Book 6½ in the Scandalous Women of the Ton series
Nicola is pleased to announce her first Website-Exclusive Short Story, Lady Emma's Disgrace, which takes place during the timeline of Forbidden, (North America, September 2012)
At last Lady Emma Bradshaw has been accepted back into society after a scandalous marriage and poverty-stricken widowhood that cast her firmly into disgrace. Yet the arrival of an uninvited guest at her betrothal ball throws all her marriage plans into chaos. For how can she re-marry when it turns out that her husband, the devilishly charming and dangerous Tom Bradshaw is still alive? Tom is determined to claim Emma back and soon Emma is going to be mired in scandal once again…
Part One of Seven
It was the night of her betrothal ball.
Lady Emma Bradshaw stood on the balcony above the ballroom and viewed the bustle below. Her mother had done herself proud. The room was dressed in pink, gold and white, with roses and ivy trailing artfully around the pillars.
It was the betrothal ball her parents had always wanted for her. Everyone was ignoring that fact that this was the third time she had been engaged. They were pretending that it was the first.
The first time there had been no celebration because her parents had disapproved on her choice.
The second time she had skipped the betrothal and moved straight on to the marriage, to the marriage bed in fact, barely wasting time on the ceremony.
Now it was third time lucky. She was a born again virgin bride.
Her betrothed, Lord Cholmondeley Warner, had already arrived and was standing beside her mother, next to the artificial fountain where rose petals floated on the water and the fish were a matching shade of pink. Lord Cholmondeley was wearing an embroidered waistcoat in pink and gold as a compliment to the colour scheme. Emma wondered if there could possibly be a more perfect bridegroom. Certainly her parents thought not.
Lord Cholmondeley was the son of a duke. He was rich. He was handsome.
He was deadly dull.
Well-meaning people kept telling her that Lord Cholmondeley was kind and that she deserved kindness after everything she had suffered. The fact that Emma had brought the suffering on herself was largely ignored now that she was welcome back in the family fold. The problem was that she did not really want kindness. Oh, it had its place; she understood that but she did not wish it to be the defining element of her life or her marriage. She wanted excitement. She always had. It was what had got her into trouble in the first place.
She also wanted sex.
That had also got her into trouble. Not literally. She had not fallen pregnant. But she had eloped with the first handsome rogue who had seduced her.
Emma liked sex. Now she was contemplating a future without it, or at least with not much of it. Lord Cholmondeley was frightfully proper. When she had accepted his proposal he had kissed her chastely on the forehead. The forehead. Not even her cheek. Over the past couple of weeks she had waited to see the slightest hint of passion in his demeanour. There was none. He seemed pleased that she had agreed to marry him. He thought her pretty. He enjoyed taking her driving. They did not talk much. It was the perfect aristocratic alliance.
The previous week, in desperation, Emma had attempted to seduce Lord Cholmondeley to see if anything lurked beneath that bland exterior. He had responded with shock and disapproval. Emma had been obliged to blame the extra glass of champagne she had taken at Lady Webster’s ball for her inappropriate behaviour and they had agreed never to mention it again. For a moment she had thought that Lord Cholmondeley might break the betrothal. He looked as though he was realising that she probably had more sexual experience than he did. It was not a felicitous discovery, given that everyone had managed to brush her past under the carpet.
Her mother had seen her. She raised her hand to summon Emma down to join them. Her parents and her brother Justin were already standing in the receiving line. The first guests were about to arrive. This, Emma reminded herself, was the price of her acceptance back into the family. She was acknowledged by the Ton again. She was rich. She had regained all that she had lost as a result of her foolish elopement and her disastrous marriage to a scoundrel.
A pity that at times her wayward heart still ached for that same scoundrel even though he had died more than a year before, even though he had betrayed and deserted her, even though he had been a thoroughly bad lot.
Emma glanced in the pier glass at the top of the stair. Her gown was discreet, elegant and expensive. Her blonde hair was piled up on top of her head in a most sophisticated tumble of curls. She looked every inch the daughter of an earl. She wore the Brooke rubies. She looked beautiful.
She had a second chance.
She was not going to ruin it.
She went downstairs to join her betrothed in the receiving line.
Part Two of Seven
“I recommend marriage heartily,” Lady Rothbury said. “It is a most pleasurable state.” She paused. “As long as one is married to the right person.”
Emma could feel her spirits sinking. Of all the people who had congratulated her this evening only Lady Rothbury had had the wisdom and the perception to see that she was not excited by the betrothal. Everyone else had assumed that she should be grateful to be making such a respectable match. Several debutantes, green eyed with envy and sharp of tongue, had been positively waspish in their comments. They had implied that Emma had been luckier than she deserved, that she had scandalised society so thoroughly and really it was not fair for her to catch the son of a Duke after behaving so badly. But Lady Rothbury was not congratulating her. There was concern in her blue eyes; concern for Emma’s future happiness, and it made Emma want to cry because she was not happy, she was not excited as a bride should be, and Lady Rothbury knew that. Lady Rothbury had been the best friend she had ever had and now she pressed Emma’s hands gently and smiled at her.
“If you should ever need me,” she said softly, “you know where to find me.”
Lord Cholmondeley came up to join them. “I am not sure that I can encourage you to associate with such a woman, Emma,” he said, watching Lady Rothbury’s elegantly retreating back. “She has a tainted reputation and some extremely disreputable friends and family members.”
“If only you knew,” Emma thought. Lord Cholmondeley thought that he did know of all her sins and he had graciously forgiven her for them. But he had no idea. He had no idea that as Lady Rothbury’s protégée Emma had been a political cartoonist. He had no notion that she had belonged to a radical reforming society. She had walked alone in places that Lord Cholmondeley would have been terrified to drive through with an armed guard. She had given it all up, of course. One could not be Lady Cholmondeley Warner and attend political rallies or work for charities. Emma understood that if she wanted to be rich and accepted once more, if she was not to return to the tiny cottage in Hampstead and her pitifully lonely and poverty-stricken existence, then she could not afford to put a step wrong.
She danced the waltz with Lord Cholmondeley. It was their second dance together but he had decreed that it was acceptable to dance with her twice since they were now betrothed.
“I do believe the evening to be a great success,” he said, as they circled the floor. He held her gingerly, a considerable distance away from his body. They were half a beat behind the music, which threw everyone around them into confusion.
“Perhaps you would care to drive with me in the Park tomorrow,” Lord Cholmondeley continued. “If the weather is fine, of course. If it rains we should not go lest I catch a chill.”
“That would be delightful, thank you,” Emma said. She hid a yawn.
The dance ended. Lord Cholmondeley tucked her hand through his arm as they slowly promenaded around the room. Emma knew he was showing her off, like a fine ornament. She was another acquisition, a part of the display. She would take her place in his house alongside the vases and statues he had acquired on the Grand Tour.
“I am a little thirsty,” she said. “I should like a glass of champagne, if you please.”
“I will fetch you some lemonade,” Lord Cholmondeley said. “You have had quite enough champagne.”
Little prickles of irritation sparked in Emma’s blood. She opened her mouth to contradict him, saw that Lord Cholmondeley’s mother was watching them, and closed her mouth again.
“Thank you,” she said.
Lord Cholmondeley settled her on a gilt rout chair and set off towards the refreshment room, pausing for a word with his mother on the way. The Duchess of Broughton was chilly and disapproving. She reminded Emma of her own mother. Emma wondered how the Duke, who was a nice man with a twinkle in his eye that his son had most certainly not inherited, had survived all these years. The Duke liked Emma. His grace had told her in an unguarded moment that he had not expected his son to catch such an incomparable as she. The Duchess, in contrast, was going to be the mother-in-law from hell. Emma knew it.
“Excuse me, my lady.” Frederick, one of the footmen, was bowing to Emma, proffering a note. “I have a message for you.”
Emma took the slip of paper and unfolded it. It was short and to the point.
“Meet me in the gallery.”
Well, that was rather abrupt. It was an order rather than a request. Emma was minded to ignore it. Except that she was curious as to the identity of her correspondent. She glanced up towards the balcony that ran around the top of the ballroom but it was wreathed in darkness. Then the shadows moved. She thought she saw the figure of a man. He looked to be Lord Cholmondeley’s height and build.
Emma was surprised. No, she was astounded. She would never have imagined that Lord Cholmondeley had either the wit or the inclination to make a secret assignation with her. Yet since he had shown this unexpected desire for the clandestine, she should surely encourage him. Their life together might not be as barren as she had imagined.
She slid surreptitiously from the ballroom making sure that neither her mother nor the Duchess had observed her departure, and ran silently up the carpeted steps to the gallery above. In the doorway she paused, hesitated. Below her the noise of voices and music shifted and swelled. The brightly coloured crowds spilled across the ballroom oblivious to her watching eyes. But here there was silence and stillness. The secretive shadows pressed close.
She waited. No one moved. Nothing happened. There was nobody there.
She heard a step behind her and as she started to turn, someone caught her hand and pulled her into his arms. They closed about her, strong and hard. She was held tight against his chest and it was a very taut and muscular chest indeed. My goodness. She had had no idea that Lord Cholmondeley was so very firm. She would have expected him to be flabby. He scorned the pugilism and fencing that so many gentlemen of the Ton practised.
Their bodies seemed to fit together perfectly. Something deep within Emma recognised and accepted him as the other half of herself. She could feel her body softening and opening to him, welcoming his touch as his hands smoothed down her back drawing her more closely against him. His thighs, as hard and muscled as his chest, brushed her skirts. The press of his body against hers was delicious, sensual and heavy with promise, yet at the same time protective and extraordinarily familiar. She felt as though she had come home.
Emma was simultaneously pierced by longing and a fierce realisation that she had felt lonely for far too long, lonely and alone. Yet here was the man who could put an end to that unhappiness. Astonished, she clutched at his lapels to pull him the final inch against her and felt the comforting clasp of his arms change into something much more erotic.
“Lord Cholmondeley!” She murmured. “This is a surprise.”
It was. She would have expected the gauche peer to be a great deal more reticent than this in his amorous affairs. Indeed with her he had been positively monkish. Who would have guessed that beneath that prim exterior lurked so much passion. He already had his face buried against the curve of her neck and the brush of his hair against her throat had all sorts of pleasurable shivers racking her body. Goodness gracious. His lips touched the hollow above her collarbone. She heard him whisper: “You are exquisite,” and then he was kissing her.
It was not at all appropriate for a first kiss.
She had expected clumsiness and awkwardness. What she was getting was pure heat and scorching desire that burned in her blood and set her trembling. It was so fierce and sudden and unexpected that a bolt of sheer carnal longing shot through her to centre low in her belly. She gasped and he immediately took ruthless advantage, parting her lips with his, sliding his tongue into her mouth, where it teased and twined with hers in intimate discovery.
No indeed, this was not at all appropriate for a first kiss or even a second one.
He was plundering her mouth with such demand that she could barely breathe. It felt shockingly explicit and yet delicious, wonderful. Her body lit with sensations she had not felt in years. She was consumed.
Her head was spinning, her thoughts tumbling over one another in a welter of shock and delight. Oh, she had vastly underestimated Lord Cholmondeley’s amatory skill and experience. It was clear he was a master of the art of seduction and she his very willing accomplice. She felt the rasp of his stubble against the tender skin of her neck again and felt the wicked heat gather and tighten in her belly. His hands were at her waist now, burning through the thin silk of her gown as he held her up for his kiss. It made her want more of him, much more. The brazen nature of her desires both shocked and excited her.
She raised a hand to his cheek. His stubble scored her palm. And then, through the haze of her longing for him she remembered.
There was not a man at the ball who had not shaved before he had come out that night. Lord Cholmondeley, in particular, had a face as smooth as a baby’s.
A very different sort of shock raked through Emma and she wrenched herself backwards out of his arms.
“Who are you?”
Part Three of Seven
Emma heard the man laugh. He stepped forward out of the shadows. She knew who he was before she saw his face. She knew his kiss, his touch. She remembered the incendiary way he could drive her close to madness in her passion for him. Her stomach tumbled.
Tom. Her husband.
Except that Tom was dead. He had been executed over a year before.
She stumbled back. Her heart was racing. She felt terrified. For it was Tom, with his dark mocking eyes as black as sloes and his mouth curling into a smile. Tom Bradshaw, duke’s bastard son, criminal, renegade, scoundrel.
For a moment Emma thought she might faint but she never had the vapours and besides, it would be far more satisfying to slap Tom’s face. In truth it would be more satisfying to topple him over the balcony. Fury possessed her, sudden and violent in its intensity.
“You,” she said, “are supposed to be dead.” Her voice came out a great deal more husky and uncertain than she would have wanted despite the anger eating up her soul.
Tom smiled, his teeth a white flash in the darkness. “It is delightful to see you too, Emma.” His insolent gaze raked her from head to foot. “And to kiss you.”
“You did more than simply kiss me,” Emma said. She was shaking. She wrapped her arms about herself. Her body felt hot through the silk of the gown, burning up as though she had a fever. Inside she felt chilled to the bone.
“I wanted more than mere kisses.” Tom said.
At his words, licentious heat, sharp and fierce, licked through Emma’s body. She had wanted it too. She wanted him to do all the shameless things that he had done to her when first they wed and more besides. Her mind positively exploded with wantonness.
But that was what Tom wanted. When they had first met he had been able to command her body and as a result, her will. She had grown stronger after his desertion. She had to learn to survive alone. As a result she was no longer his to command.
“You have a great many carnal desires for a dead man,” she said coldly.
Tom strolled forward. He moved with the casual grace she remembered, light on his feet like a predatory cat.
“Lord Sidmouth thought I would be more use to him alive rather than dead.”
Well, that made sense. Lord Sidmouth, the former Home Secretary, was a hard and ruthless man who would not hesitate to exploit anyone he could. A dead man would prove particularly useful to him as a spy, moving unknown and unsuspected through the dangerous edges of society.
“So you are poacher turned gamekeeper,” Emma said. “A scoundrel now working for the government.” Her anger was growing, seething in her like a living thing. “How dare you come back,” she said. Her voice surprised her; it was rough, shaking with rage. “How dare you let me think you were dead! I mourned-” She cut the words off but it was too late. In the loneliness of her bare room in the cottage at Hampstead Wells she had cried bitter tears over Tom. She had not been sure where her love for him had ended and her hatred for him had begun. The two were so close, different sides of the same coin.
“You mourned me?” She saw the spark leap in his eyes and her heart leapt too before she crushed down the inappropriate emotion. She did not want to feel anything other than contempt for Tom but it was difficult. He had always sworn that he had not abandoned her. He had said that his enemies had taken him hostage. He had told her that he had escaped and worked his passage back from the Indies to find her again. Emma had wanted to believe him. She had wanted to trust his word. She had wanted it so much that the longing had hurt like a physical pain. It had threatened to destroy her. So she had turned away and refused to believe Tom’s pleas. It was easier that way because she could not allow him close to her again. She told herself that she had to protect herself. She knew that Tom was a liar and a rogue through and through; he had done so many bad things in his life that she doubted he knew right from wrong now, if he ever had done. He had hurt her so badly, seducing her for her money, leaving her utterly alone and unprotected, that she had vowed never to love or trust a man again, least of all him.
“I mourned you for five minutes,” she lied, “and then I remembered what a cad you had been and I dried my tears.”
She saw his mouth twist in wry amusement. “I don’t suppose I deserve even five minutes of your time,” he said.
“No,” Emma said, “you do not.”
“Even though I gave myself up to Sidmouth in order to save you.”
“I expect you had your reasons for that,” Emma said. She had been shaken to the core when she had discovered that Tom had gone to Lord Sidmouth and offered himself in her place. Sidmouth had been about to arrest her for treason and sedition; the caricatures she had drawn for the reformist newspapers had been inflammatory, inciting disorder. Her arrest would have been a monstrous scandal and Tom had saved her from that, given his life to save her from ruin a second time.
But then, he had been the one to ruin her in the first place.
For a moment there she had almost softened towards him. Then she remembered that he had owed her. He had paid the debt but she knew he must have had other motives because he always did. He was selfish through and through. He had never loved her. Misery impaled her.
“I did have my reasons.” Tom spoke very softly.
Emma turned away. “I don’t want to hear them.” She dragged in a breath. “It’s better that you stay dead, Tom. This is my betrothal ball.” Her tone was fierce. “I won’t let you ruin my life over again.”
“You’re going to marry that stuffed shirt?”
“He’s a good man.” Emma reached for all the reasons people had given her as to why she should marry Lord Cholmondeley. “He is wealthy and respectable and kind-”
Tom caught her by the upper arms. “He will stifle you, Em. You can’t live like that.”
Emma was afraid that he was right but she would never give him the satisfaction of admitting it.
“I want my old life back,” she said. “I want to be rich. I want to be part of society again. Lord Cholmondeley can give that to me. You cannot. You never could.”
“What about your reforming ideas, your work for charity?” Tom’s hands were urgent on her, holding her tightly, refusing to allow her to evade the difficult questions. “You had a passion for helping people, Em. You wanted to do good-”
“I can still help people,” Emma argued. “I can give them money.”
“It’s not the same,” Tom said. “It’s a good thing to do but you gave them your time, Emma. You gave them yourself, because you cared.”
“Because I had no choice!” Emma burst out. “I worked in those orphanages and hospitals because I knew that way I would get a square meal each day and I was hungry and cold and I had no money after you left me!” It was partly true; it was only after she had started to work amongst London’s poorest and most needy that she had discovered in herself the need to work for good. She was ashamed of the spoilt little debutante she had once been, so greedy, so unthinking. She would never go back to that but she was tired of struggling and she longed to be comfortable again. The price of that comfort was marriage to Lord Cholmondeley and abandoning any passion there might have been in her life.
The silence settled over them. Tom’s hands slid down her arms leaving a trail of fire and longing in their wake. Emma could not help the little shiver that wracked her. Tom felt it. His eyes narrowed to a concentrated darkness.
“Does Lord Cholmondeley kiss you the way I do?” He whispered. “Does he make love to you the way I did?”
Emma shivered. “I don’t want-” She started to say.
“Yes, you do.” His mouth took hers again with hunger unappeased. She shook deep inside at the passion it unleashed in her.
“So he doesn’t make love to you,” Tom said, as he released her.
“I don’t want him to,” Emma snapped.
“That I can well believe,” Tom said. “Who would? Yet you will still marry him.”
“No it is not,” Emma said, “because you are – officially – dead.”
“You know I am not.”
“I have a very short memory,” Emma said. “Once you walk out of here – in two minutes – I will forget you immediately.”
They stared at one another.
“If you do not go now,” Emma added, “I will scream.”
Tom smiled. “I’m not going anywhere other than to your bed, to prove to you that you want me still.”
“No I don’t,” Emma said. “I want you to leave. I’m warning you, Tom.”
Tom’s smile deepened, that wicked pirate’s smile she knew so well. He did not move.
Emma took a deep breath. She screamed. Loudly. The effect was dramatic. The music died away. The ballroom fell silent then broke into a babble of shouts and questions. People were running for the door. She could hear steps on the stair, growing closer, blocking Tom’s escape.
Tom laughed. He kissed his fingers to her. “I’ll see you soon, darling.”
He leapt from the balcony, swinging down into the ballroom below. Emma ran to the edge of the gallery and peered over. She could not help herself. She saw Tom land deftly in the centre of the floor. People screamed and fell back, scattering like chaff in the wind. Tom looked up at her and for one, long moment their eyes met and held. Then he ran for the door. No one, least of all Lord Cholmondeley who was standing like a lemon, attempted to stop him.
“A housebreaker! Call the runners!” Lord Brooke, Emma’s father, was running back and forth ineffectually, waving his arms like a windmill. Her brother Justin seemed frozen into immobility, his mouth gaping like a landed fish. They were all hopeless. Tom could run rings around them.
The front door slammed, shaking the house to the foundations. Emma’s mother burst into the gallery, closely followed by her father and Lord Cholmondeley. Emma had not known that the Countess of Brooke could run.
“Emma!” Her mother was panting hard and red with exertion. “How could you? How could you cause another scandal at your betrothal ball?”
So it was her fault. She might have known her mother would be more concerned about the gossip than for her welfare.
She was in disgrace again.
Part Four of Seven
Tom soon managed to lose himself in the multitudes that thronged the late night London streets. It was one of his greatest talents that he could slip through a crowd unnoticed. He walked quickly, heading towards the river. He had been born in the sprawling network of rookeries that spread out from the docks and when he needed to he could disappear once again into the spiders web of lanes and alleyways. It was only a few miles from Berkeley Square and from Emma but it was another world.
She was so beautiful. She was bright, strong and courageous. He ached for her.
His body ached with unsatisfied lust. His heart ached with love.
He was not sure when he had first fallen in love with Emma. Certainly it had not been when he had first seduced and married her. She had been a spoiled debutante and he had wanted her solely for her fortune and because her luscious body had been made for pleasure. His pleasure. Her father, curse him, had made sure that Tom never got his hands on the money which left only the sex. Together they had been spectacular, wild, passionate, and utterly uninhibited. He had never known a woman like her.
Even so, that was not what had led him to fall in love.
In the beginning he had not thought himself capable of such emotion. He had been too cynical, corrupted by all the terrible things he had seen and done in his life. His childhood had scarcely existed; a bastard, carelessly fathered by the Duke of Farne on a housemaid, he had been thrown on the streets and forced to fend for himself from the time he could walk. He had been ruthless in his drive for self-preservation, so ambitious in his slippery climb to wealth and power that he had crushed anyone that stood in his way.
Emma had changed him. She had grown into a woman he could love and in the process she had made him a man worthy of love in return. But it was too late for them. Too much had happened to force them apart.
It was a foggy night. Tom drove his hands deep into the pockets of his coat and turned his face towards the river. The chill air clung to his skin, laden with moisture that felt like tears. The night smelled of smoke and melancholy. At times like this London was a lonely and friendless place. Or perhaps that was just how he was feeling tonight. He should find an alehouse, sit near the fire and drown his sorrows in drink.
He was not sure why he had sought Emma out tonight. When he had read of her engagement in the papers he had told himself he could do nothing to prevent it. Emma was lost to him. She should be free to make a new life. Yet still he had been drawn to the house like a ragged moth that had already burned itself on this particular flame before. He had told himself he only wished to see her. Once he had seen her he had told himself that he only wished to speak with her. He had deceived himself.
He turned away from the river and walked briskly towards the swinging sign of the Lord Nelson inn. They had renamed the place in honour of the hero of Trafalgar. Tom remembered it from his youth as the Rose and Crown. It had been there since the time of Henry VIII and it was just as rough now as it had probably been then. Tom liked that. No one asked any questions in the Rose and Crown. He sat down in an alcove by the fire, ordered some ale from a slatternly tavern wench and prepared to drink himself into oblivion.
Three hours later, however, oblivion would not come. Instead the drink brought a degree of clarity with it. He was still thinking about Emma, remembering the silken softness of her skin and the sweet taste of her mouth. Now that he had seen her again, spoken with her, touched her, kissed her, she was like a fever in his blood. He would never permit her to wed another man. She was his and he was going to take her back.
Part Five of Seven
The picnic, in the grounds of Lady Carson’s villa beside the Thames, had dragged on for the entire afternoon and Emma was lamentably bored. It was always the same people at every event she attended, the aristocratic and the rich, those at the very pinnacle of society. Perhaps it was a lack in her that she found them all so very dull and their conversation, revolving as it did around the next ball and the laziness of the servants, to be so repetitive. Years ago it had not mattered to her. She had revelled in the privileges and pleasures of just such a life. Now she wanted more. She had tried to speak to her father and her brother about politics and current affairs, only to be firmly snubbed by them for showing an unfeminine interest in men’s business. She had expressed a desire to attend lectures and literary soirees but her mother had snubbed that too, saying that no woman should display any intelligence for fear of repulsing her suitors. She had suggested that she might undertake some charitable work but everyone had squashed that ambition, predicting that all it would achieve would be her early death as a result of catching some fatal illness from the poor. She was stifled, imprisoned in a gilded cage, just as Tom had said, and she could no longer pretend that it was worth it for the money and the clothes and the parties. They were shallow pleasures. She liked them but she needed something else, something more profound.
Emma hated that Tom had been right about her. She hated that he knew her so well, that he knew what she needed. She had lain awake all night after she had seen him at the ball. She was furious that he was alive. She was relieved that he was not dead. She was terrified he would ruin everything for her for a third time. She was secretly, treacherously excited that he had re-entered her life. She hated him. She loved him. She wanted him.
Her body was burning up with wanting him; it tormented her with all the frustrated longing that only he could satisfy. And the one thing that was certain was that she would not succumb to her desire for him because he was a low, deceiving scoundrel and she was better off rid of him.
She took another daintily cut cucumber sandwich and munched through it glumly. She did not know what to do about the future. Leaving aside her frustration at the emptiness of the life on offer to her, it was wrong to marry Lord Cholmondeley when she was already the wife of another man. She tried to tell herself that no one would know, that if ever it came out that Tom was still alive she could pretend ignorance but that was not good enough. She knew and that made all the difference. She was no longer sure she could go through with her second marriage. It felt wrong. But perhaps that was only because she longed for Tom so hopelessly.
She pushed the sandwich aside. There were wasps crawling over the strawberries now and buzzing around the glasses of lemonade. The ladies were wilting a little in the heat, their parasols tilting at rakish angles. The conversation had faltered too under the power of the sun. Several ladies looked as though they were about to fall asleep and the gentlemen were flushed and sweating.
Lady Carson staggered to her feet. Perhaps she had been drinking something stronger than mere lemonade.
“Ladies…” Lady Carson’s voice sounded slurred too, “let us repair to the house where we may refresh ourselves and take some iced tea.”
“Come along, Emma.” Lady Brooke, her face tomato red, her turban askew, took Emma’s arm. He hand felt like a claw. Since the unfortunate incident of the housebreaker at the ball the previous week Lady Brooke had practically refused to allow her daughter out of her sight. Emma was fairly certain that her maid was spying on her on her mother’s behalf and that there was a servant positioned both outside her door and beneath her window to ensure that she would not fall from grace again. Fortunately no one had recognised Tom. But the Brookes were terrified that the match with Lord Cholmondeley, so carefully engineered, would end in ignominy and Emma’s disgrace yet again.
As they were making their way slowly along the shady gravel paths towards the house the Duchess of Devenish claimed her mother’s attention and Lady Brooke could scarcely cut her. Emma slipped away, beneath the willow trees that bordered a small stream, where the sun and shadow dipped and played on the thick grass and the sound of the water was cool and refreshing. She wanted some solitude.
It all happened so quickly. One moment she was picking her way beneath the branches of the trees, the next Tom was beside her and she was not quite able to disguise the leap of pleasure she felt to see him. Oh dear, this was bad. She had hoped – she had wanted – to be quite indifferent to him if she saw him again. Instead it was as though her body had instantly awoken. She felt alive and stirred up, her blood fizzing with anticipation and excitement.
“Hello, Emma,” Tom said. He was smiling with wicked amusement to see her confusion. “What a beautiful day for a picnic.”
“I do wish you wouldn’t do that,” Emma said crossly, trying too late to mask her response to him. “It is frightfully disconcerting how you can arrive with no one noticing.”
“I’d be happy to go and renew my acquaintance with your mother,” Tom said, “but I am not sure she would be as pleased to see me as you are.”
“I’m not happy to see you, “ Emma lied. She turned a shoulder to him. “What do you want, Tom?” She threw at him. “I asked you to leave me alone.”
There was a silence. The dappled shadows of the willow trees shifted and danced about them. Emma turned and looked at Tom, arrested by his stillness. Suddenly it felt as though the day was holding its breath.
“I’ve left the Home Secretary’s service,” Tom said. “Garrick has offered me work in Ireland, managing his stud. I’ve always wanted to breed horses.”
“Have you?” Emma said. She felt a pang that she had not known. She knew so little about Tom. In the early days of their marriage they had not spent a great deal of time talking. She felt part-glad and part-sorrowful because she suspected that if they had spent more time in conversation and less in bed they would probably have discovered that actually they had nothing in common, nothing to talk about.
“Congratulations,” she added politely. “That is generous of your brother considering that you once tried to take everything from him.”
Tom did not smile. In fact his eyes looked sad. “Garrick is prepared to give me a second chance,” he said. “I shall always be grateful to him for that.” He straightened his shoulders. “That is why I came, Emma. I wanted to ask if you would do the same. I want you to come with me.” He drew a deep unsteady breath. “I love you, Emma. I always did.”
I want you to come with me…
The ground rocked beneath Emma’s feet. The daylight seemed to dim. Tom was still talking but she did not want to hear his words, those treacherous, persuasive words that might seduce her from the course of reason all over again.
She put her hands over her ears. “Stop!” She said. “You don’t love me, Tom! You never did!” Her voice seemed very loud, drowning the rustle of the leaves above their heads.
“Maybe not in the beginning,” Tom said. He stood squarely, meeting her gaze. “All right,” he said. “I didn’t love you when we wed. I seduced you for your fortune. I admit it. But then I fell in love with you-”
Emma shook her head violently. Her heart was breaking all over again for the naïve little debutante she had been, the girl who had tumbled headlong into love with a handsome rogue and had been so thoroughly betrayed. She was not sure how she had survived Tom’s desertion the first time but she knew she would shatter if it were to happen to her again. She knew she would not survive. She could not take the risk.
“Don’t spoil everything for me again, Tom. Please!” She said. Even so there was before her eyes such a tempting vision, a vision of the two of them galloping through the wild beauty of the Galway countryside together. Perhaps Tom really did love her, perhaps they could be happy. Yet this was precisely how she had been seduced before. She had wanted to believe Tom sincere and it had led to nothing but misery.
Tom was waiting; she could see the tension that held his body rigid with hope. She could see the anxiety in his eyes.
“I can’t,” she said, and saw his body slump and the hope die. “Don’t you see, Tom? I can’t take that risk on you. I dare not. Not after all that has happened.”
Tom took her hand in his. Again she felt that treacherous ripple of affinity, a steel thread, stronger than attraction. She shut it out of her heart. She was Lady Emma Brooke again now. She had been given a second chance. She would marry Lord Cholmondeley Warner and she would make a life full of good works and charitable causes. And if, occasionally, she might think of Tom and secretly long for his touch, no one would guess. No one would know. That part of her life was over.
Gently but firmly she withdrew her hand from Tom’s and stepped back. “I wish you all good things for your new life,” she said. “Be happy, Tom.”
“I’ll be waiting for you,” Tom said urgently. “If you change your mind I will be there tonight-”
Emma shook her head. “I won’t change my mind.”
The sunlight struck across her eyes, momentarily dazzling her. She rubbed away the sheen of tears on her cheeks. When she looked again, Tom was gone. Like a memory; like a ghost.
Part Six of Seven
Tom had arrived in Berkeley Square a full half hour before midnight. He watched the carriages come and go, listened to the chatter of the pedestrians strolling by and heard the faint strains of music from one of the grand houses around the square where a ball was in progress. The night was full of sound and movement but he saw it all as a background to his own hopes and dreams. His body was tight and tense with waiting. Although he had tried to school himself to calm, excitement lit his blood. Emma would be here at any moment, flying from the shadows, coming home to his arms. He was sure of it. Even though she had refused him he was certain she would change her mind because he had always been able to persuade her in the past. The bond between them was too strong to resist. Soon they would be free to start afresh; he would have the second chance he had never expected and did not deserve.
The cool breeze caught at his coat and breathed chills along his skin. He heard the clock on the tower of St Brides church strike a quarter past the hour and then the half. Nothing happened; no patter of running footsteps, no Emma setting out with him on the next adventure in their lives together.
After an hour he was chilled in body, mind and spirit.
She was not coming.
He had to accept it. This time he had not been able to persuade her. This time it was over. There was no second chance. He had gambled and lost.
St George’s Church in Hanover Square looked glorious. Flowers cascaded from the altar and overflowed over all the side of the pews. Huge arrangements of opulent roses scented the air. As Emma was a widow a more discreet ceremony might have been more appropriate but the Earl and Countess of Brooke were having none of that. They had been cheated previously of making a grand gesture at their daughter’s marriage; this time they were pulling out all the stops. There were two hundred guests, the cream of the Ton.
“You look lovely, my darling,” Lord Brooke said dutifully, kissing Emma’s cheek as they paused on the steps outside the church. “Your mother and I are so very proud of the way you have made the right choice this time.”
Emma tried to force her lips into a smile but it did not seem to work.
This is supposed to be a happy day.
So why did she feel small and cold and as though she wanted to cry? Why did she feel she was in the wrong place, that she was making the wrong decision? This was her new life, a second chance at her old life before she had been disgraced and ruined. So why did disgrace and ruin – with Tom – seem preferable to wealth and status and the approval of society?
On impulse she turned to her brother Justin who was acting as groomsman and shepherding the last of the late guests into the church. She caught his sleeve between urgent fingers. Justin was very important to her. He was the only one of the entire family who had stood by her when Tom had deserted her and her parents had turned their backs on her.
“Justin,” she whispered. “There is something I must tell you.”
The organ music was swelling into the bridal march. Her brother looked pardonably confused and irritated.
“Now?” He said.
“Yes,” Emma said. She had to unburden herself to someone and who better than Justin? He had been privy to all her secrets through the last unhappy years.
“Tom is back,” she whispered.
Justin’s face turned a pale, pasty white. His mouth hung open. “Bradshaw?” He hissed. “He’s alive?”
“Yes,” Emma said. She half-expected Justin to tell her that she could not go through with the wedding. He was always a stickler for doing the right thing.
Instead he caught her arm as though he was about to hustle her down the aisle himself.
“That’s impossible.” He gripped her so hard it hurt. “Sidmouth promised me. We agreed-” He broke off.
A chill settled in Emma’s heart. “What did you agree?” She said, a little breathlessly.
Justin appeared not to have heard her.
“God damn it,” he said explosively, under his breath. “The man comes back from the dead not once but twice! The first time I thought I had made sure of him.”
The organist had already played the wedding march once and was starting on a repeat but Emma did not hear him. She was back in the kitchen of her little cottage in Hampstead two years before when Tom had dramatically reappeared in her life. He had told her then that he had never deserted her, that someone had paid for him to be abducted and thrown on board a ship heading for the Indies, that he had escaped and worked his way back to her because he loved her and the only thing that had kept him going through imprisonment and despair had been the thought of her…
She had not believed him of course. She had thought he had abandoned her by choice when her parents had refused to give him her dowry.
She looked at Justin. He looked as handsome as ever, crisp starched linen, beautifully pomaded hair, but why had she never noticed the weakness in the line of his mouth and the shiftiness in his eyes?
“It was you,” she whispered. “You paid to have Tom abducted. You deliberately ruined my marriage.” She glanced at her father and saw from the shame and defiance in his expression that he had known too. They had all known. Her stomach tilted. She felt sickened.
“”You were better off without him,” Justin said. There was no apology in his tone. “You’ve made the right choice now. Don’t spoil it all, Em. Put it behind you.”
They flanked her on both sides now, closing in like a pair of jailers. Through the big open double doors of the church Emma could see all the guests craning their necks to see what was going on, ears out on stalks. There was a hum of speculation in the air. Someone – was it Lady Rothbury? – was hurrying down the aisle towards her as though she knew there was something amiss.
Emma knew she was on the verge of disgrace for a third time.
Justin must have read her intentions in her eyes because he grabbed hold of both her arms and started to hustle her back towards the waiting carriage. Emma was borne along, kicking his calves but making little impression with her soft silk slippers. Then Justin abruptly released his grip on her and went sprawling in the gutter. Emma steadied herself and saw that and Lady Rothbury was standing beside them.
“I do apologise, Mr Brooke,” Lady Rothbury said pleasantly, “please excuse my clumsiness in tripping you.”
Justin tried to stumble to his feet but Emma put a hand against his chest and pushed him back down again then forced the material of his jacket beneath the carriage wheel so that he was trapped. He swore and struggled and only succeeded in pinning himself more firmly in the dirty gutter.
“Where you belong,” Emma said.
Tess Rothbury hugged her tightly. “Good luck, Emma,” she said. “Write to me.”
Emma hugged her back equally fiercely.
“Emma!” The Earl of Brooke was bright red with fury. “I order you to marry Lord Cholmondeley. Now!”
“I do beg your pardon, papa,” Emma said, “but there is a lawful impediment.” She thrust her bouquet of hothouse roses into her father’s arms.
I am going to find my husband,” she said, and she turned and ran.
Part Seven of Seven
The Lord Nelson Inn was no place for a lady. Emma followed the landlord up the rickety stair, tipped him a half crown, and closed the chamber door in his fascinated face.
Tom was throwing items into an old portmanteau. He looked up as she walked in and a dark frown settled on his brow. His eyes were cold, his jaw set. He looked anything but pleased to see her.
Emma felt tenderness swamp her. Tom looked so tired and so battered. She remembered what Garrick Farne had said when she had gone to him to beg him to tell her where to find Tom; that his brother had done many terrible things but that he had a second chance and he was determined to take it and use it well. She loved Tom for that. She loved that he had become a better man almost against his will and she loved that he would make a different life for himself now. She wanted to be a part of that.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Tom said. “Who told you where to find me?” His eyes narrowed. “Is that your wedding dress? Why aren’t you at the church?”
“Garrick told me,” Emma said. She ignored his other questions, smoothing her damp palms down her skirts. She felt nervous, butterflies battering against her ribs. Tom clearly regretted asking her to run away with him. He had changed his mind. He did not want her.
Tom’s mouth had turned down at the corners. “My sainted half-brother still believes in happy endings,” he said. “He should have saved his breath.”
“Don’t you dare say a word against Garrick, you ungrateful wretch,” Emma said. “He’s done so much to help us both. He’s twice the man you are.”
Tom’s frown lifted slightly and a faint smile touched his lips. “I know,” he said. “That’s why I used to hate him so much. He had everything I wanted.”
“Everything?” Emma said.
Tom looked at her. There was hunger and desolation in his eyes. “Everything except you,” he said. He turned away and threw a bundled up shirt in the general direction of the portmanteau. “You shouldn’t have come here, Em,” he said over his shoulder. He did not look at her. “You were right not to elope with me. It was selfish of me to want you back.”
“You do talk a deal of nonsense sometimes, Tom,” Emma said.
Tom carried on as though she had not spoken. “Marry Warner,” he said. “Be happy.”
“I can’t,” Emma said. Her heart was beating as tight as a drum. “I can’t be happy without you.”
Tom went very still. He did not turn to look at her but she pressed on anyway, desperately hoping the words would come out in the right order, forgetting all that she had rehearsed in the carriage on the way there, wanting only to reach him.
“I couldn’t marry Lord Cholmondeley,” she said. “You were right, Tom. A life with him would be empty and passionless and it would stifle me. I thought I wanted to be rich again but when I was it meant nothing to me. It was meaningless without some other purpose.”
“You could go back to Hampstead Wells,” Tom said. She could see the tension in the line of his shoulders. He had half-turned towards her now. “You worked so hard,” he said. “You did so much good-”
“I could go back there,” Emma agreed, “but I shall not.” She went up to him and put a hand gently on his arm. She could feel how taut and unyielding he was. His muscles were locked tight as though his entire body was focussed only on keeping her out.
“I’m coming to Ireland with you,” she said softly.
Tom spun around so suddenly she jumped. His hands bit into her shoulders as he very deliberately placed her away from him.
“No you are not,” he said.
“Why not?” She would not be thwarted now. She could feel the absolute determination in him to turn her away but she could also feel the longing beneath the surface. She knew he wanted her. She knew he loved her. It was that knowledge that gave her the strength to persist.
“You wanted me before,” she said. “You asked me to go with you. What has changed?”
She thought for a moment that he was not going to answer her at all. Then a shadow fell across his eyes.
“I will not be responsible for ruining your life a third time,” he said. “Now go before I carry you out of here myself.”
“Oh, stop being so noble,” Emma said. “Yes, you ruined me-”
“Twice,” Tom said.
“Thank you for the reminder,” Emma said. “Then you bought my freedom with your life. You did not know Sidmouth was going to spare you. You were prepared to die for me, Tom.”
She saw that he wanted to argue with her but he could not because the facts spoke for themselves. When first they had met again he had said he had had a reason for saving her; she knew now it was because he loved her with all his heart.
“It’s no weakness to admit to love, Tom,” she said quietly. “It is the strongest and most powerful emotion of all.”
“I know,” Tom said. “That is what scares me.”
“I’m scared too,” Emma said. “I’m scared to trust you again.” She broke off. She did not wish to reproach Tom again, not when she had forgiven him, not when she knew that he loved her enough to walk away from her because he wanted what was best for her.
Tom was walking away from her now. He looked as though every step was torture, the effort dragged from him against his will.
“That is why you must go,” he said, as quietly as she. “So that you do not have to live with the doubt that one day I will fail you again. So that you can be happy.”
“I can’t be happy without you,” Emma said. “It is the most confounded nuisance. I wish it were different. But it is not, so there we are.”
“I’m not going to Ireland,” Tom said. His eyes never left her face. “It is not that I do not appreciate Garrick’s help. I can never repay the debt I owe him. But I do not want to be his pensioner. I will carve my own future. So I am going to America. There are more opportunities there.”
“Then I will come with you,” Emma said. “I will like America. I know I will.”
Tom closed his eyes as though her words were too much to bear, as though her determination was almost too much to overcome.
“Emma,” he said. “You would be leaving behind all that you value and hold dear, your family, your friends, the life you have here-”
“I can’t bear my family,” Emma said, “nor do I have much of a life to leave behind, but it is true I will miss my friends very much.”
“Then you must stay.”
“I do believe,” Emma said, “that you will say anything to persuade me to leave you.”
Tom smiled faintly. “I will.”
Emma’s chin came up. “Then tell me that you do not love me and you do not want me with you, Tom. Tell me that you want to spend the rest of your life without me.”
She threw down her challenge and waited.
“I-” Tom said. “Emma… I don’t want…” His voice cracked. “I don’t want to live without you.”
“You got the words wrong,” Emma said. She was laughing and crying at the same time. She could taste the salt of her tears but her smile felt radiant. She ran across the room and stumbled into Tom’s arms. She heard him groan but he did not push her away. His arms closed about her so tightly she could not breathe. He held her greedily, desperately and she pressed against him, frantic to be as close as she could to him.
“I want to elope with you,” she whispered.
Tom gave a shaken laugh. “Again?” He said.
“Again,” Emma agreed. “I have my bag already packed.”
“You will be in disgrace,” Tom warned. He pressed a very tender kiss to her hair. She could feel him shaking.
“Again,” Emma said, and she smiled.
Tom tilted her face up to his and kissed her with love and desire and a desperation that touched her soul. Half way through she could feel the tension finally leave him; the kiss eased, happiness slipping through it like a golden thread and she smiled against his mouth.
“Before we elope,” she whispered, “I would like to be very, very wicked. I have missed being wicked with you.”
Tom released her an inch, smiling into her eyes. “Yes?”
“I would like to make love with you here, now, in my wedding gown,” Emma said.
In response Tom picked her up and threw her onto the rickety bed where she lay amid the frothing petticoats and slippery silk. He did not waste words; she watched as he shed his clothes and came to join her. Kisses led swiftly to passion and from there to sweet, sensual bliss. Soon the beautiful cream coloured gown was very dishevelled indeed, the ribbons on the bodice untied, the skirts spread about Emma’s bare thighs, and Emma was pink and ruffled and very satisfied.
“Such pretty garters,” Tom said, nibbling the soft skin above her stockings. “You should get married more often, Emma.”
“I don’t plan on doing it again,” Emma said.
“Actually,” Tom said, “You may have to.” There was unfamiliar nervousness in his voice, so much anxiety that it pierced Emma’s sleepy satiation.
“Tom?” she said.
“I have a confession to make,” Tom said. “I don’t believe we were ever truly wed.”
Emma rolled over to look at him. “What?”
“The priest who married us had been defrocked,” Tom said. “I’m sorry.”
Emma’s eyes opened very wide. She was sure she should feel angry but she was so happy that the anger trickled away. She looked at Tom’s face, guilty, ashamed, and felt such a huge wash of love for him that she had to bite her lip to stop herself smiling.
“You did it on purpose,” she accused. “You wanted to have a loophole in case you ever wished to claim we were not wed at all.”
Her tone had lacked sharpness. Tom had heard it. He looked relieved. He kissed her.
“How well you know me,” he murmured. “That was exactly what I was thinking in those days when I was a cad and a scoundrel.” He drew back gazing into her eyes. “Yet instead of abandoning you I fought my way back from half a world away in order to claim you. I offered my life for yours. I scarcely knew why I did it. I was angry with myself that I had to do it and it was all because-”
“You love me,” Emma finished. She pressed her fingers to his lips. “How you struggled against it, Tom.”
“Will you marry me, Emma?” Tom said. “I already have a special licence. I bought it when I hoped to persuade you to come away with me.”
“Then we shall go and find a priest at once,” Emma said. “A proper one this time,” she added.
Tom signified his approval for this plan by kissing her soundly once again.
“But only,” Emma whispered, “if you make love to me one more time before we wed, so that my disgrace is complete.”
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