“How can you even think of sharing a marriage-bed with Lamford?”
Lady Emmeline Sandridge could only stare at her friend Georgiana as they strolled across the lawn toward the lake. How shockingly outspoken Georgie had become since her marriage! Perhaps it was a mistake, breaking her journey here at Westhaven Park. Certainly it was a mistake to have accepted Georgie’s invitation for a ramble about the grounds after dinner—but how could she have avoided it?
“As well lie down with a dead cod-fish!” Georgie continued.
Em stifled a giggle, but an anxious knot formed in her stomach. One ought not to laugh at the man one planned to marry. “I see no need to think about such things before it is time,” she said in a quelling tone.
“You had better think about it, before you marry him.”
She willed herself to ignore the tightening knot. “Hush! I will not have you making game of him. He is a very respectable man.”
“A man who needs his mother’s permission to pay his addresses to you! You should send them your regrets.”
“Not after I’ve accepted her invitation to Lamford Castle. That would be rude.”
“Better to be rude than shackle yourself to such a man. Tell me. Do you feel for him what you felt for Denby?”
Surprise caused Em to stumble. No one spoke to her about Mark Allendale, Viscount Denby, anymore. Least of all Georgie, who knew how many nights Em had cried herself to sleep after breaking off their engagement two years ago.
“Why do you speak of Denby?” she asked uneasily, as they descended the steps leading down to the lawn.
Georgie gave her a searching look. “You were so much in love. You cannot pretend you feel the same way about Lamford!”
Em paused for a moment to take in the Westhavens’ justly famous grounds: the shimmering sweep of the ornamental lake, the surrounding lawns and stands of trees in luxuriant summer foliage. A warm breeze ruffled the surface of the lake. It came to meet her, fluttering her bonnet strings and the folds of her sprigged cotton gown.
But no clever replies came to her, only a sudden sharp sense of melancholy.
“Lamford is a good man,” she said at length. “It is an eligible match. He is an earl. I am an earl’s daughter. He owns a handsome estate in Somerset, and—”
“When did such considerations ever matter to you? You are heiress to a large enough fortune that you may marry as you please!”
“I please to marry Lord Lamford.”
“Who finds you passable and thinks your wealth a useful addition to the Lamford fortunes.”
“Well, I am merely passable,” Em replied. She was short, her figure was unremarkable and her hair an undistinguished soft brown. “And making an equal match with regard to fortune is no bad thing. With Lamford I shall have all I desire: a home of my own and children.”
“But surely you wish for more than that from your husband!”
It was easy for Georgie to say that, with an adoring husband and beautiful child. But such fairy tale endings were not for everyone.
Em sought more to say to Lamford’s credit. “He does not care about the scandal I caused two years ago. He even says he is willing to overlook any . . . indiscretions I might have committed with Denby.”
Indiscretions . . .
What a word for how they had taken advantage of the license allowed engaged couples!
What a word for the wild kisses in his curricle, how Mark had pulled her close, the way he’d taught her that shocking play of tongues. How he’d stroked her breast, causing her to blush and tremble at his touch.
What a word for the time they’d strolled under the willow by the stream and he’d pulled her against it and kissed her, screened from view only by the drooping branches of the tree. How he’d pressed her up against the trunk, teased her breasts free of her bodice, how he’d kissed them, then fallen to his knees and lifted her skirts and kissed her there . . .
What a word for the time they’d slipped away to the conservatory at Sandridge and locked the door, to make love among the potted orange trees. How tenderly he had caressed her, preparing her for her first time, then brought her sweet pain and more pleasure than she’d ever imagined.
She lifted her chin. Indiscretions, indeed.
A knowing smile hovered on Georgie’s lips. “And you do not miss those . . . indiscretions?”
Swept up in passion, she’d thought she and Mark were merely anticipating their vows. She’d thought him as mad with love as she. She knew better now. It was his plan to secure her in spite of her brother’s disapproval. Fortunately, her woman’s courses had come the very morning William had revealed Mark’s treachery. It had made her decision simpler, though not less painful. Dear Will! Ever since their parents’ untimely death, he’d tried to be a father as well as an older brother to her. She had him to thank for saving her in the end.
“I think you do still think of Denby,” Georgie said pointedly.
“It does not matter. There can be nothing more between us.”
Not after that final, stormy scene, after Mark had practically broken down the doors at Sandridge and come close to blows with her brother. William had wanted to shield her, but in the end, she’d delivered the rejection in person. The memory of Mark’s distraught face had haunted her for months afterwards.
The look of a fortune-hunter as the prize slipped from his hands, she reminded herself.
“I am sorry, dearest,” Georgie said. “I don’t wish to give you pain. But I wonder if there is a chance you were mistaken. Perhaps you should have asked Denby about that letter?”
“There was no need to ask. The evidence was too damning. Besides, William warned me that Denby would have some glib explanation. Pray, let us not talk of this any more. I would rather have a pleasant evening together. I don’t—”
She broke off as a footman approached. Georgie conferred briefly with him in a low voice, then said, “Little Rob will not go to sleep. Nurse can usually manage him, but tonight of all nights, he decides to fuss! I must go, but you may as well continue your stroll. I shall rejoin you in a bit. Why don’t you wait for me at the folly? Just take the path through those trees and you will see it.”
Georgie waved toward a stand of trees growing on a point on the lake and then hurried back to the house after the footman.
Em was glad to be alone. She needed some peace before speaking to Georgie again. She hated being at outs with her friend. Georgie must have meant well; it was unlike her to inflict needless pain. Yet she’d thrown Em right into a morass of doubt. What if she was compounding one mistake with another, more permanent one?
What if she and William had been wrong about Mark? But they hadn’t been wrong. That was the devil of it.
She must put him out of her mind again and enjoy the evening, she thought as she strode across the short-cropped turf, studded with daisies. She had been looking forward to exploring the folly. Georgie said it had begun its life as an ornamental temple, a mere empty shell, but she and her new husband had extended the design to create an elegant room behind the classical facade.
Yet thoughts of Mark kept intruding. Denby Hall was close by, not thirty miles away. Perhaps he, too, was strolling out of doors and watching the same slanting golden light paint the landscape in shadows and bursts of vivid color. But no, at this season he’d be at some fashionable resort, perhaps Brighton. Looking for a new heiress to pursue, no doubt.
“Damn you, Mark!” she muttered as she passed under the shade of the first tree.
Her heart skipped a beat when she heard a familiar voice.
“Too late, Em. You already sent me to perdition, two years ago.”
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