Life is cheap. So is death.
Richard and Rose, Book 7
With Rose expecting again, it should be a joyous time for her and Richard. Yet old enemies and new come out of the woodwork, seemingly intent on using whatever means possible to destroy their happiness. Not only is the legitimacy of their marriage called into question, a young man steps forward claiming to be a by-blow of Richard’s dark, wild past.
Closer to defeat than he has ever been, Richard musters all his friends and allies to defend against this attack on his own ground. However, no amount of incandescent lovemaking and tender care seems to keep Rose out of harm’s way.
Then a mutilated body turns up on their doorstep—and all fingers point at Richard. Rose has no choice but to emerge from his near-smothering concern to do what she must to save the love of her life. Even if she must appear to work against him.
As she lays her heart on the line, Richard fights to keep the violence that marks his past from claiming her life. For if he loses Rose, with her will go his humanity.
Product WarningsRose gets her mad on, and Richard gets turned on. Contains married love, married sex and married fooling about. And pink coats with lace ruffles. And swords. And wicked goings-on.
Copyright © 2011 Lynne Connolly
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
If a student of anthropology decided to investigate the habits and principal haunts of the London aristocrat, he would probably start with the social gathering. Balls, routs, Venetian breakfasts and other amusements formed an important part of life with the species. It was where politicians made compacts, eligible bachelors met shy debutantes and married couples instigated affairs, but not with each other. The English aristocrat in his customary surroundings. At the top of the pyramid were private balls at the great houses that remained in London after the speculators finished knocking down mansions and replacing them with terraces and squares—Southwood House, Burlington House and Devonshire House among the privileged few.
“What are you thinking?”
I turned my head to smile at my husband, breathing in his distinctive citrus cologne. Even here, with society looking on, that perfume aroused me. “Just comparing the gathering here to a collection of creatures in their natural habitation.”
I surprised a laugh out of him, which I considered a considerable achievement. Richard didn’t make a habit of laughing at these grand occasions. “Very appropriate, my love. So have you learned anything from your studies?”
I watched groups form, separate, form into other groups in a pattern of colours that pleased the eye. “Quite a few things, actually. And that I’m becoming absorbed into the group. They don’t stare quite so much anymore or watch what I do so closely.”
“Getting your disguise in order. Getting assimilated into the group.” He spoke softly, close to my ear, so no one else could hear. The quartet playing tonight hardly drowned out the murmur of civilised conversation. A stranger might even call it boring, were he to glance at the scene, not knowing the significance of the groupings and the way they shifted and changed. But for those who knew, it provided a fascinating insight.
“You promised me it would happen.” I leaned back slightly, into the warmth of his body. Not too much because my panniers wouldn’t allow it, and in any case, most people considered gestures of affection vulgar and gauche. Including my mother-in-law, who currently stood on the other side of the room, ostensibly conversing with her friends, but also keeping a beady eye on us and on Richard’s twin, Gervase. “Considering the season hasn’t officially started yet, I see a number of the great and good here tonight.”
My sister-in-law, Martha, came to greet us, with my sister Ruth in tow. After welcoming her with a formal flourish, Richard excused himself to have a word with his brother. Martha looked remarkably fine in rich blue velvet with a printed silk petticoat. Ruth would have looked better without the scowl that had returned to her features recently, although she shared the blonde good looks that my absent sister Lizzie was also fortunate to possess. I had thwarted Ruth’s wishes the previous year by helping to rid my childhood home of her suitor, and although it couldn’t be helped, she held me in dislike these days.
“So Devonshire is managing without Sir John?” I asked Martha. If Ruth intended to sulk about him, we might as well get the subject over with.
Martha sighed, her pleasant face lined with annoyance. “Yes, Fourways is empty again. I hope that, now we’re back in London, Ruth will forget she met him and look about her. Such a discourteous thing Sir John did, to take off like that without a word of warning. She’s probably better off this way, and so I keep telling her.”
So it wasn’t just my presence making Ruth mulish. She’d had to cope with Martha’s displeasure as well.
Martha regarded my figure with undisguised delight, as she had every time I’d met her since I told her our news. “June?”
“July, we think. Shall you stay?”
“If you want me to,” she answered straight away. “Perhaps, this time—”
“Yes,” I answered, before she could say the dreaded word “heir”. “Perhaps.”
She smiled and didn’t say it. “You seem to be coping better this time.”
“So is Richard,” I added dryly, keeping my voice down so no one would overhear us and lifting my unfurled fan to cover my mouth. I’d heard that Horace Walpole, that inveterate gossip, could read lips, and he stood with a good view of me. “He was out of his mind last time, but now he’s coping a lot better. It’s his mother. I don’t scruple to tell you, Martha, that she never ceases to remind him of the duty he owes her, and how much she suffered in birthing him and Gervase. Gervase takes it a lot more lightly, but he’s had twelve years less of it than Richard. He won’t admit how much she affected him.”
Martha sighed. “How much he must have loved her when he was a little boy.” The comment surprised me, but on reflection I realized that Martha had no idea how cold Richard’s mother was and the terrible things she’d done in the name of the title and the estate. Nobody outside the immediate family knew. So her betrayal of him as a person in favour of him as the future Earl of Southwood must have hurt him deeply. Now he had me, and I’d do my best not to let him down.
I wouldn’t discuss that aspect of Lady Southwood with Martha or anyone else.
As Martha and a sulkily silent Ruth moved on, Richard returned, smiling as a lady bowed to him but speaking low to me. “I have the feeling that something is brewing abroad. We may have to look to Gervase’s safety before too long.”
“And Ian’s,” I reminded him. Richard’s brother, Gervase, and my brother Ian made a handsome and striking couple. Not that they could ever announce that fact, but Ian, as Gervase’s parliamentary secretary, had an ostensible reason for living under his roof. Ian had thrived under Gervase’s care, losing much of the retiring nature that had encouraged him to miss many family events. He couldn’t do that now.
“Indeed. You know the political situation is turning?”
“I know.” Parliamentary affairs had taken on new significance now I knew many of the people involved. When I’d lived in Devonshire, the focus of my social life had centred on Exeter, and the political affairs of nations seemed so much further away.
Disturbances abroad had led to disturbances at home. Since the death of Henry Pelham-Holles, the Duke of Newcastle’s brother, political alliances were shifting, and now discussions and counter-discussions were feverishly taking place, setting allegiances anew. My money was on Henry Fox, but the wily Pitt was coming up fast, and it would take just a few votes for him to gain the power he needed. And if he won, he would take Britain into war.
Gervase was in the middle of all this, mediating. He’d put himself in an invidious and difficult position.
“Most people know the truth.” I meant about Gervase and Ian, although I wouldn’t say that in public, even out of earshot of people other than Richard. “It could be dangerous. They’ll use it to ruin him.”
“Yes. I have people watching after him.”
I hated that. But men were hanged for sodomy. I shuddered.
Richard put his hand on my arm. “It won’t come to that, I promise.” Richard came around from behind me to my side and contrived to touch my stomach as he did so. “I won’t have you disturbed at a time like this.” His blue eyes gazed into mine, reassuring and loving. “So come, dance.”
I was still months away from my confinement, and my newly swollen belly didn’t show too much, but I felt this child would be larger than our first, our beloved Helen. I felt robustly healthy, more than I had at this time before. My mother-in-law said it was the sign of a boy, but I didn’t care, except it would relieve the pressure from Richard’s parents to bear an heir for the earldom of Southwood. Sometimes I felt the responsibility more than others, but he told me he didn’t care and I believed him.
A figure moved through the crowd, someone in dark blue, one of Richard’s favourite colours. He wouldn’t be the first youth to take Richard as his model, as although he’d moderated his appearance a little, leaving off the heavy maquillage that turned his face into a mask, he still set much of the fashion that the male half of society admired and emulated. And the female half still pursued, however much he informed them that he was no longer available. A woman would convince herself that she would be the one to seduce him away from me, and off she’d go. I had enough confidence in our relationship by now to watch such antics with amusement, where they would have concerned me in the past.
Richard presented his hand with a flourish, and I laid my fingers on his sleeve, ready to take the floor for the more sedate contradance I could take part in, rather than the more vigorous ones which would follow.
He led me on to the floor and turned to face me, smiling into my eyes as I took the correct position in the set. “You look to great advantage tonight, my lady.”
His smile warmed me. “Especially like that.” When one of our neighbours glanced at him, he added, “That shade of pink becomes you charmingly.” But I knew he hadn’t meant that, even though I wore one of my favourite new gowns, a sacque that my maid could let out to fit me in the coming months. I enjoyed the process of pregnancy. It suited me, although I would rather have spent the time in the country, but all the best birth attendants remained in London. Fashion dictated so much, even the way we gave birth.
We began the dance. A contradance involved changing partners and moving around until we ended with our original partner. It also meant we could view the spectators around the floor without appearing to.
I had to mind my steps, but Richard had a natural aptitude for dancing, much as I had for the keyboard. He could observe and dance with complete elegance. Oh yes, and flirt, which he did with elegance too. But never seriously these days. Except with me.
“Too crowded,” he murmured, as we moved into place for the first movement of the dance. “It’ll get airless soon. Tell me as soon as you want to go.”
I smiled up at him, as the dance demanded, and rose out of my curtsey to take his hand. He growled, deep in his throat. “Look at me like that again and you might not make it home.”
“Why whatever can you mean, sir?”
His hand released mine with a small flourish. “I shall take you home…” a pause, while he executed some difficult footwork, “…and I shall take all your clothes off, slowly, so slowly, and then kiss you—everywhere…”
It was a game we sometimes played, private in public, and Richard was fully aware of the effect it had on me. I loved it. It sent thrills through me, especially since he always made good on his promises. Sometimes I would murmur to him, try to overset him, and although I never made him lose his public face, I’d had some gratifying success.
I didn’t respond this time, knowing in this mood it would only incite him to further efforts, but I did whisper, just before I sank into my final curtsey, “I’ll keep you to it.”
“My pleasure,” he replied, and then gave me a private smile, wholehearted, the warmth showing in his features just for a moment.
I caught sight of the face of the man in blue and froze. My heart stopped and an instant of complete stillness enclosed me. Then sound rushed back and my heart made up for its inactivity by pounding so hard that it throbbed in my ears. The pulse almost deafened me. “Richard, look.”
The hard muscles under his brocade coat stiffened, but his expression didn’t change. “I see him. We behave normally, unless you decide to feel ill. We can leave if you’re tired.”
I gave a hollow laugh. “I’ve never felt less tired.” My mind raced, wondering what he was doing here, what mischief he intended this time.
Martha had seen too. After one glance, she’d turned around and headed Ruth off into the refreshments room. I’d wager that from there she’d find an excuse to move to another social gathering or to go home. She might have approved of John once, but his disappearance had given her pause, for which I could only feel grateful.
And yes, it was he. John, Richard’s son.
Why had we not heard that he’d arrived in town?
I glanced at Richard and saw the tiny muscles at the side of his mouth tighten, his gaze harden.
The dance concluded, I returned to Richard. He caught my hand in his and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “He’s circulating, talking. He’s adopted some of my characteristics, except for the wig.” He drew me aside, ostensibly towards a waiter who held a tray of wineglasses. He took two, handing me one, but I’d lost the taste for white wine recently, and I took the merest sip. “He’s allowed his hair to grow and brought it back to its natural colour.” Blond. Just like his father’s.
“He wants people to note the similarity.” I daren’t watch him too closely; people would notice. I returned my attention to my husband. His muscles tensed, as if ready to fight, the easy smile he wore completely made of artifice. I knew he’d strike if he felt he needed to.
Richard could be extremely dangerous in this mood. He’d kill for me if anyone threatened me. And his son had threatened to kill me more than once. Fear sent my spine prickling, for Richard more than from his son.
Half an hour’s observation convinced me that John was trying to point up the similarities between himself and Richard. John wore a coat in the style Richard preferred—not quite as exquisite as my husband’s, to my prejudiced eyes, but fine enough—and nipped in at the waist with two heavy buttons on each hip, a style my husband had popularised this season. Richard was a society exquisite, and many young men watched him as a style setter, so this wouldn’t be anything unusual. No one looked quite as much like him as John did, except of course for Richard’s twin.
I didn’t even know what name John was using now. Last year it had been Sir John Kneller, but he had no legitimate claim to the title, so he might use a different name these days. If he were using a false name, we could use it to discredit him if we needed to.
As we left the dance floor, the subject of our intense but covert scrutiny approached us and swept us a low bow.
He glanced up with eyes stormier than Richard’s, more grey than blue. “I am delighted to see you in such excellent health, your ladyship.” He sent a deliberate though fleeting glance at my middle.
My breath shortened. I hadn’t been so close to him since the events of last year, and I’d hoped to avoid that particular fate for the rest of my life. But I kept my features steady, donning the society mask I’d learned to wear under able tutelage. The best available.
Richard tilted his chin up and stared at his son from beneath heavy-lidded eyes. “Good evening. What brings you to town?”
John’s lips lifted at the corners. “A desire to reacquaint myself with friends and perhaps a need for some frivolity.”
I didn’t let the polite nothings fool me. He’d just given a declaration of intent, though the specifics of what he intended remained obscure. We would be ready for him if need be.
“Then we mustn’t keep you.” Without a polite nod or a smile but without giving him the cut direct either, Richard guided me away towards some friends standing on the other side of the ballroom. “I will not,” he murmured sotto voce, “under any circumstances allow him to hurt you in any way. If he comes near you, you are to tell me at once.”
“Is that an order?” He should know that I never took orders, even from him.
“A request. But it matters little, because I will order the servants to tell me. And unlike you, my love, they will obey me.”
I gave him my sweetest smile. “Just think of how insufferable you would have become with a biddable wife.”
“Indeed.” He had every appearance of the bored aristocrat, but I saw the man underneath. Not that he had to show me anymore, I could see him for myself. The man I loved, the man I’d die for. Just as he would die for me.
Richard took me to where my friend Caroline was holding court, and I spent a pleasant half hour listening to gossip and vouchsafing some stories of my own. Nothing earth-shattering, although I knew far more secrets than most ladies in my position. I excused myself to go upstairs and returned in short order, wandering into the smaller room that had been set out with refreshments. I might find some lemonade there. I didn’t want wine tonight.
“He’s still calling himself Kneller.” A voice close to my ear, sounding very much like my husband, except I knew it was not. No thrill went through me, my body didn’t respond in recognition. But pleasure, yes, that remained.
“Gervase, so good to see you. How are matters of state?”
“Interesting.” His mouth quirked in a smile typical of Gervase. No one could ever mistake him for his twin these days, unless they made an effort to deceive. Gervase’s taste in clothes was more conservative, more masculine, and his face showed the marks of ten years in the scorching heat of India. “Politics has halted my terminal boredom. Together with something—someone—else.”
“Glad to hear it.” As restless as each other, with razor-sharp intelligence, both the Kerre twins had taken steps to enliven their existence. And their parents’, until recently. A life of rakish behaviour tended to have consequences, and unfortunately, one of them was presently coming home to roost with Richard. “Has he said…anything?”
Gervase moved away from me, smiling easily to give the impression that we were talking of more comfortable matters. How well the politician became him. “No, he has not. He doesn’t need to. But if he claims anything is amiss, then we will deal with it. You’re not to worry, Rose.” He glanced down my body. “Especially at this time. Though it’s hardly apparent, yet.”
I laughed. “I carry well and I know some excellent seamstresses. I told Richard that I would not accept anyone treating me as an invalid at this time, and I meant it. He understands, and you had better understand too.”
A smile broke over his features, and I understood why my scholarly brother had fallen so deeply in love with him. “I promise, Rose. But we all worry.”
I grimaced. “Except for Lady Southwood.” I refused to call my mother-in-law by any fond name. She had never been more than cordial to me, and I had given up expecting anything else.
“Indeed. But you have delighted the rest of us by the turn of events.”
“Even she gave me grudging congratulations.” I grinned at the recollection. “It nearly choked her. I was tempted to tell that this was my idea, that if Richard had his way, she’d have had to wait for a few years yet. He adores Helen, you know, can’t imagine anyone else in the nursery, but he’ll learn.”
“Your family is a little larger than ours, for sure. Also a little more complex.”
I gave him a saucy smile. “Two stepmothers will do that for you. But we, the motley result of my father’s first two unions, regard each other as simply brothers and sisters. Then my brother James married Martha and started to fill the nursery again.”
“A different family, a different way of life.” He sounded wistful. Richard and Gervase had been raised with everything money could buy, but very little else.
With a touch of regret, I remembered the crowded manor house where I’d grown up. James had replaced it with something more fitting for an earl’s residence. “I can’t help but think I had the best of the bargain. As did Lizzie.” My beloved sister had married and gone to live with her Portuguese husband. I missed her, but we wrote to each other as often as we could. “But neither of us had to suffer unduly. Not as children.”
“No,” Gervase agreed, and his smile disappeared. He held out his arm. “Come, we haven’t danced this evening, and I think you’ll leave soon, won’t you?”
“No doubt.” Richard and I weren’t keeping late hours these days and it was nearly one in the morning. Not late for London, where carousers returning home often crossed paths with the night-soil men and the early morning market traders.
Another dance and we were done. I sought out our hosts, Lord and Lady Hartington, and thanked them for the evening’s amusement before Richard collected me and I left on his arm. “So gauche for a married couple to leave together,” I said archly as a maid helped me with my cloak and hat, and I pulled on my gloves.
Richard gave me a sour look. “I know you don’t mean that. And you look tired.”
“It’s the light here.” I led the way outside, where flambeaux were set on either side of the door and at the end of the driveway leading to the street.
He studied me again. “Maybe you’re right,” he said as he handed me up into our waiting carriage. “But we’re going nowhere else tonight.”
“You don’t want to go on to the Titchbourne’s rout?” I arched my brow.
I forced a reluctant laugh out of him. “There’s no such event tonight. Come here, you witch.”
I thankfully let him take me into his arms and circled my own around him. I was tired, and now, worried.
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