Authors: Gayle Callen
Collins never took his eyes off Robert. At last he said, “I can’t allow this.”
Robert arched a brow. “She is an adult, sir, a widow. You have no say.”
“She is an invalid. Any court will agree she’s not capable of making her own decisions.”
“She would testify on her own behalf and talk circles around any lawyer. You know that. And what will I be doing? I will be explaining to everyone in London about your resistance, and the way you treat her as your servant rather than your daughter.”
Collins slammed his hands onto the desk, scattering papers. “I will not listen to such words in my own home!”
“You won’t listen to the truth, you mean? I saw the local gentry tonight—most of them had heard of Mrs. Blake, but never met her. What kind of father keeps his daughter out of sight, simply because she’s blind? Is it catching? We both know it is not. Is there a stigma attached? She has been convenient for you to take advantage of, but that is over now. You have another daughter. I suggest she learn to manage a household, so that she is not a disappointment to her future husband.”
Collins jumped to his feet, and Robert followed, unstretching leisurely, until he was a head taller than the other man. Collins looked up, hesitated, then pressed his lips together in a narrow line.
“Have you already compromised my daughter?” he demanded. “Is that what this is all about?”
“I have not, sir. I have done all that is proper. But even I did not expect to feel such a connection after only two days. Now on to the practical matters. My country seat is only a few miles away from the house she inherited from Blake, which is why we were in the same regiment. The Eighth Dragoons are a tradition in our parish. I will escort her and her lady’s maid there, so that we can live in proximity while the wedding is planned.”
“That damned house—how did you learn of it?”
“She told me, of course. We are able to speak freely with one another. I had not imagined a woman could understand me so well.”
Robert realized that for the first time in a long while, he was using the weight of the earldom to have his way, and there was satisfaction in that—too much like the old, immature days of his youth. But he wouldn’t go back to being that spoiled young man who didn’t know how to treat people with respect. This supposed marriage was for Mrs. Blake’s benefit, not his own, he reminded himself.
“Do we understand each other, Collins?” Robert asked. “I wish to have a cordial relationship with you, but not if you can’t respect your daughter.”
Collins shook his head. “I have no choice, do I? But Knightsbridge, you are too full of yourself. She will refuse your proposal. She’s been badly hurt before, and that was by a man who took the time to court her. You? She’s too levelheaded to risk her future on a stranger.”
“Then that will be her choice,” Robert agreed amiably. He bowed to the baron and opened the door.
A footman waited with several candleholders, offering one for Robert’s use.
“Not just yet,” Robert said. “Please ask Mrs. Blake if she would speak with me. I’ll be waiting in the parlor.” He didn’t want her father getting to her first.
udrey hadn’t let Molly help her undress for bed. When she’d heard Lord Knightsbridge ask to speak to her father, her stomach immediately clenched and had been fluttering ever since. What was the earl saying? He hadn’t even answered her request for help yet.
And then came a soft rap on the door, and she flung it wide.
“It is Richard, Mrs. Blake,” said the well-trained footman. “Lord Knightsbridge requests your presence in the parlor.”
“Now?” she asked in disbelief.
“Very well, I’ll be down in a moment.”
When she shut the door, she could hear Molly’s rushed footsteps, felt the maid clasp her arm.
“Miss Audrey, what is this about?”
“I’m not sure.”
And that wasn’t quite a lie.
Audrey hated to mislead her dearest friend, but her request of the earl was too important to speak of.
No candles were necessary for her as she moved through the manor in the dark of night—although more than once in the past, she’d startled a sighted person. She hurried down the stairs, crossed the entrance hall, and entered the parlor.
“Lord Knightsbridge?” she called.
“I am here, Mrs. Blake. Please close the door behind you.”
was nothing an unmarried woman normally heard from a man. Forcing down a shiver of nerves, she did as he asked.
“I’m seated on the sofa, Mrs. Blake. Come join me.”
She moved forward cautiously, in case furniture had been moved as the servants cleaned. But they had all been well trained, and everything was where it should be. Lord Knightsbridge took her arm and guided her to a place beside him. It felt strange to sit so close when they were all alone. It had been almost three years since a man had showed any interest in her at all. She’d begged this one to help her—why could she not just hear his decision without feeling anxious?
“Why did you speak with my father?” she asked.
“Right to the point—I like that about you, Mrs. Blake.”
“I had assumed you would discuss your decision with me first.”
“I had to follow the rules of courtship. Which meant I had to inform your father I was marrying you.”
Her breath caught in shock, and then fury and disbelief filled her up like a pitcher about to overflow. “I will not marry you!”
“Keep your voice down,” he murmured. “I’m not truly planning to marry you—you’ve told me you’ll never marry again.”
She swallowed heavily, forced herself to breathe again. “Then why did you tell him that?”
“How else did you think I could get you away from here? I was not about to flee dishonestly in the night, as if I’d compromised you and we had something to hide.”
“Now we just have a false engagement to hide.”
“You are not thinking clearly. Since we’re newly engaged, and you’re widowed, I can escort you and your lady’s maid to your new home—conveniently close to mine—to ease the wedding preparations. Once you’re settled, you can break off the engagement, as is every woman’s right. Who would blame you? We barely know each other, and thank God we took the time to discover our differences before we married, yes?”
She was still breathing deeply, realizing how frightened the thought of being married again made her. It was such a visceral, sickening feeling, that sense of helplessness she’d experienced being passed back from her husband to her father, as if she were but a possession, not a person with feelings to be hurt.
But his words calmed her, and at last she began to make sense of his plan. “Yes, I see what you’re saying. You’re an earl who wants to marry me, taking an invalid off her father’s hands. People should think my father the luckiest man in existence. Or that I must have an incredible treasure in jewels.”
“Now you’re sounding sarcastic,” he pointed out.
She was surprised to feel the beginnings of a smile. “I am sorry I reacted in quick anger when you’re only trying to help me.”
He put his gloved hand on hers. “Believe me, I understand your disillusionment with marriage. My parents’ marriage was even colder than a mountain battlefield. They cared nothing for each other, and knew that from the beginning. It was a match to satisfy their families and their social status, that was all.”
“I’m sorry. That sounds terrible for you.”
“They didn’t beat me, and they provided for me. There are many who have it worse.”
She felt the cushions shift as he stood, bringing her hand up with him until she was forced to rise.
“Off to bed with you,” he said. “You must fortify yourself before we break the news to the rest of your family. I’ll let the hunting party go off without me in the morning and try to convince your brother to join his friends late.”
She winced. “You had the worst of it, dealing with my father. I will find the words to explain to Blythe and Edwin,” she insisted, smiling up at him. “I will take it from here. Thank you for your assistance.”
t had been difficult for Audrey to fall asleep. For one thing, she kept secret from Molly her “engagement,” deciding that her sister and brother should hear news of it before a servant—even though Molly was far closer to her than any of the others.
But she’d felt so fragile after Lord Knightsbridge’s “proposal,” she was worried she wouldn’t be able to keep the truth from Molly—that it wasn’t a real engagement. And that was something she had to hug to her heart as she played the part of a delighted bride. She couldn’t risk anyone finding out the truth.
She’d waited to descend to the ground floor until Molly told her the shooting party had gone to the stables. Now, every step toward the dining room made her feel more and more apprehensive.
Why do you care what your family thinks?
They didn’t care about how their feelings of shame hurt her; they didn’t care if they kept her locked away forever, as long as she was useful to them.
But they were her siblings, and she didn’t want to treat them as they’d treated her. It was her dearest wish—after her own independence—that she could heal her relationships with Blythe and Edwin.
She entered the dining room and came to a stop.
“Good mornin’, Mrs. Blake,” said the footman. “Yer chair is all ready for you.”
“Good morning, Richard, and thank you. Is anyone else here?”
There was an awkward silence. And then Richard said hesitantly, “Lord Collins is readin’ his newspaper, ma’am.”
And he was so focused on his reading that he couldn’t hear a greeting? Not from her, anyway.
“Good morning, Father,” she said, moving past his chair and into the one she usually used near Edwin’s end of the table.
“Did you say yes to the earl?” he suddenly barked.
Startled, she dropped her napkin. “I did.”
At first, he didn’t answer. Her throat tightened, her eyes stung, and she felt like a fool. She hadn’t cried in so long; she wasn’t about to give her father the satisfaction.
“I thought you’d learned your lesson,” he ground out. “This man has the power to treat you far worse than the first.”
“I’ll be careful. Thank you for your concern.”
He grunted his response.
Well, what had she expected? She managed his entire household, and now she was leaving him. He had a housekeeper, of course, but he never wanted to deal with her. Now he’d have to—or Blythe would. That was the only reason he was angry.
She was going to have her freedom at last, like any daughter would expect. That was what she’d wanted for so many years, even if it hurt others in her family.
“Yer usual breakfast, Mrs. Blake?” Richard asked.
He filled her plate from the buffet, then set it before her. She knew he’d placed everything where it belonged: eggs toward the north of the plate, toast to the east, the meat to the south—
“Do we have bacon this morning, Richard?”
“Pheasant, ma’am, from yer brother’s shootin’ party.”
“Good, thank you.”
“Don’t sound too pleased with yourself,” her father said. “You’re making a foolish mistake.”
She cocked her head, and said dryly, “The pheasant is too gamy?” Had she thought herself past the worst of her father’s resistance?
“That will be all, Richard,” Lord Collins barked.
She heard the servant leave, closing the far door behind him. More footsteps approached from the front hall, mixed with Blythe’s chirping laughter and the deep voices of Edwin and Lord Knightsbridge. She couldn’t decide if she was relieved or frustrated at the interruption.
“Good morning, Mrs. Blake, Lord Collins,” said Lord Knightsbridge, sounding excessively cheerful.
“Good morning, my lord,” she said softly.
Just hearing his voice made her think:
Will we leave today? Will I finally start my own journey, my own life?
Something slammed on to the table, and she jerked.
“You are doing a terrible thing, Knightsbridge,” said her father.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. This wasn’t the way to explain the news to her brother and sister.
“Father, what are you talking about?” Blythe asked, sounding both nervous and good-natured, an interesting balancing act. “Lord Knightsbridge is our guest.”
“A guest who takes advantage of innocent women—”
“Father!” Audrey interrupted. “Nothing underhanded has happened. Lord Knightsbridge and I—”
“—are engaged to be married.” This time it was the earl’s turn to interrupt.
She could imagine their shocked expressions. Blythe’s gasp was piercing in the sudden silence. Audrey would have revealed their news another way, explained they’d come to an understanding . . . oh, what would have been the point?
But it bothered her that she’d told Lord Knightsbridge she wanted to handle the announcement, and he’d either forgotten—or ignored her.
“I—I—” Blythe stuttered.
Audrey could hear the shrillness in her tone, knew she was so angry as to be near tears. Blythe would think that once again, blind Audrey had captured a husband—her second—and Blythe had none.
“Sit down before you fall over, Blythe,” their father said with exasperation.
“C-congratulations, my lord,” Blythe stuttered.
“Thank you, Miss Collins.”
“No congratulations are necessary,” Lord Collins said. “I don’t approve of this engagement.”
“Audrey is an adult, Father,” Edwin said impassively. “She doesn’t need your permission.”
Audrey’s mouth almost dropped open. Was her brother actually on her side? Did he at last understand she’d been trapped like a wounded bird all these years—or did he just want to be rid of the embarrassment of her?
“But . . . you barely know each other,” Blythe said in a soft voice.
Audrey was impressed by how hard her sister was working to control herself. She truly hadn’t wanted Blythe to be hurt.
“It feels as if we’ve known each other much longer,” Lord Knightsbridge said.
He took her hand, and she had to struggle not to show her surprise. She hadn’t realized he’d come close, so lost in her thoughts she wasn’t listening well.
And his hand was bare, and so was hers, his skin warm, callused across the palm. It felt so different from her own, so . . . male. She was putting herself in those hands, trusting them. And Blythe was right—she barely knew Lord Knightsbridge.
“I have never conversed so easily with a woman,” the earl continued.
His voice was low and smooth as a caress. Audrey could only imagine how it would feel if he were really using the power of that voice to woo her.
“I felt Mrs. Blake understood me, and I understood her. I don’t see her blindness, I see everything she’s accomplished.”
Lord Collins snorted. “I’ve told him she has no dowry but that little house, and he doesn’t care. That seems suspicious to me.”
“How much more money does a person need?” Lord Knightsbridge asked.
“Audrey, how do you feel about this?” Edwin said. “You’ve only known him two days.” He hesitated. “And as for your first marriage—”
“Do you not think I’ve learned from that?” Audrey asked. “I know this is quick, but I’ve never felt this way before. And we will not rush the marriage. We will take our time, living in our own households.”
“Oh, I had not realized,” Edwin said, sounding relieved. “Then you can change your mind.”
“Of course I can,” Audrey said firmly. “I have learned hard lessons, dear brother. I won’t forget them. I’ll be sure, this time.”
He was obviously trying to sound more lighthearted as he said, “Of course, he is a war hero. That must count for something.”
“I am no hero,” Lord Knightsbridge said.
Audrey was surprised at the cool tones of his voice, and it made her curious about this new “fiancé” of hers. No one spoke for a moment.
“I—I have to pack for London,” Blythe suddenly blurted out.
Her trip had been long planned, and Audrey had totally forgotten. She heard the hurrying tap of her slippers leave the room.
Edwin sighed. “I should get to the hunting party.”
“Eat something,” Audrey insisted. “You need your strength.”
“You’ve always tried to take care of everyone, sister,” Edwin said slowly. “I guess it’s time for someone to take care of you.”
Audrey bit her lip, then pushed her fork through her cold eggs, touched by the sentiment. But what she wanted to say was—it was time for her to take care of herself.
She felt a hand on her shoulder.
“I’ll remain with Mrs. Blake,” Lord Knightsbridge said from behind her.
“No, my lord, you must enjoy your morning,” she insisted. “I have much packing to do.”
He paused. “If you’re certain . . .”
She heard her father’s chair scrape back, and he stomped from the room without speaking. Would he come up with a plan to keep her here, some way to drive off the earl? Audrey felt a bit panicked, wondering how fast she could pack—and then realized Blythe was taking their only carriage to London. They would have to hire one in the village. She mentioned this to Lord Knightsbridge as he and Edwin ate a quick breakfast, and he promised he would see to it later in the morning.
As the earl passed her, following Edwin toward the far door, he took her hand again and brought it to his mouth. “That didn’t go so badly, did it?” he whispered.