Alina Hartley stood at the second story window of her husband’s grand estate, trying to focus her eyes past the rain-streaked window pane to the lane beyond. It had been raining most of the day, a London caricature she generally enjoyed, but today it was playing with her mind, twisting her off course.
“You called, my lady?”
Alina jumped, turning towards the door. It was the butler, standing tall and stiff as he always had since she first met him the day of her wedding.
“Georges. I…was wondering if you’d heard word yet about Mr. Hartley.” She hated to ask it; hated the way his frozen face softened in momentary pity.
“No, my lady. It’s late. Shall I send the maid up?”
“No, I’ll wait for my husband.” She struggled to keep her voice steady and retain her fragile dignity. “I know the staff are all abed, but could you send up a last bit of tea before you turn in? I don’t expect you to wait up for your master.” She took a shaky breath. “And of course send Willa to bed as well.”
She knew her maid was waiting in the other room, pretending to busy herself with mundane tasks so as to protect her mistress’ honor.
“Whatever you wish, my lady.” He bowed formally, and was gone. Alina had long suspected that Georges and the other staff did not like their master, Mr. Jonas George Hartley, who treated them with contempt and disrespect at every turn. He handled his estate abominably, and was gone regularly on the ‘business’ trips that Alina knew involved only gambling, fashion, and high society. His sprawling estate, Marshall Gardens, fell mostly to the management of his solicitor, and Alina found herself early on answering questions she didn’t really understand, just to keep up the appearance of Hartley’s involvement.
There were other things she knew about Jonas’ business trips, things she wished she could forget but lingered about the scent of his denials. A woman, maybe many. She knew it in her heart above all else, but had it confirmed to her by the sympathetic smiles that greeted her when she occasionally joined him in the wealthier circles of society. They all knew something, and were letting it happen for the sake of propriety.
Georges returned in moments with a tray of hot ginger tea which he laid out neatly on the table at Alina’s elbow. “Anything else, my lady?”
“No.” She turned a weak smile in his direction. “Thank you, Georges. You’ve served me well this evening.”
He bowed, refusing to smile out of duty, but she felt the warmth in his lined face. When she was alone again, she let herself indulge in a memory she rarely embraced these days—those few weeks before her wedding. She’d been so young then, barely seventeen, a blushing bride excited for her wedding day.
“You are a lucky girl,” her mother had said, helping her into the wedding gown for a final fitting. It was white with lace trim that would be talked about all around London. “You’re wedding is the event of the century. A girl like you, from a wealthy family, wedding Jonas Hartley—why, you’ll be rolling in riches all your life, the talk of high society. You must be so excited.”
She had been. She didn’t know Jonas all that well, but the brief courting opportunities they’d had were all magical—blurred, golden images in her memory now where she could hardly remember what had moved her. Had he been so very silver-tongued after all, or had she just wanted desperately to be in love like other girls her age? He was handsome enough then, though a bit older, and he dazzled her with gifts and rides in his carriage through town. He was so possessive of her, escorting her around and using phrases like, “my lovely lady,” and “soon you will be mine.” At the time, those phrases had seemed a release into a secret and magical world where she mattered desperately to somebody, but now they seemed a cage.
At their wedding celebration he had seized her arm and dragged her onto the floor for the first dance, pulling her from a conversation with her mother on the sidelines, and it was the first time she felt a twinge of realization about his true nature. He did possess her, but not as a man and woman ought to possess one another—he owned her as a collector might own a piece of fine china, or a man might cage a songbird.
“We can dance later,” she remembered protesting. “Please, love.”
But there was his hand, tightening on her elbow. “If I tell you to dance you dance,” he’d said sharply. “You’re my wife now. No more coy denials, if you please.”
The same sentiment had held true in their bed chamber, and the pain there was only redeemed by the surprise gift of baby Jonas less than a year after their wedding. He was a sweet little boy, and now, five years later, Alina refused to call him by his given name. Little Jinx, he was, a boy she intended to raise as a man ought to be raised, not in the cruel, twisted nature of his father. So far, because of Jonas’ seeming unconcern for his family, she’d been successful. The boy hardly spoke of his father, and only with cowering fear. He loved his mother, and adopted her gentle way with the servants. He was a secret favorite of Georges, she knew, and she hoped to see him grow into a fine and fair young man.
Alina took another sip of the sharp ginger tea, and then rose to peer out the window at the cobbled lane again. Marshall Gardens was a manor situated in the finest, most fashionable streets of London, but such a lovely location came with a price. If there happened to be any neighbors as sleepless as she this evening, they would see Jonas’ carriage coming up the drive, or, worse, they would see it not arrive. She wondered for a moment whose arms he would be coming from that night, but she pushed the thought from her mind as quickly as possible. It was a bottomless pit, after all, the despair.
She curled into the window seat, already in her filmy nightgown with a silken gold shawl around her frail shoulders, and waited. She was small, with delicate bones and a fine figure. Her hair, waist-length and honey brown, took second fiddle to her bright blue eyes in most instances, but she’d found that for Jonas all her best features were meaningless. He had wanted her position in society to raise him above his station—rich as he was, he didn’t have the connections he felt he deserved—and when her young money proved inadequate his seeming attentions evaporated into disgust.
She pulled the shawl tighter, catching her first glimpse of his coach rattling up to the front door of the house. She dreaded his arrival as much as she longed for it for societies sake. There he was, climbing from the carriage in the pouring rain, his step uneven. He would be drunk, then, again.
She climbed from the sill and stood in her bare feet in the freezing room until she heard his heavy tread climb the stairs and at last disappear into his bedroom. She heard him ring for a footman, and cringed to imagine Georges dragging some poor boy out of bed at this hour. She sat on the side of her own bed, twisting her hands in her shawl and trying to decide what she ought to do—it would be best for her, perhaps, to stay here in the safety of her own room, but her wifely duty plagued her and at last she decided to overcome her fear and tend to her husband’s welfare. When she heard the footman’s steady feet descend the stairs once again she slipped quietly into the darkened hall and knocked tentatively on Jonas’ door.
“Back already? Well, come in then,” he said gruffly, mistaking her for the servant. She opened the door gingerly, and slipped into the room. She felt small beside her husband’s enormous bulk, like a child, but she summoned her courage.
“Jonas, I’m glad to see you are well.”
He looked up, his expression blackening at the sight of her. “What are you doing still awake, woman? Watching for me?”
“I was concerned about your welfare, husband.”
“Do you hear me calling you wife? Please, refrain from obvious attempts to flatter yourself with your connection to my wealth.”
She winced, stung. She didn’t know why she always expected decency from him—he had given her no reason to come into his quarters with even a shred of hope.
“Are you well?”
There it was, the blur in his eyes; the smell on his breath and about his clothes. He’d been drinking heavily, just as she’d guessed. He was dangerous like this. She’d been bruised more than once, but always on her midsection or in arms—places she could hide from prying eyes. She took a nervous step back toward the closed door and put her hand on the nob.
“I’m better than I’ve ever been,” he said coarsely. “Fairly rolling in happiness, if you ask me. A night to remember.”
“Do you want to say goodnight to Jinx? He’s asleep already, but I’m sure he would love to see you.”
“That boy doesn’t love anything but you,” Jonas snapped. “You’ve made certain of that. Who knows what lies you whisper to him while I am away, but I’ve no desire to drink from a well you’ve poisoned, no desire at all, wench.”
She winced at his language, and swallowed hard as she watched her husband’s rough movements about the room. He was throwing clothes haphazardly into a trunk, filling it up as only a bachelor unused to self care could. She stepped forward lightly on her bare feet and took one of his shirts in hand, folding it. “Where are you going?” she ventured fearfully.
He snatched the shirt back, shoving it down the side of his suitcase. “A last-minute trip to the West Indies. I detest the way our company insists I go on these voyages, there isn’t anything worthwhile in the savage territories, just heat and bugs and savage women.”
Alina pretended not to hear that last statement, trying again to fold some of his clothes. “If you’re leaving first thing, I understand why you can’t wake Georges to do this, but please, let me help.”
“I don’t need your help,” he said.
She reached out one small white hand and laid it on his sleeve. “Please, Jonas.”
“Woman!” He pushed her hand roughly away and turned to her with disgust. “You cling to me like vines to a garden wall. I understand that you aren’t in a position to do anything else of worth here in the house all day, but just because you aren’t able to elevate your own mind doesn’t mean you have to act as though you haven’t a mind at all. Have a little self respect. I don’t know how I could be more clear about this.” He paused, his breathing heavy. “I don’t want you here.”
Alina had lost her ability to cry in front of Jonas long ago. He just made her feel empty and cold inside. She only wept alone, in the safety of her private chambers. Instead, she took another shirt in her hand, preparing to fold it, when she realized suddenly that it was a dirty article of clothing—probably the one he’d been wearing that night. There was a bright stain on the neck, and a smear of makeup across the collar. She stared at it, unbelieving that he would be so brazen.
“I’m just trying to be a good wife,” she said softly.
“Wives are tedious,” he said, noticing what she was looking at. She half-expected him to speak up in his own defense, or to deny his actions, but instead he came and stood quite close to her, taking one of her hands gripping the shirt into his own and pushing her fingers across the makeup stain. “Smell that?” he said with a mocking tone in his voice, “that’s the smell of an exciting perfume. No lavender and honeysuckle for this damsel.”
Alina smelled her own honeysuckle scent like a foul odor. She tried to pull away, but Jonas kept her hand frozen in his own. “No, don’t pull back, not when you’ve made such an ingenious discovery. I tell you, little wife, that you don’t need to pretend to be some sort of investigator with me. I’ll tell you everything you want to know. All the bawdy details. Shall I begin?”
She managed to pull away then, her throat closing in pain and disgust. “No. Go on your trip.”
She made her way to the door, but just she laid hold of the handle she caught his mocking tone behind her.
“I’ll miss you, love. But don’t worry, I’ll make sure I’m not too lonely in your absence.”
She shut the door behind her gently, trapped even now in the old habits of proper societal behavior. She didn’t want to arouse suspicion among the servants; she didn’t want to wake Jinx. Shaking in her thin nightgown, she slipped ghostlike to her own bedroom and put out the candle by her bed, crawling beneath the covers like a little girl. She was only 23 years old, trapped between the child she was on her wedding day and the old woman she’d grown to be after Jonas’ abuse.
“Why?” she whispered to herself beneath the dark covers. “Always I think he will be different; always I think this will be the evening that I am free of his cruelty.”
There, in the safety of darkness and solitude, she felt the tears slipping down her cheeks into the soft silk sheets. She muffled her weeping with the pillow, crying until her slight frame was spent and her heart was safe and empty again. That was as it should be. In the morning she would be able to face Jonas, the household staff, and her son as she always was—a beautiful, graceful woman on the prow of society, self-contained and utterly free from the danger that anyone would guess just how desolate she was.
“Baa baa, black sheep, have you any wool?” Alina listened as her son’s little voice drifted above the shifting tree-tops in sing-song laughter. “Yes, sir, yes, sir, three bags full;” he paused, skipping along the line of rocks he’d laid out as a guide. He jumped on his right leg and balanced there, “one for the master,” he hopped to his left leg, “one for the dame,” then he jumped twice on both feet and pointed his thumbs back at himself with a grin, “and one for the little boy who lives down the lane!”
Alina watched him with a sad smile on her face. She’d read once, in an old text, that the harmless little rhyme had actually said “and one for the little boy who cries down the lane” before it was switched in the 1600s to be more child friendly, and even now she felt it was haunted somehow by a shadow. She was sitting inside by the bay window. It was open so she could hear his little voice, and he sent occasional glances in her direction to make sure his adoring fan was still in attendance.
Jinx looked more like his mother than his father—small for his face, with wide blue eyes. But he had that shock of dark, curly hair and his father’s temper, both things she knew would be tamed in time if he tended to his own character as she hoped.
He tired of the game, and came up to her window with a posy smashed in his little fist. He lifted the wilted flower, unable to quite reach his mama’s hand, and she bent far out of the window to touch his fat little fingers.
“Sing with me, mama,” he said with a slight pout in his rosebud lips.
She smiled tenderly. The run-in with Jinx’s father had been almost a week ago now, and they’d had a week of peace while he was on his trip across the sea—a week that she knew she would neither have to worry about his open philandering in London or his brooding maliciousness at home. “What would you do with a bag of black wool anyway, little boy who lives down the lane?”
He frowned in thought, his forehead wrinkled. “I don’t know,” he said at last. “What is wool?”
She laughed at how sober-minded and serious he could be. It was a sunny day, and he was dressed in only trousers and a light linen shirt, but she had a woolen throw beside her on the window seat and she dropped the edge out of the window so that he could feel it. “See how heavy it is?” she asked gently. “It’s like your overcoat in the winter months or when there’s a chill in the air. That’s wool. Sheep make it like fur and then when you cut it off you can spin it on a loom into thread and weave it into a blanket.”
Clearly only one part of that sentence made an impact, for Jinx’s face grew at once deeply concerned, and he cried out in alarm, laying hold of the blanket with expressive tenderness. “They cut off all the fur? But then they would be dead!”
Alina resisted the urge to laugh tenderly at his misunderstanding and answered him quite seriously. She always wanted to encourage his curiosity, and tried not to punish him for mistakes he made out of childish ignorance. “No, my little man. For sheep, fur is like hair. You can shave it all off without taking the skin, and it grows back in only a short amount of time. They don’t die—they can keep giving wool all their lives.”
The anxiety drained from the little boy’s face and his smiled again. He’d always been this way—quick to make judgments and to jump to conclusions, but easily assuaged by his mama’s explanations as well.
“Why don’t you go to your horsie?” she prodded him, not wanting him to abandon the pleasant outdoors just yet. It was so good for him, soaking up the sun and getting dirt on his trousers. Jonas was always trying to keep him pristine indoors, accusing him of both being too reckless and too childish.
Jinx skipped away from the window to his hobby horse which rocked peacefully in the shade of a tall oak tree. There was a swing there, too, and Alina knew later that day, when the evening sun was just sinking in the sky, he would beg for a push out there in the cool evening air—he always did, and she went through with the little bedtime ritual as often as possible. Afterwards, they would trip inside like schoolchildren and she would tell him a story or sing a song before tucking him into bed. Alone, without Jonas, they were generally happy.
“You coddle the boy,” Jonas would say, even as he fed sweets to Jinx to keep the boy from asking questions at dinner. Alina hated the way he treated his own son, like a dog to be enjoyed when it pleased him or kicked to the corner when Jonas grew annoyed.
“I don’t coddle him,” she’d protested. “He takes discipline very well, and is obedient to his mother.”
“I can hardly believe it,” Jonas shot back in front of Jinx, who was cowering at the sound of anger in his father’s voice. “There is no world in which a boy is more obedient to his mother than to his father, and as he seems to listen rarely to me I can only assume he exhibits the same behavior with you.”
She didn’t know how to tell him that he held no sway over Jinx if he was never home, and that his shouting fits only frightened the boy into momentary submission. In truth, she suspected Jonas was already sowing seeds of disgust in his son’s sweet little heart—she wanted desperately to have Jonas be a good husband to her, but she would be satisfied if he would at least be a good father to his little boy. A little bit of genuine love and affection, even a moment of careful instruction or inherited wisdom, would bless her more than words could say. But again and again, as in all things, she was disappointed.
She stood, and caught sight of herself in the long mirror over the parlor armoire. She looked small and frail, too skinny. She remembered with a pang of lost happiness that at one point she had been the talk of the county, a robust little thing with pink cheeks and loose curls who was sought after at every dance and wooed by many. Jonas had come along so early in her youth, though, that she’d never fallen in love. Even now, staring at the wan little face in the mirror, she knew that she had still never been in love. She took a few steps toward the reflection, reaching up to touch her cheek with a shaking hand. She was wearing a red dress—it was Jonas’ preference, and much of her wardrobe now was scarlet, but it did nothing for her fine complexion. She loosened her hair with her fingers and thought for a brief, wild moment that she ought to weave a daisy into those honey strands.
“No,” she said softly to the girl in the mirror, chiding her. “That is for maidens and lovers, and you are neither.”
She heard Jinx again outside the window, calling her name, and she ran back to the little alcove.
“I’m done with the horsie. Inside, please?”
She smiled down. “Yes. Run around to nanny and have her bring you in. I’ll ring for some jam and toast and we shall have ourselves a little chat.”
He took off away from her at full speed, disappearing around the corner of the house calling for his nanny. She followed through on her promise, ringing for the footman and requesting tea, and by the time Jonas had made it back inside his eyes grew wide with delight at the sight of his favorite snack amid the fine china.
“Almost.” She held out a handkerchief. “Clean your face and hands, and then you can set to.”
The nanny stood awkwardly in the doorway. She was a rotund woman with cherry cheeks and sparkling eyes, but she always seemed uncomfortable around her mistress. It was this way with much of the servants, Alina had realized over time. Doubtless they all had secrets they knew about their master, and they were all struggling with consciences about whether or not they ought to reveal what they knew. She wished she could put them all at rest, but to do so would have been to expose her own dignity and to buck the rules of society. She was not prepared for such ignominy.
“Nanny Winters, thank you for your help today. Would you like to join me for tea?”
Mrs. Winters looked shocked, rightfully so, Alina thought sadly. She would have loved some companionship, but it was not proper for a servant to sit and take tea with the lady of the house. “I was just wondering, my lady,” the nanny ventured, ignoring the invitation, “if young Jinx ought to eat upstairs in his rooms so you can have some peace. You’ve been keeping an eye on him all day, and I know a lady needs her rest.”
Alina knew it was the thing to do to leave one’s children to other’s care, but she genuinely enjoyed her son’s company and preferred not to be separated from him. She smiled as convincingly as she could manage at the nanny. “It’s no trial. I’d rather Jinx stay with me.” She cast a conspiratorial wink in his direction. “We have much to discuss, don’t we laddie?”
“Yeth,” he slurred through a mouthful of jam and toast. “We have to dithcuth.”
The nanny smiled a little too indulgently and took her leave of mother and son. For a short time, they ate in happy silence, then, when Jinx had had his fill, he crawled over to his mother’s side and held up his plump little fingers to be cleaned. She wiped at him with her handkerchief, and summoned a smile to say, “I heard three days back that your father’s ship got off alright. He should be there and back in a few more weeks if we’re lucky.”
Jinx looked disinterestedly out the window. Alina wanted desperately for him to have a father he could love and respect. She reached for things he might find of interest. “You know, there are wild animals in the West Indies—monkeys and some large lizards they say have teeth that can eat a man—not that your father would be in danger,” she hurried to add. “I just mean that he might have some good stories for you when he gets back.”
Jinx’s face fell, and he seemed suddenly sullen. “I wish he wouldn’t get back.”
He said it so softly that Alina almost couldn’t hear him, but her keen ears caught the words and her heart welled with sadness at the sound. “You don’t mean that, little man.”
“I do,” he said urgently, looking up at her. “I wish it was just you and me forever.”
“But Jinx, you know your father has to come back. It’s only right for him to be here with us. We’re his family.”
Jinx, who as always had as quick of a conscience as he had a quick temper, bit his lip. His eyes filled with tears. “I know, mama. I didn’t mean to be wicked but—” he raised his hand, still sticky with jam, and put it softly on her cheek. It was an uncommonly gentle action from such a busy little boy, and even before he spoke Alina’s eyes were filling with tears. “It’s just that you don’t smile when he’s here, mama.” His eyes were big; earnest. “I think you smile more when Papa isn’t home. What if he stayed in the wild animals place forever?”
Alina felt her breath catch in her chest, and she pulled Jinx close. “You aren’t wicked, Jinx. You’re very, very smart and very kind. But mama’s okay. She will smile more around your Papa, I promise.”
She felt a pang of guilt. She had no idea that Jinx had picked up on her own deep unhappiness. She knew he feared his father, and had even suspected that he didn’t like to be too long around his father, but she hadn’t realized her own role in the little boy’s dislike. She had to do a better job of hiding her shame and unhappiness, at least for his sake. It was too great of a burden for a little boy to bear.
“Did I tell you,” she said at last, when she’d regained her voice again, “about the first time I met your father?”
“No,” he said warily, still snuggled into the crook of her arm.
“It was after a race with horses,” she said. “Ladies don’t go to races, you know, but your grandfather found your Papa there at the track and liked him.” She winced inwardly at the falsehood in her own words. He hadn’t liked him exactly—he’d just determined the man was rich and grown almost dizzy with greed at the thought. “So they came over to the teahouse across the street where your grandmother and I were waiting. Right then and there, your Papa asked me on a ride across the city. He had four horses, all white, and we went through the streets for hours.”
“Four horses?” Jinx said, awe in his voice. “Where are they now?”
Jonas had lost them in gambling debts long ago. Alina bit her lip. “They were beautiful, and I thought he was a very good driver.”
The words cut her like shards of glass, not because they were lies, but because they were the truth. She had been swept up in the magic of Jonas’ pursuit, blind and idiotically naïve. She hated to think of it, but her story was working. Jinx was fixated on the horses, one of his favorite topics of conversation.
“Did they go fast?” Jinx asked.
“The wind blew my bonnet off!” she said, laughing lightly at the memory, trying to keep her voice peaceful and engaging. He doesn’t need to know everything now, she thought to herself. She didn’t need to tell him how the same thing had happened during their first week of marriage and Jonas had refused to go back for the bonnet, telling Alina in a snide voice that if she couldn’t care for fine things she didn’t deserve them.
“Four white horses,” Jinx breathed again, cuddling closer. “I love you, Mama.”
Alina’s heart melted, and she ran a playful hand through his hair. “And I love you, little man. I love you most.”
Theodore Pendleton looked out the window of the carriage at the passing fields with a pit in his stomach. He had made this drive many times before, sometimes on horseback if the weather allowed, but this time it seemed to be flying by faster than usual—bringing him ever closer to a conversation he dreaded.
When he’d first gone to school to study as a barrister, he’d been starry-eyed and excited to do something worthwhile with his life, pulling himself out of the merchant life and speculation that had marked his father’s descent into poverty. He’d made a name for himself and was part of a respected firm that serviced many high-class clients. Only 27 years old, and he found himself often helping lords and ladies cover over their indiscretions or crawl out of their gambling debts. The one thing he hadn’t expected in those idealistic beginnings, however, was the harsh truth he’d learned during his employ under Jonas George Hartley: you don’t get to choose the morality of the man you’re hired to protect.
His last conversation with Hartley was still fresh in his mind. It had been only two weeks before, at Theodore’s office in London. He remembered it like it was yesterday, Hartley’s voice echoing harsh and demanding in his ears.
“You can’t be serious,” Jonas Hartley was saying, almost spitting with rage. “If you can’t find the money I need than who can?”
“I am only responsible for managing finances that are at my disposal, and you have tied up quite a bit of your money in various speculations,” Theodore answered. “I have told you before that you can reach into your main supply.”
“And I told you that my main finances are privy to some of my business partners. This is a private matter and I don’t need to tell you why I find it inappropriate to air such a matter in a public venue.”
Theodore didn’t know who the woman in question was, but he did know that she existed and was receiving a substantial stipend from his client. He clenched his jaw at the thought. On many occasions, when meeting Jonas Hartley at Marshall Gardens in London, he’d had the pleasure of Mrs. Hartley’s company. She was a soft, delicate sort of person with a musical voice and a face that would have set the great painters to a state of inspiration. He could hardly look away when she was talking, and he was always reminded of the milky petals of a lily when he was in her company. Hartley, however, seemed ignorant of the gem he had and kept her locked away from the eyes of the world, child and all, while he cavorted about London doing what he pleased with whom he pleased to do it.
Theodore had told himself many times that it angered him simply as one would be angered to see Michelangelo’s David defaced, but sometimes the more honest part of his heart admitted that he was strangely sympathetic with Mrs. Hartley herself and hated to see her wounded at her husband’s behest.
Now, riding fast in his carriage toward Marshall Gardens, Theodore was torn as he had never before been. He had received news that very day—a short message from the shipping company in Hartley’s name—to be delivered to Mrs. Hartley at the first available opportunity: Ship to West Indies lost at sea. All lost. Jonas George Hartley believed to be among the dead.
Theodore searched deep inside himself for the regret and shock he knew ought to be there, but the most he could find was a kind of manufactured pity for Hartley—the remainder of his emotion was devoted to the widow and her son. He ached at the thought of telling her of the tragedy. Despite Jonas’ cruelty and infidelity, when Theodore had often seen them together the wife had been nothing but kind and attentive to her husband. He even suspected she cared deeply for him, and he hated what this news would do to that sweet face.
Lost in thought again, another memory rose crystal clear to his mind: the sight of her a month ago at the ball—one of the few appearances where she’d joined Jonas—in a gown of scarlet with rubies at her throat. Unlike the other women, she had not given into the style of headdresses laden with jewels and feathers to show off one’s husband’s finery. Instead, she wore her honey-blonde hair in a simple twist off her neck with only a few miniature red roses adorning it. He wouldn’t have thought that red was her color, but still she looked radiant. He had spoken with her briefly, after she came off the dance floor on Jonas’ arm. He, being only a business partner and barrister, would never have dreamed of touching that hand or asking her onto the floor, but Jonas had pulled him aside nonetheless.
“Come, man. Have you heard anything more about the tenant case?” he’d asked roughly.
“Yes…” he remembered pausing in confusion, partly because of the propriety of the situation, partly because he was distracted by Mrs. Hartley so close at hand. She smelled like honeysuckle. “We don’t need to speak of this now, though,” he remembered saying, “I know you’re at an event with your lovely bride—I can hardly imagine she finds it worthwhile to speak on such things.”
“If we allowed our women to decide what was worthwhile we would all be talking about embroidery and children,” Jonas had shot back, throwing back his head in a coarse cackle.
Theodore remembered the look on Mrs. Hartley’s face—frozen, like a doll. She was so clearly used to such behavior and treatment, and knew the safest thing to do was to hide, not respond. Her face and neck did pale a bit, the only sign that his words had struck home, and the rubies at her neck looked like drops of blood floating in fresh cream.
“Surely that’s not true,” he’d managed lamely.
“Take care never to get married, my man,” Jonas had said. “I can hear from talking you have a gentle way around you, and that works with neither horses nor women. They’ll get the better of you if you let them think they have any right to your heart. It’s better to be bold and to let them know where their place is so there’s no confusion.”
That white face, those slender arms; the rubies, the blue eyes. Even now, they came back to taunt him. He should have said something more, should have spoken up for her. At the time, there was a pleading in her eyes he couldn’t deny. She was asking him to drop it; begging him to release the topic before it came back to bite her later—perhaps when they were alone. The thought had chilled him, and he’d said nothing.
The music had begun again, a sad, stirring waltz, and Mrs. Hartley, desperate, perhaps, to escape the conversation, had turned her little face up towards her brutish husband. “May we dance?”
“Again?” He’d shaken her off his arm like an annoyance. The most beautiful woman in the room, an annoyance. “I think not. Go with the barrister, darling.” There was a mocking tone in that “darling,” a hint that that was all she deserved—a barrister. He wanted to tell her no, to save her the embarrassment, but he feared to be rejected by a barrister was worse than to dance with one.
He remembered the way her hand felt when he took it, soft and fragile and quivering like a bird. “It would be an honor,” he said simply.
Jonas was already looking away, his eyes darting around in search of other prey. Theodore had led Hartley’s wife onto the floor, holding her respectfully, and gone through the motions of the dance like a man half asleep. Her nearness was disorienting, and he couldn’t shake the feeling that every step was draining something from her life source.
“How is Jinx?” he’d asked at last, trying to hit on a subject that might bring her some relief.
She brightened so minutely that he could hardly tell if he wasn’t examining her face very closely. “He’s well.” Her voice had been so tired. “He is probably missing me tonight.”
“I’m sure he doesn’t begrudge you an evening’s enjoyment.”
“Not at all.”
He wasn’t sure, even now, if she’d meant her son begrudged her nothing, or that the evening was not at all an enjoyment. He suspected both. At the end of the dance, as he escorted her from the floor, she’d said something very quietly to him, like a child apologizing for wrongdoing.
“Mr. Pendleton, I’m sorry.” Her voice almost too low to hear. “I know this must have been an embarrassment to you.”
He had realized that she was linking her own shame with him. The thought cut him. He had turned to her, pressing her hand ever so slightly and looking into those eyes for one brief moment of connection. “A man could never be embarrassed to dance with a queen, and if given the chance only once in his entire life, he would be wise to remember it forever.”
They’d said nothing more, but he ruminated on her expression even now as he rode toward her with news of her husband’s death—it was the expression of a wounded thing that was too long without tending. Such a thing couldn’t stomach kindness when it was finally offered.
The lane narrowed, and he was suddenly there in front of the manor. The outside was elegant, a picture of wealth and status. He climbed out of his carriage and motioned for the livery boy to take it to the stables. He didn’t know how long this would take, but he didn’t want to risk Mrs. Hartley looking outside and mistaking his ready carriage for a desire to flee the awkwardness of the situation.
Georges greeted him with the usual sober dignity and showed him into the drawing room to wait for the lady of the house. Somewhere down one of the halls, Theodore caught the sound of childish laughter and smiled to himself. Jinx was another favorite. He saw him even less than he saw Mrs. Hartley, but their few encounters had been riddled with jokes and childish antics. His smile faded as soon as it had come, thinking about a boy like that growing up without a father—even a father like Jonas.
He felt ashamed as soon as the thought crossed his mind. He had not seen Jonas Hartley with Jinx very often, and while he could rightly judge Jonas’ relationship with his wife and other philandering affairs, he didn’t know what kind of father the man had been. It was a sadness to grow up without a father, and he must not take that any less soberly than he did the news to the widow.
Mrs. Hartley arrived in due time, dressed in a pale white dress with her hair in a loose, girlish braid. She’d wrapped a blue ribbon around the end and had two pearl earrings hanging in her ears. He’d never seen her like this before. Around Jonas, she was always dripping with jewels and heavy silken fabrics, almost always wearing red. Here, she looked so light he had the sudden ridiculous urge to grab hold of her and keep her from blowing away. She smiled decorously, a light of confusion in her eyes.
“Mr. Pendleton. What a pleasant surprise.”
He had worn a dark cravat to deliver the news, and stood for a moment with his hat in his hands and his mouth working noiselessly. He saw her eyes travel to the cravat and then back again to his face. The confusion deepened. “Mr. Pendleton…?”
“You’re looking well.” No, that’s not what he’d meant to say. Why were the words not coming out correctly? He drew a breath and began again. “Mrs. Hartley, I have some news of a most sober nature. Perhaps you should sit?”
She shook her head innocently, concerned, but still blissfully unaware. “Go ahead.”
“Your husband, Jonas Hartley—” There it was, the flicker of understanding starting into her eyes. Theodore took one last deep breath and plunged on before those eyes stole his nerve for good. “I just received word that his ship went down in the Atlantic. I am so sorry, my lady, but there are no survivors, and Mr. Jonas George Hartley is believed to be dead.”
The moment seemed to stretch into a million, and the woman across from Theodore seemed for a second to be transformed into a marble statue, her skin the color of the cream dress she wore. She didn’t open her mouth, gasp, cry out, or even widen her eyes in the smallest bit of surprise. Instead, she blinked twice, took a staggered little breath, and crumpled at once toward the floor. He had seen it coming, and before he had a moment to make a conscious decision he found himself there breaking her fall, catching her frail little body like the precious treasure it was.
“Longing for a Liberating Love” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Alina is trapped in a loveless marriage, tied to a husband who disdains her. She has resigned herself to a life in his shadow, but suddenly tragedy strikes and harsh reality forces her to now live as a repentant widow. When her husband’s lawyer approaches her and appears more than willing to offer her the protection she needs, she will find herself in total despair, unable to make a choice. Will she lay aside her doubts for a chance at love? Or will she deny herself this opportunity, fearing that society will frown down on her?
Theodore has worked his entire life for a chance to prove himself and rise to a place of respect as a barrister. However, when he becomes the one to deliver the tragic news of one of his clients’ fate to his beautiful wife, he will start changing the way he has been facing things in life so far. His heart was aching watching this woman suffering all along, but now it is his time to finally intervene and show her his affection: everything she has ever longed for. Will he risk everything to touch the heart of a woman that once belonged to another?
Just when Alina and Theodore start admitting to themselves the feelings and tenderness they have developed for each other, some dreadful news is about to reach the town. How far are they willing to get in order to claim their chance at happiness?
“Longing for a Liberating Love” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.