A Soul's Worth

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Chapter Seventeen

The news of Warren’s engagement to Miss Elizabeth Trentham spread quickly after her visit to Lady Weyland, and the telephone rang almost constantly with well-wishes and questions—how did you two meet? Wasn’t it rather a quick courtship? When do you expect to marry?

He fielded them all with what he thought was great skill, declaring himself helpless against Miss Trentham’s beauty and charms. Her money had nothing to do with it—he silenced those rumors at once. Even if he was ‘new money,’ he was his own, and his engagement to Miss Trentham was, of course, spurred by nothing but unexpected affection.

When Wakefield called, the conversation went a bit differently.

“I could have sworn you were going to choose Miss Cambridge,” he said with a laugh. “She seemed quite keen on you, and a barrister’s daughter is just the sort of boring person that would have suited you perfectly.”

“The blonde? No,” Warren said, chuckling softly. “I have it on good authority that she’s...in a family way, and the last thing I need is more scandal.”

“What, she is? What good authority?”

“My man said he could tell. Whether or not he’s an expert in extramarital affairs, I surely don’t know, but he seemed quite certain about it.”

“That minx,” Wakefield laughed. “That’s why she didn’t accept my invitation. She probably can’t fit into any of her gowns. We’ll likely not see much of her for a few months, and then she’ll reappear with some sort of adopted niece or nephew. Oh, by the by, I’m inviting you to a dinner. Saturday at eight o’clock. You’re coming, aren’t you? You must bring your blushing bride-to-be, if she has any blood to blush with. She gave me a decidedly chilly impression.”

“She’s not all that bad,” Warren said. He hadn’t expected to wait very long to be invited to one of Wakefield’s parties. “Do you know if Callaway is going to attend?”

“Callaway? What, that rat-faced little creature? I hadn’t planned on it; he was a dreadful bore last time. Why? You two aren’t friends, are you? I thought so highly of you, Hayward.”

“I have business to discuss with him, but I don’t think he’d accept an invitation to my home nor admit me to his. Consider it a favor?”

“Very well. But only if you promise to bring along those Irishmen of yours. I caught that lout with the scarred eye trying to peek down Lady Turnbull’s neckline at the masque. I’d like to get to know him better.”

“I wouldn’t dream of leaving them behind,” Warren assured him, and they bid each other good day before he hung up the line.

“What’s your business with someone who won’t let you in his ‘ome?” Ben asked, causing Warren to turn with a bit of a start. The taller man was drying his hair with a soft towel hung over his bare shoulders, twisting his head to shake a bit of water from his ear.

“I think he might be the one who had that man break in.”

Ben paused. “So...what kind of business are you going to discuss with him? If you’ve any proof, I could go and give him what for, you know. In a legitimate constabulatory sort of way.”

“I’m sure we can work something out. He’s just a businessman. The last thing we need is getting the authorities involved in our personal business. Any more than a certain constable is already fairly involved in my personal life,” Warren teased, earning himself a small smile. He moved to stand in front of Ben, trailing a finger down the other man’s damp chest and hooking it into the top of his trousers. “Are you ready for this afternoon?”

Ben shrugged. “Why shouldn’t I be ready to sit down to tea with the woman you’re going to marry? It sounds like a grand time.”

Warren only smiled up at him, tugging him gently by his waistband. “Shall I prove to you how little she’s on my mind?”

“You gave me your word,” Ben reminded him. “What other proof could I possibly need?”

“What a shame you’ve just had a shower,” Warren said with a thoughtful hum and he slipped his finger free from Ben’s trousers, walking casually toward the master bedroom. “I was just considering it myself.”

“You’re incorrigible,” Ben said, but he smiled as he followed his lover back through the bedroom and into the still-steamy bathroom.

Warren turned on the water and kept his back to the other man as he slowly unbuttoned his shirt, glancing over his shoulder as he let it slip to the floor. He couldn’t help his smirk as Ben’s lips touched his bare shoulder, his hand brushing past the smaller man’s waist to trail idly over his stomach, but he flinched slightly when Ben’s fingertips found the scratches in his chest.

“What’s this?” Ben asked, turning the redhead around to face him. “What’s happened to you?”

“It’s nothing serious,” Warren assured him. “I woke up like this. I must have had some sort of nightmare, but I don’t remember.” He was so accustomed to lying to Ben by now that it was second nature. A lie like this was easy.

“You did this to yourself? Christ, Warren.”

“It doesn’t hurt. Don’t bother about it.”

Ben frowned at him, gingerly touching the skin just below the tender marks. “How am I supposed to protect you if the one hurting you is you?” he asked softly, bending to touch a kiss to Warren’s lips.

Warren chuckled against Ben’s lips. “You’re protecting me, are you? And here I was thinking I was the one keeping us safe.”

“Well, I keep the streets safe,” Ben defended himself with a smile. “And I must admit it’s a bit easier to keep things going smoothly on the Heolstran road now that the Travers have found more legitimate employment. Not that I like them being here either,” he added. “One of them can’t open his mouth without saying something crude and sleeps on the chaise with his hand down his trousers in the middle of the day; the other stares at you like a snake and burns holes in the dining room table. And they’re both drunks.”

“Was he doing that again? I’ve asked him not to,” Warren sighed.

“Which one?”

“Both, actually.”

“You still trust them to keep you safe? More than you would me? Why didn’t it ever occur to you to hire me on as a bodyguard? Isn’t that a better cover than a family friend?”

Warren shook his head. “It did occur to me. But I won’t have you pretending to be my servant, Ben. Besides, I need someone I can count on to keep a cool head. If something happened to me in the city, could I trust you to react like my employee and not my love? You know how you are; you’d be weeping by the time the doctors arrived.”

“I do not weep,” Ben insisted, thumping the smaller man with a sharp flick to his bicep.

Warren smiled up at him. “Am I going to have to put you in the shower myself?”

Both men were clean and pressed and presentable by the time the front bell rang, despite their extended lingering under the hot water. Cam led Elizabeth into the parlor, where Warren and Ben waited, and they both stood as she entered.

“You must be the secret I’m to keep,” she said with a cool smile as she offered Ben her hand. If she was put out by the brevity of his bow, she didn’t show it.

“Ben Cartwright,” he said.

“I’m Elizabeth Trentham. A pleasure, Mr. Cartwright,” she said as she took her seat across from them. “Good to see you again, Warren. Everything seems to be going well on my end. I sent a telegraph to my father; he seems very pleased. He wants to meet you, of course, but he’s hardly well enough to come, and I wouldn’t make you take a trip all the way to America for the sake of this venture.”

“I appreciate that, as I would be very unlikely to go,” Warren chuckled. “Wakefield’s invited us for dinner on Saturday. Will you come?”

“I suppose I must,” she sighed, leaning out of the way as Cam set down a tea tray. “Just tell him to keep his distance, will you? I find his company very wearying.”

“Perhaps we’ll develop you some chronic illness or other so that you can stay at home as often as you please.”

Elizabeth smirked faintly. “Shall we discuss a date? Fall weddings are fashionable and would give us enough time to dispel any rumors of you having gotten me into trouble, but would delay our overall plan. As it is now June, I suggest mid-August, so that we might have time to organize an event without needless postponement.”

“That’s fine,” Warren said, leaning back on the chaise and waving his hand dismissively. “I leave it up to your best judgment.”

“That’s probably best,” she said blithely. “How many people shall you want to invite? We should limit the numbers; I won’t waste money on feeding and entertaining half of London.”

“Why don’t you decide how many people you’re inviting, and I promise to invite fewer than that?”

“Excellent. My father will—unfortunately—be unable to attend, and I know very few people in London so far. What about your family? Have you told them about your happy news? Perhaps they even know the truth?”

Warren hesitated. He used to write to his mother periodically, telling her all of the drudgery Sir Bennett was putting him through. Sir Bennett hadn’t wanted to give him money to send telegraphs and had rarely allowed him free use of the telephone, but he could sneak the postage for himself. Now her last three letters sat unopened on his desk. He wrote to her once to tell her of Sir Bennett’s passing, and to assure her that he wouldn’t need to return home, but that was some time ago. He would never have considered telling either of his parents about Ben, but his mother at least deserved to know that he was alive and well—and soon to be married. She would cry, surely, and his father would shake his hand precisely once and ask him for some money.

“I’ll tell them when it’s done with,” he decided, avoiding Ben’s gaze.

“As you like,” she said. “Do you have any preference at all concerning decorations? I don’t imagine you do, and truthfully neither do I, but the decisions must be made regardless of interest.”

“I’m quite certain you have better taste than I do, since I wasn’t even aware there was an unfashionable side of Belgrave Square,” Warren chuckled.

“I’ll consult you if need be,” Elizabeth promised. “As far as announcements—”

“You two are quite chatty about all this,” Ben cut in, drawing both pairs of eyes to himself. “You are aware that you’re getting married, aren’t you?”

“It’s a business agreement, Ben,” Warren said, reaching over to touch his hand.

Ben pulled his fingers away from Warren’s grip with a frown. “That’s the taste I can’t get out me mouth. Marriage isn’t an arrangement, is it? Is that what it’s come to?”

“You’d prefer I actually fell in love and married someone else? This is what I promised you. It’s just for show. Be reasonable, please. These are things that have to be decided. We’re lucky to have found someone like Elizabeth; she’ll move in as agreed, and then we’ll each mind our own business unless we have to make an appearance together for this or that.”

“I understand your feelings, Mr. Cartwright,” Elizabeth said, “but please understand mine in return. I have no intention of disrupting whatever marital bliss already exists between you two; I am firmly of the opinion that any husband I had should have no place in my business, so I may as well have one who has one of his own. If he has a husband of his own, in turn, then all the better for me to be left in peace when it comes to wifely duties real or perceived.”

“So I’m just to sit at home all secret-like, actin’ a friend, while the two of you go to parties?”

“Honestly, Ben,” Warren sighed. “What is the alternative?”

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “Not my decision in any case,” he added with a touch of bitterness. “Do what you like. Just keep your promise,” he said grimly, and he ignored Warren calling his name as he stood and left the room.

“He’ll come around,” Elizabeth said, and Warren shook his head.

“He wants me to say that I won’t do it if it bothers him so much. But I can’t do that.” He gave her a small, weary smile. “I’ll at least try to make sure you don’t have to overhear the inevitable rows that will come once you move in. Hopefully they’ll be brief. I think you could actually get on if he wasn’t so stubborn.”

“I’m not very sentimental, Warren,” she said, and she shushed him when he put a hand to his heart in mock surprise, “but it’s obvious that he’s only afraid. Once he understands that I’m really not a threat, he’ll be fine. Perhaps we should get something in writing? Would that make him more comfortable?”

“God, no,” Warren laughed. “The last thing I need is written proof that I’ve entered into a sham of a marriage. He’ll come around, I suppose. Tea?”

“Yes, please.”

Warren glanced over his shoulder at the closed bedroom door before he leaned forward on the chaise to pour them each a cup of tea.

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