London, May 1818
Arabella Darlington, Duchess of Hawthorne, stood beside her husband's coffin. As she left a small spray of white roses on the lid, she looked up to find the only man she had ever loved staring at her from the second pew.
Raymond Olivier, Earl of Pembroke, watched her from a distance, his dark blue eyes devouring her. His shoulders were broader than when she had seen him last, his hair longer, the blond waves falling into his eyes the way they had ten years before. The day she had left him to marry another, she had told herself to forget him. During the numb, lifeless years of her marriage, she had almost succeeded.
There was a worldliness about him now that seemed to have nothing to do with the boy she had known. He sat beside his acknowledged mistress, some actress dressed in vibrant emerald green that set off the deep red of her hair. Arabella could not believe that the man she had once loved had brought his doxy to her husband's funeral. But in spite of lines on his face and the dissipation that seemed to roll off his body in waves, he was still so beautiful that the sight of him stole her breath.
The Archbishop of Canterbury intoned another blessing, the eulogy complete. She stepped back as William Darlington, the new Duke of Hawthorne, placed his hand on her arm, the chill of his touch making her shiver. She shrank from her husband's nephew, but his gloved hand did not drop from her elbow.
She still felt Raymond's eyes on her, but she could not meet his gaze. She could not acknowledge his presence with that woman at his side. She felt her legs tremble, and she straightened her knees in an effort to shore them up.
She moved to leave the church, Hawthorne still shadowing her. The funeral was over, and there would be no condolences after the service. Her husband's heir had made it clear to all that the duchess would grieve alone. The London ton seemed ready to agree to this stricture, but Raymond Olivier, Lord Pembroke, ignored it.
Raymond stood directly in her path, blocking her way to the door. He had left his doxy behind in the pew when he stepped into the aisle. She felt Hawthorne tense beside her.
His name slipped from her unguarded lips before she could catch it and hold it back. He seemed to stand too close, though he was actually a decorous distance from her. It was as if time stood still, and the beat of her heart with it. She could take in the scent of cinnamon on his skin, and the heat of his body seemed to engulf her. She took an involuntary step back, but she knew that there was no place for her to go, no way to run from Raymond Olivier.
"I am sorry for your loss."
His words were strangled, inadequate, but they moved her to tears. She blinked hard and swallowed the lump that lodged in her throat. Her love for him was a phantom she thought she had conquered, a shadow that rose to life again as she looked at him.
She searched his face for pity, for some trace of all they had been to each other. His eyes were bloodshot, their lids reddened as if with weeping. She knew well, better than most, that he had no cause to mourn her husband. No doubt his eyes were red from drink. His clothing was immaculate, his cravat well tied, his bottle-green coat smooth across his shoulders. But there was an air of hopelessness about him that had nothing to do with death and everything to do with the way he chose to live. He had turned from all decent society years ago and ran with a fast set, drinking and indulging himself both in London and on the Continent. The old biddies who had come to console her upon her husband's death had spoken of little else, of how a great name had fallen into disrepute, of how Pembroke's father had been a drunken lout, and now his son followed him.
But that day, as Arabella looked past the bloodshot veins, all she could see in Raymond's eyes was sorrow and an unspoken longing that reminded her of her own pain. No doubt her mourning veil was obscuring her vision. The pain she thought she saw on his face might only be a trick of the dim light.
"Arabella, I must speak with you."
His voice had taken on a strange note of urgency. Arabella almost raised her veil so that she might see him better. Before she could move or speak again, she felt Hawthorne's heavy hand on her arm.
"Her Grace is unavailable for private speech, Lord Pembroke. If you wish, you may write a letter of condolence. My man will see that she receives it."
Pembroke's gaze hardened like granite, as the sympathy of the moment before vanished like so much smoke. For one heady moment, she thought that Raymond might be jealous of Hawthorne's hand on her arm. But then she realized that what she saw in his eyes was not jealousy of the duke, but contempt for her.
Raymond stepped back and gave an exaggerated bow, including the new Duke of Hawthorne in the gesture with an air of negligence, as if telling them both to go to the devil. She opened her mouth to speak, not knowing when, if ever, she might see Raymond again, but her nephew's hand was beneath her elbow, propelling her forward. She almost tripped on her skirts as he drew her down the long nave of the church. No one else moved to speak, but all watched her pass as if she were an exotic animal in a menagerie, as if, now that her illustrious husband was dead, she was no longer worth acknowledging.
Her husband's nephew half carried her down the stairs that led from the cathedral's great door and raised her into his black lacquered coach without waiting for a footman to assist her.
She craned her neck and looked back as the carriage pulled away from St. Paul's, but all she could see were pigeons that had come to roost on the steps. No one had followed them out into the sun, not even Raymond.
Arabella entered the house on Grosvenor's Square, Hawthorne trailing behind her. She was not sure why he had decided to come inside. Perhaps he meant to demonstrate his power over her yet again. Or perhaps he had simply come to Hawthorne House to look over all he would be getting.
She thought of Raymond and felt a hint of something like hope. She pushed aside the thought of his contempt and focused only on the feeling that rose within her, like a sleeping dove that just now began to stir. The ache of the loss of him woke with it. It had been so long since she had felt anything but numbness that she savored the pain and the hope together. All was not lost if she could feel something, anything, again. Then she looked at Hawthorne and pushed both hope and pain aside. There was room in her life only for survival.
"You were very kind to escort me home, Your Grace," she said, her voice even, her tone empty. "With your permission, I will retire. I find that my head aches. It has been a long day." As she curtsied, Arabella kept her eyes downcast so she would not have to look at him.
Hawthorne laid his silver-tipped walking stick on a table by the door, along with a small bouquet of flowers. He straightened his morning coat, smoothing away nonexistent wrinkles. He ignored her words as if she had not spoken. "It was a decent service, I thought. Though the archbishop droned on too long for my taste."
Arabella felt a splinter of fire in her breast. The archbishop had been kind to her. He had been the only one at the service to weep.
"The archbishop is a good man," Arabella said.
"Yes. It is surprising that he has prospered."
Arabella raised her eyes to find Hawthorne staring at her, his cold gray gaze weighing her, judging her. She wondered for a moment if something about her appearance was amiss. Under his heavy scrutiny, she wanted to reach up and cover her face again with the crepe veil of her mourning bonnet.
Through an extreme force of will, she stayed still and silent. She could not bear the sight of him. Soon she would not have to bear the sight of him ever again. His solicitor would deal with her finances, allotting an income from her dower portion, and she would go home to Derbyshire. She could not get away from this accursed place soon enough.
Hawthorne crossed the room until he was standing in front of her.
Arabella held her breath. It was the second time in the same day that he had stood so near. His presence was oppressive. She felt as if he had drawn the air out of the room. She took as deep a breath as she might, her stays clutching her ribs like a vise. As Hawthorne drew close to her again, Arabella had to suppress the need to run.
His long-fingered hand reached for her chin and tilted her face up so that she was forced to look at him.
"How lovely your eyes are," he said.
Arabella jumped as if he had struck her, but his fingers gripped her jaw. He did not let her go.
"You are still quite young. Twenty-five, are you not?"
"Twenty-seven," she said.
"Ah, well. No matter. When there is money to recommend a match, then trifles like age can be overlooked."
She felt her nausea rise, though she had eaten nothing that day. Surely she had heard him wrong. She swallowed hard and forced herself to speak.
"But I have no money, Your Grace."
"I beg to differ, Arabella. May I call you Arabella? Of course I may, as we are to be betrothed. You have my uncle's money, Arabella. One third of the income of the Duchy of Hawthorne, and the dower lands in Shropshire, along the Severn. Do you know how much income a third of the revenues from the Duchy of Hawthorne constitutes, Arabella?"
His fingers were like claws on her jaw, close to her throat. The cold gray of his eyes had begun to burn with the fire of anger. She had never seen an emotion in his face before.
Arabella wondered how she might get away from him, if she might calmly walk to the door as if it were any other spring day and she was going out to sit in her garden. The bellpull was ten feet away. Her small sitting room had never looked too large before. But today, for the first time, she wished it were smaller.
She kept her voice calm and even, hoping that her gaze was as bland. She had survived her childhood because she had been able to lie to her father and make him believe it. She would lie to this man now, until she could escape that room.
"No, Your Grace. I know nothing of money."
"You may rely on my word when I tell you it is a very great sum indeed."
He released her jaw then, and Arabella stayed where she was. She did not step back from him, nor did she rub the sore place where his fingers had dug into her flesh. She forced herself to breathe and to wait. If this man was anything like her father, she would have one moment in which she could move. She would have to wait for it and be ready.
The menace in his gaze and in his touch was now palpable, as if his malice stood beside her, a third person in the room to flank her, to keep her from escape.
"An engagement would not be proper, Your Grace, for another year at least," she said.
He smiled then, and she shuddered. There was something predatory behind his eyes that seemed to flare and warm as he looked at her. This time, he did not keep his gaze on the contours of her face, but let it rove over her body, as if he could see the curves of her flesh beneath the layers of bombazine and crepe. She felt as if a noxious odor had slipped into the room and realized that the look on his face held some blighted form of desire. For the first time since her father died, she felt real fear.
Arabella couldn't stop herself from taking a step back. She bumped against the mahogany table, sloshing the pitcher of orange water set out for her.
"We will be secretly engaged for a few months only. I will not wait out a tedious year of mourning without even a taste of you," Hawthorne said. "During our engagement, you will retire to my house in Yorkshire where you will consider your future and be grateful for the opportunity to please me. We will wed, we will bed, and you will bear the next heir as you should have done ten years ago."
"And you will have my money," she said.
He smiled, and his smile chilled her more than his anger had done. "No, my dear. I will have all of my money. You will bear me sons. And all will be as it should."
He reached for her cheek, brushing it gently with one fingertip. She stood frozen under it, a rabbit in a snare, unable to move forward or back, or even to take a breath. "Uncle could not get sons on you," Hawthorne said, his voice heavy with lust. "He was too old, I fear, but you will find that I am not. There will be a son in your belly by next Christmas."
Hawthorne recalled himself then and stepped away from her, lowering his hand. He took up his hat and walking stick from where he had laid them on a table near the door as calmly as if the last few moments had never happened. He smoothed his already immaculate sleeves before setting his tall hat once more upon his head. He drew on his gloves, the silver ball on the end of his walking stick gleaming in his hand.
"I give you tonight to pack your things for the move to Yorkshire. It is a pleasant place, if rather rustic. I will come to see you at the Christmas holidays, and then to collect you next spring. I thought we might honeymoon in Scotland. Another lovely, if somewhat rustic, place. I think you will enjoy it."
"And if I refuse your suit?" She raised her voice, trying to inject a strength she did not feel.
Hawthorne's smile turned cool. "That would be unfortunate. Yorkshire is a world apart, you know. Quite wild. So many accidents happen on the roadways in these troubled times. Highwaymen. Robberies. Sometimes ladies run afoul of such creatures. If such an accident were to occur, I would not be responsible for the consequences."
The chill that shook her now had nothing to do with cold and everything to do with fear. Still, her years in her father's house had taught her to reveal nothing, to hold her ground in the face of danger, no matter how horrible. Her voice was still steady when she spoke the unthinkable.
"And if a fatal accident befalls me while I am in mourning, you will have my money anyway."
Hawthorne's smile warmed, a lick of flame behind the gray of his eyes. "Indeed. Your money, as you call it, would then be mine. But I would not be able to touch you. I think my solution is far more elegant. Do you not agree?"
Arabella stood in silence, trying to take in the fact that her husband's last living relative had threatened her life so that he might get his hands on her widow's portion. And yet, he seemed to want her, as no man had wanted her in years. She thought back over the few times she had seen him in her husband's house, the few times he had reached for her hand when he need not have done so. She thought of the cool touch of his lips through the soft kid of her gloves. Her bile rose.
"I will come for you on the morrow and see you off in my own coach. Sadly, I cannot make the journey with you. I must stay in London and see to estate affairs. There is much to be done."
He left Arabella then, closing the door quietly behind him. The room around her was unchanged, her own quiet haven on the first floor of her husband's house. The rose-colored settee was still drawn close to the fire, her mother's antique lace still graced the sideboard.
She remembered the flowers he had left lying on the table by the door. She approached the cluster of blossoms slowly as if they were an adder that might rise to strike. No soft irises lay waiting for her, but deep purple belladonna, deadly nightshade-flowers that brought nothing but death.
Though it was May, it was cold in her husband's house. A small fire burned in the grate. Arabella lifted the spray of poisonous flowers and cast them into the flames. The fire flared and then continued to burn as if nothing had happened, as if the new Duke of Hawthorne had never been there at all.
Arabella carefully drew off her black cotton gloves and tossed them into the fire. She poured the last of the orange water over her hands, then dried her fingers with her handkerchief. Her husband's initials were embroidered on the linen, along with her own.
Gerald had been sixty when they wed, seventy when he died. He had not loved her or she him, but he had protected her from the evils of the world. She saw now that she would have to learn to protect herself.
She felt a jolt of unaccustomed longing as Raymond's face rose before her. She wished she might return to him and right the wrongs that had come between them. But too many years had passed. It was already too late.
She stared at her reflection in the looking glass above the sideboard. Her honey-colored hair was tucked away beneath her widow's bonnet, the black dyed straw leeching every hint of color from her face. The ice blue of her eyes was the only color left to her, the color she had been born with. Duchess for ten years, she would take little else with her when she left this place.