In Scandal They Wed Page 2

Chapter 2


Sudden wind stirred the icy-still air.

Evelyn sat back and lifted her face, pushing an errant gold-brown strand from her eyes with one dirtied glove. Angling her head, she waited. Listened. For what, she could not hazard a guess. Only something had changed. She knew it, felt it in the cold stroke of wind on her face. Almost like that night in Barbados when she awoke to the dark . . . no longer alone. For her, that night had changed everything. Brought her to this point now.

Shivering, she pushed the memory away and returned to her digging, determined to unearth the parsnips and turnips before the nip of snow she smelled in the air arrived.

Everyone in Little Billings concurred that this was the coldest winter in memory, but she had vowed against losing her vegetables to the late cling of winter. She had already unearthed the cabbage, small and pathetic as they were when she pulled them one by one from the ground.

And yet, as she toiled over her garden, she couldn’t completely dismiss the unease sinking through her. Sitting back on her heels, she dropped her hands upon her stained apron and glanced around again, slowly turning her head left and right in exasperation.

Great-aunt Gertrude kneeled at one end of the garden, her rail-thin arms swinging wildly at the tenacious black birds diving for the cauliflowers. Desperation hung thick. Like Evie, her aunt was determined to bring in their meager crop before winter breathed death on them . . . and before the winged creatures devoured their only hope for survival.

“Blast you to perdition, you devils!”

Evie fought a smile. One wouldn’t know from the look of her, but Aunt Gertie could eat more than the Queen’s army. Ever since Linnie’s death—and the subsequent halt to their allowance—food had become scant. Evie’s father could offer no assistance. His son-in-law’s generosity ended with Linnie’s death. Evie couldn’t fault her half sister’s husband. Why should he support the few clinging relations of his dead wife?

On a nearby blanket, Marguerite played blocks with Nicholas. Evie watched her son as he carefully constructed a tall tower, biting his lip in concentration, sweetly unaware of the world that pushed and growled at every side. He paused to bask in Marguerite’s murmurs of approval.

Sighing, Evie dug harder, pulling forth more parsnips, renewed with the resolve to feed her family—her child. Linnie’s child, a small voice whispered across her mind.

Head bent, she stilled as a shadow fell over her.

“There’s a gentleman waiting for you in the parlor.”

Her stomach quivered. The words only confirmed her sense of foreboding, convinced her something had lurked in that cold kiss of breeze.

Her fingers loosened, dropping a parsnip. She watched it roll to a stop in the dirt before lifting her gaze to her housekeeper. Mrs. Murdoch leaned against the crumbling stone wall edging the garden, breathless, a hand pressed to her impressive bosom as though she had run the short distance from the house.

A gentleman. Harmless sounding, but Evie knew better, knew that the safe haven she had carved for herself stood on shaky ground.

Hopefully, this gentleman was not another bill collector calling to demand recompense of an outstanding debt.

The Harbour, dubbed thusly when her aunt’s fiancé jilted her the morning of their wedding some fifty years ago, belonged to Aunt Gertie. The majority of the once sizable property had been sold off in parts throughout the years. Only the house and a small parcel of acreage sat intact.

The Harbour and nearby village of Little Billings were a far cry from Evie’s youthful dreams of adventure, but those dreams had belonged to another girl. She had sacrificed those dreams for Linnie’s sake. And Nicholas’s.

She wasn’t a girl to believe in dreams and wish on stars any longer.

With a hand to her knee, she pushed to her feet. “Who is he?”

Mrs. Murdoch shook her salt and pepper head. “He ain’t one of them collectors. Doesn’t have the look. Said his name is Lockhart. Spencer Lockhart. Know him?”

Evie shook her head, frowning. “I’ve never heard the name.”

“Yes, well, he looks a bit familiar.”

“You have a caller?” Marguerite approached, her hand clasped around Nicholas’s chubby one. She arched her dark elegant brows. “Dr. Sheffield, perhaps?”

Evie’s cheeks warmed at the mention of the village doctor. “No.”

Nicholas tugged Marguerite in the direction of the pond, very nearly pulling her down off her feet. “Maggie, c’mon.”

“In a moment, darling. I’m talking to your mother.”

“Go on.” Evie slid off her gloves. “I’ll see to our . . . guest.”

Marguerite’s dark eyes clung to hers. “You’re certain?” Her friend knew her well enough to decipher when something bothered her. They’d spent too many years together at the Penwich School for Virtuous Girls, suffering through cold winters and meager rations—enduring the bullying of bigger girls, enduring Master Brocklehurst.

For some reason, the prospect of facing this unknown caller rattled Evie. She prayed Mrs. Murdoch was correct and he wasn’t here to collect on a debt. But whoever he was, her stomach knotted at the idea of facing him.

“I’ll see to this. You take Nicholas to the pond. It’s your last day here. Enjoy yourself.” Even as she said the words, a thickness rose in her throat to know that Marguerite would return to London tomorrow and she would not see her again for another year.

Shoving aside the grim thought, she pasted a reassuring smile on her face for the benefit of her housekeeper and Marguerite. Not for herself. That would be futile. Nothing could rid her of the uneasy fluttering in her belly.

She walked a steady line, entering the house through the kitchen. Mrs. Murdoch followed close behind, wringing her apron with one hand. Evie turned, nearly colliding with the overanxious housekeeper.

“No need to accompany me. I’ll be fine.”

Mrs. Murdoch’s ruddy face scowled. “I’ll fetch Mr. Murdoch. We might require—”

“I’m certain we don’t need to bother Mr. Murdoch from his fishing. Besides, we need whatever he catches for supper.”

Before Mrs. Murdoch could protest further, she spun around and departed the kitchen, taking the narrow steps two at a time to reach the main floor. Her feet moved silently down the worn runner leading to the front parlor.

Outside, the wind whistled, coming to life in earnest now. Belatedly, the thought crossed her mind that Nicholas might have needed his heavier coat for a trek to the pond.

That thought vanished, however, as she entered the parlor.

A lean figure stood with his back to her, staring out the window at the long-neglected front grounds. Mrs. Murdoch hadn’t bothered to take his coat, and the elegance of the dark greatcoat only heightened the shabbiness of her parlor.

For a moment, she observed him in silence, staring at the back of him, tall and imposing. With his hands locked behind his back, he struck her as rigid as a rock. She struggled to swallow past the tightness in her throat and imagined that he was probably here to collect on a debt, after all.

She moved deeper into the room, preparing herself for the unpleasant task of pleading and bartering with the gentleman. Perhaps he had need of a good seamstress or laundress? Or possessed a fondness for skinny parsnips. A laugh strangled, died in her dry throat.

Her skirt whispered against the arm of a chair as she moved. The floor creaked beneath her feet.

He turned in a swift, fluid motion.

She opened her mouth to speak, but froze. Her gaze locked with his as her entire body seized, the breath freezing inside her lungs. Staring upon his handsome face, she knew. She understood. The premonition she had felt in the breath of that icy wind made perfect, horrid sense.

The blood rushed to her head. Suddenly dizzy, she reached out to grasp the back of a nearby chair to keep from falling to her knees. Dear God.

Staring into his face, she felt as though she looked through a window into the years ahead. That she stared at the future. At a face time had yet to mold.

The moment hung, words waiting to fill it. He did not speak, only further evidence, further proof. Her stomach rolled, rebelled.

It was he—her greatest nightmare come true. He could be no other.

The single fear that had lurked in the back of her head all these years, the remote possibility that she had convinced herself too remote, too impossible, had, in fact, become reality.

The father of her sister’s child, Linnie’s child—her child—stood before her in her parlor.

Chapter 3

Spencer gazed at the woman Ian had spoken of until the very end, and he couldn’t help feeling . . . unsettled. This was Linnie?

He had known his cousin well, felt as though he had buried himself right alongside Ian those months ago in the Crimea.

Fighting for life beside Spencer, Ian had talked only of Linnie Cosgrove. With nary a letter from her, Ian had remained unflagging in his affections. Spencer never understood.

Hands clasped behind his back, Spencer surveyed this paragon of womanhood, the female who brought Ian to heel. Staring into her wide blue eyes, he searched his memory, recalling all the accounts he had heeded of Ian’s paramour.

Was it possible Ian had never mentioned the color of her hair? Spencer had always imagined golden tresses. The marginally attractive female with sun-streaked brown hair spilling in untidy tendrils from a haphazard knot on her head did not coincide with the image he had constructed.

She was neither short nor tall. Her slender frame lacked any notable curves. As she stood before him, he was reminded of the many sturdy Turkish girls he had observed toiling the fields while abroad.

“Madam.” He nodded his head in salute.

She said nothing. Her nose and cheeks glowed red. A smudge of dirt marred her jawline. She wore an old-fashioned pinafore over a dress so hideous that he couldn’t help wondering why she took pains to protect it. The ugly brown wool that peeped out around the pinafore looked fit for the burn pile.

Her eyes stood as her one remarkable feature. Slightly slanted, the wide, crystalline blue pools surveyed him coolly, as if he were a bug to be scraped off the soles of her boots.

The untidy creature before him looked wholly woman—confident, mature, and bold as she raked him with her piercing blue eyes. Ian had praised her angelic smile and sweet shyness, but there was nothing celestial about her.

Perhaps motherhood had altered her. Or marriage, an inner voice reminded. Her father had revealed to him that she was a widow. A truth or fabrication to protect her from ruin? The latter, he suspected. All the same, he felt an instant response to her.

Because she belongs to Ian . . . belonged, he quickly amended. He finally faced her—the phantom woman to fill Ian’s world, and, thereby, Spencer’s. His response was purely that. Nothing more.

“May I help you?” She lifted her chin, staring down the slim line of her nose.

The sight of her, garbed so shabbily and yet facing him with temerity gleaming in her eyes, reminded him of the women that followed their armies. Haunted, haggard creatures, resigned but determined, prepared to toss their skirts for half a pence and a warm bed for the night. Camp followers ready to spread their thighs to guarantee a day’s survival.

Despite his anger at her for failing to answer Ian’s letters, the similarity to those pitiable women left a foul taste in his mouth. Clearly she’d suffered her own struggles.

“Sir?” Her eyes snapped blue fire. “Who are you?”

Not quite ready to answer, his gaze crawled over her, imagining her free of her drab attire, as Ian might have seen her—all lithe lines and smooth female flesh.

Clearing his throat, he struggled to swallow past the sudden tightness. Clearly, he needed a woman. He had not slaked his lusts in weeks, too focused on his grief for Ian and the business of selling off his commission and returning home.

He recalled the serving girl at the inn where he had spent the previous night—remembered the invitation in her eyes. He needn’t leave immediately following this errand. A night’s delay wouldn’t hurt. He was in no hurry to reach his family’s estate, after all. To face his duty. To enter Society.

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