Harrison Tolly, the steward of the Carey family holdings, was known around the village of Everdon for his affable demeanor and his willingness to help friends in need. Which was why his friend Marcus Dembly, the proprietor of Dembly’s Goods, believed Harrison would help him with the problem of having one too many horses for his stable.
He’d brought the horse down to Everdon Court to show Harrison and was working very hard to convince him he ought to give the mount a go.
“I do not intend to buy your horse, Dembly,” Harrison said as he openly admired the roan gelding. “You realize that, do you not?”
“I cannot see why not,” Dembly said. “Why rely on the Everdon Court stables when you could have your own horse? There is a perfectly good stable here at the dowager house. I should think you would want your own, so that you might call on your Lady X whenever it pleases you.” He grinned and cuffed Harrison on the shoulder.
Lady X was how Harrison’s friends referred to the woman he adored from afar. Or rather, they did not know he adored her from afar—they’d drawn their own conclusions because Harrison had refused to name her.
He never would have mentioned her at all had there not been a movement afoot for the last few years to provide him with a wife. It sometimes seemed to him that half of Everdon was desperate to see him wed, and the other half just as desperate he not marry into their family, given the circumstances of his birth, which was completely lacking in paternity.
“Your powers of persuasion are quite good,” Harrison said congenially. “But I will not purchase horseflesh I do not need and cannot feed. Which, I suspect, is the reason you are so eager to sell.”
“Bloody hell, Harry, just try the horse, will you?” Dembly begged, clearly annoyed now. “I’ve come all this way. You might at least humor me.”
“Very well,” Harrison said with a shrug. “Give the horse over for the day and I shall humor you properly. By what name do you call this gelding?”
“Lightning,” Dembly said.
“How terribly original,” Harrison drawled. “Go on, then,” he said, shooing his friend away. “I’ll not have you breathing down my neck, hoping for a miracle.”
He put his foot in the horse’s stirrup—Dembly had put a premium saddle on him, Harrison noted—and swung up. The horse felt good beneath him, strong and sturdy. And big. So big that Harrison could only guess that the beast would require an entire pasture and a bushel of carrots each week.
He spurred the horse on to appease his friend and rode out through the gates to the park behind Everdon Court, en route to Mr. Fortaine’s cottage, the tenant he had intended to call on today. He took the forest path that led to the river road, and as he emerged from the forest, he came upon Lady Carey in the grassy clearing beside the river.
She was standing before an easel. She wore a wide-brimmed hat and held a palette in one hand. She was dressed in a white muslin gown and a rose-colored spencer. A footman was sitting on a rock on the river’s edge, a fishing pole in his hand.
Harrison trotted up to her. Lady Carey turned her head; when she saw it was him, she smiled beatifically.
That smile drifted through Harrison like stardust. “Mr. Tolly!” she said, her voice full of delight. “What a pleasant surprise! You are just the person to give me an honest opinion of my painting. Will you have a look?”
“I wasn’t aware that you were an artist,” he said as he hopped down from the gelding.
“No?” she asked, smiling coyly.
He walked over to have a look at her handiwork. He had to cock his head to one side and squint a little, but after careful consideration, he determined that the painting was of a goat eating daisies in a field. And the goat had a man’s face. A vaguely familiar face at that. It rather looked like the marquis.
“What do you think?” she asked brightly. “Do you like it?”
“Well . . . it is very colorful,” he said.
“Colorful! How kind.”
He gave her a sidelong look; she had a playful smile on her lips as she casually studied her work. “My skill at interpreting works of art is lacking,” he said, “but if I am not mistaken, you have painted a goat with a familiar face.”
Her smile brightened. “I have, indeed! Are you impressed with my skill?”
“Ah . . .” He looked at the painting again. “I am impressed. But not with your skill.”
Lady Carey burst out laughing—a deep laugh that made her eyes shine. “I share your opinion,” she said laughingly, and touched her brush to the goat’s tail. “However, my husband believes ladies of leisure should paint. And therefore, I paint,” she said, and dabbed at the palette. “I have an affinity for wildlife,” she continued, and began to touch up the daisies that were sticking out of the goat’s mouth. “You know, horses and birds. Goats. Even donkeys.” She winked.
Harrison couldn’t help his chuckle. “You are perhaps the finest painter of goats I have ever seen.”
Lady Carey laughed warmly.
“Is your sister about?” he asked, looking around them as Lady Carey added a few more daisies to her field.
“Unfortunately, no. Alexa is a bit under the weather.”
Harrison thought that Miss Hastings was a bit of a problem. Certainly the marquis did not care for her. “She’s a light-skirt, that one,” he’d said one day for no apparent reason. “A disgusting lack of decorum.” Harrison had no idea why the marquis felt that way—he’d never heard any such thing about Miss Hastings. He rather thought the marquis simply did not care for her.
“I am distressed to hear it,” he said to Lady Carey.
Lady Carey smiled prettily at him, but her eye caught something behind him. “Is that a new horse, Mr. Tolly?” she asked, leaning to her right to see around him.
“In a manner of speaking,” Harrison said. “My friend Mr. Dembly would like me to purchase him. He does not care that I have no need for a horse.”
“Haven’t you? For this one looks as if he would be a good runner.”
Harrison looked at the horse, then at her. “Would you care to ride him?”
She gasped with delight. “May I?” she asked, already putting her palette aside.
“Of course you may. However, the horse is not saddled properly for a lady—”
“Oh, that’s quite all right,” she said with a casual flick of her wrist. “I shall make do.”
She moved around to the side of the gelding, and Harrison cupped his hands for her, as the stirrup was too high for her to reach. She slipped her foot into his fingers and leapt up as he lifted her. She landed squarely in the saddle and hooked her knee around the pommel. Her other leg was exposed from the calf down, and though she wore white stockings, Harrison could see the line of her shapely leg.
“Oh, he is indeed a fine horse!” she said, and leaned forward to stroke its neck. “And quite strong.”
Her breasts strained against her spencer jacket as she reached for the horse, and Harrison unwisely imagined those breasts pressed against him.
“Perhaps you might give him a bit of encouragement?” she asked.
Harrison obliged her by slapping the horse’s rump. The horse started off in a slow canter. Lady Carey rode him expertly, leading him to trot around the clearing, making a big circle around her easel and Harrison, who stood with his legs braced apart, his hands on his hips. Her bonnet toppled off her head, but her footman was quick to retrieve it.
“Do you recall the race between Mr. Williams and Mr. Janus a few years ago?” she called out to Harrison as she trotted by.
As if Harrison could forget any moment he’d spent in her company. On that particular day she’d convinced him, with her winsome smile and charming laugh, to make a few wagers on her behalf. “My husband will not allow any wagering, you know,” she’d whispered. “He thinks it quite unladylike. What do you think, Mr. Tolly?”
“I think you are mad to wager on Mr. Janus,” he’d said low. “He is a stone heavier than Mr. Williams and cannot possibly outrun him on that steed.”
“I have faith in Mr. Janus,” she’d insisted pertly, and had pressed some coins into his palm. “Would you care to wager with me?”
Harrison would do anything to prolong his time in her company. “What do you have mind, madam?”
“If Mr. Janus wins by a length, you shall give me ten pounds.”
“Ten pounds?” he’d said, cocking one brow high with amusement.
“I beg your pardon, is that too rich for you?” she’d teased him.
“I think it is too confident for you.”
“So you say,” she’d said coyly. “If Mr. Janus wins by less than a length, I shall give you ten pounds.”
“And what if,” he’d said, his gaze locked on her sparkling blue eyes, “he doesn’t win at all?”
She’d shrugged. “Then I shall give you twenty pounds.”
He’d laughed. But he’d taken her bet.
Mr. Janus had won handily that afternoon, putting fourteen pounds in Lady Carey’s pocket. But he’d won only by a nose, which meant that she’d lost to Harrison. That didn’t dampen her triumphant spirit.
Nothing did until the marquis discovered that the only person to wager on Janus and win was his wife. He’d been quite angry about her “impudence” and had forced her to give him her earnings.
“You are silent, Mr. Tolly,” Lady Carey said as she trotted past him now. “Surely you’ve not forgotten?”
“You know very well that I recall it,” he said. “Particularly how pleased you were with yourself.”
She laughed. “Naturally! I proved that I was the only one amongst us who could read a horse.” She kicked the gelding in the flank and sent it into a gallop.
Harrison watched as her pale blonde hair was jostled from its pins and began to fly out behind her. When she rounded the end of the clearing and galloped back, the tresses had come wholly undone and drifted down around her shoulders.
“I owe you ten pounds,” she said.
“I scarcely remember it.”
“I do not believe you. I think you are a dear friend and are gamely trying to conceal the fact that I have failed to honor my wager.”
A dear friend. Harrison’s chest tingled a little with that admission. “It was a friendly wager,” he said. “May I help you down?”
“Please.” She reached out to him; he caught her about the waist as she braced her hands against his shoulders and lifted her down. Her skirts and legs brushed against his; her hair drifted between them. God, how Harrison longed to touch that hair, to feel it between his fingers. He set her on the ground and she looked up at him with affection in her eyes.
It was affection, was it not? His mind was not playing tricks? Whatever he saw there, it made his blood rush.
Lady Carey’s hands slid from his shoulders and she patted his chest with a smile on her face. “I should finish my painting so that I may show my husband I have done as a lady ought.” She stepped away from him, and it felt to Harrison as if a draft of cold spring air filled her place.
“You will help me with the seating for the supper party, will you not, Mr. Tolly?” she called over her shoulder as she returned to her easel.
“That depends,” he said, and grinned when she turned back to him. “Will Mr. Wallaby be in attendance?”
“Even worse,” she said, as Harrison watched her gracefully re-pin her hair. “Lady Ames will be joining us.”
“Good God,” he said, and clapped a playful hand over his heart. “I shall don my heaviest armor.”
Lady Carey’s laughter filled the air. “You always make me laugh so,” she said as she accepted her hat from the footman. “Good afternoon, Mr. Tolly.”
“Good afternoon,” Harrison said.
She turned back to her painting, her face once again obscured. He swung up on the horse and turned it about, trotting off in the direction of Mr. Fortaine’s cottage, his body a mass of jumbled nerves and conflicting emotions.
Alexa was still in her bed, a cold cloth across her brow, her pillow damp from the tears that never seemed to stop falling. She refused to rise, refused to join the supper party honoring the Duke and Duchess of Rutland.
In all honesty, that was just fine with Olivia. She had enough to fret over without worrying whether Alexa would offend Edward with something as simple as breathing. That was not out of the realm of possibility.
The supper guests were expected at seven o’clock, and at six o’clock, Edward had still not returned from his ride to God only knew where. But Brock had informed Olivia that Bishop Ogden, who was notorious for appearing early, had arrived.
“I shall be down to see him in a moment,” she assured the butler, and took one last look at herself in the blue silk gown with the embroidery along the scalloped hem she’d commissioned. She owed Mr. Tolly her thanks—it was he who had brought her the fabric sample from London, then had ordered a bolt of it with other household goods.
She heard Edward before she saw him; there was no mistaking his drunken lurching down the hall. Olivia fit a pearl-drop tiara onto her head as Edward came through the door of her suite.
He paused there, his shoulder against the jamb, staring at her, clearly foxed. He pushed away from the door and sauntered in. “My darling wife.”
“Welcome home, my lord,” she said.
His gaze raked over her, but she knew no compliment as to her appearance would be forthcoming. Edward put his arm around her shoulders. He reeked of whiskey and perfume, and when he tried to kiss her, she turned her head; his lips landed on her cheek. He tried to kiss her again, but Olivia turned her head even further, leaning away from him.
“Are you refusing me?” he hissed.
“I would prefer,” she said, breaking out of his embrace, “that you at least wash the other woman’s perfume from your body.”
Edward’s face mottled. “Do you think you are so desirable?” he asked. “You disgust me.”
He started for her again, but Olivia put her hand up. “We have guests for supper this evening. The bishop has already arrived and the duke will not be far behind.”
Edward glared at her, his jaw clenched shut. But he did not reach for her again.
“If you will excuse me, I shall go keep the bishop’s company until you can join us.” She walked past him without looking at him, expecting him to call her back.
But he did not. A duke was coming, and Edward was undoubtedly more concerned with how he would be perceived by him than by Olivia.
The duke and duchess had arrived by the time Edward appeared, having bathed and changed into formal clothing. It was remarkable to Olivia that he could manage to gather himself at all, but he’d done it time and again. One wouldn’t suspect that just three quarters of an hour ago, he had lurched into her suite reeking of whiskey and perfume.
He was in the company of Mr. Tolly, and Olivia was happy about that. Mr. Tolly was an equable influence on Edward. He had an equable influence on everyone, really. Olivia presumed he was only slightly younger than her husband, but he was much fitter, her husband having grown soft in the last few years. Mr. Tolly was a bit taller than Edward, and where Edward was golden-haired, Mr. Tolly had brown hair the color of mahogany, his eyes the color of a mourning dove.
Edward’s eyes were so brown they almost looked black. Two black, bottomless holes.
Together, the two men greeted the duke and duchess, then moved around the room to greet the few other guests, eventually making their way to Olivia’s side. She was standing with the bishop, who had taken a liking to her long ago and rarely left her side when in her company. She was showing the bishop her painting.
The easel and the painting seemed to confuse Edward after he’d greeted the bishop. “What is that?” he asked. “Why is it in the salon?”
“It is the painting you asked me to make,” Olivia said. “I asked the footman to put it here. Do you like it?”
He looked at her strangely, then at the painting. “What is it? A goat?”
“A goat!” she laughed. “It is a horse, my love.” Standing just behind Edward, Mr. Tolly arched one brow and a faint smile appeared on his lips. Olivia had to bite the inside of her lip to keep from smiling as Edward leaned in, squinting.
“A fine horse it is, Lady Carey,” the bishop said. “A bit short, I think, but a fine horse.” The bishop was squinting, too, and gripping his second sherry as if he feared it might be ripped from his hand by a gale-force wind.
“A horse,” Edward repeated.
“Yes. A horse.”
Mr. Tolly looked down. Olivia could see the muscles in his jaw working to keep from smiling.
Edward turned away from her painting. “It is a childish rendition, then. Put it in the nursery where it belongs.”
“Ah yes, that would spruce up the nursery quite nicely,” the bishop said.
“I agree,” Olivia said cheerfully. “I might even add more to the painting.” Such as a noose around the goat’s head. Or a fiery explosion. But Edward didn’t hear her—he’d already walked on.
“That horse has seen a remarkable transformation in the last few hours,” Mr. Tolly said.
“Hasn’t it?” she asked with a kittenish smile.
“Mr. Tolly, is that you?” Lady Ames bellowed from across the room. “I’ve a question of considerable importance, sir!”
Mr. Tolly gave Olivia a slight wince before stepping away to speak to Lady Ames.
Supper was served at precisely eight o’clock. Olivia, seated at the far end of the table, was beside the bishop. That was not the seating arrangement she and Mr. Tolly had devised, and she rather suspected the bishop had asked for a change. Edward was at the other end in the company of the duke and duchess. He was relaxed and laughing.
The bishop began to chat as the wine began to flow. Olivia tried very hard to be a good listener, she truly did . . . but the bishop had a tendency to speak in great concentric paths before reaching anything that even remotely resembled a point. Twice, as she labored to keep up, Olivia happened to glance in Mr. Tolly’s direction and caught his eye. He was smiling at her with amusement, knowing very well what agony she was being made to suffer. Once, Olivia gave a subtle incline of her head toward the bishop, silently suggesting that Mr. Tolly might want to engage him.
Mr. Tolly just as subtly refused her offer.
The tedious conversation aside, she thought the evening progressed rather well. She did not feel a sense of foreboding, which she often felt when only she and Edward dined. Her husband seemed in good spirits, the guests enjoying their meal and the company. And then the bishop asked Olivia about Alexa.
“Unfortunately, my sister is ill,” Olivia said when the bishop asked why she had not joined them.
“Ah, that is a pity. I do so enjoy her company—very lively, that one. Her health is not in peril, I pray?”
Olivia smiled and shook her head. “She is fatigued after such a long journey from Spain.”
“Ah, yes. And what is next for our Miss Hastings?” the bishop asked, settling back in his chair.
“Well . . .” Olivia hadn’t thought of what she might say about Alexa just yet. “London, I suppose,” she said. That seemed safe; everyone would naturally assume she’d be off for the Season to begin the search for a marital match.
The bishop obviously assumed so, for he said rather loudly, “Yes, of course she’ll be to London now. A young woman as pretty and spirited as Miss Hastings will make a fine match indeed, particularly with the Carey name to sponsor her!”
“Are we speaking of my sister-in-law?” Edward suddenly asked from the other end of the table, startling Olivia. Conversation ceased, and everyone looked to Olivia; she felt the warmth begin to creep into her cheeks.
“We were indeed, my lord,” the bishop said, and shifted around in his seat so that he might have a better look at Edward. “I was remarking how fortuitous it is that Miss Hastings might have the Marquis of Carey to sponsor her in the Season.”
“Me?” Edward chuckled as if he’d never considered it. “Do you not have an uncle in London who might see after her, darling?”
Olivia tensed. Her father’s brother was in debtor’s prison, which Edward knew very well. “No,” she said, and smiled as she shook her head.
“But I think you do,” he insisted. “What is his name, again? Ah yes. Barstow.” He looked around at the faces of his curious guests. “Mr. Barstow is the brother of my wife’s late father. Her stepfather, Lord Hastings, adopted her. Perhaps because her nearest blood relative was something of a wastrel.” He chuckled again, but it was met with an uncomfortable silence.
“I was very young when my father died,” Olivia said. “I always considered Lord Hastings to be my father.”
“Rather advantageous for you to do so, I should think,” Edward said jovially. “And where is our Uncle Barstow, my love? Still in debtor’s prison?”
Lady Ames gasped. The bishop frowned into his wineglass. Mr. Wallaby looked rather surprised and turned to Olivia, clearly interested in her answer.
There was a time when Olivia would have tried to make a jest of Edward’s jabs, but she no longer had the patience for it. There was no point in denying it. “Yes,” she said. “King’s Bench Prison, as I last understood.”
“Gambling debts, was it not?” Edward asked casually. “Incapable or unwilling to pay his wagers?”
“I suspect he is trying to gamble his way out even as we speak,” Olivia said, and smiled at her husband.
“If I may offer a toast, then,” Mr. Tolly said. “To your uncle Barstow, my lady. May his luck improve.”
Olivia smiled gratefully and lifted her glass. “Hear, hear, Mr. Tolly.”
“Hear, hear,” the Duke of Rutland said, and laughed as he lifted his glass. A round of laughter went up around the table, and the guests lifted their glasses, calling out a hearty hear, hear to Mr. Tolly’s toast.
Olivia was aware that Edward’s gaze was on her as he lifted his glass. She could feel it burning a hole in her skin.
At half past two in the morning, when the duke and duchess took their leave, most of the other guests followed them, leaving only the bishop and Mr. Wallaby behind. Mr. Wallaby was determined to show Edward an African spear he’d discovered in a London market. The three men disappeared into the study with their ports. Olivia heard Edward instruct a footman to bring a bottle of whiskey.
That bottle and the spear would keep her husband occupied. Olivia retired for the night. She was quite tired and quickly fell asleep, dreaming of paintings of galloping horses.
She was rudely awakened by a heavy weight pressing down on her and found Edward on top of her, clothed only in a shirt. He smelled of drink, and he was pushing her legs apart, jabbing at her.
He clamped a hand over her mouth and twisted her head to one side as he tried to enter her. But the whiskey had made him flaccid again. He growled and did his best to bring himself back to life, but could not manage it. “Do something!” he snarled at her.
“What might I possibly do?” Olivia asked, unwilling to touch him and hoping that he did not force her to do so.
Edward tried again, grunting with the effort, and finally rolled off her. He fell onto his side beside her and his arm lay heavy across her abdomen. The drink had finally put him out.
Olivia lay looking up in the darkness with his arm on her, imagining how she could use Mr. Wallaby’s spear to pin Edward to a wall. She would need some help, as the spear looked heavy, and there would be the matter of keeping Edward still so that she might spear him. She had in mind to pin him below the waist.
She’d best do it by the morrow, for she could no longer avoid telling him about Alexa. She wouldn’t be the least surprised if he speared her first.
Revue de presse
-New York Times Bestselling author Madeline Hunter