The elderly butler bowed, his seamed face impassive, but she remembered him, and his kindness. “It will be the work of a moment, your ladyship. And I believe I might interest you in good hot tea and sugar cakes, might I not? His lordship has required that Cook keep a supply of them on hand since your first visit.”
Melisande looked at him for a moment, uncomprehending. And then finally, finally, she began to cry, as the countess folded her into her arms and the butler beat a hasty retreat. “There, there, my pet,” she murmured, her pregnant belly a third party between them. “It’s been dismal, I know. But a hot bath, fresh clothes and tea will make all the difference. By the time Benedick returns you’ll have the upper hand, and he’ll have to grovel. It will be delicious.”
Melisande managed a watery laugh.
“Richmond, where is Lady Carstairs’s friend?”
“She went back to the Dovecote…that is, back to Carstairs House, my lady. She left a note for Lady Carstairs, said she’d understand.”
“How odd,” Miranda said. “And Master Brandon?”
“He had a fall. Not sure how it happened, but Mrs. Cadbury found him, and we brought the doctor back in. He’s a bit the worse for wear, but getting better, though he’s a bit banged up.”
Melisande could feel the tension in Miranda’s arms. “Then I’d best go sit with him myself,” she said calmly. “See to Lady Carstairs, please. And find a nice warm bed for the stray lamb over there.” Betsey was sound asleep on one of the chairs in the hallway.
“I should go home…” Melisande began once more, but the countess stopped her.
“Enough!” she said. “It’s been a trying night for me as well, and in case you didn’t notice, I’m in an interesting condition. Indulge me in following Richmond. He’ll take most excellent care of you.”
She stopped arguing. The countess, of course, was right. The warmth of the bath was restorative in the extreme, soothing away not just the grime and dust from the cave-in but the aches in her muscles, and the remnants of that fast, rough coupling in the empty room at Kersley Hall. She knew she should rush through her ablutions, dress and force her way home before Viscount Rohan returned, but she couldn’t bring herself to move, staying in the tub until the water grew cool.
It was the countess’s personal maid who helped her dress in the clothes that were a bit too tight. Melisande was taller than the countess, and more robust, and had no interest in being tightly laced, but still, being properly dressed helped enormously. There were no shoes that would fit her feet, but that was the least of her worries. Things had been so desperate she hadn’t even considered her ankle, but it was swollen and throbbing after the abuses of the past twenty-four hours, and she had no intention of walking very far.
She took the tea and sugar cakes in solitary splendor in the bedroom, once the bathtub had been removed and the maid returned to her mistress. Emma’s note was on the tray, but it made little sense, just a bunch of vague excuses and a promise to explain everything once she returned home. It should have galvanized her into leaving. She poured herself another cup of tea.
Eventually, she heard his footsteps on the stairs, taking them two at a time. They could belong to no one else—the earl limped, and the servants would take the back stairs even if called upon to hurry. She knew who it was, and she braced herself as he slammed open the bedroom door and stood there, glowering at her.
He was covered with soot and dirt, though he’d made an effort to wash his face. He smelled of night air and horse and sweat; he smelled of spices and warm skin and everything she wanted. She sat there, waiting.
“No children,” he said abruptly.
She blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“I’m only considering this because presumably you’re barren. There’ll be no children. Do you understand?”
She understood, the countess’s words coming back to her with blinding clarity. She should make it easy for him, help him. But in his case her charitable instincts had long dried up. “Considering what?” she said calmly.
He ran a hand through his hair and was rewarded with a shower of dust on his filthy jacket. “Marriage. It’s the sensible thing to do.”
“Sensible? Hardly. You need an heir. I can’t provide you with one. I’ve already told you it makes a great deal more sense for me to be your mistress.”
“Absolutely not. You’re going to marry me, and the hell with an heir. I have two brothers and a nephew who could inherit the title. An heir doesn’t matter.”
“Then what does?”
For a moment he didn’t say anything. And then he moved so swiftly he shocked her, crossing the room and sinking to his knees in front of her, yanking her into his arms with a fierceness that belied the fact that his strong arms were shaking. “You’ll marry me,” he said, his face buried against her shoulder, “because I love you, damn it. Against my better judgment, against my will, I adore you, every square inch of your perfect pink skin, every word from your mouth, every foolish, pigheaded thing you do. I’ve done my best to drive you away, but I can’t keep my hands off you, and on top of everything else you make me laugh. I love you, and I’m tired of fighting it.”
“But what if I don’t love you?”
He lifted his head, looking honestly astonished, and she laughed at his utter incredulity. “Don’t worry. I love you,” she said. “I just thought I’d torture you for a moment.”
He kissed her then, full and hard and deep, his tongue against hers, heat and desire rushing through her. He threaded his hands through the curtain of damp hair that hung around her shoulders, and he broke the kiss to bury his face in it, groaning. “I’m so filthy,” he said. “I stink of dirt and horse and sweat, and you’re so clean and sweet…”
“I can always take another bath,” she murmured, reaching up to unfasten his buttons.
It was a rough night in Somerset. Benedick, Viscount Rohan, was being forcibly held down on a sofa in his study as his father poured him another tall glass of good Scots whiskey. He handed it to his son-in-law, better known as the Scorpion, a man tolerated because his daughter adored him, and eyed him warily. “Whiskey’s the only thing for it,” he said.
“Indeed,” Lucien replied. “So I’ve discovered. Drink up, man,” he said to Benedick. “It’ll be over soon enough.”
The storm was howling outside. Inside, Benedick was wild-eyed and desperate, but there was no way his father or Lucien would let him leave the room, and he knew he could simply ride Bucephalus over a cliff come morning. No, he wouldn’t do that to such a fine beast. He’d hobble him and then jump himself. It didn’t matter how. If he had a sword, he’d fall on it, in fine Roman fashion. But for now all he could do was get as drunk as he possibly could.
“How bad is he?” Charlotte, Marchioness of Haverstoke stuck her head in the door. She was a fine-looking woman even at her age, her red hair streaked with gray, her eyes full of compassion as they surveyed her eldest son.
“I expect he’s a sight worse than your daughter-in-law,” Adrian replied, smiling at her.
Charlotte nodded. “He looks it. Won’t be long now.”
Momentary concern crossed Adrian’s face. “The girl…she’s all right, isn’t she?”
“Strong as a horse,” Charlotte assured him. “Just keep on with the whiskey.”
It was near dawn when the door opened once more. Benedick, stubborn bastard that he was, had simply refused to pass out, but he was sitting there mumbling, planning all the ways he would end his life now that he was certain his wife was gone. “He’s pathetic,” Miranda observed as she walked over to the fire.
“Don’t be so harsh on him, darling one,” Lucien said. “He’s had a hard history.”
“Not anymore,” she said briskly. “She popped him out easier than I do.” She touched the light swell of her eighth and, she hoped, final pregnancy.
“Him? It’s a boy then?” Adrian lifted his head. He’d imbibed his own fair share of the whiskey, as had Lucien, and none of them were in any great shape.
“You have a grandson. Charles Edward, after your brother who died young.”
For a moment Adrian blinked, and it had to be the whiskey that brought the tears to his eyes. “Whose idea was that?” he said gruffly.
“Oh, Melisande’s. Benedick wasn’t going to come up with a name—he was that certain he’d be burying her and the little one.”
“And they’re healthy?”
“Listen for yourself,” Miranda said, holding the door open, and a loud, lusty wail came down the hall.
Benedick lifted his head, suddenly, astonishingly sober despite all the Scots whiskey he’d ingested. Miranda smiled at him. “Come along, my brave one. Your wife and son want to see you.”
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