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8 May 1893
Only one kind of marriage ever bore Society's stamp of approval.
Happy marriages were considered vulgar, as matrimonial felicity rarely kept longer than a well-boiled pudding. Unhappy marriages were, of course, even more vulgar, on a par with Mrs. Jeffries's special contraption that spanked forty bottoms at once: unspeakable, for half of the upper crust had experienced it firsthand.
No, the only kind of marriage that held up to life's vicissitudes was the courteous marriage. And it was widely recognized that Lord and Lady Tremaine had the most courteous marriage of them all.
In the ten years since their wedding, neither of them had ever uttered an unkind word about the other, not to parents, siblings, bosom friends, or strangers. Moreover, as their servants could attest, they never had spats, big or small; never embarrassed each other; never, in fact, disagreed on anything at all.
However, every year some cheeky debutante fresh from the schoolroom would point out—as if it weren't common knowledge—that Lord and Lady Tremaine lived on separate continents and had not been seen together since the day after their wedding.
Her elders would shake their heads. Foolish young girl. Wait 'til she heard about her beau's piece on the side. Or fell out of love with the man she married. Then she'd understand what a wonderful arrangement the Tremaines had: civility, distance, and freedom from the very beginning, unencumbered by tiresome emotions. Indeed, it was the most perfect marriage.
Therefore, when Lady Tremaine filed for divorce on grounds of Lord Tremaine's adultery and desertion, chins collided with dinner plates throughout London's most pedigreed dining rooms. Ten days later, as news circulated of Lord Tremaine's arrival on English soil for the first time in a decade, the same falling jaws dented many an expensive carpet from the heart of Persia.
The story of what happened next spread like a well-fed gut. It went something tantalizingly like this: A summons came at the Tremaine town house on Park Lane. Goodman, Lady Tremaine's faithful butler, answered the bell. On the other side of the door stood a stranger, one of the most remarkable-looking gentlemen Goodman had ever come across—tall, handsome, powerfully built, an imposing presence.
"Good afternoon, sir," Goodman said placidly. A representative of the Marchioness of Tremaine, however impressed, neither gawked nor gushed.
He expected to be offered a calling card and a reason for the call. Instead, he was handed the gentleman's headgear. Startled, he let go of his hold on the doorknob and took the satin-trimmed top hat. In that instant, the man walked past him into the vestibule. Without a backward glance or an explanation for this act of intrusion, he began pulling off his gloves.
"Sir," Goodman huffed. "You do not have permission from the lady of the house to enter."
The man turned around and shot Goodman a glance that, to the butler's shame, made him want to curl up and whimper. "Is this not the Tremaine residence?"
"It is, sir." The reiteration of sir escaped Goodman, though he hadn't intended for it to happen.
"Then kindly inform me, since when does the master of the house require permission from the lady to enter into his own domain?" The man held his gloves together in his right hand and slapped them quietly against the palm of his left, as if toying with a riding crop.
Goodman didn't understand. His employer was the Queen Elizabeth of her time: one mistress and no master. Then the horror dawned. The man before him was the Marquess of Tremaine, the marchioness's long-absent, good-as-dead husband and heir to the Duke of Fairford.
"I do beg your pardon, sir." Goodman held on to his professional calm and took Lord Tremaine's gloves, though he was suddenly perspiring. "We have had no notice of your arrival. I shall have your chambers prepared immediately. May I offer you some refreshments in the meanwhile?"
"You may. And you may see to the unloading of my luggage," said Lord Tremaine. "Is Lady Tremaine at home?"
Goodman could not detect any unusual inflection in Lord Tremaine's tone. It was as if he had simply come in from an afternoon snooze at his club. After ten years! "Lady Tremaine is taking a constitutional in the park, sir."
Lord Tremaine nodded. "Very good."
Goodman instinctively trotted after him, the way he'd trail a feral beast if it happened to have made it past the front door. It was only half a minute later, as Lord Tremaine turned about and raised a brow, that Goodman realized he had already been dismissed.
Something about his wife's town house disturbed Lord Tremaine.
It was surprisingly elegant. He had half-expected to see the kind of interior he'd become accustomed to in the houses of his neighbors on lower Fifth Avenue: grandiose, gilded, aiming only to recall the last days of Versailles.
She had a few chairs from that era, but they had held their share of velvet-clad bottoms and looked comfortable rather than luxurious. Neither did he encounter the heavy sideboards and unchecked proliferation of bric-a-brac that were firmly associated, in his mind, with English homes.
If anything, her residence bore an uncanny resemblance to a certain villa in Turin, at the foot of the Italian Alps, in which he had spent a few happy weeks during his youth—a house with wallpapers of soft antique gold and muted aquamarine, faience pots of orchids atop slender wrought-iron stands, and durable, well-made furniture from the previous century.
During an entire boyhood of decamping from one domicile to the next, the villa had been the only place, other than his grandfather's estate, where he'd felt at home. He had loved its brightness, its uncluttered comfort, and its abundance of indoor plants, their breath moist and herbaceous.
He was inclined to dismiss the echoing similarity between the two houses as a coincidence until his attention shifted to the paintings that adorned the walls of her drawing room. Between the Rubens, the Titian, and the ancestral portraits that occupied disproportionate acreage on English walls, she had hung pieces by the very same modern artists whose works he displayed in his own town house in Manhattan: Sisley, Morisot, Cassatt, and Monet, whose output had been infamously likened to unfinished wallpaper.
His pulse quickened in alarm. Her dining room featured more Monets and two Degases. Her gallery made it look as though she had bought an entire Impressionist exhibit: Renoir, Cezanne, Seurat, and artists no one had ever heard of outside the most gossipy circles of the Parisian art world.
He stopped midway down the gallery, suddenly unable to go on. She had furnished this house to be a fantasy-come-true for the boy he had been when he married her, the boy who must have mentioned, during their long hours of rapt conversation, something of his preference for understated houses and his love of modern art.
He remembered her spellbound concentration, her soft questions, her burning interest in everything about him.
Was the divorce but a new ruse, then? A cleverly sprung trap to re-ensnare him when all else had failed? Would he find her perfumed and naked on his bed when he threw open the door to his bedchamber?
He located the master's apartment and threw open the door.
There was no her, naked or otherwise, on his bed.
There was no bed.
And nothing else either. The bedchamber was as vast and empty as the American West.
The carpet no longer showed depressed spots where chair legs and bedposts had once stood. The walls betrayed no telltale rectangles of recently removed pictures. Thick layers of dust had settled on floor and windowsills. The room had stood vacant for years.
For no reason at all, he felt as if the breath had been kicked out of his lungs. The sitting room of the master's apartment was sparkling clean and fully equipped—tuft-backed reading chairs, shelves laden with well-read books wrinkled at the spines, a writing desk freshly supplied with ink and paper, even a pot of amaranth in bloom. It made the void of the bedchamber all the more pointed, a barbed symbol.
The house might have been, once upon a time, designed with the single-minded goal of luring him back. But that was a different decade—another age altogether. He had since been eviscerated from her existence.
He was still standing in the doorway, staring into the empty bedchamber, when the butler arrived, two footmen and a large portmanteau in tow. The nothingness of the chamber made the butler blush an extraordinary pink. "It will take us only an hour, sir, to air the chamber and restore the furnishing."
He almost told the butler not to bestir himself, to let the bedchamber remain stark and barren. But that would have said too much. So he only nodded. "Excellent."
The prototype of the new stamping machine Lady Tremaine had ordered for her factory in Leicestershire refused to live up to its promise. The negotiation with the shipbuilder in Liverpool dragged on most unsatisfactorily. And she had yet to answer any of the letters from her mother—ten in all, one for each day since she'd petitioned for divorce—in which Mrs. Rowland questioned her sanity outright and fell just short of comparing her intelligence to that of a leg of ham.
But that was all expected. What made her head pound was the telegram from Mrs. Rowland three hours ago: Tremaine came ashore at Southampton this morning. No matter how she tried to explain it to Freddie as something par for the course—There are papers to sign and settlements to be negotiated, darling. He has to come back at some point—Tremaine's arrival portended only trouble.
Her husband. In England. Closer than he had been in a decade, except for that miserable incident in Copenhagen, back in '88.
"I need Broyton to come in tomorrow morning to look at some accounts for me," she said to Goodman, handing over her shawl, her hat, and her gloves as she entered the town house and walked toward the library. "Kindly request Miss Etoile's presence for some dictations. And tell Edie that I will wear the cream velvet tonight, instead of the amethyst silk."
"I almost forgot. I saw Lord Sutcliffe this morning. His secretary has given notice. I recommended your nephew. Have him present himself at Lord Sutcliffe's house tomorrow morning at ten. Tell him that Lord Sutcliffe prefers a man of sincerity and few words."
"That is too kind of you, madam!" Goodman exclaimed.
"He's a promising young man." She stopped before the library door. "On second thought, have Miss Etoile come in twenty minutes. And make sure no one disturbs me until then."
"But your ladyship, his lordship—"
"His lordship will not be taking tea with me today." She pushed the door open and realized Goodman was still there, hovering. She turned halfway and glanced at him. The butler wore a constipated expression. "What is it, Goodman? The back troubling you again?"
"No, madam, it's not. It's—"
"It's me," said a voice from inside the library. Her husband's voice.
For a long, stunned moment, all she could think was how glad she was that she had not invited Freddie home with her today, as she often did after an afternoon walk together. Then she could not think of anything at all. Her headache faded, replaced by a mad rush of blood to her head. She was hot, then cold. The air about her turned thick as pea soup, fine for gulping but impossible to inhale.
Vaguely, she nodded at Goodman. "You may return to your duties."
Goodman hesitated. Did he fear for her? She entered the library and let the heavy oak door close behind her, shutting out curious eyes and ears, shutting out the rest of the world.
The windows of her library faced west, for a view of the park. The still-intense sunlight cascaded through clear glass panes at an oblique angle and landed in perfect rectangles of warm clarity on her Samarkand carpet, with its poppies and pomegranates on a field of rose and ivory.
Tremaine stood just beyond the direct light, his hands braced against the mahogany desk behind him, his long legs crossed at the ankles. He should be a figure in relative obscurity, not particularly visible. Yet she saw him all too clearly, as if Michelangelo's Adam had leapt off the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, robbed a Savile Row bespoke tailor, and come to make trouble.
She caught herself. She was staring, as if she was still that nineteen-year-old girl, devoid of depth but full of herself.
She had allowed no man to call her by that childhood pet name since his departure.
Forcing herself away from the door, she crossed the length of the library, the carpet beneath her feet too soft, a quagmire. She marched right up to him, to show that she did not fear him. But she did. He held powers over her, powers far beyond those conferred by mere laws.
Even though she was a tall woman, she had to tilt her head to look him in the eye. His eyes were a dark, dark green, like malachite from the Urals. She inhaled his subtle scent of sandalwood and citrus, the aroma she had once equated with happiness.
"Are you here to grant me the divorce or to be a nuisance?" She got to the point right away. Trouble that was not confronted head-on always circled around to bite one in the bum.
He shrugged. He had taken off his day coat and his necktie. Her gaze lingered one second too long on the golden skin at the base of his neck. His shirt of fine cambric draped over him lovingly, caressing his wide shoulders and long arms.
"I'm here to set conditions."
"What do you mean, conditions?"
"An heir. You produce an heir and I will allow the divorce to proceed. Otherwise I will name parties to your adultery. You do know that you cannot divorce me on grounds of adultery if you happen to have committed the same sin, don't you?"
Her ears rang. "Surely you jest. You want an heir from me? Now?"
"I couldn't stand the thought of bedding you before now."
"Really?" She laughed, though she'd have preferred to smash an inkwell against his temple. "You liked it well enough last time."
"The performance of a lifetime," he said easily. "And I was a good thespian to begin with."
Pain erupted inside her, corrosive, debilitating pain she'd thought she'd never feel again. She groped for mastery and shoved the subject away from where she was most vulnerable. "Empty threats. I have not been intimate with Lord Frederick."
"How chaste of you. I speak of Lord Wrenworth, Lord Acton, and the Honorable Mr. Williams."
She sucked in a breath. How did he know? She'd been ever so careful, ever so discreet.