Authors: Christine Merrill
It was a woman, she suspected. They were trying to shield her from the fact that her husband had taken up permanent residence with someone else. He was willing to let his own wife and the chance at a family go hang for a mistress and a brood of bastards.
She tried to tell herself she was being both ridiculous and overly dramatic. Most men had arrangements of some kind or other, and wives who were content to ignore them. But as months had turned to years, and he paid no attention at all to her, it grew harder to pretend that she did not care.
And at the moment, her problems were concerned less with what he might have done, and more with what he had not. While it was difficult to be the object of such a total rejection, it became untenable when it damaged her ability to stay in her own home. In her three years of residence here, she had come to think of Folbroke Manor as rightfully hers. And if the fool she had married was declared dead because he could not be bothered to appear, she would have to yield it to that oaf, Rupert.
It would result in inconvenience and bother to all concerned.
Emily glanced at the desk in the corner, and thought of composing a sternly worded letter on the subject. But this matter was far too urgent and too personal to risk exposing it to another’s eyes. If, as she expected, Hendricks read all of my lord’s mail,
she did not wish him to know that she had resorted to requesting sexual congress in writing.
And it would be even more embarrassing if the answer came in someone else’s hand, or not at all. Or worse yet, in the negative.
All things considered, it would be far better to make a sudden appearance in London, camp out in Adrian’s rooms, and await his return. Once the servants saw that she was in earnest, they would accede to her perfectly logical demand for an audience with her own husband. When she saw him, she would tell him that either he must get her with child, or tell the odious Rupert that he still breathed so that the man would leave her alone.
Then they could go back about their business of leading separate lives. And he could pretend she didn’t exist, just as he obviously wished to.
or the first time in ages, Emily was in the same city as Adrian Longesley. Scant miles apart—possibly even less than that. Even now, he might be in residence behind the closed door, just in front of her.
Emily fought down the wave of terror that the prospect aroused in her, placing her palm flat against the rain-spattered window glass of the carriage, willing herself to feel as cool as it did. The nearness to Adrian was a palpable thing, like a tug on a string tied to something vital, deep inside her. Although she had felt it for most of her life, she had learned to ignore it. But it grew stronger as the carriage had reached the outskirts of London, an annoying tightness in her chest, as though she could not quite manage to catch a full breath.
With that lack of breath would come the weakening of her voice, the quiet tone and the tendency to
squeak without warning. And, worst of all, it would be impossible to talk to him. When she tried to speak, she would stammer things out, repeating herself or pausing inappropriately in the middle of a thought, only to have the words rush out in a jumble. Even if she could manage to stay silent, there would be the blushing, and the inability to meet his gaze.
And since she was sure that he felt no answering pull on this magical bond between them, her behaviour would irritate him. He would think her an idiot, just as he had from the first moment they’d married. And he would dismiss her again, before she could explain herself.
When dealing with Adrian, she found it much easier to express herself with written communication. When she had the time to compose her thoughts, and the ability to toss any false starts and missteps into the fire, she had no troubles making her point.
And in that she was the very opposite of her husband. He had been clear enough, when he’d bothered to speak to her. But the few letters she’d received were terse, full of cross hatching, and in a hand so rough as to be practically illegible. She suspected it was drink that caused it. While easy to decipher, the latest ones came with a brief preamble, explaining that my lord was indisposed and had dictated the following to Hendricks.
She glanced at her reflection in the watery glass. She had improved with age. Her skin had cleared. Her hair was better dressed. Despite her rustication,
she took care to outfit herself in the latest styles. While she had never been a pretty girl, she counted herself a handsome woman. Although she did not agree with it, it flattered her that the word
had been applied by others. She had also been assured that her company was charming, and her conversation intelligent.
But to the one man she’d always longed to impress, she could not manage to behave as anything other than David Eston’s troublesome little sister. She was sure that it was only out of loyalty to his friend and family that Adrian had been willing to saddle himself with such a dull and graceless creature.
Before her, her own image dissolved as the coachman opened the door and put down the step for her, holding an umbrella over her head as he rushed her to the door, knocking for her.
The door opened and her husband’s butler greeted her with an open mouth and a breathless, ‘My Lady Folbroke.’
‘No need to announce me, Abbott. If you can find someone to take my cloak, I will make myself comfortable in the salon.’
When no footman appeared to help her, she untied the neck and stepped forwards out of the garment, letting it drop from her shoulders.
Abbott reached forwards, hurrying to catch it before it struck the floor. ‘Of course, my lady. But my Lord Folbroke—’
‘Is not expecting me,’ she finished for him.
At the end of the hallway, her husband’s secretary appeared, took one look at her, and then glanced behind him as though he wished, like a rabbit meeting a fox, to dart back under cover.
‘Hello, Hendricks.’ She smiled in a way that was both warm and firm, and pushed past the butler, bearing down on him.
‘Lady Folbroke.’ Hendricks looked quietly horrified to see her and repeated, ‘You were not expected.’
‘Of course not, Hendricks. Had he expected me, my darling Adrian would have been shooting in Scotland. Or on the Continent. Anywhere but sharing London with me.’ She tried a light laugh to show how unimportant it was to her, and failed dismally. She ignored the strange, sharp feeling in her stomach and the ache in her heart that came from knowing she was not really wanted.
The secretary had the courtesy to look shamed by it, but made no effort to deny what she had said.
‘I suppose it is too much to hope that he is here at the moment.’
‘No, my lady. He is out.’
‘That is the same story you give to his cousin Rupert, who has been tormenting me endlessly on the subject of Adrian’s whereabouts. I have had enough of it, Hendricks.’ She stopped to breathe, for while her tone had sufficient volume, she did not want it creeping into shrillness. Then she continued. ‘My husband must accept that, if he cannot deal with his
heir, he will have to deal with me. It is unfair of him to avoid us both. And while I am quite willing to shoulder the responsibility of land, tenants, crops and several hundred-odd sheep while Adrian gallivants about the city, the added burden of Rupert is simply too much, Hendricks. It is the last straw to this camel.’
‘I see, Lady Folbroke.’ Hendricks had replaced his hunted look with an expression of neutral courtesy, as though he hoped that his silence would still her questions.
‘My husband is still in the city?’ She gave the man a critical look.
He squirmed and nodded.
She nodded in reply. ‘And how long might it be until he returns here?’
The secretary gave a helpless shrug.
‘Honesty, Hendricks. You know more than you are saying, I am sure. All I require of you is a simple answer. I intend to wait as long as is needed, in either case. But it would be nice to know if I should request a light meal, or send for my trunks and prepare for an extended stay.’
‘I do not know, Lady Folbroke.’ There was a kind of hopelessness in the statement that made her almost believe the man.
‘Surely he must tell you his plans when he goes out.’
‘When he bothers to make them,’ the secretary said, revealing a bitterness that smacked of honesty.
‘If he sets an agenda, he rarely keeps to it. Sometimes he is gone for hours. And other times days.’
‘Then he must be letting rooms elsewhere.’
‘This may be true. But I do not know where, for I have never visited them. And when he returns?’ Hendricks shook his head, clearly worried.
‘I suppose he is foxed.’ She gave a disgusted sigh. It was no less than she feared about him, but the confirmation did nothing to improve her mood.
‘If that were all. He is …’ Hendricks struggled to find a phrase that would not give up a confidence. ‘Not well. Unhealthy, my lady. I doubt he eats. Or sleeps. When he can bring himself to come home after one of these excursions, he collapses for days at a time. I fear he will do himself an injury through self-neglect.’
‘His father was around the same age when he lost his life, was he not?’
‘Yes, my lady. A riding accident.’
It was gently put, as was everything Hendricks said. The man was a master of understatement. But she remembered the circumstances quite well, for the severity of the last earl’s injuries had been the talk of the neighbourhood. Adrian’s father had been the worse for drink, and riding hell for leather through the woods, taking jumps that other men would not have risked while sane and sober. The fall had killed both man and horse in a way that was neither quick nor painless.
Her brother had said nothing of his friend’s
reaction when the accident had occurred. But she could remember clearly the solemn darkness of the young man on the neighbouring estate, and the way it had both frightened and intrigued her. ‘Perhaps it preys upon his mind. And all the more reason that I should be here to put a stop to it.’
The secretary looked both doubtful and hopeful, as though he could not decide where his loyalty might lie.
‘Summon the coachman who took him when he departed, so that we might learn his destination. If we can find his normal haunts, then I will search them until I find him.’
‘You cannot,’ Hendricks leaned forwards, and she knew the situation must be serious for the taciturn man was clearly alarmed.
‘I mean to do it, all the same.’
The man stared into her eyes, as though to gauge the strength of her resolve. Then he sighed. ‘I will accompany you.’
‘That is hardly necessary.’
Hendricks squared his shoulders, doing his best to look formidable. ‘I am sorry, Lady Folbroke, but I must insist. If you mean to continue on this unadvisable course of action, than I cannot leave you to do it alone.’
‘And who gives you the right to question me?’
‘Lord Folbroke himself. He has been quite clear to me in his instructions, with regards to you. I am to assist you in all things, trust your judgement and
obey you as I would him. But first and foremost, he trusts me to keep you from harm.’
The sentiment brought her up short. After a year of silence on his part, it had never occurred to her that her husband thought of her at all. And certainly not for a sufficiently protracted time as to concern himself with her safety. ‘He worries about me?’
‘Of course, my lady. He asks after you each time I return from Derbyshire. Normally, I assure him there is no reason to be concerned. But in this case?’ He shook his head.
Emily dismissed the momentary feeling of warmth at the picture of Adrian asking about her. ‘If my welfare is his foremost desire, perhaps he could have seen fit to share it with me. Or he could make an effort to stay out of low haunts himself. Then it would not be necessary for me to seek him in a place he did not want me to go.’
Hendricks was frowning at the twisted logic of her statement, trying to find a rebuttal, so she allowed him no more time. She turned to the butler. ‘Abbott, have the carriage brought around. Mr Hendricks and I will be going out. We will be returning with Lord Folbroke.’
She glared at Hendricks. ‘Whether he likes it or not.’
‘You are sure this is the place?’ The building before her gave every indication of being just what it
was: a villainous hole that was well below the genteel debauchery she’d expected.
‘Yes, my lady,’ Hendricks said, with a grim smile. ‘Of late, the servants bring him here. He finds his own way home.’
She sighed. There was a sign swinging above the battered door that appeared to be a woman of limited virtue, and even more limited clothing. ‘What is it called, then?’
‘The Whore’s Left …’ Hendricks coughed as though he could not bring himself to finish the name.
‘Is it a brothel?’ She peered out the window at the grimy glass panes in front of her, trying not to show the curiosity she felt.
‘No, my lady. A public house.’
‘I see.’ It was nothing like the rather conservative inn in their village. But things were very different in London, she was sure. ‘Very well, then. Wait in the carriage.’
‘I most certainly will not.’ It was a moment before the secretary realised how completely he’d overstepped his bounds in his effort to protect her. Then he said more softly, ‘I have been through doors like that one, and seen the clientele inside. It is a dangerous place for Lord Folbroke and even more so for a woman alone.’
‘I do not mean to be there long enough to experience risk. If he is there, he will think the same as you, and though he might choose the place for his own
entertainment, he will be forced to escort me out of it. But I do not mean to leave without him.’ She set her chin in the way she did, to let the Derbyshire servants know that she was brooking no more nonsense, and saw the secretary weaken before her.
‘If you find him, he might not be willing to go.’ Again there was a delicate pause as he searched for a way around her orders. ‘You might need my help.’
It was perfectly true. She had no reason to believe that her husband would listen to her entreaties, if he would not answer her correspondence. ‘Would you remove him by force, if needed?’