Authors: Kristina Cook
“Mark my words, Mandeville
. Never again shall I allow myself to succumb to the pressure to go there. If Miss Upshaw wishes to go, then she can go alone.”
“Hmmm, will you accept a wager on that
? Let’s put it in the betting book, then,” Mandeville said with a grin. “I fear you’ll make my pockets heavy.”
“Your pockets are heavy enough.” Hayden tiredly spooned a bite of hearty stew into his mouth
. He was exhausted. His sleep of late had been plagued with troubling dreams; nightmares that awoke him in the dead of the night, his heart pounding and his body bathed in sweat. Even in his waking hours, he could barely assuage the lingering feelings of unease stirred by the dreams. With such little restful sleep, his Parliamentary obligations alone were enough to tire him without being dragged about to social events each and every night of the week. “Miss Upshaw’s social schedule is relentless. Now that we’re betrothed, I don’t see why I can’t slip back into obscurity and await the wedding date in peace.”
“Makes perfect sense to me
. How’s the stew?”
“You’ve made an appropriate match, I suppose.” Mandeville stroked his chin thoughtfully. “Miss Upshaw is a comely little thing, and my wife tells me she’s bright enough. Still...”
“Never mind. I need another drink.” Mandeville signaled to the waiter.
Hayden’s temper flared
. “If you’ve something to say about my choice of bride, say it and be done with it.”
Both remained silent as the waiter appeared at last and filled their glasses with whiskey
“I’ve nothing against Miss Upshaw,” Mandeville said as the waiter moved away
. “It’s just that Jane–”
“Jane?” Hayden set down his spoon
. “Miss Rosemoor?”
“That’s the one
. I thought perhaps there was something between you two. I was more than a little surprised to learn of your betrothal to Miss Upshaw. I realize Jane’s no longer a young debutante, but she is everything a sensible man should want in a wife. You can find no fault with her. I realize my connection to her leaves me a bit biased, but–”
“What has your wife said to you about me and Miss Rosemoor?” Hayden couldn’t stem his curiosity
“Nothing, not a word
. She’s as silent as a tomb where you are concerned. Which, of course led me to the obvious conclusion that there is something between you and Jane–er, Miss Rosemoor. That you would prefer Miss Upshaw over her surprises me.”
“I do not prefer Miss Upshaw to Miss Rosemoor.” Hayden drained his glass with a stiff jerk of the wrist
. He muttered a silent oath as his traitorous heart accelerated. “In fact, entirely the opposite is true. Which is precisely why I’ve chosen to marry Miss Upshaw.” He reached up to loosen his cravat.
“Ah, I see, then.” Mandeville nodded his understanding
Hayden was relieved that he did not need to explain himself further.
Mandeville cleared his throat. “I’ll admit to harboring similar sentiments, before I married Lucy. I almost married the Duke of Corning’s daughter instead, you know. Lady Helena. She’s since wed the Viscount Bradley, the poor chap. Marrying her would have been the single biggest mistake of my life, no matter how appropriate she might have been in theory. As ridiculous as I feel saying it, there’s something to be said for love.”
Hayden stared at him in utter astonishment, wondering if marriage had made him lose his mind. “I think perhaps you’ve been reading too much Byron.”
Hayden looked up in surprise at the sound of his footman’s voice
. “Yes, Michaels?”
“An express messenger just brought this, milord
. I thought you might wish to have it right away.” He held out a letter sealed with red wax, the direction written in an unfamiliar hand.
Hayden took it
. “Thank you, Michaels.”
Michaels bowed, then turned and made his way back through the thick crowd
Hayden broke the seal and unfolded the page with a scowl, smoothing the paper with damp palms while Mandeville looked on curiously
. Rarely did an Express bring glad tidings.
His eyes hastily slid over the page, searching for the signature
. What could she possibly want, and with such urgency? With mounting trepidation, he read.
Dear Lord Westfield,
Please excuse the urgent nature of this correspondence, but I write with a heavy heart on behalf of Mrs. Tolland. I assume that word of this misfortune has by now reached you from Richmond Park, but in case it has not, forgive me for being the bearer of ill tidings. Your niece, Madeline, is gravely ill. I do not know under what circumstances she found herself there, but she was found alone in the dense woods surrounding your home with an injury to her head. Your loyal dog Vlad is to be credited with her rescue, as he led me to find her.
Madeline was taken at once to the Tollands’ home, where a vicious fever set in
. Your own surgeon, Mr. Allan, is attending her, but her condition is grave, indeed, and she cannot be moved to Richmond Park. Please be assured that the Tollands and I will do everything in our power to see to her care and comfort. Nay, my lord, I will not leave her side until I see her well; that I promise you. I will send word of her condition immediately upon the morn.
With Sincere Regret,
Miss Jane Rosemoor
“Well?” Mandeville asked, his brow furrowed.
. I must go at once.” Hayden shoved back his chair and rose. He dashed to the door without a backward glance, his stomach knotted with dread.
He didn’t have a moment to lose
“Mrs. Tolland?” a faint voice whispered
. Jane sat up at once, blinking the sleep from her eyes. She reached for Madeline’s feverish hand as the first light of day shone through the part in the drapes, allowing pearl-gray light to filter in and cast long shadows across the floor.
. It’s Miss Rosemoor. Jane. Do you remember me?” From the corner of her eye, Jane saw Mr. Allan stir in his chair by the fireplace.
“I...it’s so hot, so very hot in here.” Her blond head tossed from side to side on the pillow, her cheeks flushed scarlet
“Shhh, dearest Madeline
. You must rest.” She gently stroked the child’s cheek as Mr. Allan hurried to the bedside. He felt Madeline’s forehead and frowned, shaking his head sadly as he reached for her wrist and felt her pulse.
Jane rose, turning to the table beside the bed where a blue-rimmed ceramic bowl sat beside a matching pitcher and a stack of thick, absorbent squares of cloth
. With trembling hands, she poured water into the bowl and then took a cloth, which she dipped into the cool water. Gently, she wrung out the excess moisture. Not wanting her fear to show, she schooled her features into a cheerful expression. At last composed, she turned back to the child and laid the cloth across her brow. “There now, that should cool you down a bit.”
Madeline’s eyes flew open, slowly focusing on the face that loomed above her
. “Jane, is that you?”
Jane smiled, tears welling in the corners of her eyes
. She’d forgotten how much Madeline’s mossy green eyes looked like Hayden’s. “Yes, it’s me. It is so good to see you again.”
Madeline’s eyelids fluttered shut, her long lashes resting against her darkly shadowed, sallow skin
. “You’ve come to dinner, then? Oh, Uncle Hayden will be so pleased.”
Jane shook her head, her brow furrowed
. “No, child. You’re here at Mrs. Tolland’s home.”
“We’ll have a pudding for dessert
. Uncle Hayden said...he said you would come to dinner again.” She turned her head so that one cheek rested against the damp pillow, tendrils of wet, golden hair clinging to her face. Her mouth curved into a frown, her bottom lip trembling. “Where is Uncle Hayden?”
Jane took her hand and stroked it softly
. “He’s not here, Madeline. Shhh, you must rest.”
Mr. Allan shook his head
. “She’s delirious, poor child. Her fever holds. Perhaps I should bleed her again.” He bustled off to retrieve his supplies.
Jane stood silently, watching as Madeline at last eased into a fitful sleep, her chest rising and falling with each rasping breath
If only Hayden would come
! Five full days had passed since she’d first sent news of Madeline’s condition, and two more letters had followed. They hadn’t yet received any reply. Was he so preoccupied with his upcoming nuptials that he couldn’t spare the time to write a few lines in inquiry of his niece? Was he so cold, so heartless, so self-absorbed?
Jane shook her head as she released Madeline’s hand and laid it gently on the sheet
. No, Hayden was not so cold, so cruel. She knew in her heart that he wasn’t. Even if he had immediately written a reply, they should only now be receiving it. Perhaps the afternoon post would bring his response.
She scurried to the chair by the door as Mr. Allan returned and began the dreadful procedure of bleeding Madeline
–first making a small incision in her forearm, then holding a bowl beneath it to catch the warm, metallic-scented blood. Despite this invasion, the child didn’t stir.
Jane clutched her fingers to her temples, refusing to look as Madeline’s lifeblood spilled noiselessly into the bowl
Leaning back against the chair, she stifled a yawn
. She was tired, so very tired. She stretched her legs, wincing at the ache that spread from her calves up to her shoulders. When Emily awoke, she’d ask her to sit with Madeline for a spell, and perhaps she could rest a bit.
Her eyes drooped, and she reluctantly allowed them to close
. I’ll rest now, she thought sleepily. Just for a moment, till the surgeon is done with his awful procedure.
Voices in the hall forced her eyes open again
. Groggy, she looked to the window and noted the bright midday rays streaming in through the drapes. Madeline lay just as she had before, her lips parted slightly, her chest rising and falling in a regular rhythm. The surgeon was nowhere to be seen. How long had she slept? Jane rubbed her eyes and licked her parched lips. Goodness, she felt positively drugged.
She jumped in fright as the door rattled open, flung against the wall in haste
Her eyes widened in surprise as Hayden entered, followed closely by Mr. Allan and Emily
. The earl had clearly sought his niece in haste–he still carried his hat in one hand and his camel-colored greatcoat billowed behind him, dusting his ankles as he strode purposefully across the room. His clothes appeared rumpled, as if they’d been slept in, and his face was lined with worry, his mouth pinched.
“Madeline,” he called out, his voice edged with emotion, as he bent to place a kiss on the sleeping child’s forehead
Jane averted her gaze, a sigh of relief escaping her lips as Emily came to stand beside her
“Jane, dearest, you must go lie down
. Please, I beg of you. You’re exhausted.”
Jane nodded wearily in reply
. Casting one last glance over her shoulder at Hayden, she allowed Emily to take her arm and lead her to her room.
Hayden was here at last; all would be well
. Without bothering to undress, Jane sank onto the down-filled mattress and slept peacefully for the first time in days.
When Jane awoke at last, it was well past midday. She sat up, wincing at the aches and pains that seemed to be everywhere at once. Her stomach grumbled noisily. When had she last eaten? She shook her head, unable to recall her last meal. Summoning Bridgette, she changed her clothes and did her best to tidy herself up a bit. Bridgette arranged her hair in one simple plait, coiled and pinned neatly against her crown. It would have to do. She hurried down the hall, but paused before Madeline’s room. The door was slightly ajar and she pushed it open a fraction to peer inside, not wishing to disturb Hayden if he remained by his niece’s side.
What she saw made her breath leave her lungs in a rush
Hayden sat in the chair by Madeline’s side, his bowed head resting in the crook of one arm on the bed beside Madeline’s small form, his other hand clasping the child’s hand in his
. Emily stood beside him, her fingers lightly stroking his dark head as she whispered soft, soothing words.
“Shhh, now, Lord Westfield
. It’s not your fault. You arrived here as quickly as you could.”
Jane froze, holding her breath
. She knew she should leave at once, that she shouldn’t compromise their privacy. Yet she couldn’t make her limbs move–she stood rooted to the spot, unable to move a muscle.
“No, you don’t understand, Emily,” came his muffled reply
. “It is my fault, just as it was my fault with Isabel, with Katherine.”
Emily shook her head
. “No, and I won’t listen to these foolish words. Stop now. You cannot blame yourself.” She continued to stroke his head. “I won’t have it.”
He raised his head at last
. The anguish in his countenance took Jane’s breath away. He reached for Emily’s hand and clasped it tightly in his own. “You’ve always been so strong, Emily.”
Emily laughed softly
. “I am not as strong as you think, my lord. Haven’t you seen the proof of it?”
He shook his head
. “Do not underestimate yourself, little Emily. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the kindness you’ve bestowed upon Madeline.” He raised her hand to his lips and placed a soundless kiss on her knuckles. “You should not have this burden, especially with your husband away.”
“It is Jane you should thank
. I’ve done what I can to see to Madeline’s comfort, but it is Jane who followed Vlad out into the woods to find her, who has stayed by Madeline’s side day and night. I fear she’s exhausted herself with worry–not just worry over the child, but over you, as well. She cares for you far more than she’ll admit.”
Jane found herself unable to breathe, awaiting his response.
He only shook his head in reply. “I see where your words lead, Emily, and allow me to satisfy your curiosity. It will never come to be. I was a fool to think otherwise. I am betrothed to Miss Upshaw and I will uphold my end of the bargain struck with Lord Pemberton. My honor demands it. I know you will not understand, but trust me when I say that Miss Rosemoor is better off without me in her life. The sooner she returns to her home in Essex, the better.”
Jane’s heart twisted painfully
. At once a bitter jealousy sprang forth from her soul, surprising her with its rancor. She was envious of Emily, of the close camaraderie she so obviously shared with Lord Westfield. She was equally envious of Miss Upshaw. One woman he called friend; the other he would call wife. She was nothing to him.
No longer able to bear listening, she slunk away from the door, drowning in sorrow and shame
“Is that what you truly desire, Lord Westfield
? For Jane to return home, cut from your life forever?” Emily looked up at him plaintively, her brown eyes shining with unshed tears.
The pain inflicted by her words cut Hayden deeply, wounding him in ways he’d never imagined
. He inhaled sharply. “It must be so.”
“Then you are correct
. I do not understand. I see the way your eyes light whenever you’re in her presence. I haven’t seen that light since Katherine. Can you deny that you love her?”
A terror gripped him
. He swallowed hard before he spoke, carefully measuring his words. “You’ve overstepped your bounds, Emily. This conversation has gone far enough. I do not love her, and that’s the last I will say on this matter.”
“I’m sorry,” Emily murmured, her eyes downcast as she fiddled with the coverlet
Bloody hell, he needn’t have spoken so sharply
. Not to the one woman who understood him best, God bless her soul. He cleared his throat uncomfortably as he reached for her hand.
. I don’t mean to be a brute, Emily, not to you. No one deserves it less.”
“You’re exhausted, Lord Westfield, and worn with concern. I cannot hold your words against you.” Her forgiving gaze rose to meet his, and she smiled
. “Come now, let me get you something to eat, and perhaps a brandy would do you well.”
“No, I must stay here.” He shook his head and rested his palms wearily on the bed, leaning against it
. “I cannot leave her.”
“Of course you can, for a half hour, no more
. Mr. Allan will return straightaway and remain by her side long enough for you to have a much needed drink and a bite to eat. Please?”
He looked to Madeline, still sleeping fitfully, and back to Emily’s pleading gaze as he weighed his options
. His empty stomach grumbled in reply, and his throat was dry. Finally, he nodded his assent.
He followed Emily back down the narrow stairway to the entry hall, where he finally allowed his coat and hat to be taken from him
. She led him into the cheery breakfast room, and he stopped in his tracks as Jane laid down her fork and looked up at him in surprise.
“Jane, dearest,” Emily called out
. “I’m so glad to see you take a meal at last. Did you sleep?”
“I did, thank you
. I feel much improved.” Her expression remained flat, unanimated. Her features spoke of her exhaustion. Dark circles marred the fair skin beneath her eyes, and all color had fled her usually rosy cheeks. Still, she looked lovely, and his eyes devoured the sight of her. He hadn’t thought he’d see her again–at least, not till he brought his bride home to Richmond Park. Only tragedy had swayed the fates. He knew he should take no joy in beholding her, not under the circumstances. Yet he couldn’t help his hungry gaze, even as he was riddled with guilt for the pleasure.
hair was dressed simply, knotted at the back of her head, but a few stray tendrils escaped, caressing her cheeks. She wore a pale yellow morning gown, simple of cut, yet elegant nonetheless. Her sapphire eyes retained their normal luster, the one spot of brilliant color in her pale face, even as they avoided his gaze.
She pierced a lump of scrambled egg with her fork and brought it to her mouth with trembling hands, and he watched as she swallowed the bite with obvious difficulty
I should leave her in peace
, he thought.
“Perhaps you should send a tray to Madeline’s room for me,” he said to Emily
. “I do not wish to disturb Miss Rosemoor’s solitude.”