About the book
Deception. Tryst. True love?
Miss Catherine Ferguson has had enough. Enough of her family’s treatment as a commodity, and, certainly, enough of her odious suitor. But suddenly, ruining her own reputation sounds like a very enticing prospect.
Ian Bennet, the Baron of Westwick, has several rules when it comes to courting. But one of them is paramount to never let him lose his heart a second time: Never trust a woman again.
The moment Catherine falls in Ian’s arms, his restrain is tested. With the sole promise to help her make a better match, Ian ends up enjoying his role a little too much. Until his due is done and he has to pay for real: in flesh and blood.
“Marriage is just another word for a servant, except one does not get paid,” Catherine Ferguson said, folding her arms and fixing her friends, Rebecca Lowood and Samantha Osmond, with a look that challenged them to contradict her.
Samantha laughed and Rebecca rolled her eyes, the two of them returning Catherine’s look with their own – looks that suggested complete disagreement. “Oh, really, Catherine, surely you do not believe that?” Rebecca said, and Catherine pouted.
“I do, and you would too, Rebecca, if you found yourself in the intolerable situation I do,” she replied, glancing across the room to where her father – Broderick Ferguson, a wealthy merchant – was deep in conversation with an elderly man; Horace Carson, the Earl of Westwood.
The earl would occasionally glance up and smile at Catherine, causing her to shudder at the thought of what was intended that very night. There was to be an announcement, the announcement of a betrothal, and she, Catherine, was its object. There had been little discussion of the matter and she had only met the earl – a man of lecherous intentions – on two rather formal occasions when the two of them had taken tea under the watchful eye of her father, who had already decided that the match was to go ahead, regardless of Catherine’s feelings. “But do you not think it is time?” Samantha asked, and Catherine raised her eyebrows.
“Is there a time, Samantha? Am I to suddenly reach that moment and decide that any man will do?” she asked, words to which Samantha had no answer.
Catherine was a pretty young woman, with long red hair and hazel brown eyes, always impeccably dressed, and with the slenderest of figures. She had never failed to attract suitors, but those suitors had never been to her taste. She was far too independent to entertain any notion of marriage – at least on someone else’s terms – and was happy to remain a spinster, despite the opinions of the ton, which wagged its gossiping tongues and whispered behind the fans of Catherine’s failure to secure a husband.
“Not any man, Catherine, but you deserve to be happy, just as we are,” Rebecca pointed out.
Rebecca was married to Nicholas, the Marquess of Somerset, and Samantha to Norman, now the Earl of Brimsey. Both were happy, Rebecca having recently given birth to a son, Cuthbert, and Samantha heavy with child and also guardian to her father’s son, Hubert, so that each had a family that was complete. Catherine had rather prided herself on her independence and had observed that her friends, though happy, were now consumed into the expectations of rank and class from which there could be no escape – they had their place and that was that.
“But I am not happy, Rebecca, I am quite miserable at the prospect of this evening’s announcement,” Catherine replied, sighing and glancing at the grandfather clock in the corner of the room, gradually ticking toward her fate.
The three women were guests of the Duchess of Sinclair – Rebecca’s mother-in-law – who had invited them to a ball to celebrate her husband’s achievements in the colonies, he now returned to England in a blaze of glory, though Catherine was unsure why such an event should be so heralded given the atrocious reputation that preceeded him.
Rebecca’s husband was acting as joint host, and the three friends had spent the past half an hour sat out of the dancing, deep in discussion over Catherine’s predicament. The prospect of the announcement was deeply shaming to Catherine, who had no desire to be married to the Earl of Westwood, much less to have the fact paraded in front of the whole ton, who had gathered for what was one of the most spectacular balls of the season.
“Is he really so bad? He has always come across as a kindly gentleman, a little eccentric, perhaps, but no rake. He is too old for that,” Samantha said, though she soon realized she had said the wrong thing when Catherine fixed her with an angry stare.
“And that is it, I suppose? I am to accept the old man and spend a few years in misery before becoming a widow,” she replied, and Samantha flushed red with embarrassment.
“We only want your happiness, Catherine,” Rebecca said, and Catherine sighed.
It was what she wanted, too – who would not wish to be happy? – but in Catherine’s mind, that happiness would not be achieved by marrying a man she had no love for, nor by being forced into a marriage simply for the sake of it. In Catherine’s mind, marriage was a matter of love, and why should she not find that same love which her two closest friends had come to know?
“And I am quite happy as a spinster and will gladly remain so until such a time of my choosing. I do not wish to be married, and I certainly do not wish to be married to him,” she remarked, glancing across the room to where the Earl of Westwood now looked up and smiled at her, raising his glass with an expectant and leering look on his face.
“Have you told your father this?” Rebecca asked.
“Half a dozen times, he does not listen, he will not listen,” she replied, thinking back to their heated discussions of the previous few days. She and her father were too alike not to argue, and having witnessed the manner in which her father had treated her mother – who had always taken his verbal lashings like an obedient puppy – Catherine had been determined not to follow suit. From her father, she had inherited her confident independence, and from her mother an intelligence and wit, which, when combined, made her a formidable opponent. Catherine was no retiring wallflower, but now it seemed she had come up against an insurmountable obstacle, one which could soon see her independence replaced by subjection to a man, not of her own choosing, but of her father’s.
“My father was the same when it came to Norman, at first, as you know,” Samantha said.
“Which is all the more reason you must surely understand my predicament, Samantha,” Catherine replied, confused why her two closest friends should not be helping her extract herself from the situation, rather than trying to persuade her to settle for something less than they themselves enjoyed.
“But perhaps the time has come for you to accept that time is not on your side, Catherine. There are many women who must… compromise,” Rebecca said, and now Catherine felt her anger flame.
She was not about to be dictated to in the same manner that her father had done. Catherine was tired of the constant expectations placed on her, and her father’s ever-increasing desire to join the ranks of the aristocracy. He was richer than most of them, but without a title, he was still looked down on as something less. Now, his plan was to marry Catherine into their ranks and thus find his own place in the very highest society. As far as Catherine was concerned, she had all the time in the world.
“Time for what? A lifetime of unhappiness?” she asked, fixing Rebecca with a glare.
“Merely that… well, there is talk,” Rebecca replied, glancing at Samantha, who nodded.
“There is talk, Catherine,” Samantha said, glancing around the room.
A waltz was in full swing, couples twirling and whirling about the room, and most all of London society was in attendance. Elderly dowagers sat in groups along the wall, and aristocratic men stood in deep conversation, whilst young debutantes were wooed and enchanted by gentlemen inviting them to dance or take a turn about the room. In one corner, a group of tittering ladies were fanning themselves and glancing every now and then across at where Catherine, Rebecca, and Samantha stood talking.
“Talk of what? About me, I suppose?” Catherine asked, and Rebecca and Samantha nodded.
“I think it is more a case of wondering why a woman like you – so attractive in every way – should be without a husband, or even a suitor. They say that a lady only has so many seasons before she is considered… on the wall,” Samantha said, her voice trembling as she spoke the last few words.
“And that is what I am, is it?” Catherine demanded.
“Not yet, no, but… you do have a reputation, Catherine. There is so much to commend you, and yet you insist on never putting yourself forward, and you scare away any suitor who might take an interest,” Rebecca replied.
There seemed to be a concerted effort on the part of her two closest friends to persuade her, as though marriage was the supreme goal to which any woman must aspire – even if it meant marrying a man in whom she had no interest at all. But Catherine was happy with her current state and the freedoms which it gave her. She had no desire to marry. Quite the opposite, in fact, and would gladly live out her life as a spinster – the thought of marrying the Earl of Westwood making her blood run cold.
“Then I am pleased to have a reputation, because I have no desire to end up like them,” Catherine said, glancing across at the cackle of women still tittering behind their fans.
The grandfather clock had just struck nine o’clock, and another waltz had been announced. Catherine knew that the hour of the announcement was coming close and, in that moment, she despised her father for what he was about to force on her. He intended to take advantage of the gathering, a gathering at which the whole ton was present and would hear it told that she, Catherine Ferguson, was to marry a man whom she already detested merely for his intentions.
“But Catherine, think about it, you would have no worries in life, your future would be secure, and you would have everything your heart could desire,” Rebecca began, but Catherine had heard enough.
“Everything except love, which is more important than fine clothes and wealth. I have thought about it, Rebecca. There was a time when I could have counted on my two closest friends to do whatever was necessary to help me. But now, it seems that you have become just like them, taken in by the fantasy of marriage as the only means to happiness,” she said, folding her arms and sighing.
“And we will, Catherine. We shall stand by you, whatever you decide. It is not our place to persuade you either way. We only want what is best for you, Catherine. We really do,” Samantha said, trying to sound reassuring.
“Well, it does not matter now. I have made my mind up,” Catherine replied, and Rebecca and Samantha glanced nervously at one another.
“What does that mean?” Rebecca asked, and Catherine smiled.
The thought had occurred to her only the day before, at the same time as her father had announced his intentions to make the announcement of her betrothal that very night. There had been nothing she could do to dissuade him from his intentions, nothing which would change his mind, and nothing which would prevent her and the Earl of Westwood from being married. Which was why Catherine had decided to present a reason, one which would ensure that there could be no hope of the marriage ever taking place.
“I am going to cause a scandal, Rebecca, just you watch,” Catherine replied, and her two friends looked at one another in horror.
“Look at that one. She is quite the card; do you not think?” Rickard Ferguson said, pointing to a young lady in a peacock blue dress with a large, feathered hairpiece protruding from her French bun.
“She has some attraction to her,” Ian Bennet replied, sighing and glancing around the room.
He was growing bored with the evening’s festivities and had only come to the ball at the persuasion of his friend, Rickard, who had spent much of the time passing comment on any woman who passed them by, as the two of them sat drinking punch. They had positioned themselves close to the punch bowl, a position which afforded them a view of the entire room and a place from which they could easily observe those women in need of a dancing partner.
“And that one there is the daughter of the Duke of Clarence. Twenty thousand a year, he has, which could almost make up for her rather plain looks,” Rickard continued, pointing to another woman in an ivory-colored dress, her cheeks heavily powdered and her dance card clutched firmly in hand.
“Be wary, Rickard, for the ways of women are strange and mysterious,” Ian replied, and his friend laughed.
“What is this? You giving me advice?” he asked, and Ian shrugged.
“I am older than you, and I have known what it is like to be on the receiving end of a woman’s devious ways,” he said, shaking his head.
“Not all women are like that, Ian, you are so very cynical,” Rickard replied, but Ian shook his head and folded his arms.
“I know what women are like, Rickard, and that is that,” Ian said, trying to push away the unpleasant memories now rising in his mind.
But it was to no avail, and his anger, pain, and bitterness came flooding back. Ian had once been betrothed to a woman named Cassandra Leybourne, an actress, whose exotic charms had claimed his for her own. Ian had become besotted, and the proposal of marriage had been swift. But Cassandra was a woman of wily ways and there had been a scandal and a betrayal, one which had broken Ian’s heart.
“Nonsense, you have simply not yet found the right one, Ian,” Rickard replied, pointing to another woman who was just passing by.
“I suppose you will eventually select one to dance with?” Ian asked, and his friend laughed.
“I have narrowed my list down to half a dozen possibilities. Most of the women here are plain or without enough additional temptation to make it worth my while. A woman of good fortune and title might be looked on favorably even if she is plain of face, and a beautiful woman without two pennies to rub together might have her attractions in the short term – a man has his desires, you understand. But that perfect combination of beauty and fortune is so hard to come by,” Rickard replied, craning his neck so as to see over the throng of dancers.
“And I suppose wit and intelligence are not part of your consideration?” Ian replied, astonished by his friend’s base assessment of the fairer sex.
“It is not a consideration I take into account, no. A woman might well be intelligent, but what does it matter?” he asked, and Ian sighed.
“There are certain rules you must adhere to when dealing with womankind,” he said – for Ian had thought long and hard about his own failings with regard to women and had devised for himself a set of rules by which he might avoid the attachment of the past and never again fall under the spell of an alluring woman.
“Rules? Oh, nonsense, did those rules help prevent your own tragedy?” Rickard retorted, and Ian shook his head, taking a sip of punch and sighing.
“No, but they have helped me since and it is because of that tragedy I have found them useful. Rules prevent me from becoming entangled in the affairs of women before the time is right. Let them show their interest, rather than leaping forward with gusto,” he said, as Rickard rolled his eyes.
“And what are these rules? Come on, tell me them, and perhaps I might stick to them myself, or else decide that they are such nonsense as to not be worth bothering about,” he said, crossing his legs and sitting back in his chair, listening with bemusement as Ian recounted them.
The rules which Ian had devised prevented him from forming an attachment whilst preserving some of the benefits of female company. Ian was not averse to the idea of courting, but he was not about to fall in love, and any woman who showed signs of such feelings was hastily dismissed.
“I never dance with the same woman twice at two separate social gatherings, that is very important,” he began, adopting an authoritative air.
“But one may dance with the same woman in several dances at the same ball?” Rickard asked, and Ian nodded.
“Yes, because that is part of the seduction. But to continue that over several occasions is asking for trouble. The woman will become attached and jealous of any other woman who shows her interest. Moreover, it is not only dancing, but the entire act, the dalliance and flirtation, offering compliments in order to seduce” Ian replied, enjoying the chance to recount what he believed were those principles which kept him from falling into the wily trap of a woman.
“Very well, that is the first of your rules, and I can see that it makes some sense,” Rickard said, though even as he spoke his attention was drawn to a woman helping herself from the punch bowl, and at whom he smiled as she passed by.
“Secondly, never call on a woman unless invited. Such an action leads to habit and before you know it, you are already enamored with her. No, allow her to call on you and make yourself seem indifferent toward her. The point is, you do not want a woman to fall in love with you, else it becomes very easy to fall in love with her. Thirdly, do not offer compliments and run after a woman like a lapdog, it is all part of her ploy to ensnare you. Allow her to offer compliments to you, and repay them slightly, but not overtly,” he said, Rickard looking at him with a bemused expression on his face.
“Very well, no dancing, no calling, no compliments. You have certainly made it clear to the poor woman that already you despise her advances. Is there anything else?” he asked, and Ian pondered for a moment.
“Do not tell her you love her, never say those words, even if it is merely to seduce, do not ever find yourself alone with a woman – at least if you can avoid it, and certainly not at night, and never ask her to paint or play the pianoforte or write a poem for you, these things are the folly of men who think only of one thing,” he said, and Rickard laughed.
“Then I am to know nothing of her, nothing of her interests or delights?” he asked, and Ian nodded.
“If you are to avoid falling in love with her. And always avoid a woman’s parents. If you are introduced, then already that suggests you are interested in her. To do so is to find yourself already at her mercy,” Ian replied, recollecting the moment he had first met Cassandra’s parents and she had repeated her desire to marry him.
“So, am I to take it that the only acceptable manner in which to approach women is with the determination that your feelings will extend no further than mere physical attraction?” Rickard asked, and Ian nodded.
“A woman is perfectly acceptable diversion and can prove delightful company for an evening, or even a night. But beware the unchecked feelings, the arousal of passions which speak of words such as “love” for they are folly to your feelings and will result in nothing but heartache and pain,” Ian replied, sitting back in his chair and shaking his head.
His rules had emerged through bitter experience, the memory of Cassandra’s betrayal as fresh that day as it had ever been. He had no intention of ever falling in love again – not if he could help it – and was content to live his life from one fleeting affair to another.
“But do you not think that womankind as a whole should be given the chance to redeem itself?” Rickard asked, and Ian shrugged.
“You are free to trust them, my friend, after all, it is only your own feelings that will be hurt. But believe me, when you have been hurt not once, but twice, then you are destined to never trust again,” he said, reaching out and helping himself to a ladle full of punch.
It was not only in matrimonial love that Ian had felt himself betrayed, but in maternal love, too. His father – Sebastian, Baron of Westwick – was dead, but on his deathbed, he had told Ian of his mother’s betrayal. The man whom Ian considered his father – and who had raised him as his father – was not his father, though he had no idea who that man might be, and for that, Ian had never forgiven her.
He thought himself justified in despising womankind, as though collectively they represented all the suffering he himself had endured at the hands of two of their number. He had not spoken to his mother in years, even though she moved in much the same social circles as she. On the death of his brother and Cassandra, Ian had inherited the title of Baron of Westwick and lived now a comfortable life in London, content to treat women as ships passing in the night and with no desire for anything more.
“Twice? Why has some other woman wronged you,” Rickard said, and Ian waved his hand dismissively.
“It does not matter, the point is, I have been hurt,” he said, for he had never revealed the truth of his parentage to Rickard, nor anyone else in his circle of friends.
“I suppose you are right. I have not been hurt as you have, and I hope I never shall be. But do you not wonder about meeting a woman? Someone to provide an heir, or even simple companionship?” Rickard asked, fixing Ian with a questioning look.
The two had been friends for many years. Rickard was the son of a wealthy merchant and was set to inherit a large fortune on his father’s death, he had a sister – Catherine – whom Ian had never taken much interest in. She was a free-spirited woman, with a sharp intellect, and Ian had always rather fancied that she was like he himself, a woman with no intention of ever allying herself to a man, just as he had no intention of allying himself to a woman.
“You mean marriage? No, Rickard, have you not listened to a word I have said? I have no intention of marrying anyone, not after my experiences with Cassandra. She left me broken-hearted and I do not think I can ever trust a woman again, certainly not to place a ring on her finger. That much is certain,” he said, draining the contents of his punch glass.
“Then we must not leave the evening idle then, my friend. If it is not marriage that you aspire to, then may I suggest we discover the delights available to us here. If we remain by the punchbowl the entire evening, then we may find that there are only the plainest of women left,” Rickard said, pointing to a group of young ladies awaiting their turn on the dance floor.
“But remember what I said, Rickard. Dance only with them tonight and take what fleeting pleasures they offer in the immediacy of time. Nothing more and nothing less,” Ian replied, rising to his feet, ready to see what fleeting delights might be his, and determined never to allow another woman to treat him as Cassandra once did.
“Catherine, that is quite preposterous. You cannot possibly entertain such a thought to ruin yourself!” Rebecca said, looking at Samantha in astonishment.
“And why ever not? Is it so unreasonable to want to prevent a marriage? If you can think of a better way, then I would like to hear it,” Catherine replied, tossing back her hair and fixing her two friends with a defiant stare.
“But to do such a thing is… well, it is scandalous,” Samantha said, and Catherine groaned.
“Yes, scandalous… says the woman who stowed away on a ship bound for the Caribbean, found herself at the mercy of a pirate whom she then broke out of prison and married. Do not talk to me about scandal, Samantha,” Catherine replied, and Samantha fell silent.
“But to so blatantly disgrace yourself for the sake of a betrothal, Catherine. It is your reputation that we are thinking of,” Rebecca replied, but Catherine shook her head.
I have already made up my mind, and there is nothing you can do to prevent me. I have even chosen the object of my intentions,” she said, glancing across the room to where a tall and handsome gentleman stood conversing with a group of young ladies.
“It is the only way. He is a rake, I can tell, and I have made some discreet enquiries. His name is Hamilton Asquith, the third son of the Earl of Berkley, and by all accounts, a man easily led into scandal. It will be no trouble to find myself in a compromising situation with him and thus the engagement will be immediately called off,” Catherine replied, as Rebecca and Samantha looked worriedly at one another.
The plan had seemed simple enough to Catherine, who had thought it a stroke of genius when it had occurred to her the previous day. If she could not dissuade her father from announcing her betrothal to a man she had no desire to marry, then making herself as unattractive a proposition as possible was the only thing to do. She was naturally pretty and had no desire to cause temporary disfigurement by cutting off her hair or adopting an injury. Besides, such a thing would only be a short-lived solution. Instead, Catherine had resolved to create a scandal, one which the whole ton would soon be talking about and which would ensure that any potential husband would soon find himself aware of, thus securing her future as a spinster for many years to come.
“And you intend to seduce him in front of the whole ton?” Rebecca hissed, causing Catherine to laugh.
“Is it really any more ridiculous than dressing Samantha as a clergyman to break a pirate out of prison?” she asked, and her two friends were forced to admit that Catherine’s plans were always somewhat of an extreme.
“But your reputation, Catherine? When I and Norman were first together, I knew that in the end respectability would come. But you are about to blot your copybook forever. There can be no going back,” Samantha said, glancing nervously across the room to where the unwitting Hamilton Asquith was now helping himself from the punch bowl.
“I know exactly what I am doing,” Catherine said, annoyed that her friends could not see the sense in what she was doing.
There could be no other choice than this. The grandfather clock ticking ever closer to that fateful hour when Catherine’s father would make his announcement and her destiny would be sealed. It would require a miracle for her father to change his mind, and not being in the habit of working miracles, Catherine had but one choice left to her – to ensure her own destiny, because no one else would ensure it for her.
“And how will you seduce him? Will you walk boldly up to him and announce your intentions?” Rebecca asked.
“No, of course not. I will merely show him my intentions. He is bound to take the air, shortly, or slip out for some reason or another. I shall follow him and then speak with him. A man like that can hardly resist. I have watched him all evening, and he has made royal progress about the room, no doubt searching for his chance. Well, I am about to provide it,” she said, rising from her place, with an air of determination about her.
“Oh, Catherine, please think about what you are doing,” Samantha implored her, clutching at her hand, but Catherine shook it off dismissively, determined to see her plan followed through.
“I have decided, and you will not stop me,” she said, and before either of them could say anything further, she had pushed her way through the throng, following Hamilton Asquith, who had just excused himself from the company.
Ian was watching Rickard with bemusement. He had made attempts to speak to several women, some far beyond his possibility and some quite below it. Those who knew their own superiority had swiftly rebuffed him, whilst those who fell far short of anyone’s mark had embraced the attention with all the vigor which Ian had warned against.
Thus, Rickard now found himself dancing with a woman whom Ian knew would be trouble. She had appeared flattered at the attention and was now gazing into Rickard’s eyes with the expression of a woman who believes she has secured her man. Ian was far more tactful and had kept his own rules foremost in mind when talking to the women present that evening.
Some had presented a slight distraction and attraction, even for him to exchange a few polite words, even a compliment in exchange for their own toward him and thus, unlike his friend, Ian had made a progress through the room which did not result in any form of commitment – not even a dance. Now, as the music began, he found the atmosphere growing hot and stuffy, and desiring to take some air, he excused himself and stepped out onto the terrace. It was early spring, and twilight had fallen, the gardens of the Somerset residence heavy with the scent of fresh growth and blossom.
“Did it get too much for you, too?” a voice behind him enquired, and Ian turned to find Nicholas Lowood – the Marquess of Somerset - stepping out from the ballroom.
The two were casual acquaintances, on friendly enough terms, and had had some business dealings together.
“I cannot abide all the preening and ceremony. The way they all dance around one another. It is quite obscene,” Ian replied, gesturing over his shoulder toward the ballroom.
“I could not agree more, how thankful I am that such things are behind me. To think that I was once like that, myself,” Nicholas replied, shaking his head, and coming to join Ian leaning on the parapet of the terrace, looking out over the garden.
The two men stood in silence for a moment.
“Perhaps it is the lot of every young man,” Ian replied, and Nicholas laughed.
“You are only twenty-eight years old. We are about the same age, do you not think about marriage sometimes?” he asked, and Ian shook his head.,” he said,
“I have no desire for it, none whatsoever,” he said, and Nicholas smiled.
“You do not want to settle down?” he asked, and Ian shook his head.
Nicholas was happily married to Rebecca. They had a child together – a son, and a bright future ahead of them. Fate had been kind to Nicholas.
“Not after what happened to me,” Ian replied, and Nicholas nodded for the betrayal of Cassandra was common enough knowledge.
“They are not all so bad, I can assure you. Take Rebecca, for example. She is the loveliest of women,” he said.
“Which is why she is married to you, I am sure. I hold no animosity toward those who find themselves in such a happy state. But I myself will avoid it. I do not think I shall return to the throng just yet. Might I trouble you to smoke in the library. If it is convenient, of course?” he asked, and Nicholas nodded.
“By all means, my friend, slip in through the side door along the terrace. I had a fire kindled there earlier on and you may avail yourself of any of my volumes. Hide yourself away there for as long as you wish. There will be no women to disturb you. They are all too busy securing themselves a dance partner,” he said, laughing and slapping Ian heartily on the shoulder.
Catherine was trying to avoid her father’s eye. Hamilton Asquith had disappeared from view behind one of the marble columns, which flanked the opposite side of the ballroom from the terrace. She made her way through the throng, purposefully looking forward so that her father could not attract her attention – it would not do to have the proposal announced before her indiscretion could become known.
The scandal must be created beforehand, for only then could the Earl of Westwood be dissuaded from his intentions. It had not occurred to Catherine that her actions might seem cruel to the casual observer, for she was thinking only of herself, rather than the earl, whose lecherous nature disgusted her. She could not help but dislike him, and found little to commend him, though it could not be said he was not generous in showering her with gifts. She felt like a commodity in his eyes, and the way he treated her made her feel already like his property
“Are you not dancing, Catherine?” a voice behind her enquired, and she turned to find herself face to face with her brother Rickard, who appeared to be making a circuit of the room in order to secure himself a partner.
“I… oh, well, no, not yet,” she said, edging away, lest Rickard should sense something of what she intended.
“You, Rebecca, and Samantha were deep in conversation just now,” he said, his voice questioning in tone.
“They are my closest friends. Is it not understandable that I should speak with them?” she asked, and he shrugged his shoulders.
“Father will make the announcement soon,” he said, a smile coming over his face.
Catherine rolled her eyes. Her father wanted her to marry in order to secure his place amongst the aristocratic ranks. That ambition was shared by her brother, who made no secret of the fact that he believed aristocratic connections were good for business, not to mention his own romantic prospects. “I am sure he will,” she replied, still edging backward toward the pillar.
“And then the whole ton shall know of what is planned with the Earl of Westwood,” he said, as though the thought had not crossed her mind.
“I must take the air,” she said, and he nodded, turning to survey the scene behind him.
“And I must secure a partner for the next dance. When they hear the announcement, they are bound to think better of me,” he said, disappearing off into the throng.
Catherine breathed a sigh of relief. She had wasted precious time talking to her brother, and now she could not be sure where Hamilton Asquith might be. She stepped out into the hallway, which was deserted, and looked from left to right. The Somerset residence was a large, sprawling manor house, with wings both east and west, centered on a grand entrance hall with black and white marbled floor and a staircase that led up to a gallery above. There was no one else about, not even a servant, and she closed the door of the ballroom behind her, the sounds of the music now muffled.
Taking a deep breath, Catherine wondered for a moment if she was doing the right thing. She had always been impulsive, and usually her plans came to fruition. But despite not willing to admit it, Rebecca and Samantha had been right to voice their concerns. What she was doing was reckless, and there could be no going back on it. “Once a scandal, always a scandal” – that was what her mother used to say, and Catherine knew that the memory of the ton was long and a scandal such as she was contemplating could not be undone.
But if the price of her happiness was idle gossip – gossip which would soon replace itself when some new titivation came along– then she was willing to pay the price. Catherine had no care for her reputation amongst men, for she had no desire to attract one, not to marriage, at least, and so ruining that reputation was merely academic, and with this in mind, she turned along the corridor and headed toward the library, imagining that perhaps Hamilton Asquith had taken refuge there.
Outside the door, she paused, wondering what she might say or do to ensure his attentions. Despite her boldness, she was not used to behaving in such a way and she was angry with herself at finding her hands trembling, her heart beating fast in her chest. She steadied herself, determined not to let her nerves get the better of her, loosening her gown a little, and pulling at her bodice to reveal just a little more of her shoulder than was acceptable in polite company.
“Come along, Catherine, be bold,” she whispered to herself, reminded of the many times she had persuaded her friends to be so themselves.
She listened for a moment at the library door, straining her ears to hear any movements coming from inside, imagining that she could hear footsteps and the opening of a door. A noise from the hallway caused her to startle, and she looked up to find one of the servants carrying a large tray of glasses into the ballroom. He did not notice her. And with a deep breath, Catherine opened the library door and stepped inside.
It was late in the evening now, and darkness had almost fallen. A fire was kindled in the library hearth and candles flickered around the room, casting shadows on the bookcases which stretched from floor to ceiling. Catherine squinted to see, making out a figure with his back turned to her, and imagining it to be Hamilton Asquith, she stepped forward and cleared her throat, the figure’s head bowed over a book, and evidently not having noticed her enter the room.
In her mind, Hamilton would turn and smile at her, noticing at once her allure and the exposure of her shoulder. He would step forward and a few words would be exchanged as she fluttered her eyelids and did everything in her power to draw him in and make him think her irresistible. Men were fickle like that, and some men more so than others. It would take little to force his hand, and one thing would lead to another. She imagined the two of them being caught in the throes of passion, the horror which would ensue at their discovery and her father’s face when he discovered what had happened.
“Catherine,” the figure said, turning to her, and causing her to startle.
It was not Hamilton Asquith who stood before her, but Ian Bennet, her brother’s friend, though a man she knew only in passing. Catherine felt the color drain from her cheeks, and she tried to pull up her dress, though in doing so it somehow slipped further down her shoulder and she was almost exposed, her embarrassment growing, as she tried to explain herself.
“I was… I thought… I pictured someone else here,” she said, and he stepped forward, a smile playing across his face.
“You mean I have interrupted a secret liaison?” he asked, and she shook her head.
“On my behalf, perhaps, but not on a gentleman’s,” she said, no longer trying to cover herself, but standing meekly before him, wishing that the floor would open and swallow her up.
How she wished she had listened to Rebecca and Samantha and not forged ahead with this foolish plan which had now ended in disaster. Ian was a handsome man, a respectable one, too, and had long been a friend to her brother. He would be horrified when Ian told him what he had seen – though perhaps that in itself would be enough to tarnish her reputation.
“So, you came here hoping to seduce whoever was in here, did you? And am I not of suitable quality to be seduced?” he asked, fixing her with a searching gaze, his eyes resting on the bare flesh of her shoulder.
“No… I mean… yes, you are, but…” she began, and he laughed, beckoning her to the fireside, for there was a chill in the air.
“What is all this about? Are you not betrothed to the Earl of Westwood? Your brother told me all about it this evening,” he said, smiling at her, and Catherine sighed.
“That is why I came here,” she replied, and she proceeded to tell him about her plan to seduce Hamilton Asquith and make it seem that she was beyond redemption and a scandalmonger whom no man could trust – least of all the Earl of Westwood.
When she had finished her explanation, he was silent for a moment, and she felt for all the world as though he was about to reign down a terrible judgement on her, condemning her for her waywardness. But instead, he sighed and shook his head.
“This is madness, my Lady. You cannot possibly tarnish your reputation for the sake of preventing such a marriage. Tell your father you have no intention of marrying the Earl of Westwood. He is so old that I doubt there would be any hope of consummation, anyway. The marriage would be null and void,” Ian said, causing Catherine to blush even further at the mention of the consummative act.
“I have made up my mind, or rather, I had made up my mind,” she said, turning her face away from him.
“And I have spoiled it, I suppose. What do you intend to do now?” he asked, and she shrugged her shoulders.
“Well, there is still time to find Hamilton Asquith. I should have looked in the drawing room first, or waited in the hallway for him to return. It was foolish to think of following him in here. Besides, no one would have caught us here,” she said, but Ian shook his head.
“I cannot allow you to do this, my Lady. You are a good and respectable woman, and to tarnish your reputation in such a way is tantamount to madness. Hamilton Asquith would quite happily have taken advantage of you, but that is not the point. He is a rake and a rogue and I would never trust him with anyone, least of all a woman like you,” Ian replied.
Catherine sighed. This had all been a complete disaster and now there could be no hope of salvaging the situation. Already, her father would be looking for her, a distant clock having just struck the hour of ten. The announcement would soon be made, and Catherine’s fate would be sealed. It was all a terrible mess.
“But what else am I supposed to do? My father will not hear of anything different. He has made his mind up and I am to be the unfortunate victim of an arranged marriage, just like so many of those poor women out there who know no better,” she said, sighing and sinking down into a chair by the fire.
“It need not be that way. Surely your father could change his mind or be persuaded to do so. It is not all so awful, is it?” he asked, and she nodded.
“It feels so to me. I have no desire to be married. I enjoy my life as a spinster and wish for nothing more than to continue it. The likes of my friends believe that only marriage can be a path to happiness, but I completely disagree,” she said, and he smiled.
Catherine knew something of Ian’s past from Rickard. How he had been rejected by a woman he was betrothed to, an actress of some sort and his reputation as a man who had no interest in marriage – if anyone might understand her predicament then surely it was Ian Bennet.
“And I am with you there,” he said, a sad look coming over his face.
“Oh, forgive me. I did not mean to cause you distress,” she said, but he waved his hand dismissively.
“You caused me no distress, Catherine, but I still do not believe that ruining your reputation for the sake of a rake like Hamilton Asquith does you any favors,” he replied, and Catherine sighed.
“Then what do you suggest I do to prevent this betrothal from being announced?” she asked, and he pondered for a moment.
“Well, you could always marry me,” he said, smiling at her.
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