Read The Marriage Bargain Online
Authors: Diane Perkins
“Kind of you to remind me.” Spence grimaced. “My head feels as if it is full of wool, I’m weak as a kitten, and my shoulder hurts like the devil. Other than that I feel splendid.”
“Glad to hear it!” Blake laughed.
Spence’s hand shook while he poured a little cream from a pitcher into his gruel. He tasted a spoonful and his appetite came back, only he could not make his arm move fast enough for his stomach. When he reached for the teapot, Blake got there first and poured him a cup.
Wolfe pushed two chairs to the side of the bed. “We have sent for Arjun to bring us clothing and other necessities. He should arrive tomorrow.”
Arjun was Wolfe’s faithful valet, a mysterious Indian man of indeterminate age, who braved every discomfort of the Peninsula with his young master, remaining even through Waterloo. He must have been left behind in London when Blake and Wolfe made their dash to Kellworth.
“Very good. I will be glad to don real clothes and forgo these.” Spence pulled at the nightshirt.
Blake grinned. “You look remarkably like my grandfather. All you lack is a nightcap.”
Spence shot back a sarcastic look. He probably had appeared ridiculous to Emma as well.
Better not think on that too much. “Tell me, how do things go on for you here? Other than not having even a change of clothing.”
Wolfe huffed. Blake nudged him, and gave a very stern look. Spence waved his spoon at them. “What does all this mean?”
His friends traded glances.
Spence looked from one to the other. “I’m losing patience, gentlemen.”
Wolfe leaned forward. “Something is wrong here, Spence. There are signs of neglect everywhere. Most of the rooms are closed up, unused.”
Wolfe’s doom and gloom again, Spence figured. “There is only one family member in residence. I doubt she requires many rooms.”
“I’ve walked around the outside as well. The ragstone needs repair in several places. It must be letting in the damp.” Wolfe shook his head. “It looks as if not a penny has been spent on the place in years.”
Spence’s head began to pound. He took a shaky sip of tea. “That is nonsense. I’ve arranged a considerable sum for the running of the estate and all the manager has to do is ask if he requires more.” Last Spence knew Mr. Larkin was still managing the estate, a trustworthy man, the son of the previous manager and a fixture throughout Spence’s childhood.
Blake examined Spence closely. “Let us postpone this discussion for a bit.”
Spence waved a dismissive, but tremulous, hand. “What does Lady Kellworth say of this?”
Wolfe’s lips thinned before he spoke. “She will say nothing about it.”
Ever smiling, Blake broke in. “I am certain there is a very logical explanation. You may tend to the matter when you regain your strength, Spence.” He peered at Wolfe. “This is not the time.”
Spence frowned. He had arranged matters so carefully. His man of business in London had carte blanche to release funds if either Mr. Larkin or Emma made the request. True, Spence had never closely examined the quarterly reports his man provided, but he’d glanced at them. Nothing ever seemed amiss.
Lifting the spoonful of gruel suddenly required too much effort. He foolishly tried to lift the tray to remove it, but pain shot through his arm. Blake quickly whisked the tray away and put it on a side table.
“Do not trouble yourself over this,” Blake insisted.
“It is his estate, man,” Wolfe cried. “He needs to know.”
“But not now,” Blake said in a firm voice, but he still wore his smile. “He does not have the strength.”
Blake had the right of it, of course. Spence felt like their voices echoed from far away and it was a struggle to keep his eyes open, but he’d be damned if he let his friends think he needed to be coddled like some bony invalid.
He used his good arm to help straighten up in the bed. “Send for Mr. Larkin—the estate manager—if you would be so good. I will speak to him today.”
Wolfe nodded, his expression smug. Blake tossed Spence a wary look. They left the room a moment later, bearing the breakfast tray. The door had no more than closed before Spence fell into an exhausted sleep.
When Spence woke, still propped up on the pillows, it was to the sound of loud voices outside his room.
He heard Wolfe’s voice raised. “I tell you, Lady Kellworth, it was he who requested it. You cannot countermand an order by your husband.”
“I have already done so.” Emma’s response was at equal volume. “He is far too ill to discuss estate matters with Mr. Larkin.”
“I believe that is for Spence to decide,” shot back Wolfe.
Blake, ever the conciliator, interjected, “Leave it, man.”
Emma went on hotly, “If you cannot respect my wishes in this matter, I will bar you from his room!”
This was his little fawn, the one who needed the strong arm of his protection? Spence had seen French cuirassiers cower when faced with an enraged Wolfe.
“Now see here—” Wolfe began.
Emma stopped him. “I am quite serious, sir. I am going to visit my husband alone and I will thank you not to hover around the door when I do.”
“Come on,” Blake insisted.
The door opened and Spence caught a glimpse of Blake dragging Wolfe away; that is, until his vision filled with Emma, striding toward him like one of the Furies of Greek legend.
When she caught him watching her, she checked her advance. “You are awake.”
Her hazel eyes glittered in a face flushed pink, as if she had been out of doors, or perhaps merely flushed with anger. Wolfe regularly brought high color to women’s cheeks, most often due to anger. Emma’s hair was tamed into a knot on top of her head. Almost tamed, to be more accurate. Sunlight from the window dusted gold on the tendrils that escaped, framing her face and caressing the long nape of her neck. He remembered how he had wrapped her curls in his fingers the night before, as if holding on to a safe tether.
He caught his breath. “Your voices woke me.”
She averted her gaze with an angry expression. “I see.” She quickly recovered and met his eye with a challenge. Quite un-fawnlike.
“Would you care to explain why you prevented Wolfe from carrying out my request to see Mr. Larkin?” he spoke quietly, still daunted by her unexpected strength.
She stepped closer to the bed, the distracting clean scent of a spring day accompanying her. “You are not sufficiently recovered.”
He deflected the issue of his health. “Wolfe says that the estate is in disrepair.”
She brought the subject back. “He ought not to have taxed you with such matters while you are ill.”
He took a breath, ready to issue a stern order as he had done so many times to the soldiers in his company. He set off a coughing spasm. Each cough felt as if someone poked fingers into his shoulder wound.
Emma poured him a glass of water and thrust it under his nose. He seized the glass with a shaking hand and brought it to his mouth.
Deuce! He was furious with himself. Angry that he could not even muster the strength to issue a curt order. And even angrier that this woman witnessed his weakness.
Hand still trembling, he tried to put the glass back on the table. She took it from him, her fingers brushing his.
She gave him a stern look filled with suppressed emotion. “After three years, you cannot complain about waiting a few more days. You can see Mr. Larkin and anyone else you please after you are a little more recovered.”
Something was amiss. Whatever it was pulled on that part of his conscience he’d so carefully buried under a mountain of rationalization. Her delaying the discussion only made it tug harder, but his whole body ached from the coughing fit, and his head felt heavy. Even this brief allusion to estate problems made him yearn to close his eyes and return to oblivion.
“Is it so very bad, Emma?” he asked, his voice a mere whisper.
She straightened her spine. “I suspect you will think it of no consequence at all.”
That response puzzled him even more.
Spence tried to think logically, but the lure to sleep clouded his brain. There must be some compromise. He always found a compromise when conflict seemed insurmountable. His arrangements for the estate were a compromise, a way to leave him free to pursue the adventure he craved. His marriage to Emma had been a compromise for them both, he’d thought. Now he was not so certain.
“You never told me, Emma, how you go on here.”
Her eyes narrowed. “That, too, will seem of little consequence if you wait two or three days.”
He frowned. She merely sparked more questions, but his little fawn held the reins firmly in her graceful fingers. He detested this feeling of powerlessness. On the other hand, it would be a great relief to not be required to think.
Still he could not entirely release the matter. “I would like for Blake and Wolfe to speak with Mr. Larkin.” He paused in uncertainty. “It is still Mr. Larkin, is it not?”
He went on, “. . . to Mr. Larkin and anyone else they please. Will you see to it, Emma?”
Her green eyes flashed. “It is not necessary. I give you my word I will tell you all when you are stronger.”
“Tell me something now,” he pleaded. “I may go mad with imagining if you do not.”
She blew out a breath followed by a long intake of air. “Very well. The decrease in funds has meant that priorities have had to be made, but we have managed, my lord.”
“Decrease in funds?” Spence struggled to remember the accountings he had read so carelessly. He leaned forward, feeling the agitation of long-delayed guilt. “Decrease in funds?”
His breathing accelerated and his head spun as if he’d been whirled around.
She dampened a cloth and patted his face. Her voice became softer. “There is nothing you need worry about today. I promise.”
He wanted to believe her. He wanted to sleep, to avoid further speech, and, more so, to avoid whatever was wrong here at Kellworth. He closed his eyes.
“Allow them to ask questions, Emma.” His voice sounded as weary as he felt. “They are my friends.”
“As you wish, my lord,” she said stiffly.
Her hand continued to bathe his face with the cool cloth until his breathing slowed and he felt himself sinking into sleep. As if from a great distance he heard the rustle of her skirt and her light footstep as she crossed the carpet. He heard the bedchamber door open and shut again, and he knew she had gone.
Emma left Spence’s bedchamber furious at those gentlemen he called his friends. She went in search of them, eventually finding them in the courtyard at the rear of the house, Mr. Wolfe pacing and pointing to where weeds grew between the flagstone. He would probably not remark upon the flourishing herb garden, would he? Emma could tend to the herb garden herself, but weeds between flagstone were not high in importance to survival.
“Gentlemen.” She crossed the yard. They both watched her, Wolfe with hands curled into fists. “The earl wishes for you to speak with Mr. Larkin on his behalf. I will instruct Mr. Larkin and Mr. Hale that everyone on the estate must answer any questions you wish to ask.”
Wolfe gave a triumphant smile.
Emma glared at him. “I have only one stipulation.”
He immediately looked ready to attack. “Which is?”
She met his eye with a steady gaze. “You do not discuss any estate matters with the earl until
say he is strong enough.” She leaned forward for emphasis. “Until
say so, Mr. Wolfe.”
Blakewell stepped forward. “That sounds like a very sensible plan, does it not? We do thank you, Lady Kellworth, for allowing us to tend to Spence’s interests.”
She wanted to smack Blakewell’s conciliatory smile right off his face. “You may thank the earl when he is stronger. You may visit him as you have done, but I will have no repeat of taxing him with matters he is too ill to attend to.”
“Quite fair.” Blakewell nodded. “Is that not so, Wolfe?”
Wolfe averted his eyes. “It will be as you wish, my lady.”
“Good,” she said. “If you will pardon me, I shall speak with Mr. Larkin and Mr. Hale.”
“One moment, Lady Kellworth,” Wolfe said. “There are questions I would like to ask you.”
Emma straightened. “Ask anything you wish of the others, Mr. Wolfe, but I will answer only to Lord Kellworth. I consider this a private matter and none of your affair.”
She turned on her heel and strode off, not waiting for comment or looking back.
Before dinner Mr. Larkin asked to speak to Emma.
She met him in the library.
“Those young gentlemen grilled me, my lady,” he reported. “I told them how the estate funds were cut and how you used your allowance to keep Kellworth going. Mr. Hale told them the same thing.”
“You have done what the earl requested.” Emma still bristled at the intrusion, but she would not let Mr. Larkin see that.
“Tomorrow they insist upon inspecting the property,” he added.
She expelled a resigned breath. “Show them whatever they wish to see, Mr. Larkin.”
Later over the dinner table Emma endured Wolfe’s glowering glances.
Reuben came to dinner again this night and as usual had no difficulty making unremitting conversation. Emma was grateful. Without him, the dining room would have been as silent as a tomb.
She shuddered and took a quick sip of her wine. Perhaps a tomb was not the best simile, considering Spence’s narrow escape.
Blakewell, apparently as facile in conversation as Reuben, engaged the vicar in a lively debate about some obscure point of theology. Emma did not trouble herself to follow the lively discussion. In a way she and Wolfe were kindred spirits. Neither pretended there was no tension in the room.
Blakewell and Reuben both paused at the same time, Blakewell to sip wine, Reuben to stuff another forkful of pigeon pie into his mouth.
Wolfe seemed to seize the opportunity. “Reverend Keenan, what do you know about what has been happening on the estate?”
Blakewell nearly choked on his wine. “Wolfe!”
“I want to know.” He gave his friend a defiant shrug. He turned to Emma. “Do you have any prohibition against my questioning Mr. Keenan?”