Read The Marriage Bargain Online
Authors: Diane Perkins
“I hear a carriage.” Wolfe stepped into the road to check.
The dark chaise clattered into view, rumbling to a stop not far from where Wolfe stood. Two men stepped out. Lord Esmund was hatless, and his shock of red hair glowed in the early-morning light. Spence studied him. The fool was in debt to his ears from gambling, and naught but a boy, barely of age, but only five years younger than Spence himself. Esmund was as unfledged as a bird just pecking out of its shell. He played at a man’s game, however, and Spence figured he was too green to even know it.
Blake and another young man who, with his red hair, had to be Esmund’s brother, Lord John, bent their heads together in conference. A third man stumbled out of the carriage, a bulbous creature with an unkempt coat and a weave to his step.
Wolfe strolled up to Spence. “The surgeon looks as if he’s been dipping deep into his medicine.”
“His brandy, more like.” Spence laughed.
“Precisely.” Wolfe looked grim.
Spence and Wolfe tried to overhear the discussion between the two seconds.
“I’ll be glad when this is over and we might get some breakfast,” Spence whispered.
“It still makes no sense why the boy carried things this far.” Wolfe frowned.
“Spence?” Blake called to him as casually as if asking him to gaze upon some interesting shard of antiquity.
He walked over.
Blake’s handsome features appeared chiseled in stone, as they always looked before battle. “The pistols are loaded.”
Spence nodded as Wolfe joined them, a deep line between his eyebrows. “I dislike this whole matter, Spence. It smells rank.”
Wolfe always smelled trouble, but at the moment Spence did not care what drove Esmund to make his false accusation. He merely wanted to get the business over with, so the three of them could set off toward that fine inn they’d passed on the way. He was hungry for eggs and ham and a pint of brew.
Spence glanced at his offender, who shook like a wagon rolling down a stony road. God help the lad. Esmund would be lucky not to shoot himself in the foot.
Spence gave Wolfe a wry smile. “In any event, there’s nothing to be done but see it through.”
Lord John handed Esmund the pistol. To the young man’s credit, he seemed to garner some backbone. His trembling eased a bit.
Returning to his customary cocky smile, Blake handed Spence the other pistol. Its stock was walnut, textured to keep from slipping in a sweating palm. The barrel was heavy and nearly as thick at the muzzle as at the breech. Sighting ought to be more accurate. If this pistol contained some of Manton’s secret rifling, it would be more accurate still. All in all, it was a fine weapon.
Blake and Lord John consulted their watches. “Stations, gentlemen,” Blake announced.
Spence and Esmund each counted out twelve paces and turned, arms at their sides, pistols pointed to the ground. The scent of new grass and honeysuckle filled Spence’s nostrils. In the distance a cock crowed. The breeze was light but bracing on his cheek. It was like any fine day in the country.
“As agreed, you will fire simultaneously at my signal.” Blake used his best captain’s voice. Its volume threatened to summon the magistrate from the next county.
Spence drew in a breath, held it, and watched Blake from the corner of his eye.
“Attend!” Blake called, his white handkerchief raised high above his head. “Present!”
Spence’s heart accelerated. He raised his arm, glancing from the church spire just visible over Esmund’s shoulder back to Blake.
Blake’s fingers opened and the handkerchief fluttered from them like a butterfly in flight. Spence fired.
Through the smoke from his pistol, he spied Esmund, frozen in place. Unbloodied, thank God. The barrel of Esmund’s pistol swayed up and down, back and forth.
Spence turned his face to him, unflinching. He’d stood fast countless times as French soldiers charged straight for him. Their sabers and pistol balls had not killed him then, and Esmund’s swaying hand was more likely to shoot one of the birds soaring overhead.
Suddenly Esmund’s face contorted and he emitted a sound more like a sob than a battle cry.
Fire and smoke flashed from the barrel, and the crack of the pistol broke through the air. Spence heard the pistol ball zing toward him. He smiled and thought of how cool the ale would feel on his throat.
The ball hit Spence with a dull thud. Its force knocked him backward as it passed through his coat, through his shirt, and, with a sharp, piercing pain, into his flesh.
He realized with a shock that he had been hit and was falling backward. This was not the way the Ternion should end.
Then, as if time stood still, Spence thought of his wife. He remembered her youth, her vulnerability, her gratitude when he’d married her—in name only. He opened his mouth to beg Blake and Wolfe protect her, because now he could not. The only sound that came from his mouth was a moan.
he thought as his head seemed to explode against something hard on the ground.
y lady, two gentlemen to see you!”
Emma Keenan, Countess of Kellworth, jumped to her feet at the footman’s quick approach. The weeds she’d just pulled from the vegetable garden scattered at her feet.
“To see me?” Wiping the dirt from her gloves, she caught Tolley’s apparent urgency. Whoever these visitors were, they could not have arrived at a worse time. She looked more like a field hand than the lady of the manor.
“Yes, ma’am.” Tolley sounded worried. “Mr. Hale said to fetch you straight away and to make haste.”
Such dispatch from the elderly butler did not bode well. Poor Mr. Hale tended to move at the pace of a lame snail. For him to request speed suggested a matter of great importance.
At one time she would have been certain such unusual callers would have come to tell her that her husband had been struck dead on some battlefield, but she knew Spence to be in London at present. His cousin had informed her of that fact.
Shaking out her skirt, Emma nearly ran to keep up with Tolley, who undoubtedly took Mr. Hale’s word very seriously. As they crossed through the kitchen gardens to the house, the out-of-breath footman could tell her nothing more about the callers. She and Tolley entered the house from the back, and Emma hung up her wide-brimmed hat and her apron on a hook by the door. She removed her muddy half boots and slipped her feet into the worn pair of shoes she’d left there earlier.
“Tell Mr. Hale I shall be there directly,” she told Tolley, before dashing up the servants’ stairs to her bedchamber.
Her maid, Susan, nearly as ancient as Mr. Hale, dozed by the window, a piece of mending in her lap. She woke with a snort when Emma closed the door.
“There are callers, Susan. I must change.”
“Callers, ma’am?” It took several seconds for the maid to move her stiff limbs out of the chair.
“I must dress quickly.”
But Susan could move only so fast, so Emma unfastened the laces of the shabby dress she wore to work in the garden and pulled it over her head. She washed her face and hands and removed one of her better dresses from the clothes press. While the maid’s arthritic fingers slowly worked the buttons, Emma stuffed her hair into a fresh cap. It wasn’t until she was halfway down the main staircase that she remembered the lace of her sleeves was sadly frayed.
Mr. Hale waited for her in the hall, looking very somber, so unusual for him. He typically was cheerful and the most pleasant butler she’d ever encountered, though she could probably count that number on the fingers of one hand. “Two gentlemen in the drawing room, ma’am.”
“Who are they, Mr. Hale?”
His brow furrowed. “Friends of the earl.”
Spence’s friends. Her heart quickened at the thought of her husband. She mentally kicked herself for it. After these three difficult years, the mention of his name ought not turn her into a besotted schoolgirl.
The gentlemen must be here by mistake, that was it. They must think Spence in residence at Kellworth, not realizing how unlikely a prospect that would be. Spencer Keenan thought nothing of Kellworth. Or of his wife.
Emma hurried into the drawing room, one of the few rooms where the furniture was not covered with sheeting against the dust and dirt.
Two tall gentlemen turned at her entrance, one fair-haired and quite handsome, the other dark and forebiding. Both looked to be in shock, as if powder had suddenly exploded in their faces.
The fair one approached her. “Lady Kellworth?” His voice rose incredulously. “Allow me to make our introduction. I am Viscount Blakewell and this is Mr. Gideon Wolfe. We are friends of . . . of your husband.” He had to swallow to get those last words out.
Emma extended her hand. “How do you do.”
Blakewell shook it, managing a congenial smile that created two deep dimples creasing his cheeks, but did not reach his eyes. “Forgive us, my lady. We are somewhat surprised at your appearance.”
She could not doubt that, trying to surreptitiously fold the tattered lace under her sleeve before turning to shake Mr. Wolfe’s hand.
“Where is my husband, gentlemen? Perhaps you may give me his direction so I might contact him.”
The two men exchanged dark glances.
Emma could guess what that meant. “He has forbidden you to give me his direction, I suppose?” She gave a derisive laugh. “Well, I beg you would pass on a message from me to him. It is about his estate—”
Mr. Wolfe broke in, his gaze filled with suspicion. “The place looks shabby. Neglected. Why has it not been cared for?”
Emma bristled, tossing the dark man the quelling look he deserved. “I have kept out the elements and made sure its people had food to eat. More than that I’ve not had the pleasure to accomplish.”
Blakewell stepped between her and the indignant Mr. Wolfe. “There is much we do not know.” His eyes full of sympathy, he reached toward her as if to pat her on the arm.
Emma stepped out of his reach. She did not know these gentlemen any better than she knew her husband. “What is the purpose of your visit, if you please?”
The two men again exchanged looks that could only be described as stressed.
A muscle near Blakewell’s eye twitched. “Do sit down, Lady Kellworth. Perhaps a companion might be summoned to join you?”
Emma felt apprehension, as insidious as a garden weed, grow through her from head to toe. “I will stand, thank you.” She managed to keep her voice steady.
Blakewell paused, turning away and pressing his fingers against his eyes before facing her again. “Your husband is dead, ma’am. We come bearing his coffin.”
Even though she had guessed what his words would be, Emma felt as if the walls of Kellworth had fallen down upon her. It was difficult to remain on her feet.
She closed her eyes. “How?”
“He was killed—” he began.
Mr. Wolfe interrupted. “Blake, take care!”
Emma could hear Blakewell turn from her to address his friend. “We must tell her. She is Spence’s wife, man.”
“What do we know of her?” Wolfe countered. “Nothing. We ought to heed what we do.”
Emma opened her eyes and raised her voice. “How did my husband die?”
Mr. Wolfe swung away and paced over to the window. Blakewell stared at her a long time, before finally answering her. “He was killed in a duel.”
Another blow. His death had not been due to something as honorable as war, or natural as illness. It had been in a duel, a useless way to die, something men chose to do over such trifles as insults or card games or women.
At the thought of Spence fighting over a woman, a surprising shaft of pain nearly doubled her over. She hoped Blakewell had not noticed, and tried to manage a brave stare. “Pray tell me why my husband fought a duel.”
Blakewell took a breath. “He was accused of cheating at cards—”
“He cheated at cards,” she repeated in disgust.
Nearly as bad as dueling over a woman. Until Spence’s abandonment of Kellworth, Emma would not have thought him so lost to honor as to cheat. Had Spence fallen that much in debt?
“He was falsely accused!” Mr. Wolfe cried. “And, if you ask me, he was set up.”
“Yes. Yes,” agreed Blakewell. He gave Emma an intent look. “He was not cheating, my lady, but need I say this is a delicate matter. Duels are illegal, you must know, and, for everyone’s sake, especially for your husband’s good name, I beg you will tell no one he died in such a way.”
“I wonder you told me at all,” she said miserably, hating that these two strangers were informing her of how her husband died. “I wonder why you even brought him here.”
“We brought . . . brought Spence here to be buried in the family vault. It was the least we could do.”
“The very least,” Emma whispered. “When did this happen?”
“Yesterday morning,” Wolfe told her.
Yesterday morning. Had it been at the same time she worked on the accounts, trying to contrive some way to pay for the spring planting? Had Spence fallen mortally wounded, drawing his last breath when she’d slammed her fist onto the desk and wished him to the devil?
How could she bear having done such a thing?
Feeling as if she were about to shatter into little pieces, Emma forced herself to lift her chin. “Gentlemen, please be seated. I shall step out to arrange for tea.”
She walked out of the room and into the hall, where Mr. Hale waited, the housekeeper, Mrs. Cobbett, at his side. She stood stiffly in front of them.
“Is it the earl?” Mr. Hale asked, his wrinkled face even more creased than usual. “They bore a coffin.”
She nodded, tears springing to her eyes. “He is dead, Mr. Hale. The earl is dead.”
“I feared as much.” The elderly butler’s shoulders sagged.
Mrs. Cobbett opened her arms and Emma collapsed into them as waves of grief assaulted her, every bit as unexpected as the news of Spence’s death.
She thought she hated him. How many times had she cursed him for leaving her with a crumbling estate, elderly retainers who deserved to be pensioned off, and so little money she could barely keep them all in food? The whole countryside cursed him. The failure of Kellworth to prosper had affected everyone.