Healing the Earl by Rose Pearson

Prologue

“Clara!”

The sound of her father’s voice ricocheting through the house sent a shudder through Clara and she flung herself to her feet in an instant. The book she had been reading was set to one side, quickly forgotten, and she smoothed her skirts hurriedly, her stomach already tight with anxiety about what her father might want.

The door flew open and banged hard against the wall, making Clara wince. Her father was in the room in an instant, coming to stand only a few feet from her and planting his hands on his hips as he glared at her.

“You’re not particularly useful, are you, Clara?”

Clara blinked, not quite certain how to respond to this particular remark. Her father let out a heavy sigh and rolled his eyes, turning away from her as Clara tried to compose herself, all too aware of the tears which now pricked at the corners of her eyes. It was not her fault that she was of little use to her father. He had never offered to take her to London, nor encouraged her to find a match, or even thought to urge her to meet with the local, nearby gentry in the hope of finding herself a husband! Instead, she had lingered here, doing very little and finding herself lost and lonely. Viscount Coleshill was a disinterested father, who cared only for his eldest son – already wed and settled, with two grandsons produced – and thereafter, for his own affairs. Clara was nothing more than an afterthought.

“You will, from a fortnight today, no longer be a resident in this house,” Lord Coleshill continued, as Clara’s heart began to slam hard against her chest, suddenly very afraid of what her father intended for her. “I have made arrangements for you.”

Swallowing the ache which had begun to form in her throat, Clara tried to speak, but found that she could not.

“Arrange…?”

Tears were blurring her vision, but she dared not let them fall for fear of what the consequences would be. Her father was already frustrated, simply by her presence, and to add to his irritation would just make things all the more difficult for her.

“Given that you contribute nothing here, I thought it would be best to put you to good use,” Lord Coleshill continued, speaking as though she were some sort of instrument or animal which was required to be of assistance to him in some way. “A connection of your late mother’s is seeking a companion. A paid companion, of course, but any money that you receive will be directed to myself.” A small, sly smile crossed his lips and Clara closed her eyes, her heart slowly being torn in two as her father continued to speak. “She is to go to London, I believe, to join her son. I have made it distinctly clear that you have no need for a London Season and would, instead, go to join her as her companion, assisting her in whatever way she wishes.”

Forcing words to fall from her lips, Clara drew in a deep breath and steadied herself.

“Why does she require a companion if she already has a son?”

She cringed inwardly, waiting for her father to either strike out at her for such a response, or lambast her verbally but, much to her relief, he merely shrugged.

“Her son is not the best company, although that is not a complaint I understand since titled gentlemen have rather more to concern themselves with than the comfort of their mothers!” he declared, once more revealing to Clara just how little her father thought of anyone else. “However, she is eager for you to make your way to London just as soon as you are ready. Her son is, I understand, already there.”

Clara did not find herself at all excited at this news. Yes, she was to go to London as she had so often hoped, but it was not for her own sake. There would be no balls, no soirees, or pleasant walks through the park where she might look about her and wonder whether or not any gentlemen might stop to talk to her. No, instead she would be nothing more than a shadow, hidden away and brought out into the light only when it suited the lady she was to work for. This was to be her future, then. A paid companion to a lady she did not know, nor care for, sent away from her home so that she would no longer be a burden to her father, nor an inconvenience for her brother when the time came for him to claim the title. No, she was to be cast aside, it seemed. Pushed into an employment that would keep her away from home for many years, until, no doubt, she became almost entirely forgotten.

“I have, unfortunately, had to consider the expense of this new employment for you, however,” her father continued, either entirely unaware, or uncaring of his daughter’s struggling emotions. “You will require a few new gowns and things, for I will not have any daughter of mine make their way to London without looking decent.” He grimaced and Clara dropped her head, embarrassed in his presence now. She had never asked for anything new, nor anything fine, and now felt shabby and dowdy in front of him. “It is an expense which cannot be helped, I suppose,” Lord Coleshill finished, with a heavy sigh and a wave of his hand, seeming to dismiss her. “But you must prepare all of your things, Clara. I have no maids to spare or the like. Be ready to leave two weeks hence.”

“I will, father.”

Clara kept her head bowed and did not look up until she heard the door of the library close behind her father. It was only then that she lifted her head, looking around the room as though it were the very last time that she would behold it. Her heart ached, her eyes burned, and, after only a moment, Clara gave in to her sorrow. Dropping back into her chair, she bent forward, resting her head on her arms, and allowing the tears to fall. Sobs racked her frame as she realized, with fresh awareness, just how little she meant to her father. Crying for her future, bleak and hopeless, Clara’s heart practically broke with the pain of it all and, as her tears soaked into her skirts, she found herself lost in darkness. There was not even a faint sliver of hope for her to cling to, no possibility that her father would ever change, and think her just as worthy of his care and his consideration as her brother. Her future was dark, and Clara did not want to face it. But she had no other choice.