“When did you learn to do this?” she asked, running her fingers over the silk.

“When I was fourteen,” he said, exhaling slowly as he sat down on the floor and leaned back until his back was pressed against the foot of the bed.

“I don’t remember you doing this sort of thing when we were children,” Elizabeth murmured, picking up her tea and taking a small sip as she continued to examine the chest.

He shook his head. “My parents would never have allowed me to take up this hobby,” he said, not bothering to mention the reason why since they both knew.

Women weren’t the only ones that were restricted by the rules of society. Men were as well. Even though it was very unlikely that he would ever inherit the title, he was still the son of an earl and expected to carry himself as one. He could own land, run an estate, invest and even join the army if his father bought him a commission, but there were things that he wasn’t supposed to do, never mind like.

Carpentry was one of them.

No man of his station was supposed to work in trade, to be a laborer, but he loved it. He loved working with his hands. He loved creating something beautiful from a pile of wood and nails. It kept him focused and allowed him to calm down when most days all he wanted to do was to drive his fist through something. It had been the only thing that had saved him from doing something truly foolish when he’d been a child.

“Will you tell me?” she asked, placing her cup back on the table.

He shook his head as he looked away. “I’m not sure that you want to hear this story.”

When she gently cupped his face in her hands to pull his attention back to her, he allowed it. “Please tell me,” she said, settling down to kneel next to him on the floor so that she was facing him.

He didn’t know where to start, wasn’t sure that he could share this with her. Knowing that there was a good chance that she would try to run away from him once he started, he took her hands in his and gently pulled her towards him. When she was close enough, he picked her up and placed her so that she was sitting across his lap.

Once she was comfortable, he wrapped his arms around her, pleased when she laid her head against his shoulder so that he wouldn’t have to look at her when he told her what she wanted to hear.

“You turned my life into a living hell,” he began hollowly, allowing himself to remember just how bad his life had been.

“What?” she asked, moving to turn in his arms, but he tightened his hold on her just enough to stop her.

“I can’t tell you this story, minx, if I have to look at you,” he explained, sighing in relief when she stopped trying to move.

She settled back against him and whispered, “Okay.”

“Did you know that my parents had originally refused to let me attend school?” he asked, deciding that the only way that he was going to survive this was to ease into it.

“No, I didn’t know that,” she answered softly.

He shifted against the bedframe, getting comfortable as he pressed a kiss to Elizabeth’s forehead, more for his benefit than hers. When she took one of his hands into hers and entwined their fingers, he knew that she understood.

“They were afraid that I wouldn’t be able to control my problem and that the other boys would find out. They didn’t want me to be humiliated and thought it would be best if I were to work with a tutor until I outgrew my problem.”

“What made them change their minds?” Elizabeth asked, shifting so that she could rest her head against his chest.

“James,” he said with a smile, remembering how his older brother had fought for him. “He was always so damn protective of me.”

“I remember,” Elizabeth murmured with what sounded like a smile.

“He didn’t want me missing out or picked on for being coddled by our parents. He worked on my parents every chance he got until they finally had enough and agreed to allow me to go,” he said, dropping his head back against the frame and closing his eyes as he remembered the day that his parents told him that he could go. It had been one of the best days of his life.

James had taken him fishing to celebrate. They hadn’t caught a damn thing, but it was one of the best fishing trips he’d ever had before or since. His brother had shared stories of all the mischief he’d pulled in school, given Robert tips on how to sneak out after hours and even on how to sneak in sweets so that he wouldn’t starve. When they came home his parents made sure that the cook had made all of his favorites and, for the first time in his life, they hadn’t said a word when he reached for more food. His father had ended the night by giving him his grandfather’s pocket watch, the same watch that was stolen only a few months later by a couple of boys who’d broken into his room to soak his clothes in vinegar.

“Sometimes I wish that he hadn’t been such a good brother,” Robert admitted on a sigh.

“No, you don’t,” Elizabeth said with a soft laugh that had him smiling despite his mood.

“No, I don’t,” he admitted, because he wouldn’t change a damn thing about his brother.

“After the incident in the park,” he said, deciding to just get it over with, “he refused to help me. I begged him to help me convince our parents to let me stay home, but he wouldn’t budge. He was convinced that if I let them push me around, that they would never stop. When I ran away he came after me and gave me the thrashing of a lifetime. It was the first and last time that he’d ever hit me.”

“When my parents realized how miserable I was, they started to reconsider sending me, but James wouldn’t have it. He dragged me to school and made damn sure that I stayed. He told me that it would be okay, that things wouldn’t be that bad, but he was wrong.”

“None of my friends wanted to have anything to do with me, which left me on my own. It wasn’t a good place to be in a school full of spoiled boys with nothing better to do then make each other miserable. Every day for about two years I was beat up, my books were stolen, my classwork trashed, my room ransacked and soaked in vinegar. They made a game of making my life a living hell.”

“Robert, I’m-”

But he didn’t give her a chance to apologize. That wasn’t the reason why he was telling her this story, he realized.

“When I was fourteen, I’d had enough and started to fight back. I wasn’t much of a fighter, but I was angry, so goddamn angry all the time that my temper soon became unpredictable. One day they’d pushed me too far and I snapped, really snapped. I flipped out in the middle of class and threw a desk through a window.”

“What happened next?”

The headmaster had beaten him within an inch of his life, but he wasn’t going to tell his wife that. So instead he told her the only part that mattered to him. “I was given a choice by my instructor, fix the desk or pack my bags. I actually packed my bags and was ready to leave when I found the parting gift the other boys had placed in my bag.”

“What was it?” Elizabeth asked, her voice barely above a whisper.

“A lemon,” Robert simply said, remembering the rage that he’d damn near gave into the moment that he found the fruit stuffed in his bag.

He’d wanted to tear the school apart, to beat the hell out of every boy that had taunted him, to make their lives a living hell the way they had made his, but he couldn’t do that if he let them win, he’d realized.