Authors: Christine Merrill
He laughed. ‘I have done nothing yet to earn such intimacy from you, pleasant though the offer might be. But if you stay just behind me as we descend, I can get you to safety. Hang on to my coat tails and leave my hands free, for I may need to fight.’
‘But you cannot see,’ she said plaintively.
‘I do not need to. I know the way out. And I intend to hit anyone who stands between me and the door. Those that mean us no harm will have the sense to get out of the way.’
Emily had no answer for this, having no experience with fighting one’s way out of a tavern. So she took his coat tail in her hands, and followed close behind him down the stairs. As they breached the upper landing, she could tell from the sounds below them that the crowd had grown worse. There was more chanting, a raucous edge to the singing, the scuffling of boots and fists, and breaking furniture.
Adrian paused, listening. ‘What do you see before you? Quickly, love.’
‘Two men are fighting on a table to the right.’
‘Very good.’ He continued down the stairs,
hugging the wall as he worked his way towards the door. As the fight spilled off the table and into his path, he struck out with the cane, just as he’d said he would. The first blow was a glancing one, causing the man in front of him to yelp and cringe back.
But the second man surged forwards as though willing to fight both his supposed enemy and any other that might stand against him. Adrian forced the stick forwards quickly, jabbing into the man’s midsection.
The drunkard retched, and then flailed out, trying to strike. Adrian brought the stick down upon the man’s back so hard that, for a moment, Emily feared the wood had cracked.
He stepped over the man’s prone body, reaching back to steady her. But the momentary distraction over her safety was enough to make him jeopardise his own. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught the flash of a raised hand, and saw the man that had accosted them on the stairs throw a bottle up and out from the throng in the middle of the room.
Before she could get out a warning, Adrian had been struck, and was staggering backwards, clutching his temple. His body went limp in her arms as she tried to catch him.
hen there was a flash toward the ceiling and the sound of a warning shot. Her husband’s secretary appeared out of nowhere to pull Adrian forwards again, and off her. In his usual quiet way, Hendricks said, ‘I apologise for not intervening until this delicate juncture. But I am sure that my lord would have preferred it thus. And now I think it best that we make a retreat while we are able.’ He pressed a second pistol into her hand. ‘I doubt this will be necessary now that I have frightened them. But it is better to be over-prepared.’
He pushed her husband back against the wall for a moment, and then slung the limp body over his shoulder, staggering towards the door to the street.
Emily held the pistol in front of her, hoping that she did not look as frightened by it as she felt. But it appeared to be effective. The man who’d hit Adrian
had been preparing to strike again. At the sight of the gun he took a large step back, his anger dissolving into submission.
Hendricks lurched through the door and towards the waiting coach. When he saw them, the coachman rushed forwards to help his unconscious master up and into the carriage.
As they set off, poor Adrian remained slumped against the squabs, rendered insensible by the combination of violence and gin. It was not until they were nearly back to his rooms that he surged suddenly back to consciousness, throwing a hand out as though searching the air in front of him. ‘Hendricks?’
‘Yes, my lord.’
‘There was a woman in the tavern with me. I was trying to help her.’
‘She is safe, sir.’
He relaxed back into the seat, with a sigh of relief and a grimace of pain. ‘Very good.’
Once they arrived at the flat, she followed behind as the men helped him up the stairs. She noted the looks of alarm on the faces of his servants as they saw her appear from behind him. Clearly, the jig was up and they expected punishment from her for concealing the state of things, or from Adrian for revealing them.
As she passed them, she shot them glares that would warn them to silence.
Hendricks gave her a helpless shrug, opening the bedroom door and putting his arm around the
shoulders of his employer. ‘The valet will help him from here, mmm—ma’am.’ He struggled a moment to choose an honourific, as though remembering that he apparently did not know the name of the woman who had come home with them. ‘I will find someone to see you home.’
When she was sure that her husband would see the shadow of her head, she nodded in approval. Then she backed from the room and shut the door.
‘Hendricks,’ she kept her voice low, so that it would not carry to the bedroom, but used a tone of command that had served her well when dealing with employees who thought, even for a moment, that they owed more loyalty to her husband than to the woman standing in front of them.
‘My lady.’ She saw his spine stiffen instantly to full obedience.
She glared at him. ‘You did not tell me.’
‘That he was blind? I thought you knew.’
She was his wife. She should have known that about him, if nothing else. But what was one more regret on a very long list? But now, Hendricks mocked her ignorance.
Then, as a sop to her feelings, he said, ‘The servants are not allowed to discuss Lord Folbroke’s indisposition. He pretends it does not matter. Often it does not. But he acts as if the careless things he does pose no greater risk to him. He is very wrong.’
She had to agree, for it was quite obviously true.
‘Between the drink, and the loss of vision, he did not know me.’
‘Yes, my lady.’ Hendricks did not seem surprised. But she felt some gratification to see that he looked ashamed of his part in the state of things.
‘It will save us both embarrassment if that is the way this night remains. You will inform the servants that, no matter what they might think they have seen, he was brought home by a stranger. Is that clear?’
‘Yes, Lady Folbroke.’
‘When I have had time to think on this, I will have some words with him. But it must wait until my husband’s mind has cleared itself of blue ruin.’
The secretary’s reserve broke. ‘While I have no doubt that you will achieve the first half of the statement, the last may be beyond all of our control.’ Then, as though he could mitigate the forwardness of the statement, he added, ‘My lady.’ And then he gave her a desperate look as though it pained him to betray the confidence. ‘He is seldom sober any more. Even during the day. We who have served him for most of his life are at our wits’ end as to what can be done.’
Emily thought of the man in the other room, reeking of gin. Was it really so different than what she had feared? In her heart, she had been sure that she would find him drunk. But she had mistaken the reason. She reached out to touch the arm of the man beside her. ‘How long has he been like this?’
‘The whole of the last month, certainly.’ He tapped his forehead. ‘It is the eyes, my lady. As they fail him,
he loses all hope. My lord’s valet has heard him laugh and say that it will not be a problem for long. We fear he means to do something desperate. And we do not know how to stop him.’
She closed her own eyes and took a deep breath, telling herself that this was an estate matter, nothing more. Her heart was no longer involved in it. She must remember her reasons for coming to find him, and that they had nothing to do with a reconciliation or delivering scolds about his scandalous conduct.
But no matter how she felt about his treatment of her, she could not very well allow him to kill himself.
‘My husband has taken the notion that this is for the best. I can see, as plainly as you can, that this is nonsense. He is not thinking clearly, and I will not allow him to do himself an injury. At least not until he can present a better reason than the minor problem he has.’
Or until I am sure that my own place is secure.
If he was truly resolved to end his life, she doubted that there was anything to be done. She was little better than a stranger to him. What would he care what she thought? She hardened her heart against the desperation and panic that she was feeling. ‘My orders stand, just as they are. You and the other servants are forbidden from speaking of my efforts to find Adrian, or my return with him this evening. Let him think me a stranger.’ Then she pushed past the secretary and went into her husband’s room.
The valet looked terrified by her sudden appearance, and she held up a hand as a sign of caution. Then she looked down at the man on the bed who was now dressed in a nightshirt, and sporting a makeshift bandage on his temple. ‘Before I left, I wished to assure myself that you are all right.’
At the sound of her voice he looked pained that she had found him helpless. There was a lost look in his blank blue eyes that made him seem smaller than she knew him to be. ‘It should not be your job to see to my safety. As a gentleman, I should have been able to take care of you.’
‘You succeeded,’ she said. ‘You fought well. We were within a few feet of the door when you were struck down. And that was by an unfair blow. A sighted man could not have done better and would have ended just as you did.’
There was a ghost of his old, rakish smile, as he tried to joke away his embarrassment. ‘My talents do not end there, my dear.’ He patted the bed at his side. ‘If you wish to come closer, I would be happy to demonstrate.’
‘That will not be necessary.’ She paused long enough to see the slightest crease of disappointment form on his forehead. ‘I prefer my companions to be washed and shaved. And not soaked in gin. However …’
She leaned in to give him a peck on the forehead as a farewell reward. But as she did so, she realised that the token kiss would be everything he feared
about his future. What she had intended as comfort would seem a sexless and maternal gesture, a cruel dismissal to the man who had fought to protect her.
So she pushed back upon his chest, forcing him into the pillows, and kissed him properly on the mouth. His lips opened in surprise, and she threw caution to the winds and slipped her tongue between them, stroking the inside of his mouth as he had done to hers. She felt the same rush of excitement she had felt in the tavern, and the desire to be closer still. And the feeling that she had felt often, over the last few years: that something was missing from her well-ordered life—and that, perhaps, it was Adrian Longesley.
Then she ended the kiss and turned to leave.
‘Wait.’ He caught her wrist.
‘I must go.’
‘You cannot. Not after that.’
She gave a little laugh. ‘Neither can I stay.’
‘Meet me again.’ He ran his other hand through his hair in exasperation and his words were hurried, as though he was trying to think of anything that might tempt her to stay. ‘So that I might assure myself of your safety, when I am not indisposed.’ His smile was back again. ‘You will like me better when I have had time to wash, dress and shave.’
‘Will I have to go to a brothel to find you? Or merely a gaming hell?’ She shook her head, and remembered that he would not see her refusal, then said, ‘I think not.’
‘Why not here? Tomorrow morning.’
‘You expect me to come to a man’s rooms, in daylight and unescorted.’
His face fell. ‘Your reputation. I had forgotten.’
‘Thank you very much for your belated concern.’
He winced as though it were a physical effort to stumble through the courtesies she deserved. ‘If there were somewhere that we could talk, in privacy and discretion …’
Emily sighed, as though she were not sure of the wisdom of her actions and then let herself be persuaded. ‘I will send you a letter, and you will come to me when it is convenient.’
He released her hand, letting his fingers drag down the length of it until he touched only her fingertips. ‘I look forward to your communication.’
She was glad that he could not clearly see her. Had he not been blind, he would know that her cheeks were crimson and that the expression on her face was not the sly smile of a courtesan, but goggle-eyed amazement. Her husband looked forward to meeting with
Before she could spoil the moment by saying something inappropriate, she turned and left.
It was not until she was in the carriage, on the way back to her brother’s town house, that she allowed herself to collapse, then glared across the coach at Hendricks. ‘How long have you known?’
‘From the first. It came on gradually, after we left
Portugal. He insisted that I tell you nothing. And although you and I have had reason to work together, he is, first and foremost, my employer. I must obey his wishes before yours.’
‘I see.’ Therefore, Hendricks was not to be trusted. She felt a cold chill at the loss of one she had trusted almost as a brother since the day she’d married Adrian. But if he could keep hidden a fact this momentous, then there was no telling what other secrets he’d hidden from her. ‘So you meant to take the man’s pay and allow him to destroy himself, when a word to me might have prevented it?’
Hendricks was embarrassed almost to the point of pain. ‘I did not think it my place.’
‘Then you had best reassess your position.’ She took the stern, almost manly tone she used with him to indicate that she spoke for her husband and that disobedience was out of the question.
‘Of course, my lady.’
She had cowed him, and it made her feel better, more in control than she had since the moment she had realised that she must see Adrian again.
But on the inside, she was unsure whether to laugh or to cry. It had finally happened, just as she’d dreamed of it, since she was a girl. Tonight, the man she loved had looked at her with desire, hung upon her every word and clung to her fingertips as though parting with her was an agony.
Of course, he was drunk, blind and did not know who she was. And the whole thing had happened so
long after it should have that the point was moot. It had been nothing more than a girlish fantasy to have the dashing Earl of Folbroke dote on her like a love-struck fool. But then, she had thought that wedding him would mean something other than the sterile arrangement it was. Time had proven to her that he had no feelings for her, or he’d have been home long before now. ‘I suspect the reason he found me so appealing is because he thought me married to someone else.’