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Authors: Bethany Sefchick

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BOOK: The Earl Who Loved Me
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"That is the way of our
world."
 
She offered him a shrug,
downplaying the hurt inside of her borne of years of being viewed as little
more than a way to her father's purse strings.
 
"There is much about it I do not care for but have learned to
endure, at least in small doses.
 
Like
parlor games."

"You know my feelings on
parlor games," David sighed as he offered her his arm, which she had no
choice but to take or else risk looking like an ungrateful guest.
 
"However, when your guests, or rather
one guest in particular, wishes to play them, as host, you have no choice but
to participate.
 
Though really, I would
much prefer doing the estate accounts and you know how much I loathe
those."

That made her laugh, the pain in
her head easing further, and David smiled at her.
 
"Ah.
 
There is my old
friend, Lady Amelia.
 
I knew you were in
there somewhere."

"I just...
 
That is to say...
 
I only..."
 
Amelia struggled
for the right and proper words, but what could she say?
 
That she truly believed that Lady Lydia was
evil?
 
That she wished the woman to
perdition?
 
That she was tired of being
pursued by rakes and fortune hunters?
 
That she wanted David to kiss her?
 
More over that she wanted to see him naked?

"Shhh."
 
He placed a finger to her lips, shocking her
with his boldness.
 
"I
understand.
 
Truly, I do.
 
And you know me better than anyone
else.
 
Do you honestly think I would be
so foolish as to fall for that woman's ploys?
 
I know she means to trap me into marriage.
 
I am no fool."
 
Then
he grinned.
 
"Besides, I would
rather put out my eyes than be married to that chit."

This time, Amelia could not help
herself.
 
She laughed, a dry and hollow
sound that came from years of disuse.
 
For she was far too serious to laugh at much and had not done so in
years.
 
In fact, the last time she could
remember laughing was with David over something ridiculous he had said.

"There's my girl," he
teased, his green-brown eyes dancing merrily and Amelia felt her heart being
swept away, foolish thing that she was.
 
"Now, do you really have a megrim or will you walk with me for a
bit?"

She should say yes - to the first
question anyway.
 
She should tell him
that her head ached horribly and that she wished to rest.
 
Instead, for once her heart silenced her
brain and Amelia smiled at the earl, allowing her true self to show
through.
 
"My head is better, my
lord.
 
Being in the clearer air, I
suppose.
 
I would be delighted to walk
with you."

That was a bigger lie than the one
she had told earlier.
 
Delighted did not
even begin to describe how she felt about strolling the corridors of Weatherby
Hall with David at her side.

Together they set off down the hall
and away from the staircase leading to the upper floors.
 
Away from the ballroom and the party and the
parlor games.
 
Away from the other
guests into the currently unoccupied part of the hall.
 

Amelia knew she should protest or,
at the very least, say that she had changed her mind and no longer wished to
walk.
 
She should also insist that
Tivens accompany them on this little stroll.
 
But she did not.
 
Instead, she
allowed the Earl of Weatherby to lead her where he wished, never uttering a
single protest, his faithful butler disappearing into the darkness as silently
as he had appeared.
 
For she was
enjoying her time with David far too much to complain, and these moments would
come to an abrupt end when he married - which was likely to be far sooner than
she had anticipated, at least if the rumors were true.
 
Which they likely were.

All she had to do now was remember
to keep her true feelings to herself.
 
That should not be so difficult.
 
Should it?

Chapter Two

 

David Rutledge, the infamous Earl
of Weatherby, was in somewhat of a quandary.
 
Specifically, he had no idea how to capture the heart of the one woman
of the
ton
who did not seem to want him.
 
Or was at least pretending not to want him.
 
For a man who had made dodging the
matchmaking mamas of Society something of an art, that was a concept he was
entirely unfamiliar with.

Most of the women he encountered
seemed to want him, some to the point of distraction, and he didn't think he
was boasting.
 
They wanted him as a
lover, a protector, a debaucher, a seducer, or a husband, depending on the
woman.

Yet this particular woman, the only
one he himself had ever wanted, did not seem to want him.
 
It was peculiar, it was maddening, and,
deuce take it, it was annoying as hell.

He had known Amelia Banbrook since
the time they were children.
 
She had
been both a friend an annoyance over the years, but never had he considered her
marriageable material.
 
She was a fine
woman and they rubbed along well enough, but, well, he simply did not desire
her as a man should desire his wife.
 
She was simply there.
 
Always.
 
A part of his life that
he could somehow not live without, yet did not desire to have to wife.

David did not remember much about
his parents' marriage but from the stories his Uncle James had told him, theirs
had been a true love match.
 
That kind
of marriage was what David wanted for himself, though he held out little hope
of finding such a rare gift when the eligible young debutantes who flocked to
him saw little more than his title, his estates, and his bank accounts - all of
which were considerable.
 
The only woman
who did not see him as a prize to be won on the marriage mart was Amelia, and
he hadn't even the slightest notion of marrying her.
 
They very idea was preposterous, really.

Then, one lovely evening several
months ago, all of that had changed when David had found himself at the wedding
celebration of one Lord Gibson Blackwell and his lovely bride, Lady Amy
Cheltenham.
 
It had been the wedding of
the season and the revelry had gone on for hours, making him far more relaxed
in society than he normally was.
 
And
far less vigilant with his heart and his body.

After some alcoholic refreshment,
he had returned to the ballroom, only to see his old friend Amelia being passed
over yet again by the men of the
ton
, her seat among the wallflowers the
same one she had occupied all evening.
 
The entire, damnable evening.

What was wrong with them, he had
wondered as he had asked Lady Amelia to dance, more out of consideration for an
old friend than anything else.
 
Did they
not see that she was a fine woman who would make some man a wonderful
wife?
 
Did they not see that she had a
keen intellect and a generous soul?
 
Did
they not notice that, while not conventionally beautiful, she was still very
pretty and had lush curves that any man would desire?

Then, David had touched her as they
prepared to waltz and something inside of him had shifted in an instant.
 
It was monumental, and yet Amelia seemed to
be completely unaware of how her simple, delicate touch had titled his entire
world off its axis.
 
A world that he
suspected would never be quite right ever again.

She had been lovely that night in a
light lavender gown that had set her cheeks to glowing, her blonde hair, more
champagne-colored that the preferred golden blonde of the moment, swept up into
an elegant knot and a necklace with a single pearl at her throat.
 
Then he had placed his hands on her and
something akin to lightning had shot through him, making his heart speed up and
his head become all muddled.

In the space of a single second, it
seemed, Amelia Banbrook had gone from merely his acquaintance to a woman he
desired - rather a lot.
 
A woman he
found beautiful and spirited and charming.
 
A woman he wanted in his bed.
 
And there was no logical reason for it to have happened.
 
Moreover, it terrified him beyond all
rational thought.

In fact, David had spent the
remainder of the season fighting his attraction to his lovely neighbor but in
the end, Cupid's arrow seemed to have hit him soundly over the head.
 
He was in love with Amelia.
 
He wanted to marry her.
 
However, she gave no indication that she
would have him or that she was even interested.

Instead, she went about as she
always had - meek and mild, save for the rare occasion when her temper flared
and she allowed a flash of her true self to shine though, just as it had
tonight.
 
It was more than enough to
keep him interested in the enigma that was his long-time friend.

His infatuation with her had
persisted all through the Little Season as well, and he was quickly despairing
of ever winning her heart.
 
After all,
she thought he was merely being a considerate, if not overly solicitous,
friend.
 
He, however, knew that he had
never wanted to strip away the gown from one his friends the way he wanted to
remove Amelia's.

One night at a ball a week or so
before the elite of London were set to decamp for the country, however, David
had seen a crack in Amelia's seemingly indifferent
façade
.
 
He had
asked her to dance - again - and this time, there was a tremor in her hands
that had not been there before and a quickness in her breath that she could not
hide.
 
Or perhaps they had been and he
was too mutton-headed - or at the very least distracted by wanting her - to
have noticed them.

That night, however, she was
clearly well aware of him as a man.
 
And
not just a man but a virile man who desired her.
 
Her pulse beat rapidly in her throat.
 
Her breath hitched in her chest.
 
She was nervous and flighty and all of the things that, in general,
Amelia was not.
 
And she looked at him
as if she wanted to see exactly what was under his waistcoat.
 
Which was perfect because
he
desired
to see what lay beneath her corset and chemise.

In that moment, he knew that he was
not alone in his feelings, but he also knew that Amelia, having been overlooked
for so long and chased after merely for her dowry was beyond skittish, not to
mention distrustful of men in general.
 
She wouldn't believe
him
to be after her dowry, of course.
 
She knew him too well for that.
 
But she would think that he was proposing
marriage to her out of pity or some sense of misguided friendship, given her
age and his desire for an heir, something he had perhaps spoken about with far
too much frequency in recent months.
 

Knowing Amelia as he did, she would
believe that he was doing them both a favor, that he wanted her for her
bloodlines, which were almost bluer than Prinny's, and not much else.
 
She valued herself so little that she could
not imagine a man like David wanting her for herself or being in love with her.

But he was.

He also knew that he could go
directly to her father and beg for Amelia's hand, but then, that would not
solve the problem either.
 
She would
still feel as if he was pitying her or offering for her simply because no one
else ever would - which might be true but not in David's case.
 
Instead, he had to convince her that his
feelings were real and true, that he genuinely cared for her.
 
Cared enough that he had procured a special
license before he had departed London for the country.
 
Yet he saw no way to go about it that would
not frighten her.
 
Or worse, make her
despise him.

On the carriage ride to Weatherby
Hall, however, inspiration struck.
 
He
would throw a house party for Twelfth Night, which was Amelia's favorite time
of the year.
 
Once beneath his roof for
the duration of the season, he would woo her, seduce her and, in general, win
her heart.
 
He would prove his love to
her and there would be no question in her mind when he proposed marriage.
 
She would know he truly cared for her.

His plan would have worked
splendidly, if not for two very important things.
 
One was his Uncle James who, eager to see his nephew wed, had
invited Lady Lydia and her family, not realizing that the clawing chit was only
after David's title and fortune and that David had already rejected her advances
over the course of the Season.
 
The
other was that Amelia, the one woman he wished to seduce, had done everything
in her power to avoid him.
 
Not that his
constant dodging of Lydia had helped matters any.

Tonight he had noticed Amelia slip
out of the ballroom, as silent as the mouse she often pretended to be, never
taking her eyes from where Lady Lydia's hand rested on his arm.
 
That was when he saw it, the single emotion
burning brightly inside of Amelia's china blue eyes that gave him hope.

She was jealous.
 
It was plainly written all over her face and
his heart had cheered at the idea.
 
Then, his head had gotten the brilliant idea to follow her and he had,
excusing himself from Lydia's grasping touch.
 
He, however, had taken a circuitous route in seeking out Amelia, not
wanting to incite gossip.
 
Lydia, once
she realized that she no longer had David's complete attention - and not that
she ever truly had it for he found her extremely dull - had taken the more
direct approach, somehow knowing precisely where he was going.
 
Unfortunately, she had beaten him to his
destination and was bent on wreaking as much havoc as possible, knowing she was
unlikely to get her way where his affections were concerned.

When he had heard Lydia berating
Amelia and flinging those awful accusations at the woman he cared for, he had
sent Tivens in search of Miss Markham who currently served as governess to
Uncle James' young daughter.
 
The
governess had arrived posthaste, but not before Lydia had been unspeakably
rude.
 
When she had gone so far as to
knock the book out of Amelia's hands, David knew he had to intervene.

Now, Lydia was gone, though he
wasn't certain she still wasn't lurking about hoping to trap him.
 
He would not put it past her, sneaky wench
that she was.
 
All the more reason to
lead Amelia down one corridor and then another and still yet another until they
reached his intended destination - the warm and welcoming conservatory at the
side of the house.
 
There, he hoped he
could speak with Amelia in private and hopefully learn whether or not she was
amenable to his plans.

As they approached the
conservatory, however, his courage began to lag.
 
This was Amelia, after all.
 
What if he was wrong?
 
What if
she did not feel as he did?
 
Worse, what
if she would not speak to him after he confessed his feelings?

There was no possible way he could
simply declare himself.
 
He would
frighten her or confuse her, or worse, she would simply not believe him.
 
No, men had lied to Amelia with words
before.
 
Despite their history, she
would think him no different.

But perhaps he could
show
her that this was different, this thing between them, and that he did indeed
care.

He had only a little more than a
day remaining before the house party ended and Amelia and her family returned
to Fallstaff Grange.
 
Could he seduce
her in that short a period of time?
 
Well, he loved her and he suspected that she at least cared for him a
little.
 
They had a lifetime of
friendship between them.
 
Why not?
 
It was possible.
 
No, it was more than possible.
 
He would do it.
 
Starting now.

"If you would indulge me, my
lady, there is something I would very much like to show you in the
conservatory.
 
Something that might
amuse you on such a cold winter's eve."
 
David looked at Amelia hopefully, praying that his face wore a far more
innocent expression than he felt.

For a moment, he thought she might
simply give in, but instead, she shook her head to decline the invitation.
 
"I really ought not to, my lord.
 
It is not proper, despite our long-standing
friendship.
 
I should wait for my mother
or my maid to accompany us."
 
Yet
with each word she spoke, he could tell that she did wish to accompany him.
 
That was a good sign.

"Come now, Amelia."
 
This time he did use her Christian name,
earning him a startled look from her.
 
"We are old friends as you say, and I do think you will find this
amusing."
 
He graced her with a
mischievous smile.
 
"Or do you not
recall the time I attempted to grow oranges from seeds that I planted along the
drive?"

BOOK: The Earl Who Loved Me
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