Authors: Gayle Callen
But it wasn’t until they were in the carriage the next day that Audrey let him know what she thought of his own performance.
“Robert, you did not ask me if I wanted to play the piano for the Paley family.”
“Of course I did,” he said, smiling.
“No, you offered my performance without giving me any say at all.”
His smile died as he took in her cool tone of voice, and the way Molly deliberately looked out the window.
“I am not a trained monkey that you can bring out and have perform on command,” she continued sternly.
“I wanted them to see the accomplished young woman you are, not the invalid they all assume. Every young lady performs—are they trained monkeys, too?”
“Of course not.”
“As an earl, I am often on display,” he asked. “I grew up watching commoners deal with my father with some awe. Then I was in the military, where only the experience of my rank and what I’d learned on the battlefield mattered to my men. And now I’m back in Society, where my title alone lets a family push their daughters at me, and ignore you. So do you not think I sometimes have the right to use my title?”
She sighed. “I can grasp your point. But I’m not sure I agree with it.”
After that, the day passed slowly, with some tension, as rain drummed on the roof above their heads and made the roads turn muddy. Even Audrey seemed to grow weary of Molly’s descriptions of the same rain-drenched gardens, and the chessboard that was the hedgerowed countryside.
That night, they registered at an inn, which had decent accommodations, especially for an earl, as the owner kept repeating in a groveling tone. Once in his room, Robert wasn’t even tired as he paced and listened to Molly, through thin walls, describe in detail their room, the paces separating pieces of furniture. When he heard Audrey stumble and laugh at herself, he could only be impressed. Next, Molly read a book aloud.
He ruminated on his earlier conversation with Audrey, where he’d actually complained about the perils of being an earl to a blind woman. Not only did he have wealth and power, he had the ability to do anything he wished. Had he thought the military had shown him all he had to learn? No, there was still so much of life he took for granted, and a blind woman was showing him that.
If they were actually to marry, their quarrels could worsen. She might resent him for being able to do all the things she couldn’t, or he might resent her for slowing him down, or making him defensive. Or was he just trying to remind himself he didn’t have to worry about such a choice?
Angry with himself, he lay back in the bed and covered his eyes with his forearm.
udrey was almost ready for bed. She was wearing her dressing gown over her nightdress, and Molly had already brushed her hair out. There were two small beds on parallel walls, a table and two chairs, a chest of drawers, and a washstand. Audrey had paced among the furnishings several times, until she was comfortable. Now she could hear Molly at the washstand, humming softly to herself as she often did.
But Audrey wasn’t tired, though she told Molly to blow out the candle. She kept pacing, remembering Robert’s description of why he’d entered the military. She’d known for certain he was leaving things out. What about the man who’d killed himself? How did that all fit in? She would have given anything to ask, but not in front of the Paley family.
Her thoughts were disturbed by a brisk knock at the door.
Before Audrey could even speak, Molly said, “Surely it could only be Lord Knightsbridge.”
“Perhaps we should ask—”
But then she heard Molly open the door, a startled gasp, and the sound of something heavy hitting the wooden floor.
“Molly?” Audrey cried.
No one answered, though someone breathed heavily. The bolt slid home with a thump to lock them in. She slowly backed away, even as the first fear raised gooseflesh up her spine.
A chair skittered suddenly, and she heard a mild oath. A man’s voice, but not Robert’s. A thief! She started to shake, but she focused her mind. Had the intruder tripped? Then she remembered that the candle was out, and he couldn’t see.
The back of her legs hit the bed, and she dropped to her knees, hoping the man wouldn’t detect her location.
He was moving around in the dark. “Where are ye, wench?” he crooned. “I just want yer gold. Give it to me, and I’ll let ye go. I don’t hurt cripples.”
She didn’t believe that. Crawling very slowly toward the nightstand, she silently cursed her dressing gown as it tangled around her thighs. She froze when she heard a board creak nearby, felt the breeze of his passing, but he was heading toward the other bed—Molly’s bed. Oh, God, let her dear friend be all right, she silently prayed.
At last she reached the nightstand, and using her hand to feel along the top, she discovered the book Molly had been reading from, a hairbrush—and at last the candleholder, which felt as solid as it had looked. Lifting it carefully, she brought it to her lap, and yanked out the candle itself, setting it beneath the bed.
The other bed was shaken violently, then thumped against the floor, as if the intruder searched on top and beneath it for her. What was she supposed to do? If he came at her, she could wave her candlestick about and hope she hit him, but she couldn’t plan her own attack.
And then suddenly she remembered that Robert was right next door, the shared wall behind her bed. But if she screamed, the thief would know exactly where she was.
She had to take a chance.
Coming up on her knees, she slammed the candleholder into the wall above her bed, hoping to mislead him, then rolled away toward the table and chairs. The thief swore and stomped toward her.
obert sat bolt upright, the thump on the wall next to him practically rattling his bed. And then he heard a scream.
He pulled his trousers on quickly, but that was all he made time for as he ran into the corridor and tried Audrey’s door. It was locked, but couldn’t withstand his shoulder as he slammed into it. The door opened wide with a bang. The room was dark, but for the faint reddish glow of the coal fire. The oil lamp hung in the hall allowed him to see a man’s figure, then the sheen of his wide eyes reflected in the light. Where was Audrey?
As Robert advanced into the room he caught a glimpse of a body on the floor, and felt a shock of fear that surprised him. Then he saw another pale oval of a face peering out from behind the table. It all happened in a flash, for then the thief tried to race past him. Robert caught the man with a hard punch to the gut, then jerked him up by the front of the clothes to shake him.
“What have you done?” Robert demanded between gritted teeth. “If you’ve hurt them—”
Audrey bumped into them in her haste to get to Molly. Robert waited, holding the man off his toes as he sputtered.
“Wrong room!” he gasped. “Mistake!”
Audrey stumbled to her knees beside her friend. “He hit Molly and went after me for my valuables.”
Robert punched him hard across the jaw. The thief sagged, but he caught him up again. “How is Molly?”
The maid moaned, “My head . . .”
“I don’t feel blood,” Audrey said, “but there’s a nasty lump.”
With one hand, Robert flung open the door to the small balcony, then tossed the man over the rail. He heard a scream as he hit, then watched him stagger to his feet in the torch-lit yard and hobble into the darkness, dragging a leg behind him.
“Milord?” said another voice in the corridor.
He saw the innkeeper in his nightcap and dressing gown. “I just sent a thief through the window. Find the man with the newly broken leg, and you’ll have the culprit. I suggest you increase your security, sir, if women can be attacked in their bedchambers!” He took the candelabrum from the innkeeper’s hand and slammed the door in his face.
“You tossed him off the balcony?” Audrey asked in surprise.
He set the candles down on the table. “I did. To deal with him, I would have had to leave you, and he might have had an accomplice in the taproom below.”
“Oh,” she murmured.
She reached to touch Molly, who’d pushed herself to a sitting position. Audrey put an arm around her.
“Miss Audrey?” Molly said weakly. “What happened?”
“A thief, dear.”
“Did he hurt either of you?” Robert demanded.
Audrey shook her head. “You came quickly. Thank you.”
Her hair, dark in the night, was caught back in a simple braid, and her golden eyes glowed large and luminous in the candlelight. Without her corset and petticoats, she looked fragile in her plain linen dressing gown. That protectiveness she didn’t like about him surged into prominence.
When Molly shivered, he said, “I’ll put her in bed,” almost glad for the distraction. He glanced around and noticed that both beds seemed to be overly disheveled. “What happened to the beds?”
“He was searching them,” Audrey explained.
Her voice seemed a bit faint, her complexion pale, but other than that, she was taking the attack better than most women would. She reached around her, found a table leg, and that seemed to orient her.
She pointed to the far wall. “That is her bed.”
Robert lifted Molly into his arms, and she gave him a wide-eyed stare, her face going red as she covered her smiling mouth with a hand. By the time he’d laid her in bed, Audrey was there behind him.
“Let me get a cold compress for your head, Molly.”
Reaching with both hands, she found the washstand and the facecloths, poured water in the basin, and brought a damp cloth to her maid.
Molly held it to the side of her head. “I’ll be fine, miss, don’t you worry.”
Though her voice was cheerful, her face showed the strain. Robert knew from experience that her head must be pounding.
He drew Audrey aside by the arm. Now that he was touching her, he could feel the faint trembling in her body. Her free hand reached out as if to steady herself, and touched his bare chest.
She gave a little gasp and whispered, “What are you wearing?”
“Trousers,” he said in a husky voice. “When I heard your signal, I came running.”
He’d expected her to recoil, but her hand still touched him, right in the center of his chest, and suddenly his heartbeat accelerated, and he was feeling things he didn’t want to feel, not for his pretend-fiancée. And certainly not while her maid was present.
He spoke in a low voice without thinking. “You’re out in the world now, Audrey, where people will take advantage of you. Are you prepared for that?”
Was he talking about thieves—or himself?
And she still kept her hand in the center of his chest, her lips parted, her breathing fast. He had her by the arm, and her thigh pressed along the length of his, without bulky layers of petticoats between them.
“I—I’ll be safe in my own home,” she murmured.
“So you’re going to stay within those walls, never leaving, just like you were raised?”
She stiffened. “No. I will be like every other woman. I will visit others and have dinner parties and be
He let her go. “I do admire you, Audrey Blake. You certainly didn’t panic, when many sighted women would have.”
And she looked damned good in her dressing gown, too.
He wasn’t going to start lusting after Blake’s widow. If she ever found out he’d been part of the reason her husband was dead, she’d never treat him the same way again. He’d rather be her hero than the man she despised.
“Promise me you won’t open the door again unless you know it’s me,” he said.
“ ’Twas my fault, milord,” Molly called weakly, the facecloth still pressed to her head. “I just assumed it was you.”
He kept his voice light. “I imagine you won’t make that mistake again.”
“No.” She closed her eyes briefly, and when she opened them, they shined with tears. “To think I could have gotten my mistress killed . . .”
“He wasn’t going to kill you,” Robert reassured them both, even though he had his doubts. “Just be careful from now on. Do you need me to stay with you?”
“No,” Audrey said, her voice back under control. “I will bolt the door when you leave and—oh dear. Didn’t I hear you break open the door?”
“You did. We’ll exchange rooms so you’ll feel safe. I only have one bed, but it’s wide enough to hold you both.”
Audrey blushed at the mere thought of lying in the bed Robert had lain in. It was already difficult to even think, knowing he was partially nude, and she’d let herself touch his chest—and she’d kept her hand there, even when she knew what she was doing! He was built so very . . . different than her husband had been.
She’d felt his breath on her face as he’d leaned over to speak to her—good Lord, she was turning into Blythe, all flustered by his mere presence.
And with poor Molly lying there injured!
“Let me help you pack your things,” he said.
“No, no, I will do fine. I know where everything is.”
“Even the things he threw around the room?”
Now she could definitely hear the amusement in his voice. Did he know how he affected her? Was he secretly laughing that a blind girl would be so foolish?
But no, she didn’t believe it of him. He would never make fun of her.
“I think there’s a hairbrush under the bed,” he said, his voice strained as if he was bending over.
She could hear Molly giggling, and it was such a relief—even if it was at her expense. But of course, Molly could
the half-naked earl on his hands and knees.
Audrey bit her lip, for even she could imagine it.
But she couldn’t crawl around on the floor with him, so she went to the washstand and drawers and collected their toiletries into her valise. She hastily rolled up her gown and petticoats and tossed them in.
As if he’d never seen a woman’s petticoats, she scolded herself. Her face was hot with mortification now, and she was starting to imagine Robert’s body over hers in his big bed.
Why was she thinking of that now? She’d just had a shock, for goodness sake, and her wedding night had hardly been the stuff of a young girl’s imaginings. But with Robert . . .
“Molly, do not try to stand,” he was saying sternly.
“Oh, no, milord, I’m too heavy—”
He was obviously ignoring her. “Audrey, will you open the doors for me?”
She did feel a little tingle of warm contentment that he assumed she could pack up the room and open doors, everything sighted people did. Reaching out with her hands, she found his bare back and quickly pulled away, but not before she could feel muscles move as he held Molly so manfully. She skirted around them, found the door, and opened it.
In the corridor, she hesitated, unable to see if anyone was there. She felt him come up behind her.
It was Molly who said, “I see no one, Miss Audrey.”
Audrey turned to the left, walked a few paces, running her hand lightly along the wall. She turned the handle of the next door, opened it wide, then stepped inside and out of the way. She felt some part of Molly brush her arm, then heard the squeak of a bed.
“You should have let me get my things, milord,” Molly said in an embarrassed voice. “You shouldn’t have to . . .”
As her words trailed off, Audrey understood. Molly did have a tendency to throw her own things about as she sorted through them.
“I’ll gather everything,” Audrey insisted.
“Oh, miss, I’m causing such trouble! They’re on the chair and table.”
The maid already sounded relieved. Audrey gave her a reassuring smile and returned to the door. She hit the frame with her toe and winced, but bruises were nothing new to her.
“I’ll accompany you,” Robert said.
She felt him at her back as she walked the few short steps down the hall, then turned into the room. Had he donned a shirt?
She pretended he had, as she moved from surface to surface, and heard him call out that there was nothing on the floor. She turned—and ran right into him. She would have fallen had he not grasped her upper arms. Once again, her hands were flat against his chest, and she felt the faint brush of hair, smelled the scent of him, so very different from the perfumes women wore.
“You didn’t don your shirt,” she said between gritted teeth.
“Does it bother you so much?” he murmured. “I did rescue you.”
“And I thank you.” She tried to keep her hands off his hot skin. “Please let me go.”
“We are engaged,” he pointed out, his voice wicked.
When that almost made sense, she knew she was going too far. But he released her, and she ignored her disappointment.
“I think between us, we have everything,” he said.
He took Molly’s bag from her, and she knew he must already have her own. She preceded him to the door.
Inside her new room, he said, “I’ve put both bags on the chairs. Can I do anything else for you, ladies?”
“Does Molly look like we should send for a physician?” Audrey suddenly asked, mortified she hadn’t thought of it before.
“Oh no, miss, I’m feeling much better.”
“The color has returned to her face,” Robert said. “I think she is better.”
“Thank you, my lord,” Audrey said, her voice small.
“Good night. And Molly—”
“I’ll never open the door again!” she said fervently.
“Bolt this, Audrey.”
She did, and heard him say from the corridor, “Good girl.”
She briefly leaned her head against the door, feeling tired and angry and ridiculous. She wasn’t a good girl. A good girl would have been unaffected by his touch—after all, they were not truly engaged. But Molly didn’t know that.
The other woman sighed and said dreamily, “Oh, Miss Audrey, he is such a man. You must feel so very lucky.”
She pasted a smile to her lips before turning around. “Oh, I do.”
“Did you know from the moment you met him?”
“Love at first sight?” Audrey shot back, her smile softening into a real one.
Molly groaned. “Now you’re teasing me. But truly—was it your first conversation when you suspected you might suit each other?”
Audrey hesitated. “Yes, I suppose it was.” Theoretically, that was true—she’d known she had to ask for his help. Maybe she suspected all along that he was trustworthy.
And now he’d saved her life.
“Have you—” Molly broke off, and she sounded most hesitant. “Has he . . . kissed you?”
“Oh, no, he has been most proper,” Audrey insisted.
“I am sorry for that.”
“I am, too,” Audrey said, trying to play her part.
Molly lowered her voice. “But he wants to kiss you, I can tell.”
Right then, Audrey almost told her the truth, but something held her back. No one must know, not until she was safe.
I am playing a part,
she told herself again. “How do you know he wants to kiss me?”
“I can just . . . tell. He doesn’t have to hide his feelings when he looks into your face, like a man would with a sighted woman. And the way he held you—like he didn’t want to let you go.”
“I hope so,” Audrey had to say, even though it wasn’t true. He was playing his part, too.
He’d better be, because Audrey would never allow herself to have more with a man. Not ever again, no matter what he felt like or how he smelled—or how he might kiss.
Not that she was planning to find out.
elcome to Hedgerley,” Robert said, late the next morning.
Audrey clapped her hands together. “My new village—my home.”
“Let me describe it to you, miss,” Molly said with excitement.
“Are you sure you’re up to it?”
Molly had been in pain last night, and Audrey knew she hadn’t slept well. She’d dozed the several-hour journey, though, and was sounding better.
“I could describe it,” Robert offered.
Both women hesitated.
“You think I cannot?”