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Training Lady Townsend(38)

By:Annabel Joseph

“They aren’t,” Lord Warren said firmly, drawing her hands from her face and taking back his handkerchief to wipe her tears. “The pleasant times are just beginning. There’s much more to come, anniversaries and children and all the accompanying adventures. Townsend won’t give up on this marriage, my lady. I can’t think of a more unlikely scenario. I believe he loves you, and only took you to Wroxham’s party to vanquish an obstacle to that love.”

They both understood Lord Warren was the obstacle he meant.

“Not that I could ever please you as he seems to,” the man continued. “Pardon my plain speaking, but all of us expected the worst in this marriage. We expected our friend to drive you out here to Somerton and leave you, and go back to town so he might live the way he used to. But he did not.”

“Because my father wouldn’t allow it,” Aurelia said. “That’s the only reason he didn’t.”

“Even so, if he had the choice now, he wouldn’t take it. He could have gone to Wroxham’s party last night or even all week without your father knowing. We invited him to come with us, imagining he would be desperate to escape the bonds of marriage even for a short time, but he said no. None of us could fathom it. But then, none of us are in love.”

Aurelia frowned. “If you understood about love, you would never have invited him to go in the first place.”

“I assure you that I am ashamed of my behavior. I can never atone for the grief I’ve caused you.” He stood and paced across the room, turning his hat about by the brim. “But I’ll go looking for your husband and return him to you, I swear it. I have an idea where he might be found.”

She stood to join him at the window. “I’ve been watching all day. What if something happened to him?”

“Nothing’s happened. I’ll send him right home, and then I’ll be off for London.” He paused in the act of pocketing his handkerchief, and offered it to her. “Will you need it anymore?”

“I have others.” She made herself smile, only because he looked so bereft. “Just please bring my husband back to me. We must endeavor to sort ourselves out.”

“I’m certain you’ll manage it. Since you’ve been at Townsend’s side, I’ve seen a strength and steel within you that I never knew existed. Despite the rather distressing history between us, I would be honored to count you as a friend, if you can bear to put our pasts behind us.”

Aurelia only thought for a moment before she nodded. “Of course we can be friends. I don’t harbor romantic feelings toward you any longer. I have changed, you see.”

He gave a small bow, along with a genuine smile. “I admire you for casting your misguided yearnings aside. I’m a devil of a fellow, I assure you, and I pity the woman who’ll have to marry me. Pardon my language.”

“Perhaps this unpleasant episode will spur you to lead a better life. Perhaps that is how you must atone. You shouldn’t continue to dally with your gentlemen friends, and tempt my husband to do bad things. You are far too fine a person to linger at dissolute parties and consort with loose women.”

He blinked at her rather cross scolding. “Am I?”

“Yes. I have always believed you are. You’re handsome and polite, and very respected in Parliament. You’ve practically raised Minette from a child, and she’s delightful.”

“Now you are baldly lying to me, my lady. Minette is a scamp.”

“She is delightful,” Aurelia repeated stubbornly. “Please tell her I miss her.”

“I promise to do so.” He began to draw on his gloves. “I hope you’ll call on her when you and Townsend return to London. In the meantime, I shall do my best to find your absent husband and send him home. And once I do, dear Lady Townsend”—he took her hands and gave them a light squeeze—“the rest shall be up to you.”

*** *** ***

Hunter awakened to the not-so-gently prodding toe of a riding boot. He cracked his eyes to the harsh light of day and took in the room around him. Tables and a chaise, a rumpled bed, painted silk wallpaper. Some chamber at Wroxham’s? He winced as his head gave a throb. He groaned against his pillow only to find it shifting from under him.

“That’s a good girl, Big Bess,” said a faraway voice. “Go find some other bed.”

“I’ll find a more comfortable one than the floor anyway,” she said with good natured grumbling. “Will ’is lord be all right then?” She peered down at him. “Done nothing but cry upon me bosom all the night, much as I tried to steer him otherwise.” She made a ribald gesture to the area between her generous thighs.

“Don’t take offense, Bess.” That was Arlington’s voice now. “The man is rather enamored of his wife.”

“Oh, poor thing.”

As the woman moved away, Hunter’s head fell back and hit the floor. He barked out a curse, stretched his aching limbs, and blinked up into Warren’s hard features.

“If you nudge me again with your boot,” Hunter growled, “I’ll rip it off and shove it up your arsehole.”

“Get up,” Warren snapped back. “I want you on your feet before I lay you on your back, you pestilent son of a bitch.”

Hunter slung an arm over his eyes. “I’m not getting up if you’re only going to deck me. I can’t get up anyway. My head’s pounding.”

“You’re getting up, man.” Warren put his hands on Hunter’s disarranged collar and dragged him to his feet. Then, as promised, he socked him so hard in the face he went down again.

“You fiend,” Hunter yelled. “Take yourself off to the devil.” He opened one eye to find his assailant still glaring down at him. “I brought Aurelia here because she loves you, goddamn you. I’d do it again too. She’s my wife. Mine.”

“We all know that,” said Warren in a cool voice. “And that lick wasn’t for bringing her here. I’m a big boy and I can handle a bit of well-earned embarrassment. No, that was for hurting her afterward and making her cry.”

Hunter turned on his side, probing his cheekbone, inspecting the damage after its run-in with Warren’s fist. How pathetic he was, sprawled on the floor in this house of degeneracy. His stomach clenched in self-loathing. “I made Aurelia cry. I know.” Then fury washed over him again. “How did you know?”

“I’ve just been to see her,” Warren announced. “She’s worried about you, so you need to bugger off home.”

“You went to see my wife?” Despite the pain, despite the threat of Warren’s fists, Hunter lurched to his feet ready to do murder. Arlington, the tiresome bastard, got in his way. “She’s seen enough of you lately, hasn’t she?” Hunter bellowed at Warren.

“Thanks to you, she’s seen more of me than she ever should have. Now stop squawking and make yourself presentable, you bleeding arse.”

“Why did you go see my wife?” Hunter demanded to know, as Arlington steadied him on his feet.

“I went to apologize.”

“You stay away from her. Just stay away. She doesn’t care for your apologies.”

“Perhaps not,” said Warren. “But I rather hoped you and I would stay friends when this little crisis of yours is over, and that means staying on good terms with your wife.”

“Staying on good terms,” Hunter mimicked bitterly. “Is that what you’ll call it now? I’m sure she received you eagerly as soon as you showed up on the doorstep.” He infused the word “received” with filthy connotation.

“I ought to blacken your other eye for that, but I fear it might cause Aurelia distress.” Warren gave him a hard look. “For your wife’s honor, I’ll tell you that when she received me she did not so much as invite me to sit down. We exchanged words of polite apology and regret, and then she started to cry over you. She’s anxious to ‘fix things.’ She’s also worried to death since you haven’t come home.”

The throb in his head turned to an ache. He collapsed into a nearby chair. “One of you bastards give me some water. Or more whiskey. Either one.”

“No more whiskey for you,” said Warren. “We’ll have no more drunken-man-in-love antics.”

Aurelia was worried. She wanted to fix things. She must still love him, at least a little, even after the things he’d done to her the night before. By sheer force of will, Hunter stood under his own power. His head spun for a moment, but a glass of water relieved the hot scratchiness in his throat. “I have to go home and see my wife. I have to make myself presentable. What did I do last night?” he asked, inspecting his person. He was still dressed, and relatively clean. “I only meant to have a drink.”

“You had about ten drinks,” said August as Hunter crossed to the wash basin. “Then Big Bess sat in your lap and you started crying, and you confessed to a regrettable amount of poor behavior while she patted you and murmured, ‘That’s all right, me lor’, that’s all right.’ Finally you passed out and fell from the chair, Bess on top of you. After we had a good laugh about it, we let you lie.”