All there was to do now was . . .
She didn’t belong here in New York, that much she knew. And she didn’t belong to Edward, either. Nor he to her. There was only one thing that might truly bind them together . . .
She went still, and her hand went to the flat plane of her belly, just over her womb.
She could be with child. It was unlikely, but it was possible.
And suddenly it felt real. She knew she probably wasn’t pregnant, but her heart seemed to recognize this new person—a miraculous miniature of Edward, and maybe of her, too, but in her imagination the baby was all him, with a dusting of dark hair, and eyes so blue they rivaled the sky.
Cecilia looked up and blinked, only then realizing that she had come to a stop in the middle of the street. An older woman in a starched white bonnet was looking at her with a kind, concerned expression.
“Are you all right, miss?”
Cecilia nodded as she lurched into motion. “I beg your pardon,” she said, moving to the side of the street. Her mind was foggish, and she couldn’t quite focus properly on the Good Samaritan in front of her. “I just . . . I had some bad news.”
The woman looked down to where Cecilia’s hand rested on her abdomen. Her ringless hand. When she met Cecilia’s eyes again, her own were filled with a hideous blend of compassion and pity.
“I have to go,” Cecilia blurted out, and she practically ran the rest of the way back to the Devil’s Head and up the stairs to her room. She threw herself onto the bed, and this time when she cried, her tears were equal parts frustration and grief.
That woman had thought that Cecilia was pregnant. Unmarried and pregnant. She’d looked at Cecilia’s bare finger and made a judgment, and oh God, there had to be some sort of irony there.
Edward had wanted to get her a ring. A ring for a marriage that didn’t exist.
Cecilia laughed. Right there in the middle of her tears, in the middle of her bed, she laughed.
It was an awful sound.
If she was pregnant, at least the baby’s father thought they were married. Everyone did.
Except for that woman on the street.
In an instant Cecilia had gone from a young lady in need of kindness to a fallen harlot who would soon be relegated to the fringes of society.
She supposed that was an awful lot to read into a stranger’s expression, but she knew how the world worked. If she was pregnant, her life would be ruined. She would never be accepted in polite society. If her friends back home wished to remain in contact, they would have to do so clandestinely, lest their own good names be tarnished.
There had been a girl in Matlock a few years earlier who had found herself with child. Her name was Verity Markham, and Cecilia had only known her a little. Not much more than her name, really. No one knew who the father was, but it mattered not. As soon as word of Verity’s condition got out, Cecilia’s father had forbidden her to make contact. Cecilia had been startled by his vehemence; her father never followed local gossip. But this, apparently, was an exception.
She had not defied his order. It had never occurred to her even to question it. But now she had to wonder—if Verity had been a friend, or even something slightly more than an acquaintance—would Cecilia have been brave enough to disobey her father? She’d like to think she would, but she knew in her heart Verity would have had to have been a very close friend indeed for her to have done so. It wasn’t that Cecilia was unkind; she just wouldn’t have thought to behave differently.
Society had its dictates for a reason, or at least she’d always thought so. Perhaps it was more correct to say that she’d never really thought about the dictates of society. She’d simply followed them.
But now, faced with the specter of being that fallen girl . . .
She wished she had been kinder. She wished she had gone to Verity Markham’s house and held her hand in friendship. She wished she had made a public show of support. Verity had long since left the village; her parents told everyone she was living with her great-aunt in Cornwall, but there wasn’t a soul in Matlock who believed it. Cecilia had no idea where Verity had gone, or even if she’d been allowed to keep her child.
A sob burst from Cecilia’s throat, so surprising and harsh that she had to block her mouth with her fist just to hold it in. She could bear this—maybe—if she were the only one affected. But there would be a child. Her child. She did not know what it was to be a mother. She barely even knew what it was to have one. But she knew one thing: She could not subject her child to a life of illegitimacy if it was within her power to do otherwise.
She had already stolen so much from Edward—his trust, his very name. She could not steal his child, too. It would be the ultimate cruelty. He would be a good father. Nay, he would be a great father. And he would love being one.
If there was a child . . . he must be told.
She made herself a vow. If she was pregnant, she would stay. She would tell Edward everything, and she would accept the consequences for the sake of their child.
But if she was not pregnant—and if her courses followed their usual schedule she would know within a week—then she would leave. Edward deserved to have his life back, the one he had planned for, not the one she’d thrust upon him.
She would tell him everything, but she’d do it in a letter.
If this made her a coward, so be it. She doubted even Billie Bridgerton would be brave enough to deliver such news face-to-face.
It took several hours, but eventually Edward felt in sufficient control of himself to return to the Devil’s Head.
Who wasn’t his wife.
He’d long since stopped drinking, so he was sober, or nearly so. He’d had plenty of time to tell himself that he wasn’t going to think about her today. Today was about Thomas. It had to be. If Edward’s life was going to fall apart in a single day, he was damn well going to deal with his disasters one at a time.
He wasn’t going to stew over what Cecilia had done or what she had said, and he definitely wasn’t going to devote his energy to what she hadn’t said. He wasn’t going to think about that. He wasn’t thinking about it.
He wanted to scream at her. He wanted to take her by the shoulders and shake her and then beg her to tell him why.
He wanted to wash his hands of her forever.
He wanted to bind her to him for eternity.
He wanted to bloody not think about this today.
Today he was going to mourn his friend. And he was going to help the woman who wasn’t his wife mourn her brother. Because that was the kind of man he was.
He reached room twelve, took a breath, and wrapped his fingers around the door handle.
Maybe he couldn’t bring himself to comfort Cecilia the way he ought, but at least he could give her the gift of a few days before he questioned her about her lies. He had never lost anyone so close to him; Thomas was a dear friend, but they weren’t brothers, and Edward knew his grief could not possibly compare to Cecilia’s. But he could imagine. If something happened to Andrew . . . or Mary . . . or even George or Nicholas to whom he was not nearly so close . . .
He’d be decimated.
Besides, he had a lot to figure out. Cecilia wasn’t going anywhere; nothing but foolishness lay in the path of rash decisions.
He opened the door, blinking against the sunlight that streamed out into the dim hall. Every time, he thought stupidly. Every time he opened this damned door he was surprised by the sunlight.
“You’re back,” Cecilia said. She was sitting on the bed, propped up against the headboard with her legs stretched in front of her. She was still wearing her blue frock, which he supposed made sense, since it wasn’t even yet time for dinner.
He’d have to leave the room when she decided to change into that nunnish white cotton nightgown of hers. Surely she’d prefer privacy to disrobe.
Since she wasn’t really his wife.
There had been no proxy wedding ceremony. He had signed no papers. Cecilia was the sister of a dear friend and nothing more.
But what did she have to gain by claiming that she was his wife? It made no sense. She couldn’t have known that he would lose his memory. She could tell the world she was married to an unconscious man, but she had to have been aware that when he woke up her lies would be exposed.
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