Authors: Kristina Cook
All breath left her body
. Quickly, she spun around to face the wall, unable to meet his tortured eyes as her mind reeled from the revelation. She struggled to find her voice. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“That I must exorcise you from my mind, that’s what
. I must forget you, forget that night, forget that you exist, if I am ever to have any peace.”
She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, hoping to quiet her racing heart
. “Then it must be done.” Turning to face him again, she opened her eyes and gazed into his mossy ones. “I should be glad that my task is simpler. I do not have to forget you, nor do I have to forget that night. I’ll hold it close to heart, savoring it for as long as I live, if indeed I’m spared and no child has been conceived. No, my task is only to resist you, to keep myself apart from you.” She shook her head sadly. “But forget you?
Hayden’s hands shook as he leaned against Tolland’s desk, digesting the full meaning of her words. The blood drained from his face and he felt cold, stunned. He closed his eyes and the horrible vision returned–Jane, lying cold and lifeless in a wooden box. No, his mind countered. No.
He couldn’t give into it
. Nevertheless, her words hewed out what was left of his heart. He’d come perilously close to loving her, but he’d never dared to hope she might return the feeling. He snuffed out the desire to rejoice in it, for it mattered not. It only meant she would suffer.
He straightened, drawing himself up to his full height with as much dignity as he could muster
. Their business was not yet complete. There was yet one more thing they must discuss.
“There’s something I must ask, and I fear there’s no delicate way to phrase it.”
“Then ask plainly and let us be done with it.”
He pressed his hands against his temples, hoping to dull the ache that grew more and more unbearable
. “When do you expect to know whether or not you carry my child?”
She didn’t flinch
. Her features were stony, betraying not her thoughts. “By the week’s end I should have evidence to the contrary. I would expect to know with some certainty in a fortnight.”
“I must ask that you send me word, once you have...er, evidence that you are not with child.”
“What would you have me write, Hayden? The bare, vulgar words? And what if the missive should find itself into the wrong hands? What then?”
“Then we must agree on some sort of code.” He took out his pocket watch and ran his finger along the grooved circumference, unable to look at her
. “A simple word will suffice, and no signature is necessary. I want to hasten the date of my marriage, but I won’t do so till I have word from you that I’m free to do so.”
“Perhaps a simple ‘congratulations’ will suffice, then?” she offered coldly
He looked up, and her expression cut him to the quick
. Anger mixed with fear, anguish and regret all fought for dominance in her fair face. It was more than he could bear.
“That will do,” he choked out
“It’s settled, then.”
With a groan, he reached out to her, cupping her chin and forcing her to look at him. “Jane,” he said, his voice hoarse.
She twisted from his grasp and turned toward the window, her head bowed
. “Farewell, Hayden.”
A searing pain shot through his chest
. “Farewell, my lovely Jane,” he countered softly. Straightening his shoulders, he strode out and closed the door.
A part of him died right then as he paused for a moment, his back pressed to the door, listening to her sobs
With a vicious oath, he slammed his fist against the wall and stormed off to collect his niece
The day had come at last
. Hayden glanced up at the bright blue sky, mocking him as he walked up the steps of the parish church near Pemberton’s estate in Surrey. He paused halfway up, raggedly breathing in the humid morning air redolent with the overpowering scent of roses from the manicured beds surrounding the old stone structure. A lone bird arced across the glittering sun.
How would he do it
? Every instinct told him it was wrong, that he was making a terrible mistake. With an oath, he reached up to rub his temples. Dammit, he hadn’t any choice. What a bloody mess he’d gotten himself into. With a sigh, he ran one hand across his coat, barely discerning the folded paper tucked into his breast pocket. Jane’s letter. One simple word, written in a neat, feminine script:
. The single word–their agreed-upon code that she was not with child–weighed heavily on his mind. He’d carefully examined the page time and again since its receipt, looking for any hint, any clue to the author’s state of mind. Did the pen appear to waver, held by tremulous hands? Could the uneven patch near the top possibly be a teardrop, splashed onto the page?
No matter his close scrutiny, he’d not been able to discern a thing
. The writing was clear and strong, the page crisp. The missive betrayed nothing except one fact, and one fact alone–Jane did not carry his child. He realized the news should bring him great relief, yet it did not. Instead, he felt an empty, almost raw disappointment. Completely irrational, he’d told himself, over and over again. And yet, there it was.
Startled, Hayden looked up as the church bells began to peal the hour
. It was time. He had no choice but to move forward into the church and fulfill his obligation. Nothing was holding him back–nothing, that is, except his reluctant heart. What was left of it shattered into jagged shards as he pulled open the heavy door and entered the church’s dim, shadowy interior.
Moments later, he silently took his place before the altar, awaiting Dorothea’s hand
. Taking in the sea of unfamiliar faces watching him expectantly from the wooden pews, he reached up to readjust his cravat. The past few weeks had been hellish. He tried to blink back the unpleasant memories, now a blur in his mind.
He’d paid a visit to Lord Pemberton only hours after receiving Jane’s reassurances
. As he anticipated, he’d had no problems convincing the viscount to hasten the date of the nuptials, and so Hayden had secured a special license and removed to Surrey at once.
Yet one impediment after another had arisen
–Dorothea’s wedding gown required a difficult-to-obtain Spanish lace; the parish clergyman had been away in Hertfordshire visiting family; a dear relative’s arrival from Scotland had been delayed. His patience had grown thin, and each passing day had chipped away at the armor of his resolve. At last he’d been forced to put his foot down, to name the date that the joining would take place or else he’d drag Dorothea off to Gretna and be done with it. He had to protect Jane, his mind screamed.
He absently brushed a bit of lint from the crisp lapel of his dark frock-coat, his thoughts dragged dangerously back to the night he’d spent in Jane’s arms
. His flesh warmed at the memory of her flawless bare skin, her chestnut tresses falling enticingly over her beautifully curved shoulders and resting upon her full, rose-tipped breasts.
A virgin, he thought with a remorseful shudder
–the first virgin he’d ever bedded. For all her inexperience, their coupling had been more sensual, more satisfying than he’d ever thought imaginable. Flames of heat licked at his loins, and he forced himself to breathe deeply. Bloody hell, he was waiting for his bride to walk down the aisle and all he could do was lust after another woman, a woman he could never possess. He raked a hand through his hair and looked up at the faces before him. His brows flew together at once.
No longer smiling up at him contentedly, the guests appeared restless, concerned
. With a scowl, he retrieved his watch and checked the time, then snapped it shut in annoyance. Where was she? The appointed time had long since passed. Looking to the back of the chapel, he saw Lord and Lady Pemberton engaged in an animated conversation, both gesturing wildly with their arms.
What the hell
? In long, angry strides he hastened back down the aisle. “What’s going on, Pemberton?” he whispered sharply. “Where’s Dorothea?”
Lady Pemberton reached up to cover her mouth with a handkerchief, her eyes brimming with tears
“She’s here,” Pemberton snapped
. “In the vestibule.”
“Then what the hell’s going on
? Get her out here at once,” Hayden barked.
“She’s a bit...uh, well...discomposed, you might say, at the moment, but she’ll be out shortly
. Margaret,” Pemberton turned toward his wife, his face now a mottled red, “get in there and tell that girl she has exactly three minutes to present herself.” Pemberton clenched his beefy hands into fists by his sides. “I will drag her down the aisle by her ear if I must.”
Hayden heaved an impatient sigh
. Female theatrics. He would have a word with his intended. “Take me to her,” he commanded.
Lady Pemberton’s face flushed scarlet
. She shook her head. “I don’t think–”
“Take me to her,” Hayden cut in
“Very well,” Pemberton said
. “Perhaps you can talk some sense into the silly chit. Follow me.” With a wave of his hand for Hayden to follow, he set off back through the double doors at the end of the aisle.
Hayden followed the man down a narrow hallway
. He paused before a heavily carved door, where the sound of desperate sobs reached his ears. He looked to Pemberton with a frown.
“Have no fear, Westfield
. She will honor our agreement, either of her own volition or not.”
Hayden nodded as Pemberton opened the door and strode inside
. Dorothea stood by the window, her back to them. Her whole body wracked with noisy sobs.
“Enough, Dorothea,” Pemberton called out
. “Westfield here will have a word with you, and then I expect you to take your place at the altar.”
Dorothea spun to face them, her fair face a blotchy red, her eyes swollen
. “You cannot make me, Papa.” She vigorously shook her blond curls, sending her lace cap to a dangerous tilt upon her head.
“I can and I will
. Enough of this nonsense. You have a duty to attend to.”
“But what of Jonathan?” she wailed
. “How can I? Not when we’ve–”
“Damn your loose lips, Dorothea.” Pemberton reached for his daughter’s shoulders and shook her
. “Enough!” he growled.
“Leave us,” Hayden ordered, favoring Pemberton with an angry glare
. “I will have a word with Dorothea. Alone.”
“As you wish,” the man muttered reluctantly
. “I suggest you do not say anything you will regret, daughter.” With that last threat, Pemberton turned and strode out.
Hayden went to the window, laying one hand on the sill while he exhaled slowly
. “Tell me what’s going on, Dorothea. Forget your father’s threats; I want the truth. I have no desire to marry an unwilling bride.” He thought he saw a movement beneath the window. With an impatient grunt, he threw open the sashes. A slight man in a dark coat scurried along the side of the wall, breaking out into a full run once he reached the corner.
Hayden turned toward his betrothed, who stood opposite him, wide-eyed, a handkerchief pressed to her trembling lips
“Who is he?” he asked
Dorothea shook her head, but said nothing.
Hayden’s ire rose at once. What kind of fool were they playing him for? “Dammit, Dorothea. You’ll tell me who he is.” He saw her eyes widen with fear, and he changed tactics. “Perhaps I can help you,” he said, his voice softer. “I won’t force you to marry me if you’re in love with someone else.”
Fresh tears coursed down her cheeks as she eyed him suspiciously
. Then she nodded. “Jonathan Banks. The son of Papa’s steward.”
“Steward?” Hayden blurted out in shock, then bit back his words
. He shook his head.
“I’ve loved him since I was a girl
. I...I tried...” She trailed off miserably.
“Tried to do what Papa asked of me. I knew I could never marry Jonathan. I was pleased with our match, yours and mine, truly I was. But when we came here to Surrey for the wedding, Jonathan begged me to run off to Gretna with him. I couldn’t do it, couldn’t disappoint my family like that.”
“Then why the change of heart?”
Dorothea’s lower lip trembled and her tears renewed, flowing freely down her cheeks. “Because...” she stammered, “because now I might carry his child.” Her chin dipped to her chest, her eyes downcast.
“Good God, Dorothea.” He sighed heavily
. What had the foolish girl gone and done? Immediately, his sympathy was replaced by anger, anger at her father. What the hell had Pemberton been thinking? Had he honestly meant to silence the girl and force her hand on him, even while she might carry another man’s child? The child of his steward’s son? His hands balled into angry fists.
“You’ll marry your Mr. Banks, Dorothea
. I’ll see to that.”
? Papa will never allow it. Never. Jonathan hoped to enter the clergy, but he hasn’t the funds to support us, not now. Whatever shall I do?” She began to wail, and Hayden thought he might scream if he had to listen to her weeping for one more second.
At once he seized upon a plan
. The rectory at Richmond sat empty, the last vicar having passed several years ago. Since then Richmond’s tenants had gone into Ashbourne for religious services. Richmond’s rectory and the vicar who was employed there depended entirely upon the largesse and patronage of the Earl of Westfield, and Hayden had not seen fit to bestow such an honor since the old vicar’s death. He would offer it to this hapless Mr. Banks, along with the small but well-maintained parsonage. Hayden would see that Dorothea got Pemberton’s consent, even if it meant threatening the man with breach of contract. He hadn’t signed on to marry a woman who might carry another man’s child.
Of course, Hayden didn’t miss the irony of the situation
. He’d taken Jane’s virginity and fate had seen fit to have his betrothed’s taken by another man. A steward’s son. He almost laughed aloud.
“Your father will allow it
. Trust me. Wait here and I’ll go inform him that there will be no wedding today.”
Without another word, he went in search of Lord Pemberton, a smile spreading across his face
Like a doomed man who’d narrowly escaped the gallows, he’d been spared
“Must you go, Jane? I cannot tell you how sorry I will be, how much I will miss your company.” Emily flopped onto the chair beside the bed with a sigh as Jane directed Bridgette in packing her trunks. With a pout, Emily picked absently at the embroidery on her sleeves.
“You know I must go
. Oh, Emily, I’ll miss you dreadfully. You must promise to bring Amelia to Glenfield soon.” Jane desperately needed to return home. She missed her mother and her sister Susanna, the comfortable life she’d left behind. Besides, there was nothing more she could do for Emily here. Her cousin had blossomed in the past few weeks, grown more confident in her mothering skills and more acclimated to her new role. Apparently fallen from Lady Adele’s favor, Cecil spent more and more time at home, and Jane sensed a renewed affection between him and his wife. Suddenly she felt in the way. Worse yet, the Season would officially close in a fortnight, and it wouldn’t be long before Hayden returned to Richmond Park with his bride. It was essential that she be long gone from these parts by then.
The thought sent her mind reeling dizzily
Do not think about it
. It was too painful to bear, too painful to consider her future circumstances. She’d only made it through the past few weeks by refusing to allow herself to think about anything save Emily, Amelia, and Madeline. As she’d promised, she’d dutifully paid a visit to Richmond Park each day since Hayden’s departure, and it took every ounce of her resolve to steel herself against thoughts of him while she remained in his home with his niece.
What am I going to do
She glanced up at the window, drinking in the flawless blue sky as she valiantly fought to force the dark thoughts away
. Her temples began to ache with the effort. Perhaps some air would help clear her head.
“Will you join me for a walk, Emily
? Or better yet, a trip into the village? I’d like to bid farewell to Miss Benson and to Mrs. Tanner at the shop.”
Emily brightened at once
. “Of course. What a lovely idea. I’ll send for the carriage, then.” She rose with a smile and hurried out.
An hour later, Jane found herself fingering a lovely blue silk-covered bonnet in the draper’s shop, admiring the fine workmanship and detail
. She shivered as she brushed her palm across the dyed feather on the bonnet’s crown. It would look lovely with her pale blue frock–the one Hayden had admired at the Pemberton’s ball. Her mouth went dry at the memory, and she swayed against the display as her legs began to shake.