Regency Surrender: Forbidden Pasts: Lord Laughraine's Summer Promise / Redemption of the Rake Elizabeth Beacon Their pasts won’t stay hidden for longLord Laughraine's Summer Promise Nine years ago Callie Sommers eloped with Gideon Laughraine. But their passionate romance ended in tragedy. Now Gideon has promised to reclaim the wife he loved and lost. With her husband fighting for a second chance, now could be the time for Callie to forget scandal and trust in the man she once held so dear…Redemption of the RakeJames Winterley’s dangerous past is about to catch up with him and widowed Rowena Westhope risks being caught in the crossfire! The spark James experiences with this fiercely independent beauty is undeniable – so when the only way to protect Rowena is to renounce his rakish ways and marry her, he knows it’s more than duty tempting him to the altar! ELIZABETH BEACON has a passion for history and storytelling and, with the West Country on her doorstep, never lacks a glorious setting for her books. Elizabeth tried horticulture, higher education as a mature student, briefly taught English and worked in an office, before finally turning her daydreams about dashing, piratical heroes and their stubborn and independent heroines into her dream job; writing Regency romances for Mills & Boon. Regency Surrender: Forbidden Pasts Lord Laughraine’s Summer Promise Redemption of the Rake Elizabeth Beacon www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) ISBN: 978-1-474-08536-6 REGENCY SURRENDER: FORBIDDEN PASTS Lord Laughraine’s Summer Promise © 2015 Elizabeth Beacon Redemption of the Rake © 2016 Elizabeth Beacon Published in Great Britain 2018 by Mills & Boon, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers 1 London Bridge Street, London, SE1 9GF All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. 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Trademarks marked with ® are registered with the United Kingdom Patent Office and/or the Office for Harmonisation in the Internal Market and in other countries. www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) Table of Contents Cover (#u7f440fd9-7be3-5b01-b9cd-b6a12147ef33) About the Author (#uca084b67-614b-5994-8fe8-e5491fe59569) Title Page (#u91b822fc-a1d5-5a80-ab0d-a199b7ed534d) Copyright (#u781ba4f0-c9be-50c8-8ba7-dfd506cb2f20) Lord Laughraine’s Summer Promise (#u48da8eb7-9a75-53b9-b22b-2fe751a2fe2f) Back Cover Text (#u1bc3f41f-b129-59f8-af07-c0964f8bcba5) Chapter One (#u8a2ea9d7-ff85-52fe-89df-803a45dc41d9) Chapter Two (#u1dfc82fe-6b31-5ae0-8aaf-d4a869385910) Chapter Three (#u260aa817-1119-534b-ba44-44b232150dd7) Chapter Four (#u60fec3dd-beec-5fa3-b25d-9db623aae3bb) Chapter Five (#u03660b03-4020-5806-86fc-9494e8a11b7b) Chapter Six (#ue0323192-37d0-5707-a7e4-c980a3c73025) Chapter Seven (#u41c0edf4-d151-5f34-88b8-7c27e44e4f98) Chapter Eight (#u77cacdd8-d916-58f3-b508-62c50c305d50) Chapter Nine (#u51bda038-817e-52b6-886f-5e59fcbffe5d) Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twelve (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fourteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fifteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Sixteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seventeen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eighteen (#litres_trial_promo) Redemption of the Rake (#litres_trial_promo) Dedication (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter One (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Two (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Three (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Four (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Five (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Six (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eight (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nine (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twelve (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fourteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fifteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Sixteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seventeen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eighteen (#litres_trial_promo) About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo) Lord Laughraine’s Summer Promise (#u504f60a3-158f-57f7-b860-88007bda3227) Elizabeth Beacon A vow to heal the past Nine years ago, beautiful Callie Sommers eloped with wild young Gideon Laughraine. But their passionate romance ended in tragedy. Now, at the behest of his godmother, Gideon has promised to reclaim the wife he loved and lost. Callie never thought she’d see Gideon again, but his return reminds her how she blossomed under his touch. With her husband fighting for a second chance, now could be the time for Callie to forget scandal and trust in the man she once held so dear... Chapter One (#u504f60a3-158f-57f7-b860-88007bda3227) ‘So where is this Cataret House School you might recall if you weren’t feeling “quite so mazed” by the heat?’ Sir Gideon Laughraine, otherwise known as Mr Frederick Peters, asked the pretend idiot he’d hailed for directions. The idler scratched his grizzled head and shrugged as Gideon bit back a curse and wondered if anyone else would be about on such a sweltering afternoon. Unless he found a field being worked close to the road, there was probably nobody who wasn’t at work or staying inside out of the sun within hailing distance, so he dug in his waistcoat pocket for a small coin and held it up to encourage the man’s memory. ‘That’s it over yonder,’ the man finally admitted with a nod towards a farmhouse on the opposite side of the valley that looked as if it had delusions of grandeur. ‘Likely you’ll find the old girl in, but young miss went down the track to Manydown a half hour ago.’ Gideon bit back a curse and flipped the coin to the knowing rogue before turning his weary horse and following in young miss’s footsteps. ‘I wouldn’t want to find the old besom in a hurry either, mister,’ the knowing idiot told him before slouching off to spend his windfall in the local ale house. ‘Needs must when the devil drives,’ Gideon muttered grimly, not much looking forward to that encounter either, then he forgot the ‘old girl’ by wondering what the young one might be up to. Would she blench at the very sight of him and look as if the devil was on her heels, or give him that delightful smile he still remembered with a gasp of the heart all these years on? Who knew? Lady Virginia Winterley was right though; he had to find out if his wife would ever smile at him again outside his favourite dreams. Dear Boy, his late patroness and friend began the letter that heralded the third quest on her list, left in her will to chime with every new season of the year after her death. He’d had no inkling he was one of the unfortunates she’d decided to do good to until that demand he do as he was bid for the next three months was put in his hand by the new Lady Farenze. I am quite sure it will come as a great surprise to you when dear Chloe tells you that you have the next quest on my list. Well, yes, you’re quite right there, my lady, he thought with a shake of his dark head to admit she’d outfoxed him once again. It should not be, she continued, as if she were standing at his shoulder and could see the sceptical expression on his face when he finally realised why Luke Winterley’s new wife had sought him out to hand him the letter from Lady Virginia. You are my beloved Virgil’s secret grandson, and it is only out of consideration for your cousin, Lord Laughraine, that we have not been able to claim you openly. If we did so it would take away the only legal heir he has left to carry on his titles and estates and we both love and respect Charlie Laughraine far too much to do that to him or you. I know the true facts of your birth have been a trial to you ever since you were old enough to realise what the gossips had to say about your father’s true parentage, but they are a great comfort to me. I shall always be glad I had time to watch you grow from the haunted, unhappy boy I first encountered into the fine man you are today, even though I’ve had to do so without my darling Virgil at my side. It has been such a pleasure to see you make your own way in life, much as I know Virgil would have done if he wasn’t born the heir to vast estates and the Farenze titles. I don’t have words to say how much I loved my husband, and finding a way to drag you into my life was a selfish act, since you resemble him so closely in ways that go beyond a purely physical likeness. You do have that, of course, although I think James favours him more in outward details than you do, dear Gideon. You also have a true heart and a kind nature to balance that sharp mind of yours and it has been a delight for me to come to know you so much better these last few years than Virgil ever could while he was alive, for all his pleading with your father to let him at least know his grandson. I think Esmond would have done anything to hurt his true father and withholding you from him was a way to show he had the power to hurt the man he blamed for ruining his life. Gideon stopped and stared into the middle distance. He refused to think about his vexed relationship with his father and both Virgil and Esmond were beyond his intervention now, so he could worry about his wife instead. Callie had gone a determined distance from her aunt’s house on this devilishly hot day. He managed a rueful smile at the thought of what she would have to say about his heart and even the faith in his kindness Lady Virginia made so much of in her letter, not much to his credit he suspected. Once again he wondered what was so urgent Callie needed to walk out to find it on such a sweltering afternoon. Was she meeting a lover? A jag of hot jealousy made him gasp and a shaft of pain clutched at his gut. After her last arctic-cold letter telling him never to contact her again, then nine years of silence, she wasn’t going to welcome him, but Lady Virginia was quite right, drat her. He checked the inner pocket of his coat where it lay across his saddle brow and heard the reassuring crackle of hot pressed paper against silk lining. An unconventional lawyer like him often needed a safe place to keep important letters, but this one was a very mixed blessing and its contents were already imprinted on his mind. I know what I am going to ask of you is more than I demanded of dear Luke and my beloved godson, Tom Banburgh. I hope you have come to know them as a true kinsman and a stalwart friend these last six months, by the way, for you have lived without either for far too long. So, your quest is to find your wife, my darling boy, and ask her for your heart’s desire. I can’t tell you if she will listen or be generous enough to give it to you, but you have to find out if there is any chance for your marriage, or between you make an end to it with dignity. If you go on as you are, you will be a haunted and lonely man for the rest of your life and I do so want you to be happy. I was lucky enough to find the man I could love with everything I am, even luckier to live with him as long as I did, but you two children managed to love and lose one another before you should have been out of your schoolrooms. Seek out that unlucky girl of yours with an open heart and discover if you can live together, Gideon. If you cannot, then agree on a separation and make some sort of life apart. I believe two such stubborn and contrary people were made for one another, but there’s no need to prove me wrong for the sake of it. What you choose to do about Raigne and the splendid inheritance you are legally entitled to, as the last official Laughraine heir, is up to you. My advice is to stop being a stiff-necked idiot and listen to your cousin. Charles Laughraine has never been in the least bit like your supposed grandfather and his uncle, and I thought Sir Wendover Laughraine one of the most soulless and heartless men I ever came across, but his nephew is a very different man. As you have called him your Uncle Charles ever since you were old enough to talk I have to suppose you realise he is very happy to consider you part of his family, whatever the true facts of the case may be. No doubt your wife will go her own way, but as you and I both know her to be Lord Laughraine’s natural granddaughter, she owes him a hearing even if she won’t listen to you. The future of such a large estate and all the people who depend on it must be decided before many more years go by. I wish it could be otherwise and please believe Virgil would have been delighted to openly claim you as his grandson, even though your father hated any reference to his own irregular birth and would never hear of it. Charlie Laughraine is nigh as old as I am now and time will outrun you three stiff-necked idiots if you are not careful. All I have to add is a warning never to take anything that aunt of hers says at face value and look deeper into why that young romance of yours went so badly awry. Don’t you shake your head at me again, Gideon Laughraine, I know you long for the love of your young life with everything you have in you a decade on from losing her. Admit it to yourself, then all you need do is find out if your wife suffers the same burden and do something about it. Gideon almost wished he could forget the last letter from his friend and one-time mentor and ride back to London as fast as this unlucky beast would go. He could carry on with the nearly good enough life he’d made without his wife and the family they might have rejoiced in by now. What a fool he was to have agreed so readily to act as an extra pair of ears and eyes during Lady Virginia’s year of discovery for her four victims, though. How had he thought he could stay uninvolved, even without this latest bombshell? No, a strong sense of justice made him corrected himself; they weren’t victims. The first two quests made Luke Winterley and Tom Banburgh the proud husbands of much-loved new wives. Two triumphs chalked up on the slate for the Lady then and, if he knew anything about himself and James Winterley, the score would be levelled by two lone wolves beyond redemption. Would Lady Virginia had wasted her energy on a more worthy cause and let him and Winterley go to the devil in their own way. * * * When she set out so determinedly this afternoon Callie intended to get to Manydown as fast as possible, so she could get back before anyone noticed she’d gone, but this clammy heat was defeating her. She slowed down but carried on, despite the nagging suspicion she should go back to Cataret House and give up on her dream for today. The sad truth was she couldn’t face another afternoon of idle boredom now her pupils were with their family or friends for the summer. After a week of this heat and being at the beck and call of her aunt with no excuse to be busy elsewhere, she felt she must leave the house before they livened up a dull summer with an argument that ended in tears and days of stony silence. It was quite wrong of her to feel like a virtual prisoner at Cataret House when the school wasn’t keeping her too busy to notice. Aunt Seraphina had been quite right—they’d both needed to start their lives anew nine years ago. They were let down and betrayed by two very different husbands at the time, so why not pool their limited resources and hire a house big enough to start a school? It had seemed a wonderful idea back then; they could live modestly on the profits and she could help fifteen young girls of mixed ability and middling birth learn about the world, or as much of it as young ladies were permitted to know. Her life had felt blank and hopeless at the time and Aunt Seraphina’s idea was inspired, but now a little voice kept whispering is this all? No, she wouldn’t listen. She had experienced the storm and lightning of her great love affair and all it turned out to be was a mistake that hurt everyone she had ever cared for. The school made enough and their pupils were happy. If future wives and mothers were better informed people for having passed through their hands, maybe in time the world would change and ladies would be more highly valued by a society that regarded them as the legal chattels of their husbands, fathers or brothers. Here she was busy and useful and known as spinsterish Miss Sommers, and that was enough, most of the time. Nine years ago it had been impossible to drag the failure of her marriage about like a badge of stupidity so she reminded herself why she had wanted to leave youthful folly behind and shivered even in this heat. Living in genteel poverty as her true self somewhere out of her husband’s orbit would have been worse than waiting on her aunt when the girls were away and feeling shut into this narrow life. Most of the time she enjoyed helping other people’s daughters learn about the world; and they employed a visiting dancing teacher and music mistress to add to Callie’s more academic teaching. Knowing her niece had absorbed the late Reverend Sommers’s scholarship far more eagerly than his daughters had, Aunt Seraphina let Callie teach the girls some of the lessons their brothers could expect to learn as a matter of course and where else could she do that? She reminded herself she was always a stranger to herself during the summer when there was little to distract her from the life she’d chosen. At this time of year she must fend off memories of passion and grief that were best forgotten; the secret was to occupy herself and this was as good a way as any. Her mind was racing about like a mad March hare this afternoon, so even tramping the hills on a blazing hot day obviously wasn’t distraction enough. Perhaps it was time to escape into daydreams then. They gave her a way to ignore all but the worst of Aunt Seraphina’s scolds even as a small child and now they took her to places she hadn’t even thought of back then. The hope of living a different life firmed her resolution to find out if her writing could lead to more than she dared hope when she first put pen to paper. It was probably best not to speculate on the reply she might find waiting for Mrs Muse at the receiving office in answer to her latest correspondence with a maybe publisher. She had to distract herself from this wild seesaw of hope and dread. So she gave up looking for wildlife to identify on a day when it was asleep and wondered idly how ladies lived in more exotic countries where it was like this much of the time. She was sure high-born women rested during the burning heat of the day and did not walk alone when barely a breath stirred grass grown lifeless as straw against her bare ankles. Right now she could be lying on a silk-cushioned divan, saving her strength for the cooler night to come and dreaming of her lover. The contrast between such an idle and slumberous afternoon and this one snatched her back into the present. She sighed and wished she could ignore questions about where she was going on such a sultry day, so she could order the gig and drive herself to Manydown. At least her ancient straw bonnet kept the full force of the sun off and Aunt Seraphina couldn’t accuse her of ruining her complexion, but she dreamt wistfully of airy silks, made to whisper against her limbs as she strolled about her fantasy palace. It would feel sensual and pleasantly wicked to go barefoot on a satin-smooth marble floor and for a moment she felt as if silky stone was under her feet and wriggled her toes in sensual appreciation, which made her jolt back to reality again to hot, sweaty and gritty English feet tramping through a baking landscape. It was nearly nine years now since Grandfather Sommers had caught the fever that killed him from Aunt Seraphina’s late and unlamented husband. When Reverend Sommers followed his unworthy son-in-law to the grave there was nothing to keep either of them in King’s Raigne, and leaving the village where she grew up meant Callie could be herself again. It was a common enough name and nobody was going to look for her, so she went back to being Miss Sommers, spinster, and Aunt Seraphina became Mrs Grisham with an imaginary husband to mourn when their new neighbours came to gossip. They were less than twenty miles away from Raigne and it felt a world away from that famously grand house and the tightly knit Raigne villages. Better not to think about her old life, she decided, dreading the hurt and sorrow those memories threatened even after nine years away. Where was she? Ah, yes—going without stockings, partly for economy and partly because it was too hot to endure them. Perhaps the old, impulsive Callie was alive under the schoolmistress, after all, so she concentrated on walking and her quest, but it was too hot and familiar a walk to distract her for long. Anyway, it was impossible to feel bold and sensuous and longing to be shameless with a handsome lover when you were weighed down by chemises and corsets, petticoats and a sternly respectable cambric gown. Somehow she couldn’t force the fantasy of that longed-for lover back into the dark corner where she kept her deepest secrets today, but nine years on he wasn’t the man she had fallen in love with, anyway. If her husband stood in front of her now she probably wouldn’t recognise him, and the thought of the painful arguments and angry silences before they parted made her happy to dive back into the life of a fantasy Callie, who longed for a very different lover from her one-time one, so where had she got to with that? Ah, yes, she was languorous with longing to see him again after spending mere hours apart. There would be cooling fans waved by unseen hands to stir the heavy air and cleverly devised cross-draughts in that marble palace under a merciless sun. She drifted away from the court ladies idling away the scorching afternoon with gossip as they waited for the world to stir again. When it did the scent of exotic flowers and rare spices, the flare of bright colours and wild beat of music and dancing would light up the night with an urgent promise of excitement and passion and longing fully sated at long last. It was too exciting to allow her to worry about who was in and who was out at court. Of course, they would all be weary again the next day and doze through the hot afternoon, so they could dance when night fell, but it would be worth sore feet and all day waiting for the thrill of being totally alive again in her lover’s arms when darkness fell. Something told the real Callie if she had to live such a life she’d rage against rules that forbade a lady contact with the world beyond the palace walls, but flights of fancy weren’t meant to be realistic. She sighed and knew she was hot and sticky and unpleasantly dirty once again, so what would the eager Callie Sommers of seventeen make of her older and wiser self? Not much, she decided, wishing she could go back and warn the headlong idiot not to dream so hard or passionately so that her today could be different. Shrugging off memories that wouldn’t change for all the wishing in the world, she resisted the urge to throw her bonnet into the nearest hedge and be less suffocated by the life of a confirmed spinster. She untied the shabby ribbons instead and felt the faintest trace of a breeze on her damp skin. It was the gritty unpleasantness of grey dust changing to mud between her sweaty toes that made her escape into a dream of walking naked into a wide pool full of rose-petal-scented water this time. Imaginary Callie felt coolness and luxury surround her and knew she was loved and valued above riches by the prince of this splendour. Now that was the most dangerous fantasy of all. She shook her head to refuse it and felt a brief thunder of blood in her ears. Aunt Seraphina’s dire warnings about females who recklessly strode about the countryside with no regard for the conventions might come true if she was overtaken by dragging heat on a public highway. Wondering if her aunt ever looked at her, Callie tried to be amused by the idea plain Miss Sommers could excite ungovernable passion in any male who found her sprawled on the road. She needed to keep her wits about her if she was going to walk to the receiving office and be home before she was missed, so no more daydreams until she was back in her bedchamber, where she could work on her next book in peace. Today even her aunt had succumbed to the heat and left Callie free to do as she pleased for once. So she couldn’t let another day go by without finding out if the novel she had laboured over so hard in secret might be published. So, yes, it was worth being hot and sticky to get word Mr Redell might agree to publish it at last. Despite the heat she managed an excited hop and skip at his opinion her work showed promise. He had suggested changes and refinements, of course, but it wasn’t a flat refusal. Perhaps she could earn enough to rent a little cottage one day and mix with friends she chose, get ink on her fingers whenever the fancy took her, then dig her garden and cook whatever she wanted to eat out of it. It was such a heady daydream she didn’t hear a hot and weary horse coming up behind her until the animal was close enough to shy at her modest bonnet. His rider cursed him for a jingle-brained donkey and consigned him to the devil even as Callie’s thoughts span back with a sickening jolt. Shocked to her toes by the sound of that particular male voice, she froze as if an enchanter had put a spell on her. No, she wouldn’t look round, but he was taking in her unfashionable bonnet and faded gown as he fought to control the skittish beast, because he realised he was blaspheming in front of a lady. Callie was far too busy coping with absolute shock to take note of his apology. She was wrong; she must be. Gideon was miles away, probably in London, and this was a stranger. Turning to reassure herself she was imagining a nightmare, Callie found out exactly how wrong she could be. ‘Oh, the devil,’ she said flatly. All the blood in her body seemed to have drained from her head into her hot, dusty feet and taken her panic-stricken heart with it. Black spots danced in front of her eyes and now her fickle heart was thundering a tattoo so loudly her head was full of the relentless beat. Panic raced over her skin in shudders of cold on the hottest day of summer so far. ‘How missish of me,’ she managed in a fading murmur, but neither willpower nor vanity could stop her reeling—the truth of him beating against her hastily shut eyelids, as if he was stamped on them like a brand. This was Gideon. After all the years of wanting him night after night—so much useless longing—then wishing they had never met, he was back and there was only so much abuse a woman’s body could take. Callie let the darkness suck her in so he didn’t matter any more. Chapter Two (#u504f60a3-158f-57f7-b860-88007bda3227) Gideon fought to hold his much-tried horse back from bolting. The woman Lady Virginia ordered him to seek out and come to terms with had wilted like a faded lily at the sight of him and made the wretched beast panic even more as she fell to the ground. As he tried to soothe the beast his heart thudded to the beat of iron-shod hooves too close to her contrary head. ‘To think I was afraid I wouldn’t find you here,’ he murmured between curses as he finally fought the animal to a weary standstill. Nobody could accuse the Calliope Sommers he knew of being vapourish and his heart ached. Sir Gideon Laughraine must be a worse rogue than he thought if his wife fainted at her first sight of him in nine years, so what hope was there for his sooty soul? ‘And a very good afternoon to you, too, Lady Laughraine,’ he muttered, wondering what his noble clients would think of ‘Mr Frederick Peters’ under his real identity. He almost laughed at the idea; this name was hardly a true one, but it was the one he had to call himself when all aliases were stripped away. Too late to gallop back to town and save her from confronting her worst nightmare now, so he quietened his hack and avoided looking at his wife until his breathing calmed as much as it was going to today. The bitter knowledge that she once told him not to bother her again as long as he lived made him gasp as if she had written it a moment ago. She hadn’t replied to a single letter he sent since so she still thought their woes were his fault. Still, he’d be damned if he’d ride off and leave his wife sprawled in the road for any fool to trip over, so he couldn’t leave again yet. Gideon jumped from the saddle of his weary horse to crouch over his wife with a fast beating heart and a gut-deep fear for her safety that told him he still cared. He frowned at the shadows under her eyes, then his gaze lingered on the dusky curve of her eyelashes as he recalled how they felt blinking sleepily against his own skin. No, that wasn’t a road he could travel and stay sane. Compared to the skinny girl she was her face was softer and yet more defined; his coltish Callie had grown up and he hadn’t been here to watch it happen. Of course, the old Callie was vital and lovely, her glossy dark hair always tumbling out of whatever style she tried to tame it with. Her dark brown eyes were full of life and often brilliant with mischief, or passion, as she urged him recklessly to match her, as if he needed urging. Of course, the young man he was must be flattered, but he’d truly loved her. No other woman could rival her even now. He’d met accredited beauties and numbered one or two as true friends, but they didn’t hold a candle to the Callie he first fell in love with. His young love was as lively and adventurous as she was lovely and it tore at his heart to see so little of her in the contained and outwardly staid woman lying in his path. He watched her slavishly for signs of returning consciousness, or was that a story he told himself so he could gaze at her? Her lush curves were accentuated by the tiny waist he used to span when he lifted her off her grandfather’s steady grey horse when they met secretly. He could only see it because gravity defeated her high-waisted gown and was it foolish or wise of fashion to conceal such a figure from the gaze of hungry male predators like him? he wondered. Considering the allowance he’d struggled to make her in his days as a clerk, then an unconventional lawyer, and the increases he’d made since, he wondered what she spent his blunt on, though, because it sure as Hades hadn’t gone on clothes. Her gown had been washed so many times the white of the base cotton was yellowed and a simple print of gold rosebuds faded. It was hard to pick out pattern from background and he doubted it was in the first kick of fashion when it made its debut far too long ago for her to be wearing it now. Shock at the sight of her dropping to the ground in a dead faint might be making his attention swerve to unimportant things, but it was a puzzle he intended to solve as soon as she felt well enough. It was infernally hot, though, so maybe she didn’t want to mire a good gown on a tramp through a sweltering countryside. ‘What the devil are you up to, Callie?’ he murmured as he settled his hack by a nearby tree and frowned as if he might read answers on her pallid face. She looked heartbreakingly vulnerable lying in the dust as he strode back to her. The rise and fall of her bosom told him she was breathing steadily, but she had been unconscious far too long. He wanted to pluck her up off the dusty road and guard her from any threat life could throw at her, even if he was the worst one she could think of. For a breath-stealing moment he wondered if she had a terrible illness. No, he could see no sign of prolonged ill health in her smooth skin and unwrinkled brow, so she hated him so much she lost her senses rather than meet him face to face. He checked her breathing, then stood over her so his shadow would shield her from the sun. He watched her achingly familiar heart-shaped face for a long moment, then averted his gaze. He was too much of a coward to watch her wake up and see revulsion tighten her features when she realised he wasn’t a bad dream. His wife lay unconscious at his feet and now he was lusting after her like a green boy as well and it shamed him. He also felt fully alive for the first time since he left her, despair biting harder with every step he took. She was smiling faintly in her sleep next time he looked, as if drifting happily in a world that didn’t have him in it. He suppressed the urge to howl like a dog at her latest rejection and went back to brooding over a past that couldn’t be altered. * * * Callie was drifting on a thick cloud of feathers while angels whispered benedictions in her ear. For a moment she really believed Gideon had come back for her, so it was perfectly rational to hear angels, but why did this one sound so angry? And did they really carry tall ebony canes and have masses of snow-white hair and piercing dark-brown eyes? Her grumpy angel frowned and remarked it was little wonder she was bad-tempered with two idiots like her and Gideon to worry about when she had better things to do. Acting like a die-away miss never solved anything, young lady. A fortnight of Gideon’s three months has already been used up with his shilly-shallying. Best to let sleeping dogs lie indeed—whatever is the boy thinking of? It doesn’t make sense to do anything of the sort when they’re only sleeping their lives away as if that’s all there is for them to worry about. Just you wake up this minute, my girl, and stop being such a ninnyhammer. You haven’t been happy without him since you sent him away, so get up and face him and a few facts at the same time, the spectre ordered her with a stern look and Callie frowned as waking up suddenly seemed a good idea. Her airy cloud deflated and she felt far less comfortable avoiding Gideon than she had when she welcomed unconsciousness with a sigh of relief. She wrinkled her nose as a bit more reality crept in; this was a hard resting place with too many stones for a lady to lie about on as if she had nothing better to do. ‘Go away,’ she croaked, hoping to reclaim her quiet cushion of feathery peace instinct warned her not to relinquish as the dragon-angel ordered. She might be lying on a dusty road dreaming impossible things, but she didn’t want to face real ones right now. ‘Would that I could,’ Gideon’s voice replied and a heavy thump of her heart reminded her why she’d welcomed an attack of the vapours in the first place. At last she gave in and blinked her eyes open, because she didn’t want to dwell on the regret in Gideon’s voice. He sounded absolutely here and far away all at the same time and wasn’t that trick typical of him? ‘What are you doing here?’ she murmured with an unwary shake of her head. Dark spots wavered in front of her eyes and warned her some shocks weren’t to be got over lightly and she lay down again until they went away. ‘Straight to the nub of the issue, as usual,’ her husband said wearily. She glanced up at him looming over her and saw worry and frustration in his grey-green eyes, but still couldn’t stand up and face him. Maybe in a moment or two she’d find the right blend of courage and calmness, and maybe never, a sceptical voice whispered and she wasn’t sure if it was hers or belonged to the forceful spectre she dreamt up just now. ‘If you can endure me carrying you, you’ll recover far better in the shade.’ ‘Be quick then,’ she ordered, waving her dusty hand imperiously as a defeated queen. ‘Your wish is my command, Highness,’ he joked as he lifted her up as if she were made of fairy dust. Callie knew perfectly well that wasn’t so and felt the power of him when he plucked her from the ground without a hitch in his breathing. Was it right to be insulted by his rock-like composure? The Gideon she remembered was slender as a lath and she could read him as easily as a child’s primer, yet this man was a closed book to her. Her body responded to his as if it recognised him and that would never do. Callie the lover—the wife, came alive again in a hot flash of fiery need. Horrified to feel so aware of him, she squirmed and he told her testily to keep still lest he drop her. Once upon a time he was the sun to her moon; the reason she got up in the morning and slept at night, if they could spare time for sleeping. Surely she had more sense than to fall under his spell twice? Of course she had. The moment she could set one foot in front of the other without falling over, she’d march away and prove he meant nothing to her. ‘Put me down, Gideon,’ she demanded in a breathy voice she hardly recognised. ‘You’ll fall over if I do.’ ‘Nonsense, I’m perfectly well.’ ‘Of course you aren’t.’ ‘I wish you’d let me walk, I’m not a child,’ she complained, even though she sounded like a pettish one to her own ears right now. ‘Stop behaving like one then,’ he said in a preoccupied tone, as if he had more important things to do than tidy his inconvenient wife off the King’s Highway. ‘I’m not. I feel sick,’ she said querulously, wondering what had come over her. Gideon had, of course, and he was as calm as a rock while she felt as if her whole world had been turned upside down. ‘Then I’m definitely not putting you down.’ ‘It’s a lie,’ she confessed with a blush she hoped he couldn’t see under the liberal coating of dust miring her cheeks. ‘I thought such a neat gentleman as you wouldn’t want that fine silk waistcoat spoilt and you’d put me down.’ ‘You really can’t wait to get out of my arms, can you, Wife?’ he said with a quirk of his mouth that might pass for a smile in a dark room. ‘No more than you can to ride off and forget me for another nine years,’ she retaliated childishly, unable to stop her tongue saying things she’d rather it kept quiet about. ‘You do me an injustice, Calliope. How could I ever forget you?’ She distrusted his words, took them as mockery. Tears stung her eyes for a perilous second, but the thought of tear tracks in the dirt made her wince. She blinked hard and stared into the little wood he was carrying her towards until they dispersed. She should dismiss him from her life as lightly as an old gown, but perhaps she could lie about a lover to disgrace him with and persuade him to go away. Except she’d never met a man who made her feel the way he did. If she wasn’t careful she’d become the sort of female who lay about on sofas half the day and wafted about like a low-lying cloud for the rest of it. Or hoped for impossible things, and wouldn’t that be a waste of time? ‘I can still walk, you know,’ she said crossly. ‘Of course you can,’ he replied, a hint of laughter in grey eyes that had an inner ray of green round the pupil only a lover would know about. The thought of long-ago intimacy with this man caught at her heart. Now he looked and sounded almost familiar it made her recall times when they looked and looked at each other for what felt like hours, or simply lay close marvelling at one another until desire was too hot for peace and they peaked into the sort of earth-shattering climax that made her shiver even over such a chasm of time. That wasn’t the way to be cool and armoured while they agreed terms. It was good for him to hide his true self now; it would make life easier while she waited for him to go again. ‘And I wish to do so right now,’ she told him emphatically. ‘I may not be much of a husband, but I’m not going to watch my wife stagger about the countryside half faint in this heat like a drunkard.’ ‘Nonsense, I can cope with the sun perfectly well.’ ‘Of course you can,’ he said indulgently. How come she could hear him smile as he soothed her like a fractious infant again? ‘The shock of seeing you made me faint, but I would be perfectly well if you hadn’t taken me by surprise,’ she claimed with a frown that was clearly wasted on the barbarian. ‘You were so overcome with delight at the sight of me you lost your senses then?’ ‘That wasn’t delight,’ she snapped. ‘I know.’ ‘And what the devil are you doing here, Gideon?’ ‘Now that sounds more like the outspoken Callie Sommers I know. I thought I’d mistaken you for someone else for a moment back there.’ ‘I am someone else,’ she told him gruffly, doing her best to believe that was good. ‘Not from here you’re not,’ he teased as he shifted her slightly in his arms and they finally reached the little wood that ran alongside the road. ‘You feel exactly like her to me.’ ‘Well, I’m not,’ she said crossly. She hadn’t been since Gideon put his ring on her finger and the blacksmith at Gretna pronounced them man and wife. ‘No, you’re Callie Laughraine,’ he said blankly and she told herself that was a good thing. One of them should have their feelings under control and hers were anything but. ‘I spent a long time forgetting her and manage perfectly well without a husband to tell me what to do and how to do it nowadays,’ she insisted. ‘As if I ever could awe, persuade or bully you into doing a thing you didn’t want to. You were always your own person and even as a silly stripling I never wanted you any other way, Calliope.’ ‘I have no idea why my mother gave me that ridiculous name,’ she said to divert them from the memory of how much he’d loved her when they eloped to Gretna Green. It hurt to linger on the past and wonder if they could have built a wonderful marriage together, if life was a little less cruel. ‘She might as well have put a millstone round my neck as named me for one of the Muses.’ ‘Lucky you have a beautiful voice and a love of poetry like your namesake then, isn’t it? Perhaps she simply liked it. I always did.’ ‘Yet how you used to taunt me with it when you were a repellent boy. If I had the gift of epic poetry, would you stop carrying me about like an infant?’ ‘Because you’re named after a goddess?’ ‘No, because I asked you to, although I should like to be a bard, if we lived in better times and women were taken seriously as such, but I never wanted to be a goddess with so many unpronounceable sisters to quarrel with.’ He wasn’t to know how serious she was, so she supposed it was unfair to stiffen in his arms when he chuckled. At least now she felt icy and remote again and he’d almost done it—he’d nearly disarmed her with flattery and wasn’t that another warning to be wary? Best to remember he was a professional advocate now, a pleader for apparently lost causes, and that they could never be friends. At least then she would hurt less when he walked away again. ‘You can put me down over there,’ she ordered, pointing at a convenient tree stump. ‘I’ll drop you in the stream if you’re not careful, Your Majesty,’ he muttered darkly. She shot him a glare as he set her down as if she was made of bone china, then stepped back with a mocking bow. ‘Now go away,’ she said sternly. ‘I wouldn’t leave your aunt stranded in the middle of nowhere ill and prey to any rogue who happened along and I never liked her, so how can you imagine I’d leave you, Callie?’ ‘I’m not my aunt,’ she defended herself absently. ‘Something I thank God for on a daily basis, my dear.’ ‘Don’t call me your dear and don’t blaspheme.’ ‘But I’d hate to be wed to your narrow-minded and joyless relative, my dear.’ ‘She stood by me when nobody else would and I told you I’m not your dear,’ she told him shortly and wondered if it was worth standing so she could stamp her foot and show him she hated that false endearment on his lips. Deciding it wasn’t a good idea to stand up and wilt, then sit down again before she proved anything, she tried to look serenely indifferent instead. Clearly it didn’t work; he was having a job to conceal a grin at her expense. ‘Perhaps you’ll allow me the one freedom a married man can safely claim, which is the privacy of his own thoughts?’ he said with a pantomime of the henpecked husband that made her heart ache for all they’d lost. ‘And perhaps I won’t,’ she snapped. ‘Afraid you won’t like them, Calliope?’ Terrified if he did but know it. She sniffed and tossed her head to let him know she was completely indifferent, then regretted it immediately as the wild thundering in her ears told her she hadn’t recovered enough to flounce off and leave him standing like a forlorn knight spurned by the damsel he’d got off his horse to rescue. ‘If I was I’d have no wish to know, would I?’ ‘As well if you don’t, perhaps,’ he told her gruffly as he turned from rummaging in the pack of his weary horse and removing a flask. ‘Please don’t try and force brandy down my throat, Gideon,’ she protested. ‘I don’t indulge in alcohol now,’ he said as he handed her a flask of clear water lukewarm from its journey. He drank too much wine during the latter days of their marriage and the memory of him drunk and bitter as gall made her shudder. Not that he’d laid violent hands on her, but the thought of all that darkness and despair chilled her to the bone. ‘Never?’ she was startled into asking as his words sank in. ‘Only when a cook puts it in a sauce or some fanciful dessert when I dine away from home, but not otherwise. I drank too much and made things much worse between us. So you see, I’ve managed to put one of my baser impulses behind me,’ he said with a rueful smile that did unfair things to her insides. ‘Abstain from alcohol for your own good, but don’t pretend it’s got anything to do with me. If you set any store by what I wanted, you wouldn’t have come here and cut up my peace like this,’ she told him disagreeably to disguise it. ‘I can’t leave yet, but the drunken, headlong boy I was back then was repellent and I promise you I’ve done my best to kill him off. I doubt anyone mourned him.’ I did, argued an inner Callie who refused to be silenced. I wept myself to sleep for the lack of him by my side every night for far too long.Until I realised he was never coming back and I was the one who told him to go, in fact. ‘Devil take it, but I’m a rogue to plague you when you’re as unwell as a person can be without being carted about on a hurdle,’ Gideon exclaimed and she couldn’t stop a wobbly smile at the sight and sound of him as familiar to her as her own face in the mirror at last. There—he was her Gideon again; a quick-tempered and passionate young man who could turn her knees to water at the very flicker of that self-deprecating smile or a sudden urge to wild action that made living with him such a clash of surprise, dread and delight. ‘Come, Wife, let’s get you home before you drop unconscious at my feet for the second time today,’ he added masterfully and she frowned at him again, wondering if she could ever bring herself to live with a gentleman who was so used to getting his own way, then shocking herself with the idea she might like to try, if things were different. ‘If you arrive on her doorstep, Aunt Seraphina will have the vapours even if I don’t,’ she warned him, and he actually paled at the thought of her aunt, who hadn’t liked him even before he ran off to Gretna with her niece. ‘She has plenty of experience,’ he said darkly and turned towards his hitched horse. ‘You could simply ride away again, nobody would know,’ Callie suggested desperately. Being lonely and a little unhappy was a state she knew so well that the idea of changing it in any way looked strange and frightening from here. ‘We would, wouldn’t we?’ he said as if that decided the issue. ‘Yes,’ she admitted with a sigh, ‘so we would.’ Chapter Three (#u504f60a3-158f-57f7-b860-88007bda3227) Simply getting Callie to ride his horse while he led it caused an argument. Gideon wondered if they could stop carping long enough to put the fragments of their marriage together and called up all the patience he’d learnt during his years without her. He should have remembered that aspect of marriage better and the magical glee of loving her less, he supposed grimly. Still, they were talking, even if it was in snaps of irritation. The odd moment of rediscovery made this all seem heartbreakingly familiar then strange by turns and he almost wished he’d slung his unconscious wife across his saddle brow and ridden off with her like a pirate with a princess. ‘Comfortable?’ he asked after the silence had stretched so thin he couldn’t endure it any longer. ‘What do you think?’ she challenged. ‘You should have let me ride astride as I asked instead of perching me up here like a doll.’ ‘And have half the yokels in Wiltshire looking at your legs? I think not,’ he managed to say as even the idea of it made him rampantly jealous. ‘I doubt they would bother when they saw the rest of me,’ she said with a sweep of her hand at her dusty person that set his steed dancing and set Gideon’s overstretched nerves on edge. He tried hard to rein himself in at the same time as he clamped a firm grip on the bit and forced the idiot horse to stop wasting its energy, as well. ‘They would. You look magnificent,’ he told her tersely and surely that wasn’t a pleased little smile she was doing her best to hide behind that hideous bonnet? ‘As a girl you were lovely, now you’re beautiful, Callie,’ he added and heard her snort of disbelief with mixed feelings. If she thought herself an antidote, would it make his task as her jealous and fiercely protective husband easier? If he ever managed to win her back, of course. Yet if she was blind to her own attractions she would draw in wolves the moment she set foot in a ballroom at his side. So, on second thoughts, his life would be hell if she had no idea how potently her lovely face and fine figure and that firm disbelief in her own charms could affect a man. He groaned aloud at the idea of following her about like a possessive stallion for the rest of his life in order to make it very clear she was his mate and he didn’t share. No, that really was putting the cart before the horses and he had to hold back all this hope in case it crashed to the ground around him again. ‘Are you hurting in some way, Gideon?’ she asked innocently, and what was he to do with such an odd mix of naïveté and sophistication as his estranged wife? ‘It’s been a long day,’ he said with a shrug. ‘It’s probably about to get a lot worse,’ she warned as Cataret House came into view again and she was quite right, just not in the sense she thought. ‘Aye, your aunt never could abide me, could she?’ he replied as if that was all that troubled him right now when even the thought of her as his true wife again was rendering him unfit for any company at all, let alone hers. ‘No, she’s deeply distrustful of all men and, considering the one she was wed to for so long, I’m not at all surprised.’ ‘So why did she marry Bonhomie Bartle, Callie? They never had children, so I doubt they were forced to wed for the sake of a child as my parents were. It always puzzled me what those two saw in one another as they seemed to hate each other every bit as much as my mother and father did.’ ‘Grandfather told me she insisted on marrying him, although he begged her not to go through with it, so I suppose she must have loved him once upon a time. Nobody forced her to wed the man and I never knew what she saw in him, but why do any two people wed each other when they don’t have to?’ ‘Because they want to spend the rest of their lives together, I suppose,’ he said and cursed his clumsy tongue when she refused to meet his eyes. Finally they had reached the sloping drive and he and his weary mount slowed in deference to the day and the incline and at least despair was having a dampening effect on his foolish manhood. ‘Mr Bartle was heir to a wealthy baronetcy, before his great-uncle took a young wife and began producing heirs in his old age.’ ‘So they ended up poor and disappointed?’ ‘Yes, but I don’t think either of them ever thought the world well lost for love.’ ‘Perhaps not,’ he agreed and refused to make the challenge her averted gaze and tight fists on the reins told him she expected. But we did once, his inner idiot argued all the same and he told it to be quiet before it drove the rest of him mad. ‘Nobody will answer the front door, you might as well lead this unlucky animal to the stable.’ ‘Where are your outdoor staff?’ he said with a frown at the sheep-cropped turf and the faintly down-at-heel air of the whole place. ‘Aunt Seraphina says the war has made everything so expensive it’s impossible to keep a handyman and a groom. We have maids and a good cook she insists we employ to keep our young ladies healthy.’ ‘And her liking for fine dining has nothing to do with that, I suppose? What have you been doing with the allowance I make you, Callie? You certainly haven’t spent it on yourself, so I hope you haven’t been learning your aunt’s nip-farthing ways.’ ‘As senior schoolmistress I take a small stipend out of the fees, but it’s not enough to turn myself out in the sort of style you seem to expect, Gideon,’ she said as if he was being deliberately obtuse and the notion of who gained most from their estrangement took firm root in his mind as Virginia’s warning about Callie’s aunt rang true yet again. ‘At first I could only send enough to clothe you decently and live in modest comfort, but now the money I pay into an account in your name every month could easily run a house twice this size and still allow you to dress in style without penny pinching.’ ‘It would? Why don’t I seem to be receiving any of it then?’ ‘An interesting question, don’t you think?’ Callie looked thoughtful as they rounded the corner into a modest stableyard and he saw two good carriage horses and a trio of fat ponies looking curiously back at them from a nearby paddock. ‘You keep a pair of carriage horses, yet I see no riding horse? How do you endure it, Callie?’ he asked as the memory of her riding like the wind at his side slipped into his mind and made him wonder what other privations she suffered while he had been coward enough to take her at her word and stop away all these years. ‘I’m not a wild young girl now, I grew up.’ ‘Did you? Have you ever taken a good look at what you prefer to a life with me, Callie? By heavens, you have a very effective way of making me humble for all the sacrifices here seem to be yours and the luxuries your aunt’s.’ ‘She stood by me. She made a home for us both and at least we had each other—there was precious little else to be glad about at the time.’ ‘A far more comfortable home than she could afford without you.’ ‘No, Gideon, you don’t understand. The school produces a reasonable income, but I have no desire to cut a figure in local society. My aunt likes to pay calls and it keeps our school in the minds of potential clients. She sees to the business side of our enterprise while I tend to the girls in our care. We do well enough without you.’ ‘So you must always believe her before me?’ ‘No, of course not,’ she argued half-heartedly. Gideon had to bite his lip as he helped her out of the saddle, then steadied her, because she had endured a great shock today and, if his suspicions were right, there were plenty more of those to come. * * * ‘The household has been at sixes and sevens since we found you gone,’ Aunt Seraphina scolded benignly as she bustled towards them as soon as she and Gideon walked out of the baking stableyard and into the cool of the stone-flagged hall of Cataret House by the garden door. ‘How could you wander off on an afternoon like this, Calliope? You should be resting or keeping yourself occupied indoors during the heat of the day if you really must be busy.’ ‘I felt restless and miss the girls, Aunt, but you must see we have a visitor. I’m sure you don’t mean to scold me in front of him,’ Callie said. Gideon was right here and Aunt Seraphina knew her niece had come home on a hired horse led by a stranger in shirt sleeves, because the maids were on pins at the sight of any man in this out-of-the-way place. One as handsome as Gideon would set their hearts aflutter and their tongues wagging nineteen to the dozen, but Aunt Seraphina was stalling while she took stock of the situation. Callie knew her aunt a lot better than she had when Aunt Seraphina was a rather aloof figure during her childhood and she had seen that look before. The sight of Gideon had unnerved her and she was turning over ways to turn the situation to her advantage in her mind before she acknowledged his presence. A little while ago Callie would have blamed him for the unease between him and her aunt, but now she wasn’t quite so sure all the faults lay on his side, after all, as she sensed a mighty fury kept under iron control in her apparently calm relative. ‘I considered it best to pretend you are not here, young man. You have more cheek than I thought you possessed to walk in here and expect to be welcomed after what you did,’ Aunt Seraphina said as if he was a naughty schoolboy. ‘My husband has a right to be here, Aunt Seraphina,’ Callie surprised all three of them by asserting. One of the maids listening on the stairs let out a gasp and another nudged her to be silent so they could keep listening, but Callie knew they were shocked Miss Sommers was claiming a husband at all, let alone one like this. ‘The man isn’t fit to black your boots, let alone saunter in here as if he has a right.’ ‘Since I’m not one to wash my dirty linen in public, I suggest we adjourn to a less public space for the rest of this discussion, Mrs Bartle,’ Gideon said smoothly, and it said much for his new air of authority that all three were inside the drawing room with the door shut before her aunt protested his use of her true name when she was known as Mrs Grisham here. ‘Now, how do you explain yourself, young man? As if that’s possible,’ Aunt Seraphina said in a voice that made schoolgirls tremble, but didn’t affect Gideon at all. ‘Later. Now your niece needs peace and a cool bath after her exertions and if you had half the real concern for her welfare that you managed to fake all these years you would stop arguing with me and see she is cared for.’ For a moment there was such tension in the carefully gentrified parlour that Callie fancifully wondered if it might become visible as a lowering mist in the overheated air. She blamed this odd sense of detachment on her faint. Her aunt’s gaze fell under the chilly challenge in Gideon’s and she waved a long-fingered hand to concede a skirmish, but not an entire war. ‘Calliope is very pale, but you insisted we come in here to argue over the matter whilst she could have been resting before her bath, so you can ring for the maids and see if you can get them to do anything sensible now your arrival has set them atwitter,’ her aunt said as if recovering from the sight of Gideon walking in through her garden door as if he had every right to be here. ‘You’re giving me carte blanche to reorganise your household then, ma’am? Rather reckless of you, don’t you think?’ ‘What does a man know of domestic economy?’ Aunt Seraphina scoffed and Callie reminded herself they always brought out the worst in each other. ‘Enough,’ Gideon said wearily and surprised Callie into staring at him again. Once upon a time he would no more have dreamed of running a household than he would of swimming to the Americas. Now he rang the bell, ordered tea and a bath for her and approved a light menu for dinner in an hour’s time before Aunt Seraphina could regret her dare and take back the reins of her household. Callie had made him into this self-sufficient man by refusing to be any sort of wife to him, so why was she feeling nostalgic for days when he would look helpless and wait for her to correct his feckless bachelor ways? ‘Well, I’m ready to admit you have changed in that aspect at least. It proves nothing about the rest of your life,’ Aunt Seraphina told him severely. ‘I have no need to prove anything to you, madam,’ he replied shortly and they waited in stiff silence for news that Callie’s very necessary bath and tea were ready for her. * * * ‘There we are, miss. No, I mean madam, don’t I?’ Kitty the upstairs maid told Callie as if she might not be able to see the bathtub and waiting tea tray herself. ‘Thank you, Kitty. I can manage very well by myself now,’ she said quietly and refused the silent invitation to confide her secrets. ‘You may go,’ she added as the inquisitive young woman stood as if expecting to outwit her mistress’s unassuming niece by sheer persistence. ‘Don’t you want your back soaped, ma’am? Oh, no, of course you don’t. You’ve a fine husband to do that for you, don’t you?’ the girl said impudently. ‘If you don’t want to be turned off without your wages, I suggest you think about that and do as you’re bid, Kitty,’ Callie said and met the girl’s bold gaze serenely. ‘I dare say the mistress would have something to say about that,’ the brassy piece said as if she hadn’t a worry in the world about being dismissed. ‘I doubt it. She didn’t want to take you on in the first place and I suggest you consider which of us is the teacher and Mrs Grisham’s niece and which one the maid,’ Callie said so quietly the pert creature looked away as if there was a lot she could say but she didn’t choose to right now. The girl managed an insultingly small curtsy as she left to prove she wasn’t cowed. Kitty had turned up here all but destitute and begging for work, then managed to go from maid of all work to head housemaid in a matter of months. Callie wondered if she had a hold over her aunt to manage such a rapid rise at the same time as it occurred to her she should have been more aware of what was going on around her. Lately a few of the schoolgirls had come to her with tearful claims that Kitty took their secrets to Mrs Grisham after she snooped to find them. Aunt Seraphina claimed Kitty was doing her duty and punished the girls, not the maid. Absorbed in writing her book at nights and teaching the girls all day, had she been making herself too busy to miss Gideon? And had she let her pupils down by being so preoccupied? It had hurt to even breathe without him near her in the early days when she began to come alive again and had to live without him. As she undressed and slipped into the unheard-of luxury of a bath before dinner, Callie let her thoughts drift. How were Gideon and her aunt to coexist under the same roof even for one night? They had always loathed each other and it disturbed her that Aunt Seraphina made no effort to hide her dislike. She’d better hurry down before they came to blows. Of course, then her thoughts must veer back to Gideon and the power he seemed to exude now as she sighed blissfully at the kiss of cool clean water on her overheated skin. Her cheeks flushed ridiculously as the idea he would once have insisted on climbing into this tub with her and done all sorts of sensuous things to persuade her it didn’t matter if they slopped bath water on the floor. Had he been tortured by such wanton longings all this time, as well? No stern lectures from her sensible side could kill off the little sensualist who recalled how hot and passionate a bath with the man you loved could be, but he had all the skilled beauties of the demi-monde to choose from whenever he wanted to slake his lust, hadn’t he? The idea of such a virile young man enduring nine years of tortured celibacy, because he’d wed in haste and repented at leisure, was laughable. That blush of hers went places he would have followed with hotly fascinated eyes in the old days as her whole body overheated with remembering what a passionate and driven lover he was. She shook her head at the very idea he’d burned and cursed the lack of a wife in his bed all this time as she had the loss of her one and only lover in hers. No, it was simply impossible for him to have lived like a monk for the sake of a woman who’d told him to leave and now she shivered and told herself not to be a fool. He would keep his mistress in comfort and lavish all the fiercely focused passion he’d once saved for his wife on a beauty who couldn’t demand a joint share in his life. Her hands clawed at the vengeful thought of how she’d like to use them on his mistress and it took more force of will than she liked to make them straighten again at the idea of another woman in thrall to her husband, her lover, and hadn’t she needed him far more than some beauty who could take her pick of keepers and chose Gideon? Yet if he made love to the confounded woman half as ardently as he had to her, the wretch must simply live for the next time he felt in need of a woman. Even when he must have hated her more than he loved her after their first flush of wild infatuation, he’d still wanted her very urgently indeed, she recalled with a feral shiver of heat that reminded her how much she had longed for him all these years all over again. And wasn’t it ridiculous that here she was, lying in her bath, dreaming of her one and only lover, when she should be busy arming herself against his lies. She couldn’t pretend he’d ever forced her. Most of the reason she made him go was her endless need of him and his passionate lovemaking. It was destroying her self-respect and making her hate her dependency on a physical act that no longer bonded them like twin souls. Instead, it made the chill between them when they were not making love more arctic. Squeezing her eyes tight shut, she forced herself to remember all the reasons why Callie Laughraine couldn’t need her husband and let out a stuttering sigh. There, she was rational again now. It was folly never to dare risk carrying his child again, but it was what kept her tightly hemmed inside the closed world her aunt decreed since the day Gideon rode away, in return for pretending her niece never married him in the first place. ‘I’m not a silly little girl in thrall to a lone wolf any more, Gideon Laughraine,’ she muttered into the sultry air. ‘Don’t you dare dream of pulling the wool over my foolish eyes and enchanting me into thinking the sun rises and sets in your eyes ever again. ‘Of course not, Callie, why would he think you a passion-led fool when you’re sitting here dreaming of him, as if every moment he’s not close to you is wasted as far as you’re concerned?’ she chided herself. ‘And I refuse to be that girl again. She hurt too much to dare it twice.’ Galvanised into action by the dread of dreaming her evening away like a besotted girl, until someone came to find out why she was still sitting in her bath like a very odd exhibit in a museum, she washed the dust out of her hair, then soaped herself vigorously until even the memory of her sweat-streaked face and mired feet was gone. She stood up and used the rosemary-and-cider vinegar rinse she made to tame some of the wild curls her dark hair sprang into if she let it. It would soon dry in the heavy warmth of this July evening and she sat on her bed to comb it out, reluctant to put the practical petticoats of Miss Sommers on over her cool, clean skin. The weight of her long hair as it began to dry against her bare back felt sensual and a little bit decadent now Gideon was in the house. Yesterday it would have been a damp nuisance against a workaday body she did her best to ignore; today Callie Laughraine was alive again and waking up after her long hibernation felt almost painful. A wary inner voice whispered it was better for her darkest secrets if she slept on, but her lover was nearby and she squirmed against the plain bedcover in a rush of hot anticipation she hadn’t let herself feel so powerfully in years. Even before she knew what love was she’d felt that forbidden flash of excitement at the very sight of Gideon Laughraine, she recalled guiltily. She and Bella from the Grange and Lottie from the Home Farm used to run wild over the Raigne estate as girls. She recalled with a wistful smile the chance of meeting Gideon busy with some boyish mischief was the highlight of her day back then. As a girl she secretly adored that gangling half-wild boy and when she began to grow to what she’d thought a woman, her feelings ran much deeper. She loved him; no point pretending it was a girlish obsession she would have grown out of. That girl thought she’d been put on earth to love Gideon Laughraine and there didn’t seem much point pretending she had never done so. It didn’t matter—she didn’t love him now and hadn’t done for years, had she? Idealistic, dreamy Callie Sommers put an angry boy on a pedestal. It was as much her fault as his that he wasn’t the hero she thought him. She stopped combing her hair and stared at nothing in particular as if it might tell her why she committed all she was to him at seventeen to his eighteen. The truth was that lonely, uncertain girl was ripe to fall headlong at the feet of an unsuitable young man. Perhaps that was why her grandfathers connived at the union they wanted and Gideon’s father did everything he could to stop it. Of course, the legal heir and the last real heir’s bastard child marrying each other would set the succession right and secure the future of Raigne once and for all, but she and Gideon were real people with hearts and souls who deserved to make such life-changing decisions for themselves. Except they conveniently fell in love with one another and what would it have taken for them not to back then? More than they were capable of, she decided, as the huge power of that feeling threatened to remind her how little this life away from him was. The enormity of it, as if a pent-up dam of emotion was about to wash her along in a great flood, echoed down the years. Instead of wild passion it threatened huge sadness now, though, so she built the dam back up and pretended it wasn’t there as best she could. Even so she donned her lightest muslin gown and pinned her hair up loosely, because it was still damp and she couldn’t bring herself to screw it into the tight knot her aunt thought proper tonight. She wasn’t a spinster schoolteacher, she was Lady Laughraine, and what was the point pretending now Gideon was here? Feeling a little more like a baronet’s lady, she went downstairs and could tell her husband approved of the small changes in her appearance from the glint of admiration and something more personal in his grey-green gaze as he rose to greet her. Chapter Four (#u504f60a3-158f-57f7-b860-88007bda3227) ‘Hmm, I’m not sure about that hairstyle, my dear, and white has never suited you, but I’m glad to see you look better than when you came in this afternoon,’ Aunt Seraphina said as soon as Callie joined her and Gideon in the sitting room that evening. She caught a glimpse of Gideon’s quick frown and it made her think about her aunt’s words a little more deeply. ‘I prefer my hair like this,’ she said calmly. ‘It feels cooler and all those pins were making my head ache.’ ‘And I hardly recognised you in that governess’s bonnet and tightly bound hair this afternoon,’ Gideon said, as if they had been parted only a few weeks and he was marking a few subtle changes in his wife’s appearance. ‘I suppose a married woman is permitted a few liberties that would be folly in a single lady of your advancing years, Callie, my dear,’ Aunt Seraphina conceded doubtfully. ‘I will never aspire to the extremes of fashion that lead fast young matrons to damp their muslins and crop their hair, Aunt, but Sir Gideon Laughraine’s wife cannot dress like a schoolteacher.’ ‘You were content to dress modestly until he arrived.’ ‘I should have found the line between modest and frumpish sooner then,’ Callie said, feeling rebellious when she thought of all those long nights inventing characters and living her life vicariously so she could pretend it was enough. ‘You do seem to be longing tonight for the very life you begged me to take you away from the day he left you alone and bereft, don’t you?’ Aunt Seraphina asked, the thought of all her niece was risking by doing so clearly paining her. ‘I’m not sure,’ Callie said, but for a moment she thought her aunt’s gaze was hard when it met hers this time. She was wrong, of course she was. They couldn’t have lived and worked together all these years if her aunt secretly hated her, even though her aunt was so distant and disapproving when Callie was a child. ‘I shall always be grateful to you for standing by me when I needed you to so badly, Aunt Seraphina, but I’m a relatively young woman and can be permitted a little vanity on occasions like this,’ she teased, but Aunt Seraphina’s lips tightened and her hands clenched before she managed a polite titter and an airy gesture to deny she was a killjoy. ‘Of course, my dear, you will have to excuse an anxious old woman who wonders if you’re playing with fire.’ ‘I’m hardly flaunting myself like a houri because I left a few hairpins out of my toilette tonight,’ Callie protested because she couldn’t imagine how anyone could see her plain gown and simple hairstyle as provocative. ‘I’m glad to see you looking more like yourself, but Mrs Bartle obviously takes her duties as chaperon and mentor seriously, my dear,’ Gideon said silkily. Her lamentable wardrobe and lack of a riding horse might be behind his suspicion her aunt had not been acting in Callie’s best interests all these years. She thought of his assertion that he had sent large sums of money to her over the years and noted a bead of sweat on her aunt’s upper lip. It was very hot, perhaps even she couldn’t stay cool and composed in such weather. ‘Of course, Calliope is my niece,’ the lady said stoutly. Once it would have been a huge concession to call Callie niece, as she was the by-blow of Mrs Bartle’s younger sister. The fact she owned up to her now persuaded Callie this was all a misunderstanding. ‘Thank you, Aunt,’ she said sincerely. ‘And therefore you must want her to be happy,’ Gideon said so smoothly that Callie really didn’t know why her aunt shifted under his steady gaze, ‘must you not?’ ‘Of course, which is why I never encouraged Calliope to get in touch with you,’ Aunt Seraphina countered as if it were war. ‘Or to reply to any of my letters, perhaps?’ Callie had difficulty not gasping out loud at the implication he had written more than once. A single letter would have soothed some of the jagged places in her heart, but more than one? That would have been like a bridge between the old Callie and Gideon and the new world she had no map for after he left. She eyed them both warily and wondered who was lying now. ‘I have no idea what you mean,’ Aunt Seraphina said smoothly, but Callie saw a few giveaway signs under her front of unruffled confidence that her aunt was less sure of herself than she pretended. ‘What a convenient memory you do have, ma’am,’ Gideon countered. ‘A very inconvenient one as far as you are concerned, young man. Time has not wiped out any of your past sins for me even if my niece seems to have lost her memory of them tonight. I might have kept one or two letters from Callie when we came here, but she was in no state to read your self-serving excuses for what you did at the time.’ Memory of exactly how painful that period of her life had been made Callie glare at her husband and wonder why she doubted the one person who stood by her. ‘Thank you, Aunt Seraphina. I don’t think there was any excuse for what you did either, do you, Gideon?’ He held her gaze as if he had nothing to be ashamed of and suddenly Callie felt weary half to death and wished he would simply state his business with her then go. ‘Of course there isn’t,’ her aunt answered for him. He was about to deny it, but Kitty came in to say dinner was ready before either of them could say another word and then they only exchanged small talk. The maids were in and out with this and that and Kitty’s busy ears were always on the alert for gossip. Tonight they must be aching with the need to know more about the handsome husband Miss Sommers had brazenly owned up to as if she had never lied about him in the first place. Somehow Callie got through the meal without blurting out something indiscreet through sheer tiredness. She felt horribly confused every time she glanced at Gideon and wondered if he was right to jolt her out of the settled life she had made without him. Maybe Aunt Seraphina had got carried away by a desire to protect Callie. If she had to walk the line between protecting a close relative or telling the strict truth, how would she cope with the dilemma her aunt faced? The idea she would have preferred to make her own choice slipped into her mind. She had a right to know Gideon had tried to contact her or even win her back. At first she would not have listened, of course, but what about later? Maybe, she let herself know. She wasn’t quite sure if she should despise herself for being weak or add another reason not to trust Aunt Seraphina as unquestioningly as she had for too long to the list. ‘I believe we may have a thunderstorm tonight,’ her aunt announced once it was clear none of them could take another bite of whatever it was Cook had served them. Callie had no idea what she ate while she struggled with her confusion in silence. Grandfather would be appalled by her lack of manners tonight and she wondered if either of her dining companions had noticed. The other two were probably too busy eyeing each other suspiciously to note that conversation wasn’t flowing merrily tonight. ‘Your stableman assures me the weather won’t break for another day or two. I agree it feels clammy enough to whip up a storm at any moment, though,’ Gideon said, as if trying to pretend there wasn’t an atmosphere of sticky tension in the room that was nothing to do with the summer heat. He shot a concerned look at Callie and she realised he was doing his best to stop more worries adding to her growing pile of them tonight. ‘I don’t fear thunder and lightning as I used to, Gideon,’ she said calmly enough, for if she had gone pale it was out of weariness and not her old terror of storms. After their baby, Grace, died at birth the weather was the least of her worries and since then she’d comforted so many terrified schoolgirls she could endure the worst storms without flinching. ‘I’m glad to hear it, but you do look weary, my dear. Perhaps we should all retire early to try and sleep as best we can, despite this ridiculous heat?’ he suggested. ‘Where will you sleep?’ she asked unwarily, then blushed at the impossible notion a husband might expect to share his wife’s bed. ‘Apparently there are plenty of rooms that lie empty here over the summer,’ he said as if the idea had never occurred to him. ‘I will ask Kitty to have a bed made up for you then,’ she said stiffly. She wouldn’t have welcomed him if he’d made a move to share her bed, but it felt a little bit unforgivable that he hadn’t bothered to try. ‘No need, the kitchen maid found me bed linen and we sorted it out between us. I shall be sleeping in one of the pupil-teacher’s beds tonight, since none of the younger ladies’ accommodation is big enough for a full-grown male,’ he said with a shrug that told her he understood her inner conflict about his sleeping arrangements and wondered why she thought he was so insensitive as to demand his marital rights when she was so pleased to see him she lost her senses this afternoon. ‘Then can I be rude and retire betimes, Aunt? I am very tired.’ ‘Of course you must do so, my love. Little wonder you feel exhausted after such a shock as you suffered today, although I still have no idea what you were doing wandering about the countryside alone?’ It seemed a good idea to pretend she hadn’t noticed it was a question, not a statement of exasperation. Callie placed a dutiful kiss on her aunt’s expectantly raised cheek and gave Gideon a look that challenged him to demand the same. Surely he couldn’t expect her to take up marriage where they left off, even if he was willing to sleep elsewhere tonight? ‘I can’t do right for being wrong, can I?’ he whispered when he opened the door for her, then lit her a candle from the store in the hall, despite the fact it only ever seemed to get half-dark at midsummer. ‘No,’ she said as she went past him with as much dignity as she could manage. ‘Goodnight, Gideon.’ ‘Goodnight, Wife,’ he murmured and the shiver that softly spoken challenge sent down her spine sped her upstairs more swiftly than her weary feet wanted to go. * * * Gideon wished his reluctant hostess goodnight and retired to the narrow room a girl who wasn’t rich enough to continue her education without acting as an unpaid teacher to the littlest members of this school warranted in this household. He was sure Callie tried to prepare her for life as a governess or schoolteacher as best she could, but all her aunt would care about was that she cost next to nothing. He shivered at the thought of any daughter of his enduring such a regime at this school without Callie here to soften its hard edges. He must be very weary, because the idea of his lost child made tears stand in his eyes. They lost so much when their little Grace died before she was born. His little girl wouldn’t be so little now. Nine years old, he thought, as he stripped off the stifling correctness of summer coat, neckcloth and waistcoat. He could almost hear her furtive giggle as she peeked into her father’s room to see if he was asleep yet and might not notice if she crept downstairs now the house was settled for the night. Perhaps she would be leading the rest of her parents’ brood astray by now, as well. Encouraging the little ones to join her illicit feast of whatever leftovers sat in the larder from dinner, or daring them to join her in the gardens by moonlight to pick strawberries and peer at a nest of kittens in the gardener’s bothy. He missed her so much tonight. Now he and her mother were under the same roof for the first time in years he felt she should be here, too. Even the slight chance of being properly married again made their daughter seem so alive he could almost hear and touch her. The one ghost he desperately wanted to see was never quite there to be marvelled at; his little girl was always just outside his field of vision, hinted at in the odd little whisper and gleeful laugh his imagination allowed him to know of her. ‘Ah, Callie, we would have loved our little angel-devil so much, wouldn’t we?’ he whispered to the still hot air and called himself a fool. Hope was almost as bad as despair in the still silence of this sultry night. Yes, there was a slim chance he and Callie could try again, but it wouldn’t work if she carried on relying on her aunt to tell her what to think. He could force himself on his wife; take her away from here and show her how skewed her aunt’s view of him and the rest of the world was. Legally he could make her take him back into her life. It wouldn’t feel much better than enduring life without her if she didn’t want to be with him, though, and he sighed bitterly at the very idea of such a hostile and empty marriage. Impatient with himself for wanting the whole loaf when half a one might be all he could have, he opened the window as softly as he could on to a listening sort of night. He’d learnt years ago there were far worse terrors lurking in the darkness than the suggestion of a breeze. Too on edge to undress fully, he heeled his evening shoes off and pulled back the covers on the pallet-like bed, so he could let his body rest while his mind went round in circles like a spit dog on a wheel. * * * ‘Good morning,’ Callie greeted Gideon the next day. She wasn’t fully awake yet, after swearing to herself she wouldn’t sleep a wink, then dropping straight into it as if she hadn’t done so for a week. Still she felt her heart flutter at the sight of him so vital and handsome as he strode into the breakfast room. Part of her had missed him every hour of every day since they parted. That Callie saw the world in richer colours now the love of her life was back in it; the rest was deeply sceptical about his return and eyed him warily. ‘Is it? I thought we might have slipped into afternoon while I was waiting for my lady to leave her chamber,’ he teased and she made a face, then took a closer look under her lashes. ‘Where on earth did you get that bruise?’ she asked, suddenly more wide-awake and able to stare right at him. ‘You might well ask.’ ‘I am doing so,’ she said with a stern frown that told him she wasn’t going to be fobbed off with a rueful shrug this time. ‘I’m staying in a house I don’t know,’ he said as if that explained everything. ‘And...?’ ‘And I walked into a door in the dark?’ he offered, as if he didn’t think it was a very likely story, either. ‘A door with a fist?’ ‘It wasn’t a fist, it was a ewer. I suppose I should be grateful your upstairs maid didn’t have a chamber pot in her hand at the time.’ ‘What on earth were you doing chasing the maids round the house in the dark?’ ‘I’d as soon pursue the Gorgon with lustful intent as that sly minx, even if I was given to preying on servants,’ he said quietly and stepped over the close the door, clearly aware Kitty would listen if given the slightest excuse. ‘I heard someone creeping about the house in the small hours of the morning,’ he admitted as if he hadn’t wanted her to know. ‘Kitty might be sly and untrustworthy, but she has access to any room in the house by daylight, why would she steal about in the dark?’ ‘Apparently she heard whoever was tiptoeing about and decided a housebreaker was searching the attics. I admire her courage, even if I abhor her curiosity.’ ‘She left her room in the middle of the night to pursue a burglar with only a water jug? I’m not sure if that’s brave or reckless.’ ‘Neither am I,’ he said with a preoccupied frown. ‘But she was a damned nuisance either way. Whoever was creeping about the house heard us and got away while Kitty was using her weapon on me.’ ‘Yet it was a bright moonlit night and almost too hot to sleep, surely someone would notice a felon running from the house into the countryside?’ ‘So you would think.’ ‘And if they didn’t, the prowler you were both chasing must have come from inside the house,’ she said it for him, so he couldn’t pretend not to know. ‘Possibly.’ ‘You have a suspect?’ ‘Maybe,’ he answered even more cautiously. She wondered if it was possible to box your husband’s ear at the same time you were making it clear he meant nothing to you. Probably not, she decided, and plumped down in her accustomed seat at the breakfast table after gathering up her breakfast more or less at random. It was an occupation and she had to eat if she wasn’t to risk another attack of the vapours. Chapter Five (#u504f60a3-158f-57f7-b860-88007bda3227) ‘How odd that nobody bothered with us before you came here,’ Callie said once she had chewed a corner off a piece of toast and sipped a little of her tea to force it down. ‘Hmm, or that my arrival caused it to happen,’ he countered. ‘Why are you really here, Gideon?’ Callie asked, weary of dancing round such an urgent topic and eager to get back to real life. This whole situation felt far too dangerous to her peace of mind and she simply wanted him to go, didn’t she? ‘If you have met another woman and wish to marry her, I must disappoint you, I fear. I won’t take a lover so you can sue him for criminal conversation, then divorce me.’ ‘Well, I certainly didn’t come here for that,’ he said fastidiously, as if the very idea was unthinkable and a bit offensive. ‘Then why are you here? There’s nothing to interest a man like you here.’ ‘Of course there is, there’s you.’ ‘No, there isn’t. I won’t be used because you suddenly find yourself in need of a wife and I’m the one you have.’ ‘That’s never how it was between us and you know it, Callie.’ ‘Oh, really?’ she asked scornfully. ‘So our silly little love story wasn’t a plot to put the broken parts of our families back together, after all, then? I must have imagined those furious accusations you threw at me after we got back to Raigne from our hasty flight to the Border. Miss Calliope Sommers dreamt a fine young buck carried her off to Gretna so they could wed for love. His father forbade it and her grandfathers schemed to help them elope, oh, yes, it’s obvious now—you must have been right all along, Gideon. That naive seventeen-year-old girl obviously planned every step of the journey with your furious father pursuing us to spur you on. What better way to be my Lady Laughraine one day and rule the place my illegitimate birth cut me off from? Wasn’t that how your neat story to absolve you of guilt and pile it on me went? Such a shame I didn’t know who I really was until you told me, don’t you think? Or are you still convinced I’m lying about that and wed you because Lord Laughraine’s son died without legitimate issue and he wanted his great-grandchildren to inherit everything I couldn’t lay claim to without you?’ ‘No, although I don’t doubt Lord Laughraine and your other grandfather schemed to marry us to each other and tidy up two mistakes at one go. I still can’t believe they thought it a good idea,’ he said with a bitter grimace. ‘No need to remind you I’m the son of Virgil Winterley’s bastard and have no right to Raigne, but I wonder your grandfathers didn’t see what a poor bargain they were offering you.’ ‘And I was such a good one? The by-blow of a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl and the artful young rake who refused to marry her? Don’t make me into someone I’m not, Gideon.’ ‘You bear no responsibility for them, Callie. You’re a fine person in your own right and I was as deeply honoured you agreed to marry me back then as I am now,’ he said as if he didn’t regret their hasty marriage over the anvil, but how could he not? ‘Thank you, but if that’s true you should stop blaming yourself for your father’s and grandfather’s sins,’ she said with a wry smile at his false view of her as some sort of paragon she shouldn’t find flattering. ‘I’ve been told your real grandfather was nothing like his son in temper, even if your father was his spit in looks, so you must follow him. I deplored your hasty temper and love of danger, but I was never afraid of you. Even when you were in your cups I knew you would never hurt me or our child.’ She saw him flinch at the mention of their lost baby and wished she’d minded her tongue. It was too soon to revisit that sore place again, so Callie remembered Esmond Laughraine raging how he’d kill Gideon before he let them wed instead and wondered how a good man was fathered by an angry bully. Had Esmond suspected who she really was and hated the idea a future grandson of his might truly inherit Raigne? Such a bitter man might do everything he could to prevent the marriage for that very reason. She was as puzzled by his furious opposition as Gideon at the time, but she supposed selfish jealousy could explain it. At the time she knew she wasn’t a brilliant match for the grandson of a baronet and a peer of the realm’s great-grandson, but even she knew Gideon wasn’t quite that. She recalled the love in Lady Virginia’s eyes when she talked of her late husband and knew a lady of such character and spirit could never love a man who was anything like Esmond Laughraine at heart. Her Gideon must be like his grandfather in more than looks then and shouldn’t that possessive worry a wife who expected him to leave as soon as he’d told her what he’d come for? ‘I would cut my own arm off rather than hurt you, but I managed it, didn’t I?’ Gideon said at last. He watched her lower her eyes, then stare out of the window to avoid his gaze and sighed as if he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. ‘Sooner or later we must talk about it, Callie. If either of us are ever to be father or mother we can only be so together with any honour, unless you’d rather stick the carving knife in me and risk the next assizes?’ ‘Don’t joke about murder,’ she snapped, shaken to her core by the very idea. ‘I think I must, Wife, or sit and howl for what you don’t want us to have.’ ‘Now you’re being ridiculous and where were we with this sorry tale of loss and betrayal, and why you’re bothering me with it now?’ He sighed and poured himself a cup of coffee to wash down the breakfast he seemed to enjoy about as much as she did. ‘I admit when your maternal grandfather told me the true tale of your birth, I only saw concern for your future and the Raigne inheritance behind his plot with Lord Laughraine to set the succession straight again. I never stopped to see you had no idea who your father really was until I told you. Little wonder you didn’t defend yourself against my wild accusations when you must have been shocked to your core by the news and never mind the interpretation I put on it. Hasty boy that I was then, I felt more like a stallion put out to stud than your proud husband and lover all of a sudden and I came home and accused you of ridiculous things in the heat of temper, then made things worse by refusing to back down after I’d cooled off, even though I knew I was wrong to suspect you of being in on their plans. I never really considered how you must have felt when you found out who your father really was from a furious young idiot. It was that crack in our marriage that finally opened up and ruined everything we had wasn’t it? I ruined it all simply because I was too proud and arrogant to admit to being wrong,’ he said bleakly. ‘You were very young,’ she heard herself excuse him. At the time it seemed inexcusable, yet it must have been agonising for the boy he had been to wonder if his wife married him to get the heir Raigne needed so badly. Sir Wendover Laughraine’s three legitimate sons were dead from fever, accident and battle by then and the current Lord Laughraine’s only child, her father, had died before she could even remember him. So why on earth had Sir Wendover still refused to admit his wife had imposed another man’s bastard on him as his youngest son? Because that bitter old man was too proud to publically admit the truth, Gideon was heir to a huge fortune and vast old house he didn’t want or believe he deserved and she was the last true Laughraine. Except she wasn’t a true one at all, was she? ‘You were even younger,’ he replied, ‘and already carrying my child so it was unforgivable to storm and rage at you like that, even if there was any truth in that tale I made up to make myself feel better. I was so afraid you didn’t love me at all, you see?’ ‘Why wouldn’t I?’ she said with a reminiscent smile for the handsome, brooding boy he was at eighteen she hoped didn’t look as tender as if felt. ‘Because I’m not a lovable man. All my life my father cursed me as the reason he had to marry my mother. He’d call her a sanctimonious prig one moment and whore the next because she let him seduce her. Heaven knows he could be charming when he wanted to and she had a reputation for being far too proper for her own good, but she was a naive and sheltered young woman who believed him when he said he loved her. She said a lot less than him about how much she hated being trapped in a marriage neither of them wanted because I was on the way, but I doubt she could put her hand on her heart and swear she loves me even today. We meet once or twice a year now my grandfather has taken her back into the fold, but so far we haven’t managed to like each other very much.’ That confession of how bleak his childhood really was almost broke her heart. How could they not have blamed themselves when he was the innocent party? That disgusting bet Esmond Laughraine had made to seduce a bishop’s daughter no other man would dream of even trying to get into bed without a very public ceremony and a wedding ring was appalling, but the bishop’s daughter had succumbed of her own free will and Gideon had no choice about the matter at all. He wouldn’t quite believe her if she championed him now, because she had turned away his love, as well. Despite all the good reasons she thought she had at the time for doing so, how much damage she had done by taking the easy option? Yes, it was simpler to cut out the despair and hurt from her life and go on without him, rather than patch up some sort of marriage between them. But none of that would put things right between them now and make him believe he was a deeply lovable and honourable man, despite his shocking betrayal of her when she was at her most vulnerable. ‘You make me sound so meek and mild, Gideon—as if I sat and softly wept all the time you were accusing me of luring you in with my witchy wiles,’ she chided lightly, because it was better than weeping and letting him see she pitied the boy who grew up with parents who didn’t deserve him. ‘You gave as good as you got, didn’t you, spitfire?’ he said with a wry smile, as if he remembered those furious rows and their making up afterwards with affection. ‘And will again if you’re not careful,’ she said, chin raised to warn him she was no doormat nowadays, despite her nun-like existence since they parted. ‘Good, because I wouldn’t have you any other way,’ he said with a boyish grin that did something unfair to her insides. ‘It’s just as well I have no intention of changing then,’ she said. Was she secretly conceding that, for the right incentive, she might be tempted to try again? No, she didn’t want to be a convenient wife, primped and perfumed and ready to oblige her lord in the marriage bed as part of a cynical bargain. If they resumed their stormy marriage it must be as equal partners. Yet he was so self-sufficient he looked as if he didn’t need anyone nowadays, let alone a wife who would demand a place in every aspect of his life she could get a toehold into. ‘What will happen to Raigne if we remain apart?’ she asked abruptly, the thought of being with him for the sake of a huge inheritance sour in her mouth as she tried to swallow it down with cold tea. ‘I dare say you would be accepted as the heir without me.’ ‘I might be the legal heir, but you’re the true one.’ ‘Yet you love Raigne and nobody else will keep the place as you will.’ ‘You could if you wanted to.’ ‘I’d be laughed out of court. I’m your wife, so everything I own is yours.’ ‘And what if Prinny decided to challenge me on the strength of some old gossip and the wrong family resemblance? You can see why they were so keen for us to wed, can’t you? Still, at least when we eloped we simply wanted to be wed and never mind anything else.’ ‘We should have known better,’ she said sadly. Her husband stared out of the window at another cloudless morning as if he was unable to feel the warmth and she tried not to care. ‘Indeed we should,’ he said at last in that clipped, carefully controlled voice she was learning to hate. ‘I’m sure Grandfather Sommers wanted us to be happy,’ she said as if that made the gulf between those young lovers and now a little less. ‘I wish you’d believe Lord Laughraine does, as well, Callie. It’s not his fault we looked for reasons to hate each other when our baby died. I wish you could find it in your heart to forgive me for that, even if everything else I did and didn’t do is beyond it.’ He looked as if memory of the quarrels and furious silences that marred their marriage had been a hair shirt to him ever since. Memories of long, hot nights of driven passion after they found out what her grandfathers were up to slipped into her mind and whispered they couldn’t have felt such endless need for each other if all they had was lust. Then she thought of their baby and shivered. Nothing had mattered to her but the terrible space their little girl left behind her in the dark days after that terrible journey from London to King’s Raigne to bury their child in Grandfather Sommers’s recently dug grave. She simply hadn’t any emotion left over for Gideon or anyone else after that. Even the irony of hearing her real mother invite Gideon, Callie and Mrs Willoughby’s sister, Aunt Seraphina, to stay with her whilst they considered what to do next, since they had nowhere else to go at the time, was wasted on her. For the first time her true mother opened her life to her secret child and they might as well have been on the moon for all the difference it made to Callie. Her withdrawal from the world was a way out of heartbreak and she’d dived into that grey nothing as if not feeling anything was all that mattered. No doubt Gideon felt desperate for comfort, painfully young and bereft as he was, as well. It wasn’t an excuse for what he did, but she wasn’t as blameless as she liked to believe at the time. ‘First I’d have to forgive myself,’ she said with a sigh, and half-heartedly pushed a slice of cold bacon round her plate so she wouldn’t have to meet his intent gaze. ‘You must, Callie, there won’t be a pinch of happiness for either of us until you do.’ ‘I’d have to look past a lot more than petty quarrels and grief for there to be an “us” again, wouldn’t I?’ she challenged him. ‘Ah, and there’s the rub. You don’t want to see past that farce, do you?’ ‘No,’ she admitted bleakly. ‘There’s no excuse for what you did that day.’ ‘Yet even in a court of law a person is innocent until proven guilty. You didn’t bother to wait for niceties like that before you condemned me, did you?’ ‘I expect that’s why you like them. I prefer to believe my own eyes,’ she said bitterly. ‘You still want to think I was unfaithful, don’t you? Whatever I said fell on deaf ears because you had already given up on us. It was a good excuse to finally push me out of your life and you’ve certainly done your best to forget I exist ever since.’ ‘How could I? We had a child,’ she said with the sadness of losing her daughter still raw in her throat after all these years, and her absence seemed all the more savage now they were in the same room and she wasn’t here. ‘Yes,’ he said bleakly, ‘we did.’ * * * ‘Ah, there you both are,’ Aunt Seraphina said as if she had been looking everywhere for them before she breezed into the room. Anyone else would feel the tension and leave them in peace. Callie caught herself out being disloyal and managed to smile a half-hearted welcome. ‘I thought you two had broken your fast and gone out long ago,’ Aunt Seraphina remarked blandly, although the door would hardly have been shut in that case, so why lie? ‘I had a disturbed night,’ Gideon said, reverting to unreadable again. Callie felt as if some golden opportunity to understand all they’d lost and gained had been brushed out of the room like house dust. ‘Poor Kitty is mortified she mistook you for a burglar in the dark last night, Sir Gideon,’ her aunt went blithely on. ‘We can’t sleep safe in our own beds of a night any more. I really don’t know what the world is coming to,’ she added, shaking her head as she poured herself coffee and refused anything more substantial as if it might choke her. Her aunt did look careworn this morning, as if she hardly slept last night. So why didn’t she admit hearing noises in the night if she was sleepless for most of it? ‘Whoever it was knows there is a man in the house and a very alert housemaid now, so I doubt they will ever come back,’ Gideon said, as if he’d never discussed the likelihood of the disturber of the peace coming from inside the house with Callie. ‘Well, I admit now that I should have listened to you, Calliope, and found another handyman when we found out the last one was more often drunk than sober, instead of trying to manage without as best we could,’ Aunt Seraphina said, and why did Callie feel as if every word she said had a ring of falseness this morning? ‘We could get a dog,’ Callie suggested with a half-hearted smile to admit they had had this conversation many times and her aunt still couldn’t abide dogs. ‘I think another man of all work would be less trouble,’ Aunt Seraphina replied with the polite titter even her niece was beginning to find irritating. ‘There are plenty of dogs at Raigne. Lord Laughraine has a pack of assorted ones that follow him about the place,’ Gideon reminded his wife as if it might be a carrot to get Callie there, if his own desire to have her home wasn’t enough. She felt little and petty for making him feel he had to tempt her, but couldn’t he see what a huge undertaking it was for her to go there with him? It would mean trusting all she was to him and, without the headlong, driven love between them ten years ago, how could she do that when even mutual obsession hadn’t kept them together before? Her heart raced at the very idea and she searched her morning for an excuse to avoid him and work out what she really wanted to do. ‘I dare say the servants hate the work such hairy animals cause,’ Aunt Seraphina said sourly and Callie felt guiltily irritated by her naysaying ways. ‘They are as happy to see them as he is every morning,’ Gideon said with a fond smile for the man he had no right to call uncle, but Callie never doubted the affection between two men who had every reason to dislike and distrust one another, yet did not. She wriggled in her seat against a pang of guilt because she had cut herself off from her grandfather as well as her husband and that too seemed petty and rather little this morning. ‘I’m glad to hear the creatures don’t sleep in his lordship’s room,’ her aunt went on with her subject like a bulldog worrying at a bone. ‘Only two or three at a time,’ Gideon said, as if enjoying Aunt Seraphina’s reluctance to call a peer of the realm’s habits distasteful. ‘But I doubt anyone could get into the house without them raising the roof.’ ‘Oh, but I couldn’t endure all that mess to keep a chance felon away,’ she said with a shudder. ‘I shall trust employing an extra man will put the housebreakers off trying again.’ ‘I should like to have a dog about the place,’ Callie said wistfully. ‘His lordship would be very happy to find you one,’ Gideon said. ‘There you are, you see, my dear? Your husband has found the perfect way to lure his wife back to Raigne and keep her happy, has he not?’ her aunt said with false brightness, as if he was offering Callie a childish bribe to resume their marriage and she might not be clever enough to spot it. ‘If you will excuse us, Aunt, Gideon and I have a great deal more to talk about than our pets or lack of them,’ Callie said and rose from her seat before the lady could argue. ‘You mistake my concern, Calliope. I know you are a woman now and not a silly girl taken in by bribes and promises,’ her aunt said with such dignity Callie knew she was offended. ‘Then why make such belittling comments in the first place, Aunt?’ ‘Because he always set us against each other and now he’s doing it again,’ Aunt Seraphina said with an accusing gesture at Gideon, who looked impassive and made Seraphina seem shrill and begrudging by contrast. ‘It’s my duty to point out you always were a fool for this man and don’t show many signs of learning from past mistakes.’ ‘I have run the academic side of this enterprise and proved myself a woman of ability and character. You cannot trust me with all that, then accuse me of being an empty-headed idiot the first time I show any sign of questioning your wisdom, Aunt.’ Aunt Seraphina looked unconvinced for a tense moment, then sighed heavily and nodded as if to affirm Callie was a different creature from the heartbroken girl of nine years ago. ‘Very well, my dear, I must trust you have learnt judgement, I suppose. You will remember what happened last time, though, won’t you?’ she said with what looked like such genuine anxiety for Callie’s well-being that Callie branded herself an ingrate and reassured her aunt she could hardly forget. The insidious thought slipped into her mind that, if Aunt Seraphina was truly as devious as she must be to have hidden hers and Gideon’s letters for so long, she would know arguing against her niece and Gideon having time alone would make them more suspicious. No, that had to be unjust and unkind of her, she really didn’t think her aunt could have kept so much of her essential self hidden for so long when they lived in the same house. * * * ‘I don’t know why I’m letting you drag me out here when I need to get ready for the new term,’ Callie protested half-heartedly ten minutes later. ‘But why did you refuse my aunt’s offer of the gig so we could take a drive before it gets too hot to move, Husband? Are you ashamed to be seen with me in such a drab getup?’ she added. Gideon saw self-doubt was tripping her up again and how could she not know she was one of the most beautiful creatures he’d ever laid eyes on? ‘Don’t put words into my mouth, Wife,’ he teased and got a half-hearted smile out of her. He resolved to make sure she never had to worry about being less than perfectly turned out ever again and promised himself yesterday’s gown would go into the ragbag as soon as she had even one new gown to eke out her meagre supply. ‘Then why don’t you want to leave the house or gardens?’ she asked suspiciously. Did she think he was lying to disguise his distaste for her plain round gown and old-maid-like cap? In fairness his first impulse was to rip that monstrosity from her head so her glossy dark curls framed her enchanting face again, but he had to tread on eggshells around his love if the hope he couldn’t quite keep bricked up in his mind wasn’t to crash and die, and he would never do that to her, anyway. She had endured enough slights and humiliations at the hands of her sly aunt over the years. So he would go on treading carefully round the snags that had been put in her self-confidence for as long as it took him to reassure her she was his lady and his love and beautiful to him whatever she wore. Best if he didn’t think about what she might not wear and look even more superb and delicious if they ever got close enough to be man and wife again right now. Meanwhile they had set out on a sedate stroll towards the orchard. Callie must have noticed how closely he was watching the house and was looking suspicious about his motives for staying within sight of it until he was proved right or wrong about her aunt’s motives for keeping her so close all these years and him so far away. ‘You were ill yesterday and today you need to rest. Anyway, perhaps I’m curious about this house and the people you have lived with all these years?’ ‘Why? We are a simple people living a quiet life.’ ‘I doubt there’s any such thing as simple people with straightforward lives.’ Gideon had half an eye open for the signal the little downstairs maid agreed to make if the Missus or Kitty-Cat, as she called Mrs Bartle and Kitty, went up to the attics. The rest of his attention was caught by his wife flushing as if he’d smoked out her darkest mystery and he almost forgot to watch for a duster being shaken out of the window three times, after all. ‘What guilty secrets are you keeping, Callie? Besides me, of course, and I think we can say that cat is already well and truly out of the bag.’ ‘I am a simple schoolmistress, I don’t have time for secrets,’ she said, but didn’t quite manage to meet his eyes. Gideon felt a terrible, heart-plunging fear she might have a furtive admirer or even a lover, after all. ‘Am I going to have to kill some besotted country swain, Wife?’ he managed coolly. ‘What’s sauce for the goose, Gideon dear...’ she said and let her voice tail off so sweetly he felt his old wild fury stir under the goad of hot jealousy. ‘Don’t play with fire,’ he warned her austerely. ‘I told you yesterday that I have no lover.’ ‘So you did. What’s this mysterious secret you feel so guilty about then, Wife?’ ‘I don’t feel guilty exactly,’ she prevaricated, clearly wondering if she trusted him enough to let him know what it was and that didn’t hurt him, of course it didn’t. It wasn’t as if he needed to know the inner secrets of her very soul. Such intimacy was for true lovers and she didn’t have one of those any more—not even him. ‘Then what do you feel?’ ‘Disloyal, I suppose,’ she admitted at last. ‘To me?’ ‘Of course not.’ ‘Oh, no, of course not,’ he echoed rather hollowly and told himself not to be a fool. He hadn’t expected to be welcomed back into her life with open arms, so he couldn’t complain she didn’t think he deserved her loyalty. ‘You weren’t here to be disloyal to,’ she explained as if that covered everything. ‘So I wasn’t. What is this dark secret you don’t feel guilty about then?’ he asked grumpily, wondering if he was wrong about her aunt, after all. Maybe Mrs Bartle didn’t have a secret cache of his and Callie’s letters hidden somewhere. Perhaps she received his and found them so distasteful and embarrassing it was easier to pretend she did not. ‘I write books,’ she confessed as if it were a sin on a par with poisoning ambassadors or defending guilty criminals against the might of the law. ‘You do?’ he asked, startled to hear it, but instantly proud of her all the same. ‘Should I have heard of you?’ ‘Not yet, I am trying to correspond with a gentleman who says my work is nearly ready for publication, but my aunt and my husband seem determined to get in the way.’ ‘So that was what you were up to yesterday?’ ‘Yes, I use another name to exchange letters with him, since Aunt Seraphina disapproves of lady novelists. I have a dream of living on my own and teaching only one or two days a week and Aunt Seraphina certainly won’t approve if I succeed. So I pick up his letters and send mine off to him without my aunt’s knowledge.’ ‘What a dark horse you are, my Callie,’ he said, thinking that at least those letters stood a better chance of reaching their destination than any she entrusted to her aunt ever had. He had always known where she was, of course—what sort of an investigator would he be if he hadn’t?—but she made no secret of her identity when she reverted to her maiden name. He should have sent his letters by courier and insisted he put them into her hands only, but he had been as taken in by Mrs Bartle’s air of refined integrity as everyone else. After that letter setting out Callie’s hatred of him and fervent wish never to set eyes on him again, he lost heart and his letters were desperate pleas for a hearing and protests of innocence she didn’t want to believe in. Except Callie hadn’t written it, had she? It occurred to him Reverend Sommers had made a far better job of raising his granddaughter than either of his daughters. Was that why he taught Callie as if she were a boy rather than a girl? Maybe that good and clever man saw the mistakes in his daughters’ upbringing and devoted himself to teaching Callie his moral code and fine principles instead of leaving it to a governess to instil a set of ladylike accomplishments that had little practical value or interest to a girl with a fine mind like hers. ‘You really don’t mind?’ she asked as if she had been expecting doubt or fury. ‘No, why on earth would I? And after you informed me I have no right to be offended about anything you do, I’m surprised my feelings matter so much to you, anyway.’ ‘Of course they do, but you know perfectly well that if I had admitted to a secret admirer you would have torn him limb from limb and locked me up in the highest turret of your castle,’ she teased back, and didn’t that feel wonderful? Gideon stamped down hard on a fierce need to kiss his wife senseless. It was best not to run before they learnt to walk again as man and wife and he didn’t want to let his raging need of her stampede through the fragile relationship they seemed to be building brick by careful brick. He wondered how he could convince her he was perfectly happy for his wife to write, as long as she did it while she was living with him instead of alone or with her aunt. ‘Why is Biddy waving her duster so wildly from the landing window, Gideon? It really looks most peculiar.’ ‘She is?’ he exclaimed and turned to see the tail-end of the signal he and Biddy had agreed on. ‘The devil, that’s even sooner than I expected. Excuse me, I must hurry or I’ll be too late,’ he said absently, then loped off, hoping she understood he’d far rather stay and talk to her, but time was a-wasting. Chapter Six (#u504f60a3-158f-57f7-b860-88007bda3227) For a startled moment Callie watched her husband dash back towards the house as if it were on fire. She could stay out here and wait for him to come back and tell her what he was up to, she supposed, but he had a poor record for sharing secrets, so she hurried after him. It wasn’t because she couldn’t stand being parted from him now they were within touching distance of each other once again—it was curiosity, plain and simple. Her heartbeat quickened, anyway, but she was running to catch up now and that was perfectly understandable. ‘Stay here,’ he ordered when they reached the hall and he realised she was on his tail, then stopped so abruptly she cannoned into him. ‘No,’ she murmured and gave him a push towards the stairs to let him know there was no point arguing. ‘Exasperating woman,’ he mumbled under his breath. She glared when he half turned to glower at her and bade him watch his step. ‘Keep quiet then and don’t give us away,’ he told her softly and they went up the stairs while she was trying to think up something pithy enough to demolish his arrogant certainty he was in command. Tight lipped, she did her best to tread as stealthily as he did, but that was impossible. She managed to avoid the stair that creaked after he did the same without seeming to think about it. He must have explored the house with this sort of stealthy pursuit in mind. It looked as if the dangerous adventures Lady Virginia hinted at when she visited were very real and not a cunning scheme to soften her heart as she thought at the time. She was glad she hadn’t known what he was really up to at the time and terrified he knew too much about the darker side of life to be her idealistic and loving Gideon again. Now where had that come from? She didn’t want this man to be anything of the sort to her again, did she? Never mind that now, they were on the half-landing and heading for the attic stairs. That seemed so absurd she stopped wondering how she felt and kept as close as she could to him. Her world felt right and safe when she was near him and that should worry her. The door opened without a sound and why were the hinges so well-oiled when these rooms were full of lumber? The maids slept on the other side of the house and the stableman lived over the stables, so what had once been the male farm-servants’ quarters were now empty. Why was Gideon creeping towards a lot of dusty rubbish as if on the track of lost state secrets? Callie noted footprints in the dust on the twisting staircase and held her breath for a moment, then shook her head in disbelief. There was nothing much up here and it was already uncomfortably hot. His tension still made her listen for the slightest noise and she recalled a few Gothic touches in her own novel then wished she hadn’t. It was absurd to let her imagination run riot, but she felt a flutter of superstitious fear before she told herself sternly this was no time for spectral visitations. They were a few steps up the twisting stairway when Gideon waved his hand to stop and she forgot imagined horrors for real life. Frozen in her tracks, she was cross with herself for obeying orders like a soldier on parade. From the soft murmurs ahead it sounded as if there were two people in the little storeroom furthest from the stairs. Impatient at him for being a step closer to danger than he was prepared to let her go, she pushed the small of his back to urge him on. He resisted, as if he had to stand between her and hurt like a wall. He must have felt her impatience with such overprotective nonsense, because he reluctantly went up a step so she could hear, as well. First there was her aunt’s voice saying something impatient and a lighter voice in reply. Why was Kitty arguing with her aunt here when they could do it downstairs in comfort? It didn’t sound as if they were discussing using the rolls of dimity and calico stored here to make new gowns and aprons for the maids. Her aunt economised on them until threadbare, but surely that wasn’t an important enough to linger over in a stuffy attic on a day like today. ‘You are impudent,’ her aunt raised her voice to say regally, as if trying to overawe Kitty with her importance as head of a school and Kitty’s employer. ‘Nobody will believe a vagrant maid over a lady of means and standing in the neighbourhood.’ ‘They won’t have to. I’ll have my money and keep my place till it suits me to leave. You won’t want me to tell the constables what I know, will you, Mrs Bartle?’ ‘I changed my name to avoid being known as the widow of a depraved fool. That will earn me more sympathy than censure.’ ‘You can say you’re the queen of the fairies if you want to. It’s what you did to him that’ll make them prick up their ears. I can read, you see? I wonder you never bothered to find out I was hired to keep an old woman out of mischief in my last place. She taught me to use my talents, then I learnt how stupid it was to trust anyone when she turned on me.’ ‘I expect she saw you for the cunning little ferret you really are.’ ‘I’d be careful what you say, Mrs Bartle. When the world knows what you did to keep your niece here and her husband’s money flowing into your pockets, nobody will believe you. Such a sweet story for the scandal sheets, I dare say I’ll make a fortune if you’re too stupid to pay up.’ Now Callie knew why Gideon warned her to stay silent. Kitty’s words seemed to echo like a clap of thunder and fell into her mind so surely she knew they were true. She managed to stifle a gasp of horror, but her senses were intent as Gideon’s as she realised everything she and her aunt had built here was a sham. With him here—the real Gideon next to her—the truth of him somehow cancelled out her aunt’s lies. How had she believed every word Aunt Seraphina said against him until yesterday? Was he right; did part of her want to believe him guilty? Maybe it had been easier to blame their ills on her husband, but didn’t that make her a coward as well as a fool? She had hardened her heart against him and believed her aunt must love her because she was there after everyone else fell away. Every artlessly accidental comment about her appearance, Aunt Seraphina’s clever slights and well-placed reminders of all Callie had lost at the hands of a careless husband kept her locked down and hurting, but she hadn’t seen the truth because it was easier not to. ‘No one will believe you,’ Aunt Seraphina was sneering and how hadn’t Callie seen through her until today? ‘The stableman is coming to take this lumber down so the boxes are empty for my niece’s luggage and he certainly can’t read, so it will all be ashes in a few minutes.’ ‘No, they stay here and I keep the keys.’ ‘You couldn’t stop a fly doing what it wanted, let alone me, now could you? A fall down those awkward stairs will remind you who is mistress here and who is the servant.’ If Kitty didn’t have the sense to shiver at the casual malice behind that question Callie did it for her. ‘If aught happens to me, the landlord of the Crown in Manydown has a letter saying who to look for. Do you want him and half the county on to you for attempted murder?’ the girl said boldly and she was evidently a more subtle opponent than Aunt Seraphina thought. ‘So that’s where you’ve been sneaking off to. I should never have let my niece persuade me to give a trollop like you a chance when your last employer turned you off for chasing her sons. She never mentioned blackmail, though, curse her for a soft fool when you should clearly be in the local bridewell.’ ‘We’re both bad, but you could’ve been better if you wanted. As for that milksop I worked for, I knew far too much about her spindle-shanked sons for her to risk it and they weren’t worth it, anyway. Miss Sommers is a better woman than either of us and took me in despite that woman’s spiteful tales, but you betrayed her long before I got here, didn’t you? So who will the world judge the worst rogue of us two, Madam Bartle?’ ‘You spied on her for me, despite owing her a roof over your head, and blackmail is a serious crime. If you survive the little accident you’re about to have, you will regret relying on that weak sot from the Crown for aught but a roll in the hay, you know that, don’t you?’ ‘He has me to put steel in him, Mrs Bartle, and I have this,’ the little maid said triumphantly and Callie heard her aunt gasp. ‘An account written by your husband of times he was ill after he ate with you and accidents he had on his way out to get drunk and not coming back as you claimed. He even knew a man you paid to murder him. They had a fine spree with the money, then you decided to do the job yourself and he went in fear of his life. He should have run instead of staying, but what a fool you were to keep his evidence.’ ‘How did you get your grubby hands on such drunken nonsense?’ Aunt Seraphina whispered as if she dared not admit it existed out loud. Through the heavy stillness of the hot attic Callie could hear fear in her voice and knew this was true, as well. ‘I found the secret panel in your desk drawer I bet you wish was big enough for all the letters you stole over the years. Being bedridden herself, the old lady I was meant to keep quiet in my last position thought it a fine joke to teach me the tricks of such places and find things her son-in-law hid from his wife so she could make him do as she said.’ ‘That’s where you learnt your disgraceful trade?’ ‘Of course, and a cunning old besom she is, too,’ Kitty said admiringly. ‘Why else would he pay a maid to keep her happy when he hates her like poison?’ ‘He still managed to dismiss you.’ ‘That’s when I learnt never to trust sly witches like you and make sure I know more than they do. The old woman moved her treasures, then told her daughter I was warming her precious sons’ beds.’ ‘You were lucky not to be whipped at the cart-tail,’ Aunt Seraphina scorned. ‘I knew too much, but then the old lady gossiped and I couldn’t get work. Don’t you look down your long nose at me, Mrs Bartle, I was born with nothing and make my way as best I can. You were born a lady and only took me on because I’m cheap and you thought I’d be so grateful I’d do whatever you bade me.’ ‘And you would be on the parish now if not for me.’ ‘Not I,’ Kitty said confidently and somehow Callie believed her. ‘I wouldn’t be set up for life neither, though, so I’m happy to tell your niece what you did if you don’t pay up. If this paper gets to the magistrates, stealing from your family and keeping a man and his wife apart all these years will be small beer next to wilful murder.’ It went so quiet in the chamber under the roof Callie could hear the crackle of paper as the girl held that damning account out of the Aunt Seraphina’s way as she did her best to grab it from her. ‘Enough,’ she whispered to Gideon, convinced the two people in that room were so absorbed in their struggle they wouldn’t notice if a town crier was standing on the stairs. ‘Indeed,’ he agreed, and somehow managed to launch himself up the last few stairs and past the partition wall as swiftly and silently as a hunting wolf. He easily topped Kitty and Aunt Seraphina and snatched the letter from Kitty before she even took in the fact he was behind her, throwing it back to Callie. Catching by instinct, she laid it on the stair and got ready to join in if he was too gentlemanly to ward off two biting, spitting furies. Gideon must have learnt the folly of being a gentleman with she-cats since they parted. He grabbed Kitty by the waist and lifted her off her feet so he could aim her at Aunt Seraphina like a weapon. Her wildly kicking feet landed a good few blows on Aunt Seraphina’s substantial person as the girl tried to turn in his arms to scratch and bite him. Luckily both women were soon winded and Gideon stepped back. ‘How enlightening,’ he said casually. ‘See if Biddy’s friend the groom has returned with the magistrate yet, will you, love?’ he asked Callie without turning round. ‘Of course,’ she said, carrying Bonhomie Bartle’s statement at arm’s length as if it were as noxious as the man who wrote it. She ran downstairs, unsure Gideon’s gentlemanly instincts would let him hold those two at bay much longer. The memory of the deadly pistols he pulled out of his pocket as if he used them to hold felons up every day reassured her. For all she knew he ran such risks on a daily basis. She could see him doing exactly that when she turned her back on him. Occupied with her own thoughts, she watched Squire Evans ride up to the house as fast as his fat old cob would carry him and remembered the evidence in her hand. She darted into her term-time office and locked it in the box where she kept the girls’ pocket money. If Gideon chose to show it to the authorities she would hand him the key, but somehow she didn’t want her aunt’s downfall to be caused by a man she had despised and feared herself. ‘I still can’t take it in,’ the magistrate said after a spitting and furious Kitty was escorted off the premises with her bundle of belongings and Mrs Bartle locked in her room. ‘Mrs Grisham seems such an upstanding woman.’ ‘I suspected nothing, Mr Evans,’ Callie said with a rueful shrug. ‘So why were you suspicious, Sir Gideon?’ the squire asked. ‘I just knew something was amiss,’ he said with that closed expression Callie hated. ‘I would rather our gullibility went no further, if you take my meaning, sir?’ ‘Ah, yes, well I don’t see how that can be, Sir Gideon. If we prosecute the woman, we’ll need a good case and yours is by far the strongest.’ ‘I intend to keep all the evidence pertinent to it in a safe place and if you return the letters Mrs Bartle used to blackmail her neighbours anonymously she will have nothing left to live on but her wits.’ ‘No doubt she’d thrive, since “the wicked flourish like the green bay tree” as it says in our prayer books. Inconvenient to have all that linen washed in public, is it?’ The squire tapped his red nose with a beefy forefinger and reached for the glass of excellent brandy Aunt Seraphina kept for wealthier visitors. ‘Lady Laughraine and I will be living not fifteen miles away and I don’t want the whole world to know what fools we’ve been,’ Gideon agreed confidentially. Apparently her husband had become a fine actor over the years they were apart. Callie suspected he didn’t care a straw what their neighbours thought, given the gossip it had been enjoying at his expense since before he was born. He was doing it for her. She shook her head to show him she could weather being thought a fool to tell the world her aunt was a thief and a liar. He pretended not to see, so she gave up and made an excuse about needing to steady the household and left the room. They would have to stay here another night at least now and, although Cataret House had been her home for nine years and she’d thought herself content here, she couldn’t wait to be quit of the place. * * * ‘My aunt will spread all sorts of wicked gossip about us if you let her go, Gideon,’ Callie warned as they went upstairs later to assess what to take with them and what she was happy to leave behind. ‘If she tries it, I’ll find her and stop her,’ he said so coolly she shivered and believed him. ‘Never mind her, how many of your belongings do you want to take with us, Callie? I’d prefer to travel as light as we can.’ ‘Exactly when did I agree to go to Raigne, Gideon?’ she challenged half-heartedly. Somehow the thought of going home was very tempting, even if she would be going to the ‘Big House’ rather than comfortable King’s Raigne Vicarage. ‘Would you rather we went to London, or somewhere else altogether then? I don’t much care where we go as long as you come with me.’ ‘Raigne is your home.’ ‘One you have a great deal more right to call so than I have.’ Callie shook her head, because that huge old barn of a house would never seem like home to her, but nine years of loneliness and longing told her pride would make a very poor bedfellow if she insisted on staying apart and aloof from her husband and refused to admit they might manage to remake their marriage if they both tried hard enough. ‘If I come with you, it can only be a maybe to resuming our marriage, not a fait accompli, Gideon,’ she warned, but both of them knew it was a huge concession. Callie wondered if he felt as if he hardly dared even breathe deeply lest this hope for the future shattered in their faces all over again, as well. ‘It’s far more than I dared hope when I came here, so that will do me for now. In the meantime, how much of this do you really want to take now, and what can be sent on later, my not-quite wife?’ he said with a smile that invited her to find their not-quite anything status almost comfortable. ‘I don’t have many possessions that really matter,’ she said, gazing round the shabby room as if through a stranger’s eyes. ‘One or two books are from Grandfather Sommers’s library and then there’s my grandmother’s pearl necklet and a miniature of them when they were young. Apart from my writing box, I can leave the rest without a qualm.’ ‘Then pack those and any essentials and we’ll leave as soon as you’re awake in the morning. I’d like to get to Raigne before my honorary uncle is out on the estate and it will be cooler and less trying to travel early in the day.’ ‘How can I stay at Raigne, Gideon? I hardly ever set foot in the place when I lived at King’s Raigne Vicarage,’ she protested, the thought of bowling up to the Tudor mansion as if she had a right suddenly felt impossible again. ‘It’s your home and heaven knows you’ve more right to call it so than I have.’ ‘No, you love the place and belong there as I never will.’ ‘That’s nonsense and I know Lord Laughraine wants you home nearly as much as I do. You’re his only grandchild, Callie, and he’s a good man who truly only wants the best for you. He might have seemed remote and uncaring when you were a child, but apparently your other grandfather begged him to let you grow up without the stigma of your birth shadowing your childhood. No, don’t grimace like that, love, Reverend Sommers was quite right. I might have been born within wedlock by the skin of my teeth, but it’s bad enough for a boy to be mocked and derided for what the gossips say his parents did. I would never wish it on a girl who might end up being tarred with her mother’s supposed sins before she was old enough to know what they even meant.’ ‘We can’t know now, can we?’ she managed to say past the torn feelings that were threatening to clog up her throat and make her weep, not for herself but for him and all the slights and sly whispers he’d been left to cope with as best he could since he was old enough to take notice. ‘I can, but it’s quite safe to love him, Callie. Don’t turn him into a conniving monster because your aunt was one and you don’t trust your family now. It was wrong of me to drag you to London when we got back from Scotland. I should have left you at Raigne to learn to know Lord Laughraine. You were carrying our child. He and his household could have fussed over you while I was in town learning my trade. I was selfish to insist on having you near all the time. I can’t tell you how much I wish you’d known him as the fine man he is before you went through hell, Callie. You might have turned to him for love and support when I failed you then, instead of your stony-hearted aunt.’ ‘If wishes were horse, beggars would ride,’ she replied tightly as she began opening drawers and pulling out books so she wouldn’t have to look him in the eye. ‘And I wouldn’t have stayed behind, anyway. I loved you far too much to be parted from you while we waited for our child to be born,’ she finally admitted gruffly. ‘You would have put up with it for her sake,’ he said and bent to pull a little trunk out of the cupboard she was staring into without seeing the old clothes and winter boots that just wouldn’t do for Sir Gideon Laughraine’s lady. ‘We don’t know that it would have made any difference if I was anywhere else. Don’t second-guess fate, Gideon. It does no good and will drive you insane if you let it,’ she said, her own struggles with that particular demon haunting her. ‘No dear,’ he said with mock humility she knew was meant to lighten her thoughts. He went out to retrieve some of the boxes the stableman had emptied ready for her departure, those that really were full of worn-out clothes and ancient account books. ‘Do you need anything else?’ he asked, seeming to accept it was best to deal with details right now. ‘I think not. Where do you intend to sleep tonight, Gideon?’ ‘I could insist on sharing this room, but I’m not a fool,’ he said with a sceptical glance at the narrow bed and ancient furniture, as if he wasn’t sure it was up to the weight of a fully adult male if he stayed. ‘No, and it’s best if I do this alone,’ she said mildly, refusing to hint at her feelings about sharing a bed with him again, mainly because she wasn’t sure what they were herself. ‘Don’t forget I’m here now,’ he told her mildly, even if there was an intensity in his complex grey eyes that made her long for things she wasn’t even ready to admit to herself she wanted yet. ‘I learnt to walk my own paths while you were away,’ she warned. ‘Part of being married is learning to walk together without stamping too hard on one another’s toes, isn’t it? I’ve been without you for a very long time, Wife,’ he reminded her so softly it felt more significant than if he were to shout his frustration from the rooftops. ‘I still lived a very different life from you and it will take a while to accustom myself to yours if we find a way past the pitfalls. My aunt isn’t the sole reason we were apart these last nine years,’ she reminded him with a severe look to remind him that war wasn’t won. And I need to work out if I can endure living with a husband who only wants to share my bed because he has no alternative without making our marriage vows a lie, she added an unspoken aside. He sighed and seemed to resign himself to her mistrust for a little longer. Then he smiled wryly to say he was tame again and there was no need to worry he was going to beg. Chapter Seven (#u504f60a3-158f-57f7-b860-88007bda3227) ‘What has it been like, Callie, this life you made without me? Not being a girl, I don’t know what they’re taught or how they are before they appear in society as if sprung fully formed from the egg.’ How could she refuse to try to breach the gaps between them? It was a start if they understood each other better, she supposed, but some of the old rebellious Callie whispered, when was he going to tell her the adventures he’d had without her? ‘Much depends on the family she comes from and the one she might make one day. Grandfather Sommers’s classical education didn’t prepare me to instruct young women about the niceties of life and I left that to my aunt. I do know aristocratic young ladies have very different ambitions to genteel ones, though, and our teaching was always aimed at the latter.’ ‘So what does a genteel young lady need to know?’ He surprised her by meekly handing her any items she nodded at and putting ones she rejected in neat piles as they worked in an easy harmony she would have found incredible only yesterday. It felt oddly intimate having him share the room that was her sanctuary for so long, yet he made it seem normal to silently debate over her most intimate garments and possessions in front of the man who should have shared her life, so how could she tell him to leave her alone and go back to being the outsider in this otherwise all-female household? ‘How to manage a household and control a budget, the details of her kitchen and how it is supplied. how to contrive and make do and be sure her family are in credit with the world in every way possible,’ she said as she tested that question in her head and tried it out on what she had done her best to teach her young ladies. ‘She needs to know enough of the world to keep certain parts of it out of her house and encourage other ones in with the right degree of hospitality. To record and examine accounts, visit her neighbours and be a useful part of her local community, and value truth over show, as well. I don’t know if I can really describe an ideal wife since I doubt such a paragon exists. The closest I can get is to say she should be well informed and able to care for her family, ready to love her children and support her husband’s endeavours as best she can, yet still be a woman of character in her own right.’ ‘And for all that they need algebra and natural philosophy and a smattering of Greek and Latin?’ he asked, looking at the pile of books she was thumbing through to find which ones she could leave behind and which must go with her. ‘I only teach those if a girl shows an aptitude for learning and a lively curiosity about the world. Their potential husbands are taught them as a matter of course, so I see no reason to rob a girl of a chance to explore them before she has to be busy with a family.’ ‘It’s a wonder you restrict yourself to a few extra lessons with your brighter pupils. Your late grandfather seems to have treated you like a student at Balliol.’ ‘All that learning didn’t do me much good, did it?’ she asked, avoiding his gaze as she tried not to look back on the idealistic, impulsive girl she was when she fell in love with him. ‘I was so full of wondrous myths and legends and tales of wild adventure I couldn’t see real things as they were.’ ‘What were they then?’ he asked quietly. ‘Impossible,’ she said bleakly, the gaps and betrayals of her young life piling up to remind her what a fiction her dream of perfect contentment with her hero-lover was. ‘No, it was possible. We only needed time to grow up and cope with such hot passions in the everyday world. Left to ourselves we would have found a way, Callie. You have to believe that or we might as well set up a nice little school for you in Bath and hire a law office for me on the moon.’ ‘Perhaps we should,’ she said with a half-smile at the thought of him negotiating with the ancient gods of Olympus for the rights of a celestial body. ‘Don’t. It’s unthinkable to turn our backs on a last chance at love,’ he said hoarsely and there he was again, the true Gideon under all that gentlemanly self-control. ‘If we can’t laugh together, we’ll never be anything but strangers at heart,’ she warned him. ‘Half of what went wrong between us was because the intensity of our love felt so fierce. If we’re going to try again, our marriage must be rooted in real life.’ ‘I expect you’re right, but could we agree not to laugh about parting again, if you want me to stay sane while we work our way round the thorns?’ ‘I’ll agree to that, Gideon, but I refuse to be rushed into anything else.’ ‘What do I have to do then, Callie? I warn you I’ll go down on my knees and beg if I have to sooner or later and you’ll find it embarrassing and ridiculous. Just agreeing to come to Raigne with me is hope enough for now, though, so I’ll excuse you that ordeal for as long as I can endure the temptation of you so close and not abase myself,’ he said, and how much of what he said was serious and how much a joke? She eyed his careful smile and unreadable gaze and decided it would take longer than a day to read the true Gideon under all that armour nowadays. ‘The world will still believe we’re together again,’ she said flatly and wondered if she had been stupid to agree to go to Raigne with him, after all. ‘You only came back yesterday, Gideon, we haven’t had time to get used to each other as we are now, let alone as man and wife.’ ‘At least at Raigne we can be the people we really were all along.’ ‘Without my aunt trying to wreck us all the time.’ ‘Yes, a new start, Callie, that’s all. At least this time I won’t have to spend hours at my law books and you won’t be living in a strange city with people you have little chance to know.’ ‘I see the logic of it, but what if we fail publicly this time?’ ‘Would that be so much worse than not trying at all?’ He strode over to the window and back again, looking as if this cramped little room was closing in on him. It felt too small to her now; a cell built with Aunt Seraphina’s lies, and she bit back a reckless urge to go tonight, dark and dangerous thought it might be to risk travelling at night. ‘Tell me truly you only want to find another school to teach in. That you can forget the chance of a family and I will smother my hopes and promise not to trouble you again,’ he finally said as if it hurt. He stood still and met her eyes, let the guard he kept round himself drop. Did she really want this man she once loved to beg? No, it couldn’t have been love in the first place if she did. So here she was up against words she didn’t want to say. ‘Yes...’ she breathed at last, then saw pain and bleak loneliness in his gaze before he blanked it and realised he thought she meant yes to him going away. ‘I mean yes to Raigne and us, you idiot,’ she told him brusquely. ‘But that’s all for now,’ she reasserted even if she had seen the truth of his longing behind his wary eyes. ‘It’s enough,’ he said shortly and she could see from the way his shoulders relaxed that the hard control he’d kept his mouth and those dear, familiar green-shot grey eyes under was lifted. Feeling a little ashamed of herself for making him reveal more than he wanted to in order to combat her attack of the dithers, she still felt as if she were walking the edge of a precipice. ‘Well, that’s finally settled then,’ she said briskly and began packing as few boxes as she could to take away tomorrow. ‘Good, I’d hate to have come after you if you change your mind, because I warn you, Callie, I won’t go away quietly this time. I’ll follow you and make a nuisance of myself even if you travel the length of the land to avoid me. You have given me hope, Lady Laughraine, and I can’t give up on it now.’ ‘I won’t go back on my word now. I admit when I thought about it again the whole idea of being at Raigne together frightened me, but I’m steady now and only want to be quit of this place, so you’d best let me finish packing before I go to sleep on my feet.’ ‘Very well, concentrate then and stop trying to distract me, Wife,’ he said with a cocky grin that reminded her again of her young love. Who would have thought she’d be so glad to see that young scapegrace under all the frost the years had put into Gideon’s gaze? * * * It was done, her life for the past nine years packed and ready to go. The small pile of luggage by her bedroom door seemed a poor showing for twenty-seven years of life. Callie concluded travelling light taught her people matter more than things, but had she been weak to agree to go to Raigne with Gideon? Instinct said no, here was a chance for a bigger life than the one she had here, yet her imagination reeled at the very idea of being a wife again. Torn between hope and fear, she knew any chance for their marriage must be grasped, but it felt so huge to let go of the past and seize it. She tossed and turned on the narrow bed that had seemed perfectly adequate for so long, but now felt restrictive and hard. The real trouble was she couldn’t put all the wild hope Gideon’s arrival had rekindled in her heart back in its box and lock it away again. There had been such passion, such love, under their youthful infatuation with each other, that her most hopeful self whispered those huge forces couldn’t simply be dead between them now. Yet their dreams of mutual love and need and a future together were smashed all those years ago. What if Gideon didn’t share her fantasy? She squirmed against the sheets and told herself it was so humid tonight it was no wonder she couldn’t drop off to sleep as if nothing much had happened. Her whole world had changed, so what was the point of lying here fooling herself she was about to drop off as contentedly as if it was just another day? Unable to endure even the added heat of a thin and patched sheet over her as the heat seemed relentless and sticky all around her, she knew she must face the biggest fear of all about her new life some time. What if she still loved Gideon under all the bitterness and pain and loneliness? And what if he didn’t love her? Impossible, she would never have been able to go on with her restricted and very single life for the past few years if she was secretly panting with passion for a lover who it turned out had not really existed. Except maybe she had been secretly, deep down where she didn’t let herself think too much but just feel, maybe there she had been waiting for him to ride up and carry her off. Despite all the pain and bitterness and tears and wild arguments of that brief year of marriage when they were both so young, looking back that was the part that felt like her real life and this one some sort of wicked enchantment that kept them apart and only almost alive. An image of her aunt as the wicked sorceress with legendary power to keep two lovers lost in a dream world and obedient to her commands almost made her laugh for a moment, until she reminded herself how serious Aunt Seraphina’s sins were. Unable to stay still and contain the fury that wanted to howl and weep at all the chances she and Gideon lost to live and love together because of Seraphina Bartle, she got out of bed to pull the curtains wide and very gently inch up the sash to let more air into this stuffy room. Never mind the dangerous night air Aunt Seraphina insisted on keeping out of the house like demons from hell, or the bright moonlight that shone in and might even keep a less wakeful person from their slumbers. It felt good to connect with the greater world, to feel the air and see the moonlight she shared with the rest of this vast racing world of theirs and Gideon in particular. Maybe he was doing just as she was, sitting in the uncushioned seat of his window and breathing in air still heavy with heat as he stared at the miracle of a night almost bright as day? Close on the heels of that thought came the idea of one day sitting with him dreamy, well loved and content as they shared everything she now had to sense alone. No, that was going too far. If she was to stay sane she must learn to be practical and a lot less idealistic. For now she would learn to be as happy as she could be with what seemed graspable instead of aiming for the moon. If it all went wrong for them at Raigne, at least she and Gideon knew they could live by their own efforts now and perhaps be happier doing it. There, now she was thinking their reconciliation was inevitable and it couldn’t be. How could she trust her inner self to a man who had betrayed her at least once already? It was a dour thought to try and go to sleep on, so she pushed it aside as best she could for another day. It was time to stop looking back and go into the future as best they could, but she wished she was a wild girl again just for tonight, so she could be free to do as she pleased and walk into the hills one last time by the light of the July moon. She had come to love both the remoteness of this sturdy old house and the half-tamed emptiness of the wide hills all around it and she would miss that and the girls she had done her best to equip for lives that would not always be as easy as they might seem to anyone less fortunate. So was Gideon struggling to sleep alone as well tonight, or already lost in weary slumber after his demanding wife-hunting trip and last night’s excitements? No, thinking of him asleep without her was never going to lull her into dreamland; it felt too wrong for them to lie apart like enemies in different camps dreading the next battle. She sighed heavily, then went back to bed to try counting sheep. No, they looked too much like Aunt Seraphina, and wasn’t that an uncomfortable thought? Sheep wearing unlikely flaxen wigs and a superior expression would put her off the silly creatures for life and there were far too many of them in this part of the world to risk that calamity. In the distance she thought she heard a soft thud and a murmur, but it was over almost as soon as it began and she turned over when she heard a vixen bark a warning at cubs big enough to know better by now and blocked her ears to the normal noises of the night. It wasn’t term time, so she didn’t need to worry about nightmares or wakeful girls away from home for the first time and longing for their parents. She felt herself retreating from this little world that seemed so safe for so long, Miss Sommers’s days were numbered, but could she really be Calliope Laughraine again? She had married Gideon ten years ago, but it would feel like living with a man she didn’t know if they took up where they left off. Whatever happened between them, she was about to live in a house beyond most women’s wildest dreams. The very thought of trying to make some sort of life in the mansion she visited on sufferance as a child felt so alien she might lose an essential part of herself if she tried to see herself as wife of the next Lord Laughraine. Deciding she preferred a world she had some control over, she set about plotting the knottiest bits of her next book in her head. The intricacies of it soothed her and she was halfway to dreamland when she realised her latest hero looked exactly like Gideon. Already drifting, her mind was too wrapped up in a sleepy fantasy of finding a happy ending in her husband hero’s arms to reject the notion he might still be her hero, after all, and she fell asleep with a welcoming smile on her face. * * * ‘So where did you end up sleeping last night, Gideon?’ Callie asked the next morning when they were on their way from Cataret House so early this might be a dream, as well. ‘On a chair in your office, lest your aunt can pick locks as well as escape from upstairs windows,’ he replied gruffly. ‘I knew I should have woken up properly and investigated the noise I heard in the night,’ she said with a grimace for the empty room and improvised rope of bedsheets they had discovered this morning. ‘At least Kitty wasn’t here to give you a matching pair of black eyes, but I’m surprised you didn’t hear my aunt escape as you seem to have the senses of a cat.’ ‘I knew she would go, why else do you think I was dozing in that uncomfortable chair? I had to make sure she took nothing of ours with her this time,’ he said and shifted his shoulders as if they were still stiff from holding such an unnatural position for so long. ‘You have had a difficult time since you arrived, haven’t you?’ she said with a wry smile for his poor bruised face and the shadows even under his good eye from lack of proper sleep. ‘Poor Gideon,’ she added and surely it wasn’t quite right to feel such a rush of joy at the mere sight of the boyish smile she remembered from the old days in response? ‘Lucky Gideon,’ he corrected softly and the look he slanted her made it clear she was the reason he thought it was worth it. She smiled back and let herself enjoy this odd journey through a luminous dawn. They were sitting on the box of what she still thought of as her aunt’s carriage. As he was driving the sturdy pair she refused to be shut inside a stuffy, swaying box on wheels on such a perfect morning. So the little kitchen maid was inside the coach in her stead, dressed in her Sunday best and feeling like a Queen of England, she assured Callie, and shook her head at an offer to sit in the fresh air, as well. ‘I’ve never rode in a real coach before, miss, I mean, my lady, and the missus would scold me something wicked if she caught me getting that wrong again, wouldn’t she?’ the girl said with a happy grin. Callie smiled back in silent glee neither of them need tiptoe round her aunt’s notions of propriety ever again. Now she let herself feel the thrill of a new start life in the shape of Sir Gideon Laughraine as well as the fears she struggled with last night. His stray lady was about to be reborn as a potential aristocrat and apparently Biddy was going to scale the dizzy heights of lady’s maid without going through any of the stages in between. ‘She’s never going to fit anyone’s idea of a proper lady’s maid,’ Gideon warned softly as they moved on to the main road to Manydown and Biddy waved regally at a startled farm labourer about to go off to the fields for the day. ‘That’s why I engaged her,’ Callie admitted, the thought of a silently critical dresser who would sniff and disapprove of her new mistress making Biddy’s pleas not to leave her behind a good excuse not to engage one. ‘I couldn’t let her be turned into the world with nothing, now could I?’ ‘Perhaps not, but we could still find her a place more fitted to her skills when we get to Raigne. Your personal maid will have to cope with a large collection of gowns and can the girl sew? She won’t know how to clean a riding habit or wash the ostrich plume fashionable females festoon their bonnets with. If all Biddy can do is wash pots and pare vegetables, she’ll be in the suds the first time she’s called on to do something less than straightforward to my lady’s wardrobe.’ ‘No, she won’t, suds are what she’s escaping from. For one thing, I’m not a fashionable female. For another, she can sew perfectly well, because my aunt insisted all the maids she employed could do so to save a sewing woman’s wages. I’m sure someone at Raigne will be glad to show her how to keep my habits clean and what to do about anything I manage to spill on my favourite gown and she might as well learn to be a lady’s maid at the same time I find out how to be a lady.’ ‘You are already a lady. Let’s not have that old argument again.’ ‘Very well, we’ll leave it for another day,’ Callie conceded with a look about her at the early morning sunshine and another fine day. ‘Where do you think my aunt has gone?’ she asked after they had driven through Manydown to startled faces as the early risers saw Mrs Grisham’s niece on the box and Biddy waving regally at them from inside the carriage as if practising for her coronation. ‘How would I know?’ Gideon said as he got the feel of the pair and set them bowling along the better road to the main highway that would lead them to the other side of the county and Raigne, hopefully before the sun could climb too high and make the journey wearisome. ‘You seem to find out what makes a person tick a little too easily nowadays,’ she replied, feeling the tug of intimacy as she adapted to the movements of his strong body brushing hers as he expertly flicked his whip or softly reassured the more skittish of the two glossy chestnut horses he was driving to an inch. ‘I don’t much care where she is or want to understand her,’ he said shortly. She sensed something held back and turned to give him a very wifely look. ‘Now I’m wondering why I don’t believe you,’ she said as he tried to be inscrutable again. ‘So am I.’ ‘Maybe I know you too well?’ She paused and took another look at the blank expression he was trying to fix as he concentrated on his horses as if they were far more restless than they appeared on a fine morning with a smooth road ahead. ‘You let her go, didn’t you?’ she said as the unlikelihood of such a daring escape dawned at last. ‘Oh, yes,’ he said with a smile that would have looked just right on a fox picking hens’ feathers out of his strong white teeth of a morning. ‘First we had a little talk and then I suggested she leave before I called the Runners.’ ‘I hope you’re not going to tell me my aunt has taken to highway robbery?’ ‘No, but your unlikely maid is probably resting her feet on an extra box I slipped into the carriage before we set out.’ ‘She had my parents’ letters as well as ours, didn’t she?’ she said, and it was as much a statement as a question. He’d seen the echo of their own tale in her parents’ ill-fated love affair and known exactly what to look for. Apparently the wild young man she married had grown up to be a clever and subtle man. ‘Yes. It’s all about power, Callie, a need to control those around her without them realising she’s doing it,’ he said wearily and she felt cold even on this sunny July morning at the idea she’d been dancing to Seraphina Bartle’s tune all her life without realising it. ‘Why extort money from anyone else, though? She already had what I earned for her with our pupils as well as what you sent me to live well on while you struggled.’ ‘Only at first, I do very well now.’ ‘Stop trying to divert me with your tale of rags to riches, Husband, and kindly answer my questions, you’re not in a courtroom now.’ ‘I feel as if I might be,’ he teased her, then sobered. ‘Last night she confessed Bartle ran through any money they had and left her a mountain of debts. Whatever the details of his death might be, she didn’t deserve that.’ ‘Now who’s making excuses for her?’ ‘I’m trying to understand. She always knew right from wrong, your grandfather would see to that, so why lie and cheat and take such pleasure in making her family unhappy?’ ‘Because she married Mr Bartle, perhaps? Maybe a cow looked at my grandmother the wrong way when she was carrying her and that did it? Who knows? She lied and stole and did her best to ruin our marriage and nearly wrecked my mother’s life beforehand.’ ‘She didn’t need to do much to part us, did she? I did most of it for her before you even got back to King’s Raigne and fell into her clutches again,’ he argued bleakly. ‘Don’t, Gideon,’ she protested, fighting tears at the desolation in his voice. ‘Very well then, let’s talk of the weather, shall we?’ he said bitterly. ‘I’m heartily sick of your aunt as a subject of conversation and we might as well find something neutral to while away the tedium of our journey.’ ‘Of course, it seems set fair to last out the week, don’t you think?’ she said stiffly; she could hardly complain that he’d lapsed into brittle social chit-chat when she was the one who didn’t want to talk about her aunt. ‘The harvest will be ready long before its time if it continues thus, don’t you think?’ he went on relentlessly. ‘Lord Laughraine must be fretting about the chances of sudden downpours and thunderous tempests ruining the crops as we speak.’ ‘If he happens to be awake so early in the morning, of course.’ ‘There is that,’ he agreed as they reached the next village and he was so preoccupied holding back his pair to let a herd of sheep cross the road there was no need to talk at all. Callie fixed her gaze on the horizon, but saw little of it. He was right to shut himself off from her in a way. Towards the end of their marriage he did all he could to keep them together, although they were so young they scarcely knew how to go about the daily business of life as man and wife, until that last day when she must have decided it wasn’t worth it. She couldn’t think about that right now, but wasn’t she the one who never quite believed she deserved to find true love? Miles slipped by and they pretended interest in the passing scene and she tried to let the subject slip out of her mind, because they were too shocked and weary to talk of the past without making things worse right now. She managed her usual escape from too much reality by considering how this scene or that chance encounter with a group of travellers, a market day, or a drove of cattle might change or bend the plot of her next book. Nothing more noteworthy happened until she was holding the horses while Gideon went to buy the next set of tickets from the toll keeper. ‘You don’t look like any coachman I ever encountered,’ a deep and amused male voice drawled from behind her. A gentleman she’d never seen before in her life halted his dancing mount beside the carriage very much against that fine animal’s wishes. He bowed from his saddle with such elegance she felt dowdy and windswept and fervently wished he’d go away. ‘Good day, sir,’ she said with distant politeness. ‘It is now,’ he said with a rogue’s grin. ‘And a good day to you, as well, Miss Whoever-You-Are,’ he said, with a wary glance at her gloveless left hand that made her blush and wish she hadn’t thrown Gideon’s rings back at him when they parted all those years ago. ‘Sommers,’ she said impatiently, more out of habit than a wish to deny her husband and then it seemed foolish to correct herself to a stranger she would never see again. ‘I can see that,’ he murmured with a grin that made her realise what was meant by wolfish and she wished Gideon would hurry back. ‘I am called Sommers,’ she explained shortly, doing her best to ignore Biddy’s cough of disagreement and her fine imitation of a disapproving chaperon. ‘And every bit as lovely as a summer’s day you are, too, Miss Sommers. What a fortuitous coincidence that I happened on you today whilst we’re in the midst of that fine season, as well,’ the wolf told her with such admiration in his oddly familiar green-and-grey eyes she might have been all of a flutter, if Gideon hadn’t already dazzled her for good. ‘Nonsense, I’m not lovely and neither is being too hot for comfort day after day,’ she snapped with a glare at the heat haze on the horizon. ‘I do wish people would stop comparing me to a summer’s day, it really is most unoriginal.’ ‘Shakespeare? I feel I ought to know, but I never did mind my books at school.’ ‘It is from one of the sonnets and I was flattered to have it quoted at me once,’ she said, recalling the heart-racing sound of it on Gideon’s lips, but then, if he’d recited a list of linens when they were young and in love it would have taken her breath away. ‘It grates sadly upon repetition.’ ‘I shall obtain a book of sonnets and learn them off by heart for future use,’ the stranger said with what looked like real admiration in his eyes and Callie wished she hadn’t forgotten her married status in a moment of absent-minded annoyance. ‘I’m not interested in an idle flirtation, or any other sort of idleness for that matter. I wish you good day, sir,’ she said firmly. ‘It might not be so idle as you think,’ the man said and made her wonder if all the gentlemen in so-called polite society required eye-glasses and were too vain to admit it. ‘It had better be,’ Gideon’s darker voice said from behind them. Chapter Eight (#u504f60a3-158f-57f7-b860-88007bda3227) ‘Peters, what the devil are you doing here?’ The stranger greeted him as if they knew each other. Plainly they didn’t, or the rake would know her husband’s real name. ‘Winterley,’ Gideon replied coldly and it made her think again about his other life and how many secrets it held. Apparently he had another name altogether and what else had he failed to tell her about his existence since they parted? ‘You know each other then, gentlemen?’ she asked as brightly as she could when they looked about to challenge each other to a bout of fisticuffs, if she was lucky. ‘Not as well as we think,’ Gideon said tightly and wasn’t that the truth, Callie thought cynically, wondering if anyone knew Sir Gideon Laughraine but Gideon himself. ‘But perhaps better than you would like us to?’ the man challenged him. If they were friends at all, it was clearly a prickly sort of friendship. ‘Perhaps,’ Gideon said, and addled Callie’s brain by climbing back into his seat and holding her hand as they faced his dashing acquaintance together. ‘We certainly don’t know each other well enough for you to have met my wife, Winterley, and that makes me wonder why you felt free to accost her on a public highway.’ ‘Now here’s a dilemma,’ Mr Winterley drawled with a hard glance in Callie’s direction to tell her what he thought of her lapse of memory. ‘To give the lie to a lady, or admit you and I know each other not at all?’ ‘Well, my dear?’ Gideon said with a frown as he dared her to deny him again. ‘I am indeed Lady Laughraine, but tend to forget it now and again. I beg your pardon, Husband, Mr Winterley,’ she said with a nod of curt apology towards each of them. ‘Lady Laughraine?’ Mr Winterley asked blankly. He shot another shocked glare at Gideon that said there was indeed more to her husband’s other life than she knew. ‘What a truly dark horse you are, Mr Frederick Peters.’ ‘My husband’s full name is Gideon Frederick Peter Dante Laughraine, sir, but I shouldn’t take it as a slight you didn’t know him as such until today because he only lets the world see as much, or as little, of his true self as he thinks it needs to know,’ Callie told him with that alias of Gideon’s going round and round in her thoughts as she wondered what he had been up to in order to need it. The tall stranger seemed to pause on the edge of giving at least one of them a blistering set down before he took in Gideon’s ponderous string of names, then a look of unholy glee lit his face instead and he sent Gideon a mocking grin, as if he now knew far more about him than such a private man could want him to. ‘You appear to be an even darker horse than I thought you, Laughraine,’ he said slowly. ‘Oh, well met, Sir Gideon, and how d’you do?’ he added mockingly. ‘Well enough, but I’ll never understand you if I live to be a hundred, Winterley,’ Gideon said with a manly shrug. ‘Ours has never been a conventional marriage,’ he added casually, as if he and Callie kept it to themselves out of a perverse delight in secrets. Since she was the one to demand it came to an end nine years ago, she could hardly complain if he was making weak excuses for that deception now. ‘Then perhaps you should consult with your wife and match up your stories better in future. I wish you both a good morning and hope to see you at dinner. If you dine together as man and wife and not under your chosen aliases in different counties, of course?’ ‘Then you are staying at Raigne?’ Gideon asked as if it confirmed his worst fears. ‘Lord Laughraine will invite me, d’you see? This time I rashly agreed to stay for a week or two to escape the husband hunters, since the little darlings will go to Brighton on Prinny’s coattails to carry on their craft out of season. Like a gullible innocent up from the country I agreed to his latest invitation to enjoy some bucolic tranquillity at his expense and quite forgot he was a great friend of Virgil and Virginia’s. Although given what has happened so far this year, I should feel less of a fool now I’m looking at the very good reason he wants me there, shouldn’t I?’ Mr Winterley said mysteriously. Callie supposed Gideon knew what the man meant, since she felt him flinch and heard a bitten-back curse. The only Virgil and Virginia she knew of were the last Lord and Lady Farenze; Gideon’s late grandfather and his wife. Still with that look of unholy amusement in his eyes, Mr Winterley blithely gave them both a seated bow before wishing them a genial farewell. Then he rode off as if he’d happened on an amusing sideshow at precisely the right moment to enliven a tedious moment. ‘Who on earth is that?’ she asked. ‘A friend, although you wouldn’t think so at times,’ Gideon replied tersely. ‘A friend you were about to call to account for simply exchanging greetings with me?’ she reminded him recklessly. ‘I have no patience with Winterley’s sort of politeness. You should be wary of him, too, Callie. He’s slippery as an eel and about as trustworthy as a fox.’ ‘Maybe it takes a rogue to know one.’ She tied the trailing strings of her bonnet into a militant bow she regretted as soon as the close-woven straw closed the heat in and threatened to make her head ache. Refusing to undo it after making such a grand gesture, she silently dared him to comment. ‘There’s no maybe about it,’ he said with an unrepentant grin and they resumed their journey in what she hoped was a dignified silence. ‘I have no wish to know what you have been doing while my back was turned,’ she managed to lie after they had continued for half a mile with her staring everywhere but at his face. An internal picture of a parade of his lovers kept plaguing her, as if a grey mist had settled on her shoulders in the most unlikely cloud and was blighting a glorious morning. He sighed as if she were proving to be the most exasperating of travelling companions and answered the question she had been trying so hard not to ask ever since he came back into her life. ‘No, Callie, I don’t have a mistress, nor a discreet married lover bored with her husband after filling his nursery with heirs. I’ve been celibate as a monk for lack of you, but you’d be sensible to wish I was busy chasing every strumpet in town right now. You’re right to watch me as if I’m a starving wolf about to swallow you down in one hungry bite, so maybe you’d best avoid provoking me with the likes of James Winterley again. I want you so badly every inch of me is on fire and at least now you can’t say you haven’t had fair warning.’ ‘No man who loves as passionately as you could go nigh on a decade without a woman,’ she said sceptically, the image coming into her head of him in the arms of some sensual charmer purring with pleasure at his splendid body and skilful lovemaking. ‘I am a married man, in case you had forgotten,’ he said shortly. She tried to shrug off the doubts that made her want to smack the smile off that smug imaginary siren’s face, but he was a fully adult man and she couldn’t seem to get reason to overcome jealousy now they were side by side and she had felt the flex and steel of his body next to hers for mile after mile. Perhaps she should have agreed to travel in the stuffy carriage away from him, after all. ‘You revelled in being my lover, then my wife, before you decided I was a villain and you hated me. Don’t pretend you don’t want me nigh as much as I want you.’ ‘You taught me not to trust my one and only lover, Gideon,’ she said as images of them locked in the wilder excesses of passion threatened to leave her certainty she never wanted to risk loving him again in the dust. ‘This isn’t the time or place for picking at old wounds,’ he warned with a significant nod back at the carriage where Biddy was fanning herself in the growing heat and beginning to look as if she regretted choosing that seat over this one. ‘I won’t admit to something I didn’t do, though,’ he added in a low, driven voice. ‘I don’t want to love you again, Gideon,’ she warned. She was breathless and on the edge of something dangerous and had to protect herself from being so vulnerable again. ‘Maybe I won’t ask you to,’ he replied flatly, before halting the carriage and insisting Biddy squeeze into the space atop the graceful little vehicle between them. * * * They were close to the end of their journey at last and Callie spotted familiar landmarks and the outlying parts of her grandfather’s former parish. She distracted herself from her galling and petty jealousy of Biddy for her place next to Gideon on the narrow coachman’s seat by wondering who still lived where they were when she left and who had moved on. Inevitably some of the parishioners would have joined her grandfather in the peaceful churchyard of King’s Raigne Church. She winced at the very thought of that grave and knew she had to visit it before very many days had gone by in her temporary home to make peace with the past. It seemed best to tell herself this was temporary. The very idea of being mistress of such a huge and venerable house one day might terrify her half to death if she dwelt on it. She glanced at her husband over the top of Biddy’s head and knew she would be more open to his persuasion if he wasn’t Lord Laughraine’s heir. Then they could simply return to London when the heat of midsummer died down and live a humdrum life. A sense of justice her grandfather instilled in her argued she must put her dread of the Laughraine inheritance aside and see Gideon as he was, rather than one day lord and master of Raigne. There, now they were almost through Great Raigne and a particularly strait-laced widow she recognised as an incurable gossip was waiting to cross the road. The lady took a second look at the modest carriage and exactly who was driving it and her mouth fell open like a cod fish. ‘Oh, dear,’ she muttered to Gideon, then summoned up a cheery smile as they swept past as if a Laughraine always drove his own carriage with his wife at his side and a maidservant for company. ‘Our eccentric method of travel will be all round the Raigne villages by the time she’s walked the length of the high street.’ ‘I have no intention of keeping our arrival quiet so they might as well get used to us,’ he said, a challenge in his voice she hoped Biddy wouldn’t notice. ‘If your uncle really wants you to stay here and begin to learn the management of the estate we must live here for at least part of the year, though, and Mrs Prosser never did like me,’ Callie said with a sigh. ‘She doesn’t like anybody much, but she does love a title. We should do well on that front.’ Callie stayed silent in deference to Biddy’s eager interest and watched for Raigne’s elaborately carved and twisted Tudor chimney stacks. There they were, as familiar and strange as ever. The sight of the mellow nobleman’s mansion in the distance made her think of her childhood. She had thought it a palace full of exotic things and fairy-tale people. Later she was allowed inside the side door of the giant’s castle at Christmas, when the Sunday School children had tea in the housekeeper’s room and were given a present to take home. Aprons for the girls and shirts for the boys, she recalled with a grimace. If she had any say here she’d make sure children received something more interesting in future. She wasn’t even through the gates and she was rearranging cherished traditions. It wouldn’t go down well in the servants’ halls if she seemed ready to take over before she had her feet through the door, and she must step carefully if she was to be accepted as a proper wife for an heir to Raigne. The real question being did she want such a role in the first place? Gideon was Lord Laughraine’s acknowledged heir, so she supposed she had no choice as she was Gideon’s wife. She sighed gloomily and wondered how many girls in the Mayfair ballrooms she suspected Gideon was familiar with would give their eye teeth for the position she had no desire for. Yet King’s Raigne was home in a way Manydown never had been and this was Gideon at her side, as familiar and strange as the world she had left behind when she married him. It felt right to be back in some ways and so wrong in others she could hardly endure to think about it. Under the reproaches he hadn’t made and the sore places in her heart, could they come to love each other in a less overheated and dangerous way than when they were so ridiculously young? They would be fools not to try, so she really had to stop being a fool and step into the future with a little resolution and more hope they would somehow find each other again. Trying not to dwell on the challenges ahead, lest she jump down from the carriage and run away before they even got to Raigne, she eyed the shady groups of ancient oaks and elms in the parkland they were passing through instead. The sun was high in the sky and cattle were sheltering from it under the wide-spreading trees, lowing to their calves and lazily swishing flies away with their tails. They looked timeless and indifferent to the comings and goings of men and that made her feel better somehow. ‘Welcome to Raigne House, Biddy,’ Gideon said as he drew the horses to a halt on the neatly raked carriage sweep and jumped down to help them down to solid ground. ‘Coo, it’s big, ain’t it, Mr Gideon?’ she said as she stood looking at the place as if it might develop a voice of its own and tell her to go away immediately. ‘True, but it’s also a home.’ ‘Not for the likes of me, though, is it?’ she replied, and Callie wondered if it had been fair to bring the girl with her, after all. ‘Come now, Biddy,’ she said bracingly, ‘would you rather have stayed at Cataret House and waited for the next tenant to take over?’ ‘Oh, no, miss. I want to stay with you, but people who live in a place like this will know I’m no lady’s maid. You’d better send me round to the kitchens.’ ‘No, you took the job I offered and I need you,’ Callie said. ‘You will soon grow into your new tasks, as I must into mine.’ ‘If you say so, miss, I mean, my lady,’ Biddy said with a harassed look at the boxes strapped to the back of the coach and another at the great front door as it opened and a very solemn butler came out. ‘Shall I have to unpack for you, my lady?’ she asked before he was close enough to hear. ‘If you please, I don’t want some smart housemaid looking down her nose at my humble wardrobe.’ ‘No, of course you don’t, my lady. I suppose there’s books and things about looking after a proper lady’s clothes and whatnots, ain’t there? Someone in this great place will be able to help me with the long words, won’t they? You’ll be far too busy to help me now, but I’m that glad you taught me to read, Miss Sommers because there’s a book about most things, ain’t there?’ ‘Of course and that’s a very good notion of yours. I shall send for an appropriate one as soon as I can,’ Callie said soothingly and turned to meet the butler’s stern gaze with nearly as much trepidation as Biddy. ‘I’d love to know what a lady’s whatnots are,’ Gideon whispered, and Callie laughed, then relaxed a little. ‘You were quite right to insist on bringing your protégée with us,’ he added, then turned to meet the ancient retainer as a long-lost friend. They were conducted upstairs to a vast suite of rooms Callie concluded was the finest guest accommodation in the house. His lordship must have known they were coming because there wasn’t a holland cover to be seen, or a speck of dust on the highly polished furniture and gleaming treasures in this glorious old state room. Gideon seemed to have taken a lot for granted in sending word they were coming before she agreed and she must point that out to him when they were alone again if she wasn’t to develop into a mouse-like woman. Now she had to hide an impulse to follow Gideon into his splendid bedchamber instead of meekly heading for her own, because at least he was familiar in all this stateliness. The loss of him at her side brought back all her fears of losing herself in this vast old barn of a place in more ways than one. ‘There’s a bath being got ready for you in the dressing room yonder, Lady Laughraine,’ Biddy informed her. ‘You ain’t half going to be clean, ain’t you, miss?’ she added, then realised she’d forgotten herself again. ‘Blessed if I’ll ever remember, my lady,’ ‘Blessed if I will either, Biddy, now please shake out my best muslin and find a clean chemise and petticoat for me.’ ‘Yes, miss. I mean, my lady.’ * * * ‘Don’t leave me alone, will you, Gideon?’ Callie asked an hour later as they met up in their vast sitting room ready to go downstairs and meet her grandfather in his own lair. ‘What, never?’ ‘Idiot, I mean until I learn the way of the house, but on the other hand please don’t leave me alone with his lordship, ever.’ ‘Difficult, he’s been living for the moment you would agree to see him and make peace.’ ‘I can’t see why. I’m a reminder of what should have been if I was born to his daughter-in-law instead of the Vicar’s unwed daughter. He has to be ashamed of me.’ ‘No, but he is ashamed of what his son did to you and your mother.’ ‘How do you know?’ ‘Because I asked him about what happened back then and he told me. We have stayed in contact, since I saw no reason to cut myself off from him and he wanted to stay close to you by proxy. Not that I was close to you in any way or could tell him anything about you, since you told me I sickened you and you loathed me with every fibre of your being and never to contact you again.’ ‘I didn’t, you know that now, but we must forget what my aunt did before it drives us mad.’ ‘I can’t, Callie, any more than I can forgive what she’s done, so please don’t ask that of me next. Suffice it to say, Lord Laughraine and I thought you must be throwing his letters on the fire as well as mine and he’s been too afraid of stirring up a past you found intolerable to ride over and demand you speak to him. He says he and his did enough damage to you and yours, but your aunt must bear a great deal of the blame for all of it, though, don’t you think?’ ‘Yes, but does he truly think that?’ ‘Which bit are you wondering about being untrue this time?’ ‘I deeply regret not suspecting my aunt was destroying my letters and challenging her version of the truth, Gideon, but does his lordship really want to know me?’ ‘Of course he does, he’s not the sort of man who judges a child for something they are completely innocent of. I’m a far greater obstacle to Christian forgiveness than you will ever be—he would have every excuse to hate me, given how the succession stands, but he can’t even manage that, so just give him a chance, Callie. I promise you he’s nothing like the ogre you seem to have made of him in your imagination.’ ‘I’m beginning to see that. For years I thought he was happy to leave me in ignorance of who I truly was so he didn’t have to admit his son was a rake. I know we weren’t going to talk about Aunt Seraphina, but she does intrude into our lives even now, doesn’t she? Until we understand exactly what she did we can’t forget her. She said my paternal grandfather is as proud as the devil and would never openly acknowledge me, but everything she told me was a lie. Yet the poor man’s heart must sink at the prospect of me as the only source of Laughraine blood left, unless he’s prepared to make an April-and-December marriage and that doesn’t seem likely as he’s been a widower for over twenty years, does it?’ ‘No, he was devoted to his wife and seems genuinely happy for us to inherit Raigne one day between us.’ ‘Who says there can be an us? I’m not sure I can do it again, Gideon,’ she asked, panicked by the certainty if she was left alone with him too long she would make a fool of herself and beg to be his true wife again. ‘Not yet, maybe, but one day I hope to change your mind. Meanwhile I’m not made of stone, despite your obvious belief to the contrary.’ ‘You must be, if you really haven’t had a mistress all the years we’ve been apart.’ ‘We’re back to that again, are we? Very well, if it makes you feel better I’ll swear on anything you ask me to that I’m telling the truth. I’ve been on the rack for you, Callie. In the early days I often couldn’t sleep for the lack of you in my bed and at my side. I daydreamed about making love to you when I should have been slaving at my books and stayed working at my first and mostly hopeless cases late into the night because I hated going back to a place I couldn’t call a home without you in it. I can’t count the number of times I set out to find you because I couldn’t stand being alone any longer. Then I’d remember the last weeks when you wouldn’t even share a room with me and that infernal letter you say now that you never sent and it would strip me of any hopes or dreams and I’d go back to my law books and do my best to pretend living without you wasn’t hell on earth. All I had left of you was those vows to be faithful only unto you and I kept them,’ he ended defiantly and no doubt he had, after they parted, since he looked as if the emptiness of those years had been punishment enough for any man’s sins. ‘I’m sorry for all those wicked, wicked lies she told using my name,’ Callie said lamely, reeling at a sight of her wild and passionate young lover fully alive under the cool facade he used to keep the world at bay. ‘We were good friends, once upon a time, though, weren’t we, Gideon? Perhaps we could be so again,’ she added clumsily. Chapter Nine (#u504f60a3-158f-57f7-b860-88007bda3227) ‘Are you two coming down, or do you intend to camp out at the top of the stairs for the rest of the day?’ Lord Laughraine asked from the great hall below them. Callie was touched to see he couldn’t wait in some stately room for them to come to him and glad he had interrupted an awkward conversation with Gideon. ‘My wife really needs a rest,’ he told his honorary uncle, as if her welfare was far more important than protocol. It warmed a chilly corner of her heart to think she was his first concern, even now he was back with his family and clearly very welcome. She tugged at Gideon’s hand and led him towards the stairs to silently show him she had a mind of her own, even if she didn’t want to challenge him for fussing over her in public right now. Who would have thought she’d ever be so anxious to meet her other grandfather again, after all her doubts and scruples about her origins? This tug of mixed emotions was pulling her first one way and then another and if she looked pale it was more an indication of her inner turmoil than some physical frailty Gideon had convinced himself she suffered from. She must find a way to prove otherwise soon, but now she was about to meet his lordship as her true self for the first time in her life and she needed all her energy for that. Could Lord Laughraine really own her as his kin as well as Gideon’s wife? She was unsure how she felt about that notion. A week ago she was convinced her aunt was the only member of her family she could rely on, and look how wrong she’d been about her. Now she was torn between wanting to love and trust her paternal grandfather and distrusting his motive for wanting her and Gideon here. Grandfather Sommers had brought her up to see the good in people and this wily old aristocrat was as lonely as she had been in his own way. If she locked up her heart and threw away the key because it was easier than trusting anyone, she would be no better than Seraphina Bartle. She raised her chin as she walked down the grand staircase at Gideon’s side, doing her best to look serene and much calmer than she felt. ‘If you have had as big a shock as I have today I’m not the least bit surprised you feel exhausted,’ his lordship said genially when they were face-to-face. ‘Welcome home, my dear. I’m so glad to see you back in King’s Raigne with this young rogue again.’ Callie held out her hand, since she wasn’t quite sure how to answer him, and Lord Laughraine surprised her by shaking it solemnly, then bowing to her like an old-fashioned gallant. He embraced Gideon as if he’d accomplished something wonderful by bringing her here and all her aunt’s assertions a bastard grandchild would never be welcome at Raigne rang hollow. How much damage the wretched woman had done by playing on Callie’s insecurities, a goodly few of them caused by her in the first place. ‘Thank you for bringing her home, my boy,’ he said gruffly as he stood back and seemed to recollect they were standing in a lofty hallway where anyone might chance on them. ‘But you should have sent word you were coming sooner so we could receive you in a much more suitable style for my heir and his lovely lady.’ ‘I agree about Lady Laughraine’s beauty, of course, but bad pennies like me don’t turn up every day, do they, my dear?’ Gideon said with a sardonic smile that hinted it still hurt him that she had fainted at first sight of him after all those years. ‘It is to be hoped not,’ she replied tartly. ‘One husband is quite enough for me.’ ‘You asked for that one, my boy,’ his lordship interrupted. ‘I did, and now we’re keeping my lady standing in the hallway, Uncle Charles, whatever can we be thinking of?’ Gideon joked with none of the defensive fury he would have shown after being wrong-footed in the old days. ‘And here’s Mrs Craddock with her bevy of chicks. It’s a bit late to line up and make Lady Laughraine run the gauntlet now,’ Lord Laughraine greeted his stately-looking housekeeper and a phalanx of maidservants. ‘Where’s Craddock with his cohort then?’ he barked and made Callie feel better about the ritual of the heir’s bride having to greet the household ten years after she and Gideon got back from their scandalous wedding. ‘He’s late as usual, my lord,’ Mrs Craddock said repressively, but with a decided twinkle in her acute blue eyes that made Callie think she might be able to live with the formidable woman, after all. ‘Here’s my great-nephew’s lady parched for some of that tea you all seem to set such store by nowadays and we’re keeping her standing about in a draught.’ ‘Even if you were, I would be glad of any breeze on such a hot day, Craddock,’ Callie told the now not-quite-so-stately butler as he puffed in at the head of his line of footmen and all the other male servants such a huge old house needed to keep it running smoothly. 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