Authors: Cathy Maxwell
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Man-Woman Relationships, #Love Stories, #Historical, #Nobility, #London (England), #Regency Fiction, #Nobility - England, #Marital Conflict
His jaw had tightened exactly this way, and then he’d left.
“I have no intention of returning to London,” she informed him, raising her voice so all could hear her. “I will not go. And you are not welcome here, Wright. Not at all.”
Wright’s response was to turn to Andres. He scowled and bit out, “Who are you?”
“The barón de Vasconia,” Andres said, his tone just as insolent. He didn’t offer a bow and she felt the lightning thrill of triumph. Good. Let him know how it feels to have your spouse choose another—
“Do you always stand so close to other men’s wives?” Wright drawled with deadly intent.
Gillian’s exaltation vanished.
She moved between the two men. “You are out of line, Wright,” she said, her heart beating rapidly.
His presence was setting off emotions she didn’t wish to investigate closely. What had Aunt Agatha suggested, that her talk of divorce was to humiliate him? To hurt him as he had hurt her…
Wright swung his sharp gaze from Andres to herself. “We need to talk, Gillian.”
“I have no desire to speak to you at all,” she answered, and needing to put space between them, announced to no one in particular, “I’m going to the house.” She started to turn.
“Very well,” Wright said, “I will go with you.”
“That is not necessary,” Gillian stated flatly.
“It is,” came the strong reply.
She wanted to argue. She wanted to lash out at him with her tongue until he bled.
But she wouldn’t. For whatever reason, she couldn’t. Words, angry, sad, broken, bitter—all clogged her throat. Instead, her muff on one hand, she picked up her skirts and started up the path.
He must have taken a step after her because she heard Andres say in his lovely rolling accent, “I am sorry, my lord, but she does not wish you to accompany her.” She turned to see that her gallant Spaniard was blocking Wright’s way up the path.
“And who does she want to accompany her?” Wright wondered, the words almost a snarl of frustration. “You?”
Andres did not flinch. “If I am so honored,” he answered.
Gillian’s feet were suddenly rooted to the earth. She had not anticipated Andres doing battle for her.
He was tall but Wright was taller, and more muscular. And far more threatening. “Barón, it is all right,” she said.
He shot her a heart-stopping smile. “But it is not. If my Gillian wishes to be alone, then it is my pleasure to see it is so.”
My Gillian. He had only called her that in their private conversations. Along with amor.
She could have kissed him for his chivalry in protecting her, but he should not have done so. Not in front of everyone. Wright had been correct. They should have spoken in private.
As it was, her husband chose to ignore the Spaniard. He looked up the path at her. “Gillian, we can do this one of two ways. I’ve written. I’ve been reasonable. I have been patient. I’m asking you politely and within my rights as a husband for you to come home with me.”
“And my other choice?” she asked, her earlier confusion concerning him vanishing in the face of his high-handedness.
“I will resort to force.”
Force? That would be unreasonable and Wright never did anything unreasonable—especially for her. Or so she had thought.
“You wouldn’t dare,” she informed him.
“My lady, I don’t make threats,” he answered.
Gillian shook her head. “Why?” she asked, puzzled. “You don’t desire me, Wright. You barely knew I existed after our wedding and we haven’t spoken for four years. Indeed, when you returned from the Continent six months ago, you didn’t search me out. So, why are you doing this now? Why have you just remembered I’m your wife and decided to stake a claim?”
A shadow crossed his face, a moment of hesitation from a man she had never seen hesitate about anything. It caught her off guard, made her wonder…until he said, “I want you home.”
Gillian drew back, every suspicious bone in her body sounding a warning. She no longer worried that they had an audience. “I am home, Wright. This is my home. We don’t suit. We never have. Weren’t you the one who told me as much years ago? So, let us be free of each other. Set me aside, do what you will, but I’m not leaving Huntleigh with you.”
“And I say you will,” he countered, one foot already on the path leading up to her. “By law you have no choice. No one can stop me from taking you—”
“I can,” Andres answered, being so bold as to grab Wright’s arm and turning him around to face him.
Wright’s eyes narrowed. “Leave it, Baron,” he answered, not bothering to place a Spanish accent on the title. “This is not your fight.”
“But it is, amigo,” Andres said, addressing Wright as an equal. “Gillian does not have to go anywhere she does not wish to be.”
Tears burned Gillian’s eyes. No one had ever stood up for her before. Ever.
“Are you challenging me?” Wright asked, his voice deadly quiet.
“I am,” Andres answered.
Gillian’s tears evaporated, replaced by stunned horror as the meaning of their words sank in.
“Swords?” Wright asked without missing a beat. “I’m afraid it must be done now. I don’t have time to waste. I wish to be back on the road as quickly as possible.”
“Then you may leave now,” Andres said amicably.
“Not without my wife,” Wright answered.
Andres shrugged. “Swords, pistols, knives. They are all fine with me.”
“Then swords it is.”
They both sounded calm about the challenge and neither man had given her so much as a glance once they’d started speaking to each other.
Wright turned to Packy, the head groom who had helped him with his horse. “Send someone to the house for dueling swords. I’m certain His Grace has them.”
Packy nodded his obedience and directed one of the lads to do Wright’s bidding. Andres once again removed his greatcoat and jacket, preparing to duel. Wright threw off his heavy coat while the men in the stable yard began moving back into a circle for the men.
Of course, their preparations were moot because Gillian was not about to let a duel be fought. She caught the stable lad before he could run to the house. “Stand right there,” she ordered the boy, holding up a finger in warning.
“Go fetch the swords,” Wright countermanded without looking up. The lad raced away.
Gillian’s temper snapped. She stormed forward into the center of the cleared ring. “This is absolute nonsense,” she said.
“Actually,” her husband said, rolling up his sleeves, “it is the easiest way to decide the matter.”
“No, it is not,” Gillian said. “There are many easier ways, such as discussion or respecting my rights to decide what I want.”
Aunt Agatha came forward and put her hand in the crook of Gillian’s arm, gently pulling her to the side. “Gillian, you are being a bit of a ninny,” she whispered, strangely subdued. “This is the way men decide these matters. Besides, you have no rights. You are married. When you chose to defy your husband, what did you expect?”
Gillian dug in her heels. “Not a duel.”
“You didn’t?” her aunt asked with a skeptical lift of one eyebrow. “What sort of men do you think they are?”
“Not the sort who would kill each other.” Gillian practically tossed the muff to the ground in exasperation. She turned to Andres. “You mustn’t do this. It’s nonsense.”
The tall Spaniard came over and placed his hands on her arms. It was the first time he’d publicly touched her. “I do it for you, amor,” he said quietly. “I love you, Gillian. From the moment I saw you, I have wanted you. You are kind and good.” He reached for a strand of her hair beneath her velvet hat. “So lovely, so caring. When I entered Huntleigh’s hall, I felt the warmth of a home, the warmth you created.” He smiled. “Do not worry for me. All will be well. There isn’t an Englishman who is a better swordsman than I.”
“You love me,” Gillian repeated, her voice wondrous at how easily he’d made his admission. “I love you, too, Andres. But what sort of a future will we have if you run my husband through?”
Andres laughed, the sound confident, carefree even.
Gillian wanted to pop him with her muffed hand to knock sense into him. “Or Wright could kill you,” she said, wanting to be certain what was at stake. “Don’t let his London clothes fool you. The man has been a military officer for years and even before that, he was a noted swordsman. I couldn’t bear to have anything happen to you.”
She couldn’t bear to have anything happen to either of them . She had no desire to see Wright dead.
“If you fight this duel, everyone will talk. We will have to leave England. You don’t know my husband. He’s a very powerful man in his own right, let alone with his father’s influence.”
“I don’t care if I live in England,” Andres told her. “Or what gossips may say. Our love will keep us safe.”
Over the past hour, she had cavalierly made the same statement to Aunt Agatha. Now it sounded like madness, and she understood what her aunt had been trying to say to her.
She looked to the other side of the circle of men. Wright stood, a solitary figure with his arms crossed. Andres was a great favorite amongst her relatives and the servants. They would be cheering for him. Wright had no one to champion his side. The irony, of course, was that he was all alone…much like she’d felt living under his father’s roof.
“Do all men think themselves immortal?” she wondered softly before saying to Andres, “Please, don’t do this.”
His expression sobered. “You know the answer, amor.”
He wouldn’t cry off. Not with his honor on the line.
Gillian turned away from him and walked over to where her husband stood, his face a stone mask.
“Wright, you must not fight a duel. Not over me.”
She could feel Andres watching her. Feel everyone watching her. Embarrassment brought heat to her cheeks. Gillian had never enjoyed being the center of attention.
“I take care of what is mine, Gillian.”
She shook her head. “I am not some animal that you can buy and sell. Or some woman in a harem you can lock up. My decision not to return with you has nothing to do with the barón.”
Wright gave her a small, tired smile. “It doesn’t matter, Gill. He has taken up your cause and as your husband, I am honor bound to exert my authority.”
Gillian reached for her temper. It protected her from guilt. “A battle of honor? Wright, I matter very little to you.”
Once again there was that stubborn set of his jaw returned. “Obviously you matter a great deal to me, my lady, or I wouldn’t be here.”
“Please, don’t even attempt to portray the role of wounded husband,” she said with exasperation.
“Our marriage was a sham.”
“It was legal and valid.”
“But it was a union of convenience. Your father wanted my father’s connections and their good will.
Otherwise, you wouldn’t have given me a second look.”
He released a world-weary sigh. “Gillian, does it matter anymore? This is an old argument between us. So what if those were considerations when I asked for your hand? You could have refused. Why didn’t you?”
Because she’d fallen in love with him.
It was one thing to admit it to her aunt or herself, another to reveal the depth of her foolishness to the man who had made her so foolish.
Besides, he was right—it no longer mattered. She had Andres…although, especially after Aunt Agatha’s accusations, a portion of her feared her aunt might be correct in suggesting at least some of Andres’s attraction was the opportunity for Gillian to defy her husband.
She immediately shut that stray thought away.
“We all make mistakes, Wright,” she answered him.
His angry sharp eyes went to Andres and then back to her. “Yes,” he drawled, “apparently we all do.”
His criticism vanquished any remnant of guilt. “I hope he runs you through,” she said. Turning, she walked away.
But she didn’t go to Andres. The crowd around him had stepped back so that both he and Wright stood very much alone.
Instead, she marched up to her aunt. “You must talk sense into them.”
“I don’t waste my breath on men,” Aunt Agatha answered. “Or goddaughters.”
“You seem to have forgotten that rule earlier,” Gillian said crossly. “You were offering me quite a bit of advice.”
“A pity you didn’t heed it.”
The stable lad they’d sent for swords came running down the path carrying them followed by a number of relatives and other guests from the house who apparently wished to witness the duel.
Huntleigh always entertained a large number of guests for the Christmas holidays and many lingered on their visits for months. Now they would have a good story to tell when they returned home and Gillian wished the ground would open up and swallow her whole.
Her cousin Carter Lowrie straggled behind the others, appearing as if he’d just risen from bed.
Charming, good-humored and a bit lazy, Carter came up to the women and asked, “Why is Andres in a duel?”
“Because Gillian’s husband has come for her and wishes to run him through,” Aunt Agatha said with a gusto that Gillian thought was quite unbecoming.
“Ah, Wright has finally arrived,” Carter murmured. “Thought he would show himself sooner or later.”
Gillian scowled at him, knowing his sentiment was probably shared by a good number of the men whether they liked Andres or not. Raising her voice so she could be overheard, she decided to let them know the truth. “The barón and I have not done anything that should warrant a duel. We are merely good friends. Truly,” she added in the face of her cousin’s unconvinced look.
At that moment, Andres stepped into the center of the stable yard. He whipped the air with his sword, testing it.
Wright did the same. Pleased, he said, “Your terms, Barón?”
Gillian clasped her hands inside her velvet muff. She realized she was the one who didn’t believe this was going to happen. Men didn’t fight over her. Especially her husband.
“First blood wins,” Andres said calmly.
“As you wish,” Wright answered without any sign of emotion.
And then they raised their swords.
They were truly going to fight. Gillian began shaking. Wright was a bruising swordsman. She’d overheard an officer who had served with him on the Peninsula describe him that way. For the first time she realized her husband had killed men.