LADY OLIVIA'S BUTTERFLY (EBOOK)
LADY OLIVIA'S BUTTERFLY (EBOOK)
DARING CHARADES (BOOK 1) EBOOK
As the most dazzling debutante of 1811, beautiful and reckless Olivia scandalised society when she eloped with notorious rake, Lucien, Lord Farquhar.
Five years later, she's paid the highest price for her impetuosity. Lucien is dead, branding his wife a whore and unfit mother, and willing the care of their child to a relative.
Now Olivia is about to orchestrate a grand charade to reclaim everything she has lost.
After years abroad, fighting for king and country, Max Atherton has returned to the estate he's inherited and to take responsibility for his cousin's child.
When he discovers a young woman, unconscious, on his land, he's fired up with new purpose as love blossoms when he nurses her back to health.
But Olivia possesses a secret far darker than simply her identity.
A secret that threatens the future of the honourable man who has fulfilled her heart's desire.
As Olivia struggles to choose between Max's future, and safeguarding her son's, Max must discover the key to the puzzle that will free them all – before it's too late!
A passionate Gothic Regency mystery.
What the Readers Say:
"This is not the usual romance! This book is full of surprises and lots of action. The mysteries behind the whole story are revealed in increments, and you will find yourself wanting to read faster as you wonder what comes next! Fun and easy read."
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‘YOUR REPUTATION IS in tatters, Olivia’ – Aunt Eunice looked up from adjusting the stirrups of the little grey mare upon which her niece sat nervously – ‘and you have lost everything! The time has come to take charge of your life.”
Olivia gripped the pommel with whitened knuckles. Opening her mouth to mutter that the truth was of little account when opinion was against her, she gasped instead as the docile animal shifted beneath her.
So much for the studied detachment she’d cultivated during seven years of marriage with Lucien. Her fear was as transparent as that of a frightened schoolgirl’s. Now she was on a madcap venture doomed to fail, showing as much backbone in the face of her aunt’s determination as she had when her late husband bent her to his will.
Grey storm clouds scudded from the west and the icy wind stung her face.
How was she to succeed in this madcap venture? ‘An unfit mother, a faithless wife….’ The words Lucien had used to brand her—to damn her forever in his will—were imprinted on her brain. Unable to conquer her terror of the placid beast, she begged one last time,‘Please, Aunt Eunice, must I do this?’
‘You must fight for justice, Olivia.’ The determined ‘brook-no-opposition’ expression that characterized Eunice Dingley’s plain, leathery face brought memory flooding back. Olivia was obedient now but how well she recalled the altercations they’d had when she had been a strong-willed child. How single minded had been her rebellion eight years ago as a headstrong debutante?
She had paid the price; it was why she was here.
Stepping back into soft mud that sucked at her boots, Aunt Eunice regarded her critically. ‘Well, child,’ she said with grudging admiration, ‘you look well enough. Don’t tear your riding habit when you fall off.’
Olivia winced as her aunt raised her hand to slap her horse’s flank.
‘What if he’s like Lucien?’ she hedged, bringing her mount around. ‘Mr Atherton has already refused my request once. He must believe the stories—’
‘He is a man.’ Aunt Eunice said it as if that fact alone guaranteed Olivia’s success. ‘For goodness’ sake, Olivia, we’ve already agreed this is your best course, regardless of what the Reverend Kirkman thinks.’
The Reverend Kirkman. The knot of fear in Olivia’s stomach tightened. The reverend had his own ideas as to how Olivia should win back her son.
This was not one of them.
She closed her eyes. Yet surely this was the best way? If there was any justice in Max Atherton’s heart then truth and openness must triumph over the lies which had dogged her during her marriage and cost her the custody of her son?
A great black crow had settled on the dry stone wall in front of her.
Like her aunt, it regarded her with tilted head, eyes bright.
Aunt Eunice laid her hand on Olivia’s knee and her tone softened. ‘Max Atherton came back from the Peninsular campaign a war hero. That, for a start, distinguishes him from his cousin. I’ve heard nothing to suggest he bears any resemblance to Lucien. Entrance him, Olivia, as you entranced that good-for-nothing husband of yours.’
‘Mr Atherton believes Lucien’s version of accounts. You read his reply to my letter.’ It was not the cold that now made her tremble.
With a distracted frown Aunt Eunice smoothed Olivia’s russet skirts. ‘He has no other account to go by. He thinks he’s doing what’s best for the boy.’ Squeezing her knee, she said briskly, ‘Go, now! Take that tumble in his barley field so you can set the record straight.’
* * *
Max squinted through the blinding rain as he turned up the collar of his greatcoat.
It was hard to be sure from this distance, but the little grey mare sheltering beneath the elm tree at the far end of the paddock appeared to be equipped with a side saddle.
A lady’s mount … but where was the lady?
His gaze raked the sodden field, sensing his stallion’s .
‘No carrots or bran mash until we find her, Odin,’ he murmured into his stallion’s ear, sensing its reluctance to proceed in the face of the rising storm.
He’d been returning from his inspection of the new sheep he had been breeding in the northern paddock when his eye had been caught by a flash of scarlet. A female? Curious to make the acquaintance of any woman under forty in these sparsely populated parts, he’d watched the rider canter around the bend that separated his property from his neighbour’s, hoping she’d cross his path later. Instead, he’d happened upon her horse.
Lightning split the black sky and Odin snorted. Across the field, eerie in the strange light, the little grey mare gave a frightened whinny as it eyed them balefully.
‘Steady, boy,’ soothed Max, urging his mount forward, unprepared for the thunder that boomed like cannon fire, seeming to split the sky. Odin reared, forelegs pawing the air and Max strained to keep his seat as he scanned the field desperately for a sight of the woman as her riderless mare bolted.
He glanced down, dread spearing him as he caught a glimpse of russet; heard a faint female cry. Then, muscles knotted and straining, he hauled on the reins as he fought to control his terrified stallion.
Another crack of thunder. Foam sprayed from the mouth of the maddened animal which bucked again.
Before its four legs were on firm ground Max hurled himself from the saddle and ran to kneel at the woman’s side as Odin reared again. Pushing back the folds of his multi-tiered coat that whipped his face, he felt for a pulse at the side of her neck.
She had cheated death but he feared the extent of her injuries. A bloody gash streaked the mud which caked her forehead; her body lay twisted. She did not stir as his hands checked the limbs beneath her skirts for breaks or other obvious injury.
Raising his head, he assessed the distance to Elmwood. He could see the battlements above the froth of rain-lashed trees which gave his home its name. In fine weather with no burden it might be a fifteen minute walk. Now, with the ground a marsh and the wind and weight of sodden skirts it would be more than twice that, but he could not leave her to fetch help.
She was still unconscious when he lifted her. Turning his head from the sharp, icy rain that knotted the grass about his legs, he pushed forward, the wind keening like a banshee. His neck and shoulders ached and his breath rasped painfully. The heavens, it seemed, had combined all its force to hinder his efforts.
Once, he’d carried an injured soldier to safety under enemy fire; but there had been no storm and the artillery barrage had left them unscathed.
Now, the going was much harder. Glancing down once more, he was reassured at seeing the young woman’s eyelids flutter and wondered, vaguely, if she were beautiful beneath all that mud. Not that it mattered. He’d been struck with a sense of purpose he’d not felt since he’d volunteered to fight for King and country nearly eight years ago.
Gradually the wind calmed and the rain became a gentle shower as the storm moved on. Reaching the tree-lined drive which led from the park to the formal gardens he tried to recall if Amelia had mentioned any newcomers to the neighbourhood. His sister’s efforts to find him a wife after he’d returned from the Peninsula too battle-crazed to care suggested she would have.
‘Max!’ shrieked Amelia as she stood on the top step having sent two footmen to relieve her brother of his burden. ‘Who is she? What has happened?’ She had seen him from the drawing-room window labouring up the drive amidst the steady rain.
‘Take her to my room,’ he directed, resting his aching back against the wainscoting in the downstairs entrance hall.
‘The blue room,’ Amelia countered, adding, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, Max. What would she think to wake up in a gentleman’s bed?’
‘If she wakes,’ Max said, glowering, because he wanted to have her in his room where he could watch over her, and where he had the tools to dress her wounds and set her bones, if necessary.
‘Of course she’ll wake,’ Amelia said, sharply.
Thick dust sheets were spread upon the large tester in preparation. Amelia had wanted to strip the linen, but Max had decried such inhospitable practicality, reminding her it was not her house.
‘And only yours, Max, for a few more years,’ his sister muttered, as she made the counter order of dust sheets to Mrs Watkins, the housekeeper.
Ignoring her, Max also asked for a fresh nightgown, and a comb.
‘One would think you were in the habit of attending to the needs of a lady, Max,’ Amelia said, more archly than unkindly as her heels clicked across the boards to the window embrasure from where she regarded him with amusement.
‘And plenty of hot water.’ Rubbing his aching arms Max took a seat by the unconscious young woman’s side. ‘So you have no idea who she might be?’ he asked, pushing back his cowlick. ‘There’s been no talk of visitors to the neighbourhood?’
Amelia shook her head. ‘Do you think she’s broken anything? Shall I check?’
‘Her limbs seem in fine form,’ Max replied, with a wry smile as he took up the sponge Mrs Watkins had just placed beside him. ‘As for her face, she has a nasty cut.’
Amelia came up beside him. ‘She’s beautiful,’ she remarked, for it was true, and Amelia never minced the truth. Or kept her thoughts to herself. ‘But don’t get romantic ideas into your head, Max, for she’s probably spoken for, or is a widow with no money and six children, and you know very well you can’t possibly take a wife to suit you unless she has at least two thousand a year.’
Gently, Max rubbed at a smudge of dirt along their visitor’s jawline.
‘I shall do whatever I please to suit myself, Amelia,’ he murmured, gazing at the perfection of the unknown young woman’s features: the gently curving mouth, the wide-set eyes beneath finely arched brows, the high, rounded cheekbones, ‘for I answer to no one, and certainly not to you.’
* * *
The first suggestion that Olivia was nowhere familiar came from the scent of lavender. Without opening her eyes she sniffed appreciatively. Aunt Eunice was not fond of lavender but surely only she would have sprinkled it upon Olivia’s pillow in deference to Olivia’s partiality for it? Because Olivia was not well. Vaguely she acknowledged this, for the dull throbbing of her ankle and the sharper pain across her brow impinged upon the general comfort she felt nestled into what surely must be the softest mattress she had ever slept upon.
She opened her eyes with a start and struggled on to her elbows, her heart pounding at the confusion of her last memories.
Aunt Eunice had returned to their cottage. Wherever she was, Olivia was to fight this battle, alone.
The day was well advanced. Sunlight slanted into a large and airy room, handsomely decorated in shades of blue. She noticed a book upon the chest beside the bed. A book of poems. Byron? She squinted to make out the author and her head began to ache. Touching her forehead she felt the bandage.
‘Good. You’re awake,’ came a voice from the doorway, and she twisted her head to see a young man advancing, his face obscured by the pile of books he carried. ‘I was beginning to grow concerned.’
Bowing slightly after he’d deposited his burden upon a low table, he introduced himself before taking a seat at her bedside and, to her astonishment, picking up her wrist.
‘Your pulse is a good deal stronger,’ he said. ‘You appear to have twisted your ankle quite badly, but only you can assess the extent of that injury. The wound above your eye looks worse than it is. It should heal with no scar. In the meantime I thought you might enjoy some poetry.’
She was too taken aback to utter a word. Perhaps struck dumb with horror would describe it better, she thought, as she stared into eyes the colour of rain-washed slate. The dark, fathomless, unreadable eyes that had belonged to her late husband.
She swallowed. Max Atherton, her late husband Lucien’s cousin: the man into whose keeping her son had been placed. With those eyes, confident and inscrutable beneath a high forehead, the straight nose and mouth she had once thought sensitive, it could be none other. He might be smiling but it was an act. Could only be one.
She gathered her wits. He must not see her fear. He would take advantage of it. Make her do things against her will.
Taking a deep breath she fought for control. She could not afford to make mistakes. Lucien was dead while Olivia had survived. She needed only the return of her son to make her happy, and she would fight for Julian to the death. He was the only reason she was here. She and Aunt Eunice had worked out every detail to prove her innocence, to make Max Atherton see the truth. Truth would be her ally, yet she felt the same cornered desperation she had when Lucien had confronted her.
She sucked in another breath. The secret of her survival lay in her ability to act. She could be whoever she needed to be.
‘Mr Atherton.’ She repeated his name, gaining confidence from the unmasked admiration she saw in his eyes. ‘How very kind of you to come to my assistance’ – she swallowed again, desperate to keep the fear from her voice – ‘when I was so foolish as to take a tumble and thus put me in your debt.’
‘On the contrary, you have enlivened what promised to be a very dull week – now that I know you are not mortally wounded.’ His smile was open, but his eyes …
She turned her head away. Any sign of vulnerability would put her in his power, but how could she banter with a man who looked so like Lucien it put the fear of God into her? How could she trust herself not to jeopardize everything for which she had worked so hard?
‘When I looked down to see you lying trapped beneath my horse’s hoofs, while he was rearing above you, maddened by the storm—’ The visions he conjured up were too close to her memories of being trapped beneath Lucien. His description could just as easily have been that of her husband’s mad eyes blazing, foam and spittle flying from lips which had just bruised and bitten her.
She tried not to whimper.
‘Forgive me, my dear Mrs Templestowe,’ Mr Atherton said, his tone remorseful, his expression concerned as he bent over her. ‘I have a deplorable habit of not dressing up the truth when it may cause pain. Too long a bachelor, I suppose,’ he added with a smile.
‘How do you know my name?’ whispered Olivia.
‘I made investigations around the neighbourhood and learned you were lodging at the White Swan.’
She had offered the publican her maiden name, for how could she present herself as Lady Farquhar in these parts before she had convinced Mr Atherton that the name was not synonymous with sin and vice?
The impulse to correct him died on her lips.
Yet, surely, the pleasantness of Mr Atherton’s smile was a calculated ploy to trick her into letting down her reserves?
He was smiling at her, now, the corners of his eyes crinkling into well-worn lines as if good humour were his natural state. But didn’t grand manipulators have any number of ploys at their fingertips? Lucien had seemed the most charming of them all, and a man couldn’t sink to depths of depravity deeper than those he had gleefully dug using pain and threats, violence and humiliation?
She had come here imagining his cousin was different and that the truth would answer.
Trying to hide her trembling beneath the bedcovers, Olivia forced her mouth into another cool, arch smile. ‘Then you know you are harbouring a foolish, helpless widow.’
She was satisfied by the candidness of his look. No veiled, hidden knowledge lurking in those dark depths. Lucien loved to gloat, murmuring his depraved suspicions for which he had already condemned her.
He continued to smile. ‘One who is guilty of nothing more than misjudging the weather.’
If only that were true. Shame welled up in her bosom but she kept silent. How could she possibly stare into those slate-grey eyes and tell him she was the shameless widow of his late cousin? Like as not he would punish her so that not even Reverend Kirkman’s plan, if that was ever put into play, would restore her son to her keeping.
She closed her eyes and fought the tears.
She’d wanted so much to tell her version of the truth and know the catharsis of exoneration.
Smiling, she replied, ‘And I have paid the price.’ Her eyelids fluttered closed once more as she murmured, ‘My apologies, but I am very tired. Perhaps you could amuse me with Byron’s poetry, later.’
* * *
She slept, waking on the morning of the second day to find Mr Atherton again at her side. Charming. Attentive. Ready to read Byron to her.
His doctor attended her.
She slept again.
On the third day, she woke to find her lethargy gone, and her senses aroused by the single object which had brought her here: to find Julian.
So far there had been no sign of a child, anywhere. No childish laughter, no nursery-maid, no children’s toys. The drawing room where Mr Atherton carried her would be out of bounds to children, but there must be evidence of a two-and-a-half-year-old boy, somewhere.
Olivia thanked Mrs Watkins for the clean, dry clothes with which she supplied her. She was quiet as the housekeeper combed and dried her hair then helped her into the handsome blue velvet gown Max’s sister had lent her. The fashions had changed since she had last paid attention to what she wore.
Where was Julian? Her heart thundered as she sat at the dressing table, forcing herself to sit still. Since the moment she had entered this house it had taken all her willpower not to leap to her feet and go dashing up and down corridors, like a madwoman, calling his name.
She nodded dismissal to Mrs Watkins and pressed her fingertips to her eyes. Why could Mr Atherton not have simply escorted her back to the White Swan?
If he were the antithesis of his cousin, Olivia had not the first idea how to appeal to the instincts of a man who was charming, kind and well meaning and would no doubt be horrified to learn of Olivia’s past.
Olivia had learned how to play the devil. Not a man of charm and kindness.
However that was of no account. She would be gone by dinner time. Her mission now was simply to discover what distinguished Max Atherton from his late cousin so she could better craft her next anonymous entreaty to have her son returned to her care.
Dropping her hands she stared, distracted, at her reflection, then rose gnawing her little fingernail.
For so long she’d not made a single important decision on her own. Everything had been decided for her from what she did each day to what she wore.
Leaning toward the mirror she studied herself properly. The simple blue gown flattered her light hair and peaches and cream colouring. She looked young and – frowning – she thought, innocent.
Innocent? She gave a mocking smile as the familiar poisonous misery flooded thickly into her veins.
Carefully she smiled again: the kind of smile she’d practised so many times as a seventeen-year-old debutante determined to rise above the rest and waltz off with the season’s most eligible catch.
Then she thought of young Julian, her darling baby, and her whole body throbbed with pain and longing. Choking on a sob she covered her face with her hands while she forced herself to breathe steadily, to slay the demons that mocked her from the darkness so that she could focus on the task at hand. Max seemed as unlike Lucien as it was possible to be. What if his kindness wasn’t an act? The interest in his eye when he’d looked at her suggested he—
The flare of excitement she felt was quickly extinguished by self disgust.
How she hated the effect she had on men. She turned quickly away from the sight of her reflection, her skirts catching the handle of the silver-backed mirror on the edge of the dressing table.
Sending it spiralling to the ground.
She froze as she heard it shatter, ears attuned to the sound of approaching footsteps heralding a possible witness to her crime. Lucien had been violently superstitious. He’d have beaten her if she’d broken a mirror in his house.
And the servants would have told him. He’d have made sure of it.
The mirror lay at her feet, its back of figured silver uppermost, offering no indication as to whether the glass were shattered. Nor were there any sound of footsteps, and of course it was ridiculous to imagine Mr Atherton or his servants would keep such a vigilant eye upon her. Those days were gone, though it was often hard to believe it.
Slowly she bent. If the mirror were smashed she would leave immediately.
But if it was not …
Heart racing, not knowing what outcome she wanted, Olivia turned the mirror over.
And stared into her unfragmented reflection.
A strange cocktail of emotions flooded her: hope and despair, excitement and terror, but overall a renewal of courage that perhaps this time she could use her charms to find happiness.
Mr Atherton had read poetry to her. He had remained at her bedside for nearly an hour the previous day, chatting with her as if he enjoyed her company. And all the time she’d had a bandage on her head!
Perhaps she really could entrance Mr Atherton as she had entranced Lucien, and be happy for it. Then she thought of the dangers. Perhaps Mr Atherton’s kindness was simply an act, a prelude to the seduction of his unexpected house guest. Lucien would have found such a challenge amusing.
Sickened, she retreated from her simple idea that Mr Atherton’s inherent decency was such that he would be so overcome by the emotional reunion between mother and son when he finally produced Julian he’d understand the boy’s place was with his mother, with Olivia.
Disconsolately, she picked up the unbroken mirror and returned it to the table. The truth was, she’d demonstrated how poorly she read a man’s character—Lucien had proved that—so how could she have any faith in her assessment that Mr Atherton was nothing like Lucien? That he was kind? Lucien had been so very different when he was wooing her.
Still, Mr Atherton was her only hope.
She bit her lips and pinched colour into her cheeks, checking her smile one last time. Yes, she looked pretty and ingenuous. There would be no sultry pout and sinuous sashaying as she made her entrance: the kind of entrance she’d used to captivate Lucien. Stupid, ignorant child that she’d been! Mr Atherton wanted a demure, honest young woman, and that’s what she’d give him, though in truth she had no idea what she was, anymore.
Her courage was bolstered when her host turned from where he’d been lounging against the mantelpiece and she saw only kindness and concern in those disturbingly familiar eyes.
Admiration was something she’d had enough of to last a lifetime yet this man’s was somehow comforting. She need no longer check over her shoulder in case Lucien was silently observing, interpreting the lust he saw in other men’s faces as a deliberate lure she’d set for which he’d punish her in private, later.
The genuine pleasure in Mr Atherton’s expression caused an unexpected lurch in the space her heart once occupied.
‘Amelia’s gown becomes you, my dear Mrs Templestowe. It’s the colour of your eyes.’ He advanced, his hands outstretched as if he’d known her far longer than the few hours they’d spent in one another’s company. ‘No limp?’ He looked almost disappointed.
Olivia gave a little shrug and smiled. She strove to sound lighthearted, though her heart thundered. How strange that she should feel such an overt attraction to the type of gentleman she had once derided for being tame and unexciting. Well, anyone had fallen into that category when she had been seventeen, simply because he were not the dangerous and alluring Lucien, Viscount Farquhar whom she must have at all costs. She dropped her eyes, her shyness not an act. ‘I must have just bruised it. I’m sorry for disrupting whatever plans you might have had, Mr Atherton. You have been very kind but as soon as convenient I will return to the White Swan.’
She saw his disappointment as he led her to the seat closest to the fire, saying, ‘It’s not often storms around Elmwood result in such charming strays. But look.’
She was still taking in the possibilities as he pointed to the window. He was attracted to her. She should not be so surprised at that. It was not vanity, simply a fact.
Since Lucien’s death the previous year, she’d grown weary of the desire and derision she received, in equal parts, as if her beauty were somehow a mask for the corruption within.
She saw that snow was falling fast in flurries of fat, floating flakes, but all she could think of was Lucien’s lies. And how readily people had believed them.
‘You can’t possibly travel in weather like this, Mrs Templestowe.’
Briefly he squeezed her hand before indicating the white, frozen landscape. ‘For one thing, you’re not dressed for it and, until my sister returns with the carriage, I have no way of conveying you to your lodgings.’
He looked rather pleased at the state of affairs. Nor could Olivia deny she secretly felt the same. Though not in the same, uncomplicated way. Out of the corner of her eye, as she pretended to gaze with dismay upon the thickly falling snow, she realized that acknowledging an attraction to this man would be deeply dangerous.
Impossible, even. She needed to appeal to his obvious kindness, and she believed she could do that. Anything more would end in tears for both of them. She acknowledged the truth with weary resignation. Regardless of the temptations, she could not pander to her heart. Certainly not in this instance.
‘And here is tea.’ On cue the door opened to admit the parlour maid bearing a tray. ‘Surely you don’t object to a dish of strong hot tea while we wait for Amelia and the boys? They are staying with me while renovations are carried out on their home which is not far from here.’
‘The boys?’ Olivia knew she’d jumped at the phrase with too much feeling. Her mind had not been in the present. ‘There is more than one, Mr Atherton?’
‘There are three,’ he replied, rolling his eyes with a smile as she settled herself back into her green wing back chair. ‘But only one is mine.’
Oh, no, he’s not. Somehow, Olivia managed to keep her smile from faltering. ‘How old is your little boy?’
‘Julian is two-and-a-half. He’s been with me the past year since his father, my late cousin Lucien, Lord Farquhar, passed away.’
‘The poor child is an orphan?’ Anger and mortification threatened to swamp her.
It was small consolation that Max Atherton hedged his reply and obviously took care with his words, as if he were uncomfortable at having to explain the situation further.
‘The lad was put into my keeping to avoid contagion when his father succumbed to fever. When Lucien died the following month and the will was read I discovered to my surprise – amazement, really – he’d made me the boy’s legal guardian.’
‘So his mother also died of fever.’ Olivia made it sound a statement. She gave a pitying sigh, masking her anger with an expression of regret, as if it were the only explanation since not even the cruellest husband would exercise his legal rights to deny a mother her child.
‘The mother was unfit to rear the Lord Farquhar’s heir.’
Yet not unfit to be Lord Farquhar’s wife? A terrible rage blackened her vision. She dropped her gaze, unable to give voice to her real feelings, instead murmuring, ‘How terrible. I think perhaps I recall having heard something about Lady Farquhar.’
Max sighed and looked even more uncomfortable as he fiddled with his cufflink. ‘Alas for the boy, she was a fortune hunter; a vain, showy creature who trapped Lucien into marriage, ran into debt and led an altogether dishonourable life.’
‘Yet she was a mother. I cannot believe she behaved so heartlessly towards her son. Did it surprise you, Mr Atherton?’
‘I never met her—’
Olivia relaxed with grim satisfaction only to jerk forward in alarm at his next words.
‘—though I saw her at a ball, once, two years after the pair eloped.’
She waited, breathless.
Mr Atherton indicated to her to pour. With shaking hand she lifted the teapot while he elaborated. ‘She was with her husband, my cousin Lucien, but Amelia refused to meet her and as I was accompanying her I didn’t make it an issue.’
‘What did she look like?’ Best to get it over and done with, if an unmasking were inevitable.
Max smiled as he accepted his tea and leaned back in the armchair opposite her. ‘Beautiful. Like you, Mrs Templestowe.’
She swallowed; opened her mouth to speak but the words would not come.
He seemed not to notice. ‘But obviously not a lady, like you, for her gown was ostentatious and’ – he shrugged – ‘the way she carried herself I could see the truth in the rumours.’
Lucien had decided what Olivia wore. She had given up selecting her gowns herself, merely waiting and wondering in her dressing room whether he wanted her to flaunt herself like a trollop, or deport herself like a nun. With her husband’s moods increasingly erratic towards the end, she had learned to accept his last dictate with the meekness of a child.
Still, it took all her willpower not to slump, defeated, into her chair. The fact that the sight of her, albeit from a distance, only strengthened his belief in the rumours was somehow doubly devastating.
Licking her dry lips she whispered, ‘So you never sought her out after … after Lord Farquhar gave you her child?’
Max raised one eyebrow. The façade of genial, almost overeager host, slipped. Wearing a look of censure he suddenly resembled Lucien once more, and she clasped her hands together to stop them trembling as he added, ‘One would expect she would make contact with me.’ His voice was clipped, and his nostrils flared, as if he were speaking of someone utterly reprehensible. ‘I suppose she did,’ he eventually conceded, stirring his tea with a frown. ‘But not until a good eight months had elapsed. I heard talk she had been gallivanting across the Continent in bad company until then.’ He looked up, apology in his eye. ‘I should not have spoken like that, Mrs Templestowe, yet I feel such a great anger on behalf of my ward as well as sorrow that he cannot know his mother.’ He shrugged. Then his mood lightened and he smiled as if encouraging her to move on to another topic.
Olivia was not ready to let this one die.
‘How would you receive Lady Farquhar if she did contact you and ask for the return of her child?’ She tried to keep her tone offhand though her breath came in staccato bursts of anticipation as she waited for his answer.
Her host levelled at her a faintly quizzical look. Deliberating over his choice of words he said, ‘I am bound to do whatever is in the best interests of the boy and as Lady Farquhar had taken a lover—’
Olivia’s gasp was thankfully misinterpreted by Mr Atherton. ‘I fear it is not as uncommon as you might believe, Mrs Templestowe, however discretion is required. It seems Lady Farquhar had neither discretion nor wit. My cousin was not a man to take such a matter lightly.’
On that they were agreed at least, Olivia thought silently as she racked her brains to think who her imaginary lover might have been. But then, Lucien had always imagined conspiracies when there were none.
She closed her eyes as a wave of fear threatened to swamp her. No! She would not think of it. Lucien could not truly have suspected Julian was not his. Then, upon a deep breath, she quickly dispelled any reflections of what some would consider wrongdoing. If she had ever done wrong, then Lucien’s hand was behind it.
Distracted, she registered the chink of silver against china as Mr Atherton stirred his tea. His expression was distant. ‘When I heard the boy had been made my ward I sold my commission and took up residence on this estate which I hold in trust for Julian until he comes of age.’
Olivia studied his face, searching for more similarities with Lucien. The physical family resemblance was there, particularly in the eyes, the straight nose and firm chin. Now that he was speaking of serious matters the almost self-conscious banter had gone. He was precise and direct and clearly decided on what he considered right and wrong. Very different from Lucien’s arrogance.
Amidst the turmoil of her emotions, she felt a flicker of surprise. ‘You gave up your career to look after a little boy?’
‘I’d seen enough horror on the Peninsular to last a lifetime; was more than ready to leave the soldiering life and resume my agricultural obligations and’ – he smiled – ‘find a wife who would love this home and, hopefully, find me not too objectionable.’ He cleared his throat.
‘The boy needs a mother’s love.’
Pointing at the plate of seed cake he exhorted her to try some, adding with sigh, ‘Whatever Lady Farquhar’s sins, her son’s a lovely-natured little chap.’
She could not trust herself to speak. Raising her cup to take a sip her hand was trembling so much that tea spilled on to the Wilton carpet.
‘My dear Mrs Templestowe, I think you are still in shock from your fall.’ Unexpectedly Mr Atherton moved from the mantelpiece to take a seat on the arm of her chair, relieving her of her tea cup and setting it down upon the table.
Surprised and unsure what she should say as his hands gripped her shoulders, her heart quailed at his expression. There was blatant admiration in those slate-grey eyes and, like a traitor, her heart responded, just as it had with such dreadful results when she had cast in her lot with Lucien all those years ago.
But no, she could only be sceptical of such admiration. She was certainly no longer susceptible though his concern seemed genuine; and in addition to the admiration was something that looked dangerously like tenderness.
Tenderness? To succumb to tenderness would be too rash and much too dangerous. It was a trap!
And yet …
‘I’ve no idea how long you lay in the mud, soaked to the skin.’ His voice was like a caress, full of comfort and reassurance. He leaned across her to pull on the embroidered bell pull, seemingly unembarrassed by their proximity. ‘I shall have a warm rug fetched for you. Let me feel your hands. Why, they’re as cold as ice. I’ll rub them for you.’
Olivia closed her eyes and surrendered to those dangerous, unfamiliar feelings: comfort, safety. Exquisite peacefulness.
Mr Atherton held the key to her future happiness: her son. If he admired her and she could prove to him she deserved it, surely happiness might follow?
Then insidious reality intruded and she had to steel herself against her despair, her defeat.
She thought of Reverend Kirkman, imagining his outrage if he learned of the venture on which she had so rashly embarked.
It was he who had cautioned patience. Patience, he had exhorted her, was what she needed when once again her impetuous nature threatened her happiness. Patience would be her salvation, he’d soothed her, when she’d leapt up from her chair at the reading of Lucien’s will and later, when he’d physically torn her from her carriage, overruling her determination to drive the horses herself in order to reclaim Julian from this man— this stranger, Max Atherton—who now had her child.
It was too much to take in. Olivia remained in her chair, her eyes still closed as Mr Atherton stopped his ministrations and tucked the blanket around her, making sure her feet were well insulated, bringing the warm wool up around her neck with tender, competent fingers.
‘You must be very tired,’ she heard him whisper, as he stroked a strand of hair back from her face. ‘And quite obviously still in shock from your accident.’
‘Yes,’ she murmured, her head falling to one side. Vaguely, she realized it was resting against his thigh as he sat on the arm of her chair. She didn’t move it. Didn’t want to.
Mr Atherton could get her what she wanted.
Her son … happiness.
If Reverend Kirkman would sanction it. She could be happy. She could.
She was in the midst of a dreamless sleep when it happened: the meeting upon which her whole life had been focused for more than a year, the reason she was here.
Jolting awake at the sound of a carriage drawing up before the front door, her ears seemed suddenly acutely sensitive to the crunch of the gravel under what sounded like a dozen little feet, and the joyful chorus of young voices.
Then the drawing-room door was thrown open unceremoniously and three small boys burst into the room.
‘Uncle Max! Uncle Max!’ they cried, as they leapt upon him.
Olivia opened her eyes. Gripping the side of her chair for support she stared at the three youngsters, all jostling for prime position on their Uncle Max’s lap.
Fourteen months. It had been fourteen months since she had last seen Julian. The baby who had been removed from her care when Lucien had fallen ill was now a boisterous and sturdy toddler with a mop of dark curls and a sunny smile. His cousins were both fairhaired, a little older than he, but just as comfortable with their Uncle Max whom they were now pummelling with cushions.
The nursery maid clapped her hands for calm. Olivia could only stare. Charlotte, who had accompanied Julian to his new home fourteen months earlier, smiled. She’d been told to expect Olivia but to say nothing. Her pride in her young charge was clear, however the small, thin woman who followed in her wake was less forgiving of the youngsters’ unruly behaviour.
‘Boys, your manners!’ she cried, when she saw Olivia. ‘Your uncle Max has a visitor. And Max, you’re no better, the way you encourage them.’
Mr Atherton exhaled on a long-suffering sigh as he stood up to greet his sister. ‘Afternoon, Amelia. They make me feel young again and I missed them,’ he said, his grin half apologetic. ‘And Mrs Templestowe doesn’t mind. She likes small boys. At least, you gave me to think you do.’
His laconic smile, as he turned back to her, suddenly became one of concern. ‘My dear Mrs Templestowe, are you all right?’ He took a couple of quick strides across the room and bent to clasp Olivia’s hands.
‘Amelia!’ He swung round. ‘Your vinaigrette, or burnt feathers, or whatever it is you ladies use. Mrs Templestowe is still recovering from her nasty fall.’
‘I’m all right,’ Olivia managed, faintly, as Max with great solicitude, patted her arm and eased her back into her chair.
‘I’ll send the boys away,’ he said. ‘Boys! We can play as soon as I’ve ensured our visitor is—’
‘No, please! I’d love the boys to stay.’ Olivia was aware of the urgency in her voice, which she hoped would be interpreted as politeness, as she struggled upright in her chair. ‘Tell me your names, boys, if you please.’
The exuberance had been knocked out of them. Almost sullenly they ranged before her, fidgeting, anxious no doubt to be out of doors and away from this strange lady. Olivia’s heart nearly broke.
Julian didn’t recognize her. Even when she took his hand to shake it, solemnly, there was no recollection in his eyes. He was as restless as his cousins, turning his bright gaze upon his Uncle Max as if begging to be reprieved and dismissed from the room.
‘So, you’re Julian,’ she repeated, forcing a tremulous smile. ‘I’m very pleased to meet you, Julian.’
‘Can I go now, Uncle Max?’
Not two minutes in her company and her darling boy couldn’t wait to leave. She meant nothing to him.
She closed her eyes, briefly. Why should she? If his Uncle Max thought it, Julian thought it, too. She had abandoned him. Forsaken him. Without a second thought.
A terrible lump formed in her throat. She couldn’t swallow past it. She felt the tingling, swelling in her glands as the tears forced their way up and out.
Releasing Julian’s hand, she fell back into her chair. She tried to take a breath, choked on it, then shuddered, burying her face in her hands as she let out a strangled wail.
When rational thought returned, the boys had gone. Amelia, whom she’d barely even greeted with the requisite courtesy, was sitting on the sofa opposite her, regarding her over the top of her tea cup.
At least, she could see part of Amelia. The rest of her was obscured by Mr Atherton.
Dear Lord, she was squeezed up against him, her head upon his chest, her face wet with tears. She supposed she must have been sobbing like a mad creature.
He gave a short laugh when he saw her obvious dismay at the state of his coat sleeve.
‘No cause for concern. I’m dressed like a country rustic and it’s not as if I’m unused to ruined jackets, Mrs Templestowe, being so often in the company of snotty-nosed little boys,’ he said, bracingly. He rose, perhaps realizing their closeness no longer appropriate now that her tears had ceased. ‘Wonderful! A smile,’ he said, his own warm and sympathetic as he gazed down at her. ‘Seems as if a good cry was just what the doctor ordered.’ He stooped to place a comforting hand on her shoulder, and his eyes met hers, their expression tender and enquiring. ‘Would you care to tell me what that was all about?’
‘It’s not impertinence.’ Mr Atherton sounded defensive as he turned to face his sister. ‘If Mrs Templestowe is going to start sobbing in my drawing room for no apparent reason, then I believe it’s a fair question to ask what might have upset her. You, Amelia, are wearing a most unbecoming bonnet, which is surprising, for you are generally in the first stare. If that is what upset Mrs Templestowe then I would be relieved to know the fault did not lie with me, for I was up before Frensham was on hand to dress me. Perhaps I’ve committed some unpardonable crime in the manner in which I’ve mixed a green and black waistcoat with buff pantaloons. If the fault lies with me, I’d much rather be told.’
‘You are entirely blameless, both of you,’ protested Olivia with a weak smile, pushing her shoulders back as embarrassment at her emotional outburst washed over her. ‘It’s just …’
Her words trailed into expectant silence. Stammering, she tried to come up with a plausible reason for her distress. ‘Julian.’ Her voice became a whisper. ‘I lost my baby a year ago. When I saw Julian—’
She couldn’t go on. She took another heaving breath, trying with all her might to resist another embarrassing deluge of sobs. Finally she managed another tremulous smile, blushing at being the focus of attention.
‘I’m all right now,’ she said, waving away Mr Atherton who looked like he was going to enfold her in his bear-like embrace once again. There was nothing like sympathy to bring on a bout of self indulgent wailing.
Yet hadn’t all her efforts been with this portentous meeting in mind?
Success seemed within her grasp.
There was Mr Atherton, the man to whom Lucien had entrusted Julian’s future, and who was therefore responsible for Olivia’s happiness, looking at her with transparent sympathy and admiration. As if she were the most precious and novel creature ever to have crossed his threshold. She acknowledged the look with a mixture of hope and dread. She was used to men’s admiration but it had been a long time since she had courted it. Her beauty was a poisoned chalice. Mr Atherton was kind and decent. If she revealed to him her real identity he would be instantly disgusted. Even if he chose to dismiss the rumours that had blackened her name it wouldn’t be long before he discovered the rottenness within. Lucien had tainted her. She knew better than anyone that the beautiful mask she presented to the world concealed a soul that was destined to writhe in the flames of Hell with her late husband.
Hadn’t The Reverend Kirkman told her a thousand times?
It only strengthened her quest to regain Julian in this life. At any cost.
‘I’ll see that Charlotte is preparing the boys for nursery tea,’ Amelia excused herself.
‘It looks like rain yet again. My sympathies, Mrs Templestowe.’ Amelia hesitated in the doorway, looking at Olivia as if she couldn’t quite make her out. ‘I cannot imagine what it must be to lose a child.’