Authors: Laura Landon
“That’s all? Just pretty?”
“No, she’s very pretty—and very young.”
Thomas laughed. “That’s what I told Caroline when she informed me she was going to invite Lady Laurin. But she’s convinced Lady Laurin’s other attributes will outweigh your age difference.”
“What attributes would those be?” Rafe asked.
“The fact that my wife, as well as Lady Laurin’s mother, considers the two of you perfect for each other.”
“I’m always amazed at how expertly everyone seems to know which two people are perfect for each other. Do they ever consider that the people involved are the only ones who are privy to such information?”
Thomas shook his head. “I don’t think it enters their minds. They are too intent on forcing the bonds of matrimony on every acquaintance they know.”
“Perhaps, when you have a chance to speak privately with your wife, you can inform her that she may cease her matchmaking schemes. They are no longer needed.”
Thomas clasped his hand on Rafe’s shoulder and turned him toward him. “Are you hinting that there’s already someone you’re interested in?”
“Do I know her?”
“Is there anyone you
Thomas laughed. “I grant you that my circle of acquaintances is rather extensive, but there are undoubtedly a few people with whom I’m not familiar. Is the lady who has captured your interest someone I know?”
Rafe smiled. “Perhaps.”
“This is indeed cause for celebration,” Thomas said. “Wait until Caroline hears that you have found someone on your own. When will we get to meet this amazing woman?”
“Soon, Thomas. Very soon.”
Rafe turned away from his brother to watch the females come near them. “I noticed that Miss Bartlett is still absent. Has anyone gone to check on her?”
“Check on her?” Thomas repeated, as if Rafe had spoken a riddle.
“Yes, Lady Adledge mentioned that she’d retired early last night. She indicated Miss Bartlett wasn’t feeling well. Is she still ill?”
A frown deepened across his brother’s forehead, and Rafe watched the look in his eyes darken. “You seem to be quite interested in Miss Bartlett,” Thomas said.
“How can one
be interested in her? She’s a very unique person.”
Rafe felt as if Thomas intended to say something more, but Caroline approached them with Lady Laurin at her side.
“Here you are, Rafe. I told Lord Canderly it wouldn’t be too late before we returned his daughter. Would you be so kind as to see her home?”
Rafe smiled. Her matchmaking scheme was so obvious even the most naive person on earth couldn’t miss it. “Of course. I’d be delighted. Lady Laurin.” Rafe extended his arm for her to take.
The young lady looked up at him with stars in her eyes—the same starry gaze he was used to seeing in every female who was searching for a husband. Only Hannah didn’t look at him like that. And she was the one female he wanted to have that look in her eyes.
“The carriage is ready,” Caroline said, “and Lady Laurin’s maid is waiting.”
“Perfect,” he said with a smile on his face. “Shall we?”
Lady Laurin gave him a demure smile, then walked at his side.
Rafe kept up a pleasant conversation as they made their way to Viscount Canderly’s estate, then spent the
appropriate amount of time visiting with Lord and Lady Canderly before he said his good-byes. But his thoughts dwelt elsewhere—on Hannah and returning to make certain she had recovered and would join them for dinner.
As he counted the miles, he could think only that it had been almost a full day since he’d seen her. That it had been more than a day since he’d been alone with her. Since he’d kissed her.
He slapped the ribbons against the horses’ rumps and urged them to return to Wedgewood Estate faster. When he arrived, he handed the reins to a waiting stable hand, then raced up the steps and through the door the Wedgewood butler held open for him.
“Good day, Lord Rafe,” Carver said in greeting as he took Rafe’s hat and gloves. “Lord Wedgewood is in the library. He asked that you join him.”
Rafe breathed a sigh of impatience. He was more interested in finding Caroline and making sure Hannah was improved. “Can it wait, Carver?”
“No, my lord. Lord Wedgewood expressed that you should join him as soon as you returned.”
“Very well,” he said, then turned toward the library. As soon as he found out what Thomas wanted, he was going to find Caroline and…
A footman knocked twice on the library door, then opened it for him.
Rafe stepped into the room and stopped short. Thomas wasn’t alone.
Seated on the floral settee in the center of the room were Caroline and her sister, the Duchess of Raeborn. In the two matching wing chairs facing them were Thomas
and the Duke of Raeborn. A third chair flanked where his brother sat. It was empty. After the footman closed the door, Thomas pointed to it.
“Come in, Rafe. Join us.”
Rafe walked across the room and sat in the empty chair. “This looks like a pleasant, although ominous, gathering,” he said, taking the glass of brandy his brother handed him. “From the expressions on your faces,” he said, scanning the four people who made up the circle, “the topic of conversation isn’t all that pleasant.”
“It’s not as bad as all that—” Thomas started to say before Caroline interrupted him.
,” Caroline said, “but
“Has something happened to Miss Bartlett?”
His question seemed to take everyone by surprise. The frowns on their faces deepened.
“Not really,” Caroline continued, “but what we need to discuss concerns Hannah.”
“What? Is she seriously ill?” Waves of concern rushed through him. “Have you sent for Doctor Blains?”
Thomas held up his hand. “Miss Bartlett doesn’t need a doctor.”
“Hannah has gone,” Caroline said. “She left. She returned to London.”
Rafe didn’t move. He felt as if someone had knocked the air from his body.
“Why?” he asked, but he already knew. She’d gone back to London because their attraction for each other frightened her, because he’d gone too fast. Because he’d taken liberties he never should have taken. Liberties a lady like
Hannah wasn’t used to a man taking. “This is my fault. I have to go after her.”
He rose to his feet, but his brother’s stern voice stopped him. “You can’t.”
Rafe studied the dark expressions on the four people gathered with him and fought the dread that washed over him. He sat back down and waited.
The Duchess of Raeborn took a deep breath and reached for Caroline’s hand before she spoke. “The attraction between Hannah and yourself has been obvious to both Caroline and me since the two of you arrived. I mentioned it to Hannah, but she assured me that although she realized that you felt a certain…fascination for her, I didn’t need to worry. She would do everything in her power to discourage you. Instead, it was obvious that every day that attraction only seemed to grow stronger.”
“And you object?”
The two sisters looked at each other.
“To me?” Rafe asked. “You object to me? You don’t think I’m good enough to pursue Miss Bartlett?”
“No.” Caroline answered. “It has nothing to do with you.”
“Surely you can’t object to Hannah. She’s your friend. You invited her because you said that you consider her as close as one of your sisters.”
“We do,” both the Duchess of Raeborn and Rafe’s sister-in-law said at the same time. “Each one of us considers Hannah a part of our family.”
“Then what? What is it you object to?”
“There are things about Hannah you don’t know,” the Duchess of Raeborn said. “Things no one knows.”
“First of all,” she continued, “what I am about to share with you I am saying in the strictest of confidence. Hannah would not approve of me telling you—of telling
. She does not want anyone’s pity.”
“Pity? Why would anyone pity her?” Rafe took a swallow of the brandy Thomas had given him. From the looks on everyone’s faces, he thought he might need it.
“Hannah’s father is the late Baron Fentington. Perhaps you’ve heard of him?”
Rafe thought. “I vaguely remember hearing the name. If it is the same man, he was known as a religious fanatic who wore only white and focused his efforts on condemning all women for Eve’s sin.”
“That’s him,” Caroline said. “Baron Fentington’s estate neighbored ours, and Hannah was of an age with Grace and me. The baron was beyond strict when it came to raising his daughter. He forced Hannah to her knees in prayer for hours a day and severely punished her at the slightest provocation. It was nothing for her to sneak out of the house and come to us for comfort when her father went on one of his tirades. And she most often came with huge welts from the beatings he’d given her.”
Rafe found it hard to breathe. What kind of father would do that to his child?
“Unfortunately for Hannah,” Caroline continued, “she grew into a beautiful young lady. Her father became more irrational where she was concerned. He was harsh and inflexible, and made her suffer for being beautiful.”
Caroline’s voice thickened with emotion, and the duchess continued for her. “Hannah tried to make herself as unbecoming as she could, but her beauty came through no
matter what she did. Instead of being proud of the woman she was growing into, her attractiveness enraged her father. He forced her to spend more hours in prayer, asking God to take away her sinful pride and vanity.”
The duchess stopped for a few moments, as if she needed to control her emotions. Then she continued. “When Hannah was fifteen, Baron Fentington hosted a gathering of fellow clergymen. Of course, none of these men were leaders of their own congregation. They were what Hannah referred to as renegades and sanctimonious zealots. Because of their radical beliefs, no organized religion would have anything to do with them. Therefore, they roamed the area and held meetings in the homes of other extremist leaders.”
The duchess paused, and Caroline reached for her hand and held it. “During one of their religious celebrations,” she finally continued, “one of the pious members of Baron Fentington’s gathering found Hannah alone in the barn. He raped her.”
Rafe knew the voice belonged to him, but he was so livid he couldn’t control his anger.
“When her father discovered what happened,” Caroline continued, “he, of course, blamed Hannah. He accused her of enticing a man of the cloth and charged her with tempting him the same as all wicked women tempt righteous and blameless men. He beat her within an inch of her life, then dumped her on the road with only the shredded dress she was wearing.”
Rafe couldn’t stand to hear any more. He bolted to his feet and stormed to the window, then turned back. “Is her father dead?”
“Yes,” the duchess answered.
“Good,” he ground through clenched teeth.
“Hannah crawled to our home and asked for refuge,” Her Grace continued. “Of course, our father refused because he was as unforgiving and judgmental as the baron. So…” Her Grace paused as if unable to tell the rest of Hannah’s story.
Caroline patted her hand and took up the tale where Her Grace left off. “Grace and I carried Hannah to an elderly woman who was known as a local midwife and reputed to have the gift to heal. She took Hannah in, but after she looked at her, she told us she probably would not survive. And she nearly didn’t.”
Rafe walked back from the window to his chair. “Is that why she left? Was she afraid I would find out about her past and think what happened was her fault?”
Caroline and her sister shared a look of embarrassment.
“No, Rafe,” Thomas continued for them. “Hannah didn’t leave because she thought you wouldn’t understand. There’s more.”
Rafe sat in his chair. “Go on.”
“Hannah recovered from what happened, but when she did, she was left with no place to go, with no one to take her in. She had no choice but to go where she could earn a living. And she thought London would provide the best opportunities for survival.”
“You said she was only fifteen. She was merely a child. What work did she hope to get with no references or experience?”
“She found that out after she arrived in London,” Thomas added. “To avoid starving, she turned to an
occupation many young women turn to—especially women with the looks to attract men. She became a…a woman of ill repute.”
Rafe felt as if he’d been punched in the gut. As if someone had belted him in the gut with both fists. “What?” He turned his gaze to his sister-in-law and the Duchess of Raeborn. Their downcast gazes told him he’d heard his brother correctly. “Hannah was a prostitute?”
. I doubt that you are familiar with the name,” Thomas continued, “but have you heard of Madam Genevieve?”
“Of course,” he said, his tone more hostile than he wanted. “There’s hardly a man who’s spent any amount of time in London who hasn’t heard of the famous Madam Genevieve. But what does that have to do with—”
He sank onto his chair as if he’d been struck dumb. He opened his mouth to speak, but no words would come.
The room spun around him in dizzying circles, and he couldn’t breathe. He wanted to call his brother a liar—but he couldn’t. He wouldn’t dare defame Hannah’s character with Caroline and the Duke and Duchess of Raeborn sitting there. The words had to be true, but he didn’t want to believe them.
He rose on legs that trembled and staggered to the other side of the room. He had no purpose for going there except the need to escape the pitying looks on everyone’s faces. It was as if they realized that she was the first woman with whom he’d ever fallen in love and knew they’d just destroyed his future.
“Why didn’t you tell me before now?” he said in a voice that sounded raspy to his own ears.
“We didn’t imagine that you and Hannah would be attracted to each other,” his sister-in-law said.
“When we saw what was happening,” the duchess said, “I talked to Hannah, but she assured me she could handle it. She was certain she could discourage you.”
“She tried,” he whispered.