Authors: Lorraine Heath
Ainsley studied him with that damned fine mind of his. “Why are you arguing to be shackled when I’m striving to find an argument to prevent it?”
Stephen dropped his head back and contemplated the fresco painting on the ceiling. Woodland nymphs and enticing beauties with bared arms . . . a peacefulness that eluded him. He was tormented by what he could not dredge up from the farthest recesses of his mind. Would the torment increase if he did recall those two years? From everything he’d read, all that he’d heard, it was a blessing not to remember. Amnesia, the physician had called it.
Not unusual to forget unpleasantness.
As though Stephen lacked the backbone to face the horror of what he’d experienced. It gnawed at him to think that he would be so cowardly, that he would welcome the comfort of no memories.
“I don’t know why I’m set on this course,” he finally responded to his brother. “Marriage is not something that ever appealed to me.”
“Which is the very reason I’m confounded by your willingness to accept it as your fate so readily.”
“Mother says the child favors me.”
“I’ve seen numerous babes in my life and they all look the same. Ruddy cheeks and pursed mouths and squinting eyes.”
“You’re becoming quite the cynic as you grow older.”
“Taking after my older brothers.”
“So you excel in the bedchamber?” he asked, with a desperate need to divert the conversation away from him before his skull split in two.
Ainsley did little more than give him a sly smile. “You’re attempting to change the subject.”
“Well, yes, I—”
The door clicked open, and he glanced over his shoulder as his mother and Miss Dawson entered the room. Then he was coming to his feet more swiftly than he should have and the pain shot through his leg, nearly causing him to lose his balance. He caught himself on the back of the chair, hoping to God that Miss Dawson’s attention had been turned toward the books or some trivial piece of artwork and not him. If she had seen his pitiful display of rising she gave no sign of it. His mother, on the other hand, looked as though she wanted to weep, but, thankfully, recovered herself quickly enough. She knew he hated to be smothered by motherly concern.
To be smothered by a lusty maiden, however, brought no objections from him.
Although he’d not been with a woman since he woke up in that damnable cesspool that they called a hospital. Of late, he’d had the stirrings again, but what woman would want the scarred creature he’d become?
“I’m fine,” he muttered to Ainsley, jerking free of the helpful hand he’d been too preoccupied to notice until that moment. “I’m fine.”
Only he wasn’t. Mercy Dawson was not what he would consider beautiful, and yet there was a radiance to her. As though somehow from the moment he’d left her in the parlor after alerting his family that she’d be remaining and this moment when she’d arrived in the library, she’d found a measure of peace and contentment. He wanted what she seemed to possess so damned easily.
“Miss Dawson,” Ainsley began, stepping forward and bowing slightly. “Allow me to say that you look lovely. I assume you’ve found everything to your satisfaction.”
“Quite. Yes. Thank you, Your Grace. I’m not sure how your mother managed the miracle of finding a bassinet on such short notice, but John is quite content there. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him sleep so well.”
rolled off her tongue like a sweet lullaby, soft and soothing. Stephen wondered how his own name might have sounded on her lips during the height of passion. It would be easy enough to find out later tonight. He’d had the servants place her in a bedchamber in the same wing as his. Scandalous, but then they were all adults, and her reputation was already ruined. Besides, at his brother’s estate, who was there to know? His mother’s lover, while not flaunted, was not hidden away either. Ainsley certainly wasn’t going to castigate Stephen for finding pleasure where he might. The servants knew a bit of gossip would result in their dismissal and that the duke never threatened what he would not carry out.
“You may thank my eldest brother, the Earl of Westcliffe, for that accommodation. He acquired his heir this summer past. The duchess insists that the little urchin be comfortable when he visits. She is quite adept at spoiling him beyond measure.”
“And I cannot spoil one grandson without spoiling the other,” the duchess said.
Stephen wasn’t certain why it hadn’t hit him before that if the child was his, his mother had another grandson. The knowledge made him feel remarkably old.
As though the same truth had occurred to Miss Dawson, he watched as her cheeks took on a pinkish hue. No cold wind biting them now. He found he rather liked the high color in her face. She did look lovely. The gown she wore now was a bit more fanciful, with a rounded neck that exposed her throat and shoulders while offering only a hint of cleavage. Had he ever seen her in the dress before? Had he commented on it? Or was it something new, something she’d expect him to remark on? She seemed to be expecting something. Perhaps for him to speak instead of standing there like a dimwit. “Miss Dawson, would you care for some wine before dinner?”
She appeared startled and disappointed. Should he have gone over and kissed the back of her hand? Had he been unable to keep his hands off her? If she were any other woman, he’d not be plagued with these questions. But not knowing a woman he
know was fraught with difficulties. Especially as he didn’t wish for her to know.
Preposterous. If they’d been close, she’d be understanding. As a nurse, she’d possibly seen others suffer the same fate. But he couldn’t bear the thought of seeing pity in those whiskey eyes. He might not remember her, but he knew his pride well enough and was determined not to lose it.
“A bit. Yes. Thank you,” she finally responded.
He fought not to favor his right leg as he made his way to the sidebar. “Will Leo be joining us this evening?”
“Most certainly,” the duchess said, and then he heard her explain to Miss Dawson, “He is a remarkable and talented artist I’ve commissioned to paint portraits of the family. I daresay he shall want to do you in oils.”
But it was not his talents with the brush that kept his mother near the younger man, but rather his talents elsewhere. Stephen was glad his mother had a lover who appreciated her, made her feel special. Perhaps it was her own scandalous life that made her so accepting and nonjudgmental of Miss Dawson.
“That may be a bit premature,” Miss Dawson stammered. “I’m not yet part of the family.”
“Of course you are, dear girl. If not legally, then morally,” the duchess assured her. He wondered if Miss Dawson possessed an inkling of knowledge regarding his mother’s determination. Defeat had never been in his mother’s vocabulary.
His cane seemed to be unusually loud as he hobbled across the room. Miss Dawson met him halfway. She reached for the glass. Their bare fingers touched. Hers sent a shock of warmth through him that settled low in his groin and caused him to tighten with desire. Was that the way it had been with them before? She appeared discomfited but not alarmed, as though the sensations had not taken her off guard. Or perhaps they had.
She took a very unladylike gulp of wine, coughed, and covered her mouth, her eyes watering. “Forgive me.”
“You might try sipping it.”
“Yes, of course. It’s excellent. Thank you.”
And they were left to stare at each other as though no one else was in the room. He noticed that her nose tilted up slightly. She had a miniscule mole at the corner of her mouth. Her lashes were long and he imagined them feathering over his face when they kissed. She had a permanent crease between her eyebrows as though she spent a good deal of time frowning. Caring for wounded soldiers, she no doubt had. He wished he’d known her three years ago, so he could now catalogue the changes in her.
How many might he be responsible for? For the first time in his life he wished he’d kept his damned trousers fastened. But more than that, he wished he remembered every single moment that he’d been nestled inside her.
His musings were interrupted by the arrival of their last dinner guest.
With no fanfare but still managing to draw attention, Leo strolled in. Before Stephen had met him, he’d not known anyone who did everything with as leisurely a purpose as Leo. The man had never revealed his last name. He simply went by Leo.
“Miss Dawson,” his mother began, drawing the woman away from Stephen, leaving him to wish she hadn’t, “allow me to introduce to you the artist I was telling you about earlier. Leo.”
“It’s simply Leo,” he drawled as he sauntered forward, took her hand, and lifted it to his lips.
Stephen was aware of the hand not holding his cane balling into a tightened fist. He wanted to snatch Miss Dawson’s fingers free from Leo’s lips. From where had this possessiveness emerged? He was never jealous of another man’s attentions on a woman he favored. He could always easily find another to replace her. He’d had lovers, but never a mistress. He’d never bothered to go to the trouble to set a woman up for his amusements alone, because he grew too easily bored. He preferred variety.
“Your arrival has made the duchess exceedingly happy,” Leo murmured, “which in turn pleases me. Thank you for coming.”
Ainsley gave Stephen a pointed look. Their mother was happy because she thought Stephen was regaining his senses. He’d have to find a private moment with her to reveal the truth. Yet another time in his life when he’d disappointed her.
“I must admit to being curious. I took a quick peek at the boy before coming down. He is quite the handsome lad,” Leo said.
“Thank you. I can take no credit for that. He takes after his father.”
“Yes, the resemblance is uncanny.”
“Leo is quite skilled at noting the particulars of the human form. The artist in him. If he sees a resemblance, you may rest assured it is there,” the duchess said, pride in her voice at her lover’s incredible ability—as though with it, he could capture the moon and stars for her.
Beside Stephen, Ainsley issued a low groan and whispered, “That was no doubt for my benefit.”
“To quell your doubts regarding the boy’s sire?” Stephen asked.
Ainsley shrugged. “Mother will have her way.”
“Do you enjoy your work?” Miss Dawson asked of Leo, a sparkle in her eyes that once again had Stephen clenching his fist. Was she flirting with the artist? Why was she so relaxed with him and not with Stephen? What the devil had their relationship entailed?
“Very much so.” Leo placed his finger beneath her chin and tilted her head slightly so she was looking toward a distant corner of the ceiling. “I would very much like to paint you, Miss Dawson.”
“As long as all you’re doing is painting,” Stephen grumbled.
“Stephen,” his mother chastised.
Leo grinned. “Why would I do anything else? I have a woman I love. Why would I want for more?”
“Oh, Leo.” The duchess certainly meant to chastise him as well, but her voice held the satisfaction and teasing of a woman half her age. “Let’s go in to dinner, shall we?”
“Yes, by all means,” Stephen said. He took Miss Dawson’s wineglass, twisted to set it down on a nearby table, and when he straightened, discovered that Ainsley had already wrapped her arm around his and was leading her from the room, murmuring near her ear.
Stephen’s stomach tightened. He knew his brother would never reveal a secret that was not his; he’d not tell her the true depth of Stephen’s injuries. Still, he didn’t like seeing the easy camaraderie between them. Nor did he like being left to walk with his own company. Of late it was sour and displeasing.
He had a feeling that it was going to be a very long dinner indeed.
he seating arrangement determined by the duchess placed Mercy between the duke, who sat at the head of the table, and the artist, who was seated near the duchess at the foot of the table. His fingers constantly sought excuses to brush against the duchess’s—not by accident, Mercy was fairly certain. While reaching for their wine at the same moment or signaling a servant. Eventually the pretense that they were less than what they were to each other dissipated and Leo wove his fingers through the duchess’s and simply stroked her hand in between servings of the most delicious dishes Mercy had ever eaten.
The bittersweet realization hit her that the duchess was the woman Leo had referred to when he’d said he was in love. She felt silly for not realizing it sooner, but she also longed for the same sort of declaration from Major Lyons.