Lord Dragoner's Wife

Lord Dragoner's Wife

Lynn Kerstan

July 2013 $13.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-296-5

She will risk her own life to prove he is far more heroic than his bittersweet mysteries might reveal and that they do have a marriage of the heart.

 
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Love cannot be bought or bartered, and a marriage may be built on the finest of threads.

Delilah, the smart and likable daughter of an ambitious merchant, fell in love with Charles Everett from afar. While she married for love, Charles only married her to salvage his aristocratic family's disreputable accounts. Believing she had no more interest in a real marriage than he did, he abandoned her after their wedding night to seek honor in the war against Napoleon.

Now, six years later, he returns, vested as Lord Dragoner but embroiled in secrets and controversy, to insist she free herself by divorce. Delilah has never stopped hoping he would one day return to her, the beautiful man with pain blazing in his eyes. She longs for them to build a happy family, like the one she grew up with, and she'll do whatever it takes to win him over.

English divorce laws require the wife be discovered in an act of adultery, and Charles decides he cannot subject her to such an ordeal. He leaves on a mission that may take his life. Following him to France, Delilah is caught up in the dangerous life he leads. Dragoner, surprised to find himself working with a partner equally intrepid and wily, begins to see her in a whole new light. But if they are to create a future together, they must escape intact from officials and criminals determined to chase them down.

She will risk her own life to prove he is far more heroic than his bittersweet mysteries might reveal and that they do have a marriage of the heart.


Reviews

"This book was incredibly enjoyable for me... I hope that all who really appreciate well-written historical romance will take the time to read and enjoy this fascinating book." -- Judith Hirsch Fikejs, The Book Binge


Excerpt

Chapter 1

"They say, best men are moulded out of faults; And, for the most, become much more the better for being a little bad.”

Measure for Measure
Act 5, Scene 1

19 June, 1814

THE HOUSE AT Clichy, old and somewhat dilapidated, did not look to be the residence of the woman who had all of Paris at her feet.

Charles Everett, Lord Dragoner, lingered at the door that had just been opened for him by a footman, steeling himself to make his entrance. Inside the crowded drawing room, the lights and colors and half-familiar faces were swimming before his eyes. Then, within the space of a dozen heartbeats, his vision cleared and the sensation was gone.

Odd, that. He shook off the feeling that a shadow had followed him into the salon and looked around, taking his bearings. Plotting his exit.

Two sets of double doors, spread wide, led to adjacent parlors where some of the guests were engaged in lively conversation and, no doubt, even livelier flirtations. After escaping the grande salon, he could make himself relatively inconspicuous in one of those parlors.

There was no mistaking which of the ladies held court here. And he must have been described to her, because she appeared to recognize him. Seated on a Grecian couch, her black ringlets dangling from a turban crowned with bird-of-paradise feathers, Madame Germaine de Staël raised a gloved hand and beckoned him forward.

He wondered how much she knew.

"Madame.” Bowing, he accepted her raised hand and brushed a kiss over her wrist. "You honor me.”

"So I do,” she said agreeably, addressing him in English. "You may ascribe your invitation to my unfailing curiosity. My friends tell me that you are not entirely respectable.”

His gaze lifted to meet a look of high good humor in her eyes. "Do not credit everything you hear in Paris, madame. I am, I assure you, a perfect angel.”

"Quel dommage. But I do not believe you, of course, for if I did, you would not be here. In my salons, you will discover, it pleases me to put the wolves to graze among the lambs. And what,” she added with surprising coyness, "shall I expect from le beau dragon?”

"That rather depends, I suppose, on what you want. But if it is within my power, I shall most naturally oblige you.”

"Then tell me how it came, sir, that I found myself banished from my home and compelled to wander abroad like a Gypsy, while an English prisoner of war was allowed to gambol here as freely as any Parisian nightingale.”

He lifted his hands in a gesture of contrition. "An appalling miscarriage of justice, to be sure, which you may ascribe to my insignificance. And I, you understand, could not bring myself to leave Paris before making your acquaintance.”

Her shrewd eyes flashed approval. "And now that you have done so, will you return to England?”

"I'm not altogether sure that England will have me back.” New guests had entered the salon, and he glanced over to see the Vicomte de Chateaubriand regarding him with unconcealed impatience. The time had come to make a polite withdrawal. "You must inform me, madame, if ever I can do you a service. May I hope to call on you again?”

"Oh, one may always hope. I grant that you amuse me, and you are undeniably ornamental. Nonetheless, I continue to wonder if there is truth to the alarming stories I have heard of you. Promise me, cher dragon, that when next you create a scandal, you will do so at one of my salons.”

"As you command,” he said, bowing. "‘To promise is most courtly and fashionable.'”

Her laughter followed him as he moved away under the bemused gazes of those who had overheard the conversation.

For the next hour he entertained himself in one of the smaller parlors, where the guests included several of his acquaintances and, providentially, none of his lovers. Wandering from group to group, he heard talk of the Bourbon Court and the disgruntled Bonapartist army, but for the most part, people were speaking with well-advised circumspection. In these unsettled times, it was dangerous to take sides. For that matter, it was practically impossible to know what sides existed to be taken.

"Not one of your usual haunts, Dragoner,” said a cultured voice from behind him. "You won't find any gaming here.”

Turning, Dragoner saw the handsome, slightly dissipated face of the Comte de Chabot. "Oh, dear,” he said. "In that case, I shall certainly take an early leave. But no, I almost forgot. I have come here for the women.”

Chabot laughed. "As have I, of course. Then may I assume my brother's pockets to be safe from you this night?”

"Well, that rather depends on my degree of success with the ladies,” Dragoner replied easily. "Do you mean to warn me off Monsieur Batiste?”

"Mais non! Jacques must fend for himself, as must we all in this new regime. And you probably know there has been no communication between us for several years. He is, I am afraid, a blot on the family name.”

"A distinction I share with him,” Dragoner observed, "along with our mutual taste for playing cards and tossing dice. For good or ill, we reprobates have a knack for finding one another.”

"What's going on there?” said a man standing near the door.

Dragoner looked around. Conversations went on in the small parlor, but a hush had fallen over the grande salon. Moments later, there came a round of enthusiastic applause.

With a curt nod to Chabot, he crossed the room to pluck a goblet of champagne from the sideboard and expertly separate the prettiest young female in the room from her friends. She fluttered her blackened lashes at him and obediently took his arm.

"Mademoiselle Fanouelle, is it not?” He allowed his gaze to drift where she must have wanted it to be, considering how little of her gown had been allotted to covering her breasts. Yes, she would do nicely. He steered her firmly toward the door to the grande salon.

What he saw was entirely unexpected. A space had cleared around Madame de Staël, and dropped onto one knee before her, paying gallant and somewhat theatrical homage, was the Duke of Wellington.

Good Lord. Dragoner stifled a laugh. Not for a moment had it occurred to him that he should kneel to the woman.

"Is that him?” Mademoiselle Fanouelle whispered, tugging at his sleeve. "Oh, I simply must meet him! You are English, yes? Will you present me?”

"I'm afraid not, my dear.” He drew her into the circle of his arm. "But if you flirt quite outrageously with me, he will notice you and perhaps request an introduction. Might I suggest you gaze at me adoringly?”

Wellington had risen and was standing with his hands clasped behind his back, his eyes fixed on Madame de Staël. She said something that made him laugh, and his response brought general laughter from those close enough to hear.

"Are you ticklish?” Dragoner asked, lightly scratching Mademoiselle Fanouelle beneath her arm. She obligingly produced a high-pitched giggle.

Wellington turned, an expression of mild curiosity on his face, and acknowledged the girl with a smile. Then his gaze shifted to the man standing next to her.

Dragoner, looking back at him, saw the duke's eyes harden to a wintry blue. He clutched the girl's waist, aware of the blood draining from his face.

"I'd have thought you to be more discriminating, Madame de Staël,” said the duke, his voice resonating in the silence that had fallen over the room. "How came this fellow into your salon?”

Replying only with a light shrug, she flicked open her fan.

The next move, Dragoner supposed, was his. Keeping the little blonde in tow, he made his way across the room and bowed to his commanding officer.

Wellington regarded him with manifest scorn.

"Oh, I do beg your pardon,” Dragoner murmured. "I have been so long from the army. Ought I to have saluted?”

"Still hold your commission, do you?” Wellington fired back. "I shall soon see you stripped of it. A lieutenant, are you?”

"A captain, I'm afraid.” Dragoner tossed back the last of his champagne and handed the glass to Mademoiselle Fanouelle. "‘A worthy officer i' th' war, but insolent.'”

"So you are, by God. Horse Guards will hear from me on this matter. If I thought you worth the trouble of it, I would summon a court martial within the week.”

"‘Lay upon me the steep Tarpeian death,'” Dragoner quoted solemnly.

"That will do, Captain. You are a disgrace to your regiment, sir, and a blight on your country's honor. You are never to appear in uniform. From this time, you may regard yourself as a civilian.”

"Why, so I have done these last four years, Your Grace. And my regimentals long ago made a meal for the local moths. But I wonder at your astonishment to find me here in Paris. Did you fail to notice I'd gone missing?”

Dragoner released the blonde to lift both hands in a conciliatory gesture. "I kept expecting to be ransomed, you see, or exchanged, or whatever it is you do to retrieve a captured British officer. Am I to blame for my country's negligence? And what is an abandoned soldier to do but keep himself pleasantly occupied? If that is a crime, sir, by all means assemble a court martial. Better yet, drag me home to London in chains. But the ladies of Paris won't thank you for it.”

Stone-faced, Wellington looked him slowly up and down. Then he turned his back and walked away.

The room had gone stunningly silent. Dragoner stood alone, his face lit by the chandelier overhead, cold sweat sluicing down the back of his neck. Even his pretty blond accessory, no longer enchanted with his company, had distanced herself.

"I expect, Lord Dragoner, that you have another party to attend,” Madame de Staël observed mildly. "You mustn't let us hold you here.”

"No, indeed.” Drawing closer, he gave her a mocking bow and lowered his voice. "But if you recall, my sweet, you did requisition a scandal.”

"And you have generously obliged me. Unfortunately, you have also insulted a great man, one whose regard I happen to covet. It is unlikely that I shall forgive you for it. Au revoir, mon dragon.

He felt the scores of eyes focused on his back like steel probes as he made his way, indolently, to the entrance hall and reclaimed his hat and walking stick. It had been impossibly worse than he had foreseen, and yet, in a perverse sort of way, he had rather enjoyed himself. By the time he reached the street, his taut lips had begun to relax.

It was early yet. The June night, pleasantly cool and scented with spring flowers, was long from over. He strode without hurry to his hired carriage and directed the coachman to the area of the Palais Royal and the cafés and clubs that had sprung up around it. That was where all the really entertaining people were to be found.

Le Chien Noir, blazing with lights and loud with music and laughter, stood between a wine shop and a haberdashery. It was Paris's most fashionably disreputable club, glittering with mirrored walls and gilt chandeliers, stinking of wine and beer and roasting meat. Dragoner nodded to acquaintances as he wove through the crowded dining room toward the wide staircase at the rear.

Minette was waiting for him on the mezzanine balcony, her full breasts spilling from the bodice of her crimson gown. "You are late, Vicomte.”

"I am sorry.” He planted a kiss on her cheek. "It was unavoidable. Later, I shall make amends.”

"Allons. The Comte de Fervoux is in the Blue Room, losing heavily at dice. No? Then perhaps Jacques Batiste and some other of your friends playing cards. Will it be your special wine tonight?”

"As always, in the silver goblet.” He moved against the ornate railing to let a waiter go by. "I would like you to remain close by. Are you at liberty?”

"All has been arranged,” she said, smiling. "Will you win tonight, or lose?”

"Oh, win, I think.”

NOT LONG AFTER midnight, with one set of fingers clamped on the back of his chair for balance, Dragoner used the other to trowel a large heap of coins onto a cloth napkin. "Another night, gentlemen,” he said. "You will understand that I have plans for the rest of the evening.”

Minette, busily tying the corners of the napkin together, looked up to smile at him, and three of the men laughed with good-natured envy. Only Jacques Batiste, who had contributed significantly to the contents of that napkin, scowled in protest.

"No gentleman leaves the table when he is winning,” he complained. "It would be, as you English say, unsporting.”

Dragoner lifted a brow. "But surely, my dear, unless all five of us contrive to lose, one lucky fellow must toddle home with his pockets jingling. Perhaps tomorrow night, it will be you.”

Already the plump napkin had disappeared into a pocket under Minette's voluminous skirts, effectively closing the discussion. She waited until he had given each of the waiters a coin before leading him away.

On the stairs, in full view of the patrons thronging the dining room, he stumbled, flailed his arms, and grasped for the railing. His fingers touched it and slid off. Unceremoniously, he landed three steps down, on his backside.

Minette stood above him, clicking her tongue against her teeth while a fat bourgeoisie in a blinding yellow waistcoat, on his way to the mezzanine, made a wide arc around the drunken Englishman.

Unperturbed, Minette summoned a footman, and propped up between the two of them, Dragoner was transported without further incident to the street.

"You wish a carriage?” the footman inquired, letting go of Dragoner when he seemed inclined to wrap his arms around a lamppost.

"Lord Dragoner requires fresh air and a walk,” Minette replied. "I shall see him safely home.”

He broke into song as they navigated the crowded pavement, passing by the clubs and restaurants spilling over with people until they had left the Palais Royal behind and were winding their way through narrower, dimmer streets. He stopped singing then, but kept his arm at Minette's waist as they drew near the shabby, three-storied house where he lived.

Few of his neighbors were awake at this hour. Here and there between closed curtains, a slice of light could be seen, but none of it reached the street. He located the key in his waistcoat pocket, dropped it, and leaned against the door, laughing, while Minette crouched beside him to feel for the key on the pavement.

"Cochon!” she exclaimed, punching him on the shin. "Help me.”

He bent forward and toppled onto his hands and knees. "What are we looking for?” he asked, his eyes searching the narrow alleyway that divided two blocks of town houses directly across the street.

Minette found the key and stood to open the door, muttering a number of savory French oaths while Dragoner pulled himself upright.

A brace of candles stood on a pier table just inside. Silhouetted by the light, he wrapped his arms around Minette and pressed her against the doorjamb. One hand stole down to lift her skirts.

"Patience, chéri,” she trilled, slapping his hand away and drawing him into the house by his lapels. He kicked the door shut behind him.

When they had reached his bedchamber on the top floor, he used the candle he'd brought with him to ignite every lamp in the room. Minette went to the window that overlooked the street, drew the curtains, and raised the casement.

He joined her there for another embrace and let her untie his neckcloth and unclasp his starched collar. When his black evening coat hit the floor, he stepped back and began to unbutton his waistcoat. "Now you, Minette. Slowly, if you please. Remove your clothes.”

Striking a pose in front of the open window, she raised a hand to the top of one long kidskin glove and drew it with careful grace down her arm.

Grinning, Dragoner slowly removed himself from the circle of light and slipped into the dressing room. "You are missing a remarkable performance,” he said, closing the door behind him.

Edoard uncoiled himself from the room's lone chair and held out a manicured hand to receive Dragoner's waistcoat. "And because Minette is giving one tonight, shall I presume you were followed?”

"Yes. Ineptly. And unless I am very much mistaken, by the same chaps who've been dogging me all week.” Dragoner stepped out of his satin knee breeches and sat to remove his shoes and stockings. "Pass over the knife, will you? And some peppermints, if you have them. My tongue feels like the bottom of a peat-cutter's shoe.”

"What do they want?” Edoard persisted, a frown on his thin face.

"If they keep this up, I suppose I shall have to ask them.” Dragoner secured the leather strap of the sheath around his calf. "No, not the pistol. I'm going over the rooftops. And I don't expect they are in the least dangerous, my bumbling new friends. No more than an untimely nuisance.”

"If you say so.” Edoard, who had already laid out the snug black trousers, black shirt, and soft-soled boots Dragoner was to wear, moved out of the way to let him dress. "How did it go tonight? Are we cashiered?”

"Well, I certainly am. Sergeant Edward Platt may yet be permitted to resign with dignity, should he one day elect to rise from the grave. Oh, good. Peppermints.” Popping one in his mouth, Dragoner slid the narrow box into his pocket. "They'll ruin my teeth, I know. You needn't scold.”

"Only a fool gives advice to a stone wall.” Edoard tossed him a black knit cap. "How long should I keep Minette here?”

"Why, for as long as you want her. I don't expect our watchdogs will linger once the curtain is drawn. But when you take her to your bedchamber, don't put on any lights.”

By the time Dragoner exited the dressing room, Minette was bare to the waist, her skirts barely suspended by the swell of her lush hips. "Slow a bit, poupee, he cautioned, regarding her with open appreciation. "I'll need—shall we say?—four minutes.”

With a wink, she turned her back and put her hands against the window casements, allowing her audience across the street a lingering view of her splendid breasts.

"I am seized with dark envy and foulest lust,” Dragoner said, clapping his valet on the shoulder. "She is a goodly wench, my friend, and clever to boot. You should consider keeping her.”

"Oh, aye,” Edoard replied, lapsing into his native Yorkshire drawl. "'Tis certain Minnie is sizing me up for leg shackles. She wants to get married.”

"Don't they all?” Dragoner said.

Leaving Edoard to enjoy himself, he let himself into the passageway and followed it to where a statue of Zeus held guard over a concealed panel in the wall. At a touch on the right spot, the panel opened soundlessly to the adjacent house that had stood empty since he leased it three years earlier.

Dust billowed under his boots as he made his way to a small room furnished only with heavy curtains over the window and a paint-spattered ladder. He propped it against the wall, climbed to the trapdoor, and slid out on his belly to the steep, slate-shingled roof.

A cool breeze had sprung up, feathering his cheeks as he wriggled up the steep incline and concealed himself behind a cluster of chimney pots. Then, raising his head, he looked down on the scene below.

From his bedchamber window, a rectangle of bright light angled across the street, and just beyond its reach were the shadowy figures of the two men who had been tracking him. They had pressed themselves against the walls that lined the alley, their faces lifted to the spectacle of Minette disrobing.

She was watching the clock on the mantelpiece, he knew. And when his own inner sense of time told him the four minutes were up, the curtains were abruptly pulled closed.

The street went dark. He waited. And then, instead of using the alley to take a discreet leave, the two oafs lumbered from their hideaway onto the pavement and made a turn at the lamplit corner.

Amateurs. But who the devil had set them after him, and to what purpose?

Bent low, he picked his way across the roof to the last in the row of houses, dropped to his knees by a lead gutter, and swung his legs over the side of the building. He was, it seemed, a little drunker than he'd meant to be, because he had miscalculated the location of the balcony. Hand over hand he edged his way along the gutter, took a swift glance to be sure this time of his bearings, and let go.

He landed a long way down, his feet meeting the balcony with a bone-rattling thud. Silence again. The resident of the corner house, an ancient woman who employed an ear trumpet when she was awake, had once again slept through one of his surreptitious exits. If ever he left his current lodgings, he thought, pausing to reward himself with a peppermint, he must remember to send her a gift.

Then, with careful stealth, he descended past the open windows of a cloth merchant's house to the lower balcony, jumped to the pavement, and set a course through the back streets of Paris to his destination.

An apple-cheeked aide-de-camp was waiting for him by the trademan's entrance of a fashionable hôtel leased by the English government. "Captain Lord Dragoner?” he asked uncertainly when the figure emerged from the gloomy dark.

"Not for very long,” Dragoner said, holding out his arms to be searched. "The captain part, at any rate. You may take the knife concealed in my right boot, but I want it back.”

The youngster, flushing hotly, withdrew the knife from its sheath. "My apologies, sir. Orders, you understand. Follow me, please.”

At the end of a long passageway, Dragoner was ushered into a room lined on three sides with bookshelves. Across from the door was a paper-strewn desk set between two curtained windows. And behind the desk, intent on sharpening a quill pen with a tortoiseshell-handled blade, sat the Duke of Wellington.

He looked up when Dragoner appeared in the doorway. "Good Lord, young man. Who is your tailor?”

Dragoner waited until the aide-de-camp had gone. "I beg your pardon, sir. It was necessary to elude the attentions of two suitors for my hand. Or so I presume them to be. Since they haven't killed me, they were probably sent to recruit me.”

"To do what?” Wellington asked sharply.

"Oh, to make trouble, I suppose. On whose behalf, I've no idea. So far they have confined themselves to tracing my movements. Well, not the ones that brought me here, you may be sure.”

The duke went back to sharpening his pen. "You will advise me, no doubt, when a significant contact is made. Do sit down. We need not observe ceremony here.”

Restraining the nervous energy that had brought him this far, Dragoner lowered himself onto a chair across from the desk. He recognized his own handwriting on the papers scattered in front of Wellington, who had begun to gather them into a neat pile.

"I have read your reports,” the duke said in an amiable voice. "Excellent work. And of no possible use to me.”

"Spies can tell you only what is, Your Grace. To divine the future, I'm afraid that you require a gazetted prophet.”

"Let me know when you find one, then. Meantime I shall have to make do with your educated guesses. How blows the wind in Paris?”

"Hot and cold, as always, while everyone stands around trying to decide which way to leap. Fouché has a scheme for every contingency, of course, and he had already set a few of them in motion before they became irrelevant. We expect trouble from the disappointed victims of his plots. They credited the rumor that Bonaparte would have his wrists slapped by the Allies, be told to behave himself, and find himself escorted back to the throne.” After a beat, Dragoner met the duke's cool blue eyes. "You supported his reinstatement, I believe.”

"In part,” Wellington replied evenly. "So long as his fangs and claws are drawn, better a competent tyrant than disorder. But that's neither here nor there. You are informing me, politely, that there is little or nothing to tell, so we shall change the subject.” He leaned back on his chair, gazing thoughtfully at his pen. "My brother says I shall find diplomacy a very pretty amusement. Do you concur?”

Instead of leaving the subject, Dragoner noted with amusement, the duke was simply coming at it from another direction. "In the early going, yes, the new British Ambassador to the Court of the Tuileries may look forward to enjoying himself. The ladies of Paris are incomparable, and you will be much admired by them. Certainly you will be feted and flattered in public. But all the while, the discontented will be gathering behind closed doors and forming factions of every sort. It is certain that soldiers who cannot find work will riot in the streets. And if the Vienna Congress imposes strict reparations, I wouldn't be surprised to see open rebellion throughout the country.”

"As bad as that?” Wellington laced his fingers together and propped them under his chin. "In that case, I shall most definitely put your services to good use. Unofficially, of course, as I have declared my intention to see you booted from the army. But the Crown has just granted me half a million pounds, did you know? I can now afford to pay you from my own pocket. Do we remain in agreement?”

The question, Dragoner supposed, was meant to be rhetorical. By playing his part in tonight's charade, he had already committed himself to what he expected to be a profitless endeavor. Even so, he itched to decline the offer of a salary paid by the duke himself, if only for his pride's sake. But his duties would require him to cut a dash in Paris, and as Wellington was about to discover, cutting a dash in Paris was devilish expensive.

"If you wish it, yes,” Dragoner said finally. It wasn't as if he had anything better to do. "But if I may speak frankly, there seems little point to keeping me here. I doubt you will retain your post as ambassador for more than a few months.”

"Well, well, you may be right. But the alternative was a command in the American war, and that's a bad business indeed. I mean to stay well clear of it.”

Dragoner realized that his palms were sweating. Like the duke, he had been left at loose ends when peace was made in Europe, and this assignment offered no more than a temporary delay. Soon enough he would have to confront a future that stretched before him like an arid, featureless plain.

And before that, as much as he would rather defer the whole business, an even more dismal prospect loomed in his path. "There is another matter,” he said slowly, "that I must take up with you. Before I continue my work, sir, I must return for a short time to England.”

"Must you, by God!” Wellington looked severely displeased. "Have you any idea what to expect? Exchanged prisoners have carried tales of your riotous conduct, and the scandal sheets were quick to spread the news in London. To set foot there during the Victory Celebrations would be sheer folly.”

"‘No man cried "God save him!” No joyful tongue gave him welcome home.'” Dragoner forced his suddenly cold lips into a smile. "I don't expect to be crowned with laurel leaves, Your Grace, and my reputation was hardly unblemished when I left England in the first place.”

"Nonetheless, the situation is worse than either of us had counted on. The subterfuge that put you in the hands of the French has got out as well.”

"Am I, then, to be tried and hung for treason?”

"Oh, nothing so irretrievable as that.” The duke waved a hand. "I am speaking of general gossip. There is no evidence to bring you to court, and I would naturally forestall any attempt to do so. The point is, I cannot clear your name for so long as you remain of use to me here. You would be well advised to delay your journey until things are set to right again.”

It was a good excuse, and Dragoner was greatly tempted to jump at it. But imprisonment, he had learned, came in several forms. One of his gaolers, the one he meant to confront, even now awaited him in London.

"Can they be set right, sir? I take leave to doubt it. Rumors are sometimes ignored, and eventually they will be forgot. But should you speak out on my behalf, it will only serve to make it official that I have been—not to put too fine a point on it—whoring for England.”

Wellington fingered the papers on his desk. "Do you imagine, after Cintra, that I fail to understand how it is to be falsely disgraced? At present I cannot help you, but in future your name will be cleared.”

Dragoner, aware from the duke's expression that the interview was at an end, came to his feet and saluted. "My errand will require only a brief absence, Your Grace. I shall depart in a few weeks, and you may expect to find me in Paris on your return.”

"I will expect it.”

Dragoner was at the door when Wellington spoke again, his voice curiously intent. "It went well tonight, don't you think?”

"Oh, indeed, sir.” Dragoner shivered at the memory. "If I may say so, you are an exceptionally accomplished actor.”

"As an ambassador, I shall need to be,” replied the duke, seemingly pleased at the compliment. "But I've much to learn about dissimulation, while you are indisputably a master of the art.”


Chapter 2

"A young man married is a man that's marr'd.”

All's Well That Ends Well

Act 2, Scene 3

"I'VE COME TO take you for a walk,” Lady Hepzibah Ffipps announced, sweeping into the upstairs parlor with two closed parasols and a pair of bonnets dangling from her hands. "He isn't coming, my dear. Not today. He doesn't even know where you are.”

"Oh, I should imagine he'll have found out by now.” Delilah unwrapped her legs from the window seat and stood on feet that immediately began to tingle, as if she had walked onto a carpet of needles. "It's only four o'clock, Heppy. He may yet arrive, and what would he think if I wasn't here to greet him?”

"That you had better uses for your time, I would hope.” With a snort, Lady Hepzibah dropped the parasols onto a Sheraton chair. "You are plucking at straws, Delilah. And if by chance you get hold of one, what is it you will have? A piece of straw, that's what.”

"Ah, but I want all the straws,” Delilah said. "Then I shall spin them into gold.”

"Fustian! Wherever do you come up with these noodle-headed notions? Now put on your bonnet, that's a good girl, and let's go find us a breeze.”

Impatient, energetic Heppy. Delilah gave her an apologetic smile. "I'll wait here a bit longer, if you don't mind. He's bound to come by way of the river, and I wish to see him before he sees me. But by all means, do have yourself a walk. I've been afraid you were planning to meet him at the door with a loaded pistol.”

"A horsewhip, more like. Well, keep vigil if you must, and perhaps the scoundrel will turn up after all. But have you any idea, child, how you look?”

"Oh, like a scarecrow wigged with a red mop, I suppose.” Delilah ran her fingers through the corkscrew curls she had loathed since first she grew hair. "But he's seen me before, you know. He won't be expecting much. I will change my dress again, though, and wash my hands and face, if you'll watch for him in the meantime.”

Grumbling, Lady Hepzibah crossed to the window and took up her position. "Five minutes, then. And it's a far sight more time than he's worth.”

Keeping to her word, she was no longer there when Delilah returned six minutes later, wearing an apple green muslin gown that was already beginning to droop in the muggy heat.

Lady Hepzibah had arranged for a pitcher of iced lemonade to be placed on the buffet alongside the decanters of wine and brandy, and she'd left an open parasol on the cushioned window seat. Delilah carried a glass of lemonade to the bay window and settled herself, parasol raised against the sun, to wait.

Whatever would she do without Heppy? The elderly spinster had come all the way from Northumberland for her great-niece's wedding, and when the groom took his leave the very next day, she had stayed to console the bride. A half-dozen years later, she was still consoling the bride.

Sipping the cold lemonade, Delilah gazed out over the sweeping lawn that led from the flower garden to the river. In the humid air, a mist had formed over the brown, sluggish Thames as it curled around a wooded headland to her right and flowed in front of the house she had named Dragon's Lair.

Sooner or later, the dragon would find it.

He ought to have known where she was living, of course. She had never done anything of significance without writing to inform him. Nonetheless, his letter—the only letter she had ever received from him—had been directed to his London town house. The new owner had forwarded it to her solicitors, who enclosed it in a packet of business correspondence that had arrived at the Lair only a few hours earlier.

There had been no warning. Not even a premonition. She had been at her desk, methodically working her way through the thick stack of mail, and had almost reached the bottom when her gaze was drawn to the scarlet seal on a single folded sheet of paper. It was imprinted with a winged dragon, stamped in the wax by her husband's signet ring.

Light-headed, her fingers trembling, she had lifted the crumpled paper and broken the seal. One sentence was all he could spare her.

"Madam, I shall be in London on Wednesday, the twenty-first of July, and will do myself the honor of calling upon you at one o'clock.”

The message was signed, in his jagged handwriting, "Dragoner.”

She had wept then, but not for long. He was due to arrive within two hours. Besides, he would scarcely have confided his true sentiments in a letter. There was, she supposed, some reason yet for hope.

To be sure, she had been nursing that same fragile hope long past the time any sensible woman would have let it die a natural death. Ah, well. He was, at last, coming home. Perhaps he was coming home to her.

So she had bathed and dressed herself and taken up her place at the window, where she ruthlessly ordered her thoughts and made a few tentative plans. She had even permitted herself to airdream, a treat she had denied herself for a long time, but soon discovered she had fallen out of the habit of it. Her fantasies refused to go the direction she wanted them to, much like her intractable life.

And all her dreams, she supposed, had come crashing down around her when her bridegroom stumbled into the church on a long-ago Saturday morning, sullen, resentful, and reeking of brandy.

He had come alone, she remembered, without family or friends. One of her brothers was recruited to stand up with him as groomsman—hold him up, as it had turned out—and he'd spoken his vows in a voice so low that she could scarcely distinguish the words. At the minister's direction, and after a good deal of fumbling, he had produced a ring from his waistcoat pocket and shoved it onto her pudgy finger, scowling because it didn't fit. Never once did he look directly at her face.

The ring fit perfectly now. Sunlight glinted off the plain gold band as she lifted her hand to examine it. She would never be beautiful, of course, what with her round face and humiliating dimples and impossible hair, but Heppy's regime of simple meals and vigorous walks had trimmed her figure.

She wondered if he would notice.

A small boat, propelled by oarsmen, was just rounding the curve. She could barely make it out. Shimmering in the cloud of mist that hovered over the water, the boat vanished and reappeared as if emerging from a dream.

There appeared to be two passengers, one seated in front of the other. She knelt up on the cushions, feeling suddenly cold. It might not be him, of course. Lots of boats had gone by that afternoon. She had hoped and despaired a score of times. But this time the small hairs on her arms were lifted in anticipation. Her heart had begun to pound.

When the skiff angled from mid-river toward the small wooden dock, she was nearly sure. But she didn't let herself believe it until she could clearly see the lithe, slender man seated on the narrow bench at the bow.

He wasn't wearing a hat. His black hair, damp from the mist, shone like polished ebony. He rose as the boat came near the bank and jumped lightly out when it nudged against the water-steps. For a moment he stood, his hand bladed over his eyes against the sun, and gazed at the house. Then, leaving the others to secure the ties, he strode purposefully up the hill.

She drew back from the window. It was now. Oh dear Lord. But there was time for a short, heartfelt prayer, and another minute or two for her to regain her composure. She had made sure of that. A footman would greet him at the door and summon the butler, who was instructed to be slow in responding. If Heppy was still in the house and unable to resist a caustic welcome, so much the better.

Delilah remembered to close the parasol and prop it against the wall, but in the process, she stumbled over the glass of lemonade she had set on the carpet. A wet stain spread out in all directions. Bother! She quickly stowed the glass behind the hem of the curtains and took up her position in front of the bay window.

That, too, she had planned. With the light coming in from behind her, she would be able to see him clearly while her own face remained in the shadows. A small advantage, to be sure, but a useful tactic she had learned from her father.

Someone spoke in the passageway, and a moment later, she heard a light rap on the door. Gulping a deep breath, she smoothed her skirts and instructed her arms and hands to be still at her sides.

"Lord Dragoner, milady,” said the butler, who withdrew immediately and closed the door behind him.

Dragoner—she had never been able to think of him as Charles—looked very much at ease as he came a little way into the room and halted, his head tilted to one side, his lips curved at the corners. It wasn't a smile.

When he bowed and addressed her, his voice was laced with amusement. "‘Divinest creature, Astraea's daughter,'” he said. "‘How shall I honor thee?'”

And she knew, then, from the nature of his greeting, why he had come. It had been her greatest fear.

Deep inside, where she trusted he could not hear it, her heart was breaking apart like river ice at the end of winter. But for this, too, she had prepared herself. "I beg your pardon?” she said courteously. "Is that a line from a poem?”

"Something of the kind. You must disregard my inclination to misappropriate other people's words. It is one of many frightful habits I picked up in France.”

"I see.” She remembered to curtsy. "You are most welcome home, sir. I hope you had a pleasant journey. Would you care for tea, or perhaps a glass of wine?”

"Oh dear.” His smile was almost genuine. "How singularly awkward this is. Will it help, do you think, if we begin with a polite conversation about the weather, or the inordinate cost of hiring a boat during the Victory Celebrations?”

"I don't imagine it would, actually. But you really ought to try the wine.” She gestured to the sideboard. "It cost more, even, than buying a boat.”

"In that case,” he said, crossing to the decanter and glasses, "it must be French.”

While his back was to her, she settled herself on a chair she had placed near the window and apart from the other furniture. For the conversation that was sure to follow, she did not want him seated close to her. Nor would her shaky legs permit her to stand, as she'd have greatly preferred to do. Although he was not above average height, and his physique was that of a fencer, he seemed to occupy a great deal of space.

"Do you prefer wine,” he asked, glancing at her over his shoulder, "or would you rather some of that yellow concoction in the pitcher?”

"Nothing, thank you.” She smoothed her damp skirts, which had an alarming tendency to cling to her thighs. "What has become of the gentleman who accompanied you in the boat?”

"My valet? I have no idea, but more than likely he has gone to practice his Gallic charm on your housemaids. I trust they are virtuous and resolute.” Dragoner turned and propped his hips against the mahogany sideboard, his legs stretched out and his feet crossed at the ankles. "If it is not impertinent to ask,” he said after tasting the wine, "how came it that a rude fellow calling himself Lord Tewksbury has taken up residence in my London town house, claiming to be the owner?”

"Well, I suppose that's only natural, under the circumstances. But you may be sure he paid well above its worth, considering the—”

"Good God, madam!” He uncrossed his feet and leaned forward. "Am I to understand that you sold my house?”

"Nearly four years ago. But this cannot be news to you, sir. Or did you not receive my letters?”

His gaze shifted to the window. "I may have done. Edoard will tell you I am notoriously careless about—”

"You fed the fire with them, I daresay. It was to be expected. But there are copies with my solicitors, should you care to examine them. Unfortunately, your letter reached me only this morning. Otherwise I'd have arranged that business documents of significance be sent here for your inspection.”

"I'll want to see them, of course.” He twisted the stem of the wineglass between his thumb and forefinger. "And I did read your letters. Some of them, anyway. The ones that arrived within a few months of the wedding. Naturally, I wished to discover if there had been... consequences.”

"A child, you mean.” She steadied her voice. "Unhappily, no. I was disappointed.”

After a moment he drained his glass and put it aside. She understood that with the gesture, he was dismissing the subject of children as well. "The point is,” he said, "how could you have sold the house without my authorization?”

"I didn't like to, but something had to be done. After two-score years of neglect, it was practically rotting away. I could not lease it at a decent rate, and at the time, we hadn't sufficient funds to restore it.”

He opened his mouth, but she went on before he could speak. "Then Lord Tewksbury took a fancy to live at Grosvenor Square, and with yours the only property on the market, he unwisely paid more than he should have done to have it. Most of the funds were invested in your business interests, but some were directed to the purchase of Drag... this residence.”

"You mistook my question, madam. I fail to see how you could legally transact the sale of anything I own. Owned,” he corrected grimly. "Is not my permission required? At the very least, my signature?”

"Actually, no. Do you not remember? I was given full power of attorney, to be used in the event of your death or at times when you were unable to deal with your affairs. You signed papers to that effect. Mind you, I had not considered that you would be unwilling to deal with your affairs, but the provision seemed to apply. My solicitors agreed.”

"I handed you power of attorney?” He shook his head in disbelief. "‘And she has all the rule of her husband's purse.' Did I perchance grant you any other powers I am unaware of?”

"Rather a great many, I'm afraid. But the papers were there for you to read, had you troubled to do so before signing them. I apprehend that you did not.”

"You apprehend correctly.” And then, to her astonishment, he threw back his head and laughed. "At least you cannot have sold the ancestral pile from under me. It is, I am fairly sure, entailed.”

"Yes. I have been hoping to discuss that with you.” This wasn't the time, of course, but with her confidence seeping away, business was the only refuge she knew. In matters of business, she was always self-assured. "As you are doubtless aware, sir, an entail endures for two generations. And because your father failed to renew it, the entail of Dragon's Hill will cease with your death. To secure the property for your immediate heir, and for his, you are required to sign a few more papers. They have already been drawn up, and—”

"No more, I beg you!” Still laughing, he refilled his wineglass. "I was aware, certainly, that I was marrying a merchant's daughter, but I had no idea your family would turn pickpocket in my absence. Indeed, I should have thought my insignificant assets beneath their notice.”

"My family has nothing to do with this, sir. It's true my father negotiated the terms of the marriage, but every transaction completed since the death of your parents has been entirely my responsibility.”

"And to continue your theme,” he said, "I hereby accept full responsibility for neglecting my own duties.” He began to wander, with calculated aimlessness, she thought, in her direction. "Never mind all this buying and selling and trading, my dear. I'm mostly indifferent, you know. Only a bit surprised. It will get sorted out at the appropriate time.”

He had stopped directly in front of her, regarding her from impenetrable gray eyes, and she gazed back at him, her face schooled to the pleasantly interested expression of a merchant at the negotiating table. All her muscles ached from holding still, but she had trained herself not to squirm, which was her body's natural inclination. As for her heart, she quite simply refused to acknowledge its existence. She could not afford to feel the slightest emotion now. He was reaching out to places she could not let either of them go.

To preserve her self-command, she concentrated on his appearance, noting the tiny lines at the corners of his eyes and his lips. His face was harder now, his cheekbones and jaw more firmly defined. He looked, to her, more worldly than any young man ought to be. Far too cynical. And weary, too, but she could put that down to his journey.

"Do you know,” he said with the affable disinterest she had already come to loathe, "that when first I saw you walking down the aisle of the church, I could not credit that you were of an age to marry. Your brother—I think it was your brother—was standing beside me, and when I asked, he confirmed that you were. But you look not a day older now than you did then. Have you struck a deal with God, or perhaps with Lord Lucifer, for eternal youth?”

"To the contrary, sir, although I have sometimes prayed for a few inconsequential miracles. But I still have all the freckles I was born with, and the dimples as well. My hair has failed to change color, and it continues to defy gravity. I should like to grow another inch or two. There are some occasions, I admit, when my appearance is useful, because people assume they can take advantage of me. And, of course, I happily exploit their misapprehension. But in fact, sir, as you appear unaware of it, I am nine-and-twenty. To be precise, one year and three months older than you.”

"The devil you say!” He made a circuit of the chair, looking her over from every angle. "No. It's preposterous. You are a little girl dressed up in her mother's clothes.”

"Thank you very much, I'm sure.” He had scratched at an old wound and painfully reopened it. "I may look like a child, sir. I know that I do. But I am not the one who has behaved like a child.”

His head jerked to one side as if she had slapped him, which in fact she had wanted to do. She had not realized she could be so angry with him. She was used to excusing him. Salvaging his fortune. Pretending he was what she wanted him to be.

"Forgive me,” she said, her tone unnaturally brittle. "I had no right to say such a thing.”

"We both know better,” he replied after a moment. "I have dishonored you from the beginning, and I am sorry for it. But you must know equally well that I never wanted this marriage, no more than did you. We found ourselves on the same auction block, is all—I being sold to pay my father's debts, and you on offer because your family aspired to the Dragoner title. Neither of us was given a choice.”

"In fact, my lord, that is not altogether true. I was in no way compelled to marry you. But I have always wondered why you agreed to the arrangement. You might have defied your parents. You could have said no. Why didn't you?”

"Ah.” The mocking glint had returned to his eyes. "We are to have plain speaking. A round tale, full of jocularity and wry wit. But I will be brief. It is one thing to deplore a father's intemperance, my dear, and quite another to refrain from tossing him a rope when he is neck-deep in quicksand. The other end of that rope was wrapped around my own neck, but what could I do? Watch him be hauled off to a debtors' cell at Marshalsea?”

That wouldn't have come about, certainly, but Dragoner was apparently unaware that peers could not be imprisoned for debt. Would he have married her, she wondered, if he had known?

He went to a chair on the other side of the room and sank onto it, his head thrown back against the padded bolster. "I did take care, beforehand, to exact a promise from him. The largest part of the marriage settlement was to be directed toward the restoration of Dragon's Hill. And he readily agreed, as you might imagine, declaring it had been his intention from the beginning. He even looked me in the eye when he swore the oath. It is hard for me to imagine now, but I believed him. The triumph of blind, befuddled faith over a lifetime of experience. It is not a mistake I shall ever repeat.”

She understood all too well the choice he had made. Blind faith was her specialty. "But surely it's better to have faith and be sometimes disappointed,” she said, "than never to believe in anyone at all?”

"If you think that, my dear, you truly are a child. Did you never wonder why my parents failed to appear at the wedding?”

She had, of course. Her father had been furious. "At the time,” she said gingerly, "we assumed they did not care to rub shoulders with tradesfolk. Father had invited scores of his friends to the church, and even more to the wedding breakfast.”

"It was as well, then, that Lord and Lady Dragoner chose to be elsewhere. I have no doubt they would have been insufferably rude to the other guests. But their plans had been in place, it seems, for a considerable time. They had arranged to scarper when it would least be expected, on the night before the ceremony. I got the news of their departure, along with my shaving water, from a servant. Then I got drunk.”

"We could not help but notice,” she said, keeping her tone level, as his had been. Most of what he told her, she had already known. But not the timing of it. Not the sudden blow he'd taken, even as he was preparing himself to honor the contract he had made. It was the pain of his parents' betrayal, she now understood, not the marriage, that sent him reeling into the church only a few hours later. Dear Lord.

But there was a long afternoon to be got through, and she was fairly sure how he meant it to end. For both their sakes, she must keep guard on her fraying emotions. He, of course, had come in wearing a full suit of armor. "Instead of applying yourself to the brandy bottle,” she said, "you'd have done better to call off the wedding. No one would have blamed you for it.”

"Would they not? But my parents already had the money, you see. Perhaps your father refrained from telling you, having been bested in the transaction, but he was compelled to pay the marriage settlement in advance. Mummy and Daddy boasted of it at supper, and promised to give me the funds for Dragon's Hill directly after the ceremony. I recall that they made a toast to our happiness. And all the while, their luggage was being loaded at Southampton.”

Bitterness had crept into his voice. "They took every penny with them to Italy, leaving their debts unpaid and their creditors to hound me.”

To hound her, as it had turned out. But he needn't learn about that today. "My father would not have expected you to go through with the marriage,” she said. "Nor would I.”

"Perhaps. I never considered it. You will understand I was not thinking clearly.”

"You did not appear to be. But you were sufficiently alert to draw my father into the vestry before the ceremony and extract nearly three thousand pounds from him. To pay your own gaming debts, I believe you told him. You wished to be free of them before marrying his daughter.”

He flushed. "That was a lie, of course. I find it irksome to pay gaming debts, and for that reason I generally contrive to win. By now you will have realized the money was to purchase my commission, along with the necessary equipment, horses, and uniforms. Ironic, is it not? Your father, so kindly doing me a service, provided the means of my escape.”

"And then,” she said, ending the tale in a friendly voice, "the fair maiden, who was neither fair nor any longer a maiden, watched from her castle window as all the dragons ran away.”

"And well rid of them, too, she was. Father, mother, and son. Three of a kind.” He sat forward, elbows on his knees, his hands tented under his chin. "I didn't think you'd mind, you know. Not after the way I behaved at the wedding. And later.” He gave a barely perceptible shudder.

She had no intention of revisiting her wedding night. What little she could recall of it had been confusing, unhappy, and brief. It was a blur to her now, and best forgot by the both of them.

"Father was well aware of your intentions when he loaned you the money, sir, although he hoped you would change your mind. If not, the army was like to do you good. Two of my brothers also served on the Peninsula, and they came home the better for it. But of course, he never imagined that you would sever all ties with England. And with your wife.”

"He should have guessed. The Dragoners are notorious for breaking promises. And what was there to hold us together, after all? Money changed hands. We spoke vows without meaning them and scrawled our names on a parish register. You knew no more about me than I knew of you. Before that sham of a wedding ceremony, we had never so much as set eyes on each other.”

Ought she to tell him? He had dropped his hands, which were now loosely clasped between his knees, and his head was lowered. A shock of black hair had fallen forward, concealing his forehead and his eyes. He looked like a man deep in thought, or a man trying not to think. In either case, he seemed to her more remote than the stars.

The truth, then. What had she to lose by it?

"Not everyone,” she said, "is willing to take a spouse sight unseen. I often wondered that you did so. I certainly did not.”

He raised his head, an arrested expression on his face. "You saw me beforehand? But I had no part in the negotiations. Where did you see me?”

She understood the question behind his questions. They didn't move in the same circles. How could she have seen him? "Oh,” she said airily, "I was in your vicinity on any number of occasions. Not at fashionable routs or society balls, to be sure, but even a merchant's daughter is permitted to move freely through most parts of London.”

"And she could spend a dozen years roaming the streets and shops,” he said, "without once encountering me.”

"But she—that is, I—knew where to look for you. Did you imagine, sir, that you had been selected at random? When I set out to marry above my class, Father determined which among the crop of fortune-hunting gentlemen were agreeable to marrying beneath theirs. The list was then narrowed to include only those of reasonable age, apparent good health, and lack of egregiously bad habits. After examining the reports, I selected three candidates for further study.”

"Study?” He slapped his hands against the armrests of his chair. "What were we, then? Three bugs pinned to a blotter?”

"Akin to that, I suppose, although I never thought of you in such a way. Your family history was traced, with particular attention given to your parents and your own upbringing. That proved somewhat difficult, as they were generally traveling abroad, and you with them. Under the circumstances, I was naturally concerned about your education, which appears to have been a trifle haphazard.”

"Ought I to have sat an examination before the wedding?” he inquired too sweetly. An instant later he was on his feet and circling the room like a man who wanted only to escape it. One of his hands caught a porcelain figure on a side table and sent it rolling across the carpet, but he didn't appear to notice.

She welcomed his temper. He had broken first. And just in time, because she had few defenses against him. His sarcasm had long since twisted her stomach into knots. Since he had come into the room, she could scarcely draw breath. And the worst was yet to come.

"Well, do go on,” he said. "Am I to assume that you questioned my friends? Interrogated my mistresses?”

"Good heavens, no. Our investigations, while thorough, were unobtrusive. But when the written reports ceased to be useful, it became necessary, or so I believed, to see you for myself. We knew, of course, the places you frequented—your club, the theater, a gaming establishment known as Dicing with the Devil, and another establishment called Madame Benton's House of Delights, which—”

"Don't tell me you went there!”

"To a brothel? No, indeed.” She gathered her calm from the remnants of his. "I first saw you at the theater,” she said. "It was Jonathan Dembrow playing King Lear, badly, and it occurred to me that you were the only one in the audience who attended to the play. On rainy days you were often to be found at Hatchard's Book Shop, reading newspapers and magazines in front of the fire. Once, by sheerest coincidence, we were both at Gunter's. You devoured two dishes of ice cream and a wedge of lemon cake.”

The expression of stunned horror on his face nearly made her smile. "Three afternoons a week,” she said, "you fenced at Antonio's. Whenever possible, I was watching from across the street, and sometimes I trailed behind you when you left. One day, when you were walking in Hyde Park, some rowdy boys knocked the parcels from a lady's hands. You stopped to pick them up.”

She paused then, selecting her next words with care. "I was by that time fairly sure of my intentions, but I believe that was the precise moment I decided to marry you.”

"Good God!” He threw up his hands. "Because I performed a trivial service for a female walking unchaperoned in the park? I have no recollection of the event, you will understand, but more than likely my attentions were prelude to a seduction.”

"Possibly. I never considered that. In any case, you carried her parcels to Park Lane, where you hailed a hackney coach and handed her into it. I saw you pay the jarvey from your own pocket. You did not accompany the lady, but I presume that was on account of her age. She must have been rising seventy.”

"Was she?” he inquired with a look of faint astonishment. "Well, no wonder I fail to remember her. And what you saw, my dear, was me acting on a whim. Did you know that good deeds are reputed to bring luck at the gaming tables? Ah, I thought not.” His expression hardened. "It seems that for all your studying, madam, you have greatly misjudged my character.”

She took a few moments to consider her reply. "I don't agree, sir,” she said finally. "But it is true that I was able to observe you only from a distance.”

"Observe!”

When he advanced on her, it was all she could do to keep from flinching.

"Let's call it what it was, shall we? You shadowed me. You tracked me through the streets. You bloody well spied on me!”

It must have been a trick of the light, which streamed directly onto his face when he planted himself in front of her, but his gray eyes had gone a stormy green. Distracted by the transformation, she could not look away from them.

He was waiting for her to respond, looming over her with his arms splayed like the wings of an outraged dragon. She had gone too far. Told him too much. It no longer seemed a good idea, summoning the dragon from his cave.

"One might call it spying, I suppose,” she said tentatively. "I considered it more in the nature of... well, of an inspection.”

His eyes, now hard as two cabochon emeralds, blazed at her.

And then he did the last thing she could have expected. Dropping cross-legged to the carpet at her feet, he doubled over. All she could see was the back of his head and his wide shoulders, shaking as he laughed.

This was not a reaction she was prepared to deal with. Seconds ago he had been angry enough to strike her, not that he would do such a thing, and now he was laughing like a field hand who had just heard a smutty joke. More than anything he had said or done that afternoon, it disturbed her.

After what seemed an eternity, he lifted his head. "‘I see our wars will turn into a peaceful comic sport,'” he said, "‘when ladies come to be encount'red with.'”

And she knew that, laughing, he had firmly re-erected the barriers that had always lain between them. And added new ones, she feared, even more impenetrable. She would not breach his defenses again without a long and painful siege.

For now, all that remained was for him to tell her the last thing she wanted to hear. And he was finding it difficult, as well he should. She was wickedly tempted to wait, forcing him to muster the courage and the words, but she could not. Her own courage had worn too thin.

"I will spare us both a long afternoon of fencing,” she said quietly. "You have come to ask me for a divorce.”

The word, suspended in the still air between them, took shape like a living thing.

It was beyond her strength to look at him. She heard him draw a harsh breath, and then another. She heard the chatter of magpies outside the window, and the call of rooks in the elm grove. It seemed as if she could hear the river, too, pulsing like blood as it flowed past the house.

Finally the muffled brush of boot leather against silk carpet told her he had come to his feet. He paused for a moment, perhaps calculating the precise distance to put between them, but at length he drew up a straight-backed chair and sat in front of her, so close their knees were almost touching.

"Is there any other answer,” he said gently, "for either of us? You must realize we cannot go on as we are.”

She wished he had taken himself to the other side of the room. So near as he was, he stole the breath from her lungs and the thoughts from her head. "How can I conclude such a thing,” she replied, "when we haven't gone on at all?”

"But that is the point, surely. There are no bonds between us, save for a few legalities, and those are easily severed.”

"Do you think so?” She lifted her gaze to his face. "I believe you will find it otherwise.”

Two lines formed between his eyes. "You mean to contest the divorce, then?”

"Not at all. If you insist on proceeding, I've sufficient pride to stand out of your way. I shall even cooperate, within reasonable limits. You would not expect me, I am sure, to swear falsely in a court of law.”

"Why should you need to? By any standards, my behavior has been intolerable. Every rational judge in England would leap to set you free of me.”

"I expect they would want to,” she conceded, nearing firm ground once again. "And I promise not to say I have no wish to be free of you.”

"Ah.” He rubbed the bridge of his nose. "We are not in true agreement, then. I am sorry for it. Deeply so, although I don't expect you will believe that. But until this afternoon, I never imagined you wished for my company, or had gone to such trouble to procure me as your husband. I regret I have proven entirely unsuitable. One day, perhaps, you will understand that I never meant to hurt you.”

"I understand it now,” she said. "You gave me no thought at all. But I bear you no ill will for that. We were young, and we both made mistakes. You ought to have stood up to your parents, and I—” She managed a weak smile. "Well, I diced with the Dragon. And I appear to have lost.”

After a moment, he buried his face in his hands. "I'm sure I deserve it,” he murmured. "But you aren't making this easy.”

No, she wasn't. And she disliked herself for it. He hadn't expected her to feel as she did about him. She ought not lay the burden of her unwanted love upon him, and was trying not to. But it kept slithering in, venoming her words and turning her away from the immediate goal.

His intentions and her feelings were all but irrelevant now. The question of divorce had come down to business and the law, which she understood and he did not. But all the same, she could not be the one to enlighten him. Nothing more would be settled today.

"It is growing late,” she said, rising and moving past him to the bell rope. "Do you wish to stay the night? A bedchamber has been made ready, and we can accommodate your valet in the adjoining room.”

When he lowered his hands and looked over at her, his eyes were bleak. "Thank you, but no. The oarsmen are waiting to take us back to London.” He stood, hands fisted at his sides. "How terribly civilized we are being. I suppose that's as well. But what is to happen next, Delilah?”

It was the only time he had spoken her name since the wedding ceremony, when he was forced to speak it. "I, Charles, take you, Delilah, as my wedded wife.”

She turned away, blinking against a wash of hot tears, and crossed to a writing table. In the drawer, already prepared for him, was a card inscribed with the direction of Higgins and Finch, Counselors at Law.

"We should meet with our solicitors, I expect.” She turned, smiling, and held out the card. "Will Friday afternoon at one o'clock be acceptable?”

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