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Was it an earthquake in London?
That was surely the only explanation for the blasted pounding noise, because Hayden knew that no one in his household would dare to disturb him with such a sound in the middle of the night.
He rolled over on to his back in the tangled bedclothes and opened his eyes to stare up at the dark green canopy above his head. Pinpricks of light were trickling around the edges of the tightly closed window curtains, but surely it was still the middle of the night. He remembered coming home from the club with Harry and Edwards, stumbling through the streets singing, and somehow he had made it up the stairs and into bed. Alone.
Now he felt the familiar ache behind his eyes, made worse by that incessant banging noise.
The room itself wasn't shaking. He could see that now that he forced himself to be still. So it wasn't an earthquake. Someone was knocking at the bedroom door.
'Damn it all!' he shouted as he pushed himself off the bed. 'It is the middle of the night.'
'If you will beg pardon, my lord, you will find it is actually very near noon,' Makepeace said, calmly but firmly, from the other side of the door.
'The hell it is,' Hayden muttered. He found his breeches tangled up amid the twisted bedclothes and impatiently jerked them on. His shirt was nowhere to be found.
He glanced at the clock on the fireplace mantel, and saw that Makepeace was quite right. It was going on noon. He raked his hands through his tangled hair and jerked open the door.
'Someone had better be dead,' he said.
Makepeace merely blinked, his round, jowly face solemn as usual. He had been with Hayden's family for many years, having been promoted to butler even before Hayden's parents died when he was twelve. Makepeace had seen too much in the Fitz-walter household to ever be surprised.
'To my knowledge, my lord, no one has shuffled off this mortal coil yet,' Makepeace said. 'This letter just arrived.'
He held out his silver tray, which held one small, neatly folded missive. Hayden stared at it in disbelief.
'A letter?' he said. 'You woke me for that? Leave it with the rest of the post on the breakfast table and I'll read it later.'
He started to slam the door to go back to bed, but Makepeace adroitly slid his foot in. He proffered the tray again. 'You will want to read this right away, my lord. It's from Barton Park.'
Hayden wasn't sure he had heard Makepeace right. Perhaps he was still in bed, having a bizarre brandy-induced dream where letters arrived from Barton Park. 'What did you say?'
'If you will look at the return address, my lord, you will see it's from Barton Park,' Makepeace said. 'I thought you might want to see it right away.'
Hayden couldn't say anything. He merely nodded and took the letter carefully from the tray. He closed the door and stared down at the small, neatly folded missive. It glowed a snowy white in the dim, gloomy room, like some exotic and deadly snake about to strike.
It did indeed read 'JF, Barton Park' in a neat, looping handwriting he remembered all too well. The last time he received a letter from that address had been three years ago, when Jane wrote a brief note to tell him she had arrived at Barton Park and would be staying there until further notice. Since then he had sent her monthly bank drafts that were never cashed and he hadn't heard from her at all. He would only know she was alive because his agents reported it to him on a periodic basis.
Why would his estranged wife be writing to him today? And why did he feel a blasted, terrible spark of hope as he looked at the paper? Hope wasn't something he deserved. Not when it came to Jane.
The haze of last night's drink cleared in an instant as he stared down at the letter in his hand. All his senses seemed to sharpen, three years vanished and all he could see was Jane. The way the light glowed on her dark hair as she laughed with him in their sunlit bed. The rose-pink blush that washed over her cheeks when he teased her. The way she stared up at him, her eyes shining with emotion, as he made love to her.
The way all that heat and light had completely vanished, turned to cold, clear, hard ice, when she turned away from him. When she threw away their marriage and left him.
Now she was writing to him again.
Hayden slowly walked to the fireplace and propped the unopened letter on the mantel, next to the clock. Leaving it there, like a white, reproachful beacon, he went to the window to pull back the curtains and let the light in. When Jane left, it had been a chilly, rainy spring, the busiest part of the Season. Now summers and winters had passed, and it was almost summer again. A time of warmth and light, and long, lazy days.
What had Jane been doing all that time? He had tried not to think about that over those long three years, about Jane and what her life was like now. Every time she came through his mind he shoved her away, buried her in cards and drink, in late nights where if he didn't sleep he couldn't dream. They were better off apart. They had been so young and foolish when they married and she was safer away from him. He had convinced himself she was just a pale phantom. Almost.
Hayden unlatched the window and pushed it open. Fresh air rushed into the stale room for the first time in days, a warm breeze that was another reminder that summer was coming. That his life really couldn't keep going on as it had, in a blurred succession of parties and drinking. That was the way it had always been, the way his parents' life had been. It was all he knew, all he had been taught. But what could take their place? Once he had known, or thought he had known, something different. But it was an illusion in the end.
Hayden turned away from the bright day outside and caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror across the room. For a second he didn't recognise himself. His black hair needed cutting and was tangled over his brow. He had lost weight and his breeches hung from his lean hips. His eyes were shadowed.
'Jane would never know you now, you disreputable bastard,' he told himself with a bitter laugh. He pulled open his wardrobe and reached for the first shirt hanging there. He pulled it over his head and splashed some cold water over his face. He wanted a brandy to fortify himself for reading Jane's letter, but there was none nearby. He had to read it now.
Hayden took the letter from the mantel and broke the seal.
'Hayden,' it began. No 'dear' or 'beloved'. Right to the point.
It has been some time since I wrote and I am sorry for being rather quiet. Matters have been so very busy here. As you may remember, Barton Park has been neglected for some time and it has taken up so much of my attention. I believe I have made it quite comfortable again and Emma has left school to come stay with me permanently. We go along very well together and I hope that you are well too.
The reason I am writing is this. It has been a long while since we lived together as husband and wife. It occurred to me that we cannot go on this way for much longer. You are an earl and must have an heir, I know that very well. I am also well aware of how difficult and expensive a divorce would be. But you are a man of influence in London with many friends. If you wish to begin proceedings, I will not stop you in any way. My life here is a quiet one and scandal cannot touch it.
I will not stand in the way of your future. I trust that, in honour of what we once had, you will not stand in the way of mine. Sincerely, Jane.
Hayden was stunned. A divorce? Jane wrote him after all this time to say he should seek a divorce? He crumpled the letter in his fist and tossed it into the empty grate. A raw, burning fury swept through him, an anger he didn't understand. What had he expected would happen with Jane? Had he just thought they would go along in their strange twilight world for ever, married but not married?
The truth was he had avoided thinking about it at all. Now he saw he must. Jane was quite right. Even though he avoided considering his responsibilities as much as possible, he needed an heir. When Jane lost the babies, that hope was gone as well as their marriage. It was like his poor mother all over again, only Jane had luckily been spared the fate of dying trying to give her husband a spare to go with his heir. Jane was savedbecause she wisely left. Yes, she was right about it all.
But something else was there, something she did not say in that polite, carefully worded little letter. He wasn't sure what it was, what was really going on with her, but he was sure there was more to this sudden plea for a divorce.
My life here is a quiet one and scandal cannot affect it.
How quiet was her life at Barton Park? He had heard nothing of how she really lived in the years since they had parted. No one ever saw her and, after the initial ripple of gossip over their separation, no one spoke of her. They treated him as if he was a single man again, as if Jane had never been. Now he wondered what she did. Why she wanted to be away from him in such a permanent way.
Suddenly he knew he had to see her again. He had to know what was really going on. She had left him, left their life together without a backward glance. He wouldn't let things be easy for her any longer.
No matter what Jane thought, she was still his wife. It was time she remembered that. Time they both remembered that.
Hayden strode to the door and pulled it open. 'Makepeace!' he shouted.
'My lord?' came the faint reply up the stairs. Makepeace always disapproved of Hayden's strange habit of shouting out of doors.
'Call for my horse to be saddled. I am leaving for the country today.'