Free Read #2: The Twice Jilted Duke
Max woke with a jolt, sucked in a deep breath, and wished he hadn't. Icicles slashed into his lungs and made a spirited dash for his brain.
He pulled his muffler back over his mouth and rolled his aching shoulders as he looked about.
Hell, he'd fallen asleep in the saddle.
His feet were half-frozen through his boots and his cheeks felt like they might crack if he so much as blinked. Brutus's mane was covered in a dusting of snowflakes and Max leaned forward to brush them away. It was one thing for him to freeze to death; quite another for Brutus. After six years of faithful service carrying him across Portugal, Spain, and France, suffering thirst, famine, and enemy fire, his horse deserved better than to become a hunk of frozen meat on the side of a country lane.
Where in Hades was he?
His last memory was of a rutted country road under a sky turning sullen and grey as the afternoon waned. He must have slept longer than he’d realized because afternoon was long gone and the snow formed a pale carpet all around them.
'You should have woken me sooner, Brutus,' he said, his voice as stiff as his half-frozen body. Brutus gave a disdainful snort.
‘Fair enough. It’s my job to navigate. Yours to keep us moving.’
He turned in his saddle, trying to get his bearings, and saw the gleam of light.
‘Clearly a case of more luck than sense, Brutus. Come, let’s see if we can find some warmth, inside and out.’
The Golden Giant was grossly misnamed.
The tiny roadside inn looked like it might implode under the weight of its own thatched gables and Max doubted it had seen any gold this side of the century. But the steam-blurred windows were bright with firelight and the small stables were clean and already playing host to a few mules and sway-backed nags. Max left Brutus to be brushed down and fed by a silent, aging ostler and entered the inn.
From the equine occupants of the stables he'd expected there to be other guests, likely marooned travelers like himself, but the sight that met him as he entered the public room was completely unexpected.
It was full to the brim—in fact, it looked like every soul within miles was pressed into the inn’s public room, and not only men but even some women and several young lads seated on the innkeeper's counter.
From the darkness outside it appeared the only building around so where the hell had all these people come from? And, even more to the point, why? The tankard of ale the landlord placed in front of him was cracked, and the ale, though decent, was hardly a sufficient attraction to brave such weather.
The only place there was any space was an invisible circle that formed around Max himself as he made his way towards a bench in the back. Clearly, he was being given space.
At first, he thought it was his scar. It had certainly put off people in London, and at least once with spectacular effect. But as he thawed out of his apathy he noticed quite a few of the people present were even more damaged than he.
This recognition was followed by the realization, both sad and strangely comforting, that he was not the only decommissioned soldier in this tiny inn. Which was peculiar, to say the least.
Max drank the rest of his ale and ate the bread and surprisingly good cheese that followed it, and tried to gather the strength to go find the pallet in a narrow back room which the innkeeper informed him was the only accommodation the inn could offer.
He was just rising when a hush fell on the room. For a moment he thought it was some reaction to his movement, perhaps his scar was even more intimidating than he had realized, but then the man seated closest to him patted the table and leaned over, whispering.
'About to start.'
That was it. Something in the quiet certainty of those words made him resume his seat.
The hush shifted to a murmur of approval and benches and chairs squeaked as bottoms settled more comfortably.
'Good evening, everyone.'
Max straightened abruptly at the voice, and not merely because it was female and well-bred.
It was older and deeper—definitely deeper—but the last time he had heard it was in an orchard probably not many miles from there. Being told one was a blind fool was hard to forget.
The men and women answered almost as a chorus.
'Good Evening, Miss Walsh.'
Emma Walsh, younger sister to the woman who had jilted him seven years ago and then gone and made a fool of both of them only last week.
He could still hear Charlotte Walsh's voice as she turned and saw him seated on Brutus at the end of Rotten Row in Hyde Park, her beautiful golden curls peeping from the high poke bonnet lined with silk as cornflower blue as her eyes. The same eyes that widened alarmingly as her gaze took in the damaged skin along his cheek and jaw. Even in shock, she was a picture of soft loveliness, but her voice was high and unnatural as she blurted out that damning sentence.
‘Oh no, Max! You were once so handsome!’
Her expression of horror had been almost comical. Something a poor actress would adopt in a stage farce when confronted by a poorly constructed Gothic spirit. It had marred her beauty, but less permanently than his scars.
Even as these thoughts rose in his mind like bile, they fell back again because Miss Emma Walsh began to speak.
It hardly occurred to him to wonder what on earth she was doing in this place, reading a book to this motley crowd, when her voice and the story she began reading pulled him away from that sordid scene in Hyde Park and straight into the story she was reading.
“…all Gabriel could see from the cliff was the empty desert and far, far on the horizon a faint puff of smoke as the riders vanished between the ragged hills. Between them the Nile twisted like a great silvery snake, shimmering with venom. Scarred crocodiles sunned themselves among the papyrus reeds, their jaws open with delight at the prospect of more fools wishing to reach the temple on the other side. Their gaping jaws emitted no sound but in the whisper of the wind he could hear their warning - You shall not cross.
Not whole, at least.
‘The Sprite Queen took his hand, her palm a wisp of breath against his hot skin. ‘I have no power once we touch water, Gabriel. But it must be done. It is that or accept that Jephteh has won.’
A rumble of denial and condemnation spread like thunder through the room.
The same man who bid Max sit tapped his fist several times on the table, muttering under his breath.
Emma Walsh looked up from the book, her grey-blue eyes alight with laughter.
'Do you think Gabriel will balk at a few crocodiles?' She challenged and the rumble became a roar of 'nay!'s.
To Max's memory, Emma Walsh herself had certainly not balked at much. At least not seven years ago.
Otherwise she had changed quite drastically.
The scruffy girl of seventeen was gone and with her the rather serious frown that often marred her pixie-ish face. Charlotte had often called her little sister the family cuckoo because she looked so different from the ethereal Walshs—smaller, with honey-brown rather than golden hair, and grey-blue eyes rather than the dazzling crystalline blue of her older sister and brother.
She was not as memorable as her sister in looks, but he remembered her all too well. Especially that day in the orchard she’d warned him Charlotte would not marry him on his soldier's pay, not even for the Dukedom he might eventually inherit should his uncle die without issue.
And so they’d argued. As usual.
Unlike her lovely older sister, Emma had a gift for rubbing people the wrong way.
That summer they’d argued so often Mrs. Walsh had concocted all manner of excuses to ensure her younger daughter disappeared when he came to call.
But though Emma was as argumentative as Socrates with a thorn in his backside, she had been quite right about her sister.
Charlotte had accepted his offer of marriage with all due flattery, but she'd also cajoled him into agreeing not to make any formal announcement while she was in mourning and he off to war. So off he'd gone to battle, hurt but hopeful.
Both hope and hurt had faded pretty fast during the first months of war and he'd not been surprised when her letters, never very informative, came less and less frequently. He was even a little relieved; he'd never quite found the rhythm of corresponding with her.
Still, he was surprised and pretty damned annoyed to hear she'd made a very advantageous marriage to Lord Talgarth a year later without a single word of warning or apology.
Once surprise and annoyance faded, he realized he was immensely relieved. with a few years of war under his belt and far from her sparkling beauty and charm, he realized he'd almost made a terrible mistake. His relief had suffered a slight setback when a year ago a letter of hers had found him in San Sebastian, waiting out the siege and nursing his new scar.
Her missive was cheerful and charming, making only a passing mention of her newly widowed state, and ending on a hopeful note that they might pick up their interrupted correspondence.
He'd tossed this exercise in brazen bravado into the fire and hoped that was the last of it. But Miss Walsh clearly did not interpret silence as a snub and more letters had followed. The crowning glory had reached him the day after the battle of Toulouse, achieving an impressive feat of postal delivery. It was a tangle of flowery sentences about youthful mistakes, how hard and lonely it had been for her when he left for the war, and even a hint that Lord Talgarth had taken advantage of her youthful credulity to inveigle her into matrimony.
The latter made Max raise his brows—he knew poor Talgarth from school, and the fellow was far too amiable for the role Charlotte Walsh cast him in. The letter had ended with a flattering assertion that her heart had always been his. If he could but return safely to England, perhaps…
She was, in short—widowed, far less wealthy than she wished to be, and available.
He’d been amused, annoyed, a little flattered, but not very curious. His answer had been accordingly polite but dismissive. He had no expectation of ever seeing Charlotte Walsh again.
Unfortunately, fate had other ideas.
Including arranging a dramatic encounter in Hyde Park while he was out riding with friends during the busiest hours of the Ton's promenade. One of his party had paused to greet a friend standing in a small group of fashionable men and women.
Max recognized Caroline immediately. She was still strikingly beautiful and he waited a little uneasily for the thudding heartbeat that had once accompanied their encounters.
In the end his heart did pick up pace but for the absolutely wrong reason.
When Charlotte turned recognition lit her eyes, followed swiftly by a forgotten but familiar look of feline contentment. But then her gaze moved over his face and found the scar. The damning words burst out of her – high pitched and protesting, like steam escaping a kettle.
‘Oh, no! Max! You were once so handsome!’
Max knew all too well the effects of shock—it stripped people and wrong-footed them—and so he didn’t truly feel any anger at her childish reaction. If that had been all, the moment might have passed with little remark and he would have ridden on with the rest without much thought.
But that hadn’t been all. Charlotte turned away, her hand raised in a dramatic gesture of repulsion, as if he had been about to swoop down on her.
Her second comment was no longer born of shock but directly from callousness.
‘It it too bad of you! You should have warned me you were disfigured!’
Even amid all the bustle of the park, the hush that fell around them was tangible.
Despite everything, he felt a dash of pity. He knew her precious society would hold her accountable for this cruelty. Others might cringe with distaste as his scars, but they were rather more careful about revealing it.
Above all he felt disappointment in himself that he’d been so blind to her obvious flaws even after they’d been pointed out to him with brutal clarity.
As he'd left the park that afternoon, the memory of his last and most ferocious argument with her sister had been as vivid as if it had just occurred. Emma Walsh had been wearing one of her usual plain muslin walking dress, her hair was gathered in a tangle of honey brown waves, her hands on her scrawny hips as she glared at him, her deep voice hoarse with annoyance.
'Lottie will never love you as much as she adores herself. She won't trust you unless you idolize her. You may be well-looking but that isn't enough. You must either showcase her or provide her the means to do so. Deep down she knows you won't idolize her, and since the current Duke is only forty and might even remarry and bear issue, she cannot count on spending his wealth and title as a certainty.'
‘And yet she agreed to wed me.’ He’d shot back, angry and far more hurt than he ought to have been at the spiteful words of a plain younger sister.
‘And yet she has not set a date for the marriage, despite your pleas, has she?’ Emma had replied, her grey eyes in full storm.
He’d stalked away, trying to dismiss her words as spiteful and jealous, but they touched his own unease too sharply. He’d left Nethercote to sail with his regiment to Portugal two days later, torn between unease and hope that the war would soon be over and he would return and discover Caroline Walsh was everything he’d wanted her to be.
No greater fool than a young, green fool in love. Even at seventeen Emma had been far cannier than him.
He turned his attention back to his old nemesis. How old would she be now? twenty-three or four? Charlotte had hardly changed, but Emma looked very different from his memory. She had certainly learned to smile. Her eyes slanted upwards at the corners, two dimples bracketing a surprisingly full mouth.
Against all reason, he tensed as her gaze moved over her crowd. And stopped.
The stormy blue-grey became very evident as her eyes widened, her gaze moving over his face. His scar tingled as her eyes slid down the raw slice of the bayonet. He waited for her gaze to slink away as people so often did, or worse - for it to fill with pity. He almost preferred disgust. But she did neither. She smiled. An utterly surprising smile - rich with recognition, pleasure, and a peculiar wistfulness.
Max straightened on the rickety bench, suddenly utterly present.
His heart, which had been working away with boring monotony, set off like a barrel bouncing down a boulder-strewn hill.
His hands and feet had been thawing all too slowly but they suddenly blazed and every hair on his body rose on alert. It was like the call of ‘Voltigeurs!’ while riding through the ravines in the Pyrenees.
It lasted no more than the space of a few breathes. When he surfaced from his shock she had already picked up reading where she stopped.
He didn’t listen, he couldn’t, he just sat in shock as his body slowly unraveled the chaotic tangle it had plunged into until all that was left was the insistent throbbing that stretched from his throat to his groin – a column of utterly surprising agony.
Not once in all his thirty years had he experienced such a unexpected cannonade of lust. He certainly hadn’t expected to feel it for a young woman with only passable looks who knew him for a fool and spent a whole summer long ago picking fights with him.
The groans dragged him back to reality. The shifting and shuffling as people rose. The man next to him leaned in again.
‘She’ll be back on Wednesday if you’re in the area, sir. But not here. At the House.’
‘Hope House. That’s why you’re here, aren’t you?’
‘I…no. I am on my way to Nethercote.’
The man sat back.
‘Forgive me, sir, I thought… seeing as you’re a soldier.’
‘I am. But what is Hope House?’
‘House for the likes of us. Back from the war and down on our luck. If you need a roof over your head for a day or a month and help finding honest work. Just half a mile away and Miss Walsh usually does her readings there but the painters were in the big hall and Mrs. Reed, a real dragon, she is, said she won’t have us all brushing against her newly painted walls until they’re good and dry, so Miss said we’d take the public room here rather than miss the reading. Every Monday and Wednesday evenings.’
He nodded and left, smiling at Emma as she stood by the innkeeper and his wife.
Max remained by the wall while she spoke to the members of her audience as they slipped out into the cold night. By the time she turned to him, he was himself again, giving him hope the peculiar attack was the result of bone-weariness and memories of years ago dredged up by the embarrassing encounter with Charlotte and his imminent return to Nethercote.
She crossed the room and stood on the other side of the wooden table.
'Hello, Max. What on earth are you doing here?'
She'd always insisted on calling him Max, no matter how often her mother corrected her. It had annoyed him as well. Now it made his skin heat so he set about marking boundaries.
‘Good evening, Miss Walsh.’
She smiled, pressing her mouth into a prim line and sinking into a curtsy.
‘Good evening, your grace. Now, what on earth are you doing at the Giant?’
He sighed at the futility of scolding Emma Walsh into behavior becoming of a gently bred young woman. If her stickler of a mother hadn’t succeeded despite very impressive efforts, he was unlikely to have any effect.
‘I was on my way to Nethercote but my horse had enough so I stopped. From your presence here I gather I am closer than I realized?’
'Nethercote is just two miles due west but you might have missed the turning in the dark. Mr. Bidds could arrange for a gig, if you still wish to go. Are they expecting you?'
‘No. I wasn’t certain I was heading this way until I was halfway to Dorset. I only meant to ride to Richmond Park but somehow…’
Her eyes widened and again he saw compassion and, peculiarly, approbation. As if such an absurd act made absolute sense.
'Well, in that case, I don't suggest you descend upon old Mr. and Mrs. Farraday after dark. It would likely give them a seizure to have the new master show up close on midnight. But as far as I know, The Giant has no accommodation, despite its name. Where is Bidds putting you up?'
‘I have a choice between a pallet in the attic or the stable…’
‘The stable! Most assuredly not! You could stay the night at Hope House. We are rather full but if there are no beds I can share Mrs. Greeley's and you could have my bedroom.’
The thought of Emma Walsh’s bedroom sent another spurt of frantically unwelcome fire through his already shocked body. The absurdity of feeling everything and more he had wondered if he would feel on seeing her sister, but for this very unpredictable young woman didn’t lessen the sensations by one iota, just layered embarrassment on discomfort.
‘Thank you, Miss Walsh, but I wouldn’t dream of evicting you from…Actually, why are you staying at this… Hope House?’
‘I work there. Mama sold the cottage after Lottie came out of mourning and went to live with Lottie in Town but I chose not to join them so I live at Hope House and help Mrs. Greeley. She is General Greeley’s widow and in charge of the house, and in charge of me as well, for that matter as she is my godmother and it is thanks to her Mama has agreed to leave me behind. Given what happened in London last week I think the least I can do to alleviate Walsh shame is offer you my bed.’
He wished she would stop mentioning her bed. Once he had a decent night’s sleep these strange reactions would likely disappear. Exhaustion could do strange things to a man, he knew all too well.
‘You are not responsible for your sister’s behavior.’
‘I know, but I still want to push her into a muddy millpond for being such a silly fool. After Mama’s ludicrous letter I almost decided to go to London and box her ears. I know it probably doesn’t comfort you in the least but I still think you’ve had a narrow escape. Even since Talgarth died she’s convinced herself she should have waited for you rather than wed him, especially when it became known you were a war hero and doubly so when you inherited the Nethercote title and fortune sooner than expected when poor Alfred fell under a carriage. I’m awfully sorry she broke your heart again but I should warn you that Mama is hard at work convincing her to concoct a pretty apology.’
He smiled. It was the orchard all over again.
‘I have every faith it will be convincing. However, you can save your mother the bother and tell her I had no intention of offering for Charlotte even before her reaction to this horror,’—he indicated his scar—‘I daresay you want your pound of flesh by having me admit you were right seven years ago?’
Her eyes widened and to his shock, she reached out and touched her fingers to the ridged flesh alongside his neck.
‘It’s not a horror, Max, so pray do not be foolish. Does it still hurt?’
He shook his head, battling another spear of heat that sent his heart into a clumsy gallop.
This was becoming embarrassing. He ought to send her on her way and put an end to this peculiar and utterly misplaced intimacy. He opened his mouth to wish her good night and something else entirely came out.
‘Sometimes it burns. A little.’
‘Dr. Ames at the House has some knowledge of scarring. I don’t mean to minimize your case, but there are a few men there with far more extensive scars and wounds. My sister is an even greater fool than I thought. What on earth was Mama on about? I think you look better like this. You were far too handsome for your own good before. The devil to charlotte’s angel as Mama liked to say. She only wished your eyes were blue instead of grey, she felt that was a better aesthetic with Charlotte’s cornflower eyes.’
He tried to frown and failed.
‘I see you still say precisely what you think, Emma Walsh.’
'It saves time. Were you truly not planning on offering for Lottie? She was convinced you would.'
‘Good lord, based on what?’
‘You wrote to her.’
‘I felt ignoring her completely would be construed as sour grapes. She wrote me half a dozen letters to which I responded, eventually, with three lines saying I was sorry for her loss.’
‘I think she construed that as being you were sorry for your loss.’
He burst out laughing, rubbing at the protesting skin along his cheek.
‘Since you are being so direct, you will oblige me by making it absolutely clear to her, and to your mother, that I have no intention whatsoever of making another offer, no matter how much she succeeds in masking her disgust. I have no doubt she will find a perfectly suitable replacement quite quickly. No doubt she always had other prospects in mind; I doubt someone as savvy as she placed all her eggs in such a frayed basket.’
Her eyes sank from his, the first sign of evasion since she looked up from her reading and twisted his world on its axis. Without thinking he covered her clasped hands. They were chilly and he tucked them closer between his.
‘You always worried too much about matters that weren’t under your control…’
He long lashes rose for a brief moment and then dipped again but not quickly enough to hide the shine of tears. It shocked him far more than her sister’s public display of disgust.
‘Emma…’ his voice was hoarse and her lashes rose again, showing a blaze of fury now.
‘Sometimes I hate Lottie!' The words burst out of her. 'How dare she… I could box her ears!’
‘Don’t be so hard on her, she is what she is. To be fair, I don’t think anyone deserves me at the moment.’
She snatched her hand from his and he stopped himself from reaching for them again.
'Because of that scar?' She scoffed. 'Are you truly so vain you think it diminishes you?'
‘I don’t think it’s an improvement but no, not because of that. War leaves much more potent scars than the visible ones. I was very lucky, luckier than most, but I’m too… weary to be interested in a wife or society. All I want is to reach Nethercote, hopefully find all is in order as my steward assures me, and do nothing but read and ride for a year. At least.’
She brushed the damp from under her eyes and tugged a handkerchief out of an oversized reticule.
‘That is a lovely dream but the moment the county hears you are in residence you will be besieged. So you had best be prepared.’
‘I’m rather hopeful the tales of my deformity will discourage that kind of attention.’
She rolled her eyes.
‘No one but my fool of a sister is likely to regard your scars against all your other assets.’
‘Ah, you think it balances out against a dukedom and a fortune?’
‘Are you searching for compliments, your grace?’
‘And if I am? Will you oblige?’
'Very well. Other than your ill judgment in falling in love with my sister I always thought you were the most intelligent man I met. Will that do? Oh, my goodness, Max - you're blushing!' She burst into laughter, sitting down on the bench with a thump.
He rubbed his cheek again, as if that could erase the embarrassment. But he sat down as well. She might be thoroughly disconcerting in his present addled state, but he felt more present and himself than he had in… ages.
Perhaps the ale in this ancient tavern was bewitched.
‘I thought Mama was exaggerating.' She continued, still giggling. 'She was convinced you were so overcome with yearning you accosted Lottie in the park.'
‘Good God, your mother and sister were born under the same delusional star. I didn’t even know she would be in the park. I was out riding with friends and I certainly had no intention of even calling on your sister. When I saw her the only emotion I felt was annoyance that I would have to be polite. Then she...’
He stopped. He didn't want to burden Emma with her sister's foolish words. But evidently, he'd underestimated London gossip.
'You needn't try to wrap it in clean linen, Max. My friend Alvie was there and wrote telling me precisely what Lottie said. I am quite pleased that society still has enough decency to shun her for her behavior. I think that is why she is so mortified. Mama wrote that she wondered if it were best to come home for a few weeks until it all blows over. And of course so Lottie can apologize to you in person.'
He grimaced and she frowned, the little line between her brows appearing. At least that had not changed.
'Are you truly not in love with her anymore, Max?'
'Would it be horrible to admit my sentiments didn't survive a year of separation? Either the war cleansed her from my system or I must be a very fickle fellow. I honestly have a hard time imagining what my life would have been like had if I had returned from the war like this and we both had no choice but to make the best of a bad deal. That lecture of yours in the orchard annoyed the h… well, annoyed me, but you were quite right to warn me.'
Her lashes dropped again and a stain of color bloomed across her cheeks, making his fingers itch to touch that spreading heat. He removed his hands from the table and temptation.
'You remember that,' she mumbled.
I remember quite a bit about you. How strange.
But I don’t remember this.
This is new.
There was something in the Walsh family that was clearly very bad for his health.
‘I remember. You managed to be both infuriating and adorable. You haven’t changed.’
The blush turned from rose to beet and she stood.
‘I should go now. I still think you should come to the House. You will be more comfortable.’
In your bed? I won’t sleep a wink.
'I shall see you safely there and return to the Giant. I've slept in far worse places, believe me.'
‘You needn’t bother escorting me, I know my way.’
‘Even if you are mad enough to walk around alone and in the dark on a country lane, do you honestly think I could go to sleep not knowing if you arrived safely?’
‘Jem, the innkeeper’s son, usually sees me there.’
‘Well, I shall see you safe this time. And stop arguing with me, you are only delaying the inevitable.’
She closed her mouth.
‘Very well, your grace.’
‘See how easy that was?’
‘Easy for you. I am only conceding because you look tired enough to fall asleep standing.’
He sighed, trying not to smile.
‘I’ll take capitulation in whatever form it arrives. Lead on, MacDuff.’
‘It is lay on. Why does no one ever get that right?’
‘Because ‘lead on’ is an improvement on the original.’
‘An improvement on Shakespeare? Heresy!’ She fastened her cloak and his fingers twitched with the need to adjust the velvet cape over her hair.
‘I’d forgotten you prefer dead people to live ones.’
‘Not always. Have you no scarf?’
‘I told you, I wasn’t planning on a long ride.’
'Hmmph. I shall find you one at the house. Mrs. Greely is a keen knitter.'
‘If this is another attempt to make me cry off escorting you, it is impressive, but it has still failed.’
She sighed and they set out into the dark.
The wind had dropped but the air was still and cold and they walked swiftly and arrived at a large stone house far sooner than he wished.
Candlelight flickered from some of the windows and he had to admit it looked far more inviting than the squat inn down the lane.
She turned at the door, the hood of her cape falling back as she looked up at him, her hand outstretched.
‘Sleep here tonight.’
His body heard what it wanted to hear, beating back the cold and the emptiness. He took a hurried step back, shaking his head. She sighed and shrugged.
‘Will you at least send word to the house tomorrow that you arrived safely at Nethercote so I do not have to imagine you lying frozen in the snow for want of some common sense?’
‘I promise. Besides, I must return on Wednesday for the next reading.’
‘You mean to come again?’
‘Of course. I must know what happens next.’
One month later…
‘Leila knew love was never intended for her kind, and she had no such expectations. So when love came she hid it deep inside the caverns of her soul and turned her back on it though it blazed hotter than the August sun. But even the best hiding places must eventually be abandoned or they become graves. And so when she stood at Gabriel’s side above the valley and felt his pain strike sharper and deeper than the swords that had destroyed her family and her dreams she finally said the words that would bring either damnation or release:
‘It was only ever you, Gabriel, my one and only love.’
Emma shut the book with a thuck that reverberated in the hushed silence of the room. There was some snuffling and handkerchiefs were more visible than usual. None of those present wished to accept the verdict that the book was done and they must step out of this world forever.
Max had far greater worries to contend with.
Rather, worry – singular. Very singular.
She was seated in an armchair facing the room, her wavy brown hair drawn back, showing the sweep of her profile; a profile that had become imprinted on his mind these past weeks as he attended each of her readings, watching that lovely landscape from his chair by the window.
There was much more room in the great hall of Hope House and from this angle he could watch Emma as she read without her looking up and catching him staring, making him lose his concentration and sending him into those absurd spirals of heat and lust.
His early hope that they wouldn't survive a good night's sleep and a decent meal had proven unfounded. They only wove a tighter and tighter web about his soul each time he saw her. Sneakily his mind had suggested that familiarity might undermine this strange fever, so he'd allowed himself to be drawn into the workings of Hope House in between dealing with the duties of his new position and estates.
In fact, it was Hope House and its demands that made the latter bearable. Winter meant many more veterans needed housing and feeding and he’d offered to help with the refitting of an old wing of the building to meet the house’s growing needs. He’d not only contributed funds but joined the builders and carpenters. He liked working side by side with other soldiers. This was a far more natural world to him than that of the slew of local gentry which insisted on paying their respects to the new duke.
He enjoyed the physical exertion and tried to keep his mind on the sawing of wood for beds and not on wondering what task Emma was engaged in at the moment. She and Mrs. Greely, a tall, bluff, and handsome woman in her fifties, would often come by with refreshments and he waited for those moments with all the anticipation of a soldier waiting to set up his tent and rest after a long day's march.
The value of every day was becoming marked by whether he'd managed to steal a few moments of conversation with Emma. It was embarrassing but undeniable.
Her reading nights were particularly valuable, because once the readings were concluded he'd set the precedent of following her into the little study she shared with Mrs. Greely where they accounts were kept and she would bring out General Greely's brandy and they would talk about everything and nothing.
Familiarity was thus far failing miserably as an antidote.
Not even the blessedly short visit to the neighborhood by Charlotte and Mrs. Walsh had ruined his mood.
It had temporarily caused Emma to frost over in her dealings with him, though.
But instead of being hurt or annoyed, he knew her well enough now to realize her stiffness was born of concern. She obviously still thought it was inevitable that he would fall under Charlotte’s spell once more.
He'd done everything to discourage Charlotte and her mother without being uncivil, but after a week of declining invitations on the grounds that he was exceedingly busy with his new responsibilities, they'd taken a path that demanded firmer action. While he was hard at work with the others lugging the newly made beds into the rooms they had arrived at Hope House in the finest promenade dresses London modistes could supply, like two peacocks strayed into Seven Dials.
Mrs. Greely had naturally invited them to stay for tea but her hospitality had not extended to making them otherwise comfortable. She'd sat like a disapproving gargoyle on a cathedral wall while Emma poured the tea, Mrs. Walsh tried to sparkle with wit and condescension, and Charlotte had exuded charm and sweetness most transparently.
Max had been civil for Emma's sake but with every passing moment of her uncomfortable silence he'd resolved to put an end to whatever delusions the two elder Walsh women labored under. So when Mrs. Walsh all but forced an invitation on him to join then for tea the next day, he'd accepted. It was time to make it unequivocally clear to both mother and daughter there would be no repeat of his proposal.
He'd done precisely that, and though Charlotte had momentarily resorted to tears, it had been clear her heart wasn't in this battle.
They'd left Mrs. Walsh weeping in the parlor as Charlotte escorted him out.
‘I rather like being a widow, you know,’ she had confided in the corridor. ‘There are so many possibilities.’
‘Handsomer ones, too.’
She'd blushed at that, but laughed, reminding him that she did, after all, share some characteristics with Emma. 'I was beastly, wasn't I? Everyone said so, though to be fair it was a shock. Now I've grown accustomed, it is not quite so bad. And if you turn your head to the good side you are still quite the most handsome man of my acquaintance.'
He'd laughed at that all the way back to Hope House. He'd wanted to share that charming note with Emma, but he'd arrived just as everyone was settling for the Wednesday read so had to contain himself in patience. This final chapter of the final book of the Desert Boy series Emma had been reading had taken longer than usual, or at least it felt longer.
The denouement of the tale, reuniting Gabriel and the Sprite Queen, had carried the interest of the audience, so perhaps only he had noticed that Emma's reading had been less spirited than usual.
He worried sometimes that she worked too hard. It was an almost endless task to accommodate so many soldiers newly released into the world and struggling like him to find their way, though unlike him they did not have a fortune and a home awaiting them.
No, Nethercote was not a home. It was a house.
A very large and moderately comfortable one, but not yet a home. A home meant more than a roof over one’s head. He felt far more at home in Hope House than he did at Nethercote.
He remained by the window as the room emptied. For once Emma did not smile at him as she went to return the book to the shelves.
‘Did your visit to town fare well, your grace?’
As stiff as an icicle and just as cool.
‘It fared excellently. Thank you.’
The book slipped from her hand and bounced under an armchair. She cursed and bent to retrieve it, the plain muslin dress her mother had tutted at the previous day molding itself to her backside. He shoved his hands into his pockets but did not look away from the very pleasant view, nor did he try to fight the surge of heat that swept from his chest to his groin.
She finally straightened with the rescued book and shoved it into its slot before turning to face him, chin up and her lips pressed together with determination.
He abandoned trying to deny the other charge his mind had been leveling at him almost from that first evening at the Giant - that he'd gone well and truly mad.
Somehow in a matter of weeks, even days, he’d become convinced this girl, this woman, was everything he wanted – the axis of a world he was searching for, the one person who answered the inner voice he hardly even knew existed.
‘It is late, your grace, and snowing. You should make your way to Nethercote before the road is impassable.’
‘It was close to impassable when I made my way up. I would wager the drifts are several feet high already,’ he replied conversationally, moving towards her. She crossed her arms and stepped back against the shelves.
‘Then it was foolish to come. You should have returned directly to Nethercote. Or were you too excited to come share the news?’
‘I did not wish to miss the final chapter of Gabriel and Leila’s journey after all the travails they had to suffer. It was a moving finale and I was in a sentimental mood.’
'Sentiment can be costly. The roads will be dangerous in the dark. You had best speak with Mrs. Greely about staying in one of the new rooms for the night.'
She slipped past him and towards the door but he followed.
‘There are no mattresses made yet. You would have me sleep on wooden slats?’
‘I am certain something could be arranged.’
‘Last time I was stranded you offered your own bed. Have I fallen so far in your estimation, then?’
She paused at the door but did not turn.
‘If no other arrangement can be made, you may have my room.’
He came to stand beside her, his hand on the knob, his heart thumping uncomfortably as he stepped out onto the ice.
‘I think I am more likely to fall asleep on a cold floor than in your bed, Emma. My imagination is already running riot at the thought.’
‘You must be giddy indeed at your betrothal. It is not like you to jest at my expense, Max.’
'I am neither betrothed nor jesting, Emma. I told you already that I had no intention of offering again for Charlotte. After yesterday's horrific tea I realized I had to make myself crystal clear to her as well, which was why I accepted their invitation. I thought such a discussion was best conducted in private. I didn't think you would jump to a conclusion that went counter to everything you knew of me this past month.'
‘It isn't precisely a great leap. You were besotted with Caroline once and she is even lovelier today than seven years ago.’
'In truth, I like her better now than I did then, but I am not besotted with her, and the thought of marrying her or anyone but one woman fills me with panic. And before you start feeling sorry for her, she was quite relieved at being rejected. She says she quite likes being a widow. I think the only one to be pitied here is your mother. Now, are we done with that nonsense?'
She stood for a moment in silence, her shoulders tense, her eyes downcast and her mouth tightly held.
He wished he could read her. Perhaps he was completely wrong that there was a growing affinity between them. Perhaps while he'd been falling deeper and deeper into her web, she still regarded him was a friend, or - heaven help him - some form of older brother?
He stepped back.
‘I’m sorry, Emma. I didn’t mean to embarrass you. Good night.’
She nodded briefly and hurried out, not even bothering to close the door behind her. Any thought he'd had of applying to Mrs. Greely for a bed went with her and he headed down the corridor to the doors leading to the stables. They'd built a covered passageway from kitchens to stables but it was still mortally cold outside and he hunched over, shoving his hands deep into his pockets until he reached the stables and found Brutus, happily munching on hay in the back stall.
‘Sorry, Brutus. Time to go home.’ Again that word rankled. Brutus stopped his munching and stared wide-eyed at the madman making this suggestion. Max sighed. ‘I’d rather stay, too, old boy, but I’m not very welcome here at the moment…’
‘That's not true, Max.’
Emma hurried into the stable, the words coming out in a puff of steam. Her cheeks were red but he could not tell if it was from exertion, cold, embarrassment, or all three. 'Of course, you are welcome here. You mustn't ride out in that storm in the dark. I won't allow it. Please stay.'
His unruly heart picked up speed again and Brutus gave a huff and went back to his hay.
‘You needn’t be concerned; I won’t end up frozen in a ditch. It is no more than two miles on open roads. Besides, if I stay tonight, by morning all this snow might truly make the roads impassable and then you will be stuck with me in earnest.’
'We will take that risk. Come back inside. Please.'
'I'm sorry I was so horrid. I had no right.' She hugged her shawl about her, her fingers tangling in the fringe.
'You weren't rude. You were laying down boundaries. That is your prerogative. I did not mean to make you uncomfortable with my attentions.'
He grimaced at how stilted his voice was. He wished he were either felt less or was more articulate about it. Here he was, a grown, experienced man, and he had not a smidgen of a notion how to court her. She was watching him as if he were a half-wit, too. He turned back to Brutus. 'I really should leave.'
She grabbed the sleeve of his coat.
‘No, wait. This is all my fault. I thought… I was certain you would fall back in love with her.’
‘For heaven’s sake, could we please put all talk of your sister behind us? I am thoroughly bored by it. Even if I was not in love with you I would not consider marrying her.’
Her hand tightened on his sleeve and her jaw slackened. His own words rang in his ears. Had he truly just said that? Dropped it on her like a bale of hay? God help him, he deserved to be run through all over again.
‘Perhaps…perhaps you should go inside. We, uh… could discuss… that is… we might talk… Damnation, Emma, just go inside before I make more of a fool of myself. I should have kept quiet and wooed you properly. I’m sorry if I frightened you...’
He reached for her but she stepped back, her hands held up before her.
'Frightened? I'm not frightened,' she said, her voice little over a whisper. 'No, no, that's not true. I'm terrified, but only because I desperately wish it to be true. I... I should go inside now. Tomorrow you will wake and wonder what on earth made you say such nonsense. I shan't remind you. I promise.'
He caught her hands, shawl and all, them and held fast, as he would to a branch when teetering over the cliff face.
‘You wish it to be true?’
‘Please go, Max.’
‘No. Do you wish it to be true? Answer me, Emma.’
She tugged her hands from his and covered her face.
‘I did seven years ago. I never meant to feel like this again. I don’t want this. It hurts too much…’
‘You… seven years ago? You were just a child.’
'I turned eighteen while you were courting Lottie. I was only child enough not to realize how much I cared until she broke your heart and mine broke for you. And now I had to wait here all afternoon torturing myself wondering whether she had won you once more and I couldn't bear it...'
He wrapped his arms around her, his heart throwing itself against his ribs in great booming thuds. He shut his eyes, absorbing the joy and pleasure at her words, the comfort of her closeness, the sweet hunger fed by her scent. He tried to subdue the avaricious clamoring of his body as it absorbed the warmth of her curves pressed against him. Holding her was a wonderful agony.
It felt so damn right. It was right.
Try not to ruin it, Max.
She wriggled out of his hold and he could have slapped himself for his clumsiness.
‘Wait, don’t run away. I don’t mean to press. Take all the time you need, Emma. We can continue as we are for… for as long as you wish.’
‘You… I could not possibly marry you, Max.’
‘Is it the scar?’
‘Of course it is not the scar. I don’t care a tinker's curse for the scar. But... You know full well I am no proper duchess, Max.’
‘I would hope not. I much prefer an improper duchess. You will make a perfectly improper duchess.’
'Pray don't make me laugh. This is serious, Max.' Her voice was barely above a whisper.
'I am well aware of that. I am as serious as this snowstorm.'
‘I don’t… You are not quite in your right mind, you know. I know the war has affected you, and coming to Nethercote with all its responsibilities and now with Lottie and mama descending upon you…’
‘Not one of those truths bears any weight with my loving you. I might wish I’d never met your sister so you would not have seen me for the callow fool I was but then I would not have met you. I can’t unmake my mistakes, Emma. But this is not one of them. I love you. What on earth can I do to convince you?’
'I don't know.' Her voice was agonized, her eyes wide and bright and scared. Her arms were wrapped around her and he realized she was shivering even in the relative warmth of the stables. He must be a little mad to be proposing to her in the stables in the middle of a storm under the curious stares of Brutus, a droopy-lidded dray horse, and a mule.
‘Do you at least wish it to be true?’
She swallowed, her throat stretching. So did the silence. Finally, the words burst from her.
‘Yes. More than anything in the world.’
He’d held his breath that long and it shuddered out of him.
He touched her arm where it wrapped about her, then her cheek, cold and warm. Then he cupped her face, his fingers capturing every sensation—the softness of her earlobe, the thudding pulse below it, the short soft hairs at her nape.
‘Well, then. Isn’t it nice when wishes come true?’ he asked as he drew her into his warmth.