Somewhere off the coast of England
As always, her hands worked magic.
Lucas Coulter lay prone on the bunk, lulled both by the rhythmic rocking of the ship and the mesmerizing massage administered by his mistress. With his eyes closed, he was more keenly aware of his other senses. The whisper of silk as Shalimar shifted position over him. The musky-warm scent of the oil she applied to his bare back. The firm pressure of her fingers kneading the tension from his muscles.
He could almost fancy himself back in the cozy houseboat he and Shalimar had shared on Lake Dal in the Vale of Kashmir. He could almost forget the misty shores of England loomed but a half a day’s sail away. He could almost believe himself off on another exotic adventure rather than returning home after seven years abroad.
Home. The thought evoked a sweet-sharp joy that verged on pain. When he had exiled himself, he hadn’t thought there would ever come a time when he would wish to return. Yet now he found himself looking forward to visiting his two older sisters, to meeting his nieces and nephews, to seeing his mother and assuring himself of her improved health. He wanted to ride in the crisp autumn mornings over his estate in the wild hills of Northumbria. He wanted to view his lands through the eyes of a man, not the untried youth he had been all those years ago.
His travels had taken him across Egypt and Asia and India, through deserts and mountains and jungles, into mud huts and palaces and temples that had never before known the tread of an Englishman. Until at last, he’d come to realize that no matter how far he roamed, he could never escape the anguish of memories. They would always be with him, those events that had shaped him. Only then had he made his peace with the past.
His head pillowed on his folded arms, Lucas concentrated on the gentle rubbing of Shalimar’s hands, on the soothing sensations that enveloped his body. Tomorrow night he would sleep at his London house. As the sixth Marquess of Wortham, he needed to reacquaint himself with his holdings and tend to the duties of his title. He grimaced. There had been a time when he would have given it all away for the love of one woman. Emma.
Bitterness seeped from a place deep inside his chest, but with the strength of habit, he subdued the sentiment. Years ago, he had sworn not to allow Emma to obsess him. From the letters written by his mother, he knew Emma and her child lived quietly with her grandfather in London.
She was never seen at ton functions anymore.
The scandal had clipped her wings, and he could not imagine a more fitting punishment for a social butterfly like Emma. At one time she had teased and flirted with an army of admirers, and he had been among their ranks, the most smitten of them all …
Tempted to plunge into the dark well of memory, Lucas gave a growl of disgust and rolled onto his back. He scowled in an effort to shake off a past that no longer mattered. A single lantern hung from a hook in the low ceiling. The swaying of the ship caused light and shadow to dance across the small stateroom with its plain wooden furnishings bolted to the floor.
Against the dreary setting, Shalimar bloomed like a wild orchid. To ward off the chill in the air, she wore the traditional Kashmiri pheran, a cloaklike garment of indigo blue cotton, the collar and cuffs rich with silver embroidery. A length of white silk draped her black hair and framed the dusky splendor of her features.
She sank into a submissive pose on the floor beside the bunk. “I do not please you, my lord?”
Her smoky-soft voice wafted over him, easing his ill humor. He no longer tried to change her humble posture; since the early days of their love affair, he’d come to realize she was happiest serving him. It was the way of her people, the training of a woman accustomed to the harsh hands of men.
Touching her satiny cheek, he tilted her face up. “You always please me.”
“Yet I cannot reach the empty place inside you. The part you keep hidden from the world.”
Those dark, sultry eyes regarded him with a timeless wisdom. Restive, he sat up on the bunk, the air brisk against his naked chest. His reckless, youthful passion for Emma could not compare to the serenity he’d found with Shalimar.
“Come here,” he said, drawing her up onto the mattress. “It is you who fulfills all my needs. It is you who gave my life back to me. And now I shall return the favor by finding your son.”
“My lord.” Her slim hands clutched at him. “I fear O’Hara-sahib has taken him away from England. I fear I will never see my Sanjeev again in this lifetime.”
Anger flashed through Lucas. The rogue had callously abandoned Shalimar and had absconded to England with their ten-year-old son. “Shh. I’ll find him.”
“May the gods bless you for bringing me to the land of your birth.” Shalimar bowed her head again. “Even should you choose to stay here with your wife.”
The notion jolted him. “Never. Emma could never, ever take your place.” His arms tightened around Shalimar; she reminded him of a willow, bending, always bending to his will. Pressing a kiss to her jasmine-scented hair, he muttered fiercely, “I’ve no intention of even seeing the bitch.”
Full of righteous resolution, Emma marched up the front steps of her husband’s mansion. The imposing entranceway sported a grand pediment and pillars that had been scrubbed clean of London’s soot. The brass fittings on the double doors gleamed in the sunlight. A blustery breeze scattered leaves along Wortham Square, but here the marble steps were pristine, as if even the Almighty could not bring Himself to sully the property of his lordship, the Marquess of Wortham.
According to Emma’s informant, her husband had returned four days ago from his journeys abroad. Since then, each of her written requests for an audience had been refused with a polite note penned by his secretary.
Blast politeness. Emma intended to speak to Lucas today. It was a matter of life-shattering importance.
She reached for the filigreed knocker. Her gloved hand paused an inch away as cowardice surged out of nowhere. She wanted to turn and run, to abandon her plan to maneuver her husband one last time.
It wasn’t that she feared Lucas. His shy, unimposing nature had drawn her to him in the first place. He had been so much easier to gull into a quick marriage than a man of experience.
No, it was her own sense of shame that crippled her confidence. She dreaded the notion of facing the husband she had betrayed. The husband who still did not know the depth of her manipulation of him.
Once he heard her out, she quickly reminded herself, he would understand. Likely he would be grateful to her. And she’d survived worse unpleasantries over the years. Confronting a long-lost husband could be no more horrible than fleeing the Bow Street Runners while bleeding from a bullet wound.
Emma took hold of the knocker and gave three firm raps. A gust of cold wind tugged at her bonnet and pelisse. The air had turned unseasonably chilly. To save the fare of a short-coach, she had walked the two miles from Cheapside, and she clenched her teeth to keep them from chattering.
The door opened. A tall, white-wigged footman looked down at her in polite disdain. No recognition flickered in his cool gray eyes. She didn’t recognize him, either. “Yes, madam?”
“I’ve come to see Wortham. If you would be so kind as to summon him.”
Walking brazenly past the servant, Emma entered an enormous foyer hung with ancestral portraits and tiled in creamy Italian marble. A wave of bittersweet nostalgia inundated her. The last time she’d stood here, she had occupied a position of honor at Lucas’s side while accepting the good wishes of the guests at her wedding breakfast.
How naïve she had been to hope that her troubles were over. How blind not to have foreseen that her quiet husband would prove to be the most unforgiving puritan in London.
Yet she had no regrets. She had done her best for Jenny. As she would continue to do now.
Emma unbuttoned her outmoded pelisse and handed it to the footman. “I shall wait in the drawing room.”
“I beg your pardon, madam,” he said huffily, stepping into her path. “I regret to say his lordship isn’t receiving callers today.”
“Oh? Tell your master that the Marchioness of Wortham awaits him.”
Emma had the brief pleasure of watching comprehension wipe the haughtiness from the servant’s pinched face. He bobbed a swift bow. “Yes, m’lady. At once.”
As he hurried away down a corridor, she drew a deep, steadying breath and went in search of the drawing room. She found herself tiptoeing as if she were an intruder come to steal the family jewels. How ironic. Of all the grand houses she had burglarized in the name of justice, she had never even been tempted to come here.
Had she demanded her rights, she might now reign over this splendid house with its high, frescoed ceilings and elegant rosewood chairs against the soaring walls. A tall casement clock marked the genteel passage of time, reminding her how insulated life was here in this aristocratic household. How different her own life might have been.
A knot of guilt ached in her breast, and Emma knew why. She had already taken enough from Lucas. Accordingly, she had demanded no privileges, no money, no favors.
Too jittery to sit, she paced the long length of the drawing room. It had been tastefully redecorated in the latest fashion. Who had chosen the sky blue accented by white, the striped silk cushions on the chairs and the gold-fringed draperies at the windows? Who had selected the fine Grecian frieze around the chimneypiece? The intricately embroidered fire-screen appeared to be the dowager’s handiwork. The richness of it all put Emma’s own shabby household to shame.
She caught sight of herself in a gilt-edged mirror and stopped short. Sweet heaven, she looked a fright. The wind had wreaked havoc with her appearance, slapping bright pink color into her cheeks and luring wisps of silvery-blond hair from beneath the edges of her bonnet.
Swiftly she repaired the damage by rewinding the exposed curls around her forefinger into a girlish style. She had grown accustomed to hiding her beauty beneath drab clothing and mobcaps. But today it was imperative that she look her best, and she had spent the previous day refurbishing the single remaining gown from her trousseau, a lilac silk with puffed sleeves and a perky yellow ribbon tied just below her breasts. With the modesty piece tucked into the low-cut bodice and the straw bonnet framing her big blue eyes, she appeared the epitome of the frail female.
The effect always worked on men, and Lucas himself had fallen victim to it once before. Luring him into an impetuous marriage had been as simple as stealing a diamond from an unlocked jewel case … .
“My lady.” With noiseless steps, the footman entered the drawing room. The faintly haughty smirk was back on his face. “His lordship has a full schedule today. He said perhaps if you might make an appointment for later in the week …”
Emma compressed her lips around an exclamation of dismay. Dear God, she couldn’t fault Lucas for not wishing to see her. Yet she wanted to settle her future once and for all. Now, more than ever, Jenny needed a father who would give her both material comforts and unquestioning love.
Lucas could never be that man.
She studied the footman through the screen of her lashes. “What is your name, please?”
“’Tis Stafford, m’lady.”
“Stafford,” she repeated, lowering her voice to girlish coaxing. “Would you kindly ask my husband if I may return on Thursday afternoon?”
“I’ll be happy to relay the message to his lordship’s secretary.”
“Oh, do ask Wortham now. I cannot leave without having his promise of an audience.” Seeing Stafford’s hesitation, she turned the full force of her pleading gaze on him. Making her lips quiver, she dabbed at the corner of her eye with a lace handkerchief. “Please, sir, speak to my husband. You would have my undying gratitude.”
The severity melted from the servant’s face. “As you wish, m’lady.”
Emma held her woebegone expression until he vanished out the door. Then she darted after him into the corridor, just in time to see his stiff-shouldered form turn the corner. Her slippers made only the faintest sound on the marble floor. Keeping a circumspect distance, she followed him through a maze of corridors toward the back of the house, where he knocked on a door before entering. The library.
Lucas was in the library.
Armed with that information, she slipped into the nearby conservatory and hid herself behind the drooping fronds of an aspidistra plant. And not a moment too soon. The library door clicked open and shut again; then she heard the tapping of Stafford’s returning footsteps.
The damp smells of earth and plants surrounded her The wind rattled the many panes of glass in the domed roof. She shivered, less from the chill in the air than from the prospect of facing Lucas again.
Especially if he hated her.
A fresh attack of cowardice seized Emma. She wanted to slink out of the house, to handle her business by letter. But that would be unfair of her.
She owed Lucas the courtesy of making her proposal in person.
“I knew it would happen someday. Didn’t I, Toby?” Reclining on a chaise in the library, the dowager Lady Wortham addressed the old white terrier curled in her lap, then looked at Lucas. “I knew the chit would come here and demand her rights. I’m only surprised she waited so long. She must be planning to win her way back into your good graces, and you must promise not to allow it to happen.”
At one time, Lucas had resented being talked to like a child, but now he merely smiled, bending to give his mother a distracted kiss on her cheek. “Don’t fret, Mama. It isn’t good for your health.”
“Bah, those doctors are a flock of fussy geese. They would have me lying all day in bed like an invalid. I’ll have you know, my heart is as hale as a newborn babe’s.”
“You were overcome by exhaustion on the day of my return. And you will rest accordingly.”
She pursed her lips as if to protest. Then a rueful smile brought vivacity to her ghostly pale cheeks. “You’ve grown autocratic, just like your father. You speak with such confidence now. Ah, Lucas, how good it is to have you home again.”
“It’s good to be back.”
It was true. The library had always been his favorite room, his sanctuary, and it looked exactly the same, as if he’d never gone away. A fire crackled on the grate, and leather wing chairs flanked the hearth. Filled with nervous energy, he paced around the room. The walls held row upon row of books collected by his father, who had devoted himself to scholarly historical research. Lucas had spent many a happy hour here, reading about the strange customs of foreign peoples.
He’d feel at peace now were it not for Emma. He sensed her presence like a pall on his good humor. Of course, she would be gone once Stafford relayed the news that her husband had no time for her today.
Was she still the blond temptress? What the devil did the bitch want from him? Money, no doubt.
Lucas forced his attention to the pile of wooden crates that littered the Turkish carpet. Picking up a crowbar, he inserted the pointed end between a crate and its lid. He did not wish to think about Emma. He did not want to know if her appearance had changed, if she still could melt a man with her baby-blue eyes.
Lucas shoved downward, applying pressure to the crowbar. The dry wood gave way with a protesting squawk, and the top of the crate came off. “I’ve brought you several gifts,” he told his mother, tipping the box toward her. “Jade from the Orient, ivory from Africa, jewels from India.”
Lady Wortham hardly glanced at the exotic offerings, though Toby watched dolefully from her lap. “I’ve been thinking,” she said. “Perhaps you should see Emma. The sooner, the better. Before she has the chance to concoct more of her mischief.”
Lucas’s fingers tightened on the box. The straw inside the crate prickled his skin and exuded a musty odor. “I’ll deal with her in my own way. And in my own time.”
As if she hadn’t heard, his mother went on. “My dear, you mustn’t blame yourself for what happened. Forgive me for speaking so frankly, but when Emma moved back to her grandfather’s house and was brought to childbed not five months after the wedding, everyone in society deduced the truth. Rest assured, your peers regard you as an honorable man.”
The warmth of love flowed between them, but Lucas also felt the sting of resentment. Damn Emma for driving him away from his family. Over the past seven years, a lacework of lines had aged his mother’s patrician features. Noticeably thinner, she had to stop and rest whenever she walked up the stairs. His ill-advised marriage and prolonged absence had affected her deeply, he knew, coming so soon after his brother Andrew’s death in battle. Lucas would not permit anyone to upset her further.
Especially not Emma.
He met his mother’s gaze. “My only regret is the scandal I brought upon you and my sisters.”
“It brought worse upon Emma, and justly so. We became objects of sympathy. She became an object of scorn.” As she stroked the terrier, Lady Wortham’s hand trembled. “Emma herself confessed to her wicked behavior the next day, after you’d gone away. She stood in front of me, as bold as brass, and admitted she’d entrapped you.” His mother bent over the dog as if to take comfort from his unconditional devotion. “Isn’t that so, Toby?” The animal licked her hand.
“I shouldn’t have left you to face her on your own,” Lucas said with a shadow of guilt. “It was unforgivable of me.”
“You were too kind to recognize her true character. She acted the flirt, luring all the gentlemen to herself, even the married ones. Given her lack of morals, she might even have dallied with a servant.” Lady Wortham made a disapproving noise in her throat. “We can be thankful she did not bear a son. A footman’s get might have been your legal heir.”
That possibility had galled Lucas, and he’d wasted months agonizing over the identity of her lover. But no more. He refused to expend energy on bitterness and regrets. His memories of Emma held no more significance than an old, aching wound.
“There is no point to idle speculation.” Lucas bore down on the crowbar and another crate creaked open. “The matter is closed.”
His mother sat up straighter, and Toby snuffled a protest in her lap. “But that’s where you’re wrong,” Lady Wortham said. “Have you considered your future? If you were to speak to the archbishop about an annulment …”
His jaw muscles clenched, but he spoke calmly. “You know as well as I that the banns were announced. I was not coerced into speaking my vows. The bishop himself presided over the ceremony. There can be no doubt that it was all quite legal and valid.”
“Then seek a divorce. There is surely enough proof of her infidelity to win your suit. And you could marry again. I know any number of lovely young ladies who would make you the perfect wife.”
Lucas only just stopped himself from snapping out an order to stop interfering. He would not quarrel with his mother. The anxious hope lighting her hazel eyes revealed her good intentions. Having been blessed with a loving marriage before his father’s death, she viewed wedlock as the cornerstone to happiness. But Lucas no longer shared her belief.
The thought of divorce had tempted him in the past. He could end Emma’s connection to him once and for all. No longer could she claim the distinction of Wortham.
Yet were he free, his mother would make it her mission to introduce him to a succession of well-bred ladies. He would be forced to tell her about Shalimar, that he had already found the only woman who mattered to him. A foreigner who, like Emma, had borne a bastard child by another man.
Christ, he despised the need for deception. He didn’t want to hide Shalimar in a discreet house in St. John’s Wood as if she were a dirty secret. Yet he could not—he would not—risk his mother’s health.
Carefully, he drew a gold jeweled mask from its nest of straw in the crate. “The future can wait for another day,” he stated firmly. “Now, I promised to show you what I brought back from my travels. This piece came from a maharajah’s palace. It’s reputed to bring great luck to its owner.”
He crouched beside the chaise and presented the tiger mask to his mother. She raised a thin eyebrow as if to argue further, then lowered her gaze to the mask. In the shape of a tiger’s head, it was designed to cover the upper half of the wearer’s face. Rows of yellow diamonds alternated with strips of dark brown jasper to form the striped head. Slits framed in tiny emeralds comprised the eyeholes.
Lady Wortham stroked the pointed gold ears, much as she had stroked the old terrier nestled in her lap. “It looks quite valuable. Be sure to lock it up. During your absence, there have been a rash of robberies by a ruffian known as the Bond Street Burglar.”
“The mask won’t be here long. I plan to donate it—and several other pieces—to the museum at Montague House.” His voice warmed. “My hope is to organize an exhibit displaying artifacts from all over the world.”
She smiled fondly at him. “Much as I missed you, I’m glad you had the chance to travel. It’s always good for a young man to take the grand tour before he settles down.”
Her words jolted Lucas. She thought he was home to stay.
Now there was something else he couldn’t yet tell her. Eventually she would have to learn he did not intend to remain in England, that he would return abroad after he located Shalimar’s kidnapped son. London held too many unhappy memories.
A discreet knocking saved him from answering. Stafford entered the library again, his steps hesitant. “My lord, beg pardon for disturbing you again. But the marchioness”—he looked at Lady Wortham and gulped—“er, the younger marchioness, well, she refuses to leave until you promise her an audience. On Thursday afternoon.”
Lucas’s stomach clenched. Emma was still here, haranguing his servants.
He might as well find out what she wanted from him. It was childish to play waiting games. “I’ll see her in the drawing room in ten minutes.”
As the servant left, Lady Wortham swung her feet off the chaise. “I shall go with you. It will give me great pleasure to send that brazen hussy packing.”
“No. I’ll deal with her myself.” Rising, Lucas bore the priceless mask over to the desk at the far end of the room. He moved a row of books from the shelf behind the desk, revealing a small iron door nestled in the wall. With cool efficiency, he inserted a key and opened the hidden repository, then reached for the tiger mask.
He would use the same cool efficiency with Emma. He would permit her a brief, formal interview, the shorter, the better. Now that he knew her true character, seeing her again would be no different than brushing off an annoying tradesman in the Calcutta bazaar.
Toby loosed an excited yap. Ears perked, the terrier sat up on Lady Wortham’s lap, then leaped to the floor. He raced past the heap of crates, short legs pumping, and reached the door just as it opened.
Tail wagging furiously, the dog danced a welcoming jig on its hind feet as a woman stepped into the library.
She glided like a ghost from the past. Slender as a girl, she reached down to pet the dog. “Hullo, Toby. I’m afraid I haven’t any treats today.”
Then she straightened, spied Lucas, and smiled.
The breath left him as if someone had driven a fist into his stomach. His fingers stiffened around the heavy, jeweled mask. The deep blue of her eyes drew him like magic. His tongue felt thick, and for the first time in years he feared he would stutter if he tried to speak.
Damn Emma and her treacherous beauty.
And damn his reaction to her.
The truth hit him with searing force. He’d still sell his soul to have her legs wrapped around him in bed.
Copyright © 1997 by Barbara Dawson Smith.