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The Earl's Wife

The Earl's Wife by Amy Lake
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Claire de Lancie is in desperate need of a husband when she meets Edward Tremayne, the Earl of Ketrick. Their marriage of convenience is followed by a surprisingly idyllic few weeks at the Earl’s country estate. But the Earl soon seems driven to push his young wife away. In London they go their separate ways, until Claire’s carriage is waylaid…

Regency Romance by Amy Lake; originally published by Five Star

Belgrave House; January 2001
213 pages; ISBN 9780786230358
Read online, or download in secure PDF format
Title: The Earl's Wife
Author: Amy Lake

The bell on the draper’s shop door tinkled, and Claire glanced behind her. A well-dressed man and equally well turned-out woman walked in, laughing.  The man’s head was inclined towards his companion, and the rich brown of his hair–Claire couldn’t help but notice it–was in startling contrast to the almost white-gold of hers. Claire raised her eyebrows fractionally at the low décolletage of the woman’s gown. A bit daring for an afternoon’s shopping expedition, but she did look beautiful.

He was very tall.

Claire turned around before she could be accused of staring and returned to her careful examination of the basket of Haraldson’s less expensive lace remnants. She allowed herself a small smile. The portly shopkeeper had spent the last ten minutes hovering over her, obviously anxious that she make a selection, but at the entry of monseigneur et madame he breathed, “Heavens, the Earl of Ketrick,” and at once forgot that Claire existed. He hurried towards the newcomers as the woman with white-gold hair laughed, a throaty, musical sound.

“Edward, the one thing I don’t need is another hat.”

“Nonsense,” came the man’s voice in reply. “I know of not a single woman in London who believes she is the owner of an adequate number of hats.”

“Oh, hopeless,” said the woman, and laughed again.

“Here milady, this one surely cries out for a gentlewoman of your rank,” said the shopkeeper, almost tripping in his haste to lift an enormous confection of turquoise satin and ostrich feathers out of its perch in the window. Claire caught a glimpse of the hat out of the corner of her eye. Good heavens, could that possibly be a bird’s egg nestled among the explosion of feathers?  Claire decided that indeed, it could, and she barely repressed a snort. What a toady the man was!  And with poor taste, as well.

“Oh, no, my dear,” the woman said, addressing herself to the shopkeeper. “That’s much too grand for me.”

It was the man who laughed this time.  “Indeed.”

“I should think ... ”  The woman hesitated, and Claire felt rather than heard her soft, gliding steps as she moved around the shop.

“That young lady’s hat is very fine don’t you think, Pam?”

Startled, Claire looked around again. The man was staring at her, his deep blue eyes amused and speculative.

The nerve!  Did he take her for a shop’s model?  Claire favored him with her coolest glance before returning once more to the remnants basket. She was uncomfortably aware of the sudden pounding of her heart. He was quite the handsomest man she’d ever seen. A strong nose and chin, with cheekbones that looked chiseled out of stone. His chestnut hair wasn’t styled into any of the current fashions–“the Brutus” or “the Chevalier”–but was pulled back and held with a simple black velvet ribbon at the nape of his neck.

She told herself not to look at him again, feeling strangely uneasy. Perhaps it was time to move on to a different shop. The woman’s voice stopped her as she started towards the door.

“Edward, my love, you are right as usual.”

Claire glanced up to see an exquisite face, framed in white-gold curls and smiling reassuringly at her. 

“That cloche is beautiful on you,” the woman said. “Wherever did you find something so perfectly elegant?” 

Claire had heard enough insincere compliments in the last few months to recognize a genuine one. But the feeling of unease returned as she considered the dangers inherent in any casual acquaintance with a member of the ton.

“Forgive me, ma’am,” she said to the woman, surprised that her voice sounded strong and clear. “It was a gift from mon frère–my brother.”  She hesitated, then added,  “He loves to keep secrets when it comes to hats. Bonjour.”   Claire nodded to the lady and swept confidently through the door.

Once safely outside she forced herself to walk slowly away and to look straight ahead rather than back at the shop.  So she missed the eyes of the man as they followed her exit, and the eyes of the lady, as they followed the man.

* * * *

Edward Tremayne, the twelfth Earl of Ketrick, stared thoughtfully out the shop window.

“Who is she?” he asked. He was surprised to hear Lady Pamela reply, scarcely realizing that he’d spoken out loud.

“I don’t know,” said Lady Pam. It was an unusual admission for her.  “Her French seemed impeccable, but then, we only heard a few words.”

“Hmm,” said the earl. He had turned back to the shopkeeper’s latest effort when another thought struck him. “Her hat–it would have looked marvelous on Melissa, don’t you think?”

“Hmm,” echoed Lady Pam. Edward didn’t see her roll her eyes.

* * * *

“Pooh,” thought Claire, ducking down the nearest alley and making her way home in zigs and zags. “Telling fibs about a hat.”  Well, it wasn’t all a lie, she reassured herself. Jody had found the feathers, and had helped her drag Grandmama Isabelle’s old court dress out of a musty attic trunk. The heavy gold satin of the underskirt had been perfect for the  simple silk-lined hat.

Jody’s feathers, tucked into the satin at a graceful angle, bobbed up and down as Claire moved quickly through another alleyway. She held her skirts as high as she dared and wrinkled her nose at a particularly noxious odor coming from one of the doorways. A large rat scurried across her path, and Claire sidestepped it neatly. Their house, rented for the season, was in a respectable neighborhood, but it wouldn’t do to tarry on some of the side streets nearby. The rent consumed almost every pound she had been able to scrape together, even at that. Claire heard the clip-clop of a hackney cab on St. James’s Square and knew she was almost home. A few hours of rest would be welcome, and then it would be time to dress for Lady Pemberton’s ball.

* * * *

“I don’t like it,” said Jody.

Claire sighed. She and her brother had been having the same argument for days. It was remarkable how stubborn a fifteen-year-old boy could be.

“Major Trevor is too old for you. And that baronet is much too old. Besides, he’s fat.”

“We’ve been over this before,” said Claire, patiently.

Je sais. I know.”  Jody screwed up his face and did a passable imitation of his sister’s voice. “An older man will be more likely to marry for his own pleasure”–Claire winced at the word–“and less likely to have family scrutinizing every particular of his prospective bride.”

“The major and the baronet are both kind, respectable men. I wouldn’t marry a cad or a drunk–you know that, Jodrel.”

It was Jody’s turn to sigh.

“And it’s not as if I’m planning to make a fool of my husband, either. I’d work hard to be a good wife, and he would never have cause to regret offering for me.”

“I know that, too!  Either one of them should consider himself incredibly fortunate to have you.”

Claire smiled at her brother’s loyal declaration.

“But,” Jody added, “you don’t love the major, and you certainly don’t love the baronet.”

Pah, thought Claire, it must be the French blood. They were both sitting cross-legged on the old four-poster in her bedchamber. The fireplace here had a decent draw, making it the coziest room in the house. She threw a pillow at her brother, resulting in a small explosion of feathers. Jody sneezed.

L’amour!” she exclaimed. “Quelle bêtise!  You’re fifteen years old, what do you know about love?”

“I know as much as you do!” retorted Jody.

“Ha!” said Claire. “Well, it’s a highly overrated commodity, I’m quite sure.”

“Perhaps Sir Clarence doesn’t think so.”  Jody, hand over heart, puffed out his cheeks in imitation of the baronet’s ample jowls. “‘Oh, Mamselle Claire,’” he intoned dramatically, in an execrable Yorkshire-accented French, “‘vooz etts ler ploo belle, ler ploo magnifick.’”

Claire grabbed another pillow as Jody dove for a defensive position underneath the duvet.

“‘Ler ploo splendeed,’” came his voice faintly.

They both collapsed in laughter.

* * * *

Jody considered the possible outcomes from the Pembertons’ ball that night, thinking that he was far from happy about their present situation. His sister believed that the baronet,  Sir Clarence Aubley, was sur le point of offering for her, and the major not far behind. The boy didn’t doubt Claire’s instincts in these matters. She wasn’t given to exaggeration.

Jody felt it acutely that his beautiful sister was being forced to marry to secure their future. He ought to be working to support them, but Claire– with a stubbornness that could only have come from grand-maman Isabelle–refused to allow it. His sister said that the employment opportunities available to fifteen-year-old boys in London were not to be discussed. Jody knew she was right, but still–

He checked his pockets, making sure he had enough coins to hire a hackney, but not so many that the household would suffer greatly if he was robbed. Jody had been careful never to mention anything to Claire about the footpads he occasionally spotted while he waited for her. His sister  was not at all missish, but she could still be naive about some things. He slipped a knife into one boot, trusting that the blade would provide security enough.

* * * *

Claire looked into the mirror, satisfied. There wasn’t much she could do about the raven black of her hair–blondes were much more in style this season–but the cascade of ringlets framing her face set off her grey eyes and glowing skin to advantage. She pinched her cheeks and adjusted the décolletage of her gown. Nothing too daring–she was an unmarried woman, after all–but this wasn’t the gown of a young miss just out of the  schoolroom, either.  The sky-blue satin became her coloring, and the nipped-in waist showed just enough of her figure. She had been at some pains to convince both her suitors that she was an adult used to some independence in the world and that they needn’t worry overmuch about her family situation.

Such as it was.

Claire took a last quick look in the mirror. She knew she was beautiful and didn’t care. Beauty had not kept her brother safe on their uncle’s estate, nor would beauty alone suffice to gain a marriage to a man closer to her own age. Someone she might even learn to love.

L’amour.  “Pah,” said Claire, quickly finishing her toilette by tucking a small tippet of lace up her left sleeve. It was time to go to the ball.

* * * *

“Mademoiselle Claire de Lancie,” announced the Pembertons’ maître de cérémonie.

The duchess smiled warmly at Claire. “And where is your dear aunt this evening, Miss de Lancie?” she asked solicitously. Lady Pemberton was an energetic, gregarious woman and her flame-red turban wobbled alarmingly as she spoke. Claire eyed it warily and returned a smile.

“Oh, Your Grace, she had une nuit blanche, an absolutely sleepless night.”  Claire had early discovered that a phrase or two of French did wonders for one’s reputation in London society. Now she lowered her voice confidentially, as if only she and the duchess were in on the secret of her aunt’s illness.  “Her headaches get worse and worse this time of year, as you know.”

A confidence wasn’t quite enough to stop Lady Pemberton’s next question. “You’re not here alone are you, my dear?” she asked in alarm.

Claire felt a few neighboring ears perk up. “Oh, no!  Certainement non!  My 

brother ... ”  Claire gave a laugh and waved vaguely behind her. Fortunately, the dandy next in line chose that moment to move forward and sweep Her Grace a wide bow, taking Lady Pemberton’s hand and pressing it to his lips in a smacking kiss. The Duchess bobbed and tittered, and Claire made her escape.

The affair had not yet progressed to being an impossible crush, and she looked around carefully, hoping to see Major Trevor. The Duchess of Pemberton was noted for the creativity of her arrangements, and Claire was having some difficulty identifying male guests through the maze of palm fronds and Egyptian obelisks set about the room.         

Ah, there he was. And heading her way. Claire smiled.

* * * *

“So, who is she?” drawled the earl in an indifferent tone that didn’t fool Lady Pamela.

“I didn’t know her earlier, my love,” she replied.  “What makes you think I do now?”

“Do you not?” said the earl.

The figure of the dance parted them for a moment. Glide, step, glide, as Lady Pam moved smoothly around Viscount Richland and back to the earl. He was frowning, and she was hard put not to laugh. Such a strong man–rich, handsome, a wonderful lover–yet he had been felled by one glance from a slim, raven-haired chit.

The marvelously amusing part, thought Pamela, is that he doesn’t even know it yet.

“In fact, I do,” she admitted, making a demi-tour. “Good heavens, is that a sphinx?”

Glide, step, glide. Turn. It was the last figure of the dance and she curtsied to the earl as they came face to face. He bowed, then took her hand firmly, leading her out onto the duchess’s terrace.

* * * *

Claire felt she could hardly breathe, but she kept her smile firmly in place as Major Trevor continued his address.

“My dearest Miss de Lancie, I hope I’ve not led you to expectations of ... ”   The major’s voice seemed to be coming from a great distance. He took her left hand in both of his. “I would never wish to cause you any pain.”

“But of course not!”  Claire forced herself to sound light and cheerful. She brushed a palm frond out of her face and added,  “We are friends, are we not?  I assure you, sir, I never thought of more.”

She could see small beads of sweat forming on Major Trevor’s brow. “Oh,” he said, clearly relieved. “I am so glad. You see, you are so beautiful, so dashing ... I knew you must have many suitors far more felicitous than I.  But my Agatha ... ”

He glanced behind him, and Claire thought she could pick out the object of the major’s affections, a tiny brown-haired wren of a girl. Agatha looked shy and almost lost in an overblown gown embellished with row after row of satin ruching.

“My Agatha,” the major repeated. “I can’t explain it. The moment we met I felt I couldn’t live apart from her a single hour.”

Claire was touched by his earnest explanations and, despite the blow to her own plans, she answered him in all sincerity. “I could not be happier for you, sir. If you have been so fortunate as to find true love–”

“Oh, yes, yes!” interjected Major Trevor.

“-then you will find joy indeed. You have my heartfelt congratulations.”   He kissed her hand, and Claire watched as he made his way back to Agatha, who was now blushing prettily.

Claire sat for a moment and stared blankly at the inscriptions covering a nearby obelisk. Lady Pemberton’s attempt at hieroglyphics, she finally decided, and returned her attention to the occupants of the ballroom. Perhaps Baronet Aubley had also found his lady love during the last day and a half. What would she do then?   A thin tendril of despair began to wrap itself around her heart.

* * * *

“Her name is Claire de Lancie,” said Lady Pamela, enjoying Edward’s startled look. She paused for a moment and let his blue eyes demand more information before she continued.  “Her family situation is a bit of a mystery.”

“De Lancie.”  The earl frowned. The name sounded vaguely familiar, but he couldn’t place it.

“The de Lancies were minor French nobility at one time, I believe,”  continued Pam. Her hair shone silver in the moonlight, and she shivered a little in the cool air. “But they’ve lived in England for the better part of the century.”

“I don’t believe I’ve met her father,” began the earl.

“Miss de Lancie’s parents are both dead.”  Pam reached up to brush a lock of hair from his forehead.  “There seems to be some confusion as to who, exactly, are her sponsors. She speaks often of an Aunt Sophie, but no one has actually seen the woman.”

“You are an amazing detective, my dear,” said Edward.

Pam gave him a dazzling smile. “I know.” 

* * * *

Claire saw him from far across the room. He was a head taller than most of the men, and even at a distance there was no mistaking those chiseled features and the thick, chestnut hair drawn back with a velvet bow. She looked away, worried that–somehow–he would feel her staring at him.

The bosomy matron standing next to her felt no such compunction. “Ah, Lord Tremayne,” the woman murmured, with a suggestive sigh. “Always standing a bit ... taller than the rest.”  She fanned herself and tittered.

Claire remembered that the shopkeeper had called him the Earl of Ketrick, and judging from the other nobles now crowding around him he was obviously a respected member of the hautton. She sighed. A handsome man, indeed, but it would never do to catch the attention of someone as powerful as an earl.

Claire found a secluded bench behind an oasis of potted palms and sat down, closing her eyes. Until she saw the earl, Claire had not noticed how exhausted she was. The baronet had yet to arrive, but everything–her search for a husband, the endless frugalities, the lies she was forced to tell every day–suddenly felt pointless. The ballroom, which mere moments ago had seemed filled with laughter and music, ladies in satin and gentlemen in fine cloth coats, now looked unutterably bleak.

Major Trevor had found someone to love him. His Agatha had found someone to love her.

Were those tears threatening to form in her eyes?  Claire cursed herself for being three times a ninny, but after seeing the Earl of Ketrick she had no heart left for the Pembertons’ grand ball. She stood, thinking to find her way through the crowd and out to the garden, to find Jody, to go home.

At a touch on her shoulder she turned to see, against all reason, the couple from the draper’s shop. The woman. The earl. It was as if her thoughts had conjured him up, and she was momentarily paralyzed with shock. What on earth could this lord and his lady want with her?

“Miss de Lancie!” said the woman. “I thought it must be you. Did I not say so, Edward?”

“Indeed,” murmured the earl. He was looking at Claire with strange intensity as his companion chattered on.

“I said, that must be Miss de Lancie. Such a gorgeous dress–you know, I’m sure you don’t even remember me, so much older and you were just a girl, of course. I’m Pamela Sinclair, my dear,” the woman said in introduction, then continued almost without pause. “We met at your Aunt Sophie’s place–oh, it must be seven years ago now. How is your dear aunt?”

Aunt Sophie?  Claire felt the first glimmering of real fear, and she resisted the urge to turn and run. Who was this woman?  Claire was quite sure she’d never seen her before this afternoon in the shop. How could she know Aunt Sophie?  Aunt Sophie didn’t even ...

The handsome couple was waiting for her to reply, Claire belatedly realized, the woman favoring her with a reassuring smile.

“My aunt is often unwell, I fear.”

“What a pity. Oh, but allow me to introduce you to my dearest friend. Miss Claire de Lancie, Edward Tremayne, Earl of Ketrick.” 

“My lord.”

“Miss de Lancie.”

“I see the orchestra has returned,” said Lady Pamela.  

Claire heard the strains of  “Love Be Kind,” a waltz said to be the current favorite of Sally Jersey, one of the grandes dames patronesses of Almacks.

“How perfect. Edward, be a dear. I must speak with Elizabeth Carroll.”  Lady Pamela turned on her heel and quickly slipped away.

Claire wished she could drop through the floor, but the earl said simply, “Would you do me the honor?” and held out his hand.

He is incredibly handsome, thought Claire, and Jody won’t be expecting me yet. Perhaps just this one dance. She smiled up at the earl and allowed him to lead her out onto the floor.

* * * *

On most occasions the Earl of Ketrick was a charming and attentive dance

partner, but for the first minutes of his waltz with Claire he was quiet, a number of perplexing questions occupying his mind.

Foremost was how Lady Pamela had maneuvered him so efficiently to the side of Claire de Lancie. Why had Pam pretended to know her?  And why had she chattered on like some ninnyhammer female–that was very unlike Lady Pam–and not given the girl a chance to say much more than a word?

Who was this Aunt Sophie, anyway?

No answers were forthcoming as he swept his partner around the room. The earl soon became aware of the silkiness of Claire’s gown under his hand and the warmth of her skin seeping through. She was a marvelously graceful dancer and blessedly tall, so for once he didn’t have to spend a waltz staring down at the top of his partner’s head.

He should make an attempt at conversation, at least, as Miss de Lancie showed no signs of starting one herself.

“I am sorry to hear your aunt is so often unwell. You have other relations, I’m sure, to assist you while in town?”

She looked up at him with a pair of clear, unwavering grey eyes. He had the impression that she hesitated a moment, but her answer was calm and matter-of-fact.

“There is no Aunt Sophie,” Claire de Lancie said.

* * * *

After that alarming interview with Lady Pamela, Claire welcomed the respite offered by the waltz with Lord Tremayne. As he showed no signs of wishing conversation, to her relief, she began to feel calmer and to collect her thoughts. Whoever this earl was–and his hand did feel strong and wonderful on her waist–he was no part of her plans, and she doubted she would ever see him again after the dance.

Her thoughts once more in order, Claire had begun casting an occasional glance for the baronet when the Earl of Ketrick suddenly asked about Aunt Sophie.

At his words, Claire lost the rhythm of the dance and almost stumbled, but then, more acutely aware of the earl’s strength than ever before, she came to an abrupt decision. She wasn’t a liar by talent or inclination and trying to spin any more of a facer to this man was an unbearable thought. This wasn’t the scatterbrained Duchess of Pemberton. This was the obviously astute Lord Edward Tremayne, who didn’t look in the least likely to be fobbed off with stories of made-up cousins or Aunt Sophie’s megrims.

He was a man, Claire knew, who could ruin her with a single word, and she could only hope the truth would not make it more likely that he would do so.

 “There is no Aunt Sophie,” she told him.

 “No Aunt Sophie?” the earl echoed.

“No. I can’t imagine why Lady Sinclair said ... ”  Claire hesitated, not wanting to accuse the earl’s companion of a falsehood.  “I think Lady Sinclair must be mistaken. I don’t believe she has ever seen me before today.”

To Claire’s immense chagrin, the earl didn’t seem very surprised.

“Ah. I see,” he said. “So who is your sponsor?  You must be living with someone.”

“There is no one other than my brother Jody. He’s fifteen. He usually watches for me in the gardens and when I’m ready to slip away ... ”  Claire trailed off.

“You are really living alone?  Unprotected?”  The earl sounded shocked.

She nodded.

“And you make your way into the amusements of the ton–?”

“It’s not that difficult, really,” Claire told him. “I just ... show up. I suppose most people assume I’m someone’s daughter, or that Aunt Sophie is somewhere about even if they can’t remember her surname just then–”

The earl laughed, amused despite himself. “Why?” he asked her. “Why take such a risk?”  There was a much longer hesitation at this question, and he watched as a battle of emotions played itself out in her wide, silver-grey eyes.

In for a penny, in for a pound, thought Claire.

“I must find a husband. Soon.”

“Is it a lack of funds?”

“No. That is, yes.  I have a legacy from my mother, but it is under the control of

my ... uncle.”

She seemed unwilling to continue, and Edward was left to wonder if the uncle was as imaginary as the aunt. As they made their way around the ballroom in easy, graceful turns, the earl found his attention straying to the neckline of Claire de Lancie’s gown. Her breasts were mounded up and held firmly by the fabric of the gown’s bodice, and Edward was finding the effect stimulating.

“There are ... easier paths than marriage for a beautiful woman to make her way,” he said finally. A thought had come to mind–

The girl’s eyes flashed fire. She stiffened under his touch, and only the firm pressure of his hands kept them moving. “It will cause a scene if we stop in the middle of the floor,” Edward told her, again amused.

Je ne suis pas une putain!  I am not a whore!” she hissed at him. “How dare you suggest such a thing?”

“My apologies,” said the earl. “I was unaware of the importance you attached to conventional behavior.”

First an insult, now sarcasm. Claire glared at him, feeling chagrin that one man’s strong arms could have made her into such a fool. She had just told a stranger every secret she’d been at pains to hide for the last three months. And now he had the nerve, the gall, to suggest–

“Why does your uncle not help you?” asked the earl. “Does he exist?”

“He exists as much as you do,” she retorted. “One more loathsome, arrogant, self-important male–”

“I think I get the idea,” he interrupted. “So you wish to marry without the protection or knowledge of your relations?”

Claire’s anger suddenly deserted her and she felt exhaustion creeping back to take its place. She shook her head wearily in answer to his question.

“Our parents have been dead these nine years and there truly is no one else. Our family is of good name,” she added. “and I’m simply looking for an older man, a widower, perhaps, who would be happy with what I can offer.”

Edward understood her meaning well enough. An older member of the gentry, his estate secured and heir already in hand, wouldn’t need to look much further than a pretty face.

A very pretty face. The final notes of the waltz faded away, and the earl realized that, as  his partner had no chaperon, he had nowhere to return her. He looked at Miss de Lancie, his dark eyebrows raised in question.

“I usually claim to have spotted an old friend just gone into cards,” she said with a small smile. “Or to need a few minutes in the retiring room.”

“Come,” said the earl. He led Claire out onto the terrace, and she followed mutely. Was she afraid to say no? he wondered. He didn’t dally with young misses. Ever. There were entirely too many ways for such a liaison to go irretrievably wrong. Still, he was reluctant to let this particular young miss disappear.

She was a girl of good name–Pam had confirmed as much–but had no family to interfere. She was very pleasant to look at.

Edward felt the stirrings of desire. He led Claire to a darkened corner of the terrace until she was backed up against the balustrade, close enough that he could see her pulse jump erratically in the soft hollow of her neck. He reached out and felt the beat of her heart against his fingertip.

She didn’t move. Biddable and delicious, thought the earl, forgetting that only minutes earlier she had given him a tongue-lashing for suggesting she might be less than a lady. He was thinking how it would be to bed her, and he liked that she had enough spirit not to quail under his touch or to indulge in girlish protest.

What could she say, after all?  Edward doubted that Claire de Lancie wanted to call undue attention to herself in the present company of the haut ton. For the moment, at least, she was his to do with as he pleased. His finger trailed down her smooth skin to that very alluring décolletage. Desire had turned into an urge strong enough to cause Edward some discomfort. He watched Claire’s face carefully, but he could see no answering emotion. She looked ... detached. Why should he care a fig for the girl’s sensibilities?  She’d as much as told him she was in the Pemberton home under false pretenses. The earl moved forward and captured her lips beneath his, deepening the kiss as the feel of her body against his erased caution.

Edward did not have the reputation of being a cad, but the luscious figure of Miss de Lancie, combined with the girl’s infuriating refusal to respond to his touch, was driving him half mad. She should be melting under his caresses, or at least–thought Edward, his logic a little fuzzy–struggling to fight him off!  Indifference was not a response he was familiar with in women.

He kissed her again, keeping his hands firmly around her waist.

Nothing. Edward broke off the kiss to see her looking at him with evident calm, as unruffled as if they had been discussing the weather.

“Are you quite through?” asked Claire. “It won’t do, you know. Even an older gentleman will require purity in a bride of my age.”  She smoothed a runaway tendril of hair. “We should return to the ball.”

Are you quite through?  The earl bit back the first reply that came to mind. How dare the chit speak to him like that?  He was about to remind her of her place and opened his mouth to say–

“Marry me,” croaked the Earl of Ketrick.