An Excerpt from A Most Unsuitable Countess,
Book 3 in the Scandalous Regency Widows Series
Winthorpe House, Mayfair, London
“Catherine, you cannot be here.” Adam St Clair, the Earl of Dalton, ran a hand down his impossibly handsome face, his expression caught somewhere between exasperation and despair.
At least, Catherine hoped it was despair. Because that was the emotion churning about inside her heart and making her throat tighten with the effort not to cry. That, and a good dose of apprehension.
“I know.” Her voice was so hoarse, the words came out as a croak. She licked dry lips and continued. “But…there’s something I need to tell you.” Her trembling hand fluttered downward over the skirts of her lilac silk ballgown to her belly.
Adam blew out a sigh as he raked a hand through his tousled light-brown hair. His pained gaze darted to the French doors leading to the crowded, chandelier-lit ballroom of Winthorpe House, then back to her. Oh God, he was frustrated with her.
“We said goodbye a month ago.” His deep voice was low yet tinged with an unmistakable undercurrent of urgency. “I thought you understood. You being here tonight… It’s too…”
Dangerous. Inconvenient. Pitiful? The bitter words hovered on Catherine’s lips but somehow she swallowed them down along with her tears. How could she tell her former protector—the man she loved with her entire foolish heart even though he couldn’t possibly love her in return—that she was with child?
“I know,” she repeated uselessly. “I know I shouldn’t be here.” It would be futile to remind him that he had instigated the parting of ways, not her. Men discarded their mistresses all the time, and it was Adam’s prerogative after all.
But he was going to be a father and she had to tell him, come what may.
The sound of merrymaking—laughter, chatter, and the strains of a small orchestra—traveled clearly on the damp cold night air, filling the taut silence stretching between them. Lord and Lady Winthorpe’s ball was in full swing but the October night was so chilly, the stone-flagged terrace was deserted…except for her and Adam.
“How did you gain admittance?”
Adam’s gruff question cut Catherine to the bone. It was to be expected, but nevertheless, it hurt. Narrowing her eyes to mask her pain, she fired back, “I didn’t slink in the back door like a common sneakthief, if that’s what you’re implying.”
“Of course not—”
She raised her chin. “I came here with Sir Louis Fortescue.”
Adam nodded. The light spilling through a nearby window revealed a muscle pulsing in his lean jaw. A flash of jealousy in his eyes? His reaction gave her courage. But not hope. She dared not hope he would change his mind about her and a longed-for future that was well-nigh impossible.
Noblemen didn’t fall in love with whores and then marry them—especially bastard brats who’d grown up in the gutters of revolution-torn Paris. It was simply the way of the world. And hadn’t he once told her that he didn’t believe in the idea of love? That romantic love made both men and women lose their minds? Caused them to make foolish decisions and take rash actions? That he would never let himself fall victim to such a senseless, volatile emotion that often ruined hearts and lives?
But he has a right to know I’m pregnant, doesn’t he…?
Before she could drag in a breath to say what she needed to, Adam spoke again. “God help me, Catherine,” he muttered through clenched teeth. “I’m trying to do the right thing here.”
She shook her head, bewildered. Right thing for whom? “I don’t know what—”
She got no further as Adam seized her, crushing his hot mouth against hers. He pushed her into the dark velvet shadows up against the cold brick wall, his strong arms crowding her in, trapping her so she couldn’t escape, even if she’d wanted to. The kiss was rough, brutal.
His teeth nipped, his lips grazed, his tongue invaded her mouth and lashed against hers. And she loved it. Welcomed it. Clinging to his wide shoulders, she kissed him back with equal ferocity.
Yes, her heart sang. Remember this, Adam, Remember us.
Don’t cast me aside. Don’t abandon me.
His hands were in her hair, gripping the back of her head, then cradling her jaw. At her throat where her pulse pounded. On her breasts…
Then all at once Adam dragged his mouth away. His wide chest rose and fell with his jagged breaths. He shook his head and released her from his embrace, his hands clenching and unclenching at his sides as he stepped back toward the French doors. “This is madness. I…” A wash of bright candlelight illuminated his piercing blue eyes as they locked with hers. “I can’t do this.”
“But why not?” She reached out a hand but let it fall when Adam took another step away from her. “You want me. I know you do. And besides—”
Another emphatic shake of his head. “Wanting isn’t enough. I have responsibilities. A duty—”
“Adam? What on earth are you doing out here?” An attractive, fair-haired young woman appeared in the suddenly open doorway. “I’ve been looking everywhere…” Her sharp gaze slid past Adam’s broad shoulders and landed on Catherine. “I don’t believe we’ve met,” she said in a voice dripping with icicles.
With a jolt, Catherine recognized her—it was the daughter of the house, Lady Sybil Gower. She couldn’t have been older than twenty. A mere slip of a thing. A debutante. A ripple of unease passed over Catherine’s skin, making her shiver.
Adam moved toward the scowling younger woman. “Sybil, Miss Delacourt is a former acquaintance of mine. And a friend of Sir Louis Fortescue’s,” he said in a voice so smooth, Catherine blinked in astonishment.
How could he be so calm, so urbane when only a moment ago a wild storm of passion had consumed him?
“I see.” Lady Sybil turned her attention back to Adam and reached for his arm. “Come, my darling. Papa wants to make the announcement after the next cotillion finishes.”
My darling? Announcement?
Catherine’s stomach pitched as sharp realization slapped her in the face.
I have a duty…
“You’re getting married,” she whispered through numb, frozen lips.
Adam turned back to her, his expression wooden. “Yes.”
“Yes, indeed we are.” Lady Sybil stared up at Adam with such adoration, Catherine thought she might lose the contents of her stomach.
How could he do this? Of course, Adam needed to marry someone from his own class, but why choose someone like Lady Sybil? Someone so young and inexperienced? He’d grow bored with her within the space of a few weeks. She just knew he would.
Surely Adam hadn’t fallen in love with Lady Sybil. Not when he was so cynical about that particular emotion. Or so he’d always claimed…
Unless he simply can’t love you, Catherine…
A sob gathering in her throat, Catherine swallowed hard and somehow made her voice work as she stepped out of the shadows. At times like this, she was grateful she’d inherited her mother’s gift for acting. “Then may I be the first to offer my congratulations, Lady Sybil?” Plastering a false smile on her face, she blinked away her tears and forced herself to look Adam in the eye. “Lord Dalton.”
Lady Sybil’s expression was a combination of smugness and a civility so false it matched her own. “Why thank you, Miss…” She trailed off then affected a small laugh. “Goodness, I’ve already forgotten your name.”
“Delacourt,” Adam supplied. He offered a gentlemanly bow and another smooth smile. “Thank you, Miss Delacourt. Your good wishes mean a great deal to me.”
Lady Sybil shot him a suspicious look but Adam ignored it. Tucking her gloved hand into the crook of his arm, he inclined his head in farewell again before escorting his haughty betrothed back inside.
Catherine staggered backward toward the edge of the terrace. Gripping the white marble balustrade, she closed her eyes as dark anguish engulfed her. Adam is to be married. I’ve truly lost him. I didn’t tell him he’s going to be a father. And now he’ll never know…
Burning tears welled and this time Catherine let them flow unheeded. Their child would forever be tainted by the stain of illegitimacy. It was a stain she knew all too well.
“Catherine, my dear. Are you all right?” Sir Louis Fortescue appeared at her side. His graying hair shone like silver in the moonlight.
Catherine dashed at her eyes with her gloved hand. “Yes.” When the baronet raised a dark eyebrow in disbelief, she shook her head. She’d never been able to hide the truth from Sir Louis, not in all the years she’d known him. “No. To be perfectly honest… I don’t feel quite myself at all.”
Sir Louis’s dark brows plunged into a deep frown. “What’s happened? If Dalton has hurt you—”
“No. No, he hasn’t. Well, not on purpose.” Catherine drew a deep, shuddering breath. The cold air hurt her lungs but nevertheless, it cleared her head a little. “You were right to caution me about coming tonight. I have just been informed that Lord Winthorpe is about to announce his daughter’s betrothal. To Adam.”
“Ah… That explains why everyone is assembling in the ballroom.”
“You knew Adam might be announcing his engagement, didn’t you?” There was no accusation in her voice. Sir Louis had tried to dissuade her from coming but she’d insisted on accompanying him when she’d learned he had received an invitation.
After pressing a linen kerchief into her hand, Sir Louis gathered her close and dropped a kiss on her forehead. “My poor darling girl. Dalton was bound to become leg-shackled to one of the ton’s chits at some stage. But I suspect knowing that doesn’t make it any easier for you.”
“No… No it doesn’t.”
“And we both know the real problem. Lord Dalton is too noble for his own good.”
Catherine nodded. Sir Louis was right. Adam wasn’t the sort of man who would be able to countenance keeping a mistress if he’d sworn fidelity to another. She supposed it was one of the qualities she loved about him so much. He was indeed, noble.
And wary of scandal.
Lord knows, someone like her would never make a suitable wife for someone like him. He’d said he had a duty. Responsibilities. No doubt to his family and the all-important Dalton legacy. But understanding that didn’t make things any easier when she and her child were the ones being cast aside.
But deal with it she must. Just as she’d always dealt with any obstacle thrown her way. She might not be a Lady, but Catherine Delacourt would not be defeated by any of life’s slings and arrows, no matter how much they pained her heart or wounded her spirit.
She stood quietly for a few minutes, her head resting against Sir Louis’s shoulder until the baronet’s chest rose and fell on a deep sigh.
“I’m sure you wish to leave, my dear, but I have a small…business matter to take care of first. I won’t be long. Five or ten minutes at the most.”
Catherine lifted her head and wiped away the last of her tears. “That’s quite all right. Do what you need to do. I shall wait here.” It might be cold outside, but she didn’t think she could face returning to the ballroom. To see Adam with his glowing fiancée, to hear the congratulatory toasts and good wishes offered by other guests, would surely be her undoing.
Sir Louis drew back and studied her face. “Are you sure?”
“Yes. I’m sure. Absolutement.” Catherine forced a smile. When the baronet’s frown deepened, she gave him a little push. “Now go. I promise I will be fine.”
She watched Sir Louis disappear through the French doors. For a man who was nearing sixty, he held himself well. In the eight years she’d known him—he’d been her mother’s first well-to-do protector—he’d always been scrupulously kind to her. In a way, he was like the father Catherine had never had. She would always be grateful that the baronet had provided his French émigré mistress, Madeleine de la Court, with a generous income and comfortable rooms in an affluent part of London during the three years they’d maintained their arrangement. It was far better than the hand-to mouth, oftentimes fraught existence she and her mother had endured before that point.
It would be an understatement to say the streets of Paris and the brothels around Covent Garden—and even the Drury Lane Theater where her mother had worked for a time and Catherine had spent many an evening—had never felt safe. Much to her mother’s disappointment, however, Catherine had ultimately followed in her footsteps. At the age of eighteen, she’d styled herself as the sophisticated and alluring courtesan “Catherine Delacourt.” Aside from a natural facility for flirtation, Catherine’s linguistic adeptness had also allowed her to adopt a refined English accent; she’d reasoned that to appeal to a wider number of “gentlemen of means” she should “Anglicize” herself. And her reasoning had paid off. Catherine’s wealthy upper-class protectors—she’d only had three including Adam—had not been the least bit stingy. Particularly Adam. In fact, he’d provided her with a generous allowance and a stylish townhouse in Russell Square which she could easily sell if she had to. At least her child—their child—would want for nothing at the beginning of its life.
Well, nothing except a father.
Copyright © 2023 Amy Rose Bennett