Authors: Christine Merrill
‘How democratic,’ she said drily. ‘Next you will suggest that I be bred like a mare to someone healthy, for the good of the succession.’ She shuddered in revulsion. ‘I believe I should have some choice in
the matter. And like it or not, I choose the husband I already have. Perhaps Adrian thinks our marriage was forced upon him. But from the first moment I can remember, I have wanted no other man, nor is that likely to change now that I have seen his situation.’ She sat up straight and reached into a pocket for a handkerchief to wipe away the mote that was making her eyes tear. ‘We do not always want the person who is best for us, I am afraid.’
‘The poets never claim that the path of true love is an easy one,’ Hendricks added in a dejected tone.
‘No poetry was necessary to prove that for myself tonight.’
‘Then you told him who you were?’
‘I most certainly did not,’ she said, and was annoyed to notice the hole in her own logic. Her current understanding of her husband did not negate her previous one. While he had been most attentive to her when he thought her a stranger, he had not mentioned his feelings for his wife at all. ‘Things were difficult enough, without bringing my identity into the conversation. If he’d known I was his wife, we’d have …’ she shrugged, embarrassed ‘… we’d have got much less close to the thing he was avoiding than we already have.’
Hendricks was looking at her with a kind of horrified curiosity. She had spoken too much, she was sure. With a hurried wave of her hand, as though she could wipe the words from the air, she said, ‘I am sure, if I’d told him who I was, he’d have been quite
angry at being tricked. It would be better, I think, to wait until I can find some other way to explain. And a time when he is in an exceptionally good mood.’ And let Hendricks wonder as much as he liked what might cause an improvement in her husband’s disposition.
She went on. ‘But tonight, he left angry. And it was my fault. We argued over … something. And when I turned him out, I had forgotten that he could not see to find his own way to the door. To see him standing there, proud, and yet helpless?’ And now, when she raised her handkerchief, she could not deny that it was to wipe away a tear. ‘He needs me.’
‘That he does, my lady.’ Hendricks seemed to relax in his seat, like a man who had found a patch of solid ground after getting lost in a bog.
‘I need you to deliver another letter to him, similar to the one you did this morning. Lord knows if he will welcome it, for I am sure he is very cross after the way I behaved tonight. But I mean to try again, tomorrow night, to gain his trust.’
When Adrian awoke the next morning, the lack of headache made the feelings of regret more sharp. He had come back to his rooms, ready to rave at Hendricks about the vagaries of the female mind. But the man, who seemed to have no life at all outside of his work, had chosen that evening to be away from the house.
And then he’d thought to find a bottle and a more sensible woman. Liquor would lift his spirits and a
whore would not refuse the predilections of any man with the money to buy her time. In fact, the ladies of that profession were often somewhat relieved that a client would take the time to protect himself.
But a gentlewoman would have no such understanding. To her it was a grave insult to even mention such a thing. To imply that she was not clean enough, and to do it to a woman that had already felt the sting of rejection?
Any frustration that he felt after tonight was his own fault. And his own discomfort was probably a deserved punishment for leading the woman to believe he was worthy of her, and then leaving her disappointed and insulted. In the end, he had called for a single glass of brandy and taken it with him to his own large and empty bed.
This morning, the rattle of the curtains came as usual, but the daylight following it seemed more of a gradual glow than a rush of fire. ‘Hendricks.’
‘Yes, my lord.’
‘It is still morning, is it not?’
‘Half past ten. You retired early.’
‘Earlier than you, it seems.’
‘Yes, my lord.’ His secretary showed no interest in sharing his activities of the previous evening, and Adrian regretted the loss of the easy camaraderie they’d shared while fighting together in Portugal. At one time, they’d have gone out together, or shared the stories of their exploits over breakfast the next morning.
‘Lady Folbroke required my services.’
And that was the true reason for the breach, more than their inequality of rank, or his growing helplessness. And for a moment, Adrian wondered if there was a reason for the timing of the visit. When better to go to her, than when one could be sure that her husband would be occupied elsewhere? ‘She is well, I trust.’
‘When I left her, yes.’
Did that imply that she was the better for Hendricks’s company? They would make a handsome couple, similar in colouring and disposition, taciturn but intelligent. And yet the idea disturbed him, and he rushed to replace the image of them together that formed in his mind. ‘I congratulate you on your success. Would that my own evening had gone as well. It seems I am no longer fit company for a lady, for I could not manage a few hours in the presence of one without offering insult.’
Hendricks requested no details, nor did he offer to correct any misconceptions about his own activities. Adrian heard the nervous rattling of the morning paper against the post. ‘Do you wish me to read the news, my lord? Or shall I begin with the mail?’
‘The mail, I think.’ If he did not intend to attend Parliament when it was in session, then hearing the news of the day only made him feel helpless.
‘There is only one letter here. And it is similar to the one you received yesterday.’
‘Similar in what way?’ He doubted it would be in content, after the way they had parted.
‘In handwriting, and lack of a return direction. The wax is the same, but unmarked. I have not opened it.’ Hendricks gave a delicate pause. ‘I thought it better to wait upon your instructions.’
The embarrassment from last evening was still fresh, and a part of him wanted to throw the missive in the fire, unread. What would she have sent, so soon after parting from him? An angry diatribe? A curt dismissal? Florid words of love or a description of their activities on the couch were unlikely. But they would be particularly awkward today, delivered in Hendricks’s pleasant baritone as Adrian tried not to imagine the man doing similar things with his Emily.
He steeled his nerves and said, as casually as possible, ‘Best read it, I suppose, for the sake of curiosity if nothing else.’
There was a crackling of paper as the wax seal was released, and Hendricks unfolded the note.
‘I am sorry. If you would accept this apology, return tonight.’
So even after last night, she still wanted to see him. He felt both relief and shame that she should think she was the one who needed to apologise—and damned lucky that he would have a chance to set her straight.
But was it worth the risk of another rejection? If she meant to toy with him, then so be it. Even after
the disasters of the previous two nights, he felt a singing in his blood at the thought that he might kiss her again, and that she might let him take more liberties than he had as yet achieved.
He grinned up at his secretary, who said benignly, ‘Will there be a reply?’
The things he wished to say to her came and passed in a rush, as he realised that they would need to be filtered through poor Hendricks, who would be feeling as uncomfortable as he. He had never before forced the man into a position of writing a billet-doux, nor would he today. ‘Normally, I would wish to send something immediately. But she has given no address. And after several hours in her company, I still have no idea what to call her, for she would not even give me her first name. If she wishes to shroud herself in mystery, I have no objection. But for punishment, she may wait in ignorance of my feelings until I see her tonight.’
mily paced the front hall of the rented flat, unable to contain her agitation at the thought of the evening’s meeting. She had waited nervously for some response from her husband. In the afternoon there had come a hurried note, directly from Hendricks, that she could expect a visit that evening. But there had been no mention of Adrian’s reaction, whether he was angry, elated or indifferent.
She was both relieved and annoyed by this. While it was flattering to think that her rejection had not dampened his interest, she could not manage to forget that her husband thought he was rushing to a stranger with the intention of betraying his wife.
But then she remembered the feelings she had experienced on the previous evening. The things he had done to her were so different than his behaviour during the first week of their marriage that she could
hardly believe he was the same person. If a revelation of her identity meant that they would be returning to the country for a life of such sterile conjugation, she much preferred being the mysterious object of his infidelity.
Promptly at eight, there was a knock on the door. Before the servant could arrive, she had opened it herself, and pulled Adrian into the hall with her.
At first he resisted, unwilling to be helped. But then he recognised her touch and submitted to her, fumbling to help with the closing of the door once he was through.
Before she could speak, he had seized her, the cane in his left hand bracing vertically along her spine as he kissed her. It was long and hard and unyielding, holding her body against his as he reached between them to unbutton his top coat with his right hand. With the open coat shielding them from observation, he began a careful examination of her dress with his fingers. ‘A dinner gown tonight, my dear? Afraid to risk the nightdress again, I see. But what is this, here amongst the net and beads?’ His hand cupped her breast. ‘You have not bothered with stays. That is a welcome thing to a sightless man. I can read your response to my arrival with a touch.’
‘You are terribly forward,’ she said, but made no effort to remove his hand from her body as it brushed against her sensitive nipple.
‘I am,’ he admitted. ‘And I had meant this evening
to put you at your ease with my good manners. Already, I have failed.’
‘It does not matter. I am happy that you returned. And for last night, I am sorry.’
His fingers left her breast and unerringly found her lips, and he laid one against them to stop the apology. ‘It is I who must apologise. I was the one who offered insult. I treated you as I would treat someone who meant nothing to me.’
‘Which is how it should be. You barely know me.’
‘Now, perhaps. But I would like to know you better.’ His head bowed to rest against hers, forehead to forehead. ‘You could not understand my reasons for behaving as I did. And I gave you no reason to try. I thought only of my own needs, which were urgent, and offered no explanation for it.’
‘It is all right. It does not matter.’
‘It does. I hurt you. I made you feel that you are not worthy of love. But that is not the case.’
Emily laid a hand on the front of his vest, over his heart, and he clasped it there. They stood for a time, just like that, as though it had been ages since they had been together, and not hours. And for her, it had been. For how could a few evenings fill the void created by three years apart?
And as she thought of their marriage, she could feel the old breathlessness coming back, the terror of doing something wrong in his presence and spoiling
this sudden intimacy. At last, she murmured into his lapel, ‘Supper?’
Adrian groaned in frustration and tightened his arms upon her. ‘Might it be possible to take light refreshment, and to sit before the fire? And I truly mean that we will talk tonight before anything else occurs between us. But you needn’t keep me at arm’s length across a table to ensure my good behaviour.’
It surprised her to find him as intimidated by a formal meal as she was in talking to him. ‘Very well. I will have the servants lay something simple for us, if that is what you wish. Come.’
She led him to the couch, and arranged for a tray of cold meats and bread to be brought to them, along with wine and fruit. And then she sat down beside him, and offered him a grape. ‘Do not think for a moment to deny me the pleasure of helping you.’
‘If it means that you will sit close beside me and let me kiss the crumbs from your fingertips? Then of course.’ He took the fruit from her hand, and said with a full mouth, ‘And while I eat, you will tell me about your husband.’
‘And … why would I do that?’ She hurriedly offered him more food, wishing that there were a way to get him to the table again so that they could be equally uncomfortable.
He smiled back at her and wiped the corner of his mouth with a napkin. ‘I will admit, there is an allure in an anonymous coupling. And a decided lack of guilt at parting from a stranger. But it has been a
long time since I have been willing to play the fool for a woman. When I left here, I wanted to be angry, to blame you for all of it, and dismiss the incident from my mind. But I have brooded on it for most of last night and the better part of today as well. I want to know the meaning of your words.’
‘What did I say that you did not understand?’ She took a fortifying sip of wine.
‘You seemed more offended that I feared to get you with child than you were with the implication that I might think you poxed. You may tell me that I have no right to enquire, but it makes me wonder at your motives in lying with me, and fear that you are seeking something other than pleasure. If you cannot give me a suitable explanation, than I must leave you.’ He took her hand, and squeezed it. ‘But I very much want to stay.’
Emily leaned back in her seat and took another sip of wine. It was as good a time as any to explain to him, she supposed. ‘To make you understand, I must tell you about my marriage. My husband and I were together for but a brief time. And while we resided under the same roof, he barely spoke to me. As a matter of fact, he seemed to avoid my company.’
He gave a grunt of dismissal. ‘I cannot believe it.’