Read The Marriage Bargain Online
Authors: Diane Perkins
“Indeed? I thought you would have sent Esmund news of my recovery.”
Blake laughed. “Of your resurrection, you mean?” He poured himself another glass. “We notified his family immediately and intended to send a dispatch directly to Esmund. His family would not tell us his whereabouts. They
us to do more. It was all very havey-cavey, as Wolfe would say, and it sent Wolfe jauntering off to find the twit. He suspects some sort of plot. You know how his mind works. Of course, we did discover Esmund’s debts had been paid off shortly after the duel.” He looked up at Spence. “I say, you must not have received my letter. I exerted myself to write all about it.”
“I’ve had no letters from you for over two weeks, not that I am tabulating,” Spence said.
Blake responded with a guileless look. “I sent the letter two days ago. Possibly you crossed paths with it on the road.”
“Anything else you exerted yourself to write?”
“Yes . . .” Blake frowned. “We found Ruddock.”
Spence sat up. “But that is splendid—”
Blake held up a hand. “Not so splendid. He was fished from the Thames. How his brother identified him, I shudder to think. The fellow had been in the water for weeks, apparently.”
“That is correct,” Blake said. “No money on him. His coat and shoes were gone. The victim of footpads. There has been an increase in crime apparently. Blamed on ex-soldiers with no work.”
“Deuce!” Spence sank back in his chair.
Blake leaned forward. “I did not write this in the letter, but the senior Ruddock told us that his brother received a message from your uncle about a week before he disappeared.”
Spence leaned forward. “My uncle?”
“Wolfe, as you may expect, perceives a connection between the two events, but they were a week apart.” Blake took another sip of his brandy.
“Was the message found?” Spence asked.
Blake shook his head. “But”—he lifted his finger—“there were two men arrested for attempting to rob a fellow in that very neighborhood. The man fought them off and got the better of them.”
“Did they admit to the crime?”
Blake laughed. “Of course they did not!”
Spence lowered his brows in thought. “My uncle may be involved in the embezzlement, however. He seems to have played a role in keeping Emma’s letters from reaching me.”
“That appears likely,” Blake agreed.
Spence groaned. “I should clear up this mess once and for all.”
There was much of a practical nature to accomplish. His affairs were still managed by Ruddock and Ruddock, and he certainly did not wish to continue there. He also wanted to fix things so Emma would feel secure about money, transfer a substantial amount to her name. If he returned to Kellworth bearing papers proving that, perhaps she might forgive him for running off in a panic.
The sky outside began to brighten.
“Do you have pen and ink?” he asked Blake.
Blake opened a drawer and placed the items on the table in front of Spence. “What are you doing?”
Spence dipped the pen in the ink. “Writing to Emma that I will return to her in three days’ time.” He glanced up at his friend. “I shall try to explain.”
But he feared she would not believe a word of what he wrote. Putting money into her hands might be his only chance to make restitution.
he next morning Emma woke with a throbbing head. Too filled with pain to open her eyes, she groped for Spence, but he was not there. His absence made her feel adrift, a ship without a sail in an ocean of pain. She made herself lie very still, but it was of scant help.
She tried to lift her eyelids, but it felt like being speared with sunlight. Clamping them shut right away, she’d not seen a thing, but something did not feel right. More cautiously she peered through her lashes until her eyes grew accustomed to the light. She blinked several times.
She was in her own bedchamber, in her own bed, alone. Forcing her mind to work, she tried to remember why she was not in Spence’s bed where she’d woken these past four weeks.
Memory returned. The crack of wood shattering. The curricle tipping. Flying through the air.
“Spence!” She sat up at once, then clutched at her head to stop the surge in pain.
Dorrie gave a surprised cry and jumped to her feet from the bedside chair. “There, there, my lady. You mustn’t rise up like that. You are supposed to rest. You had a very nasty spill yesterday.”
Emma gripped the girl’s arm. “Spence?”
Dorrie patted her hand. “His lordship is hale and hearty, I assure you. It was he who brought you home.”
Her maid eased Emma back against the pillows, and Emma closed her eyes again while her head throbbed. “I want to see him.”
Dorrie ceased her fussing with the bedcovers and did not answer right away. “His lordship is not in the house, my lady.”
“Have someone fetch him, Dorrie, if you please.”
“I . . . I do not know—” Dorrie began.
“Please send for him,” Emma cried. “Please, Dorrie.”
She wanted to see for herself that he was unhurt. She wanted the comfort of his arms, the consolation of his low voice, because she truly felt wretched.
The maid hesitated again. “Yes, my lady.”
Eyes still closed, Emma heard the swish of Dorrie’s skirts and the sound of her footsteps as the maid left the room. Emma lay very still until the pain diminished and she dozed off.
The sound of the door opening woke her. She sat up, but it was not Spence who walked in, but Mrs. Cobbett with Dorrie behind her.
Wincing with the pain again, she asked, “Where is Lord Kellworth?”
Mrs. Cobbett bustled to the bedside bearing her usual kindly smile. “Now, just you rest, my lady. His lordship is not here.”
“Where is he, Mrs. Cobbett?”
A sympathetic expression came over the housekeeper’s face and Emma sensed the foreboding of bad news. Mrs. Cobbett fussed with her chatelaine, jingling her keys like a musical instrument.
Emma seized the woman’s hand. “Where is he?”
Mrs. Cobbett glanced sideways before meeting Emma’s intent gaze. “My lady,” she began in a soft voice. “His lordship is gone—to London, my lady. He did not leave word when he will return.”
“Gone?” Emma gasped, her voice thin and reedy.
Mrs. Cobbett nodded.
“Gone,” she repeated again, this time more like a moan. She rose up on her knees, releasing her hold on Mrs. Cobbett. “No! It is not so! Say it is not so!” Tears stung her eyes and she pounded her fists against the mattress. She pulled at the bedcovers, twisting them in her hands. The two servants grabbed her arms, trying to calm her.
“No,” she cried over and over, trying to escape their grasp. “No.”
“You must calm yourself,” Mrs. Cobbett said with alarm. “You must be quiet.”
“He cannot have gone,” she wailed. “He cannot. There is some mistake.”
Her head pounded with pain, and she tried to grab it, but the two women would not release her. The stabbing pain exhausted her, and she fell back against the pillows in an agony of both body and spirit.
“There, there, now,” Mrs. Cobbett murmured, petting her head.
Dorrie dampened a towel in water and placed it on Emma’s forehead. Emma, despairing inside, could not move. Her breathing was ragged and tears streamed down her cheeks, pooling in the corners of her mouth. She could taste their saltiness.
Why had he left her? Why, when she lay ill in bed, after being insensible a full day? Was he so heartless? Why did he wait until she was most in need of him to flee from her again?
It pained her to think. The pain throbbing in her head made it impossible to make sense of anything.
Except that he had left her.
Her aching head kept her from moving, though she wanted to rage, to throw things, to shatter something as she herself felt shattered. Trying merely to bear the pain, she became aware of a sticky dampness between her legs. With a cry she rose up again, startling her servants. She flung off the covers and pulled up her nightdress.
Red droplets of blood stained the white bed linen.
“No!” wailed Emma. She thought more desolation impossible, but this cruelly proved her wrong.
Her courses had begun. She had not conceived. There would be no baby to hold, no piece of Spence to cling to.
She had nothing.
It was midday before Spence rose. He’d slept fitfully, his dreams filled with Emma. Emma laughing. Emma flushed with passion. Emma lying lifeless in the grass. His bed felt too empty, too cold.
He dressed quickly and hurried out to the street where he bought a Dutch biscuit from the basket of a girl hawking them. Her eyes were the same shade as Emma’s, he noticed. She smiled pertly and curtsied, and he hurried away from her, gulping down the biscuit. He headed toward White’s Club.
He hoped to encounter his uncle there. Uncle Keenan spent many an hour at the gentlemen’s club, championing the cause nearest and dearest to his heart—his own power and influence. At White’s, Uncle Keenan worked more diligently than when seated with his colleagues in Commons, where he could doze in his seat in St. Stephen’s Chapel while debates droned on.
Bond Street was crowded in this height of the Season. It was impossible for Spence not to meet people he knew. He greeted them, other members of the
the Polite World, the upper ten thousand. He had grown up in this society, had been schooled with its sons, had fought next to its soldiers.
Had married one of its daughters.
At the time an announcement of his marriage had appeared in the
and caused a flurry of gossip that the young earl had stolen the lady his powerful uncle had chosen for himself. Spence had no idea how long it had taken before a more compelling
captured interest. He had traveled back to Spain to try to explain to Blake and Wolfe about making a bargain to marry in name only.
But then he had not realized what he now knew with every drop of blood within him. He married Emma because he had fallen in love with her, but he had been afraid, so afraid, of loving her, lest he lose her as he had everyone else—except the Ternion. Perhaps that had been why he’d convinced himself he could make Emma happy merely by giving her a country home, away from the society in which her mother reveled.
At this moment Spence missed Emma terribly. He felt as if one of his limbs had been severed from his body. He was surprised he could walk, surprised no one could notice a part of him was missing.
Spence turned down St. James Street and spied the bow window of White’s Club, where Beau Brummell used to spend endless hours with his exclusive set. Spence heard Brummell was out of favor now, but had never troubled himself to learn the details. The man disdained army life, and Spence had no interest in him.
Spence had never spent much time in White’s, preferring to explore London’s more exciting and unsavory establishments with Blake and Wolfe, but it was a familiar enough place. Like Kellworth, it was a part of his heritage.
He chatted with a few acquaintances and soon learned his uncle was indeed present in the coffee room. Spence excused himself.
As he approached the room, he heard his uncle’s laugh. Blake suggested he not confront his uncle about the embezzlement right away, to wait to see if they could unearth some definitive evidence when they went to Ruddock and Ruddock on the morrow. Spence paused, observing the man’s behavior for himself. He had not called upon his uncle when previously in London, before his ill-fated duel. He had not seen the man since marrying Emma.
From the entryway, Spence spied Zachary Keenan seated at a table with another gentleman Spence recognized as Lord Castlereagh. He crossed the room to them.
His uncle glanced up in surprise, then his expression hardened.
Spence bowed. “Good day, Lord Castlereagh. Uncle.”
“Kellworth, is it?” Castlereagh said, using his title. “You served in the 28th, as I recall. We heard good reports of you.”
“I am complimented you should even remember me, sir,” Spence said. Castlereagh, now Foreign Secretary, had once been Secretary of War.
His uncle gave him a stiff, unwelcoming smile. “I thought you were rusticating.”
Spence deliberately made his expression affable. “I was, but business brought me back to town.” He gave his uncle no sign that he was inclined to walk away from the table.
Castlereagh stood. “Well, I must be off. I have business to attend to, you know.”
“It was an honor to see you, sir,” Spence said.
His uncle shook Castlereagh’s hand. “We shall speak more of that other matter.”
“With pleasure,” replied the secretary, who turned and sauntered away.
“You might as well sit.” Uncle Keenan gestured to the chair Castlereagh had vacated.
Spence obliged, catching the attention of a servant, who took his request for coffee.
“No strong drink?” his uncle asked with sarcasm, lifting his glass of port.
Spence would not be baited. “Later, perhaps.”
The servant brought a pot and cup to Spence.
“To what matter did you and Castlereagh refer?” Spence began conversationally.
“Take your seat in Lords and you will find out.” Uncle Keenan sneered. “Or do you still pretend you are not earl?”
Spence momentarily gritted his teeth. This was an old, worn subject, the topic of many a shouting match with his uncle after Stephen’s death. Spence had refused to sell the commission he had so recently purchased, and Uncle Keenan blasted him for putting his life at risk, insisting his responsibility lay with Kellworth.
But Spence had thought himself clever enough to settle both the responsibilities of his unwanted title and his yearning for adventure. His uncle had scoffed at his plans.
Uncle Keenan had been correct, of course.
Had that been the point of the embezzlement? Had his uncle wanted to prove to Spence he could not cede responsibility of Kellworth to others?
Such reasoning did not make sense. Spence, the guilty party, had not suffered from it. The people of Kellworth had suffered.
Emma had suffered.
His uncle shrugged, not waiting for an answer. “I trust Lady Kellworth is well?” His tone was obligatory.