different.
Jennette left her room and closed the door with a sigh. As she walked down the hall, her shoes barely made a sound on the Persian carpet. Everything was set, Mary would accept an introduction and because her parents wouldn’t arrive until Monday night, she and Matthew would have plenty of time to get to know each other. There might even be an engagement to announce by the time Mary’s parents arrived.
Jennette’s heart constricted. This was for the best. She had to get him married before she left for the Continent. Even if her heart wasn’t in it.
Mary would make Matthew a good wife.
Jennette turned to determined who had called her. Seeing Mary Marston, she attempted to smile at the young woman.
Mary quickened her step to reach Jennette. “Could we walk into the salon together? I fear I’m not as confident as I should be. My aunt is feeling unwell and decided to have dinner in her room.”
“Of course.” With her aunt feeling ill, Mary would have no one to condemn her for speaking with Matthew. Hopefully, Elizabeth performed her part and placed them next to each other at dinner.
The petite blonde linked arms with her and they started for the salon. “Lady Jennette, doesn’t all the bustle of Society wear you down? You always look fresh and happy and, well, confident.”