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23 May 1814
It was a long carriage drive to trudge up in the drizzle, and the walk gave Bella far more time to think than she needed. Rafe must listen to me, she told herself fiercely. He might ignore my letters, but he cannot refuse to help me, not face to face. It was three months since she had lain with him in the barn on a bed of hay and felt his heart beating over hers.
Now she was apprehensive in her heart, queasy and weary in her body and bitterly angry, both with herself and with him. She had believed him. She had been so desperate to be loved, so sure of what she wanted, that when it appeared right in front of her, reached out for her, she had fallen, hook line and sinker for every lure of an experienced, conscienceless rake. And now she was with child. A fallen woman. Ruined.
No, please, she prayed as she walked. Don't let him be without all conscience. Please let it be all right soon. Oh, Baby, forgive me. I am so ashamed. And unless he helps me, I don't know what to do, I don't know how I will look after you. But I will. Somehow.
And she was so tired with the pregnancy, with the travelling, with the fear. Rafe had not been in London; his fine house in Mayfair had been locked up and dark with the knocker off the door, but she was here now at the big estate he had described to her, dazzling her with images of her life with him as his wife. His viscountess. She had asked at the gate house and they said his lordship was in residence.
She pictured him as she walked. For a few blissful days he had made her glow with happiness. Rafe Calne, Viscount Hadleigh. Tall, handsome, brown haired and elegant with blue eyes that had smouldered their way into her heart and soul. Rafe Calne, her love and her seducer. She had tumbled into love and into his arms so easily, with every tenet of virtue and modesty forgotten in the whirl of emotion. She had dreamed of a fairy tale, was desperate for a fairy tale, and when she found herself in one she had believed in it implicitly. And now she was being punished for dreaming.
Ruined women like her were supposed to throw themselves into the river out of the depths of their shame. She had walked down to the Thames when she had found his London house deserted. She had looked at the swirling brown water. But she could not, would not, despair. She was the sensible sister, she reminded herself bitterly. She would come up with a plan.
And she was carrying a child and nothing, if she could help it, would hurt that baby. It did not matter what happened to her, it did not matter how much scorn he poured onto her head, the baby must be provided for.
Her feet were wet and cold. Rafe did not maintain his carriage drive in good order. Bella tugged her hood further over her face and shook the foot that had just trodden in a waterfilled pothole. But he was a busy man, he had told her that. Doubtless his estate workers had not been supervised as they might. Rafe had been busy seducing another hapless innocent or flirting with some great lady, no doubt.
Bella's valise was banging uncomfortably against her knee and it was making her fingers numb. For the day after May Day, this was miserable weather: certainly it was not the day to set out on a threemile walk through the countryside on an empty, unsettled stomach. It was probably a judgement for travelling on a Sunday, one more sin to add to the one she had so gladly, so recklessly, committed. The drive turned around an overgrown bed of shrubs and there was the house, Hadleigh Old Hall, sprawling low and golden brown and beautiful, even in the rain. It should have been her new home.
Bella straightened her shoulders as she reached the front door and banged the knocker. Deep breath, keep calm. He would be surprised to see her, shocked perhaps that she had travelled alone, angry when he heard what she wantedof that last she had no doubt.
The butler's face as he opened the door spoke more than the words he was not uttering. Bella dripped in the shelter of the high porch and wondered if her nose was red or blue. She could imagine just what a sight she must present, soaking wet and travel stained after four days on the road, and she could see it in the way the butler looked at her. Eventually the man spoke. 'Miss?'
'Good afternoon.' His eyes narrowed at the sound of her cultivated accent and his face became expressionless. Bella took a deep breath and summoned up the tatters of her poise. She would pretend the butler was the butcher and she was having to complain about the meat again. 'I wish to see Lord Hadleigh.'
'His lordship is not at home.'
'Lord Hadleigh will wish to see me whether he is receiving or not. Kindly tell him that Miss Shelley is here.' She stepped forwards and the butler, caught off guard, stepped back. 'Thank you. I will wait in the salon, shall I?' She dumped her bag by the door.
The butler received her sodden cloak and then looked as though he might drop it, but in the face of her accent, her certainty and one lifted eyebrow, he ushered her into a reception room.
'I will inform his lordship of your arrival.'
It had been too much to hope the man would offer such an unconventional guest a cup of tea. Bella eyed the satin upholstery, decided not to sit on it in her damp skirts despite her shaking legs and tried to study the pictures on the wall.
She hardly had time to realise she could not focus on the first when the butler returned. 'His lordship will receive you in the study, Miss Shelley.'
The room tilted a little. Rafe, at last. Please, God. Let me do this right. Let him have some shred of pity. 'Thank you.'
The study was on the north side of the house, deep in shadows. A fire flickered in the grate; the only light, a greenshaded reading lamp, was focused down on to papers on the desk. It illuminated the lines of Rafe's jaw, the edge of his cheekbones, the glint of his eyes as he stood, but not much more.
So formal, so calmhe is concerned that the butler might come back. His voice seemed deeper; perhaps that was surprise at seeing her. He did not sound angry.
That would come and she had tasted his anger, his fury at any attempt to thwart or contradict him.
'Rafe My lord, I had to come.' She stepped towards him, but his left hand lifted, gestured towards a chair, and the firelight caught the flame of the familiar cabochon ruby on his ring. That hand, sliding slowly down over her breast, over the pale curve of her belly, down
'Thank you, but, no.' It left him on his feet too, a shadowy figure behind the desk, but she was too agitated to sit. 'You will be surprised to see me.'
'Indeed.' Still no anger. Perhaps this cool distance was worse; he did not seem to even know her.
Bella felt a fresh pang of apprehension, a wave of hot shame that she was in this position.
'When you left me you made it clear you never wanted to see me again.' Silly little sentimental fool Clumsy country wenchthe only thing you can do on your knees is pray So easy, so gullible and not worth the effort. He had slapped her face when she began to weep.
Rafe shifted abruptly, then was still, remaining behind the desk. 'And yet you are here.'
She could not read the emotion in his voice. The shadows seemed to shift and sway. It was necessary to breathe, to be silent for a moment or two while she fought the nausea and the shame. He was going to make her spell it out, he was not going to offer her the slightest help to stammer out her demands.
She felt her knees trembling, but somehow she dared not sit down. Something dreadful was happening, just as her worst fears had told her, and she needed to be on her feet to face it. He was so cold, so distant. He is going to refuse. 'I am with child. Our child, Rafe.'
'I see.' He sounded remarkably calm about it. She had expected anger, shouting. Only the flash of that ruby in the firelight showed any sign of movement.
'You promised me marriage or I would never have never I know what you said when we parted, but we must consider the baby now, Rafe.'
She could almost feel the emotion flowing from him in waves now, belying his calm tone. But she could not decipher it, except to feel the anger, rigidly suppressed. Perhaps it was her own fear and humiliation she could feel. Bella pulled air down into her lungs and took an unobtrusive grip on the back of the nearest chair.
'You are certain that you are with child?' That deep, dispassionate voice unnerved her as much as his words. Rafe had always been laughing, or whispering or murmuring soft, heated endearments. Or at the end hurling cutting, sneering gibes. He had not sounded like this.
'Of course! Rafe' She took a step towards him but his hand came up again and she froze. There was a silence. She could tell in the light of the reading lamp that Rafe had bowed his head as though in thought. Then he looked up. 'And you came here thinking to marry Rafe Calne? That will not happen, child or no child.'
The room swam out of focus. Bella gripped the chair as though drowning. But she did not weep or protest. She had expected it and had planned for it and now, with the uncertainty gone, felt somehow stronger. A cold calm settled over her and from somewhere deep inside she summoned up her courage and her will; later she could weepshe had had enough practice at that when she first realised she was pregnant. But now she had to think about her baby. What was going to happen to them?
'You are responsible for this child,' she said, hating the way her voice shook, not wanting to show weakness.
'You must provide for it, even if you have no care for me. It is your moral obligation.' She would fight tooth and nail for her baby, she had realised as the days passed. Now her own emotions, her own happiness, no longer mattered. She would battle Rafe, however he wounded her, whatever foul words he hurled at her. What could he do to her that was worse than what had already happened?
'The situation, Miss Shelley, is rather more complex than you believe, although I cannot blame you for seeing it in somewhat blackandwhite terms.' Rafe came out from behind the desk before she could speak.
She stared as he stepped into the light from the fire, the warm glow illuminating his face, sparking sapphire from eyes bluer than she had ever seen, gilding hair the colour of dark honey. 'You are not Rafe.' Bella sat down with a thump on the chair as her legs gave way.
'No,' he agreed. 'I am his brother Elliott. Rafe died of a poisoned appendix ten days ago. You asked for HadleighI now hold the title.'
Bella found herself without words. Rafe was dead. Her child's father was dead. The man she had sacrificed her principles and her honour for was dead. There were no tears, she realised hazily, nor satisfaction either. Only pain. Bella laid her hand over her cramping stomach protectively. She must be strong, for the baby's sake.
The stranger's faceRafe's face in so many ways was expressionless as he began to walk around the room, setting a spill from the fire to the candles. Bella fought for some composure. She had to say something or he would think her addled as well as wanton. She had given her virtue to his brother and now she was carrying his illegitimate child. This man would despise her.
All rightthinking people would despise her, she knew that. Love was never an excuse, not for the woman.
'My sympathies on your loss,' she managed when he came and sat down opposite her, crossed long legs and settled back with the same casual elegance that Rafe had possessed. Rafe is dead, her churning thoughts clamoured. Rafe, the man she had thought she loved, was dead. He had betrayed her and Bella supposed another woman might rejoice that he was no more, but she could not. She just felt blank.
'Thank you,' Lord Hadleigh said and his face showed some emotion at last, a tightening, as if a migraine had stabbed at his nerves. 'We were not close, I regret to say. You were in love with my brother?'
That was abrupt enough. He certainly did not beat about the bush, this brotherghost of her lover. 'Yes, of course I was.' His mouth twisted and this time it was clearly the hint of a smile. 'You think me immoral, wanton, I am sure,' Bella protested, goaded by his amusement. 'But I loved him. I thought he loved me. It was not easy; my father would not countenance me marrying, I knew that. We had to keep it secret.'
Was she making any sense? Her tongue and her brain seemed disconnected. It must be shock, she realised. How could she explain and make him understand the objections a country vicar might have to his daughter marrying a viscount?
He did not appear judgemental, just detached. 'I see. You were certain of my brother's affections?'
'Of course I was.' She blushed, surprising herself. Surely she was beyond that manifestation of maidenly modesty? 'He was so sweet, so passionate, so convincing.' She had to be frank, there was no point in trying to shield her privacy from this man. 'I never thought I would escape from Martinsdene,' she murmured. 'But I dreamed and my dream came truea viscount fell in love with a vicar's plain daughter. Or so it seemed.'
'Are you plain?' Elliott Calne tilted his head to one side and studied her face. 'No lady would be looking her best just at this moment. I will reserve judgement.' His eyes laughed at her for a moment, and her heart turned over. Rafe's eyes, but deeper, more intent. Rafe's eyes alone could have seduced her without the need for a word spoken. These made her catch her breath and wonder at their secrets. 'I am sorry, this is no time for levity,' he said, serious again. 'You found you were mistaken in him?' He sounded regretful, but not surprised.