The Earl’s Betrothal – Karen Tuft

THE ROOM WAS AS SİLENT as a tomb. Amelia Clarke handed the week’s menu to Lady Ashworth, who sat quietly in a chair, watching the Marquess of Ashworth sleep. “I hope this meets with your approval,” Amelia whispered. “I added a few dishes my father enjoyed when he was . unwell himself.” She’d nearly said, “When my father was dying,” which would have been a terrible mistake. It wasn’t good to suggest the marquess was anything more than ill. Amelia didn’t want to distress Lady Ashworth, who was utterly devoted to her husband, any more than she already was. It had been three years since Amelia’s father had taken ill and just over two years since he’d passed away, leaving her alone with few options. How grateful Amelia had been that her mother’s old acquaintance, Lady Walmsley, had given her a personal reference and sent her to Lady Ashworth, who had subsequently hired her as a paid companion. The marchioness glanced distractedly at the menu and handed it back to Amelia. “I’m sure I approve, Amelia dear. Thank you.

” Lady Ashworth’s short reply said much about her emotional state. This latest heart seizure of Lord Ashworth’s had been particularly severe and had left everyone fearful that he might succumb this time. It was more than a family should have to bear, and Amelia’s heart broke for them. Eight months ago, Ashworth’s oldest son and heir, Alexander, the Earl of Halford, had fallen while jumping a gate on horseback and had died as a result. He’d been an exceptional horseman and the accident a terrible fluke, leaving his parents and sister devastated. His death had also precipitated the marquess’s first heart seizure and a lengthy recovery. Those had been dark days, indeed. And then a month ago, Lord Ashworth had received a letter stating his only remaining son, Captain Lord Anthony Hargreaves, was among the thousands of British military casualties in a place called Badajoz, Spain. The marquess’s already weakened heart had been unable to bear up under the news that both of his sons were dead. “I’ll take the menu to Mrs. Deal, then, shall I?” Amelia said, studying the marchioness carefully as she spoke. Lady Ashworth was a beautiful woman despite her years, but today her face was lined with grief and worry, her eyes heavy from lack of sleep.

There was no reply from the marchioness, which Amelia interpreted as tacit consent. Anything she could do to lessen Lady Ashworth’s burdens Amelia would do, and gladly. She hurried down the hallway of the private family quarters toward the grand staircase of Ashworth Park, on her way to the kitchen, but stopped when she heard voices at the front entrance. The family was in mourning and was not accepting visitors, which made the disruption unusual. John, one of the newer footmen, was trying to bar someone from entering the house as Buxton, the butler, glided across the marble floor to take matters in hand. Amelia ventured down a few stairs, curious. Whoever was at the door was taking issue with the footman, and then a deep male voice said, “Buxton! Good to see you, old man. Explain to this young fellow who I am, and let me and my friend here come inside.” The voice sent an odd tingle down Amelia’s spine, and she watched in amazement as the everdignified Buxton faltered. What was going on here? And more to the point, who could this stranger possibly be? Buxton ran a shaky hand over his perfectly groomed hair.

“It can’t be!” he declared in an equally shaky voice. “Lord Anthony, raised from the dead. Begging your pardon, you’re Halford now. Make way, John. This is my lord’s son come back to us from the grave, praise be to God!” This was Captain Lord Anthony Hargreaves, who had been reported dead and buried in Spain? “Buxton, you’ve known me since I was in leading strings; Anthony will do. And the gentleman beside me is my good friend, Lucas Jennings. Will you kindly have him shown to a guest room so he can refresh himself? The carriage with our belongings should be arriving shortly.” “Yes, my lord, and with pleasure,” Buxton said. He signaled to John, and the gentleman who was Mr. Jennings followed him, passing Amelia as they went.

Mr. Jennings, a great, strapping fellow, nodded a greeting at her as he went up the stairs. Lady Ashworth must be told, Amelia thought, but before she could act, she heard a gasp behind her. “Anthony!” Lady Ashworth cried. The man stood with his arms spread wide as his mother raced down the stairs past Amelia. He wrapped his arms around her, and she clung to him, sobbing. He rested his head atop hers and murmured endearments to her. Amelia had rarely seen anything so beautiful. Oh, that she could embrace her own mother just once more or tell her father she loved him. Buxton vanished discreetly.

He was no doubt announcing the return of the lost heir to the rest of the staff and setting them into action. Aware that she was intruding on what was clearly a private moment between mother and son, Amelia continued the rest of the way down the stairs as quietly as she could, intending to slip out of the entrance hall to go to the kitchen as she had originally planned to do before the new Lord Halford had returned from the grave. As she reached the bottom of the stairs, Lord Halford’s eyes shot open, spearing her with his gaze and stopping her in her tracks. They were a bright blue, the color of the seas in the West Indies, Amelia imagined, or the sky on a bright summer day. Mesmerizing eyes. But there was more to them than their arresting color. Amelia saw pain and fatigue and a world-weariness that stunned her—and a slight puzzlement too as he tried to figure out who she was. She curtsied slightly, heart racing, and turned toward the hallway. Lady Ashworth must have heard her movement. “Amelia, dear,” she said, smiling through her tears, “wait a moment.

I want to introduce you to my son.” Amelia stopped. Lady Ashworth pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and dabbed at her eyes. Her son’s free arm moved to encircle her shoulders as if he needed to maintain physical contact with his mother. “Anthony, this is my companion, Miss Amelia Clarke. Amelia, my son, Lord Anthony Hargreaves, the Earl of Halford.” Lady Ashworth stumbled a little over the title, which was understandable since it had been the title Alexander had held until his death only eight months before. Lord Halford made a short bow. “Enchanted, Miss Clarke.” “Lord Halford,” Amelia said, curtsying in reply.

She turned to the marchioness. “I was on my way to consult Mrs. Deal. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll leave you two alone and continue on with my task.” Was there anything more inane she could have chosen to say? Amelia highly doubted it. But between the man’s dark good looks, blue eyes, and deep voice, her brain had thoroughly ceased to function. “Of course, my dear, and thank you,” Lady Ashworth said. “She has been such a godsend to me, Anthony. I don’t know what I would have done without her these past months.” “Then I am in your debt, Miss Clarke,” he said with such earnestness one would have thought Amelia had single-handedly taken on Napoleon.

She made her curtsies once more and walked away as serenely as she could. When she knew she was out of sight, she ducked into the library and collapsed into a chair. Her hands were damp, and the menu she held, the one she had so carefully penned for Lady Ashworth that morning, was a crumpled mess. Amelia set it on her lap and did her best to smooth out the creases. She had heard tales of the younger son, of course, especially when she’d first arrived at Ashworth Park. His letters from the Peninsula had been scarce, but, then, Amelia imagined writing correspondence while on march through a foreign land would be a challenge. She had seen his portrait hanging in the gallery, painted just before he’d left. Amelia had found the young man in the scarlet uniform intriguing and had occasionally pondered the youthful antics she had heard about the dignified and confident young man in the portrait. Seeing a man who was supposed to be dead was startling enough. But to stand next to the intriguing young man from the portrait and take in the full measure of his masculinity was a bit of a shock, to say the least.

She could almost hear her father chuckle at her overblown reaction to the situation. “Gracious, Amelia,” he would say to her if he were here. “I had best run after the smelling salts before you faint straightaway. After all these years, a young gentleman has finally elicited more than an eye roll from you. Perhaps I will use the smelling salts myself, come to think of it.” He would chuckle again and pat her hand and think himself the cleverest of papas. Oh, how she had adored her father, and, oh, how she missed him! And her mama too. But her mother had been gone since Amelia was twelve, while her father’s passing was more recent and the pain, therefore, still acute. She patted the small volume of poetry tucked safely in her gown pocket. Her parents had purchased a few such books, and Amelia frequently kept one with her during the day for those occasions when she had time to herself.

Today, of all days, when the Ashworth heir had returned to the family from the dead, Amelia would find an opportunity to be alone with her poetry and the memory of her parents and privately rejoice that her kind employer had been blessed in a way Amelia had not. * * * Lord Anthony Hargreaves led his mother to the sitting room off the entrance hall. It had been two years since he’d been home, and in that time this room hadn’t changed at all: rose damask sofas with floral-upholstered side chairs, a portrait of his parents as newlyweds over the marble fireplace. It was his mother’s favorite room, and she frequently entertained guests here. It was why he had brought her here rather than the parlor, which was much more formal. The marchioness sank into a sofa and drew him down to sit next to her. She had aged in the time Anthony had been gone. Silver shimmered generously through her dark hair now, and she’d lost weight, although she was still extraordinarily beautiful. She always had been. “I cannot stop looking at you,” she exclaimed.

“I never thought to see your face again. Oh, Anthony, it is truly you. I am so happy!” He took both of her hands in his own, kissing first one and then the other. “Yes, Mother, I am home, and all in one piece, thank the Lord and Lucas Jennings. I am so sorry you and Father were told otherwise and suffered unnecessarily as a result.” Anthony himself was struggling to accept that his older brother, Alex, was eight months dead, and his strong, vital father was mortally ill. He dropped his voice. “How is Father, truly?” “Quite frankly, he’s unwell,” she said. “Doctor Samuels isn’t optimistic, although I have forbidden him to say such a thing to Ashworth. I’m afraid I will lose him yet, and then where will I be?” She blinked back more tears, and Anthony released one of her hands so she could dab at her eyes again.

“Having you back again will be medicine to him; I know it. But I must warn him before I take you up to him. Seeing his deceased son in the flesh might be too much of a shock otherwise.” “He may believe he’s gone to his Maker, in truth.” Morbid humor was better than no humor at all sometimes. “I’m eager to assess Father’s condition for myself, but it can wait until you’ve had a chance to prepare him. In the meantime, I’ll go refresh myself and see if poor Lucas has found his way through the ancestral pile to his room successfully.” His jokes brought a slight smile to her lips and eased Anthony’s heart. “I’ll have a tray sent up, then. I’m sure you and Mr.

Jennings are famished.” “Thank you, Mother. But be prepared: we will undoubtedly devour everything in sight, except army rations and bad ale, that is.” She actually chuckled this time, and Anthony rose and assisted her up from her seat. “Oh, Anthony,” she exclaimed, “Welcome home! Everything is going to be better now that you have come back to us alive and safe.” He smiled faintly and kissed her cheek. “I’m sure you’re right. Let me know when you have spoken to Father, then.” “I will.” Anthony kept his smile in place until she left the room, then walked over to the windows, clasping his hands behind his back.

The rose garden beyond was in full, riotous bloom, but he barely saw it. Instead, images of blood and violence made an unwelcome appearance, scenes that had haunted him since Badajoz, and a wave of nausea rolled through him. He inhaled deeply, fighting for control over his mind and bodily functions. He was not nearly as confident as his mother that everything was going to be better now that he was home again. He needed to get out of the confinement of the house and clear his head. Hang it all, Lucas had found his way across the length and breadth of Spain and hadn’t gotten lost once; he could certainly follow a footman successfully to his guest room. And if that meant Lucas ate every last morsel on the tray his mother ordered, so be it. Anthony would survive until dinner. He had survived on less before.

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