Eight years later
"You’re leaving me?" Anna asked again, breathlessly. She found herself unable to accept that the last of her eight very suitable suitors had just ended their secret courtship.
The earl and she were well ensconced behind a little grove of trees in Hyde Park, the most obscure place they could find. This was usual with all her secret suitors—as Millie had dubbed them—for their meetings had to be restricted to the less trafficked areas when she was to be alone with any one of them. Early as the day was, there would likely be no one of social standing to witness this rather humiliating encounter.
When this Season had come into full swing, she’d taken on the notion that this would be the year she broke the confining chains of her engagement to a man who had disappeared—and probably led a very comfortable life with his own family by now—while she suffered every day, forced to remain alone. The man might as well be dead and buried for all the good he did her or anyone in England.
For all she knew he really could be dead.
Her conscience prickled her. Actually, that wasn’t exactly true. Unless he’d met with the fate he well deserved since last her contact had sent news, then unfortunately Westforth was still alive and in good health. Blast him! Anna chided herself for wishing anyone’s death, even his.
There were easier ways to be done with such straining ties to the man, and her plan couldn’t have been simpler—or so she’d thought.
With Millie’s help she had handpicked eight men. They not only had to be rich, but heavily titled as well—something that would surely turn her father’s head to reason if only given the chance—though he had forbidden her to try anything of the like.
Actually, she risked much by what she had been doing these past months, personal scandal being at the top of the list, quickly followed by the threat of being sent to the country for the Season.
Those fears were neither here nor there now, as within three months all her suitors had deserted her.
"But . . . why?" she asked him, pouting.
"I—I’m sorry, Anna. You are a very sweet girl, but . . . ." The young earl fumbled with his hat, looking around nervously. "This meeting privately and in secret is very thrilling, but not at all seemly. If I could court you openly, then perhaps . . . ." He broke off, looking altogether uneasy. "Lady Cullington is available, and . . . I am deeply sorry, Anna. Really, I wish this could have gone a better way between us. Everyone knows you are practically married already anyway. What could have come of our courtship, if you could even call this a courtship? We both risked scandal had anyone found out."
Anna harrumphed inwardly at his mumbling, a sour expression she simply couldn’t hide at the mention of her engagement instantly turning her fabricated sunny smile into a downright scowl.
"My father might have come ‘round and changed his mind had a better future son-in-law been presented," she offered stiffly. If the man could be this rigid and laced tightly with propriety then she didn’t need or want him, so Anna tried to tell herself. It wasn’t as though she met him in secret to fornicate or any such thing. Heavens no! She’d gone twenty years without so much as a decent kiss, so she could manage a little longer. That he dare act as though they had done anything really scandalous insulted her through and through.
"Might have," he noted softly, but with distinct emphasis.
Sighing heavily, Anna squared her shoulders and shook her head, a billowy white-tipped feather in her riding cap swaying wildly as she did so. She made a point to look downhearted. "I was so hoping you wouldn’t buckle as the others did," she told him, pushing from her mind all thoughts of Dallon Langston and how frustrated the blackguard made her, especially at this moment.
"Others?" the earl asked with a hint of surprise.
"Yes, my other secret suitors. You didn’t think you were the only one, did you?" she asked sweetly, and then laughed gaily at his surprise.
Taking a turn at being insulted now, the earl turned a distinct shade of red and reached for the reins to his mount. "I had no idea, really. Good day, Lady St. Claire."
"Good day to you too, James." She threw in his given name simply to remind him she too could dangle their very personal encounters over his head if he were to ever think to use them against her. Not that she really thought he had the gall or intention. But one could never be too careful.
The sun swelled behind her on the early morning horizon, lifting a blanket of mist from the ground so the glistening veil rested higher above the park grounds now. The green, dew-drenched grass had been neatly trimmed where she stood. Since winter’s retreat, early spring blossomed new life all around.
New love as well.
Most days she caught herself watching all the happy new couples walking hand in hand, laughing and staring into one another’s eyes. The torment made her predicament especially hard, and until Lord Westforth had been dealt with, she could have none of those tender moments.
A sudden despair followed on the heel of her anger towards her intended, and her heart broke all over again for the blissful life she was being denied on his account.
Stark rays of sunlight limned the earl as he rode away. Anna sighed again, forlornly this time. How the duce would she ever end her debacle now? She’d thought her idea would be an instant success.
A gem? Isn’t that what others called her? She laughed inwardly at the terrible crux she had. She was a gem in society. ‘The cream of the crop,’ she had been called, causing her many a blush within the last few years. She socialized in all the highest circles, yet because of her missing betrothed, she was also—and ultimately—the most unavailable debutante not on the market when she should be.
Because of the marriage contract, she hadn’t been allowed her coming out Season, hadn’t been allowed suitors—and she certainly wouldn’t be permitted back to London again if her father ever found out the ruse she employed in order to dissolve her wagered engagement.
After eight years of Lord Abington and her father publicly blustering at one another over their farfetched wager, the entirety of London—from those seated high in parliament to the lowest innkeeper’s daughter—no doubt knew her plight.
Her father had lost at that fateful hand of cards, and her life had been absolutely miserable since hiding in the secret closet—a place she’d not visited once since.
When the time had come, Westforth’s honor had paled in comparison to her own, something his father had sworn would never happen—his words forever a whisper in her memory.
His family hadn’t received so much as a letter, nor did any rumors spread of his whereabouts elsewhere in England. How she wished she could have run as well, but she’d still been in the schoolroom when the contract had been signed.
The earl had been correct; in her father’s eyes and Abington’s, she was as good as married. To a ghost.
Even if Lord Abington would grudgingly admit on occasion that she had turned out better than he had ever imagined she could, he still vehemently insisted with an absurd hope that his son would honor his wishes and come back someday to uphold his duty.
Thus, her quandary remained unchanged. She would still be stuck in her predicament tomorrow, same as she was today. Though her burden weighed much heavier now.
Her betrothed would never return. She’d seen the look in those frightening gold eyes, eyes she dreamed of almost nightly, as though they were seared into her mind.
Well, Abington could swear by whatever he wished, but she intended to stick to her plan. She would be rid of her horrid, absent betrothed by the year’s end.
One way or another.
With a tsk Anna took up her mount’s reins and led her mare to a nearby bench, using the added height to help mount since she’d snuck out without so much as a groom.
All she need do was put together a list of more suitors.
Mayhap she could catch a duke’s eye, then her father would be forced to find a way to end the contract. A duke would certainly hold enough influence to negate Abington’s petty contract.
Yes, that would work perfectly.
©2012 Kerri M. Patterson