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The hired carriage in which Viola Kingsley had been traveling just a short while before the Marquess of Dorchester spoke to her at the country inn not only had been uncomfortable with its hard seats and surely nonexistent springs and its drafty windows and door and its innumerable squeaks and groans and pervading smell of oldness and staleness. It had also developed a severe limp and was proceeding at less than half its former speed and was listing somewhat to one side. Try as she would to sit upright, she had kept finding her left shoulder pressed up against the hard wood panel beside the seat. At any moment she had expected that the carriage would stop altogether and she would be stranded in the middle of nowhere.
And it was all her fault. She would have no one to blame but herself.
Two years before, something truly catastrophic had happened to Viola. She had been Viola Westcott, Countess of Riverdale, at the time and had recently suffered the loss of the earl, her husband of twenty-three years. Her son, Harry, had succeeded to the title. He had been only twenty years old at the time and had therefore been placed under the guardianship of Avery Archer, Duke of Netherby, and of Viola herself. Her elder daughter, Camille, had already made her debut into society and was respectably betrothed to Viscount Uxbury. Her younger daughter, Abigail, was looking forward to her own come-out Season the following spring. Viola had been satisfied with her life despite the necessity of wearing deep mourning. She had not been fond of her husband and felt no great grief at his passing.
There had been just one loose end to be tied up, and she had made an attempt to tie it. There was a girl, a young woman by then, whom her husband had kept and secretly supported—he had thought it was a secret, anyway—at an orphanage in Bath for as long as Viola had known him. She had made the understandable assumption that the female was his natural daughter by a mistress, and had done what she had considered the right thing after his death by sending her solicitor to Bath to find the woman, inform her of her father’s death, and make a final settlement upon her.
That was when the catastrophe had hit.
For it had been discovered that the young woman concerned, Anna Snow, then twenty-five years old and a teacher at the orphanage, was in fact the late earl’s legitimate daughter by a previous wife. By his only wife as it happened. He had married Viola a few months before Anna Snow’s mother died of consumption. Viola’s marriage had been a bigamous one. Worse, her son and her daughters were illegitimate. Harry was stripped of his title and fortune—the title had passed to his second cousin, Alexander Westcott, and the fortune to Anna. All of it. The earl had made only one will, and that had been drawn up while he was still with his first wife. Everything that was not entailed went to his daughter by that marriage. Camille and Abigail lost their titles and their portions. Camille was cast off by Lord Uxbury. Abigail would have no come-out Season or any prospect of making the sort of marriage she had been brought up to expect. They had been left destitute, though Anna had tried to insist that her fortune be divided equally among her half siblings and herself. But at the time, she was a stranger to them. In their pride and hurt and bewilderment they had all refused. Viola had resumed her maiden name.
To say that the bottom had fallen out of her world would be severely to understate the case. The enormity of what had happened to her and her children had been too much for her mind to bear. She had lived on. How could she not, short of putting an end to her own existence? And in the two years since then her life had settled into a new order that was really more bearable than she could have expected. Harry was serving as a captain with a rifle regiment in the Peninsula and was forever cheerful in his insistence that it was just the life for him. Camille was married to a much better man than her former betrothed and they had three children—two adopted and one their own. Abigail lived with Viola at Hinsford Manor in Hampshire, where Viola had spent most of her marriage. What had truly been unexpected after the whole mess was that Anna Snow would end up marrying Harry’s guardian, Avery, Duke of Netherby. But she had, and was a duchess now herself. She had insisted she would never live at Hinsford Manor herself and had begged Viola not to let it sit empty. She had even written into her will that the house would pass to Harry and his descendants after her time if he would not accept it before then. The large dowry Viola’s father had given when she married Humphrey had been returned, with all the interest it would have accrued since then. Anna had insisted upon it and taken care of it even before Viola could think of it for herself.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Westcott family, far from shunning Viola and her children after the truth became known, had made every effort to draw them back into the fold. As one, they had made it clear to Viola and her children that they were no less loved and valued now than they ever had been, and no less a part of the family. Two of Viola’s sisters-in-law, the earl’s sisters, were still fond of saying that they dearly wished Humphrey were still alive so that they could have the pleasure of killing him themselves.
All was well, in fact. Or as well as it would ever be after a few necessary adjustments had been made. Viola, who had lived her whole adult life according to the two guiding principles of duty and dignity, appeared to be back to normal, albeit with a different name. She had convinced herself that she was back to normal, anyway.
Until she was not.
Until she snapped—unexpectedly and for no apparent reason. The trauma of what she had experienced had stealthily crept up behind her and then pounced. And she knew that she had not healed at all. She had only suppressed the pain and the hurt. And the anger.
She had snapped at the worst possible time, when the family had all gathered in Bath for the christening of Jacob Cunningham, Camille and Joel’s newborn son. They had all agreed to stay on afterward for two weeks of family activities. But two days after the event, Viola, the baby’s own proud grandmother, had fled.
She had left Bath feeling guilty and out of sorts and sorry for herself and hurt and angry and all sorts of other nasty, negative things that had no rational explanation. She had simply behaved badly, and that was something she rarely did. Through all her forty-two years she had been known for her graciousness of manner and the evenness of her temper. Yet now she had hurt and bewildered those who were dearest to her in the world. And she had done it deliberately, almost spitefully. She had insisted upon returning home to Hinsford against all reason and against the pleadings of her daughters and son-in-law and the protests of her mother and brother and the Westcott family.
She had announced her intention of returning home. Alone. In a hired carriage. She had pointedly insisted upon leaving her own carriage and servants, even her personal maid, for the use of Abigail when she should decide to return home. She had ignored the shocked protestations of Camille and Joel that they would of course see Abby properly conveyed and escorted home when the time came. She had ignored the kindness of the Dowager Countess of Riverdale, her former mother-in-law, who had come all the way to Bath, though she was in her seventies. She had ignored the kind effort Wren, the present countess, Alexander’s wife, had made to come to Bath despite the fact that she was herself in expectation of a happy event, as Matilda, the eldest of Viola’s former sisters-in-law, liked to describe pregnancy.
Viola had told them all to mind their own business. Yes, she had used those exact words. She had probably never in her life used them before. And she had spoken sharply, without humor or consideration for the feelings she was hurting. She wanted to be left alone. She had told them that too.
Leave me alone, she had said more than once—like a petulant child.
And she had no idea why she had so suddenly snapped.
She had gone to Bath with Abigail just before Jacob’s birth, brimful of anxiety and excitement at the imminent arrival of a new grandchild, and she had been happier when it had happened than she had been in a long while. Camille and Joel Cunningham lived in a manor in the hills above Bath with Winifred and Sarah, their adopted daughters, and now with their son too. They used the house for a variety of purposes—for artistic or writing retreats, for workshops in music and dance and painting and other arts, for plays and concerts, and for visits varying from one day long to several days of the children from the orphanage in Bath where both Anna and Joel had grown up and Camille had taught briefly before her marriage. The house and extensive garden were always teeming with life and activity. Even just before and after Jacob’s birth it had remained a busy, noisy place.
The amazing thing was that Camille appeared to be thriving. She had not yet lost all the weight she had gained when she was expecting Jacob, and she often looked slightly untidy, some of her hair fallen out of its pins, her sleeves pushed halfway to her elbows, her feet as often as not unshod, even when she stepped outdoors. She always seemed to have Jacob bundled up in her arms while Sarah clung to her skirt and Winifred hovered close—except when Joel was around to share the parenting, as he often was. She never seemed harried.
Sometimes it was hard for Viola to recognize in her elder daughter the severe, straitlaced, always rigidly correct former Lady Camille Westcott, who had never set a foot wrong and had lacked any discernible sense of humor. Now she seemed vividly happy in a life that was as different from the one she had expected as it could possibly be.
Everything had gone well with the birth and the plans for the christening and the event itself. Abigail had been ecstatic, for her dearest friend came too for the occasion—her cousin Jessica Archer, daughter of one of Humphrey’s sisters. Viola had been happy. She had developed a close friendship with Alexander’s wife, Wren, the year before, and she was delighted to renew it this year. She was happy that her brother and his wife had come from Dorset. Dinners, parties, teas, excursions, walks, concerts—any number of family events had been planned. Viola had been looking forward to them.
Until she snapped.
And had to get away.
She had behaved badly. She knew it. She had left at dawn before the family on both sides could gather to hug her and say their farewells and express their concern and wave her on her way. And she had held steady on her determination to travel by hired carriage, though she had had the offer of half a dozen private carriages and servants to go with them to give her company and protection and respectability.
Leave me alone, she had said to more than one of them.
But then suddenly there was something wrong with the hired carriage. And finally it had been creaking and moaning more than ever and leaning ever harder to one side as it turned into the yard of an inn, though surely not a major posting inn. The carriage had ground to a halt.
“What is amiss?” she had asked the coachman when he opened the door and set down the steps.
The carriage had hovered over them at an alarming angle.
“Axle about to bust, missus,” he had said.
“Oh.” She had accepted his hand and climbed down to the cobbles of the yard. “Can it be mended quickly?”
“Not likely, missus,” he had said. “She’s going to need to be replaced, she is.”
“How long?” she had asked.
He had lifted his hat to scratch his head as he went down on his haunches to assess the damage. An ostler belonging to the inn had come ambling up to stand at his shoulder and purse his lips and shake his head. “You was lucky,” he had said, “not to be tipped on the open road miles from anywhere for highwaymen and wolves to find you. You might have got yourselves killed if you’d been springing ’em. That there axle ain’t going to be held together with no piece of string tied around it, I’m here to tell you. It’s got to go and a new one put in its place.”
“Which is exactly what I can see for myself,” the coachman had said testily.
“How long will that take?” Viola had asked again, realizing anew how foolish she had been to go against all advice by venturing on her journey without even a maid to lend her countenance. Oh, she deserved this.
The coachman had shaken his head. “I dunno, missus. All the rest of today, anyway,” he had said. “We won’t get back on the road till tomorrow morning at the earliest, and a blessed unlucky thing it is for me. I was to go straight back to Bath tonight, I was. I have another customer booked for tomorrow, and a right classy gent he is too, a regular. Always pays a lot more than the fare if I gets him where he’s going with time to spare. Now someone else will get to take him and he may never ask for me again.”
“Tomorrow?” Viola had said in dismay. “But I need to be home today.”
“Well, so do I, missus,” the coachman had said. “But neither one of us gets to have our wish, do we? You had better speak to the innkeeper here for a room for yourself before they all gets taken, though I doubt that happens too often in this place.” He had looked up at the inn with some contempt.
A smart traveling carriage had been standing to one side of the inn door. It must not be an entirely decrepit place, then. The thought of entering it unaccompanied, however, had caused Viola to quail inside. Whatever would they think of her lone state? But she had caught herself in the thought. Good heavens, she was thinking like the Countess of Riverdale, for whom all had had to be rigid respectability. What did it matter what anyone thought of plain Viola Kingsley? She had reached into the carriage to pull out the bag she had kept inside with her and made her way toward the inn, leaving her trunk to be fetched later.
Noise had greeted her as she opened the door, as well as the odors of ale and cooking. The double doors into the taproom to her left had been wide open, and she had seen that the room, dark and shabby though it appeared, was filled with people, all of whom had seemed to be in high spirits—perhaps in more ways than one. It was surprising for so early in the day. But all had been clarified when the innkeeper came to tend to her and explained that if she had to be stranded by a near-bust axle, for which he expressed his sincere sympathies, at least she was fortunate that it was here and today that it had happened. The village was about to celebrate the end of the harvest, though they did not do it every year. But the church roof was leaking something bad whenever it rained, and that always seemed to happen on a Sunday morning when people were sitting in their pews trying to listen to the vicar’s sermon. Someone had had the idea of organizing an after-the-harvest event to raise money. What better way was there to gather funds than to give people a rollicking good time in exchange for their good, hard-earned cash?
Viola had been able to offer no better suggestion, and the innkeeper had nodded at her with pleased satisfaction when she had said so. She had paid for one night’s stay and signed the register before taking a large key from his hand. She had assured him that she did not need any help with her bag but would be obliged if someone would bring up her trunk, and she climbed the stairs to her room, feeling sick at heart.
Whatever was she going to do here for a whole afternoon and evening? Go to watch these village celebrations and make her contribution to the repair of the church roof? It was a far from appealing prospect, but it would be better, perhaps, than remaining in her room until tomorrow morning. There was nothing in here except a bed, a large old dresser, and a washstand and commode behind a faded curtain. There was no chair, no table. But first things first. She was growing hungry and would go back down to see if there was anything decent to eat. Something certainly smelled good. She only hoped she would not have to step inside that taproom to get it. The noise was deafening even up here in her room.
Fortunately the inn also sported a dining room, which she had been relieved to discover was empty, though not quiet. It adjoined the taproom, and the door between the two rooms stood open. The innkeeper had not offered to shut it after seating her. What he had offered was a meat pasty, but though he had spent some time extolling its virtues and those of his good wife, she had settled for a cold beef sandwich and a cup of coffee.
Goodness, the people in the taproom were loud. But it was a happy, good-natured loudness and did not sound in any way drunken. There was a great deal of bellowing laughter. She had wondered what could be so funny. It must feel good to have not a care in the world. Though perhaps everyone did have cares. It was surely self-indulgent to imagine that only she did. And what really were her cares? She had a home and an income. She had children and grandchildren who loved her and whom she loved. She had family and friends.
But it was not so easy to reason herself out of the dismals. She still felt guilty about upsetting everyone and leaving Bath so abruptly. She felt guilty about making Abigail feel bad about not accompanying her—and about rubbing salt in the wound by insisting upon leaving the carriage and her maid behind. The truth was that she had not even wanted Abigail to come with her. She wanted to be alone—but did not know why. Was her life not lonely enough without deliberately seeking out solitude?
She did not know what was happening to her. Except that she felt . . . empty. Utterly and totally empty. A black hole yawned inside her, but she could not see to the bottom of it and was frightened at what she might discover there if she could.
What did she have to show for her forty-two years on this earth? Anything at all? She had a dead husband who had not even been her husband. She had never loved him or even liked or respected him after the first month or so of their marriage. But she had remained faithful to him, and she had cultivated dignity and respectability as twin virtues. She had brought up her children to share those values. All for what? What remained to her but a leftover life she did not know what to do with? And what of Harry, her beloved son, who had been home for a few months earlier in the year recovering from wounds and a recurring fever before insisting upon going back for more? He was surely too determinedly cheerful about the change in his fortunes. How did he really feel about it all? And . . . would he survive? Fear was a constant in her life since Avery, as his guardian, had purchased his commission. And what of Abigail, pretty, sweet, uncomplaining, aged twenty but with no prospects?
Viola had pretended until as recently as two days ago that she was happy with her new life. Or if not quite happy, then at least contented. Happiness was not something she missed, after all, since she had never known it, except for one brief flaring of euphoria when she was sixteen and had fallen in love with the seventeen-year-old son of an acquaintance of her mother’s. That budding romance had not lasted. When she was seventeen her father had had a chance to marry her to the son and heir of the Earl of Riverdale, and he had talked her into it. It had not been difficult. She had always been a biddable, obedient daughter.
Viola had sighed as she took a bite of her sandwich and found it unexpectedly tasty. The bread was freshly baked, the beef moist and tender.
Who was she? The question, which popped so unexpectedly into her head, was a little frightening because it had no obvious answer. For many years she had thought she was the Countess of Riverdale and had identified herself with that title and everything that went with it—the social position, the obligations, the respect. She had become, in effect, not a person, but . . . but what? A mere label? A mere title? She had become something that had no basis in fact. She had never been the Countess of Riverdale.
Was she really nothing at all, then? Nobody? Like a ghost?
Who was she? And did no one care that she did not know the answer? That she had no identity? Except more labels—mother, mother-in-law, daughter, sister, sister-in-law, grandmother?
Who was she? At the back of it all, beyond it all, beneath it all, who was she? She had taken another bite and chewed determinedly, though the sandwich no longer tasted delicious. She had felt very close to hysteria. She recognized the panic, though she had never experienced it before—even just after the catastrophe. She had been simply numb then.
There was a certain coziness about the inn, she had noticed when she looked about in a deliberate attempt to steady herself. It was small and shabby, but it appeared to be clean, and it was a happy place, at least at present. She had moved her gaze to the open door and the crowd beyond it in the taproom. They were villagers, she supposed, all wearing their best clothes in anticipation of a day of revelry in one another’s company. She had felt a wave of unexpected nostalgia for the days when, as the countess, she had hosted picnics and open days at Hinsford and everyone had come from miles around. They had been . . . Yes, really, they had been happy times. Her adult life had not been one of unalloyed gloom.
Her eyes had moved idly from person to person of those she could see. On the far side of the room, facing her, were two gentlemen, clearly not belonging to the rest of the crowd, though both had a glass of ale in hand and one of them, the younger of the two, was smiling and nodding in response to something that had been said. They had probably arrived in that smart traveling carriage outside. Her eyes had moved over them and beyond with little curiosity until they snapped back to the other gentleman . . .
Oh, goodness me.
It was a long time since she had last seen him. For many years she had avoided him altogether whenever she could and studiously kept her distance from him when she had found herself attending the same social event as he. By what bizarre coincidence . . .
He had seen her too. He was gazing back at her with those hooded, penetrating eyes of his, and she was aware suddenly—annoyingly—of her age and her lone state and the relative shabbiness of her appearance. She had not worn her best clothes for a journey by hired carriage, and she had left too early to have dressed her hair in anything more elaborate than a simple chignon.
She had looked sharply away when the landlord came to refill her coffee cup and tried to keep her eyes from straying again to that doorway. Why had she not sat at a table from which she could neither see nor be seen?
It seemed unfair that men—some men at least—aged far better than women and ended up at the age of forty or so even more attractive than they had been in their twenties. That was what he had been when she had fallen in love with him. Oh, and she had fallen hard. It had been nothing like the joy she had experienced with her first love at the age of sixteen, but she had never doubted that she was in love with Mr. Lamarr. It had not mattered that he was rumored to have been responsible for his wife’s death or that he cared so little for her memory that he had abandoned home and children almost immediately after her passing and lost no time in establishing a reputation for hard living and relentless womanizing, for coldness and a callous disregard for the conventions of society or the feelings of others. It had not mattered that despite his dark, lean good looks and surface charm it had been easy enough to detect the lack of real feeling or humanity in him. Women fell before him like grass before the scythe, and Viola had been no exception. He had singled her out for dalliance and, oh, she had been tempted, even though she had known perfectly well that dalliance was all it was or would ever be. Even though she had known he would abandon her the morning after she gave in to him.
She had been tempted.
Her marriage, even though it had produced three children, had been a sterile, joyless thing, and other wives strayed. It was even considered acceptable, provided the wife concerned had already done her duty and presented her husband with an heir, and provided her liaisons were carried out with sufficient discretion that the ton could pretend not to know.
Viola had sent him away.
Oh, to her shame she had done so not from any great moral conviction but because she had fallen in love with a rake and a rogue and knew that her heart would be broken if she allowed him to bed and then abandon her. She had sent him away and had her heart broken anyway. It had taken her a long, long time to get over him. Every new conquest of his she heard about and every known courtesan he paraded in Hyde Park to the outraged scrutiny of the ton had been like a spear to her heart.
He had been handsome beyond belief.
Now he was attractive beyond reason, even as he looked austere and aloof and more than a little intimidating. She could not resist stealing another look at him. His hair was silvering at the temples gorgeously. He was still looking steadily back at her.
He had made her feel young again—at the grand age of twenty-eight—and beautiful.
Now he made her feel old and . . . weary. As though life had passed her by and now it was too late to live it. All the years of her youth and early womanhood were gone and could never be brought back to be lived differently. Not that she would live them differently even if she could go back, she supposed. For she would still obey her father’s wishes, and she still would have married a bigamist and remained faithful and unhappy and ultimately a nothing and a nobody.
She had caught Mr. Lamarr’s eye again over the rim of her coffee cup and refused to be the first to look away. Why should she? She was forty-two years old and probably looked it. So what? Was her age something to be ashamed of?
Perhaps Harry was wounded again. Or dead. Ah, where had that thought come from? She dropped her gaze, Mr. Lamarr forgotten. She wondered how many mothers and wives across Britain were plagued with such fears every hour of every day of their lives. And sisters and grandmothers and aunts. For every soldier who was killed in battle there must be a dozen or more women who had worried themselves sick for years and might end up mourning for the rest of their lives. There was nothing so special about her. Or about Harry. Except that he was her son and sometimes love felt like the cruelest thing in the world.
He had gone. Mr. Lamarr, that was, and his companion. They had left when she was not looking. How foolish of her to feel disappointment that he had gone without a word or a parting glance. Most of the other people in the taproom had left too, she realized, and the noise had subsided considerably. It must be past noon by now. No doubt they had gone out into the village for the start of the festivities. Would she go out there too? Wander around to see what was to be seen? Or would she go up to her room, lie down for a while, and wallow in her self-pitying misery? How dreadful it was to be self-pitying. And to have had the feeling intensified by the sight of an attractive man who had once pursued her and wanted to bed her but had gone away today without a word. She had not even had to tell him to leave this time.
Then the dining room door opened—the one into the hallway—and she turned her head to inform the innkeeper that she did not want more coffee. But it was not the innkeeper.
She had forgotten how tall he was, how perfectly formed. She had forgotten how elegantly he dressed, how at ease he was in all his finery. And how harsh and cynical his face was.
She had not forgotten his magnetism. She had felt it across the width of two rooms. Now it was palpable.
“You told me to go away,” he said. “But that was fifteen years or so ago. Was there a time limit?”