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Authors: Joan Johnston

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BOOK: Invincible
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6

“H
ello, Bull.”

“Hello, Duchess.”

Bella felt her heart flutter when Bull called her Duchess. It had been his pet name for her during their marriage, spoken with tenderness and love. He'd rarely used it after they'd separated. Right now it sounded…so very good. She waited for the snide or snarly comment that usually followed, turning their post-separation encounters into a cat and dog fight.

It didn't come.

She eased back into the Adirondack chair situated on the sunny bank of the James River, where both families had gathered for a Mother's Day picnic, and gestured him into the chair beside her. “Would you like to join me?”

“How are you?” he asked as he stooped under a colorful umbrella and slid into the slatted wooden lawn chair beside her.

Such an innocent question. How should she answer it? She felt the tension gather in her shoulders just from
sitting so close to Bull. Felt her heart begin the ridiculous pitty-pat that proximity to this masterful, passionate man always caused. She looked into his sky-blue eyes and opened her mouth to tell him the truth. What came out was, “I'm fine.”

His gaze roamed her face. “You look a little pale. I didn't see you at Cote D'Azur or Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat over the winter. What have you been doing with yourself?”

I skipped a holiday on the French Riviera this year because I was getting a lot of medical tests. You see, my heart is failing. I'm slowly—but surely—dying.

Bella thought the words. They never made it out of her mouth. She'd heard the subtle insinuation in Bull's voice. The mocking suggestion that she'd been hiding out with yet another lover. The truth stuck in her throat.

Lies came so much easier. At the beginning of their marriage, lies had been necessary. The truth would have destroyed everything.

Unfortunately, lying had become the easy way to keep peace between them. It was difficult to believe she could tell the truth now and not have it turned against her. But she'd already lost Bull. When the most important thing in her life was gone, what did she have to lose?

“To be honest, Bull, I'm—”

Before she could finish her sentence, she was interrupted by Foster's three teenage girls. They rushed up to her Adirondack chair and grabbed her hands and arms, pulling her to her feet.

“Come and join us, Aunt Bella,” one of the twins urged. “We're going canoeing.”

Bella was already standing by the time she said, “No, thank you, girls. I prefer to enjoy the James River from its banks, rather than by paddling through it. You go ahead.”

The twins turned their attention to Bull, who'd risen to his feet when the girls pulled her upright. “Come with us, Uncle Bull,” one twin pleaded. “We hardly ever see you anymore.”

“Please come,” the second twin urged. “There are three of us, so if we take two canoes we need another paddler.”

“What about your dad?” Bull asked. “Have you asked him?”

“Daddy said he needs to talk to Mom,” the youngest of the three girls said.

“We think that's a good idea,” one of the twins said. Three worried glances slid to their parents, who were following an old wagon trail along the river bank. Foster and Patsy walked along separate tracks in the dirt road. The conversation seemed heated.

“What about one of your older brothers?” Bull asked.

“Ben and Carter already took their girlfriends out on the Chris-Craft,” one of the twins replied.

“C'mon, Uncle Bull.
Pleeeeeze,
” the youngest girl begged, latching onto his arm with both her hands. “Otherwise, I can't go.”

Bull glanced in Bella's direction. “I hoped to spend some time talking with your aunt.”

Bella wondered what he had in mind. They'd rarely spoken cordially during their separation. They hadn't spoken at all since February. And yet, before it was too late, she hoped to explain things she'd left unexplained.

Time was running out.

She was seized with a sudden fear. Once she told Bull the truth, there would be no turning back. Whatever chance they might have had for some sort of reconciliation before she died might be gone. There was still a great deal of the day left. Maybe, if she had more time to think, she could find a better way to say what had to be said.

She glanced toward Camille's crestfallen face and said, “Go ahead, Bull. We can talk when you get back.”

“All right,” he said, his gaze intent on her. “I'm going to hold you to that.”

Bella watched as Camille slid her arm through Bull's and hauled him off toward the boathouse, talking his ear off as he strode away. The twins ran ahead. Their matching pink bikini bathing suits revealed just how grown-up they'd become in the years since she'd last seen them.

The sun was hot, and Bella settled back into the umbrella-shaded Adirondack. Foster's second family was almost grown and would soon be leading lives apart
from their parents. Meaning Patsy might feel more free to walk away from her husband. Which would be too bad. She didn't like Foster, but she hated to see another family broken up.

Bella's gaze naturally sought out the riverbank again, where Patsy and Foster were walking together. Or rather, walking in the same direction. Their body language made it clear they weren't “together.” They stopped and faced each other.

Patsy's chin jutted, and she perched balled fists on her hips. Foster locked his hands behind his head, then dropped them to his sides as he took a step toward Patsy. She took a step back, maintaining the distance between them.

The sharp sound of Patsy's voice carried to Bella, but not the words she spoke. The wind caught Foster's intense masculine tones and carried them in her direction, as well, without revealing what he'd said.

Bella wished she knew more about what had caused the rift between them in the first place. She'd always envied the fact that, after he divorced his first wife, Foster had found another woman to love. In the years since she and Bull had separated, Bella had never found another man who could inspire anything close to the feelings Bull had. Lord knew—and the gossip columns had reported endlessly—how hard she'd tried.

It was little comfort to know that Bull hadn't found anyone either. He, at least, had gone through several long-term liaisons. In each case, she'd held her breath
waiting to hear him ask her for a divorce. But the relationships had always ended.

With the days of her life numbered, Bella knew how foolish she'd been to walk away from the one man she'd ever truly loved. All those wasted years! Regret seemed futile, but she felt it all the same. She wanted Bull's arms around her again before it was too late. She needed to tell him the truth. She just hoped he would be able to forgive her.

“Your Grace?”

Bella turned and felt her heart sink when she saw what Emily was holding. Her assistant had stayed at the main house to await news from the one child who hadn't yet replied to her invitation.

“Lord Maxwell won't be coming,” Emily said as she handed a floral card to Bella. “He sent flowers—your favorite, hyacinths—along with the note.”

“Thank you, Emily,” Bella said as she took the note. She opened it and read:

Dear Mother,

Sorry I can't be with you to celebrate. I'm sure you'll have plenty of company without me. I'll see you when you return home.

Max

The note sounded cold to Bella. It was certainly missing any sort of affection. Not
Love, Max
or even
Your loving son, Max.
Just
Max
. No XXXs or OOOs—no kisses or hugs.

Bella felt her throat swell with emotion. She swallowed over the painful lump that formed. She couldn't remember the last time she'd hugged or kissed one of her children. They'd been gone at school so much. That had been her choice, of course. It had seemed safer to keep them out of the line of fire while she and Bull were lobbing verbal grenades in the years before they'd finally moved into separate homes.

But the war had gone on for far too long. When she'd finally brought her sons home to Blackthorne Abbey on holiday, she'd found them aloof. And nothing she'd said or done had been able to melt the wall of ice that had grown between them.

The younger boys had followed Oliver's lead. Because of the rumors that had surrounded her eldest son's birth, Oliver had learned early how to fight back. He won the battle against the gossips by not caring what others thought…or felt.

Consequently, her eldest son had a ruthless streak that ran deep. Oliver wasn't entirely heartless. He clearly loved his younger brothers and sister. But he was unforgiving. And he could be cold-blooded, as he had been when he'd refused her invitation for Mother's Day without a stitch of Riley's politeness or Payne's tact or Max's apology or Lydia's kindness.

Her eldest son was a bitter man. Perhaps it was time to tell him who his father was. And how he had been conceived. Then his rancor toward the world could be aimed where it truly belonged.

Was that really fair? Would the truth make her son's
life better? Or a hundred times worse? By unburdening herself, wouldn't she be adding to the malignant weight her son had carried all his life?

“Your Grace? Are you feeling well?” Emily asked.

Bella realized her heart was pounding. “I'm fine,” she said. “Sit down, Emily. Get out of the sun.”

Emily smiled and said. “I like the sun, Your Grace. There's too little of it in England.”

Bella waved her away. “You should be off canoeing with the girls.”

“My place is here with you.”

“Then sit down,” she said. “I don't like to have you hovering.”

Emily looked guilty. And uncomfortable. She hesitated, then settled into the Adirondack Bull had vacated.

Bella felt awful for making her assistant feel self-conscious. Staying in one's place out of respect was one thing, but the girl took it too far. Emily was another person she was determined to see well-settled before the end. The woman deserved to be happy. Although, it was hard to imagine Emily being attracted to—or, unfortunately, attractive to—a man.

“Do you have a boyfriend, Emily?” she asked.

Emily's mouth dropped into an O of surprise. “Why, no, Your Grace.”

“Is there some man you fancy?”

Emily turned beet red. It wasn't an attractive color on her.

“I didn't mean to embarrass you,” Bella said. “I was merely curious.”

“There is a man, Your Grace, but…”

“But you're stuck traveling around the world with me.”

“It isn't that, Your Grace. I love spending time with you.”

“Then what is it, Emily?”

The young woman twisted her hands in her lap. At long last, she met Bella's gaze and said, “I've loved him from the moment I met him. But he doesn't even know I'm alive.”

“Oh.” That was a sad state of affairs. One Bella would have to rectify. Just as soon as she managed to get her own large brood married off.

“Are you sure you're all right, Your Grace?” Emily asked.

Bella realized she was twisting the large diamond she still wore on the third finger of her left hand in painful circles on her swollen finger. She laid her hands in her lap and said, “I'm disappointed about what's happened this weekend, if you want to know the truth.”

“Very understandable, Your Grace. Your children are—”

“Ungrateful monsters? Spoiled brats? Renegades without a conscience?”

“Oh, no, Your Grace,” Emily protested. “I would never—”

“I've said it for you,” Bella soothed. And yet, she felt
frustrated by the result of her first attempt at making amends with both husband and children.

Was it hope that made her feel so agitated? Or fear? Whatever she was going to do, whether it was trying to win back her husband, or finding spouses for her children, she'd better get started doing it.

She'd tell Bull the truth today, she decided. As for the other task she'd given herself… It wasn't going to be easy arranging romantic liaisons for her sons and daughter if she couldn't even get them to come see her for a special occasion like Mother's Day. She was simply going to have to intrude on their lives, whether they liked it or not.

But where to begin?

Max was in London. He'd even agreed to see her when she got home. She knew the perfect woman for her youngest son. She should have done something long ago to get the two of them together. Now, at long last, she hoped to make things right. It made sense to start matchmaking with Max.

“Emily, I need you to make some travel arrangements for us.”

“Certainly, Your Grace. Where are we going?”

“Home. But first we're going to—”

Foster descended on Bella like a blustery winter wind. “This is all your fault!”

Foster's unexpected attack frightened Bella enough to make her heart jump. She put a hand against her chest and shot a warning look at Emily, to keep her from revealing the existence of her heart condition.

“I have many sins for which I will have to answer,” Bella answered as languidly as she could. “I doubt any of them have much to do with you.”

“My wife sees you flitting around the world without a thought in your head and—”

“Flitting?” Bella interrupted, arching a disdainful brow.

“Wandering, traipsing, gadding about,” Foster interjected, furiously. “And she starts thinking life in one place is too confining.”

“Are you sure it's not life with
one man
she finds too confining?” Bella said in a silky voice.

Foster braced his hands on the arms of her Adirondack and leaned in so close she could feel his breath on her face. “You're not the one to be talking. At least my children showed up here today. You're reaping what you've sowed, Bella,” he said viciously.

BOOK: Invincible
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