Authors: Jennifer McNare
For one brief, foolish moment her heart soared at the notion, but of course her momentary joy was quickly quashed as the harshness of reality came crashing down upon her in the very next instant. Nearly every night of the past four years she had dreamed of one day finding him; dreamed of spending the rest of her life with the man she’d fallen in love with during those wondrous afternoons. But now, she knew that her dreams would never come to pass, for even if they were to wed, it would not be a marriage based on love, but a marriage of necessity. He would marry her because of the children, not because he had even the slightest desire to do so. As heartbreaking as it was, she understood that only too well. Raising her head, she met his steady gaze. “I see.”
“You don’t seem surprised,” he said, watching her intently.
“I am not surprised that you wish to be a part of William and Emma’s lives,” she said, choosing her words carefully. “Marriage is a logical solution, and I assure you that I harbor no false pretenses as to your motives in suggesting it.”
“Your Gr…Gavin,” she corrected, “I am not contesting your decision, I only meant that I have no desire to force you into an unwanted union; that is all.”
“Is that so?” he mocked, quirking his brow. “You’ll have to excuse me if I find that somewhat difficult to believe, considering that it didn’t seem to bother you before.”
His words tore at her heart. “I will gladly apologize to you for my prior actions each and every day for the remainder of my life, if that is what you wish,” she said with quiet conviction.
“At this point, what I wish is unfortunately irrelevant,” he said bitterly. “But no, I do not wish to hear any more of your apologies. For a thousand apologies cannot undo what has already been done, can they?”
“What is it that you want from me then? Do you wish to punish me somehow?” Sadly, it was nothing more than she deserved.
“You view marriage to me as a punishment?” Skepticism was evident in his tone.
“No, that it not what I meant.” But nonetheless, considering how he felt about her, she couldn’t help wondering what kind of marriage they would have. It was hard to believe that it would be anything even remotely close to the fairytale she had once envisioned. “However, I am not so foolish as to think that you are simply going to forgive my past actions, whether we are married or not. To let bygones be bygones, so to speak.”
“If you had asked me that same question yesterday, perhaps my answer would have been different,” he began. “But no, I no longer seek reprisal for what you’ve done. For William and Emma’s sake, and their sake alone, I am willing to set aside whatever feelings I may have had in that regard.”
Although she tried not to let it show, Melody felt an inordinate sense of relief, for she had feared the worst. Then again, knowing the kind of man Gavin was, his amnesty really shouldn’t have surprised her.
Gavin eyed her steadily, his features impassive. “For all intents and purposes, our marriage will be one of convenience, nothing more. However, for the benefit of the children as well as our families, I shall expect you to appear a caring and devoted wife and mother, and of course I shall endeavor to play my part as well.”
“Considering the proficiency of your past performances, I cannot imagine the charade will prove too difficult for you to carry off.”
Melody winced at the deliberate jibe, but said nothing in response.
“Also, once enough time has passed, I will see what can be done to have William and Emma appointed my legal heirs.”
“What do you intend to tell them?”
“For the time being, nothing. We will eventually tell them of our intent to marry, but as to the rest, well…when the time is right, I suppose we will tell them the same thing I told my mother.”
“As you wish.” Though she nodded in agreement, Melody felt as if her heart were being rent in two. To sit there and acknowledge that the rest of her life with the man she loved was to be little more than a hollow charade, well, it was beyond devastating. But if that is what he wanted, what choice did she have? At least he intended to spare the children the truth regarding the appalling circumstances that had brought about their conception. And for that, she would be eternally grateful.
The following morning, just moments after Gavin and the rest of them had risen from their seats at the breakfast table; Natalie Marshton swept into the front foyer with a look of single-minded determination stamped upon her pretty features.
William and Emma, who had graciously been allowed to join the adults at the table for the morning meal, halted at the base of the front staircase as they regarded Rutherford Park’s newest arrival with marked interest.
“Well now, who do we have here?” Natalie asked, eyeing the children with a friendly smile as she tugged off her thin leather gloves.
“Natalie, what an
surprise,” Gavin stated drolly as he came up behind the children. So she wouldn’t be caught unaware if the subject arose, he’d sent her a brief note shortly before he’d left London, informing her of
invitation for Lady Edgington and her children to visit Rutherford Park. However, with Pennworth away he should have known that his sister’s insatiable curiosity would have had her high-tailing it to the country hot on their heels.
“Is it?” she asked with a cheeky expression, as she lifted her gaze to Gavin.
They knew each other too well. Placing one hand on William’s shoulder and the other on Emma’s, Gavin proceeded with the introductions. “William, Emma, this is my sister, Natalie Marshton, Lady Pennworth. Kindly say hello.”
“Hello,” they both replied.
Stepping forward, Natalie took a closer look at the children, her eyes widening slightly as she studied their upturned faces. Her gaze then bounced back and forth between William, Emma and Gavin for several long seconds. “Hello,” she responded after a moment, her expression one of complete and utter bewilderment.
Perhaps if he hadn’t been standing in such close proximity to the children the resemblance wouldn’t have been so noticeable, Gavin thought, but unfortunately it was too late to do anything about that now.
“Hello, Natalie,” Melody said, stepping around Gavin and noting his sister’s befuddled expression.
“Hello, dear,” the duchess greeted, as she too stepped forward.
Looking up, Natalie eyed the trio of adults in obvious puzzlement.
“Perhaps you should take William and Emma upstairs for a while,” Gavin suggested, turning toward Melody. “I believe I heard Charlotte mentioning that several trunks containing some of our old toys and playthings had been fetched from the attic and taken to the nursery.”
“Oh, how wonderful,” Melody said enthusiastically as she turned to William and Emma. “Shall we investigate, children?” Clearly Gavin and Jane needed some time alone with Natalie to explain the situation.
Nodding in wholehearted agreement at the mention of toys, William and Emma eagerly accompanied their mother upstairs.
Approximately thirty minutes after her arrival, Natalie poked her head into her and her brothers’ old nursery. The children were playing contentedly, William with a set of Richard and Gavin’s tin soldiers, and Emma with several of Natalie’s old porcelain dolls, as Melody looked on from her position near the far window.
The opening of the door having drawn her attention, Melody turned and met Natalie’s tentative gaze with a welcoming expression of her own. Despite her trepidation, she knew that she had to face Natalie at some point, and it might as well be now, for there was no point in delaying the inevitable.
“I hope I’m not interrupting,” Natalie said as she stepped further into the room.
Engrossed in the mock battle he was waging, William was all but oblivious to Natalie’s entrance, but Emma managed to look up from the dolls for a moment, smiled in greeting, and then promptly resumed the animated conversation she’d been having with two of the more elaborately gowned figures.
“No, of course not. Please, come in.”
Eyeing the children with a tender expression, Natalie walked across the room, coming to a stop once she reached Melody’s side. “They’re beautiful,” she murmured softly.
“Thank you.” Melody’s voice was quiet as she turned to regard the children, finding it difficult to meet Natalie’s gaze. “I assume Gavin explained our…er…situation.”
“Yes, he did.”
She felt her cheeks grow warm, presuming that Gavin had told Natalie the same thing that he’d told his mother. With difficulty, she turned her head and met Natalie’s gaze. “I’m sorry. I know that it must have come as quite a shock.”
“Yes, I suppose you could say that,” Natalie replied, her tone slightly amused. “Seeing the two of you together in London, I never would have guessed that you and Gavin were previously acquainted.” However, noting Melody’s sudden look of discomfiture, her amusement vanished and she quickly reached out and placed her hand on her forearm. “Please don’t look so troubled. I have always longed for a sister, and now I’m to have one. Complete with a niece and nephew as well,” she added under her breath, smiling warmly. “I couldn’t be more pleased.”
“That is very kind of you Natalie, considering the circumstances,” Melody said with sincerity. “Thank you.”
“I take it that your marriage to the earl…wasn’t a love match,” Natalie said, her expression understanding.
Melody shook her head slightly. “No, it wasn’t.”
“My brother didn’t go into the details of your prior relationship of course, but I assume the two of you had
for each other?”
Melody thought back to those glorious afternoons at the cottage. “Yes, we did. But now… well… things are different.”
“Gavin is upset that you didn’t tell him about the children sooner?” She kept her voice low so that it didn’t carry to where William and Emma played.
“Yes, I’m afraid that he is still very angry with me.” That was certainly an understatement.
Natalie squeezed her arm reassuringly. “I’m sure that given time the two of you can work things out.”
“I hope so.” Melody replied, trying to look optimistic. Though she feared Gavin would never be able to completely forgive her for what she had done, she could only hope that with the passage of time they could eventually move past the worst of it, and ultimately find some measure of happiness together. She still loved Gavin to the very depths of her soul, and no matter what their future held she knew that was unlikely to change.
Over the course of the next few days, Jane and Natalie increasingly commanded the majority of Melody’s time. Though she and Gavin would wait at least a month before officially announcing their engagement to Society, Natalie and Jane were eager to begin the initial preparations for their impending nuptials. Whether or not they were fully aware of the underlying tension between her and Gavin, she wasn’t sure, for neither of them made mention of it as they enthusiastically discussed venues, guest lists and the design of Melody’s wedding gown. For her part, Melody did her best to appear enthusiastic as the plans progressed.
The wedding itself was to be a relatively small affair they had decided, at least in comparison to the ceremonies typically favored by members of the
, but as it would be Melody’s second marriage, a scaled down affair shouldn’t raise too many eyebrows they reasoned. And of course, as Melody wasn’t a debutante but rather a widow, the length of their engagement could reasonably be shortened as well. That had been Gavin’s one stipulation. Despite his mother’s initial protests, Gavin had stood firm on that point, refusing to agree to a long, drawn-out engagement. Other than that, he seemed to want no part of the planning process, preferring instead to spend his time getting to know William and Emma. Although the children hadn’t been told of Gavin and Melody’s intent to wed, clearly they wouldn’t be opposed to the match, for it was apparent to all that William and Emma adored Gavin. While they still had no idea that Gavin was their father, the relationship between the three of them grew visibly stronger each and every day.
Even now, as Melody sat looking at fashion plates with Jane and Natalie, Gavin and the children were fishing in the small pond located just a short distance from the house. When Gavin had suggested the outing earlier that morning, William and Emma had jumped at the chance to spend the day with him. Even Emma, whose inherent shyness usually kept her close to Melody’s side, had eagerly left her mother behind to accompany the males on their excursion. Thinking about it now, Melody smiled to herself as she recalled the sheer joy that had sparked in Emma’s eyes when Gavin had surprised her with her very own
fishing pole. Even in the inky darkness of the cottage she’d known that he was a wonderful and amazing man, and seeing it now, firsthand, only reaffirmed that realization. William and Emma couldn’t have asked for a better father, and no matter what happened between her and Gavin in the years ahead, she would always be thankful that he was now a part of their lives.