Saints and Sinners, book three
Marriage is about finding that special someone you want to annoy for the rest of your life!
Mrs. Rebecca Warner’s devotion to her family is the perfect distraction from the loneliness of widowhood. Not that she’d ever admit a need for someone special in her life after her husband’s betrayal. With the responsibility of arranging her sister’s wedding falling into her lap, Rebecca has no time for a certain maddening earl bent on seducing her—until he proves her most ardent ally.
For Adam Croft, Earl of Rafferty, what began as an amusing pursuit—shocking Rebecca Warner—becomes something deeper when he recognizes how perfect a wife and mother she would make. Adam’s keenly aware of his loneliness…and that his habit to curb it with drink lost him Becca’s respect. He’ll happily change his ways to win her approval, but what more can he do to win her love?
EBOOK: Read it today!
Publish Date: February 12, 2019
Digital ISBN: 978-1-925239-51-5
Genre: Regency Historical Romance
Print ISBN: 978-1-925239-52-2
Print Length: 256 pages
Adam Croft scowled at the man striding along at his side through the church. “You’re smirking.”
“Am I, Lord Rafferty?” Gideon Whitfield asked, and then, still smirking, accepted the congratulations for his upcoming wedding to the Duke of Stapleton’s youngest daughter. The announcement had delighted the congregation immensely, and the duke looked pleased as punch also. The ceremony would not be conducted in the village chapel but in the duke’s nearby home.
“Definitely gloating,” Adam noted as they moved on through the crowd. He nodded to the members of the congregation, those he recognized as locals. Adam attended Sunday services infrequently, but he’d had to come and see this. It wasn’t every day that such a confirmed bachelor fell in love.
He nudged Whitfield in the ribs when the fellow continued to smile. “Anyone would think you are happy about today’s announcement.”
Whitfield laughed then. “Well, I am marrying the most remarkable creature in existence, so yes; I suppose I might just be a little happy.”
Adam didn’t bother to hide the fact that he rolled his eyes. “You keep saying that.”
“You’ve only yourself to blame, too. Putting the idea into my head that I wasn’t too old to make a match.”
“The ideas were already in your head. You were just trying not to think about her that way,” Adam gloated. Whitfield had been quite the idiot, and doing nothing to advance his cause regarding his admiration for Lady Jessica, but then again, all men were foolish when they fell in love. Adam had undoubtedly been the first time around.
They stepped outside into sunshine, and Whitfield sighed. “There’s my angel. Would you excuse me, Lord Rafferty?”
Adam’s eyes were drawn across the grassy lawn to where a group of ladies stood chatting together. Lady Jessica Westfall was a bubbly wench, and very popular. Her transparent happiness was almost embarrassing to watch as she welcomed her betrothed to her side. Lady Jessica acted as if they’d been parted for weeks rather than the passage of time required for a dull sermon and one short announcement.
The pair were obviously in love. Adam was pleased. He wouldn’t wish a loveless marriage on anyone.
Adam turned away from the soon-to-be-married pair, and his eyes fell on the next lady in line behind them. Mrs. Rebecca Warner, the duke’s daughter and a widow, was hovering around her younger sister, nothing unusual in that, but today there was a small, indulgent smile playing around her lips. Mrs. Warner rarely smiled upon anyone, and Adam actually thought she might approve of Whitfield for her sister.
Being somewhat taller than most—his mother had frequently referred to him as Mount Rafferty—Adam moved to stand slightly behind Mrs. Warner and out of the way. Mrs. Warner acknowledged him by the slight turn of her head in his direction.
He chose to speak first. “Well, Mrs. Warner?”
She turned a little more, and her smile vanished. “Well what, Lord Rafferty?”
Did he have to spell it out? Adam grinned. “What do you think about this pair making a match of it then?”
Her eyes drifted back to the happy couple, and her expression became one of intense satisfaction. “I couldn’t imagine a better outcome.”
Whitfield must have heard because he bowed to his future sister-in-law. “Thank you, Mrs. Warner,” Whitfield murmured. “I’m still astonished by my good fortune.”
“It was fate,” Lady Jessica exclaimed, causing Whitfield’s skin to redden with the beginnings of a blush. Lady Jessica smiled at Adam suddenly. “You will stay, won’t you, my lord? Until the wedding? We want all our friends to be there for our happy day.”
“I will be present for the wedding day, but I had intended to depart for home tomorrow,” he told her. He had a daughter at home who was writing him letters, filled with recriminations for his absence and the occasional half-hearted threat to run away with the gypsies. His daughter had quite the imagination for only being ten years old, but her threats were empty ones. However, he wasn’t about to test that theory. Her mother had been a rash creature in many respects.
Lady Jessica turned toward her intended. “Oh, he must stay! Shouldn’t he, Giddy? Lord Rafferty can keep Father company now.”
Adam glanced over the crowd and found the Duke of Stapleton easily enough. His grace had taken on a wife after Christmas and there was a babe in her belly already. And Mrs. Warner had come home earlier this year. She normally didn’t return to the estate until June. His grace would hardly lack company when there were so many about. “Is Stapleton really in need of distraction?”
“He is.” Whitfield broke free of his betrothed and came to stand beside him. “He is marrying off his last daughter, and I’m becoming afraid of what he has planned for the wedding breakfast,” Whitfield confided in a whisper.
“You must expect speeches and flattery and an abundance of toasts to the happy couple,” Adam teased.
“That’s only the start, I’m afraid. Stapleton has it in his head to organize a house party. A large one. Everyone is coming, apparently.”
“I see,” Adam rubbed his jaw. By “everyone,” Adam assumed that meant all the duke’s children, grandchildren, cousins, aunts and such. Could be a rowdy crowd indeed. If there was a house party of such magnitude about to commence, Adam certainly wanted to remain for it. “If I remember correctly, there was a grand party for Fanny when she married, too.”
Whitfield leaned closer. “I had wrongly assumed he’d gotten the urge for such elaborate celebrations out of his system when he didn’t hold one for Mrs. Warner’s wedding.”
Adam had forgotten that, but he nodded toward Lady Jessica. “The youngest is his favorite.”
Whitfield made a sound of discontent and Adam nearly laughed at the poor man’s plight. Whitfield preferred the quiet but marrying into the Duke of Stapleton’s family wasn’t going to begin peacefully. Becoming surrounded by the duke’s boisterous family, and exalted members of the ton, too, were bound to discompose Whitfield. He patted his friend on the shoulder solicitously. “You’ll survive.”
“A true friend would remain to support me,” Gideon grumbled. “When you tie the knot again I will not forget your attitude today.”
Adam laughed. He was widowed, left to raise a delightful daughter alone. However, Ava could not inherit his title or estate. Adam would have to marry for a second time and hope again for a son and heir to succeed him. “Weddings are a harrowing business. I’ll see what I can do to stay.”
Carriages began arriving in front of the churchyard, and Whitfield hurried to collect his future bride. The duke’s carriage filled quickly, and when it drew away without Adam, he discovered he’d have to share the next carriage back to Stapleton Manor with only Mrs. Warner’s company. He winced. She was still talking with the older women and had not noticed the others had left without telling her.
He moved toward her to offer his arm. “Mrs. Warner. The last carriage is ready to take us back to the manor.”
She nodded then bid farewell to Mrs. Hawthorne and her daughters before turning to him. “Thank you.”
Mrs. Warner set her hand on his arm and Adam handed her into the carriage, and then joined her, sitting on the opposite bench.
The coachman shut the door and tucked away the step. “Looks like we have a lovely day for a carriage ride,” he murmured.
“Those clouds suggest we are about to get rained upon,” Rebecca Warner said as she adjusted her shawl about her shoulders. “As quick as you can, Mr. Porter,” she called.
Mrs. Warner was something of a pessimist and had never warmed to him. She was always mentioning a lack of some sort—real and imagined. She hardly ever smiled. “Every day brings a challenge,” Adam advised her. “I prefer to look on the bright side and hope for the best in everything.”
Finally, her gaze lifted to his. “Indeed.”
Mrs. Warner’s features were regular, though pretty, and the way she stared at a man could be a little unnerving at times. She was the most reserved of all the duke’s family and the most modest, favoring plain colors and high necklines that hid her charms. Adam found her strangely comforting to be around. He had always known what she thought of him. She was transparent in her dislike and disapproval of the things he said just to rile her up.
He removed his hat once the village was sufficiently behind them and ran a hand through his dark, wavy hair. The church had become stifling before the sermons were half over. He enjoyed the feel of the wind in his hair—more so when he saw her expression of disapproval. “So Whitfield and your sister? Did you sense it coming, too?”
Her lips pinched together a moment before she spoke, but her eyes were fixed on his hat, where’d he carelessly flicked it aside on the bench, and then his hair. “No. Did you?”
“I suspected a partiality on his side some time ago,” he confessed, noting the speed of the carriage had increased to comply with Mrs. Warner’s demand for a quick return to Stapleton. “I thought it all in vain until she returned from London unmarried.”
Mrs. Warner’s lips pouted for a moment. She set her hand to the side of the carriage to brace for the upcoming sharp turn at the bridge. “Yes, opinions change with new experiences.”
“And absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Adam set his feet farther apart on the floor. Tensing in preparation for the turn as well. “I expect—”
The next moment, Adam heard a loud crack and was thrown to the side as the carriage started to tip.
His companion shrieked, and he scrambled to latch onto Mrs. Warner’s slender body as she seemed most in danger of falling out of the carriage. “I have you.”
That side of the carriage dropped even more as the carriage creaked and groaned.
Dimly, Adam was aware of the coachmen swearing around them, and the horses becoming panicked. Adam quickly got his bearings. Clearly, the carriage could roll over if the horses could not drag them to safety. There was a steep downward slope toward the stream at this particular spot and gravity would pull them to their deaths if something weren’t done soon.
He tightened his grip on Mrs. Warner and glanced over his shoulder. “What the devil?”
“We’ve lost a wheel, my lord. Are you harmed?”
“Only our pride, Mr. Porter,” Mrs. Warner complained but surprisingly remained unresisting in his arms.
But if the carriage rolled over they’d be crushed. “Get her out now!” Adam ordered.
The side door was flung open above them and men reached for Mrs. Warner’s hands. Since the slope would be steep for a woman wearing long skirts to hinder her feet, Adam set his hands to Mrs. Warner’s backside and shoved hard.
Fabric rent, but Mrs. Warner fairly flew up and over the side to safety, he hoped.
“Give us your hands, too, my lord,” Porter cried, but then the carriage slipped a bit more. “We’re losing it.”
The carriage was too heavy at this angle, and it would only become more so. “To hell with it. Save the horses!” he shouted.
Adam grabbed the high edge of the carriage and threw himself out.
The carriage dropped away suddenly beneath him, and he was falling.
Adam landed face down on the slope and slid a few feet before he could stop. Below him, the sounds of wood splintering abruptly ceased. He didn’t dare look. He scrambled up the slope to the top before letting out a shaky breath and looking around.
The horses were unhitched but still panicked, stamping around the grooms as they fought to calm them. All the grooms seemed accounted for.
Porter rushed to help him stand and brush off his attire. “Are you all right, my lord?”
Adam nodded, looking for Rebecca Warner. She seemed unharmed on first glance. “Well, that was exciting.”
Mrs. Warner’s brow wrinkled as she pulled her patterned shawl tighter about her shoulders. “You saved me.”
He nodded. “What else should I have done, Mrs. Warner?”
Her frown deepened even more. “Thank you.”
He bowed gallantly but then regretted the gesture immediately as the world spun. “Bollocks.”
The lady’s eyes flared in shock. “Excuse me?”
“My pardon.” Adam mastered himself and then limped toward the grooms to glance down at the wreck. The carriage had been quite destroyed by the fall, possibly beyond repair. “I hope his grace wasn’t too fond of that particular carriage.”
“Unfortunately he was, my lord,” Porter murmured, cap in hand. Some of the debris became caught in the current and they watched it float away in silence.
The view from this height began to unnerve Adam, so he took a pace backward from the edge. He felt immediately better. “Are any of the horses injured?”
“No, my lord. They all seem to be in order. Just a bit excited still.”
“Good. Send the men and horses back to the stables with the news. The duke will wish to know about this as soon as possible.”
Porter frowned. “What of you and Mrs. Warner?”
“I’ll walk back.” He turned to Rebecca for her decision.
“I’ll walk with him,” she agreed very quickly.
Adam’s head began to throb as Rebecca fell into step with him. They moved off the gravel drive to walk the most direct route through the lush gardens. A few yards from the road, Adam needed to wipe his brow.
He kept walking, grateful when they moved into the shade of tall elm trees but damned if he didn’t feel himself. “I think we both deserve a drink after that. Damn it’s hot today.”
“No, it isn’t,” she noted with concern. She stepped in front of him and he had to stop or barrel into her. “Your face is damp.”
“It is not damp, madam. I’m sweating like a damn hog in an oven,” he grumbled.
Her previously concerned expression instantly became one of annoyance. “They mean the same thing. One is polite. One is not.”
Adam shook his head at her criticism and regretted it immediately. He staggered to the nearest tree trunk until the sensation of unsteadiness stopped the garden from swaying before his eyes. “Bollocks.”
“Perhaps you should rest here a moment.”
“I’m not a child to be babied,” he insisted but her idea was appealing. He wiped a hand over his face and put his back to the tree. “I heard fabric rip as you were pulled from the carriage. You are uninjured, aren’t you?”
She set her hand to the shoulder seam of her gown protectively, and he noted her shawl was tightly drawn around her shoulders. “My gown suffered some damage that will be easy to repair. It could have been so much worse if you’d let me fall.”
“We were lucky,” he promised. Very lucky. If Mrs. Warner had demanded the carriage top be employed to protect them from the rain she’d foolishly worried about, neither one of them might have made it to safety. If they’d been traveling any faster…
Adam shuddered. His head throbbed, and he put his hand over the spot but it only made it worse. He jerked his hand back, staring at fingers that were now bloody. “Devil take it!”
Mrs. Warner rushed to remove her gloves and reached for Adam’s head. “Let me see.”
“You are too small to see the top of my head.” Adam took stock of himself. He did not feel at all steady, so he slid down to a sitting position and stretched out his long legs.
She made a clucking sound of disapproval and kneeled beside him to stare into his eyes. “You are hurt, worse than you want to say.”
Her soft green eyes were filled with real concern, something he’d never expected to see on her face. “Well, that is disappointing.”
“Disappointing?” Rebecca immediately began searching through his hair for the wound, and he chose to imagine it a sensual caress until she spoke again. “You have a gash to your head that has bled. Dear God, you could have died.”
“Always looking on the bright side,” he murmured, and then noticed how close the lady was to his body. He inhaled slowly, delighted in this unexpectedly rare treat. Mrs. Warner had never been the friendliest sort. “You smell nice.”
“Really, Rafferty,” she chided. She suddenly slipped her hand inside his coat, rummaged in his pockets and began to dab at his head with the handkerchief she found there. “This is hardly the time to worry about my perfume.”
“As you say, I could have been killed. Seems like an appropriate time for noticing the little things in life that please me.” He felt pain and hissed. Eager for a distraction, he dropped his gaze to her shoulder—now bare of the shawl, which had fallen away unnoticed by the lady. The respectable garment Rebecca had worn to church, so stylish and modest, was less so now thanks to the accident. The struggle out of the carriage seemed to have ripped the seam apart, and her pale skin looked very soft and inviting. He curled his fingers into the skirt of her gown and held it. “Lovely.”
She drew back to peer into his eyes again, and then she glanced down at his fist. “What are you doing?”
What was he doing? Adam had no idea, but he wasn’t of a mind to stop. “I can’t walk back to the manor just yet,” he admitted. “Talk to me.”
“Just sit there quietly.”
“Never been good at being quiet or still, you know.” He let go of the gown and lifted one hand. He brushed his knuckles up the outside of her leg, past her hip and across to her belly. Yes she was proving a good distraction from his injury. “Or good.”
Mrs. Warner dragged in a shocked breath. “Rafferty!”
He struggled to meet her eyes, more amused by her outrage than chastised, and tried to ignore a horrible sensation churning in his belly. He would not cast up his accounts in her presence. “I do adore tangling with feisty wenches. You’re always so pretty and proper on the outside. But underneath…therein might lie all the wickedness a man could ever desire. Have you ever given in to temptation since you were widowed?”
“No. Most assuredly not,” Rebecca hissed, entirely shocked by the Earl of Rafferty’s insinuation. “I would never.”
“Pity,” he murmured. “I think you and I could have a great deal of fun together.”
“Well. I don’t think—”
“What’s wrong now?”
Lord Rafferty did not answer, and she really looked at his face then, overcome by fear. His normally expressive face grew slack of animation, and she quickly untied his cravat and set her fingers to his hot throat. He had hit the ground very hard. Rebecca found his pulse easily and counted the beats as her own heart steadied again.
His chest rose and fell with each breath, and that was somewhat reassuring. He had only fainted. “Typical of you to get the last word,” Rebecca grumbled. She scowled at him. “Wake up, my lord.”
When there was no response, Rebecca raised her hand and, wincing, delivered a light blow to his cheek.
The earl didn’t move a muscle, so she tried to rouse him with another. The harder blow jolted his head and, perhaps enjoying it too much, she slapped him a third time.
When he continued to ignore her existence in favor of remaining insensible, Rebecca wriggled around to kneel more comfortably and inspected his wound further. She reasoned that if he were out cold, he wouldn’t feel any pain from her probing.
The gash was troubling but thankfully bled very little. After cleaning out the dirt she could see in the wound, a few stitches would be needed to make him whole again. Lord Rafferty would have a sore head for a few days, but he wouldn’t feel the pain for long given the way he usually drank.
She grabbed his chin gently and turned his face toward hers. “You should never have suggested walking home when you were injured,” she grumbled. “Wake up, please.”
It did not weaken a man to show they needed help now and then. It proved them as human as any woman. However, Rafferty had put her safety above his own, and she owed him a debt of gratitude she could never repay. Because of that, Rebecca felt obligated to worry about his health.
She released his face slowly, brushing his smooth-shaven cheek with a gentle caress. “Don’t you dare die before I return. If you can’t walk back under your own steam, I’ll have to get help for you.”
She climbed to her feet and looked around. She could go back to the gravel drive but no doubt the grooms would still be reporting the accident to those at the manor. There seemed to be no one about on this part of her father’s estate right now, either. Annoyed that she’d most likely have a long walk, and would have to leave Rafferty alone, she turned back briefly. She would get the last word, whether he heard her or not.
“Lord Rafferty, I should like to inform you I do not appreciate your behavior toward me. You flirt, quite obviously jests at my expense and only uttered to humiliate me.” She stood straighter. “Please cease smirking at me, too. We both know you could not mean a word of any of it. If I did ever want a lover—and I’m not saying I’ve ever considered such a thing—I’d be more discreet than you know how to be. I am not so lonely that I’d fall into just anyone’s arms. After the humiliation Warner dealt me, carrying on with that servant, making me a laughingstock in my own home, and then dying, I trust no man besides those in my family, and perhaps Mr. Whitfield, since he will be family soon. We will always remain at odds, you and I.”
She frowned at that uncomfortable truth. Rafferty was often at Stapleton Manor visiting her father, and now so would she be. Not that anyone realized her circumstances had changed yet.
She ran her gaze over Rafferty’s long limbs and broad chest. His lungs continued to fill with reassuring regularity beneath a horrid silk waistcoat—one of many in his wardrobe, she assumed. “Also, I do not like your waistcoats. They are all hideous, like the one you wear today most assuredly is. Why you continue to dress like a preening peacock at your age is quite beyond my understanding. Do you not care that your reputation suffers for the garish nature of your clothing? I suppose you must not. If you had a wife, she would tell you that they hurt the eye.”
Rebecca took a deep breath, and then pressed her lips shut. Perhaps that was more words than she’d intended to ever speak to Lord Rafferty, but she did feel better for saying things she would usually have kept to herself.
She made sure to cover her bared shoulder with her shawl, and then, on second thought, tied it diagonally across her body to preserve her modesty. “I’ll bring help,” she promised as she strode off.
After a brisk walk directly toward the manor through the avenue of tall trees, she saw her father racing toward her. She waved, and he altered course to intercept her. “What has become of Rafferty?”
Father groaned. “What did you do to him?”
She looked at her father in astonishment. “I didn’t hurt him. He must have struck his head when he threw himself out of the carriage.”
Father’s eyes grew round, and he grabbed her hands, turning them up for inspection. Rafferty’s blood was on the tips of her fingers. “Dear God, are you bleeding?”
“No. It’s Rafferty’s.” She nodded. “He has fainted, too. I suspect he was dizzy at the scene of the accident but refused to ask for the help he needed. He won’t wake up for me.”
“That’s not good,” the duke warned unnecessarily. “Where did you leave him?”
“Not far away,” she promised, turning in that direction. “Rafferty is sitting beneath a tree at the end of the avenue.”
They turned back but Father quickly outdistanced her and reached Rafferty first. He knelt down at Rafferty’s side. Rebecca arrived as the duke raised his hand to crack his palm against Rafferty’s cheek.
“I tried that,” she muttered.
Father did it again anyway. “Wake up, man.”
Rafferty straightened suddenly. “What was that for?”
“You fainted,” she informed the earl.
“I certainly did not faint. I was merely resting my eyes.”
“Oh, you did faint,” Rebecca insisted.
“Now, now, Becca. This is no time to squabble.” Father got a better hold on Rafferty’s arm and tugged. “Up on your feet, my lord.”
Rafferty stumbled up to his six feet and whatever inches tall he was and then lifted a hand to his head, his expression twisted in pain. “Damn, that stings now. It damn well does.”
“Keeping silent might keep the pain at bay,” Rebecca advised as she found the gloves she’d discarded earlier. Rafferty cursed far too much.
Rafferty snorted. “Of course you would recommend that.”
The earl draped one arm about the duke’s shoulders. They were almost of the same height and seemed to move easily together along the avenue.
When the manor came into view, Rebecca breathed a sigh of relief to be home again.
At the door, a footman drew close but his eyes were wide upon her. He enquired after her health and, once assured she’d suffered no harm, he produced a letter. “This came earlier today by special messenger.”
Upon reading the sender’s name, she was filled with apprehension. Rebecca pocketed the letter before her father noticed. “Thank you.”
The footman lowered his gaze to the floor. “Shall I send your maid to attend you, madam?”
“Yes, please do. Also, can you deliver Lord Rafferty his usual requirement—white wine for this time of day?”
“Very good, madam.” The fellow scurried away, glancing back over his shoulder once.
She looked up at the sound of the duke’s call. He and Rafferty had paused halfway up the staircase and were both looking at her. Rafferty was grinning now.
“Perhaps you should retire to your room to change. Immediately.”
She glanced down—and saw her undergarments were on display. Her face heated and she quickly tugged up her gown and retied her shawl over herself. “I will.”
Clutching the shoulder of her ruined gown, she hurried up the staircase until she reached the gentlemen. Rafferty was no longer grinning; he was sweating again, as if the effort of movement was more than he could bear. Although she didn’t want to care, she could not help but feel she should be worried about him. He had saved her.
Rebecca fell into step with them, saw Rafferty safely to his bedchamber, and then hurried to her own. Once there, she rang for a maid and moved to the mirror. “Oh!”
She put her hands to her head and groaned. Her gown looked like she’d been running wild for days, and her hair, her crowning glory, looked like a birds nest! She found what few pins remained and ran her fingers through her hair until stopped by knots. Crestfallen that she’d been seen looking less than her best beyond her bedchamber, she turned for the wash basin to cleanse her fingers of Rafferty’s blood. Then she sat at her dressing table to await her maid’s assistance.
It was a short wait. Nancy arrived very quickly but her eyes grew round in shock upon seeing her. “Oh, madam, I’ve just heard the terrible news! Are you hurt?”
Her wrist had seemed a little tender but she was sure the discomfort would pass by tomorrow. “I’m fine, but my hair and gown did not survive unscathed. Can you help me?”
“Happy to,” Nancy assured her and began to work her magic.
She put Rebecca’s long hair to rights again, coiling it into a loose chignon, and removed the damaged gown with assurances it would be repaired by nightfall. She helped Rebecca into a new day gown and fresh slippers.
Rebecca sent the maid away before she read her letter.
Thank heaven she had, for the contents were not pleasing.
Her friend, Mrs. Charlotte Benning, claimed to have exceedingly good news to share. The widow was to journey to Bath soon and was to stay for the month of August. Rebecca was invited to join her there if she were not otherwise engaged.
Rebecca folded the letter and tucked it away in a drawer to answer later.
Rebecca’s last stay in Bath had been an awkward holiday she’d rather not repeat. Charlotte Benning had arrived unexpectedly at Rebecca’s door and claimed her holiday lease had fallen though. At such short notice, with no other acceptable accommodation found, Charlotte had asked to stay with Rebecca. Rebecca had felt obligated to agree because of their years of friendship but soon came to regret it.
Charlotte had been an amusing companion in the beginning of her stay, but less so after a week. In Bath, there had arisen addition living expenses because of Charlotte—expenses far beyond Rebecca’s expectations or budget at that time. Charlotte had been distressingly slow to offer to pay her way.
During the most recent season too, Charlotte had continued to presume on Rebecca’s kindness and her pocket book.
Rebecca was widowed but not wealthy. Her jointure income only stretched so far. She had been very happy to use her family as an excuse to avoid the woman ever since.
Rebecca would write a reply tonight, thanking Charlotte for the invitation but explaining her intention to remain at Stapleton for the foreseeable future.
Besides, she was needed here until the new year began at least.
Rebecca left her room and headed down the hall, only to come to an abrupt halt at the vulgar profanities flaming the air.
Concerned, she rushed forward to see what was amiss. Servants were lingering outside Lord Rafferty’s bedchamber—listening in and laughing amongst themselves.
Rebecca scowled at them as she marched to his door, and they wisely fled back to their duties.
“Please, my lord. Just hold still a moment,” the Stapleton housekeeper was begging.
“A moment? It’s already been three damn long moments,” Rafferty complained, “and you say you are still not done sticking that needle into my skull.”
Rebecca stepped into the room, noting there was only Mrs. Brown present to tend to the earl’s injury. She scowled at him. “Kindly mind your tongue, my lord. You are in the presence of respectable ladies.”
His gaze raked over her boldly and angry color flooded his cheeks. “Where the hell have you been?”
She shook her head at his question and met the housekeeper’s gaze. “I must apologize for Lord Rafferty, Mrs. Brown. He appears to have lost his manners in the accident.”
The woman nodded, but Rebecca suspected Mrs. Brown was quite upset and trying not to show it. She drew closer to the housekeeper, keen to offer her support and protection. Mrs. Brown was an indispensable servant for Stapleton Manor, Rebecca had relied on her since she was a young girl, and she did not like that she might feel threatened by one angry earl—even if he was hurt. “How goes the work on him?”
“I am almost done, madam. One more stitch, I swear.”
Rebecca turned toward Lord Rafferty and peered at the wound on the earl’s head. In this light, after being cleaned and half stitched already, it hardly seemed very serious now. Lord Rafferty was being difficult, but the wound really did need one more stitch. Her lips twitched as she caught the housekeeper’s gaze. “Are you sure it shouldn’t be two stitches?”
Rafferty began to sputter and protest.
The housekeeper’s eyes widened in alarm at the prospect, but then Mrs. Brown glanced at the wound again. “Do you really think it needs two more?”
“No, one more bloody stitch will do and then get the hell out of my room,” Rafferty ordered rudely.
Rebecca clucked her tongue. “She’s only doing her job, my lord. I’m sure you want the wound to heal neatly. Why, it would be most embarrassing to have a puckering lump on your head.”
Rafferty closed his eyes with a sigh. “Cruel woman.”
Rebecca winked at the housekeeper and saw the woman relax at last. “You can begin again.”
Rafferty’s hand shot out and grabbed Rebecca’s wrist. “You will stay.”
Although she had no reason to remain except to protect the housekeeper from further verbal abuse, she indulged the earl. She patted his hand solicitously. “You’ve been such a brave earl.”
The housekeeper nearly choked on a laugh, but then devoted herself to the last stitch the earl needed. Rafferty’s hold on Rebecca’s hand remained painfully tight through it all.
“Nicely done,” Rebecca murmured when Brown had finished.
“Thank you, madam.” The housekeeper backed away from the bed quickly. “In a few days, I’ll look at the wound again and decide when to remove the stitches.”
“Excellent. Thank you.”
The housekeeper smiled quickly and departed, closing the door swiftly behind her.
Rafferty exhaled slowly, and his grip on Rebecca’s wrist eased. “Does it really look all right?”
Rebecca rubbed her tingling wrist as she examined the stitches again, noting the earl’s hair was matted with blood in places. His hair and brow should be cleaned up a little before anyone else saw him. She fetched a wet washcloth, and then picked up his comb. “There was no need to be so difficult. Mrs. Brown has tended a great many wounds, and this will heal nicely provided it does not become infected. No one is yet to die under her care, I assure you.”
Rafferty squinted at her and then the comb. “What do you intend to do with that?”
“There’s blood on your face and your hair.” Rebecca smiled tightly and began dabbing at his bloody skin carefully, and then his hair. The spillage wasn’t too widespread, so it was only a matter of moments before she was satisfied. Once the blood had been removed, Rebecca carefully combed his dark hair into pleasing waves.
He looked up when she had finished. “Would my dying bother you?”
“I’ve no idea. Why do you ask?”
He smiled softly. “In the avenue, after the accident, you said you didn’t want me to die.”
She gaped. “You fainted.”
If Rafferty had heard her plea that he not die, then he had possibly heard it all—her rant about him and the disappointments of her life too.
He waggled his brows, which she took as confirmation.
Oh, he was devious! Face flaming, she clenched her jaw a moment before speaking with forced civility. “Why would you pretend to faint?”
“I closed my eyes because the world was spinning, and I kept them closed to fight off a wave of nausea. I was not in a fit state for conversation with a lady of your delicate sensibilities. To be honest, I was desperate to say what was really on my mind at the time.”
He shrugged. “I should like to clear up a misunderstanding between us. What you said about me, before your father arrived, is quite incorrect.”
“You should never have heard anything of the sort,” she complained. “If you were a gentleman, you would have made your consciousness known.”
“If I had appeared awake, I doubt you would ever have been so forthright.” He winked. “I do not pity you in the slightest. I merely like the challenge of getting under your skin. For the record, it’s my opinion that any man who turns his back on his lawful wife is an idiot. If you were mine, you’d be in this bed with me already.”
She opened her mouth, but no sound came out. Even in his sorry state, he thought only of pleasures of the flesh. “Unbelievable.”
“I can see that my confession has unsettled you, but I will not apologize for being blunt. I may not have an opportunity to be so again, so please bear with me. We’re lucky to be alive, and I don’t intend to waste another moment worrying about offending your delicate sensibilities.” He sat up slowly. “You are an attractive woman, and I think you actually do like me.”
“I don’t. I—” He started to rise, and she held him down. “Where are you going? Stay in that bed, my lord.”
“Now if only you would say that to me when my health is improved.” He pointed across the room as he subsided again. “I’d like some wine to dull the pain. Please.”
Rebecca shook her head. Rafferty was pickled more often than not. A few drinks and he might forget all about her and this improper conversation. “I’ll fetch you a glass.”
“Thank you. I could kiss the person who sent that bottle up.”
Rebecca choked. She may have sent the wine but she did not want to kiss him. Rafferty’s overfondness for spirits was something Rebecca thoroughly disapproved of. However, today she was feeling slightly more sympathetic than usual. Receiving stitches was never pleasant.
She handed him a measure, and when he drank the lot, she fetched the bottle and refilled the glass for him. “Your valet should be summoned to look after you.”
“I sent the fellow away. He’s an expert at polishing my boots to a high shine and starching a neck cloth, but he’s useless for ailments. Stomps his way through my chambers all the time, too. My head hurts too damn much to put up with that.”
“Language, my lord.” Rebecca sighed, realizing that for the moment, she was all the earl had. “What else can I fetch for you?”
“Now that you mention it…” Rafferty’s eyes lit up with excitement—eagerness. When his outstretched hand brushed her hip, she dodged him easily.
“Not that,” she chided, shaking her head in exasperation. “Can you only think of one thing?”
“Naturally, I’m a man.” He chuckled softly and drank the remainder of his second glass. “It seems a little bright in here.”
Rebecca went to the tall windows and drew the curtains closed, throwing the room into near darkness. Once her eyes had adjusted, she returned to the earl. “Anything else?”
“The bottle,” he admitted quietly. “Bring it to me.”
She picked up the bottle again, but Rafferty wouldn’t let her refill the glass.
He sighed and held out his hand. “I appreciate your assistance more than words can say, but you don’t need to see me at my worst. You should go. My head is killing me.”
“Very well.” She looked at the bottle and reluctantly handed it over. “Shall I have another sent up, too?”
He didn’t drink from it immediately, but he didn’t look at her again. “Probably should. Thank you.”
She nodded, appreciating his restraint in her presence. “Do you need anyone to sit with you, keep you company?”
“No, thank you.” Rafferty’s gaze darted toward her, and a shy smile twisted his lips. “I will rely on my imagination and the memory of your tender concern to comfort me.”
Rebecca threw up her hands. “Oh, you are impossible.”
He quickly caught one and brought it to his lips. “Do you realize my late wife would have left me completely in the servants’ care, were she still alive today?”
Rebecca blinked as Rafferty kissed the back of her hand. “Surely not,” she gasped, breath coming fast.
Rafferty smiled slyly as he released her. “You wouldn’t be the first to be surprised by that. I thought most wives the same until recently.”
“I thought yours a love match,” she admitted. “We all did.”
“That is what my late wife wanted everyone to think,” he confessed, looking away. “She loved the attention and envy of other women, so when she talked of our marriage, it was always with substantial embellishment of her part in it.”
Lady Rafferty had seemed an ideal wife, and Rafferty a devoted husband. Apparently, Rebecca had been wrong. “You didn’t love her.”
“I adored her until the very end,” he said, so quietly Rebecca shivered. He sounded so sad, and she was trying to think of a response when his gaze lifted. “Run along now and let me get drunk in privacy.”
“Of course.” She dropped a curtsy to Lord Rafferty. “My lord.”
He leaned in her direction. “But do come back when I’m feeling better, and we can continue our discussion. Do you hate sleeping alone, too?”
“Yes,” she said without thinking, and Rebecca’s face flamed with embarrassment. That was too bold. She did not talk like that, or discuss the regrets she harbored with anyone.
She turned away for the door on legs suddenly no longer steady.
At the doorway, Rebecca glanced back once, only to find Rafferty watching her closely. She waved her fingers at him like some silly nitwit with a beau and then fled into the hall.
Once outside, and confident she was alone, she shook her head. Lord Rafferty was a worse flirt than she’d ever imagined; even injured, all he could talk about was pleasures of the flesh.
But what was genuinely unaccounted for was that she could still feel the touch of his lips on her skin even now.