This excerpt is a little longer than what I usually post, but I thought to get the full appreciation of the entire scenario, it was necessary.
Lady Catherine (our heroine) was waiting to be introduced to Lord Clement (Perry) from The Earl’s Inconvenient Wife. So that is the gentlemen Catherine is referring to, and Ethan doesn’t believe her. I knew I was going to pair Catherine and Ethan up when I wrote the scene where Nate (Lord Roderick) was waiting to dance with her. 😉 So most of the time, people get paired up in my books without me planning on it.
Okay. Enough rambling. Here’s how Ethan’s mother finally trapped her son into marriage…
Ethan glanced over his shoulder and cringed. Good heavens but Mrs. Duffy and her daughter were a persistent pair! Ever since he walked into the ballroom, the two had sought him out like two hounds hunting a fox. It left him feeling horribly vulnerable. He hurried around a group of gentlemen who were talking and almost ran into the Duke of Rumsey.
“Pardon me, Your Grace,” he quickly said.
The duke stiffened but offered him a polite smile. “It’s fine, Lord Edon.”
“Oh, there you are, you sneaky devil you!” the ghastly mother called out from behind him.
Ethan’s grimace wasn’t lost on the duke whose lips twitched in amusement. “Mrs. and Miss Duffy,” he began, peering around Ethan, “I see you are acquainted with Lord Edon?”
“Only an acquaintance at the moment,” Mrs. Duffy replied and gave Ethan a wink. “Though we hope to change that soon.”
The duke chuckled. “I’ll leave you three to talk then.”
Ethan scowled at the duke as he left him alone with the two hounds who circled about him. During the two Seasons he’d been polite to Lady Catherine and never once made a lewd comment in her presence, he thought the duke might be more appreciative than to leave him when he needed intercession the most. Well, that only went to prove how little he could count on someone when he needed help.
“Lord Edon, we happened to see you earlier today while we were shopping,” the mother said.
“Oh, did you?” Ethan stepped back, not paying attention to where he was going, but knowing he had to back up since the mother and daughter were making it a point to close in on him.
“Yes,” the daughter replied, fluffing her blonde curls and batting her eyelashes at him. “You were riding your horse in Hyde Park.”
“I thought you said you were shopping,” he said.
The mother took another step toward him. “We were, but we thought we’d go to the park to see if you were there.”
He stepped back again. “You were looking for me?”
“Well, we were there to see which notable gentlemen were there, and we happened to see you among them. As soon as we saw you here, I told my daughter that we must come over. She’s been bred to be a lady for a gentleman such as yourself.”
He inwardly cringed as he continued to back up. “There are many gentlemen here, and besides, I’ve been in the gossip papers. I’m not exactly suitable for a lady with delicate sensibilities.”
“We know better than to believe everything in those papers.”
Her daughter let out a high-pitch laugh that caused him to inwardly shudder. Goodness but there was no way he could bear to listen to that irritating sound for the rest of his life!
“Besides,” the mother continued, still creeping toward him, “you’re a titled gentleman. You’re entitled to a few indiscretions.”
Oh great. Just his luck. His title was very much his undoing. Without it, he could slip quietly away from the ambitious mothers who sought to marry their daughters off. If only he could give the blasted thing to his cousin and be done with it!
“Perhaps you and my daughter might partake in a dance?” the mother suggested, still creeping ever closer like the Grim Reaper who was out to escort gentlemen to their eternal abodes before their time.
“Um…well…” He took another step back and bumped into someone. Surprised, he turned around and saw Lady Catherine who was sitting in a chair. Inspired, he helped her to her feet and pulled her toward him. “Mrs. and Miss Duffy, I want you to meet Lady Catherine.” He lifted her hand and kissed it. “Did you miss me, dearest?”
Lady Catherine stood as still as a statue for a moment before she tried pulling her hand out of his.
He chuckled and squeezed her hand so she couldn’t get away from him. “I’m sorry I was gone for so long. I had to discuss the latest happenings,” or whatever it was called, “with the Parliament. But I’m back now and can dance with you.” Glancing at the mother and daughter, he added, “My intended gets lonely if I leave her for too long. I trust you understand.”
“Intended?” The mother’s eyes widened as she glanced from Ethan to Lady Catherine. “Forgive me, my lady. If my daughter and I had known…”
“Think nothing of it. We’ve been keeping it a secret until her father approves,” Ethan lied.
Before Catherine could protest and give his ploy away, he steered her away from the two ladies and ushered her to where couples were dancing. Knowing her sense of duty would compel her to dance with him, he waited for the music to start and bowed. She glanced around, let out a frustrated sigh, and curtsied. Good. As he expected, she accepted a dance with him.
“What are you doing?” she muttered under her breath as they began the dance.
“I had to escape from the meddlesome mother and daughter somehow, and you were the only lady I could find who wasn’t doing anything.” As soon as he said those words, he realized he could have worded it better.
“For your information, I was waiting for someone to return,” she replied, a bitter edge underlying her polite tone.
“I apologize, my lady. I didn’t mean to imply you don’t have any friends.”
“Who said I was waiting for a friend? I could’ve been waiting for a gentleman.”
He resisted the urge to laugh. It wasn’t that he intended to even think something so rude about her, but it was no secret that Lady Catherine was destined to be a spinster. Sure, she was nice, but no one really knew anything about her, and ladies like that tended to be uninteresting, though he realized it was better than being a lady who was known for questionable activities.
When he didn’t reply, she added, “I was waiting for a gentleman, in case you were wondering.”
“I’m sure your father will wait for you to return,” he replied, mindful to keep his movements in time with the music.
She gasped. “It wasn’t my father.”
He glanced at her to see if she was joking, but her face remained as serious as could be. “Really?”
“You needn’t act surprised,” she replied through gritted teeth.
He shrugged. “Actually, I am surprised. I mean, I know you’ve danced with gentlemen besides me, but even so—”
“One can hardly call you a gentleman,” she muttered.
Ignoring her, he continued in a pleasant tone, “I know you’ve danced with gentlemen. Your father does a good job of scouting them out for you.”
“He didn’t scout you out.”
“Oh, he wouldn’t. I’m not your type. He has the sense to realize it.”
“I assure you that it’s a compliment. I am a rake. Ladies with fine upbringing such as yourself know better than to marry me.”
She rolled her eyes. “You sound proud of that.”
“I am. Do you know how hard it is to cultivate the rumor? It’s not as easy as it seems.”
“Somehow I doubt it.”
“Well, it’s true, and it makes you safe. I know there’s no danger of your father trying to talk you into pursuing me.”
“Nor would I choose you, of all gentlemen, to pursue.”
“And that is also a relief. Your being alone when I needed you most was wonderful timing.”
“I was waiting for a gentleman.”
“I have a mind to go right over to that mother and daughter and tell them the truth.”
She started to leave, so he reached for her arm and stopped her. “I apologize. You were waiting for someone.” Maybe there was an uncle or cousin she meant to talk to. That was probably the case. “We should at least finish the dance before we avoid each other for the rest of the night.”
Her jaw clenched, she settled down and followed his lead as they turned.
“I must admit I’m shocked,” he continued. “Usually, you’re so docile. You smile, say yes or no, and listen to whatever I blab on about.”
“Perhaps if you said something of interest, I’d be more entertaining.”
His eyebrows rose in interest. Who knew Lady Catherine could be so witty? He glanced across the room and saw her father frown at him. Simply for amusement, he grinned at him, knowing it would irk the gentleman to no end. Her father would never come out and tell him to get away from his daughter while they were at a ball, but the older man’s glowering stares never went unnoticed. And that made Lady Catherine the safest lady he could dance with. Marriage was an impossibility with her.
The music ended, and both breathed a sigh of relief. He bowed, she curtsied, and they bolted off in opposite directions, glad to have the horrible dance over with.
Ethan made it ten steps away from Lady Catherine when his mother ran up to him with a huge smile on her face. “I just heard the good news!” She gave him a hug.
“Mother!” He pushed her away, wondering what she was doing.
“I’m sorry, Ethan, but I was so overcome with joy, I couldn’t help myself.” Then raising her voice so everyone in the immediate vicinity could hear, she continued, “I can’t believe you and Lady Catherine—the Duke of Rumsey’s daughter—have been secretly engaged this entire time!”
Her words stopped conversations all around them, and Ethan could swear he heard a pin drop somewhere in the room. Refusing to look to the right or left, he focused on his mother and swallowed the lump in his throat. “If you’ll join me outside, I’ll explain everything.”
“What’s there to explain?” she asked, again using a high pitch that would wake the dead. “You just told Mrs. and Miss Duffy that Lady Catherine’s your intended.” She clasped her hands together and sighed. “It’s so romantic. Just like Romeo and Juliet, except your mother heartily approves of the match. It’s time to tell her father, so you can Lady Catherine can finally be together. Even he can’t deny true love.”
“I wouldn’t call it true love, Mother,” he protested, heat rising up in his face. Everyone—and that meant every single person in that room— was watching them! Didn’t they have anything better to do?
His mother giggled and slipped her arm around his. “Let’s talk to her father. Perhaps he and I can work something out. After all, your little secret is out. Everyone knows.” She motioned to the stunned expressions on the onlookers’ faces.
He felt sick to his stomach. He prayed for the floor to open up and swallow him, but no such relief was going to come. She led him forward, but halfway to the Duke of Rumsey, he dug his heels into the floor and shook his head. “I’m sorry, Mother, but I can’t do it. It would break her dear father’s heart. The gentleman is insistent she find someone more deserving of her.”
“You will be deserving of her. From this moment forward, you will stop doing the dastardly things mentioned in the Tittletattle. You will be a respectable gentleman.”
She pushed him forward, so now they were within a few feet of the duke. Panicked, he whispered, “I was lying to Mrs. and Miss Duffy to get away from them. Lady Catherine and I hardly know each other.”
“Well, we’ll resolve that soon enough.”
She shoved him again, and he was so stunned that she was still insistent on talking to the duke that he lunged forward and ended up tripping. The world went spinning around him as he toppled to the floor. He was barely aware of the giggles and snickers around him as his mother hovered over him.
“Oh, my poor son,” she said in a loud voice, glancing at everyone who turned to look at them. “I keep telling him the Duke of Rumsey is a reasonable gentleman. He’ll understand that true love must flourish. His daughter and my son are in love. What could be nobler than that?”
To Ethan’s horror, the duke stopped talking to Lord Roderick and looked at Ethan’s mother.
“Mother, please,” Ethan hissed through his teeth. “You’re embarrassing yourself.”
She raised an eyebrow in a silent challenge, and with a wide smile, she swirled around to face the duke and curtsied. “Your grace, I hate to bother you in a middle of such an exquisite ball—one of your finest, might I add—but I just learned of a secret engagement between my son and your daughter.” Glancing at Ethan, she motioned for him to stand up.
Ethan shook his head. No way was he going to face the wrath of the Duke of Rumsey!
With an exaggerated sigh, she returned her attention to the duke. “It’s a simple thing, Your Grace. Everyone knows about the engagement, so it seems proper to allow the two to finally marry.”
The duke’s face paled. “Uh…” He scanned the large room where most of the people had stopped talking and dancing to watch them. “Where’s my daughter?”
From among the crowd, someone pushed Lady Catherine toward Ethan. She looked horrified. Absolutely and completely horrified. Ethan couldn’t blame her. He felt the exact same way. And worse, he was the reason this was happening right now. Who was to know one simple lie could result in such a catastrophe?
“What’s going on here?” her father demanded, looking from Ethan to her.
Lady Catherine gulped. “Nothing.”
“Now, now, my lady,” his mother began in a soothing voice, “there’s no need to worry. My son is one of the wealthiest earls around. He will provide very well for you.” Glancing at the Duke of Rumsey, she added, “He can even buy her a separate house if she desires. But—” she wrapped her arm around Lady Catherine’s shoulders and urged her over to Ethan—“I don’t think it’ll come to that. They are deeply in love. Can’t you tell just by looking at them?”
The room was tilting around Ethan. He was aware that a few people were chuckling, and he thought he heard Lady Catherine mumbling something about not knowing what any of this was about. But everything was starting to grow dim around him, except for the grave disapproval on the duke’s face. He knew the duke was trapped. His mother was going on and on about the beauty of love, going so far as to quote William Shakespeare. It was too much to take. The room was whirling around him, and the next thing he knew, everything went black.