Adam Dagenham, Marquis of Daventry: He is a worldly, brooding rake who doesn't believe in love...until he lookzs into a certain flame-haired beauty's laughing green eyes. But when he rushes his cherished Sherry to the altar he marries a stranger -- and will soon learn that even the truest love can be threatened by a single lie...
Charlotte "Sherry" Victor Dagenham: Achingly beautiful, she is the toast of London with every gentleman -- save one. Her beloved husband, Adam, has turned away from her, and all because of a devil named Richard Brimley whose dangerous "game" almost disgraces her. Now Sherry desperately seeks a way to not only rekindle her husband's passion but build something new -- a marriage based on trust aswell as love.
|Publisher:||Grand Central Publishing|
|Product dimensions:||4.25(w) x 6.75(h) x 0.78(d)|
About the Author
Kasey Michaels is a USA Today bestselling author of over 100 romance novels. She has won an RT Book Reviews Career Achievement Award and several other commendations for her contemporary and historical romance novels. Her bestselling series include the Romney Marsh Trilogy, The Coltons Series, and others.
Read an Excerpt
It's worse than a crime, it's a blunder.
-Antoine Boulay De La Meurthe
"The devil you say."
Adam Dagenham, Marquis of Daventry, settled his long, lean body more comfortably against the pillar at the edge of the dance floor and smiled indolently at the man who had spoken. "The devil I do say, sir. You asked the identity of that 'glorious hoyden in the sea-green gown' and I replied: 'my wife'. Now, do you run off, terrified of my wrath, or linger to offer your condolences?"
"My felicitations would be more likely," the gentleman replied in his deep, melodious voice, bowing most formally to Daventry. "Allow me, if I might, to introduce my blundering self. I am Burnell. Edmund Burnell. Late of points south and east, all of them most forgettable, and for the moment residing in London with my dear aunt, the Lady Gytha Jagger. The woman, I might add, who suggested I approach you for my answer when I first inquired as to the identity of-well, of your wife. I imagine she thought she was being amusing."
"Ah, Lady J," Daventry said, shooting a quick glance to the rank of dowagers. He spotted the hatchet-faced old woman waving one gloved and heavily ringed hand and favored her with a slight inclination of his head, acknowledging the hit. "Dear, dear, old bitch. She does enjoy her fun, doesn't she?"
Daventry took one last look toward the dance floor and at his wife. He saw the sparkle of her smile, the overbright glitter in her green eyes, more than a hint of slim ankle as she lifted her skirts and moved with the dance. Yes. That was his wife all right. Charlotte Victor Dagenham, Marchioness of Daventry. Sherry. His Sherry. And he was her Adam. For their sins. . . .
He lazily, belatedly, introduced himself, then pushed away from the pillar and looked more closely at his new acquaintance, this Edmund Burnell. Tall. Blond. Quite handsome in both his face and dress. Charming smile. Laughing blue eyes. Intelligent blue eyes. Likable. Interesting fellow. Very interesting. Well, diverting, at least. God knew Daventry needed a little diversion.
"Crushing bore, this ball, isn't it? Probably the flattest of this short Fall Season. At least of some of us," Daventry said, shooting his cuffs, looking at the man, assessing him even as he smiled. "Burnell? I was just about to go drown myself in some of Lady Petersham's best brandy. Do you care to join me?"
Edmund Burnell frowned slightly, his gaze flitting swiftly to the marchioness of Daventry before he smiled at his new acquaintance. "You'll leave her here? Unprotected?"
Daventry threw back his dark head and laughed. "Unprotected? My wife? You have it the wrong way round, friend. I leave London unprotected. Now, come. We'll drink, perhaps find ourselves a deck of cards. You do play, don't you?"
"Oh, yes," Burnell replied smoothly, following after Daventry, his cool blue gaze still on the marchioness. "I always enjoy a game."
Sherry stood in front of the glass, watching her husband's reflection as he prowled the bedchamber, wanting to leave, knowing he would not. Could not. It would be better if he did leave. She could scream then. Tear at her hair. Throw herself across the bed and weep until she slept. Dreamed. Woke sobbing.
How handsome he was, even when his face wore the dark scowl that had become so familiar, too familiar. He was angry with her again, of course. He was always angry with her. Disappointed in her. Perhaps even sickened by her. It hadn't always been this way. Once, he had been amused, intrigued. Once, she had been theworld to him. Or so he'd said. But that had been before. Sherry thought of her entire world that way.
Before . . .
And, now, after . . .
"Darling?" she said, forcing lightness into her voice, a smile to her lips. "Emma has wandered off somewhere, as usual, and it would be fruitless for me to ring for her. Could you come help me with my gown?"
Adam's head came up as he stopped his pacing, looked in her direction. "She's done another flit? I don't know why you keep the woman, Sherry. She's worthless."
Sherry lifted her hands to fumble ineffectually with the heavy diamond clasp of the Daventry family pearls, her head bowed so that he couldn't see her face. "She's the only one who can make some manageable sense of this infernal mop on my head, darling. Besides, she-she amuses me."
"Oh, well, if she amuses you," Adam said, his voice dripping sarcasm. "Far be it from me to suggest you part with anyone-or anything-that amuses you. Here, let me get that, before you have six generations of Dagenhams spinning in their graves as you rip the string and beads go flying into mouse holes in the corners."
He used to be able to tell when she was lying. Had he lost that talent, or had she begun to lie better these past months? Or perhaps he simply didn't care anymore. Sherry bit her lip as she lowered her arms, watching in the mirror as Adam stepped behind her, his fingers brushing her neck with fire as he neatly rescued the pearls.
His hands lingered against her skin, searing a light, fluttering pattern she'd feel for hours. In a moment, her fastenings were open, and her gown hung loose from her shoulders. He then moved his attention to the combs in her hair. She watched as the mass of living fire slid from its pearl-encrusted anchors, cascading down, a heavy waterfall of bright color reaching nearly to her waist.
Her skin looked so white against the blaze of hair. So white against the tanned perfection of her husband's hands as he drew her hair away from her shoulders, as his fingers made their way along her skin, pushing the gown from her shoulders so that it puddled in a soft green foam at her feet. No. He wasn't about to leave her. Everything else had been lost, irrevocably broken. But there was still this, God help them both. Maybe it had been all they'd ever had.
She tilted her head slightly, inviting his kiss against her throat. Longing for it. Praying for it. Offering up her soul in exchange for it.
She closed her eyes.
"There, that should do," Adam said, and she felt the cold evening air reach her as he walked away, turning his back on her, on his own desires. "I made a new acquaintance tonight, darling," he went on as he shrugged himself out of his jacket, tossed it toward a chair already piled high with Sherry's clothing-clothing Emma should have picked up hours ago, put away. "A Mr.
Edmund Burnell. Delightful chap. I think he's infatuated with you. But, then, so is the rest of London."
"Except for you," Sherry whispered under her breath. Pinning a bright smile on her face, she stepped away from her gown, remembering the times Adam had delighted in slowly, guided by kisses, divesting her of her undergarments. "How lovely," she then said, walking behind a Chinese screen, ruthlessly wrestling off her remaining finery before slipping her arms into a diaphanous dressing gown. "You should have introduced us, Adam," she continued, moving out from the protection of the screen once more as she tied the satin ribbons at her throat. She gave back pain for pain. "I'm always delighted to meet a new admirer."
She watched as her husband's deep brown eyes flickered betrayingly for a moment as he ran his gaze over her artfully concealed and revealed body.
He wouldn't leave. He wanted to. Oh, how he wanted to. She knew. But he wouldn't leave her alone tonight. Not after she had teased him so unmercifully at Lady Petersham's insipid ball. She had danced, whirled, flirted, enticed, invited. Dancing with everyone but Adam. Dancing only for Adam. Salome, without the veils. Bring me the heart of Adam Dagenham, she had chanted fervently as she smiled and danced and flirted and laughed. Bring me his love, as I've once known it.
He hated her for the way she acted, but he had left her no other avenue, no other way to fight, and she lacked the strength it would take to surrender. And, even if he hated her, he still desired her. As long as he desired her, she had hope.
"You're right, of course. I should have introduced him to you. Maybe next time," Adam said, reaching for his snifter of brandy. His ever-present snifter of brandy.
He had never drunk more than moderately when she'd met him, married him.
She had pushed him into a bottle. Just one more sin he wouldn't forgive her. She heard his next words through a faint buzzing in her ears. "Yes, I'll definitely introduce him to you. I wouldn't want you to think he's forbidden fruit. We all know your taste for that, don't we?"
Sherry lifted the back of her hand to her cheek as she turned her head from him, recoiling from the verbal blow he'd struck, stifling a sudden sob. "That's all in your mind, Adam. No one else's." Then, squaring her shoulders, she turned to glare at him. "Stop it, Adam. Just stop it, all right?"
"Ah, darling, if only I could," Adam said, putting down the snifter and advancing toward her once more. His own cheeks were flushed now, as if with fever. "Wasn't beauty enough, Sherry? Wasn't your every dream come true enough-becoming the acknowledged queen of London Society? Wasn't my heart enough?" She watched, dying inside, as his entire body shuddered slightly, the involuntary movement almost indiscernible. "Why wasn't my heart enough?" "It was-it is," she told him, made stupid in her need, by the love that became so volatile when mixed with exasperation. "It's you who have turned away-"
"I'm running for my life, Sherry," he told her quietly. "Even as I come to you, inside me, in my head, I'm running for my life. My sanity."
"Then go," she cried out challengingly, her heart aching, her arms empty. "Just go!"
It was his turn to close his eyes, to look away. "Dear God," he breathed quietly, the anguish in his voice tearing at her, giving her hope at the same time. He looked at her once more, his dark eyes glowing with heat, with want, with emotions she refused to understand. "I'm not that strong." Against all of her instincts, Sherry backed up a pace, put her hands out to ward him off. For a moment she was the near child she'd been when he'd met her, loved her, changed her life forever. "No, Adam. Please. I'd thought-but, no. Not this way. Please, not this way . . ."
But it was always this way. If not love, then need. If not his heart, then his body. It was all he had to give her. And she would take anything he would give her. Even shame. There had never been shame before, but they'd made love before, created love between them. She didn't know what it was they did now.
Her empty arms were filled with him. Her hands clung as he lifted her, carried her, placed her on the bed where she lay, eyes closed, waiting. The sound of clothing being all but ripped from his body shredded her nerves. And then he was beside her. His mouth claimed hers. His hands found their way beneath her dressing gown, found her.
She was light-headed before his mouth left hers, traveled to her throat, her breast, robbing her of even the memory of breath. His hands molded her, shaped her to fit his every need, her every desire.
He kissed her. Kissed her breasts. Kissed her belly. He moved lower, became more intimate. Kissed her again.
"Adam." His name was a curse on her lips, a benediction. A plea for love or, if not love, at least physical possession. Now. Now, before she burst into flame, crumbled into ashes.
Rising as best she could, Sherry frantically beat on his back with her closed fists. Pulled at him, urged him upward, clasped him to her tightly even as he settled himself over her, buried himself deep inside her.
He rocked against her, in her, driving them both. Over and over and over again. Taking them higher, higher. Freeing them from words, from regrets, from memory.
They were together now. One now.
It was all they had left. . . .
Midmorning sunlight wove its way through the ivory-lace curtains, traced dappled patterns on the dish-covered breakfast table of the mansion in Grosvenor Square.
Sherry, always an early riser, had already breakfasted in her chamber and was, Adam knew, even now sunk deep in a hot, fragrant tub. Washing herself clean of him, arming herself for another day of battle.
He had broken his fast alone, at nine, and followed his eggs and country ham with a snifter of brandy in the solitude of his study. But he'd heard the wheels rumble against the snatches of bare tile floor in the hallway a quarter hour ago, and knew he'd find Geoff in the breakfast room.
Lord Geoffrey Dagenham. His younger brother. His beloved, silly, senselessly damaged only brother. His heir until, as the Marquess of Daventry, Adam reproduced himself. Which might be sooner than later if he kept repeating the mistakes of last night.
Adam saw the back of the Bath chair first, its high, stiff back, its caning-the web it seemed to weave around his brother, trapping him in its seat, between its large wheels. He saw the thatch of dark blond hair, then the wide smile Geoff turned on him, the determined cheer in a pair of sky-blue eyes.
Adam's gut clenched. A tic began its work beside his left eye.
"Ah, Adam," Geoff said, waving his brother to a chair. "Looking your usual grumpy self, I see. Don't you ever weary of it?"
Adam took the chair his brother had indicated, the table blocking the sight of Geoff's legs. "Don't you ever weary of that chair?"
Geoff shook his head. "I'm much more weary of your constant references to it, frankly. Besides, I'm not at all attached to the thing. We'll soon be able to smash it into kindling. My latest leech swears it. He may be right, or he may admire the color of all the gold you're stuffing in his pockets, all the money you've stuffed in so many pockets as we languish here in town, on the hunt for miracles. Shall I ring for Rimmon to fetch you a snifter? I'm well aware of how closely our dear butler guards you, how he feeds your new vice. Or is he busy filling brandy decanters? Lord knows that's occupation enough to keep the man busy around here of late."
Adam reached for a cold piece of toast he didn't really want, ignoring his brother's remarks. "Do you plan to go out today? The sun's warm enough. Perhaps some fresh air-"
"Ah, yes, indeed!" Geoff interrupted. "Some fresh air. That should do it. A push through the park, some soft late-autumn breezes, a bit of sun, a giggle or two from the nannies, a stare or three from some comely, nubile young sylphs as they dash by, on the hunt for upright men. I do so enjoy my excursions to the park."
"Damn it, Geoff!" Adam exploded, tossing down the uneaten toast. "One minute hot, the next cold. I never know what to say to you, how you'll react. And to see you still talking with her, laughing with her as if nothing had happened? After what she helped do to you-"
"Sherry did nothing to me I didn't do to myself, Adam," his brother interrupted, banging his fist on the tabletop for emphasis. "She tried to stop me. And if your head weren't so thick, and your pride so stiff-backed, you'd see it."
Adam sat back in his chair, rubbed a hand across his eyes. "Oh, yes. Sherry had nothing to do with it. She never encouraged any of those mad starts, the games, the ridiculous dares. And I admit it. I enjoyed them myself. For a time. But then I warned her, warned you-"
"Lie to me, Adam, but not to yourself. You did more than enjoy the games," Geoff broke in. "You joined in with us, at least for a time. You reveled in Sherry, in seeing Sherry happy. How could you help it? She's infectious."
"So, I understand, is smallpox," Adam bit out, shaking his head. "Yes, our flights of fancy amused me, as they were innocent enough. But then we began the races. Those damnable races. The first was a lark. And the second. But then it became dangerous. Our whole lives became dangerous. I warned you, I warned you both. It was one thing for you to openly disobey me, but Sherry promised me-promised me-she'd put an end to her involvement. And she lied, Geoff. She lied. When I found her with him that day, I finally knew why she-"
He stood, the tic now working furiously. "No, Geoff. Don't object, tell me I'm unreasonable. I won't allow myself to beat my head against that particular stone wall this morning. I didn't come in here to discuss any of this again. I certainly didn't come in here to listen, yet again, as you defend my indefensible wife, her inexcusable actions."
"Perhaps you'd be better pleased if you could just cast off the shameless baggage, darling, and have done with it?" Sherry asked from the doorway. "I know I most certainly would oppose a public flogging, but there have been times these past months a scandalous bill of divorce would have seemed almost a blessing. Good morning, Geoff. I'm here to accompany you to the park. If we're lucky enough to find a chestnut man on the way, we can crack our treats open under your wheels when we get down and take our stroll." Adam stiffened, then slowly turned toward the door. He watched his wife's progress as she floated into the room, dropping a kiss on Geoff's adoring head before seating herself beside him. Geoff took her hand in his, lifted it, pressed a kiss against her smooth white skin.
She appeared both glorious and beautiful in her watered-sunshine morning gown, her cheeks still flushed from her bath, her dark-fire hair a tumble of curls, falling from a topknot that should look silly but that, on her, succeeded in being most eminently becoming, endearingly charming in its simplicity.
Adam died, yet again. It had been like this for more than three months. It was getting so he barely noticed each new death.
"Adam?" his brother jibed as the silence became more than uncomfortable. "If we've given you time enough to withdraw your foot from your mouth, perhaps you'll ring for Rimmon, and your wife and I can be on our way? Oh-do you care to accompany us? You're most certainly invited. Sherry? He is invited, isn't he?"
"Of course he is," she said, plucking at the blanket tucked across Geoff's knees as it began slipping toward the floor. "Adam?" she asked, looking up at him, her eyes so shadowed with unspoken pain that he nearly forgot, only for a moment. But he could never forget for more than that moment. It was his curse, and hers. And Dickie's victory.
"I think not, darling, thank you," he said coolly, already on his way to the hall. "I'll send Rimmon to you as I head out, having promised to meet with Mr. Burnell at White's just at noon. You may remember my mentioning his name to you? We've four invitations awaiting us for this evening, my dear. Feel free to pick and choose among them. Or perhaps you'd like to make an appearance at all four? It makes no difference to me where you choose to disgrace yourself tonight."
He wasn't quite out of earshot when he heard his wife say, quite deliberately, "You know, Geoff, I've been thinking of a small diversion for you. If I were to procure a Bath chair of my own, we could take them both to the top of that lovely, grassy hill in the park . . ."
Adam slammed out of the house, entirely forgetting both his cane and to instruct Rimmon to attend his brother.
Sherry looked around at the park, at the fading, yet-still-magnificent glory of flowers and greenery, and smiled sadly. She adored London, if not her reason for being here during the small Fall Season rather than at Daventry Court, where she, Adam, and Geoff had retired after the King's birthday in June.
How happy the Spring Season had been. Her first Season as a married woman, as the marchioness of Daventry. She had considered herself the most fortunate woman on earth, to have met Adam, to have him fall in love with her, to have become his wife. The Season had passed in a whirl of parties and routs and balls, visits to the theater, silly, absurd picnics with eight hundred or more persons in attendance, revels that began in the early afternoon and lasted well into the evening.
And always, always, with Adam by her side.
She loved to laugh. Adam loved to laugh. Their mad, impulsive courtship had been full of laughter and stolen kisses, from the first. She loved him. Ah, how she loved him. How he'd loved her. All through that magical Spring Season. And yet? And yet? How afraid Sherry still had been that he would wake one day and realize that he desired her, yes, but that their marriage was a mistake. That he had married a silly, witless child. For all the wrong reasons. That he was bored with her.
She'd put her fears away for the duration of the Season and enjoyed London. But once they'd returned to Daventry Court, to the quiet of the countryside, Sherry's fears had returned. Adam had been so busy with estate affairs that summer, too busy to laugh with her as he'd done in London. She began to think his interest was waning, his love disappearing beneath a mountain of reports on cottages needing thatch and pesky, clogged ditches to be drained.
She sighed audibly, remembering the day she had been sitting beside the stream, worrying about her failings as the wife of a marquess. It had been then that she'd met Richard Brimley, brought the man into all of their lives. . . .
"Well, that sounded heartfelt," Geoff said, touching Sherry's hands as they lay loosely curled in her lap. "Have you changed your mind, sweetheart? Perhaps I have, too. The park is well enough from this vantage point, but I admit to dreading the moment our sturdy coachman stops the carriage and the footman lifts me down into my chair. Strange. I used to rather enjoy making a cake of myself."
Sherry shoved her unhappiness quickly to the back of her mind and turned her brightest smile on Geoff. "Oh, but only think what would happen if Biggs were to drop you? Plop! A Daventry on the drive! Why, I imagine I would be crushed in the stampede of young ladies rushing to your rescue. Should I whisper a hint in his ear, do you think?"
"We'd better not. I don't flirt half so well on my arse, sweetheart," Geoff said, but he was smiling now, so that Sherry relaxed. "Still, I don't think I'll ask to stop and have my chair put out, if you don't mind. We'll just keep riding, and I'll sniff up the fresh air as you've told me I should, and I'll tip my hat to the ladies. Much better than tipping my-"
"You've said the word once, Geoff, and that's quite enough," she told him, wagging a finger in his face. "And Adam says I have corrupted you? Ah, he should eavesdrop on our conversations, shouldn't he?"
"Better yet, he should be dropped on his-"
"Geoff . . ." Sherry warned.
"Head, Sherry. I was about to say he should be dropped on his head. Maybe it would shake some sense into his brains. To watch him with you, listen to him with you-well, I never thought my brother could be so stupid. Thick, that's what he is. Thick as a plank."
Sherry began pleating the long ribbon of her pelisse. "He did find us together, Geoff," she reminded him, wishing her eyes wouldn't sting so with sudden tears, tears she refused to allow permission to fall. "If only I could push time back, have it all to do over again."
Geoff playfully pinched at her cheek. "What? You mean you can't do that, sweetheart? Well, I'm crushed. I thought you could do anything. Which is why I haven't yet wielded the drawing-room poker on my brother's thick, stubborn head. He'll come around, Sherry. He blames you because he can't blame himself, or me, seeing as how I'm stuck in that damnable chair for the moment."
"Because of me."
"Because of me, sweetheart. You begged me not to attempt that last race, told me the course was dangerous in the rain. I must have been insane. We both know Dickie goaded me into it, fool that I was."
"Adam thinks I goaded you into it. He thinks that, after promising him I wouldn't have anything more to do with . . . with the races, that I'd handed you my favor and sent you out to be crippled, perhaps die."
"You can say his name, sweetheart," Geoff prodded as the carriage slowed to a stop. "The races were secondary. You promised Adam you wouldn't have anything more to do with Richard Brimley. Dear, deceitful, dangerous Dickie. He certainly did a quick flit, didn't he? I wonder where he's gone." Sherry's jaw tightened. "To hell, I hope." She lifted her head, realizing that the carriage had stopped, and saw that Lady Gytha Jagger's equipage had come abreast of theirs. Even now her ladyship was all but bouncing herself across the width of the seat, bringing herself close enough for conversation below a bellow. "Why, Lady J," Sherry said, pushing her dark thoughts away in order to be polite to the old woman, "how good to see you this afternoon. You're looking well."
The old woman sniffed, her hatchet nose puncturing the air. "Liar. I look wretched and have always done. Wasn't even pretty as a gel, you know. Passable, I suppose, but never pretty. Never like you, my dear. So, you'll come to dinner this evening? You and that mad, brooding husband of yours? You, too, Lord Dagenham. You don't brood, and I like that. My nephew is in town, you see, and he and Daventry have struck up a friendship."
Sherry frowned, trying to remember the name Adam had flung at her, twice, in the midst of his usual insults. "Mr. Burnell?" she asked hopefully. "Precisely! Dear, dear Edmund. He was much taken with you last night, m'dear, not that he got to say two words to you. But he and Daventry got on famously, I believe. At least Edmund remarked this morning that he'd be more than delighted if I were to have you all to dinner this evening. You'll come, won't you?"
"Geoff?" Sherry asked as she looked at her brother-in-law, knowing he had so far refused any invitations to socialize. "Adam said I could pick any entertainment I wanted for this evening, remember? It would be good for you to be out and about again. And it would be a small party." She turned to Lady Jagger. "It would be a small party, wouldn't it?"
"Infinitesimal, my dears," Her Ladyship said sprightly.
Sherry bit her lip, looking hopefully to Geoff once more. It would be so good for him to enter society again, concentrate on something other than his injury and her sinking relationship with her husband.
"My goodness, Sherry, you look as if you literally want to pull my agreement out of me." He shrugged eloquently. "Oh, why not, sweetheart," he said, looking to Lady Jagger. "We'd be delighted, ma'am. Tell me-do I bring my own carriers, or are your footmen brawny enough to hoist me up your stairs?"
Adam was faintly surprised by the decor of the room Edmund Burnell led him to after dinner, then remembered that once, long ago, Lady J had been married. Strange, though, as the man had been underground and unlamented these twenty years, that she hadn't done the study over in some more feminine fashion.
Or at least opened the windows and let in some fresh air.
The room was oppressively dark. Dark paneling, dark drapes, dark wood. A large room, made small by the dark but never cozy; a high-ceilinged room, whose top disappeared beyond the candlelight, the glow of the fire.
He recognized the mantelpiece as being one designed by Sir William Chambers. It had been carved in a single huge piece of black marble that included matching four-foot-high female figures partially released from the stone, their attire rather scanty, although their hands seemed to be drawn into an attitude of prayer.
Carpets the shade of clotted blood matched the blood-red velvet draperies, their oriental design added to only with vague designs picked out in black and gold.
The chair Adam sat in, however, was completely comfortable. Chippendale had been at the top of his form with chairs, he knew, and this one was no exception, even if its Chinese style did not appeal.
Edmund Burnell sat in the chair's mate, warming a brandy snifter between his hands and smiling, rather enigmatically, at Adam.
"You're waiting for my reaction, I imagine?" Adam said, indicating the room with a languid wave of his right hand, his left fully occupied with its own snifter of dark amber liquid.
"Breathlessly," Edmund admitted on a smile. His golden hair shone in the candlelight, his blue eyes danced in obvious amusement. "Damned dreadful, ain't it?"
"The hangman's retreat," Adam concurred brightly. "Machiavelli's inner sanctum. Nero's music room."
"The devil's den?"
"Yes," Adam said, taking a sip of brandy. "That, too. Are you sure Lady J didn't have her husband stuffed and mounted in one of the corners? It's so dark in here, anything's possible. Oh," he added a moment later, "that was tactless. I know you address Lady J as your aunt, but whether it is by marriage or you're truly her nephew-well, either way, I believe I've just insulted your family. Forgive me."
"No harm done, I assure you," Edmund answered, sitting back more comfortably, crossing one leg over the other. "As happenstance would have it, Lady J is mine. I'm afraid I never met His Lordship. Was he badly oppressed, do you think?"
"Hounded straight into the grave, I'd imagine," Adam said, and the two laughed, then settled themselves again, staring into the fire.
It was comfortable, sitting there with Edmund, a man who was an interesting conversationalist but also knew when a comfortable silence was preferred. Adam and Edmund had spent a most enjoyable afternoon together, talking of deep things, speaking of nonsense. They seemed to share every interest, every opinion. With most of his friends not in town for the Small Season, Adam had been grateful to have met such a kindred spirit, felt himself lucky to find a friend to lighten his mood, lighten his days.
Edmund had delighted the ladies all through dinner and had thoroughly charmed Geoff, speaking of his travels, the sights he'd seen, some of the outrageous characters he'd met. It was nice to see Geoff smile, to watch him partake in society again, even in this limited way.
Everything would be even more pleasant if there had never been a Richard Brimley. Because Adam really liked Edmund Burnell. A few months ago, he would have trusted the man, trusted his own judgment.
"It's a pity your brother had to retire, Daventry," Edmund said, as if knowing Adam had been thinking about Geoff. "Do his legs pain him?"
Adam frowned as he remembered carrying Geoff down to the carriage, hearing the echo of his brother's sharp rebuff as he had attempted to insist he and Sherry also return to Grosvenor Square. "No-at least he never complains. Although tonight's dinner is the first time he'd been, well, out and about since the accident. It may have been too much for him. And it's a problem with his hip, not his legs, although the result is the same, as he can't walk until his injuries heal."
Edmund nodded, then rose to fetch the decanter from the small table he'd set before the fire to warm its contents. Refilling Adam's snifter, he sat down once more, steepled his fingers, and asked, "It was a fall from a horse, I understand?"
Adam felt the tic begin its work beside his eye and drank deep from the snifter before answering. "No. A curricle accident," he said as coolly as he could. "A stupid accident, as are most, I suppose. An idiotic challenge, a wet course, a splintered wheel-a ditch."
He looked into the fire, seeing Geoff's body crumpled, broken, pinned beneath the overturned curricle. The vision shook him, sickened him, so that he took another deep drink of brandy.
"There was also the obligatory storm that blows up whenever a loved one hasn't returned home and one must go out searching for him. It took hours to find Geoff. The longest of my life."
His eyes darkened at another memory, a memory even worse than that of his brother lying unconscious in the mud. It knocked at the doors of his mind, begging to come in, sit down, laugh at him. "Hours," he repeated, shaking himself back from the brink of that other memory. "He nearly drowned in that damnable ditch."
"I'm sorry if this conversation hurts you, Daventry, and I can see that it does. But I must ask you. Your brother is such a likable fellow. From what you've said, he will walk again, won't he?"
The brandy was warming Adam, soothing him, yet burning deep in his belly. "If there's a God, yes."
"Oh, there's a God, Daventry," Edmund told him, his smile one of almost indulgent amusement. "Most assuredly. A God. A Heaven. A Hell."
"And a purgatory, Burnell?" Adam asked as some of his own good humor returned. He began to relax, became determined to enjoy himself in Edmund Burnell's company. "Does that exist as well?"
Burnell spread both his arms, his grin lighthearted, mischievous. "A purgatory? We're surrounded by it, Daventry. Most especially in this room, wouldn't you say? I'm particularly fond of that hideous, grinning gargoyle hanging atop the mirror behind you. If that vision alone isn't enough to make us suffer for and repent of our sins, I don't know what is. Now, let's speak of more pleasant things. Tell me how you met your lovely wife, that dear, delightful creature who is no doubt even now yawning into her hand and wishing the pair of us back in the drawing room. My aunt blatantly cheats at whist, you understand."
"Sherry?" Adam closed his eyes a moment, yet another vision crowding into his brain. How well he could see. Step back, review the past. See her, hear her, smell her, taste her. It was the brandy, of course. Tonight it seemed to heighten all of his senses. He employed it to dull his mind, and, for the most part, it did its job well. But not tonight. Tonight, when the past crashed into his skull with such clarity everything and everyone else disappeared.
How strange. How wonderful. How sad.
The room he sat in was forgotten. Edmund Burnell was forgotten.
"How we met?" Adam kept his eyes closed, his hands wrapped around the snifter, the memories drawing closer, clearer. "We met by accident. Literally by accident," he began, speaking softly, almost to himself, allowing the memories nearer, allowing them in. . . .
(c) 2000 by Kasey Michaels"
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Adam Dagenham and his new wife, the former Charlette 'Sherry' Victor, are feeling their perfect marriage shattered by suspicion and distrust. Adam believes he has caught Sherry in a compromising position and is bent on punishment. This is a tale of losses and temptation, a couple who yearns for what was, and devilish mischief verses true love. Kasey Michaels¿ plays the devil's advocate in Come Near Me.