Catch a Falling Heiress
Linnet Holland wants nothing to do with fortune hunters. She’s determined to marry a man who loves her, but just as she’s about to accept the perfect marriage proposal from the man she wants, the rakish Earl of Featherstone interrupts and ruins everything, including her reputation, with his smoldering kiss…
Jack Featherstone knows all about Linnet’s “intended”, and he’s determined she won’t fall prey to that villain as other women have in the past. But when his attempt to save Linnet ruins her instead, he knows he has to make things right. So he sets out to win this golden beauty... and prove to her that being ruined by him is the best thing that could have happened to her.
“You!” Chagrined and dismayed, Linnet stared into the amused dark eyes of the man in the doorway. “What are you doing here?”
“It’s such a beautiful night, I decided to take a walk.” Lord Featherstone’s gaze moved to Frederick as the other man rose from his knees. “And a good thing I did, too. Otherwise, who knows what might have happened?”
“Walk, my eye,” she muttered. “You followed me.”
“I did,” he answered without looking at her, “though it wasn’t really necessary to do so. I’ve been staying at The Tides long enough to know this is the ideal place to choose if a man wishes to compromise a lady.”
“That’s enough.” Frederick took a step forward. “This is a private conversation. Leave at once.”
Lord Featherstone propped one shoulder against the door frame. “I don’t believe I will,” he said, folding his arms across his wide chest.
“Oh, this is ridiculous,” Linnet burst out. “I am not being compromised.”
“Granted,” he went on in blithe indifference to her denial, “I’m not all that familiar with the nuances of American etiquette, but I’ve been in your country long enough to know that the rules are pretty much the same here as they are on my side of the pond. No gentleman with honorable intentions would ask a young lady to meet him in this clandestine fashion.”
“I said, that’s enough!” Frederick shouted, and Linnet glanced at him in some surprise as he moved to stand beside her. She’d never known Frederick to be so out of temper. Still, given the circumstances, he certainly had cause. It was clear Featherstone was needling him on purpose and taking great delight in doing so.
“What, did I touch a nerve?” the earl asked, smiling. “Or do you intend to claim that luring a young lady out for a midnight assignation is an honorable course?”
Frederick’s lips pressed tight together. His nostrils flared, and his fists clenched at his sides. But when he spoke, his voice was calmer. “You’re sailing very close to the wind, Featherstone.”
“On the contrary, I believe it’s you who’s sailing close to the wind these days, old chap. Tuesday is, what, three days away?”
The flush in Frederick’s cheeks paled to chalky white at those words, and Linnet knew there was more at stake here than notions of honor.
“What does he mean?” she asked, looking from Frederick to Lord Featherstone and back again. “Frederick, what is happening on Tuesday?”
She watched as the man beside her worked to keep his control. His fists opened, and his shoulders relaxed, and when he turned to her, his face had regained its color and bore its usual expression of good-natured forbearance. “I have no idea what he’s talking about, dearest.”
“No?” Featherstone shrugged. “Given that you arranged this little rendezvous with Miss Holland, I thought certain you’d already been informed about Tuesday. My mistake.”
With those light, careless words, Linnet’s temper flared. She didn’t know what he was talking about, but she didn’t care. Accepting a marriage proposal was one of the most important moments of a girl’s life, and for her, that moment was being ruined by this ill-mannered stranger. “You speak of the conduct of gentlemen,” she said, “but as Frederick pointed out, this is a private conversation. Any gentlemen who intruded upon such a circumstance would leave the moment he was asked to do so.”
“Perhaps,” he conceded at once. “But despite my title, I fear I have never been much of a gentleman. As a man, however …” He paused, returning his attention to Frederick. “As a man, I would never dream of using a woman to gain my own ends.”
“You bastard.” Frederick once again started forward, and Linnet put a hand on his arm to stop him. “No, don’t,” she pleaded. “He’s just needling you. Ignore him.”
Frederick drew a deep breath. “You’re right, of course,” he said, and turned toward her. “Why let him ruin things? After all,” he added, once again grasping her hands in his, “we’re almost there. I’ve already told you my mind, and I believe I know yours as well—”
“Presumes to know your mind, does he?” Featherstone interjected with amusement. “How long before he tells you what thoughts need to be in it?”
Linnet kept her attention on the man before her. “Go on, Frederick,” she urged. “We’ll just pretend he isn’t here.”
He nodded. “I realize this all must seem a bit sudden to you, but—”
“A bit?” the earl echoed. “I should say so. He’s being so impetuous, isn’t he? And it’s so unlike him. Perhaps before you give him an answer, Miss Holland, you should ask him why he’s in such a hurry.”
Even as she tried to tell herself not to listen to the interfering, impudent man in the doorway, Linnet felt a tiny glimmer of uncertainty. This behavior was uncharacteristic of Frederick. And what had Featherstone meant about Tuesday?
“Though perhaps you don’t want to know his reasons,” the earl went on. “American girls are so romantic about marriage, inclined to rush in headlong, thinking it’s all about love, when sometimes, it’s really about—”
“Shut your mouth!” Frederick let go of her hands, turned, and started toward the earl.
“And if I don’t?” Featherstone unfolded his arms, straightened away from the door frame, and took a step forward as the other man approached him. “What will you do?”
Frederick stopped, still a few feet away, and Linnet heard him take a deep, steadying breath. “As much as I’d like to take you down a notch or two, it would be unthinkable to brawl in front of a lady.”
“My, such chivalry.” Featherstone laughed, a low, deep laugh of unmistakable mockery. “Or perhaps it’s just cowardice.”
This taunt proved too much even for Frederick to bear. With a roar of outrage, he took the last few steps and struck out with his fist, but the earl ducked, evading the blow. In the same instant, his own fist came up, catching Frederick hard under the chin, sending him stumbling backward. Two more lightning strikes, one straight beneath his ribs and the other hard to the jaw. Frederick hit the wall behind him and sank to the floor beside a lavish Oriental screen.
“Oh, no.” Linnet hurried forward as he slumped sideways to the ground. “Frederick, are you all right?”
He didn’t answer, and when she knelt beside him, he didn’t stir. When she touched his shoulder, he didn’t open his eyes.
The tap of footsteps had her looking up as Featherstone circled around the end of the long dining table. “He’s unconscious.”
The earl didn’t spare more than the briefest glance at the unmoving figure on the floor. “He’ll be all right.”
“You knocked him out!”
“So I did.” Featherstone tugged at his cuffs and straightened his white bow tie. “A most gratifying experience.”
Anger washed over her in a hot flood, and she rose, facing him beside Frederick’s prone body. “You did this on purpose for some despicable reason of your own. This wasn’t about protecting a woman’s honor at all. I just provided the excuse for you to make him lose his temper so you could strike him.”
Featherstone didn’t deny it. “Well, he’s such an ass, he makes the temptation irresistible. And it’s so easy to provoke him, too, rather like taking candy from a baby.”
“But far more immoral.”
Something hard glittered behind the amusement in those dark eyes. “I am not the immoral party in this situation, Miss Holland, trust me.”
“Trust you?” Linnet raked an icy glance over him, making no effort to hide her disdain. “I would sooner trust a snake.”
“Poor choice of words given the circumstances, I admit.” He flashed her a grin that only slightly softened the hardness of his gaze. “But nonetheless, let me assure you that Frederick Van Hausen is not worthy of your defense. Or your hand in marriage, for that matter.”
“That was not for you to decide.”
“I beg to differ.”
“Why?” she demanded in baffled fury. “Why would you do this? You don’t even know me.”
“No.” He paused, and his grin vanished as he glanced with obvious contempt at the unconscious man on the floor. “But I know him.”
“Because of a few short weeks’ acquaintance in Newport?”
“It’s a longer acquaintanceship than that, Miss Holland. I first met Mr. Van Hausen almost a year ago.”
At that new information, Linnet felt another glimmer of uneasiness, but she pushed it aside. “And I’ve known Frederick my entire life. I would say I am a far better judge of his character than you are.”
“Since you are actually considering marrying him, I doubt it.”
“Indeed? And just what deficiencies in his character enable you to determine that he is unworthy to marry a woman you don’t even know?”
Featherstone did not reply at once, and when at last he spoke, his answer was no answer at all. “I am afraid I cannot say.”
“You cannot say?” she echoed, and gave a laugh of utter disbelief, not just at his words, but also at how this whole evening was turning out. “You interrupted another man’s proposal of marriage, baited him, humiliated him, and struck him unconscious. In the process, you also humiliated me and ruined what could have been one of the most beautiful moments of my life. And you cannot even say why?”
“No. With regret, I cannot.”
Linnet wanted to tell him what he could do with his regret, but much to her aggravation, she couldn’t think of a reply scathing enough for the situation, so she forced herself to don an air of dignified composure she was far from feeling. “Frederick may need medical attention. I believe I saw Dr. Madison in the ballroom. I shall fetch him.”
“And when he asks how Van Hausen came to be in this state, and how you know of it, what will you say? Shall you tell him about your midnight rendezvous?”
There was a nuance of concern beneath the careless voice and offhand question that caused Linnet to stop in surprise halfway to the door. She turned to give him a searching glance over her shoulder, but his lean impassive face gave nothing away, and she wondered if she’d been mistaken, for she couldn’t imagine why this man would be concerned by gossip about her and Frederick. “A doctor knows how to be discreet, I would say,” she said at last, still watching him.
“You can’t be sure of that, though, can you? What if word gets out?”
She hated being the subject of gossip, but she could see no way to prevent it. “It doesn’t matter anyway,” she pointed out, “since I shall be accepting Frederick’s proposal at the first opportunity.”
“I was afraid you’d say that,” he said with a sigh. “Miss Holland, marrying him would be the worst mistake you could make.”
“And yet you cannot explain why that is so.”
He didn’t reply, and she once again started toward the door, but she’d taken just one step when an unmistakable voice called to her through the doorway.
“Linnet? Linnet, where are you?”
“Oh, God,” she gasped, appalled, and halted again, glancing back toward the man across the room. “That’s my mother.”
Before Featherstone could respond, another feminine voice also called her name, and Linnet knew her already-ruined evening had just become a disaster. “Mrs. Dewey, too? Oh, my Lord, that woman is the most notorious gossip in our set.”
“I thought you didn’t care about gossip.” As he spoke, Featherstone reached for the painted Oriental screen against the wall. “That it didn’t matter.”
“It doesn’t, not about me and Frederick. You, however, are a different story.” She watched in puzzlement as the earl arranged the screen in front of Frederick’s prone body. “What are you doing with that screen?”
“Hiding the evidence,” he said enigmatically, but instead of ducking behind the screen with Frederick as she would have expected, he stepped back to study his handiwork. Seeming satisfied, he gave a nod and started toward her. “But if possible, I think it’s best they don’t see any of us down here.”
Linnet couldn’t argue with that point, and she turned to resume her departure, but she’d barely made it to the doorway before her mother’s voice came again.
“Linnet? What are you doing down in the pagoda, young lady?”
Linnet jumped back out of sight at once and cannoned into Lord Featherstone. His hands came up to clasp her arms and steady her, and she felt a jolt of panic. Shrugging free, she whirled around. “You can’t leave,” she told him, keeping her voice low. “They’ve seen me, and if we both go out, they’ll see you as well. You have to stay here. I’ll go out alone and distract them, and you can slip away.”
“Linnet?” her mother called. “Who are you talking to? Who’s with you?”
“They’re too close for slipping away,” Featherstone muttered with a glance at the door. “No escape now, I fear.”
“Linnet Katherine Holland, I am coming down there at once.” Helen’s voice, growing louder, made it clear she was already acting on that threat. “At once, do you hear me?”
“Go out one of the windows,” she ordered Featherstone in a desperate whisper.
“There’s no time.”
“Hide, then.” She pointed to the screen. “Quick.”
The impossible man still didn’t move. “It’s too late. They know you’re not alone.”
“Well, you can’t just stand there. Do something.”
“If you insist.” He took a deep breath, grasped her hands in his, and fell to one knee. “Linnet Holland,” he said, his voice alarmingly loud, overriding her sound of shock, “will you marry me?”
“Stand up,” she hissed. “For God’s sake, stand up.”
She tried to pull free of his grip, but it was futile, and she cast a frantic glance over her shoulder just in time to see her mother sail into the pagoda, with Mrs. Dewey on her heels. At the scene that met their eyes, the two women came to an abrupt halt just inside the door, and their shocked faces told Linnet she was in serious trouble.
Featherstone rose, and she turned on him, prepared to unleash a fresh flood of wrathful protest at his unconscionable conduct.
He gave her no opportunity. Letting go of her hands, he wrapped an arm around her waist, curled his free hand at the back of her neck, and pulled her hard against him.
“What are you doing?” she demanded in a shocked whisper.
“Saving your reputation,” he murmured, bent his head, and kissed her.