Say You Love Me Page 6

Marjorie Eddings had been her name. She was a young widow of good breeding who couldn't quite make ends meet to continue living in the style she had been born to. He had paid her debts-actually, most of them had been her departed husband's debts-refurbished the house she had inherited, gave in to her desire for costly little trinkets.

He'd even agreed to be her escort to the many gatherings she was still invited to, when he'd had no desire to fill that roll. All aboveboard, naturally, and highly respectable, even to dropping her off at her residence, as was proper, and having to wait hours before it was safe to sneak in for the favors he was due-which, half the time, she claimed she was too tired to supply. And during the entire six months of their relationship, knowing full well that he had no interest in marriage, she had plotted to get him to the altar.

Even if he had liked her well enough to make their relationship permanent, which he hadn't, he didn't like being tricked and lied to, which she had done. She claimed she was with child when she wasn't. Then she had let their real association leak through to the gossip mills, while claiming that he'd promised to marry her. That had been the last straw. And she'd made that claim directly to his father.

Of course, Marjorie had underestimated the Malory family. It was impossible to insinuate herself into their ranks with lies. Derek's father knew him well enough to know he'd never make such a promise. As it happened, Jason Malory would have been delighted if it were otherwise.

But Jason knew his only son wasn't ready to settle down any time soon, and thankfully, he'd never tried to force Derek to change his mind. Derek knew the day would come when the pressure would be turned on. Responsibility and all that, carrying on the line, and in Derek's case, the title he would eventually inherit, were large considerations.

As for Marjorie, well, Jason didn't like liars either. He was a man of rigid principles. And having been head of his family for so long-since he was sixteen, actually-and having had to call his younger brothers on the carpet so often for their misdeeds through the years, as well as Derek and Reggie, whom he'd had the raising of, he had that sort of thing down to an art.

A hot temper should also be mentioned. It was only the most innocent who could stand up to one of Jason's furious sermons. The guilty would quickly crumble in shame, and in the case of women, tears, since it was very unpleasant getting the roof dropped on your head, as Uncle Tony was fond of putting it.

Marjorie had left in tears and disgrace and had troubled Derek no more. She'd gulled a great deal of money out of him during their short relationship, so he was feeling no guilt himself that it had ended so badly. And he'd learned his lesson-at least he'd thought he had.

To be fair, though, the woman he had acquired earlier that night wouldn't-at least shouldn't-be anything like Marjorie. Kelsey Langton wasn't gentry, even though she might sound like it, wasn't raised to privilege, so she would be genuinely grateful for anything he might do for her, whereas Marjorie had expected it as her due.

Furthermore, he'd actually bought her. He had the bill of sale in his pocket to prove it. And he still didn't quite know what he thought of that. But she'd put herself up for sale. It wasn't as if she'd been sold without her permission and ... better not to even think about the bought-and-sold part of it. He'd acquired a mistress, and he hadn't even done it to acquire one but to keep that blackguard Ashford from brutalizing still another woman, and this one without an avenue of escaping his cruelties.

Beating Ashford senseless obviously hadn't put an end to his perverted ways, as Derek had hoped. He was just going about it more legally now, as in that absurd auction and in making use of houses like Lonny's that supplied women for such purposes.

Previously, David Ashford had bought cheap whores for a night. Such women had no recourse against lords of Ashford's ilk, and worse, probably felt the few pounds he tossed them was ample compensation for whatever scars he left. Pathetic, but true. And even if Derek brought charges against Ashford, having witnessed firsthand the man's sick excuse for pleasure, he knew no victims would be found to bear witness against the man. They'd be bought off, or disposed of, before it ever came to trial.

But Derek felt so strongly about this that he was going to have to do something further now that he knew for a fact that Ashford was still at it. And he couldn't go around buying up every female Ashford tried to purchase outright, even if he caught wind of every auction of that sort. He didn't have an endless supply of money. Tonight he'd acted on impulse.

Perhaps he ought to talk to his Uncle James about what to do. James had dealt a great deal with the unsavory side of life during his pirating days. If anyone would know how to deal with scum like Ashford, he would.

But that was for tomorrow. Tonight, he was having a devilishly hard time enjoying himself. And he finally began to wonder, when he kept seeing a pair of soft gray eyes in front of him instead of the blue ones belonging to his present partner, if Jeremy and Percy hadn't been right. What the bloody hell was he still doing at the ball when there was a lovely young woman-under his own roof, for that matter-who'd probably gone to bed tonight wondering why he wasn't with her? -

Of course, "under his own roof" put a damper on matters. One reason he got along with his father so well, and was rarely taken to task for anything, was because he understood that his father wasn't going to try to curtail his pleasures as long as he practiced them with complete discretion. And Derek had always done so.

Which meant he'd never dallied with a wench in the London town house, not even at the two estates that had been turned over to him. Servants' gossip could be the worst gossip there was, there being no faster grapevine than the one that connected each house down a street and beyond through their butlers, their drivers, their maids, their footmen, and so forth. And that meant he wouldn't be getting to know his new mistress any better tonight.

Finally he gave up the pretense of enjoying himself and found Jeremy and Percy to let them know he was leaving and would send the carriage back for them later. They, of course, gave him'knowing winks and smirks, thinking he was heading home to enjoy himself. But, then, they didn't have fathers like Jason Malory.

Which wasn't to say he didn't give going to her a lot of thought on that ride home. Kelsey Langton wasn't one of the servants, after all. And she wouldn't be in the house long enough to gossip with any of the regular servants. He could, in fact, visit her with none the wiser and be tucked into his own bed by morning. His valet wouldn't be up to know the difference, since he never kept the man waiting up for him.

Actually, it didn't take much to talk himself into paying Kelsey a short visit. So it was rather disappointing to be met at the door by Hanly again, even at that bloody late hour, and having that put an end to those plans.

Nosy old coot. If Hanly hadn't stood there in the foyer and watched him ascend the stairs, every single step of them, Derek might still have gone down to the servants' quarters to search out the girl. But he didn't doubt for a moment that Hianly would be lurking about down there, watching for him.

And then Derek's father would hear about it within the week, and he'd end up called to task about propriety, discretion, and ensuring the servants' gossip had to do with other people's households, not one's own. All for one little tryst with a chit he could have access to at any time-after tonight? Not bloody likely.

But it was deuced hard getting to sleep that night.

IT’S MY OWN FAULT," MRs. HERSHAL MUMBLED. I'SHOULD'VE seen it right off, but I'll admit my eyesight ain't what it used to be, 'specially at night."

Kelsey rubbed the sleep from her own eyes as she listened with half an ear to the housekeeper. She didn't comment, since she didn't know what the woman was talking about. Obviously, she must have missed that part, having awakened to find Mrs. Hershal taking one of her dresses out of her valise to smooth out the wrinkles.

The room had already been tidied up, not that she had been awake long enough last night to make much mess. And there was fresh water awaiting her, fluffy towels, and what looked like a pot of tea.

She yawned, thankful that she hadn't awakened disoriented and wondering where she was and who the devil this woman was who was rummaging aboui in her room. Brown hair twisted into a severe bun, broad shoulders and an overly large bosom making her a bit top-heavy, and thick brows that seemed slanted into a perpetual frown.

Oh, yes, she remembered the housekeeper all right-too clearly, in fact, the woman's contemptuous tsking and disparaging looks that had made Kelsey feel like the lowliest gutter rat. And her parting remark the night before that Kelsey would never forget. "And don't be wandering about and stealing anything, cause we'll know who done it, we will."

It was extremely hard to stomach such disdain when she had never experienced anything approaching scorn in her life, but she'd already figured that she would have to get used to such attitudes. She'd just have to put a shell around her feelings so eventually it wouldn't hurt or embarrass her as it did now.

Kelsey wished the housekeeper would hurry up and leave.

But she was still mumbling to herself, apparently not aware yet that Kelsey was even awake. And then Kelsey changed that opinion when she started listening more intently to what the woman was saying. "Comes from trusting Hanly's opinion. But what does he know, I ask you? Tells me you're a tart His Lordship's brought home and I go and believe him. My own fault, though. I know it. I admit it. I should've had a closer looksee. It's in the bones, you know. The bones won't deceive you, and you've got 'em." "I beg your pardon." "See? What did I tell you? You should've begged my pardon last night, m'lady, and I'd have known right off that you didn't belong down here. It was that dress, you see. And my eyesight ain't so good, like I said."

Kelsey stiffened, sitting up in the lumpy bed. Last night she hadn't even noticed it was so uncomfortable. Good God, the woman was apologizing. That's what all her mumbling was about, For some unknown reason she'd decided that she'd made a mistake in classing Kelsey with gutter rats. And how was Kelsey supposed to deal with that? She didn't want anyone thinking she was a lady. Whatever She could just say nothing. Let the woman think she liked. it wasn't as if she would be staying in this house, where she'd have to deal with her on a daily basis. But there was a chance that Mrs. Hershal might take her guilt straight to Lord Derek to continue her apologizing to him, and that wouldn't do at all. somewhat weak smile and said, so she gave the woman”, Mrs. Hershal. It's true that I’m not what you're thinking, that dress wasn't mine, and if I never see it again, I couldn't be happier. But I'm not gentry, really I'm not””'Then how do you explain-" Kelsey quickly interrupted. "My mum was a governess, you see, and we didn't have it so bad. She was employed by the same family for most of my life, and we got to live in a nice house like this. I was even privileged enough to get to share the same tutors with the young ladies my mum had charge of-which is probably why you're thinking I'm other than what I am. Believe me, you're not the only one to have made that mistake because of the way I talk."

That lie was getting easier with repetition, but Mrs. Hershal was frowning doubtfully and studying Kelsey's face as if the truth were written there for any discerning eye to note.

In fact, that was exactly what she was still thinking. "That don't explain the bones, m'lady. You've got the fine bones of the upper crust, you do."

Kelsey thought frantically for a moment, then said the only thing that came to mind. "Well-I've never met my father, actually." And there was no need to try to simulate the blush that came with that lie. "A by-blow then?" Mrs. Hershal replied thoughtfully, then nodded to herself, seeming well pleased with such a logical, Obvious answer. Then sympathetically, "Ah, well, there's enough of that goes around, ain't there now. Even Lord Derek, bless him, came out on the wrong side o' the blanket. 'Course his papa, the marquis, acknowledged him and made him his heir, so he's accepted well enough by the ton, though it weren't always so. Had many a fight, he did, younguns being as cruel as they are, up until Viscount Eden befriended him in their college days."

Kelsey certainly hadn't expected a history of Jeremy's friend Derek, and didn't know quite what to say. His illegitimacy was none of her business, certainly, but since she had just, sort of, claimed to be the same thing, she supposed she should pretend some understanding. "Yes, I know how that is." "I'm sure you do, miss, I'm sure you do."

Kelsey relaxed then, hearing Mrs. Hershal using "miss" instead of "m'lady." Mrs. Hershal didn't look so fretful either, apparently having been satisfied that her mistake wasn't too far off the mark, so she wouldn't be getting into trouble for it.

And the housekeeper was quick to conclude on her own, "Having a bit of trouble then, are you, for Lord Derek to be helping you out?"

It was easiest to just say "Yes" and let it go at that, but wouldn't you know, the housekeeper was too nosy to take the hint. "You've known His Lordship long, then?" "No, not atall. I was-stranded. I don't know this city, you see, only just arrived and had been lucky enough to find lodging right away, but unlucky enough to have the building catch fire last night. That's why I was wearing that horrid dress. Someone had lent it to me before my valise was recovered, and-and Lord Derek had been driving by, saw the smoke, and stopped to help." .Having improvised as she went along, Kelsey was feeling rather proud of creating a fire to explain the dress as well as her presence here. The housekeeper nodded with approval.

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