Beguiling the Earl(6)By: Suzanna Medeiros
He dragged his gaze away from Catherine, the task more difficult than he would have previously thought, and turned to the new duchess. “Miss Evans mentioned that Lady Overlea would be unable to join us, so I thought I’d ask you to accompany us. She hoped to visit tomorrow, but we can make arrangements for another day if that would better suit your schedule.”
Louisa’s relief at not being asked to attend was clear, and he didn’t miss the glance the sisters exchanged. No doubt she was wondering if Catherine had told him about her newly expectant state.
“Tomorrow would be perfect,” the duchess said. “I’ve heard the gardens are lovely.”
Kerrick ignored the knowing smirk on Clarington’s face. He found he was actually looking forward to the outing. Not because he was particularly interested in plants or gardens—he’d never really paid much attention to them—but because it meant he would get to spend more time with Catherine. That thought should have worried him, but it didn’t.
“I know I wasn’t invited,” Clarington said, “but I think I’ll join you. Wouldn’t want to leave you outnumbered by women.” The gleam in his eye spoke of less noble reasons for wanting to join their party, and at that moment Kerrick regretted having teased his friend the previous year when he was finding it hard to resist the duchess’s charms.
Kerrick dismounted and handed the reins of his horse to the stable boy waiting outside Overlea’s town house. It was just past eleven, and in his quest to ensure Catherine enjoyed her day, he’d already been to Kew and back. He wasn’t sure why it was so important to him that he make her happy, but he had no doubt she’d be excited when she learned he’d arranged to have the head gardener himself conduct their tour.
She deserved no less. When he’d stayed at Nicholas’s estate the previous fall, Catherine had been a new resident to Overlea Manor. She had taken it upon herself to conduct an inventory of the plants Nicholas’s grandmother had collected and displayed at the manor’s conservatory. He’d seen firsthand how she would disappear for hours at a time, only surfacing from her quest to catalog the unnamed plants when dinner was announced.
A large, lacquered black carriage bearing Clarington’s crest was already stationed outside the house. When he entered, he found everyone gathered in the drawing room. Catherine was seated on the settee next to the duchess, the two deep in conversation. Louisa, looking as though she hadn’t slept at all the night before, sat in a chair placed at a right angle to them. Clarington and Overlea were conversing by the window, but it was impossible to miss the concern on the latter’s face as he glanced at his wife.
Kerrick accepted everyone’s welcome before joining the men. “Nicholas,” he said, greeting Overlea by his Christian name. Nicholas had never expected to inherit the title, and having lost both his father and older brother only recently, he preferred to be addressed informally by his close friends.
Kerrick saw the anticipation on Clarington’s face when he turned his attention to him. “Behave this afternoon,” he said, keeping his voice low so the women wouldn’t overhear him.
“Of course.” Clarington gave him a calculating look before adding, “After all, it’s the least I can do after you declined to poke fun at me last year about Charlotte every chance you got.”
Kerrick swore softly and Clarington laughed with glee. He turned to Nicholas, but his glib plea for sympathy died before the words were spoken. The look on his friend’s face almost had him taking a step back.
“You’re not courting Catherine,” Nicholas said, his voice laced with menace.
Kerrick was speechless, but only for a moment. “Who told you I was? She and I are merely friends.”
Nicholas shifted so his back was to the women who, fortunately, hadn’t taken note of their heated exchange. “Louisa’s worried that Catherine hopes otherwise. You would do well to disabuse her of that notion. Especially since everyone appears to be under the impression that you are all but formally engaged to Worthington’s daughter.”
A spark of anger, swift and hot, shot through him. “Everyone is wrong,” he said, not bothering to hide his annoyance. “Make no mistake, if such a travesty were to happen, you would know about it. You, above all people, should know that I would never take advantage of an innocent—even when others demand I do so.”