Wherein Nathan Grey, the Earl of Lindsey, has gone to London to bring his estranged wife home, and finds her at a Carlton House ball…
It was, therefore, something of a small miracle that he managed to spot his wife at all, but a quarter of an hour later, there she was, under the glittering light of what seemed like a thousand beeswax candles. She was moving through the crowd, talking and smiling to friends. He watched the familiar sway of her hips, how her hands would flutter like little birds when she spoke. Her smile was angelic and her countenance as lovely as he’d remembered it—no cherished it—in his mind’s eye these last three years.
She was beautiful. He’d always thought so, but tonight, she seemed especially so.
Nathan followed her meandering path through the crowd, trying to catch up. He saw her pause to speak to a gentleman, and something the man said made her laugh. Nathan’s heart lifted a little; he moved without thought, as naturally drawn to her as any man would be to his wife.
But as he progressed through that crowd, he watched her lean in to the man as if she confided something, and it slowly dawned on him that she was engaged in an intimate tête-à-tête.
His heart sank back into the cold darkness of the murky little pond from which it had dared to rise.
By the time he reached her, Nathan felt nothing but a numbing distance. He stood at her slender back, admired the way it curved into her hip, and said, “Evelyn.”
His voice was alarmingly rough; it was a moment before she turned toward him, but when her eyes met his, he could sense the tension in her body. “My lord?” she said uncertainly.
His gaze moved over the top of her head and the thick, blonde, wavy hair he used to liken to honey, to remarkably expressive hazel eyes, to her lush mouth, and down, to the low décolletage of her gown.
Evelyn’s skin pinkened at his scrutiny.
“I beg your pardon, sir, but the lady is engaged in conversation,” the gentleman said coldly.
Nathan did not spare the man a glance—he could not take his eyes from his wife. Nor could she take her eyes from him, eyes gone wide with surprise and filled with dread.
“Lady Lindsey? Are you quite all right?” the gentleman demanded, putting his hand on her arm.
Nathan looked at that hand and imagined breaking each finger, one by one. “Perhaps you should introduce us,” he suggested.
“I…I… Yes, of course. Where are my manners?” Evelyn said, and nervously cleared her throat. Without taking her gaze from Nathan, she said, “My lord Dunhill, may I introduce… May I introduce m-my…”
She couldn’t say the word. She could not say husband—it stuck in her throat.
“Husband,” Nathan finished for her, and looked at her lover. “I am her husband, the earl of Lindsey. If you would be so good as to remove your hand from my wife, I should like a word with her.”
Dunhill eyed Nathan as if he didn’t quite know what to make of him.
Nathan, on the other hand, knew precisely what to make of this ass. He stepped forward, forcing Evelyn to step back, away from Dunhill’s side. “Perhaps I was not clear,” he said coldly. “I should like a private word with my wife.”
Dunhill looked at Evelyn, whose cheeks had turned crimson. “Lady Lindsey?”
“I had not…I did not know,” she stammered.
“Sir,” Nathan said, drawing the man’s attention back to him. “Allow me to speak plainly. Walk away now, or I will dispense with the formality of calling you out and happily break your neck here and now.”
Evelyn gasped. “My lord!”
Dunhill at least had the grace to recognize there was no easy out for him. He pressed his lips together and exchanged a look with Evelyn before giving Nathan a curt nod and turning on his heel.
She watched Dunhill go, her horror plainly evident in her expression, and then shifted her gaze to Nathan. Her eyes were hazel, almost green with flecks of gold. In his memory, they had always sparkled, but they didn’t sparkle now. Her nose was appealingly small and straight, and her lips were dark pink and enticingly wet.
She shifted self-consciously.
Nathan remembered himself. “Would you care to dance?” he asked, extending his arm.
She looked at him as if he were mad. “Dance?”
“Yes. Dance,” he said, his eyes on her mouth. “It is a rather common occurrence for a man and his wife to dance at affairs such as this, and given how a host of souls is scrutinizing us now, I suggest you take my arm and pretend all is well.”
Evelyn stole a quick look around and frowned slightly. “Good Lord,” she muttered. But she put a gloved hand on his arm.
Nathan covered her hand with his. Her fingers were small and fine-boned, the feel of them fragile. They brought back a rush of memories—the last time he’d held his wife’s hand, they’d walked behind a coffin.
“Do at least try not to look as if you are headed to the gallows,” he murmured as he led her through the crowd.
Evelyn instantly lifted her head and forced a smile at a pair of gentlemen who watched them walk past. “Frankly, I’m uncertain where I am headed,” she admitted. “I am bit confounded and…and surprised,” she said, and turned her forced smile to him. “Could you not have sent word you were coming?”
“Did you need to be warned of my arrival?”
Evelyn’s smile deepened below a pair of marvelously daggerish eyes. “What’s happened, Nathan? It’s so unlike you to come to London,” she said sweetly. “Have you perhaps come to petition the banker for a loan to support your gambling?”
He smiled. “Were I to petition for a loan, madam, it would be to pay for your extravagant tastes in clothes and millinery.”
With a brazen smile, she inclined her head and daintily indicated the gown she was wearing. It was a deep red with dozens of roses embroidered in greens and white. With her golden hair, he had to admit, she was truly lovely. “If not the gambling, then it must be a mistress that has brought you here,” she continued as they stepped onto the dance floor. “Poor thing probably wants out of the country.”
“If I had a mistress, she would be content to live where I put her…unlike my wife.”
“Mmm,” she said, ignoring him as she studied his face. “Then perhaps it is your friends from whom you refuse to be parted. My guess is that the sport at Eastchurch has run its course, and they seek new diversions.”
“Wrong again,” he said cheerfully, and turned to face her.
Evelyn curtsied very grandly; Nathan quickly lifted her up, and with her hand firmly in his, he led her into the steps of a waltz, just as in the days long since gone. They moved together as if they’d never parted, as if they had danced this way a thousand times.
It hadn’t been a thousand times—perhaps not as many as a dozen. But once, on a wintry cold afternoon, Evelyn had insisted they practice this very dance, the waltz. “You stepped on my toes at the Farmingham gala, you know,” she’d said, poking him playfully just above his belt. “Didn’t they teach you at least a bit of dancing at school?”
“We were boys!” he’d playfully scoffed. “The only sort of dancing with a woman that interested us was another sort of dancing entirely.” He’d given her a wolfish grin, grabbed her up in his arms, lifting her off her feet and twirling her around and around as she laughingly begged for mercy. And then they sank onto the floor before the hearth—
“Shall I continue to guess, or will you tell me what brings you to London after all this time?”
He realized his hand had slid down her back to the more familiar spot on her waist, just above the curve of her hip. Evelyn was watching him closely. There was something different about her, he realized. She looked wiser. Her beauty seemed deeper, more natural. It suddenly struck him—Evelyn had matured. She was a twenty-eight year old woman now, more confident and courtly than the girl he’d married.
He wondered how he looked to her.
“Very well, I shall guess. I guess that the buckets and buckets of whiskey they say are consumed at the abbey have given you a malady that only a London doctor can cure.”
He smiled. “Buckets and buckets of whiskey? Evelyn, you know me better than that. Buckets and buckets of ale, perhaps…but not whiskey.”
She smiled wryly. “Well, then, it seems I cannot guess,” she said pertly. “You must tell me after all.”
She had changed in more ways than one. The Evelyn he’d married was a diffident young woman. This one was self assured and bloody well bold.
“I think it must be obvious.” He twirled her to the right, then to the left. “I came for you.”
Damn her if she didn’t look perturbed. “For me? But why? I have written you every other month, as we agreed,” she said, as if that should have satisfied him and kept him forever in the country and away from London.
“And I have received them one and all,” he said with an incline of his head. “Should I ever be called upon at a moment of crisis to name the number of toast points her highness Princess Mary prefers with her morning tea, I shall not fail the lady of the bedchamber who has dutifully reported them to me.”
That at least earned him a bit of a laugh; Evelyn’s eyes warmed. “I think all of England will rest comfortably knowing such valuable information is in your hands,” she said.
A chunk of ice broke away from the murky pond that covered Nathan’s heart. He pulled her closer, recalling again the feel of her in his arms. She was so slight compared to him, so soft. He hadn’t understood how softness was missing from his life until this very moment. He could not resist letting his gaze drift down her body. Her curves had deepened; she wasn’t as thin and girlish in figure as she’d once been. She was every inch a woman, voluptuous and God, very alluring. When he looked up, she wore an expression that suggested she knew very well what she did to men.
“You look very well, madam,” he said softly. “Very well indeed. Better, in fact, than I recalled.”
Evelyn gave him a softly lopsided smile at the compliment, and Nathan could only imagine the number of gentlemen who would be charmed into dangerous desire by that smile. “Thank you,” she said with a slight bow. “You look very well, too. It seems Benton is taking good care of you.”
“Benton,” Nathan said with a slight roll of his eyes. “On my word, the man fancies himself my jailer. He rarely lets me out of his sight.”
Evelyn laughed, the sound of it tipping a wave of unexpected longing through him. “He has long tried to save the Libertine of Lindsey from himself, has he not?”
Nathan grinned. “I suppose he has.”
She smiled and cocked her head slightly as she gazed up at him. “Tell me, Nathan—are you well?”
“Nothing that a pint or a good hunt won’t cure.”
“Ah…it would seem some things never change,” she said, still smiling.
Oh, but she was wrong. Everything had changed dramatically—there were times he wondered if he’d actually lived that life with Evelyn or just dreamed it. “You seem to be favorably situated here,” he said, seeking his footing. “Lady of the bedchamber seems to suit you.”
“It suits me very well,” she said as he twirled her into the center of the dance floor. She had relaxed; her body felt more supple in his arms now. “Princess Mary and I have become good friends.”
“Has the scandal has not troubled you?”
Evelyn looked at him curiously. “The scandal between the Prince and Princess of Wales?”
“The Delicate Investigation,” he clarified.
“No,” she said with a shrug, “other than the entire affair is distasteful. Princess of Wales is obviously unhinged.”
Was it possible she didn’t know she was mentioned in the princess’s “book” or the rumors flying about London? “That’s all?” he asked.
“All?” she repeated uncertainly. “It’s rather vile to have it all in the open, if that is what you mean, but you can thank the Princess Caroline for that. She has spread awful lies about the royal family. Discord between a husband and wife should be left private…” She colored slightly when she realized what she’d said—the discord between them had been anything but private.
“It is no longer a private affair between a husband and wife, but a very public one and that could end in trial, or at the very least, in Parliament if George has his way,” Nathan said.
“Yes, I understand, but it has nothing to do with me or my position here.”
“Evelyn—have you not heard?” he asked. “Many expect you to be named in the scandal.”
The news stunned Evelyn so badly that she stumbled; Nathan held her up, pulled her into step again. “Me?” she demanded in an angry whisper. “How could I possibly be named? With regard to what pray tell?”
“You are truly unaware?” he asked, surprised. “Granted, the papers have not been made public, but I would think the contents would have been leaked and devoured by the ton.”
“Much of it has, obviously, but I’ve heard nothing about me, nor has anyone suggested such a thing! What have you heard?”
He twirled her around. “That by virtue of your associations,” he said tightly, “you may have been privy to certain unlawful and immoral acts by the Prince of Wales.”
“My associations. With Princess Mary?” she asked, confused.
Nathan frowned at her. “No, Evelyn, not Mary. Persons of the male persuasion.”
Evelyn blinked. And then colored. “That’s absurd!” she cried, oblivious to the startled look of a couple dancing nearby. “That…that book is nothing more than an attempt by Caroline to sully the prince’s name! If she has said anything about me, it is because she knows I wait on Mary and that Mary cannot abide her!”
While he was mildly intrigued by his wife’s self-assurance, he spun her away from the curious gazes. “Whatever the reason you are mentioned, you must come home now,” he said. “I will not allow scandal to touch the good name of Lindsey.”
“Scandal will not touch my name,” she said adamantly. “It is ridiculous. Caroline is…is quite the philistine. Do you mean to say you came to London based on her accusations?”
“I came,” he said evenly, “to protect my name and my honor. You may think her accusations are empty, but others do not—there are vultures lurking everywhere, waiting to pick over the carcass of this scandal.” He cast a quick look around before continuing. “If and when a trial begins,” he added low, “you could be called to testify, and I don’t need to tell you the scandal that will erupt with it. Everyone knows the king is sympathetic to Caroline, and if he knew that my wife was privy to unlawful acts against Caroline by the prince—That is treason, Evelyn—he might exact his displeasure by recalling Eastchurch to the crown. I shouldn’t need to remind you that any personal scandal would remove you from the Queen’s House, if not society altogether.”
His wife looked suitably concerned.
“The best thing is for you to come home—”
“Impossible,” she said instantly.
Nathan took a steadying breath. “You are involved, Evelyn. We must appear to be happily reconciled, and even that may not be enough.”
“No,” she said, and adamantly shook her head. “No.”
“I won’t go back, Nathan! I won’t go back to that…that place,” she continued heatedly. “There is nothing you can say to entice me.” Dancing among the ton’s most exalted members at Carlton House was not the place for this conversation, Nathan realized. He had not expected Evelyn to argue with him—frankly, he wasn’t certain what he’d expected. “That place,” he said tightly as he waltzed her to the edge of the dance floor, “is a rather large and grand house, filled to the rafters with the finest furnishings money can buy—all for you, remember?” With his hand firmly on the small of her back, he escorted her off the dance floor.
Evelyn hardly seemed to notice they’d stopped dancing and were now moving through the crowd. “It may be a grand house to you, but to me,” she said, pressing a hand to her breast, “it is a place of very painful memories.”
“Do you think you are the only one with painful memories?” he asked sharply. “I have known a measure of peace since you left!”
“You? Ha! It is I who has known peace, sir!” She came to a halt mid-step and glared up at him. “Nothing will entice me! Not time, not distance, not even death! My life is here, in London! Not at Eastchurch Abbey, and well you know it. You’ve been perfectly content to keep me at a distance.”
“Indeed I have,” he said angrily. “Do keep your voice down,” he said, and nodded at a pair of noblemen watching them curiously. He steered her through the crowd, toward a small drawing room he knew to be at the end of the crowded reception hall. “I understand your reluctance, but the potential for damage is too great in London. I must insist you come home for a time until the whole affair has subsided.”
“No,” she said again, defiantly. “I am a lady of the bedchamber in the Queen’s house, and I cannot simply pick up and leave.”
He was beginning to understand that bloody wild horses could not drag her back to Eastchurch Abbey, and that angered him. They’d had their share of troubles, and he was mindful of her feelings—but she was his wife. He’d never denied her a bloody thing and she was not in a position to deny him, not after all the concessions he’d made to her.
“I will not leave,” she said again. “And you cannot force me.”
Something snapped inside Nathan. Suddenly oblivious to the people around them, Nathan paused and took her firmly by the elbow, prompting her to look at him. “Perhaps I should state it another way,” he said coolly. “I am your husband, madam, and I have allowed you quite a lot of liberty. More, I dare say, than any husband in England would allow his wife. And now, I am not requesting you return to Eastchurch, I am demanding it.”
“I beg your pardon?” Evelyn retorted, shifting to face him fully. “I am not your chattel to be ordered about as you please!”
“Chattel?” he echoed with incredulous anger. “You’ve been given free rein!”
“Oh no,” she said, yanking her arm free of his grasp. “Do not pretend that you have been some benevolent master!”
He caught her elbow again and leaned in close. “I am indeed the master, Evelyn, and if you have any doubt of it, you may consult the law. You are my wife,” he said through gritted teeth, “a fact you have apparently quite forgotten.”
“Oh, and I suppose you have lived like a monk all this time, is that what you’d have me believe? I have always had the misfortune of knowing what went on at Eastchurch Abbey, but now it would seem the whole country knows of it! I’ve heard of the women, Nathan, and the gambling, and the soirees!”
“You are coming home,” he snapped.
She tossed her head back and stared at him defiantly. “Do you intend to force me to do so? For I will not go willingly.”
He reared back, gaping at her. “Is that a threat?”
“Take it as you will! You dare to waltz into my life after three long years and think you can tell me what to do, particularly based on something as absurd as the uttering of the Princess of Wales!” she said. “Now kindly let go my arm and allow me to return to the ball!”
But Nathan did not let go. He was aware that several people watched them, feeding on the spat between the earl and countess of Lindsey, but he hardly cared. The only thing that concerned him at the moment was the infuriatingly stubborn and open way his wife defied him. “I will say this once, wife. Gather your things, say fare-thee-well to your lovers, and be prepared to travel to Eastchurch Abbey by week’s end!”
Evelyn’s eyes narrowed in a way Nathan recalled all too well. “I will say this once, husband,” she said, yanking her arm free of his grasp once more. “I will not return to Eastchurch Abbey! Not now, not ever! You cannot force me against my will and if you have any doubt of that, you may consult the law!” With that, she whirled around and marched into the crowd, her head high.
Nathan forced down an overwhelming desire to snatch her back and take her now. To take her in more ways than one, actually. She’d riled his blood in a way it hadn’t been riled in a very long time.
Instead, he watched her disappear into the throng, and when he could not longer see her, he turned and strode out the door, signaling to a footman to have his coach brought round at once.
Bloody hell, Evelyn.
If she insisted on making this difficult, he would certainly oblige her.