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Authors: Laura Matthews

Tags: #Regency Romance

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BOOK: Lord Clayborne's Fancy
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“I will help myself, thank you.” Unsteadily, she rose and poured herself a cup of coffee, spilling a few drops on the sideboard. The display of food was unnerving and she took only a piece of toast before reseating herself. There was nothing she could say to him without conceivably arousing his wrath again, for how was she to know what his fancy might find offensive? Whatever was he thinking of, worrying about a bed at such a time? Had she married a maniac? Silently, she nibbled at her toast, her gaze apparently caught by the fascinating design on her plate.

“I could have the marriage annulled,” he stated flatly.

Rebecca’s startled eyes flew to his face and her hand, holding the piece of toast, paused in midair. “Why?”

He ignored her interruption and proceeded sternly, “I have given the matter considerable thought and have decided not to. Not only would it be a great embarrassment to you and your family, but I would be made to look a fool, which I do not welcome. However, if a child is born prematurely I may reconsider the matter.”

Rebecca’s head whirled as she tried to assimilate this speech. Her confusion turned to embarrassment, and finally to a white-hot anger. Rising so abruptly that her chair tipped over, she gasped, “You cannot believe... You must know that I... Why, you insufferable toad!” and she ran from the room.

Clayborne was left seated in solitary splendor, considerably offended by this appellation, and convinced that, man of experience that he was, though he had never been with a virgin himself, he could not be wrong. His pride, severely wounded, permitted him to make no allowances for his wife’s assumed deception. It did not matter that she was young or that she might have been deceived herself. He threw down his napkin, strode out to the stables and was not seen for the better part of the day.

This disappearance, of course, caused some comment in the household, as had the disclosure of the maid in charge of her lady’s chamber. The general appearance was of a marriage not yet consummated, which elicited knowing nods and suggestive glances among the household staff, but caused no further comment. This state of affairs would probably have continued for some time had not Clayborne, the speculative glances finally having penetrated his consciousness, taken matters into his own hands. He waited in his connecting room one morning until he heard Rebecca leave hers and then, taking his penknife with him, he cautiously entered. Forced to skulk about his own house, he thought indignantly.

The room was deserted, and there was surprisingly little evidence of its occupation. No clothes, and few personal possessions, were scattered about the room. A locket lay on the bureau and he curiously flipped it open. There were miniatures, one of Rebecca and Trudy, the other of Meg and Mary, all smiling cheerfully. He snapped it shut, not willing to see that glowing look on Rebecca’s face. It was not the expression she had worn the past few days, and it reminded him uneasily of the weeks in London when he was courting her. Then she had seemed full of vitality, possessed of every virtue. Now he knew better, and he was sickened by the deception.

Angrily, he returned the locket to the bureau top and turned to the bed. His wife was, or had become, a restless sleeper. The sheets were pulled out and the pillows were sadly crumpled; the counterpane hung at a precarious angle, mostly on the floor. “I hope she gets no sleep at all, plagued by her guilt,” he murmured fiercely. Perhaps she had accepted him so that she might pass off someone else’s child as his heir. He would not have it! With a ruthless gesture he cut his finger with the knife and allowed the blood to drip on the sheets, mesmerized by the spreading stain.

The sound of movement in the hall recalled him and he quickly strode from the room, careful to close the door silently behind him. His finger continued to bleed for several minutes, even with a handkerchief pressed tightly against it. Fatalistically, he hoped it would leave a scar.

The task had irritated him, and the subtle air of satisfaction in the household which followed it merely roused in him an even greater anger toward his wife. Rebecca had no way of knowing what he had done. When she next returned to her room everything was in order and, though the staff seemed especially pleased with her, she only vaguely noticed, since Clayborne seemed less pleased than ever. He no longer joined her in the breakfast parlor, or for a midday meal, which he had done at first to alleviate any disagreeable rumors amongst the staff. Rebecca turned to the management of the household, but even here she was reminded of her husband’s strange behavior.

Mrs. Lambert, pleased to have a woman about the house again, chatted comfortably with her new mistress as she discussed the various arrangements. “A blessing it is to have you here, my lady. Not that his lordship is not the soul of conscientiousness, but really one cannot expect him to take an interest in what we plan to preserve this autumn or whether the laundry maid is doing an adequate job. And he is as like as not to merely glance at the household accounts and assure me that they seem in perfect order. To be sure, I hope they are, but there is nothing like having the lady of the house, who is more knowledgeable on such matters, take them under scrutiny. Before poor Miss Caroline left to marry she ran the household smooth as one could wish.”

“Lord Clayborne’s sister?”

“Yes, poor lamb. She died giving birth to her first child, and I have never even seen the boy. They live in Yorkshire, him and his father. I believe his lordship plans to take you there soon.” Mrs. Lambert eyed Rebecca sympathetically. “You mustn’t think his lordship unfairly preoccupied, my lady. There is much to see to about the estate before you leave. And him not used to having a wife around, don’t you see.”

“I understand perfectly,” Rebecca replied woodenly, her eyes fixed on the stacks of linen she was inspecting. Having discovered that her husband, although perhaps not precisely deranged, had in some manner not entirely clear to her conceived the notion that she had not been a virgin on their wedding night, Rebecca had no intention of allowing Mrs. Lambert, or anyone else, to see her confusion. “If you will set aside any sheets that need mending, I will see to them.”

After a morning spent over this drudgery, Rebecca decided to escape to the stables. For fear of running into her husband she had stayed close to the house, but her longing for a ride irresistibly drew her out. She had not previously inspected the stables at Gray Oaks, but had been introduced to Hawkins on her arrival the evening of her wedding day. Perhaps he would recommend a horse for her and she might explore the estate for an hour or two, without ever seeing her husband.

Her luck was out. The moment she stepped into the darkened interior of the building, she saw him conversing with his head groom, who deferentially tugged a forelock at sight of her. Clayborne turned slowly to face her, his countenance expressionless. “You have met Hawkins, Rebecca, but I do not believe you have seen the stables.”

“No. I have been busy with household matters. This was my first opportunity for a ride and I had hoped that you or Hawkins might recommend a mount for me.”

“Lawks, recommend a mount!” Hawkins chuckled. “And his lordship having gotten you the sweetest little mare ever I laid my eyes on!”

Clayborne abruptly gave the groom a task which would take him to the farthest stall and answered Rebecca’s questioning look in a detached voice. “There were no horses here suitable for a lady, so I purchased one for you. Some weeks ago, you understand.” Without another word he led her to the glossy chestnut mare.

Never before had she had a horse of her own, often not even an animal worthy of the name to ride. She ran her hands down the sleek sides and allowed the mare to nuzzle her shoulder. There was a lump in her throat when she whispered, “Oh, thank you, Jason. She’s beautiful. May I ride her now?”

“Hawkins will saddle her for you. She has the name of Firely, but you must please yourself as to that. I will go with you to see that she is not too spirited for you to ride.”

Her very real gratitude was shaken by this brutal handling of the situation. A week ago he would not have done more than beg her permission to accompany her, and watched with concern to see that she was indeed capable of managing the mare. Rebecca sternly repressed the desire to retort, and said meekly, “Very well.”

When they were out on the lane he politely requested that she put Firely through her paces, much as he might have done with one of the stable lads, she thought angrily. But again she restrained her annoyance and did as he bid, though for some yards she felt rigid with the effort. Not for long could one resist the superb gait of the horse, however, and soon Rebecca had forgotten Clayborne’s irritating presence and given herself over to the exquisite freedom of galloping across the meadows. She did not intentionally attempt to thwart or disobey him but was caught up in Firely’s enthusiasm for a run.

His own anger building now, Clayborne watched her take a fence with a thrill of fear. He would not acknowledge to himself that she had never looked more glorious, or that she handled the mare with expertise. All he could think of was that she should be sitting penitently in some chapel, damn her! How dare she enjoy herself when she had caused him such pain? He watched grimly, his riding crop tightly clenched in his hand, as she approached.

Her cheeks aglow with delight, Rebecca reined in beside him and exclaimed, “I have never, ever ridden such a horse! How can I ever thank you? She responds to the very lightest touch, and did you see her jump that fence? Like a feather floating over, blown by the softest breeze.”

“You should not have jumped her until you knew her better,” he responded coldly.

He could not more effectively have dampened her had he tossed a bucket of cold water over her head. Although her chin quivered slightly, she thrust it out determinedly. “It does not take long to learn such a horse’s capabilities, Jason. She went for the fence without a pause. Had she shown the slightest hesitation I would not have pressed her.”

“You didn’t even bother to find out if she could jump something smaller first.”

Undaunted by his glare, she bent to pat Firely’s neck. “With a heart like hers? She would have been ashamed at anything more paltry.” When the mare whinnied, Rebecca took it as agreement and laughed at her husband. “You see?”

Clayborne swung his horse around and said grimly, “See that you do not ride beyond the estate without an escort,” before riding off, leaving her alone.

“Tyrant!” she murmured. “It would serve him right if I broke my neck. Without an escort, indeed. You may be sure, my pretty, that he has no intention of escorting me anywhere. I’m surprised he didn’t sell you again, but he probably could think of no way to explain such an action to Hawkins.”

Nonetheless, she kept to the estate for the first few days, and thereafter took a groom with her when she rode beyond its confines. There was no sense in exacerbating his anger, though she would dearly have loved to shock him. She dreamed of imprisoning him in the stables and jumping every fence in sight, bareback as she had as a child, and him impotent to do anything about it. Such visions gave her strength to face him when she had to.

Most days he was at home to dine, and before the servants he kept up an appearance of sociability with his wife. In detailing the trivia of the estate to her, he conveyed more information than he thought. Obviously he was concerned for his land and his tenants and his responsibilities weighed heavily on him. It had been otherwise with her father, and she tried to convey her appreciation.

“My father took little interest in his land, and has suffered from his carelessness. The Hall could be far more productive, as Gray Oaks appears to be,” Rebecca offered one evening.

Clayborne waved the servants from the room and regarded her with steely eyes. “Your parents were obviously negligent with their daughters as well. I hold them very much to account.”

“You are mistaken, sir,” she replied through clenched teeth. “Negligent my parents may have been, but you have no one but yourself to account to for your ludicrous misconception. I fear for your reason, my lord.”

“Go to your room!” Shocked at himself for blurting such a thing, he immediately retracted. “No, stay. I will not have my household upset by our disagreements. Finish your meal.”

Rebecca, her appetite hardly stimulated by this atmosphere, toyed with her food. The enormous dining hall was so quiet that even the sounds of forks on plates seemed swallowed in the silence. She assumed a martyred air to cover her shame and anger, sighing pitifully as she pushed the remnants of her meal about her plate.

There were few attitudes that could have more infuriated her husband. Her injured, self-righteous bearing, given the circumstances, disgusted him. Had she no shame? She should be begging him on bended knee to forgive her! And, after a judicious amount of time, and sufficient repentance on her part, he would have been prepared to do so. But this! Adding insult to injury! There was obviously no hope for her, and his pride rebelled.

Since her husband made no further attempt to visit her suite, Rebecca soon adopted the habit of retiring to her room immediately after her meal, to draw or read sometimes, but usually to search her mind for a solution to this unbearably oppressive situation.

When this state of affairs had continued for several weeks and Rebecca was looking rather peaked and thin, Clayborne announced at dinner one evening, “I leave in the morning for my estate in Yorkshire. I have no idea when I shall return.”

“I am to remain at Gray Oaks, I presume,” Rebecca said timidly.

“Certainly. Mrs. Lambert has been instructed to have a care for you and grant you any indulgence within reason.”

“You are too good, my lord. Does this indulgence run to my refurbishing some of the rooms? Not the library or study, of course,” she hastened to add.

“I cannot imagine why you should wish to do so.”

“I plan a lengthy stay, my lord,” she replied sweetly, her hands gripping the table edge for courage.

“I don’t care what you do to the house. It makes no difference now,” he retorted angrily.

BOOK: Lord Clayborne's Fancy
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