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Ravishing the Heiress

Fitzhugh Trilogy, Book 2

Millicent understands the terms of her arranged marriage all too well. She gets to be a Countess by marrying an impoverished Earl. And in return, the Earl Fitzhugh receives the benefit of her vast wealth, saving his family from bankruptcy. Because of her youth, they have agreed to wait eight years before consummating the marriage—and then, only to beget an heir. After which, they will lead separate lives.

It is a most sensible arrangement. Except for one little thing. Somehow Millie has fallen head over heels in love with her husband. Her husband, who has become her very best friend, but nothing more… Her husband, who plans to reunite with his childhood sweetheart, the beautiful and newly widowed Isabelle, as soon as he has honored the pact with his wife…

As the hour they truly become husband-and-wife draws near, both Millie and Fitzhugh must face the truth in their hearts. Has their pact bred only a great friendship—or has it, without either of them quite noticing, given rise to a great love?

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Ravishing the Heiress

Berkley
July 3, 2012
Mass Market Paperback
ISBN-13: 9780425250877
ISBN-10: 0425250873

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This book is available in audio.

Excerpt

Chapter 1

FATE

Ravishing the Heiress

1888

It was love at first sight.

Not that there was anything wrong with love at first sight, but Millicent Graves had not been raised to fall in love at all, let alone hard and fast.

She was the only surviving child of a very prosperous man who manufactured tinned goods and other preserved edibles. It had been decided, long before she could comprehend such things, that she was going to Marry Well—that via her person, the family's fortune would be united with an ancient and illustrious title.

Millie's childhood had therefore consisted of endless lessons: music, drawing, penmanship, elocution, deportment, and, when there was time left, modern languages. At ten, she successfully floated down a long flight of stairs with three books on her head. By twelve, she could exchange hours of pleasantries in French, Italian, and German. And on the day of her fourteenth birthday, Millie, not at all a natural musician, at last conquered Listz's Douze Grandes Études, by dint of sheer effort and determination.

That same year, with her father coming to the conclusion that she would never be a great beauty, or indeed a beauty of any kind, the search began for a highborn groom desperate enough to marry a girl from whose family wealth derived from—heaven forbid—sardines.

The search came to an end twenty months later. Mr. Graves was not particularly thrilled with the choice, as the earl who agreed to take his daughter in exchange for his money had a title that was neither particularly ancient nor particularly illustrious. But the stigma attached to tinned sardines was such that even this earl demanded Mr. Graves's last penny.

And then, after months of haggling, after all the agreements had finally been drawn up and signed, the earl had the inconsideration to drop dead at the age of thirty-three. Or rather, Mr. Graves viewed his death a thoughtless affront. Millie, in the privacy of her room, wept.

She'd seen the earl only twice and had not been overjoyed with either his anemic looks or his dour temperament. But he, in his way, had had as little choice as she. The estate had come to him in terrible disrepair. His schemes of improvement had made little to no difference. And when he'd tried to land an heiress of a more exalted background, he'd failed resoundingly, likely because he'd been so unimpressive in both appearance and demeanor.

A more spirited girl might have rebelled against such an unprepossessing groom, more than twice her age. A more enterprising one might have persuaded her parents to let her take her chances on the matrimonial mart for a more palatable husband. Millie was not either of those girls.

She was a quiet, serious child who understood instinctively that much was expected of her. And while it was desirable that she could play all twelve of the Grandes Études rather than just eleven, in the end her training was not about music—or languages, or deportment—but about discipline, control, and self-denial.

Love was never a consideration. Her opinions were never a consideration. Best that she remained detached from the process, for she was but a cog in the great machinery of Marrying Well.

That night, however, she sobbed for this man she scarcely knew, a man, who, like her, had no say in the direction of his own life.

But the great machinery of Marrying Well ground on. Two weeks after the late Earl Fitzhugh's funeral, the Graves hosted his distant cousin the new Earl Fitzhugh for dinner.

Millie knew very little of the late earl. She knew even less of the new one, except that he was only nineteen, still in his last year at Eton. His youth disturbed her somewhat—she'd been prepared to marry an older man, not someone her own age. But other than that, she dwelled on him not at all: Her marriage was a business transaction; the less personal involvement from her, the more smoothly things would run.

Unfortunately, her indifference—and her peace of mind—came to an abrupt end the moment the new earl walked in the door.

Millie was not without thoughts of her own. She very carefully watched what she said and did, but seldom censored her mind: it was the only freedom she had.

Sometimes, as she lay in bed at night, she thought of falling in love, in the ways of a Jane Austen novel—her mother did not allow her to read the Brontes. Love, it seemed to her, was a result born of careful, shrewd observation. Miss Elizabeth Bennet, for example, did not truly consider Mr. Darcy to have the makings of a fine husband until she had seen the majesty of Pemberley, which stood for Mr. Darcy's equally majestic character.

Millie imagined herself a wealthy, independent widow, inspecting the gentlemen available to her with wry, but humane wit. And if she were fortunate enough, finding that one gentleman of character, sense, and good humor.

That seemed to her the epitome of romantic love: the quiet satisfaction of two kindred souls brought together in gentle harmony.

Ravishing the Heiress

She was, therefore, entirely unprepared for her internal upheaval, when the new Earl Fitzhugh was shown into the family drawing room. Like a visitation of angels, there flared a bright white glow in the center of her vision. Haloed by this supernatural light stood a young man who must have folded his wings just that moment so as to bear a passing resemblance to a mortal.

An instinctive sense of self-preservation made her lower her face before she'd quite comprehended the geography of his features. But she was all agitation inside, a sensation that was equal parts glee and misery.

Surely a mistake had been made. The late earl could not possibly have a cousin who looked like this. Any moment now he'd be introduced as the new earl's schoolmate, or perhaps the guardian Colonel Clements's son.

“Millie, let me present Lord Fitzhugh. Lord Fitzhugh, my daughter.”

Dear God, it was him. This mind-bogglingly handsome young man was the new Lord Fitzhugh.

She had to lift her eyes. Lord Fitzhugh returned a steady, blue gaze. They shook hands.

“Miss Graves,” he said.

Her heart thrashed drunkenly. She was not accustomed to such complete and undiluted masculine attention. Her mother had always been attentive and solicitous. But her father only ever spoke to her with one eye still on his newspaper.

Lord Fitzhugh, however, was focused entirely on her, as if she were the most important person he'd ever met.

“My lord,” she murmured, acutely aware of the warmth on her face, and the old-master perfection of his cheekbones.

Dinner was announced on the heels of the introductions. The earl offered his arm to Mrs. Graves and it was with great envy that Millie took Colonel Clements's arm.

She glanced at the earl. He happened to be looking her way. Their eyes held for a moment. Heat pumped through her veins. She was jittery, stunned almost.

What was the matter with her? Millicent Graves, milquetoast extraordinaire, through whose veins dripped the lack of passion, did not experience such strange flashes and flutters. She'd never even read a Bronte novel, for goodness's sake. Why did she suddenly feel like one of the younger Bennet girls, the ones who giggled and shrieked and had absolutely no control over themselves?

Dimly she realized that she knew nothing of the earl's character or temperament. That she was behaving in a shallow and foolish manner, putting the cart before the horse. But the chaos inside her had a life and a will of its own.

As they entered the drawing room, Mrs. Clements said, “What a lovely table. Don't you agree, Fitz?”

“I do,” said the earl.

His name was George Edward Arthur Granville Fitzhugh—the family name and the title were the same. But apparently those who knew him well called him Fitz.

Fitz, her lips and teeth played with the syllable. Fitz.

At dinner, the earl let Colonel Clements and Mrs. Graves carry the majority of the conversation. Was he shy? Did he still obey the tenet that children should be seen and not heard? Or was he using the opportunity to assess his possible future in-laws—and his possible future wife?

Except he didn't appear to be studying her. Not that he could do so easily: a three-tier, seven-branch silver epergne, sprouting orchids, lilies, and tulips from every appendage, blocked the direct line of sight between them.

Through petals and stalks, she could make out his occasional smiles—each of which made her ears hot—directed at Mrs. Graves to his left. But he looked more often in her father's direction.

Ravishing the Heiress

Her grandfather and her uncle had built the Graves fortune. Her father had been young enough, when the family coffer began to fill, to be sent to Harrow. He'd acquired the expected accent, but his natural temperament was too lackluster to quite emanate the gloss of sophistication his family had hoped for.

There he sat at the head of the table, neither a ruthless risk taker like his late father, nor a charismatic, calculating entrepreneur like his late brother, but a bureaucrat, a caretaker of the riches and assets thrust upon him. Hardly the most exciting of men.

Yet he commanded the earl's attention this night.

Behind him on the wall hung a large mirror in an ornate frame, which faithfully reflected the company at table. Millie sometimes looked into the mirror and pretended that she was an outside observer documenting the intimate particulars of a private meal. But tonight she had yet to give the mirror a glance, since the earl sat at the opposite end of the table, next to her mother.

She found him in the mirror. Their eyes met.

He had not been looking at her father. Via the mirror, he'd been looking at her.

Mrs. Graves had been forthcoming on the mysteries of marriage—she did not want Millie ambushed by the facts of life. The not-so-pretty reality of what happened between a man and a woman behind closed doors usually had Millie regard members of the opposite sex with wariness. But his attention caused only fireworks inside her—detonations of thrill, blasts of full-fledged happiness.

If they were married, and if they were alone…

She flushed.

But she already knew: She would not mind it.

Not with him.

The gentlemen had barely rejoined the ladies in the drawing room when Mrs. Graves announced that Millie would play for the gathering.

“Millicent is splendidly accomplished at the pianoforte,” she said.

For once, Millie was excited about the prospect of displaying her skills—she might lack true musicality, but she did possess an ironclad technique.

Mrs. Graves turned to Lord Fitzhugh. “Do you enjoy music, sir?”

“I do, most assuredly,” he answered. “May I be of some use to Miss Graves? Turn the pages for her perhaps?”

Millie braced her hand on the music rack. The bench was not very long. He'd be sitting right next to her.

“Please do,” said Mrs. Grave.

And just like that, Lord Fitzhugh was at Millie's side, so close that his trousers brushed the flounces of her skirts. He smelled fresh and brisk, like an afternoon in the country. And the smile on his face as he murmured his gratitude distracted her so much that she forgot that she should be the one to thank him.

He looked away from her to the score on the music rack. “Moonlight Sonata. Do you have something lengthier?”

Ravishing the Heiress

The question rattled—and pleased—her. “Usually one only hears the first movement of the sonata, the adagio sostenudo. But there are two additional movements. I can keep playing, if you'd like.”

“I'd be much obliged.”

A good thing she played mechanically and largely from memory, for she could not concentrate on the notes at all. The tips of his fingers rested lightly against a corner of the score sheet. He had lovely-looking hands, strong and elegant. She imagined one of his hands gripped around a cricket ball—it had been mentioned at dinner that he played for the school team. The ball he bowled would be fast as lightning. It would knock over a wicket directly and dismiss the batter to the roar of the crowd's appreciation.

“I have a request, Miss Graves,” he spoke very quietly.

With her playing, no one could hear him but her.

“Yes, my lord?”

“I'd like you to keep playing no matter what I say.”

Her heart skipped a beat. Now it was beginning to make sense. He wanted to sit next to her so that they could hold a private conversation in a room full of their elders.

“I will keep playing,” she promised. “What is it that you want to say, sir?”

“I'd like to know, Miss Graves, are you being forced into marriage?”

Ten thousand hours before the pianoforte was the only thing that kept Millie from coming to an abrupt halt. Her fingers continued to pressure the correct keys; notes of various descriptions kept on sprouting. But it could have been someone in the next house playing, so distantly did the music register.

“Do I—do I give the impression of being forced, sir?” Even her voice didn't quite sound her own.

He hesitated slightly. “No, you do not.”

“Why do you ask then?”

“You are sixteen.”

“It isn't unheard of for a girl to marry at sixteen.”

“To a man more than twice her age?”

“You make the late earl sound decrepit. He was a man in his prime.”

“I am sure there are thirty-three-year-old men who make sixteen-year-olds tremble in romantic yearning, but my late cousin was not one of them.”

They were coming to the end of the page; he turned it just in time. She chanced a quick glance at him. He did not look at her.

Ravishing the Heiress

“May I ask you a question, my lord?” she heard herself say.

“Please.”

“Are you being forced to marry me?”

The words left her in a spurt, like arterial bleeding. She was afraid of his answer. Only a man who was himself being forced would wonder whether she too was under the same duress.

He was silent for some time. “Do you not find this kind of arrangements exceptionally distasteful?”

Glee and misery—she'd been bouncing between the two wildly divergent emotions. But now there was only misery left, a sodden mass of it. His tone was perfectly courteous. Yet his question was an accusation of complicity: He would not be here if she hadn't agreed.

“I—” She was playing the adagio sostenudo much too fast—no moonlight in her sonata, only storm-driven branches whacking at shutters. “I suppose I've had time to become inured to it: I've known my whole life that I'd have no say in the matter.”

“My cousin held out for years,” said the earl. “He should have done it sooner: beget an heir and leave everything to his own son. We are barely related.”

He did not want to marry her. Not in the least.

This was nothing new. His predecessor had not wanted to marry her either; she had accepted his reluctance as par for the course. Had never expected anything else, in fact. But the unwillingness of the young man next to her on the piano bench—it was as if she'd been forced to hold a block of ice in her bare hands, the chill turning into a black, burning pain.

And the mortification of it, to be so eager for someone who reciprocated none of her sentiments, who was revolted by the mere thought of taking her as a wife.

He turned the next page. “Do you never think to yourself, I won't do it?”

“Of course I've thought of it,” she said, suddenly bitter after all these years of placid obedience. But she kept her voice smooth and uninflected. “And then I think a little further. Do I run away? My skills as a lady are not exactly valuable beyond the walls of this house. Do I advertise my services as a governess? I know nothing of children—nothing at all. Do I simply refuse and see whether my father loves me enough to not disown me? I'm not sure I have the courage to find out.”

He rubbed the corner of a page between his fingers. “How do you stand it?”

This time there was no undertone of accusation to his question. If she wanted to, she might even detect a bleak sympathy. Which only fed her misery, that foul beast with teeth like knives.

“I keep myself busy and do not think too deeply about it,” she said, in as harsh a tone as she'd ever allowed herself.

There, she was a mindless automaton who did as others instructed: getting up, going to sleep, and earning heaps of disdain from prospective husbands in between.

They said nothing more to each other, except to exchange the usual civilities at the end of her performance. Everyone applauded. Mrs. Clements said very nice things about Millie's musicianship—which Millie barely heard.

The rest of the evening lasted the length of Elizabeth's reign.

Mr. Graves, usually so phlegmatic and taciturn, engaged the earl in a lively discussion of cricket. Millie and Mrs. Graves gave their attention to Colonel Clements's army stories. Had someone looked in from the window, the company in the drawing room would appear perfectly normal, jovial even.

Ravishing the Heiress

And yet there was enough misery to wilt flowers and curl wallpaper. Nobody noticed the earl's distress. And nobody—except Mrs. Graves, who stole anxious looks at Millie—noticed Millie's. Was unhappiness really so invisible? Or did people simply prefer to turn away, as if from lepers?

After the guests took their leave, Mr. Graves pronounced the dinner a succès énorme. And he, who'd remained skeptical on the previous earl throughout, gave his ringing endorsement to the young successor. “I shall be pleased to have Lord Fitzhugh for a son-in-law.”

“He hasn't proposed yet,” Millie reminded him, “and he might not.”

Or so she hoped. Let them find someone else for her. Anyone else.

“Oh, he will most assuredly propose,” said Mr. Graves. “He has no choice.”

“Do you really have no other choices then?” asked Isabelle.

Her eyes were bright with unshed tears. Futility burned inside Fitz. He could do nothing to halt this future that hurtled toward him like a derailed train, and even less to alleviate the pain of the girl he loved.

“If I do, it is only in the sense that I am free to go to London and see if a different heiress will have me.”

She turned her face away and wiped her eyes with the heel of her hand. “What is she like, this Miss Graves?”

What did it matter? He could not recall her face. Nor did he want to. “Unobjectionable.”

“Is she pretty?”

He shook his head. “I don't know—and I don't care.”

She was not Isabelle—she could never be pretty enough.”

It was unbearable to think of Miss Graves as a permanent fixture in his life. He felt violated. He raised shotgun in his hands and pulled the trigger. A hundred feet away, a clay pigeon exploded. The ground was littered with shards: it had been an excruciating conversation.

“So, this time next year, you could have a child,” said Isabelle, her voice breaking. “The Graves would want their money's worth—and soon.”

God, they would expect that of him, wouldn't they? Another clay pigeon burst apart; he scarcely felt the recoil in his shoulder.

It hadn't seemed quite so terrible at first, becoming an earl out of the blue. He realized almost immediately he'd have to give up his plan of a career in the military: An earl, even a poor one, was too valuable for the front line. The blow, although harsh, was far from fatal. He'd chosen the military for the demands it would place on him. Returning an estate from the brink of ruin was just as demanding and honorable an occupation. And he did not think Isabelle would at all mind becoming a ladyship: She would cut a dashing figure in Society.

But as he stepped into Henley Park, his new seat, his blood began to congeal. At nineteen, he had not become a poor earl, but a desperately destitute one.

The manor's decline was frightful. The carpets were moth-eaten, the velvet curtains similarly so. Many of the flues drew not at all; walls and paintings were grimy with soot. In almost all the upper story rooms, the ceilings bore the marks of water damage.

Such a large house demanded fifty indoor servants and could limp by with thirty. But at Henley park, the indoor staff had been reduced to fifteen, roughly divided between the too young—several of the maids were barely twelve—and the too old, retainers who had been with the family for their entire lives and had nowhere else to go.

Ravishing the Heiress

Everything in his room creaked: the floor, the bed, the doors of the wardrobe. The plumbing was medieval—the long decline of the family's fortune had precluded any meaningful modernization of the interior. And for the three nights of his stay, he'd gone to sleep shivering with cold, listening to the congregation of rats in the walls.

It was a step above outright dilapidation, only a very small step.

Isabelle's family was thoroughly respectable. The Pelhams, like the Fitzhughs, were related to several noble lineages and in general considered just the sort of solid, upstanding country gentry that did the squirearchy proud. But neither the Fitzhughs nor the Pelhams were wealthy; what funds they could scrape together would not keep Henley Park's roof from leaking, or her foundation from rotting.

But if it were only the house, they might still have somehow managed with various economies. Unfortunately, Fitz also inherited eighty thousand pounds in debt. And from that, there was no escape.

Were he ten years younger, he could bury his head in the sand and let Colonel Clements worry about his problems. But he was only two years short of majority, a man nearly grown. He could not run away from his troubles, which assuredly would only worsen during any period of inattention.

The only viable solution was the sale of his person, to exchange his cursed title for a heiress with a fortune large enough to pay his debts and repair his house.

But to do that, he would have to give up Isabelle.

“Please, let's not speak of it,” he said, his teeth clenched.

He didn't want much in life. The path he'd delineated for himself had been simple and straightforward: officer training at Sandhurst, a commission to follow, and when he'd received his first promotion, Isabelle's hand in marriage. She was not only beautiful, but intelligent, hardy, and adventurous. They would have been deliriously happy together.

Tears rolled down her face. “But whether we speak of it or not, it's going to happen, isn't it?”

She raised her shotgun and blasted the last remaining clay pigeon to pieces. His heart was similarly shattered.

“No matter what happens…”

He could not continue. He was no longer in a position to declare his love for her. Whatever he said would only make things worse.

“Don't marry her,” she implored, her voice hoarse, her eyes fervent. “Forget Henley Park. Let's run away together.”

If only they could. “Neither of us is of age. Our marriage wouldn't be valid without the consent of your father and my guardian. I don't know about your father, but Colonel Clements is dead set on my doing my duty. He'd rather see you ruined than allow our marriage to stand.”

Overhead thunder rolled. “Isabelle, Lord Fitzhugh,” cried her mother's voice from inside the house, “better come back. It's going to rain soon!”

Neither of them moved.

Drops of rain fell on his head, each as heavy as a pebble.

Isabelle gazed at him. “Do you remember the first time you came to visit?”

“Of course.”

He'd been sixteen, she fifteen. It had been at the end of Michaelmas Half. And he'd arrived with Pelham, Hastings, and two other mates from Eton. She'd sprinted down the stairs to hug Pelham. Fitz had met her before, when she'd come to see Pelham at Eton. But on that day, suddenly, she was no longer the little girl she'd been, but a lovely young lady, full of life and verve. The afternoon sun, slanting into the hall, had lit her like a flame. And when she'd turned around and said, “Ah, Mr. Fitzhugh, I remember you”, he was already in love.

Ravishing the Heiress

“Do you remember the fight scene from Romeo and Juliet?” she asked softly.

He nodded. Would that time flowed backward, so he could leave the present behind and head toward those older, more joyous days instead.

“I remember everything so clearly: Gerry was Tybalt and you Mercutio. You had one of my father's walking sticks in one hand and a tea sandwich in the other. You took a bite of the sandwich, and sneered, ‘Tybalt, you rat-catcher, will you walk?'” She smiled through her tears. “Then you laughed. My heart caught and I knew then and there that I wanted to spend my life with you.”

His face was wet. “You'll find someone better,” he forced himself to say.

“I don't want anyone else. I want only you.”

And he wanted only her. But it was not to be. They were not to be.

Rain came down in sheets. It had been a miserable spring. Already he despaired of ever again walking under an unclouded sky.

“Isabelle, Lord Fitzhugh, you must come inside now,” repeated Mrs. Pelham.

They ran. But as they reached the side of the house, she gripped his arm and pulled him toward her. “Kiss me.”

“I mustn't. Even if I don't marry Miss Graves, I'm to marry someone else.”

“Have you ever kissed anyone?”

“No.” He'd been waiting for her.

“All the more reason you must kiss me now. So that no matter what happens, we will always be each other's first.”

Lightning split the sky. He stared at the beautiful girl who would never be his. Was it so wrong?

It must not be, because the next moment he was kissing her, lost to everything else but this one last moment of freedom and joy.

And when they could no longer delay their return to the house, he held her tight and whispered what he'd promised himself he would not say.

“No matter what happens, I will always, always love you.”

Chapter 2

EIGHT YEARS LATER, 1896

“I hear Mrs. Englewood has arrived in London,” said Millicent, Lady Fitzhugh, at breakfast.

Fitz looked up from his paper. The strangest thing: His wife never gossiped, yet she seemed to know everything the moment it happened.

She wore a morning gown of cornflower blue. The morning gown, worn strictly indoors among intimates, was looser of form and construction than its more tightly corseted cousins the promenade gown and the visiting gown. But there was something about his wife that was highly—almost excessively—neat, so that even the slouchier morning gown look prim and precise on her.

Ravishing the Heiress

Her light brown hair was pulled back into a tight bun, not a strand loose—never a strand loose, except when she'd smashed a brick fireplace wielding a sledgehammer. Her eyes, a similar shade to her hair, busily scanned one invitation after another. Sweet eyes, never to anger, seldom even to displeasure.

Sometimes it surprised him how young she still looked. How young she still was. They'd been married almost a decade and she was not even twenty-five.

“Yes,” he answered, “your information is correct, as usual.”

She reached for the salt cellar. “When did you learn?”

“Yesterday evening,” he said, his heart skipping a beat with anticipation.

Isabelle. Seven years it had been since his last glimpse of her on her wedding day. Eight, since they last spoke.

And now she was coming back into his life, a free woman.

Lady Fitz sliced open another envelope and glanced at its content. “She will be eager to see you, I'm sure.”

He had known, since he first met the former Millicent Graves, that she was unusually self-possessed. Still, sometimes her even-keeledness surprised him. He knew of no other wife who combined this sincere interest in a husband's welfare with such a lack of possessiveness—at least none who didn't have a lover of her own.

“One hopes,” he said.

“Would you like me to rearrange your schedule in any way?” she asked without looking at him. “If I'm not mistaken, we are expected tomorrow at the bottling plant to taste the champagne cider and the new lemon-flavor soda-water. And day after tomorrow, the biscuit factory for cream wafers and chocolate croquette.”

Isabelle's return had coincided with the semi-annual taste test of new product ideas at Cresswell & Graves.

“Thank you but it won't be necessary: I am invited to call on her today.”

“Oh,” said his wife.

Her countenance often reminded him of blancmange, smooth, mild, and perfectly set. But this moment, an unnamed emotion flickered across her features. And suddenly she resembled not so much a bland dish of pudding as the surface of a well-known, yet never explored lake, and he, standing on the banks, had just seen a movement underwater, a enigmatic shadow that disappeared so quickly he wasn't sure he hadn't imagined the whole thing.

“Then you must convey my regards,” she said, reaching again for the salt cellar.

“I shall.”

She inspected the rest of the post in her pile, finished her tea, and rose—she always arrived to and left from breakfast before he did. “Don't forget we are expected to dinner at the Queensberrys'.”

“I won't.”

“Good day then, sir.”

Ravishing the Heiress

“Good day, Lady Fitz.”

Her gait was as neat as her person, her blue skirts barely swishing as she turned down the corridor. By habit he listened as her footsteps receded, the cadence and lightness of her footfalls almost as familiar to him as the rhythm of his own breaths.

When he could hear her no more, he pulled Isabelle's note out of the inside pocket of his daycoat and read it again.

My Dearest Fitz,

(Am I too forward in the salutation itself? No matter, I have never been the least reticent and I certainly won't change now.)

Thank you for the lovely house you have arranged for myself and the children. They quite adore the garden, tucked away from sight. I am particularly fond of the bright, cheerful parlor with overlooks the green square just across the street.

Such a long time it has been since I last saw you, a few more days ought not to matter very much. Yet I find myself extraordinarily impatient to meet again, even though the house is clearly not yet ready to receive callers. Will you come tomorrow?

Yours,
Isabelle

The letter was most cordial, and her signature the warmest element of all. He had thought of her as Isabelle for many years, but had only ever addressed her as Miss Pelham or—in his recent correspondence—Mrs. Englewood. For her to close her letter with her given name was an unmistakable invitation to further intimacy.

Isabelle. The first girl he'd kissed. The only one he'd ever loved.

He tucked away the note and opened his newspaper again. A maid came to take away Lady Fitz's plate.

A thought occurred to him. “Bring me the plate.”

The maid looked at him uncomprehendingly.

“The plate in your hand.”

His wife had left behind some scrambled eggs, which was most unlike her: One served oneself at breakfast and she never took more than she could eat. To the maid's surprise, he picked up a piece of the scrambled eggs with his fork.

And would not have been able to swallow it without the help of his coffee. He knew she liked her eggs salted, but this was less scrambled egg than scrambled salt. He'd have to speak to her about it next time he saw her: this much salt in the diet must be injurious to the health.

As unthinkable as it had been eight years ago, they'd become good friends. And friends watched out for one another.