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Training Lady Townsend(37)

By:Annabel Joseph

“Take Lady Townsend home. I’ll walk the rest of the way.”

Whether he would walk home, or walk back to Wroxham’s, or wander the countryside in a fog of self-hatred for several more hours, he didn’t know. His groom raised a questioning brow but didn’t gainsay his master. After a short pause, he flicked the reins and continued on, the carriage lantern bobbing along until Hunter couldn’t see it any longer.

He was left with his own torturous thoughts in the middle of Berkshire, under the blanket of a vast, oppressive night.

Chapter Sixteen: Difficulties

Aurelia sat at the window in her room, looking out at the courtyard. Late morning sunlight gleamed off the cobblestones. Now and again one of the manor’s servants went out on some errand, as if it were a normal day. She supposed it was, only her husband had hurt her past bearing and then deserted her, so things did not feel normal to her.

She was not within the special window seat he’d made for her, because it reminded her too much of earlier days when they were in harmony with one another. If only Lord Warren had never come to visit. If only Townsend had not thought it necessary to dampen her feelings toward the man. But that was her fault, because she couldn’t govern her attraction and be a proper, faithful wife. She had screamed at her husband in the carriage last night, and slapped him, and he...he had tried to take her against her will.

She turned from the window and pressed a handkerchief to her eyes. That part of it had been so ugly and frightening. She had already felt such guilt over his accusations, and then to be grabbed and violated in that way. No matter that he had stopped and released her, and said he was sorry. By then, the emotional damage had been done. How could she trust him now? How could she feel safe?

And for God’s sake, where was he? She’d felt nothing but relief when he alighted from their carriage in the middle of nowhere, but now, in day’s harsh light, she felt twinges of worry that grew with every hour.

From far off, she saw a rider approach. Hunter had not had a horse, although he might have borrowed one from a neighbor. Or it might be someone else, bearing unfortunate news. Try as she might, she couldn’t stop imagining Hunter in a ditch somewhere, or in a flooded culvert, floating face down. If he had come to harm, she couldn’t live with herself. But as the rider entered the courtyard she saw it was neither her husband nor a stranger.

It was Lord Warren.

She absolutely could not receive him. She could not. But when the chambermaid tapped at the door to ask if she was at home to the Earl of Warren, she turned from the window and said, woodenly, that she would receive him in the main drawing room, because she understood that if the two of them did not exchange words now, they would never exchange words again.

She went downstairs at once, before she lost the necessary courage to see him. Her eyes were puffy and her clothing rumpled, but it couldn’t be helped. When she entered the drawing room, she found him standing beyond the fireplace, in the far corner, as far from her as it was possible to stand. In contrast to her, he looked immaculately turned out, his dark blue coat without a wrinkle, and his pure white linen crisply starched. He held his gloves and hat, as if he expected to be thrown out at any moment.

He made a polite bow, which she acknowledged, but she couldn’t move a step closer to him, and she couldn’t seem to smile.

“I understand Lord Townsend is not at home,” he said when she didn’t make any move to welcome him. “Thank you for allowing me to speak with you. I will not impose upon your courtesy for long.”

She crossed to sit on a divan in the middle of the room, for fear her legs wouldn’t hold her. She did not invite him to sit, and so he didn’t.

“Lady Townsend,” he began in a tight and rehearsed fashion, “I must offer my deepest regrets for the scene you stumbled upon last night. If I had known—”

“I didn’t stumble upon it. Townsend took me there because he wanted me to...to see you.” She laced her fingers together in her lap. “It was entirely my own fault.”

He didn’t speak for a moment, only stood back in his corner looking awfully brittle. “Your own fault? In what way?”

She must not cry. She absolutely could not cry. She lowered her head and pressed her palms against her eyes. “It humiliates me to say this. Well, you have been humiliated too, so I suppose I owe you the explanation. As a younger woman, in my naiveté, I conceived an abiding admiration for you. I imagined myself, well...very much in love with you, as silly as that seems.”

Somehow she managed to look over at him, her face flaming like a bonfire.

He looked stricken, or perhaps embarrassed on her behalf. “I confess I had heard something to that effect after you and Townsend married.”

“And so I suppose my husband wished to weaken my feelings toward you. Although, in truth, I never would have acted on them. Those feelings had lately begun to fade.”

It was an excruciating moment. Lord Warren made a low, miserable sound.

“I can only be proud that you esteemed me once, but I’m glad such feelings have faded. You understand now that I was never worthy of your admiration. Perhaps it’s best Hunter showed you the truth, even in such a shocking way.”

“I don’t think it’s best,” she said. “It’s only made me sad.” She looked away from him, her emotions in disarray. “I had come to conceive a great affection for my husband, and I would never have been unfaithful. So it matters not what type of man you are to me, not anymore.”

He was silent a long while. At some point, he switched his hat from one hand to the other, then gave her an implacable look. “No matter the reason, he shouldn’t have taken you there. It was no place for a lady. I grieve for the loss of your innocence.”

Aurelia gave a bitter laugh. “My innocence? You know your friend, the man I’m married to. Do you think he’s left me with even a shred of my former innocence?”

Lord Warren crossed to stand before her. “You must be straightforward with me,” he said in a strained voice. “Do you find your situation here unbearable? It did not seem so when we saw you together. You appeared content with one another.”

“We were content with one another. The truth is, I was very happy with my husband until you came to visit.” She gazed into Lord Warren’s clear blue eyes, the eyes that used to set her aglow. They no longer did. She missed her husband. She was so worried about him. “I’ve been terribly foolish,” she blurted out. “I hurt Townsend’s feelings. I hurt his pride by taunting him. I told him plainly so many times that I wanted you instead, that you would have been a better husband. I never realized until last night how much he took my words to heart. Until he…”

His gaze sharpened as she choked back the words. “Until he what? What has happened between you and Townsend?”

She could never tell him what had happened in the carriage, not in a thousand years.

“Your eyes are red from crying,” he persisted. “What did Hunter do?”

Every word made it more difficult to keep from bawling again. “We had a row last night after we left the masquerade. But that is not your fault. None of this is your fault.”

“Or yours.”

She waved a hand. “It doesn’t matter whose fault it is.”

“What kind of row did you have?” he pressed.

“Please.” If he did not leave, she would completely lose her composure. “You have apologized and we have made our peace. I wish you would go.”

“You do not appear to be at peace.” He crouched down before her, so his knees practically touched hers. “Has he hurt you, Lady Townsend? You must tell me if it’s so.”

“Why? What does it matter?”

“That’s as good as a yes.” His vivid eyes narrowed in fury. “What did he do to you? Beat you? Make rough with you?”

“We hurt each other,” she cried over his outraged questions. “I hurt him and he hurt me. And it’s all because you came here and disrupted everything. I wish you would go away and let both of us be, and let me heal this rift with my husband. Because he’s not here and I don’t know where he is, and it’s been hours now since we quarreled, and I’m very, very afraid.”

By the end of this outburst, she had rather fallen apart. Lord Warren moved to sit beside her on the divan, and offered his handkerchief. She took it and wiped her face, feeling miserable, frightened, and helpless. “I have to calm down,” she said. “I have to think.”

“Think about what?”

“How to fix things. How to make him come back.”

“So you want him to come back?” Lord Warren asked.

“Yes, of course. I’m worried for him. I love him.” As she said the words, she knew they were true, despite the wretched ways they’d hurt one another. “I want to fix everything that’s wrong between us. I can’t bear to lose him. Why must this all be so—so difficult?”

“It was difficult,” he said in a soothing voice. “It needn’t be so anymore.”

She shook her head, hiding her face in her hands. “If we can’t forgive one another, things will be difficult indeed. I’m afraid the pleasant times between us are over for good.”