The Matter of a Marquess – Jess Michaels

The Earl of Bramwell didn’t even bother to look up from his papers as Nicholas Gillingham entered his office for their appointment. Nicholas shifted in the doorway, uncomfortable, just as he was always uncomfortable, in the earl’s company. The man reminded him of his father. Not the man who’d raised him. No…his real father. Cold, calculating, all too aware of his power and willing to wield it in the cruelest of manners. That’s what men of title could do. What many did do. Those beneath them were often powerless. “Gillingham.” The earl sounded out every syllable of the name and Nicholas shook from his thoughts to take a long step into the room. “My lord.” Bramwell sniffed as he looked Nicholas up and down, taking in the slightly ill-fitting jacket, the nervous way he clenched his fingers before him. Nicholas forced himself to separate his hands and smoothed his jacket, but he still felt out of place. “You asked for this meeting, Gillingham,” Bramwell snapped.

“Most irregular for the son of a servant, but out of respect for your father, I agreed. What do you want?” This wasn’t going to go well. Nicholas felt it in the air, crackling like a whip every time Bramwell spoke. A part of him wanted to simply apologize and walk away. His plans, after all, didn’t have to include this man. He could do as he wished and deal with the consequences later. And there would be consequences. Only he wasn’t in this plan alone, was he? For her…for her he would face any demon, any lion, any earl with a cruel twist to his smirk. “I wanted to speak with you about Aurora,” Nicholas burst out, the words falling from his lips in a crushed-together jumble. Despite that, Bramwell understood them.

He leaned back in his chair and drummed his fingertips along his desktop. “The day has come at last,” he murmured. Nicholas thought it was more to himself than to him. “Being raised in this household, I’ve had the privilege to be a friend to your children—” Nicholas began, clinging to the way he’d planned to say these words. Bramwell jumped to his feet, his cheeks darkening red and spittle flying from his mouth as he shouted, “You aren’t a friend to my children, boy! Your father is my man of affairs—you are a servant’s child! If my wife and I were too kind and let you pretend to be the equal of my son and daughter, that was clearly our error. And now you want to speak to me about Aurora, do you? Confession on your mind, is it? Fancy yourself in love with her after all those mooning stares and stolen brushes of the hand?” Nicholas drew back, his heart throbbing hard and loud in his ears. “You…you…” “Knew about your tendre toward my daughter?” The earl rolled his eyes. “Yes. Of course I knew. She may not be the spare I required, but she is an asset.

I watch my assets.” Nicholas’s mind flew to Aurora. The earl’s daughter was three years younger than he was, and he’d only considered her a friend until about a year ago. He’d been standing with his father in a parlor, upset about…it didn’t matter what. It had felt like the world was falling apart, and then Aurora entered the room and everything had screeched to a halt. Everything had focused in on her. Aurora with her dark blonde hair, Aurora with her chocolate eyes that were so easy to lose oneself in. She was all soft, lush curves and bright smiles and easy laughter. A light in the darkness. The most shocking thing was that she seemed to return his feelings.

Shy smiles across the room had turned to secret conversations that could last for hours. The first time he’d dared to take her hand…he would remember the feel of her fingers folding across his until the day he took his last breath. And when he’d gotten up the nerve to finally kiss her? It was like every romantic poem and story finally made sense to him. It was like he was complete and whole. “She is not an asset, my lord,” he ground out. “I may not have a title, but I do have a future. For her, I will make sure of it. And I will protect your daughter with my life. I want to marry her.” “Yes, I know what you want,” Bramwell snarled with a shake of his head.

“Even if I didn’t have two perfectly good eyes, I have ears all over this house. I know you two have been sneaking around, whispering in corners. It hasn’t gone too far—that is the only reason I haven’t stopped it before today.” “Sir!” Nicholas gasped as he realized the earl was talking about sex. A subject he pondered a great deal every time he was around Aurora, but certainly he would not disrespect her by ruining her! “I would never—” “If you wanted to secure her and her fortune, perhaps you should have,” Bramwell interrupted. “If it were any girl but my daughter, I might even congratulate you. You are reaching above your station and trying to make something of yourself through marrying a better.” “No,” Nicholas said, taking a long step forward. “It isn’t for a mercenary purpose. I love Aurora!” “Love.

” Bramwell pursed his lips and sniffed. “Love is for fools and the poor. Men of my ilk cannot afford such silly notions. My daughter will marry someone who will further my desires, that is the end of it. In fact, the marriage contracts have been signed just today. She will be Viscountess Lovell within a month.” Nicholas stared. If his blood had rushed like a roaring river in his ears before, now everything in the room had gone curiously silent. Like he’d been shoved under the water and now he had to fight to swim to the surface. Difficult with this man’s boot on his neck.

“Marry…marry Lord Lovell,” he repeated. “No. N-No.” “Oh yes,” Bramwell said with a tiny smile. “Indeed, it is true.” Nicholas glared at the man. He’d always feared Bramwell. His entire life he’d known this man held his family’s fortunes on the blade of a knife. One mercurial decision and they would be ruined. But in that moment, he hated the earl more than he feared him.

“She loves me. I will stop this marriage.” Nicholas expected an outburst at his words. Bramwell was well known for those. His father had been at the receiving end of them many a time. But to his surprise, Bramwell only nodded. “She told you she wanted you, did she? The girl is more like me than I ever thought. She lied, boy. Understand that. She has known about the arrangement with Lovell for months.

And she is looking forward to the life she was always meant to have. You were never good enough for her.” “No,” Nicholas said, but there was a kernel of doubt in the back of his mind that he hated. How many times had he pondered himself that their positions were so disparate? How many times had he wondered if he would be able to keep Aurora happy when she was without her pin money and her gowns and jewels and parties? Now Bramwell was drawing those doubts to the surface, picking them open and exposing them to the light. “You still believe she loves you?” Bramwell said with a sniff. “Then I suppose I must be cruel to be kind. Who wrote that?” “The Bard,” Nicholas choked. “Hamlet. Act three.” “You’re educated, at least.

” Bramwell shrugged. “Come along.” He crooked his finger, and Nicholas followed because he felt he had no choice. He was too numb to fight against a man with such power. They wound through the halls of this home he knew so well and out a parlor onto the wide terrace that stretched across the expanse of the back of the manor. It overlooked the garden. The place he’d first dared to kiss Aurora. In the orange and pink colors of sunset, he looked down over the green and found a woman not so far down the path from the house. Aurora. Even from a distance, he could make her out.

He knew her gait, he knew her posture, her knew the way she tilted her head as she paused at what she always called her favorite rosebush. She was the kind of woman with a favorite rosebush and he loved her for it. Only today, she wasn’t with him as she strolled those lovely paths. But she wasn’t alone, either. No, in the romantic glow of the sunset, she was with a gentleman. Nicholas’s heart sank. “Lovell,” Bramwell said, with a pleasure to his voice that said he enjoyed being cruel. “They look well together, don’t they?” Nicholas couldn’t respond to the jab. He was too busy staring at the couple. Aurora’s hand was in the crook of this man’s elbow.

He was speaking to her and she turned her face toward him. Even from the distance, Nicholas recognized she was smiling. When she smiled, she did so with her entire body. He’d made a study of how her shoulders lifted and her hands fluttered in those moments. She looked…happy now. The kernel of doubt became far more. “Now, you might wish to go confront her,” Bramwell said softly. “Or exact some kind of revenge and break up this engagement.” Nicholas set his jaw. “I would never hurt her,” he whispered.

Bramwell appeared confused at the concept, but he continued, “If you do so, if you attempt to talk to her or convince her to back out of this, I will destroy you. Do you understand that?” “I am already destroyed,” Nicholas said, unable to keep his eyes from the couple. His voice no longer sounded like his own. Bramwell chuckled. “Ah, the romance of youth. Well, if you don’t care about yourself, then think of your family. I could sack the man who raised you, give him no reference.” At that, Nicholas pivoted away from the image of Aurora and her future husband. “My father has served you well for many years, my lord.” “Your father is the Duke of Roseford and you’re nothing but a bastard he abandoned, along with all the others,” Bramwell hissed.

“My man of affairs lowered himself to marry your mother and legitimize you in the eyes of the law, but you know what you are. Do you want to make him regret helping you?” Nicholas set his jaw. His father—the man who’d raised him—had always treated him as his own. Bertrand Gillingham had never been anything but an honorable man. A man Nicholas desperately wanted to be like, not the awful duke who had taken advantage of his mother when she was a servant in his home. “I’ve heard the Duke of Roseford has taken an interest in you,” Bramwell said when Nicholas didn’t answer. “That the army is being bandied about as a future. I would consider taking that option, young man.” Nicholas had rebuffed that idea when he had thought himself about to marry Aurora, but now it didn’t seem so very outlandish. She would marry someone else.

At least if he was gone, he wouldn’t have to see that. Wouldn’t have to hear rumor of her happiness. Wouldn’t have to see her increase with that other man’s children, pass her in the park on Lord Lovell’s arm and have her look at him like he was a pathetic stranger. “It doesn’t really matter what I do, does it?” Nicholas said as he turned on his heel and walked away. “I have no leverage over a man like you. It’s over. I understand that.” “Gillingham?” Bramwell called out when Nicholas had reached the doors leading back into the house. Nicholas froze there and slowly turned. Bramwell was smiling at him.

Smiling as if stripping Nicholas of all his hopes and dreams was some kind of jolly pastime for him. “Yes?” “Say thank you to your betters, boy,” Bramwell said. Nicholas fisted his hands at his sides. He wanted nothing more than to walk back across the long terrace and punch the earl. An action his birth father would certainly approve of. But he had to think of more than himself and his worst impulses now. “Thank you, my lord,” he said through clenched teeth. “You’re welcome. You are dismissed.” Nicholas left then without another word.

He staggered through this house he would never return to, blind to all its familiar halls and out into the drive where his horse awaited him. He rode away just as blindly, tears stinging his eyes and broken heart throbbing madly. And in those horrible, pain-tinged moments, he made a promise to himself. He would make a life that never left him beholden to men like the Earl of Bramwell again. Nor would he ever let something so foolish as love leave him open to pain.

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