A scandalous wife, p.1
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A Scandalous Wife


  A Scandalous Wife

  Ava Stone

  Copyright © 2011 by Ava Stone

  Cover Design by Lily Smith

   

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without written permission.

  The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

  For more information: ava@avastoneauthor.com

  www.avastoneauthor.com

  Table of Contents

  One

  Two

  Three

  Four

  Five

  Six

  Seven

  Eight

  Nine

  Ten

  Eleven

  Twelve

  Thirteen

  Fourteen

  Fifteen

  Sixteen

  Seventeen

  Eighteen

  Nineteen

  Twenty

  Twenty-One

  Twenty-Two

  Twenty-Three

  Twenty-Four

  Epilogue

   

  For Laurel Bennett, my trailblazing friend.

  April 1812 – London

  Robert Beckford, the Earl of Masten, glanced around his sister’s opulent ballroom and wondered, not for the first time that night, why he was there. These sorts of aimless functions were precisely why he spent most of his time in Dorset.

  “Every year it gets worse and worse, Rob; and I get older and older, less able to tolerate her all together,” Chester Peyton, the Marquess of Astwick, complained as he ran a hand through his dark hair. Everyone else at the Staveleys’ annual ball seemed to be enjoying themselves, but Chet, a hulking giant and normally cheerful man, was set squarely in the doldrums.

  Robert smiled at the marquess dismissively. “Come now, she can’t be all that bad.

  “It’s worse than I’m letting on,” Chet insisted firmly with a crinkled brow. “She’s pestering me nearly non-stop.”

  It was every mother’s duty to bully her son into a finding a proper wife. Chet had avoided it for too long at thirty-seven, and Robert chuckled at his friend’s continued reluctance to his obvious fate. Though the two had been friends since their boyhood days together at Eton, Robert had to agree with Lady Astwick on this matter. Her son was a bit long-in-the-tooth and quite overdue in selecting a bride. “Well, then finally settle on a chit and make your mother happy.”

  This conversation was tiresome. They’d had it on more than one occasion. Robert would much rather be discussing his stables, the latest races, or something else of interest. Besides, it wasn’t as if finding a wife would upset Chet’s daily routine. His life would continue as it always had, just like that of every other married man of their acquaintance.

  Robert scanned the ballroom until his eyes settled on a pretty little thing near the entrance to the drawing room. He smiled when he saw her. Light from the chandeliers reflected off the soft hues of her strawberry blond hair piled high on her head. She wasn’t like the other girls in their light pastel gowns and demure looks. No, the pretty girl that caught Robert’s attention was bold in a rich sapphire-colored gown that was eye-catching in its contrast with her light hair and creamy complexion. She seemed much too daring for Robert’s own conservative tastes, but Chet…well, Chet could use a bold woman. “That girl, there. You look like you could be her father, but perhaps she prefers older men. Quite pretty.”

  Chet followed Robert’s gaze and when he spotted the girl, his laugh boomed so loudly that couples stopped dancing and turned toward the disruptive sound. Robert was accustomed to Chet’s affable demeanor, so the guffaw had no effect on him except that he raised his eyebrows slightly in question.

  After wiping a laugh-induced tear from his eye, Chet shook his head in dismay. “Honestly, Rob, that was nicely played. I appreciate your good humor.”

  It was common knowledge among their set that Chet could be extremely picky when it came to women; this was why he was still single and unattached at thirty-seven. But Robert couldn’t detect anything outwardly offensive with the girl in the sapphire dress. On the contrary, she was breathtaking. He rubbed his chin in frustration. Shouldn’t Chet at least make the acquaintance of the girl, before he rejected her outright? “And what exactly is so funny? What could you possibly find wrong with that girl?”

  Chet tried not to laugh again, and draped his arm around his friend’s shoulder. “Well, for one thing, she’s your wife.”

  Robert’s eyes flew back to the pretty girl on the other side of the room. That could not possibly be Lydia Masten. His own wife was a mere child, much younger than that pretty girl. Though now that he thought about it, it had been five years since he’d laid eyes on her. Even then, their interaction had been brief—just long enough for him to say his vows and then explain to her afterward what the rest of her life would entail. “Not possible,” he was barely able to mutter.

  “What’s not possible?” Chet’s good-natured grin had yet to leave his face. “That she’s your wife, or that you didn’t recognize her?”

  “Is it really?” Robert couldn’t help but stare at her. Had Lydia grown up to become that beautiful woman?

  “Perhaps she prefers older men,” Chet teased him, apparently feeling more like his usual, gregarious self. “Why don’t you go over there and find out?”

  But Robert knew exactly what kind of men Lydia Masten preferred: roguish ne’er-do-wells like his younger brother. That’s how he got into this mess in the first place. Was that stunning creature really his Lydia?

  He tried to remember the timid girl of sixteen that he’d married in an attempt to protect his family’s name. She had seemed shy and quiet as they exchanged their vows, not like the wanton harlot she obviously was to be in bed with his brother at the late Lord Staveley’s country party.

  At the time, Miss Lydia Warner had been in the charge of her aunt, the Dowager Lady Carteret. It was very likely that Robert would have never even known she existed at all, if Staveley hadn’t stumbled upon the chit in Lucas Beckford’s room, not a stitch on her, and in his brother’s embrace.

  Everything else had happened very fast. Luke, ever the cad, had bolted, leaving the ruined Miss Warner alone for her aunt to console. Something had to be done, and as usual that meant it was left up to Robert to find a solution.

  Word of this sort of thing would spread quickly, of that there had been no doubt. And Robert had been fortunate that Lord Staveley was his sister’s father-in-law, as that bought him a little extra time, but still he needed to act fast. He didn’t necessarily care for the girl’s reputation—she’d made her own decision as far as he was concerned—but the Beckford family’s good name lay heavily on his mind. So, he did the only thing he could. He acquired a special license and married her himself. Then he hadn’t laid eyes on her again.  

  Until now.

  Yes, he seemed to remember that her hair was that light red color. But he didn’t remember those eyes—piercingly blue. The bold color of her dress certainly brought them out. The girl he was looking at was simply stunning. There wasn’t another word for her. But what was she doing here at his sister’s ball? She was supposed to be in Cheshire, for God’s sake!

  It was as if Chet could read his mind. He slapped Robert’s back. “She’s spending the season with her cousin, Carteret.” Then Chet smiled wistfully. “Now, Lady Carteret…she’s one I could have married.”

  Robert momentarily took his eyes from his wife and smiled at his friend. “That was a long time ago, Chet. Time to get over her. Everyone else has.”

  Chet dismissed the notion with his hand. “Oh, I never had her—none of us did. Carteret was the only one for her, damn his eyes.”

  It was Robert’s turn to laugh. “He really isn’t all that bad, Chet. I’ve never understood why the two of you dislike each other so intensely.”

  Chet frowned, as he did whenever Carteret’s name was mentioned. “I have my reasons. Besides, he has rotten luck with cards. He hasn’t ever come out and said it, Robert, but I know he thinks I cheat. Is it my fault I’m lucky?”

  Robert had been on the losing end of card games with Chet for years and could commiserate with Lord Carteret in that regard. “Well, I suppose he was the lucky one where Lady Carteret is concerned.”

  “That’s the damned truth of it,” Chet agreed and then glanced back at Lydia. “So, then, about Lady Masten…Go on over. Introduce yourself to your wife, Rob. You just said she was quite pretty. Why don’t you see if she remembers you?”

  Robert shook his head with determination. “I think I’d prefer to keep our relationship the way it is, Chet, thank you.”

  “Suit yourself.” Chet’s light green eyes twinkled and he made his way over to the refreshment table.

  With that said, Robert continued to eye his wife from across the room. Had she been this enchanting at sixteen?  Could he actually blame Luke for wanting to hold that girl? For bedding her? But that girl was no longer a girl—she was now a beautiful woman, from what he could see. He took note of her plunging neckline and her full lips.  Then he shook his head, to snap out of the spell his wife was obviously weaving around him.

  Of all the women in England, Lydia Masten was not for him. He was safer finding another woman like Cecily Rigsley. A woman with whom he could have an understanding, a woman who could satisfy his needs without being emotionally involved, a woman who knew her place.

  That woman was not his wife.

  He’d sent Lydia off to Blackstone Manor in Cheshire immediately after their wedding ceremony and had insisted that she stay put. Though at the time she was outraged with his demands, he felt he’d been very generous in offering her the estate and the two thousand pounds a year that he allotted her. Better than she deserved, of that he was sure. And that’s where she was supposed to be right this moment. Not here. Not in London. Not in his sister’s ballroom.

  Robert looked around the room. He wasn’t the only man whose attention she’d caught. In fact, many men seemed enamored by her. His heartbeat quickened. Lydia needed to return to Blackstone before she was embroiled in a scandal he couldn’t contain.

  The same questions rolled over and over in his mind. What was his wife doing here of all places? Why had she left Cheshire? And why was he not informed of her departure? The staff at Blackstone would have to answer to him. They’d be damned lucky to maintain their posts.

  Lydia Masten had seen him, of course. Her husband’s rich, brown eyes could’ve burned a hole in her. She recognized him immediately. In fact, she could never forget him, try as she might. Unfortunately, the man was much more handsome than she remembered, though still just as intimidating. Apparently even his hair didn’t dare defy him, as every golden brown strand lay perfectly in place. He did look older to her. But then, he’d always seemed old—old and unyielding. She was just sixteen when they’d married and he’d been twice her age at thirty-two. He had a stern look in his eyes then, and she noted, with a bit of anxiety, that he still had it now.

  She averted her gaze back to her companion, the tall, dark, and sinfully handsome Duke of Kelfield. “I can’t believe Caroline invited him.”

  Kelfield laughed at that. “My darling Lydia, he is her brother.”

  “But to not tell me. I wouldn’t have come.”

  “Knowing Caroline, that’s precisely why she didn’t tell you. She likes to meddle, if you haven’t noticed.”

  “Is he still staring at me?” Truly, that was a bit surprising. Her husband hadn’t deigned to even pay her a visit in the last five years. And now he couldn’t keep his eyes off her? It was a bit unsettling, to say the least.

  Kelfield’s wicked lips quirked up to a grin. “Sweetheart, every man in the room is staring at you.”

  It had been that way ever since she’d arrived in London nearly a month earlier, but it was still surprising. Being locked away in Cheshire for the last five years had left her unprepared for the overt attention she’d received upon her arrival. She was so young when she’d been banished that she hadn’t realized the depths of the depravity of the ton. Everywhere she went, men sought her out and made improper suggestions.

  “Still, what a tragedy to be tied to that prig the rest of your days,” Kelfield continued quietly.

  That sentiment echoed inside her soul.

  She’d never even laid eyes on him until they were united in Lord Staveley’s study. Aunt Agnes had informed her that she would marry Lord Masten, and that she was lucky his lordship was honorable, given that his brother was not.

  Honorable. Robert Beckford may be honorable—he had saved her from ruination, after all—but the contempt he clearly felt for her was worse than any censure she could imagine.

  “The man has behaved abominably, if you ask me. Had I found myself married to you, sweetheart, I certainly wouldn’t sulk over it—and I’m the furthest thing from the marrying type.”

  Lydia smiled at the duke. “Indeed? Kelfield, I was certain your name was being bandied about in connection with a very proper young lady within the last fortnight.”

  His silver eyes twinkled. “Ah, Lady Juliet St. Claire? Unfortunately, the lady in question has set her sights on your brother-in-law.”

  Her brother-in-law? Lydia resisted the urge to cringe. When she was sixteen she’d found him to be terribly handsome and exciting. Now it made her ill to think about him. He had been charming and made her feel special and she…well, she had been very foolish. Any young lady would have wanted the attention of the dashing Luke Beckford. She was no different. Just more naïve.

  “Has no one warned the poor girl what a reprobate he is?”

  “Some women have a taste for reprobates.” Kelfield slid his arm around her waist and peered deeply into her eyes. He was very handsome in a wicked sort of way, but she’d had her share of that sort of man. Besides, she was a married woman. One that hadn’t been touched in years, yet married all the same.

  “Let me take you home, sweetheart,” the duke whispered.

  Home was the furthest thing on Kelfield’s mind, and she was well aware of the fact. The man practically undressed her with his eyes whenever they met. Still he was a friend of the family, and far safer to her than the other gentlemen of London for that very reason. “Honestly, Kelfield, isn’t there some sort of honor among rogues?”

  He grinned down at her, still not releasing his hold. “Sweetheart, Masten is the furthest thing from a rogue. So, there’s no honor between us.”

  She raised her brow indignantly. “I meant James.”

  The duke laughed again. “Your cousin stopped being a rogue years ago. I’m the only one left of the group. The rest—” he made a sour face— “have all become respectable.”

  “Is he still staring at me?” she asked again.

  Kelfield nodded as he looked over her shoulder. “And turning a perfectly putrid shade of red.”

  “I suppose I should at least say a word to him. Don’t you think?”

  The duke dropped his hand from her waist and frowned. “Would you like me to talk to him for you?”

  Hardly. Who knew what Kelfield would say? “I don’t think that would be appropriate at all.” And when dealing with Masten, one needed to be appropriate.

  “Very well.” He released her with a sigh. “But don’t let him bully you, sweetheart. You don’t have to put up with his high-handed treatment. You are a countess. Bear that in mind.”

  Lydia nodded and made a straight line for her husband. Once at his side, she offered her hand. “My lord, I hope this evening finds you well.”

  The earl took her gloved hand in his and brought it to his lips. “My lady, whatever are you doing in London?”

  There was that condescending tone she remembered. It was the same one he used when he’d explained to her what the rest of her life would consist of, right before he’d shipped her off to Blackstone. But Lydia was no longer that shy sixteen year old girl, and her husband’s demeanor was most annoying.

  She proudly thrust her chin up and bravely met his eyes. “Removing myself out from under your thumb, Masten.”

  His eyes narrowed and he stepped closer to her. “I want you to go back to Blackstone, wife.”

  She had meant to make peace with him, but she could feel his hatred in her bones.  There was nothing she could ever do to change that; it was plain as the nose on her face. Over the last five years she had led an exemplary life, sincerely meaning to make amends for her indiscretion, but it would never mean anything to this man. Lydia washed her hands of him.

  She smiled prettily and gazed up into his brown eyes, certain that anyone witnessing the scene from afar would think she was enamored with the earl. “I’m sure you do, my lord, but my days of caring what you want are over.”

  It was obvious he didn’t like that and his scowl darkened. “Like it or not,” he muttered between clinched teeth, “you are my wife and you will go back to Blackstone.”

  She laughed sweetly, as if he’d made an amusing joke. “I would like very much to watch you try and force me back there, Masten. I’m not staying under your protection in London. You have no control over me. Not anymore. Do have a wonderful evening.”

  Lydia sauntered past him and was stopped by a handsome young gentleman. She threw her head back and laughed at whatever inane thing her companion had said. Robert was certain it was inane. He had a look about him—too young to say anything intelligent.

  He then seethed as she flirted with the young buck. “Lady Masten,” he said softly to himself, “you will do exactly what I say, or life will be very unpleasant for you.”

  Chet returned to Robert’s side, once again grinning from ear to ear. “Well, it looks like she prefers older men, after all. I watched the two of you from across the room. Why’d you let her get away without dancing with you?”

  Dancing with her was the very last thing on Robert’s mind, though wringing her pretty little neck was at the top of his list. He pursed his lips in anger as he watched her flit about on the floor, now dancing with the scandalous Duke of Kelfield.

  Robert scowled. He had sacrificed so much in marrying her. He’d given up his hope of ever finding a suitable wife. He’d pushed all that aside, and he’d be damned if it was all for naught. “Lord Carteret, you say?”

  Chet nodded and replied tightly, “Yes, she’s staying with that Scottish bastard.”

  Robert scanned the room until his eyes fell on his sister. She stood in the open doorway conversing with her guests. “I’ll see him tomorrow. In the meantime, Lady Staveley owes me an explanation.”

  Robert bowed slightly to Chet and started across the room, catching Kelfield’s smug expression as he spun Lydia on the dance floor. The image irritated Robert to no end. So, he impatiently waited for his sister to stop her idle chit-chat with some middle-aged spinster near the entranceway, tapping his foot in annoyance.

  When Caroline, Viscountess Staveley, finally noticed her brother’s storm-cloud expression, she immediately cut her conversation short and went to his side. “Robert, you look troubled.”

  “Where can we talk in private, Caro?”

  A slight grin cross his sister’s face, and Robert had a sneaking suspicion that she knew exactly what he wanted to talk about. “You can follow me to the music room, but I can’t be away from my guests for too long. It wouldn’t look good, Robert.”

  Wouldn’t look good, indeed! He frowned irritably. He followed her down a corridor, passing many happy guests all dressed elegantly for the evening, but Robert paid no attention to anything until they reached the music room. When his sister shut the door behind them, he glowered at her. “Would you care to explain to me what my wife is doing here?”

  The corners of her mouth upturned to a knowing grin. “Well, my dear brother, she is here because I invited her. I certainly couldn’t have people going around saying ‘Lady Staveley snubbed her own sister-in-law’. It wouldn’t look good.”

  There it was again. It wouldn’t look good. He knew very well that she was mocking him. He had raised her and schooled her as to what was or was not appropriate. Luke hadn’t paid any attention to those lessons, but his sister had been an apt pupil. “You can save that bit of sarcasm for your husband, Caroline.”

  She smiled warmly at him this time. “Rob, she’s staying with Lord and Lady Carteret. James is one of David’s oldest friends. I couldn’t very well not invite her. It would have been rude.”

  This didn’t appease him. “I didn’t see Carteret out there.”

  “Well, they didn’t come. One of their daughters wasn’t feeling well, so Lydia came alone.”

  “So, now it’s Lydia, is it?”

  The irritation was evident in his voice and his sister calmly sighed. “Really, Robert, you don’t even know her—”

  “But you do?” He countered sharply.

  “Well, I’ve spent a great deal of time with her over the last month.”

  “The last month!” Robert roared, momentarily forgetting there were people in the hallway. Then he lowered his voice and hissed, “She’s been in Town that long and no one thought to tell me?”

  Caroline stepped backward in obvious surprise. Robert rarely raised his voice with her. Apparently, she hadn’t realized how angry he would truly be. “You were in Dorset,” she finally offered meekly.

  Did she honestly think he would accept that absurd answer? His glower darkened. “The mail coach runs to Dorset.”

  Caroline smiled sheepishly and agreed, “So, it does.”

  Robert paced around the room. His sister had to know what kind of position this put him in. What a fool he’d looked like out there. “Do you think you could’ve warned me before tonight?”

  Caroline paused before carefully answering him.  “Then you wouldn’t have come. And I so wanted you to meet her. She’s such a lovely girl, Robert.”

  She was lovely to look at, Robert conceded. But her presence here was unacceptable. Didn’t Caroline realize this was out of line? “Yes, well, I’ve met her, and we’ve exchanged words.”

  Caroline frowned in disapproval, as if there was any doubt in her mind that Robert had been the instigator. “You said something cruel, I’m sure. Heavens, Robert, must you be so boorish?”

  Boorish?

  He had done the honorable thing all those years ago by giving his name to girl who didn’t deserve it—gave her a title no less. And his sister accused him of being boorish?

  Then she smiled playfully at him, as if there was some grand master plan of hers that he was a part of. “Your eyes lit up when you saw her out there.”

  Had they really? He hadn’t realized it had been so obvious. “Were you watching for my reaction to all of this?”

  She nodded mischievously and her brown curls bobbed up and down. “It was most fun. I was hoping you’d like her.”

  Robert ran his hands through his hair and glared at his sister. “Fun? If Luke is on his way here, you’d better warn me now. I’d hate to find them starting up where they left off.”

  This time Caroline scoffed and looked offended. “In the first place, I don’t know where our brother is. And secondly, he knows he’s not welcome here. I’m quite put out with him at the moment, actually. Now, honestly, I’ve been away from my guests for too long, Robert. Please, don’t look so sour. Escort me back and try not to be such a beast to your wife.”

  How had he gotten the reputation with his sister that he was a beast? He had always been the picture of propriety. He frowned at her words.

  Bitterly, Robert abided Caroline’s request and led her back to the ballroom. Almost immediately his eyes landed on his wife, now dancing with the current Lord Staveley. “Apparently, your husband is fond of her as well.”

  Caroline smiled and smoothed Robert’s jacket with the palm of her hand. “David is a very generous host. If I didn’t know better, Robert, I’d think you were jealous.”

  Robert scowled at the idea, and focused again on Lydia. She had more sets of male eyes on her than he was comfortable with. It was just a matter of time before she was caught up in another scandal. She needed to be dealt with, and the sooner, the better.

  As the song ended, Lord Staveley led Lydia to where Robert and Caroline stood near the grand entranceway.  The two women warmly embraced and Caroline smiled at her sister-in-law. “Lydia, you are truly radiant this evening.”

  “Thank you, Caroline,” Lydia replied graciously. “This has been a wonderful night. Will I see you tomorrow for tea?”

  It sounded as if she was taking her leave, and Robert couldn’t have been more relieved. Then his sister took Lydia’s arm. “Oh, darling, you can’t leave so soon. A waltz is just starting.” Sure enough, a violinist could be heard warming up his instrument even over the sea of people. Caroline continued in a soothing voice, “Robert, make me happy. Dance with your wife.”

  Caroline had gone and lost her bloody mind! Robert could have killed her right on the spot—but later. There were too many witnesses at the moment. And too many people had overheard her request for him to ignore it. He couldn’t refuse to dance with his own wife, as that was sure to get tongues wagging all over Town. So he grudgingly offered his arm to Lydia. “My lady.”

  Lydia met Robert’s eyes with a look of loathing that matched his own, but she knew what was expected of her. Caroline had been so gracious and forgiving, it would have been easier to refuse Prinny himself than her sister-in-law. So, she took her husband’s outstretched arm.

  Robert led her to the middle of the floor, slid his arm around her waist, and took her free hand in his. A waltz, of all things! She’d have to look up into that scowling face the whole time.

  “I’m not any happier about this than you are,” he muttered so softly that no one else could hear him.

  She glared at him. “Then you shouldn’t have offered me your arm.”

  “Appearances, Lady Masten. Appearances,” was his curt reply.

  Ah, yes, appearances—the only thing he ever truly cared about. She said nothing and just followed his lead. This would be over soon enough and then she could go back to James and Bethany’s. With any luck, she could avoid Robert Beckford for the remainder of the season. That should be easy to do. He didn’t want to see her either, after all.

  “That dress you’re wearing is outrageous.” His harsh whisper broke the silence. “You look like a harlot.”

  Shocked by his sudden statement, she couldn’t help but laugh from surprise. The bastard. Lydia wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of flustering her, so she addressed him clearly. “As I’ve already told you, my lord, my days of caring what you think are over.”

  “I can stop your allowance,” he threatened.

  Did he think he could control her with his money? She had family that would step in if she needed them to. Robert Beckford would have to do better than that. She only smiled at his threat. “Do whatever you feel you need to, my lord. I’m not under your roof and I won’t answer to you. Not ever again.”

  His stare became more intense, boring into her, and then the music stopped. Still, he didn’t release his hold on her. “I don’t want this to get ugly, my lady. Go back to Blackstone. You’ll not beat me in the end.”

  But he couldn’t make her do anything. James would protect her. Her cousin would never leave her at the mercy of Lord Masten. That was the one thing she was sure of. Let Robert Beckford do his worst!

  The ball had long since been over and all the other guests had already departed, but Robert still remained. Lydia had left Staveleys’ shortly after their waltz, and Robert had felt a tug of remorse for his unkind words. He’d just been so surprised to come across her, not that that was a reasonable excuse for his behavior. Thoughts of his wife had occupied him for the remainder of the evening. Lydia was no longer the shy girl he vaguely remembered. She now had a strong will that was, no doubt, just as scandalous as her other activities.

  He sat in the parlor, listening to his brother-in-law drone on about one of his children and a puppy. Robert paid very little attention. In fact as his mind wandered, he wondered if he even knew the names of his nieces and nephew. The boy was Aaron—no Adam. And the girls…Rachel and Emily? He supposed he could be a better uncle. When was the last time he’d even laid eyes on the brats?

  “So, Masten?” he heard his brother-in-law ask, and he snapped back to the present.

  “Beg your pardon, Staveley. I was woolgathering.”

  But before Staveley could continue, Caroline entered the parlor and cast her husband a disparaging look. “David, Emma has woken up and is asking for you.”

  His niece’s name was Emma! Damn, Robert cursed silently. He was convinced it was Emily. Yes, he could be a much better uncle. It was a good thing he hadn’t asked about them by name.

  With a concerned look, David Benton crossed the room to his wife. “More nightmares?”

  “I don’t know why you told them that story about Medusa,” Caroline chastised him. “She thinks there are snakes in her hair, and only you can vanquish them.”

  “I didn’t think they’d take it so literally.” Staveley frowned. “I’ll make sure to vanquish the snakes for good, my love.”

  “See that you do.” Caroline brushed her lips to Staveley’s cheek.

  With her husband gone, Caroline turned her attention to Robert. “You’re still angry with me,” she remarked quietly.

  Robert rubbed his brow. He didn’t want to be angry with his sister. He loved her dearly. Though he spent most of his time in Dorset, Caroline was never far from his thoughts. He’d been more of a father than a brother to her, but at the moment he felt a bit betrayed by his sister. “Why did you insist on that waltz?”

  Caroline moved to sit across from him on the settee with a conciliatory look in her hazel eyes. “Because I was hoping you’d find her as delightful as I do. She is your wife, after all. Wouldn’t it be lovely if the two of you could get along?”

  He nearly snorted in response. Get along with Lydia Masten? That was absurd.

  “Robert,” she continued softly, “you hide behind this rigid façade you’ve created for yourself. And I so worry about you. Sometimes I think I’m the only one who sees the real you—the only one who knows what a kind, gentle man you truly are. And you must admit, darling, that you’ve been a bit heartless where Lydia is concerned.”

  That got Robert’s attention, and he grimaced. “How is that, exactly? She has a lovely home and all the blunt she could want!” Then he added mordantly, “Yes, I’ve been truly terrible.”

  Caroline reached for his hand and soothingly stroked it with hers. “She’s lonely, Robert.”

  That he highly doubted. When Robert snorted, Caroline thrust his hand back into his lap with a look of annoyance. “Don’t be boorish. You know very well that I didn’t think highly of her when you married. Quite the opposite actually. But now I’ve gotten to know her, Robert. And I think you would be pleased with your wife, if you gave her half a chance. I prefer her to that stuffy whatever-her-name-was you had your heart set on back then.”

  Robert couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Miss Elizabeth Haddon had been perfect for him. Caroline might just as well have told him what a lovely gentleman Mr. Bonaparte was. Inconceivable. “You can’t even compare the two of them.”

  “No, you can’t,” Caroline agreed with an edge to her voice. “Lydia is full of life and that Haddon woman drained it from everyone around her.”

  What was she talking about? Robert looked at his sister and realized he didn’t quite know who she was anymore. The Caroline he’d raised would never say such a thing. “When did you change?”

  She smiled at him and her hazel eyes twinkled. “Probably when I married David.”

  “Ah, yes.” That was the truth of it. Robert and his sister had slowly drifted apart ever since Caroline had wed. “His friends are peers, but they’re common at heart.”

  “Common?” she echoed incredulously.

  “Caroline, Kelfield is more scandalous than even our dear brother.”

  “I am quite fond of His Grace, myself, Robert. Despite his flaws, Kelfield has a kind heart. And you can call him what you will—he’s an unrepentant, self-indulgent, rakehell, but he’s far from common.”

  Although Robert didn’t agree with his sister’s assessment, especially after watching the man hang all over Lydia most of the night, he admired that Caroline came to her friend’s defense. She was always true to her heart. It was one of things he loved most about her. But he couldn’t let her off the hook. Not yet. “And then there’s Carteret.”

  At this, Caroline scoffed. “What could you possible find wrong with Lord Carteret? James MacFadyn is a paragon of virtue.”

  Robert had to keep from smiling at his sister’s automatic championing of her friend, but he maintained a straight face. No sense in her knowing that he was teasing her. After all, she quite deserved it after tonight. “You think so? Well, for starters, he’s both a Scot and a Whig.” He couldn’t think of anything else disparaging. If Chet was there, he could have been of assistance. Then he threw in as an afterthought, “And he’s a sore loser at cards.”

  Despite herself, Caroline laughed. “In the first place, he’s English, though his family’s seat is near the Scottish border in Cumberland. But he’s also an earl, Robert, same as you.”

  He couldn’t help but smile then. “If he’s English, then I’m the Prince of Wales. MacFadyn is a Scottish name, Caro. He may have land in England, but he’s a Scot. There’s no question about it.”

  Caroline’s smile faded and she looked at him seriously. “What has any of this to do with anything, Robert?”

  He shrugged, not really knowing what to say,

  “And if you have a problem with Whigs, then I suppose you won’t be comfortable here anymore, since David is one as well.”

  He realized he’d taken his teasing too far when he saw a hurt look settle on his sister’s face. He hadn’t meant to actually upset her. Robert hooked one of Caroline’s errant brown curls behind her ear with a brotherly smile. “Whig or not, you know I like Staveley.” When she smiled at him, he could see the little girl in her that he remembered. Always seeking her brother’s approval. “But no more about my wife. I’m going to send her back to Cheshire, so there’s nothing further to discuss.”

  “Oh, Rob, please don’t,” she pleaded. “I so enjoy having her here. Emma and Rachel worship her.”

  It was on the tip of his tongue to say that his nieces shouldn’t worship a whore, but Robert stopped himself. His nieces worshiped her? An accolade like that had never been bestowed upon him. Apparently, she was a better aunt to them than he was an uncle, and they were his blood relations. “Nevertheless, that’s the deal we made all those years ago. She’s the one who’s broken it. She’ll go back.”

             

  “I’m just saying you’re bloody unlucky to have missed Staveley’s Ball last night,” Chet chided his good friend Brendan Reese, the Earl of Clayworth, as they walked along Rotten Row.  The sun was shining brightly this morning, and that was reflected in the return of the marquess’ good nature.

  The golden-haired, Adonis-bodied Clayworth was dressed in his finest buff-colored breeches, bottle-green coat, and Hessian boots—making the robust and slovenly attired Astwick look even more out of place along the fashionable walkway. “So I’ve heard from no less than ten people this morning.”

  Chet’s deep chuckle actually startled some wigeons from a nearby tree. “Honestly, Bren, when was the last time you saw Rob with stars in his eyes?”

  Brendan looked skeptically at his friend. “You must be jesting. Robert’s hardly the starry-eyed sort.”

  “My point exactly, old man. Yet he was last night…up until he found out who she was, anyway. And even then he couldn’t keep his eyes off her. Caroline Staveley has my complete respect. It takes a courageous woman to blindside Masten like that.”

  There were many pressing things on Brendan’s mind, and the situation involving the estranged Mastens was way down the list, as well as none of his business. Still, there was something about the tone in Chet’s voice that left him with a wary feeling. “I do hope you’re not planning anything rash. Robert won’t thank you for interfering.”

  “Ah, well, Rob doesn’t know what’s good for him. And after the defection of that Rigsley woman—”

  “Robert was fine to see her go. He only keeps them if they’re discreet. She wasn’t.”

  “Oh, for God’s sake, Bren!” Chet’s exasperated voice rang out. “I’m telling you there was a spark between them. He even said his wife was ‘quite pretty.’”

  This got Brendan’s attention, and he stopped walking. “Rob said that?”

  Chet smiled wickedly. “Rob said that. He’s just too stubborn for his own good, that’s all. Therefore, it is up to us, old friend. We must think of something to help him along.”

  The two men started walking again and rounded a corner. From the opposite direction, a couple of attractive young ladies and their chaperone brushed past them. One of the girls looked back over her shoulder at the two gentlemen and giggled flirtatiously.

  Brendan gestured toward the disappearing ladies with his hand. “You, my friend, should be spending your time in trying to find a wife for yourself and not fretting over Robert’s unfortunate situation.”

  Chet frowned. “For God’s sake, Bren, not you too. The last thing I need is a giggling, simpering, little chit like that. I’d feel like Goliath around a woman that small. Besides, whoever I end up with has to be able to face down the dragon that calls herself my mother.”

  At that Brendan smirked. “Ah, you’re looking for a steadfast, stalwart young woman then? May I suggest a Scot? They’re a hearty breed and could certainly stand up to Lady Astwick.”

  “I’ve got it!” Chet smirked. “You need to marry Rosamund off. What say I become your brother-in-law?”

  Brendan stopped dead in his tracks with a glower that could have halted an approaching army. “You touch one hair on my sweet little sister’s head, you big ox, and I’ll cut you down to size in the blink of an eye.”

  But now Chet wasn’t listening. Instead he focused on something across the park. When Brendan followed his friend’s gaze, he saw Lady Masten with four unruly children making their way toward the Serpentine—make that three unruly children and one very serious boy.

  “Come on, Bren.” Chet started toward the countess and her charges, “Rob made a mess of things last night. Let’s see if we can’t help him along.”

  Lydia had spent the morning trying not to replay the events of the previous evening. Now, with the thoughts of her husband firmly tucked away, she entered Hyde Park with her young cousins in tow. She loved spending time with James and Bethany’s brood. They were such delightful children, all of them in their own way.

  Almost at once, her spirited young cousins Katriona, Morgan, and Madeline dashed off toward the Serpentine, giggling excitedly. But at the ripe old age of ten, Liam MacFadyn rolled his eyes heavenward at his younger siblings’ high spirited antics.

  Lydia took in his somber countenance and ruffled his hair. “Go on, Liam,” she urged him. “You should go play with the others.”

  But Liam shook his head with a stubbornness that Lydia knew he’d acquired from his father. “Lyddie, a gentleman should never abandon a lady.”

  “Oh, heavens, Liam. I’ll be just fine out here in the park. Now, run along.”

  As Liam started to protest, a cheerful baritone voice boomed from behind them, “The boy is quite right, Lady Masten. All sorts of dangers can lurk about for unprotected ladies.”

  Lydia turned to see Lord Astwick standing directly behind them, casting a shadow over an attractive gentleman in his wake—Lord Clayworth, she thought. Of course, she recognized the marquess immediately. He was hard to miss and, unless she was mistaken, he was also a dear friend of Lord Masten’s. What in heaven’s name did these men want with her?

  Astwick continued, “Not to worry, young man. We’ll keep a watchful eye on Lady Masten for you.”

  Liam scowled at the marquess and protectively stepped in front of Lydia, with his brave little chin thrust out. “I can handle it. Thank you, sir.”

  Lord Astwick’s laugh could be heard half-way across the park. Then he got down on one knee, so as to be on eye level with the boy. “I like your spirit, lad. I’m Lord Astwick and this fellow with me is Lord Clayworth. We mean the lady no trouble.”

  The other gentleman smiled and touched the brim of his hat in greeting. Liam didn’t return the gesture. “I’m MacFadyn,” the boy introduced himself proudly.

  “Ah,” the good-natured marquess grinned in response, “Carteret’s heir.”

  “Aye, sir. And I mean to look after my cousin.”

  Anxiously, Lydia looked from Lord Astwick to Lord Clayworth. She had met both men on separate occasions, and while they seemed pleasant enough, they were certainly after something today. Best to get it over with. “Liam my love, I’ll be perfectly fine. Pray go to the river and make sure the others aren’t soaked in that nasty water or your mother will never forgive me.”

  Liam clearly seemed torn between his desire to shield Lydia from the unfamiliar gentlemen and with keeping a watchful eye on his siblings. So, Lydia gently touched his shoulder. “It’s all right, dear. I believe these gentlemen are friends of my husband.”

  Both gentlemen nodded in response, but it was Clayworth that spoke to the child. “I count myself as a friend of your father’s as well, Lord MacFadyn, as we’ve dealt many times together in parliament. On my honor, your cousin will be safe in your absence.”

  Liam sized up the gentleman before him and agreed with a curt nod. “On your honor then.” Turning on his heel, the boy quickly made his way down the river’s edge where his sisters and brother could still be heard laughing.

  Lydia met Clayworth’s eyes with approval. “Thank you, for appeasing him. Liam thinks of himself as fully grown.”

  Clayworth smiled warmly in return. “My sister’s son is much the same way. There are certainly worse things than boys who take their duties seriously, Lady Masten.”

  “Well, thank you again. Now, what is it you gentlemen want with me?”

  Astwick offered Lydia his arm, which she tentatively took. “Ah, Lady Masten, we are here to help you.” The marquess towered over her and she felt like a child next to him.

  “Chet!” Clayworth warned as he strolled along side them toward the river.

  But Astwick simply smiled. “Pay Clayworth no attention, my lady. He feels that I’m over stepping my bounds.”

  Lydia looked from one gentleman to the other. Clayworth’s handsome face was furrowed and drawn up tight. The earl was clearly the sensible one of the two. “I may be in agreement with Lord Clayworth.”

  Despite herself, Lydia couldn’t help but be charmed by Astwick’s roguish grin. The marquess had a charismatic quality that made one like him almost instantly, despite his disheveled appearance.

  “Oh, come now, Lady Masten, where’s your spirit of adventure?” Lord Astwick asked good-naturedly.

  Lydia’s brows rose in question. “What is it you’re after, sir?”

  Lord Astwick drew Lydia to a halt. “You had it right to begin with, we are friends of your husband’s.” When Lydia pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes, Astwick paused briefly before pressing forward. “And we’d like to see Robert happy, you see—”

  “Well, I should like not to see Robert at all.” Lydia’s eyes flashed with anger and she removed her hand from Lord Astwick’s arm. “And if he’s sent you two to make sure I that I do his bidding, you can tell that overbearing, pompous, ass—”

  “Lady Masten!” Lord Clayworth looked aghast at her vulgar language.

  “—that he can go straight to the devil. I apologize if I offended your delicate sensibilities, Lord Clayworth, but I daresay you gentlemen have heard worse. Pray excuse me. I should be tending to my cousins.”

  With an angry swish of her skirts, Lydia brushed past the two gentlemen and escaped to the safety of her four young companions, without so much as glance back at them over her shoulder.

  Brendan shook his head and rubbed his chin. “That went well, Chet.”

  Chet laughed and smacked Brendan’s back with the palm of his hand. “Indeed it did, Bren. Indeed it did. She doesn’t seem ambivalent toward our good friend, does she?”

  “No,” Brendan admitted ruefully. “She seems decidedly in the Robert-loathing camp.”

  “We shall see.” Chet grinned and then started back toward the walking path.

  Robert called on Lord Carteret as soon as he deemed it proper to do so. He didn’t know the man particularly well, but knew he had a good reputation, despite his Scots heritage and his Whiggish leanings. He was certain that Lord Carteret would hear him out and return Lydia to Blackstone. He was her husband, after all. His demands meant something.

  After Robert was shown into the drawing room, he waited patiently for the master of the house. When James MacFadyn, Earl Carteret, finally made his appearance, Robert thought he would laugh. Before him was the paragon of virtue his sister had defended—a peer of the realm looking completely tousled, like he’d just fallen out of a moving carriage. His blond hair was mussed and his jacket a mess. He even had a glob of blue paint smeared across his breeches. This was not what Robert expected to find. “Did I catch you at a bad time, Carteret?”

  Carteret shook his head and smiled widely. “No, just spending the morning with my daughter.”

  Robert smiled to himself. Despite Caroline’s protestations, Carteret did have a slight Scottish brogue. “Painting?” Robert pointed out the blue stain on his breeches.

  Carteret looked down and realized what he must look like. He smiled sheepishly. “That would be Fiona, my youngest. Please forgive my appearance, I must be a sight.”

  Robert laughed. “That you are, but I’ll overlook it.”

  “Good of you to do so.” Carteret agreed good-naturedly. “So, Masten, to what do I owe this honor?”

  The smile on Robert’s face fell and he sighed. “I’ve come to talk to you about my wife.”

  But before Carteret could respond, the door opened and Bethany, Countess Carteret, entered the room. She was a vision—hair so dark it was almost black and crystal-blue eyes that rivaled Lydia’s. It was easy to see why Chet and so many others had fallen under her spell all those years ago. Lady Carteret was still a sight to behold. But she obviously didn’t see Robert and began to chastise her husband. “Jamie, did you leave Fiona alone with her paints? The entire breakfast room is covered in blue handprints.”

  Carteret smiled at his lovely wife. “Guilty, my love, but can you scold me later? Lord Masten is here at the moment.”

  “Oh?” Lady Carteret sucked in a breath of air and blushed down to her roots when she noticed their visitor. “I didn’t realize. I’m so sorry. Please forgive my intrusion.” She smiled apologetically at her husband and left the two men alone.

  Robert smirked. “Busy household you have here.”

  “Five children, including one set of twins. Busy doesn’t begin to cover it, Masten.”

  “And now you’ve taken on my wife as well.” Robert remarked, trying to steer the conversation back to the reason for his visit. “I hate to burden you with her.”

  Robert could feel Carteret studying him as if he were a thoroughbred at Tattersall’s. “You’re not burdening us at all. Lydia is actually a great deal of help. Five children, you know. In fact, she has my four oldest with her in the park right now.”

  Obviously, going down that road wasn’t going to work.  His wife was good with children—Caroline had admitted as much. Robert furrowed his brow and plunged ahead with his request. Lydia was his wife after all. Carteret should respect his decision. “I’d hate to take your extra help away, Carteret, but I’d appreciate it if you would send her home anyway.”

  “Home? And would this be to Blackstone?” Carteret furrowed his brow in a way that made Robert feel like a blackguard. “She’s been dreadfully lonely there, Masten, and we’ve invited her to stay here with us for the season.”

  Robert was damned tired of hearing about how lonely his wife was. Didn’t anyone else see that her being lonely was better than her behaving like a wanton throughout London?  The image of her from the night before in that daring sapphire gown flashed through his mind. God, but she was beautiful.

  For a moment, the idea of leaving her in Carteret’s care was tempting; perhaps he could even get to know her as Caroline had suggested. What a fanciful thought! When Lydia was involved in her next scandal—and she would be—it wouldn’t be Carteret’s name that was run through the mud. It would be Robert’s. She was his wife.

  Robert looked at the paint stain on Carteret’s breeches and an idea hit him. What a fool he’d been. Why had he not thought of it earlier? The answer was clear as day. “No, not to Blackstone. Not yet, anyway. I’m concerned about my heir, Carteret. I don’t have one other than Luke, and that isn’t a prospect that I wholeheartedly welcome.”

  Carteret nodded and Robert could see that he understood that. Probably even agreed.

  “Well, there’s no way to put this delicately, Carteret,” Robert continued. “I need my wife to give me one. She can’t very well do that living under your roof.” There! Robert triumphantly celebrated. Deny me that, Lord Propagator.

  Carteret sat forward and Robert tried to read his expression. The damn man was so enigmatic. But then to his relief, Lord Carteret grinned. “I think that’s wonderful, Masten. Truly wonderful. You should see Lydia with Morgan and Madeline, my twins. They adore her.”

  Robert feigned a pleasant smile.  What had he just gotten himself into? He gulped uncomfortably.

  “I’ll have her things packed and ready in the morning. Will that do?” Carteret asked.

  “That will do.” Robert nodded. “Thank you, Carteret. You don’t know how you’ve delivered my mind from worry.”

  Carteret tilted his head and leaned toward him, like a conspirator. “She can be a fine wife for you, Masten. Give her that opportunity. A good mother, too. And take it from me, there’s nothing more lovely in the world than watching your wife tend to your children. Not nurses or maids, but their own mother. Mark my words.”

  “I’d never thought you as an egalitarian.” Robert remarked.

  “Well, I—”

  But Carteret was interrupted by a high-pitched squeal coming from the hallway. Then the doors to the parlor flew open and a little girl, about three years old, ran into the room. Blue paint covered her completely, from the roots of her flaxen hair to the tips of her naked toes. “Papa, save me!” The little girl threw herself into Carteret’s arms.

  Surprised by the scene, Robert couldn’t help but laugh. Carteret was covered in paint from top to bottom. He now looked even more disgraceful than before—which was saying something indeed.

  Standing in the doorway with her hands on her hips, Lady Carteret tapped her foot impatiently. “Fiona MacFadyn, come with me this instant!”

  Fiona burrowed her face against her father’s chest and whispered loud enough for the entire room to hear, “I think she’s mad at me.”

  Carteret kissed the top of his daughter’s head. “I think she’s mad at both of us, dear.” He stood up and crossed the floor to his wife’s side, where he handed over his child. “It was my fault, Beth.”

  Lady Carteret smiled ruefully at her husband. “I will deal with you later, Jamie.” Then she looked in Robert’s direction. “You must think you’ve stepped into Bedlam, Lord Masten. We’re not normally this unruly. Please, do forgive us.”

  Robert watched with great interest and returned Lady Carteret’s smile. “Think nothing of it, my lady. We are family, after all.” Then he nodded to Carteret, put his beaver hat on his head, and started for the door. “Tomorrow morning. I’ll send my coach at ten o’clock.”

  Carteret agreed with a grin. “Ten o’clock it is. And best of luck, Masten.”

  After he left the Carteret home, Robert thought about what he’d seen that day. A distinguished member of the House of Lords sitting in his parlor, covered in paint—which also apparently covered his breakfast room—and a beautiful wife who was endearing even as she scolded him. What was it she’d called Carteret? Jamie? So intimate and familiar. He couldn’t remember seeing a man more happy with life, despite his disgraceful appearance.

  That was not the life Robert led. He always looked impeccable, as did his breakfast room. Though he had a beautiful wife, endearing was not a word Robert would use to describe Lydia. The idea of his own wife calling him something familiar, like Robbie, was too ludicrous an idea to consider seriously. Lord Carteret may be unlucky at cards, but he seemed lucky beyond comparison in life. 

  Lydia did not feel lucky. She was instead furious.  She could barely believe her ears when James told her he was sending her to Masten’s the next morning. The traitor! How could James just turn her over to her husband like that? Hadn’t he listened as she’d complained to him about her life as Lady Masten, stashed away at Blackstone? If she’d been given any amount of time, she’d have found a place for herself. But Robert had seen to it that she didn’t have time to plan anything.

  Robert Beckford was a scoundrel, plain and simple! She didn’t know what he’d said to James, but she knew her husband had been crafty with whatever it was. Every time she asked her cousin about his conversation with Masten, a grin would cross James’ face. “I think that’s a discussion for you and your husband, Lyddie.”

  But she didn’t want to have any discussions with him. Her husband was a cruel and vindictive man. He’d essentially kept her locked up for years. And now that she was free of his tyranny, the very last thing she wanted was to go back. He might have scared her in the past, she was so young then. But she was not that naïve sixteen-year-old girl that had signed her life away—not anymore. When he came for her in the morning, she would make him most unhappy that he did.

  That night as she lay in bed, the unkind words he’d said to her all those years ago echoed over and over in her mind. He had been an imposing figure then and had towered over her, a regal and dignified gentleman. He had intimidated her and she’d cowered from him. He’d called her a little whore right after they’d finished their vows, nearly spitting the words at her. She was a disgrace to his name, undeserving of his charity, and unwelcome in society. But despite all of that, he would see that she lived well at Blackstone Manor; and she was to be grateful for his generosity.

  Lydia cringed as she stared up at the ceiling and prayed for the strength to deal with whatever it was her husband had planned.

  Lord Masten’s carriage arrived for her at ten the next morning, but he wasn’t with it. The coachman loaded her things on board and helped her inside. She tried to remain strong, though she would have been lying to say she wasn’t nervous. She had been bold and daring when she thought she had James’ support, but now she had no one again. She was at the mercy of her husband. And that did not sit well.

  When she arrived at Masten’s large Berkeley Square home, Lydia felt ill at ease. It felt as if she had butterflies flittering around in her stomach, and her heart pounded rapidly with worried anticipation. As the footman lowered the steps, Lydia took a deep, steadying breath and squared her shoulders. She was determined not to let Masten bully her.

  Phelps, the elderly butler that Masten should have probably already pensioned off, greeted her at the front door. He led her to a well-decorated parlor where the earl had requested she wait for him. She waited and waited—at least two hours. Her nerves were on end, but she refused to be outwardly flustered. If Robert Beckford had taught her anything throughout their marriage, it was how to wait.

  Finally, she heard voices in the hallway and a booming laugh that she knew could only belong to Lord Astwick. Moments later, the robust marquess entered the room and was surprised to find Lydia sitting patiently on the sofa. “Lady Masten! Whatever are you doing here?” He raised his brow expectantly.

  “This is my husband’s home, Lord Astwick. Where else should I be?” Lydia answered with a haughtiness she didn’t feel. Though she put up a brave front, she wasn’t quite able to meet the marquess’ eyes—especially after their awkward encounter in the park the day before when her bad temper had gotten the better of her.

  Apparently Lord Astwick could sense her trepidation, because he smiled, as if to put her at ease. “Of course you should be here. I was just under the impression that you were staying with Carteret, my dear.”

  Lydia took a deep breath. She wouldn’t allow Lord Astwick to see her at her worst again. She would remain composed and save her venom for her intended victim—Robert Beckford. “It appears my husband has other plans for me.” She managed a weak smile.

  “I’ll just bet he does.” Astwick tried, unsuccessfully, to suppress a smirk. “I am surprised though. He didn’t seem like he could work up the courage to talk to you at Staveley’s. That’s what Clayworth and I had wanted to talk to you about.”

  “He didn’t have the courage?” Lydia shot back incredulously. Lack of nerve was not something she’d ever considered of her husband. Bully, yes—coward, no. But Lord Astwick did seem sincere in his estimation.

  Then the marquess winked at her and took a seat next to her on the settee. “He’s good with animals, great in fact. But with people, well, Rob’s always been a bit shy around pretty girls. Now if you were a horse—not that you in any way resemble one—”

  The idea made her laugh—there was no way to hide it. In the limited time she’d spent with Robert Beckford, shy was not a word she would use to describe him. The words she would use were…well, not things she could repeat in polite society or even to Lord Astwick for that matter. “I would be surprised if he thought of me that way, my lord.”

  The charming marquess took her hand in his. Shyness was obviously not something that plagued him. “I happen to know he does, my lady. Told me so himself.”

  Before Lydia could compose a response to that ridiculous notion, the door opened and her husband walked inside. If she wasn’t so furious with him, she would’ve thought he was devastatingly handsome—that was a bit shocking, in itself. His buff doeskin breeches snugly fit his muscled thighs, and the cut of his midnight-blue jacket displayed the strength of his broad shoulders. Lydia caught her breath. He was an imposing sight. And that was a bit scary.

  Robert looked first at Lord Astwick and then at his wife. “Oh, my lady, I nearly forgot you were coming today.”

  Lydia scowled back at him. No, Robert Beckford was not shy and did not lack courage. He was simply a bastard who had made her wait for him all day long and then forgot that she was arriving. How charming! How she loathed him. “Well, I’ll be more than happy to leave, Masten. If you’ll—”

  “You’ll stay right where you are.” He cut her off and then glanced back at his friend. “Chet, our excursion will have to be postponed. Please make my apologies to Bren, will you?”

  Lord Astwick stood from his place and smiled devilishly at his friend. “Don’t think on it, Rob. If I were you, I’d stay here too. But I would be honored if the two of you would join me tomorrow night at Drury Lane.”

  Robert noticed his wife’s fiery glare and then shook his head. “Next time, perhaps.”

  “No, not next time. Tomorrow,” Chet insisted. “And I’m not taking ‘no’ for an answer. Mother is attending and I need a buffer from her constant harping. I was going to force Brendan to accompany us, but…”

  “Clayworth turned you down flat?” Robert raised his brow.

  Astwick chuckled. “That he did. But lucky me! Since you’ve cancelled our plans for the day, you owe me and I’m enlisting your help in distracting Mother from her needling of me at the theatre tomorrow.” Chet turned back and smiled at Lydia. “And you’ll bring this delightful creature with you. Don’t fret, my dear, his bark is worse than his bite.”

  Lydia smiled back. It was nice to see someone bully Robert. Good to know it could be done. Her husband took a deep breath and shook his head. “All right, Astwick. Lady Masten and I won’t be in London long, so I’ll give you tomorrow night.”

  Won’t be in London long?

  Lydia furrowed her brow as she cast her eyes on Robert. “I am not leaving London.”

  Robert looked at her with disdain, just like he had when they first met. “Not now, my lady.”

  “Don’t ‘not now’ me, my lord.”

  Astwick looked from one to the other, which must have caught her husband’s eye, because he turned his darkening gaze on his friend. “Don’t you have someplace else to be?”

  The marquess smirked. “I suppose I should be on my way, actually.” He started for the door, but then turned back and winked at Lydia. “Worse than his bite, my lady. My money’s on you. See you both tomorrow. Oh, and, Robert? Be on time, will you? I don’t want to have to go searching the corridors for your bloody arse.”

  Robert scowled and gestured toward Lydia. “Watch your manners, Astwick.”

  Chet’s rich chuckle filled the room with warmth. “Pardon me, Lady Masten, if I offended your delicate sensibilities. Somehow, I’m certain you’ve heard worse.” With that, the marquess tipped his head and then left the room and the house to the squabbling Mastens.

  Lydia stood and matched her husband’s disdainful look with one of her own. She folded her arms across her chest and took a deep breath. “I am not leaving London.”

  Robert ignored her stance and took a seat in one of his upholstered chairs. “You also told me that you weren’t living under my roof, and look how that turned out. As I told you before, my lady, you’ll do exactly what I say.”

  Fire shot from her eyes. “Short of you tying me up and dragging me from here, I’m not going anywhere.”

  That image made Robert smirk but he responded coolly. “Well, that suggestion does have merit. Thank you, I wouldn’t have thought of that myself.”

  She stood perfectly still and glowered at him. Robert was surprised to note how stunning she was, even as she looked at him with such hatred. Her blue eyes shot icy daggers at him, but they were lovely nonetheless. Then again, his brother wasn’t the sort to chase after homely girls. Robert had inherited the title, fortune, and good sense, but Luke possessed the handsome looks, charm, and bravado. Other than their sister and shared parents, they had little else in common.

  After he had left Carteret’s home the day before, he’d thought about their discussion. What he’d said was true—he didn’t have an heir and he did not want the line to pass to Lucas. That would be a disaster. If Lydia was occupied with raising their children, which apparently she would be good at, he wouldn’t have to worry about her anymore either. She didn’t have to go back to Blackstone if she hated it that badly. She could go to any of his other estates to raise his family. It was the perfect solution to all of his problems.

  “Now, let’s not start off on the wrong foot, Lady Masten. We’re going to need to get along.”

  “We haven’t needed that for five years. Why start now?” she shot back indignantly.

  “Did Carteret share with you the nature of my visit with him?”

  Lydia’s glower softened and she shook her head. “No. He said that was something for the two of us to discuss.”

  Robert sat forward in his seat and looked at her from top to bottom. If their children looked like her, that would be a blessing. “Perhaps you should sit down.”

  She stamped her foot. “I will not have you order me about. I feel like standing.”

  “Suit yourself.” Robert frowned at her independent streak—just another reason why she needed to leave Town. “I’m at the point in my life where I am looking at what I have, and more importantly what I don’t have. It’s no secret that there is no love lost between us, but that certainly hasn’t stopped others. If you think you’re the only unhappy wife in England, you’d be wrong. And like it or not, we are stuck with one another.”

  “You could divorce me. Let me go, Masten,” she begged.

  Divorce?

  She was even more scandalous than he had thought! It was one thing to have a wife that was a harlot, quite another to divorce her. “That is completely out of the question, and you well know it.”

  “An annulment then? We never consummated.”

  Robert shook his head with determination. He would not be made to be a laughing stock. “After five years? No one would believe that, and it’s not as if you can prove your virtue.”

  “I don’t care what people believe. It’s the truth.” She stamped her foot.

  “The truth, my wife, is that your actions five years ago have led us to this point in our lives.”

  “Then what do you want from me? To send me back to Cheshire where I will rot until you die?”

  “I’m afraid it’s nothing quite so dramatic.” Robert stood from his seat and reached for her arm. How did one say this sort of thing? Her skin was warm beneath his hand and he felt inexplicitly drawn to her. But apparently she felt nothing, as she looked at him with contempt. So he continued matter-of-factly. “I need you to provide me with an heir.”

  She yanked her arm from him, stumbled backward, and stared at him in horror as if she didn’t quite believe her ears. Eyes wide, she took a deep breath and slumped down onto the settee beneath her. “You cannot be serious.”

  He didn’t know what reaction he expected, but her looking at him as if he had a forked tail and horns wasn’t exactly what he had in mind. “Caroline sings your praises and Lord Carteret is convinced you’ll make a wonderful mother. He says his twins adore you.”

  “James knew what you had planned and he turned me over to you?” She stared at him incredulously.

  “He certainly wouldn’t begrudge me an heir, Lady Masten—not when he has more than one of his own.” Robert took a seat next to her. “Now don’t look so horrified. You found my brother’s bed to be accommodating. I’m sure mine won’t be unpleasant.”

  She started to cry, which made him speechless. He’d never seen her cry. Not when she’d been discovered with Luke, not when she took her vows, not when he’d explained that she’d live out the rest of her days at Blackstone alone. But now tears streamed down her face. He hated seeing her like this. He much preferred the sparring partner she’d so easily become.

  “And th-then you’ll take my child away from me. I think not.”

  “No.” His look softened and he moved closer to her on the settee. He took her hand reassuringly. “I would never do that. I swear it, my lady. Have I ever lied to you?” After she took a staggering breath, Robert continued softly, “You can have your pick of any of my estates, and you can rear our children wherever you want.”

  For the first time since their interview began, she looked at him hopefully. “Here, then? May I stay here?”

  Robert shook his head. There were too many men in London, too much trouble she could get into in Town. The dance with Kelfield flashed in his mind. No, it was far safer for her to be in the country. Safer for him too. “London is not an option, my lady. Besides, I’d prefer to know that my heirs are actually mine. Don’t want someone else’s brat to come into my title and estates someday.”

  Her crying stopped and she stared at him angrily as she wiped away the last of her tears with the back of her hand. “I know how highly you regard my character, sir. I don’t need a reminder.”

  Silently, he was glad to see a bit of her fire back, but when he spoke his tone was unemotional and matter-of fact. “I don’t enjoy reminding you. But that is why London is not an option. I don’t care where else you want to go. I keep hearing that you’re lonely. That won’t be a problem for you anymore.”

  “I’m beginning to think that loneliness isn’t quite so bad as I originally thought.”

  “Well, you know what they say. Be careful what you wish for, because from now on I’ll be your constant companion, at least until you’re carrying my child.”

  “If I have a room, I’d like to go up to it now.” She spoke so softly it was almost a whisper.

  This was a different Lydia than he’d seen up until now. She looked defeated, as if her spirit had been broken. For a moment he felt a twinge of remorse. But only for a moment. “Of course.” Robert rang the bell and soon Phelps arrived to escort Lydia to her chambers.

             

  Lydia stared blankly around the pretty room that connected to her husband’s chambers. The soft, yellow walls had a warm feel to them and normally, she would have enjoyed the ambiance her bedchamber offered, But at the moment, her fate was the only thing on her mind. She threw herself across the large, four-poster bed, rolled over onto her back, and stared up at the sheer canopy above her.

  How had she ended up in this situation? Just the idea of that man, whom she’d hated for years, touching her made her ill. Yet if she was to go through with this, would he really let her keep her child? Not that she was seriously considering his proposal. After all, she knew what kind of man Robert Beckford was.

  Still, if he wouldn’t let her out of their marriage and was now demanding his husbandly rights—well, she did want a child of her own, didn’t she? Would he really let her rear the child?

  She stared up at the ceiling for what felt like hours, but no solutions came to her. She was all alone. Her family was gone. Her mother and father were both dead, as was Aunt Agnes. Her brother was at sea, not that he’d be of any help if he wasn’t. Henry had changed from the caring, protective brother she’d loved as a child. Her cousin Hannah was following the drum and her husband around the peninsula from battlefield to battlefield. All Lydia had left was James’ family, and he’d handed her over to Masten without a second thought. Now there was no one she could turn to for help. She was, quite simply, alone.

  There was a light knock at the door and Lydia frowned . There wasn’t one person in this household she wanted a visit from—least of which was her husband. “Please, just go away,” she mumbled before rolling onto her side, away from the door.

  “Lydia?” Caroline’s voice filtered through the door. “May I come in?”

  Lydia lifted her head from the pillows and bounded off the bed. “Caroline?” She raced to the door and opened it to find her sister-in-law waiting with a pensive expression in the hallway.

  As Caroline embraced her, Lydia felt comforted for the first time all day. Caroline drew back from her to look her over. “As soon as Bethany Carteret told me what happened, I rushed right over here. Are you all right, darling?”

  Relief washed over Lydia. She had an ally, maybe two. Thank heavens. Caroline took her hand and led her back to the room, shutting the door firmly behind her. With pursed lips and arms folded across her chest, Caroline looked like a woman possessed. “Do you know, Lydia, what I do when David is an unreasonable beast?”

  Though Lydia wasn’t feeling like herself, she tried not to smirk at that comment. The quiet and scholarly Lord Staveley was the least beastly man of her acquaintance. Instead, she merely shook her head.

  “I go shopping. I spend his money on anything and everything that catches my eye—until I feel he has sufficiently paid for his beastliness.”

  “I don’t know think Masten has enough money to make me feel better, Caroline,” Lydia remarked dryly.

  Caroline’s face brightened. “Of course he does, darling. He’s as rich as Croesus. Come with me and we’ll make him pay dearly.”

  Lydia shook her head. “I’m just not feeling up to it.”

  But Caroline wouldn’t take no for an answer and pulled Lydia toward the door. “Come along. I promise you, it will infuriate Robert if you were to go shopping with me.”

  “It would?” Lydia skeptically eyed her sister-in-law.

  Caroline’s hazel eyes twinkled devilishly. “My dear, he will turn a perfectly enraged shade of scarlet when he finds out we’ve gone shopping together.”

  Lydia wasn’t necessarily convinced, but decided that a shopping excursion with Caroline was better than being locked away in her bedchamber for the rest of the day, waiting for solutions that weren’t coming. “Very well. Tell me, Caroline, who is London’s most expensive modiste?”

  Caroline beamed. “Good girl, that’s the spirit.”

  Before Lydia knew what happened, she found herself following her sister-in-law down the staircase and then toward the front door.

  As luck would have it, Robert stood in their path in the hallway, arms folded across his broad chest. Upon seeing the two women, his eyes narrowed with suspicion. “Good of you to stop by, Caro. Phelps must have forgotten to announce you.”

  Caroline was undaunted by her brother’s brusqueness. “Lydia and I are going shopping, Robert.”

  “I don’t recall approving a shopping excursion.”

  Caroline hooked Lydia’s arm in hers and brushed past her brother. “For pity’s sake, Robert. Someone should teach you how to be a good husband. Why don’t you make your way to Curzon Street and let Staveley give you lessons.” With that, she looked down her nose at her brother and ushered her Lydia down the front steps to her awaiting carriage.

  Caroline swept into an exclusive shop on Bruton Street with all the grace of a Greek goddess. Madam Fournier, a tiny Frenchwoman with short, cropped, black hair and shrewd, silver eyes, positively glowed when she spotted the viscountess and kissed both of her cheeks. Then she set her sights on Lydia. “You have brought me a most beautiful creature, Lady Staveley. Tell me, what is it you desire?”

  “I believe my dear sister-in-law would like a completely new wardrobe,” Caroline explained as she pushed Lydia into the middle of the room to be inspected by the slight Frenchwoman.

  The modiste walked around the object of their discussion. When she stopped, she met Caroline’s eyes. “But she looks lovely already, no?”

  At this Caroline grinned. “Of course she is, Madame, but you see my generous brother has offered his wife license to commission your artistic genius in the designing of the most magnificent and unique gowns of the season.” With a conspiratorial whisper, Caroline added, “How can a woman refuse an offer like that?”

  Madam Fournier’s eyes sparkled at the thought. “Well, she should not, of course. Amelie!” she called, and her assistant promptly entered the room.

  From that time on, Lydia saw every fashion plate in the store and was poked and prodded more times than she cared to count. When she told Caroline that Robert had every intention of moving her out to the country with great haste, Caroline was so annoyed with her brother that she ordered several dresses for herself as well—and asked Madam to make sure that Lord Masten received the bill the following morning.

  After finally bidding Madam adieu, Lydia and Caroline left the trendy modiste’s shop in search of more items to purchase. Lydia had finally gotten into the spirit of spending Robert’s money. Several hats, gloves, and slippers later, the women were exhausted from their excursion.

  Lydia had been alone for so long that, while this outing with Caroline had been a bit overtaxing, she was comforted by the camaraderie that her sister-in-law offered. As such, she wasn’t quite ready to return to Berkeley Square. “Do you think we could go by Covent Garden, Caro? I always loved the fruit and vegetable market there.”

  Caroline looked confused. “The fruit and vegetable market?”

  With a slight blush, Lydia nodded. “I haven’t been there since I’ve been back in London. I once went daily for Mama.”

  “You do know, Lydia, that as my brother’s countess there’s no need for you to shop for fruits and vegetables?”

  “Since Masten is intent on sending me back, Caro, I’d just like to see it before I leave for good.”

  “Very well.” Caroline smiled indulgently and then gave the orders to her coachman.

             

  The bustling market at Covent Garden was just as Lydia remembered it: industrious vendors hawking their wares, middle class matrons and scullery maids filling their baskets, and children—happy children playing and chasing each other around the carts. Lydia smiled as memories rushed into her mind. Life was, if not easier, more innocent when she was that age—when Mama was still alive.

  Her reverie was interrupted when Caroline screamed, “Stop! Thief!”

  A small child dashed into a nearby alleyway with what looked like Caroline’s reticule. Without a look back, Lydia picked up her skirts and dashed after the grubby little boy. She could hear Caroline calling for her to stop, but she continued along the path the child had taken—around a corner and right into a darkened alleyway.

  At once she saw the child, a young boy, maybe six years old. He held his ribs and offered up Caroline’s reticule to a burly, dirt-covered, scowling man who stood at the end of the alley. When the man caught sight of Lydia, he grabbed a handful of the boy’s clothes. “Wot’s this?” he hissed angrily at the child. “Stupid li’l good fer nut’in, the lady follow’d ye.”

  The child began to shake with fear. For a moment she was afraid the man was going to strike the boy. She couldn’t let that happen. “Unhand that child at once!” Her most haughty voice echoed off the walls in the grime-covered alley.

  With a sneer, the man snatched the reticule from the boy’s fingers and pushed the child against the hard, brick wall with a thud. Then he turned his brown-toothed grin on Lydia. “’Ere, Missus. Looks like th’ lad swiped yer pretty li’l bag.”

  She should have been fearful, but she was not. She was too angry, and became even angrier when she heard the soft whimpers of the boy as he gingerly touched his own arm and bent his knotted and tousled head. Without hesitation, Lydia marched up to the towering swine of a man and ripped the reticule from his hands. “How dare you lay a finger on that child!”

  Surprise flashed across the swarthy man’s face, quickly replaced by anger. “Wot I do’s no business o’ yers. Ye’ve got yer bag—”

  “We shall see about that.” Lydia was furious, but she wouldn’t allow her voice to shake. She reached out her hand to the boy who was now crying silently. “Come on, boy. Come with me.”

  The boy shook with fear and looked from the scowling countenance of the burly man to Lydia’s sympathetic face. Skittishly, he started to inch toward her when the man’s sweaty hand grabbed his shoulder. With a start, the boy’s panicked eyes flew to the man’s.

  “Goin’ somewheres, Petey?”

  The boy gulped to swallow his tears and struggled to free himself from the burly man’s grasp.

  Lydia had seen enough. It mattered very little right now that this boy had taken Caroline’s reticule. He was just a little thing in the grasp of a mean and intimidating bully. Her voice dropped to the most threatening tone she could muster. “Remove your hands from that child this instant.”

  “Or wot?” the man sneered back.

  “Or I’ll scream at the top of my lungs and have the watch all over your pathetic hide in the blink of an eye. One word from me and you’ll find yourself in a dank and crowded cell at Newgate, awaiting deportation.” Lydia didn’t wait for the man to release the boy. She stepped forward and took the child’s filthy hand in her pristine, white, gloved one and tugged him toward her. “Come on, little one. You’ll be safe with me.”

  But the boy hesitated and shook his head. “I cain’t, miss.”

  Lydia shot the man a warning look. “Of course you can. This fellow isn’t going to hurt either of us. I’ll make sure you’re taken care of.”

  In the distance, a constable’s whistle could be heard. The burly man took one last sneering look at Lydia and then took off around the bend.

  “See there,” Lydia continued soothingly, “now there’s nothing to worry about. I won’t let any harm come to you.”

  The boy lost the tentative hold he had on his emotions and a heart-breaking sob was ripped from his soul. “N-no, m-m-miss. ’Tis b-b-because of P-penny.”

  “Penny?” Lydia echoed.

  A little girl, who seemed not much older than a toddler, stumbled out from the shadows of the alley. Lydia could see at once how she’d missed the child. The girl was soot-covered from top to bottom and was camouflaged perfectly in the dingy little alleyway. She was crying, too. “Is all righ’, Petey. I’ll be all righ’.”

  Lydia looked from one filthy child to the next. “Good Heavens! How many of you are there?”

  The boy gulped, “Jus’ me an’ Penny.”

  Lydia’s heart broke. “Is this your sister?”

  The boy nodded, and Lydia tightened her grip on his hand. “Very well, you’ll both come with me then.” Without a second thought, Lydia scooped up the little girl in her arms and pulled the boy along, back into the open spaces of Covent Garden.

  “Miss,” the girl began with a timid little voice, “’Ere ya gonna give Petey to th’ cons’able?”

  Lydia stared into the desolate brown eyes of the little girl and shook her head solemnly. “No, we won’t speak to a constable. Where are your parents?”

  “We ain’t go’ any.” Petey stated matter-of-factly.

  Good heavens! They didn’t have any? Lydia heaved a sigh. Memories of that horrid orphanage she’d been sent to flashed through her mind. She’d only had to stay a month before Aunt Agnes had found her, but a month had been too long. A more miserable place on earth had not been found. She was afraid to ask, but had to know. “What do you mean you haven’t got any?”

  The little girl buried her face against Lydia’s peacock blue Spencer jacket, trembling as she cried.

  “It don’t matter. I’ve been takin’ care o’ Penny, an’ we get by good enuf.”

  Lydia knelt down, and looked the battered little boy in the eyes. There was a bruise on his right cheek, he was covered in grime, and his clothes were threadbare and about to disintegrate all together. “I think you’ve done a marvelous job. Petey, is it?” At the boy’s nod, Lydia continued in a soothing voice, “Well, Petey, believe it or not I know how hard life can be for children, and I want to help you.” The boy’s eyes grew large, and Lydia smoothed away his matted brown hair away from his forehead. “I live in a huge house and if you and Penny would like, I’ll take you home with me. If you’ll let me, I’ll take care of both of you from now on.”

  The offer was obviously too good to be believed for the little pick-pocket and he backed away carefully. “Wot you want wi' us, miss?”

  “I just want to help you. I helped you back there, didn’t I?” She gestured toward the alleyway.

  Petey nodded, but didn’t step any closer to her. “Why?”

  Lydia smiled sadly. “When I was about your age, I found myself in an orphanage. If I can help keep you from that fate, I feel that I must. How much longer can the two of you survive out here, Petey?”

  The boy hung his head and shrugged. Cautiously, Lydia stepped toward him and put her hand on his shoulder. “If you don’t like my house, I won’t make you stay.”

  Petey’s head rose and he stared at his sister before his dark brown gaze once again met Lydia’s. “All righ’, miss.”

  “Good.” Lydia ruffled his hair and offered her hand to him, which he then took without hesitation.

  Caroline was nearly hysterical. She had finally gotten the attention of a constable and was gesturing wildly in the direction her sister-in-law had taken off in. What was Lydia thinking? She had just disappeared around the corner, chasing after the little cutpurse. There was nothing in Caroline’s reticule that was important enough to risk one’s safety.

  Added to her worry, Caroline knew that Robert would kill her if anything happened to Lydia. It was one thing to take her sister-in-law on a spite-inspired shopping spree, quite another to allow her to get her lost chasing after some dangerous criminal types.

  The constable, a wiry middle-aged man, was just about to start off in the direction Caroline indicated, when Lydia stepped from around the corner carrying a tiny, dirt-covered child and holding the hand of another one. “Oh, thank heavens, there she is.” Caroline gestured wildly to her sister-in-law. What in the world was Lydia doing with those children?

  When the child walking by Lydia’s side caught sight of Caroline, he panicked and tried to pull away from Lydia’s grasp. But her sister-in-law’s hold was firm and she tugged the child along with her.

  Caroline rushed to meet the trio. “Lydia!” she shrieked. “What in the world possessed you to do such a foolish thing? And what are you doing with these filthy children?”

  Lydia nodded politely at the constable. “There’s a dangerous man in that alley over there. He was going to harm these children. If you hurry you can probably catch him.”

  The constable found himself looking from one lady to the other. Finally, Caroline nodded. “Well, what are you waiting for?” At that, the constable took off at a near sprint and left the two ladies to eye each other.

  “Lydia, what happened? If you had been harmed, Robert would have killed me.”

  With a raised brow, Lydia smirked. “I think that’s doing it up a bit brown. Think how happy Masten would be to be rid of me, Caro.”

  “Oh, Lydia, you mustn’t think that!” Caroline was exasperated. “I know he can be domineering and gruff, but truly, he wouldn’t have gone to these lengths to get you under his roof if he didn’t want you there.”

  Lydia scoffed. “If only someone cared what I want.”

  This day was going from bad to worse. At this rate Robert would have Caroline’s head on a platter. Caroline grimaced. “Darling, I care what you want. But may we please leave now? I’d better get you home before it gets much later.” Or before something else happens. “I’m sure these children will be fine now.”

  Matter-of-factly, Lydia started toward Caroline’s coach. “Yes, they will because I am taking the children with me to Masten House.”

  “To Masten House?” Caroline squeaked. Her impending death at her brother’s hands was getting clearer by the moment. “Robert will be furious. Please, Lydia, I’m sure these…these children have their own home to go to. We’ll just take them there.”

  Lydia stopped walking and stared Caroline straight in the eyes. “Look at them. Do they look like they have a home to you?”

  Of course they didn’t. They were little vagabonds, the both of them. Caroline swallowed. Hard. Then she turned her gaze to the boy, who she was certain was the little thief that had taken her reticule. “Do you, boy? Do you have a home?”

  Silently, with his eyes focused on his tattered shoes, the boy shook his head.

  “See?” Lydia replied coolly. “They’re coming with us.”

  Caroline tried to keep up with her sister-in-law’s purposeful gait. “Lydia, listen to reason. This is madness. You can’t take these children to Masten House. We’ll wait and ask the constable about an orphanage.”

  “Have you ever stepped foot inside an orphanage, Caroline?” Lydia called over her shoulder without slowing her pace.

  “No.” Though she’d heard horror stories about such places.

  “Well, I have and we’re not taking these children to one. This is not madness, it is humanitarianism.”

  “Robert will…well, I don’t know what Robert will do, but you won’t like it, whatever it is.” Caroline struggled to keep up with Lydia’s determined gait.

  Lydia reached the coach and waited for the wide-eyed coachman to open the door and lower the steps. “Caroline, there has not been one thing Robert has done that I have liked. I’m sure this will be no different. He wants me out of his hair. I don’t think he’ll care overmuch if I take these children with me to the country. He won’t be around to see them anyway.”

  Lydia placed the little girl on one of the padded velvet seats and then helped the boy up the stairs before stepping into the coach herself. She took the little girl into her lap and made a space for the boy to sit next to them.

  With an overwhelming feeling of trepidation, Caroline nodded to her coachman, gave her brother’s Berkeley Square address, and then took her seat across from her filthy guests. The children smelled awful. What exactly the odor was, Caroline couldn’t say—but it was nauseating.

  She stared across the coach to her sister-in-law. The little girl had curled up in Lydia’s lap and rested her grimy head against Lydia’s chest. The boy wrung his hands and looked anxiously at Caroline. With a comforting pat on his head, Lydia smiled at the little urchin.

  For the entire ride to Masten House, Caroline tried to talk Lydia out of this recklessness, but to no avail. In fact, against her own better judgment, Caroline had promised to send over clothes that Adam and the girls had outgrown. If the children were going to stay at Masten House, they at least needed clean, fresh clothes. But Caroline had her doubts that they would be staying. She couldn’t see Robert agreeing to such a thing.

  As they pulled up before her brother’s Berkeley Square home, Caroline took one last weary glance at her sister-in-law. “Oh, Lydia, and here I’d thought just to spend some of the man’s money. I daresay you will punish my brother more than I could ever hope to.”

            

  Robert returned from an afternoon spent at his club to find that his home had been turned upside down. As soon as he entered the house he noticed Phelps’ beleaguered expression. The man was usually unflappable. Then he heard a high-pitched squeal come from one of the upstairs bedrooms. What the devil was going on? “Phelps, is there something you would care to tell me?”

  The butler grimaced but then nodded his head. “It’s her ladyship, my lord—”

  “Her ladyship has been squealing like that while I’ve been gone?” That didn’t sound like Lydia. He envisioned his wife as more of a throwing and breaking things sort. Besides, the squeal seemed to come from a child.

  “No, sir. Not her ladyship, but you see…well, you have guests, my lord.”

  “Guests?” Robert thrust his cane and hat into Phelps’ waiting arms and then flew up the staircase—two steps at a time—until he reached the landing. He could still hear the squeals coming from down the hallway. Then he heard whimpering and splashing. What the devil?

  Robert tapped lightly and then pushed the door open to one of his guest bedrooms. In the middle of the fashionably attired chamber sat a copper tub with two long-faced, freckled children looking like wet mutts submerged in soapy water. Lydia was kneeling and bent over the tub, lightly scrubbing the little girl’s tangled mass of hair. “Almost done, dear,” she cooed softly.

  Then the little girl blew soap bubbles across the room with a giggle. “Penny!” Lydia’s voice was melodic as she dipped her finger into the soapy water and dropped a dollop of bubbles on the child’s nose.

  For a moment Robert couldn’t move. He just stood dumbfounded in the doorway, taking in the sight before him. Then the older child, who appeared to be a boy, looked at him. It was definitely time to make his presence known. “Lady Masten!” he barked sharply. “What in God’s name is going on in here?”

  His voice startled her and Lydia’s hand slipped from the edge of the tub, dousing her bodice with soapy water in the process. She jerked to her feet and met Robert’s outraged eyes. “Masten, you’re home? I was hoping to have the children ready before you returned.”

  Though he didn’t know what precisely was going on here, he knew in the marrow of his bones that he wasn’t going to like it. Lydia looked nervous, and she was chewing the bottom of her lip.

  “I want a word with you. Now!” Robert didn’t even look to see if she followed him, but turned on his heel and waited impatiently in the corridor. He didn’t have to wait long.

   Lydia slinked into the hallway with an anxious expression. “Yes, Masten?”

  “I am waiting for an explanation, my lady.”

  With a respectful nod, Lydia clasped her hands demurely—which had Robert immediately suspicious, as she’d yet to be either respectful or demure in his presence. “Of course. Caroline and I went to the market at Covent Garden—”

  “Come now! I can’t say I’ve ever been to the market, my dear, but I don’t for one moment believe that you can pick children up there like a basket of fruit.”

  At this, Lydia stood proudly and met his eyes with a somber expression. “I’m trying to give you the explanation you’ve asked for.”

  “By all means.”

  “Well, you see, Caroline’s reticule was taken and I chased after the thief—”

  Was she serious? Something could have happened to her! He was surprised to discover that thought made his heart pound heavily in his chest. “Good God, woman, are you mad? You could’ve been hurt.”

  “Please, Masten—” she gestured dismissively— “it was just a child.”

  “A child? A child!” he roared and pointed to the closed door. “One of those children?”

  Lydia stepped up to him, put a calming hand on his chest, and looked pleadingly into his eyes. “Please keep your voice down, Masten. I don’t want the children frightened. They’ve been through enough as it is.”

  With her this close, Robert was assailed by her soft scent of gardenias—which was probably the only thing keeping him from losing his temper altogether. She smelled delightful. He shook off the effect she had on him. “What are those children doing in my home?”

  Lydia stared at his chest and smoothed his jacket back into place. “Well, congratulations, Masten. They’re your new ward.”

  Ruthlessly, he grabbed her wrist and tugged her into the wall of his chest. “I don’t think I heard you,” he hissed. “Try again.”

  “Let me go!” Lydia wrenched her arm free and glared up at him, her blue eyes alit with fire. “Just this morning you told me you wanted children.”

  He was going to strangle her. She was intentionally being obtuse. “That is not what I meant and you know it.”

  “Well, I certainly didn’t plan on coming across Petey and Penny, but I did. And they need a safe place. And since you are suddenly so intent on wanting children—”

  “My own children, damn you.”

  “Yes, well, it still remains to be seen if you’ll get your wish in that regard, doesn’t it? In the meantime, it wouldn’t kill you to be nice to your ward.”

  “Those urchins aren’t my wards!”

  Lydia took a step back from him and folded her arms across her chest. “They are if you intend to get my cooperation with your little plan. If not, I’ll be happy to take them with me and return to James and Bethany.”

  She thought to blackmail him? Robert began to see red, and he could feel his face heating up. When he had forced her under his roof, he had no idea that she’d turn his life and home completely upside down in less than a day. It was well past time for her to realize that he was her husband and his word was law. “Oh, no! Don’t you for one moment believe you can manipulate me into letting you go, my dear wife. I need my heir and you’ll give him to me.”

  “Masten,” she said, her voice soft but steady, “it is important for me to watch after these children. I don’t expect you to understand that. But since you’re so intent on stashing me away in the country, I am asking you to let me take them with me. They won’t be a moment’s worth of trouble for you.”

  That sounded like the most ridiculous thing Robert had ever heard. Before he could form his retort, Mrs. Hodges, his portly housekeeper, rounded the corner with an armful of clean towels. She stopped in her tracks when she saw the earl and countess glaring at each other and cleared her throat.

  Lydia smiled at her sweetly. “Oh, Mrs. Hodges, thank you. Would you mind waiting with Petey and Penny for a moment? I’ll be there shortly.”

  “Not at all, milady.” As the housekeeper entered the bedroom, Lydia turned her attention back to her husband.

  When Lydia had smiled at the elderly housekeeper, her face lit up with joy. That smile warmed Robert’s heart. She was stunning in general, but when she smiled she was the most beautiful creature in the world. It was then that he realized he wanted to make her happy. If that meant taking two little imps into his home…well, so be it. He had the room.

  “You shouldn’t be bathing them,” he said brusquely. “Countesses don’t do such things, my dear. That’s what servants are for. I’ll see to it that a nurse and a governess are hired for the little scamps.”

  When her eyes sparkled with joy, his heart flipped in his chest.

  “This is your home as well, Lydia,” he continued in a softer tone. Her eyes widened in surprise. He’d never called her by her Christian name, and he was as surprised as she was to hear it fly from his mouth. Robert cleared his throat. “I do want you to be happy here.”

  “Thank you, Masten.” She smiled again and his heart raced.

  “You’re welcome, Lydia.” It was much easier to say the second time. “And it’s Robert…or Rob, if you prefer. Time to stop being so proper, don’t you think?”

  “As you wish, Robert.”

  Hearing his name on her lips was the most melodic sound he’d ever heard, and he couldn’t help grinning like a fool. That wouldn’t do. He couldn’t let her know how besotted he was quickly becoming—she’d use it to her advantage and he’d be lost for sure. With that in mind he steadied his voice. “See to it that those children don’t upset life here.”

  “Of course.” Lydia turned away from him, stepped back into the room that harbored the children, and shut the door behind her.

  Robert stood in the hallway, staring at the closed door. He wasn’t quite sure why making his wife happy was suddenly so important.

             

  When Lydia re-entered the room, she found three sets of anxious eyes focused on her. She squared her shoulders and made her way back to the tub.

  Petey spoke first, “That bloke don’ wan’ us ‘ere, miss.”

  Mrs. Hodges drew herself up proudly. “That bloke is the Earl of Masten and this here is Lady Masten. You will address them properly while you’re in this house.”

  Properly chastised, Petey’s eyes dropped to the floor, “Yes, ma’am.”

  Lydia took one of Mrs. Hodges’ towels, picked Penny up out of the water, and began to dry the child off. “Don’t worry about his lordship, Petey. He has agreed to let you and Penny stay with me in the country.”

  “Gor, miss—my lady, we’ve never been t’ the coun’ry.”

  Lydia passed Penny to Mrs. Hodges to be dressed, and with a fresh towel she dried Petey off. “Well, I think you’ll like it there. Plenty of open space to run around and play, and horses to ride, and—”

  Petey’s face paled. “’orses?”

  Lydia nodded and handed him a clean set of clothes. “Lord Masten owns one of the top stables in the country. Have you ever ridden a horse?”

  “No, miss—I mean Lady Masten, I don’ like ’orses.”

  “You don’t?” Lydia looked at him in surprise. “Well, there are plenty of other fun things to do in the country. Now hurry up and get dressed, and I’ll present you to his lordship.”

  Half an hour later, Petey and Penny were clean and in the parlor, dressed in the clothes Caroline had already sent over. With the exception of Petey’s bruised eye, they hardly resembled the little urchins Lydia had plucked off the street at Covent Garden. Mrs. Hodges had cut Petey’s unruly hair, while Lydia had braided Penny’s. It was amazing what a warm bath and a new set of clothes could do for someone. “Well, milady, they look like proper little children,” Mrs. Hodges had gushed.

  Now standing at attention to be inspected by the Earl of Masten, Penny nervously chewed her bottom lip while Petey anxiously held his breath. Robert stood before them and let his eyes fall on his two young wards. He nodded at the lad. “What is your name, my boy?”

  “P-Petey ‘arris, sir.”

  “Peter Harris?” Robert asked with his brow raised.

  “Yessir.” Petey gulped.

  “I like Peter better.” He turned his attention to the little girl to Petey’s side. “And you, miss. What is your name?”

  Without hesitation the little girl met his stony gaze and smiled. “I’m Penny, yer lor’ship.”

  “And is that short for something? Penelope perhaps?”

  The girl giggled at that and shook her head. “No, sir.”

  “Pity.” Robert clasped his hands behind his back and began to walk around the room. “Well, Peter and Penny, my wife tells me that you’d like to go to the country with her.”

  Petey stood stoically, but Penny nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, sir,” the girl stated. “But Petey don’t wanna ride any ‘orses.”

  That comment took Robert off guard. Who didn’t want to ride a horse? He looked back at the boy. “How old are you, Peter?”

  “Seven, sir.”

  “Seven? And you don’t like horses?”

  “No, sir.”

  The child was obviously frightened. Robert could see it in his eyes. He made a mental note about the fact. It wouldn’t do for a child to grow up in the country and be afraid of horses. That’s how one got around from place to place. Besides, it would never do for the Earl of Masten’s ward to be afraid of horses. “I see. And the two of you are agreeable to staying with Lady Masten?”

  The little girl’s eyes twinkled. “Oh, we like ‘er ladyship. She saved Petey from gettin’ walloped, she did.”

  “Walloped?” Robert’s brow furrowed as he leveled his gaze on his wife in the corner of the room.

  Lydia smiled. “There might have been a man I saved Peter from in the alley.”

  Robert’s frown deepened. Damn her, she was trouble. And what frightened him to his core was that she just might be worth it.

             

  No one had ever depended on Lydia for their welfare before. It warmed her heart to see looks of love and devotion in Petey and Penny’s eyes whenever they saw her.  She was determined to give them the life that she’d never had. One that didn’t include her vicious father. One that didn’t involve throngs of different men traipsing in and out of her mother’s bedchambers.  But one that was happy and safe.

  What would it be like to care for a child of her own? 

  She made her way down the hallway toward the nursery to check in on the children, to make sure they were comfortable in their surroundings. When she stuck her head inside the room, she nearly gasped at the unexpected sight before her.

  With an old book resting on his knee, Robert sat next to Peter’s bed. The boy was fast asleep, snoring lightly, but Penny was curled up in the earl’s lap and holding on to his neck cloth with her tiny hands. He whispered something to the child, and though Lydia couldn’t hear what it was, the smile on the little girl’s face made her wistful.

  What a lovely scene of domesticity they all made.

  Robert breakfasted alone, just as he’d dined alone the night before. Neither event was to his liking. Though he had his wife under his roof, she wasn’t yet a part of his life. She’d spend the previous evening with the little scamps who had invaded his home, and this morning she was in the schoolroom—he hadn’t remembered that he even had one—with Mrs. Hodges preparing the space for the children. He’d made it very clear that they wouldn’t be staying in London long, but Lydia had insisted the room be operational while they were in Town.

  He now sat—alone—in the library at his club, wearing a frown and reclining in an overstuffed leather chair. Ever since he’d spotted Lydia at his sister’s ball, he’d been obsessed with getting her alone. She was his wife after all, damn it. It should have been easy.

  But she’d spent the first day in Berkeley Square sulking in her chambers, then racking up exorbitant charges at some French modiste, and finally procuring orphaned street urchins and installing them in his house. She had saved no time for him, and Robert was getting bloody well annoyed at that.

  He’d given her time to sulk—that need was understandable. He had taken charge of her life and she needed time to adjust. Then he hadn’t even batted at eye when the bill had arrived from Madam Fournier this morning. If he wasn’t mistaken, his sister had charged a fair amount to him as well. He also hadn’t complained when she’d spent every last waking hour fawning over his new wards. And how the devil had she talked him into that situation? Unfortunately, he knew the answer to that question. When she’d smiled at him, he would have given her anything. How infuriating that was for him to realize—he’d never thought of himself as soft before.

  And as he sat wallowing in self-pity, one thing was becoming perfectly clear to Robert—he needed to spend time with his wife. Alone. But how was he to orchestrate that?

  He had just downed what was left of the whiskey in his glass, when the Earl of Clayworth’s voice interrupted his thoughts. “Rob?”

  Robert stood in greeting and nodded to his friend. “Afternoon, Bren.”

  Brendan took a seat opposite Robert’s with a reluctant smile. “I wasn’t sure if you’d actually show today.”

  Robert shrugged and fell back into his seat. “Why wouldn’t I?”

  “Well now that your lovely wife has taken you back—”

  “Taken me back!” What drivel was this? And from Brendan, of all people, who knew the whole sordid story in detail.

  “Well, that’s the word about Town. Thought you might want to know.” Bren tossed that morning’s Mayfair Society Paper into Robert’s lap.

  Robert scanned the society rag. There was a blurb about Viscount S, who had reportedly exaggerated his war injuries to garner the sympathy from one of the Almack’s patronesses; a mention of Lord B, a noted fortune hunter, who seemed to be taken with the Duke of L’s horse-faced daughter; and then he saw it.

  Speaking of horses, one can only wonder what the young, beautiful, and vivacious Lady M sees in her often staid, sometimes ruthless, and always horse-mad husband. However, it has not passed this author’s notice, nor that of society in general, that her ladyship has apparently taken the equine-loving earl back into her heart. Mourning has started in clubs all across St. James Street, as many young bucks lament the loss of the beautiful countess to her own husband.

  Robert re-read the column. Staid! Ruthless! Horse-mad! Well, all right he was that last one. He crumpled up the blasted paper and tossed it into the open grate, watching as it burst into flames.

  Lydia had been in his life for less than three days and he was already in the gossip columns. Luckily the author hadn’t spoken to Caroline, or else the term beast would have been added to his litany of sins. What would be reported in the next column? Ruthless Lord M opens orphanage for pint-sized pick-pockets? The faster he got Lydia and their wards into the country, the better.

  Wait, wait, wait! What was that bit about young bucks lamenting the loss of the beautiful countess? The devil could take them all!

          Lydia was pleased that Caroline had sent over a nurse for the children. Mrs. Norris was a plump, kind-faced, elderly woman, and Petey and Penny were won over almost instantly—though Lydia was certain the two pieces of wrapped lemon candy the nurse brought with her had eased the way. Still, the woman seemed to have a warm heart which was, in Lydia’s mind, the most important thing.

  With the children and nurse now installed in the schoolroom on the top floor, Lydia suddenly found herself alone in the parlor. Before she arrived at Masten House, she had been engrossed with the Mary Brunton novel, Self-Control. Everyone was talking about it in Town. While Lydia thought to herself that she should have been able to relate to the story’s beleaguered heroine, who had been kidnapped, she was having a difficult time focusing on the book.

  Her life had changed so quickly, in the blink of an eye, really. She had barely left James’ house before she had come across Petey and Penny—and that meant she had successfully been able to avoid dealing with Robert’s proposal. But now that her distractions were occupied with their nurse, it was time to consider her husband’s wishes.

  The idea of Robert holding her in his arms didn’t bother her as much as it had before. He had been kind as of late—forcing her to live under his roof, notwithstanding. But he had agreed to let Petey and Penny stay with her. She hadn’t had to put up nearly the fight she had anticipated. And he had seemed genuinely concerned for her safety when the full story of the burly man in the alley had come out. That was a bit endearing.

  She had expected him to roar with fury when the bill from Madam Fournier had arrived this morning, but he’d merely shrugged and said he’d hoped that she like her new dresses when they arrived. If Caroline thought a shopping excursion would cause him to see red, she had been sadly mistaken.

  Though at the moment, Lydia didn’t necessarily want to make Robert see red. It would be much simpler for all involved if they could just find a way to deal well with each other. A week ago she wouldn’t have thought such a thing was possible, but now…well, now she wasn’t so sure. And the image of him with Penny in his lap had stayed with her most of the day. Perhaps there was more to her husband than she’d originally given him credit for.

  So what did all of that mean? Would she give her consent to bear his children? Lydia didn’t think she was quite prepared for that sort of intimacy. Not yet anyway, but…maybe.

  A light scratch at the parlor door interrupted her thoughts, and she looked up from the novel. “Come.”

  Phelps stepped inside the parlor with a solemn look. “Lady Masten, his lordship would like for you to join him in his study.”

  “Thank you, Phelps.” Lydia dropped her book in her seat and followed the butler from the room.

  She had seen most of the house over the last two days but hadn’t ventured this far into his private domain. However, once she entered it, the room was exactly what she would have expected—rich dark colors of forest green and burgundy. A large shelf lined the back wall, with scores of intimidating tomes. Robert was furiously scrawling something, seated at a strong mahogany desk that suited him perfectly. He was an imposing figure. Her heart leapt a bit as he ran a hand through his impeccable hair.

  When she stepped further into the room, Robert closed his ledger and jerked to his feet. Stiffly, he gestured to a dark-colored upholstered chair across from his. “Ah, my lady, please.”

  He seemed troubled, as if the world rested on his shoulders. Almost immediately, Lydia felt trepidation set in. Quietly, she complied with his wishes and waited for him to speak.

  “I wanted to inform you that we shall leave for Beckford Hall at first light tomorrow.”

  Lydia’s mouth fell open. First light? She knew he was anxious to be rid of her and the children, but tomorrow? “But, Masten, we haven’t yet hired a governess, and—”

  “Tomorrow, Lydia. And since Caroline took care of the nurse, she can handle the governess as well. Besides the children aren’t accompanying us.”

  What was he talking about?  “You told me that I could take them with me.”

  He nodded in agreement. “We shall send for them once you are settled. But, since I don’t know which estate you’ll choose, it seems rather unkind to drag them across the countryside for days, maybe weeks at a time, don’t you think?”

  But not unkind to drag her across the countryside. And not unkind to force her to leave London against her will. And not unkind to give her no notice—but to expect her to leave at the crack of dawn, which, truthfully she’d never seen. Anger surged through her and she glared at him as she rose from her seat. “What I think, Masten, is that you’re an overbearing brute.”

  His lips thinned into hard lines. “Don’t start with theatrics. I told you from the beginning that we wouldn’t be staying long. Don’t blame me if you didn’t think I meant it.”

  “Oh, I know you meant it,” she spit out, nearly hysterical and pounding her fist on his desk. “You can’t have your wanton wife in Town for more than a few days, can you? That wouldn’t be wise, would it? There’s no telling whose bed I might end up in! Isn’t that right, Masten?”

  Robert’s brown eyes narrowed into cold, dark slits. “That’s the long and short of it, yes. Now, prepare yourself for our evening at Drury Lane. And don’t make me wait on you. I’ll have no patience for any ill-mannered behavior tonight.”

  Lydia rushed from the room and up to her bedchamber. Whatever could she have been thinking that he was kind in any way? He was as controlling and cruel as ever. What a fool she’d been to think he was anything other than the overbearing brute she’d accused him of being.

             

  Young bucks lament the loss of the beautiful countess! That phrase had echoed throughout his mind ever since he’d read it. The author of that drivel was under the mistaken impression that Lydia had come to him willingly. They were far off the mark. Given half the chance, she would bolt. There was no question about it.

  Still, he should have gone about their interview with more subtlety. Why had he dealt with her in so heavy-handed a way? Robert berated himself the remainder of the evening.

  While he prepared for Drury Lane, he could tell that his valet, Kistler, was definitely put out with him. Robert had been unhappy with everything from the color of his waistcoat to the style of his cravat.

  Did he want his wife to think ill of him? What did it matter? She did anyway—certainly after their conversation in his study.

  As Kistler struggled to work an intricate knot with Robert’s neckcloth, they were interrupted by a slight scratching at his lordship’s door. Robert frowned at his reflection in the mirror. He was not looking forward to this night—especially not now that his wife was furious with him, and he did not need any bloody interruptions. “Come,” he barked.

  The heavy oak door opened and Phelps stood in the doorway with a silver salver. “My lord, you have a visitor. I’ve left him in the blue salon.”

  Robert shook off Kistler’s hands and snatched the vellum card from Phelps’ tray. Mr. Alvin Cooper. He read the name twice. Bow Street? What was a Bow Street Runner doing here? The earl frowned as he met his butler’s eyes. “Has Lady Masten come down yet?”

  “No, not yet, my lord.”

  Robert threw off the now ruined cravat from around his neck and took a new one offered by his harassed valet. With quick hands, he tied a mathematical and shrugged into his black coat. “I’ll see to my guest. When my wife finally decides to show herself, direct her to the gold salon, Phelps.”

  “Of course, my lord,” the butler nodded and slid from the room.

  Kistler held out Robert’s black beaver hat, with a look of exasperation. The fastidious valet was clearly annoyed with the earl’s less than perfect appearance tonight, not that Robert gave a damn at the moment. With his entire life in complete disarray, he had no time to deal his temperamental gentleman’s gentleman—especially with a Bow Street Runner waiting in his blue salon. Robert snatched the proffered hat and strode purposefully from the room.

  What could Bow Street possibly want?  It most likely had something to do with those little street urchins Lydia had brought home. What was she thinking bringing those scamps into his house? And now Bow Street was here! Good God, things were certainly going from bad to worse.

  Once Robert reached the blue salon, he pushed open the door with a jab of pensiveness and stepped inside to meet the man from Bow Street. The runner was a portly, middle-aged, balding man with a bushy, brown mustache and small, black, scrutinizing eyes that looked at once remorseful when they landed on Robert.

  “Mr. Cooper,” Robert closed the gap between the two and gestured to himself. “I’m Masten.”

  Mr. Cooper nodded curtly in response. “I’m terribly sorry to disturb you this evening, Lord Masten. But I do have some questions for you, if you don’t mind.”

  It must be important to bring you out so late.” Robert motioned for the runner to take a seat on the settee and then folded himself into a chair opposite him. “Is this about those little pick-pockets my wife brought home?”

  Nonplussed, Mr. Cooper shook his head. “Pick-pockets, my lord?”

  Peter and Penny or whatever their names are? The dirty little street urchins that are now residing under my roof?”

  Again, the runner shook his head, though now with an apprehensive look. “I’m sorry, my lord, but no. I’ve come to inquire about your brother, Mr. Beckford.”

  The color drained from Robert’s face. What the devil had Luke done now that would bring Bow Street to his door? Then a horrible thought entered his mind. Was his brother dead? Had his years of self indulgence and living on the fringe of polite society finally caught up with him? Luke was a scoundrel, to be sure, but… “What has happened?” Robert choked out.

  After a deep breath, Mr. Cooper frowned and leaned forward. “I’m not sure if you’re aware that there’s been some jewelry theft in Mayfair.”

  Robert hadn’t been back in London long, and while he was in Dorset, he certainly hadn’t heard about any jewelry thieves in Mayfair. What had this to do with Luke? “I’m afraid not. We do have pick-pockets living here now, but they’re just children. I am certain they couldn’t pull off high-stakes jewel thefts in Berkeley Square.”

  Mr. Cooper cleared his throat and looked recalcitrant. “M’lord, I’m afraid you misunderstand me. Lord Ridgemont has high connections in the government.”

  None of this made any sense to Robert. Luke? Jewel thieves in Mayfair? Ridgemont’s political connections? “Mr. Cooper, I beg you, pray come to the point of all this.”

  “Well, my lord, we would never accuse a gentleman—not without substantial proof, mind you—but Lady Ridgemont seems certain that Mr. Beckford has the emerald pendant in question.”

  “I beg your pardon.”

  The runner shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “She only wants the piece back, m’lord, and she would prefer Lord Ridgemont not learn who took it. If we can retrieve it soon, her ladyship can simply discover that the piece had simply been mislaid—if you take my meaning.”

  “I’m afraid I don’t.”

  Apparently tired of dancing around the subject, Mr. Cooper took one last frustrated breath. “May I be blunt, m’lord?”

  “Please.”

  “According to Lady Ridgemont, Mr. Beckford was with her in her chambers the last time she wore the pendant. I think you understand what I’m saying.”

  Robert cringed. He knew only too well what Mr. Cooper was saying. His depraved brother had bedded yet another peer’s wife. Damn Luke to hell! Robert roughly rubbed his brow. “I’m afraid I do.”

  “When Lord Ridgemont discovered the pendant was missing, her ladyship didn’t feel that she could tell him where it was, you see. And somehow Lord Ridgemont deduced that the item in question had been stolen and called in some favors to have Bow Street investigate.

  “Lady Ridgemont confessed as much to me. So if she can just get the piece back, all will be fine. Lord Ridgemont will be satisfied. Lady Ridgemont can keep her husband from learning the truth, you and your family can be kept from scandal, and I can get back to investigating real crimes and not answering to the beck and call of some stiff-rumped nobleman…no offense, m’lord.”

  Robert stood and paced around the room with his hands clenched behind his back. “Are you certain my brother has the item in question, Mr. Cooper?”

  “Lady Ridgemont is certain. I don’t think she would have confessed the situation to me if she weren’t.”

  Sadly, that made sense and Robert scowled as he shook his head. Damn Luke a million times over. “Will my brother not return it?”

  Mr. Cooper scowled. “Unfortunately, m’lord, I cannot locate Mr. Beckford. He has not been at his apartments in Piccadilly for some time now.”

  Robert scoffed in response. “Well, if you think I can help you find the reprobate, you’re sadly mistaken. I haven’t laid eyes on my brother in more than a year.” And only then because Luke had needed help getting out of yet another scrape.

  Crestfallen, Mr. Cooper let his head fall back against the settee. “Will you contact me if you do hear from Mr. Beckford, m’lord?”

  “Right after I strangle him, Mr. Cooper.”

  Immediately after the Bow Street Runner left, Robert went to the sideboard and poured himself a generous amount of whiskey. He drained it in one gulp. Why the devil would Luke take Lady Ridgemont’s emerald pendant? And what the devil was he supposed to do about the situation? Damn it! Would he be cleaning up his brother’s messes for the rest of his life?

  Robert left his glass on the sideboard with a thump and strode from the room. Without delay, he made his way to the gold salon, certain that his wife would not be ready—but would make him wait upon her for an indefinite amount of time, or refuse to attend at all. Truthfully, he deserved no better from her.

  He threw open the door and stopped in his tracks. All thoughts of Luke vanished instantly from his mind. Not only was Lydia already waiting for him, she was breathtaking. Her fine reddish-blond hair was piled loosely on her head, with dainty little tendrils curling at the nape of her neck. He suddenly ached to remove her pins and run his fingers through the strands of her fire-hued hair. To hell with Astwick and Drury Lane. Lydia’s midnight blue gown hung low across her delicate, alabaster shoulders and dipped provocatively at her bodice. God, but she was a lovely woman, this wife of his.

  Robert couldn’t help but gape at Lydia. He eyed her from top to bottom and back. When he finally stopped at her neckline, she blushed. “This is perfectly in style. Please don’t tell me that I look like a harlot.”

  He winced. Had he really said such a disgraceful thing to her before? Robert was ashamed to realize that he had. Caroline was right—he was a beast. “I was just going to tell you how beautiful you are, Lydia. Is this one of the new gowns?”

  Lydia smiled, though it didn’t quite seem to reach her eyes. “No, Masten, it will take a few weeks for everything I ordered to be finished.”

  Of course it would. He was such a dolt! No modiste he knew had dresses ready in a day—although with the prices Madam Fournier had charged…

  What would she look like in the new dresses she’d ordered? Would they display her heavenly body the same way this midnight blue did? Would he get to see her in any of them? Would she ever call him Robert again?

  When Robert and Lydia arrived at Drury Lane, they landed in a sea of other theatre-going couples. Bouncing ostrich plumes from bonnets and turbans of every color bobbed over the top of the crowd. Robert steered Lydia up the staircase and then down the corridor toward Lord Astwick’s box.

  From the moment they arrived, Robert noticed with some degree of displeasure that many of the passing gentlemen openly ogled his wife. They seemed unable to help themselves. Though Lydia paid them no attention. It was blatantly obvious that their leaving in the morning was the best thing for all involved.

  “There you are!” Chet’s loud voice reverberated off the walls. Within two strides they reached the marquess, who leaned toward Robert and whispered, “Thought you’d abandoned me. She’s simply horrid this evening.” Robert started to respond, but at that moment Chet noticed Lydia and his eyes danced. “You truly are a vision, Lady Masten.”

  She smiled. “Thank you, Lord Astwick.”

  Chet motioned to his mother, already in her seat. She was a tiny lady with silver hair, who looked nothing like her hearty son. “Mama, look who’s arrived.”

  The widowed Lady Astwick looked through her lorgnette at the two guests and nodded courteously. “Good Evening, Masten.”

  Chet took Lydia’s arm and smiled. “And, Mama, this is Robert’s wife, Lady Masten.”

  Lady Astwick shot her son a look of stark disapproval. “The absentee wife? The one who prefers to live away from her husband? Doing God knows what?”

  Embarrassed, Lydia looked at the floor. She had been in London a month, but no one had been so outwardly harsh toward her. Lady Astwick’s displeasure was barely palpable. Lydia was surprised when Robert laid his hand protectively on her shoulder and smiled at the widow. “Lady Astwick, my wife does live in the country, but at my request. I’m very busy with my stables and not in London most of the time myself. She sees me more there than she would here, I assure you.”

  Lady Astwick looked the girl over and then turned back in her seat. “At least he has a wife, Chester.”

  Chet threw his friend a rueful look and shrugged.    

  Lydia turned around to see Robert. It was so much easier to hate him when he was unkind. She smiled gratefully for his interference with Lady Astwick, and was surprised when he returned her smile.

  “Here, my dear.” Robert put his hand on the back of a seat. “You’ll sit next to me.” Then he reached for her hand and squeezed it. “Be brave, Lydia,” he whispered. “Lord Masten doesn’t hang his head in shame and Lady Masten won’t either.”

  She nodded, but couldn’t quite look at him.

  Then Robert turned his attention to Chet and the two discussed some new horse breeding techniques that Robert’s stable manager was working on at Gosling Park in Dorset. After a while, Chet looked past Robert and winked at Lydia. When she smiled in acknowledgement of the marquess’ flirtation, Robert glowered at his friend.

  In Lydia’s opinion, it was a most trying night. She looked around the theatre at happy couples enjoying the performance and sighed. How she envied them! She would give anything to turn back time and keep herself far away from Luke Beckford. Her life could have been so different. Though she had despised her husband from the beginning, she couldn’t blame him for her actions all those years ago. She was the one that chose to follow Luke to his room. It was all her fault—everything that had happened afterward could all be laid at her door.

  When intermission came, the two gentlemen stood to stretch their legs and Lydia was relieved. Walking around could do her some good as well.

  As Lydia rose from her seat, Robert sternly shook his head. She was much safer in the box than walking about with all of those other men. “You should stay here, my dear. I’ll bring you some refreshment.”

  Lydia feigned a smile and took her seat again. But Robert could tell she was annoyed. She sat with her spine perfectly straight, and didn’t face him or say a word in response.

  He walked the corridor with Chet, who wore a chastising look on his face. “Something you want to say?”

  “Why did you make her stay there with my mother? Awfully uncharitable of you, old man.”

  Robert continued his walk, shrugged, and remarked sardonically, “Sorry you can’t continue your flirting with my wife. Besides I think she’s safer there.”

  Chet’s laugh boomed throughout the hallway. “What do you think she’s going to do, Rob? Take off with the first chap that looks at her?”

  That wasn’t far from what he thought at the moment, and he glanced back at his friend. “I wouldn’t be surprised.”

  Chet laughed again and smacked Robert’s back. “Well, then why don’t you try being a little nicer to her. Perhaps you could convince her to stick around. Give her some incentive, Rob.”

  Robert frowned in annoyance. “Words of advice from a thirty-seven-year-old bachelor? I’m perfectly nice, thank you very much. And besides, I don’t necessarily want her ‘sticking around.’”

  “Perfectly nice?” Chet’s eyebrows rose in amusement. “You forget. I was there yesterday morning, Robert. You were a perfect arse. Which reminds me, who won that argument anyway?”

  “I did, of course.” Robert increased his step. He had always done what was expected of him, but now his sister thought him a beast, gossip rags called him ruthless, and his oldest friend considered him a perfect arse. Bloody wonderful!

  “Pity. I think I’d enjoy her staying in Town. She brightens up a room.”

  “That’s what I’m afraid of,” Robert admitted. She did indeed brighten up a room, even when she shot daggers at him with her eyes. “You should’ve seen the looks she got when we arrived here tonight.”

  “Well, she’s young, Robert, and very pretty. You said so yourself. You’re old, and stodgy, and set in your ways.”

  Robert furrowed his brow. “You and I are the same age. And I’m not stodgy.” He’d had just about enough of everyone else’s less than stellar opinions about his person.

  Chet’s eyes danced in amusement. “You are the epitome of stodginess, my friend. Poor Lady Masten, so young and beautiful and stuck with you. I think I’ll have to add her to the list of ladies I could have married.”

  Robert snorted. “Tell me, does that list have more than just Bethany Carteret’s name on it? Perhaps you should stop looking at other men’s wives, Chet. There are plenty of unattached ladies out there.”

  Chet’s laugh boomed again. “Why do you think they’re unattached? No one else wants them either.”

  Lord Haywood, a young, dandified gentleman who had just come into his title, approached them from the other direction. Immediately, Robert took note of the young fop, for two reasons. The first, upon the assumption of his title the new baron had also come into the possession of a stud Robert had kept his eye on for the last year. The second, and more pressing reason, was that Haywood was a known compatriot of Luke’s. “Ah, Haywood, do you have a minute?”

  Chet smiled devilishly at Robert and nodded to the young lord. “Take your time, will you, Haywood? I’m off to flirt with Masten’s pretty wife.”

  For a large man, Chet was light on his feet and quickly dashed away before Robert could rebuke him properly. So instead, he adjusted his attention on the young baron and fixed him with a pointed stare. “Haywood, I’m looking for my brother. Have you seen him?”

  “I’m not his keeper.”

  With a scowl that should have intimidated most, Robert leaned toward the younger man. “He’ll turn up eventually. And when he does, please pass on my desire to meet with him.”

  “I’m at your service, Masten,” Haywood retorted belligerently with all the bravado of a boy who didn’t know who he was up against.

  “See that you are.” With a curt nod, Robert left the baron and went in search of wine for his wife. Instead, he caught the eye of someone else—someone he’d rather not see.

  His evening only wanted for this—Mrs. Cecily Rigsley stood just a few feet away. His ex-mistress was resplendent this evening, but then she always was. Wearing a simple gown of shimmering gold, Cecily’s dark eyes sparkled mischievously and her brown ringlets bounced as she stepped toward Robert. She opened her arms wide in greeting him. “My dear Lord Masten, how wonderful to see you.”

  With a curt nod of acknowledgement, Robert made the attempt to step past his one-time lover. But Cecily was not to be ignored. She snatched his arm and made him face her. “Trying to escape, Robert? So unlike you.”

  “What do you want, Mrs. Rigsley?”

  When Cecily pouted in response, Robert cringed. Had he ever found her attempted seductive looks attractive?

  “Now I’m Mrs. Rigsley? After everything, Robert?”

  Robert pried her fingers from his arm. “You are the one who left me. How is Audley, by the way?”

  Cecily folded her arms across her chest and pursed her lips. “You are cruel, Robert, not to forgive me. Is that bit of muslin in Astwick’s box my replacement? She doesn’t seem your sort.”

  With his jaw hardened and his eyes steely, Robert leaned in toward Cecily. “The days when my comings and goings were your business are no longer. I’ve already told you, but apparently you’re having a difficult time remembering. You’re not under my protection, nor shall you ever be again. Stay out of my way.”

  Cecily narrowed her eyes and her nostrils flared. “You will regret making an enemy of me, Robert.”

  “My dear Mrs. Rigsley, I already regret ever having known you.” With that, he tipped his head and strode purposefully back toward Astwick’s box, Lydia’s wine long forgotten.

  Alone with the sulking Lady Astwick, Lydia thought about her ride from Berkeley Square to Drury Lane with her husband. Robert had drilled into her what behavior he expected that night. She’d said nothing, just stewed in her seat with irritation brimming over. She was his wife and her actions would reflect upon him, he’d lectured. He expected her to be polite, courteous, and ladylike. She shook her head in annoyance. She was all those things, and didn’t need direction from him on how to behave in public.

  Now she’d been abandoned to sit alone with the discourteous Lady Astwick. Lydia was certain the dowager didn’t like her, though she couldn’t imagine what she’d done to create such hostility in the older woman. But if she could win the old dragon over, perhaps Robert would see that she didn’t need his directives. She turned in her seat and smiled at Lady Astwick. “What a delightful evening. Thank you so much for having us.”

  The widow looked her up and down, grimaced, and then turned her attention back to the audience below them. “Humph.”

  Lady Masten will not hang her head in shame, Lydia reminded herself. She looked toward the stage, determined to hold herself high. “It’s been so long since I’ve been to the theatre, though I’ve always enjoyed it,” she continued lightly, not willing to give up on Lady Astwick yet. However, the widow ignored her completely and Lydia felt very small.

  When Chet finally returned to the box, Lydia was delighted for his company. He walked past his mother and instead of sitting next to her, he took Robert’s seat and affectionately took Lydia’s hand. “I’m truly glad you came this evening, my lady.”

  “Thank you, Lord Astwick.” Lydia blushed. She wasn’t sure how Robert would feel about his friend holding her hand, but she didn’t remove it. It was nice to have someone look at her kindly.

  “So, what do you think of London, my dear?”

  “I love it,” Lydia gushed. How nice to be asked what she thought and not be dictated to. “But I grew up here, sir. It’s just been such a long time since I was home.”

  Chet smiled. “I didn’t know you were from London. I should have scooped you up long before Robert had the chance.”

  Lady Astwick looked at the pair disdainfully and barked at her son, “Chester, why don’t you leave Masten’s wife alone?”

  Chet winked at Lydia. “I’m asking Lady Masten if she has any pretty friends, Mama.”

  As Lydia giggled, Lady Astwick stood up and glowered at her son. “I don’t think any of her friends would be acceptable, Chester. Masten can say anything he wants to. I know why he married her and stashed her away in Cheshire. They found her with that brother of his. She’s a whore.”

  And just that fast, Lydia was completely mortified. She was stunned, speechless, and could feel her face turning red.

  Chet glared back at his mother, but before he could reply, Robert barked angrily from the doorway of the box, “Lady Astwick! That is quite enough! How dare you? If you were a man, we’d be meeting at dawn.”

  Without hesitation, Lydia turned back to see her husband, staring furiously at her attacker. He glanced at her and then continued. “I don’t know where you get your information from, ma’am, but it is incorrect. And I won’t allow you to disparage my wife any longer. Come, Lydia, we’re going home.”

  Quickly leaving her seat, Lydia rushed to her husband’s side. He put a possessive arm around her waist and she kept her head high, though she wished the floor would open up and swallow her whole. People in other boxes were starting to watch the drama unfold, and her heart pounded ruthlessly.

  Robert continued to eye the widow with contempt. “After you apologize to my wife, and if you think you can keep a civil tongue in your head, I may consider forgiving your outrageous behavior.”

  Without a look back, Robert led Lydia from the box, down the stairs, and out to his phaeton. Lydia barely noticed the blur of people that they’d shot past or the whispering that had started in their wake. Perhaps Robert was right, she might be better off in the country. She certainly didn’t need termagants like Lady Astwick in her life.

  How did the old woman know of her circumstances?

  She had so loved being in London again. But now, for the first time since she’d arrived, she was wishing she’d stayed at Blackstone. It may have been a prison but at least it was a safe prison.

  As they traveled along Piccadilly, she realized that Robert hadn’t uttered a single word to her since they’d left the theatre. She watched quietly as her husband expertly steered his horses through town. His face was still hardened, his jaw firmly set. She couldn’t remember the last time anyone had come to her defense. She touched his arm. “Thank you. You didn’t need to do that.”

  “No one speaks ill of a Beckford.” He didn’t take his eyes off the road and Lydia’s heart sank further in her chest.

  No, of course they don’t, she thought miserably. It was all about his name. It was only ever about his name. He’d explained all of that to her long ago. It was foolish of her to think he defended her for any other reason. She sighed, clasped both hands in her lap, and was determined not to speak the rest of the way. Once they were at Berkeley Square, she could retire to her room and finally seek the peace she’d needed all afternoon.

  Robert ended the awkward silence when he cleared his throat. “I’m sorry you had to experience that, Lydia.”

  “It’s nothing you haven’t said to me yourself, Robert,” she remarked somberly as she watched the city go by, wanting to be anywhere else at the moment but by his side.

  He frowned as he kept his eyes on the horses he controlled. “Well, that’s different.”

  But not untrue. She smiled sadly as his home came into view. But she would not cry. She was determined to never let him know how his words had hurt her.

  He stopped the horses in front of the house. Lydia hopped down unassisted and started for the front door.

  “Lydia!” he called after her and handed the reins to his quickly approaching footman.

  She stopped but didn’t face him. “Yes, my lord?”

  He came up behind her and spun her around to look at him, staring intently at her for a long moment before speaking. “You kept your head high. Thank you.”

  She smiled half-heartedly. “I believe those were your orders, Masten.”

  “Yes, they were.” His voice was raspy and she could feel his breath on her cheek. Tenderly, he ran his thumb over her chin and held her gaze with his smoldering brown eyes. For a fleeting moment she thought he was going to kiss her, but then he released his hold on her arms and nodded coolly. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

  “Very well.” Lydia turned back toward the house and raced up front stairs.

  Phelps opened the door and she slid past him without a word, then climbed the stairs to her chambers.

             

  As Robert watched her go. His heart sank, though he wasn’t sure why. He’d held her in disregard for as long as he’d known her. She was right. He had called her a whore, among other things. And for the first time, he felt remorse for that. Hearing Lady Astwick’s acidic words had made hot lava race through his veins. Being reminded that he’d said the same things to her, once upon a time, made him cringe. Chet was right, he was an arse.

  What really had his mind swimming was that he’d nearly kissed her outside in front of the house—out in the open for anyone to see. But she’d looked so hurt and he wanted to take that away from her, any way he could. But she wouldn’t thank him for that. His affections were the last thing Lydia wanted at the moment.

  He exchanged salutations with Phelps and then ascended the staircase to his chambers. Kistler was waiting to undress him, but Robert waived the man off for the night. He needed to be alone.

  Robert paced back and forth across his room, finally stopping at the connecting door that led to his wife’s chambers. With a heavy sigh, he placed his open palm against the door. What he wanted was to knock and for her to let him in, but instead he just stood there and rested his head against the doorframe.

  What was it about his wife that drove him to distraction? In the last two days he’d felt more alive than he had in years. There was something about Lydia that made his emotions run wild, and that was a bit disconcerting.

  When Lady Astwick had spewed her venom, Robert had been overcome with the desire to protect his wife, to keep her safe from the cruel and harsh world—and not for his sake, but for hers. However she’d never believe that, not after the awful things he’d said to her. He barely believed it himself.

  Finally deciding against knocking on her door, Robert went to his study and began sorting through his estates’ accounts. He hadn’t planned on leaving London so soon, but the emergence of his wife had left him little choice. With the evening’s events laying heavily on his mind, he couldn’t think straight and finally just dumped everything into a valise. He’d sort everything out once they got to Beckford Hall.

  Then there was a soft knock at his door. “Yes?”

  The butler pushed the door open and nodded stiffly. “Lord Astwick is here to see you, milord.”

  Robert sighed. “Very well, send him back, Phelps.”

  Soon, Chet walked through the door with a sheepish expression. “I don’t even know what to say, Rob, except I’m completely mortified.”

  “Well, that makes three of us.” Robert leaned back in his chair and motioned for Chet to take a seat across from him.

  “I swear to you, I had no idea she knew your circumstances. She certainly didn’t learn of them from me.” Chet crossed the room and sat opposite Robert, leaning forward on his desk. “After you left, I told her that her accusations were completely false. That you would have told me if any of that drivel had been true. I warned her against spreading any untrue stories about Lady Masten.”

  Robert smiled half-heartedly, not that it meant anything now. The damage was done. “That was kind of you. But I’m sure she learned of it from the late Lady Staveley. I seem to remember they were great friends before she passed on.”

  “Yes, they were,” Chet agreed remorsefully. “That must be where she got it from. God, if I’d known she was going to behave that way…”

  Robert dismissed his friend’s remarks with a gesture of his hand. “It’s over now, Chet. Actually, I think it will make it easier for Lydia to leave London tomorrow.”

  “Lydia, is it?” Chet finally grinned. “Don’t think I’ve ever heard you call her that before tonight.”

  Robert smiled. It was a pretty name, just like she was. He caught himself from revealing too much and cleared his throat. “Well, we’ll be spending more time with each other. So…”

  With a conspiratorial grin, Chet leaned forward. “More time with your pretty wife? Good for you, Rob. I suspected all along, of course. Though Bren thought I was daft. But I was sure, mind you.”

  “Sure about what?” Robert frowned uneasily.

  “That you’re enamored with your wife. Don’t you think it’s odd that out of all the women at Staveley’s, Lydia is the one who caught your attention? And you raised heaven and hell to get her back under your roof, don’t bother to deny it. So the question is, my friend, are you going to make a real marriage of it?”

  Anxiously, Robert stood and walked around his desk. What was a real marriage? What he and Lydia had for the preceding five years was more harmonious than a number of ‘real marriages’ in Mayfair. But he knew what Chet really meant. “No, though we are discussing my need for an heir, other than Luke.”

  Chet’s booming laugh bounced off the study walls. “Call it what you want, Rob. But once you’ve had that beautiful lady in your bed, I don’t see you walking away from her. In fact, I’ll be disappointed if you do.”

  Robert laughed this time. “You do have an active imagination, Astwick. ‘That beautiful lady’ holds me in as much contempt as I do her. It will be a miracle if we’re actually able to conceive without killing each other, and then, God-willing, let it be a boy so we don’t have to go through the entire process again.”

  Tears formed in Chet’s eyes and his face turned red as he held in a laugh. “I know you, Robert. And you’re going to enjoy the entire process enough to do it over and over. You’ll have a whole bloody brood. Damn, I’m jealous.”

  “Well, go be jealous somewhere else, will you? We’re leaving in the morning and I’ve got to get my work in order.”

  After another good natured jab, Chet left and Robert sank back into his chair. He still couldn’t get the hurt look on Lydia’s face out of his mind. Why did Lady Astwick have to be such a dragon?

 
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