His Compromised Countess
His Compromised Countess
‘There.’ The mellow murmur of Bennett’s voice went straight to her heart in that vulnerable moment. ‘That’s better.’ He raised his hand to her cheek in a featherlight caress. Then an irresistible magnetism seemed to draw their lips towards one another.
The first warm, tremulous contact after such a long absence made Caroline’s senses crackle with suppressed desire suddenly reignited. It flared and spread swiftly, until it felt as if wildfire raged through her veins.
The blaze swept through Bennett too. His embrace tightened, as if to claim her. His kiss grew deeper and more demanding, while she ached to give him everything he wanted and more. Her lips parted to invite the hungry thrust of his tongue.
Old desires fused with strange new emotions to make this kiss sweeter and more satisfying than any they had shared before. Caroline savoured it like a serving of her favourite food after a long fast. She sought to hoard the feel and taste of it, knowing this would surely be the last time Bennett ever kissed her. While his lips moved over hers with such thrilling fervour she could pretend that he cared for her in the way she’d once longed for.
In most Regency romances the wedding of the hero and heroine is the beginning of their happily-ever-after. But for the Earl and Countess of Sterling it is the beginning of their problems. Wed too quickly, for too many of the wrong reasons, they grow further and further apart—until scandal rocks their marriage, forcing them to choose whether to walk away or fight for a happier future together.
In HIS COMPROMISED COUNTESS the last person with whom Bennett wishes to share a small house on a remote island is the wife he believes has betrayed him with his hated rival. Caroline feels the same about her husband, who threatens to destroy her life of pleasure and part her from her young son. Only when they are thrown together under the most difficult circumstances can Bennett and Caroline begin to confront the problems that have beset their marriage and rekindle the spark of attraction that never quite went away.
I hope you will enjoy visiting the fascinating Isles of Scilly with Bennett and Caroline as they learn the true meaning of love.
About the Author
In the process of tracing her Canadian family to their origins in eighteenth-century Britain, DEBORAH HALE learned a great deal about the period and uncovered plenty of true-life inspiration for her historical romance novels! Deborah lives with her very own hero and their four fast-growing children in Nova Scotia—a province steeped in history and romance!
Deborah invites you to become better acquainted with her by visiting her personal website, www.deborahhale.com, or chatting with her in the Harlequin Mills & Boon online communities.
Previous novels by the same author:
A GENTLEMAN OF SUBSTANCE
THE WEDDING WAGER
MY LORD PROTECTOR
THE ELUSIVE BRIDE
LADY LYTE’S LITTLE SECRET
THE BRIDE SHIP
A WINTER NIGHT’S TALE
(part of A Regency Christmas)
BOUGHT: THE PENNILESS LADY
WANTED: MAIL-ORDER MISTRESS
His Compromised Countess
This book is dedicated to my agent,
Pam Strickler, whose support and wise advice helped me rise to the challenge of this story.
With a flourish, someone pulled back the blue damask curtain from the alcove of Almack’s card room, as if it were the stage at Drury Lane. The scene it revealed might have come from any of a hundred sentimental plays—a pair of lovers stealing a passionate kiss. But instead of sighs and murmurs of approval that might have greeted such a sight at the playhouse, this one provoked scandalised gasps followed by brittle, breath-baited silence.
They were as handsome a pair as any actors, the man well built with a full head of auburn hair and fashionable attire that might have won the approval of Beau Brummell himself. The lady wore a silvery-blue gown of the finest silk. Though her face was turned away from the audience for that first instant, her beauty was as obvious to them as her identity. Golden curls were swept up off her long, graceful neck, adorned with the famous Sterling sapphires.
Everyone who caught a glimpse of her must have immediately recognised Caroline Maitland, Countess of Sterling, one of the most celebrated toasts of the ton. They must also have recognised that the man with his arms around the countess, and his lips upon hers, was not her husband.
Surrounded by several of the most voluble gossips in all of London, Bennett Maitland, sixth Earl of Sterling, stared into the alcove, fighting a rising tide of rage and humiliation that threatened to demolish his iron self-control.
He had stubbornly refused to heed Fitz Astley’s sly barbs about his wife’s fidelity, just as he had once tried to deny another of his enemy’s sordid revelations. A revelation that had brought his whole world crashing down. Scoundrel though Astley was, he had not been lying then. Nor was he now. The evidence of Caroline’s promiscuity was presently on display for all to see!
Catching his wife engaged in such wanton intimacy with his bitterest foe was like a jagged knife thrust deep into Bennett’s chest. The once-passionate physical connection between him and Caroline was the only thing that had held their crumbling marriage together. Now she had thrown it in his face and made him question how many other lovers she might have taken, making him the secret laughing stock of London. Yet he would rather have died in jaw-clenched agony than give the man he loathed, and the woman he had come to despise, the satisfaction of knowing how grievously they’d mortified him.
By the time the horrified silence shattered into poison-tipped shards of whisper, Bennett had clamped his gaping mouth into a rigid line. Battling back a suffocating wave of humiliation, he forced himself forwards to seize control of the situation.
By this time, his wife and her paramour had realised they were discovered. Though it was far too late to save her tattered reputation, Caroline pulled away from the scoundrel’s embrace and shrank back, as if hoping she might somehow hide from her husband’s righteous wrath. Fitzgerald Astley had no such scruples. He continued to stand there in a lounging, insolent pose, his mouth twisted in a gloating smirk that Bennett longed to thrash off his face.
‘Bennett, I’m so sorry,’ Caroline murmured as he stalked towards them. ‘I can explain if you’ll only listen. Please don’t make it any worse.’
Her face had paled to a hue of alabaster purity—most ironic, that. Her pallor might have given his wife a deceptively innocent look, except that it made her lips appear even larger and redder than usual, swollen perhaps from the kisses of that despicable cad!
Bennett wished the sight would quench the last stubborn embers of desire he felt for her. Instead he was doubly betrayed by the traitorous stirring of lust in his loins. Part of him longed to seize his errant countess and sear away any memory of Astley’s kisses with the legitimate demands of his own lips.
He managed to resist the temptation.
‘Nothing I do,’ he growled, ‘could make this any worse.’
That was not quite true, but he had no intention of acting as if nothing had happened, simply to spare her the shame she had brought upon both of them.
Astley’s smirk curled into an outright sneer, making his too-handsome countenance as loathsome as Bennett had long regarded it. ‘I suppose you will want to call me out, then, Sterling? Where shall we duel, then? St. James’s Park? Hyde? I do think it rather unjust that I should be singled out when you have turned a complaisant eye upon all your lady’s previous amours.’
‘What are you talking about?’ Caroline cried. ‘I have never been unfaithful to my husband! I didn’t even mean to… You took me by surprise. I only wanted…’
Astley chuckled and wagged his finger at her. ‘I sympathise with your desire to salvage your reputation, Lady Sterling, but I fear our secret is out. I doubt anyone who saw us kissing just now would ever believe you were unwilling. Quite the contrary. Another minute and I vow you would have had the buttons of my breeches undone.’
‘Viper!’ A shriek of tormented rage burst from Caroline as she hurled herself at Astley.
Bennett would have loved to see her scratch the scoundrel’s eyes. But such a spectacle would besmirch his cause even worse than it had been already. Perhaps irreparably.
As Caroline sprang towards Astley, Bennett caught her by the wrist and pulled her back, flaying her with his blistering glare. ‘If you cannot exercise a little discretion, madam, at least do me the courtesy of holding your tongue!’
His words appeared to quench her defiant anger with a deluge of shame. Her body went limp and her free hand flew to her mouth as if to stifle a sob.
Unable to abide any further contact after what she’d done, Bennett let go of his wife’s arm with all the revulsion he might have dropped a wriggling rat. He turned his attention back to Astley, to address his enemy’s assumption that they would duel.
‘You expect me to risk my neck defending my wife’s honour?’ He infused his question with years of accumulated disdain for the pair of them. ‘I would sooner call you out for implying I am such a fool. Even for that, I prefer to strike where it will do you greater injury.’
Though Astley arched a contemptuous eyebrow, Bennett had the trifling satisfaction of glimpsing a quiver of alarm in his enemy’s pale-blue eyes. ‘Indeed? And where might that be?’
‘In your purse, of course.’ Bennett kept his voice low and menacing, but loud enough to carry to the roomful of breath-bated onlookers. ‘I hope this dalliance was worth the damages it will cost you.’
For a moment, the threat seemed to strike Astley dumb.
Instead it provoked a sound from Caroline. Her eyes widened in horror as if she had only now realised all she stood to lose. A whimper like a wounded animal’s broke through the hand she still clamped over her mouth. Fortunately, his earlier warning kept her from trying to speak.
Astley found his voice at last. ‘Sue me for crim. con.? You wouldn’t dare!’
Crim. con. meant a criminal conversation suit brought by a husband against his wife’s lover for monetary damages—a necessary step toward obtaining a divorce. Bennett despised the vulgar colloquial term, which trivialized such a devastating betrayal.
Now it was his turn to sneer. ‘Pray what is to stop me? Given what you just confessed in front of all these witnesses, I believe it would be an easy case to win.’
Leaving Astley to reflect on just how deep a hole he had dug for himself, Bennett turned and strode away through a crowd that parted before him like the Red Sea before Moses. He was not certain whether Caroline would follow or remain behind with her paramour. Indeed, he was not certain which he would prefer. But when he heard the faint rustle of silk and the soft patter of kid slippers behind him, the sounds stirred a flicker of satisfaction from deep within the bitter ashes of his humiliation.
Stalking down the grand staircase, he fixed his eyes straight ahead and set his mouth in a grim line to warn anyone he met against the folly of speaking to him. He was aware of heads turning as he passed, furtive whispers dogging his footsteps.
Gossip travelled fast. By breakfast the tattle would be all over London. By the end of the week the scandal sheets would be lampooning him; the print-sellers’ windows would be papered with vicious caricatures. Though he had striven to lead a blameless life of public service, he would now be pilloried alongside the likes of the Prince Regent and his disreputable brothers!
Was that what Caroline wanted?
Though Bennett could not deny their marriage was an egregious mismatch, they had been happy enough once. Gradually, however, their differences had multiplied and the gulf between them had widened. But when and why had his wife grown to hate him enough to do this? After all he had given her and how little he asked in return, did she not owe him a single scrap of gratitude or loyalty?
A raw April wind blew Bennett’s hair about as he emerged on to the street. Damn! He had left his hat behind.
Well, no matter. He might send a footman to fetch it tomorrow… or not. He had plenty of others, after all. And he’d be hanged if he would darken the door of Almack’s again!
Striving to ignore his wife’s presence, Bennett was relieved when his carriage appeared promptly, in spite of the early hour and their precipitous departure.
‘Back to Sterling House, my lord?’ the coachman called down from his perch.
Bennett gave a curt nod as the footman helped Caroline into the carriage box. ‘Stop by my club first, Samuel. I will provide you with further instructions there.’
Before the coachman could reply, Bennett climbed in after his wife.
The vehicle had scarcely begun to move when Caroline’s voice emerged from the shadow-wrapped depths of the seat opposite him. ‘Please, Bennett, I know you must be as angry and embarrassed as I am by that dreadful scene, but surely you know I never had any intention of kissing Mr Astley.’
Clearly the woman had no idea of his feelings in the matter or she could never make such a ludicrous claim. Bennett leaned back in the carriage seat and crossed his arms over his chest. Did she truly expect him to believe she hadn’t invited and enjoyed that kiss and how many others before it?
Bad enough she had made him a cuckold—he would not let her play him for a fool as well! ‘Are you saying you tumbled into Astley’s arms by accident?’
‘Of course not.’ The pretended remorse in her tone took on a hint of exasperation. ‘When I told him you’d ordered me not to have anything more to do with him, he suggested we slip into the alcove so you would not see us.’
They’d had a bitter quarrel earlier in the evening on the drive to Almack’s, which now felt like a lifetime ago. Spurred by Astley’s thinly veiled accusations against Caroline, Bennett had forbidden her to continue associating with the bounder. She’d had the temerity to flare up at him, demanding to know why she must snub a man who appeared to enjoy her company when her husband did not. She’d extolled Astley’s wit and amiability, bringing Bennett’s temper to the boiling point. When the carriage arrived at Almack’s, she had flounced in, having given her husband no assurance that she intended to do what he’d asked.
Now she had the gall to use his reasonable request as an excuse for her folly? Bennett’s head pounded until he feared it would explode.
‘No sooner had we got in there,’ Caroline continued, ‘than he seized me and began to kiss me. I was so taken by surprise I could not think what to do. Nothing like this has ever happened to me before… at least not in a very long time.’
Like a slap in the face, her words reminded Bennett of the long-ago evening when he’d first kissed her and insisted she must marry him. On that occasion Caroline had not protested or even feigned reluctance, but returned his ardour with an answering passion he had not expected from an innocent young lady. At the time, her fiery desire had not troubled him—quite the contrary. Now he chided himself for not seeing where it might lead one day.
‘So when you say you’re sorry,’ he rasped through clenched teeth, ‘you do not mean you regret what you did. Only that you got caught red-handed this time.’
‘No! I mean… of course I’m sorry it turned into such a scandalous spectacle and embarrassed us both. But I’m also sorry I did not behave with more prudence and propriety.’ Each word sounded more forced than the one before it.
It was clear she didn’t mean a word. His errant wife was only spouting whatever she thought might save her from ruin.
Bennett shook his head. ‘That is the most improbable tale I have heard in a great while. You must take me for a perfect idiot. Though perhaps I encouraged you to think me an easy dupe by not suspecting your prior indiscretions.’
‘What prior indiscretions?’ she demanded. ‘I never committed adultery with Mr Astley, let alone any other man!’
He resisted the temptation to believe her. Now that the wool had been ripped from his eyes, like that curtain at Almack’s, so many incidents that had seemed innocent at the time took on much more ominous significance. Their marriage had long since lost its original enchantment for him. Now he wanted nothing more than to be rid of the wife who had brought further shame upon the family honour he’d worked so hard to restore.
Bennett gave a harsh, mirthless chuckle. ‘I would hardly expect you to admit such a thing, though the truth would make a refreshing change.’
‘But it is the truth!’ She had the devil’s own gall to sound offended by his doubts. ‘I cannot deny I have been admired by other men, but this was the first time matters went so far.’
He did not want to have this conversation with her. It served no purpose but to further inflame the feelings he was struggling so hard to control. ‘Do you reckon anyone in the Doctors’ Commons would believe that after what was seen and heard tonight by so many unimpeachable witnesses?’
His reference to the ecclesiastical court brought a gasp from Caroline. ‘Did you mean it when you threatened to seek damages against Mr Astley?’
Finally the full consequences of her actions seemed to dawn on her.
‘You should know by now, I am not in the habit of saying things I do not mean. Insincerity is Fitz Astley’s forte, not mine.’
Caroline did not bother to defend her paramour, being much more concerned with her own interests. ‘You cannot propose to divorce me over a single kiss I didn’t want and the accusations of a blackguard who would take such vile advantage of a lady.’
Did she not realise there were far worse things he could do than divorce her? ‘I can assure you, a great many Bills of Divorcement have passed through Parliament on the strength of less damning evidence.’
‘But that’s not fair!’ she cried, as if she were an innocent victim.
‘The world is not fair!’ Bennett thundered. ‘As you might know if you would once look beyond the tip of your pretty nose. Every day innocent children are born or sold into slavery, torn from their families at the whim of cruel masters. Have you any idea how much damage you may have done to the Abolition Movement with your wanton, wilful behaviour? Or do you not give a damn?’
‘Of course I do! I have heard and seen and breathed Abolition ever since I was young enough for Mr Wilberforce to bounce me on his knee. But how can I have hurt your cause?’
It galled him to have to explain to her. ‘I have made great progress, rallying support for an Abolition Bill in the House of Lords, which has always been a stumbling block in the past. How effective an advocate do you suppose I will be when it becomes known my wife has been bedded by my most vicious opponent? No one respects a cuckold.’
‘But you aren’t! That’s what I am trying to tell you, if you’d only heed me.’ She leaned towards him, emerging from the shadows into the faint light shed by the street lamps, her arm outstretched.
Bennett resisted the urge to pull her into his arms and reassert his claim upon her, as another part of him longed to do. That was dangerous weakness to which he must not succumb.
Perhaps realising she had exhausted all other means of saving herself, Caroline marshalled her final-line defence. ‘If you divorce me, I may never see Wyn again!’
‘See him again?’ How dared she try to use their son that way, after what she’d done? Her behaviour was a betrayal of the child as much as him. ‘You do not see much of him now that I can tell. You swan into the nursery for an hour or two to amuse yourself. Once you’ve got the boy overexcited and fractious you leave Mrs McGregor to manage him. Wyn would be far better off without a mother who treats him like a plaything to be picked up and cast aside again at a whim.’
Before Caroline could attempt to defend herself from his charges, their carriage came to a stop in front of his club.
‘What are we d-doing here?’ she asked in a dazed, plaintive tone against which Bennett steeled his heart.
The earlier fight seemed to have gone out of her. In a splash of light from the street lamp, Bennett glimpsed her bare arms wrapped around her torso and realised she was shivering.
‘I intend to stay here tonight,’ he announced, then added, ‘You left your cloak.’
‘I d-didn’t think of it until w-we were outside. And I didn’t d-dare go back for fear you’d leave me b-behind.’
He would have been well within his rights to do just that, Bennett mused bitterly. Yet a deeply ingrained code of gentlemanly conduct compelled him to remove his coat and thrust it towards her. ‘Take this.’
Caroline only hesitated an instant before pulling the garment around her.
Now Bennett had one thing left to say to her. Ever since they’d quit Almack’s, part of his mind had remained detached, pondering how best to handle this beastly situation. One step was imperative. ‘You must get out of town first thing tomorrow and stay away until the worst of the tattle dies down.’
Expecting her to object, he was surprised when she replied, ‘Where shall I go? Brighton?
‘Good Lord, no! The gossip will spread there in no time and word of your whereabouts would get back just as fast. You must retire to some place as far away as possible from society.’
He’d considered and discarded a score of options. Now, suddenly, the ideal destination occurred to him. ‘The Isles of Scilly. I have a house there, on Tresco.’
He hadn’t thought of the place in years. Now that he had, it seemed a perfectly fitting destination for his adulterous wife.
How could she have been so foolish and unguarded as to place everything she cared about in jeopardy? As the carriage sped through Kensington towards Sterling House, the harsh tribunal of her conscience chilled Caroline worse than the damp cold of the windy April night.
After all, she was not some green girl fresh from the country in her first Season. Over the years she had seen enough scandal to recognise the impropriety of slipping into that curtained alcove with a man other than her husband. She should have known how incriminating it would look if they were discovered there, even without the kiss.
That damnable kiss! How could she have let it happen? She still found it difficult to reconcile the scoundrel who’d taken such a liberty, then callously dragged her name through the dirt, with the charming gentleman who’d traded witty banter with her over the card table and cast admiring glances at her on the dance floor. She’d thought it was only a harmless, flattering flirtation, like a number of others she’d enjoyed in the past without ever compromising her reputation.
When her husband angrily forbade her having any further contact with a man who looked at her in a way he had not in years, her long-simmering resentment had suddenly come to the boil. She could not simply turn her back on her ardent admirer without a single word of explanation or apology. The last thing she’d expected when he beckoned her into that alcove was to find his arms suddenly around her and his lips pressing upon hers.
For an instant, she’d been too shocked to react. Then she’d been further paralysed with uncertainty and shame, fearing she had led him to believe his amorous attentions would be welcome. When she’d finally come to her senses and been about to pull away, the card room suddenly went quiet and she’d plunged into her worst nightmare.
Would Bennett truly go through with his threat to seek a divorce? Until lately, he hadn’t seemed to care how much other men admired her. She’d once heard it quipped that every gentleman of her acquaintance was besotted with her, except her husband. Though she’d pretended to be amused at the time, those words dealt a humiliating blow. What did it signify how many men desired a married woman if her husband was not among them?
In the early days of their marriage she had eagerly welcomed Bennett to her bed, deceiving herself that the pleasure he brought her was a token of the love he could not express in other ways. Later she’d faced the harsh truth that his ardour sprang from nothing more than physical desire. He had never felt anything deeper for her and he never would. In recent years, even his desire had waned. Caroline wished she could say the same. She had finally succeeded in quelling the feelings for her husband that had only made her miserable. Yet there were still nights when she lay in her empty bed aching for his touch.
Was it possible Bennett knew Astley was lying, but had seized upon this opportunity to be rid of a wife who had proven such a disappointment to him? Hurt and angry as that thought made her, Caroline was far angrier with herself for giving him such a fine excuse to cast her off.
Her husband was right about one thing, unfortunately. If he wanted a divorce, he could likely get one even though she had never committed adultery. Her single public indiscretion would be taken as proof that she must have done far worse things in private. And Astley’s deceitful boasting would be taken as fact, even if he later recanted.
After that, life as she knew it would be over.
As far as society was concerned, she might as well be dead. She would be exiled to the dullest depths of the country, forced to live on whatever pittance Bennett chose to give her. No lady who valued her good name would ever be permitted to associate with such a scandalous outcast. But by far the worst deprivation was that she would never be allowed to see her little son again.
The prospect of losing Wyn battered Caroline’s heart. Bennett had accused her of not caring about their son, but he did not understand.
The moment the carriage came to a halt in front of Sterling House, she hurried inside, throwing off Bennett’s coat. The whiff of his clean, bracing scent that clung to the garment roused a gnawing hunger within her that she’d spent years striving to subdue.
Stopping by her rooms, she bid her maid pack a trunk for the journey on which they would set out the next morning.
‘The Isles of Scilly, my lady? Why in the world are we going there?’
‘It was the earl’s idea, Parker.’ Caroline hoped that excuse would forestall any further questions. ‘We must leave at first light and I’m not certain how long we’ll be gone, so get to work.’
‘Very well, ma’am.’ Parker set about her task with a sulky air.
Leaving her maid to pack, Caroline rushed to the nursery. Though she’d arrived home much earlier than usual, Wyn was already asleep. She crept to his bed and perched on the edge of it, listening to his soft, even breathing.
‘Your papa thinks I don’t care about you,’ she whispered, not wanting to wake her sleeping child, yet hoping some part of him might hear and understand. ‘But I do love you very much and have since long before you were born.’
At first she’d wanted a baby as a way to please her husband and prove that she could fulfil her chief duty as a wife. But when she’d finally become pregnant and felt that tiny life grow and move within her, she began to cherish him for his own sake and look forward to giving him all the love and happiness most of her childhood had lacked.
But nothing had turned out as she’d hoped. ‘I had such a hard time bearing you. And afterwards, you were a fretful little thing and wouldn’t feed properly.’
Caroline heaved a deep, shuddering sigh as she recalled the shrill, angry shrieks of that tiny creature, his face a raw mottled red. The grave, accusing looks of the doctors still haunted her, as they’d shaken their heads and whispered together. She’d felt like such a terrible mother—rejected by her own child when he was barely out of her womb.
Though Bennett hadn’t said so, she sensed he was disappointed in her inability to succeed at something so simple and natural. He’d engaged Mrs McGregor and a wet nurse for her baby, who’d immediately begun to thrive in their care.
The gaiety and admiration of society had helped ease the sting of her failure. But her evening engagements often lasted late into the night, making her sleep the next morning until nearly noon.
‘I visited the nursery as often as I could.’ Her heart ached with the memory. ‘But I was afraid to pick you up in case I dropped you or made you cry.’
His nurse, a brusque Scotswoman who intimidated Caroline no end, had made it clear she wished the mistress would not come to the nursery too often and disrupt the young master’s routine. To her shame, she had allowed herself to be pushed out of her son’s life.
She could not let his father banish her entirely!
Wave after hot wave of anger seared through her. Anger at Bennett, who had stubbornly refused to believe her. His accusations that Wyn would be better off without such a mother had hurt far more than his charges of infidelity. Anger at the law, which punished a wife’s infidelity so harshly while letting a husband take a dozen mistresses with impunity. That same unjust law decreed that children belonged to their fathers—sons especially. A divorced mother was considered an immoral influence, unfit to raise the offspring she had borne. Bitterest of all was Caroline’s anger at herself for not realising how much her harmless flirtations and one moment of heedless impropriety could cost her.
Just then her little son stirred in his sleep, making Caroline fear he might wake and take fright at her presence. Instead he snuggled closer to her, with a murmur of the sweetest contentment. A warm, brooding ache spread through her chest, cooling the fierce fire of her anger.
‘It is not too late,’ she vowed to her sleeping son, and to herself. ‘It cannot be. I will become the kind of mother I always wanted to be.’
After a pensive moment she added in a whisper so soft she could barely hear it herself, ‘At least for as long as your father will let me.’
The next day, when he judged it late enough that his wife must be on the road to Cornwall, Bennett returned home. He looked forward to a sound sleep in his own bed, having scarcely got a wink the night before.
Every time he’d closed his eyes, the memory of his wife in the arms of his enemy had risen to taunt him. He’d also been besieged by his allies in the Abolition Movement. When word of the scandal reached them with disgusting rapidity, they’d flocked to the club, anxious to advise him. To a man, they looked forward to seeing Astley dragged through the mud. They also agreed it was imperative for Bennett to seek a divorce as quickly as possible. He had assured them that was his intention. But now doubts began to gnaw at his resolve.
Not doubt of her guilt, of course. He was convinced of that, in spite of her desperate protests to the contrary. He had long known Caroline to be a naturally passionate woman. For a time it had been the saving grace of their marriage. Now it had become the rock on which their faltering union would wreck at last.
And yet, seeing her in the arms of another man made him realise how much he missed their often-tempestuous physical relations. It had been the one area of his life where he’d been able to escape his own rigid self-control. He’d sometimes thought of it as performing the function of a safety valve on a steam engine. Without that occasional release, he could not work at optimal capacity without a dangerous build-up of pressure.
But after everything involved with the birth of their longed-for son had gone so disastrously wrong, he’d been reluctant to risk getting his wife with child again too soon. By the time he might have considered it, they had grown so far apart that it would have been like bedding a perfect stranger.
Mortified and furious as he was over Caroline’s betrayal, Bennett could not pretend she was entirely responsible for the failure of their marriage. He was every bit as much to blame for having pursued her so relentlessly and rushed her into marriage before their infatuation had had an opportunity to cool. If he had not let desire overcome his reason, he would have seen they were far too different in far too many ways to be compatible outside the bedchamber.
At the time those differences had only added fuel to the overwhelming passion that had possessed him. Too late he’d realised that something so combustible was apt to burn out just as quickly. Now he knew he should have married a woman with whom he had more in common, one he might have been better able to understand.
Glimpsing the stately turrets of Sterling House in the distance, rising behind a screen of majestic elm trees, Bennett looked forward to seeing his young son. Wyn was the main reason for his doubts about seeking a divorce. He’d experienced first-hand the bitterness of a shattered family. He did not want that for his son.
Not that Wyn was apt to pine for Caroline as some children might for an absent mother. According to Mrs McGregor, his stylish countess spent more time each day resting from the previous late night or grooming for some approaching engagement than she did in the nursery. The odd hours she did spend there only served to disrupt the child’s sensible, healthy routine, spoiling him with gifts and sweets, making him overexcited from romping about. And when she’d amused herself and grown tired of his company, or when the little fellow grew fretful, she would simply hand him back to the long-suffering Mrs McGregor.
As long as Wyn had his faithful nurse and one responsible parent, surely the child would manage well enough.
That meant he would have to be an even more constant presence in his young son’s life, Bennett reminded himself. From the time Wyn was very young, he had made certain to visit the nursery as often as possible to enquire if the child had slept well, if his appetite was satisfactory, if he was in good health and spirits. When Wyn was old enough, Bennett began to make a point of reading to him or taking him for walks around the estate, both of which Mrs McGregor heartily approved.
One fatherly duty he dreaded was the task of explaining Caroline’s departure and the breakdown of their marriage in a way his young son could understand, while sparing him the worst of it. Though Bennett had no idea how he would find the right words, he knew he must try. He would not see the little fellow confused and anxious, left to piece together the shameful truth from the tattle of servants, as he’d once done.
The moment he entered Sterling House, Bennett headed immediately for the nursery to check on his son. He hoped Caroline had not been so thoughtless as to subject the child to an overwrought farewell.
When he entered the large, sunny room on the second floor of the east range, all was quiet apart from the soft click of knitting needles and the faint squeak of the rocking chair. Bennett’s gaze skipped over the familiar figure of Mrs McGregor, seeking his son.
‘Where is Wyn?’ He pitched his voice low in case the boy was sleeping. ‘This is not his usual nap time.’
‘No, my lord.’ The nurse’s long knitting needles froze in mid-stitch. ‘If he were here, he’d be awake by now. But he’s gone away on that wee holiday with the countess. Were you hoping to bid them farewell before they left?’
‘Holiday?’ Bennett repeated the word as if he’d never heard it before and was trying to grasp its meaning. ‘What holiday? Where has she taken him?’
An indignant scowl clenched the nurse’s sharp features. ‘I thought it seemed most irregular, but her ladyship insisted she was acting on your instructions.’
It was true he had bidden Caroline away. But he had not given her permission to take Wyn, let alone ordered it. ‘Did she say where they were going? How long ago did they leave?’
‘This morning, my lord, earlier than I’ve ever seen her ladyship out of bed before. She said they were going to your house on the Isles of Scilly.’
Suddenly Bennett found himself teetering on the edge of a precipice. Just because Caroline had told Mrs McGregor they were going to the islands did not mean it was true. What if his wife had run away with her lover and taken his son with them—to the Continent, perhaps, or to Astley’s accursed plantation in the West Indies?
The very notion threatened to push Bennett over the edge into a bottomless abyss, but he stifled his panic to concentrate on action. Wherever Caroline had gone, he would track her down and fetch his son home, where the boy belonged.
Five days after their precipitous departure from Sterling House, Wyn Maitland tugged on the sleeve of his mother’s pelisse. ‘How much longer until we get to that silly place, Mama?’
Wyn had asked that question at least once a mile on the three hundred of their journey to Penzance, and even more often since they’d boarded this ship for the islands. With each repetition, his words grated harder and harder on Caroline’s frayed nerves. A sharp answer burned on her tongue, demanding to be spit out. Or perhaps it was the bile that rose in her throat every time the ship lurched in heavy seas.
One thought alone kept her from bidding the child to hold his tongue. He had not asked to accompany her on this long, tedious, uncomfortable journey. She had taken him from his safe, snug nursery, dragging him into the wilds of Cornwall and out to sea. If either of them had reason to be irritable with the other, it was her son with her, not the other way round.
‘Quite soon, now, dearest.’
‘I hope you’re right, ma’am,’ grumbled her lady’s maid, who sat on the bench opposite them in the cramped, dimly lit cabin. ‘When we boarded, they said it would be no more than eight hours’ sailing with fair winds. How long has it been now?’
‘Nearly twelve hours.’ Caroline heaved a dejected sigh. ‘I hope the servants will still be awake by the time we reach the house.’
It was all that had sustained her for the past few days, as she’d discovered the difficulty of travelling with a young child and caring for him day and night—the vision of a pretty country house with its friendly staff of caretakers to welcome them. The first thing she would order was a warm pot of chocolate for her and Wyn to sip in front of a crackling fire. Once her little son was tucked in for the night, she would soak away the chills and kinks of her journey in a hot bath.
‘I don’t care if they’ve gone to bed,’ grumbled Albert, the young footman who made the fourth member of their travelling party. ‘Somebody had better stir themselves to fix a poultice for my ankle.’
He had taken a fall a few hours ago, when the ship pitched sharply.
‘I’m sure they’ll be glad to.’ Caroline sought to lighten the footman’s sullen temper. It was clear both he and Parker were disgruntled about accompanying her on this journey. Once the servants realised they might be in for an extended stay on the island, she feared they would desert her. ‘How is your ankle?’
‘Getting worse by the hour, ma’am,’ Albert replied in a reproachful tone as if he blamed her for his misfortune. ‘Swelled up and paining like the devil.’
‘How much longer until we get there?’ Wyn asked yet again. ‘I miss Greggy. Why could she not come with us on this holiday?’
Caroline had asked herself that same question. How much easier would this journey have been for both of them if Wyn’s capable nurse were there to look after him and answer his endless questions? But Mrs McGregor’s presence would have been a double-edged sword, she reminded herself. How could she hope to make good her vow to become a more attentive mother to her son while his nurse lurked about, always coming between them and subtly criticising everything she tried to do?
‘Mrs McGregor is long overdue for a holiday of her own.’ It was the truth. Caroline strove to stifle her protesting conscience. The woman did deserve a holiday, whether or not she chose to take one.
‘What about Papa?’ asked Wyn. ‘Why didn’t he come with us?’
Her son’s question tore at Caroline. She wondered if Wyn would ever ask for her after she had been wrenched from his life. And if he did, how would Bennett respond to his son’s pleas? Would he even care?
‘I’m sure your father would like to be with us.’ She uttered that well-meant falsehood with all the sincerity she could rally. ‘But you know he is terribly busy in the House of Lords, passing laws for the good of the country.’
That part was true, at least. Unlike some of his fellow peers, the earl took his duties in Parliament very seriously. Because he did not align himself on every issue with one particular faction, he was often able to cast a deciding vote or broker a compromise. But there was one matter on which he would never compromise—the abolition of slavery. Much as Caroline resented her husband’s mistrust and feared his threat to divorce her, she could not help but admire his integrity and his devotion to such a noble cause.
‘How much longer until we get there?’
Fortunately for Caroline, she was spared the need to answer. At that moment, from the deck above, came the distant muffled call, ‘Land ho!’
Those were two of the most welcome words she’d heard in weeks. ‘Very soon, my love. Before long we will be warm and fed, with solid ground beneath our feet and no more miles to travel tomorrow.’
Wyn gave a cheer while Parker and Albert exchanged a look of relief.
An hour later, they found themselves ashore on a dark, moonless night. It might not have been so very cold, but the damp wind gusted hard enough to penetrate every layer of clothing, chilling the flesh beneath.
‘Where are ye bound for, ma’am?’ asked the young man who heaved their luggage into a cart pulled by a small dark horse. ‘Dolphin Town? The inn at New Grimsby?’
How large was this island? Caroline wondered. On a globe it had looked like one of a cluster of pebbles kicked into the sea by the long-toed boot of Cornwall.
‘We’ve come to stay at a house that belongs to the Earl of Sterling. Do you know the place? Is it far from here?’ She was beginning to sound like Wyn.
‘Please?’ the carter asked in a tone as if begging her pardon for not having understood. ‘There’s no earl that lives on Tresco, ma’am.’
‘The earl doesn’t live here.’ Caroline shushed Wyn who was dancing about, pestering her with more questions. ‘I’m certain he has not been here in the past seven years at least. But he told me he owns a house on this island.’
The young man shook his head slowly. ‘Only local folk lives here, ma’am. Unless… you mean the old Maitland place?’
Caroline’s sinking spirits rebounded. ‘That’s it, to be sure! Bennett Maitland is the Earl of Sterling. I am his wife.’
How much longer would she be able to make that lofty claim?
‘How far is the house?’ she asked. ‘Can you take us there?’
‘Not but a step, ma’am. Over yonder.’ He pointed into the darkness.
Caroline strained for a glimpse of lights shining from the windows, but could make out none. ‘Is there a carriage I might hire to take us there?’
‘Sorry, my lady, there’s only my cart and Steren, here.’ The young islander patted his pony on the rump. ‘You and the lad are welcome to ride if you can find a perch among your baggage.’
Wyn ran over to the cart and the young man hoisted him in. Caroline was about to climb after her son when a cough drew her attention back to Albert. Even if it was ‘not but a step’, the footman would never be able to hobble that far on his injured ankle. One look at the brimming cart told her it had room for only one more person.
‘Get in.’ She beckoned the footman. ‘I don’t want to be out on a night like this any longer than we have to.’
They were soon on their way. Caroline had never thought the day would come when she would walk so a servant could ride. At least the exertion of trudging behind the cart made her somewhat warmer, while the gusts of salty air helped settle her queasy stomach.
But even they could not blow away the sense of guilt that nagged at her for dragging Wyn off on such a miserable journey. If she’d had more time to anticipate the consequences of her actions, perhaps she might have left him to his familiar nursery routine and the competent care of Mrs McGregor. But the dread of never seeing her child again, and her desire to be a more attentive mother during the time they had left, had overridden every other consideration.
‘Are you all right, Wyn?’ she called to him.
‘Y-yes, Mama.’ He sounded cheerful enough under the circumstances. ‘I’ve never been allowed outdoors after dark before and I’ve never ridden in a cart. It’s like an adventure!’
Parker muttered something under her breath that Caroline did not catch.
‘Here we are,’ announced the islander as his cart came to a halt. ‘This is the Maitland house.’
‘There must be some mistake.’ Caroline surveyed the rustic stone dwelling by the wildly flickering light of their guide’s torch. The place was no bigger than the groundskeeper’s lodge at Sterling House. All the windows were shuttered and not even the faintest gleam of light escaped through the slats. ‘It looks quite abandoned. Are there no caretakers living here?’
‘Not for ten years, ma’am.’ The helpful reply demolished all of Caroline’s hopes. ‘Mag and Jack Harris used to keep the place for the lady who owned it. But after Jack passed on, Aunt Mag went to live with her daughter on Bryher. The house has been shut up ever since.’
‘Does anyone have a key?’ Caroline’s voice grew shrill with desperation. ‘So we can at least take shelter from this wind.’
‘No need for locks and keys on Tresco, ma’am.’ The carter assured her. ‘Off-islanders think we’re all smugglers, but we’re honest folk and there’s few enough of us that we’d soon know if anybody was making away with what didn’t belong to him.’
To demonstrate, he lifted the latch and pushed the door open. The hinges gave a painful-sounding squeal.
Wyn scrambled down from the cart and followed his mother into the house behind the carter, who lit the way with his torch. As her anxious gaze swept around the parlour, Caroline’s heartening visions of warm fires, chocolate and a hot bath crumbled into cold dust like the kind that covered every surface in the room. Cobwebs draped the ceiling corners. Dead insects littered the floor.
‘What is that smell?’ Parker fanned her nose. ‘Did someone set fire to a load of rotten fish?’
‘Oh, no, miss.’ The carter inhaled. ‘That’d be smoke from the summer kelp fires. I reckon it seeped in over the years and never got aired out properly.’
Just then, Caroline would have given anything to be back at Sterling House—even in the servants’ hall, which would be warm and clean. If Wyn had not been with her, she might have sunk to the floor and wept in despair. As it was, it took every scrap of pluck she could muster to shore up her faltering composure.
‘We cannot stay here tonight.’ She shook her head. ‘Everything will need to be cleaned and aired before we take up residence.’
‘Not by me.’ Parker crossed her arms in front of her flat chest. ‘I’m a lady’s maid, not a charwoman. I’d sooner swim back to Penzance than scrub all this.’
Caroline was too tired and cold to argue the matter just then. She cast the carter a pleading look. ‘Is there anywhere we can find lodging for the night? Did you say Tresco has an inn?’
‘Aye, ma’am. T’other side of the island.’
Parker and Albert groaned.
‘We can be there in half an hour,’ added the carter, ‘if we step lively.’
Though Caroline welcomed the news that the inn was not far away, it disheartened her to realise how tiny this island must be if it took such a short time to cross from one coast to the other. Tresco would be her remote, rustic prison—as different as it could possibly be from the luxurious, stimulating life she’d enjoyed in London.
How long would she be obliged to stay here? she asked herself as her small party trudged through the dark windy night to the inn. Just until the tattle about her and Fitz Astley died down? Or would she be stranded here for the rest of her life once Bennett divorced her?
Somehow she managed to keep going for another two hours, hiring them rooms for the night, ordering a modest supper and finally putting Wyn to bed. Once he had dropped off to sleep, she slipped out of the room. In the narrow hallway she encountered the innkeeper’s wife, a small, neat woman with a ruddy complexion and dark-brown hair, grizzled at the temples.
‘Are you ailing, my lady?’ the woman asked in a kindly tone. ‘Tell me your trouble and perhaps I can brew you a remedy.’
‘I’m not ill, Mrs Pender, only tired.’ Caroline contrived a poor substitute for a smile. ‘It has been a long journey from London and I have not slept well.’
‘I see,’ replied Mrs Pender. ‘Well, if it’s nothing worse than that, I reckon a cup of camomile tea would do you a power of good. Would you care to join me in my parlour?’
Caroline hesitated for an instant. What would her friends in London say if they knew she was keeping company with a rural innkeeper’s wife? Some of them might think worse of her for that than for being caught kissing Mr Astley at Almack’s.
But she was a vast distance from London now. And none of those friends were here to comfort or divert her. Indeed, she doubted any of them would have come to visit her if she’d still been back in London. They seemed to view scandal as some sort of contagious malady that might infect them if they ventured too near.
This woman was the first to have shown her any kindness since that awful night her world had come crashing down. Until this moment, she had not realised how starved she was for a bit of agreeable company.
‘That is most obliging of you.’ Despite her fatigue and all her worries, Caroline found herself able to smile more sincerely. ‘I would enjoy a little refreshment and someone to share it. I don’t believe I’ve ever had camomile tea.’
‘It’s fine stuff, my lady.’ Mrs Pender started down the stairs and Caroline followed her. ‘It has a mild flavour and calms the mind to help you sleep. I pick the flowers early in the summer from the meadows around Great Pool.’
There were meadows of wildflowers on this island? Caroline found it hard to believe after what she’d seen of Tresco’s rugged, inhospitable landscape so far.
‘It’s an honour to have you and your son staying here, my lady.’ The landlady beckoned Caroline into a snug little parlour, then called a servant to fetch hot water from the kitchen. ‘It does my heart good to think of family living in the Maitland house again after all these years. I mind your husband used to come here with his mother when he was about the age of your little fellow.’
‘Did he?’ Caroline sank on to an armchair by the hearth, gratefully soaking up the warmth of the fire. ‘I had no idea.’
‘Yes, indeed, ma’am.’ Her hostess beamed. ‘My auntie cooked for them and I used to help her out. The countess was such a kind lady and Master Bennett… I mean… his lordship was the picture of your son.’
‘Was he?’ Because Bennett never spoke of his mother, Caroline had always assumed she must have died when he was very young, as hers had. If he’d been old enough to remember, why had he never mentioned her? ‘Was my husband close to his mother in those days?’
‘Quite devoted, ma’am. And he was all the world to her. She was for ever taking him for walks and picnics. When the weather was bad, she’d play cards with him and read to him by the hour.’
Those were all things Caroline wanted to do with Wyn. But first she would have to get that deserted house cleaned so it would be fit to live in.
‘What sort of woman was my husband’s mother? I never had the pleasure of knowing her.’ Would Mrs Pender think it strange that Bennett had not told her about his mother?
‘Well…’ The landlady thought back. ‘I recall she was always polite to folks, no matter what their station.’
Caroline wondered if that was how Bennett had come by his political principles—his admirable concern for the enslaved and the working poor.
‘She was pretty as a picture,’ Mrs Pender continued, ‘though never very strong, poor soul. She always came here for the climate in the autumn while her husband was hunting.’
The maid returned then with a teapot, cups and a steaming kettle. Caroline watched as Mrs Pender brewed up their tea.
While it steeped, she continued to pump the landlady for information to appease her curiosity. ‘I suppose it has been quite a long while since they last came to the island?’
‘Laws, yes, my lady. It must be every day of two dozen years.’
‘That must have been when his mother died,’ Caroline murmured to herself.
In the process of lifting the teapot, Mrs Pender froze. ‘No, my lady. She came back once, a few years later, without him. Not to stay, but just for a few days to pack up some things from the house to take away.’
The woman looked as if she meant to say something else, then suddenly changed her mind. Instead she fussed with the tea, pouring it through a tiny strainer.
‘Is there something else?’ Caroline fixed the woman with a searching gaze as she took the offered cup. ‘Whatever it is, I should very much like to know.’
The landlady wavered. ‘I don’t like to gossip, ma’am. Especially not about her ladyship. She was always good to me.’
The woman’s evasive answer only intrigued Caroline more. What manner of gossip could she know about Bennett’s mother?
Taking a sip from her cup, she savoured the wholesome, mellow sweetness. The fragrance alone seemed to soothe her. ‘I appreciate your discretion, Mrs Pender, in not talking over the private matters of my family with strangers. However, since I am a member of the family, perhaps you could make an exception?’
The landlady sipped her tea in silence, clearly mulling over Caroline’s request. ‘Perhaps it’s no great matter, after all, ma’am. It’s just that when her ladyship came back that last time, she brought a gentleman with her. Fine looking, he was, and very agreeable. I can’t recall his name, now, but he… wasn’t her husband.’
Those last few words, Mrs Pender spoke in a scandalised whisper.
Caroline nearly choked on a mouthful of her tea. Had Bennett’s parents been divorced? He had never said so, but then again he’d never spoken of them at all. Could this be the reason—because he was ashamed of the family scandal?
‘Perhaps the man was some relative of her ladyship?’ she suggested. ‘A brother or a cousin?’
‘Aye, ma’am. He might have been.’ Mrs Pender sounded doubtful.
If Bennett was ashamed of his parents’ divorce, Caroline mused, why was he so eager to taint their young son with that same kind of shame?
By taking flight with their son, his wife had banished Bennett’s few doubts about seeking a divorce. He’d pursued Caroline’s party relentlessly all the way from London, and might have caught up with them at Penzance if a lame horse had not delayed him. By the time he landed on Tresco, late the next afternoon, he feared he would find no sign of Caroline or his son because Astley had spirited them abroad.
Striding up from the quay at Old Grimsby through a spit of rain, Bennett was struck by an uncanny feeling that he’d journeyed back in time. Nothing about the island appeared to have changed in the past twenty years, from the stone cottages with their thatched roofs to the wheeled barrels for fetching water from Great Pool. As he approached the house, he half-expected to meet his younger self running out the front door.
Perhaps that was what stopped him from calling out, compelling him instead to lift the latch with care and ease the door open almost reluctantly. He found the parlour deserted, the furniture still draped in voluminous dust sheets. The room seemed so much smaller than he remembered it. The floor was covered with a layer of dust, soot and dead flies. Was no one tending to the place any more? Or had they stopped bothering after so many years? Perhaps they’d expected some message to warn them of an impending visit before they went to the trouble of cleaning. The only sign anyone had been there recently was a scattering of fresh footprints on the dirty floor.
Had Caroline come here, as he’d bidden her, only to flee from the place in disgust? He wasn’t certain he could blame her if she had.
Unpleasant smells issued from the direction of kitchen, but the faint sound of movement overhead drew Bennett to the stairs, which he mounted quietly. Following the sound, he peered into the bedchamber that his mother had occupied on their long-ago holidays here. The sight that met his eyes quite confounded him.
There was Caroline, down on her hands and knees, scrubbing the floor with violent energy. Though she was turned away from him, he recognised her golden curls and her gown. It was one of the simplest she owned, yet it still looked far more elaborate than any housemaid would wear to undertake such a task.
His elegant countess stooping to common housework? If he had not seen it with his own eyes, Bennett never would have believed it possible.
As he watched Caroline dip her brush into a bucket of steaming water, then drag it back and forth across the floorboards, his gaze was irresistibly drawn to her shapely bottom. Raised towards him and covered only with flimsy layers of linen and muslin, it swayed with a most enticing rhythm as she worked. He could picture it bare, those smooth, firm lobes fairly begging for the attention of his hands. His body responded to the imagined invitation with straining hunger. He ached to toss his wife upon the cold, musty-smelling bed and purge all the conflicting feelings she provoked in him.
Against his will, a growl of sultry yearning rumbled deep in his chest.
The sound made Caroline glance back over her shoulder. Catching sight of him, she shrieked as if she’d seen a ghost. Trying to rise while keeping as far away from him as possible, she scuttled like a crab, knocking over the scrub bucket. When she sprang up to avoid the gush of water, she struck her head on the steeply sloped gable ceiling.
‘Look what you made me do!’ She rubbed her head as a stream of soapy water poured over the floor. ‘Why did you sneak up on me like that?’
Her furious glare and accusing tone quenched his sympathy for her difficulties.
Bennett’s temper flared, fuelled by the volatile desire she’d ignited in him. ‘What did you mean by sneaking away from London with my son? I never gave you leave to take him!’
‘You never forbade me either!’ She stooped to tip the bucket upright, too late to do any good. ‘This was the only way I could get a final chance to spend time with my child.’
‘I would have forbidden it,’ he snapped, ‘if you’d had the civility to inform me of your intentions. Instead I was left to discover you’d made away with him without my knowledge or consent. For all I knew, you’d run off abroad with him and your… paramour.’
Her blue-green eyes blazed with the fury of a storm on the Mediterranean. ‘If you mean Mr Astley, he is not my paramour. Even if he were, how could you think I would ever steal Wyn away? It is you who are determined to deprive our son of a parent, with your threat of divorce.’
If she had snatched up her scrub brush and hurled it at his head, it could not have hit Bennett as hard as that accusation she seemed to pluck from the depths of his conscience. Never in seven years of marriage had they quarreled with such open animosity. Their preferred weapons had been frosty silences broken by the occasional waspish barb. Much as this raw hostility horrified his deep-rooted sense of self-control, another part of him relished the opportunity to vent some of the resentment that had long smouldered inside him.
‘How could I think you capable of absconding with my son?’ He hurled Caroline’s question back at her, heavy with sarcasm. ‘Perhaps because you have recently demonstrated the depths of impropriety to which you are capable of sinking. With Astley of all men—the choice does not speak well for your discernment.’
‘Why do you refuse to believe there was nothing worse going on between me and Mr Astley than what you saw with your own eyes at Almack’s?’ she demanded. ‘Is it because you don’t want to? Perhaps you have been waiting for a chance like this all along—a pretext to be rid of me now that I have served my purpose by bearing you an heir.’
Did she truly believe he was seeking an excuse to divorce her? Or was she only trying to deflect attention from her infamous conduct by casting aspersions on his motives? Beneath the passionate hostility that crackled between them, Bennett sensed the other kind of passion. In a plain gown, with her hair tousled by her exertions and a dewy glow in her cheeks, Caroline looked less like the pampered diamond of society and more like an earthy, sensual woman who appealed to him in far too many ways. Did she suspect what power she might hold over him if he let down his guard?
He must take care she did not.
Refusing to dignify her preposterous accusation with an answer, he changed the subject instead. ‘Speaking of my heir, where is Wyn? And what were you doing down on your knees, scrubbing the floor? I didn’t think you knew how.’
‘It is not Greek or higher mathematics. I’ve watched servants scrub floors all my life.’ Caroline pushed a fallen lock of hair off her forehead. ‘Wyn is with Albert, back at the inn. I was trying to get this room fit for us to sleep in tonight. It hasn’t been easy, considering the place has not been cleaned in years. Now it’s a worse mess than ever.’
Gazing down at the drenched floor, she shook her head and heaved a weary sigh. She looked so thoroughly discouraged Bennett could not suppress a secret pang of shame. ‘I had no idea you would find the house in such a state. I thought there was still someone taking care of it.’
Caroline cast him a look that made it clear she did not believe his excuse any more than he believed she’d been a faithful wife. Did she think he had sent her to such a dirty, deserted old place on purpose? Not that it would harm her to do a bit of honest work and learn how ordinary folk lived. Still, after seven years of marriage, she should know he took his responsibility to provide for her seriously—even when she neglected her duty to be faithful.
‘But why were you scrubbing the floor,’ he persisted, ‘while Albert plays nursemaid?’
‘Because Albert is in no fit condition to do anything else at the moment.’ Caroline told him how the footman had injured his ankle. ‘Parker flatly refused to scrub floors and I didn’t dare press her for fear she might leave on the next boat. She agreed to do the marketing and cooking, both of which take more skill than this.’
By the smells rising from the kitchen, Bennett had grave doubts about Parker’s culinary abilities. ‘Why did you not stay a few more days at the inn and engage some local women to set this place to rights?’
Caroline reached around to rub the small of her back. ‘Most of the money I brought with me was spent on our journey. Since I didn’t know when I might get more, I was obliged to be careful with what I had left. Keeping four people at an inn with meals can add up quickly, you know.’
Under other circumstances, it might have been amusing to hear his wife preach economy. Those inn charges of which she complained would not have equalled the cost of a single gown or an elaborate fan she’d have purchased on a whim last week.
Still, Bennett’s conscience troubled him for ordering Caroline so far away without making certain she had sufficient funds to supply her needs. ‘I am here now and I have brought plenty of money. You can stay at the inn until this place is fit to occupy. Before I leave, I will hire some local folk to serve you.’
If he provided his wife with plenty of servants to cater to her needs, perhaps he might feel less guilty for leaving her here—even if this was by far the best place for her, under the circumstances.
‘How soon do you intend to leave?’ Caroline’s question carried an unspoken plea.
Bennett steeled himself to resist it. ‘Tomorrow. The boat I chartered from Penzance is anchored in the cove. I must get back to Parliament.’
He’d had great hopes for Lord Liverpool after the earl spoke in favour of Abolition at the Congress of Vienna. But lately Liverpool’s ministry seemed more inclined to deprive ordinary citizens of their freedoms than to free the enslaved.
‘I suppose you will be very busy with your work when you return to London?’
‘Of course.’ What in blazes did Caroline care about his work?
‘Then why not let Wyn stay here with me? You will have no time to spend with him, while I will have nothing else to do with mine. Besides, we just arrived last night after a long journey. It cannot be good for the child to make another again so soon.’
She expected him to reward her for going behind his back to spirit his son away? Next the woman would demand a medal for her adulterous affairs! ‘Perhaps you should have thought of that when you dragged the boy away from his nursery under false pretences.’
‘I didn’t think you would come so soon to fetch him back.’ Caroline’s winsome pleading gave way to indignant anger. ‘Why can you not give me a little more time with him if you are determined to part us for ever? Is it because you care more about punishing me and exercising ownership over your heir than you do about a small child’s feelings?’
The charge infuriated Bennett. She made him sound like the most heartless slave master. ‘When did you begin to care about the boy’s feelings or anything else to do with him? I’m certain if this island had a pleasure garden or assembly hall to keep you amused, you’d be only too happy to be rid of him. I will not let you use my son for your plaything, then cast him aside when you grow bored. Motherhood is not a game!’
Carolyn reeled as if he’d boxed her ears. However vigorously she might deny the charge, it was clear his accusation had struck a nerve.
She wasted no time striking back. ‘How dare you question the sincerity of my feelings for Wyn? I have never seen you show him the least sign of affection.’
‘I care for my son!’ Bennett raised his voice to drown out the traitorous whisper of doubt in his thoughts. He knew he loved his son, but did Wyn know it? ‘All his life I have watched over him and made certain he had everything he needed to be safe and well and content. I dropped everything and travelled all this way to fetch him home. Actions like those speak far louder than your lavish, hollow gestures.’
Caroline flinched. ‘If I have been more effusive in showing my affections towards him, it was not for my own amusement, but to make up for your coldness. I know I have not been as constant and attentive a mother as I should. That is why I brought Wyn with me—so I might have an opportunity to make it up to him. Please, let me keep him here a while longer.’
‘Why should I? So you can make him so deeply attached to you that he will be devastated by our divorce?’ Striving to keep the sparks of hostility between them from blazing into something far more dangerous, Bennett encased himself in a crust of frosty disdain that had served him well in the past.
But even that stout armour was not impervious to Caroline’s next strike. ‘Devastated? Was that how you felt when your father divorced your mother?’
How much did she know about his family? Bennett struggled to regain control of his vocal organs. Not all the sordid details, obviously. But her guess about his feelings was far too close to the truth for his liking.
‘Who told you about my parents’ marriage?’ He forced out the words in a headlong rush.
‘What does it matter?’ Caroline countered. ‘Don’t you think I should have heard it from you long before this?’
Talk to her about such an intimate and painful subject? He’d never even considered it, least of all after their marriage had begun to go as disastrously wrong as his parents’. ‘What would have been the point of telling you? It was ancient history and not any business of yours.’
‘I think it is very much my business when you intend to tear Wyn away from me just as you were torn away from your mother when your father divorced her.’
Her words dealt a sharp blow to an old wound that had never healed properly. ‘I was not torn away from my mother! She abandoned me for her paramour, in spite of all her protestations of maternal devotion. So you must excuse me for looking upon yours with a jaundiced eye.’
His revelation clearly struck a blow to Caroline’s hopes. She reeled, as if buffeted by a violent gust of wind that stole her breath away.
Had it been a mistake not to tell her what his mother had done? If nothing else, his shameful family history might have provided a cautionary tale about the consequences of a woman breaking her marriage vows.
Bennett had not intended to utter another word on the subject of his past. But now that the stopper had been pulled from the jug, he found it hard to contain what came pouring out.
Bennett’s mother had deserted her son to run off with another man? A confused cascade of thoughts rushed through Caroline’s mind. Almost as many and conflicting as the emotions that scoured her heart. She found herself torn between sympathy for what her husband must have suffered as a child and indignation that he believed her guilty of repeating his mother’s mistakes.
How could a woman abandon her child and bring such shame upon him? Unhappy as her marriage had been in recent years, she’d never seriously considered taking a lover, let alone running away with one. There was only one man she’d ever loved, one man with whom she’d been happy, however briefly. She had lost his affection, if indeed she’d ever inspired more than physical desire.
Bennett’s sudden arrival had thrown her into confusion. When she’d glanced back to find him standing in the doorway, Caroline felt as if she were seeing someone she barely recognised. He had grown into his height since the days when he’d visited her girlhood home to confer with her father. Where he’d once been lanky and a bit awkward, he was now broad-shouldered and imposing. There was a becoming maturity about his crisp patrician features as well. The full black brows that had given his younger face an almost comical severity now suited him all too well.
The dark eyes beneath those brows had not changed, though. They still radiated fierce intelligence that shielded their enigmatic depths. In all their years together, Caroline had never succeeded in divining her husband’s feelings by gazing into those well-guarded eyes.
Today, however, she was not obliged to guess. For once, Bennett was more than willing to speak his mind. ‘For your information, my father did not divorce my mother. No doubt she’d hoped he would, so she could salvage some shred of her reputation by marrying the scoundrel she’d run off with. Father refused. He believed she deserved to suffer the full consequences of her folly. You do not seem to appreciate the service I would do you by seeking a divorce.’
‘You expect me to be grateful to you for ruining my life over one foolish mistake?’ Caroline’s pity for the young Bennett was seared away by a blast of rage at the man he’d become. ‘Tell me, have you never made a mistake that you would give anything to undo? But of course you have. Marrying me was your great mistake, wasn’t it? One you’ve regretted and wanted to undo for years. Now I have given you your chance.’
Five years of pent-up longing and frustration demanded release. Wrenching the wedding ring off her finger, she flung it at him with all her might. ‘Go ahead, then! Divorce me, steal my son, drive me out of society! It cannot be any worse than being married to a man like you!’
Part of her relished the look of horror that gripped his dark, handsome features. It gave her an unaccustomed sense of power to make him feel something. Yet all the anger, hurt and guilt their quarrel had stirred up raged within her, demanding another outlet. If she stayed there a moment longer she feared she would break down in tears. She could not bear to betray that kind of weakness in front of Bennett.
Taking advantage of his momentary daze, she dodged past him and fled the room. But when she reached the hallway, Caroline found herself confronted by a sight that stunned and horrified her.
Her son’s small face peeped up just above the head of the stairs. His eyes were open so wide, they looked twice their normal size, while his mouth had fallen slack. He looked as if he’d seen a ghost or witnessed some other terrifying sight.
How much of their vicious row had the poor child overheard?
‘Wyn…’ She wanted to assure him it was all right, but that obvious falsehood stuck in her throat.
Before she could think of anything better to say, the child spun around and disappeared from view.
‘Wyn!’ she cried, running after him. ‘Come back, dearest! You needn’t be frightened!’
Her words brought Bennett thundering down the stairs after her. ‘I thought you said he was back at the inn with Albert.’
His words seethed with accusation. Did he think she’d lied about that, risking Wyn overhearing them? Was there any conduct so vile he would not believe her capable of it?
‘He was at the inn!’ she insisted. ‘Albert must have brought him back here. I don’t know why.’
From the parlour, the hinges of the front door shrieked as it was wrenched open. Caroline and Bennett raced toward it, jostling one another in their haste. When they reached the entrance, the door hung open, swinging back and forth as the wind blew in gusts of hard, cold rain.
When had this storm started? She’d been too deeply immersed in her quarrel with Bennett to notice. Could this be why Albert had brought Wyn from the inn—to get here ahead of the rain?
How her son had come to be there did not matter, now. Caroline and Bennett ran outside, peering frantically around for some sign of the child, calling his name at the top of their lungs to carry over the gathering fury of the storm.
The rain lashed down in sheets out of a dark, angry sky. It soaked Caroline to the skin before she had taken half-a-dozen steps. Though it chilled her to the bone, it was nothing compared to the icy fear that clutched her heart at the thought of her son wandering out in this deluge.
‘Wyn! Come back, dearest! Come to Mama!’ Where could he have gone? Surely he could not have got far in such a short time. Had he ducked behind the house perhaps, seeking shelter from the wind and rain?
She groped her way around the house, continuing to call out for the child as she went. But the howling wind seemed to catch her voice and steal it away. Would Wyn be able to hear her? And if he did, would he be willing to come to her after the scene he’d witnessed between her and his father? Caroline struggled to subdue her alarm, but it seemed to feed on the power of the storm and grow stronger.
As she rounded the corner to the back of the house, she saw Bennett moving towards her from the opposite direction.
‘Get back inside!’ he bellowed. ‘I’ll look for Wyn!’
‘No!’ Caroline pushed a hank of sodden hair off her face. She was not going to be Bennett’s wife for much longer, so what was the use of obeying his wishes now? ‘I have to look for him! Don’t you understand? It’s my fault he’s out here! If any harm comes to him…’
Fearing Bennett might try to stop her, she turned and ran blindly. To her relief, he did not follow. He must realise it was no use wasting time they desperately needed to search for their son.
‘Where are you, Wyn?’ she cried, though the question was more to herself than to him.
Calling his name again and again, she staggered forwards. Her dress and shoes were so thoroughly soaked they weighed her down almost as much as her guilt. She was the one who had taken Wyn from his safe, familiar nursery and brought him to this stormy island with its turmoil and danger.
If any harm befell her son, it would be a judgement upon her for putting her needs ahead of his well-being. Perhaps that was what Bennett had meant when he’d accused her of not knowing what love was. All these years, she had thought of love in terms of endearments and gestures of affection, when in truth it might be something simpler and far more substantial.
Would she ever get the opportunity to learn to love her son that way?
‘If any harm comes to him…’ As Caroline ran off into the rain, her last unfinished sentence echoed ominously in Bennett’s mind.
It conjured up terrifying visions of the dangers their son might encounter if he strayed any distance from the house. The sea-swept cliffs. The ancient tin pits that pocked the hills above Dolphin Town. The restless, hungry ocean that gnawed at the edges of the island. By force of will, Bennett wrenched himself back from the perilous downward spiral of such thoughts.
Caroline’s barely contained panic was contagious. One glance at her and his heart had raced even faster, his stomach lurched and he had trouble catching his breath. He knew he could not allow such potent emotions to overcome him. His son’s life might depend upon him keeping a cool head.
Since Caroline had struck out towards the interior of the island, he would search along the coast, where the greatest danger lay.
‘Wyn!’ he bellowed as his gaze ranged desperately. ‘Where are you? Come to me, son!’
Yet while he walked and called out and scanned the area, he could not banish his last glimpse of Caroline from his mind. Her porcelain skin had the bluish pallor of whey. Her eyes had been opened too wide and moved restlessly. Not even the legendary Mrs Siddons could have put on such a convincing performance of distress. Much as Bennett longed to doubt her, he could not. She’d looked so vulnerable, so worried, so guilt-ridden, it stirred a sense of protectiveness he had not felt towards her in a very long time. He struggled to subdue it, but the two of them were bound tightly together by something far more important than their many differences.
He could no longer deny that Caroline loved their son. She might not have been the most attentive mother, but perhaps he had not been the most affectionate father. Faced with the dark dread of losing his child for ever, Bennett began to understand the desperation that had driven her to keep Wyn with her at all costs.
As more and more time passed with no sign of his son, Bennett found it harder to contain his mounting anxiety. Wyn was the only person in a very long time he’d permitted himself to love. There were others he might respect or admire, but none for who