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Authors: Bethany Sefchick

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"That is a pity," she
said with a laugh.
 
"I also suppose
that is the reason you only beat me by a nose.
 
Had I more time in the saddle, I am certain I could have bested
you."
 
It was common knowledge that
Amelia's father, Lord Hollinworth, did not return to the country as often as
others of his class, primarily because he was often engaged in matters of
parliament that required more attention than an average peer gave matters of
the state.

Though he was only an earl, the
Hollinworth title was a long and distinguished one, and since his heir -
Amelia's brother Cecil - was well settled with a family of his own and already
tending to much of the estate business, there was little else for Amelia's
father to do but remain in Town to take care of parliamentary business.

David knew that Lady Hollinworth
did not mind, preferring the bright, glittering parties of London to the quiet
of the country.
 
Amelia, however, felt
differently and had always sought every opportunity to return to Fallstaff
Grange, even if it was only to help care for her nieces and nephews on the
occasion that Cecil was in residence.

She was at home here as well, he
decided, which was perfect because if he had his way, after this evening, it
would be her home as well as his.

"Still, I believe that I won,
my lady," he said, well aware that the servants gossiped.
 
He did not want tales of an improper
courtship - albeit a brief one - turning up on the lips of every guest that
night as they gathered for dinner.
 
Where he hoped that he would propose to Amelia and she would
accept.
 
"And that means that I
have the right to demand my forfeit."

Amelia glared at him, but he could
tell by the smile on her lips she did not mean it.
 
This was Amelia as she was meant to be.
 
This was all of her, ever facet to her personality on full
display.
 
Shy and circumspect when
necessary, but playful and bold at other moments.
 
He had always known she was a complex creature, even as a young
child.
 
However until last night when
she had come willingly into his arms, he had not known precisely how
complex.
 
Or how delightfully delicious.

"Fine."
 
Amelia was feeling more than a little
flirtatious, something inside of her awakening to the joys of seduction the
longer she was in David's presence.
 
This was not like her.
 
Normally,
she hid or held herself away from the others, but last night, when she had
strengthened her spine and stood up to Lady Lydia, something inside of her had
shifted.
 
She had become bolder, not
because she wanted to be but because she had to be.
 
It had been necessary.

Now she was wondering why she had
not done so sooner.

"What do you wish, my
lord?" she asked as she took his proffered arm and allowed him to lead her
into the manor house
 
"Do you wish
a kiss under the mistletoe?"
 
After
last night, she was more than willing to grant him that, especially if he made
her feel as delightfully wanton as he had in front of the library's cozy fire
last evening.
 
"Or might I tempt
you with something else?"

He seemed to consider her question
for a moment, though she was fairly certain he already knew what he wanted to
ask for.
 
"An afternoon with you,
Lady Amelia.
 
The two of us.
 
Alone.
 
Where no one can find us.
 
Time
for us to speak about things we have not but perhaps should have."

She frowned and he could tell that
was not what she had expected.
 
"But your guests..."

"Will survive quite well
enough without me," he finished for her, tapping her lightly on the
nose.
 
"They are lovely people, but
they are only here for respectability.
 
Surely you know that by now."

That only made her frown all the
more.
 
"I do not take your meaning,
my lord.
 
Respectability?"

"A bachelor such as myself
cannot very well have a house party with only one guest, you see.
 
No matter how much he might prefer her
company to that of all others."
 
He
helped Amelia off with the jacket to her riding habit and handed it to a
waiting footman who hovered near the door, ready to assists the guests as they
wandered in and out of the cold.
 
When
the footman departed with their outer clothing, David pulled Amelia close to
whisper in her ear.
 
"Especially
when that preferred guest is a lovely young woman that I wish to marry.
 
And bed.
 
Not necessarily in that order."

Amelia fairly glowed at the
compliment, her skin flushing red and a heat creeping up her face.
 
Yesterday, she would have thought that David
did not mean the words he spoke, however sincere he might seem.
 
That he was merely being kind and
considerate.
 
Today?
 
Well today she rather thought he might.
 
It had been less than a day but already, she
felt as if the blinders she had worn most of her life were falling away and she
could finally see the sincerity of David's words.
 
He did care about her.
 
He
did want to marry her.
 
And out of more
than just pity it seemed.

"Well, isn't this cozy?"
The icy feminine voice cut through the front hall freezing Amelia where she
stood.
 
"Two lovers engaged in an
intimate conversation."

"Sheath your claws, Lady
Lydia," David warned as he turned to face the woman who had clearly been
awaiting their return.
 
"Unlike
some others, I do not fear you or your mother.
 
My family has far more influence with the Lady Jerseys of our world than
you ever will."

So.
 
David knew about the Lydia's threats to her.
 
Not entirely unsurprising, given the way
gossip spread.

Standing before them in a deep,
plum colored gown, her attributes on full display, Lady Lydia looked beyond
furious.
 
"All I asked for was a
chance to win you for my own."
 
There was anger in her tone and something dark and more than a little
dangerous.
 
"Yet I was denied at
every turn."

"I denied you because all you
wanted to win was the title of Countess of Weatherby," David said, his
posture stiff and unyielding.
 
"You
did not want me.
 
I could have been a
bridge troll for all you cared, so long as I was wealthy and titled."

"Why else do men and women
marry?" she tossed back easily, bushing at her skirts.
 
"It is not as if love is a
consideration.
 
Power.
 
Alliances.
 
Those are key to succeeding in our world, as I am certain you are
aware."

Two days ago, this conversation
would have shocked Amelia but her eyes had been opened quite a bit since
then.
 
She would no longer scurry away
like the mouse she had been.

"My parents married for
love," David replied softly, his voice low and dangerous as well.
 
If Lydia noticed, she did not let on.
 
"I made it clear long ago that I would
do the same.
 
Warm flesh and an inviting
smile do not tempt me to the alter, Lady Lydia.
 
You should have learned that by now."

"You will go willingly if I
threaten to destroy her."
 
Lydia's
glance strayed to Amelia and for a moment she felt like shrinking back in upon
herself the way she would have only mere days ago.
 
"I am certain there is something the meek little mouse is
hiding."
 
Lydia laughed
cruelly.
 
"And I shall find
it.
 
When I do, you will be begging me
to marry you, Lord Weatherby, if only to save your silly little chit from
disgrace.
 
If she is not already
somebody's mistress by then, though who would want her I cannot fathom.
 
And if you do not marry me after all of
that, I will destroy you as well, Lord Weatherby.
 
Do not think I won't."

At Lydia's words, something snapped
inside of Amelia.
 
Something hot and
angry and furious, burning like a fire that raged out of control.
 
It was one thing to threaten her.
 
She was used to it after all.
 
She had survived much worse and would
continue to do so, a forgotten mouse tucked into a corner of the ballrooms of
London, passed by and never looked at twice.

But the horrid woman would not
threaten the man that Amelia loved.

In that instant, Amelia realized
that she did not need another day.
 
Nor
did she need another week or a month or even another hour.
 
What had she been waiting for?
 
She loved David.
 
She could not remember a time when she did not.
 
That would not change.
 
Not tonight or tomorrow or the next day or
the one after that.

And he loved her.
 
Over the years he had shown her repeatedly
that he did.
 
Last night, he had proven
it to her with his kiss, his foolish plan meant to keep her by his side, and
more than that, by the way he had forced himself to stop from completely
ravishing her before the fire when she had begged him to continue.

It had been difficult for him, but
he had stopped because he knew that she would regret her actions in the
morning.
 
And he loved her enough to know
that about her.
 
He loved her enough
that he knew all of her.
 
He loved her
when she was a plain mouse but he also loved her when she was a lovely and
defiant lioness.

He might not have spoken the words
aloud, but she still knew.
 
Her heart
knew.

And it was time that she did
something about it.

"Do you really think yourself
so powerful, Lady Lydia?"
 
Amelia
could see the look of surprise in Lydia's eyes when she finally spoke.
 
"You and your mother might be friends
with Lady Jersey and Lady Cowper, but my father has the ear of the Prince
Regent himself, not to mention many respected members of Parliament and their
wives.
 
I feel certain that my family
has a bit more sway with the elite of London than you would suspect."

Stepping out from behind David, it
was Amelia's turn to stick her nose in the air.
 
Just a bit.
 
Because she
could.
 
Because she was feeling like a
lioness at the moment.
 
"And if
that alone is not enough?
 
Then trust me
when I assure you that those in the highest reaches of Society would not dare
cut the Earl of Weatherby or his wife.
 
They would not dare risk raising his ire, or that of his friends.
 
Or have you forgotten that the earl counts
the Duke of Enwright, the Duke of Candlewood, and the Duke of Radcliffe among
his closest friends?

That statement gave Lady Lydia
pause and she turned to David, her eyes wide.
 
"I did not know."

"Nor did you ask," he
growled gruffly.
 
"All you saw was
a prize you were denied.
 
You know
nothing of me save for my title and how many new gowns my fortune can buy
you."

"But my lord, I only
meant..."
 
Lydia was trying
desperately to undo the damage she had inadvertently wrought.
 
Not that it would help.
 
Amelia knew that David would have nothing to
do with Lady Lydia or her family in the future.
 
He was far too furious.

"You meant to have your way,
as you always do," Amelia cut in, ready to end this farce.
 
"But in the future, I would thank you
to keep your grasping claws away from the man who is to be my husband."

In the stunned silence of the
entryway, one could have heard a pin drop, or, at the very least, a spoon.

Lady Lydia's skin took on a rather
sick pallor at Amelia's announcement.
 
"Your husband?
 
You two are
to marry?"
 
She looked back and
forth in horror between David and Amelia.
 
"I did not...
 
That is, I
had no idea..."
 
Slowly she began
backing away.

"We are to marry tonight, just
before the grand ball."
 
David
stepped forward now and slipped Amelia's hand into his protectively.
 
She could tell from the smile on his face
that he was beyond pleased.
 
"I
have already procured a special license, done before we left Town for the
winter holiday."
 
She felt the
light but steady pressure on her hand where it met his.
 
"I had decided I could no longer go on
without her by my side.
 
Surely you
would understand and wish us both happy."

When Lydia did not immediately
reply, Amelia tilted her head to the side.
 
"Or must the other guests learn that you are attempting to defy
both convention and society and come between a betrothed couple?
 
That will not look very good for you, I am
afraid.
 
Not even Lady Jersey's
influence could help you if you were to be viewed in such a negative
light."
 
In truth, Amelia would not
carry out such a threat.
 
That was not
something she could do in good conscience.
 
However, she did mean to scare Lydia enough that the other woman would
leave them alone.

BOOK: The Earl Who Loved Me
3.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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