Cathwren, the daughter of the late Duke of Elsinore, looked up, studying the man’s face carefully. “Then why did you come here? If I remember so clearly, your mother often has a Christmas party.”
“I can’t tell you,” he said, shrugging. “Something really bothered me this time. Alas, mother wasn’t happy.”
“I imagine not.”
Richard’s mother was used to having her own way. She had insisted that their marriage take place at the Chartres Cathedral in Paris. Both Cathwren and Richard had wanted to wed in the small chapel at Belmont de Lac. But his mother had won, until Cathwren had ended everything.
“Indeed, she was sorely displeased with you when you broke off our betrothal.”
“I would have thought Eleanor was relieved…”
“Explain that, if you will,” he said tersely.
“She wouldn’t care to see you married to a woman who’s father gambled away the family fortune…” She turned away, caught a soulful tune wafting from a violinist as he played.
“Is that so terrible?” he asked, watching her turn back to face the question.
“Considering he killed himself,” she said, taking a deep, gulping breath. Even now, the memory brought her close to tears. “The…the scandal rocked on for weeks.”
Appearing a little shocked by the tragedy, he shrugged. “I’m so sorry…I had no idea.”
“My mother said you would be glad to be rid of me.”
He frowned. “Did you believe her?”
She paled at the anger in his voice. “I understand.”
“It didn’t matter…I was marrying you…not your father or your family!” His frown intensified. “Why didn’t you believe me?”
Cathwren had to look away from the intensity in his eyes. Her lips dry and parched, she rolled her tongue over, licking them. “Mother told me that you really wanted to call off the betrothal but that you felt trapped and as a man of honor would marry me no matter what.”
He moved closer until his shoulder brushed hers. His right hand skimmed over the small of her back. Tension held her stiff.
“What else did Isabella…your mother say?” His voice was dangerously soft.
Cathwren edged away, but he only followed. Heat seemed to radiate from his body to hers. Her reaction to him confused her, pleased her, made her reckless.
“She said that I should take advantage of your pity and marry you before you changed your mind and decided that it was best for you if we didn’t wed.” She heard the sharp intake of his breath.
“Why didn’t you?”
She finally turned to look at him. “Because I knew it would be wrong. A marriage based on pity could easily turn to disgust. I didn’t want you to despise me.”
“So I see,” he said, his voice flattened, “you sold yourself into servitude.”
She could sense the fury in him. It made her uneasy. She didn’t want to make him angry, but everything about their past seemed to do that.
“I did what I thought best,” she said, lifting up her chin. “Can we talk of something different? Or must I leave?”
“NO! Hell no!”
He spoke loudly enough that a nearby group heard. Several heads turned in their direction. A man, older and with lines of dissipation around his eyes and mouth, grinned knowingly at them. The woman beside him made an audible sniff of disdain.
Cathwren felt hot blood rushing to her face. They thought what anyone else would think. A wealthy man was trying to become familiar with the governess, a woman who had no protector and no future.
Lord Beauchampe` scowled when he noticed her scarlet face. “Follow me. There must be a private place where we can talk.”
“No,” she said, her voice fading to a whisper while looking at the couple. The gentleman with white hair, all gussied up like a French pooch, still leered in their direction. “I think it’s time I left. And it’s well past Christina’s bedtime.”
“Don’t be a silly goose,” he said. He looked in the direction she did. “Ha! Is that what’s bothering you? Forget about them. Bolton is a roue’ and the woman with him is not much better. Don’t let fear of scandal separate us again.”
The desire to stay with him was compelling, but she knew that if her reputation was ruined she would lose her position. Then she would rue the moment she followed her heart instead of her head.
“I dare not,” she said, moving quickly away before he could speak or once more grab her wrist. She reached Christina and Lady Anne with a hectic flush, quite breathless. “We must be going, dear Christina. It’s past your bedtime.”
“Is that man the one you’re going to marry, Miss Cath?” Christina’s heart-shaped face was alight with curiosity. “I told Mama about what you said. She thinks it sounds romantic. Don’t you, Mama?”
“Indeed I do, dear.” Lady Anne gave Cathwren a curious look before glancing back the way she had come, but said nothing else.
Embarrassment, hot and burning, flowed every part of Cathwren’s body. Oh, what the woman must be thinking of her! Cathwren nodded her head toward her boss lady and quickly whisked her charge from the suddenly crowded steaming, hot room.
Later that evening after Christina was safely tucked into bed, Cathwren sat in her room with no candle lit except for a fire burning brightly. Her feet were snuggled beneath the dress she hadn’t bothered to remove. A heavy woolen shawl was draped over her shoulders. Outside, the wind howled and she could hear the swish of snow crystals, and hail pinging on the single window.
Cathwren knew that if she went into the hall and to the stairs’ landing, she would hear the cheerful sounds of an ensemble playing Christmas melodies. Everyone would be dancing now. Even Richard–Lord Beauchampe`–would be holding close another woman. Tightly, her eyes squeezed shut, and she wished that she could vanish the vision in her mind as easily as she could remove it from her eyes. But, alas, it was no use.
She still loved him, even after all these years. Had loved him from the instant she’d first seen him. She would always love him.
Then as drowsiness settled within her, her head nodded and fell to her chest.
Suddenly, a sharp rap on her door took her by surprise. No one else would be on this floor except her. The servants would all be busy downstairs with the guests. Curious who had chosen to visit, she rose from her bed and went to open the door.
The old roue`, the man Richard identified as Bolton, stood weaving, staggering in the hallway. A lascivious grin spread across his dissipated features. Quite startled by his appearance, Cathwren stepped back.
She gasped. What was the old goat up to?
“My lovely little kitty-cat,” he said, murmuring low. “Let me in, my pretty one, so that we can play.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but…” Cathwren looked over his shoulder. There was no one behind him and no one she could go to for help. He blocked her path. “I’m afraid I can’t allow you to enter.”
In his drunken state, he looked confused. “No?”
Cathwren attempted to close the door, but he was stronger than he looked. He forced the door open.
“Tsk, tsk…dearie,” he said, his dark eyes glinting with anger. “That isn’t the way to treat a gentleman who’s more than willing to indulge your every whim…your greatest fantasy. After all,” he said, striding into her room, “it’s Yuletide time. The Romans celebrated it with debauchery and drunkenness. Why shouldn’t we do the same?”
Cathwren paled as horror filled her eyes. Then she rushed over to put the room’s only chair between them. “Go away,” she shouted, “I didn’t invite you!”
An evil leer crept into his face. “No, my pretty one, but you will be glad I came.”
Shoving the chair aside, he lunged toward her. The fear terrorizing her evidently exited him, she decided, for his face turned a crimson red, all in anticipation.
“I shall scream!”
A throaty laugh followed. “Please do, darling. It makes it much more exciting.”
Reaching for the book that rested on the table, she raised it over her head, hurled it at him as hard as she could. Soundly it thudded his chest before skimming off his shoulder.
“You ungrateful little bitch, you’ll regret that!” His voice rasped, full of nasty menace.
Frantically, she glanced around, searching for something, anything within her reach to slug him even harder if at all possible. But there was nothing. From behind the chair, she slinked away. While he was on the prowl, she dashed around him. By the time she’d reached the door, his gritty hand clasped hard on her upper arm. While twisting in his malevolent hold, she heard someone knocking the door.
“Come in,” she scream hysterically, “help me! I’m in trouble!”
With a thunderous shove, the door gave and swung open as Richard stood there. “What in bloody hell is going on?” he asked, with a deep baritone voice booming around them.
Cathwren sank with relief into Richard’s out-stretched arms as he collected her closer to him. “He, he…”
Bolton dropped his hand from her arm and backed away. “Now, Beauchampe`…there’s nothing to be upset about. I only came up to visit the lady…just a nice chat, if you please.”
But Richard didn’t buy any of that tom-foolery, he knew Bolton was up to no good. Then setting Cathwren aside, he took one stride, caught up with the gritty man and landed a bruiser that sent the old goat sprawling. “Get up, you old fool, so I can do it again.”
Cathwren gasped, half delighted that she was avenged and half horrified by the violence. “Oh, Richard, that is quite enough…”
Dazed, Lord Bolton staggered to his feet and mumbled, “Didn’t think she’d mind, seemed she’d like it. Saw her with you and all…”
“Why you dirty bastard!” Richard swung back his hand for another round, but Cathwren managed to grab his arm.
“Please, Richard! No more! Let him go!” she shouted.
Quickly as his feet carried him, the old coot jumped at the opportunity to disappear.
Richard stood there with a scowl, and then lurched forward.
“No, Richard! Don’t follow!”
“The son-of-a-bitch is a lecher…someone needs to teach him a lesson!”
A tiny, rueful smile twisted Cathwren’s mouth. “I think you’ve done that. He didn’t look well at all.”
Tempted to laugh, Richard’s scowl lightened. “Perchance, did he hurt you?”
She shook her head. “No, but I slugged him with a book rather hard. It hit his shoulder and by tomorrow it should be all black and blue.”
Grinning, he reached up and tucked a curl behind her ear. “Good girl, you always were the feisty one.”
Cathwren blushed at his praise and laughed. “If you really think about it, I didn’t have much choice.”
“No, you didn’t.”
Then taking a deep breath, she edged away from him. His closeness distracted, really disturbed her more than she cared. For now it wasn’t too pleasant. She was agitated and had to get better control of herself.
“Thank you for rescuing me…” she said, smiling.
“From that hoot,” he added.
“Yes, a hoot. I don’t know what I’d done if you hadn’t arrived in time.”
His face darkened. “We won’t talk about that. Now, let’s go down to enjoy the festivities. Shall we?”