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After Caro ran away to another man on her wedding night, her disillusioned bridegroom left her behind to take up a diplomatic post in Vienna. Five years have passed since they separated, and John has returned to England–where Caro needs his help.
He was asleep, alone in the wide mahogany bed. She could hear his steady breathing, could even make out the white linen of his nightshirt from across the room. She should have asked his valet or the butler to wake him, so she could face him downstairs in a more formal setting—his study, or perhaps the drawing room. But this had seemed more private, and therefore the more appealing option.
She drew close enough to lean over his sleeping form. “Welford?” And then, giving his shoulder a shake, “John.”
He opened his eyes. She expected him to start in surprise, perhaps even jump out of bed with an oath. Instead he gazed back at her for a long, pregnant moment before easing himself up into a sitting position.
“Lady Welford.” His tone was cool, flat and mocking. “So you’ve heard I’m back in England.”
“Yes. I heard two weeks ago, not that I expected it would make any difference in our domestic arrangements.”
He looked bigger than she remembered—and decidedly more handsome too. Though she’d once considered him old, or at least too old for her, she must have been viewing him through the prism of girlhood, for despite the nearly five and a half years that had passed he was fitter and younger than she’d imagined. There wasn’t a trace of silver in his dark hair, and his face with its arresting bone structure remained unlined. But then, he was only thirty-one. Not so old at all. She’d lost sight of that, somehow, picturing him throughout the long months of her banishment.
He raised one black eyebrow. “Well then, to what do I owe the honor of this late night call? Have you perhaps taken some new lover you wish me to make jealous?”
She deserved that. She’d expected no less, not from a man as cold and self-important as her husband. “I need your help.”
His dark eyes narrowed slightly. “And why should I wish to help you?”
She swallowed down her pride. “It’s not for my own sake. I would never come here if it were. Do you think I don’t know how much you hate me?”
He didn’t bother to deny it. “Then what is this about?” He sat forward, a flash of concern crossing his face. “Is it Ronnie?”
“No. Your brother is fine.”
He leaned back again, his features resuming their former hauteur. “Half brother.”
“Very well, then, your half brother is fine. He’s downstairs, in fact. He was good enough to provide his escort.”
Welford frowned. “I thought my instructions were clear. He was to remain at Halewick. As were you.”
“Your instructions are always clear, but that doesn’t make them reasonable. I understand your wish to punish me, but why you should insist on confining a restive nineteen-year-old who—”
“You’ve said quite enough on that topic. Pray come to the point and tell me what you’re doing here.”
Oh, God, this was hopeless. What had made her think he might have mellowed in the years since she’d last seen him? He would never forgive her, and they were better off apart.
Except this once. This once, she needed his help. “It’s my father,” she said, a lump rising to her throat. “He’s dying.”
For one brief moment the cool, disdainful mask slipped, and his face—her husband’s face—was the same one that had smiled down at her in church on that awful day she’d had to make good on her promise, the day she’d become Lady Welford. A caring face. A face that had made her wonder how she could have been so foolish and shortsighted.
Too bad the caring had been mere illusion.
“Your father is ill?”
She nodded. “It’s his heart. He can’t even put on his vestments without pausing to catch his breath, or step into the pulpit without help. The doctors have bled him but the dropsy is only growing worse. They say he doesn’t have long left.”
Welford ran a hand over his jaw. “What can I do?”
He sounded sincere. So he wasn’t completely heartless, then. “He’s asked to see me one last time, and I want to go to him. But…I need you to come with me.”
Her husband’s hand dropped to the bed. “Let me guess,” he said, his sarcastic drawl returning. “You never told him why you married me, or that we’ve been living separate lives. He’s spent the past five years convinced you’re the ideal wife.”
“How could I tell him?” she flared hotly, stung that Welford had so quickly divined the truth. “He’s the best, kindest, most principled man in England. He’s devoted his entire life to the church. And he loves me. It would break his heart to know—”
“That you betrayed me from the first night of our life together?”
She flushed. “That I made a mistake in accepting you.”
“You ran away to another man,” Welford said with barely controlled menace, “only an hour after consummating our marriage.”
Her hands tightened at her side. He would always be in the right, and he would never let her forget it. Never, not if she spent every day paying for her girlish stupidity, not if she lived to be a hundred, not if she died childless and alone. “That’s really what you can’t forgive, isn’t it? It’s not that I was in love with Lawrence Howe when I accepted you. It’s that I wasn’t sufficiently bowled over by your prodigious lovemaking to decide you were the better man.”
Welford’s face darkened dangerously. “As if I care for your good opinion.” He got out of bed, and for a moment she feared he might actually do her some violence, but he made no move toward her. “Whatever selfish impulse may have pushed you to say yes, you didn’t have to go through with the wedding. Did that never occur to you?”
Of course it had occurred to her. Accepting him had seemed like a brilliant stroke at first, in the aftershock of reading Lawrence’s letter. Welford was titled, older, and experienced, the perfect foil to make a fickle nineteen-year-old suitor regret having spurned her. She’d only half listened to Welford’s proposal, picturing the look on Lawrence’s face when he spied her wedding announcement in the papers.
What a rash and idiotic child she’d been. She deserved a good slap.
But she didn’t deserve a lifetime of punishment meted out by a cold, humorless tyrant who despised her, just because she’d lacked the courage to confess her folly to her father before walking down the aisle. She’d made shameful decisions, but she’d been a green girl of seventeen. On the morning following the wedding, after she’d run away and Welford, tight-lipped and furious, had caught up to her at the inn, she’d literally begged his forgiveness. She might as well have been pleading with a stone.
“It’s too late to undo what’s done,” Caro said, watching as he drew his dressing gown on over broad shoulders, his posture ramrod-straight as always, “and dredging up old grievances won’t get us anywhere. Will you help me or not?”
“What is it you want?”
“I want you to come with me to see my father, and as soon as possible. But more than that, I want the two of us to pretend we have a normal marriage, a good marriage, and that we’re both well and happy. Papa deserves to die in peace, not spend his final days worrying his only daughter has made a shambles of her life—”
“Of two lives.”
She bit back a retort. She was the supplicant here. She needed to remember that, if she hoped to win his cooperation. “Yes. Please, Welford, for my father’s sake.”