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Authors: Diane Perkins

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BOOK: The Marriage Bargain
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“Must you go, Emma?”

She could make up an excuse. Say she had urgent business to attend to, like the feeding of the pigs or the weeding of the garden. She swung back to him.

His eyes pleaded. “Sit with me by the window. I long for fresh air and sunshine.”

She frowned. “You ought not to get out of bed.”

“I must.” Adjusting the banyan around him, he swung his legs over the side of the bed.

Reluctantly, she offered her arm.

He waved it away. “I think I can do it. Stand nearby to catch me if I’m mistaken.”

As if she could catch a falling six-foot-tall man. The strain of moving was all over his face, and he grunted as his feet hit the floor.

His legs held. “I need to get my strength back.”

The way to regain strength was to rest, but she did not argue further. Rather, she walked by him, close enough for him to lean on her if need be.

They slowly made it to two side chairs in the small alcove by the bay windows overlooking the park at the rear of the house. He levered himself into one of them. “Would you open a window for me, please?”

She hesitated, concerned he would catch a chill.

He gave her a somewhat desperate look. “Emma, I cannot be closed up in here a moment longer. I need the air.”

His panic was clear. Had he been thinking of the coffin? Of being trapped in it?

She’d felt trapped in London, when they met. She remembered how she’d thought she might perish if she could not escape the walls surrounding her and find a place with fields and trees and space to run. Even Hyde Park had been no release. Any time she’d spent there had been confined in a curricle, seated next to Spence’s uncle.

Yes, she could recall feeling suffocated.

She lifted the sash, opening the window as wide as it could go, though the window was taller than she. Spence struggled to his feet again to lean against the window frame and take deep breaths of the cool spring air. Like gentle fingers, the breeze ruffled his hair.

“I forgot this fragrance,” he said, still inhaling deeply. “Kellworth in the spring. No other place smells like it.”

She knew what he meant. The fresh grass, the newly tilled earth, the garden’s new riot of flowers. It was how hope might smell, had she dared to believe in hope.

He turned to go back to the chair and lost his balance. Emma seized his arm and held on until his feet were again firm beneath him.

He gave a dry laugh. “You have rescued me again, Emma. I nearly tumbled out the window.”

She shook inside from more than his close call.

He grimaced as he sat himself in the chair. “I detest feeling this weak.”

She released his arm. “You will recover.”

He looked up at her. “I am impatient.”

Of course. He would be eager to be well, to be away, to be back to life away from her, where he would not have to give Kellworth or his wife a second’s thought.

She folded her arms across her chest and spoke stiffly. “If you do not take care, your convalescence will be longer still.”

His blue eyes looked puzzled, but she turned and started to straighten up the room. Or rather, to rearrange items that needed no rearranging.

“Sit a moment,” he begged.

Girding herself, she marched back to the chair and sat, folding her hands in her lap.

He tilted his head, as if thinking. “I know better than to ask how you go on. You will scold me and say I am not well enough to hear it.”

She recognized his attempt at good humor. She simply did not wish to respond to it.

But he would not make it easy to evade him. He smiled at her. “Tell me what you did today.”

He could not truly wish to hear the events of her day. Of rising early and dressing herself so that when Susan shuffled up the stairway, she would not have too much to do. Of searching for some mending so her maid might feel useful but not be overtaxed. Of checking with Mrs. Cobbett and Cook in the kitchen to figure how to stretch the food so that the guests would be satisfied and would not question the meagerness of the fare. Of donning her wide-brimmed straw hat, old boots, and gloves so she could tend the vegetable garden and check on her pigs.

It would not serve for him to hear all that.

“I worked in the garden,” she said.

He nodded, clearly wanting her to go on.

“And then Mr. Wolfe’s valet arrived.”

“Arjun.” He nodded. “What did you think of him?”

It was easier to talk of something that had nothing to do with either of them. “He looked to be from India, but he spoke like an Englishman.”

“He is a bit of a mystery. I do not believe Wolfe knows the man’s story, except that in India, his family served Wolfe’s mother’s family for over a generation. Wolfe’s mother is half Indian, an aristocratic family, but he dislikes talking of this.”

Wolfe would be unhappy talking of anything with her, Emma was certain. She was unlikely to discuss his parentage, under any circumstances.

Their feeble conversation faltered, and Emma feared he would return to the subject of Kellworth, so she asked a question. “You have known Mr. Wolfe and Lord Blakewell a long time?”

A softness came into his eyes. “A very long time. We were schoolmates. We’ve been nigh inseparable since.”

It was on the tip of Emma’s tongue to remark that a wife should know her husband’s best friends, but she bit it back, and turned to look out the window.

“Thank you for welcoming them here, Emma.” His voice turned low again.

She gave a sarcastic laugh. She had not precisely welcomed them. It would be more accurate to say she tolerated them. “This is your house, Spence. How could I do otherwise?”

One corner of his mouth turned up, an endearing expression, and she was irritated that it affected her much as it had when they first met.

“I think of Kellworth as yours,” he said.

She took a sharp breath, barely able to hold back the diatribe she’d practiced in her mind for three years. In their marriage bargain she’d not bargained for hardship and want.

Even so, she loved Kellworth as if it
were
her own. She rose and walked over to the window. She longed to see the estate prosper again, to see the house restored to its original beauty, but could not discuss this with him. Not yet.

“Have . . . have you been sleeping well?” she asked instead, her tone polite. He had not come into her room again, terrified of being alone. He had not again slept holding her in his arms.

“Tolerably well,” he replied, his voice uncertain. “The lamp you set in my chamber is a great comfort. As is knowing you would hear me if I called you.”

There was a rap at the door and Mr. Hale entered. “I beg pardon, m’lord, but your cousin, Reverend Keenan, has come to call on you.”

Spence glanced at Emma, with a look that seemed regretful. He turned back to the butler. “Of course, Mr. Hale. Ask him to come in.”

Reuben must have been waiting in the hallway, because he walked in directly. His step faltered when he spied Emma. He strode over to Spence’s chair.

“By God, you are out of bed!” Reuben spoke jovially. “I confess to being astonished!” He thrust out his hand, and when Spence raised his to shake it, Reuben covered the hand with both of his. “How are you feeling, Cousin?”

“A bit better,” Spence replied.

Reuben turned to Emma. “And you, Emma? It is good to see you.”

“I am well,” she said. “Will you come for dinner, Reuben?”

He gave a polite nod. “I would be delighted.” He spoke as if it had been an age since he’d dined at Kellworth instead of only a day.

She walked over to the bundle of soiled clothes and bandages. “I shall inform Mr. Hale to set you a place.”

It was an excuse to leave the room. She glanced back before walking out the door.

Spence was gazing at her. “Good day, Emma.”

“Good day,” she mumbled, and hurried out of the room.

She carried the bundle to the back stairs, intending to take it to the laundry. From below came the sounds of retching. Emma hurried down.

On the landing Tolley knelt over a chamber pot, vomiting. The exotic valet Arjun was at his side.

Arjun looked up at her approach. If he was surprised to see the lady of the house carting laundry down the servants’ staircase, he gave no indication.

“What is wrong?” she cried.

“He has not yet been able to explain,” replied Arjun calmly. “In a moment, perhaps.”

Emma dropped her bundle and hurried back to her room to fetch some water and a clean cloth. When she returned, Tolley was seated on the landing floor, leaning against the banister.

She dampened the cloth and crouched down to wipe his face. “Are you all right, Tolley?”

“Yes, m’lady,” he moaned.

“Give him a sip of the water,” Arjun suggested.

She handed Tolley the pitcher, but stopped him from drinking too much.

“Forgive me, ma’am,” Tolley gasped. “I tried to make it to outside.”

“Do not think of it,” she said. “You must have more than a toothache. Shall I summon Mr. Price?”

Tolley strained to reach into a pocket of his coat. He handed her the vial. “I think it was the laudanum, ma’am.” He clasped his hand over his cheek. “My tooth pains me still.”

Arjun extended his hand. “May I see it?”

She gave him the vial. He opened it and sniffed.

Tolley coughed and winced in pain. Emma gave him another sip of water. “I took the laudanum and was about to lie down to rest, but I felt I would be sick. My pardon, ma’am. I grabbed the pot and ran, but I did not make it in time.” He took hold of the banister and pulled himself to his feet. “I shall tend to this.” Swaying on his feet, he gestured toward the pot.

“No, you shall not,” Emma insisted. “You must return to your bed.”

He hesitated, but she gave him a firm glare. “I insist, Tolley.”

Nodding, he lumbered up the stairs.

Emma held her breath against the stench and reached for the chamber pot.

Arjun stopped her. “I will tend to it, my lady.”

Somehow she felt she would be better suited to the task of carting away vomit than this pristine gentleman’s gentleman, but she took a step back. “Thank you, Arjun.”

He nodded, but regarded her with a furrowed brow.

“Yes, Arjun?”

He handed her Tolley’s empty vial. “The vial did not contain laudanum, my lady.”

Her eyes widened.

“The vial held a syrup made from the ipecacuanha root,” he said.

This meant nothing to her.

“Ipecacuanha is known to induce vomiting,” he went on. “The young man appears quite robust. He will suffer no ill effects, do not fear. With your permission and his, I will provide him something to relieve the toothache.”

She blinked. “But it was supposed to be laudanum.”

He shrugged, then turned to pick up the chamber pot.

As he started down the stairs, she stopped him. “What if he had not been robust?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“What if the person taking the vial had not been robust? What if he had been quite ill?”

Arjun paused. “Someone very sick might be endangered.”

Emma remained still as the valet proceeded down the stairs, but as soon as he was out of sight, she proceeded to the library, asking a passing maid to inform the vicar she wished to speak with him before he left.

A few minutes later Reuben entered the library. “What did you wish of me, Emma? You know I would do anything you asked of me.”

The tone of his voice set off warnings. She so wished he would not imply this unwanted devotion toward her.

She held out the medicine vial. “This was not laudanum, Reuben. You gave Spence an emetic.”

His jaw dropped and he staggered. “Grant me mercy. Tell me I did not do such a thing!”

She shoved the bottle at him. “Smell it!”

He leaned over so the vial reached his nose. “Dear God.” He collapsed in a chair and wiped his brow. “My cousin looked too well to have been harmed by it. Say it is so.”

She did not sit. “He did not take any of it. But if he had—in his weakened state—”

He held up his hand. “Do not go on, my dear. Do you not think I know what the result might have been? I would never forgive myself if Spence came to harm at my hand.”

“I want to know how this happened, Reuben.” Emma glared at him.

“I . . . I . . .” He took a breath. “I do not know!” He covered his mouth with his hand, then blurted out, “I must have mixed up the vials! I asked Mr. Price for something for dysentery. I had a touch of it, you see. He gave me the laudanum for Spence at the same time!”

She put her hands on her hips. “Did you not discover that your medicine tasted like laudanum?”

His round cheeks trembled. “I never took any of it. My . . . problem resolved itself.” He rose to his feet. “Here, I will bring the laudanum when I return for dinner.”

“Never mind. Spence will not take it.” She could not believe Reuben would be so heedless.

“I must take more care,” he wailed. “‘He who ignores discipline despises himself, but whoever heeds correction gains understanding.’”

“That is all very well—” began Emma.

“Proverbs, you know.” Reuben reached for her hand. “Tell me what you wish me to do about this and I will do whatever you bid, my dear lady. You have had trials enough without my adding to them.”

She pulled her hand away. “There is no need to turn maudlin, Reuben. There is nothing for you to do.”

“I shall confess the whole to my cousin,” he continued. “And beg for his forgiveness.”

“You will do no such thing,” she scolded. “I will not have you telling Spence things that will only distress him.”

His eyes widened in shock. “Do not tell me you have a
tendre
for him, after all that has transpired!”

She certainly did not wish to discuss the cauldron of feelings she had for her husband with Reuben.

She made herself give him a level gaze. “I have compassion for the sick, no matter who it might be.” There was only a twinge of guilt at lying to the vicar.

He stared at her for long enough that she wished she could squirm. “If only . . . ,” he began, then cleared his throat. “I fear for my cousin and his companions. ‘Those who sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind,’ you know.”

BOOK: The Marriage Bargain
12.1Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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