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When selecting poultry for cooking, choose a chicken with soft yellow feet, short thick legs, and a plump breast. First, kill the chicken by wringing its neck…
—Emily Barrow's Cook Book Falkirk House, England—1850
Cool hands sponged his forehead. Stephen Chesterfield fought against the darkness that threatened to pull him into oblivion once more. Pain lashed his skull, ripping through him in violent waves. His mouth felt lined with cotton wool, and his body ached with vicious pain.
'Drink,' a woman said, lifting a cup of warm tea to his mouth. It tasted bitter, but he swallowed. 'You're very lucky, you know.'
Lucky? He felt as though someone had cracked his skull in two. He hadn't even the strength to open his eyes to see who was tending him.
'How am I lucky?' he managed to whisper. Lucky to be alive, she'd probably say.
'You're lucky I haven't got any arsenic for this tea,' she remarked. 'Or another poison, for that matter. Otherwise, you'd be dead by now.' A warm poultice dropped across his forehead, scented with herbs.
'I beg your pardon?' His knuckles clenched around the bedcovers, and he forced his eyes open. The room blurred, and he tried to grasp his surroundings. Where was he? And who was this woman?
The creature intending to murder him had the face of an angel. Her hair, the color of warm honey, was pulled back into a loose chignon. Long strands framed a face with tired amber eyes. Despite the hideous serge mourning gown, she was rather pretty, though her cheeks were thin.
She was familiar, but her name hovered on the outskirts of memory. Like a childhood acquaintance, or someone he'd known long ago.
'You broke your promise. If it weren't for you, my brother would still be alive.' Anguish lined her voice, eroding the waspish anger. Her eyes glistened, but she kept her chin up.
She blamed him for her brother's death? There had to be a mistake. He didn't even know who she was, much less her brother.
He pulled off the poultice, and glared at her. 'Who are you?'
She blanched. 'You don't remember me?' The question held sardonic disbelief. And here I thought this day could not get any worse.' With a clatter, she set the saucer down.
He had little patience for her frustration. Damn it all, he was the one who'd been wounded. And each time he tried to reach back and seize the memories, it was as if they faded into smoke. What had happened to him?
'You didn't answer my question,' he responded. 'What is your name?'
'My name is Emily.' She leaned in, her gaze penetrating. Almost as if she were waiting for him to say something.
Hazy bits of the past shifted together. Emily Barrow. The Baron of Hollingford's daughter. My God. He hadn't seen her in nearly ten years. He stared hard at her, unable to believe it was true. Though her rigid posture proclaimed her as a modest woman of virtue, he remembered her throwing rocks at his carriage. And climbing trees to spy on him.
And kissing him when he'd been an awkward, adolescent boy.
He shook the thought away, thankful that at least some of his memories remained. 'What are you doing here?'
'I live here.' With an overbright smile, she added, 'Don't you remember your wife?'
Her revelation stunned him into silence. His wife? What was she talking about? He wasn't married.
'You must be joking.' He wasn't an impulsive man. He planned every moment of every day. Getting married to a woman he hadn't seen in years wasn't at all something he would do. Unless he'd gotten extremely deep in his cups one night, she had to be lying. And by God, if Emily Barrow thought to take advantage of him, she would be sorry for it.
'I would never joke about something like this.' She held out the cup of tea, but he dismissed it. He had no intention of drinking anything she gave him. His vision swam, and a rushing sound filled his ears.
Closing his eyes, he waited for the dizziness to pass. When the world righted itself, he studied the room. Heavy blue curtains hung across the canopied bed, while bookcases overflowing with books filled another wall. The pieces of remembrance snapped together as he recognised his bedchamber within Falkirk House, one of the country estates. For the life of him he didn't know how he'd arrived here.
'How long have I been at Falkirk?'
'And before that?'
She shrugged. 'You left for London a week after our wedding. I haven't seen you since February. Why don't you tell me where you've been?'
He tried to reach for the memory, but nothing remained, not even the smallest fragment of a vision. Like a gaping hole, he'd lost a part of himself. It frustrated the hell out of him, having pieces of his life gone. He could remember most of his childhood and adolescence. He even recalled working upon a list of accounts for one of the estates in January. But after that… nothing.
'What day is it?' he asked, trying to pinpoint the last memory he had.
'The twentieth of May.'
He clenched the bedcovers. February, March, April, almost all of May… three and a half months of his life were entirely gone. He closed his eyes, trying to force himself to remember. But the harder he struggled, the worse his head ached.
'Where were you?' she asked. There was worry inside her tone, though he found it hard to believe she cared. Not after she'd threatened to poison him.
'I don't know,' he answered honestly. 'But I certainly don't remember getting married.'
'You might not remember it, but it's true.'
Something was wrong, something she wasn't telling him. There was a desperate air about her, as though she had nowhere else to go. Likely he'd caught her in the lie.
'You are welcome to leave,' he suggested. 'Obviously my return offended you.'
Tears glimmered in her eyes, and softly, she replied, 'You have no idea what I've been through. I thought I'd never see you again.'
She dipped the cool cloth back into the basin, wringing out the water. Then she set it upon his forehead, her hand grazing his cheek. The gesture was completely at odds with her sharp words.
'You're not my wife.'
She crossed her arms over her chest, drawing his gaze towards her silhouette. A bit on the thin side, but the soft curve of her breasts caught his eye. The top button of her gown had come loose, revealing a forbidden glimpse of skin.
'Yes, I am.' She lowered her arms, gathering her courage as she stared at him. But her full lips parted, her shoulders rising and falling with a quickening breath. The fallen strand of golden hair rested against the black serge.
She'd never been able to tame her hair, even as a girl. He'd helped her with hairpins on more than one occasion, to help her avoid a scolding.
Now the task took on an intimacy, one more suited to a husband. Had he truly married her? Had he unbuttoned her gowns, tasting the silk of her skin? From the way she drew back, he didn't think so.
'I want to see a doctor,' he said, changing the subject.
'Doctor Parsons examined you last night. I'm to change your bandages and keep the wound clean. He'll return tomorrow.' She lifted the lip of the tea cup to his mouth again, but he didn't drink.
The china clattered, revealing her shaking hands. Despite her bitterness, there was a look on her face that didn't quite match her words. He caught a glimpse of something more… something lost and lonely.
He forced himself not to pity her. For God's sakes, the woman had threatened to kill him.
At last, she gave up and set the cup down. 'I didn't poison this cup,' she said with reluctance. 'There wasn't any arsenic to be had.'
'Laudanum would work,' he advised. 'In large doses.' Though why he was offering suggestions, he didn't know.
'I'll remember that for next time.' Colour stained her cheeks, but she didn't smile.
'Why did I marry you?' he asked softly.
She picked up the tray containing the teapot and cup. 'You should rest for a while. I'll be happy to answer your questions. Later, that is.'
'I want to know now. Sit down.'
She ignored him and moved towards the door. He might as well have been ordering a brick wall to sit. If the unthinkable had happened, if he really and truly had gone off and married her, one thing was certain. He had lost more than his memory.
He'd lost his mind.
Emily fled to a nearby bedchamber and set the tea tray down with shaking fingers. The Earl of Whitmore was back. And he didn't remember a single moment of their marriage.
Damn him. Hot, choking tears slid down her cheeks, despite her best efforts to keep herself together. It was like having him back from the dead. He'd been away for so long, she'd almost started to believe that he was dead, even though there was no body.
She'd tried so hard to forget about him. Every single day of the past few months, she'd reminded herself that she'd meant nothing to her husband.
Her hand clenched, and she wept into her palm. Only a week after their wedding, he'd returned to London. He'd gone into the arms of his mistress. While she, the naive little wife, tucked away at the country estate where she wasn't supposed to learn about her husband's indiscretions. It made her sick, just thinking about it.
Marriages were like that, she'd heard. But she hadn't wanted to believe it. Such a fool she had been. She'd been swept away by his charm. Her fairy tale had come true, with the handsome Earl offering to marry the impoverished maiden.
But it had been a dream, hadn't it? He'd used her, wedding her for reasons she didn't understand, and had all but disappeared from her life.
Now that he'd returned, her humiliation tripled. She knuckled the tears away, a chastising laugh gathering in her throat. He wasn't worth the tears. The sooner he left Falkirk, the better.
Emily forced herself to rise from the chair, suppressing the desire to smash every piece of china on the tea tray. Self-pity wouldn't get her anywhere. She was married to a stranger, to a man who hadn't kept his promises.
And if he annulled the marriage, she had nowhere to go.
The sound of a shouting child broke through her reverie. Emily gathered her skirts and rushed towards the bedchamber she'd converted into a temporary nursery. Inside, her nephew Royce sprawled upon the floor, playing with tin soldiers.
'Attack!' he yelled, dashing a row of soldiers to the floor. The tin soldiers and a book of fairy tales were the only things he had brought with him after Daniel had died. She smiled at Royce's boyish enthusiasm.
When he let out another battle cry, the shrill fussing of an infant interrupted. Royce's face turned worried. 'I didn't mean to wake her up.'
'It's all right.' Emily lifted the baby to her cheek. Her niece Victoria was barely nine months old. A soft fuzz of auburn hair covered the baby's head. Two emerging teeth poked up from Victoria's lower gums. The baby reached out to grab Emily's hair.
As she extricated Victoria's fist, Emily strengthened her resolve. Though her marriage was in shambles, she had her family. She would keep her brother's children safe, for she had sworn it upon Daniel's grave. Now she had to gather up the shreds of her marriage and decide what to do next.
'Aunt Emily?' Royce stopped playing and drew his knees up to his chest. 'Has Papa come for us yet?'
'No, sweeting. Not yet.' Like the worst sort of coward, she hadn't yet told Royce that his father was never coming back. How could she destroy her nephew's safe world of hope? Royce would learn the truth soon enough.
She pulled Royce into an embrace with her free arm, holding both children fiercely. 'I love you both. You know that.'
Royce squirmed. 'I know. Can I play?'
Emily released him. The seven-year-old waged imaginary wars against the helpless tin soldiers, shouting in triumph when one soldier defeated an enemy.
She sat down in a rocking chair, holding the baby. Victoria wailed, her eyelids drooping with exhaustion. Emily patted the baby's back, wishing she could join the child in a fit of howling. She almost didn't see the shadow of the Earl hovering at the doorway.
'What are you doing here?' She stood, clutching the baby as though Victoria were a shield. 'You're bleeding. You shouldn't be out of bed.'
His frigid gaze stared back at her. 'This is my house, I believe.' Tight lines edged his mouth, revealing unspoken pain. His dark brown hair was rumpled beneath the bandage wrapped across his temple. He leaned against the door frame, thinner than she'd last seen him, but he did not betray even a fraction of weakness. A rough stubble upon his cheeks gave him a feral appearance, not at all the polished Earl she'd expected him to be.
And suddenly, she wondered if she knew him at all. Not a trace remained of the boy she'd idolised as a girl. Gone was his lazy smile and the way he had once teased her. His eyes were a cold-hearted grey, unfeeling and callous. Even in his wounded state he threatened her.
Emily took a step back, almost knocking over the rocking chair. 'Your head took quite a blow. You're not ready to be up and about.'
'That would be convenient for you, wouldn't it? If I were to stumble and bleed to death.'
She kept her composure at his harsh words. 'Quite. But your blood would stain the carpet. There's no reason to trouble the servants.'
'I pay the servants.'
'And your fortune would continue to do so after you are dead.'
Why, oh, why did spiteful words keep slipping from her mouth? She wasn't usually such a harpy, but arguing made it easier to conceal her fear. He could make them leave.
'I am glad to see I married such a docile model of womanhood.' His sarcasm sharpened her already bad temper. Then his gaze narrowed on the children. 'Who are they?'
Emily's defences rose up. 'Our children.'
'I believe I would have remembered, had I fathered any children.'
'They belong to my brother. You are their guardian.'
Emily cast him a sharp look, praying she could stop him from saying more in front of the children. It would break Royce's heart to learn of his father's death. 'We will speak of Daniel later.'
'Where is their nursemaid?'
'I don't want a nurse,' Royce interrupted. 'I want Aunt Emily.'
'Royce, now, you see—' Emily tried to placate him, but he refused.
'I don't want one!' he shrieked, throwing a tin soldier on the floor.
Emily knew what was about to happen. 'Here.' She stood and thrust her niece into the Earl's arms. He took the baby, holding Victoria at arm's length as though she had a dreaded disease.