Sneak Peek: A Ruined Reputation
From Chapter Six: The Brook, The Log, The Consequences
Spoiler Alert! This excerpt is from Chapter Six of Rescuing Lord Inglewood.
No one had ever turned their back on him, nor stormed away from him in such a manner. Silas had been Earl of Inglewood since his eleventh year of life. People respected his title, then they learned to respect him. Yet rather than take offense, Silas’s first instinct was to follow Esther and repair whatever damage he had done.
Which seemed backward. He had been attempting to repair damage to her person in the first place. Apparently, Esther did not see his actions that way, and misattributed the reasons for them.
He followed her, at a little distance, looking back the way they had come to be sure their departure from the path hadn’t been noticed. He could see others here and there, of course, but no one seemed to be paying particular attention to him. If they returned to the main body of picnickers before long, no one would think a thing of it.
She stopped, thankfully, at the edge of the brook. The old log they’d used to cross the water as children was still there, covered in moss. He approached slowly, attempting not to startle her.
“Go away, Silas,” she said, the words trembly and tinted with annoyance.
As a friend to her brother, he could not simply leave her to cry on her own. As her escort, it was his duty to see her safely returned to the company. Silas came around the log, standing a pace in front of her.
“Silas, is it? I thought you had forgotten my Christian name.” It might have been cheeky to speak in such a manner, but the situation called for some humor. Of course, it had been some years since Silas had teased her. Yet attempting it in the moment felt oddly natural.
She lifted her face, glaring at him from red-rimmed eyes. “When you are behaving like a peer, I will address you as one. At the moment, you are my brother’s quarrelsome friend.” She sniffled and then wrinkled her nose. “I have forgotten my reticule in the cart.”
“Oh?” Silas did not see what that had to do with anything, but when she sniffled again it alerted him to the true problem. “Oh. Of course. Allow me.” He withdrew a clean handkerchief from an inside coat pocket, handing it to her with a bow. She took the cloth and dabbed at her eyes and nose. “There now,” he said, unable to resist. “You see, I am helpful. Not quarrelsome.”
She clenched the handkerchief in both hands, as if she would strangle him with the cloth. He took a small step back. What had he done to earn such ire?
She turned her head toward the water, presenting him with her rather elegant profile. Her maturity surprised him, and her beauty had taken him aback when he saw her last. She hadn’t even been at her best, after she sustained that head injury on his behalf. But now, recovered and energetic, with her cheeks pink and her posture setting off her figure quite well, he found her completely enchanting.
“Esther?” he said, taking her use of his Christian name as permission to use hers. “What have I done to offend you?” He put as much gentleness in his words as possible, coaxing her to soften.
“You have only done what everyone always does to me,” she said, her words more resigned than forceful. He supposed that was a step in the right direction. “You have decided what is best, removed my troublesome person from one place to another, and treated me as though I have no opinion of my own. I am quite used to it, you know. People treat children and baggage as I have been treated.”
It sounded dramatic, but also rather sad. Was that truly how Esther saw herself? Looking back on his actions, he supposed he could understand. To an extent. Women were meant to be protected by the men in their lives. He had acted decisively, in order to defend her. But he had not taken the time to speak to her directly, to help her understand his plan was for her own good.
“I think you misunderstand,” he said, putting his arms behind his back and standing at his full height. “I do apologize for that. I hoped your stepbrother and his wife would explain the matter to you.”
She raised her eyes to his, one corner of her mouth rising with obvious skepticism. Good. He needed her full attention.
“After you saved me,” he began with confidence, “tongues began to wag, in both our social circles. Though none doubted your heroism who saw it, those not present had a different opinion of what occurred. I will not hurt your sensibilities by explaining—”
“My name is in a book at White’s, with yours, and people are talking about how I laid atop you, in broad daylight, on the street. Yes, Silas. I know.” She rose to her feet, clenching the handkerchief in one hand while the other pointed at his chest accusingly. “What I do not understand is why you became the person to decide my fate. Why did you banish me from London and my stepbrother’s family? Who, exactly, put you in charge of my well-being?” She tapped his chest with her finger on the last word.
Silas stared down at her, his mouth hanging open until he realized it and snapped it shut. “It is my duty as a friend—”
“If it had not been Isaac’s little sister who saved you,” she said, eyes aflame, “you would not have gone to all this trouble.” She threw up her hands and walked to the brook’s edge. “Thank you, very much, for proving once more that I have little of my own merit and must borrow others’ to be of any value.”
What the deuce could she mean? Politics were easier to understand than this woman was, and that thought disturbed him. While not exactly on the hunt for a wife, Silas thought he mostly understood the gentler sex’s motives. At least when it came to him. Like Miss Keyes, preying upon him for a title and wealth. Of course, he had never had a woman openly angry with him. And for something she ought to be thanking him for.
She laughed, without much humor. “Are we to be formal again? That must mean you have a lecture for me.”
He snapped his mouth shut. He had been preparing a lecture on the subject of gratitude. Given her current state, it would do little good. How could a woman so lovely be so vexing? What had worked to get her out of such moods in their childhood?
Nothing that would be appropriate now.
They stood in silence, the only sound that of the water tumbling along on its course toward the sea. Several small tributaries in the area made their ways to the beaches, spilling into the greater body of water. Silas stared at the clear stream and took in a deep, calming breath. That at least was pleasant, as the air here smelled strongly of apple blossoms.
Apples. The picnic. Had they been gone too long?
“Miss Fox, whatever indignation you feel, however you think you have been slighted, I do not think this is a topic for us to discuss today.” She snorted, practically interrupting him. “We need to return to the rest of the party.”
“Why?” she asked, turning to face him. “For more playacting? To pretend to be the oldest of indifferent acquaintances?”
He opened his mouth, prepared to coax her into returning. Why was she being so difficult?
Esther surprised him, going back to the log and stepping atop it. “I realize you are trying to control an undesirable situation,” she said, stepping lightly across the mossy log. “It is possible your reputation may suffer, being linked to a nobody such as myself. But then again.” She tossed his handkerchief over her shoulder. “Perhaps this is fortunate. Because I will be forgotten soon, whether or not my reputation is ruined, and then you may go back to your business.”
“Miss Fox,” he said, taking a step nearer her. “Esther. Come down from there.”
“Why?” she asked, turning to face him, her half-boots pulling some of the moss on their heels. “Did you know Isaac never let me cross this log? He always made me turn back. He said I was too little, and I would fall.” She turned back to her task, crossing over the water. As it was spring, and rainy, the water was at least three feet deep. It wasn’t dangerous, but it would be terribly inconvenient if she slipped.
“Your boots are not made for that, Esther,” he warned, coming closer. She stood at the halfway point, her arms spread wide for balance. “And if you fall—”
He did not get to finish the sentence, because at that moment she let out a yelp, her boot slid down the side of the mossy trunk, and she flipped into the water, completely submerging.
Silas didn’t waste breath on a curse, though he thought plenty, as he rushed to the water to assist her. Esther popped up again almost instantly, spluttering, and trying to push her wet hair from her face.
“It is c-c-cold,” she whimpered, hurrying forward, sloshing water about as she scurried over the rocks. She slipped once, falling to her knees. Silas came several steps into the water, reaching for her forearms. He pulled her upward and guided her out of the water, his gloves and the sleeves of his coat immediately soaked from touching her.
Everything she wore was soaked through. Her bonnet, the shawl dripping from around her shoulders, and her gown.
He swiftly averted his stare, looking anywhere but at Esther while he took off his coat.
“I am a fool,” she said as he settled the mostly dry coat upon her. “Oh, Silas, what have I done?”
“Ruined us both, I think,” he said, unable to keep the somber tone from his voice. The truth weighed heavily on him. Their options were now severely limited. They had been gone from the main party for a long time, without chaperones or anyone to see what they were doing. If they returned, her in his coat and her clothing soaked through, there would be questions. If he took her back to the house in her current state, when the story spread, she would be ruined, and he marked a cad. If she returned on her own, and he back to the party, the suspicious and gossip-hungry members of the neighborhood would slander them both.
No matter what they did, Esther would bear the brunt of the condemnation.
She shivered and pulled his coat tighter about herself. He stood in his shirtsleeves, trying to puzzle the matter out. There was nothing for it.
“We cannot let you catch cold,” he said. “We need to get back to the meadow. A cart can take you home.” He held his arm out to her and she took it, though her gloves were wet and her fingers barely peeked out of his sleeves.
She said nothing, merely bowed her pretty head and trudged along beside him. The fire in her had been doused, and their hopes for living down the rumors were gone. Oh, his ability to walk away from the whole situation remained. She spoke truly when she said he might continue on as before, and his part in her ruination might be forgotten. His political enemies would bring it up from time to time, but the rest of the world would forget his involvement in her scandal.
But Esther Fox would not live it down. Her stepbrother would likely cast her off for a time, to protect his family’s reputation. Esther had nowhere to go. Isaac was still away, and a mere baronet could not cover the perceived flaws of his sister. Not the way Silas could.
There was only one thing to do, and Silas wondered if he was prepared to do it. Esther’s manner toward him minutes before, hostile and angry, gave him pause. Though she hadn’t always been like this. When she had saved him, less than ten days previous, she had been warm and kind. In her childhood, she had been quick to laugh and always eager to please.
They were halfway through the orchard when he came to his decision. Silas looked down at the woman on his arm, noting she had turned pale and her lips white. Yet despite the sodden hair hanging around her face, and the sad weight in her expression, she was quite beautiful.
A man could do much worse. And they were friends, of a sort. Isaac would likely approve of the match once he learned of it.
They emerged from the shade of the apple orchard and stepped into the sunlight of the meadow. People turned their way, there were shouts of surprise, gasps of horror. Silas maintained a stoic expression, acting as though escorting a woman wearing a dripping gown happened every day.
Mrs. Everly and one of her daughters rushed forward, clucking and fussing, asking what had happened.
“Miss Fox fell into the brook,” he said, voice raised enough that all who wished would hear. “She must go home at once, and the apothecary should be sent for. I cannot have my betrothed falling ill.” With those simple words he sealed their fate.
He heard Esther’s sharp intake of breath, felt her arm tighten around his, before she was swept away by women, taken to a cart. Silas followed.
Esther’s eyes met his when he put his hands on her waist to help her into the dog cart, and in their deep brown depths he saw more emotions than he could name. But the most obvious, the one that smote his heart, was despair.
His hands left her waist slowly, he almost spoke to her, but the cart jerked and started on its way. One of the Everly girls had climbed up beside Esther, giving her some company at least. Someone put the reins of his horse into his hands. He mounted almost mechanically, then looked down at last into the faces turned up in his direction. Mr. and Mrs. Everly appeared concerned. Their remaining daughter somewhat curious. But beyond them, he saw worry, surprise, and envy in the eyes of his neighbors.
Not one of them would guess correctly at his feelings on the matter. Of that he could be certain. He tipped his hat to them, then nudged his horse’s ribs to follow after the cart. The fine spring day had dissolved into something of a mess. But at least he acted with honor.
Rescuing Lord Inglewood is available on Amazon.com and is the first book in the Inglewood romance series.
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