To Wed The Widow (The Reluctant Bride Collection, Book 3)- Full audiobook

To Wed The Widow (The Reluctant Bride Collection, Book 3)- Full audiobook


To Wed The Widow
The Reluctant Bride Collection by Megan Bryce Narrated by Maureen Cavanaugh Chapter One The room erupted into hushed whispers and
excited laughter and the very Honorable George Sinclair breathed it in deeply and thought
to himself, for the first time, that it was good to be home. He hadn’t missed England. India had sunk into his bones; the heat, the
food, the never-ending roar of life. He hadn’t wanted to leave; he mourned the
fact that he’d never be able to return. India had sent him home a changed man. He’d never be warm again; his greatcoat
was now a permanent part of his wardrobe no matter how brightly the weak English sun tried
to shine. Food would never taste again; flavorless,
spiceless, and missing that now familiar bite. And he stayed as far from the country as he
could because the silence was too much to take. That, and his brother the earl. He was too much to take as well. But here, in town, with the excitement of
balls and the roar of life and the rules, here George Sinclair found what he hadn’t
realized he’d been missing. Scandal. The noise level somehow both increased and
decreased at the same time as she entered and he turned to look at just who could cause
such a commotion. Her golden hair piled high atop her head,
her plunging neckline peaking coyly from beneath row upon row of jeweled necklaces. She paused, looking down on her subjects and
they looked back, twittering and fluttering, and Sinclair thought that it was not enough. There should have been trumpets fanfaring
and fireworks exploding because a regal queen had deigned to grace them with her presence. Sinclair poked his friend in the side. “Just who, pray tell, is that?” George St. Clair looked to where his friend
pointed and fingered his cravat. “Mmm. The widow.” Sinclair trembled with delight. “She has an epithet? The widow? How very intriguing.” “A richly deserved one. She has had five husbands, all dead within
one year of the wedding. The last, rumor has it, died whilst in bed
and under her. Two weeks ago.” Sinclair jolted when he realized her dress
was black. That she was in mourning. Her dress skimmed here and flared there, and
despite the color said nothing about mourning. Sinclair’s eyes followed the curves and
flares and he said, “Lucky scoundrel.” St. Clair snorted and Sinclair looked at him
with an eyebrow raised. “Is that not the most fervent wish of every
man? To die naked, in bed, and beneath a beautiful
woman riding him into everlasting oblivion?” “It is apparently many a man’s wish because
she has no lack of suitors.” “But not you?” “I require a man be cold in his grave before
I start in on his widow.” Sinclair looked again at the woman, at the
long limbs and golden hair that gave proof that some Viking had pilfered and pillaged
somewhere in her blood line. Her black dress not stark but richly adorned,
making her pale skin even paler, her golden hair even more golden. Sinclair sighed. “Mourning suits her.” “It does.” Sinclair looked at his friend, noting the
lines on his face and the tired look in his eyes that eight years had wrought. “It’s suited her well for nearly a decade
and with a handful of husbands. Remember that, Sin, before you become too
enamored.” “You don’t like her?” St. Clair looked back at the woman, studying
her, and when their eyes caught across the room, she smiled and made her way toward them. “I know you will like her. And I have no wish to stand over your grave,
my friend.” Sinclair laughed. “I may like her, I may acquaint myself with
all England has to offer now that I must, but marriage? Should I lose my mind, the earl will surely
take it upon himself to find it for me.” St. Clair clapped his friend on the back,
smiling despite himself. “It’s good to have you home, Sin. And you can count on me, as well, to take
up that task if it becomes necessary.” “See? It is good to be home. I can play with whatever delectable scandal
that crosses my path as long as you two are watching over me like clucking hens.” “We wouldn’t need to if you didn’t look
at scandal like a boy getting his first glimpse up the milkmaid’s frock.” The widow snaked through the crowd, close
enough now that she might be able to hear their conversation, and Sinclair said, “I
have matured, my friend, since then. And I assure you that I can keep my wits about
me in the presence of such beauty. Long golden locks and, oh my, crystal blue
eyes.” St. Clair shook his head. “All the better to snare her prey.” The widow stopped in front of them, flicking
open her fan to wave it idly. “Talking of me, Mr. St. Clair? You are always so flattering.” He bowed, stiff and just this side of disapproving. “May I introduce Mr. George Sinclair. And this is Elinor Rusbridge Lemmon Gilberti
Wooten Headley, Lady Haywood. Did I leave any out, my lady?” She laughed, a low amused sound that would
make any red-blooded man think of silk sheets and naked limbs. Sinclair bowed theatrically enough to make
up for his friend’s lack of manners. Flamboyantly enough to snag her attention
to him. The widow said, “George Sinclair and George
St. Clair? However will I tell you apart?” Sinclair leaned toward her. “Just remember, my lady, the sinner and
the saint. And then forget the saint.” Her smile peeked out from behind her fan and
she whispered conspiratorially, “Forgotten.” Sinclair leaned in even closer and didn’t
whisper. “Good.” They laughed, sharing in their little joke,
and St. Clair bowed, leaving his friend to fend for himself. Sinclair was reminded of just what a good
friend the man was. The widow watched St. Clair’s back as he
walked away from them, her fan still waving slowly. She said, “I’m surprised he left you here,
with me. I thought I heard you were good friends, back
in the day.” “Good friends, we are. The only friend I willingly put pen to paper
during my long years in India.” “The friendship must be more one-sided than
you realize.” And in her words was the truth that it was
her St. Clair didn’t like. Sinclair shook his head. “My friend. Who knows me better than myself. Who knows it is very hard to distract me once
I’ve seen something I like.” She turned her eyes to him, dismissing St.
Clair. She waved her fan, still smiling, and studied
his coiffed brown hair. His cravat. His waistcoat. He waited for her to say she liked what she
saw as well but out came, “And how is India? As uncivilized as one hears?” Sinclair jolted at uncivilized. He’d been gone a long time, perhaps he was
out of practice at this particular game. “It is wonderful, and until but a moment
ago, I was devising numerous schemes to get back there. Now, though, I find England and her wares
intoxicating.” “Flattery will get you everywhere, Mr. Sinclair.” He murmured, “Excellent.” Her fan sped up, their eyes caught. The crowd pushed her closer and she said softly,
“Do you know why your friend Mr. St. Clair doesn’t like me?” “I assumed it was a personal failing.” She laughed, her hair moving precariously
atop her head and he noticed there was gold tinsel woven through it. “It is. My personal failing.” He sniffed and her dark musky scent surrounded
him. He said, “I have known George St. Clair
since our school days and you for but one minute, and I can assure you, it is not your
personal failing.” She was still laughing when she shrugged one
shoulder, a surprisingly Gallic gesture for so Nordic a complexion. “I like torturing him. I can’t help it. And I wonder if I can wind Mr. St. Clair so
tight that he will shatter.” “It can’t be done. Trust me.” “So you think I should give it up? Admit defeat?” Sinclair nodded. “I think you should expend your energies
on a more worthwhile cause.” Their eyes were nearly even, she was such
a tall woman, and her hair towered over him. She only had to lean in to whisper in his
ear, “I don’t give up. I don’t admit defeat.” She pulled back, rapping his forearm with
her fan hard enough to sting, and turned away from him. She said over her shoulder as she walked away,
“But you should perhaps listen to your friend, Mr. Sinclair. I like to play with my prey.” The widow. The name swirled around Elinor in the overheated
ballroom. Loud whispers behind fluttering fans, appreciative
glances from the men, glares from the women. The ton had long ago decided what kind of
woman she was, title or no title. And they weren’t entirely wrong. She’d buried husband number five not two
weeks ago and she was out socializing? Unheard of! How shocking! The gall of the woman! She’d mourned a full year with husband number
one. The aging viscount who’d wanted a pretty,
young wife to care for him in his twilight years. Who hadn’t cared just how muddied her family
tree was since he already had his heir. And his heir already had an heir. And if a pretty, young woman had wanted a
husband only for his title, for the respect he could paint her with, she couldn’t have
picked any better. He’d given her his name– the name she
even now answered to, four husbands later– had planted a child in her, and only one year
later had made her a widow. With a title! Money! Except the child hadn’t lived. And there hadn’t been any money. Not for her. And husband number two had become a necessity. Along with better solicitors. Elinor searched the ballroom, smiling vaguely
and waving her fan. Meeting the wide-eyed stares of the debutantes,
the narrowed glances of the dowagers. The married men she ignored. The old men she flirted with. She batted her eyelashes at the young men,
touching her fan to her lips and making them blush. She wasn’t set on any one man, yet. A certain kind of man, certainly. George St. Clair would have fit the bill if
he wasn’t so…George St. Clair. And you could call Elinor Rusbridge any kind
of woman you liked but she was a realist. George St. Clair would never fall for her
or her plan. He would be work for an uncertain reward. His tanned friend there, fresh from India,
was a possibility. He wanted some fun. The kind of fun Elinor had never given to
any man she hadn’t been married to before, though she’d certainly been offered it. She’d been married five times, and she knew
the easiest way to get to that state was to make a man dizzy with desire. And not let him get undizzy until after the
wedding. Husband number two had been flabbergasted
that a widow could be as tight-legged as a blushing virgin. Had, really, lost his mind in his pursuit
of her. A merchant, his money made from trade, his
desire for a wife of title, a woman of lineage even if it was only a step up from his, the
lovely man had given her everything he’d owned. She’d made his reward well worth the wait. And they’d been happy for that one year. Husband number two had also been honored with
a full year of mourning. He’d choked on a soup bone and left her
his fortune, after all. After his death and her subsequent inheritance,
she’d had the pick of the ton. It was a lesson Elinor had learned well. It wasn’t a title that granted respect,
it was money. She supposed she could have stopped with the
husbands after number two. It was number three that had turned her into
a caricature for the society columns. But she’d wanted more. She always wanted more. This husband, this time, required a different
plan than a pretty face and knowledgeable eyes and tight legs. More than a beautiful woman whipping a man
into a frenzy. It would require skill and timing. And luck. She was not entirely certain she could pull
it off, and the uncertainty of it was making her extremely picky. A cup of punch was suddenly thrust at her,
a hand cupped her elbow. “Looking for me?” She turned, a smile on her lips and steel
in her voice. “I wasn’t.” Golden blond hair a shade less lustrous than
her own and blue eyes a smidgen less sparkly looked back at her. “Father is turning in his grave at the spectacle
you’re making.” “I doubt it.” “Subtlety, Elinor. Subtlety,” he said, and her brother sounded
so much like their father that Elinor nearly shuddered. He kept his hand on her arm, tight enough
to hurt. “If you’re not looking for me, who are
you looking for?” “Who do you think the widow is looking for? Why are you here?” “I was invited. As a special guest.” “That seems unlikely.” He waved behind her and when Elinor turned,
there was the hostess frowning at them. “You should go reassure her that your attentions
aren’t straying, brother dear.” “Oh, she knows about you. She has her own family ghosts; she knows about
embarrassing relations.” Elinor didn’t even feel the dig. “And her husband? He doesn’t care about special guests?” Her brother put a fist on one cocked hip and
said in a sing-song voice, “Not this special guest. This special guest is helping her redo her
wardrobe to outshine Lady Westin. This special guest has no interest in the
boudoir except what pattern the wallpaper is.” Her brother was very good at choosing what
kind of special friend would most suit his purposes and Elinor didn’t doubt he would
keep himself out of the lady’s bed. She said, “And how much his commission is
when he gets her to replace it.” Alan squeezed her arm tighter, trying to get
her to flinch, to drop the cup. “You’ve chosen your path, my lovely sister. I’ve chosen mine.” His eyes flowed up her hair and he said, “Not
all of us have such beauty to sell to the highest bidder.” She quoted her father, even if the words left
a bad taste in her mouth. “Beauty and brains. The deadliest combination.” Alan’s face tightened. “Never forget, Elinor, which of us got the
lion’s share of brains.” The rage and jealousy that flowed from her
brother was old, a wound that could never heal. A wound her father had picked at and spit
on until there was no love to lose between the siblings. It didn’t help that poor husband number
three had come between them. He’d chosen her over her brother. The Italian Stallion. Marcus. And Elinor still mourned him, her first friend,
in her heart. He’d been beautiful. Tall and manly and fashionable. Everything a gentleman should be. And everything a gentleman really was. A completely different man when he was in
the comfort of his own home than he was out in society. Elinor had fallen for it, all of it, and it
was only her excellent solicitors who’d kept her from losing her hard-earned money
to her brother and his lover. Their year of marriage had consisted of one
shock and lie discovered after another. One year of scheming and fighting, and then
gradually clinging to each other in the storm of her brother’s rage and hate and jealousy. Husband number three had been the only man
who’d seen inside her, who’d known who and what she really was. The only man who’d snuck into her heart,
and she into his. And then, a fall from his horse, a broken
neck, and the widow had been born. She’d mourned him in public for only six
months and she’d tightened in the waist of all her dresses, fashion be damned, to
prove there was no posthumous child. She’d used those extra six months to choose
more wisely. To be more sure of her next husband. Elinor patted her brother’s cheek with her
free hand. “You got the lion’s share of something,
my loving brother.” His hand jerked around her arm, the feeling
in her fingertips getting fainter the longer he held on and she smiled wider at him. Proving just who was getting to whom. Hoping she could prove it before her hand
went all the way numb. George Sinclair sidled up to them, then stopped
suddenly when he saw Alan. He looked between them, then down at the hand
still gripping her elbow and the cup of punch in her hand. He looked down at the two cups in his hands
and then back up into her eyes. “Oh. I thought you wanted punch. Isn’t that what you said?” He sounded simple and lost, and Elinor smiled
at him wide enough to make him blink and really lose the use of his faculties. She said, “Here he is! And he’s brought me punch, how sweet. Toddle back to our hostess, brother, before
she finds someone else with impeccable fashion sense.” Elinor smiled brightly at Mr. Sinclair, forcing
herself to hold on to the cup until her brother was gone and out of sight. Pins and needles raced down her fingers as
the blood came rushing back and she switched hands quickly before she dropped the confounded
punch. George Sinclair watched her and took a sip
from one of his cups. He made a face, then said, “Brother?” Elinor took a cautious sip, turning it into
a healthy gulp when the punch tasted just fine to her. “You can pick your husband, you can pick
your dog. You can’t pick your brother.” He thought about that for a long moment. “Yes. I have my own brother. They should be outlawed.” She snorted, a very unladylike and punch-filled
sound that turned into a short coughing fit. Mr. Sinclair watched her, still sip-sip-sipping,
and when her coughs subsided said, “I don’t have a dog, though.” She cleared the remaining cough from her throat. “I have three. Mastiffs.” “Mastiffs! In London?!” Everyone within a ten-foot radius turned at
his shout and when Elinor had recovered from her involuntary jump, she started laughing
at the red tinge to his face and sheepish look. He muttered, “It’s much louder in India. I haven’t yet acclimatized myself to the
quiet.” Elinor chuckled, listening to the loud laughter
of the crowded room and wondering just how loud India could be. She sipped her punch, forgetting her brother
and her arm and thinking it was too bad about George Sinclair. He was…intriguing. An intriguing husband would certainly be different
than her normal fare. Except she’d met his brother. And she agreed, he should definitely be outlawed. And there was his friend St. Clair who would
keep a calm head under pressure. They could both foil her plan. She needed someone more certain. She turned her head away from George Sinclair
and scanned the crowd. He drew her attention back with a somewhat
quieter, “How do you keep three mastiffs happy in London? I was thinking of a Pomeranian. Keep him in the pocket of my greatcoat.” Elinor tried not to smile at the image. Tried to give him the cold shoulder, chase
him off, but he leaned in and whispered, “And then when my brother gets too close, let the
dog loose. Yap yap yap yap.” He laughed and Elinor laughed with him. “I would love to see you do that to the
Earl of Ashmore.” “I see you’ve met him.” Elinor sternly insisted to herself to stop
laughing. “I have. Are you quite sure you’re related?” He sighed, heartfelt. “I would give anything to be proved I am
not. Alas.” He tipped his cup up, finishing it and starting
in on the next one, and she tried again to look away. To stop wasting time with him. But she said, “My brother wouldn’t be
scared off by the yapping of a spoiled Pomeranian. I assure you it is quite as funny when you
open the door and let loose three mastiffs.” She snickered at the memory. Mr. Sinclair didn’t join her, and there
was a little less laughter in his eyes when he looked at her. He looked down at the arm she was still favoring. “Brothers. Should be outlawed.” She turned her head away from the tone in
his voice. At the outrage and understanding. She caught the gaze of George St. Clair, off
in a corner watching them. She stared unblinking at him, and he her,
until finally she nodded imperceptibly. George St. Clair had already lost one friend
to the widow. Elinor knew he wouldn’t let her have another. No matter how intriguing he was. No matter that she hadn’t been the cause
of husband number four’s death. Hadn’t been the cause of any of their deaths. But the rumors circulated, and the whispers
were too delicious to be sullied with the truth. That Elinor Rusbridge was simply supremely
unlucky. One could say it was her husbands who had
been extremely unlucky, but she liked to think that all of them had had the best year of
their life before their untimely deaths. Husband number four, and the reason for George
St. Clair’s supreme dislike, had been a quiet, kind man. No one had thought she’d been serious about
him, including the poor man himself. But Elinor hadn’t wanted anymore drama. She’d wanted quiet. Peace. Children running under foot and a husband
who was easy to please. They’d settled in the country and Elinor
had resolved to herself to be the perfect country wife. Not too adventurous in bed, just solicitous
enough out of it. Her staid, conscientious husband had taken
it upon himself to visit a sick neighbor in the rain and had left this world courtesy
of putrid fever. Elinor had decided she was none too fond of
the country. Her mourning had lasted two months. Mr. Sinclair looked to where her attention
had gone to. “Friends. Should be outlawed, as well.” “That friend, absolutely. Have you ever seen him smile?” “Too serious for it. Too much responsibility.” He closed his eyes, shuddering. “A responsible man.” “You don’t seem to suffer from the affliction.” “Thank you,” he said and she laughed. Again. He said, “May I stand firm against the lure
of responsibility despite all attempts at recruiting me.” Elinor decided she must put a stop to this
at once. He was far too entertaining. She said, her voice cold and disapproving,
“Friends are rare, Mr. Sinclair. You should treasure yours.” “I do. Especially the kind that lets me enjoy my
mistakes first and then saves me from them after.” She lifted an eyebrow. “Mistake?” “His word, not mine. And obviously I was not talking about you.” He ducked his head into his empty punch cup
and muttered, “And obviously I have become as uncivilized as you have accused me.” “Obviously.” But her lips wobbled with the effort it took
to keep from smiling. She turned abruptly away from him, deciding
that verbally sparring with him would simply never work and physical distance was required. He followed at her elbow. “But what about my reward?” “…for?” “Chasing away a brother. I think a dance should do it nicely.” “I’m in mourning, Mr. Sinclair.” He looked at her dress, sliding his eyes leisurely
down, down, down. “I can see that.” His eyes roamed back up, clearly enjoying
the view. “I’ve never seen mourning look quite so
beautiful.” The reality was she’d been in mourning for
the last ten years. Owned nothing but black clothing, black veils,
black gloves and fans. She looked down at the dress that was beautiful
and striking despite the color, and lifted the hem of her gown just enough for her black
heeled shoe to peek out. She smiled. She did look good in black. She said, “I shall simply have to return
the favor someday and chase away your brother. I would hope I could be as off-putting as
a Pomeranian.” Mr. Sinclair came to a full stop and Elinor
turned when she realized she’d lost him. He stood stock still, his eyes far away and
unseeing, a smile lighting his whole face. She wouldn’t have called him a beautiful
man. Somewhat ordinary looking, except for the
blond streaks in his light brown hair. His eyes an indiscriminate blue, faded and
washed out. Add to that his too-tanned skin, so unfashionable. But he was one of those people. One of those people who became more beautiful
with each moment they were in your company. The kind of people you looked forward to meeting
with, the kind of people you missed when they were gone. The kind of people who were so happy and delightful
that there was no hope in being anything but the same when they were near. Elinor was not one of those people. She was the kind of people you saw more and
more of and liked less and less. She was the kind of people who became what
she needed to get what she wanted. Showing the world what she wanted them to
see and keeping the real her locked up tight. She was the kind of people whose husbands
found absurd ways to die after a year of her company, no matter how she tried to be what
they wanted. Two weeks. She’d been widowed two weeks ago and here
she was, hunting again. Husband number five had been young. Three years younger than herself. Hearty and hale, the third son of a baron
whose family had disapproved of her, of course, but hadn’t seen any better for the boy. She’d been tired of her husbands dying and
had thought his age would protect him. Had thought his age would protect her. She’d been wrong. His age had only made him silly and careless. Had made him think he was invincible when
all it took was a prodigious amount of liquor, falling asleep in his favorite chair with
his chin to his chest, and never waking back up. And here was her current predicament. She couldn’t be distracted by a man who
made her laugh when she couldn’t get what she wanted from him. This husband had to prove himself before the
marriage, and then be gentleman enough to still go through with it. Mr. George Sinclair might have been that man. If he didn’t look at responsibility and
shudder. If he didn’t have a brother who would laugh
at her demands when she made them. A friend who watched him like a hawk, to swoop
in and yes, save him, in her moment of triumph. She had to find just the right man, and she
would use whatever she had to get what she wanted. Want was all she had. This husband would give her a child. This husband would not leave her alone should
he tire of her company after a year. She would find her last husband. And it wasn’t this man smiling brightly
at her and saying, “I’m imagining you yapping at my brother.” George Sinclair came to the conclusion sometime
after the lovely Lady Haywood had swept away from him that he had indeed left any sort
of charm he’d once depended on on another continent. His friend St. Clair had been no help when
he’d gone to complain at his lack of progress with the woman. St. Clair had only continued to watch her
and say, “Don’t bet on it. She’s simply playing a different game this
time.” “The ‘I’m not interested’ game?” St. Clair turned his head just enough to note
the frustration on Sinclair’s features. “Is her lack of interest making you want
to chase after her like some lovesick ninny?” Sinclair tracked the woman, not hard to do
with that hair standing a foot above every man in the room and the black dress snagging
everyone’s attention amidst all the brightly colored frocks. “I object to the description but see your
point, old friend.” “I should write to the earl and tell him
what kind of woman has grabbed your attention.” Sinclair shook his head sadly and patted his
friend on the shoulder. “I don’t know what has happened to you,
George.” St. Clair pushed himself off the wall he’d
been propping up and said, “I grew up.” He walked away to find some other entertainment
now that the widow was leaving his adopted ward alone. Sinclair watched him and thought no three
words had ever sounded so sad. Chapter Two One week later, Sinclair’s brother, along
with his countess and four daughters, arrived in town. Sinclair gave the benefit of the doubt to
his friend and decided it wasn’t because St. Clair had sent that letter as he’d threatened. No, the earl came because it was the season. And the countess loved everything about the
season. Sinclair was ordered to appear at the earl’s
London residence, and Sinclair obeyed. Everyone obeyed the earl. Except the countess. Sinclair would enjoy that about her, had in
the past loved the countess unreservedly for it, but she’d recently become the source
of all Sinclair’s problems. Why couldn’t the woman simply obey her husband
and pop out an heir? Four girls. Ye gads. The earl had sent a missive to his wayward
brother shortly after the birth of the latest, informing him that he needed to come home. What with travel times and finishing up business,
it had taken Sinclair over a year but here he was bouncing his youngest niece on his
knee and saying over her squeals, “Why couldn’t you have been a boy?” She showed him her gummy smile and shoved
a wet and well-loved fist into her mouth. And squealed so loud that Sinclair stopped
missing India. His oldest niece, just turned eight and so
serious and such a little version of the earl that he wanted to throw her into the air and
make her squeal to prove she was still a little girl, scolded him. “Uncle George. Even if it’s the truth, some things shouldn’t
be said out loud.” Camilla looked at her littlest sister with
a worried expression. “I don’t want her to feel bad.” George stopped bouncing but it did nothing
to stop the squeals so he shouted, “Do you feel bad that you weren’t a boy?” Camilla took her time thinking about it. Then raised her chin. “No. Although I know it would have been easier,
Papa says he doesn’t need a son. That’s why he has you.” George’s lip curled and he flopped against
the back of the sofa. The earl had him. And that’s why he’d left India to come
back to this chilly, bland country. The earl needed him. The earl had ordered him home. To start learning his duties, to help with
the responsibilities. George shuddered. To find a wife who could produce the next
generation’s heir. Or rather, to be there when the earl found
one for him. Everyone obeyed the earl, even if they had
run halfway across the world to escape him. George hated his brother, and he loved him. Didn’t, under any circumstance, want to
become him. But George Sinclair was the earl’s heir,
up to and until such time as the countess produced the real one, and with every passing
year, the chance of that happening grew smaller and smaller. Damn the woman. The countess swept into the room, no doubt
following the squeals still erupting loudly from her offspring, and smiled warmly when
she saw George entertaining his nieces. He glared at her, at her still trim figure,
the smile that shone in her eyes despite a decade married to his brother, the love and
pride that showed on her face when she looked at her children. Even the youngest, who was supposed to be
a boy. She pecked George’s cheek warmly before
settling next to him on the settee. She glanced at the nursemaid, hovering nearby,
ready to swoop in the moment Mr. Sinclair grew tired of squeals and pink, cherubic cheeks. The woman had a long wait coming. George remembered bouncing Camilla on his
knee when she was this age. He remembered spending an unfashionable amount
of time with her tucked in the crook of his arm, spending an unseemly number of dinners
at his brother’s dining table. Happy being a part of the family. Happy to bask in the reward and none of the
responsibility. The countess said loudly, “Let the nurse
take her, George. She is too much.” “I like too much. I like too loud.” “Then you may retire with her to the nursery.” He sighed, gave the baby one last bounce,
and handed her off to the nursemaid. The nurse shut the door behind her and the
room filled with peace and quiet. George hated it, but the countess settled
back into her seat happily. “I don’t know why every child gets progressively
louder. Camilla was a mute in comparison.” “This Camilla? The one sitting right here so nicely, not
saying a peep? I thought she was a mute.” Camilla scolded him again. “Uncle George.” He’d obviously left the poor child to the
earl for far too long. She sat quietly in her chair, her back straight,
her hands folded in her lap. Her long brown hair was tied back with an
oversized blue bow and her pretty dress was spotless. He remembered her loud baby squeals and her
fat, pink cheeks. Remembered the earl quietly mourning on her
first birthday that she hadn’t been a son. But there was always the next child. And there was always his brother, George,
eh? Wasn’t that what the spare was for? There was always his brother, the spare. Who’d booked passage to India the next week. The countess had written to him unstintingly
during his self-imposed exile, and George knew his warm welcome home was all because
of her. She’d refused to let the girls grow up not
knowing their uncle. Refused to let the uncle not know every little
detail about the girls. He loved his sister through marriage despite
the fact that him being here was all her fault. Didn’t know how his brother had got so incredibly
lucky. The countess smiled at her oldest daughter. “She is on her best behavior. On account of our guest.” “Papa said if I was good I could eat dinner
with you. In the dining room.” She sounded so incredibly excited about it
that George had to bite his cheek to keep from laughing. Or crying. “And who is this lucky guest to be graced
with Lady Camilla’s presence? Oh, gad! Don’t tell me it’s started already. What horribly suitable vir–” The countess
jabbed him in the side and he said, “What horribly suitable lady have you invited for
dinner?” “You are our guest, Uncle George.” He sputtered, “But I’m not a guest! Would a guest travel halfway across the world
to eat at your table? Would a guest bring gifts and presents and
hold your baby sister on his knee despite the drool? A guest!” Camilla’s eyes had got wider and wider at
George’s diatribe and when he was done, she said quietly, “I’m sorry.” He jumped to his feet, sucking in a breath. “Flora! Haven’t you told her anything about me?” “You mean to not believe anything you say,
and that when you are talking the loudest is when we should listen the least? Yes, I did tell her but, like the earl, she
doesn’t understand you at all. Like you didn’t understand when I wrote
telling you she was just like him.” She said to her daughter, in a sweeter tone
of voice, “He’s playing, Camilla.” “It wasn’t funny, Uncle George.” He knelt at her feet, pulling a small packet
from his pocket and handing it to her. “Not funny at all, Lady Camilla. I apologize. And you should listen to your mother. Don’t believe anything I say.” She looked down at the plain packet sitting
in her hands. “Does that mean that this gift isn’t really
for me, then?” He choked and laughed. “No hope for us, is there? The gift is for you. I have one for all your sisters.” She unwrapped it carefully. Slowly. He glanced back at the countess and she nodded
in commiseration at the speed her daughter unwrapped her gift. Camilla finally pulled out a small ornate
hair comb. Dark and oriental in color, and the small
butterfly hovering at the top covered in gold leaf. Flora clapped her hands together. “Oh, my goodness! It’s beautiful, George. Be very careful with it, Camilla.” The child was already holding it cupped in
the palm of her hands like it was a real butterfly and George scowled at the countess. He stood, pulling another packet from his
pocket and handing it to Flora as he sat back down. “Careful! For every one she breaks, I’ll give her
two more.” And he already knew, he’d never need to
order another comb for his serious little niece. He said, “That does not stand for your other
daughters, though. Or for you.” “Wise,” she said as she unwrapped it. She smiled at the small bouquet of flowers
at the top of her comb, again covered in gold leaf. “They are truly quite beautiful, George.” She went to help put the comb in her daughter’s
hair and then knelt gracefully on the rug so Camilla could return the favor. Camilla studied her mother’s coif, held
the comb up here and then there, and George finally closed his eyes. “You have infinite patience, Flora.” “Some people like to do things right, George.” He knew. And was starting to understand what she’d
told him about her daughter. Just like the earl, indeed. When Camilla had the comb positioned just
so, George helped the countess back up, and Camilla thanked him gravely for her gift. Her eyes came together in concern and she
said, “Isabel is too little for a hair comb. And she has no hair.” He laughed at how serious she was. “Lucky that is not what I brought for her,
then.” He waited for her to ask what she’d brought
for her sisters, he could see she wanted to, but she simply sat back down and smoothed
her impeccable dress. George would have teased and prodded her to
ask but just then his brother came in. Camilla jumped from her chair, then halted
her head-long rush and walked calmly to her father. She showed him her new hair comb, told him
about putting the flowered comb in her mother’s hair. The earl gave her a quick smile. “Shh, Camilla. Let me say hello to our guest.” Her eyebrows flew together and she scowled
at George for tricking her. He was a guest! The countess laughed, pulling her daughter
aside to explain the difference between guests and guests. The earl, oblivious as usual to the reason
his countess was laughing, nodded at George. George nodded back. And they were both relieved when the butler
came in to announce dinner. To save them from the awkwardness of meeting
again after eight years and two continents. Camilla’s little voice asked quietly, “Papa? May I?” George and the earl looked at her, at her
hands gripped tightly together, at her hopeful-but-not-too-hopeful expression, and George silently vowed that
if his brother said no there would be fisticuffs. Pistols at dawn. But the earl looked at her pristine dress
and unruffled hair and smiled at her, nodding. Camilla flushed with pleasure, and when George
offered her his arm, when she took it with wide, excited eyes, he thought for the second
time that he was glad to be home. He’d neglected his duties for far too long. He was needed here, at home. He needed to teach his niece how to have some
fun. The countess and Camilla left the men after
dinner. The child was drooping with fatigue and hadn’t
even protested when her mother told her she couldn’t wait for the gentlemen. George wasn’t sure she would have protested
anyway. She curtsied to him. “We are glad you are home, Uncle George.” He bowed to her, so low and so long that when
he came back up her forehead was puckered in confusion. He winked, and her expression turned from
confusion to exasperation. “Oh, Uncle George” she said, and she left
the room, her head still shaking at his foolishness. His brother was watching her, the pride hard
to miss, and George said, “She’s only eight, Sebastian.” “Her first adult dinner. She handled herself admirably. And she’s nine.” “Nine? Well, then, that’s fine that she’s so
quiet and well-behaved.” He huffed in annoyance. “She said two words.” “Exactly. You don’t think being allowed to eat with
the adults, with her prodigal uncle, is a treat for her? I assure you it is.” “A treat, perhaps. Fun? Definitely not.” Sebastian sat back in his chair and studied
his brother. George studied him in return. Eight years. The earl’s hair was streaked with gray,
the lines around his eyes deeper. And while the earl would never be so undisciplined
as to let his waist expand, there was a softness, a tiredness, that hadn’t been there before. He looked so much like their father, George
had to shake himself to remember that he wasn’t. “It’s like looking at a ghost, you look
so much like him.” The earl nodded, knowing who George was referring
to. The man had obviously looked in the mirror
recently. George took a drink. “Thank God I take after Mother.” The earl closed his eyes, resting his head
back. His mouth twitched, knowing he shouldn’t
laugh at his silly brother but finding it hard to resist, and George realized there
was more than one person in this family who needed him. He felt the twinge, the regret, at leaving
them. At letting his brother become old like this
without him. Not that his brother didn’t deserve it. George thought a houseful of squealing little
girls who needed their dolls loved and who one day would be married off to undeserving
men was exactly the right punishment for any man who insisted on doing everything right. A man who insisted everyone do everything
the right way. Sebastian’s girls had turned his hair gray
and George laughed at him. They drank and smoked and talked of nothing
important, because then they could get along and they both wanted it to last as long as
possible. But finally they stood, heading for the drawing
room and the countess, and Sebastian stopped him with a hand to the shoulder. “We are glad you are home, George.” George mimicked him, squeezing with affection. “And how long do you think that will last?” “Knowing you, I’m surprised I haven’t
changed my mind yet.” They smiled at each other. Right now able to laugh at that truth. Knowing them, that wouldn’t last long. Sebastian said, “The ladies of the ton are
glad you are home as well. Flora has had letter after letter asking about
you.” Sebastian eyed his brother. “You must tell Flora about all the partners
you deigned to dance with so she can give you her opinion.” George sighed. “Give me a week, at least, before you marry
me off.” “Why? You didn’t wait a week to start socializing.” “What you are asking me to do is work. Socializing is fun. Virgin debutantes are work.” “I doubt you’ve worked a day in the last
eight years; time to hop back on that horse. Or in your case, be introduced to it.” George bit his tongue. Tightened his fists. Wanted to defend himself, wanted to share
with his brother just what he’d been doing the last eight years in India. He’d worked. He’d carved out a place for himself there. Not as the son of an earl, not as the younger
brother of one. He’d done it his way. It had been fun. He wanted to share that with Sebastian. Share it, not defend himself with it. But the earl said, “If you’ve had time
to get embroiled with scandalous widows, you’ve had time to meet an eligible virgin or two.” George narrowed his eyes. “Embroiled? Have you made St. Clair spy for you?” “I saw him at White’s. Said I might want to know my brother has got
distracted already.” “What has happened to the two of you? Or I should say, what has happened to my good
friend St. Clair because you’ve always been like this.” George knew his friend St. Clair had always
been like that, too. He’d forgotten; he couldn’t remember why
they’d ever become friends in the first place. “George. The woman has been married five times with
no surviving issue. I know how you love a scandal. Play with the widow, I don’t care. Don’t get caught in her web. And don’t get so distracted that you forget
what this season is for.” “I know what this season is for. A wife, an heir. Shackles. Responsibility.” “Duty. Family. Gr–” “Don’t say it,” George said shortly
and the earl said over him, “Growing up. Becoming a man.” George sucked in a deep breath and let it
out, long and slow. They entered the drawing room in silence and
when the countess looked between them, George swore he heard her sigh. And then she smiled, coming to slide between
them and distract them with stories of people George had known long ago. Friends and acquaintances who’d grown up
and started families. Who’d become responsible. And tired and tiresome. And gray. George listened, and thought of India. After George took his leave, the countess
leaned back against the sofa as much as her corset would allow, closing her eyes and allowing
herself to relax. All evening she’d joked and laughed with
George. She’d smiled at her husband and patted his
knee. She’d steered the conversation to old times,
to memories that were too far away to sting. Away from why George had been called home. Away from eligible young ladies. Away from marriage and children. Away from her children. Away from the nursery. Sebastian had been his usual self. Focused on the problem before him, not understanding
that tiptoeing could fix a problem faster than stomping. The countess reminded herself that a man who
was easy to lead would be boring and she was lucky enough to not have that problem. And dear George sat there and laughed. He smiled and joked and pretended that every
prick from the earl didn’t sting. He became sillier and less serious, and the
earl didn’t see that George was doing his own pricking. There was a lot that the earl didn’t see. But tonight, at least, her work was done. And if it had taken more out of her than it
had a decade ago, well, the earl was not the only one starting to show his age. Age. Disappointment. Failure. It had all caught up with her. She heard the earl making his way back from
saying goodbye to George, and Flora sat up in her seat. She took a quick three breaths to refresh
herself and smiled. Sebastian stopped in the doorway and looked
at his wife. “You look tired.” “Yes, my dear. I had forgotten how much energy it took to
keep you and your brother civil.” He grunted. “If it wasn’t my own mother I was insulting,
I would seriously question whether she’d cuckolded Father. How can the same pairing produce two distinctly
opposite men?” “Because one was raised to be the earl and
one was raised to be a younger son.” Sebastian murmured. “The heir and the spare. I do feel for him, Flora. I do understand how, but for the vagaries
of birth, he could have had everything and instead has nothing.” She laughed because he didn’t see at all. “In that you are similar because he pities
you as well.” “Pities me?” His expression was so insulted she could only
shake her head. “I know, my dear. You don’t understand him; he doesn’t understand
you. But George is glad he is not the earl and
he is quite upset that it is now up to him to produce the next one.” “He is not the only one,” Sebastian said
and Flora didn’t flinch. She absorbed the blow into her straight spine,
her uplifted lips. And she knew it was hard for a man to see
what a woman refused to show him. Knew that, and could still blame him. “It’s his duty, Flora, and he’s acting
as if he’s taking a one-way trip to the gallows.” “I’m sure he is not the first man to react
to marriage thusly.” Sebastian would have laughed if he’d been
that kind of man. Instead he looked at her fondly. “Duty chafes everyone. We learn to accept it.” Flora looked beyond the words that might hurt
and to the intention sitting just behind it. At the fond smile on her husband’s face. Duty did chafe. And most did learn to accept. When she didn’t respond, Sebastian said
quietly, “Go to bed, Flora. Rest. Until George has picked his bride, there will
be little time for relaxation. I know I can count on you to keep the peace
between us.” She nodded, found the energy for a benevolent
smile from somewhere, and waited until he was through the door and closing it behind
him to say, “I’m sorry, Sebastian.” The door paused an instant before clicking
shut and she knew he’d heard her. They were both sorry, and neither could do
anything about it because she’d failed her duty. She’d failed to give him a son. Sebastian went to his library. He sat in the chair that had molded to the
backsides of Sinclair men generations ago. He just sat, looking at nothing. I’m sorry, Sebastian. He’d thought this chair would one day be
passed to his son. Passed on for generations more. And he guessed that it would be, but it wouldn’t
be through him and his. It would be through his brother. It almost made him laugh, the thought of George
holding the title. George’s son raised to be the earl. But he didn’t. He rested his head back and closed his eyes. I’m sorry, Sebastian. He knew it was he who should be apologizing;
he who’d committed the unpardonable sin. He’d called his brother home. He’d given up. Flora had been so sick after the birth. Women had many more children than four but
not her. She would have no more; the earl wouldn’t
risk it. He wouldn’t return to her bed. She was his. His countess, perfect in every way, and he
couldn’t lose her. If she carried another child, tried once more
to fulfill her most important duty, he knew she wouldn’t survive. Sebastian balled his fist and slammed it into
his thigh, fought against the knowledge that producing an heir was his most important duty. Because what if she died trying? There were maidens aplenty who would gladly
become his countess, gladly give him more tries at a son. It was his duty, and he’d passed it off
to his brother. The moment he’d been told it was another
girl, he’d known there would be no more children for him. Whether his countess survived or not. He’d sat down at his desk and written. Come home, brother. I need you. And George had come. They might irritate each other no end but
they were brothers. His wife, apologizing when he should. Because she knew he wouldn’t. All of them making his decision their own
because he was the earl. All because Sebastian knew his duty. And he refused to do it. Chapter Three Elinor Rusbridge Lemmon Gilberti Wooten Headley,
Lady Haywood, sat side-saddle on her horse and trotted sedately down the mile. Looking, being looked at. Her riding habit, black of course, made of
light wool, her hat tipped precariously to the side and held in place by roughly a thousand
pins jabbed into her hair and scalp. She supposed she could have worn a veil to
achieve the same effect. To look without anyone knowing just where
she was looking. But she hated veils. Hated them with a passion and thought it the
worst part of widowhood. She watched the men. Watched their glances, watched to see who
found the widow intriguing enough to venture closer. Most were completely unsuitable and she moved
on. But she watched one unsuitable man, prancing
happily and doffing his hat at any excuse to show off his streaked hair and darkened
skin. He smiled widely and laughed loudly, and Elinor
wondered how long it would take for him to adopt the ennui so common in the men of his
generation. She knew when he saw her, when he turned his
horse her way. She continued on, not changing her pace and
let him chase after her. She knew some men liked to chase and wondered
if Mr. Sinclair was one of those men. And then wondered just what she was doing
wondering about Mr. Sinclair. His horse nosed even with her own and she
didn’t look at him, didn’t wait for him to greet her. “I can’t be seen talking with you. I’m a widow; I have to protect my reputation.” He snorted. “Of course. You attend balls but don’t dance. You ride the mile but don’t converse. Forgive me for not understanding your mourning
rituals.” “I choose the parts of widowhood that suit
me. I believe I’ve earned that right.” He tipped his head. “If anyone has, I do believe it’s you,
Lady Haywood.” If anyone ever had, it was her. Mr. Sinclair nosed his horse a little ahead,
enough for him to be able to see her eyes when he spoke with her. “My good friend St. Clair says you are on
the hunt for husband number six.” “And you came to ask me about it? How odd. Are you interested in applying for the position?” He blinked. “Have all your previous husbands applied? Like a valet?” He gasped. “Do you ask for references?” Elinor bit her tongue to keep from laughing
and he said, “No wonder St. Clair is so uncharitable toward you. You have upset the order of his little world. References for a husband.” She let a little of her laughter out in a
small smile. “You can’t believe anything he says about
me. He will always think the worst, I’m afraid.” Sinclair nodded soberly. “I finally got the story from him. Dear Bertie. He was a sweet man, and I would have said
that about him even when he was alive.” “You knew him?” “A school friend.” “And you don’t blame me for his death,
like St. Clair?” “Grief affects everyone a little differently. St. Clair grieves by blaming you. I say, as someone who’s met your brother,
that if you had the power to kill a man with putrid fever, you wouldn’t have picked Bertie.” She looked down for a long minute, swallowing
the lump that had lodged itself in her throat. Sinclair rode next to her, not saying a word
for nearly a quarter of a mile. And then he said philosophically, “Death
is inevitable, and you might as well go out happy.” When she looked at him, he held her eyes and
said, “And I can’t help but believe that Bertie died as happy as any man can.” And Elinor thought, Blue eyes. Not faded and washed out but blue as a warm
summer’s day. Rare and wonderful. Heat rushed through her body, warming her
fingers and toes and all parts in between. She swallowed and looked away. “You are wasting your time, Mr. Sinclair.” “Am I?” “I only make my husbands that happy.” “Mm. Once they’ve paid the ultimate price.” She tipped her head so that her hat covered
her eyes and he could only see her mouth as she whispered, “Don’t you think it would
be worth it?” He choked out, “Yes,” and she couldn’t
help her wide smile. “You are too much fun, Mr. Sinclair. You must leave me at once. A widow can not be seen smiling so happily.” “Or smiling so wickedly, either.” She stopped smiling, happily or wickedly. “Any kind of smiling.” “Oh, yes. Your rules for widowhood. Laughing and smiling are out, then?” “Completely.” “Because you are looking for number six,
like St. Clair says, and you don’t want to scare any prospects away?” She didn’t answer right away. But then thought, why not? Everyone knew already. She nodded. “I am. And I walk a very fine line between available
and respectable.” “Forgive my impertinence but I always assumed
widowhood was a step up from marriage. If one had the blunt.” “Perhaps that’s what I’m looking for
then. A man with blunt.” His eyes traveled down her very expensive
habit. “I don’t think that’s what you’re
looking for. Perhaps you’re simply one of those women
who isn’t happy without a man at your beck and call.” He murmured, so only she could hear on the
busy road, “One of those women who isn’t happy without a man in your bed.” She ignored the heat flushing away the cold
she’d lived with for too long, ignored the pitter-patter of her heart as it raced to
keep up with him, and said, “Respectable, Mr. Sinclair. Don’t forget.” “You are as far from respectable as you
can get, Lady Haywood, and still be welcomed by society.” She wasn’t welcomed by society. She was tolerated. And she wouldn’t have even that if she chose
poorly for her next husband. “I’m as respectable as I have to be, Mr.
Sinclair. And unless you have those references, I think
our conversation is over for today.” He doffed his hat, bowing to her over the
side of his horse. He rode a little ahead of her, leaving her
as she’d asked him to do. And then he turned his horse and stopped,
right in front of her. She pulled back on the reins and her horse
stopped, didn’t fidget or prance, just stopped. He watched her well-behaved horse and said
again, “We all dance to your tune, it seems, my lady. But tell me one thing and I will leave you
alone with your respectability. Do you truly mourn them? Bertie and the others?” She didn’t stop to think. “Yes.” And she didn’t lie to him. She mourned them all, if not because she’d
loved them, then because she’d been as happy as she could be with them. Because with them, she hadn’t been alone. “Despite my particular rituals, I mourn
them all.” She steered her horse around his, walking
away from sunny blue eyes that didn’t think she’d killed dear Bertie. Who thought dying under her care was the best
a man could expect in this life. Flattery will get you everywhere, Elinor. Her father’s words rang in her ears and
she wondered who’d taught Mr. Sinclair that particular truth. She doubted it was his father. Earls didn’t need to learn flattery. She didn’t look back at him. Didn’t need to because she knew he was still
stopped in the middle of the road watching her. Forcing traffic to flow around him as he simply
sat. And watched. Another ball, this time George was accompanied
by the earl and the countess. His chaperones. And he knew he was looking at one long night
of twirling this young girl and that not-too-old spinster around the dance floor. Virgins. Who wouldn’t know how to dance that fine
line between fun and scandal. Who wouldn’t even know there was a line. The earl scanned the room, the same light
shining in his eyes that he got at the horse market. The countess, a little more discreet in her
perusal but still cataloging every girl in the room like she was trying to find herself
the perfect hat. Bloody hell. George headed to the card room, wondering
how long his brother would let him hide. And then deciding the earl would probably
let him hide until it was time to stand in front of the vicar. George’s spirits rose abruptly when he entered
the card room and saw blond hair and rich black. Blue eyes that rose to meet his from her cards. He made his way to Lady Haywood’s table
and watched silently as play went round. He wasn’t surprised that she played as disciplined
as she’d trained her horse. He wasn’t surprised that she was playing
high. “Quite a game, gentleman. Lady Haywood.” She swept in an armful of fish and said, “Are
you going to join us, Mr. Sinclair?” George watched another round before answering
to the negative. “You don’t like to gamble?” “Not when I’m going to lose.” She liked that and her eyes glittered at him. Her opponents seemed oblivious to their imminent
ruin and George made his way around the table and bent his head to whisper in her ear. “I prefer to be watching when a lady bankrupts
her opponents.” Lady Haywood brought her cards up to look
at them, allowing George a glance since his chin was still resting just above her shoulder. George looked down, breathing in the scent
swirling from her hair and rising from her bosom, and he told himself he was looking
at her cards and not her chest. And when another round had gone by without
him having any idea who had taken the tricks, he realized how silly that had been. Of course he’d been looking down her dress. “Mr. Sinclair?” “Hmm?” “You’re distracting me,” she said as
she took another trick. “I don’t know how I’ll ever make this
up to you, my lady. Distracting you like this.” “Is there perhaps another game you might
like to join in on?” “Perhaps a game of dice. Will you join me?” She finished the game first before leaving
the table but Elinor’s heart raced, and she told herself it was from the thrill that
came from winning. Told herself that it came from the effort
of paying attention to a quick moving game. And when she slipped her arm through Sinclair’s,
felt his solidness beneath her fingers and the heat radiating from him, she couldn’t
have said how much she’d just won. They meandered through the tables, watching
others win and lose, and Sinclair said, “Remind me not to play cards with you, Lady Haywood.” “Won’t be necessary. You are entirely too distracting to even bother
with.” He chuckled. “Obviously.” He shook his head. “Ye gads. You must have touched a bun before sitting
down.” “I don’t count on luck when skill is more
reliable.” In Elinor’s experience, skill was always
more reliable than luck. She couldn’t count on what she’d never
had. Sinclair stopped at a Hazard table, though
he seemed as uninterested in the game as she. “Do I have any hope in persuading you to
dance tonight? Or will we be stuck in here watching men sweat
as they gamble away what they can ill afford to lose.” She shook her head, pretending she had no
desire for dancing. He said, “But I distracted you and must
make up for it. Or you distracted me. I do feel a bit at sea.” She doubted he was distracted or befuddled
but she explained to him again. “I’m still in deep mourning, Mr. Sinclair. Of course.” He laughed, low and long, and his chest reverberated
against the back of her hand. “The only people in this room who are in
mourning are your poor opponents. I hope you made the game worth their while,
Lady Haywood.” She murmured, “I always do,” and he turned
his head to look into her eyes. “Yes. That’s the impression I get.” He turned back to the game. “Of course, hard to know since I can’t
really go ask. If only they’d left references.” Elinor flicked her fan open and covered her
mouth. She should shoo him away, distance herself
from his irreverent humor, because it was a truth universally acknowledged that a man
in line for a title did not marry a scandalous widow And Elinor was starting to think it a shame
she didn’t play games she couldn’t win. When her face was back in line, she murmured,
“Will you take a turn tonight throwing the dice?” “I may throw the dice but you will never
see me sweat over how they fall. I’m afraid I’ve always thought these games
were for fun.” “These games are for winning.” “I am getting the distinct impression that
you do not know how to have fun.” “Winning is fun.” “Playing is fun.” She thought with him it would be. But she pushed at him to go throw the dice
until he stepped from her side, making a big show of taking the dice and blowing on them,
and holding them to every lady watching and asking for the same. He held his hand out to her. “For luck.” She laughed. “You don’t want me blowing on them, Mr.
Sinclair.” “Says the woman who left her opponents too
poor to shed tears but a moment ago.” She closed his hand over the dice. “Yes, I did.” His grin grew wider and he stepped back to
the table, rolling the dice with a flick of the hand and never taking his eyes from her. “Am I your opponent, Lady Haywood?” A cheer went up at the table and Sinclair
looked down. He rolled again and again, his attention snagged
from her. He laughed loudly at his good fortune and
the table laughed with him. A crowd grew around the table until her view
was nearly blocked and she wondered if they came to watch because he won or because he
laughed. When at last his streak ended, he made his
way back to her breathless and excited. “See. Playing. Fun.” She laughed. “I am certain the winning had something
to do with it.” He nodded, twining his arm with hers and leaning
on her heavily. “Winning. Fun.” The room was hot, he was too much fun, her
smile was too wide, her laughter too loud. She tried to pull her arm from him and he
hung on. Used every excuse to brush against her, used
every movement of the crowd to pull her closer. “And now, you,” he said, dragging her
toward the table. She shook her head and dug in her heels. “You forget, I’ve already had my fun tonight.” He stopped. “Too true. Dancing it is, then.” “If somehow you could talk me into it, I
doubt we could make it past your brother standing guard at the door.” Sinclair froze for an instant, then let out
a heavy sigh and leaned close enough to whisper in her ear. “Is he looking at us?” “Yes.” “Does he look angry?” “Does he ever look anything but?” “Not when I’m in the same room. The countess assures me she has seen him smile. I don’t know whether to believe her or not.” “It must be true if the countess says it. It may be that she is the only one who’s
seen it.” The Earl of Ashmore stopped standing by the
door and slowly made his way toward them through the crowd. Elinor didn’t take her eyes from his glowering
face. She said, “If I was the kind of woman who
just liked to play, this would make you very nearly irresistible.” Sinclair pulled back from her enough to see
where she was looking, to see the earl bearing down on them, righteous fury in his eyes. “Yet another someone who just can’t play
but has to win. Lord, I am surrounded.” She dropped her hand from Sinclair’s arm
as the earl arrived and Sinclair finally let her go. She curtsied as much as the room allowed and
said on the way down, “I can’t win against an earl.” She was sure she heard Sinclair swear. She was sure she heard the earl say the exact
same word. When she rose back up, the earl was glaring
at her and Sinclair was glaring at the earl. Sinclair said, “Here is your chance, Lady
Haywood.” Ashmore said, “Her chance at what?” “To prove she is as off-putting as a Pomeranian
and chase you off.” Elinor sternly insisted to herself that Mr.
Sinclair was not that funny, and when she saw Ashmore turn his glare to his brother,
she stopped being entertained. She’d seen this before. A man who wanted, fighting those who stood
in his way. Of course the last time she’d seen it, it
had been between dear Bertie and George St. Clair. She hadn’t thought then that losing a good
friend had been too high a price for Bertie to pay. Had thought that eventually St. Clair would
see how happy she would make his friend and yield. They hadn’t had the chance. St. Clair had lost his friend before they
could reconcile and Elinor felt, perhaps, a smidgen of sympathy for a man who couldn’t
forgive himself quite as easily as she could. She thought all this as the brothers fought
their silent war. Imagined Mr. Sinclair lifeless and his brother
weeping over the body. Her heart clutched, and before the image could
evaporate from her mind was curtsying again and saying to her feet, “It seems I am not.” Elinor nearly made it out the doors. Had thought she wouldn’t even care if she
was left standing out in the cool night air as her carriage was brought around if she
could just get away. But no. Lady Ashmore positioned herself just so and
called her name just a little too loud, and Elinor was forced to stop. And curtsy. And curse the whole family. The countess smiled. “I thought that was you my husband was talking
to. I can tell by the spark in your eye.” Elinor did not smile back. “The earl speaks and we all listen.” “Oh? Is that why you were running off?” Elinor had been running because she’d seen
laughing blue eyes turn milky white. The countess cocked her head. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you look
so distraught, Lady Haywood. Please forgive my husband whatever it was
he said. He can be quite brash. Especially when his brother is involved.” “His brother can be just as…irritating.” The countess fanned herself and sounded genuinely
sad when she said, “Oh. This will never do, I’m afraid.” Elinor agreed with her. The widow would never do for Sinclair; Sinclair
would never do for her. “I agree with you heartily, my lady. I’m not the one who has to be told again
and again.” “Perhaps we must tell you because my brother-in-law
won’t listen.” “I’ve noticed.” The countess laughed at Elinor’s tone. “Younger son. They learn to ignore what they don’t want
to hear.” “You would think he could hear that I’m
in mourning.” The countess looked down at Elinor’s dress. “Yes, your husband. My condolences.” In her tone was the question of whether condolences
were appropriate to offer but Elinor didn’t care. They could think of her what they liked. They would think of her what they liked. She huffed out a breath when she saw the earl
barreling toward them, rage in his eyes. The countess turned to see and said, “Oh,
dear.” Elinor thought her interjection was too mild
for the death shining from the man’s eyes but perhaps the countess didn’t feel it
quite as acutely since it wasn’t directed at her. Elinor stood her ground and raised her chin. Surely the earl wouldn’t kill her right
here, in the middle of a crowded ballroom… The countess stepped in front of Elinor, halting
her husband’s head-long rush with a smile and a lazy wave of her fan. “Look who I ran in to, my dear? Lady Haywood. You do remember her, don’t you?” The earl snapped out, “She is exceedingly
hard to forget. Especially when as soon as she leaves one
member of my family, she attaches herself to another.” “That was my fault entirely. I chased her across the room,” the countess
said and Elinor wisely decided not to point out that she hadn’t attached herself to
any member of his family. She unwisely said, “You mean as soon as
I am chased away.” The earl squared his shoulders. “I am not a Pomeranian, Lady Haywood.” No. She knew a mastiff when she saw one. “I have no interest in your brother, my
lord. Or your wife.” “Why do I find that hard to believe?” “I think it a familial affliction. None of you seem able to believe it.” The countess turned around, though she managed
to remain standing in front of her husband. Elinor appreciated the gesture. She’d never had anyone try to protect her
before. But then realized as soon as she thought it
that the woman wasn’t protecting her. The countess was protecting her husband from
himself. The earl snorted. “We have a hard time believing what is patently
untrue.” Elinor saw Mr. Sinclair pushing his way to
them, his mouth hard and the rage building in his eyes. But this rage wasn’t directed at her, and
she thought he would stand next to her as the battle lines were drawn. He’d stand in front of her. Good thing she didn’t need anyone to do
that for her. Didn’t want anyone to. “I don’t want him at all,” Elinor said,
looking right at him, and the countess raised her eyebrows. “Oh, dear.” Flora watched the woman’s blond hair exit
through the doors, thinking that it had to weigh a ton. Thinking of the woman’s straight neck unbowed
under the weight. Thinking of the want in the woman’s eyes
when she was saying she didn’t want George at all. She watched George throw a furious glance
at them and follow Lady Haywood out the door. Flora nearly threw herself into her husband’s
arms to keep him from chasing after his brother and said softly, “Are you trying to push
him into the widow’s arms?” Sebastian looked utterly taken aback. “Of course not.” “Do you not realize that by telling him
no you are effectively waving a red rag at him? Forcing him to run off after her?” “She’s the widow, Flora. Can you think of anyone less suitable for
him? No children, five husbands.” He put her bodily away from him and flung
his hands in the air. “Hundreds of women here, and he goes straight
to her.” “And I assume you have already had this
conversation with him?” “Of course I have. She’s been after him since he got home.” “I don’t know, my dear. He is not exactly her usual fare.” “She doesn’t have a ‘usual fare’. Five husbands, all different from the last.” “Five husbands, and none with a future to
protect.” “A future he has no interest in protecting. I do,” he said and his voice was hard. Flora knew he was thinking that the widow
wouldn’t get her mitts on his brother. She said, “That’s right. George has family and connections. She can’t lure him with her money.” “She has other lures, I assure you.” “Does she?” And if it was her voice that was hard that
time, it was only because he’d surprised it out of her. She wouldn’t have been so gentle with the
woman if she’d known the widow had tried to lure the earl. But Sebastian blinked at her tone. “Well, I mean, she is very beautiful, Flora. And experienced.” More hardness. “Is she?” His eyebrows pulled together in slight confusion
and he paused like a deer scenting danger. Lifting his head to wonder just where it was
coming from. “Flora? I’m talking of what George would think of
her.” Flora slowed her fan down and took a deep
breath. Reminded herself that she was a countess,
reminded herself just what kind of woman she was. A woman whose husband hadn’t looked at her,
hadn’t touched her, in over a year. She said, “Not what you think of her?” “Well, of course not. We all know what I think of her.” “As marriage material. But perhaps she’s not looking for another
husband.” He barked out a laugh. “And you think she’d go about that business
by infuriating me?” He shook his head. “Even if she was, I wouldn’t want her.” What woman do you want, Sebastian? Then she chided herself. She was a woman who’d been married for ten
years, had four children. That she still loved her husband, still wanted
only him, was her own silly fault. She should do as others of her standing did
when their duty was done. Take a discreet lover and leave her husband
to his. Except there was the rub. She hadn’t given him his heir. And she didn’t want a lover. She looked away from her husband. At the door, where George was stomping his
way back in. Sebastian said, “And if that’s what she
was looking for, I’d turn George over to her and let him get tired of her. But she wants another husband.” He motioned George over to them, and the earl’s
brother turned on his heel and headed back to the card room. Sebastian grunted with impatience and Flora
once again took hold of her husband’s arm before he went chasing after his brother. “You can’t force him, Sebastian. To dance with the women you want him to dance
with, to come when you command him.” “To look for a respectable woman? To not go haring off after the most unsuitable
woman he could find? To not throw a tantrum like a spoiled child
when he doesn’t get what he wants?” “He knows his duty. He’s here, isn’t he? And if you let him find his own wife, he’ll
be much happier.” “If I let him find his own wife… You did just see who he ran after, did you
not? I can not leave it to him. He is attracted to the outrageous and the
entertaining. We are looking for the mother of an earl,
Flora.” “I think you underestimate him. And I think if you pick his wife for him,
you will choose a wallflower. Some girl who is quiet and obedient and–” “You mean a girl like you?” She smiled. “We’ve been married ten years, my dear. A woman can be quiet and obedient for only
so long.” He smiled back at her and patted the hand
still resting on his arm. And then he sighed. “If only one of your sisters was still unattached. George loves you; he wouldn’t have chafed
against your calming influence.” “Yes, he would have. A woman like me is not what George needs. He needs someone vivacious and high-spirited.” The earl blinked. And blinked. “Flora. I’m looking for his wife.” She laughed, sliding her hand from his arm. “I know, dear. But someone entertaining will ease the sting.” Chapter Four George Sinclair knocked on the door of a terraced
townhouse at the fashionable hour the next day. And when he was shown into the lady’s drawing
room to find her three– three!– mastiffs flopped in front of the fire he scowled at
them and said, “I am utterly disappointed in you, Lady Haywood. I thought you ferocious like one of your dogs. But you ran from my brother the moment he
descended on us.” She’d run, and he’d chased after her. Was still chasing after her. “Perhaps I was using him to make my escape,
Mr. Sinclair.” He turned to her then, his breath catching
at the simple black day gown she wore. Simple and plain and so thin he could see
the layer underneath. And the next layer and the next. He thought she must be wearing nearly ten
sheer layers, and while he couldn’t see anything but material, he couldn’t seem
to stop trying. He looked back up into eyes that knew exactly
what he was thinking, and Sinclair handed her a scrap of paper. “My reference.” She took it and looked down at it. “Just who did you get to write a reference? Have you been married before?” “My mistress. It’s been a few good years since I partook
of her services but she remembered me.” He grinned. “That must be a kind of reference all its
own.” She crumpled the note in her hand. “Not the particular kind of reference I
was looking for.” He sat down uninvited on her sofa, making
himself comfortable and looking around the room. At the dogs sprawled in front of the fireplace. He nodded toward them. “Are they as well trained as your horse?” “Yes.” “Will you give me warning before I overstay
my welcome?” “Consider this your warning.” One dog picked up its head at her tone. Sinclair patted the sofa beside him. “Come and sit beside me before he gets the
wrong idea, Elinor. Dogs can’t tell when you’re joking.” She stared at him and another dog picked up
its head. “Can you tell when I’m joking, Mr. Sinclair?” The third dog kept his head down, blinking
between his mistress and her guest. He said, “I thought you were always joking.” “That’s you.” He smiled, flicking his eyes to her long enough
to see that while her face wasn’t laughing, her eyes were sparkling. He looked back at the last dog. “You can call me George. Or Sin. That’s what my very good friends call me.” She sat then, far too close, her skirts heavy
on his leg despite their sheerness, her shoulder brushing against his. Her voice was low and smoky when she said,
“If I called you George, I would then have to call my solicitors. If I called you Sin, I would then have to
laugh.” She surprised a chuckle out of him and all
of the dogs lost interest, laying their heads back down. Sinclair slid his arm along the back of the
sofa and she turned her head toward him. Close. So close. She said softly, “There is a certain type
of gentleman who, if he accidentally stripped a maiden of her respectability, would run
posthaste to her father to rectify the situation. I don’t doubt you are that kind of gentleman.” He lifted an eyebrow. “Why do I not think that was a compliment?” “That same type of gentleman wouldn’t
think of doing the same for a widow.” “And there it is.” He pulled at a lock of hair that was trying
to free itself from her coif. “You’re really looking for marriage? Again? I don’t want to do it even once and here
you are looking to throw your hat in for a sixth time.” “Marriage means something different to women
than it does to men.” “Of that, I have no doubt. But I do sincerely doubt that it means the
same to you as it does to every other woman.” She laughed, humorlessly. “I think you’d be surprised, Mr. Sinclair,
at how similar I am to other women.” “I can assure you, Elinor, that you are
nothing like other women.” She shifted, her skirts rustling, the lock
of hair Sinclair had wrapped his finger around springing free. He kept his eyes on it as he rubbed the hair
between his gloveless thumb and forefinger. He kept his eyes away from her too close face,
too tempting lips. “Was that flattery, Mr. Sinclair? I couldn’t tell.” He sighed. “I used to be good at this. Alas.” She looked down at the note still held tight
in her hand. “Is that what your reference says, that
you used to be good at this and please give the man some lessons?” Elinor smoothed it on her skirts, breaking
the seal and angling it so she alone could read it. It didn’t take long. The smile she’d been fighting since he’d
arrived unannounced bloomed across her lips and she leaned against his chest. “Hm. That was exactly what it said.” He chuckled, wrapping his arm around her shoulders
and pulling her even closer. “I’m going to kiss you, Elinor. It’s only a much-needed lesson so don’t
call the solicitors just yet.” She whispered, “Just a kiss, Sinclair. And you don’t need to worry about the solicitors;
I haven’t called you George.” He put his lips to hers. They were soft, but firmly closed, and the
challenge of her made his blood roar. And yes, the scandal of her. Why, just why, did men bet their lives for
her? He didn’t think, not for a minute, that
she’d killed them, but it was a rather lot of bad luck. A man had to think twice about bringing all
that bad luck upon himself. He opened his mouth, tempting, pulling, sucking,
and she leaned heavily against him, twisting in her seat to get closer to him. But she kept her mouth closed. Sinclair pulled back enough to slide his thumb
between their lips, to gently wipe the moisture of his mouth from hers. He murmured, “Why three?” Her lips opened against his thumb. “I’ve had five. Husbands.” She kissed his thumb and he cleared his throat. “Dogs. One I can understand for protection. Two, even. But three?” She said simply, “Two wasn’t enough. Dogs are happiest when they are in a pack. Two is not a pack.” “Were your dogs lonely, Elinor?” “Yes.” He kissed her again, his lips light against
hers, his thumb pushing gently at the corner of her mouth. Open, he begged. But they wouldn’t. He didn’t pull away again. Couldn’t. He simply whispered against her lips, “What
does marriage mean to you, Elinor? Why Bertie, and the old codger, and the paragon
of manliness?” “The Italian Stallion,” she corrected
and he grunted. She said, “And you forgot the merchant. And my poor young husband.” “I didn’t forget them. The merchant is easy– beautiful young women
must have something to live on, as well as the plain.” She laughed against his mouth and he sucked
in the sound. Sucked in her breath and warmth and wetness. He didn’t lunge at her, didn’t assault
her mouth with his tongue at the first chance he got. And he silently congratulated himself. See, old boy, didn’t lose all your charm
in India, after all. He flicked his tongue to the corner of her
mouth, then wiped with his thumb. And flicked, and wiped. “And I know why you got your hooks into
the young whippersnapper. You wanted a man easy to control.” One of her legs wrapped around his calf, sliding
up and down, and she whispered, “You don’t think I could easily lead any man around by
his nose?” “I’m dying to find out.” That stopped her for a moment. Froze her in place, and Sinclair thought of
all the men who had died once they found out getting led around by her was worth the price. He slid down in the seat, getting the arm
of the sofa against his back and Elinor across his chest. She didn’t follow him with her lips, didn’t
chase him with her kisses. He didn’t know why his ardor hadn’t cooled
at the thought of his death. But his words were certainly a bucket of cold
water to her. She pushed at his chest, trying to rise. “I don’t think you can give me what I
want.” “I think I can give you exactly what you
want.” She was nearly fully on top of him, he knew
she could feel him prodding her, and one side of her mouth tipped up. “To be fair, I think you can give me half
of what I want.” “And you’re set on that other half? No time for a little diversion before you
find number six?” She shook her head. “No time. There’s never any time for a diversion.” She pushed herself off his chest, moved to
the other side of the sofa and shook her skirts, smoothing them back in to place. Sinclair took a deep, calming breath, pushing
himself into a sitting position. Telling himself he hadn’t come today to
be seduced in the lady’s drawing room, on the lady’s sofa. He’d hoped. What was a man without a little hope? But he hadn’t expected, which meant he couldn’t
be as crushingly disappointed as he thought he was feeling. He sat forward, bracing his chin against his
fist and looking at her dozing dogs. “Marriage is your price and no substitutions. You drive a very hard bargain, madame.” She laughed humorlessly. “Ah, no. That sacred institution has failed me but
five times. I have no desire to give it a sixth try without
being certain. Of the man, and his abilities.” He was genuinely perplexed why any woman would
find herself a sixth husband and he said softly, “What do you want, Elinor?” “I want what was promised me.” “Promised by who?” “My husbands. All promised me the same thing, then failed
to deliver.” He was afraid to ask. He turned to study her profile, then bit. “And what did they promise you?” She met his eyes and this time there was no
seduction, no laughter. No scandal. He looked in her eyes and saw not madness
but heartbreak and loneliness. She said, “A child.” One of her dogs came to his feet, padding
over softly to rest his head in his mistress’s lap. Elinor petted his head and the dog looked
at Sinclair as if to say, I would love to bite you. Sinclair remembered his brother saying she’d
been married five times with no surviving issue. And thought, Elinor had been right. She wanted what every other woman wanted from
marriage. He cleared his throat. “Has there been no…nothing?” “The old codger.” Her lips parted in what could have been called
a smile if you’d never seen her do it before. “He gave me a daughter, then died before
she was born. She was so small. She didn’t even cry, not once. I held her in my arms and she died. I held her for that one day, and then I buried
her.” Sinclair didn’t know what to say to such
pain, so said nothing. Just looked at the fire and wished. That he hadn’t chased her. That just one of her husbands had done his
duty by her. She said softly, “I thought with dear Bertie…but
no.” Sinclair said, “He would have been a wonderful
father,” and she nodded. And stared into the fire with him. He couldn’t stand to see her so…wilted. As if all the air in the room had escaped,
all the energy, and he said, “It’s only been a few weeks since the young whippersnapper. You can’t be sure yet that there is no child.” She laughed then. “My poor young husband loved to drink. Let’s just say it affected his performance. There is no child.” She pushed her dog gently away, standing up
and letting George know he had overstayed his welcome. “You see how I must choose wisely, don’t
you, Mr. Sinclair? Before I marry again, I will be with child. And how can I make any man marry me when I’ve
already given him what he wants?” The damned thing was, she was right. He could imagine a great many men losing their
mind with frustration and promising her the world in order to get himself into her bed. And a great many more men balking at the same
price after he’d planted a child in her. The horrible part was they wanted the same
thing. A child, an heir. Marriage. But Sinclair didn’t want to marry the widow. He wanted to bed her. And if by some twist of fate, he did get her
with child, she would demand marriage. He couldn’t deliver. The earl would never allow it. He closed his eyes, his chin still resting
in his hand. “I think there is no hope for us, Lady Haywood.” She left him sitting on the sofa, left her
dogs to watch over him as she walked to the door. “I think you’re right, Mr. Sinclair.” Elinor instructed her butler to escort Mr.
Sinclair out and walked calmly up the stairs. When she reached the top and turned the corner,
she pressed herself against the wall. Listened to heavily booted steps as they exited
through the front door. Thought of blue eyes she wanted to drown herself
in, and warm, hard arms that had wrapped around her so nicely. She could have him. She knew it. If she could play with her usual bag of tricks. If she could whip him into a fever and let
him boil and bubble until he would do anything to have her. But he would never marry her without that
need. Never marry her if she let him into her bed
first. She almost thought about putting away her
plans. Whip Mr. Sinclair into a frenzy, pit him against
his brother, and rely solely on hope that this time her husband could give her what
she wanted. What she needed. But there was a hard knot of fear in the pit
of her stomach, and she was afraid that it was she who couldn’t have a child. That her lack of child was not because of
bad timing and terrible circumstance, and yes, bad choice in husbands. She wouldn’t marry again without proof this
time that there would be a child. Wouldn’t dare risk that she’d once again
chosen poorly. Because widowhood was a step up from marriage. She had freedom. And a lot less work to her day when there
wasn’t a husband to move around. The knocker on the door rang out again and
she jumped. Her heart beat and her blood raced, and she
couldn’t help her smile. Couldn’t help feel excitement and joy because
he’d come back. The butler answered the door and her brother’s
voice dashed all that. Unsettled her stomach and made her want to
hide in her bedroom. She tipped up her chin and tightened her fists. She turned the corner and walked down the
stairs. The butler hadn’t let him in, wouldn’t
ever let him in, and Alan was saying, “Give my sister my mess–” He smiled when he
saw her. “Never mind. I’ll give it to her myself.” He didn’t try and push past the butler. He’d tried that before but Jones was a man
who’d seen war. Who knew how to recognize and deal with an
enemy. “And what is your message, Alan? I do hope it’s a short one.” She opened the door to her drawing room and
Alan said over the butler’s shoulder, “Sinclair, eh? A step up this time. But not an easy win.” His eyes were feverishly bright and she knew
what he would say before he uttered the words, “But what a prize for the daughter of a
swindler. To be the mother of an earl.” Elinor sicked her mastiffs on him. George Sinclair smiled at the woman who was
blushing up at him. He took her hand lightly in his and pulled
her closer. And then he pushed her down the line to the
next man. And he smiled at the next woman who took his
hand and blushed up at him. The earl watched George dance with the happy
eye of a man finally getting his way, and his wife idly waved her fan next to him. George would have to ask her to dance, he
thought. His brother wouldn’t. “Mr. Sinclair, do the women in India really
wear clothing that…” The young woman glanced at her mother who
sat stiffly watching them and whispered, “…bares their middle?” “Yes,” he said. And lost interest in the conversation. “Yes,” he said to the next inane question
she asked and no to the one after that. And when he delivered her to her mother, went
in search of a drink. Flora followed him. “If you insist on acting the part of a bored
and jaded aristocrat, and a slightly foreign-looking one at that, I will be forced to beat them
off with sticks. Young girls can not stand to be ignored.” He shuddered. “Do any of them have brains, Flora?” “It is not a usual requirement for the gentlemen
of the ton, although I’m sure there is one or two women here cursed with such an affliction.” “I’m about ready to tell Sebastian to
pick one and let’s be done with it.” “That would certainly make him very happy. I wonder who he would choose; the young lady
you were smiling down upon so vacantly but a moment ago?” “He chose you; he can’t be all that bad
at it.” She smiled at him. “Sebastian didn’t choose me. Your father did.” George stopped. “Never!” He turned to narrow his eyes in the general
direction of his brother, though he couldn’t see the man behind the wildly towering hair
of nearly every woman in attendance. George wondered if Lady Haywood was normally
in the vanguard of fashion or if it had been his sudden interest in her that had piqued
society’s fickle interest. “My father chose you, and I’ll just bet
Sebastian complained long and loud. Self-righteous, know-it-all son of an earl.” “It didn’t even occur to Sebastian to
complain. I had been raised to be the wife of a lord,
what more did a man need?” And perhaps Sebastian had been right. What more did a man need? George thought it must be something, else
any old girl would do. Would any old, or entirely too-young and supremely
boring, girl do? He pushed the unpleasant thought from his
mind. “Shall we have a go then?” Flora looked where he was pointing at the
dance floor, and she stopped waving her fan in shock. “Oh, but…” She laughed. “It’s been too long for me, George. I am too old.” “Doddering. I thought so the moment I put eyes to you. Why, there are spinsters lining the wall older
than you.” “Lining the wall, not the dance floor.” George refused to take no for an answer. “I’m older than you and I’m still kicking
it up.” “You have not borne four children, either.” “Four girls, Flora. I have not forgiven you, and I shall not,
until you dance with me.” A sad, sad look crossed her face, and George
held out his arm to her. “A dance. That is my price.” “Would that the earl was so cheap.” George shrugged as if he didn’t care at
all about his brother and the wife he didn’t know loved him, and when Flora took George’s
arm and allowed him to lead her to the dance floor said, “It wouldn’t even occur to
Sebastian to ask. Better by far to not speak of it and let the
disappointment fester.” She smiled, shaking her head at him. “Where angels fear to tread, George.” “I go barreling in, I know.” They danced, not saying much, each lost to
their own thoughts until Flora suddenly said, “You think I should talk to him about it.” “There is no one more disappointed than
you about this than him. Except me, of course. But I am quite tired of thinking about it,
let alone talking about it.” And, she was not his wife. There were certain punishments reserved for
a husband, and listening to his wife prattle and quite possibly cry was one of them. She said, “But what does one say? I’m afraid I simply can’t think how to
bring it up.” “If it were me, I’d say something wholly
inappropriate like, ‘Four girls, Sebastian? What poxy whore did you swive to deserve such
a fate? This isn’t my doing.’” Flora coughed and tripped over her own foot,
and when George caught her she was choking on her laughter. He righted her, putting her back in place
in the dance line, and she said, “I’ve so missed you, George.” “Of course you have, Flora. You married Sebastian.” She chuckled again and he said, “But if
you can’t say that to him, you could always try, ‘By gad, Sebastian, I wish we’d had
just one boy. Don’t you agree?’” “It would be very hard to disagree with
that.” He nodded, and the room suddenly quieted,
then burst into chatter. George breathed in air suddenly invigorated,
a night suddenly scandalous. He didn’t look to see her. He still had that image of her in her sheer
gowns, the feel of her hair between his fingers. He didn’t need to look. Flora did, and the widening of her eyes told
him that the widow had outdone herself. He. Didn’t. Look. Flora said, “You’ve stopped chasing her
then?” He had. Unfortunately, he hadn’t stopped wanting
her and he didn’t need any more memories to fuel the fire. He escorted Flora off the dance floor, thanking
her for subjecting her old bones to such physical distress simply to entertain him. She laughed and shook her head at him, swatting
him with her fan playfully. She looked ten years younger and George heartily
congratulated himself on a job well done as he tried to sneak off before he got a glimpse
of her. He didn’t think he deserved fate’s kick
to the bollocks when he stepped right into her path. He’d been watching for tall blond hair held
up by fairy dust and gold tinsel, and he nearly mowed her down because she stood a foot shorter
than he remembered her. Her hair hung completely unbound, no adornment
in it, the waves of blond ending in little ringlets that begged to be twirled around
his fingers and hands and any appendage they cared to. Her heeled shoes must have been replaced with
flat slippers because even her eyes were lower than he remembered. He gasped, “You’re wearing dancing slippers.” “It’s been five weeks. I thought I could ease the constrictions a
bit.” His lips smiled of their own accord, his heart
danced at her outrageousness. He said, “Do you know that in India the
women wear clothing that shows their midriff?” She cocked her head, leaned toward him. “How scandalous.” And then she turned and walked away. The door to Sebastian’s library opened without
a knock and he pushed his papers away, knowing it was Flora. She never knocked, not at night when he would
be alone. The household quiet and abed except for them. She hadn’t visited him in his library late
at night since Isabel had been born. He smiled at her and she sat in the chair
across from his desk and cleared her throat. “By gad, Sebastian, I wish we’d had just
one boy. Don’t you agree?” “Er, yes.” They sat in silence because, well, what could
one say to that? She cleared her throat again. “George is quite put out with me. With us.” At that, at least, Sebastian had something
to say. “I will have to remind him that it is extremely
unlikely he will outlive me. He will most likely die over some silly fisticuffs
and never have to adorn the mantle of earl.” “He will be relieved to hear it.” More silence. And then she said softly, “We could try
agai–” “No.” She blinked and looked down at her hands folded
in her lap. “May I ask why?” Why? Why? “You nearly died, Flora.” And even Sebastian jerked back at the gruffness
of his tone. She nodded. He thought the subject closed, death ended
all debate, but she looked back up. “I’m only thirty. I didn’t realize until tonight just how…tired
I’ve been feeling.” “You are still recovering.” “I’m not, Sebastian. I’m not still sick. I’m not still on death’s door. Isabel is healthy, just like all our girls. It is our duty to try agai–” He pushed back his chair hard, the scraping
of the heavy feet against the wood silencing her. “I know. I know my duty; I know what the world expects
from me. I am sorry to disappoint it and you and everyone.” Her eyes were wide as she stared at him and
her mouth opened once again to disagree with him. He cut her off with, “I will not touch you
again.” Her chin raised. “I have needs, Sebastian.” “Excuse me?” “Needs. I assume you have them; I assume you are meeting
those needs somehow. With someone. It’s not very fair that I will be denied
the same since I haven’t given my husband his heir yet.” He choked and sputtered. “Fair? Fair?!” “May I ask who?” “Who what?” “Who is meeting your needs. A mistress I am unaware of, a lady I sip tea
with? I think a wife should know just who is satisfying
her husband. To avoid awkward situations.” He sat back down with a thud, thinking he
would have liked to avoid this awkward situation. He cleared his head with a quick shake. “You’ve been spending too much time with
George.” She bit her lip, then stood slowly. She nodded. “Yes. He’s the only Sinclair who wishes to spend
any time with me at all.” She walked to the door and when she opened
it, stopped. “Please just warn me if I am being overly
friendly with a lady you are dallying with. It would be very embarrassing for me, Sebastian.” She closed the door and Sebastian sat there. He was fairly certain his mouth was hanging
open and that he looked like he’d been whacked one too many times in the head. This must all be George’s fault. Flora had been spending too much time with
him and he brought chaos wherever he tarried. Sebastian looked at the closed door and thought,
his wife had needs? Chapter Five Elinor flirted and teased and smiled and fluttered
her way through another week, another set of dinners and balls. But not too much. She was beginning to understand that less
was more when there was actually the possibility of going through with the seduction. She was beginning to understand that she might
never find a suitable gentleman. Mr. Framingham had smiled at her too widely,
and she’d crossed him off her list. Mr. Dorchester had accidentally touched her
bottom, and she’d laughed and pinched his cheek hard enough to leave a mark. And she’d crossed him off her list. She hadn’t seen Mr. Sinclair since she’d
run in to him accidentally, and…he’d never been on her list. She couldn’t cross him off, even though
it would have made her feel better. She wasn’t quite sure why she would have
felt better. Elinor took out a piece of paper and a pen
from her desk. She dipped and she wrote. A list of widowers this time, and she sighed
to herself. Was she really getting that desperate? Apparently, yes. Widowers with children of their own already,
of course, and that came with problems. Lots of problems. Husband number one had had children. But they’d been older than her. There had still been problems but she hadn’t
had to live with any of them. But a widower young enough to give her children
would already have young children. Young children who’d lost a mother, young
children who would be worried they would lose their father to his new wife. But she wrote down all the names she could
think of. Ten widowers. And if that wasn’t enough she would think
of something else. Someone else. Perhaps go to the continent and find herself
a Frenchman. Or another Italian… Perhaps not. But she could always, if all else failed,
find herself a Scot. A cranky, tightfisted, skirt-wearing hater
of everything English. Because even that would be better than the
last name she’d written down on her short list. Surely she’d only put him there so she could
cross him off. George Sinclair. Or perhaps she’d written him down because
he would be her last choice…he was at the bottom of the list. Mrs. George Sinclair. …that wasn’t good. She’d never done that before. Elinor, Lady Ashmore. …Wellington, we have a problem. She blinked and blinked, staring at the paper
and that title. She’d been Elinor, Lady Haywood, for eleven
years. Through husband after husband, keeping her
title. She wasn’t searching for a new and better
title but there was a certain pull to being George’s countess. But then she laughed. Sebastian Sinclair, the current Earl of Ashmore,
would live forever just so Elinor Rusbridge would never take that title. She ripped off the bottom of the page, throwing
Mr. George Sinclair and his Mrs. and his perhaps-one-day countess into the fire. She watched the paper burn. Watched until it was just a pile of ash. She turned back to her widowers and said to
the empty room, “I’ve burned you off my list, Mr. Sinclair.” Retribution raised his head to stare hopefully
at her and she called him over to scratch his head lovingly. “No, I wasn’t speaking to you. I was talking to an empty room.” A cold, empty, boring, lifeless room. “I won’t do it again.” Retribution sighed like only a dog could and
she petted him, his warm head heavy in her lap. “London is squeezing in on us, isn’t it? This house is becoming too, too small.” Her country house– the Earl of Ashmore would
call it a cottage– was a four-day ride away but it tugged at her. The dogs could run around, she could take
long walks. And perhaps dispel this gloom that was beginning
to weigh on her. “We’ll go tomorrow. Out of the city for a fortnight and you can
catch as many rabbits as you like.” He wagged his tail at her, and at rabbits,
and Elinor nodded. A fortnight was all she could spend away from
the Season, was all she could stand in the country. But it might do her some good, might be enough
of a change so she could come back to town with a better plan than a Scotsman. She rose, all the dogs stretching and following
her out of the room, to tell the housekeeper they would be leaving tomorrow for the country. The rest of the day would be panicked packing;
the staff rushing about, no room quiet or empty or boring or lifeless. The cold she couldn’t get rid of. But she could fill those long hours that tempted
her into talking to herself. Or to an imaginary Sinclair. The long hours that tempted her into chasing
down the flesh-and-blood Sinclair and throwing away her plans and her dreams for one night
of warmth… Perhaps a week. Or a month. A year, if she was lucky. But she wasn’t, and she knew no matter how
warmly his love burned her, he would leave her. They all did. Sinclair stood opposite Elinor’s townhouse
and chided himself. Just what was he doing here, bothering her,
bothering himself? This was a bad idea. But he’d come here to show her his new purchase,
to see the fire light up her eyes. To see that smile slowly pull her lips up,
to hear the laughter she couldn’t stop. A voice at his shoulder said, “She is not
at home.” Sinclair looked the man up and down, and then
remembered. “The brother?” Alan Rusbridge nodded his head and stuffed
his hands into his pockets. “She’s run off to the country.” Sinclair blinked and pointed to the house. “Lady Haywood?” When her brother nodded again, Sinclair could
only think to say, “Why?” Why go to the country in the middle of the
Season when you were hunting a husband? Unless you’d found that husband and were
gone to his country home. Perhaps to meet an ailing mother? Perhaps to have an easier time sneaking around
at night, to start that family she so desperately wanted. Surely he would have heard if she’d attached
herself to someone. Surely. Rusbridge shrugged. “Why does any woman do anything? To make as much trouble for the men in her
life as possible.” Sinclair turned to face the man. “Are you in her life, Rusbridge? And why would her going to the country trouble
you?” Rusbridge turned to face Sinclair, the belligerent
set to the man’s chin making Sinclair want to introduce his fist to it. “Are you in her life, Sinclair?” Yes. No. Why did her going to the country trouble him
so? Sinclair’s greatcoat pocket wiggled and
he stuck his fingers inside to tickle and to be playfully bit. “I am not, and I rather thought you weren’t
either. It is a mystery why two men not in Lady Haywood’s
life are standing outside wishing they were in.” “All this should have been mine.” Sinclair looked at the house. “This?” Rusbridge swung his arms wide. “Everything. This home, these servants. Her country estate.” He snarled, “Her jewels. Her freedom.” Sinclair said mildly, “Her dogs?” “Everything. Everything that was once mine, she stole. What was mine by right, by birth. Damn women, taking what wasn’t theirs. Sisters!” “I don’t know anything about sisters. Now brothers, those I could do away with.” Rusbridge sneered. “You are just like her. Taking what is your elder brother’s. Did your parents love you more? Did your mother cuddle you on her lap while
pushing her firstborn away? Did your father pet and love you when he yelled
and smacked around his son?” Unhinged. The man was obviously unhinged. His breath bellowed and his fists clenched. Sinclair shuffled a little distance away. Rusbridge didn’t notice. “And here you are to take his title. To stop his wife from producing the rightful
heir.” Sinclair would have liked to ask just how
one went about that but was afraid Alan Rusbridge would actually have an answer. “Right. I’ll just leave you then to salivate after
a house, shall I? I’ll be sure and let Lady Haywood know to
watch for you.” Sinclair hadn’t taken more than two steps
before Rusbridge called after him. “She will take everything from you. Everything, and leave you nothing. Including your life. You think her husbands are the first people
to get too close and then die?” He laughed. “When she’s beneath you, making you forget
about everything, remember that she won’t forget. Know that she’s calculating how much you’re
worth, how much she can get out of you. And the best way to get rid of you.” Sinclair’s own fists tightened at the ugly
words from her brother but he kept on walking. “Ask about her mother! Ask about my father!” A rough hand fell on Sinclair’s shoulder,
turning him forcibly. “And you can tell her I will have what is
mine. What’s left of it, at least.” Sinclair whipped out a furry puppy the size
of his hand. The red and cream dog, already having learned
this one trick, barked and yapped excitedly and with great furor. Rusbridge hopped back, tripping and falling
to the pavement. The fear on his face amusing, and pitiable,
if Sinclair hadn’t remembered how Lady Haywood had favored her arm after talking with her
brother. At the hard cold voice she used when talking
of him. At the ugly words he was shouting here in
front of her house. Sinclair said, “I know she’s not a mastiff. But still. Gets the job done.” He fed Anala a small meat treat and scratched
beneath the white bow tied intricately around her neck. A duty his valet had never dreamed he would
be required to do, and yet Sinclair had heard the besotted man call the pup Mistress Anala. And who could blame him. Sinclair held his pup up to his face, letting
her lick his cheek excitedly and saying in a high-pitched croon, “What a good girl
you are. Yes, you are. You chased that bad man off.” He put her back into his pocket, wondering
how to make it more comfortable for the dog and how big one could realistically make it. He left Rusbridge cursing on the dirty ground
and turned away from the widow’s empty house. Thinking he would have to come back later
and warn the staff that their mistress was not safe. Perhaps pay a boy to watch for her arrival
and come warn her himself. No wonder the woman had three mastiffs. Because they were lonely, his arse. And even though Sinclair was reevaluating
just how bad his brother was compared to a few others, he said to his new pet, “Come,
Anala. Let’s go introduce you to the earl.” Elinor hated the country. She hadn’t exactly forgotten, she simply
hadn’t remembered the extent of it. But when the carriage pulled back up to her
townhouse a fortnight later, the lights blazing welcoming, the pedestrians passing quickly
in the street, she sighed with relief that she was home. The dogs bounded from her carriage, they at
least refreshed and revitalized from the rabbit hunts. And duck hunts. And pheasant hunts. From rolling around in mud and tracking it
everywhere. The mud. Oh, the mud. She greeted Jones with a tired smile and was
ushered inside to the drawing room where the housekeeper waited with warm tea and sweet
biscuits. And she swore to herself that the next time
she needed long walks she would go to the Regent’s Park. Surely there were rabbits there. But she did feel less gloomy. And had given herself a good talking to. Not out loud. Mrs. Potts asked if she would like a dinner
made up and when Elinor shook her head, the woman hesitated. Elinor sighed and drank her tea and said,
“What has my brother been up to.” “Well, yes. He was here, but it was that Mr. Sinclair. He was worried about you.” The cup shook in Elinor’s hand and she set
it down carefully. The housekeeper continued. “He said he’d run into your brother one
day outside and didn’t feel good about it, and he was worried about you coming home to
find your brother here.” The woman rung her hands together. “He’s waiting for you down in the kitchen.” Elinor blinked and opened her mouth. And then blinked and closed her mouth. “Mr. Sinclair is downstairs in my kitchen?” Mrs. Potts blushed. “I know it is irregular but he was so insistent. And he didn’t want to put us to no trouble. Never met a gentleman like him.” Elinor remembered the reference his mistress
had written for him. He is all that he promises. Or was eight years ago. God knows what India has done to the man. Elinor stood. “I would like to see Mr. Sinclair.” “I’ll send him right up.” “I wouldn’t want to disturb the man,”
she said dryly. “I will go to him.” If he was allowed downstairs in her kitchen,
then so was she. The housekeeper grimaced at her tone but led
the way. Elinor had been down to the kitchen before… Of course she had. Hadn’t she? But when she descended the tight staircase
and entered the room, the laughing blue eyes that looked at her from across the heavily
scarred wooden table were more familiar to her than the room. He sat on a little stool, looking more comfortable
than he should have, and he smiled at Elinor. Her dogs had already found him and they sat
at his feet, at attention. Jones was telling Mr. Sinclair that Lady Haywood
had arrived and was upstairs in the drawing room if he would be so good as to join her. Sinclair smiled around the butler and his
first words of welcome were, “I can take Anala out if you’ll call off your dogs.” “Why are you in my home, in my kitchen?” “The dogs?” She raised her eyebrows and he said softly,
“I wanted to welcome you home before your brother could. And I thought the easiest way to do that was
to arrive before you.” “How accommodating of my staff.” “They have been. Yes.” Jones turned, not quite blushing at the impropriety
of a guest down in the kitchen. He cleared his throat. “Mr. Rusbridge has been making a nuisance
of himself. I was not sorry to have some strong company
around during your arrival.” “If we need more staff, Jones, hire them. A burly footman or two.” Sinclair said, “Or three. The door is locked tight, Jones?” “Of course, Mr. Sin–” Elinor interrupted angrily. “Excuse us, Jones. Mrs. Potts.” They left after a look between them, and Elinor
shut the door when they left it open. She did not slam it. She turned back to the smiling man she’d
spent two weeks in the country to get away from, only to find him here, in her home,
when she returned, and he said, “I had a long, frightening conversation with your brother
in front of your house this past week.” “That is the only kind of conversation my
brother is versed in.” Sinclair nodded. “I had thought to have a street urchin alert
me when you returned and then had the heart-stopping thought that your brother would do the same.” He was still in his greatcoat, although he’d
dispensed with his hat, and she thought he must not have been here long despite how cozy
he looked sitting in her kitchen. A cup of tea sat before him and Elinor realized
just how Mrs. Potts had been ready so quickly at her arrival. She said, “I do not like the thought of
my staff befriending every Tom, Dick, and Harry who wanders in while I’m away.” “They hardly did. I’ve been welcomed by you before and even
then, they wouldn’t have let me in the door if they hadn’t already been worried about
Rusbridge. Mrs. Potts has seen him loitering in the mornings
when she’s gone to do the shopping.” “And she just came out and told you that?” He narrowed his eyes. “Are you really more worried about loose-lipped
servants than about your brother?” “I have quite enough experience to know
how to deal with my brother. This,” she waved her hand at him and then
toward the upper floors, “is new.” “I will endeavor to not turn your servants
in my favor.” “How kind of you.” “It is. Yes.” Elinor’s anger melted, the laughter threatened. She kept it under control though, despite
how tired she was from her long journey. She wanted a bath and her own bed. She wanted Mr. Sinclair gone. And as long as she was wishing, her brother
as well. He said, “I thought an extra pair of eyes,
hands, and paws would not be unwelcome tonight. Just in case.” It is unwelcome, she tried to tell him. You are not welcome here, she tried to lie. But he ran a hand through his hair and laughed
and said with as much satisfaction as any man could, “I introduced him to my dear
Anala and was looking forward to a repeat.” “Don’t tell me. The Pomeranian.” “In my pocket. I will introduce her to you if you’ll call
off your dogs.” She called off her dogs and Sinclair relaxed. Elinor was surprised he didn’t melt into
a puddle on the floor. He pulled out of his pocket a small reddish
ball of fluff. The puppy, quite obviously a she, barked and
yapped away in his hand, and Elinor’s dogs jumped up and joined in. The sound reverberated in the small room until
Elinor signaled for them to be quiet. Mr. Sinclair fed his puppy a treat. “Hmm. I’ll have to think of some way to tell her
not to bark when I pull her out.” She looked at him, watched as the little ball
of fluff with a huge white bow around its neck licked and loved him. As he cuddled her to his chest. Tears pooled in her eyes and she looked at
the ceiling to keep them from falling. As emotion, want and despair, flooded her. She heard him rise, felt his warm hand wrap
gently around her wrist and hold on to her. He held the little dog up to her and it squirmed
trying to get to her face. She reached for it before it could fall, trapping
it against her chest and tilting her chin down so its rough little tongue could bathe
her face. Sinclair pulled at Elinor’s wrist and when
she came willingly, didn’t fight, he wrapped his arms around her. Tucked her tight against him and warmed her
from the outside in. He said softly, “We are glad you are home,
Elinor.” She leaned against him and stopped thinking. Stopped every little thought in her head except
the one she didn’t want to stop. The one that was telling her how nice this
felt. A loud bang from the door knocker upstairs
made her jump and Sinclair tightened his arms. “I’ve instructed Jones to not answer the
door tonight.” “Stop talking, Sinclair. I don’t want to hear anymore about you ordering
my servants around.” He whispered, “What am I going to do instead
of talk?” She whispered back, “Not that.” His eyes glimmered down at her. “Then a dance. Since I was not fortunate enough to procure
the pleasure when you decided you had mourned long enough.” He took his little puppy from her, slipping
it into his pocket, and Elinor wanted to pout. She must not have hidden it too well because
Sinclair said, “I don’t want her accidentally stepped on. By us or your behemoth dogs.” She looked around the kitchen. “Are you planning a quadrille? A waltz?” “A waltz, Lady Haywood? My, but you are scandalous.” “And you have been gone longer than ten
years if you think so.” He tugged at her traveling glove, slipping
the material from one finger and then the next. “A waltz is always scandalous if done properly. Did you waltz that night you wore your dancing
slippers? Just who was the lucky fellow who got to hold
your hand, to hear your laugh, to dream of throwing life and limb to the winds for one
marvelous year?” She didn’t bother to answer. She didn’t bother to remember. She watched as he flung one glove over his
shoulder and went to work on the other. The knocker rang out again and all of Elinor’s
dogs stood up. Sinclair murmured soothingly, “Ignore him,”
and Elinor wasn’t sure if he was talking to her or to the dogs. She waited, to see if the dogs would obey
his command like Jones and Mrs. Potts did, and when they stayed alert and at attention,
she smiled slightly. But she did try to ignore the knocking. She said, “You never wear gloves.” “I got out of the habit. Can’t be bothered to get back in.” “Because you’re still trying to figure
out how to get back to India?” His bare hands cupped hers, the contact causing
her breath to catch and gooseflesh to pebble up and down her body. He brought one of her hands inside his greatcoat,
inside his waistcoat, to lay flat against the thin cloth of his shirt. His heat seared her, the skin of his palm
rough against the back of her hand. Not trapping her, just holding her tight. With his other hand, he linked their fingers,
and then twisted her arm gently behind her until their entwined fingers rested against
the swell of her bottom. Until she was tucked into his side and his
leg was cradled between her own. She was suddenly having a very hard time breathing,
a hard time calming the racing of her heart. A very hard time hearing anything above the
rush of blood in her ears. A very hard time remembering what they were
doing down in the kitchen and not upstairs in her bedroom. She cleared her throat, tried to clear her
head. “I’ve never seen or heard of a dance like
this.” “No? Not with any of them?” He swayed gently from side to side, the muscles
of his thigh shifting against hers with every movement, the tips of his fingers brushing
against her bottom. She stared into eyes the same color as her
own, but oh, so different, and he murmured again, “Ignore him.” Elinor hadn’t heard anything. She only felt. Felt the thumping of Sinclair’s heart under
her palm, felt his chest rising and falling with hers. His head dipped toward hers and she whispered
his name. A sigh and a prayer. Want and longing. “Sinclair.” His lips touched hers and she closed her eyes
at the contact. He breathed, “Elinor,” against her lips
and she opened. Opened for her name and his breath and his
tongue. They danced slowly around the large table,
swaying from side to side, bodies pressed tight. Lips and mouths and breath coming together. She wanted to touch him, run her hands over
him, but they were trapped. She could only feel with her mouth and she
traced his jaw with her lips, felt his rough stubble and then his smooth lips. She could only feel his body with her own,
his leg hard between hers. She tried to get closer to him and he pulled
against her bottom, bringing her in tight. He nuzzled her ear, breathing hotly into it,
and she shivered. Sinclair mouthed her ear. “Cold, my Elinor?” Never. She’d never be cold again. He lightly nipped with his teeth and she tried
to pull her hands out of his. She wanted to wrap her arms around his neck
and have him lift her onto the table behind her so she could wrap her legs around him
as well. But her hands were trapped in his and the
harder she pulled, the tighter he held her. She pushed and she pulled, and he tightened
his grip, squeezing her closer. She growled in frustration and Sinclair froze. He pulled away enough to ask quietly, “Was
that you or the dogs?” She growled again, pushing and pulling, trying
to free her hands, and he let her go. She didn’t know whether she wanted to shove
him or pull him back in so she sniffed and said, “I thought we were dancing.” “We were.” “We weren’t moving.” “We weren’t?” They hadn’t been, not at the end. Alan was still knocking on her door, she could
hear it now, and shouting. Sinclair said, “Ignore him, Elinor. He’ll go away.” She laughed, a short sharp crack. “Do you think so?” “Or he’ll lose his voice with all that
shouting.” “I have neighbors, Sinclair. I can’t wait for that to happen. And I won’t cower, hide, in my own home.” She stepped away from him and opened the kitchen
door. Her dogs raced out and up the stairs and she
shouted after them, “Jones! The door.” So unladylike of her, and her father’s voice
filled her mind. There is a difference between someone suspecting
you are not a lady, Elinor, and someone having the proof. She pushed away her discomfort, pushed away
her father’s voice. Let Sinclair think whatever he wanted. She turned back to the man still standing
in her kitchen and didn’t shout, though she wanted to. “Sinclair. The door.” He stared hard at her for a long minute, then
stomped past and up the stairs. Her dogs began barking and she could only
assume Jones had finally opened the door, and she rushed after Sinclair. Her dogs were well-trained and normally listened
to Jones, but her brother brought out the worst in them. She didn’t like them around him without
her there. Not to protect her brother; she simply preferred
that if they attacked him it was because she commanded it. Sinclair stopped suddenly on the stairs and
she bumped into the back of him. She couldn’t decide if she wanted to shove
him or kiss him again, and then he said, “Why did you go to the country?” “What?” “Why did you go to the country so suddenly?” To get away from you, she wanted to say. To stop wondering if a night, or a week, or
a year in your arms would be worth losing all my dreams. He didn’t give her a chance to answer even
if she could have thought of anything not stupid to say. He turned on the step above her, folded his
arms and said, “I’m beginning to wonder if St. Clair is right. You’re playing the same game with a different
opening.” It took her a minute to work through that
statement, and when she did she wanted to shove him again. Instead, she batted her eyelashes. “Perhaps you’re right, Sin. Perhaps I’m trying to catch the fish of
the season by running away to the country.” He shrugged. “Some men like to chase. Apparently, I’m one of them.” She didn’t know why Sinclair had been waiting
for her tonight. She hadn’t expected it, and she didn’t
think he quite knew what he was doing here either. Except that she could still hear her brother
shouting, could see that all of Sinclair’s feathers were ruffled and that he was trying
to block the stairs with his body. The look in his eyes wasn’t anger at her. He was listening, through the dogs and the
shouting, to the danger upstairs. He was trying to protect her. He’d been worried about her. The widow. She said softly, “Apparently, you’re one
of them.” He raised his hand to stroke her jaw. “Why not catch me? Throw me back when you find the right one.” The right one. The one who would marry her after she was
carrying his child. “And what if you’re half of the right
one, Sinclair, and you give me what I want before I have to throw you back?” His eyes were sad and his voice solemn when
he said, “Elino–” She shook her head sharply, cutting him off. Don’t say it. Don’t say that she might never have a child
and it won’t be true. “What if it was simply bad luck, Sinclair?” “You’ve been a widow for what, a month? I’m sure you could explain away a child.” Perhaps. Except it had been two months. And she didn’t want to explain away a child. She wanted a child and the husband to go with
it. She wanted children. Because one would be lonely. “We can’t have each other, Elinor. But we can have this.” “It won’t be enough.” “It will be everything.” It would be everything. And then it would be over. Sometime while they were talking, the shouting
had stopped. The dogs had stopped their barking. She said, “He’s left. You can stop distracting me now.” His eyes crinkled as he smiled. His hand was still cupping her jaw and he
stroked her bottom lip with his thumb. “If I leave tonight, we won’t get another
chance.” “Go to your mistress, Sinclair. Let her take care of you.” “I have no mistress. I had one, eight years ago–” “And then you left her for India.” He wouldn’t leave Elinor for India. He would leave her for a virgin bride hand-picked
by the earl. And Elinor couldn’t count on the separation
of a continent and an ocean to help ease the sting. She would have to see him and them. She brushed past him, squeezing by in the
narrow stairway. Sinclair followed her and when they entered
the main floor, he took his hat from the waiting Jones. Sinclair nodded at the man and Jones reported
that Mr. Rusbridge had departed, though the gentleman would want to be careful on his
way home. Elinor decided she would need to sit her servant
down and remind him who his employer was. It wasn’t her brother. It hadn’t been any of her five husbands. It wouldn’t ever be George Sinclair. Jones opened the door and Sinclair walked
out. She said, not unkindly, “Don’t come back.” She said it because she wanted to say the
opposite. She said it so she wouldn’t chase after
him. He walked down the outside steps, donning
his hat and saying over his shoulder, “Of course not. Why would I when we obviously detest the sight
of each other, the feel of each other. When I came solely to make sure that you were
safe and sound…” He turned when he got to the pavement, eyeing
her, and she held her hands out wide. “As you see.” He smiled, taking out his dog to a chorus
of ferociously adorable barks. He waved her little paw at Elinor and then
turned away. Walked away. For good this time, because he was leaving
and there wouldn’t be another chance. Elinor called after him. “Sinclair?” He stopped, didn’t turn. Just stopped and waited. She said, “You can’t keep a dog in your
pocket.” He laughed and started walking again, and
said loud enough for her to hear, “I think the earl could like you, Lady Haywood. I think he could like you a lot.” Chapter Six The Countess of Ashmore sat in her carriage
and debated with herself. On the one hand, she was simply visiting a
member of the ton. A slightly scandalous member sitting perhaps-not-so-happily
on the fringes, but it wasn’t as if Flora was sitting outside the home of a woman of
ill repute. On the other hand, her husband would be quite
upset with her should he learn of her visit. On another hand… Flora stopped. She’d obviously been married to Sebastian
for far too long because now all she could think was she only had two hands. There wasn’t another hand. Only had one decision to make with two choices. To go inside. Or tell her driver to go back home. Flora descended from the carriage, and when
she was sitting comfortably in a brightly colored drawing room and sipping tea with
the widow, she didn’t know how to start. Lady Haywood started it for her. “You’ve come about Sinclair.” The countess sipped. “Not entirely. Though I am concerned for him and you. You must know that any attachment would be…doomed.” Elinor smiled. “Doomed. Yes, that’s the word for it. Never fear, Lady Ashmore, I realized that
the moment I knew who his brother was.” Flora sighed. “If we’d had a son, it might have been
different.” “No, it wouldn’t have.” She was no doubt right. If Flora had had a son, George would have
never come back from India. The widow said, “And there still may be
a son. You still have time.” Their eyes met and Flora said, “There may
be time. There is little interest.” “I think few women have interest in a fifth
go-around.” “It is the earl who is not interested.” Flora’s heart raced at that confession and
she felt her face heat. It was shameful that a man who lived by duty
couldn’t bring himself to bed his wife. Shameful to the wife. “Why is he not interested?” Flora patted her cheeks. “Does it matter? The result is the same.” Lady Haywood shrugged. “I have had a husband or two uninterested
in procreating. Each for their own reasons, and despite the
sting I think it had little to do with me. In each case there was little I could do to
change his mind.” “I must change the earl’s mind. It is my one job, to provide him an heir. That is it. And he won’t let me.” Flora took a deep breath. “I wondered if you could help.” Lady Haywood paused with her cup halfway to
her mouth, froze with her mouth open and her eyes wide. She flicked her eyes up to meet Flora’s,
and then quickly back down. “I… I… I have heard of such things but I’ve never
participated. I have no interest in providing a third for
your bed sport. But thank you for the offer, Lady Ashmore.” Flora blushed hotly and set her cup down. “You misunderstand me.” “Thank goodness.” “I would like you to help me seduce my husband. Tell me how to wave my fan and bat my eyelashes
and generally overwhelm his senses into complete and dithering madness.” Lady Haywood said incredulously, “Complete
and dithering madness. The earl?” “Yes.” “You would like me to tutor you.” “Yes! Yes, that is right. Tutor me.” Flora beamed at the blank look on Lady Haywood’s
face. “So you can seduce the Earl of Ashmore. The most stoic and reserved man to grace polite
society with his presence?” “Yes. Well. I would like to change all that.” “You can’t change him.” Flora thought no truer words had ever been
spoken. “I don’t want to change him. I want to change us. I want what we used to have.” “I don’t think I’m the right person
to be giving that kind of advice. None of my husbands have lasted more than
a year; I have no experience in rekindling a dead passion.” Flora tamped down her anger. Their passion wasn’t dead. Dying, perhaps. “If you were to seduce the earl, how would
you do it?” Lady Haywood muttered into her tea cup, “I
would do it by leaving the country as quickly as possible.” “Would you? Absence makes the heart grow fonder and all
that?” Lady Haywood cleared her throat. “No. Excuse me. I was being rude about your husband. There is no excuse except… I have never had a conversation quite like
this before. And, to be truthful, I don’t want to think
about the earl in that capacity.” Flora smiled. “You remind me of my brother-in-law. Although your tone has more of a bite to it.” When the widow’s face fell and she looked
toward the window, Flora said softly, “You know it is impossible. Not while he is heir presumptive.” “I know it.” “So help me.” Lady Haywood sucked in a breath and Flora
whispered, “Help me and I will do what I can for you.” If there was no son for the earl, there would
be no help for the widow. Nothing Flora could do to make a scandalous,
married-five-times widow acceptable as George’s wife. But if there was a son… “And call me Flora.” Lady Haywood’s breath came too fast, the
hope in her eyes too bright for Flora to doubt that her offer would not be accepted. Lady Haywood said, “Elinor,” and turned
away from the window. “I will do all that I can for you, Elinor. If there is no son, what I can do is nothing.” Elinor nodded. “Very well.” She tapped her fingers and Flora could see
shrewdness and intelligence in her eyes. “I must ask again why he has no interest. Does he like men?” “Of course not.” “Too much drink?” “Of course not,” she said in the same
tone of voice. The earl didn’t too much of anything. “I’m afraid, Flora, that we have exhausted
my limited experience in the disinterest of men.” “I was very sick after the last. I think he is…scared.” “He cares for you?” Flora nodded. She knew Sebastian cared for her. Perhaps more than most gentleman did of their
wives. Or perhaps he did not want to go to the trouble
of finding himself another. “He doesn’t care for me more than he does
for a son. That can’t be possible, Elinor.” “It does seem unlikely for an earl of the
realm. It does seem unlikely for the Earl of Ashmore,
specifically.” She held up her hand and closed her eyes. “Forgive me. I will stop insulting your husband.” Flora hadn’t been insulted. She knew how her husband came across. And she knew that it was unlikely that any
earl, hers included, would care for his wife more than he wanted a son. But she said, “It might be for the best. A good habit to get in to, in case…” Elinor opened her eyes. “In case…” She cleared her throat. “Step one: touch him every chance you get. Play with his hair, brush lint from his coat
even if there is none, touch his hand. Get close to him.” The Earl of Ashmore was tired. Too many problems this week at his estates,
too many meetings with his advisers. He’d dragged his brother to all those meetings,
and dragged was exactly what Sebastian had been forced to do. “I will not do it, Sebastian,” that brother
said. “I am too tired.” George flopped back in his seat, the carriage
bumping along the road to another ball…at the… Sebastian turned to his wife next to him and
she patted his knee. “The Westins.” He nodded. “Right. The Westins.” George said, “With, I am sure, an eminently
eligible daughter who I will be forced to dance with and converse at. And I am too tired. My plan is the card room and copious amounts
of liquor.” And copious amounts of eminently ineligible
women, if Sebastian knew his brother. He looked again at his wife and her hand still
perched daintily on his knee. She said, “Yes, a daughter. Just out this year–” George closed his eyes and groaned. “The torture, it never ends.” Flora’s shoulders shook and she shared a
look with Sebastian before saying, “She is a lovely girl, actually. Beautiful and gay and somewhat spirited. I think you will like her, George.” “Shall we make a wager?” “And, I think, you will have quite the competition
for her. The problem may very well be that she will
not like you. She might not even notice you.” George opened his eyes a slit to glare at
his sister-in-law. “Your tricks will not work on me, Jezebel.” “That was not womanly manipulation, dear
George. That was truth.” He hmphed and closed his eyes again, folding
his arms and saying with nary a word that he did not believe it. If truth be told, neither did Sebastian. It wasn’t easy to not notice George. He also didn’t believe that Flora wasn’t
trying to manipulate his brother by making the girl somewhat unattainable. He smiled at his wife, relieved that it was
not him who would need to swing around a fresh-faced silly girl. She smiled back into his eyes, snuggling a
little closer in the tight confines of the carriage. Sebastian took her hand from his knee and
hooked it through his arm. He patted her hand and smiled. Relieved that the tension between them was
gone. Relieved that she was herself again. And he pushed down the little wiggle of worry
that was making him wonder just why his wife was no longer tense and unhappy with him. And stopped dead the next question before
it formed… A little too late. Sebastian stopped smiling and wondered just
who had relieved his wife’s tension. Flora had been right. The girl was beautiful and gay and when George
tried to shock her, her eyes twinkled. Her hair was a dark lustrous brown, her skin
the color of smooth alabaster, and her chestnut eyes the same color as his favorite horse. It, she, was not unattractive. She was still a girl, though. And young. And while George did not normally find silliness
off-putting, she was slightly silly. All those would be easily overcome with a
little experience and he could very well see that in a few years, with a husband and children
behind her, she would be the toast of the town. Flora was right. This one he could like. This one would not make him want to swim the
Thames with his pockets weighed down with bricks. This one could be it. If one absolutely had to make do with one
of them. He left her after their one set of dances,
not asking for a second when every other gentleman begged it of her. When he made it back to Flora, she murmured
behind her fan, “She watched you walk away.” “Of course she did. Who wouldn’t?” He turned though and when he found Miss Westin
still looking at him, he bowed his head at her. She lowered her eyes in a subtle curtsy, then
turned back to her hordes of admirers. “I think you were right about the competition,”
he said and Flora nodded. “She still noticed me.” Flora laughed. “Of course she did. Who wouldn’t?” “Have I done my duty, then? Am I allowed to escape to the card room and
lose my brother’s fortune for him?” She nodded hesitantly and George waited. Flora shook herself and smiled widely. “I might join you a little later.” “I would enjoy that immensely, Flora. It will be grand fun to throw away Sebastian’s
money with you.” She shooed him off and George left, pretending
not to look for golden locks even though he knew she wasn’t here. Tried not to feel deflated when he entered
the card room and no icy blue eyes were there to greet him. Sebastian was there though, acknowledging
George with a tip of his head and waving him over. George snaked his way through the crowd. “What are you doing in here? Losing your fortune is my job, not yours.” Sebastian didn’t bother saying he wasn’t
here to gamble. The man never did. He just held up his drink and said, “Taking
a short break.” “Surprising that you decided to do this
while I was safely ensconced with Miss Westin.” “Was it?” Sebastian sipped. “As you well know, I came to make sure there
was nothing here to distract you. Not when we’ve finally found someone interesting.” No one here to distract him. George shuddered. “Don’t say it like that. We’ve found someone interesting.” “Have we not?” And when George didn’t answer, because what
could he say, Sebastian said, “I assume you have procured a second set of dances with
her.” “No, I have not.” Sebastian choked and George gave him a few
hearty whacks to the back. George enjoyed it thoroughly. “Why the devil not,” the earl shouted
when he’d caught his breath, and the room paused in its excited frenzy to look at them. George sighed, smiling and shrugging his shoulders
at his brother’s antics. When everyone went back to their games and
drinks, George said, “You have no notion of subtlety. Of restraint.” “Go back right now and get those second
dances. How will she know you have your eye on her?” “And when I go crawling back and her dance
card is full, what then Cyrano?” “Then at least she’ll know you are interested
and not accept any untoward proposals.” “Firstly, I doubt there will be any proposals
tonight or even this week. And secondly, she knows.” Sebastian froze for a second. “What the devil did you say to her?” George wasn’t sure if he found his brother’s
lack of faith amusing or irritating. “The subtlety will be lost on you, Sebastian.” “Try me.” “I asked her to save the first waltz of
the next ball for me.” Sebastian nodded happily. “The subtlety is not lost on me. And good.” He handed his now empty glass off to a servant. “And you’ll call on her tomorrow.” George shook his head. “Really, Sebastian. How in the world did you not scare off Flora?” “Don’t let this one get away, George. Or you’ll find yourself wed to whatever
is left.” George clamped his jaw together tight. “I know what I’m doing. And kindly remember that I am not to the marriage
stage yet with Miss Westin. I am interested.” Sebastian sighed. “Despite what you think, I would love for
you to be happy in your marriage. But that I can not wait for. Interest is almost more than I can wait for.” “Did Father wait for you to be happy with
your chosen? Or were you merely interested?” “I knew Flora would be my countess the first
time I spoke with her. I wasn’t happy or not happy. I wasn’t interested or not interested. It simply was.” George knew he was right. Everyone had known that Flora was it. Everyone had been happy with the match. And if George had been in the same situation
as his brother had been, he would have known that Miss Westin was his countess. It galled him to admit that he was in the
same situation as his brother. Miss Westin was everything he needed. Everything he should want. And while he was interested, he wasn’t entirely
happy with her. But that wasn’t her fault. He simply didn’t want a countess. Elinor received the Countess of Ashmore in
her drawing room again. “We missed you at the Westins.” Elinor laughed. “I doubt it. But thank you.” “Were you ill?” “No. I didn’t want to see him.” Not when she might have him. If. If was too tempting. “The earl was relieved to not have to chase
you off.” Elinor smiled conspiratorially. “Oh, yes? How relieved was he?” Flora pinched her lips together. “Not that relieved.” “Oh.” “He thinks he’s found a wife for his brother,”
she said and Elinor’s heart stopped beating. Flora said into the void, “Miss Westin would
be a wonderful countess. And George was interested despite himself. Or so Sebastian assures me. I, of course, have my doubts.” Elinor put her cup down before she broke the
thing. “Why are you telling me this?” Flora took a deep breath, looking down at
her hands. “I love my husband, despite how gauche that
is. He is happy in his position of power, happy
with the wife he needed to choose. “And I love his brother, too. As if he was my own. I would like him to be happy and I can’t
see him ever being happy as the earl. Can’t see him being happy having to choose
the wife he needs to fill that position.” “You think he would be happy with me?” Elinor held her breath, waiting for the countess’s
answer. “I think he will only be happy when he can
choose what he wants, not what he needs.” He already wanted Elinor. She could make him want her more. She could make him want her enough. If. Elinor said, “If he could choose.” “If he could choose.” “And why can’t he, Flora? I know we are speaking of the earl but he
is still a man. They are notoriously easy to seduce.” Flora set her cup down, looking away. Elinor stood, rounding the little table to
sit next to Flora and say softly, “That was not a comment on your womanliness. I am sure you lead your husband around like
all wives. It is what we must do. The man thinks, just like a horse, that since
he is in front, he is in control. And all women know that it is she who holds
the reins who tells him where to go. So why isn’t he going where you want him
to?” “You do have a way with imagery, Elinor.” Flora shook her head. “And this is an area where I have never
needed to lead him before.” “It is no different than getting him to
do anything else. Put his nose in the right direction and let
him get there himself. The real trouble is in getting him to stop,
and that you do not need to worry about.” A snort escaped from beneath Flora’s hat. And then another. “Put his nose in the right direction?” And then she peeled with laughter. Elinor chuckled lightly with her, thinking
it was nice to have female companionship. Someone to laugh with, to share with. Someone she did not need to lead by invisible
reins. Flora patted her eyes. “I had not realized how little we touch. We have been married ten years and have become
so comfortable with each other that we hardly notice the other.” Elinor thought it important to say, “Flora,
you have become too comfortable.” “I did try, Elinor. Every chance I had. He has not deigned to visit my bedchamber,
though I am sure he knows I would be happy to receive him.” “And why did not you visit him in his?” “Because I am not at all sure he would be
happy to receive me.” She cleared her throat. “Rejection is not to my taste.” Elinor laughed. “Spoken just like a countess. But what if you thought of it not as rejection
but as…” She put her chin against her fist and thought. No rejection for Lady Ashmore. How did one go about the dance if one was
afraid of failing? “Oh! What if it wasn’t him rejecting you? What if it was you teasing him?” What if seducing a reluctant man you were
married to was exactly the same as seducing a man you wanted to be married to? Elinor turned on the sofa, smiling wickedly
at her new friend. Her only friend. She said, “Make him want you but don’t
let him have you.” Chapter Seven George did not call on Miss Westin the next
day. He still couldn’t believe Sebastian had
managed to catch Flora when he was so ham-handed. If the man hadn’t been an earl, he’d be
a confirmed bachelor by now. But George was not an earl, yet, and instead
of relying on his position and name and power, he used charm and subterfuge. He ran into Miss Westin while she was out
riding on the mile. Surrounded by her beaus, her hapless maid,
and sitting atop her horse like a queen. Or a countess. George tipped his hat at her, smiled, and
rode right on past. He liked to think he heard her gasp. That she had been outraged that he hadn’t
stopped to chat when he’d danced and flirted with her not two nights ago. And he decided he’d go on thinking that
because, well, he couldn’t know otherwise. Not with three men and five horses between
her and him. When he turned around half an hour later,
the crowd had thinned and he could see in a distance that she’d managed to shake a
few of her followers. Enough so that when he caught up with her,
he could stop without feeling like one of her hangers-on. She turned her head just far enough to meet
his eyes. “Miss Westin.” She sniffed. “Mr. Sinclair.” She faced forward again, her chin tipped up
a fraction, and they rode in silence for a furlong. One of her beaus said something vacuous and
she laughed gaily. Almost seductively, and George thought that
if she had ten more years and five dead husbands behind her she could lead any man around as
well as the widow. He almost wished he’d brought his pup. Whip Anala out of his pocket and let her yap
away because he still hadn’t figured out how to train that out of her. But he didn’t want to share her yet with
Miss Westin. She wouldn’t hug the dog to her chest with
hurt blue eyes and scold him for keeping it in his pocket. She wouldn’t surround herself with three
mastiffs and get angry with him for overstepping his bounds with her servants. She wouldn’t make him forget where he was
or what he needed to do. Even when he hadn’t seen her in days. Even when he couldn’t smell her scent anymore
on his shirt. Miss Westin flicked her eyes at him. “Wool-gathering, Mr. Sinclair?” Oh, she was too easy. He’d already won without saying a word. And he was forced to play on anyway. “Just thinking of what fun the Greyson’s
will be tomorrow night. I assume you are attending.” “You assume correctly,” she said without
a hint of welcome in her voice. They rode another furlong in silence, her
speaking and laughing with the other men and ignoring Sinclair, and Sinclair riding alongside,
happy being ignored. She turned to him again. “I assume you will be attending?” “Of course. I am looking forward to the waltzing,” he
said and lightly kicked his horse into a trot without a word of goodbye. Flora smoothed her new nightdress. Belted her dressing gown tightly, and then
loosened it. And then tightened it again but pulled the
lapels until they hung softly against her. Yes, that was it. She let out the long braid her maid had prepared
for bed and shook her hair out. Pulled it over one shoulder, then pushed it
back. She looked at herself in the mirror and wriggled
her nose. She wanted to look seductive without Sebastian
knowing she meant to look seductive. Wanted to look as if she was off to bed but
had just remembered something vital to tell him. Flora had the vital. She’d been biting her tongue all night,
saving it up. She wasn’t sure she had the seductive yet. She fluffed her hair again and made a loose
braid, pulling it over her shoulder and deciding that was the best she could do. She bit her lips until they were puffed and
reddened. She smoothed the wrinkles around her eyes
that hadn’t been there ten years earlier. And contented herself with the thought that
there was also knowledge that hadn’t been there either. Perhaps it was a fair trade. It was an inevitable trade at any rate. She knocked lightly at the connecting door
that led to the earl’s bedchamber and pushed it open. Not locked, never locked. And still she’d never tried to open it. “Sebastian?” The earl’s valet was helping him into his
dressing gown and Sebastian said over his shoulder, “Flora? Is something wrong?” “No, no. I just remembered about Camilla. Should I come back?” Sebastian shook his head, thanking his man
and sending him off. Flora perched on the bed, arranging herself
just so and watching as he folded back the bedding. She swallowed. “George asked if he could take Camilla to
the docks. He is inspecting a shipment that just came
in.” Sebastian stared incredulously at her. “I can’t decide which of those statements
has me more stupefied. Of course Camilla can’t go to the docks. And what is my brother doing inspecting a
shipment?” “I think you should go with them and let
George explain it to you.” He shook his head, crawling into bed. “Camilla is not going, and I can’t believe
that you would even consider it.” “You must know that George would protect
her with his life.” “And he may very well need to down at the
docks.” She felt the bed shift, watched him pull the
blankets to his waist. “Not with the two of you there. I think you should see what your brother has
been up to the last eight years.” She rested her hand on his foot tucked beneath
the blankets, and then began to stroke it softly. He watched her hand and the skin between his
eyes puckered. She said, “He’ll be here in the morning.” “Flora!” “If you decide that it is too dangerous
for Camilla, you do not have to take her.” “It is too dangerous.” She looked down at her hand still stroking
his foot and didn’t say anything. She thought about horses and reins and pointing
a man in the direction you wanted him to go. Every good wife instinctively knew how to
do this. How to keep her husband’s pride intact while
she ran her household. The picture Elinor painted still made her
want to smile, though. Flora took her hand off his foot and played
with her braid. Sebastian sighed, tried to find a comfortable
position and said in the tone of a man who thought the subject was over, “What is the
shipment?” Flora undid the bottom third of her braid
and brushed her fingers through it, and then began to braid again. “Trinkets. Combs like he gave me and the girls.” Sebastian grunted and she said, “Perhaps
I will take Camilla tomorrow. He says it is great fun to watch the ships
being loaded but has never been on this end of it before.” “You will not.” She kept braiding and flicked her eyes up
to her husband’s. “It is too dangerous?” “And…uncouth.” She smiled a tight smile and looked down at
her braid again. “Sailors.” Sebastian fidgeted. “Yes, sailors.” “Pirates?” “Some of them.” “How exciting.” “It’s not exciting. It’s dirty and foul and frantic.” “Oh, have you been?” “Of course. It is no place for a lady.” She sighed. “I agree. No place for a lady. No place for a countess. Only men and children could be excited about
orderly chaos, frantic shouts, and potential disaster.” “It is no place for a countess’s daughter… Is that how George described it?” “Mm. He made it seem quite exciting.” “George could make tea and crumpets sound
exciting.” She laughed lightly, knowing it was true. Sebastian said, “Do you know anything else
about these trinkets? And just what the devil he’s doing with
a shipload of them?” “I know that when I wore mine out it was
exclaimed over and envied. I know that George did not seem at all surprised
when I told him that.” “I might have to go with him and get the
story out of him after all. I can’t have my brother dabbling in trade.” “Of course not. Be sure and tell us all about it afterward. Hearing about an adventure is always so much
more fun than experiencing it firsthand.” Sebastian didn’t say a word and Flora kept
playing with her braid. He finally sighed and when she looked at him,
his eyes were closed. “You’ve already told Camilla about it,
haven’t you?” “I mentioned it. But of course said that you would have to
agree.” “And she wanted to go?” “With you. She is not at all sure about George yet.” “That’s because she is a bright girl.” “She is. And she knows, just as I do, that with her
father there to protect her, the docks will be as fun an adventure as her uncle promises.” “Flora, she can’t go,” he said, but
this time there was regret in his voice not cold certainty. “If we had a nine-year-old son, would you
take him to the docks to see his uncle’s shipment from a foreign and exotic land?” He kept his eyes closed and Flora kept watching
him. Watched as grief covered his face, and she
wanted to lie down next to him and hold him. Cry with him. Or for him since she doubted he would join
her. She wanted to lie down next to him and strip
her nightdress off and make him that son. She wondered what he would do if she did because
she didn’t think he was heading that direction. Not yet. She climbed off the foot of the bed and walked
around to his side. His eyes opened when she touched his chest
and he said softly, “Camilla is not our nine-year-old son.” “I know. There is only you, and your brother, and perhaps
one day, his nine-year-old son.” “Don’t say that. Don’t say perhaps about that.” “There is always a perhaps about that. Always a chance of four more girls and no
son among them.” Sebastian’s eyes widened and horror covered
his face as he thought of his last great hope being unsuccessful. She kept her hand on his chest and let him
think about it. About what he would do if George’s wife
delivered no heir. She said, “Will we do then what we should
be doing now? Or will it be too late?” “It’s already too late if you’ve found
someone else to relieve that tension.” He sounded angry and Flora tried not to be
thrilled. She shook her head. “I have not. I would prefer it be you.” That didn’t seem to mollify him any. “The devil you know?” He still sounded angry and frustrated, and
what had he said? I know my duty; I know what the world expects
from me. I am sorry to disappoint it and you and everyone. The devil she loved, it was more like. She pulled the covers up to his chin and kissed
his forehead lightly. “The devil I know,” she said and left
him there. George arrived early the next morning, dressed
in his ubiquitous greatcoat and Sebastian knew his brother still hadn’t acclimatized
to the cold. Another hit this morning, another person he’d
failed when he wished he could give them the world. Sebastian eyed the coat and said, “Keep
the dog in your pocket.” George laughed, pecking Flora’s cheek. “Would you believe I didn’t bring her?” “No.” Flora teased him and Sebastian watched them
banter happily between themselves. Flora never joked with him like that, only
George, and Sebastian realized that she became whatever the situation needed. Which version was the real her? Did she really want to go to the docks with
them this morning? What would she do if he invited her? But she was right. It was no place for a countess. If there had ever been a time she could have
had that adventure, she’d missed it. Sebastian called for his daughter and Flora
stopped talking long enough to smile at him. Camilla entered the room, her hands clasped
tight together, and when Sebastian asked if she would like to join them, she nodded. She pursed her lips, then turned to her uncle. “Do you have your puppy, Uncle George?” “Would you believe I didn’t bring her?” Camilla squinted at his pocket. “I don’t know. But I don’t like her barking.” George muttered, “You and me both. I didn’t bring her. I haven’t figured out how to get her not
to bark.” Flora said, “You need to train her, George.” “I’ve been told I need to not keep her
in my pocket.” Sebastian called for their coats and said,
“That sounds like excellent advice.” They climbed into the hack George had hired
for the day, waving to Flora as she watched them leave. Sebastian tried to settle against the hard
cushions. “I have a carriage, George.” “I didn’t know if any of your household
would be allowed to join me, did I?” “You are welcome to use it, when you have
need.” George studied Sebastian and finally said,
“A hack lends an air of adventure that your carriage would somehow lack but I thank you
for the honor, Sebastian.” Camilla wiggled next to her father and didn’t
say anything. They settled into silence, Camilla’s presence
limiting what they could argue about. George passed the time by tying back the curtains
and pointing out interesting things to Camilla on one side of the carriage, and then scooting
over to the other side to point at something out that window and forcing them all to rearrange
their seats so Camilla could see. The third time George began to change windows,
Sebastian grumbled, “Oh, for God– Sit down, George!” Camilla giggled and George winked at her. Sebastian sighed and said, “Tell me about
these trinkets. And what you are doing with a shipload of
them.” George huffed. “Trinkets.” “That is how Flora described them.” He huffed again. “Camilla, are you wearing yours under that
hat?” She shook her head. “I didn’t want to lose it.” He smiled at her. “Well, we shall simply have to crack open
a chest to show your father. Not trinkets. I will accept doodads or nonesuch. Trinkets sound so silly.” Sebastian said, “Will you accept frippery?” George nodded. “Frippery. Frippery for the ladies.” Sebastian narrowed his eyes. “Trade?” “I prefer to call it art appreciation. I have a few contacts in London; when I find
something special, I send it on. I do believe I have earned a reputation of
being able to find ornamentation that women appreciate.” “Interesting. How long have you been doing it?” George cleared his throat. “About five years. I like to shop in India; what an experience! When I find something I like, I’ll get as
much as I can. It wouldn’t surprise me if Flora owns a
few of my pieces.” “I can see a good number of problems with
shipping from India to London. Pirates, sunk ships, theft.” George shook his head. “What pessimism. I do well despite all those problems. It keeps me in pin money, at least.” “I thought I kept you in pin money.” George smiled at him. “Are any of us surprised it was, and is,
not enough? No? At any rate, I found work to be…” “Boring?” “Sebastian, you’ve never had to work a
day in your life so you don’t understand what it means to have to be somewhere when
someone else wants you there.” Sebastian snorted. George said, “I thought the East India Company
would be better than marrying an heiress. I was wrong but English heiresses are few
and far between over there. I had to find something.” “Well, now there is Miss Westin. She can keep you in pin money.” George leaned his head back and looked out
the window. “Someone will have to. Now.” “You’ll dance with her tonight. Two sets.” “Please leave the wooing of Miss Westin
to me. Or to Flora. Or even Camilla here.” “Are you telling me that you won’t be
dancing two sets with her?” “I’m telling you that I don’t know yet. I won’t know until the game is afoot.” Sebastian sighed. “It’s not a game. It’s marriage.” “All the world’s a game and we but players
in it.” “That’s not how it goes, Uncle George. All the world’s a stage.” George sat up in his seat, stymied. “You know As You Like It? You’re nine!” “Her last governess had a love of Shakespeare,
God knows why–” George gasped and Sebastian talked over him. “The girls recited play after play. Dorothea became quite fond of draping herself
over any article of furniture, her red scarf clutched to her chest, and dying à la Juliet.” Camilla proved she knew the words just as
well as her younger sister when she said, “O happy dagger! This is thy sheath; rust there, and let me
die.” George clapped at her, delighted. Sebastian said, “Unfortunately, the woman
got herself married and we had to replace her. This governess prefers the Greeks.” George choked. “Oh, yes. Much better fare for children. Has Dorothea begun jabbing her eyes out with
pins yet?” Camilla dipped her head so her father couldn’t
see her smile and George decided he had no worries about his second oldest niece. He had slightly fewer worries about Camilla
if she could quote Shakespeare. Sebastian only said, “Camilla, do not marry
a rogue like your uncle here.” Camilla looked at her uncle and said, “Yes,
Papa.” George laughed at them as they pulled to a
stop, reaching through the window to open the hack door. He helped Camilla down, keeping her hand in
his and grimacing when a man began shouting obscenities at the box that had fallen on
his foot. “That,” George pointed his finger at her,
“was a word never to be repeated, Lady Camilla. Especially around your mother.” Sebastian poked his head out the carriage. “Especially around anyone. I can not believe I let you and Flora talk
me into this harebrained scheme.” “You can hardly blame Flora. She’s never been to the docks before.” “Trust me, George. I do not blame Flora.” George grinned as his brother descended and
clapped him on the back. “Come. Let’s go see if there’s a ship unloading
before we find my frippery.” They each grabbed one of Camilla’s hands,
keeping her tight between them, and made their way along the tall brick wall leading to the
arched main gate of the East India Docks. Camilla’s head tilted back as she looked
up at the clock at the top of the entrance and then, as they passed through, at the tall
masts of the East Indiamen berthed inside. There were over a hundred ships, some indeed
being unloaded, and men shouted and cursed as chests of tea, bales of jute, and barrels
of oil were hauled between ships and warehouses and waiting wagons. George sucked in the chaos. Sebastian never wavered as they made their
way to the office and then down the quay to the warehouse. Men pushing sack trucks parted around them
and George shook his head in wonder. If it had been him alone, he would have danced
and been jostled about like a buoy on the waves, but the earl plowed ahead, expecting
the waves to make way. Two brothers, nothing alike. Camilla stared as sailors climbed rigging
and shouted to each other, all employing language that would stain any young girl’s cheeks
red. Sebastian merely sighed and said, “I will
have to remind Flora that this was her idea.” George flinched at a particularly nasty expression
and said, “Oh, good. For a minute there I thought you were going
to remind me.” As they entered the warehouse, George hailed
the man of affairs he’d hired years ago to oversee his London affairs. Here to collect this last shipment, and George
couldn’t have stayed away on pain of death. Chests were counted and loaded, and when the
contents were signed for and transferred, George had one opened up and he pulled a hair
comb gently from the straw padding. He handed it to Camilla. “Not another butterfly. But perhaps a flower is a perfect match. Will you wear yours now that you have a replacement?” Her eyes shone and she took it gingerly, nodding. Sebastian pulled one from the box. “These are…” “Exquisite. Yes, I know.” Sebastian shook his head, smiling slightly. “I was going to say beautiful. Exquisite will work.” George thought that a man was indeed fortunate
when he could support himself by being good at something. When he could love what he was good at. More fortunate than any man could hope to
deserve. More cursed when it was taken from him. When Sebastian made to put it back, George
said, “Keep it for Flora. If Camilla has taught me anything, it is that
a woman can never have too many trinkets.” “Frippery, Uncle George.” George laughed, thinking he wouldn’t mind
having a few children of his own. And though one adventure had been taken from
him, perhaps there would be some recompense after all. “Take three more for your sisters. And when they break theirs, you can surprise
them with a replacement.” She nodded solemnly, taking three more combs
from the chest and clutching them in her hands. The chest was closed and secured and George
sighed as they followed the wagon down the quay and out the gate. Happy to have seen this part of it, at least
one time. Sebastian patted his shoulder. “It could still keep you in pin money. You don’t have to stop if you love it this
much.” George shook his head. “No one on the other end. No one who can see the one exotic hair comb
among hundreds that will cause an English girl’s heart to skip a beat. No one that I could find anyway.” Sebastian said softly, “I’m sorry, George.” George nodded, then covered Camilla’s ears
with his hands and said, “What poxy whore did you swive to curse us with this fate,
Sebastian? To take everything away from the both of us?” Sebastian ran his thumb over the tines of
the comb and murmured, “A Greek tragedy.” George’s lip curled and he said, “Only
if it was Mother who was the whore.” Sebastian grimaced and put the comb into his
pocket, reaching for the stack Camilla was balancing carefully in her hands. “Too far, George. You always take it too far.” “You were the one who said it was a Greek
tragedy.” George took his hands away from his niece’s
ears and Sebastian said, “An English tragedy, then.” “Everyone ends up dead in the end in those
as well.” Sebastian said, “Is there an alternative? We all end up dead in the end.” “The difference is, brother, where the story
ends. This story ends with a marriage and the birth
of a son. So, a comedy.” “Then why should I apologize for taking
everything away from you?” George boosted Camilla into the carriage,
then stopped his brother from entering with a hand to the chest. “It’s not a tragedy, Sebastian. Just a twist we weren’t expecting.” He grabbed Sebastian in a one-armed hug and
said softly, “You should go home and hug your wife. Apologize to her. Let her comfort you.” Sebastian grunted, though George didn’t
think it was in agreement. “And I’ll dance my two sets with Miss
Westin tonight.” Sebastian pulled back. “What about your game?” “I have been corrected. It’s not a game, it’s a stage. And I know what my new part is.” They settled themselves into the carriage,
Sebastian handing Camilla back her comb so she could admire it on the ride home. “It’s not a new part, George. You’ve always been a silly rogue.” Camilla fingered the petals of the flower
one at a time and said, “No, Papa. Now he’s the hero.” Chapter Eight George played his new part well that evening,
heading straight for Miss Westin the moment he was able. He didn’t plow through the men surrounding
her but danced and bobbed. Because he wasn’t the earl yet, or God willing,
ever. He bowed low to her and when he rose, there
was speculation in more than one set of eyes. “I do hope you have a waltz free, Miss Westin.” She fluttered her fan. “I’ve been saving one set but I had nearly
forgotten why. I am glad you have come to remind me.” He smiled when she held out her wrist and
he scribbled his name on the dance card dangling from it. He held it a moment longer, noticing no more
empty spots, and flicked his eyes up to meet hers. “It’s a pity you didn’t save two.” Her fan convulsed and she whispered, “A
pity.” He searched through the chicken scratches
again. “I don’t suppose any of the men listed
here would be willing to sit one out. I am quite in the mood for dancing tonight.” There was a chorus of gasps and insulted well,
I nevers behind him but George looked only at the lovely Miss Westin. She rallied, clearing her throat. “I’m sure none would care to give up the
pleasure.” She said it in all seriousness and George
thought that if only it had been said with disdain or innuendo, he would have dropped
to one knee right then and there. He reminded himself that in a few years it
would have that bite. “Quite sure?” She dropped her eyes. Fluttered her fan. And said, “Quite.” He found the bite he wanted watching a card
game and talking to a gentleman with a half-afraid look on his face. Half-afraid and half-hopeful. George circled, waiting, and Lady Haywood
waved her fan and smiled and watched him. When the hapless gentleman sketched a bow
and left her, George brought her a cup. He nodded at the table. “Have you played already then? I missed it?” Elinor shook her head. “Not in the mood to play tonight.” “Not in the moo– Are you ill?” She laughed, low in the throat, making one
wonder if she was laughing at you or what you said, and George grinned and sipped. “Too many other games to enjoy tonight,”
she said and George stopped grinning. “You’ve spotted your prey.” It wasn’t a question, which was just as
well since she didn’t deign to answer him. She said, “And you?” “Two with Miss Westin. If she can persuade some lovesick ninny to
give me his dance. We shall see.” “That is moving along. Are you testing her ability to lead her men
around by the nose or merely playing with her?” He grinned into his cup. “Can’t it be both?” “As I recall, you do love a good game. What happens if she offers you that second
set?” The same thing that had happened every other
time he’d won in his and Miss Westin’s verbal sparring match. He’d get bored. And then soldier on. He said, “What would you do in that situation?” Elinor didn’t hesitate. “Persuade some lovesick ninny to give me
back my dance. And then give it to someone else.” He breathed it in. Reveled in it. And wondered just what he would do if Miss
Westin played that hand. “I can’t decide, Lady Haywood, if I’m
glad that I’m not playing you.” He could all but hear his good friend George
St. Clair whispering in his ear. Who says you’re not? You’re still here. “You’re not glad. Else you wouldn’t be offering punch.” “It’s not all I’m offering.” And when her lips began curving up he said,
“I’ve come to scribble my name on your dance card. A pity dance for the widow.” The curve of her lips opened up into a laugh. He said quietly, his mouth close to her ear,
“I can’t only dance with Miss Westin. And you can’t refuse tonight, not when you’re
wearing those slippers.” She lifted the hem of her dress to show him
her dancing slippers, proving him right, then said, “I doubtless could.” “Could you? Have at it, then. What’s your excuse this time?” “I don’t want to dance with you.” He cocked his head. “I thought you would be a better liar than
that.” She sipped, then turned her head to meet his
still too-close eyes. “Did you?” He could very well imagine Miss Westin saying
the same thing to him. Coquettish and playfully hurt. Accusing him of calling her a liar. Elinor said it as if she was agreeing with
him. Oh, I do lie better than that, and therefore
keeping the advantage to herself. She leaned against his arm, tilting her lips
up to meet his ear and whispered hotly, “I. Don’t. Want. To.” George caught his shiver a moment too late
and she pulled back to smile at him. Now there was bite. A lie and truth, all rolled into one. She handed him her empty punch cup. “Thank you for the refreshment, Mr. Sinclair.” “Thank you, Lady Haywood.” She walked away, the sway of her gown attracting
his attention now that he wasn’t looking at her lips or dodging her barbs. He hadn’t even noticed the dress. Hadn’t noticed that she was wearing gray
instead of black. Another week, another step away from her mourning. He looked around the room, looked down at
the cup in his hand, and wondered. Just who was her prey? Hours of dancing later, George sat in front
of a crackling fire in a brightly colored drawing room and rested his head against the
back of a winged chair and willed himself not to fall asleep. Three large dogs sat at attention at his feet,
which was why he was so comfortable. He wasn’t moving, was fairly certain he
wouldn’t be allowed to move, until their mistress arrived home. Mrs. Potts had brought him tea. Jones had inquired if he was comfortable,
and George had wondered if the fellow had been making a joke. He would have been more comfortable down in
the kitchen being watched over by a well-trained cook rather than these well-trained dogs. The kitchen, however, had been quashed. The lady of the house, though, eventually
arrived home. Eventually came into the drawing room to stare
at him in disbelief. “You followed me home.” “I can’t have. I was here first. Been here, in this exact spot, for ages.” “Jones says an hour.” “Ages.” She shook her head, giving one of the dogs
a quick pat on the head, then dismissing them. “Is your dog in your pocket?” “I’ve stopped carrying her around specifically
to avoid that question. It is the first thing anyone asks of me.” “I can’t imagine why. Have you trained her not to bark ferociously
anytime she sees the light of day?” He shook his head. “Perhaps you can give me a few tips. You seem to know what you are doing with your
dogs.” “I could, if you really wanted her to stop. But you don’t. You like the fuss she causes.” He laughed because he did. “Sometimes. And when I don’t, I leave her home with
my valet. The best of both worlds.” She nodded. “Is there any other reason you could be
sitting in my home waiting for me to arrive, again, in the wee hours of the morning? Perhaps you came to tell me about your two
with Miss Westin.” “Mm. They were about what you would expect.” She sat in a chair far away from him and he
took that as the encouragement it was meant. And he thought she might welcome what he craved
as well. Conversation and camaraderie. With a possibility of canoodling. Elinor said, “It was the dance heard ‘round
the ballroom. Did she even threaten you with giving it to
someone else?” He shook his head and she said, “Ah, well. She’s still young.” “It’s what I keep telling myself.” “And in the mean time, you’ll amuse yourself
with me.” He’d like to. To make a mistress of the widow seemed to
be exactly what an earl’s heir would do. “You are, indeed, amusing.” He made himself more comfortable. “But I’ve come to ask who it is you’re
chasing.” One blond eyebrow went up. He said, “You know who I’m chasing. It’s only fair.” “The whole world knows who you’re chasing. You’ve made your intentions clear.” He rested his head back again. “Miss Westin will make a wonderful countess.” “Depends on what you think a countess is
supposed to do.” He closed his eyes, smiling, wondering what
Elinor thought a countess was supposed to do. He imagined her vision differed from Miss
Westin’s. From everyone’s. The silence grew between them. He wouldn’t ask. She wouldn’t tell. His smile grew wider, his eyes still closed. He rested his linked fingers on his belly,
prepared to outlast her. Prepared for a siege, for a battle between
equal players. His eyes popped open when he heard the drawing
room door snick shut and he sat up sharply. His breath rushed out when he saw she was
still in the room, her hand on the doorknob. “You think it’s you. Who I’m chasing.” “I admit I’m a bit late to the table but
I’ve finally arrived. St. Clair was right; you’re playing the
same game with a different opening.” “I wasn’t. At first. You are too well-protected.” “But something changed your mind?” She turned around to look at him and said,
“If changed my mind.” “If? If what?” “If everyone could have what they wanted.” “The only thing I can imagine giving everyone
what they wanted was if the countess delivered an heir.” She walked away from the door, toward George,
and he blinked. “Are you privy to some information the rest
of us aren’t?” “No.” He sat up a little. “And you’re still relying on this mythical
if.” “Yes.” His heart beat faster. The countess wasn’t breeding. Surely they would have told him if she was. Surely they wouldn’t withhold any sliver
of hope if they could offer it to him. And just how would the widow know anyway? She stopped in front of him, her blue eyes
watching. “What would you do with if?” He didn’t even want to imagine it. Didn’t want hope to spring free from the
cage he’d trapped it in. Didn’t want to think about one long journey
to India. Didn’t want to think about heat and warmth
and life exactly how he liked it. Didn’t want to think who he’d bring with
him because it wasn’t Miss Westin. His tight muscles relaxed. “Ah. Miss Westin. You have to move now. Before it’s too late; before my intention
becomes fact.” “I can make you forget all about Miss Westin.” “Who?” Elinor smiled at him and George truthfully
forgot who they were talking about. She placed one knee on the chair, right between
his legs. Her dress pulled tight against her breasts
and she leaned forward. George’s hands came up without thought and
circled her waist. St. Clair whispered one more time to George,
Remember who you’re playing. Remember that she doesn’t hesitate to crush
her opponents when the opportunity presents itself. And bloody hell, if that didn’t make him
even more excited. George pulled at her fichu, slowly exposing
the creamy skin of her bosom. “Can you make me forget duty and family,
Elinor? Remember you’re not playing Miss Westin,
you’re playing me. And the earl.” “And St. Clair.” She tugged at his cravat sharply, making his
heart thump. He murmured, “And St. Clair. And the countess.” She leaned into him and breathed against his
lips. “And all I have is if.” If he could have spoken past the lump in his
throat he would have told her she had a hell of a lot more than that. Then decided she already knew it. One last try. One last warning before they started a game
neither one of them could win. He cleared his throat. “You’re playing against the way of the
world, Elinor.” Her lips touched his, a spark traveled down
his belly to his groin. His fingers began working on the buttons on
the back of her dress. She pushed his coat off his shoulders and
said, “It’s not the way of my world.” The fire had burned down and their clothes
littered the furniture and floor. Sinclair lay cradled between her legs, his
head heavy on her chest. Elinor was happy to stay here on the floor
with him forever, and where his skin touched hers, she was warm. But her skin pebbled along the outside of
her arms and outer thighs, and she shivered. Sinclair murmured, “A bed.” “A blanket.” He sighed and didn’t move. “A raging fire and I can pretend I am at
home and not in this perpetually chilled country.” “You miss India so much?” “More than I can bear.” She ran her hand over his hair. “You love your brother so much.” “More than I can stand.” She laughed, pushing at him until he rolled
off her, shivering himself. He made for the fire, poking and stoking until
it again put out its heat. When he turned back to her, she was pulling
on her dress and he reached for her, pulling the dress back off and tossing it away. He pulled her to the heat, trapping her between
him and it and rubbed at her arms. When her arms were warm, he knelt at her feet,
wrapping his arms around her and rubbing her backside. She pushed her fingers through his too long,
too blond hair and thought she could almost relax around him. Almost be herself instead of what she thought
he wanted. He smoothed his fingers around her waist,
across her abdomen, his thumbs meeting over her navel. “Tell me about it.” “About the children I’ve never had?” He nodded and she said, “There’s nothing
to tell.” He looked up. “How can a woman have five husbands and
no children?” “They don’t last long enough to give me
any, Sinclair.” She’d meant to say it coldly, matter-of-factly. But it came out choked and sad. “You can cry, Elinor.” She shook her head. She never had before, she didn’t know why
she should start now, with the man who was going to give her everything she wanted at
her feet. “Cry? Never. To cry would be to accept. To cry would be to admit defeat.” “And if it had been one husband for five
years? Would it be time to admit defeat then?” Her stomach tightened. In anger, in fear. She’d gone through this with herself, over
and over. Never with anyone else, though, and she pushed
her anger down to haltingly say, “It wasn’t five years. Husband number one did his duty.” “The old codger.” Her smile lifted her lips, her stomach let
go of its ill emotions, and she sank onto her knees. “The old codger,” she agreed. “And then the merchant,” Sinclair said,
skipping over the heartbreak of a dead child. Because children died and women somehow, someday,
pushed themselves from their bed and learned to live with only half a heart. She said, “He could have, should have. One year and no child. That is not so unusual. And then there was the Italian Stallion. Marcus. Who liked men.” “Ah. Only?” “Only. I had hoped… When I finally realized what the problem was,
I thought I could change his mind.” She smiled self-deprecatingly. “I was wrong.” Sinclair sighed. “And then there was dear Bertie. I don’t think I want to know any of his
secrets.” “Dear Bertie didn’t have any secrets. He was a good and kind man, more than a woman
like me ever deserved. He was year two. And I will agree it is worrisome that there
was no child. But still nowhere near impossible.” “And then year three was the young whippersnapper.” She shook her head. “Of the year we were married, he was able
to enjoy our marital bed two times. He had a serious drinking problem and his
member suffered for it.” Sinclair’s lips pulled back in a grimace. “Remind me to give up drink.” “He was a sweet boy, but very unhappy, and
I don’t think our marriage helped any. So it was only two years. Not nearly long enough for me to give up.” Sinclair reached behind him, pulling his greatcoat
over to the fire and smoothing it out on the floor. He lay down on it, holding his arm up for
Elinor to snuggle down with him, and when she did, the warm fire on one side and his
warm body on the other, she closed her eyes and nearly fell asleep. He said lightly, “You can’t fool me, Elinor. You feign sleep but I know, you’re thinking
of solicitors and planning your next move.” She smiled. “You haven’t given me what I want. Yet.” “I gave it to you. More than once.” He had. Not a selfish lover, was George Sinclair. He is all that he promises. He whispered, “Even if I give you a child,
I can’t marry you.” “I know. You can’t marry me unless the countess breeds. I won’t marry you unless I do.” “And if you begin breeding and the countess
doesn’t?” “I will have to make you marry me.” She opened her eyes to smile at him and run
her hand down his chest. “Somehow.” “Fair warning. I can’t give that to you, Elinor. My life is not my own.” “Fair warning, Sinclair. I play to win.” “You play to crush; I remember. You think you can twirl me around your finger
like all your other husbands? Make me forget my brother and my duty and
cling only to you?” She pulled a pin from her disheveled hair
and then another and she watched him as the locks tumbled down. She said, “Yes,” and George’s cock rose
in agreement. He murmured, “God help me if you’re right,”
and leaned in to kiss her, to cover her and love her again. To distract her, if only for a little while. Because he was right; it was her against his
world. Her only play was to make him come to her
side. To make him turn against his world. How did one make a man give you what you wanted
when you’d already given him what he wanted? Elinor had figured it out. She still didn’t know if she could do it. She would make him give her his heart. Chapter Nine Sinclair came to visit Elinor the next evening. And the next. And on the third evening, Elinor arrived home
to find him tucked into her drawing room, reading, her dogs lying happily at his feet. He pulled her down into his lap and she went
too easily, too happily. She said, “I’ll be giving Jones strict
instructions not to let you in again unless I am here to receive you.” “Sounds like a good idea.” He kissed her, a whole day apart too long. “Sounds like a great idea.” Elinor pulled back before they got too serious. She was tired of the hard floor and the fire
burning itself out. Tonight she would take Sinclair to her bedroom. He tucked her into his side, telling her of
his day with his brother. The tedious, never-ending details one needed
to know to run an earldom. He exclaimed over the stewards and the running
of them and she said, “It is the same as your frippery. You have lots of people taking care of their
little part and you have to take care of them.” He’d told her all about the hours he’d
spent scouring the markets and the excitement he felt when he found something special. The look in the merchant’s eye when he said
he wanted as many as could be had. The contacts he’d made in London and the
shops that stocked his doodads. “But…that’s fun. And I’m in charge of it. The earldom runs my brother, not the other
way around.” “I am sure you will figure it out. I doubt it even occurs to the earl that it
could be any other way.” “I appreciate your confidence even if I
do not share it. My only hope is that I will never be in charge
of the whole of it, although Sebastian is making threats that he will be giving me the
running of an estate here and there. For the experience. Bloody hell, I’ll have to report to him.” Elinor hid her smile against his shirt. “How horrible.” “The worst. I know my father did the same to Sebastian
and just look what it did to him. You won’t recognize me when he gets through
with me.” She laughed outright at that and Sinclair
said, “I’ll have to go to the country. Sheep. Tenants. Peace and quiet.” He shuddered. Elinor said, “Mud,” then sat up. “When will you be leaving for the country?” “Oh, not right away. Someday. He wouldn’t trust me with a dollhouse right
now, let alone a real house and lands.” Elinor calmed her racing heart. He wasn’t leaving for the country yet. She still had time. “And Sebastian won’t send me during the
season. Not while he is working so hard at getting
me married off.” Elinor sat stiffly on his lap, trying to think
of something witty to say to that. Something biting. But her heart still pounded and she imagined
her townhouse without him here waiting for her and she just couldn’t think of anything. He ran his hand down her back. “This isn’t a secret between us, Elinor. There are no falsehoods between us.” She did smile then. “I am certain there are a few falsehoods
between us, but you’re right. Not that one. I know you, and your brother, are still set
on Miss Westin.” She leaned back against him. “Forgive me if I thought I could change
your mind with only a few nights.” He breathed out, his breath puffing her hair
into her face. “You know were circumstances different,
we would be sleeping in a Scottish bed this night. Man and wife over a blacksmith’s anvil.” She took that pretty thought and held it to
her heart. She never would have but it was a pretty thought. “Mr. Sinclair. You know I never get married without a passel
of solicitors approving the transaction.” His chest rumbled against her back. “No running off to Gretna Green for you? You have killed every last romantic bone in
my body.” “It is only romantic in your eyes because
you wouldn’t lose everything. Stupid is not romantic.” “Then tell me, dear lady, your version of
romance.” She paused to think. Romance? Love? Perhaps she did think stupid was romantic. Perhaps romance was doing what you knew was
stupid, what you knew would hurt, what you knew would destroy, and doing it anyway. Just for the chance at happiness. “I…don’t know.” “You’ve never loved anyone? Any of them?” “Is that what you are looking for in marriage,
Sinclair? Love?” “Of course not. That would be silly.” But she heard it in his voice, that love was
what he hoped for. Just like the difference between his frippery
and the earldom. One was love, one was duty. George Sinclair wanted to love. George Sinclair lived to love. He’d left all he’d built, the home he’d
made for himself, for his brother’s happiness. She said, “Romance is simply the outward
expression of love. And love, real love, is the giving up of everything
you want in order to give the one you love everything they want.” George said nothing at her definition and
she said, “No, I never loved any of them like that. I’ve never loved anyone like that.” “I think very few people have.” Elinor didn’t point out that was exactly
what he’d done. He pulled pins from her hair. “But you’re right, sacrifice is much more
romantic than Gretna Green. Luckily, love doesn’t require everything
from most people.” Luck. Elinor had never had any. Her stomach turned and she was glad that she
didn’t love George Sinclair, glad she wouldn’t be asked to give up everything for him. His fingers began to work on the buttons on
the back of her dress and she slid from his lap, standing and offering her hand. “I am tired of the cold, hard floor.” He perked up. “A bed? Jones’ll never keep me out now.” She laughed, pulling him out the door and
up the stairs. “Strict instructions.” “Ah, well. I only came early tonight because I will be
very late tomorrow. A dinner.” “I know. I’ve been invited.” Sinclair stopped halfway up the stairs. “You’ve been invited to dinner at the
earl’s?” When Elinor nodded, he exclaimed, “By the
earl?!” “His wife.” “Has Flora lost her mind?” “I don’t believe she has.” “How in the world did you get her on your
side?” Then he gasped. “Miss Westin will be there!” “And St. Clair.” Sinclair sucked in a breath. “My brother, my best friend, my intended,
and my mistress.” She said thoughtfully, “Which of us do you
think will be the most uncomfortable?” “Me!” She chuckled, tugging at him until he began
climbing the stairs again. “I am betting on the earl. I am hoping for Miss Westin.” He said darkly, “I have underestimated you,
Elinor. I won’t be doing it again.” “You did underestimate me. You should listen to your friend and your
brother more often.” “Obviously.” She pushed open the door to her bedchamber,
a wave of heat escaping to coat them. When Jones had told her Sinclair was waiting
in her drawing room, she’d ordered her bedchamber fire stoked as hot as possible, and the room
shimmered with heat. It was as close to India as she could imagine
for him. She turned to Sinclair, still holding his
hand, and said, “Are you going to start listening to them now?” He closed his eyes, inhaling deeply and saying,
“God, no.” The pain started early the next morning. It had been less than a week; Elinor couldn’t
be disappointed they hadn’t made a child in so short a time. She couldn’t be surprised. She was, and she was. She’d been so sure. She’d known. But the tightening in her belly, the ache
in her back, told her her menses were coming. She prayed she was wrong, refused to send
her apologies to the countess. By early afternoon, the pain made her breath
hitch, but there was still no blood. She could still hope. She refused to take any laudanum. She dressed for dinner slowly, haltingly,
every movement hurting her, her maid looking worried and trying to talk her into staying
home. Elinor shook her head, saving her breath to
pant against the pain. And then there was a spot of blood. And then another. Elinor bent double and fell to the bed. She curled into a ball, groaning as the fire
burned and twisted low in her belly, as her back spasmed. Mrs. Potts held her down and the maid poured
that hateful elixir down her throat and far too slowly, the pain receded. Far too quickly, Elinor stopped caring that
there was no child. She floated in that place where want didn’t
exist. It didn’t even hurt that her last thought,
right before she stopped thinking entirely, was that there would never be a child. Flora’s guests had gone home. The servants had cleaned up the mess that
inevitably resulted from a dozen extra people dining and being entertained for an evening. The lights had been doused and the household
was abed. Flora made her way carefully down the stairs
to the library thinking of the Westins. Lady Westin and her daughter were cut from
the same cloth– beautiful and gay and somewhat spirited. The kind of woman you could easily be jealous
of, the kind of woman you could easily hate if she had but one mean bone in her body. The kind of woman who could make being a countess
look easy. The kind of woman who could raise an earl. If only it was Sebastian who had to make that
decision. Because George had jumped at every arrival,
waiting for one person in particular. Flora had failed to mention that she’d invited
the widow to her husband. Because Flora hadn’t wanted to give Sebastian
time to disinvite her. And because Flora hadn’t wanted to spend
any time being lectured at before the dinner– after the dinner was unavoidable. And because she’d wanted Sebastian to see. To see how George looked at Miss Westin, and
how he looked at Elinor. But Elinor had not arrived. A note had been sent in her place, not in
her handwriting, and Flora had every intention of visiting her friend tomorrow to make sure
she was all right. When Flora had shown George the note, he’d
read it slowly, then folded it tightly and tucked it in his pocket. She could only imagine that he had been just
as surprised that the widow hadn’t come. Could only imagine that he, too, would be
worried about her. He’d tried. Tried to be attentive, tried to be interested. But his fingers had strayed to his pocket
time and again and he’d fiddled with the note the entire evening. As soon as Flora’s guests had begun departing,
he’d left. Flora thought they’d been lucky he hadn’t
left the moment the note had arrived. She paused at the library door. Thinking of earls and their brothers. Earls and their wives. She didn’t knock, just walked right in like
she’d always done. As if it was her right. Sebastian was behind his desk, working. Taking care of his responsibilities. He lifted his head to smile at her. She didn’t smile back. She didn’t say a word, just untied her dressing
gown and let it fall to the floor. She wished it was dark in here, wished she
didn’t have to stand naked and on display for the man she loved. Not after ten years and four children. Loose, flabby, sagging. She hadn’t known, ten years ago, that one
day she would miss her young body. Hadn’t known that one day she would wish
she had been proud of it. That she’d spent every evening reclining
naked in front of the fire, marveling at the smooth skin and firm muscles. In ten more years would she feel the same
about this body? Sebastian’s eyes flicked down, then back
up. “Flora?” She tilted her chin up and walked toward him,
closer to the light. “Sebastian. I need you. Like this. Us, together.” She did need him like that, but it still made
her blush. She also needed to try, one more time. Another chance at a son. Not for the earldom, not for duty. Not even for George. For her husband. To give him a reason to spend his days and
nights working. For purpose. He thought he could live without it. He was wrong. Sebastian sighed. “Flora. I can’t. I won’t.” But his eyes kept getting dragged back down
to her breasts, the apex of her thighs. His eyes didn’t complain that her breasts
now sat lower than they had before. They didn’t stop at her belly to criticize
the roundness or trace the faint lines left from skin being stretched too far to ever
recover. She stepped around the desk, leaned down to
rub the tip of her nose on his cheek and to smell the scent that was his alone. She whispered, “I need you, Sebastian.” When she pulled back, his eyes were closed
and he said softly, merely a breath escaping, “Flora. Please.” She crawled onto his lap, her knees straddling
his hips, and kissed him. She forgot about propriety and shame. Forgot about rejection and leading him where
she wanted him to go. If he wouldn’t be led to her bed, if he
wouldn’t lie with her, she would love him just like she’d always done. As if it was her right. George had raced to Elinor’s after leaving
Flora’s dinner. His heart beating, the note tight in his fist. Lady Haywood sends her apologies. Something had to be wrong; the widow wouldn’t
shy away from spectacle or scandal. Lady Haywood wouldn’t send her apologies. He’d nearly sent his horse up her short
flight of stairs to trample through the front door but at the last minute had vaulted from
it and used his fist to summon Jones. When the man opened the door cautiously, George
tried to push through. “What’s wrong? Where is she?” Jones strong-armed him, keeping him out. “She is resting.” That did nothing to ease George’s worry. “Was it that coxcomb of a brother of hers?” “No, sir. She is simply…unwell.” “Jones, if you do not let me through to
see for myself, I will take Anala out of my pocket. Yes, I will.” He would have to go home first to get her. But then, by gad, he would bring the little
thing back and let her loose on the hapless Jones. And then on Elinor for making him worry about
her. He was only slightly relieved it hadn’t
been her brother. Had been imagining the madness in the man’s
eyes and the bruises he must have surely left on Elinor’s arm the first time he’d seen
them together. Jones looked to be at a complete loss, speechless
in the face of George’s threat, then began to push the door shut, muttering something. George leaned closer to hear. “Pardon?” Jones flushed bright red, cleared his throat
and said to the air above George’s head, “It is women’s troubles, sir.” George blinked. And blinked again. “Oh.” The two men didn’t look at one another until
finally George shook it off. “Well, in that case, she shouldn’t mind
if I pop in for a short visit. I won’t stay, Jones.” Since the man had wished George a farewell
and a good morning at the same time for nearly a week now, Jones certainly knew how things
lay between George Sinclair and his mistress. The poor man was weakening but Jones gave
it one last shot. “She would not want you to see her. She has taken a heavy dose of laudanum.” “Ah. Excellent.” George pushed his way in, Jones stepping out
of the way with a sigh as he realized the futility of the situation. “In that case, she need never know I was
here. I will simply peek in to make sure she is
as well as can be, then leave her to rest.” George didn’t wait for Jones to agree, simply
bounded up the stairs and to her room, his coat flapping around him, his hat still on
his head. He pushed open the door slowly, trying not
to imagine what kind of troubles women suffered from, but when he saw a maid sitting quietly
next to the bed and Elinor sleeping fitfully beneath a light blanket, he relaxed. Three large steps in and he was looking down
at her, her hair still coiffed although horribly mussed now. The room was cooler than she kept it for him
and it did not go unnoticed. No bruises marred her face, just a light sheen
to her skin, and George said, “Women’s troubles.” The maid flushed and lowered her head, and
George sighed. A woman who’d had five husbands– three
and a half if she insisted– and no children and bad enough women’s troubles that she
needed to be knocked out with laudanum. George sighed again. Because tonight he’d had dinner with a young
girl and her pleasant family, his brother beaming at the splendidness of the situation. Splendid. Simply splendid. George would have to offer for Miss Westin. Soon. He could go tonight. Hunt down her father, make his intentions
fact. Sip cognac and be welcomed into the family. And then call for the solicitors tomorrow. He could only think of Elinor now when he
thought of solicitors and George smiled. And then he stopped. How long would she keep him once his engagement
was settled? Until the wedding? After? Or would she drop him and move on once she
knew she couldn’t win? George said to the maid, “I assume you know
what you’re doing?” “Yes, sir.” Her tone was too confident to doubt that she
hadn’t done this before. George didn’t say goodbye, just turned and
left. The anxiety he’d arrived with had dissipated
into a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. He liked to call it his future. He trudged down the stairs. “Thank you, Jones. For letting me see her.” “Thank you, sir, for pretending I had any
say in the matter.” George’s mouth twitched. He thought of cognac. And fathers. And solicitors. And said, “I don’t suppose Mrs. Potts
has any tea down in the kitchen?” Chapter Ten When Elinor was receiving callers again, Flora
came to pay her a visit. She stopped completely when she saw Elinor. “You look as if you should still be abed!” Elinor still felt shaky; her skin too pale,
her movements too slow. “Thank you but I am well enough. It is the laudanum. It does not agree with me.” Or perhaps it agreed too well. Stopping the dosage was nearly as bad as not
taking it in the first place and she didn’t know why she clawed her way out every month. Didn’t know why her menses were so painful
in the first place; only knew she could very well spend the rest of her life in a stupor
from the drug. Let it take away her desire and want. Many women did. A little sip morning, noon, and night. Just enough to keep oneself from caring. Elinor pushed it away. “I am sorry I missed your dinner. Sinclair didn’t get himself engaged, did
he?” “No.” Elinor felt the flicker of life spark again. This was why she’d crawled out this time. Sinclair. Miss Westin. The countess, Elinor’s trump card. The game. Everything she wanted, so close. And she pushed away the fear that close didn’t
matter, not for her. Flora said, “But the earl is becoming quite
fond of Miss Westin. He is pushing his brother toward her at every
opportunity. Which I am not interfering with since it irritates
George to no end. At this point he wouldn’t marry the girl
even if he was in love with her.” Sinclair had come to visit Elinor every day,
she’d been told. Her staff had kept him out, and she was a
little sorry she’d told them not to let him in unless she was able to receive him. He’d come every day and been turned away
every day, and she was afraid he would stop coming. Elinor said, “If the earl made Miss Westin
forbidden, Sinclair would be off to Gretna Green with her in a flash.” Flora sat quietly, looking at Elinor and parsing
her words. She finally said, “Would he?” “He would think it romantic. And likely the girl is young enough that she
would, too.” “George would never do that to her. Or to their children. Leave them with nothing for some romantic
gesture.” Elinor shook her head. “Not a gesture if it was the only way he
could have her.” Flora tapped her foot. “And should I tell the earl to do this?” Elinor tried. Tried to say yes. Tried to give up what she wanted for someone
she lo– For someone she liked. For someone she could love. If she could love at all. Elinor said, “No.” And then the knocker on the door rang out
before either of them could say anything more. And when Jones opened the drawing room door
and let in Sinclair, Elinor thought again, No. Miss Westin couldn’t have him. Not so easily as that. Sinclair bowed to his sister-in-law, his hair
bouncing wildly, his smile too sincere. He was too uncivilized, and Elinor couldn’t
take her eyes from his face. So happy he’d come again. He said to the countess, “I thought I recognized
your carriage.” Had he always been like this, open and happy? Or is this what India had done to him? Elinor thought she would never know. He turned to her and bowed over her hand,
his eyes catching hers and then searching her face. She wished she’d waited until the bloom
was back in her cheeks, the sparkle back in her eyes. Lovely and splendid and all a man could want
in a woman. Her worry that he would stop visiting because
of being repeatedly turned away twisting into the thought that now he wouldn’t return
because he could see with his own eyes what her body put her through. He smiled at her, his eyes crinkling, his
hand squeezing hers, and she smiled back. He settled on the sofa beside her, not touching,
and said, “You are looking better.” Flora guffawed. “She looks like she’s on death’s door.” “You should have seen her yesterday.” Elinor turned her head slowly to look at him
and raised her eyebrows. He smiled again at her and Elinor tried to
be angry. That they’d let him in, that they’d lied
to her about it. She couldn’t seem to muster the emotion. Who could keep him out when he wanted in? Flora said, “I came to tell her about the
dinner she missed but if you’ve already been to see her, she’ll know.” Elinor and Sinclair didn’t reply, and Flora
smiled, rising. “Perhaps you had more important things to
talk of. I hope you’ll be feeling yourself again
soon, Elinor.” Sinclair rose, putting a hand to Elinor’s
shoulder when she began to follow. “The countess will forgive the slight.” Elinor stayed sitting, and again tried to
be miffed at Sinclair. For taking over her household, for his high-handedness. But all she could do was hide her shaking
hands beneath her skirt and sit quietly. When the countess had left, Elinor said, “Jones
let you in.” Sinclair sat down next to her, this time close
enough to touch, close enough to kiss her lips lightly. “Of course he let me in. You look tired.” She was tired. Tired and happy. Stupidly happy. He lifted an arm, sliding it around her shoulders
and tugging her against him. And she went, sliding down in her seat to
lean her head against him. He murmured, “The countess visits you. She’s your if.” When Elinor nodded, he asked, “Is she breeding?” “Not yet.” Not yet. If. The same could be said of her. Not yet. If. Possibly never. A depression settled over her and she sat
quietly, tucked tightly in the arms of a man she’d give everything to. If she loved him. Flora had gone to visit the widow, not sure
at all how to share her news. Her conquest. Only knowing that if she didn’t, it would
burst from her chest. She’d seduced her husband. And she’d had such fun, she was planning
on doing it again tonight. She smiled, alone in her carriage, and tried
to stuff her secret back down where it couldn’t escape. But she smiled. Because she loved, was in love. There was passion and fire and something new. Smiled because there was hope. She smiled as she remembered George and Elinor
together, at that first flush of love. When nothing and no one else existed. She smiled when the carriage pulled up to
her lovely home, smiled at the footman who helped her down, smiled as she swept through
the waiting door. Smiled when she was told that his lordship
had requested her presence as soon as she was able. Flora’s stomach flopped and she tried to
stop smiling. But she simply couldn’t help it as she wondered
about seducing her husband in broad daylight. Wondered if she could lock the library door
behind her, and wondered if he wanted her for the same reason she wanted him. She floated to the library, entering without
knocking and then breathing deeply when she saw Sebastian at his desk, working. She watched him as his pen scratched across
paper and she leaned back against the door. He didn’t look up at her. She said softly, “You summoned me?” His pen paused, and then resumed writing. He cleared his throat. “I wanted to speak with you. At your leisure, of course. I’m sorry if that wasn’t clear.” She said nothing, waiting for him to look
up. When he didn’t, she pushed herself away
from the door and went to sit in the chair across from his desk, her smile gone, the
tingles in her belly turning to lead. He still didn’t look at her and they sat
in awkward silence until she leaned over to put her hand over his, to stop the scratching. “Sebastian.” He looked up then and he was angry. His eyes hard. She pulled her hand away at his look and her
mouth fell open when he said harshly, “I underestimated your…needs.” She had nothing to say to that. “If there is a child, can I be certain it
will be mine?” She choked, her own anger building. “I have lain with only one man my entire
life. I have loved only one man my entire life. I dare say you can not say the same.” She stood, ready to leave, her entire body
shaking. “Flora–” She whirled on him. “You need a son. It is my duty to give you one and you refuse
me!” “Flora–” “A year! Alone in my bed, wondering who my husband
is loving now that he is done with me!” “Flora–” “I loved you, Sebastian. No one luckier in all of London, that’s
what I told myself. A countess, four beautiful children, saved
from death itself by God’s hand. And for what?” “Only God could have saved you, Flora. That’s how close you were.” He said it so quietly that it cut through
some of her anger. She held her hands out wide, showing him her
whole body. Alive. “I didn’t die, Sebastian. And you’re the only one who makes me wish
I had.” He sucked in a breath. “Who are you, Flora? Ten years and I still don’t know who my
wife is. You flirt and laugh with George–” “And now what are you accusing me of?” “Nothing. It’s just… With him, you laugh.” “Everyone laughs with George.” “It makes me wonder. Who is the real you? She who laughs with my brother or she who
stands by my side as the perfect countess.” He said, softer, “Or she who stands in front
of me right now, angry.” She was angry, all right. Ten years and he didn’t know her at all. Ten years and he hadn’t even looked. Her voice was hard and unforgiving when she
said, “If you don’t know who your wife is, then you haven’t been listening. And for your information, I don’t have to
be just one of those women. I am all.” She swept out of the room, ignoring as he
called her name one last time. Ignoring how her anger covered the hurt. Perhaps she didn’t love him, perhaps she
never had. Perhaps what she’d thought was love was
simply circumstance and she would have loved any man she’d been married to. She left the house, stomping down the stairs
and sending the footman running for the carriage that had just been put away. She waited for a split second, then turned
and began walking. She’d waited and waited, and she was sick
of waiting. Ten years and he didn’t know her at all. Ten years. What good could come from waiting any longer
than that? Miss Westin was hanging on George’s arm,
being led around the room and chatting happily at him while they waited for the next set
of dances to start. She was diverting. And beautiful. And he’d decided he would be tracking down
her father tonight. George felt as good about it as any man who’d
left another woman’s bedroom this morning could feel. And he didn’t know what would happen between
him and Elinor when he told her. He was only slightly worried about what would
happen to Miss Westin. Surely, Elinor wouldn’t… Surely, she wouldn’t do anything to either
of them. Right? George shook his head. She’d got into his head this morning when
she’d pecked his lips lightly and told him to have fun with his two dances. She’d said it so calmly and dispassionately
that the hairs on the back of George’s neck had stood up. He didn’t think it said anything good about
him that the thought of his two women scratching each other’s eyes out excited him. But he hadn’t seen Elinor all evening. He knew she was here, somewhere. He could feel it, could feel the prickles
and the sense that she was watching. Watching him woo Miss Westin. Miss Westin, along with everyone else, had
got the message. She’d shooed off her entourage and hung
on him and his every word. She was lovely, and bloody hell, he’d keep
telling himself that until it was engraved on his heart. Couples began lining up and George was steering
Miss Westin toward the floor when he saw the countess sweep into the room. George stopped and stared. Her hair hung loose and her dress was wild. A dark green heavy velvet that left her shoulders
bare but draped down both arms long enough to hide her hands. There was enough exposed bosom to make him,
her brother-in-law, keep his eyes glued to her face, and there was enough length to the
dress that it pooled behind her like a regal train. George thought she looked like an ethereal
head floating over a wild forest. A wild and angry forest, and even Sebastian
was eyeing her, clearly not knowing what to do with his suddenly ferocious wife. George cleared his throat, trying to figure
out how to tell the woman beside him that he was needed, that there was a pressing problem
that looked potentially explosive. “Er, Miss Westin–” And then he stopped, because there was Elinor,
heading straight for the countess and the earl. Her eyes met his briefly and he relaxed. She would take care of the countess, whatever
was wrong with her. He would dance his second dance with Miss
Westin and then go get his brother a stiff drink. It really was the only cure for a man with
woman trouble. Elinor bowed to the earl, ignoring how the
confusion in his eyes turned to anger at the sight of her. She was an easy target, an acceptable scapegoat,
and she didn’t wait for him to attack. She slipped her arm through Flora’s and
led her away without a word to either of them. When they’d got away, Elinor said, “What
a dress. You must tell me the name of your dressmaker.” “Her name is hate. Her name is broken dreams. Her name is bitterness.” Elinor laughed, saying, “How very poetic,”
and Flora pinched her lips. “You do not know, Elinor, how a man can
destroy a woman just by being his obtuse self.” Elinor said nothing because she did know it. Every woman learned it eventually. “It does make one wonder how they manage
to rule the world when they are so blind.” “Blind! And stupid!” Flora’s bottom lip wobbled and even if Elinor
wished she could hug her friend and tell her that this would pass, she said, “Tears will
ruin this look completely. Avenging goddesses do not cry.” Flora sniffed, then tipped her chin up. “Not in public, at least.” No, not in public. Did they cry when they were alone? “Besides I’m proving to my husband that
I am still alive. I’m proving it to myself, and tonight I
will laugh.” Flora closed her eyes and tipped her head
to the ceiling, laughing like her life depended on it. For a moment, Elinor froze, feeling head after
head turn toward them and then she thought, How scandalous. She tipped her head up as well and laughed,
and thought that if the sound of two women madly laughing didn’t scare every man in
here, she didn’t know what would. Drinks were drunk, dances were danced, dice
were rolled. The countess won and lost, and laughed and
lived. And Elinor pretended not to notice when her
friend would surreptitiously glance around the room, looking to see if someone in particular
was paying attention to how much fun she was having. Sinclair took his sister-in-law out for a
quadrille and when they returned, breathless and laughing, Elinor refused the same from
him. “It’s only a dance, El– Lady Haywood. To thank you.” “No thanks are necessary. She is my friend.” “And I’m still wondering how that happened.” “If I knew, I would tell you.” He held his hand out. “One dance with the widow. Let’s be scandalous, Lady Haywood.” “What of your two with Miss Westin?” “Done and done.” Elinor knew. Knew it was all done for. Knew she was holding on to the last fleeting
moments. Avenging goddesses do not cry. Not in public, at least. She looked at Flora, tipsy and glowing with
exertion from the dance, and thought she had the right idea. Tonight, I will laugh. She put her hand in Sinclair’s and let him
lead her out on to the dance floor. He never took his eyes from her face, she
never noticed the other couples twisting around them. They danced; they smiled. He laughed too loud; she smiled too wide. Miss Westin watched, her lovely face trying
to stay lovely. The countess watched, still tipsy. Still angry, and she wanted to walk up to
her husband and shout, “See! Can you see this?!” The earl watched, and saw his irresponsible
brother getting seduced by an impossible woman. St. Clair watched, and saw another friend
dead in his grave. Alan Rusbridge watched. And saw everything he’d ever wanted in life,
everything anyone could ever want, being handed to the sister he hated. Sinclair didn’t go home. He was tired but restless. He’d had a plan tonight, involving Lord
Westin and a suitable proposal. And a glass of cognac. Mustn’t forget the cognac. And instead, here he was at his club, looking
for a distraction. Because he could not reconcile where he needed
to be with where he wanted to be. And when he stepped into the loud, smoky room
and saw Lord Westin chatting with some cronies, he sighed. He said to no one in particular, “Yes, I
see him,” and then headed to a different room. St. Clair was there, smoking in a quiet corner
and talking to no one, and Sinclair made a beeline straight for him. “A friendly face in the crowd. And here I thought the fates were giving me
a clear sign.” St. Clair puffed. “That you’re buggered?” Sinclair laughed. “That obvious?” “To the world.” Sinclair sat, breathing in the fragrant tobacco
smoke of a fine cigar and listening to muted chatter. He nodded vigorously at the offer of a drink. He put his hands behind his head and leaned
back. He counted the nooks and crannies in the ceiling,
only abandoning the task when a drink was finally placed in his hand. St. Clair watched him take a healthy sip and
said, “Is she breeding?” Sinclair choked. “…no. If she was, there would be less trouble. Sebastian would have less to object to if
there was at least a child.” “There is still plenty to object to.” “I think… I think that I love her.” St. Clair closed his eyes in pain and sighed
so long and so loud that Sinclair started laughing. “My friend–” Sinclair laughed again
and shook his head. “Tell me how you really feel.” St. Clair kept his eyes closed and said, “I’ve
sat here before. Listened to one of my friends tell me he loved
Elinor Rusbridge. And then I buried him.” “He died of putrid fever. You can’t deny that. You can’t think that she killed him, that
she killed any of them.” “She’s unlucky.” Sinclair shook his head. “I don’t know how the most rational men
I know, you and my brother, can be so…irrational.” St. Clair’s eyes opened and there was impatience
and anger in them. “Fine. She’s trouble, then. She makes men lose their minds. She’s not a mistress pulling strings, Sin. She’s a dangerous woman playing a game.” Sinclair’s free hand had tightened into
a fist and he looked down into his drink. “And if she wins? What’s the cost, George, because I can’t
see it.” “Everything. You will lose everything. Do you think that the earl will welcome her
with open arms? He will cut you off.” “Entirely likely.” “And children? Not for your brother, not for the earldom. For you. Are you prepared to be a man with no children,
no legacy, no future?” Sinclair had never thought much about children
before coming back to England, had always assumed that one day he would have them. And because the thought of not having any
did prick him, he said flippantly, “Who knows, perhaps I already have a dozen. A man never knows, though he does try prodigiously.” He smiled at St. Clair, who did not smile
back. “She’s not worth it, friend.” “You can’t know that. Perhaps she is.” “No woman is. No one is.” “Oh, George. I wish upon you a love that is worth everything. A life that is worth losing. Passion and need and everything that makes
our short time here worth it.” St. Clair puffed. “I always knew you were a vindictive scab,
Sinclair.” Sinclair smiled and laughed. “I am many things you are not. Romantic, optimistic–” “Silly, irresponsible–” “But you’re the one who is vindictive. You who won’t forgive a woman because she
was married to a man when the fates cut his thread. If they had asked dear Bertie to choose, don’t
you think he would have chosen to spend that last year with her?” “Are they asking you to choose?” Sinclair thought of Lord Westin in the other
room and wondered if perhaps he was being asked to choose. He wondered if perhaps he already had. St. Clair leaned forward. “Truly, Sinclair. If the choice is one great year or a lifetime
of good years?” “It would be one marvelous year, a year
worth a thousand lifetimes, and you already know what I would choose.” St. Clair looked down at his boots, saying
softly, “I know.” “Bugger the fates, St. Clair.” St. Clair sat back and stuck his cigar between
his teeth. “If anyone can.” He raised his glass. “To Lady Haywood and her coup.” “She’s not like that.” “She is. We all are. It’s the way of the world.” It was the way of the world. But all he could think of was Elinor leaning
over him and whispering, “It’s not the way of my world.” George had left his world once, been thrust
into a place so foreign that nothing was familiar. His compatriots had tried to make that world
into what they knew, what they’d left. But George had loved it. Had loved finally realizing that the way of
the world was really just the way it was here, now. It didn’t have to be that way. It wasn’t that way, somewhere else. If. Chapter Eleven Her dogs heard him first, their growling waking
Elinor from an exotic dream where the day was too warm and all the ladies bared their
midriffs. She threw off the covers, the room still comfortably
warm despite the gray of the morning filtering through the curtains. She’d built up the fire for Sinclair last
night, thinking he would come. Thinking he couldn’t stay away after their
dance. She’d fallen asleep waiting for him and
been woken only a few hours later by a visit from her brother. What a perfect way to start the day. She heard the shouting, heard the stones pummeling
the bricks and windows of her home, and she slipped on her dressing gown and slowly opened
her bedroom door. Jones stood in the hallway, a lamp in one
hand and a pistol in the other. The dogs tore around him, racing down the
stairs and barking wildly now that they were free of her bedchamber. Jones pinched his lips together in disapproval,
knowing she wouldn’t leave her brother to shout outside like the common folk they were. “I will not hide from him, Jones.” “Please, my lady. Some battles can not be won.” She sighed, heading for the stairs. “I have never agreed with that sentiment
before but I am beginning to think you are right.” “Then let me and the dogs take care of him
and you stay inside.” She smiled a little, thinking there were so
many ways a man could be taken care of. So much implied in one little phrase. “I will take care of my brother. It is better to know what he wants, what is
festering in his mind, than to pretend he is not hiding in the dark.” Jones muttered, “He wants you as miserable
as he is.” That was true. That was as old as she was. He also wanted revenge. He wanted to best her. He wanted to have more and be the name the
ton whispered. He didn’t want to be the widow’s brother. He wanted her to be Alan Rusbridge’s sister. When they came to the front door, Jones gave
her one last look, but she ordered the dogs to sit and nodded at him. Her brother stopped shouting when the door
swung open like he always did. He hadn’t been home from the night before. His clothes were rumpled, his hat lost, his
hair disheveled. She could tell he’d been drinking from ten
paces away, and the smell and the rage in his eyes reminded her of their father. Dead, but not forgotten, and she wondered
what parts of her were his legacy. She who never gave anyone what they wanted
unless it helped her somehow. She who single-mindedly charted a course to
what she wanted… She knew what parts of her came from her father. Retribution butted his head into her hand
and she petted him, feeling the tension in his body. Knowing he wanted nothing more than to be
let loose upon Alan. She said, “Brother.” A laugh cracked from him. “Oh, sister. I didn’t know what heights you aspired to. Didn’t know I should bow and mince around
you. Didn’t know you had it in you to aim for
countess. Viscountess not high enough for you?” He threw a handful of stones onto the ground,
startling both Jones and Retribution, and then smacked his hands together in a slow
clap. “But tonight, when I saw that buffoon dancing
under your spell, I realized.” He stopped, his eyes focusing far away. “I realized, and I have come to accept my
place.” “I don’t think so, Alan.” He nodded. “I have. Brother to a countess? I accept. I bow down before you. I beg for your favor.” But there was no begging in his eyes, only
hate and anger. And Elinor didn’t know why she’d allowed
herself to feel some kind of connection to him. Why calling him brother had to mean anything
to her when all it meant to him was hate and jealousy and revenge. Jones was right. Some battles could not be won. Elinor said, “Firstly, Mr. Sinclair is not
an earl; he may never be.” If Sinclair had his way, he never would be,
and Elinor hoped with all her might that he would not have to take on that responsibility. Hoped that he could live out his life carefree,
a bright and joyous light shining upon everyone he met. Her brother shrugged carelessly. “Only an accident away. But you’re right. Must snag the brother first, before anything
can happen to the earl.” Elinor thought it was no wonder that she’d
become witless over Sinclair. Because when compared to her brother, when
compared to most men, George Sinclair stood head and shoulders above the rest. She said, “Secondly, no one in their right
mind thinks he’ll marry me. Including me.” “We all saw, Elinor. Last night, the two of you.” Everyone had seen. And yet, she’d woken alone this morning. They’d see Sinclair engaged to Miss Westin,
too. She patted Retribution, gave him a hand command
to stay, then walked down the short stairs to her brother. “And thirdly, there is no place for you. Whatever blood we share is worth nothing,
whatever history we have is a nightmare better left forgotten.” She stopped on the bottom step, keeping her
eyes level with his. “You’ve got what you wanted, Alan. You’re no longer the widow’s brother.” He shook his head. “I won’t let you take this, not when we’re
so close. You and me together, think what we could do
with an earldom. Think what Father would have done.” “I know exactly what Father would have done. He would have come to my house and screamed
and threatened. He would have told me I owed it to him.” “Yes. You owe this to me. You’ve taken everything from me.” She laughed. “I’ve stolen it, right?” “Yes.” “I’ve stolen nothing. Whatever I had that was yours was because
you lost it. And everything else I have is in spite of
you, not because of you. And that’s exactly what I told Father when
he saw that I had something he wanted.” “You killed him. You took him from me just like you took Marcus.” It was possible. Her father had died the night she’d thrown
him out of her life, his face purple with rage. He’d screamed and threatened. Hit her. But she’d hired very good solicitors and
they both knew he’d never touch her merchant husband’s money. That was the last time she’d seen him and
she’d always wondered if the rage had killed him. Rage and drink, and she didn’t think she
should shoulder any guilt for his death. “No more, Alan. I’ll take nothing more from you.” “That’s because I have nothing left to
steal!” “It’s because you’re nothing to me. I won’t open the door again. I won’t humor you anymore.” “Humor me…” His face turned purple, his hands squeezed
into fists. And then he laughed. A maniacal sound that made her ears hurt and
her dogs jump and bark. He sing-songed, “He’ll never marry me,
Alan. I won’t steal from you again, Alan. Acting like a countess already, sister. I can taste it just as well as you can.” He grabbed at her, digging his fingers into
her arm and jerking her from the step. “You won’t be getting rid of me, Countess.” Jones shouted and Retribution lunged through
the doorway, and before she could do anything to free herself from Alan’s grasp, she was
thrown to the ground as he tried to defend himself from Retribution. Alan shrieked as sharp teeth pierced his leg
and Elinor screamed, grabbing at her dog. She jerked at his collar and shouted her command
to release. When Retribution let go, Alan stumbled, still
shrieking, and Elinor hung on to the collar, falling backward and using her weight to drag
Retribution with her. Alan grabbed his leg and when blood coated
his hands, he raised his head to meet Elinor’s eyes. She nearly let go of her dog’s collar at
what she saw in Alan’s eyes. It wasn’t hate or jealousy, but madness,
and all directed at her. Jones stepped between them, his gun cocked
and pointed at Alan’s heart. Alan stopped shrieking. Elinor started breathing again. Jones said, “Leave. I won’t say it again.” Retribution growled, echoing those sentiments,
and Elinor tightened her grip on his collar. Her view was blocked by Jones and she stayed
on the ground behind him. Huddling. Hiding. She lifted her chin. I will not hide from him. I will not hide ever again. She said, very quietly and very calmly, “Jones.” It took him a long minute, and she knew he
wanted nothing more than for Alan to make a threatening move, but eventually he took
a half step to the left. Enough for her to see Alan’s face. She stayed on the ground, still using her
weight to keep Retribution from attacking again, and said nothing more. There was nothing left to say. She met her brother’s eyes for the last
time. Alan gripped his leg and looked between her
and the gun and the dog. He smiled mockingly and took a deep breath. “Sister. Au revoir.” He waited until she knew he meant it. I will see you again. Then he turned and hobbled away until he was
swallowed by the small crowd that had stopped to watch. Later, Elinor was sure, she would be happy
this had happened so early in the morning. Later, she was sure, it wouldn’t make any
difference. All of London would have nothing else to talk
of. Jones turned, holding a hand down to help
her up and she shook her head. “A leash. I don’t want to let go of him until he is
inside.” Her arms were beginning to shake, from the
effort of holding her dog back, from the fear, and Jones only nodded before trotting up the
stairs to get a leash. Elinor murmured to Retribution that he was
a good dog. He’d been protecting her, she knew, but
the blood around his muzzle was disconcerting. She wanted him inside and cleaned up, and
it wasn’t until Jones tied a leash through his collar and led him through the front door
that she finally relaxed. She saw a tall man break from the crowd and
come toward her, and she thought seriously for a moment about calling her dog back. Or Jones and his gun. And when the man stopped in front of her and
held his hand out to help her up, she said, “And I thought the day couldn’t possibly
get any worse.” When she didn’t take his hand, preferred
actually to sit in filth than to let George St. Clair help her up, he said, “Shall we
have it out here in the middle of the street, Lady Haywood? Or have you given your neighbors enough of
a show?” She’d given her neighbors enough of a show
for ten lifetimes. What was a little row with St. Clair in comparison? But she was tired of being gawked at, tired
of sitting on the hard pavement, and she lifted her hand to take his help. Then stopped. “I have blood on my hands.” Blood and dirt and unspeakable filth. St. Clair grabbed and pulled. “It washes easily enough.” “Does it? It’s only the metaphorical blood that just
won’t come off?” He didn’t answer and she looked down at
her ruined dress. “I look as if I’ve been dragged through
the street.” “You look bruised and like you need a good,
stiff drink.” She was bruised. She did need a good, stiff drink. A bath, too. “Then get on with it, St. Clair.” He looked around, at the gawkers lining the
street and then down at the muck and blood on her dress and nodded. He said quietly enough that only she could
hear, “I came to congratulate you. Another man willing to throw away his life
on you.” She sighed and closed her eyes. “Ah, yes. You and my brother. And like him, a bit premature.” There was a long pause and Elinor kept her
eyes closed. Her backside throbbed, her arm burned. She was in no mood to toy with St. Clair. He said softly, “I will try hard not to
be insulted by the comparison.” She opened her eyes to find him glaring at
her. It was a look she was quite familiar with. “And like my brother, if you’d waited
but a day you’d have seen that George Sinclair had not chosen me but a perfectly acceptable
young woman. Your visit is wasted, St. Clair; I expect
your dear friend spent the early morning getting himself engaged.” “He was with me all last night, talking
himself out of a perfectly good opportunity to do that very thing.” She blinked and he continued, “And I have
every belief that he’ll be here shortly instead.” Elinor opened her mouth, then closed it. St. Clair never stopped glaring at her. “You’ve won. Again, Lady Haywood.” When she still could think of nothing to say,
to think, St. Clair turned to study her home. Looking as if he found brick and glass absorbing,
and studying the proportions as if it held the answers to all of life’s questions. He whispered, “And I beg of you to turn
him down.” Another man begging her with hate in his eyes,
but when he tipped his head to her, there was nothing but concern for his friend. “Please. The earl won’t forgive him, and it will
kill him as surely as putrid fever killed Bertie.” “I thought I killed Bertie,” she said,
and even to her own ears sounded tired and defeated. George St. Clair was another battle she would
never win. “Sinclair says I am irrational on the subject.” He was, but… “Grief is not rational.” “He was a good man, was Bertie.” Elinor nodded and St. Clair said, “George
is the same. A good man.” Too good for her. She couldn’t disagree with him. Not after what he’d witnessed that morning. She wasn’t sure she’d ever disagreed with
him, just hadn’t cared if he was right. She said, “You know it’s not in my nature
to lay down my cards when I’m winning.” “I know it’s not. I doubt it is in any man or woman. Except… I saw you dance with him last night and I
think more than one heart has been lost. And I think someone who loves wouldn’t ask
for such a sacrifice.” St. Clair turned fully to her and bowed. Low and long instead of the disrespectful
head nod he’d always subjected her to before. He said not another word, and when he rose
back up just looked at her and begged with his proud eyes. He turned and walked away, leaving her to
watch him disappear into the crowd again. More than one heart has been lost, he’d
said and he was right. Who wouldn’t love George Sinclair? She’d danced with him last night, knowing
that he couldn’t marry her. Even if he wanted to, and she did think he
wanted to. She’d woken without him, knowing he hadn’t
come because he was finally doing what he should have weeks ago. Knowing that Miss Westin would be the one
to have his name and his future. She’d stood in front of her brother, finally
realizing that she’d never had any chance at catching Sinclair, knowing she’d been
right to tell herself to steer clear of him. Finally realizing that she’d never had any
chance of that, either. She wondered if she had any chance of staying
away from him in the future and doubted it. Doubted that she could say no to him, whatever
he asked of her. She’d loved only two people in her life. Marcus and her daughter, and Elinor hadn’t
been sure there was room in there for anyone else. Perhaps that was why it hurt, just a little,
to love Sinclair. It could also be that she wasn’t going to
be able to have him after all, that she thought St. Clair was right. Someone who truly loved wouldn’t ask for
such a sacrifice. Wouldn’t ask for everything when she could
offer nothing in return. George Sinclair had made a decision. It wasn’t the right decision. It possibly wasn’t even a good decision. It might be great, but not good, and he stood
in front of his brother’s home dreading what would come next. It wasn’t going to be great, good, or even
tolerable. But he knocked and was led back to his brother’s
library. “Ah, George. You’re early.” Sebastian went back to his figures, then raised
his head again and paid more attention. “Have you even been to bed yet?” George opened his mouth and Sebastian held
up a hand to forestall him. “I should have been more specific. Have you had any sleep?” “No and no. And you are awfully clever to be around at
the moment.” “Mm. Go home, your home, and get some rest. You are of no use to me witless.” George sat, realizing just how tired he was. “I don’t think I will ever be of use to
you, Sebastian.” Sebastian put his pen down and rubbed at his
eyes and George said, “You can’t have got much more sleep than me.” “An hour or two. A change of clothes. It can make a world of difference.” George grunted. And then they sat in silence, both wishing
for sleep. “Sebastian–” “George–” They stopped, and George tipped his hand up
for Sebastian to go ahead. “I was going to say that it’s been…nice,
not to have to do this alone. When you’ve had a few hours sleep behind
you, you can be quite astute about the estate. I’m sorry I’m so hard on you sometimes. Father was the same with me and I swore I
would do things differently with my own son.” George sunk in his seat. “You would have. A brother is different.” “Perhaps. But I can do better.” He took a deep breath. “I must do better or I will be surrounded
by people and problems I have no idea how to fix.” “Flora?” “The biggest at the moment.” George wobbled his head. “That was quite a dress.” “And the laughing. And the gambling. And the drinking.” Sebastian rubbed his forehead and George tried
not to grin. “Don’t forget the dancing. My legs have not yet recovered. And if it comforts you at all, she did seem
to prefer to dance with her brother-in-law. She could have chosen someone much, much worse. A Lothario, a conman.” “Shall I be thankful for small favors? We’ve been married how long and I’ve never
seen her like that before. You know who I blame.” George closed his eyes and leaned his head
back. “I can guess.” “Do you know which is the real her, George? Because you came home, and the widow got her
hooks into my perfect countess, and suddenly I’m rudderless. Floating in the middle of an ocean without
a first and second mate.” George laughed. “A mutiny? Is that what it feels like to you?” “My whole crew, against me.” George let out a long breath and opened his
eyes. “Then what I have to tell you will just
feel like more proof of that.” “Then don’t tell me.” “I’ve not come to get your blessing. I know you won’t give it.” Sebastian’s nostrils flared and his lips
tightened. George said, “I’ve come to tell you that
I’m marrying Elinor. Or will be, once I’ve asked her. But I came to tell you first. Because you are my brother. Because I am your heir presumptive.” “You are my heir presumptive. Which is why you will not be marrying her.” George said softly, “Not asking. Telling. Preparing you for this.” Sebastian leaned forward. “Not even you are this irresponsible. Not even you can believe that she loves you
in return.” “I am, and I do. I’m going to marry her, Sebastian.” Sebastian let out a disgusted breath of air. “No, you’re not. Get your brain out of your bollocks.” “I love her.” “I need a drink.” “You don’t know her.” George narrowed his eyes. “Do you? No. Don’t tell me.” Sebastian leaned his elbows on the desk and
stared at his steepled fingers. He didn’t look at George when he said, “That’s
all it would take, is it? Tell you I slept with her.” “You haven’t.” “Are you certain?” George thought and thought. Because if his brother had slept with Elinor,
then yes, that’s all it would take. But he knew Sebastian hadn’t. “She’s not to your taste. And you are not to hers.” “How do you know?” “Because I know you. And I know her. And perhaps it’s not the most flattering
picture of a woman that I want to tie myself to, but sleeping with you wouldn’t accomplish
anything.” “You’re right, that’s not very flattering.” “I think it best to find out the faults
early on in a relationship, not ten years in.” Sebastian raised an eyebrow and George said,
“Which is why I would like you to invite Elinor to dinner.” “She’s not welcome. You’re not marrying her.” George said nothing. Didn’t know what to say to make his brother
see, to make his brother into a different sort of person. Sebastian said, “What of Miss Westin?” George couldn’t imagine how much worse that
conversation was going to go so he pushed it out of mind. “One step at a time.” “I appreciate that you chose me first,”
Sebastian said, not sounding appreciative at all. George looked down at his knee, wiped at a
spot that had appeared sometime during the night. “I would like to bring Elinor to dinner. I would like you to get to know her. I think you would like her.” “She can’t have children, George! So what if I do find I like her?” “Would it be so bad, Sebastian? Would the inevitable be so bad when it’s
going to happen anyway?” Sebastian shook his head, looking like he
thought George was suddenly talking in Hindostanee. “Yes! Because right now, it’s not inevitable. Right now, it’s a choice.” Choice. The fates asking him to choose. He already had. But he knew his brother wouldn’t see that. Would think that there was still a choice
to be made until he stood in front of the vicar. Sebastian had thought the same of India. Had thought that George would change his mind
and there was still a choice up until the ship sailed. There hadn’t been. Nothing would have kept him from that boat
eight years ago once he’d decided. And last night, he’d known looking at Lord
Westin that he would marry the widow. He rose, meeting Sebastian’s angry eyes. “If it feels like your crew is mutinying
Sebastian, perhaps you should consider that you are on the wrong course. That where you want us to go is not in our
best interest. And perhaps it’s not in yours, either.” “Wrong course? Best interest? The right course is the one that insures the
survival of this house, this name, this legacy.” George shook his head, knowing they would
never see eye to eye on this. Knowing that his brother– a man who had
given his life to this house, his title, and their father’s legacy– couldn’t believe
otherwise. The only thing George could do was figure
out what he wanted to give his life to. And what price he was willing to pay for that
choice. Chapter Twelve Sebastian watched George walk out the door
and thought again that his crew was mutinying. George married to the widow. A woman married five times before. A woman who couldn’t have children. His wife angry with him, furious. Perhaps you should consider that you are on
the wrong course. The wrong course? That implied there was more than one, and
Sebastian had never entertained the thought that there could be. Because if he let himself wonder for even
a moment what the point of it was, he’d start questioning what the point of anything
was. He stepped back quickly from that great, gaping
black hole of unknown threatening to swallow him. He was right. This was right. And whatever sacrifice was required was worth
it. He clung to the thought that George hadn’t
asked yet. Perhaps the widow would turn him down. And then Sebastian choked on his own laughter. The widow wouldn’t turn George down. A light knock on the door stopped Sebastian’s
laughter and he called out hopefully, rising to meet whoever was on the other side. Had George returned? Come back to tell him it was all a joke, that
of course George knew he couldn’t marry the widow. Sebastian stomach tightened into a ball of
dread when it was Flora who pushed the door in, when it was Flora who had knocked on his
library door. He looked at her wild dress that now drooped
tiredly and said, horrified, “Are you just getting home?” “Yes.” That was all she said. Yes. Where had she been? Who had she been with? “Flora–” “You’re done with me, right Sebastian? Then it doesn’t matter.” His mouth fell open, his heart stopped beating. He fell into his chair, speechless, and she
looked at him a long, quiet minute. When she turned around to leave, he jumped
from his chair, searching for any topic that would keep her there with him. Keep him wondering who she’d been with. “George is going to ask the widow to marry
him.” She stopped and nodded. “He loves her.” Sebastian sighed. “He doesn’t. It’s infatuation.” “It isn’t. If you’d only look, you could see the difference
between Miss Westin and Lady Haywood. There is one, Sebastian.” He could see a glimmer of his old Flora in
her calm and rational answer even if it disagreed with his assessment and he smiled at her. “The difference is one will give us a male
heir and the other won’t.” She didn’t smile back at him. She flinched. “And that is everything, isn’t it?” She turned again to leave. “Flora.” She didn’t stop, just said over her shoulder,
“If you want your brother happy, you will let him choose.” She closed the door behind her and Sebastian
stood stock still. Two people had walked out on him today. Mutiny. Perhaps you should consider that you are on
the wrong course, he thought. And then he slammed his fist onto his desk. George had decided that he couldn’t see
Miss Westin in rumpled and stained clothing so he’d gone home for a change of clothing,
and once there had decided that he really did need his wits about him and chose to spend
the rest of the day asleep. He woke missing Elinor and headed to her townhouse. Too late to see Miss Westin anyway, he would
call on her in the morning. He wasn’t looking forward to it but a promise
had been implied. And he felt he owed it to her to be the first
to break the news of his engagement to Elinor. He didn’t want Miss Westin to hear it from
anyone else first. There was a skip to his step and a smile on
his face when Jones let him in, and George knew he’d made the right choice. He was greeted at the drawing room door by
three happy dogs and he put Anala down among them to jump and yip excitedly. Elinor watched him pat each dog and say hello
to them and said, “I wasn’t sure to expect you tonight. When you didn’t come last night, I assumed
you’d finally asked for Miss Westin.” He shook his head. “No. And I won’t be.” She sat down with a thump and whispered, “That’s
what St. Clair told me.” He stopped greeting the dogs to come toward
her, searching her face. “He came to visit you?” When she nodded, he said, “I’m sorry,”
and she smiled. “He came to beg me not to marry you.” George fell to his knees in front of her and
said again, “I’m sorry. He’ll come around, Elinor. My brother, too.” She ran her fingers through his hair. “You are entirely too optimistic.” “A man has to be optimistic when he asks
a woman to marry him.” Elinor looked into his eyes and stopped playing
with his hair. “It does seem like it would help.” “He has to think that she won’t let him
suffer for very long before she gives him an answer.” She sat back in her seat. “I said I wouldn’t marry any man unless
I was breeding.” Sinclair had to admit this was not how he
thought this conversation would go. “And I told you I couldn’t marry you unless
the countess was breeding. Things change.” She said quickly, “I think you should go
ask for Miss Westin.” That stopped him and he sat back on his heels. “What? Why?” She looked over at the dogs playing and George
said, “What did St. Clair say to you? Wait, no, let me guess.” “It’s only partly what he said…because
it seems likely that I may…never…” She took a deep breath, unable to say the
words. That there might never be children, and George
said, “I don’t care, Elinor.” She whispered, “You should. It hurts, George. Hurts more than you think it will.” He stopped breathing when she said his name,
didn’t move. When her eyes met his, he said softly, “Time
to call the solicitors.” “I did say that, didn’t I? Things change.” George pushed himself from the floor to sit
next to her on the sofa. He tucked her into his side and leaned back,
watching Anala pick a spot between two mammoth dogs. “Tell me what’s changed.” He didn’t think she knew. Didn’t think she would recognize love when
it knelt at her feet, but she snorted and there was disdain in her voice when she said,
“You don’t think I can see? St. Clair knew.” George laughed. “I do love you.” “I know.” “And?” She turned her face to his. He felt her breath on his face, saw the wild
and frightened knowledge in her eyes. She whispered, “George.” He put his lips against her and murmured again,
“Time to call the solicitors.” He slid his hand up her leg, around her back,
and she flinched. Sinclair froze, then pulled back slowly. No emotion betrayed Elinor’s face as she
said, “I know it’s hard to believe but St. Clair wasn’t my worst visitor today.” “Your brother,” he said and there was
relief in his voice because he didn’t have to go murder his friend. “Retribution bit him,” she said and this
time there was emotion. Retribution lifted his head, shaking Anala
off and coming to put his head in Elinor’s lap. George said, “Good.” She nodded like she wasn’t completely sure. “Something…is broken inside him. Something has always been a little broken
inside him. My father was not a gentle man.” “Did your father break you?” She took a long time answering. Just sat and petted her dogs head. She finally looked at him, her eyes sad and
shuttered, and she said, “He tried.” “Trying isn’t succeeding.” “Some days it felt like it. When my father died, Alan got worse. And then, Marcus. He loved Marcus.” She tipped her head to Sinclair. “The Italian Stallion.” “Of course.” “Everyone loved Marcus. I did, too. Eventually.” “But not when you married him?” She smiled at Sinclair like he was a preposterous
little child. “Apparently, I don’t marry men I love.” “You will.” “You are entirely too optimistic.” He’d never thought so before. But then again he’d never been in love before. “And you are entirely too stubborn.” She laughed. “Yes. That’s not going to change, George.” He smiled, basking in the sound of his name
on her lips. Some things could change. “Then we’ll wait. And see what happens.” Funny that as soon as she entertained the
idea that there might never be a child, George was the one who wouldn’t give up hope. A child, a hint of a child, and he’d whisk
her to Scotland. Solicitors be damned. He pulled her onto his lap, careful of her
bruises. “Say it again.” She said, “George,” and he could hear
everything he needed to hear in that word. “Elinor.” And then because he’d been saying her name
for ages and it didn’t mean the same thing at all, said, “Love.” “Oh, George.” The earl knocked on the widow’s door early. He’d gone to his brother’s quarters and
been told he hadn’t been home yet. Sebastian guessed he could have gone to the
club, tried to find his brother there. He hadn’t bothered. When the widow’s man servant opened the
door, Sebastian said, “My brother is here. Tell him the earl needs him posthaste.” Her servant was well trained at least, and
merely nodded and escorted him to the drawing room before shutting the door behind him. The earl sat, figuring his brother wouldn’t
rush down no matter the message. When the door opened ten minutes later, it
wasn’t George. Lady Haywood said, “He says he’s not coming
down.” “Go back up and tell him there is a situation
at one of my estates. We will leave as soon as he has packed.” She sat, and Sebastian wondered when his authority
had become useless. Flora, George, the widow. No one listened to him. “You will have to do better than that, my
lord. A situation with tenants, sheep? A few details will help sell the story.” “I’m an earl. I don’t have to sell a story.” “You’re not an earl to George. You’re his brother.” Sebastian blew out a breath. “Go get him, Lady Haywood. Or I will get him myself.” She shook her head as if disappointed in him
and that only enraged him further. He stared into her soul and growled, “I
could destroy you.” He should have known she didn’t have a soul
because all she did was blink and cock her head at him. Then she smiled. “I think someone in your position could.” “But not me?” She shook her head in answer. His nostrils flared and he thought by gad
he would destroy her. Would wipe that satisfied smile off her face
if it was the last thing he did. She said, “You are too much like your brother.” The door opened again and Sebastian turned
to glare at the brother he was nothing like but it was only a servant with the tea tray. When the woman finally left, he said, “And
just how am I like him? I assure you I am not so gullible that I can
be taken in by a pretty face and blond hair.” Lady Haywood poured and stirred and handed
him a cup. “Do you really think him gullible? And isn’t it so interesting that those closest
to us are the ones who know us the least.” “I know you, Lady Haywood.” “Perhaps. And perhaps you do see me clearer than George,
at least. But I see you just as clearly, and like him,
you are a good man. You wouldn’t destroy someone who didn’t
deserve it.” He laughed and surprised himself. “I don’t think that argument will sway
me. A widow aiming for her sixth husband with
my brother.” She cleared her throat. “Husbands are overrated.” “You would know.” “Yes, I would. And I assure you they are as inconvenient
and irritating as they appear to be. And while I can guess that you won’t believe
me, I’m not…I am not looking for a sixth.” “You’re right, I don’t believe you.” She nodded and sipped. And said nothing more. They sat in silence until their cups were
empty and then she set hers down gently and rose. She studied him, then shook her head. “Really, my lord, you will only make him
more set upon this course than he already is. Because he is not gullible, or stupid, or
happy being led where others want him to go. He came back all the way from India not because
you told him to, but because you needed him. He would do anything for those he loves.” Sebastian said, “Do not make the mistake
that this infatuation with you is love. That he would sacrifice for you like he would
and should for his family.” She whispered, “Don’t make the mistake
that he doesn’t. That he cares one jot that I am the widow
or who my relations are or whether I can give him an heir.” Sebastian all but jumped from his chair. “You do not know him!” She stood her ground. “He is an open book. I suggest you take the next opportunity to
look. At your countess, too, although she is not
nearly so easy to see through.” A red rage filled his vision and he balled
his fists. George had always been a mystery to Sebastian
but he’d thought he’d known who his wife was. Having the widow confirm that he didn’t
made him want to smash everything in this room, the blasted woman included. And then she was across the room, her hand
on the knob and saying, “I will send George down. Perhaps you can have a realistic emergency
manufactured by the time he’s ready.” “Stay away from the countess.” She stopped, not turning around. “She loves you, you know?” “How do you know?” “I’m her friend.” “No. You don’t have friends. You have victims and marks.” She laughed, still facing the door. “You must have known my father.” “Knew him and didn’t like him.” She nodded. “No one did. He didn’t care.” “The apple does not fall far from the tree.” “I agree it is a worrisome thought. Not many do like me, and I don’t care too
much about it. Still, I do hope that I am not like him.” She opened the door and was halfway through
it when she paused. “You won’t ask for my advice, won’t
welcome when I give it to you.” How dare she. Give advice to an earl of the realm? Sebastian growled, “Go get my brother.” “Go home and hug her. Don’t say a word. Just hold her and listen to her. She wants you to know who she is, but you
need to be quiet and let her tell you.” Sebastian didn’t say a word and she smiled. “Yes, just like that. It is so difficult for men to listen when
a woman talks, to hear the meaning behind the words. I assure you, there is always a meaning.” “Stay away from her. Stay away from George.” “You underestimate your brother. I have given up all hope of trying to stay
away from him,” she said and Sebastian jerked. Remembered Flora saying the same thing about
George. What did they see that he did not? “Make yourself comfortable, my lord. George will be down…eventually.” George sat on the other side of the coach,
his arms folded tight. He didn’t look at Sebastian, didn’t say
a word. Sebastian closed his eyes and sighed at the
silence. It had been four hours and George hadn’t
said one word. Not when he’d come into the widow’s drawing
room and given Sebastian a long look. He’d only turned back around and gone out
the front door. Hadn’t said anything to Sebastian while
he’d directed his valet on what to pack. Not a word through the streets of London. Not even when the town began to turn to fields. Sebastian broke first, all the while thinking
George’s years in India had changed him somehow. “You are my heir. It is not inconceivable that I need you to
accompany me when there are problems on an estate.” George grunted. Sebastian kept his eyes closed. Another mile later. “You are acting like a child.” “I am being treated like one.” Sebastian opened his eyes but George was still
looking out the window. “You are being treated like a man whose
brain has lodged permanently in his bollocks.” “You don’t think I can tell the difference
between lust and love?” Sebastian’s reply got caught in his throat
and he expelled it forcefully. “How can you possibly be in love with that
woman–” “Lady Haywood. Or Elinor.” “I will not call that–” George turned
his head, a slow controlled motion, and Sebastian stopped. He lowered his voice to a conversational tone. “She is conniving. A gold-digger. Has reached far above her station.” “The same could be said for a few of our
forebears. I expect her children’s children will conveniently
forget just as well as we have.” Sebastian leaned forward. “She doesn’t love you in return. All a woman like her can see is what you can
do for her.” “Then why did she refuse me?” Sebastian had nothing to say, nothing even
to think past blank horror. George said, “I’ve already asked her. She said no.” “It must not have been a very forceful no
since you are still welcome in her bed.” “She’s trying to save me from myself. It’s very tiresome. And not at all the actions of a conniving
gold-digger.” Sebastian opened his mouth to refute and George
interrupted him. “Although I’m sure you can think of some
way this works to her benefit.” Sebastian closed his mouth. He could think of something and George wouldn’t
believe it, no matter what it was. George looked out the window and grimaced
at the bucolic view. “Sheep. I simply can not imagine why men get old and
gray in this country.” “Men get old and gray in every country.” George let out a long, sad sigh. “Yes.” “It’s inevitable.” “Some things are.” “You’re not going to listen to me, are
you? Not going to listen to St. Clair. Not going to listen to reason and duty. Just going to do what you want no matter what. No matter who it hurts and disappoints.” George continued to look out the window. “Some things are inevitable.” Chapter Thirteen Sheep. George hated sheep. He left the sheep and land to Sebastian once
they arrived at the troubled estate. Tenants. George had to admit he was good with tenants. Much better than his brother, who wanted the
facts without the pesky emotions. Who cared little for squabbles between people
who’d known each other their whole lives and whose history was more important than
facts. People who had to live and work together in
the future. There were a surprising number of issues between
tenants. Between men forced to work too closely together. Between men who interrupted the quiet boredom
of the country with the distraction of another man’s wife. George set up shop at the village inn and
listened to complaints. He kept the beer flowing freely. He refereed a few good boxing matches, giving
an opportunity for all whose pride had been stung to work it out. He visited cottages and listened to women
chat about their neighbors. He brought small sweet cakes for the children
and noted buildings that needed improving. And in the evenings, he and Sebastian sat
down to dinner. George listened about sheep and tried to stay
awake. Sebastian listened about emotional turmoil
and tried to stay interested. There was no emergency for them to take care
of, but then George had always known it was a ruse to get him away from Elinor. Distance, when all distance did was make him
wish she was there with him. Hating the sheep, and the mud, together. Wishing she was there to speak with the women
and let them air grievances with their own version of beer and fisticuffs. Ten days after they arrived, George sat down
to dinner and told Sebastian his work was done. Peace had been restored. Sebastian cut into a piece of mutton. “You’re very good with people.” “And you with sheep. You may take that as a compliment.” “I have quite a few estates that could be
improved by your skills.” “I do not doubt that every estate could
use an invigorating visit from the earl and his brother.” Sebastian smiled. “I would like that.” “So would I. After a recuperative stay in town. I can only take so much beer.” Sebastian stopped smiling. George said, “And I know you would like
to visit with Flora and the girls.” Sebastian nodded. “And I am sure Miss Westin has been missing
you.” George put down his knife. He looked at his brother, almost wishing… George smiled and stood. “I need to show you something.” “Right now, in the middle of dinner?” George laughed. “Yes. We have a date at the inn.” When George stepped inside the tap room, he
was met with hearty hales and cheerful greetings. When the earl followed him inside, the room
quieted in an instant. George headed for the bar. “Two beers. And a round for everyone.” No cheers greeted this statement. The men continued to look at the earl, to
watch as George held a tankard out to him. Everyone watched until Sebastian took it and
sipped. George took a healthy gulp of his own and
said to the room, “We’ve come for fisticuffs. And beer. Lots and lots of beer.” He chugged and the quiet room broke into laughter. When he’d exhaled and wiped his mouth with
the back of his hand, he said, “We’ve come to once and for all settle the question
of whether an earl’s brother can be a man in his own right.” Sebastian said, “George.” George stripped his coat off, handing it to
the innkeeper. “We’ve come, like all men, to fight about
a woman.” Sebastian set his drink down and turned toward
the door. George said loudly to his back, “Win, and
I’ll marry Miss Westin.” That stopped Sebastian, and he turned back
incredulously. “I will not gamble our future on a bout
of pugilism.” “It’s a gamble however the decision is
made. It’s a gamble no matter what, or who, we
choose.” “And if you win?” George unbuttoned his waistcoat. “If I win, I will enjoy blacking your eye.” “That’s all you want?” “I will enjoy it a lot.” A few men chuckled, then put their faces back
into their cups. George handed off his waistcoat, replaced
it with a beer, and said, “And then I will marry Lady Haywood.” He picked up Sebastian’s beer and handed
it out to him again. “But first, we will need to be drunk.” “You are being incredibly silly.” George drained his drink, keeping his eyes
on Sebastian and his hand out. Men murmured between themselves. A few coins changed hands quietly. “I’m not going to fight you.” “Then I leave for London in the morning.” Sebastian sighed and reached for the tankard. “But I’ll stay and have a drink with you.” George waited until Sebastian had taken a
sizable gulp before he nodded. “I’ll still be leaving for London. I have a bride to win.” “What makes you think she’s waiting for
you? She’s mourned husbands for less time than
you’ve been gone.” George rolled his shoulders. “If you don’t want a fight, you are going
about it the wrong way.” “It only stings because it’s true, George. And I don’t want to fight, but perhaps we
should talk this out. Like men.” “What good will talking do? You’re not going to change my mind, I’m
not going to change yours.” “Then what good will fighting do?” George showed his teeth. “Besides choosing my bride, you mean? It will make an insuperable situation bearable.” Sebastian shook his head. “I won’t allow fate and chance and the
roll of the dice to dictate my life.” “No. Only your birth and station.” “As should you.” “Can’t you see? It’s no different! Except it was someone else’s roll. Someone else’s chance and choice.” “I know I’m lucky, George. The title, Flora, the girls.” George drained the bottom of his third. “It’s all Flora’s fault. Can’t give her husband one heir, only girls.” Sebastian hauled back and popped George in
the eye. The growing crowd of men shouted as George
fell to his arse, then cheered as he sprang back up. The innkeeper shouted, “Outside! Outside!” He stopped when he realized he’d been shouting
at the earl, but Sebastian only nodded and pushed himself away from the bar to go out
the door. Everyone followed him, and George gingerly
touched his eye as men clapped him on the back and made bets with each other. Sebastian pointed to a fellow, then fished
a coin from his pocket. “Help me with my coat, will you?” Off came Sebastian’s hat, his coat, his
waistcoat, his cravat, and then his shirt. As he undressed, he muttered, “All her fault. About the woman who loves you like a brother,
who wrote to you every two weeks for eight years.” “And I love her. And wrote back. She still has given you only girls.” “As if she wouldn’t give her soul, her
life, for a son!” George pulled his shirt over his head and
handed it behind him without looking, his eyes glued to his brother’s. Sebastian put his toe to the line someone
had drawn in the dirt. “Far better for you to suffer an inconvenient
marriage than for her to suffer again. Than for her to court death. I will not let him have her!” “Sebastian?” “Death can not have her! I win, and you marry Miss Westin.” George put his toe to the line. “And if I win–” Sebastian popped him in the other eye. George’s head whipped back and the crowd
cheered. Sebastian followed him and pop, pop, pop. “Gone for eight years, gone to India!” George dodged the next blow. “You were going to marry me off. Just like now!” He got close enough to ball his fist into
Sebastian’s middle and Sebastian’s breath rushed out in a loud grunt. He grabbed for George and leaned on him. “What do you think (pant pant) men do? You marry a respectable girl (scuffle scuffle),
you find a lovely widow (punch, groan), or not so lovely if that’s what tickles your
fancy (twist, ow!), and let her take care of you while your wife is at home with the
children.” George pushed and spun away. “And how is that working out for you?” “Well, just lovely, thank you for asking! My wife is furious at me, my brother is in
love with the widow, and the respectable girl, well, who knows about her!” Someone shouted, “More hitting, less talking!” Sebastian took a step forward and popped George
in the nose. George’s head whipped back, and then he
roared mightily and barreled toward Sebastian, shouldering him in the gut and lifting him
into the air for a long moment…and then dropping him to land heavily on the ground. Sebastian and the crowd groaned in unison
and George shouted, “I can’t be what you want, Sebastian! I can’t be you!” Sebastian stayed on the ground and tried to
breathe. George huffed and huffed, waiting until Sebastian
finally rolled to his side and pushed himself back onto his feet slowly. Sebastian cupped his back, wincing, and George
said, “Are we done then? Lady Haywood is it?” “No. Just…a minute.” They backed off from each other, circling
slowly, limping and cursing. Sebastian said softly, “I don’t want you
to be like me, George. I just want…everything.” “I know. It is unfortunate that we both can’t have
everything.” Sebastian nodded. “So we’re really fighting to see who the
loser is.” George stepped forward and swung and missed. “Would it be so horrible? Having no heir?” “It’s just…losing.” “And earls don’t lose.” Sebastian’s fist connected with George’s
side. “Earls don’t lose.” George grabbed for his brother and hung on,
their struggles turning into mutual support. Sebastian hung his head, huffing. “We should have done this twenty years ago. I’m sure it would have hurt less.” George nodded, breathless. “A draw?” Sebastian looked around at the men circled
around them and said, “We need to give them a winner or else there will be a riot.” “Get on with it then. But make it a good one, would you? If I’m going down, I want to still be a
man when I get back up. A man when I marry Elinor Rusbridge.” Sebastian pushed his brother off him. “All the men heard that you would marry
Miss Westin if I won.” “I lied. Didn’t lie about Flora, though. This is entirely her fault.” “You scoundrel!” Sebastian swung with all his might and George
had time to think that perhaps being an earl wouldn’t be too bad. It might be nice to believe you couldn’t
lose. And then there was blackness. They left the next morning for London. The coach was not so unfriendly and silent
on this trip and there was light ribbing and pained groans from both sides. Sebastian fidgeted. “We should have waited until we were healed.” “But think how our women will fuss over
us.” “I don’t want to know.” “Resign yourself to it, dear brother.” Sebastian eyed the bruises on George’s face. “She may take one look at you and faint.” George laughed. “I doubt it. What of Flora?” “I doubt she’ll even look. You were obliging enough to stay away from
my face.” George waited for more and when none was forthcoming,
said, “Are you going to tell me why Flora is furious with you?” “Do you think I know why?” “My guess is she told you, at least. Whether you listened or not…” Sebastian shifted again. “I accused her of something…horrible.” “Bloody hell.” “She’s been acting so strange, I just–” “You forgot who she was for a moment.” “I’m afraid I never knew.” George laughed and shook his head. He pulled back the curtain to look out at
gray skies and green pastures and white dots of sheep. “What fools we mortals be.” “Must you misquote?” George smiled. “Fine, then. Lord, what fools these mortals be!” “You don’t think she…” “Never.” Sebastian sighed. “I know. But how does one say I am completely and utterly
cork-brained?” “That’s a good start.” “For some reason, I don’t think it will
be enough for her.” “I think, and I’m sure you are dying for
my opinion, but I think you have always known who Flora is. And I think that all you need to do is ask
for her forgiveness.” “Just ask?” “Beg?” Sebastian’s lips pursed and his nostrils
flared. George said, “She knows you just as well
and I would bet she knows asking is all you can do.” Sebastian sighed and moved himself into a
more comfortable position yet again. “George. I won’t ask you for forgiveness, nor beg,
not about Elinor Rusbridge.” “I hope there is more coming because that
was not a good start.” “But…” George waited, still looking out the window. Then he smiled. He turned back to his brother, saw how Sebastian
was trying, trying, to say something else. George shook his head and laughed. “But…is a good enough start for me, Sebastian.” Sebastian had even went so far as to ask where
George would like to be dropped off, his lodgings or the Lady Haywood’s. George had privately thought that they should
have pummeled each other ages ago but had only said his quarters. He didn’t think Elinor would faint at the
sight of him. The smell though… George had to wash the country off as soon
as possible and even Elinor would have to wait. But not for long, and soon he was in front
of her townhouse. Anala in his hand, not his pocket, and both
of them ready to bound up the stairs and see Elinor. To smell her and feel her and forget the longest
ten days of George’s life. Perhaps take some tea with Mrs. Potts, and
then retire to a bedchamber as hot as India and play with his lady’s scandalous midriff. George stopped before one foot hit the steps. Stopped and turned, and there was her brother. Watching. Anala yipped. Alan Rusbridge nodded. George Sinclair nodded back. He was an English gentleman after all. But he stayed watching until Rusbridge turned
away and walked into the darkening night. George trudged up the stairs and knocked slowly,
and when Jones opened the door, George let out the breath he’d been holding. “Everything all right, Jones?” “Of course, Mr. Sinclair.” Jones peered at the bruises. “Are you all right, sir?” “Oh, fine. Had it out with my brother.” George waved behind him. “Rusbridge was here.” Jones opened the door wider, showing the gun
he’d been hiding behind it. “Yes, sir.” “She’s all right?” Jones nodded. “I’m sure she’ll be glad to see you.” George entered, handing off his coat and putting
Anala down to scratch at the drawing room door. The door opened and Elinor said, “Anala,
no. Sit.” When the dog sat, Elinor scooped the dog up
and scratched behind her ears and turned to George. She cataloged his features. His still wet hair. The bruises. “Were you set upon by bandits?” “A duel, of sorts.” “…did you win?” He laughed and pulled a rumpled paper from
his pocket. “I do believe I did.” She read it slowly, and George didn’t blame
her. Sebastian had penned it in the coach and it
was hardly legible. But even Elinor could tell it was a scribbled
invitation to dinner. Sebastian bathed and dressed and made his
way to the nursery to see the children. And tried not to flinch as they climbed on
him and jostled his bruised body. They talked over each other, telling him every
moment he’d missed and he listened intently. So happy to be surrounded by his girls again. When they wound down, he said to Camilla,
“Would you like to join Mama and I for dinner tonight,” and her eyes got so big he thought
they just might fall out. She whispered, “Yes, Papa,” and then Sebastian
had to spend the next ten minutes promising the other girls that when they were old enough
they could eat in the dining room as well. He finally was able to pull himself away when
Camilla ran to get dressed for dinner, and Sebastian went to find Flora. He took a big breath and blew it out before
knocking on her door, and when she bade him enter, he pushed it in slowly. Trying to remember what he’d decided to
say to her but all he could remember was beg and ask. Flora was dressed for dinner already, her
lady’s maid fashioning her hair, and she said, “Sebastian. You’re home.” “Yes.” Silence. He cleared his throat. “I’ve asked Camilla to join us for dinner.” Flora blinked at herself in the mirror, then
flicked her eyes to meet his. “She will enjoy that… She did eat already.” “Oh. Of course she did.” “She will still enjoy it. That was very thoughtful of you.” He relaxed a little. He’d done something right. But it still wasn’t enough. He knew that. “Flora–” She turned, stopping Sebastian with a look
and dismissing her maid with a quiet thank you. The door closed and Sebastian simply looked
at his wife. Waited. And waited. And then opened his mouth to say…something
and Flora said, “Am I forbidden to have friends, then?” “Of course not.” “Lady Haywood tells me you visited her and
forbade her to see me.” Sebastian perched gingerly on a footstool. “I did say that to her. I didn’t think she was listening.” “She was. And after telling me why she couldn’t see
me anymore, refused to visit with me again.” Sebastian folded his hands together and twiddled
his thumbs. “That surprises me.” Which was the truth but he realized quickly
it would only add fuel to the fire and said, “I’ve invited her to dinner.” “Yes, you already told me about Camilla.” “No. Lady Haywood. I invited her to dinner.” And if he’d thought that would be enough
for his wife, he was sadly mistaken. “Why?” “Because…because my brother is in love
with her.” She fiddled with the brushes and pots on her
dressing table. “It seems time in the country was just what
you needed.” “You should have seen him, Flora. He wouldn’t go within a few feet of any
livestock that wasn’t a horse. But the people… I can’t do what he does. Puts people at ease. Listens to them. I don’t know.” Flora simply looked at him and Sebastian wished,
for the first time ever, that he was his brother. That he could put his wife at ease. Ask. Beg. He said, “And I can’t imagine that he
doesn’t see everything Lady Haywood wishes he didn’t. I can’t believe that she could dupe him. And if someone is blind regarding her, it
is most likely me.” Her expression softened, just enough. She looked back in her mirror and checked
her jewelry and hair one more time. “An intimate family dinner might be for
the best. I can see the two of you stepping on toes–
though Lady Haywood’s stepping might very well be on purpose.” He didn’t care. Not about Elinor Rusbridge. Not about his brother. Did he need to steal his wife away to the
country for her forgiveness? Fisticuffs? Ask. Beg. He whispered, “I am a complete and utter
fool.” She expression hardened again and she stood,
sweeping her skirt behind her and heading for the door. “Yes.” He grabbed her arm. Not too tight, he didn’t want to hurt her. But he couldn’t let her leave like that. He said softly, “Flora.” He pulled his wife to him, resting his head
against her belly lightly and wrapping his arms around her waist. He couldn’t think what to say except, “Please
don’t knock.” She was stiff in his arms, didn’t wrap her
arms around him in return. “You can rest assured, Sebastian, that I
won’t be interrupting you in your library again. There…is no child.” He was glad. Oh, so glad. He couldn’t bear to watch her go through
another pregnancy, another birth. But he kept his mouth shut. And didn’t know why all of a sudden he couldn’t
breathe. Didn’t know why his throat was tight and
there were tears in his eyes. He choked, “No one else. I’ll come to your bed every night, make
sure you are well pleasured without the risk. But no one else.” She tried to pull back but he held on tight. She said softly, “There’s never been anyone
but you. Never.” He nodded and said, his voice high and tight,
“I have five beautiful girls, and I wouldn’t trade any of you for a son. I won’t.” “Sebastian–” He pressed his face into her belly, his shoulders
shaking, his hot tears soaking into her dress. He cried. For the loss of a son he’d never had. For the wife he’d been so afraid of losing. Flora stroked his hair and murmured to him. When he looked up, there were tears in her
eyes as well and she knelt beside him. She pressed her cheek against his shirt. “I wanted to give you a son.” “I don’t care.” “Yes, you do.” “Of course I care. But… I love you. And that matters more.” Flora whispered, “That is just not done. Not for an earl and his countess.” “It will be my secret.” She pulled back and smiled. “Our secret. It is just as silly for a woman to love her
husband than it is for an earl to love his countess.” “It’s only because you are perfect in
every way. I couldn’t help myself.” She laughed, stroking her fingers along his
cheekbones. “You blind, blind man.” “Perhaps I am. Even so, George says I’ve always known who
you are, and all I need do is ask your forgiveness.” Her eyebrows raised. “Ask?” “Beg.” “Beg!” He closed his eyes and said, “For not trusting
you when there is no one more trustworthy. For not believing that you could handle my
disappointment.” “Better for us to handle it together.” When he opened his eyes, she was smiling at
him. “The country was good for you, Sebastian.” “Doesn’t feel like it. I’m black and blue from my brother’s fists.” She made a soothing sound and said, “I’d
love to see.” “Would you?” He pulled her closer and she wondered softly,
“Sebastian, how can we be together without risking a child?” “I’ll show you.” She put a hand to his chest, stopping him. “Wait. Camilla will be waiting for us.” He groaned, then wiped the dried tears from
her cheeks and kissed her lightly. She murmured against his lips, “But after
dinner…perhaps you’ll meet me in the library?” Sebastian rose, offering his hand to help
her up. “You won’t knock, will you?” She smiled, slipping her hand into his. “Never. Never again.” Chapter Fourteen The morning of the earl’s dinner, Elinor
sent George away, telling him she would meet him there and she wanted her dress to be a
surprise. George had laughed, wondering what she was
going to wear to shock his brother. “Who says it’s him I’m trying to shock? You would do just as well.” He’d only kissed her, scooping Anala up
with a backward, “It will certainly be fun for you to try.” She didn’t feel too bad that it had been
a lie. There would be plenty of time later to feel
bad. But Elinor knew that today she had something
to do. Something that perhaps should have been done
a long time ago. Because Elinor could feel it coming. Her back was tight, her belly twisting. This time she wouldn’t fight it. She sent her own apology to the countess,
telling her she would be missing dinner. She ordered her carriage ready and sent a
note to George, letting him know she would be gone for a few days. He could be angry with her when she returned. She climbed her stairs slowly, locking the
door behind her. Locking everyone and everything out. She pulled a little key from her jewelry box
and dragged a chest out from under her bed and when she opened it, the smell of camphor
wood hit her hard. She blamed the smell for the tears in her
eyes and when she pulled out the tiny white christening gown her daughter had never worn,
Elinor raised her face to the ceiling and willed the tears away. She would not cry. Not here. She pulled out little dresses and soft blankets,
smoothing the wrinkles from them and putting them in a small pile for the maid to get rid
of. Someone would have need of baby clothing,
but not Elinor. And it was time to accept. Time to admit defeat. The tears threatened again and she stopped,
swallowing how much that hurt. She’d added to the chest during her first
and second marriage. A dress here, a blanket there. And dear Bertie had smiled at her when she’d
shown him the crocheted blanket his aunt had one day unexpectedly given them. Pure white with pretty pink edging. A gift so full of hope and the future that
Elinor hadn’t known how to say thank you. After Bertie had been buried, Elinor had sat
in her rocking chair, cradling the blanket to her chest and pretending that there was
a baby snuggled up tight inside it. Trying to believe that there was at least
a small chance there could be, one day. She pulled that little blanket out last, where
it had been tucked safely at the bottom of the chest and cradled it one last time. Cradled it as she unlocked the door and went
slowly, painfully, back down the stairs to her waiting carriage. The journey to Hertfordshire was not a long
one. An easy day from London, made even easier
by an occasional swig of laudanum. Just enough. Enough so that the pain wouldn’t overwhelm
her, not yet. She remembered her first trip to Hertfordshire. A young wife, happy to be so far away from
her father. Happy that she wouldn’t ever have to go
back to him. She hadn’t hated the country back then and
she’d thought she would live out her life here in these green, rolling hills. Funny how different life ended from where
you imagined it. She didn’t go to the manor and she didn’t
stop in the village. In the end, she’d only been here a little
over a year and had no memories to savor. One year of her life. It hadn’t been much. The church and cemetery, though, she was familiar
with, and when the carriage stopped, she sat looking out the window at the changes ten
years had made. There were more stones, more moss. But she could still see the tall, commanding
headstone of her Lord Haywood. She could have been buried there one day. Next to her husband and child. But she’d chosen life and the future. She thought of the merchant and Marcus and
dear Bertie and the whippersnapper. She’d lived a thousand lifetimes since the
last time she walked away from this village cemetery. She hadn’t been wrong to leave. She hadn’t been wrong to try. And she thought of George. Happy, smiling George. Who she loved. Who she couldn’t marry. He needed a son, and she couldn’t give him
one. She looked down at the blanket still lying
lifeless in her arms. The tears only prickled lightly this time
and she knew the laudanum was taking her to that uncaring place. Elinor hadn’t come here to bury the widow
but she thought it a good time to say goodbye anyway. Goodbye to the widow. To society and respectability. She would not marry again. She would love George. She would take what parts of him he could
spare from Miss Westin. And she would be happy for even that. And she thought that if anyone could play
the part of the mistress, it would be her. The vicar came out of his house to investigate
this unknown carriage and a footman intercepted him. The Dowager Viscountess has come to pay her
respects. Of course. Of course… Elinor waited until the vicar went back inside
before stepping down, and then walked knowingly through the gravestones, listening to the
birds and skirting the mud. She carried the little blanket in her arms
and when she came to her husband’s stone, rubbed her thumb across his name lightly. She took much more care to wipe down the little
stone with her daughter’s name engraved upon it. She cleaned it, wishing she’d brought a
brush, but not stopping until her fingers were rubbed raw and the name shone through. When she was done, she folded the little blanket
up and placed it at the base of the stone lovingly. And then she lay down on the cold, hard ground
beside the child she’d held in her arms for less than a day and the child she’d
held in her heart for ten long years, and she cried. She had no recollection of leaving the cemetery,
didn’t know how she’d come to be back home in her bed. Wasn’t surprised that it was George sitting
beside her, reading quietly. He kept his eyes on the paper and said softly,
“You could have told me.” “I needed to do it alone.” “Why?” Because she’d been alone her whole life. Had kept a small part of herself shut up tight,
away from all who could hurt her. Because she didn’t know how to let that
part out. She swallowed, her mouth and throat dry, and
George reached for a pot of tea sitting beside him. Elinor closed her eyes and smiled. “Has Mrs. Potts been up here with you?” “Sometimes.” He poured her a cup, helping her sit up to
drink it, and Elinor reached for his hand before he could sit back down. “I had to mourn. I didn’t want you to see.” “Your daughter?” She nodded. “All my daughters. The merchant’s, who had green eyes and who
loved numbers. Marcus’s, who liked her hair curled and
who loved beautiful things. Bertie’s, who was so sweet that I questioned
how she could be mine as well. The whippersnapper’s, who was loud and boisterous
and never careful. I had to say goodbye to all of them even though
they’d only lived in my heart.” George fell to his knees beside the bed and
squeezed Elinor’s hand. She said, “I had to say goodbye to George’s
daughter. Who has golden hair and blue eyes and the
most mischievous smile.” “I haven’t given up on her.” “I don’t think you should. But it won’t be my daughter. It won’t be ours.” He shook his head and she talked over him. Didn’t want to hear him say that there was
still hope when he was the one to make her give up hers. “I love you. I’ve never been as happy as I am with you. You brighten every shadow and are worth giving
up all my dreams for.” “Elinor–” “George,” she said, when she meant to
say love. So she said, “My love. I won’t let you give up on your children. A son, an heir. Steady and responsible, just like your brother
and your father and every Ashmore earl who has come before him.” “What would I do with a son like that?” “And a daughter. More beautiful every moment you know her,
so happy and so delightful that the world is a better place for her having been born.” George said, his throat tight and filled with
tears, “I forgot you play to win.” “I play to crush.” “Even when it’s yourself you are crushing?” She nodded her head, still holding tight to
his hand, and said, “Even when it’s me I’m crushing.” When she’d clawed her way out of the laudanum
stupor, she’d thought about going to the country again. To not think, to not feel. But to breathe. To let the dogs run and hunt. And then she remembered her vow to go to Regent’s
Park next time she needed to rusticate. So she had Mrs. Potts pack her a cold lunch,
left George a note for when he got done with learning how to be an earl for the day, stuffed
her dogs into her carriage, and prepared to spend the day tramping through country. And when they got there her dogs bounded happily
around her, chasing and barking, and Elinor watched them. She breathed in the earthy scent of green
trees and didn’t bother to walk around the mud. She hadn’t come to think. Hadn’t come to plot or plan. Two things she excelled at and now…had no
use for. All there was left was accepting. She wasn’t good at accepting. She was good at wanting. At seeing the future and somehow getting herself
there. She took a deep breath, bending to pick up
a stick to throw for Retribution. She threw it again and again until she was
breathing hard enough to almost believe that the moisture on her face was exertion and
not tears. Dear Lord, she hoped she stopped crying soon. She’d opened the floodgates and couldn’t
get them shut again. Because what future could she see now? A future with half a George. A night here, a night there. His wife and children at home. His heart divided. It was all she could have. And it would be enough. She just wasn’t sure how to occupy her time,
her thoughts, her dreams. She wasn’t sure what her purpose was anymore
and wasn’t sure she would be able to find another one. She looked across the field and recognized
the man tramping across it the same time as her dogs. Retribution growled low, and then apparently
realizing there was nothing between him and his prey, took off. His barks filled the air, calling his pack
mates and alerting them to the danger. Her brother kept coming; he didn’t stumble,
didn’t slow. Elinor was almost impressed, and then he lifted
his hand toward her dog. Elinor saw the gun and shouted, but Retribution
never slowed. Elinor ran after him, screaming, the other
two dogs passing her almost immediately. A crack rent the air and Elinor screamed,
“Noooo.” Alan kept his pepperbox pistol pointed at
Retribution and he waited this time. Waited for the dog to get closer, not wasting
any more of his six shots. Elinor screamed for Retribution, not knowing
if she was more worried for the dog or for her brother. If Alan missed again… He fired. The gun exploded in his hand, letting off
a volley of shots and Elinor dove for the ground. Alan’s screams made her jump back to her
feet and she could see him clutching his hand. Retribution lay on the ground in front of
him. Alan stumbled, slipping in the mud as Doubt
jumped up and knocked him to the ground. He screamed shrilly as Fear joined his brother,
as bones broke and blood sprayed. Alan screamed, “Mine! It’s all mine! It will be mine!” Elinor ran, falling to her knees beside Retribution
and cradling his bloodied head in her lap. She whispered, “Enough.” Then louder, “Enough.” And then a command to her dogs, again and
again, until they could hear her through their blood lust. Until they stopped and backed away from her
brother, still growling. Alan rolled to his side, clutching his mangled
arm and crying, “It will be mine. All mine.” Elinor petted her poor dog’s head and cried. More tears, and she knew they would never
stop now. She didn’t want them to. She finally laid Retribution gently down on
the dirt. She crawled to Alan’s gun and picked it
up. If she was her father’s daughter, she would
find Alan’s gear and load the gun. And then she would give it back to Alan. She would use her words and her fists, her
dogs, and make him use it on himself. That was the kind of man her father had been. Getting what he wanted and destroying others
along the way. Elinor looked at the gun, and wondered what
George would do. What would George have done if it was Anala
lying there and the man responsible was lying at his feet? She didn’t know. But she knew what he wouldn’t do. She called her dogs to her, scratching their
heads when they flanked her and using them to push herself to her feet one more time. She turned away from her brother, his gun
still in her hand, his cries still following her. She turned away, and George was running toward
her. She held up one bloody hand to stop him but
he never did, simply barreled right into her. He lifted her bodily around the waist, hefting
her up onto his shoulder, and ran. He gave one sharp command to her dogs and
they followed, running right behind him. He ran until she couldn’t see her brother,
couldn’t hear his angry screams, couldn’t see Retribution. He ran until they were deep in the trees,
until he found a stream and set her down right in the middle of it. “Sinclair, this water is freezing!” He scrubbed her bloody hands between his own,
wiped her face and hair until she was a dripping, shivering mess. “George,” he said, and when he met her
eyes, she said, “George, this water is freezing.” He stripped her dress from her body, shrugged
his greatcoat from his shoulders and wrapped it around her. She patted the pocket and when she found it
empty, whispered, “Please don’t tell me we’ve lost Anala somewhere in the forest.” He said gruffly, “She’s at home. I can’t keep a dog in my pocket.” Elinor shivered. “He killed Retribution.” “Jones and I will come back for Retribution. We’ll bury him here in the Regent’s Park,
under the trees, and he can dream of squirrels.” More tears. More reasons why they would never stop. She whispered, “I didn’t know what you
would do.” “I would get you away from him. I would make sure you were safe.” She never would be. “He’ll never leave me alone.” “He will. If he doesn’t know where we are. It’s easy to get lost in India.” “You can’t leave England, George. Not with me.” “I can. And I will.” She said softly, “You can’t. Because your son will be the earl.” “An earl can be raised in India.” She shivered again and George hefted her up
onto his shoulder again. Called her dogs and trudged off, ignoring
her protests and muttering, “No law says he can’t be.” George deposited Elinor at home, ordering
her a bath and a brandy. She’d said no words on the ride home, her
tears leaking silently down her cheeks. He wasn’t sure she even knew she was crying. He let Mrs. Potts fuss over Elinor and took
Jones back to the park. To take care of Retribution and Alan Rusbridge. They found Retribution where he’d fallen
but Rusbridge was nowhere to be seen, and Jones spit, putting away his gun. They buried Elinor’s loyal dog under the
trees and George promised he would keep Elinor safe. Told Retribution to only worry about chasing
squirrels because he would take care of the rest. Jones eyed him. “Just how you going to do that?” “I’m taking her to India.” “India! She won’t go. She’ll think it’s running. Hiding.” George nodded, knowing that’s exactly what
she would think. “How do you feel about spiriting away your
employer?” Jones cocked his head. “Seems like a good way to get dismissed. ‘Course, if she’s leaving anyway…” Chapter Fifteen George had two visits to make. He began with Miss Westin, and though her
mother rushed from the room as soon as she was able, Miss Westin merely looked at him
and pinched her lips together. “Somehow I think Mama was mistaken about
your reason for visiting this morning.” “You are more astute than your years would
suggest.” She settled back in her seat, looking as if
she was discussing tonight’s menu. “Honestly, seeing you dance with Lady Haywood
that night was a relief. I couldn’t ever figure out how to get you
to lose your mind over me. It was vexing.” George smiled. “If you’d only been a few years older
we might have had a go of it.” “Or perhaps if you’d been a few years
younger.” He nodded at her barb. “Or that. But now you can go back to your young swains
and find one to wrap around your finger permanently.” “I know I’m supposed to, aren’t I? But I had too much fun with them all to pick
just one now that I’m free of you.” Sinclair looked down at his boots and tried
to keep from laughing. She was much better at jousting with him now
that she’d been jilted. Perhaps it wouldn’t take five husbands after
all. He said, “I’m off to India,” and she
exclaimed, “India! Now I am even more pleased you didn’t offer
for me. I think Mama will find she feels the same.” He bowed. “Miss Westin, should I ever return to England,
I know I will find you sitting in the center of any room, a passel of men running around
mindlessly doing your bidding.” She bowed her head to him. “Thank you, Mr. Sinclair.” He turned, making it to the door before she
said, “I hope you and Lady Haywood are always as happy as you were that night. I hope one day I will find a man who looks
at me like that.” “I hope the same, Miss Westin. For the both of us.” He opened the door, bowing to Lady Westin
as he passed her in the hall, hanging his head and trying to look rejected and dejected. Lady Westin gasped and rushed into the room
to question her daughter. George heard a muffled, “Hetty?” And then a loud, “Mama, he’s going back
to India!” “India?!” “I had to say no.” George took his hat from the butler and said
sadly, “She had to say no.” “Yes, sir.” The countess was gone visiting but George
asked if Lady Camilla was taking visitors and then was escorted to the nursery where
four girls were playing much louder than any man could expect. He hugged three of them, kissed dollies, and
even endured having his hair brushed for a long minute. Camilla watched him and finally said, “You’re
going away.” He nodded. “Why?” “I’m going home.” “I’d like to see India someday. Perhaps.” “I hope your father brings you to visit
one day.” She thought about that for a moment, silently,
and George had to agree he couldn’t see his brother in India, either. She looked down at her shoes and said, “He’ll
be very angry with you, won’t he?” “Very.” “And you’re still going to go?” “Yes. The world won’t end if you’re not good
all the time, Camilla.” She didn’t look convinced and he scooped
her up into a giant bear hug. “I wish I could stay, my serious little
butterfly. Will you give your mother a great big hug
from me?” She nodded. “And papa?” “And papa. Tell him…tell him that he is too serious
and he should come play with your dolls more.” She nodded again obediently and said, “Will
you write me a letter while you’re on the ship?” “I will. And from India. And send you little trinkets to carefully
wrap and put away and never, ever wear.” She thought about it for a long moment, then
said, “I’ll wear one if you’ll send two.” He chuckled. “I’m on to you, Lady Camilla.” “One is never enough, Uncle George. Isabel likes to break things.” “She’ll grow out of it.” He looked at the one-year-old as she crawled
around on the floor, dragging a doll by its hair. “Probably.” “If she does, I’ll write you a letter
to tell you about it.” He smiled sadly and squeezed her again. “I look forward to every letter you send
with bated breath.” “And I look forward to yours.” He put her down and she curtsied. The perfect hostess, just like her mother. “Goodbye, Mr. Sinclair.” “Goodbye, Lady Camilla.” He walked to the door, trying not to cry. Trying not to think of what he was going to
miss. The next time he saw Camilla, if he ever did
see her again, she’d be another eight years older. Camilla stopped him at the door. “Uncle George, does you leaving mean you’re
not the hero?” He stuffed his emotions down and thought he’d
start sending her plays along with the trinkets. “It depends on who you ask but I’m nearly
certain that’s exactly what it means. I’m nearly certain it has always been your
father.” Sebastian was in his library of course. George let himself in and then stood just
inside and looked at his brother. Sebastian said, “I’m not going to like
whatever you have to say, am I?” George shook his head. Sebastian went back to his figures. “I can’t even imagine what else you could
possibly heap upon me. I’ve already resigned myself to the widow
at my table should she ever decide to show and possibly even as a sister–” He choked, then cleared the air as if trying
to erase that possibility. “But both you and Flora seem happy with
my acquiescence. I shall simply have to hope that you can defy
the odds and produce an heir. The widow’s son is better than no son.” “Elinor says my son will be steady and responsible,
just like all the Ashmore earls.” Elinor had also said it wouldn’t be her
son, but George knew she was wrong. Knew it in his bones and wouldn’t believe
otherwise even if she had finally decided to. Sebastian said, “We can but hope. And if not, there is always a cousin. The title will not end, at least. And as you say, the passing from our branch
is most likely inevitable anyway.” Inevitable. Some things were. Sebastian sighed. “Come inside and tell me whatever it is
I am not going to like. I’m as prepared as I’ll ever be.” George didn’t move. “I’m going back to India.” Sebastian didn’t look up but his pen stopped. “It was…inevitable. I don’t want to belong here.” Sebastian continued to look at his paper. “When?” “There’s a ship set to sail tomorrow morning. I’ve booked us passage.” Sebastian put his pen down gently and whispered,
“They warned me. Do not underestimate him, they said.” “Who?” “My wife. Your widow.” He looked up. “I hope she will not become your widow in
truth, George.” “That makes three of us.” Sebastian nodded. “She said you would do anything for those
you love. You must have a good reason for leaving us. Me. Again.” And what could George say? That he’d chosen a woman over his brother? That he’d jumped at any excuse to go back
to the life he missed? “It’s not good or right or tolerable. It’s love.” “It’s a damn shame you couldn’t have
fallen in love with a perfect countess,” Sebastian said, but there was no heat to his
words. As if he could see, now, that that had always
been impossible. “Will you stay until Flora returns? She’ll want to say goodbye.” “I can’t. I don’t know how I’ll have everything
done by tomorrow in the first place. But I’ve instructed Camilla to give her
mother a fond farewell for me. And I know Flora will write me every fortnight
and expect me to do the same.” Sebastian nodded, pushing his chair back and
standing to say, “I did not say goodbye to you properly the first time. It was regrettable, but in my defense I did
not think you would really go. I do not have any such illusions this time.” George stiffened. “Is the proper way a fist to the nose? The bruising has only just gone down.” Sebastian came around his desk. He grabbed George in a manly hug and said
softly, “Write to me as well, brother.” “Yes. And you.” “You won’t be able to get away from me. I’ll need reams of paper to impart all my
knowledge.” George smiled tearily. “If you die and make me come back to this
God-forsaken country as an earl, I will never forgive you, Sebastian.” Sebastian pushed him away. “God-forsaken country. This is the home of the British Empire!” “It’s cold and wet.” “And the sheep, I know. I know.” George thumped him on the back and whispered,
“Goodbye, brother.” “Goodbye. My friend.” It was still dark when George came for Elinor. Too early for anyone to be awake and dressed,
except for those who had somewhere to go. “My lady. Mr. Sinclair is here for you.” She’d lain awake all night, knowing he was
scrambling to get things ready when she had already decided she wasn’t going. That she couldn’t go. She’d thought that she could give up everything
for him. She’d been preparing herself to give up
society and respectability. She hadn’t expected to have to give up her
home, too. She’d had a plan and while she hadn’t
quite come to terms with it yet, it had been at least realistic. India was not realistic. India was impossible. India meant no children, for either of them. “Let him in.” “He won’t come inside. He is waiting for you outside.” She nodded, and didn’t get up. She hadn’t stopped crying. Her daughter’s grave, and then her brother
and Retribution, and now George leaving. She’d thought that it would have been worse
to lose him to Miss Westin than to India, but now she knew. She’d been wrong. She finally pushed herself to her feet slowly
and shuffled to the door. An old woman. A widow, finally. A woman who’d lost everything dear to her. Jones gently draped a shawl around her shoulders
and opened the door for her. George stood down on the pavement, Anala tucked
in one arm. His greatcoat once again sitting stiffly on
his shoulders, his hat covering his hair. He didn’t say a word, simply met her eyes
and waited. Waited for her to leave everything for him. She looked at him through the tears, painted
a picture of him in her mind, just like this. “I won’t come.” He looked up. “The sky is a different color in India. I don’t know why.” Elinor whispered, “I won’t let you give
up everything for me. And I can’t give it up for you. It is not in me. Not for only a chance at happiness.” He kept looking at the sky and petting Anala. He said, and he sounded like he was still
talking about the color of the sky, “It’s not a chance. It is happiness.” He sighed. “But if you don’t want to see it.” His eyes met Elinor’s and he came up the
stairs, holding Anala out. “She’ll be lonely. And two dogs is not a pack.” Elinor’s hands went up reflexively, taking
the little dog and holding it to her chest. The dog licked and licked and squirmed and
yapped. And Elinor cried more tears. George kissed her cheek lightly, right there
in front of her townhouse. “Elinor, my love,” he whispered. “I am going with or without you. I am going home, and I will be so lonely without
you.” He waited. Waited for her to say she would go with him. She wouldn’t, and then she watched him walk
away. The sky lightened slowly and with it the room
Elinor sat in. No maid came to light the fire. No Mrs. Potts asking about breakfast. Jones pushed the door in slowly. “My lady?” “Yes?” “This is your last chance. The ship leaves in less than an hour.” “The ship left a few husbands ago, Jones.” A few lifetimes ago. They called her scandalous, but she only was
in the confines of her society. Here she knew the rules; here she knew how,
and how much, to flaunt them. She knew the costs should she go too far. Jones sat down in the chair across from her
and she raised her eyebrows at him. Mrs. Potts came in with tea and then sat down
next to Elinor on the sofa and began pouring. She handed Jones a cup and then settled back
with a cup herself. “The maid and I have loaded as much as I
could into your chest. We’ll send the rest on the next ship. Though I don’t doubt that Mr. Sinclair will
enjoy taking you shopping in the meantime, the way he goes on about the markets.” Elinor looked between Jones and Mrs. Potts,
and then shrugged and poured herself a cup. “Did he put you up to this?” “Oh, no. But I was sure he’d talk you into going. Never met a man who could talk himself into
the kitchen before.” Elinor couldn’t stop her laugh in time. “No. I doubt anyone has.” Mrs. Potts took a long, satisfied sip. “There is a certain something about Mr.
Sinclair.” Jones nodded. “A certain something.” “Why, he brightens a room when he walks
into it, makes everyone at ease, and makes lonely women fall in love with him.” Elinor flicked her eyes to Mrs. Potts but
refused to say anything. “Even when those lonely women are too stubborn
to admit it.” Elinor said, “I’ve admitted it. Not much else I can do about it.” Mrs. Potts poured more tea for Jones and whispered
loudly, “Love’s scared her stupid.” “Aye.” “That is really enough from the two of you.” Jones said, “Won’t be enough until you
get off your duff and go after him.” Elinor sat back and stared at her two servants. They’d been with her far longer than any
husband. They’d been her confidantes, had nursed
her through ill times, and had tried to protect her from danger. She’d never sat down to tea with them before
but she couldn’t count how many times she’d gone looking for George in the last few months
only to find him down in the kitchen chatting with Mrs. Potts. Or discussing something with Jones in the
hallway. “I’m not scared. I’m simply refusing to be stupid.” And suddenly, she remembered. Stupid was romantic. Romance was doing what you knew was stupid,
what you knew would hurt, what you knew would destroy, and doing it anyway. Just for the chance at happiness. It’s not a chance. It is happiness. Elinor put her cup down before it started
shaking. “I can’t go. I can’t bring the dogs.” “I’m sure he’s considered them. And arranged for them.” Elinor looked around her cold and empty and
boring and lifeless drawing room. Thought of her brother, and one missing dog. It’s not a chance. “I’m just going to run away, like a coward?” “Is that what you’re doing? I thought you were running to India. Running to a new adventure and leaving all
this tired nonsense behind.” Running to life. It is happiness. “That’s what he would do, isn’t it? Leave all this behind and find something new. Make something that was all his.” “It’s what he is doing. The question is whether you’re going to
do the same.” “The question is whether I’ll follow him
like some lovesick ninny. The question is whether I will once again
throw my future, my fortune, into the hands of a man. Simply trust that it will all work out when
it never has before.” Mrs. Potts sipped. “You’ll have to trust. And hope.” “Only lovesick ninnies rely on hope.” “That’s what you are, Elinor.” That’s what she was. A woman who was in love with a man who could
give her everything she needed. “Mrs. Potts?” “Yes, dear.” “I’m afraid you will need to find a new
position.” Mrs. Potts smiled. “Excellent.” “Jones.” “I’ve always wanted to see India, my lady.” “Oh? Has he arranged for you as well?” “We have come to an understanding, my lady. I am almost entirely certain that it was my
idea.” She laughed again. Thought of India, felt the dried tears on
her cheeks. And laughed. “Damn him. He is much better at getting what he wants
than I am.” Mrs. Potts stood briskly. “You can damn him all you like once you’re
on board the ship.” The tea cups clattered as Mrs. Potts threw
them down, Jones hopped to his feet as swiftly as he could, and Elinor took a deep breath. Mrs. Potts helped her into her coat by the
door, and Elinor took one last look of everything she was going to give up for love. Everything she would leave for a chance at
something new. It wasn’t a lot. She grabbed for Mrs. Potts hand. “Go to the countess and ask her for a reference. Her good opinion will mean far more than mine.” “You don’t think she’ll be a might miffed
that you’re making off with her brother-in-law?” “No. But stay away from the earl.” “I stay away from all earls as a matter
of principle. Their brothers are another matter. Now go before you miss this particular one,
my lady. There won’t be another along anytime soon.” Elinor didn’t think there would be one like
George ever again and she rushed out the door and down the stairs. Jones opened the carriage door to help her
inside and there were her two mastiffs laying on the floor and Anala sitting on George’s
lap yipping excitedly. Elinor hardly paused before climbing in and
saying, “I should have known.” He scooted over on the seat to make room for
her. “You should have.” She settled next to him, trying to calm her
racing heart. The driver shouted at the horses and the carriage
jolted, taking off at a clip. Elinor held on to the seat. “We still might not make it.” “We will.” “I’m not going to marry you.” George laughed. “You think I’ll change my mind and find
myself enamored of some foolish virgin?” She shrugged. “At least you’ll have the option. And I do believe I will make a very good mistress.” He said, “I would never dare argue with
a lady.” No, he never argued but simply went on his
merry way. He pulled a small packet from his pocket and
handed it to her. She opened it to find an ornate hair comb
inside, a large dog balanced beautifully on top. He said softly, “I couldn’t find a mastiff. When we get to India, I’ll have one commissioned.” He took it back from her and slid it securely
into her hair. He studied it and her and said, “A wager. I’ll change your mind before we land.” “About marrying you?” When he nodded, she lifted her chin. “And what are we wagering?” “Solicitors. You’ll marry me, and you’ll sign the contract
my solicitors draw up without reading it first.” “Because on this long journey across the
ocean I will lose the use of all my faculties?” He pulled her into his arms, playing with
the comb in her hair and smiling at her. And Elinor thought that if he could talk her
into going to India, into marrying him once they got there, there was no question about
solicitors. He said, “No. Because you’ll marry me only because you
love me. And I’ll marry you only because I love you. And you’ll trust that there will be no other
reason.” Trust. And hope. She said, “I hope it is a very long voyage.” He nodded. “A very long voyage. And at the end of it, a land of sun and steam. A life of love and laughter.” She grabbed his shirt, twisting her fists
tightly into it and pulling him even closer. “I won’t make it if you leave me, George. Not you.” He wrapped his warm arms around her tight. He kissed her temple and murmured sacred words
against her golden hair. “Never, Elinor. I’ll never leave you. And I promise you’ll never be cold again.” Chapter Epilogue When the very Honorable George Sinclair arrived
in India for the second time in his life, he very nearly kissed the ground when he took
his first step. He was too worried and distracted about Elinor
though to do more than shout for a chair to be brought for her. Halfway through their long voyage they’d
hit a horrible storm, and how they’d made it through, he still wasn’t sure. He would learn later that a ship that had
left but a week after them hadn’t made it. He would learn much later that Alan Rusbridge
had been on that ship, tracking his sister and what was due him across an ocean. But at the moment, George Sinclair was too
worried about Elinor. She had come down with the worst case of maladie
de mer during the storm, as had nearly everyone else on board. But while they had recovered, she had not,
and she’d been casting up her accounts ever since. George thought for sure that after a day or
two on land it would subside, but when it didn’t, he called for a physician. He refused to leave the room, choosing to
sit helplessly next to her and hold her hand while the physician poked and prodded, and
the Indian woman they’d hired to care for her wrung out another cool cloth to place
gently on Elinor’s forehead. The physician said, “Not maladie de mer.” George blanched, thinking of a hundred things
worse. The physician said, “I call it bébé de
mer. You’re the third case I’ve seen this week.” “Bébé de mer? I’ve never heard–” George stopped. And blinked. “Baby?” “It’s a long, boring voyage. Cards and books quickly lose their allure.” George said, “But…” Elinor pulled the cloth away from her eyes
and pushed herself onto her elbow. “But…” They sat stupefied until George finally said,
“Are you sure?” “Sure enough that I recommend you call for
the vicar if you are so inclined.” George smiled. “Yes. What a splendid idea.” Elinor frowned. “I was not ill at all with my first child.” The physician packed his bag. “Your body is most likely still recovering
from the voyage. You’ve no doubt lost some weight and have
not been eating. And not to be indelicate, my lady, but how
many years ago was that? This pregnancy will be different.” Elinor repeated his words, whispering like
a prayer, “This pregnancy will be different.” George smiled into her eyes. “This pregnancy will be different.” Not a prayer, a promise. She smiled at him, tears filling her eyes,
and then her face blanched and she groaned, lying back on the bed. The Indian woman placed the cloth back over
Elinor’s eyes and murmured to her soothingly. George had been dealing with Indian suppliers
for years and he cocked his head at what she was saying. “Two?” The physician frowned at the woman. “A silly superstition. More sickness does not mean more babies. It is most likely residual illness from the
voyage.” George said, “Two.” A son; an heir. And a daughter. He wondered briefly what the odds were that
they would have a little Camilla. A daughter who was perfect and careful. Elinor squeezed his hand and said softly,
“We don’t know that. We don’t know if even one will survive the
birth.” “You weren’t this sick before, were you?” “…no.” He said again, “Two.” Not a prayer, a promise. “And if it’s not two, we’ll just have
to sail back to England to try for another.” Elinor held a fist to her mouth and said tightly,
“I am not getting back on board for a very long time.” He laughed, pulling her fist from her lips
and kissing it lightly. “I told you I would make you change your
mind before we landed.” Her lips tipped up and then they opened to
say, “I had hoped you would.” He kissed her, softly, sweetly. He pulled the cloth from her eyes to see the
icy blues shimmering with happy tears, and he shouted, “Jones! Call for the vicar!” Before the next Michaelmas, George Sinclair
wrote to his brother, the Earl of Ashmore, informing him of the birth of a son. Requesting direction as to how one was supposed
to raise a boy to be staid and steady and responsible. How one raised an earl. Sebastian wrote back saying not to worry about
the boy. His twin sister– the widow’s daughter,
George’s namesake– couldn’t be anything but wild and contrary, and George’s son
would learn all he needed to by trying to keep her out of trouble. George’s reply was short and curt. And was followed by another, longer, missive
when Georgiana started walking. And then running. And then climbing. Florian, all the while, chasing after her
and shouting, “No, Gigi. No!” George’s missive began, Damn you, Sebastian, for always being right… This has been
To Wed The Widow The Reluctant Bride Collection, Book Three
Written by Megan Bryce Narrated by Maureen Cavanaugh Copyright 2014 by Megan Bryce
Production Copyright 2015 by Megan Bryce

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