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An Accidental Affair
  • Текст добавлен: 9 октября 2016, 02:15

Текст книги "An Accidental Affair"

Автор книги: Heather Boyd

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Текущая страница: 7 (всего у книги 18 страниц)

“A refused match has often resulted in quarrels, but this is beyond anything I could have anticipated. She’s his sister-in-law for Gods sake.” Merrick rubbed his hands over his face. He couldn’t rest until he was sure he hadn’t caused this. “Just yesterday he sold her home to me for what I believed was a fair price. Though the bargaining was brisk, I detected no desperation in the negotiations.”

“There was none. I believe you. The deal was fair, generous even, and he was indeed very happy with the bargain he struck with you.”

“Ugh.” Anger propelled him to his feet. He had never felt so utterly useless. He wanted to return the damage done to Arabella tenfold. “I cannot help feeling that my actions set her up so Farnsworth could control her and give her no choice. What did he hope to gain?”

“I am not sure.” Holland poured a drink and held it out to Merrick. “I confess I had concluded Farnsworth liked everything his way. From what I could glean, there were three other parties interested in that property. You were simply faster and fairer in naming a price. If not you, then someone else would have taken Winslette off his hands. Lady Farnsworth would likely have been in the same situation if you had not made the purchase.”

Merrick took the glass but slid it back to the table untouched. He didn’t need to start down that drunken path tonight. He needed to keep a clear head and decide what to do. “I don’t think she knows yet that he sold Winslette.”

Holland drained the discarded glass in two swallows and set it aside. “Then you will have to tell her yourself that she has no home and see how she takes the news.”

“She has a home still.” Merrick raked his fingers through his hair. He’d never explained the matter fully to Holland and now seemed an opportune time to get the matter out into the open. “It was never my intention to evict her.”

Holland’s eyes narrowed. “I had assumed you intended to make Winslette your country residence for a while, given the proximity to Lord Grayling and his family and the distance from Newberry Park. I had considered you might set your wife up close to your friends so they might become better acquainted in a shorter space of time.”

“I never intended to live there. My first thought was to buy it so Grayling might not miss out on the opportunity. Winslette does share a boundary with his estate. But then I reconsidered and decided to keep it.”

“I see.” Holland’s frown cleared. “Well, then, you should be up-front with Lady Farnsworth as soon as possible to set her mind at ease. She is probably worried for her future, and that of her staff. I am told she is very kind to them and may be concerned for their security.”

“Arabella is kind to all who cross her path.”

He sensed Holland’s scrutiny before the man spoke.

“And is that why you like her so well?”

Merrick could not get much past Holland. His half brother would have made a fine Ford, always prying into matters that were better left alone. He faced his brother and shrugged. “One of them, at any rate.”

“Ah, I did not realize the wind blew in that direction.” He chuckled briefly and then his head tilted. “You do realize that Lady Farnsworth would make you a fine wife.”

“I hardly think a marriage would be on her mind after this.” He sighed. “The most I can hope for is to make her feel she is safe again.”

“Ah,” Holland said, and a grimace crossed face. “No wonder you seem so out of sorts. You cannot blame yourself about tonight’s events. It was not you who struck her and she will need your help on the morrow to make the right choices.”

“Assuming there are any,” he muttered as Holland drew closer. “Her gown appeared ruined. She will need a gown and other personal items for tomorrow—items not readily found in this house.”

“Everything can be bought if you have money enough.”

Merrick knew that, but there could be complications. He did not ordinarily buy women’s clothing for his household. He didn’t employ any women in London and he had no sisters, not even half sisters, nearby to spoil with pretty dresses or even ribbons for their hair. “Everything can be gossiped about too.”

Holland paused while straightening up the room. “Are you still on good terms with the courtesan Lottie Townsend?”

“Yes.” Relief filled him. He had not considered approaching that particular woman for aid, but Lottie would be just the ticket. If he explained enough details of what had transpired, the woman would surely make the purchases on his behalf and see they were delivered discreetly. “I’ll write a note containing what I need for Arabella’s comfort. If you would take it to her tonight, I would be grateful. Lottie will keep quiet.”

“Are you sure?”

“Lottie would never betray a wronged woman, and I’ll send a gift along with you as thanks.” He quickly scrawled a note, giving only the barest of particulars and requesting her silence and, after describing Arabella’s dimensions as best he could, requested at least a suitable day gown for tomorrow.

“You’re a good man, Merrick,” Holland said suddenly. “You never fail to surprise me in your quest to do the right thing. I am sure it’s not always easy.”

“Nothing ever is.” He glanced at his brother, gratitude filling him. He might not have won wider society’s approval in everything he did, but his brother knew him best of all. “Just don’t tell anyone. They likely wouldn’t believe you.”

Holland took the note and slid it into his coat pocket. “Then they are fools.”

When Holland was on his way, Merrick climbed the stairs toward the room where Arabella slept. He cast an anxious glance in that direction before turning for his empty bedchamber. At the entrance, he left his door ajar. It might be foolish to hope, but if Arabella needed anything during the night, he wanted to be the first to know so he could be there for her.


Horse hooves clopping past her window woke Arabella from a deep, dreamless sleep. She blinked at the shadowed, unfamiliar room around her, taking a long, terrified moment to remember where she was. Once she had, her panic subsided quickly. She’d fled to Lord Rothwell’s home last night. She’d sought safety with one of London’s most notorious rogues and had slept the whole night alone as if she were in her own bed. If she had not lived the experience, she might not have believed it possible.

She stared at the faded blue linen canopy above her as a tear fell from the corner of her eye and slid over her cheek. She wiped it away furiously, determined not to cry again. Farnsworth wasn’t worth shedding another tear over. She still could not believe what he’d attempted and she considered herself fortunate to have gotten away when she had. Even if she were ruined in society’s eyes by being in Lord Rothwell’s home, it was much better to think of herself as his lover than Farnsworth’s property, to be discarded because he blamed her for Cecily’s behavior and wouldn’t bear the small expense of her upkeep.

Arabella took a deep breath and slowly sat up. Her jaw ached when she yawned and she tested the skin there, finding tenderness and perhaps some swelling. She climbed from the bed and hurried to the mirror, peering at herself in the poor light. A battered stranger in a man’s borrowed nightshirt stared back, lifting her hand to her mouth to bury a cry that burned her throat.

Arabella closed her eyes to block out what Farnsworth had done. She couldn’t let anyone see her like this. They would ask questions about last night. She didn’t want anyone to know she’d been so utterly powerless. Determined to hide, she climbed back into bed and pulled the covers over her head. She would stay here all day, for several days in fact, until she was presentable again. At least then she might have an idea of where to go. As it was, her mind would not settle on any one person to trust. The only thing she felt certain of right now was that her present location was the safest place she knew.

A scratch at the door had her pulling the sheets tighter about her.

“Lady Farnsworth, would you care to break your fast?”

The voice of the kind man from last night, Holland, soothed her a little, but she still did not want to be seen. She remained silent, hoping he would go away and forget she was here at all. He knocked again and then the sounds ceased.

After a time, when she’d grown uncomfortably warm beneath the blankets, Arabella threw them off her face. She was being childish and fearful, two traits she rarely admired. It was not the man’s fault she wasn’t fit to be seen. She should have answered him and suggested he come back later. Much later, in fact. A whole week would do.

The scratch came again. “Arabella? We know you’re awake.”

Rothwell. She bolted upright and grimaced at the idea of him seeing her like this. She glanced at her ruined dress where she’d hung it across the chair to dry and shuddered. It needed much work to be presentable by anyone’s standards. She’d been too shocked to consider how she might have appeared last night, but hoped he had not paid too much attention to her ragged appearance. Since Rothwell always gravitated to the finest looking women at a ball or party, she dreaded the revulsion she would see on his face this morning. The knock came again.

She could not ignore the earl. “Yes, I’m awake.”

“Good.” The door handle rattled but thankfully did not open immediately. “Holland would like to deliver a few necessities for your comfort. May my staff come in?”

Arabella slid down the bed again, hands on the edges of the sheet, ready to cover her face when the door opened. “Oh, very well.”

She tossed the covers over her head and lay still as china rattled beyond her safe cocoon beneath the blankets. Other footsteps came and went. Water poured as if from buckets into a tub. The comforter covering her twitched as if someone had touched the bed. She stiffened, wondering what was going on, but dared not look for fear of letting someone see her so battered. When nothing else happened, she calmed herself. Rothwell had promised she was safe.

After a time, the footsteps filed out, and the door handle rattled again. “They will not come again until you ring for someone to attend you,” Rothwell informed her in a kind tone that brought warmth to her cheeks that had nothing to do with embarrassment. “I have to go out for a while. I thought it best to keep up appearances as if nothing untoward had occurred, but call if you need anything. Holland will deliver whatever you request.”

The door closed with a soft click, and Arabella lowered the sheet carefully, checking that she was indeed alone again. Alone again, but not forgotten. A feast covered the dressing table, a bath of steaming water sat before the fireplace. On her bed lay a peach-colored day gown she had never seen before and a few wrapped packages. She darted a glance at the chair and saw her poor ruined dress had been taken away. Rothwell had provided her with the means to dress for the day. She covered her face as her true situation struck her forcefully. She had nothing. Had no one now. Had it not been for Rothwell’s aid, she did not know what would have become of her last night. She pressed her hand to her eyes and held back further tears.

She had to put herself back together again. The situation wasn’t completely hopeless. For now, she was dry and warm and by all appearances would be well fed. Arabella would not let her host’s generosity go to waste. She hurried to the door and locked it, as she’d neglected to do last night before sleep claimed her, and then she slipped off the borrowed nightshirt, shivering a little as she stepped into the warm water. She scrubbed her skin, washing away the terror of the night before with masculine-scented soap. She raised the bar to her nose and inhaled, liking the fragrance of sandalwood more because she recognized it as Rothwell’s own. When she was clean and dry and bundled in a man-sized banyan while her hair dried, she inspected her small world and found nothing wanting.

The hot chocolate was warm enough to still be delicious; the bread rolls were cold but appetizing. She ate slowly because her jaw tingled with pain whenever she bit down with any enthusiasm. Arabella experimentally tapped at her teeth and discovered one to be the source of her discomfort. She was lucky not to have lost it completely when Farnsworth had struck her so hard that her head had spun. The one thing she’d feared most of all until yesterday was to have a tooth pulled.

Other food had been delivered, too—exotic fruits and small cakes in covered dishes. She had enough to last her most of the day without ever needing to show her face outside this room and would save them for later. Relief trickled through her that Rothwell had planned everything so she did not have to make any immediate decisions about her life. Another sign that she did not know very much about him at all but what she discovered now proved him extremely generous.

Arabella moved to the bed where clothing had been laid out in readiness for dressing. The parcels were a mystery but clearly meant for her. She opened each one, blushing with each new discovery. A chemise, corset, and fine silk stockings were terribly personal but essential if one cared to be properly dressed. How had Rothwell acquired ladies’ clothing so quickly at this hour? Given her gown of last night had disappeared when the servants had come, and she had nothing else to wear, she couldn’t refuse to put them on.

Feeling extremely self-conscious, Arabella slid the stockings up her legs and secured them beneath her knees. Next she slipped from the robe and drew the chemise over her head. The fit was good and she lifted the corset. Luckily, it was a style she could manage alone without a maid, and it fit snugly around her body.

The last was the dress, a simply styled affair that didn’t look too fussy. She stepped into the peach muslin, securing the material around her and at last feeling ready to face, well, anything better than last night.

However, dressing did bring to mind her future destination. She wasn’t wanted by Farnsworth except to marry off. He would sell her home and leave her with nothing but her pride to warm her. She had no family to turn to, only friends, and none of them in London. Every decision required an effort and more hours of travel than she cared to contemplate.

She moved to the window and carefully peeked through the gap in the curtains at the street below. The view was one she’d never had before and she took a moment to reacquaint herself with Rothwell’s nearest neighbors. None of them were friends to Farnsworth, though they were little known to her too. The relief of that eased her mind. She leaned against the wall, hiding behind the safety of the drapes, and watched the comings and goings of those below. She was relieved to be here and not out there where who knows what else could have assaulted her.

She touched her face again and then moved to the mirror. The bruise was not as bad as she had imagined this morning, but it definitely did not make her pretty in any way. She lifted her chin and moved her damp hair back over her shoulder to inspect the bruises made by Farnsworth’s hand about her throat. A shudder raked her. She’d never been subjected to violence before. Her father had been the gentlest of men, and her late husband had left her alone. At no time in the past had she ever imagined Farnsworth capable of such cruelty, although his temper was easily provoked.

Arabella pulled her hair forward so it covered her neck and the bruised side of her face. She would keep it down today to hide the damage even from her own eyes. She poured another cup of lukewarm chocolate from the pot and settled in a chair to think. Perhaps if she was as undemanding as possible, Rothwell might allow her to remain hidden in his house for today and maybe, if she was extremely lucky, until she was fully restored to her usual appearance. She couldn’t face the world like this, but to make plans for her future she would have to speak to others. At the moment, she might only have the courage to let Rothwell see her face. He’d been so kind, but she didn’t want to shock him. There was nothing else she could do now but wait for her appearance to heal itself or for Rothwell to grow bored with the situation and suggest an alternative that involved leaving.

~ * ~

Sometimes to get to the heart of an issue, a man has to skirt very close to the border without actually asking a direct question. Merrick judged himself most fortunate for crossing paths with Mr. Milne outside the coffee house he frequented and garnering an invitation to step inside the man’s home for a drink after their short walk. He wouldn’t quibble at so sudden an invitation, and with any luck, he would get the answers he needed to make a decision about Miss Milne.

He studied the numerous small curios that littered Mr. Milne’s desk and every other available surface in the room. “You have a lovely home. I imagine your wife, and to some degree your daughter, like everything just so.”

“That they do,” said Mr. Milne, nodding enthusiastically. “Sensible management leads to a well-run home. My own wife began with pin money of six hundred a year, but she’s a kind soul with an exceedingly generous heart to those less fortunate. My daughter takes after her in that respect. Always ready to spend a shilling for another’s comfort. They do love to patronize the craftsmen of our great city.”

“I honor them for their generosity.” Merrick smiled at Mr. Milne, judging the last few moments had considerably advanced his knowledge. Despite a timid nature at balls, Miss Milne appeared rather free with purchasing unnecessary things.

As many fathers in the merchant class were, Milne was eager to have his daughter marry into a titled family. He didn’t appear unduly concerned about his reputation today and had been rather happy to relate particulars of his daughter’s nature. He proudly boasted of her accomplishments and even mentioned some early setbacks best forgotten.

Such candidness pleased Merrick. He did not mind if his future wife had the odd incident in her past, nor a tendency to shop, so long as he was made aware of it before he proposed. He had enough scandals in his own family to make him a less-than-stellar candidate for marriage and had no illusions that his wife might have habits in her life best forgotten or at least overlooked.

Eager to be on his way home to his unexpected houseguest, he stood to leave a short time later. “I should be going and let you get on with your business. Thank you for seeing me, sir.”

Milne surged to his feet. “I say, Rothwell, is anything the matter? I would have thought you’d wish my daughter to be called down to speak with you.”

Merrick smiled. He was not ready to propose. He wanted to observe Miss Milne when she was not aware of his presence and also talk to her once or twice before he declared his interest. And he was later than he hoped to be in returning to Arabella. She had barely been out of his mind all day and had proved quite the distraction, but running into Milne had been an opportunity he hadn’t wanted to pass up. “Another time perhaps.”

Mr. Milne sat back, his hands resting on his overstretched belly. “Yes, indeed. I’ll likely see you next in Essex for the wedding. Looking forward to sampling the duke’s hospitality. They say Ford affairs are very fine.”

Merrick peered at Mr. Milne. “I had not known invitations had already been sent for my cousin’s wedding.”

“I had a note from Rutherford just this morning, inviting myself, my wife and my darling daughter to join him.” He touched the side of his nose with one finger and grinned. “Your grandfather assuredly plays a long game, but he will be proved right in the end.”

What the devil was this? “Will he?”

“It takes a brave man to stand in the Admiral’s way when he wants something done. I’ve no objection to his laying out the timetable at all for a match. Either way, we’ll each get what we want.” Milne saluted him with the remains of his drink. “Until the wedding.”

Merrick strode out, puzzling over what he’d learned. His grandfather was no friend to Mr. Milne. At least not to his knowledge. He’d never known they were acquainted, which had added to Miss Milne’s appeal. Until now. Was a scheme at play? Merrick had a sinking feeling he’d already been cast in the central role with Miss Milne as his leading lady. That his grandfather was likely meddling placed a pall over getting to know her. He had hoped to avoid family interference, but it might just be impossible.

As he reached the entrance hall, his remaining good humor vanished. Farnsworth stood before him, a condescending smile spreading over his face. “I say, Rothwell. Well met.”

Merrick itched to wipe that expression off his face. “Farnsworth.”

The stupid man came closer, giving Merrick a glimpse of the left side of his face. A cut oozed red at his hairline. Arabella hadn’t mentioned that she’d fought back, but he was pleased. A little harder and Arabella might have killed the man. A pity she had not.

Farnsworth’s expression grew serious. “Now, this is fortuitous. Do you have a moment?”

Whatever Farnsworth had to say would not be worth listening to. “Actually no. I have somewhere to be and cannot delay. Good day to you.”

“Wait. I wanted to warn you to be cautious. I was attacked in my home last night. A terribly brazen affair, indeed.” He pointed to the wound on his head. “I discovered the villains in my home quite by chance and routed them, or so I thought at the time.”

Farnsworth had to be joking. “Really? How terrible for you.”

“It was, but that is not the worst. You see, while they were taking my candlesticks and silverware out through the back window, my sister-in-law, Arabella, fled the house in a wild panic and hasn’t been seen since. I truly fear for her sanity. She must have been quite overset with fear for us all.”

Merrick stared at the man. This was how he would explain Arabella’s disappearance to any who questioned her whereabouts? The fool. Anyone who knew Arabella would know she wasn’t one to suffer panic without cause.

Farnsworth pointed to his wound again. “This is what they did to me. I truly fear for Arabella’s safety if the brigands followed her into the night. I dread to think what has happened to her. I am sure she fled far into Green Park. I followed long as I could, of course, but lost sight of her in the heavy rain. Keep your eyes open would you, and do be discreet. My dear Arabella means the world to me and to my daughter. We would hate to lose her though will gladly take her back no matter what evil has befallen her.”

Merrick held on to his temper by the skin of his teeth. Arabella’s happiness meant much more to him than to this bastard. However, the time wasn’t right to reveal he knew her location, so he kept his mouth shut. He wanted to see how far Farnsworth would go in his lies first. “What have the Runners to say?”

Farnsworth’s expression grew evasive. “I’m on my way to them now.”

No, he wasn’t. It was three in the afternoon and the man was paying house calls. Milne had no ties to the Runners or the law. Merrick had a suspicion that Farnsworth wouldn’t hire even one man to find her. It had been hours since Arabella had fled Farnsworth’s home, and he’d likely done nothing more than design a story to explain his injury and garner sympathy should Arabella reveal what he intended for her. If pressed, would Farnsworth weep over a vacant grave bearing her name? He probably hoped she would return to him properly chastened and cowed into submission so she would marry Lord Parker without fuss.

Milne’s butler gestured to the doorway Merrick had just walked through. “Mr. Milne will see you now, Lord Farnsworth.”

The sorrowful expression instantly slipped from Farnsworth’s face at the news. “Excellent.”

Merrick again forced himself not to pound the man to a bloody pulp. He had no right to do so. Not yet. But once Arabella was healed and settled in an alternate safe haven, Merrick would pay a call to Farnsworth and avenge her. There were any number of ways to make the man suffer that would be undetectable.

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