Lady Rosabella's Ruse
Author:Ann Lethbridge

Chapter Nine

Pain seared through her. She cried out. Closed her eyes against the agony gripping her flesh.

He stilled. ‘Bloody hell.’

Panting, she lifted her lids to meet a face filled with regret and a sort of strained agony. ‘Oh, Rose, love, what have you done?’

‘I’m sorry,’ she whispered.

‘Are you hurt? Shall I stop?’

The pain was receding. While the feel of him inside her felt foreign, it also felt good. She moved her hips and felt the sting, but also a return of thrilling sensations. An echo of the pleasure that had held her in its thrall only a moment ago.

‘No. Please. I am fine. Don’t stop now.’ She brought her hands up to his face. For a moment she thought he would jerk away, refuse to let her touch him, but then he groaned and let her palm his jaw. ‘Please. Don’t stop.’

A savage expression set his face in harsh lines and his lips twisted in a mocking smile. ‘Well played, my dear.’

She stared at him blankly, not understanding this sudden change.

With infinite care he moved within her, first slowly withdrawing, until she thought he would leave her. She gripped his waist with her calves. His jaw hardened. He refused to be restrained. Before she could cry out a protest against his leaving, he eased forwards, the slide a gentle torture. Again and again, he stroked her from the inside, teasing the twist of tension inside her, and all the while he watched her face with his mocking smile. Yet she had the feeling he mocked himself, for he treated her with great gentleness.

Hanging above her, his weight on his hands each side of her head, he seemed so distant. So uninvolved, when his body was bringing her so much delight.

She ran her hands across his chest, felt the muscle around his flat nipples, tested the rough dark hair that trailed off towards his belly with her fingertips. He felt lovely.

But when she glanced up to his face, there was no pleasure, only a kind of pain, his lips drawn back from his teeth, while he moved his hips with gentle patience. A thrilling kind of torture that left her hanging on the verge of some great discovery, which for some reason he seemed determined to deny.

The longer it continued, the deeper the waiting abyss became. The nearer she came to flying over the edge, the more he seemed to hold her back.

Furious at his teasing, she tweaked his nipples as he had done to hers. He groaned and slammed himself into her body.

A sense of satisfaction filled the void. She grabbed his shoulders and lifted her hips, impaling herself, clenching her muscles to hold him fast; when she found his ear brushing against her mouth, she nipped at his earlobe.

A shudder ran through him. He thrust into her hard and fast. Her body drew bowstring tight as the brink fell away and she soared on a hot rush of light and shattered.

He cried out, a sound of shock as he shuddered deep within her body.

Panting, she collapsed, her hands too weak to hold him, her limbs heavy and languid, her body pulsing around him, before he pulled away.

He lowered his head to her shoulder. His heart beat a thunder against her ribs, his breathing ragged and tumultuous as her own. ‘Oh, hell,’ he whispered with what sounded like despair.

‘I’m sorry,’ she gasped, her heart thundering, her body trembling with shock after shock.

He raised his head and gazed down on her with such tenderness he looked almost a different man. ‘Not you, darling,’ he said, his breathing hard and ragged. ‘Never you.’ He stroked damp strands of her hair back from her temples with hands that shook. ‘You were wonderful. Amazing.’ He kissed the tip of her nose. ‘Are you all right?’

The gentle concern in his face unfurled something in her chest. Something warm and wonderful. She knew right at that moment she’d fallen in love. She stroked his cheek. ‘I’m fine,’ she said smiling. ‘Really.’

He smiled sweetly and drew away from her, leaving her body, immediately drawing the sheet he’d used earlier over them both and pulling her into the circle of his arms.

‘Rest, sweet, and we’ll talk later.’ He rhythmically stroked from shoulder to hip and she felt warm and protected in his embrace.

Unable to shake the lethargy stealing over her senses, she sank into darkness.

Cocooned in blissful warmth, it was some moments before Rosa made sense of the sounds of the deep breathing nearby or the cushions beneath her and the heavy weight across her stomach. The glow of the fire answered her questions.

The kitchen at Gorham Place. Garth, sprawled naked beside her, one arm across her belly, his face turned away. He’d slipped off the cushions on to the hearth rug. She extricated herself from beneath his arm, sliding off the cushions to pull on her shift. He looked lovely in the warmth of the firelight, relaxed, his face devoid of all cynicism.

It would be dawn soon. They must leave before anyone arrived. There would be no more opportunities to search the house.

The realisation struck her hard. She had searched. She’d found nothing.

It wasn’t here. There was no will. For whatever reason, Papa had not kept his promise. Something must have gone wrong. Perhaps he simply hoped Grandfather would take care of them. Or thought he would wait until he came into his inheritance, not realising that he never would. One thing she knew for certain in her heart, one truth she would not give up. He had loved his daughters. Whatever had happened, it had been a mistake.

No sense in dwelling on what might or should have been. She had carved a new path out of her difficulties. It might not be particularly honourable, but at least she wasn’t crawling back to her grandfather in defeat. At heart, Garth seemed a much kinder man than her grandfather. She liked him. She just had to hope she was right to trust him.

She glanced around. There must be no evidence left of their presence here tonight. A banked fire might cause some raised brows, but could be seen as something Inchbold would do to warm the house after it had lain empty. Cushions on the floor and makeshift clothes-horses were out of the question.

Garth stirred and sighed in his sleep. He looked so peaceful, she hated to disturb him.

She flung her cloak around her shoulders and gathered the cushions. She carried them through to the library and replaced them on the sofa. An odd sense that she’d missed something nagged at her mind. But what? Was there perhaps more than one secret door in the desk? The urge to look again drove her upstairs. She discovered nothing new, but the feeling remained with her.

When she returned to the kitchen Garth was already up and buttoning his shirt.

‘Is it dry?’ she asked.

His dark eyes met hers and she was shocked at the anger she saw in their depths. ‘Where did you go?’

Feeling very naked, she pulled her cloak around her. ‘To put the cushions back. Why?’

He sat down on the hearth stool and rubbed a hand across his jaw, shaking his head. ‘I thought you’d run off.’

She stared at him, surprised. ‘Would you care?’

‘No.’ He winced. ‘Yes.’ He sat on the settle by the hearth, forearms resting on his thighs, his gaze intent. ‘Rose, what kind of game are you playing here?’

‘Game?’ She stared at him blankly.

‘Until a couple of hours ago, you were a virgin.’

Heat enveloped her. She hung her head. ‘Oh, that.’

‘Yes, dammit, that. You couldn’t possibly think I wouldn’t know. So I ask you again, what is your game?’

A guilty wince tightened her lips. ‘No game. I didn’t think you would mind.’

‘Not mind?’ He stared at her as if she was mad. ‘Why on earth did you pretend to be a widow? How could you be so bacon-brained?’

Her hackles went up. ‘Lady Keswick stipulated she wanted a widow in her advertisement. I didn’t think it would matter.’

He shook his head wearily. ‘You should have told me. I would never have…’ He gestured at the floor, where they’d lain together.

A trembling started inside her. Fear that she’d gone from one disaster to another. ‘I thought you wanted me.’ The pleading note in her voice made her cringe inside. ‘I thought you would set me up as your mistress.’

His head came up, his mouth flat. ‘Is that what you thought? Really?’

Oh, God help her, what had she done? ‘Was I mistaken?’ Her voice shook.

‘Just what sort of man do you take me for?’

He sounded so scornful, she wanted to hit him. She curled her fingers inside her palms, forcing herself to speak with a coolness she did not feel. ‘A degenerate rake.’

Fury blazed in his eyes. ‘Damn you, Rose Travenor. I am both, but I am not a seducer of innocents.’ He let out a laugh. ‘Or was not until now.’ He raked a hand though his hair. ‘Is that even your name? Clearly there is no Mr Travenor.’ He put his hands on his hips. ‘Out with it. Who are you?’

He looked so furious, she couldn’t look him in the eye, so she gazed at the fireplace instead. ‘I don’t see why my name matters.’

He tipped his head back as if seeking divine intervention. ‘It matters on a marriage certificate.’

‘What!’ Her mouth dropped open. Her heart leapt with a kind of hot joy, more powerful than their lovemaking. Never in her wildest dreams did she imagine he would ask for her hand.

‘How proud you must be,’ he said. ‘You are the first gently bred innocent female who has ever tricked me into bedding her. I suppose this was all a lie, too.’ He waved an arm around. ‘The searching. The sadness when you found nothing. Your way of getting me alone.’

The joy was swept away on a blast of cold reality. Her anger rose up, clamouring in her blood and pounding in her ears, turning her vision crimson. ‘The seducer is seduced, in other words.’ She laughed bitterly. ‘I never asked you to follow me. I didn’t want you to follow me. It was all your own doing.’

He narrowed his eyes. ‘And so I get to live with the consequences. Did I seduce someone in your family and this is some form of revenge? Or has Lady Keswick turned matchmaker?’

None of this was making any sense. ‘I don’t want to marry you, and I won’t marry you. Does that make you feel any better?’

He scrubbed at the back of his neck. ‘Don’t be stupid. I have to marry you. You might be carrying my child.’

The wind of anger went right out of her sails. She sank on to the wooden settle. ‘But…but some people are married for ages before a child comes along. It takes practice.’

He gave a pained laugh. ‘Believe me, I’ve had lots of practice. And it can happen the first time.’

‘Oh.’ She frowned. ‘But mistresses don’t… I mean, somehow they…’

‘They take precautions. But you didn’t, did you?’ He looked hopeful.

‘No. I wasn’t expecting…’

‘Damn.’ He sat beside her. ‘Then the piper must be paid.’

‘Do you want to be married?’

‘Not in the least.’

The finality in his voice was like a surgeon’s scalpel. It sliced a piece out of her heart and left it bleeding.

‘Then don’t. You don’t love me, do you?’ Did she have to ask him that? Did she have to give him another weapon?

His laugh was scornful. It hurt to hear it, the way a stone scratched across slate pained the ears.

‘Love is a fabrication, made up by poets to get silly females falling at their feet. I’ll marry you because I’m damned if any child of mine is born a bastard and that’s all. Don’t think you are going to change me.’ His voice was hard, his face implacable.

She wrapped her arms across her stomach. ‘But there might not be a child.’

‘I won’t take that chance. Come on, let me help you dress, we’ve a busy day ahead of us.’


‘I don’t want to hear any more about it, Rose. The matter is settled.’

The hands that had been so gentle and caring earlier were now brisk and firm. He barely looked at her.

Cold reality scoured her heart. He was right in a way. She should have told him she was an innocent. But how was she to know he’d take it to heart, feel his honour was impugned? She didn’t think rakes had any honour.

A good marriage might well have been the answer to all of her problems, but a bad one could only make things worse. If she couldn’t marry for love, she wasn’t going to marry at all. She had always said so.

She should never have thought she could be a mistress. Never let him change her mind. She should have stuck to her plan and opted for the opera.

The three-mile trudge along rutted lanes deep in mud in a heavy silence left Rosa exhausted. Stanford had been right, they would not have been able to accomplish the journey at night in the storm, but she wished they had tried. Life would not now be so complicated.

The river had not washed away the bridge in the village, but in the low places water lay in deep puddles across the road and the mud made walking exceedingly difficult.

They met a couple of farm labourers who were on their way to the fields. Garth tipped his hat when they stopped to stare in dull curiosity. As far as she could tell, no one else remarked their passing.

She was glad of his grim silence, because it gave her time to think and the more she thought the more she realised she would not marry a rake and a libertine who thought she’d tricked him into marriage. What kind of marriage would it be if he carried so much resentment? He was probably horrified because he knew her mother was an opera singer. She couldn’t blame him for the seduction. She’d been eager for it. She’d even convinced herself she’d fallen in love. So foolish. So naïve.

Naïveté should not ruin his life or hers.

The opera really was her only choice. It always had been.

She halted as they approached The Grange’s front door. ‘May I crave your indulgence? Would you permit me to speak with Lady Keswick alone?’

He narrowed his eyes.

Suspicious. Always suspicious. A man who trusted no one. It was hard to blame him after what she had done. ‘She has been good to me. I owe her an explanation. I will talk to her the moment she arises at eleven.’

A smile broke on his face and for a second she glimpsed that other man, the one she’d fallen for on the beach and again last night. Her heart ached. After today, she would never see him again.

‘You are not such a bad lass, are you?’ he said almost as if surprised. ‘Very well. It will take me an hour or two to get rid of the mud. We will depart at midday.’

They entered the house as the cased clock beside the stairs chimed seven.

‘I will take the backstairs, so we are not seen together.’

‘What matters that now?’ he said, the grim expression returning.

‘It matters to me.’

He gave an impatient shake of his head, but started up the stairs. Two steps up he turned. ‘At half past eleven, then. In the drawing room. Be ready to leave.’

She’d be ready to leave before then.

Up in her chamber, she changed quickly, packed a valise and carried it along to the other wing.

Lady Keswick was sitting up in bed with a lace cap covering her iron-grey hair, sipping on a steaming cup of chocolate. She always needed a little sustenance before she closed her eyes and napped until it was time to rise. ‘You are up early today, Rose?’

‘I’m leaving.’

The old lady stared at her. ‘Stanford.’ She slapped a hand on the counterpane. ‘I knew it.’

Rosa winced at her employer’s perspicacity. ‘It has nothing to do with him. Not really. I having been thinking and decided I want to start on my career as a singer right away. I really need to earn more money. Did you hear anything from your friend?’

‘Not yet. She is touring in Italy and won’t be back in London until the end of the summer. Stay until then. I am sure she will be able to help.’

Once Lady Keswick realised Stanford’s intentions were honourable, or at least his form of honourable, she would join forces with him. ‘Would you give me a letter of recommendation?’

‘Are you sure this is what you want, gel? The theatre is no easy life. Oh, to be sure you might find a patron, someone to keep you in fine style, but you just don’t strike me as that sort.’

Last night had proved different. Shame washed through her, but she met the old lady’s gaze calmly. ‘I want to sing.’ She wanted to be free of debt. She wanted to support her sisters. Give them the kind of life her father should have provided.

But she wouldn’t do it by tricking a man into a marriage he didn’t want.

Lady Keswick sighed. ‘I can see there is no moving you, gel. Hand me my writing implements and a tablet.’

Trembling with anxiety that she might miss the stagecoach in the village if Lady Keswick didn’t hurry, Rosa fetched what she needed and stood shifting from foot to foot as she watched the minutes on the mantelclock tick by.

Lady Keswick blotted her note and folded it carefully. ‘I am not sure how much good it will do you, my dear. It is a long time since I walked the boards.’

‘Thank you.’ Rosa took the note. In a rush of tenderness she leaned forwards and gave the old woman a hug. ‘Thank you. I will write and let you know how I do.’

‘You do that, my dear. But I am going to give Stanford a piece of my mind.’

Hopefully, not until after eleven when the stage would be well on its way to London. Rosa tucked the note in her reticule and slipped out of the door. Now to start the next stage of her life.

No more silly mistakes. She’d made enough for a lifetime.

She pelted down the servants’ staircase, valise in hand. The rest of her clothes she would send for once she found work. She wouldn’t allow herself to think about what she would do if she couldn’t find a position.

It was unthinkable. She had enough money left from her first month’s employment to hold off Triggs for a week or two, and some left over to pay for lodging, if she was careful.

She tiptoed past the library, its door slightly ajar, though she could not imagine any of the guests being out of the bed so early. The muffled sound of someone crying stopped her steps. It wasn’t her business. She took another stealthy step. Another choked sob, then a paroxysm of crying issued from the room.

Lady Smythe. She just knew it. Perhaps she’d had bad news from her husband. She pushed open the door.

Lady Smythe looked at her, then turned her back, her shoulders hunching as if trying to make herself invisible. Rosa winced and stepped inside, dropping her valise inside the door. ‘May I come in?’

Lady Smythe sniffed. ‘No.’

Thank goodness. Rosa turned to leave.

‘Oh, Mrs Travenor, I’m sorry, but my life is ruined.’

The rise in her voice, a most pathetic wail, brought Rosa up short. She turned back. Even with her nose pink and tears running down her cheeks, Lady Smythe looked adorable.

‘Did you speak to Lady Keswick?’

‘I did. Last night.’ Her shoulders drooped. ‘She said I was a goose. That Mark would come for me the moment he heard I was here. But it has been days and days and still no word.’

‘How would he know where to find you?’

She sniffed. ‘I left a note.’

Startled, Rosa sat down beside her on the sofa. ‘You never mentioned a note.’

The young woman lifted her tear-stained face. ‘That’s not the worst of it. Bannerby came to my door last night. I wouldn’t let him in. He said he knew I had Stanford in with me, and he would let the whole world know I was his paramour.’

‘But Stanford…’ She bit her lip. ‘I mean, he wasn’t with you.’

She shook her head. ‘Bannerby knocked on his door and there was no answer so Bannerby took it as evidence. Oh, if only the storm hadn’t stopped me from leaving last night.’ Her shoulders sagged more. ‘Everything is so awful. I want to go home.’ She gave a little hiccup of a sob.

Rosa put an arm about her shoulder. ‘Then leave today.’

‘I am. The post chaise will be here at any moment.’ She raised her watery gaze, her lower lip trembling. ‘But I fear it is too late. When he finds out what I’ve done, when he hears Bannerby’s lies, he will be so angry.’

‘Are you afraid of your husband?’

‘Oh, no, he is the dearest, kindest man imaginable. But Mama said even the nicest of men can be brought to the end of their patience. I thought he loved me.’ Tears flowed down her face.

‘You love him.’

‘Oh, yes. It was a love match. Everyone said so.’ She turned her face away. ‘Or I thought so. Mama said the first thing every man does after the honeymoon is set up a mistress.’

Mama sounded like an idiot. She took the delicate hand in hers. ‘Not every husband. I think you must ask him. Confront him with what you saw. Confess what you did, and tell him that nothing happened. It didn’t, did it?’

‘Oh, no. I couldn’t. I thought I could, but I couldn’t. You have been married. Do you think he will believe me?’

Dear heavens, trapped by her own lies. ‘I am sure of it.’

‘Will you vouch for me?’

She winced, but she supposed she could vouch for Stanford’s whereabouts. She opened her mouth to say so, when the sounds of a carriage drawing up in the courtyard brought the weepy young bride to her feet. ‘The post chaise. I must have my luggage brought down.’ She glanced at Rosa’s valise. ‘Are you leaving, too? Are you going to London? Come with me.’ She ran to the window to look out.

Rosa stared at her back. A feeling of recklessness entered her chest. ‘Yes. I am going to London.’ She could also vouch for Lady Smythe’s innocence, as far as Garth was concerned, and it would be comforting to have a friend on her journey to London.

Penelope swung around, her eyes wide and round. ‘What shall I do? It is not the post chaise. It is my husband.’

Oh, now the fat was in the fire along with Rosa’s hope of an easy escape.

‘He mustn’t find me here,’ the young bride said. ‘I must hide.’

‘Far better you face him right away,’ Rosa said, hoping she was right. ‘Tell him the truth. If he cares for you, he will believe you.’ She crossed her fingers in her skirts. ‘You look so adorably sad, all you have to do is fall into his arms and thank him for coming to your rescue. I am sure he will melt.’ If he loved her he would.

Lady Smythe smoothed her skirts and patted her hair. ‘Do you think so?’ Her lower lip trembled. Her lovely green eyes glistened with tears. Who could resist?

‘I am sure of it. Far better you greet him alone, though.’

The sound of a slamming door made them both jump. ‘You don’t think it would be better if you stayed with me?’

‘No, but I will stay close by, in case he…in case you need my help.’

She nodded and straightened her shoulders. ‘After all, he is the one in the wrong.’

Rosa wasn’t sure accusing him would work, but what did she know? She picked up her valise and scurried ignominiously out of the door, saying, ‘I’ll wait further along the passage, just in case.’

She barely escaped being run over by a fair-haired young man with steely grey eyes and very definite chin.

‘Library?’ he snapped at her.

She pointed. Oh, dear, perhaps she had been wrong to desert Lady Smythe. She hesitated just beyond the door, then slipped into a niche, squeezing behind a statue of Eros artfully draped with fabric. She had no wish to be caught eavesdropping.

‘Mark,’ Lady Smythe said in dramatic accents. ‘You came for me. What took you so long?’ She burst into tears.

The deep sounds of a male voice offering comfort was followed by the sound of sobbing and explanations. Rosa could only imagine what Lady Smythe was saying, but whatever it was seemed to work because Lady Smythe said, ‘Oh, Mark, I never should have come here.’

A lengthy silence ensued. Lady Smythe clearly wasn’t in need of help. Rosa was working her way around the statue’s plinth when she heard footsteps. She held her breath and remained perfectly still. It was probably one of the servants going about their business.

‘Mark?’ Stanford’s voice. ‘Thank God you are here.’

‘Stanford? You bastard,’ the other man said in a low growl.

Oh, dear, this could get ugly. Perhaps she ought to go and testify on Stanford’s behalf.

The sound of a strike and then a thud made her run for the door and peep in.

Garth was measuring his length on the carpet and staring up at Lord Smythe. He was grinning. He tested his jaw. ‘You always did have a punishing left.’

‘Get up, you coward,’ Lord Smythe growled. ‘I will have satisfaction.’

Stanford looked at Lady Smythe and raised a mocking brow. ‘Well, Penelope?’

A pained expression crossed the other man’s face. He pulled Lady Smythe against his side.

‘Mark, it isn’t his fault,’ Lady Smythe said.

‘Whose fault is it?’ he said.

She hung her head. ‘Mine. I came here with Mrs Mallow. I— Stanford has done nothing but tell me to go home since he arrived. You have to believe me.’

Her husband looked from one to the other, then put out a hand and heaved Stanford to his feet. ‘It seems I owe you an apology.’ He still sounded dangerous, but the hostilities were apparently over. ‘Perhaps one of you can explain what is going on?’

Rosa inhaled a deep breath. It seemed her help was not needed and eavesdropping was making her feel very uncomfortable. Besides, she had no wish to run into Stanford. He’d try to stop her from leaving. Oh, goodness, if she wanted to make the stagecoach leaving the village at nine, she would have to hurry. She spun around and continued on her way, letting herself out of the back door just as a yellow bounder pulled into the courtyard.

‘You the young lady what ordered the chaise?’ the postilion asked, swinging down from his mount.

Lady Smythe wasn’t going to need her rented post chaise now her husband had come, was she? And there was no faster way to reach London. She winced. The fare would use up a good deal of money, but it was just too fortuitous an opportunity to pass up.

‘Well?’ the postilion said, frowning at her valise. ‘Payment due in advance.’

‘Yes,’ she said, raking in her reticule. ‘Yes.’ She counted the coins into his palm until he nodded his satisfaction. ‘Let us be off at once.’

She climbed aboard and settled back against the seats. As the coach pulled away, a heavy lump settled in the depths of her stomach. Stanford would not be pleased she’d gone off without a word. She pressed her hand to her suddenly hot cheeks. He’d actually asked her to marry him. For an instant of madness she had let herself dream they could have a future. He’d managed to steal a piece of her heart when she wasn’t looking. But it would be wrong to marry a man who saw her as an unwanted responsibility. It was no way to begin a marriage. No matter how hard she wished it wasn’t so, once she was gone, he would no doubt heave a sigh of relief and thank heavens for a lucky escape.

Her chest tightened and she pressed a hand to it to ward off the pain. It was no good wishing. She must put the whole thing down to experience and move on with her plans. With Lady Keswick’s letter of introduction, she was sure to find a good role with an opera company and put Stanford’s allure behind her.

Her hands went to her belly. What if she was carrying his child? She pushed the thought aside.

She could only deal with one problem at a time.