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Authors: Diane Perkins

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BOOK: The Marriage Bargain
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She drew back, but he would not release his grip on her hand. The lamp cast enough light for her to see the deep horror in his blue eyes, the panic he tried to conceal.

She could not help but feel it herself. “You remember it.”

The confirmation appeared in his eyes.

He released her hand, and Emma fought an unbidden urge to sweep her fingers through his hair, as she’d done so many times while he’d been feverish.

She knelt down to his level and spoke to him as she would a child determined to stay awake after a nightmare. “It is over now. You must not think of it. You are safe.”

Suddenly his arms encircled her. He held on to her so tightly she could barely breathe. She felt him tremble against her, and it seemed that his trembling resonated throughout her whole body.

He released her, leaning back against the chair, running a ragged hand through the very hair she’d wanted to touch. “You must think me daft.”

For the moment the thoughts she had of him were as jumbled as her emotions. She did not respond.

He gave her a wan smile. “I seem to have developed a fear of the dark.”

She shot to her feet and started for the connecting door. “Is there no fire in your grate? I shall see to it—”

“Come back,” he pleaded. “The fire is adequate. It . . . it casts a bit of light. I did not want to be alone.”

She stopped and turned back to him, clasping her hands together in front of her. “It will only take a moment to fetch Tolley to stay with you.”

“No.” His eyes swept the room wildly before his gaze returned to her. “Would you sit with me, Emma? Talk to me?”

Her impulse was to refuse, but how often had she heard in her own voice that same edge of controlled panic, the sense that one was held together by sticking plaster? Even though it would take mere minutes to fetch Tolley, she knew how long minutes could be when one was fearful.

“I know I am delaying your sleep,” he went on. “But, a little while, please?”

She walked over to the satinwood armchair adjacent to his chair and sat down. “What do you wish to discuss, my lord?”

His smile turned sheepish. “Oh . . . anything.”

There was much too much for Emma to say, and now she was certain he would not be strong enough to hear the half of it.

She put her hands in her lap and waited.

He tried to straighten himself in the chair and grunted with the attempt. The pain still on his face, he said, “You mentioned letters. I never received letters from you, Emma.”

But she had sent many. She’d sent them to his man of business. She’d sent them to his regimental offices. She’d even sent them directly to Spain and France, wherever the newspapers said he was stationed. It was impossible to believe he could not have received even one letter. How was she to respond to this? Say, “I don’t believe you”?

She responded, “I sent them.”

His brow wrinkled and he frowned. She was painfully aware that his breathing still sounded as if he’d run from the village without stopping. He twisted in the chair again, and something twisted inside her when he grimaced in pain. He closed his eyes, she supposed waiting for the pain to pass.

He opened them again and rested his gaze upon her for such a long moment that it was her turn to feel like wincing. “You’ve changed, Emma.”

She bowed her head and examined her hands, noticing her ragged nails. She curled them into her palms.

“You are not the girl I left here.”

No, she’d aged. She knew she had become old and bitter, but it was her bitterness and anger that propelled her forward, forcing her to find ways to ward off the suffering that would ensue if the farms failed.

She raised her eyes to him and lifted her chin. “No, I am not the girl you left here.”

His expression turned puzzled, and his breathing quickened. Impulsively she reached over and touched his hand. She forced her voice to exude sympathy. It was surprisingly easy. “There will be plenty of time later to talk of this, Spence. It is best you go back to bed.”

The panic again flashed across his face. “A moment more . . .”

They could not sit here longer. He looked to be at the end of his endurance.

She stood. “I will help you into your room. I will stay with you.”

He gave her a grateful, hopeful look, but then shook his head. “You have given up enough sleep on my account.”

Her eyes widened in surprise. She was not certain she liked him knowing she’d remained at his side during the days and nights of his fever.

She shook her head. “Do not concern yourself with me. The hour is early yet and I am not at all sleepy.” She extended her hand. “Come. I will help you to your room.”

He waved her hand away. “No, I believe I can do it.”

He tried to lever himself up by pressing his hands on the armrests of the chair, but his face contorted in pain. He quickly dropped the hand weakened by his wounded shoulder and tried again using his good hand. His muscles shook with the effort. Emma reached for him, his strain resounding in her as if she, too, endured the struggle.

He managed to stand without her, bracing himself for a moment. Still holding on to the chair, he took a cautious step forward and his legs began to give out.

Emma caught him, nearly tumbling to the floor herself. “Lean on me. I will help you.”

They inched their way toward his chamber, but he had weakened enough that Emma needed to bear most of his weight. She stumbled and they both struggled to regain balance.

“I fear I will not make the door, Emma,” he gasped.

And there would still be a distance to go, once in his room. Emma glanced toward her bed. “I will put you in my bed.”

He did not argue, and they laboriously crept to the side of her bed. He could do little to assist himself getting atop the bed, so Emma used the reserve of her strength to lift his legs and slide them up on the bed. She covered him with the blankets, wondering if she should make a fire in her fireplace, an extravagance she’d learned to forgo except on the coldest of winter nights.

She stepped away from the bed.

He tried to sit up. “Do not leave.”

“I am merely tending to the fire.” She gestured toward his door.

“Leave it, Emma. Come lie with me.”

Lie with him? The idea brought a sudden desire to run from the room. It was bad enough that he lay in her bed.

“Please, Emma. Forget the fire. It is being alone I cannot abide. Not tonight.”

In spite of herself, she thought of him awakening in his coffin, struggling to get out, calling for help with no one to hear. Her shoulders sagged and she walked back to the bed.

“Lie with me,” he pleaded.

She thought of the expense of leaving the lamp and the fireplace burning in his room. It would only take a moment to tend to them. She thought of dragging a chair over to the bedside. There was no reason she could not sit with him rather than lie next to him in her bed.

He grabbed her hand. “Please,” he whispered, his breathing accelerating, a sure sign of panic returning.

With teeth clenched, she crawled into bed, teetering on the edge so as to be as far as possible from him. He immediately scooted closer to her. Lying on his good side, he rested his weakened arm around her so that they were like two spoons in the silver drawer.

He stroked her hair, the hair she just realized she’d not put in a plait. His breath was warm on her neck.

“Thank you, Emma,” he murmured, his lips so close she feared she would feel them touch her bare skin.

In no time his breathing lost its labored effort and became even. She felt the rise and fall of his chest against her back and the heat of his skin through the thin layers of nightclothes. His arm rested heavy across her, his fingers entangled in her hair. Emma was afraid to move.

Inside her a tumult of emotion roared.

Three years ago she had felt the same heat, the same breath, the same fingers in her hair. But this time there was no gratitude, no heady infatuation, no hope.

It was a long time before Emma slept.


pence woke in Emma’s room, the morning sunlight greeting him, but she had gone. He was glad of the light, even though it did not entirely banish the dream of being in the coffin, about to be buried alive.

The terrifying darkness had been real, after all, although his fevered brain had not realized it. He now remembered pressing his hands against the rough wood of what must have been the coffin lid, he remembered gasping for air and feeling that there would never be enough. He remembered the pain in his shoulder, radiating down his arm. And he remembered the smell of his own sweat and blood.

His head throbbed and his breathing accelerated. As when he’d been small, he wanted to call for help. Call for Emma.

He opened his mouth, only to shut it again.

Emma had not been happy and flourishing at Kellworth as he’d thought, even though that image had sustained him on many a sleepless night in the Peninsula. He was not precisely certain what caused her unhappiness, but he knew he owed her his life.

Spence forced himself to sit up, hanging on to the carved mahogany bedpost of the bed that long ago had been his mother’s. He paused to catch his breath from the effort. This weakness of body and emotion was nonsensical. He was a soldier, for deuce’s sake. The things he’d witnessed—the things he’d done—were equally horrific. He had not turned into a quivering dish of jelly then, had he?

But then he’d not been alone. Blake and Wolfe were always nearby and the Ternion had managed to survive.

He had survived this ordeal, too, had he not? He would refuse, simply refuse, to give in to weakness. Spence forced himself to slide off the bed and stand, still grasping the bedpost. He finally let go and took a tentative step. His legs held him. Encouraged by such success, he started across the room, heading for the connecting door. He shuffled carefully, guarding against the dizziness that frequently came over him, focusing his eyes on the floor at his feet, fearing to look around lest he lose his balance and fall flat on his face. Once down, he would not have strength enough to rise.

He had no wish to feel any more helpless than he did at this moment. Especially that feverish loss of control over what was real and what was not.

Emma’s scent surrounded him. It comforted him in an odd way, as if she were still lending her slender shoulder as she had done the previous night. A stubbornly male part of him wanted to show her he could make the journey to his brother’s old room by himself.

From his first glimpse of her three years ago, Emma had always sparked something primitively masculine inside him. Once when the Kellworth gamekeeper had been teaching his brother and him to hunt, they’d come upon a family of deer grazing at the edge of the park. Scenting them, the tall, proud stag wrapped his neck around the little fawn for a moment before the three ran back into the wood. Spence had been glad Gandy forbade them to shoot. “There not be the numbers of red deer as years past,” Gandy had said.

When Spence first spied Emma, he’d felt like the stag, with the instant instinct to protect her and whisk her away. And that was precisely what he’d done.

He gave a dry laugh. Were not the tables turned on him now, though? She was strong and he so weak it felt as if the door were a league away.

Where was Gandy now? Spence wondered as he inched along. The gamekeeper must be well into his seventies. Was he still at Kellworth or retired to a cottage somewhere?

Over the years Spence had largely succeeded in blocking out thoughts of Kellworth. With it, however, he’d also blocked out all those who’d once peopled his world. Like Gandy. Kellworth should have been Stephen’s. Spence would have been content to have the rest of the world. Fate had decreed otherwise, however, and had given him Kellworth as well.

Not Fate. Spence’s own tearing pace and cow-handed driving had done the trick.

He reached the door and collapsed against the jamb, breathing hard. Stephen’s old bedchamber looked too much the way it had when Stephen was alive. His personal effects had been removed, but Spence still could not shake the feeling that any minute Stephen would discover him and chase him out.

The hall door to the bedchamber opened and the stocky, dim-witted footman who’d been attending him walked in, searching the room for him with a wrinkled brow until finding him holding on to the doorjamb for dear life.

“There you are, m’lord,” the footman—Tolley, was it?—said, breaking into a cheerful smile. “M’lady said I should look in on you. Said you’d be in m’lady’s room.”

“Then why did you enter this room?” Spence asked.

This must have been a puzzling question, because Tolley frowned and took a moment to think on it. “Dunno, m’lord.” He broke out into an affable smile again. “Is there any service I can perform for you, sir?”

Spence’s need for assistance was so obvious, he did not know whether to laugh or to shout at the man. He did neither. “Assist me to the bed, if you please.”

“Very good, sir.” The young footman lumbered over to him and nearly lifted him off his feet. They made it to the bed in a few long-legged strides, where Tolley easily hoisted him up.

“Thank you, Tolley.”

The footman stood at the side of the bed. “Lady Kellworth said I was to ask you if you wanted some breakfast, if you were awake, that is, but seeing as you are awake . . .”

Spence had a giant thirst, but no real appetite for food, but perhaps Emma would bring the food as she’d done when he’d been feverish. He rubbed his chin, scratchy with beard.

“Shave me first, I think.” If his wife did indeed enter the room, he wanted to look presentable. Bad enough he felt like a cat’s chewed plaything; he did not have to look the part.

When breakfast came, Blake and Wolfe brought it.

“Here you are, my fine fellow,” Blake said, carrying the tray to the bed. “The finest in gruel and chamomile tea.”

“Chamomile tea?” Spence’s thirst pined for something more stout, like a big tankard of ale.

“The formidable Mrs. Cobbett insisted you must have this.” Blake set the bed tray over Spence’s lap. He grinned. “And how is our favorite corpse today?”

BOOK: The Marriage Bargain
2.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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