Authors: Cathy Maxwell
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Man-Woman Relationships, #Love Stories, #Historical, #Nobility, #London (England), #Regency Fiction, #Nobility - England, #Marital Conflict
The Earl Claims His Wife
Gillian Ranson, Lady Wright, knew how to embroider a straight stitch or darn a sock, make soap that was as good as Pears, and run Huntleigh, the country estate of her cousin the Duke of Holburn, with efficient profitability. She was the model of propriety, a gentlewoman in every way, and knew her Bible forwards as well as backwards.
She was also ready to take a lover.
Andres Ramigio, barón de Vasconia, was the most handsome man she’d ever laid eyes on. He was also gallant, thoughtful, witty, adventurous, and a host of other stellar qualities that made her heart beat faster than it ever had in her life.
At last, she understood why married women risked all for a lover.
At last, she felt alive again.
In truth, Wright had ignored her for years. His military career and his mistress were far more important than a wife. Since he’d returned to London he’d started writing her, one curt note after another ordering her home—hardly the stuff of lovers.
Gillian had decided it was her turn to ignore him. She’d had quite enough humiliation from her husband to last a lifetime. In spite of recently marrying, her cousin was happy to let her stay at Huntleigh and manage things and now there was Andres. Wonderful, amazingly handsome Andres.
Her cold, indifferent English husband was no competition to a Spaniard.
This morning, she had accompanied Andres and many of Huntleigh’s houseguests, left over from the annual Christmas gathering of friends and relatives, down to the stable yards. Andres had announced over breakfast he planned to put the spirited Andalusian mare that had been delivered to the estate the day before through her paces. The love of seeing good horseflesh up close was all that was necessary to cause almost every man at the table to push back his chair to join him.
Gillian was the only woman to tramp down the path from the house to the stables with them. She hoped for a moment of private conversation with Andres. Huntleigh’s walls had ears when it came to any affairs of the heart and she didn’t want gossip to sully what they felt for each other.
It was a good day to be out. After days of rain, the sun had decided to grace them a rare taste of glory, chasing away gloomy spirits in spite of the nipping cold.
Gillian didn’t mind the weather. She was bundled up in her blue wool pelisse and velvet muff with its matching hat. She stood at the base of the path leading up to the house, a few steps away from the gathering of men forming a large circle around Andres and the horse.
The mare was magnificent––everything Andres had promised she would be. Holburn would be overjoyed when he returned from his trip north to Scotland with his new wife Fiona to find such an addition to his stables.
Of course, Gillian’s attention was on Andres’s tall, lean figure. He held the leather lead rope with a light hand, speaking Spanish to the mare in soft, soothing tones.
The horse was skittish and uncertain in her new surroundings. She was one of a small herd of prime bloodstock that had been hidden from Napoleon’s cavalry. The French had already decimated almost all the other Spanish herds with their demand for war horses. Andres’s friend, a priest, had smuggled the horse out of Spain and sent her to Andres and Holburn for safekeeping against the day the French were thrown off Spanish soil.
The sleek, refined horse with her black legs and silvery gray coat seemed designed to enhance Andres’s handsome elegance. Every time Gillian looked at him, she felt a bit dizzy. His jaw was lean, his thick hair a mass of blue-black curls, but his eyes were his most stunning feature. They were a silvery gray that could look straight through to a woman’s soul—and there wasn’t a woman under Huntleigh’s roof immune to their power.
However, what had finally turned Gillian’s head was his kindness. Andres Ramigio treated everyone with respect from the scullery maid to Uncle Walter, the oldest relative in the house, who had a terrible time hearing any conversation. Gillian noticed how Andres would patiently repeat himself for the older man and didn’t duck and hide when he saw him coming as everyone else did, including herself.
By the eve of the Epiphany, something magical had happened—Andres had made her believe again in the finer qualities of men. He was chivalrous and yet bold, playful and yet wise. A man worthy of her trust.
What woman could not fall in love with him?
“It would not be prudent, you know,” her Aunt Agatha’s tart voice said, intruding on Gillian’s adoring thoughts with a strong dose of common sense.
Gillian turned, surprised to see her favorite aunt. Aunt Agatha rarely ventured outside. Afraid her aunt could read her thoughts, Gillian pretended to misunderstand. “What would not be prudent?
Coming out in this weather?”
Aunt Agatha was a petite woman dressed in regal purple wool who appeared frailer than she truly was. Her strength was in the alert intelligence of her eyes. She wore a fox fur hat on top of the turbans she favored, this one being purple that matched her coat and scarf. It was Aunt Agatha who had sponsored Gillian’s first season in London when she’d met Wright.
“You know what I’m talking about,” her aunt said. “And it isn’t the weather.”
Gillian wanted to pretend she didn’t understand. She also wanted to change the subject. She glanced up the path, expecting to see servants with a sedan chair, and seeing none went on the attack. “Did you walk down here?” she demanded.
“I did,” her aunt said, offended at anyone questioning her actions, as Gillian had known she would be.
“I have two legs.”
“Legs that beg you to have care. Do you wish to fall again? It’s a steep walk.” The irritation in Gillian’s voice was real.
“That it is,” her aunt agreed. “But coming here would bring me to the one place where I might catch you alone and have a stern word or two.” Her gaze drifted over to Andres and the horse. “Pretty filly.
I take it our Spanish friend is a master of horses, too.”
“Apparently,” Gillian said. She pretended nonchalance.
Her aunt slid a glance in her direction. “Don’t try to humbug me, girl. I helped your mother change your nappies. I can read every thought that passes across your face. And when I say it would be very unwise to carry forth with what you have in mind, I’m not talking about the mare, but the stallion.”
Meaning Andres . Gillian felt the usual flash of alarm whenever she was caught doing or even thinking something she shouldn’t, but she also felt a flare of temper. Ever since she’d left Wright last summer, she’d had the run of Huntleigh to herself. She’d served as her cousin’s household manager and few had told her what to do or what to think. After years of living with her husband’s parents, the haughty marquess and marchioness of Atherstone, while Wright had been off to war, the freedom had been heaven.
She would not allow a host of people to poke their noses in her business. She didn’t answer to any of them. She was six and twenty, old enough to know her own mind.
“Oh, granted he is handsome,” Aunt Agatha continued when Gillian didn’t reply immediately. “All those Latin men are. Even a woman my age becomes a little giddy looking at them. However they are no substitute for a good English husband.”
“Like mine? A man I haven’t seen in years?” Gillian asked, forcing herself to remain calm as Andres chose that moment to smile over at her. She gave him a small wave.
Disapproval radiated from her aunt. “First, you should know that those Spaniards are like the Italians, daffy headed over anything with yellow hair. Don’t fool yourself into believing he sees anything else but your hair, your hair, your hair. Second, you are a married woman.”
“I know what I am,” Gillian replied, not looking at her aunt but watching Andres set the mare into a trot on the lunge line. The idea that a man as accomplished as Andres would chase a woman because she had blond hair was ridiculous. There was more between them than mere lust. They had discussed their feelings last night while pretending to play a serious game of chess. “I have no feelings for Wright and I doubt if he thinks of me at all.”
“He thinks of you every week when he writes that letter demanding you return to London.”
“Demands are not requests, Aunt.”
“Since when must a man request his wife to come to live under his roof?”
“Since he practically ran from our wedding bed back to his mistress. Since he went off to war without a backward glance in my direction, leaving me to reside with those two horrid people he calls parents.
Since he rarely wrote or gave any consideration to me for four long years.”
“He was at war, Gillian. On the front.”
Gillian brought her brows together, pretending to consider the matter. “I wonder if he wrote his mistress or forgot to pay her bills each month.”
Aunt Agatha’s brows rose to her hairline. “Did Wright forget to pay your bills?”
“No,” Gillian conceded.
“Was he ungenerous?”
“With his affections or his money?” Gillian shot back.
“Money,” her aunt snapped.
“I received my allowance but not much else. Not even a home of my own—which his mistress did indeed have.” Gillian turned to watch Andres, not wanting this conversation with her aunt and yet unable to stop herself from adding, “There is more to a marriage than money…such as affection and companionship.”
“And you believe you will find that with some penniless Spanish nobleman?”
“I believe I want a divorce,” Gillian said, the words flowing out of her mouth with a will of their own.
Divorce, the unthinkable word, had been on her mind ever since she’d finally had enough of living under Wright’s father’s roof where not even the servants held respect for her. Divorce. Freedom. A chance to choose again and this time pick a life of love.
It sounded right. Absolutely, perfectly right.
But not to her aunt, who appeared struck dumb by such an admission—but not for long.
“Di—?” Aunt Agatha came near to collapse, clutching a hand to her heart. Gillian placed a hand to stabilize her, glancing over her shoulder to see if any of the men noticed the dramatics.
They didn’t. Their eyes were on the Andalusian.
Aunt Agatha gasped for air and tried again, “Divor—?” She couldn’t go on without a swoon, and so she gave up attempting to say the word “divorce” to demand, “Would you ruin us all? The scandal would be horrific.”
“It would impact no one but myself,” Gillian snapped.
Her aunt made a disbelieving sound. “It would shame us all and send me to an early death.”
“Aunt Agatha, please. You must understand how unhappy I am.”
But her aunt wasn’t listening. Instead, she was reasoning the matter out in her head, speaking aloud as she did so. “Wait, you can’t petition Parliament for a divorce. Only a husband may present such a petition—and Wright would never attempt such a thing.”
She seemed so relieved to know Gillian’s plans were thwarted that Gillian felt a little mean as she said, “Actually, there is a growing movement amongst important, intelligent women to see such a circumstance changed. Women should have some voice in a marriage. It shouldn’t all be the husband’s wishes and we deserve the right to petition Parliament for a divorce.”
Aunt Agatha’s brows snapped together. “You have been associating with those bluestockings again, haven’t you? You complain about not having freedom but it hasn’t stopped you from forming friendships with those radical, educated females. Why didn’t I write Wright and warn him? This is my fault as well as yours—”
“It’s not your fault,” Gillian insisted before her aunt could work herself into another frenzy, “or your affair. I will protect the family from scandal as well as I can. But, Aunt, I will not continue living a solitary life. Or a lukewarm one. I’ve fallen in love with Andres Ramigio. I want to be free to be with him. Of course, Wright may very well not divorce me. He isn’t interested in my doings. I could live openly in the heart of London with the barón and I doubt it would matter to him.” She hated the resentment in her voice. It took away from the bravado.
Her aunt was even more aghast by that suggestion. “You’ve known that Spaniard less than a month and yet you would throw your life away?”
“Time has no bearing. What I feel for him is so vivid and strong. It is as if we were fated to meet.”
“Fated for disaster,” her aunt corrected. “And what of Wright? I remember when you thought you were fated to meet him. Don’t attempt to dye this wool. I was there. You told me you fell in love with him at first sight. He walked into Lady Sybman’s ballroom and you all but ran to me begging for an introduction. Your feet didn’t touch ground until three months later when you married. And correct me if I’m wrong, but I remember that he wasn’t all that attentive back then.”
That was true. Back then, she had thought there was no man more dashing, more gallant, more wonderful than he—but he had been distant and distracted, something she’d been too lovesick to register before their marriage. “He didn’t turn out to be what I had expected.” Which was a man who loved her.
“Husbands rarely are.” Aunt Agatha moved closer to her. “Gillian, Wright is a man slated for high positions in government. It was because of your father’s writings and connections that the marquess of Atherton,” she referred to Wright’s overbearing parent, “would even consider you for his youngest son. The scandal of divorce would ruin many of Wright’s prospects. Or is that what this is about?