This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
by Deb Marlowe
“And you say she’s chaste?” Lord Bainbridge’s voice burbled in the back of his throat. Behind her, out of her uncle’s line of vision, the horrid old baron stroked a gnarled finger across Emma Lawson’s shoulder blade. “I’ll not take her unless she’s a virgin.” Emma shuddered even as her uncle bridled in indignation. “By God, the girl is granddaughter to an earl, gently born and raised, Bainbridge.” Uncle George sneered down at the older man. “If you doubt my word, we’ll have the doctor in to prove it.” Now Emma glared at her uncle. The baron prodded her again, poking her ribs as if she were a market sow he was testing for plumpness. She smacked his hand away. “I’ll thank you to keep your hands to yourself, sir.” Rounding on her uncle, she allowed him to see all the hurt and bewilderment churning inside her. “Surely this is a jest, sir? I know we’ve had our disagreements, but you cannot think I would wish to wed this…him.” She gestured helplessly. Her uncle stiffened. “Quiet, Emma. You’ll do as you’re told.” “But I—” She drew a deep breath. “My aunt would never countenance such a match.” “Who do you think first approached me, missy?” Lord Bainbridge flashed his stained teeth at her in a grin. “Quite a logical thought, it was. Poor woman’s got two chicks of her own to consider. Launching them into society will prove expensive.” He raked his gaze down the front of her. “It’ll also prove to be a sight easier once she’s removed a beauty like you from their proximity.” Desperate, Emma grasped at her only straw of hope. “If money is the issue, Uncle, then you know I’ll be happy to help! In fourteen months I’ll reach my majority. If only we wait, I could—” “Enough!” Her uncle had gone a brilliant shade of red. “Bainbridge has an ancient title, a respectable estate and deep pockets. It’s a fine match. You’ll make it and be grateful.” He turned away. “We’ve details to discuss. Go on to your room now.” “But—” “Go!” In the six months she’d lived with him, Emma had never heard such a tone from her mildmannered uncle. No—it usually fell to his wife and occasionally to his daughters to torment her. Fighting tears, she backed away. “I’ll have your answer now, Bainbridge,” she heard her uncle say as she reached to pull the door closed behind her. “I’ve need of the money. If you don’t want the chit, I’m sure I’ll find someone willing to agree to my terms.” Emma froze. Leaving the door opened a crack, she strained to hear the baron’s reply. “Oh, I’ll have her,” he avowed, “once we’re sure she’s intact.” There was a slight pause and she could imagine the twisted anticipation on the old man’s face. “I’d heard the rumors about your troubles. Whispers of bad management and failed investments are circulating, but no one is quite convinced.” He gave a rusty cackle. “This ought to do it, though. You must truly be in a mess, to be in such a hurry to sell the girl.” Footsteps sounded in the room and the door was pushed decisively closed. Shaking, Emma turned away. Her legs gave way and she pressed her spine against the door frame, sinking slowly to sit on her heels.
How had her life come to this? Not long ago she’d been happy, the pampered daughter of a doting father, with a prominent position in local society and prospects of a fine marriage. Her eyes closed. Even now, she could not think of Robert without pain, even though she’d endured far worse since his abandonment. Her father, though, had been given no choice. His heart had failed and he’d slipped away inside a week. Robert’s heart had failed, too, but in an entirely voluntary manner. He’d chosen the pleasures of Town over her, left her alone and waiting—and look where she had ended. Tears began to flow. Now she was only a poor relation, and her future—it did not bear thinking about. A sharp tug on her arm shook her from her reverie. “Emma? Whatever are you doing, girl?” Her aunt glanced at the closed door. “Is there someone with your uncle?” Emma looked down at the fingers gripping her tightly, then up at the crafty look on her aunt’s face as she listened at the door—and something inside of her shifted. Robert’s desertion had torn her heart, but this —this betrayal by the very people who were meant to love and protect her—it was turning her soul to stone. Faith and hope withered even as understanding grew. The painful truth shone clear at last. She was alone in this world. There was no one to help her, to save her. It was all up to her. Her aunt looked down. Something she saw in Emma’s face gave her pause. “It’s Bainbridge in there, isn’t it?” Suddenly she stood, dragging Emma with her. “Come along.” She hustled her to the front parlor and thrust her inside. Her two daughters watched, incurious, as Emma stumbled over the threshold. “Daphne, Danae, watch your cousin. I’ll be back in a moment. Don’t let her out of your sight.” Neither girl answered. They were clustered around a set of newspapers spread on a table. Emma threw herself on a settee and tried to think. She must find a way out of this disastrous match. “Why would the Duke of Manning bother to marry Lady Ramsden now?” Danae asked her sister in a deliberately loud tone. She rustled a paper. “After he’s lived with her so scandalously all these years?” Daphne shrugged. “It seems the lady’s every breath stirs a scandal. They say you could paper all of Carlton House with the broadsheets that have been printed of her. And now—” she leaned in to her sister “—it’s rumored that one of her cicisbei is so distraught at the idea of her marriage that he’s casting off all of his mementos in a private auction. And the grand centerpiece…” Her voice lowered to a whisper, but Emma was scarcely attending. She was too absorbed in her own misery. But Danae’s screech nearly startled her out of her seat. “No! Upon a fan? How—?” “Never mind, I’ll explain later.” Daphne glanced at Emma. “Do you think Emma will be invited to the wedding?” Danae asked in a loud whisper. “I swear, it will be the event of the year. They are talking of it even in the village. And Lady Ramsden is her mother’s sister.” “Of course not, you ninny,” Daphne scoffed. “Mama would never permit it.” She gave a snort. “You can be sure that she checked to see if Emma had any contact with her notorious family before she consented to take her in. I heard Papa tell her that all connections had been severed years ago, when Emma’s mama died.” “It’s still rather exciting, isn’t it?” Danae said wistfully.
“It’s shameful, that’s what it is,” Daphne insisted. “Catherine Ramsden is not the sort of woman you claim as a relation, even if she was once a countess. Moreover, Welbourne Manor is the most infamous estate in England. It would be the ruination of any young woman to even set foot in the place.” The scornful declaration caught Emma’s attention. She sat up. Her cousin’s words echoed in her head. It would be the ruination of any young woman to even set foot in the place. And just like that, Emma had her solution. Somehow, someway, she was going to Welbourne Manor.
They were nearly upon him. Robert Marchwell did not look over his shoulder. By some miracle Rowland’s hirelings hadn’t spotted him yet. He knew he must make himself less conspicuous. He removed his fine beaver hat and ducked into an alley. At the end he emerged into a back lane, startling a laborer unloading a cart. “A fair trade, good man?” he asked. “My hat for yours?” He tossed the fellow a coin. “And a little something extra to ensure that you never saw me.” Bemused, the laborer handed over his worn hat. Robert placed it on his head, pleased to find it too large and hanging low over his forehead. He nodded his thanks and entered the open door at the man’s back. “Eh?” He’d found a storeroom and surprised another chap. This one, swathed in a large apron, was shelving the supplies as they came in. “Who’re you?” the clerk demanded. “What’re you doing?” “A nice brisk business, thank you,” Robert answered affably. “That’s a fine apron, with nice deep pockets.” He tried to wiggle out of his tightly fitted coat. “Will you take this coat in trade, sir? Sewed by the finest London tailors.” He grimaced. “But you’ll have to help me out of it.” He’d only just got the apron wrapped around him and his precious cargo stored in one those deep pockets when a ruckus sounded outside. “Hey, now!” the laborer protested. “That’s mine! I made a fair trade for it.” Robert was through the storeroom to the front of the building in a flash. He erupted into a busy general store, where several of its patrons stared in disapproval of his haste. Smoothly, he stepped behind a fabric counter. He snatched off the hat, hefted a bolt of cambric from a shelf and pretended to start in surprise along with the rest of the room when two large men burst through the door behind him. The pair moved through the storefront, cursorily inspecting the clientele before heading out onto the street. Robert grinned. Rowland’s bullies were proving easier to elude than he’d feared. He slipped back into the storeroom. “Here now, you can’t just come and go back here,” protested the clerk. “I’m off, I promise.” Robert grabbed a pair of stacked crates. “Might I have use of these, though?” The man waved a weary hand and Robert was gone. He kept to the alleys until he was forced to make his way back to Maidenhead’s main street. Keeping the crates raised carefully before his face, he made his way east toward the edge of town. A carriage accident outside a posting house delayed him. A crowd had gathered to cheer the shouting, sparring drivers. With careful steps, Robert worked his way through the happy spectators. He’d nearly reached the middle of the crush when he felt an ominous tingle at the back of his neck.
He lifted the crates higher and surreptitiously glanced about. No sign of Rowland’s men. The coachmen’s argument had degraded to angry, inventive name-calling and everyone about him appeared both interested and amused. His gaze swept the inn, and suddenly he caught the gaze of a young woman standing alone in the yard. She was eyeing him closely, a strange expression on her face. She might have been pretty, beneath the travel dust and under her limp bonnet and creased brown cloak, but Robert had no time to investigate. He shifted the crates to block her view of him and resumed his crawl through the crowd. She was there when he broke through, closer than she had been, standing at the edge of the cobbled yard. Her hands gripped a portmanteau and a large umbrella, a scowl contorted her smooth brow and sent a twinge of panic racing up from the base of his spine. Did he know her? He dared not look closer to find out. He kept his gaze lowered and the crates lifted high, for the last thing he needed was to be recognized. Robert quickened his pace. Another quick peek as he drew near proved that she was still staring avidly in his direction. His head down, he moved to the edge of the road and rushed past. He’d just inhaled deeply, the better to expel his relief, when something struck the back of his knee. His legs tangled, the crates tilted and the ground rushed up at him. He hit the pavement with a painful thud even as the crates launched into the air. Almost before they’d landed, he was over and on his feet, cursing Rowland’s bullies and clutching at his apron pocket and the object they sought. But there were no hired villains. Instead he stared, incredulous, at the mangled object at his feet. The chit had tripped him with her umbrella! “Robert Marchwell!” He winced as his name rang out. “I knew it was you!” He looked up, past mud-stained hems and wrinkled skirts, over arms clenched tight to a slender frame— and into the face of the girl who had gotten him into this mess in the first place. His mouth fell open. Not half a year past, Emma Lawson had jolted him awake. She’d stirred him up, made him painfully aware of his own emptiness and given him an incentive to change. For her sake he’d undertaken this insane mission—and she’d nearly broken his kneecap in return. “Emma?” His vibrant, golden girl looked a travel-weary and bedraggled mess. He climbed to his feet and clutched her shoulders. “What’s happened? Where is your uncle?” Her open and sunny countenance had gone tight and dispirited. “On his way to debtor’s prison, I hope,” she said bitterly. She crossed her arms and scowled at him. “What are you doing here? The Season is still in swing. Aren’t you fearful you’ll miss something?” Robert shifted, suddenly unsure of his footing in a multitude of ways. Emma was fixed in his mind as sweet and sure. Her generous and giving nature had struck him powerfully. They’d spent an idyllic autumn in company together and he’d found that her presence shone a light on his rakish, fast-paced existence. He’d seen his life for the pitifully shallow thing it was and in her eyes he’d seen what it might be. But he didn’t know the dusty, resentful Emma in front of him now, and was unsure how to answer her. Before his silence stretched too long, a deep voice sounded nearby, a barked order that stood out from the cheerful urging of the crowd. Robert looked up to find one of his pursuers pushing his way toward him. “Oh, damn it all to hell,” he cursed. The man gestured and Robert spotted another one closing from the street.
He fumbled in the apron pocket. “Emma, tell me quickly—were you meant to be leaving on one of those carriages?” Sudden tears shone in her eyes. “No. I’ve no money—” “Good,” he interrupted. “Take this, then.” He pulled out the thin, precious package, and using her body as a shield, tucked it inside her cloak. “There’s an inn on the east end of town, the Hoof and Horn. Meet me there, upstairs in room twelve, in an hour’s time.” He clutched her hand and stared into her startled eyes. God, but he wanted to crush her to him and kiss her senseless. But Rowland’s men must not connect them. “I’m sorry.” “For what?” He shook his head. “If they ask, you don’t know me.” “What are you talking—” He gripped her shoulders again and scowled. “Watch where you are stepping,” he said harshly. “Move!” The men were nearly upon them. Roughly he shoved her aside and sprinted away.
Stunned, Emma watched Robert Marchwell’s rapidly disappearing form. He was leaving? She was stranded, dirty, hungry, alone and penniless—and now had a strange object poking her side—and he was leaving? Again. She pushed away from the low wall surrounding the posting yard. Disbelief twisted in her gut, exposing burning anger underneath. Deliberately she embraced it, as it made a fine shield against panic and despair. She straightened her shoulders—and was struck between them as two men rushed past. “Out of the way!” The words were nearly as rough as the wall she hit once more. Neither paused or apologized. She stared as they raced off after Robert with deadly intent. Now fear was the emotion erupting inside her. What had Robert got himself into? She pulled her cloak tight and was poked once more by the object inside. What had he got her into? Furtively Emma glanced around, but no one paid her any attention. The drivers had given up their fight and turned to untangling their coaches. Around her the throng had begun to disperse. What she needed was a moment’s privacy to examine this mystery object. She picked up her portmanteau, abandoned the ruined umbrella and eased away with the melting crowd. Emma found an apothecary shop tucked amidst the rows of taverns and posting inns lining Maidenhead’s main street; it boasted a front lined with plants and herbs and a tiny bench tucked amongst them. She took a seat, angled her body toward the building and pulled out her unwanted acquisition. The package was long, thin and wrapped in linen. Emma tore the cloth away to reveal a fan of aged, polished ivory. Reverently, she opened it. The pierced ivory was beautifully detailed and adorned with three small vignettes. She peered closely—and stilled. The lovingly painted portraits were of her mother’s sister, Lady Catherine Ramsden, who was soon to become the Duchess of Manning.
Her gut clenched. Daphne’s words, uttered on that fateful day at home, echoed in her head. An auction, she’d said, and an ardent admirer selling off his mementos. Surely there had been something about a fan? But Robert could not be her aunt’s cicisbeo—he was not half her age! Emma bit her lip and ran a finger over a likeness. Lady Catherine was a beautiful woman, it was not impossible. She shook her head. Perhaps Robert had merely won this piece at the auction? That notion did not sit well either. A gentleman walked by and tipped his hat. She nodded and idly waved the fan. She turned it around— and gasping, nearly dropped it. This side, too, had three detailed portraits, but they were of a decidedly different—that is to say, risqué—nature! Emma caught a glimpse of long, naked limbs and a bounteous bare bosom before she snapped the thing shut, her face flaming. Fumbling, she wrapped the fan up again, and felt a little more of her faith in mankind slipping away as she did. Who would commission such a thing? And why, she wondered darkly, would it be in Robert’s possession? Try as she might, she could not dredge up an innocent answer, or even one that made a particle of sense. Emma stood and strode away again down the street, her mind awhirl. She knew the stories. Her mother’s sister had thrown her life away, left her husband—an earl, no less—and their young son to run away with her lover. The world scorned her as a fallen woman, but Emma had heard her parents’ whispers, had heard bitterness in her serene mother’s voice as she laid at least part of the blame on the earl, using words like cold, distant and inflexible. And Lady Catherine had not, as so many had predicted, been abandoned and left to drift from man to man. Instead she’d lived with her duke for many years, had a family with him and in the end she’d extracted the best revenge on all of her detractors; she’d lived her life as she chose, and had been blissfully happy doing it. Emma had known the story, but it had always been just dim music in the background. She’d never felt it touch her own life. Until her father died and her aunt began to talk of the taint in her blood. Until the ugly afternoon in her father’s study, when her uncle had bartered her future away. Then Lady Catherine’s example had risen before her like the sun, and she’d decided to follow it. Emma might ruin herself by running to her relatives at Welbourne Manor, but she’d be living her life on her own terms. Her eyes welled. Blissful happiness was beyond her reach. Her chance had run off with Robert, fallen along with her father. But ruination and a place in her relatives’ fast society appeared far more comfortable than life as Lady Bainbridge. And whether Robert had meant to treasure the fan or make mischief with it, he was not getting it back. Lady Catherine was finally marrying her duke. Emma could picture her happiness, but she could also imagine how the knowledge of an object like this out in the world might taint it. Well, the thing was in Emma’s possession now. She would take it with her to Welbourne and offer it up as a wedding present to Lady Catherine. It might ease the bride’s mind and it just might sweeten Emma’s own welcome. The decision made, her steps grew brisker. Really, there was no need to meet up with Robert Marchwell again at all. What could come of it? Only a resurrection of old pain and the birth of new humiliation. She’d come this far on her own; it would be wisest to continue on that way. Her head was convinced of it. Her heart reluctantly agreed. Yet for some reason her feet were carrying her steadily toward the east end of town. Almost before she knew it, she found herself in the dusty foyer of the Hoof and Horn, asking after room twelve. She shifted uneasily as the innkeeper eyed her with a knowing grin. He led her upstairs, knocked on the door and swung it open. Emma stopped on the threshold and stared. A stunningly beautiful lady gazed back at her, her mouth quirked into a quizzical smile. “Well, hello,” she said. “Are you the package Robert meant for me?”
Robert was late. The last thing he wanted was for Emma to show up at the Hoof and Horn before him, but Rowland’s hired men were more determined this time, and he had begun to tire. A horn blew and traffic scattered before a fast-moving post chaise. Quickly, Robert swerved toward it. A burst of speed, a lucky jump, and he caught hold of the back end. Vainly his pursuers tried to match speed with the vehicle. Robert grinned and saluted them as they were left in a cloud of dust. Breathing deeply, he hung on as he was carried through town, and jumped off as the chaise swept past the inn. Anxiety dogging his steps, he sped upstairs, flung open the door—and pulled up short. At a tiny table sat Cora DeLane, a sleek and gleaming vision from his past. “Good morning, Robert. That’s a lovely apron. Are you trying a new look?” His former mistress shot him a look of tolerant amusement before transferring her gaze across the table—to a rumpled, decidedly uncomfortable image of his future. Robert’s heart began to pound. Even bedraggled and stiff, Emma was the most beautiful sight he’d ever seen. Smiling, he ripped off the apron and started toward her. “Hello, Mr. Marchwell,” she said in a cold voice. “I almost did not accept your invitation, but just think what I might have missed. Your…friend…has been entertaining me with tales of your exploits in society.” Cora laughed. “And I had only just begun to tell her how least-in-sight you’ve been for the past few months, Robert, dear. Your timing is as atrocious as ever.” “Thank you for keeping her safe, Cora.” Robert knew every moment of peril had been well worth it as he knelt and took Emma’s hands. She held herself rigid, but he ducked down until he could look into her eyes. “So much has happened since last I saw you, Emma. I’ve a thousand things to tell you. But first— will you talk to me? What’s happened? Why are you here alone?” His fingers gripped hers tighter. “And do you have the package I gave you?” Her eyes bright and hard, Emma met his gaze. “Yes, I have your precious package, Robert Marchwell, and I know what it is. Though try as I might, I cannot think of a good reason for you to possess it.” Her lips pinched together. “Or even why someone would think to paint such images on a fan.” She shuddered. “It’s positively lewd.” “Fan?” Cora’s catlike lethargy disappeared. “Lady Ramsden’s fan?” She stared at Robert. “You did steal it from Rowland?” He didn’t answer. Emma was jerking her hands free of his. “You shan’t have it back,” she said sharply. “I’ll be taking it on with me—to Welbourne Manor.” “To Welbourne?” Robert ignored the issue of the fan for the moment. Every part of him rebelled at the thought of Emma being exposed to the fast and jaded society that would be gathering now at Welbourne —the very society he was striving to leave behind. “Why are you going to Welbourne? What’s happened to your uncle?” “I’ve no notion.” She sniffed. “But it could not be worse than what he had planned for me.” “And what was that?” Cora’s languid amusement was back in place. “Sale to the highest bidder,” Emma replied bitterly. “He got himself into financial trouble and decided I was his way out of it.” Her chair scraped as she pushed back and away from him. “He found a disgusting, lecherous old baron who agreed to split my dowry with him.” Her chin lifted. “I ran away instead. As to your question, I’m going to Welbourne for a very specific reason—to be ruined.”
Robert reared back. “Ruined?” “Indeed. Lord Bainbridge will only accept a chaste maid. Just visiting with my scandalous family and their guests at Welbourne ought to give him sufficient reason to doubt.” She stepped back as he stood. “And no, I was not so foolish as to leave alone.” She crossed to the window to gaze down upon the courtyard. “I brought my maid along. We’ve been making good time, but yesterday we discovered that we were being pursued, and last night—she left me.” She tossed a hard look over her shoulder at him. “Like so many others, she stole away.” A rattle sounded outside and she turned back. “Likely so she wouldn’t be blamed for helping me. She took all of my money with her. No doubt she means to lead my uncle straight here.” Robert swallowed a surge of fury. Her uncle had turned him away as a useless fribble? It was beyond hypocritical. He took a step toward Emma. He’d known she was quick-witted and kind, with a generous heart. Now he watched her battle weariness and worry and he knew she was so much more. She was strong, full of fire and resolve. He drew a steadying breath. Yet she seemed so distant, so different. He’d realized last autumn that he wanted her by his side. He’d been empty, aimless until he met her. A third son, he’d lived his life with no occupation other than to stay within his means and refrain from shaming his family name. He, Cora and the others in his circle drifted from one pleasure to another and wondered why they eventually ceased to satisfy. Emma, he’d learned, was disarmingly different. She lived with joy and purpose and he wanted to wake every morning to the light in her eyes. But the obstacles before them were numerous—and multiplying. Cora was staring at Emma with a calculating gleam in her eye. “Might I see the fan, dear?” Emma flushed. “I’m sorry, Miss DeLane, but I cannot allow it. Lady Ramsden is my mother’s sister. Although I’ve never met her, I can imagine her dismay at the thought of this object in unknown hands, being ogled and evaluated and discussed by strangers.” She shot another cold look toward him. “Or even acquaintances.” She shook her head. “No, the thing is in my possession now, and there it will stay until I turn it over to her myself.” Robert stared at her and wondered how this situation had become so damnably complicated. Months ago he’d had nothing more pressing on his mind than whose bed he would end up in next. Meeting Emma had shifted his outlook and changed his desires, but he’d been at a loss until the Duke of Manning offered him the means to do something about it. It was a simple enough bargain: a small but prosperous estate in exchange for the fan. Not so easy in reality, but he’d come so close. He must get that fan to the duke, but did he want Emma to end up at Welbourne? He didn’t have the means, or the right, to stop her. Not yet. But not only would it be harder to dodge Rowland’s men with her in tow, he’d have to be on the watch for her uncle. He also had enough experience with Cora DeLane to know that the cat-and-mouse game she was playing with Emma boded well for neither of them. “I don’t believe you know what you are getting into,” Cora told Emma, watching her closely. “Rowland was furious when the fan disappeared. With all the talk, that fan has become notorious—and notoriety, my dear, can be a valuable commodity.” She sent a twinkling smile in Robert’s direction. “Rowland wants his commodity back. It’s rumored that he’s hired a small army to chase it down.” She tilted her head at Emma. “Perhaps you will want to reconsider your course of action.” Emma’s face tightened. “No. I would not.” Cora breathed deeply. She relaxed in her chair and the air of assessment left her expression. “Good for you, dear.” She sat a moment, smiling at Emma, and then she stood, her movements more decisive than Robert had ever seen. “And I shall help you.” She gestured at Robert. “Both of you.”
Robert hardly knew how to respond. Cora could indeed be a valuable ally—or a dangerous enemy. Emma merely blinked at her. “Help us?” “Indeed. It’s unfortunate that I came in my barouche, but we shall manage. We must move quickly, there’s not a moment to waste.” She crooked her finger at Emma. “You, dear, shall become my protégé.” Her grin took on a decidedly wicked cast. “And Robert—your apron has inspired me. I think that you shall make a splendid footman.”
Here was another first. Since that fateful moment when she’d stepped into her uncle’s study and encountered Lord Bainbridge, Emma had experienced a distressing number of uncomfortable firsts. This one, however, might just be her favorite. Miss DeLane had transformed her. With a scant thirty minutes, a borrowed gown and the help of one of the inn’s maids, she’d altered Emma completely. Oh, she knew she’d always looked passably fair—and exactly like what she was, a simple countrywoman of comfortable means. Men had watched her with at least a degree of appreciation. But this was different. With her skin scrubbed and glowing, her hair elaborately coiffed and her bosom displayed by a fitted bodice with elaborate embroidery, she felt somehow changed. At once stronger and more vulnerable. The attention she was receiving from the men milling about the inn’s taproom had changed as well and become…intense. Last week she might have been uncomfortable with such notice. Today she merely tossed her head and watched impatiently for Robert Marchwell. The new, cynical part of her soul wished him to have a taste of what he’d so easily left behind—and to choke on it. She had to wait until Miss DeLane had finished her business with the innkeeper. At last it was done and Emma followed her new mentor out into the courtyard. And immediately had to swallow a burst of laughter. Robert stood stiffly near Miss DeLane’s open carriage, the stain of embarrassment cast across his face. Or perhaps it was merely a reflection from his new costume. Miss DeLane had worked her magic on him as well, with an entirely different effect. The apron was gone, but somehow she had unearthed an old set of livery. Once a rich, vivid red, time and wear had faded it to an odd pinkish-orange. Stretched tight across his shoulders and not quite closed in front, it lent Robert the unfortunate aspect of a ripening pomegranate. Emma knew the moment he caught sight of her. His pained expression melted into a blank look of shock. He took an involuntary step toward her. “Ah, Jenkins,” Miss DeLane said smoothly. “How prompt you are. As you can see, my young friend and I are ready to leave at last.” Emma’s mouth twitched as Robert recalled his role. Woodenly he turned to assist them into the barouche. She could not help a surge of satisfaction as his hand gripped hers—harder and longer than was strictly necessary. The moment stretched on. Miss DeLane cleared her throat and announced her desire to depart.
He let go. Emma’s amusement faded as, instead of climbing up beside the driver, Robert stepped onto the perch at the back of the vehicle. She sat in the backward-facing seat—and he stood staring straight down and across at her. The barouche lurched to a start, and eased from the courtyard into the street. The London Road stretched ahead, wide and even. The traffic heading toward Town moved briskly. He couldn’t have noticed any of it. His eyes never left her for a moment. At first Emma kept her chin high and her own gaze fastened on the countryside, on the farm carts they passed, or the riders moving smartly past them. But she saw none of it, either. The intensity of her focus matched his. An unnatural silence held sway as the heavy weight of his regard left her skin tingling in its wake. She felt the path of his gaze, as tangible as the touch of a hand as it traveled from the luxurious ribbon entwined in her hair to the dainty slippers peeking from beneath her skirts. At last her resolve weakened, and slowly she turned her head to meet his eyes. And there it was, that look that had so captivated her last autumn. Their odd situation, the presence of Miss DeLane, even his ridiculous livery—it all faded into the background. She was caught up once more in the connection that they had shared. Their attraction had been immediate, their conversation open, candid and amusing. She’d been intoxicated, her senses drunk with him, her thoughts filled with his teasing laughter, his stolen kisses and whispered promises. After several glorious weeks, Robert had left Somerset with the extended house party that had brought him, but he’d pledged to return for her. And then Emma’s father had died. Her world had broken apart. In her grief she had waited for Robert— but he had never come. Heartbreak had proved to be as terrible a burden as grief. And she’d endured it alone. Perhaps that had been the most painful part of all of this. Even amidst her uncle’s family, she’d never been more isolated, or more terribly lonely. And that still had not changed, she realized suddenly. Mere chance had brought Robert to her again. She’d be a fool to expect any different sort of outcome from this meeting than she’d had from the last. It was enough to break the spell. Her heart twisted as she turned away. She’d been right all along. Her best chance for safety and perhaps a small measure of happiness lay at Welbourne. Though her heart might be damaged past repair, at least she would not suffer alone.
The sun was setting behind them, the last rays radiating warmth on Robert’s back. It had been a long and eventful day; one he’d never imagined would end with him playacting as Cora DeLane’s footman. But then, he’d never imagined he might encounter Emma today, either. As the barouche swayed, he watched her, his frustration slowly turning to irritation. She looked incredible. In the past their time had been spent in country pursuits; riding and picnicking, in afternoon visits and informal dinners. She’d looked beautiful then, of course—fresh and happy, glowing with health and good humor. Cora had dressed her as a sophisticate and she looked even lovelier powdered and pampered. His chest tightened at the thought of her reception by the type of men likely to be gathered at Welbourne. And yet the internal changes to Emma distressed him even more. She’d been through so much; of course she was due a measure of bitterness and anger. Yet a good deal of it appeared to be directed at him. Though Cora’s help was undoubtedly proving invaluable, he
cursed her presence. He needed to get Emma alone, to explain all that he’d been trying to do for them, tell her how important that fan was and explain his bargain with the Duke of Manning. “Do you know that I purposefully changed into this high-necked frock before we left,” Cora announced idly. “But now I see that it was a wasted effort.” It took a moment for her meaning to register. It wasn’t until Emma blushed and he looked down over Cora’s shoulder that Robert realized his unique position on this cursed platform. Though he was several feet behind Cora, he stood a good deal higher. Had her gown been cut low and revealing he would have been in an ideal spot to appreciate it. “In fact, I feel quite cheated,” Cora continued. “Had I known that the two of you were only going to blanket this trip in layers of silence and…tension, I might have declined to help you after all.” Neither he nor Emma had an answer to that. “And my earlier conversation with Miss Lawson proved so entertaining, too,” Cora said, sighing. “I told her all manner of stories about your exploits in our circles, Robert, and she turned several charming shades of red.” Above her, Robert clenched his jaw. “You were always entertaining,” she said sadly. “I meant to ask dear Miss Lawson if she might have known why we’d seen so little of you in the last months—but then you arrived.” She angled her jaw and smiled up at him. “And now I may ask you directly. Just what has been occupying you and keeping you so busy and quiet?” At least Emma had looked at him again. She raised an arched brow as if to echo Cora’s question. Robert swallowed. “I’ve been engaged in some business with the Duke of Manning.” “Ah.” Cora sat quietly for several minutes. “I begin to see. The duke is a generous man. I’ve known him to…adopt a person now and again.” She shuddered. “You’d think he’d have no time for it, what with the menagerie of children he and Catherine are rearing at Welbourne, but he is known to treat his friends handsomely, especially when they do him a service.” She shot a glance across at Emma. “And if he asked such a difficult and immense thing of you as stealing that fan back—why, then, I would expect the reward to be just as immense.” Robert didn’t reply. Emma’s gaze had returned to her lap. Cora was still studying her with a slight smile on her face. “But really, Robert. I’ve never known you to be under the hatches before. You’ve always lived admirably within your means.” She cocked her head. “What is it that has changed, I wonder, to put you in need of a…favor…from the Duke of Manning?” Emma’s head jerked up again. “But enough about you,” Cora said decisively. “I wish to hear more about Miss Lawson’s dilemma.” She paused, her head tilting. Robert stiffened as a shout echoed from behind them. “Ho, there! Hold the carriage!” Robert twisted around to see two horsemen coming up quickly behind them. Fury and alarm battled within him as he recognized Rowland’s hired men. He spun back to glare down at Cora.
“Davies, pull over to the side of the road,” she called to her driver. “But take your time about it.” She reached across the barouche to grip Emma’s arm. “Wipe that look of fright from your face,” Cora commanded. “You are a coquette, do you here? You will be demure—except when I am not looking— and then you will glance flirtatiously, enticingly, at these men.” She sat back and arranged her features into a slight frown. “Robert,” she hissed without looking at him. “You will try and look like a footman!” Robert met Emma’s terrified gaze with a reassuring one of his own before the men drew abreast and he straightened, staring blankly ahead. “Miss DeLane,” the biggest man said in a reproachful voice. “You left Maidenhead without checking in. We lost Marchwell. Did he keep your appointment?” Robert’s fists clenched along with his gut. He should have known better than to trust Cora! She stared at the hired henchman, her smile gone to ice. “He did. But he was as nervous as a cat and not inclined to trust me with your men so close on his heels.” She waved a dismissive hand. “I told you to leave him to me, but you bungled it. And now you delay me.” She narrowed her eyes. “Marchwell mentioned his family estate in Gloucestershire before he became suspicious. I left word for you. Why are you not after him?” Robert saw the second man eyeing Emma. She stared at her hands, only the flutter of long eyelashes betraying her obedience to Cora’s instructions. None of them spared Robert a glance. “I received no word,” the first hireling said. “Did you check at the inn?” “No.” “Idiot,” Cora huffed. “And now he is several hours ahead of you. Lord Rowland will not be pleased.” She scowled. “I must return to him in London before my protégé and I depart for the wedding.” The man’s horse danced nervously beneath him. “Miss, about Lord Rowland…” “I shall tell him exactly what has happened,” Cora said spitefully. “Were I you, I would be in Gloucestershire as fast as I could.” “Wait!” she called as they both spun their mounts around. “I assume there are men posted ahead?” “Yes,” the first man said, impatient. “How many?” He shrugged. “A great many, I’d say. Rowland wants his property back before that wedding.” “I shall send a few of them after you, should I encounter them. You’re going to need reinforcements.” The henchman nodded and they were gone. Road dust hung in the cooling evening air. Cora asked her coachman to drive on. She sat back, seemingly at ease. “Do not look at me so, Robert,” she ordered. “You cannot know how I look right now, Miss DeLane,” he answered tightly. “I do not have to, I can feel the indignation pouring from you.” She patted Emma’s hand. “It’s not what you think, dear. True, Rowland is my…”
“Protector,” Robert spat. “Yes.” She sighed. “But Catherine, your aunt, is a very dear friend. When Rowland asked for my help, I decided to do what I could to get that fan myself.” She laughed. “And while I would have had no compunction in taking it from you, Robert, I do not feel the same about Emma.” She smiled at the girl. “I believe you do have Catherine’s best interest at heart.” Cora craned her neck to look back at him. “Hounslow is just ahead. I have friends there. I will make arrangements for you to stay for the night. I’ll have to go on or Rowland’s men will begin to suspect something.” Her gaze lifted to the countryside. “It is a few trifling miles overland to Welbourne from there. I trust you, Robert, to act the gentleman. You must leave first thing in the morning and get Emma and that fan to Lady Catherine.” Impotent fury nearly stole Robert’s breath. It was quickly replaced with a burning determination to get this job done. He suffered the uncontrollable urge to grab Emma, leap from the barouche and tell Cora DeLane to go to hell. He didn’t. He balanced on his precarious perch, his mind awhirl, all the way to Hounslow. Night had fallen when the driver turned down a lane and followed a narrow track to an inn tucked beyond the main village drag. Robert jumped down and pulled Emma from the vehicle. A stout woman with a lantern emerged from the run-down building. “Plans have changed,” Cora told her grimly, climbing down. “This one needs to change back into her own clothes.” She smiled at Emma. “You’ll be less conspicuous as a dusty traveler.” Robert flinched when she touched his arm. “Different clothes for him. Perhaps a tenant farmer?” “And you?” the lady innkeeper asked. “I’ll be going on. But they’ll need to stay hidden for the night.” She nodded. “The hay barn out back’ll do.” For the first time since they’d been stopped by Rowland’s men, Emma spoke. “No,” she said flatly. “It will not.” Cora took her hand. “Your cynicism is entirely understandable. Your uncle used you ill indeed. It’s just a hunch, dear, but I think you must wait before painting Robert with the same brush.” “Wait for what?” Emma asked. She sounded exhausted. Cora glanced his way. “Perhaps until you can discover if your lecherous baron was the only man to ask your uncle for your hand.” Robert’s breath caught. Could it be so simple? “Of course he was.” Emma sounded bitter now. “No,” Robert contradicted her clearly. “He was not.”
He was not. Robert’s innocuous statement had set Emma’s world askew. Bainbridge hadn’t been the only man to ask for her hand. Numb. She concentrated fiercely on feeling nothing, showing nothing, as the inn’s mistress tugged her inside, past a noisy taproom and up to an empty chamber. Emma accepted her help in changing out of her borrowed finery and back into her travel-stained garments. Had Robert asked for her? Had he kept his promise? Her heart pounded, ready to soar at the possibility. Some part of her was screaming in happiness. Another huddled small, sobbing in relief. She squelched them both, along with myriad other wildly erratic emotions. Her lessons might have come late, but she’d learned them well. She struggled to keep her expectations low and her walls high. She didn’t think she could survive another blow, another disappointment. How would she bear it if it were not true? Outside, night had settled and Cora DeLane was ready to continue on. In the murky light of the innkeeper’s lantern, Robert was nowhere to be seen. Cora huddled with the older lady a moment, their whispers no match for the good-natured rowdiness emanating from the taproom. Numb, Emma reminded herself as Cora left the woman with a last, urgent-sounding admonition. She held herself aloof, unfeeling as Robert’s ex-mistress hugged her close and then held her at arm’s length, searching her face. Whatever she was looking for was not to be found. Emma started when Cora cupped her face in both hands, her stern gaze boring into her own. “You will not do this. You will not be afraid,” Cora whispered. “You’ve come too far to give in to fear now.” She let go and turned to climb into her vehicle. “Emma, dear,” she said, settling into her seat. “You can be happy if only you will allow it.” Emma swallowed a surge of emotion and did not respond. The barouche began to move. Cora leaned forward. “Stay hidden tonight. Robert will take you on to Welbourne before first light. Get that fan to your aunt. It’s the best wedding gift you could give her.” Gravel crunched beneath the vehicle’s wheels. “Give my regards to Catherine,” Cora called. Emma nodded and waved. She stood, staring after the vehicle, until the innkeeper called her to attention. “This way.” The older woman gestured with her lantern. “The taproom’s full of locals,” she whispered hoarsely. “The main coaching inns are full tonight and I’ve several rooms let to the overflow.” She looked over her shoulder. “Even here there’s endless talk of the wedding at Welbourne, Rowland’s auction and that missing item. There’s a reward out for that thing, although folks is split on who’d pay more to have it, the duke or the jilted lover. It’d be best if no one ever knew you were here.” Emma clutched at the thin bulk of the fan, tied safely into a pocket under her skirts. But it was not concern over the fan that had her anxiety escalating as she followed the bobbing light past the stables, to an even smaller, older barn. Robert was in there. Whatever was she going to say to him? “The hay barn,” the innkeeper said. “Nobody comes here at night, though there’s an empty groom’s loft with a cot for you. S’pose it won’t hurt the gentleman to sleep the night in the hay.” She cracked the door open. “There’s supper in there, and a bit of traveling supplies. I expect you’ll be gone before the cock crows.” “Thank you,” Emma whispered. “Thank Cora, not me. It’s all her doin’.”
Emma stared at the open door while Cora’s words echoed in her head. You can be happy, if only you allow it. Resolutely, she entered the barn.
Robert watched as Emma lingered at the door. Her posture was stiff, her face carefully blank. She hadn’t known. It was clear now that she had never been told of his visit, his offer. Robert didn’t know if he was angrier with her despicable uncle, or with her. She’d believed he’d abandoned her. She hadn’t trusted him to keep his word. “Come in and eat,” he said, gesturing to the bread, cheese and wine atop a crate. She’d left her bonnet off. Even the dim light of the covered lamp set alight the sunlit streaks in her tawny hair. He stared at them, unspeaking as she slowly crossed the tiny space and sat upon a crooked stool. “Robert,” she whispered. Her gaze was cast downward. “Eat,” he ordered. He should avoid this now. It would be better to wait, to have this conversation when they weren’t so isolated, when he’d had time to gather sufficient control. “We’re leaving early, you should sleep.” “I’m sorry.” She looked up then. “I must apologize. It’s true, I didn’t know, but I should never have believed…” “That I was a worthless fribble?” he barked. “That’s what your uncle named me, when I had the audacity to ask for your hand. Perhaps I should have waited—it was right after your father’s death and I wished only to see you, comfort you. But he made it clear he had other plans for you.” She reached out a hand but he moved away. “Don’t. I can’t really blame either of you, for he was right.” “No,” she denied. “He wasn’t.” “He was. At that time I had nothing to recommend me save a close acquaintance with the fast and loose set of the ton.” He met her dark eyes. “But I’ve changed. You inspired me. The Duke of Manning noticed, and encouraged me. I’ve worked closely with him, and learned much about business and land management. I hoped to make something of myself, to become worthy of you.” She rose and crossed to him, slipping her hands around his waist. “You’ve always been worthy. But I’ve let you down.” A terrible tension eased within him at her words and with her touch. He gripped her tight, breathing in the scent of her hair before he took her seat upon the stool, bringing her along to sit in his lap. “When the furor about the auction and the fan arose, the duke asked for my help. I agreed to do anything I could.” “Of course.” “And then do you know what he offered? He promised me an estate, should I succeed. It’s small, but it will be all mine.” He squeezed her waist. “It’s an unbelievable opportunity.” She smiled and laid a hand across his cheek. Suddenly he grinned. When she shifted he’d felt the press of a long and narrow object against his hip. “Is that where you’ve been keeping the damned thing?”
She laughed. “It’s safe there.” She sobered. “Such a small thing to cause so much trouble.” Robert sighed. “Rowland commissioned it years ago, after your aunt left her husband to live with her duke.” He ran a finger along her jaw. “Terrible things were said about her, then and since. Assumptions were made about her character and awful predictions of her complete ruination abounded. I suppose Rowland thought owning such an object would be a lark. If she really had been as wanton as some said, perhaps he would have enticed her to his bed.” He smiled grimly. “But she and the duke have proved loyal to each other and are still very much in love.” “She wasn’t afraid to be happy,” Emma whispered. He shrugged. “I know Rowland’s taunted her for years with the existence of that fan. But Catherine’s a strong woman.” She flushed and he stared into her dark eyes. “Like her niece.” She smiled and arched slightly. He almost shouted his relief. Emma was here, in his lap, smiling at him again, her luscious mouth positioned just right for his kiss. God, but he wanted nothing more than to oblige her. Every fiber of his being ached to snatch her close and taste her once more. He wanted to kiss her senseless, until all the turmoil and trouble about them disappeared and there was only her and him, and the sweet spiral of their desire. Instead, Robert groaned and did the hardest thing he’d ever done in his life. He set his love off of his lap and stood. Thrusting a hand in his hair he offered her a grimace of apology. “I’m sorry, Emma, but this is not our time or our place. I started this crazy journey meaning to prove something to your uncle. And then I wanted to prove myself to the duke.” He could only hope she would understand. “But now I mean to finish this for me. For us.” He set his hands on her shoulders, and allowed himself one quick, tantalizing kiss on her lips. “I’m going to get you and that fan safely to Welbourne. We’re going to outwit Rowland, leave your uncle and his treacherous baron high and dry, and set your aunt at ease at last.” He leaned down and rested his forehead on hers. “Tomorrow we’ll be at the gates of Welbourne. And there we’ll decide our own futures.”
They left the barn early, before the birds had even begun to stir. Robert shook her awake and then climbed back down out of the loft. He hitched a nag to the rickety old cart he’d hired from the innkeeper and they were off; a farmer and his wife moving slowly along backcountry lanes. Emma huddled beneath her cloak, lost in contemplation. She’d thought herself so brave, following in her aunt’s footsteps, leaving her uncle’s house to follow the path of her choosing. But she’d acted nothing but a coward since the first moment she’d glimpsed Robert on the street in Maidenhead. Her aunt was courageous, withstanding the censure of the world to follow her heart. Robert was brave, daring to change the course of his life. But she’d been weak. She should have been forthright and asked him where he’d been, if he still cared for her and how and why he’d come to possess that fan. Instead she’d hidden, afraid of the answers. She’d let cynicism and bitterness color her perceptions. But no longer. She knew Robert wanted to wait until they’d finished this, but suddenly Emma wanted him to know everything she was feeling. Now. Before they’d reached the end of their journey and without the distractions that would inevitably arise at Welbourne. “Robert.” Emma placed her hand on his, where he held the reins loosely. They’d passed through the village of Twickenham. Robert had just begun to take the turn that would shortly bring them to Welbourne.
“Robert,” she repeated, insistent. He pulled the horses up in the middle of the intersection and eyed her questioningly. “I have something to say, and I do not wish to wait.” His brow furrowed, he waited. Emma gathered her courage. “I’ve been a terrible coward.” She shushed him when he stared to protest. “It’s true. The moment I saw you, in that silly apron, carrying a stack of empty crates, I closed myself off from you. I’d been hurt and I was afraid it would happen again. So I pushed you away, looked for reasons to be angry and told myself I’d be happier without you—when really I just wanted to be safe.” She scooted closer to him on the bench and leaned into his reassuring warmth. “But you’ve shown me what it means to be brave, to risk failure in search of happiness. I see now that if I wall myself off from the negative or difficult things in life, then I’m closed to all of the good things as well.” She breathed deeply. “So I’m going to tell you, right now, that I’m not going to give in to fear any longer. I want to be happy. I choose to be happy. With you.” Robert transferred the ribbons to one hand, and trailed the fingers of the other along the line of her jaw. She tilted her head to him and this time, at last, he leaned down and pressed his mouth to hers. A torrent of emotion surged through Emma. Joy and pride and a great swell of love for this man unfurled inside of her. She opened beneath him, and daringly touched her tongue to his. He moaned in response and kissed her deeply, his heavy hand settling at the small of her back and urging her closer. Emma was lost, awash in a haze of pounding hearts and communing souls and rising desire. Gradually, though, the rumble of wheels and the jingle of harness began to pierce the sensual cloud that surrounded them. Robert pulled away, his grin rueful, and they both looked over their shoulders to find a coach and four come to a stop behind them. The coachman sat atop his box, watching them with a commiserating grin, but the occupant of the coach, a wizened old man, had poked his head out of the window. “Out of the way!” he shouted. He shook a cane in their direction. “What do you think you’re about, blocking the public road—and with such vulgar affrontery!” Aghast, Emma shrank back. “It’s Bainbridge,” she whispered. She met Robert’s questioning stare with horror. “The baron—my uncle!” Robert stiffened, but before he could react, they were all hailed by a call from ahead. Emma cringed further when she caught sight of her uncle on horseback, coming from the direction of Welbourne. “Might as well turn around. They’ve had no sign of the chit,” he called to Bainbridge. He passed Robert and Emma with barely a glance at their worn clothes and ancient cart. “The maid!” Bainbridge exclaimed. “That lying jade…” “No, the girl spoke the truth.” Emma’s uncle sighed. “We must have missed her on the road. Let’s retrace our steps a bit and stop to think.” He waved impatiently at Robert. “Well, go on, good man, and quit blocking the road.”
Fighting a grin, Robert shrugged at Emma and shook out the reins, urging the nag to continue. Emma clutched his leg tightly until the coach and her uncle had turned about and headed back toward the village. She stared openmouthed at Robert as he pulled the horse up again. He bit his lip. She giggled— and then they both dissolved in a flood of hilarity and relief.
Soon after, they stopped before the gleaming gates of Welbourne Manor. Robert helped Emma down and soberly they stared at the gorgeous gardens beyond and the twinkle of the Thames in the distance. “We’ve fought hard to get here,” Robert mused, “and now I feel strangely reluctant to enter.” “I feel the same.” He turned and took her in his arms. “You journeyed here to become ruined. In a way, I came to save myself. But I don’t think either of those goals fit us any longer.” “No.” She sighed. “What do you say we take the fan to the doorstep, with instructions for it to be delivered to the duke and his soon-to-be duchess, compliments of her niece—” “And of you, too,” she insisted. He nodded and kissed her nose. “And then shall we just continue on?” Her eyes lit up. “Where shall we go?” “I was thinking of Gretna Green.” Emma stood on tiptoe and wrapped her arms about his neck. “It’s perfect. Let’s go and be happy.” THE END
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