Beguiling the Earl(9)

By: Suzanna Medeiros

Charlotte nodded with gravity. “I’m afraid so. I made quite a nuisance of myself when I was younger.”

“What changed?” Catherine asked, eager to learn how the other woman had finally managed to capture the interest of the man she loved.

“Well, first there were a few years when we didn’t see one another, and during that time I grew up. Both in maturity and in physical appearance. You, however,” she said, turning a critical eye to Catherine, “are already very beautiful.”

“Was that all?” If that was the duchess’s secret, her case was truly hopeless. Kerrick was hardly falling all over himself nor writing sonnets composed to her beauty.

Charlotte shook her head. “I followed the conventional wisdom that says men want most that which they cannot have.”

At Catherine’s obvious confusion, Charlotte smiled. “I made him believe that I was not the least bit interested in him, and then I proceeded to flirt with any man who would give me more than a few moments’ notice.”

Catherine mulled that advice over in her head. Did she have it in her to fake an attraction where none existed? Her thoughts went to Rose Hardwick. Was that what the other woman was doing? Pretending to be aloof to Kerrick? Rose did surround herself with other admirers. Was she attempting to draw Kerrick’s interest by pretending indifference? The thought made her feel slightly ill, because that would mean that Catherine had a direct rival for Kerrick’s attention. One who already seemed to hold the advantage if her parents’ expectations were any indication.

“I’m not sure I can do that.”

“You might not have to,” Charlotte said. She must have seen Catherine’s confusion, for she added, “Kerrick already likes you very much.”

Catherine hesitated a moment before saying, “I’ve heard there are expectations about his future.”

Charlotte looked at her levelly. “Clarington tells me that there is no formal betrothal, and I suppose he would know. I might only be three and twenty, but over the years I’ve seen that expectations do not always turn into reality. Until Kerrick declares himself and is accepted, he is free to pursue others. Or to be pursued.”

The duchess was correct, of course. If there was no formal understanding between the two, and since neither of the parties involved showed any sign of having a romantic attachment for the other, what would it hurt to follow where her heart led? She would never forgive herself if she didn’t at least try to capture Kerrick’s interest.

“What do I do? I cannot be coy with other men. Not when…” She was unsure of how to continue, but Charlotte knew what she was going to say.

“Not when the rival for his affections is using the same tactic? And doing so splendidly, I might add.”

The note of admiration in Charlotte’s voice was enough to make Catherine despair.

“You’ll have to use the opposite strategy. Since Rose Hardwick is putting a lot of effort into pushing Kerrick away, we’ll have to make sure he’s pushed in your direction.”

Catherine liked the sound of that. “How?”

Charlotte considered that for several moments. “To begin,” she said, “I’ll do what I can to keep my husband occupied over the next few weeks. If Kerrick wishes to spend some quality time bonding with a male friend, he’ll be forced to do so with Overlea. That should put him into your path more often.”

Catherine was so caught up in their conversation that she hadn’t noticed that Kerrick and the duke were already returning until the duchess silenced what she was about to say by reaching out to tap her arm and inclining her head to the right. Catherine turned to find them with a middle-aged man of average height whose skin bore witness to the fact that he spent a great deal of time outdoors.

After Kerrick made the introductions, Mr. Clifton smiled at her and said, “I hear you are very fond of plants. What would you like me to show you first?”

“I want to see everything,” Catherine said with a self-deprecating laugh. “But I fear my companions wouldn’t be too happy to spend the next several hours wandering over every acre of land.”

Mr. Clifton’s eyes warmed at her obvious enthusiasm. “I’m afraid that wouldn’t be possible, even if they were willing, but I can show you an assortment of what we’ve collected here.”