Authors: Jennifer McNare
Come in, come in dear,” her mother beckoned excitedly, motioning toward Melody as she turned and ushered the children into the house. “Your brother is so excited to see you. He’s been awaiting your arrival all morning,” she called over her shoulder.
Turning back to the coach, Melody offered a polite thank you and bid a quick farewell to the coachmen and outriders. Rather than lodging themselves at one of the inns in the nearby village for the duration of her and the children’s stay, the men would be returning to London that afternoon, and would return to escort them back to Town in a little over a week’s time.
As her father moved toward the coach, directing the coachmen to the closest eating establishment, so that he and the rest of the men could refresh themselves, as well as the horses, before their return journey, Melody briefly instructed Mr. Dutton in regard to the unloading of their traveling cases. Once that was done she quickly entered the house and went in search of her brother.
More than a week had passed since Melody and the children had left to visit the Settringtons, and for much of that time, Gavin had been seriously contemplating his relationship with Melody. He missed her more than he’d ever thought possible, not just in the late hours of the night, but all of the time, morning, afternoon and evening. He missed the sound of her voice, the soft, lilting sound of her laughter, the way she looked at him when she thought he wasn’t looking, the smell of her perfume, the distinct rustling noise of her skirts when she entered a room, and a dozen other things. As hard as he tried, it was becoming harder and harder for him to deny his feelings. The truth was that he was falling in love with her, and there wasn’t a dammed thing he could do about it. For weeks he’d been struggling to keep his emotions in check, to fight the growing urge to let down the invisible barrier that he’d wedged between them, but he knew now that it was a battle he was destined to lose. It was time to move on, to let go of the past. If he didn’t, he would lose her, and he wasn’t about to let that happen.
To keep himself occupied as he awaited Melody and the children’s return, Gavin decided to devote his time to catching up on some of the work that he had been neglecting of late. It was later that afternoon, when a soft knock drew his attention from the business contracts he’d been reviewing for the better part of the past hour, a task that required his full attention. He looked up, curious, having instructed his staff not to interrupt him unless it was absolutely necessary. “Yes?”
He watched as the door to his study swung open and his usually unflappable butler entered the room, his expression apologetic and slightly flustered. “Excuse me, Your Grace.”
“Yes, Bertram, what it is?”
“I’m sorry to disturb you, Sir, but there is,” he hesitated for an instant, seeming to search for the appropriate word, “a
at the door.”
“A woman?” A
he’d said, not
; the marked distinction unmistakable in his tone.
“Yes, sir. A Mrs. Mary Edwards. She claims to be a friend of Her Grace,” he said, his expression dubious, “though she doesn’t have a card and her manner of dress would seem to suggest,
Gavin arched his brow in question. Mary Edwards? The name sounded familiar, though he couldn’t immediately recall where he’d heard it.
“I would have sent her away at once, Your Grace,” Bertram added quickly, “but she is in possession of a letter from Her Grace.”
A letter from Melody.
He was suddenly intrigued. “What does it say?”
“I do not know, Sir. She would not show me the letter. She merely showed me the envelope in an effort to substantiate her claim of an acquaintance with the duchess.”
When I informed her that Her Grace was not currently in residence, she then asked to speak with you, sir.”
Gavin’s curiosity increased.
“I informed her that you were unavailable of course, but she was quite insistent upon speaking with you,” he continued, his tone clearly disapproving, “even after I made it perfectly clear that you do not
entertain visitors unannounced.” His posture stiffened, clearly displaying his affront at the woman’s unorthodox behavior. “I would have insisted that she leave the premises at once, but she claims the matter is of great importance, and considering that she
in possession of a letter from Her Grace, I felt I should consult with you before sending her away.”
“Thank you Bertram, you made the right decision,” Gavin said, rising from his seat behind the desk. “I will see her.”
The butler nodded, allowing only a momentary flicker of surprise to cross his features, before veiling it behind the impassive façade he’d long since perfected. “Shall I have her wait in the parlor, Your Grace?”
“No,” he said, coming around the desk. “That won’t be necessary.” Crossing the room, he exited the study with Bertram directly on his heels, and walked swiftly toward the front foyer.
Hearing the sound of their footsteps, Mary Edwards rose quickly from her seat in the foyer, her hands fluttering nervously at her sides as she turned in their direction.
“You asked to speak with me,” Gavin said as he approached, Bertram still dogging his heels.
“Y-Yes, Your Grace,” she stammered, obviously uneasy as she dipped into a polite curtsey. “I am terribly sorry for disturbing you.”
He smiled courteously at the petite middle-aged woman, whom he did not recognize. “What is it that you wished to speak with me about, Mrs. Edwards is it?”
“Yes sir, Mary Edwards.”
She glanced over his shoulder at Bertram, and then back to him. She looked decidedly uncomfortable, Gavin noted with interest. “Have we met before Mrs. Edwards?”
“No, Your Grace, we haven’t. It was my husband with whom you had contact.”
, he quickly searched his memory and could only come up with one possibility. He looked at her questioningly. Surely she couldn’t be referring to the man who had served as his guard during his captivity. Could she?
“His name was John Edwards,” Mary said, and then her voice lowered to almost a whisper, “but I believe you knew him as Sam.”
He stiffened, the curiously polite expression fading from his face in an instant. “Perhaps we should speak privately. Will you accompany me to my study, Mrs. Edwards?”
Mary nodded in agreement.
“Follow me,” he said, then turned toward his butler, meeting Bertram’s enquiring gaze. “Please see that Mrs. Edwards and I are not disturbed.”
“Of course, Your Grace.”
As he led the way to his study, Gavin’s thoughts were spinning.
, or John Edwards rather, the name he’d been given by Mr. Beckett. What the hell was his wife doing here; showing up on his doorstep after all these years, claiming to be a friend of Melody’s no less? It made no sense. Did this surprise visit involve blackmail? Extortion? Was she here to threaten him, to threaten to expose their well-guarded
secret to society? His jaw clenched at the notion, anger washing over him like a rolling tidal wave. What else could it be?
Entering his study, Gavin motioned to one of the two chairs set before his desk. “Have a seat Mrs. Edwards.” He tried to keep the anger from his voice, but it was difficult. Walking to the sideboard, he poured himself a tumbler of whisky, asking over his shoulder, “Can I get you something, a refreshment?”
“No thank you, Your Grace,” she said, settling herself onto the chair.
With his back to her, he took a long drink, fighting to control his rising temper. When he was certain that he had his anger in check, he turned back to her, his expression deliberately impassive. He crossed the floor to his desk and leaned against it, the whisky tumbler held casually in his grasp as he dispassionately met her uplifted gaze. “What it is that you wished to speak with me about, Mrs. Edwards?”
“I would like to apologize to you, Your Grace.”
The softly spoken declaration caught him completely off guard. “Excuse me?”
She dropped her eyes, looking down at her hands clutched tightly in her lap. “I am not here to seek forgiveness, Your Grace, please know that.” She took a deep breath before continuing. “I know what John and I did, the fact that we went along with the earl’s depravity, well, I certainly don’t expect that we shall ever be forgiven for that. That is not why I’m here.” She took another breath, and then raised her eyes to his once again. “I am here because my husband asked me to come.”
“He asked you to come here, on your own?” His eyes narrowed slightly. He couldn’t imagine a man like Sam, or John as it were, being afraid to confront him.
So why send his wife?
“My husband was injured in an accident,” she began, her voice trembling slightly. “His injuries were quite severe, and when he realized that he was not going to recover and that his time was near, he asked me to write to you, or to speak with you on his behalf if I decided to return to England after his passing.”
“Your husband is…” he let the sentence trail off.
“He passed three weeks ago.”
“I see.” He watched as she fought back tears. “I am sorry for your loss.”
She nodded. “John never forgave himself for participating in, in…” she seemed to struggle for the right word, “what the earl did to you, and to Lady Edgington.” She looked him in the eye, her expression earnest. “My husband was a good man, Your Grace. But he felt indebted to the earl for something that happened when he was just a boy. It was the primary reason he did what he did, and the reason I went along with it as well.”
Gavin watched in silence as she shook her head, her expression gradually turning from sorrow to anger.
Her voice took on a bitter edge. “I’m sorry to say that the earl callously used my husband’s gratitude and loyalty against him.”
She drew a long, slow breath then, and her expression once again grew earnest.
“It doesn’t excuse what he did however, what we both did. I know that, and for that I offer you our most sincere apology.”
Gavin wasn’t sure what to say. He’d never expected this, an apology. He wasn’t quite sure how he felt about it actually. But before he could think of a response, she spoke again, her words stopping him cold.
“I would also like to thank you.”
He looked at her blankly.
“For as long as I live I will never forget that day, the day we went to the cottage for the first time.” Mary dropped her gaze, looking down at her hands once again. “She was so young and defenseless, and so terribly frightened.” She shook her head again, slowly from side to side. “I could never understand how he could do that to her. How he could expect her to go along with such a thing, his own wife, and her such an innocent too. It was so merciless, so heartless. And to use her family against her like he did, threatening to have her father imprisoned, to have her mother and brother cast into the streets penniless if she refused to go along with his despicable plan. The poor dear, what choice did she have?”
Her voice turned hard. “It was cruel, unspeakably cruel. And supposedly he did it all just so that he wouldn’t have to leave his estate to that worthless nephew of his.” She harrumphed in disgust. “If you ask me, he did it more to salvage his pride than anything else, thinking the world would view him as less of a man if he’d died without ever having fathered a child. That people would somehow discover his long-guarded secret.” Her hands clenched into fists in her lap as she continued. “May God forgive me for saying so, but there are times when I hope that his miserable soul is burning in hades for what he did to that poor, sweet girl.”
Gavin regarded her in stunned silence, his head spinning. He’d had it all wrong. It hadn’t been Melody’s idea at all, it had been Charles’. His heart seemed to plummet to his toes. She’d been forced to do her husband’s bidding or suffer the consequences, just as he had.
Mary took a moment, and then raised her eyes, once again meeting Gavin’s gaze, her voice calmer now. “Lady Edgington and I became quite close during that time,” she began. “She was so alone back then you see, the earl keeping her isolated from her family and friends as he did. She needed someone, someone she could talk to and confide in. She told me how kind to her you were that first week.”
“She did?” Gavin felt as if his entire world was being titled upon its axis.
“Not right away of course. But later, as we became closer,” Mary said, smiling now. “She knew that you were a good man, a good
, and that you did everything you could to make the situation easier for her.” She looked at him intently, genuine gratitude reflected in her gaze. “That’s why I want to thank you, for being so kind to her, and for ultimately turning what could have been the worst time of her life into something so wonderful.”