The Theory of Earls – Kathleen Ayers

“Stand up straight, Margaret. Good Lord, if you slouch in such a manner, you’ll make everyone think you have a physical deformity. It has been difficult enough to find you a suitable gentleman this season. Impossible in fact, but Lord Winthrop has expressed an interest in you, and we don’t wish to scare him away.” Margaret Lainscott gave her aunt, Lady Dobson, a strained smile. “Of course, Aunt.” Winthrop wouldn’t do. If she could terrify him into fleeing England, Margaret would do so. A trickle of perspiration ran between the small hollow of her breasts. Margaret could feel it sliding down her skin in a most unpleasant manner. The ballroom was dreadfully hot even though the doors had been thrown open to the gardens outside. The crush of the ton was stifling. The only thing worse than being paraded around her aunt’s little ball like a half-lame mare no one wanted was enduring her aunt’s company. If only her father hadn’t decided to inspect the new vein of tin on his own that spring morning three years ago, Walter Lainscott would still be alive. Margaret would be at home in Yorkshire playing the piano and drinking tea instead of having Aunt Agnes dangle her before every eligible but uninterested bachelor in London.

It was no secret Lady Dobson could barely tolerate the reminder of her younger sister’s shameful and unfortunate marriage to a tin miner. Not only was Margaret the byproduct of a union with a common tradesman, but she was too long in the tooth at the age of twenty-six to attract more than passing attention. In addition to her age, Margaret was only passably pretty in comparison to this season’s crop of debutantes. Most of the ton considered her to be shockingly plain. Margaret’s only redeemable qualities, according to her aunt, were that she could play the piano and possessed an obscenely large dowry. “Oh, look, there’s Lord Winthrop now.” Aunt Agnes flipped her fan and widened her eyes in delight. Bollocks. Margaret ran her gloved hands down the folds of her gown, leaving indentations in the lush fabric. Best to get this over with as soon as possible.

“Miss Lainscott.” The smell of pomade and talc instantly reached her nostrils. Winthrop smelled like a sweaty infant. The impoverished heir to an earldom had rapidly become her aunt’s favorite potential suitor for Margaret’s hand, though why she favored him was a mystery. If given the choice, Margaret would prefer not to marry at all, but Aunt Agnes had made her expectations clear in that regard. She had no inclination to allow Margaret to continue living on her charity which meant Margaret had to marry. Margaret had reconciled herself to such a fate. It was the only way to escape her aunt and possibly give herself some control over her life. But not just any gentleman would do. She dropped gracefully into a curtsy and lowered her eyes, lest he see the distaste hovering in them.

“Lord Winthrop.” “How are you finding the weather, Miss Lainscott?” Margaret gave him a timid nod, careful not to meet his eyes, pretending extreme shyness in his presence. “Very fair, my lord.” Limited intelligence was Margaret’s first requirement in a potential husband, for such a husband would be easier for her to control. He must be pleasant, polite, and somewhat attractive. She preferred he have a passion or hobby he adored. Hunting, breeding horses, fishing. Perhaps carpentry or playing chess. Something which would compel him to spend the bulk of his time away from Margaret. Of course, it would also be lovely if her future husband possessed a country estate where Margaret could take up residence and escape the confines of London.

But that last requirement was the least important. Margaret regarded Winthrop with a keen eye, taking in his massive, sweating form. He more than surpassed her first requirement. The piece of toast she’d had for breakfast that morning possessed more brains than he did. Winthrop was polite and appeared pleasant, but Margaret thought his good humor to be false. She sensed cruelty and malice in his eyes, as if his true nature was hidden behind a pompous demeanor. And he possessed no interests outside of playing cards or betting on horses that she could see. Winthrop would be intolerable as a husband. There was also the question of children. Winthrop was an only child.

He’d want an heir. Margaret wasn’t opposed to performing her wifely duties, she was only against sharing a bed with Winthrop. Thankfully, after expending a small bit of his limited attention on Margaret, Winthrop proceeded to ignore her and struck up a conversation with Aunt Agnes. Margaret allowed herself the small victory. She had perfected the ability to become invisible by adopting an excessively reserved demeanor. Such a thing came in handy when dealing with the Winthrops of the world. Another whiff of talc met her nose. She found nothing even remotely appealing in Winthrop’s appearance, even overlooking the sweating and the smell of powder. Narrow shoulders sat atop a thickened waist and rounded bottom, reminding Margaret of a pear. Ham-fisted, Winthrop’s hands were often clammy.

The damp feel of his fingers was noticeable even beneath the costly gloves he wore. He also favored what Margaret considered to be rather dainty shoes instead of boots, which looked ridiculous for he had rather large, duck-like feet. No. Winthrop would not do at all. “Miss Lainscott?” Winthrop interrupted her reflections of his person, suddenly reminded of her presence. “Would you care to take a turn about the terrace with me?” And endure the smell of your pomade? It’s nearly worse than your conversation skills. “I don’t—” “Of course she would,” her aunt said, interceding before Margaret could decline. “Margaret could benefit from some fresh air.” Aunt Agnes fluttered her fan toward the doors. “I must see to my guests, but I leave my niece in your capable hands.

” Could her aunt be any more obvious? Margaret had to keep herself from voicing a strident objection to being forced into Winthrop’s company. But if she dared make the slightest protest, her aunt would punish her. “Enjoy yourself.” Aunt Agnes smiled indulgently, giving Margaret a pinch to the arm before fluttering off in a whirl of dark purple skirts, the large turban atop her head tilting at a dangerous angle. Margaret stared at the turban, silently commanding the headdress to topple off her aunt’s head and roll across the marble floor, shocking the crowd of guests and exposing the bald head Margaret was sure lay beneath. No one wore turbans and hadn’t for at least twenty years. Not unless they had to. Lord Winthrop’s giant paw took Margaret’s hand and placed her fingers on his forearm. “Shall we?” He nodded down at her, sweat glistening on his forehead. There was no escape.

Steering Margaret expertly through the crush, Lord Winthrop guided her to a set of tall French doors and out into the blissfully cool terrace. A breeze gently buffeted her face as she looked out into the gardens. The strains of the orchestra filtered through the open doors and Margaret swayed in time with the music, mentally wincing as she heard one of the violins hit a wrong note. No one would likely notice but her. Music was the only thing which kept her sane during events such as these. Whenever she heard music, the sound of each instrument filled her mind with a swirl of colors which in turn formed themselves into notes. The notes would intertwine and split to become a melody, while her fingers itched for a pen to write everything down. She had a special book for such things, large and shaped like a ledger one might use for household accounts. It had been a gift from her father several years ago when Margaret had studied music with Mr. Strauss, her neighbor in Yorkshire.

The elderly Austrian gentleman had once been a composer of some renown on the Continent before coming to England to live with his daughter. Winthrop propelled her in the direction of a stone bench at the edge of the terrace, annoying her with his presence and his sweating. Margaret found herself praying for a plague of locusts or some other more welcome rescue. “We can dance later if you like.” He’d apparently seen her moving in time to the music and had mistaken it for an invitation. Margaret’s eyes slid down Lord Winthrop’s oddly shaped form. The very thought of being clasped to him while dancing a waltz was abhorrent. And he was still sweating profusely; surely that couldn’t be normal. She kept her eyes down, pretending to be too timid to reply. An exasperated sigh left him, just as she’d expected.

Perhaps if she bored him, he would simply go away. “Your aunt has given me leave to call on you.” Lord Winthrop nodded for her to sit. “I shall come tomorrow.” Good Lord. Winthrop was going to court her. If she didn’t want to be stuck with the repugnant earl, Margaret had best choose a gentleman herself. And quickly. The combination of title and stupid should be easy to find within the ton. She just hadn’t tried hard enough.

Margaret had hoped to make it through another season before her aunt would force the issue of marriage. But clearly, time had run out. Her mind ran through a host of acquaintances she’d made since coming to London who had professed interest in her. There weren’t a great many, the only disadvantage to her strategy of intentionally falling beneath notice. Several possessed the same entitled, cruel nature as Winthrop. One or two exhibited a sign of intelligence, which wouldn’t do. Most were in need of a fat dowry. Margaret was an heiress; her money had attracted nearly every gentleman who bet on the horses too often or carelessly gambled. She’d have to be discerning. Winthrop had begun to bore her with the details of a party he’d recently attended.

She ignored him and continued searching her memories, discarding one gentleman after another. This was more difficult than she’d anticipated. Suddenly, a pleasant face swam before her. Kind. Vacant eyes. Enamored of the outdoors. Spoke extensively of a hunting lodge. She’d made his acquaintance at Gray Covington last year during a house party she’d attended. He would suit her perfectly if he were still unmarried. His name was Carter…Carson? Bollocks.

She should have made more of an effort. Unfortunately, Margaret drew a blank at his name. Not an unusual occurrence. She was terrible at names. Cool air blew against her face, helping to banish the smell of Lord Winthrop’s overuse of talc. As he stood before her, droning on about his own self-importance, wrongly assuming she was interested, Margaret decided to tackle the problem at hand. She needed a suitable excuse to make Winthrop go away, lest he try to steal a kiss and attempt to compromise her. Aunt Agnes would be thrilled. Margaret went with a headache. Overused by ladies in her situation, to be sure, but she wasn’t feeling especially creative tonight.

“Oh, my.” Her fingers fell against her temple. She looked up at Winthrop from beneath her lashes. “My lord,” she said in a voice barely above a whisper, “you have my gratitude for seeing me out into this blessedly cool air, but my headache has not abated.” Margaret hoped Winthrop had paid so little attention to her earlier that he wouldn’t remember she’d not mentioned a headache. She cast her eyes down as if mortified to be in such a state. “You should have asked me sooner to escort you out.” The reprimand, coming as it did from the pompous, overstuffed pear, was a bit unwelcome. Margaret bit her lip to keep herself from giving him a sharp retort. Sometimes it was very difficult to pretend to be such a milquetoast.

Touching him tentatively on the forearm, she murmured, “Would you grant me one more favor, Lord Winthrop?” He stepped forward, his heavy, velvet-clad form far too close for comfort. “I’m so terribly thirsty. Would you mind fetching me a glass of lemonade? I am certain such refreshment and the cool air will revive me. I would be incredibly grateful.” Disappointment mixed with annoyance on his florid features. But Winthrop, thankfully, was too much of a gentleman to decline. “Of course, Miss Lainscott. Sit here and I shall return promptly.” He dutifully waddled back inside to find the refreshment table. Once he was gone, Margaret breathed a sigh of relief, leaning back against the stone wall.

There was a path leading to the servants’ entrance just down the steps before her and through an opening in her aunt’s wisteria. She would be upstairs in her room within a matter of minutes. Eliza, her lady’s maid, could send word to her aunt and Lord Winthrop that she’d regretfully had to retire for the evening with a headache. Aunt Agnes would be furious tomorrow, but Margaret couldn’t tolerate Winthrop’s presence any longer. Standing up, she brushed her skirts and hurried down the steps leading into the gardens. Her aunt hadn’t instructed the servants to light torches in the garden, not wishing to incite any young gentlemen inclined to ruination, but there was moonlight and Margaret knew the way by heart. This wasn’t the first time she’d escaped into the wisteria. As she slunk along the wall, careful not to tear her gown, she caught the scent of a cheroot mixing with the aroma of the garden. A dark shape moved along the vines and blooms, startling her. “Nicely done, Miss Lainscott.

” Margaret froze at the greeting, allowing the deep baritone to melt into her skin. She forgot names with regularity. Titles. Sometimes faces. But never the sound of a person. And especially not the resonance of this man’s voice, though they’d only been in each other’s company one other time. An odd fluttering started low in her belly. A large, impeccably dressed form moved out of the wisteria and into a patch of moonlight. The cheroot clutched between his teeth dangled from a wide, sensual mouth as he smiled at her. “Lord Welles.

” Margaret’s blood pulsed louder in her ears. He was as beautiful as she remembered, even more so with moonlight creating shadows across the sculpted lines of his handsome face. She hadn’t seen Welles since Lady Cambourne’s house party at Gray Covington when Margaret had made such a spectacle of herself. “You seem unsurprised to find me lurking about your aunt’s garden.” A dark lock of hair fell over his brow as he tilted his chin to take her in. He pulled the cheroot from his mouth with an elegant wave of his hand and tossed the stub to the ground. “This particular bit of wisteria speaks to me often.” Margaret’s blood hummed louder, lighting her nerves on fire. Her attraction to him, which she equated to a feeling of intoxication, hadn’t abated in the least since she’d last seen him. During the house party, Margaret had convinced herself the racing of her heart at his nearness was only a schoolgirl crush.

The feeling would disappear in time, certainly by their next meeting. Which was now. I was terribly mistaken. “I assume Winthrop will find only an empty bench upon his return.” Welles shook his head and made a tsking sound with his tongue. “Not very nice of you, Miss Lainscott. But then,” his voice deepened until the vibration caressed Margaret down to her core, “I’m certain you aren’t as agreeable as you pretend to be.” His comment surprised her. Margaret’s timid mouse disguise had served her well during her time among the ton. No one, except perhaps her friend, Lady Kilmaire, suspected she was anything else.

It was far easier to deal with her aunt as well if she was beneath notice. Even worse, Margaret knew that at the slightest sign of rebellion, Aunt Agnes would take her piano away. “Why would you say such a thing, Lord Welles?” She deliberately kept her voice meek and timid. “Because it’s true?” Soft laughter bubbled from the depths of his chest. “I’m not fooled, Miss Lainscott. I see you.” A flutter started low in her stomach at his amusement, the sound filling her senses with a harmony of swirling purples, blues, and greens. “I don’t think we are acquainted enough, my lord, for you to infer such a thing.” A quiet snort of disbelief followed her declaration. “True, Miss Lainscott.

But during our brief time together at Gray Covington, you made an indelible impression upon me and it was not that of a timid, reserved young lady.” She had made a cake of herself during the house party with her performance on the piano; still, Margaret couldn’t, for the life of her, remember making any sort of impression on Lord Welles. The thought caused another round of fluttering inside. The pale light of the moon shifted across his eyes and she caught a glimpse of sapphire. Margaret purposefully looked down to study the toe of her slipper, not willing to meet his gaze. His eyes were famous among the women of London. She’d heard young ladies swooned at only a glance from Lord Welles. Margaret was glad she couldn’t see the startling rings of blue, each one successively darker as they neared his pupils, the deep color flecked with bits of gold. One pea-wit debutante had even written a poem about Welles and his eyes, much to the ton’s amusement. “Your performance at the piano, the passion you exhibited…” He halted for a moment as if weighing how to express himself.

“I found it all quite captivating.” Welles had the most glorious tonal quality to his voice, as if Margaret were being addressed by a large cello. She could have stood there and listened to him speak all night. “It was the highlight of my stay at Gray Covington,” he finished. And meeting Welles had been the highlight of Margaret’s stay at the Cambourne estate. The invitation to the house party at Gray Covington had been unexpected but welcome. At the time, Aunt Agnes had wanted to dangle Margaret before the Earl of Kilmaire who was seeking a wife and would be in attendance. Her aunt’s idea had been to have Margaret give the guests an impromptu performance on the piano to gain Lord Kilmaire’s attention, a futile effort because the earl was already in love with Lady Miranda Reynolds, whom he’d married not long after the party. The performance had been a disaster. “I fear I may have played a bit too…forcefully,” Margaret said, understating the truth.

The impromptu recital had resulted in embarrassment to both herself and Aunt Agnes. Margaret did play with passion, so much so that she sometimes forgot everything but the music. She and the piano would fuse together as her fingers flew over the keys, the notes pulsating through her. I may have writhed against the piano bench. “My aunt was not pleased with my performance.” Heat washed up her cheeks. “I don’t imagine she was.” Margaret had been banned from the piano for the remainder of their stay at Gray Covington. She’d been made to embroider instead. It had been pure torture.

“You are masterful on the piano.” Welles had moved a step closer to her, trapping her amid the wisteria. “I didn’t realize you cared so much for music. Do you play?” Certainly her…emotional display while playing had been mortifying, but she couldn’t fathom why Lord Welles had found it so memorable. Even before coming to London, Margaret wasn’t the sort of young lady who attracted attention from a man like Welles. Aunt Agnes claimed Margaret to be so drab, she faded into the wood panels of the dining room during a dinner party. “I learned as a child. My mother adored music.” A frown tightened his wide mouth. “But I’ve never played as you do.

That is a level I could never hope to achieve.” Welles had been enamored with the music. Even as absorbed as she was, she’d noticed him watching her, his eyes half-closed in pleasure while his friend continued to speak to him. His friend. The dim-witted gentleman she’d met at Gray Covington. He’d been in the company of Lord Welles. “Carstairs,” she abruptly blurted out. “I beg your pardon?” His mouth curved upward, brow wrinkling slightly in confusion. Finding Welles hiding in the wisteria was far better than the plague of locusts she’d been wishing for earlier. He was an associate of Lord Carstairs.

“The gentleman who accompanied you to Gray Covington. Lord Carstairs.” “I know who Carstairs is, but what has he got to do with anything?”

.

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