The only good thing that he could say about Lord Norwood where his daughters were concerned was that the man did genuinely love and care about his girls. He’d seen Lord Norwood worry about them, smile warmly when he saw them and seem genuinely pleased to have them around.

Unlike his parents, the Norwoods were virtual strangers, choosing to spend most of their time apart. Although Lady Norwood hadn’t complained about her husband keeping women on the side, she did demand a shinny bauble the next morning. It hadn’t taken Robert long to figure out their routine. Every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday night, Lord Norwood would bid his wife goodnight before he left to spend the night with his mistress. In turn, Lady Norwood would send her husband a cold glare, not because she was truly upset that he was spending his nights with other women like Robert had first suspected, but to remind him that she would expect him to buy her forgiveness in the morning.

It was not the type of marriage that he wanted and certainly not one that he wanted his children to be exposed to everyday. While he would like to be able to put the past behind them and start over as friends, he also didn’t want his parents’ marriage. He didn’t simply want a cordial marriage. He desired Elizabeth and wanted to spend every night with her in his arms and, in order to get that, they were going to have to talk.

“I’m very sorry that I didn’t tell you about the baby,” she said softly, bringing up the one subject that he’d decided to put off until another day.

“Why didn’t you?” he asked just as softly, terrified that he’d say or do something to scare her or make her cry.

Too late, he realized as she wiped a tear off her cheek with a small cooking cloth. Pretending that everything was okay, she stood up and focused all of her attention on the bowl of dough. Somehow he forced himself to remain seated when all he wanted to do was take her in his arms and tell her that he forgave her, that it wasn’t important, but it was.

He wanted to know, needed to know. He wasn’t as angry as he’d been before. Christ almighty, how could he be? She’d just lost their child and he knew that she grieved over that child with all her heart. He’d seen the anguish in her eyes as she’d cried over the loss of their first child.

She’d only been a little over a month and a half into her pregnancy, but he knew that she’d already loved that baby. While most women would simply accept the fact that they’d lost a child since it happened so frequently, Elizabeth had taken the loss hard. It told him so much about her, confirming his earlier opinion of her and making him regret ever calling her a bitch even if he’d only done it in his head. He just couldn’t see the woman that he’d held in his arms over the past two weeks while she cried her heart out being a vicious bitch who would purposely subject a child to a life of misery and being labeled a bastard.

He just couldn’t.

“I didn’t want to trap you,” she mumbled as she rolled out the dough with an expert touch and began to cut out circles.

“What the hell are you talking about?” he asked a little more roughly than he’d intended, making her noticeably cringe.

“I didn’t want to force you into marrying me, Robert,” she said tightly as she quickly placed the cut dough on a pan, focusing all of her attention on the task at hand so that she wouldn’t have to look at him.

“It wouldn’t have been forced,” he explained, getting to his feet and moving to help her when she picked up the pan.

He took the pan from her and carefully placed it in the hot oven, careful not to step too close to the open fireplace beneath the ovens. Once he was sure that it was far enough inside the oven, he turned around and found Elizabeth busying herself with cleaning up the small mess on the table.

Without a word, he stepped up behind her and wrapped his arms around her, bringing her back against his body. “It wouldn’t have been forced,” he repeated more softly this time.

“Yes, it would have,” she said, moving to step away from him, but he wasn’t letting her go.

“No, it wouldn’t have, Elizabeth,” he said, pressing a kiss to the top of her head.

“You don’t love me, Robert. You don’t even like me and you certainly don’t want to be married to me,” she explained softly as she simply stood there, allowing him to hold her.

“What makes you think that I don’t like you?” he asked, smiling when she released an indelicate snort.

“Would you like a list?” she asked, settling back against him and making him wonder if she was even aware of the action.

“Is it a short list?” he asked absently as he enjoyed the feel of having her in his arms and no longer having to worry about proprieties and all that bullshit.

Then again, it was still looked down upon to show affection for one’s wife in public, but he didn’t give a damn. He loved touching her, holding her and he’d be damned if he allowed rules made up by a bunch of hypocrites to dictate his life. She calmed something deep inside of him, gave him peace, and made him smile even when she was going out of her way to vex him.

It was simply impossible to truly hate her.

When he realized that she’d gone quiet again, he contented himself with simply holding her. For several minutes they stayed like that, him holding her in his arms while she absently traced her fingers along his forearms. He could have held her all night, but they needed to talk. Praying that she didn’t push him away, he asked her once again for the answer that he dreaded.

“Why didn’t you tell me, minx?” he asked, pressing a kiss to her lavender scented hair.

She didn’t answer immediately, and for a minute he thought that perhaps she would never tell him, but she took him by surprise when she admitted something that he never thought he’d hear from her.

“Because I was scared.”

“Of me?” he asked hollowly as his arms tightened around her, praying that the answer was no, but that was too much to expect.

He’d made her life a living hell for too many years to count until finally he’d been forced to step away, terrified that he’d do something foolish like take her over his knee and give her the spanking that she so rightly deserved. Putting space between them had probably saved them from killing each other or losing their damned minds.

When she came back into his life, he hadn’t been able to resist her. He loved being around her, tormenting her and waiting to see how she would react, but now he had to wonder if he’d gone too far.

“No,” she said, shaking her head as she continued to trace the length of his forearms with her fingertips, “I know that you would never hurt me, but….”

“But, what?” he asked, pressing another kiss against the top of her head.

“I didn’t want you to hate me anymore than you already did,” she said so softly that he almost missed it.

“I don’t hate you, Elizabeth,” he promised.

“You’re being awfully sweet about this whole thing, Robert, and while I appreciate that, I understand. I should have told you as soon as I was sure that I was pregnant and…”

“When was that?” he asked, cutting her off.

“When was what?” she asked, sounding confused.

“When did you become certain that you were pregnant?” he asked softly, praying that the reminder of what they’d lost didn’t make her cry. It killed him to see her cry.