One Scandalous Season, Book 1
4 1/2 Stars from RT Book Reviews! “The first in Dalton’s One Scandalous Season series grabs the reader’s emotions in an intensely passionate love story, filled with misunderstandings, past indiscretions, trust and forgiveness. But, for all the intensity, this gifted storyteller also deftly lightens the mood in a very well written and satisfying read by adding a few zany characters bent on mischief and mayhem.”
The magic of Christmas reunites an estranged husband and wife in the debut of this charming and sexy, new regency romance trilogy from Lily Dalton
A MARRIAGE BEYOND HOPE
The Duchess Sophia has long been estranged from her husband, His Grace, Vane Barwick, the Duke of Claxton, whose rumored list of amorous conquests includes almost every beautiful woman of the ton. Yet a shocking encounter with him in a crowded ballroom—and a single touch—are all it takes to reawaken her furious passion for him. But how can she trust the man who crushed her dreams and took away the one thing she wanted most?
A LOVE BEYOND REASON
Claxton has never forgiven himself for the youthful mistake that ruined his marriage to Sophia. Now, after nearly a year abroad, the reformed rogue vows to win back the only woman he’s ever truly loved. He’ll do whatever it takes to prove he can be the honorable husband she deserves—and the passionate lover she desires. As the snowdrifts deepen outside their ancestral home, can they rekindle the flame that burned so bright and find a new path to forever?
Publishers Weekly Starred Review: “Dalton’s Regency debut resonates with genuine feeling. […] Unlike some onenote tortured heroes, Vane is sincere and appealing. Sophia’s pain is very real, and every interaction is fraught with honest emotion. As they struggle to recapture their romance, readers will feel deep sympathy with both characters and hope for them to find happiness.”
“The scent of gingerbread in the air!” exclaimed Sir Keyes, his aged blue eyes sparkling with mischief. Winter wind swept through open doors behind him, carrying the sound of carriages from the street. “And there’s mistletoe to be had from the peddler’s stall on the corner.”
Though his pantaloons drooped off his slight frame to an almost comical degree, the military orders and decorations emblazoned across his chest attested to a life of valor years before. Leaning heavily on his cane, the old man produced a knotty green cluster from behind his back, strung from a red ribbon, and held it aloft between himself and Sophia.
“Such happy delights can mean only one thing.” He grinned roguishly—or as roguishly as a man of his advanced years could manage. “It is once again the most magical time of year.”
He tapped his gloved finger against his rosy cheek with expectant delight.
“Indeed!” The diminutive Dowager Countess of Dundalk stepped between them, smiling up from beneath a fur-trimmed turban. She swatted the mistletoe, sending the sphere swinging to and fro. “The time of year when old men resort to silly provincial traditions to coax kisses from ladies young enough to be their granddaughters.”
At the side of her turban a diamond aigrette held several large purple feathers. The plumes bobbed wildly as she spoke. “Well, it is almost Christmastide.” Sophia winked at Sir Keyes, and with a gentle hand to his shoulder, she warmly bussed his cheek. “I’m so glad you’ve come.”
A widower of two years, he had recently begun accompanying Lady Dundalk about town, something that made Sophia exceedingly happy, since both had long been dear to her heart.
Sir Keyes plucked a white berry from the cluster, glowing with satisfaction at having claimed his holiday kiss.
“I see that only a handful remain,” Sophia observed. “Best use them wisely.”
His eyebrows rose up on his forehead, as white and unruly as uncombed wool. “I shall have to find your sisters, then, and posthaste.”
“Libertine!” muttered the dowager countess, with a fond roll of her eyes.
Behind them, two footmen with holly sprigs adorning their coat buttonholes secured the doors. Another presented a silver tray to Sir Keyes, upon which he deposited the price of Sophia’s kiss and proceeded toward the ballroom, the mistletoe cluster swinging from the lions’ head handle of his cane. Together, Sophia and the dowager countess followed arm in arm, through columns entwined in greenery, toward the sounds of music and voices raised in jollity.
With Parliament having recessed mid-December for Christmas, the districts of St. James’s, Mayfair, and Piccadilly were largely deserted by that fashionable portion of London’s population oft defined as the ton. Like most of their peers, Sophia’s family’s Christmases were usually spent in the country, but her grandfather’s recent frailties had precluded any travel. So his immediate family, consisting of a devoted daughter-in-law and three granddaughters, had resolved to spend the season in London.
But today was Lord Wolverton’s eighty-seventh birthday, and by Sophia’s tally, no less than two hundred of the elusive ton had crept out from the proverbial winter woodwork to wish her grandfather well. By all accounts, the party was a success.
In the ballroom, candlelight reflected off the crystal teardrops of chandeliers high above their heads, as well as the numerous candelabras and lusters positioned about the room, creating beauty in everything its golden glow touched. The fragrance of fresh-cut laurel and fir, brought in from the country just that afternoon, mingled pleasantly with the perfume of the hothouse gardenias, tuberose, and stephanotis arranged in Chinese vases about the room.
Though there would be no dancing tonight, a piano quintet provided an elegant musical accompaniment to the hum of laughter and conversation.
“Lovely!” declared Lady Dundalk. “Your mother told me you planned everything, to the last detail.”
“I’m pleased by how splendidly everything has turned out.”
The dowager countess slipped an arm around Sophia’s shoulders and squeezed with affection. “The only thing missing, of course, is the Duke of Claxton.”
The warm smile on Sophia’s lips froze like ice, and it felt as if the walls of the room suddenly converged at the mere mention of her husband. It didn’t seem to matter how long he had been away, her emotions were still so raw.
Lady Dundalk peered up at her, concern in her eyes. “I know you wish the duke could be here tonight, and certainly for Christmas. No word on when our esteemed diplomat will return to England?”
Sophia shook her head, hoping the woman would perceive none of the heartache she feared was written all over her face. “Perhaps in the spring.”
A vague response at best, but the truth was she did not know when Claxton would return. His infrequent, impersonal correspondence made no such predictions, and she had not lowered herself to ask.
They came to stand near the fire, where a delicious heat warmed the air.
“Eighty-seven years old?” bellowed Sir Keyes. “Upon my word, Wolverton, you can’t be a day over seventy, else that would make me—” Lifting a hand, he counted through its knobby fingers, grinning. “Older than dirt!”
“We are older than dirt, and thankful to be so.” Her grandfather beamed up from where he sat in his bath chair, his cheeks pink from excitement. His party had been a surprise for the most part, with him believing until just an hour ago the event would be only a small family affair. He appeared truly astounded and deeply touched. “Thank you all for coming.”
Small, gaily beribboned parcels of Virginian tobacco, chocolate, and his favorite souchong tea lay upon his lap. Sophia gathered them and placed them beneath the lowest boughs of the potted tabletop yew behind them, one that would remain unadorned until Christmas Eve when the family would gather to decorate the tree in the custom of her late grandmother’s German forebears.
Her family. Their worried glances and gentle questions let her know they were aware that her marriage had become strained. But she loved them so much! Which was why she’d shielded them from the full magnitude of the truth—the truth being that when Claxton had accepted his foreign appointment in May, he had all but abandoned her and their marriage. The man she’d once loved to distraction had become nothing more than a cold and distant stranger.
But for Sophia, Christmas had always been a time of self-contemplation, and the New Year, a time for renewal. Like so many others, she made a habit of making resolutions. By nature, she craved happiness, and if she could not have happiness with Claxton, she would have it some other way.
She had given herself until the New Year to suitably resolve her marital difficulties. The day after Christmas she would go to Camellia House, located just across the Thames in the small village of Lacenfleet, and sequester herself away from curious eyes and the opinions of her family, so that she alone could pen the necessary letter.
She was going to ask Claxton for a legal separation. Then he could go on living his life just as he pleased, with all the freedoms and indulgences he clearly desired. But she wanted something in return—a baby—and even if that meant joining him for a time in Vienna, she intended to have her way.
Just the thought of seeing Claxton again sent her spiraling into an exquisitely painful sort of misery. She had no wish to see him, and yet—he never left her thoughts.
No doubt her presence would throw the private life his Grace had been living into chaos, and she would find herself an unwanted outsider. No doubt he had a mistress—or two—as so many husbands abroad did. Even now, the merest fleeting thought of him in the arms of another woman made her stomach clench. He had betrayed her so appallingly she could hardly imagine allowing him to touch her again. But a temporary return to intimacies with her estranged husband was the only way she could have the child she so desperately wanted.
Sophia bent to adjust the green tartan blanket over Wolverton’s legs, ensuring that his lordship would be protected not only from any chill but also the bump and jostle of the throng gathered about him.
“May I bring you something, Grandfather? Perhaps some punch?”
His blue eyes brightened.
“Yes, dear.” He winked and gestured for her to come closer. When she complied, he lowered his voice. “With a dash of my favorite maraschino added, if you please, in honor of the occasion. Only don’t tell your mother. You know just as well as I that she and my physician are in collusion to deprive me of all the joys of life.”
Sophia knew he didn’t believe any such thing, but still, it was great fun to continue the conspiratorial banter between them. Each moment with him, she knew, was precious. His joy this evening would be a memory she would always treasure.
“I’d be honored to keep your secret, my lord,” Sophia said, pressing a kiss to his cheek.
“What secret?” Lady Harwick, Sophia’s dark-haired mother, approached from behind.
A picture of well-bred elegance, Margaretta conveyed warmth and good humor in every glance and gesture. Tonight she wore violet silk, one of the few colors she had allowed into her wardrobe since the tragic loss of her eldest son, Vinson, at sea four years ago—followed all too soon by the death of Sophia’s father, the direct heir to the Wolverton title.
“If we told you, then it wouldn’t be a secret,” Sophia answered jovially, sidestepping her. “His lordship has requested a glass of punch, and since I’m his undisputed favorite, at least for this evening, I will fetch it for him.”
Wolverton winked at Sophia.
“I shall have the secret pried out of him before you return.” With that, Margaretta bent to straighten the same portion of Lord Wolverton’s blanket her daughter had straightened only moments before.
Still a beautiful, vibrant woman, Margaretta drew the gazes of a number of the more mature gentlemen in the room. Not for the first time, Sophia wondered if her mother might entertain the idea of marrying again.
Sophia crossed the floor to the punch bowl, pausing several times to speak to friends and acquaintances along the way. Though most of the guests were older friends of Lord Wolverton, the presence of Sophia’s pretty younger sisters, Daphne and Clarissa, had assured the attendance of numerous ladies and gentlemen from the younger set. Her fair-haired siblings, born just a year apart and assumed by many to be twins, would make their debut in the upcoming season. That is, if favored suitors did not snatch them off the market before Easter.
At the punch bowl, Sophia dipped the ladle and filled a crystal cup. With the ladle’s return to the bowl, another hand retrieved it—a gloved hand upon which glimmered an enormous sapphire ring.
“Your Grace?” a woman’s voice inquired.
Sophia looked up into a beautiful, heart-shaped face, framed by stylish blonde curls, one she instantly recognized, but did not recall greeting in the reception line. The gown worn by the young woman, fashioned of luxurious peacock-blue silk and trimmed with gold and scarlet cording, displayed her generous décolletage to a degree one would not normally choose for the occasion of an off-season birthday party for an eighty-seven-year-old lord.
“Good evening, Lady…”
“Meltenbourne,” the young woman supplied, with a delicate laugh. “You might recall me as Annabelle Ellesmere? We debuted the same season.”
Yes, of course. Annabelle, Lady Meltenbourne, née Ellesmere. Voluptuous, lush, and ambitious, she had once carried quite the flaming torch for Claxton, and upon learning of the duke’s betrothal to Sophia, she had not been shy about expressing her displeasure to the entire ton over not being chosen as his duchess. Not long after, Annabelle had married a very rich but very old earl.
“Such a lovely party.” The countess sidled around the table to stand beside her, so close Sophia could smell her exotic perfume, a distinctive fragrance of ripe fruit and oriental spice. “Your grandfather must be a wonderful man to be so resoundingly adored.”
“Thank you, Lady Meltenbourne, indeed, he is.”
Good breeding prevented Sophia from asking Annabelle why she was present at the party at all. She had addressed each invitation herself, and without a doubt, Lord and Lady Meltenbourne had not been on the guest list.
“I don’t believe I’ve been introduced to Lord Meltenbourne.” Sophia perused the room, but saw no more unfamiliar faces.
“Perhaps another time,” the countess answered vaguely, offering nothing more but a shrug. Plucking a red sugar drop from a candy dish, she gazed adoringly upon the confection and giggled. “I shouldn’t give in to such temptations, but I admit to being a shamefully impulsive woman.” She pushed the sweet into her mouth and reacted with an almost sensual ecstasy, closing her eyes and smiling. “Mmmmm.”
Meanwhile a gentleman had approached to refill his punch glass and gaped at the countess as she savored the sugar drop, and in doing so, missed his cup altogether. Punch splashed over his hand and onto the table. Lady Meltenbourne selected another sweet from the dish, oblivious to his response. Or perhaps not. Within moments, servants appeared to tidy the mess and the red-faced fellow rushed away.
Sophia let out a slow, calming breath and smothered her first instinct, which was to order the countess to spit out the sugar drop and immediately quit the party. After all, time had passed. They had all matured. Christmas was a time for forgiveness. For bygones to be bygones.
Besides, London in winter could be rather dreary. This one in particular had been uncommonly foggy and cold. Perhaps Annabelle simply sought human companionship and had come along with another guest. Sophia certainly understood loneliness. Whatever the reason for the woman’s attendance, her presence was of no real concern. Lady Meltenbourne and her now candy-sugared lips were just as welcome tonight as anyone else. The party would be over soon, and Sophia wished to spend the remainder with her grandfather.
“Well, it was lovely seeing you again, but I’ve promised this glass of punch to our guest of honor. Enjoy your evening.”
Sophia turned, but a sudden hand to her arm stayed her.
“What of Claxton?” the countess blurted.
The punch sloshed. Instinctively Sophia extended the glass far from her body, to prevent the liquid from spilling down her skirts, but inside her head, the intimate familiarity with which Lady Annabelle spoke her husband’s name tolled like an inharmonious bell.
“Pardon me?” She glanced sharply at the hand on her arm. “What did you say?”
Annabelle, wide-eyed and smiling, snatched her hand away, clasping it against the pale globe of her breast. “Will his Grace make an appearance here tonight?”
Sophia had suffered much during her marriage, but this affront—at her grandfather’s party—was too much.
Good breeding tempered her response. She’d been raised a lady. As a girl, she’d learned her lessons and conducted herself with perfect grace and honor. As a young woman, she’d maneuvered the dangerous waters of her first season, where a single misstep could ruin her prospects of a respectable future. She had made her family and herself proud.
Sophia refused to succumb to the impulse of rage. Instead she summoned every bit of her self-control, and with the greatest of efforts, forbade herself from flinging the glass and its scarlet contents against the front of the woman’s gown.
With her gaze fixed directly on Lady Meltenbourne, she answered calmly, “I would assume not.”
The countess’s smile transformed into what was most certainly a false moue of sympathy. “Oh, dear. You do know he’s in town, don’t you, your Grace?”
Sophia’s vision went black. Claxton in London? Could that be true? If he had returned without even the courtesy of sending word—
A tremor of anger shot down her spine, but with great effort she maintained her outward calm. However, that calm withered in the face of Lady Meltenbourne’s blatant satisfaction. Her bright eyes and parted, half-smiling lips proclaimed the malicious intent behind her words, negating any obligation by Sophia for a decorous response. Yet before she could present the countess with a dismissive view of her train, the woman, in a hiss of silk, flounced into the crowd.
Only to be replaced by Sophia’s sisters, who fell upon her like street thieves, spiriting her into the deeper shadows of a nearby corner. Unlike Sophia, who could wear the more dramatically hued Geneva velvet as a married woman, Daphne and Clarissa wore diaphanous, long-sleeved white muslin trimmed with lace and ribbon.
“Who invited that woman?” Daphne, the eldest of the two, demanded.
Sophia answered, “She wasn’t invited.”
“Did you see her bosoms?” Clarissa marveled.
“How could you not?” Daphne said. “They are enormous, like cannonballs. It’s indecent. Everyone is staring, even Clarissa and I. We simply couldn’t help ourselves.”
“That dress! It’s beyond fashion,” Clarissa gritted. “It’s the dead of winter. Isn’t she cold? She might as well have worn nothing at all.”
“Daphne,” Sophia warned. “Clarissa.”
Daphne’s eyes narrowed. “What exactly did she say to you?”
Sophia banished all emotion from her voice. “Nothing of import.”
“That’s not true,” Clarissa retorted. She leaned close and hissed, “She asked you if Claxton would be in attendance tonight.”
Stung at hearing her latest shame spoken aloud, Sophia responded more sharply than intended. “If you heard her ask me about Claxton, then why did you ask me what she said?”
Her hands trembled so greatly that she could no longer hold the punch glass without fear of spilling its contents. She deposited the glass on the nearby butler’s tray. Within seconds, a servant appeared and whisked it away.
Clarissa’s nostrils flared. “I didn’t hear her. Not exactly. It’s just that she’s—”
“Clarissa!” Daphne interjected sharply, silencing whatever revelation her sister had intended to share.
“No, you must tell me,” Sophia demanded. “Lady Meltenbourne has what?”
Clarissa glared at Daphne. “She deserves to know.”
Daphne, clearly miserable, nodded in assent. “Very well.”
Clarissa uttered, “She’s already asked the question of nearly everyone else in the room.”
Despite the chill in the air, heat rose into Sophia’s cheeks, along with a dizzying pressure inside her head. The conversation between herself and Lady Meltenbourne had been shocking enough. With Clarissa’s revelation, Sophia was left nothing short of humiliated. She’d tried so desperately to keep rumors of Claxton’s indiscretions from her family so as not to complicate any possible future reconciliation, but now her secrets were spilling out on the ballroom floor for anyone’s ears to hear.
“Trollop,” whispered Daphne. “It’s none of her concern where Claxton is. It is only your concern, Sophia. And our concern as well, of course, because we are your sisters. Someone should tell her so.” Though her sister had been blessed with the face of an angel, a distinctly devilish glint gleamed in her blue eyes. “Do you wish for me to be the one to say it? Please say yes, because I’m aching to—”
“Erase that smug look from her face,” interjected Clarissa, fists clenched at her sides, looking very much the female pugilist.
“You’ll do nothing of the sort,” Sophia answered vehemently. “You’ll conduct yourselves as ladies, not as ruffians off the street. This is my private affair. Mine and Claxton’s. Do you understand? Do not mention any of what has occurred to Mother, and especially not to our grandfather. I won’t have you ruining his birthday or Christmas.”
“Understood,” they answered in unison. Her sisters’ dual gazes offered sympathy, and worse—pity.
Though Sophia would readily offer the same to any woman in her circumstances, she had no wish to be the recipient of such unfortunate sentiments. The whole ugly incident further proved the insupportability of her marriage and her husband’s tendency to stray. Though Lady Meltenbourne’s presence stung, it made Sophia only more certain that Claxton would agree to her terms. Certainly he would prefer to have his freedom—and he would have it, just as soon as he gave her a child. Seventeen months ago when she spoke her vows, she’d been naïve. She’d had such big dreams of a life with Claxton and had given her heart completely, only to have it thrown back in her face when she needed him the most. Claxton would never be a husband in the loyal, devoted sense of the word. He would never love her completely, the way she needed to be loved.
Admittedly, in the beginning, that aloofness—his very mysteriousness—had captivated her. The year of her debut, the duke had appeared in London out of nowhere, newly possessed of an ancient title. His rare appearances at balls were cause for delirium among the ranks of the hopeful young misses and their mammas.
Then—oh, then—she’d craved his brooding silences, believing with a certainty that once they married, Claxton would give her his trust. He would give her his heart.
For a time, she’d believed that he had. She closed her eyes against a dizzying rush of memories. His smile. His laughter. Skin. Mouths. Heat. Completion.
It had been enough. At least she thought it had been.
“Well?” said Daphne.
“Will Claxton make an appearance tonight?”
“I don’t know,” whispered Sophia.
Clarissa sighed. “Lord Tunsley told me he saw Claxton at White’s this afternoon, with Lord Haden and Mr. Grisham.”
Sophia nodded mutely. So it was confirmed. After seven months abroad, her husband had returned to London, and everyone seemed to know but her. The revelation left her numb and sadder than she expected. She ought to be angry—no!—furious at being treated with such disregard. Either that or she ought to do like so many other wives of the ton and forget the injustice of it all in the arms of a lover. She’d certainly had the opportunity.
Just then her gaze met that of a tall gentleman who stood near the fireplace, staring at her intently over the heads of the three animatedly gesturing Aimsley sisters. Lord Havering, or “Fox” as he had been known in the informal environs of their country childhood, always teased that she ought to have waited for him—and more than once had implied that he still waited for her.
With a tilt of his blond head, he mouthed: Are you well?
Of course, Lady Meltenbourne’s indiscreet inquiries about Claxton would not have escaped Fox’s hearing. No doubt the gossipy Aimsley sisters were dissecting the particulars at this very moment. Sophia flushed in mortification, but at the same time was exceedingly grateful Fox cared for her feelings at all. It was more than she could say for her own husband.
Yet she had no heart for adultery. To Fox she responded with a nod and a polite smile, and returned her attention to her sisters. While she held no illusions about the pleasure-seeking society in which she lived, she’d grown up in the household of happily married parents who loved one another deeply. Magnificently. Had she been wrong to believe she deserved nothing short of the same?
Clarissa touched her arm and inquired softly, “Is it true, Sophia, what everyone is saying, that you and Claxton are officially estranged?”
In that moment, the candlelight flickered. A rush of frigid air pushed through the room, as if the front doors of the house had been thrown open. The chill assaulted her bare skin, and the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. All conversation in the ballroom grew hushed, but a silent, indefinable energy exploded exponentially.
Both pairs of her sisters’ eyes fixed at the same point over her shoulders.
“Oh, my,” whispered Daphne.
Clarissa’s face lost its color. “Sophia—”
She looked over her shoulder. In that moment, her gaze locked with the bold, blue-eyed stare of a darkly handsome stranger.
Only, of course, he wasn’t a stranger, not in the truest sense of the world. But he might as well have been. It was Claxton.
Her heart swelled with a thousand memories of him, only to subside, just as quickly, into frigid calm. Without hesitation, she responded as her good breeding required. She crossed the marble floor, aware that all eyes in the room were trained on her, and with a kiss welcomed her faithless husband home.
“Welcome home, Claxton,” she murmured after placing a chaste kiss upon his cheek. And then, under the pretense of fetching her grandfather a previously promised glass of punch, she vanished into the crowd of guests.
“Welcome home, Claxton,” Lord Haden, his younger brother by two years, mimicked in an affected, high-pitched voice.
His cousin Rabe Grisham drolly announced what Vane had already surmised.
“Her Grace is certainly thrilled to see you.”
Vane ignored them both and set off to follow her. He was tall, and though she was not, he easily tracked the path she made as she traversed the room, because…well, she sparkled. The diamond-encrusted hair combs she wore so artfully nestled in her stylishly coiffed mink-brown hair were a betrothal gift from him, commissioned from the jeweler, Garrard.
Her hair had always fascinated him. Though current fashion inspired many young ladies to cut theirs, hers, set free from its pins, fell in luxurious waves to her waist. Not so long ago, he’d owned the privilege of seeing it unbound. He had touched it with all the awe and reverence of a smitten lover, and even now when he closed his eyes, he could recall its scent and the feel of it against his skin.
Upon first seeing her, his every muscle had drawn painfully tight and even now refused to relax. He had hoped time and distance would mellow his desire for her, but clearly he was a fool. He had always been a fool for Sophia.
From the brief glimpse he was granted before she fled his company, he could see his wife had only grown more beautiful in their months spent apart. But then, what had he expected? From the first moment Vane had seen her in the formal drawing room of his uncle’s home, for the purpose of an arranged meeting in advance of their arranged betrothal, she took his breath away. With her green eyes and mischievous-angel smile, he even fancied that in that very moment he’d fallen in love.
He never told her, of course, even in their early days of bliss. He kept such dangerous details to himself. To do otherwise would have been to expose himself to unbelievable torment and pain.
He was twenty-eight years old, and she twenty-one, her first season delayed by her father’s untimely death. He never expected to be presented with such a rare and precious gift. He didn’t deserve her, but apparently his newly bestowed title, fortune, and estates did. To his shock, she seemed just as enchanted with him as he was with her. For a time.
He gave up too easily then—but not this time. He wouldn’t allow Sophia to just run away and build up more walls against him. After seeing her, he felt even more resolved than before to end the estrangement between them. As if sensing his determination, the crowd of guests parted, giving him a clear path across the floor. Just then he lost sight of Sophia and her sparkling hair, when she disappeared beneath the archway that led to Lord Wolverton’s book room.
“Your Grace.” A small hand gripped his arm.
Out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed the shimmer of blonde hair and bright blue silk. With his gaze fixed on the doorway, he murmured something cordial and continued on his way. He did not miss, however, the subsequent burst of tittering and whispers he left in his wake. As heir to the Claxton title, he’d long ago grown accustomed to whispers and learned to ignore them.
He paused at the door and peered inside. Here, the air smelled of legacy and comfort, of wood, tobacco, and books. Dim light from a garden lantern streamed through the window, revealing Sophia’s silhouette. She stood at Lord Wolverton’s cabinet, her head tilted back on her slender neck, lowering a now-empty rummer from her lips.
He cleared his throat.
She whirled. Her skirts rustled with the sudden movement. In the darkness, her emerald velvet bodice appeared black. Its high collar served as a dramatic foil to the pale skin of her throat and décolletage.
“Claxton,” she exclaimed softly. Eyes wide, she raised her fingertips to brush the moisture from her lips, no doubt oblivious to the sensual appeal of the gesture. “You startled me.”
He startled a lot of people. The same had been true about his father. Whether it was his height or his dark looks or demeanor or a combination of all those things, he did not know. He only knew he did not like the way his wife flinched upon hearing his voice.
What event would drive her to seek out a bracing gulp of her grandfather’s brandy, something he knew for a fact she never touched?
The unexpected return of a despised husband, of course.
He couldn’t fault her for that. Looking back at himself as he existed seven months before, he despised that man as well. God, he’d behaved like an ass—but worse, a coward. He ought never to have left her. He ought to have fought harder for them.
Before his betrothal and marriage to Sophia, he’d been…desperately lost. Only he knew how completely her love had transformed him. She gave it so freely, touching him to his very soul and blotting out the stain of his former life. He’d never burdened her with those best buried and forgotten details of his past. Even now, in the aftermath of their tragedy, she could never understand the magnitude of the gift she gave him when they learned they were expecting a child.
Yet that dreadful February afternoon, that day she had turned her back on him.
Now, almost a year later, she turned her back to him again. Lifting the crystal decanter, she poured a splash into a half-filled punch glass. “For my grandfather.”
Capping the bottle, she lifted the glass and maneuvered toward him through the darkness. She would have walked past him if he hadn’t stepped into her path. Her skirts brushed his breeches, but she stopped herself before allowing their bodies to touch. It required every ounce of his restraint not to touch her face, to kiss, inhale, and taste her. To push her back inside the room and lock the door behind them.
“Come home with me tonight,” he said, his voice thick with desire.
Did she realize how difficult the words were for him to speak? That he had just given her a dagger and invited her to stab him in what was already a grievously wounded heart, one that he had made every effort to shore up in hopes that he might be worthy of her forgiveness? Of her acceptance.
She avoided his gaze. “I’ve already made arrangements to stay the night here.”
And so stab him she did, carefully sidestepping him and going a short distance beyond before turning back.
This time her eyes met his unwaveringly. “But you could certainly extend the invitation to Lady Meltenbourne. She’s here, I’m sure you know, and has already been making inquiries about you.”