“Barbara”—he stepped between the two women—“in my library. Now.”
He gripped her arm and led her away, and as she passed the butler, she said, “Angus, please be a dear and deliver John’s whiskey to us. I’ll have one, too.”
“Yes, Lady Barbara.” Angus appeared smitten. “I’ll bring it right away.”
“Angus,” John admonished, “remember yourself. You are not to call her
at the elderly gentleman, and he winked back.
John’s temper boiled. How long had Barbara been living in the castle? Why had no one told him? Was his whole staff involved in an insurrection?
John had never specifically ordered them to keep her out, but why should that have been necessary? Who could have predicted such an abrupt return?
He entered the library and marched to the desk, practically throwing her into a chair in the process. Angus tottered in after them, but as he set down his tray, John waved him away.
“Go to the foyer,” John commanded. “Straighten out the mess Barbara’s presence has created.”
“Very good, sir.”
The obsequious man bowed his way out, and John dawdled, rigid with fury, until the butler’s strides faded.
Barbara poured them each a whiskey, but when she tried to push his across to him, he refused it, which was ridiculous. He’d never needed a shot of liquor more.
At his declining, she rolled her eyes in exasperation, took his glass, and downed the contents in a single swallow. Then she took hers and downed it, too.
“Are you a drunkard?” John inquired.
“I enjoy a nip now and again. I won’t deny it.”
“Lucky me. I finally meet my mother, and she’s a sot.”
“It was unnerving, seeing Esther. The old harridan! I think I’m entitled, don’t you?”
John shrugged, but didn’t respond.
“And it definitely wasn’t easy seeing you.” She refilled their glasses and shoved another toward him. “It can’t have been easy on you, either. Drink the blasted whiskey. Quit being such a boor.”
He didn’t reach for it—merely to spite her—and she sighed.
“Gad, you’re so much like him. How sad.”
“What do you mean?” he asked through clenched teeth.
“When you were little, you were so much like me, so alive and full of mischief, but your father has managed to drum out all my best traits. Did he beat them out of you? Or did he grind you down until you don’t remember me or what you used to be like?”
His thoughts churned with anguish. He wanted to rail at her, wanted to demand she never speak of Charles, but any remark would simply encourage her in further denigration of the man.
“How did you know I would be here?” he queried.
“You always come for the autumn hunting.” He gawked at her, and she chuckled. “Are you surprised that I’m aware of your habits?”
“Were you imagining no one ever wrote to me? That I had no acquaintances in London?”
“I never pondered it.”
“Of course you didn’t. You were a child. Why would you have? But I knew all about you—from friends and enemies alike.”
The news was terribly disturbing. He didn’t want to be apprised of how she’d kept track of him, how people all over London had been spying and reporting to her. If he accepted her story as true, it might indicate that she’d cared enough to collect information.
“Why didn’t you write to me yourself?” he pressed. “You could have asked for details rather than relying on secondhand accounts.”
“I wrote for years. Charles wouldn’t let you read my letters.”
“I don’t believe you,” he said, more vehemently than he’d intended.
“I stopped when you turned sixteen because you finally wrote back and insisted I not bother you again. Don’t you recall? It’s certainly vivid in my mind.”
He’d never written to her, so she had to be lying or else Charles had . . . had . . .
“What do you want from me?” he inquired.
“I want to stay with you for a while.”
“I’ve missed you.”
“No, you haven’t. Tell me the real reason.”
“I don’t have another one. Should I invent something?”
“Do you need money? Is that it? How much will it take to make you go away?”
“No, I don’t need any money. How awful of you to suggest it.”
He studied her, a thousand questions on the tip of his tongue, and he hated that he was so curious.
She’d traveled to Italy with a lover, a dashing young army captain with no funds and no prospects. After she’d vanished, a lawyer had contacted Charles about sending her an allowance, and his answer had been to immediately file for divorce.
Over the intervening years, there had been occasional tales of her wretched condition, of her surviving in dire poverty and begging for scraps in various European cities, but now, he had to doubt what he’d been told. She was hale and beautiful and well-fed and . . . and . . . quite magnificent.
There! He’d admitted it. She was stunning.
“I want you out of here by morning,” he advised her.
“Don’t be silly.”
“I can’t have you annoying Esther and causing a ruckus.”
“Who cares about Esther?”
“You didn’t when you were a baby. She used to visit all the time, and you’d burst into tears whenever she entered the room.”
She’d flustered him again, with her talk of his childhood. It was too alarming to be in her presence.
“I want you to go,” he declared.
“I won’t.” He glared, unaccustomed to blatant insubordination, and at his scowl, she laughed. “What if I refuse to leave? Will you toss me out on the road?”
“No, you won’t. You were such a sweet boy, and I hear that you still are. A tad stuffy and cold, but you have a good heart.”
heart. Not where you’re concerned.”
“You’re being a bully. The behavior doesn’t suit you.”
“You don’t deserve a shred of kindness from me.”
“While I’m here,” she said, ignoring his cruel comment, “we’ll work to bring you ’round to my way of thinking. Before you know it, you’ll forget you were ever Charles’s son.”
Her calm assurance infuriated him. It seemed they were playing cards, that she had all the aces. He wasn’t a brute. He wouldn’t throw a woman out on the road, no matter how much he loathed her, and she’d gambled that he wouldn’t. Apparently, she’d won.
“All right, you can stay,” he grumbled. “But only for a week, and you’ll retire to the west wing, so the family doesn’t have to be constantly bumping into you.”
“I’m already settled in the countess’s suite. I don’t wish to move.”
It was where Esther would expect to sleep. She would have a fit.
A muscle ticked in his cheek. “No, you’ll move. I’m afraid I have to insist.”
“And I’m afraid
have to insist.”
She stood and came ’round the desk, and she laid a hand on his shoulder. He flinched, shocked that she would touch him. With her standing and him sitting, he felt very young, out of his element. Her striking green eyes were expressive and troubled.
“Let me stay longer than a week,” she begged. “Please?”
“Why should I?”
“I don’t have anywhere to go.”
“It never bothered you before.”
“My dearest, Giorgio, died last winter,” she informed him.
“So?” He wouldn’t ask who Giorgio had been, why he was
, why she was grieving.
“I need to be surrounded by people who love me, and I’m so lonely.”
He fumed and fretted, then was enormously astounded to hear himself say, “Two weeks, and that’s it. During that time, I’ll make arrangements for you.”
“You’ll keep to yourself, and you’ll instigate no discord. You’ll avoid Esther, and you’ll refrain from insulting or offending her.”
“If I can’t harass Esther, you’ll take all the fun out of my visit.”
“I mean it, Barbara. You’ll behave, or you’ll leave.”
She smiled a slow, seductive smile. “I’ll be as good as I can be. You won’t even know I’m here.”
She leaned down and placed a tender kiss on his cheek, then she sauntered out, and he was all alone in the austere, somber room. His heart was beating so hard that he wondered if it might simply burst from his chest.
His hands shaking, he grabbed the decanter, filled a glass to the rim, and finally had the drink he so desperately needed.
“WILL that be all, Lady Barbara?”
“Yes, Peg, but I’d like you to come back in an hour to dress my hair. Since my son has arrived, I want to look especially grand when I join him for supper.”
The girl curtsied and tiptoed out, being so deferential and polite that Barbara might never have been away a single day.
The door shut behind her, and Barbara slumped in her chair, weak with relief that she’d bluffed her way into staying, that John hadn’t sent her packing as she’d absolutely feared he might.
She’d been in Italy, flat broke and suffering through Giorgio’s lengthy demise, and she’d assumed she would continue on in the foreign country after his death. But once he’d passed away, his villa had been so quiet, and creditors had begun circling, so she couldn’t remain.
Yet where was she to go? She’d burned all her bridges.
She’d been married at fifteen and had been much too immature to deal with the very demanding and much older Charles Middleton. When she’d foolishly fled, she’d been suffocating on his rules and criticisms. She shouldn’t have run off, but she had, and that fact couldn’t be changed.
If John ever learned the truth of how she’d struggled, perhaps he wouldn’t be so smugly derisive. Her life had been horrendously difficult, romance and security fleeting.
She’d let her army captain convince her that Charles would forgive their impulsive flight, that funds would be provided to tide them over, but they hadn’t been. Six months of poverty and bickering had doomed the amour.
After he’d abandoned her, she’d engaged in a series of torrid affairs with Europe’s most eligible bachelors, but at age forty-six, she was destitute and exhausted. England had called to her in a manner she hadn’t supposed possible.
She’d been notified that Charles was dead, that John was the earl, but she hadn’t been able to predict how he would react to her return. A brazen appearance had seemed best, and she’d chosen to make it at Penworth Castle. It was far from London, so if he’d spurned her, gossip would have been minimized, but mostly, she’d come because she’d always cherished the wild spot.
In her short tenure as countess, she’d visited many times. She’d curried favor with the servants, and they still adored her. Nary a one had suggested she wasn’t welcome, and all of them were happy to complain about Esther and how the family had never been the same after she had taken Barbara’s place.
It was a small solace, but comfort nonetheless.
She sat at her dressing table and gazed in the mirror. Her hair and face were still beautiful, but there were tiny wrinkles around her eyes and mouth. Where had the years gone? Could she get some of them back?
She had to try.
John was the only person on earth who might ultimately exhibit the least amount of concern for her. She
to make him love her again, and she was determined to wear him down until he relented and she earned his pardon.
Footsteps marched up the stairs, heralding the encounter for which she’d been waiting. She poured a glass of wine and went to relax on the sofa in front of the fire. The door was flung open, a bevy of servants hustling in. Esther followed behind.
“Put my trunks in the ...”
Esther stumbled to a halt and gaped at Barbara, not understanding what she was seeing. It was the countess’s suite, and clearly, Barbara was ensconced in it.
“What are you doing in here?” Esther huffed.
“This is my room. What are
doing in here?”
Barbara pointed toward the hall, indicating that Esther should depart, but Esther regrouped, pulling herself up, straightening her spine.
“Get out. At once!” Esther commanded.
“I don’t take orders from you, Esther.”
Barbara gestured to the servants, and like ants in a line, they spun and left with Esther’s trunks.
“Bring those back!” Esther bellowed, but no one heeded her. At having her authority so blatantly flaunted, she was aghast. “You won’t get away with this,” Esther warned.
“I believe I already have.”
“I’ll speak to John. He’ll have you out of here like that!”
Esther snapped her fingers, but the
didn’t sound, so the drama of the moment was foiled.
to John?” Barbara was disdainful, condescending. “Why would you? He gave me the suite himself.”
“But it’s . . . it’s the countess’s! He wouldn’t have! He didn’t!”
“He did. Good luck with changing his mind. You’re aware of how stubborn he can be.”
Esther was so furious that her entire body was shaking, but she didn’t know what to do with all her rage. She’d never been the sharpest tack in the shed, and obviously, she’d gained no intellect in the intervening decades.
“I . . . I
you,” Esther hurled. “I’ve always hated you!”
“Sticks and stones, Esther. Sticks and stones.” Barbara made a shooing motion with her hand, urging Esther out. “Now please go. I’m needed downstairs to greet John’s guests, and I’m not dressed.”
Esther hovered for a few seconds, then she whirled away and raced out.
“John! John!” she screeched, her voice echoing to the rafters.
John would never intervene on Esther’s behalf. In that regard, he was too much like his father, who had loathed discord and wouldn’t tolerate it. Especially from a hysterical female.