Marquesses at the Masquerade

Only Unto Him – Excerpt

Chapter One

Lord Exmore decided Miss Annalise Van Der Keer was beyond any hope. He, like the rest of Society, already knew her to be headstrong, ignorant, and silly. After all, he had warned his cousin Patrick away from the socially disgraced lady only days before. He and Patrick’s father agreed to send the impressionable young man packing to India, putting almost two continents between Patrick and Miss Van Der Keer. But now, as the woman in question stood in Exmore’s parlor in the late evening, having arrived with no hat, no gloves, and no chaperone, he realized that he had woefully overestimated what little sense the wild chit possessed.

“What kind of hideous, unfeeling monster are you?” she blasted him when he strolled in to meet her.

She brandished a crumpled letter in her hand. Her dark curls, wet from the rain, had escaped the mooring of her hairpins and were plastered about her cheekbones. Her enormous brown eyes were luminous with tears and hurt.

“What the devil?” He had neither the time nor desire to be hospitable to the girl, who had been plucked far too soon from the schoolroom. “Where is your uncle? Does he even know you are gone?”

Miss Van Der Keer had come to London for the Season and had stayed in the home of her uncle, Mr. Harry Sommerville. His was a well-respected family that was a hairbreadth above middling. Annalise’s aunt was as silly as the young lady, but Mr. Sommerville was a serious, ambitious man, who brooked no nonsense. Annalise must have slipped from under her keepers’ noses.

“You sent Patrick away.” Her girlish soprano voice cracked with emotion.

He crossed to the side table, where a tray holding a decanter and several tumblers waited. He poured a glass of brandy and took a sip, letting his anger simmer down before he spoke. “If you are referring to Mr. Hume, he left England of his own free will.”

Exmore did not lie to Miss Van Der Keer on this count. Patrick’s father had sent an urgent letter upon learning that his son had been caught in the snares of Miss Van Der Keer, who had made quite a name for herself in Society. The small age difference between Exmore and Patrick was such that Patrick regarded his cousin as a wiser older brother, rather than a disapproving father.  Patrick had been easily swayed by his cousin’s arguments against a match with Miss Van Der Keer. Exmore, who had fallen in love and married young, had impressed upon Patrick the importance of choosing the proper wife for his station. Exmore had used his own wife’s superior characteristics as an example of an ideal wife for a gentleman: gentle, well-mannered, yielding, responsible, charming, and beautiful—all the attributes lacking in Miss Van Der Keer.

Exmore had then stroked his cousin’s ego by saying Patrick had the makings of a great man. Patrick would prove himself in India, making a name and a fortune. Upon his return to England, Patrick would secure a better wife than Miss Annalise could ever make him.

Patrick had put up a weak defense of Miss Annalise, claiming she was “rather pretty.” Exmore had waited for a more ardent defense of the lady in question, but when none came forth, he had explained to Patrick that a marriageable lady for his station needed more to recommend her than being merely pretty.

Now, as Exmore studied the miss in the intimate setting of his parlor, he realized that Patrick was right. She was pretty, but she didn’t possess the type of beauty that would have tempted him. Her pale, heart-shaped face, with her small, rather pointed chin, accented her overly large lips and luminous eyes. Her nose was slightly turned up at the end. Her brown hair parted in the center and fell about her cheeks and neck in thick, heavy waves. Her face hadn’t the elegance of his wife’s classical symmetry, but fit her giggling, girlish personality.

Nor did her prettiness make up for her atrocious behavior in any small measure.

“But you are a marquess and his cousin,” she retorted, her hands balled. “He had little choice but to do as you directed.”

“Mr. Hume decided on his own.”

“Impossible!” Tears dripped down her cheeks. “He loves me! He would never leave me on his own accord. We are to be married.”

Exmore’s fingers tightened on the glass he held. “Did he propose?” Patrick had said nothing of an engagement. They would have to pay a tidy sum to Miss Van Der Keer’s father to keep the matter quiet. The imprudent alliance must be avoided at all costs. Miss Van Der Keer could not be let near his family tree.

“It—it was understood,” she stammered.

Exmore released a relieved breath. Clearly, the engagement was a construct of her overactive imagination.

“We knew each other that way. We knew there could be no one else for either of us.” She raised her eyes to his. Hers were a deep brown, almost black. The candlelight reflected in them like moonlight on water. They were potent, somehow capable of transmuting her emotion into him. He could feel the wild sorrow that drove her tonight.

“I’m sorry.” He drew out a handkerchief.
“No, you’re not,” she spat, staring at the offered cloth. “This is what you wanted. You never liked me. I can tell. You are so humorless and deadly proper. You’ve never thought me good enough.”

He measured his words. His father had died a few months before, and he watched now, powerless, as his wife struggled with her first pregnancy. He had real concerns that truly mattered, concerns that this silly girl with her lovesick tantrums would know nothing about. He returned the handkerchief to his pocket and took another sip of brandy. “I never thought your manners and  conduct were good enough for him or any gentleman in proper society, for that matter.”

“You are wrong. My father may not be titled, but he is a gentleman.”

“It is immaterial if your father is a gentleman. You decided not to behave as a gentlewoman. You thought it clever to steal a gardener’s wheelbarrow and have your friends push it about the park at fashionable hour. You think it’s proper to play scandalous parlor games in respectable homes.”

One of her favorite tricks was to ask a gentleman for a handkerchief at a ball and then hide it from him, making him search the vases and furniture drawers while she giggled at his discomfort. Once, at a dinner party, she proposed that the young people sneak away to another parlor and play a game she devised where one person was blindfolded and had to guess who kissed them on the cheek or hand or such. However, Miss Van Der Keer kissed Patrick on the lips, scandalizing the other poor guests she had dragged into the game.

“You make your affections for Patrick wildly known by chasing him about with singular determination, following him about, making a spectacle of yourself to receive his attention, including lifting your skirts in public to repeatedly tie your slippers and pretending a column at the Royal Theatre was Patrick and suggestively kissing it.”

“It was a dare.”

“One you foolishly took. Have you not seen the crude cartoons of yourself in the papers this week? Have you not read your name disparaged in the Society column? Do you not see the people avoiding you in the streets?”

She turned silent.

“My sentiments  echo those of the Duchess of Brysessy when she warned her granddaughters away from you. You are an ignorant girl with no idea of proper behavior or gentle manners.” He was almost yelling. All the worry about his wife’s condition and father’s death funneled into his annoyance at Miss Van Der Keer. He took another sip of brandy to calm himself.

“I don’t care,” she declared. “The Duchess of Brysessy is a gossipy, old harpy who finds pleasure in creating drama wherever she goes.”

“I know you feel this way about your better, as does the rest of Society, for you made your sentiments about the duchess known aloud on Rotten Row. Tell me, Miss Van Der Keer, do you give no thought to the consequences of your actions?”

She didn’t reply.

“If I did influence Patrick, it was to show him the facts of the matter. Your wild behavior would have dire repercussions on his station and future. I’m sorry your feelings have been hurt. But you’re young, and I’m sure in a month’s time, your heart will have sufficiently repaired enough to fall violently in love again with some other poor fellow.”

“Don’t patronize me! What—what do you know of love? You’re a marquess. You marry according to a Debrett’s entry—a heartless, cynical affair.”

The wrath he had tried to hold back surged forth. Had this girl no restraint on her tongue? It was a joke among his old friends that he was overly protective of his wife. But in her weakened condition due to carrying his child, that primitive urge to protect compounded. “Don’t you dare make assumptions about me and my affections for my cherished wife,” he barked. “I love her with a depth that you will never understand.”

She winced as though his words inflicted a wasp-like sting. “Forgive me,” she whispered. “I didn’t mean to say those words. I didn’t mean…” She pressed her hands to her face, and her body trembled with her sobs.

Again, he felt that annoying prick of compassion for her. What quality about this addled, reckless girl cut close to his bones?  It wasn’t attraction—how could he be attracted to another woman when he was married to the most beautiful, most gentle creature in all of England? What about Miss Van Der Keer seemed to amplify whatever feeling passed through him? A mystery he didn’t care to explore. She had taken up too much of his valuable time.

He gestured to the door. “I shall have a footman accompany you to make sure you get home safely. I shan’t breathe a word of this to your uncle, although I should. Coming here was reckless, as it was improper. Should you be found out, your already severely impaired reputation would be beyond redemption, if it isn’t already so.”

“It doesn’t matter.” She shook her head. “My uncle is sending me away. He says I have shamed him because you have cut his family.”

“I have in no way cut his family because I don’t approve of a match between you and Patrick. It is no reflection upon your uncle that you require another year or two, or a dozen, in the schoolroom to mature. Good night, Miss Van Der Keer.”

“But I love Patrick,” She didn’t budge, but gripped her gown in her balled hands. “He has to come back. You can’t do this.”

“What you are feeling is adolescent infatuation. Nothing more. It’s not real love.”

“I love him with every fiber of my being. You say that I couldn’t understand the profound love that you have for your wife. But I do. I love Patrick that way. I will always love him. I am steadfast in my affections.” Her eyes pleaded, as if he possessed some kind of magic to undo her hurt and have Patrick return. Telling her how easily her lover had been persuaded to leave her would only hurt her more. And he doubted she would believe him. Best to let time or another man quell her obsession for Patrick.  He drew in a breath. “One day, you will come to love another man more wisely and with more maturity than this frenzied infatuation for Patrick. You will look back upon this moment and thank me.”

“You are wrong!” the impertinent girl persisted. “I will love only him forever. You must believe me. You must repair what you have done.”

“I have done nothing but talk sense to a young man, and therefore, I wouldn’t repair it if I could.”

“I love him.” Her voice was a trembling, broken whisper. “Don’t you understand?”

He rested his hand on her elbow, attempting to escort her out. Yes, he knew what it was like to be deeply in love. And each day, as his wife struggled in pregnancy, he prayed that sickness or death wouldn’t part them so soon.

“I’m sorry,” he said softly.

In an abrupt motion, she pressed her cheek against his chest, clearly desperate for comfort—even if it came from her perceived villain. Without thinking, he wrapped his arms around her, taking in her warmth. He closed his eyes. In her quaking sobs, all the worry for his wife and their unborn child, all the anxious thoughts he tried to keep hidden, rushed to the surface. Even in her manic sorrow, she must have perceived his fears. She drew back, her lips parted in surprise.  Then he saw something in her eyes—a wisdom he didn’t know she possessed. He began backing away, his heart racing, ashamed to be vulnerable before her.

“No,” she whispered, reaching out to him.

“Go—go home, you silly girl,” he growled.  He turned from her and fled the room.

“I hate you,” she called to Exmore, her voice echoing in the corridor. “You have destroyed my life.”

“So be it!” He broke into a jog toward his wife’s chamber as if the devil were on his heels.

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