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Training Lady Townsend(3)

By:Annabel Joseph

As for Hunter, he glowered at his friends, now red-faced with barely restrained laughter. He communicated without words all the vulgar, hateful, abominable curses he wanted to heap upon their traitorous heads.

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Aurelia wished the servants had not lit so many candles in the library. She wanted to creep behind the high-backed sofa in the corner and hide. She wanted to kneel before her father and mother and beg for forgiveness, but instead she kept her seat across from the fuming Marquess of Townsend.

He hated her. His words, his glances made that perfectly clear. He lounged back, enduring her father’s wrath.

“You shamed my daughter, drawing her off and pawing her in that manner. What did you mean by it? What has she ever done to you?”

“Nothing,” Lord Townsend replied tightly. “I don’t know her at all.” He fixed her with a baleful gaze. “Why didn’t you tell me who you were?”

“I thought you knew who I was. I knew who you were.”

“Did you know this was to be our betrothal ball?”

“We sent letters to Somerton,” his father interjected. “They went unanswered.”

“I was busy at Somerton,” Lord Townsend said through his teeth.

“Yes, everyone knows you were busy,” said her father in a scathing tone. “And then you returned here to treat my daughter in the same uncouth and lecherous manner with which you conduct your...your personal life.” He turned to the Duke of Lockridge, the marquess’s father. “I don’t know if I can do it, by God, Neville. I don’t know if I can entrust my only daughter to this...this...”

He didn’t finish the statement. Aurelia wondered what he was going to say.

“I swear to you, henceforth my son will conduct himself with honor.” As Lockridge said it, he smacked Lord Townsend upon the ear with his cane. The son didn’t make a sound, only seethed with even greater intensity.

As for Aurelia, she stared down at her lap, hot, ashamed, remembering things she didn’t want to. The warmth of his lips, the unfamiliar hardness of his body pressing against hers. She’d been so afraid when he lowered his face to hers. She’d thought Lord Townsend’s kiss would feel horrible, damaging, and dangerous because of his poor reputation, but it hadn’t felt horrible at all.

Not that she knew what kisses were supposed to feel like. She was a lady, a scion of propriety, always faultless in behavior. While she’d understood for many years that she was supposed to marry the profligate son of her father’s friend, she’d imagined when it came down to it, everyone would realize he was too much of a rogue.

She’d assumed the betrothal would be broken, allowing her to marry the man she knew in her heart was her perfect companion—the smiling, polite Earl of Warren. Oh, she’d heard gossip about him also, but it was vile, ridiculous stuff, too outrageous to be believed. When she looked at Lord Warren, she could see he was a kindhearted soul, the type of man she could respect and feel secure with. A man like her father. Her father’s admirers called him Laudable Lansing because of his exceptional godliness and rectitude. Some types called him Laughable Lansing, but that was because they lacked moral fiber.

Aurelia’s shoulders slumped. She lacked moral fiber because she hadn’t been able to resign herself to marrying the man her father had chosen for her. She’d fallen in love with another man. She’d tried to run away from her betrothal ball, for all the good it had done her.

Her father paced back and forth in front of Lord Townsend while his parents frowned from across the room. “You shall wed my daughter as soon as it can be managed,” he said, “and then you’ll settle down into a model husband. More than a model husband. The most solicitous, respectable pinnacle of a husband that any fellow ever met.”

“I’ll try my best,” Lord Townsend replied in an acerbic tone.

Her father’s gaze hardened, his mouth thinned in a line. “Indeed you will, or I may see fit to interfere. My daughter has been very sheltered. Very gently bred. You cannot continue to act as if you have no responsibilities.”

“I manage my responsibilities,” said the marquess. “I have increased the profitability of my holdings by seventy percent in the last five years, maintained two residences, and contributed to social programs and charities. I manage all the responsibilities that I find important. Forgive me if marriage isn’t one of them.”

“You will not be so mannerless, Townsend,” his father hissed. “You’ll not show such disrespect to Lady Aurelia.”

She stared between the three angry men. In her agitated state, she was finding it difficult to follow the conversation.

“I’m sorry,” she asked, “but are we still going to marry?”

“I might have reconsidered,” her father said, “but after this evening’s display, there’s no other option. Your fiancé has made free with you in front of half the ton.”

Some part of her understood that she was ruined, the Lord Townsend had caused their marriage to become a necessary thing, but some part of her couldn’t grasp the finality of it. “Can I not...” Her voice caught in the tangle of her emotions. “Can I not marry for love?”

Her father’s brows rose nearly to his hairline. “Are you in love?”

Her eyes flicked to Lord Townsend’s. His eyes darkened with something like pity, or disgust. “Lord Warren?” he said, tracing a finger over the arm of the chair. “Unfortunately, he is not up to snuff. Ducal dynasties are at stake, and he’s a mere earl.”

Aurelia didn’t care if Lord Warren was only an earl. He was still titled, still an aristocrat. She turned pleading eyes on her father but he pretended not to see. He frightened her terribly, he always had. She didn’t want to disappoint him. She’d always been her parents’ perfect, obedient child, though she’d languished, always, in her older brother’s shadow. He was the heir, the next duke. She was the daughter, only good for building alliances.

“Perhaps I don’t have to marry. Perhaps...” Her voice thinned to a desperate squeak. “If only I had been a son, like Severin. Then there wouldn’t be this business of...of marrying me off.”

At that, her mother made a soft, mournful sound and hurried from the room. Aurelia’s vision blurred. Through her tears, she saw the marquess watching, his features taut, his hair a blur of black waves over his fathomless dark eyes. To her horror, tears overflowed and coursed down her cheeks. She covered her face, so her fine silk gloves had darker spots where she wiped away the wetness.

“Have done with this unpleasant business,” said Lord Townsend’s mother, fluttering closer to Aurelia and offering her handkerchief. “The poor child is beside herself. She ought to be home in bed.”

“She’s not a child anymore.” Lord Townsend’s eyes raked her, from her plunging bodice to her slippered toes. His voice was rough, hinting of licentious things. It made Aurelia cry harder.

The duchess rapped her son on the shoulder with her fan. “Comfort her, would you? Apologize to her. This is all your fault.”

“Don’t go near her,” Lansing barked before Lord Townsend could comply. “You’re not to touch my daughter again, not until you’re putting a ring on her finger in the church.”

“No courtship then?” Lord Townsend arched a brow. “But why should there be? It’s been so businesslike to this point.”

Her father bristled. “Oh, you’re going to court my daughter. You’re going to make amends for the mess you’ve made of her reputation. You’re going to behave like the most charming, well-mannered, and attentive suitor of all time.”

“Without touching her?”

“Yes.” He nodded and rapped his cane against the floor. “I don’t care how you manage it, but you’ll convince the entire ton that you’re enamored of her. However you handle it, I expect her wed by the end of June.”

“The end of June?” The marquess sat straighter in his chair. “It’s April now.”

“You’ve enough time to put your affairs in order. Do you comprehend my meaning?”

A look passed between the three men that she didn’t understand. The marquess turned away first, toward her. His eyes narrowed. He despised her. The kiss, the feel of his body against hers, none of it could overcome the dread seeping into her bones. She was to marry him? This man who hated her?

He stood so abruptly that she shrank back.

“Since I cannot touch you, dear Lady Aurelia,” he said in a falsely solicitous tone, “I fear an official betrothal dance is out of the question. Therefore, I’ll excuse myself from this ball and let the remainder of this farce play out without me.”

He made a crisp bow and left. Aurelia watched him go, chewing her lip until his broad shoulders cleared the door frame and disappeared into the outer hall.

Chapter Two: Lovely

The Duke of Arlington’s garden rustled with swishing coat tails and embellished and ruched silk gowns. The season’s most eligible young ladies clustered in pastel groups with frowning chaperones and hawk-eyed mothers, while toplofty gentlemen sized up the possibilities for consolidating families and power. Fans fluttered and come-hither glances flew, most of them toward the garden party’s towering blond host.