Hidden Depths Snippet

Lady Cecile preceded him through the door to the library.
“No. Leave the door open, please,” she said.  His shoulders slumped the tiniest bit as he stopped to throw the doors open once again. His jaw was clenched and he’d wrinkled his brow. What on earth was he thinking, asking to speak to her alone when she looked as if being alone with him was the furthest thing from her mind? If it came to that maybe she’d save him from himself. Herself too, all in one neat and quick refusal.
He gave the room a quick cursory glance and then bounded towards the windows. Ned wished she’d been allowed to take him to a room where the doors led out to the gardens. At least there would be a means of escape if the conversation took an unexpected turn.
“If you’ll join me by the windows. I think the likelihood of our conversation being overheard is lessened here.”
She stood, hands clasped in front of her, staring at him. Perhaps one day she’d have to engage in a conversation like the one awaiting her, but she didn’t look as if she was in a hurry to bring it about. All the better for him.
“Please. I promise it’s not what you think. Well. It is a bit, but not in the way you’re thinking.”
She took a bold step closer, her shoulders thrown back and her chin lowered. “All right, Mr. Sutton. Here I am. What did you need to speak to me about?”
Ned took a deep breath and plunged ahead. “Am I wrong in thinking that you would rather not be married just now?” She stepped back quickly and glared at him. “That is to say, you were hiding at that party, were you not?”
She was frowning at him now. “If I recall, you joined me behind the drapes in that alcove, so I’d say you were hiding as well.”
He cleared his throat. “Just so. I ask because I think I can help,  erm actually we can help one another, if you are as reluctant to wed as I am.” Ned’s heart was beating in his throat. What was he thinking? Darrow was right, this was a mad scheme and sure to go all together upside down. Just as he was about to beg her pardon and then go collect his hat and coat, she spoke.
“Help one another. In what way? What is your meaning sir, because if you’re suggesting…”
Ned gasped and a flash of himself skewered at the end of Burke’s saber passed through his mind. “Good heavens, no. Please, just hear me out.” He moved a step closer to her and caught a whiff of a clean, airy scent that he would always associate with her. It made him want to rub a finger across her pillowy, soft lips.
“My older brother is overdue in returning from a trip to the continent, presumed missing and possibly worse.” Ned swallowed and his voice broke a little as he stumbled over those last words. A soft look passed over her face and she unclasped her hands. “With Nick missing, there’s a chance that I could be named my father’s heir, which I have no interest in. Especially if there’s any chance my brother is merely detained and not, well, not ever coming back.” God, he could do with a whiskey about now.
Lady Cecile had moved a bit closer and now they were facing one another though standing at the opposite ends of one of the tall windows. “I am sorry to hear about your brother but I still don’t see how I can be of any help to you.”
Ned considered stepping closer but decided against it. This part of the conversation might require some distance. “The situation has put me squarely in my father’s line of sight and he’s decided that his timetable of brokering a marriage for his youngest and least favorite son is an inescapable task. Especially if said son is set to be the heir, rather than the spare.” She made a tiny face at the words ‘least favorite’ and Ned felt a flush of gratitude towards her. “The rest of the ton, especially the marriage-minded, have decided that I’m a much more eligible match now that there’s a possibility of me taking on my father’s title.” Ned could feel his face tightening with the telling.
“And why would you not take this opportunity to find yourself a suitable bride?” She drove right to the heart of the thing. “Ah, Agnes and her mama.”
Ned nodded. “I have plans that would take me away from these shores and marriage would interfere with them.”
“I fail to understand, Mr. Sutton. What exactly is it you are asking of me?”
“I’m asking that we submit to a betrothal and once it’s convenient, I will release you from any obligation.” Her eyes widened before a little furrow formed between her eyes.
“Convenient? Convenient to whom?” She asked.
“My plans include a partnership in an import and export company based in Malaysia. Do you know where that is? Malaysia, I mean.” He was nervous and babbling a little. He clasped his hands behind his back.
Her brows lowered, giving her lovely face a stern air. Then a half-smile formed on her lips. “Yes, I know where Malaysia is. Do go on, Mr. Sutton.”
He took a step back, brushing against the heavy emerald-colored drapes that had the earl’s crest emblazoned upon them. “As I was saying, I’ve plans to not only invest but help to manage a small trading company and my brother’s absence has cast an unwelcome light of attention upon me.”
“Unwelcome because Lord Scarborough is unaware of your plans and also your possibilities as heir?” She injected.
“Ah, yes. Exactly. And if I marry, that would bring those plans to a halt.”
“Could you not simply take your bride along to Malaysia?” She asked. Good heavens, she’d make an excellent barrister if that kind of thing were allowed. God, now he was imagining her in one of those silly wigs, a black flowing robe and not much else. Christ Ned, focus.
   “That would be inconvenient to not only me, but to my business partner as well.” Ned heaved a shallow breath. He’d never felt this nervous, not even when he was giving a report to a commanding officer. “I thought that since we have a common desire in not being rushed into marriage, that this might be a solution for us both.”
She pursed her lips. “I am afraid that I cannot agree to this. You see, my father is the one insisting that I marry. If I fail to choose a husband for myself, his Lordship has made it clear that he has no compunction about performing the task himself.  So, a broken betrothal is your suggestion but that would leave me in the same dire circumstances once you abscond to an alternate locale. Your reputation would be no worse for the wear, but it would leave me returned squarely to the auction block with my own reputation tarnished and my prospects lessened. For this to bring a benefit to me, besides the cessation of the jousting for my dowry, it needs to put paid to all those issues. Nothing less than a marriage would suit me.”
“Marriage.” Ned blinked and took a breath intending to try another route to convince her but she wasn’t finished.
“Yes, a marriage. With us wed, you get access to my dowry should you need ready funds for your venture and the respectability that comes along with being a married man. If your concern is what happens once you finally decide that a true marriage does suit you, well perhaps your lady love would wait for you to bring a CrimCon against me in order to gain your freedom. I shall then gladly retire to the country to manage the shame of being unwanted by my husband.” The dare in her voice and the way her eyes shone made him want to kiss her.

Ned had already determined that she was bright but this proved to be beyond all his expectations. There was no reason for hesitation since he stood to gain the most from this arrangement. He closed the distance between them. “Shall we shake hands before I speak to your father?”

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