Say You Love Me Page 32

At that, Jason blinked, then burst out laughing. After a moment, though, he coughed, assumed a bland expression, and asked, "Did he walk away?" "Oh, yes. Wouldn't have been sporting to lay into a chap that tiny. Wasn't thinking of that, though. But Frances stopped me when she started yelling at me about your mistress. I think she felt it necessary to defend her position with that little tidbit, putting the blame for her unfaithfulness on your shoulders. She claimed you never even consummated the marriage. Gad, that was a bloody surprise."

Jason was blushing by then. "I thought I'd made that clear when I told the family I was divorcing." "You said she'd never had a true marriage with you, but I didn't think it was that unconventional. I mean, all those years, and not even once? But Frances pointed out that you never slept alone from the very start. And that's what's been driving me mad with curiosity: you've had a mistress all this time, and apparently the same one. That's an incredibly long time to have a relationship with one woman, at least one who ain't your wife. Who is she?" "I repeat, none of your business."'

Derek sighed. Jason was right, of course, it really wasn't anyone's business but his own. Derek wished his father felt the same way about his son's private life, but unfortunately, Jason did concern himself with Derek's personal activities to a degree-at least when Derek didn't keep them completely private. And he did that right now.

"Speaking of mistresses, what the deuce could you have been thinking of, to bring yours to your cousin's house for dinner?" Jason demanded.

Derek shot out of his chair, infuriated. Bloody hell, he hadn't expected to get the tables turned on him there. He felt betrayed. "Who told you? Uncle James? Uncle Tony?" "Calm down. You ought to know my brothers never tell me anything that I ought to know about. I have spoken to James, though. He was concerned that you're getting too attached to this girl, but he wouldn't tell me why he was concerned. And he didn't mention the dinner." "Then how-?" "I heard about it from my valet, who is sweet on Georgina's maid, who overheard James and his wife talking about it. And James didn't even tell his wife that she'd been dining with your mistress. She still don't know, far as I know. It was the girl's name that was mentioned, which you yourself gave me, if you'll recall. So is she, or is she not, Percival Alden's cousin?"

Derek winced. His father had obviously already assumed that she was, and that accounted for more than half of his present displeasure. "She's not," Derek assured him. "Jeremy came up with that idea, when Reggie found us with Kelsey at the races, to put a nice face on it. You see, Reggie had already met her previously and had decided they were going to be fast friends. Jeremy was just trying to save Reggie-all of us, actually-some unpleasant embarrassment." "Why the deuce would Reggie want to be friends with a woman like that?"

Derek immediately took offense. "Maybe because she's not, like that."

Jason sighed and sat down behind his desk. "Blister it, unruffle those feathers, you know what I meant," he mumbled.

Derek sighed as well. He did know. But he was a bit touchy where Kelsey was concerned just then. Love, and the emotions it evoked, were new to him. So far, he was finding it not the least bit pleasant.

He wished he could share that with his father. But he didn't want to alarm Jason more than he already was by telling him he'd found the woman he wanted to marry. That wouldn't go over too well right then.

So he tried to explain, saying, "The trouble is, Kelsey looks like a lady, she acts like a lady, she even sounds like a lady. Most of the time, it's devilish hard to remember that she's not gentry." "You're sure she's not?"

That wasn't the first time he'd been asked that. And it gave him pause just as it had before. What, after all, did he really know about Kelsey other than what she'd told him herself? But she wouldn't lie to him, would she? No, she wouldn't. He was positive-well, almost positive-about that.

But that small kernel of doubt made him admit, "I know only what she's told me, which isn't much, but she has no reason to lie to me. And considering how I acquired her-" "Yes, yes, I suppose you're right. But you still haven't explained why you brought her with you to your cousin's for dinner. That was going outside the bounds, m'boy." "I know, but Reggie bloody well insisted, and well, as long as she thought Kelsey was Percy's cousin, I didn't think it would hurt. And we told Reggie that Kelsey was returning to the country, so she wouldn't look to continue the friendship. That should have been the end of it, and no harm done. And, in fact, it was the end of it. Reggie hasn't seen her again, nor will she." At least not until I marry her.

But he didn't add that. And his father wasn't completely mollified. He didn't have to wait to find out why. "Are you getting too attached to this girl?"

Derek almost laughed. "You're asking me that when you've kept a mistress-what? More'n twenty years?"

Jason flushed with heat. "Point taken. just don't do anything foolish where the girl's concerned."

Anything foolish? Like fall in love with her and want to marry her? Too late.

WAS CHRISTMAS EVE WHEN DEREK AGAIN ASKED KELSEY to marry him. He left the family gathering early to join her. He plied her with wine. He softened her mood with dozens of little gifts, silly things that made her laugh, like an over-

sized thimble, a hat with three foot-long feathers attached, bells for her toes. He was saving the engagement ring for last.

The opportunity couldn't have been more perfect. And the question-"Kelsey, will you please marry me?"-didn't send her into a froth. She turned to him and hugged him. She kissed him deeply. But then she took his cheeks in her hands and said, "No."

All things considered, he really hadn't been expecting that answer this time, any more than he had the first time. So he hadn't prepared any counterarguments.

In fact, all that came out was "Why? And if you mention a scandal again, I just may throttle you."

She smiled at him. "But you know there would be one, a very big one."

"Hasn't it occurred to you yet that I don't give a bloody damn if there is?" "You say that now, Derek, but what about later/ when it actually happens? And what about your family, who would also be affected? They'd have something to say about being dragged into that kind of scandal, I'm sure."

Which gave him the idea to put it to his family ahead of time. His father had just made a monumental announcement about his divorce. Derek could make one about his plans to marry-and find out just which way the wind blew.

He decided that Christmas dinner was the perfect time to announce his plans, with everyone gathered in the same room. The mood was festive. There was a great deal of laughter. But Derek couldn't do it, not when it would spoil the day for at least a few of them.

But the very next day he didn't hesitate. It was again at dinner. And not quite everyone was present this time. Diana and Clare had returned home that morning with their husbands. Their brother Marshall had left for the day to visit a friend in the next shire and hadn't returned yet. And Aunt Roslynn was upstairs attending to a very fussy Judith, who had come down with a cold. But that was all right. A few missing people wouldn't make much difference.

The rest of the family were gathered, and again the general mood was excellent. The women were discussing holiday recipes, babies, and fashions. James had sent a few digs at Warren, but his brother-in-law had laughed them off, and James didn't seem unduly annoyed. Nicholas and Jeremy were having a good-natured argument about Nick's stallion, which had lost that day at the races.

Edward and Jason were discussing one of Edward's new investments. They'd apparently made peace over the divorce issue-which Derek took as a good sign. The one nice thing about his family was they didn't carry grudges, at least within the family. There had been one exception, when James had been disowned for a good ten years, but even that had ended amicably.

So before dessert arrived, Derek stood up and said, "If I may have your attention for a few moments, I have some good news to impart, or at least what I consider good news.

Some of you may not agree, but"-he shrugged, though he glanced down at the end of the table to his father when he added-"I've decided to marry Kelsey Langton."

Jason just stared at him, too incredulous for words. Anthony coughed. James rolled his eyes. Jeremy covered his.

Into the silence of that statement, Georgina said, "That's wonderful, Derek. She seems like a very nice girl."

And Aunt Charlotte asked, "When do we get to meet her, Derek?"

Edward, sitting a few seats down from Derek, leaned over and clapped him on the back. "That's splendid, m'boy. Know Jason's been gnashing his teeth over when you'd be settling down."

Amy, beaming at him from across the table, said, "Why didn't you decide a bit sooner? We could have had a double wedding."

Jeremy was chuckling and shaking his head at the same time. "Wouldn't want to be in your boots just now, cousin."

Nicholas nodded in complete agreement with that. "He does know how to dig a deep hole, don't he?"

Reggie poked her elbow into her husband's side and hissed at him, "You should have been this romantic when we met."

Nicholas frowned at her, then burst out with the realiza-1 tion, "Good God, how did you find out?" drawing several curious looks their way. "Never mind," Reggie whispered. "But I think it's very brave of him to ignore convention and let his heart lead him in this matter." "You would." Nicholas smiled at his wife.

Derek didn't hear any of that, and he said nothing more. He was still staring at his father, braced for the expected explosion. It didn't come.

Jason looked furious, no doubt of that, but his tone was quite calm when he said simply, "I forbid it." And that started an uproar. "Goodness, Jason, why ever would you do that?" came from Charlotte. "Sounds like he knows who the wench is, don't it?" James said to Anthony. "That would be my guess," Anthony replied.

But Edward had heard that and repeated, "'Who she is'? Why, who is she?" "Kelsey is Percival Alden's cousin," Georgina put in helpfully. "Actually, George, she's no relation to Percy a'tall," James told his wife. "I say, can someone tell me what's going on here?" Travis asked in confusion. "Like to know that myself," his father said gruffly, looking toward Jason now.

"Might be appropriate, puppy, if you add a bit to your announcement," Anthony said to Derek. "You've gone this far, might as well spit the rest out."

Derek nodded curtly. "It's true that Kelsey isn't Percy's cousin, as some of you supposed. She's my mistress." "Oh. dear," Charlotte said, and took a quick sip of her Wine.

"Egads, have you flipped your gourd, cousin?" Travis asked incredulously.

And Amy said to her brother, "Men have been known to marry their mistresses, especially when the lady is otherwise suitable for marriage." "But that ain't the case here, squirt," Jeremy told his cousin.

At which point Amy mimicked her mother's response. "Oh, dear." "I don't see how that makes a bit of difference," Georgina said. "If he wants to make an honest woman of her, I say good for him."

James rolled his eyes at that. "You're thinking like an American again, George." "I should hope so," Warren said in defense of his sister, giving her a wink. "That might not raise any brows where you come from, Yank," Anthony remarked. "But here it just ain't done."

Warren shrugged. "So he marries her and moves to America, where it is done. He might just enjoy kicking off the shackles of convention." "It's a thought," Derek agreed, grinning. Not that he would consider it, but ... "I forbid that, too," Jason said. "Well, that settles that, don't it?" James said dryly, because, in fact, it settled nothing.

Edward pointed that out in case anyone had missed the sarcasm. "He's old enough, Jason, that you can't just forbid it, much as you'd like to. Why don't you try talking some sense into him instead?"

Tight-lipped, Jason nodded curtly, stood up, and left the room. Derek sighed. This was the part he hadn't been looking forward to.

JASON HAD GONE TO HIS STUDY. DEREK ENTERED IT AND closed the door, fully anticipating that this would be one of their louder discussions. And Jason did look like thunderclouds about to burst, standing behind his desk with his hands braced against it. He had restrained himself in the dining room. He wouldn't there.

Derek made an attempt to forestall the diatribe. "There's nothing you can say that will change my mind. If Kelsey will have me, I'm going to marry her."

That changed Jason's expression quite a bit. "If?" he asked hopefully.

Derek's own expression turned chagrined as he admitted, "She's refused me." "Well, thank God for small favors. At least one of you has some sense." "You're saying I have no sense because I love her?" Derek said stiffly.

Jason shook his head. "It's all right to love your mistress. Lord knows I do. It's even all right to share your life with her, if you can manage it circumspectly-"

"As you have?" "Yes," Jason said, then stressed, "but it is not all right to marry her when you have a responsibility to marry within your class-and you do have that responsibility, Derek, as the future Marquis of Haverston." "I know my responsibilities. I also know that it won't be easy, the path I'm choosing. But a scandal is not the end of the world, Father. I am a scandal, have been one since the day I was born. I survived that; I'll survive this."

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