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Authors: Phoebe Conn

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BOOK: Swept Away
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Raven stifled a low moan and continued to stare down at the distraught blonde, not knowing how to justify his uncle’s actions when he dared not reveal the truth. “Come with me,” he finally invited, and taking her elbow he guided her to the farthest corner of the terrace to continue their conversation.

“Alex is more than merely fond of you, I’m certain of it,” he began.

“Then why doesn’t he—”

Raven shook his head, urging her to be still because he knew their absence from the party would soon be noted. “He hasn’t meant to give you false hopes.”

“He has given me no hope at all—that’s the problem,” Eden reminded him.

Raven was having a difficult time as it was without her constant interruptions. “Please, Miss Sinclair, I am doing my best to explain,” he cautioned her crossly.

“I’m so sorry. Please continue.” Eden opened her ivory fan and began to stir what breeze she could but she knew it was embarrassment and not merely heat that had brought a bright blush to her cheeks. As for Raven, the formality of his replies had already convinced her that she would learn nothing of any value from him and she was desperately sorry that she had confided in him. It was only that she was so far from home and had no other options that had made her choose such a brash course of action in the first place.

Raven had always despised lies, and it galled him that he was stretching the truth so shamelessly. He could tell from the proud tilt of Eden’s chin that he had offended her, and that had not been his intention. He longed to draw her into a tender embrace and reveal how tragic Alex’s fate truly was, but not even a husband and wife displayed that degree of closeness in public. That he could offer neither the comfort of his touch, nor the truth, tortured his conscience badly.

“Alex has no plans to marry again, ever, but you mustn’t think him selfish for making such a decision. He has absolutely no choice.”

“No choice?” Eden’s spirits sank even lower as she attempted to comprehend what Raven meant. Leaning closer, she whispered softly, “Do you mean that he’s unable to, well, unable to”

Although Eden left that question unfinished, Raven readily grasped her meaning. If possible, he was even more mortified than she by the subject they were discussing. Alex had used a nonexistent back injury as an excuse not to dance more than a time or two at each party, but Raven could not bring himself to say that he was impotent too. “No, it’s not that. He has his reasons, but they are private ones I’m not at liberty to share.”

Thoroughly confused, and deeply discouraged, huge tears welled up in Eden’s eyes. She turned away in an attempt to hide them, but Raven readily felt her pain. Unable to bear her sorrow in addition to his own, he reached out toward her, but the instant his fingertips caressed her bare shoulder, she stepped away to avoid his touch.

“Please forgive me for bothering you,” Eden whispered anxiously without turning back toward Raven. “I realize I’ve made a complete fool of myself and I would appreciate it if you didn’t repeat this conversation to your uncle. I’m certain he would be as badly embarrassed to learn of it as we are that it ever took place.”

“Why don’t you ask Alex what his intentions are?” Raven suggested in a desperate ploy to provide her with the truth. “I think you have that right.”

“Oh no, I couldn’t do that. It would only force him to tell me to my face that he doesn’t love me and I couldn’t bear to hear that.”

That Eden would mention love shocked Raven, for he had not realized her feelings for Alex were that intense. While he thought it quite possible that Alex did love her, he knew the words ought to come from his uncle rather than him. Retreating behind his usual mask of indifference, he stepped in front of her and brought their conversation to a close. “Life is filled with unbearable sorrow, Miss Sinclair. I’d change that if I could, but it’s beyond the scope of any man to alter fate.”

Eden was uncertain what fate had to do with her and Alex, but she could not bear to continue such an embarrassing conversation another minute. She slipped her arm through Raven’s and he escorted her across the terrace, but before they reached the French doors, she looked up to find Alex, Lydia, and Stephanie watching them with glances that ranged from deeply suspicious to openly venomous. Apparently the trio had been observing her and Raven for some time, and clearly they had all misinterpreted what they had seen. Eden attempted to smile bravely and waited for Raven to break the awkward silence, but as usual he kept his thoughts to himself and she felt utterly abandoned.

“It was so warm inside, I feared I might faint,” Eden explained with the most innocent smile she could affect. “It’s ever so much more pleasant out here. Don’t you agree?”

“It is apparently still too warm for you to think clearly. Come, we are leaving now, before the heat causes you to lose your senses completely,” Lydia commanded sharply.

Eden had never been treated as a child at home, and to silently take what she considered uncalled-for abuse from her aunt was almost more than she could bear in her current mood. She looked first to Alex, hoping he would protest her making such an early departure, but he continued to regard her with an expression that revealed only a shock and hurt she knew he had no reason to feel. She felt Raven’s hand shift to her elbow and realized he was about to propel her toward her aunt. She looked up at him then, and his eyes narrowed slightly in a clear warning to keep still. Obviously he was as badly embarrassed by her behavior as her aunt was, but she thought he ought to have sense enough to know she would never reveal what they had been discussing so intently.

“I’m sorry,” Eden finally remarked. “The parties are so much less formal in Richmond, that I didn’t realize coming outside for some air would offend anyone.”

Lydia Lawton did not respond, she simply turned and left, confident both Stephanie and Eden would follow.

Raven watched the three women depart, and hoped Alex would want to leave also. “It’s not what you think,” he insisted as he crossed to his uncle’s side.

“What could I possibly think?” Alex responded with an uncharacteristic burst of temper. “That you’ve suddenly taken to seducing comely virgins?”

Raven did not reply, but left instead to summon their carriage. The ride to Alex’s townhouse was not a long one, but he found it difficult to keep his thoughts to himself until they arrived home, where any argument they might have could not be overheard. While there was a full staff of servants, Alex always insisted that none wait up for their return so they were quite alone.

Raven refused Alex’s grudging offer of a brandy, and followed him upstairs to his room. Alex would have slammed the door in his face, but Raven was too quick for him and pushed his way inside. “Eden begged me not to reveal what we discussed, but I’ll not allow you to continue to imagine that was a romantic interlude you saw out on the terrace. Eden took me aside to ask about you. She has my penchant for honesty, it seems, and wanted to know your intentions without having to suffer the embarrassment of asking you such a question.”

“My intentions?” Stunned, Alex collapsed into a brocade armchair that promised the only comfort he was likely to find that night.

Raven yanked off his tie and pulled it through his fingers like a rope he intended to fashion into a noose. To have to plead Eden’s cause struck him as the cruelest of ironies. “You asked permission to call on her, so she naturally assumed your interest was a romantic one. She cares for you, Alex. She can’t help but be confused about your intentions when you’ve been so attentive, but haven’t given her the affection she obviously craves.”

“What did you tell her?”

Raven began to pace, his stride long and smooth despite the turmoil he felt inside. “Nothing of any consequence. You’re the one who should speak with her. She’s obviously taken with you, as I think you are with her as well. It may not be what you planned or expected, but now that it’s happened, you must deal with her fairly. You owe her that much, Alex. You know that you do.”

Alex closed his eyes and rested his head against the back of the chair. He had had such high hopes for their stay in London, but now he felt only despair. His chest ached, but it was not from exertion, merely from the sad realization of how badly his plan to find a bride for Raven had gone awry. “When Eleanora died, I never thought I’d ever love another woman, and I haven’t, not until now. You’re right, of course. Eden does deserve an explanation of some sort, although I don’t know what I can possibly tell her that will make any sense.”

“You must tell her the truth,” Raven insisted emphatically. “Everything about Eden is refreshingly honest and real, you can’t fabricate some convenient lie for a woman like her. It would be too great an insult.”

Alex was too concerned with his own dilemma to recognize how much Raven had just revealed about his feelings. “I don’t want her pity,” he murmured softly.

Raven came to a halt and turned back to face him. “It will not be pity that she feels, but rage. Rage that so many lesser men have been allowed to grow old while you’ll not live past your prime.”

Even as a child of eight, Raven had displayed a wisdom far beyond his years. While Alex frequently took pride in the fact he had raised him, there had been many occasions, like this one, when he knew Raven would have grown up to be a remarkable man in all respects even if they had never met. He reluctantly agreed that Eden deserved to hear the truth, as indeed she had in the beginning.

“I’ll call on her tomorrow afternoon,” Alex announced solemnly. “I know I can trust her to keep the perilous state of my health a secret. It would make my stay here unbearable if the fact I have so little time left were widely known.”

“I’m ready to go home now.”

“I know that you are, but not yet. There are three million people in London. There has to be a woman for you among them. I’d like for you to look awhile longer.”

“As you wish,” Raven agreed, but he knew Eden would be so heartbroken to learn the man she loved might not see another summer that she would never notice him. He had known from the outset their trip to London had been a mistake, but each new day convinced him he had badly underestimated the potential for disaster. Alex looked not only troubled, but pale as well, and he could not help but worry about him. “You should go to bed.”

“In a moment or two,” Alex promised, but once alone he remained seated, trying to understand why the love that had eluded him for so many years had come too late. Until recently he had considered himself a lucky man to have had so much, but after having met Eden, he now knew just how greatly he had been cheated.

Amazingly, that bitter thought brought a slow smile to his lips. Fate might have dealt him a poor hand, but he knew in life, just as in a game of chance, the winner was not always the man with the best cards. On the contrary, it was often the man who relied on his wits rather than luck, and made the most of whatever cards he held.

Alex wanted Eden, and badly. Now that he knew her affection for him also ran deep, why shouldn’t they spend what time he had left together? It was a daring thought, and perhaps a selfish one, but the choice, after all, would be Eden’s. His mind made up, he rose and began to undress. He would call on Eden just as he had promised Raven he would, but rather than bidding her a tearful farewell, he would offer her all the love that filled his heart. Knowing his beautiful rebel was a woman of spirit and courage, he was confident what her answer to his proposal would be.

 

 

Lydia Lawton also waited until she reached the privacy of her own room before she confronted Eden with what she considered not only her shocking lack of discretion, but an unforgivable breach of trust as well. Her voice was low and controlled, for she had no wish to start her servants gossiping about her niece.

“When Lord Clairbourne has been so generous with his time and attention, how dare you repay him by sneaking off with his nephew? And how could you have done that to Stephanie? Raven has been seeing her, not you. Did you think a few moments alone with him would be all you’d need to take him away from her? Is this how you wish to repay us for the kindness we’ve shown you? I can’t believe Sarah didn’t raise you to show better judgment, to say nothing of higher morals, than we’ve seen from you tonight. You have betrayed us all, and I demand to know why this very instant.”

When her aunt had finished her scathing rebuke, Eden looked up, the sorrow of her expression still a reflection of her conversation with Raven, rather than a result of Lydia’s string of undeserved insults. “My parents raised me to be a lady, and I am one. Raven was my partner when the music ended. I was too warm and wished to go outside. There was nothing more to it than that. It was entirely innocent.”

“There was far more to it,” Lydia contradicted. “I saw you two standing close, discussing something of obvious importance. Don’t insult my intelligence by claiming you were talking about the weather.”

As she searched her mind for a reasonable reply, Eden toyed nervously with the fan she still held in her lap. Were she to confess the truth, her aunt would be even more outraged than she was already, so she dared not do that. She would not lie about what she and Raven had been discussing either.

“While I’m half English, many of your customs are foreign to me. If I embarrassed you this evening, I’m truly sorry. I’ll apologize to Alex the next time I see him as well.”

“I doubt you’ll ever see him again,” Lydia snapped angrily.

BOOK: Swept Away
10.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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