Twenty-eight souls served the Carey family at Everdon Court, and every one of them, from the young girl who peeled potatoes in the kitchen, to Mr. Brock, the head butler, knew to cut a wide berth around Lord Carey, if they wanted to keep their position. His lordship had a cold and calculating temper, and with a tot or two of whiskey in him, he could be provoked by the most innocuous thing. With a few tots in him, he could be easily moved to dismiss a groundsman who had served for twenty steadfast years, but had failed to trim the shrubbery to the marquis’ exacting standards on the day he commanded it done. Or to send a young stable boy to pack his things and leave at once when Lady Carey laughed at something he said as she mounted her horse.
The servants avoided the marquis when they could, and when they did not have the luxury of doing so, they kept their eyes down and their lips sealed. Lady Carey, however, could not avoid her husband. How she managed to abide her marriage to such a cold man was a source of endless fascination for two old friends in the family’s employ: Miss Foster, the cook, and Mrs. Perry, the housekeeper. Miss Foster believed that Lord Carey’s prowess in the marital bed was the one thing that must have kept the marchioness loyal to him in the six years they’d been married. “A lady might put up with quite a lot if she’s properly handled between the linens, aye?” she’d cheerfully hypothesized.
Mrs. Perry, who had been married quite a while longer than six years, argued, “You are mad if you believe a romp is all that is required. I’d wager what brings her to heel is more likely the threat of being handled in a manner she doesn’t find the least bit pleasing.”
“Nonsense,” Miss Foster said. “We’d hear of it from Nancy if that were true,” she said, referring to Lady Carey’s personal maid. “And besides, she’d not be willing to leave any of this behind her, would she, now?”
Miss Foster was referring, of course, to the monstrosity that was Everdon Court. It had been a keep at one time, but through the centuries the Careys—the title and name deriving from the borderlands once known as Careyridge—had added wings to the central tower and taken down battlements. Now the house boasted eighteen bedrooms, two courtyards, and a banquet hall appended to the ballroom that could seat one hundred guests. It was filled with the finest French furnishings obtained during the dismantling of the French aristocracy in the last twenty years.
“Aye, but what good is all this when she’s married to a man like him?” Mrs. Perry had countered. There little that would entice her to stay if Mr. Perry if he were to treat her as unkindly as the marquis treated the marchioness. “These are only things. Lady Carey deserves a man’s esteem.”
“Perhaps it is a child she wants,” Miss Foster suggested. “An heir to this would serve her well.”
Mrs. Perry gave Miss Foster a withering look. “If there was to be a child born to that union, it would have been born long before now.” Every one of the twenty-eight staff knew of the trouble on that front. They waited every month with anxious anticipation—was she, or wasn’t she?
“What, you think her ladyship is barren, then?” Miss Foster asked.
“No,” Mrs. Perry said pertly. “I rather think it is him, what with all the whiskey.”
“Perhaps you are right,” Miss Foster said. “And then again, perhaps he’s unable.” The two ladies looked at each other and snickered.
What they could not know was that the marriage of the marquis and marchioness of Carey existed perfunctorily between the linens, and beyond that, scarcely at all. On most occasions, Lord Carey was neither a demanding nor an exciting lover; he performed his marital duties as was necessary to gain the heir and saved his personal preferences for a young woman in town who had been happy to receive him for some four years now.
Four years ago, Lady Carey had thought herself pregnant. As any woman would have done, she’d shared the joyous news with her husband, who was overcome with relief and gratitude. Alas, when two months passed, Lady Carey realized that she was no longer, or had never been, pregnant and the marquis’ disappointment was so great that he’d never fully recovered from it.
Lady Olivia Carey, who had enjoyed a highly public and fashionable wedding among England’s haut ton, had long since abandoned any hope of having a marriage of mutual respect and admiration. There was nothing she loathed more than her husband’s twice weekly visits to her room—unless it was his tendency to drink to excess—and she was ever thankful that it was over within a matter of minutes.
Sometimes, while Olivia lay there as Edward attempted to impregnate her, she wondered what it must be like to have an exciting lover. Or a caring one. She would settle for a lover who did not rut about like an animal answering some primordial need to procreate.
Sometimes, she lay there and counted the tiles on the ceiling, guessing what number she might reach before he finished.
And still other times, when he reeked of whiskey and clumsily groped her, Olivia passed the time by imagining the ways she could murder her husband and avoid being found out. Shooting him was too risky, as Olivia wasn’t entirely certain how to fire a gun. She imagined fumbling with the thing and losing the element of surprise.
Pushing him from the roof of Everdon Court seemed a better alternative, but she might draw attention if she invited him to a meeting on the roof. And then, of course, she would need him to stand at the edge, preferably where she could take a bit of a run at him to have enough force to topple him over.
Poison seemed the most sensible, but Miss Foster would never allow Olivia near his lordship’s food. The woman was entirely too conscientious and prided herself on the meals she served. It would take some convincing that Olivia was suddenly interested in preparing a dish for her husband to consume. And really, how much poison was necessary to kill a man? What if she did not use enough? Or so much that the taste of the food was ruined?
Lately, the murderous thoughts had lost their luster for Olivia. For one thing, Edward had not been able to perform “his duty,” as he called it, for more than a month due to his fondness for drink. It certainly didn’t stop him from trying, but he gave up quickly and Olivia rolled over and stared at the gold silk ties that held the heavy canopy curtains back from her bed and felt a well of envy bubbling up for her younger sister Alexa.
She did not envy Alexa’s disastrous situation. What she envied was the fact that Alexa had fallen so deeply in love with some man that she walked about with a look of yearning in her eyes. Alexa refused to reveal to Olivia who had earned this devotion from her; the only thing Olivia knew was that it was a gentleman Alexa had met in Spain while on tour with Lady Tuttle. Alexa could scarcely speak of anything else but the fine brown shade of his eyes, or the timbre of his laugh, or the intelligence of his speech.
Oh, but Olivia envied the quiet, desperate pining that Alexa seemed to wrap about her like a heavy winter shawl. Olivia wanted to know what that was like, how it felt. She wanted to feel.
For the first fortnight of her return from Spain, Alexa had not revealed that she was carrying the man’s child. Olivia had guessed it by the way Alexa would unthinkingly place her hand on her abdomen when she spoke of love. And while Olivia admired Alexa’s fierce determination to protect her lover from condemnation and scandal, she wanted to strangle the foolish young woman for bringing her insurmountable problem to Everdon Court.