Beguiling the Earl(8)

By: Suzanna Medeiros

Their eyes met and held. There was something in his she didn’t recognize, but it had every nerve in her body tingling with anticipation. Her breath hitched and she found she had to remind herself to continue to breathe. She noticed the way his jaw tightened just before he tore his gaze from hers and turned to face Clarington. The air between them seemed to crackle with a new sense of awareness. At first she thought that increased awareness was only on her part, but the way he seemed to hesitate slightly before turning to look at her whenever she spoke told her that he, too, felt it.

That knowledge was almost enough to make her forget the reason for their trip, but all too soon they arrived at Kew. Kerrick almost leapt from the carriage when it came to a stop outside the main gates. She wasn’t sure if she should be insulted by his seeming haste to be out of her presence, but she felt marginally better when he handed her out of the carriage, holding on to her hand a beat too long as he looked down at her. When the duchess gave a delicate little cough, he re-collected himself and released her to assist the other woman.

Clarington appeared to be amused when he stepped down, but Catherine couldn’t say why. She didn’t miss the frown Kerrick aimed at his friend, though.

“Where should we go first?” the duchess asked.

Kerrick pointed south. “Clifton said we’d find him near the temple of Bellona.”

“The Roman goddess of war,” Catherine said.

Kerrick didn’t hide his surprise. “You know your mythology.”

“It probably comes as a great shock to you, but I do know a few things aside from the names of plants.”

In response to the mock censure in her voice, Kerrick sketched a formal bow. “I’ll have to remember not to underestimate you in future.”

The duchess moved to stand next to Catherine and looked at the two men. “It doesn’t appear that Mr. Clifton heard our carriage arrive. Why don’t the two of you check to see if he’s at the temple while Catherine and I wait here to make sure we don’t miss him?”

Clarington gave his wife a little salute, which earned him a light slap on the arm, before the two men headed toward the small building.

Catherine turned to the duchess, who was only a few years older than herself. “I wanted to thank you again, Your Grace, for agreeing to come today. I know most people would find such an outing very dull.”

The duchess waved a hand in dismissal. “I’m very glad for the opportunity to get to know you better. Speaking of which, I think we can drop the formalities here. I insist you call me Charlotte when we are away from the inflexibility of society.”

“I would like that very much,” Catherine said.

“Good. Now that we’ve settled that matter, tell me about Kerrick and yourself. I can see that you like him.”

Catherine wondered if the entire world could tell how much she cared for Kerrick. Nevertheless, she tried to act nonchalant. “He’s a friend of Nicholas’s and spent some time with us last fall. We became friendly during that time.”

Charlotte made a soft tsking sound. “Don’t be coy. You know that’s not what I meant.”

Catherine sighed. “You are correct. However, I don’t think he feels the same way about me.” She hesitated before sharing a further confidence. “He seemed quite close to Louisa when he visited. I thought he might have feelings for her.”

“I’m not sure I believe that,” Charlotte said after giving her statement consideration. “From what I’ve seen, his behavior with her is every bit as friendly but circumspect as his behavior toward me. He’s different when he looks at you, though.”

Her pulse leaped. “Do you think so? I find it impossible to tell sometimes if a gentleman is just being kind or if there’s something more behind that kindness.”

“I was in the same predicament just last year.”

“You and His Grace?”

Charlotte nodded. “I’ve known him for years, but I feared he always considered me his sister’s annoying friend.”

“Surely not.” Seeing the way the duke doted on his wife, it was hard to believe he’d ever considered her annoying.

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