Скачать fb2
The Duke's Reform

The Duke's Reform

Аннотация

    The Duke of Rochester marries Lady Isobel Drummond in order to obtain an heir. She marries him to save her family from financial ruin but also because she's fallen in love with the dissolute duke. Alexander, Lord Bentley, realises how much he loves his wife after he has driven her away by his objectionable behaviour.
    Can he convince Isobel he is a changed man?
    Can Isobel forgive the man she once loved?


Fenella J. Miller The Duke’s Reform

Prologue

    1805

    “Your grace, shall I remove the tray?”
    Alex glanced over his shoulder at the butler hovering anxiously behind him. “Take it, I’ve no appetite.” He turned back to staring morosely over the park. Once this view had pleased him, now it meant nothing. Without Eleanor and the girls Newcomb was an empty shell, no longer a home.
    He rubbed his hand over his jaw. He must look like a brigand. His clothes were in little better state than his person. Grief at the death of his wife and daughters had all but overwhelmed him. He was rudderless— like a ship in a storm buffeted this way and that, unable to find a direction to guide him to safety.
    What day was it? How long had it been since his life had been torn apart? Weeks perhaps? Visitors no longer called to leave their cards of sympathy. No doubt someone had dealt with them, written suitable replies. He had not married Eleanor for love, but had come to love her as the years passed. With her at his side he had been happy, able to forget his miserable upbringing and make this mausoleum into a happy place.
    All that was over. He would not make the same mistake—far better to remain aloof. He vowed never to love again and to remain safe with his emotions hidden. To experience such pain a second time would surely kill him. Sometime in the future he would have to marry; he must provide an heir, but would make sure he selected a suitable girl and not one who would expect him to love her. All he could offer his next bride was affection, respect and his title.
    He would abandon this place, his ancestral seat, and remove to London and crowd his days with pointless activities until he was himself again. Decision made, he strode from the study and shouted for his valet. The sooner he was gone the better. Newcomb held nothing but sadness for him. His loyal staff must come with him to Grosvenor Square—with familiar faces around at least he could be sure his household would run smoothly without his interference.
    He yawned and rubbed his unshaved jaw. If he was not the last in line he would get up a regiment of his own and join Wellington in Spain. Fighting for King and country might help to fill the hole the loss of his beloved wife and children had made in his life. 

Chapter One

    Grosvenor Square
    1810

    Alex glared at his lawyer. How dare he have the temerity to interfere with his life? “Dewberry, you forget yourself. When I take a wife is entirely my concern, kindly don’t forget that.”
    “Forgive me, your grace, but I owe it to your father to speak plainly. Your dissolute lifestyle these past five years is a matter of grave concern. If you are determined to destroy your health in this way then could I ask you to find yourself a suitable wife and set up your nursery before matters overtake you?”
    “I have no wish to marry again, I have nothing to offer apart from my title and wealth. I cannot expect a young woman to accept me as I am.” Dewberry’s look of astonishment almost made him laugh. “The sort of woman who would be satisfied with just that is not someone I would wish to bear my children.”
    “There are dozens of eligible young ladies in the marriage mart this year who would think themselves fortunate to be selected by yourself. You are a handsome man, if you will forgive me for saying so, your grace, and in your prime.”
    “On the outside perhaps, but I no longer have it in me to be a caring partner. It would be a marriage of convenience; my wife would have to understand it will be a business arrangement. She to provide me with children and I, in return, to keep her in luxury for the rest of her life.”
    He yawned, it had been a late night and he had not yet been to bed. The black crow was staring at him expectantly; he’d get no peace until he agreed.
    “I shall do as you suggest.”
    The elderly lawyer beamed. “I should be happy to arrange for you to meet suitable young ladies, there are several debutantes who would be ideal.”
    God’s teeth! “I shall do my own selecting, Dewberry.” He raised one eyebrow. “I do not expect my search to become common gossip.”
    The man coloured. “Of course not, your grace. Anything that is said in my chambers remains confidential. However, your appearance at Almacks …”
    “Almacks? I’d rather have my teeth pulled them go there. I shall attend a few functions and see for myself what is on offer.”
    He strode from the office determined to get away from Town. Whatever Dewberry said matchmaking mamas would soon be on the lookout. He didn’t want to go to Newcomb, he would go to Norfolk and do some shooting. Keep his head down until he was obliged to appear in public when the Season started in March. He’d find a few cronies to accompany him, there were always fellows willing to follow his lead as long as he picked up the bill.
*   *   *
    Norfolk

    Lady Isobel Drummond stormed out of the library. To be ignored by her parents unless they required her assistance with her many younger siblings was one thing, to be told it was her duty to marry a wealthy man in order to save the family from ruin was quite another.
    Gathering her dogs from the kitchens she snatched up her cloak and pushed her feet into the wooden clogs she used for gardening. She had to get out, get away from the house, give herself time to recover her composure. She paused, she would dearly love to run upstairs and change into her habit. A wild gallop across the Fens was exactly what she needed, but that would mean risking meeting her weeping mother and furious father. No, far better to walk.
    Othello and Ebony barked and raced around her in circles, as eager as she to be away from Drummond Hall. It was a blustery November day, a hint of snow on the wind that whipped from the sea. Thank God she did not have to make a decision about going to London to join her aunt and uncle for the season until after Christmas.
    Deep in contemplation she failed to hear the rattle of a carriage approaching at speed. Ebony barked sharply and she looked round. Instinct made her throw herself prone, her bladder almost emptied as a team of horses, followed by the wheels of the carriage, thundered above her. For a moment she was unable to move, shock rendering her almost insensible. Then righteous indignation flooded through her and she pushed herself onto her knees. She came face-to-face with a veritable giant, and not a particularly friendly one at that.
    “Good God, woman, what the hell do you think you’re doing wandering down the middle of highway? I could have killed you.”
    Spitting mud in his direction she glared back into his furious face. “Are you insane, sir? This is not a toll road but a country lane. What would you have done if there had been a flock of sheep across your path?”
    In answer he reached out and hauled her to her feet then dropping to his knees brushed off the worst of the debris from her person. At every touch she flinched, unused to any gentleman taking such liberties. For some reason her anger dissipated to be replaced by a strange internal heat that followed the path of his fingers. She found herself gazing down at his dark hair which curled intriguingly over the collar of his many caped coat.
    Enough was enough. “Desist at once, sir, I have no wish to be manhandled by you. I am quite capable of removing the dirt for myself. You had best look to your team, your carriage is in imminent danger of tipping into the ditch.”
    His head shot up; his eyes were a peculiar shade halfway between blue and black, his nose patrician and his lips mobile. Warmth spread across her breasts and into her face. She could not tear her glance away; she was pinned like a butterfly on a board by the glitter in his eyes. Then it was gone and he was towering above her.
    “Dammit! Out of the way, madam, haven’t you done enough damage already this morning?”
    The spirited team stamped and tossed their heads in impatience and the rear wheel of the vehicle began to slide inexorably backwards. Without thinking, she raced to the lead horse and snatched the bit. The gentleman shouted from behind the carriage.
    “Good girl, move them forwards as rapidly as you can.”
    She ignored his instructions. She was well able to handle his horses without his highhanded intervention. She urged the chestnut sideways following her instincts. Going this way would move the wheel away from danger far more efficiently. The team threw their weight into the traces and the carriage shot forward removing the wheel from danger. Unfortunately the irascible gentleman fell headlong into the ditch instead.
    The air was blue; she thought it wise to absent herself as hastily as possible. Quickly checking the brake was on and the reins securely tied around the pole, she prepared to creep away. Although it wasn’t her fault he’d fallen—no doubt he would blame her for his foolhardiness as he had done before.
    She prepared to make a run for it. Too late! A dripping figure emerged from behind the horses and strode towards her. She couldn’t help herself; her scream echoed down the lane. Suddenly two black shapes hurtled past and for the second time the unfortunate gentleman was tipped backwards into the noxious water.
    Not waiting to see him emerge and seek revenge on the person who was responsible for dumping him twice into the ditch, she raced full pelt down the lane. She scrambled over a five barred gate and tore across the meadow scattering cows in all directions in her head long flight. Her dogs were beside her, tongues lolling out, obviously delighted with the game.
*   *   *
    Alexander shook his head, sending foul water in all directions. He scraped the muck from his eyes and watched his quarry vanish down the lane. Who the devil was she? Dressed like a servant but quite obviously gently born. She was a conundrum. He stepped out of the ditch and propped himself against the carriage wheel in order to remove his boots and tip out the water.  It was fortunate they no longer fitted him as snugly as they’d used to.
    He tossed his sodden cape on to the box and stared gloomily at his ruined topcoat. The blue superfine jacket had cost him a pretty penny and it, like the rest of his garments, was quite beyond salvage. The young woman was right to castigate him; he had been driving far too fast. He shrugged, he seldom drove any other way, caring little if he came to grief. However, he had no wish to take anyone else with him if he went, and certainly not the lovely young termagant he’d just encountered.
    He checked his horses were none the worse their experience and then leaped into his carriage and recovered the reins. His breeches were so wet he slid from side to side as the curricle gathered speed. He had no option, unless he wished to nosedive over the edge he must return to his hunting box at a walk.
    His mouth curved as he recalled the shapely young woman with abundant russet curls and sparkling green eyes. His groin tightened as he relived the delightful few moments when he’d been removing the debris from her person. Perhaps that old fool Dewberry was right; now was the time to put his house in order and find himself another wife.
    For the first time in many years his pulse quickened. He would discover who the young woman was - perhaps she would do? He frowned. What was he thinking of? The last person he required as his wife was a spirited girl who would make demands on him that he would be unable to fulfil. He had his mistress to take care of his bodily needs. What he wanted was a meek submissive girl, of impeccable pedigree, who would be prepared to remain in the country and provide him with the necessary heir.
*   *   *
    Isobel slowed her pace as she approached her home. She had no wish to explain why she’d felt the need to run like a hoyden across the fields. She slipped inside, using the side door as usual, and returned to her apartment without being waylaid by her parents or any of her younger siblings.
    Mary, who had been taking care of her since she left the schoolroom, threw up her hands in horror. “Lawks a mussey! Whatever next! You look like a vagabond, my lady. Did you take a tumble?”
    “Something like that; an extremely unpleasant and overbearing gentleman attempted to run me down. It was a miracle I didn’t meet my Maker at his hands.” Laughing at her maid’s expression, Isobel kicked off her clogs and untied the bow holding her cloak in place. “But he got his comeuppance. He fell into the ditch twice and quite ruined his smart clothes.”
    Her abigail clucked and tutted as she removed the soiled garments, Isobel allowed her mind to wander at the unexpected encounter. Who could this gentleman be? From his demeanour and appearance she was sure he was a wealthy man, someone used to giving orders. An unexpected frisson rippled down her spine as she recalled the breadth of his shoulders, the length of his legs and the feel of his hands as they travelled up and down her body.
    He was a handsome man, but too autocratic and quick tempered for her taste. He must have a box somewhere and have come down to shoot; perhaps she might make discreet enquiries from their own gamekeeper. Evans was bound to know who owned a property of this sort in the neighbourhood.
    “There, my lady, I shall do what I can to restore your gown. I have sent for hot water, and there’s a good fire in your parlour.”
    Isobel pushed her arms into her robe and smiled at her maid. “Anything, Mary, as long as it’s warm. I expect you already know why I was summoned to the library earlier?”
    “I do, my lady. If you will forgive me for saying so, I think it’s high time you were seen in Society and found yourself an amenable husband.”
    For some inexplicable reason an image of the dark eyed stranger flashed across her mind. Heavens above! Imagine what her life would be married to such a one? A gentleman like him would not suit her at all for he would forever be making demands on her. She hastily turned away hoping her pink cheeks had not been noticed. She wasn’t exactly clear what took place in the marital bed, but the thought of him touching her naked body made her pulse race. Pushing such wanton thoughts firmly away, she went to sit in front of the fire until her washing water arrived and she could put on a clean gown.
    Her father would be waiting for an answer. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad to spend a few weeks in the capital with her favourite relatives. As Mary quite rightly said, at nineteen years of age she would be one of the older debutantes on view. However, whatever her parents might think she had no intention of selling herself to the highest bidder. She knew her duty, but would never agree to marry a man she could not at least feel affection for.

Chapter Two

    Grosvenor Square, March 1811

    Alex riffled through the pile of invitations on the silver tray in his study. His glance fell on one from Lord Illingworth, he was launching his daughter and his niece at a ball that very night. He flicked over the card and quickly scribbled an acceptance on the back and rang for a footman to take it around. It was decidedly bad form to reply so late, but he was certain the cachet of having a duke at the ball would make up his bad manners.
    Spreading out a fresh piece of paper he sharpened his quill and wrote down what he was looking for in a bride.
    1. Impeccable pedigree.
    2. Quiet.
    3. Not bracket faced.
    4. Intelligent.
    He scratched his head with the end of his pen lost in thought. The list seemed rather short, was there something else he should add to it? His mouth curved - of course.
    5. Tall
    6. Prefers country life.
    7. Loves children.
    There … that should do it. If he found a young woman who fulfilled all his criteria he would offer for her immediately. The sooner he produced the required heir the better, then he could continue his rackety lifestyle without having the family lawyers constantly complaining. He had no intention of living with his wife once his duty was done, his mistress provided him with everything he needed apart from a son. A fleeting image of the lovely, russet haired girl he’d encountered in Norfolk flickered into his head. His enquiries had not produced her name or whereabouts, and he’s been obliged to return to Town a few days later on urgent business matters and had all but forgotten the encounter. He pushed the picture away— she was safely in Norfolk and he must find himself a bride.
*   *   *
    Isobel stood beside her cousin waiting to greet the monstrous crush of people invited to their come-out ball. She must remember to bite her tongue and keep any sharp comments to herself even if seriously provoked.
    Petunia, a diminutive, fair-haired girl, as pretty as a cherub and with a sweet nature to match, would have no such difficulty. Isobel felt like an ungainly beanpole at her side. With her hair piled up in this ridiculous fashion on top of her head it added a further few inches. Good grief! Even her evening slippers had heels upon them. She would be staring over the heads of most of the gentlemen present and that would surely be enough to put them off before they’d even spoken to her.
    “Isobel, my love, please do not scowl so, it is your come out. You are supposed to be enjoying yourself, not looking as if you are about to have a tooth pulled.”
    Her dear aunt’s kindly reminder caused Isobel to relax. “I beg your pardon, Aunt Laura, you are right to chide me. It’s just that I feel over large and I was wishing I were a foot and a half shorter tonight.”
    Petunia stretched up to kiss her cheek. “You are the most beautiful woman here, like a goddess, so tall and elegant. With your lovely red-gold curls and huge green eyes I’m certain you shall be the talk of the town.”
    “You are dear to say so, cousin, and I love you for it. However I can’t tell you how unpleasant it is to be staring at the top of a gentleman’s head all night.”
    Her companions were still laughing when the first guests were announced. Uncle Benjamin, who had been absent from the line, hurried to join them, brushing cigar ash from his person as he did so. He’d been blowing a cloud in the billiard room and no doubt downing a steadying brandy or two.
    He beamed at her. “My dears, I shall be the proudest man in London tonight. I expect to be beating off your many suitors with a stick before the evening is finished.” He winked at her as he took his place beside his wife. He knew how she felt and appreciated, as no other person did, what a sacrifice she was making in order to save her family from disaster.
    “I think you are a trifle premature, Uncle. However there are a prodigious amount of people invited, it would be churlish of me not to find someone to make me an offer when there is so much choice.” His laughter made several heads turn in their direction. “I am deeply grateful for the opportunity you have given me, my lord. Tonight I shall make an effort to simper and flutter my eyelids in exactly the way Pet has shown me.”
    She loved her relatives; if she was honest she preferred them to her own family. Whatever the outcome of this venture she was determined to enjoy her stay in Town. She would attend all the soirees and at homes with good grace, but when everyone else was still abed she would ride in the park and visit the sights. Her lips curved at the thought of her trip to Hatchards that morning when she had been able to purchase several promising novels.
    Her smile froze as a tall gentleman dressed entirely in black caught her attention. Her knees almost buckled. He was the one gentleman she didn’t want to meet. Her enquiries had assured her Lord Bentley did not attend balls or parties, was a dissolute aristocrat, more interested in gaming and drinking than finding a wife. There was a sudden flurry of movement and the crowd parted like the Red Sea to let him through. He was staring directly at her.
    Had he recognized her as the young lady who had tipped him into a ditch? That strange heat flickered through her, her cheeks coloured and her chest tightened. She couldn’t look away, was held by the gaze of his blue-black eyes and the arrogant thrust of his chin. This time he was smiling and she could not help responding. The master of ceremonies announced his name with due aplomb.
    “His grace, The Duke of Rochester, Lord Bentley.” She dipped in a deep curtsy wondering if he knew who she was. Presumably his invitation card would have stated her name. Her cousin was the image of Aunt Laura so it must be immediately obvious she was Lady Isobel Drummond and not Miss Petunia Illingworth. She straightened, raising her head to discover him watching her. His smile made her toes curl.
    “Lady Isobel, I am enchanted to make your acquaintance. I hope you will honour me with a dance or two.” This was not a question but a bald statement of fact.
    Almost too late she found her tongue. “Thank you, your grace, it is I who shall be honoured.” He nodded and was gone. Someone touched her hand and she looked down to see her cousin staring at her round eyed.
    “Do you realize who that was?”
    Isobel smiled. “He was announced, he’s The Duke of Rochester.”
    “No, silly, he’s the most eligible parti in the world and he has singled you out. Whatever happens next, your season will be successful.”
    Now was not the time to tell Pet she had already made his acquaintance. She shivered. Was he planning some sort of revenge for her mistreatment? Would he lead her out and then abandon her on the dance floor and make her a laughing stock? Did one man have the power to do that? Her cousin was prone to exaggerate, no doubt this was another of those instances.
    “I think he was an objectionable man, so top lofty I cannot imagine how he does not fall over his own feet. He did not stay to greet any of you; even a duke should have good manners.”
    Aunt Laura looked scandalized and Petunia giggled. Her uncle winked and the moment of excitement was over. Having jumped the queue in his superior fashion, Rochester strolled off into the ballroom. As the remainder of the guests was introduced Isobel curtsied and smiled until her face ached.
    An hour later she was finally free to join the throng milling about the place. Whoever arrived at her side first, if she liked them, then she would dance. Then, when she became bored with the evening, she could absent herself without giving offence to anyone.
    Petunia was to lead the first set. No doubt some gentleman would invite her also. To her astonishment Rochester appeared neatly cutting out a small queue of hopefuls.
    “I believe this is my dance, Lady Isobel.”
    She was tempted to refuse, to say she was promised to another, but something in his eyes made her accept and she curtsied and stepped forward. Just the touch of his hand sent tremors rushing round her body.
    “I believe I owe you an apology, my lady.”
    Her eyes flew up. His expression was suitably solemn, but his eyes twinkled. “It is I who must apologize …”
    His smile made her lose her feet and she stumbled, he steadied her. “I should have called on you, but was recalled on business matters. Without your intervention things might have been far worse.”
    Her gurgle of laughter attracted the attention of the other couples in the set. “Shall we agree to forget the incident, your grace?”
    He nodded. “As you wish. May I say that I almost didn’t recognize you this evening?”
    With wide eyes she replied. “And I you, your grace. Mud is an excellent disguise, is it not?”
    This time his shout of mirth caused the unfortunate young lady to her left to step on her hem and tear the flounce clean off. The dagger look Isobel received almost made her lose her composure. He whirled her away in the promenade and she struggled with her giggles; he not assisting her efforts by winking down at her.
    The remainder of the ball whirled past far quicker than she’d anticipated. In spite of her reservations she was not bored, in fact had never felt so invigorated in her life. She had danced with a variety of gentlemen both young and old, but none had been as charming or as handsome as Lord Bentley.
    He had returned to claim her for the supper dance and by the end of the evening she had quite revised her former opinion and was halfway to liking him a great deal. She was not so I as to believe he was so afflicted and did not expect to hear from him again.
*   *   *
    The next morning when she returned from her early morning ride she was greeted by a frantic Aunt Laura.”My dear girl, such an honour, indeed it is quite worth the aggravation of rising at the crack of dawn.”
    “Aunt Laura, I’ve no idea of what you mean. Indeed, I am astonished to find you abroad so early.”
    “I told you, my love, The Duke of Rochester has come to call on you. He’s been here half an hour already. Poor Illingworth has been obliged to talk to him. I could not remain in the same room, he puts me all in a flutter, he stares at one in such a way as to make you believe you have a smut upon your nose.”
    Isobel was dumbfounded; for such an illustrious person to make his appearance but a few hours after the end of the ball was incredible. Had he been as taken with her as she was with him? Had their encounter in Norfolk made her seem a friend and not a stranger?
    “I had better not waste time by returning to my chamber and changing from my riding habit.” The look of horror she received from her aunt made her laugh. “He cannot expect us to be in our finery if he chooses to call so early. This is a very becoming habit, it exactly matches my eyes, have you not told me so several times before?”
    Not waiting to hear the reply Isobel walked straight across the chequered entrance hall and into the drawing-room. Two heads turned. Her uncle was patently relieved and the duke showed unmistakable appreciation in his eyes.
    She dipped in a deep curtsy; the jaunty ostrich feather on the brim of her military style swept the floor. Straightening, she gazed across the room at the two men, waiting for one of them to speak.
    “Lady Isobel, forgive me for calling so early, but like you I am in the habit of riding before anyone else is around. I wished to invite you to drive in the park with me this afternoon.”
    She was surprised at his statement. He did not look like a man who relished exercise at any time. Then she recalled his wild appearance last year and reconsidered. He had a slightly jaded air about him today, as if he had been spending his days in idle pursuits not something as invigorating as a gallop around Hyde Park.
    “I should be delighted to accompany you, your grace, if my uncle gives me permission.”
    “I am quite happy for you to do so, my dear, as long as you are accompanied by your abigail.”
    A flash of something passed across the duke’s handsome features. This was quite possibly annoyance. Had he really believed his title would allow him to ride roughshod over her good name?
    “Forgive me, gentlemen, but as you see I have not yet had the opportunity to change from my riding habit …” She stopped, appalled she’d been so immodest as to mention changing her apparel. This time his eyes glittered with something she did not recognize. Her cheeks blazed. Hastily she curtsied a second time and without further comment turned to go.
    His deep voice followed her. “I shall arrive to collect you at two o’clock, Lady Isobel.”
    She was sorely tempted to return to the drawing-room and tell this autocratic gentleman that two o’clock was not convenient, but common sense prevented her. A man like him had been born and bred to issue orders in the expectation that they would be obeyed without question. His dark visage had often filled her dreams these past few weeks. Indeed, it would be no hardship to drive with the most attractive man in Town.
    She ran upstairs with her skirt draped over her arm and smiled at the thought of being seen in his company. If Petunia was to be believed, she would now be the talk of the town. Was it really possible one man could influence opinion in this way?
*   *   *
    Mary stood back, her dear face glowing with pride. “My lady, I don’t believe there is another as beautiful as you in Town this season. The leaf green of your promenade gown was a perfect choice. I must say I wasn’t sure it was quite right for you when you selected it.”
    “It seems a pity to cover the pretty beading on the bodice with my pelisse, but it’s decidedly chilly this afternoon. I know it’s the end of March, but it doesn’t feel like spring.” Isobel lifted the hem of her dress to stare at her new half-kid boots dyed to exactly match her ensemble. “These are decidedly uncomfortable, it’s fortunate I shall not have to walk far in them.”
    “You know how it is, my lady, they will ease with wear. Your bonnet brim is so deep it’s going to prevent you from speaking to the duke. You will have to turn your head in order to see him.”
    “That’s exactly why I selected it. If I find his company tedious I can stare straight ahead and he will have no notion that I am pulling faces at him.”
    “My lady! You must not jest about such things; if you offend such an illustrious person your season could be ruined. One word from him and your invitations will be withdrawn. Remember how you met last November?”
    “He is a man like any other; I shall treat him with the respect he deserves.”
    She picked up her gloves and reticule and checked in the glass she was looking her best. After all, her appearance was the only thing she had to offer. Being the daughter of an impecunious earl would not impress this man. He was prodigiously handsome, fabulously wealthy and a duke - but for all that unless he engaged her affections she would not consent to marry him. Was it possible he had been thinking of her since their first encounter?
    Good grief! She had been invited to drive and already she was anticipating an offer. On hearing voices in the vestibule she paused at the head of the stairs. She had not expected him to leave his carriage and come in person to collect her. He must not keep his team waiting a moment longer on her account. They were the same handsome chestnuts he had driven in Norfolk.
    “Lady Isobel, you are ravisante. And equally important, you are not tardy.” He bowed and she paused halfway down the stairs to dip in a curtsy.
    “Thank you, your grace, for your compliment. I am famous for my punctuality, am I not, Uncle?”
    He nodded solemnly. “Indeed, my dear, you are an example to us all.”
    She hid her smile beneath her bonnet brim; it was a standing joke that she was always the last to appear having had her nose in a book or become lost in her music.
    Bentley met her at the foot of the staircase holding out his arm. She had no option but to place her hand on it. It was the same as when they had danced together last night, just touching him made her feel decidedly odd. She daren’t glance sideways; he would see that her cheeks were flushed and know he was affecting her.
    “Oh my! A high perch phaeton - I had no idea you would drive such a thing.”
    “I am a noted whipster, my lady. Unfortunately, as you can see, I will be unable to accommodate your maid. However, it’s perfectly permissible to drive in an open carriage in broad daylight without risking your reputation.”
    Mary was rigid with disapproval. Isobel was tempted to refuse to accompany him, but the resulting fracas would cause distress to her relatives and she would not willingly do that. He was perfectly correct, only in a closed carriage did she need to be chaperoned.
    Smiling apologetically at her abigail she continued down the marble steps where the alarming vehicle was waiting. A diminutive tiger was all but swinging from the head of the lead horse as it stamped and pawed the ground in its eagerness to be away.
    Without a by your leave his strong hands gripped her waist and she was all but tossed aboard. The phaeton rocked alarmingly and she clutched the side and it did so again as he joined her.
    His tiger released his grip and shot to the rear of the vehicle to scramble, not a moment too soon, on to the step at the rear. With a flick of his whip the duke released the team and they moved smoothly away from the path and on to the main thoroughfare. There was no conversation between them, she kept her eyes firmly on the road ahead fearing that at any minute the spirited team would spook and deposit her on the road.
    Her worries receded as they progressed safely through the traffic. He was in control of his horses, she was in no danger with him beside her. She began to relax and to look about her with interest. This was the first time she’d travelled in such a modern vehicle. Its prodigious height gave one such an advantage over other road users. She saw the park gates ahead several minutes before they arrived there.
    There were many like-minded carriages entering the park. Two o’clock was obviously the time to be seen bowling around the paths. They had not been inside for many minutes before she became aware that every head turned in their direction as they trotted past.
    “Lady Isobel, delightful as your bonnet is, can I ask you not to wear it on our next excursion?”
    She shifted sideways in order to reply. “I know, it has more the appearance of a coal scuttle than a hat. I cannot imagine what possessed me to buy it.”
    His chuckles sent shivers up her spine. He was all but irresistible when he smiled in that particular way. “Excellent, my lady, we are already on agreement on one matter.”
    “I have never ridden in one of these before, it’s an exciting experience. However, being so high from the ground and exposed to the elements is not something I would care to do unless the weather is clement.”
    “Shall we ride together tomorrow morning, Lady Isobel? I shall collect you at …” He hesitated as if not sure what would be a suitable time to suggest.
    “I normally go out at seven o’clock, your grace.” This was pure fabrication, she rarely left the house before half past eight. She doubted if he was aware that such an hour existed.
    “Seven o’clock?” He smiled at her and her insides somersaulted. “I had no notion you were such a dedicated rider, Lady Isobel. I believe you must have been out for three hours this morning.”
    Hoist by her own petard! Suddenly she felt comfortable in his company, able to speak naturally to him. Laughing at his perspicacity she nodded. “I am discovered, I thought to frighten you by insisting you joined me at dawn. I leave at half past eight and should be honoured to have you accompany me tomorrow.”
    She returned from her drive fizzing with excitement. Unbelievable as it might seem, he appeared to find her as appealing as she found him. Had she already met the man she would one day marry?

Chapter Three

    The next two weeks Isobel hardly had time to gather her thoughts. Lord Bentley was constantly at her side and she was whisked to the opera, to the theatre and escorted to all the most prestigious social events. It could only be a matter of time before he made her a formal offer. He was to dine with them tonight and had asked for a private audience with Uncle Benjamin who stood in loco parentis.
    She was sitting in front of the fire in her sitting room drying her hair when Aunt Laura came in. “My dear, I must speak to you. As your dear mama is not here it falls on me to do what she would do.”
    “Aunt Laura, there’s no need to explain what is required of me when I become a bride, I am well aware what my duties will be.”
    “That’s a profound relief, my love, I can now move onto the next matter. Rochester intends to speak to your uncle this evening. If you have any doubts about marrying him then you must say so now.”
    “I had thought there would be longer to make up my mind. I have known him only three weeks. I know I should not hesitate; I shall be a duchess, have everything I could possibly wish for, but I keep remembering his anger. I could not marry him, even though I am almost in love with him, if I believed I should spend my time in fear of what might happen if I upset him.”
    Her aunt settled herself comfortably on the chaise longue before replying. “There are things about his past that it is only right I should tell you. He was married before— this was, like yours, a marriage of convenience, but from all accounts he came love his wife and they were content together.”
    “I had no notion this was to be his second marriage. What happened to his wife?”
    “Rochester was in London on business, his wife and two small daughters at home in Newcomb when they were struck down with the sweating fever. All three had died before he could be sent for.”
    “How dreadful!Poor man, to lose all three like that, and so suddenly too. Small wonder I detect a darkness in him. This explains a lot to me.” Isobel scrambled up and pushed her hair to one side. “I shall make him happy, bear him children and help him forget about the sadness all those years ago.”
    “In which case, my love, I shall tell your uncle to accept the offer. We are both delighted— when you came to us I knew you would take, but had no idea it would be Rochester who offered first.”
    “Is there anything else you wish to discuss with me, Aunt Laura?”
    Her aunt smiled and patted the chintz covered seat beside her. “Sit down, Isobel, there were one or two things I don’t expect your mama told you. Your husband will be vigorous in his attentions until you are increasing. From that point you will be left in blessed peace until several weeks after the baby is born. With luck you will become pregnant the first month— it’s what all new wives pray for I am sure.”
    This was indeed a strange conversation to be having. Could it be true that what took place between a man and wife in the privacy of the bedroom was so unpleasant it was preferable to be permanently with child?
    “I hope I am able to provide the duke with an heir, after all it’s why he’s marrying me. I am not so naive, Aunt Laura, to imagine he feels the same way I do. But underneath his reserve I believe there’s a loving man waiting to be discovered.”
    That night Mary laid out her newest acquisition. The gown was not the usual white of a debutante, but of palest green, silk chiffon, the over skirt in sparkling, silver sarcenet. She was like a princess from a fairytale; although the neckline was a trifle daring for someone of her age her emerald necklace filled the expanse of creamy skin and she felt less exposed. This stunning item had once been her mother’s and was handed to the oldest daughter on her come out.
    “Mary, do you think I am doing the right thing?”
    Her abigail shook out an invisible crease in the gown before answering. “It isn’t for me to say, Lady Isobel. If you’re happy then I’m content also.”
    With this unsatisfactory reply ringing in her ears Isobel hurried out to join her cousin who was waiting impatiently in the parlour. They intended to descend together.
    “Pet, damask rose is perfect for you. I’m so glad you have been allowed to wear a coloured ensemble tonight.” She slipped her arm through her cousin’s and twirled her round. “And when do you expect to receive your first offer? Have you decided which of your many admirers to accept?”
    “La, Isobel. I have decided not to accept any of them. I wish to have a second season as it’s so much fun. I’m sure being married could not possibly be nearly as exciting. Eleanor, now Mrs Eleanor Watson, was at school with me and she’s already a mother and was only married last summer.”
    “Unlike you, my dear cousin, I much prefer to be in the country and not gallivanting all over the place attending balls every night.”
    Petunia’s tinkling laugh echoed along the corridor. “Fustian, Isobel, and you know it. You have enjoyed every minute of these past weeks that you’ve spent with the most attractive man in London at your side.”
    Giggling, Isobel squeezed her cousin’s arm. “But it will be so much more enjoyable having him all to myself in the country.”
    Still laughing at their daring conversation they arrived pell-mell at the head of the stairs. Isobel all but tumbled headlong in her effort to stop. Halfway up the staircase was the gentleman they had been discussing. From the amusement in his eyes she was certain he had overheard. She wished the floor would open and swallow her. She was scarlet from her toes to the tip of her ears. Petunia abandoned her and ran past leaving her to face him alone.
    “Lady Isobel, every night you appear in a different gown and each time you take my breath away. I apologize for eavesdropping. This was not my intention, I assure you. Come, sweetheart, I have permission to take you to the library. There is something most particular I wish to ask you.”
    Unable to do more than mumble a response she allowed him to guide her down the remaining stairs and along the wide passageway. The door was standing open, no servants lurking to overhear. He almost bundled her inside and she heard the door click shut behind her. Her heart raced. She was about to receive a marriage proposal from the man of her dreams — so why did she feel so apprehensive?
    Should she find herself a seat or remain trembling in the centre of the carpet? From what little she knew of these matters the gentleman was obliged to go down on one knee in order to ask her that all-important question.
    “My love, do not look so scared. We both know why you’re here and we both know my question is a formality.” He walked towards her and she was unable to move. Her feet seemed to be glued to the floor. “Before I ask you to marry me there’s something I must do.”
    The distance between them vanished. His arms came around her and she was pulled gently until she could feel his heat burning through the thin stuff of her evening gown. Her knees were shaking. She raised her hands to press them on his chest and tilted her head intending to ask him to release her. She had no opportunity to speak. His mouth closed over hers in a kiss of such sweetness her fear melted.
    His heart pounded beneath her fingertips. He was as disturbed as she and this gave her the courage to respond. Her hands crept up until they were around his neck and she buried her fingers in his dark hair. It was smooth and silky beneath her touch; she tugged at the back of his neck to bring him closer to her.
    Then her feet were dangling free, his arms crushing her close and the pressure of his lips increased. His tongue ran along her mouth demanding entry to the moist recesses within. This was too much. She was overwhelmed by what was happening. Her body was responding to his lovemaking whilst her head was screaming no.
    Suddenly she was free, but her legs gave way and without his arms to support her she would have sunk in a pool of green silk at his feet. “Sweetheart, I apologise, I did not mean to frighten you. Here, darling, let me carry you to the sofa.”
    “No, I am quite recovered thank you, sir,” her voice was little more than a whisper but he took heed and did no more than guide her to the seat.
    “Lady Isobel, will you do me the honour of becoming my wife?”
    Shocked by the abruptness of his proposal she almost refused. He had not bothered to go down on one knee, but remained staring down at her as if impatient for an answer. “Thank you, your grace, I am delighted to accept.”
    “Excellent. I shall ride down to Norfolk tomorrow to speak to your father and arrange the settlements. We will be married at Newcomb four weeks from today. I shall leave you to organize your bride clothes. Four weeks is sufficient I hope?”
    Isobel wanted to tell him it wasn’t nearly enough time, that an engagement of a month was far too short. She’d hoped to get to know him better before the marriage took place. This would be a fruitless exercise. She had better become accustomed to being dictated to. The man she had just agreed to marry would brook no contradiction to his orders. Had she made a dreadful mistake?
    “I shall be ready in time. Are we to have a wedding trip, my lord?”
    He cupped her face and brushed her lips with his own. “My love, did you not say you were eager to spend time in the country alone with me?”
    “I did, and April is the perfect month to spend in Hertfordshire.”
    “Come, sweetheart, give me your hand, there’s something I still have to do.”
    Obediently she held it out and he pushed a betrothal band with a perfect square cut emerald onto her ring finger. She gazed down and her eyes pricked— the ring was perfect. It also exactly matched the necklace she was wearing. Her hand strayed to her neck and his eyes followed it. Before she could retreat she was once more within his arms but this time his lips drifted across her neck leaving a trail of fire in their wake.
    A strange languor made her limbs heavy. She relaxed against his arms, tipping her head back to give him access to her breasts. She was released abruptly and her future husband moved abruptly away to stand with his back to her. Was he unwell? Instinctively she stepped forward and touched his shoulder.
    “Lady Isobel, return to the drawing-room to give your family the good news. I shall be with you directly.”
    How inconsiderate— it would look decidedly strange for her to enter without him at her side.
    She sighed and did as she was bid. Probably best to start learning to follow his dictums. One she was his wife he would own her. She would be considered his chattel, of no more value than his horse.
*   *   *
    The next four weeks flew past. Her parents arrived from Norfolk and her bride clothes were completed. There was no time to repine, everyone told her she was the luckiest girl in the land. As the day for her departure to Hertfordshire drew closer she hoped her fears were unfounded. Bentley had rarely been alone with her, and then he left for Newcomb to oversee the preparations for her arrival a week before the wedding.
    “Mama, I have scarcely had time to converse with my future husband. We have been acquainted but a few weeks— how am I going to manage living with a stranger?”
    Her mother shook her head. “Isobel, child, you have the rest of your lives to get to know each other. There is not a woman in town that does not envy you. To be married to a duke who is not in his dotage is good fortune indeed.”
    “We are not to have a wedding trip, did I tell you?”
    “As you have no taste for travelling, my dear, I should think you are relieved to be staying put. Anyway, as he is marrying you to fill his nursery it is far better you remain in England. I doubt the physicians in other countries are as expert as our own.”
    No more was said on the matter and two days before the wedding the baggage carts set off at first light and Isobel and her family followed after breakfast. There was to be a celebration ball that night for the most prestigious of his neighbours, and then the next day there was to be a garden party for the staff and tenants in order to allow them to pay their respects. A quiet family dinner would precede her wedding day. Her uncle, aunt and her cousins, Petunia and David, had accompanied them. David was two years older than Pet, and great fun to be with. Everything was a lark to him, including the thought of Isobel marrying a duke.
    As the carriage turned into the drive of Newcomb, Isobel lowered the window and craned out like an urchin ignoring her mother’s demands that she sit down immediately.
    “Look at that monstrous building— it must have hundreds of rooms. I’ve never seen anything so enormous in all my life.”
    “Isobel, sit down at once. How can you express such a view about your future home? You should be grateful it is not in the north of England but a mere morning’s drive from Town.”
    “I beg your pardon, Mama, but the thought of spending the rest of my life here is quite daunting. It must have a hundred staff to maintain it. How am I going to manage to run such a place?”
    Her father frowned and cleared his throat noisily. Hastily she sat down, recognizing the danger signals. “Isobel, I am shocked by your disrespect. This place will not require your intervention; there will be a housekeeper and butler to take care of things. Your duty is to be a good wife and provide your husband with an heir.”
    “Yes, Papa. I know what is expected of me, and apologize if I have given offence.”
    A small army of liveried footmen were waiting to greet them. Where was Bentley? Then he appeared in the doorway and strode down the steps to snatch open the carriage door himself.
    “My love, you are here at last. Come, let me show you around your new home.” Ignoring her parents, and the second carriage that contained the rest of her relatives, he escorted her inside. She was almost running to keep up with him.
    “Please, my lord, should I not speak to the staff that were waiting to greet me at the door?”
    “Absolutely not, darling girl. I have something to show you and it cannot wait. Remember, you will be my duchess the day after tomorrow. You’re answerable to no one here apart from myself.”
    She was breathless when he stopped outside handsome double doors. Two flunkies bowed and opened them. “My word! What a pretty sitting-room. Is this to be mine?”
    His delight at her reaction told her she had said the right thing. “I’ve had your apartments refurbished and redecorated. That’s why I have been absent so much these past few weeks. I wished it to be perfect for you.”
    Her heart skipped and impulsively she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him. Laughing he swung around like a child and kicked the door shut in the faces of his staff. “If there is anything I’ve forgotten, anything else that you wish for, you only have to ask.”
    She gazed round the room, her eyes wide as she took in exactly what was there. She ran from one item of furniture to another exclaiming in pleasure. “A walnut desk, and a harpsichord. Look, an easel and everything I need to paint. I cannot believe it, you have chosen all these novels and they are exactly what I would have picked myself.”
    “I spoke to your mother when I was in Norfolk and she told me of your interests. I have a stable full of horses you can ride. As I don’t care for house pets there are no dogs here for you to fuss.”
    At the mention of her own beloved animals she felt a moment’s sadness. She would miss them sorely, but her siblings had promised to take care of Ebony and Othello in future. “You’re a kind and generous gentleman; thank you for doing this for me.”
    At that moment she had no doubts. He might be a reserved man, might not love her as she loved him, but he cared enough to oversee the redecoration and refurbishment of her apartment personally. That was enough to reassure her she had not been mistaken in her choice.

Chapter Four

    The ball was a great success and, defying convention, she danced every dance with her future husband. Waltzing for the first time was magical. He held her close and they twirled in time to the music in a world of their own. Every time he looked at her his eyes burned with something she wasn’t quite sure about. The slightest touch of his hand sent shivers of excitement up and down her body.
    As Mary helped her disrobe she decided to ask how a husband and wife were intimate. She understood somehow they must become as one body in order for the man to transfer his seed, but she was rather unclear exactly how this happened.
    “Tell me, Mary, what will my husband do on my wedding night?”
    “I’m not sure I should be the one to tell you this, it might be better to wait and not know the details.”
    There must be something Mary did not wish her to know. “As you’re a married woman, and closer to me than anyone else, I am relying on you to explain everything.”
    By the time all had been revealed she rather wished she had remained ignorant. However, she now understood the strange hardness she had felt pressing into her when she had been in his arms. After her abigail left she mulled over what she had been told. The aperture into which a man’s part must go would not even stretch to receive one of her fingers. She would be torn apart— no wonder in the olden days a bloody sheet was held up for all to see to prove the new bride had been an innocent.
    She slept little that night. She rose early and found her way to the stable yard. A sleepy groom was only too pleased to saddle up the pretty grey mare she selected and to accompany her on her ride. The exercise and fresh air cleared her head. She would not think about her wedding night. She would concentrate on the here and now. There was the garden party this afternoon and she must not be out of sorts for that.
*   *   *
    “Where is Lady Isobel, Lady Illingworth? She did not come in to breakfast this morning.” Alexander hoped Isobel wasn’t hiding from him.
    “I believe she went out on horseback and is now resting so she will be fresh for this afternoon’s event, your grace.”
    He relaxed, he should have thought of that himself. “Thank you, madam; I was concerned she might be unwell.”
    There was to be a substantial spread set out for his tenants and staff, barrels of ale and jugs of freshly made lemonade plus pasties and the like. Fortunately the day was fine; it would be a perfect April afternoon, ideal for such a celebration. The sooner her tedious relatives departed the better. Isobel would settle more quickly if she had only himself to turn to for advice. He didn’t want anyone from her past at Newcomb— this was to be a fresh start for both of them.
    The fact that his bride was marrying in order to restore the fortunes of her family made things a lot easier. She understood their union was more a matter of business than anything else—she to provide him with an heir and he to settle a vast sum on her impecunious father. His lips curved. It would be no hardship sharing her bed.
    There were still two hours until the start of the garden party. As his nuptials drew nearer his mind turned constantly to his beloved Eleanor and he was beginning to think he was making a grave mistake. He would retreat to his study and fortify himself with a much-needed brandy or two. He was drinking far too much — had been doing so for years— but alcohol was the only thing that deadened the pain.
    Foster arrived and roused him from his doze. “Your grace, I beg to inform you your guests are assembled and your tenants arriving in the park.”
    Alexander swung his boots to the carpet and eased himself upright. He must desist from drinking during the day for it gave him a damnable headache. He checked his cravat was undisturbed and headed for the drawing-room. Isobel curtsied, but carefully avoided eye contact. There was something bothering the girl. He must give this some thought.
    During the afternoon she walked at his side smiling and speaking naturally to his people. He glanced down at his lovely bride. He had chosen well, she was the perfect chatelaine for his home. She wasn’t Eleanor— she was irreplaceable. Isobel was beautiful, biddable and eminently beddable and this would have to do. He hardened at the thought of what awaited him the following night.
    “My love, you haven’t eaten anything, you’ll be faint with hunger if you don’t take a little.”
    “My lord, I dare not risk eating in public. I could be spoken to when I had my mouth full or dribble something down my gown. I shall make up for it to night at dinner, but I am touched by your concern.”
    By five o’clock his guests were departing and he led Isobel back inside and drew her into a small ante-room and closed the door behind them. “Darling, you have acquitted yourself well. I believe you to be a firm favourite with my tenants already.”
    “You have so many in your employ I fear I shall never learn all their names.”
    “Good God! Don’t even attempt it, they know who you are and that’s all that matters. Leave such things to the estate manager, the butler and housekeeper— that’s what I pay them for.”
    A slight frown marred the perfection of her brow. Surely she was not going to disagree? Then she smiled and he relaxed. He reached out to gather her close, to enjoy her lips and feel the softness of her breasts against his chest. To his astonishment she skipped sideways and was at the door before he could react.
    “Forgive me, my lord, but I’ve to go to my apartment to change for dinner.”
    He was tempted to call her back but refrained. She was right; there was barely an hour before they must all be down in their finery.
    He was down early and waiting by the open doors of the grand-salon. His eyes strayed constantly to the staircase hoping Isobel would not be much longer. His other guests had abandoned their attempts to engage him in conversation and were grouped further down the room sipping champagne and sherry wine. She was tardy. His lips curved as he recalled their first ride together when she had assured him he was never late for any appointment.
    Then she appeared at the head of the stairs dressed in a confection of silver and gold and floated towards him. His breath stopped in his throat and he gripped the stem of his glass. It snapped, spilling the contents down his pantaloons; he ignored the sharp pain as something embedded itself in his palm.
    “My lord, you have cut yourself. Quickly, we must find a cloth to stem the blood.” The concern on her face touched his heart. His butler, Foster, was beside him and offered her a clean white square. She smiled her thanks before turning back to him.
    “Here, let me do it for you.” She examined his hand, dabbing at the cut with the cloth. “It isn’t as bad as I feared. There, I’ve removed the glass. We can bind it and then you’ll be almost as good as new.”
    He wanted to snatch his hand back. Her touch was sending signals to his brain and he would be in an embarrassing position very soon. These damn pantaloons would reveal his arousal— he must remove himself immediately. “Go in and entertain our guests, sweetheart, I can take care of this. I don’t wish to mar the perfection of your outfit with my gore.”
    “I should not care if you did. However, as I’ve no idea where your bandages are kept, I shall do as you ask.”
    When he returned she was engrossed in a lively conversation with her young cousins. He was apart from them, was of a different generation, almost old enough to be the parent. Was he too old to be her husband? She was little more than a schoolroom miss and he a man of five and thirty— would such a disparity of age and experience be a hindrance or a help?
    Despite her promise to eat heartily he noticed she scarcely swallowed a mouthful, pushing the food around her plate in order to make it look as though she’d eaten. Something was worrying her; they had dined together many times and she’d always eaten well. Occasionally she glanced his way and he tried to reassure her with a smile. There was something seriously amiss and he believed he finally understood.
*   *   *
    Mary received a large, flat, velvet box that had just been delivered to the bedchamber by the duke’s man. “There’s a note here, my lady. Shall I put it on the desk?”
    Isobel had been fidgeting with her easel and looked across. “No, let me see what he’s sent. It’s after eleven o’clock— how could Rochester know I was still awake?” Her abigail brought the items over. Isobel broke the seal on the paper and the bold black handwriting leapt out at her. The box contained something that had to be worn at the wedding ceremony.
    She opened the lid and gazed in awe at the fabulous circlet. “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful. This must be an ancient heirloom. See, Mary, how the golden leaves have been constructed and the centres of the flowers are topaz, or perhaps amber.”
    “If you’re to wear that tomorrow, my lady, you’ll have to have your hair loose for it won’t fit over an elaborate arrangement.”
    Isobel shrugged. “You can braid the front and leave the back hanging free. I wondered why the duke had insisted my gown should be gold. I shall feel like a wood nymph with my floating draperies and this exquisite object on my head.”
    She replaced the jewel in the box and returned to her task. She heard Mary sigh behind her. She was being unfair keeping her maid so late. “I shall retire now. I can’t make this wretched thing stand straight. I doubt I shall have much time to paint in the immediate future so it can wait.”
    No sooner had her abigail departed than Isobel threw back the covers and got out of bed. She would not be able to sleep so might as well find a novel to read and sit in front of the fire until she was too tired to keep her eyes open. Being in a huge bed turned her thoughts to what she would have to endure in either this bed, or the one next door, in a few short hours.
    She left one candle burning on the mantelshelf and curled up in a comfortable chair, tucking her feet beneath her nightgown and bed robe. She attempted to immerse herself in her gothic romance. She was almost asleep, the candle burnt out, the only light from the fire, when the communicating door between her room and his began to move.
    Her eyes flew open. She shrunk back against the seat. He edged into the room carrying an enormous tray from which appetizing aromas floated.
    “Stay where you are, little one, I shall put this down and fetch the rest.” He placed the tray on the carpet in front of the fire and quickly lit two candlesticks. With no more than a friendly smile he vanished back from whence he came.
    How extraordinary! The sight of all the food made her mouth water. She had not eaten for more than twenty four hours and her stomach gurgled. Surely there could not be more food coming? There was enough on that one tray to feed a dozen people.
    He reappeared with a second tray with a silver jug and two silver goblets, plus a second jug of lemonade. “I thought we could share a loving cup, sweetheart, but not until you have eaten. Mulled wine on an empty stomach would make you feel decidedly unwell.”
    “I love mulled wine; we always have it at Christmas.” Forgetting she was in her nightwear, not even slippers on her feet, she knelt down and pushed the poker into the centre of the blaze. “This will soon heat up. I should like some lemonade to be going on with. Shall I help myself to food?”
    He waved her back to her chair, his expression tender. “This is my surprise; allow me to be your servant tonight.”
    She devoured a substantial portion of the laden tray before she was replete. “I feel so much better. I’m relieved that you joined me in this midnight feast. Can I have some wine now?”
    His chuckle made her feel even more relaxed. He was different, his austerity and coldness gone. In the intimacy of her bedchamber he had become the man she’d dreamed about. The sweet smell of spices filled the room as he plunged the poker into the jug. He filled both goblets then handed one to her, raising the other in salute.
    “To us, my love. May the rest of our lives be spent in happiness and harmony.”
    “To us.” She swallowed and the delicious concoction filled her with warmth and a strange excitement. That odd darkness she’d observed before was apparent in his eyes. Hastily she broke the connection and drank some more mulled wine, and then the vessel was pried from her fingers.
    “Enough, Isobel, you’re not used to alcohol. Come and sit with me, there are matters I need to discuss with you.”
    Not waiting for her to move he scooped her up and, before she could protest she was resting in his lap. It was pleasant to be held— she had not felt the protection of another’s arms since the nursery. She closed her eyes and didn’t flinch when his arms encircled her.
    “Would you do something for me?”
    Sleepily she gazed up at him; his smile made something most peculiar curl through her nether regions. “What is it you want, my lord?”
    “Firstly, when we are alone, I wish you to use my given name— Alexander. I shall call you Isobel.” This did not seem unreasonable. She nodded and closed her eyes again. “Secondly, sweetheart, allow me to release your hair. Ever since I saw you waiting in the line at your ball I’ve dreamt of running my fingers through it. I insist you must never have it cut short whatever the prevailing fashions might dictate.”
    She was too fatigued to protest. She raised her head allowing him access to her braid; if he wished to see it loose then he must release it himself. His fingers were deft. Seconds later she was enveloped in her hair. He gently propelled her forwards and began to draw his fingers through her locks from temples to neck.
    Why should such a simple thing be sending shockwaves up and down her spine? An unusual restlessness was building in the very core of her being. Something made her wish to twist in his arms so she could see his face. When she did so she felt the- familiar hardness pressing against her bottom. Instantly her fear returned and she tried to scramble from his lap.
    “Darling girl, you must not be scared of me. Whatever you have been told about what takes place between a man and a woman has obviously frightened you. I promise you I would never hurt you. It’s my duty to protect and care for you for the rest of your life.”
    His words were soothing— his hands were stroking her, easing out the tension and the fear. She couldn’t tell him why she was afraid, but he would not lie to her His fingers buried themselves in the hair and tilted her head. His lips brushed hers sending spirals of pleasure around her overheated limbs.
    “Trust me, darling, let me show you what it is to be loved. There’s nothing to fear. What we’re doing is a natural thing; a man and a woman are meant to be conjoined in this way.”
    Her arms encircled his neck. She wished to have his lips pressing on hers, for his hands to continue to work their power, stroking and caressing her shoulders and neck. His mouth engulfed hers. His tongue demanded entry and her lips parted to let him in. She was lost in a place she hadn’t known existed, her body no longer her own.
    When he stood and moved smoothly towards the bed, she made no protest. Gently he slid her down his chest until her bare feet were on the carpet. “I can’t make love to you until you’re free of these unnecessary items.”
    She was mesmerized— could not have moved even if the house had caught fire. The ribbons at the neck of her garments were untied. He pushed the cotton over her shoulders and she was naked before him. Every inch of her was burning. Her breasts tingled and she wanted something from him but was not sure what this was.
    Her legs gave way and she fell backwards onto the sheets. With one swift movement he tore off his bed-robe and stood before her as naked as she. Her eyes widened. She had not expected this. Before she could prevent it her glance dropped to his stomach— what she saw doused her flames as effectively as a bucket of cold water. Her fears returned and she rolled away attempting to hide herself in the covers.
    She cringed from him but he gathered her close and kissed her softly. His hand moved from her face, down to her breast and the heat inside her returned. His lips trailed fire from her neck to her stomach. His tongue circled her nipple sending spirals of pleasure pulsing around her. As his mouth turned to give the same attention to her other breast his fingers traced the outline of her stomach and slid between her thighs.
    She gasped in shock as they entered her most private place and began a magical dance that left her writhing in pleasure. She pressed against his hand wanting more, something else— she was burning up and only he could quench the fire. He rolled on top of her and gently nudged her legs apart. She forgot her fears as his mouth covered hers.
    As he plunged his tongue inside he raised his hips and drove forward. Somehow her body accommodated him. There was a sharp pain and she stiffened. He paused. When she relaxed he continued his thrusting. An exquisite pressure, that was almost pain, centred on the place they were conjoined. With each surge she rose to meet him. She found release as waves of ecstasy engulfed her. She cried out his name— seconds later he groaned and expelled his seed inside her.
    Still intimately linked he rolled sideways taking her with him. She couldn’t speak, could scarcely breathe. How could she have been afraid of something so amazing?
    “My darling, I hope I didn’t hurt you. It is always so the first time.”
    “The small pain was worth it, my love. I had never imagined anything so wonderful could take place between us. I can’t understand why Mama and Aunt Laura didn’t tell me how it would be.”
    He laughed and smoothed back her hair. “They did not tell you, sweetheart, because not everyone experiences what you did.”
    Surprised and intrigued by his answer she tried to wriggle away from him in order to converse in a more seemly way. His arm around her hips prevented her. “Surely the process is the same for everyone?”
    His answer was to kiss her. She responded willingly and forgot all about her question.

Chapter Five

    When Isobel woke she was alone, the trays had vanished and she might almost have thought she’d imagined the whole thing apart from a delicious ache between her legs which told her she was no longer a girl—but a woman.
    Today was her wedding day, she had never been so happy in her whole life. To be marrying the man she loved, who had shown her by his actions last night that he felt the same way, was something to celebrate.
    The sound of water being poured into her bath meant she must rise immediately. Where was Mary? Her abigail was usually there with her morning chocolate long before this. Isobel leapt out of bed shocked to see the tell-tale blood stain on the sheets. She had pre-empted her wedding night, her relatives would be scandalized but she didn’t care.
    Alexander had come to her because he knew how scared she was. By making love to her last night he’d demonstrated his care for her. She was the luckiest girl in England and in two short hours she would be his wife— nothing could spoil her joy in the day.
    Impatiently she rang the bell that stood beside the bed. Mary could remove the evidence and keep it out of sight until tomorrow; with luck her secret would remain just that. The dressing room door opened and a strange young woman came in. She had pinched features and sharp knowing eyes.
    “You rang, my lady? I’ve your bath ready; his grace said you would not be requiring breakfast this morning.”
    “Where is my abigail? I don’t wish to be attended by strangers this morning.”
    The woman curtsied stiffly; her lips curled but the smile did not reach her eyes. “Watkins left here first thing with the luggage. I’m now your personal maid. His grace appointed me himself to take care of you in future.”
    Isobel turned away too upset to remonstrate with this supercilious intruder. Had everything they’d shared last night meant nothing? The man she thought Alexander to be would not have dismissed Mary without speaking to her first. He had sent away the only familiar face in this barracks of a building. She would be alone with a stranger and she was no longer sure of his feelings.
    In frosty silence she allowed this unwanted woman to help her dress. Her joy in the day had gone. She couldn’t bear to think Mary thought this was her decision. This would mean Mary’s husband Sam, who was her personal groom, would have gone as well.
    As soon as the last pin was pushed into her hair she stalked from the room and along the wide passageway. She could hear the church bells ringing. Newcomb had its own place of worship in the grounds and she was to be married there.
    Her parents were waiting for her in the vast entrance hall. There was no sign of her other relatives. Their presence would have alleviated the tension, lifted her spirits just a little. “Mama, Papa, did you know Rochester has dismissed Mary? She’s gone without even the opportunity to say goodbye and after all she’s been to me these past years.”
     “Isobel, we had no idea she was not to remain here. These things are no longer under our control; you must abide by your husband’s decisions in future. I’m sure you’ll soon come to appreciate the superior woman he has appointed for you.”
     “I haven’t bothered to ask her name for she’s a stiff and unpleasant person. I shall insist that she is dismissed, but not today. In a week or two I’ll ask my husband to reinstate Mary and Sam as a favour to me.”
    Her father scowled at her as if she had no right to criticise the man who’d given him a fortune in exchange for his daughter. “I wish to hear no more of your complaints, miss. You’re tardy and Rochester has been awaiting your appearance in the church for five minutes already.”
    He offered his arm and she had no recourse but to take it. Before she had time to object she was being marched firmly down the aisle and standing beside her future husband. A wave of despair engulfed her when he turned to glance at her. This was not the Alexander who had made love to her so passionately— this was the autocratic man she’d hoped never to see again.
    Somehow she mumbled through her vows, smiled bravely during the wedding breakfast but far too soon was at his side to wave her parents and relatives away. Without thinking she turned to him imploringly. “My lord, I shall miss my family sorely. May I invite them to stay later in the year?”
    He shook his head. “No, not this year, my dear. Perhaps they can come when you have produced a child for them to dote on.” His arm was hard around her waist and she was firmly escorted inside. “Go upstairs and change into your habit, I thought we could ride around the estate this afternoon. I know you explored the park yesterday, but I should like to show the rest to you myself.”
    “I should enjoy that above everything, I shan’t be long. Do we expect further visitors today?”
    His eyes darkened and he lowered his voice so the ever present butler could not overhear. “I thought you might be tired this afternoon and wish to rest.”
    His meaning was unmistakable; there would be little rest involved of that she was quite certain. Despite her sadness at his high-handed actions she could not help smiling at the thought of what was to come. His lips curved and he dropped a light kiss on her brow.
*   *   *
    The weeks passed in much the same fashion. During the day he was distant, always aware of his position, never letting down his guard for a second. However, when he came to her room at night he was her darling Alexander, and she lived with these moments. He was assiduous in his attentions and she prayed she would not conceive immediately. If his visits stopped because of her pregnancy she would have nothing to look forward to.
    Maynard, the supercilious housekeeper, appeared at noon each day with the menu but Isobel was not required to do more than read it. She had nothing to do apart from playing the pianoforte, painting water-colours of the grounds and reading her novels. Alexander usually rode out with her but during these rides she learnt little about the estate as they stayed within the park. Sometimes he was absent and she didn’t ask where he went. On the days he did not come to her at night he remained in his study drinking heavily.
    When her monthly courses appeared for the third time things changed. Even his lovemaking became less passionate as if already he considered her incapable of producing the much wished for child. That this was her fault was indisputable. After all, had he not already fathered two children during his first union?
    In October a group of his friends arrived for the shooting and hunting. They were mostly objectionable gentlemen and she did her best to remain aloof from them. She wrote to her aunt and uncle and heard that Petunia had accepted an offer from a young man of impeccable pedigree, deep pockets and unbounded love. Dearly she wished she could change places with her cousin as material possessions were nothing without affection.
    Alexander removed to Town returning a few times each month to do his duty by her. The joy she had once found in his lovemaking was fading. Although he was still more relaxed in the privacy of her chambers he no longer seemed as approachable as he had in the beginning. It became painfully apparent his sole reason for coming to her bed was to conceive a child.
    As the festive season approached she asked Alexander what celebrations would take place at Newcomb.
    He shook his head. “Nothing at all, Isobel. We attend church and give Christmas boxes to the staff— apart from that we have no traditions.”
    “May I arrange to decorate the house? Could we not invite our neighbours? I know it is customary to leave a newly married couple alone initially, but more than six months have passed since we were married and still we have no visitors or invitations.”
    “I thought you understood I don’t entertain here. The ball and garden party were exceptions to my rule. I organised the events for you in order to mark your wedding day. If you wish to socialize  then you must come to London for the Season.” He smiled sadly. “It would appear there is no reason for you to be confined to the country.”
    She flushed; there was nothing she could say. She was apparently unable to have children, small wonder he had little interest in her. To be saddled with a barren wife after he had paid so much to get her, must rankle.
    “I’ve no wish to go to London, thank you. However, I have no objection if you prefer to be elsewhere at Christmas.”
    His eyebrows shot up at her impertinent comment. “There’s nothing to keep me here. I shall do as you suggest and go to Town, and you must please yourself whilst I’m gone. I shall arrange for your allowance to be paid in coin in future. You have my permission to spend it as you wish.”
    When his carriage left the next morning she remained in her bed chamber unwilling to appear before the staff with blotched eyes and running nose. One thing she could do with the pile of gold he’d given her was send for Mary and Sam. She was sure they could find themselves a cottage nearby and bring her beloved dogs with them. Being able to visit with them would give her something to fill her empty days.
*   *   *
    Sam and Mary were safely installed in a cottage which could be reached by walking through Home Wood. It needed some repairs to make it habitable but these would soon be done. Ebony and Othello were overjoyed to be reunited with her.
    “Mary, I shall come as often as I can to walk the dogs. However, I must be vigilant as Foster, Maynard and the unpleasant girl who has replaced you, spy on me.”
    “I’m surprised Lord Drummond did not refuse his permission for us to take the dogs. But he seemed happy for them to go and made no enquiries as to where we were taking them.”
    “He obviously does not believe I’ll ever return to Bracken Hall to visit. He and my husband must have come to an arrangement on that score.”
    “Will you be requiring luncheon today?”
    Isobel frowned. “Rochester is bringing down a group of his friends for the shooting. The Season will be starting next month. Why could they not remain where they were?”
    “You mustn’t be tardy; the duke will wish you to be there to greet his guests when they arrive and you must change.”
    “Indeed I must. I shan’t be able to visit until he and his guests have gone. Take care of yourselves and my dogs.”
    The wind was bitter. Sam had predicted there would be snow before the day was out. She prayed it would come soon and prevent the unwanted visitors from setting out from London. She no longer looked forward to Alexander’s return for there had been no further glimpses of the person she fell in love with— the tender and passionate man who had shared her bed for the first three months of their union. The interludes they spent in bed were still most enjoyable as her body always responded willingly to his touch, but she believed he was no longer fully engaged in what they did.
    She hurried in through the side door hoping to return to her chambers without comment. She was waylaid by Maynard with the usual supercilious sneer on her face.
    “Your grace, I’ve been waiting for you to approve the menus for the visitors.”
    Isobel stiffened and for once did not apologise. “It’s of no interest to me what you have been doing, Maynard. It is your duty to be there when I wish to see you not the other way round. Kindly remember that in future.”
    The woman recoiled, unused to being reprimanded. She curtsied, her navy bombazine rustling noisily. “I beg your pardon, your grace. When will it be convenient for you to see the menus?”
     “I’ve no interest in them for whatever I say will be ignored. In future don’t bother me with such trivia.” Isobel walked off wishing she had held her tongue, Her duty was to view these things and Alexander would be most displeased when he heard. That he would know was certain. The staff at Newcomb were loyal to him and still treated her as an interloper even after almost a year as their mistress.
    She took the little used back stairs and braced herself for another confrontation. Cranford, the abigail Alexander had appointed, had taken to setting out her gowns without requesting permission to do so. Every morning Isobel felt obliged to insist something else was fetched, although if she was honest quite often the ensemble selected by her maid was a better choice than the one she selected for herself.
    Her bath was waiting in the small, tiled anteroom used for this purpose. She hastily disrobed glad she’d forbidden Cranford to enter during her ablutions. Today the warm water failed to soothe her and she did not linger. Quickly donning the necessary underpinnings she stepped through to her dressing-room to see what had been put out today.
    “I thought the blue velvet afternoon-dress might be suitable, your grace. I don’t believe you’ve worn it more than once and certainly not when there have been guests at Newcomb.”
    Isobel was too dispirited to argue. “It will do. Please dress my hair plainly; I require no ribbons or feathers.”
    In silence she sat whilst her hair was arranged to her satisfaction, then raising and lowering her arms when necessary. After collecting her cashmere shawl she left her apartment without a second glance at herself in the mirror. What did it matter if she looked her best? Alexander no longer noticed and he was the only gentleman she wished to approve of her appearance.
    She was standing dutifully in the freezing entrance hall when the party arrived. Alexander strode in first and smiled briefly before removing his caped coat and tossing it to the waiting footman.
    “My dear, that’s a most becoming gown. The weather has deteriorated and I thought we might have to abandon our trip. However, we are here now, but I doubt there’ll be much shooting.”
    “Did any of the wives accompany the gentleman this time, your grace?”
    “Unfortunately this visit was arranged too quickly to allow the ladies to join us. It might be better if you did not dine downstairs but that’s entirely up to you.”
    Her heart lifted; perhaps this gesture showed he still thought of her a little. “Thank you, my lord. I would much prefer to remain apart when there are no ladies present.” The gentlemen would drink too much and behave accordingly—far better to be safe in her apartment until they left. There was something she needed to tell him but now was not the time as, accompanied by a flurry of snow, the gentlemen poured in.
    She retreated halfway up the grand staircase; from there she curtsied and bid them welcome before hurrying back to the sanctuary of our own chambers. Her dinner was brought to her on a tray. As always it was beautifully cooked but stone cold. The kitchen was so far from the main part of the house she rarely ate a meal that was more than warm.
    The mantel clock struck nine. If she slipped down now maybe she could find Alexander in his study and tell him she was unavailable tonight. Her monthly course had arrived that very morning. He usually timed his visits better; she was regular as clockwork so it was easy for him to avoid the few days she could not welcome him to her bed.
    There had seemed no necessity to change so she was still wearing the blue gown from the afternoon. The wall sconces were lit along the wide passageway. There was no need to carry a candlestick at Newcomb unless one wished to go downstairs when all the staff were abed.
    The noise coming from the drawing-room gave her due warning what to expect if she encountered any of the inebriated gentlemen within. A footman stepped out and bowed.
    “Is the duke in his study?”
    “I believe him to be in the billiard room, your grace.”
    Botheration! She could hardly go there to speak to him, she had better write him a note and leave this in his dressing-room. Hopefully he would not be so foxed he would be unable to read it when he retired. She was about to return when a gentleman holding two glasses of wine staggered out from the drawing-room.
    “Your grace, have a drink with me. We missed your lovely presence this evening.” He wove his way towards her. She could not get past him. Several other guests appeared in the doorway to watch the confrontation.
    “Thank you, sir, but I’ve no wish for a glass. If you’ll kindly allow me to pass, I wish to return to my apartments.”
     He leered at her and thrust one of the glasses into her hand; she had no option but to take it or allow it to smash onto the tiles. She waited her expression icy, for him to move. To her horror he lurched forward and with his free hand attempted to touch her face. Her reaction was instinctive. She flung the glass of wine into his face. This was enough to stop him momentarily. Dodging past the spluttering gentleman she shot up the stairs before he could do her more harm. The whoops and cheers that followed made her fear they would decide to give chase.
    Breathless she tumbled into her sitting room and for the first time since her arrival at Newcomb locked the doors behind her. She rang for her maid; the sooner she was safely in her bed the better. “I shan’t require you again this evening, Cranford.”
    She settled back with the latest novel from Hatchards and became immersed in her romance and quite forgot she had left her external doors locked.
*   *   *
    Alexander heard the shouting and came to investigate. According to his cronies Isobel had thrown a glass of wine over Bartram for no other reason than that he had failed to move aside quickly enough to please her.This was unacceptable behaviour. He’d already had to smooth the ruffled feathers of his housekeeper because of her incivility. Tonight he would make it clear to her he would not tolerate breaches of etiquette.
    His head was thumping— he couldn’t recall exactly how many bottles of claret he’d drunk over dinner or how much brandy he’d consumed since then. Drink numbed the senses, dulled his disappointment with his wife and helped him to accept that he would never have another child to cherish. He paused and leant his burning face against the wall. He closed his eyes expecting to see an image of his beloved Eleanor, instead a picture of Isobel filled his mind. He rubbed his eyes angrily. No—he would not let her creep into his heart. He had no room for love in his life. He’s done with this emotion for it only led to unbearable pain.
    He tried her parlour door. He rattled but it refused to budge. This door was never locked; it must be jammed. He walked along the passageway and tried to enter Isobel’s bed chamber. This door also did not move. Furious he hammered on the panel. He would not be denied entry to any room in his own house.
    He heard the patter of bare feet told on the boards. What was the matter with her? Did she not have a maid to do these things? The key turned but the door was not opened. At least his wife had the sense not to appear in the passageway in her night clothes. He stepped in and glared at the young woman who was staring nervously from beneath the bed covers.
    “Alexander, I came down to tell you that I am not available this week.”
    He felt a flicker of remorse that this lovely young woman was reduced to hiding in her bedchamber in her own home. “I know that, I am not a simpleton. I am quite able to keep note of the date. I came here to discuss the matter of your unbecoming display downstairs.”
    “That man was going to touch me. Would you wish me to stand there and let him do so?”
    He shook his head trying to clear his thoughts—she was quite right. He had not given the incident sufficient attention. He did not doubt her veracity one minute. “No, of course not. But in future you will not respond in such an unacceptable way. It will be the talk of the town, I dislike having my good name brought into disrepute.”
    If he did not remove himself hastily he would cast up his accounts on her carpet, this would not enhance his attraction. Momentarily he was ashamed by his lack of control.
    “I apologise, Alexander, it won’t happen again. You don’t look at all well. I wish you did not drink so much, it is ruining your health.”
    Her comment hit a raw nerve. “Madam, let us get this quite clear. If something similar occurs again don’t expect me to be so lenient.” He gulped; he must get to his room before he disgraced himself.
*   *   *
    Isobel watched him go and her heart twisted. Her husband was no longer the man she had fallen in love with. He was gambling heavily as well as drinking too much. How long would it be before he was unfaithful? As she curled up under the covers she prayed his threat was an idle one, something he would regret when he was sober. She good forgive his drunkenness, but if ever he mistreated her she would hate him. All hope would be gone. She would let him go to the devil anyway he chose.

Chapter Six

    When the unwanted house guests and her husband departed, Isobel thanked God that the snow had not been enough to deter them from returning to London. With luck he would remain in Grosvenor Square until the end of the season and leave her in peace. She consoled herself by writing long, quite inaccurate and untruthful letters to her cousin Petunia and her parents.
    Mama no longer enquired if she was increasing and appeared to have accepted the disappointing situation. Papa no doubt worried Alexander might demand his money back as his wife had failed to fulfill her part of the bargain. Her only solace was riding and having her faithful friends close by. She visited them more frequently as time passed. Indeed, Sam and Mary’s cottage was more a home to her than Newcomb.
    The summer she spent alone, Alexander away on the continent so his man of business, Mr Hill, informed her. There was some consolation in the fact that the younger members of staff, those that had not been working at Newcomb forever, were now eager to serve her and she was slightly more at ease.
    October came around again with the newsthat two dozen or more guests were expected. There would, this time, be several wives accompanying the gentlemen. It would be pleasant to have someone to talk to, other than Mary. Several times she had been tempted to send out cards to the nearby houses but did not like to go against her husband’s wishes.
    She waited nervously in the vestibule to greet him. It had been more than six months since he’d been home. Had he changed as much as she? When Foster bowed him in her eyes widened in shock. Who was this stranger shrugging off his top coat? She scarcely recognized him. His eyes were bloodshot, his face puffy and unhealthy and she was certain his hand had been unsteady when he’d held it out.
    She curtsied deeply in order to avoid the necessity of meeting his eyes. She must school her features and not let him see how dismayed she was. “Welcome, your grace, it’s been too long since you came home.”
    She straightened to see him staring as if he could not quiet place her. He nodded. “You have lost weight, Isobel. It does not suit you.”
    With these few terse words he strolled off towards the drawing-room leaving her to greet his guests as they appeared. By the time the ladies had been directed to their boudoirs and the gentlemen to the billiard room she was quite exhausted. She was also bitterly disappointed that there was not one of the half a dozen wives she wished to spend time with. They were all as brittle and shallow as their husbands and considerably older than herself.
    Unfortunately she must act as a charming hostess for the duration of their visit. How long that would be he had not deigned to tell her. At least a married gentleman would not attempt to molest her; she had not forgotten the last time and dreaded such an occurrence happening again. She’d had no opportunity to discuss the matter with Alexander, but it would certainly be she who was blamed if anything similar took place.
    Everything went smoothly for the first few days. Tomorrow the men were to shoot and the ladies to join them for an alfresco luncheon. She was almost looking forward to the event. To be outside, even in uncongenial company, would be a pleasure. Nothing remotely enjoyable had taken place at Newcomb these past six months. Unfortunately the heavens opened and the guests were forced to remain indoors. This would mean by dinner time all the gentlemen would be in their cups and the ladies little better.
    At dusk she was on her way, after a brief conversation with Foster about the next morning’s arrangements, to rejoin the guests. The majority of the men had retreated to the billiard room to drink brandy and smoke foul-smelling cigars. The ladies and the remaining gentlemen were in the process of having card tables set out in the grand drawing room.
    Isobel was hesitating in the doorway, hidden by a marble column, when a vile creature lurched up to her.
    “I’ve been searching for you, my lady. I’ve noticed your husband ignores you. I should be happy to take his place— I’m sure you understand my meaning.”
    Making such a licentious remark was bad enough but his hand snaked out to clutch at her breast. No one took liberties with her person. No one touched her breasts but Alexander. Without a second thought she snatched up a large silver candlestick and struck him on the head.
    He staggered back clutching his forehead. Blood poured unchecked down his face. From the screams and cries of distress of the female witnesses one would have thought she had murdered him. Head wounds bled freely, she was certain he was not seriously hurt. Then she was surrounded by a ring of accusatory faces. She fled to her bed chamber in distress.
    Alexander was going to be so angry. She huddled under the coverlet dreading the moment when his footsteps approached her bedchamber. She clenched her fists, her heart pounding, going over the horrible incident which had occurred in full view of many of his cronies.
    Should she have brazened it out? Remained in the room and not fled to her apartment in disarray? Maybe she was overreacting— perhaps when he heard of her appalling behaviour he would laugh and continue his game of billiards. She might as well be invisible to him nowadays. Was it possible he might choose to ignore her this time as well?
    Her failure to conceive was a bitter disappointment to them both. He had selected her for her breeding qualities in exactly the same way he would chose a mare to put to his stallion. She no longer had any illusions about her marriage. Her family had been saved from financial ruin by the settlement, The Duke of Rochester had bought himself a duchess. Her immature fantasies that one day he would love her had long since been trampled under his indifference.
    How wrong, how naïve, she had been to believe she was anything more than an object, and one that did not live up to expectations at that. Thank God he spent his time in Town, leaving her to our own devices in the country.
    She should be satisfied with her lot. After all, wasn’t she a duchess, dressed in the first stare of fashion, given as much pin-money as she wanted? For many women being left alone at night would be a bonus. He had not repeated his invitation that she join him at Grosvenor Square and she would not have gone if he had.
    The mantel clock struck midnight. Alexander rarely retired until the small hours when he had acquaintances with him. The shooting season was well established and cub hunting was about to start. There was nothing these gentlemen liked better than to be shooting and chasing defenseless animals about the countryside.
    Her stomach curdled. Why didn’t he come and get it over with? She closed her eyes, but the tears spilled anyway. She bit her lip—she would cry no more. She’d done enough these past months. Indeed, she couldn’t even recall the name of the obnoxious man who’d waylaid her in the drawing-room after dinner.
    However justified her actions, she was the Duchess of Rochester. One thing her husband had made abundantly clear was that he would not tolerate her behaving in anything but the most seemly of manners. She shuddered as she remembered what he’d said when she’d thrown a glass of wine over that other gentleman. She was going to cast up her accounts. Her face was drenched with sweat. He had never raised a hand to her. Tonight would he extract a physical retribution?
*   *   *
    Alexander downed his brandy before chalking his cue and preparing to take the shot. A hush fell on the billiard room— this was a crucial moment. A thousand guineas had been staked on the outcome of this pot. As he drew back his arm just as someone cleared his throat loudly and he miscued. The resulting screech of delight from the cronies of the man who stood to gain fuelled his anger. With clenched fists he turned to find Foster standing rigidly behind him. His butler knew better than to interrupt unless it was a matter of extreme urgency.
    “What is it, man? It had better be good or you’ll be leaving Newcomb this very night.”
    Foster’s whispered words were barely discernible in the hubbub. “If I could be permitted to have a word with you, your grace, in private.”
    Alexander tossed his cue to one of the gentlemen still celebrating the wager and stepped out of earshot. “Well?” His head thumped like the very devil. He’d been drinking heavily since early afternoon which did nothing to improve his digestion or his temper. Even in his befuddled state he saw his servant stiffen as if expecting a blow.
    “There has been an incident in the drawing-room, involving her grace. Your presence is required immediately.”
    He had been angry before. Now he was incandescent. The only kind of incident he could imagine that could involve Isobel was that some bastard had made advances to her. If that was the case, he’d put a bullet through the man’s heart after he had beaten him to a pulp.
    He strode out and the cold air all but flattened him after the fug of the billiard room. The long passageways in this barrack were never heated. Although not yet winter the nights were cold and the prodigious amount of glass along this side of the house did not help. He was obliged to stop for a moment, resting his hand against the wall until his head stopped swimming.
    When his stomach settled and his eyes cleared he continued, his fury building at every step. He was about to turn to the grand drawing-room when Foster spoke from behind him. The man was slightly out of breath.
    “I beg your pardon, your grace, but Sir John is in an ante-room. I thought it best to remove him immediately.”
    One thing he could rely on was the loyalty of his staff. Opening the door to a room he couldn’t remember entering before, he saw a man, slumped in an upright chair, Sir John Farnham—his head was encircled by a clean white bandage and judging by the amount of blood on his garments he had received a serious head wound.
    His sharp features were not enhanced by the blood. The man glared at him. “No-one treats me with disrespect. Be very sure every house in Town will hear of this.”
    Two gentlemen were hovering behind their friend. The shorter one, he misremembered his name, stepped forward.
    “It’s a disgrace, Rochester. Sir John did no more than exchange pleasantries with your wife and she struck him down with a candlestick. He will demand substantial reparation for this outrage.”
    Without hesitation Alexander grabbed the speaker by his cravat, lifting him bodily and shaking him like a rat. “If my wife was obliged to strike Farnham then it can be for only one reason. He made improper advances.” He tossed the man aside and he fell like an empty coat to the boards.
    The second man instantly dodged behind the chair in which the bastard sat. Alexander wanted to throttle Farnham. He loomed over the seated man and Farnham flinched. Isobel would never encourage a gentleman to take liberties; she kept herself apart from his friends and hated every moment he forced her to act as his hostess.
    Farnham shrank against the chair back. Alexander decided he wasn’t worth the trouble. “You and your associates will depart from here immediately. If I discover you when I rise tomorrow I shan’t hesitate to kill you.”
    As he left the room he heard Farnham call after him. “You will pay for this, Rochester. I never forget a slight.”
    Alexander ignored the comment. The man was of no account. The matter here was dealt with, but there were still his other guests. Before he entered the grand drawing-room he needed more brandy to steady his nerves. He detoured to his study, his private sanctum where no one ventured without invitation. He was shocked to find his hands were trembling— another drink should settle him down.
    This incident would take more than diplomacy to defuse. His anger turned towards Isobel. Hadn’t he warned her that this kind of behaviour was unacceptable, would not be tolerated or excused a second time? Whatever the provocation the family name was sacrosanct, it must never be besmirched. Striking a man with a candlestick in front of his guests was going to send ripples throughout the ton. The people he’d gathered around him would not hesitate to gossip about what had happened.
    He stepped into the drawing-room and viewed the assembly through narrowed eyes. There was not a person among them he would wish to call a friend—they were sycophants and hangers on. Some, like him, aristocrats, but others merely on the fringe of Society there to lap up what largesse he was prepared to throw their way. He shook his head and regretted it as he almost lost his balance. He cared not what this assortment of scroungers thought about his family. They could all depart the following morning. The shooting party was over. His icy stare sent shockwaves around the chamber and gradually the chatter stopped and every head turned his way.
    “I regret that you were obliged to witness the unfortunate incident. Farnham has been dealt with. You’ll understand I am obliged to ask you all to leave at first light tomorrow morning.”
    Turning his back on the silent group he stalked out. He would not demean himself by asking for their discretion knowing the incident would be all over Town whatever he said. Over the years his real friends had dropped him. He was married to a barren wife. But the one thing he could rely on was the family name. Tonight Isobel had bought it into disrepute and this could not let this pass. He returned to the study to allow his guests to retire for the night. Whilst he waited he finished a decanter of brandy.
    The house wasn’t silent until after midnight. Time for a reckoning. He could not blame his wife for being childless. The least she could do was behave with decorum. He paused, heartsick and lonely. Even in his befuddled state he understood the fault was not hers—but his. He was a pitiful specimen and it was hardly surprising he had failed to father further children.
    He punched the wall, the pain sending shockwaves up his arm. He was master here and whatever the provocation Isobel must pay. His anger grew with each step he took. He had been too lenient with her and allowed her to run wild when he was absent and to ignore her duties as chatelaine. She had become impertinent, not at all the submissive wife he thought he’d married.
    From tonight everything changed. He’d lavished money and gifts on her, had not overburdened her with his demands in the bedroom, and what had she done? She had thrown it all back in his face by behaving like a slut. A lady would have fainted, run weeping to fetch him, or possibly slapped the bastard across the face. But no, she must pick up a candlestick and brain the man in full view of a dozen people.
    Having left the butler to supervise the departure of those three men he was free to take the necessary action that would ensure no further breaches of etiquette occurred. His valet was hovering nervously. Alexander smiled grimly. When his evening coat had gone, his cravat, boots and waistcoat also, he held up his hand. “Leave me, Duncan, I can do the rest myself. I shan’t require you until the morning.”
    “Your grace, allow me to help you into bed. You’re trifle unsteady.”
    “Silence. Know your place or lose it.” What was it about tonight that all about him were defying his every order?
    He glared and his valet collected the discarded garments and retreated into the dressing-room. The door clicked shut. What was going to take place in the adjoining apartment needed no eavesdroppers.
*   *   *
    Isobel tensed at every passing footstep, but so far he had not burst in through her sitting room door to berate her. The house was quiet, even the most recalcitrant of the guests had retired to their bed chambers. He was not coming tonight. Thank God for that, he had been drinking steadily for hours. With luck he had passed out in his study and would wake with a sore head in the morning and no recollection of what had transpired.
    She turned, plumping the pillows and finally relaxing. On the verge of sleep she heard the distinctive click of the door that led from his bed chamber. He entered quietly, pushing the door closed behind him. She held her breath. If she feigned sleep would he retreat? Her heart was hammering—a wave of nausea engulfed her.
    Through the slit of her eyelids a flickering light showed he was in his shirt sleeves and pantaloons. When he came to her in the usual way he wore only his silk bed-robe, was naked underneath. She could not welcome him into her bed when he was angry and in his cups. Here was the only place she could still cling to the faint hope that one day he would learn to love her and this marriage would become like his first. If he took her in anger, it would be over— with no children to keep them together she would have nothing to hope for. The rest of her life would be lonely and miserable, trapped in a marriage that had failed them both.
    Perhaps he was not angry about had come to check she was unharmed from the unpleasant experience. She dare not raise her head to look at him for this would reveal she was awake. The sound of further candles being lit could mean only one thing. She could no longer dissemble. He had not come to make love to her or to check if she was distressed— he had come to punish her for besmirching his precious name in public.
    Would it make things easier if she apologised? Pushing herself upright she forced her lips to curve in a smile of welcome. His face was unrecognizable. His eyes glittered strangely— he was a stranger to her. She tried to find words to mollify him. He was not himself, anger and drink was making it appear as if he hated her. Her words remained locked behind her teeth. Her mouth was too dry to release her tongue from the roof of her mouth.
    With slow deliberation he placed his candlestick on the ormolu table beside the bed. Isobel shivered— she feared her bladder would empty. Why didn’t he speak?
    “Tonight, madam, you brought disgrace to my name. The last time you did this I warned you what to expect. I am master in this house and it’s high time you learnt what happens when you disobey me.”
    His words were clipped, each one enunciated clearly. This was the voice of a madman. He stepped forward and slung her over his shoulder like a sack of flour and ignoring her protests, he carried her into the anti-room in which she took a bath.
    “You disobeyed me. You have only yourself to blame for this.”
    The door slammed and she heard him pushing a large piece of furniture against it. She was shut in a freezing room in her nightgown. How dare he treat her like this? She was not a recalcitrant child to be punished. There were no other doors in the room and she couldn’t escape into the servants’ quarters even if she’d wished to.
    She pressed her ear to the door. His footsteps faded into the night. Slumping onto the icy tiles she hugged her knees and tried to stop her teeth from chattering. How long would he leave her here to freeze? After an hour she was too dispirited and cold to do more than huddle in a corner praying for release. She shivered and froze for what seemed like hours before she heard him removing the barricade. She scrambled to her feet.
    His voice reverberated through the door. “I hope you have learned your lesson, madam.”
    She would never forgive him. Rage overwhelmed her—she was blinded by it—her fear and misery burned away by its ferocity. The door swung open and she sprung forward snarling with anger.
    Before he had time to react she lashed out punching him squarely in the mouth. His teeth ground into her fist, his lip split, but she ignored the hurt that travelled up her arm. He reeled back, blood dripping from his mouth, his eyes wide. Not giving him time to retaliate she punched him with her left hand. This connected with his eye.
    She was incapable of speech. Her cheeks were awash with tears of rage. He stepped away from her shaking his head, wiping blood from his mouth with his shirtsleeve. She turned to see what she could snatch up to hit him and her fingers closed around a candlestick. As she lifted it his hand grasped her wrist and he took it from her.
    “Enough, little firebrand, there are better ways of venting your spleen than that.” He tumbled her full length onto the bed, his weight pinning her down, then held her arms on either side of her head. She bucked frantically to get free.
    “Alexander, haven’t I been punished enough tonight?”
    He disregarded her plea, trapping her. His tongue invaded her mouth—she could taste his blood. Something deep inside her stirred and she tore at his shirt. He took the two sides of her nightgown and ripped them apart. She was consumed by a different heat. His lips closed on hers but they were not hard but soft, persuasive, adding to her passion.
    He trailed hot kisses down her neck; taking a nipple into his mouth he nipped it gently between his teeth. Her treacherous body responded. Although she hated him, primitive urges took over. It had been too long since she’d made love to him.
    The all-too-familiar heat spread rapidly until she was unable to control herself. His mouth teased— he sensed she was willing. He was a skilled lover and she was helpless as his fingers worked their magic. Down her shoulder, caressing her breasts, then lower to the very centre of her being. Her anger evaporated  and was engulfed by her desire. A wildness flooded through her and her nails raked his shoulders.
    Keeping his mouth on hers he stripped off his remaining garments then red hot skin covered her from head to foot. She clawed his back, imploring him, biting his lips in her hunger. He plunged inside and with each thrust she felt a pleasure so intense, so fierce, she thought she would die from it. An ecstasy that was almost painful rippled through her and her world exploded. She cried out his name. Then with a final shudder he joined her in release.
    He gathered her tenderly believing the passion they’d shared negated all that had gone before. As the pleasure slipped away she became aware of his alcohol-laced breath. She hated herself for becoming a willing participant.
    He was dead to the world, exertion and brandy rendering him senseless. She wriggled from beneath him and blowing out the candles, took the remaining one into her dressing room. She dressed in her plainest clothes, the ones she wore when he was absent. Five minutes later she had stuffed garments into her portmanteau; then from the depths of her closet she removed two cloth bags filled with golden coins. She had been hoarding these from her allowance this past year. There was more than enough in her savings to keep her, and her retainers, for a year at least.
    She must take her work box as such items were invaluable. She rummaged inside and found what she wanted. There was something she needed to do before she left.
    Removing the scissors she hacked off her braid at the base of her neck. Alexander was always praising her hair so she would leave it for him as a memento. She tied the cut end with a fresh ribbon, then threaded on her betrothal ring and wedding band and tied a knot.
    There was no need to tiptoe around him; he was snoring, deep in a drunken slumber. Without haste she gathered up her plait and placed it on the pillow beside him. A bolster pushed beneath the covers made it appear she was still there. She wished she could be in the room when he woke and discovered what she’d done.
    With the candlestick in one hand she slipped out through the dressing room door and found her way downstairs without breaking her neck. What she was doing was in the eyes of the world, a crime. She belonged to him— according to the law of the land he was free to use and abuse her as he pleased. However she would not remain with a man who thought locking her in a small cold room was acceptable behaviour.
    She was thankful everyone had retired for the night as this made it easy to slip along the dark passageways until she reached the side door used by the junior staff. The sound of the bolt was harsh in the silence, but she didn’t hesitate. No time for regrets - her life here was over.

Chapter Seven

    Isobel pulled open the side door and closed it quietly behind her. Her bag was heavy but it wasn’t far across the park to the cottage where Mary and Sam lived. Her dogs, would be overjoyed to see her even in the middle of the night. She doubted her loyal retainers would be so pleased, they would be horrified at the way she had been mistreated. There was sufficient money to lease a small house somewhere many miles from here and start a new life. She would defy convention and leave the ruins of her old one behind.
    Several times during the walk she was obliged to put down her bag and lean, panting, against a tree trunk to recover her strength. The hours she’d spent in the cold must have debilitated her. She pushed the memory of their energetic lovemaking aside. She intended to be gone before her husband woke from his drunken stupor and set up a hue cry. His pride would be damaged by her defection. He would not let her go willingly and would demand she return. She would rather die than do so.
    It took longer than usual to reach the cottage. The path ran like a white ribbon in the moonlight and she’d never been so grateful to see the small front door. She hammered with the remainder of her strength and woke her pets.
    Minutes passed and then Sam was calling to the dogs telling them to hush. The clatter of his boots on the wooden staircase meant he was on his way. The door swung open and the animals threw themselves at her; too tired to push them away she tumbled backwards.
    “My lady, here, let me help you up. Get away you stupid dogs, haven’t you caused enough harm?”
    “No, Sam, don’t blame them for my distress. Mary must get up at once. We must depart from here immediately. I’ve left him; nothing on this earth will make me return. My life at Newcomb is over and I must try and make a new one as far away as possible.”
    “Come along, let’s get you inside and Mary can see to you. I shall get out back and harness up the gig.”
    With his support she stumbled inside. Mary rushed to her side, guiding her to the wooden rocking chair that stood to the left of the fireplace in the main room.
    “He shut me in the bathing room for hours; I am still frozen to the marrow.”
    “The monster! You should never have married him, I always thought him a cold fish, not good enough for you, my pet.” Mary gestured angrily to her husband. “Didn’t I say, Sam, how much weight the mistress has lost these past few months? See, she’s shaking, hasn’t the strength of a kitten because of what he did to her.”
    “Don’t worry, your grace, I’ll get you away from Newcomb—we’ll keep you safe from further harm.”
    As she rested against Sam’s broad shoulder she told him of her other decision. “Please, don’t use that title again, I am done with it. From now on I am plain Mrs …” She was unable to think of a single name to replace her own. All her life she’d been known by a title, first Lady Isobel, eldest daughter of the Earl of Drummond and since her marriage she had become a duchess. Would life be simpler if she was a commoner as most were?
    “Don’t fret, madam, we shall come up with a suitable name soon enough. Here, sit yourself down. Mary shall make you a hot drink whilst I get the horse out.”
    Isobel settled on the cushions. She closed her eyes leaving Mary and Sam to do what was necessary to pack their belongings and ready themselves for their flight. Sounds became distant; she wasn’t quite asleep but far enough from reality to gain respite from the pain in her heart—this was far worse than any physical injury.
    “Come along, my dear, everything is done. It will be light in an hour or two. Do you have any idea where you wish to go?” Mary offered her arm and pulled Isobel gently from the chair.
    She closed her eyes and an image of the huge skies, white sand and the flat green fens of her birthplace filled her head. “I should like to leave Hertfordshire and return to Norfolk. It can’t be anywhere near Bracken Hall for that’s the first place he will look for me. But if we go to the north of Norwich we should be safe enough.”
    “That’s what we thought— it’s going to take us several days to get there. With only one horse, we will have to take it in stages.”
    “And it’s imperative we don’t use the most frequented route, and we must travel at night where possible. He will send out search parties. I can’t go back and I must not let him find me.”
    A cold nose pressed into her hand. She rubbed the silky head knowing it to be Othello as Ebony was already at the door waiting for her. The one light in this darkness was she would be with her beloved animals.
    Sam assisted her into the vehicle; he’d prepared a snug nest in one corner and she curled up. Mary scrambled in beside her. The two dogs flopped down in the well and they were ready. The first faint glimmer of dawn coloured the sky. There was no need to light the lanterns that hung on poles on either side of the carriage. The gentle rocking of the vehicle helped to soothe her misery— with luck she would sleep through most of the journey.
*   *   *
    Alex forced his eyes open. Where the hell was he? He had no recollection of the previous night—this was not uncommon after consuming so much brandy. Moving his head made his stomach lurch; he took a deep breath through his nose. This was Isobel’s bed and he was naked. He reached out a hand and his fingers brushed against her long braid. Odd —when they made love he always released it.
    His fingers closed around it. He would undo it now - he hardened at the thought. The ribbon refused to give way beneath his fumbling. He tugged and the plait slithered across his chest. What the hell? Then he understood.
    His stomach clenched and he rolled to one side to cast up his accounts. When he’d finished he wiped his mouth on the sheet. Ripping back the covers he gazed at the bolster in the place where Isobel should be. His eyes misted, he fell back on the pillows as the enormity of what he’d done the night before crowded into his head.
    Holding her hair against his chest he rolled into the space she had occupied, breathing in her scent, his face wet with tears of shame and loss. Something clinked against his shoulder. He slid his fingers down the severed braid and found her betrothal and wedding bands tied to the ribbon.
    Isobel could not have made things clearer. She had gone—his lovely young wife had left and he didn’t blame her. He buried his face in her pillow and his shoulders heaved. For the second time in his life he’d lost the woman he loved and this time it was entirely his fault. His brutality had driven her away.
    The stench in the bedchamber made his stomach roil. Unsteadily he swung his legs to the floor and attempted to stand. The pain thumping between his eyes was worse than he could ever remember. He deserved to suffer, deserved to be horsewhipped for what he’d done. How had he come to this?
    He tottered through the communicating door and back into his own rooms. The long braid bounced behind jingling as it hit the boards, the sound a reminder of what he’d destroyed. His misery deepened. She was cutting him out of her life in the same way she’d cut her lovely hair.
    How was he going to live without her? The death of his wife and two daughters had all but killed him, made him frightened to love again. He’d been given a second chance to find happiness and had ruined it by his base behaviour. Last night had been the culmination of his callousness. She had offered him nothing but love and support over the past year and he had spurned it, treating her as if she were of no importance to him. He had remained aloof because he had fallen in love with his wife and was fearful of being hurt again.
    There was no need to send out a search party. She would be with the Watkins couple, in the cottage on the edge of his estate. Isobel believed this to be a secret from him but nothing happened at Newcomb undetected. Initially he’d intended to confront her, but after considering carefully he’d decided to leave her servants where they were. She needed a bolt hole.
    As he splashed his face with cold water he began to feel less anguished. Maybe matters were not as bad as he feared. After all, Isobel was his wife and she had promised herself to him. If given time to reconsider she would realise her responsibility and come back. He would allow her day or two to recover and then ride over. He would not demand she return immediately but suggest she visit one of his estates in the north. There she could live in seclusion untrammelled by responsibility for a few weeks.
    His spirits lifted a little. He had behaved unforgivably but he would change, become the man she deserved. She might hate him now but she would love him again in time. Isobel would return for the seasonal festivities— and what a time of celebration that would be. However much she loathed and despised him now she was his wife and, and unlike himself, would not shirk her duties.
    He rang the small, brass bell that stood beside his bed, then ramming his arms into his bedrobe he waited for Duncan to answer his summons. The click of the dressing room door heralded his arrival. “Duncan, I require a bath, and a jug of coffee.”
    “At once, your grace. Mr Foster has asked me to inform you all your guests have departed.”
    Alexander raised his hand in acknowledgement and wandered to the window to stare morosely across the park. Usually the magnificent stand of oak trees in their autumn glory and the ornamental lake and the rolling vista he’d paid a small fortune to have constructed by Brown, filled him with satisfaction. But this morning it meant nothing. What was the use of having so much when he had no one with which to share it? Until Isobel was back where she belonged he would gain no pleasure from this view.
*   *   *
    “What do you mean the place is uninhabited?” Alex glared at his man of business, William Hill, who he’d sent to check on the cottage.
    “The place is deserted, your grace, the shutters up and the stable empty. I reckon it’s been like that for a day or two.”
    “Thank you, you may go.” The man bowed and retreated.
    Alexander wanted to hurl the nearest object through the window. This was an unmitigated disaster. Why hadn’t he had the place checked immediately? He gripped the edge of his desk forcing his anger back— never again would he let his temper rule him. Isobel’s disappearance was no more than he deserved. He had driven her way. He sank into the nearest chair dropping his head in his hands in despair.
    He would not relinquish the search until he was certain she was well and had sufficient funds to live comfortably. He prayed the scandal never reached the outside world. With luck no one, apart from the staff at Newcomb, would know she had gone. She rarely joined him in London and there were no close acquaintances to make enquiries.
    Perhaps her disappearance could be kept secret? He was certain the unfortunate chamber-maids who had been obliged to clear up the mess he’d made, would not risk their position by gossiping. He would let it be known Isobel had gone to Norfolk to be with her ailing mother— no one would dare question his word. His fingers clenched. What was he thinking of? Let the scandal mongers say what they like—he’d willingly sacrifice his good name if it would bring his wife back to his side.
    But where would she go? He would not mount a full-scale pursuit but send out a few discreet enquiries. They should not be too difficult to find despite having had two days start. A gig containing two large black dogs along with a beautiful young woman and her maid, was bound to be noticed when they trotted through a village or town.
    The thought of Isobel being tossed about in that ancient vehicle filled him with remorse. He’d never drink to excess again and would immediately root out the bad influences in his life. From this moment forward he would be a better man. Perhaps when he found her she might be prepared to forgive him. He intended to spend the rest of his life making amends. He would not take her for granted again if she ever consented to return.
    He’d never considered the notion of bringing her back by force. If she wished to remain estranged then so be it. He would retire from society. Now the wretched war was over he could travel abroad and leave his heartbreak behind. Ten years ago he’d been a different man. This mausoleum had been a happy place filled with the laughter of his little daughters and his beloved Eleanor. He’d taken due interest in his tenants, paid attention to his friends and was not the arrogant, hedonistic bastard he’d become.
    Small wonder those that used to be his intimates had over the years begun to refuse his invitations. To fill his loneliness he’d surrounded himself with toadies, sycophants and people not worthy of his attention. Into this hellhole he’d brought his innocent bride and tainted her by association. Look what this degeneracy had led to?
    He strode to the door and roared down the corridor. “Foster, have Hill return immediately. I shall wait for him in my study.”
    His butler must have been lurking in the shadows for he stepped forward bowing obsequiously. “You haven’t taken breakfast again this morning, your grace. Shall I have something sent to you?”
    Alexander was about to refuse for he’d had little appetite these past two days but he needed his strength, he could not afford to become unwell. “As you wish— I want coffee served with it.”
    His study was the one place where he was comfortable. Eleanor and the children had never entered here so it wasn’t linked to their deaths. He’d no idea if Isobel had investigated this room in his absence; he hoped she had for then he could feel closer to her.
    The thought of what Isobel had endured since their marriage almost unmanned him. He’d kept her cloistered like an inmate of an asylum. Her wardens had been his too attentive staff. He had been so immersed his own selfish affairs he’d never considered how unhappy she must be with no friends or family to support her.
    Hill arrived at the same time as his breakfast and on impulse he invited his man of affairs to join him. They sat and munched together and Alexander was surprised how hungry he was. “I want you to select three discreet and reliable men, have them ride out and make enquiries as to the direction my wife has taken. They are not to make themselves known, merely follow. When she’s settled they can send word to me.”
    “My lord, might I suggest we send the men in pairs? That way one can come back with news whilst the other continues his surveillance.”
    “Good man, arrange that if you will. I intend to wait two weeks and then close Newcomb. I shall take the staff and move permanently to Town. Make sure these men are aware of my movements and that they don’t report here when I’m gone.”
    “Do you wish me to remain in your absence, your grace? Or shall I accompany you to London?”
    “Come with me, set yourself up somewhere. God knows, there are enough rooms in Grosvenor Square.” He reached into his desk and withdrew a wallet filled with paper notes. He added a substantial bag of coins and the matter was settled.
    When the chambermaid had removed the empty tray he stretched out on the day bed in front of the fire. He had not slept since Isobel had run away, every time he closed his eyes he relived his actions and woke sweating and ashamed. He no longer attempted to sleep in his room but took catnaps in his study whenever his eyes refused to stay open.
    As he was drifting off to sleep he reviewed what he knew about Isobel’s flight. He was certain she had at least three hundred pounds in her possession. Each quarter she had the full amount of her allowance and, as far as he was aware, had spent none of it on frills and furbelows. The cost of maintaining her two servants was negligible. Had she somehow anticipated that one day this moment could come and she would need funds to make good her escape?
    When Foster had informed him Isobel was hoarding money in her closet he had been horrified his staff believed he wished them to spy on her. He had told Foster in no uncertain terms to mind his own business and make sure the staff did the same. No further reports were given to him, but with hindsight he realised this surveillance had probably continued. Should he ask his butler if he knew where Isobel intended to go? What was he thinking? He would never discuss his wife with that dried up stick of a man.
    He jackknifed, all desire for sleep vanishing. There was one thing he could do which would prove to her how much he’d changed. He would get his lawyers to ferret out his heir. There must be one somewhere as his grandfather had had several younger brothers. One of them must have managed to produce a male between them. He would groom this gentleman; teach him everything he would need to become the next Duke of Rochester. Surely this would prove to Isobel he had accepted she was unable to bear him children, and that he was happy to live his life without setting up his nursery?
*   *   *
    The two weeks passed with no news of Isobel. She appeared to have vanished without trace. He could procrastinate no longer. He’d had word from his lawyers that one, Richard Bentley Esq, had been located and was on his way to meet him in Town.
    Newcomb was under holland covers, several diligences had already departed with items of furniture that he could not live without plus the majority of his wardrobe. The exodus was like a military operation. Transferring over a hundred staff and their belongings, as well as his own, to Grosvenor Square required careful planning and execution. He would be glad to turn his back on this place. The building now held nothing but unhappy memories. His first wife and daughters had died here and then Isobel had left him.
    He was resigned to the fact she might never come back, that he would have to spend the rest of his life alone. He would never divorce her. He had no wish for another wife. Isobel was everything a man could want.
    Lady Fulbright, his ex-mistress had cornered him at a card party the last time he’d been in Town and made it blatantly obvious she was more than willing to resume their relationship. He recalled the heartache his father had caused by his frequent adulteries and firmly rebuffed her overture.
    He shook his head. He would never be so self-indulgent; stopping his drinking and gambling was only half the task. To give in to the demands of the flesh would make him a lesser man. Indeed, he was in every way a much reduced specimen. His years of overindulgence showed in the flab on his once lean torso. If he attempted a round at Jackson’s he would be floored in seconds. That was something else he would pay attention to. Whether he ever persuaded Isobel to return or not he would get himself back in shape, be someone she could respect, even if she could never forgive.
    One day his men would discover her whereabouts. He would ride to her and she would see the difference in him and would know he was a changed man. Maybe the she might reconsider. He closed his eyes and her image filled his head. The way she used to smile at him, the way her eyes lit up when he entered the room, her delight when he returned to her and the refreshing innocence with which she welcomed him into her bed. How could he have been so stupid? She had offered him something precious and like a fool he’d crushed her gift beneath his feet.

Chapter Eight

    Isobel sat back her forehead clammy, her head spinning and thanked God the retching was over. Mary removed the basin and replaced it with a clean vessel. Isobel accepted a cool drink, rinsed her mouth and spat the last of the noxious matter into the bowl. There was no doubt; she had to accept the impossible. She was increasing.
    “I shall have to return to Newcomb, Mary, I don’t wish to, but I am with child. I’ve suspected so for some time but could scarcely believe it. I haven’t had my courses since we arrived and that must be more than eight weeks ago. Whatever my feelings for the duke, I can’t deny this child its birthright.”
    Mary nodded. “I’ve known for weeks, madam, but didn’t like to say considering the circumstances. I’ve been waiting for you to draw the same conclusion. You needed time to recover from what happened without further anxiety. But Sam and I have things organised. We can be ready to leave any time you want.”
    Sally Harris, who had been turned off by her previous employers, had joined them a few days after their arrival at Home Farm. The young woman now acted as her abigail. Isobel turned to her. “Sally, I shall be returning to Hertfordshire, to Newcomb, are you willing to accompany me?”
    “I’d be delighted, madam, if you’re sure the likes of me will be allowed to serve you at such a grand place.”
    Isobel stood up, smiling at the young woman she’d become quite fond of these past weeks. “It will be very different from living here.I intend to have my own people around me. You’ll be answerable to me and no one else.”
    Sally curtsied. “I’ll get started packing your clothes, madam, if you don’t require my services.”
    “No, I wish to speak to Mrs Watkins. I shall ring if I need you.”
    The two basins were removed to the dressing room leaving Mary alone with her. “I’ll not be browbeaten by the staff this time; I intend my return to be on my terms.”
    “You have our full support, and I’m certain sure the others you’ve taken on here will be more than happy to come with us.”
    “Bill has made an excellent footman so he shall be my butler. His experience serving as a valet to a brigadier during the war, has given him all the skills he needs for this post. His leg injury has been no impediment to his efficiency so far.” Isobel considered the other staff. The cook and kitchen maid, a mother and daughter had been made homeless when the man of the house died. These two would be pleased to accompany her. However the two women who came in to do the heavy work had families of their own. They would wish to remain in Norfolk. She would leave the maintenance of the house in their capable hands.
    “Will you please inform everyone, Mary? Betty and Ada will require sufficient funds to tide them over until our return.”
    “Yes, madam.” Mary fiddled with an apron before continuing. “Shall we call you by your title in future? Being plain Mrs Baverstock is all very well out here in the country, but at Newcomb things will be different.”
    Isobel was relieved her friend made no comment about her intention to return. “I have no choice so I suppose it’s better to resume my title now and become used to hearing myself addressed by it. I wish to leave the day after tomorrow; I’m sure the roads will have dried by then.”
    They would need both the gig and the ancient travelling carriage Sam had purchased in order to transport everyone to Newcomb. The two outside men were competent with horses so could act as coachmen leaving Sam to ride Sultan, the gelding she’d acquired from a local farmer.
    She had been thinking about her return for the past few weeks. She had guessed she was pregnant but refused to accept it. When the baby was born, whether boy or girl, she intended leave the infant with her husband and return to Home Farm. Alexander would never let her take the baby with her. Unless she was prepared to live with him again she must abandon her child. She swallowed the lump in her throat at this hideous thought. She blinked back tears—time enough to consider her options when the baby arrived safely.
    The farm was almost self-sufficient and with good management it might even produce a surplus to be sold on. The day workers must continue to take care of the livestock in her absence.
    “Mary, I don’t mean to move into Newcomb; I shall occupy the east wing. The old part of the house has not been used for many years. This will require a deal of cleaning and refurbishment but will be ideal for my purposes.”
    Mary ignored this unusual suggestion. “Sam is sending one of the men ahead to reserve accommodation for us, your grace. In your delicate condition it would be best if we completed the journey slowly.”
    “Thank you, Mary. I’m not looking forward to being jounced around when I feel so sick and will be happy to travel an easy stages.”
    Being left in idleness gave her too much time to think. She was not the quiet, timid girl who had married Alexander a year ago. Today she was able to stand her ground and insist her husband did as she requested. The horror of a public scandal should work in her favour this time. She would agree to act as his hostess if there were guests, but the remainder of the time she would remain in the east wing surrounded by those she trusted.
    She prayed the baby would be a boy. Although she no longer had any feelings for Alexander she had spoken her vows in the house of God. By refusing to share his bed she was breaking them. Therefore, if she produced an heir at least she could leave knowing he had the son he so desperately wanted.
    The Marquis of Newcomb, as his son would be called, would have everything a baby needed without his mother being in residence. No doubt the baby would be removed from her as soon as he was born even if she did remain and be given over to an army of retainers. A nanny brought out of retirement would hand him to a wet nurse. Isobel would have no control over his well-being and only see him when the nanny chose to bring him down. Someone of her status was not expected to be involved in childcare, merely to produce the necessary children.
    This was a highly unsatisfactory system but quite normal in wealthy and aristocratic households. Even in her own home she had seen little of her parents when she was young. Fortunately her nanny had been a kind and loving soul and provided everything a small child required. Not until she was out of leading strings did her mother begin to take an interest.
    However she’d recently read in a pamphlet about such matters—this had stated quite categorically that all mothers, not just the poor folk, should feed their children themselves. The author was calling for women at every level to do what nature intended. She shrugged. This was another decision she could put off for a few months.
    She would dearly like to have visited with her family during the few weeks she had been in Norfolk. Although Home Farm was less than fifty miles from her birthplace she hadn’t dared to go to Bracken Hall. Her father would have sent word immediately. He knew which side his bread was buttered and would not risk offending the duke. Being with child was making her maudlin—she must stifle the feeling and be strong.
*   *   *
    They travelled at a leisurely pace taking three days to complete the distance. The gig, which contained staff and baggage, had gone ahead in order to ensure the overnight accommodation was suitable. When the carriage turned through the gates of Newcomb Isobel’s confidence slipped. Making rash decisions was one thing, but carrying them through in the face of her formidable husband might prove a different proposition.
    Mary fussed with her bonnet, shook out the folds of the travelling cloak and smiled a trifle nervously as the vehicle rocked to a halt outside the enormous building. Isobel expected the usual army of liveried footmen to pour from the front door. Foster and Maynard would no doubt be waiting to greet her with sneering faces.
    To her astonishment the door remained closed. She stepped down and stared at the building only now seeing the shutters were closed. The house was unoccupied. Alexander had removed to Grosvenor Square. He had shut the house and given up on her.
    She felt a moment’s regret but forced it away. So much the better; she would have free rein to set herself up before he heard of her return. There must be a skeleton staff, fires had to be lit on a regular basis or the place would become damp and uninhabitable during the winter months.
    “Mary, ask Sam to hammer on the door. There must be someone in.”
    Mary relayed the message through the window and Sam dismounted and went to speak to the others sitting in the gig. Othello and Ebony whined to be released. She pushed open the carriage door and let them out to explore their new home. They had never been here but it would soon become familiar territory. Animals didn’t worry about etiquette and preserving their good name; if they wished to relieve themselves a hovel was as good as a palace.
    Sam’s thunderous knocking eventually produced the required result. The door was unbolted and a flustered middle-aged woman, with her cap askew and her apron strings flapping, gawped out at him. This was not someone Isobel recognized.
    “His grace has moved to London. The house is under covers and I haven’t been told to expect any visitors.”
    “My good woman, her grace, the Duchess of Rochester, has returned. You’ll do well to mind your tongue.”
    The servant glanced at the travelling carriage. On seeing her the servant paled and threw her apron over her face as if by so doing she would become invisible.
    Isobel laughed. “This is quite ridiculous.” She walked forward and gently pulled the apron down. “My arrival is totally unexpected. I don’t intend to live in the main part of the house. As soon as it can be cleaned I shall remove to the east wing.”
    The woman was too distressed to do more than curtsy clumsily and step to one side to allow her to enter. About a dozen servants were arriving, hurriedly buttoning livery and straightening their caps. They more or less curtsied and bowed in unison.
    Sam and Mary took charge leaving Isobel to head for the small parlour at the rear of the house which would be far easier to heat than any of the enormous rooms.
    The maid curtsied nervously. “I’m acting housekeeper here, Smith’s the name, your grace. His grace has taken the rest to Grosvenor Square. There’s no one left inside, apart from us few. And all the grooms and such have gone with him and all the horses too.”
    This was exactly the news Isobel wanted. Without the objectionable Maynard and Foster to interfere she might well be installed in the east wing with her own people around her before Alexander became aware of her presence at Newcomb.
    “I am delighted to hear you say so. I’ve need of loyal staff of my own. From now on you’re in my employ and shall become my retainers. Mrs Watkins is my housekeeper, Mr Watkins my man of business and Mr Brown my butler. I shall leave them to organise matters as they see fit.” She turned to Mary. “Send someone along to light fires in the small parlour and also in the yellow guest suite. I shall sleep there until the east wing is ready for occupation.”
    A tall young man bowed to her. “If I may be permitted to speak, your grace. There’s nothing we’d like more than to serve you. We’ve not had an easy time working here. We’re all recently taken on, that’s why Mrs Maynard and Mr Foster left us here on half pay.”
    “Good— I require my staff to be loyal to me. I wish no mention of my arrival to reach London. Do I have your assurances on this matter?”
    A chorus of assent ran round the circle. Satisfied she had made progress in her desire to be recognized as a person in her own right, and not merely an adjunct of the duke, she left her staff to get on with what they did best. In less than an hour she was warm and cosy and drinking tea served on the best china.
*   *   *
    The next few days were a bustle of activity as her minions cleaned and prepared the east wing for her. Mary insisted she remained with her feet up, reading and sewing.
    “The east wing is in good shape, my lady, considering how long it has been left unoccupied.”
    “How long before I can move in?”
    “I’ve fires burning in every chamber. I reckon the place will be warm and dry in no time. The furniture and curtains you’ve selected from here are being transferred this afternoon. Sam says you can come and see for yourself later on.”
    At three o’clock, just as night was drawing in, Sam escorted Isobel from Newcomb and around to her new home. This section was accessed by its own front door and there were no communicating entrances. The east wing was beginning to look like a place where she could be comfortable. The ceilings here were considerably lower, the rooms less vast and although it did not have the modern appointments of Newcomb, it made up for it in other ways. The building was of ancient construction and had been the original Newcomb before the current monstrosity had been added by Alexander’s grandfather.
    For the first time she felt in control of her own destiny, not beholden to her parents or her autocratic husband. By the end of March the entire staff had transferred to join her. Extra servants had been taken on from the village and so far no one had seen fit to send news to Grosvenor Square that she was in residence. Mary had the house running like clockwork. Bill was a magnificent butler, firm but fair and, more importantly, he was almost as tall as her husband and much younger and fitter. She was praying he would not allow the duke to barge his way when he eventually arrived to confront her.
    She had not been in residence long when the estate manager, Mr Reynolds, approached her. “Your grace, forgive me for bothering you, but your tenants and their cottages are in dire straits. There have been no repairs or improvements here for many years. Two children died from lack of warmth last week.”
    “That’s appalling, Mr Reynolds. I give you permission to instigate any repairs necessary. Get the men to do the work themselves and pay them for it. Make sure there is enough fuel for everyone and give food where it is in short supply.”
    Alexander had been irresponsible. How could he have been so lax with his duties? He prided himself on his birth and yet he had neglected the most crucial part of his inheritance—taking care of those dependent on him.
    Reynolds beamed, his cheeks glowing from the cold. “Thank you, your grace. I’ve access to sufficient funds which I usually draw on for day-to-day matters. If we get started right away by the time the depredations are noticed the work will be completed.” He grinned, and looked almost boyish in his excitement.
    “Do whatever you have to, spend what you need, but I suggest everything is done as rapidly as possible. I’m sure you understand the necessity for speed.”
    “I do. What’s done can’t be undone. I reckon we’ve got a month before … well a month to get things done.” The estate manager went about his business leaving her to contemplate the scale of what she’d set in motion. This was tantamount to stealing; as the duchess she had no legal right to her husband’s money. He would come hurtling down from Grosvenor Square when he noticed the discrepancies in his accounts. Was that why she’d given her permission without a second thought? Did she feel now was the time to tell him of her condition?
    Word had spread around the neighbourhood that she had returned and had authorised much-needed improvements. Everyone knew she had no right to do so but the artisans had done the work anyway. When the duke eventually came he would be faced with a fait accompli. All his tenants would be well housed and there would be nothing he could do about it apart from rant and rave. She would take the blame; no one else would suffer. She had done the right thing and was confident those around her would support her when he came.
    Isobel was sitting quietly in front of the fire reading a new novel that had recently arrived from London entitled Pride and Prejudice. She had never read anything so enjoyable and was so engrossed she ignored the faint fluttering in her stomach. When it happened a second time her book fell unheeded from her fingers. She placed both hands on her distended belly. Yes, there it was again. The baby inside was kicking, telling her she was going to be a mother in a few months. Her heart contracted. The idea of handing over her child appalled her. But could she learn to live with a man she feared and didn’t trust?

Chapter Nine

    Alexander ran his fingers through his hair and frowned at the column of figures. There was something amiss here; the amount of money leaving this account was astronomical. His estate manager was either corrupt or run mad. The man had had no authorization to draw such sums of money from the bank. He pushed the papers to one side with a sigh. He must return to Newcomb and see for himself what was going on. This was a damn nuisance as the season was about to begin in earnest and he was determined to complete the process of re-establishing himself in the eyes of the ton.
    He had easily resisted the voluptuous temptations of his erstwhile mistress and doused his physical needs by vigorous exercise. Much to the astonishment of his staff he’d taken to running round the park at dawn, also hurtling up and down the staircase at regular intervals during the day. He’d also resumed his sparring at Jackson’s and during the last bout he’d only been floored once.
    Being fit and clearheaded for the first time in many years had sharpened his intellect—unfortunately it had also made him more aware of the sins of the flesh. One thing was very certain. However much he might lust after a woman he would never be unfaithful to Isobel. She was constantly in his thoughts. He sent up a fervent prayer every day asking the Almighty to give him a second chance.
    A sharp tap on the door reminded him he was expecting a visit. Gathering up the loose sheets he stuffed them into the drawer of the desk and locked it. For some reason he didn’t quite trust Richard Bentley, the young man his lawyers had tracked down as being next in line. Bentley was altogether too unctuous and already showing an inclination towards fast play and fast women.
    “Come in, if you must.”
    The door swung open and Bentley stepped in, Alexander struggled to remain expressionless. The man was a popinjay and followed the most extreme of fashions. Good God! The idiot could scarcely turn his head because his shirt points were so high.
    “My lord, I beg your pardon for disturbing you, but I’ve a matter of the utmost urgency to bring to your attention.”
    Even his voice irritated—this was slightly high pitched, and he ended sentences as if asking a question. “As you see, Bentley, I’m busy. Can it not wait until I’ve done.”
    The young man smiled and nodded as if in understanding but looked as if he intended to stay all morning.
    “Well, get on with it. What is it you wish to discuss with me?”
    Undeterred by the brusque response Bentley leaned forward placing his hands on the desktop. “I beg your pardon but I’ve heard the most disturbing rumour, your grace. It is being said in more than one drawing-room that the Duchess of Rochester is missing.”
    Alexander’s fingers gripped the edge of the table. Have dare this jackanapes ask him such a question? Bentley had only been in residence three weeks and was already behaving as if he were a member the family. “My wife is at Newcomb, she does not come to town. In fact, I am going down to visit her today.”
    He was dammed if he was going to sit here and be interrogated by someone who was only a relative in the most tenuous of fashions. According to his lawyers Bentley was his heir, a clear line of descent from an ancient uncle, but he was a cousin so many times removed Alexander felt him not to be kin at all.
    The wretched man sprung to his feet all eagerness and conciliation. “How delightful! Then if you’ll permit me I shall accompany you the country. I believe it will be in order for me to meet your wife. I can’t tell you how much I am anticipating the pleasure.”
    This was too much. With one swift stride Alexander was beside him. He was a head taller and twice his weight. Bentley took a step backward and, tripping over his feet, landed heavily on his backside. Alexander could not stop his bark of laughter at the man’s expense.
    “Get up, man. And get rid of those high-heeled boots, you’ll break your neck falling off them one of these days.” He offered his hand and pulled him to his feet.
    “Thank you, my lord. I do beg your pardon for being so clumsy. I take it you have no wish for me to accompany you this morning. I quite understand, perhaps I may join you in the country next week?”
    The young man was a buffoon. Bentley had been brought up in very different circumstances but maybe in time he would improve. “Very well, if I don’t return to town before then you’re welcome to follow me to Newcomb, if that’s what you wish to do.”
    Bentley bowed and retreated leaving Alexander to consider his options. He would not disturb his staff; they could remain in situ as his visit would be brief. He would deal with Reynolds and then depart immediately. Newcomb would be cold and unwelcoming with only a handful of staff in residence to receive him.
    He frowned and rubbed his chin. The Season was about to start—why did Bentley have this sudden urge to visit Newcomb? That he wanted to meet Isobel was fustian. Surely he was not already running from his debts? He shrugged and dismissed this unpleasant notion. It could be dealt with on his return.
    Today was clear and crisp; the storms and poor weather of the previous months gone. March weather was notoriously fickle, but spring appeared to have arrived early this year. He decided to ride. The distance was no more than twenty miles and his restlessness demanded the extra exercise.
    There had been no word on Isobel’s whereabouts but he was determined to find her eventually. When he did she would see at once he was a different man, not the one who had mistreated her last year. Somehow he would persuade her to return and then would spend the rest of his life demonstrating how much he loved her, and how their lack of children made no difference to him.
    He was resigned to passing on his title and estate to a virtual stranger. He shuddered at the thought of what damage Bentley could do when he became the Duke of Rochester. God willing, that would not be for another thirty years. Hopefully the man would have grown out of this sartorial extravagance and tendency to be profligate and have learnt what it meant to be in a position of power. He scowled. Small wonder Bentley was going astray— the young man would know all about his mentor’s profligacy and thought he was expected to sew his wild oats. This was something else he must rectify on his return.
    His valet was following behind in a closed carriage with the luggage. Alexander did not require much for an overnight stay and there was still a closet with garments in at Newcomb.
    Foster had been horrified to think of his master returning to an empty house with only a handful of staff to serve him. Nowadays the staff were more impressed by his importance then he was. He’d assured his butler he was making a fleeting visit and would come to no harm during a single night without a flock of flunkies at his beck and call.
    He was well aware the majority of his older staff treated young Bentley with barely concealed contempt. They were not quite disrespectful, that would have been easier to deal with, but they had closed ranks at his appearance. Were they refusing to accept the inevitable— that he would never produce a son of his own,
    The ride from London to Hertfordshire was invigorating. He had purchased a magnificent chestnut stallion with a fiery temper to match his own. The horses in his stable were more than adequate but he’d been taken by this beast the moment he’d seen him.
    He had two grooms in attendance mounted on equally impressive horses but even so they were hard pressed to keep up. Rufus could gallop across country all day, taking huge hedges and ditches in his stride. He halted at midday to rest him and take refreshments. He had made good time and would be at his destination long before dark.
    As he cantered down the drive he was aware there was something odd about Newcomb but he couldn’t quite place it. He reined back and studied the huge edifice with interest. The main building was, as expected, shuttered and dark. But there was quite definitely smoke spiralling into the sky and it could only emanate from the east wing. Had the remaining staff moved in there for some reason?
    He kicked Rufus and despite the length of the journey the stallion responded and he arrived outside the stable yard sending gravel in all directions. He vaulted from the saddle and pulled the reins over his mount’s ears in order to lead him through the archway.
    To his astonishment several equine heads turned to view his arrival. The stables should be empty. Someone had taken up residence here in his absence.
*   *   *
    Isobel was sitting contentedly in front of a roaring fire completing a small garment. She was not a skilled needle woman but was determined to make something for the baby. This was the least she could do if she managed to adhere to her plan to abandon the child soon after birth.
    She looked up as door burst open and Ellen, the senior parlourmaid, came in. They stood on no ceremony here; this was a happy establishment. “Good heavens, Ellen, why are you in such a fuss?”
    “He’s come. He’s just ridden into the stable yard. What shall we do, your grace?”
    Isobel was on her feet, her sewing slipping unnoticed to the carpet. “Who’s come? Are you telling me the Duke of Rochester is here?”
    The girl nodded her complexion pale. “He is, my lady, what shall we do? There’s nothing ready for him and Newcomb is abandoned and we all work for you here.”
    Isobel was confident she could face Alexander with equanimity and not be bullied or browbeaten into making a permanent return. But her hands were damp and her stomach churned at the thought of seeing him again. He was terrifying when he was angry.
    “You must tell Mrs Watkins to prepare a guest chamber for the duke. No doubt his man will be travelling separately and when he arrives can fetch whatever his grace requires from next door. Don’t look so worried, no one will suffer because of this.” She prayed she was speaking the truth. He was stronger than her; if he wished to abuse her there would be little she could do to stop him. The idea that she could use Sam and Bill to protect her was nonsensical—Alexander would see them on the gallows if they raised a hand to him.
    She must make sure he did not vent his spleen on the staff that had deserted their posts in order to join her employ. His appearance was not really unexpected. He was bound to have noticed the discrepancies in his account eventually and come to investigate for himself. It was Mr Reynolds who would require protecting from Alexander’s wrath for the agent had withdrawn the money for the repairs and refurbishment.
    She glanced around her cosy parlour. She would not receive him here—this was her domain as the study had been his. She would greet him in the grand salon. The fires were lit throughout the ancient edifice so it would be perfectly comfortable in there.
    Mary met her in the corridor, her face anxious. “My lady, Ellen says we are to let him in. Are you sure this is wise?”
    “I’ve no option, Mary. I’ve my people around me and he is by himself. He owns Newcomb so we can hardly leave him standing outside in the cold.”
    “I shall prepare the blue room and Cook has instructions to make a more substantial dinner. Unfortunately it will be delayed an hour, but his grace never liked to eat early so I expect there will be no complaint on that score.”
    “It is no matter to me, Mary, when I eat. It is my authority that matters; here I make the decisions and you answer to me. Please make sure all the staff are well aware of that.”
    Her words were mere bravado. Alexander could do as he wished and there was nothing at all she could do about it. She checked in the over-mantel mirror that her cap was not askew, her velvet gown hung straight and that the bulge of her pregnancy would not be immediately apparent. The high-waisted gown dropped in tiny plates from under her bosom, the rich russet colour matching what little of her hair that could be seen. The emerald green sash and matching slippers completed her ensemble perfectly.
    Her shorn locks were so much easier to manage than long hair. She’d never let it grow again. Now it curled into her neck, framing her face and emphasising her eyes. The baby fluttered and she placed a protective hand on her stomach. Five months had passed since that dreadful night; she had moved on. She no longer hated Alexander but she neither loved nor respected him.
    He strode in without knocking. If she had not been braced against the back of a chair she would have swooned. She scarcely recognized this smiling man as the husband who had mistreated her. The love she saw in his eyes was genuine. Why did he finally love her when it was too late? However much he changed she could never trust him, would always fear he could lose his temper and turn on her as he had before.
    “Isobel, I can’t tell you how delighted I am to see you and looking so radiant. Though I am bewildered to find you living in the east wing. Why did you not send to me? I would have returned the staff to Newcomb.”
    Even his voice was different, the edge had gone, his tone was soft and charming and there was no hint of the chilly aristocrat she had once known. He had changed in his appearance also, and somehow managed to look years younger than before. What could have happened to bring about this transformation?
    “I had no need to bother you, sir. As you can see I am happily established here. I’ve no intention of returning to live as your wife next door.” She stared at him, daring him to disagree. His eyes flashed but he held his tongue. Emboldened by his restraint she continued. “My lord, you also look remarkably well. I believe you have lost weight and it suits you I must say. Would you care to be seated? Coffee is being fetched for you.”
    She pointed to a chair on the other side of the hearth. Then not waiting to see if he complied she carefully arranged herself in an upright chair, making sure the folds of her gown concealed her pregnancy. She was certain her nervousness had not been apparent even to someone as sharp eyed as he was.
    He moved to the chair she indicated allowing her time to compose herself. There was no doubt he was a different man. Her eyes filled as she thought of how things could have been—but he was five months too late. He had killed her love and nothing could rekindle it.
    “What brings you down here at the start the season, Alexander? I did not expect to see you until May.”
    He smiled lazily. “You know very well why I’m here, my dear. As soon as I saw you I realised that you must be behind the withdrawals from my account. Tell me, Isobel, how did you persuade a man of such probity as Mr Reynolds to steal from me?”
*   *   *
    Her eyes narrowed. “Mr Reynolds has not been stealing from you. He has been doing what you should have done. On my instructions he has repaired all the cottages, farms and outbuildings that you have neglected these past years.”
    Alexander swallowed a brief surge of anger. Isobel was quite right to castigate him. He stared at her and his spirits sunk to his boots. She had become someone else entirely, there was a rigidity about her person, a darkness in her eyes that had not been there before.
    His brief flash of ill-humour vanished to be replaced by the all too familiar shame. His self-indulgence these past years had not only caused his darling wife to suffer but his unfortunate tenants also. His neck-cloth became unaccountably tight and he ran a finger around it. He cleared his throat for the first time in his life unsure of what to say. Perhaps now was the time to apologise—clear the air between them.
    “Isobel, I can’t tell you how ashamed I am of my past behaviour. No—please let me finish. I don’t expect your forgiveness; I can’t forgive myself for what I did. But I give you my word, it will never happen again. You’re looking at a changed man; I no longer drink to excess, I’ve cut free from the toadies I mixed with and have re-established contact with my former intimates.”
    He waited for her response but there was none forthcoming. Her expression remained friendly but distinctly unimpressed. He ploughed on hoping she would receive this next piece of news with more enthusiasm. “I’ve also had my lawyers discover my heir, one Richard Bentley, a young man of nine and twenty years. The matter of your childlessness is no longer an issue between us. I shall attempt to turn Bentley into someone deserving of this title before I kick the bucket.”
    “How interesting, my lord. Do I have your permission to speak?” Her eyes bored into him. This wasn’t going well. He nodded and waited for her to continue. “I’ve something important to tell you.”
    She glanced down at her hands and a slight smile played about her lips. She raised her head and met his eyes with a strength equal to his own.
    “I returned for one reason only. I am carrying your child. The baby will be born in July. I intend to remain here until the baby is born. However, when I am certain the child is well-established, I shall depart. At no time will I reside next door.”
    His glance followed her fingers as she smoothed the material over the quite distinctive mound of a well-established pregnancy. He felt a rush of such happiness, such joy, he did not take in the full import of what she had just told him. He was not going to die childless; he had been given another chance. Whatever she thought, somehow he would convince her he could be a good husband.
*   *   *
    Alexander’s eyes blazed. “My love, I can’t believe it—we’re going to have a baby together. I am a different man, the man I used to be years ago.”
    Isobel almost capitulated under the weight of his happiness. The door opened and Ellen appeared with the tray of coffee. She waved her hand and the girl hastily placed it on the table to her right and vanished in a rustle of petticoats. She must disabuse him immediately. She could not allow him to continue in this vein, but he forestalled her.
    “I am stunned, but overjoyed at your announcement. I’m sad to think that our first child was conceived in such a way, but I’m sure… “
    “Enough. You did not listen to what I just told you. I don’t intend to remain once the baby is born. I shall leave the child in your care and return to my home elsewhere.” She paused too upset to continue. “Of course, I should much prefer to take my baby with me, but I assume that would be out of the question.”
    His expression darkened. “I can’t believe you intend to abandon our baby. I did not take you for a heartless woman. I grew up without a mother’s love and look what happened to me? Do you wish to deprive your own child of his most important parent?”
    Her determination faltered as the baby kicked beneath her fingers. She would be firm. Her treacherous body would betray her if she allowed it to. However much she wished to resist him he would persuade her into his bed if she remained within his reach. “You’ll make an excellent father. I’m certain you’ll provide a retinue of loyal retainers for the infant’s nursery. I should scarcely see the child anyway. You know how things are for people like us.”
    In this great household a son would be sent away to school at an early age, and a girl would have a governess. Parents were expected to have little involvement in the upbringing of their children. No, she had made the right decision, she’d not remain here any longer then she had to.
    “Things can be however you wish them to be. If you want to break tradition then you’ll have my support. Please, Isobel, think about this. Not for me, but for the baby.”
    “You must understand that night is forever between us. I am as much changed as you are. I know you were in your cups but I can never forgive you. I married you because I loved you and not because you offered to save my family from financial ruin. If I had not had deep feelings I would not be your wife now.”
    He leant forward but she stopped him. “No, it’s far too late. Maybe your feelings might have changed, but mine have also. You’ll always be the man who mistreated me. I want your word as a gentleman that you’ll respect my wishes and leave me in peace here, and allow me to go when the baby is born.”
    He lowered his head, she wasn’t sure if he was hiding grief or anger. Then he looked up and the wretchedness in his eyes almost broke her heart.
    “I agree, my love. It’s not what I want but I’m in no position to argue. Everything you say about me is true. If I could take back what happened even though it could mean there would be no baby, I would do so. I’ve learned my lesson. I know it’s far too late for there to be anything between us and I promise I shan’t pester you.” His smile was tender and she could not help but respond. “However, can I ask you to slightly alter your plans?”
    When he was at his most charming he was impossible to resist. “Go on, Alexander, was it you wish me to do?”
    “Promise me you won’t leave until the child is at least six months old. If you still want to go you can do so with my blessing. I will give you an annual income of £10,000; you can live anywhere you please and return whenever you want to see your child.”
    “There’s no need for so much. I know you’re a wealthy man, but such a large amount will strain even your deep purse.”
    “This isn’t negotiable. I shall never divorce you, never remarry. You’ll be my duchess until you die and as such it is only right that you live in the luxury and comfort your status deserves. I shall sell my Scottish estates, manage my others more prudently and invest more wisely. I’ve also stopped gambling.” His lopsided grin made her toes curl. “That will restore a deal of buoyancy to my finances. Have I your promise, Isobel? A few extra months in return for a life of luxury? What harm can there be in that decision?”
    She nodded scarcely able to believe he was offering her so much. “I agree; I shall remain until the baby is six months old. This will give you ample time to have my settlement drawn up. I shall get my man of affairs, Watkins, to start looking for somewhere suitable. I find I enjoy being involved in the management of an estate, it will be a pleasure to have one of my own.”
    Bill appeared in the doorway. “My lady, I wish to inform you that his grace’s apartment is now ready for his occupation.”
    Isobel stood. Alexander had no choice but to do likewise. “Dinner will be served in an hour. Do you wish to send a footman to collect a change of raiment for you from next door?”
    For a second his expression hardened at her dismissal. The formidable duke was in there somewhere; however much he tried he could not eliminate all his pride and arrogance. This was bred into him.
    He bowed his head, hiding his face from her. “My trappings will arrive later. I came across country and my man is bringing my luggage by coach. I shall go with your footman. I shall see you at dinner, my lady.”
    He strode off and she her breath. She wished he was not residing under her roof but as she had stolen his staff she could hardly sent him packing. He must remain for the moment. No doubt he would return to Town when he had spoken to Mr Reynolds and inspected the improvements. She must endeavour to keep up her guard for the short time he would be here.
    The encounter had gone more smoothly than she’d expected. She’d remained in command and he’d acquiesced to her demands. Indeed, he had volunteered to pay her a fortune when she eventually departed. But for all his sweet talk and generosity he had no intention of letting her go. She must have her escape well-planned for when the time came.

Chapter Ten

    Isobel dined in her room. All things considered it might be wiser not to spend time with Alexander alone. He was very persuasive when he wished to be and she had no intention of falling under his spell again.
    “Sally, you may take my tray down, I’ve had sufficient, thank you. Please return directly to assist me to retire. It has been an exhausting day one way and another.”
    For the first time since her return she slept without nightmares and woke early feeling happier than she had in months. She would get up. There was no need to summon her abigail, she was quite capable of dressing herself if necessary. The gowns she’d had altered to accommodate her increasing girth were high necked and long-sleeved. No doubt she would be obliged to have some of her muslins adjusted for the final months.
    The sun was barely up and there had been a sharp frost, but not too early to go outside with the dogs. There was nothing they liked better than to race across the silvered grass searching for unwary rabbits. Lacing up her boots was going to become more difficult but at the moment she could manage the procedure perfectly well.
    With her thickest cloak around her shoulders she found her muffler and mittens and was ready to brave the morning. Her early appearance caused two of the maids, on their knees scrubbing the floor, to look up in surprise. With sacks tied around their waists they were barely recognizable as the smart girls one saw about the house during the day.
    “Good morning, Eliza, Annie, pray don’t disturb yourselves, I shall walk around your pails.”
    As there were only two dozen staff employed in her domain she knew each and every one of them, which was how it should be in her opinion. Her dogs slept in front of the fire in the drawing-room and bounded out to greet her.
    “Get down, you silly things. Yes, you’re quite correct, we are going outside for your morning constitutional.”
    It had been her intention to exit through the boot room door but the sound of the bolts being drawn back behind her meant one of her footmen must have heard her voice and come to open the front door.
    “Good morning, Isobel, I did not expect to see you abroad so early. I wake at dawn nowadays and take a brisk walk before I break my fast.” Alexander bent to stroke Ebony’s ears. “I should like to join you but fully understand if you would prefer to walk alone.”
    It would be churlish not to let him accompany her when he had spoken so charmingly and given her the option to refuse. “You may come with us, if you wish, but I’m afraid the excursion will be far from brisk. More a stroll, as I find I can’t dash about the way I used to.”
    He offered his arm and she took it, relieved she did not feel the slightest bit flustered by the contact. The dogs circled around them barking and he took the hint and found a suitable stick to throw. Thus the walk progressed, when one or other of the dogs returned with a piece of wood she released her grip on his arm so he could throw it again.
    “There’s really no necessity. They are perfectly content just to sniff and chase anything that moves.”
    Laughing he wiped his hand on his breeches, ignoring Othello. “I enjoyed it; I had forgotten the pleasure of playing with dogs. Do you wish to walk as far as the lake? It will be spectacular when the sun rises in the next few minutes.”
    She nodded, finding his behaviour most disconcerting. The man she knew would never have ruined his pristine appearance as he had just done, neither would he have risked tearing his jacket by throwing sticks. Was this a genuine change, or was he dissembling in order to ingratiate himself?
    They were returning to the house when a figure on horseback cantered into view. She recognized the rider; this was Reynolds, the estate manager. He was unconscionably early. Did he really expect Alexander to be so eager to see him?
    “Reynolds is upon us, my dear. I sent a message for him to come first thing. I wish to spend a full day examining the improvements and arranging for anything further that needs to be done. I’ve been delinquent in my duties; I shan’t be so in future.”
    “So you’re not going to ring a peal over both of us? That’s a great relief, I can tell you. I feared that you might …” her voice trailed away and she swallowed the bile that rose in her throat. Just thinking about that awful night made her feel unwell.
    “Isobel, what I did to you was unforgivable. I know that, but I’ve given you my word whatever the provocation I shall never be unkind to you again.”
    She glared at him. “Provocation? It is I who is more likely to be provoked.”
    He grinned and raised his hand as if he thought to touch her, then thought better of it as she frowned. “I know—you’re perfect in every way. How could I think that there was even the remotest possibility you would do anything to irritate me?” He released her arm, nodded, and strolled across the turning circle to greet his visitor.
    Mollified by his good humour she went in her optimism renewed that somehow they could get through the next few hours without unnecessary aggravation. However, the quicker his business was completed the better. For all his protestations she was not entirely comfortable in his company. He would not manhandle her; whatever he had been in the past he was not untruthful or given to making false promises. The danger lay in his ability to soften her resolve.
    He was out all day and returned only as darkness fell. To hear him chatting companionably to the footmen he met in the vestibule was a revelation. If he continued to improve in this way she would no longer recognize him as the man she’d married. Perhaps she would make more of an effort to be civil; after all, only Mary and Sam knew why she had left him. She had no wish for her staff to believe she was being curmudgeonly.
    She reached the door as he prepared to ascend the heavy oak staircase. “Alexander, I shall join you for dinner tonight, I would dearly like to know what you thought of the improvements.”
    “I shall look forward to it, my dear. Do you wish me to put on my evening rig?”
    Surprised he should ask for she could not remember an evening when he hadn’t appeared in formal attire and she worn an evening gown. “I should much prefer to eat in the small dining room and not have to change at all.” She smiled wryly. “In fact I don’t have anything suitable to wear at the moment. I haven’t bothered to alter my grand ensembles.”
    “Excellent.” He pointed at his mud spattered clothes and laughed. “However, I can assure you that I shan’t reappear in disarray.”
    He took the remainder of the stairs two at a time. How could she not be aware that his physical appearance had improved over these past months? His eyes were clear and no longer bloodshot. His toast-brown hair was shining with health and he moved with a vigour he’d not displayed before. She giggled at the thought that he was becoming thinner and trimmer as she was doing the exact opposite.
    Mary appeared in answer to her ring. “I wish to have dinner served in the small dining room. Make sure Cook does not serve an elaborate meal, we are not dressing for dinner.”
    “Do you wish to eat at the usual time, my lady?”
    “No, we will dine at half past five; that will allow the duke plenty of time to bathe.”
    Bill, now referred to as Mr Brown by all the staff, rang the gong at the appointed hour.
    Isobel walked towards the door. She was hungry and didn’t wish to waste further time dawdling in the drawing-room. Alexander hurtled down the stairs obviously as eager as she to get to his meal. He was dressed as before, but this time in a dark-blue, superfine jacket, navy blue waistcoat and skintight unmentionables. Her eyes were held by the muscles in his thighs. She could not drag her gaze away.
    Aware of her scrutiny he paused and his eyes blazed with that all too familiar fire. This would not do—she would not let herself be bamboozled into acquiescence. She was made of sterner stuff nowadays, was her own woman and had no intention of allowing him to breach the walls she had erected around herself.
    “I am famished, my dear. You might remember I did not come in for breakfast and had no time to stop for mid-day refreshments.”
    “Good heavens! I’m surprised you did not come to grief galloping all over the countryside with nothing inside you.”
    He laughed. “As I keep telling you, Isobel, I am not the man you married. That degenerate is no longer me. I am returned to the fellow I once was. I am hoping you’ll one day come to see me as my true self.”
    She stiffened. Did he really believe his reformation could possibly remove the scars of that night? “Dinner is waiting, my lord. I don’t as a rule, serve wine, but I’ve asked Brown to fetch some claret from your wine cellar next door.” She waited for him to tell her he no longer drank, instead his eyes twinkled.
    “I am reformed, but not become a Puritan, my dear. I drink in moderation as any gentleman should.”
    “I did not know that imbibing alcohol was a prerequisite for being a gentleman, my lord. However, I am always ready to learn from an expert.”
    Content in his company she led the way to the small dining room she used in preference to the larger chamber which seated more than twenty around the oak table. The evening passed without discord and she returned to her chambers pleased she had been able to enjoy his friendship without being beguiled by his charm.
    He had assured her he was leaving the day after tomorrow and would remain in town for the season. Whilst he was there he would speak to his lawyers and have them arrange the settlement. Her family would think this a disgraceful arrangement, even her aunt and uncle would be shocked to the core by her desertion.
    In May, two months before the baby was due, he would reopen Newcomb and take up residence next-door. Everything was working out as she’d hoped and when the baby was six months old she would be able to take her leave and move to whatever small estate Sam had found for her. She must also arrange for Sam dispose of Home Farm; she would never return there.
    Her digestion rebelled the following day and she was unable to leave her bed chamber. Alexander sent his commiserations and hoped she would be well enough to speak to him before he left the next morning. Sam asked to see her that afternoon and, as she was now sitting in her parlour, she agreed.
    “My lady, his grace has just called me in to speak to him; he told me I’m to start looking for a suitable estate for you. Have I mistaken the matter? Are we not to stay here permanently?”
    “No, my life is no longer here. Once Newcomb is occupied by the duke it will be untenable to remain here. It’s far better I make a new start somewhere else.”
    He looked away and his cheeks coloured. “I beg your pardon for questioning your decisions, your grace. I believe there are more than a dozen estates held by his grace, do you wish me to visit all of them?” His tone was formal, his expression sad.
    Should she tell him he was mistaken, that the estates he was to look at were not those owned by her husband? It might be better to leave him in ignorance. “I haven’t thought about it. You can be sure I shall inform you in good time. Do you know if Rochester has approved all the changes made on the estate these past few weeks?”
    “His grace did not see fit to discuss the matter with me.”
    “Thank you for coming to see me, Sam. If there is nothing further you wish to speak to me about, you may go.”
    She must get accustomed to disapproval. If even her dear Sam thought she was wrong she might find it difficult to re-establish herself elsewhere. She would be obliged to be known by her title and not revert to Mrs Baverstock. Abandoning her husband was beyond the pale, to do the same to her child would not be forgiven by Society. It would break her heart to do so but Alexander would never allow her to take the baby with her. No doubt he was relying on her maternal instincts to make her change her mind.
    Feeling more the thing next morning she was up and about in time to take a walk. She half expected him to join her and was disconcerted to find herself disappointed he did not. At a little after eight o’clock she returned. Breakfast would be waiting and, after her enforced fast yesterday, she was more than ready to eat.
    “Good morning, Isobel, I’m glad to see you’re fully recovered. Why don’t you sit down and let me serve you?” Alexander put down his cutlery and stood up at her entrance.
    “Thank you, I am famished. Tell me, what’s under the covers this morning?”
    The meal was accompanied by light-hearted banter. How pleasant it was to have someone to talk to, especially when her companion was so amusing. “What time do you intend to leave?”
    “My horse is being saddled. Duncan will follow with my baggage in the carriage. Promise me, my dear that you’ll send for me if you have a problem of any sort.”
    “Of course I will. Perhaps you’ll come down and tell me when matters have been arranged by your lawyers?”
    “I shall write to you.”
    She was tempted to ask him to leave things to her but he was smiling at her openly, was making a kind gesture nothing more. “That would be most helpful, I thank you, sir.”
*   *   *
    Alexander forced himself to eat heartily. He was damned if he would let her see how much her formality was hurting. He pushed his plate aside and stood up. “Pray don’t disturb yourself, my dear, finish your meal. Remember—send a message to Grosvenor Square if you need me.”
    He bowed and strode from the room without a backward glance. He nodded to the butler and walked out into the crisp, cold morning. It had been purgatory to be so close and not able to touch her, to show her how much he loved her. One thing was certain—Gloria would never get her claws into him. If he could not make love to his wife he would remain celibate. Seeing her again had served to reinforce his decision and confirm his love for her.
    He swung into the saddle, his two grooms did likewise, and he urged Rufus into a canter. As he rounded the curve in the drive a carriage turned in. God’s teeth! What was Bentley doing here? Had he not told the young man to remain where he was for a week? The last thing he wanted was for Isobel to meet him. Time enough for Bentley to know there was a child if the infant turned out to be a boy.
    The coach rattled to a halt and he leant down to speak to Bentley through the window. “You have to turn round—I wanred you I would not be here more than a day or two. I shall wait for your vehicle. We can stop for refreshments together in an hour or two.”
    “I say, my lord, I do beg your pardon. I set off at first light determined to arrive before you left. It would be a shame if I did not meet your duchess now I am here.”
    There was almost desperation in his words. Had something untoward occurred in Town that he was fleeing from? Even if that were so, Alexander could not risk a premature meeting between Isobel and his putative heir.
    “Lady Isobel isn’t receiving.” He glared and Bentley hastily withdrew his head. The coachman looked down expectantly. “Mr Bentley will be returning forthwith—will your cattle take a double journey?”
    “I doubt it, your grace, not without a couple of hours rest. Mr Bentley insisted we travelled at a spanking pace. The beasts are all but done.”
    Alexander frowned. Yes, there was a solution to this. The unwanted guest could return with Duncan and this carriage could remain here until the animals were rested. “Bentley, you must travel back with my valet. His carriage is about to leave.”
    The dark heard emerged nervously. “I shall do that, of course, your grace. At what hostelry are we to meet? You must not keep your stallion waiting whilst I transfer my belongings to the other vehicle.”
    This was a reasonable suggestion. “The Green Man—you follow the toll road and I shall cut across country.”
    He saw the other carriage appear behind him. Excellent, it should not take long for the exchange to take place. He could leave knowing he had avoided a potentially difficult situation.
*   *   *
    Isobel was in the entrance hall when she heard carriage wheels outside. Goodness, who could this be? Duncan had already departed and he was not likely to have forgotten anything. He was the most frighteningly efficient gentleman’s gentleman. She hurried to the window and looked out making sure she could not be seen from the turning circle. A young man descended. He looked vaguely familiar but she was certain no one of her acquaintance would appear on her doorstep with a sky blue jacket and a pink and gold waistcoat.
    “Bill, we are about to receive a visitor. I shall retire to my sitting room. I don’t wish to speak to him. He is a stranger to me; no doubt he has lost his way and called in for directions.”
    Whoever this was, he must have seen both Duncan and Alexander and he could have enquired directions from them. She was decidedly uneasy about this. Something was not quite right about her unexpected guest.

Chapter Eleven

    Ten minutes went by and then there was a rapid knock on the door. Bill appeared looking somewhat bemused. “I beg your pardon, my lady, but the young gentleman insists I give you his card. He won’t depart until you have seen it.”
    Isobel examined the writing. “Good heavens! Mr Bentley—he is next in line to the title at the moment. The duke did tell me about him but I had no idea he was to visit here. Show him into the drawing-room, I suppose I must come and speak to him.” She called the butler back. “I doubt if he has eaten breakfast today, ask the kitchen to have food prepared and laid out in the small dining room.”
    Small wonder he had seemed familiar. Alexander must have suggested he called in and introduce himself before returning to the city. It would be better if her pregnancy remained unnoticed. If she ran upstairs and fetched her cloak this would disguise her bump and no doubt he would assume she was on her way out with the dogs.
    “Sally, quickly, I need to put on my bonnet and cloak. I require you to do the same; Mr Bentley, a distant relative, has called in unexpectedly and I don’t wish him to remain here long. I should not be entertaining in the duke’s absence.”
    Soon she was on her way to the drawing-room, Sally following behind and both dogs gambolling at her feet. The man would have to be stupid not to realise she was on her way elsewhere and could not entertain him.
    Pausing in the shadows outside the drawing-room she viewed the young man who was lounging on the chaise-longue with his booted feet resting on the upholstery. This was not a good start. How impertinent of him to make himself at home in this way. She stepped in and stared frostily.
    Instantly he was on his feet smiling and bowing. “Your grace, I do beg your pardon for intruding in this way. I can see that you’re about to go out, I shan’t delay you long. Richard Bentley, your husband’s heir, at your service.”
    She inclined her head a fraction but did not suggest he sat. “Mr Bentley, I’ve arranged for you to eat before you leave. It isn’t seemly for you to be here when I am unattended by my husband. I can’t believe he would have suggested you visiting me in this way.”
    His cheeks turned puce and he clutched at his ridiculously elaborate neck cloth. “I beg your pardon, Cousin Alexander does not know I called in. He believes me to the travelling with his manservant. Forgive me, your grace, but I could not leave without meeting you in person.” He stared at her, his watery blue eyes innocent. “I did not believe the rumours going around Town that you had disappeared. Now I can personally assure society you’re here at Newcomb.” He glanced round rather pointedly and raised an eyebrow. This was a gesture that reminded her of Alexander.
    “I’ve spent the past few months in Norfolk with my family, my mother was ailing. Fortunately she has fully recovered. As I don’t enjoy the season and much prefer to live quietly in the country, I move into the east wing whilst my husband is away.”
    “Ideal arrangement, it leaves you both free to …” he paused, looking self-conscious. “I beg your pardon … I was about to say something inappropriate.”
    To what had he been referring? She could not help herself. “Free to do what exactly, sir?”
    He looked at his feet; he was wearing the most ridiculous pair of high-heeled boots. “It’s not my place to discuss gossip, your grace. But as you insist, I am obliged to tell you what’s being said in the drawing rooms of the ton.”
    She tapped her foot and waited. He appeared to shrink under her disdainful stare.
    “They are saying Cousin Alexander has renewed his friendship with Lady Fulbright. I’m sure they are wrong and I beg your pardon for mentioning it.”
    If the wretched man begged her pardon once more she would scream. “And so you should, I am appalled at your indelicacy.”
    Slowly she let her gaze travel from his heavily pomaded brown hair, down his gaudy waistcoat to the gold tassels that ornamented his boots. He shifted uncomfortably. There was a slight sound behind her and Bill stepped forward.
    “Your grace, breakfast is served for the gentleman. Shall I escort him?”
    “Do that, Mr Brown. Mr Bentley will be leaving directly he has eaten.”
    The young man edged forward. “I fear the horses won’t be sufficiently rested for another hour or two.”
    This was the outside of enough; she was beginning to heartily dislike this mushroom. “In which case, sir, you can occupy your time by exploring the grounds. I bid you good day.”
    Bentley stepped forward and swept her an extravagant bow. Ignoring his silliness she stalked out. Bill and the three footmen would ensure the irritating gentleman was ejected as soon as he had finished his meal. She would make sure she was inside before he came out. She patted her stomach. God willing this would be a boy.
*   *   *
    Alexander had been kicking his heels at The Green Man for almost an hour when he spotted the carriage trundling into the yard. Striding across to greet Bentley he was shocked to discover only Duncan inside.
    “Devil take it, Duncan, what have you done with Bentley?”
    His valet shook his head. “Should he be travelling with me, your grace? He said nothing about that when he stopped to speak to me, merely told me to meet you at this hostelry.”
    “We have to go back, damn him! If I did not know him for a fool, I would think he was leading me this dance deliberately. I shall cut across country again; rest the horses and then follow me.”
    Rufus needed no further time in the stable but his grooms’ mounts were not fit to return immediately so he didn’t bother to have them fetched. Alexander tacked up the huge beast himself as there were no ostlers available. His return ride was far swifter, not only did he know the route, but was also concerned about the behaviour of the nincompoop.
    He thundered across the park his horse kicking up huge clods of earth which would take his grounds men days to replace. There was no sign of the carriage waiting on the turning circle—was it in the coach house whilst the horses recovered? By his reckoning more than four hours had passed since his departure and it would be dark before long. He would not allow Bentley to remain at Newcomb, the buffoon must put up at the nearest coaching inn.
    There was no sign of the team that had pulled the coach. He swore volubly, Isobel had sent her unwanted guest on his way. No doubt Duncan and Bentley would pass on the lane somewhere. This was a ridiculous situation. What was the matter with him? Why had he galloped back here? His wife was perfectly capable of dealing with the situation without his assistance.
    A stable boy, startled at his sudden appearance, jumped off the pail he was sitting on to clean a bridle and tugged his forelock. No doubt the entire staff would think him fit for Bedlam after his performance today. He vaulted from the saddle and tossed the reins to the boy. Then his irritation vanished to be replaced by amusement. His sudden laughter sent Rufus skittering across the cobbles and the unfortunate stable lad lost his footing falling headfirst into a pile of freshly swept manure.
    “Stand, Rufus, enough of that nonsense.” His horse quietened and he quickly threaded the end of the reins through a convenient metal ring before turning to hoist the boy from the dung. “Up you come, lad. Are you hurt?”
    The urchin grinned as he spat out a mouthful of straw. “Right as rain, my lord. A bit of muck don’t hurt nobody.”
    Still chuckling Alexander tossed the boy a coin and strolled from the stable yard round to the east wing. God knows what Isobel would make of all this. He hoped she would see the comical side to his reappearance when she had all but told him he was unwelcome here.
*   *   *
    Mary bustled into the room her homely face split by a huge smile. “Well I never! His grace is back, and poor Johnny got tipped headfirst into the muck by that big horse.”
    Isobel tossed aside her sewing with a smile. “I am not surprised, he would have realised Mr Bentley had intruded and would wish to make sure I was managing.”
    “The chamber he used previously is ready for occupation. His man will still be on the road, so I shall send George to help him. He’s the most able of the footmen.”
    “Make sure a bath is drawn for him, and send someone next door to find him clean clothes. Oh, Cook will need to be informed that there’s an extra person to dine this evening.”
    The dogs barked furiously. He was here and she wished she’d had the forethought to change her gown. Too late to repine—he was already on his way to speak to her. She had recovered from the shock of hearing he was once more involved with his mistress but the infidelity still hurt.
    He had not wasted much time before re-establishing Lady Fulbright as his chereamie. She supposed it was inevitable he would look elsewhere to satisfy his physical needs as she was no longer available. Her stomach lurched. How naive she was, he must have been seeing that woman for more than a year, since the time he had stopped making love to her on a regular basis.
    The marriage was definitely over. She could never be intimate with him knowing he was sharing his body with another woman. She decided to remain seated. This would make it clear she was not overjoyed to see him again.
    Alexander strode in. She gasped. She’d never seen him in such disorder, his many caped riding coat was still slung around his shoulders and his usually pristine Hessians were barely recognizable beneath thick mud. As for his breeches, they were not only dirty but ripped and bloodstained. This drew her attention to a nasty gash running across his thigh. If the injury was not attended to immediately he might well succumb to a putrid wound.
    Forgetting her vow to treat him as he deserved she scrambled to her feet. “Alexander, did you take a fall? Look at your leg—I believe it might need the attentions of a physician.”
    He glanced down as if noticing it for the first time. He frowned and looked almost embarrassed. “My dear, I beg your pardon …”
    Laughing she interrupted him. “Please, don’t do so. Mr Bentley was forever begging my pardon, and if I had not sent him packing I believe I should have thrown a book at him.”
    “I was going to apologise for appearing in my filth but obviously that’s unnecessary. I take it the idiot has departed from here?”
    “Indeed he has. I’m afraid I did not take to him at all. He was served breakfast and then evicted. I made myself scarce until he was driven away.” She tugged the bell-strap before continuing. “Give me your outer garments. Good grief! Where is your hat?”
    He grinned ruefully. “I believe that went when I had my altercation with a tree branch. I didn’t take a tumble, in fact until you mentioned it I hadn’t realised the damage I’d sustained.”
    The butler appeared followed by two footmen. “Brown, his grace has sorely injured his leg. He will need it attending to.”
    “Right away, my lady.” He bowed to Alexander and stepped closer in order to remove his coat. “If you would care to come with me, your grace, I’ve considerable experience with wounds of this sort. I was Colonel Fitzwilliam’s batman and you might have read about his injury at the Battle of Talevera.”
    Alexander was given no chance to refuse. She watched with amusement as he was all but bundled from the room. He smiled at her over his shoulder. “When I am repaired, my dear, do I have your permission to join you down here?”
    She was on her feet watching anxiously. “Don’t you think you should remain in your bed chamber and have your dinner brought up to you?”
    “Certainly not. And anyway, my love, the amount I intend to consume would require three chambermaids to bring it to me.”
    His chuckles filled the room as he was escorted away. Should she send for Dr Jamieson? Perhaps it would be better to wait and see what Bill said after he had dressed the cut. One thing she did know, he could not possibly ride back to London tomorrow. Of course, he could travel in the carriage with Duncan but even then the horses would need twenty four hours to recuperate.
    He must take no risks with his health. What if he were to die? The very thought that Mr Bentley would inherit if the child was a girl was enough to make her hair stand on end. Although she no longer loved Alexander she had no wish for him to perish. After all he was the father of the baby she was carrying and despite everything that had gone between them, she still cared enough to wish him well.
    The dinner gong sounded before he reappeared. She had resisted the urge to go up and change and was still in her gold velvet. He, however, was resplendent in a different jacket. This one was bottle green, his shirt was crisp, his neck cloth tied intricately and his waistcoat a delightful shade of gold silk. His inexpressibles had been exchanged for pantaloons and he had slippers on his feet instead of his customary boots. He was leaning heavily on the banister as he descended the staircase.
    “I know, Isobel, I should have remained where I was. It’s a damn nuisance. I’ve no more wish to be here then you do to accommodate me.”
    Shocked by his abruptness she was unable to answer. Then she saw the lines of pain etched on either side of his mouth. His injury must be far worse than she’d thought. She hurried to his side and offered her arm.
    “Lean on me, Alexander. I do wish you had not come down, I shall send for the physician straightaway.”
    “You’ll do no such thing. Your butler has put a couple of sutures in; he did a neat job too. I doubt Jamieson could do any better. I am fatigued; I haven’t slept for days and have spent more time in the saddle than I have on my own two feet. I fear I shan’t be able to leave tomorrow as you wished.”
    “Of course not, you must remain here until you’re fully recovered. Has your man arrived yet?”
    “No, he will be benighted. The weather has deteriorated but I’m sure he had the good sense to find himself a bed. He will appear when the storm has abated. The boy who is acting as my valet is perfectly competent and fortunately I’ve enough garments to not appear unkempt.”
    With some difficulty she guided him down the passageway to the chamber in which they were to eat. When a footman approached he scowled and the young man backed away hastily. They were both relieved when they arrived without mishap.
    “Alexander, you take the seat nearest the fire. You don’t look too well; I am most concerned for your well-being.”
    “Don’t fuss, Isobel. It is I that should be looking after you. God willing, you’re carrying the next Duke of Rochester. Heaven forfend that numbskull takes the title after my demise.”
    There was little she could add to that heartfelt comment. There was something she didn’t quite like about Bentley and it wasn’t just his ridiculous appearance and flowery manners. She shook her head at her fancies, Mary had told her to beware of false emotions. It would seem wild imaginings were quite common when a woman was increasing.
    The meal was eaten in silence— she too concerned about his appearance to make chitchat and he too busy eating enough for three men. When he finally pushed away his plate she laughed. “I shall stop worrying about you, Alexander. If you were truly ill you could not have eaten so much.”
    He smiled that special smile and her insides melted. “I shall be perfectly fine tomorrow morning after a good night’s sleep. However, I fear I shan’t be able to depart until it is more clement.”
    “Of course you must not. If you have finally finished there are several things I wish to discuss with you. Can you manage or shall I send for someone for you to lean on?”
    “I am quite well, but my leg hurts like the very devil and I can barely keep my eyes open. Could our conversation keep until tomorrow, my dear?”
    Carefully he pushed himself upright. His knuckles were white where he gripped the table. He was not nearly as well as he pretended. “Remain where you are, Alexander, I shall send for assistance. No, don’t scowl at me. You’ll never ascend the stairs under your own volition. Do you wish to add a cracked head to your injuries?” She spoke to him as if he were a child. How things had changed—had he not addressed her in such a way last year?
    Bill and two hefty footmen appeared so rapidly to answer her summons she guessed they had been expecting to be called. “His grace will require your help to return to his bed chamber.”
    This time Alexander did not argue but slung his arms around the shoulders of the two young men and hobbled out. She was most concerned to see he could put no weight on his injured leg. As soon as he was comfortable she would go up and see to him herself. There could be no disagreement about her being in his bed chamber; after all she was still his wife and who else had more right to be there than she?

Chapter Twelve

    Isobel left Alexander in the capable hands of George, his temporary valet.secure in the knowledge there was nothing further she could do for him. He was sleeping peacefully and she returned to her bed chamber where Sally was waiting to help her disrobe.
    She was woken later by someone beside her. “Mary, is he worse?”
    “Yes, my lady, he is. George came to fetch me, Sam said as I was to get you. The duke is burning up and there’s no way we can fetch a doctor. A foot of snow has fallen this past hour and no one will get in or out of Newcomb for a day or two.”
    “You did right to rouse me. Fetch Bill, he will know what to do.”
    It was the work of moments to pull on her bed robe and ram her bare feet into slippers. Then with candle stick held aloft she hurried through the icy passageway to the guest chamber at the rear of the house. She entered through the private sitting room. She pushed open the door and reeled back.
    “Good grief! This room is like a furnace, small wonder his grace is overheated.”
    George looked mystified. “I made the fire up a treat, my lady, I thought that was right.”
    “Not in my experience, it tends to make the fever worsen. Quickly, open all the windows and I shall do something about the flames.” There was a half-filled jug of water on the wash stand in the dressing room and she threw it over the fire. Immediately the room was full of hissing coals and choking steam but the fire was more or less out.
    Mary rushed in followed by Bill, who coughed and looked round in astonishment but he nodded at Isobel. “Exactly what I would have done, my lady. Bring down the fever as quick as possible, I’ve seen men dropped in icy water—but that’s kill or cure.”
    “I hope my drastic measures won’t prove fatal. Mary, we shall need fresh water to wash him down and a jug of barley water or lemonade.”
    The room had cleared and a howling gale was whistling through, the curtains were almost horizontal and flurries of snow spiralled across the boards. “George, I think you can close the windows now, the temperature has dropped sufficiently.”
    She was decidedly chilly in her night apparel. The fire was a sullen glow in the grate; they could do with slightly more heat but it refused to burn any brighter. The water she had thrown on it earlier still puddled on the hearth.
    “His grace will do very well, now, my lady. He’s sleeping peacefully, the flush on his cheeks all but gone. I can take care of him if you would like me to.”
    “I intend to stay, I’m wide awake now. All of you return to your beds, I shall ring if I require any further assistance.”
    Mary was the only one who seemed pleased by this suggestion. When Isobel was alone she looked around for somewhere warm to curl up. Alexander was cool to the touch so perhaps it would be safe to leave him. She shivered and stared crossly at the fire which refused to burn with any heat.
    The bed was the only place in the chamber that would provide her with any warmth. If she crept in the far side, making sure she was on top of the sheets and not inside them, he would not even know she was there. Kicking off her slippers, she slipped under the covers and was soon drifting off to sleep.
    A short while later she woke. Botheration! She must get out again and use the chamber pot behind the screen. Comfortable once more she scrambled back into bed this time removing her bed robe for she had all but suffocated with that on. She settled into a deep sleep and her dreams were filled with images of the man she had once loved.
    His arms were round her, his heat burning through the thin cloth of her nightdress. Then his lips found hers and she drowned in the sweet sensation. The dream was so vivid it was almost real. Desire curled through her sending wave after wave of delicious pleasure from her toes to the top of her head.
    She moved restlessly and his kiss deepened. His lips drifted down until they reached her breast. It hardened and her nipple peaked beneath his tongue. It had been so long — but her body remembered what to do. The touch of his hand on her belly sent shock waves to the very centre of her being; his fingers slipped downwards between her thighs to stoke her secret place.
    Gently he rolled her over until she was resting on her side. His arousal pressed hard into her buttocks. Her eyes flew open. This was no dream—this was reality. She must stop him. Too late. He lifted her and was inside. She forgot everything as she was swept away with every thrust until her world exploded into ecstasy.
    She lay exhausted in his arms too shocked by what had taken place to move or speak. The discomfort of her night gown bundled up around her waist eventually roused her. The events of the last night she had been with him flooded her mind. For a second time he had taken advantage of her, made love to her when he knew she did not wish him to.
    “Darling, I can’t tell you how happy I am that you came to me tonight. I never thought to be able to love you again. I …”
    “Let me go. I did not come to you for this. I am here because you were delirious earlier.”
    His arms tightened and he pulled her closer ignoring her words. She struggled more furiously and screamed to be released. Only then did his grip slacken and she scrambled out of bed. She couldn’t see his face in the near blackness but she had no doubt he was leaning back on the pillows certain he had re-established his ascendancy.
    “I hate you, Alexander. You’re despicable; you know how I feel about you and yet you took shameful advantage.”
    “You were in bed beside me and you responded to my kisses. This was hardly the action of a woman who does not wish to make love.” His words were clipped as if he was angry.
    “I was asleep, I thought I was dreaming and when I woke I was too late to stop you. The only reason I was beside you in bed was to keep warm. The fire is out in case you haven’t noticed.”
    “But, my dear, the fact you were dreaming about making love to me should tell you all you need to know. There’s no point denying it, Isobel, you want me as much as I want you.”
    This was too much. “I’ve lived more happily these past few months away from you than at any time when you were here. Unlike you I had no recourse to slake my physical needs with a lover. You promised me you would never be unfaithful, that you would take care of me and make me happy. You have broken every one of those vows.”
    Too distressed to remain in the same chamber as him she fled back to her own apartment and sobbed herself to sleep.
*   *   *
    Alexander cursed his stupidity. He had been half asleep himself when his bare thigh had touched hers. Unable to believe what his senses were telling him he had reached out and found his darling girl curled up beside him. He hadn’t stopped to think—had just reacted. When Isobel was in his arms rational thought was impossible. His hand came away from his leg bright red. Making love had reopened the wound. This was a job for the physician now; he would need fresh sutures to staunch the blood.
    Keeping one hand firmly pressed on the gash he stretched out and rang the brass bell praying that someone was within earshot. He couldn’t remove his hand in order to get out of bed and pull the bell-strap. He was beginning to despair when the butler rushed into the room.
    “My leg— it’s bleeding profusely. You need to send for the doctor to stitch it again.”
    “That’s not possible, my lord, the snow’s too deep. Here, let me bandage the injury, it should hold until I can fetch what I need.”
    In the feeble light of a single candlestick his leg was dressed efficiently. The bed was ruined; it looked as if someone had been murdered within the sheets. He felt lightheaded and not at all well. From a distance he heard voices, then someone propped him up in the bed and tipped cool lemonade into his mouth which immediately revived him.
    “I’m going put extra stitches in the wound, my lord. It might hurt, but I reckon to give you brandy or laudanum would do more harm than good after the bout of fever you had.”
    “Get on with it, man, then I can remove myself from this bloodbath.” Several extremely painful minutes later the job was done. “Can I get up now? I’ll sit in the chair whilst the bed is changed.”
    “Allow me to assist you, your grace. Then Mrs Watkins can set things straight.”
    Only then did he remember what had taken place between those sheets. Would the evidence of their lovemaking be visible? Too late to worry, he was married to Isobel after all and making love was perfectly natural between a man and wife.
    His cheeks stained. The housekeeper was Isobel’s confidante and knew how things stood between them. Would she believe Isobel had been unwilling for a second time? He slumped into the chair despair overwhelming him. How was he going to convince Isobel he had believed her to be in his bed from choice? It might be a week or more before the roads were clear enough him to leave. Would this be sufficient to repair the damage?
*   *   *
    The rattle of the curtains being drawn back woke Isobel the next morning. Her head ached, her throat was dry and she had no wish for breakfast. Sally had placed the tray with tea and buttered toast on the bedside table.
    “It’s fair freezing outside, my lady, and more snow falling. I doubt anyone will get in or out of here for a week at least.”
    “I think I shall stay in my apartments today, Sally. I did not have much sleep last night and shall remain in bed this morning.”
    “Very well, my lady. There was a right to do last night, I can tell you. His grace needed Mr Brown to stitch up his leg again for he lost a deal of blood but George says as he’s fine now.”
    “I’m glad to hear it. Ask Mrs Watkins to come and see me, please, Sally.”
    The girl left the tray and vanished through the dressing room, her footsteps clearly audible as the servants’ passageway ran alongside the bed chamber. Isobel toyed with the toast but drank the tea. A polite tap on the door heralded Mary’s arrival.
    “Good morning, my lady. I think you’ve made a wise choice to remain here today; it’s far warmer upstairs than down.”
    “Mary, tell me what happened? I left the duke because he was sleeping peacefully and his fever quite gone. There seemed little point in me shivering in a chair when he no longer required my vigilance.”
    “It would seem the injury was worse than either of us knew. Bill said he had to probe into the wound in order to remove a large sliver of wood that had embedded itself there. His grace must have nicked a vein, what with all that tossing and turning with his fever. I reckon that caused the bleeding.”
    “But the duke’s in no danger?”
    Mary beamed. “Bless you, my dear, he’s sleeping like a baby. I doubt we’ll keep that one in his bed today.”
    “You had better find him a cane to lean on if he insists on leaving his chamber. Has someone taken the dogs out for me?” Her erstwhile abigail looked uncomfortable. This was the first time since they’d returned Mary had forgotten to address her correctly. “I regret we don’t spend much time together, Mary. You’re my dearest friend and I insist in future you come and take tea with me every afternoon as long as your duties allow it.”
    The smile returned. “Thank you, my lady. Perhaps I could come along later and show you what I’ve made for the little one?”
    This arrangement was more than acceptable and Isobel’s spirits rose and her appetite revived. When there was a second rap on the door of her bed chamber she looked up with a smile but this faltered when she saw Alexander standing there.
    “You should not be out of bed; you were at death’s door yesterday.” She could hardly tell him to go away even though that was what she wished to do. Sally was in the dressing room sorting out the mending and could hear everything that took place between them.
    “Isobel, we have to talk. No, don’t frown at me, my love, there are things that must be said to clear the air between us.”
    She gestured towards the dressing room and he nodded. Before she could prevent him he limped across and told the unfortunate girl to take herself elsewhere and not return until she was called for. His highhanded behaviour steadied her nerves. Her annoyance made her ready to face him.
    She pushed herself straight, ran her fingers through her hair and pursed her lips waiting to him to return. “You may sit on the chair by the fire, Alexander. I would prefer it if you did not come any closer.”
    With an amiable smile he did as she bid and was soon comfortably ensconced. “There’s no point in my apologising again for whatever I say you’ll think the worst of me. Therefore I don’t intend to do so. I shall be marooned here with you for a week at least. Do you intend to skulk in here until I go?”
    “Don’t be ridiculous. In case you haven’t noticed I’m increasing. What took place last night has debilitated me.” She glared at him and something prompted her to continue in the same vein. “If I lose this child it will be your doing and you can be very sure there will never be another legitimate heir whilst I’m alive.”
    His face drained of colour and his eyes widened. “My God! Is there a likelihood that you’ll miscarry? I don’t care what the weather’s like; I shall fetch the physician myself even if I’ve to dig my way out.”
    She wished the words unsaid; she had wanted to hurt him, to make sure he didn’t attempt to make love to her again but not to send him out into the snow to meet his death. “I shall remain in bed; there was no more than a twinge. I’m sure with rest nothing will happen to this child.”
    His expression stabbed her heart. He looked so relieved, so abjectly miserable, she was driven to broach the subject she’d intended to talk to him about last night. “Alexander, your Mr Bentley believes that my home is intended for him when he comes to live with you. As I always meant to move back into Newcomb when my time comes I think it might be prudent for me to return in May, before you get back. However …”
    Something flashed across his face. Could it have been triumph? “I shall be eternally grateful, my dear, if you do so. The thought of being obliged to share my home this summer with that ninny quite appalls me. At least in there we shan’t be seeing him every time we turn the corner.”
    “Alexander, you did not allow me to finish. I shall only return if I can have my own staff around me. I’ve no wish to be waited on by those presently in London.”
    He nodded thoughtfully. “I can dismiss anyone who has offended you.”
    “Good grief, there’s no need to do that. Most have been with you this age, they believe they are doing their duty by keeping me from damaging your reputation. As long as I’ve your word the people I’ve gathered here won’t be under the jurisdiction of your butler or house-keeper, I shall be happy.”
    “You have it, Isobel. Why don’t you select those you would rather not have at Newcomb and they can serve Bentley?”
    “Thank you, that’s an excellent notion. I suppose we must set up the nursery in readiness for the arrival.”
    “Leave all that to me. As you don’t intend to be here to watch your child grow up I believe it’s my prerogative to select who will do the job for you.”
    She quailed under his frosty stare. “Of course, Alexander, no doubt you have an old retainer lurking in a cottage somewhere who can be recalled.”
    Talking about the baby was distressing. She wanted him to go but suddenly he was sitting on the edge of the bed beside her. “Don’t cry, sweetheart, things will work out for the best one way or the other. I’m sorry I was so brusque, but the thought of you not being here to see our baby is as upsetting to me as it is to you.”
    His thumb caught the tear trickling down her cheek and rubbed it away. She turned her head, when he was being like this she could feel her anger melting, could almost believe they might have a life together after all.

Chapter Thirteen

    The snow showed no sign of melting and Isobel resigned herself to the fact Alexander could not depart for several more days. Gradually she became accustomed to sharing her meals and her home with him once more. He was so pleasant, so charming and such lively company that being incarcerated with him was no hardship.
    The fourth night of his visit they had been playing an entertaining game of Piquet, which he had won, when he tossed his cards on the table and walked over to the window. “I believe it’s raining, the snow will be gone by tomorrow.” He peered behind the heavy curtains and nodded.
    “Listen, you can hear the flames spitting. It must be decidedly heavy to come down the chimney like this. The roads will be a quagmire; I think you had best wait until the carriage arrives. Your leg isn’t sufficiently recovered for you to ride back to Grosvenor Square,” Isobel said.
    He grinned and stared ruefully at his injury. “As always, my dear, you’re quite correct. In which case, you must endure my presence for a further day or two.”
    Resuming his seat he stared into the flames while she picked up her novel. Unexpectedly Sam appeared at the door his face creased with concern. He looked from one to the other and then addressed his mistress. “Excuse me for interrupting, my lady, but I’ve to tell you the ceiling has just collapsed in your bed chamber.”
    “Good grief! How can that be? The roof was sound when I moved in, and we have had several heavy downpours since with no leaks at all.”
    “I reckon the weight of the snow cracked the tiles and with all that melting and then this downpour it came right through.”
    Alexander got to his feet. “Is it just this one room or are others affected?”
    “There’s leaks springing up all down that side of the building, your grace.”
    “The tiles are ancient. There’s been nothing done to this place for generations, small wonder they have given out under these extreme conditions. Move her grace’s belongings into my bed chamber.”
    Isobel shot up sending her novel flying into the grate. Alexander grabbed the poker and flicked it from the flames before it burnt. Picking up the book he extinguished the remaining sparks with his fingers. “Not seriously damaged, a trifle pungent but definitely still readable.”
    Her protest about his highhanded suggestion that she move into his bed chamber remained unspoken. “But what about your hand? Have you hurt it?”
    He waggled his fingers in front of her face. “See, no damage to them either. I must go and see—”
    “Alexander, I’m quite sure my staff are capable of placing buckets under the drips where necessary. There’s something I wish to say that’s more important than you overseeing the positioning of receptacles.”
    Shrugging he returned to his chair and raised an inquisitive eyebrow. “Well, my dear, what’s it you wish to say to me?”
    “If you think that I…”
    “There’s no need to fly into the boughs, Isobel. I’ve no intention of remaining in my bed chamber once you’re safely installed there. You can be quite certain Watkins will be moving my belongings as we speak—after all he knows exactly how things are between us, does he not?”
    Isobel ignored his comment. “Oh! There is something I’ve been meaning to say to you about the settlement we agreed to the other day.” His eyes were watchful but he made no comment. Emboldened by his silence she continued. “Sam was under the erroneous impression that you were sending him details of the estates you own and I did not disabuse him. On reflection I think it might be better if I moved somewhere within your demesne, I’ve no wish to cause unnecessary scandal for you or the child.”
    He thumped the table scattering the cards on the floor. “Devil take it! Why did I not think of that myself? There’s already an estate you have undisputed claim to. Highfield House in Epping is held for each duchess in her lifetime. The revenue from the farms, which is substantial, will have been banked in your name since our marriage.”
    “Why does this estate not pass down to the eldest daughter? It seems strange an estate should move from one duchess to the next like this.”
    Alexander glanced down at his boots. “This estate comes down through my maternal great-great grandmother. You are not the first duchess to wish to live apart from her husband.”
    “Are you telling me unhappy marriages are expected in this family?”
    “I believe the Dukes of Rochester are infamous for their infidelities. My grandmother died at Highfield House, as did my own mama.”
    Her stomach curdled, she stared at him as if seeing him clearly for the first time all week. Was he incapable of being the kind of man she wanted because he was genetically disposed to philander and abuse? Tears pricked her eyes as she recalled what Bentley had said about Lady Fulbright.
    Carefully placing her singed book on the table she stood up and walked across to pull the bell strap. When the footman appeared she gave her instructions. “Go upstairs and see if the bed chamber being prepared for me is ready, I wish to retire.”
    She could not resume her place, needed to be as far away as possible from her husband. Music would soothe her and the pianoforte was at the far end of the drawing-room. She needed no extra candlelight, she could play her favourite sonata from memory. Settling onto the piano stool she raised the lid and ran her fingers over the keys. Soon she was lost in the melody, her distress slipping away as the beauty of the music enveloped her.
*   *   *
    Alexander slumped back into his chair. He’d seen the accusation in her eyes. That little bastard Bentley had told her about Gloria. When Lady Fulbright had invited him back to her home he had accompanied her, gone inside and dismissed his carriage. However that was as far as it had got, he’d changed his mind and told her the liaison was over, irrevocably so.
    He’d not even removed his beaver or his topcoat, had left the house no more than three minutes after entering it and walked home regretting the impulse that had made him accept the offer in the first place. Someone had seen him go in and drawn their own conclusions. He did not blame Isobel for believing the worst, had he not just told her he came from a long line of philandering dukes?
    He closed his eyes letting the sound of the piano wash over him. Then he was on his feet limping softly towards the far end of the room from which the glorious sound was coming. Why had Isobel never played for him like  this? He’d no idea she was so talented; in fact, if he was honest, he barely knew the woman he’d married so precipitously. This was another serious omission in his part.
    He positioned himself against the wall where he could see her face and watch her hands moving confidently up and down the keys. Her eyes were closed; she was lost in a world of her own— somewhere he could not reach her. Her glorious hair had grown and now curled around her face in a russet cap emphasizing the beauty of her magnificent green eyes. Her face was thinner than he remembered. Despite the growing mound of her pregnancy she was obviously losing weight elsewhere.
    This was his fault as was everything else that had befallen her. Whatever she wanted from now on he would not quibble, would make no demands on her of any sort and let her find happiness where she could. She had loved him once and maybe in a year or two, when she saw he was completely reformed, she might love him again.
*   *   *
    Isobel finished the sonata and slowly came back to her surroundings. A slight sound beside her made her turn her head but there was no one there - she must have been mistaken. With a sigh she closed the piano. Her room must be ready by now.
    Alexander was standing by the fire his eyes alight with admiration. “I had no idea you could play so brilliantly, my dear. You’re a virtuoso; I don’t believe I’ve ever heard that piece played so well.”
    “Thank you, it’s a great favourite of mine. Music has always been a solace; I can lose myself, forget the world around me when I’m playing.”
    Mary appeared at the door looking somewhat flustered. “Your chamber is ready, my lady. Shall I send up a supper tray?”
    “No, thank you, I need nothing else tonight. Have you found somewhere for his grace to sleep?”
    Her housekeeper glanced nervously at Alexander. “I’m afraid the only chamber available isn’t really suitable, but it’s the only one that isn’t leaking apart from the room you’re occupying, my lady.”
    He nodded. “It matters not where I sleep, Watkins, I shall be leaving at first light tomorrow.” He stared at Isobel daring her to contradict, to tell him he was not fit enough to ride.
    This was his decision, she would not gainsay him. “In which case, Mary, make sure breakfast is available at dawn.” She smiled briefly at her husband. “As you’ll be leaving before I rise, I bid you a safe journey, Alexander.” She did not add she hoped he would return soon to visit.
    When, heavy eyed, she came down the next morning she discovered he had already departed. The snow had all but gone, a watery sun lit up the soggy park. Alexander was mad to leave on horse-back, but he was a man grown and well able to manage his own affairs without her interference. It might be several more days before the roads were passable and his valet arrived with the carriage. Therefore, with so much tension between them she was relieved he’d chosen to go.
    Even the dogs were subdued. They moped about the place as if their best friend had departed not someone they had only known a few days. The fine weather meant repairs could be done to the roof and the other bedrooms with damaged ceilings. Sam liaised with the estate manager and soon the place was filled with the sound of hammering and banging as a dozen local men got busy.
    She had insisted the employment was given to those who most needed it. Work was scarce everywhere at the moment. With the price of corn so high life was difficult for the less fortunate. Resigning herself to spending the next few days with the house shrouded under holland covers to protect it from the dust and debris created by the workmen, Isobel retreated to the small sitting-room at the rear of the house.
    Into the middle of this chaos Duncan arrived with Alexander’s missing luggage, closely behind him was Bentley who had been obliged to spend the past few nights at a disreputable roadside inn where he’d met with the most unfortunate accident.
    “Mr Bentley, how distressing for you. To have your belongings stolen in that way is beyond belief. I am so sorry for your misfortune.” The young man was no longer dressed immaculately, nor was his hair oiled or his shirt points freshly starched. Now he was a bedraggled sight, looked as if he had been sleeping in his clothes for the past week, which it turned out was not far short of the truth.
    “I do beg your pardon for returning here like this, your grace, but I had no option. The robbers left me with no money to pay my shot. They took my trunk, and everything I own was in it. I was obliged to leave my fob-watch behind as surety. I can’t return to London as I am.”
    “Of course you can’t. You must remain here until you have fully recovered from your horrible experience. Unfortunately I don’t believe any of Alexander’s garments will fit you, but no doubt we can find something for you to change into for now.”
    He looked pathetically grateful. He was no longer the bombastic young man who had arrived on her doorstep unannounced and unwanted, the previous week. Her heart went out to him. He must stay with her until something could be done about his wardrobe, but where he would sleep was a conundrum she would leave Mary to solve.
    “Your grace, I do beg your pardon for intruding a second time. I see the house is under covers. Has there been some sort of disaster here as well?”
    “The roof collapsed under the weight of the snow and it is being repaired at this very moment. This means you’ll be obliged to sleep in the nursery, but Alexander did so without complaint.”
    “I thought his grace had returned to London.”
    She could hardly tell him Alexander had galloped back because of him and had also sustained a serious injury in the process. The poor man had suffered enough indignities already these past days. “His horse cast a shoe and he was obliged to turn back and then the weather closed in and he stayed until the beginning of the week. We must send word to Grosvenor Square that you’re safe here with me. His grace will be worried when he finds you absent.”
    Hiding her smile behind her hand she turned away. Alexander was more like to be enraged his heir had returned to Newcomb than worried he was not in Town with him. Bentley was harmless enough now the starch had left his person as well as his apparel, and might even be amusing company for however long it took to find a tailor to replace his missing clothes.
    “I’ve no wish to cause you any aggravation, your grace, especially as matters stand. I shall endeavour to bother you as little as possible whilst I’m here.”
    Whatever could he mean? Then she saw his eyes resting on her bump, she had forgotten to disguise her pregnancy. Too late to repine, she must try and make him feel wanted in spite of the fact he now knew his position as the duke’s heir was possibly to be of short duration.
    “My husband, when he set about the search for you, did not know I was in an interesting condition. We both believed we would not be blessed with children. By the time we realized, the lawyers had contacted you.”
    This feeble exclamation was the best she could do. He would no doubt draw the correct conclusion, that they had been estranged at the time which was why her pregnancy had been a surprise to Alexander.
    He accepted the information with equanimity. “I’m more than delighted for you both. To tell you the truth I never really expected to inherit the title. However, his grace has seen fit to set up a generous annuity for me and for that I am extremely grateful. This means I can live comfortably and mix in the highest circles, something that would not have been possible if the lawyers had not discovered me.”
    “I’m glad you’re not disappointed by the news. Whatever happens both Alexander and I shall consider you a member of the family in future.” What had prompted her to say such a foolish thing? The very last thing she needed at the moment was someone else watching the disintegration of her marriage. It would be impossible to hide from him her intention to depart after the baby was born. If the child turned out to be a girl, how would things be then?
    He bowed, looking decidedly silly in his dishevelled state. “I thank you, your grace. I’ve no close family of my own. In future I shall consider Cousin Alexander and yourself as my dearest relatives.”
    This embarrassing conversation was brought to a halt by the appearance of Duncan. “Your grace, I’ve found some garments that will do for Mr Bentley. Shall I act as his man for the present?”
    “Yes, that would seem a sensible solution. Mr Bentley, if you would care to go with Duncan, he will take care of you.”
    The unkempt young man followed the immaculate valet disconsolately. No doubt he was anticipating with some dismay what he would be obliged to wear for the foreseeable future. Duncan must have discovered items Alexander had worn in his youth, nothing he possessed at the moment would do, he was a head taller and almost double the width of his erstwhile heir.
*   *   *
    The ride back to London was decidedly unpleasant and Alexander and his two grooms were more than grateful to dismount in the stable yard behind his palatial home. The head stable lad appeared to take the reins of his mount.
    “He will need walking to cool down, also check his tendons carefully, it was sticky going.”
    Leaving Rufus to be taken care of he limped to the side entrance surprised word of his arrival had not reached the house. He stepped in to come face-to-face with Foster.
    “Your grace, I must apologise for not being here to welcome you. We did not expect you back today.”
    The butler made it sound as if he was remiss by not sending word ahead of his arrival at his own home. He stared frostily and Foster recoiled unused to such treatment. “I shall need someone to act as my valet, Duncan is elsewhere.”
    “I will see to it, your grace. We have several suitable footmen who can act as your man until Duncan returns. Shall you be requiring luncheon?”
    “Soup and fresh bread and cheese will be sufficient. Have it sent up to my chambers, I shall eat there whilst I wait for my bath to be drawn.”
    He was halfway up the staircase when he recalled Bentley must be in residence somewhere. “I wish to speak to Bentley, have him come to my study one hour from now.”
    “I’m sorry, your grace, but Mr Bentley isn’t here. We thought he was with you at Newcomb.”
    God dammit! Surely he should have made his way to Grosvenor Square by now? He was no doubt waiting for the roads to clear and would be along later today to annoy him. “He must have been obliged to stay somewhere en route. Make sure his apartment is prepared, he will be here shortly.” The butler hovered as if he had something on his mind. “Well, what’s wrong?”
    “Your grace, there have been three letters delivered for Mr Bentley; I have put them in his rooms.” Foster shifted from one foot to the other. “I must also report that two unsavoury characters called demanding to speak to him. They were sent about their business but I fear Mr Bentley might have fallen in with some rogues.”
    Alexander frowned. He’d been correct in his first assessment of the situation. Bentley had, in a few short weeks he’d been mixing in Society, got himself in financial difficulties. “Thank you for bringing the matter to my attention, Foster. I shall speak to Bentley when he returns.”
    If the wretched man wasn’t in Grosvenor Square by tomorrow he would have to send someone out to look for him. The young man might be irritating, and from the looks of it was going to be a serious drain on his purse, but he was his responsibility. He could not allow his putative heir to languish somewhere without offering assistance. He was damned if he was going to make the journey again himself, he’d done enough gallivanting these past few days after that particular person.
    There was no sign of either his valet or Bentley the next day. What could be keeping them? The toll roads were fit to travel on, the weather was clement and he could see no impediment to their return. By the next morning he was concerned so when Foster arrived with a letter sent express he hoped it was news of the missing pair. He did not recognize the writing. Impatiently he broke the seal and read the contents.

    Dear Alexander,

    I do hope that you returned safely and have suffered no ill effects from your travel. I am writing to ask for your assistance. Mr Bentley was robbed of all his possessions
    whilst benighted at a disreputable roadhouse. He made his way back here and I’ve no idea what to do with him.
    I’ve discovered a local tailor who is endeavouring to make him something fresh to wear, but Mr Bentley’s requirements are too stringent and I fear the outcome won’t be
    successful for either party.
    Mr Bentley has taken the news of our happy event with good grace. I am in a quandary as to how to proceed for the best. I shall eagerly await your advice.

    With kindest regards
    your wife,
    Isobel.

    He slammed the letter down on the desk. What a disaster! He had no option but to rout out Bentley’s tailor and drag the unfortunate man down to Newcomb along with his samples and pattern books. He could hardly blame his cousin for being robbed, but it was a damned nuisance nevertheless. He had no wish to return to his country estate. He was unwelcome there and his presence would only exacerbate the rift between himself and Isobel. Only time and separation might mend the damage his appalling behaviour had caused to the marriage.
    Thoughtfully he picked up the letter and examined it again more closely. This was the first missive he’d received from her. The note was hardly a billet doux, but on the other hand she had addressed him by his given name and was asking him for help. He ran his fingertip around the loops and whorls - her writing was a revelation to him. It showed a flamboyance he’d not suspected in his wife. How many more things would he learn before he truly knew her?
    Duncan returned the following morning and Alexander was relieved to hand over the search for a suitable tailor to his capable manservant. The description of Bentley’s bedraggled appearance when he’d arrived at Newcomb amused him, but it did not make up for the fact Alexander had no recourse but to return to Newcomb.

Chapter Fourteen

    Two days after Isobel had sent her plea for help to London she was returning from a brisk walk around the park with the dogs when yet another travelling carriage bowled around the curve of the drive. There was no doubting to whom this belonged for emblazoned on the handsome black paint-work was the crest of the Rochester dynasty.
    She sincerely hoped Alexander had come to remove her guest who had taken to sulking in the drawing-room, his gloom pervading the whole house. It would seem without his sartorial elegance to bolster his self-confidence he was a pitiful creature indeed. No doubt the second less substantial coach contained the tailor come to measure Bentley for his new wardrobe. With a sigh she returned to the east wing glad all the rooms were now usable and she was safely installed in her own apartments.
    Ebony and Othello shot off ahead of her somehow sensing who was in the carriage. By the time she made her way around to the turning circle in front of the main building Alexander had descended and was playing with her dogs. She could hardly credit this youthful gentleman with a ready smile for everyone could be the austere man she’d married what seemed like years ago.
    “Good afternoon, my dear, you look enchanting. I expected to see you overwrought after all that has transpired these past few days.”
    “I’m very well, thank you, sir. Surprisingly Bentley is far less intrusive this visit.”
    “Where is he? I can’t wait to see him dressed in my castoffs. I’m sorry you have been bothered for a second time. I am here to organise his new wardrobe and then take him away.”
    Isobel laughed. “He will be moping about in the drawing-room bewailing the fact that his clothes were stolen and he can’t return to town until he is properly dressed. He will also be complaining the tailor I discovered locally is worse than useless and that he will refuse to wear anything made by such a person.”
    “He’ll wear what he’s damn well given and be grateful for it. However, I’ve brought his tailor with me in the second carriage. He has a selection of articles in the correct size for Bentley to choose from. He also has his pattern books and samples so will be able to go back to Town and start making up what’s needed.”
    They strolled companionably around to the east wing where the front door was open and Mary and Bill were waiting to greet the duke. Two footmen rushed past to collect the baggage. Inside Alexander stared up at the ceiling enquiringly.
    “Have you managed to repair the roof? Do I get to sleep in the nursery with Bentley?”
    “You may relax, Alexander, everything is as it should be. If we are to continue to use this place for Mr Bentley, it must be re-roofed before next winter. However, it’s sound enough for now thank goodness.”
    They agreed to meet up at dinner and she vanished to her own domain at the rear of the house leaving him to take care of matters with her less welcome guest. Hopefully both men would depart the following morning and her life would once more be calm and uneventful.
    She paid particular attention with her appearance that night as she had two gentlemen to entertain. “Sally, I think you have done a splendid job altering my evening gown. It’s fortunate the high waistline is ideally suited to someone in my condition.”
    “Emerald green silk is a perfect match for your eyes, my lady, and by removing the demi-train and adding a panel at the back there will be more than enough room to accommodate the baby over the next few months.”
    Isabel’s hair was long enough to dress in a more elaborate style. She preferred to have it loose, but tonight she made the effort to appear as the Duchess of Rochester and not a country squire’s wife. “No, Sally, I won’t wear the emeralds. This is an informal occasion not a grand event.”
    Disappointed, her maid returned the beautiful necklace to its velvet box. “I could wear the pearls I was given as my wedding gift then you could thread the smaller strand through my hair if you wish.”
    “Yes, my lady, I shall do so at once.”
    This was the first opportunity her abigail had had to show she was capable of dressing a duchess—up till now Isobel and worn the simple gowns best suited to her condition.
    Despite the extra preparations she was on her way downstairs when the dinner gong sounded. She could hear voices in the drawing room. The gentlemen were before her. Bentley had asked if he might call her Cousin Isabel. Her lips twitched as she recalled Alexander’s terse reply to this impertinent suggestion, so things remained as they were. Formality would be observed until her husband decreed otherwise. She paused in the open door and he strolled in her direction, his toe curling smile still having the same effect even after all this time.
    “Good evening, my dear. Permit me to say that you look enchanting tonight. That is my favourite gown and it suits you to perfection.”
    She smiled and dipped in a shallow curtsy, he bowed and taking her hand raised it to his lips. She was uncomfortably aware Bentley was avidly observing this play between them. Gently removing her fingers she turned and nodded to the young man.
    “Mr Bentley, I see your tailor has found you garments which meet with your approval. You look exactly as you did before.”
    She heard a strange choking sound behind her; Alexander was doing his best not to laugh. Bentley preened and smoothed down his lurid cherry-pink and gold waistcoat.
    Mr Smith knows exactly what I like; he had several outfits put by that fitted me perfectly. I feel I’ve returned to my old self. I’m glad you approve, my lady.”
    Fortunately dinner was announced and she was saved from having to dissemble. Alexander offered his arm and she took it leaving Bentley to follow behind.
    The dinner was served as she’d instructed, the removes were plain fare as fancy cooking did not suit her digestion at the moment. As the last cover was cleared she rose gracefully and nodded to both men. “I shall leave you to your port, gentlemen. No doubt you’ll join me in the drawing-room in due course.”
    Both men had scrambled to their feet and Alexander pulled a face as she walked past. He would not dally. Not wishing to be trapped in further tedious banalities she removed to the pianoforte. Alexander had brought her several sheets of music from London and she was eager to try them out.
    As always, once she started playing she became lost in the music and was unaware she had company until she finished and the final notes died away. The silence was shattered by raucous cheering and loud applause from Bentley.
    “I say, your grace, that was excellent playing, I’ve never heard better.”
    Closing the instrument she stood up. “Thank you, Mr Bentley, for your kind words. And thank you, Alexander, for bringing me the new piece. I did not have it perfectly this time, but practice will improve my performance.”
    Once they were comfortably settled in front of the roaring fire Alexander leant back in his chair and addressed his cousin. “Bentley, you have yet to tell me exactly what took place at this inn. Also I need the name of the place so I can send your reckoning to them and recover your pocket watch.”
    The man looked worried and fiddled with his exaggerated shirt points. “To tell you the truth, my lord, I misremember the name of the establishment. It was a filthy day, a positive blizzard blowing and the driver stopped at the first hostelry we came upon.” He paused and then his face lit up. “I have it. The coachman will be able to tell you exactly where it was, after all he could see where we were going.”
    Alexander nodded. “I shall speak to him tomorrow. Never fear, your watch will be returned to you. Do you wish me to pursue the matter of the robbery?”
    “No, sir, I expect it’s far too late to apprehend the varmints. They will be long gone by now and the landlord won’t inform on them. Those sort of people tend to stick together, do they not?”
    “In which case there’s no more I can do. I shall pay for the replacement of your wardrobe; you shan’t be out of pocket. Another thing, Bentley, the east wing shall be yours as long as you wish to reside here. However, when we reopen Newcomb in the spring this place will need extensive repairs to the roof. Therefore I suggest you remain in Grosvenor Square until your accommodation is ready for you.”
    “Of course, I don’t wish to intrude. I can assure you, your grace, I much appreciate your generosity. I know I am no longer likely to be in line for the title but your settlement and sponsorship has given me a new direction. I can now live the life of a gentleman, something I had never aspired to until your lawyers contacted me.”
    Isobel had heard quite enough, time she retired to the blessed peace of her own apartment where she could read her novel without interruption. “If you’ll both excuse me, I shan’t remain for the supper tray.”
    Alexander was up before her and offered his hand to assist her from her chair. With a smile she accepted. The young man bowed politely in her direction.
    “Your grace, forgive me, but as I’ve no wish to intrude, would it be possible for me to know at what time you rise to take your dogs for a walk? I also enjoy an early-morning stroll and will ensure I don’t come down at the same time as you.”
    She looked at him in surprise. He was more the kind of gentleman who would lie in bed until midday than one who got up with the lark. However, his question was perfectly civil and demanded a similar reply. “I no longer come down at first light but around eight o’clock . Please, Mr Bentley, feel free to get up whenever you wish, we stand on no ceremony here. If you require breakfast earlier than that you only have to ask.”
    “No, my lady, I do beg your pardon, I’ve no intention of asking your household to change arrangements on my account. I shall take my constitutional first thing.”
    What an odd conversation. Alexander shook his head equally puzzled. The warmth of his gaze lifted her spirits as she made her way upstairs. The evening had not turned out nearly as wearisome as she’d feared, but she’d had enough of both of them tonight.
    Bentley had talked of nothing but fashion and gossip, and there was nothing more tedious than hearing on dits about people one had never met. Alexander was the exact opposite, with his every word she’d found herself being drawn to him just as she had been she’d been when an impressionable debutante. She would not be taken in a second time, for he could turn the charm on and off at will.
*   *   *
    The following morning Isobel was woken by voices beneath her window. How curious—who could possibly be outside so early? Then she recalled Bentley had told her he was taking an early morning walk, he must be speaking to one of the outside men.
    She was about to go back to sleep when something about the conversation bothered her. She rolled out of bed and went to the window, peeping around the heavy curtain and pressing her nose against the shutter.
    Good heavens! Bentley was outside but he was talking to two unpleasant individuals who were certainly not employed at Newcomb. The taller man, his face obscured by a muffler and pulled down cap, was angry.
    “You ran away from us. Don’t think your belongings are enough to settle what you owe my master. He has your vowels and he wants payment.”
    “I told you, I have nothing of my own. I’m dependent on Rochester. You have my word I will pay you as soon as I am solvent.” Bentley sounded desperate. He grasped the tall man’s sleeve. “You shouldn’t be here. The duchess is increasing and the duke will toss me aside if I anger him. If your master is patient, then he will get his money eventually.”
    Bentley glanced up—had he somehow detected her presence at the window? Hastily she retreated deeply disturbed by what she’d heard. The young man obviously had gambling debts and the person he owed money to was prepared to take what he owed by violent means.
    She must get dressed and speak to Alexander. He would know what to do. She rang the bell and paced the room until Sally appeared.
    “Please send word to my husband; I wish to see him urgently.”
    Sally curtsied. “Yes, your grace. I shall go myself.”
    Scarcely ten minutes later her bedchamber door flew open and Alexander appeared with his cravat poorly tied and his hair on end. “What’s wrong, sweetheart? Are you unwell?”
    “No, nothing like that. It’s Bentley. I was woken by him talking to two ruffians outside my room. They were threatening him over his gaming debts. Heaven knows what devil he owes money to.”
    “Devil take the man! He’s an infernal nuisance. Don’t worry, my love, I shall have the intruders apprehended and settle Bentley’s debts this time. However, I shall make it abundantly clear I will not do so again.”
    His face was hard—his eyes slate grey. She felt sorry for the young man. “Thank you, Alexander. I’m afraid I can’t like your cousin, but I must own I feel a trifle sorry for him. He seems to attract disaster.”
    “Return to bed, my dear, leave matters to me.”
*   *   *
    By the time Isobel eventually went downstairs there was no sign of her husband or Mr Bentley. Bill followed her to the breakfast room.
    “Your grace, I am to inform you Mr Bentley has returned to London. His grace was accompanied him but will be back before dark.”
    “Thank you, Bill. Do you know if the intruders were discovered?”
    “No, my lady. The outside men scoured the grounds and outbuildings but found no one. I reckon they said their piece and then took off.”
    “I hope that’s the case. They were unpleasant men—not the sort of person own wishes to have wandering freely about the place.”
    Her husband returned at dusk and Isobel was obliged to contain her curiosity until he had changed and joined her downstairs.
    “Alexander, I have sent for coffee. Do you wish for anything more substantial or are you happy to wait until we dine?”
    He flopped into an armchair and stretched his booted legs towards the fire. “Coffee will be fine, my dear. I’m relieved to be back. Rufus is a magnificent animal but even he is shattered after making a double journey to Town.”
    “I’ve no wish to hear about your horse, Alexander. Tell me at once what you’ve been doing all day.”
    A footman came in to place the tray on a convenient side table. Alexander nodded and waved him away. Not waiting for her scramble up and serve him, he leant forward and picked up the silver jug and poured himself a steaming cup of aromatic brew.
    “That’s better. Now, I shall tell you everything that transpired today. I sent Hill with Bentley to pay the debts. Three hundred guineas is a substantial sum but it could have been worse.” He swallowed another mouthful of coffee and she watched the strong column of his throat convulse.
    “I can’t believe you have ridden almost forty miles today and are still upright. You could not have done so a year ago.” Her cheeks flamed and she wished her incautious remark unspoken. “I beg your pardon...”
     He grinned at her inadvertent use of Bentley’s irritating expression. “Don’t apologise to me, sweetheart. You’ve every right to comment—after all, are you not my wife and the future mother of my child?”
    His eyes gleamed above the rim of his cup and she smiled. “I’m still waiting—stop procrastinating and tell me who the money was owed to and what you did to poor Bentley.”
    “Bentley wouldn’t reveal that information however much I tried to persuade him.” He frowned. “There’s something a bit havey-cavey about it. One would have thought Bentley would be relieved to have me speak to the gentleman in question. But no, he was adamant. He said he would deal with the matter himself and that we would not be troubled again and I must take his word for it.”
    “So Bentley wasn’t waylaid by footpads but by the two ruffians who came here?”
    “Apparently so. It hardly seems credible he could have got himself in such a mess so quickly—I’m beginning to suspect he brought the villains with him from his past.”
    “Oh dear! From your expression, Alexander, I take it you don’t intend to let the matter go?”
    “Hill is investigating for me. I intend to discover who sent those men here. You may be very sure, my dear, they will regret their actions by the time I’ve finished with them.”
    She was woken in the night by her dogs barking. What had disturbed them? She sat up to listen—were those footsteps outside her door? She was about to scramble out of bed when the dogs settled. She must have been mistaken.

Chapter Fifteen

    Next morning she was woken by a shrill scream, the noise of smashing crockery and a series of thumps. This was followed by a ghastly silence. The disturbance had come from somewhere in the main passageway, it sounded as if someone had fallen down the main staircase.
    Without a second thought she tumbled from the bed. She paused to adjust the belt of her robe as she no longer had a waist to put it round. Satisfied she was decent, she ran into the corridor but Alexander was there before her. She saw him vanish down the staircase.
    She reached the top. The remains of her early morning chocolate was spilt all over the boards. Her hands flew to her mouth, she reeled against the balustrade. Alexander was crouching over what could only be her own, dear Sally.
    “Isobel, stay where you’re. There’s nothing you can do here.” He glanced over his shoulder, his eyes glittered, his face was pale. Sally was dead—she’d been killed by the fall.
    “I don’t understand, Alexander, she brings up my tray every morning. I insist she uses the main staircase and not the back stairs in order to keep her safe.” Her voice sounded strange, reed thin, as if someone else had spoken through her lips. This was her fault. If Sally had used the servants’ staircase she would not have fallen to her death.
    Suddenly the entrance hall was full of people. Mary arrived and close behind were Bill and Sam. Alexander remained where he was shielding the body with his own. Only when someone else could take his place did he turn and bound up the stairs to her.
    “My love, your abigail tripped and toppled backwards. She broke her neck, she will have felt no pain but have died instantly.”
    Isobel heard his words but could not take them in. Her head felt light and she fell forward into darkness.
*   *   *
    Alexander caught her. He was shocked she weighed little more than a child in spite of her advancing pregnancy. The stress and the shocks she’d endured might prove too much for her delicate health. Whatever her objections, from now on he would remain at her side and take care of her. He strode back to her apartment his precious burden held close to his heart. She had no abigail to attend her so he must do whatever was necessary himself.
    He placed her tenderly on the bed then sat chaffing her hands and calling her name. With considerable relief he watched the colour return to her ashen cheeks and her eyes flicker open. Withdrawing her hands, she turned her head away trying to fight back her sobs.
    “My darling, let me hold you, this has been a terrible shock. It’s a tragedy such a lovely, young girl should lose her life in this way. Let go of your grief—it does not do to bottle it in.”
    She stiffened, rolling further from him. He must ignore this, she needed comfort and he was the only one who could give it to her. “Sweetheart, let me hold you, you’ll feel better if you cry.”
    Gathering her up he returned to the daybed with her cradled in his arms. For a further moment she was rigid, resisting, but then she relaxed and rested her head on his shoulder. He stroked her hair, her back, her face, as she sobbed. Eventually she was quiet, her breathing even. Thank God, she’d fallen into a deep, restorative slumber. He was then aware the housekeeper was in the room.
    “My lord, if you would care to place her grace in bed I shall take care of her now. You’re needed downstairs.”
    The woman’s tone was terse; she had not forgiven him for what he had done to her beloved mistress. “Thank you, Watkins, I know she’s in capable hands. This is a wretched business indeed; I don’t understand how this could have happened.”
    Downstairs was quiet; a reverend hush had descended over the building. The poor girl’s mortal remains had been removed and both the butler and Sam Watkins were waiting to speak with him.
    “My lord, there’s something you need to see. This is a strange business and no mistake.” Watkins led him to the top of the stairs and pointed to the boards. “See here, Sally’s slippers have made marks where she lost her footing.”
    Alexander dropped to one knee in order to examine the place the man gestured to. There was a smear of something on the top step. He dipped his finger in the mark and touched his tongue to it. As he’d thought—somehow the unfortunate girl had trodden in lard and this had caused her feet to slip on the polished surface at the top of the stairs. How this had come about he’d no idea, but servants were in and out of the kitchen all the time. All it took was a careless scullery maid and the deed was done.
    “Do you see this? You were right to draw my attention to this grease mark; at least it explains how this tragedy occurred.”
    The butler, who had accompanied them to the top of the staircase, shook his head. “It’s right peculiar, my lord. If Sally had walked in fat, then why did she not slip as soon as she left the kitchen?
    Alexander frowned. “The girl must have walked on the central carpet, and then when she stepped on the boards at the top, her foot slid out from under her. She would have had no chance of saving herself as she was carrying a tray. Even as he spoke he knew this was not a satisfactory explanation. Walking on carpet would surely have rubbed off most of the grease? However the other two appeared to accept his explanation.
    “It’s a very sad day, my lord. If ever I discover who was the cause of this death they shall be dismissed on the spot and no references to take with them neither.”
    Alexander straightened and patted the butler’s shoulder. “It would do no good to take such action. Accidents happen—you must put it behind you, Brown.” He turned and addressed Watkins. “I can rely on you to take care of funeral arrangements? Has she family that need to be informed?”
    “No, your grace, Sally was an orphan, that’s why she was so pleased to be taken on as a lady’s maid. Her grace will be devastated, she and Sally got on so well. My Mary must take care of her now; this is no time to employ a stranger to look after her.”
    “An excellent suggestion, Watkins. I assume there is someone who can take over the role of housekeeper?”
    He nodded. “Yes, your grace. You may have no fear on that score.”
    These matters were not Alexander’s concern. He must go and see how Isobel was faring. He was sure a shock of this sort could bring on a miscarriage—she would be devastated if this baby was lost.
*   *   *
    “Sally? What time is it?” Then Isobel remembered, her maid was dead and the accident was her fault. Her throat clogged and she could not stop fresh tears from soaking her pillow.
    “There, there, my dear, all this crying will do no good to your baby. Sally wouldn’t want you to make yourself ill on her account.”
    Isobel sniffed and dried her eyes on the sheet. “Mary, what are you doing here? You should not be looking after me you have the house to run. Ellie will do very well.”
    “Bless you, my lady, I’d not let anyone else take care of you. It’s only a small establishment, young Bill can manage everything as well as I can.”
    “It will be a comfort having you close, but only until I’ve recovered from the shock, then you must return to your duties.” Isobel was heavy eyed, her throat raw from crying and she had no idea what time it was. Pushing herself upright she stared at the mantel clock.
    “Good grief! It’s almost noon, I must get up at once.”
    “His grace insists you remain here, my lady. He is taking care of everything - the funeral will be held tomorrow and all the staff are to attend.”
    “I’ve no wish to cause you any distress, Mary, but I am not remaining in bed. I feel perfectly well. I’m deeply grieved but won’t break down again. I am the mistress here; I should be on my feet not malingering here as if I am an invalid.”
    Mary had no chance to remonstrate for she threw back the covers and hurried into the dressing room. She had a pressing need to use the chamber pot. Twenty minutes later she was in her parlour waiting for a tray to be brought up. Once clothed her desire to go downstairs became less urgent. She kept seeing the limp body spread-eagled at the bottom.
    The door opened and her mouth rounded. “Good heavens, Alexander, you’re the last person I expected to arrive with my luncheon.”
    He smiled, but his eyes were sad. “I wished to speak to you, my love, and thought I would share your repast.”
    His gesture reminded her of the night before her marriage and her gaze softened. “There’s certainly more than enough for both of us on there. Mary has cleared the table so you can place your burden there.”
    He did as suggested then smiled at Mary. “If you would care to return to your duties, Watkins, I shall be here for the remainder of the afternoon.”
    Mary curtsied; she didn’t smile but she looked slightly less disapproving than usual. “Thank you, my lord. My lady, I shall be back before it gets dark.”
    When they were alone he approached her, his expression reflecting his concern. “Sweetheart, how are you now? Your eyes are red - have you been crying again?”
    I am recovered, thank you. It’s my condition; according to Mary, it makes me more tearful. I haven’t eaten since dinner last night and I am hungry. Tell me, what delicacies has Cook sent?”
    Removing the snowy white cloth he examined the plates. “There’s a tureen of soup - from the aroma I would say it’s leek and potato - and there is fresh bread and butter to go with it. Then we have what looks like game pie and chutney, a decent wedge of cheese and a generous slice of plum cake.”
    Her mouth watered as he listed the food, then her stomach gurgled loudly much to his amusement. “It all sounds delicious, please may I have soup and some bread; no butter. Did Cook send up lemonade?”
    He removed the small beaded cloth from the jug and sniffed the contents. “Yes, it appears we are both to drink this for there isn’t anything else on the tray.”
    He sounded so offended she giggled. “Honestly, Alexander, it will be to your taste. Far better than wine or beer, I can assure you.”
    The meal did much to restore her and his kindness and attention warmed her heart. “I am replete; I could not eat another morsel. Between us we have almost cleared the tray.”
    “Excellent—your Cook is an asset, I had forgotten what good plain food tasted like. My chef de cuisine smothers everything with a rich cream sauce so most of it is unrecognizable.”
    “And I don’t remember ever having a meal served hot.”
    “You’re quite correct; what nonsense to have a kitchen so far away from the dining room everything arrives inedible.” He brushed off the crumbs and carried the tray into the corridor. She thought he might leave but he returned and folded himself back on the chair with a sigh of what could have been contentment.
    A stab of guilt jolted her. How could they be sitting here enjoying each other’s company when poor Sally was in her coffin? “Where is the service being held tomorrow?”
    “In the family church, where else? She will be buried in the churchyard alongside all the staff who have died in our service. That’s something I wish to discuss with you, my love. Have you any suggestions for what should go on her headstone?”
    “Let Mary decide, she would know better than I what Sally would like. This whole episode is most upsetting.”
    He stretched out his legs towards the fire and she noticed his breeches were no longer stretched taut across this thighs, she was not the only one to have lost weight recently.
    “I’ve decided to reopen Newcomb immediatel. Watkins and George have gone to select sufficient staff to run the place for us. Maynard and Foster are to remain in Grosvenor Square with the rest of my people; they can take care of Bentley. I’ve told him to accept invitations on my behalf and enjoy himself. This will be his first experience of the ton; I thought to let him benefit from my absence.”
    She shook her head in disbelief. “I’ve no wish to live next door, you may move there if you so desire but I am remaining here.”
    “Isobel, I thought you would prefer to be away from where your abigail died today. Every time you ascend the stairs you’ll be thinking of her. If you prefer to stay, then that’s entirely your prerogative.”
    Her eyes filled, she could not keep pace with his new persona. “I beg your pardon …” She half smiled. “I must try not to use that phrase, it reminds me of Bentley. You’re quite right, that thought has kept me in here all day. But, Alexander, I still don’t understand why George should need to accompany Sam.”
    His cheeks flushed a little. “George will know exactly which members of staff to bring back; he won’t select any one likely to make you feel uncomfortable.” He leant forward, his expression earnest. “I should have been aware how unpleasant things were for you. In future only people with your best interests at heart will work here.”
    She was nonplussed by his consideration. “I don’t know what to say, Newcomb is your home, my wishes should come second.”
    His grin made him look almost boyish. “I intend to remain here, in the east wing, I shall oversee the repairs. I’ve no wish to cause you any further distress. I can assure you Newcomb will no longer be an unfriendly place.”
    “I shall still be obliged to eat cold food,” she said laughing, “and if my cook is to remain with you, then you shall have the best of the arrangement.” There was something about his suggestion that did not sit well. What was it that bothered her? Her good humour vanished as she realised she’d been bamboozled into accepting the fact he did not intend to return to Grosvenor Square.
    “Why are you not going back to Town?”
    His expression was wary as he answered her. “You’re not looking after yourself, you’re too thin. This tragedy has made me decide my place is here, taking care of you and my unborn child.”
    Jumping from the chair, she glared at him. “I am quite capable of taking care of myself, Alexander. It’s very strange that now I am carrying a possible successor to your title you’re all attention. Where were you a year ago when I was miserable and lonely and you were gallivanting all over London with your unpleasant acquaintances and chereamie?”
    He loomed over her, his bonhomie replaced by a fearsome scowl. “Madam, you’re treading on thin ice with these impertinent comments.” He stared down his aristocratic nose and her bravado shrivelled. “I’ve never been unfaithful, I’ve my faults, but I don’t intend to follow …” Biting back whatever he’d been intending to say, he nodded coldly and strode from the room.
    This did not bode well if they were to spend the next few months under the same roof. No—this did he not just tell her he was intending to live apart from her? She wished her intemperate words unspoken. He was sacrificing his comfort in order to remain close by and she had rejected his kindness by accusing him of infidelity. She would apologise next time they were together. If Bentley had not drawn her attention to the existence of a mistress she would not have considered this a possibility.
    Miserably she returned to her bed chamber. The sound of someone moving in the dressing room startled her. Her eyes filled; it could not be Sally, she was dead. She sank back onto her bed in despair—everything was in disarray. The thought of having Alexander watching her every move was not a happy one.
    “My lady, Mrs Watkins said as I was to come up and see if I could do anything. I’ve been sorting out the mending.”
    “Ellie, I’m pleased to see you, I believe you can look after me quite adequately if Mrs Watkins shows you what’s required of a lady’s maid.”
    The girl curtsied and managed a wobbly smile; her eyes were red and puffy, no doubt very like her own.
    “I’ll be ever so grateful for the opportunity, my lady.” She hurried across the room. “Shall I help you disrobe, my lady?”
    Isobel had been going to lie down as she was but Ellie was quite correct, she would ruin her morning gown if she did so. “Thank you, I shan’t be going downstairs today. I shall require my supper to be brought to me. “
*   *   *
    She found it difficult to descend the staircase the following morning but, unless she intended to remain trapped in her apartment, she had to face her fears. The funeral was to take place in an hour or so. The house was quiet; all the staff had been given leave to attend. This was unusual as females rarely attended such an occasion. In the absence of any close family, Mary and Sam had decided Sally would like everyone to be there. No one even knew her real name or how old she was - she had just been Sally to them.
    Isobel drifted around the place unable to settle and eventually decided to take the dogs down to the ornamental lake. This was a considerable distance but the weather was fair and she needed time to clear her head. There was still the matter of the apology she owed to Alexander. With luck his anger would have been forgotten by the time she met up with him.
    Ebony stayed at her side checking every few moments her beloved mistress was still there, however, Othello saw something in the wood and raced away ignoring all calls to return. This was unlike him. He was usually an obedient animal, he must have unearthed something particularly interesting to remain in the trees barking and growling the way he was.
    Fortunately it was nearer to Home Wood then to the lake so taking a detour in that direction would not add to her perambulations. She was breathless by the time she arrived at the edge of the trees and leant for a moment against a nearby trunk to regain her breath.
    Ebony’s hackles rose and a deep rumbling growl echoed through the naked branches. The interior was too gloomy to see what had upset both dogs. A shiver flickered down her spine. It could be a poacher. Although they were not normally violent, being caught red-handed might promote some unpleasant retaliation.
    She must collect her dogs and return to the house. The gamekeeper could go and investigate when he returned from church. She shouted for Othello but he continued to bark and snarl as if he had someone, or something, cornered. Should she leave him, rely on his instincts to find his own way home?
    Then the matter was decided for her. Ebony dashed from her side barking ferociously. A gun shot ripped past her. Forgetting she was almost six months pregnant Isobel rushed into the trees intent on coming between her dogs and whoever had fired the gun. A shadowy shape was sitting halfway up an oak tree whilst both dogs leapt and growled below him. If she could attract the poacher’s attention, tell him he could leave freely, then all might yet be well.
*   *   *
    Alexander returned from the funeral eager to make his peace with Isobel. The dogs were nowhere to be seen; she must have taken them for a walk. He would find them. Far better to smooth things over away from the disapproving stares of her retainers.
    He stared across the rolling green and saw a movement at the edge of the trees. Why the hell would she want to go in there in her condition? As he walked briskly towards the place she’d disappeared he heard both dogs barking and growling. Something was not right; he broke into a run, cursing his damaged thigh which still impeded his movement.
    He was a hundred yards away when a shot was fired. He covered the remaining distance flat out and burst into the wood to see her scrambling through the undergrowth in the direction of the tree in which he could clearly see a man with a rifle.
    God’s teeth! This was no poacher—this was far more sinister. She paused and called out to the figure.
    “Please don’t shoot my dogs, let me collect them and you shall go free.”
    She didn’t realise what she was dealing with—how much danger she was in. Should he call out and warn her, or approach stealthily and try and apprehend whoever was skulking above them? Then his heart all but stopped. The rifle was being raised. It was pointing directly at Isobel. He was too far away to dislodge the gunman. How could he save his beloved?

Chapter Sixteen

    Desperate to reach her dogs before the poacher lost patience and shot one of them Isobel forgot to gather up her skirts, her boot snagged in the hem causing her to stumble to her knees. As she fell a second gunshot exploded and a missile thudded into the trunk of the tree above her.
    “Isobel, for God’s sake stay down, someone’s trying to kill you.”
    Alexander was shouting a warning. Instinctively she curled into a ball on the dirt and covered her head with her hands. Crashing feet, shouts and curses were added to the noise her dogs were making. She cowered on the ground too terrified to get up in case she was struck by a third bullet.
    Then she was snatched into his arms. “My darling, he could have murdered you. What were you thinking of coming in here on your own?”
    She clung to him, needing his warmth, his strength to stop her teeth chattering. Her pets were pressing against her legs and gave her the courage to look round. She expected to see bloody carnage. “Where is the man who shot in my direction?”
    “Whoever he was abandoned his rifle and took off through the trees. I’ll organise a search after I’ve taken you home. Can you walk, my dear?”
    Experimentally she straightened. Her legs were no longer trembling, she would manage well enough. “I am perfectly well, Alexander. However, I fear my lovely new promenade gown has not been so fortunate.”
    Chuckling at her attempt to break the tension he kneed the dogs aside and brushed off the worst of the leaf mould from her skirts. “That will have to do. We must get back, the sooner I get after the bastard the better.”
    With his support she began the long trek to the house. They had not been travelling far when she realised he was carrying the rifle in his free hand. “Why did you bring that?”
    “I didn’t wish to leave it behind in case it was used again. Being able to handle such a weapon isn’t common—whoever was in that tree was likely to have been an ex-serviceman. There’s a remote possibility this rifle might lead us to whoever was behind the attack.”
    She was finding it increasingly difficult to keep up with his long strides; she must ask him to slow down. Before she could do so he tossed the gun aside and swept her up and continued to walk as fast as he had done before. With a sigh of resignation she relaxed and let him do what he did best—take command.
*   *   *
    His arrival was greeted with cries of distress and much muttering from the footmen.
    “Put me down, Alexander, I’m quite capable of walking now I’m not obliged to keep up with you.”
    Reluctantly he placed his precious bundle on the parquet floor. “I do beg your pardon… “
    “Oh, please don’t —I would much prefer you to say you’re sorry.” Her eyes were alight with laughter and his heart skipped a beat. This was how it should be - sharing intimate moments and not constantly at odds with each other.
    “I was intending to ask your forgiveness for dragging you along but now I shall refrain. You’re a baggage, madam, and show me no respect at all.”
    The housekeeper bustled up her homely face anxious. “My lady, are you unwell?”
    “No, Mary, but there’s a poacher in the wood and he shot at my dogs.”
    Her announcement caused further consternation. “Isobel, wait for me in your sitting room, I shall return as soon as I can.”
    He watched her walk away, her back straight, her wonderful russet curls tumbling onto her neck. He felt himself harden and quickly pulled his coat tails across his embarrassment. No other woman had ever affected him in this way. He would desire her however advanced her pregnancy or her years. However, this was not the time to be thinking of carnal pleasures; he had a would-be murderer to apprehend.
    With four stout men each carrying a cudgel he returned to the wood. His pistols were primed and ready in his pocket but he doubted he would find anyone to shoot. Their quarry would be long gone but they might discover evidence of his passage and be able to follow the trail.
    He picked up the rifle he’d cast aside earlier and examined it as he jogged. The gun was in poor condition and in need of a good clean. “That oak tree is the one where the poacher sat. One of you climb up and tell me what you can see when you’re sitting on the large branch.”
    The youngest and most agile of the group shinned up the trunk like a squirrel to sit astride it. “I can see clear to the lake, your grace, the break in the trees is right opposite. You’d not know anyone could get a clear view from so deep in the wood.”
    It was as Alexander feared; this was no random event. Whoever had been in that tree had been waiting for the opportunity to shoot Isobel. All the staff were aware she walked her dogs in this part of the park every day. All he had to do was remain hidden; the range of the rifle meant he could have killed her from where he sat.
    His eyes misted with rage. There could be only one perpetrator behind this attack, only one man who would benefit from Isobel’s death. Bentley—he was the one who stood to gain from her demise. But it didn’t make sense. Only an expert shot could have hoped to hit his target from that distance and Bentley was no rifleman. God’s teeth! His wits were wandering. Bentley was in London which made it even more unlikely he was involved.
    This needed further thought. He would not draw a hasty conclusion as there might be a perfectly rational explanation for this atrocity. He needed to be certain before he confronted his erstwhile heir. If his conjectures were correct the man would not survive the meeting.
*   *   *
    “Alexander, I can’t believe Bentley is behind these attacks. Remember, you plucked him from his miserable existence and gave him an allowance, a fine wardrobe and a home. He might be irritating—but I’m sure he’s not a villain.”
    “Perhaps you’re right, sweetheart.” He rubbed his eyes. “But Bentley is the only one who stands to gain from your… who stands to gain.” He straightened and his eyes blazed. “I have it! Of course—it has to be something to do with those ruffians who accosted Bentley here the other day. If I find their master—I’ll find the perpetrator.”
    “If that’s true, then poor Mr Bentley must be in the thrall of this monster. You must go to London and discover the truth. I fear that young man might be in as much danger as I am.”
    “I shall, my love, as soon as I’m certain Newcomb is safe.”
    She smiled. “Will you stay in Town for long?”
    “No longer than I have to. If you recall, I decided my place is here, taking care of you.”
    She waved away his arm as she pushed herself upright. She was satisfied with his answer. “Then I shall delay you no longer. Take care, and please come to say goodbye before you leave for Town.”
    Isobel suffered Mary and Ellie’s fussing in silence and was relieved when they left her to read in front of the fire with a tray of freshly baked cakes and a large pot of coffee. The fright she had experienced from the unpleasant incident had faded and she reviewed the event more objectively.
    She prayed Alexander was wrong and that no one was trying to kill her. The very idea was like something out of that silly novel, The Mysteries of Udolfo. Admittedly the man had aimed the gun in her direction, but her dogs were running towards her so he might well have been hoping to hit one of them.
    A poacher with a rifle must be unusual. They were more likely to creep about with snares and cudgels than with such sophisticated weaponry. What possible reason could there be for a man with a valuable gun to be in Home Wood, apart from the sinister explanation that someone was trying to kill her?
     Concentrating was difficult whilst the infant inside her was apparently dancing a jig. Smiling she placed her hands across her belly and could just feel the movement through her garments. Mary had told her she was likely to become twice the size she was at the moment—that beggared belief. Already she had lost sight of her toes and bending down to retrieve a dropped object was no longer an easy task.
    Bill appeared at the open door. “Could you spare me a moment, my lady, there’s something I need to tell you. I thought you’d like to hear immediately.”
    “Please come in—I’ve been puzzling over this morning events and come to no satisfactory conclusion. Have you got an answer for me?”
    The young man grinned. “I reckon I might have. It’s like this, your grace. Jed went down to the village early this morning on an errand for Mrs Watkins. It seems they were all talking about a group of renegades who’ve been stealing and demanding money with menaces in neighbouring villages.”
    “Thank God! That explains it; no doubt the villain intended to burgle the house but my dogs chased him up a tree. The militia must be sent for. His grace will know how to go about that. Do you know how many people have suffered at their hands?”
    “A fair few, my lady.There’s been a couple of coaches held up and several farms attacked, but none of them on this estate so far. I reckon your dogs disturbed them and they took to their heels, apart from the one who ended up the tree.”
    “Well, I can’t think why something has not already been done about it. I wonder why we did not hear of this before today.”
    Bill bowed. “Shall I tell this to his grace when he returns?”
    “Yes, no doubt the duke will wish to send word to the appropriate authorities. I intend to forget it ever happened.”
    This was not an easy task. The men involved must be desperate to attack villages. Maybe if the government had been more generous with the soldiers dismissed from the army after Waterloo, had provided them with a decent pension or found them employment, then these unfortunate men would not now be terrorizing the countryside.
    This did not excuse them but it did explain their motivation. Had she not been driven to violence herself when confronted by Sir John Farnham’s licentious behaviour? She shuddered as she remembered. Desperation and anger made people behave badly; whoever these footpads were they would be hanged when they were apprehended.
    She blinked back tears. She was a veritable watering pot nowadays and the slightest thing seemed to set her off. When Alexander returned she would make her peace with him. Her unexpected brush with mortality had given her the push she needed. She doubted she would ever forget what he’d done to her, but maybe now was the time to forgive and give him a chance to demonstrate that his metamorphosis was genuine and permanent.
    What a strange day it had been. First there had been Sally’s funeral service and then an encounter with an armed man. She prayed life would be less eventful in the ensuing months for her constitution was no longer as robust as it had once been. She feared many more shocks of this sort might bring on a miscarriage. The conception of this child was now unimportant; she loved and wanted the baby and wished the infant to be born at full term and not prematurely.
    Good grief! Alexander was not the only one who had changed. She wasn’t going to abandon her baby to go and live on an unknown estate in Essex. Her life was here at Newcomb bringing up this child.
    Dusk had fallen when Alexander eventually joined her. He looked less grim than he had when he’d set out. She greeted him with a smile. “You have spoken to Bill? It’s a great shame Jed didn’t return before you all left for the funeral and I took my walk.”
    “Indeed it is, sweetheart.” Wearily he dropped into the armchair opposite the day bed she was relaxing on. “He was quite correct. We found evidence of others having been in the wood. The trail led to the back lane but there we lost it. I’ve spent the remainder of the day riding around the farms warning my tenants to be vigilant, to ensure they have bolted the doors before they retire.”
    “Could not Hill have done this for you? “
    “Of course, but I wished to let my people know I have their safety at heart.”
    “Will the militia be here tomorrow to search for them?”
     “I’ve written a letter to Squire Rollins telling him what happened today, I can do no more. I must insist you take no more solitary walks until these men have been apprehended.”
    She bristled. “You insist?” His shout of laughter sent her tea cup flying and it smashed in the hearth. “Now look what you made me do.”
    “Don’t ruffle your pretty feathers, my love; I’m certain one broken cup won’t be noticed. I shall rephrase my sentence.” His wicked smile played havoc with her equilibrium. “My dear, might I request you reconsider your daily promenades? I should be most distressed if you were shot by an itinerant veteran.”
    “You’re being ridiculous, sir. However, I shall bow to your position as head of the household and follow your instructions. In future I shall expect you to be downstairs at seven o’clock each morning to accompany me on my walk.”
    “A hit direct, my love. I shall be delighted to come with you. I am also certain the two outside men who must check the grounds before we go out will be equally thrilled you wish to walk so early.” He grinned. “I’m relieved I don’t have to thunder off to London today. My thigh is deucedly painful.”
    “I’d quite forgotten you have an injury. Indeed, you’ve been racing about these past days without the slightest sign of a limp.”
    He clutched his chest and fell back in his chair. “I’m in need of your loving care, sweetheart. See—I’m swooning.”
    “Don’t be ridiculous, Alexander. You’re perfectly well.” Her smile slipped - he did look a trifle pale. “My dear, shall I fetch Bill to take care of you?”
    “Absolutely not! I’m funning—my leg is sore but will be perfectly fine by tomorrow.”
    There was little point in changing to dine so she spent a further delightful hour discussing the high price of corn, the woeful provision for ex-servicemen and whether it was now safe to tour the continent. When Bill came in to announce dinner was served she could not remember having spent such a relaxed afternoon with Alexander.
    After dinner he smiled at him as he lounged at the table. “Do you wish to remain on your own to drink port? I warn you I shall be retiring soon so if you linger long I won’t be in the drawing-room when you come through.” Isobel had been persuaded to drink a glass of champagne in honour of the passing of her abigail. The unaccustomed alcohol had quite gone to her head making her feel as skittish as a school-girl.
    “I’ve had sufficient to drink, thank you, my dear. I’ve finished off the bottle—far more than I normally have.”
    She snorted inelegantly. “Your normal intake, if I remember rightly, would include three bottles of claret, port and a decanter of brandy. Heavens! I would consider what you have imbibed this evening as a mere bagatelle.”
     Not remaining to hear his reply she almost skipped through the communicating door into the drawing-room. She was not unduly surprised to hear his chair crash back and to see him right behind her.
    “I’ve changed, sweetheart, I no longer drink to excess nor do I gamble. I am a reformed man in every way.”
    “I’ve come to a decision, Alexander. The more I think about it the less I want Mr Bentley to have anything to do with Newcomb. Neither can I in all conscience abandon this baby. You were quite right to point out children need both parents in order to prosper.”
     His eyes widened, he looked shocked. Did he not want her to remain? Then he was beside her and before she could tell him to desist she was in his arms. She meant to push him away but her hands crept around his neck and buried themselves in his hair.
    He drew back before matters progressed to their inevitable conclusion. “Darling, we can’t make love here. We must retire to your bedchamber.”
    Her lips glowed from his kisses, every inch of her tingled from his touch, there was nothing she would like more than to feel him inside her, to experience the ecstasy they’d shared at the beginning of their marriage, but common sense returned. This was not the time to let him get closer and she wasn’t certain such activities would not be harmful to the baby.
    “No, Alexander, we must not do this. I don’t feel my pregnancy is secure enough to risk such vigorous activity especially after the double shocks I’ve suffered today.”
    At her words his ardour shrunk, the hectic colour along his cheekbones faded and his eyes returned to their normal blue-grey. “I’ve no wish to jeopardize the health of the child. I hadn’t realised something so pleasurable could be harmful.” He smiled ruefully. “It’s just I find you damn near irresistible. I shall have to find other outlets for my energy.”
    She could not allow him to believe things were fully restored between them She was still not quite sure. “There’s something else I wish to tell you. If this baby is a boy then, at the moment, my role as your true wife will be ended; I shall live here in the east wing, but not depart from Newcomb entirely.”
    “And if it’s a girl?”
    She could not look away. She was pinned like a butterfly on a board beneath his gaze. “If our child is female then I shall remain with you as your wife until you have your son and heir.”
*   *   *
    Alexander tried to school his features, not show his elation, for she might misinterpret his reaction and think it was triumph not joy. He knelt down beside her and took her hands within his own. They were all but lost beneath his. “Then, my darling, I shall pray every night that this baby of ours is a girl.”
    “And I shall pray for the opposite. I might never be able to produce another child, remember we thought I was barren. I thought securing your title was everything to you?”
    Gently he raised her fingers to his mouth and kissed each one in turn. “No, Isobel, you’re everything to me. I shall count myself a lucky man if we produce a dozen daughters if it means that you remain as my loving wife.”
    Giggling she snatched back her hands. Good grief! She was a trifle bosky. Would she have committed herself if she had been entirely sober? He must pray she did not recant in the morning. “Come along, Isobel, I shall carry you up to bed. It isn’t I that has consumed too much alcohol tonight, but you, my love.”
    He left her in the capable hands of her new maid and returned to the drawing-room to wait for the coffee tray to arrive.  There were still aspects of today’s events he was not happy with. It seemed odd these renegades should choose to burgle Newcomb in broad daylight.
    Devil take it! The men had known the house would be empty - Jed would have mentioned the girl’s funeral whilst he was in the village and had, no doubt, told all and sundry his master was allowing the entire staff to attend. The vagabonds must have seen this as the perfect opportunity. If Othello had not found them, God knows what might have happened.
    He stretched out his legs on the day bed; Isobel’s scent lingered on the upholstery and he sniffed appreciatively. She was almost convinced he had become a man she could love again, but he wanted to do something else, something tangible, to prove his credentials as a loving and caring husband.
    When he eventually retired he was sure he had the perfect solution. What he planned to do for her would not only surprise her it would make her life at Newcomb more enjoyable.
*   *   *
    Something woke Isobel. Had Alexander changed his mind, ignored her strictures to remain out of her bed? The all-too-familiar heat spread from her toes to her fingertips. Despite her protestations she knew she could not refuse him.
    “I should not be here, darling, I promise I haven’t come to importune you. I’ve come to tell you what I plan to do next door.”
    “Could it not wait until tomorrow? I can’t think of anything that will make up to the fact that you have woken me up in the middle of the night.”
    By this time he was lighting candles and she had no option but to sit and listen to his proposal. She was forced to admit her irritation was mainly because she was disappointed he had not come to make love to her.
    “There, my dear. Tomorrow I am going to move the kitchen at Newcomb so that in future you shall have your meals served to you hot.”
    Whatever she had expected him to say it had not been this. What an extraordinary conversation to be having at midnight. “Move a kitchen? It can’t be done. What about the chimney, the scullery and all the other paraphernalia involved with preparing food? The kitchen was put where it was for a reason…”
    “This was to make sure we had unpalatable and unpleasant food and that all our staff ate better than us.”
    His playfulness was infectious. “In which case might it not be better for us to move into the servants’ quarters and for the servants to live in Newcomb proper?”
    “A sound idea, my love, but I’ve a better one. I still have the drawings the architect made and have been perusing them these past hours. We have more rooms on the ground floor than any sensible family could ever use, I doubt I’ve been into half of them and I’ve lived here all my life.”
    She yawned and was too late to disguise it. “Tell me tomorrow, Alexander. Go away now and let me sleep.”
    In answer he strolled across and sat on the edge of the bed. “There’s something else I wish to tell you, darling girl, I’m irrevocably in love with you. No, don’t protest, I don’t expect you to reciprocate my feelings, but I wanted you to know.” He leaned down placing his hands on either side of her and his kiss was sweet and loving. The ice around her heart finally melted.

Chapter Seventeen

    “What kind of day is it today, Ellie? Do you think it will be hot?”
    Isobel’s abigail flung back the shutters letting the sunlight pour into the bed chamber. “It’s a beautiful day, my lady, I reckon as his grace was right to delay your move back into the main building until them April showers had gone.”
    “Have you seen the improvements, Ellie? I’ve not been allowed to peep. Do you know I’ve not felt so excited since I was a small child waiting for my name day.”
    Her brow creased. Today was in fact her anniversary and she would be one and twenty. Alexander had never acknowledged her birthday. Indeed, she had no notion when his birthday was, but he must be well into his thirties. What a ridiculous situation! How could she have been married to a man without actually knowing how old he was? High time this matter was cleared up.
    “I’ve not been in; no one has apart from them that are working in there. That lot who came back from London are the only ones who know what’s been done.” The girl carefully placed the tray on the bedside table. “Shall I put out the pale green dimity, my lady? The one with the pretty daisies sewn around the neck and hem?”
    Isobel stretched and the baby protested by punching and kicking as if desperate to get out. The eminent medical man who had come down from Town last month had assured her she was in perfect health and that her hips were wide enough to produce the infant she was carrying. Her delivery could not come soon enough. She felt like a brood mare about to drop a foal. Maintaining any sort of normal activity was becoming increasingly difficult. Alexander still insisted on accompanying her on her early-morning promenade even though the small band of renegades had long since been arrested, but even this gentle stroll would soon become too much.
    Only a few more weeks and then she would be holding her baby in her arms. What must take place in order to produce this miracle she did not dwell upon. Mary had told her what to expect as she had produced three stillborn infants in the early days of her marriage.
    Alexander had been remarkably elusive, spending all his days either overseeing whatever was going on next door or about the estate. Regular reports were sent from Grosvenor Square by Mr Bentley who was all and betrothed to one Miss Amelia Workington, the pretty daughter of a minor aristocrat. The young man was to visit with the family when the season was over but would not be returning to take up residence in the east wing until the renovations and repairs were completed.
    She no longer bothered to wear a multitude of petticoats or silk stockings, she did not go about in public and Alexander scarcely seemed aware of her nowadays. No, that was not quite true. Every evening they dined together in perfect harmony, he was witty and charming but treated her as if she was a sibling rather than his wife.
    “I shall get dressed immediately, Ellie. I intend to demand to be taken next door. I shall eat my breakfast on the terrace outside the breakfast parlour.” She smiled at her maid. “Tell Cook I shall eat nothing further until I am established in Newcomb.”
    She stood tapping her foot in her sitting room. Why was Alexander tardy? Every morning he came to escort her downstairs as if she were a decrepit octogenarian not a healthy young woman with nothing wrong with her. Admittedly having his arm to support her as she negotiated the staircase was a boon. Pregnancy was making her decidedly unbalanced, as if she might tip forward from the weight she carried in front of her.
    Eventually the door opened. “My love, forgive me, you must have wondered where I was. Come, shall we go down?” He drew her arm through his, his eyes tender. “Being with child has made you even more beautiful, sweetheart; every day I thank God you came back to me.”
    Isobel returned his smile. “And every day I begin to believe I made the right decision.”
    Downstairs the hall was empty, the usual footmen absent and no sound of parlour maids. Good gracious! Even her dogs were missing. Where was everybody this morning? He led her straight outside not pausing to ask if she wished to break her fast before her morning walk.
    A thrill of excitement rippled through her. “Alexander, are we finally going next-door? I’ve been beside myself with curiosity these past few weeks. Why have you chosen today?”
    “Why do you think, darling?”
    She pursed her lips and glanced up at him. “It’s May day? The first day of summer?”
    His free hand came round and cupped her face, turning it towards him. “No, you pea-goose, it’s your name day. I thought this the perfect time to surprise you.”
    Her feet stuck to the ground, her eyes filled. “I didn’t think you knew, I can’t tell you how much this means to me, Alexander. I shall never forget today.”
    His eyes flashed and he dipped his head, his lips covered hers in a kiss so sweet she wished it could go on forever. He raised his head and smoothed away her tears. “I love you, Isobel; I hope one day you’ll be able to reciprocate. Now, I want to show you the changes I’ve made.”
    He guided her around the corner of the building. A huge cheer from the assembled staff rocked her back on her heels. They were all freshly garbed and waiting to greet her. To her astonishment Mary, magnificent in bombazine, stepped forward and curtsied formally.
    “Welcome, your grace, I am housekeeper here, Watkins at your service.”
    Then Bill resplendent in black tailcoat was beside her bowing deeply. “Welcome, your grace, I am Brown, butler here, at your service. Allow me to present your staff.”
    Isobel could scarcely believe her eyes. Alexander had appointed her staff to run his enormous establishment. “Thank you, Alexander - having my own people in charge here is the best birthday gift you could have given me.” She could hardly ask what he intended to do with Maynard and Foster, but as long as they were not here she didn’t care. They were both well past retirement age, hopefully he had pensioned them off and she would never have to endure their supercilious behaviour again.
    “My love, you haven’t had your birthday gift yet; I’ve more to show you. However, I am delighted you approve of my selection. I want you to be happy here and I know you were not, under the old regime.”
    Bill, keeping a commendably straight face, introduced each of the footmen from senior to junior and there were a prodigious amount of these. Mary did the same with the females. As each one heard their name they bowed or curtsied appropriately and she nodded regally, by the time she reached the front door she was biting her lips trying to hold back her giggles.
    Alexander must have felt her vibrating because he raised his eyebrows in a comical manner which was almost her undoing. It would be most unkind to laugh when the staff were taking the matter so seriously; but the fact that she knew most one of them already made the whole business risible. She was relieved to be escorted inside leaving the servants to disperse behind her.
    She breathed deeply trying to control her amusement. The sweet scent of hothouse flowers filled her nostrils. Everywhere she looked there were vases overflowing with beautiful blooms; this lessened the austerity of the vast, rectangular entrance hall, made it seem more welcoming.
    Forgetting they had an interested audience of several dozen she flung her arms around his neck and kissed him. The old Alexander would have pushed her away a look of distaste on his face because she’d made a public display, but the new one laughed out loud and swung her around like a child. What the poor baby thought of all this she could not imagine, it must think its mother had run mad.
    “Darling girl, you haven’t seen everything. I want this to be the happiest day of your life, I want you to remember the day you came of age as a turning point for both of us.” He gently set her down but kept his arm around her waist in case she was disorientated by his flamboyant gesture.
    “I shall keep flowers in the hallway always, it makes such a difference. Perhaps you could commission some studies of the grounds and they could hang in place of the gloomy portraits.”
    “I’ll have you know, my girl, you’re casting aspersions on my ancestors and the ancestors of our children.” He grinned and dropped a feather-light kiss on the end of her nose. “But I agree, they shall be banished to the east wing for Bentley to appreciate.”
    “I am sharp set, Alexander. May I have my breakfast now?” He looked quite dejected at her suggestion; he obviously had further surprises awaiting her attention. “However, I am quite happy to wait until you have shown me everything, as long as you promise to sit down with me when we’ve finished.”
    Like a boy his expression lightened and he almost whisked her off her feet as he took her down a passageway she didn’t believe she’d ever traversed before. “Where are you taking me this time?”
    “To see the new kitchens and other offices which are now fully functioning on this floor. The downstairs rooms have been given over to the staff. There’s a separate hall for the senior servants, a bathing room and an apartment for the butler.” He grinned. “I’ve also refurbished a neat house in the grounds for Mr and Mrs Watkins.”
    “How kind of you to think of them. They have always had to make do, apart from the year they spent in the other cottage. I don’t believe I’ve the energy to go down and inspect all that; show me the new kitchens today and I shall see the rest tomorrow.”
    The rooms that had been converted were ideal for the purpose having access to the cobbled backyard in which the barnyard creatures were kept. No expense had been spared— a massive, closed range had replaced the open fireplace. This would reduce the temperature and the smoke, which had always been a nuisance in the kitchen area.
    Finding Mrs Boothroyd, her own cook, in charge was no more than she expected. What was a surprise were the numerous scullery maids, kitchen maids, pot boys and other minions the cook now had under her control. She prayed Alexander’s faith in her inexperienced staff would not be misplaced.
    “I am most impressed with the changes, I can’t credit how much you have done in the few weeks you’ve had at your disposal. In future I shall eagerly anticipate my meals instead of dreading them.” She gazed imploringly at him as her stomach gurgled loudly. “Can I have my breakfast now, please, Alexander? I shall faint quite away if I don’t eat soon.”
    “Not quite yet, you might have noticed they were getting it ready whilst we were observing them. I believe we have a quarter of an hour at our disposal.” His arm once more encircled her and she found herself back in the entrance hall and without a by your leave he slid his second arm under her knees and carried her upstairs. Even he could not have love-making on his mind, not at eight o’clock in the morning and her the size of a heifer.
    “I can walk from here thank you, my dear. Have you redecorated my apartment again, is that why we are here?”
    “Yes and no, my love. Contain your impatience for a few moments longer if you please.”
    His arm was once more around her and when she tried to turn into her old apartment she was whisked on her way and he did not stop until they were at the rear of the house. This was the part of Newcomb that abutted the east wing in which she had been living. Why had he brought her here? As far as she could recall there were dreary and unwanted chambers in this wing, rooms used for accommodating such people as governesses or companions.
    “Here we are, sweetheart. This is your name day gift from me.” He flung open the door he stopped beside and stepped away her to see.
    Her mouth opened. It was a transformation. Instead of an unloved guest chamber she saw a perfect lady’s boudoir. Two rooms had been made into one, an arch the only indication there had once been anything else but this beautiful sitting-room.
    The furniture was exquisite; she recognized the pieces as that of Chippendale but until this moment she’d only seen drawings of such items in La Belle Assemblée and Ackerman’s Repository. The walls were freshly papered—she loved the pale green and gold stripes and the carpet was patterned in similar colours.
    “I love it, how did you achieve this without recourse to asking me my taste? The day bed and armchairs match the curtains—green and gold are my favourite colours. I don’t remember telling you that.” She was too overwhelmed to continue. Shaking her head in disbelief she walked from item to item, running her hands along the smooth surfaces in delight.
    Ellie appeared from the door that led into the bedroom. The girl was bouncing with excitement. “Oh, my lady, you’ll never guess what you have through here.”
    Isobel wandered in a happy daze to see what other wonders he had provided. The bedroom was as superb as the sitting-room, the dressing room and closets everything they should be, but the room that had caused her abigail so much excitement was a genuine bathing room. She had heard about such places but never thought to own one for herself.
    Alexander was glowing with happiness. “See, darling, if you stand here you may take a shower bath, the water escapes through the drain hole and goes down pipes attached to the outside wall. I think perhaps it might be wise not to use the bath until you’re delivered.”
    She viewed the enormous bath - this was long enough for Alexander to stretch out in. She would be obliged to swim if the water were to be filled to the brim. “You’re quite right, Alexander, not only might I drown in there, I fear I might also be unable to get out again without assistance.”
    “I hope you’ll give me permission to use this bathing room sometimes, sweetheart. I don’t have one installed at my end of the house.”
    Her eyes widened. It had not occurred to her she had been moved on her own to this end of the building. He could not have made it plainer. He was giving her the freedom to choose. Her throat closed, she held out her hand and he took it. He was quite right, today was the start of a new life for both of them.
    “There’s just one more thing to show you, darling, and then we shall go downstairs and eat.”
    What else could there be? Hadn’t she got everything she could possibly want in this apartment? Keeping hold of her hand he led her back into the corridor and across the passage-way.
    “I remembered what you said about your baby being taken away and brought up in the nursery by a regiment of nannies and nursemaids. It’s what’s customary in a household such as this but I intend to set a precedent. I hope you approve.” This time he opened the door and stepped in with her.
    He had converted this suite of rooms into a nursery wing. Here there was everything a new baby could possibly require. There was even a bathing room for the use of the nursery staff as well as the baby when he or she was old enough. The rooms were freshly plastered, each with a substantial grate, but no furniture or curtains had been installed as in her own domain.
    “I thought you would like to choose for yourself how this will be decorated. The nanny’s room, the nursemaids’ room and the small kitchen for making nursery teas are finished; the furniture and fittings are the same as everywhere else in the staff quarters. But the rest I shall leave to you.”
    “Are you saying I can have my baby with me down here? Can I also select those who will have charge of the infant in my absence?”
    He frowned. “Did I not just say exactly that?”
    “You did, but a while ago you said it would be your prerogative to select the nursery staff. I was just checking you had changed your mind.”
    “Damn it, Isobel, must you keep throwing my idiocies back to me? I thought this was to be a new beginning—the past put behind us? How can we move on if you’re constantly reminding me of my failings?”
    Flustered by his unexpected irritation she stepped back treading on the hem of her skirt. She lost her balance and even his lightning reactions were not quick enough to save her from a crashing fall. The air was knocked from her lungs and for a moment she gasped for breath like a fish landed on the riverbank.
    “My God, let me get you upright—it will help you regain your breath.” He snapped his fingers and Ellie appeared, her eyes round with horror. “Downstairs. Go at once and have Watkins send for the physician.”
    Slowly the band of pain around her chest eased, her breath rasped in her lungs and then she was breathing normally once more. “That was a stupid thing to do. I’ve almost fallen several times doing the same thing.” Experimentally she sat up away from the comfort of his support. “I believe with your assistance I can regain my feet. This tumble was not your fault, Alexander. I’ve been increasing long enough to remember I can’t move with the alacrity I used to.”
    “Here, slip your arm around my neck and I shall carry you to your chamber. I think it would be wise to rest until the doctor can examine you. You fell heavily; it does not do to take chances, not at this stage of the pregnancy.”
    He carried her back across the passage and into her splendid apartment. Her eyes prickled—she had ruined the day by her clumsiness. She would not argue, her back ached unpleasantly and she feared she had done herself a mischief in the fall. However, she had no intention of worrying Alexander until the physician had examined her.

Chapter Eighteen

    Dr Jamieson stepped back, courteously turning away in order to allow Ellie to pull down the bed sheet. Isobel shuffled upright before attracting the venerable gentleman’s attention. “Doctor, is there any danger of my delivering prematurely?”
    He smiled, his startlingly blue eyes twinkling. “If you’re asking me if the baby is going to arrive early because of your fall, then the answer is a categorical no. However, I must warn you, my lady, that you won’t go full term. I suggest you have everything in place for the middle of June not the first week in July.”
    This was good news indeed, the sooner she was delivered the happier she’d be. “But the backache? I understood this could be a sign labour is imminent.”
    “That is sometimes the case but not for you. The fall has put additional stress on your back muscles; it is that you can feel. I can assure you if you remain in your apartments for the next week the pain will go.”
    “A week? I shall go mad from the inactivity. I like to walk every day and I’ve yet to see all the improvements that have been made here.”
    He shook his head. “I must insist you rest. No doubt you’ve noticed your baby isn’t moving much at the moment. The accident will have put a strain on it. I’m sure you don’t wish any harm to come to your child through your inattention?”
    “Of course I don’t, I shall do as you suggest. Do I have to remain in bed for the whole week or can I walk about in this part of the house?”
    “Remain where you are for twenty four hours. When I see you tomorrow I will give my final decision. If the baby is active again, and your back is no longer painful, then walking around these rooms will be beneficial. Remember, your grace, absolutely no stairs until I give you leave.”
    Her lips twitched, perhaps now was not a good time to tell him Alexander was in the habit of carrying her from floor to floor. “Please could you ask my husband to come through on your way out, Dr Jamieson?”
    He bowed, collected his bag and moved briskly into her parlour. The sound of low male voices indicated he was being interrogated so there would be no need to repeat what she’d been told when Alexander came in to join her.
    The physician gave her permission to get dressed when he called the following day and she did so forthwith. The infant was once more pummelling her stomach and from the strength of the kicks and punches she was convinced the baby would be a boy.
    “Alexander, place your hand here. Did you feel that?”
    “Good Grief! You have a pugilist in there, my love. If I put my ear against your bump can I hear the heartbeat?”
    The idea of having his face resting so close sent a frisson of excitement along her spine. How ridiculous! She was an unnatural woman thinking of making love when she was so vastly pregnant. “Dr Jamieson listened through a cow horn, why don’t you try the same thing with a glass?”
    Should she offer to pull back her skirts as she had done for the physician? Instead she pulled the muslin tight and laid-back whilst he placed the open end of the glass against her belly. He was on his knees beside her, his jacket casually discarded and his cravat untied—when he spent time with her nowadays there was no tension between them. He was as relaxed as she. The momentary irritation which had caused her to step back unwarily was forgotten. After all she could not expect him to be in perfect humour every moment of the day.
    His hair was longer than previously and flopped endearingly over his collar. She barely resisted the urge to sink her fingers into it, the last thing either of them needed was excitement of that sort. Had he not said he would take care of such urges himself? A wave of bitter disappointment engulfed her. He’d told her he would not be unfaithful but visiting a bawdy house might not be considered as infidelity by a gentleman in his position.
    She pressed herself into the back of the chaise-longue and attempted to quell her dismay. He had given her his word he would not renew his liaison with his mistress. She could hardly demand to know if he slaked his physical needs with a lady of the night. All desire to touch him had gone. Now she wanted him to remove his head and leave her in peace.
    He sat back, a rueful grin making him dangerously attractive. “All I got for my effort was a bruised cheek. Do you think this baby of ours is a boy?”
    Something prompted her to say the opposite of what she intended. “I sincerely hope so. I’ve no wish to be obliged to produce more children in order to protect your title.”
    Her words were like a slap. He was back on his feet, his expression closed—a formidable man replacing the approachable friend she’d been sharing a comfortable interlude with. There was no point in apologising, the damage was done. She’d all but destroyed the fragile affection that had been growing between them.
    “I had thought your antipathy towards me was gone, Isobel. I can do no more. If you won’t accept I’ve changed, meet me halfway in order to make this marriage work, then it will be best for both of us if I no longer spend time with you.”
    Helplessly she gazed at him, willing him to understand that sometimes she spoke without thought, did not mean what she said. Pregnancy was making a veritable shrew of her. “I enjoy your company, I shall be sad if you decide to return to Grosvenor Square after all.”
    “I’ve no intention of returning to London, this barracks of a place is more than big enough for us to avoid contact if that’s what you wish. I must attend to estate business. Reynolds has been clamouring for an interview since yesterday.” He nodded and strode away. The bed chamber seemed unpleasantly empty without him.
    Life confined to her apartment was going to be tedious without his company. These past weeks she’d come to eagerly anticipate the evenings, looking forward to the time they spent together. Now her sharp tongue had driven him away—her life would be so much simpler if she could finally learn to trust him again.
*   *   *
    “What do you think, Mary? Is lemon yellow a suitable colour for the curtains and upholstery in the nursery?” Isobel viewed the samples spread out on the table in her sitting room. “I must make a decision today as it could be as little as four weeks before I’m delivered.”
    “It’s an unusual choice, my lady, but will suit either a boy or a girl. I know you have selected two girls from the staff already working here but what about the nanny? Does his lordship have someone in mind for that position?”
    “No, he is leaving all such domestic details to me. When he went to Town last week he set enquiries in motion. It would seem there’s always a family who can recommend someone suitable.” She heaved herself to her feet. Her mobility was sadly restricted lately as her girth had dramatically increased. Alexander had laughingly he told her that very morning if she did not give birth soon she would pop. She had not found the comment particularly amusing.
    Fortunately since her outburst a few weeks ago their relationship had drifted back to amicable. Unlike her, he did not bear a grudge. “Mary, do you think he has changed? That he is no longer the violent and arrogant gentleman who abused me last year?”
    This was a highly unsuitable topic of conversation between a member of staff and herself, but Mary was first and foremost her friend. Even Alexander appeared to have accepted the closeness of their relationship and no longer stared haughtily down his nose when he came in and found them closeted together. Possibly the fact Mary was a far better housekeeper than ever Maynard had been, did much to improve his opinion of her.
    “At first I thought it was an act in order to win you over, but as the months have passed I truly believe he loves you and has made himself a better person because of it.”
    “I’ve always loved him deep in my heart but was too scared to admit it. I must find him at once and tell him. He will be so happy.”
*   *   *
    Alexander rubbed his eyes and yawned, he was finding it damned difficult to sleep. Having his chambers so far from hers meant he was constantly on the alert in case she needed him. He had got up three times last night to check everything was as it should be at the back of the house.
    The list of possible candidates for the position of nanny was not over long and the first two seemed the most likely. One had been with her previous employers for fifteen years, first as a nursery maid and then promoted to running the nursery herself. The other had been with the family for a shorter time, but had two other glowing recommendations from previous positions.
    He would take the information up to Isobel directly. As Lady Everton had told him, most households would have everything in place three months before the due date and not have left it so late. A decision would have to be made today; Jamieson had told him the baby was readying itself for delivery. Isobel had yet to select the material for the curtains in the nursery.
    He jumped to his feet as the familiar footsteps of his beloved approached the study. This was no longer a place where she was not welcome and she often joined him in the afternoon and sat reading with her feet up whilst he worked on his papers. He stepped out into the spacious corridor to greet her.
    She smiled at him, her face illuminated by such love his chest squeezed making breathing impossible. He couldn’t speak, his heart was full, and tears filled his eyes. He opened his arms and she fell into them.
    “Alexander, I had to come right away. I’ve just discovered I still love you, indeed that I love you more today than I ever did before.”
    She was obliged to stand sideways as even his arms were not long enough to embrace her nowadays. “My darling, you have made me the happiest of men. Come in, you know you should not have hurried all this way you could have sent for me instead.”
    “I had no wish to wait another second to tell you.” Her eyes shone, he wanted to sweep her up and make love to her despite her advanced pregnancy. “I’ve finally chosen the fabric for the nursery and sent Sam to the warehouse to collect it. Fortunately Mary has a team of expert seamstresses assembled and the covers for the furniture, the curtains and everything else will be completed by the end of the week.”
    “I’ve a list of possible candidates to take charge of the nursery. There are two that I think we should interview but I shall leave the decision to you.”
    He knelt at her side and tenderly lifted her feet before fetching the various letters of recommendation. Perching himself on the edge of the sofa he watched her peruse the contents—he loved the way her nose crinkled when she was concentrating. He slid in behind her legs and dropped them back into his lap. As usual she was wearing no stockings and had kicked off her slippers as soon as she’d sat down.
    Whilst she read he massaged her feet and ankles worried they were more swollen than they had been yesterday. Jamieson had warned him that swelling of this sort was a sign that she needed to do less. He would insist she stayed in bed until noon and then only got up to rest on her day bed in her parlour.
    “I like the sound of Nanny Cooper. Which one did you prefer?”
    “She was top of my list; the woman from the Everton household was the second. Would you like me to write and offer the position to Nanny Cooper?”
    “Please, it might be better to send it express. Mary thinks I should be resting more and leaving the organisation of the nursery to a nanny.”
    “Exactly so. I am going to insist, sweetheart, that until the baby is born you spend most of the time with your feet up. Jamieson told me swollen ankles are not a good sign.” He braced himself for the argument but to his surprise she nodded.
    “I shall do so on one condition, my love, that you move into my apartment with me.” Her eyes danced as she continued. “I am quite certain from the size of the bed you never intended I sleep alone.”
*   *   *
    His shout of laughter sent the papers flying. “Thank the good Lord for that, I’ve been prowling the corridors these past nights checking you were well. If I am at your side then I shall have a decent night’s sleep at last.”
    “Then you had better get your man to bring your belongings down to me. There are, I could not help but notice, my dear, two quite distinct dressing rooms and enough closet space for an army to place their garments.” He tickled her feet in a bid to avoid answering that question but she was having none of it. “You always intended to be with me, didn’t you?”
    His mischievous smile answered her question. “I hoped to one-day, I never dreamt you would welcome me so soon.”
    “We have been through so much these past months, but I truly believe I can finally move forward and look to the future with happiness. There’s something I wished to ask you, Alexander, and now seems as good a time as any.” She needed to have his guidance on a matter she knew nothing about and could not in all conscience discuss with Mary. The only person she could talk to was her husband. Until today she had not believed the matter of any urgency.
    His eyebrow quirked. “Go on, sweetheart, what do you wish to know?”
    “I’ve to tell you that I haven’t enjoyed being pregnant, it does not seem to suit me as it does other women. If our baby is a boy …” His eyes dimmed as if a candle had been blown out inside him. Surely he did not believe she meant they were not to make love in future? “My darling, don’t look so conscious, it’s because I wish to … to share myself with you as frequently as possible that I’ve broached this delicate subject.”
    The relief on his face was comical. “Are you asking me if I know of any ways to avoid a yearly pregnancy?”
    “I am— there must be other couples who wish to be intimate but don’t want an overcrowded nursery. How do they manage this situation?”
    He frowned. “I’ve no idea, darling girl, but I promise you I shall find out from someone I’m sure knows about these things. We have a few weeks before that particular problem presents itself.”
    Satisfied she could forget about such matters until the baby was born she settled back to doze leaving him return to his desk and write the necessary letter. His pen scratching across the paper and his frequent curses and muttering made her smile. He would always be irascible, this was part of his nature, but he would never mistreat her again.
    Having him sleeping peacefully beside her every night improved her own slumbers. Even when they had been first married he had never remained all night in her bed. Ellie’s shock when she came in that first morning still made them both laugh. Indeed it had been more of an adjustment for Duncan and her abigail than it had been for them.
    Alexander’s valet was unused to sharing bed chamber duties having taken care of his master, as was customary, in splendid isolation these past years. For a day or two she feared Duncan might hand in his notice but things settled down. As there were two distinct dressing rooms, and separate chambers where mending and such things were done, there was no need for the two servants to meet.
    The only place there could have been difficulty was over the bathing room. Mary solved this by appointing a chambermaid whose sole duty was to keep this room in pristine condition and to carry up the necessary hot water.
    Alexander had been happily ensconced for a week when Nanny Cooper arrived to take up her position. Isobel liked her on sight; the woman could be no more than one and thirty and had a calm practical care about her.
    “Nanny, you’ll find things are done differently at Newcomb. The nursery suite is opposite the rooms my husband and I occupy. It is my intention to feed the baby myself if possible but I expect it might be wise to have a wet nurse available just in case.”
    Instead of pursing her lips the woman smiled. “Your baby will do better being nursed by you, my lady. My previous employer, Lady Grainger, always did so. When we travelled to house parties it was always apparent the Grainger children were more robust and happy than those who had little to do with their parents.”
    “I knew as soon as I saw your letter, Nanny, we should get on splendidly. The midwife is arriving tomorrow and I shall put her in your charge. If there is anything you require for yourself, or the baby, just speak to the housekeeper, Mrs Watkins, and it will be arranged.”
    Nanny Cooper curtsied. “Thank you, my lady. I’m sure I shall be content here, for all its size Newcomb is a happy house.”
    When Alexander climbed in beside her that night she was eager to tell him how delighted she was with the new appointment. However no sooner had she settled into his arms than she felt a flood of liquid pour from her. Horrified that she’d disgraced herself she cried out in distress but he hushed her with a kiss.
    “That was not your bladder emptying, my love, it will your waters breaking. Let me help you out of bed and we can send for assistance.”
    “Good heavens, how do you know such a thing?”
    “You forget, sweetheart, I’ve been through this process twice before.” He found the tinderbox and lit several candles before returning to her side. “Although I will admit, my dear, that on neither occasion was I drenched when it happened.”
    That light-hearted comment did much to dispel her fear, but there was no midwife in residence. There were four weeks to her original due date and the baby was on its way.

Chapter Nineteen

    “Alexander, come back— you can’t go and fetch Nanny Cooper as you are.”
    He glanced down at his nakedness and laughed. “Very well, where the devil is my bed robe?”
    Patiently she directed him to the heap of navy silk he had tossed carelessly to one side when he’d joined her ten minutes ago. “Hurry up, someone must ride for Dr Jamieson and things have to be prepared downstairs for the delivery.” Isobel tried to control her panic but her voice was decidedly wobbly.
    In two strides he was back beside her. “Darling, the baby won’t arrive for several hours, there’s no need to worry. Everything will be ready when the time does come.”
    “That’s all very well for you to say, you’re not sitting in a growing puddle feeling as though your insides are falling out.” With hindsight perhaps she should have mentioned the nagging backache she’d had all day.
    His expression changed to one of alarm. “Isobel, have you had any contractions, any pain before this?”
    “Only a backache, no contractions at all.”
    “Stay where you are, I shall rouse the house. I doubt there will be time to fetch a doctor. We must deliver the baby ourselves.”
    She was about to protest when a band of pain gripped her stomach quite taking her breath away. A further gush of water added to her discomfort. She prayed Nanny and Mary had enough experience between them to deliver this baby. He was quite right, far more likely to be one hour than ten before the infant made his appearance.
    Not wishing to sit in a soaked chair or continue to wear her ruined nightgown she struggled to her feet and walked unsteadily to her closet. She needed something dry to put on. As she was reaching up to remove what she wanted a second contraction almost floored her. Gasping, unable to keep back the moan of pain, she hung onto the edge of the shelves waiting for it to pass.
    “My lady, whatever are you doing in here? Here, let me get you into a clean night rail. Nanny is preparing what’s necessary whilst the girls strip the bed and get it ready.”
    Thankfully Isobel leant back into Mary’s willing arms. “Even Alexander thought my travail would be long—how can the baby be almost here after only two contractions?”
    The soiled nightgown was removed and a clean one dropped over her head. “Sometimes it can be like this—you’re one of the lucky ones, my lady.”
    Alexander appeared in the doorway his hair standing on end where he’d raked his hands through. “Isobel, I told you to stay put. Now isn’t the time to be wandering all over the place.”
    “Go away, Alexander. This isn’t the place for a man—you’ll be called to see our baby when he arrives in due course.”
    His grin was a trifle lopsided but he nodded. “First, my love, I shall help you back to bed and then I shall wait next-door.”
    Halfway across the carpet she was convulsed again; having his arms around her was a comfort. Her eyes blurred with pain and her body was no longer under her control. The band of agony passed and she could breathe again. Next moment he had picked her up and carried her as if she weighed nothing at all to place her in the centre of the prepared bed.
    “I can stay here with you, if you would find it easier.” The chorus of dissent made him step back shaking his head apologetically. “Very well, but I shall be next door if you change your mind, my dear.”
*   *   *
    Reluctantly he released his hold, but not before cupping her face and kissing her gently. He hated to see her suffer in this way. Bitterly he recalled the agony involved when his two daughters had been born. He prayed fervently Isobel would not suffer as badly.
    Watkins had ridden to fetch Jamieson but the way matters were progressing it was unlikely the doctor would arrive in time for the delivery. The baby was almost four weeks premature, did this mean it would be a sickly child? Was this because of the fall she’d had last month?
    He paced the room wincing every time she cried out. This was happening too fast. It could not be safe for baby or mother when things were rushed like this. Where was the damned doctor? He stared at the tall-case clock. It had only been three quarters of an hour since he had been ejected from the bed chamber. It seemed far longer.
    An ear splitting yell halted him and he rushed to the door. Nobody was going to keep him away from her not when she was in such distress. Bursting in without knocking he was rocked back on his heels at what he saw.
    A wriggling, red smeared object still attached to Isobel, was resting on her stomach. Ignoring the shocked exclamations of the nanny and housekeeper he surged forward.
    “Alexander, you should not be here, but I’m glad you are. See, we have a daughter, isn’t she beautiful?”
    He took Isobel’s sweaty hand and kissed the palm. “Not as beautiful as her mother. How are you? I heard you scream, I thought things had gone wrong.”
    “My lord, it isn’t seemly for you to be in here. I must insist you leave at once and allow us to complete the delivery.”
    “Please, my love, come back later when everything is clean and tidy.”
    He found himself all but bundled from the room. As the door closed firmly behind him he realised he had not looked at his daughter, had been more concerned for his wife than his child. Would his omission have been noticed?
*   *   *
    Isobel watched him leave with a heavy heart. He had wanted a son and was obviously bitterly disappointed they had a daughter instead for he’d scarcely glanced at her, given her no more attention than a new born kitten.
    “Lucinda Rose, that’s what I shall call you, little one. I think you’re a beautiful little girl but maybe I’m a trifle biased.”
    “Shall I take Lady Lucinda and give her a nice bath, your grace?” Nanny Cooper beamed down at both of them. She could see how lovely the new arrival was even if her papa could not.
    “Is she a good size, Nanny? She’s almost four weeks early you know.” The baby was gently removed from her arms and wrapped in a warm towel. Mary was still hovering at the end of the bed her work not quite done.
    “Lady Lucinda is a perfect baby, no smaller than many I’ve delivered that are full term. I should think she will weigh about six pounds or perhaps a little more.”
    Isobel flopped back on the pillows whilst Mary dealt with the arrival of the afterbirth. Thankfully this was less painful than producing Lucinda. “I should dearly like a warm bath, is that allowed so soon after giving birth?”
    Mary smiled. “You must do as you please, my lady. I should think a lovely soak would do you a power of good. I shall arrange for the water to be brought up, then whilst I assist you with your ablutions, the girls can tidy up in here.”
    No one referred to the fact that Alexander had burst in when he was not wanted or that he had not admired his new daughter. “Nanny, when do I get to feed my daughter?”
    “As soon as you’re both clean and tidy I shall return with your baby, my lady.”
    “Mary, I think I had better remove myself to the bathroom before Dr Jamieson arrives. He’s a mite old-fashioned and will probably expect me to remain in my bed for the next three weeks. Apart from being a little sore and fatigued I am remarkably well, the experience was not half as bad as I’d been led to believe.”
    “That’s because it was all over in a flash, next time you might not be so lucky.”
    “I wonder why Lucinda arrived three and a half weeks early when she isn’t a particularly large baby.”
    “You were so big because you carried excessive amounts of fluid, with your next pregnancy everything might be different.”
    This was the second time Mary had referred to another child - although it was imperative she produced a son eventually -, at the moment the thought of another nine months increasing filled her with horror. She was eager to get back to riding every morning. Until Alexander could assure her his attentions would not result in a baby she was going to make him remain in his old chambers.
    They had already agreed that during her lying in they would sleep apart. One thing was certain; as soon as they were sharing a bed he would want to make love to her. She had no wish to carry another child for at least a year but she would not be incapable of refusing him.
    Dr Jamieson arrived when she was safely back in her bed with Lucinda suckling contentedly. Alexander had not reappeared even though word had been sent to him that both she and the baby were ready to be visited. Where was he? Why didn’t he come?
    “My lady, I don’t believe there is any need to examine either you or the baby. I can see immediately you’re both in excellent health. However, if you’ll forgive me, it is better to be safe than sorry and I shall just give you a cursory look over.”
    After enduring the indignities of childbirth his examination was as nothing. He declared she was a perfect mother and should be able to produce any amount of children without difficulty. She was getting decidedly tired of being told to reproduce as often as possible. When he left dawn had broken and the birds were singing as if in celebration of the new arrival.
    Nanny had taken the infant to the nursery insisting a new mother must sleep. She had promised to return when Lucinda needed her next feed. Still he didn’t come. The joy of holding her baby for the first time was dimmed by his absence. Eventually she gave in to her worries and asked Ellie to discover where he was. It would be impossible to sleep until she knew.
    Fifteen minutes trickled past before her abigail returned. “My lady, we have searched the house as best we can and can’t discover him anywhere. Should we make enquiries in the stable yard?”
    “No, Ellie, you get to your bed— no doubt everything will be made clear in the morning.”
    Instead of falling into a satisfied slumber Isobel curled up and buried her face in the pillows fighting back her tears. This should have been a wonderful time, a shared experience. Why had he abandoned them now?
*   *   *
    Alexander stared at the closed door tempted to knock, to insist he be allowed in to hold his baby but he knew this would be unpopular. Men were not wanted when babies were born. He must find something to occupy his time until his two darlings were ready to receive him.
    Taking a candlestick he wandered downstairs and into his study. It would be dawn soon, he would open the shutters and the French doors and stretch out on the day bed and listen to the birds. When the sun came up he would rouse Duncan, get himself shaved and return to Isobel and his daughter.
    He should have found himself some clothes before he left. He could hardly be discovered dozing downstairs with nothing on but his bed-robe. All his garments were now installed in the closets at the rear of the house and he couldn’t go back there for the moment. Devil take it! However, there were still some items in the guest rooms he’d occupied in the east wing.
    Exiting via the doors that lead onto the terrace he headed for the east side of the house. By the time he found a window he could prise up his feet were sore and he was more than a little irritated. All the rooms were under covers whilst the workmen improved the kitchens, installed bathing rooms, and repaired the roof.
    Several times he trod on something sharp and his cursing echoed through the empty building. When he reached his destination he lit several candles before searching the closet. He was delighted to discover all the necessary undergarments, a pair of decent breeches and a shirt. However, the only footwear that had been abandoned here were evening slippers which looked decidedly odd but were better than continuing with bare feet.
    There was still an hour before full light; he would catch up on his missed sleep. There was plenty of time before he could present himself at Isobel’s door. As he relaxed his eyes misted. He was the luckiest man in England. Six months ago he had been in despair, now he had a wife and daughter and the rest of his life to look forward to.
    The sound of banging and hammering woke him. He jolted awake. Dammit to hell! He’d overslept—Isobel must wonder what had become of him. As he raced back through the house workmen scattered in all directions, buckets were dropped, ladders toppled over but he ignored the chaos. Would the feeble explanation that he’d fallen asleep be enough to make up for his disastrous lack of attention to his new daughter and wife?
*   *   *
    “There you are, little one, I don’t think you could take another morsel even if you tried.” Isobel rested the baby on her shoulder and rubbed her back as Nanny Cooper had shown her. It would seem infants needed to bring up their wind before they could settle back to sleep.
    The tall clock in the sitting room struck for the third time since she’d awoken, the time was now seven o’clock. Alexander had been absent for five hours. She could think of no reason for him being away from her side unless he’d ridden off to hide his disappointment at her failure to provide him with his much wanted son. For all his protestations that he would prefer a dozen daughters if it meant she would remain at his side, his absence demonstrated his disappointment.
    “Let me take Lady Lucinda for you, your grace. Ellie has brought you up a delicious breakfast. A nursing mother needs to keep up her strength if she is going to produce sufficient milk for the baby.”
    Nanny made her feel like a complete ninny, but when it came to taking care of babies Isobel was remarkably ignorant. “I am sharp set, the tea and toast I had in the middle of the night seem a very long time ago.”
    She was halfway through her repast when the sound of running feet alerted her to the imminent arrival of her missing spouse. “Ellie, please fetch another tray, his grace will wish to eat with me.”
    The chamber door almost flew off its hinges. Her mouth dropped open. Never in her life had she expected to see her immaculate husband appear in such a state of dishevelment. “Alexander, where have you been? Why are you dressed like a scarecrow?”
    He skidded to a halt beside her looking round the room like a man demented. “Sweetheart, I went next door to find something to wear and fell asleep. How can I apologise? Where is my daughter? I owe her an apology also for not greeting her when she was born.”
    Whatever explanation she’d expected this had not been it. What he said was quite ridiculous and perfectly understandable. “My love, you’re forgiven. We searched the house last night but I did not think to look next door for you.” She grinned up at him. “I had also quite forgotten your state of undress and the fact that your garments were unavailable to you. Lucinda Rose is next door in the nursery, it will be quite in order for you to go and see her there.”
    She expected him to refuse, to say he would wait until Nanny bought her in again, but he didn’t. He blew her a kiss and rushed from the room. She’d been worrying unnecessarily. Everything that had transpired was explained away. She must learn to trust him but this was difficult when his behaviour was so unpredictable.
    She had almost finished her breakfast when Ellie hurried in with a laden tray, at exactly the same time Alexander returned with their daughter cradled in his arms. “I could not bear to put her down, my darling, so Nanny gave me her blessing to bring her back to you myself.” He sniffed appreciatively. “Is that food for me? You’re an angel to think of me after I abandoned you last night.”
    The baby was tenderly returned to the crib which was to remain in the bed chamber for the moment. There was a second, identical one, in the nursery for when she was with Nanny.
    “There, little Lucy, you’re as beautiful as your mother and I already love you almost as much as I do her.”
    “She is tiny but perfectly healthy, so Dr Jamieson told me. He also informed me I would have no difficulty producing a dozen children.”
    He pulled up a chair and examined what was under the cloth. “I think one baby alternate years for the rest of your productive life will be sufficient, my dear.” He then picked up his cutlery and set to with gusto ignoring her dagger looks.
    “Gracious! Do you realise by my reckoning that could mean, let me see, fifteen further children. I can promise you when we reach four or five you’ll be banished to the far side of the house once more.”
    Pausing between mouthfuls he grinned at her, his eyes sparkling with humour. “It shan’t come to that, sweetheart, did I not promise you I would make enquiries from a friend before I return to your bed?”
    She nodded. “I can’t resume physical relations as Dr Jamieson put it, until our baby is six weeks at least. However, Nanny Cooper did let slip that by nursing Lucinda myself it might well prevent me from becoming pregnant. I think she was warning me against breast-feeding rather than encouraging me. Everyone appears to think we are both desperate to produce another baby.”
    “I would be perfectly satisfied with just, Lucinda Rose. By the by, I don’t remember agreeing to that name.” He raised his eyebrows and she giggled.
    “You may choose the names of any boys, my love, but I shall select for any girls.”
    He nodded solemnly. “In which case, my darling, I shall call our first son Horatio Peregrine Everard, and then the second, Peregrine Everard Horatio …”
    Spluttering through her mirth she finished his sentence for him. “And the third no doubt will be, Everard Peregrine Horatio.” Their laughter woke the baby and brought Nanny Cooper clucking into the room.
    Isobel sent him away to write letters announcing the safe arrival of their daughter to Aunt Lucy, Uncle Ben and her parents. He also had instructions to send word to London so Mr Bentley was aware he was still in line for the title for the next year or two at least.

Chapter Twenty

    Isobel had not realised how tiring nursing a new baby was going to be. Lucinda refused to wait the expected four hours between feeds and was constantly at her breast. Not that she minded, unlike her pregnancy she loved every minute of being a mama. She was sitting with her feet up on the chaise longue four weeks after the baby’s birth when Alexander strolled in, several letters in his hand.
    “That daughter of yours is insatiable, small wonder she is gaining weight and you’re losing it.” He stroked the baby’s downy head and kissed Isobel on the brow. Since her delivery he’d been less inclined to kiss her lips, in fact if she was honest his eyes no longer darkened when he looked at her.
    “I’ve almost done, another few minutes and Nanny Cooper will be back to collect her.” She nodded towards his hand. “Is there something from my family? Can they come when we have Lucinda baptised in July?”
    “Shall I read them to you or will you wait until you have your hands free?” He sprawled on the window seat. He looked relaxed, happy—so why didn’t he kiss her properly anymore?
    “Just tell me what they said - there’s no need to read the whole missive.”
    His smile faded at her terseness but he made no comment. She was so tired it was making her snippy, but this was no excuse for being uncivil to him. “I’m so sorry, Alexander, I should not have snapped at you. It’s not your fault I’m getting so little sleep.”
    “Then stop feeding Lucinda. The young woman you’ve employed as wet nurse looks perfectly wholesome. Let her take over from you.”
    He didn’t understand, the bond between a baby and its mama was forged in these first few weeks. However tired she was she would persist for another week at least. “Not yet, my love, Nanny Cooper says if I continue until she’s six weeks old it will be good for both of us.”
    “I’m heartily sick of hearing that woman’s name a hundred times a day. Dammit, Isobel, can you not make these decisions for yourself?”
    Why did they end up cross with each other nowadays? He had no excuse, he was able to sleep undisturbed all night and to roam around the estate enjoying the beautiful weather whilst she was trapped upstairs. So far Dr Jamieson had insisted she remain in her apartments, if he’d had his way she would still be reclining in bed all day. How was she going to resume her active life if she was allowed no exercise?
    He tossed the letters aside and came to sit beside her. “I should not have criticised the nanny, she’s doing the job we’ve employed her for. But, darling, I’m getting as little sleep as you. I find I can’t rest without you at my side. When may I return?”
    “As soon as I am allowed to resume my normal life, which hopefully will be tomorrow. The doctor makes his weekly visit then. He said I had recovered remarkably quickly. But, are you sure you wish to be woken up three times during the night when Nanny brings Lucinda to be fed?”
    He yawned and shook his head. “Perhaps I should wait until you have stopped nursing. I’m going to see my lawyers next week. I shall be gone several days; maybe things will be back to normal by then?”
    This time there was no mistaking the desire in his eyes and she felt herself responding. His smile widened and ignoring the entrance of one of the nursery maids to collect the baby, he stretched out and placed his hand on either side of her face. Her insides somersaulted and she leaned forward to meet his embrace.
    Lucinda, who had fallen asleep, woke and wailed her protest at being sandwiched between her parents in this unexpected manner. He sat back and picking up the baby, he kissed her puckered face tenderly. “Little madam, already wishing to be the centre of attention.”
    Miraculously the crying stopped and the baby snuggled into his shoulder falling instantly asleep. Isobel blinked back her tears. He was such a good father, as confident as she in handling the infant. He gave her to the waiting nursemaid and returned to collect the letters allowing Isobel time to rearrange her clothing. Of course he was competent; she kept forgetting he had been married and a father before.
    “Here, darling, read the contents for yourself. I’ve Reynolds coming to discuss estate business so I shall visit you both later this afternoon.”
    Excellent news—her entire family was to make the long journey from Norfolk for the baptism. The last time she had seen her parents had been her wedding day and had not spent time with her siblings since before she went to London for the season. Her aunt and uncle were also coming, and her cousin Petunia was to bring the young man she was engaged to marry. He sounded a pleasant enough gentleman not much older than Pet, with no title but a considerable fortune. He must be prodigiously handsome to have captured her cousin’s heart.
    He smiled as she recalled her cousin saying she would not marry until she’d had at least three seasons. The unfortunate young man must believe Petunia would never be his wife as the engagement was now of more than a year and a half’s duration.
    Mary was due to make her morning visit to discuss the menus. This was an event Isobel now enjoyed unlike the meetings she’d been obliged to endure with the previous housekeeper. If there was to be a house party next month plans would need to be made well in advance. The nursery upstairs would have to be opened to accommodate her four brothers and three sisters who would be accompanying her parents.
    “There will be a governess and tutor as well as the nanny and nursemaids, plus several other members of staff, coming with my family, Mary.”
    “I shall prepare several guest suites as well as rooms for the junior staff. Don’t worry, my lady, we could accommodate a hundred extra folk and still not be quite full.”
    Isobel sighed. “I can’t like this house, I’ve really tried, but it’s far too large. I don’t understand why Alexander’s grandfather should choose to build such a monstrosity.”
    “Lawks! The Duke of Rochester must have a grand establishment as his main seat, my lady. It goes with the title, never mind how uncomfortable it is to live in for the family.”
    “I should not cavil, since the installation of the new kitchens, and with Mrs Baverstock is in charge, the food is excellent. This apartment and the nursery is everything it should be. I don’t know what’s wrong with me but since I was delivered I am no longer a watering pot. Instead I’ve turned into a shrew.”
    “What you need to do, my lady, if you’ll forgive me for speaking out of turn, is get outside and enjoy the sunshine. I know what the physician told you, but he doesn’t know you as well as I. Shall I call Ellie to help you change into a promenade dress?”
    “Yes, I shan’t delay until tomorrow. Also, my dogs will be thinking I’ve abandoned them, I haven’t seen them for weeks.”
    The brisk walk she took with her pets frolicking around her ankles, Ellie at her side, restored her equanimity and blew away the cobwebs. On her return she met Alexander in the entrance hall.
    “Isobel? I had not thought to see you down today but I am delighted you’re here. I’ve the most amazing news -Reynolds is to be married.”
    The estate manager was a relatively young man. Why was this news so astounding? Was he a misogynist only just discovering women were to his taste? “I’m pleased for him, but why are you so excited?”
    He grinned ruefully. “I’ve known this man since he was a boy; he grew up on the estate and followed his father into the position of factor. Like me he was married young but his wife ran off with a soldier. He has been moping about unable to declare his love to a local girl as he was already married. He had word yesterday that he’s now a widower.”
    “It seems wrong to be celebrating his wife’s demise even if she did desert him for another. How long is it since the first Mrs Reynolds ran away?”
    “It must be more than ten years; I can scarcely remember the girl. The bans are to be read this week and the marriage to take place at the end of the month. He has asked me to stand up for him and I’ve agreed.”
    “Lucinda is to be baptised then. I should like the church flower-filled for our celebration; if it’s done a day in advance Mr Reynolds and his new wife can share them with us.”
    His eyes dropped to her milk engorged breasts. “I think our baby must be crying for her lunch, my darling, so I shan’t detain you longer.”
    She ran lightly up the staircase revelling in the fact she could move freely after being incarcerated for so long. How did Alexander know it was time to return to the nursery? She could feel the milk but had not known this was apparent to anyone else. She paused and glanced down at her bosom. Good gracious! She was leaking and her lovely muslin gown had two extremely damp patches.
    Much as she loved feeding her child she could hardly appear in public as she was. If she was obliged to remain in her apartments until the baby was weaned she would be fit for Bedlam. Today would be the last day. She would ask Dr Jamieson, when he came tomorrow what she should do to discourage her milk from flowing so copiously.
    Over dinner that night Alexander told her he was going to London the next day to see his lawyers. “I suppose Bentley will wish to come back with you. He must be delighted our baby is a girl.”
    “Exactly so; I shall discourage him from returning until his accommodation is complete. Sam Watkins is proving to be extremely useful to me; he has been overseeing the improvements and is making a splendid job of it.”
    “I’ve no longer any need for a man of business and was concerned he would have to return to being a groom.”
    “He would be wasted. I’ve already spoken to him and offered him the position of under-estate manager. This means Reynolds can now visit all my other properties knowing there’s someone reliable to take care of things in his absence.”
    “I can’t believe how happy I am, my love. Have you noticed everyone else around us is smiling too?”
    He reached out and stroked her hand. “Happiness is infectious, darling, but I think the absence of Maynard and Foster has a lot to do with the good humour of our staff.”
    Despite being held captive in her apartments during the day Isobel always came down to dinner. They had taken to sitting outside on the terrace after their meal. She much preferred to be there than in the formal drawing room. He joined her on the padded bench and slipped his arm around her shoulders, encouraging her to lean against him.
    “I shan’t be away more than a few days. I can send for my lawyers to attend me here if you would prefer I didn’t go.”
    She had not yet told him her decision to stop feeding Lucinda and decided to let it be a surprise for him when he returned. Whatever the physician told her, she was more than ready to welcome him back in her bed. “Alexander, have you written to your friend to ask how he and his wife avoid yearly pregnancies?”
    “No I shall do so whilst I’m in town.” His smile sent waves of desire racing around her body. There was no doubt he was as eager as she to resume the intimacies of marriage.
    “Then I shall be happy for you to go. Remember, I am well used to spending time at Newcomb on my own and things are very different from the way they were last year.”
    They parted outside his bed chamber. As usual he kissed her lightly on the lips and bid her goodnight. She was disappointed he had not shown more passion. After all in a few days they would be sharing a bed once more. She was worrying about nothing— the smile he’d given her earlier was sign enough that he still desired her.
*   *   *
    Dr Jamieson explained the best way to stop her milk was to bind her breasts tightly and to avoid being in the vicinity of the baby when she cried for her feed. He assured her that as she had only been feeding for a few weeks her milk would soon dry up. Apparently, only after six weeks did it became fully established. He also said she could resume riding if she wished and he had no need to call again unless there were problems with the infant or herself.
    Sultan, the gelding she’d purchased whilst living in Norfolk, might well have forgotten her by now. Although she had visited him in the stables she had not ridden since they’d returned to Newcomb. Leaving Lucinda entirely in the care of Nanny Cooper was going to be difficult, but if she was to stop nursing this was the only way.
    Dressed in a smart, royal blue habit she hurried down to the stables. Both dogs were as keen as she was to go out. Her mount was saddled and waiting, the groom holding his head was Jethro who’d come back with the staff from Grosvenor Square.
    “I don’t wish to go too far this morning, Jethro, it’s been many months since I’ve ridden.”
    “A brisk canter around the park will suit Sultan, your grace. He’s not as fit as he could be. He’s been a mite crabby with the stable lads.”
    Isobel rammed her foot into the single stirrup iron and gathered up the reins. Perhaps she would ride the pretty dapple grey mare instead. She could feel the gelding’s muscles bunching beneath her, his neck arched and he mouthed the bit impatiently.
    Should she dismount and ask for the other horse to the saddled? Before she could decide Ebony spied one of the stable cats and chased it across the yard scattering the fowl that were pecking for stray morsels of corn. Sultan reared, snatched the bit between his teeth and took off at a gallop. It took all her skill to remain in the saddle. There was no way she could stop such a powerful animal. She must sit tight and pray he exhausted himself before they came to grief.
*   *   *
    The business with his lawyers was completed within a morning and this left Alexander ample time to visit Lady Fulbright. She was of childbearing age and yet did not get pregnant. Therefore, unless she was barren she must have a method of avoiding unwanted conception.
    He sent a footman round to her townhouse in Albemarle Street asking if he might visit her as he had a favour to ask. He hoped she had forgiven him for his rebuff all those months ago. Whilst he waited for her reply he gathered up the morning’s mail and took it into the study to read.
    Of Bentley there was no sign; according to Foster the young man had been out until the small hours at some social function or other and would not rise until midday. Alexander detected a stiffness in his ancient butler. In fact there was generally an unwelcome atmosphere amongst all the staff. They were not any less attentive, but no-one met his eyes or smiled when he approached as they once did.
    No doubt it was because they had been obliged to stay in London looking after Bentley. The groom who delivered the post every day would have taken back the information that Brown was butler at Newcomb and Watkins was the housekeeper. He must reassure them they were not to be turned out to fend for themselves. This was one reason he’d seen his legal people. His elderly retainers could now retire secure in the knowledge they had a good annuity and might live in comfort for their remaining days.
    He flicked through the pile of invitations pleased he was obviously back on the guest list of the hostesses who had dropped him while he was drinking and gambling so disgracefully. Perhaps he would attend one or two of the events; he would like to let people know he was a father again and that he and Isobel were happy.
    The reply from Gloria arrived later that afternoon. She suggested they met at Vauxhall Gardens, as there was to be a spectacular firework display to mark some anniversary or other. It would probably be wise to meet in public and not visit her house as this might be misconstrued. He wrote a quick reply agreeing to meet her at nine o’clock.
    Bentley drifted into the drawing-room as Alexander was preparing to leave. “Your grace, I beg your pardon for not having written to you to congratulate you on the birth of Lady Lucinda. I hope that both mother and baby are doing well?”
    “They are, thank you, Bentley. I hope you’ll come down for the baptism. Your accommodation will be finished by then and you can spend the summer with us if that’s what you would like to do.”
    The young man nodded and smoothed his blue and gold striped waistcoat lovingly. “I had intended to come back with you, your grace, but will postpone my visit until the house party if that’s what you would prefer. I see you’re about to go out. Are you going to Lady Simmons soiree?”
    “No, I’m meeting friends at Vauxhall Gardens. It seems there is to be a firework display that should not be missed.”
    “I might well see you there later; if not then we shall meet tomorrow. I bid you good evening, your grace.”
    Alexander left the house seething. God’s teeth, one would think he was the hanger on and Bentley the duke. It had not been such a good idea to leave the young man in sole residence in Grosvenor Square. He’d got ideas above his station. Tomorrow he would put the young man straight but tonight he must speak to Gloria. The thought of being able to make love to his darling girl without fear of a second pregnancy was reason enough to renew his acquaintance with his former mistress.

Chapter Twenty-one

    Alexander sent a letter from London saying he was delayed and would not be returning until the following week. Isobel was disappointed as she had been persevering with the binding and was almost free from unwanted milk. If she avoided Lucinda’s feed times she could safely spend several hours with her baby daughter.
    “Ellie, can you start altering my gowns? Now I’ve regained my original form I no longer need to have them so full in the chest.”
    Her maid looked up from her task. “I had thought you might like to leave them as they are, my lady, you have a closet full of beautiful gowns that you’ve not worn.”
    “You’re quite correct. Why don’t you put the ones I wore during my pregnancy at the back of my closet?” She knew the girl was thinking her mistress might well be increasing again by the end of the year.
    Her pulse raced just thinking about the possibility. An image of Alexander proudly naked in her bed sent a wave of heat from head to toe. Ellie was looking her eyes wide with concern. “Are you feeling unwell, my lady, have you got a fever?”
    Isobel forced her thoughts away from bed sport. “I feel a little overheated, I shall take a walk in the garden to cool down.”
    “Very well, my lady.”
    Isobel enjoyed her stroll and was ready to continue with perusing more lists with Mary. A footman held out a silver salver upon which was a letter. “This arrived a few minutes ago, your grace.”
    She paused in the window to read the letter. The missive was brief but said everything it should.

    My darling wife,
    I am desolated that I have further business to attend to before I can be with you. I am returning next week. I have the information we both wanted. I can’t wait to try out the
    efficacy of this with you.
    Your devoted husband

    In the post script he’d scribbled the names and number of some extra guests. She had no notion why he’d gone to Grosvenor Square; no doubt he would explain when he was with her next week. The season was over, the main reason for his visit had been to speak with his friend and discover how fashionable ladies avoided yearly babies. Obviously he had been successful. The staff must know the names of the extra guests so she had better speak to Mary immediately.
    The next week dragged. She rode for an hour or two every morning, spent time with Lucinda, oversaw the arrangements for the house party, but still Alexander’s arrival seemed no nearer. A second missive arrived unexpectedly from her aunt and uncle. It appeared they would be in the vicinity a week earlier than planned and would now be arriving the day before her husband.
    She sighed. She longed to see her relatives and could not ask them to languish in a hostelry whilst she and Alexander… she could hardly bear to think of what they might be doing. It sent her dizzy with excitement. Newcomb was vast; surely they could be private somewhere?
    The house was looking as welcoming as it could. She’d filled the chambers with flowers and the furniture and glass sparkled in the sunlight. The extra indoor staff necessary for such a grand house party would be arriving the next morning from Grosvenor Square. She wondered how they would adjust to the new regime. Bill, (she could still not think of him as Brown) limped towards her. She scarcely noticed his infirmity nowadays. She was confident everything was running smoothly and the staff would not let her down.
    “Your grace, Mrs Watkins and I’ve trained three footmen and three maids to act as valets or abigails for any of the guests who might not have brought their own. I hope this will be satisfactory.”
    “Whatever you have arranged will be acceptable. Look, I believe I can see a carriage coming up the drive. Did Sir John and Lady Illingworth’s luggage cart arrive earlier this morning?”
    “It did, my lady, and the trunks are unpacked and their apartments ready.” He hesitated before continuing. “I’ve put all single gentlemen on one side of the house and the young ladies on the other.”
    Her lips twitched. Good grief! Did he really think this was the kind of house party where the gentlemen prowled the corridors looking for their lovers?
    Smiling to herself she returned to the drawing-room to wait. She’d checked her appearance a dozen times that morning. She was wearing a new leaf-green muslin, perfect for a hot, summer’s day.
    Eventually Bill stepped in to announce her aunt and uncle, Cousin Petunia, Cousin James and a stranger. This young gentleman was obviously Petunia’s intended.
    “My dear girl, you look wonderful. One would not know that you’re now the proud mother of an infant daughter.” Aunt Lucy embraced her fondly. “Is your husband not here.”
    “No, he will be here tomorrow, he has been delayed in London by business and other matters.” She hugged her uncle, kissed Petunia and curtsied to the gentlemen. “I am so pleased you were able to come earlier than arranged. It’s been an age since we last saw each other. I must show you the improvements Alexander has made for me, but after you have settled in.”
    There was no time for a private conversation with her cousin until late afternoon. Lucinda was much admired and the newfangled bathroom declared a wonder to behold. Eventually the young gentlemen retired to the billiard room and her aunt and uncle to their apartment for a much-needed afternoon rest.
    Petunia had been viewing her most anxiously all day and was obviously bursting with a delicious piece of gossip that could not be shared in public. “Pet, shall we take a stroll around the garden? It’s far cooler under the trees than it is down here.”
    “I should like that above anything, I’ve something most particular to tell you. “When they were safely out of earshot of any lurking servant her cousin turned to her. “Isobel, I must tell you, I’ve heard the most malicious rumour. Fortunately it has not reached the ears of my parents but it’s been talked about everywhere. I can’t in all conscience allow you to remain in ignorance of what your guests will assuredly know.”
    Isobel’s heart sunk to her slippers. “What is it? It is to do with Alexander, isn’t it?”
    “Oh, my dear, the duke was seen in Vauxhall Gardens in a private booth with Lady Fulbright.”
    “My husband does not have to apply to me for permission to visit his friends. If that’s all, then I can’t see why anyone should be interested. Don’t all gentlemen have a chereamie in Town?” She was amazed her voice sounded unperturbed when inside she was falling apart.
    “I haven’t told you the rest of it. He was seen leaving Lady Fulbright’s house in Albemarle Street the next morning. I’m so sorry to be the one to tell you the duke has renewed his liaison with his mistress.”
    “What Alexander does in London is no concern of mine and certainly no business of yours, Petunia. I can’t think why you would believe telling me something I already know was beneficial to either of us.”
    Her cousin shook her head in dismay. “I am sorry; I should not have mentioned it. Please forgive me, you’re quite correct. I can’t think why anyone should consider such a thing worth gossiping about.”
    “Do you see the marquee they are erecting for the garden party next week? Reynolds tells me there will be several hundred villagers and tenants attending. We are to have fire eaters, stilt walkers and conjurors to entertain.” She rattled on about the ale that had been ordered, the food that was to be prepared until she was certain her cousin was convinced the news she’d imparted was of no interest.
    “I can see your young man approaching. I shall leave you to continue your walk in his company. We dine at seven o’clock as Alexander does not like to keep country hours.” Somehow she made her way back to her apartment without betraying her dismay. Once safe from prying eyes she gave way to tears— eventually her head cleared and she came to a decision.
    When he came back she would make it perfectly plain she knew what he’d been doing in London, that he’d broken his promise and everything had changed between them. George must remove all his belongings from the closets in her apartment and set him up again in the master suite. He was no longer welcome in her bedchamber. Leaving him was not an option she considered any more. She would remain at his side and fulfil her duties as his duchess but there would be no more children. Bentley could remain his next in line.
    On impulse she decided to hold a celebration ball and invite all the prestigious families of the neighbourhood. She would establish herself in the area; after all she’d been married for more than two years and had yet to hold a grand event. Although she did not have the duke’s permission the ball would go ahead whatever his views on the matter.
*   *   *
    At her morning meeting with Mary she broached the subject. “We are already having a garden party for the villagers, tenants and staff to celebrate Lucinda’s baptism. I’ve now decided to hold a ball on the following evening. This only gives you two weeks’ notice, will that be sufficient?”
    “Yes, indeed, my lady. It’s high time you established yourself as the Duchess of Rochester. I’ve ready a list of all the suitable families, I felt sure that sooner or later you would wish to introduce yourself to local society.”
    Isobel’s unhappiness lifted a little. Perhaps if she made new friends, was no longer so isolated, living here might be bearable. She sincerely hoped that he would return to London, or remove himself some other part of the country, and leave her to live peacefully at Newcomb with her daughter.
    Her stomach revolted, her hand flew to her mouth and she swallowed furiously. How could she deny him access to her bed when it had been agreed between them they must produce an heir? She closed her eyes. Being estranged from Alexander was going to be so much harder this time because her love had blossomed over these past months. To lose him a second time was more than she could bear. Should she pretend she didn’t know?
    She was tempted to discuss her heartbreak with Mary, but this was too personal a subject to share even with her. “How many local guests will there be, Mary?”
    “Well, my lady, I can’t say exactly without referring to the list, but I should think around fifty or more. Pray excuse me, I shall fetch it directly, and then you can read it at your leisure. Do you wish me to begin the planning before the cards are sent out?”
    “Do that, Mary. We already have more than thirty staying here. I’m quite sure they will appreciate a dance even if no one else accepts my invitation. Do you know, I don’t believe I’ve been in the ballroom above three times in all the time I’ve lived here?”
    “I shall arrange to have it cleaned immediately. There’s ample time to send to the warehouses for what we need. Bill will speak to you about the champagne and wine; he will know exactly what’s in the cellar.”
    By the end of the day cards had been sent out to fifteen families all within an hour’s drive of Newcomb. If everyone attended there would be in excess of thirty couples—more than enough to make the enormous room seem full.
    Having the dance to look forward to as well as the other two events alleviated her misery somewhat. However, she wasn’t looking forward to Alexander’s reaction when he discovered he was to host a ball for more than one hundred people and every one of them would know he had been visiting his mistress.
    She shuddered as her mind went back to that horrible night when Lucinda had been conceived. Would his reaction be the same? No, although he’d broken his promise to remain faithful, she believed he was a different person now. He no longer drank to excess, did not gamble or associate with ne’er-do-wells.
    Alexander would not mistreat her however angry he was at her decision. No doubt he considered his behaviour perfectly acceptable. Many gentlemen kept a mistress tucked away somewhere. The difference in this case was that somehow it had become a matter of gossip amongst the ton. If he had not given her his word, he would always be safe for the knowledge would not hurt as much.
    Despite her unhappiness her lips twitched. She recalled that families with whom she had mixed in her younger days some of them had three or four children, others too many to remember all their names. My goodness! The very thought of her own parents still indulging in bedroom sport shocked her to the core. Her youngest sibling had been in leading strings when she had left home so obviously her parents had a loving relationship.
    Did lack of children in the other families mean the couple did not share a bed? Did this mean the gentleman would need to slake his physical desires elsewhere? Had she been too hasty in her condemnation? No, his letter had intimated that he’d discovered a way of preventing conception therefore he had no excuse for indulging himself with his mistress.
    Her door burst open and Petunia ran in. “Is it true, Isobel, that you’re to hold a ball before we leave?”
    “Indeed we are. I decided on a whim that Lucinda’s baptism should be celebrated not only by the tenants but by everyone else as well. I hope you’ve something suitable to wear?”
    “I have, Mama insisted I bought a formal gown just in case. I’m glad you’re not too dispirited about the news I gave you.”
    “Pet, this is the way things are. Alexander and I are very happy together, he knows I’ve no wish to be increasing every year. I’m sure he believes he’s doing me a favour by finding an outlet for his passion elsewhere.”
    Her friend turned an unbecoming shade of beetroot. Isobel’s sudden laughter did nothing to improve the situation. “I apologise for mentioning something so indelicate to you, but you’ll be a married woman soon and would do well to understand these matters.” She offered her arm to her friend. “Let’s continue our stroll and talk of other things.”
*   *   *
    “Duncan, I’ve just received a missive from Newcomb informing me we are having a ball. Does that mean that I must become involved? I’m glad I invited some of my own friends to come down; it’s far too long since Newcomb held a big event of this sort.”
    His valet smiled. “I should leave such matters to her grace, I’m sure she has everything in hand. A few extra guests will barely be noticed.”
    “I must inform Bentley.  He will need to purchase something more suitable than the dandified costume he prances about in at the moment.”
    “Very wise notion, your grace. It wouldn’t do to startle your guests.”
    “Mind you, the thought of him appearing in his high heels and hideous waistcoat might well be entertaining.”
    He was mystified as to why Isobel had decided to invite the entire neighbourhood to Newcomb without first consulting him. Was this to be his punishment for delaying so long in town? Grinning, he reviewed the business that had kept him at Grosvenor Square. Leasing a luxury yacht had not been as simple as he’d expected and he’d been obliged to interview the captain and the purser before the deal was done.
    Isobel and his infant daughter were to accompany him on a cruise directly the celebrations were completed. He’d also pensioned off all the less adaptable of his old retainers and the remainder were already on their way to Newcomb to help with the preparations.
    His meeting with Gloria had been most informative. He had in his possession a letter explaining how to use vinegar and a sponge in the most efficacious way. His parting with his former mistress had been amicable. She had found herself another benefactor, someone less demanding and almost as rich as himself.
    His lawyers wanted him to return to London to sign the papers before they left. Once the dratted house party and ball were over he could slip away for a day whilst Newcomb was put under holland covers and the staff given leave of absence. The custom was to put the servants on half pay when the family was absent, but as he was feeling benevolent and he’d not do so. He was happy and he wished to share his joy with all those within his domain.
    This summer was the start of a new life, he was a loving husband and father again. He blinked; he didn’t deserve to be so happy after the way he’d behaved. Isobel had found it in her heart to forgive him and he’d never let her down.
*   *   *
    Alexander’s garments were back where they belonged and the preparations all but complete for the garden party and the summer ball. There was nothing else to be done. Isobel saw his carriage approaching at a spanking trot. She was dreading this meeting, had veered from rage to almost understanding his reasons for betraying her. Her relatives appeared to have accepted her explanation and saw no reason for disquiet.
    She hurried through the house and into his study. Bill would make sure his master knew where to find her. They would not be disturbed in here. Whatever took place between them would remain private.
    Twenty minutes later hurrying footsteps approached the room and the door was thrown open.
    He stood there eyes blazing and she quailed. He had been upstairs, seen the changes, and had come to demand an explanation.

Chapter Twenty-two

    “Sweetheart, what’s wrong? Why are you looking at me like that?”
    Isobel had mistaken his expression. He looked bewildered, his eyes wide with hurt. Suddenly his infidelity no longer mattered, he loved her and she loved him - that was enough for her.
    “Alexander, it’s nothing … I thought … they said … it doesn’t matter. I love you.” She flung herself at him wanting the reassurance of his arms around her.
    “You’re making no sense. Has someone upset you? Tell me, darling, we can have no secrets between us now.” She pressed her face into his jacket, shaking her head and refusing to look up at him. “Isobel, you’re worrying me. I intend to discover what’s wrong even if we have to remain in here all day.”
    Her words were somewhat muffled in his shirt. “It’s nothing, I’ve missed you and my aunt and uncle and cousins are already here.”
    He stiffened. “Come, we shall sit together calmly and you can tell me what it is that you’ve been told that has so discomforted you.”
    There was only one thing she could think of that would turn him from his interrogation. She slid her hands up his chest until they were buried in the hair at the base of his neck, then she relaxed against him and tilted her face expectantly.
    “Baggage! You shan’t distract me so easily.” He dropped a swift, hard kiss on her parted lips and then swung her into the air to stride across the room and drop her none too gently onto the sofa. “Now, young lady, you’ll tell me everything.”
    He sat beside her and gathered her hands into his own. His strength reassured her. This was not the drunken, callous man she’d run away from, but her own dear Alexander, the father of her child.
    With lowered eyes she told him what Petunia had told her. He didn’t answer and she risked a glance upwards, he was smiling slightly. “I don’t know whether to be offended that you didn’t trust me or delighted that you forgave me.”
    “I decided that whatever had taken place you had come back to me. You love me and our daughter and that’s all that matters.”
    Leaning forward he stared earnestly into her eyes. “I did meet Lady Fulbright and go to her house but not for the reasons you suppose. It’s she that has supplied the information we require.”
    “My goodness! That’s not an explanation that readily came to mind. I thought you would ask a married gentleman friend.”
    He chuckled. “Would you have preferred I discussed our personal business with someone you might meet socially?”
    “No, and I wish people would not jump to conclusions and be so ready to pass them on.”
    “That puzzles me also. I was most discreet, and I can’t think my visit to that lady would arouse the slightest interest in most drawing-rooms. I wonder how your cousin came to hear of it?”
    “I shall ask her, and make sure she knows the information was erroneous.” She fluttered her eyelids hoping she looked irresistible. “I’ve something else to tell you, you have another opportunity to decide whether you’re offended or if you’ll forgive me.”
    “Mmmm … let me see if I can guess. Could it be that in your high dudgeon at my perfidy you have banished me and my belongings to the master suite?”
    A bubble of laughter rose inside her. He was irresistible when he was teasing her. “And, sir, let me remind you, there are locks on the inside of all my doors.”
    His eyes darkened and he trapped her face between his hands. “It would take more than a few keys to keep me out of your bed tonight, my darling.”
    She swayed closer and his mouth hovered tantalisingly. Why didn’t he kiss her? Then she was crushed against him, his lips burned hers and she was lost to the world, to sense and decorum. His arousal pressed against her stomach. She no longer cared if she conceived. She wanted to feel him inside her, wanted to be part of his body, not know where she ended and he began.
*   *   *
    With a groan he pushed himself away. He had waited for this moment but his study was not the place and mid-afternoon was certainly not the time. “Darling, not here. When we make love I want it to be without fear of interruption or embarrassment. I’m as eager as you, but one of us must be strong.”
    Her eyes were glazed, her lips swollen from his kisses. He almost lost control. She was so beautiful, so damned desirable. To think his own crass stupidity had almost cost him his marriage and his happiness. He would kill anyone who harmed her or his daughter.
    “Shall we go and see our baby? She’s adjusted well to being fed by the nurse and is thriving. You won’t believe how much she’s changed whilst you’ve been gone.”
    Hand in hand they strolled through the house and upstairs to the nursery. “Isobel, I think I would have suggested you moved my things from your apartment anyway whilst our guests are here. Our private life isn’t open for discussion; such unusual sleeping arrangements would have given rise to further gossip.”
    She giggled. “But at least everyone would know the rumours circulating were untrue. Do you know the butler has put all the single gentlemen as far away as possible from the young ladies. I wonder if you’ll meet any of them when you’re creeping down the corridor tonight.”
*   *   *
    Petunia was suitably contrite over her misinformation. To explain the true circumstances was not possible as such revelations would be unsuitable until her cousin was also married.
    “When do your parents arrive, Isobel?”
    “Tomorrow as do four other families that Alexander invited. Finally I’m to meet his oldest friends. After this house party I doubt that I shall be lonely or lack company ever again.”
    “From the way the duke follows you with his eyes whenever you’re in the room I doubt you’ll have need of anyone else.”
    Isobel blushed. “We have resolved all our differences; I didn’t know such happiness existed. There’s nothing can come between us now.”
    The arrival of Bentley was observed from the drawing-room window by Petunia. “Isobel, one of the duke’s carriages has arrived and the most extraordinary young gentleman has stepped down from it.”
    “Indeed he has; I’d hoped Mr Bentley might have adopted a more conventional mode of dressing by now.”
    Giggling, her cousin stepped away from the window in case she was seen. “I’ve seen one or two gentlemen dressed as he is but have never had the pleasure of being introduced.”
    “I have to warn you, Pet, he is as silly as he looks. Alexander and I pray we eventually produce a boy; I shudder to think what harm he would do to the Rochester estates if he were ever to take control.”
    Her cousin pulled a face. “Don’t say such things—your husband is yet a young man. To talk of his demise is most depressing, and today of all days.”
    Alexander dashed into the room and laughed at their astonishment. “He’s here; I thought I’d seek your company. I must speak to him, but I can’t bear to do it alone.”
    Bill solemnly announced their visitor. The butler’s lips were trembling, he was finding it difficult to remain straight-faced. Bentley bowed extravagantly and Isobel was sure she heard the creak of corsets. She stared at him more closely; the young man had certainly gained weight since she’d last seen him, in fact he was decidedly stout.
    “Your grace, I am most delighted to be here to celebrate the arrival of Lady Lucinda. Might I enquire if my accommodation is ready for occupation?”
    “Unfortunately the workmen have been involved with other things these past few days which has delayed matters somewhat. However you’ll be safely installed next door within a week.” Alexander didn’t bow, merely nodded. Isobel followed his lead and did the same, however Petunia curtsied.
    “Allow me to introduce Miss Petunia Illingworth, my cousin. Miss Illingworth, might I introduce you to Mr Richard Bentley, a cousin of my husband’s.”
    A deal of simpering and banalities followed as if for some reason her cousin found Mr Bentley amusing. Alexander took her hand and silently they tiptoed out leaving the two together.
    “I can’t understand why my cousin should wish to make his acquaintance; perhaps she’s taken pity on him.”
    “I think it far more likely, Isobel my darling, that she’s doing it to allow us to escape. Your parents will be arriving this afternoon. It will be a pleasure to have Newcomb filled with the sound of children’s laughter. I’m eagerly anticipating the garden party tomorrow. The weather is set fair; it should be a memorable occasion.”
    She shook her head in mock severity. “Are you not forgetting something, my love? Tomorrow morning our daughter is to be baptised. I rather think that’s the event to which you should be looking forward.”
    In answer he swept up in his arms and twirled her around causing two footmen carrying a trunk to stumble. “Put me down, Alexander, those poor men are quite upset by your display.”
    He let her slide down his body, holding her still when her breasts were touching his waistcoat. A wave of heat enveloped her; she forgot she was surrounded by interested spectators and tilted her face to receive his kiss.
    Someone cleared their throat noisily and her cheeks suffused with colour, this time from embarrassment not passion. “Alexander, this is disgraceful, you must behave yourself whilst we have visitors.”
    “I daren’t let you go,” he whispered, “my desire is all too evident.”
    She could feel it pressing into her stomach. She had no idea who was waiting to speak to them; if it was Aunt Lucy or Uncle Ben she would never be able to look them in the face again without discomfort.
    “Turn me round; if I remain in front of you and you keep your arms in place I believe we shan’t cause an upset.”
    He did as she suggested. She found herself face-to-face, not with her uncle or aunt, but with her parents. Alexander recovered his composure first.
    “Welcome, my lord, my lady. You must forgive us, I’ve been in Town for an unconscionable time and as you have no doubt observed we are delighted to be reunited.”
    Her father frowned; he was obviously not impressed by their display. For a second she was worried about offending him and then she remembered she was a duchess, this was her home and here she could do and she pleased.
    “Papa, Mama, we did not expect you until later today. Are the children not with you?” If they thought it a breach of etiquette for her to remain within her husband’s embrace they would be even more scandalised if she moved away.
    “Nanny is following in the old coach; we travelled in our new carriage which is why we are here earlier than expected.”
    They could not remain as they were for much longer. She must greet her parents. Alexander gently pushed her forward. Thank God, the situation was becoming ridiculous. Isobel curtsied. “You must come and see your grandchild. I can promise you she’s the most beautiful baby in England.”
    Alexander spoke from behind her. “I have estate business to attend to so I shall leave you in the capable hands of my wife. I look forward to renewing our acquaintance at dinner this evening.”
    She glanced over her shoulder and he winked at her, he was still holding his coat-tails across his front. Stifling a giggle she turned back to escort her parents to the nursery where Lucinda was much admired. She then led them to their apartments and left them exclaiming happily over the luxurious appointments, the basket of fruit and the spectacular arrangements of flowers she’d had placed in their private sitting room.
    Not long after she’d returned to her own chamber her cousin came in to speak to her. “It’s as I thought, Isobel. Bentley spread the rumour about you and your husband. As soon as I saw him I knew he was the gentleman who had been described to me as having told Mariah Sanderson’s brother about it.”
    “So that’s why you were talking to him, both Alexander and I wondered at your sudden interest in such a nincompoop.”
    “You know why he spread the rumour, don’t you?”
    “It could only have been because he wished us to become estranged and not produce another child and disinherit him.” She could hardly credit the silly young man could be so devious.
    “Do you know, Isobel, I had the distinct feeling Bentley was ashamed of what he’d done. He might be a popinjay, but I can’t believe he’s malicious. I think it might be the company he’s keeping. That vile creature, Farnham, is one of his cronies.”
    “Good grief! I must tell Alexander. Bentley must be removed from the influence of that man. Pray excuse me, Pet, this information cannot wait.”
    She discovered her husband in his study, feet on the desk and a tray with coffee beside him. He was reading the paper and quite obviously hiding from his guests. He jumped to his feet at her entrance.
    “Alexander, I know how the rumours spread.”
    “Sit down, darling, and catch your breath.” He took her hand and led her to the armchair. He waited until she was settled before swinging a straight-backed chair around and straddling it. “Now, tell me what you know.”
    “Bentley was the perpetrator, but Sir John Farnham is behind it. Your cousin has become embroiled with that horrible man.”
    “God’s teeth! Farnham could have been the instigator of the attacks on Bentley. I should have forced that young idiot to tell me truth. I paid his gambling debts—but I fear, if Farnham is involved, that he owes far more.”
    “What is it? Alexander—what are you not telling me?”
    “I blame myself for having invited Farnham here. If I’d been in my senses I would have known of the man’s reputation and steered well clear of him.”
    “You are scaring me now, Alexander—”
    He stretched forward and clasped her hands. His strength reassured her. “Nothing has ever been proved, but blackmail and extortion are the least of the crimes I’ve heard him accused of.”
    “Thank goodness your cousin will be residing here for the rest of the summer. He should be safe from that evil man’s machinations at Newcomb.” She returned the pressure of his fingers. “Do you intend to speak to Bentley?”
    “Of course. Believe me, sweetheart, by the time I’ve finished with him he will regret his gossip mongering.”
    “Don’t be too hard on him, my love. He’s vain and foolish, but not a truly bad person.”
*   *   *
    The next few days she was so busy with guests and parties, and at night had more pleasurable things to occupy her mind, she quite forgot to be cross with Bentley. He was so subdued after his dressing down she almost felt sorry for him. Several days after the ball their last visitors had departed, and Bentley removed himself to the east wing.
    “Sweetheart, I must go to Town to sign the agreement for the yacht. Is there anything you wish me to purchase for you whilst I’m there?”
    “Nothing, I’ve everything I need as long as you’re here beside me. Don’t delay too long in Grosvenor Square for I shall be lonely without you.”
    His eyes darkened and his lips covered hers in a hard, demanding kiss. “You’re insatiable, my darling. I pray this strange system we’ve adopted proves adequate. I can’t keep away from you regardless of the consequences.”
    She stroked his face, loving the feel of bristles beneath her fingertips. “I am resigned to having a big family. I can’t believe something as simple as a vinegar soaked sponge can prevent conception.”
    “I’ve instructed Bentley to remain next door and not bother you. I trust he does as he’s bid.” Alexander was not so ready to forgive and forget as she was.
*   *   *
    Alexander discovered to his fury the papers would not be ready for a further day. He was now obliged to kick his heels in Grosvenor Square when he would much rather be back at Newcomb. He decided to visit his club and walked round to the stable yard. Nowadays he preferred to do things for himself and not be waited on hand and foot.
    On entering White’s, a close friend, Sir Richard Taylor, beckoned him over. “Rochester, good to see you. Must say I enjoyed your hospitality. Your wife is quite delightful. “
    “Thank you. “Alexander glanced round the room. Was he imagining the covert looks? “Am I missing something, Taylor? What’s going on? “
    “No idea, why don’t you go and ask them? “
    Alexander strode across and glared at the nearest gentleman. “Well? Out with it? “
    The man blanched and he stepped away before answering. “Your grace, Smithson here was just telling us some news about Farnham. And it concerns your family. “
    “What? For God’s sake man—tell me. “
    “Farnham was bragging last night that he’d got your cousin, young Bentley, in his pocket. That when Bentley comes into the title half your fortune will go to him. “
    Alexander’s fist unclenched. This was news to him. He nodded at the men. “Both Bentley and Farnham will be disappointed. I can assure you, I shall have a son of my own before too long. “
    The circle of men relaxed. “Glad to hear you say so, Rochester. Still, if I were you I’d have stern word with Farnham. Can’t have this sort of rumour bandied about the place.”
    “Thank you, Smithson, I have every intention of doing so.”
    He left the club and headed for one of the less salubrious haunts he’d once drunk in. There would be someone here who knew the whereabouts of his quarry. He shouldered his way through the press of inebriated riff-raff. One could hardly refer to these as gentlemen.
    He spotted a friend of Farnham’s and barged across to the man. “Where’s Farnham?”
    The man stared glassy eyed not recognising his questioner. “Gone to Newcomb. Got a bit of unfinished business to do down there.” The man half slid from his stool. “He’s meeting someone who owes him.” Perspiration beaded Alexander’s brow. His heart raced and his hands were clammy. Somehow he groped through the crowd of stinking drinkers and emerged, shaking, onto the cobbles.
    Everything fell into place. He swallowed hard as bile rose in his throat. The grease on the stairs that had killed poor Sally had been meant for Isobel. The soldiers shooting had not been a random event but a deliberate attempt to kill his wife. My God! He’d left her at Newcomb with no protection and a madman intent on murder heading for the house and his accomplice living next door.
    He ran back to Grosvenor Square ignoring the shocked faces of those he elbowed aside. He erupted into the yard and yelled for a groom.
     “Saddle my horse. I must leave for Newcomb immediately.” He couldn’t to arrange for grooms to accompany him – every minute counted.
    Moments later he thundered out through the arch onto the cobbled street scattering an unwary flock of pigeons from his pathway. Several heads turned to gape at him as he ruthlessly guided his mount through the diligences, carriages and hackneys with scant regard for his, or anyone else’s, safety. Eventually he was in open country. He crouched forward urging Rufus ever faster, praying he would be in time to save the woman who was his life.

Chapter Twenty-three

    “Ellie, I don’t think I shall have sufficient closet space to take all those gowns. From what the duke has told me, living on a yacht is rather cramped.”
    “Your grace, we shall need morning, promenade and afternoon gowns as well as evening gowns. We are going to be away for six weeks—with only the few garments you’ve selected you’ll be seen several times in the same ensemble.”
    Isobel smiled at the horrified expression on her abigail’s face. “As there will only be ourselves aboard I can’t see it matters. When we go ashore it will be in different ports each time, so even then it will be no problem.”
    Her maid nodded. “I had not thought of that, my lady. Shall I be able to launder items as we go along? Will there be fresh water available?”
    “I should think so. I must go and oversee the packing for Lady Lucinda; Nanny must be warned not to take too much.”
    Alexander’s belongings were being attended to by Duncan as his valet had remained behind this time. There was so much to think about. Although the yacht was well appointed and a considerable length the cabins would be small and storage space restricted. They would be taking Duncan, Ellie, Nanny and the wet nurse, but the remainder of the staff at Newcomb were to have two weeks holiday in order to visit family wherever they might be.
    Bill and Mary were arranging for those that wished to avail themselves of this treat to leave in rotation. The others were to begin redecorating and cleaning the building from top to toe. It was rather late for a spring clean but much of the building had not been touched for many years.
    Tonight was the last night before leaving for their holiday. Alexander was returning first thing in the morning and they would set out directly he arrived. The yacht was moored at Dover, in Kent, and in order to complete this journey they would have to stop overnight.
    She was so excited she could not possibly sleep. Tonight was a perfect evening, the oppressive heat of the past few days replaced by a gentle cooling breeze. Her clock struck midnight. She had better get to bed or she would be too fatigued to enjoy the adventure on the morrow.
    Ellie had been instructed to call her early. Alexander had advised her to wash her hair and take a bath as the facilities aboard would be basic. The shutters and windows were open; she strolled across and leant on the window-sill to hear the owls calling and the other creatures about their nocturnal business.
    She was just drifting off to sleep when something woke her. The dogs were barking. This was most unusual, something must have disturbed them. The hair on the back of her neck rose. The last time they had barked had been the night before Sally’s death as if they had sensed the forthcoming tragedy. Perhaps one of the yard cats had ventured in through an open window and they were expressing their disgust at such an intrusion.
    The racket continued. Was she the only one who could hear the noise? Having her windows open meant sound was carrying from downstairs in a way that it would not normally do. Othello and Ebony slept directly below her in a little used withdrawing-room. With a sigh she scrambled out of bed, quickly putting on what was necessary.
    Moments later she had found the tinderbox and lit a candle. Reaching her bed-chamber door she paused, something was not right. She sniffed. What was it she could smell? She opened the door that led into the corridor and reeled back in shock. Smoke drifted along the passageway and filled the air. The house was on fire.
*   *   *
    Alexander’s stallion sailed over another five barred gate. This would save him a precious mile or two; the bullocks in the field eyed him with disfavour but he ignored them. His horse was tiring, when he reached the lane he would slow his pace and let the poor beast recover but first he must gallop across this final meadow.
    His horse lurched and suddenly he was somersaulting through the air to land on his back with a thud the breath knocked from his lungs. For a moment he was too winded to move, then slowly he pushed himself up onto his elbows. His throat closed. Poor Rufus was standing with his right foreleg raised.
    He knew with a sickening certainty that his mount had broken his leg. The animal must have put his hoof into a rabbit hole. Travelling at the speed they were the result was inevitable. Dammit to hell! Why had he not slowed down? This disaster was his fault and now his horse must be put out of its misery.
    Reaching into his inside pocket he removed his pistol. This was already loaded and primed; he only had to cock and fire. He walked across keeping the gun behind him, all the time talking soothingly to the dejected beast. “All right, old fellow, stand firm, the pain will soon be gone.”
    He raised his gun and fired point-blank; Rufus buckled at the knees and toppled over. A shuffling behind him made him glance over his shoulder. The bullocks had come across to investigate the fallen animal. Angrily he rubbed his eyes—this was no time to be grieving for the loss of his horse. There were still fifteen miles to Newcomb and he would have to walk the rest.
    He pulled out his watch and flicked it open, the hands pointed to just past seven o’clock. It would be dark by nine so he must complete his journey before then. He shoved his discharged weapon into his pocket. He would make sure it was reloaded before he reached home.
    As he strode across the field towards the gate that led into a narrow lane, he cursed his impetuosity. Why had he not brought men with him? The death of his horse would then be tragic and inconvenient but not an unmitigated disaster.
    Too late to repine, he must concentrate his efforts on covering the ground as quickly as possible. He could no longer cross the fields because on foot this would be foolhardy, for the remainder of his journey he would be obliged to stick to the lanes. This would take far longer than travelling as the crow flies.
    There was bound to be a farm or dwelling of some sort, maybe a roadside inn, where he could hire a nag of some sort to continue the journey. As he jogged he checked his pockets; he had several flimsies in his wallet and a purse full of coins. Hopefully this would be enough.
    A further hour passed before he saw a substantial manor house in the distance. Increasing his pace he headed in that direction certain he would find the assistance he needed. He could barely see his way by the time he approached the front door. He was frantically thinking of a reasonable explanation for his urgent need to return home that night. He would have to invent an emergency without actually mentioning his fear that Farnham and Bentley might be intending to murder his wife.
*   *   *
    Isobel coughed; the smoke was not yet dense enough to prove a serious hazard. She thanked God the nursery was on this floor. If Lucinda had been in the attics there might not have been the time to reach her. The sound of crackling, of flames taking hold on the other side of the wall, filled her with terror. Her courage almost failed her. The house had thick panelled walls, with luck this would give the fire something to burn through before it could reach them.
    The air was becoming hotter. Delaying even for a second night prove fatal to them all. Bursting into the room in which Lucinda slept she snatched her from the crib. With the baby in one arm, the candlestick in the other, she ran to the first chamber and shouted. “Quickly, the house is on fire. Get up at once, there’s little time.”
    The sound of movement indicated Nanny was up; they must have more candles alight. The three nursery staff appeared moments later in various states of disarray but fortunately all had had the sense to put on clogs and cloaks.
    “Nanny, take Lucinda downstairs. Jenny, go with her to unbolt the door and carry the candlestick. If you have time, bang the dinner gong. Anna, you must come with me to make sure everyone else is awake.”
    Nanny hastened across and carefully removed the baby from her arms; Jenny and Anna picked up candlesticks and were ready to leave. Was there time to return to her room and put on something more substantial? No—every second counted. Leading the way to the corridor, she opened the door. Already the air was more polluted; she prayed there would be time for everyone to escape without harm.
    “Don’t touch the walls, they are far too hot. The fire must have started in the kitchens and will be burning up the back stairwells and corridors. I’m hoping the main part of the house won’t be aflame.”
    “I reckon them panels will take a while to burn through, my lady, so there’ll be plenty of time for everyone to get out.” Anna hesitated in the passageway as if not sure the best way to go to wake the female staff.
    “We must use the main staircase; with luck it will still be possible to reach the bedrooms that way.” Now was not the time to remind the girl the servants’ quarters might already be cut off from the main part of the house. She had to try. She couldn’t allow her staff to perish without making an effort to save them.
    At least Mary and Sam were safe in their new home. The sudden clang of the dinner gong being banged furiously told her Nanny was safely downstairs. The air was clearer at the top of the house and she breathed deeply, clearing the smoke from her lungs.
    “Through this way, Anna, I shall knock on all the doors this side. Go through and make sure the men are awake as well.” Isobel knew Anna was courting one of the footmen so would be eager to make sure he was safe.
    When she reached the women’s quarters there was pandemonium. Girls screaming, coughing and general panic. “Enough of this, be silent and listen if you wish to survive.” Her authoritative tone was sufficient to halt the hub-bub and get their attention. “As you can see from the smoke the house is well alight. Put on your clogs and cloak and follow me; the only way out will be through the original nursery wing and down the main staircase.”
    Two of the girls, it was hard to see who they were in the smoke-filled darkness, ran from door to door to check everyone was out. She heard a call, “All the rooms are empty, my lady, we can go now.”
    Anna had disappeared with her candlestick to the far side of the attics where she hammered on the wall and screamed for everyone to get up. There were no communicating doors but the racket she was making should be sufficient to rouse anyone still asleep.
    A male voice shouted back that everyone was awake. Isobel prayed the second staircase was not burning as fiercely as the one that led to the women’s quarters. Anna returned to her side.
    “They must use the school-room stairs, my lady, as their own are well alight.”
    Isobel turned to the terrified group of forty or more women waiting for instructions. “Quickly, cover your faces with your cloaks; I fear the smoke will be much thicker as we descend.”
    The two flights of stairs converged in a lower passageway and Isobel was relieved to see the men emerging as her party arrived. The atmosphere was thick, the heat stifling, and most of them were coughing, their eyes streaming, but none complained or cried. They stood waiting for her to tell them what to do next. It could only be a matter of minutes before the stairs behind them became too hot and smoke filled for safety. She had to lead them down through the choking smoke or else they would all die, trapped inside the house.
    Holding her hand over her nose, she plunged forward terrified she would pitch headfirst down the stairs before she found the banister of the main staircase. She gripped the smooth wood and began to descend. The candles were useless and the feeble flicker of the flames not enough to light the way.
*   *   *
    Alexander had no need to hammer on the door as this was flung open as he leapt up the steps.
    “My dear Rochester, what mishap has brought you here on foot?” Sir Frederick Campion greeted him. “I spied you from the terrace where my dear wife and I were taking supper.”
     “Campion, good God! I’d no idea this was your abode—approaching it from the rear like this has quite disconcerted me. I was riding across country and my mount broke its leg and I was forced to shoot it.” Sir Frederick looked even more bewildered, if that were possible.
     “Come in, come in, my lord. I shall find you refreshments. Do you wish to stay here overnight, or shall I loan you a fresh mount?”
    Alexander followed him in trying to think of a reasonable explanation for his extraordinary appearance and his lack of a groom. “Thank you, sir, I should be grateful for both. As you have no doubt observed I’m travelling alone. I received disturbing news from home. You might recall that many years ago I failed to arrive in time.”
    This was a masterstroke. Immediately the man’s face changed to one of sympathy, the whole neighbourhood would recall the death of his first wife and children.
    “I see, of course, of course. I shall send word to the stables for them to saddle up my best horse. I’ll not delay you any longer than it takes for you to take a bite and a drink before you continue your journey.”
    A short while later Alexander was away mounted on a magnificent bay gelding. It would be foolhardy to attempt to go across country in the dark; he must stick to the lanes and hope the moon was enough to light him. He’d heard the tall clock in the entrance hall strike ten when he’d arrived, it would be midnight before he arrived at Newcomb.
    He was still several miles away when his eyes were drawn to an orange glow. He almost fell from the saddle. There was only one thing that could light the sky in that way - a massive fire. Newcomb was ablaze. Those snivelling bastards had set light to his home. He dug in his heels and regardless of the danger galloped headlong towards the conflagration.
*   *   *
    As Isobel reached the halfway point she heard a horrible groan, like a giant in pain, then the ceiling in front of her collapsed, spewing flames and searing heat in her direction.
    “Back, back, into the master suite, we shall be burnt to a cinder if we continue.”
    Everyone turned and fled back the way they’d come, leaving her to stumble along behind them. Then Ellie was beside her and took her arm dragging her through the press of people on the stairs. They parted willingly, urging her ahead of them, more concerned for her safety than their own.
    George and Duncan had already taken the men through into Alexander’s apartment. This was uncomfortably overcrowded with everyone inside. Men and women were mingling together, some spilling into the bed chamber, others obliged to hide in the dressing room itself.
    Duncan seemed to know what to do and she was relieved to leave the decision-making to him. He had organised some of the men to soak bedcovers and press them along the bottom of all external doors. This would prevent the smoke from entering, at least for a while. Should she open the windows and let some fresh air in?
    She was walking towards them when George called out. “No, my lady, leave them be.”
    Surprised she paused. “Why is that, I thought with so many people inside …”
    “When I were a little’un I remember a fire in a neighbouring cottage. The family, trapped in their house, opened a window and were consumed by the flames what came into the room.”
    “How dreadful! I shall certainly leave it closed for the moment.”
    The room was oppressive, for by blocking off the smoke Duncan had prevented any fresh air from entering. There must be more than ninety people huddled in these two rooms. They would not suffocate, but one or two of the older women were already suffering from the foetid atmosphere.
    They could not remain incarcerated here indefinitely. If none of the outside staff arrived to help them they were surely doomed to die a horrible death. Alexander’s sitting room had a substantial balcony overlooking the garden. Surely they could manufacture some sort of rope from the remaining bed linen and escape that way?
    “Duncan, how long do you think the doors will hold if we opened the windows?”
    “Long enough for yourself and the women to escape but I doubt we’d all get out in time. But we have no choice. I’ll start making a rope.” They had been conversing quietly, she was sure no one had overheard.
    “I doubt all the women will be able to shin down a rope for it must be thirty feet to the terrace below.”
    “I thought of that, my lady. If we attach something around their waists as well as providing a rope of sorts for them to hold onto, I think we’ll be successful.”
    Isobel walked through the assembled crowd reassuring and comforting where necessary. She told them what was planned and asked Ellie to explain to those she couldn’t get to. The older women would be taken first, then the youngest and after that by seniority. She was determined to remain until all the females had gone.
    Remarkably swiftly the two ropes of knotted linen were ready. Somehow the staff had been grouped appropriately, but she had resisted every suggestion that she go ahead of everyone else. “If you think we are ready, Duncan, then George must open the windows.”
    “Right, my lady, but you must go first. Nobody is leaving here until you’re safe outside. Ain’t that right?”
    A chorus of assent rippled round the room. She had no choice. If her staying meant more people would perish than she would do as they asked. It felt as if she’d swallowed a stone. She remembered the hideous collapse of the ceiling— she’d sent Nanny Cooper that way. If anything had happened to her baby… She must not think of this. The Almighty could not be so unkind us to take away something so precious.

Chapter Twenty-four

    Alexander thundered up the drive expecting to see the outside staff organising a bucket chain in an attempt to douse the flames. The place was deserted but he could hear shouting and banging coming from the lofts in which the men slept.
    Swearing volubly, he vaulted from the saddle and raced to release them. “Raise the alarm, someone ring the stable bell, bring ladders and as many horse blankets as you can find.”
    Not waiting to see if they followed his orders he raced round to the front of the house where the seat of the fire appeared to be. As he arrived the front door opened and three women stumbled out coughing and spluttering, one carrying his daughter in her arms.
    Thank the good Lord. Lucinda was safe—now he must pray he could get to Isobel in time. Two black shapes hurtled round the corner to greet him. He paused to scratch their heads glad Isobel’s pets had survived.
     “Nanny Cooper, is Lady Lucinda unharmed?
    The woman wiped her streaming eyes with one hand. “She is, your grace, but we got out in the nick of time. I fear opening the front door has increased the ferocity of the flames. Her grace was intending to lead the servants down that way but she will have been driven back.”
    “Let me see my daughter.” She handed him the sleeping bundle, gently he pulled back the damp shawl which covered the infant and lightly kissed her face. “Sleep on, little one; I must fetch your mama.” He gave his daughter back with a smile of thanks. “Do you know where Mr and Mrs Watkins are living? “
    Nanny Cooper was about to answer when two figures ran forward to greet him. “Your grace, we have only just seen the flames or we should have been here sooner. Has her grace not come out yet?”
    “No, Watkins, these are the only three. Mrs Watkins, take my daughter and her attendants, back to your cottage and take care of them. I shall bring my wife to you when I rescue her.”
    “I shall be waiting, your grace. Come along, Nanny. It’s a mild night, but you’ve had a nasty shock and would be all the better for a hot drink.” Mrs Watkins stopped, turning back asked, “Peggy Simpson, the wet nurse, did she not come out with you?”
    “She prefers to sleep in the attic and will be with the other women. Since her man and her own baby died she doesn’t like to be alone at night.”
    Damnation! If the baby woke there would be no food for her. He must make sure the Simpson woman was the second one to come out from the fire. “Please don’t worry, Mrs Watkins, I shall have her grace and the wet nurse with you shortly.”
    The flames had taken a good hold and the windows on the first floor were as bright as if a thousand candles glowed inside. Where could a hundred souls hide safely with such a furnace burning all around them?
    With two dozen men behind him he raced round to the south side. Thank God! Here the windows were black; the fire had not reached these chambers. “Up there. Do you see, Watkins? There’s light in my apartment, they must be in there. Get the ladders up against one set of windows, the rest of you divide yourselves into groups and take hold of the edges of a blanket. The only way we’re going to get everybody out safely is if the ladies jump.”
    “I can organise that for you, my lord. Two blankets at a time, the others waiting to replace them when they’re full.”
    “Good man. I’m going up a ladder to get things started. I’m hoping the men can come down these quickly leaving the blankets for the women. The wind’s getting up. I fear we don’t have a moment to lose before the whole place is engulfed.”
    There was a small forest of lanterns on poles to light his way. A sudden gust of wind almost knocked him off the ladder, and an ominous roar from the front of the house sent him climbing even quicker. There could not be more than a quarter of an hour before the people inside perished.
    He tipped headlong over the stone balustrade landing inelegantly on his face on the balcony. As he sprang to his feet the French windows flew open and Isobel fell into his arms.
*   *   *
    “Alexander? What are you doing here? Lucinda - have you seen her?”
    He crushed her in his arms for a second and then picked her up and placed her on the ladder. “Our daughter is fine, no time to talk, get down the ladder as fast as you can. Leave things to me. I shall send Simpson next. Go to Mrs Watkins’ cottage and wait for me there.”
     “Take care, my darling, I could not bear to lose you now.”
    Descending the wooden ladder in her slippers and nightgown was difficult but when your life was at stake you managed somehow. No sooner was she off the bottom than someone else was following her. To her astonishment two more windows were flung open and the next thing she saw were women jumping from the other balcony to land in stretched out blankets.
    Peggy arrived at her side breathless and red-faced, but smiling. “What a lark! I’ve never seen the like. I hope me milk don’t dry up because of it.”
    “Go to Mrs Watkins’ home right away, she’s expecting you. Do you know the way?”
    “I do that, it ain’t far and there’s a fine big moon to show me the path.”
    By now there were a dozen men and women milling about on the terrace getting in everybody’s way. “Inside staff - listen to me. You must go immediately to the coach house. It’s warm and dry in there. Get a fire going and put water on to boil. I’m sure the stable hands have the makings for tea, you must share cups as there won’t be enough for everyone.”
    Two of the outside men offered to lead those rescued away from the fire. Isobel knew she should go with them. But she wanted to be sure everyone got out safely. Very soon there was a constant stream of the rescued heading for the coach house. She greeted each one in turn, congratulating them on their bravery and promising them they would not be dismissed from service because of this.
    Heaven knows how they were going to accommodate so many when Newcomb was likely to be razed to the ground. Too soon to fret—as long as all were safe, that was all that mattered. Smoke was billowing from the bed chamber and sitting-room above. How many more were waiting to come down?
    “Sam, I’ve not seen Bill, is he still up there?”
    “My lady, you should not be out here. Let me take you to Mary where you’ll be safe and warm.”
    Alexander appeared on the balcony and shouted down to the men below. “Just a dozen more to come and everyone will be out.”
    Four more men scrambled down the ladders, others were jumping into the blankets. Her nails bit into her palms. Why didn’t he come too? She counted frantically as the sound of crackling and burning grew. There could not be more than three inside including Bill, Alexander, and one other.
    There was a scream and a figure fell from the far window his garments on fire. He landed in a blanket and immediately those who’d caught him rolled him up to douse the flames. Bill and Alexander emerged pursued by the fire. They would be too late. They would be swallowed up—consumed by the ferocity of the blaze behind them. Her beloved locked his arms and legs around the wooden ladder and slid down safely. By the time he hit the ground the top of the ladder was burning fiercely.
    Bill could only use his arms; his injury prevented him from moving as swiftly as he should. His ladder was on fire before he’d descended more than a few rungs. Frantically a group of men ran towards him with a blanket. Too late—he had no choice. He must drop to the flagstones or be incinerated. He plummeted to the ground and she expected to see him die before her eyes.
    A collective gasp rippled round the group as, instead of falling flat, somehow he managed to roll himself into a neat ball and land on his shoulders. Because he was curled up the impact sent him tumbling head over heels onto the grass. He was sitting up rubbing his elbows by the time the first man reached him.
    She was transfixed. Everyone had got out unscathed. This was a miracle. Then Alexander was beside her, hugging her fiercely, mumbling incoherently into her hair.
    “My darling, you could have been killed. I thought I would be too late, that for the second time I should be bereft.”
    “How did you come to be here in the middle of the night? I thought you were not to come until tomorrow?”
    “I shall explain it all to you later. You should not be here, sweetheart, but I’m glad you are. I still have things to attend to. Can I trust you to join our daughter at the cottage?”
    There was no point in arguing. He was lord of the manor—of course he had to ensure all his dependents were accounted for and make sure they were as comfortable as they could be in the circumstances. A sudden crash of thunder jolted them apart; from nowhere a summer storm had drifted in and the heavens opened.
    “Take care, my love. I shall do as you bid. I’ve no wish to stand out here in the pouring rain. Will this put out the flames? Shall anything be saved?”
    “God knows! The Almighty has done a wonderful job tonight so I shall leave this in his capable hands as well. Hurry up, you’ll be drenched if you stay here any longer.”
    She stretched out and pulled his head down to kiss him. His lips tasted of smoke. “I love you, Alexander, come back to me soon. I think I see Hill and Reynolds heading this way. Can you not leave everything to them?”
    In answer he pushed her gently in the direction of Mary’s house. “Hurry, take your dogs with you for company.” He beckoned to a lad holding two lanterns. “Here, boy, go with her grace, then come back and tell me all is well.”
    Fortunately it was a short distance to her destination and much of it under a canopy of leaves. “I am safely arrived, young man. See, Mrs Watkins is waiting for me in the doorway. You can return to your duties in the stables. The horses will be unsettled by the smoke and the smell of the fire.”
    He grinned and bowed awkwardly, the lanterns bobbing furiously on the end of their poles. Isobel hurried down the path eager to see her baby. She reached the cottage and realised Mary wasn’t smiling. As she stepped into the cottage the door was slammed behind her. She could hear her dogs snarling and barking, flinging themselves at the wood in a frantic effort to get in.
*   *   *
    “Hill, Reynolds, Watkins, come with me. There’s unfinished business to attend to. Bentley is behind this fire and he was also responsible for that girl’s death and the incident with the rifleman in the woods.” The three men nodded obviously unsurprised by his revelation. “On both occasions it was my wife who was the intended victim. He’s embroiled with that bastard Farnham – without his manipulation I doubt any of this would have happened.”
    “I had my doubts about Bentley from the start, there was something behind his eyes that made me think he wasn’t the simpleton he wished us to believe.”
    “Farnham has convinced himself he can blackmail my fortune from Bentley when he inherits. God knows what maggot has got into his brain.”
    Reynolds chimed in. “You’re right, Sam, when little Sally slipped I thought it was a rum do, but kept my opinions to myself.”
    Alexander glared at Reynolds. “Why the hell didn’t you speak up? A bit too late to be telling me now, don’t you think?” He swallowed his ire, they had all been fooled, now was not the time for wringing hands. “Have any of you got a pistol?” They shook their heads. “I’ve two, I’ll keep one. Any of you a marksman?”
    Watkins held out his hand. “I am, sir. Do you have sufficient powder and shot for both of us?”
    When both guns were loaded and primed Alexander explained his plan. “I doubt Farnham has hung about to see the results of his machinations. Bentley will be cowering in the east wing waiting to see if his latest attempt to remove the obstacle in his way has succeeded.” He stared hard at each one in turn before continuing. “I don’t intend him to survive this encounter.” Again all three responded in unison; this time they nodded. “If Farnham is with him, I shall kill him too.”
    He was turning to go towards the east wing when he heard dogs barking in the distance. He froze. Once again he had been outsmarted - his quarry was in the cottage and he had just sent Isobel there. “They are in your cottage, Watkins, we’re too slow.”
    His heart was pounding as he raced across the park, he prayed Bentley had not completely lost his senses, would realise murdering Isobel in cold blood would gain him nothing.
*   *   *
    “Come in, my lady, as you can see I am expecting you.”
    Isobel’s eyes widened, the monster was standing beside Lucinda one hand resting perilously close to her mouth. “Mr Bentley, if you give me my baby and leave immediately, I promise no further action shall be taken against you for tonight’s fire.”
    His laugh was shrill, the hair on the back of her neck prickled. She was dealing with a madman. “And shall my dear Cousin Alexander feel the same? I’ve already murdered once, my life is forfeit whatever your avowals. When your husband arrives he won’t to be so merciful.”
    “I beg you, don’t harm my child. Kill me if you must but let Lucinda go.”
    The dogs continued to hurl themselves at the front door. Would Alexander hear them and come here? Then she saw the madman held a pistol in his other hand. The world stood still. It wasn’t her baby or herself he intended to kill, it was Alexander. With him dead this lunatic would be the Duke of Rochester and there would be nothing anyone could do about it.
    If justice took its course and Bentley was hanged then the title would be in abeyance, the good name of the family forever tainted. She would not let this happen. When Alexander burst in she would throw herself in the path of the shot; she would willingly die to save the man she loved and keep his heritage intact.
    “Where are Nanny Cooper, Peggy and the maids?”
    Mary answered. “He’s locked them in the bedroom, my lady.”
    “Be silent, unless you wish me to finish off this brat right now.”
*   *   *
    Alexander wanted the two dogs to continue to bark, if they stopped it would warn Bentley he was close. “Watkins, we must approach from the rear. You know those animals, what can you do to make them continue to attack the front door and distract that bastard?”
    “They have a fine hatred of felines, sir, if we put a yard cat on the roof that’ll keep them going.”
    “Do that. Hill you assist Reynolds with this; Watkins you come with me. Is it possible to affect an entry through the kitchen without being heard?”
    “I reckon if I go in by the coal cellar and you through the scullery window one of us will get him before he can harm anyone inside.”
    They approached stealthily. The cat secreted under Reynold’s jacket seemed unperturbed by this unusual mode of transport. He watched his estate manager scramble up a convenient wall and push the unfortunate animal onto the roof. The yowl it made attracted the dogs. Suddenly they were howling and barking in their frustration. Excellent, anyone inside would believe he was approaching from the front.
    He gestured to Hill and Reynolds to go to the front door and knock and demand entry, with luck that would concentrate Bentley’s attention whilst he approached from behind him. The scullery window was a tight fit but somehow he wriggled through and slid to the tiles below. Thank God there’d been nothing beneath his feet to clatter to the ground and warn of his arrival.
    He pulled off his boots then crept forward listening for a clue that might tell him where Bentley was standing. He would get one shot, he must be certain he did not miss, the lives of his family might well depend on it.
    He heard Bentley talking. He almost surged forward, forgetting to be cautious when he heard what was spoken.
    “Firstly I shall kill your husband and then I shall smother your baby. I’ll do both things before your very eyes. After that I care not what happens to me, I shall be the Duke of Rochester until they hang me.”
*   *   *
    The dogs were at the back of the property, but someone was running up the path. She must warn Alexander. She saw Bentley’s hand move to cover Lucinda’s face and closed her mouth, she was in agony—she could not save her baby and her husband. How could she make such a dreadful choice?
    Bentley raised his pistol and she gathered herself to make the ultimate sacrifice. How long would it be before Alexander realised the door was unlocked and burst in? A slight movement behind the monster drew her gaze. There was the hideous sound of a pistol shot and Bentley pitched forward, shot through the head. It was over. They were all safe.
    Ignoring the body on the floor she flung herself at Alexander. “He was going to kill you and Lucinda, I thought … oh, my love, I can’t believe we have all survived this night.”
    He tossed his spent weapon aside and embraced her. “Isobel, my darling, I never want to go through that again. If I lost you or Lucinda I could not go on living.”
    The infant terrified by the retort was screaming. Isobel turned to scoop her up. “Hush, little one, your mama and papa are here now to take care of you.” Lucinda snuggled in between them and was comforted by their closeness.
    Isobel scarcely noticed the body being removed or Mary picking up the soiled mat—she was safe in the arms of the man she loved. “What are we going to do, Alexander? Where are we going to live? What about the staff?”
    He smoothed back her hair and kissed her tenderly. “I’ve a dozen other properties. Tomorrow you shall decide where you wish to live. Then half the staff can remove there and prepare it for us and the rest can go to Grosvenor Square. They might as well be idle in London as anywhere else.”
    Leaning back in his arms she stared at him. Could this be the arrogant, autocratic Duke of Rochester speaking so casually about the destruction of his family seat? “Newcomb has been destroyed, does that not bother you at all?”
    His arms tightened. “Why should it? I’ve everything I want right here.”
Top.Mail.Ru