Lady Rosabella's Ruse
Author:Ann Lethbridge

Chapter Sixteen

For the first time in three days, Rosa felt as if she had time to think. Penelope handed her a cup of tea. ‘Everything is arranged, then?’

Rosa nodded. The solicitor had just left. Earlier a jeweller had valued the stone at ten thousand pounds. A fortune. Such a sum carefully invested in the Funds after the debts were paid would mean that she and her sisters would lack for nothing.

The best part was knowing Father had not forgotten them. Knowing his love had remained strong and true, even if the form of it had been a complete surprise. Everything had finally worked out just as it should. She should feel happy. Carefree.

She didn’t. She felt as if her heart had been torn in two and might never feel whole again. She’d let herself fall for a man without any heart at all.

She took a sip of tea. ‘Yes, that is everything.’ She managed a smile, even if it was a bit wobbly. ‘I can’t thank you and Mark enough for all your help. If there is anything I can ever do for you, please do not hesitate to ask.’

A sad little smile crossed her friend’s face. She straightened her spine. ‘I don’t think there is anything anyone can do.’

They both knew she referred to the strained relations between her and her husband.

The same fate awaited her if she married Garth. A pang of loss stopped her breath. For all that she knew the kind of man he was, she missed him. She missed his touch, and his laughter, when he wasn’t playing the cynical nobleman. She’d thought the face he showed to the world was a mask, but she’d been wrong. The charming honest man he played when he was alone with her was a front. The face he used to seduce women. The true man was the one she’d seen with his mother.

The choice was to shut him out of her life or let him break her heart over and over again. Once was enough.

Penelope put down her tea cup. ‘He came again this morning.’

Garth. No, she really must think of him as Stanford now. ‘I heard.’

‘He says he will come every day until you see him.’

‘He will be spending a great deal of time at your front door.’

‘Mark said he has something he needs to say.’

She’d heard that, too. Instinctively, her hand flattened on her stomach. She put down her cup with a sigh. ‘I suppose I should tell him myself.’ It would stop him from bothering her. It was the only reason he had for persisting in his suit and with that reason gone he could continue on his merry dissipated way.

‘It would be the kind thing to do.’

But scary. Garth was very persuasive when he had her alone. Charming and seductive. It had been that way from the first. Just hearing his voice from a distance made her insides clench and her hands tremble with longing.

Surely not? She’d had time away from him, enough distance to recognise her weakness and to come to terms with what was, rather than what she dreamed could be. He would never love her. It was not what he wanted. She was not what he wanted. Not really.

‘Next time he calls, I will see him, if you will stay with me.’

Penelope winced. ‘He won’t like it, but I will, if that is what you want.’

‘I do.’

‘When did you want to look at houses?’

Several possible properties had been brought to her attention by the lawyer Mark had retained.

‘Tomorrow. After I have seen Garth.’

‘Are you sure you do not wish to come out to dinner with us tonight?’

‘No, thank you. Your advice is wise. I should wait until next Season before going out in society. Get established. Make some morning calls with you, if you are still of a mind, and then seek a sponsor for the presentation of my sisters at court.’

‘Then you won’t mind if I leave you now to dress for dinner?’

‘Not at all. I think I will just take supper in my room and seek an early night. It has been a long and tiring few days.’

Penelope stood and leaned over her, giving her a kiss on the cheek. ‘I am so happy everything worked out so well for you. I just wish…’ She shook her head. ‘Never mind.’

She left the room in a rustle of silks.

With the owners out and supper over, the house was quiet and still. Rosa still hadn’t written to her grandfather. He deserved to know she had changed her mind about marrying Garth and the sooner the better.

She sat down at the desk and sharpened her quill. The words didn’t come easily. She didn’t know if it was the heat of the evening making her hot and sticky, or the difficulty phrasing the letter. She wiped her hands on her handkerchief and tossed a crumpled attempt into the waste basket beside the hearth.

She pulled another sheet out of her desk drawer, her father’s desk, which Garth had sent over on her second day here, and began anew.

Dear Grandfather, I hope your health is as good as ever.

She tapped the feather against her lip. While we have not always been in accord…

The sound of a bump came from beyond the window that looked out over the small walled garden at the back of the house. Someone outside? One of the servants going to the privy? Oh, she was so easily distracted from her task. Not this time. She would finish it.

A large figure hurtled through her open window and landed with a thump on one knee. A scream rushed from her throat. She leapt to her feet, the chair falling backwards with a clatter.

‘Hush,’ the figure said, rising. ‘It is only me.’

Garth? Here? In her chamber. ‘What on earth are you doing? Are you drunk?’

A sardonic smile crossed his lips. ‘Drunk doesn’t seem to help.’

She ran for the bell pull. He stepped in front of her, large and intimidating, sullen. ‘Hear me out.’

‘I will hear you tomorrow. I already told Penelope I would.’

‘I know,’ he said grimly. ‘She told me when we met at dinner. I wouldn’t have gone, but I thought you would be there.’

‘Come back tomorrow.’

‘I don’t need an audience.’

Rosabella tried not to look at the bed. ‘There is nothing we need say to each other that would possibly cause us embarrassment in the presence of another. Indeed, should we meet at any time in future, it will never be alone.’

His shoulders stiffened. His eyes narrowed. ‘I didn’t think you’d be so cowardly. If you can hear me tomorrow, you can hear me now.’

The proud arrogant bearing told her he wouldn’t leave, no matter what she said. She folded her arms over her chest. ‘Very well. Have your say, but stay on your side of the room.’

He flashed a grin of triumph and she had the strong desire to bash him over the head with a fire-iron.

He crossed the room to the door, turned the key and put it in his pocket. ‘In case you decide to run away before I’m finished.’

‘Perhaps you should also remove the ladder in case I go through the window. It was a ladder you used, I assume?’

‘Taking a leaf out of our honoured Lord Chancellor’s book,’ he said cheerfully.

Years before, Lord Eldon had run off to Gretna Green with an heiress by escaping with her down a ladder. In the end, it had been one of the most successful and happy of marriages. If Garth thought she would elope with him, he had porridge for brains.

‘Hurry up and tell me what you want. I am tired and in need of a good night’s sleep.’

His eyes slid to the bed and a smile curved his lips.

Heat warmed her belly as she remembered their last night together. Dash it, he only had to smile and she lost all reason. Why had she reminded him they were in her bedroom? She tapped her foot. ‘Well?’

He cleared his throat as if it had suddenly gone tight.

A nervous Garth? Now that was something new.

He dropped to one knee in front of her. She backed away, putting her hands behind her when he reached for them. It didn’t stop his flow of words. He fixed his dark eyes on her face with no vestige of a smile. ‘Rosabella Cavendish, I am asking you to be my wife.’ He held her gaze for a long moment. ‘I love you.’

The words lacked conviction and still the air rushed from her lungs. The three words she’d most longed to hear on his lips scored a path through her heart, leaving it bloody and torn. Why did he have to say them now, when she didn’t need him? When she couldn’t pretend they were real, because she knew the truth? Her heart urged her to run to him, to let him fold her in his arms, to tell him what was in her heart, but she didn’t believe him. She couldn’t. When he grew tired of her, he’d take her heart and flail it with his tongue. The pride, the arrogance, his presence here, was all about winning. He just wanted his own way.

In the end, neither of them would be happy.

No matter the pain in her heart, the longing to give in, she shook her head, knowing she was right. ‘You don’t have any idea about love. You said so yourself.’ She took a deep breath, knowing what she would say next would sever the tie between them forever. ‘And besides, it is not necessary—I am not carrying your child.’

If she had known better, she would have thought the fleeting expression on his face was disappointment. As it was, she could only assume it was chagrin at being forced to bend his knee, tell her what he thought she wanted to hear, only to be refused.

‘Not with child,’ he said slowly. His eyes were unfathomable, his expression carefully blank.

Though he showed no emotion, she was sure he must be pleased at the reprieve. ‘No. So there is no need for your sacrifice.’

His eyes blazed. ‘Damnation, Rosabella, it was not and is not a sacrifice.’

‘When you never wanted to be married in the first place?’

‘I’ve changed my mind. Didn’t you hear me say I love you?’ He held out his hand to her. ‘I ruined you. You have to marry me. I’m not entirely devoid of honour.’ He smiled at her, encouraging her to relent.

Honour. The real reason for this display. His honour was at stake. His declaration of love was nothing but words.

‘You don’t believe in love.’

‘I’m pretty sure I love my brother.’ He looked as if he’d said something painful.

‘But not your mother or your father.’


‘It is your duty to love them.’

Bleak eyes stared back at her. ‘Why, when they both wished I had never been born.’

‘Why would you say such a thing?’

His expression tightened. He shook his head slightly as if to clear his thoughts. ‘Let us just say I was not the son they wanted.’

‘No one can choose their children.’

His smile was grim. ‘So my father discovered.’

‘The way you spoke to your mother…’ Just thinking about it made her feel sick. Who was to say how long it would be before she was the target of his cruelty? Before he was throwing up the fact that she’d trapped him into a marriage he didn’t want. She’d have no defence. A man who did not love his mother had no concept of love. ‘I’m sorry, I really do not think we would suit.’

‘I care for you, Rosabella.’

He sounded so sincere, she wanted to believe him, she really did. Her whole body vibrated with the longing to go to him. But what they shared was not love. It was attraction. A physical thing. Having seen the love between her mother and father, she would not settle for less. Not when she didn’t have to. ‘Love is much bigger than a word. It is deed and thought. You destroy people with wicked words and think nothing of it. You threatened to take my child from me if I did not do as you wanted. That is not love.’

His hands opened and closed. ‘I was angry. I didn’t mean it.’

‘Love isn’t a weapon.’

He stared at her, his face draining of colour. ‘Then you will not accept my offer?’

‘I’m sorry,’ she said, crippled by the pain in her chest and trying not to show it.

‘I’m sorry, too.’ He closed the distance between them, took her mouth in a kiss of passion. Hard and fast and full of anger. It softened to something else: regret, loss. Or were those emotions all in her own mind?

Only by force of will could she remain stiff, unyielding, cold to his touch. And even then her heart reached out, beating hard and fast in her chest with longing. She felt herself weakening and stiffened her spine.

He pulled away, breathing hard.

She touched a finger to her lips. ‘Goodbye, Garth.’

He spun around and unlocked the door. He opened it, stood for a moment with his back to her. ‘I’m sorry.’ He strode out.

Tears running down her face, she closed the door to the sound of his running footsteps on the stairs. The pain inside her chest felt worse than anything she’d ever imagined. This time he would not come back.

They would never make a child together, or play cricket on the beach with their children. She would never marry.

She couldn’t. He would always take up too much room in her heart.

Love isn’t a weapon. But what the hell was it? Garth stared into his burgundy, hoping the answer might emerge from its ruby depths. It didn’t.

He pushed his untouched dinner aside with an impatient hand and took his glass to the window, looking down into the street. It was like one of those childhood riddles where the answer, once known, was obvious, but took ages to tease out. A half-smile touched his lips. Kit had been good at those riddles. Garth had preferred action.

Action hadn’t worked so well with Rosabella. Now he was floundering around in quicksand with no handy branch in sight to pull him out of the mire. He’d been so sure she’d relent once he said the words. Once he’d kissed her, reminded her of the pleasure they had together.

The love she wanted was beyond him.

Love. Such a stupid word.

For some reason his facial muscles refused to form their customary expression of scorn. They wanted to do something stupid like form a smile as he pictured her face, her courage in her convictions as she faced him, her perseverance in seeking what she knew should be found. The soppy sort of smile that went along with baskets of puppies or sunrise over the ocean. Or the sight of a baby.

He would never have a baby. He’d sworn it to himself when Kit left for America. It seemed like a way of making up for being born. What an idiot to be disappointed when she said it hadn’t come to pass.

He should have guessed she wouldn’t have him. He’d been unwanted since the day he was born.

He downed the wine.

She was right. She was better off without him. He was broken. Missing an important part everyone else took for granted. Or at least the good people.

Kit had it. Mark had it, though it didn’t seem to be making him happy.

Perhaps he was better off without it.

He just wished he felt better off.

Love isn’t a weapon. She’d looked so sad when she said that. Every time he thought about the hurt in her eyes, he couldn’t breathe for the pain in his chest.

If this was love, he’d prefer a quick death. He slammed his fist on the nearest piece of furniture. A spindly-legged table. A vase toppled to the floor with a satisfying crash. Shards of china scattered. He crunched through the debris, intending to ring for a maid. A habit. Make a mess, have it cleaned up.

His hand stilled on the cord.

He’d certainly made a mess of things with Rosabella. No one could clean that up.

Love isn’t a weapon. Was she right about that? It damned well felt as if she’d pierced him with a sword and twisted it.

Was that love?

A groan rose in his throat. If it was, then it was only one-sided.

Alone in the house for the afternoon, Penelope having gone off to make her calls, Rosabella reviewed the advertisements in The Times, carefully looking on the map to ensure each address fell within the circle drawn by Mark. Outside of that circle the ton would turn up its nose.

‘Lady Stanford,’ the butler announced.

Garth’s mother? Her heart stopped beating. She drew a quick painful breath and felt it falter to life louder than before.

She rose and dipped a curtsy as the lady swept in. Once more she was startled by the widow’s fair beauty. If she was this lovely now, she must have been a diamond of the first water as a young woman. ‘Lady Stanford.’

‘Lady Rosabella.’

Rosa forced a stiff smile. ‘The butler should have informed you of Lady Smythe’s absence.’

The lacy handkerchief appeared as if by magic in her gloved hand. Drooping from her fingertips, it looked a bit sad. ‘I’m glad we are alone. I just had to see you before the wedding.’

‘There is no wedding. I’m sorry Garth didn’t tell you and you have had a wasted journey.’

Lady Stanford’s blue eyes widened with childish innocence no doubt many men found appealing. ‘No wedding.’ Her expression brightened. ‘Well, let me offer you my congratulations. It seems you have had a lucky escape. I am sorry I was a little concerned about your…er…profession, but you really are better off without him.’

Rosa’s scalp tightened. Prickles ran across her shoulders. Wasn’t that what she’d been telling herself? Then why did she feel so annoyed to hear it from this woman’s lips? Shouldn’t a mother defend her son? She eyed the widow’s innocent blue eyes and saw a hardness she hadn’t noticed before. ‘Perhaps you would care to explain?’ She gestured to a chair. ‘Pray be seated.’

With much twitching of skirts to achieve just the right drape, the lady proceeded to settle herself.

Warily, Rosa watched her. ‘May I offer you some refreshment? Tea, perhaps?’

‘Thank you, no. My carriage is waiting.’

She frowned. ‘Are you here on Lord Stanford’s behalf?’

The widow patted the blond ringlets touching her cheek and glanced around the room. ‘Certainly not. Garth is nothing but trouble. His father was the same. A rake and a seducer.’

Rosa gasped. ‘Lord Stanford?’

She fluttered a dismissive handkerchief. ‘Silly girl. Garth isn’t an Evernden. You have only to look at my younger son to see it. He married a Duke’s daughter, you know.’

Rosa furrowed her brow. ‘What are you talking about?’

‘He will try to cozen and charm you like his dreadful father did to me. He ruined my life.’

‘Garth’s father?’

‘No, Garth. The child of a man who was not my betrothed. What was I to do? I was set for a brilliant match and quickening with child. All my hopes were about to be shattered.’ She dabbed at her eyes. ‘My father wouldn’t hear of calling off the marriage. The settlements had been signed. He got Evernden so drunk on our wedding night, he never knew a thing.’

‘You passed off another man’s child on your husband?’

‘What else was I to do? My father would have cast me off. If only he’d been a girl. My husband realised the moment Garth was born he was no son of his. In time, he forgave me, knew I had been taken advantage of, but he could never bear the sight of Garth. Thank God for Christopher. It broke my dear husband’s heart that his true son would never inherit.’

How cold she sounded. How uncaring. Rosa couldn’t believe a mother could be so lacking in warmth for her own child. ‘Why are you telling me this?’

The widow pursed her lips. ‘I just wanted you to know what sort of man he is, that is all. Nature will out, they say. He ran wild as a boy. We sent him away to school. It did no good. I half expected him to kill himself before he came of age.’

A chill breeze ran through the room. Did she mean she hoped Garth wouldn’t survive his boyhood?

‘Be warned, Lady Rosabella. Garth is just like his father. Do not be taken in by his charm. He will ruin your life as he ruins everything he touches. Even his brother left the country to get away from him.’

The woman despised her own son. What kind of childhood would Garth have had with parents who hated him? Was it any wonder he knew nothing of love?

Anger like nothing Rosa had ever felt before coursed through her veins. Anger for a child left out in the cold, unloved and unwanted. Mixed in with the anger was the terrible knowledge of how much she’d wronged Garth. The bleakness she’d seen in his gaze was not born of cynicism, it was born of this woman’s cruelty, her selfishness.

How could he know how to love when he clearly had never been loved? It was a miracle he could express any kind of affection. And she’d scorned him when he told her he loved her.

Anger as cold as ice and sharp as steel took control of her tongue. She rose to her feet with all the dignity of an earl’s daughter. ‘Please leave.’

‘I beg your pardon.’

‘Go. Now. You are not welcome here. Garth is right. You are a cruel unfeeling woman.’

‘You go too far, young lady.’

Not nearly far enough.

Lady Stanford got up with a huff. ‘Take heed, Lady Rosabella. Don’t make my mistakes.’ Head high, she left the room.

The warning came too late. Rosabella had made exactly the same mistake when she’d judged Garth and found him wanting.

She wasn’t sure she could put it right.

Armed with a taper, the butler entered Garth’s study to light the candles. Garth raised his chin from his chest and studied the window. Nightfall. Where had the day gone?

The man finished with the candles on the mantel and proceeded to the wall sconces.

‘That’ll do.’ He didn’t need any more light. The images in his head were perfectly clear without candles.

The butler crept away. All the servants had been creeping around since Rosabella left.

He chuckled grimly.

Poets spoke of love as if it was something to be desired. In his experience, it was a knife in the back. A blow to the kidneys. A flogging with fishhooks would be easier to bear.

Thank God, Kit was coming home. He’d missed his brother like the devil. More than he’d ever expected. He could take some small satisfaction in knowing that one day his brother would take his rightful place as Lord Stanford. That he would right his mother’s wrong.

Small comfort.

His father—he shook his head—Christopher’s father, would be have been pleased. Hell, it would even make his mother happy.

It was bloody ironic really.

It had nothing to do with his parents. He cared nothing for what they thought. It was Christopher who mattered.

Yes, he really did love his brother. And he did love Rosabella, though it was better that she didn’t believe him. Better for her.

The candles blurred. His throat burned. He blinked to clear his vision, swallowed the stupid lump in his throat. Pointless emotion. The kind he’d learned to suppress as a lad.

A scratch at the door. ‘My lord?’

‘Not now.’

‘You have a visitor, my lord.’

He rested his forearms on his thighs and stared at the carpet, a twisted mess of greens and blues. Did he really want company? Friends to drag him into St James’s where they’d drink and wench and laugh until they couldn’t stand and finish the night in some whore’s bed.

He shuddered. ‘Not tonight,’ he called out. He forced himself to his feet. Tomorrow. He’d go out tomorrow. Or later in the week. He didn’t have the heart for it tonight.

Loss was best suffered in private.

Yet he couldn’t just sit here staring at the walls. The papers on his desk caught his eye. Work. There was always lots of work in the management of an estate. He wanted it in tiptop shape for Christopher. Or Christopher’s son.

A pang shot through his chest. Regret. For the child he might have had? Not possible, surely?

He’d always known he wouldn’t have a child.

And yet he couldn’t help wondering what kind of babe he and Rosabella would have made together.

He sat down in front of the pile of papers and read his steward’s note about the tenant who couldn’t pay his rent.

The door opened.

He cursed. ‘I’m busy.’

It closed again.

The tenant wasn’t lazy, he’d had bad luck.

Whoever had entered hadn’t left. He could hear them breathing. With a sigh he lifted his head.

He shot to his feet. ‘Rosabella?’

She stood in the gloom and for a moment he thought he was seeing things. She looked pale and drawn and exceedingly nervous.

His heart ached for the pain he saw on her face.

‘Why are you here?’ Now there was a welcome. He came around the desk. ‘Please, sit down.’

She clasped her reticule in front of her like a shield. ‘I’m sorry for interrupting your work.’

She looked ready to flee.

‘Not at all. I am glad of the break. Can I offer you some wine?’

She shook her head and perched on the edge of a sofa. Clearly whatever it was she had come to say, she didn’t plan to stay long. He blinked again, just to make sure the wine hadn’t caused her apparition.

He sat beside her. Not touching her, though he wanted to, but near enough to smell the scent of jasmine, to see the rapid beat of the pulse at her temple. She swallowed as if she was afraid. Perhaps she thought he’d ravish her. Again. Hell, he really had treated her badly.

‘How can I be of service?’

‘Your mother came to see me this afternoon.’

Cold filled his veins. He tried hard not to care, but his little nun had burrowed deep into his heart, and knowing what his mother would have told her made him feel sick. Ashamed.

‘So you know I’m a bastard.’ He slapped the words down in front of her to prove he didn’t care.

‘Oh, Garth, I’m so sorry.’

‘You are sorry? The accident of my birth has nothing to do with you.’

‘No, I mean I’m so sorry about what I said.’ Her low voice trembled, her words were jerky.

He must be misunderstanding her meaning. He frowned. ‘You said nothing that wasn’t true.’

Tears welled in her beautiful eyes, the gold and the brown melding together. She struggled to speak.

His chest ached at the sight of her sadness. ‘Please, Rosabella, don’t cry. It was wrong of me not to tell you. It is good that you know. You were right about me. I cannot give you the love you deserve.’

The tears welled over, running down her cheeks. She gasped for breath. ‘Oh, Garth, no.’

He took her hands. ‘I am so sorry, Rosabella. I did you a terrible wrong. I should never have laid a finger on you. I knew right from the beginning you were different. Too good for me. I am an evil rotten bastard.’ He gave a short painful laugh, an attempt to lighten the moment. ‘In every way.’

Her fingers curled around his. ‘No. You are not evil. I was cruel to say what I did.’

He still didn’t understand. ‘You were right. I don’t have a heart. Never have had.’

But the longer she stayed, the more aware he was of her perfume and her delectable body, and the memories of strawberries by the fire. Next he’d be throwing her on the floor and kissing her until she forgot who he was.

‘You are not listening.’

Listening. He was barely breathing. He got up and moved to the hearth. He forced a smile. ‘You shouldn’t have come, but I thank you. You have a kind heart and deserve a good man.’

Her chin wobbled. ‘How can you say I am kind when I said such awful things? All your life you have lived without love and yet you said you loved me. I was so busy thinking about myself, I didn’t hear you.’

Something in his chest ached. The heart he denied having, he presumed. An oddly sweet feeling he recalled from his boyhood, when his grandmother was kind. Was that also love?

If so, he wasn’t sure what to do with this version of it either. He came back and took both of her hands in his, looking down into her lovely face, wishing he could make her feel better. ‘Please, Rosabella, you have no reason to blame yourself. You found the will and have rescued your sisters. I am sure you will soon find the right man, too. Please, love, no more tears.’

Love. God, had he said it again? Hopefully she wouldn’t notice.

She sniffled. ‘I have something I need to say.’

‘No more tonight.’ He really couldn’t stand to see her so anguished. Over him. Over his heartlessness.

‘You need to go home. We can’t have you ruining your reputation, now can we?’

She pulled her hand free of his. He felt the loss keenly. Her face turned serious. Once more she looked like a Madonna, cool and calm and untouchable. A smile tugged at his lips at the memory. It was the face he’d adored the moment he saw her. Something too big swelled up in his chest, making it difficult to breathe, a tenderness so vast he couldn’t contain it. So this was love, too.

If only he’d discovered it earlier.

But no. He was the wrong man for her. He’d never be able to get it right. Love her as she deserved.

‘May I escort you home?’

‘I have something I want to say.’ She went down on one knee, like a supplicant at an altar.

Shocked, he stared at her. ‘What are you doing? Get up.’ He reached out to bring her to her feet.

She grabbed one of his hands in both of hers.

The touch jolted through him.

Rosabella stared up at him. So darkly handsome. So lean and tall. His eyes were shadowed with concern, his frown deepening by the moment.

He had no idea why she’d come here tonight or what she was trying to tell him. It might even be too late. All his life he’d been denied love. And she, who professed she loved him in her heart, who thought she knew all about love, had thrown his words in his face.

He’d accepted her rejection, because he really hadn’t expected her to love him back.

She prayed she wasn’t too late.

‘Garth Evernden, I love you. Will you marry me?’

His expression turned wary and puzzled. ‘Rosabella, no,’ he said softly. ‘You do not need to do this.’

‘I do,’ she said, her voice catching. ‘You see, I was too cowardly to take the risk of believing you when you said it. I feared you didn’t mean it.’

His head came up, comprehension slowly dawning on his face.

‘And when you gave up so easily,’ she whispered, ‘I believed it confirmed my suspicions that you were saying it to get your own way. Only I was wrong. You gave up, because you didn’t believe anyone could love you. And, Garth, I do, I really do.’ She gripped his hand hard. ‘You must believe me.’

His mouth kicked up at one corner. Devils danced in his eyes. He pulled her up to her feet. ‘This poor fool has been believing you every time you opened your lovely mouth.’

‘Then you’ll have me back?’

‘Will I?’ He swooped in to kiss her. A dizzying warm loving kiss that came to an end all too soon. He raised his head. ‘But, Rosabella, are you sure? I couldn’t bear it if you changed your mind.’

‘Love doesn’t change its mind. For better or worse, I love you, Garth.’

His eyes glittered with moisture and then he laughed, albeit a little thickly. ‘I love you, too, little nun.’

‘I’m hardly little. And definitely not a nun.’

‘Ah, but you are my kind of nun.’ He covered her mouth with his and swept her up in a tide of desire.

This was right. This was true. She could feel the love when he held her.

This was where she belonged. In his arms.

‘I need to sit down,’ he said with a rueful smile after a while. ‘My knees feel a little weak.’

‘Mine, too. With relief. I wasn’t sure you would take me back.’

‘Oh, Rosabella. How could you doubt it?’

He sat on the sofa and settled her on his lap, cradling her head against his chest as if she was more precious than jewels. They sat quietly for a moment, their hearts beating in unison. It felt so comfortable, as if she’d come home. But before she could settle, she had one more thing to say. ‘Garth, about children.’ She felt his body shift, his mouth open. She touched a finger to his lips. ‘I can understand now why you might not wish for children of your own. As long as we are together, it will be enough.’

He kissed her fingertip and captured her hand in his. ‘Your generosity unmans me. I know how much store you set by a child.’

‘My sisters are sure to have children. I will be a wonderful aunt.’

He huffed out a breath. ‘I have to tell you, I had grave doubts about my suitability for fatherhood, but it is not the only reason for not wanting them.’

‘Tell me.’

‘You know my situation. You know I have a younger brother. Lord Evernden’s true son. I made a promise that my brother or his son would one day inherit the title that should have been his.’

The man had depths of generosity she’d never realised. ‘I should have known your intentions were honourable.’

He gave a short laugh. ‘It is not something I like bruited abroad.’

‘You are a good man, Garth. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.’

‘If we had made a child…’ His voice cracked a little and he took a quick breath. ‘If it had come to pass, I’m sure I would have loved it.’

‘I know,’ she whispered. ‘And I love you for that, too.’

A soft sadness filled the room. A bittersweet regret tempered by their love. The mist of tears filled her vision. He kissed her cheek softly.

She sighed and nestled into his neck, content to sit quietly and hold him.

A door crashed open behind them. Garth put her aside and rose to his feet.

A tall fair-haired gentlemen stood grinning on the threshold. ‘Garth, you dog. I might have guessed why your man didn’t want to let me in.’

Garth pulled Rosabella to her feet and held her close in a move that was all about protection. ‘Kit, this is Lady Rosabella, my future wife.’

The young man’s open face looked comically shocked. ‘Not you, too, and after all you said about me and Mark?’

‘Rosabella, this is my younger brother, Christopher Evernden.’ He peered over his brother’s shoulder. ‘And out in the hallway, pretending not to see us, is his wife, Sylvia.’

A lovely blonde with a babe in her arms squeezed past his brother’s wide shoulders.

The Duke’s daughter. Rosabella dipped a deep curtsy. ‘My lady.’

‘Ah, I see you have been fully educated by my mama-in-law,’ the young woman said quietly. ‘I suppose she failed to tell you that my mother was a courtesan.’

Rosa’s jaw dropped. She glanced at Garth, who grinned and nodded. Then his face turned sombre. ‘What brought you home, little brother? Not trouble, I hope?’

‘No trouble,’ the young man said, hugging his wife and tickling the baby’s chin with the other hand. ‘I made a fortune over there. Lots of opportunity for a man who has a mind to work. But Sylvia’s father left her an estate in Hampshire. A nice-sized piece of ground. With this young fellow coming along so well and Sylvia missing her brother, the Duke, you know—’ his hazel eyes twinkled ‘—we thought we’d come home to live.’

Garth clasped his brother’s hand. ‘Welcome home.’

‘It is good to be here. May I greet my future sister-in-law with a brotherly kiss?’

‘On the hand,’ Garth said, half laughing, half serious.

The love between these two brothers was clear and bright as they grinned at each other.

Garth peered down at his nephew, fair and with blue eyes like his parents. ‘A true Evernden.’

‘Hold him,’ Sylvia said, placing the child in his arms.

His expression went from comical dismay as he took the bundle to one of adoration. ‘He’s a fine little man.’

‘Isn’t he, though?’ Christopher said with smug satisfaction. He smiled at Rosa. ‘No doubt you’ll be equally blessed in time.’

Rosabella flinched. Garth looked at her face and thrust the child back at his brother. ‘Damn,’ he said softly.

Christopher frowned. ‘What have I said?’

Garth shrugged. ‘Rosabella has agreed—the title is to come back to you, or to your son.’

‘Oh,’ Lady Sylvia said, with concern in her eyes as she looked at her husband.

Christopher’s lips thinned. ‘Mother told me about your decision.’

‘I knew she would,’ Garth said.

His brother raised a brow at his wife and she nodded. Clearly they’d talked about this, and Rosa, seeing the pain in Garth’s eyes, wondered if this was the right time to discuss such a sensitive matter.

Christopher must have sensed it, too, because there was compassion in his eyes when he spoke. ‘When Mother wrote to me, I can’t deny I was pleased. It felt just. Fair. I admired you for it. Not that I ever envied you the title, you know. I never realised you were…’

‘A bastard.’ Garth’s voice was harsh, his face like granite, but Rosa could feel the rawness of the wound he was desperately trying to hide. She wanted to hold him, but knew his pride would rebel at any sign of sympathy.

Christopher gave a quick shake of his head. ‘Garth, I hated the way they treated you, but I didn’t much care for the way you acted with Mother either.’ He shrugged. ‘I thought, given your chosen style of life, it might be for the best.’ He gazed down into the face of his sleeping son. ‘I can’t do it, Garth. I can’t deny you the joy I felt when this little fellow was placed in my arms. Really, I can’t.’ He leaned over and kissed his wife’s cheek. ‘The title. The land. They mean nothing by comparison. You made a great older brother. You’ll be a good father. Don’t deny yourself something as wonderful as this, because of what our parents did.’

Garth swallowed hard. ‘Kit, no.’ He swallowed again.

‘It would be a greater wrong than anything Mother did, my dear fellow. You deserve this as much as anyone. If not more.’

Rosa’s heart contracted at the sight of the sadness leaving her beloved’s face. It was as if she could see the weight of guilt leave his shoulders. She squeezed his hand, because she couldn’t speak a word.

‘I made a promise,’ Garth said, still hesitating. ‘I’d be going back on my word.’

‘You’ll be relieving me of a burden. One estate to manage along with my business interests are all that I need. Provide my son here with a cousin. Remember the fun we had as lads. You and me. I want that for my son and yours.’

The expression on Garth’s face was like a boy who had found the best present of all.

‘Thank you,’ Garth said. He reached out and his brother took his hand, then pulled him in for a brief hug.

The baby squeaked a protest and the two men parted.

A tear ran down Rosa’s cheek and she dashed it away. Tears when she felt so happy. How ridiculous.

Taking the baby, Sylvia beamed. ‘When is the wedding?’

‘Tomorrow,’ Garth said. ‘At Mark’s house. If he is still willing.’

‘Oh, no,’ Sylvia said, laughing. ‘The famous ladies’ man is caught and he thinks he is sneaking off to some private affair? Mais non.’

Only now did Rosabella realize her future sister-in-law had a faint French accent. How interesting.

‘Have mercy, woman,’ Garth said, shaking his head.

‘Not at all, mon cher. You will be married at St George’s or I will know the reason why.’

It sounded wonderful to Rosa. With time to put all her affairs in order, her sisters could join them. Garth must have seen the hope on her face because he held up his hands in defeat. ‘Whatever your heart desires, my love.’

His love.

‘Oh, Garth, thank you.’

The church was full, but Rosa only had eyes for three people as she walked down the aisle on Mark’s arm.

Her sisters, Meg with her arm around the smaller Sam, sitting in the pew beside Sylvia and the baby. Their hazel eyes were bright like their futures. And then there was the tall figure dressed in black at the altar. Garth standing beside his brother, waiting.

He smiled as their gazes locked. Not the mocking smile of old, but a smile of pleasure. He looked so handsome and happy, her eyes misted with gladness.

Feeling as if she was floating, she walked towards her bridegroom. He strode up the aisle to meet her halfway and took possession of her arm. Mark relinquished her with an admonishing shake of his head and followed them to the altar rail.

‘Are you sure?’ Garth whispered as they approached the waiting vicar. ‘It isn’t too late to change your mind.’

It might take years for him to understand the constancy of her love, but they had years and years. She smiled up at him. ‘I love you, Garth.’

He let go a breath, as if he had really feared she’d change her mind.

He leaned closer. ‘Little nun, you honour me. You make me a better man. I love you.’

She gazed deep into his eyes and shining back at her was the truth of his love.

* * * * *