Authors: Jennifer McNare
“Well, I shall endeavor to hope then.” Penny said pleasantly and then turned to Melody. “Melody dear, I was hoping to introduce you to Lady Carstairs. I don’t believe the two of you had a chance to meet the other night.”
“Lady Carstairs?” The name didn’t sound familiar. “No, I don’t believe we did.”
“Please do not let me keep you then,” Gavin said, nodding politely. “Lady Edgington, Lady Wexley, it was a pleasure as always.”
“Please forgive me for interrupting your conversation,” Penny murmured quietly as she led Melody to the far side of the room a moment later. “I would not have intruded, but Lady Carstairs is a tremendously influential member of the
, and she was inquiring about you just moments ago.”
“It’s quite alright Penny. His Grace and I were merely chatting.” In truth, Penny’s interruption had been a blessing in disguise. It would be better to send a written invitation and far less awkward than doing so in person, she decided.
The morning following the Markham’s affair, Gavin arrived at Number Ten Golding Street just before midday, in response to the missive he’d received from Mr. Beckett a short while earlier. Stepping down from the well-appointed vehicle that bore the Rutherford coat of arms emblazoned on both sides, he instructed his driver and footmen to wait outside as he turned toward the nondescript, two-story brick building.
Once inside, he was shown directly to Mr. Beckett’s office at the rear of the establishment. Settling into the proffered chair, Gavin declined refreshment, and then eyed the older man intently as he resumed his own seat behind his neatly organized desk. “I assume you have the information I requested,” he said, leaning slightly forward in his chair.
Mr. Beckett rested his hands atop the desk, his fingers interlaced. “Yes, Your Grace. The children, William and Emma, now four years of age, were born on the twenty-eighth of June.”
Gavin’s features were expressionless, his tone devoid of inflection as he absorbed that bit of information. The timing fit. He felt his chest tighten. “And the man I described?”
“An individual by the name of John Edwards was in the employ of the earl for many years prior to and including the time you referenced. By all accounts, he fits the description of the man you described, precisely.”
Sitting back, he casually folded his arms across his chest as he tried to calm his racing heart. “Was?”
“He and his wife, Mary Edwards, left the country a few months prior to the earl’s death. They resettled in America shortly thereafter, and as yet I have been unable to find any evidence of their return.”
“Did you find the cottage?”
“Yes, Your Grace. And it is exactly as you described it.”
“The southeastern most corner of the Edgington property. It is currently uninhabited.”
Gavin’s demeanor revealed nothing of the sudden tumult raging within him as he held Mr. Beckett’s gaze. “And the information regarding Baron Settrington?”
Clearing his throat, Mr. Beckett shifted slightly in his chair. “Prior to his daughter’s marriage to the earl, the baron’s financial situation was bleak. He received only a meager inheritance upon his father’s passing, and that, in addition to the income received from his tenant properties, was insufficient to adequately maintain the Settrington estate. In turn, the family’s debts had been escalating for years.”
“From what I could ascertain, the baron’s outstanding debts have all been settled and he and his family now appear to be living quite comfortably.”
“I see,” he said, his tone devoid of emotion. As difficult as it was to conceive, Mr. Beckett’s findings hadn’t disproved Nelson’s heinous allegations as Gavin had anticipated, but instead had substantiated them. By marrying the Earl of Edgington, Melody Settrington had secured her financial security as well as that of
her family. However, with his nephew Nelson set to inherit the earl’s title and fortune upon his death, that security would have only been temporary, her future dependent entirely upon the settlement of her husband’s will. To thwart Nelson’s inheritance and to ensure her and her family’s continued wellbeing, she would have needed a child, an heir to the Edgington fortune. As much as he wished to believe it wasn’t so, all of the pieces appeared to fit perfectly into place.
“Thank you Mr. Beckett, you have been most thorough,” Gavin said, rising to his feet. “And of course, your continued discretion is of utmost importance.” His voice held the hint of a warning. Although Mr. Beckett didn’t know the full details of his abduction, nor the purpose of it, the man clearly wasn’t stupid and had likely pieced together more of the situation than he would have liked.
Mr. Beckett stood, his expression earnest. “You have my word, Your Grace.”
“Home,” Gavin ordered as he stepped up into his waiting coach. Then, once the door had closed firmly behind him, he finally allowed his tightly controlled mask to slip away. Resting his head against the cushioned seatback, he closed his eyes and struggled to draw breath, feeling as if a dense, crushing weight was suddenly pressing against his chest.
It isn’t true, it cannot be true
, the voice inside his head decried, despite all that he had just learned. He thought back to those days, to those incredible afternoons they’d shared.
How could it all have been a lie?
Surely there had to be another explanation.
His thoughts turned to the past weeks, to the air of enchanting artlessness that Melody Cavendish projected. How could she possibly look him in the eye or speak to him with such charming ingenuousness, if any of it were true? Her entire manner, as well as virtually every word she’d said would have had to have been a deliberate and calculated act. It seemed implausible. Sitting forward, Gavin abruptly moved across the coach and opened the small door behind the coachman’s perch. After issuing new instructions to his driver, he regained his seat. He would have his answers soon enough.
Less than twenty minutes later, Gavin exited his coach in front of the Cavendish residence. Striding up the walk to the front entrance, he rang the bell and then waited for the door to open. When it did, he immediately handed the butler his card. “Please inform Lady Edgington that I wish to speak with her at once,” he said, moving past the uniformed butler and stepping into the front hall.
Startled, the man looked down at the card he held in his gloved hand and then swiftly back up to Gavin. “Forgive me, Your Grace, I wasn’t aware that her ladyship was expecting you,” he said, clearly disconcerted by Gavin’s unanticipated arrival and surprising request.
“She isn’t.” With that said, he ignored the butler’s obvious astonishment and walked purposefully to the front parlor without so much as a backward glance. Determined to speak with Melody as soon as possible, he simply didn’t have the time or the patience to deal with proper social etiquette.
Once inside, he glanced restlessly about the tastefully decorated room. Ignoring the settee and matching chairs, his gaze landed on the ornate cabinet set against the far wall. Hell, he could use a drink right about now, he thought. Walking over to it, he pulled open the door and found exactly what he was looking for. Pouring himself a full snifter of brandy, he downed it in one long swallow. Then, setting down the glass with a loud thump, he moved to stand before one of the tall front windows to wait. Fortunately, he didn’t have to wait long.
Pulling the large double-doors closed behind her, Melody entered the room just minutes after being informed of the Duke of Rutherford’s unexpected arrival. With her heart in her throat, she’d made her way downstairs, a thousand different thoughts racing through her mind. Surely it wasn’t what she feared, but something else entirely that had brought him to her door unannounced. It had to be, but what? His back was to her now as he stood gazing out the front window, seemingly unaware of her entrance into the room. “Your Grace, what a pleasant surprise,” she said as she approached, making a concerted effort to keep her voice steady. He turned then, and her heart seemed to leap to her throat as his gaze fell upon her, halting her mid-stride. She could see it in his eyes.
Gavin watched as she faltered, the blood draining from her face as she froze in the center of the room. She looked like a rabbit caught in a snare. His heart plummeted.
It was true.
For a moment he couldn’t speak, could only stare at her in shock and disbelief as he struggled to accept the gut-wrenching truth. Clearly she’d been deceiving him all along, just as she had done five years before. Dear God, he thought as the sickening realization took hold, she hadn’t been a victim at all, she’d been the perpetrator. It was the ultimate betrayal and aside from learning of the deaths of his father and brother, it was undoubtedly the most painful moment of his entire life. It took several seconds, but eventually he found his voice. “Did you honestly believe that I wouldn’t find out?” His tone was surprisingly calm considering his overwhelming anguish, not to mention his rapidly escalating anger.
Melody could only stare in horror. No, it wasn’t supposed to happen like this. She was going to have told him the truth. She opened her mouth and tried to say the words aloud. She had to tell him, to make him understand that she
have told him, that she’d been about to tell him everything, this very day even. She raised her right hand, palm upward, but when her voice finally came it was scarcely more than a choked whisper. “Your Grace, please let me expla-”
“Don’t!” He couldn’t bear to hear any more of her lies, not now.
There was both hurt and anger evident in his sharp command and it tore at her heart.
No please, not like this.
She could see the growing contempt in his eyes, and it nearly sent her to her knees.
“I do not need to hear your explanation,” he said, shaking his head. “I know exactly why you did it. I know
.” Bitterness rose like bile in his throat as he once again acknowledged the fact that she had duped him not once, but twice.
He knew everything? But how was that possible? She shook her head slowly from side to side, struggling to understand. If what he said was true, then surely he must realize that she’d had little choice in the matter. But obviously it didn’t matter, for his anger was undeniable. She took a step forward, her expression beseeching. “Please, you must understand, my family, I-”
He saw red. Striding forward, he was upon her in an instant. He grabbed hold of her arms and yanked her toward him, glaring down at her as he cut her off. “You dare to use your family to justify what you did?” he demanded in outraged disbelief. Mindful of the servants, he kept his voice low. “What about my family?” he queried angrily. “Do you have any idea what
went through, how
suffered?” His fingers tightened on her arms. “Did you give even a moment’s thought to them, or to me?”
Melody felt the moisture well up in her eyes, not because of his punishing hold, but because he was right. She’d made the choice to protect her family, and in turn, she had hurt not only him, but his family as well. “Of course, but…” Her voice trailed off, for what could she possibly say that would justify her decision in his eyes?
I chose my family over yours, over you.
It was true. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” she said instead, as tears began to streak down her face.
Her sudden tears only served to remind Gavin of what an accomplished actress she was. Releasing his hold, he thrust her away from him in disgust. “You can cease your crocodile tears Madame; they have no effect on me.”
, he added silently. God what a fool he’d been.
Melody staggered backward as he released her, her legs barely supporting her as her head spun. She could hardly believe what was happening. It was her worst nightmare come to life. She stood watching him in silence, her fingers brushing futilely at the tears that continued to spill down her cheeks. His expression merely hardened.
In that instant, Gavin made a decision. “We will be leaving for the country first thing in the morning and shall be staying for several days. Have your things, as well as the children’s, ready to go when I arrive to collect you.”
“What?” Melody gasped, gaping at him in bewilderment.
“Do not worry, Madame,” he uttered coldly. “My mother is currently in residence at Rutherford Park, so your
, as well as your physical wellbeing will not be in jeopardy.” He stepped forward then, heading for the door, but she reached out her hand, stopping him.
“Wait.” Melody raised her hand to grasp his arm as he made to move past her, but noting the look on his face she immediately pulled back, letting her arm fall limply to her side. “Please, I don’t understand. Why-”
“The only thing you need to understand is this,” he began, his tone uncompromising. “If you and the children are not ready to go when I arrive tomorrow morning, you will regret it.” That said, he brushed past her and strode purposely toward the door. Grasping the brass handle, he heard her choked sob, but he refused to look back. Entering the foyer, he walked swiftly toward the front door, nodding brusquely to the Cavendish butler as the man hurried forward to open the heavy wooden portal.