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Engaging the Earl
An Accidental Peers Novel
By Diana Quincy
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Dora Mekouar
All rights reserved.
Six years later
"You'll make such a beautiful bride." Kat's mother dabbed a handkerchief at her eyes. "We thought this day would never come."
Kat swallowed hard to tap down the nerves fluttering in her stomach. This evening, after five glittering Seasons as the toast of the ton, she would finally become betrothed. She studied her reflection in the looking glass, smoothing her hands over the low-cut, pale yellow silk bodice that showcased her modest breasts and slender form to full advantage.
She smiled, pleased with what she saw, knowing many young debutantes would flock to their modiste for a dress similar to her betrothal gown. She'd been an incomparable all these years on the marriage mart, turning down numerous offers before agreeing at last to a match that made her father proud.
Her mother clasped her hands to her chest while looking over Kat's shoulder in the looking glass. "You look ravishing. Lord Sinclair will no doubt think so as well."
Her betrothed, Viscount Lawrence Sinclair — Laurie — would appreciate her in this gown. His warm blue eyes always gazed upon her with sincere affection and admiration. He loved her, Kat knew that for certain, and she returned his affection, although not in the same gut-wrenching way she had loved Edward. She shivered. Never that.
She closed her eyes as the unbidden memories stole over her. With a shuddering breath, she recalled the feel and taste of him, the sensation of his mouth on her skin that final night. A familiar sharp pain, almost paralyzing in its intensity, spiked up through her belly and into her chest. Forcing herself to breathe through the discomfort, she shoved thoughts of Edward out of her mind. She must not think of him. Especially not tonight of all evenings.
She'd been right to hate him for leaving her. He never returned after abandoning her six years ago. All he'd left her with was the pain. It slithered up on her, unbidden, at the most inopportune times, whether it was while calling on friends or walking in the park. The smallest things — listening to someone play the violin or the pianoforte, any mention of the war — triggered thoughts of him. No, she didn't love Laurie with that kind of painful intensity and was glad for it. She'd barely survived loving Edward. Losing him had scorched her soul. She would never love another person that way again.
"Come dear," said her mother. "Lord Sinclair will be waiting."
She focused on her image in the looking glass. Chin up. Shoulders back. Smile in place. The woman in the looking glass didn't appear to have a care in the world. It was time to put Edward Stanhope in the past and move on to her future.
"As always, you are a vision." Laurie's warm smile floated up to greet her as she descended the grand staircase.
Reaching the bottom, Kat curtseyed, forcing gaiety into her countenance. "I have outdone myself, don't you think?" She twirled, showing off her gown.
He grinned. "It is perfection. All of the other girls will burst into tears and throw themselves to the ground when they see you in that gown."
She smiled, feeling a comforting surge of affection for Laurie. "Oh, that would be too much." She fluttered her lashes. "Perhaps just bursting into tears without swooning would suffice."
He laughed, his striking blue eyes glittering with approval. "I will certainly have my hands full with you, my future viscountess."
"No doubt," she said, taking his arm to join their families. Instead, Laurie pulled her into the nearest door, an empty salon that had not been opened for this evening's guests. "Laurie, what are you doing?" she asked as he shut the door and edged her up against it.
Sliding his hands around her waist, he drew her close. "I mean to have my arms full of you post haste."
She giggled and turned her face up to welcome his kiss. It was soft and gentle, with the respect and consideration a gentleman shows his intended, in a way that prompted a warm sensation to flutter down her body.
He broke the kiss, resting his forehead against hers. "I vow I will make you happy, Kat. On my honor, I will."
She smiled. "I know you will." She put a hand to his cheek. "You are such a dear."
He blew out a breath. "I would be more than that to you."
Feeling hedged in, she gave an uncomfortable laugh. "Of course, silly, you are to be my husband and we shall be deliriously happy."
His searching gaze prompted nerves to flutter in her belly. She slipped her hand behind his head and brought his lips to hers once more. She kissed with deliberate enthusiasm, determined to show Laurie how much she appreciated him. And to distract him from that probing gaze that sometimes seemed to see too much.
He held himself aloof at first so Kat parted her lips, allowing him a taste. He made a muffled sound and then his tongue swept inside her, stroking along her cheeks, touching her tongue. Not an unpleasant sensation. She focused her attention on the exploration, allowing it so he would be reassured how much she cared for him.
She tried to ignore the growing din beyond the door of the little parlor, the opening doors, footsteps against the marble floors, and chatter out in the public rooms. She indulged him a few more warm kisses — enough to convince him of her devotion — before pulling away.
"Our guests are here," she said in a gentle reminder that they should greet the arrivals.
His breaths came short and sharp. "I vow the wedding cannot come soon enough."
Disengaging from him, she gave a teasing smile. "But the anticipation is what makes a betrothal so amusing."
He tugged his waistcoat straight and offered his arm. "I would not describe it as amusing. More like tortuous." She took his arm, recognizing his frustration, but not really comprehending it.
Her father's Mayfair townhome had begun to fill. An invitation to the betrothal ball of Lady Katherine Granville, daughter of the Earl of Nugent, to the handsome and well-regarded Lawrence Sinclair, the fourth Viscount Sinclair, was the most coveted event of the Season. Despite her advanced age, Kat had remained the ton's reigning beauty for several Seasons. And, in addition to his title, looks, and considerable purse, Laurie possessed an innate kindness and effortless charm that attracted people's regard. Both were shining lights in the ton and, to all outward appearances, an ideal couple.
She threw herself into enjoying the party. As usual, her dance card was full, but she'd taken care to reserve a waltz and the supper dance for her intended. When she wasn't on the dance floor, Kat held court with a group of merry friends, which included her cousin and best friend, Beatrice. Kat never took her popularity seriously, but she did enjoy it. It was certainly preferable to being a wallflower. During a break in the dancing, she wandered off to fetch lemonade with Bea, anxious for something to cool her since the air in the crowded ballroom had grown stiff and humid. Sipping her drink, Bea watched Laurie dance with Alexis Campbell, one of the girls from their set.
"He is very fine," Bea said. "You are most fortunate."
Kat sipped her lemonade, following Bea's gaze. Laurie was well formed and uncommonly handsome with those flashing blue eyes and firm jaw. His hair, like hers, was a golden blond. The idea of being joined to him for all eternity made it difficult to breathe; her ribs felt as though a tight band was wrapped around them. Taking a deep inhale, she fought the suffocating sensation, and changed the subject. "Tell me, is your brother coming?"
A shadow crossed Bea's face. "Toby assured me he would attend, but he still finds crowds difficult."
She put a hand on Bea's arm. "Does he continue to be unwell?"
"That awful war has ruined him." Tears welled in Bea's eyes. "You know how he was before, so charming and amusing. Now he's touched in the head." She swiped a tear away. "Sometimes he is all that is agreeable, but then he experiences one of his episodes."
Kat's throat squeezed. Dear Toby had always brought a certain liveliness to any party, and hostesses had clamored to have him grace their tables. Yet, since returning from the war, he'd avoided most large gatherings. She squeezed her cousin's hand, feeling protective of both Bea and Toby. "Hush, Toby just needs time. You mustn't let anyone hear you suggest he has windmills in his head."
"You have the right of it, of course." Bea braved a shaky smile. "Toby is bringing a friend with him tonight, his commanding officer, I think he said."
A heavy weight compressed Kat's chest. Talk of the war always reminded her of Edward. It had affected Toby's mind, but at least her cousin had returned home at the end of the fighting. Edward hadn't bothered. She'd heard he'd gone off to India instead. He'd not only abandoned her, but he'd clearly forgotten she even existed. Kat forced her thoughts away from him, but the tiny shadow of pain in her gut, which had lingered since their final evening together, remained.
When the music came to an end, Kat watched Laurie approach with Lexie Campbell on his arm. She favored her intended with an incandescent smile.
Laurie's eyes lit with appreciation and he sketched a bow. "Lady Katherine, Miss Hobart, Miss Campbell. I am surrounded by all that is beautiful." He addressed them all, but his gaze remained fastened on Kat. "I am the most fortunate of men."
Lexie eyed Kat. "That is the most delightful gown I have ever seen. You sicken me, Kat. Do you never look poorly?"
Kat uttered a delighted laugh and smoothed a hand down her bodice. "Nonsense, your gown is lovely as well."
Lexie shot her a disbelieving look before casting her gaze around the crowded room. "They say the Earl of Randolph is in attendance. Have any of you seen him?"
Kat drew a blank. "Who is the Earl of Randolph?"
"Some war hero." Ever solicitous, Laurie took the empty lemonade glass from Kat to hand off to a footman. His manicured masculine fingers brushed hers, lingering far longer than necessary.
Kat's cheeks warmed when her gaze met Laurie's flirtatious one. "An earl who is a war hero?" she asked, looking away.
Beatrice's face lit up. "That must be the friend who is accompanying my brother this evening. Toby said the gentleman was granted an earldom for his brilliant service in the war."
"Is he a gentleman?" Kat's curiosity sparked. "I've never heard of him."
"It is a new title," Laurie said. "I believe he recently arrived home from abroad to receive it."
"New or old, a title is a title." Lexie scanned the room. "His wife will be a countess. Perhaps I should set my sights on Randolph now that Kat has brought Laurie up to scratch."
Intrigued, Kat wanted to know more about the mysterious Lord Randolph, but Willis, the butler, alerted her that it was time for the announcement. She took the arm Laurie offered and sought out her father.
Her father, the Earl of Nugent, signaled for the orchestra to stop playing. The loud chattering came to a stop as the crowd directed its attention to where Kat's father stood on the elevated landing. With his shock of gray hair and trim form, Kat's father remained an attractive man in his forty-ninth year.
"Thank you for joining us on this auspicious occasion," he said. "It is with profound pleasure that we host this event this evening."
Kat and Laurie joined him on the landing. When she looked out into the sea of people, Kat's nerves erupted again and the insides of her hands started to itch. Suffocating heat pressed against her skin; the warmth of all these human bodies in the ballroom made the June evening air all the more stifling. As the thumping in her ears grew louder, Kat pasted a smile on her face and tried to focus, reminding herself to keep her chin up, her shoulders back.
Seeming to sense her distress, Laurie placed a comforting hand over hers where it rested on his arm and gave it a reassuring squeeze. She forced herself to breathe evenly. This was supposed to be a moment of triumph, of celebration. She looked into Laurie's smiling countenance and the robust warmth and love she saw in his expression buoyed her, quieting her nerves. She drew a deep breath, her smile becoming genuine, and focused on her father's words.
"This evening I announce the betrothal of my daughter, Lady Katherine Granville, to Viscount Lawrence Sinclair of Wiltshire." Footmen appeared with champagne flutes on trays. Laurie took two, handing one to Kat. There were murmurs of approval and sounds of clinking crystal as the guests received their champagne. Her father raised his glass. "To Sinclair and his future viscountess."
The guests raised their flutes, and calls of "here, here" and "well done" rang out. Kat smiled and raised her champagne to her lips. Looking over the crowd, her eye caught on a tall guest with dark amber hair standing near the back wall. Rivulets of awareness trickled through her.
She sipped the champagne, the bubbles fizzing in her mouth, the warmth sliding down her throat and heating her skin all over. She tilted her head to get a better glimpse of the man, but the guests crowding in front of him impeded her view. He moved toward the door. When he reached it, his back to her, the man stood quite alone. He was impossibly lean, his movements both precise and concise, as though he brooked no nonsense. When he paused at the door, a shiver tingled through Kat despite the warm June heat.
Then he turned around and their gazes met. And locked.
She recognized him at once, even at a distance — the sharp cut of his cheeks and the dark intensity of his eyes. He'd shorn his hair short, very close to his head and tremendously out of fashion. The amber curls were gone. He appeared much changed and yet achingly familiar.
The floor beneath her slippers wobbled, and somewhere a glass shattered. She realized she'd dropped her champagne. The crowd murmured and the heat in the room pressed in on her slick skin as she reeled into darkness, falling deeper and faster until strong arms surrounded her. Someone spoke to her, but she heard echoes that made no sense.
Blackness crept in and she gladly went to it.CHAPTER 2
"Are you certain you're well enough for a ride through the park?" A crease appeared between Laurie's brows. "You have not been yourself since the ball."
Avoiding his gaze, Kat forced a light tone. "Pish posh, it was just a touch of ague." She directed her horse onto Rotten Row, maneuvering through the crowd of riders on the trail.
Laurie's gelding inched up alongside her mare. He peered over at her. "But you fainted. That is not a sign of ague."
"You make me swoon, my lord." She tossed her head and flashed a flirtatious smile. "Most gentlemen would be delighted to have that effect on their lady."
Laurie's eyes twinkled and he laughed aloud, allowing the compliment to distract him, just as she intended. Desperate for an excuse to cut off the conversation, she shook the ribbons, commanding her mare into a trot. She fell into the rhythm of the horse's movements, the passing riders a blur of color.
It had been three days since she'd seen him. Edward. Agonizing hours full of uncertainty and turmoil that had left her physically ill. She'd taken to bed with a pounding headache and no appetite. When she tried to force food down, it tasted like foolscap and her stomach rebelled, threatening to expel the meal.
Her reaction mortified her. How could Edward still have this kind of effect on her? She'd reacted as though he'd abandoned her just yesterday instead of six endless years ago. She hadn't seen him since that glimpse at her betrothal ball. After her embarrassing collapse, Kat had insisted upon returning to the party. Shaken and out of sorts, she'd nonetheless been determined not to let Edward ruin her big night. Yet she couldn't help scanning the crowd for his face, desperate to look into those dark emerald eyes once more. Even now, she didn't dare ask anyone about him, fearing the questions her inquiry might raise in Laurie's mind. But what had Edward been doing there? Perhaps he'd come for her at last.
Excerpted from Engaging the Earl by Diana Quincy. Copyright © 2014 Dora Mekouar. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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