"I don't like surprises," he muttered. "I've had enough of them lately."
"Yes, that's what I thought."
Her eyes were clear, dark brown, like cups of shimmering caravan tea. Nick stared into her sweetly curved face, the chin too pointed, the nose too short. The little imperfections made her beauty unique and endlessly interesting, whereas more classically shaped features would have bored him quickly. His body reacted with pleasure to the pressure of the slim arm hooked around his leg and the side of her breast brushing his knee.
"What did my sister tell you?" he asked.
Lottie smoothed the loose folds of the silk robe. "It concerns your family estate in Worcestershire. Sophia and Sir Ross are having it restored, as a gift to you. They are repairing the manor and landscaping the grounds. Sophia has taken great pains to select fabrics and paints and furnishings that closely resemble the ones she remembered. She says it is rather like taking a journey back in time...that when she walks through the front entrance, she half-expects to hear your mother's voice calling her, and to find your father smoking in the library-"
"My God," Nick said through his teeth, rising to his feet.
Lottie remained before the fire, extending her hands toward its warmth. "They want to take us there after the writ of summons arrives. I thought it best to give you advance warning, to allow you time to prepare yourself."
"Thank you," Nick managed to say tautly. "Although no amount of time would be sufficient for that." The family manor...Worcestershire...he had not been back there since he and Sophia had been orphaned. Was there no damned escape from this? He felt as if he were being hauled inexorably toward a bottomless pit. The Sydney name, the title, the estate, the memories...he wanted none of it, and it was being shoved upon him regardless.
A sudden suspicion spread through him. "What else did my sister tell you?"
"Nothing of significance."
Nick would have been able to see if his sister had confided in her. But it seemed that Sophia had not betrayed him in that way. And if she had not told Lottie by now, she would probably continue to hold her silence. Relaxing marginally, he scrubbed his fingers through his disheveled hair. "Damn everyone and everything," he said in a low voice. But as he saw the indignant expression on Lottie's face, he added, "Except for you."
"I should hope so," she retorted. "I am on your side, you know."
"Are you?" he asked, drawn to the idea in spite of himself.
"Your life isn't the only one that's been turned topsy-turvy," she informed him. "And to think that I was worried about the problems thatmy family would cause!"
Nick was tempted to smile in the midst of his aggravation. He went to where she sat and lowered a hand to her. "If the rain stops," he said, pulling her up, "we'll visit your parents tomorrow."
Lottie's expressive face betrayed both consternation and eagerness. "If it isn't convenient...that is, if you have other plans...I am willing to wait."
"I have no plans," Nick said, thinking briefly of his dismissal. "Tomorrow will be as convenient as any other day."
"Thank you. I do want to see them. I only hope-" Lottie fell silent, her brows knitting together. The hem of the robe dragged in a long train as Lottie went to the fire. Nick followed immediately, wanting very much to cuddle and reassure her, to kiss her lips until they softened beneath his.
"Try not to think about it," he advised. "Distressing yourself won't change anything."
"It won't be a pleasant visit. I can't think of a situation in which two parties could feel more mutually betrayed. Although I am certain that most people would hold me at fault."
Nick stroked the sides of her arms over the silk sleeves. "If you had it to do over again, would you have stayed to marry Radnor?"
Turning Lottie to face him, he smoothed her hair back from her forehead. "Then I forbid you to feel guilty about it."
"Forbid?"she repeated, arching her brows.
Nick grinned. "You promised to obey me, didn't you? Well, do as I say, or face the consequences."
He unfastened her robe, dropped it to the floor, and proceeded to demonstrate exactly what he meant.
The Howard family lived in a hamlet two miles west of fashionable London, a residential outgrowth surrounded by farming land. Nick remembered the well-structured but shabby house from his much earlier visit, at the beginning of his search for Lottie. The irony of returning to them as their new, very much unwanted son-in-law would have made him smile, as the situation contained strong elements of farce. However, his private amusement was tamped down by Lottie's impenetrable silence. He wished he could spare her the difficulty of seeing her family. On the other hand, it was necessary for Lottie to face them and at least try to make peace.
The small Tudor-style home was one in a row of architecturally similar houses. It was fronted with small, overgrown garden plots, its red brick exterior sadly dilapidated. The front door was raised four steps from the ground, the narrow entrance leading to two downstairs rooms that served as parlors. Beside the entrance, another set of stone steps led to the cellar below, which contained a kitchen and a water-storage tank filled from the main in the road.
Three children played in the garden plots, brandishing sticks and running in circles. Like Lottie, they were flaxen blond, fair skinned, and slim of build. Having seen the children before, Nick had been told their names, but he could not recall them. The carriage stopped on the paved coachway, and the small faces appeared at the front gate, staring through the peeling slats as Nick helped Lottie descend from the carriage.
Lottie's face was outwardly calm, but Nick saw how tightly clenched her gloved fingers were, and he experienced something he had never known before-concern for someone else's feelings. He didn't like it.
Lottie stopped at the gate, her face pale. "Hullo," she murmured. "Is that you, Charles? Oh, you've grown so, I can scarcely recognize you. And Eliza, and-good gracious, is that baby Albert?"
"I'm not a baby!" piped the toddler indignantly.
Lottie flushed, poised on the verge between tears and laughter. "Why, no indeed. You must be three years old by now."
"You're our sister Charlotte," Eliza said. Her serious little face was sided by two long braids. "The one who ran away."
"Yes." Lottie's mouth was touched with sudden melancholy. "I don't wish to stay away any longer, Eliza. I have missed all of you so very much."
"You were supposed to marry Lord Radnor," Charles said, regarding her with round blue eyes. "He was very angry that you wouldn't, and now he's going to-"
"Charles!" A woman's agitated voice came from the doorway. "Hush and come away from the gate at once."
"But it's Charlotte," the boy protested.
"Yes, I'm aware of that. Come now, children, all of you. Tell the cookmaid to make you some toast with jam."
The speaker was Lottie's mother, a breakably slender woman in her early forties, with an unusually narrow face and light blond hair. Nick recalled that her husband was of stocky build with full cheeks. Neither of the pair was particularly handsome, but by some trick of nature Lottie had inherited the best features of each.
"Mama," Lottie said softly, gripping the top of the gate. The children promptly fled, eager for the promised treat.
Mrs. Howard regarded her daughter with a dull gaze, harsh lines scored between her nose and mouth, and across her forehead. "Lord Radnor came not two days ago," she said. The simple sentence contained both an accusation and indictment.
Bereft of words, Lottie looked back over her shoulder at Nick. He went into action immediately, joining her at the gate and unlatching it himself. "May we come in, Mrs. Howard?" he asked. He ushered Lottie toward the house without waiting for permission. Some devil prompted him to add, "Or shall I call you Mama?" He put a mocking emphasis on the last syllable of the word, as Lottie had.
For his effrontery, Lottie surreptitiously knocked an elbow into his ribs as they entered the house, and he grinned.
The interior of the house smelled musty. The drapes at the windows had been turned many times, until both sides were unevenly sun-bleached, while the aged carpets had been worn so thin that no regular pattern was discernable. Everything from the chipped porcelain figures on the mantel to the grimy paper on the walls contributed to the picture of decayed gentility. Mrs. Howard herself gave the same impression, moving with the weary grace and self-consciousness of someone who had once been accustomed to a far better life.
"Where is Father?" Lottie asked, standing in the center of the parlor, which was hardly bigger than a closet.
"Visiting your uncle, in town."
The three of them stood in the center of the room, while awkward silence thickened the air. "Why have you come, Charlotte?" her mother finally asked.
"I've missed you, I-" Lottie paused at the resolute blankness she saw on her mother's face. Nick sensed his wife's struggle between stubborn pride and remorse as she continued carefully. "I wanted to tell you that I'm sorry for what I did."
"I wish I could believe that," Mrs. Howard replied crisply. "However, I do not. You do not regret abandoning your responsibilities, nor are you sorry for placing your own needs above everyone else's."
Nick made the discovery that it was not easy for him to listen to someone criticizing his wife-even if that person happened to be her own mother. For Lottie's sake, however, he concentrated on keeping his mouth shut. Clasping his hands behind his back, he focused on the indistinct design of the ancient carpet.
"I regret causing you so much pain and worry, Mama," Lottie said. "I am also sorry for the two years of silence that have passed between us."
Finally Mrs. Howard displayed some sign of emotion, her voice edged with anger. "That was your fault-not ours."
"Of course," her daughter acknowledged humbly. "I would not presume to ask you to forgive me, but-"
"What's done is done," Nick interrupted, unable to tolerate Lottie's chastened tone. He would be damned if he stood by while she was brought to her knees in contrition. He placed a hand at Lottie's neatly corseted waist in a possessive gesture. His cool, steady gaze caught Mrs. Howard's. "There is nothing to be gained by talking about the past. We've come to discuss the future."
"You have no involvement in our future, Mr. Gentry." The woman's blue eyes were icy with contempt. "I blame you for our situation fully as much as my daughter. I never would have talked with you, answered your questions, if I had known that your ultimate design was to take her for yourself."
"It was not my plan." Nick let his fingers nestle in the curve of Lottie's waist, remembering the delicious softness beneath the confining stays. "I had no idea that I would want to marry Lottie until I met her. But it was obvious then-as it is now-that Lottie will be better served by a marriage to me than to Radnor."
"You are very much mistaken," Mrs. Howard snapped. "Arrogant scoundrel! How dare you compare yourself to a peer of the realm?"
Feeling Lottie stiffen at his side, Nick squeezed her subtly in a silent message not to correct her mother on that point. He was damned if he would use his own title to compare himself in any way with Radnor.
"Lord Radnor is a man of great wealth and refinement," Mrs. Howard continued. "He is highly educated and honorable in every regard. And if it weren't for my daughter's selfishness and your interference, Charlotte would now be his wife."
"You've omitted a few points," Nick said. "Including the fact that Radnor is thirty years older than Lottie and happens to be as mad as cobbler's punch."
The color on Mrs. Howard's face condensed into two bright patches high on her cheeks. "He is not mad!"
For Lottie's sake, Nick struggled to control his sudden fury. He imagined her as a small, defenseless child, being closed alone in a room with a predator like Radnor. And this woman had allowed it. He vowed silently that Lottie would never again go unprotected. He gave Mrs. Howard a hard stare. "You saw nothing wrong in Radnor's obsessive attentions to an eight-year-old girl?" he asked softly.
"The nobility are allowed their foibles, Mr. Gentry. Their superior blood accommodates a few eccentricities. But of course, you would know nothing about that."
"You might be surprised," Nick said sardonically. "Regardless, Lord Radnor is hardly a model for rational behavior. The social attachments he once enjoyed have withered because of his so-called foibles. He has withdrawn from society and spends most of his time in his mansion, hiding from the sunlight. His life is centered around the effort to mold a vulnerable girl into his version of the ideal woman-one who isn't allowed even to draw breath without his permission. Before you blame Lottie for running from that, answer this question in perfect honesty-would you want to marry such a man?"
Mrs. Howard was spared from having to reply by the sudden arrival of Lottie's younger sister Ellie, a pretty sixteen-year-old girl with a full-cheeked face and heavily lashed blue eyes. Her hair was much darker than Lottie's, light brown instead of blond, and her figure was far more generously endowed. Coming to a breathless halt in the doorway, Ellie beheld her prodigal sister with a crow of excitement. "Lottie!" She rushed forward and seized her older sister in a tight embrace. "Oh, Lottie, you're back! I missed you every day, and thought of you, and feared for you-"
"Ellie, I've missed you even more," Lottie said with a choked laugh. "I didn't dare write to you, but oh, how I wanted to. One could paper the walls with the letters I wished to send-"
"Ellie," their mother interrupted. "Return to your room."
She was either unheard or ignored, as Ellie drew back to look at Lottie. "How beautiful you are," she exclaimed. "I knew you would be. I knew..." Her voice trailed away as she caught sight of Nick standing nearby. "Did you really marry him?" she whispered with a scandalized delight that made Nick grin.
Lottie glanced at him with a curious expression. Nick wondered if she disliked having to acknowledge him as her husband. She didn't seem disgruntled, but neither did she sound wildly enthusiastic. "Mr. Gentry," Lottie said, "I believe you have met my sister?"
"Miss Ellie," he murmured with a slight bow. "A pleasure to see you again."
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