Two days later, Kate and Ana had settled in for a morning of rest, reading and embroidery when Reynolds, the butler entered. They were not expecting visitors, nor had they planned on going out, as the Carrick masque was tonight. The man looked around the room nervously causing Kate to put down the book she had been reading aloud and focus her attention on him.
“What is it, Reynolds? If cook has pitched a fit about the scullery maid again you must give her chamomile and tell her to breathe deeply.”
“Yes, m’lady, but no m’lady. You have a visitor.” Reynolds approached, the silver salver shaking in his hand. Kate glanced at Ana before picking up the card and reading it.
“We are not at home.” Kate said firmly, as she replaced the card and waved the tray away.
“I am sorry, m’lady. This is unprecedented but the gentleman says he has most urgent business. He has refused to leave, m’lady.” Kate regarded Reynolds and knew that the man had probably done all that he could to discourage their visitor. She paused a moment and then spoke.
“Very well. Please, show him in.”
“Oh, and Reynolds. Please let Sawyer know that we have a visitor. I should like to know that we have some assistance if necessary.” Reynolds nodded and left the room.
“Hyde?” Kate nodded at Ana’s whispered question. “What does he want?” Kate shrugged and both ladies turned in their seats to face the door. A moment later Reynolds opened it and announced Mr Jackson Hyde.
“Lady Katherine. How good of you to receive me at such short notice?” Jackson Hyde scurried across the room, like the ferret he was with a smarmy smile and his hand outstretched. Kate refused to take it for longer than a second, effectively releasing his hand while simultaneously pushing him away. The man simply had no sense of personal space.
“It seems that you gave me no choice, Mr Hyde.” Kate also refused to smile at him. She knew it would only encourage him.
Hyde either ignored her rude remark or did not have the nuanced sense of sarcasm required to understand it and he turned to face Ana who visibly cringed at his approach. The odious little man did not read the subtleties of tone or manner so Ana had learned a long time ago to make her displeasure as obvious as possible. Apparently, he was less than observant today.
“Miss Steele, a pleasure to see you again.” His wet lips landed on the back of Ana’s hand with some force as he almost stumbled over his own feet to get to her. Then they lingered there and Ana had to pull away, leaving him leaning over his own empty hand with thick pursed lips. Ana shuddered as she placed her hand behind her back, hoping that his slime did not ruin the fabric of her gown. “You are looking beautiful as ever.”
Ana’s grimaced smile went unnoticed by Hyde. She looked at Kate who was smothering a giggle behind her hand. Somehow, they had to get through the visit as quickly as possible. If Hyde lingered longer than the customary thirty minutes then Reynolds was primed to interrupt and Sawyer would have moved the carriage to the front door. A ruse to ensure that Mr Hyde left. However, it necessitated that Kate and Ana don walking jackets and embark on a bogus journey to Oxford Rd in an effort to throw Mr Hyde off their tail. Ana had too much to do to get ready for tonight to be wasting her afternoon on such shenanigans. She started praying for a miracle.
“Lady Katherine, it pains me to be the bearer of bad news but it has come to my attention that Miss Steele may have committed a grievous sin that has sullied her good reputation and yours. My sources tell me that Miss Steele was down at the docks yesterday…unaccompanied.” Pausing for dramatic effect and allowing his accusation to hang in the air was a tactic that Mr Jackson Hyde had obviously rehearsed at length before coming here. Ana was mortified that he knew anything about her at all and Kate was giving the best impression of a shocked employer that she could.
“Goodness me, Mr Hyde, that is a very serious accusation, indeed. Do you have any proof of Miss Steele’s misdemeanor?” Kate clasped her hand to her bosom dramatically and Ana fought her own giggles. Kate was quite right. In the end, it would be her word against his and the tiresome little man was hardly a voice of influence around town. On the other hand, he was enough of a public nuisance that people might feel compelled to pay attention.
“I hesitate to say, Lady Katherine, but Countess Lincoln had cause to travel that way yesterday and saw Miss Steele in the company of that blackguard, Captain Christian Grey. Do you deny that you were alone in his carriage, Miss Steele?” Mr Hyde smirked as he delivered his source. Ana blanched. It was one thing for him to throw these words about town but a whole other to enlist the help of that evil woman, Countess Elena Lincoln. It must have been her carriage that had arrived at the docks yesterday. And although, she was thoroughly unlikeable, Ana was well aware that she was Her Grace, the Duchess of Carrick’s second-cousin. Her words would carry weight with the ton.
“No, I was not alone.” Ana lied as smoothly as she could. Technically she had not been alone.
“Oh, no. Of course. You were unchaperoned but you were accompanied by none other than Captain Grey himself.” The smirk had not left Hyde’s face which left Ana of a mind to slap it away. How dare he talk to her like this? Who did he think he was? “It is a terrible thing to have one’s reputation sullied so. A young lady must have prospects but now, it would seem that there are none.”
“Get out of my house.” Kate’s voice cut through the air, low and forceful. Ana felt some pride when she saw Hyde flinch. “How dare you cast aspersions on Miss Steele’s good name? Get out now.”
“Lady Katherine. Given your current state, you can ill afford to be harboring such a woman in your home. It has been years since your brother has set foot on English soil and the Earldom is likely to revert to the crown within the year leaving you destitute. Surely, you can see that your prospects ride on the good name of those who serve you.”
“What are you suggesting, Mr Hyde? Miss Steele has been my friend and companion for all of the past five years since my parent’s died. I will not see her put from my employment, no matter what the cost to my own prospects.” Kate was vehement in her tone but Ana wondered if this was the wisest course of action. She could not be responsible for Kate being unable to find a suitable husband should Ethan not return from France.
“I do offer a possible solution. If I may be so bold.” Kate looked at Ana with shock. And just as she made to move and protect Ana, Hyde sank to his knees. Ana looked at Kate willing her not to intervene. This truly was awful but they were best to let it play out to its logical conclusion before kicking the weasel out to the streets.
“Miss Steele … Anastasia…”
Just then the doors burst open and two rather large and intimidating bodies entered the room with Reynolds in their wake. The poor servant looked slightly at a loss as to how to deal with the situation. He looked across at Kate nervously.
“M’lady. Lord Elliot Grey and Captain Christian Grey.”
“Lady Katherine. How delightful to see you again. Thank you so much for accepting our visit. My brother and I have been most anxious to renew our acquaintance, as has our mother.” The tall blond man who looked like he could have been sculpted by Michaelangelo strode across to take Kate’s hand and placed an overly long kiss there. Kate blushed furiously and Ana felt her mouth drop open, her hand still firmly held by the weasel on bended on knee. Christian stood at the edge of the scene with a look of pure fury aimed at Ana. She snatched her hand out of Hyde’s, who shuffled around on both knees now to face the newcomers.
“Lord Elliot, I was delighted to receive your card.” Kate’s smile was far too wide. Obviously, she was pleased that Ana was about to be rescued but she had forgotten just how presumptuous and arrogant the Grey men could be. It all came flooding back to her as she spoke through gritted teeth. “Tell me, how is your mother, Her Grace.”
A small whimper came from the floor as Hyde obviously realized whose presence he was in. He went on all fours, placing his hands on the ground so that he might rise to his feet. When he did, he barely came to Christian’s shoulder and that realization caused yet another small whimper. Ana was so embarrassed at the whole scene that she could do nothing more than focus on the Aubusson carpet. Christian was here, with his brother and he had no doubt circumvented the most horrideous proposal from Mr Hyde. But why was he here? He had made it quite clear that she would not see him again. Her heart ached at the confusion of it all.
“Miss Steele, Anastasia.” Christian moved past Hyde who almost tripped over the chaise in his efforts to get out of the way. “My darling, please tell me that you were not going back on our understanding?”
Was he serious? Understanding? What on earth was the man talking about? The audible gasp that came from across the room indicated that he had not spoken of any understanding with his brother. As for Kate, her eyes were shooting daggers across the room at Christian. This was all too much. Christian had taken both of her hands and was standing so close, too close.
“My heart would break into a thousand pieces if you denied our love and broke your promise.” His voice sounded sincere but nonetheless Ana searched his face looking for the lie. Surely he was making fun of her? And surely he knew that making such a declaration in front of a man like Jackson Hyde would amount to their betrothal being announced across the ton before his mother’s masque began tonight. If this was his way of saving her from Jack Hyde then the man was quite mad and she would have to save him from himself.
“Captain Grey. You and I have no such understanding. As to love, I think that you have misunderstood the nature of our conversation.” Ana pulled her hands away and stepped back from both men. Suddenly, her life as a spinster had remarkable appeal. Perhaps she could gain a role as a governess on a country estate. Or the nunnery. Yes, the convent seemed like a very good option.
“There, Grey. See. Miss Steele was about to accept my troth.” The man was whining in Christian’s ear like a mosquito and he had a good mind to swat him as such. One decent slap would shut him up. Then he could concentrate on swatting Miss Anastasia Steele’s very pert bottom for defying him. Here he was offering a perfectly good proposal of marriage, albeit a rather impulsive one, and she was turning him down. The woman had no sense. Unless this was about her tendre for Ethan Kavanagh.
“Mr Hyde, I thank you for what I presume was about to be a very kind offer but here too, I must refuse. You see, I have decided that I shall never marry. So your words are wasted.” Christian’s eyebrow shot up at her declaration. Never? Not even, Ethan?
“But…” Dear Lord, would the man not give up? She moved so that she could look quite directly at Mr Hyde so there could be no misunderstanding as to whom her words were directed.
“No. I understand that your offer was out of a sense of duty.” She looked from Hyde to Christian pointedly. “Both of you. However, my mind is quite made up. I shall continue in service to Lady Katherine for as long as she will have me and then my future shall continue in other employment.”
Both men were gaping at her like goldfish and she resisted the urge to reach out with a carefully placed finger under each jaw and snap their mouths shut before they caught a fly. What she saw next was a change from complete lack of comprehension to furious anger. From both of them. Captain Grey closed his mouth but focused his turbulent gaze on her. A flicker of movement at his sides told her that he was flexing fingers that wanted to throttle her. The thought of him exacting some punishment had the uncomfortable result of making her thighs clench together to stem her womanly juices. Good heavens, he was stunning in his anger and she was almost willing to prostrate herself now so that he could have his way. Hyde on the other hand was all vindictive malevolence that caused her to shudder in fear. Something behind his eyes had snapped and she worried that she had miscalculated the humiliation he was feeling at her rejection.
“Miss Steele, you are making a dreadful mistake, one for which you will pay dearly.” His nasal pitch grated on her nerves and she found herself drawing away as he approached to take her hand. She could not and would not touch the man again. He paused, finally reading her body language and nodded, although his eyes never softened. He turned to Kate.
“Lady Katherine. I shall hope for the pleasure of a dance tonight.” Kate also flinched, although her reaction was far more carefully controlled. She inclined her head but did not respond. Lord Elliot watched with mirth in his eyes and Ana wondered what he found so incredibly funny given the change of mood in the room. Christian stared at Ana with uncomfortable intensity. She in turn kept her eyes focused on Kate who was glaring at the door through which Hyde had just departed.
“Well, that was certainly interesting.” Lord Elliot Grey broke the silence causing Kate to glance up at him. Their eyes held for a moment and Ana wondered what silent messages were being passed there.
“May I offer you and your brother some tea?” Kate, ever the gracious hostess, recovered her composure and rang the little bell summoning Reynolds.
“Why, that would be lovely.” Elliot waited for Kate to regain her seat and then sat in the chair opposite her and languidly crossed his legs. His relaxed pose should have made Ana feel more at ease but she remained perched on the edge of her seat with her gaze firmly attached to her friend and Lord Grey. She knew very well that Christian had not stopped looking at her, his eyes boring holes into the side of her very flushed face. She also knew that Kate was a simmering volcano of rage disguised as calm sitting across the room from her. The fact that Christian Grey was sitting about to take tea in Kate’s living room not lost on Ana. Kate would look at no one but Lord Elliot, and Ana knew it was a method of containing her rage.
The tea arrived and the conversation flowed between Kate and Elliot. Ana responded when she could but Christian said nothing at all. Elliot did not seem surprised by his brother’s behavior and Kate ignored him completely. However, Ana was patently aware that this man, this beautiful man who she craved with every fibre of her womanly being, had asked for her hand and she had refused. Suddenly, she felt like a complete idiot and was in the process of mentally kicking herself when the visit was just as suddenly over. The gentlemen took their leave, Lord Elliot claiming the supper waltz from Kate before he left.
When the door closed, Kate turned and left the room, heading up the stairs without a word. Ana watched her friend go, knowing that she required time and space to calm herself. That did not diminish the worry that she felt for her friend. There were occasions in one’s life that would always challenge, shaking the moral grounds on which one stood. For Kate, being in the proximity of Christian Grey was difficult enough, but to take tea with him, in her own home, while her parents lay in their watery graves and her brother rotted in a French prison, was far too much. Ana understood her pain better than anyone, having held Kate through the tears and sorrow of her mourning. No, Kate might grown enough in the past five years to understand that she needed his help, but she would never forgive Christian Grey.
Christian stormed out of Kavanagh House on wings of thunder. Elliot thanked the gods for his height and length of stride otherwise his brother would have been halfway to Manchester before he caught up.
“Brother, dearest, would you like to tell me what in God’s name was that all about?”
Without breaking stride, Christian replied, “You saw it. The woman refuse my proposal.”
“Yes quite, what I don’t understand is why you felt compelled to propose in the first place. I thought we were going there to rescue a damsel in distress. I had no idea that you were going to ask the girl to be your wife.”
Christian harrumphed. What could he say? He had no intention of asking Anastasia to marry him. But seeing that idiot, Hyde, on his hands and knees before her, trying to claim what was clearly his, had raised Christian’s ire. He had been unable to stem his response and having made the proposal he had no desire to retract. Anastasia Steele might have claimed a battle today but she had by no means won the war. She would be his. He was a seasoned campaigner and he could out-wait and out-maneuver the most wily of opponents.
“I can see the cogs clicking in your brain, Christian. Tell me what you are going to do.”
“I am going to White’s. You can go to hell.”
“Is that any way to talk to your brother? If you wish to go and hide in the club all afternoon then I will gladly accompany you. Just don’t think you can use that excuse to blow off mother’s masque this evening.”
Christian paused on the pavement and regarded his brother. “Tell me, Elliot. Have you gotten over Lady Katherine or are you still as besotted as ever.”
Elliot’s mouth which had been smiling with barely contained laughter suddenly went grim. “You know that she is too young.”
“She’s almost on the shelf. Are you going to leave her there forever, brother dearest?”
Elliot blanched. “I cannot ask for her hand until Ethan has returned to speak for her.”
As Christian recalled, Lady Katherine had no problem in speaking for herself. Be that as it may, he knew he was striking a very sensitive chord as far as his brother was concerned.
“Well, you may just have your wish, brother. The Ruby Queen sails in ten days and it is my fervent hope that Ethan shall return to our shores in a month hence. Perhaps less.”
Elliot’s eyes widened. “Captain Blackheart sails again?”
“Aye. But you shall not breath a word of this to mother or father.”
“Take me with you.” Christian did not know whether to slap sense into Elliot or laugh at him.
“You know that you cannot go on such a mission. You are the heir to the duchy. Father would string me up by the balls if he knew you were even contemplating such a dangerous mission.”
Elliot chuckled, “Father would string you up by the balls if he knew you were Captain Blackheart.”
Christian clapped him on the shoulders and the brothers continued walking.
“So why are we going to White’s exactly?” Elliot asked.
“I have it on good authority that Sir Raymond Steele spends most of his afternoons there during the season.” Christian smiled to himself when Elliot finally indicated with a well-formed ‘oh’ of his mouth, that he understood the purpose of their visit.